by Frank Schnittger
Fri Jun 7th, 2019 at 10:26:49 PM EST
Unlike the low key, almost private, visit of Donald Trump to Ireland this week, Dutch King Willem-Alexander is being afforded the full formalities of a state visit next week. Accompanied by the Dutch foreign and trade ministers and a trade delegation, the subtext is the preparations both countries are making for Brexit.
Mark Paul has produced an excellent preview for the Irish Times
A few years ago, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, who occasionally used to moonlight for fun as a pilot for the Dutch airline KLM, bumped into the Ryanair chief executive, Michael O'Leary, at a conference.
O'Leary was characteristically bombastic and facetiously invited the royal to work for Ryanair instead. It isn't hard to imagine O'Leary smirking in self-admiration at his temerity in wiping the eye of a monarch in a slagging match.
Ryanair subsequently became embroiled in a damaging industrial relations war with many of its pilots, leading to strikes in some countries before a peace deal was struck last year. Its difficulties were compounded at one stage by a staff scheduling crisis that forced Ryanair to cancel thousands of flights.
For a time, O'Leary's well-won reputation as an aviation genius lay in tatters. Sensing an opportunity to get his own back, the Dutch king sat down at his computer and composed an email to O'Leary, asking him if he was still looking for pilots. By some accounts, the Ryanair boss struggled to see the funny side.
Quite a few years ago my young family spent a few pleasant holidays camping near Delft, enjoying the water slides and amusement parks, cycling around the extensive cycle tracks, and taking in the delights of IKEA on a wet day long before that store had become established in Ireland. Oh the joys!
Holland, to us, seemed like a gigantic theme park designed for children, bicycles, bad weather, and a very civilised way of life based on strong community values. Compared to Ireland's much rougher, wilder, and sometimes chaotic charms, it seemed a model of good organisation, social cohesion, and economic efficiency. A sort of Germany without the Germans: more laid back, relaxed, and a with a lot of emphasis on family. As one commenter on Mark Paul's article put it: "If the Dutch had Ireland's land they would feed the world, whereas if the Irish had the Dutch land we'd all drown."
Almost exactly 10 years ago these impressions were reinforced by my attendance at a blogging conference in Rotterdam, admittedly not perhaps the most representative sub-sample of Dutch life. But Ireland has changed perhaps more than any other country I know of in the meantime, with a sustained drive towards liberalisation whereas Dutch politics seems to have moved in a more reactionary direction.
Brexit represents a huge challenge for both countries as they are the most exposed to trade with the UK. But whereas the Dutch seem to have embraced the challenge with enthusiasm and efficiency, Ireland is still in denial. Any acceptance that customs controls are going to have to be erected at or near the border with N.Ireland raises the spectre of the civil war fought over that border in 1922/3, and the Troubles in N. Ireland from 1968-98 where all customs posts were terrorist targets. Any Irish government proposing to re-implement border controls at the border faces imminent defeat.
The "Irish backstop" seems to be the one issue which unites all the likely Tory leadership contenders against the Withdrawal Agreement, and so a no-deal Brexit seems most likely unless the Conservative/DUP government is overthrown. Then the only hope of avoiding border controls is for a future UK government not dependent on DUP support to agree to customs controls "down the Irish Sea" and keeping N. Ireland in the Custom Union and Single Market even if Britain leaves.
Failing that, the probability of a united Ireland rises, with opinion polling in N. Ireland showing a gradual trend in that direction especially in the event of a no deal Brexit. However the difficulties associated with any move in that direction are huge, and no real preparations are being made for that contingency either.
So the current governmental strategy seems to entail a large measure of hoping a no deal Brexit doesn't happen, or at least will be short-lived and end before real divergences in customs regulations and tariffs between the UK and EU emerge. Not exactly the Dutch approach...