John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: John Bruton (Page 1 of 7)

HAS THE BREXIT DISEASE REACHED LEINSTER HOUSE?

The fact that Dail Eireann voted yesterday to reject an EU Trade and Investment deal with Mercosur, that took 20 years to negotiate, and that few members could have read,  shows that Irish politics is not immune to the Brexit disease that has infected British politics. 

This disease consists in thinking that there is no need to make concessions in international relations and that, instead, one “can have it all”, without paying any price.

This delusion has led the UK into a deeply destructive position on Brexit.

I will not go into the details of the Mercosur trade deal here. Commissioner Phil Hogan dealt with these in an interview he gave to Sean O Rourke on RTE 1.  

The Dail vote showed a poor understanding of the importance of trade agreements to the very existence of the EU.

The EU is not a military power. It is a commercial power. That commercial power is exercised through agreements through which the EU can promote its values, and can protect the commercial and strategic interests of its member states, including smaller ones like Ireland.

 In recent times, the EU has made Agreements with Canada and Ukraine, and both had great difficulty being ratified, because one or two national parliaments took a similar line on them to the one taken on Mercosur by Dail Eireann yesterday.

If the EU cannot make and ratify Trade Agreements, it will gradually wither away, and member states will be forced  to find other ways of protecting their national interests. 

That might work for big states like France and Germany. But it will not work well for smaller states. The members of Dail Eireann should keep that in mind when they next come to consider the Mercosur deal.

JACOBITE SCOTLAND……..ECHOES FROM HISTORY

I recently enjoyed “Jacobites, a new history of the 1745 Rebellion” by Jacqueline Riding.

Recently I visited Scotland and was at Glenfinnan, where Prince Charles Edward first raised the standard of his father, James III, as the legitimate King of the UK on 19 August 1745.

 I also saw and the battlefield of Culloden, near Inverness where his attempt to reclaim the throne came to bloody end on 16 April 1746.

 This was the last pitched battle fought on British soil, and ended a struggle that had involved Ireland at the battles of the Boyne in 1690 and Aughrim in 1691.

Riding’s book is timely, as it illustrates the close connection of Scotland with continental Europe, something the English sometimes fail to appreciate, as we see nowadays as Brexit unfolds.

There was also considerable Irish involvement in Charles Edward’s campaign.

The bulk of the small number of French troops, sent to aid him, came from Irish regiments in the French Army. The leading financiers of the campaign were French based Irishmen, Antoine Walsh and Walter Ruttledge. Of the small party that landed in Scotland with the Prince in 1745, the majority were Irish.  

Charles Edward was only 25 when he set out on what must have seemed a reckless endeavour, with little chance of success. French military help was modest, and designed more to create a diversion from other theatres of war (mainly in present day Belgium) that were more vital to French interests than was securing the British throne for James III.

Initially, Charles Edward had astounding success. He took Edinburgh (except its castle) without firing a shot. He then defeated a British army at Prestonpans.

He held court in Edinburgh for a few weeks, promising, among other things to grant religious toleration to all, and to repeal the Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland. While there he enhanced his mainly highland Scottish Army with lowland Scots recruits.

He then decided to lead a winter invasion of England, crossing the border at Carlisle, and heading for Lancashire where there was considered to be support for the Jacobite cause. But there was just one small, easily suppressed, rising on his behalf, by Catholics in the vicinity of Omskerk near Liverpool. The Catolic clergy advised their flock not to get involved. He was able to raise a force in Manchester, mainly among local Catholics, but practical English support for his cause proved very disappointing.

After an agonising debate, it was decided in December, at Derby, that he should not continue with his invasion but should lead his Army back to Scotland, and await more substantial help from France.  Most of the Scottish forces, on which he depended and who had much to lose, preferred to fight for their cause in their native country than to wait to be overwhelmed by superior forces gathering in what was, for them, in a foreign land.

The Prince himself wanted go on to London. But that endeavour could only have worked if there was a simultaneous invasion from France, which could not be guaranteed.

Prince Charles Edward’s army could move much faster than the more cumbersome English forces, and so evaded them to get back safely to Scotland, where he did indeed prove to have more solid support.

Once back in Scotland, he got local more recruits and help from France, and won another military victory at Falkirk.

But his position was never secure.

Hanoverian forces still held too many of the strong points in Scotland and the Prince’s Highland clansmen were more suited to short aggressive campaigns, than they were to a war of attrition. Money was also in short supply. And French help did not always get through because the Royal Navy was so strong.

