Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 12 July 2023
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Future of the EU-UK Relationship: UK Ambassador to Ireland
On behalf of the committee, I welcome the UK ambassador to Ireland, H.E. Mr. Paul Johnston, along with his colleagues. In today's meeting we are looking forward to having a discussion on the future of the EU-UK relationship, which I believe will be the first opportunity for the committee and the ambassador to engage on that post Brexit. This will obviously be a crucial relationship as we progress.
Before I ask the ambassador to make his opening statement, I need to go through some technical housekeeping issues. All witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore, if witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks.
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 of the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I also remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the Leinster House complex to participate in this public meeting. I cannot permit a member to participate where they are not adhering to this requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. In this regard, I ask members participating via Microsoft Teams to confirm they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus prior to making a contribution.
I am now delighted to ask the ambassador to make his opening statement to the committee.
H.E. Mr. Paul Johnston:
It is a great pleasure to be here. I thank the members for the invitation to address the committee. We met last year in a very different political context in terms of the UK’s relationship with the European Union.
Given the crucial importance of political stability in Northern Ireland and the wider importance of the UK-EU relationship, not least to Ireland and not least in the current geopolitical context, it was rightly a priority for the UK and the EU to seek to resolve the difficulties concerning the Northern Ireland Protocol. I am pleased to be here this year in a different political situation, in particular following the conclusion of the Windsor Framework. I again put on record our thanks for the important role the Irish Government played in that process.
The UK Foreign Secretary said last week at the UK-EU Partnership Parliamentary Assembly that "it was always obvious” that “close and friendly co-operation between the UK and the EU would be the ultimate and eventual outcome of Brexit". He admitted that it took longer to get there than many of us would have liked. However, I believe we are now on a positive trajectory for UK-EU relations for three reasons. First, we have stabilised our relationship with the conclusion of the Windsor Framework. Second, our shared values and interests in the challenging world we face today, exemplified by our work on Ukraine, have offered a new model for effective UK-EU co-operation. Third, we have a forward-looking agenda to maintain momentum, as the Foreign Secretary and Vice President Šefovi confirmed when they met last week.
The Windsor Framework was a significant achievement based on a shared sense of collaboration to find workable solutions underpinned by trust. It fixed the practical problems we were facing, particularly on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, thus, crucially, restoring one of the delicate balances of the Belfast, Good Friday, Agreement. It was welcome and appropriate that the framework was agreed before the 25th anniversary of the Belfast, Good Friday, Agreement. For me personally, it was a privilege and an experience I will long remember to be at Queen’s University Belfast and Hillsborough Castle for the events to mark that special anniversary.
The Windsor Framework is rightly seen as a turning point for Northern Ireland. The UK Government, like the Irish Government and the EU as a whole, wants to see an executive restored so that Northern Ireland can seize the full benefits that the new framework provides. We continue to urge the parties to return to power sharing at the earliest opportunity. Of course, more work will be needed on detailed implementation in the coming months but the Government is confident the framework provides the foundation, most importantly, for political and economic stability in Northern Ireland, but also for a more positive UK-EU relationship in the years to come.
It is clear that an important factor in the determination to resolve the differences over the Northern Ireland protocol was the shared priority the UK and EU have with regard to the appalling events happening at the other end of our continent. The commitment the UK has shown to Euro-Atlantic security ever since the Brexit decision, but particularly since the invasion of Ukraine, has illustrated that, to coin a phrase, although the UK has left the European Union, we have not left Europe. The UK’s Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a More Contested and Volatile World, our review of the international situation and its implications published in March this year, made clear that "the security and prosperity of the Euro-Atlantic will remain our core priority, bolstered by a reinvigoration of our European relationships". We have seen this in practice over the past 16 months as we have worked together to support Ukraine and its people and to sanction the Russian war machine. We are also seeing that co-operation in supporting Ukraine to rebuild its society, economy and infrastructure. We were delighted that the Tánaiste was in London for the UK-hosted Ukraine Recovery Conference last month, where President von der Leyen pledged, on behalf of the EU, €50 billion in grants and loans. We must support Ukraine to win the war and the peace. Our shared European values and interests are at stake in this.
