Friday 19 July 2019

John Downing: 'Thus far the EU is steadfast - but a no-deal Brexit can change that'


U Commission president designate Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
U Commission president designate Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
John Downing

John Downing

There is a big changing of the guard in Brussels right now, just as the UK awaits a leadership contest result very probably to be won by Boris Johnson.

It was reassuring to hear the EU Commission president designate, Ursula von der Leyen, say she is still "sound" on the Irish Border backstop.

Irish diplomats fighting our Brexit case may well feel they have done all this before.

They will be heartened by Ms Von der Leyen yesterday telling the Euro MEPs, who now have her future in their hands, that she will always defend the Irish backstop.

The backstop provision in the UK's Withdrawal Agreement from the EU is central to an agreement to avoid extensive Border controls on the island of Ireland.

Ms Von der Leyen told a European Parliament ratification hearing that this backstop was "precious, important and has to be defended".

The device, which requires Britain to adopt some EU rules unless a future arrangement is found to keep the Border open between Northern Ireland and the Republic, is contested by both leading British politicians seeking to be the next UK prime minister, who want it either changed or scrapped.

Of course, this rigmarole haunts us, since that grim dawn of Friday, June 24, 2016, when we learned our longest trading partner, the UK, was quitting the trade bloc in which we have placed four decades of hope and our entire futures.

The remaining EU member governments have shown a remarkable level of solidarity with Ireland - the country which is staying.

The UK Leavers have been astounded by the level of solidarity as a major member state so used, for so long, to getting their way. Many of us on this island have been waiting for the realpolitik EU betrayal. A sort of "sorry but you know business is business".

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, a veteran and sometime leader of so many EU negotiations, conjured up an early morning leaders' summit crunch moment where Irish interests might be squeezed.

Happily, no such thing has happened - nor will it - unless we are looking at a no-deal crash-out Brexit.

Going back to last spring, German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised questions over how to avoid hard-Border controls in Ireland and still keep border-free trade going across the other member states.

The view from Brussels is that if you have no internal borders, then external borders must be strong.

If there is no EU-UK divorce deal then all bets are off.

The European Union will never "betray" Ireland over Brexit.

But the Brussels institutions and the other member governments must defend the integrity of a border-free single market which took 30-plus years to put together.

That still raises the question of Ireland being "squeezed" over border controls in the coming months.

Irish Independent

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