Tough task ahead to get EU to act on its commitment to Ireland

We’ve managed to get our Brexit concerns on the table, but the challenge is to get results

Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks to media  at an EU summit in Brussels on Saturday.  Photograph: Olivier Matthys/AP

Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks to media at an EU summit in Brussels on Saturday. Photograph: Olivier Matthys/AP

 

In the tumultuous early days of the economic crisis, it quickly became apparent inside Government that the State’s efforts to defend its corner and salvage the country’s reputation would require one of the biggest diplomatic efforts undertaken in a generation. Unfortunately for the Government, that realisation coincided with another one: that relations with EU capitals were not as good as they should have been.

With rare exceptions, ministers didn’t speak any foreign languages. The Department of Foreign Affairs had good contacts throughout the foreign ministries of key EU capitals, but its knowledge of the internal dynamics in the continent’s finance ministries – where some of the key decisions about the bailout funds, promissory notes and banking reform were to take shape – was thinner.

While the EU was full of informal alliances – for example, the Franco-German motor, the Benelux club or the Visegrad group of emerging central European powers – Dublin was more of a sole operator, seeking out partners on individual issues such as financial services (the UK), agriculture (France) or trade (the Netherlands). To compound the sense of isolation, Ireland’s closest EU ally, the United Kingdom, was absent from key euro zone meetings.

Diplomatic offensive

As the crisis of 2008-2013 wore on, some of these problems were addressed. The EU division of the Department of Foreign Affairs moved to Government Buildings, where the diplomatic offensive was centralised. Key embassies were mobilised, and weekly conference calls involving Dublin-based officials and ambassadors on the continent helped improve co-ordination and intelligence-gathering.

For the Department of Foreign Affairs, long a semi-autonomous – and, in the view of many civil servants, eccentric – enclave within Government, it required a culture change. “Here, your line departments really are the Department of Finance and the Department of the Taoiseach [now],” one Irish diplomat in the EU capital told me last year. “Your interactions with DFA are very limited. The other two are much more important parent departments. I report to them and take my instructions from them.”

For the civil service, the economic turmoil of 2008-2013 was a once-in-a-generation crisis. Or so it seemed until British voters opted in June last year to leave the European Union. Almost a year on, the huge dimensions of the challenge posed by Brexit are only becoming clear.

Dublin’s agenda

But for those working to advance Dublin’s agenda in the build-up to the formal EU-UK divorce talks, the experience of the past decade was useful preparation. “I think we learned the lessons of the economic crisis, particularly on how to get Ireland’s messages across at all layers – ministerial, official, parliamentary, public.”

Since the referendum in June last year, the Government’s diplomatic efforts have focused on what officials refer to as phase one: persuading fellow member states of the Republic’s unique exposure to Brexit.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and other Ministers have spoken to their opposite numbers. A succession of EU heads of government and foreign ministers have come to Dublin and been paraded in front of the cameras to say they recognise Ireland’s unique circumstances. A group of key Brexit officials drawn from the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs have also travelled across Europe to bring the message directly to their own counterparts.

Key documents

The Government believes its efforts have been vindicated by the inclusion in all the key documents, notably British prime minister Theresa May’s article 50 letter and the EU27 negotiating guidelines agreed at the weekend, of all Ireland’s key concerns. These are: Northern Ireland, the Border and the Belfast Agreement; the Common Travel Area; and bilateral trade .

In their work on Brexit, diplomats have been mulling over how to position Ireland in the evolving network of EU alliances now that the UK is on the way out. So far the prevailing view is that, rather than aligning the State with any one group, the Government should continue to seek out allies on an issue-by-issue basis, but to work harder at cultivating these overlapping connections.

Brexit is already throwing up natural partnerships. For example, the meeting in The Hague last week between Kenny and his Dutch and Danish counterparts reflected the three countries’ desire to protect their massive trade links with the UK.

Structural funds

Concerns differ markedly across the continent, however. In eastern Europe, governments worry that the UK’s departure will result in a fall-off in their structural funds. For some capitals in central Europe, which have relatively modest ties with the British, the key concern is that the EU should continue to function well. (Some foreign diplomats in Dublin grumble that the Government, so preoccupied with its own priorities, has shown little interest so far in discussing the shape of the post-Brexit EU. Irish officials say they have devoted more attention to this since the beginning of the year).

If phase one consisted of getting Dublin’s concerns onto the agenda, then the guidelines agreed this weekend mark its successful conclusion. But phase two – translating relatively cost-free rhetorical commitments into firm results, such as an invisible Border or maintenance of the Common Travel Area – will be far more difficult.

“On the one hand, we are pleased that we have got to this point,” John Callinan, the top Brexit official in the Department of the Taoiseach told a seminar organised by the trade unions Impact and Siptu earlier this month. “On the other hand, in rugby parlance, it’s like winning the first lineout. There’s a long, long, long way to go.”

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