Last week the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, made the bizarre claim that the other 27 member states are ‘lining up to oppose’ Britain over Brexit. It was as if the other EU members are somehow being unfair in agreeing a united position before they enter into the Brexit negotiations with Britain. What did Mrs May expect they would do? Accept her terms quietly, stoically, and meekly acquiesce to British demands?
Of course not. This is May very cynically playing to the conservative and jingoistic tendencies within the British electorate. The propaganda spin is simple. It’s Britain – alone - against the rest. The recent talk, in some right-wing media, of war with Spain if the status of Gibraltar changes; the constant harking back to Britain’s Imperial past – as if that is something to be proud of, are just some of the xenophobic elements coming to play in the current debate around Brexit.
It is part of a much wider propaganda battle between Britain and the EU. Evidence of this emerged at the weekend when the Sunday Express reported that May “chastised” the EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker over dinner last Wednesday in Downing Street. The Express – which enthusiastically supports Brexit - claimed that; “Details of the awkward meeting are beginning to emerge after Mr. Juncker apparently insulted the hospitality he was offered – which was paid for by UK taxpayers.”
But a different account is reported in the German newspaper (FAZ). According to the Economist magazine FAZ states that EU officials were ‘astonished’ by Theresa May’s lack of understanding of the complexity of the negotiations. "The more I hear, the more skeptical I become" said Juncker.” May and her Brexit Minister David Davies then claimed that Britain does not owe the EU any money and that the “EU could not force the UK to pay the bill. OK, said Juncker, then no trade deal.”
It is clear that the economic and political stakes for Britain and for the EU are immense. That is why the position of the Irish government is so crucial. It will be at the negotiating table where, with the right strategies, it can promote and defend the interests of the people of this island. But with the wrong strategies it could be disastrous.
Several weeks ago the EU set out its draft guidelines for the Brexit negotiations. I expressed my concern at that time that the Irish government had failed to ensure that the interests of the people of this island, the future of the Good Friday Agreement, and the option of Irish unity, were sufficiently strongly reflected in those guidelines.
On Saturday, according to one EU source it took only four minutes for the 27 leaders of the EU to conclude the final negotiating guidelines, with minimal alteration. The focus was on the broad terms for Brexit and on those issues that must be resolved before a trade deal between Britain and the EU will be agreed. Among these is agreement on the divorce Bill – an estimated £50 billion - that Britain will have to pay, and the status and protections for EU citizens living in Britain post Brexit.
While it is not part of the guidelines the minutes of the summit state that in the event of Irish unity, “in accordance with International Law, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would this be part of the European Union.” This is a welcome development. But it is not the ‘coup’ that some have claimed. It reflects the position of the Good Friday Agreement. It is a proposition that Sinn Féin has consistently argued for on the basis of the approach adopted toward the reunification of Germany and a similar agreement in respect of Cyprus.
However, the Irish government failed to get this clause included as part of the EU negotiating guidelines. In the four weeks since the publication of the draft guidelines Mr. Kenny succeeded in securing one minor amendment to Article 11 of the guidelines dealing with Ireland. It involved the addition of three words – ‘in all its parts’ - a reference to the Good Friday Agreement.
The government failed to secure a commitment that no agreement on the border or the status of the North could be achieved between the EU and Britain, without a separate and binding agreement between the Irish government and Britain. This would have provided the Irish government with a veto similar to that secured by Spain in respect of Gibraltar.
Instead what we have is a commitment to “flexible and imaginative solutions” with the “aim of avoiding a hard border”. This is an aspirational, wishy-washy piece of rhetoric. It is meaningless in the world of a substantive and difficult negotiation. It is not good enough.
There is solid support for the island of Ireland among our partners in Europe and for the peace process and the unique and special circumstances faced by Ireland as a result of Brexit. The Taoiseach failed to harness this support. He failed to stand up for Ireland’s national interests and put these before any other consideration. Mr. Kenny also broke a commitment he gave two month ago to publish a consolidated paper on the Irish government’s negotiating priorities in advance of last weekend’s Summit.
Sinn Féin will be challenging the Taoiseach on all of this and we will be challenging him to set out the criteria and context against which the Irish government will judge it is time to support the calling of a referendum on Irish unity.
Brexit is the single greatest challenge to the people of this island in many years. The formal negotiations between the EU and Britain will begin next month. They are expected to last two years but will almost certainly take longer. All of the indications from Saturday’s EU Summit, and the differing media spins, are that the negotiations will be difficult and that the outcome will be a hard Brexit. The French president, François Hollande, told the media: “There will inevitably be a price and a cost for Britain, it’s the choice they made… it is clear that Europe knows how to defend its interests, and that Britain will have a less good position outside the EU than in the EU.”
The implications for jobs and investment for the island of Ireland, the border region and the North are enormous. Sinn Féin’s objective of achieving designated special status for the North within the EU offers the best hope for protecting the rights and jobs of citizens. It also points the way to reunification.
Key to this is persuading the Irish government to support designated status inside the EU. The majority of TDs in the Dáil, like the majority of MLAs in the Assembly, already do. Our energy and our focus must be on persuading the Taoiseach or his replacement, to make this a priority. Their goal must be to ensure that all of Ireland can remain a member of the Single Market and the Common Travel area, that EU funding streams can continue to be accessed, that the rights of Irish citizens in the north are protected and that trading arrangements, north and south and between Ireland and Britain are secure.
But Brexit is also about the future of two Unions. The European Union on the one hand, and the British union on the other.
The June 8th election will be fought primarily on the single issue of Brexit. The DUP and UUP are for Brexit. Sinn Féin and others are against it. We are for a different union. A union of the people of the island of Ireland.
A strong vote for Sinn Féin – a strong vote against Brexit and for Irish unity– are essential on June 8th.