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Brexit, Blazing Saddles and Borderlands

Gavin Barrett, University College Dublin

Tony Blair once famously compared then British Prime Minister David Cameron’s badly miscalculated threats of the UK leaving the EU, if not given what it wanted, to a film scene from Blazing Saddles in which the sheriff successfully holds up a whole town by threatening to shoot himself unless the bemused populace meets his demands. In real life, the problem with such a negotiating technique, as Blair pointed out, is that the response may be ‘well, go ahead!’. Blair’s sage advice then seems even more apt now.

For the Brexit negotiations have been for some time in their own Blazing Saddles phase – with effective ultimatums emanating from both directions. Hence, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has continuously implicitly intimated that unless the UK Government adheres to its repeated promises of a frictionless border, matters could end in a no-deal Brexit: bad for the UK, bad for Ireland, and bringing little joy for the EU as a whole (which might well lose out on UK departure payments). Less Blazing Saddles, arguably, than Mutually Assured Destruction, since everyone bites the bullet if things go wrong, and not just the sheriff. Some would ask if Varadkar has an alternative: to be fair, he is motivated by two very serious risks posed by a hard border: those to peace, and those to now-flourishing cross-border commerce. He can also point to a done deal: December’s Joint Report backstop commitment (agreed by Theresa May) to avoid frictionless borders. Nonetheless, the self-destructive nature of what will happen if things go wrong justifies the Blazing Saddles analogy.

There is another Blazing Saddles twist, however. Because while Varadkar has been insisting on frictionless frontiers, Theresa May has insisted equally vehemently that the UK will leave both the customs union and the single market - yet still avoid any need for checks on the Northern Ireland border. For long, May preferred the options either of a ‘customs partnership’ (involving the UK collecting EU tariffs) or of a technology-reliant ‘MaxFac’ approach. (In recent weeks, May pushed partnership hard as the medium-term option). There is a touch of the snake-oil cure about both options, however. Hence former UK civil service head Lord Kerslake dismissed a partnership as domestically politically unworkable - he might have added a bureaucratic nightmare- and MaxFac as technologically impossible. Similarly, neither the EU nor Ireland (nor anyone else) really believes either ‘solution’ can produce a frictionless frontier. Theresa’s way (as Boris Johnson has effectively admitted privately) is the way of hard borders. But May has refused to do seamless borders any other way (above all in the only way in which this seems possible: by keeping the UK as a whole, or else just Northern Ireland, in the Single Market and customs union). Effectively, then, May too is threatening the disaster of a no-deal for everyone, if she doesn’t get her way. Her economically-suicidal ‘no deal better than a bad deal’ agenda persists even if it no longer dares speak its name: what May is doing may be described a Blazing Saddles approach on steroids, given the immensely damaging stakes for her country of a no-deal Brexit.

The result of all of this is a negotiating impasse. In effect, we are witnessing a high-stakes game of political chicken, with the UK on one side and Ireland and all 27 other EU member states ranged on the other. The Commission (with a keen eye for encouraging UK compromise) has notified over 60 areas in which the regulatory structure for UK single market access will collapse in the event of a no-deal. It includes everything from aviation to energy, fisheries, medicines and transport. The implication of the Commission list is that without someone giving way, the UK economy will be in deep trouble very quickly – and without the benefit of a transition period to postpone the disaster.

Theresa May, parliamentarily dependent on the DUP and on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hard-line Brexiteer ‘European Research Group’ faction (which advocates ‘calling Ireland’s bluff’ and opposes even May’s customs partnership) looks short of workable exit strategies, as she presides over a divided Cabinet. Postponing a decision - the approach, as one commentator put it, of a Macawber rather than a Machiavelli – has long been her primary approach. Recent weeks saw her suggest that the UK staying in the customs union until beyond the December 2020 cut-off date for the transition period and aligning with single market rules until one of her solutions becomes workable. This had at least the advantage of novelty (both the MaxFac and partnership ideas having already been rejected by the EU) but ultimately involved more postponement and no finality and has been given a cool reception from the EU both on that basis and on the further ground that the UK seem to be trying to expand what everyone understood to be a Northern-Ireland specific dispensation in the December settlement into a cherry-picking expedition for the UK as a whole.

Irish opposition leader Micheál Martin and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, earlier voiced suspicions that there might be an agenda in the UK’s waiting game: to force a climbdown by Ireland at the October European Council if the border then remained the only missing piece of the Article 50 agreement jigsaw. David Davises’ recent predictions of having to wait until October for agreement only fuels such suspicions. Influential backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg makes no bones whatsoever of his desire to see Ireland forced to back down

Such a UK strategy might well backfire. Ireland continues to insist on friction-free borders. And EU institutions (contrary to the expectations of some) have backed Ireland to the hilt, using language that it will be difficult to resile from. European Council President Donald Tusk recently asserted “if, in London, someone assumes that the negotiations will deal with other issues first….my response would be: Ireland first.” Commission Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, in the border town of Dundalk recently, characterised himself as the “negotiator for Ireland” and stipulated there “must not be a hard border on the island of Ireland”. Other EU states have also seemed disinclined to abandon Ireland, with, in particular, the agenda-setting Germans and French refusing to support May.

Barnier’s recent Dundalk/Derry visit, underlined the EU’s commitment to a frictionless border – and came with a pointed warning from Barnier that without any, there would be no Article 50 deal -and no transition deal either, as desperately needed as this is by the UK economy. Varadkar further cautioned the anticipated October deadline for an Article 50 agreement might be missed if “real and meaningful progress” on the border was not seen by June. More recent pronouncements are abandoning hope of any progress by the June European Council, however. All this raises the prospect of economic chaos for the UK by 29 March next.

May is in difficulty. She has no majority in either Lords or Commons to win a vote on exiting the customs union (although she could seek to solve this problem by delaying a parliamentary vote until after October). Yet any attempt by her to give Ireland and the EU what they demand (permanent UK - or at least Northern Irish - presence in the customs union or an equivalent arrangement, plus Northern Irish adherence to elements of the single market) might possibly lose hard-line Tory Brexiter support, and precipitate May’s downfall. The more customs-union friendly Labour might not win any subsequent general election, going by recent local elections.

In Blazing Saddles, the hold-up ends happily. There remains a real danger that this will not happen in this showdown. On the other hand, for all the implicit threats, May’s now seems to be scrabbling for solutions, and Varadkar is making soothing noises regarding building on the customs partnership idea. This might indicate that the looming catastrophe – for all concerned - of a no-deal Brexit is making all concerned look for excuses to reholster those side-arms they currently have pointed so threateningly at their own heads.

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