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31 Jan 2020


UK-EU Relations

Today is the end of an era not just for the UK and the EU, but also for Ireland. Writing on the eve of Brexit Day, there is deep sadness among many people in Ireland that the UK is leaving the EU after 47 years.

The UK is Ireland’s closest neighbour, and there are large cultural, family and economic ties. Both countries joined the European Communities (as it was then called) in 1973 amidst great excitement.

The EU is often credited in bringing about British-Irish reconciliation and contributing to peace in Northern Ireland – providing the Franco-German model of post-war cooperation.

For John Hume, former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the key strategist behind the peace process, the EU was both a model of peace and reconciliation and a vital framework for conflict resolution in Northern Ireland.

At the centre of his logic was ‘the totality’ of relations between Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. This totality was central to any successful peace agreement, as it eschewed narrow nationalism and it provided a shared framework to re-assure nationalist and unionist identities.

The EU’s model of non-territorial policy making, of multi-level governance at supranational, national and local levels, and of overlapping multiple identities was core.

Hume’s conception of the EU model was clearly visible in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Its three strands dealt with the totality of the relationship: its executive was based on consensual decision-making rules, and its cross-border and British-Irish institutions sought to emulate the EU’s Council of Ministers and European Council.

Irish political elites perceived that the 1998 agreement would not have occurred in the absence of UK and Irish membership of the EU, and the EU’s unique Peace Package funding to underpin the maintenance of peace, and to promote economic development in Northern Ireland, was the icing on the cake.

Now, although thankfully devolved government has been restored in Northern Ireland, in general, the optimism of the late 1990s seems worlds away.

Apart from the emotional impact, Ireland faces significant economic dangers and vast uncertainty. According to a government memorandum cited in the Irish Times, even an ambitious and deep agreement agreed in a short timeframe will involve considerable disruption.

There is obvious uncertainty about what will be agreed, from ambitious, to a bare-bones deal, to no deal at all. If no free trade agreement is reached, the memo says the economy is likely to be 7% smaller in 2030.

As Tony Connelly observed, Sajid Javid stated that “there will not be alignment [with EU rules], we will not be a rule taker”, yet days later said “that doesn’t mean that we will diverge on rules just for the sake of divergence”. These mixed messages make it difficult to plan effectively.

Furthermore, there is grave uncertainty about how the Irish protocol will work. Businesses are unclear how exactly the system will operate, and in particular about how goods flowing from Britain to Northern Ireland will be monitored to prevent UK goods seeping into the EU market via Ireland.

Systems will be required to deal with those goods staying in Northern Ireland (that is, not destined for further export to Ireland, or beyond) – but the implementation of a system to deal with these permutations is immensely complex.

A joint specialised committee will define which goods qualify for tariff exemption, but paper work and checks will still be required.

In short, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has complex and expensive consequences for Ireland – and of course for Northern Ireland – and the new Irish government elected on 8 February will be tasked with continuing the work of damage limitation.

But in the midst of the practical complexities and economic challenges faced by Ireland, it is easy to forget the fundamental political issues raised by the UK’s departure.

How will Ireland balance membership of the EU club with the need to maintain and develop a close relationship with the UK? How will EU networks be replaced to sustain British-Irish cooperation?

A key issue in the next decade will be the question of Irish unification, and of how both governments deal with any calls for unification.

Irish parties, apart from Sinn Féin are loathe to place it on their agenda, given its sensitivity, but nonetheless Brexit has brought unification back into focus.

No other EU state is as much affected by Brexit than Ireland.

The revised protocol relieved fears of a hard border, but there are many other risks and uncertainties.

So though, as Denis Staunton observed, ‘the UK leaves not with a bang but a whimper’, and although in Ireland the upcoming general election campaign is consuming most bandwidth on 31 January – not Brexit – the years ahead will be dominated by efforts to deal with Brexit’s consequences – economic, political and possibly even constitutional.

And that is probably the only certainty there is.

By Dr Etain Tannam, Associate Professor in International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin. 


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