WHEN THE FLAG DROPS….
Formula One drivers have a saying : “When the Flag Drops, the B.S. stops.” It’s simple. Whatever is said or promised in advance may prove difficult to deliver in actuality. President Trump has begun to discover this after the recent American Health Care Act fiasco.
Ireland, Britain and Europe face a similar High Noon – albeit a long drawn out one – after Britain triggered on 29 March the Article 50 Process for leaving the European Union. Quite how this one will pan out will not be clear for some time. But make no mistake: whatever the eventual outcome, the effects on Ireland will be considerable, and in the range fairly negative to very negative. For Ireland it’s essentially Lose-Lose across the spectrum and the aim of the government will be damage limitation. There is no good news.
In part because of our troubled historical relationship with Britain, and desire, therefore, to emphasise our separate identity, Ireland embraced Europe enthusiastically since we joined in 1973, strove to be seen as the “good European,” ditched our currency to adopt the Euro, despite major trade and investment links outside the Eurozone, and parroted the language of “Ever Closer Union.” Europe has been good to Ireland, with billions transferred over the years under the Common Agricultural Policy and through Regional and Structural funding.
This commitment to Europe took a dent during the Recession when we became Europe’s poster boy for swallowing austerity at the behest of Europe’s bankers. It has also suffered as the flow of funds has dried up, with Ireland’s growing prosperity and the accession of poorer new Member States. Brexit poses another challenge, one of a different dimension.
For Britain remains our largest trading partner by far; is a major source of inward investment; is our largest source of “foreign” tourists; is home to a massive Irish population both Irish born and second generation and is a country with which we share a common language, and many elements of a common culture. This is quite apart from the Northern Ireland dimension, where Peace has now been bedded down, albeit squabbles persisting at the political level. Arguably relations with Britain on all levels have never been closer, much of this generated since 1973, in which our common membership of the EC/EU has played a major part. All this is now threatened.
European Heads of Government are to meet in late April to agree a mandate for the exit negotiations, to be conducted by the Commission under designated Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, a former French Foreign Minister, and very much a Brussels insider. The Brexit process theoretically has two years to run but has never been tested and is further complicated by Britain being Europe’s second biggest economy. Think California quitting the U.S.A. with two years to sort everything and you get some idea of what’s involved.
The months since Britain voted to leave have featured chiefly political rhetoric and shadow boxing, including whether or not 24 months is enough. Given what’s involved two years seems too tight, certainly to tidy everything away. Perhaps the device used by Europe over the years, when deadlines loomed , of simply stopping the clock as midnight approached might be utilised again. There is too much at stake on all sides, particularly the heavy hitters, to allow a bean counting point to matter.
For Ireland the interests at stake are vital. No other Member State has anything like the comprehensive totality of our relations with Britain. Brexit, quite apart from its implications for Irish-British trade, the obvious high profile Common Travel Area between the two countries, which predates EC Accession, and the imposition of some form of border controls on the only land frontier between Britain and the EU, will involve much unravelling of and/or amending existing links and relationships. These span the many shared business, trade, investment, political and personal strands, which have been built up between the two countries before and since 1973, a period which represents virtually half of our existence as an independent state. Little or no aspect of our bilateral relations will emerge unscathed.
Current indications from Brussels are that the Commission will proceed as it does in negotiations with third countries, negotiating on behalf of all Twenty Seven on the basis of a mandate from the Council, reporting back on progress – or lack of it – regularly as necessary or as directed, normally to the Foreign Affairs Council. Whether this will be sufficient to meet Ireland’s concerns is another matter.
There is no doubt that the Commission will negotiate as best it can impartially on behalf of all, but for none of the other Twenty Six is there so much at stake. Poland may have a special interest in the welfare of its nationals in Britain but in terms of the 2004 Accession states that’s about it, and that’s just in one area among many. Their trade and investment concerns are negligible compared to Ireland’s. The situation is not much different for the rest of the pre-2004 Fifteen. Certainly Germany , France and the Netherlands have greater trading links with Britain than Ireland ( though not by much) and have significant investments and numbers of nationals living in Britain, but again that’s it – in each case those countries’ interests are proportionately considerably less significant than Ireland.
There’s a wood and tree consideration here also. The Commission will be tasked to negotiate those areas in which it has competence under the Treaties. It’s not clear when or how the vital matter of trade will be handled. Yet while the EU dimension is important, it is frankly not central to the nature of our current and historic relationship with Britain. There is none of the visceral dimension, in the broadest sense, of the relationship between Ireland and Britain. There is an obvious risk that this aspect will not be accorded due weight in the negotiations. What if the negotiations ended by securing a “deal” for the Twenty Seven in which every country made concessions, but in which Ireland ended up in considerably worse shape overall than, say, Bulgaria or Hungary. There’s also the Realpolitik aspect -that very heavy hitters like Germany and France would want to cut a deal with Britain and would be willing to make sacrifices to do so. Would Ireland, could Ireland, go along with an outcome that caused us problems but was acceptable to the other Twenty Six?
These are early days. There are no easy answers. Free trade is vital. Is it achievable? Preserving the Common Travel Area and maintaining an open Border – two of Ireland’s declared priorities – have to be squared with Britain’s wish to control immigration and the freedom of movement for EU nationals within the EU, of which we remain a member. That’s just for starters. Currently Irish politicians are preoccupied with domestic concerns including a serious crisis of public confidence in the Gardai. But that will pass. Brexit is now on us. The end April EU Summit is not far away. There are voices calling for a more proactive approach, including perhaps a separate place at the negotiating table. That or a higher profile. The issue needs to be debated at least.