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What Britain wants from #Brexit: a new EU of just 2 – it and the #EU27

6 Sep

This is my Broadsheet.ie column from August 28th, 2017 – the original appears online here

Britain's SoS for Exiting the EU Davis and EU's chief Brexit negotiator Barnier talk to the media ahead of Brexit talks in BrusselsAt around 4pm (Irish time) today (Mon Aug 28), British and EU negotiators will meet again in Brussels for the latest round of Brexit talks. The first item on this week’s agenda, we are told, will be Britain’s exit bill, with the Brits expected to set out their thinking behind how they will for calculating how much is owed to the EU when Britain leaves. The teams with then go on, over the following days, to discuss the two other key issues which need to be resolved during this first phase of talks: citizens’ rights and ensuring the Northern Ireland peace process is not jeopardised.

While the EU (by which I mean “we”) set out its position on the British financial settlement back in May, British ministers have been extremely reluctant to attempt to put a figure on it. While some, like Boris Johnson have huffed and puffed about making the EU go whistle for it, the UK’s Brexit Minister, David Davis, has sufficient political nous to see that putting a realistic figure on the divorce settlement will just throw raw meat to the Tory right, who imagine they can use their debt as a bargaining chip for better terms for the future relationship.

How the British government manoeuvres its way through this round of crucial talks will be an important indicator of its future plans. The hope is that the British with arrive with a specific set of proposals for calculating the bill. The expectation is that they won’t – it is an expectation informed by past performance.

Up to now the British have attempted to keep things as vague, even confused, as possible. Their recent position papers have been aspirational at best, and contradictory at worst: a matter I addressed in last week’s Broadsheet column when I opined that Britain’s road to Brexit was: “paved with bad intentions”.

That is not to say, however, that the British negotiators strategy is merely disruptive. While their strategy may be confused and their tactics appear erratic, it would be foolish to imagine that the British, at least at a political level, do not have a game-plan – even if it is not a realistic one.

Look back at the recent series of position papers and it is just possible to discern the shape and outline of the post Brexit arrangement that the British – though it may be more correct to say, the Tories – desire.

While they obviously see the UK as being outside the Single market and the Customs Union, it is not just that they will be ‘outside’ EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice and the EU Commission, the EU Council and Parliament, they believe that they will be out from being ‘underneath’ them.

They see themselves post Brexit as not merely leaving a partnership with others, but rather as breaking free from being under an EU bureaucracy which they monstrously and wrongly caricature as entirely undemocratic.

But, as you read their position papers you see that while they see themselves as being out from underneath these institutions, they still see the need to have workable post Brexit relationships with them.

They want out from the Customs Union, but they still want a customs and border free relationship with the EU. They want to be out from under EU Data rules, but want to have a British seat at the EU data protection committee table even after they leave. The list goes on.

Add all these contradictions, aspirations and demands together and you reach a simple conclusion: the Tories want a new arrangement where the UK is the equal of the rest of EU 27-member states put together.

The Tories ideal post Brexit outcome is an open marriage between the UK groom, presumably in Edwardian frock coat and top hat, and a not so virginal EU27 bride, dressed in a blue and gold. They want it to be an open marriage so the groom can have a few external relationships with former conquests such as India and Malaysia.

This generation of post Major Tories have never been happy with the UK as just a part of the EU, they see the UK, at the very least, as being the equal of it.

Moving from an EU with 28-member states working in partnership into an umbrella union, of their own design, which comprises two partners: the UK on one side and the entire EU27 on the other, suits the public school, the sun never sets on the British empire mindset of those now running the Tory party.

It is their answer to the question, what is Great Britain’s role in the modern globalised world. This is a question that the British have struggled to answer since the end of WWII, one witheringly posed by the former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who observed in 1962 that: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”.

The problem for the Tories is that this answer is unacceptable to the rest of us.

Churchill, Heath, Major Blair, and even Thatcher had seen Britain’s role as an important leader in the EU. Thatcher had initially sought to bend the shape and composition of the EU to suit this role insisting that it expansion should be wider, including form eastern bloc countries, rather than deeper, but the legacy of the Tory party post Major has been a failure to grasp that the EU was the platform from which the UK continued to be an important player, not the obstacle to it.

If my analysis is correct, then this can only end badly for the Tories and, sadly, the UK. The one slight point of consolation as Micheál Martin pointed out overnight is the British Labour Party’s decision to commit itself to continued UK membership of the EU single market and customs union during a transition period from March 2019 onwards.

