The upcoming Brexit negotiations will be the most important negotiations that any Irish representative has been involved in since Michael Collins went to London.
There is so much at stake for Ireland. Outsourcing responsibilities to the EU, in the belief the EU will negotiate on our behalf, seems a very risky strategy. It is not clear that the interests of Ireland and the interests of the EU 27 are aligned.
There is a real risk that the EU moves to “punish” the UK and, in so doing, punishes Ireland too. And there is also a real fear that our negotiators will want to be seen as “good Europeans”, leading them to sign this country up to a deal that is damaging to Ireland.
We can understand historically why the Irish establishment might try to keep us away from London’s clutches by siding with Brussels. This is in keeping with 50 years of Irish foreign policy. However, fear of London is based on historical insecurity and we shouldn’t be insecure any more. Per head of population, we are a much richer country than the UK, but sometimes we still behave like poor cousins. We have nothing to fear.
A confident Ireland should be able to isolate our own interests (even if these put us closer to the UK position on certain matters) and articulate these to Brussels in negotiations where we have much more “skin in the game” than any other single nation.
Worryingly, recent talk of “compensatory funds” for Ireland suggests that some have already pre-ordained an outcome that will be deleterious to us.
Politically, if Brexit tells us anything, it is that when a government loses touch with the interests or attitudes of its people, it loses control.
If the deal that emerges over the next two years is good for Europe but bad for Ireland, clearly the economic impact will be such to give succour to those looking for an “Irexit”. This would not be in our national interest but could become mainstream quite quickly.
Remember that one of the electoral lessons of the past two years is that at tipping points, what was once radical becomes mainstream and what was once mainstream becomes redundant.
Maybe a way to help Ireland’s negotiators would be to politicize the process and suggest a referendum of the Irish people North and South on the terms of Brexit. This would not be a referendum on the EU. We stay in; but it is a referendum on the degree of damage a deal would have on all the Irish people. If the EU is really concerned about its citizens as the Commission’s guidelines prioritized last week, then this plebiscite would be perfectly consistent with the EU’s ideal. We could also execute this under the auspices of the Belfast Agreement.
Such a move to politicize the result would focus the minds of everyone, our politicians and bureaucrats, the people in Brussels and those in other capitals of the EU. The last thing the creaking EU wants now is another referendum on anything European!
That’s our opportunity. It could strengthen our hand.
Politics is as much about changing the way the debate is framed, than about the debate itself. The debate has already been kicked off with Brexit, now it is all about the angles.
The fact is that in these negotiations, Ireland is in a very different position to the rest of the EU, not only for economic and mercantile reasons but because of deep historical and cultural reasons.
Many Euro-enthusiasts in Ireland tend to wish away the facts and pretend that we are a core EU country, positioned at the heart of Europe, continental in all but name. This is quaint and kind of flattering in a sophisticated, multi-lingual way, but unfortunately the facts suggest otherwise.
Equally, deep in many Euro-enthusiasts lies a latent anti-British bias, which would secretly like to see manners put on those insufferable Brexiteers. Believe me, I share that sentiment every time I hear some deluded, Surrey-based, golf-club reactionary spout off. But indignation is not a strategy.
Whether we like it or not, we have to accept some facts, which put us at odds with the EU 27. We have to figure out the best way to protect Irish interests.
First off, we are very similar to the British in a way that is not the case for any other continental country. Deep culture tells us this. Even our taste buds are aligned in an odd sodden Atlantic way, whereby British and Irish diets are almost identical. The reason that forty percent of Irish food is eaten by British people isn’t just because they live beside us, but because we have the same palates.
We are beer and butter people. In contrast, southern Europeans are wine and olive oil people. People up here in the islands also share a similar love of beef and dairy because we share the same grass-based diets — a function of thousands of years living in the same grass-friendly, damp, yet warm, Gulf-stream heated, maritime climate.
Continentals don’t share our meteorological heritage and, as a consequence, have different eating habits.
As a result, the UK is still by far the biggest single trading partner we have. For indigenous industries like food, booze and tourism, the relationship is overwhelming. While other Irish exports to the UK have been falling as an overall percentage of exports, still thirty percent of all our imports come from the UK. Altogether, we do just over a billion Euros worth of trade a week with our neighbour.
These are the facts. And these have to be at the heart of the Irish negotiating position. We need free trade with Britain.
The facts on the ground don’t mean that we follow them out of the EU (as some might like), but it means that we have to box clever within the EU. And this is before we talk of the North and the Border.
There is simply too much at stake for Ireland to outsource this negotiation to a French federalist in the pay of the EU Commission.
We should be talking to the British officially and openly at the highest level, not hiding behind the EU, which is demanding that only the EU can talk to the UK. This is nonsense from an Irish perspective.
And maybe a referendum on the outcome of Brexit might embolden our politicians to do the right thing? What do you think? This is political, so let’s politicize it.