The Irish and Belgian approaches to Brexit

I have both Irish and Belgian citizenship, and as luck would have it there are two recent publications examining how both countries are dealing with Brexit.

Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response, by Tony Connelly

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The essential problem is this. Since Ireland and the UK joined the EEC together in 1973, all trade between both countries has come to be governed by shared membership of the single market and customs union. There are no barriers to that trade. Exports and imports flow back and forth across the Irish Sea, and back and forth over the land border. Britain has said it wants to leave the single market but still access it, or to have the closest possible trading relationship with it. Norway is not a member of the EU, but it is a member of the European Economic Area, an organization that brings together the EU and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). That means it is regarded as part of the EU single market and as such enjoys full free-trade access and participates in areas such as research and development, education, social policy, the environment, consumer protection, tourism and culture (though it does not participate in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)). In return, Norway must accept the four freedoms (free movement of people, goods, capital and services); it must pay into the EU budget; and it must accept the body of EU law without having a seat at the table. These are things that the UK has so far refused to countenance.

Reviewing an earlier book by the same author ten years ago, I concluded:

If Connelly’s journalism is as good as this, then RTÉ have an important asset – not just for the domestic Irish audience, but for explaining Europe better to the English-speaking world (a job which the British media dismally fails to do).

My confidence was justified; this is an excellent read. There are two distinct strands of analysis, each done in satisfying detail: i) the inside baseball story of how Irish, British and EU officials dealt with the problems thrown up by Brexit, particularly those relating to Ireland; and ii) an examination of how different Irish economic sectors are affected by Brexit.

I learned much more from the second of these strands. I had no idea that the ducks farmed on the Monaghan/Tyrone border are so dominant in the Asian market. I had no idea of the Irishness of most Cheddar cheese, or that nobody outside the UK and Ireland buys Cheddar. I had no idea about the deep resentment of the Irish fishing industry over the Common Fisheries Policy. I had some idea of the complexities of the cross-border and croos-Irish Sea livestock trade, and of the intricate history of the Common Travel Area, but Connelly’s book enlightened me still further. Put simply, Brexit is a massively disrupting factor for the Irish economy, and the Irish government is right to demand more than magical thinking about the border from London before moving to discussion of the future trade relationship. (NB that what is required for now is not a complete solution, but an outline which goes further than the magical thinking on offer so far.)

However, I was more interested in the first strand, not least because I know several of the protagonists. I had been wondering if there was ever a serious possibility that Ireland might be tempted to align with the UK against the rest of the EU, to enable a better deal for the departing Brits. The answer is pretty clear: Dublin had gamed out the consequences of a Brexit vote long in advance (unlike London) and came to the conclusion that their negotiating power would be better aligned with the other 26 member states rather than the UK; the rest of the EU would be more likely to offer solidarity than the British. This was not without its challenges – the rest of the EU needed educating and convincing about the specifics of the Irish situation; some Irish officials did start to look at ways of managing the border, but were reined in by a government anxious not to surrender its negotiating capital; EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, though no longer an Irish government official, emerges as a key figure stiffening spines in both Dublin and Brussels.

The other reason that there was no prospect of Ireland aligning with the UK against the rest is that the British government at central level has absolutely no clue about either part of Ireland. (The DUP deal is less important here than the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland.) The British Embassy in Dublin is mentioned precisely once, which indicates the value placed on the FCO by Whitehall today. One anecdote, already much-quoted but I’ll quote it again, is especially cringeworthy:

In July [2016], an official in the Department of the Taoiseach received a curious email. It came from the diary secretary of David Davis, the Secretary of State for DexEU – aka ‘Minister for Brexit’. The email read: ‘The Secretary of State has told me he wants to meet Kenny. Please let us know if Kenny is available.’ A senior diplomat immediately wrote to a British official further up the Whitehall food chain. ‘The message was sent [back],’ recalls the diplomat, ‘(a), the Taoiseach is not Davis’s interlocutor and (b), you don’t refer to the Prime Minister of a country by his surname.’

In recent weeks British commentators have been reacting with fury to their discovery that Ireland is an independent country which will pursue its own self-interest. So much for that special relationship. This is an excellent book, and fairly short too.

Towards a Belgian Position on Brexit: Actively Reconciling National and European Interests, by Alexander Mattelaer

Even shorter is a 20-page paper from the Egmont Institute, released only today, about the Belgian approach to Brexit. Here is the second paragraph of the third section:

This section disentangles the complex debate about how to approach Brexit from a Belgian perspective into three distinct conceptual approaches. Firstly, the Belgian government can use its voice in the European Council debate on Article 50 to relentlessly pursue its national interests. Alternatively, it can set its national interests aside in favour of the greater European good. Or thirdly, it can choose to keep a low profile and let the European institutions and other EU member states determine the Article 50 agenda. All three options have their own merits and drawbacks. Of course, these different ways of approaching Brexit are but caricatures for describing a reality that is always infinitely more complex. Yet as the diplomatic challenge for Belgium boils down to an exercise in balancing different impulses, it is enlightening to discuss these options as distinct ideal-types.

It’s a much more academic and theoretical piece than Connelly’s book, but it addresses the same question that I found so interesting in the Irish case: given Belgium’s huge exposure to the UK on trade, and its historical dependence on the UK for security, was there ever any chance of Belgium allying with the British (and perhaps the Irish, in this scenario) against the rest? Mattelaar doesn’t examine the history of any particular approach along these lines by the British (probably because there wasn’t one) but does look at the tension between the self-interest of an EU member state and the policy of supporting the EU as a bloc in the Brexit negotiations. Having more or less admitted up front that this is a straw-man dichotomy, it does not take him long to conclude that these two things are pretty much aligned in the case of Belgium, and that the government’s policy therefore makes sense. (No political actor in Belgium, as far as I am aware, has suggested otherwise.) He does also look at the exposure of different parts of Belgium (Flanders/Wallonia; textiles; fisheries) to Brexit, before concluding that actually the differences are not all that great. The meat of the paper is on pages 8 to 11, immediately following the paragraph I quoted above. It’s very much worth reading to understand the Belgian approach to Brexit.

I have not yet found anything that explains the British approach to Brexit. I will keep looking.