News John Downing

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Ireland's mission is to dial down a vengeful EU in a post-Brexit world

Published 29/06/2016 | 02:30

David Cameron’s Brexit gamble has left Enda Kenny and the Irish government picking up the pieces. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
David Cameron’s Brexit gamble has left Enda Kenny and the Irish government picking up the pieces. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

'Shut the door quietly as you go."

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Those private but vitriolic words from one Brussels diplomat yesterday summed up the mood of many EU member delegations who are extremely tired of Britain's half-in/half-out attitude over 43 years.

The sour tone in European Parliament exchanges over Brexit over the past two days is emblematic of a strong view that Britain has compounded the post-referendum uncertainty by a reluctance to engage in exit talks any time soon.

For many nations, the best way of calming markets and curbing economic turmoil is to open exit talks by triggering the notorious Article 50 mechanism as soon as possible. Thereafter, some reassuring noises about working hard to overcome obstacles to a deal could help mollify fretful money dealers on international markets.

The simple reality is that British Prime Minister David Cameron, now exiting himself, had promised his EU colleagues that he would win last Thursday's referendum. Then things would be back on an even keel and work on necessary reforms everybody agrees are urgently required could begin.

The referendum result, following an ill-starred Cameron campaign, is viewed as a major act of political self-harm which has caused major damage across all the 28 EU member states. The market and currency turmoil in Britain, the EU's second largest economy, has very unpleasant echoes for all 500 million citizens in all 28 EU member states.

After the unpleasant exchanges in the European Parliament yesterday morning, there were more professional encounters at the EU leaders' summit in the Justus Lipsius building at the top of Brussels' Rue de la Loi. But the atmosphere was just as tense beneath the surface.

Many of the participants feel that the entire farrago was about the internal divisions in the British Conservative Party. The resultant fallout with major strife inside Britain's two main parties makes "Brexitland" look like it has a nightwatchman government.

Yet for all that, it is entirely the prerogative of Britain to choose when and how to trigger the exit talks under Article 50. Many of the other EU states, notably France, want it to happen as quickly as possible.

Enda Kenny took a lucky punt last Friday morning in backing Cameron's insistence that it was better to allow Britain time. The Taoiseach said it would be better to allow the Tories choose a new prime minister in October and take things from there.

Mr Kenny's luck in this was that German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the same view. Her take on things was that it would not help to act on the rebound from this unexpected referendum result and everyone would benefit from a period of reflection.

Some EU officials around this leaders' summit believe it was decidedly helpful that Mr Cameron had offered a more slimmed-down timeframe. There was some welcome for news that Mr Cameron's successor could be in place by September 9.

"I note that they're bringing that forward by a month. I think that's good," Mr Kenny told reporters on his way into the meeting.

The Taoiseach was less convincing on the prospects for some semblance of stability over the coming two months.

"It gives that stability between now and that decision being made in respect of Article 50 and allows everybody else to focus on the issues that are going to arise here. So while the economics apply globally, the politics apply regionally to individual countries," he added a little cryptically.

Ireland, of course, is the country most immediately and directly affected by the Brexit decision. It is also the one with the most at risk in framing a new UK-EU relationship in the upcoming talks. This country's situation was best summed up by new Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond in a debate on the issue in the Seanad yesterday. He warned against a "vengeful European Union" following Brexit.

Already, he said, a Polish MEP Danuta Hubner had declared, incorrectly, that English would no longer be an official language in a post-Brexit EU.

Ironically, this led to Sinn Féin MEP Liadh Ní Riada issuing a statement as Gaeilge defending the use of English in the EU.

Though Ms Ní Riada insisted this was a one-off, and did not reflect on her campaign for Irish in the EU, we were again reminded of the topsy turvy post-Brexit world.

Ireland's biggest challenge will be to help modulate and dial down that "vengeful" attitude within the EU. Irish diplomats and politicians must be engaged immediately and deeply in talks in which we must help mediate good treatment for the UK side. We must also emphasise our own specific interests which are not too difficult to understand for the other member states.

The de facto return of day-to-day partition on this island is in nobody's interest. The Taoiseach offered this pithy summation as he entered his first bout of talks on the issues.

"I'm going to make the case for Ireland's national interest here in terms of our economy, in terms of our Common Travel Area, in terms of the peace process and the border with Northern Ireland. Obviously, discussions will take place eventually with respect of the relationship between the EU and the UK. We'll be central to that and obviously we want to be party to those discussions and those negotiations," Mr Kenny said.

Ireland's and the UK's interests in this process are not entirely overlapping. We simply must take in as much spare investment and jobs displaced from Britain by the referendum outcome. But it will not help relations with the UK or the rest of the EU to appear too rapacious in pursuit of these opportunities.

It is very definitely in both Ireland's and the UK's interests to maintain trade, ideally without tariffs or other obstacles. But it is unrealistic to expect this to happen without some move by the UK on free movement of people.

"Obviously, it's a fundamental principle as you know of the European Union - free movement of people, of goods and of services and that's always been a cornerstone principle of the Union for very many years and we stand by that," was all the Taoiseach could offer on that one at this early juncture.

Given the huge emphasis on migration during the Brexit campaign, this will be a major crux. The big question here is can British Eurosceptics soften their stance and can the EU up its game on dealing effectively with migration?

Success on this is totally enmeshed with the prospects of Ireland keeping the free flow of goods and people on this island.

A long and arduous process, which has yet to even begin, now lies ahead. It is the biggest challenge ever given to the Irish diplomatic corps and the senior officials in the Department of the Taoiseach.

All the mainstream parties must make common cause.

Irish Independent

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