“On a knife-edge,” is how NZ’s former high commissioner to London, Sir Lockwood Smith, describes the British government’s EU exit plans.
Fintan O’Toole, an Irish Times columnist and winner of awards for writing on Brexit, visited New Zealand last week on a brief speaking tour.
He told the Irish Business Network in Auckland that with no substantive progress being made in the UK’s negotiations with the EU, a no-deal exit by Britain is on the cards.
He described Brexit as a “lazy fantasy, politically reckless and stupid” and always susceptible to failure. But though Theresa May is not an impressive person or leader, says O’Toole, he doesn’t believe anyone else in the Tory Party could do a better job.
At the core of the problem is a resurgence of “English nationalism” akin to ‘Trumpism’ in the US, he said, accusing leading Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson as playing games with the English people.
“They are trying to create and capture a strange kind of English identity, but they are not rational. They really think it’s worth closing down the British car industry, closing down the aerospace industry with the loss of 65,000 jobs, having a food crisis -- all those sorts of things. They think it’s worth it and that’s the ideological reason,” he said.
O’Toole claims that some supporters of Brexit have cynically moved the headquarters of their own business operations to Ireland because they can see the problems looming in Britain.
He says the fundamental stumbling block to Britain doing an exit deal with the EU is its inability to come up with a practical, politically acceptable solution to the insoluble problem of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
May has tried to get a deal, but the latest response from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator is that her plan to avoid a hard border is an “invitation to fraud”.
“The pro-Brexit people don’t care and never thought about it.
The Irish border is soft and porous, O’Toole says. The 27 nations of the EU have just 137 crossing points between their countries. Yet there are 208 ‘official’ crossing points between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic (in the south) and 100s more unofficial crossing points.
O’Toole says Ireland will suffer hugely under Brexit. Already the mushroom industry in Ireland has gone bust and farmers are being badly hit because of the fall in the value of the British pound. And although people may think the Irish economy has gone high-tech and multinational, like NZ’s it still depends on land-based industry, chiefly farming.
“It’s still very much founded on the beef and dairy industry and all the spin-offs from those in high quality food. The main market for small-medium Irish food companies is and always has been the UK. That’s the geography and the history. They are going to take a real hammering.
“Nowadays a lot of the agricultural industries are cross-border. Most of the milk produced in Northern Ireland is processed in the south and they then export it to the north.”
The NZ connection
Fintan O’Toole says while NZ is not top of the agenda in Ireland regarding Brexit, people are aware of what happened to NZ when Britain joined the EEC (Common Market) in 1973. They remember how NZ was suddenly abandoned and how things moved against us.
“This is a reminder from history that you can’t make assumptions about what your markets are and how they will continue in the future.”
The prospect of Brexit dismays and distresses O’Toole. He is fond of England and the English and says relations between the two countries are the best they have been for centuries. The visit of Queen Elizabeth in 2011 was a high point in building the relationship, he says.