Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 22 May 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
European Committee of the Regions: Discussion
We have a quorum and we can begin. The committee is in public session. We have no apologies. I remind members to switch phones off if at all possible.
Today we have an engagement with a delegation from the European Committee of the Regions, led by the President of the committee, Mr. Karl-Heinz Lambertz. I want to take this opportunity to wish all of the witnesses a very warm welcome. We are glad you were able to be here with us today.
This is concerning continued engagement with key stakeholders which is really important to this committee and to the Houses of the Oireachtas. We try hard to find a way to have that engagement, we are delighted that you were in a position to accept our invitation and we have been looking forward to this engagement. The European Committee of the Regions is a body that is not well known to everyone. I think that is a pity and we should do something about it. As one of the two European advisory bodies and the one that has specific remit to consider regional interests, impacts and cross-border issues, I think that is hugely important. We particularly appreciate the cross-party nature of the delegation which includes the senior leaders of all the political parties represented in the Committee of the Regions. There are many things we could discuss; I know how much work the committee has been doing on Brexit and its impact on the regions and am aware it only last week passed an interesting resolution which specifically called for the Good Friday Agreement not to be jeopardised. Today marks 20 years since the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and the simultaneous referendum to amend the Constitution in Ireland. I welcome that commitment in particular.
I welcome all members of the delegation. President Lambertz will make an opening statement and then I propose that we take questions and comments from the members of this joint committee and the visiting delegation alternating between the two in an informal way. It will be something that everybody is comfortable with and that works. Before the President begins his opening statements I have to remind everyone of the rules on privilege in this Parliament.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite Mr. Lambertz to make his opening statement.
Mr. Karl-Heinz Lambertz:
I am very pleased to be able to meet the committee and enrich the meetings conducted by the European Committee of the Regions with the devolved administrations and local governments of the United Kingdom and other stakeholders dealing with Brexit. I would, therefore, like to thank the committee for its invitation to meet representatives of the Irish Parliament, who work with local and regional elected representatives, our natural partners when it comes to dealing with European political matters ranging from subsidiarity to sustainable territorial development, including the future of Europe.
Although it does not have a formal role in the negotiations, the European Committee of the Regions has provided a platform for political dialogue which brings together the interests of representatives of local and regional authorities across the EU. It has, therefore, been following the negotiations closely, positioning itself as the voice of the regional level in the dialogue with the other EU institutions and analysing the repercussions for our regions and cities. In this context, the European Committee of the Regions has organised consultations and debates and carried out territorial impact assessments to assess the consequences of the UK's withdrawal at sub-national level. Ireland and Northern Ireland are among the most exposed to Brexit, but the regional impact will also be felt on the other side of the Channel, including in Spain, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
We have carried out a Europe-wide study to map comprehensively the impact of Brexit across sectors and regions. Preliminary conclusions indicate that there will be no winners from this process. However, the study also showed that local and regional authorities do not have sufficient information on the impact of Brexit, given the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the negotiations and the future relationship between the EU and the UK. This is particularly important because it considerably limits the capacity of regional and local authorities to devise strategies to mitigate and prevent the negative effects on their economies.
Some European regions are looking into how they can start building bridges with British businesses in order to help ensure a smooth transition and maintain dialogue, and so they understand the challenges on both sides. Others are setting up information desks to raise awareness among their businesses, including SMEs, about the challenges triggered by Brexit.
Unfortunately, the majority of European regions have not yet succeeded in properly assessing the potential impact of Brexit, particularly given the lack of data on the future relationship. This new risk for local development should be properly reflected in the future multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which should explore measures, in particular for SMEs, to cope with the unprecedented phenomenon which is Brexit. Future EU policies need to be more flexible in order to provide appropriate responses to the new challenges ahead.
The United Kingdom's exit from the EU is already affecting Europe's regions and cities. Just look at the MFF proposal issued by the European Commission on 2 May to understand the consequences of Brexit on the Union's budget and policies, starting with CAP and cohesion policy. One of our permanent priorities has always been to remedy asymmetries between the various European regions and support the mobilisation of the necessary resources, particularly through cohesion, cross-border co-operation or rural development. I believe I would not be wrong to say that the best way to mitigate the impact of the UK's withdrawal from the EU is to aim for an ambitious agreement, allowing for a genuine partnership between the EU and the UK.
Despite the uncertainties regarding the type of relationship that will be established between the UK and the EU, including as regards trade, one thing that is certain is in some member states it will be necessary to secure the explicit consent of national or even regional parliaments to the agreement setting out the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Therefore, transparency and constant dialogue with local and regional authorities will be imperative throughout the negotiations.
The EU has made considerable efforts to help stabilise the political and social situation in Northern Ireland, and would be most concerned about any solution that could jeopardise what has been achieved over the past few years in terms of peace, social cohesion, institutional stability and economic progress. One example is the significant investment of €1.8 billion in initiatives and measures under the PEACE programmes. These have been bearing fruit and must not be abandoned now.
In March 2017, the European Committee of the Regions adopted a resolution on the likely impact of the UK's exit from the European Union and we adopted a new resolution only a few days ago during our May plenary session. These resolutions place great emphasis on the issue of the Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, calling for an operational solution to be devised in due time to avoid a hard border. When asked to choose between hard or soft borders, I would go for a "transparent" one.
