Brexit’s dark cloud limits possibilities

Brexit’s dark cloud limits possibilities

If Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe felt the ground moving under his feet as he delivered Budget 2020 in the Dáil chamber yesterday, as he surely must have, he gave no indication that that intrusion would distract him unduly. Neither did Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Just hours before Mr Donohoe delivered the budget, Downing St — increasingly shorthand for the zealot Dominic Cummings — leaked details of how the Johnson administration expects Brexit negotiations to collapse later this week. This latest outburst of Silly Bullingdons’ hubris suggested “Varadkar doesn’t want to negotiate… he has gone very cold and in the last week the official channels and the backchannels have also gone cold… Varadkar has also gone back on his commitments.”

As it is always naive and often dangerous to imagine that coincidence is, well, coincidental, at this level of politics, it seems prudent to ask why that leak came when it did. Downing St, and Mr Cummings too, are undoubtedly indifferent to Ireland’s budget plans, and more or less everything else about Ireland too, but it is not indifferent to an opportunity to undermine, to sow doubt among opponents. If you dismiss the coincidence argument, the timing of the leak shows that, despite all of the sunny uplands bluster, Mr Johnson’s administration realises that it is a far tighter corner than it pretends. Options are not abundant, grim outcomes loom.

Appreciating this snowballing implosion’s potential to do harm — he described it as the “most pressing and immediate risk to our economy” — Mr Donohoe detailed a package of more than €1.2bn to try to ameliorate Brexit. Further support is expected from EU coffers should it be necessary. It is hard, as Johnson and his inner circle plot openly against their increasingly supine parliament’s primacy, to imagine that extra funds will not be necessary. Mr Donohoe pointed out that domestic Brexit funds will be “borrowed money. If we do not need it, we will not borrow it. If no deal does not happen, it will not be borrowed for other purposes.”

He said immediate support for the beef sector — €85m on top of a recent €100m — is a priority, as will support for Ireland’s fishing fleet. Beef producers, who recently highlighted their distress by blockading meat processing plants said more is needed.

However, the growing constituency increasingly sceptical about the impact and sustainability of the subsidy-addicted sector will wonder — especially as, hours before Mr Donohoe spoke, the Dutch government said it would compensate farmers who shut down their farms in an bid to control nitrogen emissions.

That constituency may also be concerned that the increase in carbon taxes — just €6 a tonne — is a minimum rather than a plausible deterrent.

However, the new tax based on a vehicle’s nitrogen oxide emissions may well be, eventually at least. It will apply to new cars and used imports from January 1. The move comes alongside higher diesel and petrol prices from midnight because higher carbon taxes will add 2c to a litre of diesel and 1.7c to petrol.

It’s the first, small step in the climate collapse aversion plan that will, in 2030, bring the levy from €20 per tonne of carbon to €80. It is just the first of many such measures.

Health spending will increase by 6.3% to €17.4bn, while 1,000 frontline staff — speech and language, occupational, and disability therapists — will be hired. Hundreds of teachers and special needs assistants will be employed over the coming year, which will push the education budget to a record €11.1bn. An extra 700 gardaí will be recruited. These are positive, overdue developments even if they add, permanently, to the cost of running the State.

However, the inescapable impression, even as an election looms, is the cost of fragmentation, the almost immeasurable cost of Britain’s determination to break from the collegiality that has underpinned EU prosperity for decades. To date, negotiations have been cordial but, as the budget showed, very real damage is a probability. With friends like that…

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