He was finally defeated at Culloden, near Inverness, by the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II, and, like Charles, in his mid twenties. Large numbers of highlanders were massacred in cold blood after the battle, while those fighting for the Prince in French uniforms were spared.

The Prince eventually escaped to France, but was ejected from there when France made peace with England.

He had to return to Rome and the protection of the Pope and of his brother, Henry Stuart, who had become a Cardinal. He continued to seek a way to win back the throne, and in 1749 he became a Protestant, presumably to make himself more acceptable to English opinion.

He was a leader of immense flair, courage, and charisma when things were going well. But seemed unable to hide his feelings when things went wrong, which demoralised his supporters.

He lived out his life in Rome, never giving up on the hope of a return to the throne. He had a daughter, Charlotte, Duchess of Albany, who survived him by only two years. In terms of public achievement, his life was over, almost before it had begun.

THE SUNNI AND THE SHIA…WHAT IS THE ARGUMENT REALLY ABOUT?

A few years back, very few Westerners would have been aware of the distinction between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq changed all that.

In a timely book, entitled “A Concise History of the Sunnis and Shi’is”, John McHugo, who has also recently written a history of Syria, goes back to the beginning of the Muslim religion to outline its history, and explain the origin of the divisions between Shia and Sunni.

His book is well timed because the West now appears to be allowing itself to be drawn, on the side of the Sunnis, into what appears to be a religious war with the Shia in the Middle East. Does Western public opinion understand what it is getting itself into?

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are competing with one another in conflicts in many parts of the Muslim world. Israel has identified Iran as its number one enemy. President Trump appears follow the Israeli line. This is notwithstanding the fact that the 9/11 attackers came from Sunni Saudi Arabia and not from Shia Iran.

 As a result, in order to curb Iran, western companies are being permitted by their governments to supply arms to Saudi Arabia, which are being used against Zaydi Muslims in Yemen, who are being supported by Iran, against a Yemeni government supported by Saudi Arabia.

Some say the Zaydis are not Shia, they are in fact a sub division within Sunni Islam, others that they are a subset of Shia Islam. In fact there are many schools of thought within Islam, and lines between them are not all that rigid. Sectarian distinctions can be exaggerated for political purposes, as we know all too well in Europe.

The conflicts in Yemen and Syria can be looked at differently.  They can be presented as a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that is between an ethnically Arab country on the one hand, and an ethnically Persian one on the other. That too would be an oversimplification. While most ethnically Arab nations line up with Saudi Arabia, some, like Iraq and Syria, lean towards Iran.

In Syria’s case the regime is Alawite, a sect which is neither Sunni nor Shia, but is closer to the Shia. In Iraq, the population, though ethnically Arab, is majority Shia. Shia Arabs in Lebanon have lined up on the Iran side in the Syrian Civil War and so on.

There are only four countries in which the Shia are a majority…. Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain.

But there are also significant Shia populations in the oil producing region of Saudi Arabia, and in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.

There is another strand of Islam, the Kharijis, who are a majority in Oman.

Within Sunni Islam itself, there are four different schools of thought, going back to very early times. These are the Malikis, Hanafis, Shafiis and Hanbalis.

The Maliki school are predominant in most of North Africa.

The Hanafi school predominate in Egypt, Turkey and Central Asia.

The Shafiis are strong in West Africa and Indonesia.

The Hanbali school is strongest in the Arabian peninsula

Wahhabism, a strict literalist trend within the Hanbali school, dates only from the eighteenth century, and is thus quite recent. From its origins, it has been closely associated with the Saudi royal family. It is promoted and subsidised throughout the world by Saudi Arabia.

The division between the two strands is not so much about theology as it is about the legitimacy of those who may govern the faithful, teach the faith, and interpret the Koran, and the legitimacy of the sources they may draw upon to do so. The question is both political and religious, with little distinction between the two. Both Shia and Sunni have the Koran in common, and believe its content is the word of God, coming through the Angel Gabriel and dictated to Mohammed.

But what authority may be used to interpret the Koran for life today?

Broadly speaking, Sunnis accept the authority of the teachings and writings of the companions of Mohammed, who were his immediate successors as leaders, and who knew his mind.

The Shia, on the other hand, look to Ali, Mohammed’s grandson, Ali, and to Mohammed’s  blood line more generally, as the legitimate interpreters of the Koran and supreme guides of the people.

Ali died in 661 after a power struggle, so these differences of opinion go back a long way.

