Leo Varadkar Changes Gear
A Brexit Victory for Ireland’s Polls?
Thursday 17th October 2019: Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal has won the EU’s support. But, says Ray Bassett*, that depended on the Taoiseach’s changing gear. It also depended on the prime minister keeping No Deal on the table.
The Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been a loyal son of Brussels throughout the Brexit negotiations. He has been seen in Ireland and in the EU capitals as a valuable and effective ally of the Commission and in particular Jean-Claude Junker and Michel Barnier. In contrast among Brexiteers in Britain, Varadkar and his chief lieutenant Simon Coveney, have shouldered much of the blame for the intransigence and arrogance which was associated with the EU. Polls in the UK consistently showed that Varadkar was blamed by many for the long and frustrating impasse.
Varadkar and Coveney were happy to go along with that role, coupling it with a hefty dose of old-fashioned Anglophobia and initially this was enthusiastically supported by the Irish electorate. Their tough stance and determined speeches sounded good and showed up remarkably well in comparison with the shambles and indecision of the Theresa May Government. There was widespread belief in Dublin at that time that Brexit was either going to be reversed or at worst, would result in a BRINO (Brexit in Name Only). After all, the EU had been successful in either ignoring or reversing so many referenda in the past. The crushing defeats of Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons was the first wake up call.
Subsequently, the results of the local elections in England and later the European elections brought a change of leadership in London and with it, the cold realisation in Dublin that the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson was prepared to leave the EU, with or without a deal. He was determined to deliver on the result of the referendum.
The prospect of a hard border on the island of Ireland, and huge trading difficulties with Ireland’s most important economic and strategic partner, the UK, suddenly loomed large on the horizon. Ireland had done very little credible preparation for a Hard Brexit, viewing it as only a remote possibility. Several of the main ports in the Republic were years away from being ready for a No Deal. Events had taken a sudden turn for the worse.
The public mood began to change, and the opinion polls started to reflect that unease. Confidence in Varadkar’s handling of Brexit slipped down to only 40%, well below the level he had achieved a year before. His Fine Gael party, in turn, also saw its polling numbers beginning to reflect a slow and persistent slide. Heading a minority Government and with 4 tricky by-elections on the horizon, there was an urgent need to change course. It was becoming clear that the Irish Government could be an early casualty of a No Deal Brexit, something that their previous actions had helped to make more likely.
Varadkar then reversed gear and went to Cheshire for direct and productive Talks with the Prime Minister, something he and other EU leaders had persistently described as out of the question. Apart from tearing up the embargo on direct negotiations, the sacrosanct Withdrawal Agreement was suddenly open to change. After the Varadkar/Johnson meeting, there was a surge in support for the Taoiseach and his Fine Gael Party. The achievement of a Deal which avoided a hard border and allowed for a smooth Brexit would be hugely popular in the Irish Republic.
Varadkar now wants to cash in on this new and possibly temporary increase in his popularity and hold a general election. He played a constructive and supportive role in helping Johnson secure a Deal. However, without the threat of a No Deal, neither Varadkar nor the EU would have moved an inch. They would have had no incentive to do so.
*Dr Ray Bassett was a senior diplomat at Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin and has served as the country’s Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas, 2010-2016. Other diplomatic postings include Copenhagen, Canberra, Belfast (twice), London and Ottawa. He was involved in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations as part of the Irish Government Talks Team. His publications include Brexit – Options for the Irish Border (2018) and The Irish Border, Brexit and the EU – The Route to Frictionless Trade (2019).