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Bertie and Barroso dream up the Halloween party of Leo's nightmares

Bertie Ahern advises on the art of politics.


That’s the 1, 2, 3 on a list of The Most Important Non-EU Countries to the EU right now, according to former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso.

Obviously, that third position will be supplanted by the UK once they leave the union, he told an audience of mildly depressed (as per their own admission) business people and Brexit-interested parties at a conference in Dublin yesterday.

“There will be a crunch time when there will be no country more important than Britain,” he added, just in case the point hadn’t crystalised for the Irish in the room.

But, Barroso tells us, right now this whole Brexit thing isn’t even in the top three priorities for most other countries in the EU.

It’s not even noon and we’ve stumbled upon a contradiction.

23/4/2018 IIEA Brexit Conferences Issues Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen at the IIEA conference on Brexit at the Mansion House yesterday

At the moment, we have backers in Europe. Loads of them. Michel Barnier – he’s on our side. Jean-Claude Juncker – a senior hurler. Macron. Merkel. Hell, even May makes the team sheet, saying she wants to make sure the island is ‘go han-mhaith’ after Brexit.

So, when it’s not a priority for anyone else – Ireland and Irish people are important. But when it’s crunch time – it will be the UK that’s the Numero Uno.

What’s next?

As a reminder of the timeline, the UK will be leaving the EU – deal or no deal – at 11pm on 29 March 2019. If it is to be an orderly exit, a legally solid agreement needs to be in place by October this year.

So squeaky-bum time is just six months away. And, in reality, Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and their much-lauded civil servants don’t have the luxury of that half dozen.

“Running it down to October is dangerous,” according to former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was giving his “tuppence of advice” to the Fine Gael negotiators at the same conference, organised by the IIEA in the Mansion House, Dublin on Monday morning.

“If you come down to the last few days, my fear is that our Taoiseach would be called in by the French, the Germans, the [European] Commission, the Presidency.”

In Bertie’s scenario, Leo would be told that the Brits have paid the piper. They have €50 billion on the table, along with a deal on freedom of movement and a decent trade agreement, as well as having made promising signals on the future relationship.

It’s 2am and the Europeans turn to us (and on us).

“We don’t think you Irish should push just as hard as you’ve been pushing… We think maybe you should give a bit of a compromise. That’s how it works. That’s how it always works.”

It’s a Halloween party that Ireland shouldn’t find themselves at, concludes the ex-Fianna Fáil man, no stranger to a European all-nighter.

“I think Michel Barnier’s team has been top class, they have really fought the Irish case. But [having] been there, done that, I know when it comes to the evil hour what happens in these things. I’ve seen it more times, and been part of it…

There is a tradeoff…

“What happens us? I’m not saying we’ll be abandoned, but the art of politics, the strength of politics is compromise. It’s not a bad thing, it’s not an evil thing (even though I’ve been accused of that over the years)… but it’s a good thing. I’m just saying we should be as far down the line as we can before, ultimately, it will come to the late night.

In Bertie’s scenario, the UK has taken its place on The Most Important Non-EU Countries to the EU list. And, in those minutes, it will be as Barroso predicted – “there will be no country more important than Britain”.

So by his estimations, Ireland’s negotiators have until June before they are no longer the priority, and Barnier removes the green cape.

The compromise

Ahern’s successor Brian Cowen agreed and repeated on numerous occasions throughout the morning that “progress in concrete terms” was needed, while his predecessor John Bruton was finding it difficult to muster up anything other than pessimism.

“I wish I could be optimistic and see a way through, but I can’t,” was part of his opener.

And, perhaps, this is why we always need a bit of Bertie.

He’s been searching for a way to sell a customs union and the single market to the Brits and along the way has managed to stumble on something even something to DUP likes.

Regulatory alignment.

“If regulatory alignment can bring us a solution that means there is not any change of substance between the present Customs Union/Single Market, then we can buy it. I don’t think there is much point in just beating the drum on the Customs Union. Let’s make regulatory alignment, as per the December deal, stand up.”

The Bertie twist? Just call it something different. Regulatory alignment by another name.

It’s the art of politics. The strength of politics. The compromise.

Barroso agreed. Lawyers and eurocrats can be creative, ingenious and imaginative with the rules and with the law, he promised.

And in the end, the Brits won’t really want anything else.

“In a sense, Britain will never abandon the idea of Brexit until they have Brexited. Then they will see what they’ve done,” said Bruton, noting that it takes three minutes for goods from the EU to get through Dover, while those non-EU hauliers wait the guts of 45 minutes.

23/4/2018 IIEA Brexit Conferences Issues Bertie Ahern with Barosso at the Mansion House yesterday

Later, his party colleague (leader of Fine Gael from 1987 to 1990) Alan Dukes stood up in the audience to add, “If we have an agreement that allows them to diverge, they’ll find that it’s an extremely bad idea.”

While Dominic Grieve – one-time Attorney General to the British government – wagered that in 10 years time, “we won’t have diverged on anything”.

Bertie would be serving them what they want.

May reportedly said as much at the weekend, conceding that she’ll have to accept some permanent membership of a customs union. Wouldn’t it be handy to be allowed to just call it something else?

It’s a fun hobby for retired politicians, to walk down memory lane while dissecting how the young ones do it these days.

“As a former taoiseach, I wish the present one well,” said Cowen, during yesterday’s exercise.

“I don’t see how I can be of any more help to him. And certainly I’m not first on his list, I’m sure.”

Who knows, maybe Bertie is.

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