Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, together.
We are confident that the European Council’s adoption of the EU’s negotiating guidelines on 29 April gives Ireland its strongest hand going into these complex negotiations. The unique circumstances of Ireland have been recognised as part of the negotiations from the outset.
The Government’s priority here has been to ensure that the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, including the Good Friday Agreement which already exists, is recognised and protected within the context of the Article 50 negotiations leading to a withdrawal agreement. The Good Friday Agreement is an internationally recognised treaty, legally binding and registered with the UN. This is a key distinguishing factor regarding what is a unique political and constitutional framework on the island of Ireland.
As the Government has consistently said, the only way for us to influence this process and protect our national interests, including with regard to Northern Ireland and the common travel area, is to win the understanding and support of EU partners for Ireland’s unique concerns. From the outset, these concerns have been recognised as part of the negotiation guidelines, and we have achieved this understanding through the extensive programme of outreach and engagement undertaken with our EU partners.
There will be a separate agreement on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which is likely to cover a broad range of policy areas, including trade, and which is likely to take longer to conclude than the EU-UK exit agreement. Depending on the nature of this agreement, which is subject to negotiations, approval by each member state may be required in accordance with their own domestic procedures.
It is also important to remember that the future relationship agreement will require ratification by all 27 member states, including Ireland. An EU-UK exit agreement will be approved by a majority in the European Council, therefore no one member state will be in a position to block or veto a deal. Even if it were possible to veto a deal, it would not mean that the UK would not leave because under Article 50, it would simply mean that the UK would depart without appropriate arrangements in place.
This may or may not be my last interaction in the Chamber directly with the Deputy as Taoiseach and in case it is I want to acknowledge the work he has done over the last few years. I may not always have agreed with it but I certainly want to acknowledge that he has worked very hard over the last few years.
Article 50 stipulates that this requires an enhanced qualified majority, which is a vote of 20 of the 27 member states and those member states representing more than 65% of the EU population. That is the existing article but there is no reason, given Ireland's not only unique circumstances but unique exposure to Brexit, we could not have sought, by agreement, a veto on that only as it pertains to Ireland and specifically on the separation of the Border with Northern Ireland and what will happen there.
With respect to the future relations, the reality is that Spain did achieve a veto. The Government's line to date has been that everybody has a veto and, therefore, Spain's veto is just a restatement of what it has, Ireland has a veto and every member state has a veto. However, on 16 May the European Court of Justice made a ruling on the new free trade agreement with Singapore and it states that the European Commission has competence. In other words, no member state can exercise a veto on a wide range of areas, including market access, investment protection, intellectual property protection, competition, sustainable development, transport, road transport, rail transport, waterways transport, public procurement, non-direct investment, institutional provisions, notification, verification, mediation and so forth.
The European Court of Justice ruling only found two specific areas where member states have competence. None of us knows but it is possible that the separation agreement could be bundled into areas where the European Commission has competence; they are wide-ranging and directly affect our relationship with the United Kingdom and jobs in Ireland. If they are bundled, it is possible we would have no veto. If that were done, Spain would still have a veto as it has a veto on the agreement in totality as it pertains to Gibraltar.
Given the exposure we have and that words are just words - we had words in July 2012 on bondholder burden sharing but nothing happened - why did the Government not at least seek a veto? We all understand we may not have got one. Why, given that Spain sought and got one did the Irish Government not at least seek a veto on any aspect of the Brexit talks as they pertain either to the separation or any aspect of the future relationship?
I am a bit concerned about the strength Ireland will have at the end of this. Yesterday, and in responses earlier today, the Taoiseach spoke about every country having a veto but every country does not have a veto once we have accepted the negotiating mandate, which would have to be by unanimous decision of the Council. Once the negotiating mandate has been given and the negotiator, in this case is Mr. Michel Barnier who has been appointed, under the treaty the final agreement comes back to the Council. The negotiated agreement must be adopted by a qualified majority of 72% of the remaining 27 member states, representing 65% of the population. It is under three quarters of the member states, representing almost two thirds of the population of the member states that will carry the day. No individual country has a veto. So it is not true to say, necessarily, that at the end of the day Ireland can say "No". We need to make sure we get the deal well in advanced of being faced with a very difficult situation at the end.
I take the Taoiseach's point that it would be a hollow right to veto the deal as all that could be vetoed at that stage would be whatever is negotiated. The exit is already determined and it would simply otherwise be an exit on no terms, and I presume with respect to trade it would be the World Trade Organization terms that would be used. We need to do the work now and not have any notion that at the end of the day we are going to have any big stick to veto any final agreement. Legally, we do not have that and even if we did it would be a hollow victory to exercise it.
