Stephen Collins: May puts an end to wishful thinking about Brexit
Avoiding hard Border will require significant concessions from EU partners
Theresa May’s speech put an end to any remaining delusions on either side of the Irish Sea that somehow Britain will be able to retain access to the EU single market and customs union. Photograph: Getty Images
More than six months after the British voted to leave the European Union it is now abundantly clear that the hardest possible Brexit is coming inexorably down the tracks.
This was always the only possible outcome given the nature of the referendum campaign in the UK and the poisonous atmosphere it generated towards the fundamental principles that underpin the EU.
EU commissioner Phil Hogan warned the Oireachtas EU committee last autumn that the only choice was “a hard Brexit or no Brexit” but that was not enough to dispel a lot of wishful thinking in Ireland that some sort of soft option was possible.
Theresa May’s speech on Tuesday contained lots of confused and contradictory aspirations but it at least put an end to any remaining delusions on either side of the Irish Sea that somehow Britain will be able to retain access to the EU single market and customs union despite leaving.
Responding in the Dáil on Tuesday Enda Kenny was inclined to emphasise the positive side of the May speech in so far as it represented clarity but Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had a more negative and probably realistic appraisal, warning: “She will speak softly to the Taoiseach and Britain is speaking softly but they will behave and act differently.”
No potential conflictThe challenge for the Irish Government is whether it can hold Mrs May to her commitment to retain the Common Travel Area between the two islands while also avoiding a return to a hard land border between the two countries.
The retention of the common travel area is eminently feasible, regardless of what happens on other issues, as long as the British are willing to retain it. Ireland and the UK are outside the Schengen common travel area that covers most other EU countries so there is no potential conflict with the common travel area.
Avoiding a return to a hard Border is another matter. While May and Kenny have said they don’t want that to happen, the final decision will not be in the gift of either of them as the question of trade barriers will be a matter negotiation between the EU and the UK.
On the positive side it does appear that there is an appreciation at EU level and across its member states that Northern Ireland is a special case and that some specifically tailored measures will be required to protect the peace process.
This will require a willingness on the part of the EU institutions and member states to treat Northern Ireland as a special case but also demand an imaginative response from British Conservatives and Northern Unionists. On past form it would be foolish to depend too much on either.
Clear ideaThe Irish Government will need to have a clear idea about what it wants to achieve and how it intends to go about it. It will also need allies at the highest levels in all EU institutions as well as among the member states if some special arrangement for the North is to emerge.
One danger is that the British might try to use the Irish issue as a negotiating ploy to extract concessions from the EU on a wider trade deal, but it is far too early to anticipate what might happen.
Once article 50 is triggered in March, negotiations on the terms of the UK exit will begin. The British government wants parallel discussions on what new arrangement will follow but the EU is adamant that those talks will only happen once the exit terms are agreed. How that will play out is anybody’s guess.
While the ideal outcome for Ireland is one that does the least damage to the economies of both the EU and the UK, the bottom line is that the future welfare of the EU is ultimately the greater priority for us.
There is simply no arguing with the fact that the dramatic increase in Irish living standards is recent decades is mainly attributable to EU membership.
Dáithí O’Ceallaigh of the Institute for International and European Affairs was undoubtedly correct when he said this week that Ireland had benefited more from EU membership that any other member country.
Still, the fact remains that Ireland will be more affected by Brexit than any of the other 27 remaining EU member states and we will need some special provisions to cushion the blow.
A concerted effort at political and diplomatic level will be needed to convince the major EU institutions and the other 26 member states that we really are a special case. The Taoiseach’s recent visit to Madrid to meet Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy will have to be followed up by similar meetings with other EU leaders.
An equally important challenge will be to maintain good relations with the UK in the years ahead. Those relations, which have taken decades to mature, are important for the people of both countries and are vital for the continuation of peace in the North.
Maintaining them in spite of the tensions that will inevitably develop in the talks between the EU and UK in the course of the forthcoming negotiations will take political skill and patience on both sides.