Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Post-European Council: Statements
I read the Taoiseach's speech to see if it contained any new development in response to the suggestion in UK newspapers that the British Government believes it might be able to broker a deal with the DUP. I read in one newspaper that a 5% movement from the Irish side could unlock everything and it would be plain sailing. I did not read any such comment in the Taoiseach's speech. He gave assurances that we would use our best endeavours to ensure a new agreement is concluded expeditiously. I am not too sure what that might be or whether such assurances would unlock the difficulty but that seems unlikely. We seem to be at a complete stand-off that is historic in terms of the risks it brings.
I wonder what engagement the Government is having with the Labour Party in the UK because that party does not have an insignificant role in this process. I understood the British Labour Party was supportive of the backstop arrangement and may even have said that publicly. I was surprised, to say the least, when it joined members of the Conservative Party in using the Irish backstop as the great impediment to progress. We should maintain our communications with the British Labour Party and ask it to explain what exactly it is doing and what exactly it would do differently. Similarly, we should keep our diplomatic channels open to those who seek a people's vote in the UK. To do so will not be easy and carries risk but we should be connected to that approach as one of the possible ways out of the current cul-de-sac.
Reading the suggestion by the former British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, that the solution is to go back to Europe and secure a change in the European Union's approach to migration, one realises the challenge and political difficulty involved in that. It seems, therefore, that this is a logjam and there is no way out.
What exactly is the role of the European Parliament at this stage? Perhaps the Minister of State will provide details in that regard. Will the European Parliament address the withdrawal agreement regardless of what is happening in the UK political system? Are the timelines for this dependent on what happens in London? Is there any mechanism by which the European Parliament, in which UK members will presumably continue to be involved in the debate, could seek to mediate a possible solution?
The Government must start preparing for the worst possible outcome, namely, a no-deal, crash-out Brexit. Recently, I visited the city of London where I spoke to people involved in the legal system about what exactly might happen in the energy area, in which I have a particular interest. In the event of a hard Brexit, I do not believe the sky would fall in. We would still trading through the interconnectors and gas contracts and other energy business would proceed. However, the process would become cumbersome and inefficient. I presume the same would apply across a range of other areas. The planes will still fly but the real risk is that long-term damage, fundamental distrust and a lack of co-operation would become embedded in the future relationship from the start. We must try and avoid that at all costs.
It is time the Government set out in detail what its proposals are in the event of a hard border. I presume we are all agreed on the basic approach that we would not, even in those circumstances, introduce any sort of border controls between North and South. Surely that would require us to introduce some form of border checks at Rosslare, Dublin Port and elsewhere. It is incumbent on the Government, given the current timeline and the political situation we are in, to be open not only with the Dáil but also with the business community on how this would work.
If I may, I will broaden my contribution to cover other aspects of the Taoiseach's speech on the European Council. We have had support from Europe and we need now to show support for Europe. We should give commitments to provide additional funding for the multi-annual financial framework. We should seek to have areas that would benefit this country prioritised, for example, in the revised Common Agricultural Policy. However, we should also be upfront and confident in our willingness to provide additional funding at this difficult time.
Similarly, when it comes to migration, all the Taoiseach's words at European Council count for little if we have taken only 1,700 of the 4,000 refugees we were meant to take under the EU agreement made last year. That undermines our credibility and good name in any negotiations on that issue.
I understand the Minister of State is due to comment on the disinformation issue which was also discussed in the European Council statement. There was a debate last week by free legal aid counsel on the issue of privacy. In 2009, Canada ordered Facebook to close some of its open data sharing systems but the company did not do so. In 2011, the US International Trade Commission issued Facebook with a similar order to change its data sharing and data collection mechanisms and the company failed to do so. In the same year, the Data Protection Commission here did the same. The failure to close some of the data sharing arrangements led to what happened with Cambridge Analytica which directly influenced the Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump in the United States. It is time this country took a stronger stance and supported the Data Protection Commissioner in taking much more rigorous enforcement actions against such disinformation, with a view to standing by high standards and playing our part in maintaining sane, democratic processes. I hope the Minister of State will have something to say on that.