Brexit Institute News

Inaugural Event “Brexit, Ireland and the Future of Europe”

By Sose Mayilyan and Annelieke Mooij , PhD Students, Dublin City University

On January 25, 2018, the DCU Brexit Institute held its Inaugural event on “Brexit, Ireland and the Future of Europe”, organised in partnership with European Movement Ireland and Dublin City University.

President Michael D. Higgins

Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, gave the Opening address, which was a thorough history of the European Union and the lessons we can all learn from it. He stated that the EU is entering a time for reflection on what kind of union we want and what kind of future relationship with our nearest neighbor we want. In relation to the future of the EU, the President reflected on the devastation the countries had brought upon themselves by total war and destruction that laid the foundations for the EU. Respect for life, freedom and dignity, and the solidarity of European peoples could be achieved  through shared institutions of peace and cooperation.  The President then reflected that the negotiations for the EEC in the 1950s took place while the peoples of the Global South were struggling for independence and self-determination, and that the legacy of European empires cannot be forgotten. The President considered that through the EU, idealism had triumphed over cynicism and hope over fear. The EU is neither imposed nor does it diminish sovereignty, rather it is a common space in which travel, work and study are free and  conducted in the spirit of friendship and amity. He reflected on the inheritance of humane traditions that were brought from the Enlightenment. The scholarship and philosophy have enriched Europe and given us equality between men and women and provided for solidarity between generations and member states. The past few years, he said, have tested this solidarity. Not all member states are equal in opportunity; social cohesion has failed in Europe and continues to test us. Forces have arisen that seek to divide the people of the European Union. For the first time in history Europe is under debate every day and these social forces are giving rise to division and doubt. The President then asked the question on how to create a Europe from the bottom up rather than from the top down. He asked what constitutes a good economic model? The future of Europe depends on the capacity of sympathy, on institutions that do not divide but unite and protect and offer promise. We should set our gaze on what we can achieve together, our best aspiration and future only through promoting social justice. In conclusion he argued we need a new mind for our times, for the EU and humanity itself.

Hilary Benn

Hilary Benn, Chairman of the UK House of Commons Committee on Exiting the EU, gave the second keynote speech of the day. He addressed the rise of populism on both continents, seen as the result of the gulf of difference between the politicians and the citizens. Addressing the concern that there is misinformation between the people and the decision makers, he took the example of the claim made that for Brexit “no deal is better than a bad deal”.  For him, no deal is not better than a bad deal, no deal is the worst deal possible. Some comfort, he argued, is that there is no majority in the House of Commons that will accept no deal. He addressed the Good Friday Agreement, signed almost 20 years ago, which brought peace and normality to the province of Northern Ireland. Additionally, it brought institutions for the people of the Islands and it provided space and opportunity to allow people to be who they are. The EU also made this possible.The border symbolizes the choice we have to make.. The border is today just a road and traffic. Before the Good Friday Agreement there were soldiers, a checkpoint, a police station, all symbols of the Troubles. All have the responsibility to keep it a plain road and nothing more. He explained that one island will not be treated any different but the UK has made a commitment to Ireland. The question goes to the heart of the future relationship that is wanted. It remains to be seen whether it will be possible to reconcile the border issue with leaving the EU customs union.

Moving beyond the issue of Brexit, Mr Benn pointed to the many more issues that remain to be solved: rising population, climate, Russia’s iron fist, Arab spring and refugees. When the story of the century is written, it comes down to how we respond to these issues. We have to learn how to work and live together, which is the greatest social challenge that we face, and the only way to do this is by nations working together. He ended his speech with the choices the EU faces about its future. Will it remain in its current state or move forward with further integration? This is for the EU’s citizens to decide. But the EU should also quietly pause and reflect on how it lost one of its most important member states.

Helen Mc Entee

The next speaker was Helen McEntee, Irish Minister of State for EU Affairs, who made a short presentation on Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe. She started off with emphasizing the renewed commitment from the 27 Member States moving forward and planning the future of the EU together. Good things happened, such as the publication of the Commission’s White Paper, a platform from which individual member states can work together and move forward. The social dimension is first on the agenda, as highlighted by the European Commission recently. According to Minister Mc Entee, further citizens’ involvement in the EU has a high priority on citizens dialogue. She pointed out that we should however not forget that if Brexit is a big issue, it is  not the only European question. She indicated other issues to be tackled such as competitiveness in a growing global market, stability and safety within Europe and in the EU’s neighborhood, climate change, social responsibility, education, etc. To conclude, she stressed that the European ideal is tested but it has not been broken. The debate and discussions on the future of Europe is positive.