In Sunni Islam, Shia veneration of the tombs of early imams is seen as idolatrous, and this explains the blowing up of some of these Shia holy places in recent wars.

Islamic scholars have always had  greater political authority in the Shia tradition, which explains the particular political system of Iran, where the Supreme religious leader has a veto on much of what the elected government may do.

In the Sunni tradition, the Caliph was both a religious and a political leader. For many years the title of Caliph was held by the Ottoman Emperor.

After its defeat in the First World War, the Ottoman Empire disappeared and was replaced by the secular Republic of Turkey. Turkey formally abolished the Caliphate in 1922. This caused deep disappointment among many devout Sunni Muslims at the time and this disappointment explains why Isis sought to restore the Caliphate.

For most of the last 1300 years, Sunni and Shia have lived together in relative peace. The Wars of Religion within Christianity in Europe, in the 150 years after the Reformation, were much more severe than anything that has, as yet, happened between Shia and Sunni in the Muslim world.

It is to be hoped that a reading of John McHugo’s densely informative narrative will encourage Western leaders to hesitate, before taking sides in a struggle that is not their own.

His book is quite compressed, and focuses heavily on the political history. It would have been interesting to know more about how the lifestyles  and thinking of Shia and Sunni faithful compare with one another.

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S RADICAL MIDDLE EAST POLICY

…….PROVOCATION OF IRAN

 

I found an article published by Aaron Miller and Richard Sokolsky in Politico on the policy of the Trump Administration in the Middle East to be both alarming and convincing.

Miller and Sokolsky said;

  “ The administration is focused like a laser beam on irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

They say that these two policy changes will be irreversible by a Democratic Administration.

 A HARDER LINE THAN BEFORE

During his Presidential Election campaign, there were moments on the campaign trail when Donald Trump expressed interest in negotiating a better nuclear deal with Iran and brokering the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians, rather than killing prospects for both.

He even offered several times to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without preconditions to negotiate a new nuclear accord.

Then last year, Secretary of State Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran.

These demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the Nuclear Accord it had reached with President Obama and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq.

These orders were swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.

IRREVERSIBLE?

Miller and Sokolsky argue that the administration’s extreme demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran.

That means a president who fails to meet these standards would, they believe, be accused of appeasement, making a new agreement far more difficult.

The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, once done, will be nearly impossible to undo.

A successor US administration, if it were to try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism.

The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime, but also of the Iranian people.

Miller and Sokolsky even argue that the Trump Administration is doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S.

There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen.

MAKING A TWO STATE SOLUTION IMPOSSIBLE

Miller and Sokolsky also argue that the Trump Administration is doing all it can to kill and bury the long-standing policy of seeking a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

A  two-state solution would return  the majority of the West Bank to the Palestinians—based on borders from before Israel’s 1967 seizure of that territory—and a physically undivided Jerusalem hosting capitals of both states.

The two state solution would make it possible for Israel to be a Jewish state forever. A one State solution would turn Israel into a multiethnic state.

The US Administration is taking concrete steps that make the two state solution impossible, and the one state solution inevitable.

Over the past year, it has closed the PLO office in Washington, withdrawn U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency .

The administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator, and marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor.

MAKING A ONE STATE SOLUTION INEVITABLE

The long-standing diplomatic assumption—that settlement activity would be constrained during the period of negotiations and that 70 to 80 percent of West Bank settlers who are in blocs close to the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel proper in exchange for ceding other land to Palestinians—has been undermined.

After an initial drop during 2017, Israeli settlement construction activity in the Occupied West Bank has increased 20 percent in 2018.

There is zero chance that any Palestinian leader—let alone one as weak and constrained as Mahmoud Abbas—will accept these conditions on the ground as part of a deal.

So, if a two state solution is rendered physically and geographically impossible by Israeli settlement activity, the only remaining option is a one state solution.

ALL PALESTINIANS IN WEST BANK TO BE GIVEN  A VOTE IN ISRAELI ELECTIONS?

This would mean Israel annexing the entire West Bank, and,  consequently, granting all the Palestinians living there Israeli citizenship and the right to vote in Israeli elections.

That is not something that either the Trump or Netanyahu Administrations want, but it is the logical outworking of the policies they are both following.

If Israel annexes the West Bank, I cannot see how it could deny all the residents there the right to vote.

 I do not see how the United States, with its Civil Rights principles and its long struggle for the right to vote by African Americans, could support such a denial by Israel.

