Uncertainty reigns as May seeks breathing room on Brexit deal

Tuesday, 11th December, 2018 6:05pm

Uncertainty reigns as May seeks breathing room on Brexit deal

Theresa May meets Angela Merkel.jpg

Damian McCarney 
and Sean McMahon

The president of Cavan Chamber of Commerce has admitted being “very very nervous” over the ongoing Brexit tumult in the UK. 
“I've stopped going to Brexit conferences,” local businessman Eugene Greenan tells the Celt. “People keep saying you need to be Brexit ready. It's impossible to be Brexit ready when none of the politicians can reach agreement and a solution.”
Mr Greenan is the general manager of PreSonus Audio Electronics. The respected company has an international reach from its Cavan base. They do circa €1.5 million worth of business into the UK annually, shipping in products, such as headphones, from an EU based warehouse.
“As a business person I'm very very nervous at the moment because I don't know do I need to find warehousing solutions within the UK? Can I rely on my exisiting warehouse within the EU or do I look at something more radical?”
He says that the cost of warehousing in England has “gone through the roof”. Rising warehouse costs is just another repercussion of the uncertainty on Brexit. Another barometer of that uncertainty is the weakening value of Sterling – today £1 is worth €1.11.
The agreement and a solution that would give Irish businesses some degree of certainty look further away this week than ever before. Having controversially postponed a scheduled vote on her vexed proposed withdrawal agreement, in order to avoid a certain defeat in the Commons, British Prime Minister Theresa May is coming under intense pressure from within her fractured party and across the Commons chamber. The beleagured Tory leader's whistle stop tour to meet EU leaders in a bid to wrestle some concession on the Irish Backstop issue is seemingly destined to fail as Angela Merkel this afternoon rejected any notion of renegotiating the withdrawal deal. Such public rejections appear to be likely outcome of similar meetings beyond Germany's borders.

No diluting 
As local MEP Mairead McGuinness (FG), who is also the Vice President of the European Parliament, explained to The Anglo-Celt: “I chaired a debate this morning and the President of the Commission said there would be no re-negotiation. I think there is a willingness to try and assist with the process of getting the deal through the House of Commons, but there is an absolute resistence to reopening the withdrawal agreement or anyway diluting the commitments around no return to a hard border on the Island of Ireland. There will be no dilution of the backstop.”
Ms May touches down in Dublin tomorrow, where it's unlikely that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will tell her anything more than he told the Dáil today – that it's within Ms May's hands to rescind or extend Article 50, the legislation which triggered Brexit in the first place. The Fine Gael leader is unlikely to, as Ms McGuinness says, “dilute” the hard won backstop.
A reason for the “willingness” within the EU to try to assist Ms May in her hour of need is the acceptance of the difficulty in progressing an orderly Brexit: there's no obvious majority for any option within the House of Commons. 
Deputy Brendan Smith, who is Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence Committee, stressed he has strong political differences of opinion with Ms May, but he was alive to the problems facing her saying:
“It has to be accepted she's in a most difficult situation. She has a lot of people within her own party who have shown no loyalty whatsoever to her. That's a very difficult position, for a party leader and a prime minister to find themselves in when they're negotiating on behalf of their own country.”
Whilst there's sympathy for her position, there's no obvious solution without unravelling a Backstop, which is in Ireland's interest. Independent MEP Marian Harkin insists “there is no better deal” to be negotiated by the British. She speculates that they did not expect the EU to stick so vehemently with the Irish Backstop.  
“She knows, that with a Backstop, this is the best deal she can get,” says Ms  Harkin.
However, bearing in mind the perceived “willingness” from a sympathetic EU to make progress with the draft withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons, Ms Harkin speculates: “She may get new language and put it to a vote – there will be no renegotiation – there will be a fudge – there is not enough fudge to sweeten that deal, let me assure you!”
The Celt asked if Deputy Smith would he be open to a rewording of the backstop, which keeps Ireland's border frictionless, but permits May to claim some progress, to ease the pressure on her at home? He replied, only with the cast iron proviso that there could be “no material change to the Backstop as proposed,” he said.
Eugene Greenan surmised that Ms May shouldn't be afforded “any wiggle room” on tinkering with the Backstop “unless there was a direct agreement between Ireland and the UK on the free movement of goods; a deal such as that existed pre the EU,” he said. 


Sword of Damocles
However, in the absence of knowing if that's a realistic possibility at this stage, he added: “The Irish government have to try to safeguard the Irish border to make sure there is free movement [of goods and people] within the island of Ireland.”
What is certainly realistic is the sword of Damocles above Ms May's political head.
“Theresa May, no matter what way she stacks up the numbers looks like she has an impossible task to win over support,” said Eugene Greenan. 
He added: “I don't know if there's an appetite in the UK parliament for anyone to row in behind her no matter what she comes back with. 
“In my mind I think the ultimate outcome to all of this is Theresa May standing aside and probably someone else taking it on.”
There's a possibility that the 48 letters to the Tory 1922 Committee which would spark a vote of confidence in the British PM could be received in the coming days. Alternatively, May's reign might be ended if Labour table a vote of no confidence in the Government. However the British political commentariat suspect that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is reluctant to pursue that option in case his opportunism inadvertantly unites a divided Conservative Party. 
As such Deputy Smith sees Ms May sticking it out beyond the end of this most turbulent of weeks. 
“Definitely into the new year – definitely.”
Mairead McGuinness however considered the big question mark over the British PM's authority. 
“She seems to think that she can go back again to the House of Commons with some reassurances, which we have yet to see, or which have yet to be agreed,” said Ms McGuinness.

The Fine Gael politician aired the possibility that Ms May might put the entire deal to the people in the UK by way of referendum - but when would that happen? 
“The clock is ticking towards the end of March – would there have to be some extension of the Brexit date beyond the end of March, and what are the consequences of that? Rather than facing into Christmas with certainty, we facing much more uncertainty. 
“Possibly the [European] Council meeting on Thursday and Friday will provide some level of reassurance to the British Prime Minister. My worry is that it is impossible reassure all of those in the UK, whom are opposed to this deal, as they are opposed to it for very different reasons.”
That ticking clock is on Brendan Smith's mind too: “What I would fear at this particular time is that there are only slightly over three months until the 29th of March arrives and if there's not agreement on the withdrawal bill, then you're into a situation where Britain could be exiting the European Union without a deal. That would be absolutley disastrous for Ireland, Britain and the rest of EU as well.”

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