What should the EU do after Brexit, and what should Ireland’s policy be?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk (R) and Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar during a press statement after a meeting on Brexit in Brussels, Belgium, 06 February 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The terms of Brexit are vital for Ireland. But so also is how Ireland locates itself in the EU after Brexit, writes John Bruton.

John Bruton is a former Irish prime minister.

President Macron has written to the Taoiseach setting out his post-Brexit agenda. The Finnish government has just published a 125-page report on the implications for Finland and the EU of the changing global order. Ireland should do the same.

Brexit could change Ireland’s geostrategic position.

Security

If the US guarantee of Europe’s security through NATO were to be diminished, and/or if the UK were to become estranged from its continental European allies, Ireland would be in the geostrategic frontline.

The UK/European/US security alliance has provided security for Ireland since 1945, at modest cost.

It will be in Ireland’s interests that this security alliance survive Brexit. A clash on security policy between the UK and the continental members of the EU would hit Ireland, particularly its communications, energy and cybersecurity.

Five threats

Stresses in European security will be caused by five global forces. These are:

  • A richer, but older, human race, reluctant to change, and nostalgic for a past that never really existed. The EU and the UK are part of an ageing continent, with a declining population, but close to Africa which is a young and potentially dynamic.
  • The increasing vulnerability of globalisation and the norms that underpin it. The WTO is at risk.
  • Climate change and intensifying competition for scarce material resources, not just energy but water, phosphates and rare earths.
  • Distrust of political leadership, and of experts could lead to a paralysis in necessary decision making in the EU and other multinational institutions.
  • The economic rise of China and India and their associated political ambitions, and declining interest of the US in guaranteeing Europe’s defence.

All these forces will leave Europe, and Ireland, increasingly vulnerable to outside pressures.

Easier to meet them together than separately 

Meeting them will not be the responsibility of the EU alone. Member states themselves have far more spending power than the EU has. They spend 40% of the GDP whereas the EU only spends 1%. Cooperation with the UK, especially after Brexit, will help.

If European countries want to have maximum impact on most of these huge challenges, they will need to act together, and in good time. While the absence of the UK from the EU will be a handicap, fractious and prolonged arguments among EU states themselves could be an even greater one.

Irish policy should be that, by acting within or through the EU, rather than on their own, EU states can do more, at less cost.

But will that approach get the unanimous agreement among all 27 EU members? If not, smaller groups of EU states may decide to go ahead on their own, using Title IV of the Treaty, which allows for this. To the extent that a member state then declines to take part in a Title IV activity, it may find itself in an EU “slow lane”. Ireland should avoid being in any EU slow lane. Brexit has made us geographically peripheral, so we should avoid being politically so too.

Treaty change should not be ruled out

That said, the EU may only act within the limits of the powers given to it in the Treaties. If necessary, pragmatic, case by case, amendments to the EU Treaty, to enhance EU competences, should be made. That would, on balance, be better than an EU of first and second class members.

After Brexit, Ireland must concern itself with the worries of ALL its 27 EU partners, even if these are not of immediate concern to Ireland. The more Ireland does this, the more will those states be willing to support Ireland when Ireland has a problem.

Ireland should be proactive on all the continent’s big problems, and should seek solutions to its own problems within the context of a wider EU interest, rather than just look for exceptions. It should avoid alignment with subgroups of states within the EU, who could be seen as divisive or negative.

Complete the Union

Ireland should be positive in support of Banking Union, Energy Union and the completion of the EU Single Market in services. This will sometimes involve standing up to France and Germany, but it will enlarge opportunities for all.

We will not always get our way, and when trade-offs have to be made, these should be explained fully to the public and the Oireachtas. Ireland should learn from the UK’s mistake on Brexit, of failing to educate its electorate on the compromises it would have to make.

Maintain the Rule of Law

Populism in central Europe must be confronted. Maintaining the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, are vital to the survival of the EU. EU rules are meaningless if they are not enforced by impartial courts.

The EU is the most advanced multinational, democratic, rule-making body in the world. It can be made even more democratic. One way to do this would be through the direct election, by the voters of the EU, of the President of the European Commission. Another is through the Citizen’s panels advocated by President Macron.

The further enlargement of the EU should be supported on a case by case basis. It is important to the consolidation of democracy, in countries like Serbia and North Macedonia. But democratic standards must continue to be insisted upon AFTER a country has joined the EU, as well as when it is applying.

Avoid Protectionism

Ireland is the EU country with proportionately the greatest amount of US investment. If stresses arise between the US and the EU, these will be felt disproportionately in Ireland. Some of President Macron’s ideas could cause difficulty here. Skilful Irish diplomacy and foresight will be required.

As well as the terms of Brexit, these are the issues that must be discussed during the forthcoming European Elections. The EU has strong institutions which have proven their worth. But it is the people who operate the institutions that will make the difference. That is why the choices voters will make in choosing MEPs are so important.

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