LEADING THE WAY OUT OF THE EU

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Friday 4 October 2019

The Irish have stepped it up. Yesterday, their deputy prime minister, the perennially flabbergasted Simon Coveney said Boris Johnson’s offering as it stands is not acceptable. “If that is the final proposal, there will be no deal,” said the Tánaiste.

The smug form of Coveney’s boss, Taoiseach, Leo Vardkar took it a step further, outrageously claiming Brits don’t want to leave the EU at all.

“All the polls since Prime Minister Johnson became prime minister suggest that’s what the British people actually want, but their political system isn’t able to give them that choice,” said Varadkar on a visit to Sweden yesterday.  

Which polls would they be? Last month, ComRes found that 54% of the British public want Brexit to go ahead. only 25% disagree. According to a YougGov poll in August, more Leavers want No Deal (48%) than Remainers want a second referendum (35%). Broad support hasn’t collapsed, it never even existed. Fake news from Mr Varadkar who went on to list five possible ways of navigating out of the impasse, one being for Britain to revoke Article 50, another for a united Ireland, infuriating Unionists.  

“If that’s their reaction, then I’m afraid we’re headed for No Deal,” Arlene Foster told the BBC. Bang on.

Brussels takes its Brexit cues from Dublin. Irish border paranoia fits in nicely with Michel Barnier’s legalistic strategy. But if the tactic of preserving the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement and the preservation of the “indivisible” Single Market at all cost fails, from an EU27 perspective, there has to be a deal. No Deal cannot be the only alternative.

“I don’t like those statements, mostly on that part of Brussels, that try to diminish the significance of the UK leaving the European Union so saying that ‘oh it’s not going to hurt, oh it’s not going to have an impact, this is simply not true,” said Hungary’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó on Newsnight, pointing out that “the UK represents 14% of the performance of the EU economy.”

This explains why Boris’s pitch hasn’t been emphatically dismissed – consistently the case with Theresa May’s ideas – Coveney was very selective with his words, “if that’s the final proposal”.

The message to London has been clear, “the new plan is a non-starter but, we’re listening.” Boris’s Brexit lieutenant, David Frost returns to Brussels today to try and find common ground.

According to Politico, EU diplomats aren’t sure whether what’s been put on the table is legitimate – it is based around ideas long-dismissed – or whether it’s an election ploy. They want to question the Brexit secretary to discover “whether this is a serious starting point negotiation or a tactical document in function of an election,” said one diplomat.

It’s both, and they know it. May’s error was to not bother about what people thought back home and only heed Brussels’ wishes. Boris is rightly and democratically weaponising British opinion. Brussels is obliged to get behind is plan, or at least a version of it, the parliamentary majority is there to get it over the line. If it chooses not to, the PM will have electoral gold to shine on the public.

But there are clear downsides. Bloomberg report Downing Street will go as far as sticking with the backstop provided there’s a time limit, a massive compromise that would betray the core pledge he made to make it to Number 10 in the first place.  

Ultimately, it comes down to his resolve to ignore the Surrender Act and take Britain out of the EU by the end of this month “do or die”. If he possesses that kind of mettle, the EU and Ireland in particular, will prove malleable, granted Varadkar will pay politically for a Withdrawal Agreement that incorporates border checks, but the economic and diplomatic consequences of shutting out a deal are surely greater.

The question is, does Boris have it in his locker?