Tuesday, 9 May 2017
Ireland and the Negotiations on the UK’s Withdrawal from the EU: Statements
I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on Ireland’s negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. As I have said previously, Brexit is a British policy, not an EU policy or an Irish policy. The Government believes it is bad for Britain, for Europe and for Ireland. It presents challenges to our peace and challenges to our prosperity. We have, however, been consistent and clear that in these negotiations Ireland will be negotiating from a position of strength as part of the EU team of 27 member states. Our work confirms that membership of the European Union has underpinned our national values, has helped our economy to prosper - not least by unhindered access to a vast Single Market - and has assisted our transition to a less isolated society that is more equal and open. It also underscores the unequivocal conclusion that Ireland's interests are best served by remaining a fully committed member of the European Union and working with our EU partners to deliver more for our citizens. At the same time we will maintain our close relationship with Britain, which reflects our unique economic, political, cultural and people-to-people links. These two essential objectives need not in any way be mutually exclusive.
It is our aim, and it will continue to be in all of our interests, to emerge from the overall Brexit process with the closest possible relationship between the UK and the EU. This is something that Prime Minister May has also said that she wants. Of course we need to see greater clarity and certainty from the British Government about how it expects that this can be achieved.
Given the challenges that Brexit presents for this island, it is vital that we prepare thoroughly for its consequences, both at a national level and as part of the European Union. That is why for more than two years, we have been analysing the issues and engaging with sectors across the island of Ireland, including through the all-island dialogue, to identify our main areas of concern and to develop our priorities. These are to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, including by maintaining an open Border; to retain the common travel area; to minimise the impact on our economy and to work for a positive future for the European Union.
We have been extremely active at political and official level in engaging with our EU partners and the EU institutions. This has involved highlighting and explaining the significant implications for Ireland arising from Brexit and the need to take account of our particular concerns in the negotiations. This ensured that our unique concerns and particular circumstances regarding the UK-EU withdrawal negotiations were reflected in the EU negotiating guidelines. which were adopted by the European Council on 29 April. These are to support and protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the peace process, to avoid a hard border and to protect the common travel area. This builds on the significance of the clear references to our specific Irish issues in Prime Minister May’s letter confirming the UK’s intention to leave the EU under Article 50, and in the European Parliament resolution on the Brexit negotiations.
These outcomes are a major endorsement of the Government’s approach and a reflection of the Government’s focused campaign of strategic engagement with EU member states and the EU institutions over the past ten months, which has seen more than 400 engagements at political and official level. It was by no means a given that Ireland’s position would be seen as a priority for the negotiations but this has come about thanks to our strategic, persistent and patient work and the understanding and support of all our European partners.
Furthermore, the statement agreed by the European Council acknowledges that in the event of a united Ireland brought about in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, by peace and consent, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would legally be part of the European Union. This provides reassurance on this aspect of the Good Friday Agreement, regardless of the status of the UK within the European Union.
Once the overall approach to the negotiations was set out by the European Union, the Government published its comprehensive document on Ireland and the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union under Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union. This document reflects the findings and outcomes of the extensive preparatory work and consultations undertaken to date and demonstrates how these will be brought to bear in Ireland’s approach to the negotiations in the weeks and months ahead. Building on our work to date, this document comprehensively sets out the positions and priorities that will underpin our engagement in the Brexit process as it unfolds over the next two years. It explains the various factors and issues that will be at play and what Ireland’s position will be. The focus of the paper is primarily on the withdrawal negotiations and the conclusion of an exit agreement with the UK, which will include addressing a number of Ireland’s specific and unique concerns. It also looks ahead to the negotiations that will shape the future relationship between the UK and the EU, which are also of critical importance to this island.
With regard to the Article 50 process itself, it is vitally important that the withdrawal of the UK from the EU is done in an orderly fashion. We have consistently urged both sides to adopt a constructive approach to the negotiations. As part of the EU 27, the Government will vigorously pursue and defend Ireland’s national interests.
I will now turn to the issues that are unique to Ireland. The Government has made clear its priority that there will be no visible, hard border on the island of Ireland. We will also ensure the protection of the rights of those in Northern Ireland who choose to exercise their right to hold Irish, and thus EU, citizenship and we will advocate for continued EU engagement in Northern Ireland. Along with the UK, we intend to maintain the common travel area and in this context, the recognition of existing bilateral arrangements in the EU negotiation guidelines is important in underpinning relationships across this island.
Both the UK and the EU share the objective of establishing a close partnership after the UK’s departure. In light of this, it is very welcome that the EU guidelines also recognise the desirability of moving on to discuss the shape of the future relationship between the EU and the UK once sufficient progress has been made on the withdrawal issues. The recognition of the need for transitional arrangements is also very welcome.
It became very clear early in the Government’s analysis of Brexit that the economic impacts of Brexit would be deep and extensive across the economy and society as a whole. Our work, therefore, has prioritised analysis and engagement on sectoral issues and how we can best manage the impact on the people, the businesses and the communities of Ireland. While in recent years we have been diversifying increasingly to other markets, Ireland is still heavily reliant on the UK as a trading partner. A number of key sectors will be impacted significantly, including, but not limited to, agrifood, fisheries, financial services, transport, energy and tourism. More generally, impacts will be seen on enterprise and trade and on Irish-owned companies in particular, as well as in the regional and rural economy. The great bulk of these issues will not be addressed in the initial withdrawal agreement, but in the subsequent EU-UK future relationship agreement or agreements. Given that the EU’s initial negotiating position is now clear, the Government will intensify its focus on the economic implications of Brexit, including on domestic policy measures to reinforce the competitiveness of the Irish economy, to protect it from potential negative impacts of Brexit and to pursue all possible opportunities that might arise. In order to underpin this, Government is now working to prepare a further paper on the economic implications of the Brexit challenge. This will draw on the work to date across Departments and will reflect the core economic themes of my speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs, the IIEA, on 15 February last.
This includes sustainable fiscal policies to ensure capacity to absorb and respond to economic shocks, not least from Brexit; policies to make Irish enterprise more diverse and resilient, to diversify trade and investment patterns and to strengthen competitiveness; prioritising policy measures and dedicating resources to protect jobs and businesses in the sectors and regions most affected by Brexit; realising economic opportunities arising from Brexit and helping businesses adjust to any new logistical or trade barriers; and making a strong case at EU level that Ireland will require support and recognition of areas where Brexit represents a serious disturbance to the Irish economy. Policy decisions in support of these objectives arise across a wide range of areas, including the annual budgetary process; the forthcoming national planning framework, Ireland 2040; the new ten-year national capital plan; the review of the Enterprise 2025 policy; and sectoral policies and investment decisions in areas such as agriculture, enterprise, transport, communications and energy. It is essential that we ensure our economy is Brexit-ready, both to protect against the potential impacts of Brexit and to capitalise on any opportunities arising.
In this context, I also want to mention Ireland’s bids for the two EU bodies currently located in London, namely, the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority. I believe that Ireland would be an outstanding location for each of these agencies, particularly when the priority is to ensure a smooth transition from their current location and a sustainable future path for them. This decision will be made in the autumn by the European Council. We are in competition with quite a number of other countries for the two agencies.
The undertaking of our work on the negotiation process to date and on the economic implications that may follow, underlines the fact that we are at the beginning, rather than the end, of what will be a long and complex process. The negotiations that we now face are among the most important in the history of the State. I recognise that there is a desire to have clarity and certainty on every detail of the future EU-UK relationship as quickly as possible. However, we need to be realistic about the process we are heading into and the time it will take to reach a full conclusion. We need to be calm, clear-eyed and strategic. The Irish Government is ready. Analysis and consultation is well under way. Our key priorities and positions are clear. We will continue to be proactive, concerted and strategic in our approach. We have in place a team of very experienced diplomats and officials. We will continue to engage with our EU partners and with stakeholders through regular ongoing consultations, including the all-island civic dialogue process, to ensure that Ireland’s concerns and priorities continue to be reflected in the EU’s negotiating position as it evolves, and that we work towards a strong and constructive future relationship with the UK.
I will have further discussions on next steps with EU Brexit negotiator and chairman of the task force, Michel Barnier, during his visit this Thursday. The Government will now examine the draft negotiating directives, ahead of considering them with our EU partners, with a view to their adoption by the General Affairs Council on 22 May, which will be attended by the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Dara Murphy. The adoption of the negotiating directives will mark the formal launch of the negotiations with the UK, which will begin soon after the UK’s general election on 8 June. The specifics of key negotiating points will become clear in the period ahead and the Government will work to ensure that our interests are protected as we negotiate as part of the EU 27. The Government is well prepared for the Brexit process and will continue to work to protect and promote Ireland's interests. Together with our EU partners, we will be successful in getting the best possible deal for Ireland and the EU.
Eleven months on from the Brexit referendum, all the evidence confirms that Ireland is faced with a long-term and profound economic, social and cultural challenge. Deep and potentially irreparable damage is threatened as a result of a decision which came at the end of a campaign distinguished for the level of bitter cynicism displayed by one of the campaigns and its media cheerleaders. As far back as May 2013, Fianna Fáil started talking about what Ireland's approach to Brexit should be. In a series of detailed speeches and documents, as well as public meetings and during last year's general election, we have treated this issue as a core priority. Deputies Donnelly, Haughey and Darragh O'Brien have been involved in extensive consultations. Other spokespeople such as Deputies Niall Collins and McConalogue have organised events to focus on specific aspects of the challenges posed by Brexit. In all of our work, we have been constructive and have proposed specific actions. We will continue with this approach and remain absolutely committed to Ireland's future within a strong European Union.
The reality is that there was no evidence of the Government seriously engaging with Brexit until after last year's referendum. This document confirms the basic picture that catch-up is being played in many areas. Most seriously, detailed analysis and practical solutions concerning economic disruption are entirely missing. Four years after the spectre of Brexit was first proposed and 11 months after it became a reality, the level of detail, the identified resources and the specific plans of action contained in this document are just not good enough.
Where Ireland is best prepared is in respect of those issues which play to our developed strengths within the European Union, the chief one being our engagement with major negotiations and negotiators. Within the Department of the Taoiseach and in Iveagh House, our key bilateral embassies and our permanent representation in Brussels, we have deep experience and expertise in negotiating international treaties, including European Union treaties. The progress which has been achieved so far is entirely focused on achieving a general appreciation of the fact that Ireland has unique concerns, particularly in respect of the Good Friday Agreement and the common travel area. The evidence in this document is that all other work is either underdeveloped or, for some reason, is not being discussed in public or in private briefings.
Although there are 64 pages in the document, few contain specific statements of policy. Most of the document is simply a repetition of the findings of other work or a reprinting of items such as the Taoiseach's recent Institute of International and European Affairs speech. The document confirms that basic economic work was not begun until after the referendum. It states in a number of sections that detailed work on the likely impact of Brexit on different sectors was only commissioned after last June. It is a great pity that the Government has chosen to repeat its ongoing tactic of trying to present marginal or long-established actions as being part of an urgent response. The overall document is devalued by the casual exaggerations and over-claiming to be found in nearly every section. Action plan syndrome is alive and well. The sum total of the specific items in the section on Brexit mitigation efforts amounts to a lot of talk and almost no funding. To claim on page 11 that political engagement has remained strong is more than a stretch. As we saw last week, meaningful consultation is not something that the Government does. Equally, the claim on page 19 that the North-South Ministerial Council has been playing an active role is ridiculous given the fact that it last met in November and the Northern Executive is in suspension.
As we have said before, we welcome the very positive attitude to Ireland shown by our European Union partners. While we view the behaviour of the British Government as, at best, erratic, the evidence is that it does appreciate the importance of its relationship with Ireland, albeit while insisting on the damaging approach of not supporting special status for Northern Ireland. The negotiating guidelines agreed at the recent summit mark the end of the beginning of the process. In concrete terms, Ireland has secured general statements of support. What we do not know is what that means in practice. We do not know what exactly is meant by a soft border or the significance of flexibility being limited by compliance with the existing European Union legal order and regulations. Other than one ESRI report, which was significantly based on British studies of the possible impact of Brexit, we have no clear idea of the exact economic impacts of Brexit on different sectors or on the economy as a whole. For example, no information is available on the modelling of a situation in which the United Kingdom leaves both the single market and the customs union while agreeing a Canada-like free trade agreement and with Ireland having some flexibility to reduce the costs of cross-Border trade. How can we realistically be expected to propose or consider specific actions to mitigate the damage of Brexit without there being detailed information on exactly what that damage is likely to be?
We believe there are four broad dimensions to be addressed in the next 18 months. These relate to Northern Ireland, east-west relations, economic adjustment and the future of the European Union. In respect of Northern Ireland, we welcome the formal acknowledgement in the proposed negotiating directives pertaining to the continued EU citizenship rights of persons in Northern Ireland and the commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement.
This is a matter which we raised early in the discussion last year and are glad to see it addressed.
We also welcome the progress, limited but still notable, in respect to the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland. We maintain that the issue is not whether the United Kingdom remains a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights but rather whether these rights are justiciable within courts in Northern Ireland. The Government should correct the document on this point. We do not welcome the failure to even raise the possibility of special economic status for the areas worst affected by the introduction of new customs and regulatory boundaries. My colleagues will address this in greater detail.
As I outlined in recent speeches in London and Dublin, Brexit requires an entirely new approach to east-west relations. At present, our contacts and co-ordination are primarily at EU level. Unless we create mechanisms for the required ongoing contacts, a damaging drift is inevitable. Irrespective of what is agreed on the common travel area in these negotiations, it would be unsustainable in the long term unless we have means of updating it. Essentially, there should be some institutional framework between Britain and Ireland post Brexit. Unfortunately, the document has little to say on this point. In addition, the impact of Brexit on our exporters is not limited to the land Border. A specific strategy for these businesses to help them to manage disruption is required urgently.
On the broader issue of economic disruption, there is no alternative to helping business to diversify and innovate. While 17% of exports go to the UK, a total of 55% of traditional manufactured goods go there. This represents the lifeblood of business in large parts of our country. Even if there is a transitional period, these businesses need help now to deal with the disruption that is already under way and to plan for the future. This is not a matter of a few million euro and a couple of ministerial launches. It requires a comprehensive and ambitious programme covering areas such as retraining, research support, market development, funding and expert advice. We should remember that we have many companies with zero experience of dealing with customs or multiple regulatory regimes. Frankly, we are surprised that the Government document does not include any new proposals but simply repeats the complacent messages of the past year. Having said that, we welcome that the Government has, for the first time, indicated that extra assistance will be required from the European Union if Ireland is to get through the Brexit disruption. My colleagues will address this and other issues in greater depth during the remainder of the debate.
This document confirms that progress in respect of EU negotiation guidelines has not been matched by the required level of urgency and ambition in other areas. Basic information is not available and, therefore, detailed proposals can neither be developed nor assessed. Ireland has core strengths that have been built up over decades. However, these will not be enough to avoid a dramatic disruption. We need co-ordinated and genuinely ambitious policies to help businesses and communities. The task for our Government is to move from general statements to specific proposals. Too much time has already been wasted.
We are all agreed that the outworking of Brexit will have profound effects on all sections of our people, the economy and agreements, especially the Good Friday Agreement. In arguing for the North to be designated special status within the European Union, Sinn Féin has put forward a viable alternative to the impact of Brexit on Ireland. This reflects the position of the Dáil as well, although the Government position does not. We have consistently advocated that the Government should take a stronger position on Brexit.
We made detailed submissions to the Taoiseach before and after the draft EU negotiating guidelines were published. Following our recent criticism, the Taoiseach advised us that the Government had submitted further wording in advance of the recent meeting of the 27 EU member states. However, the Dáil has not been told what these amendments were. I can find only one minor amendment in the agreed text. That is what the Government got into the text. What it did not get was a commitment that there would be no agreement on the Border or on the status of the North without a separate and binding agreement between the Irish Government and Britain. This would have been similar to the position secured by Spain in respect of Gibraltar. I suspect we did not get this because we did not ask for it. Irish unity was not mentioned in the initial draft guidelines. Again, I suspect that the Government did not ask for it. It is not in the guidelines that came out of the EU Council either. Did the Government even try to have it included? The Taoiseach refuses to deny or confirm this. Instead, he has achieved a commitment to flexible and imaginative solutions with the aim of avoiding a hard border. This is aspirational wishy-washy rhetoric in a world of substantive and difficult negotiations and it is not good enough.
Sinn Féin believes that the interests of citizens on this island require that the North be designated a special status within the EU. In this way there would be no European frontier on the island. All of Ireland would remain within the European Union and the North would have full access to the EU, including to the Common Agricultural Policy and the PEACE programmes.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, could you ask the Taoiseach to keep it down a little if he is going to have a conversation?
He should whisper.
In recent months we have asked the Government to negotiate these positions with the other 26 EU members. It has failed to do that. The position the Government has signed up to requires that the North leave the European Union. Once again, we have an Irish Government reinforcing the Border. The Government should be working to secure designated status and acting in the interests of all Irish citizens, including those who are British, instead of following the English Tory line on Brexit.
As a result of the Government's clear failures, the draft negotiating directives published last week by Michel Barnier are vague and aspirational. That is neither the fault of Michel Barnier nor the European Commission but the responsibility of An Taoiseach. Mr. Barnier is well disposed towards Ireland but he will and can only do what he is asked to do. When he visits the Oireachtas on Thursday, I would like to think he will hear the clear message that the North should be designated special status within the European Union. That is the position the Dáil voted for, but it is not the position being advocated by the Taoiseach or the Government. Instead, the Taoiseach is advocating the Fine Gael position and that is unacceptable.
The Taoiseach has also refused to accept the vote of the Northern electorate and he has refused to explain why he has not advocated this position. If the Government had advocated for the North to remain within the EU, the European Council guidelines and Barnier's draft directives could have gone considerably further.
Instead, the Taoiseach is making a big point of saying that there is no Northern Ireland Assembly in place. He knows why this is so. Let us remember that the Taoiseach has some limited experience of dealing with the DUP. He failed to get Arlene Foster to have the DUP involved in the civic dialogue initiative. He knows also that it is the DUP's refusal to fulfil its obligations on the rights of citizens that has blocked progress in the North. He knows that the DUP is for Brexit. He also knows that his position on the ongoing – although suspended at the moment - negotiations in the North has been one of studied detachment. Certainly, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has been in Belfast but he rarely talks to the DUP. That is no fault of the Minister. More accurately, the DUP rarely talks to him. In fact, it would be interesting to know how often our Minister has met DUP leaders. The Taoiseach knows all about the DUP disposition, as does the Fianna Fáil leader. Both leaders called for the suspension of the assembly, yet both criticise Martin McGuinness for taking a stand against allegations of corruption and for good governance based on equality. Despite all of this, seldom will an opportunity to discuss Brexit pass without the Taoiseach or the Fianna Fáil leader blaming Sinn Féin for what is happening or not happening in the assembly in the North.
Now, we know that there is recognition in the European Union of the special and unique circumstances faced by Ireland as a result of Brexit, but a stronger approach by the Government could have achieved more.
The Taoiseach cites the hard work done by our public officials. I agree with him absolutely and commend them all. Officials act, however, on the political direction they are given by the Government. The visionary direction demanded by the challenges of these times is not being provided. By failing to put forward the ambitious vision required, the Taoiseach has failed to harness the potential support and sympathy that is there. If we do not provide the required vision, no one else in the European Union will do it for us. Clear and definitive proposals are needed. Sinn Féin will continue to make the case that the best way to secure our future, that is, to secure the future of all of the people of the island, is through achieving designated special status for the North within the European Union, which also recognises the decision of the people of the North who voted to remain.
Instead of doing the heaving lifting for the English Tories, the Government should recognise that it has a duty to act in the best interests of all the people of this island and not just the perceived view of all of the interests of this State. I cannot say it often enough: the Irish Government must adopt special status for the North within the European Union as its formal negotiating position and work to change the draft political directives to reflect this. The Taoiseach and his Ministers must lobby their counterparts in other European states to gain wide support for this position. All of Ireland must remain part of the Single Market and the common travel area. All of Ireland must retain access to EU funding streams and supports. The rights of citizens in the North must be protected and the Good Friday Agreement must be defended.
It is time to stand up against the threat posed by Brexit and the impact of the corrosive Tory political agendas on Ireland. The alternative is to accept an Ireland even more divided - economically, socially and politically. The reinforcement of the partition of this island could well become part of the Taoiseach's legacy. However, there is an alternative. I have spelt it out. The Taoiseach can decide to work in this regard. A brighter, better future is possible for the people of Ireland. Special status for the North within the European Union, with all its failings, is what will sort this out. This is achievable, but only if the Government makes it a priority. It has to advocate it, argue for it and champion it. Ná habair é. Déan é.
On behalf of my party and the labour movement, I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and all in this House a happy Europe Day. May we be "united in diversity," to quote the official motto of the European Union.
I welcome that the Government has finally produced a more comprehensive document on its approach to Brexit. It is well overdue, as others have stated, but unfortunately it is sadly lacking in policy specifics. It does not tell us anything we do not already know. For a 68-page document, eight pages of it consist of the Taoiseach's speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs, IIEA, another four pages consist of Government statements that have already been issued and two pages consist of previously issued EU statements. I could go on but I think the Taoiseach gets the point. Plenty of text has been produced, and much of it reproduced, but what we are doing right now to mitigate the damage of Brexit is not clear.
The UK has set its course and Theresa May and her party are seeking a strong mandate in the upcoming UK election. Judging by the polls, she seems set to secure such a mandate. To achieve what, we can only guess. My fear, judging by the language used in the artificial row with the EU last week, is that she is contriving a majority to focus on a hard Brexit. It would be a Brexit that would entail customs checks, tariff barriers, a bonfire of rights and an imperilling of the peace process. The soft options have already been taken off the agenda. Arguments about the final bill will distract many both in the United Kingdom and abroad from the substance of what Brexit will mean. That row ignores the fact that much of the bill that is now being focused on and talked about consists of payments the United Kingdom knows it will, as a member up to 2019, make in any event to the end of the current EU budget round.
There is much we can do in the meantime, however. A poor deal for the UK will, in my judgment, be a bad deal for Ireland. There are important principles at stake. Being a member of the European Union comes with responsibilities but also, as we know and as the Irish people have endorsed in an opinion poll finding today, strong benefits. As Colm McCarthy wrote in the Sunday Independentat the weekend, we in Ireland must now be focused on damage limitation. Nearly a year on from the referendum and six weeks since the triggering of Article 50, it is incredible that my party, the Labour Party, is the only political grouping to have put forward practical solutions and proposals - not analysis, but specific action lines.
The problems we face are clear - the Taoiseach has outlined the challenges yet again in his contribution tonight - and relate to investment, agriculture, transport and access to markets, the future of cross-Border bodies, the fallout for workers on both sides of the Border and the issue of the common travel area, which obviously means much more than simply travel. We are the only party to have put forward specific actions relating to these matters. The severity of what will result from Brexit may not be clear. It will obviously depend on the final deal achieved. However, the sectors that will be distressed are already known. Many of them were outlined in the Taoiseach's contribution tonight.
It is now time for Ireland to start putting in place our defence mechanisms, that is, not talking about them but putting the measures in place now. The Taoiseach has told the House yet again that the Government will soon bring forward a paper focused on the economic and business implications of Brexit. I look forward to seeing it and hope that it will take on board many of our proposals on trade, investment and jobs and the 20 key action points that we have laid out.
I welcome that some of them, such as those focused on Northern Ireland, have been achieved by the Government. The recognition of the Good Friday Agreement and the future possibility of a shared united Ireland are important but also obvious. The text of the negotiation guidelines rightly recognises the issues we face on this island. However, as those larger existential questions are addressed, there is still a need for a focus on our future plans. In particular, we have called for a new protocol to be included in the EU treaties to recognise the special relationship on this island and the special status of Northern Ireland. Such a protocol would copperfasten the declaration of the EU 27 regarding a united Ireland. It should also highlight the deep trade and political, social and economic ties that lie between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Another proposal we have put forward is that there is an opportunity to look now at the future of cross-Border bodies and not just the six we currently have but those we could create where integration is highly advanced in areas like animal welfare, health care, the energy market, agrifood supply chains, education and transport. For example, the dairy market operates as though no Border exists. The ESB owns the electricity grid in Northern Ireland. Public rail and bus services operate across the Border and future infrastructure projects like the A5 or the high-speed rail link require deep integration that could be sundered by Brexit. New bodies, established with the support of the United Kingdom and the European Union, would help address these problems. We may have to face up to these things in the event of the wrong decisions being made in the negotiations.
We have also called for a transitional trade agreement and it appears as though many have now woken up to the reality of the future trading relationship that will exist with a negotiated settlement. It could take a decade to put a comprehensive trade deal in place between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
In the meantime, life will continue but we face the prospect of customs and other barriers, the loss of the land bridge to the Continent through the UK and infrastructural bottlenecks on our roads and at our ports.
For many months, the Labour Party has been calling for changes to the Stability and Growth Pact fiscal rules. We will debate that further tonight but we have followed that call with action, and the Party of European Socialists has established a working group, at my request, to bring forward actions in this regard. I ask now that the Taoiseach use his influence within the European People's Party - I know he has a leaders' meeting coming up this week - to follow suit and begin to modify the stability and growth rules to allow for the sort of investment we need and for the mitigation, for example, of competition rules and state-aid rules that we will need to prepare ourselves for Brexit. Our economy is growing, as is our population. We need to invest. We need to Brexit-proof our economy. We need the extra money that we will talk about later.
