By: Patrick McNamara, Reporter
Photo Credit: Embassy of Ireland
Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, described the British decision to leave the European Union as one of the most substantial foreign policy challenges for decades, one that poses unique problems for Ireland. Speaking at the Center for Strategic & International Studies on October 4th as part of a two-day trip to Washington, the minister discussed the implications of Brexit, with special regard to those facing Ireland. Mr. Coveney’s speech reflected key concerns in EU countries about British plans for the Brexit process, particularly in how the UK government’s aspirations will be converted into a political reality.
The minister’s talk centered on the unique challenges faced by Ireland in Britain’s exit from the EU. Particular attention was paid to the issues of trade and the future of the Anglo-Irish border, one of the only land borders that will exist between the EU and Britain post-Brexit. Ireland, who acceded to what was then the European Economic Community with Britain in 1973, enjoys a close trading relationship with its neighbor, worth over €1bn per week. The close relationship leaves Ireland more exposed than other EU countries to a British departure from the Single Market and any subsequent imposition of tariffs that may follow. Mr. Coveney said that a future trade relationship based on WTO trading rules, a possibility if the UK leaves the EU without an agreed upon trade deal, would be “a very serious and negative” situation for the UK and Ireland. Such a result would lead to a tariff of 60% being applied to beef, on which Ireland currently enjoys a €2bn per annum bilateral trade with Britain.
Another major challenge Mr. Coveney discussed, one prioritized by the EU negotiating team, was that of the future of the Anglo-Irish border. Northern Ireland, which voted 56-44 in favor of remaining in the EU, currently enjoys an open border with the South without any form of customs checks. The maintenance of this open border has become a key issue in the Brexit negotiations, with Mr. Coveney stating that a return to any form of hard border with road checks or immigration controls when crossing between the two countries would damage the peace process in Northern Ireland. The ending of decades of conflict in the North, cemented by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, has been aided by the openness of the border, which has reduced the division between communities on either side of the border through the building of economic and social ties. The minister cautioned that anyone who takes the peace process in Northern Ireland for granted fails to understand that the politics remain as divisive now as they were when the Agreement was made twenty years ago.
The minister repeated the EU negotiating position that sufficient progress on the “Phase 1” issues of the rights of citizens, the financial settlement Britain must pay, and the question of the Irish border must be made before the parties can move onto “Phase 2” of negotiations on the new political and trading relationship that will exist post-Brexit. The EU’s approach came counter to British requests, in the face of a tight two-year deadline, to discuss issues simultaneously. So far, progress in the negotiations has been slow, with little headway made on these Phase 1 issues. Though approving of the recent language adopted by the UK government, particularly the Westminster government’s statements repeatedly expressing their own desire to retain an open Anglo-Irish border, Mr. Coveney was skeptical about how these intentions might translate into political reality post-Brexit.
When asked whether it was in fact possible for the two parties to agree on the border arrangement between Ireland and the UK before agreement on the trade, Mr. Coveney returned to the EU stance that there needs to be sufficient progress on the Phase 1 issues, including the border, before the parties can move onto the Phase 2 negotiations on trade. However, an insistence on strict ordering of Phase 1 and Phase 2 negotiations can have dramatic implications as the nature of the border in some ways depends on the agreed trade relationship: a British exit from the European Union Customs Union would require the imposition of customs checks on the Irish border, whilst continued Single Market membership would not.
Mr. Coveney also expressed cautious optimism when discussing British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Florence speech on the 22nd of September. In the speech, Mrs. May seemed to move away from the extreme Hard Brexit stance her government previously favored and advocate a “status quo” transition period of two years that would bridge the gap between the UK’s departure from the EU, which is currently slated to occur in March 2019. She also confirmed that Britain will continue to pay its contributions into the EU budget through 2020. Mr. Coveney described these payments as a necessary obligation on Britain, needed to avoid a hole in the EU Budget, and rejected the view he’d seen articulated in parts of the British press that this represented any sort of fine levied against the country for leaving the Union. Mrs. May failed to provide much more detail on the nature of the Irish border post-Brexit, though repeated that her government will “not accept physical infrastructure at the border.”
Whether May can maintain these stances, however, is in doubt. Her position as party leader has weakened considerably following her failure to win a majority in the snap General Election she called in June, and plans for a two-year implementation period have been met with push-back within her party after she indicated Britain would remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice during this period. For his part, Mr. Coveney stated his belief that the British public had not voted for a Hard Brexit that takes the country out of the Single Market and Customs Union, and expressed sympathy with the need of the UK government to square the promises of the pro-Brexit campaign with the political reality in which the EU cannot allow a country to enjoy more benefits outside of the organization than they do inside.
The minister also lamented the loss that would be felt by the EU itself from the UK’s exit, as Ireland loses what he described as its closest friend in the organization. He viewed the exit of Britain as a “huge loss” to the EU in policy terms and the minister stressed the close relations that had been built between his country and the UK during their shared time in Brussels, when the two countries’ negotiating positions often aligned closely, and the positive impact this had had on East-West relations.
Though noting that the likely British exit from the Single Market could provide opportunities for Irish businesses, Mr. Coveney noted that it was not in Irish interests for businesses to flee the UK, such is the need for Irish trade of a buoyant UK economy. Mr. Coveney did express hope that Ireland could attract businesses, particularly American ones, looking to establish themselves in a country with access to the European market; the UK has previously been very successful at attracting such businesses as a member of the Single Market. The prospects for continued Irish prosperity depend significantly on how the British exit from the EU is negotiated; the more the status quo is retained the more Ireland will benefit.