DANIEL MCCONNELL: Time is running out for a UK Brexit solution

Just 98 days and counting.

That is what is left for our Government, the EU’s top brass, and the chaotic Tory Party to try and reach a Brexit deal to avoid the UK crashing out of Europe.

Having passed and missed the June deadline to solve the Irish conundrum (no hard border, retain the Common Travel Area, protect the Good Friday Agreement), all eyes are on what can happen by October’s key EU summit of leaders.

Two plus years after the British people decided in their wisdom to leave the EU, progress remains painfully elusive.

The past week has seen the showdown at Chequers, Theresa May’s private country residence where she lay down the law and got approval from her quarrelling cabinet for her “soft Brexit” approach.

Last Friday night, it appeared, at last, she had succeeded in stamping her authority on her deeply divided and delusional party.

The harmony was to last just 48 hours.

After 11pm on Sunday night the bombshell landed.

David Davis, May’s Brexit secretary, resigned amid complaints he had been sidelined by her chief Brexit adviser Oliver Robbins and also his concerns that going soft was not the best way forward.

In his resignation letter to May, Davis told her that “the current trend of policy and tactics” was making it “look less and less likely” that the UK would leave the customs union and single market.

Davis argued that he was unpersuaded that the government’s negotiating approach “will not just lead to further demands for concessions” from Brussels.

Boris Johnson and David Davis
Boris Johnson and David Davis

“The general direction of policy will leave us in, at best, a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one.”

The same night, one of Davis’ junior Brexit ministers, Steve Baker, a key eurosceptic, also resigned. This appeared to be a choreographed campaign to sink the Chequers’ plan.

Then on Monday, the tension was ramped up even further by the resignation of May’s key internal opponent, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary. 

“[The Brexit] dream is dying,” he penned in his over the top resignation letter, which read more like his Daily Telegraph column.

Rightly regarded as the worst foreign secretary in living memory, Johnson had been in open defiance of May for months ahead of Chequers, and all the while she simply stood there and took it.

In the midst of all this chaos, I spoke to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, for his reaction.

His response was brutally frank.

“We will see how things develop. As far as I am concerned, when Theresa May speaks, she speaks for the UK government and that’s the basis I’ll be working on,” he told me.

Reading between the lines, he was saying that David Davis was not empowered to speak on behalf of his government.

Several days of rancour and bitterness engulfed Westminster but Europe waited for Thursday’s publication of May’s White Paper, which was a 104-page document cementing, in more formal text, what was agreed upon at Chequers.

Broadly speaking, five main elements of the paper are identifiable.

  • Economic: “Developing a broad and deep economic relationship with the EU that maximises future prosperity … and minimises disruption to trade between the UK and the EU, protecting jobs and livelihoods — at the same time making the most of trading opportunities around the world.”
  • Immigration: Putting an end to free movement by replacing it with a new immigration system... supports for farming and fisheries, and a so-called “shared prosperity fund”.
  • Ireland and the UK: The paper speaks of protecting the Northern Ireland peace process, avoiding a hard Irish border, safeguarding the constitutional integrity of the UK and devolving appropriate powers.
  • Independence: The paper commits to leaving EU institutions and reclaiming UK sovereignty, ensuring laws are made in UK.
  • Global Britain: The paper commits to promoting general principles like openness and liberty.

Given how detailed it was, the initial response from Dublin was cautious but positive. Finally, we have something we can work with, as imperfect as it is at this stage.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney did his best to sound positive about what lies ahead but did sound one stark note of caution about what, he said, were inconsistencies in the White Paper.

“There are some contradictions and there are some proposals that will concern other EU countries.

“Because the single market and the four freedoms that are part of that and indivisible in many ways, in most people’s eyes, are a very important part of the privilege of EU membership,” he said.

So that is why I think this will be a difficult negotiation. I do not necessarily think because the British position has changed, and has in my view become much more credible, that that is necessarily the final picture.

On Thursday night, came yet another bombshell for May. US President Donald Trump did an interview with the Sun newspaper, (owned by Rupert Murdoch who Trump strongly admires), in which he lambasted May’s soft Brexit plan and hinted (not stated explicitly despite the bold headline) that it would jeopardise a UK-US trade deal.

He also said Johnson would make a great prime minister.

As the front page emerged, May was hosting Trump at a gala dinner in London and the pair held hands in front of the cameras. In the face of repeated bullying and humiliation, she has shown tremendous capacity to keep going.

Then yesterday, RTÉ’s Tony Connelly got his hands on a “stark and detailed” EU document which has warned all member states, companies and stakeholders to step up preparation for a no-deal Brexit scenario.

Drafted in the wake of June’s EU Council which called for such an escalation in readiness for a no deal, the 15-page report issued a warning that chaos is likely should the UK crash out of the EU next March.

Connelly reported that the document “paints a picture of long lines of freight traffic at ports, and implications for pharmaceuticals, financial services and aviation”.

"Drawing up contingency plans for the worst possible outcome is not a sign of mistrust in the negotiations,” says the document. 

The [European] Commission hopes for an agreement and devotes very significant resources and committed efforts to achieve this goal.

“Negotiations, on the other hand, can fail,” the draft warns. It notes that a number of issues relating to the Withdrawal Agreement are “still unresolved”.

“No progress has been made in agreeing a ‘backstop’ to avoid, independently of the outcome of the negotiations of the future partnership, a hard border on the island of Ireland.”

The report was due to be handed out to countries at the General Affairs Council of the EU next week but its leaking comes as a new round of UK-EU talks commence on Monday.

From Ireland, the warning to prepare for a worst case scenario is a sign of how risky the Brexit process is becoming.

Unlike most, a UK no deal is a disaster for Ireland and one that has to be avoided at all costs.

But as Varadkar said this week, time is running out. Fast.

More on this topic

Stormont Assembly members ‘to reject Brexit deal’Stormont Assembly members ‘to reject Brexit deal’

Sajid Javid issues post-Brexit warning to business leadersSajid Javid issues post-Brexit warning to business leaders

Countdown clock to be projected onto Number 10 to mark Brexit dayCountdown clock to be projected onto Number 10 to mark Brexit day

Farage accuses Government of being embarrassed by Brexit over Big Ben farceFarage accuses Government of being embarrassed by Brexit over Big Ben farce