EU works away despite Brexit: EU tax plans ignored for far too long

Jean-Claude Juncker

In the language of conflicted, unsettled politics, the phrase “as short as possible” all too easily falls into the category of a believe-what-you-want comfort. 

It is not precise, it is even nebulous and is not a reliable stepping stone towards making lasting, well-founded progress.

In the context of an EU gesture to embattled British prime minister trying to find a way, almost any way, out of the Brexit maze such a concession on the infamous backstop, contained in a three-page letter from Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, European Council president, may have seemed manna from heaven to Ms May but she quickly realised its limitations and that it was unlikely to sway trenchant MPs from their march towards splendid isolation.

However, from an Irish perspective, and we’re no strangers to the possibilities of constructive ambiguities, it must be a sit-up-and-take-notice moment especially as the two leaders emphasised that they expect any use of the backstop would be “temporary” and replaced “as quickly as possible”.

Mr Juncker’s and Mr Tusk’s assurances fall short of British requests to agree a new target date for both sides to make efforts to ensure that the backstop would only be used for a year, if it is to be triggered at all. 

This brings us back to simple but disheartening realities. 

A temporary backstop is not a backstop, it is a passing inconvenience. 

The suggestion brings us back too, unfortunately, to that point where those who dismiss the idea of a hard border flounder around trying to confound physics and geography — and culture — and describe what sort of international frontier arrangement might transpire along that once-bloodied border. 

The only known options are as unattractive as they are limited.

If there is an Irish diplomat working whose sangfroid was undisturbed by backstop tweaking, then Mr Junker’s declarations yesterday on proposals to end national tax independence must have been a smell-the-coffee intrusion. 

This week, Brussels intends to propose extending majority voting to all EU tax policies by the end of 2020, a fundamental and divisive move to scrap national vetoes long fiercely guarded by many member states, especially smaller, more vulnerable ones.

Suggesting EU tax policy is “failing to deliver to its full potential”, the commission will issue a paper arguing the demands of the global economy meant it was “time to reconsider... traditional views on sovereignty”.

This is, despite Brexit, a case of business as usual for the EU and it would have been naive to imagine this agenda is not active. 

It would more than naive, possibly even stupid, to imagine that the opportunities afforded to transnational, tax-shy corporations by countries who march to a different drum on tax would not be challenged. 

From an Irish perspective,Luxembourg, Holland, and Malta too, this may be a bitter pill to contemplate. 

Just as we have ignored climate change for far too long we have wished this moment away for far too long as well. 

Change will come and it is time we recognised we have the skills needed to deal with it successfully.

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