Stephen Collins: Kenny has delivered on first round of Brexit talks
Taoiseach has ensured Irish concerns will be at centre of EU negotiators’ mandate
Considerable credit must also go to the Taoiseach whose high standing with European leaders proved pivotal in ensuring Ireland was given almost everything it sought in the talks with our EU partners. Photograph: Getty Images
The Government is on the verge of a stunning diplomatic coup by getting our EU political partners to agree to put Irish concerns at the centre of the negotiations with the UK on the terms of Brexit.
Taken in tandem with the first round of the French presidential election, which was vital for the future of the entire EU, there are now some reasons to be more optimistic about the future of the union in spite of the challenges that remain.
The good news for Ireland is that Saturday’s summit of 27 EU leaders in Brussels is set to ensure that this country’s concerns feature strongly in the mandate to be given to EU negotiators for their crunch talks with the British.
That will give the lie to the many prophets of doom who questioned the ability of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his officials to represent Irish interests, and who also predicted that the EU institutions would ignore this country’s concerns.
In fact the opposite has happened on both counts. After the most sustained diplomatic campaign since Ireland joined the EU over 40 years ago, the EU negotiating mandate will contain unprecedented assurances for an individual country.
It is not a big surprise that the EU is more than willing to allow this country to retain the Common Travel Area with the UK
Not only will it reiterate the support of the EU for the Belfast Agreement and the continuation of the funding arrangements that underpin it, but will spell out that the people living in Northern Ireland will be entitled to retain the benefits of EU citizenship despite the departure of the UK from the union.
Crucially the conclusions are also expected to recognise Ireland’s unique geographical position, with an acceptance that this has implications for the transit of goods on the island.
It is not a big surprise that the EU is more than willing to allow this country to retain the Common Travel Area with the UK, but the recognition that special arrangements will also be required for trade could be really important in minimising the damage that Brexit will inflict on both sides of the Border.
Of course it is still early days, and the tough talking has yet to begin. “We have won the first lineout but the rest of the match is still ahead of us. But it was important to get a good start,” said one of the Irish officials involved.
The outcome from an Irish point of view reflects the hard work that began at official level even before the Brexit referendum last June, when contingency plans were put in place for a worst-case scenario.
Considerable credit must also go to the Taoiseach whose high standing with other European leaders, established over a number of years, proved pivotal in ensuring that Ireland was given almost everything it sought in the talks with our EU partners.
What also needs to be said is that the Irish case generated a great deal of sympathy and understanding from most of our EU partners at the beginning.
The notion fostered by some Opposition parties and pundits that EU institutions are indifferent or even hostile to Ireland’s interests is simply wrong. The economic and social benefits of EU membership over more than 40 years should have put that idea to bed a long time ago, but there is a persistent tendency to present every issue that arises in a confrontational frame, with Ireland having the victim status.
Irish governments have had to fight their corner with EU institutions and other member states on a variety of issues over the years, but the central point, appreciated by a majority of voters, is that the relationship has been an extremely fruitful one from both points of view.
Brussels insiders say that one of the reasons for the sympathetic hearing given to the Irish case arises from the recognition that this country is owed a debt of gratitude for taking the painful medicine that was required not only to save the Irish economy but to protect the EU banking system during the financial crisis.
One of the lessons the pro-EU parties in Ireland can learn from Emmanuel Macron’s first-round victory in France is that there is political credit to be obtained from a positive affirmation of pro-European sentiment.
Assuming that Macron goes on to win the second round, the outlook for the EU will begin to look increasingly sunny as the year progresses
Macron presented himself as a strong proponent of the EU and globalisation, and by doing so managed to mobilise younger voters in particular. It was heartening to see his supporters waving the EU flag in contrast to the increasingly narrow and xenophobic drift of public opinion in the UK.
Assuming that Macron goes on to win the second round, the outlook for the EU will begin to look increasingly sunny as the year progresses. Angela Merkel is likely to win another term in Germany in the autumn, and even if she doesn’t the alternative chancellor, Martin Schultz, is a committed European.
There is an argument that if two moderate left-wing politicians, Schulz and Macron, were in charge of the two biggest EU economies, long overdue serious investment in infrastructure might begin. That would be a huge fillip for the EU’s long-term prospects.
One way or another, the EU could be on the cusp of a virtuous political and economic cycle that would make the departure of the UK less damaging for the future of the European project and the future of Ireland than appeared likely last June.