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  • Writer's picturepeter grose

The law of unintended consequences

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

The Law of Unintended Consequences, otherwise known as The Law of Be Careful What You Wish For, swung lustily into action on New Year's Day this year. The illustration above shows the front pages of Le Monde, France's best newspaper, on January 1, 2 and 3. The paper on the left is dated January 1 and 2, and was a numéro double, or double issue, which is not unusual in a holiday season. The front page on the right is for January 3.

It will not have escaped your attention that 1 January, as well as being New Year's Day, was the first day of Britain's departure from the European Union. There is not a single mention of Brexit on the front page of that day's Le Monde. You'd have to look inside to read all about it. By January 3 it had crept forward and actually made it to the front page, under the headline: After Brexit, Europe's quest is for a new energy. The story that followed declared, among other things, that Britain could no longer threaten the existence of the European Union.

I haven't spoken to a single European who actively wanted Brexit, but it's certainly true among our friends and neighbours that the disappearance of Britain from the EU has been met with something between indifference and relief. They ask if we're okay, and when we tell them yes they drop the whole subject. So much for the Brexiteers claims that the Europeans had most to lose from Brexit.

Another unpleasant undercurrent of opinion from the Brexiteers was a gloating suggestion that Europe might break up after Britain left, as the Le Monde story hinted. Far from it: the general concensus is that the 27 remaining members have never been more united. Meanwhile both Scotland and Northern Ireland are beginning to weigh up the advantages of staying in Europe (which they both voted for in the referendum) rather than stick with Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland could do it most easily: all they have to do is decide by referendum to be part of a federation with the Republic of Ireland. That would automatically take them into the EU, of which the Republic of Ireland is already a member. The Scots would have a tougher hill to climb. But don't rule them out. They have the advantage of an elected and devolved government run by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), whose principal ambition is to leave the United Kingdom. So first they'd have to vote in a referendum to leave the UK. If the SNP won the referendum, splitting with the UK, they could then apply, as an independent nation, to join the EU. If Boris Johnson's government is seen to have made a massive cock-up of Covid-19, then that will be all the SNP needs to make its case for independence.

A united Ireland has been the dream of many since Ireland was carved in two a hundred years ago this year. If Boris Johnson goes down in history as the man who united Ireland 100 years later, that will be the finest hour yet for the Law of Unintended Consequences.

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