The terms of the relationship between the EU and the UK will necessarily have to change after Brexit, but the relationship between cities, regions and people should continue. Cross-border co-operation tools such as the European Groupings for Territorial Cooperation, EGTC, or macroregional strategies are mechanisms that could allow for the development of common projects and smooth co-operation in the future.
I thank the committee once again for the opportunity to discuss this sensitive issue with it today. Allow me to introduce the members of our delegation. I am joined by Mr. Michael Murphy of the European People's Party and head of the Irish delegation on the European Committee of the Regions; Mr. François Decoster, representing the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; Mr. Stanislaw Szwabski, representing the European Alliance; Mr. Peter Bossman, representing the Party of European Socialists; and Mr. Adam Banaszak, representing the European Conservatives and Reformists Group.
I thank the Chairman. I am delighted to be asked to say a few words. Having spent two very happy years on the European Committee of the Regions and the ECON and CIVEX commissions, I hold my time there in very fond stead. I was disappointed that I spent only two years there but I got the call up for the Seanad. I am delighted Councillor Murphy took my place on the European Committee of the Regions. He is also leader of the Irish delegation. He is as brilliant as he says he is at all of his meetings.
I wish to make a few points and ask a few questions. Brexit is bad and there is no such thing as a good Brexit. Whatever Brexit comes out in March 2019, it will be bad for everyone in the European Union, including the United Kingdom. How bad it will be we do not know. Every time we meet business and community leaders it is very hard to tell them what to prepare for because we do not know what will happen. We are in the middle of a negotiation, and we are probably in the most fraught part at this stage ahead of the June European Council meeting.
One of the things we say constantly here and which perhaps feeds into some of the work the witnesses are doing is "Plan for the worst and hope for the best". It is going to be bad for everyone, but I disagree respectfully with the President in the following sense; it is absolutely going to be worst for Ireland. Ireland will be impacted more than any other region in the European Union, including most of the United Kingdom. The region in Ireland which will suffer the greatest impact is the Border region, which the witnesses are going to visit tomorrow. It is crucial to state this. I know the President's committee put it in its recent report. I was very disappointed I was unable to attend the plenary session in December, notwithstanding the kind invitation. Some Members of the Houses thought we might have a general election then but thankfully cool heads prevailed and we did not.
I have to state the following without ambiguity; any form of border, in particular a hard one, will result in a return to violence. It is not a question of "maybe" or "could" but of "will". Dissident paramilitaries on both sides of the great political divide will use it as an opportunity and it will drive an emotional divide between the communities. This is not my opinion as a politician, it is the stated opinion of George Mitchell, the person who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement, and of both police forces on this island. The witnesses are going to the Border tomorrow. If they leave Ireland with one message, that should be the one they take to heart. I ask them to bring it back to their member states and the committee and to make it a focus of their ongoing good work. We hope option A will be achieved to provide for a deep and meaningful customs and trading relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union as a whole. Hopefully, that can deliver the least bad option for Ireland, the EU and the UK.
I have three questions which are tied to the foregoing. What is the mood of the British members of the Committee of the Regions? During my time there and as Councillor Murphy will recall, the EPB did not have any British members. I spent two years in advance of the Brexit referendum talking about it within EPB group meetings. The other members looked to myself and another former member, Senator Maria Byrne, to provide a view on the British opinion. We found that a lot of British members in other groups were very reluctant about Brexit. Bar one or two independents, they did not want it to happen. They knew from working in the Committee of the Regions and from being involved in European regional policy of the benefits the European project presented for their regions across the United Kingdom. I think in particular of the Scottish islands, the more impoverished parts of south-west Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom outside England, as well as of Northern Ireland. What have the British members fed into the committee's debates and reports? Is there a huge division?
Brexit has forced us to think more widely about the future of the European project. Under the Chairman, our committee has just concluded a body of work on the future of Europe debate and the six key parts of the White Paper set out by President Juncker. I would like to hear briefly what the Committee of the Regions has fed into the future of Europe debate. Europe's great failing and one of my major bugbears when it comes to discussing the European project is the EU's inability to sell itself and to get the message out that what it is doing is actually really good. The laws produced at European level benefit people. What Europe is unfortunately brilliant at doing is telling citizens across the member states how they can give out about the European Union and critique it. The EU should be telling people that, while they might have a slight issue with a directive or the timetable for some measure, the euro is a good thing and the fact that we have had peace on our Continent for the longest period in history is a great thing. The fact that we can work, live and study in each other's countries is a really good thing. The fact that one can eat an Irish steak in Croatia in the knowledge that it is not full of hormones and pesticides is a really good thing. The fact that the air in our cities is cleaner is an amazing thing. We do not hear that enough from the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament or, respectfully, from the Committee of the Regions and the ESC. It is something we must look at in the context of our engagement with the European project.
Mr. Adam Banaszak:
I am from the ECR group which has a lot of British members. Most of them voted to remain in the European Union but the situation is as it is. It has already happened and people have decided. Now, it is not a question of what they feel but of what they would like to do. They would like to do their best. Both political sides are trying to do as much as they can in the circumstances to find the best solutions. It is not a question of how they voted before, it is a question of what to do now to find the best solution for both sides. I hope that is obvious to everyone. They are trying to co-operate as much as possible with the regions in the European Union. We try to maintain our connections. I have a question on what we know about the common project between counties in Northern Ireland and counties in the Republic and about Interreg projects on the island. What is planned in that regard? That is my question to the committee.
