By NAOMI O’LEARY
 
Date: 28/4/2017
Alongside approving its first set of Brexit negotiating guidelines, the European Council will issue a statement Saturday declaring that Northern Ireland and its residents would automatically become part of the EU in the event of Irish reunification.

A draft of the declaration, obtained by POLITICO, says: “The European Council acknowledges that, in accordance with international law, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would thus be part of the European Union.”

The statement is intended to affirm the EU’s recognition of provisions in the Good Friday Agreement that envision a potential “peaceful and democratic” reunification of Ireland, as well as the bloc’s understanding of international law and its acceptance of a reunified Germany as a precedent for a reunified Ireland.

Saturday’s summit is the first official gathering of the 27 EU leaders since the formal triggering of withdrawal negotiations by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.

The negotiation guidelines set to be approved by the Council call for a carefully phased approach, in which there must be “sufficient progress” on settling the terms of withdrawal before the discussion can turn to the framework of a future relationship between the EU and Britain.

The guidelines expressly include Ireland’s numerous concerns, including the need for a special border agreement, as part of the withdrawal issues that must get top priority in the negotiations.

Still, Irish officials pushed for a further acknowledgement of the prospect of reunification, which will be made in a statement separate and apart from the guidelines.

“We have always said that we will not allow any element of Brexit to change or undermine the peace process and the peace agreement is a fundamental part. We just wanted an explicit statement to that effect,” Ireland’s European affairs minister Dara Murphy said.

Murphy and other officials stressed that they considered the text to merely confirm the existing “factual position” of the Good Friday Agreement, the peace accord that largely ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland over whether it should remain part of the United Kingdom.

Under the terms of the 1998 agreement, reunification can take place if both Northern Ireland and Ireland pass referendums in favor of it.

A senior Irish official in Brussels said that there was solid agreement among EU leaders for the declaration.

“On Ireland, the Union makes clear that it supports the goal of peace and reconciliation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts, and continues to supports the achievements, benefits and commitments of the peace process,” the official said.

“In accordance with international law, such a united Ireland brought about by peaceful and democratic means, would be part of the European Union,” the official said, adding: “Now, let me make clear that this is not about triggering any process to bring about a united Ireland. The time isn’t right for a process and the conditions don’t currently exist.

“But it is important that there be clear acknowledgement that this is the case and this is what the Treaty says and this is the legality.”

Irish officials frequently cite as a precedent the reunification of Germany in 1990, after which East Germany automatically became part of the EU.

The U.K.’s Brexit Secretary David Davis acknowledged the possibility of Northern Ireland rejoining Ireland and become part of the EU in a March letter to a Northern Irish lawmaker.

In that scenario, Northern Ireland would be joining an existing EU state rather than seeking normal accession, and it would be up to the European Commission to set out the “procedural requirements,” Davis wrote.

Opinion polls indicate there is a majority in favor  of unification in the republic, but not in Northern Ireland, where bitter division remains between its mostly Catholic nationalist minority and largely Protestant unionist majority.

Murphy denied that the inclusion of the wording could be seen as political interference by the EU.

“This is not in any way to suggest anything to do with the timing of a poll, or the ambition of a poll,” Murphy said. “That would be a matter in the first instance for the people of Northern Ireland to determine.”

“My own strong view is that now is not the time for a border poll,” Murphy added. “But that will be a matter for others to decide.”