By John O’Brennan, Maynooth University

The EU commissioner for agriculture, Phil Hogan (in interviews with Irish Independent and The Irish Times, 9 January, 2017) has entered the debate about Ireland’s future in the European Union and explicitly states that “we now need to take a very strategic and far-sighted review of our relationships with both the UK and the rest of our EU partners.” In effect, Mr. Hogan claims that the ability of the government to respond to the multiple challenges presented to this country by Brexit is weakened by too close a friendship with the United Kingdom. By implication he suggests that Ireland will struggle to have its own interests and prerogatives recognised in the Brexit negotiations once (if?) Theresa May triggers Article 50.

PH ImageIn choosing to enter the fray at this febrile moment in the EU deliberations on Brexit, Mr Hogan has compromised his own position and that of the European Commission. The Treaty on European Union (Title III, Article 17.3) states explicitly that “In carrying out its responsibilities, the Commission shall be completely independent” and that “members of the Commission shall neither seek nor take instruction from any government or other institution, body, office or entity.” It is thus wholly inappropriate for a member of the Commission to take such a partisan position prior to an EU negotiation.

On taking up his position in Brussels, Mr Hogan undertook to act in the EU interest, rather than the Irish national interest. Yet Mr. Hogan’s opinion piece is studded with references to “we” and “our” strategic national interests. I cannot remember a precedent for an Irish commissioner ever departing from the established norms of behaviour around partisan intervention in EU negotiations. Mr. Hogan undoubtedly feels strongly about the potential impact on Ireland of a so-called ‘hard Brexit’. But this is not the appropriate channel through which to deliver his message.

Mr. Hogan echoes former Irish diplomat Ray Bassett (writing in the Sunday Business Post on 1 January 2017) in suggesting that Ireland has few allies in the European Union. This is simply untrue. Far from being viewed as a surrogate of the UK, Ireland has charted a completely autonomous course in the Council of Ministers in Brussels, though cooperating with our nearest neighbour on a range of (though far from all) policy issues.

Arguably, from an early stage in the 1970s, Irish officials learned to ‘play the European game’ much better than their UK counterparts, and, as a consequence, developed a reputation for collegiality which British officials never enjoyed. In a constellation of power where there are no permanent alliances, Irish officials have sought determinedly to pursue purely Irish positions independent of the United Kingdom. They will continue to do so during the Brexit negotiations and after the UK leaves the EU.

That Ireland enjoys a very positive relationship with the United Kingdom is surely something most reasonable people will applaud. One of the great paradoxes thrown up by our membership of the European Union since 1973 is that, as our economic dependence on the UK reduced very significantly, the political relationship deepened appreciably. The relations of trust forged in the margins of the Council of Ministers in Brussels constituted one important element which facilitated rapprochement. The enactment of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 enhanced the relationship further.

Irish officials have been assiduous in preparing for Brexit negotiations. Indeed some layers of preparation were already in place before the vote on 23 June 2016. Since then key government departments in conjunction with our Permanent Representation in Brussels, led by Ambassador Declan Kelleher, have laid the groundwork for the Brexit negotiations in a much more assured and serious manner than their counterparts in the United Kingdom.

Irish and British interests converge around Northern Ireland in particular and it is only right that Dublin cooperates as closely as possible with London to achieve the best possible outcome for the people of this island.

12 January 2016