Monday, January 21, 2019

Through the Brexit Looking Glass

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
—Philip K. Dick, in the short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”

Why should you never rely on just a single news source? Because, of course, you get only one perspective, but more importantly, because it is much more entertaining to read two or more.

Here is a good example. A headline today from the UK state broadcaster (the BBC): “Brexit: May looks for way to break deadlock.” A contemporaneous excerpt from a news item from the Irish state broadcaster (which no one calls “the” RTÉ): “Mrs May is to set out her next steps to build a Commons majority for a Brexit deal amid signs she is still unwilling to give ground on her central demands.”

Both takes are technically accurate, but together they demonstrate how nuance can influence news reporting. Neither broadcaster would be known for sympathetic treatment of a Conservative prime minister, but here the BBC does at least approach the story in terms of the difficulty—if not impossiblity—for any leader to bridge the gap between the European Union and her own government. RTÉ’s reporting, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the position of the Irish government (which is understandable enough) and how Teresa May’s apparent new strategy is incompatible with it. The result is that the BBC makes the British PM look a politician in a difficult position, while RTÉ makes her look stubborn and unreasonable.

This marks something of a change. Up until now, Irish coverage of May’s efforts have uniformly portrayed her as incompetent and hapless. Perhaps this is reflexive, given Ireland and Britain’s problematic joint history and Ireland’s experiences with female Tory PMs in particular. To this day, on-air Irish journalists cannot utter the name Margaret Thatcher without a noticeable, visceral frisson wafting through the studio. Their treatment of May seems particularly odd, though, to someone like myself who considers himself an objective observer. The fact is that the prime minister’s recent ordeal of undergoing a humuliating defeat over her negotiated deal with Brussels followed by a further humiliating no-confidence vote was all in the service of trying to implement the very deal that the Irish government—and presumably most Irish people—wanted. It would have given Britain more or less the same status as Norway, which is not an EU member but which enjoys many of the same economic and trade benefits that EU members enjoy. It would have kept the UK and Ireland in a common customs union, thereby avoiding the problem of this island being divided rigidly into different customs areas. Irish politicians were cheering (if that is the right word) her on, but RTÉ just kept shaking its head and muttering, “What a sad, old duck.” Seeing a Tory politician roundly humbled seemed to take precedence over Irish economic interests.

To be fair, though, Brexit has everyone thoroughly confused. You could see it on the night of the big Brexit vote in Parliament. After May’s deal crashed and burned at Westminster, TV crews did their usual vox pop among the rabble gathered outside, and everyone—I mean, absolutely everyone—was thrilled and ecstatic. It did not matter which side of the question they fell on. Remainers were joyous because they thought this somehow meant that Brexit would not happen. Leavers were happy because they thought May’s deal, in keeping the UK entwined with the EU, defeated the whole point of Brexit. When people with totally opposing views on a question both think they have won, either one or the other or both are is out of touch with reality.

No one seems more confused than the Irish, including their media. The politicians pontificate and make pronouncements and go through all the motions of being part of the negotiations, and yet Ireland—which more than any other country beside Britain will be changed by Brexit—is a mere bystander. The negotiations are entirely between London and Brussels. You could argue that the EU is not even negotiating. It has simply issued its terms. It looks determined to see Britain thoroughly punished lest any other uppity EU member try the same thing. The one issue that might actually have been a concern for Europe, the question of the EU/UK border in Ireland, was taken off the table almost immediately by May in agreeing to the famous “backstop”—a term that has become increasingly annoying, not only because of its over-use but also for the fact that most people do not seem to know what it is. (It is meant to be a guarantee that there will be no “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the republic.) Using that border as a bargaining chip may have been distasteful, but it was really the only leverage May had going into the talks. Her situation is further complicated by the fact that her perpetually-teetering government is propped up by an anachronistic Unionist party that is hardline pro-Brexit even though it exists in a province likely to suffer the most from a hard Brexit.

This entire preposterous situation comes down to a few awkward facts to which most of the local media seem blind. One is that Ireland, which struggled for centuries to get out from under the yoke of Britain, has happily handed over its sovereignty and its key decision-making to people in Brussels. Another is that the UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner and that, in the long run, the much-larger UK will do a lot better economically on its own than Ireland will if there are a bunch of barriers thrown up between it and the UK.

This is what can happen when you base your political positions on which politicians you personally like or dislike and ignore facts that are simply too inconvenient to contemplate.