Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
European Council Meetings
13. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussions he and EU leaders had at the December 2018 EU Council meeting; and if the backstop was discussed at length. [53186/18]
14. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone call with the President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, on 12 December 2018; and the issues they discussed regarding the reassurances sought by the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, on the draft withdrawal treaty. [53428/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 17, inclusive, together.
I attended meetings of the European Council in three formats in Brussels on Thursday, 13 December and Friday, 14 December. In advance of the European Council, I spoke by telephone to the President of the Council, Mr. Tusk, on Monday, 10 December and the President of the Commission, Mr. Juncker, on Wednesday, 12 December. In each call we discussed the situation regarding the Brexit negotiations and they reiterated their strong support for Ireland’s position and their view that the EU-UK withdrawal agreement could not be reopened.
We discussed Brexit in Article 50 format on Thursday evening having heard a presentation by the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, in which she updated us on recent political developments in the United Kingdom and the state of play regarding the withdrawal agreement. I also had a bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister earlier that morning. There was very strong consensus at the Article 50 meeting that the withdrawal agreement agreed to on 25 November and endorsed by the UK Government could not be renegotiated in substance. We all agreed that the backstop, which is an integral part of the protocol in Ireland and the withdrawal agreement, is necessary to give us a cast iron assurance that there will not be a hard border on the island of Ireland, a state of affairs which underpins the Good Friday Agreement and the totality of relationships between Britain and Ireland. It is also crucial to protect the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union by ensuring the open border on the island of Ireland does not become a back door to the Single Market. The backstop is intended as an insurance policy to apply unless and until it is replaced by alternative arrangements that make it no longer necessary. We have consistently said we will work to provide clarifications and reassurances for the United Kingdom. In that context, the European Council agreed some important reassurances in its conclusions.
We reiterated that we would like a very close, comprehensive and ambitious future relationship with the United Kingdom, reaffirming the position outlined in the political declaration. We confirmed our determination to start negotiations on the future relationship as soon as possible after the UK withdrawal, with a view to concluding and implementing the new arrangements by the end of 2020, thus ensuring neither an extension of the transition period nor the invocation of the backstop would be required. We also agreed that preparations for all possible outcomes should be stepped up, including for a no-deal scenario.
Of course, we discussed many other important issues at the European Council. The agenda included the EU Multi-annual Financial Framework for the period 2021 to 2027, the Single Market, migration, external relations, the fight against racism and xenophobia, security and defence, dealing with disinformation, climate change and citizens’ consultations on the future of Europe. We also welcomed the positive vote in the European Parliament on the EU-Japan economic partnership agreement, which should come into force very soon. On the new Multi-annual Financial Framework, I outlined Ireland’s approach, which is to ensure it brings added European value and that core Irish priorities, particularly the Common Agricultural Policy, are protected. On the Single Market, an issue on which Ireland has been very active, we called for a forward-looking approach and decided to have an in-depth discussion on achieving a fully functioning Single Market, particularly in services, at our next meeting in March. At the Euro summit we endorsed the outcome of discussions by Finance Ministers in recent months, including on Economic and Monetary Union. This is important in strengthening the architecture of the euro area for all circumstances.
In addition to my bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Costa of Portugal on Friday morning. I did not have a formal bilateral meeting with President Macron of France last week, but I did informally speak to him and other EU counterparts on the margins of the European Council.
I will report on the European Council in greater detail in my statement to the House this afternoon.
I will reserve most of my comments on the Brexit discussions for the upcoming statements on the European Council meeting.
On no-deal planning, the European Commission has regularly published details of presentations on no-deal plans which have been made to governments. The evidence suggests the Government has been briefed in great depth over a long period on everything contained in the guidelines issued today. Is that the case? Is the Commission correct to state it has kept governments fully informed well in advance of today's launch?