Mr. François Decoster:
We have a few British members in the ALDE group within the Committee of the Regions. Not only did they vote to remain, they campaigned to do so. What would make Brexit even worse would be to fail to prepare. I will give the committee an example where there is a denial about the need to prepare for Brexit. When I proposed to the regions, towns and territories represented at the Committee of the Regions the creation of an inter-regional study group, it was difficult to explain it to our British colleagues. There is a form of denial about whether this will happen but it has already happened. This is voted. What would make Brexit even worse now is to maintain this uncertainty about economic matters, relationships, border management and all of the other topics that are before us. It will be even more harmful if we do not prepare. I understand that our colleagues within the Committee of the Regions suffer from this perspective. We agree with them and we regret the vote, but it is no longer the time to regret the vote but to prepare completely for the future relationship. If we do not prepare, it will be even more harmful.
I am delighted to meet the witnesses and to hear their views. I agree largely with my colleague, Senator Neale Richmond, with the proviso that the Good Friday Agreement is a solemn agreement between two Governments which are its co-guarantors. There is no going back on that, whatever way they fix it. We have the backstop as a guarantee albeit we want to get over it. The four parties in the North have agreed that we do not want borders in Ireland or between Ireland and Britain or between both islands and Europe. Europe, of course, does not want to lose the markets here and in Britain and Britain does not want to lose the 500 million strong European market. As the witnesses know better than I, Europe is famous for last minute, 11th hour deals. Senator Richmond is right that we must prepare for the worst but hope for the best. I am an optimist and I am hoping for the best.
I know it will be at the 11th hour. I have no doubt that Michel Barnier's team and David Davis's team are both working hard in Brussels and going through the minutiae. No doubt they will arrive at a fudge, or whatever, to get over the June summit and arrive at the big deal in October or November. That is what we must hope and work for. The difficulty, as we all know, is the divisions within the British Cabinet and the Conservative Party. The Prime Minister is trying to take one step forward and two steps back, or two steps forward and one step back. I hope it is the latter but progress is being made inch by inch. The process will be difficult.
We appreciate very much that Europe is keeping the Irish interest to the fore. We have no doubt whatever about that.
The witnesses must forgive me, as the Seanad is about to resume and I must Chair it. I hope they enjoy their trip to the North.
I welcome our guests and thank them for the interest they have shown in this issue. It is without doubt the most important issue to face not only Ireland and the UK but the people of Europe in 60 years. I worry when I hear about negotiations having to take place under pressure. The danger is that a decision may be reached in desperation and it will not be the right one. Ireland and the European Union have something in common on this issue. We are intrinsically linked. If Ireland's position comes out of this badly then the European Union also comes out badly. The whole concept of the European Union could fade and diminish overnight in the event that the UK proves to be more successful outside the Union than inside. That is something that every member state and its government must keep in mind. I compliment Michel Barnier and his colleagues on the strong stance they have taken so far.
I also worry about suggestions that there should be a micro-negotiation. That should only happen after an agreement has been reached and within the parameters of that agreement. To attempt to do the opposite would undermine the whole structure of negotiation in the European Union and Michel Barnier's proposals to date as well as undermining our own position. Our friends in the UK are past masters at negotiations. They know how to negotiate. The danger is that the European Union or some member states will be stampeded into an agreement that might not be in their interests or in those of the Union.
On Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, for the past 20 years this country has traded in the Single Market as if it were one state. The success on both sides has been immeasurable. For the first time in our history, we have been able to observe at first hand the benefits of peace and the removal of borders and obstructions that reminded our people of our past, which has taken a long time to set aside and cost many lives within families and the military and also cost money. We do not want to go back there. As my colleague, Senator Richmond, stated, if we move in that direction again, there is an inevitability about where we will slide.
If an illustration is needed for the most fundamental and perfect peace process ever formed in our lifetimes, it is the European Union. For those who remember what it was like before, and I was born after the war so I do not remember before it-----
The Crimean war, of course. I had relatives in that war too.
Europe may have been an experiment at the beginning but it has been a very successful experiment. A major price will be paid if people want to second guess that experiment for one reason or another. While discontented voices are raised in various European states from time to time, the European Union is better by far than anything we experienced for the past 500 years, a period that covers most of the wars of concern to my colleagues.
I am a strong European, as is the Chairman, and strongly urge that we keep focused and stay together on the subject and that we do not break in pursuit of micro arrangements that may seem good at the time but will inevitably lead into the sand.
Mr. Michael Murphy:
On behalf of the EPP group, I thank the Chairman for the kind invitation to Mr. Lambertz and the Conference of Presidents of the European Union to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by Brexit from a local and regional perspective. I thank the committee secretariat, particularly Ms Heidi Lougheed, for the fantastic reception we received from the moment we set foot in Leinster House. I also acknowledge the excellent work of the joint committee in creating an awareness around the challenges of Brexit and on the future of Europe. It is important that Irish people view our membership of Europe in a positive light. They are often preoccupied with what they regard as national issues such as job security but the irony is that Europe continues to play a very important role in addressing these concerns.