A hard Brexit that will hurt us economically, socially and politically may still be most likely outcome, but it is not yet inevitable. The next few weeks will be telling.

ENDS

The Tories road to #Brexit is paved with bad intentions

6 Sep

This is my Broadsheet.ie column from August 21, 2017. You can find the original online here

thank-you-samantha-bee-for-helping-us-americans-relate-to-the-brexit-mess

According to its Brexit position papers issued last week, the British Government is absolutely determined to avoid a hard Brexit and is hell bent on making sure that there will be no changes to how the border between the two parts of this island operates.

If only it were true.

It isn’t. As many others have already pointed out, you have barely to scratch the surface of the British government’s argument to quickly realise that its glistening yet imprecise language masks a dark and base core.

Last week’s papers were not about the massive machinery of the British government and civil service setting out its key positions on crucial realities arising from Brexit, but rather they were a crude and infantile political attempt to prepare a platform from where current British Ministers can accuse the EU27 of imposing borders and costs when the inevitable hard Brexit happens.

The former Tory Chancellor, George Osbourne called it right a few months back in a tweet when he predicted that the EU/UK Article 50 negotiations will end in failure in 2019 and that the UK will crash out of the EU with no deal and end up a transitional arrangement that resembles Norway’s.

The UK position papers were not about negotiations or ambitions. They were, almost literally, about positioning.

They were about the current crop of UK Tory Ministers positioning themselves for a hard Brexit – a hard Brexit that will impose a hard border across this island – and then being able to wring their hands afterwards, claiming that this wasn’t what they wanted, and that it is all the fault of the faceless, unelected, bloated bureaucrats in Brussels, aided and abetted by ungrateful Irish politicians

They know that the negotiations are on a collision course. The best deal for Britain is not the best deal for the Tory party. And so, the Tory party’s interests are about to trump the countries, helped along by the fact that the British Labour party is even more paralysed by its divisions on Europe than the Tories.

That is why the UK position papers on the Customs Union and Northern Ireland contradict each other.

It is why they want to confuse and upset the Article 50 negotiations timeline by dragging decisions on Northern Ireland out from the first phase of talks and dragging it into the customs and trade talks, thereby frustrating both.

There was nothing to welcome in last week’s position papers and diplomatic niceties should not prevent us from saying his openly and candidly.

Brexit in any shape or form will cost us, but a hard Brexit will hurt us economically and potentially cause political turmoil by undermining much of the progress made since the Good Friday Agreement; with its dismantling of the border structures and military architecture.

It took decades for us to convince the British that there were no security or military solutions to the political problems associated with partition.

It was a slow and painstaking process that involved the building up of strong personal relationships, most notably between Albert Reynolds and John Major and followed by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair.

Now Mrs May, and her ministers, are set to turn back the clock for Northern Ireland and this entire island, and all for reasons of Tory party unity.

This time around instead of talking about security solutions they talk about technological solutions – solutions to a problem that had all but disappeared but which their blind intransigence is determined to make reappear.

As I have said here for well over a year: Brexit changes everything on this island – and I do mean everything, not just economics.

Up to now, most of the Irish political talk has been on mitigating the economic damage and cost of Brexit and seeking the opportunities it offers – all that has been fine, if not a little understated at times, but the impact of Brexit goes beyond the economic.

The relationships between these two islands and between the two parts of this island are also about to change: economically, socially and politically… especially politically.

The hard Brexit that Gove, Johnson, Fox, Davis and Hammond are forging is about to make all-island approaches here the only viable ones.

The Brexit vote in the North has changed everything. Despite the consent principles contained within the Good Friday Agreement, the constitutional position of the people of the North, in this case as fully represented EU citizens, is about to change contrary to how a majority voted.

As the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood stated almost exactly one year ago:

“Northern nationalists are once more a restless people. The constitutional accommodation which we voted for by referendum in 1998 has been violated, not by a vote of the people of Northern Ireland, but rather by a vote of others in the UK 18 years later.

The blanket of that constitutional comfort has been abruptly removed. In particular, undermining our connection with the South achieved via common EU membership is not something which can be tolerated.”

It is regrettable that Irish politicians down here – of all hues – have not focussed sufficiently on this theme over the past year. While their attention to some of the finer detail is commendable, that cannot be allowed to come at the price of missing this bigger issue.

 

No long summer break from political debate

18 Jul

This week’s Broadsheet column was a defence of the oft criticisied Summer School season and an argument for more policy Irish think tanks, for for a Fianna Fáil aligned one in particular. Original column online here: Broadsheet.ie 

 


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At around 4.20pm on Friday last Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Summer recess. It is due to return at 2pm on Wednesday September 20th.

