Wednesday 18 September 2019

Dan O’Brien: 'Government must tell us its Border plans - our EU partners will soon turn on us if it doesn't do its duty'

One small step: European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee (left) on the Republic side of the Border and new French Minister for Europe Amélie de Montchalin on the Northern Ireland side during a visit to the old Ravensdale Border crossing
One small step: European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee (left) on the Republic side of the Border and new French Minister for Europe Amélie de Montchalin on the Northern Ireland side during a visit to the old Ravensdale Border crossing
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Much attention in Ireland has recently been given to a handful of derogatory comments in the British media directed at this country's political leaders. Infinitely more important than the views of a few English journalists is what is happening here - or rather not happening here - as the worst-case Brexit scenario moves closer by the day.

More than three years after the British decision to leave the EU and 21 months after Ireland and the EU put the Northern Ireland backstop proposal on the negotiating table, the Government does not have a plan for how it will deal with the Border if a no-deal Brexit happens in a few short months. Many questions remain unanswered.

How will the EU's external frontier on this island differ from all of the other external frontiers across the continent, if it differs at all? Where will the EU's import tax on non-EU goods be collected, a matter that will be of relevance from day one of no-deal rupture? Has the enforcer of EU laws and rules - the European Commission - agreed to make exceptions for how the Irish Border operates and, if so, what are these exceptions? Has the Commission squared any exceptions with other EU members? What is the legal basis for the granting of exceptions? What are the risks that any exceptions granted could be challenged in Europe's highest court? What are the main sticking points between Dublin and Brussels as of now, and why has it taken so long to come up with an agreed plan?

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Cabinet members and other Government representatives should be bombarded with these questions every time they make public appearances because the dangers of not having a clear and well-communicated plan are enormous.

Everyone by now is aware of the dangers of a no-deal for Northern Ireland, for this island's economy and for Ireland-Britain relations. But less discussed is how relations with the rest of the EU could be negatively affected by a Brexit rupture. This needs very careful consideration because if relations with London are left in tatters in November and the White House cannot be depended on as a source of support, then coming into conflict with continental partners would leave Ireland isolated and friendless. That would make an already disastrous situation very much worse. How could that come about?

Let's start with the EU institutions. The most fraught single issue in Ireland's half-century as a member of Europe's economic and political union was the confrontation with the European Central Bank in 2010-11 over the handling of the banking crisis.

The ECB has powers and responsibilities. Among these is the protection of the integrity of the euro system. In 2010 and again in 2011 it believed the authorities in Dublin were embarking on a course which threatened the integrity of the euro system. Frankfurt believed the planned non-repayment of €5bn worth of bonds in defunct banks risked another financial panic at a time when the entire European banking system was teetering. The ECB forced two successive Irish Governments to make full repayments of these bonds because it believed doing so was the best course of action for the wider system. Frankfurt's way, not Ireland's way.

Moving from the past to what is looming in the near future. The European Commission's job, as the 'guardian of the EU treaties', is to enforce EU rules. Central to this role is maintaining the integrity of the European market system. If Britain exits the EU without a deal, the integrity of that system will be at risk.

That risk will not come because French, Belgian or Dutch customs authorities refuse to treat goods arriving at their ports from Britain as they do goods arriving from China or South America - they are planning to do exactly that. It will come if systems, of which nothing is known publicly, are not in place on the Republic's side of the new EU frontier on this island with a non-EU country.

So far, the Government has insisted it will not put in the sort of customs posts which exist on all of the EU's external borders. The European Commission's top spokesman stated earlier this year that there would have to be checks on the Irish side of the Border. But Brussels has maintained a diplomatic silence since. That is not, it should be stressed, because everything has been agreed with the Government here.

Once a no-deal happens, if not before, the diplomatic silence will end because the Commission is bound by the EU's rules-based framework to apply the rules. The European Commission could go from being Ireland's best friend to Europe's hard cop in a very short time.

That might suit other member countries. They will leave Brussels to do its job in the early days and weeks of a no-deal situation. Indeed, there would most likely be continued displays of solidarity - don't be surprised if heavy-lift transport planes from the French military land in Ireland with vital supplies that have been disrupted as a result of Brexit.

But if the EU border on this island does not function to the satisfaction of fellow members for any length of time, continental capitals will sooner or later demand that Ireland fulfils its obligations. If that does not happen and Ireland comes to be seen as a back-door into the single market, other countries will start treating Ireland and goods coming from Ireland differently.

As a business person with knowledge of investment-luring matters muttered recently to your columnist, competitors tasked with persuading foreign multinationals to locate in their countries would not be slow to point out to corporate executives that Ireland is not a full member of the single market.

Time is running out. The stakes could not be higher. The Government needs to level with the public on the hard choices ahead.

Irish Independent

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