The Commission's press release was published on its website during Leaders' Questions this morning. The Taoiseach was somewhat disingenuous about the Government decision not to keep the House properly informed on this matter. I genuinely think the House has been treated shabbily by the Taoiseach and the Government on Brexit preparedness and particularly a no-deal scenario. I cannot comprehend why arrangements were not made for a debate and full presentation on this issue before the House rose for the Christmas recess. That is incomprehensible on any reasonable objective assessment. We need a proper explanation, rather than what has been said so far because I have read the guidance and press release of the Commission in that regard. It is an important issue that merits debate in the House. The Government's response to this scenario and whatever document will be put before the Cabinet this evening should also be made available to all Members of the House because they are of direct relevance to us as parliamentarians and legislators.
The Taoiseach referenced a proposal concerning exemptions to state aid rules to help businesses badly hit by Brexit. Fianna Fáil first proposed that measure and raised it with the Government and the Commission over two years ago; therefore, we welcome the fact that it is being progressed. When does the Taoiseach intend to discuss the details of the proposal with Members of the House? As public funding will be required, will a special Supplementary Estimate be introduced to cover the cost?
Agreement to continue current policy on the common travel area was reached between the Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, and the British Government early in the process. In recent months the Taoiseach stated the common travel area should be protected in the withdrawal agreement. I ask him to explain the status of the common travel area in the event that there is no withdrawal agreement. Given that the formal legal basis for many reciprocal rights will disappear when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, when will the Government publish detailed plans to protect the common travel area in a no-deal scenario?
I agree with the remarks of Deputy Micheál Martin about the shabby treatment of the House in failing to provide a proper briefing on what is parliamentary business. Although the Brexit forum has been a valuable instrument in the past 12 or 18 months, it is not a parliament. We need to have the scope and time to reflect properly on the business we must undertake.
From his interactions with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, what is the Taoiseach's understanding of what the United Kingdom wants? For what did Mrs. May ask? A report in the UK press claimed that if Ireland and the Taoiseach budged by 5%, a deal could be done. What does that mean? On what matter does the British Government want the Taoiseach to budge? What changes, if any, were tabled to the withdrawal agreement by the United Kingdom in order to allow Mrs. May to meet the wishes of those, in her own party in particular, who were obstructing its passage?
Did the Taoiseach formally veto language in the agreed statement issued after the EU summit? Has he had discussions with the DUP, Ms Arlene Foster in particular, in the aftermath?
There should be no question of us giving an inch on the question of the Border and the assurances given.
We often focus on the very immediate and important question of the debacle in Britain and what the implications might be in terms of a crash-out Brexit in the event that there is a deal or no deal. However, over the Christmas period it would be worthwhile reflecting on the wider picture of what is happening in Europe, given events in Hungary and recent events in France and what underpins the bigger crisis within the European Union which was, to some extent, the reason people in the United Kingdom voted for Brexit.
The Orbán Government, a pretty obnoxious, racist, right-wing Government, is now facing unprecedented protests against a shocking attempt to impose what is called a slave law, whereby workers are being asked to work 400 hours' compulsory overtime and get paid three years later for it. I could not believe it when I heard it. Orbán sent in private security, which echoes something that happened in Ireland this week, and police to attack Members of Parliament who were protesting in the state broadcaster. This is on top of attempts to dismantle the free press and interfere with freedom of education and so on. This is very dangerous authoritarian stuff. The background involves considerable resistance regarding issues such as pay, poverty and inequality. This is what we see in France with the yellow vest movement. People are angry over how the vulnerable and working poor are being attacked by a system that does not seem to care very much about them. This is something the European leaders should reflect on. The British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, should certainly reflect on it but I do not believe she is capable of much reflection on that front. European leaders and the Taoiseach should be reflecting on it, however. The social and economic inequalities I mention are generating a lot of anger across Europe.
At the Taoiseach's meeting, was the future EU budget discussed, particularly with the departure of the United Kingdom now seeming inevitable, unless Article 50 can be utilised in some way or another? Could the Taoiseach give us his view on that? I refer to the multi-annual framework that the Taoiseach referred to.
