Friday 24 November 2017

Sutherland warns Brexit would be 'act of insanity'

The former EU Commissioner fears the unravelling of European integration if Britain leaves

Dearbhail McDonald Group Business Editor

There's only one form of retirement that Peter Sutherland can think of. But as death has a certain air of finality about it, the 70-year-old - one of Ireland's best-known internationalists - prefers not to contemplate retirement at all.

In the past seven days, the former Attorney General, European Commissioner, Director General of the World Trade Organisation, ex-chairman of oil giant BP and Goldman Sachs International - amongst many other accolades - has visited refugee reception centres in Sicily and Greece.

The United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration, who is also the President of the International Catholic Migration Commission, also spent time in Copenhagen and Brussels, before flying home to speak at a conference in Dublin's Aviva Stadium last Thursday on the thorny issue of a Brexit.

We bump into each other on Friday morning and agree to meet for a chat the following day, in which time Sutherland has packed in a half-day of filming for a television programme and a wedding.

Yet when I visited his Donnybrook home yesterday morning, 'Sud's' energy levels showed no signs of the depletion that might affect someone half his age with such a schedule.

"I'm up to my gills in travel and dealing with the migration issue," says the recent convert to Twitter, who was staggered, when he posed for a recent selfie with Brian O'Driscoll, to learn that the former Ireland rugby star has almost 700,000 followers.

"The pace of life is going up, not slowing down," says Sutherland, himself a former rugby prop forward. "I'm extremely busy and I love it."

It has always been thus for Sutherland, who says his public life has always been more important than his private life.

I wonder.

Surrounded by a stunning collection of Spanish 17th-century art, his favourite portrait in his living room is a small, framed, black and white photo of his Spanish wife Maruja on their wedding day.

"Didn't I do well," the grandfather of 10 beams with pride as we turn to what he describes as the "inconceivable and dreadful" prospect of Britain losing its influence and the benefit of up to 50 international trade agreements in the event of a bitter and protracted exit from the European Union.

Sutherland, a lifelong Europhile and unflinching disciple of the European integration process, believes that Ireland needs to set aside any fears of stepping on sovereign toes and immerse itself fully in the Brexit debate.

"The more we intervene, the better," says Sutherland who is disgusted by what he describes as the "toxic" and biased debate conducted by the UK's "lurid" tabloid press, one of which described Sutherland in less than flattering terms as "the globe's grandee".

"Everyone else is intervening. Obama is intervening, the President of Japan is intervening. Every independent voice in the world is saying it would be an act of insanity to leave the EU.

"We should do it. The Irish should not hold back and should give voice to their very strong reservations.

"And anyone who suggests that Little Ireland should shut up? I know what I would say to them in reply."

Sutherland's post-Brexit predictions are more catastrophic than most.

But the first Director General of the WTO, who was involved in the early stages of the epic Uruguay Round - the largest trade negotiation of its kind - knows more than most of the potential difficulties Ireland may face should its closest trading partner have to renegotiate its relationship with the EU.

Sutherland says it is inevitable that any negotiations between the UK and the EU will be tough in the event of a Brexit - and they must be.

"If the EU were to allow those outside to simply be part of an internal market but not part of the EU, the union would simply collapse," says Sutherland, who believes that the European integration process will survive a Brexit.

"The price of its failure would be so disastrous, it won't be allowed to happen," he adds.

Sutherland thinks Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his new Government should hit the road in the UK with a strong 'Remain' message, especially for the 500,000 Irish in Britain who are eligible to vote on June 23.

It's a message whose tone should be sympathetic, rather than belligerent, he explains, one that expresses concerns for Britain's interests, as well as our own.

But Sutherland is adamant that Ireland's desire to help its neighbour, and to retain a favourable position with it in the event of a Brexit, should not come at any price.

"Our bottom line has to be that we will be helpful, if we can, to Britain but not at the price of jettisoning any of the principles that are fundamental to the European Union."

I ask Sutherland, who says migration is the defining challenge of our age - and, increasingly, his life's work - what is his greatest fear?

How bad could a Brexit really be?

He draws a long breath and slowly exhales as he contemplates his answer.

Sutherland, who has been in remission from throat cancer for several years, says his biggest fear is that the cumulative effect of the Brexit debate will be the loosening of the bonds of the European integration process.

It is a concept for which he accepts the European Union has failed to secure support in recent years as the financial crisis deepened and the migration crisis escalated.

But it is integration, in all its forms, that drives Sutherland on.

"My life's work all stems from a single stream of belief in integrating people, in the dignity and quality of the human person. That's what's drives me, that's why I love what I'm doing. I can't even think about retirement."

Sunday Independent

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