Light at the end of the Brexit tunnel
Iconcluded last week that there was a deal to be done or a gamble to be lost. Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar decided to go for a deal. The meeting on Thursday between the British and Irish prime ministers was the first serious Brexit development since the UK parliament rejected Theresa May’s withdrawal deal for the third and final time in March.
These two politicians are the principal agents. If they agree, so will the other 26 leaders of the EU when they meet in the European Council on Thursday and Friday.
While there is a deal to be done, it is not done yet. And accidents do happen. Malevolence might return. New stuff tends to intrude. But, on balance, I do think that this may well have been the big breakthrough. Brexit would then be playing out in exactly the same way as EU negotiations since time immemorial. The pundits declare that time has run out, that one side or the other is acting irresponsibly, and that agreement is now impossible. And then in the middle of the night, the contours of a deal start to appear.
It is reminiscent of the European Council in Maastricht in December 1991. Helmut Kohl then faced strong domestic opposition to a monetary union. He was seeking guarantees other member states were reluctant to give. John Major threatened a veto because the UK did not want to be part of the single currency. In the end, the leaders agreed a compromise: they gave assurances to the German chancellor and an opt-out to the British prime minister. The driving force then, as now, has been a joint interest by the main actors in a deal being agreed.
So why do Mr Johnson and Mr Varadkar want to come to a deal now when they appeared to be so unwilling before? It has to do with the dawning reality of what a no-deal Brexit would entail. People say that Mr Varadkar would be fine with no deal because he could always blame it on Mr Johnson. Likewise, Mr Johnson could blame it on Mr Varadkar, the EU, House of Commons, or all three.
I am not persuaded by this argument. Even if you can shift the blame, you do not necessarily win a post-Brexit election. Irish voters will not blame Mr Varadkar personally for a no-deal Brexit, but they would blame him for a faltering economy. It is one thing to be at ease with no deal as an abstract concept. It is quite another to live through it.
I spent a couple of days in Dublin last week, where I sensed nervousness about the economy. The Irish economy is doing fine right now but there is a lot of uncertainty ahead. Brexit is, of course, the great known unknown. Global trade is another problem. If US President Donald Trump were to extend tariffs to pharmaceuticals, a big Irish export market, the country’s economy would slump.
In the same vein, I disagree with the notion that a no-deal Brexit would suit Mr Johnson. An opinion poll published last week claimed that no deal was the only scenario under which Conservatives could win the next election. But that poll, too, confuses the abstract idea of a no-deal Brexit with the multi-faceted reality.
No deal would be followed by an immediate general election. It would take place in the middle of a national emergency. Expect some or all of the following to happen: medical supply shortages; long queues at borders; the collapse of businesses that rely on frictionless trade; and empty shelves in British supermarkets.
Brexit is a two-tailed risk for Mr Johnson. He loses if he fails to deliver a UK exit from the EU, of course. But he could also lose if he delivers economic chaos. So he needs a deal as badly as Mr Varadkar. With talk of early elections in both the UK and Ireland, the two leaders have more in common with one another than you might think. So where next? After last Thursday’s bilateral, the EU and the UK entered intense negotiations. The negotiators could wrap talks up before the end of the month.
In this scenario, the Benn Brexit extension bill in the UK will have been superseded by events. Mr Johnson and the EU will both want a short extension to allow time to ratify the bill or to make way for an early election in the UK.
I am cautiously optimistic that the EU and the UK can bridge the final gaps. To get this ratified, they will have to take it one step further and declare the short extension necessary for ratification to be the final, necessary delay. The Commons would then, for the first time, be confronted with a choice between a no-deal Brexit and this deal. And it is hard to envisage any deal pass the Commons unless and until the cynical game of seeking further Brexit extensions ends.
Like Mr Johnson, the EU, too, needs to “get Brexit done”, and move on.