Dáil debates

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Post-European Council: Statements


2:35 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour) | Oireachtas source

Many important discussions took place at the European Council meeting last week. There are a host of policies that need to be advanced. On economic policy, we need the next seven-year financial framework and reform of the Single Market to strengthen the EU’s social pillar, as I have said so often in the past, and to support people and communities that are being left behind. We also need the financial framework and Single Market reform to be centred on action to mitigate climate change. We need Europe-wide social insurance policies as part of reforming monetary policy and the euro currency.

The Labour Party endorses, as I have just heard Sinn Féin do, the UN migration pact, and this should be at the centre of the EU discussion of migration policy. I have discussed the need for a Marshall Plan for Europe’s neighbourhood, in particular significant European investment in the Arab countries in Europe’s neighbourhood to boost political stability there and to help their economies develop. On migration, will the Taoiseach assure this House that all member states have been fully briefed about our common travel area with the UK and how we need that to function in parallel with EU migration policy? That will be doubly true if there is no withdrawal agreement in place.

On security, we need to see concrete actions being implemented to safeguard the European elections next May from any outside interference, including online through social media.

I also want to focus on the looming spectre of Brexit. There are now four realistic outcomes from the UK Parliament’s deliberation of the withdrawal agreement. As things stand, there is not a majority for any of them. There is no majority for the current text of the withdrawal agreement and it was made abundantly clear that the legal text will not be reopened. The solidarity from EU member states for Ireland's position on the Border is very welcome, but if the agreement does not pass Parliament, what next? A second possibility is a general election, which under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act requires a two thirds majority that seems unlikely to occur. Even if an election was held and a new British Government formed, it seems unlikely that the deadlock in Parliament about Brexit would be overcome as no significant change to the withdrawal agreement would be on offer from Europe.

A third possibility is a new referendum to allow the public in Britain a new choice between the withdrawal agreement and the status quoof continued full membership of the EU. The case for a new referendum has been greatly strengthened in recent weeks and there is now a focus on how a new referendum can come about, as a delay to Article 50 would be required. As the Taoiseach has said, we should certainly be open to extending the Article 50 process to allow a new referendum if that was the will of the British Parliament.

The very real prospect of a no-deal Brexit is also growing in likelihood. There is a risk of no deal by accident rather than design as the time runs out. The only legal certainty is that there will be a no-deal Brexit on 29 March unless the UK Parliament changes matters as they are now legally fixed. As this prospect looms, there will be enormous pressure on the Government, including from business here, to dilute the Border backstop. This must be resisted, and I believe it will be.

The Taoiseach has announced that a volume of emergency legislation will be required to prepare the country for a no-deal Brexit scenario. There are only 29 sitting days scheduled in the Dáil between our return after the Christmas break and Brexit day. The Government has dropped the ball on these preparations.

How are we to have a proper scrutiny and debate of what appears to be a significant volume of legislation, all to be enacted in less than three months, alongside all of the normal business that these Houses have to deal with, such as the health and housing crises that we cannot simply sideline?

We are also likely to see new directives coming from the European Commission, as it too is stepping up preparations for no deal. Like the Taoiseach, I have also been in here since 12 o'clock so I have not had a chance to study the Commission documentation since it was published but there are clearly real implications for us in this Parliament in the European preparations. There is a real risk that this simply will not work. If the Government rams through a raft of new laws, without due debate and scrutiny, it will have serious implications for the primacy of our job to scrutinise legislation to the full and to make sure that it is fit for purpose.

We saw Fianna Fáil sign up last week to a new confidence and supply deal with the Government, but has it agreed that laws vital to the national interest will be rushed through the Dáil without full debate? I am heartened by the contribution from Deputy Micheál Martin today and yesterday in that regard and I believe he will demand full and complete scrutiny. Part of the first step in that is for us to be briefed before Christmas so that we can take advice over the Christmas break on what is right.

If we assume that the withdrawal agreement will not be agreed at Westminster, there is only one scenario that we should then contemplate and that is a change of heart among the British people about the whole Brexit misadventure. According to several surveys, public desire in the United Kingdom for a second vote has grown, while public appetite for Brexit has declined. Since June 2016, much has been revealed such as illegality in the referendum campaign by the "Leave" side, deception and false promises and decades of false reporting about the EU by the British media.