BREXIT IS STRESS TESTING THE UK’S UNWRITTEN CONSTITUTION.

……….IS THE UK PARLIAMENT STILL SOVEREIGN?

IF NOT, WHO IS?

The underlying organising principle of the UK constitutional system has been that Parliament, not the monarch, and not people by referendum, is sovereign.

This principle may not be contained in a written constitution, but it is longstanding.

It was established in the seventeenth century by the outcome of the Civil War 1646/9, where Parliament defeated the monarch (Charles I) and his ministers, and by the Revolution of 1688 whereby Parliament deposed the legitimate monarch (James II).

In contrast, in Ireland, the Houses of the Oireachtas are not sovereign, in the sense that, since 1937, it is only the people who, by referendum, can change the Irish constitution.

The developing clash this week between the government of the UK (the Queen’s Ministers to use 17th century terms) and the majority in Parliament, over the latter’s rejection of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, is creating a crisis in the UK constitution.

This crisis is derived from the fact that the UK government intentionally ran down the clock and delayed voting on the Withdrawal Agreement, so that it could use the Article 50 deadline, and the threat of a No Deal crash out, to force Parliament’s hand.

It is arguable that this level of pressure on Parliament by the executive is contrary to the UK constitution.The government of the UK should, in accordance with tradition, act as a servant of Parliament, not the other way around.

But, instead, the government is demanding that Parliament vote, over and over again, on the same question, citing the idea that it would be undemocratic to have a second Referendum on Brexit, and claiming that to respect the referendum result, PM May’s Withdrawal Agreement must be voted through by Parliament.

If Parliament is to be asked to change its mind, there is no logical reason for the people, in a referendum, should not also be allowed to do the same.

The UK may also need to revise its unwritten constitution, to define more clearly the respective roles of government and Parliament, in regard to international negotiations.This is a problem for the EU. The EU is going to have to negotiate with UK, whether it wants to or not.We do not need to be going through this week’s drama over and over again in the discussion of the various trade and other agreements, that the UK is going to need to make with the EU over the coming years, if/when Brexit goes ahead. This is no mere academic issue.


KEVIN O ROURKE ON BREXIT

I have really enjoyed reading “A Short History of Brexit, from Brentry to Brexit” by Kevin O Rourke.

O Rourke is a UK based, but Irish born and resident, academic, who also has a house in France.

His father, Andy, is a distinguished former Irish diplomat, and his mother is Danish.

He brings this varied hinterland to his aid, in probing the forces that shaped the British decisions

 first to join, and then to leave, the European Union.

Behind this inconsistency he identifies the existence of two  conflicting strands of thought, in the UK Conservative Party, and more widely.

The first is idea of “Imperial Preference”, that of giving better trade access to the UK market to the Empire than to other countries. This has deep roots in the Party.

 It was championed by leaders like the Chamberlains and Baldwin. This policy was implemented, in 1931 by Neville Chamberlain, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In contrast, Churchill, although a strong Imperialist, opposed protectionism all through his career. He advocated a “United States of Europe” in a speech in July 1945.

 Macmillan, who shed the Empire and had been wounded seven times in the First World War,, understood the need for the UK to build its future, and a structure of peace, in Europe.

 In contrast, a later Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron is quoted as saying it was “a myth” that European integration was the result of the lessons learned from two world wars.

There is much that can be divined from this well written book.

The 2016 Referendum can be traced back to a decision, in 2010, by 81 Tory MPs to defy their Whip and vote for a Referendum on leaving the EU.

Then , when Cameron set out to renegotiate UK membership. he recklessly announced that he would not “take no for an answer” on restricting free movement of people within the EU Single Market. He was never going to win that concession.

The book also analyses the history of the Irish and European economies in the 20th century.

 Ireland was a late developer, mainly because it waited until the 1970’s, to open its market to foreign competition. Even Portugal and Greece moved faster.

O Rourke highlights the importance of the common EU VAT regime, and the sharing of information between EU states on VAT, as the means of avoiding hard borders within the EU.

As the author says,

time is money and border controls cost money

Tribute to Edward Collins, former Minister of State and Dail Deputy.

I was deeply saddened to learn this morning of the death, after a long illness, of my close friend and former colleague, Eddie Collins. I extend heartfelt sympathy to his family.

Eddie was born in 1941. He served on Waterford Corporation from 1964  to 1981 and on Waterford County Council from  1979 to 1981. He was a distinguished economist and businessman.

