Ray Bassett, the former Irish ambassador to Canada and senior diplomat for more than 30 years, has written an extremely important article in today’s Sunday Business Post (see here). He is worried about the stance that our government, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs, is taking regarding Brexit. You should be worried too.
It appears that the Irish government has decided that there is no special relationship with Britain, and that our attitude to Britain and Brexit will be subservient to the EU’s attitude.
The idea that there is no special relationship is not only patently false (I’m writing this from Belfast, for God’s sake!), such a cavalier attitude to our nearest neighbour is extremely dangerous economically, verging on the financially treacherous.
To equate Ireland’s position with respect to Brexit to that of France or Germany or, worse still, to the likes of Hungary is insane. There are 500,000 Irish citizens living in England. We have a land border with Britain and a bilateral international treaty, the Good Friday Agreement, with London.
We are umbilically attached to Britain in our two most labour-intensive industries, agriculture and tourism, where the British are by far our biggest clients. One-third of our imports come from Britain. The Dublin/London air corridor is the busiest route in Europe and one of the busiest in the world. In fact, the Irish airline Ryanair is the biggest airline in Britain, carrying far more British people every year than British Airways.
It is plain to see that Irish relations with Britain cannot be outsourced to someone like Michel Barnier, the EU’s negotiator on Brexit. There is simply too much at stake for us to allow that. And it behoves the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach to stand up for Irish interests which are profoundly and asymmetrically affected by Brexit.
Why would a noted French federalist such as Barnier make an exception for Ireland in the EU negotiations with the EU? If the EU decides to punish Britain for its decision to leave the EU by imposing what is termed a hard Brexit, what part of Ireland’s national interest is served by going along with that? I can’t see how we would be remotely enriched by a federalist solution.
If the EU decides to teach the British a lesson, do we cheerlead from the side like pliant idiots – to be patted on the head by Brussels – or do we argue that this goes against our national interest?
Once your own government begins to act against the interest of your own economy, you have to ask questions. It’s not enough to say we have pooled our sovereignty and there’s nothing we can do. This means that we sleepwalk into a potential trade war with Britain where Ireland can only be damaged immeasurably.
What if being a good European means being bad Irishmen and women?
The omens are not good. The government’s stance that there can be no negotiations with Britain before Article 50 is triggered does not make sense for Ireland. It may make sense for a federalist French politician, but for Irish people, it makes no sense – unless our critical faculties are now subservient to the shibboleth of being ‘Good Europeans’.
What if being a good European means being bad Irishmen and women? If so, what is the point of the entire exercise?
Before you think this is a Eurosceptic article, let’s just stop and clarify a few things. I think the EU has been good for us and can continue to be so. We have also been good for them. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
For example, when the EU agreed to let the accession countries of Eastern Europe and French federalist politicians spoke loftily about a New Europe that the EU was forging, did you know that France threw up travel barriers and visa requirements for workers from those countries intending to travel and work in France?
Rhetoric is clearly cheap. Only three countries actually did the European thing and allowed east Europeans to come, work and live immediately, no questions asked. Those countries were Ireland, Britain and Sweden.
Allowing people to travel is real integration, not sloganeering.
I worry about the man who is negotiating for us: Monsieur Barnier. He has form. For example, in 2006, when he was an EU Commissioner, he wrote a report for the EU parliament that advocated scrapping countries’ consulates in other countries.
Under his federalist vision, the Irish consulate in Spain would be scrapped – so that if an Irish lad got a battering from the Guardia Civil, for example, there would be no Irish consulate to listen to his case and help him out. He also advocated in this report to close down all (Irish and other) consulates in non-EU countries and replace these with one EU consulate.
This is deep federalism, so much so that I noticed reading these reports that the word “country” is never mentioned. Countries are never referred to as countries, but as “member states”. It appears that even the mention of the word country by the EU Commission undermines the long-term federalist project.
This column has argued for some time now that we stay in the EU, but draw the line at the present EU. We shouldn’t embrace any further integrationist stuff nor sign up to any further federalist projects. This means doing precisely the opposite of the Brits. Rather than following the British out of the EU, we should vow never to leave it. The EU can’t kick us out. There is no mechanism. We should simply opt out of Mr Barnier’s plans. This means we have full access to the EU, but we don’t need nor want to go any further – not because of some cultural aversion, but because it’s not in our interest.
The way the EU reacts to Article 50 will be a sign of things to come. Next up will be the consolidated corporation tax threat. Ireland’s economic emissaries should assess what is in our interest and act accordingly.
Right now, the British need friends. It’s their hour of need. They are isolated. We should be their friend in the EU, not because we are weak but because we are strong. The strong, self-confident country behaves generously.
There is simply too much at stake for Ireland to allow our relations with Britain to be negotiated by a French federalist whose instincts will be to teach the rest a lesson by making it as difficult as possible for Britain.
It is in our interest to have as soft a Brexit as possible with as little dislocation as possible. This might be impossible to achieve, but we have to try.
We can’t wash our hands of Britain