Brian Keegan: The election is about housing, health, crime and pensions; but Brexit still casts a shadow

Last December’s UK general election was really only about one thing: Brexit.

Brian Keegan: The election is about housing, health, crime and pensions; but Brexit still casts a shadow

Last December’s UK general election was really only about one thing: Brexit.

If your political party was on the wrong side of public opinion on Brexit, then you had no chance, as both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party found to their cost.

The Irish general election is not about Brexit, even though Fine Gael seemed to think so, at the outset. Rather, it is about housing and health and crime and pensions.

The problem remains, however, that these critical issues can’t be tackled without a strong economy, and Brexit still poses a real threat to our economy beyond 2020.

While the British may well have decided that they have got Brexit done, the machinations are really only starting.

The Brexit withdrawal agreement preserves the dual mode form of trading existence — part UK, part EU — for the North, as proposed by British prime minister, Boris Johnson, in October.

It also creates breathing space for negotiation of the so-called future arrangements between the UK and the EU.

Mr Johnson has already established a well-publicised deadline for these negotiations: December 31. This seems like a particularly shrewd move and for reasons beyond the conventional wisdom that a deadline always focuses minds.

Under the clauses of the European treaties that deal with the departure of the country from the EU club, most future arrangements before December 31 can be agreed by the EU by qualified majority (generally, most EU member countries representing most of the EU population).

Anything agreed after December 31, 2020, will have to be done by unanimity among the 27 remaining EU member countries, as it falls outside the period of the current withdrawal agreement.

Unanimity within the EU is a very tall order. Remember that the EU/Canada deal almost fell at the final hurdle, some years ago, when the Belgians ran into difficulties getting the deal across the line in their own country.

This is something the EU Council will be particularly attuned to, given that its new president, Charles Michel, was prime minister of Belgium at the time.

The UK can, legitimately, seek to put the more controversial stuff — issues to do with standards, market access, and equivalences — earliest on the negotiating table to avail of an easier pass through the EU approval process.

For the first time since the June 2016 poll, the British can take some control over the direction of the negotiations.

They are already signalling that close alignment with the EU is not a foregone conclusion.

But don’t overlook the governing principle for the EU in the negotiations: no other country shall leave.

Writing for Project Syndicate just before Christmas, EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, stated that his goals for 2020 were to maintain the capacity for the EU to co-operate closely with the UK at the global level, to forge a strong security partnership, and to negotiate a new economic agreement.

Data courtesy of The Irish Times

You can add a fourth goal: keeping all the other countries in the EU. If Britain does better by leaving, that goal is undermined.

Irish business, in particular, must not become lulled by the notion that Brexit is getting done, and that — for us — Brexit is not an election issue.

The current government has been successful, up to now, in keeping Irish interests to the fore. The next government will have to do the same.

That means that Irish interests need to be kept to the fore early in the negotiations, rather than postponed in the hope that they can be addressed after December 31.

Because of the extent of our trade with Britain, we may want a more comprehensive trade agreement with the UK than some of our EU counterpart countries.

We may not get it.

Brian Keegan is director of public policy at Chartered Accountants Ireland

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