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Barnier

Last week, Michel Barnier was awarded European of the Year in a virtual ceremony organised by the European Movement in Ireland. In contrast, he has been referred to as ‘Dr. No’ and ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ by a hostile British press.


It really was a fitting tribute to his dedication and endurance over four years of negotiating first the Article 50 departure of the UK from the EU and then the future relationship. It is the best example of the solidarity that Ireland enjoys through EU membership.


I met him in his office in the European Commission building, the Berlaymont, in the Spring of 2019 to discuss the ongoing tribulations of the then, Theresa May government and whether Irish interests could be protected. I shouldn’t have doubted him.


After our meeting, we took a few photos and I noticed a picture of General De Gaulle on the wall of his office. We chatted about De Gaulle’s famous visit to the west of Ireland in 1969 and the photo of the General in his greatcoat on the beach at Derrynane.


Barnier said it was his intention to visit Kerry during the summer of 2019; however, that didn’t come to pass owing to the extreme pressure of work throughout 2019. Those pressures took their toll from time to time. According to the Financial Times, Barnier frequently shouted at the UK negotiators, “I am calm”.


At the moment the operational consequences of Brexit are causing real problems for Irish businesses. But in thinking about Barnier’s role, we should just remember how much better it is to have zero tariffs and zero quotas where UK-Ireland trade is concerned.


Not only that, but peace in Ireland was secured through the Northern Ireland protocol.


When you also recall that the EU single market was fully protected through strong ‘Level Playing Field’ provisions, you would wonder why Boris Johnson was so delighted with the deal. By asking for and getting so little, Johnson could claim that he had regained sovereignty.


The UK didn’t even look for equivalence (your standards are the same as our standards) on animal health which has resulted in much of the chaos in Dover and Holyhead.


Johnson did so badly on the very tense fishing negotiations that he had to set up a compensation fund in early January for the industry amid protests by Scottish fishermen.


Here are a few examples of the problems being experienced on the Irish side.


An import from the European continent to Ireland that uses a UK distribution hub carries a tariff which makes the product more experience for an Irish shopper. This is something I am working on closely with the Commission as the European Parliament prepares to ratify the Agreement in March.


Also, if you import a UK car, there is a tariff on it even though it was made in Germany, France or any other EU country. There are also complicated VAT issues I won’t bore you with.


Finally, if there is some Northern Irish malt whiskey in a Republic of Ireland blended whiskey, the product no longer benefits from the EU’s many Free Trade Agreements around the world.


The Commission are saying all of this was inevitable and unavoidable and we have to get on with it.


I really don’t have a problem with the extra paperwork that comes with Brexit which I think is really unavoidable and which I think we will get used to in due course.


As Barnier approaches retirement from his work at the EU and contemplates his memoirs due out in April, I suspect there will be more than a fondness for Ireland despite the complexity that our situation brought into his life these past 4 years.


In his acceptance speech with the European Movement last week, Barnier said he felt ‘a little bit Irish’. If we all feel a little bit more European, it will be the tribute he would covet the most.


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