Ireland ramps up campaign to secure a special Brexit deal
Analysis: Officials are attempting to convince the EU of the State’s ‘unique circumstances’
‘Senior sources say that the pretty broad EU view is that trade is an EU competence, and if and when the British do exit the customs union then the arrangements with Ireland will be the same as the arrangements with the rest of the EU.’
In a file held on the Government’s secure computer system there is a document containing a list of EU countries.
They are classified according to their resistance to the idea of Ireland securing some sort of special arrangement in the Brexit negotiations which deals with the Border and the “unique circumstances” – a phrase beloved of the Department of Foreign Affairs – of the British-Irish political, economic and social relationship.
They are not listed as friends or enemies, just as requiring more or less attention as officials and politicians attempt the delicate task of positioning Ireland for the least negative outcome from the negotiations on Britain’s exit from the EU.
The list and the associated intelligence it represents is the product of a diplomatic, political and official campaign that has been taking place since early last autumn.
Hundreds of meetings, contacts and conversations have been conducted by politicians and civil servants with their EU counterparts in Brussels and in European capitals in recent months.
In these they have sought to firstly outline the disproportionately serious consequences of Brexit for Ireland, and then to explain why solutions proposed by Ireland will not offend other member states’ interests or EU norms.
Senior officials and political sources who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity detailed an extensive campaign under way to manage Brexit that one senior mandarin likened to a cross between running the six-monthly EU presidency and implementing the Troika bailout.
Except on this occasion, there is no clear destination.
The meeting went on for two hours, and the politicians and senior officials there were presented with a series of documents, some of which have been seen by The Irish Times, which detailed the progress so far and the objectives for the coming months.
On Monday the Taoiseach meets the British prime minister Theresa May, and next week he will travel to Poland. Shortly after that Mr Kenny will travel to The Hague.
The work is mainly divided between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of the Taoiseach.
In Iveagh House, the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the key figures are Rory Montgomery and Adrian O’Neill, head of the Anglo-Irish division, and the secretary general Niall Burgess.
In Government Buildings, the second secretary general, John Callinan, leads the Brexit planning, while secretary general Martin Fraser – the State’s most senior civil servant – oversees how Brexit preparations influence the work of the Cabinet and the Cabinet committees.
In official circles there is some bemusement at accusations that “nothing is being done” to prepare for Brexit.
If anything, some officials say, some important work is being neglected because there is so much internal focus on Brexit.
In recent times, Irish officials have been flying to meetings around Europe to explain why they believe the retention of the Common Travel Area after Brexit would not be in contravention of EU law.
Last week, they were in Paris where a team of high-ranking officials and diplomats held a lengthy series of meetings over several hours with their French counterparts discussing a range of Brexit-related issues.
The Irish position is that the Common Travel Area – legally and practically – can continue completely independently of Britain’s decision to leave.
The officials have conceded it would result in Irish citizens enjoying rights and entitlements in the UK – the right to reside permanently, work and avail of public services, for example – that will not be automatically available to other EU citizens.
However, they have been pointing out that this was the case long before EU membership, and have been arguing strongly that this will not violate European law.
“That’s the law. Though the politics can be different,” says one person involved in the process.
Officials and politicians believe that most EU countries will not object to the proposals that will come from the Irish Government, though others may be more problematic.
They are tight-lipped about where the problems are likely to be – the list is a closely guarded secret – though official gossip suggests that some central and eastern European countries are proving sticky.
“We are getting some nervousness alright,” says a source.
Another source says that it is not so much that the newer member states in the east are not sympathetic but that they do not have the same familiarity with the Irish situation accumulated over the decades as the older EU members.
Officials say that everyone is annoyed with the British. But some are more annoyed than others.
“A lot of countries don’t have big trading interests with the UK. Some are still using the word ‘punishment’,” says one senior official.
This is a problem for Ireland because it is clear that Ireland’s interests coincide with British objectives to a large degree – not something that Ireland will stress but something which the others can probably work out for themselves.
Ireland wants as close a trading relationship between the UK and the EU as possible after Brexit.
The last thing Ireland wants is for Britain to be “punished”. That will lead, sources expect, to differences on the EU side of the table between Ireland and some of the other member states.
Ministers stress at every opportunity that Ireland is on the EU side of the table. But it is likely to have differences with some member states.
Despite the clear position – they sound at times like instructions – emerging from Brussels (repeated again last week by visiting economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici) that there should be no negotiations with the British until article 50 is triggered, Irish Government officials are involved in pretty much a rolling conversation with their British counterparts.
Senior official contact was formalised in 2012 when an annual meeting between top mandarins in both governments was instituted (it was in London last October), but, more importantly, people have the email addresses and mobile numbers of each other.
“We’re not negotiating. But we are in constant touch with them, yes,” says a high-ranking source involved in the contacts with the British.
“We accept the rule on no negotiations. But you have to explore the issues. We don’t regard it as a breach of the rule.”
So what has all this activity produced so far?
Officials are satisfied that the Government appears to be making good progress on the retention of the Common Travel Area.
Word has reached Irish Embassies around the continent that Michel Barnier speaks about it as an early priority in the negotiations when he is speaking to other governments.
However, the question of EU-UK relations – and, therefore, British-Irish trade and the role of customs at the Border – remains deeply uncertain.
Senior sources say that the pretty broad EU view is that trade is an EU competence, and if and when the British do exit the customs union then the arrangements with Ireland will be the same as the arrangements with the rest of the EU. If that involves tariffs, it involves tariffs.
There will be, officials expect, some EU understanding about how the Border should work in the future, with other countries understanding the Irish position that it should be as soft or invisible as possible.
There may even be some local arrangements for agricultural products that cross and re-cross the Border, speculates one source.
But a special arrangement for Ireland on trade seems very unlikely.
That will mean a significant economic impact in Ireland. But it will also affect the broader relationship between Ireland and the UK.
The ties will not be undone, but they will change and economically they will loosen.
In their idle moments, the officials tasked with managing all this sometimes wonder about the magnitude of it all.
One senior figure suggests that Brexit could result in “potentially quite fundamental shifts” in both the relationship between the North and the South, and the relationship between Ireland and the UK.
“It’s going to change the world we live in,” he says. “That’s the reality, that we have to accept.”