Wednesday 28 September 2016

Don't place your hopes in Hollande's soothing noises

Published 22/07/2016 | 02:30

Merci, François. The French president came to Dublin yesterday making all the right noises.

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In contrast to the dour realism of Angela Merkel a couple of weeks back, François Hollande told us what we desperately wanted, and needed, to hear: Ireland was entitled to "a special place" in the negotiations on the UK's departure from the EU.

The German Chancellor had played down the idea of specific guarantees around trade and the common travel area - and seemed to suggest that Ireland's relationship with the UK was little different to that of Germany or many other EU countries.

Hollande, though, graciously acknowledged that Ireland is "even more of a neighbour [to the UK] than France".

So that's good, right?

Well, yes, and certainly Enda Kenny must have been relieved that, after what happened with Merkel, one of the two key players in the EU was on message.

It certainly wouldn't have augured well if Hollande had been as coldly non-committal as Merkel was.

But there's a danger of reading too much into Monsieur Le President's benevolence, just as some of us - yes, hands up, this writer included - may have been overly despondent at what the German chancellor had to say.

The caveats surrounding Hollande's soothing noises are pretty obvious.

He is talking the talk but there are no guarantees that he will walk the walk on the issue. The French government hasn't always been our biggest ally at European level in recent years.

To be fair to Hollande, he has been very consistent on Ireland's corporation tax rate - unlike his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who consistently expressed opposition to it.

But it would be naive to ignore the realpolitik that the French President is, very understandably, currently on a charm offensive to win support for beefed-up EU security measures.

And the French government is also far more hostile to Britain's position, post-Brexit, than Chancellor Merkel is.

It would be wise to view Hollande's comments in that wider context - and, in relation to both Hollande and Merkel, in the context of the elections that are due to take place in both France and Germany next year.

Both Hollande and Merkel are facing re-election long before the actual talks on Brexit are likely to really come to a head.

So even though Merkel's seeming pooh-poohing of Ireland's special requirements was depressing, it may have been a case of political and electoral expediency.

Plus, Merkel doesn't really do charm offensives - even with Enda Kenny, who apparently she genuinely likes and respects. The pragmatist in her would prefer not to give hostages to fortune well in advance of any negotiations actually beginning.

And with elections around the corner, of course she's going to talk up the German car sector's dependence on the British market, as opposed to Ireland's needs.

The hope - and belief within Government circles - is that the Germans know the reality of Ireland's unique relationship with the UK (though it would have been nice if she had been a little more nuanced in her comments).

While the odds favour Merkel still being Chancellor after 2017, the same cannot be said of Hollande, who is struggling domestically.

You can get 7-1 on him being re-elected next May, fourth in the betting behind Alain Juppé, Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen. If that proves an accurate reflection of what'll happen, then what Hollande said the previous July in Dublin will matter little.

And that's the point about Brexit negotiations: it's the long game that the Government - or perhaps more accurately, the Irish State - needs to play. Enda Kenny almost certainly won't be Taoiseach by the time the negotiations get to the meat of the matter. It could even be Micheál Martin in situ by the time that happens.

Whoever it is, it's vital that we know exactly what we want by the time those talks begin in earnest. Not the obvious stuff - the common travel area, the absence of a hard border, etc - but the micro detail, sector by sector.

And that means getting everybody involved, all the parties, State agencies, NGOs and large corporations.

And that includes the North. Arlene Foster blew the Taoiseach's proposal for an All-Ireland forum on Brexit out of the water.

But, while it was mishandled by Kenny, Foster may yet regret her instinctive and kneejerk opposition (which undoubtedly it was) to the proposal.

There's a possibility that Brexit could result in a hard border between Northern Ireland and Britain, rather than between north and south of this island.

Certainly nobody can say for certain that won't happen. And that's the point about Brexit, nobody has a clue how it'll play out. There are far more questions than answers.

If Britain goes into recession next year, as some are predicting, could that seriously change sentiment there?

Theresa May may say now that "Brexit means Brexit". She has little choice but to. She might be saying something different in a year's time, however.

And, scary though Brexit undoubtedly is for Ireland, there are grounds for cautious optimism. The history of the EU proves that European politics is the art of the possible. The union has a habit of muddling through and finding solutions - imperfect ones, but solutions nonetheless.

So while EU law may rule out Ireland striking a bilateral deal with Britain, the best guess is some means will be found to get around that. Where there's an EU will, there's an EU way.

Irish Independent

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