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The case for EU reform

09 Dec 2020 / Brexit Print

The case for EU reform

Minister of State for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne, has said that a free-trade EU-UK deal cannot come at any price, since fair and open competition is crucial for jobs in this country. 

“We can’t accept proposals which impact on the integrity of the Single Market,” he told a recent DCU Brexit Institute webinar on the future of Europe beyond the transition period.

He warned that the end of the transition period would bring “substantial and lasting change”, and action must be taken by those affected.

‘Drastic changes’ ahead

“There will not be extra time, for any business that moves goods, from, to, or through Great Britain,” he said, warning of “drastic changes” ahead.

Extra customs and regulatory formalities will kick in, even with a deal, he said.

“The seamless trade that we are used to will not continue,” he said.

Consumer protections will be in doubt post transition, and extra customs and VAT charges are likely for online shoppers, he said. 

The minister commented that EU lead negotiator Michel Barnier has been a good friend to Ireland, going back many years.

The solidarity towards Ireland of European partners is “robust and universal”, he said.

Protecting the Good Friday protocol

The minister added that any future relationship with Britain could only be on the basis of trust and confidence that the Withdrawal Agreement – and its protocol protecting the Good Friday Agreement – had been fully implemented, regardless of the outcome of trade talks.

He said intensive contact between the EU and the UK had already borne fruit around key issues, such as medicines and the single electricity market.

“Ireland’s place is at the heart of Europe. The EU is a home that we have helped to build.

“The steadfast support of the European Parliament has been central to ensuring that our interests are protected in the Brexit process,” he continued.

European leaders have physically travelled to see what the Irish border looks like, he commented.

The minister said that the best social and economic outcome for the people of the UK would be to have an agreement that would be far superior to no deal. 

“Time is running short and there will not be an extension,” he said.

EU 27 – the new reality

Federico Fabbrini (DCU Full Professor of European Law, small picture) said that fears that the EU would disintegrate post-Brexit have not materialised at all.

“Quite the opposite has happened, and what we have seen in the years since the Brexit process is the emergence of the EU 27 as a new reality.

“We’ve also seen the start of a debate about the future of Europe, which is really a conversation about where we would like the EU to be, after Brexit.”

However, he said the last decade has been one of crisis for the EU – from the euro, to migration, to the rule of law in some member states – which was now capped with the virus.

Competing visions

These multiple crises have exposed “multiple cleavages” in the EU, he said, with competing visions emerging on its future. 

He described these alternative perspectives as “a polity, a market, and an autocracy view of Europe”. 

A polity or community vision of mutual support competes with a market view of the EU as an economic enterprise, he continued. 

An emerging third ‘autocracy’ vision has seen Hungary and Poland reject EU measures because of rule-of-law conditions, he said.

The case for reform

“The case for reforming the EU is strong,” he added, and the polity should look deeply at its own governance structures to see what wasn’t working.

“Changing the treaties is very complicated because of Article 48, which requires unanimity by all member states, and their parliaments or people,” he pointed out. 

However, economic and monetary union reforms has been achieved through new treaties, done outside of the normal EU framework, he continued.

“That provides an opportunity, which should be taken into account by policy-makers,” he said. 

Internal market exclusion fears

Academic Vernon Bogdanor (King’s College London) told the webinar that, while getting a trade deal was desirable, he was worried about being outside the internal market.

He predicted similar border-queueing problems, as currently occur on the Turkey-Bulgaria border, since Turkey is in the EU customs union, but not in the internal market.

Bogdanor said that while past crises had led to further integration, what hadn’t been sufficiently noticed was the extent to which the EU had become detached from popular opinion.

The 1992 Maastrict Treaty was only supported by 51/49 of French voters, while neither France nor the Netherlands agreed on an EU constitution.

‘Political class versus the people’

“These are thought to be countries at the very centre of Europe, and Europe is giving rise to a very dangerous cleavage, that of the political class versus the people.

“This is the question that the European Union needs to consider,” he said, and to deal with a huge and dangerous divide.

Professor John Doyle of DCU said that a broad agenda was needed on the future of Europe, with key issues including a more social Europe, the rule of law, geopolitics, and security.

European debate needs to be about substance, rather than processes, he continued, in the fields of climate, social protection, employment, migration and security issues.

Unfinished business

The admission of Western Balkan states remained an unfinished part of EU enlargement that needed to be tackled, Prof Doyle said.

Beyond the Balkans, the outer rim of Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey needed a more strategic approach, he added. 

Any pathway needed to point towards a strengthening of the rule of law, he said. 

A feeling of not belonging

Vernon Bogdanor said that most Brexit voters understood that leaving the EU would not be economically beneficial, but they still wanted to leave for primordial reasons of sovereignty, because they felt they didn’t belong.

These issues won’t be resolved by economic measures, but by taking into account the needs of specific member states, he said.

Britain’s opportunities to become a global Singapore or Hong Kong had diminished with COVID, he said. 

Bogdanor said that relations with the North could be improved if Ireland rejoined the Commonwealth.

Professor John Doyle said that much emotional heat had now left this debate.

A key issue for northern unionists was the retention of British passports in a 32-county republic, Prof Doyle said, since economic backwardness or ‘Rome rule’ were no longer seen as a barrier.

Minister Byrne said that Ireland’s relationship with Europe had been an affirmation of sovereignty.

While Hungary might criticise the EU, it would not consider leaving, because that would put it back in Russia’s shadow, the minister said.

Prof Federico Fabbrini commented that Hungary regarded the EU as an ATM that supported domestic growth, but didn’t want it to demand respect for rule-of-law values.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland