Farm Ireland

Monday 11 December 2017

Opinion: Leo's hopes the North can get a "soft Brexit" are wildly optimistic

Downing on Politics

Leo Varadkar newly elected leader of Fine Gael
Leo Varadkar newly elected leader of Fine Gael
John Downing

John Downing

Farmers more usually get up early in the morning. So, Leo Varadkar's campaign sound bite should not cause conflict between the agriculture sector and the incoming Taoiseach.

Mr Varadkar, whose mother grew up on a farm near Dungarvan, did actually cite agriculture in his policy priorities document launched just over a fortnight ago, on May 22, in the teeth of his campaign to win the big job.

Naturally, he led off with Brexit, but he also spoke of the future of EU farm payments as a new regime post 2020 looms into view, and the need to adapt Irish farming to meet climate change targets.

On Brexit he spoke of a pledge to "put the unique difficulties of the agriculture and food sector top of the agenda." He identified the need to protect Irish food exports to the UK from what is increasingly looking like "a hard Brexit" with some form of tariffs and border controls a very clear danger post 2019.

The whole thing takes on a deal of urgency with tough talk in London of storming off with "no deal - rather than a bad deal." That would mean World Trade Organisation rules and some very hefty tariffs inimical to trade and creating more fuss and expense to administer.

For the Taoiseach-designate the remedy would be an "EU-Britain Free Trade Agreement" post the divorce in April 2019. But that is all much easier said than done.

Matters might be helped by the British general election on Thursday. But that assumes a stronger majority for Prime Minister Theresa May, something which at time of writing appears to be a big assumption.

More generally, the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president and the completion of parliamentary elections in France should calm things. German elections due in September will not impact on Brexit as the two big groupings there are on the same page about the EU.

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Leo Varadkar has spoken of appealing to Theresa May to allow Northern Ireland to remain in the single market. He said he will advocate special arrangements for Northern Ireland that "respect the democratic vote" in the region and would seek to retain a number of programmes including the single market, and Common Agricultural Policy.

"The pitch to Theresa May is about what is in our common interest, I think the British authorities want to retain the common citizenship that is in place and Britain wants a free-trade agreement with the EU, and that is in our interests too," he said at his priorities launch. In summary he wants a "soft Brexit" for the North whatever happens to the rest of the UK.

But two problems immediately occur: first is that the North is clearly far from Ms May's top list of Brexit priorities. Second is that there is no power-sharing government in Belfast to look after the North's interests at this pivotal time.

That leaves Mr Varadkar, who is due to attend his first EU summit in little over a fortnight, with very limited room for manoeuvre. This summit in Brussels will be the acid test for him.

He may find more allies in Europe than in Britain. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom was optimistic speaking in Copenhagen late last month: "It's uncharted territory but I'm sure we will solve it. We will have a free trade agreement, that is for sure."

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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