I also refer to the Seanad committee on Brexit chaired by Senator Richmond which produced a very important report. It is very useful in explaining the impact of Brexit in Ireland, has helped to create awareness and allows us to prepare for the challenges of Brexit at local level.
Wearing a slightly different hat, as head of the Irish delegation, I welcome the visit of Mr. Lambertz and my colleagues in the conference of presidents. There is an excellent understanding among my colleagues on the conference of presidents and the entire membership of the Committee of the Regions of the unique set of challenges Ireland faces. I speak for the entire Irish delegation to the Committee of the Regions in noting that we have received nothing but support and understanding from our 349 colleagues with regard to the challenges Brexit presents for Ireland. Today's visit is timely and symbolic. It is timely because we passed a resolution last week which deals in an appropriate way with the problems Ireland faces and it is symbolic because it coincides with the recent 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement has been the cornerstone of peace on the island of Ireland since the end of a violent conflict in which more than 3,000 people lost their lives and many more were injured or maimed.
As Mr. Lambertz noted, many different reports are being produced at national level, including a report by Copenhagen Economics and the report by Senator Richmond's committee. Internationally, the Committee of the Regions has done a territorial impact assessment. That report is particularly useful as it examines the impact of Brexit at local and regional level. Of the regions across the 27 member states, Irish regions will be most affected. That is not surprising given the level of trade intensity between ourselves and our UK partners. I am acutely aware of the challenges faced in the Border regions.
However, I am from Tipperary and that county has an agrifood-based economy. We are hugely dependent on the UK market.
To refer back to something Senator Paul Coghlan stated, the local authorities that prepare - and their regions - will, despite the uncertainty, be best positioned to mitigate the challenges of Brexit. The Oireachtas has already provided local authorities with a suite of measures through the local enterprise offices and the new loan scheme from Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland. We are acutely aware of that in Tipperary, but we are concerned that not all local authorities are aware of the suite of measures available through the local enterprise office. I am introducing the Brexit debate into the chambers of Tipperary County Council and I know the local authorities in the Border counties are acutely aware but I appeal to the committee to send the message to all the CEOs of the local authorities on the island of Ireland that there are supports available and to create that awareness, despite the uncertainty about the challenges of Brexit. I have been in the private sector for 30 years and I am acutely aware of the disruption that Brexit could potentially cause for our supply chain. That is why we are preparing and availing of the measures available through the local enterprise office.
I wish to use this opportunity to drive home one of the key messages in the TIA assessment produced by the European Committee of the Regions. The local authorities that prepare, despite the uncertainty, are the local authorities, regions and cities across Europe that are best positioned to mitigate the challenges of Brexit. The local authorities need to create an awareness and make local businesses and various sectors aware of the supports available through the local enterprise office.
I will give my colleagues a chance to speak. I thank the committee for this unique opportunity.
Dr. Stanisaw Szwabski:
We in the European Union are accustomed to promoting projects which can be described as win-win. Even the states that are net contributors to the European budget win. Unquestionably, the Brexit project is a lose-lose project irrespective of what the final result will be. Irrespective of the final agreement everyone will lose. I hope that possibly Ireland will not lose more than the others.
My political group in the European Committee of the Regions is very much involved in the process of following the negotiations. Last September, I had the opportunity to meet Deputy Darragh O'Brien and Senator Richmond to discuss the impact of Brexit on Ireland. That meeting highlighted the incredibly negative impact on the Border area as well as it being something that will directly impact people in Ireland, Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom. Since then we have also seen that it will have a huge impact on other regions across Europe. A few weeks ago I was in the Port of Zeebrugge. Over 40% of its trade is with the United Kingdom. Brexit will impact up to 10,000 jobs. It is a priority for Flanders to have clarity on the next steps to UK withdrawal.
I wish to hear more from members of the committee about citizens' rights. I imagine this would be of huge importance for the numbers of Irish in the UK and vice versa. It is also very important for Polish citizens in the United Kingdom. There are also practical issues such as all-island agriculture solutions. What can be done to mitigate the consequences of Brexit in this very important sector?
I thank the committee for this interesting meeting.
I welcome the president of the European Committee of the Regions. I had the pleasure of meeting him last year at a meeting arranged by Micheál Ó Conchúir, the secretary general of the European Alliance, and at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I met him and the European Committee of the Regions. It is important that the committee is involved in this. I compliment him on the report the committee prepared. We are well represented by Councillor Michael Murphy, the leader of the Irish delegation and rapporteur for part of the report. He had a big input into it. It is important the representatives are here now and I am delighted they are going to the Border region. It is a border of nearly 500 km with so many openings one could not possibly control them. It absolutely has to be seamless. The European Committee of the Regions has huge influence, given that its members come from all over the European Union, in emphasising the situation we are in. I am very impressed by the report, the resolution the committee passed last week and, indeed, Councillor Murphy's input into this from the point of view of the support from the regions.