This brings me to my third and final point of my introductory remarks. I believe that the conclusion of the Windsor Framework and the intense UK-EU co-operation on Ukraine have shown that we are now in a positive place for the future of UK-EU co-operation. To quote the Integrated Review Refresh document again, "The enduring strength of the European family of nations, and of the UK’s ties within it, has been reaffirmed” and “We will build on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Windsor Framework to enter a new phase in our post-Brexit relationships in Europe.”
Under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, there are now formal UK-EU dialogues on cybersecurity and counter-terrorism. More broadly, we are developing foreign policy co-operation between the UK and EU. One important example is the Western Balkans. I know members heard from the EU special representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue a fortnight ago. Our missions in Brussels and on the ground across the region are working together very closely on these issues. Our ambition and our agenda can go further, however.
To name three areas, the European Political Community, EPC, has been a welcome new forum for continent-wide co-operation. The Prime Minister and Taoiseach most recently met in the margins of the last meeting in Moldova last month. The UK will host an EPC leaders’ meeting next year following the next summit in Spain in October.
The UK has also renewed our participation in the North Seas Energy Cooperation group, NSEC, which will help facilitate, among other things, deeper UK-Ireland co-operation on energy. We are grateful to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for the role he has played in that forum.
We are expanding co-operation on illegal migration, which is a pan-European issue. This includes working through the Calais group - Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and the EU - and we have opened talks to establish a working arrangement with Frontex, the EU's border and coast guard agency.
Looking even further ahead, there will be a review of the TCA as a whole in 2025. A lot of water will pass under many bridges before then. Our focus for now should be building on the positive developments of recent months to encourage further progress in the relationship in our shared interest.
I welcome the ambassador. I was walking out as he was coming in but that was not intentional and no offence was intended.
In fairness, we are in a much better place than we were when we spoke previously. We all welcome that fact that the Windsor Framework is in place. I do not think the ambassador will be shocked to hear that we have particular issues and do not believe Brexit was a great idea. Britain has absolute rights with regard to what it wants to do.
I would state, obviously, that the people of the North did not vote for it but anyway, we are where we are. I accept that the ambassador is not necessarily utterly responsible for what every British Government decides to do, but the position the DUP found itself in would have related an awful lot to decisions, statements and interactions with Boris Johnson. I do not think that has been helpful.
We all want to see the Executive up and running. There needs to be a case of ensuring that momentum is maintained. The DUP has some sort of notion with regard to some legislative fix. In fairness, we might not have any major difficulty in that regard. It is the timeline, however. We are always worried around slippage at this time of year. This is 12 July. It is the marching season. That limits things sometimes. Unionism finds that limiting regarding what moves it can make. We need this not to stretch on forever. That is the big issue. I am sure that from a British Government point of view, it needs that to be done as well. It probably makes life easier with regard to engagement across Europe and with the American Administration and all the rest of it, as it should be. I accept there is room for co-operation.
I will put this on the record, and it is not the first time anybody here has voiced their dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill at this point in time. I have a particular view about that. The British Government does not want to deal with its particular actions in the conflict. I accept that nobody has clean hands. It is not only about ensuring that those who wore British uniforms do not go to jail. It also relates to the fact of not wanting to deal with the collaboration with loyalists who were at times used as proxies. Anyway, that is where it is. There is absolute agreement across the island of Ireland in that regard. I will ask the ambassador for an answer on that.
