Sunday 24 September 2017

Derbhail McDonald: UK difficulty only opportunity if we are at the top table

Cruise ship the Celebrity Eclipse’s home port will be Dublin in 2018
Cruise ship the Celebrity Eclipse’s home port will be Dublin in 2018

Derbhail McDonald

The classic Sesame Street routine Near and Far performed by Grover, who runs back and forth to the point of exhaustion demonstrating the difference between them, is my favourite Sesame Street tune after Bert and Ernie's sublime Thunderstorm song.

I thought of both last week when I spoke at a corporate conference in Cascais, Portugal (I know, I get the toughest gigs) on Brexit and the future of the European Union. The conference, organised by the European arm of America's Association of Corporate Counsel, drew together more than 300 general counsel and senior executives of some of the biggest companies operating in Europe - including Royal Bank of Canada, BT, Symantec, Adobe Systems, GSK, Novartis, GE, Juniper and Discovery Communications.

While Brexit has those of us close to its epicentre in a near-permanent state of convulsion, it was interesting to the point of unsettling to witness just how low a priority Britain's decision to leave the EU is the farther away you are from it.

There I was, armed with real life tales of the disruption caused by the Border during the Troubles and the psychological - let alone customs and trade - trauma its return would induce in the event of a hard Brexit. But Ireland's priorities, including the peace process, the Border, our economic relationship with the UK and the Common Travel Area - felt very small when viewed through a different, distant prism.

Companies, especially those with talent that need to be moved at short notice, are worried about the rights of EU workers in the UK and vice versa.

The financial services industry is also scenario planned to death. Contracts and their enforceability also vexed delegates.

But the UK's decision to leave the European Union and the anti-EU rhetoric emanating from Britain is treated on the far side of the English channel with a near-universal scorn.

That distance presents Ireland with huge challenges as Monsieur Barnier et al enter into talks with Mrs May and her merry band of Brexiteers. England's difficulty will only be Ireland's opportunity if we ensure we are never far away from the top table.

 

Speaking of Michel Barnier, Europe’s lead Brexit negotiator, plaudits are due to the intrepid journalists who captured the debonair Frenchman as he crossed the Border last Friday after a brief sojourn to the wee North.

There are more than 250 separate border crossings — I know at least 50 of them off by heart — but Barnier was caught lovely, as it were, as he crossed the Border where the A37 meets the N53 at Culloville near Crossmaglen in the ever-porous citadel of South Armagh.

Barnier says the ‘Irish Border issue’ is one of his three priorities, while the EU’s Brexit negotiating guidelines call for a “flexible and creative” approach to the issue of customs.

“Can you see the Border?” asked one journalist. Monsieur Barnier replied with a diplomatic ‘non’.

“Will it stay that way?” another persisted. “I certainly hope so,” was the reply. A canny negotiator never makes promises they can’t be sure about.

Steering course to keeping up with celebrity Kusadasians

Stranded in Portugal after an epic “fuel glitch”, the prospect of sailing home to “a Celtic-themed spectacle of music and dance” was most appealing. As passengers slept on luggage carousels in Lisbon airport, the 2,850-passenger Celebrity Eclipse sailed into Dublin port with a €6m tourist boon in its mini-season (14,000 passenger) wake.

The 317m behemoth will ‘home port’ in Dublin in 2018, rivalling other sunny ports such as Kusadasi, Corfu and Lisbon.

A record 130 cruise ships will visit Dublin this summer and Celebrity Eclipse’s decision to ‘home port’ — the Holy Grail in cruiseworld — is a boost for the Celts.

But is Dublin’s chronic hotel-room shortage a veritable iceberg on the horizon?

We’d want to get a few more beds if we want to keep up with the Kusadasians.

 

Firms are still reeling from the striking down of the Safe Harbour agreement governing the transfer of data between the US and the EU, with the finger of blame routinely pointed at Ireland for its undoing.

It’s true that two (now three) of the most important international privacy cases in recent history have Ireland at their core, arising as they have from complaints against social media giant Facebook brought to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner by Austrian law student Max Schrems.

The EU US Privacy Shield (Safe Harbour’s younger sibling) is looking shaky and, if that wasn’t enough, companies have the imminent arrival of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to deal with.

But we did get an honourable mention last week when Christopher Dockery, Director of the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) said that we wouldn’t have the new “gold standard” GDPR if it wasn’t for the “shock” of the Irish ruling and whistle-blower Edward Snowden. We must be doing something right.

Jury out on Central Bank’s ‘less agile’ Brexit stance

Everyone knows the real work at overseas conferences is done on the sidelines when people are more relaxed. So I waited until formalities were over to ask a small but captive set of executives if rumours of the Central Bank giving a frosty reception to banks and others sizing up Ireland in the wake of Brexit were true.

On the record, all denied regulatory arbitrage or that certain central banks are more willing than others to lower standards to win post-Brexit spoils.

Privately, however, many said that Dame Street (now the Docklands) was overcompensating for the crash and was “less agile” than before. Only time will tell if the Dame’s stern stance is justified. We paid a high price for her “agility” in the Celtic Tiger years.

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