Brexit, Ireland and the June European Council
Today and tomorrow, 28 and 29 June 2018, the European Council – the body grouping the heads of state and government of the EU member states, together with the President of the European Commission – was due to have a major meeting on Brexit. The meeting was expected by many to be the deadline by which to solve the outstanding issue in the UK withdrawal negotiations, in order to move forward in the discussion of the future EU-UK relations in trade and security. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen to what extent the European Council will be able to tackle the issue decisively.
On the one hand, progress between the EU and the UK has been slow during the last few months. While on 19 June 2018 the negotiators from the Commission and the UK Government published a joint report disclosing further agreement between the two parties on a new handful of provisions of the draft withdrawal treaty, major disagreement remains on the Northern Ireland Protocol – since the EU proposal of keeping regulatory alignment has not been accepted in London, but the British proposal of a special customs partnership has raised more questions than answers in Brussels.
On the other hand, the Brexit issue in the European Council has been increasingly overshadowed by other priorities. First, the Italian government succeeded in making migration the key focus of the summit meeting – outlining a 10 point program designed to overhaul the Common European Asylum System to introduce greater burden sharing of asylum seekers among member states.
Secondly, through the Meseberg Declaration signed on 19 June 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have finally found a compromise to relaunch the prospect of further Eurozone integration, with plans to transform the European Stability Mechanism, complete banking union and create a brand new Eurozone budget.
And third, following US President Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on a number of EU exports, member states have been faced with the need to discuss a comprehensive trade defense plan – which has to tread carefully given the role of the US in NATO, including related plans for further integration in EU defense, which is also a subject of the European Council meeting.
As a result, it is likely that the time EU leaders will dedicate to Brexit will be minimal compared to that they will devote to migration, Economic & Monetary Union, and trade and security. In fact, each of these issues remains highly contentious – with divisions running deep among member states. If on issues of Eurozone reform the Franco-German package of proposals immediately met with strong resistance by a coalition of fiscally conservative Northern countries led by the Netherlands, on issues of migration a clear split is due to occur between the Southern border states plus Germany – who call for relocation of EU asylum seekers – and the Visegrad Group, which resists such calls.
In fact, if one considers the growing threats to the EU foundational values of respect for the rule of law and democracy in a number of Central and Eastern European member states – in particular in Poland, which is currently subject to an Article 7 TEU procedure by the European Commission – it appears that the number of problems on the agenda of the European Council are overwhelming.
In this situation, Ireland faces a significant political challenge. While Brexit remains a key national concern in this member state, it is clear that the attention for it is decreasing elsewhere in Europe due to the multitude of regionally-differentiated crises that the EU is experiencing. Since successfully managing the withdrawal of the UK from the EU – and specifically resolving the problem of how to avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland – is a national priority for Ireland, it is important that the Irish Government continues to invest in maintaining awareness among its EU partners on the unique challenges that the country faces as a result of Brexit.
As the June 2018 European Council is about to start the good news for the Irish Government is that so far the EU has been fully united in supporting the Irish concerns in the negotiations with the UK, and the Commission is steadily negotiating to solve the Northern Ireland issue, on the understanding that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The bad news, however, is that the attention of the EU is increasingly moving away from Brexit, as continental member states struggle with a host of other problems. Ireland must therefore now deploy its soft diplomacy to make sure neglect doesn’t transform into isolation.
Federico Fabbrini is Full Professor of European law at the School of Law & Government of DCU and the Principal of the Brexit Institute. He holds a PhD in Law from the European University Institute and previously had academic positions in the Netherlands and Denmark. He recently wrote an In-Depth Analysis, requested by the AFCO Committee of the European Parliament, on The Institutional Consequences of a ‘Hard Brexit’.