We cannot rely on Brussels to fight our corner in Brexit talks

Ireland needs to be Brexit peacemaker to keep talks on track and prevent collapse

Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator on Brexit, with  Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Government Buildings on Thursday. Photograph: Paul Faith/Reuters

Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator on Brexit, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Government Buildings on Thursday. Photograph: Paul Faith/Reuters

 

Frenchman Michel Barnier arrived in Dublin to be greeted like our Brexit saviour, promising that “Ireland’s interest will be the union’s interest” in the talks to come. If only it were that simple.

All the noises from the Government are that we are lining up in the European colours for the battle to come – and make no mistake, a battle it will be. No harm trying to get the European Union’s lead negotiator on side, of course, and Irish diplomacy has so far done as well as could be expected to position us for the talks.

But let’s not fool ourselves that our issues are top of his agenda. These talks will be driven by London on one side, and Berlin, Paris and Brussels on the other. We are caught right in the middle.

We still don’t have any real feel for how this may play out, or how we are positioned. But would be unwise to take the soothing noises coming from Barnier – or, a while back,Theresa May – as anything but noise. If we learned one thing from the financial crisis, after all, it is that when it comes to the crunch, international financial diplomacy is brutal and the big countries write the rules.

Cross-channel insults

The build-up to the talks in recent weeks has featured a raft of cross-channel insults, leaked details of a sensitive dinner between May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and accusations that Europe was trying to interfere with the UK general election.

If either side cared that much about Ireland, they wouldn’t be dialling up the temperature like this. It risks getting the talks off on a bad note, or collapsing them entirely, which would be the worst possible outcome for us. Let’s hope it settles down after the UK election. Let’s hope the huge economic cost of there being no Brexit deal, or one leading to a particularly hard Brexit, hits home on both the British and EU sides.

Our only interest early on is that too high a demand from Brussels could scupper the whole process

It is vital for us that that talks do not fail. We have to use what influence we have – and it is limited – to try to avoid this. In the months to come we have to be prepared to play both sides, as the occasion demands. At times we will need to stick our necks out to support the British. At others, our interests will lie with backing Europe. Sometimes we will just have to be bloody awkward. Above all, we need to be the Brexit peacemakers, trying to keep the whole thing on the rails.

In the initial batting back and forward on what Britain owes in hard cash before it leaves – the first issue on the table – we need to argue strongly that too much should not be demanded from London. This will annoy Berlin and Paris – because they will have to fill in a lot of the financial hole. And it will annoy Brussels, because they want to screw London.

None of this is our problem. Nor is any concept of what a “fair” deal might look like. Our only interest early on is that too high a demand from Brussels could scupper the whole process.

The best that can be hoped for now is that we get through the first phase of talks on the Brexit divorce bill – and some kind of reasonable negotiations on the future trading arrangements between Ireland and Britain. If this happens, the potential damage to Ireland could slowly start to reduce.

A long-term trading arrangement between Britain and the EU could lead to no, or few, tariffs on trade – in other words no special taxes on goods travelling from Britain to the EU and vice-versa. Customs arrangements would still be needed, unfortunately, but could be arranged to limit delays. A transitional deal could be done to allow something like current arrangements to continue after Britain leaves the EU, but before a new trade deal is finalised.

But the barriers to all this are significant, even if the divorce bill can be worked out. The EU says Britain cannot have the benefits of free trade – even on an interim basis – unless it continues to allow free movement of people and agrees to accept the ongoing jurisdiction of the EU courts. These are two red-button issues for the UK. Where the compromise can be found is not clear. Economics demands a free-trade deal, but politics is getting in the way.

Sensible deal

The talks can now go in one of two ways: either they will be brutally short and unsuccessful or they will be extraordinary long and tedious. What we need is the process to keep going long enough that everyone gets thoroughly bored with the mind-numbing detail, lowering the political heat and allowing an economically sensible deal to be done.

It is the classic tactic used by industrial relations experts – keep both sides at the table, let them get over the anger and and into the detail – and get them tired. Remember all those industrial-relations disputes when Bertie Ahern as minister for labour would emerge at 4am to declare a deal was done?

I remember being in the press room at Maastricht in late 1991 when seemingly impossible obstacles were overcome to agree the road that eventually led to the launch of the euro, after long hours of negotiation.

“How was it done?” we asked a senior member of the Irish delegation. “They all got hungry and wanted dinner,” he replied. He was only half joking. Maybe keep them at the table and don’t let them eat needs to be our strategy for the Brexit talks.

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