There is no doubt that it is a very worrying time for the Irish public. The representatives will get that feeling when they are here. We were with Micheál Ó Conchúir last year as members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. It is a mixed committee. Under the Good Friday Agreement the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly will continue after Brexit when the British withdraw next March. I commend the committee on the work it is doing. It really has a feeling for this situation. There is no doubt from what the representatives have said already that they know the concerns we have. I realise that other countries have concerns about their citizens who live and work in Britain and their future after the withdrawal. We have a particular relationship with the United Kingdom that will continue after Brexit. That is very important, particularly the free movement of people. We also want to maintain the free movement of goods and services. I am very impressed by the four parties in Northern Ireland. They made a statement today about the situation.
I feel confident about the committee's present knowledge from the briefing of the leader of our group and our representatives. The president will know that Ireland has a very good team on the European Committee of the Regions. We have always taken that committee very seriously and we have always had full representation and full attendances at the meetings. We always felt it was a great honour that our representatives were there. As Senator Richmond said, he was a leader of the group as well. Many others have attended too. I compliment the Irish delegation on briefing the president, his colleagues and the different parties on the impact of Brexit on Ireland. It was excellent work by the Irish group and Michael Murphy, its leader.
I thank the representatives for attending today and I look forward to hearing the outcome after they have seen the Border. They have met our colleagues in the committee and the Chairman. They will get a sense and a feeling for what the situation is on the ground. I am sure the president will agree that there is no better experience than the first hand one of coming to Ireland to meet the people, go to the Border and see the potentially devastating impact if there is any danger of returning a border which we have now been rid of for 20 years.
I thank the representatives for attending and I thank Councillor Murphy for leading the Irish delegation. I am sure he has left his colleagues in no doubt as to what to expect.
There was a question earlier about the cross-Border institutions.
Our waterways are managed from the North of Ireland. Consider feeding one's cattle in the top field in the North of Ireland in the morning and moving them to the bottom field in the South in the afternoon. Consider having breakfast in one's kitchen in Northern Ireland and watching the television in one's sitting room in the South. This is the reality of the Irish Border. It is probably one of the most unique borders in the world. There are many cross-management units taking place in respect of utilities and the sharing of the management of how the country is run. The witnesses will get a flavour of this. I am sure Councillor Murphy has left them in no doubt as to what to expect. The regions and their management are extremely important. It was interesting that Councillor Murphy referred to the awareness that exists in Tipperary, how that awareness does not exist across the entire country and how different regions have different views. In truth, unless there is a trading relationship with Britain or a working relationship with Northern Ireland, the Border with the latter will really just be something we think about but which does not really bother us once a line is drawn across the map south of Dublin and Galway, except for agricultural areas that are deeply involved in the British market. I am glad that Tipperary is taking a lead on this and I hope Kerry, Cork, etc., will follow.
I agree with Deputy Durkan. Last-minute negotiations scare the hell out of me. The last thing we need is someone saying at 1 o'clock in the morning, "Lads, we will never get to bed if we do not agree something, so let us agree." As a cohesive unit, Europe has worked really well until now to ensure we all stay on the same pitch playing the same game all the time. It is really encouraging to see the witnesses from the regions here and concerned about our Border. In truth, we are a tiny part of Europe - our Border is an even tinier part - but the witnesses are here, they want to see it for themselves and they want to be familiar with what the impact will be. I therefore commend the president on bringing his team here.
One extremely important thing is the trading relationship that exists today between the European Union on the continent of Europe and Ireland, as against the future post-Brexit. We no longer have direct access to Europe. The moment Brexit is finally negotiated, we must travel through a third country, Britain, or we must build ports that will allow us to have direct access to Europe. Not only will this cause a major logistical problem, but it will also require significant investment. I know Councillor Murphy is based in the south east and knows what I am talking about when I refer to Rosslare and Waterford. If we are going to have to develop these ports, it will cost billions. Regarding the time delays and the cost of shipping via the long route as against shipping across England, we have spoken with British local authorities, particularly in Wales and down along the southern coast with Europe, in Dover and other such places. There will be tens of miles of trucks backed up to get customs clearance coming in and going back out. We have companies in Ireland that deliver sensitive materials - for example, the pharmaceutical industry. Coca-Cola is another example that comes to mind. Raw materials for Coca-Cola for Europe are shipped from Ballina. If the truck transporting those raw materials is opened anywhere between the point of origin and the point of destination, the entire content must come back, so we have problems there. These are the micro problems. An individual truck driver with tens of thousands of euro worth of pharmaceuticals driving through the UK can be stopped and have his truck opened and searched at any stage. If that happens, the truck must come back. That is one of the difficulties.
We speak about peace and the peace process, the peace process in the European project and the peace process in Northern Ireland. I will separate them out briefly. Nigel Lawson, the great British politician, was on the radio yesterday morning. He said the European community and the European Union have contributed nothing to peace. He is living in France, by the way, which is rather ironic. He inferred that in the Northern Irish peace process, the British beat the IRA and that is it, it is all over, thank you very much indeed. I think most of us agree that is not really what happened. In Europe, the Germans got tired of fighting, according to Mr. Lawson, and wanted to get involved in commercial activities. This is not exactly the peace process I know or the one the witnesses know. I am a little concerned about the disunity in the British Cabinet and among the British people in general. I do not know whether Councillor Murphy will get an opportunity to meet any of the civic groups in Northern Ireland, but I have been engaging quite a lot with them in recent months, and it is amazing to see the disjoint that exists between them and their political masters. These are people who just want to live, work and get on with life. Politics is years behind where the people are. If the councillor gets a chance, he might introduce people to some of the civic groups up there. That would be interesting.
