A grown-up offers the UK some advice

by Bruce Clark | 23.08.2017

In the discussions about how to limit the harm that Brexit will do to the island of Ireland, Leo Varadkar is emerging as a most skilled participant. The Irish republic’s newish taoiseach is playing his cards with a deft mixture of restraint and firmness.

Varadkar used a visit to a crossing between Canada and the US on Tuesday as an elegant way to make one important point: a border can be managed with the latest in high technology to reduce delays and red tape, but that doesn’t make it disappear. “Make no mistake, it’s a hard border,” the taoiseach declared. “There are armed guards, dogs, flags and checkpoints.” It was a neat rebuttal of some British rhetoric which holds that the inter-Irish border, post-Brexit, can easily be made frictionless and unintrusive thanks to modern gadgetry.

In a position paper released last week, the UK proposed exempting small businesses on either side of the border from customs processes and streamlining clearance for “trusted traders” – or Authorised Economic Operators in the jargon. Canada also has a trusted importers scheme, but Varadkar said clearing customs was still a costly, complex operation: “It was a very interesting visit but it certainly left me in little doubt that the US-Canada model would not be desirable on the island of Ireland.”

The EU27 will certainly need convincing on a number of questions raised but not answered by the UK paper. Who would check product standards to ensure they meet EU norms? What checks will be made to deter smuggling? If the inter-Irish border is indeed “invisible”, how could EU citizens be prevented from crossing it and working in the UK? Would the UK proposal for regulatory equivalence on agri-food be acceptable to Brussels? (And if so, how could the UK negotiate with the US to import hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken, both banned by the EU)?

On arrival in Canada, Varadkar used an interview with Bloomberg to challenge the British government’s general negotiating position over Brexit as “not realistic”, clearly implying that the UK sought to eat the entire Euro-cake while preserving every crumb perfectly intact.

Pronouncing  himself “confused and puzzled”, he asked rhetorically: “What trade agreement does the UK want with the EU? At the moment, they have the best trade deal imaginable. What are these better deals the UK really wants from Europe and other countries? Some more clarity would be helpful.”

He is not, of course, the slightest bit puzzled; as he and his advisers suspect, it is rather the British government which is confused, given that some of its members see great benefits in quitting all trade arrangements with Europe and seeking deals elsewhere, while others are seized of the great dangers of that course of action.

But, as any skilled manager knows, to declare “I am confused” is a subtle way of telling someone “you are confused”.

Adept as he is at wielding the rapier, Varadkar has also shown commendable self-restraint at moments when he must have been tempted to score populist points.

To many observers, it seemed that the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party committed an act of possibly terminal self-harm when they successfully urged most of their supporters to vote for Brexit.  In the medium term, any hardening of the inter-Irish border, and the manifest damage that would do, must surely make partition less tenable.

But Varadkar has purposely avoided making that point. He has said clearly that he does not favour an early Northern Irish referendum on the territory’s status. Nor is he particularly calling for a “special status” for Northern Ireland post-Brexit, something that is widely regarded as a half-way house to unification of the island.

On the contrary, he insists that it would be far better if the UK as a whole maintained as close as possible a relationship with the EU (or at a minimum with Ireland). That would take the sting out of questions relating to the inter-Irish border or the possibility of special regimes for the north.

Varadkar’s position might be summed like this: the British must be encouraged to come to their senses, and so must the Ulster unionists. He will use his rhetorical skills and occasionally sharp tongue to encourage that prospect, but he won’t apply crude pressure. If only the other players in the game were as grown-up as that.

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley

    One Response to “A grown-up offers the UK some advice”

    • Full marks to Mr Veradkar ! Are there any politicians at Westminster ( or wishing to become one-David Miliband ? ) of similar intelligence ?