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Dublin: 16°C Saturday 25 September 2021

RTÉ's Tony Connelly says Boris Johnson has a lot to answer for on how the EU was 'caricatured'

RTÉ’s man in Brussels spoke to us about deteriorating Anglo-Irish relations, the influence of the British press, and how journalists cover the EU.

HOW DO YOU explain the Brexit backstop or checks on the border in a three-minute broadcast?

The intertwined global economy, the gentle diplomatic ties between previously warring European states, and the complexities of EU bureaucracy were enough of a mouthful without piling on the never-ending, constantly unfolding Brexit drama.

Tony Connelly has been RTÉ’s Europe Editor since 2011, but has built up a Europe-wide profile in the past three years with his authoritative and impeccably-sourced Brexit briefings.

He’s broken Brexit stories internationally much to the ire of some, who argued that British journalists should be briefed or leaked to first – and that leaking to the Irish was another slight by the EU against the UK. 

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, we asked about what the UK was like as a participant in the EU before it voted to leave, the strain the Brexit vote has put on Anglo-Irish relations, and how Boris Johnson’s journalistic career contributed to the UK’s swelling Eurosceptic views over decades. 

Boris back in the day

Before the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, it had gone through several decades of debate on how it would fit into the ‘European movement’.

When the UK and Ireland joined the EU-precursor, the European Economic Communities (EEC) on 1 January 1973, it did so without asking its population first – and only held a referendum on the issue after, which it won by a two-thirds majority.

In the run up to that referendum, the Tory and Labour parties were split on whether they should work without or within the European collaboration, with Labour out-right opposing the EEC membership.
But as a member of the EU, the UK was an active, energetic participant, Tony Connelly says. 
“The UK was seen to have a very professional civil service, that was not as political as those in other European countries. Officials would write up very detailed dossiers, and the Irish government appreciated those efforts,” Connelly says. 

But Britain was frustrated at the slow pace of things, at the French always protecting their farmers, and Britain was extremely in favour of enlargement, but didn’t want the EU going as deep.

VoteWatch analysis of European Parliament votes indicated that of the votes that the UK took part in, Britain was the country that was on the losing side of votes the most – but it was on the winning side in 92% of votes, which indicates an active member state, but also, perhaps, an increasingly frustrated one. 

A decade after the UK joined the European Union, Boris Johnson had started as The Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, writing articles that have been credited with  strongly influencing the growing Eurosceptic sentiment at the time.

“It was Boris Johnson’s ‘style of reporting’ in the Telegraph that started it,” Connelly says, “but other British tabloids started to copy it – portraying the EU as this caricatured, overbearing enforcer.”

The headlines were about ‘Britain going to do battle’, ‘Britain up against the wall’… That was the framing of Britain’s membership. I think that has spilled into the way negotiations have been reported, you have all these delusions that the UK will get X, Y and Z.

He also mentions an academic study that found the reason why there was a Remain vote in Liverpool was because of the boycott of The Sun (which happened after their coverage of the Hillsborough disaster), and that had a direct impact on the way people voted.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 58% of people in Liverpool and 51% in Merseyside backed staying in the EU. Authors argued that the vote on Merseyside would have been about 60% in favour of Leave without the boycott of The Sun.

Anglo-Irish relations

As a result of Brexit – and notwithstanding the recent “constructive” meeting between Johnson and Varadkar in Dublin – relations between Ireland and the UK have deteriorated. 

“In Europe,” Connelly says, “there’s been a steady retreat from the Brits – they’re not contributing the way they used to, they’ve said they’ll stop sending officials over.”

There’s also been the perception that Britain has found it difficult to adapt to the idea that Ireland is a sovereign country within the EU.

“At the beginning, there was a worry that the UK would try to peel Ireland off,” he adds – there have been numerous reports of the British cabinet and officials briefing against Ireland in other European capitals which “wouldn’t be forgotten easily” in Dublin.

Added to this is the “deepening lack of trust” after the UK reneged on the promises that were made in the 2017 Joint Report that lead to the “weatherproof” Irish backstop – which was ultimately aimed at preserving peace in Northern Ireland.   

Understanding the EU

Since the Brexit referendum, EU officials have been working to inform the citizens of member states about how the EU works, and the various goals and objectives it has. 

Some MEPs have accused journalists of ignoring EU issues, and as a result people don’t know what’s happening in Europe and disengage from its work. Does Connelly feel that is fair, or is it that people don’t have an interest in the EU, so journalists tend not to cover it?

“There are a number of problems. One is, the way the EU operates is it covers 27 or 28 countries and the way in which those countries agree to new legislation is complex.

“The decision making process is difficult to understand, and it might take 18 months for legislation to be processed and become law. So at what stage do you cover that legislation?

I might call my editor up and go, look there’s this proposal in front of a committee that they’re due to discuss, and they’ll go ‘I’m not interested in that, I want to know when it’s going to happen’. So it’s hard to cover the incremental month-to-month progress of EU legislation.
Added to that is that the EU has no competence over income tax, health, education, or other hot-button issues that voters get anxious about.

“Ironically Brexit has heightened awareness of all of this. In the normal run of events, EU process happens under the radar, they all work away on files and follow procedure…

But with Brexit, when you suddenly rip the UK out of this system, people start asking ‘Well, how come we can’t just have that?’ Well because you’re not in the Single Market. ‘What is the Single Market?’ They’re learning all this too late.

So what are the challenges of broadcasting Brexit, when you have to relay complicated political procedures, various industries and how they are connected to one another, and not a lot of time to instantly understand – or factcheck – what you’re reporting on?

“During the referendum, there were lots of claims made in the UK that were clearly unfounded, and presenters on news programmes repeated them, especially on the BBC. They didn’t know the ins and outs, and weren’t able to check the claims being made.

It was only after Brexit that they could look at it in more detail, and after the vote that I realised the effect it would have on Ireland. There was an awful lot of stuff about Single Market and Customs Union that I didn’t understand I had to look this stuff up after Brexit. In the autumn of 2016 I began to acquire a certain level of knowledge and insights that began to stick.
The EU Single Market works because countries all sign up to the same rules, and can trust each other if they play by the rules equally, under the legal oversight of the European Courts of Justice. If you’re out of that system, then you can’t have it. Once you understand that, it all falls into place.

Connelly says that it’s “challenging” to know it all, but aims to know as much of the detail as is important, and to know it accurately.

You might have a night like when the 585-page-long Withdrawal Agreement was released – an international treaty with lengthy protocols, articles, and treaties written in legalese – and Connelly might be going on the Nine O’Clock News 20 minutes later to explain it.

“I can’t expect to pronounce it chapter and verse, so you might say we’ve just gotten this and we are going through it. Then you’d call your contacts and ask ‘What does this protocol mean? Where do we find the bit about the backstop?’ You have to have a huge bank of your own notes to rely on.”

So – while, we’re here – what’s next?

“The Northern Ireland only backstop is a possible landing zone for Boris Johnson,” Connelly says. “If he’s sticking to his promise to leave the EU by 31 October, his choice is to do a deal or to break the law. So he’s got very few options.”

“If there’s some way to make the backstop less ‘anti-democratic’, that might be a way to get Boris Johnson to climb down from his tree.”

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