Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 30 June 2016
Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach
Estimates for Public Services 2016
Vote 1 - President's Establishment (Revised)
Vote 2 - Department of the Taoiseach (Revised)
Vote 3 - Office of the Attorney General (Revised)
Vote 5 - Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (Revised)
Vote 6 - Office of the Chief State Solicitor (Revised)
The meeting took place on Tuesday in Brussels. There was the normal meeting first when they went through the issues of migration and NATO - co-operation between the European Union and NATO with clarity for any country with a policy on neutrality such as ours - and a number of others. In the evening the discussion was about the Brexit referendum. I think the Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, was disappointed with the result. I saw some of the headlines, that he had made a real case that the issue of migration had to be dealt with. He said he was disappointed that the number was 180,000 instead of the 80,000 he had thought it might be, which might be relevant. The referendum was held and the "Leave" side won. There were a number of comments from leaders around the table. On the Wednesday morning, there was a far deeper discussion. The basics are that the nomination and appointment of a new British Prime Minister will be completed by 9 September, forward from the original date he had mentioned. The second point is that there will be no negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union until such time as the Commission is informed by Britain of its intention to withdraw from the Union. The clock will start to tick from that moment. The discussions and negotiations will take place within a two-year period, but there may be a short extension. If they are not concluded within that time, we will automatically move to the World Trade Organisation conditions that apply to trade and so on.
It is important to note that there are three institutions in the European Union, as the Chairman is well aware - the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council. Traditionally the European Commission has had expertise and experience of dealing with applicant countries to join the European Union. It has made the case that that experience should continue to be used and it will, but I want to make it clear that there will be political oversight of the process by the European Council, that is, the elected leaders of the different countries. Therefore, all three institutions will be involved in one way or another. There were quite a number of views expressed about this, but, in the absence of being informed formally by Britain, negotiations cannot and will not commence.
I have to say the leaders were very clear at the European Council that there were lessons to be learned and that the challenge for the European Union was to demonstrate a human interest in the peoples of the different countries, to show an understanding of the challenges and difficulties and the hardship many people experienced, but the agenda for the European Commission is one of simplification, the abolition of red tape, investment to increase growth and competitiveness, and dealing with migration and security matters. The European Council decided that there would be a meeting in Bratislava in September. I made the point that it was very important for the citizens of the European Union to actually be able to understand the progress the Commission was making on that agenda. It is important to be able to point to the issues that have been simplified, the red tape that has been eliminated and the programme of investment to ensure growth and job creation and increase competitiveness. One of the issues, if one likes, is that the Juncker programme is a major infrastructural programme, but the funds have not been drawn down to the extent that was thought, but there are other issues that need to be addressed also because within the same element one has EUROSTAT which is independent in its workings. It has been inconsistent and unpredictable in its assessment of the financial investment opportunities. That issue needs to be addressed, not just in the case of Ireland but in the case of others also. Some work is ongoing in that regard.
Both meetings were very measured and calm. There was no sense of hysteria or hysterics about what might or might not happen. The economics and the markets will obviously adjust and affect all countries, but the politics in the European Council overseeing the negotiations that will inevitably take place will have to bear in mind that, at the end of the day, this is all about citizens in the different countries. Britain will continue as a full member until it actually leaves the European Union. The British will continue to pay their charges and abide by all of the rules of the European Union. They will continue to keep their ships in the Mediterranean and play their full part.
The question can be asked of what is best for Ireland's interests. It is that the United Kingdom still have access to the Single Market, but it was made perfectly clear by the European Council that access to the Single Market carried with it a responsibility to accept in full the four principles of the European Union, one of which is freedom of movement. Obviously, those who supported the "Leave" campaign put forward the proposition that the issue of migration should be considered and the numbers reduced. It has been made perfectly clear by the Council that, in the event of access to the Single Market being available, it will carry with it that requirement and it will not be changed.
I see some headlines on the Scottish position. A number of weeks ago I attended a meeting of the British-Irish Council in Glasgow when, obviously, we discussed some of these issues. First Minister Sturgeon made it perfectly clear that, if the outcome of the referendum was to leave, Scotland would very much be of a mind to discuss with the European Commission the opportunities that might present to allow it to remain a member of the European Union. I was asked to convey that message, which I did. I know that First Minister Sturgeon met the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Shulz, and the President of the European Commission, Mr. Juncker. She did not meet the President of the European Council, Mr. Tusk.
