Ireland will likely have to make a strategic decision within the next few months. Will it help the UK Labor government align the UK more closely with the EU?
The answer is not as clear a yes as it might seem. Closer cooperation is unionism’s earnest hope of reversing the Brexit debacle. The trade border in the Irish Sea would be lower in proportion to the trade border in the English Channel. Sinn Féin has led the Irish government throughout Labour’s tenure and may be reluctant to support Britain or dig unionism out of the hole. Ireland’s veto could put pressure on moves towards unification.
The Irish government will need to ask how the Republic would benefit from closer collaboration between the UK and the EU. The issue is likely to focus inexorably on the economy, as the Windsor Framework addresses political and security concerns.
Ireland appears to have suffered little from the loss of British trade, but as the EU’s largest English-speaking member, it has also not received much of the expected post-Brexit benefits. The overheating economy limits the amount of investment that can be absorbed.
In the end, the Irish government may decide that it has little to gain compared to the unrealized opportunities it will lose. These opportunities could quickly become important if Brussels and Washington crack down on corporate tax planning.
The Foreign Office is sometimes said to be missing out on having a UK partner in the EU to oppose fiscal harmonization and other federalist ambitions. Even if this adorable story turns out to be true, that partner won’t be coming back any time soon. Divorcing Britain’s discarded overseas investment would be a brilliant solution to this problem.
Labor leader Keir Starmer has ruled out rejoining the EU, the single market or the customs union. His stated intention is to renegotiate the UK-EU trade deal, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which he said was “too thin” to achieve a “closer trading relationship”.
Mr Starmer has mentioned a veterinary agreement that would significantly reduce maritime borders, but could offer little more specifics ahead of negotiations and a general election that has yet to be won. In reality, Labor is secretly aiming to join the de facto single market through an association agreement or some kind of dynamic arrangement, which could make much of the Windsor Framework redundant. This framework automatically expires when replaced by a new transaction.
At an event accompanying the Labor Party’s annual general conference in October, Northern Ireland’s shadow secretary of state, Hilary Benn, suggested Labor would seek a coalition agreement. This received a shout of encouragement from Pedro Serrano, the EU ambassador to the UK, who was also on stage.
However, as Benn went on to point out, the EU is negotiating such agreements with countries as a stepping stone to full membership. “We have never entered into an (association) agreement with a country that has withdrawn.”
Brussels dislikes something like the Swiss model of remaining permanently just outside the single market and maintaining links through ad hoc treaties. It was a recipe for endless tension and uncertainty, which only resulted from failed attempts at full membership – which by design would never have been allowed. If this is Mr Starmer’s vision of the future, then trade negotiations will remain fundamentally adversarial and open-ended, no matter how much he improves the mood music between London and Brussels.
Ireland will probably have to stand with EU member states resisting UK demands for a new cakeism (inevitably called the Swiss roll). Ireland has its own interests in sectoral trade, for example in agri-food products, and could become involved in disputes involving the interests of other countries. Overcoming this will require comprehensive economic and diplomatic goals.
Other futures are possible. The UK may seek a return to the single market through the European Economic Area. The EU could join early discussions on a multi-layered Europe as it grapples with the accession of the Balkans and Ukraine. Ireland will need to position itself in response to these developments. How closely do the UK and EU want to work together? Should we oppose some models in order to encourage others?
Time is surprisingly short. The next UK general election was expected to be held in October next year, but speculation has shifted to May, potentially leading to an early collapse of the Conservative government.
Mr Starmer’s plan to restart the trade and cooperation agreement is based on a five-year review mechanism, rather than Brexiteer demands for a renegotiation. He said the first review, scheduled for mid-2026, could be used to “amend the contract.” Brussels insists the review will be limited, but there is disagreement over how much flexibility to allow, which should include political judgments about how much the UK can be trusted. is.
Ireland will also need a position on that.