I met Eddie Collins for the first time when I went to Waterford to campaign for him in the 1966 by election. It was an exciting old style campaign with parades and rallies on behalf of the rival parties as well as intense local canvassing. Eddie was the inheritor of the Redmondite tradition in Waterford City politics. While Eddie did not win the by election in 1966, he was elected to the Dail in the 1969 General Election and served in the Dail until 1987.

He represented Ireland on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for a number of years.

He was Fine Gael Spokesman on Education on the opposition benches from 1977 to 1981, and was exceptionally active in drafting new educational policies for the party. He proposed the establishment of local educational structures to give citizens more influence on education. He promoted an Adult Education Bill, which was strongly supported by Aontas, the national body for adult education.

When Fine Gael entered government in 1981, he became Minister of State for the Tanaiste, the late Michael O Leary, in the Department of Industry and Energy. This involved a very heavy work load.

In the 1982/87 government, he served as my Minister of State in the Department of Industry, Trade Commerce and Tourism. Again I found him to be an exceptionally hardworking, creative, reliable and loyal colleague.

When he lost his seat in the 1987, he continued his lifelong interest in education by becoming a lecturer in economics in the Tallaght Institute of Technology.

He was deeply affected by the death of his wife , Lelia, a few years ago.

CAN THE BREXIT IMPASSE BE RESOLVED?


This week I am speaking in the Sciences Po University in Paris at the invitation of the Dean, Enrico Letta, a former Italian Prime Minister .

A member of the Scottish Government, Fiona Hyslop will also speak and we will be discussing the dilemmas posed by Brexit with a number of academics and their students.

Later this week, I will attend the Ideas Lab, organized by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS),  in Brussels. I am a member of the board of CEPS.

This meeting will consider the possibility of the trade war between China and the US going global, integrating climate and trade policies, and the vision for the EU for the next 5 years. Brexit, as such, is not on the agenda.

Interesting ideas on resolving the Brexit impasse have been put forward by Andrew Duff, a former MEP, and by Professor Kenneth Armstrong of Cambridge University.

Andrew Duff suggests a series of detailed amendments to the Political Declaration that would bring the UK closer to the EU in some respects.

Professor Armstrong suggests a new protocol that would give greater legal force to the Political Declaration.

His core idea is that there would be that a set of criteria be negotiated, as to how and when the backstop might  be implemented, or be modified or replaced.

Procedurally, his proposal would de dramatize and postpone the issue. But it would not solve it.

It remains to be seen how it could avoid a hard border,  either in Ireland or on the Irish Sea, if, at the end of the day, the UK insists on pursuing an independent trade policy.

It is also unclear whether a majority could be obtained in the House of Commons for any of this.

Until that is clearer, it is hard to say whether the EU has a credible interlocutor in London with whom it can negotiate. The UK Parliament has yet to reconcile its desires, with the essential needs of the European Union. It has to accept the tradeoffs involved.

Professor Armstrong’s approach would avoid a No Deal crash out on 29 March.

I have no doubt that customs controls will have to be introduced by Ireland, as a continuing EU member, in the event of a No Deal crash out.

I feel that public opinion has not been prepared for that legal reality.

Being in the EU has been very advantageous for Ireland in every way, especially in attracting investment and jobs.

So Ireland must implement EU law. The EU is a system of rules, and if its rules are not respected, it ceases to exist.

“NO DEAL”, AND FARMING…WHERE ARE THE CREATIVE SOLUTIONS?

The shocking consequences for Irish farming of a No Deal Brexit have been spelled out in graphic detail by Phelim O Neill in successive editions of the Irish Farmers Journal.

The beef sector will be worst hit, with a 350kg Irish beef carcass, worth 1295 euros, facing a 780 euro tariff on the UK market, if the UK applies WTO terms.

If, instead, the UK adopts a zero tariff approach, Irish beef would face unlimited Brazilian competition.

The emergency support measures, that the EU might introduce to deal with a No Deal crisis, would buy time for the sheep, pig and dairy sectors. This would allow them to develop alternatives to the UK market.

But alternative markets for Irish beef, at anything near the returns to be found on the British market, do not exist.

A No Deal has become increasingly likely because Mrs May has decided that her priority is to avoid a split in the Conservative Party.  She has calculated that, if she tried to get her Deal through with Labour support, in return for modifications that would satisfy Labour, such as staying the Customs Union or softening her stance on EU immigration, her Party would break up. She would lose 50 or 100 MPs, and would cease to be Prime Minister.

