As we approach the final few weeks before the UK leaves the EU, the debate over Brexit is becoming increasingly shrill and bad tempered.
It is also becoming increasingly evident that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the real motivation of many ordinary UK citizens who voted to leave the EU. Taken together, this heady combination of idiocy and ignorance does not bode well for the prospect of a last-minute deal being reached.
The misunderstanding comes from a collective failure in many EU states — Ireland included — to understand that the Brexit debate has never been completely about economics. Many commentators in Ireland remain baffled that British people on low incomes, most notably in Wales, voted to leave the EU. Why, the argument goes, would Welsh workers who are heavily reliant on EU grants and aid leave the bloc?
Much of this kind of comment came in a wake of a report last November by Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, which said the UK’s impending exit from the EU would have serious consequences for those living in poverty.
The assumption was that poorer people who voted to leave were either ill informed, unable to anticipate the economic consequences or were simply duped by the leaders of the Brexit campaign. Such an assumption is patronising at best. In fact, it is very likely that many of working-class voters were not motivated by self interest but by values and the desire to live in a country and under a regime that would cherish those values. As we approach the 100th anniversary of our independence, we in Ireland should be particularly conscious of that, even if we still believe that Brexit is a catastrophic mistake.
Such misconceptions are not helpful in arriving at a solution to the current Brexit impasse. Neither is sneering. The bad temper reached its zenith last week in Brussels when European Council president Donald Tusk made it clear to British prime minister Theresa May that there would be no question of renegotiating the withdrawal agreement or of reneging on the border backstop.
Speaking at joint press conference with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Mr Tusk said that the EU27 will make no new offer in the Brexit negotiations.
He then added: “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.”
Following Mr Tusk’s remarks, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was picked up on a microphone suggesting to him that: “They’ll give you terrible trouble in the British press for that.” Mr Tusk replied, “I know.”
Mr Tusk’s comments are baffling at best, inflammatory and contemptible at worst. As the Taoiseach predicted, the British tabloids had a field day, with one headline proclaiming: “To Hell With EU”.
If there is any hope of finalising a withdrawal agreement acceptable to both sides it is essential that both the tone and content of the debate be respectful and dignified.