The Irish border has of late become both a top priority and a sticking point.
The UK wants a frictionless, seamless border, while the EU has accused it of "magical Thinking", warning it not to use the peace process as a bargaining chip.
For UK audiences, discussions about the Northern Irish border have overshadowed debate about the future of the UK's relations with the Republic of Ireland (ROI). Here in Ireland, Brexit – especially a hard Brexit – affects the nature of our business to a greater degree than that of any other commercial community in the current EU. Brexit promises significant disruption and added complexity to doing business in Northern Ireland and in Britain, and as an EU member state, it might well disrupt certain access points to the rest of Ireland's single EU market.
On the one hand, Brexit business has certainly looked favourably on Ireland. We rank as a clear winner among our competitors as a home for financial and other institutions, concerned about their ability to access EU markets. We have long been a strategic hub for corporates in every sector, with an economy suitably structured to attract foreign direct investment. We have the tech hubs, talent pool, the dynamism and abundance of people from across the world with which to beat Frankfurt, Paris and Eastern Europe.
However, far from amounting to frictionless trade, Brexit introduces new frictions and complexities to everyday commercial life. Britain is Ireland's largest EU trading partner, accounting for 25 per cent of exports from the EU to the Republic. As the source of approximately 50 per cent of our fuel imports, the relationship with the UK is also a significant issue in this regard.
Ireland is seriously exposed to a hard Brexit across key sectors, especially tourism and agribusiness. With a falling pound and average EU tariffs on beef imports from non-EU countries at 70 per cent, and dairy at 36 per cent, we would welcome frictionless trade not just between ROI and Northern Ireland, but also between Ireland and the UK. The first seems unlikely, the second improbable at best.
I fear that Brexit will weaken those historic economic ties between Ireland and the UK, and that the approach to doing business will change dramatically in a Union without the UK. As we lose a friend in Europe, the UK risks losing one too. Ireland will soon become the only English speaking EU member, the only culturally aligned meeting point between the US and Europe. The UK will lose its voice, and its place at the table – a more significant loss to the UK than the EU.
Our business culture, rooted in common law and similar legislative and commercial frameworks, comfortable with the distinctly Anglo-American approach to business, will find itself subject to a distinctly Franco-German way of doing things. Ireland will not be able to straddle both sides of the fence in its cultural realignment. As Ireland assumes the role of a new cultural bridgehead, the new broker for EU and US cultural understanding, the UK's role in this regard will be diminished.
Today, Brexit still has the potential to be as beneficial to the UK as it might to Ireland, but to realise it, Britain must stop giving the impression that it is attempting to disrupt the EU – no longer from within, but from without. The EU's shifting border is now an urgent matter for trade policy and trade talks, but Britain's position seem to be to ignore Michel Barnier’s every word, when we urgently need workable, not aspirational frontier arrangements.
Ireland had no say in the UK's departure from the EU. But few countries are as good at adjusting to new realities, to finding new markets and seizing new opportunities. Like all good customer facing companies, our gaze will look away from the UK, and that is a loss potentially to us, but also the UK.
The latest exchanges in the Brexit talks leave a distinct impression that we are all heading for a hard Brexit. In that scenario, I am not sure that anyone really wins, but if Ireland has to choose, the sustainable path for a small open economy like ours is within the EU, not outside of it.