Should, or could, the EU make concessions that would help out Mrs May?

Even if the EU side wanted to make concessions to the UK on the terms of its Withdrawal, it has no way of knowing if Mrs May would have the political authority to get any such modified deal through the House of Commons.

When one contrasts what leading Brexiteers, like David Davis, were saying a few years ago about what might be acceptable, with what they are insisting on now, it appears that nothing will satisfy them, and that every concession will be met by a new demand. It is catharsis, rather than compromise, they are after.

This is the point that needs to be addressed by those in the Irish media who are already laying the ground work for blaming “brinkmanship “ by the EU, and  particularly by Ireland, if the UK crashes out of the EU on 29 March.

What guarantee can these critics offer that any conceivable “alternative” to the backstop would pass in the House of Commons?

These critics, and the UK government itself, have so far been shy in coming forward with practical ideas that would get a majority in Westminster, and also respect the integrity of the EU market.

One person who has come forward with ideas to break the deadlock is the UCD economist, Karl Whelan.

He says that one of the reasons advanced by the DUP for rejecting the backstop, namely that the backstop would place a barrier in the way of Northern Irish exports the Britain, is without foundation.

 He says that under the backstop, exports originating in Northern Ireland would go through a Green channel at Belfast port with no checks or controls. Only goods originating in the Republic of Ireland , or further afield, would have to go through a red channel where there might be checks.

And, at the same time, NI exporters would have free access to the EU across the open land border in Ireland… They would have the best of both worlds.

Karl Whelan goes on to suggest that, to get the Withdrawal Deal across the line in the House of Commons, the EU side might consider two extra concessions.

 The first is an option that, at some future point after the end of the transition period, Britain could leave the joint Customs Union with the EU, on condition that Northern Ireland  remained in the Customs Union and aligned with EU goods regulations. This would deal with the Brexiteer fear that the EU is trying to “trap” Britain in the Customs Union, which is not the case.

The second part of his proposal is that voters in Northern Ireland try out the backstop for a few years, but that, after (say) five or more years, they could have a referendum, in which Northern voters could decide to opt out of the backstop.

He thinks they would opt to stay in it because by then they would , over the five years , have experienced the “best of both worlds”  that the backstop gives the Northern Irish economy.

There are two problems with this idea. The suggested referendum could further deepen the Orange/Green split, and the very possibility of a referendum would introduce a new element of uncertainty for business. Referendums are inherently risky and influenced by extraneous issues. But the delay would allow time for the supposed technological fixes for a hard border to be road tested.

That said, his proposal would be far less divisive than an outright border poll, which could flow from a “No Deal” Brexit.

Opinion polls in NI suggest that a  majority there would opt to stay in the UK if the UK were to remain in the EU, opinion would be equally split under the backstop, but would spring dramatically against staying in the UK if the there was a No Deal Brexit.  In those circumstances a border poll would be hard to resist. Brexiteer “Unionists” in Britain are foolishly playing with fire.

Another idea for breaking the deadlock has come from the German Ifo Institute, in a paper published only last month.

This proposal would involve dumping the entire EU negotiating approach so far, and instead offering the UK membership of a newly constituted European Customs Association, through which the UK would have influence on EU trade policy and vice versa. It suggests that Turkey might also be invited to join this European Customs Association. The Customs Association idea might mitigate the “vassal state” objection to the UK joining the EU Customs Union as a simple rule taker.

But  I would question the wisdom, and perhaps the motivation, of bringing forward such a proposal at this impossibly late stage, as a possible solution to the present crisis.

It  might have been helpful, if it had been published when Theresa May wrote her original Article 50 letter in 2017, but it has little value, as a way of averting a No Deal crash out on 29 March.

 If the UK accepts the Withdrawal Treaty, or if it decides to withdraw its Article 50 letter, the Ifo proposal might be considered then. But to have any traction, it is an idea that would have to come from the UK side.

Both the Whelan and Ifo proposals are designed to help the UK clarify what it wants.

The problem is that UK opinion on Brexit has become so polarised, and so tied up with questions of identity, and political party discipline has been so damaged, that it is hard to see the House of Commons assembling a political will to deliver anything, except slipping into a chaotic No Deal.  I hope I will be proven wrong.

Brexit Conviction Is “Fragile”, Says Former Irish Prime Minister

A former Taoiseach said that conviction to leave the European Union is “fragile” and that fears of a second referendum show ‘distrust’ in support for Brexit.

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