Tuesday, 16 January 2018
European Council: Statements
I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Minister of State a happy new year.
The outcomes of the European Council meeting before Christmas are important and cover many areas. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, I will refer mostly to the Brexit negotiations.
It is welcome that significant progress has been made to allow the negotiations to move from phase one to phase two. The negotiations are important for Ireland and likely to impact one way or another on every parish, workplace and home. While many in the United Kingdom believe that no deal is better than a bad one, I do not agree. We all know that the potential consequences of the United Kingdom crashing out of the European Union could be disastrous. The confirmation that the United Kingdom has proposed and the European Union has accepted a transition period of two years is good news. It gives all of our businesses time to get ready and prepare. This step was hugely significant for Ireland and the rest of the European Union. The impact of Brexit on Ireland will be significant because of geography, history, trade and so on; therefore every aspect of the negotiations is vital for all of us.
There are, however, issues that are unique to Ireland and they have been extremely well recognised by the other member states. I congratulate all those on the Irish side who worked so hard to explain the position and recognise the solidarity we received from all of these countries. The Government, the Civil Service and our diplomats played their parts, while Oireachtas Members also made every effort to talk to fellow parliamentarians in other member states to raise issues and explain their context every time they had an opportunity to do so. A strong consensus was built and our friends supported us, which ended up being important in getting us to where we are now. However, while all of that was complicated, the next phase will be more difficult as there will be negotiations on a transitional arrangement, a withdrawal agreement and the start of work on the framework for a future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
The full and final solution which takes into account the particulars of the Irish Border has not been found yet. We know what the parameters of it are but not how every little piece will work or what exactly regulatory alignment is and in what areas it is needed. The EU will need to go into all of this with the UK.
My sense is that if we are to look at the central parts, that is, the customs union and the Single Market, to ensure there is no hard border on this island, we might be better drawing up a list of what is not essential rather than trying to start with what is essential. We have all seen the reports on the trade, the number of people and, in particular, the volume of milk crossing the Border every day. There is the example of how Baileys is made, with movement backwards and forwards made possible partly because we all recognise the same standards. While the European Council noted in its position that the Brexit transition arrangements must suit the EU, it also highlighted its willingness to establish partnerships with the UK in other areas besides trade after Brexit. This is very helpful. At the end of the day, there is a lot of excitable talk about all of this but the islands are not moving. We are still going to be neighbours and we will need to work together on many issues. With regard to the rest of the issues that were dealt with at the European Council, it is always helpful to continue to co-operate with other member states. Some of the issues that were discussed are ones where, while it is important Ireland has a different focus and approach because of our military neutrality, we can still co-operate on them. We need to take care on all of these issues. The final issues of importance the Council looked at focus on improving co-operation on social, educational and cultural policies. While we all set our own policies in these areas, we can still learn from each other and try to improve.
I want to put on the record my compliments and gratitude to all of the members of the committee. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, continued success. The committee members look forward to working with her in a very proactive way in trying to deal with all of the issues of importance to Ireland post-Brexit.