For avid Brexit followers, watchers and even participants last week was one like no other. The fall out from the UK’s proposal to breach the Withdrawal Agreement and In turn break international law was big news in the UK and to a lesser extent here too. Across Europe, however, the latest Brexit twist barely registered.
When it comes to the burning issues facing the EU, Brexit is no longer a priority. The vast majority of member states have either moved on or given up on the sorry mess
For the EU, there is much beyond Brexit to come which means for Ireland our EU focus must be much wider than Brexit too, we need to look beyond the UK. When Ireland joined what was then the EEC in 1973, more than 60 per cent of our exports went to the UK but today that is around 10 per cent.
EU countries such Belgium, Germany and France are as important to Ireland as trading partners now as is the UK. The scope for growth in EU markets is also massive, not just in the traditionally strong Agrifood sector but in technology, medical devices, financial services, pharmaceuticals and far more.
Beyond Europe, trade deals negotiated by the EU will be of huge benefit to Ireland be it with Japan, South Korea, Canada and Mexico or those in the process of being negotiated with, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia.
The importance of the land bridge will continue to ensure the UK is vital to us as a net exporter but we are seeing a marked increase in demand for direct sailings to European ports; to traditional destinations in France but also Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands while there is potential for a route to Germany too.
Much work on trade was carried out with distinction by Phil Hogan as both Agriculture and Trade Commissioner. His resignation is a blow to Ireland but the fact that the golfing scandal had begun to dominate matters in Brussels meant he was arguably right to resign. The fall out from this could have been terrible but it has landed relatively favourably for Ireland as his replacement, Mairead McGuinness, is probably the most highly rated Irish politician in EU circles and her profile over there is greatly underestimated here. The fact that she has secured the financial services portfolio will also be crucial to Ireland, for it is arguably as important as trade.
Many of the key issues facing the EU in the coming decade will be addressed by Ursula Von der Leyen, the European Commission President, this week during her State of the Union address. Before recent events it would have been unlikely that Brexit would have even got a mention.
Top of the list for the relatively new Commission President will be the delivery of a coordinated EU response to the ongoing pandemic in terms of funding, travel policy and the continuing search for a vaccine. The pandemic has exposed some of the weakness of the EU in terms of coordinating public health responses while also showing the power of being able to procure materials or share data as a large bloc. Being an island nation and sharing a land border with the jurisdiction of the UK makes Ireland semi detached from this response but the ability to draw funds and access cheap loans will be vital.
Moving beyond the immediate response to the pandemic, a major issue for the EU will be the roll out of the green new deal with ambitious carbon emission targets for member states that will force Ireland to greatly improve on previous efforts.
The constant EU drive to play a more proactive role in taxation either through a digital tax or by attempting to harmonise corporate tax rates will always be in the background. We in Ireland often feel we get excess attention in this regard. The majority of EU member states have corporation taxes lower than the EU average while Ireland’s 12.5 per cent is nowhere near the lowest: corporation tax in Hungary for example is just 9 per cent.
The newly agreed EU budget for the next seven years will begin to be allocated and Ireland will join with traditional allies like France and Spain to ensure that the Common Agricultural Policy is not cut and the focus remains on the important family farm. Ireland and France have always worked in concert in this area and it has been very much to both countries benefit as both maintain thriving Agrifood sectors.
Two areas where Ireland often feels removed in terms of EU policy will also be likely to dominate in coming years and that is defence and migration; the two are linked.
When European defence and security policy is discussed, a number of Irish politicians love to use this as an excuse to warn against an EU army and deride the militarisation of the EU.
Frankly, by doing this, critics miss the point. The threats to the EU are very real, very contemporary and the notion that Irish men and women could be conscripted into an EU army and shipped overseas is the very worst form of scaremongering.
Rather the clear threats of cyber attack, misinformation and interruptions in energy supply by state and non state actors require a coordinated EU response.
The terrorist attacks in Nice, Berlin and Paris also drove the EU’s approach to this. Information sharing and cooperation between our police forces are readily accepted, we need to be prepared to engage our defence forces with our European partners too. As a neutral country, we will still have a massive role to play and cooperation with other neutral EU countries like Sweden and Finland in the Nordic battle groups will need to be expanded.
One area where the Irish naval service, in particular, has served with distinction in recent years has been in dealing with the migration and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
Dealing with this will continue to be a dominant focus for many continental EU countries but geography means Ireland simply does not have as much skin in the game, although we do have serious responsibilities.
There are many more important issues like the rule of law crisis in certain EU countries, the EU’s ambitious plans for Africa, the situation in Belarus, the rise of populism and the deep recession caused by Covid-19 that will occupy the minds of EU leaders shortly.
Brexit will continue to make noise in the UK and to a lesser extent here but we should not lose focus that there is much more for Ireland to concentrate on when it comes to the work of the EU.
Neale Richmond is the Fine Gael TD for Dublin Rathdown.