While there is so much speculation as to what kind of Brexit deal will be agreed between the European Union and Great Britain, one thing is for sure: that Ireland will want a deal that is as close to the status quo as possible. In order to achieve that kind of deal, Ireland needs to get tough with the EU and show that they are more than just a “flyover” state when it comes to the final agreement.
Following discussions in Brussels this last week, Brexit Secretary David Davis and the European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier released a joint statement to confirm that the first round of negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will begin on the 19th of June. Currently, no formal deal has been struck between the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP) and the Conservative party with regards to forming a government in Britain. Despite this both sides seem keen to have it as business as usual, with the European Commission stating early this week it was “fully prepared and ready for the negotiations to start”. The British position has been somewhat weakened by the unsure situation with Mrs May’s governmental plans. And as each day goes by, it is beginning to look like Mrs May will not be the Prime Minister for very long. The question now is how will all this uncertainty reflect on the negotiations? Will Britain be forced to adopt a softer stance, and if so, where will that apply? Among others, there are three possible options in which they can accept a compromise – the EU bill for leaving, the agreement of citizens rights in both the EU and Britain, and the movement of people and goods between Britain and the EU. Mrs May has insisted that Britain wants to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, replace customs union membership with a new deal and leave the single market, but those demands could be under threat now that her position in Westminster is severely compromised.
All change in the negotiations
So we are at the stage where we think that the negotiations will be taking on a different path and some compromise will be in effect, and this may seem like good news. But some of the impressions I got last week seem to indicate that as far as Brussels and the EU community is concerned, in order to deter any would be leavers among its member states, one of their main goals is to make this whole operation as difficult a job for Britain as possible. Now that may seem like a pro-active plan and to those who are keen to shut down any anti-EU dissent the right thing to do, but does that plan have the best intentions of Ireland at heart, or worse: does it even consider the Irish predicament? I have my concerns about this, because from what I am hearing, our friends on the continent are not reassuring the Irish public that they are on our side.
I also attended a number of Brexit discussions over the last few weeks, all based in Ireland, and all of them included speakers from leading continental think tanks and organisations. All of the speakers gave their opinions on what Brexit means to them, their home states and what they believe the outcome will be. Surprisingly, none of them concluded that it will be a soft Brexit and none of them seemed to care if it was. The general consensus was that if Britain was prepared to put itself in this situation, then they must pay fort it. But what worries me most was that there was total disregard, or maybe even ignorance, on what the implications of a hard Brexit will be for Ireland. I think I can safely say that any form of hard Brexit will be absolutely disastrous for Ireland. The term, “hard Brexit”, is of course not clearly defined yet, but if we were to come with examples such as the end to the Good Friday Agreement, a closed, customs led border between the north and south of Ireland, customs tax on goods and services between the UK and Ireland, or something like an end to projects, such as the recent agreement between citizens of the Republic of Ireland using hospital facilitates in Northern Ireland, the result is still the same – catastrophic.
And according to a poll released this week by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the 27 countries that make up the EU without the UK fall into three groups when it comes to their attitude towards Britain’s exit: “hardcore”, “hard” and “soft”. France is at the top with 32.5 points out of a possible 40. and six other countries, all score 30 or more are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Romania and Slovakia. Note the big two up there – not looking too good for the “we are on your side Ireland” is it?
Our friends on the continent may think that this situation is actually not that important in Berlin, Rome or Paris, but it is a matter of economic and social life or death here in Ireland. I am deeply concerned that the EU is totally underestimating the bond that lies between the UK and Ireland. Call it what you like, but it is as close to family as you can get. We watch their TV, read their newspapers, eat the same type of food, and live our lives with laws that are almost identical, but above all, socially and culturally, we are very, very close. There is also the fact that there are thousands of Irish living in the UK with hundreds of thousands more claiming ancestry. All these people enjoy the everyday comforts of the current arrangement and if at the end of two years of negotiating they find that their lives have been irrevocably changed by Brussels in its bid to punish the British for their decision to leave, then the EU could have another Brexit on their hands.
If you punish Britain, you punish Ireland
Does the EU really have Ireland’s best interest in these negotiations, and if so, what are they? Will they give concessions in a bid to protect their border and ensure that it stays open? Will they allow Ireland to organise some kind of extraordinary trade agreement with the UK or will they simply say, “tow the line Dublin”! I have my doubts that they will allow any kind of special deal with Ireland and Britain, and some will say: why should they, and they may have a point. But what the other 26 members don’t understand is the uncomfortable fact that to the common citizen in Ireland, Britain is far, far more relevant than the EU. And if they feel threatened by any kind of negative actions by the EU, they may revolt in the worst way possible – a leave campaign.
An argument to that situation is the recent Red C and European Movement Ireland poll that indicated that Ireland was over 80 percent in favour of the EU membership, but I am not so convinced by that result. And while this poll seems pretty conclusive, and I may add that I am delighted with the results, this was carried out in the aftermath of a confused Brexit referendum in Britain. What also worries me is that the mood could change once the peace agreement in Northern Ireland is threatened and walls start to come up between Ireland and the UK. I say carry out that same poll at the end of the Brexit deal and see what the outcome will be.
Ireland has done its bit for the EU
Following on from the economic bomb of 2008, the British government loaned Ireland eight billion pounds almost immediately. Did they do this because they saw a close neighbour in trouble and wanted to help, or was it in aid of supporting the Irish economy so there would be no knock on effect in the UK? Probably a bit of both, but the gesture was well received here in Ireland either way and hasn’t been forgotten, especially when the EU and IMF robots rolled into Dublin and started to rearrange Irish society in order to pay a huge debt which will be over the Irish people’s necks for many decades to come. There were many commentators and people on the street who would have been far more comfortable owing that debt to London rather than Brussels or Paris – despite the long and troubled history between the two nations. And that is the crux of the issue here, because like it or not, Dublin is closer to London than Brussels and the sooner the EU negotiation team realises this, the better. Upon hearing who was going to be on the EU negotiating team it staggered me that no Irish person was included. Astonishing, considering how well we know the British and having an Irish person there would have almost been like having an inside man.
Nevertheless, it will be the job of the Irish government, Ireland’s new Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to ensure that our position is seen to be heard. In a 2011 report by the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA), it was revealed that the State could have saved more than €9 billion by imposing losses on senior debt holders at the six Irish banks, but as a condition of the EU/IMF bailout, this action was never taken. Essentially, Ireland took one for the EU team as any burning would have resulted in further destabilisation of the European economy, or so the EU say. And even though the Irish state has managed to complete an incredible turnaround and get itself on a surer economic footing, it is now threatened with Brexit and despite awful implications that this action will entail, it doesn’t seem like we are feeling the love from our other 26 partners.
I will remain optimistic and hope that some common sense will prevail on both sides, but I am convinced that at the end of this, Ireland will be poorer off than every other party involved in this mess.
And if that is the case and the signs are horribly visible to the Irish people, the deal makers in Brussels will find out very quickly that we will not be prepared to take another hit for “Team EU”.