Britain is uncomfortable because Ireland has the upper hand for the first time
Finn McRedmond: UK cannot see the State as a nation realising its voice on the international stage
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson: The UK casts Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney as naive slaves of the EU, unwittingly preparing themselves for sacrifice at the hands of the Brussels elite. Photograph: Tolga Akmen
The UK made its position abundantly clear – it wants nothing to do with the European Union, its institutions, rules, bureaucracy and politicians. Thankfully – after Boris Johnson secured a seismic mandate from the electorate late last year – the UK has left the EU and needn’t worry itself anymore.
Given that, British commentators remain curiously obsessed with the European Union’s internal politics – even when it has no impact on the United Kingdom at all. Latest in this saga is the delight certain Brexit-ideologues took in the ongoing EU budget negotiations – which saw Ireland asked to increase its monetary contributions while cutting subsidies for Irish farmers and regional development programmes. Ross Clark wrote in the Spectator that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was “hung out to dry by the EU”, while Brexit commentator Darren Grimes seemed to revel in noting that Varadkar’s “slavish loyalty” to the EU had seen a pretty poor return on investment.
Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney have long been dismissed by parts of the UK press as mere patsies of the European Union – happy to be weaponised by the shadowy figures in Berlaymont only to be thrown under the bus later. The latest budget news has made for some very happy Brexiteers indeed – they think they’ve been proven right; and with that their pass to continue with their ill-informed criticisms of the Irish Government has been renewed.
These dismissals of Varadkar and Coveney as foolish cronies of Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker are just part of a much wider pattern
These dismissals of Varadkar and Coveney as foolish cronies of Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker are just part of a much wider pattern. It seems the notion of Ireland as a country with its own interests, capable of working to its own advantage – to many in the UK government, and its friends in the UK press (from the Telegraph to the Spectator to the Express) – is not just inconceivable but a straightforward impossibility.
Instead they view Ireland’s steadfast commitment to maintaining an open border as a product of Brussels’s manipulation – something the nasty technocrats on the Continent are using as leverage to punish the UK for deigning to leave the bloc. This laughably self-obsessed belief is replicated too in the UK commentariat’s mistaken view that Varadkar suffered in the election because of his stance on Brexit. And it shows exactly what type of government currently occupies Number 10 Downing Street: one that is incapable of viewing Ireland and the European Union through any other lens than itself.
So the fight for an open border is not seen as a bid to protect the stability and security of a highly febrile region, only recently at peace and still awaiting true reconciliation, but rather as a bid from the petulant EU to make life for the Conservatives as hard as possible. And the ongoing budget negotiations between the EU and Ireland are not understood as the standard-issue budget negotiations they are – but rather as Ireland receiving its just deserts for refusing to cow to every demand of the British government for the past three years.
That Ireland is a happy member of the EU with a simple dedication to protecting its own interests in the midst of a damaging Brexit seems to have eluded their grasp.
It is too easy, though, to claim there is some kind of generalised anti-Irish sentiment hanging over the UK. These beliefs come not from a dislike for Irish people on the streets of London or elsewhere – Britain, in general, is welcoming to the Irish, and has long been the home to millions of Irish emigrants.
Number 10 Downing Street is incapable of viewing Ireland and the European Union through any other lens than itself
Rather, this is an institutional discomfort with Ireland’s newfound status – as a member of the trading bloc the UK decided to leave, for the first time enjoying the upper hand over its closest neighbour in the Brexit negotiations. The UK – unable to conceive of Ireland as a nation realising its voice on an international stage – instead has found it easier to resort to long-held stereotypes, casting Varadkar and Coveney as naive slaves of the EU, unwittingly preparing themselves for sacrifice at the hands of the Brussels elite later down the line.
And as Brexiteers realised the error of their own ways – not in trying to leave the bloc but in underestimating precisely how difficult it would be – they have attempted to blame a nasty and vindictive EU, or a foolish and naive Ireland, for the all the difficulties they have encountered. But ascribing the mistakes made by the UK government to bad faith negotiating from the EU, and reducing Varadkar to the image of an idolatrous taoiseach begging for help from the malevolent forces in Brussels is a stunningly unsubtle attempt at a get-out, designed to detract from the UK’s own errors.
And as the next phase gets under way, with the likelihood of striking a trade deal looking vanishingly unlikely, we are left with an unavoidable conclusion: that attacks about “little Ireland’s ridiculous leaders” and the “naive”, “dishonest” approach they took to negotiations comes not from a place of confidence but insecurity about what lies in store for Brexit Britain.