Friday 30 September 2016

Brexit vote has left us isolated in EU - we must cultivate other links, fast

Published 22/09/2016 | 02:30

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Photo: PA
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Photo: PA

European Union leaders met in the beautiful Slovakian capital of Bratislava to plan the EU's future in the turmoil of Brexit, high unemployment and an ongoing refugee crisis.

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But the cheeky Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, was not impressed and derided the get-together as a "nice cruise on the Danube".

Annoyed by the way the French and Germans took charge, as usual, Renzi slammed the event's conclusions for their lack of commitment on economic growth and immigration.

These days, it seems to be okay to slag off the EU, even if you're in it. It's now a case of 'who knows where the European project is going?' and the leadership seems to be just making it up as they go along.

But Bratislava is in Slovakia and that small country, at least, has a Plan B for how to survive within this dysfunctional arrangement and look after its own interests. Along with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Slovakia has created the Visegrad group to protect its interests in an unwieldly EU dominated by Germany and France.

The Visegrad group is opposed to (mostly German) attempts to force it to accept more migrants but it is also opposed to attempts by the UK, post-Brexit, to limit the rights of its citizens already working in Britain, of whom there are many from these particular four countries.

Isn't it time that Ireland had a similar group to look after its interests, both within the EU and beyond?. After all, the UK, our main ally, has now exited and we are suddenly exposed.

The good news is that we are in one such a group and it just met in Dublin. This is the Small Advanced Economies Initiative (SAEI) a very interesting collaboration between seven countries - Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore and Switzerland.

Only three members are in the EU. The group was set up in New Zealand, with which we share so many similarities, and it involves a "network of senior officials who confer on and share insights" in three key areas - Science and Innovation, Economic Policy and Foreign Affairs/International Issues.

This group is good news, not least because of its seemingly eclectic but actually very strategic aspect, and shows our ability to think outside the increasingly threatened (and threatening!) EU box. We simply have to stay nimble and vigilant in these threatening times. All eventualities must be prepared for - and especially the cultivation of other links. Even the idea of rejoining the Commonwealth should not be scoffed at. We need to keep the UK close to to us, politically and economically.

The reality is that we are in a scary situation now, with the EU, almost daily, coming out with pronouncements about no more favourable tax deals for corporates and a "level playing field", and basically threatening our golden goose of the 12.5pc corporate tax rate.

Meanwhile, our MEPs don't exactly help things, going either native in Brussels and parroting the Juncker line, or making populist noises about attacking globalisation - and attacking Irish investors.

It all adds up to an extremely challenging situation. We are going to really miss the UK batting away forcefully in Brussels, as we have always been used to coasting along in its slipstream. Now it's just us facing the Germans and French.

There is also the trade aspect, of course, and Northern Ireland, but also the sense that the Irish Government doesn't yet know in what direction to develop a post-Brexit strategy because we simply don't know what the British will do, or at what speed they will exit the EU. And nor do the British themselves, apparently.

So, what is our future in all of this? And how can we safeguard what are Ireland's interests and ring-fence what has absolutely given us a lifeline to economic survival and prosperity?

Only this week, we had fantastic job announcements for Cork, Galway and Limerick: most of it is US pharma-based and none of it has anything to do with Brussels. On the contrary, the EU would deny us this investment for the sake of its 'competition' policy and so-called EU unity.

But where was the EU unity when the Germans forced the Irish public to pay the unsecured bondholders in a toxic bank?

And where was the unity when the Germans recently apparently dismissed Ireland as a special case, post-Brexit, despite the clear division of our island and the always fragile Northern Ireland peace process?

And this is despite the fact that the Germans were a 'special case' when they were allowed to rush Eastern Germany into the EU in 1990 without the usual waiting period, because German re-unification was paramount and pressing. We supported the Germans on that. Are we going to get similar support? Or, more likely, are we going to be abandoned by a flailing and indecisive EU, which has just lost a man overboard and doesn't know where it is going?

"If the EU wants to pass the afternoon writing documents without any soul or any horizon, they can do it on their own," said the Italian prime minister defiantly after the EU's aimless cruise in Bratislava.

"If things go on like this, instead of the spirit of Bratislava [which Angela Merkel referred to] we will be talking about the ghost of Europe."

Stark words, but valid ones and right now Ireland needs to be urgently thinking of other vessels and other boats in which to carry us forward.

Irish Independent

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