Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Post-European Council: Statements
When I last spoke in the Chamber on the subject of Brexit, I made the point, as did many others, that the hubris with which the draft withdrawal agreement was greeted was premature and potentially damaging to Prime Minister May’s chances of guiding the deal through Westminster. While we cannot know the impact that the excessive fanfare from Dublin and elsewhere had on the perception of MPs, it is safe to say that the deal is in serious jeopardy. While on paper the deal represents a decent compromise for the EU and UK and a legally sound solution to the Border issue, it may prove not to be worth the paper it is written on.
It is simply a ludicrous position where the EU is negotiating a deal with a Prime Minister who has no parliamentary authority to enforce it. The deferral of the so-called meaningful vote and the resulting motion of no confidence has done nothing to assuage the demands of those who are unhappy with the deal in its current form. It simply reinforces the Prime Minister's position of being in office but not in power, to coin a phrase. If this charade is simply a power play by those seeking to change the Tory leadership for their own ends, that is one thing, but it is quite another to ask seriously what further assurances the UK needs for this deal to be acceptable.
It was reported that Chancellor Merkel was heard to exclaim, “What else do you want?”, during Theresa May’s presentation to other EU leaders in Brussels last Thursday night. The UK was further accused of being "nebulous" in what it wanted by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. I would say that with discussions still at this point after more than two and a half years of Brexit, "nebulous" was quite a polite term to use.
The reality is that Prime Minister May cannot tell us precisely what she wants out of the deal because what she wants is dictated by the parliamentary arithmetic of Westminster. While it is welcome that the EU is willing to offer assurances and clarifications on the deal, including the backstop, I concur with the Taoiseach, the European Commission and the other Heads of State in their assessment that a full-scale reopening of negotiations must not be on the table. The United Kingdom has had more than two and a half years to decide what form Brexit should take. That its Government still cannot nail down precisely what this will be at the 11th hour is shocking.
Leaving aside the internal politics of the UK, it is fundamental that the backstop must remain as a key component of any withdrawal agreement. I am very glad to see that the EU supports us in this. It should of course be reiterated that if the backstop was ever to be used, it would only be as a temporary mechanism. As President Macron said, “it is not a durable solution and nobody is trying to lock the UK into the backstop”. It is in no one's interest to have the UK in limbo where the transition agreement is allowed to drag on for an extended period. It is very much in Ireland’s interest that the trade deal between the EU and UK, when it does materialise, is as similar to the current arrangement as possible. Given the intransigence and slow pace of the negotiations that brought us to this point, it is hard not to be pessimistic about talks on the future trade relationship between the EU and UK.
Will the Minister of State outline the status of the preparations for a no-deal Brexit? It is important that we get all of the detail of what is proposed at this point. When some of us raised this possibility in 2016, we were told that it would never happen. From my understanding, the default planning position for Departments has been switched to one where no deal is in place in a little over three months. I am unsure if the scale of what this would mean is fully appreciated. That is why we need the detail to be set out for us here this evening.
I refer to the report of the Revenue Commissioners which assessed the impact of a no-deal Brexit on cross-Border trade, which I have referenced previously. It paints a very stark picture. The view of the Revenue Commissioners is that the idea of a frictionless Border for trade is unworkable and naive. Along with additional infrastructure such as storage facilities for goods at Border crossings and increased staffing at ports and airports, it is estimated that an external frontier would mean an 800% increase in the volume of customs declarations for companies trading with the UK. This would mean a huge increase in the volume and complexity of paperwork for firms, delays, additional costs and an inevitable knock-on effect on the wider economy, both North and South.
In 2017, exports to Britain increased by €1.74 billion compared with 2016 to reach €14.454 billion. In the same period, imports from Britain increased by €1.5 billion to €17.303 billion. By any measure, trade with the UK is vital to our economy and it is growing. Any restrictions on this flow of imports and exports would have enormously negative consequences for the whole island of Ireland. While we all hope for the best, we must do a lot more than that. We must prepare for the worst, and that means having very clear contingency plans. While it is not up to Ireland to put forward the solutions, we should be ready if the worst happens and the UK exits the EU with no deal in March and World Trade Organization, WTO, rules are activated.
I note that Ministers have been told to prioritise legislation that will equip us to deal with the scenario of a no-deal Brexit. I wish to ask the Minister if this is feasible, given the other pressures of the forthcoming legislative programme. Given the complexity and volume of legislation that would be required in this scenario, is there enough time to prepare for this eventuality? We have seen media reports in recent days stating that the UK Government is preparing a public information campaign in case of a disorderly Brexit. We also saw the frankly horrifying story of the British Secretary of State for Health mass-purchasing fridges to stockpile medicine in case supply chains are cut in March. While these are very extreme examples, I ask the Government to think carefully about how it plans to communicate with businesses that rely on access to the UK market. Many of these businesses have persistently been told that a no-deal outcome was very unlikely. As a result, they are in the dark regarding the ins and outs of WTO rules surrounding trade. Given the short amount of time they have to prepare for March and with the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit increasing daily, I urge the Government to engage with these businesses as soon as possible to ensure they are as fully prepared as they can be.
It is no longer good enough for the Government to say it is pessimistic or a self-fulfilling prophesy. It would now be extremely reckless not to be in full planning and preparation mode for no deal. I request that the Minister set out in great detail the contingency plans as soon as possible to allay fears and ensure we have the best chance of minimising the inevitable serious damage Brexit will cause, whatever form it takes.