Government must be prepared to veto EU-UK trade talks if Irish border isn’t sorted

Union leader warns against “levelling down” to weaker British standards on the environment, consumer protection, equality and workers’ rights after Brexit.

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Mr Callinan said there were clear political signals that Britain wanted a damaging future divergence between EU and UK market regulation.

The Irish Government must be prepared to veto the start of EU-UK post-Brexit trade talks at next month’s European Council meeting if adequate progress on Irish border issues has not been achieved, according to one of the country’s senior trade union leaders.

Speaking at an cross-border union conference on Brexit in Letterkenny today (Friday), IMPACT deputy general secretary Kevin Callinan expressed fears that Ireland’s economy – north and south – could be sacrificed if movement on the Brexit ‘divorce bill’ convinces EU member states to concede on the issue of commencing trade talks.

Mr Callinan, who is also a vice president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, said the resolve of many EU countries would be tested if progress was made on a Brexit financial settlement – despite a pledge by EU leaders that “sufficient progress” on avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic must also be achieved before trade talks open.

Mr Callinan said: “The terms of a financial settlement, including its potential impact for cohesion funding, will be the prime concern for many EU member states. So the extent to which they will continue to insist on satisfactory safeguards for the Good Friday Agreement will be tested. My fear is that many of our counterparts may not fully understand what’s at stake on this island. This runs the risk that trade negotiations could gather momentum while the crucial Irish border issue remains on the shelf.”

Mr Callinan said there were clear political signals that Britain wanted a damaging future divergence between EU and UK market regulation. “It’s conceivable that Britain may be prepared to mimic the EU single market regulatory environment in a post-Brexit scenario. But this is clearly, and publically, at odds with the hard Brexit agenda being championed by influential Tories both inside and outside the British Cabinet.

“Yet any significant divergence in EU and UK trade arrangements would make the maintenance of a frictionless border impossible. This would leave this island in a constant state of precariousness, at the mercy of a change of policy direction in London. With movement likely on the ‘divorce bill,’ our Government must continue to court allies. But it must be prepared to go further if necessary, and to veto a shift into trade talks in December and, indeed, at any other time that the border issue has not been adequately addressed. It will have the support of trade unions and their members if it becomes necessary to take this approach,” said Mr Callinan.

Mr Callinan was speaking at an IMPACT-Siptu symposium on Brexit, the free movement of people, public services and the economy. With speakers from unions, civil society organisations, business, farming and politics, the event explored the potential economic, political and social impact of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Mr Callinan also warned against “levelling down” to weaker British standards on the environment, consumer protection, equality and workers’ rights after Brexit. “Weakening environmental, consumer and workplace standards is an article of faith for those who led a dishonest ‘leave’ campaign, and are now pushing for the hardest possible Brexit. If they prevail, we will hear voices in Ireland – including some in Government – seeking to promote a narrative that says we must level down as far as the UK – on workers’ right, citizens’ rights, public services, equal opportunities and environmental standards – in order to meet a new competitiveness challenge. Trade unions and other progressives will resist this siren’s call,” he said.

IMPACT’s north-western official Richie Carrothers told the symposium that Brexit was the greatest single threat to the normalisation of life on both sides of the border. “The border runs for nearly 500km from Lough Swilly in Derry to Carlingford Lough in Louth. Tens of thousands of people cross it freely everyday – students, shoppers, tourists, commuters, school children, hauliers and workers. “The fact that it’s crossed 110 million times a year is a practical expression of the normalisation of politics on this island, which was reflected in Northern Ireland’s majority referendum vote to remain in the EU. Now the British government is in the process of dismantling the rights and entitlements of EU citizenship and all that brings,” he said.

The full event programme is available here.