Suzanne Lynch: No sign of any grand plan for post-Brexit Europe

Officials admit there is unlikely to be much progress before next year’s German and French elections

French president Francois Hollande welcomes German chancellor Angela Merkel for a working meeting at the Elyseé Palace in Paris a day ahead of a EU summit in Bratislava. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

French president Francois Hollande welcomes German chancellor Angela Merkel for a working meeting at the Elyseé Palace in Paris a day ahead of a EU summit in Bratislava. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

 

EU leaders gather in Bratislava today for a key EU meeting that will consider the next steps forward for the EU post-Brexit.

In a sign of the new reality, leaders will meet as 27, rather than 28, despite Britain remaining a full member until it leaves the bloc.

With European Council president Donald Tusk taking a tough line with Britain, insisting that negotiations will not start until article 50 is invoked, the focus today will be on fostering unity between the remaining members. Europe, it seems, is already moving on.

But anyone searching for indications of a grand plan for the EU’s future direction will be disappointed.

There will be no great leaps forward for the EU at today’s meeting. Talk of treaty change or major EU institutional reform will be for another day.

Privately, officials admit that there is unlikely to be much progress before next year’s German and French elections. Even in Berlin there is an awareness that now is not the time for grand visions for European integration.

The call from German minister for finance Wolfgang Schauble for “better Europe, not more Europe” could well be the mantra of this latest summit.

It is within this context that Tusk wrote to leaders this week outlining his vision for today’s meeting. It would be a “fatal error to assume that the negative result in the UK referendum represents a specifically British issue”, he warned. Instead, the British vote was a “desperate attempt to answer the questions that millions of Europeans ask themselves daily”.

For Tusk these questions primarily concern security. His view is bolstered by recent data from Eurobarometer which shows that the refugee crisis and recent terrorist events have pushed security and defence to the top of citizens’ concerns.

Relevant

Tusk believes that showing that Europe can respond decisively to these concerns is essential if the EU is to remain relevant to its citizens and halt the continuing continent-wide drift towards Eurosceptic parties.

Where does Ireland fit into this emerging debate about the future of the EU?

These are troubling times for Ireland’s relationship with Europe. The European Commission’s ruling that Ireland gave billions of euro in state aid to Apple has brought Ireland’s loyalty to the European project into question.

Promises specifically made in Ireland’s protocol to the Lisbon Treaty that “nothing in the treaty makes any change . . . to the extent or operation of the competence of the European Union in relation to taxation” now appear hollow.

The European Commission’s competition arm may well be in its legal rights to investigate state aid given in the form of taxation, but the consequences, unintended or otherwise, is to pressurise states to change the way they organise their tax regimes.

The EU’s move to further defence and security co-operation is also uncomfortable for Ireland. Britain’s imminent exit removes one of the biggest obstacles to further EU defence integration given Britain’s historic opposition to enhancing the EU’s defence powers. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said last week that a “window of opportunity” had now opened for the first time since 1954 to give new life to a European defence policy, with Berlin and Paris also backing the move.

Neutrality

While Irish officials have confirmed that Ireland’s neutrality and opt-out from EU defence policy is preserved through a protocol to the Lisbon Treaty, the fact that the EU has hit on defence and security as the next focus for the Union post-Brexit is unsettling for Ireland. As a non-Schengen country with opt-outs from many EU justice laws, Ireland is less preoccupied than other countries by the refugee crisis and security.

While Ireland will welcome the reference in Tusk’s letter to Europe’s status as a trade and economic power, there are signs that Europe may be beginning to look inwards. The EU-US trade deal is running into difficulty amid opposition from France and Germany.

Similarly, the EU’s regulatory clampdown on US tech multinationals is likely to continue, not only in terms of tax ruling, but also in the digital space.

As the dust settles on the British referendum, it may be worth taking a longer-term view. Preparing for the new reality will be a challenge for successive Irish governments in the decades to come.

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