Stephen Collins: State has the right approach to Brexit

British government’s antagonism and delusion shows why our interests lie with the EU

Taoiseach Enda Kenny at a press conference following the special EU summit on Brexit, in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA

Taoiseach Enda Kenny at a press conference following the special EU summit on Brexit, in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA

 

Charlie McCreevy used to joke that politicians are usually hanged for the wrong crime. The opposite is also true - they often get praised for the wrong reasons.

Enda Kenny’s achievements at the EU27 summit on Brexit in Brussels last weekend are a case in point.

He certainly deserved plaudits for the way he managed to get Ireland’s concerns listed as one of the key priorities for the EU team in the Brexit negotiations.

With the prospect of a very hard Brexit looming ever larger, it was vital that Ireland’s unique position was recognised by the bloc’s institutions and our 26 EU partners.

That was accomplished thanks to a massive diplomatic effort by Kenny and his senior officials.

It does appear that May and probably the bulk of the Conservative Party are living in another galaxy

However, most of the coverage of the crucial Brussels meeting focused on the commitment of the EU to automatically accept Northern Ireland into the bloc if ever a majority of the people in the region vote to join a united Ireland.

In actual fact, given that it is a guarantor of the Belfast Agreement, there was never much doubt that the EU would agree to allow the North back into the fold if the situation arises at some future date.

The focus on the united Ireland aspect of the EU negotiating position also created a problem, by serving to fuel unionist suspicions that there is some dark plot afoot to force them into something against their will.

Ironically, the Brussels summit coincided with a distinct softening in the line being adopted by DUP leader Arlene Foster in relation to Brexit, and it would be a pity if the united Ireland distraction prompted a unionist retreat into a more hardline stance on the practical issues that will arise for both parts of this island.

This is particularly the case in light of the distinct possibility that the UK could crash out of the EU in the worst possible way.

The reported exchanges between EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and British prime minister Theresa May over dinner in Downing Street recently are ominous.

It does appear that May and probably the bulk of the Conservative Party are living in another galaxy.

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May: if her gamble on an early general election is to pay off with a substantially bigger Conservative majority, she must win dozens of Labour seats. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA
Britain’s prime minister Theresa May: "The reported exchanges between EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and May over dinner in Downing Street recently are ominous." File photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA

If the British really believe they can opt out of their financial commitments while leaving the EU and then have access to the single market for nothing, they are on a collision course that is going to end very badly for everybody, but for them in particular.

The position being adopted by the UK confirms how right Kenny and his negotiating team were to make it absolutely clear we are a committed member of the EU and not some stalking horse for British interests.

There was a danger of that perception taking hold in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, as the best possible deal for the UK would clearly suit this country.

Since then, the British have gone out of their way to antagonise the EU institutions and virtually every other country in the bloc.

It is also worth contrasting the priority accorded to Ireland’s unique geographical position by our 26 EU partners, and reiterated again yesterday by the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, with the manner in which the British negotiators have ignored the interests of Northern Ireland and Scotland.

If May has no interest in protecting the interests of constituent parts of the UK, it shows how foolish the Irish Government would have been to tie our fate to theirs, as some pundits have advocated.

Best interests

While Brexit will undoubtedly create real problems for this country, whether it is hard or soft, there is not a shadow of a doubt that our best interests will be served by staying a committed member of the EU.

Our post-independence history confirms just how important EU membership has been for this country.

The European Union is where the State's future welfare clearly lies

Before we joined the EEC, as it was in 1973, we were tied to the British pound and utterly dependent on our nearest neighbours for trade.

About 90 per cent of our exports, mainly agricultural, went to the UK, which as a big, industrialised country naturally followed a cheap-food policy.

By 1961, after 40 years of independence, our population had fallen to 2.8 million and our standard of living was roughly half that of our neighbours.

Contrast that with our position today, after more than 40 years of EU membership.

Our population is up to 4.8 million, living standards are higher than those in the UK and the Republic has become a truly independent state, with the self-confidence not only to fight our corner in Europe but to have a friendly, neighbourly relationship with the UK.

On the trade front, our dependence on the UK has shrunk to about 15 per cent of our total exports, although that does rise to about 40 per cent for the food industry, which is a major employer.

The Government needs to focus now on promoting the diversification of food exports, moving focus from the UK to the rest of the EU, because that is where our future welfare clearly lies.

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