And as for now, I feel strong support from all the EU institutions including the European Parliament as well as all the 27 Member States. I know that this is something unique but I am confident that it will not change.
With these words, European Council President, Donald Tusk, welcomed the unity of purpose reflected in the unanimous adoption on 29 April of the European Council (Art.50) Guidelines for the negotiation of UK departure from the European Union.
‘Unity’ has become the dominant theme of the EU discourse following the Brexit referendum in the UK. From Bratislava last September to Rome on 25 March and on to Brussels last Saturday – via the Commission White Paper on the Future of Europe – there has been a determined effort to bring the leaders of the EU 27 together to meet the existential threat to the European project inherent in the first departure of a Member State.
Just weeks after the Brexit vote, the EU leaders, at Bratislava, stated that “although one country has decided to leave, the EU remains indispensable for the rest of us” and agreed that, even where there were divided opinions on specific issues, they were determined to find common solutions with “priority here and now to show unity and ensure political control over developments in order to build our common future.”
On his way to Rome for the 25 March summit commemorating the 1957 signing of the founding treaty, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, had spoken of the EU as “a major achievement of all our peoples” and, while admitting that there are many serious challenges facing the Union today, argued that the EU remains the best chance of confronting all these problems: “We are stronger when we stand together. In my discussions in Rome I will emphasise the need for us to remain united, focus on our core values that remain central to our peace and prosperity, and cooperate in areas where we agree and where Europe can add value.”
The Rome Declaration formally agreed and signed by all 27 leaders in the same room where the Treaty was signed, dealt with this important issue in a key paragraph:
We will make the European Union stronger and more resilient, through even greater
unity and solidarity amongst us and the respect of common rules. Unity is both a
necessity and our free choice. Taken individually, we would be side-lined by global
dynamics. Standing together is our best chance to influence them, and to defend our
common interests and values. We will act together, at different paces and intensity
where necessary, while moving in the same direction, as we have done in the past, in
line with the Treaties and keeping the door open to those who want to join later. Our
Union is undivided and indivisible.
Addressing the summit participants in a particularly powerful speech, President Tusk referred to the predecessors of the leaders of modern Europe who, in 1957, did not discuss multiple speeds or exits in the face of the continent’s tragic history, but instead placed their faith in the unity of Europe:
Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all. Only a united Europe can be a sovereign Europe in relation to the rest of the world. And only a sovereign Europe guarantees independence for its nations, guarantees freedom for its citizens. The unity of Europe is not a bureaucratic model. It is a set of common values and democratic standards.
Today it is not enough to call for unity and to protest against multiple speeds. It is much more important that we all respect our common rules such as human rights and civil liberties, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, checks and balances, and the rule of law. This is the true foundation of our unity. The Union after Rome should be, more than before, a Union of the same principles, a Union of external sovereignty, a Union of political unity.
The theme of unity was echoed again by President Jean-Claude Juncker in his foreword to the European Commission White Paper on the Future of Europe, saying that as Europe decides on its path, “we should remember that Europe has always been at its best when we are united, bold and confident that we can shape our future together. A united Europe at 27 needs to shape its own destiny and carve out a vision for its own future.”
The Guidelines Paper
And so to Brussels on 29 April for the formal adoption of the Brexit negotiating Guidelines, the product of some months of consultation and debate at ministerial and official levels – signed off at a meeting of the General Affairs Council of Europe Ministers on 27 April.
Consideration of the content of the Guidelines paper is for another place but the highlighting of the ‘unity’ themes before and after the Council meeting is significant. Introducing the event to the press corps, Donald Tusk emphasised the desire for a “close and strong future relationship with the UK” and insisted that “we need to remain united as EU27. It is only then that we will be able to conclude the negotiations. Which means that our unity is also in the UK’s interest.”
Not long afterwards he was again addressing the journalists and commentators, beginning “First of all, I want to underline the outstanding unity of all the 27 leaders […] we now have unanimous support from all the 27 Member States and the EU institutions, giving us a strong political mandate for these negotiations.”
He went on to say that there was unity not only on the substance, but also on the method of conducting the Brexit talks, referring in particular to the phased approach, which implies progress must be achieved on citizens’ rights, finances and the border issues in Ireland, prior to discussing the future relationship with the UK.
Unity in Practice
After the summit, Jean-Claude Juncker was quoted as joking that this was “the first and last time” that a European Council decision would be taken so quickly.
It is understood that Donald Tusk invited the Chief EU Negotiator, Michel Barnier, to attend the summit lunch to enable him to hear the priorities and concerns of the leaders and to assess their collective will to deal with the inevitable delays and difficulties in the months of detailed negotiation ahead. The Taoiseach was quoted as admitting that “when negotiations start and when more detailed complex discussions take place, obviously some countries will assign bigger priorities to different issues.”
And, to face up to some concerns that the UK might seek to advance its cause by a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, there is a specific provision in the Guidelines that “there will be no separate negotiations between individual Member States and the United Kingdom on matters pertaining to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union.”
Brexit, and the complex negotiations associated with it, constitute a major challenge to the European Union and, above all, to its unity of purpose and action. Other issues of great importance – migration, climate change, jobs and growth, crude nationalism – are on the Union’s crowded agenda.
The period ahead will see the unity demonstrated in the initial responses to the UK vote of 23 June 2017, and the leadership capacity of the European Union and its Member States put to a test of historic proportions.