I would like to know what engagement there has been between national parliaments and the European Committee of the Regions. Have each of the national parliaments taken time to meet with the committee, to explain their positions and to listen to what the European Committee of the Regions has to say about the future of Europe? I am anxious to know whether the committee has met with Michel Barnier and had an opportunity to put its case to him.
No one wants a hard border. That is what we are told. Britain does not want one, Northern Ireland does not want one, we do not want one and the European Union does not want one. What if, ultimately, the Brits turn around and say they do not care, that we can drive across the Border and back again any time we want, that they are really not interested and that we can fire away? Then we would have an open border with a third country. While that would suit Ireland quite well, how would the European Union look at the prospect of 40 ft trailers travelling from Scotland to Belfast, driving down the country and heading back out through Rosslare or Dublin to the European Union? Is there a likelihood the European Union will enforce a border that neither Ireland nor Britain wants, in the witnesses' view?
We are great in this country at telling people what we need and want and how desperate things are. I would love to know whether there is anything Ireland can do to assist the witnesses from each of the regions with what they want from Brexit. We are always asking for what we need. We would like to hear what other people need as well because we are a community that must work together and find common ground against what is a horrendous mistake.
I apologise for having to leave to attend another meeting. I am delighted to welcome our guests - the president and his team - from the European Committee of the Regions. Cuirim fáilte ar leith roimh an gComhairleoir Ó Murchú; a very special welcome to Councillor Michael Murphy, who I know has been very active and, as leader of the group, very much to the fore in highlighting the concerns certainly of the southern region but, more generally, of all of Ireland about the ramifications of Brexit. I know he is doing that on his own local council, where he recently put hard questions to our county manager and is meeting our officials to discuss how they are prepared for the impact of Brexit. It is the total imponderable, and no one seems to know what is happening.
I am glad the witnesses will visit the Border regions - and no better man to go with them than Councillor Michael Murphy - to see how fragile the Border is, how minuscule it is in many ways. It is only a line in a field. There might only be a fence in a field between North and South, as other members have said. There will be a challenge to our fragile peace process if there is a hard border. It has been said already that there are paramilitaries on both sides who are literally out of business. They are mad to get more traction and to get back into business, and a hard border in the region would be fraught with the danger of getting back into that. The EU did help in providing the funding and creating the various schemes that were designed to help the peace process, such as INTERREG, with the assistance of the United States and other countries.
It is vital that the witnesses visit those areas to get an understanding of the issue. We have to focus on this because we could just wander off and meander along. We had statements last January when we thought that everything was bulletproof. It is vital that we focus and get certainty because businesses are worried. Monaghan is a very industrious county and much of its workforce comes from across the Border, travelling back and forth.
The same can be said about exports. RTÉ recently did a very good exposé on people who live in the North and work in the South and vice versa. There is no Border for them; they just drive through. It is seamless at the moment. It is very concerning to think that any kind of border might be put in place.
The Irish Road Hauliers Association has been mentioned. Ms Verona Murphy is the president of that group and I know that she is related to Councillor Michael Murphy. She is a very able dealer and has made strong representations about this. It is a huge issue for the road hauliers. We have an excellent road haulage industry here and the Government moved to give it some supports by way of lower taxation and equalisation in recent years. The industry needed it. We are an island country and we have to export everything. If we lose direct access to Europe via the United Kingdom we will be in big trouble. Apart from the money it will cost, it will take too long, be too arduous and people might not have the stomach for it. It is vital to our economy and our produce, as an agricultural exporting country.
I come from County Tipperary, like Councillor Murphy. We have to boast about our Tipperary beef and lamb. The farming industry is massive in Tipperary and the export of raw materials and the finished product is going to be very important. Even the risk that trucks will be pulled in and something found amiss is bad for us. Many road haulage companies are small and cannot afford it. They already have problems with borders, considering the refugee crisis. They will not be able to meet their delivery dates. One's word is one's bond and fulfilling contracts by meeting delivery dates is vital.
We have a new company in Tipperary called Tipperary Whiskey - Councillor Murphy is very close to the family behind it - and we need to export it as well. The adage says that where Tipperary leads Ireland follows. Councillor Murphy is doing an excellent job of being the leader of the group in Tipperary and keeping us informed, but also keeping the cause and the plight of communities and business people in Ireland front and centre.
Brexit will have huge ramifications. Many of us may have been thinking that it will never happen, but it will, and we need to seriously focus on it. I wish the witnesses well for the rest of their fact-finding visit. It is great to see the other regions showing interest in our regional issues. The peace process is the main priority. It is unthinkable that we would slip back into the serious crisis of that period and the loss of life and the losses endured by businesses and communities. We have moved ahead since then and people are benefitting from that peace process and enjoying it. We need steady hands on the tiller on many fronts and we need to be very focused. I welcome the witnesses and thank Councillor Murphy for doing such a sterling job in keeping us informed and keeping the witnesses well abreast of the issues here. I wish him and his colleagues well, including Councillor Hughie McGrath. Go n-éirí an bóthar libh go léir.
