Ireland hates Brexit, and with reason. For our nearest and closest neighbour, it is an ill wind blowing little good. Economically, it takes the two countries out of the same arrangements, and the negative impact on Ireland’s GDP could be “somewhere beween two to four per cent relative to base”. Politically, it tilts the balance within the EU towards more protectionist and interventionist countries in Europe’s south and east, leaving Ireland exposed as an English-speaking, free-trading and America-friendly economy. And culturally, Brexit disturbs the Irish psyche at an elemental level. To become an EU member has become synonymous in much of Ireland with being a modern country. Britain leaving the EU is thus seen as risking a return to a troubled past, and unpicking the delicate settlement in Northern Ireland. Europe is synonymous with civilisation, and Britain is quitting it, or so some in Ireland believe.
Finally, Brexit throws into sharp relief the country’s own difficulties with the EU. It has become a creditor country, paying in to the EU budget. Ireland has a very low corporation tax rate, and there is an EU push for harmonisation – i.e: raising it. The Commission is on Ireland’s back over its broader tax arrangements, seeking up to €13 billion over what it claims is illegal state aid. There is a lively movement for Irexit in the country, given the economic links between Britain and Ireland, a case for which has been put on this site by Ray Bassett. It is getting nowhere much. The EU is too bound up with modern Ireland’s self-image for matters to be otherwise. But Britain is not thanked in Ireland for dragging these issues into the light, and making discussion about its future more problematic.
Since all this was as true on June 13, when Enda Kenny resigned as Taoiseach, as it is today, a question follows: why has Leo Varadkhar, his replacement, broken with his predecessor’s careful position on Brexit, and chartered a confrontational course – to the point where disagreements over the Irish border may bring down a free trade deal? We give you the British and Irish version of events.
The British version is that while Kenny was an experienced politician who enjoyed “hero status” among his fellow EPP leaders in Europe, Varadkar doesn’t have the same sure-footedness. There are claims that he is worried about domestic pressure from Sinn Fein and, closer to home, from Fianna Fail, with which his Fine Gael party has a confidence and supply deal. That the former is threatening to withdraw support from the latter, and force an early election, will do nothing to make the situation more straightforward. Varadkar may also be guarding his back against Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Foreign Minister, who has said that that no border is acceptable.
The DUP says that the Irish Government is moving to redraw the border in the Irish sea, and using Brexit to undermine the unity of the United Kingdom. ConservativeHome believes that the truth lies elsewhere. The point isn’t that the Irish Government wants Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and Single Market. It is that it wants the whole of the UK within it. It may seem obvious that we are set to leave both. But there is wishful thinking abroad as well as in, say, the pages of the Financial Times. From Dublin and Brussels, Theresa May’s Government looks even weaker that it does in Britain. Veradkar may believe that if he pushes for Ulster not to leave the Customs Union, May will have no option but to concede that the UK as a whole will stay in it. Bits of official Ireland may be thinking that if she and the Conservatives collapse completely, Keir Starmer and his colleagues will be easier to deal with.
The Irish version is that British proposals for a light-touch border, enabled through technology and waivers, are what the EU has labelled “magical thinking”, and that no real work has been done on them since they were first advanced. Furthermore, it claims that its own mapping has found 142 areas of north-south co-operation that Brexit could unpick, all of which operate within a framework put in place by the Belfast Agreement, since buttressed by agreements made by the North-South ministerial council. They counter British charges of Varadkar being in hoc to Fianna Fail with its own of May being in thrall to the DUP.
Certainly, Brexit is shining a harsh spotlight on the pecularities of Northern Ireland. The Irish Government is right to point out that parts of the island’s economy operate as whole (such as the electricity market). But, by the same token, much of it clearly doesn’t: Northern Ireland operates under British, not Irish, tax and excise arrangements. Cross-border trade is relatively low for two parts of an island. Essentially, the two governments are now putting different constructions on what would constitute a “hard border”. To the UK, it means border posts and checkpoints – all the paraphernalia of the Troubles. To Ireland, it means any departure from the present arrangements. Its position is not made easier by a paradox: that is in neither London nor Dublin’s interest for this to happen, but that some EU countries take a different position. France, for example, is taking a strong position on “maintaining the integrity of the Single Market”.
EU membership for Northern Ireland isn’t written into the Belfast Agreement (unlike membership of the ECHR). But a broader point arises from the island’s recent history – namely, the applicability of the politics of fudge. So, for example, there may be mileage in Varadkar’s floating of a special customs union between the UK and EU. This suggestion, made a speech in Belfast, mirrors May’s own suggestion of British associate membership of the Customs Union, made at last year’s Conservative Party conference. Varadkar will surely have to look again at British proposals for checks carried out away from the border and for the use of new technology. May, in turn, will have to guarantee, say, continuity of animal welfare standards, including checks at the Irish sea.
The crucial issue is regulatory divergence – which has implications for the rest of the UK – to which the key is mutual recognition of standards. But amidst the grinding detail, a big picture stands out: that if Britain has shown a lack of interest in the effects of Brexit on Ireland, Ireland is showing a lack of imagination when contemplating the referendum result. Irish opinion doesn’t quite seem to grasp that it is for real. This being so, the art is to make change happen with minimum disruption. The alternative is the collapse of the Brexit talks – which could all but ruin Irish farmers, if the UK went for tariffs in such an eventuality. Varadkhar is pushing at the point of Ireland’s maximum leverage, before talks move on to broader issues (if they do). But if his gamble is that Britain will back down, Ireland will want to ponder what could happen if he gets it wrong – assuming that his government survives in any event.