Jim Power: Theresa May’s failure could work in Ireland’s favour

The best outcome for Ireland would be the forcing of a second referendum, which based on the election results last weekend, would likely vote to remain within the EU, writes Jim Power.

This time last year we were on the brink of the EU referendum in the UK and the general view was that despite what the opinion polls were starting to hint at, when push came to shove, the electorate would vote to remain within the EU.

How wrong was that?

When Theresa May called a surprise general election in April, the opinion polls at the time would have translated into a Tory majority of up to 100 seats in Parliament.

Such an outcome would have given her a very strong mandate to either take a very hard stance in her negotiations with Brussels or alternatively would have given her the strength to make the compromises necessary to achieve a softer version of Brexit. We really had no idea about which was the most likely possibility, particularly given that the nature of the majority was also an important consideration. If it had consisted of strong pro-Brexit Tories, then her options would be limited and vice-versa. During the campaign, she did adopt a very hard Brexit stance, but that is now irrelevant as her power has totally evaporated and her survival is hanging by a thread.

Going into a Brexit negotiation process, which is due to commence next Monday, the election outcome is a disastrous situation for the UK. Most of the power was on the side of Brussels going into the negotiations, in any event, but the UK is really now in a very weak place.

The Brexit outcome was always fraught with utter uncertainty, but it has now descended into a totally new level of uncertainty. The biggest question is if the negotiations do commence on June 19 as planned, who will Brussels be dealing with? Perhaps it will be a Tory government supported by the DUP party, that campaigned for Brexit in the North.

The big question is whether we are now moving in the direction of a soft Brexit, which basically means remaining part of the single European market and accepting the four key pillars of that market — namely; freedom of movement of goods, services, people and capital.

There are many different interpretations of the disastrous election outcome for the prime minister. Some interpret it as a rejection of Theresa May’s hard Brexit stance during the election campaign and, consequently, this will force her to adopt a much softer stance with the EU. Such an approach would obviously be desired by some of the senior Tory ministers, particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and of course the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs.

However, there is still a strong body of opinion on all sides of the house supporting the need to control the movement of people. There are also a number of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs still in parliament, and given her political weakness, they cannot be ignored. However, the EU side cannot and should not accept any concessions on these four pillars of the single market, because if they do the whole system will be set on a road to nowhere.

The fact is Theresa May’s position has been undeniably weakened by her electoral failure. The EU negotiators know this and will surely exploit it. Emmanuel Macron got a strong mandate in last weekend’s legislative elections, so he is unlikely to be of a mind to allow the UK any concessions that could weaken the solidity of the whole EU edifice.

The best outcome for Ireland would be the forcing of a second referendum, which based on the election results last weekend, would likely vote to remain within the EU. Politically, it will still be difficult to ignore the will of the people as expressed in the referendum last June, but not impossible in the right set of circumstances. It is interesting that a number of EU leaders have suggested that the door is still open for the UK to reconsider its position.

The second-best outcome for Ireland, would be if a weakened Theresa May, spurred on by the DUP, pushed for a softer form of Brexit that would recognise the necessity of not creating a hard border on the island of Ireland. This would involve a trade deal that would not include trade tariffs. The nightmare scenario would be a hard Brexit with the erection of barriers to free trade.

We thought the snap election would give us much greater clarity, but unfortunately it has anything but. Uncertainty remains the name of the game, but I think ultimately, the election failure of Theresa May could work in Ireland’s favour.

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