Wednesday 19 September 2018

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.

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