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Problems Problems
From: Irish Political Review: Editorials
Date: March, 2017
By: Editorial

Brexit: Irish fudge undermines EU solidarity



Brexit: Irish fudge undermines EU solidarity
There are commendable elements in the Government's Brexit strategy—some Government Ministers are actively pursuing initiatives in response to the risks, and official agencies like the IDA (Industrial Development Authority) and Enterprise Ireland are moving well to take advantage of the opportunities. But the positive work is being undermined by a diplomatic fudge emanating most probably from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). The fudge is being expressed in the formula that Ireland should occupy a neutral space between the UK and the EU in the Brexit negotiations. It seems to be beyond the grasp of the Irish diplomatic mind that, because of Brexit, close alignment with Britain and membership of the EU are now mutually exclusive.

Signs of a post-Brexit strategic vision
Ireland, as a member of the EU, faces a unique problem: the substantial link between Europe and Ireland for passenger and freight traffic crosses what will before long be a country outside the Union, Britain. This presents substantial difficulties for both Imports and Exports, as goods will be passing through an area with a different tariff regime.
The answer must surely be that Ireland and Europe have to develop new direct links and expand existing transport routes.
At present the only daily sea link between Ireland and the EU is through the port of Rosslare, which runs freight and passenger services to the ports of Roscoff and Cherbourg in France. There is no service to Calais or other destinations. There are only weekly sailings between Cork and France, and Dublin Port and France; there are no links between Foynes (Limerick) and Europe. Direct Irish trade with the Continent and America was first curbed and then ended by Britain in the colonial era.

There has been little discussion of the problems posed by Ireland's isolation.
However, a number of recent Ministerial initiatives are worth highlighting. On January 31st the two Finance Ministers, Michael Noonan and Paschal Donohoe announced that an extra 2.6 billion was being made available for the capital investment programme that runs to 2021. Asked about specific projects, Noonan stated:

"If we live by trade, we need to increase the capacity of ports and if there are inhibitions on trading with the UK as a result of the Brexit negotiations, we'll need to expand the ports. Our tourist industry is going very well so airports will be important" (Irish Times, 31 Jan).

An indication of a proposal envisaged for one of the ports was given by Minister for Communications Denis Naughten in November. Naughten was quoted saying that Brexit will result in EU border checks which will drive up costs for freight companies transiting through Britain into Europe.

"Rotterdam is becoming hugely congested as the main port of Europe and there is potential to develop on the western seaboard a major port at Foynes that would act as a transit point for freight to and from North America. My suggestion is to do what we have done for passengers and have pre-clearance for large freight out of Foynes into the United States" (Sunday Independent, 6 Nov 2016).

No doubt such a proposal will meet the same response that met the original proposals for an airport at Knock, a TV channel in the Irish language (TnaG) and a financial service centre in Dublin. All three projects have been highly successful. The point is that, faced with a game changing development like the UK's exit from the EU, political leaders need to project a new strategic vision. Noonan and Naughten are striking the right notes.

Another Minister who is taking appropriate action rather than whinging about Brexit woes is the Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed. Creed is continuing on from where his predecessor left off in heading up trade missions to Morocco and Algeria, and defending the export of live cattle to Turkey. But he is using the issue of Brexit to add renewed vigour to those campaigns. Irish exports to Africa composed mostly of agri-food products are currently worth over 1 billion and some estimates project a potential expansion to 24 billion in the 2020s. Creed is showing that the diversification of foreign markets is a realistic answer to potential reductions in demand for Irish produce in the UK.

Neutral regarding Brexit
In early December Minister for Housing, Planning & Local Government Simon Coveney provided an honest summary of the Government's overall approach to Brexit in response to a Dail Question from Niall Collins of Fianna Fail. He said that Ireland will be neutral as between the UK and the EU in the negotiations following the sign-off of Article 50 (8 Dec, Irish Times). By any standards that statement on behalf of the Government of an EU member state was extraordinary.
While this is an advance on an earlier position that Ireland would be Britain's advocate in Europe, Coveney's statement betrays the central weakness in the Government's strategy. The unusually close relationship of recent years between Dublin and London has been rendered problematic and unsustainable by Brexit, but Dublin can't accept that it must end. The relationship has been nurtured meticulously by many officials and political leaders from both sides since at least the time of the Good Friday Agreement (1998); it has become so embedded in the mindset of Dublin officialdom, that, apparently, its loss cannot now be borne. So, official business is being conducted under the illusion that the relationship with London can go on much as before. At the same time reality is starting to impinge. We can only imagine what divisions are simmering beneath the surface in two key Ministries of the Irish State: the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
If Ireland persists in trying to retain its close relationship with Britain, it will make itself an instrument of British machinations and be treated accordingly by both the EU elite and the other member states. Such a stance will put Irish interests at severe risk. Ireland is remaining in the EU and it must therefore defend its interests by building support from inside the EU. In the circumstances the idea of staying neutral between Britain and Europe belongs in a compendium of great tactical blunders of our times.

Continuing links with Whitehall
A recent article in the Irish Times provided an interesting spin on the current state of Anglo Irish relations. The article by Pat Leahy is headed, "Ireland ramps up campaign to secure a special Brexit deal". The following paragraph shows that Irish diplomats are being less than honest about their support for the UK's position:

"A lot of countries don't have big trading interests with the UK. Some are still using the word 'punishment'," says one senior official. “This is a problem for Ireland because it is clear that Ireland's interests coincide with British objectives to a large degree—not something that Ireland will stress but something which the others can probably work out for themselves”…" (30 Jan, Irish Times).

Under the sub-heading, 'Constant contact', the article reads:

"There is constant contact with the British government.
Despite the clear position—they sound at times like instructions—emerging from Brussels (repeated again last week by visiting economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici) that there should be no negotiations with the British until article 50 is triggered, Irish Government officials are involved in pretty much a rolling conversation with their British counterparts."

Senior official contact was formalised in 2012 when an annual meeting between top mandarins in both governments was instituted (it was in London last October), but, more important, people have the email addresses and mobile numbers of each other. So far did this process go, that it was agreed to exchange civil servants for temporary placements. These links are now coming into play:

"We're not negotiating. But we are in constant touch with them, yes". says a high-ranking source involved in the contacts with the British. He continued:

"We accept the rule on no negotiations. But you have to explore the issues. We don't regard it as a breach of the rule" (30 Jan, Irish Times).

This excerpt bears the unmistakable stamp of a Government press briefing, and its timing—it was published on the same day that Theresa May met Enda Kenny in Government Buildings in Dublin—indicates that it was for British as much as Irish consumption. The excerpt is nonetheless telling. That senior official contact between representatives from both jurisdictions was only formalised in 2012 shows how recent is the cementing of the over-hyped 'unique' relationship.

There are grounds for believing that the DFA is playing a rearguard action in defence of close alignment with Britain. Ray Bassett, the recently retired Irish Ambassador to Canada and a senior official in the DFA for 30 years, has mounted a spirited defence of the alliance with Britain in articles published in the Sunday Business Post (see 'A round of the Irish Brexit debate' in this issue of Irish Political Review). Bassett may be dismissed in some quarters as a loose canon but he is confident that his views are shared by his former colleagues at the DFA. He states:

"Ireland should not shrink from claiming the mantle of Britain's strongest ally within the EU. Instead of bleating about a common EU position, we should be convening meetings in Dublin at heads of government level with like-minded countries such as the Nordics, Netherlands etc, that have a powerful self-interest in Britain getting as good a deal as possible. While I have no doubt our officials are working on this behind the scenes in Brussels, it is time to do so in a much more open and public manner" (1 Jan, Sunday Business Post).

Britain was instrumental in altering the original social principles on which the EU was based. It obstructed the objective of European integration over many years. Now, its decision to leave is regarded by many commentators as posing an 'existential threat' to the Union. Others would see it as an opportunity to embrace the original vision of a social union, with a degree of protection to safeguard employment. Either way, solidarity is now needed among EU member states against the formidable challenge mounted by the UK.
If elements in the Department of Foreign Affairs are working to undermine EU solidarity in the British interest, they are working against Irish interests which are closely bound up with the interests of the EU, and especially the Euro.

In general it appears that the Government is responding appropriately to the challenge of Brexit by taking realistic steps to re-orientate Irish trade away from the British market. That realism needs to be matched in the diplomatic arena through a clear acceptance that close alignment with the UK is no longer politic. The fudge of being neutral between the EU and the UK is damaging to Ireland's standing in the EU and an obstacle to EU solidarity. It needs to end.

The near-universal use of the British land/sea route to the Continent for freight and passengers is symbolic of Ireland's over-reliance on the British connection. It is so much taken for granted that it is taken to be axiomatic. But, if Ireland is to develop an integrated relationship with Europe, this assumption will have to change.

However, Ireland cannot develop and expand direct Continental sea and air links for freight and passengers, relying entirely on its own resources. Europe must establish direct links with Ireland too. Active assistance must come from the European Commission, in terms of substantial subsidy and regulatory change. All around Europe all the main infrastructure developments have been developed over the decades by direct State intervention before the EU came into being. If Ireland is to develop a whole new sea and air freight industry, EU regulations on State aid and budgetary prudence will have to be eased.

Counteracting the bad effects of Brexit cannot simply be left to haphazard response. A joint effort by all the European partners to link up directly with Ireland, circumventing Britain, will be needed.