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'We weren't riding on their coattails': What does it mean for Ireland now that the UK has left the EU?

The UK “might be leaving by the backdoor… but sure, they can always come round the front door and knock on it again.”
Jan 31st 2020, 11:00 PM 24,446 28

banksy-brexit Source: Prezat Denis/Avenir Pictures/ABACA

THE UK HAS officially left the European Union, three years after the EU referendum where 51% of the population voted for Brexit.

In that space of time, we’ve witnessed the UK lurching from one Brexit policy to another, shifting Prime Ministers and Brexit secretaries, and making last-minute highwire decisions on what’s the biggest change in Europe since the reunification of Germany.

Nothing will seem immediately different now that the UK has left: this is because the UK will remain in the Customs Union and Single Market until the transition period ends on 31 December 2020 (unless PM Boris Johnson changes his mind and asks for an extension).

This means that although UK citizens will no longer be EU citizens, they will still enjoy the EU rights they had before until the transition period ends.

The UK will now lose its 73 MEPs, and won’t be allowed to reverse Brexit by revoking Article 50 – if it wants to rejoin the EU, it will have to reapply.

“We’re disappointed that the UK is leaving, but that’s what they’ve decided,” Ray MacSharry said, who was a member of the European Commission, European Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

But I tell you in 10- 20 years’ time, the EU and the UK will be strengthening relations again.

So tonight marks a symbolic end to the UK as a member of the European Union: but what does that mean for the EU, and for Ireland’s future? 

The UK’s place in the EU

The UK and Ireland have been members of the EU since 1973. The UK joined the EU, and held a referendum on whether it should stay as a member in 1975.

At the time, there was a split within all the parties on whether they should be a member of the EU: in the end, they favoured the economic benefits but there has never been a whole-hearted view of the project from political quarters.

Despite the ever-present scepticism, the UK has been an integral part of the construction of the EU: PM Margaret Thatcher, armed with Whitehall’s highly competent British civil servants, was an architect of the Single Market.

At Parliament level, Irish MEP and the First Vice President of the European Parliament Mairéad McGuinness says that British MEPs have made a “significant contribution to a whole range of legislative issues”.

She said that the UK has contributed significantly to the EU in its 40 years as a member.

“For example, on the update of the medical devices regulation, which I was involved in, I experienced how the UK made invaluable contributions and UK experts provided a lot of input into developing a robust regime.

“The UK leaving will be a loss to the EU – but the UK will also lose out on the
collaboration that the EU enables.”

RTÉ Europe editor and Brexit behemoth Tony Connelly said that the UK had been an active, energetic participant of the EU. 

“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 said.

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.

Friends or foes

A number of EU officials, and have said that the UK was a big brother to Ireland within the EU. If disagreements took place among European Commissioners or within the European Council (the gathering of the 27 EU countries’ leaders), it’s often been said that Ireland would let the UK do the arguing on its behalf.

Speaking to, former EU Commissioner MacSharry disagreed with the suggestion that Ireland has been “running on their coattails” of the UK for years.

He says that during his time as EU Commissioner for Agriculture, the UK “didn’t want Common Agriculture Payment (CAP) at all” and “opposed everything” that Ireland had been trying to work towards. 

He said that when he was Minister for Agriculture in the ’70s and ’80s, farmers’ unions in the North had “pleaded” with him to pursue for the North what Ireland had been asking for in the South, which he did.

The UK has opposed CAP because it’s seen as an expensive feature of the EU: the fund for CAP is worth half of the EU’s total budget. This is justified because it secures a food supply within the European Union:

Screenshot 2020-01-31 at 12.01.52 Source: EuroParl/Budget at a Glance

As Ireland is a small agricultural country, it gets its money’s worth from being a member of the EU. That being said, as the UK was the third greatest contributor to the EU’s budget, the fees that each member state pay the EU for membership is almost certain to increase post-Brexit.

Currently we pay €2 billion a year into the EU; for this we get free movement of people through the EU for citizens; decreased tariff rates for business; CAP for farmers; and legislation, such as this proposal for a common EU smartphone charger to try to cut down on electronic device waste.

Screenshot 2020-01-31 at 12.03.46 Source: Europarl/Budget at a Glance

In an example of how the UK pushed back against this system, British PM Margaret Thatcher had been against increasing funding for CAP payments down through the years. 

She argued that they were putting “too much in and not getting the same amount out”, MacSharry says, adding that “they weren’t really an agricultural country”.

But that’s not what the EU was about. They were contributing more because of the size of their population, and their citizens were benefiting from EU rights [like the freedom of movement].

He says that Thatcher once “burst up the whole meeting looking for her money back” and “didn’t get it”.

When asked whether the EU would miss Whitehall officials, who have been labelled as superb by those within the EU, MacSharry says: “No doubt about that, but to think that they would be on the Irish side, I wouldn’t go along with that too much.

Too often we’d have to come down from the lowest common denominator because of the UK. 

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. 

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What’s next

“I remember making a speech when the referendum passed…” says Ray MacSharry, who has pursued private business interests since leaving politics.

“…Particularly, [I remember] how much it would affect our food and drinks industry. We were exporting €5 billion food and drink to the UK – but they were exporting €3 billion to us.

It is a two-way business. The English don’t want to be cut off from us, and we don’t want to be cut off from their market. 

On the Irish protocol, which is to kick-in by 1 January 2021, MacSharry says “we’re assured that there will be a Single Market in the 32 counties in Ireland, and that there will be checks along the Irish Sea”.

He acknowledged that there were some concerns being expressed about the Irish Sea border now, but said: “I’ll tell you, there won’t be a word about it three months after it starts. There has to be checks somewhere.” 

He says that the UK will want access to the Single Market, because the whole point of the UK joining the EU in the first place was to get access to that market. 

On whether Brexit has damaged Anglo-Irish relations, MacSharry is dismissive:

“Not in the least. We have always had that friction for 100s of years. I’ve worked well with representatives from Labour and the Conservative Party. There will be good relations, there’s no question about it – we’re neighbours.

They might be leaving by the backdoor… but sure, they can always come round the front door and knock on it again.   

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Gráinne Ní Aodha


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