Cue the usual hollow complaints from the commentariat over TDs holidays and short Dáil sessions, with a few harrumphs from the Brussels side-line courtesy of Fine Gael MEP, Sean Kelly who tweeted that the EU parliament’s holiday will be 4 weeks shorter.

If this Dáil was actually processing legislation, especially the range of halfway decent Private Members Bills coming from backbenchers across the House, then there may be a basis for complaint. But, it isn’t.

To be fair, it is not as if TDs and Senators are about to head off to the Maldives or Marrakech. The Seanad is sitting this week, as are several Oireachtas committees, and they will take a shorter break than the Dáil and return earlier – and before you sigh that the committees don’t count, bear in mind that Sean Fleming’s Public Accounts Committee will be launching its report into the financial procedures at Garda College, Templemore at 2.00pm tomorrow.

However, the fact that the Dáil is taking a nine-week break, does not mean that political debate will be on hold for all that time.

The start of the summer recess also means the start of the political Summer School season. This week sees the MacGill Summer School in Donegal and it will be following a range of other summer schools, both large and small, including the  Parnell Summer School in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow in mid-August which will look at contemporary criminal, policing, penal and judicial policy and the excellent Kennedy Summer School being held in New Ross in early September which will look at a range of issues including Brexit.

While it is easy to dismiss some aspects of these Summer Schools are just the same folks talking at each other in various locations over wines of varying qualities, they still have a positive input into our policy discourse. They allow more discussion on the broader themes and issues and encourage more focus on policy and less on process – something that bedevils political commentary and debate the other 40 odd weeks of the year – including by yours truly.

The Summer School season highlights the dearth of policy discussion the rest of the year around. I am often struck by how few serious policy fora and think tanks we have here. While there are some, and they produce very good policy policies and encourage new policy directions, they tend to be from just outside the centrist spectrum, at either end: from the Hibernian Forum on the centre-right to the trade union backed Nevin Economic Research Institute. That is not to say that there no centrist fora, there are, but they tend to be sectoral or focussed on Ireland’s relationship with the EU.

It is as if the centrist parties should just look to their own limited in-house research teams and the civil service. While Fine Gael does have its Collins Institute, a quick look at the latest news section on their website suggests that annual activity is more based on a lunar calendar than a Gregorian one. The three most recent news items there are from May 2017, July 2015 and December 2014.

There is room for a significant centrist policy (big hint to Fianna Fáil) think tank and there are a range of EU institutes and fora, not to mention expertise, with which it could partner and co-operate. There is also a major issue on the horizon which it can help address: Brexit.

As I have said here several times, a lot of the discussion and focus in the Irish Brexit debate thus far has been on ameliorating and easing the most damaging economic aspects of Brexit, but there has not been sufficient discussion and exploration of the political dimensions.

One of those relates to the future of this island: as a whole.

One of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement – and one of the primary reasons why it received huge buy-in across the island – was that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would not change without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland.

This was there to reassure Unionists that they would never be coerced into a United Ireland. It was also an assurance to the population that they were democratically sovereign and they alone could determine their own constitutional status. Yet, the Brexit result last year is about to change the status of the citizens of Northern Ireland not only without their consent, but expressly contrary to it and they are told, by the UK’s Supreme Court that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement do not apply.

This is a major change and it is getting lost in the understandably loud and noisy debate over the economic aspects of Brexit.

Brexit also changes our relationship with the EU. Up to now we have been one of two common law, English speaking countries in the EU with similarly structured economies and political systems. We have shared common interests and held a range of similar views on issues from Data Protection to Employment and Social Policy. We now face into a future in the EU Council without a key ally.

That does not mean a debate on our continued EU membership – but it does require some thinking on how we develop and advance that membership and that again returns to how that is expressed on and across this island.

There is plenty to think about over the coming weeks and months and while it is good to take some time away and recharge, let’s also us some of the time while the Dáil is not in session to commence some serious debates on what lies before us.

Ends.

 

ENDS  

I hate to admit it, but @JuliaHB1 and other #brexiteers may have a point, just not the one they think

12 Oct

Here is my Broadsheet article from Sept 28th regarding the calls for a second #Brexit referendum vote. I would love to be able to support the call, but I cannot. Experience of re-runs of Irish EU referendums tells me that this is not an option in the UK given the high voter turnout.

