McGuinness: Brexit is a complete black hole right now

MEP Mairead McGuinness
MEP Mairead McGuinness

Sarah Collins

If 2016 subverted many of the things we take for granted - the predictability of elections, the endurance of pop icons, our safety from terror attacks - 2017 could prove even more uncertain.

Populist parties are gaining ground ahead of elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands, while the spectre of Brexit negotiations is clouding the future of the EU.

"It's a complete black hole at the moment," says Mairead McGuinness, MEP for the midlands-northwest constituency.

"We have no idea where this is heading because we're not even sure what the United Kingdom will put on the table and I think at this point, and with respect to them, I'm not sure that they know."

Ms McGuinness, a former agricultural reporter who was elected to the European Parliament in 2004, says it's important for Ireland not to ask for special favours during the Brexit talks. "I think if you go to the table banging about your own issues as being separate from being EU issues, we will fail," she said in an interview with the Farming Independent.

"I think we will only succeed where we have colleagues from France or Spain or Germany talking about the Irish issues as part of the European list that needs to be tackled."

The EU's Brexit negotiators - Frenchman Michel Barnier is leading the talks on behalf of the European Commission, while MEP and former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt will get a seat at the table for the Parliament - have made clear that the peace process in Northern Ireland must not be derailed by Brexit.

But, she wonders, is it realistic to assume there will be no border in the event of a "hard" Brexit, where the UK restricts EU migration and falls out of the customs union.

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"It is very difficult to see how that can continue," she says of the current border arrangements.

EU negotiators are less clear about whether they have concerns over the massive impact Brexit could have on trade between Ireland and the UK.

There is currently no willingness to set aside money within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to help farmers or other producers affected by Brexit.


There are already massive demands on the EU budget given the ongoing migration crisis and continued terrorist attacks, and it is unclear whether the UK will agree to pay its bill for leaving the EU, which it has been estimated could run to €60bn.

"There would be no great political inclination to do things now within the CAP to specifically look at Brexit," Ms McGuinness says.

"Every time you decide to do something in the CAP to assist a sector, there's no new money coming in, so you're really using what's in the pot, and the pot is not bottomless."

McGuinness regroups after divisive contest

This year will also be an interesting one on a personal level for Mairead McGuiness.

She was recently beaten in the race to win her political group's nomination to be the new president of the European Parliament - by Italian MEP and former commissioner Antonio Tajani.

"I have no bruises from this campaign, I have gained hugely from it," she says. But, she admits, she was at a disadvantage once Mr Tajani entered the race, which he did at the 11th hour.

"I think it is difficult for smaller member states to break through the ranks," she says, looking back on a contest she says has proved very divisive.

"I had support across the house because groups had told me they would support me, so I'm really going to be watching very carefully the political atmosphere," she says.

Her political group, the centre-right European People's Party, had been promised the top job after agreeing in 2014 to let socialist Martin Schulz run the show.

Uncharted waters

But his party colleague, Italy's Gianni Pitella, binned the deal when he threw his hat in the ring last month. Now, for the first time in Parliament's history, every political group has named their own candidate.

"I think we're into very uncharted waters in terms of elections in this house in January, and none of us can know the outcome," Ms McGuinness says.

She hopes to stay a vice-president of the Parliament when the election takes place later this month, and has pledged to push ahead with her work on the agriculture and environment committees.

"You can get caught up in this rat trap of people pushing for power and influence and forget what's important. And I don't forget what's important."

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