ALISON O'CONNOR: ‘No 10’ needs to realise it’s a small state and no longer No 1

Those in British politics who talk of a hard Brexit are mainlining a fantasy, and steeped in denial, writes Alison O’Connor.

HARD Brexit or a soft Brexit? That’s the question that has been repeatedly asked since we woke to the shock news, a year ago next Friday, that the British had voted to leave the EU. But we weren’t framing the question correctly, because what we have been getting, so far, is a fairly bonkers Brexit.

Madness, combined with arrogance, seems to be running through certain sections of the Conservative Party. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, appears almost devoid of political instinct and has made a bad situation much worse. She had a reputation for being tough and unflappable, but, as prime minister, she has seemed almost like a cardboard cutout of a political leader — an image that solidified during her disastrous general election campaign.

When May was elected, it seemed a massive relief that it was not Boris Johnson or Michael Gove in 10 Downing St; the memory of whose puerile and self-serving Brexit antics have not diminished over time.

Obviously, the perspective is different when you are not resident in the UK, but she has not just been beholden to the hard Brexiteers in her party, but also utterly incapable of forging a politically wise and strategic path through her difficulties.

That has been more than reflected in her dealings with the EU. Observing her over the past year, the wonder is how she survived in politics this long. Indeed, she thrived, and was the second-longest serving home secretary in the past 100 years.

In this country, our politicians have far more experience of negotiating with other parties, frequently with coalitions and, more latterly, with confidence and supply arrangements.

But even a political novice could have told you that, after an utterly disastrous general election campaign, when your own future is in doubt, the last thing you should do is rush out and say you have a confidence and supply agreement with another party — as May did with the DUP — when the deal was not watertight. Talk about turning your already weak position into a bowl of jelly.

Here in Ireland, we are not a disinterested party in what occurs in British politics, and never more so than now. It would have been a humanitarian, as well as a self-serving act, to have offered up someone like former taoisigh Enda Kenny and Bertie Ahern to do a little political advising in the background.

The softer Brexit scenario is far more likely now. To quote Ahern, who spent some time in the UK during the election campaign, and who has clearly been influenced by the Queen’s English, the prospects now of a hard Brexit are “poppycock”.

In therapy, an intervention for an addict involves their family spelling out the truth of their destructive behaviour. Following the general election, those in British politics who still speak of a hard Brexit are in that space. They are mainlining a fantasy, steeped in denial, and showing an extraordinary reluctance to ditch their pernicious habit.

I’m not sure who is best-placed to stage that intervention, but, maybe, given how the relationship between Britain and Ireland has been repaired in the past decade, and given our shared interest in the North, it might be us. Maybe we should point out a few home truths. Other EU colleagues have already begun to deliver some of that much-needed straight talk to the Brits.

This week, Kristian Jensen, the Danish finance minister, suggested, rather cuttingly, that Britain’s days as a global power were in the past and Brexit would be a “disaster for the UK”.

“There are two kinds of European nations,” he said at a Brexit event in the Danish parliament.

“There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realised they are small nations.”

He added: “It is a paradox that the country that once had an empire on which the sun never sets, that ruled the waves, that in its heart is truly global, is now drawing back from the world’s most successful free-trade area. It is a paradox that I cannot get...”

His remarks drew a strong response from her majesty’s ambassador, Dominic Schroeder, who was also present at the gathering. The ambassador said that Britain was a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a proud member of the G7 and of the G20. “That’s not to my mind,” he retorted, the record of a “diminished or diminishing power”.

But diminishing power is exactly what it will be if the madness continues. This sentiment was backed up by a former British ambassador to the US and the EU, who was also present at the conference. Sir Nigel Sheinwald’s take on matters was more in keeping with that of the Danish minister.

“The rest of the world’s view of the UK is actually changing quite fast,” he said.

“We used to be known for a pragmatic, steely state craft, keeping calm and carrying on. But it feels a bit different today.”

“We have seen two British prime ministers make rather impulsive, and potentially disastrous, decisions in their party political interest, which, it turns out, have huge repercussions for our political stability, our prosperity and our place in the world.”

As of Wednesday, we have a new Taoiseach, and a new Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who has been made the effective Brexit Minister.

It’s clear that Taoiseach Varadkar has more visibly spread the Brexit Cabinet responsibility, and given it a visibly cross-government impetus.

Under the new regime, Coveney will apparently have a role in monitoring Brexit across all departments. This is a responsibility that he has sought.

Our preparations need to continue apace, not least those that concentrate on transport projects, such as ports, airports, and roads to ensure we can cope with new trading arrangements after Brexit. While the Brexit may now end up being softer, with a strong emphasis on transition, it is still likely to be messy, protracted, and painful.

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