The warm and attentive reception given to Michel Barnier by the two Houses of the Oireachtas underlined the seriousness of Brexit as an issue for Ireland and the Irish hope that the UK’s departure from the EU will take place on terms that will not set back the political settlement on this island and the economic hopes of the two parts of Ireland.
Barnier’s words were encouraging if you take the view that good intentions count for much in international affairs. His standing invitation for the implementation of “imaginative and flexible” solutions for Ireland’s difficulties is, however, just that – an invitation addressed primarily to the Irish but also to the British and the other 26 Member States of the EU.
In truth the Common Travel Area is not a problem at all. It can easily continue to exist without in any way compromising Britain’s desire to control immigration and the EU desire to maintain freedom of movement to the greatest possible extent. EU citizens will continue to travel to the UK visa-free. Such UK controls as may be implemented will happen in relation to employment, welfare, healthcare and access to public services.
So the real issue which must be addressed now is that of tariff barriers on EU-UK trade in goods. Michel Barnier appeared to favour maximising free trade in goods as part of the overall Brexit settlement.
Of course, if it were possible to have a comprehensive free trade agreement between the EU and the UK, the one remaining issue in respect of a hard border in Ireland would be largely academic. The UK is not going to be part of the “single market” or, in all probability, formally part of the Customs Union itself. But free trade in goods, by necessity, entails a level playing pitch as regards State aids and regulatory provisions in respect of quality, safety, and consumer protection.
Of very major significance for Ireland – north and south – is trade between the island of Ireland and Britain in agricultural and food products.
We simply do not know whether the Tories intend to retain the EU system of highly subsidised agricultural output from 2020 onwards. If the Tories have in mind a cheap food policy based on international imports, Brexit would have very serious implications for the two economies on this island. On the other hand, if part of the EU-UK Brexit deal as ultimately negotiated envisages the UK retaining something like the CAP, the high tariff barriers on trade in food imports between the EU and other countries could be avoided.
An “imaginative and flexible” solution could involve allowing both parts of Ireland to have special status for trade in agriculture and food products with the UK. It might even entail the establishment of a north-south body to supervise and regulate agricultural policy and trade for the entire island. The Good Friday Agreement envisages the creation of such bodies and, as Micheál Martin pointed out on Thursday, the Good Friday Agreement is not frozen in its present form as regards the development of north-south bodies.
In the days of the pre-EU European Economic Community, the Germans negotiated a special status for trade between East and West Germany within the framework of the Treaty of Rome. So there is a precedent at European level for special arrangements to be made as exceptions to the Common External Tariff regime. Special status for trade between these islands is not unprecedented in the history of the European Union.
Another area demanding “imagination and flexibility” is the question of where movement in goods across any tariff barrier would be monitored. Clearly the avoidance of a hard border would suggest that any actual or electronic tariff barriers between the island of Ireland and Britain would best be located at Irish Sea crossings. The bottom line in respect of tariff barriers and free trade is that the shape and implications of Brexit can only really be appreciated in the light of the outcome of EU-UK negotiations on free trade.
Clarity on these issues may only happen in two or three years time, assuming, that is, that the Brexit negotiations do not break down completely within the 24 month period provided as a backstop by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
It is remarkable that Barnier’s call for “imaginative and flexible” solutions comes at a time when there is no functioning democratic government in Northern Ireland. It really is hard to excuse northern politicians for the suspension of their own functions at this critical juncture. Gerry Adams went through the motions of defending his call for an early border poll in the Dáil on Thursday. Everyone knows that such a poll, if conducted now, would result in a decisive defeat for those advocating a united Ireland. So why does he ask for such a poll? Surely he cannot think that the majority vote in the north for Remain somehow indicates a majority desire for a united Ireland in the wake of Brexit?
Any such poll held now would be a futile and retrograde distraction and an exercise in tribal polarisation. Sinn Féin would be better employed playing a constructive approach in the restoration of the Northern Executive than engaging in divisive and futile grand-standing.
We badly need the development in both parts of Ireland of a “coalition of the willing” which can focus on devising and evaluating options to maximise prosperity north and south and to minimise the grave risks that tariff barriers pose for the well-being of the island of Ireland.
Everybody has a good idea of the worst case scenarios that Brexit could bring. There is simply no point in concentrating our attention on the worst possible outcomes while ignoring the need to develop models and special arrangements by which we can avoid those outcomes.
It was reassuring to hear Michel Barnier praising the efforts of the Irish Government and diplomats in making the “Irish question” a central part of the EU’s negotiating position.
However, the next stage is one in which wider participation by civil society north and south is necessary in order to explore, evaluate and propose “imaginative and flexible” solutions to the Brexit problem for Ireland.
Who is talking to Ulster farmers and agri-business on these issues? Is IBEC engaging with the CBI in the north on possible solutions for avoiding tariff barriers to trade on this island? In the area of health, education and border area communities, is there any dialogue happening or planned?
Without in any way devaluing the efforts of those in the public service and State agencies who are engaged in shaping Ireland’s response to the Brexit threat, Michel Barnier’s invitation to devise solutions was not confined to public and semi-state institutions and agencies.
No-one in Ireland has a monopoly on imagination or flexibility. Barnier’s invitation extends to us all. It is marked RSVP and not “regrets only”.