Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Post-European Council: Statements
I thought it warranted at least some response. I said earlier that it is extraordinary that we are 100 days away from Britain leaving the European Union. A withdrawal agreement is in place. One area on which I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin is that there was cross-party support in this House for the Taoiseach and the Government getting a deal and the withdrawal agreement in place. That is very precious to us because it involves only the basic set of protections that are necessary to avoid a hardening of the Border and protect the Good Friday Agreement. While that plan is on the table, the real threat of a no-deal Brexit and Britain crashing out of the European Union is increasingly becoming an option. I still believe it is the least likely option but if it is an option, as I believe it is, we must look at how prepared we are and how prepared Europe is for such a scenario.
The European Commission's plan, as outlined today, shows the seriousness of this issue. It states: "Contingency measures should not replicate the benefits of membership of the Union, nor the terms of any transition period, as provided for in the draft Withdrawal Agreement". It notes: "Contingency measures will not remedy delays that could have been avoided by preparedness measures and timely action by the relevant stakeholders." A couple of concerns arise from these statements from the European Union. First, they appear, on the face of it, to say the North will not be treated differently from Britain in the event of a hard Brexit. The reason I say this is that the Commission, in its communication, "reiterates its calls on Member States to remain united also as regards contingency action, refraining from bilateral arrangements that would be incompatible with EU law and which cannot achieve the same results as action at the EU level". The Taoiseach needs to clarify whether the Commission is saying that, in the event of a hard Brexit, the Border on the island of Ireland will be subject to the same checks and rules as those that will apply to Gibraltar or Calais. If this is the case, it will be completely unacceptable. We cannot allow a situation where the Border on the island of Ireland becomes de-normalised and we slip into the past.
People have real concerns about what will happen in a no-deal, hard-crash scenario. I appreciate to some extent that the Government does not want to talk up a hard crash. Nobody wants to do that. I put these questions to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade as well. I said at the start of my speech that I regard a no-deal Brexit as the least likely option but people, businesses and others who are concerned about Brexit want to know what would happen in such a scenario. We know that World Trade Organization rules would kick in but what would the Government do in the immediate aftermath of a hard crash? Would it impose a hard border? Would Europe force it to impose a hard border? If so, what would it look like? If the Government was not prepared to do it, what negotiations would have to take place with Britain and the European Union to find some other agreement that would avoid a hard border or a hardening of the Border? These are real issues that businesses, farmers and citizens who live either side of the Border are worried about because in the event of a hard crash, any disruption to the movement of goods, services or people will present real difficulty for people who live on the island of Ireland.
If we look at the House of Commons, the position of the Opposition parties and some of the more pro-European members of Conservative Party suggests there is a majority for Britain staying in the customs union and elements of the Single Market. However, the failure to find an avenue to bring this majority together and make that happen is the reason politics is not working in Westminster and the rest of Britain. Irrespective of what happens, and we all hope we have the softest possible Brexit, it will still have economic, social and political implications for the island of Ireland and this State.
Previous speakers put questions on this matter to the Taoiseach during Leaders' Questions. We must look at how prepared we are in any Brexit scenario. Sinn Féin believes not enough is being spent on capital investment. The roll-out of the national broadband plan has stalled. We have not built up our defences relating to ports, roads and infrastructure generally. We gave the example of Rosslare Port, which is losing a ferry. There is an argument for deepening the port to increase capacity and the same applies with regard to Waterford port. A great deal could be done for the regions. Some regions will feel the effects of Brexit, irrespective of whether it is hard or soft. Like Deputy Howlin, I come from the south east, which has a very strong agrifood sector. Many companies that operate in the region and elsewhere export to Britain and the rest of the European Union. Many agrifood businesses are already suffering because of currency fluctuations between the euro and the pound. The Government does not seem to have put any plans in place to support these businesses. There has been poor uptake of some of the loan schemes it has introduced. I understand uptake of one scheme stands at 9%, which is inadequate. Businesses are speaking with their feet in this regard. It simply is not happening.
We cannot see a credible plan for even a soft Brexit. What worries me even more is what plans are in place for a hard Brexit. I look forward to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade publishing proposals tomorrow. We will mull over those and a debate on them will be necessary early in the new year. I appeal to the Taoiseach to listen to what the Opposition is saying in respect of being prepared for a hard crash. It is a prospect about which people are very concerned.