Sunday 13 October 2019

Ireland must start working on its anti-Brexit strategy

David Cameron
David Cameron
keenan cartoon june 18 2015
Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

KNOW who David Cameron reminds me of? Bertie Ahern, that's who. It may seem an odd pairing, the Eton-educated toff and the lad from Drumcondra, but both are prone to the Scarlett O'Hara syndrome.

The flawed heroine of 'Gone with the Wind' would defer problems by saying she would think about them tomorrow - "tomorrow is another day".

The tendency served Mr Ahern well in the frustrating Northern Ireland negotiations when tomorrow often had to be another day. It served him - and the rest of us - ill when it came to the economy, where planning for tomorrow is the whole point of policy.

Without a troika to whip him on, Mr Cameron also put off a lot of the difficult decisions until this parliament. Most analysts (apart from those who think nothing need be done) would agree that this was better than full-blown austerity.

But tomorrow has arrived, and there is still much correction to be done, just when voters will be expecting better. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told startled City of London bigwigs at the Lord Mayor's Banquet that he will convene a meeting of the Committee of the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt. The last such meeting was called by William Gladstone in 1860.

Mr Osborne's idea is to make it illegal to have budget deficits when the economy is growing at a normal pace. It is certainly as well that the Conservatives have an overall majority.

However, it is for referendums that Mr Cameron qualifies for the Vivien Leigh Procrastination award. The Scottish gamble was a success - the Union survived and Scottish Labour didn't, but the final consequences are still unknown.

Tomorrow is here for the EU membership referendum, with last week's passage of the Bill to enable it to be held. Goodness knows, there has been enough talking and thinking about "Brexit", but somehow the arrival of legislation made the whole thing more real, as did the open rows between senior Tories.

That referendum deferred the problem of Tory eurosceptics and UKIP but Mr Cameron has already stumbled and he is not yet on the hard road.

He indicated that, if the Cabinet decided he had won enough concessions from the rest of the EU for the government to advocate a "Yes" vote, dissenting ministers would not be able to campaign against it. Even at this preliminary stage, that caused so much trouble that the indication had to be publicly withdrawn.

One can see already how it could all go horribly wrong, leading to "Brexit". This would be a disaster all round but it would be a particular disaster for Ireland - certainly politically and probably economically.

There was a particularly fine example of whistling past the graveyard in the headlines about a study which suggested that, over time, Ireland would gain €20bn from foreign direct investment and financial services shifting from Britain. Before that, though, the same analysis predicted a €20bn loss in output - most of which would be from Irish producers.

Irrespective of the precise outcome, a UK departure is something Ireland would dearly wish to avoid. The question is could it, or should it, do much to try to prevent it happening?

The recently-published book, 'Britain and Europe: The Endgame', from the Dublin Institute for International and European Affairs (in which I had some involvement), concluded that so many vital interests are at risk that Ireland should seek to avert Brexit, by "forceful argument, smart alliances and a multilateral strategy".

The problem has been knowing what the prime minister does want. In all probability there will be things that Ireland, and other countries, would want as well. The Irish government could then embark on the delicate task of persuading the EU as a whole to agree a package which Mr Cameron might be able to sell and which would be of general benefit.

What might such a package contain? Helpfully, the UK's "Open Europe" institute has produced a list of 30 items, along with its assessment of how difficult they would be to achieve and which might require the dreaded Treaty change - dreaded, above all, by Irish governments, but vaguely supported by Germany.

The depressing, but hardly surprising, thing about the list is how little of it has anything to do with economic efficiency and how much of it with migration - the central EU principle of free movement of people. Deep down, this is what this is all about.

Even here, there are things which might, just, be feasible. A non-national might have to find work within six months of arrival to be entitled to stay. Child benefit could be paid only for children resident in the UK. On the other hand, the idea that EU immigrants would have to be resident for four years before being eligible for some benefits and tax credits probably infringes the existing treaties.

The big economic prize for the UK is probably a new agreement on opt-outs from the controversial working time directive, which has caused such problems with junior doctors there and here, and a serious effort to complete a single market in services. This would give Mr Cameron something to sell, would have the quiet support of a lot of governments and doesn't appear to require treaty change, and the resulting Irish referendum.

It is not just about preventing Britain leaving the EU. Any deal which keeps it in is likely to include new commitments that decisions by the euro members will not impinge on the single market.

All well and good, but there is a clear danger that, quite apart from currency movements, Britain could gain competitive advantages over an increasingly integrated Eurozone. Smart alliances and a multilateral strategy will indeed be required if we are come out of this unscathed.

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