The following are remarks made by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to a conference on ‘What now for Ireland in the era of Brexit and Trump’, held in Dublin on 23rd February 2017.
Thirty years ago next week, I first went to a European council meeting as Minister for Labour. I was there for five years and I went on to Ecofin for over three years, then spent 11 years at the European Council.
During that 1987 to 2008 period I spent 19 of 21 years at European Council meetings negotiating, Maastricht, as Finance Minister, then Nice and all of the other agreements.
I fear that we still don’t get how the internal system of Europe works and how you have to play it – and that worries me as we go into Brexit as well.
Over the last eight months, we’ve all been involved and we’re Brexited out, between conferences and seminars, institutions and people doing papers. I’ve engaged myself with a number of the groups, particularly, along with John Bruton, in the House of Lords Committee. I’m just thinking of the Irish position here, because the other 27 EU members will look after themselves, as will the Parliament, and the Commission, with their tens of thousands of staff. I don’t really care too much about the rest, so I just think of Ireland.
There are a number of points I’d like to make.
It’s clearly agreed now that the economic implications for us after Brexit are far worse than for anybody else. The economic implications for in particular given the extent of cross-border trade and agri-sector funding is a big issue.
The consequences include that 10pc of GDP of Northern Ireland comes directly from Europe. I have sat at a number of the debates in the Houses of Commons and the Lords and read most of the reports, and nowhere do I see any commitment that those funds will be replaced.
The consequences for the soft Irish land border, the potential restrictions of free movement of goods and people, is going to be a huge issue.
Pascal Lamy is considered to be the world expert on world trade and was head of the World Trade Organisation, he says that the issue is this: once the UK decided to come out of the Customs Union, that’s game set and match.
The reality is this, it is not the Irish Government or the UK government that will decide. It is the European Union dealing with a third country. The EU happens to be the Irish side, and the third country is Northern Ireland, part of the UK. At the moment that is the hard reality of that.
The single market you can handle and the whole immigration end. Officials in the UK have been at pains to say they don’t see a problem with the free movement of people North and South, they say there’ll be a few checkpoints and they will use modern technology, but I think they are determined it won’t be a problem. I don’t think that is the issue. It is the customs union that is the problem.
In the event that the UK leaves, and I don’t agree with my good friend Tony Blair that there’s a way around that, I think the die is cast, there is also the issue of eligibility of cross-border projects for EU funding.
As for the reaffirmation of both governments to the commitments of the Good Friday Agreement, and subsequent agreements, the view in Brussels on that is they don’t quite understand why we’re not using the Good Friday agreement far more in making our arguments. The people saying this are Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt, Jean Claude Juncker – not nobodys in the European Union. The EU has a very strong interest in supporting most of our cases. It has made a huge contribution to the peace process both politically and financially. It’s therefore, in my view, in the interests of the EU to seek political stability in Northern Ireland and make sure nothing happens in Brexit that creates huge difficulties for us.
But the point that they’re making is that it’s for us to spell out these issues, it’s for us to negotiate these issues, and highlight the areas.
Brexit has implications for a wide variety of issues, from climate change to energy infrastructure.
Ireland is heavily reliant on the UK as a source of oil and gas. Brexit could result in the introduction of tariffs and duties on the import of these UK products. The risk of this happening will hopefully be fairly low but there’s a deep all-island market of electricity – that came out of the Good Friday Agreement.
In Europe, everything is possible in negotiation. It is a bureaucracy as we know. The political system plays a big part, but most work is done in the Commission. Most of the work will be done by experts.
I don’t believe people will be out to do the Brits down. That would be stupid. But at the same time I don’t think that anyone is going to give them an easy ride. It won’t happen in two years. I personally believe there’s not a hope in hell.
What will really happen is that the negotiations won’t start until September, until the Commission and European holidays are over, and then they have a period effectively to the end of 2018 because it has to go through the parliamentary system.
They will come to the conclusion at that stage that there are too many areas that are not finished and they will say that this is the broad outline and there will have to be transition periods. And that’s when the real work will start.