I agree with him around the issue of migration. To refer back to Boris Johnson, he brought the conversation on migration into a particularly strange place as regards Rwanda and whatever else. There is an element of British politics that still finds itself in that place whereas when I look across Europe, we must have a sensible solution for dealing with people who are fleeing from absolute disaster, whether it is war, climate change or whatever else. We also all operate in economies and societies where we could not operate without economic migrants and others, and I do not think we have actually put all those pieces together. That needs to happen. It goes without saying that the war in Ukraine has shown up the issues that exist with regard to energy security. There are major issues with regard to climate change and all the rest of it but we all have to move in the direction of renewables. Obviously, from an Irish perspective, there are huge advantages in that.
I am not sure whether the ambassador will want to answer my next question. Non-alignment and neutrality has come up in the last while and one of the issues that has been put up is the deal or no deal with the Royal Air Force, RAF. If the ambassador wants to give an answer on that, he might be somewhat more forthcoming than the Government. I think that is a sufficient amount to get the conversation started.
I thank Deputy Ó Murchú. Before I come back to the ambassador, for the purposes of clarity, our meeting this morning and what we invited the ambassador in for is to discuss EU-UK relations in the context, obviously, of Ireland in that regard. Some of those areas and questions, which the Deputy is absolutely at liberty to ask, are way outside the scope of that. We respect that the ambassador is not in here for an in-depth discussion on those areas today. We have had many engagements with him, and will have, as Irish parliamentarians, on those areas in the future. I will hand back to the ambassador.
I would say the ambassador is somewhat shocked that I have not asked abut the conversation that is happening at the minute and the fact we need to look at the means of triggering a referendum on Irish unity.
I am going to be a little more definitive now and I am going to ask the ambassador to address the issues that we are primarily here to discuss today. I want to give members a bit of leeway but this is not a discussion on that point. This is a discussion on potential UK-EU future relations. With that, I will hand back to the ambassador.
H.E. Mr. Paul Johnston:
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Deputy. To cover points that I think are relevant to the agenda of the UK-EU relationship, we always saw the Northern Ireland protocol and the Windsor Framework as important both for the sake of underpinning all three strands of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and because it is important to have a stable situation in relation to Northern Ireland for the sake of the union and the Good Friday Agreement but also because it was clearly an issue in the UK-EU relationship. That was part of the motivation for seeking to resolve it. It was clear that the protocol itself did not command cross-community support and I think we succeeded in persuading partners. The Irish Government was clearly very familiar with the situation and the fact that there were practical problems and political problems. We are convinced that the Windsor Framework is a means to address those.
On the back of that, we hope, as the Deputy was saying, that the Executive can be up and running as soon as possible. We have made clear that we will not be reopening the Windsor Framework because we think that is an agreed solution and that it will take forward agreed implementation. We remain in touch with all the parties to try to encourage them see the opportunity that now exists for Northern Ireland politically and economically to embrace all the benefits of the framework and hope that can be resolved as soon as possible.
The migration situation is a big challenge for Europe as a whole. I saw somewhere that there has been a 65% increase in illegal migration into Europe. It is one of the themes the Prime Minister has talked about including at EPC meetings. The scourge of people traffickers and the people who are exploiting illegal migration is something that needs a Europe-wide response. Hence our desire to reach a working arrangement with Frontex as part of working with the EU on tackling the challenge.
It is absolutely right that Ukraine has thrown up a whole new series of areas where we need to invigorate our co-operation both with the European Union and with individual European countries. The areas of energy security, resilience, decarbonisation and exploiting the potential of renewable energy is absolutely part of that as well.
I will go now to Deputy Haughey but before I do I would say this about the Windsor Framework. It is one of those great ironies because in the Prime Minister's speech he told the people of Northern Ireland that they have the most enviable situation of being in the European Union and in the United Kingdom, which of course was something everybody in the United Kingdom enjoyed until Brexit. I believe it is a very good solution that has been arrived at.
