Monday 24 October 2016

If Merkel won't listen, then it may be time for Ireland to cut its own deal with the UK

Published 14/07/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny and Angela Merkel at their non-meeting of minds in Berlin on Tuesday. Photo: AP/Markus Schreiber
Enda Kenny and Angela Merkel at their non-meeting of minds in Berlin on Tuesday. Photo: AP/Markus Schreiber

So much for Enda Kenny's much-trumpeted special relationship with Angela Merkel. With friends like the German Chancellor...

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There's no sugar-coating it. Merkel's de facto dismissal of the suggestion that Ireland should be a 'special case' in the Brexit negotiations is a blow to our national interests.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Ireland's interests are always going to lag behind those of Germany, and the wider EU, in Merkel's mind.

Fair enough. That's realpolitik.

Yet even allowing for that, there was still something shocking about her attempts to draw an equivalance between Germany and Ireland's situations in the wake of the Brexit result.

Of course, the large British market is important for the German economy and the rest of the EU. But there can be no comparison with the unique impact on Ireland of the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

Is Germany or any other country talking about changing its budgetary plans in the light of the Brexit vote? Is there any other EU country that shares a land border with the UK or that is so dependent on it for trade?

Is there any country with an involvement in a peace process that risks being destabilised by what has happened? The answer to all of those questions is a resounding 'no'.

Even allowing for Merkel's political need to balance the conflicting demands of the other EU states - not least Germany's - it was hardly expecting too much for this to be recognised, at least in principle. Instead, we were told that "Ireland's voice will be heard as much as any other member state" - whoopee!

There was a reference to the 800,000 cars sold by German car manufacturers to the UK market. And that "we have the same objective, to make sure that our economies are not hard hit by the decision of the UK citizens - we want to keep the economic impact as small as possible for all of us."

Sorry, Chancellor Merkel, but our objective is just a little more pressing than everyone else's - it would be only fair for you to acknowledge that.

It was all deeply sobering and a reminder of where we stand in the pecking order. Enda Kenny put on a brave face, but he must have been disappointed about what he was hearing - in Merkel's public comments anyway.

Ireland hasn't always been an exemplary member of the EU, thumbing our noses at the warnings coming from Brussels and Frankfurt during the boom years.

There has been a lot of nonsense about us being sold down by the river by Germany, the ECB and other EU countries in relation to our banking crisis. Arguably, we took too big a hit for the rest of the EU by being forced to exclusively foot the bill for our own banks.

But we as a country made our bed with the craziness of the Celtic Tiger, so it was fair enough that we were forced to lie in it.

And it would be wrong to say that nothing was done for us after the crash. For example, the deal done on the promissory notes was a significant, and vastly underrated, concession which went against all the instincts of the Bundesbank and ECB. Equally, the notion that austerity was forced upon us is laughable. Any state with a budget deficit of €20bn has no choice but to cut its cloth accordingly.

However, notwithstanding all those caveats, we have also done our bit for the European project over the past six years. We didn't do a Greece and fight the inevitable every step of the way. We largely stuck to the plan, swallowed the tough medicine and emerged as one of the EU's few success stories of recent times.

That, surely, should cut us a little slack. Unlike 2008, this Brexit crisis is absolutely not of our making. We are being hit by circumstances absolutely beyond our control.

It is hugely troubling that as of yet no allowances are being made for that. And it raises obvious questions about what the Government's next move should be.

It's easy to talk about playing hardball and banging the table. But such tactics rarely work, particularly when you're in the minnow category, as Ireland undoubtedly is. Unless we're getting very different signals behind the scenes, it might be time to start upping the ante a little.

The EU prohibits member countries doing unilateral deals with non-members, but there may come a time when we have to push the boundaries - as we did with the promissory notes amid serious objections - and test that politically.

If Merkel is impervious to our pleas to be made a 'special case', perhaps we need to start specifically (and pointedly) seeking to make separate arrangements with the UK. In relationship lingo, it's not that we're even thinking of breaking up, we're just interested in seeing other people too.

The Common Travel Area has been in place for centuries and it is not in either Britain's or Ireland's interests for that to change. We might find an unlikely ally in that respect in the Ulster unionists, who will not want to see any barriers introduced between Britain and Northern Ireland, which could happen post-Brexit.

Such contacts with the new British government would not be made in isolation. It's vital that whatever weight we have is still brought to bear in persuading our EU allies that the UK's place is in the single market.

But if there is any suggestion of Ireland being sidelined, then, given what is at stake, we need to remind our friends in the EU of their responsibilities to us - by whatever means necessary.

Irish Independent

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