EU sees our unique circumstances but the 'Irish question must be dealt with early in the talks'
Charlie Flanagan tells Kevin Doyle he is 'encouraged' by the special status for Ireland ahead of Brexit
As a lawyer, Charlie Flanagan has had to deal with divorces and knows there's "no such thing as an easy one".
It's in that context that he looks at the "complex and time-consuming" Brexit negotiations with a sense of concern but also ambition for new relationships.
As one of 27 countries remaining in the European Union, Ireland won't get everything it wants from the break-up, but the Foreign Affairs Minister is sure about which party will come off worst.
"There are no circumstances where the EU will tolerate a situation where a member of the EU is more disadvantaged than somebody who is leaving the EU. There has to be a determinant for somebody who is leaving," he said.
The statement is his way of saying that Ireland is firmly on the side of the EU 27 - even if the UK has been our closest ally since we both joined the European Economic Community in 1973.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, Mr Flanagan gave the greatest insight yet into the Government's preparations for the Brexit negotiations.
The minister stated:
- Ireland will not be looking for changes to the EU's draft negotiation document on April 29;
- He hopes Denmark and the Netherlands will be key allies after the UK exit;
- The 'Irish question' should be among the first dealt with during the two-year negotiations.
Since the referendum last June, Mr Flanagan has held more than 75 meetings with EU colleagues, including the foreign ministers of every EU country.
He cites this, and the "success" of Taoiseach Enda Kenny's ongoing tour of Europe, as the reasons Ireland's "unique circumstances" are recognised in the EU's draft negotiating paper.
"It doesn't talk about circumstances or special circumstances, it spoke about the unique circumstances, which is precisely the wording myself, Enda Kenny and others have been using," Mr Flanagan said.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told the Dáil last week the Government should seek to strengthen the references to Ireland in the document.
In particular he wants "a general statement expressing solidarity and supporting the principle that the EU will both in the negotiations and in its other actions seek to prevent countries from being damaged disproportionately".
But Mr Flanagan said he was "encouraged" by the EU's response to date and the additional acknowledgement from the UK government that an open Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic must be retained.
"I recognise that there is a desire and a wish on the part of EU colleagues to recognise fully the Irish circumstances in the context of Brexit. There's no question of any complacency or resting on laurels," Mr Flanagan said.
He accepts Ireland is on the verge of losing its key ally in the EU, but said efforts were under way to strengthen other links.
"There will be a reconfiguring of European alliances. I would look to our relationship with the Dutch and Danes in particular.
"I think we have seen in the past number of years something of a shift in the EU towards the east; we need to intensify our relations with countries towards the west," he said.
Mr Kenny will travel to The Hague on Friday for a mini-summit with Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmusse and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
"Yes, we will undoubtedly miss the UK from many engagements but we have over the years enjoyed very warm and positive relations with many EU countries," Mr Flanagan said.
A key demand from the Taoiseach in the Brexit talks is that the 'Irish question' will be dealt early in the process.
"It's likely these negotiations will start in June. We already know that the three issues to be decided very early on will be the situation with the cheque (to settle the UK's liabilities to the Union), rights of EU citizens in the UK and similarly and corresponding UK citizens in the EU," Mr Flanagan said.
"And then what I would describe as the 'Irish question'. I would hope that would be dealt with early on and the common ground that seems to be there from early statements [can be built on]."
He added that the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier had indicated he would look to Ireland for "solutions" to threats posed to Ireland's trading links, the common travel area and the Good Friday Agreement.
"There will be a situation where Europe will look to Britain and Ireland for guidance," Mr Flanagan said.
"That's where we will need to find common ground with the UK on the common travel area, the peace process and the insuring of an open Border. We will now be looking at solutions to these issues. But we will not be a proxy for the British. We have made it perfectly clear that our interests are on Team EU."