I welcome the ambassador. I thank him for coming to the meeting and for his willingness generally to engage with Deputies and Senators since his appointment. I am sorry to hear that he had to leave Twitter. He published an article in the Business Postabout the review of foreign policy and security, which he is perfectly entitled to do. I regret that it would seem he was bullied off Twitter. We need open and frank debate on these matters and his intervention was welcome even if some people did not agree with it.
I agree about the improved EU-UK relationship. That is to be welcomed by everybody, including us here in Ireland. It is great to see that there is political stability in the United Kingdom. Since Brexit there have been a number of Prime Ministers and so forth. The European Commission was a little exasperated by all that. That is all in the past now. The task now is to improve relations between the EU and the UK and included in that is Ireland.
I note what His Excellency had to say about Ukraine and the shared values. That is important and that has come to the fore since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I also note his willingness to engage with the European Political Community. As he knows, there have been two meetings of that so far. It is great that His Excellency is engaging with that and is an active participant in that and that his Prime Minister can meet our Taoiseach on the margins of those meetings. That is all good. Also good are the changes made to the Nationality and Borders Bill, whereby it was amended so EU residents who are legally resident in Ireland will not need an electronic travel authorisation to enter Northern Ireland. There was a strong case put by the Irish Government and the UK Government made changes to that. That is to be welcomed.
The trade and co-operation agreement, withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland protocol and Windsor Framework are very complex documents. Let us face that. There are a lot of committees to be established arising from them. How does His Excellency see the Windsor Framework being implemented now? Where are we at in that regard? Are all the various committees set up under the trade and co-operation agreement and the withdrawal agreement up and running and functioning? As a parliamentarian I am particularly interested in the parliamentary partnership assembly. It is good to see that has met. That is a very broad question. Basically, I am asking about the implementation of the Windsor Framework and where we are at now. I guess there is still a lot of work to be done to make that work. That is the first question.
Linked to that is the DUP opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol and its consideration of the Windsor Framework. There is talk of the British Government bringing forward legislation relating to trade and sovereignty to reassure the DUP. Where is that at? Is that the position, namely, that these talks are under way and there is a possibility that the DUP will be given assurances on trade and sovereignty by way of legislation?
I also raise the issue of human rights following Brexit. Deputies and Senators will have gotten a joint submission from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission having regard to Article 2 of the Windsor Framework. The submission notes that common EU membership facilitated broad alignment of equality and human rights law in the past and that now there is a danger of divergence across the island of Ireland in relation to human rights. It is a long-winded question again. What is the British Government doing with regard to human rights generally? Now that it has left the EU, what is its view of the Council of Europe and so forth? Is there promised legislation in this regard? Are there changes proposed?
We are obviously not going to deal with the legacy Bill here today but I would like to put on record my opposition to that. I know it was held up in the House of Lords. His Excellency might want to comment even on that part of it. How is that legislation proceeding at this stage? Will the House of Lords changes delay it? If he does not want to answer that, that is fine. I will leave it at that for the moment.
H.E. Mr. Paul Johnston:
I will try to take those questions in the order the Deputy asked them. He first asked about the establishment of committees. He is right. There is a range of committees being established, or they have been established, under both the withdrawal agreement the trade and co-operation agreement. The withdrawal agreement special joint committee, which is chaired by the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, and the Vice President of the Commission, Maroš Šefovi, met last week in Brussels and they were both there for the parliamentary partnership assembly.
I think I read it was the 19th or 20th meeting of the committee. That committee network is well under way and is looking at the huge range of issues to be taken forward under both agreements, and both our Government and the European Union institutions are very much engaged in making those committees work.
That leads me on to Deputy Haughey's next point about the Windsor Framework implementation. Clearly, the framework was agreed on 27 February after a couple of months of intensive negotiation. There is now an agreed process between ourselves and the Commission for taking forward the timely and successful implementation. We are working very closely together on that. We published recently further guidance on how it will work in practice, including detail on improved customs processes and movements of goods. It is all about our commitment to making the Windsor Framework work, with obviously the goal being to support businesses and people in Northern Ireland. As part of that, we are continuing to engage extensively with businesses, communities and political parties in Northern Ireland to support them in adapting to the new arrangements which will be phased in over about two and a half years. We published the first tranche of that guidance and we will continue to do so, and we will continue to discuss both with our European partners and with people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere as we take that forward. Obviously engagement with Irish stakeholders is a big part of that as well.