Before I went to Brussels, I spoke to the First Minister, Ms Foster, and the Deputy First Minister, Mr. McGuinness. I am glad to see that, while they represent different parties and elements of the referendum campaign, they have issued a joint statement on behalf of the citizens of Northern Ireland, which we support fully. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, was there on Wednesday and we will have a North-South ministerial meeting on Monday. I have already asked officials at a high level to identify the priority issues of real importance to Northern Ireland. We will discuss them at the meeting on Monday and issue a statement on them.
For our part, I assure the committee that the European Council is very much aware of the common travel area with Britain since 1922. It is very much aware of the impact of the peace process. It is very much aware of the open border we have with Northern Ireland. It is very much aware that our particular interests are the common travel area, the peace process in Northern Ireland, our trade links with Britain and our pivotal position between the United Kingdom and the European Union. As there will be no discussions until such time as the European Commission is informed by Britain of its decision to leave, the negotiations on these issue cannot take place.
I want to deal with the matter of how long the process should take. As announced, there will be a new Prime Minister by 9 September. The feeling was that he or she should have a short time within which to assess his or her strategy and what it was Britain actually wanted. That is going to be a matter for some consideration because there are different models, be it the Norwegian model, the Canadian model, the Singapore model, or the Swiss model of connections. It may well be that Britain might decide to look for a different variation of any or all of those models. At least 60 countries have achieved independence from the United Kingdom which had a global empire. Obviously, when one looks at the numbers travelling to England from former colonies as diverse as Afghanistan or countries in Africa, one can understand this has been an issue for 250 years.
The discussion yesterday was very calm, rational and considered and members will reflect on it for the future. We will continue to develop and expand the unit across all Departments. I have asked every Minister and Secretary General to make an analysis of how they see Brexit impacting on their Departments in so far as their responsibilities are concerned in order that we will have as full a picture as possible.
I called in the leaders of all the Opposition parties last week for as full a briefing as I could give them based on the information we had available. We will update Members on a regular basis. This is an issue that requires us to work together in the interests of the country, the people and the economy and at the same time to understand we have important connections with Britain and Northern Ireland and the European Union. I have asked every Minister to liaise with his or her opposite number in the Opposition. The EPP had a Brexit reflection group at European Parliament level. The ambassador spoke to all of the Irish MEPs from different parties and we will keep them regularly informed. Parties in the Oireachtas that support our continuing links being strengthened agreed to discuss with their group leader at European level the fact that Ireland was the country that could be most affected by Brexit adversely.
We want to make Northern Ireland a priority and it will be, particularly in the context of the common travel area. The structures under the Good Friday Agreement will continue. We are co-guarantor of the Agreement with the British Government. The North-South Ministerial Council is best used to ensuring we work together to safeguard the peace process and maintain strong relations on these islands. While quite a number of the newer eastern European leaders might not be well acquainted with the details, they are very much aware of the peace process in Northern Ireland which has been continued for almost 20 years following the Good Friday Agreement.
There is a lot of ongoing work between Secretaries General and Permanent Secretaries at official level. Shortly after I became Taoiseach, we signed a memorandum of understanding with Britain which we have followed through each year with regular meetings at official level. These meetings and updates are helpful to Ministers as they go about their work on behalf of the Government.
I set up a small office within my Department to monitor implementation of the programme for Government which contains over 600 commitments.
The Deputy will understand the reforms taking place with the assistance of the Ceann Comhairle and the Business Committee, as well as the new ways of doing business in the Dáil, including reform of the budgetary process and the development of a broader consensus. I am very happy to support this process. The reforms have implications for all Ministers and Departments. The Chief Whip's office will work closely with a new parliamentary liaison unit and the programme for Government office to make progress on policy and legislative commitments.
We recognise that economic and social progress go hand in hand. I like to think that following the discussions on the formation of a Government we have tried to reflect the need to invest in people and facilities to deal with the many challenges we face. The economy grew strongly last year and the level of unemployment has fallen to 7.8%, but we still face challenges. The Action Plan for Jobs 2016 includes 304 specific actions. I will bring the relevant agencies and Ministers together at the appropriate Cabinet sub-committees.
Housing provision is major priority for the Government. There is a Minister with specific responsibility for housijng and I hope the draft action plan will be available in the next two to three weeks. We will deal with the issue today at the Cabinet sub-committee on housing.