Building bridges: Ireland and the future EU-UK relationship

Published on April 08, 2021

Keynote speaker at the recent European Movement UK Conference, Noelle O'Connell, CEO of European Movement Ireland and Vice-President of European Movement International, writes about the need to build bridges and maintain the closest relationships and cooperation between Ireland, the UK and EU.

The best plans for the future are informed by lessons of the past. In Ireland we have had nine EU referenda over almost 50 years of EU membership. We know from those experiences that you cannot reverse decades of negative discourse in a short referendum campaign. Remainers learned this difficult lesson throughout the Brexit campaign; the result of the referendum and the painful years and months since have underscored this reality.

We all want to be where we were pre-23 June 2016 but that is not facing reality. Instead, we have got to strive for shaping and influencing the new EU-UK relationship through channelling the energy, commitment and hard work of our British friends who care about what format future British–EU relations take.

In Ireland, Brexit has reminded us of the innumerable tangible and intangible benefits of EU membership. From economic diversification to political sovereignty, EU membership has opened doors and presented opportunities. But more valuable than all of that, has been the EU’s contribution to peace on our island.

Before Brexit, the common EU membership of both Ireland and the UK helped remove barriers and softened boundaries through helping underpin the normalisation of relations. Brexit has complicated this situation and pushed front and centre issues like territory and borders. To prevent a return to a hard border on this island, a trade border has been put in place in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain under the Northern Ireland Protocol, an agreement that was negotiated by the British government and EU27.

Brexit has raised many questions about the future of Northern Ireland but its impacts are being felt today. Those impacts are creating tensions not just between the EU and the UK, but also between communities in Northern Ireland and North-South. The debate and possible timelines for a border poll and referendum has certainly accelerated since Brexit.

Turning to the view from Brussels, it is important to remember that as the Brexit process played out, the priority there and many other capitals turned towards bringing the lengthy and often torturous negotiations to a resolution.  Even before the emergence of Covid-19 as a major issue, there was a growing sense that Brexit needed to be resolved so the European Union could move on and focus on other priorities that were facing the bloc.

However, there was also a realistic assessment that the period ahead would be difficult. While the agreement reached would provide some clarity, the task of building a comprehensive and mutually beneficial future relationship on the foundations of the agreement will not be easy as the past three months have shown.

Of course, this is because trust had been undermined over the years, specifically and most spectacularly by the Internal Market Bill last year. But there is also the question of simple bandwidth. The EU is grappling with the pandemic, it is beginning a Conference on the Future of Europe in May and the German elections in September will see Chancellor Merkel leave politics after 16 years.

There is another important point to remember here too. The European Union has not yet ratified the Trade and Cooperation Agreement agreed at Christmas. The European Parliament still needs to do that and is due to do so before the end of April.

However, the fact remains that the EU and the UK will need to have a coherent and cooperative working relationship on many issues as we move into the future.

The challenge will be to arrest the trend of disengagement. Some political divergence may continue so it is vital to balance that with engagement at all other possible levels. There is a major opportunity to develop, foster and expand relationships between different sectors of UK and European society. These relationships must look to the future and neither be tarnished by, or trade off, the past. There is a saying that the past is a different country, it is literally the case in this instance.

Linking with some of the networks established to engage with the Conference on the Future of Europe will be important in this respect. It is also vital to renew and rebuild the links between the UK and EU member states at the civil society level.

The UK is a great and respected country with its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, its pivotal role in NATO, G7 etc. These and other structures will ensure that some level of productive EU-UK cooperation will need to continue. So, while all is not lost and strong links remain, it is essential to nourish and expand them to build new, enduring relationships.

The UK may have left the European Union, but the UK is still European. Ireland remains your closest friend and neighbour and there is a lesson in that. If two countries whose relationship for so long was tarnished by their history, can emerge as close friends and allies, then there is no doubt that, post-Brexit, the UK and EU can do likewise.

That is the hope we need to work to realise.

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