At the eleventh hour, the British negotiating team pulled a rabbit from the hat in their negotiations with the European Union. A key victory long desired by Brexiteers and Eurosceptics: a concession on fisheries. The EU would agree that EU Fishing boats would give Britain back 25% of fish caught in its waters over the next five and a half years. Of course, the country to pay the price to protect the EU’s interests, was Britain’s closest neighbour – Ireland. Notwithstanding the assurances of the Europhiles in our country, Ireland is the net loser on Brexit – but not for the reasons we want to admit. We are now more isolated within the EU, having lost Britain as its core ally and voting partner in trying to keep Brussels in check. Due to Britain’s departure, the Irish government has found itself increasingly unable to protect Irish interests be it in EU Budget negotiations or in Trade Deals. The harsh reality of an EU minus Britain is facing us, and one where Britain’s departure has served as a catalyst for Euro-federalist wish list policies long vetoed by Britain take shape.
I remember speaking to a former Law Professor of mine, Seth Barrett Tillman, on the matter some time ago. It was about a year after the eventual ‘Leave’ win in the Brexit referendum, and unsurprisingly the Irish press were carrying on Project Fear to ever more farcical levels. Speaking to Professor Tillman, he remarked to me that it would be interesting to see if there was any shift in Irish attitudes towards the EU following our transition from a net beneficiary to a net contributor. Would paying more into the EU, than we were getting out of it, change our outlook? It should, at the very least, encourage extensive scrutiny of the relationship and lead to reform of the relationship where needed.
Up until this time, we have failed to see this shift in attitudes occur. I think this not because Professor Tillman is wrong, rather I think the arc of time shall sustain his point. What has delayed this shift, in my view, has been the 24/7 bombardment of the Irish people with Brexit fear-mongering, touting of the EU, and barbed attacks on the Tories. A consensus was presented to the Irish people, dissent from which was simply not allowed. Now that Brexit is finally completed and Britain is making an early success of it, attention can now turn to our own relationship with Brussels.
I am not saying that we should immediately gun for an Irexit scenario. Rather, what I am saying is we should pursue reform of our relationship and see if what is broken can be fixed. Brexit was not the beginning, but the culmination of a decades long failure of the EU to reform and address the concerns of Member States like Britain. If reform had been delivered, perhaps Britain would not have left.
At the present time, there is an attempt to present our relationship with Brussels as one of almost unilateral benefit to Ireland and without fault. The necessity of maintaining this façade is so great that the notion of an Irexit conference or Leave EU relocating to Ireland is enough for certain Irish TDs to cry foul! Debate on our relationship with the EU, or even the platforming of views advocating an Irish exit from the EU cannot be allowed, lest people see the chinks in the armour and the downsides of our present engagement.
In the past few months, we have seen CAP and Pillar II funding cut in EU budget negotiations in spite of the fact this was an Irish government priority. Irish fishermen were sold out by the EU, despite promises to the contrary, to protect the special interests of Brussels. The Brexit Buffer Fund which was meant to be majoritively to Ireland’s benefit and support, failed to deliver such. Due to European Commission regulations, visa requirements are in place for motorists from the North to drive in the South (whilst there is no corresponding requirement for Southern motorists to drive in the North). These are only a few examples of Ireland’s interests suffering in the wider context of the European project.
This is even without looking to the debacle that has been the EU response to Covid-19. Brussels was nowhere to be seen in the early months of the pandemic as we saw Army trucks of deceased Italians on RTE News. In fact, national self-interest took over with Germany blocking the supply of medical supplies to Italy – despite the spiking death rates across the country. Despite all their resources, all their power, and the cries for help from European Member States, the EU was found wanting in a universal hour of need.
Furthermore, the EU has been badly behind in securing Covid-19 Vaccinations to put it mildly. Britain approved Vaccines several weeks before the EU, and have been vaccinating for several weeks longer than EU member states. In fact, Britain was the first Western State to begin vaccinating, whereas member states just about were able to begin vaccinating by the final days of 2020. Britain has administered close to 2.4 million vaccines already, more than double the closest EU country.
The European Medicines Agency has continuously failed to explain or justify the significant delays in its approval of trial vaccines compared to other countries. It declined to purchase 500 million additional doses of the Pfizer Vaccine last summer. Due to these failures, the EU had to secure an additional 100 million doses in December, and now 300 million additional doses announced only a few days ago, with a view to purchasing up to 600 million doses. Surely, it would have been more efficient to purchase and secure the 500 million Vaccines on offer last summer. We have already heard in the last week, how Germany were so dissatisfied with the EU’s Vaccine performance, that they broke the legal agreement underpinning Vaccine procurement to independently secure their own supply of the Vaccine. They recognised the fault in the relationship and acted, why have we not?
Again, this is not a case for Irexit. Rather, what I am saying is this, the EU post-Brexit is one where Ireland is more isolated and less capable of protecting her interests. If the 26 other member states corral together to remove our veto on tax harmonisation, how will we stop them? That remains unclear. In re-examining our relationship with the EU, we are recognising the faults in every relationship and looking to whether this can be resolved. If this can be resolved with Ireland remaining in the EU, then it shows the EU has rectified the error in their ways; if this can only be resolved with Ireland joining Britain outside of the EU, then that shows that the EU has learnt nothing. We do not hesitate to “re-examine” our relationship with America, Israel or other sovereign countries – why then do we not do so with Brussels?