In a previous life, I served for two years as a member of the EU’s Committee of the Regions, a small EU institution that looks at European legislation from the point of view of local and regional government. As a member of Fine Gael, I sat on this body in the European People’s Party (EPP), similar to Fine Gael’s MEPs in the European Parliament. A centre right grouping born out of the old Christian Democrats, the EPP is relatively unique in having no British members.
During my two years on the Committee of the Regions, I found myself often a lone voice in the EPP raising concerns about the then looming possibility of Brexit and what a disaster this could be for Europe. I was shocked to find the reaction of most of my colleagues was one of general disinterest, if not worse, an appetite to see the UK leave; as many believers in the European dream had become tired of the UK’s constant demands and Euro-scepticism.
For us in Ireland, Brexit is a very big deal. Our history is interwoven with that of the UK and we share deep connections in terms of history, culture, economics and much more. 800,000 Irish people live in the UK, 320,000 UK citizens live in the Republic of Ireland and of course 1.8 million people in Northern Ireland are eligible for UK and/or Irish citizenship.
The decision of the people of the UK to leave the EU will impact greatly on Ireland and this impact will be predominantly negative especially as we seek to redefine a relationship that has been normalised through common membership of the EU.
For the rest of the EU, this is an issue that is of decreasing importance, depending on where you go. Traditionally the Dutch, Belgians and Danes have had moderately close ties with the UK while as fellow G8 members, the French and the Germans also have a very close relationship. In the case of Spain, over one million British citizens currently reside in Spain and many more visit every year as tourists.
After that the levels of the interaction with the UK begin to decrease rapidly with notable, historic, exceptions in the form of Cyprus and Malta. Put simply, the level of Croatian or Romanian economic, social and cultural exchange with the UK is minimal at best. In the case of Poland, many of their leaders were understandably irked to see the caricature of the “Polish Plumber”, incorrectly, used as a tool of the Leave campaign as an example of immigration negatively impacting upon the British economy.
In recent weeks, I have had reason to visit Brussels on a number of occasions to attend various meetings and functions thanks to my role as Government spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann. I used these occasions to feel the pulse of the “Brussels Bubble” on all things Brexit.
I was disappointed to find out that the existing indifference, in many cases, has turned to bitterness and thoughts of vengeance. I found very little appetite amongst EU officials, politicians or those working in the bubble to give the UK any kind of a benevolent deal or to allow for a soft Brexit, this matter not helped by Prime Minister May’s arrogant declaration that Brexit means Brexit at the Conservative Party Conference.
A number of Eurocrats that I spoke to insisted that the best situation is for the UK to remain as part of the EU and in order to achieve that, the remaining EU needed to negotiate so tough a deal that the UK would have no choice but to change their mind, ignore the referendum result and decide to remain in the EU.
It is quite clear to me that Brexit does indeed mean Brexit and that the UK Government will agree any deal; determined to go it alone amid a confused notion that the UK, free of European shackles, will return to a dominant position in the world.
Unfortunately for little old Ireland, the UK leaving the EU with a terrible deal will be an absolute disaster, hurting our existing relationships and brutalising our economic standing. The UK has voted to leave, Ireland needs to fight that the new relationship doesn’t kill off all future dealings. I agree that the UK cannot have a better deal outside the EU than inside but it does not have to be a vengeful arrangement, we cannot prevent Brexit through tough negotiations.
Winter is coming, so is Brexit.
Based in Dublin Rathdown, Senator Neale Richmond is the Government spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann.