What part of ‘no’ doesn’t British Prime Minister Theresa May understand? Seriously, there’s only so many ways you can say it — and a host of European leaders have been saying it since Monday.
No to reopening the Brexit negotiations.
No to changing the text of the nearly 600 pages of a deal.
And no to changing the backstop.
What’s more, after the events in Westminster on Wednesday that saw rebels in her own party turn on her and she became a lame-luck leader in everything but quack, there’s only one thing the European Union (EU) can do — and that’s prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
This is a time of the year when words of the year are often defined. ‘Backstop’ is my nomination, hands down. It’s the guarantee that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom gave a year ago to EU that would keep the border between the Republic of Ireland to the south and the British-governed province of Northern Ireland open and free of customs or security checks that would interrupt the free flow of goods and trade.
And that backstop is a red line. No, it can’t be changed. No, it won’t be erased. And no, there will be no hard border if the UK wants to have any sort of meaningful trading relationship with the rest of Europe.
In The Hague over breakfast on Tuesday with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, May heard that word.
In Berlin, over lunch with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, there was the same response.
And in Brussels, from the lips of Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, there was a similar response.
But perhaps the biggest reality check came from Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, or prime minister. It wasn’t as much as a ‘no’, but more of a response that basically says: You Brits made your own Brexit bed, now go and lay in it. His exact words were not as harsh, but the message was perfectly clear.
Threat of a no-deal
“Everybody wants to avoid a ‘no-deal’ scenario, and the United Kingdom has the power to withdraw the threat of ‘no deal’ from us, from their own people and from the European Union,” Varadkar said in Dublin. “They can do it by revoking Article 50 or, if that is a step too far, they can do it by seeking an extension to Article 50 so the power is there in the United Kingdom to remove the threat of ‘no deal’.”
Varadkar’s assessment pretty much sums up how the EU27 feel about this whole thing. After 18 months of negotiations between Brussels and May; between May and her divided Cabinet; between her divided Cabinet and her utterly split party; and between her utterly split party and a parliament that’s fractured; and between a fractured parliament and a divided nation — there’s no going back on the deal.
Besides, there’s no time.
And the fact that May has 117 members of parliament who want to get rid of her sooner than later, as Wednesday night’s no confidence showed, it’s all very disheartening. As May dithered and dallied on whether to postpone the vote or not, the European Court of Justice ruled in Strasburg that the Brits had the power all on their own to revoke or amend Article 50.
But doing that would be another utter humiliation to May, on top of the humiliation she has already endured. But why do I have the feeling that before this entire Brexit debacle is finished one way or another, there are a few more utter humiliations to come, not just for May, but for her Conservatives too?
Here’s the thing about Varadkar — his government and nation are facing the negative fallout from Brexit one way or another. His government had already made contingency plans to hire 1,100 more customs staff and border force personnel to deal with the consequences of Brexit. Varadkar said more veterinary inspectors would be hired, infrastructure at Irish ports and airports would be immediately overhauled and his government was preparing to have laws to deal with the fallout. The Taoiseach also advised Irish firms to begin their no-deal preparations.
If anyone has anything to give to avoid a no-deal scenario, it’s the Irish government.
In the best-case scenario, Brexit will impact Ireland’s gross domestic product negatively by 1.7 per cent, the Irish Central Bank says. The UK accounted for 12 per cent of all Irish goods exports in 2017, although the proportion was much higher for high-employment sectors such as food and drink, while 24 per cent of all goods imports come from Britain.
With that type of economic tie-ups at risk, when Varadkar says there’s nothing new to give to May, he clearly means it.