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Brexit divorce deal was 'the easy part'; and more 'last-minute turmoil' on the way, Irish MEPs say

Irish MEPs regret that Brexit has become an inevitability, with one saying that “as an Irish person, I can’t feel any happiness” towards the certainty it created.

A 'magic money tree' put up outside the Houses of Parliament in London by anti-Brexit protesters.
A 'magic money tree' put up outside the Houses of Parliament in London by anti-Brexit protesters.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

AFTER THREE YEARS of uncertainty, we’re just three weeks away from the UK’s exit from the EU. This is after three Brexit secretaries, two prime ministers, and various suggestions for how the border would operate post-Brexit.

The UK’s Brexit legislation has passed through the House of Commons this week, and although the House of Lords and European Parliament are still due a vote each, it’s all but certain Brexit will happen on 31 January.

But we’re not out of the woods yet, according to six of Ireland’s 11 MEPs who answered questions sent by TheJournal.ie on Brexit. Irish MEP Mairéad McGuinness said that the Withdrawal Agreement was “the easy part”, with the trade talks still to go.

Two other Irish MEPs said that Johnson was “unreliable” and that his refusal to extend the timeline to strike a trade deal was “bluster” and will lead to more “last-minute turmoil”.

Here are more of those MEPs’ thoughts on the upcoming trade talks, on whether it’s a good thing that the UK is finally leaving the EU after months of to-ing and fro-ing, and on the custom arrangements for Northern Ireland, where there’s a lot left to decide on.

Do you think the customs arrangement for Northern Ireland contained in the Withdrawal Agreement (and still to be defined) will work?

“As with so much of Brexit, these are uncharted waters,” the Green Party’s Ciaran Cuffe told TheJournal.ie. “Ever since the UK government indicated Brexit is about diverging from standards, leaving the customs union and the Single Market, solving the border issue has been like trying to square a circle.

The Withdrawal Agreement’s provisions aim to solve this intractable problem, and the consent procedure for Stormont is positive. It shows how important it is that the Assembly gets back up and running. 

Fine Gael MEP for Ireland South, Seán Kelly said: “The island of Ireland is unique, and therefore unique and unconventional arrangements were always going to be required.

“I believe that the strong political will on both sides to honour the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts will ensure that these arrangements will be made work.”

Mairéad McGuinness, who is a Fine Gael MEP for the Midlands-North West and the First Vice-President of the European Parliament since 2017, said there is still “work to do” on the custom proposals for Northern Ireland.

“I think this arrangement has the potential to work very well for Northern Ireland, giving it the best of both worlds in terms of access to the single market and the rest of the UK. But there is still work to do.”

The Joint Committee will have to work out many of the details in a relatively short space of time. The customs arrangement will also depend on the overall shape of the EU-UK relationship. The closer the EU-UK relationship, the better it is for the whole island of Ireland – East-West trade is important for both parts of the island.

Green Party MEP for Ireland South, Grace O’Sullivan said: “I do have concerns that some of the technical aspects will be difficult to operate initially, but I think a few months of operations should see most of the problems ironed out. The economic realities in cross border trade will add to the pressure to find workable arrangements on most aspects.”

Sinn Féin’s only MEP Matt Carthy was more emphatic in his views: “There is no such thing as a good Brexit deal for Ireland, and especially not for the north.”

He said that the provisions within the Withdrawal Agreement in relation to Northern Ireland are about “minimising the damage” that Brexit will cause.

“It is my view that the customs arrangements will offer some protections. However, the economic challenges caused by the partition of our country are likely to become even more evident and therefore it would be preferable for all of Ireland to be in the EU.

“The only mechanism for delivering on that is through a United Ireland and therefore we need the Irish government and civic society, north and south, to start planning for the scenario of a referendum on Irish Unity,” he said.

Is it a good thing that the UK is finally leaving the EU, giving certainty to businesses and citizens, as well as politics?

“Naturally, further clarity on what the UK wants has always been welcome these past three years,” Ciarán Cuffe responded.

“But of course I deeply regret the UK’s departure. I regret what Brexit means for UK-Ireland relations, for cooperation across this continent on important issues like climate change, workers’ rights, transport, and so much more. What we have to hope for now is that Boris Johnson’s plan to diverge from EU standards is softened.”

Seán Kelly said: “I firmly believe that the UK leaving the EU is not a good thing for the UK or for Europe. Ireland will miss the UK more than any other Member State, they are a great ally of ours at EU level and won’t be easily replaced.

That that the period of uncertainty over whether or not they will actually leave can now come to an end is one small positive aspect of an entirely negative saga.

McGuinness responded that she still “regrets the outcome of the referendum”.

“But it is a UK decision. Given that decision, I am glad that the UK will leave in an orderly fashion, with a Withdrawal Agreement that provides certainty on the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, on the financial settlement and, crucially, on special arrangements for Northern Ireland.

