Given the harm that Ireland is about to suffer from the EU's insistence on the Brexit "backstop," one would imagine that Irish PM Leo Varadkar's would be the first friendly ear that UK PM Theresa May would find among European leaders. Instead, he has vetoed any reformulation of the "backstop," insisting that "the deal could not be unpicked." Pictured: May hosts Varadkar in London on June 19, 2017. (Photo by Philip Toscano - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
As the resumption of the Brexit debate looms in the House of Commons, it is reported that the European Commission is haughtily retaining its refusal to consider any revision to the Withdrawal Agreement (WA); this attitude is also backed by the numerous leaders of European Union countries whom UK PM Theresa May has contacted. Those leaders assume that, like most of them themselves, the UK will eventually grovel before the Commission and accept its dictate.
The European leaders are too young, perhaps, to remember that most of their countries would have become German dominions and satellites if the UK had not refused to grovel to Hitler in July 1940 after the Fall of France, fighting on alone in Europe and North Africa. As Germany discovered later that its misjudgment of the UK would end with the devastation of Germany, today the UK is preparing resolutely for a no-deal Brexit that will cost it dearly, but the EU more dearly.
For one thing, the European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, Günther Oettinger, warned on December 27 in an interview with the Westfälische Rundschau that EU members will have to pay up if the UK saves itself the estimated €42 billion that it would owe the EU according to the provisions of the WA. Merely in 2019, Germany itself would have to pay about half a billion euros extra ("ein mittlerer dreistelliger Millionenbetrag"). As for himself, he is planning to leave the European Commission for the private sector in the spring, that is, about the time when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU (March 29).
The source of the trouble (if anyone still does not know) lies in one part of the WA, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, the so-called "backstop." It provides for a "temporary" customs union between the UK and the EU in the case that negotiations between the two parties on the Future Relationship have not finished by the end of 2020 (the date specified in the WA). The purpose of the "backstop" is allegedly to guarantee a fundamental interest of the Irish Republic: that there should not be a "hard border" between it and Northern Ireland, when the latter leaves the EU along with the rest of the UK.
What rightly infuriates over 100 Conservative MPs, as well as the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (which gives the government a narrow majority in the Commons), is that the wording of the Protocol denies the UK a unilateral right to terminate the application of the Protocol, so the "temporary" may become permanent. Their objections were confirmed and made irrefutable when France's President Macron impudently announced that he will use the Protocol to keep the UK imprisoned in the customs union until French boats get the right to fish in UK waters after Brexit. Since the EU refuses to address the issue by amending the Protocol, those MPs remain adamant that they will vote against the WA, even if it leads to a no-deal Brexit in which the EU and UK switch overnight to trading on World Trade Organization terms and tariffs.
As we pointed out previously (see the details there), this whole kerfuffle is ridiculous on two accounts. First, because the Protocol could indeed easily and simply be amended so as to eliminate the problem (our previous article spelled out the exact words needed and where to put them). Second, by claiming that the Protocol must remain unchanged for the sake of Ireland and by thus provoking a no-deal Brexit, the EU will push Ireland into the very situation that the Protocol is supposed to prevent.
The EU is engaged in a self-harming exercise that will harm all its member countries. Germany will suffer greatly because of its massive involvement in UK industry, especially the automotive industry. Even Jean-Claude Juncker, the current President of the European Commission, will have to pay more for his favorite Glenfarclas single-malt Scotch (the curious can Google it).
Yet the biggest victim of a no-deal Brexit will be Ireland itself, far more than the UK or other EU countries. A "hard border" with Northern Ireland can hardly be avoided. Second, 80% of Ireland's road traffic to the other 26 countries remaining in the EU passes via Britain and the English Channel ports, so it will be disrupted both entering and leaving the UK. Third, the EU has announced that from March 30 UK airlines will be able to fly only from the UK to the EU, but not between EU airports. But, conversely, Ireland's Ryanair (the second largest flight operation in Europe) will be able to fly from the UK only to Ireland and back, thus Ryanair's far more lucrative flights from the UK to the rest of the world will end. (It will give much Schadenfreude to all the Ryanair customers whose complaints fill web pages like this one.) And those are just a few examples.
Since December 19, the Irish government has a 137-page Contingency Action Plan for a no-deal Brexit. Now, in an interview with the Irish Independent on January 2, Irish Agriculture Minister Michael Creed has said that -- far from coughing up its share of the missing €42 billion -- Ireland will demand grant aid when EU agriculture ministers are due to meet in Luxembourg days after the Brexit date. "You're looking at hundreds of millions here. Between the beef industry and the fishing industry we're talking mega-money."
As reported by the newspaper:
"Mr Creed said the UK market currently takes 50pc of Irish beef amounting to 280,000 tonnes per year, it takes 80,000 tonnes of cheddar cheese, and one-third of the fish in value terms caught by Irish boats comes from UK waters."
Mr Creed added that "At the moment Irish farmers are losing their shirts on beef netting €3.80 per kilo" but "A hard Brexit would make that look like a teddy bears' picnic."
Many readers may know that an Irish joke is a statement made in all seriousness, but with an absurdity of which the speaker is wholly unconscious. A classic example is that if you are lost in Ireland and ask a passer-by how to reach some destination, you get the answer: "Well, if I wanted to go there, I wouldn't start from here."
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is only a second-generation Irish citizen, but he has evidently -- if unconsciously -- mastered the art of the Irish joke. Indeed, Varadkar has made an Irish joke out of Ireland by his own opposition to changing the "backstop." Given the harm that Ireland is about to suffer from the EU's insistence on the "backstop," one would imagine that his would be the first friendly ear that Theresa May would find among European leaders. Instead, he has vetoed any reformulation of the "backstop," insisting that "the deal could not be unpicked," and is hastily preparing up to 45 pieces of crisis legislation in the hope of softening the blow. To claim that an easily removable obstacle that will gravely harm Ireland provides essential protection to Ireland may not be the funniest joke in Irish history, but it is a good candidate for becoming the most expensive one.
Malcolm Lowe is a Welsh scholar specialized in Greek Philosophy, the New Testament and Christian-Jewish Relations.