Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, spent two days in the Republic of Ireland, making some attempts to ease concerns there that a hardened border with Northern Ireland will cause major problems.
Last Thursday he addressed the Irish Parliament, a rare honour for a non-parliamentarian. He also visited the border and addressed a summit meeting of the European People’s Party in County Wicklow, with other speakers including Enda Kenny and Tony Blair.
Barnier is quoted, from his address to the Parliament, as taking a softer line on the forthcoming Brexit negotiations than we have heard from him earlier, notably in the draft guidelines (see Divorce Guidelines) and the Directives for the negotiations (see Mercury Rising). However, his comments were mixed so they might just have taken their place in the pre-negotiation posturings; we’ll learn more as the real negotiations get under way after the UK election.
Here are some items from his address, which can be read as positive or negative according to your assumptions:
“[The] UK’s departure from the EU would have consequences“. True but hardly profound.
Appropriately, given the context, he said that the Irish border would be one of his three priorities in the negotiations. Although both the Irish and British governments have said that they do not want to have customs posts on the border again, Barnier emphasised that customs controls are part of the management of the EU’s borders. He said that the negotiating guidelines call for a flexible and creative approach to the customs issue. Flexible and creative seem at odds with the emphasis on customs controls; the EU rarely varies from its customary practices and is not known for either creativity or flexibility so these expressions may be no more than a PR exercise to reassure us that it will not be the EU’s fault if agreement is not reached. Our task is to look behind such claims and try to determine the real agenda, which is not straightforward in the phoney war leading into the negotiations.
Barnier took care to reassure the Irish people that the Republic’s interest will be the same as the EU’s interest in the Brexit negotiations. This too can be taken in more ways than one. The EU’s interest, often declared, is to protect its project from, among things, contagion; this requires strong border controls. However, if it is in the EU’s interest, because it is in the interest of Ireland, to have comfortable relations with Britain after withdrawal, then some flexibility and creativity will be in order. As always, we will only learn more about the EU’s strategy when the negotiations are under way.
“We will need to negotiate a ‘bold and ambitious’, but fair, free-trade agreement,” he said. The good news is that this echoes the hopes of Theresa May. However, ‘bold’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘fair’ are also not noted characteristics of the EU so if this claim is sincere the EU will have to change in the run-up to Brexit. In other contexts EU leaders are firm that the only change to their project that they wish to see is continuing and ever-closer union, towards their supra-national government. If we accept the reassurances of Daniel Korski (see Messages by Telegraph) the invariably rigid conformity of the EU is already becoming more flexible and this would be welcome.
On Friday Barnier paid a visit to the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
He said, on the question of the difficulty of defining a revision to the border, “There is always an answer to what shape the Irish border takes after Brexit, there is always a road when there is a will.” At present the border is inconspicuous but the EU has only one sort of external border between member states and third countries and may feel obliged to avoid varying usual practice, particularly if that appeared to give the UK an advantage over other third countries, or was seen to provide a vulnerable ‘back door’ to the EU.
Barnier also visited a company that produces ready-made meals for the UK, which involves much cross-border traffic. The company sources ingredients from both sides of the border and a director of the company said, “you could almost turn the lights out if there is a hard border”. Barnier warned that “This negotiation once again will be extraordinary and very complex and difficult.” Then he tried to ease concerns, or engaged in softer public relations (take your choice) saying, “I want to listen, to meet the people on the ground, to come into the negotiation having the feet on the ground. …I came to this county of Monaghan to listen, not to give solutions.” It’s fair to assume that he hasn’t got a solution; he delegated the job of finding one, saying that his door is “open for ideas about how to manage the border after Brexit“.
The Irish Times understands “that the British election and the continuing absence of an executive in Northern Ireland are hampering the development of proposals to soften the imposition of any border. EU officials have also expressed concerns to the Irish Government that London is not sufficiently engaged in the process.”
Ireland is a small member country on the fringes of the EU so the big players, notably Germany, may not be concerned by the consequences of maintaining a hard line – and border; they haven’t softened their approach to the awful problems that Greece faces. However, adding Irish problems to Greek ones may have the opposite effect from that intended, which is to discourage contagion. If Ireland, also in the eurozone, is hit too hard by Brexit then they may consider that they would be better off in the UK’s company than in the EU’s. It is possible that current signals of softening result from a more realistic attempt to balance the risks to the project if they remain too hard-nosed about the Brexit negotiations.
The leader of the European People’s Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, is reported as saying, at their summit meeting in County Wicklow, that the EU should change its laws and regulations to facilitate special arrangements for Ireland that will be needed come Brexit. When asked if the EPP and the European Parliament would cooperate in a change of EU rules to facilitate a special deal to maintain a soft border in Ireland Herr Weber said, “yes, if it’s part of a package of solutions, of course, no problem”.
It may not be so simple, and the Parliament has little say over EU legislation and cannot propose amendments, which have to come from the European Commission and be approved by the European Council (see Law-making in secret).
If you want to believe that the EU line on Brexit is softening, the evidence is there in speeches and remarks from senior figures. We too want to believe this but feel that some scepticism is in order, given the rigidity of EU regulations and the harder line taken in formal documents.