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questiontimeI have to confess that my heart sinks a little whenever I hear English Tories or English nationalists, like Nigel Farage, mention Ireland during their rants about the EU. The reference is usually patronising or condescending or – even worse – is given in the form of advice that would have us join them in their march back to a glorious era that never existed.

This is why my heart sank when Julia Hartley Brewer, a British Talk Radio host, Leave campaigner and former political editor, stated on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time that the EU had forced Ireland, and other countries, to vote again on EU referendums.

Her comments came during the course of a discussion on whether Britain might have another referendum on Brexit – a proposal put forward by the failed Corbyn challenger, Owen Smith MP or that the UK might have a separate vote on the final deal hammered out on the conclusion of the Art 50 negotiations, an idea put forward by Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats.

Though hearing Hartley-Brewer getting it badly wrong on the notion of the EU ‘forcing’ us to vote again made my heart sink a little, it sank even further when I realised that she and her fellow panellist that night Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (who looks like he is being portrayed by Joyce Grenfell) may actually have a point, just not the one they think.

Though I and other Remainers may wish it to be otherwise, the hard fact is that Ireland’s voting again on the Nice and Lisbon treaties is not relevant to the UK’s situation for one simple reason: turnout.

In the first referendum on the Nice Treaty (Nice I) in 2001 the turnout was just under 35% – the result then was 54% No: 46% Yes. At second referendum on the Nice Treaty (Nice II) in Oct 2002 the turnout shot up to just under 50% with Yes getting 63% and No dropping to 37%.

It was a broadly similar situation in the case of the two Lisbon Treaty referendums. In Lisbon I in June 2008 the turnout was 53%. No won by 53%:47%. At Lisbon II the turnout had again increased, this time to 59% with Yes now winning by 63%:37%

In both cases the turnout in the first referendum was low to start with, in the case of Nice I it was exceptionally low, just in the mid-30s, so there was a convincing argument to be made for a second vote, particularly when you felt that a second referendum would have a higher turnout.

This was not the case in the UK’s Brexit referendum. The turnout there was a whopping 72%. This is a substantial turnout. It is much higher that recent UK General Election turnouts, indeed you have to go back to Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory to find a UK general election turnout of over 70%.

The huge political risk you take by having a re-run second Brexit referendum in these circumstances is that you get a lower turnout. It is politically saleable to try to reverse one mandate with a smaller one?

To be clear, turnout alone was not the reason why there were re-runs of the Nice and Lisbon referendums. In both cases post referendum polling and analysis found that the main reason for voting “No” or abstaining was a lack of knowledge of either treaty. Both “Yes” and “No” voters were highly critical of what they viewed as a dearth of clear, accessible information on the treaty’s merits.

While the Remainers can clearly point to a lot of misinformation from the Leave side, not least the claims that leaving would mean £350 million extra per week for the NHS, they cannot yet point to any substantive research or analysis suggesting any changes in opinion.

Noted UK pollster, Prof John Curtice, reckons that there is little evidence of a “significant rethink” three months on from the result with those who voted Remain still convinced that they were right and likewise for the Leavers. Very few minds have been changed, though let us see if that remains the case as the details of the Brexit deal on offer emerge during the course of the next year or so.

The problem with all this abstract discussion on a second referendum is that it takes the focus away from the very real and tangible issues with the first result: most crucially that the Hartley Brewer, Farage and others do not want to honour the clear Remain majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Instead they want to use the votes of English and Welsh people to forcibly drag Northern Ireland and Scotland out of the EU against their declared will.

This is no small issue, yet it is receiving scant attention in the UK and, sadly, here.

Voters in both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted convincingly to stay in the EU, by much bigger margins that the people across the UK voted to leave. Many of those voters in Northern Ireland hold Irish passports and are thus also EU citizens, even if the UK leaves. Can that citizenship – and the guarantees and privileges it offers – simply be snatched away from them on the say so of 50%+ of voters in the south of England?

As people like Michéal Martin and Colum Eastwood have repeatedly said over the past few weeks and months; trying to drag the North out of the EU against its will ignores the layered complexities of the Irish political process.

It is a refutation of the basic principles of the accommodation achieved in the Good Friday Agreement and that is something that concerns all of us on this island.

We should be debating and discussing this now. We should be looking at the significant consequences of Brexit for our economy, for our trade – both North/South and East/West, our education system, out health service.

We should not allow the foot dragging by the British Government on outlining its terms of exit to stop us from forcefully setting out our concerns and our alternatives. We need the speedy establishment of the all-island political/civic forum I called for here at the end of June. I know the Taoiseach and his team messed up their first attempt to get the idea up and running, but they need to go again and get it right this time.