Brexiters, Don't Wait Up for Scarlett Johansson

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- U.K. lawmakers will finally get their chance to vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal on Jan. 15. All but a small minority want to avoid leaving without an agreement, an outcome for which Britain is wholly unprepared. But there is almost as big a consensus that May's deal is too flawed to be accepted.

So we are where we were before Christmas, only more so. The difference is that both Brexiters and the government are increasingly pinning their hopes on the appearance of a white knight – that Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the European Union will give a legal guarantee that Britain won't be indefinitely trapped inside the customs union. The idea isn't just fanciful; it's dangerous.

It's easy to see why the argument is seductive. Ireland has almost as much to lose from a no-deal Brexit as Britain. The IMF estimates that the republic’s economic growth could be reduced by 4 percent. Some 40 percent of its food and agricultural exports go to the U.K., and the government says it will demand “mega-money” from Brussels to support its farmers in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

For all the financial services and technology jobs flowing to Dublin after Brexit, that sounds like a lot to bear for a small country that endured a brutal financial crisis followed by a period of austerity. With its economy so closely tied to that of the U.K., Brexiters doubt Ireland would risk another economic calamity. So why is Varadkar touring Africa at a time like this?

He may have been hugely effective in getting the infamous backstop – the controversial guarantee that keeps the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland open by tying the U.K. into the customs union – into the Withdrawal Agreement. But Varadkar miscalculated in assuming British lawmakers would swallow it.

Instead, there has been an almighty backlash. To both Brexiters and Remainers, it represents the worst of all worlds: the loss of both sovereignty and market access. To fix this, the argument goes, Varadkar simply has to allow the U.K. a way to exit the backstop, or give it a time-limit.

There is a big difference between a belief that is false and one that is delusional. False beliefs (say, for example, that existing technology can simply solve the Irish border problem) get debunked by the evidence and die; delusional ones persist with dangerous consequences. 

The idea that Varadkar holds the key to the Brexit dilemma, if only he'd use it, falls into the second category. It was a fundamental error to assume the EU's border with Northern Ireland could be brushed aside. That ignored the importance to both Ireland and the EU of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. Crucially, it underestimated how differently the EU would treat members and soon-to-be-ex-members. 

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas reinforced the message of EU solidarity on a visit to Dublin this week, where he was quick to emphasize how his government backed the backstop too. The U.K. will see that again and again as it enters trade talks and confronts thorny issues such as access to fishing waters.

EU leaders have repeatedly said there will be no legal instrument that gives the U.K. a right to exit the backstop unilaterally or puts a time limit on it. It's not an insurance policy if it has an expiry date. They are highly unlikely to change that.

Even if Varadkar wanted to, it's difficult to see how he could now back away from the backstop. Like Theresa May, he presides over a minority government, relying on support from the opposition Fianna Fail party. Support for the backstop is strong in Ireland, and Varadkar would weaken himself considerably by backing down. 

What is perceived as Irish intransigence (even, weirdly, vengeance) has endlessly vexed Brexiters. A Tory MP quoted recently by the BBC summed up what many were thinking: “The Irish really should know their place.” Calls for Ireland to do something have only grown louder. “Ireland is blocking Theresa May's desperate plea to EU leaders to save her Brexit deal,” the Sun wrote on Tuesday. 

It's not that the existing deal couldn't or shouldn't be improved in some ways. It could hardly be made worse, and the EU has reopened negotiations in the past. But there's a catch-22: In order to win over a majority of MPs to her deal, May needs the EU to change the terms of the backstop. But to do that, the EU needs May to prove she has the support of the majority of British lawmakers. After all, why bother to open up a hard-won agreement that 27 countries are ready to endorse just to see it trounced in parliament? 

For MPs thinking they can get more, the temptation is to keep saying “no,” making it more likely that what they don't want – a no-deal exit, which is the default if parliament does nothing else – will happen. An Ipsos MORI survey published Wednesday showed that more than half of Conservative MPs think the Irish border issue is being “exaggerated as a negotiating tactic."

Varadkar has told reporters that the EU would be happy to give assurances that “we don't want to trap the U.K. into anything.” That is undoubtedly true. As the U.K. attorney general Geoffrey Cox wrote, the backstop is “by no means a comfortable resting place in law for the EU.” It's possible May will be given a finely worded letter with some assurances for her MPs. 

But those expecting some sort of fundamental change in the terms are like “mid-50s swingers waiting for Scarlett Johansson to turn up,” as Environment Secretary Michael Gove told a cabinet gathering Tuesday. An appearance from the Hollywood star in the House of Commons looks a more realistic bet than a rewrite of the backstop.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.