Why Ireland could shape the Brexit deal - or doom it
In an interview at the FT Live conference on Brexit, Ireland's European affairs minister Helen McEntee discusses the Irish backstop to stop a hard border and the need for much more progress in talks with the UK and Brussels.
Filmed by Matthew Brown. Produced by Josh de la Mare. Additional producing by Timothy Conley. Images from Getty and Reuters.
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There is only a handful of days before what should be a big moment for Brexit, an EU summit where leaders had hoped to make enough progress to keep the talks on track. But those hopes are dimming fast.
And nowhere, other than the UK, is more affected than Ireland. The country is both at the heart of a dispute that could blow the Brexit talks apart, and stands to suffer from the collateral damage if there is no deal. The FT spoke to Helen McEntee, Ireland's minister of state for Europe, on Brexit's expected fallout by 2030 for Ireland.
So the Irish government have carried out our own extensive analysis. And what it showed in four different scenarios ranging from the cliff edge, the worst case scenario, the WTO rules that Ireland's projected future growth for its economy would be almost 8% less than what is currently predicted. What it shows in the best case scenario, which would be our preference, and that is free trade, comprehensive free trade agreement. That our growth would be just under 3% less.
So obviously there is a significant difference in both of those figures. But while we are preparing for all eventualities, we are absolutely working towards the best possible outcome. And that for us is to have the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK moving forward.
At present, the big issue is the so-called backstop for Northern Ireland. Brussels and London have agreed in principle that as part of a divorce agreement, the two sides should agree a fallback to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, which would enter into force automatically if other solutions don't work out.
But agreeing a text is deeply contentious. Theresa May says EU proposals to keep Northern Ireland and the EU law, even as the rest of the UK goes its own way, would be unacceptable to any British PM. Brussels, in turn, has given a frosty reception to the British counter offer, to apply the backstop to the whole UK with the expectation that it would last no longer than the end of 2021.
Aware of the gulf between the two sides but keen to get a solution, Dublin has given a more emollient response than the European Commission.
I would welcome the fact that the UK have brought forward proposals for the customs elements of the backstop. But we know that it is not just customs related. That there are areas of regulatory alignment, which are so key to ensuring that we avoid a border on the island of Ireland so I would welcome the initial proposals. We, of course, have to look at the three questions which Michel Barnier and the task force very clearly set out. Is it a workable solution? Does it avoid - ensure that we can avoid a border? Does it protect the integrity of the single market and the customs union? And finally, is it an all-weather backstop? Will it work in any solution?
One of the big decisions facing the EU is whether to reject the UK position out of hand, because it attempts to smuggle a trade deal into a divorce agreement, and is time limited. Or whether to insist instead that it doesn't go far enough.
Brussels' choice between the two could make the difference between no deal and a soft, slow Brexit. Ms McEntee made clear Dublin's appetite for a deal.
Theresa May and the UK government have consistently said that their priority is to ensure that we have no hard border on the island of Ireland, that we protect the peace process of the Good Friday Agreement in all of its facets. And this is something that is shared by the EU and Ireland. So I think we need to work together. We need to be constructive. And we need to try and make sure that we reach an agreement on the backstop. And that obviously the overall withdrawal agreement can be agreed come October.
Some Brexiters, such as Boris Johnson, UK foreign minister have downplayed the importance of the border issue. But Ms McEntee was insistent that unless there are legal provisions to avoid a hard border, there will be no deal. And that would mean the hardest of possible Brexits when Britain leaves the EU in March next year.
The backstop is very much a part of the withdrawal agreement. So without the backstop, there can be no withdrawal agreements. In the same way that the transition period, the citizens' rights financial settlement, and indeed the governance issues that are still to be addressed all form part of the withdrawal agreement.
The Irish minister also made little secret of the impasse in talks. With real progress looking unlikely in June, the whole Brexit calendar could come into doubt.
The Irish government has never asked that it would be completely resolved before June. What we have asked is that there would be substantial progress, which in turn would give us the time to make sure that, come October, we are able to reach a full agreement on all of the issues contained within the withdrawal agreement. The longer this goes on, then the less chance we have of actually closing that off before October.
Two years after Britain's historic referendum, and nine months before Brexit day, Ireland is at the centre of debate. It could well be that the dispute over the Irish border could shape the final deal, or doom it, as much as any parliamentary battle in Westminster or negotiation in Brussels.
But as Ms McEntee has pointed out, Ireland will feel the pain from any collapse more than almost anywhere else.