The Brexit dream is dying

How Ireland turned the tables on the UK

October 21, 2020
Johnson drafts a Brexit statement. Photo:  Han Yan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Johnson drafts a Brexit statement. Photo: Han Yan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

In the coming weeks, Boris Johnson will make one of his biggest decisions as Prime Minister: whether to sign up for the trade deal on offer with the EU. If we imagine that, like in 2016, he has written two articles on the subject, the one favouring a deal would foreground trade, friendship with our neighbours and the integrity of the United Kingdom. The alternative would major on the word “freedom,” acknowledging that any EU deal inevitably restricts this, and personal survival in post, the prospects of which reduce for Conservative leaders too friendly to the EU.

The Brexit dream is dying because that is the stark choice. You can’t have full freedom and close trade ties, but one or the other. It is dying because the EU currently looks more likely to hold together than the UK, because the Prime Minister’s promise of frictionless trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland can’t be squared with the treaty he signed, and because you cannot reach a trade deal with the US if you threaten a bipartisan consensus on the NI peace process.

Yet point out, as I did on social media, that the dream is dying, and you can expect to hear otherwise from the high priests of Brexit. They’ll say the UK regains freedom at the end of the year, and indeed we will no longer be directly subject to EU regulations and European Court of Justice rulings. But if we want agreements with others, that freedom can only ever be partial, because cooperation comes at a regulatory price. The UK faces a series of never-ending trade-offs, despite the 2016 promise that we would “take back control.”

Doubtless the online response would be even more vitriolic if one was to suggest the Brexit dream was dying because of Leavers’ own hubris. But if we think back to the naïve pre-referendum days, many Brexit advocates appeared perfectly happy to accept gradual changes and continued UK membership of the single market. They will state now that it was the EU’s intransigence that forced their increasingly hardline position, but that’s to cover up the failure to anticipate that Brussels would have its own terms and conditions—that we couldn’t just have what we wanted.

Instead of gradualism and building domestic consensus, Brexit has become the absolutist version. That was inevitably going to lead to division. Polling shows the majority of voters see the vote to leave the EU as a mistake, even after the failure of one of the poorest campaigns in modern political history, that for a second referendum. But more importantly, it has led to record levels of support for Scottish independence—though Nicola Sturgeon’s superior response on Covid-19 has helped—and Northern Ireland being subject to separate rules.

For the other part of the Brexit story is the sensational success of Irish diplomacy. The UK’s neighbour did not panic, and certainly didn’t think of joining in an “Irexit.” Instead it set about ensuring that the rest of the EU was aware of the issues arising for them, in the process helping the EU to find purpose at what was a tricky time, since the prospect of a member leaving had never before been taken seriously. Then they repeated the trick with the US, persuading both Democrats and Republicans that any UK action threatening the Good Friday Agreement, as interpreted by Ireland, would mean no trade deal.

On top of that was the demonstration effect of adult politics. The consensus building of Ireland’s Brexit response looked rather attractive when set against the secrecy and divisiveness under successive UK governments. Meanwhile the Irish economic position, difficult though it is to separate from Apple’s accounting decisions, is strong. If you are a similar sized country, perhaps to the north of England, you suddenly have a role model for independence, economically and politically. The EU’s financial centre of the future might turn out to be Edinburgh.

The response from the UK government to all this has been to champion ties with the countries in the new version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while the partisans push their idea of CANZUK, the alliance with Canada, New Zealand and Australia. This is their freedom, a long way from anywhere the Irish can influence. But that also makes it a long way from the UK—and a long way from meaningful. In the case of the countries concerned, sure they’re happy to see interest from the UK, but they won’t substitute that for good relations with their own neighbours.

For the Brexit partisans, purity remains an option. For the government, the prospect of the end of the UK is starting to focus minds, slowly. The potential economic hit, exacerbated if there is no deal and Nissan leaves, is daunting.

Brexit is messy, with no perfect solutions, and the likelihood is that we have years ahead of us spent balancing trade and freedom. The dream is dying, even if the dreamers haven’t yet realised it.