“That said, there is still uncertainty on the future EU-UK relationship. We have a Political Declaration that provides a general direction of travel – but all the detail needs to be worked out, by a deadline that is currently 31 December 2020. 

We can be fairly sure that the UK will leave the single market and customs union, but beyond that there is still a lot of uncertainty for business.

Grace O’Sullivan: “I can understand that feeling, and indeed for some in the EU apparatus, there seems to be relief that finally we can move on to other things.

But as an Irish person, I can’t feel any happiness.
11 of my excellent colleagues in the Green/EFA group are set to lose their jobs and return home to a country that remains politically traumatised by the politics since the referendum.

“The very existence of the UK itself seems more uncertain than ever, which threatens further instability in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and of course, there is still the trade agreement to negotiate, within the unrealistic time frame of one year.

“So in a way we’re in the worst of all worlds – Brexit is now a certainty, but also not over with. The Irish government and EU are also left dealing with the most unreliable prime minister imaginable, a man who’s word we clearly cannot trust. This will make negotiations on market access, transport, residency, fisheries, trade and everything in between a daunting prospect.”

In response to the question of whether it’s a good thing that Brexit is happening, Matt Carthy said: “No, because the north of Ireland is being dragged out as well against the democratic wishes of the people who live there.

“Although the Withdrawal Agreement includes protections for the North which Sinn Féin campaigned for the fact remains that from 1 February our country will operate with one part within the EU and the other outside.

“This will cause issues economically (even with the bespoke customs arrangements) and politically. For example after Brexit the north will no longer have representatives in the European Parliament and other citizens rights will be undermined.”

What is the likelihood that the next phase of talks – trade and the future relationship – will collapse?

Firstly, a reminder of where we are.

The UK parliament has passed British legislation that would enact the Withdrawal Agreement 2.0 that Boris Johnson struck with the European Union in September. 

The legislation is now to pass through the House of Lords, where Johnson doesn’t have a majority, but is still likely to passed by the unelected members of the upper chamber.

After that, the European Parliament will have to vote on the deal, and then the UK will leave the EU on 31 January.

The UK will then enter a transition period where it will remain a member of the customs union and single market. The transition period ends at the end of 2020, but the UK will have the option of extending it for two years – which Johnson has said he wouldn’t do.

It’s during this 11-month timeframe the UK and EU are meant to negotiate a trade deal, which has been labelled as unrealistic since other trade negotiations have taken at least several years.

Ciarán Cuffe said that the success of these trade talks will “depend on the Conservative government’s approach to Brexit”.

If it wishes to pursue a race-to-the-bottom in terms of standards, watering down environmental regulations and social standards in a deregulatory push to make the UK more ‘competitive’, this will present difficulties for the EU. The more the UK wishes to diverge, the more fractious negotiations might become. If Boris Johnson also insists on a very tight timetable, this will present difficulties.

Seán Kelly said that the EU’s Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan will take “a constructive approach and work hard” to secure a future relationship, adding: “If the same will is present on the UK side, it should be possible to reach a deal.”

Mairéad McGuinness said that the Withdrawal Agreement “was the easy part”.

This next phase is in many ways more difficult. This is an unprecedented trade agreement – it is about divergence, rather than convergence. 

“To take just one area: fishing. There has been a lot of talk in the UK about ‘Taking Back Control’ of UK waters, and it was a key theme in the Brexit campaign. That would cause problems for Irish and other EU fishermen.

“But as most UK fish and seafood is sold into the EU market, the EU will insist on access to UK waters in return for UK-product access to the EU market. Reaching a fair arrangement for both the UK and the EU will require careful negotiations.”

“Negotiating all of that in 11 months is a challenge,” she said.

“There is a huge amount still to be agreed,” Grace O’Sullivan said.

“Some, like reciprocal access to Irish and UK fisheries waters have nominal agreement, but could still unravel over the coming year.

Others, like residency and related rights, are on a stronger basis. Lastly, things like market access, trade in services, regulatory cooperation and other aspects will be extremely complicated.

“The timeline of one year I think is quite unrealistic, but then it’s important that all parties in Ireland do what we can to ensure the success of these talks, in the interest of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the EU itself.”

Matt Carthy said: “My guess is that they won’t collapse, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be several complications along the way.

Boris Johnson’s assertion that he will not, under any circumstances, agree to an extension in this phase is probably bluster but will likely result in more rounds of last-minute turmoil as we’ve seen in previous rounds.

“The trade talks are going to be crucial from an Irish perspective. We need them to work in order to ensure that the real economic catastrophe that Brexit presents doesn’t materialise. Therefore we need to be vigilant in our monitoring of the position of the British government but also of the EU.

“Recent EU trade deals have prioritised large corporate interests above those of citizens and smaller companies – Mercosur is an example. Ireland needs to make sure that the free trade deal is also a fair trade deal that protects workers, the environment and our national interests.”

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