Leaders of European Union member states gather in Slovakia on Friday for their first summit since Britain's decision to leave the European Union in June.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny will join his EU counterparts – minus British prime minister Theresa May – for a one-day summit called to open discussions about the way forward for the EU following the unprecedented decision by a country to withdraw from the bloc.
While Brussels officials have played down expectations about specific outcomes – technically the gathering is an informal meeting rather than a full summit – the meeting will provide strong signals of the future direction of the EU.
In a lengthy letter to EU leaders this week, European Council president Donald Tusk called for candour and realism from EU leaders in the wake of the British vote, arguing that an "honest assessment of the current situation" would provide the "best possible basis for building our future together".
He warned it would be “a fatal error to assume that the negative result in the UK referendum represents a specifically British issue”. Rather, the EU needed to rebuild the trust of its citizens, he said.
Among the key focuses of the meeting will be a discussion on deepening European defence and security. Mr Tusk said the migration crisis and the lack of a uniform European strategy to deal with it had “weakened citizens’ trust in their governments, the institutions and in the wider establishment”.
In a signal that the EU is prepared to take a tougher approach at its borders, Mr Tusk said Bratislava would have to be a turning point in terms of protecting the union's external borders. "We must demonstrate to our citizens that we are willing and able to protect them from a repeat of the chaos of 2015." Deploying extra guards to Bulgaria's border with Turkey is among the specific measures that will be discussed.
Mr Kenny’s priority at the summit will be to keep the focus on trade and employment issues, according to Government sources.
The Irish side is anxious the understandable preoccupations of some of the eastern member states with migration and security issues do not prompt an inward-looking agenda that could become protectionist.
“We would be keen that we don’t downplay the economy, trade, competitiveness and employment agenda. This has always been an important part of the EU agenda and we don’t think it’s appropriate to suggest that is a lower order concern than it has been due to other problems,” a source said.
Although it is not formally on Friday's agenda, Brexit is the overriding preoccupation of the Irish Government and it will remain so in the years ahead.
The Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan have engaged in a diplomatic offensive to ensure that all of the other member states, but particularly the major powers, understand this country's particular problems so that they are reflected in the EU negotiating position.
There has been a restructuring of the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs, with most of the EU division moving back to Iveagh House following its move to Government Buildings in 2011 when Eamon Gilmore was tánaiste.
John Callinan, the newly appointed second secretary in the Department of the Taoiseach, will head up a new operation which will bring EU, international affairs, British and Northern Ireland issues into one division in the Taoiseach's Department.
Day-to-day diplomacy on the Brexit issue and the assessment of the views of other member states will be handled by the expanded EU division in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
At a political level, a new cabinet committee on Brexit was established last week, apart from the existing cabinet committee on EU affairs, and has already had its first meeting.
As well as the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs the committee includes the Ministers for Finance, Public Expenditure, Agriculture, Energy and Transport as well as Minister of State for European Affairs Dara Murphy. Other Ministers will be included as specific issues arise.
The Government source said a lot of contingency planning had taken place in the run up to the UK referendum but now that the decision to leave had been made, the response had been ratcheted up.
“We have established a massive across the system examination, sector by sector, Government Department by Department, agency by agency to identify the key issues. We will have to calibrate a response to cater for a range of very different scenarios from a very soft Brexit all the way to a hard Brexit and everything in between.”
Speaking after a meeting in Paris on Thursday, France's president Francois Hollande and Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel backed the call for further EU defence co-operation.
“The first priority is security ... our border security, our security against external threats,” Mr Hollande told reporters after the meeting.
While both countries have prepared joint proposals on security, Ms Merkel said she wanted the support of all member states. “We want to work inclusively so all of the 27 [remaining] member states should of course have the opportunity to take part and to decide on things together.”
Mr Tusk will chair today’s meeting amid simmering tensions between east European countries and western member states over the EU’s migration policy.
Earlier this week, Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn said EU countries such as Hungary which build fences to keep out refugees, should be ejected from Europe. His comments, in an interview with German newspaper Die Welt on Tuesday, sparked a furious reaction from Hungary.
Mr Tusk has visited Warsaw and Budapest in recent days in an effort to build consensus ahead of the Bratislava meeting.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, whose relocation proposal for refugees sparked huge opposition from east European member states, appeared to strike a conciliatory note in his "state of the union" speech in Strasbourg on Wednesday, suggesting that solidarity on the refugee crisis must "come fromt the heart" and could not be forced.
Also on the agenda in Bratislava will be discussion on increasing investment in Europe, and a discussion on the effects of globalisation on European citizens. While Mr Tusk said last week that he does not expect taxation to be on the agenda of the summit, EU leaders could raise the recent European Commission Apple judgment on the sidelines with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
While the summit was convened in the wake of the British referendum on June 23rd, there is expected to be little discussion of Brexit, with the EU insisting that no negotiations will commence until article 50 – the mechanism triggering formal exit negotiations – is invoked.