The United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum of 23 June 2016 did not go as expected. By a slim majority those of the UK electorate who voted, chose to leave the EU. Since then there has been continuous emotional outrage and rhetoric published in the mainstream media and on social media. Much of this has centred on the personal and economic impact of limiting immigration and the apparent enfranchisement some now assert to openly voice their horrifying xenophobia.
There is, of course, more to it than this. The EU is, amongst other things, a behemoth of bureaucracy. Its increasing federal powers have over the years been the subject of much criticism. Since the referendum vote, the EU’s positive aspects have been much vaunted by those appalled at the prospect of Brexit. Yet because a country leaving the EU is unprecedented, the longer term impact can still only be guessed at.
Brexit & Ireland is written from the latter country’s point of view. Physically, historically and economically close they have been European allies since they both joined what was the EEC in 1973. The two countries recognise many bilateral agreements. Since the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to The Troubles in 1998, the island of Ireland has effectively functioned as one unit, albeit with differing laws and currency north and south. The difficulties to be overcome if the UK leaves the EU while Ireland stays is the subject of this book.
Although it is refreshingly educative to read a calm and balanced account of the potential political and economic issues – rather than the personal – raised by Brexit, the detail makes for rather dry reading. Around half of the text explains the challenges faced by sectors that work across the border and with the UK. These include: agriculture and fishing; food processing and distribution; just in time supply to supermarkets across the Irish Sea. Horse racing and breeding gets a mention as does medical research and the pharmaceutical industry. It is not just goods that benefit from unhindered travel but also a workforce, tourists and students.
Ireland was well aware early on in the process of the difficulties it would have to overcome, yet was hindered by the EU’s stance on negotiations with the UK. If Ireland wishes to remain within the EU then it must abide by EU rules and timetables. After Brexit, the UK wishes to continue to trade without borders but will not accept free movement of people from the entire EU, or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Other EU member states demand that the UK be punished for daring to leave – they will not countenance allowing the UK to ‘have their cake and eat it’.
A key issue for Ireland is to maintain the peace within the island and this requires that the border remain simply a line on a piece of paper, not a series of cumbersome controls that may require the military to enforce. The EU states that it supports the peace process yet refuses to consider a customs and tariff free arrangement with a country unwilling to pay to be a part of its existing agreements.
“Tusk and his team were eager to help Ireland. But other member states suspected that by being too flexible on the Irish border, they were playing into the hands of the British. Concessions given to Ireland might just suit the British as well.”
“The EU is an historic political project whose future is at stake”
“allowing the UK to have their cake and eat it […] would destroy the European Union”
There are many other borders between EU and non EU countries in the world. Those that function efficiently rely on mutual cooperation. There is reluctance within the EU to allow what Ireland and the UK would benefit from, but other disputed territories, such as Gibraltar or Cyprus, worry that Brexit would set a precedent that they are unwilling to accept.
The author’s access to key documents and political discussion highlights the intransigence over issues which reminded me of the loyalist and republican viewpoints I had to listen to growing up in Belfast. Each side felt justified in their stance, claiming that lack of progress was entirely the other’s fault. It is a comparison that strikes fear given where it led back then.
When it takes a group of EU negotiators two weeks to agree to the wording of a single paragraph in a document, and this can then be thrown out by the DUP unhappy at the suggestion of a border running down the Irish Sea, it is no surprise that little progress is being made. With Theresa May beholden to the DUP since the last UK General Election,
“the unionist and nationalist views on any particular issue come to the fore, rather than the collective interests of Northern Ireland.”
The numerous pages dedicated to the economic difficulties of Brexit are eclipsed by potential damage to the peace process if the EU demands a hard border.
“Peace and prosperity is underlined by the free movement of goods and services.”
“We need to look at the border in isolation and to look for bespoke solutions.”
This does not please certain EU member states.
“Pressure will come on the Commission to balance the wishes of the UK and Ireland and the political wishes of the other 26 leaders around the Council table.”
The author highlights potential positives for Ireland from Brexit but these rely on global businesses being willing to relocate there. Ireland is in competition with other EU countries wishing to attract businesses that will leave a UK that is not in the EU. Unsubstantiated claims have been made by competitors that Dublin does not have the necessary infrastructure, housing or quality education. Without the UK to support them in EU decision making, Ireland is losing out.
Irish businesses who would be hit by punitive cross border EU custom and tariff regimes could ask for transitional aid from their government to enable them to move business operations south, but the EU is ‘notoriously strict on state aid’. Many businesses rely on the land so moving is not an option.
The final chapter covers a round of negotiations on the details of Brexit and highlights the difficulties of dealing with a notoriously slow moving organisation that scrutinises every detail, fearing a chink in the armour it is building.
“Theresa May was effectively saying ‘if it weren’t for the European Union being so pesky about the four freedoms and things like that, then we wouldn’t have this problem.’”
What comes out of this book is that it is more complex than this, but made more so by the self protecting intransigence of an unwieldy organisation fighting for its survival.
Any Cop?: This is as detailed and factual a perspective as I have read about Brexit. The UK is entering unchartered waters without a map or visible compass. Ireland has clearly stated that it has no wish to follow. Without more flexible support from the remaining EU members, staying may prove untenable.