Sunday 22 April 2018

Europe's concern for Ireland is sincere, but solutions less clear

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier Photo: Reuters
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier Photo: Reuters

Sarah Collins

Although Brexit talks have finally started, the focus has so far been on sketching a deal on citizens' rights and the EU budget, with little clarity about solutions for the Irish Border.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar believes there is an acceptance Ireland was a "special case". Ireland's "unique circumstances" have been recognised in the EU's Brexit negotiating documents. But the challenge remains for Ireland to turn the EU's pledges of support on the Border into concrete solutions. And those pledges are sincere. They have been expressed in emotional terms by EU Brexit point man Michel Barnier, EU commissioners, prime ministers and national diplomats.

EU sources have told this newspaper about their sympathy for Ireland's plight, and expressed genuine dismay at what they see as the UK's recklessness over Brexit. Many have an intricate knowledge of Irish history and independence, and have spoken of their disbelief at the seemingly cavalier attitude of the UK government to Ireland.

However, while their intentions are good, EU countries, particularly strong trading nations in the north of Europe, are also trying to protect their own economies.

There is also "extreme sensitivity" in Brussels given the lack of a power-sharing deal in Northern Ireland, and the outcome of the British general election, with the Democratic Unionist Party still in talks to allow the Conservatives to form a minority government.

Read More: 'Chaotic' UK stands alone in Brexit talks, insists German MEP Weber

The issues are so politically sensitive they have not yet been discussed in detail by EU officials. Irish issues will instead be dealt with separately to the Brexit talks on citizens and money.

Both sides seem to believe assurances on upholding the common travel area and the Good Friday Agreement will be resolved by autumn, but borders are trickier to solve.

And Irish, as well as EU, officials are waiting for the UK to blink first before they provide solutions.

The UK needs to "take more responsibility", said one official close to the talks.

"Leaving the single market and customs union and continuing to pretend everything will be as seamless as today is an illusion," said another EU official. But officials admit it is "not yet clear what is the best solution" to deal with the Border.

The bloc is also buoyed by a new-found sense of self-assurance, with eurozone growth set to outpace the UK next year and polls showing rising support for the bloc in the wake of Brexit.

Ireland's role inside this new-look EU may have to change, as it seeks to prove its credentials as a committed European country.

Its attitude to EU spending is already evolving, with Ireland now a net contributor to the bloc's budget - paying in around €200,000 more than it got out in 2014.

It's made Irish politicians and diplomats more sensitive to how EU money is spent, putting the country more in line with the Netherlands, Denmark and other EU budget hawks, who are also long-standing Irish allies on business and tax issues. Fine Gael's Brian Hayes said Ireland may need to reconsider its opt-outs on some EU policies, such as justice and policing.

It's a call that was echoed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a summit in Brussels last week, when he said Ireland would need to work more closely with its EU allies to counter cyberattacks and terrorism, though he insisted Ireland would maintain its policy of military neutrality.

A first test of Ireland's EU standing may be whether it wins its bid to host the bloc's medicines agency post-Brexit.

Health Minister Simon Harris has been doing some serious lobbying on Ireland's behalf, but with the country pitted against at least 19 others, it promises to be a political bunfight of epic proportions.

Irish Independent

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