We need revised regional action plans for jobs. The ones the Taoiseach and I drew up together in 2015 are already out of date. The economic impact of Brexit will wreak havoc in many sectors, particularly those that are reliant on the UK market for exports. This will impact specifically on regions as well as on economic sectors on this island. That is why we proposed a €250 million trade adjustment fund. We believe Brexit warrants the suspension of state-aid rules for SMEs for a period of two years.
Of course, the devil will be in the detail and the detail of any trade deal or transitional arrangement will determine the specificity of the funds required. That is why we have said the State needs now to forge new alliances in Europe, particularly with countries of similar size to Ireland. I welcome the series of meetings the Taoiseach has had with the Dutch, the Danish, the Croatians and others. Obviously, we need to do more. An early warning system that we have set out needs to be put in place and we must examine how current EU supports can be deployed, including the European globalisation adjustment fund, to make it a specific Brexit-proof fund. There is so much we need to do that we have set out and upon which we now need to act.
The last point we make in our policy document is on the future of the English language in the EU. As we saw from the somewhat flippant remarks of the President of the Commission, this is not a moot point. We need to have this copper-fastened, with a clear declaration that English will remain a working language of the EU, while obviously protecting the designation of Irish. We have an awful lot to do - we know that. We will work in tandem to do it but we need to move beyond planning and towards concrete action.
There are two dimensions to the scenario of Brexit and, more generally, the scenario opening up across Europe that I want to discuss. One is the political side and the narrative surrounding all this, and the second is the more direct economic and practical issues. It is very important in the first instance, particularly on the back of the recent French presidential election, that we challenge a certain narrative, which I noted Government spokespeople were quick to come out with in the aftermath of the election result, namely, that the victory for Macron was about the centre reasserting and re-establishing itself, with the direct implication that this is a good thing, as against, presumably, the "extremes", as the Government and the political establishment of Europe would like to present it. We need to challenge this narrative because it is very dangerous and dishonest. I will explain what I mean by this.
The alternative to Europe presented by the people who ran, led and dominated the Brexit campaign and now, in the case of the Tory Government, Theresa May, is obnoxious and needs to be completely resisted. Whether it is the vile anti-immigrant sentiment that has been whipped up by the likes of UKIP and the Tory Party, scapegoating immigrants as somehow responsible for the economic and social problems in Britain, or Marine Le Pen doing likewise in France, this obnoxious, vile ideology must be resisted and challenged. About that we need to be quite clear. However, far from being somehow the bulwark against this, the centre, whether it be Macron, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, perhaps - I do not know whether Fianna Fáil is included in whatever is defined as the moderate centre - the European mainstream and the European centre, of which the Government is a part, are responsible for fuelling the growth of these dangerous and far-right forces. The disillusionment and disenfranchisement that people feel - for a range of reasons - with the European Union and the centre ground of European politics are precisely what has fuelled the growth of these dangerous far-right forces. If one considers the French election, this is very clear.
There is complacency about the Macron victory. We all welcome the fact Marine Le Pen did not win, but it is very important to say that the majority of people voted against her, not for Macron. A poll carried out straight after the result shows 57% of people only voted for Macron because they wanted to stop Le Pen, not because they had any enthusiasm for Macron. Many people, even though they hated Le Pen, could not bring themselves to vote for Macron because they were afraid what an investment banker, which is what he is, would likely do to French people suffering from inequality, mass unemployment, high levels of poverty and so on. If, as is very likely, Macron continues, as he is pretty much explicitly stating, with a kind of neo-liberal offensive against the French welfare state - talking about cutbacks in public expenditure and so on - far from his acting as a bulwark against the further rise of Le Pen, his policies will lead directly to the further growth of support for her. It is a terrifying prospect that she could even have attracted the 33% or 34% share of the vote she obtained. It is worth reminding ourselves that Adolf Hitler only ever got 33% support in a free election and he still came to power with all the horrors that followed. Therefore, any complacency about the threat represented by the National Front, the far right and other racist forces would be very misguided.
A failure of the political centre to acknowledge how the policies of the EU, particularly those relating to austerity, privatisation, supporting banks over people and so on, has spurred the sort of disillusionment that has led to the growth of these forces would be a dangerous complacency that will have us riding towards a further disastrous growth of the far right. It is very important to say that. The hope I take from the French election is the growth in support for people such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is very - and rightly - critical of the European Union but robustly against racism and the anti-immigrant sentiment and is trying to offer a radical, progressive and left-wing alternative to the failures of the EU.
The EU has laid the ground for this even on the issue of racism. How can the EU present itself as progressive on the issue of immigration? Last weekend, 6,000 people, most of whom were travelling from Libya, were rescued from the Mediterranean.
At the same time, the European Union did a deal with the Libyan Government in which it provided money to try to prevent migrants from leaving the country. Appalling abuse is occurring in Libya, with large numbers of the refugees being picked up in the Mediterranean describing being raped, physically beaten and abused. Open slave markets at which desperate people are bought and sold are operating in Libya, yet the European Union is doing deals with its government to keep migrants out of Europe. If Europe was not operating a racist policy by refusing to let these people in, we would not have this disaster or encourage the view that somehow immigrants are the problem and, in turn, fuel the arguments of Marine Le Pen, the fascist far right and extreme right-wing nationalists in Britain.
I do not have time to discuss major expenditure increases by the European Union in response to President Trump's decision to ramp up militarism in the United States. The European Union has decided to ramp up European military expenditure by spending €5 billion, in addition to the €200 billion it already spends, on developing research in areas such as drone technology and other vile and murderous military technologies. That is the response of the European Union, which is also using austerity and Brexit to further ram through the neo-liberal agenda of privatisation and public service cutbacks. It is very important that we take seriously the growth of the far right and do not absolve the extreme centre - it is not the moderate centre - from what it has done in fuelling the dangerous levels of disillusionment and alienation that are spurring the growth of the far right.
On the practical matters facing Ireland, Brexit is becoming the new austerity and is being used as an excuse for everything, including more competitiveness. What does the phrase "more competitiveness", which the Taoiseach used in his contribution, mean? Does it mean we must keep down wages and public expenditure? That is what the European Union believes it means and what is has consistently meant for the Government. Brexit is also becoming the new excuse for privatisation, cutting public expenditure and keeping a lid on wages and it will be used as an excuse for attacking public service pensions. This is what the European Union has been doing under the impact of austerity. The centre, disaster capitalism-like, is using the crisis as an opportunity to ram through the misguided policies which are digging the grave of the European Union and fuelling the growth of the far right.
If we are serious about avoiding a hard Border and maintaining the common travel area, rather than spoofing, why not tell Mr. Barnier and the European Union that our officials will not physically co-operate with or tolerate any attempt to impose a hard Border? If the EU negotiates a deal which does not ensure that we keep the Border open and maintain the common travel area, we should have a referendum and reject the deal. The Taoiseach should give such a commitment.
I welcome the opportunity we will have later in the week to hear directly from Mr. Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator of the task force for the preparation and conduct of negotiations with the United Kingdom. Last month, I spoke again of the need for Ireland to have direct representation at Brexit negotiations given the serious impact the UK's withdrawal from the European Union will have on this country, first and foremost the North-South relationship but also the east-west relationship in the areas of trade and business. I have also called throughout for the appointment of a dedicated Brexit Minister. We were assured by the Taoiseach that he was best-placed to act as Brexit Minister because of his role in the European Council. It appears, however, that he will not be Brexit Minister for much longer.
I note the Government document, Ireland and the Negotiations on the UK's Withdrawal from the European Union, states that the Heads of State and Government agreed that the European Council would be "permanently seized of the negotiations." What precisely does this phrase mean? Will the European Council be informed of what is happening at the negotiations daily or hourly? The document also stresses that Ireland will be actively involved, and the Taoiseach centrally involved, in all the negotiating steps. The Cabinet committee on Brexit and other arrangements are far from having direct representation for Ireland at the negotiations. Perhaps the matter will be raised with Mr. Barnier on Thursday.
I note the European Union negotiating guidelines, which issued on 29 April, will be updated by the European Council "as required". What does that phrase mean? What type of changes could be envisaged in that regard? I welcome that the initial reaction of Chancellor Merkel and others to the structure of the negotiations in insisting on complete separation of the divorce between the United Kingdom and European Union from the negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and UK has been abandoned. The position has changed to one of having parallel discussions on the shape of the future relationship between the EU and UK commence once sufficient progress has been made in the discussions on the divorce. I also welcome the commitment made to achieving a close partnership between the UK and EU.
There remain, however, issues of grave concern. In recent months, there have been ominous and concerning signs for Irish business and the economy. For example, we heard reports from hoteliers and guest house operators in the Dublin region that the number of British tourists has declined significantly. There has also been a significant fall in sales of new and used cars, with large increases in the number of used cars being imported from Britain and the North. Reports have also indicated a slowdown in the British economy in quarter 1, which was before the UK general election was called. Given the importance of the UK economy for Irish business, this is a highly significant development. A Central Bank economist recently estimated that a hard Brexit could result in up to 40,000 job losses. The election of the Conservative Party in the forthcoming British election on 8 June could bring further grave volatility to the negotiation process because, tragically, the Tory Government's election programme appears to be predicated on working towards a hard Brexit. We must hope that the disastrous Tory Government will not continue after 8 June and that the British Labour Party and other parties will be in a position to lead the UK into a much better negotiation on Brexit.
There has been considerable discussion about the final bill for the United Kingdom's divorce from the European Union. Whether the figure is €20 billion or €60 billion, given that the UK contributes approximately €10 billion per annum to the EU, we must ensure it does not have a significantly negative impact on our contribution. Like the UK, Ireland is a net contributor to the European Union's budget.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this discussion. Regardless of what happens in the Brexit negotiations, Ireland cannot afford to lose the United Kingdom as a trading partner. The agriculture sector, in particular, is reliant on exports to Britain. I understand sales of cheddar cheese have declined. We import cheaply from the North and export large amounts of beef and dairy produce to Britain. A strong cross-Border working relationship has developed in milk processing.
I note the glee surrounding the election of the new President of France on Sunday, which was described as a good day for the European Union. Mr. Macron shifted his position a few days before his election when he stated that the EU must fundamentally change its approach.
People inquire as to why England voted to leave, but the reason appears to be the rules and regulations that are being introduced. I do not know whether this is being done by civil servants in other countries or whatever. Consider how fiscal rules are imposed on Ireland. Consider Sligo where, due to EU regulations, 10,000 people are at risk of not being able to have their water supplies upgraded. Consider how the EU told us last week how to undertake planning following a European Court of Justice ruling. I saw a debate in the EU about the curvature of a banana. It was as if the EU did not have something better to do. This is what frustrates people in various parts of Ireland and the rest of Europe. Consider the statistics. In France, 35% of people voted for Marine Le Pen. With just a small movement, that would shift to 50% quickly.
A White Paper on the Europe of the future is under discussion, but if that Europe does not revert to the Europe of the beginning, the old EEC, when we traded goods, there was a relationship and Europe minded its business and let a country run most of its own, Europe is headed for a crash. Unfortunately, it appears that bureaucrats are trying to dictate the pace.
I noted with interest at the weekend that Chancellor Angela Merkel was furious about the so-called leaks concerning the meeting between Prime Minister Theresa May and President Jean-Claude Juncker. What came out of the leaks was an attempt to bash. Bashing will not solve anything for Ireland. If the bully boys in Europe and England want to fight, let them, but if Ireland does not stand up and be counted, we will be in trouble.
Is there less and less democracy in Europe? Ireland had a veto on proceedings at one time but no longer does. Power is shifting away from countries. I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett. Regardless of whether Europe likes it, the Irish people are sovereign and should have the opportunity when this so-called deal is done to decide whether it is good for our country. Rural parts of Ireland are dependent on agricultural jobs and cannot afford to lose the English market.
The Government has got Ireland included on the agenda, but getting that over the line is another matter. If a trade deal must be done, it should be done in conjunction with the other talks. Europe is playing hard ball, which is not a good idea for us. I am not worried about what the Europeans think. I am discussing Ireland Inc., and the people of this country deserve to be more than the substitute on the bench looking out at two teams playing. We must ensure that whatever deal is done is good for our country. As a nation, we should have the opportunity to decide the matter. If it is bad for us, let us show the Europeans that we will not lie down and roll over, that we will fight back and ensure we get the deal we deserve.
The referendum result on 23 June confirming that the UK was going to withdraw from the EU was quite a shock, even though it had been a distinct possibility. Brexit has caused unprecedented political and economic uncertainty across Europe, particularly in Ireland. We have had ten months to come to grips with this unwelcome decision by the UK and will have to adjust as best we can to the new reality.
European countries have responded through their democratic systems by rejecting anti-European parties and have confirmed their commitment to the ideals of a European community by electing pro-European governments in Austria, the Netherlands, France and, I hope, Germany later this year. Thus, the prospects for European ideals look good. Ireland's interests are best served by committing to Europe rather than by aligning with the UK, even though it is our closest and most important trading partner. The EU portrays a better vision for Ireland, one that will yield a better sense of co-operation and collaboration in working together for the common good.
