Saturday 24 March 2018

Analysis: The wait may be almost over, but is Ireland ready to handle Brexit?

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan Photo: Gerry Mooney
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan Photo: Gerry Mooney
John Downing

John Downing

All signs are that the Brexit phoney war is at last over. Now we are going to find out how good our Irish negotiators really are.

As late as the start of the year, there were expressions of doubt among some Brussels diplomats about the level of engagement Dublin had with the EU. Some people feared Enda Kenny, his ministers and senior officials, were putting too much emphasis on the Dublin-London axis.

Even novice lobbyists in "EU land" know the original draft of the UK-EU separation agreement will be written by the chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier. Once a first draft emerges, it can take some very serious work to change what "the moving hand has written" in the first instance. The early phases of these negotiations risk being noisy and negative. Assuming they go ahead this week, they will be in the teeth of an election in the Netherlands where the far-right anti-EU leader Geert Wilders and his so-called Party of Freedom have a huge media presence.

More significantly, they play out against the French presidential elections which go ahead later next month and in early May. Then there are the German federal elections in September. None of this bodes well for the EU kingpins finding it easy to accommodate British demands. Ireland's aims are certainly better identified than those of Britain.

We need to keep identity and customs checks off the Border. We need to ensure tariff-free trade with our biggest partner can continue. We need to maintain the common Ireland-UK travel area.

These look 'mission impossible' when you consider British insistence that they will leave not just the EU, but the border-free single market and the customs union. How we avoid a so-called "hard Border", when the British stance means a de facto land frontier between the EU and UK jurisdictions, is hard to fathom.

We must talk about commercial and trade woes and how these will disrupt the very foundations of the Irish economy. The statistics are well known by now and pretty stark, with €1.4bn worth of trade going between the two islands each week.

But other member states have huge issues in that department. Germany sells huge volumes of cars, France and Spain also have huge volumes of trade with Britain. Clearly, we can only make headway on the "trade story" by coat-tailing the bigger member states' interests. To do that we have to know specifically what the other key players' needs are and figure our how we can inveigle our way in there.

In fairness, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has been on the circuit since shortly after the British voters delivered their verdict on June 23. He and his senior diplomats have plans to intensify their contacts.

The future of the fragile Northern Ireland peace process is potentially a unique trump card. The EU is heavily invested in under-pinning the peace with 25 years of special grants.

Things have been further complicated by the declaration of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to run a second Scottish independence referendum round about the conclusion of the Brexit talks.

This will not help stability in the North. The outcome of this second Scottish vote, recalling that the initial one was lost 55pc to 45pc in 2014, will be closely linked to the perceived outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

Scotland's UK exit would pose serious questions for the North, where 56pc of people voted 'Remain' last June.

We are very definitely headed into uncharted waters from this week on.

Irish Independent

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