‘Brexiteers are hooked on brinkmanship – and have been since the beginning’

Commissioner Phil Hogan says EU summit will show 27 member states never more united

Flags of EU members in the atrium of the European Council ahead of a two-day EU leaders’ summit in Brussels. Photograph: François Lenoir/Reuters

Flags of EU members in the atrium of the European Council ahead of a two-day EU leaders’ summit in Brussels. Photograph: François Lenoir/Reuters

 

There will be two key, overarching messages out of the two-day EU summit that begins on Thursday in Brussels: there is life beyond Brexit, and the 27 remaining member states have never been more united.

Irish commissioner Phil Hogan emphasised the point on Tuesday: “The EU negotiators reflect the views of not just the European Commission – but very much the views of the EU member states, the views of elected governments, and the views of members of the European Parliament.”

Speaking at the launch in Brussels of RTÉ Europe editor Tony Connelly’s new book, Brexit & Ireland: the Dangers, the Opportunities and the Inside Story of the Irish Response, he warned that “What becomes more obvious day-by-day is that the Brexiteers are hooked on brinkmanship – and have been since the beginning. Unfortunately, their only approach is the tough-guy approach.  

“No matter what Brussels says or does, no matter what business in the EU says or does, no matter how many companies announce plans to move workers from the UK to new EU headquarters, the hardliners cannot get out of their head the idea that if they bully their way towards the wire, the ‘Union’s nerve will crack’.

“They cannot get it into their head that this is not how the European Union works.”

That “unity” is the leitmotif of European Council president Donald Tusk’s seize-the-moment “leaders’ agenda”, which points the way forward for EU reform over the next few years.  

There will be a discussion of Brexit on Friday morning, pointedly after the leaders discuss Tusk’s document, and the 27 will endorse the approach of chief negotiator Michel Barnier, confirming his assessment that there has yet not been sufficient progress on the three priority “divorce” issues to move to the next phase of discussions with the UK. 

And, determined to show that it is not Brussels that is dragging its heels in the talks, the leaders will give Barnier a mandate for internal discussions to prepare new negotiating guidelines for the next stage of talks, whenever they are launched, probably December.

The summit “conclusions” have already been endorsed unanimously and, although British prime minister Theresa May will address fellow leaders this evening over dinner, she is not expected to spring any new concessions – “there will be no coup de théâtre”, was how one diplomat put it.

Three key areas

The Thursday discussion will focus on three areas: the migration crisis, particularly the need to increase funding to African countries to help stem the flood of refugees; the digital agenda, including taxation; and co-operation on security and defence.

Ireland will make common cause on digital taxation with a number of member states who want to link EU taxation of digital companies to moves by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development expected next spring. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will argue against French and commission calls for specific EU measures, making the case that taxing the giant digital companies is something that can be done only on a global basis. Some 12 states are expected to back him.

The leaders will endorse foreign ministers’ opposition to US president Donald Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear agreement and their ramping-up again of sanctions against North Korea.

In his letter to leaders, Tusk urges them to build on the unity achieved in the past year and argues that they can bring the union forward only if they, as the leaders at the European Council, ensure they are the ones running the ship and that their decisions are actually implemented.

A new approach to decision-making in the union, and who makes the decisions, he seems to be saying, is as necessary as an ambitious programme of reform.

That may require, he says, more regular leaders’ meetings and a more political approach at those meetings  – “ensuring real progress, will require that you are ready to overcome deadlocks in the Council of Ministers”.

“With this in mind I will propose a number of debates to cut the Gordian knot on the most sensitive issues such as migration or EMU reform.”