Brexit Institute News

Opening event – Which Brexit after the UK elections?

by Sose Mayilyan and Annelieke Mooij, PhD Students (DCU) 

The DCU Brexit Institute celebrated its official opening on September 14.  The Inaugural Event of the new DCU Brexit Institute, the first of its kind in Europe, addressed the question, “Which Brexit after the UK elections?”

Three eminent guests delivered Keynote Speeches: Helen McEntee TD, Minister for European Affairs of Ireland; Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, member of the UK House of Lords, and of its EU Committee; and George Katrougalos, Alternate Minister for Foreign Affairs of Greece.

Two panels offered opportunities for in-depth discussions between policy makers and academics. The first panel brought together EU and national policy-makers and experts to discuss Brexit and the negotiations regarding the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, as well as the impact of the UK elections on the process. The second panel composed of academics who addressed the future prospects for Europe in connection with Brexit and the UK Parliamentary elections.

Panel 1: Negotiating Brexit: The Withdrawal Process

The panel was chaired by Judy Dempsey, who is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, author of the book The Merkel Phenomenon and chief editor of the Strategic Europe blog.

The first member of the panel to speak was Ms. Kristien Michoel, a senior legal advisor at the Council of the European Union (speaking here in a personal capacity). She discussed the legal complexities of the Brexit process, emphasizing the need to respect the legal autonomy of the European Union legal order in compliance with EU primary and secondary law. The withdrawal of the United Kingdom means that “simple” treaty changes must be made, such as for instance the removal of the United Kingdom from the list of countries in Article 52 TEU, to which the European Treaties apply. The Brexit deal that is currently negotiated is however secondary EU law and can therefore not alter EU primary law. This means that any treaty changes must adhere to the ordinary revision procedure (Article 48 TEU), thereby opening up the opportunity to revise the entire treaty and structure of the European Union. Brexit therefore brings the possibility to restructure and drastically improve the legitimacy and effectiveness of the EU. It however carries the threat of lengthy negotiations and the lack of agreement amongst the Member States.

The next speaker was Thomas Beukers, a senior legal advisor at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He began by noting that Brexit entails both a facing out and facing in. Facing outwards the focus is on an orderly withdrawal. The focus inwards needs to be towards building a bridge. In order to build this bridge, it is important for the EU and the UK to know where to go to. While relatively optimistic, Mr. Beukers cautioned that there should be no cherry picking of principles and that while Brexit should be orderly, it should also adhere to international and EU law.  It was noted that there are important differences between the processes laid out in Article 49 (accession to the EU) and Article 50 (withdrawal from the EU). Regarding whether the two year period is too short to negotiate a complex Brexit deal, Mr. Beukers commented that it matters more that the time is well spent.

The third speaker and panelist was Mr. Rory Montgomery of the Irish  Department of Foreign Affairs, with  particular responsibility for Brexit negotiations. In addition to the other speakers Mr. Montgomery also spoke about the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU. He however emphasized finding the common interests between the parties and finding a balance. In the end despite the legal separation, the UK will not move geographically and trade will still occur between the EU and the UK. He however cautioned the EU that whatever other issues may arise, Brexit should not be allowed to be moved down or off the agenda. For the foreseeable future it will be an important item.

Finally,  Ms. Ana Gouveia from the Portuguese Ministry of Finance struck a more optimistic note.. While none can deny that, as President Juncker phrased it in his State of the Union address, Brexit will be “a very sad and tragic moment”,  it has also sparked a positive feeling about the EU in the other 27 member states. There is currently more support for the EU than before and populism has not translated into election results. Despite the many positive attitudes towards the EU, not many people support its current direction. It is in her opinion necessary to tackle issue of information. The more people know about the Union the more they support it, however 6 out of 10 people do not trust the media. Hence the question of how to communicate with the general population rises.

Panel 2: Rethinking Brexit: The Future of Europe

In the second panel, chaired by Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, Foreign Affairs Correspondent for The Irish Times, the leading academics of the field focused on discussing the future prospects for Europe in connection with Brexit and the UK Parliamentary elections.

The panel discussion was opened by Emily Jones, Professor of Government at the University of Oxford, who studies the government practices in negotiations in which small developing countries participate.She talked about the lack of clarity and the absence of consensus in the Brexit process, including the negotiations and the point of view of the UK Government. She noted that currently there is no single vision in the UK as to what the Government is aiming for in the UK-EU “divorce” negotiations. Moreover, no single vision is now present in either of the leading parties in the UK. Despite the divide between the supporters of hard and soft Brexit, Members of the Parliament still often continue to pursue a hard stance on the UK-EU negotiations.Yet supporters of a hard Brexit do not constitute a majority, and so Prime Minister Theresa May also  has to rely on pro-European forces within the British Parliament.Prof. Jones speculated that the British side for the negotiations is heading for a status quo transition which would entail, inter alia, the postponing of different trade deals before the conclusion of a final agreement on other relevant issues. Besides, the Professor noted that the negotiations would be more productive and structured when the UK Government increases its legitimacy and defines its goals for the negotiations more clearly.

The panel discussion was continued by Iain Begg, Professor of Political Economy at the London School of Economics, whose research focuses on the political economy of European integration and  on EU economic governance. Prof. Begg asked who, in fact, “needs the UK”? He pointed out the degrees of exports of different EU Member States, demonstrating that Ireland and Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) are the EU Member States which export the most to the UK, whereas Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia and some others export far less. Meanwhile, the UK, in its turn, exports mostly to Germany and France, with Ireland and the Benelux countries further down the list. He also noted that currently the UK is the lowest growing economy of G7 countries, is dealing with conflicting labour markets where there is a low unemployment and decline in real wages at the same time, and is fiscally vulnerable. Prof. Begg also discussed the challenges of the divorce process initiated by Article 50 TEU, the negotiation of a new EU-UK deal in all its complexity and the subsequent impact on  the domestic policy of the United Kingdom after the withdrawal.He also  noted that the current situation demonstrates the  urgent need to redefine European integration.

The discussion was continued by Federico Fabbrini, Full Professor of European law at the School of Law & Government of DCU who is also the Principal of the Brexit Institute and the editor of the forthcoming book The Law & Politics of Brexit. Prof. Fabbrini talked about how the withdrawal of the UK from the EU is going to affect the remaining Member States. He firstly pointed out that the tensions arising from the disintegration in the EU have, in fact, resulted in a further unity among the remaining Member States, which was proven in Bratislava and Rome by the reaffirmation and restatement of the States to take EU integration further after the UK referendum., However, at the same time one of the consequences of Brexit is disunity among the remaining Member States. Prof. Fabbrini noted that this was caused also by the Eurozone crisis, where a large division between creditor countries and debtor countries exists, by the migration crisis with the division between Eastern and Western Member States, as well as Visegrad countries and by the “rule of law crisis” where in some countries universities have been closed down and decisions challenging the independence of the judiciary have been taken. Considering the future of Europe  he pointed out the possibilities of multi-speed integration and of a political Union with Common Market.

A discussion on the UK policy in connection with Brexit followed. In particular, the audience was interested in finding out whether there is currently space enough to change the policy the United Kingdom is currently exercising, which was discussed and contemplated upon by the speakers of the panel and the audience.