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Author: Tony Brown

In the final entry in the IIEA’s February 2018 Brexit Status Report series, IIEA Senior Fellow Tony Brown notes that while Brexit is of critical importance to Ireland, the wider debate over the future of Europe is beginning to take precedence.


“As an issue, the Future of Europe is at least as important for Ireland as Brexit is, because we are staying in the EU, and we want to make sure that it continues to work for our citizens”  – An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Dáil Éireann, 24 October 2017.


Brexit: “And Meanwhile…..”

While the implications of Brexit for Ireland – in respect of relations on the island and with the United Kingdom and of this country’s place in the European Union – are of critical importance it is equally important to recognise the realities of the wider context.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in launching the Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe, argued that Ireland must be actively engaged in shaping and influencing the debate about the future of Europe, and that it cannot face modern global challenges alone: “It is a conversation that we would be having even if there was no Brexit and it is one that is at least as important […] many of the policy challenges we face are increasingly global. They cannot be met by nation states acting alone.”

Two eminent European economists have painted a picture of Brexit as a peripheral issue for many EU leaders. Guntram Wolff, Director of the Bruegel think tank, writes that Brexit is little more than a “third-level issue” for the rest of Europe, arguing the EU leaders “simply haven’t got the time right now, they have bigger fish to fry.”  Meanwhile, Daniel Gros, Director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, says that “outside of the Brussels bubble, people in Europe don’t care about Brexit.”


Commission White Paper 2017

This shift in focus has been reflected at EU level for some time. In March 2017, marking the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the European Commission published its White Paper on the Future of Europe, launching “a process in which Europe determines its own path” and mapping out the challenges and opportunities ahead of the EU as it decides the direction of travel in the years ahead. Calling for unity among the Member States, the White Paper notes that “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.”

The White Paper has been complemented by a notable series of Reflection Papers dealing with five themes, offering a range of ideas, options and scenarios for Europe in 2025, and inviting political and public debate on them: The Social Dimension of Europe; Harnessing Globalisation; The Future of European Defence; The Deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union; and The Future of EU Finances.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union Address to the European Parliament, on 13 September 2017, set out details of the Commission Work Programme covering ten detailed policy proposals in areas including: Jobs, Growth and Investment; Digital Single Market; Energy Union; Climate Change policy; deeper and fairer Economic and Monetary Union; a Trade Policy to harness globalisation; and a new policy on Migration.


The EU Agenda

At the October 2017 European Council meeting, meanwhile, President Donald Tusk presented the Leaders’ Agenda, an overview of the main issues he intends to put on the agenda between now and June 2019.  The Agenda includes provision for discussion of: Social Europe; Defence; EMU and Banking Union; Institutional Issues; the EU Budget; Single Market Strategies, Trade, Climate and Energy and Digital Europe; Western Balkans and Migration; Internal Security.

This overview reflects the emergence of a number of common themes including recognition of major challenges -such as climate change, energy and migration – Eurozone reform and, above all, the urgent necessity of engagement between the EU political system and citizens.  The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, told a Fine Gael seminar that, in the 2017 Rome Declaration, EU leaders identified a number of key aims and that this was part of a process of the EU directly responding to the needs of its citizens: “One thing which is certain is that it is vital that the EU addresses the concerns of its citizens, and in this context, discussions on the future direction of our Union must be informed by public engagement in all EU Member States […] supporting and fostering robust engagement on these issues including with key civil society organisations and with the broader public.”

In all of these developments, the question arises of the overall direction of the evolving debate on Europe’s future. Proposals for, or suggestions of, more EU integration provoke strong reactions and exchanges on ‘federalism’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘two-speed Europe’, an ‘EU army’ and more. The debate on closer integration is complicated by the evident reality that disputes on policy issues exist not just between national governments but within national societies where populist movements oppose more integration. And, some proposed reforms would require changes to the EU treaties which would have little prospect of public support.


France and Germany

The renewed focus on European integration has also been reflected in France and Germany.

