The draft EU guidelines for negotiating Brexit are a welcome first offer in the process by which the departure of the UK from the European Union will be negotiated.

 

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It is, of course, a little artificial for a negotiating strategy to be developed in public and in the full gaze of the other party to the talks. And so, there is an element of a wish-list and an element of posturing in the draft as published. It could not be kept secret in any event.

While lip service is paid to the phasing of the negotiating process, and the idea that the terms of departure will be decided first while the future EU-UK relationship comes later, in reality the two are phases are completely inter-dependent, and “nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed”

The Irish interest is well-flagged in aspirational terms; there is explicit recognition that the position of Ireland is “unique” in the process and there is strong support for the Good Friday Agreement, and its aims are recognised as being of “paramount importance”. There is express recognition of the need for “flexible and imaginative” solutions to the problems created for Ireland by Brexit. And there is a stated aim of avoiding a hard border and preserving existing bi-lateral agreements and arrangements between Ireland and the UK as far as compatible with EU law.

As I have written here before, the Common Travel Area is not a huge or difficult issue. Britain simply does not propose any imposition of visa-based travel for EU citizens.

Their post-Brexit “border” for EU citizens, as I predicted, will be based on post-arrival restrictions on remaining in the UK based on barriers in terms of access to employment, welfare, housing, healthcare, social welfare, education and public services, such as permits and driving licences for future would-be EU citizen immigrants.

Organising a formal system of over-seeing the departure of over-staying EU visitors would be very complex and would probably entail the introduction of landing cards; that seems far too difficult to contemplate.

So our “mini-Schengen” on these islands will probably continue indefinitely. Nothing very different will happen at our borders.

Irish citizens will be continue to be exempt, on a reciprocal basis, from  UK controls that will apply to non-Irish migrants as regards employment, healthcare, welfare, residence, voting rights, economic establishment, and education.

As far as personal travel and establishment within these islands is concerned there will be no noticeable change.

It is at the economic and trading level that the need for “flexible and imaginative” solutions to avoid a “hard border” between the UK and Ireland is most obvious and pressing.

Obviously, the more the British succeed in negotiating a free trade relationship with the EU, the softer will be the border as far as exports and imports of goods between the UK and Ireland will be.

But unless there is a comprehensive UK-EU free trade in goods agreement, there will have to be some form of trade monitoring in some areas either between Ireland and the entire UK, including Northern Ireland, or else between the entire island of Ireland and Britain. Could that monitoring be done on a desk-top basis or would it have to be physical?

The case for the whole island being considered a special economic zone or a special trading zone (as was once the case in EEC law between West and East Germany) could arise depending on the work-out of the free trade negotiations.

Most north-produced milk is exported south. A huge amount of Irish-produced agricultural output is exported to the UK. Preserving that trade on a tariff-free basis is a huge priority for us. The UK has to make some pretty fundamental decisions on whether it wants to pursue a globalist cheap food policy or to subsidise its own agricultural sector on an EU-compatible basis post Brexit. Ireland has a lot at stake in that deliberation. So do northern farmers and the northern economy west of the Bann.

Non-agricultural goods exports are equally important. It is there that the promise of “flexible and imaginative solutions” is most challenging. What are those solutions? What are the North-South implications?

The other aspects of the single market for services are not as problematic for Ireland. We can live with limitations on the UK’s access to the single market for services. There may be some advantages for Ireland as a location for service-providers arising from those limitations.

We will be at a loss of our strongest ally at the EU Council table. That is very serious, as I know from my days at the Justice & Home Affairs Council meetings.

The Irish interest in the entire EU project has been radically affected by Brexit. It was easy to claim that we were enthusiastic Europeans while we had our bigger, stronger British buddy at our side to resist the integrationist urges of the federalists. Now our interests are quite different.

While a few EU wonks will still blather on about the need to be at the centre of the European project, the adoption by the Brussels establishment of a two-speed Europe as a future path for the Union is probably best for Ireland. We do not want to be integrated as a tiny province of an EU super-state. We want and need to retain the maximum scope for the unanimity rule in EU affairs.

If some member states are really serious about enhanced political, defence and fiscal integration (which I very much doubt), I say “Let them go ahead”. The newer member states are in no mood to build a German dominated sovereign Europe. The French will never admit that their relations with Germany are other than on the basis of equality. But it suits both France and Germany to pose as equals, even if the rest of us are not fooled.

Trump’s attitude to the EU is already deflating, as is his attitude to NATO. There is no brooding menace to us that justifies our huddling together in an integrated EU super-state.

We need a far more realistic and honest national debate than heretofore on the type of Europe we aspire to now. I can see the opportunity to develop that debate and I hope we can all contribute to it.

 

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