John Downing: ‘Varadkar faces defining test as Taoiseach as we are forced towards the return of a hard Border’
Theresa May’s third hefty Brexit defeat makes a no-deal exit in 13 days a very real threat. And one simple fact screamed out of the vast fog of confusion over the past week: a no-deal Brexit means a return of the Irish Border – the only thing open for discussion is where and how controls would be imposed.
Up to nine days ago, no-deal Brexit day risked happening yesterday, March 29. Then a dramatic EU leaders’ summit moved the no-deal Brexit goalposts by a fortnight to April 12.
Reaction to news of the latest UK parliament vote across the EU was both swift and decisive.
Martin Selmayr, the EU Commission’s most senior civil servant, instantly ramped up pressure on the UK with a pithy tweet which left nobody in any doubt: “April 12 is the new March 29.”
The policy-guiding Commission was equally trenchant, though it tended more to official language. There was a statement of “regret” at the outcome, a re-statement of the new April 12 deadline, and then a clear message that, if the UK wanted to avoid a no-deal Brexit, the next move was up to London.
“A no-deal scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario. The EU has been preparing for this since December 2017 and is now fully prepared for a no-deal scenario at midnight on 12 April,” the EU Commission said.
It further insisted that “the EU will remain united”. The Commission also warned that the benefits of the Withdrawal Agreement, including a transition period, will “in no circumstances be replicated in a no-deal scenario”.
It also said: “Sectoral mini-deals are not an option.”
None of this is good for Ireland and the Taoiseach will have lots to say when he meets French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Tuesday, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dublin on Thursday.
Mr Varadkar naturally wants to see this game vastly slowed down with no rush to a no-deal conclusion.
In a late-night session at the fateful summit on March 21, Mr Macron struck a hawkish tone, arguing that there was little point postponing the evil day of inevitable rupture.
Speaking to reporters in France yesterday, he was equally tough. “If the British haven’t agreed by April 12, we’re heading towards no deal and a hard Brexit with all its consequences,” the French president said.
The Taoiseach will hope for more help from Ms Merkel.
She was more emollient at that decisive EU summit nine days ago, stressing the need to work right up to the end to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
Yesterday, positive signals continued to come from Berlin as one of her key allies, foreign affairs parliament committee chairman Norbert Rottgen, said he favoured the UK being given a long extension provided they could show how they would use it.
He did not necessarily see the UK having to commit to a second referendum or a general election to get more time.
The Taoiseach can fulminate all he likes – though he does have good grounds.
The Democratic Unionist Party’s insistence that Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently to Scotland, Wales and England is infuriating nonsense. That party’s joint hegemony over the North’s politics with Sinn Féin in unique political structures created for a specific purpose is a key piece of evidence that the North is, was and always will be, treated differently to the other constituent parts of the UK. Armed soldiers on the North’s streets for 30 years is another serious clue.
Equally, the mendacious ‘playing both sides’ of their brief Tory allies, like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, does not bear too much thinking about.
The problem now reverts to the old crux that only two out of the following three things can co-exist:
1. The UK leaving the EU customs union and single market;
2. No special status for Northern Ireland;
3. Keeping the Border open.
The nearest we came to stretching and bridging that trio was the backstop.
But, as the Commission has clearly stated, all side deals, like the backstop, fall.
The Taoiseach now faces the defining test of his stewardship.
He has a hard sell to do in all the EU capitals ahead of an EU leaders’ summit on April 10 in Brussels. The battle to prevent any return to the bad old days of the Border has now begun.