‘Irish veto threat’ has become part of a new narrative from London

Talk of ‘veto threats’ is just smoke and mirrors

Ireland’s EU commissioner Phil Hogan. He never said “veto”. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Ireland’s EU commissioner Phil Hogan. He never said “veto”. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

 

“The Irish Republic’s EU commissioner has said Dublin will ‘play tough to the end’ over its threat to veto Brexit talks moving on to discuss trade,” was how the BBC reported Phil Hogan’s Observer interview at the weekend.

The problem is that Hogan, as the transcript of the interview shows, did not use either the word “threat” or “veto”, nor did he confirm that such a threat existed when asked.

Nor has the threat been made by the Government – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has on at least two public occasions made clear that he has no intention of wielding the said veto.

Not only was it unnecessary, he said, but he disliked the use of the veto in EU decision-making as a matter of principle. Indeed, for many years Ireland has worked hard in the Council of Ministers to avoid using a veto, and even the word, acknowledging that it is a blunt instrument which may antagonise partners; better to join a consensus than thwart change even if that means occasionally taking a hit. Ireland gets marks for its clubability.

In the emerging area of European defence co-operation, an area requiring unanimity, Irish diplomats have skilfully incorporated language in EU texts that makes a nod in the direction of our neutrality – again without mentioning the word – while at the same time demonstrating a willingness not to impede the rest from moving forward with their common projects.

Big exception

The big exception is taxation where Dublin continues to insist the issue remains a national prerogative and will block harmonising legislation and any attempt, like that promised only on Tuesday by economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici, to move the issue to majority voting.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is pragmatic: “We don’t need to use a veto because we have complete solidarity on this issue with 26 other EU countries. It is clear to us that if there is not progress on the Irish Border, we will not be moving on to phase two [of Brexit negotiations] in December and that was reinforced to me ... by very senior EU leaders.”

The leaked report last week from Irish diplomats assessing the mood around Europe’s capitals reflected no partner issues with the current negotiating strategy, specifically the demand for movement on the Border in phase one. And Irish officials in Brussels say that there has been no dissent manifest at ambassadors’ meetings. The reported deal on the Brexit bill is unlikely to change that significantly.

But the “Irish veto threat” has become part of a new narrative from London – the Observer’s statement as fact that the threat has been made has been replicated not only by the BBC and Sky but in other newspapers such as the Financial Times and by British politicians.

Even RTÉ used “The Brexit Veto: How and why Ireland raised the stakes” to headline a perceptive online analysis by its Brussels man, Tony Connelly, though his only reference to such a threat was a denial that Ireland would be vetoing anything. Although the EU 27 might.

As tempers between Dublin and London have frayed over the insistence by Ireland and the EU negotiating task force that there has to be progress on the Border before phase two talks can begin, there has been what appears to be a concerted campaign by London to portray Dublin as the villain of the piece, ungrateful for all that the UK has done for us over the year, and aggressively upping the talks ante with little regard to the interests of fellow member-states’ interests. And dragging a perhaps reluctant Michel Barnier to places he would rather not go. The tail wagging the dog.

Talk of veto threats usefully develops this narrative – it suggests weakness, “Ireland alone” battling selfishly against the 26, but able to wield, the suggestion is, what is ultimately the undemocratic weapon of the veto. It is curious and ironic in this context, how wedded to the veto the UK has always been, seeing it as emblematic of the ultimate sovereignty of individual member states.

But no, we are not likely to be wielding a veto any time soon.

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