John Downing: 'Survival in a post-Brexit EU for Ireland demands making new alliances and deepening some old ones'
The pair stood in the rain at Carrickcarnon in Co Louth, just feet from Co Armagh. It was in its way a strangely moving gesture by the Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, who joined EU Affairs Minister Helen McEntee right on the Irish Border to deliver a resounding message of Dutch solidarity on the Brexit backstop.
This piece of choreography, precisely a month ago today, also served as a reminder that a key element of Ireland's ability to thrive in a fragile and changing EU, without the UK, will turn on our ability to form new alliances with like-minded member states on key policy issues.
For 45 years, this country has had a natural alliance inside the EU with our nearest neighbour and major trading partner. We relied upon Britain to be "the grit in the oyster", as former UK prime minister John Major summed it up in a speech in Dublin in December. We especially relied upon London as a bulwark against EU taxation policies and social rules, both of which might scare off multinational investment.
The British government often pragmatically succeeded in dialling down EU initiatives which Ireland found inimical to its interests but was not always keen to oppose too stridently. In a post-Brexit world, Ireland needs to up its game and increase its ambitions.
The European Union has in many ways already moved into a post-Brexit mode and the EU leaders are looking at the issues beyond the conclusion of this process of parting the ways with its second biggest economy.
The nerves which characterised 2017, also the 60th anniversary of the EU's foundation, have been assuaged. Key decisions remain on how to fund the EU for 2020-2026, how to fund EU farm policy, and also tackle big issues such as climate change, security and anti-terrorism, and the EU's future economic direction.
All of these have crucial implications for Ireland's future and economic prosperity. We will need a range of strategic alliances on each of them to take us where we need to go. These alliances must be theme-based.
Ireland is now actively trying to forge deeper relationships with the Benelux countries - the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Other efforts are proceeding via the Nordic-Baltic group, which includes EU members Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden.
In October 2017, in the margins of an EU leaders' summit in Brussels, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar accepted an invitation, along with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, to attend a meeting of Nordic-Baltic leaders. Irish officials enthused that Nordic countries were "natural allies of Ireland" on many economic and trade issues.
This initiative has gone a step further with Ireland's participation as a founder member of the New Hanseatic League, or Hansa, just a year ago. This so-called "Bad Weather Coalition" of countries including Nordic nations and the Netherlands is specifically designed to replace the heft of the UK in pursuing liberal trading policies and it also champions a more fully developed EU single currency zone. It is hoped to be a counter-weight to a renewed Franco-German motor which has long been the main driver of EU policy.
Ideally, Ireland would like to see more dialogue and collaboration with all of the smaller member states, from Cyprus, with a population of just 1.2 million, and Malta with half of that again, right up to the Netherlands which is neither large nor small with a population of 17 million people.
It's a great idea. But in the EU, member states do not often vote policies based on their actual size. However, in politics good personal relationships and a genuine effort to reach out do count and are an invaluable investment.
Brexit has obliged the Irish Government to adopt a pretty hefty travel schedule, visiting all 27 EU capitals on a regular basis. While these visits have been primarily about shoring up the remarkable solidarity displayed to this country by its EU neighbours, they also offer opportunities to forge new relationships and deepen existing ones.
"Meetings in the EU capitals quickly deal with Brexit and then move on to other issues of common interest," one diplomat explains.
The UK's departure will have an impact on how the system of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) will operate. A qualified majority currently requires the backing of 15 member states representing 65pc of the population. Once you take the UK and its 64 million people out of the equation, the five largest member states would of themselves constitute 65pc of population. That of itself may not be such a big thing in practice - but the altered balance of power will probably be significant.
The role of Germany and France will be carefully watched. The pragmatic and conservative Angela Merkel has responded coolly to more idealistic approaches from Emmanuel Macron of France. He in turn has had his lustre dimmed by the 'yellow vests' protests.
But the Franco-German axis will no longer have the UK counterweight. Ireland will have to prepare more strategic alliances to ensure its goals can be achieved. Particularly problematic for Ireland will be the risk of increased emphasis on tax harmonisation.
This is supported by the policy-guiding EU Commission and by some of the bigger member states, including France. There is more general support for tackling tax avoidance by multinationals. But Ireland will need to ensure there is much less for approximated corporation tax levels or even for a common consolidated corporate tax base.
But the challenges are also clear opportunities. With the UK gone out of the EU, Ireland's strong links with the US, as the only English-speaking member state (apart from Malta), can be further developed on this level.
Ireland, accounting for 1pc of the EU economy, attracts some 12pc of American inward investment with 700 US companies accounting for 150,000 jobs here. All of that must be protected and enhanced.
The changed position after Brexit will also enhance the European Parliament, which has been gathering powers since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. There is no doubt that Ireland's links via Fine Gael into the European People's Party has proved a help as all the key Brexit players - Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier and others - come from that grouping.
The forthcoming European Parliament elections to be held on May 24 must be seen in the context of maintaining real influence inside the EU system by electing serious and able politicians. Fianna Fáil is now well placed via its alliance with the larger ALDE or Liberal grouping, and party leader Micheál Martin has assiduously cultivated links there.
Now more than at any other time in our 45-year membership of the EU, we will need real ambassadors and effective advocates for Ireland inside the European apparatus.