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Fine Gael and Brexit: Putting the national interest first?

By Anthony Costello and Mary C. Murphy, University College Cork

As Brexit looms ever closer, it brings with it the most profound political and economic challenges to ever face the Irish state. There is no precedent, no template, no formula for a member state to leave the EU. The broad shape and manner of the exit will be decided jointly by EU leaders in the European Council following intense negotiations. For Ireland, the stakes are exceptionally high. A bad exit deal, or no exit deal, threatens the economic and political vitality of the Irish state. For these reasons, the need to successfully represent Irish interests to other European member states and EU institutions is critical.

Domestic political events, however, have the potential to undermine Ireland’s preparations for the beginning of formal talks on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. In particular, the timing of the Fine Gael leadership contest, and the possibility of an early general election, constitute a very real threat to Irish interests during the highly sensitive Brexit negotiations which will formally commence when Article 50 is triggered in late March.

It is clear that the softer the Brexit is for the UK, the less damaging Brexit will be for Ireland. Achieving this outcome will, in part, be dependent on the strategy, tactics and influence of the Irish negotiating team. If Ireland wishes to secure preferences pertaining to a borderless island (Mrs May’s ‘seamless’ and ‘frictionless’ border), guarantees on the Northern Ireland peace process, free trade relations, the reciprocal rights of British and Irish nationals in each jurisdiction, and economic security, then the Irish state needs to strategically and effectively utilise its best political and administrative resources over the coming months/years. Crucially, this requires government stability and leadership continuity. The current uncertainty about the tenure of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and a possible early general election, do not suggest stability and continuity.

The Taoiseach’s robust response to calls for him to resign as Fine Gael party leader has quelled some of the political uncertainty and ambiguity. However, tensions are high within Fine Gael. Party morale has weakened and the internal instability is unsettling. Perhaps more seriously however, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil appear to be on a collision course over water charges. The risk here is that the fallout may precipitate a snap general election. Avoiding this scenario is imperative if Ireland’s best interests are to be protected once Article 50 negotiations are triggered.

The European Council will play a key role during the Brexit negotiations. This institution brings together EU Heads of State and Government and, acting unanimously, its members will determine the high level guidelines for the Article 50 negotiations. The institution is characterised by the seniority of its members, the authority they wield, and the informality and flexibility which informs their working practices. Like most contemporary intergovernmental negotiations led by the European Council, opportunity structures (factors which leverage negotiation influence) will prove significant to inter-state bargaining during the Brexit process. Most important is the availability of social networking capital, or in layman’s terms, deep rooted friendships. Past EU Treaty negotiation processes have shown us that relationships matter. In this context, we can discern the positive impact of trust, loyalty and confidence on member state attitudes, and how this can affect a greater willingness to accommodate specific national preferences.

Friendships at the EU level develop over time, and facilitate the progressive identification of commonalities, ultimately producing gestures of support at critical moments. The current government, led by Enda Kenny, has the benefit of having had the time to foster a positive rapport with fellow European leaders and EU institutions. The working links developed under the Kenny administration, and solidified during the 2013 Irish Presidency of the EU, are highly regarded within the Council.

At this critical time, when Britain has lost favour with other EU member states and officials, some of whom may wish to punish that state with a ‘hard Brexit’, Ireland will play a key role in pushing for a softer exit route. The Brexit negotiation process requires that Ireland capitalises on all the benefits that come from having cultivated strong friendships between Irish and European political parties, institutions, and administrations. These are a crucial asset at this critical juncture. Any disruption to the Irish negotiating regime at this time is unwelcome and may damage Ireland’s ability to participate optimally in the Brexit negotiations. Internal political developments which threaten this negotiating environment are best avoided, for at least the immediate period following the triggering of Article 50. A rancorous Fine Gael leadership campaign and ill-timed general election are not in Ireland’s best interests right now. Institutional stability and continuity are key to strengthening the national negotiating position during the early, and arguably the most important, stages of the Brexit process.

The profound gravity of the Brexit challenge for Ireland constitutes a moment when difficult decisions must be contemplated. Pursuing the long-term national interest may require some unpalatable short-term political compromises. Fine Gael has a central role to play here.

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