Do not get distracted from real issues by UK electioneering
EDITORIAL: We on the island of Ireland need to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the centre of the stage and ignore the off-stage commotion, raised voices and nasty tones emanating from the UK election. It is very important to be absolutely clear that the stage is in Brussels and the action is proceeding precisely to a script that was published long before last year’s referendum. Whatever Jean-Claude Juncker may or may not have said around the table in Downing Street, Donald Tusk and Michel Barnier are calm, precise and very consistent.
The whole Brexit adventure started off as a tactical trick in the struggle to win and hold the leadership of the Tory party. David Cameron saw the offer of a referendum as a clever way of flushing out and isolating his euro-sceptic wing. The sheer scale of his failure of judgment is now etched into the face of Theresa May and she will not make that mistake again. Nevertheless, leadership of the Tory party remains the linch pin around which the Brexit debate in Britain revolves. When Theresa May speaks to Europe, she is really addressing her backbenchers. That will not change – that is how her negotiations will be conducted, especially when there is nothing of substance to negotiate.
The noises off mean nothing at a European level. Theresa May needs to give Johnny Foreigner a good kicking in order to win a larger majority. Though this week’s council election results point to a good Westminster Tory result – nothing can be left to chance. Harsh language will be used, accusations of interference will be levelled, the spirit of the Battle of Britain will be invoked and no doubt Agincourt will get a mention. When it is all over, they will all sit down around a table and the EU negotiators will put an agenda on the table, the same one they outlined last year and the year before. There will be some flexibility on detail and perhaps even on money, but none whatsoever on the core principles of the Single Market and the customs union.
Watching from the island of Ireland, we can’t see much of a British negotiating position that would fit within those principles. We don’t know if M. Juncker did in fact say Theresa May was on a different galaxy, but we can see why he might. There can be no parallel negotiations on a trade deal unless the EU abandons a key principle on the integrity of its union. There can be no deal done in two years in any event –nothing like that has ever been done anywhere in the world.
We and the rest of Europe can live with some suspension of reality during the election campaign. However, the British political system had a slim grip on economic reality beforehand and there has been no real challenge to the many untruths that were told in the referendum campaign. There is a real danger that these untruths may become more deeply embedded in political discourse now. Because Theresa May was not a Brexit supporter in the referendum, some commentators entertain the hope that with a large majority she may see off the more rabid Brexit element in her party and adopt a more conciliatory line. Given her electioneering to date, that looks like very wishful thinking.
We cannot see how the EU could possibly make the sort of concessions the UK seems to want. Just think of the yawning gap between Brexiteers demands and the opening position of Europe around people, money and Ireland. British politicians are now locked into a course of action that, short of a political miracle in the UK, will inevitably lead to them leaving the customs union in two years’ time. Again, the EU position is very clear and consistent: the Irish government must operate the EU’s external border, must impose the Common External Tariff on goods transiting into the Republic, from Carrickarnon to Muff. The British will in all probability respond with tariffs of their own. We are not ready and must get ready.