Is Ireland really top of May and Merkel’s Brexit agenda?

Cliff Taylor: If we learned one thing from financial crisis, it is big guns always win

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister Theresa May: There is a complete lack of clarity over whether Ms May’s government is willing to make the kind of concessions which would make a softer Brexit possible. Photograph: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister Theresa May: There is a complete lack of clarity over whether Ms May’s government is willing to make the kind of concessions which would make a softer Brexit possible. Photograph: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP/Getty

 

Irish politicians – like their counterparts worldwide – can’t help themselves when trying to reassure the public that everything will be all right. Whether it’s Brexit, Donald Trump’s tax plan or whatever, the implicit message is “we have it under control, sure it’ll all be grand”. This is not to say they actually believe this or that there isn’t feverish work going on behind the scenes, but one of the rules of modern politics is to claim constant victories – and reassure people that everything will work out just fine.

We will hear more of it after the EU summit. Irish diplomats have done their work and some of our key concerns look set to be formally noted and earmarked as priorities. We will be assured after the summit that Ireland’s concerns are top of the agenda. And putting them there would be a good day’s work.

But the problem is that when the talks get down and dirty as it will – it is not clear how much this will count. There is a significant risk that the Brexit negotiations could hit trouble early on, over the size of the Brexit divorce bill which Britain must pay. And beyond that there is a complete lack of clarity over whether Theresa May’s government is willing to make the kind of concessions which would make a softer Brexit possible.

If the talks collapse, it will be every country for itself. The negotiating mandate won’t matter if there are no negotiations. We need to fight for our interests in the EU’s negotiating stance, but to also prepare in case it all goes off the rails.

Summit message

The message from the summit will be clear. The EU believes Britain must keep playing by the rules in areas such as immigration and oversight from the EU courts, if it is to retain some or all of the trade and other benefits it now enjoys. But politically, even with a new mandate, can Theresa May sign up to this?

The risk for Ireland is of getting caught in the “friendly fire” from both sides. When it gets down to it, will May and Angela Merkel really have Ireland top of their agenda when the tough talking starts? If there is one thing we learned from the financial crisis, it is that international diplomacy is a tough and nasty business and that the big guns always win.

If the talks dictate a “hard” Brexit – either via negotiations or worse via a collapse of negotiations – then we will be exposed. We need a plan B to try to limit the damage – and to capitalise where we can in areas such as the attraction of financial services. And a taoiseach heading for the exit door is not in a position to lead the urgent development of this.

In the case of a hard Brexit, a Border of some kind will return. And the outlook for trade with the UK will be severely damaged. This is why part of the Irish case is to push the EU not to go too hard on the UK in relation to the exit bill. We need these talks to stay on the rails.

One of the conundrums of the last year or so is that we have seen what are undoubtedly cataclysmic changes in the Brexit vote – and the Trump election – but the impact on our daily lives or wellbeing has been muted. The financial markets have not collapsed in a heap. Economic growth has continued internationally and at home. Confidence has not collapsed among business or consumers, despite some shakiness in both camps. Nobody is sure what this is actually going to mean for them.

Economic uncertainty

We don’t know a lot more about Trump’s tax plans now that we did on election day – all we got this week was a one-page note. And it is much the same with Brexit. We have thought about the consequences a lot since the day of the vote, but we really don’t know a lot more than we did the day afterwards about what it will actually mean. The details of what will actually happen remain completely clouded. This provides huge economic uncertainty – and the problem is that it could be months yet before we have a clear view of the likely outcome of the talks.

Perhaps the smart, short-term , political option in the face of this uncertainty is to maintain that it will all be fine. Particularly in a government living from day to day, led by a taoiseach on his last lap. But we need honesty, too, about the likely consequences of a collapse in the talks or a grudgingly negotiated hard Brexit. Only if this is communicated and accepted is there any chance of political support for the necessary policy responses. The worrying thing is that there appears little chance of our crocked political system delivering this.

Brexit is going to get very real over the next six to nine months. A negotiating success is the best we can hope for from the summit – and it would be important. But it will only be of use if negotiations actually get going – and eventually reach an agreement. And that is far from guaranteed. A negotiating mandate is not much use to anyone if the negotiations collapse. Best to be ready for that too, and to give a straightforward message of what it would mean and what we need to do to be as ready as we can be. There is little point in sleepwalking into a hard Brexit.

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