Owing to the immense amount of intellectual property being counted in Ireland, our GNP and versions of it have grown substantially. Does the Government have a calculation of the likely additional amounts we will have to pay in contributions to the European budget? Has this formed part of the Taoiseach's discussions with his European Union counterparts? The departure of the British could impose a very significant extra burden. We know already the Government is in big trouble over capital projects, such as the children's hospital.
In the context of Rosslare, we have been told and assured by the Taoiseach and others that planes will continue to land at and depart from Dublin Airport in the context of a no-deal Brexit. At that point, unless a further agreement is entered into, the United Kingdom will be outside the single aviation space. Is the promise of no disturbance to our airports, whether in Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Kerry or Mayo, one that should give rise to concerns? Is this one of the areas that the Taoiseach has specifically examined with his Government?
Was cybersecurity discussed at the meeting as a matter of urgency in the context of the forthcoming European elections, which are due to be held next May? The campaigns are happening against the background of the rise of ultra-populists in Europe.
It is quite incredible for most people outside the United Kingdom that we are 100 days away from it leaving the European Union, if it does leave. We have a withdrawal agreement on the table that took a year and a half of painstaking negotiations, yet a hard-crash, no-deal scenario, however unlikely, is a live prospect because of the failure of politics in Britain and a division in the Tory Party. Obviously in that context we have to consider what it will mean for Ireland. We want the withdrawal agreement. We want the deal in place and all the hard-fought gains and protections that have been achieved and which we supported to ensure we do not have a hardening of the Border. It is paramount to protect the Good Friday Agreement.
In the event of a hard crash, however unlikely it is in the eyes of the Taoiseach or others, the prospect of a Border poll has to be put to the people in the North. I have said this before and it has been said by my party leader. It is not just Sinn Féin that is saying this. If the Taoiseach is watching what is happening north of the Border — I hope he is — he will note all the opinion polls over recent months show that a majority, including some unionists and a majority of nationalists, would vote for a united Ireland in the context of a hard Brexit because it would mean the North staying in the European Union. I believe that should also be the position of the Government. I seek a response from the Taoiseach on this today.
We do not believe the Government is Brexit ready. We will see proposals published by the Tánaiste tomorrow. There is a meeting of the Brexit stakeholder forum, at which I will be present. We have said we need to build up our defences and infrastructure. Part of this involves the consideration of ports, yet we hear that one of the main gateways to France for goods and people from the south east will cease. I refer to the Irish Ferries route. We are seeing this happen in the mouth of Brexit. The Taoiseach needs to understand the impact it will have on businesses and the tourism sector, on which the south east has built part of its economy. I appeal to the Taoiseach to have a conversation with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he can, and he in turn should talk to Irish Ferries. This is a serious issue. It speaks to the lack of preparedness of the Government when it comes to these types of issues, especially in the regions.
We have already eaten into the time for the third group of questions. If we allow a comprehensive response from the Taoiseach, we will see what time remains thereafter, if that is acceptable to Members.
I have not yet had a chance to see the European Commission's guidance and documents on a no-deal Brexit. They were published only in the past couple of hours. Once I get out of the Chamber I will have a chance to study them.
-----but I have had some verbal briefings. I would like to see the documents for myself. Other Ministers and officials might have seen them where it was relevant to their line Department.
The common travel area is protected in the EU treaties and also in the withdrawal agreement. In the absence of those, it is a mix of national law, European law and conventions. There has been some substantial work done bilaterally between the United Kingdom and Ireland on the common travel area and how that can continue to operate after Brexit. Both Governments are determined to ensure it does. The European Union has no objection to that.
I understand there is a European Commission notice on aviation but I have not had a chance to see it yet.
Among the UK requests was one that the joint political declaration on the future relationship be attached to the withdrawal agreement. The advice from the EU legal services is that this would not be possible and that the withdrawal agreement and protocols attached to it are legal documents in our treaties whereas the joint political declaration is a political declaration. To be called a treaty, it would have to be substantially rewritten.
