As scheduled, the Brexit negotiation process between the EU and the UK got under way this week, despite the continued political uncertainty following Theresa May’s disastrous election performance and her subsequent less-than-convincing behaviour.
These talks are of vital interest to Ireland and it is incumbent on Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade with Special Responsibility for Brexit Simon Coveney, in particular, to exert as much pressure and influence as possible over the whole process over the next couple of years. Giving him responsibility for Brexit was a good move by the new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, particularly given his experience in — and intimate knowledge of — the sector of the Irish economy that is most vulnerable to a bad Brexit outcome, namely the agri-food sector.
The EU’s chief negotiator began the week by stating categorically that he was not in a frame of mind to make concessions to or ask for concessions from the UK. He also said there would be substantial consequences from Brexit, which is pretty much stating the blindingly obvious.
What is less obvious is the stance being taken by Ms May. She fought the election campaign on a hard Brexit platform and this was roundly rejected by the electorate, but the UK Government is sticking to its guns and is so far adopting a hard Brexit stance.
However, it has backed down on its demand that the trade negotiations should go hand-in-hand with the divorce negotiations, which will initially concentrate on the size of the bill the UK owes the EU, along with the rights of UK citizens in the EU and vice-versa.
Only once the terms of the divorce are agreed will the trade negotiations get underway.
This represents the first backdown by the UK and it is symbolic of the power that lies on the EU side in this potentially difficult negotiation process.
The official UK position is that it will leave the EU and does not want to be part of the customs union, but in a speech this week Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said his priority would be to ensure the economy and business interests would be front and centre of the negotiations.
He suggested that the UK would leave the customs union, but that he wants a Brexit deal that would put jobs and prosperity first, and one that reassures employers they would have access to the human talent they need and that keeps the market for goods, capital, and services open.
He is alluding to some form of transitional arrangements that would allow the UK be part of the customs union. It is all a bit confusing, but Hammond’s position has strengthened following the May’s awful election performance.
On the surface, the prime minister and the chancellor would appear to be singing from different hymn sheets and it remains to be seen whose view will prevail.
The other intriguing political issue concerns the role of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
His popularity has been on the rise following a good election performance, helped by his sympathetic response to the London fire tragedy, compared to the pathetic handling by the prime minister.
If Corbyn was of a mind to push for a soft Brexit or, indeed, a revisiting of the referendum result, then he probably would be in a sufficient position of strength to push that agenda.
The most accurate interpretation of the general election result is that it was a rejection of the hard Brexit stance adopted by May, but, true to form, she is ignoring that fact.
However, the problem is that Corbyn was always a strong opponent of the form of capitalism enshrined in the whole EU process.
In his own mind, he would probably desire nothing better than taking the UK out of the evil EU.
That, however, is not how much of the electorate views the world and perhaps Corbyn will have a change of heart.
Hammond has already commented that people did not vote for Brexit to be poorer, so perhaps the battle has started in the Tory Party.
This could ultimately work to Ireland’s advantage.
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