Sunday 26 May 2019

Brexit tactics could be Leo's greatest gamble

The Government's position of playing extreme hardball on Brexit comes with costs, and needs far greater scrutiny

Prone to miscalculation: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar leaving RTE after appearing on the Marian Finucane show yesterday Photo: Fergal Phillips
Prone to miscalculation: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar leaving RTE after appearing on the Marian Finucane show yesterday Photo: Fergal Phillips
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Ireland's strategic objective in the Brexit fiasco is to keep Britain as tightly locked into the European economic and legal order as possible. This is a vital national interest. Achieving it was always going to be one of the greatest foreign policy challenges this State has ever faced. It was made so much harder last January when Theresa May, the British prime minister, chose to interpret the Brexit referendum as a vote to leave the EU's customs union and single market.

There are three reasons that Ireland wants to keep Britain as integrated into the European order as possible. First, and most broadly, small countries mitigate the effects of their relative powerlessness vis-a-vis bigger countries when rules-based arrangements form the basis of relations. For small countries, multilateralism trumps bilateralism. The EU is the world's most effective multilateral entity. While it is not perfect by any means, it gives small countries more influence than they otherwise would have and levels the playing field with bigger countries. The history of Ireland-Britain relations before and after joining the EU shows this.

Second, Ireland's economic relationship with the UK, though much diminished in relative terms, remains enormous in absolute terms. Irish exports to the UK, for instance, are greater than the UK's exports to all 27 members of the EU when measured against their respective GDPs. The more new trade barriers that are put in place between Ireland and the UK, the greater the damage will be to prosperity. As such, it is perfectly legitimate for Ireland to seek to persuade, cajole and, where possible, force Theresa May to change her interpretation of Britain's Brexit referendum.

Third, Ireland and Britain's membership of the EU, which has become increasingly integrated since both countries joined at the same time in 1973, did much to render the border on this island frictionless. For the UK to leave the EU and its market integration mechanisms will mean the return of a visible and almost universally unwanted border.

So far in the Brexit negotiations, the Government's detailed focus has been on the third issue. Last Thursday, the Tanaiste and foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney went as far as to tell BBC Northern Ireland "we will not allow a physical border on the island of Ireland".

This stance has been taken because the Irish Government believes its leverage is greater now than it will be in the second phase of exit talks. But taking this position comes with costs and very significant risks. These costs and risks have been largely ignored in discourse mainly, it seems, because of a soft nationalistic sense of rallying against "the old enemy" - nothing unifies public and political opinion in the Republic more effectively than brickbats from across the Irish Sea.

But we should not to be concerned about British tabloid rantings and a small minority of Englanders who harbour anti-Irish prejudices - I lived and worked in Britain for a decade and hardly ever encountered anything resembling prejudice. We should certainly not seek to be offended by the fact that most Britons know very little about Ireland; most Irish people know very little about one of our most immediate neighbours - Iceland - simply because it is small and does not impinge on our lives.

The playing up of minority anti-Irish sentiment in England can only increase anti-English sentiment here. That is surely not where we want to go. Instead of paying attention to British blowhards, more attention should be paid to their compatriots who hold more thoughtful views on British interests and relations with Ireland. William Hague is one such figure. A former UK foreign minister and former leader of the Conservative Party, he opposed Brexit and throughout his decades in politics, has never done or said anything that could be considered hostile towards Ireland. His opinion piece in the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph last week was the most substantive contribution on relations between these islands from the British side since the current spat began almost a month ago. On this side of the Irish Sea, it went largely uncommented on. It is worth highlighting at length, and is reproduced here on the right.

"Few developments in recent years have been as unambiguously positive as the dramatic improvement in relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland..." That is how he began. He went on to acknowledge that Brexit creates "serious problems for Ireland" and that "solutions require understanding and patience on both sides of the Irish sea, qualities that brought about the Good Friday agreement and all the other gains of the last 20 years". By writing this to a largely pro-Brexit audience, he showed what this newspaper's Eoghan Harris calls 'good authority'.

Hague proceeded to describe the path the governments are on as "a collision course with potentially disastrous consequences for relations between the two countries".

Hague then described the Irish Government's position as putting its London counterpart in an 'impossible position', going on to recall that a key rule of negotiating successfully is not to put your interlocutor in that place.

The impossible position he was describing was Dublin's demand to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market if the rest of the UK leaves it. That, he wrote, was "not something I could imagine either this or any previous government, Labour or Conservative, being able to agree to".

This is a particularly important point. Across the spectrum of British political opinion, from the right to the moderate left and whether pro or anti-Brexit, creating internal barriers within the UK is a non-runner. Putting a gun to the head of the British on an issue on which there is wide and deep support by talking of exercising a veto on EU-UK exit talks has already come with the cost of alienating a substantial chunk of moderate British political opinion as well as the Unionist community on this island.

That might be a price worth paying it if achieved the objective of getting London to agree in the coming days to keeping Northern Ireland in the single market and customs union. It would certainly be a price worth paying if the UK as a whole stayed in both frameworks. But given views in London, reinforced by the position of the DUP in propping up Theresa May's minority government, it is hard to see cast-iron guarantees being given over the next 12 days leading up to the crunch summit in Brussels.

Yet again, Hague is worth quoting on what could happen if the Irish Government decides the guarantees are insufficient. "If Ireland effectively vetoes an agreement, it would be a very grave miscalculation since it would not produce a British climb-down at a later stage. It would, however, massively increase the chances of a 'hard' Brexit of which the Irish economy would be a principal casualty."

This view is increasingly to be heard among the Irish business community where there are concerns that the Government's position is giving insufficient weighting to the potential economic costs if the on-going diplomatic efforts cause Brexit talks to break down and end up with a harder Brexit than might have been achievable with a less hardball approach from Dublin. If that happens, we will end up with a very hard border, higher economic costs, a nationalist community in the North that feels more cut off, poisoned relations with the unionist community and long term damage to the Ireland-Britain relationship.

The wishful and fuzzy thinking of Brexiteers, as well as the relative weakness of the UK position, has resulted in rowback after rowback by the British side. As the difficulties and costs of exiting the EU become more apparent as the talks continue, pressure for rowback on exiting the customs union and the single market is likely to increase.

Grinding down the Brexiteers during the phase-two trade talks is likely to lead to further retreats. Domestically, businesses in Britain, the Scottish devolved government and anti-Brexit MPs will also be seeking such an outcome to varying degrees.

The Government and its officials have been successful in pushing Irish interests among the other 26 members of the EU. But pushing too hard has come with costs. These costs could multiply if the Government's hand is overplayed. It is to be hoped that a Taoiseach who has miscalculated so badly in recent days does not do so again in the days to come.

Sunday Independent

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