Dr. Peter Bossman:
Many European countries would be envious of Ireland. I heard today that 92% of Irish people support the European Union. I do not believe such a result would be achieved in any other part of Europe and it shows that Ireland is very much involved in the European story.
Deputy Durkan said something very important. He said that if Britain is seen to have won, it will be the beginning of the end of the European dream. I believe that is very true. What if Britain decides that there is not going to be any border? What then? What if Poland decides that there will be no border? It is very important that we support the Irish Government and our negotiator, Mr. Barnier, to ensure that we get an agreement that emphasises the uniqueness of the European story. It is also very important that we realise that the problem, unfortunately, lies not with the European Union but with the Government of Mrs. Teresa May. Every time she takes one step forward she has to go two steps backwards. Every time she has made a concession or a compromise she goes home and the hard Brexiteers and the newspapers attack her. She then changes her mind and alters her position. Unfortunately, I believe this will go on into next year, until Britain finally leaves the European Union. I believe we will not get a good agreement. We will get an agreement of sorts, but it will not be the best agreement possible.
I actually live on two borders; I represent Slovenia, and I live five minutes from the Croatian border and 20 minutes from the Italian border. I know what it means to live on a border. Countries are so intertwined. People go to work on one side or another. I know farmers who farm on the Croatian side and sleep on the Slovenian side. I know Italians who work in Slovenia during the day and go back to Italy during the night. It is very important that the Border remains open and that lives are not affected by a closed border.
I once had a very interesting experience. I am a doctor by profession and during my studies, some 20 years ago, I spent a month in Belfast. At that time there were still problems there and when I said I wanted to go to Belfast I was told I was crazy and asked why I wanted to go there for my exchange programme. I saw the divisions then. I believe the Good Friday Agreement would be endangered if a hard border came into effect. We must fight against that. We cannot allow the paramilitary groups to tell us that the peace process did not work and for their activities to start up again.
When we come to the regions, under the leadership of Mr. Lambertz, we will continue to point out all the negative effects of Brexit to the local and regional authorities because they are the bodies that will suffer the most from this, from a human point of view and an economic point of view. We in the European Committee of the Regions will do everything in our power to make that point clear and to advocate for a fair deal for Ireland and the European Union.
I, like others, welcome the delegates and thank them for their attendance and for the various reports they have produced. The reports are quite bulky and it is obvious that the committee has put a lot of work into this issue in terms of Brexit, which is appreciated by all of us. Their reports are a useful input into the discussion. I also thank the committee for the support it has shown for the Republic of Ireland as the Brexit scenario has unfolded. It is obvious it has a very good appreciation of the issues.
In this part of western Europe we have a number of jurisdictions - the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. There is a fear that Theresa May's Conservative Government is only interested in England because she does not have much of a brief for Scotland, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, it is very important that the EU side in the negotiations watches out for the different regions. I have no doubt the European Committee of the Regions will input into that work and will fight that particular corner.
As the delegation will know, the discussion on the future of Europe is under way. We have had the scenarios published by the European Commission. The French President also outlined his vision for Europe, which is a useful intervention in the debate. There is a fear, now that the Franco-German axis is firmly back in place again at the centre of Europe, that we must watch out for the smaller nation states as well. We all have a role to play in the future of Europe. If there is going to be more integration in Europe, then it must be clearly spelled out and communicated. The reasons for further integration must be clearly explained to citizens. We, in Ireland, are supportive of the enlargement process, which is an issue that has been in the news over the past few days. This country has greatly benefitted from our membership of the European Union. We do not want to pull up the ladder and stop other states joining. We think the EU is a great project for peace, prosperity and progress. We would be supportive of enlargement, provided that the applicant nation states adhere to European norms and values.
On the question of INTERREG and PEACE funding, a number of projects based in the Border region exhibited here in Leinster House last week and many of the members attended. One could see the value of those projects in promoting prosperity and progress in the Border region. Therefore, it is important that such funding continues and it should be central in negotiations, whether it is the UK's commitment to funding the projects or the EU going forward. The projects have been an important part of the peace process.
On the multi-annual financial framework, the Irish Government has clearly stated at various EU summits that we are prepared to increase our contribution to the EU budget but we want to protect the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and that we are committed to the Cohesion Fund. We have adopted that stance because we believe these matter have a very important role to play in terms of the cohesion of Europe. I assume the European Committee of the Regions is supportive of CAP in its present form, or the present funding at any rate, and also the Cohesion Fund. I wonder about the increased contribution made by member states as there may be different contributions made by nation states. Perhaps the European Committee of the Regions has a particular view on same.
Again, I thank the delegates for their attendance. Their reports have made a useful input into the debate. We appreciate all the work that has been done by the committee, particularly on the Irish situation.
I thank the Deputy. I have a few questions for the president of the Committee of the Regions and his colleagues. In its work on preparations being done by the regions, I am interested in and worried about the lack of preparation at local level. Has the delegation seen good examples? If so, we can consider them. Can the delegation give us examples of what we should do and how we, as parliamentarians, should prepare for Brexit? The president can answer in his own time and he can defer to some of his members. The president has the floor.
Mr. Karl-Heinz Lambertz:
I thank the Chairman. One thing is clear, all things are linked in a very fundamental way, which is the future of Europe.
