Irish (and Danish) Times


The UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU is a choice. It is a choice with consequences not just for the UK but for others. It has particular consequences for Ireland but also for Denmark: the two countries that joined the EEC at the same time as the UK.

on 11 May, the EU’s Brexit chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, addressed a joint session of the Dáil and Seanad, setting out how the implications of Brexit for Ireland will be reflected in the future negotiations. He sought to reassure people in Ireland by saying: “… in this negotiation, Ireland’s interest will be the Union’s interest.”

Barnier drew attention to the particular challenge of reconciling the removal of borders within the island of Ireland with the requirements of customs and other controls to protect the Single Market, with the issue of the border between Ireland and the UK forming part of the first phase of Brexit negotiations.

The “unique position” of Ireland had already been reflected in the guidelines for the negotiations adopted by the leaders of the EU27 on 29 April 2017. As well as noting its support for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, the guidelines state:

In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order. In this context, the Union should also recognise existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland which are compatible with EU law.

Leaders of the EU27 also agreed to record in the minutes of the meeting that in the event of a unification of Ireland pursuant to the Good Friday Agreement – based on the consent of the people expressed in referendums – EU membership would extend to the island of Ireland in the same way as occurred following the unification of Germany.

Not all consequences of Brexit are negative for Ireland. As the Taoiseach noted following the European Council meeting in April – and as he repeated in his reply to Michel Barnier’s speech – Ireland will be putting itself forward as a candidate to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Banking Authority when these relocate from London after Brexit. There will be competition for EMA from Denmark who had also revealed that it would be throwing its hat in the ring, as well as from Denmark’s close neighbour Sweden, whose government also announced that it would be actively working to bring EMA to the Stockholm-Uppsala region. All of which dramatizes that while the UK, Ireland and Denmark may have joined together, the departure of the UK will not result in their departure too, but instead binds Ireland and Denmark more closely to the EU and its Single Market.

* * * * *

Adapted from the final chapter of Brexit Time to be published by Cambridge University Press next month.

The UK didn’t join the EEC on its own in 1973. Denmark and Ireland also chose to join with it. Denmark and Ireland became Member States because the UK had chosen to join the EEC. The balance of interests – political and economic – made Danish and Irish EEC membership together with the UK a logical step. The UK’s departure from the EU has consequences for both countries but it is unlikely to lead to either country choosing to leave the EU.

Like the UK, Denmark has, over the years, secured a more differentiated membership in terms of its choices whether to participate in areas of EU co-operation. Following the original rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in 1992, Denmark secured three ‘opt-outs’ concerning monetary union, defence co-operation, justice and home affairs and a clarification that EU citizenship did not replace national citizenship. In a referendum in 2015, Danish voters rejected ending Denmark’s justice and home affairs opt-out. These policy-specific referendums have made a ‘Dexit’ less likely even after Brexit. Voter preferences may be for maintaining control over specific policy domains, rather than for Denmark to quit the EU altogether. Brexit might have been avoided had the UK followed the Danish approach.

The UK’s departure from the EU means Denmark has lost one its strongest allies within the EU, and outside the Eurozone. The UK has also been one of Denmark’s most important trading partners with the vast majority of exports of pork going to the UK. At the same time, Denmark’s trade exposure to the UK is not what it was in the 1970s. The integration of the Single Market now ties Denmark closely to those states remaining in the EU and in the Single Market.

The trade consequences of Brexit for Ireland are also significant, with 17 per cent of Irish exports of goods and services going to the UK. But, like Denmark, Ireland’s dependence on the UK for trade has changed since the 1970s when 50 per cent of Irish exports went to the UK. Nonetheless, the economic shock of Brexit will be significant for Ireland and depending on what form Brexit takes – from a trade agreement to no agreement and the application of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules – it is predicted that output in Ireland will fall by between 2.3 and 3.8 per cent. Different sectors of the Irish economy will be exposed to the effects of Brexit in different ways, and the potential obstacles to trade will be different across sectors: from the risk of tariffs on agriculture, food and beverages to the non-tariff regulatory barriers in the pharma, chemicals and financial services markets.

The implications of Brexit for Ireland go beyond trade, so much so that Irish politicians were among the few foreign politicians to have been vocal during the 2016 referendum campaign. Regular meetings of UK and Irish ministers and Prime Ministers in Council and European Council meetings had helped forge the bonds of trust that made the Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Peace agreement possible and operational. Indeed, the preamble to the agreement is framed as follows:

Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union

When it came to the big decision about the euro, Ireland chose a different path from the UK and Denmark. The UK’s decision not to participate in monetary union was not an impediment to Ireland choosing to do so. It was a defining choice for both countries. It now binds Ireland’s future more closely to that of the EU and the Eurozone.

It is clear, then, that in withdrawing from the EU, the UK is making its own choice.

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