It’s often hard to see the wood for the trees when you ponder matters EU. When it comes to the drear topic of Brexit, it’s often impossible. So, the EU’s unity of purpose and solidarity with Ireland is always at risk of being overlooked. For that reason, it is worth stating two things again.
Two and half years on, the EU governments, so regularly at loggerheads on so many issues, remain resolutely united in face of ongoing Brexit crisis. And they’re still standing by Ireland.
It is well worth asking: Why?
The EU leaders’ summit, which concludes this afternoon, is a good illustration of both points. Every other item on the agenda, bar Brexit, is a source of deeply divided opinion – sometimes open conflict.
The big non-Brexit items were the EU seven-year budget plan for 2021-2027; migration policy; reform of the eurozone aimed at avoiding another crash; and ongoing EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict.
It would surprise many to know that the EU 27 view of Brexit is a haven of accord and unity by comparison. In Dublin last week, Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan noted that not a single government minister in all of 27 capitals had broken ranks on Brexit as the dramas built and persisted in London.
At different times there were noises in Brussels that Hungary and Poland, at loggerheads with the EU over democracy and the rule of law, might offer support to the UK’s Brexit efforts. It never happened.
In the immediate wake of the Brexit result in June 2016, there were fears of copycat movements elsewhere. But overall election results in 2017 showed a rallying to the EU.
In fact, Brexit had the opposite effect. The remaining 27 EU states want to stay and disagree with each other profoundly inside the grouping.
The solidarity with Ireland is also remarkable. For a start, it is based on a simple overlap between Ireland’s interests and those of the larger EU. The Brussels administration, and the other EU governments, want to defend the border-free single market and the customs union.
But that coincidence of interests will only take us so far. The reality is that when the UK announced it was also quitting the single market and customs union, it increased the risk of a hard Border in Ireland close to inevitability.
Then enter the EU’s own heavy investment in the Northern Ireland peace process since the first IRA ceasefire in 1994. The backstop, first agreed 12 months ago, recognised the need to protect the North as a special case.
So far, despite all the political convulsions in Britain, the EU has stood firm.
It has not chosen the interests of a large member state minded to leave over one of many small states which wants to stay. It has so far – and let’s recall this is not over – played well for Ireland.
Let’s not get too misty-eyed here. The EU remains about process and we must make these processes work for us.
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