The EU 27 will address their own political needs first

No sooner had the Government released its Summer Statement – its plan for the 2017 budget and the following years - than the news broke of the UK decision to leave the EU.

Last Monday, the Government proceeded with its National Economic Dialogue.

The gathering is a two-day meeting of Government ministers, other members of the Oireachtas, civil servants and civil society groups to discuss the kind of things that should feature in the Government’s economic plans both in the short term and in the longer term.

The National Economic Dialogue serves a purpose, if only to force the various interest groups in our society to listen to each other, however briefly.

Most of the time, interest groups go directly to the relevant ministers or Government departments and make the case for increased spending in this area, or call for tax incentives in another area. During the National Economic Dialogue this all happens in one room.

That makes for unusual discussions. You hear politicians making economic points, economists making political points, trade unionists making moral arguments and even accountants urging more spending.

The National Economic Dialogue agenda had been decided before the Brexit vote and proceeded along those lines. But every contributor had to acknowledge that our nearest neighbour and most important trading partner had elected to leave the EU club of nations.

Brexit will determine how we trade with the UK, and therefore will dictate the overall health of Government revenues and the shape of future Irish budgets.

The very rawness of the Brexit decision means people are struggling to come to terms with its longer-term consequences. There is no precedent for a Brexit. Initial reaction to the uncertainty created by Brexit has been swift. The currency markets have tumbled, as did the stock exchange.

In the confusion, it becomes harder for businesses to plan production, fulfil orders, purchase materials and plan for new employment. They will be less sure how much effort to put into marketing and sales, or how many existing commitments should be trimmed.

The sense of uncertainty reflected in the discussion rooms of the National Economic Dialogue here is only a pale reflection of the bewilderment across the Irish Sea.

It’s nearly a decade ago since I was caught up in a rally outside the Houses of Parliament calling for a referendum on UK involvement in the EU.

Last week I got caught in a rally in the same place calling for the outcome of just such a referendum to be overturned.

UK business people and politicians alike are suffering from something which seems to be akin to buyer’s remorse.

It’s unlikely that the deal which the British electorate has bought with their referendum vote can be overturned, so the focus is already moving to the precise terms and conditions of the departure.

While Brexit is a democratic decision following a referendum, that referendum was on the face of it about replacing an institution, the EU.

It is now looking like it was also a vote about replacing governments, leaders and individual politicians at national and local level–-the traditional outcomes of a ballot.

Now, the heads of the 27 EU remaining member states will be looking to their own domestic interests first.

They will want to ensure that their countries suffer no competitive disadvantage, commercially or socially, compared to the newly departed UK.

They will need to satisfy themselves that a Leave campaign in their countries does not shred their own political party systems, as is happening to both the UK Conservative and Labour parties.

I don’t think it will be the EU treaties or processes or institutions or bureaucracy that will decide the shape of the settlement between the UK and the EU.

Instead, it will be the political concerns here at home, and the domestic political concerns of Germany, France, Italy and all the rest of the remaining member states.

Brian Keegan is director of taxation at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

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