Wednesday 21 November 2018

Still turbulence ahead, so keep your seat belt tightly fastened

It might be the end of the beginning for Brexit, but there's still plenty to negotiate, writes EU Commissioner Phil Hogan

Ireland should not undo its seatbelt. Not yet. The political agreement has still got to be translated into law — a law that’s clear, so it can be applied. There is still turbulence ahead. Stock photo: PA
Ireland should not undo its seatbelt. Not yet. The political agreement has still got to be translated into law — a law that’s clear, so it can be applied. There is still turbulence ahead. Stock photo: PA

Phil Hogan

Well, 2017 was the year that was. A year of patient behind-the-scenes diplomacy and some tough leadership centre-stage culminating in a European Union-United Kingdom divorce agreement that respects Ireland's border and the need for security.

But it was certainly a close-run thing.

For much of last year the UK was apparently unable to understand the Brexit implications for our joint land border, believing that Brexit started and ended with money. It was only when the issue landed on Prime Minister Theresa May's desk at five minutes to midnight that Ireland was able to get a proper hearing.

Dublin and Brussels were insistent. From the outset, they said the terms of the divorce would have to contain proper treatment for Ireland's border. They never wavered.

When he came to Dublin, European Council president Donald Tusk made it clear that Ireland's Government would judge what was proper treatment.

President Jean-Claude Juncker and chief negotiator Michel Barnier have been equally clear.

It was a clear sign of how much stronger we are as member states when the union is acting with us and for us.

This strength of the European Union is one of the things the United Kingdom is losing.

Even then, it took several sharp Taoiseach to prime minister conversations to drive home the truth that mishandling the border could create, or recreate, a host of problems.

Prime Minister May proved she understands what's at stake and was determined to deliver a sustainable solution that assured our mutual security.

But Ireland should not undo its seatbelt. Not yet. The political agreement has still got to be translated into law - a law that's clear, so it can be applied. There is still turbulence ahead. As the Taoiseach said, we've only reached the end of the beginning

It was a year of good fortune. Like a half-drowned dog that had just climbed out of a flooded river, the European Union gave itself a good shake. Good fortune shone on Ireland and the EU, bringing rewards for some difficult-to-enact and hard-to-accept policies.

Just a year ago the future was full of risk. A strong feeling of anti-everything threatened to sweep through successive elections, to seriously damage what the union has built.

It even looked as if it would magnify the damage of Brexit by dividing the union's member states.

The union has climbed out of the danger. Ireland is also much stronger economically. The economy is delivering more prosperity and more and better jobs. There are new ideas to make us stronger.

Another thing. Brexit did not sunder the union. And that was largely due to determined leadership by Dublin and Brussels.

Make no mistake about it. There was always a very real fear that a "divide and rule" strategy would have worked. But European unity has been remarkably strong. The union passed a difficult test and this is a source of satisfaction for all of us as we step towards the future.

But, as I say, there's still turbulence ahead. The year ended on an upbeat. The divorce has been agreed but must now be turned into law. If the hallmark of a political compromise is that people can agree, even though they still hold slightly different views, the hallmark of law is that everyone knows what it means and that it means the same to all.

There are two more hot potatoes to be handled.

The UK and the union must define the terms of the transition that will allow the United Kingdom to adjust to its new reality. In effect, this will roll potential Brexit dislocations to the early 2020s. Perhaps this potato is warm rather than hot, since everyone starts from a broad agreement.

The other potato is hotter: the UK's eventual trade relationship with the union. Issues such as food standards, financial services, passports, customs regulations and so on will set up a collision between delusions and hard facts.

Indeed, Britain's referendum set up a similar collision between dreams and reality or, if we look at things more coldly, between fibs and truth.

This might be a bitter experience for the UK. It's true the people wanted this. But they may still not grasp the full impact it will have. And the process of finding out is going to be painful. Be ready for the unexpected.

Ireland is living a story for which the ending has not yet been written. We know where we are. We know we're doing the right things. We know where we want to go. But we still can't be sure how we'll get there.

Phil Hogan is EU Commis­sioner for Agriculture and Rural Development

Sunday Independent

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