We must respect the UK's decision to leave while recognising that Scotland and Northern Ireland had a majority vote to remain in Europe. It is worth considering that Brexit, which was intended to copper-fasten the UK's independence from Europe, may precipitate the disintegration of the UK with the loss of Scotland and Northern Ireland in the years to come.
Ireland has established with the EU our special position in terms of the Border with the North and all the economic, political and social ramifications that will flow from having a European border on this island. It is extraordinary that the UK, having fought two world wars on mainland Europe in defence of small nations, has now decided that its future lies elsewhere. However, we must respect its decision, even though it reflects poor political leadership in that it gave an opportunity to Brexiteers to sell a false message about European solidarity and the benefits of membership. The Conservative Government used the EU as a weapon to fight its own internal party and domestic difficulties and lost. Those who promoted Brexit were nationalistic and insular and lacked self-confidence. The Brexiteers appealed to the UK's fears rather than its hopes. Unfortunately, the fears won the day.
I would caution against punishing the UK for its decision to leave Europe. Of course it will have a cost for us all, but that cost should not be made worse by forcing a hard Brexit, especially for Ireland, which can least tolerate such an outcome. We must consider the long-term outlook and what Europe will look like post Brexit. We must not cut off our nose to spite our face. A fair and honourable outcome should be our goal, not to punish our former EU partner and closest neighbour. However, the UK will pay a large price for Brexit in the long term and it is not looking at the big picture. Where will the UK's new economic trading blocs be, will the UK have the same relationships it had with the EU, and will its new partners have its best interests at heart?
I welcome the EU's protection of the Good Friday Agreement, its protection of Irish citizens in the UK and its protection and recognition of Northern Ireland in the event of a united Ireland.
Many sectors in Ireland are worried about what Brexit will mean for their livelihoods. We must protect Ireland's exports, particularly in agrifood. Farmers are concerned in this regard. Some 50% of our beef exports go to the UK, as do one third of our dairy products, 60% of our poultry and 33% of our timber. Some 51% of total agricultural food exports from Ireland go to the UK and 51% of total agricultural imports come from there. These are important factors. It is our preference to maintain the closest possible trading relationship between the UK and Ireland. Our best economic prospects and interests lie firmly in a strong and well-functioning Single Market and all the prosperity that brings.
Now that we have overcome the initial shock of Brexit, it is time to concentrate on the task ahead. Commentators and journalists need to avoid unnecessary negativity and pessimism while maintaining a critical assessment of progress in the negotiations. We need a constructive and realistic debate that places the interests and welfare of the Irish people first and foremost in the upcoming negotiations.
I am happy to speak on this matter. We have all said it, but the Ceann Comhairle called this the most serious matter to confront the country in a very long time. IBEC and other organisations, including the IFA, claim it will impact more on rural areas than on cities and greater urban areas.
If we think of how things were in the period before we joined the EU, although they have improved a lot since then, many of our youngsters were emigrating at that time and there seemed to be no good outlook for farming. I feel that if these negotiations go wrong, a bigger exodus of young fellows will leave the land than ever before, leaving many places totally abandoned, without life at all. The rural hills, glens and valleys right around the county of Kerry and across all of the country - the very rural places - have enough to do just to survive at present. When farmers hand down to their sons, it is a burden around a young fellow's shoulders to carry on with the farm and hope to hand it down to the next generation after him, like his father handed it down to him.
With regard to the market for beef, as Deputy Harty said, 50% of our exports go to Britain and we import a large amount from Britain. If anything was to happen to that market, it would be a disaster for the people trying to survive on farms here. Likewise, fishermen are very concerned that if the UK takes back its territorial waters, it will put more pressure on them because big factory ships from Spain and other countries will catch more in our waters and clean out our fishermen and leave them with no income at all. Small manufacturers have already been adversely impacted upon in that the value of sterling has fallen and they are operating at margins that are 10% less than before the Brexit vote. That is really hurting them.
I am glad the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is present to listen to the debate. I heard him on radio the other night. He gave a good account of himself and had a good grasp of what needs to be done and the fight that has be fought in the days and weeks ahead.
The Border between North and South is a big concern for many people who cross it on a daily basis. If we are to return to the days of a hard Border and customs and tariffs, it will be a disaster. I am concerned about the part of the statement issued by the Council which made the following point, "The United Kingdom's decision to leave the Union creates significant uncertainties that have the potential to cause disruption, in particular in the United Kingdom but also, to a lesser extent, in other Member States." I think that statement is wrong. This will have much more of an adverse impact on a country like Ireland than on the United Kingdom, which is a strong country that has the ability to do deals with other nations and find markets all over the world, and which is closer to mainland Europe. We are very isolated because we are surrounded by water. This will impact very hard on rural areas, in particular small farmers. I appeal to the Minister to leave no stone unturned in ensuring we come as good as we can out of this because I fear it will be very bad for the country.
On Thursday next, the chief European Union Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, will come to this House. I think that is a very important occasion and it is an opportunity for Members to send a very clear message regarding the priorities for Ireland in the context of Brexit. I want to focus on a recent statement Mr. Barnier made in Brussels in the opening phase of negotiations. I want to focus on three particular areas to which he referred, namely, the financial settlement, the status of expat citizens and the future border between the UK and the EU in Ireland.
On the first of those, the financial settlement, it is not really possible to have a sensible discussion until the UK election has taken place. It would appear that Prime Minister Theresa May is using the British negotiating position as some kind of weapon in the election campaign and I suspect there will be a softening of the language around this once the Conservatives secure a majority in June, as is expected. While the bill for the UK leaving the EU may be very high, access to the Single Market is crucial to the survival of the British economy and it is worth a multiple of what it may need to pay now. The "not a penny" type of election comments and, indeed, the leaked comments from the dinner with Juncker in London are not helpful at all but they have to be viewed in the context of the UK election. That said, Ireland and the other 26 member states have an interest in ensuring, as contributors to the EU budget, that the UK pays what it owes and it is also important that this settlement is not done in a punitive manner as a deterrent in order to dissuade other countries from leaving. It is important that Ireland maintains this position.
