Like many people, I tend to assume that people better educated than me, and paid vastly larger salaries than me in the great departments of state are thinking and planning about the big issues of the day. Sadly, as our property bubble and banking regulation proved, that is not necessarily the case, but I hope things have changed, because something enormous is heading down the track at us.
Now, it’s true, the very continuation of the euro and the EU is up for discussion, but if they go under we are living in a different world, and we’ll just have to deal with it. One issue, on the other hand, that we do know is almost certain to happen in the next ten years is Britain leaving the EU, and we need to start planning for that. What are the questions facing us?
The obvious one is whether we can remain in the EU without the UK, our single most important trading partner? Ironically, it will be in our national interest to ensure that Britain gets the best deal possible in terms of access to the single market, because the last thing we need is to be maintaining a tariff wall with the UK, and them with us.
The second irony is that we will almost certainly become Britain’s eyes and ears in the EU, representing British concerns at the Commission and Council. I would not be surprised if we even end up having some sort of Dublin based joint-secretariat to keep the Brits in the loop, in the same way the British have a relationship with the CIA. This would be in our own interest in terms of maintaining Britain in the single market and also in terms of giving us leverage with the UK on other issues.
The third issue is the joint travel area. With Britain out, we will come under pressure to join Schengen, which is worth considering but not at the cost of imposing passport controls between Britain and Ireland, and certainly not controls at the border. This is an issue which will require toughness on our part with our fellow member states.
Finally, we cannot overestimate the potential ideological shift in the EU away from pro-business policies, low taxes and free trade with the departure of the UK. Whilst we should not get a fetish about our corporate tax rate (we could consider tax harmonisation in return for permanent federal funds to subsidise business in Ireland) we should be more proactive in building a active coalition within the union of pro-business low tax countries, such as ourselves, Poles, Estonians, etc.
If we cannot deliver on the above, we have problems. We need to start wargaming this stuff now.
Note: Ralf Grahn, a regular and thoughtful comment maker on this blog, also raised the point about the effect of English as a working language of the EU. It’s a very valid and interesting point to make? Would there be an advantage to Ireland, or would France attempt a linguistic takeover?