In two weeks, Britain will trigger Article 50 and the clock starts ticking. The question is whether the UK and the EU can defuse the Brexit device, reaching compromise deals on everything from air travel and borders, to agriculture and banking. Or, as the clock ticks down and the stakes go up, will it culminate in a violent explosion of trade barriers, unpaid penalties and recrimination.
It is clear that Ireland’s overwhelming interest is in the former scenario. We have much more at stake than any EU country. Britain is our single biggest trading partner. Irish agriculture is overwhelmingly dependent on the UK. We sell 45pc of our agriculture — our biggest indigenous industry — to the British. These ties are the economic reflection of culture and history as much as anything else. For example, if there is no agricultural deal and there are tariffs imposed on Irish food exports to the UK, we can’t simply divert our massive sales of cheddar cheese to any other country because other countries don’t eat the stuff!
We have to do everything in our power to ensure that the settlement is amicable.
At the moment, Britain is the party in these negotiations that wants the freest possible trade and the lowest impediments to trade.
Clearly, the EU 27 would prefer a deal but the EU, as a whole, doesn’t need it. Britain does; as does Ireland.
Therefore, our position and our interests in the negotiations are actually closer to London than Brussels. Take that in, because this is the crux of the issue. This is our dilemma. We are, in terms of trade and our own Border, closer to London than to Berlin or Paris. In these negotiations, we will therefore be sitting on the opposite side of the table to the side representing our actual interests.
If trade barriers are erected, ultimately the EU — not the British — will erect these barriers. Clearly the British started this process with the Brexit vote, but it is much more likely that the bigger EU will, if it wants to punish the smaller UK, be the one that throws up barriers. The implication of this is profound for Ireland because it means that by siding with the EU 27, we are negotiating against ourselves.
But we can’t side with the British, so what do we do?
We know that any Irish government that comes back from these negotiations with nothing less that complete free trade with Britain will be kicked out at elections. The reason is simple: Irish farmers will not vote in a government that signs an agreement on behalf of Ireland, in the name of the EU, that sees 50pc tariffs being imposed on Irish agricultural exports to the UK.
And 50pc agricultural tariffs on certain foods are what the WTO rules suggest and these would be imposed in the event of no deal between the EU and the UK.
As our political class jostles for position ahead of the negotiations, maybe the best argument they can use is the electoral one. Maybe they should inform the EU Commission of the Irish electoral reality of Brexit? Quite simply, no government that allows Ireland to be damaged by toeing the EU line will survive. Unless the Government can negotiate an “opt-out” in the case of a hard Brexit, that government will not survive. And rightly so.
After all, the Irish government’s job is to represent the interests of the Irish people, not the EU. This is what sovereignty means. Any government that puts the interests of France or Germany above the interests of Ireland deserves to go.
Governments are increasingly standing up to the “one-size-fits-all” EU approach on a variety of issues. This year alone Hungary gave the EU the two fingers on immigration and built a wall to protect its interests. Poland also ruled out taking migrants at the behest of the EU. So too did Slovakia. These are examples of countries putting their national interest — or their version of it — first. We should do the same. If Hungary can do it, why can’t we?
There are no easy answers here. It’s very tricky because we are now in a profoundly different place to any other country in the EU and one size doesn’t obviously fit all.
We need a stance before these negotiations begin. We need to make Brexit political in order to strengthen the hand of our negotiators and take the power in these crucial talks away from the technocrats who tend to value the tyranny of legalistic precision over the logic of common sense.
Why not announce that Ireland will have a referendum on the terms of Brexit, two months after the deal is completed? This could be an all-Ireland referendum under the Belfast Agreement. If the Brexit terms are so severe as to imperil Irish jobs, incomes and futures, we can’t accept it and will have to renegotiate an opt-out on trade, border issues, social security, air travel and, of course, agriculture.
This wouldn’t be a plebiscite on EU membership. We remain within the EU —trade is our lifeblood. But it would be a referendum to see whether the Government has the mandate to implement the agreement, particularly if the EU deal with the UK imperils Irish economic interests in a material and disproportionate way.
Such a move to politicise the negotiations would increase our leverage right now. It would get the EU to take seriously our dilemma because the last thing the EU wants is more political problems, particularly from its star pupil. My fear is that without politicising the outcome, we will hear soothing words from the EU Commission but nothing concrete and ultimately, Irish concerns will be bulldozed by EU federalists, who are intent on punishing the pesky Brits.
Irish European federalists will say that we can’t politicise the deal and will point out to legal intricacies that prevent Ireland from looking for an opt-out or some compromise. But compromise is what you do when you don’t get agreement. In negotiations, each side rarely gets what they want but they get what they need.
By linking Brexit to real politics, we reduce the chances that we end up with an agreement that undermines our economy.
Now all this may not be necessary because there might be a clean deal, whereby the UK ends up like Norway. But what if the negotiations turn bad?
There is a real risk that the UK and EU negotiations might quickly degenerate into entrenched positions. On the EU side there will be the natural urge to “teach the British a lesson”. If I were a French federalist, that would be my base position. On the British side, having promised its people a seamless divorce, there will be the urge to walk away if the costs of the divorce become too high.
Probably the biggest problem is the timeframe. The two parties are trying to unravel 40 years of deals in two years. The British want to move quickly, the Europeans are not so pushed to get everything sorted quickly. The British want the big bang, where everything from banking to air travel, immigration and trade are sorted by 2019, whereas the EU will be more happy to tie up the limited British resources in individual deals one at a time.
Also, remember that the politicians have their own countries to run; like the Greek fiasco where sleep-deprived ministers did deals in Brussels at 5am, these negotiations will be done at the last minute and mistakes will be made.
All the while, the fact is that over 30pc of our imports come from the UK. Ireland feeds England. We have a border with them. One billion euro of trade is done every week between our two countries.
Put simply we have too much at stake. One size doesn’t fit all. We need to make this very clear, otherwise we will be negotiating against ourselves — now that hardly makes any sense at all, does it?