Wednesday, 17 Apr 2024

John Downing: 'British PM has a tin ear, unable to comprehend the frustrations on show in Brussels'

With apologies to the great John Hume, if you are not confused about Brexit, you definitely do not understand it.

The Derry icon often said that as Northern Ireland posed a new problem for every available solution across three decades.

And now the North is seriously caught in the mounting Brexit morass.

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Two very tough days of tangling at the EU summit centre in Brussels have revealed that a UK no-deal crash out has merely been deferred for a fortnight.

It remains as potent a threat as ever and will be hard to stave off on April 12.

And UK Prime Minister Theresa May has increased fears that this will happen as she said she may not push on with a ratification vote next week and may revert to Brussels seeking further extensions. Mrs May clearly has a tin ear, unable to comprehend the frustrations and lack of confidence on show in Brussels over the past two days.

The EU leaders believe they have done all they can.

A no-deal Brexit – with calamitous economic consequences for Ireland, and threats of a return of the Border with the North – remains the default position. It will happen automatically unless something else is put in place.

And already the EU is placing itself in a post-Brexit world. EU governments are increasingly annoyed that other projects are being neglected, like staving off another threatened recession, mending fences with the USA, dealing with the economic behemoth that is China, managing fractious relations with Russia, while facing the major challenges of migration and climate change.

Ireland has moved on with efforts to cultivate other EU allies. On Thursday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar joined Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at a meeting of the Nordic-Baltic alliance.

This so-called “bad weather alliance” is a grouping of smaller EU states committed to free trade and better EU economic cooperation.

Mrs May’s pathways towards leaving the European Union have been replete with twists, delays, U-turns and more than a few dead ends. Even those of us who have soldiered through the guff and jargon are at times left at a serious loss to explain and see a way forward.

She did what was deemed a reasonable Brexit deal on November 25 last. But she has twice epically failed, on January 15 and March 12, to deliver the necessary UK parliamentary ratification of that deal.

But in fairness to her, she has survived two no-confidence votes. In part, that tells us that nobody wants her job – for now.

That, of course, will change once a Brexit conclusion of some sort is in view for the ultimate folly project.

Staying with the few positives we can ever find from Brexit, the embattled PM did come back from Brussels with enough cosmetic changes to overcome the bolshie UK parliament speaker John Bercow’s ban, reaching back to 1604 precedents, on her running the Brexit ratification vote a third time.

Oddly, it is not clear when she will try again.

Theresa May came to another EU leaders’ summit on Thursday seeking an extension until June 30.

After much disputation about timing and tactics, but without any serious divisions, EU leaders gave her only until April 12 to either pass her deal or come up with some kind of alternative.

Against that, if UK MPs finally approve Mrs May’s deal, the UK can leave the European Union on May 22 in an orderly fashion.

Any further delay for any reason raises the question of holding European Parliament elections in a country already facing the exit doors.

That’s an absurd political scenario. But we are deeply into an era of absolutely absurd politics.

The United Kingdom, or more specifically England, has lost its political sanity. There are no reasons to gloat about it because the economic consequences will be widely spread beyond their shores.

Economists say a no-deal Brexit, with the UK reverting to World Trade Organisation rules, would spell major economic woe, especially for Ireland who is a major trading partner.

But it would also hit Britain hard – after all they rehearsed a traffic jam along its south-east coast, hoping to prepare for the likely chaos at its ports, while Britons have been hoarding things as diverse as fridges, wine and chocolate, against a no-deal outcome.

EU leaders have long voiced real concerns about a no-deal Brexit. But it was only on Thursday night, at the latest summit, that they really broached its implications.

These include the fundamental contradiction of keeping the Irish Border open while also protecting the EU single market.

Ireland still has a fight on here despite continued EU goodwill.

EU leaders have also tried to help Mrs May. But they have run out of road with the prime minister since she has failed to sell the deal she did with them and keeps trying to wheedle changes to what her EU colleagues insist is a “done deal”.

After the deal was voted down in the UK parliament a second time on March 12, EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, basically said that the EU had done what it could do. It remains thus.

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