Bobby McDonagh: Ireland’s interest lies with France in Brexit fisheries dispute

UK efforts to engage EU members unilaterally fails to understand union solidarity

October 28th, 2021: France will adopt a zero tolerance attitude towards Britain and block access to virtually all its boats until it awards the fishing licenses France says its fishermen need in its post-Brexit dispute, a government minister has said. Video: Reuters

 

In the current fisheries dispute between France and the UK, Ireland’s sympathies and interests are broadly aligned with those of France. That is not to say, of course, that we want to become involved in the minutiae of the issues at stake or that we take pleasure in two friends being at loggerheads. We naturally welcome recent indications that both sides may be backing away from a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo. Ireland’s hope is to see the confrontation resolved quickly and amicably, through common sense and compromise, in full respect of commitments entered into and of international law.

However, there can be no doubt which side of the current disagreement we have the greater affinity with. There are four main reasons for this.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome

First and foremost, Ireland and France are members of the European Union, a close partnership that our British friends, very sadly, chose to leave. EU membership involves a high degree of mutual commitment and a natural solidarity in international relations.

Some British politicians and commentators seem, in recent years, to misread the nature of EU membership. They speak of the UK developing its relationship with individual EU member states, either bilaterally or through organisations such as Nato, as if France or, say, Finland could have a relationship with the UK that is somehow separate from their EU membership, as if they could wear one hat when dealing with Brussels and another when dealing with London.

The UK must understand that the only relationship Ireland can have with it, on any issue, is as a member state of the European Union

Any genuine attempt by the UK to deepen its relationship with individual member states should be welcomed and reciprocated. This is especially true of Ireland given our geographical proximity, our complex mutual history, the deep friendship between our peoples and our shared responsibility for peace on this island, even if that shared responsibility is no longer as respected as it should be.

However, the UK must understand that the only relationship Ireland can have with it, on any issue, is as a member state of the European Union. Ireland necessarily views the world, including the current fishing dispute, through a European prism. The UK itself shared that perspective for over half a century. The EU is part of what Ireland and France are, not an organisation in which from time to time our interests intersect.

Peace process

The second reason for our affinity with France in this instance is the strong support we have received from France, as from our other EU partners, throughout the Brexit process. The EU has prioritised addressing the profound implications of Brexit for the peace process. It did so from the outset even when those implications were being dismissed by the hardline Brexiteers, with Boris Johnson even suggesting that dealing with the acute sensitivities of the Irish Border was akin to managing London’s traffic congestion charges. The EU has continued its constructive approach, most recently by bending its own rules significantly to introduce the precise flexibilities in the application of the Northern Ireland protocol that the business community on the ground had asked for.

Eventually it will dawn on London that this sort of behaviour is counterproductive and serves to draw EU member states closer together

Lord Frost continues to spin a yarn about seeking to protect the Belfast Agreement even as he distances himself from, and threatens to undermine unilaterally, the delicate balances of the very international treaty he himself negotiated to protect that agreement. In this country, we know who our friends are in seeking to address the consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland, in working both to maximise the benefits for Northern Ireland of the Brexit protocol and to minimise any negative impact. France is one of those friends.

Hollow ring

A third factor which strengthens further the close bonds between EU member states, including in this instance France and Ireland, is the UK’s efforts to undermine EU solidarity. Most recently, Frost was playing footsie with Poland as regards the protocol by seeking to draw a spurious parallel between Poland’s current dispute with the European Court of Justice and his own attempt to remove the role of the ECJ from the agreement he negotiated. Eventually it will dawn on London that this sort of behaviour is counterproductive and serves to draw EU member states closer together.

Finally, some of the UK’s arguments in relation to the fisheries dispute ring particularly hollow here. Having become familiar over a long period with Frost’s verbal provocations towards the EU and his dismissive approach to implementing binding agreements, we cannot but be astonished at the lack of self-awareness that permits the UK secretary of state for the environment, George Eustice, to criticise what he described as inflammatory French rhetoric and its possible breach of international law.

The rhetoric on all sides should be turned down. A compromise on fisheries should be sought. As Wellington himself commented when surveying the carnage at Waterloo, the next worst thing to a great defeat is a great victory.

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