Phil Hogan: It has been a suprisingly good year for the European project

Like a half-drowned dog that’s just climbed out of a flooded river, the European Union has this year given itself a good shake

 

Well, that was the year that was. A year of patient behind-the-scenes diplomacy and some tough leadership centre-stage culminating in a European Union-United Kingdom divorce agreement that respects Ireland’s border and the need for security. But it was a close run thing.

For much of the year the UK was apparently unable to understand the Brexit implications for our joint land Border, believing that Brexit started and ended with money. It was only when the issue landed on prime minister Theresa May’s desk at five minutes-to-midnight that Ireland was able to get a proper hearing.

Dublin and Brussels were insistent. Right from the outset, they said the terms of the divorce would have to contain proper treatment for Ireland’s border. They never wavered.

And European Council president Donald Tusk made clear when he came to Dublin that it would be Ireland’s government who would judge what was proper treatment. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier have been equally clear.

It was a clear sign of how much stronger we are as member states when the union is acting with us and for us.

This strength of the European Union is one of the things the United Kingdom is losing.

Even then, it took several sharp Taoiseach to prime minister conversations to drive home the truth that mishandling the border could create, or recreate, a host of problems.

May proved she understands what’s at stake and was determined to deliver a sustainable solution that assured our mutual security.

It’s been a year of good fortune. Like a half-drowned dog that’s just climbed out of a flooded river, the European Union has this year given itself a good shake. And good fortune shone on Ireland and the EU bringing rewards for some difficult-to-enact and hard-to-accept policies.

A year ago the future was full of risk. A strong feeling of anti-everything threatened to sweep through successive elections and seriously damage what the union has built together.

It even looked as if it would magnify the damage of Brexit by dividing the union’s member states.

The union has climbed out of the danger. Ireland is also much stronger economically, delivering more prosperity and better jobs. There are new ideas to make us stronger.

Another thing. Brexit did not sunder the union. And that was largely due to determined leadership by Dublin and Brussels. Make no mistake about it. There was always a very real fear that a “divide and rule strategy” would have worked. But European unity has been remarkably strong. The union passed a difficult test and this is a source of massive satisfaction for all of us as we step towards the future.

But Ireland should not undo its seat belt. Not yet. There’s still turbulence ahead. As the Taoiseach said, we’ve only reached the end of the beginning.

The year ends on an upbeat. The divorce is agreed but must now be turned into law. If the hallmark of a political compromise is that people can agree even though they still hold slightly different views, the hallmark of law is that everyone knows what it means and that it means the same to all.

There are two more hot potatoes to be handled. The UK and the EU must define the terms of the transition that will allow the United Kingdom to adjust to its new reality. In effect, this will roll potential Brexit dislocations to the early 2020s. Perhaps this potato is warm rather than hot, since everyone starts from a broad agreement.

The other potato is hotter - the UK’s eventual trade relationship with the EU. Issues such as food standards, financial services’ passporting, customs regulations and so on will set up a collision between delusions and hard facts. Indeed, Britain’s referendum set up a similar collision between dreams and reality or, if we look at things more coldly, between fibs and truth.

This might be a bitter experience for the UK. It’s true the people wanted this. But they may still not grasp the full impact of their decision. And the process of finding out is going to be painful. So be ready for the unexpected.

Ireland is living a story for which the ending has not yet been written. We know where we are. We know we’re doing the right things. We know where we want to go. But we still can’t be sure how we’ll get there.

Phil Hogan is European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development

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