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Brothers in Brexit

An pro-Brexit Irish economist writes to the British government, explaining Dublin's position, and arguing for Ireland's own departure from the EU.

During years of opposition to Eurofederalism and supranational EU integration, I have gotten to know a number of British Brexiteers, both Tory and Labour. I thought recently that they might find it useful to have an assessment from a sympathetic Irish observer of what I believe Dublin’s current policy is on Brexit. I sent the letter below to a lot of them last month, along with two journal articles on the subject. The letter was sent on behalf of the National Platform EU Research and Information Centre, of which I am director. This is the EU-critical counterpart of the European Movement Ireland. I sent it also to the Ministers and senior civil servants in the UK’s key Brexit-related ministries: Cabinet Office, Foreign Office, Treasury, Department for Exiting the EU, Department of International Trade and Ministry of Defence. It went also to all Unionist MPs and MLAs.

This is what I wrote:

“Dear British Friends,

As an Irish democrat and economist who would like to see Brexit succeed for the Republic of Ireland’s sake as well as for the UK’s, may I make some points to you and to various other UK policy-makers about current Irish Government policy on Brexit.

Since the Republic of Ireland became a net contributor to the EU Budget in 2014, having been a major net recipient of EU funds for decades, there are no good arguments for it remaining in the EU when the UK leaves. Indeed good arguments can be made that it is in the Republic’s best interest that Brexit should be accompanied by ‘Irexit’. The most obvious one is that this would avoid the addition of new dimensions to the North-South Border within Ireland.

The main argument for the Republic of Ireland remaining in the EU when the UK leaves is the negative one that it has been foolish enough to adopt the euro-currency – despite doing two-thirds of its foreign trade outside the Eurozone. Ireland joined the Eurozone in 1998 on the assumption that the UK would be doing the same and that we would show how ‘communautaire’ we were by going first!

So leaving the EU would mean having to restore the Irish pound. However, Ireland is probably the only country that could leave the euro and go back to its national currency without causing a general crisis for the euro area as a whole. But it would need the support of the UK and Germany to take such a step with minimum disruption.

Despite the absence of significant benefits for Ireland from remaining in the EU when the UK leaves, the current Irish Government, the Dáil Opposition parties and most of the Irish media are wedded to being part of ‘Team EU’. In this they are impelled by the momentum of decades of uncritical Euro-zealotry. The Irish public is likely to be more sceptical, however, as shown by its rejection of the EU’s 2001 Nice Treaty and 2008 Lisbon Treaty in referendums – referendums that were then re-run by the Irish Government to obtain a different result, without any change being made to those treaties.

You can take it that the Irish Government, to judge by its current stance, will be cooperating in this with Brussels and with Germany and France in every way it can, and doing everything possible to frustrate Brexit.

The current belief in official circles in Dublin is that there is a good chance that a meaningful Brexit can be frustrated by cross-party resistance in the House of Commons and Lords, supported from outside. It is understood that the German, French and other EU Governments believe the same and that for this reason the EU is likely to make things as difficult as possible for Britain in the EU/UK negotiations over the coming year.

The EU is expected to test to destruction the possibility of Brexit being reversed in Parliament. It is only if the EU and its supporters fail to overturn the Brexit referendum result – and recognise that they cannot – that the serious talking will start, probably quite late in the day.

You can take it that the Irish Government, to judge by its current stance, will be cooperating in this with Brussels and with Germany and France in every way it can, and doing everything possible to frustrate Brexit.

Familiar Irish-EU grandees such as Peter Sutherland, Pat Cox, John Bruton and Alan Dukes will be working behind the scenes with the Irish Government to this end. They will be systematically interacting with those anti-democratic ‘Remainers’ in British Labour and Conservative circles who refuse to accept last year’s democratic UK referendum vote.

Presumably if Brexit is ultimately to be achieved it will boil down to a deal between Britain and Germany, mainly over money. The UK clearly has some good cards it can play in this. For example it might back Germany obtaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Germany too might be willing to facilitate Ireland leaving the Eurozone, recognising that it is within Britain’s historic sphere of influence. Germany might see also that the aspirations of sections of the German elite to hegemony over the continental EU would be advanced if the two English-speaking island countries, not just one, should leave the EU together.

Former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern implicitly criticised Dublin’s unthinking commitment to ‘Team EU’ when he stated that Ireland had “missed the boat” by failing to engage with London directly before the UK/EU negotiations began with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, using Strand Three of the Good Friday Agreement for that purpose. “For the next year it is left to trying to influence him and his team. That is the challenge we face as a country”, Ahern said. (Irish Times, 12 July 2017)

In considering the Irish aspect of the UK/EU negotiations it is important to bear in mind that the career federalism amongst Irish policy-makers, supported by unthinking sections of the Irish media, which is the principal influence on current Dublin Government policy on Brexit, is fundamentally opposed to the interests of the Irish people themselves as well as to the interests of the UK.

There would be no problems over the North- South Irish Border if the Republic left the EU along with the UK, or if it were to join an Anglo- Irish rather than an EU customs union. Like the UK the Republic could thereby get back control of its law-making, its valuable fishing waters, its Budget policy, foreign policy and its own currency. It was the competitive character of that currency’s floating exchange-rate regime that underpinned the Republic’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom of 1994-2000. Possible future security risks to Britain from the Republic becoming part of a German-dominated EU military bloc would not arise if Ireland left the EU too in tandem with the UK.

Britain is the most valuable single-country export market for domestically-owned Irish industry, which is particularly important for employment here, while the US is Ireland’s most valuable single-country market for its foreign-owned industry. Two- thirds of the Republic’s freight trade with the continent goes through the UK. 90 percent of the Republic’s oil and gas come from the UK. There would be a popular revolt in the Republic if the policy commitment to ‘Team EU’ by the Republic’s political elite put the Anglo-Irish travel area in peril in any way. These are relevant points for UK policy-makers to bear in mind when they are dealing with Dublin’s Euro-federalists in the period ahead.

Yours faithfully,

Anthony Coughlan

(Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin)