Taoiseach joins EU leaders as they battle to form united front following Brexit
EU leaders are battling to form a united front following the UK’s decision to quit the bloc in June, plagued by divisions over how to respond to the migration and terror threats.
At a summit in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, the 27 leaders - minus British premier Theresa May - are trying to paper over the cracks and come up with a to-do list for the bloc for next six months, ahead of its 60th anniversary in March.
Donald Tusk, the ex-Polish premier who chairs EU summits, said it was time to have a “sober and brutally honest assessment of the situation” following Brexit, and to draw up “an optimistic scenario for the future”.
The Taoiseach is trying to weave a fine diplomatic line on Brexit, wanting to remain close to the EU but not sever ties with the UK once it leaves, particularly on trade and border issues.
He said he had been “at pains now to point out our unique and critical position here in being the closest country to the United Kingdom” and at the same time “being a very strong supporter and a committed member of the European Union”.
But Ireland will struggle to find its place in a post-Brexit EU where fault lines are already opening up over defence and border control.
France, Germany and the European Commission have come out in favour of a quasi-European army with shared assets and a single military headquarters.
While Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė said she “never heard somebody is proposing to create a European army”, French president François Hollande said Europe needed to be able to defend itself and not continue to rely on the US.
“There is no continent, there is no union if there is no defence of our values and interests,” he said. “France is making a major effort in terms of European defence, but she can’t do it alone.”
The Taoiseach said Ireland would continue to “contribute” to a common European defence policy, as it has done, “taking into account the red line issues we have in terms of neutrality”.
Ireland’s place in the bloc has also been compromised by the government’s decision to appeal the Commission’s Apple tax ruling, which has elicited much bafflement around the summit table.
While he said he would not bring Apple up at the meeting, the Taoiseach said “there may be some discussions about red line issues that countries feel they have to deal with”.
“Tax is a matter of national competence, that's enshrined in the European treaties,” he said on his way into the summit on Friday morning.
“We consider it to be an intrusion into tax competence, which is not a matter for the European Commission,” he said of the Commission’s 30 August Apple decision.
"They are fully entitled to do their assessments in terms of state aid, but we believe they’ve crossed the line here to use state aid regulations as a measure of getting Ireland to become a global tax collector,” he added.
Meanwhile, southern European states, led by Greece, are trying to push an economic agenda, which Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras called “a social Europe, with growth, employment and prosperity for all of its people”.
“What Europe should not do is to continue sleepwalking in the wrong direction,” Mr Tsipras said.