December 2017 may well prove a “watershed moment”, for Ireland, for Britain and for Europe. The hyperbole may in this case be justified. We shall see. The issue was Britain quitting the European Union –Brexit; the event was the December European Council meeting; the result was agreement to proceed with substantive negotiations on future EU-British trade and other relations. For Ireland, the country with most to lose from Brexit (apart from Britain!), the outcome was positive and reassuring, but there remains much to play for.
Up to now Brexit has appeared slightly surreal. Yes it was to happen, in 2019, the outcome of a narrowly won plebiscite on a flawed and inadequate question and after a campaign of disinformation and misinformation on the one hand and ineptness on the other. The losing Prime Minister walked away and his successor has shown weakness and crass political misjudgement, arguably digging an even deeper hole for her country than that produced by the referendum result. All this compounded by the antics of her Cabinet colleagues who have thus far minimised or distorted the very difficult nature of the process of disentanglement and extraction from forty years of regulatory integration, while also misrepresenting post-Brexit Britain’s future prospects.
Now there can be no doubt. Britain is on the way out. Much remains to be negotiated but a significant milestone on the path to no return has been rounded. As I write it appears that every party has got some of what they wanted. In Ireland’s case, critically, Britain has been faced down over the Border post-Brexit. For Britain, the decision by the European Council that the Brexit negotiations can proceed to future trade arrangements, something seen as the Brexit Holy Grail and fundamental by gung-ho Brexiteers, and, in the real world, something welcomed by the increasingly nervous British captains of commerce and industry. For the EU relief that there is now the potential for an orderly exit and future relationship by and with Europe’s second largest economy and avoidance of a British crash-out.
For Taoiseach Leo Varadkar events came thick and fast. One of those small hurdles which can bring a government down suddenly cropped up during November when the Maurice McCabe Garda Whistle-blower affair surfaced again. The McCabe affair has already claimed several notable scalps, including a former Minister for Justice, Garda Commissioners and top civil servants. This time it added another – that of Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who took one for the team, resigning with protestations of innocence to head off the Government’s collapse. Her Secretary General also left abruptly. An overhaul of the Justice Department is pending, while the problems besetting the Gardai continue.
For a while an early election seemed on the cards as relations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail deteriorated sharply. The sour aftertaste left has led most observers to expect an early general election. This at a time when the negotiations over the Border post-Brexit demanded maximum Government attention.
Relations between Ireland and Britain took a nose dive in the run up to the December European Council. The British goal was simple – to achieve EU agreement that negotiations could proceed to future trade relationships between the two entities. Three conditions were necessary: agreement on the size of the “Divorce Settlement” to be paid by Britain upon departure, satisfactory arrangements to protect the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and agreement on the Border arrangements in Ireland. The first two were a shoe-in, despite some initial bluster from the Brexiteers. Britain agreed to pay roughly €50 billion over a period and also gave guarantees regarding EU residents. Which left the tricky issue of the Irish Border.
The Border and all it represented has long been the running sore in relations between the communities in Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. With the advent of peace the situation changed. The security apparatus was dismantled and, with the introduction of the European Single Market and the Customs Union, border posts and barriers disappeared. This “soft border” between the two parts of Ireland has been one of the elements central to the success of the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process. Its importance has been acknowledged by all parties, not least by the EU which has strongly supported peace in Ireland.
However, with Britain due to leave the EU after March 2019, the Border will become effectively the external frontier of the EU and of Britain, with all that that implies. Ireland, with the support of the EU, has stressed from the outset the importance of maintaining the Common Travel Area between the two jurisdictions and the open border with free movement between North and South. In the negotiations to date over Brexit a satisfactory outcome over this was one of the EU’s three preconditions for Britain to satisfy. And from early on Britain has stressed it wants a “soft Border” to remain.
In practice however this involves squaring a particularly difficult circle. The soft Border is predicated on membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, both of which Britain is to leave. This exit is not set in stone – it was a commitment by Teresa May at a Party Conference – but so much rhetoric has been expended in support of leaving that a change here seems currently off the radar.
In the run up to the Brussels’ Council the British side huffed and puffed and stated repeatedly they wanted a soft border, without, however, going into specifics. The Taoiseach made clear that it was a national interest for Ireland and that we would hold our position and that moreover the problem was not of Ireland’s making. As Britain gave way on money and citizens’ rights the pressure on Ireland increased. The British tabloids joined in, excoriating Leo Varadkar as only they could. British politicians and commentators on TV expressed outrage that Ireland would/could/might hold up Brexit’s Manifest Destiny. Yet our EU partners held firm in support for the Irish position.
Something had to give, and it did. On December 4 May blinked and a form of words acceptable to Ireland was signalled. Then an immediate hitch. The DUP, who are keeping May in power, demurred at any arrangement that would mean some form of regime applying in the North different to the rest of the UK. May backed off.
The stalemate lasted for several days. Ireland and Brussels remained firm. May eventually agreed to further changes. Then another hitch. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, described the agreement as not legally binding but merely a declaration of intent. In the uproar that followed Davis hurriedly backed down and the assurances ultimately given enabled the European Council to declare sufficient progress had been made to proceed.
Which is where we are at. But without a definitive answer as to how the circle will eventually be squared. Negotiations will commence shortly on the length of the transition period after Brexit, with two years being currently envisaged. Will Britain move on remaining in the Customs Union or the Single Market? Will the current British government survive? How quickly will there be progress on trade? Will Brexit eventually come to naught with another referendum? What else can/ will happen?