Saturday 19 August 2017

Good Friday deal was a miracle: it must be protected

EC vice-president says deal needs special attention in Brexit talks, writes Sarah Collins

Frans Timmermans: Protecting the peace process is in the EU’s 'strategic interest'. Photo: Getty Images
Frans Timmermans: Protecting the peace process is in the EU’s 'strategic interest'. Photo: Getty Images

Sarah Collins

The Good Friday Agreement is a near "miracle" that must be protected in the wake of Brexit, including border issues, according to the European Commission first vice-president.

Frans Timmermans said Ireland's interests "will need special attention" as negotiations get under way proper.

His comments will be a fillip to the Government, which has been lobbying hard to outline Ireland's unique position amid fears that we have the most to lose from Brexit.

Mr Timmermans believes that any future Brexit deal should "reflect the need for Ireland and the UK to be able to prolong their agreements".

But Mr Timmermans, who is in Dublin today on an official visit, would not commit to working for an invisible border on the island, saying the details would need to be worked out during the talks.

"If the Taoiseach and the foreign minister say that a border will cause problems, this should be something we all keep in mind when we talk about finding solutions that reflect the need to separate the UK from the EU, but also reflect the need for Ireland and the UK to be able to prolong their agreements, and for all of the EU to take its share of responsibility to maintain both the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement," he told the Irish Independent.

"What the final outcome of this is going to be, I don't know, but I just want to underline again and again that we all have a duty towards the Irish citizens, whether they are citizens of the Republic, or Irish people living on the island, to make sure that this historic achievement of peace is not put into jeopardy," Mr Timmermans, who is the commission's second-in-command, said.

"How you do that technically is something we need to look at in the negotiations, but this state of mind should be guiding our hand in the negotiations."

Mr Timmermans, a Dutchman who speaks flawless English - a skill he picked up as an adolescent while at the British school in Rome, is personally invested in safeguarding the peace process, adding that it is also in the EU's "strategic interest".

"I was born in 1961, and all through my childhood until adulthood, I was confronted with images of terrible violence in the North, and a conflict that nobody thought anybody could solve," he said.

"So I honestly believe the Good Friday Agreement is almost a miracle, and it deserves to be upheld and protected with all the political clout we can muster in Europe."

Irish politicians, officials and interest groups have been knocking on doors all over Europe to make their case for special treatment during the Brexit talks.

Read more: Gerry Adams: Hard border inevitable unless NI given special status post-Brexit

While there is a lot of sympathy for Ireland's position - particularly in small island nations with strong ties to Britain, like Malta and Cyprus - many larger countries, who have greater sway in the EU, have their own agendas.

In the Netherlands, France and Germany leaders are busy fending off populist challengers ahead of upcoming elections. Italy's government recently collapsed. Spain has its eyes on Gibraltar. Poland is focused on securing its citizens' rights in the UK.

Mr Timmermans says there is "a tremendous amount of goodwill" towards Ireland and that "its interests will need special attention".

But once the talks get under way - which will happen later in the spring, after EU leaders draw up negotiating guidelines - there are no guarantees Ireland will get a good deal.

That fear has led to speculation of an Irish EU exit, which the Taoiseach vehemently rejected in a speech last week, saying the EU was fundamental to Ireland's interests.

"I would absolutely never accept that Ireland would be sort of set apart from the rest of Europe simply because of geography or history," Mr Timmermans said.

"Ireland is absolutely not alone in this."

His boss, Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, has expressed fears the UK could divide and conquer the EU during the talks, by offering sweeteners to individual countries.

"Of course it's in the nature of diplomacy that the other side - in this case being the Brits - is going to look for the best possible deal it can get," Mr Timmermans said.

"They will approach member states, also individually.

"But that's entirely up to the 27 [other EU countries] whether they want to play this game or not. It's entirely up to them how united they want to be."

A former foreign and Europe minister, Mr Timmermans takes a philosophical view of the difficulty facing mainstream politics in the Netherlands, France and Germany ahead of elections this year.

The growth of right-wing nationalism, he says, is a reaction to people's fears about their future prosperity, and is more pronounced in richer countries that have weathered the financial crisis.

While visiting Ireland, he will meet Taoiseach Enda Kenny, whose political travails Mr Timmermans says are not unique in Europe.

"Given the nature of politics today, given the instability in the political systems in all our member states, there is not one prime minister who knows whether she or he will survive the next couple of months," he said.

"So in that sense the situation in Ireland is in line with the situation in most of our member states.

"I have no judgment about the issue at hand, but the political context in which leaders of governments have to operate is comparable in many member states.

"Just take one look at the United States to see how volatile things have become in the western world."

Irish Independent

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