David Davis willing to go hard route in Brexit talks

Secretary for exiting EU has shown interest in Irish issues but is veteran Eurosceptic

 David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. As far back as 1987, he was advocating increased funding for integrated education in the North. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. As far back as 1987, he was advocating increased funding for integrated education in the North. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

 

Irish officials waited anxiously to hear the identity of the new Northern Secretary yesterday, but the more significant appointment for Ireland is David Davis to be the British government’s Brexit chief.

Prime minister Theresa May has created a new department of state to manage the UK’s departure from the EU and appointed Davis, a veteran Eurosceptic who campaigned to leave in the referendum campaign, to head it.

His appointment is the first sign of the type of Brexit that London will see. Since the referendum result, European governments and EU institutions have been waiting to see what Britain wants.

Nobody is waiting more keenly than Dublin. Now they all have some sort of an idea, judging by an article Davis published on the website conservativehome.com. In it, he says that his preferred outcome – and the most likely one, he says, albeit “after a lot of wrangling” – is to maintain tariff-free access to the single market.

Compatible

However, Davis is bullish: “Once the European nations realise that we are not going to budge on control of our borders, they will want to talk, in their own interest,” he writes.

Crucially, however, he says Britain should be prepared to just walk away from the EU and rely on World Trade Organisation rules if no satisfactory agreement is possible. That’s the so-called hard Brexit. He also says the UK should wait until the end of the year or the beginning of next year before triggering the article 50 mechanism to leave. Most EU members want that done immediately.

In the meantime, he says, the UK should immediately embark on a series of negotiations for trade deals with major markets outside the EU, which should be completed within 12-24 months.

Many outside observers say this is extremely optimistic. The influential economics consultancy Eurointelligence described the Davis plan as “utterly bonkers”.

Davis also says that there should be consultation with the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland before the British government opens formal negotiations with the EU.

What does the emerging British plan mean for Ireland? The goal set out by Davis – full or nearly full single market access – is one that the Irish Government will support.

Worrying

Brussels

The Irish Government’s position is to support as close a relationship between the EU and the UK as possible – that having the fewest implications for the Common Travel Area, the North and the trading relationship between Ireland and Britain. However, the emerging Irish strategy is to stress the dangers to the peace process – something which resonates much more strongly in the EU than Ireland’s special commercial relationship with the UK.

Davis has demonstrated some interest in Irish issues over the years and an examination of his House of Commons speeches shows some appreciation of the distinct position of the North. As far back as 1987, he was advocating increased funding for integrated education in the North.

Nor is Davis the braying public school Tory Brexiteer of caricature. Raised by a single mother in a council house, he became a leading right-winger and a candidate for the Conservative leadership in 2005 but resigned his House of Commons seat (he won it back in the resulting byelection) in protest against the erosion of civil liberties in anti-terror legislation. Last year he wrote a strong defence of Britain’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights.

His political hero is the 19th century Liberal statesman William Gladstone – the man who famously dedicated much of his political life to solving the “Irish problem”. The Irish Government will be hoping Davis demonstrates some of his hero’s concern for this country.