Herman van Rompuy

The first President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, gave then a keynote speech. He first stated that in the process of Brexit, which is full of surprises, including the results of the referendum, the most important issue to consider is the maintenance of peace, since the European Union is more than an economic project and is first and foremost a peace project. He noted that although a lot of focus is put on the issues of trade, there is much more at stake in this process. Van Rompuy stressed the importance of the unity of the remaining 27 Member States as shown in the Brexit negotiations. While the UK is negotiating as one entity with many voices, the EU is working hard to keep a united position. The necessity of compromises is, of course, inevitable but the European Union is itself based on that.

Van Rompuy then noted that the UK is more dependent on the EU than vice versa and that even after Brexit the EU is still going to remain the biggest single market and the Euro is going to be the second biggest currency. Therefore, it is not surprising that the UK has accepted the proposals put down by the EU. Similarly, regarding the trade that would be taking place between the UK and the EU, the goods exported from the UK to the EU would still need to comply with the European norms and standards, which would also apply in case a Free Trade Agreement is signed between the two parties. On the future EU-UK relations, Van Rompuy set out two options: 1) the UK staying in the single market and the customs union or 2) a Free Trade Agreement being reached between the UK and the EU. The first option is economically less destabilising, however makes the United Kingdom more reliant on external factors. The second option is not as good as the first one, especially for the UK as its firms would lose their automatic right to do business on the continent.

Moving from Brexit to the future of Europe, Van Rompuy stressed that although a large financial crisis has now been left behind, there is still a chance that in the future other financial crises may occur, creating new challenges which the EU would need to overcome. The EU should not be restricted to a catalogue of technical matters but should instead focus on the core of the issues it faces. The EU needs democracies with the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion and protection against uncontrolled migration and terrorism. Indeed if people are not protected adequately, they tend to choose protectionism and nationalism. Van Rompuy also pointed out how  populism answers to different concerns: in Western Europe populism to the vast migration, in Southern Europe to the economic crisis and in the Anglo-Saxon world to inequality.

To reach a balance and keep citizens’ support, Van Rompuy pointed out 3 main objectives he believes the EU should be aiming for: prosperity, security and fairness.

  • Prosperity – there is a necessity to deepen the Single Market, which is a work in progress. There is also a necessity to reflect upon the Eurozone and the Schengen area, which were designed for normal times. However the EU should make itself ready to react if new financial or migration crises happen in the future. For that the EU has to overcome two taboos , sovereignty and solidarity.
  • On Security, Van Rompuy stressed the importance of promoting legal migration and actively combatting illegal migration, and protecting the external borders of the Member States.
  • on Fairness – whereas many issues in this regard belong to the national competence, the EU can contribute and is, in fact, already contributing by combatting tax fraud and evasion, social dumping, commercial dumping and discrimination between multinational corporations and small and medium-sized enterprises. In his opinion, one country cannot fight this alone and the whole bloc is needed make progress.

Herman Van Rompuy concluded his speech by pointing out that compromises need to be found between the South and the North on the Eurozone and between the West and the East on economic migration. He believes political will is needed to overcome the challenges and to reach a win-win solution. He also stressed that defeating populism is not an aim in itself but is rather a collateral benefit.

Panel Discussion

The keynote speech was followed by a panel discussion, which was chaired by Dearbhail McDonald from the Irish Independent.

