The UK government’s vow, from the offset, to rule themselves out of both the customs union and the single market, has significantly narrowed our options for a post-Brexit arrangement. For Ireland, a country that will feel the effects of Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit, more than any other EU member state, this is worrying.
At this stage, we all know the figures: 600,000 Irish-born people live in Britain, 40% of our trade goes there, and 80% of all Irish exports pass through the British system.
Half of our agricultural exports go to Britain; with no agreement, we revert to WTO rules and some exports would face tariffs of up to 60%. This cannot be an option.
It is plain and simple: If we fail to reach a deal with the UK, Ireland will be the most affected EU member. It is vital that, on both sides, negotiators refrain from taking a zero-sum approach. The goal should not be to ‘win’, but to reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial to all, and this will take great skill.
We must not underestimate the importance of the European Parliament’s cross-party support for our concerns. The European Parliament effectively has a veto over any withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK, as it must give its consent by a simple majority of votes.
That’s why I was particularly pleased that the very capable Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, accepted my invitation to visit Ireland, along with 50 MEPs of the European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael is aligned, earlier this month.
The fact-finding mission proved hugely beneficial and ensured that Mr Barnier and the MEPs have a clearer, grassroots understanding of the threat that Brexit poses to Ireland and to our agrifood sector, in particular.
On a visit to the border area, MEPs met with locals, with business owners, and with IFA president Joe Healy, who explained the level of cross-border agricultural activity right now. Some agricultural products cross the border six times before finishing up on our shelves.
With the co-operation of Andrew Doyle, minister of state for food, forestry, and horticulture, I brought our visitors to Angus Woods’ fine suckler/sheep farm in Wicklow.
As it stands, about 94% of our beef exports go to either the UK or to mainland Europe markets. If tariffs were reintroduced, they would decimate Irish exports.
This would lead to more exports to the EU, causing a glut in the market.
The MEPs returned to their home countries better-informed about the practical implications of Brexit for Ireland, and especially for Irish farmers.
Getting that message across was very important. We need calm, measured, and sensible negotiations, which will, hopefully, keep the damage of Brexit to the minimum.
Despite all of the uncertainty and fear surrounding Brexit, I feel encouraged by the talks we have had over the last number of months in the European Parliament.
I am encouraged by how my fellow MEPs have taken on board Ireland’s concerns and have adopted them as priorities for the Brexit discussions.
I am encouraged that the parliament adopted these priorities with such a strong majority, in setting out its position.
Britain, our closest neighbour and often our closest ally in Europe, has chosen to leave the union — there was a danger that Ireland could be left isolated.
However, MEPs and EU leaders have made it clear that this is not the case.
I believe that this has resonated with the people of Ireland.
This is partly why nine in 10 Irish people believe we should remain part of the EU, and, indeed, that we have benefitted from being a member of the EU.
We have this strong commitment because we truly feel part of the EU family. We have an affinity with Europe that is unusually strong. With the support of the other, remaining 26 member states during these difficult Brexit discussions, this will not change.
Irish concerns are a priority for the EU, as we prepare for the commencement of Brexit negotiations, which will have significant implications for the future of Europe, and for Ireland’s prospects, both economically and politically.