Tuesday 22 January 2019

Dan O'Brien: When stakes are this high, threatening UK with a veto may not be the best bet

Leo Varadkar is doing a high-wire act on Brexit. Being tough with London plays well here, but it is less clear that it will achieve Irish objectives, writes Dan O'Brien

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Is the Irish Government overplaying its hand in the Brexit talks? That question has arisen a number of times over the course of Leo Varadkar's premiership and in particular over the past 10 days. The consequences of doing so, in a worst-case scenario, would be to leave Ireland vulnerable in Brussels, alienate even the more moderate elements in London and end up with all the downsides of a hard Brexit. The prize, if all stars align, would be to minimise the implications of Brexit for Ireland, both in terms of border issues and east-west economic ties.

Irish diplomacy faces a challenge as great as any it has ever had to deal with. None of this is surprising. Brexit was always going to be a strategic nightmare for Ireland given its multiple complexities and the inevitability of being squeezed between two of the country's most important, and much larger partners. It has been, and will continue to be, an extraordinarily difficult balancing act to pursue Irish interests as aggressively as is necessary, while keeping the rest of the EU on side and limiting the damage that Brexit will inevitably do to Ireland-Britain relations.

Even for those following the swings and roundabouts of Brexit closely, recent developments have been hard to keep up with. Here is a brief recap on how, as of this weekend, a situation has been reached in which Ireland-Britain relations are more strained than at any time since Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher were in office in the Troubles-racked 1980s.

Eleven days ago, the Taoiseach told the Dail that he was upbeat about the Brexit talks. He said that there was a good chance his 26 EU counterparts would agree to move to the second phase of the exit negotiations in December. This optimism was in marked contrast to other EU players who were expressing growing doubts about progress over the next month and who wanted to play up the risks of a roadblock in order to keep the pressure on London.

Then things changed. The following day, Michel Barnier, the man who negotiates on behalf of the EU 27, shared a paper with all the national delegations that his team had drawn up on Irish border issues, and one which Irish diplomats were centrally involved in drafting. As tends to happen when European Commission documents are circulated to all member countries, it leaked immediately.

The Irish position was, and remains, that there is nothing new in the document. The British thought otherwise, with the following paragraph causing consternation in London.

"It seems essential for the UK to commit to ensuring that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided, including by ensuring no emergence of regulatory divergence from those rules of the internal market and the Customs Union which are (or may be in the future) necessary for meaningful North South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement."

Mention in the paper of "no regulatory divergence" means Northern Ireland, alone or with the rest of the UK, would have to adopt all EU new single market laws in the future. The Irish side has been looking for written guarantees on these issues in return for moving to phase two of the Brexit talks next month. The British side (and unionists) viewed this as Ireland attempting to force Britain into accepting all future EU legislation or, effectively, erecting barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Britain so that the North could remain a de facto part of the EU. It was also construed as a threat to veto moving forward on the entire Brexit process to the detriment of the UK.

The British government retaliated. London newspapers ran stories, sourced from Whitehall, that the Irish Government had made a grab for the North and that it had done so to prevent Fine Gael losing support to Sinn Fein in a coming election.

Over the following days, the Taoiseach, on a number of occasions, publicly stated that Ireland would not veto moving to phase two. But by Friday his position had changed. When asked by Sky News about the issue, he implicitly suggested that he would veto moving to phase two next month if the British government did not provide written guarantees on how it would fulfil its promises on avoiding a border between the two jurisdictions on this island.

Threatening a veto - whether consistently or inconsistently - in such a high-stakes situation is a very big call. It is all the more so when it is unclear what exact written guarantees the British could give that would satisfy the Government that no border would be put in place.

In the same Sky News interview, the Taoiseach stressed how strong Ireland is as it has the backing of 26 other countries and 400 million people. Telling the other side in a negotiation how strong you are is rarely necessary - the other side is able to make its own calculation of strength. It can come across as posturing and a provocation.

There is a further reason to question this aspect of the Taoiseach's position. While it is true that Ireland now has the support of the other EU countries on the border issue, the matter is not a vital national interest for any of them. If, as is often accurately said in Ireland, the British government does not pay a great deal of attention to issues affecting Ireland, it would be naive to believe that other governments do. National interest dictates their positions and the Irish border is not a national interest for any other country.

For Ireland to assume unceasing solidarity on the issue would be unwise. It could also expose a vulnerability. Other countries may seek something in return for backing Ireland. Issues around corporation tax, for instance, have never been higher up the agenda and anger at Ireland's vetoing of any changes at EU level to address aggressive tax avoidance is quite intense in a number of important continental capitals. It is not inconceivable, given the horse-trading ways of Brussels, that some countries may seek movement on tax as the price of their continued support on border issues.

It is unclear what other comments Varadkar made on Friday are designed to achieve. In another interview he said of the British position 18 months on from the Brexit referendum "sometimes it doesn't seem like they've thought all this through". No matter how much truth there may be in it, telling your interlocutors publicly how unthinking they are is not normally a recipe for effective diplomacy.

Brexit is a disaster from an Irish perspective and it is right and proper that the Government exercises every option in pursuit of Irish interests. But Ireland does not have a fundamentally strong hand to play as a small country with a lot to lose. Overplaying it by telling the Brits what's what may be satisfying given the historical context, but achieving the objective of minimising the damage of Brexit for this island is what really matters.

Talking tough may help to achieve that objective, but it could also be counter-productive. The stakes could not be higher.

Sunday Independent

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