Last week, Theresa May has set out her government’s wish-list for its Brexit deal with the EU. Her Lancaster House speech was aspirational rather than specific. The bottom line is that she envisages a post-Brexit relationship in which the UK is no longer part of the EU or of the EU’s single market but is able to have the maximum free-trading relationship with the EU. Whether that is feasible or not remains to be seen.
What does this British approach mean for Ireland? The answer is: “It depends”.
Ireland is mostly concerned with avoiding a system of tariffs on goods traded between the EU and the UK post- Brexit. It is not of huge concern to us whether the UK remains within the Single Market if we can continue to trade in goods with the UK tariff-free. Likewise, it is of little concern to us whether the UK’s tariff-free trading relationship with the EU derives from membership or adherence to the EU’s Customs Union or, alternatively, derives from a stand-alone EU-UK free trade agreement.
We do not want a physical border reinstated between the Republic and Northern Ireland. We want, if possible, that people and goods can remain free to cross the border without any controls. If there is a far-reaching free-trade deal done between the EU and the UK and if the Common Travel Area is preserved, there would be little need for any form of North-South border controls.
As far as the Common Travel Area between these islands is concerned, Theresa May has made it clear that any Brexit deal should preserve it.
Does that create difficulties for us? Not really.
The UK is not going to introduce visa requirements for citizens of EU countries who wish to travel to Britain. UK immigration controls for EU nationals will probably remain very similar post-Brexit to those that exist today.
Controlling non-Irish EU immigration into the UK will probably be done only by denying employment, welfare, health, housing and long-term residency rights to any future EU would-be migrant who has not been granted specific permission to live and work in the UK.
In that context, the very most that the UK might have to add to the existing regime for most EU passport holders travelling to the UK would be some form of entry monitoring with dated passport stamping or recorded entry, and/or a landing card like we already use on visa-free travel to the US (which might be necessary in the case of allowing EU citizens to travel on their ID cards).
In that context, we would have to consider whether Ireland might become a migration back-door.
One possibility would be the introduction of some UK checking on migrants crossing the Irish Sea by air or sea. Another approach would be for Ireland to have a shared Common Travel Area passport stamping and recorded entry system or shared Common Travel Area landing card system for EU nationals landing in Ireland.
None of the foregoing would be difficult in principle or in practice. And it would all be worthwhile if it meant no effective change to the Common Travel Area.
All of this means that Ireland’s primary focus and all-out political and diplomatic effort must be on maintaining the maximum tariff-free movement of goods between the EU and the UK.
Our interests in that regard coincide with the aims of the UK as stated by Theresa May. The corollary is that we are totally opposed to any attempt to punish the UK for leaving the EU by the imposition of a tariff wall between the EU member states and the UK.
Another logical implication is the Ireland should reject the nonsensical mantra that the Brexit Agreement under Article 50 should be negotiated first and only thereafter should the question of tariffs and tariff-free trading be dealt with.
It is childishly naïve to think that the question of an Article 50 exit agreement should be, or will be, concluded without an agreement on the subsequent EU/UK trading relationship.
Likewise, Brexit is a complex, multi-faceted operation which will inevitably entail multilateral diplomacy and politicking. The idea that Michel Barnier/ David Davis will be the only channel of communication and negotiation is ridiculous – and just false.
Ireland cannot play an observer role in these matters. Our vital interests are at risk to an extent greater than any other single member state among the 27,- and to the same extent at least as the joint EU vital interest is at stake.
We must therefore protect those interests through vigorous and full-blooded diplomacy and multilateral negotiation at a political level. We cannot afford to meekly await the outcome of negotiations in which are special interests are not kept front and centre-stage. We must keep in active dialogue with the UK throughout the process. It doesn’t really matter whether the EU likes us doing so or not. It’s a case of “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do”. We cannot be virginal in our EU policy.
GCHQ, MI6 and all of the UK’s secret services will be switched on to do that at which they excel – knowing what is really happening among the 27 and in each of the 27. Michel Barnier’s hand in this poker game will be well and truly known to his UK interlocutors. Bluffing by the EU and outward pretence at working to a single EU strategy simply will not work.
So we in Ireland are going to get our hands dirty and risk being seen as undependable by both sides in the negotiation process if we are to succeed. We cannot be passive or nervous nor entrust the protection of our interests to those who do not share them.. Our sovereignty is in issue in 2016 just as much as it was in issue 100 years ago. It is for moments like this that we became independent.
Theresa May said that a bad deal is worse than no deal. That sabre-rattling annoyed the leader-writer in the Irish Times who described it as a poor way to begin negotiations. How naïve can some people be? It was code for the self-evidently truth that both the EU and the UK have a greater interest in harmonious co-existence than the EU has in pursuing outcomes that act as a deterrent to other EU member states.
It was a reminder to the looney federalists in Brussels that the member-states had their own “skin in the game”. Real power in Europe resides in the member-states far more than it resides in the EU institutions.
If you want a good laugh this week, just consider the suicidal implosion of the leader of the ALDE liberal group in the European parliament – my old federalist icon Guy Verhofstadt.
This Belgian MEP is the founder of the wacky Spinelli Group, a cadre of federalist extremists, who proposed in a recent book, Europe Now!, that this present European Parliament should just declare itself a constituent assembly of the people of Europe, adopt a new federal super-state constitution for Europe, and then exclude any dissenting member-states that did not agree to becoming subordinate to the EU state. He never ceases to amuse.
Always desperate for power, and not content with having recently been appointed as the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations (a joke in itself!), Verhofstadt attempted to recruit to his candidacy for the presidency of the EU parliament in last week’s election all the MEPs representing Bepe Grillo’s Italian 5 Star movement. The arch-federalist wanted an alliance with the Italian arch-skeptics!
Needless to say, this crazy Verhofstadt project derailed by itself. The liberal ALDE group rebelled; they had nothing in common with the Italian populists except for the horrifying realisation that Verhofstadt was proving himself to be a clown while Bepe Grillo had actually worked his way up from being a professional clown.
In that context you can judge just how seriously we should take Phil Hogan’s suggestion that we should trust the negotiation of our future to the hands of the EU’s institutions’ negotiators – Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt!