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Thursday 27 April 2017

Opinion - It will take at least five years to hammer out the Brexit deal

Downing on politics...

We can expect to finally see action when the EU-UK divorce talks actually begin in the coming months. Photo: Reuters
We can expect to finally see action when the EU-UK divorce talks actually begin in the coming months. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

This may be a metaphor for the whole 'European project'.

In the run in to Christmas, all talk elsewhere was about turkeys, geese and other species of seasonal fowl. But in Brussels it was all about fish.

In recent years they have pulled back the Ministerial meeting on the yearly allocation fishery quotas by about 10 days. That date-change avoids an ill-tempered dispute about fisheries in Christmas week.

These fisheries' battles gave rise to the maxim: "All Brussels' negotiations start with high diplomacy - and end with a row about fish."

The bottom line for Ireland is that the potential for Brexit to wreak havoc with our fisheries is pretty limitless, but that is a subject for another day.

Mr Creed and his Cabinet colleagues are by now living, eating and sleeping Brexit which, as it should be, is really the only game in town for Irish farming and agribusiness. But it remains a moving target for us as we make preparations around various potential scenarios.

Soon after St Patrick's Day we can expect to finally see action when the EU-UK divorce talks actually begin. But it risks continuing to be very noisy rather than informative.

That realisation really came home to me the other night as I caught a BBC Radio 4 interview with a man called Gus O'Donnell. Augustine Thomas O'Donnell, universally and happily known by his initials 'GO'D', was the most senior and visible British civil servant for many years, who has always been an impressive media contributor.

'GO'D' knows his British- EU internal wars. He first came to prominence as press spokesman for British Prime Minister, John Major, in the early 1990s. Back then the British Tories were tearing themselves asunder over the EU and Major was on a tightrope over negotiations on the 1992 Maastricht Treaty which brought big changes.

'GO'D' went on to work for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and eventually David Cameron before moving on to the private sector.

For British politicians who detest the EU, he is what is now derisively called a "Remoaner" - but the reality is that he is an ultra-pragmatist who leans towards Britain retaining a strong EU role.

The interesting thing is that he thinks the best that can be achieved in the de facto 18-month negotiating time-scale is a "symbolic" departure of the UK from the EU. The great bulk of detail will take a total of five years to work through and there will still be issues to be dealt with after that.

But here's the rub. 'GO'D' believes the opening of the Brexit talks late next March will be noisy and negative. There are crucial elections in the offing in Netherlands, France, Germany, and very probably Italy, in 2017. There will be much need by mainstream politicians to thump the table and talk of "punishing Britain".

But once those elections are done there may be more "give and take". A certain business-like pragmatism will hopefully then kick in.

In a happy clue about Irish interests - on the need to avoid borders and tariffs between Ireland and Britain - 'GO'D' believes British civil servants will seek the best possible deal. "And the best possible deal will often be the status quo," he summed up.

Now that may only be wishful thinking in London and Dublin. But let's hope such thinking takes root in Brussels and the other EU capitals.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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