Brussels has lost interest in Britain as EU turns to the east

Brussels diary: Taoiseach almost as excited as Ukrainians by decision to grant candidate status

The security was as tight as it always is, the police as ubiquitous and as polite, the traffic as chock-a-block. With streets closed off around the cluster of glass and concrete palaces that house the EU institutions, the hundreds of Ukrainians carrying national flags and banners were told by the gendarmes that they had to go round the long way.

They didn’t seem to mind. It was more important that they were on a short cut to being accepted by the European Union.

They gathered to protest against the Russian invasion of their country, to remind EU leaders that they desperately need more help but also to celebrate the fact the Ukraine was on the brink of being accepted as an EU candidate country: the road to security and prosperity, away from the baleful influence of Moscow’s gravity and towards a democratic, European, western, liberal future, lies ahead. They hope.

There was joy unbridled amongst the Ukrainians when the step was formally confirmed. But words of caution too from countries who have been waiting endlessly for membership. Thursday’s meeting doubled as a summit with the countries of the western Balkans, where impatience is growing.

Edi Rama, prime minister of Albania, complained: “North Macedonia is a candidate since 17 years if I have not lost count. Albania since eight. So, welcome to Ukraine. It’s good to give candidate status but I hope the Ukrainian people will not make many illusions about it,” he said.

The EU couldn’t turn Ukraine down, but among the more established – i.e. western – countries, there is quiet unease about another wave of admissions to the club. It is not just that Hungary has turned into the bloc’s problem child (and there are difficulties over democratic norms in Poland too) it is that the centre of gravity of the EU has moved eastwards. That process seems set to continue.

Such doubts are not harboured in the breast of the Taoiseach. Micheál Martin was almost as excited about the Ukrainian candidacy as the Ukrainians were, and it’s true that he has been an early and vocal advocate for the country – so much so that president Volodymyr Zelenskiy name-checked him in his nightly address on Wednesday, and specifically thanked Ireland in his video address to EU leaders on Thursday night: a “historic coming together of our nations”, no less.

“We in Ireland know what being a member of the EU means,” Micheál told reporters after he sashayed down the red carpet on Thursday. “It’s the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining the EU, probably the single most transformative event in modern Irish history . . . I can’t comprehend how we could ever refuse membership.”

For company on Friday, the Taoiseach had Paschal Donohoe, over wearing his president of the Eurogroup hat. The Minister for Finance was giving the old “Hello Everybody!” on Friday morning in advance of an economic briefing that quickly turned scary – the leaders worry that the cost-of-living crisis is going to get worse before its gets better. They fear rising prices in the autumn and winter will put them under enormous political pressure in their home countries; they’re right.

The sudden collapse of the Bulgarian government this week serves as a reminder to them that for all the power and influence they wield together when they sit together, for all the motorcades clearing a way through traffic from their private planes to the citadels of Brussels’ EU quarter, their existence is a precarious one. They might last until the next election; but then, who knows? They are men and women in a constant hurry.

They met on the sixth anniversary of the Brexit referendum, the cataclysm which many feared would herald the beginning of the end of the EU, but instead brought it closer together. It also brought Ireland closer to Brussels. When asked to choose between the EU and the UK, Ireland unambiguously chose a “a European future”, as taoisigh tend to say when they’re over here.

It is the UK, rather, for whom Brexit is turning into a disaster. Studies which attribute the UK’s economic atrophy to Brexit are beginning to pile up, and even Brexiteers wonder aloud if a closer trade relationship with Brussels isn’t advisable. This week British think tank the Resolution Foundation found that the long-term impact of Brexit will be to “to reduce household incomes as a result of a weaker pound, and lower investment and trade”.

As EU leaders met, the Conservative Party – transforming itself via Brexit’s demons into an English nationalist party – was being walloped in two byelections. But the results hardly raised a ripple here. Nobody in Brussels cares anymore.

They don’t even care that much about the Northern Ireland protocol – it garnered nary a mention over the two days. Sure, the EU will wearily uphold its laws and agreements, even if this means conflict with an inconsistent and unconstant London. They will declare and demonstrate “solidarity” (favourite EU word) with Ireland. But they’re just not interested in what the British do anymore.

“Let the UK do what the UK will do,” is the general attitude. The days of Brexit dominating EU summits are gone, and they’re not coming back. Nobody (except, admittedly, some Irish journalists) misses them that much.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times