That aside, the general public’s understanding of the European Union has changed over the last 30 months. The EU is not a monolith, but it is a collection of legal agreements built up by consensus and negotiation among member states, initially a small band of member states and now 28. The UK has been a net beneficiary of all of these agreements over 40 years or more. There have been agreements on atomic energy, on university and research co-operation, on access to satellites, on police and security co-operation and on mobile phone roaming which has been one of the big benefits for all of our citizens as we travel around Europe. There have been countless small benefits enjoyed by individuals and businesses that will only become apparent when they are lost. Truth be told, the UK has distinctly influenced the development of most of these agreements. It has been the co-author of many of the agreements, most particularly the anchoring agreement of the European Union, namely the Single Market itself.

Although some of these benefits can be preserved outside of the union in a new UK-EU agreement, should one be negotiated and come to pass, they will not be provided free of charge. The very opening picture of officials going into Downing Street shortly after negotiations commenced two years ago with a briefing note saying: "have our cake and eat it" underscores what the negotiating position of the United Kingdom and the delusion of many in the United Kingdom was from the beginning.

The supporters of hard Brexit are also those who are quite happy to jettison all co-operation with European states in favour of this fantasy of British isolationism. It is a withdrawal to a view of Britain that actually never existed. One British politician said to me that they voted for a Miss Marple Britain, a fantasy. Yet they claim that the EU will still offer them frictionless trade. It is actually more than a fantasy, it is a lie.

One of the telling statements from Theresa May’s premiership has been her argument some months ago that Russia is threatening the international legal order. As a matter of fact, it is the hard Brexiteers who are a clear and present danger to the international legal order of the European Union and the World Trade Organisation. They cling to the simplistic 19th century notion of sovereignty that is incompatible with realistic interdependence and co-operation among countries and governments that have characterised all international developments of the last several decades and certainly the period since the conclusion of World War Two. They ignore the enhanced capacity that is gained when countries co-operate through an international legal order such as the EU has created.

The solution to Brexit, if there is one, now lies with the British Labour Party. I have engaged with my Labour colleagues on Brexit since before the vote. I campaigned in Liverpool for "Remain" with a number of British Labour Party colleagues both in the European Parliament and from the Westminster Parliament. I remain in close contact with Labour shadow cabinet members and they are well informed on Ireland’s concerns about Brexit. The British Labour Party is more likely to back a new referendum than it is to back the current withdrawal agreement. No plausible change to the withdrawal agreement would satisfy the British Labour Party, and at any rate we should not go down the road of even trying to dilute the withdrawal agreement that was so hard negotiated over 20 months and more. That deal is the deal that is on the table.

That puts the focus squarely on what the EU can do to make continued membership of the European Union more attractive to the people of the United Kingdom. We received real concessions when the Irish people voted against previous European treaties. That is a fact. There is every reason for the European Union to show understanding, flexibility and responsiveness to the real dilemma facing the UK right now. Without any compromise on the fundamental principle of free movement of people and workers within the Single Market - we should not compromise on those basic, bedrock principles - there is still room for clarification and better regulation of internal migration. That was the deal that was negotiated and offered to David Cameron and it should be offered again in full, and better explained, as I outlined last week. The Cameron deal, which simply pointed out the options available within the treaties and the arrangements that the United Kingdom never availed of, addressed many of the concerns, some rational and some irrational, that were put up by those who voted to leave the European Union.

All over Europe, railways, water systems and postal systems remain in public ownership. These are three flagship British Labour Party commitments, and they can all be achieved within the European Union. The EU should make that potential crystal clear. Likewise, if it remains, the UK should retain its opt-outs, including its option to remain outside of the Euro currency if that is what it chooses.

At this crucial juncture, time is running out. The Government should undertake to convince our EU partners to make a declaration to the British people that the EU would welcome a fresh decision to remain a member. We do not need to pretend indifference to UK internal affairs on this point.

Whether the UK remains in the European Union is very much in Ireland's national interest, and we are well within our entitlement to make the British people a good offer to fully engage with the prospect of voting again and reversing this disastrous decision.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:I call Teachta Boyd Barrett.


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