Today Michael Barnier is addressing the Dail. A former EU commissioner, Monsieur Barnier is the European Union chief negotiator with the United Kingdom in the forthcoming Brexit negotiation.
Today’s special joint sitting of the Dail and Seanad is to facilitate an exchange of views between Michael Barnier and the Oireachtas. Last night I set out my own concerns about the direction of the European Union:
In a week in which Monsieur Macron became President-elect of France, the Oireachtas is due to receive an unusual visitor tomorrow – another Frenchman, Monsieur Barnier, who is the European Union’s and therefore Ireland’s principle negotiator in respect of Brexit. In France, Monsieur Macron seems to have slowed the populist march of the ultra right and the ultra left. At this very unsettled period in political history, there is a remarkable degree of similarity between the ultra right and the ultra left in that there is one thing upon which they agree vehemently, namely, that the EU is a bad thing. I do not know why this is so, except perhaps that with populism goes totalitarianism and totalitarianism probably does not like the idea of 28 countries coming together in a loose association with certain rules. Populism-totalitarianism might just prefer one ruler.
Our own home-grown populists, some of whom are sitting in the Chamber tonight, are enthusiastic supporters of Brexit and have been since the debate began last year in the UK, according to everything I have heard. Never mind the hundreds of thousands of jobs North and South that are dependent on a good outcome for Ireland. Never mind the impact of Brexit on agriculture, tourism, or our general prosperity. Our Brexiteers across the Chamber favour, I think, some kind of post-colonial embrace with the UK outside of the EU. That is the only sense I can make of it. I have heard the various statements in the Dáil from time to time by their different spokespeople and must say they do not make a huge amount of sense. Being very populist, they must feel this stance has a lot of popular appeal. Of course, it lines them up side by side with the view of the American President, Mr. Trump.
Returning to Monsieur Barnier and his speech to the Oireachtas tomorrow, I wonder what it bodes for Ireland, and what kind of questions he is going to be asked and ought to answer. Yesterday, the Taoiseach was at pains to say that we are part of the 27 in terms of the negotiating structure, and of course we are. I do not have a problem with that. He said we have been consistent and clear that Ireland will be negotiating from a position of strength as part of the EU team of 27 member states. We need our own special strand, however, for the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland.
We have a model, as I have stated before, in the Belfast Agreement and in the structure of how parts of that agreement were advanced. Monsieur Barnier has implied that our situation will be at the forefront of his priorities. I accept that. He has made it clear in a number of statements and speeches. Ireland has had the framework of the Belfast Agreement accepted in the statements coming from the EU. The question we have to ask him is whether Ireland will be entirely subsumed into the other 27. Will it advance the precise outcomes upon which I think pretty much everybody, with the exception of our Brexiteers, has agreed? We need the common travel area and free movement between the two islands. For a variety of reasons both commercial and political, and in recognition of the Belfast Agreement, we do not want a hard Border.
We have debated all of this on a number of occasions. We do have to beware that the current Government does not land us in a “troika 2” situation, whereby because we sign up with the 27 we lose our autonomy in respect of those specific issues. As the site of the only land border between the UK and the EU and in terms of our historic linkages with the UK, we must beware of letting others negotiate on our behalf. Notwithstanding what I think will be an insistent, genuine concern about the interests of Ireland on the part of the EU negotiations leader, we need more. We should be clear and thoughtful. We want an orderly approach but there is a risk if we will not talk about the future relationship with the UK until we have signed off on the current one. That is what Monsieur Barnier’s structure is implying to some degree. In that case, the EU may surrender to that section of opinion in which there is a strong, understandable desire to punish Britain by imposing on it a form of economic isolation.
That is why the constant response of the British Prime Minister has been that a hard Brexit is better than no Brexit. Negotiations are difficult enough if two people genuinely sit down to negotiate, never mind one party and 27 others, of which one has precise interests. We cannot go into negotiations if everyone around the table is likely to be a loser. We have to identify what will be a win in this case for people in the North and in the Republic as well as what can be a win for the UK. This will allow us to emerge from the negotiations with the minimum damage conceivable done to our common futures. If we allow that harsher Brexit vision to gain supremacy, then we will suffer even more economically and we will also suffer more in proportion to any other EU country.
This is the point those who will be speaking to Mr. Barnier tomorrow have to lay on the line: no other country from the 27, not even Gibraltar in the context of its relationship with Spain, has as much at stake as Ireland, North and South. We need to convey that clearly tomorrow.
I am unsure whether the dinner took place last week or beforehand but we saw the leaks last week of one of the most disastrous dinners in diplomatic history. Let us imagine if that happened on “Masterchef”. Let us imagine by the end of it people were going for each other with verbal knives as opposed to tasting the soufflés and checking on the soups. What would we think? We saw a debacle in terms of the contact between a high-ranking EU official and the UK Prime Minister. We have to bend our thoughts to how to avoid that. I do not think Mr. Barnier is getting as much as a cup of tea or coffee tomorrow. He is probably getting that in Druid’s Glen with the European People’s Party. Anyway, I strongly suggest that we should focus collectively on how we get the best deal possible.