In his address at the Sorbonne in September 2017, President Emmanuel Macron shared his vision of a Europe of shared history, identity and security, which must be leveraged to face the challenges of the modern world: “Europe alone can give us a capacity in the face of major contemporary challenges […] all the challenges that lie ahead – from global warming, digital transition, migration, terrorism – all these are global challenges in which a nation that shrinks itself can only do so little.”  He set out ‘six keys to European sovereignty’: Security; the Migration Challenge; Africa and the Mediterranean; Sustainable Development; Innovation and Regulation adapted to the Digital World; Europe as an Economic and Monetary Power.

He went on to argue that a stronger foundation for the European Union would inevitably allow for greater forms of differentiation: “Europe is already moving at several speeds, so we should not be afraid to say so and want it! No, let’s embrace the differentiations, the vanguard, the heart of Europe. No State must be excluded from the process, but no country must be able to block those wanting to make faster progress or forge further ahead.”

Meanwhile, in Germany, which spent several months in political deadlock following the September 2017 Federal elections, Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) party has agreed to coalition talks with Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

The blueprint for a new German coalition agreed by Chancellor Merkel’s CDU and Martin Schulz’ SPD included important initiatives for Europe, including: strengthening the euro area and developing the European Stability Mechanism into a European monetary fund, as part of the EU budget. The Financial Times commentator, Wolfgang Munchau, concluded that “perhaps the most remarkable part about Friday’s document is that it signals a shift from Mrs Merkel’s non-committal managerial style to a more agenda-driven politics. We are approaching a new era.” The significance of the outcome of the German government negotiation for the future of the crucial leadership role of France and Germany in the evolving European Union has been widely signalled.


Addressing the Populist Challenge

Amid the EU’s ongoing efforts to map out its future, however, populist movements continue to pose questions for the future of European integration.

The Observer on 22 October 2017, commenting on the crisis in Catalonia, argued that the problems had been fuelled by the perceived failures of national political leadership: “This rejection of politics as usual, and the consequent fragmentation of the body politic, finds powerful echoes across Europe. Everywhere, or so it seems, newly minted or reviving political forces, sometimes benign, more frequently not, are attempting to fill the vacuum.”

Meanwhile, right wing leaders in Poland and Hungary continue to be at odds with Brussels over basic principles of law and civic rights. “It would be easy, but facile”, argues the Observer, “to dismiss these phenomena as little local difficulties without bearing on the bigger picture. Recent votes in France, Germany and Britain show, the crisis of legitimacy and identity extends deep into the heartlands of Europe’s big powers.”

The legitimacy of European institutions and the European project in general is widely seen to depend on their capacity to deliver. The Greek academic, Loukas Tsoukalis, has said that, unlike nation states, Europe has very few shared myths and symbols and little common identity from which to draw. This leads inevitably to a fragility at the heart of the European project – one which can, and has, become more evident in times of crisis.


Ireland in an EU of 27: Building Alliances

For Ireland, at least, key to its ability to thrive in this fragile and changing Europe will be its ability to form alliances with like-minded states on key policy issues.

Following the frustrating loss to Paris in the competition to host the European Banking Authority, after edging ahead of Frankfurt into a final of drawing lots, Cliff Taylor of the Irish Times wrote of the of the complexity, and necessity, of alliance-building for Ireland in a post-Brexit European Union of 27 states: “Until now, Ireland could generally count on UK support. Without the UK we will have to seek new allies in future, with the Government already targeting the Nordic and Baltic states. We need friends in Europe – and Brexit is only the start of it.”

Significantly, prior to the October 2017 European Council meeting, the Taoiseach participated in a meeting of the Nordic-Baltic Group, including Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden.  Afterwards, the Taoiseach commented that: “Ireland is not part of a formal group in the EU, but as a small northern European nation and a trading country with an open economy, we have similar positions to the Baltic, Nordic and Dutch Governments, particularly on economic issues.”

In the debates following the interventions of Presidents Juncker and Macron, Paul Gillespie has argued in the Irish Times, that “Ireland is closer to German than French positions in this debate.” As such, he argues that it needs to explore common interests in a post-Brexit EU, likely with smaller northern states like the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Finland who “value similar liberal and open approaches to trade and free movement.”

With the UK’s withdrawal rapidly approaching, Mr Gillespie’s concluding point that Ireland “needs to up its game and ambition” in this emerging debate is a salient one.