THIS week saw the two-year Article 50 deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union on March 29th come and go with no withdrawal deal ratified by the British side, but a no-deal Brexit temporarily averted, for a fortnight at least, until April 12th and with the possibility of a further extension until May 22nd to enable an orderly departure. However, the EU leaders only granted the two-week extension on condition that Prime Minister Theresa May’s Parliament in Westminster ratifies the deal she made with them on November 25th last.
That, it seems, will be easier said than done because Ms May now just controls the Parliament and her own Conservative Party in name only; the main opposition party leader, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, continues to sit on the fence and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party – which is propping up her lame-duck government – maintains its intransigence on the backstop issue. Added to this, under parliamentary procedures dating back to 1604, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has ruled out another meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement unless it is substantially changed.
It cannot be changed without the agreement of the European Union who have already indicated numerous times that it is not for changing. It is still firmly a case of take it or leave it and that is what Theresa May has humiliatingly gone back with: nothing new. As is all the uncertainty that has surrounded the Brexit debacle since the shock result of the June 2016 referendum in which 17.4 million voted to leave the EU while 16 million wanted to remain in it.
An estimated one million people marched in London on Saturday 23rd last looking for a second referendum on Brexit, but for that to happen, Theresa May and her Conservative Government will have to be ousted, which is highly unlikely in the short term where the focus is firmly on the withdrawal process, be it with a deal or without.
The announcement in mid-March of the tariffs that would apply to Irish goods being exported to Britain were frightening, especially for our agri-food sector, but as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pointed out, there was some irony in the proposals that would treat Northern Ireland separately to the rest of the UK, with different tariffs: ‘The supreme irony is that many of those opposed the Withdrawal Agreement because it treats Northern Ireland differently. The only way you can deal with this is through the withdrawal agreement, and if you want to see how, it’s called the backstop.’
However, smartass political point-scoring like this is not going to readily change the minds of the entrenched DUP, with one of its senior MPs, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, calling on the Republic of Ireland to rejoin the British Commonwealth at last weekend’s Fine Gael Ard-Fheis in Wexford. Even though the suggestion was politely applauded by delegates, Tánaiste Simon Coveney immediately ruled it out, but he remains hopeful that, in either a deal or no-deal scenario, it would be possible to have some form of regulatory and customs alignment.
As things stand, given Theresa May’s dearth of influence in the UK, we are still heading for a calamatous no-deal Brexit, but as European Council president Donald Tusk said last week, hope dies last. All we can do at this stage is hope that common sense will prevail unilaterally.