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Theresa May's Brexit juggling act is beginning to look very shaky

This week saw some important signs that Ireland’s future relationships with Britain and the EU are going to be very tricky.

Leaked reports of the flat out rejection by EU negotiators of the British suggestions for a trading relationship that would allow free trade between the UK and the EU while at the same time allowing the UK to remain outside any type of customs union suggest that the gulf between the hard-line Brexiteers and the soft Brexiteers in Theresa May’s cabinet will widen and that the issues between them may come to a head well in advance of October.

It appears that the UK was proposing a “customs partnership” approach which would allow the UK to impose EU-level tariffs on its imported goods destined to be re-exported to the EU while imposing lower UK tariffs on goods destined to remain in the UK.

The second leg of the British proposal was to introduce a new electronic customs clearance system for goods exported or re-exported to the EU which would obviate the need for most physical customs checks at the English Channel and North Sea points of entry into the EU. In the case of Ireland there would be a “blind-eye” regime for most smaller-scale cross-border goods movement within the island.

The Daily Telegraph called the EU demolition of the UK proposals a “forensic annihilation”. The London Times quoted a senior UK ex-diplomat as describing the EU description of their Irish border plan as a “fantasy island unicorn model”.

To complicate matters, the House of Lords passed an amendment to Mrs May’s Brexit legislation designed to keep membership of the customs union at the heart of the UK negotiating position in the Davis-Barnier discussions.

And as if that weren’t enough, there is now talk of a cross-party proposal for a Commons resolution to mirror the position adopted by the Lords which has the potential to unite soft Brexit Tories, Labour, the SNP, the Lib-Dems and Plaid Cymru against the hard-line Tories and the DUP. Mrs May could well be defeated if such a resolution is proposed.

EU Council President Donald Tusk is apparently opposed to the UK proposed treatment of the Irish border.

And so Mrs May has her hands full. Her juggling act of keeping hard Brexit, soft Brexit and free trade all in the air simultaneously is beginning to look very shaky.

Students of early 20th century Irish history will relish the delicious irony of the hard-line, deep-blue Tory press turning on the House of Lords and condemning them as unelected anti-democratic relics of another age. It is a happy companion bookend to their outrageous attacks on the British judiciary last year for upholding the right of Parliament to decide on Brexit.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron took to the podium at the EU parliament to give his own “state of the European Union” address.

His speech was classic euro-waffle. He spoke of a civil war about values in the EU. He demanded increased EU sovereignty as the antidote to authoritarianism within the EU – code for subjugating the Visegrad states to control from France and Germany after a new push for political integration aimed at enthronement of the Paris-Berlin axis.

He wanted further economic integration with an EU version of the IMF which, in reality, would have the power to sort out poorer performing EU member state economies with funds contributed by the Germans – a proposal unwelcome in Berlin.

The problem with all of this is that a very significant chunk of the EU including Scandinavia, the Baltic states, the Visegrad states, Netherlands, Ireland and Austria, is, for a broad variety of reasons, opposed to further economic and political integration and somewhat suspicious of and cynical about Macron’s show-boating. And Italy is still out of love with EU integration as it struggles to assemble a coalition government.

Add to that the underwhelming international reaction to the US-British-French missile strike on foot of the very dubious Douma chemical incident, and Macron’s untrue claim that he had persuaded the American president, Donald Trump, to keep ground troops in north-west Syria indefinitely, the impression grows that he imagines himself as a great world statesman, a status shared ony by himself.

Germany’s tyres look a little soft these days. Their reluctant SPD-CDU-CSU coalition chaired by a waning Angela Merkel is deeply divided on many key issues. But it seems united by a certain froideur concerning Macron and his plans.

Where does all this leave Ireland?

We need a very soft Brexit. We need an open, invisible border. We need the UK and the EU as trading partners. We need the Good Friday agreement to be working again. We need the North to be economically successful. We don’t want continued paralysis. Of course we wish that the British would change their minds on Brexit. But we need to plan for what is probable rather than for what is still an outside theoretical political possibility.

We need to cultivate the friendship of those member states who oppose transferring further sovereignty to an EU dominated by a Paris-Berlin axis. We need to guard jealously our existing tax-sovereignty. We need to stand on the side of a partnership EU rather than an integrated, federal Europe. That is where our national interests lie – not in having the Irish border mark the political tectonic plate between an integrating Europe and a UK bent on distancing itself from the EU.

The usual suspects keep hinting that we will do better if we gravitate towards the integrationist camp in the EU. But that camp is in decline at the moment. We have little to offer the integrationists and they have little intention of offering us much in return.

Especially now that Northern Ireland is tipping towards a demographic balance between Orange and Green – a sine qua non for reconciliation between those traditions – we cannot allow the border to assume a deeper political and economic significance. That means steering a course that avoids hostility in our relations with Britain and avoids the EU becoming more and more alien to British public opinion.

The DUP-Tory arrangement will pass soon. We have to look beyond it and fix our gaze on the period from 2022 onwards. A century after achieving our independence, we have got to conserve it – not barter it.


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