Wednesday, 13 March 2019
Recent Developments on Brexit: Statements
Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
I am grateful for this opportunity to brief the Dáil on recent developments on Brexit. With some 16 days to go before the scheduled date of the UK's withdrawal, events underscore how fluid the situation in Westminster continues to be. We profoundly regret the outcome of last night's vote. It is a real disappointment that Westminster was not able to approve the withdrawal agreement. We remain firmly of the view that the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is to ratify the withdrawal agreement as negotiated and complemented by the legal assurances agreed between the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker.
EU and British negotiators have spent many months working together grappling with the complexities and have jointly identified this way forward. A no-deal outcome is in nobody's interests. As I have said before, it is a lose, lose, lose situation for Ireland, the UK and the EU as a whole. I believe the UK Parliament will vote again, in the next hour, to underline their wish to avoid such an outcome. The Prime Minister was right last night in her statement after the vote, that Westminster needs to make a choice on what outcome it wants for Brexit and for the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Just wishing against a no-deal outcome is not enough. Westminster and the UK Government need to take action to avoid this outcome.
Political uncertainty in Westminster is a cause of worry for all of us, our people and our businesses. They deserve the reassurance and security that a deal can provide. We need to move on to negotiate a deep and comprehensive agreement, which will provide the foundations for that future relationship. The withdrawal agreement, ensuring an orderly withdrawal, is the only way to get us there. There are no shortcuts. As Michel Barnier again made clear last night, the only legal basis for a transition is the withdrawal agreement. No withdrawal agreement means no transition.
On the EU side, we have done all that is possible to reach an acceptable agreement. The EU has confirmed once again that it stands by the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish protocol and the backstop. Given the additional assurances provided by the EU in December, January and this week, it is difficult to see what more it can do. The problems lie in Westminster. If there is a solution it can only be found in London. It is for the UK to set out what it intends to do next. Time is very short but I believe there is still time enough for a sensible outcome.
On Ireland and the EU's side, I can firmly say that Brexit was never our choice and never our wish. However, we have respected the choice the British people made in 2016. The EU has listened and been responsive to UK issues throughout two years of intensive negotiations. This has not been an easy process. The EU has given time and energy to these talks, working closely with the UK and responding to its concerns where possible. We have done this with a view to building a strong future relationship with the UK after its departure. I should again pay tribute to the work of Michel Barnier and his team as well as to the UK negotiators for their efforts.
The withdrawal agreement is not perfect, and it represents real and significant compromise on both sides. I believe, however, it is a fair and balanced document. This was rejected by Westminster in January but the EU continued to listen and there has been an intensive series of meetings between the EU and the UK in since then. On Monday, Mrs. May and Mr. Juncker agreed on measures to provide the legal assurances and clarifications the UK sought on the temporary nature of the backstop. It also reiterated our joint commitment to finding alternative arrangements to the backstop. The UK also set out its own unilateral declaration, which we did not contest. This is complementary to the withdrawal agreement and political declaration. It gives further legal status to the reassurances that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and Mr. Juncker set out in their letter of 14 January. Importantly, it does not reopen or undermine the withdrawal agreement or the backstop. The package sets out in greater detail the process of review and arbitration as set out in the withdrawal agreement. Any action under it would require bad faith to be shown by either side. However, the UK would maintain its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions, including avoiding a hard border.
There was close contact between our team and the Commission's team as these documents were developed. The Taoiseach spoke repeatedly by telephone with Mr. Juncker before the package was agreed with Mrs. May. We supported this package of measures in the interests of securing an overall deal. As we have said all along, the backstop is an insurance policy and that is all it is. We have no intention or wish to trap the UK into any arrangement against its will. The withdrawal agreement and the backstop do not do this. What they do is provide the guarantees that a hard border will be avoided and that the Good Friday Agreement is fully protected.
The EU is already committed to seeking alterative arrangements to the backstop as part of the negotiations on the future relationship. The negotiations and consideration of alternative arrangements before a backstop may ever even be triggered are set out in the legal instrument agreed this week.
The package agreed between President Juncker and Prime Minister May makes clear that this work will begin as soon as the withdrawal agreement is signed. For Ireland and the EU, the backstop is an essential element of the withdrawal agreement in order to prevent the re-emergence of a hard border on this island. It is the outcome of our joint obligations with regard to the Good Friday Agreement and the red lines of the UK Government on the Single Market and customs union. In fact, Deputies may recall that the backstop was redesigned on foot of a request from the British Prime Minister in the context of customs arrangements. Ireland advocated for that redesign and reshaping of the backstop to accommodate British red lines. Although the backstop is consistently referred to in London as the Irish backstop, it is far more accurate to describe it as a backstop that is as much a creation of the UK as it is of Ireland or the EU. The EU has stated on many occasions that it is prepared to adjust the content and level of ambition in the political declaration should the UK’s intentions for the future partnership evolve. That was again shown to be the case this week. It remains our hope and expectation that we can agree the type of close future relationship which ensures the backstop is never used. We are determined to work towards that best possible outcome.
The measures agreed in Strasbourg were with a view towards the meaningful vote in Westminster and in the interests of securing an overall deal. However, this process cannot be without end. As President Juncker said in Strasbourg on Monday,
There will be no third chance. There will be no further interpretations of the interpretations, no further assurances of the re-assurances.
We have reached the point where realistic decisions must be made. We must accept the consequences of that. That is to what Westminster needs to face up. The Prime Minister, Mrs. May, put that challenge to Westminster last night after the vote. Tonight, Westminster will vote on whether to leave the EU without a deal. We hope it rejects that outcome as it would be the worst of outcomes for all sides. Tomorrow, Westminster may vote on whether to seek an extension to Article 50. We have repeatedly stated that we are open to such a request. However, there would need to be a clear purpose to such request. Any decision requires the unanimous approval of all 27 member states which will need to take into account the reasons for a possible extension and the duration thereof. In addition, the EU will need to consider how its institutions and processes would be affected by any extension, with an obvious example being the upcoming European elections. However, an extension is not a solution in itself. The UK will need to make a choice on what outcome it wants for Brexit and the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
On contingency planning, I thank all parties for their co-operation, support and facilitation on the Brexit legislation which passed in the Seanad this afternoon. I reassure Members that the Government is continuing to accelerate our contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit in the context of facing that challenge in a little more than two weeks should it be allowed to happen by Westminster.
My final point to businesses and many other stakeholders who rely on the relationship we currently enjoy with the United Kingdom is for them to think about and plan for how they and their businesses would respond to a no-deal crash-out Brexit. I assure them that the Government thinks about that every day and is working with all parties in this House to make sure that we are as prepared as we can be.