Monday 19 February 2018

Barnier and Blair make us feel special but lack of goodwill means a bad Brexit

EU chief negotiator on Brexit Michel Barnier and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a conference of the European People's Party at the Druids Glen Hotel, Co Wicklow Picture: PA
EU chief negotiator on Brexit Michel Barnier and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a conference of the European People's Party at the Druids Glen Hotel, Co Wicklow Picture: PA
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan was asked what he meant when he told the BBC that Brexit was "a proper mess".

With half a chuckle he looked at the assembled media who trekked to a meeting of the European People's Party in Druid's Glen and replied: "It's a mess not of Ireland's making."

It's as far as anyone in Government has gone to calling out not just the attitude of the British government but also the majority of voters in the UK.

The minister was among friends in Wicklow and perhaps feeling a bit more ballsy having heard speakers from other EU countries.

Ireland's approach to the Brexit situation has been to try to remain friends with everybody. We're on 'Team EU' but understand the Brits.

Yet it's becoming increasing obvious that Theresa May's talk of "as close a relationship as possible" between the UK and the EU is just another of her soundbites.

She has accused the EU of trying to gang up on her. The 27 call it unity.

Over breakfast Manfred Weber, a German MEP and chair of the EPP, mused that Mrs May's now infamous 'Brexit means Brexit' phrase can be used a different way.

"Leave means leave," he said, adding that the UK can't "cherry-pick" and cling on to the bits of the EU it likes.

He suggested that London doesn't get it but in time "people will experience what Brexit means".

"We are ready to negotiate a fair way forward but we have clear red lines."

It was fighting talk that echoed some of what the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said in the Dáil this week, albeit the Frenchman used a softer tone.

Mr Barnier's speech didn't bring anything new to the debate during his two days in Ireland this week but his presence was significant.

Mr Barnier has met every EU leader but by speaking in the Dáil and taking Phil Hogan's Border tour he signalled that Ireland really is high on his agenda.

It was his way of trying to gain the trust of people like Richard Boyd Barrett, who rightly questioned why Irish people should believe EU technocrats, given Jean-Claude Trichet's threat that a "bomb would go off" in Dublin if we burned the bondholders. Mr Barnier's visit also served to heighten awareness of the Irish cause. The media-shy politician attracted journalists from 'Agence France-Presse', 'Le Soir', the 'Wall Street Journal', 'Der Spiegel', 'Politico', 'Le Monde', 'Die Welt' and the 'Financial Times', among others.

It helped that the EPP brought Tony Blair over too for a glorified photo opportunity where he initially refused to take questions from the media.

Brexit has offered Mr Blair an opportunity to re-enter the political debate. His reinvention has many parallels with Bertie Ahern's.

Both were architects of the Good Friday Agreement which has never faced a threat quite like Brexit over the past two decades. Mr Blair now believes elements of the agreement may have to be reworded to take account of Brexit.

"There's bits of the Good Friday Agreement that specifically assume that Britain and the Irish Republic are in the European Union, so there's obviously changes of language but I don't think it should mean a change of substance," he said.

Like everybody else at the EPP meeting he argued Northern Ireland should be "a special case".

"The biggest challenge is going to be a challenge for the European Union because after Brexit the border becomes the border between the UK and the European Union. If there is goodwill, and ingenuity and I don't know, the use of technology and other things, I think we can minimise disruption."

Alas the mood on both sides so far suggests goodwill is in short supply.

Irish Independent

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