B-Day in Brussels

By Noelle O Connell, Executive Director, European Movement Ireland

“So, here it is, six pages: the notification from Prime Minister Theresa May, triggering Article 50 and formally starting the negotiations of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.”

These were the words spoken by Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, confirming that the ‘Dear Donald,’ letter had finally arrived and the UK had triggered Article 50 last Wednesday (About which EM Ireland has produced a handy explainer on all things Article 50).  If the 23rd of June 2016, was the political equivalent of an earthquake, the UK’s vote to leave sending shockwaves around Europe, then 9 months on, 29 March 2017 felt like a significant, but long expected aftershock.

Reacting to that letter, President Tusk continued that there was no reason “to pretend that this is a happy day, neither in Brussels, nor in London. After all, most Europeans, including almost half the British voters wish that we would stay together, not drift apart.”

I was in Brussels that day and it’s fair to say that while there was sadness in the air among the lunchtime hustle and bustle, the overriding mood was one of resolve and pragmatism.  Officials from all of the EU institutions were realistic on the challenging work that has to be done, a sense that the process has started proper. Relief even, as I said on my RTE Drivetime discussion with Professor John O’Brennan, that the shadowboxing has ended.  On what was a slightly surreal and sombre day, it felt strange to see the odd champagne glass being raised and party being had by those who had campaigned for Brexit.

There was a reminder too in walking around the Commission and Parliament buildings, that as much as Brexit may have dominated Irish concerns recently, it is not the only story in town.  Work in many departments of the EU institutions went on as normal with important proposals being put together on upcoming European migration and energy packages.  This reality is something  which we in Ireland will have to be mindful of as it will form the backdrop against which negotiations will take place.  We need to also bear in mind that Brexit is not the only priority for many of the other EU Member states as our EM International poll outlines.

Nevertheless, Brexit, and Irish concerns relating to it, did of course form a major part of what was a ver prodcutive EM Ireland’s visit to Brussels. Nora Trench Bowles, EM Ireland Policy and Advocacy Manager and  Niamh Connolly, EM Ireland Public Affairs and Communications Manager and myself had a number of meetings with the Commission, the European Parliament, European Council, the Ombudsman and other institutions. This was in addition to very productive engagements with Noel Clehane our Brussels branch Chairman, and the EMI Brussels branch committee.

These various meetings gave us the opportunity to communicate the mood here in Ireland and the unique issues Brexit creates for the island of Ireland, while at the same time enhancing our understanding of the state of play in the upcoming negotiations.

There was certainly a feeling from our institutional meetings that Ireland’s unique circumstances were understood and recognised.  It was pleasing then, to see this reflected in both the circulation of the European Council’s draft guidelines and the European Parliament’s resolutions for the upcoming negotiations.

Words from the EU institutions leading up to the invoking of Article 50 had been positive.  European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker has previously said that “We don’t want hard borders between Northern Ireland and Ireland”, as well as adding that “the Good Friday Agreement is like a poem, it speaks for itself”.

The on the ground engagement in Brussels and across the different EU capitals by politicians, ministers and civil servants was commented on by all those that we met.  This type of outreach and engagement is a crucial aspect of what is going to be a long and tricky road ahead. Indeed, it is no small achievement of those pressing the case to reduce Ireland’s significant exposure that it has been prioritised in the official responses of the EU institutions to the triggering of Article 50.

The European Parliament’s adopted resolution urged negotiators to “ensure continuity and stability of the Northern Ireland peace process, and avoid the reestablishment of a hard border” while, the European Council’s draft guidelines stated:

“In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order.  In this context, the Union should also recognise existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland which are compatible with EU law.”

In the words of the European Parliament’s Chief Negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt MEP,  the imagining of such creative and practical solutions will be “very difficult”, and we will all need to have a hand in thinking up these solutions.  However, it is helpful that they do occupy a place very high on the priority list.

In non-Brexit related news, EM Ireland’s bi-annual Brussels connection event was excellently hosted in the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU.  The event is timed to welcome the newest Irish arrivals to Brussels, introduce them to the longer established Irish network and of course, arm them with one of our famous Green Books! Our keynote speaker on the night was Arthur Beesley, the FT’s European Diplomatic Correspondent, who gave an extremely thought provoking and wide ranging keynote address.

As I flew home to Dublin I couldn’t help but reflect on a trip of ‘ two halves’.  On the one hand, I was reassured of the excellent opportunities for Irish people in Brussels and energised by the conversations I had with the great representation we have across all the EU institutions and more widely in Brussels.

But, on the other hand I was left more attuned than ever as to just how significant the impact of the 23rd June vote will be on Ireland, the UK and EU.

In the spirit of the Grand National which took place over the weekend, we must remember that we are only at the starting gate of the Brexit negotiations and that there are many fences to be cleared before we reach the finish line.