Pity the Brexit deal is not worth the paper it’s written on
Agreement would have been astonishing political and diplomatic achievement for Ireland
Europe delivered for Ireland in spades. The personal commitment of Europe’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier was particularly significant. He had original empathy for the Irish predicament. Photograph: Reuters
The draft agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union published on Wednesday night represents an astonishing political and diplomatic achievement for Ireland. It is more than a pity that it seems it won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.
Over the last 2½ years while Britain has been on the tortuous and self-destructive journey down the road to Brexit the Irish Government has adopted an approach marked by serenity.
Amidst the Brexit chaos there is so much which Ireland cannot control. Our politicians and diplomats wisely chose to focus on the things which we could change. Shaping the terms of the British-EU withdrawal agreement was one such. That focus has paid off this week.
She inherited the Brexit mess. It was a project flawed in its design and lacking any implementation plan
Ireland achieved its objective. The agreement provides for a lengthy and extendable transition period. The deal requires, that in the absence of an alternative agreement, the UK will stay in the custom union. The “backstop” relating to Northern Ireland has not only been preserved but enhanced within that UK-wide arrangement.
The agreement provides that the North will, in addition, have to comply with an extensive range of European Union regulations and laws sufficient to enable the continuance of a completely open Border with Ireland “unless and until” some other agreement is put in place.
Reports over the last few months suggested that much of the British government’s focus in negotiations was on incorporating a process into the withdrawal agreement which would enable the British government to terminate this Northern Ireland backstop unilaterally. The agreement text as published, however, makes that impossible.
There had been some talk too that there would be means in the agreement for the newly established arbitration panel to be involved in deciding on a dispute between Britain and the EU on whether the backstop could end.
In some of the reports this talk of an arbitration panel echoed worryingly the 1920s Boundary Commission.
The agreement as finalised gives the arbitration panel no such role. The review clause in the agreement says that a decision to end the backstop provisions, or any of them, has to be made jointly.
Irish diplomatic success
This Irish diplomatic success was achieved by carefully setting our key objectives. This including majoring on the need to avoid the re-emergence of any physical border on this island. It involved leveraging and building on the provisions of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. It included hours of delicate political and diplomatic work with the other 26 member states in their capitals and in Brussels. Above all else it involved marshalling goodwill towards Ireland across all the EU institutions.
The EU has let Ireland down before, most recently during the 2007-08 banking and fiscal crisis. This time Europe delivered for Ireland in spades. The personal commitment of Europe’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier was particularly significant. He had original empathy for the Irish predicament. He and his team invested considerable effort in truly understanding our concerns and they played a key role in persuading the European Union side to compromise; letting the UK as a whole stay in the European Union.
If this agreement were ever to actually become operable Barnier would be seen as having done more for Ireland than any non-citizen since Jack Charlton.
Importantly the approach also meant that Ireland and the EU could not be accused of failing to reach across to accommodate the other side in the negotiations. Theresa May got what she asked for in a UK-wide customs arrangement.
The fact that the withdrawal agreement will now not get the support of parliament at Westminster is not the EU’s fault, not Ireland’s fault and in fairness not May’s fault.
Marks for effort
She inherited the Brexit mess. It was a project flawed in its design and lacking any implementation plan. May has survived longer than expected, notwithstanding a botched general election. She has now got an actual deal with Europe. She got that deal through her cabinet. She deserves marks for effort but is again in a very precarious position.
The Irish government has done its best. It could have done no more. What happens next is way beyond its control. We can now only watch on in horror as the British political system contorts itself, through leadership struggles, and maybe even through an election or another referendum.
Leo Varadkar described Wednesday as one of the better days in politics. For Ireland it was indeed a good day. This weekend, through no fault of our own, we again, however, face the real prospect of a nightmare cliff-edge Brexit.
Not for the first time both Ireland’s economic future and its political peace are at risk of being collaterally damaged because of political ineptitude in Britain. Almost a century after our independence British politics still exposes Ireland to real harm.