Let me first try to explain why the handling of Brexit by the UK led to a crisis in Anglo-Irish relations. Treaties between nations are like contracts between individuals. They influence how each party behaves, towards one another and towards the rest of the world. While a contract or a treaty can be withdrawn from, there is a legitimate expectation that this will only be done with careful advance consideration of how this will affect the other parties to the treaty or contract. This is not just a legal expectation, but an expectation of the sort of civility that should apply in relations between people and nations.
One also takes for granted that, if the withdrawing party to a contract wants a new or different contract with the same parties, it will say in advance what it wants that new relationship to be. Even now, Ireland has no clear idea what sort of relationship, compatible with the EU rules the UK helped make, the UK wants with the EU, and hence with Ireland. As the country most affected by Brexit, there is thus deep disappointment in Ireland that our neighbour the UK has not been able, in respect of Brexit, to live up to the normal expectations I have just outlined.
Forty-four years ago, Ireland and the UK signed the same contract with one another, and with the seven other countries that then made up the European Common Market. We each renewed that contract several times, in the UK’s case with the sovereign approval of its parliament. We each expected that the others would continue to honour the contract and we shaped our institutions and our economies on that basis. In particular, when Ireland and the United Kingdom negotiated the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements, to resolve the ongoing conflicts in and around Northern Ireland, we each did so on the unquestioned assumption that the UK would continue to be an EU member.
We each assumed that the freedoms created by membership of the EU could continue to be used to strengthen relations between the two communities in Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between Ireland and Britain.
The renegotiation and referendum process that was initiated by David Cameron, which has led to Brexit, seemed to us in Ireland to have been designed in a way that took no account of the obligations and expectations the UK had created in Belfast and at St Andrews.
During the renegotiation phase, the Irish taoiseach, Enda Kenny, supported Cameron’s attempt to improve the special status the UK already had in the EU, even though some of the concessions the UK were given weren’t in Ireland’s interest.
Irish people saw other problems with the process that led to Brexit. The complex UK/EU relationship was reduced to a simple “Leave” or “Remain” choice. While it was clear what “Remain” meant, no effort at all was made by the government sponsoring the referendum to say what sort of “Leave” it would choose. So “Leave” became a vehicle for fantasies and wishful thinking of the most egregious kind. Explanations of the choices between different forms of Brexit – such as on whether to stay in the customs union and the single market – were left over until the people had already voted.
There was no deliberative process to inform public opinion, something one would have expected of the UK parliament, one of the oldest democratic deliberative bodies in the world. The referendum was not preceded by detailed green and white papers. In the absence of authoritative information, there was no informed debate about the impact of Brexit on the Irish border, and on hundreds of issues.
It is only in the past week that the UK government has started to consider the sort of post-Brexit relationship it will ask for. In doing so, it will have to take account of the fact that the EU works because it is a single legal order, with a single system that makes, implements and adjudicates on the meaning of shared EU rules. The UK has a sovereign right to decide what it would like, but it cannot expect the EU to change its very nature, just to accommodate a country that is leaving.
In preparing its proposal, the UK will need to take into account the Interlaken principles that govern EU relations with third countries, and the EU community customs code, both of which UK ministers helped to draft. When it has done this, the UK government can then compare the special position it already enjoys as a voting EU member, with what the EU will be in a position to offer it as a non-member. Then it can make an informed decision. We are each allowed to change our minds in our private lives if the issue is important enough. Nations might sometimes allow themselves the same privilege.
Opinion @ The Guardian by John Bruton