On the question of reassurances, trade and sovereignty, clearly the biggest reassurance that we could give was to agree the Windsor Framework, with the very significant changes it has made both politically and practically. We think that was a key reassurance to give in relation to concerns that had been expressed on the protocol, many of which the Government shared. As I said earlier, we are in discussion with all the parties about any outstanding concerns. Anything we do will be squarely within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement, with full recognition of its very important and sensitive balances, because the whole rationale for our attempts to reform the protocol and achieve a better balance through the framework was about supporting the balances of the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement.
In terms of the human rights dimension, it is worth saying that the Prime Minister made clear in the debate on the day of the agreement to the Windsor Framework in the House that the UK is a member of the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR; and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, in a debate at the end of March, on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement appropriately enough said that he completely understood that the ECHR is integral to the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement. I think our view is that upholding human rights standards is absolutely central to what we want to do. The Secretary of State for Justice has said the Government remains committed to a human rights framework that is up to date, fit for purpose and works for the British people, but as has also been said by Ministers, we will honour our international obligations.
I think the Prime Minister showed his attachment to the Council of Europe by going to the Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik in May. It was the first time a British Prime Minister had been to one of those gatherings for a long time. I think he sees the Council of Europe like the EPC as a very important framework for working with European partners on shared challenges. Clearly, one of our motivations for tackling the scourge of illegal immigration and people trafficking is the human rights abuses that are committed against the poor people who are trying to seek a better life but are being exploited by people traffickers.
Although it is not a UK-EU issue in the sense that the Chair said, the legacy Bill is still in Parliament at the moment. I think the process is that the House of Lords has proposed various amendments and they will need to be discussed between the Commons and the Lords in what is called the ping-pong process. Essentially, the Government's determination to bring forward the legislation, having listened extensively and sought to react to what we have heard, remains the same.
We have concluded our contributions from members. I want to make a couple of points and to ask questions of the ambassador myself. I would be very interested to know where the process lies in terms of the UK moving on the historic EU legislation that is embedded within UK law. As he is aware, there was legislation effectively to scrap that and we know that has now been stepped back. It would seem to me that the indications of where the Government's thinking is on this is a key indicator on the extent of the building of alignment between the UK and the EU in the future. What are the benefits the British Government sees from having as close an alignment as possible to what is happening within the context of current and future EU legislation? That would be a clear indicator of where they see the relationship going.
I acknowledge that comments have been made on the Windsor Framework already. Given the trials and tribulations it caused for both countries, within the relationship with the European Union, it probably has provided a very good framework and path to how I would hope the future UK-EU relationship can be built in terms of both sides looking for how they can deepen and integrate bespoke solutions that would be of benefit to both. Something we have always been very clear on here in Ireland, as an EU member state and as a country that very much sees its future within that context, is that our relationship with the UK is critical on so many levels, and part of that strand is on trade. For many Irish businesses, there is still a lot of residual hangover from Brexit that affects them. I am trying to focus on that side in particular in regard to where the British Government sees that developments can take place and perhaps what it is looking for from the EU in terms of that space. We obviously cannot recreate the union. Perhaps we are not all in agreement, but everybody on this side of the water is in agreement about the awful shame of what happened in Brexit to what was effectively a perfect system for allowing trade between our two islands. How do we get as close to rebuilding that in the context of trade being an EU competency and obviously something that the UK Government wants to do, and I believe probably wants to do as a priority? I will ask the ambassador those two questions and come back to him.
