Belfast Telegraph

View from Dublin: warning isn't enough... companies must fight for union

By Brendan Keenan

Those 2014 commemorations for the centenary of the start of the Great War threw up a surprising analysis. As those around the Kaiser argued for peace or war, there was no clear answer to what Britain would do. The reason? London was preoccupied with Ireland.

It is an uncomfortable analogy for 2018. Thank goodness (and perhaps the EU) that we are not talking about war, but Brexit is potentially as serious a peacetime crisis as it is possible to imagine. It is in trying to prevent that potential becoming reality that the parallels with 1914 begin to alarm.

It would be going too far to say the British government is preoccupied with Ireland. There is no Curragh mutiny threatening a military coup and the absence of a Belfast administration, while far more dangerous than seems generally recognised, is not an imminent threat.

Just as with 1914 though, the key question is: what will Britain do? This is the background to last week's paper on the Irish Border from the Commission negotiator, and to the unusual stance of the Irish government.

The uncertainty has pushed everyone into uncomfortable positions. Dublin finds itself appearing to say that preserving cross-border trade is a matter for London to sort out. Brussels came close to eating and keeping cake, by talking about special arrangements for Ireland, with no change to EU laws and procedures.

There is much in the accusation that Britain's stress on the Irish question was an attempt to engage in trade negotiations (or at least discussions) before the departure details had been agreed. Equally, the EU's position on that was based more on a lack of trust and fear of encouraging Nexit than it was to any sensible way of conducting successful negotiations.

The peace process itself developed the mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That would have been a good formula for Brexit, but it was never practical politics and cannot be resurrected now.

The best way to start to reduce the uncertainty is for everyone to be clearer about their objectives and limits. That is beginning to happen and the key question for business is to what extent it is prepared to campaign for its own interests.

Anyone who appreciates the legendary Japanese restraint will understand that their statements on the implications of Brexit are among the toughest of any group or government. Others, including Irish business, should consider following suit, in less polite terms.

One has to be a bit careful, of course. There are enough sensitivities here to keep an army of dentists happy, but last week's dinner of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce did see signs of a more robust approach.

Tanaiste and business minister Frances Fitzgerald said that, with time running out, the government had decided in recent weeks to be more forthright about its concerns.

"Respectfully, with our EU partners, we are asking the UK government to think again.

"There are options available, particularly around the single market and customs union, which can resolve this major problem, if the UK government is minded to propose them," she said. Former EU Commissioner and former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter (now Lord) Mandelson was more explicit: "All this could be avoided if the British government took the sensible decision, on leaving the EU, to remain in the Single Market or at least the Customs Union. Or preferably, both."

The reality is that are no solutions which will not result in economic loss and political instability - and not just in Ireland - other than the UK remaining in at least the Customs Union: or perhaps "a" customs union.

That little indefinite article has been appearing, not just in the comments of outsiders, but in Britain as well. These are the realities which all concerned, apart from the diehard Brexiteers, now recognise.

Many of them recognise it as well; they just think the price worth paying, but their numbers are falling, at least in Westminster. The British Labour Party is suggesting a transitional union which goes on for ever.

That shows how far removed the British debate still is from reality, which in turn may explain why general support for Brexit has not changed much since the referendum. Another reason may be the fears of business about getting into politics.

There is no escaping politics in an issue like this and time is running out for relying on warnings alone.

Influential companies and organisations may have to actively campaign for the retention of a customs union, along with precise details on what they intend to do if that does not happen, to have any chance of making it happen.

Belfast Telegraph

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