Committee for Exiting the EU Hears From Bertie Ahern

The Committee for Exiting the European Union heard from former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern about British-Irish relations and the implications of the various Brexit outcomes for that relationship.

Stephen Kinnock: Thanks, Mr Ahern, for your fascinating evidence. I wanted to ask a more strategic or philosophical question about the future of the European Union. Given your vast experience in the EU, the many European Council meetings you have attended and your insights about the role the EU plays in fostering bilateral relationships and multilateral relationships, within the EU and indeed globally, is there in any way an opportunity with Brexit for it to be a reset moment not just for the United Kingdom but for the European Union?

As you will know, President Macron and others have talked about a multi tier European Union, this idea that perhaps the one size fits all and top down approach to integration has not always worked for all member states. If we were to pursue a path on Brexit that, in essence, made the United Kingdom into a country with a very close market based relationship with the European Union, frictionless trade along the lines of the European Economic Area plus a form of customs union, but we were not in the political institutions, one step removed from the deeper political project, could that be the beginning of a new way of Europe and the European project working?

Could the United Kingdom move towards this multi tier Europe, perhaps with some of the central and eastern European countries and the Nordics? It would be a kind of geo strategic shift. Could Brexit potentially present an opportunity in that sense? Based on your insight and experience in the EU, what is your sense of what the appetite for that multi tier or multi speed Europe could be?

Bertie Ahern: There are a number of things in that. I will try to be brief. The idea of the multi tiered Europe is not a new one; it has been around for a quarter of a century. They used to call it a two tiered Europe. The French and Germans were looking at this back in the 1980s and 1990s. If it had been a few years ago, I would have answered your question by saying that multilateralism is the right way of dealing with things going forward, but with the advent of anti multilateralists, like President Trump and others, the world has changed and it will evolve. The EU will continue to evolve.

Personally, I would like to have seen it evolve with the United Kingdom being a member. I have seen huge changes in the years I was in the Council. The Single European Act, which was your achievement, made a huge difference. It made a huge difference to trade and to business for the island of Ireland. As for the changes in the economic and monetary union and how that evolved, you were at the very heart of all of those decisions. Europe will continue to evolve, and there will be changes. There will be changes in leadership. The vision is not as clear now as it would have been when President Delors was outlining his vision whenever it was, 25 years ago. With the UK out, I am not too sure how that will evolve. From an Irish perspective, we are going to stay in. There is huge support: 87% support staying in the single market.

As we come to the end, can I say that our interest is in being as close as possible to the UK? We want to have as harmonious a relationship as we can, not just to do with trade and business but to do with our historical position as it now evolves. Brexit or no Brexit, that is what the Irish people want to do. We will just have to see how Europe moves on into the future.

We will be part of that Europe, but I believe it is not going to be in any way to the detriment of our relationship with the UK. We just have to find ways to keep that as strong as it has been, particularly in the last 45 years and more particularly in the last 22 since the Good Friday agreement. It is in our interests to do that. This Government are trying to do that, but any future Irish Government will do that as well.

There is nobody in Ireland celebrating this fact, and I deeply regret it. I was horrified on the night of the vote, but it was not the first vote I lost in my life or the first vote I saw go the opposite way. That is the way the world is. Now you just have to do your best to make sure the damage is limited and not too bad.