In terms of the first remark about Mr. Barnier, it is very important that member states continue to centralise negotiations. It is absolutely impossible to start separate negotiations. It was important for the first part of the negotiations and it is even more important for the second part. That is the reason I said in my speech that we are not a parallel negotiation team. We are a fact-finding mission that wants to bring specific aspects of local and regional levels to the attention of Mr. Barnier. We have had two large debates with Michel Barnier. When we prepared our resolutions we developed strong connections with his team. We will have another discussion with him probably in the month of July, in the context of our next plenary session.
The word that I have heard spoken here the most is "peace", which is an important message to come from a discussion in Ireland and Northern Ireland. In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. That was a good decision and better than other decisions that I will not discuss.
In terms of the issue we are discussing here, peace is the founding ideal of the European Union. It is the biggest success story in the field of peace around the world. It is clear that the fall of the Iron Curtain, the reunification of Germany and the Good Friday Agreement would never have been realised without the European Union.
In terms of the big challenges for the future, I am convinced that Europe must play a big role in all the areas that need more peace in the world. For such work to be a success, we need a stronger Europe than we have now.
How can Europe be stronger? One of the key solutions is how we handle the issue of borders. Europe is the smallest continent in the world when one peruses a map. Europe is also the continent with the highest density of borders. Open borders are fundamental for Europe but they can only function if external borders are correctly managed. Borders are a crucial issue in Brexit negotiations because it is impossible to imagine that a border between Andalusia and Gibraltar, and certainly between Ireland and Northern Ireland, will be a real external border of the European Union. That is one of the trickiest issues in the Brexit discussion. How can we handle such a complicated matter? I hope the British Government will be flexible and agree with our solutions. Unfortunately, the British Government is in a complicated situation but that is its own responsibility.
Mr. David Cameron had a big vote in terms of doing what he did. The calling of new elections some time ago in Great Britain was not the most intelligent way to do politics. Politics must find solutions and I am sure we will find a solution. I am sure of that because there is no other possible way, except a completely lost situation. I cannot imagine at the moment what the elements of this deal will be. I have some ideas in mind. People have been discussing how the various possibilities can be combined. I would say it will be a Belgian compromise. What do I mean by that? It is where we have incompatible positions. Then we have long negotiations. Finally, we have a very complicated compromise that nobody understands. It is the best way to say that one is not the loser. Then we have the most important aspect - it must work. We have some experiences of this in our country but I am not sure that is the best way to go. It will be very complicated but it is fundamental.
Another problem is the fact that things are happening now at a time when we have big challenges in respect of the future of Europe. The European population is not really happy with Europe. A majority is convinced that we still need Europe but we must have changes. The most important changes that we need can only be done unanimously. If one travels in the different countries in Europe one can understand that it will be difficult. I have just come from a discussion on this in Hungary. We need results and we need progress. The future of Europe is a fundamental issue and the way to approach something is perhaps to go back to the citizens.
That is why two years ago, or perhaps three, we started our Reflecting on Europe process. We will bring an opinion to the table in October but it will done in the coming weeks because our CIVEX commission must adopt it before the summer. We will try to bring some messages. For me, however, the most important message is that Europe is not only Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg. Europe is where people are living in their villages, in cities and in regions. A mayor is as important as a European politician, a member of the European Parliament and even the President of the European Commission. It is only on that level that we can convince people in their heads and in their hearts that Europe has a real added value.
The situation around the Border of Northern Ireland and Ireland was a good example in the past and now, perhaps, it must be a test for this message. I hope we can have some progress. However, we have not only this fundamental discussion about the future as well as the issue of Brexit; we also have the unfriendly issue of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF. When we start to talk about money, all friendships are loosened. It will be a difficult moment to find some good compromises. In the European Committee of the Regions, we agree completely with the Irish position. It is not possible to consider that agriculture or cohesion are only policies that we have up to now. These are policies for the future. They must be preserved and modernised in a correct way.
That is our daily struggle at the moment. We did major work around our cohesion alliance but we have even bigger work to do in the next month with a large number of regulations concerning the MFF implementation. We hope we can have enough power and influence to change things. On that level, we ask parliaments to be active. It is important national parliaments are also active on this issue and that they look at what is actually discussed in the subsidiarity task force. It was created in November 2017 and has to produce a report on 15 July. There are nine members and two of them are here. We are very busy with this issue and it is not easy to find the correct compromise. It is fundamental, however, that Europe concentrates on these big issues with a real European added value, while the focus on details is more at the level of the national, regional and even local authorities. We have so many challenges at the moment that it is perhaps a reason to hope. These challenges are too big to fail.
I thank President Lambertz. That was a good overview of the whole situation and a good way for us to wrap up this engagement. We could have gone on and interacted all evening but I know Mr. Lambertz has other commitments and meetings on his schedule. I want to help him to adhere to his timeframe. I thank the members for their engagement.
On behalf of the Vice Chairman and the members, I thank everyone for taking the time to be here this evening. I thank the officials for helping to organise this important event. I describe the work that all of us - in Ireland, other countries and everywhere - are doing as trying to prepare for what is an unprecedented situation. We will try to do the best so that we can find a political situation to the difficulties, the problems and issues that will arise over the coming weeks, months and, indeed, years for the betterment of the societies we are elected to represent.