Ireland must forge better links with small EU states, forum hears

Institute of International and European Affairs hears Franco-German axis tightening

Catherine Day, a former secretary general of the European Commission, said the UK’s impending departure from the EU would deprive Dublin of an important ally.  Photograph: Alan Betson

Catherine Day, a former secretary general of the European Commission, said the UK’s impending departure from the EU would deprive Dublin of an important ally. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The State will have to build stronger ties with other small EU states as the Franco-German axis grows in strength after Brexit, a former high-ranking EU official has said.

Catherine Day, a former secretary general of the European Commission, said the UK’s impending departure from the union would deprive Dublin of an important ally and force it to rethink its approach to European integration. She also remarked that Ireland had become over-reliant on trading and other relationships with English-speaking countries, and this would have to change.

“It will inevitably be more continental,” Ms Day said of the EU post-Brexit. “That may not always be to our taste . . . It has suited Ireland to be one of the countries supporting one of the big member states – the UK – pushing for reform, for openness, maybe for slower integration in certain areas.

“I think it will be much more difficult now. We will go back to a more traditional Franco-German view of what the European Union will be. It will require much more networking among smaller member states if they don’t like that direction or if they want to influence it.”

Brexit fallout

Ms Day was speaking at a seminar hosted by the Institute of International and European Affairs, a Dublin-based think tank, to coincide with its launch this week of a new report on Brexit. The report presents a stark picture of the potential economic and political fallout for Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit.

Describing the process as one of the greatest challenges the State has faced since its foundation, Daithí Ó Ceallaigh, a former Irish ambassador to London, said Brexit represented an “asymmetric shock” that would affect Ireland more than any other EU state.

Pointing to questions of specific concern to Ireland, the institute’s director general, Tom Arnold, said it was important the Government find itself in a position to influence the EU negotiating position while retaining good relations with the British government. Other challenges for Dublin were ensuring a solution was found on Northern Ireland’s specific challenges and developing policy aimed at securing Irish economic competitiveness post-Brexit.

On Northern Ireland, Mr Arnold said some of the priorities outlined by British prime minister Theresa May earlier this week could turn out to be incompatible with other stated aims of London and Dublin. “You cannot have an exit from the customs union and the single market and not have the return of a border within this island,” he said.

Possible referendum

Panellists agreed that Ms May’s speech offered clear indications of the UK’s opening position but left fundamental questions open. “It was an opening bid,” Ms Day said. “I think she was setting out something close to: ‘we’d like a good deal with very little obligations.’ Where else would you start such a negotiation? A lot more detail has to come.”

Responding to questions, the founder of the institute, Brendan Halligan, said a deal on the UK’s departure from the EU could be put to a referendum in the Republic.

Mr Halligan said he had long been of the view that the talks on article 50 of the European treaty – the provision that allows for a member state’s withdrawal from the union – would lead to a referendum in Ireland. “I think it’s unavoidable,” he said.

Ms Day said her understanding was that the article 50 deal would be an agreement between governments and, as it would not require a change to the EU treaty, would therefore not automatically trigger a referendum in the Republic. “You can never get away from the fact that even if you don’t have to have a referendum, sometimes people propose them,” she added.

On the same point, former minister for finance Alan Dukes remarked that while the State had “a particular history” with referendums, “is it really conceivable that we would face a referendum, one of the outcomes of which might be that we would say, ‘no, the UK cannot leave’?”