All is changed, changed utterly, writes Jim Power.
After a prolonged period of speculation and debate that followed the UK vote on June 23 last year, Article 50 was finally formally invoked this week, and so begins the torturous process of the UK leaving the EU club.
On April 29 the European Council will meet to formally decide on the reaction and negotiation stance of the remaining EU-27 countries.
It will not be easy to agree this stance because every country will have its own specific national interests to protect and inevitably there will be some calling for as hard an approach as possible to the UK, while others will want to make it as easy as possible for the UK in recognition of the strong trading relationship between the EU and the UK.
At an EU level, the politics of the process could turn out to be incredibly difficult, while in the UK, prime minister Theresa May will be challenged to placate the pro-Brexit eurosceptic wing of her party on the one hand and the pro-EU people on the other hand. It will not be easy, as the issue has proved to be dangerously divisive.
Despite the clarification this week, none of the uncertainty surrounding the whole process has been removed. Article 50 has never been invoked before and so we have no idea as to how it will work. Will it be shrouded in secrecy or will we be getting daily updates on how the negotiation process is going?
These are just some of the questions that remain to be answered, but there are many more.
The problem with all of this uncertainty and speculation is it could make sterling a very volatile currency for a while at least, and this will bring with it more than the usual level of headache for Irish businesses that trade with the UK, of which there are thousands.
The Article 50 process is basically a task that will seek to agree the terms of separation. Presumably, thousands of laws and trade relationships will have to be amended, and agreement will have to be reached on how much the UK will have to pay the EU.
A settlement of €60bn has been suggested from the EU side, but such a sum would be totally unacceptable to the UK. It is clear it will be a very complex, fractious and uncertain process and nobody can predict with certainty how it will evolve or how it will end.
The optimal outcome would be a smooth process that would placate the UK and, thereby, set the scene for a decent trade deal once the UK has formally exited the system in two years.
For Ireland, the potential challenges are obviously immense. We clearly have a special relationship with the UK from a political, economic and cultural perspective. Some 800 years of history cannot be eroded overnight, nor should it be. I have always been sceptical about the willingness of the EU to treat Ireland as a special case and do us special deals, but the Good Friday agreement is very definitely Ireland’s ace card.
There is a strong realisation in Brussels of just how important that process has been in delivering peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland, and one assumes that the EU would not want to undermine that. This should be the central plank of Ireland’s approach to the EU meeting on April 29.
The next month will be incredibly important from an Irish perspective. We need to lay all of our cards on the table and firmly declare everything we want.
The IFA has been doing this very forcibly and hopefully successfully in recent months. All Irish stakeholders need to do likewise. At the end of the process it is probable that compromises will be necessary on both sides of the negotiations, so for Ireland it is really important we come in with all guns blazing to ensure if we are forced to concede on certain issues, we are doing so from the highest vantage point possible. Ireland has never known life in the EU without the UK, so whatever the outcome, all is about to change and a terrible beauty is about to be born.
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