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Britain wants to have its Swiss roll and eat it. Should Ireland stand in its way?

Speculation is turning to a May election in the UK, after which Ireland will have to decide if it will help a Labour government to bring the UK into closer alignment with the EU

Ireland has a strategic decision to make, possibly within months. Should it help a British Labour government bring the UK into closer alignment with the EU?

The answer is not as obviously “yes” as it might appear. Closer alignment has become unionism’s desperate hope of reversing its Brexit fiasco: the trade border in the Irish Sea would lower in proportion to its counterpart in the English Channel. Sinn Féin could be leading an Irish government throughout Labour’s time in office, disinclined to help Britain or dig unionism out of a hole. Ireland’s veto might be made a pressure point for moves towards unification.

Any Irish government will have to ask how the Republic stands to benefit from closer UK-EU alignment. This question can focus ruthlessly on the economy as the Windsor Framework has addressed political and security concerns.

Ireland appears to have suffered little from loss of British trade, but nor has it made much of its expected post-Brexit bonanza as the EU’s largest English-speaking member. An overheated economy has constrained how much investment can be absorbed.


On balance an Irish government might judge there is little to gain compared to the still-unrealised opportunities that would be lost. Those opportunities could rapidly become crucial if Brussels and Washington crack down on corporate tax planning.

It is sometimes said the Department of Foreign Affairs misses having a British partner in the EU to help argue against fiscal harmonisation and other federalist ambitions. Even if this adorable tale is true, that partner will not be back any time soon. Poaching the foreign investment Britain threw away would be a neat resolution to the problem.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has ruled out rejoining the single market or customs union, let alone rejoining the EU. His stated intention is to renegotiate the UK-EU trade deal, the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA), which he has described as “too thin” in order to achieve a “closer trading relationship”.

Starmer can hardly be more specific ahead of negotiations or the general election he has yet to win, although he has mentioned a veterinary agreement which would substantially reduce the sea border. In reality Labour may be quietly aiming for de facto single market membership through an association agreement or some form of dynamic alignment, rendering most of the Windsor Framework redundant. The framework automatically lapses as new deals replace it.

At a fringe event during Labour’s annual conference in October, Hilary Benn, the shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, suggested his party would seek an association agreement. This received encouraging noises from Pedro Serrano, the EU’s ambassador to the UK, who was sharing the stage.

As Benn went on to note, however, the EU negotiates such agreements with countries as a stepping stone to full membership. “It’s never before had an (association) agreement with a country that has left.”

Brussels detests anything that looks like the Swiss model of remaining permanently just outside the single market and maintaining alignment through ad hoc treaties. It is a recipe for endless tension and uncertainty, and it arose only through a failed attempt at full membership – it would never have been permitted by design. If this is Starmer’s vision of the future then no matter how much he improves the mood music between London and Brussels, negotiations on trade will be fundamentally adversarial and open-ended.

Ireland would presumably have to stand with its EU partners as they pushed back against British requests for a new cakeism – a Swiss roll, as it will inevitably be called. Ireland would have its own interests in any sectoral deals, on agri-food for example, and would be drawn into disputes on the interests of others. Navigating this would require overarching economic and diplomatic objectives.

Other futures are possible. The UK could seek a way back into the single market via the European Economic Area. It could join the nascent debate on a multi-tier Europe as the EU grapples with Balkan and Ukrainian accession. Ireland will need to work out its position on these eventualities. How close a UK-EU alignment does it want? Should it oppose some models to encourage others?

Time is surprisingly short. Although it had been assumed the next UK general election would be next October speculation is turning to May and the Conservative government could fall apart earlier.

Starmer’s plan to reopen the Trade and Co-operation Agreement is based on its five-year review mechanism rather than on a Brexiteer demand for another negotiation. He says the first review, due in mid-2026, can be used to “fix the deal”. Brussels insists the review is limited but opinions differ on how much flexibility it allows – and that is bound to include a political judgement on how much Britain can be trusted.

Ireland will need a position on that as well.