A return to the European Union will be grim, but there are no good options

A second referendum will itself be a bleak development, because it will cause great resentment among the people who voted Leave, and it might in any event produce an equally divided result
A second referendum will itself be a bleak development, because it will cause great resentment among the people who voted Leave, and it might in any event produce an equally divided result

On a BBC Talkback radio discussion this week, various options were examined as to the possible way forward in the current Brexit crisis.

As one of the contributors to this discussion, I was asked how I would vote in another referendum if the choices were a return to EU, Theresa May’s agreement or no deal.

It is not an easy question, because none of the answers are at all palatable. My choice, of return to the EU, went down badly with people who expected me to give a more unionist, eurosceptic answer.

Some people think the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement will give Northern Ireland the best of both worlds, EU and UK, but they tend to be the same people who scoff when politicians like Boris Johnson want to “have their cake and eat it”.

I am wary of the idea NI would get the best of both and instead fear it will detach us from the UK.

Other unionists might hope another Withdrawal Agreement will emerge, but the chances of the EU agreeing anything notably different between now and March are slim.

A second referendum will itself be a bleak development, because it will cause great resentment among the people who voted Leave, and it might in any event produce an equally divided result: indeed more so, if the voters are given multiple options — which I believe they must be if there is another poll.

I think that there are strong arguments in favour of no deal, given how the EU has behaved.

The backstop probably creates a permanent Irish Sea border, and should not have been agreed by the UK last year. The notion that an EU “assurance” that it will probably not be used has value is laughable, and it is disturbing if MPs or businesses would take comfort from such.

The very fact that the EU has to agree to our departure from the backstop, and the fact that the backstop is the default position, puts them in the driving seat in trade talks, because they will know that if a trade deal is not to their liking we will ultimately fall into the backstop, and will only come out of it if — again– a deal is to their liking.

As for no deal, economists of international repute including Graham Gudgin of Cambridge University, Ashoka Mody, formerly of the IMF, and the American Paul Krugman have questioned whether it will be as disruptive as we are told.

The problem is psychological.

If the UK had voted 70% for Brexit, and if all four home nations had done so and London too, then we are a rich, powerful and dynamic enough nation to withstand years of disruption. However, there was nothing like that level of support for Brexit, and there will not be.

No deal will trigger an emotional crisis, even if no economic one.

It will lead to an immediate vote of no confidence in the government, and enough Tory moderates will support it to ensure a general election. After that, anything could happen, most likely starting with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister and a new Scots independence poll.

Nationalists across Ireland will be furious. Some readers will say ‘so what?’, but if so they might not have been paying attention to British governments in recent decades.

Almost never will London even whisper criticism of nationalists.

The Tories are supposedly “in hock” to the DUP. What nonsense.

On the contrary, a Tory government won’t even properly stand up to the IRA on legacy, as it and its influential apologists depict the British state as having been brutal during the Troubles, so as subtly to exonerate the long terror campaign which the UK saw off so patiently.

So it was no surprise to me that the government folded to Dublin.

In the face of no deal, it will do likewise, perhaps rushing through a bilateral temporary deal that is perhaps worse than the backstop.

As it happens, I think there was a Brexit that might have been the beginning of a new Europe.

It is a variation on the ‘Norway model’: that the old European Economic Community (EEC) be revived to replace the European Economic Area, which houses Norway and other nations. And that a smaller European Union (EU) become synonymous with the eurozone.

It would mean we stay in the vast single market but are free to trade, thus a customs Irish land border (but no land border for goods regulations). It might, just might, have been feasible if the UK had been confident about its goal from the start and promised the world’s softest international customs border.

But Britain has conceded too much to go back to that now.

Returning to the EU will be grim, but I see no good options now.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry: Weather reading stations like Armagh have improved our knowledge of the world