The second request was for the European Union to give the United Kingdom a legal guarantee that the future relationship treaty, the trade deal, would be in place and operable by 2021, and that even if it were not ratified by all the member states in parliament, it would still be implemented, at least in part. Unfortunately, it was not a commitment that the European Union was able to give. We will make every endeavour in good faith to negotiate the future relationship treaty and a good trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union. We will start those talks as soon as the withdrawal agreement is ratified by Westminster but we could not give a legal commitment to say it would be done by any particular date because the nature of the negotiation is that one has to negotiate. Of course, because it will be a mixed agreement, a mixed treaty, it will require the ratification of the treaty by 28 member state parliaments, and perhaps provincial parliaments in some cases. What was sought was a legal guarantee that we were not in a position to give. If we were to give it, the European Union could find itself in breach. The responsibility for avoiding a hard border in that scenario would potentially shift to the European Union rather than the United Kingdom, which would be a bit unfair.
It would potentially render the backstop inoperable, which is why there was no traction for that suggestion at the European Council meeting.
I did not veto any language in communiques. I do not know from where that reportage comes, but I can only ever assume it comes from people who do not follow European affairs because it is just not the way the European Council works. We have never had a vote in a year and a half and do not wield vetoes. It is done by consensus. That is good sometimes and not at other times, but it is how the European Union works. There is no need to use a veto and I never have done so. There was a draft point No. 5 that has caused some commentary in the media as there was a reference to future reassurances. The reference to future reassurances was not included in the final conclusions because points Nos. 3 and 4 were added and they are the assurances. They are the assurances the European Union was happy to give; therefore, it was not necessary to refer to future reassurances. On deleting the particular language used, I did not propose or lead the charge on it, as I did not need to do so.
I have not had any direct contact with the DUP in the past two weeks.
We had a lengthy discussion on the MFF. It was an opportunity for the Heads of State and Government to outline their priorities. It was really a first round in which people outlined what their priorities were. As is always the case in an estimates process, everybody wanted to see lots more spent in every area imaginable but not many wanted to come up with the money to pay for it or savings in other programmes. It is an estimates process writ large at European level and it is really only getting started. I will speak a little more about it in my contribution later.
On our GNI, the Department of Finance does have estimates which show how our contribution will increase in the coming years. It is, of course, dependent on how much GNI increases and what our contributions will be. However, they are only estimates. The truth is our contribution to the EU budget will increase a lot, not so much because the United Kingdom is leaving but because of our GNI and the fact that the economy is growing so much. It is linked with the size of the economy. We have become a net contributor to the EU budget and will very much be a net contributor to it in the next MFF period. I really hope we will not become one of those countries that sees it as how much we pay in and how much we get out in funding, including under the CAP. We have to remember what the real value of European membership is - access to a single market of 500 million consumers. It is the freedom of Irish citizens to live, work, study, travel and access education anywhere in the European Union. One of the big mistakes made in the United Kingdom - perhaps one of the reasons it is leaving - is that it saw it in that way, that it pays this much in and gets that much out, that, therefore, it should leave and give the money to the NHS or some other worthy cause. People never really talked about the value of being in the European Union. Some in the United Kingdom are perhaps now starting to understand this. The membership fee is very cheap when we consider the access to a market of 500 million people and the enormous rights and freedoms citizens gain as a consequence of being part of the European Union.
Cybersecurity and disinformation were discussed, as was the issue of election interference. There was some concern there might have been foreign involvement in encouraging the gilets jaunes protest in France. A difficulty when it comes to all of these things is that while we can raise our concerns about disinformation, interference in the electoral process and the use of social media to do it, few people are able to come up with workable solutions as to what we can actually do to stop or prevent it. We always need to bear in mind the concept of free speech because one person's disinformation might be another's opinion. We need to be careful that people do not use any of these things as a pretext to crack down on democracy or freedom of speech.
I responded to questions about Rosslare Europort earlier in response to Deputy Howlin.