Thursday 22 February 2018

Encouraging words in charm offensive - but the detail was lacking

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Reuters
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

Michel Barnier came to reassure - and to a large extent he can return to Brussels later today to report "mission accomplished".

He even ticked two boxes in this joint session of the Dáil and Seanad: he spoke a smidgenette of Irish and gave an almost mandatory quote from Seamus Heaney's poem about the extension of membership to the former Eastern Bloc states in 2004.

The veteran French politician turned EU chief Brexit negotiator also struck a conciliatory note directed towards London. He recalled that French people voted in a 1972 referendum on whether to extend membership to Britain, Ireland and Denmark.

His take on Brexit also now contrasted with that of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's more recent abusive take on diplomacy.

"I regret that Brexit is happening now. I would have liked to have seen the UK staying in Europe," he said simply. His reassurance was he would do his best to avoid a hard Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. He would also aim for a deal that respects the Good Friday Agreement in "all of its dimensions".

The two-time commissioner is better placed than many of his colleagues to know a bit about Ireland through his former roles as French agriculture minister and EU regional affairs commissioner.

His script at Leinster House reflected this knowledge and he tipped the hat to current Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan. It was all warm and encouraging stuff, but there was little detail about how he planned to achieve those aims. To do that he would have needed some divine inspiration - such outcomes will show only after months of brutal negotiations.

It seems fair to assume Mr Barnier does not need convincing about Ireland's urgent needs around Brexit. That of itself is not a bad start. But the outcome of these Brexit talks is far from being entirely in his gift.

Irish Independent

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