Hogan's EU challenge to May simply adds to political intrigue
Theresa May is clearly no Maggie Thatcher. But she may be trying to emulate the iconic 'Iron Lady' with a much-trailed speech due to be given in the Italian city of Florence this coming Friday.
A whole generation of EU watchers will remember Mrs Thatcher making a landmark speech in the beautiful Belgian city of Bruges almost 30 years ago. On September 20, 1988, at the College of Europe, she delivered her most significant ever speech about Europe in which she insisted that developments must be mainly confined to inter-country co-operation rather than any kind of federalism.
Interestingly she was equally insistent that Britain must stay within the then-European Community. "Britain's destiny is in Europe, as part of the community," Mrs Thatcher said emphatically. History teaches us that none of the other EU leaders of the day - including then-Taoiseach Charlie Haughey - sided with her.
EU Commission president Jacques Delors was ensconced in Brussels, with the wholehearted backing of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl for very ambitious EU integration plans, notably the creation of a single European currency. Britain was left behind - and now it is leaving.
Up until her disastrous election gamble on June 8 last, Mrs May's political career was notable for landmark speeches. Way back in October 2002, she stunned many in the British Conservative Party when she announced: "You know what some people call us? The nasty party."
In her very first major speech as prime minister she stole British Labour's clothes by styling herself as champion of the vulnerable and needy. British officials have shrugged off jokes about her choice of Florence as the venue for this speech.
There is no link to it being the one-time home of Machiavelli or the infamous Medici clan. It is an attempt to stress Britain's trading links with mainland Europe which long pre-date the EU.
But with the Brexit talks faring badly, there is speculation that she will give a positive signal on continuing UK contributions to the EU budget after the split in March 2019. We do not expect a specific divorce settlement figure this side of the Conservative Party conference next month. But a goodwill signal might help move talks towards the issue of post-Brexit EU-UK trade relations, where Britain wants things to go, and Ireland is equally keen on such progress.
Now the challenge from Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, that she do an about-turn and declares that the United Kingdom will stay in the EU customs union after Brexit, comes at an intriguing time. London has been abuzz since Friday night after Mrs May's foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, published a 4,000-word manifesto on how he sees the UK emerging from Brexit.
It is seen in some quarters as a treacherous leadership bid by Mr Johnson. But it is notable for its insistence that Britain must leave both the customs union and the EU single market, if Brexit is to have any meaning. It again leaves the Conservatives doing what they do best - fighting bitterly over Europe.
These developments came at the end of a week in which Ireland learned Brexit brings far more challenges than just borders and trade. An EU without the ideological drag of Britain also brings renewed big plans for common defence and taxation, among other things.
The good news is that just 15 months on from the shock UK Brexit vote, the EU has got its mojo back. The less good news is that much of the emerging new ambition might not be all welcome for Ireland, especially in the absence of a key common-sense ally in Britain.
The new ambitious plans were outlined by the EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his State of the Union speech last Wednesday. There was a huge contrast with what he had to say at the same time last year.
In September 2016, President Juncker evoked the possibility the EU, facing its 60th birthday, might not be long for this world. The Brexit result weeks earlier risked being reinforced with wins by far-right anti-EU elements elsewhere. But there were wins for moderate EU-friendly elements in Austria, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere, and there has been an economic upswing in the EU.
There was some kite-flying about Mr Juncker's landmark speech. But the Irish Government rejected his suggestion the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB) should be agreed by a qualified majority of governments, instead of the current practice of unanimity, which would allow Ireland to block such a move.
Most mainstream Irish political parties agree the EU's CCCTB plan for multinational taxes is inimical to Ireland's economic policy of attracting big overseas investment.
Granted, Mr Juncker, in an interview with this newspaper on Saturday, moved to ease Irish fears, insisting changes to Ireland's corporation tax regime will only come about through debate and a vote, despite the qualified majority proposal.
But Mr Juncker, who has 26 months left in office, is not the one we have to convince here. It is more than likely the CCCTB cudgels will be taken up this autumn by French President Emmanuel Macron, and a newly re-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ireland had better start lining up new alliances immediately.