EU post-Brexit: Ireland must align itself with Europe

If the Government wants to wield influence in the EU when it can no longer count on British support, it will have to start staking out its own territory

As potentially one of the biggest economic shocks to hit Ireland in 50 years, the UK's impending departure from the European Union is naturally the Government's focus. But the shape of the EU post-Brexit raises major strategic questions for the State, and there are worrying signs that the Government has not begun to grapple seriously with them.

The EU of 27 that emerges from Brexit will not simply be the EU28 minus the UK. It will be a changed entity with a new balance of power and an altered dynamic. Having lost its closest ally on issues such as tax, trade and financial services, Dublin will have to forge new alliances across the Continent. Then taoiseach Enda Kenny made a tentative move in that direction in April, when he met his Dutch and Danish counterparts in the Hague, though the ostensible focus of that meeting was the adverse impact of Brexit on small countries with close trading ties to Britain.

The Government takes every opportunity to align itself with the EU27 but shows little inclination to take the practical steps the post-Brexit realignment will require

But in recent months a gap appears to have opened up between the rhetoric and the reality of Ireland's position. On one hand, the Government takes every opportunity to align itself with EU27 positions on Brexit and to stress the State's long-term commitment to EU membership. On the other, it shows little inclination to take the practical steps that the post-Brexit realignment will require. As recent integrationist speeches by French president Emmanuel Macron and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker have shown, continental leaders have begun a serious debate about the direction of the European project.

So far Ireland has yet to engage with this debate, let alone come up with ideas of its own. The Government’s reluctance to countenance attempts to harmonise corporate tax regimes is understandable, but a posture of defensive indignation over one issue does not amount to a substantive position. If the Government wants to wield influence at a negotiating table where it can no longer count on the comfort blanket of British diplomatic heft, it will have to start staking out its own territory.


Even on the symbolism, the Government's approach begs questions. Since coming to office in June, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has held two bilateral meetings with prime minister Theresa May in London and has twice met his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau. But he has yet to visit Paris or Berlin, the two capitals where the terms and the tempo of the coming debate will be determined. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has travelled more widely, but overall the level of direct engagement with continental leaders looks inadequate. It also conveys a message: that of a Government still so oriented towards the English-speaking world that it has yet to make the imaginative and strategic leap required to position Ireland for the new post-Brexit landscape.