The Message - Will Ireland become a Brexit bargaining chip?

With the damaging impact of Brexit on the UK becoming clearer by the week, the threat of a hard border in Northern Ireland is likely to be used as a bargaining chip in Britain’s increasingly threadbare negotiating strategy.

I want to mark people’s cards. And hopefully mark them well.

It is generally recognised that the Irish government and its diplomatic corps have done a very efficient and persuasive job in pushing the Irish dimension towards the top of the agenda at the Brexit negotiations. As a result of Irish overtures, the EU has acknowledged sensitivities around the border as one of their top concerns – and this stance was agreed by the UK at the first meeting between the sides. Some people understandably thought this was a fantastic result. I am more sceptical.

Overall, the EU’s line has been a resolute one. The negotiating team, under Frenchman Michel Barnier, drafted a schedule for the talks which set out mutual citizens’ rights, Britain’s exit payment, and the future Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland as issues that must be dealt with before any talks on future trade can begin.

Brexit secretary David Davis boasted in advance about being ready for a row on these issues. He wanted immediate progress on: a free trade deal; an agreement to end free movement of people; acceptance that Britain was leaving both the single market and the customs union; an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK; and an agreement that Britain could walk away without paying anything by way of divorce settlement.

There wasn’t even a sliver of hope that anything would be conceded on these issues at the outset. And so – with an alacrity that must have alarmed Westminster – the British delegation was forced to accept the European position that negotiations would proceed, one issue at a time. It will be slow, painstaking and arduous. But the EU has a far stronger hand than Britain. And so it is unlikely that the UK will get anything resembling the deal that would be needed to turn Brexit into a positive move economically. It can’t happen. It won’t happen. As one British commentator put it: Brexit really was a vote to be poorer.

SALVAGE FROM THE WRECKAGE

Perhaps there are genteel well-to-do upper middle class types in villages around the shires who can afford a drop in income and who will be happy to live with that outcome, on the basis that their fervent Christian prayers that the number of east Europeans living in England might be reduced will have been answered. Romanies go home! Praise the lord and pass the sago pudding. But, unless something can be done to force the EU’s hand in some unpredictable way, the vast majority of British citizens will eventually realise that they have been sold a pup.

Which, sadly, is where Northern Ireland might just come in.

When he was Taoiseach, Enda Kenny talked about a “friction-less” border between the North and the South. The British Prime Minister Theresa May took up the same mantra. And the EU has stated a preference for avoiding a “hard border” on the island of Ireland.

This is all lovely, aspirational stuff. And you have to assume, listening to it, that Theresa May is as aware as both the EU negotiators, and the Irish government who have briefed them, of the potentially nasty repercussions that might be triggered in and around Crossmaglen, by a return to customs posts, passport checks and all of the things normally associated with a border crossing between separate jurisdictions.

Sure, wouldn’t we all like a “friction-less Brexit.” What’s the point in arguing?

Except, of course, that breaking up a marriage that was consummated over 40 years ago, in 1973, is bound to be messy and difficult. The UK wants all of the privileges of EU membership, while ditching a host of the responsibilities that being a member entails. There isn’t the slightest chance that the EU will facilitate that particular pipedream. And why should they?

And so it has become increasingly obvious that the real question is: what can the UK salvage from the wreckage of the divorce, for which they alone have petitioned? Theresa May – or whoever might replace her in the not too distant future – will be free to do whatever deals can be cobbled together with other potential trading partners, free of the restrictions imposed by being part of the EU. And good luck to all concerned. But it is only in some mad, parallel universe that the EU would say “that’s wonderful, Mrs. May, and here’s a very favourable agreement with our 27 member States as well.”

THEY DON’T GIVE A SHIT

It must be deeply disturbing for anyone with a bit of intelligence in the UK to realise that no one in the British government seems to have a clue what they are doing right now. In contrast, what we can say at this early stage of the negotiations is that the EU has set out its position simply, clearly and effectively.

It is instructive that the EU has made the status of EU citizens living in the UK – there are 3.5 million of them – its top priority. The Brexit agreement, they have said, must ensure “effective, enforceable, non-discriminatory and comprehensive guarantees” for those people and their families. And the EU is prepared to extend precisely the same rights to UK citizens living in Europe, of whom there are 1.2 million.

If Britain plays hardball on this one – or tries to – it will involve selling out their own citizens who are living in Europe. Perhaps they are willing to do that: it is quite clear that the rights of citizens have never been a priority for the Tory party. But it is still not an issue on which the British have a strong negotiating hand.

The next item on the agenda, the EU says, has to be the divorce bill. The UK has entered into a variety of agreements and commitments – and the EU and its other constituent nations, acting in good faith, have based their financial budgets and plans on those agreements. The fantasies of hardcore Brexiteers notwithstanding, it is not possible simply to walk away from commitments of this nature. And so the EU has stated that Britain will have to agree on a “single financial settlement” covering the EU budget, as well as British contributions to the European Investment Bank and other common funds.

A figure of somewhere between €60 billion and €100 billion in alimony has been floated. I have no idea how close that is to the mark. And clearly, there will be some room for manoeuvre, depending on the shading of other aspects of the agreement. But there is no reason whatsoever for the EU negotiators to play Nice Guy in that particular wrestling match…

Indeed, the more you look at the probable agenda, the more obvious it becomes that there are not many points on which Britain has a strong hand. Except perhaps for the Irish border.

It has been clear from the outset of the whole Brexit push that those in the vanguard in the UK don’t give a toss about Northern Ireland. The Belfast Agreement didn’t figure for one second in the calculations of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and their cronies. Indeed Scotland clearly didn’t count either; nor did the fact that any decision to leave would specifically go against the wishes of the majority in both jurisdictions, and might ultimately threaten the cohesion of the United Kingdom.

Frankly, they don’t give a shit. They will walk on the Scots if they can. And they will walk on the Irish, DUP and all, if it suits their agenda.

EXTRACTING A BETTER DEAL

So here is how it is going to play out. As the negotiations proceed, Britain will have to decide definitively if it wants to leave the Customs Union. That is the stated preference of Theresa May and her government – and it is entirely incompatible with the idea of a “friction-less border.”

But the UK wants to have its cake and eat it. It also wants a back door into Europe: it is their ambition to retain a free trade agreement which would of course be weighted ridiculously in its favour, whereby the UK gets access to a market of 300 million people, in return for which Europe gets access to a market of 60 million.

When that is not accepted as an equitable arrangement in itself; and when Europe insists that the only basis on which that might be agreed is that there must also free movement of labour, Theresa May will say no: that, after all, is what Brexit was supposed to be about, controlling immigration. And her negotiators will play what they see as their last trump card.

They will answer that there is, then, nothing for it but to re-establish a hard border from Down to Fermanagh and on up through Strabane to Derry city. And they will try to blame the big, bad negotiators from the EU for imposing this bureaucratic monstrosity on poor little Northern Ireland. Oh, and the Republic too.

It may well be a last ditch negotiating tactic. Britain will use Ireland – north and south – as a bargaining chip in the hope of extracting a better deal from what will, almost inevitably, be a singular mess: a fiasco.

It is unlikely to work. The EU cannot allow itself to be blackmailed, no matter how uncomfortable the ensuing situation might be for Northern Ireland – or indeed for Ireland. This is a mess of Britain’s making. It is up to them to unmake it.

But that is what is going to happen: we will be used and abused – to what ultimate end it is impossible to predict. I hope I am proven wrong. But that’s what my antennae are telling me. And we know who is really to blame.

I’m sorry. David Cameron was a fucking idiot. That is the bottom line.

 

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