Tuesday 21 November 2017

Mood sours as EU leaders just rehash pledges at Brexit talks

Taoiseach Enda Kenny alongside French President Francois Hollande and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EU summit in Bratislava yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Taoiseach Enda Kenny alongside French President Francois Hollande and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EU summit in Bratislava yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Sarah Collins

EU leaders emerged with little more than a pledge to further tighten border controls after an all-day think-in on the future of the bloc after Brexit.

While they have drawn up a six-month to-do list, they fell far short of rallying the sense of unity they were seeking ahead of the meeting.

After nine hours of talks, Taoiseach Enda Kenny told reporters: "Clearly, there are differences, and strong differences, but I think there genuinely was a fix from the leaders to say 'We have to work together to provide for that future' and I think that's the challenge of the meetings that are going to lie ahead."

Plagued by divisions over how to respond to the after-effects of the financial crisis, the migrant influx, a spate of terror attacks and the UK's vote to quit the bloc, leaders gathered in the Slovak capital yesterday to lay the ground for their future as a 27-member union.

The mood was light as they started their talks in balmy Bratislava, but soon soured after a lunchtime cruise on the Danube threw into sharp relief the extent of the challenges they face.

They are trying to forge a new identity ahead of the 60th anniversary of the EU's founding treaty next March, but in a six-page "roadmap" for the future they did little more than rehash former pledges to tighten border controls, combat terrorism and boost the economy.

"We committed in Bratislava to offer to our citizens in the upcoming months a vision of an attractive EU they can trust and support," the leaders said in the declaration. "We are confident that we have the will and the capacity to achieve it."

France and Germany made a show of solidarity following the meeting, with French president François Hollande saying the two needed to stand together "in order for Europe at 27 to succeed".

The two countries, backed by the European Commission, are looking to create a quasi-EU army with shared assets and a single military headquarters, and won an agreement from other leaders to look into "how to make better use of the options in the Treaties, especially as regards capabilities".

The EU treaty allows for a group of countries to share defence capabilities, but the Taoiseach insisted on the "red line issues we have in terms of neutrality".

He tried to weave a fine diplomatic line on Brexit, taking leaders aside individually to explain Ireland's "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's place in the bloc has 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 Apple did not come up at the meeting, the Taoiseach told reporters that the Commission was out of line when it said Ireland had granted the US tech giant illegal tax breaks.

"We consider it to be an intrusion into tax competence, which is not a matter for the European Commission. 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.

Irish Independent

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