H.E. Mr. Paul Johnston:
On the question of alignment, I think you will have seen, Chair, the Government's so-called retained EU law Bill, which creates a framework that is a natural part of developing our own regulatory framework following the EU exit. It is about ensuring that the UK's laws are fit for purpose, not about lowering standards. It is also a recognition that we will maintain a strong record on workers' rights, environmental protection and, as I mentioned earlier, in the human rights context we are committed to upholding our international obligations, including those in our treaties with the EU. The Bill will set out exactly which EU-derived laws will be sunset at the end of this year so people will be clear about what will change and what will not change. Obviously, we are engaging closely with EU counterparts on the Bill. The balance we seek is that we will now have the ability to set our own rights and standards, including in relation to emerging technologies and challenges but, clearly, the EU remains a massive trading partner for the UK.
Skipping to the third question, therefore, it is very important that we recognise as we take forward our own legislative framework, that the TCA is the world's biggest zero-tariff and zero-quota relationship. It is clearly a different relationship to the one that existed before exit, but we are absolutely committed to developing our trading relationships around the world, while having strong trade and investment relationships across the European Union as well.
On the middle question about the Windsor Framework being indicative of a new path and bespoke solutions, I think what was particular about the Windsor Framework was obviously we were recognising the challenges, opportunities and circumstances of Northern Ireland and we found a very particular solution there. Generally, in terms of the future path that we want to follow, if one likes, it is one in which we would very pragmatically but also very constructively look at the range of opportunities in our relationship with the European Union and seek to find ways forward that deliver for us both. That could be working together on Ukraine or on sanctions more generally.
I was struck that the speeches by President von der Leyen, the UK foreign secretary and the Tánaiste on the challenge of China were all similar as regards content and approach. We see opportunities to work together across the field in a meaningful partnership for the future, in full respect of one another's sovereignty.
As it has not been mentioned, I will raise climate change and the European Green Deal that was announced by Ursula von der Leyen. Now that the UK has left the EU, is there much divergence between the UK and the EU in tackling the issue of climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Does the UK have a different approach now? I would appreciate if the ambassador would tell the committee where he thinks Britain is in that regard.
H.E. Mr. Paul Johnston:
Clearly, the overall imperatives remain the same or if they do not, they have evolved in the same way, that is, there is an imperative to move towards decarbonisation for the sake of protecting the planet and an imperative to move towards much greater energy independence given the Russia-Ukraine situation. For geopolitical and climate reasons, it is an urgent priority for us to balance our economy, move away from dependence on fossil fuels and follow the path of decarbonisation. The UK and the EU will clearly do that in different ways with respect to sovereignty and autonomous policymaking but we will be driven by the same impulses. In various areas we will see opportunities for co-operation in different ways. For example, the UK has rejoined the North Seas Energy Co-operation forum. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, played an important part in taking that forward, including when Ireland was chairing the forum. It is not a UK-EU grouping as such. It is the UK with a number of EU countries working together on energy co-operation. In the fields of energy policy, industrial policy and elsewhere, we will see the UK and the EU, formally speaking, charting their own courses, but being aware that we are working on the single challenge that can legitimately be defined as a global challenge, that is, the challenge of stopping excessive temperature rises and climate change.
Before I bring our engagement to a close, it is always worth noting at a point such as this what the relationship will be in the future. One of the key things is that when the UK was a member of the EU, the ability of Ireland and UK to work together was one of the pronounced parts of membership for both countries. We shared some similar goals and a vision for Europe. Extrapolating the new relationship the UK will have with the EU from that, I see that many of those principles, goals and what we want to see in the future are still very much aligned. It is important from our countries' perspective that we work together in the greater European context H.E. Mr. Johnston outlined clearly today, with respect to the involvement. We share many interests. With Ireland as a member state of the EU and the UK in the position it is in now, a lot can be done for Europe in general in ensuring those views continue to be heard clearly.
I thank the ambassador for his contribution.