Brexit negotiations: Phoney war is ending as reality bites

Estranged but not as yet embittered couples sometimes enter divorce negotiations with high, almost noble intentions.

“We will be civilised and fair,” are the watchwords. “We will not quarrel, we will not mutually destruct or beggar each other,” is a well-worn path that rarely reaches a happy ending.

These good intentions are forgotten when the real cost of divorce, a beloved home or a significant portion of a modest pension say, is made clear. Daggers are drawn when accountancy tramples high-minded aspiration.

We are at the point in the Brexit divorce talks where the resolve of those determined to have a pretty neutral parting is unequal to the unfolding, uncertain and potentially disastrous situation.

We are still at the phoney war stage but, to use a metaphor from the old, pre-EU Europe, trenches are being dug ahead of a looming conflict. The prognosis is not good and it is not reckless to suggest that through some perspectives our future looks positively alarming.

One small indication of what might be expected became clear yesterday when Morgan Chase bank said it will move hundreds of London-based workers to Dublin, Frankfurt or Luxembourg before Britain loses easy access to the single market. This bank is only one of many institutions that might quit London when terms are finalised.

These eventualities would ordinarily add to the cheer created by yesterday’s figures that showed unemployment at a nine-year low of 6.2%. The number of workers classified as unemployed fell by 4,800 to 135,800 in April, equivalent to an annual decrease of 47,300.

A hard Brexit will inevitably have a negative impact on that trend. That will certainly be the case if a hard border is reintroduced, a prospect almost universally dismissed, even though no one has yet offered a plausible alternative.

Another indication of what might lie ahead, one from the opposite end of the spectrum, was yesterday’s assertion by Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis rejecting suggestions that the UK will have to pay €100 billion to leave the EU.

He also rejected the idea that the commission could set a “divorce deal” figure, saying Brussels will only receive what it is legally owed. He also unsurprisingly dismissed as “laughable” reports that Theresa May would be barred from negotiations and that the EU would negotiate only through the EC’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

The reality of the situation, the comparative weakness of Britain’s hand, has yet to impress itself on Mr Davis but that is not surprising. He was, after all, one of the Brexit zealots whose campaign claims have been exposed as dishonest fantasy.

That we have reached this sorry but unsurprising point at a moment when a general election campaign is underway in Britain and in the North adds to the uncertainty, as does Sunday’s presidential election in France.

Not so long ago we were dependent on the kindness of strangers but now we are dependent on the untested loyalty of strangers. Hard choices with very real consequences loom and, despite yesterday’s name check from Mr Barnier, Ireland’s concerns are, when push eventually comes to shove, just a side issue. Batten down the hatches everyone.

More on this topic

Varadkar backs UK request to extend Brexit deadlineVaradkar backs UK request to extend Brexit deadline

Boris Johnson tells Donald Tusk he does not want a Brexit delayBoris Johnson tells Donald Tusk he does not want a Brexit delay

Businesses in the UK at a loss over Brexit preparations – reportBusinesses in the UK at a loss over Brexit preparations – report

Northern Ireland Secretary insists post-Brexit goods checks will be minimalNorthern Ireland Secretary insists post-Brexit goods checks will be minimal