OPINION: You'd be forgiven if your eyes were starting to glaze over reading yet another Brexit headline, but we seem to be getting to the sharp end of things now.
That’s the view of commentator Fintan O’Toole who visited NZ recently on a brief speaking tour.
He told Rural News that if Britain leaves the EU it will shape the economy and future of that country for decades, with many severe economic impacts on ordinary people. Despite months of talks, there is still no prospect of a deal and there is a risk Britain will crash out of the EU without one.
O’Toole says British Prime Minister Theresa May should try to negotiate the best deal possible with the EU and then put this to all the people in the UK by referendum.
“Remember this is a 100-year decision, not a one-day wonder or an election. I think the British people deserve the right to know what they are getting into,” he says.
“If, in the end, they chose to leave the EU knowing exactly what it is – that’s their right. But they have the right to think about it again and hold a second referendum. Far from being undemocratic, it would actually be the only democratic way to solve this thing.”
O’Toole describes Brexit as a “lazy fantasy”, “politically reckless”, “stupid” and always prone to failure. He says while Theresa May is not an impressive person or leader, he doesn’t believe anyone else in the Tory Party could do a better job.
O’Toole believes at the core of the problem is a resurgence of English nationalism somewhat akin to ‘Trumpism’ in the US. He accuses leading Brexiteers, such as Boris Johnson, of 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.”
O’Toole claims that some of the supporters of Brexit have moved the headquarters of their own business operations to Ireland because they can see the problems looming in Britain.
People are aware of what happened to NZ when Britain joined the Common Market, as it was then known in 1973, O’Toole says.
He says they remember how NZ was suddenly abandoned and how things moved against us.
“Reminders from history show you can’t make assumptions about what your markets are and how they are going to continue in future.”
The Brexit prospect dismays and distresses O’Toole. He says he’s very fond of England and the English and that relations between the two countries are the best they have been for centuries.
“I just hope that somehow common sense prevails,” he says.
Irish issue stumbling block
Fintan O’Toole says Brexiteers don’t understand or care about the major fundamental stumbling block to Britain doing an exit deal with the EU – the Irish border.
He says no one can or will come up with a practical solution to the problem because there is no solution. Recently Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, described Theresa May’s latest proposal on the border issue as an “invitation to fraud”.
“The pro-Brexit people don’t care and never thought about the Irish border, which is a very soft porous border,” O’Toole told Rural News. “The facts are that in the whole of the 27 nations in the EU there are just 137 crossing points between the various countries. There are 208 ‘official’ ones between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and hundreds more unofficial crossing points. Brexit would not just be going back to the way it used to be, but would be turning it into something it never was before -- a major international frontier -- and actually you can’t do it.”
O’Toole says Ireland will suffer hugely under Brexit. Already the mushroom industry in Ireland has gone bust and farmers there are being badly hit because of the fall in the value of the British pound. He says while everyone thinks that the Irish economy has gone high-tech and multinational, like NZ, it is still based on farming.
“It’s still founded on the beef and dairy industry and all the spin-offs from that in terms of high quality food. The main market for the small-medium Irish food companies is and always has been the UK,” he explains.
“It’s the geography, the history, its natural and 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 famous Irish drink Baileys Irish Cream crosses the border five times in the course of its manufacture.”
O’Toole says the Irish border is unpoliceable. He says during the ‘Troubles’, 10,000 British troops, helicopters and watchtowers could not control the steady flow of goods and people crossing the border.