Wednesday 28 September 2016

Oddly enough, our EU 'friends' don't think about us that much

Published 25/07/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny (left), Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire (right) and Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones at an emergency meeting of the British Irish Council in Cardiff Photo: Ben Birchall/PA
Enda Kenny (left), Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire (right) and Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones at an emergency meeting of the British Irish Council in Cardiff Photo: Ben Birchall/PA

Over a decade spent reporting from Brussels, I was periodically asked: "What do they think of us over there in Europe?" The real answer - very little and very seldom - would have been a conversation-killing social gaffe. Professionally, it would not have helped keep the door open and the lighting on a rather pleasant and interesting job.

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But it was true, for all of that. Social Protection Minister and maybe future Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, hit the nail on the head a few days ago when he said senior ministers from other EU member states were not aware Ireland is remaining in the European Union. Some appeared to assume we would follow Britain in the wake of the referendum on June 23 last.

He had found this out at an informal ministers' meeting in Bratislava a few days previously. The meeting was part of Slovakia's first ever handling of the six-month EU rotating chairmanship, or presidency.

"Europe's a big place now. There are 28 members and we're a small country. There's a big diplomatic offensive under way now to first of all reassure everyone in politics, in business and everything else that Ireland made its decision a long time ago," Mr Varadkar said.

The minister said he believes Ireland made its commitment to the EU by joining the euro currency when Britain opted out. In fact, we have been slowly diverging from Britain in terms of commitment since shortly after joining in January 1973.

Two-and-a-half years after joining, Britain held a referendum on its membership in June 1975. At that stage, British Labour was more conflicted about the 'European project' than the Conservatives, who had led the country into the then EEC under Ted Heath.

There were various other staging posts, such as the establishment of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, or currency valuation grid, in 1979, which saw us break the link with Sterling and veer further towards our mainland European neighbours.

Varadkar is right, that the signing up for the Maastricht Treaty in December 1990, when Britain did not, was a signal date and declaration of intent.

The EU treaty, made in the beautiful city in the southern Netherlands, mapped out the creation of the EU single currency.

We continued that route and, since the euro launched on international money markets in 1997, becoming a physical reality in 1999, there has been no going back.

The Brexit result on June 23 reminded us also how we were still pulled in the opposite direction. The preponderance of trade with Britain means we still want them in the European single market to obviate customs issues. The realities of a Common Travel Area between the two islands since the 1920s, and the existence of the Border, which is now set to become an international frontier between the European Union and the non-EU United Kingdom, poses big problems for the Republic of Ireland. Varadkar's discovery - that members of the political elite in some of the 26 other capitals did not know Ireland wanted to stay with the EU - sums up the scale of the challenge ahead.

We must not feel even remotely miffed about the poor level of knowledge about Ireland, even if it comes after our fans got an award from the Mayor of Paris for being a more benign class of tipsy football support at the close of Euro 2016. At its heart, the European Union is a process for managing the member states' common interests and also dealing with conflict. It is not a 'love Ireland' project.

Look at things another way. Ask yourself, when was the last time you thought: I wonder what the Finns or the Danes think of that one?

I mention Finland and Denmark because they are of similar population and also struggle to make their voices heard.

The reality is that we are only at the start of a rather grinding process. So far, our arguments that we have more at stake regarding Britain's EU exit terms, and how a new UK-EU relationship might work, have been given a mixed reception.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been reluctant to publicly concede Ireland's special position. French President Francois Hollande was warm and unequivocal in acknowledging Irish concerns on a welcome visit to Dublin last Thursday.

Over the long haul, neither position may make much difference in practice as many further steps need to be taken. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan and all the others have big roles to play.

Tomorrow, Kenny is in London for his first face-to-face meeting with the new British Prime Minister, Theresa May. May was a reluctant Remain supporter and now she must negotiate something which maximises the UK's access to the EU single market - while gaining more control over migration to Britain from EU member states. That is going to be a very difficult thing to achieve.

Last Friday, the British-Irish Council met in special session in Cardiff to discuss Brexit. It includes all the jurisdictions in the Common Travel Area: the Dublin and London governments, the devolved Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland administrations, along with Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, which are not in the EU. All want to keep free movement with each other. It emerged that any Brexit deal negotiated with the EU must also be ratified in the Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast assemblies.

Irish Independent

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