The second point Mr. Barnier made deals with the status of expat citizens. While this does not apply directly to Ireland in the sense that we have the common travel area, which allows Irish citizens extensive rights in the UK and vice versa, other EU states that are to be friendly to our interests have a great to deal to lose on this point. The Taoiseach recently attended a kind of mini-summit with the leaders of Denmark and the Netherlands, two countries with which we historically share a common approach to the EU in terms of our three countries having small, open economies, a strong business, enterprise and trade focus and a large exposure to the UK and, therefore, likely to be hit quite hard by Brexit. I presume, then, that the Taoiseach wishes to work in tandem with these states to temper the "UK must be punished" position that seems to be emanating from some quarters in the European Commission and, indeed, some sections of the French and German political establishment. While there will, on paper, be a single EU position, it would be in our interests to work as closely as possible with like-minded states, such as those I have already mentioned - I would also include Belgium and Sweden - in respect of ensuring that the rights of EU citizens are protected in the UK. This is the only real way to prevent the UK from being ejected from the Single Market, which would be disastrous for its economy and, by default, ours and those of the other states to which I refer.
On the flip side, of course, it must be remembered there are almost 1 million British citizens living across the EU, most notably in large enclaves in the south of Spain, where there are up to 300,000 British citizens. It is estimated that over 100,000 of those in Spain alone are pensioners.
If the talks collapse without a deal, the UK may be forced to deal with a surge of returning migrants, a large chunk of whom are dependent on the state for supports. Given the current crisis with its NHS, this is surely something that the UK will wish to avoid.
The third point relates to the future border between the UK and the EU within Ireland. The media reports on this topic veer widely, from a hard Border being inevitable to one being impossible. The reality is that the status of the Border will be a litmus test for what kind of a deal emerges between the UK and the EU. If there is a toning down of the rhetoric following the election, I would hope that the prospect of a deal allowing the status quoto remain may be possible. A trade deal could be reached and goods, services and people could continue to flow freely across the Border. However, if the talks fail and there is either no deal or a very bad one, the prospect of a hard external EU border running across the island throws into sharp focus our divided loyalties on issues such as Schengen and membership of the euro. Would it be possible to maintain the common travel area with a hard Border? Would it be possible to simultaneously allow EU citizens and UK citizens free movement across the island? How would this impact on Northern Ireland, as a component part of the United Kingdom? The mooted idea of British security screening at Irish ports and airports would be a serious affront to Irish sovereignty and our ability to further integrate into the EU. This topic, of course, also poses serious challenges for Northern Ireland citizens who hold Irish citizenship. Can a person be a citizen of an EU state without being able to enjoy his or her right of free movement, for example? Undoubtedly, there are more questions than answers. The reality then is that it will not be possible to have a real debate on Brexit until after the UK general election and we can see what is the actual position of the Conservative Party. As matters stand, we are simply talking in the dark, armed only with the barest of outlines from the EU as to what will be its strategy.
Notwithstanding those three points, the big fear here is that Ireland may get squeezed in the context of the battle which is going to take place between the EU and the UK. Under no circumstances can that be allowed to happen. Ireland needs to be very careful in terms of taking a purely common approach - there are clearly common interests - with the 27. We need to stand up strongly for Ireland's interests. We are the principal country that stands to lose from Brexit, particularly in the event of it being a hard Brexit. For that reason, Ireland must speak out. We must marshal all our forces to, as it were, put on the green jersey and ensure that none of our national interests get lost in the context of the wider debate between the EU and the UK.
As we celebrate Europe Day and given that this year is the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, I wish to begin by setting this issue in its wider context. Brexit, the decision of the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union - or call it what one will - came about as a result of the UK referendum on 24 June last year, which was a bleak day for the European Union. Not only was the result of the referendum a negative development in its own right but there was a legitimate fear that it might act as a catalyst for further populist movements and anti-EU sentiment across the Union. However, it would be fair to say that the reverse has been true in many ways.
From the outset, the remaining EU 27 member states have worked together, not only to ensure a unified position on Brexit but also to reaffirm our collective commitment to the EU project as a whole. In Ireland, support for the European Union has remained high. As the citizens of the wider European Union have gained a greater understanding of the implications of Brexit, they have recognised more clearly that EU membership is something to be valued and protected. The significant increase in the number of applications from Britain and Northern Ireland for Irish passports is one clear example of this. That surge has illustrated that EU citizenship matters, not least to those who are at risk of losing it. Recent elections in fellow EU member states have also delivered results that represent a strong signal of confidence in the value of EU membership.
Irrespective of the unprecedented challenges that Brexit poses to this country in particular, support for our membership of the European Union remains exceptionally high, which was demonstrated once again in yesterday's opinion poll by European Movement Ireland which shows that 88% of those polled agreed that Ireland should remain firmly a part of the European Union. That is why the Taoiseach and the Government has situated Ireland's response to Brexit firmly within the context of our continued and unwavering support for membership of the European Union. For my part, the extensive engagement that I have undertaken with my EU counterparts over the past ten months has not only served to reinforce my firm belief that Ireland should remain at the heart of Europe, but has also been an inspiring reminder of what this really means in practice - the willingness of our EU partners to listen to Ireland's unique concerns and to reflect them in the Union's ongoing negotiating position, a willingness to reach out, not only to the Government but also to citizens and stakeholders in Ireland, to ensure that their views are heard, as instanced by Mr. Michel Barnier's visit to Ireland later this week. It is also an opportunity to build alliances with our partners with regard to Brexit and also in the context of the future of the European Union.
This programme of engagement with our EU partners has also been extremely important in informing the Government's thinking, which has been set out in the comprehensive document on the Article 50 negotiations. This document not only sets out the Government's position and policies, but demonstrates how these will be brought to bear in Ireland's approach to the overall Article 50 process at EU level. The comprehensive document also has regard for the extensive consultation that the Government has undertaken and, indeed, will continue to undertake, with domestic stakeholders, including through the all-island civic dialogue and through our own internal Government analysis and co-ordination that involves the Departments and our agencies. As we stand at the beginning of what will be a very difficult and complex process, I am more confident than ever before that it is firmly the view that Ireland needs to be ready and it is in our interests to approach these negotiations from a position of strength within the European Union family.
The key objective of my engagement with my EU counterparts, of which there have been over 80 to date, has been to underline the importance of protecting peace on our island. This is one of the Government's four headline priorities and it reflects our role and responsibility as co-guarantor of the peace process founded on the Good Friday Agreement. The comprehensive document sets out in detail the unique challenges and issues that Brexit will pose for us on the island of Ireland. In engagement with our EU partners, I stressed our determination to defend the Good Friday Agreement, both in letter and in spirit, and set out the implications of this for the forthcoming negotiations with the European Union. I have explained the unique political and constitutional context and the social, historical and political realities that underpin the imperative of avoiding a hard Border on the island of Ireland, as well as our objective of maintaining the common travel area.