The discussion was opened by Daniel Kelemen (Professor, Rutgers University), whose research focuses on law and politics in general and on the politics of the European Union particularly. In his opinion, Brexit is tragedy for the EU and an act of strategic self-harm for the UK. Moreover, it is a costly process for both sides. Nevertheless, he believes that Brexit cannot and should not be stopped. Talking about the impact of Brexit on the future of the EU, he addressed two issues. Firstly, he believes that the fears concerning a possible future withdrawal by other Member States (including, in particular, Poland and Hungary) are overblown, because public opinion within these states is opposed to withdrawal. Secondly, Kelemen stated that there will not suddenly be new momentum for deeper integration, because the UK was not the only Member State opposed to it. Nevertheless, the effect of recent crises has been a further deepening of cooperation in various areas, and further cooperation might be developed in areas such as defence, border control, counter-terrorism and democracy. He also touched upon the promises the UK Prime Minister Theresa May has made with regard to Brexit and noted that she will probably have to break one of the promises she had made, since respecting all of them at one given time would not be possible to realise.

The discussion was continued by Noelle O’Connell from European Movement Ireland, an independent organisation working to develop the connection between Ireland and Europe. She pointed out that a bottom-up approach is needed with regard to the future relationship between the EU and the UK. She also noted than in order to look at the future, one needs to look at the past, too. O’Connell stated that Ireland is now entering a new period and stage of its EU membership. Given the new situation, Ireland needs to define what it wants from the Union in five years’ time and how involved it wants to be in its further integration with the EU. She stated that despite the high numbers within the Irish population supporting the EU, these numbers should not be taken for granted. O’Connell stressed that conversations should be started on how societies in the Union want to shape it, how they see the Eurozone and how they see the Common Security and Defence Policy.

The next speaker in the panel discussion was Etain Tannam (Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin). Her research is focused on international organisations, including the European Union, British-Irish relations and politics in Northern Ireland, as well as the possible effects of Brexit. Discussing the intergovernmental and diplomatic relations between Ireland and the UK, she noted the importance of  joint decision-making and problem-solving strategies that were put in place in the 1980s. She also pointed out how the flourishing of the British-Irish relations, with the Queen’s visit to Ireland and Irish President’s state visit to the UK, played an important role. Reflecting on the peace process, Tannam believes that now less emphasis is put on the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement, such as the UK-Irish intergovernmental conference. Furthermore, Ireland and the United Kingdom currently are not on the same team in the Brexit negotiations. This can be seen even from the fact that no meetings of the civil servants’ group have taken place since the Brexit process has begun. Tannam believes that the UK Government is paying less attention than needed to Northern Ireland. This, in turn, certainly results in the weakening of the relationship between Ireland and the UK. Moreover, in response to the British Government’s lack of clarity on its plans for the border, the Irish Government’s position became harder. Tannam believes that this situation may incite nationalist emotions in Ireland, Northern Ireland and England. Brexit with respect to Northern Ireland should not be used by any party in the UK or in Ireland as a political football to gain votes.

Simon Coveney

Simon Coveney, Tánaiste and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade with Special Responsibility for Brexit then took the floor for a Concluding Keynote Speech. He noted that important commitments on citizens’ rights and financial issues have been made in the first phase of the negotiations. Irish-specific discussions have also taken place, despite the difficulties. Also, vital commitments have been secured regarding the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process, human rights and the border. Commitments from the British side to avoid a hard border have also been achieved. Minister Coveney also acknowledged the support of the European Union, and the other 26 member states, with respect to these issues.

Despite the vital commitments reached in the first phase, Minister Coveney stressed that there are still many issues to be covered in phase 2. A big concern for Ireland is that once the second phase begins, Irish issues might not be prioritized. In this context, it is important to respect the commitments made in the first phase. Currently, the focus is on the transitional arrangement and the future EU-UK relationship, an agreement which should provide much-needed certainty. Minister Coveney believes that the UK should provide more clarity on what it wants from its future relationship with the EU. He also pointed out there is far more to be gained by aligning than diverging. He noted that regardless of the shape of the financial agreement with the UK, the integrity of the Single Market, which is essential to Ireland’s economic development, should be retained and it will be protected by Ireland along with other EU Member States. Minister Coveney pointed out that in order to adjust to the rapidly changing world, the Union should also be flexible and willing to change. Nevertheless, the EU values should not be altered and should not be optional, i.e. all Member States, as well as the potential future Member States (particularly, in the Western Balkans) should respect those values.

Minister Coveney concluded his speech by pointing out that the EU has shown solidarity in proving that the views of small countries do matter, and that the European Union is the most successful peace  project the world has ever known, which should neither be forgotten nor taken for granted.

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