John FitzGerald: Negotiating table with UK reversed by Brexit

History tells us that bilateral trade agreements with the UK do not suit Ireland

British prime minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny hold a news conference in 10 Downing Street in July. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/Reuters

British prime minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny hold a news conference in 10 Downing Street in July. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/Reuters

 

When I joined the Department of Finance in 1972, one of my first jobs was to put away the files on Ireland’s external economic relations. These files went to the basement and did not reappear in my subsequent 12 years in the department. They covered a range of negotiations between Ireland and the UK, including the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965.

What the files showed was that Ireland, over its first 50 years of independence, had been a mendicant, going to London to seek better access to the UK market for Irish goods, especially agricultural produce.

What was also clear was that Ireland had to content itself with whatever the UK, in its generosity, decided to offer. One of the lessons of the first 50 years of independence was that, when you are small, don’t find yourself in a room negotiating with a large nation on your own.

At the beginning of 1973, Ireland became a member of the EEC and we moved into a very different world. Our economic interests were then protected by EU law. No longer did Ireland have to beg: instead it was operating in a multilateral world where representatives from each country, small or large, were treated with respect. The search for agreement had to have something of benefit for all participants.

Compromises

Obviously, in that process, agreements were rarely “ideal” – compromises were necessary. Nonetheless, over decades, Ireland managed to achieve many of its key objectives.

In the 1970s and the early 1980s, French support helped protect the Common Agricultural Policy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, German support for the structural funds was important. In the 1990s, the creation of the Single Market, aided by among others Germany and Britain, proved hugely beneficial for Ireland. We did better with the support of fellow EU members than when doing bilateral deals with Britain.

All this suggests that Ireland’s interests in the final Brexit agreement can best be protected if the negotiations are carried out by the EU on our behalf. The calls by some for Ireland to negotiate bilaterally with Britain on economic matters are unwise given our historical experience, and they ignore the fact that, legally, the agreement will be between the EU and the UK.

The EU, with a population more than five times that of the UK, has the power to cut a better deal with the UK on behalf of its 27 remaining members, including Ireland, than any state might negotiate on their own. This time, it will be Britain that is the minority party in the room.

Trade with Britain is more important for Ireland than for any other member state. We are obviously keenly interested in maintaining access to the UK market, especially for food products. We also have an interest in the nature of the final agreement with the UK across a wide range of other policy areas – including access to public contracts, environmental and energy policy, and the extent to which the UK financial sector can access the EU market. We will need to continuously brief the EU negotiators on our special interests.

Free movement

However, our priority objective from the Brexit negotiations will be to safeguard free movement of people on the island of Ireland, while still protecting our own interests as EU members. All EU citizens have the right to visit Ireland, to live in Ireland and to work here. This cannot change.

In the first 50 years of the State, the Department of Justice often operated as the Dublin branch of the British Home Office in deciding who could come to Ireland. The current British prime minister made some ominous suggestions last month suggesting that she would like to return to this arrangement.

Ireland needs to make it absolutely clear that we will determine who can enter Ireland. It is for the UK to find a way to meet their own interests: to protect their citizens in Northern Ireland by maintaining freedom of movement across the Border, while at the same time they have signalled they want to restrict the rights of EU citizens generally to live and work in the UK.

The negotiations on maintaining the Common Travel Area on this island will be bilateral – between the UK and Ireland. As we have seen in the past, bilateral negotiations can be difficult. However, on this occasion, we will have allies in the rest of the EU, and the UK would like our understanding from within the EU as they proceed with their negotiations on Brexit.

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