Only yesterday, Teachta Adams raised with the Taoiseach the publication of two documents by Mr. Barnier relating to the Brexit negotiations. Teachta Adams asked the Taoiseach about the rights of EU and British citizens following Brexit and it is disappointing that he has not made any specific reference to the rights of these citizens in earlier comments. The British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Mr. David Davis, is reported last night to have described the EU demands to protect its citizens' rights as ridiculously high.
The battle lines are drawn on this issue. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, citizens in the North enjoy the right to Irish citizenship and, consequently, European Union citizenship. Has the Government discussed this with the European Commission, Mr. Barnier and the British Government? What has been the outcome of these discussions? Will the rights of citizens in the North be protected in any Brexit outcome?
I will answer the last question first and the answer is "Yes". As the Deputy is aware from sitting very close to where Mr. Barnier spoke, this is one of the three priorities that needs to be dealt with. The first priority is the question of modalities and liabilities and the charge on the United Kingdom for leaving the European Union. This refers to a range of issues where contracts are in place or moneys are paid out of the European budget. There will be a difficulty in that if there is a €12 billion hole in the budget on a yearly basis, who is going to pay the extra or what programmes will be cut. Mr. Barnier stated that no country currently contributing to the European Union budget wants to pay any more and all of those in receipt of capital, grants and so on from the European Union do not want to receive any less. There will be a real problem if that is the scale of what is involved.
The Deputy asked if the matter was discussed and it was. Mr. Barnier is a negotiator for Ireland and the Border is one of the first priorities. One of the second priorities relates to the rights of citizens and reciprocal rights for people from the UK living in the EU and vice versa. The Deputy mentioned the Good Friday Agreement and when people voted on that in the beginning, they did so with the expectation of being able to continue as European citizens with European rights. Every person in Northern Ireland is entitled to Irish citizenship and, therefore, European citizenship. We want to see that retained and the common travel area between here and the UK is a matter for bilateral discussion. It is not a case of not referring to this as it is very much the focus of our attention. We want this dealt with very early on, and Mr. Barnier made this point himself publicly on many occasions. The Border issue should not become a bargaining point in respect of Ireland at some later time during more detailed discussions on trade etc. That is why it is one of the three priorities.
Deputy Howlin set out the position about the majority, equating to 72% of member states and 65% of the population. He is correct in that it would be a hollow victory. We do not want to have the case of negotiations coming to a finality at the European Council and finding ourselves stranded. That is why we have people on the negotiating task force who are in very close contact with our committee of permanent representatives to the EU, COREPER, and sherpa people in Brussels, so we know what is going on at all times in respect of the negotiating stances. I take the point of Deputies Howlin and Donnelly that it is very important for us in building those relationships to have our position cleared very early on. In fairness, most of the other European countries may not have as much interest as we do in Brexit because we are so close to Britain and for so many other reasons but they will become very interested if the hole in the budget will have an impact on programmes and structures in their countries. They might not have associated that with Brexit but if scheme X or Y is cut back or abolished altogether, people could become very interested politically.
I agree with the sentiments that we need to do the work now and this will absorb so much political time from so many leaders over the next number of years. It need never have happened but it has happened.
I made a very clear decision that we should not appoint a Brexit Minister as the European Council leaders are the ones who make the decision. The European Parliament must pass the outcome and the Singapore agreement also has an impact. These mixed agreements mean the European Union has competence in some areas but individual and regional parliaments must ratify the matters at the end of the day.
We have some really good people operating in London, Brussels and throughout Europe generally. They are very competent and fully focused. Whoever is the new leader of the Fine Gael Party - I hope he will become Taoiseach, with whatever structure of Government that is involved - will have at his disposal all that expertise on a constant basis and be really fully informed. It will be up to that person to build relationships with the individual leaders, who seem to change on a pretty regular basis at a European level. In my experience anyway, every second or third European Council meeting has another two or three people I might not have seen before because elections take place on a very regular and irregular basis throughout Europe. I wish the best to whomever the party selects as leader. I hope it will be a focus in putting together a Government.
I will finish by saying-----
-----the agenda for the European Union goes beyond Brexit. It also includes the Single Market, the digital Single Market, Economic and Monetary Union, opportunities to create jobs and for investment and very effective trade negotiations with other countries, including the United States and Canada and others towards the east, leading to the creation of millions of jobs. Brexit is not the be-all and end-all, but it is a real problem. While we must deal with it, we must also think beyond it