There can be little doubt that any of the political theatre surrounding this week’s delivery of Article 50 was intended for a domestic British audience. However EU Council President Donald Tusk was moved to remark that it was “a sad day”, a sentiment, no doubt with resonance elsewhere, which went beyond his rather dry tweet that
“After nine months the UK has delivered”
Although it was the first official act given by the British Government to Brussels of withdrawal, it certainly came as no surprise to anyone on either side of the channel. Most officials in Brussels are as aware as anyone else as to what’s been happening in the UK. Most British newspapers and news channels sources are widely accessible in Brussels with officials and lobbyists analysing every Government announcement to see what it could reveal about the UK’s intended outcome from the negotiations. What has become apparent in the months since the vote last June is that the issue of Northern Ireland seems to be on the EU’s radar going-into the negotiations.
The EU’s three main institutions; Council, Commission and Parliament already have their ‘Brexit teams’ in place and the issue of Northern Ireland can be seen in their sights.
In the Commission, the well-decorated former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has been tasked as “Chief Negotiator” (Though he’s likely to prefer the term Négociateur principal ). He is to lead the Commission’s rather long-winded “Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom under Article 50”, a 28-man team which includes Tadhg O’Briain, who has previously spent four years working as an economist in the Northern Ireland Department of Finance. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also mentioned the border issues, when he said last month:
“We don’t want to have hard borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic. We want to have the Good Friday Agreement not to be put under risk and we want land borders be as open as possible. Because the Irish challenges in this very contexts are not only Irish challenges, they are European challenges…. We don’t want to see the Good Friday agreement damaged in any way that’s the real priority for us”
For its part the European Parliament will pass a resolution on Article 50 next week, having issued a draft text last night in which they urge:
“that all means and measures, consistent with European Union law and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, be used to mitigate the effects of United Kingdom’s withdrawal on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland;
“insists in that context on the absolute need to ensure continuity and stability of the Northern Ireland Peace Process and avoid the reestablishment of a hard border.”
Parliament has appointed Guy Verhofstadt MEP, an outspoken former Belgian Prime Minister as its chief draughtsman on the Brexit issue. His position in interesting one as he’s also and one of the heads of the Liberal-Centrist ALDE group in the European Parliament. A group which contains only MEP from the UK although it does also have Sligo-based independent MEP, Marian Harkin as one of its better-known members.
It is clear that Verhofstadt is well-aware of the issues surrounding Northern Ireland. He is quoted in one of his first statements on the issue as saying:
“One of the greatest challenges in the forthcoming negotiations will be the acute need to find a solution for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, so that a new hard border dividing them is avoided. I am committed to doing my upmost to ensure, from the European Union side, that the specific needs of Ireland and Northern Ireland are prioritised in the negotiations to come.”
But as the ALDE grouping in the European Parliament is dwarfed by bigger grouping Verhofstadt will not be only one with his fingerprints on any Parliament text that passes. He will need to convince the larger Conservative grouping (Which the Tories left in 2009) and the Social-democrat group (which includes Labour). British MEPs (Including the three Northern Ireland) frequently remind observers that they will have a vote on the final Brexit deal, whether or not the House of Commons does. Not forgetting that under the Lisbon treaty the Parliament will also have the right of veto over any future EU-UK trade deal.
The Council of the EU will of course be able to have the Republic of Ireland’s voice at the table during negotiations. The Council president Donald Tusk employs a speech-writer from close to the border, whom has a great deal of experience in UK-EU relations. Tusk recently hosted Taoiseach Enda Kenny for talks on the Northern Ireland issue. The Council has also appointed brainy Belgian ex-diplomat Didier Seeuws to head-up its own “Task-force on the UK”.
What remains to be seen is how the British side of the table will deal with Northern Ireland and how far they will push it in the negotiations. While Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Gibraltar might be quite envious of the seemingly high-place being afforded to Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations the absence of a Stormont government to provide their own input is likely to jar with many. David Davis’ letter to Stormont parties on “common frameworks” may offer some comfort though it’s clear anxieties remain high.
Brexit negotiations certainly won’t wait for Stormont to be restored or a new election, however they are likely to be less than fully substantial while all parties await two crucial elections: those in France and Germany in May and September respectively.
Whether or not Northern Ireland sees a border which is “Hard”, “Soft” or something in between will be the stuff of hard negotiating in the coming years. Whether or not Stormont will have an executive to discuss it remains to be seen.