Brexit will not be Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s only preoccupation when he joins his 26 EU counterparts at an EU summit in Brussels today.
Amid Covid-19 woe and its impact on Christmas, and the Brexit endgame drama, Ireland’s big “other EU problem” has almost passed unnoticed.
But it concerns the potential loss of hundreds of millions in Brussels aid in the coming year 2021. Planned Covid recovery grants and Brexit support aid to Ireland are jeopardised by Poland and Hungary blocking new EU budget plans for a massive €1.1tn seven-year spend, from 2021 to 2027, and a Covid aid stimulus worth €750bn.
The impasse risks €30bn in cuts to Brussels funds for 2021 and the shortfall hitting various grant aid programmes. EU budget rules state that if a new funding package cannot be agreed, the previous – and in this case much-reduced package – can only be dispensed on a monthly basis.
The 27 leaders agreed the combined jumbo €1.85tn spending plans at a five-day summit in Brussels last July. But objections from Poland and Hungary over a “rule-of-law” condition hung over that agreement from the very start – and in mid-November these two countries issued what amounted to a blocking veto.
Poland and Hungary joined the EU in 2004, along with a host of other former East Bloc states. But they have had a difficult relationship with the EU generally, and Brussels in particular, ever since.
The increasingly authoritarian regimes in both states are viewed with serious alarm across the EU about their curtailment of the courts’ independence and press freedom of speech. In an absolute first, Irish judges sent a representative to a protest by Polish judges in Warsaw last January which was also supported by judges across the EU.
Courts free from political influence and freedom of speech are fundamental EU ground rules. These principles have grown out of the awfulness of the dictatorships of the 1920s and 1930s, and a post World War II determination to have no repeat.
Even with very poor relations between Brussels there were efforts to mediate a format of words which could mitigate this flashpoint. At home, both governments were styling Brussels as a doctrinaire place trying to foist EU ideas – and especially unwanted migrants – upon them.
Many left-wing members of the European Parliament, which also must approve the budget plans, took a very strong stance against the governments in Warsaw and Budapest. The respective leaders, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, had already a reputation for authoritarian stances.
Both countries stood defiantly together – but they were becoming increasingly isolated. A clearly frustrated EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged Poland and Hungary to go to the European Court of Justice since both had argued the rule-of-law clauses breached the EU treaties.
Ms von der Leyen’s frustration was compounded by having presided over, with the help of Paris and Berlin, the largest ever EU budget in the bloc’s 62-year history. Last week moves began to have a 25-member state budgetary arrangement to allow enhanced 2021 EU spending to begin without Poland and Hungary.
Then, with the help of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, more conciliatory moves were made to get the two objecting member states back on board. Both feared being excluded from much-needed funding as their countries try to play catch-up with EU living standards, as Ireland did in the 1980s and 1990s.
By yesterday a nascent deal was run past the 27 EU member state ambassadors in Brussels and officials believe it has a good chance of winning approval, ending this dangerous impasse. The compromise turns around extra assurances to both governments that the clause will be applied impartially – and nothing will happen until the EU Court rules on the issue, in practice offering a two-year delay to allow for Orban’s campaign in Hungarian elections in 2022.
Success – though far from guaranteed – would be a boon for Ireland.
The leaders will also discuss a worsening Covid-19 situation and vaccine plans. They’ll discuss a new relationship with Joe Biden’s USA.
And amid all that, yes they’ll consider Brexit and the potentially sorry endgame.