Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
19. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk and Mr. Michel Barnier while in Brussels on 6 February 2019 and the issues that were discussed. [6679/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 22, inclusive, together.
I meet and speak regularly with my EU counterparts bilaterally and at formal and informal meetings of the European Council. I had the opportunity to meet with several of my counterparts at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, including the Prime Ministers of Poland, Austria, Luxembourg, Croatia and the Netherlands. I also spoke recently by telephone with Chancellor Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Sánchez of Spain, as well as the newly-elected Prime Minister of Latvia, Krišjānis Kariņš. All of my counterparts assured me of their full commitment to the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland within which is contained the backstop, and their view that it cannot be renegotiated. Other EU issues also arose in our conversations.
Most recently, I travelled to Brussels last Wednesday for a series of meetings with European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his deputy, Sabine Weyand, and the chair of the European Parliament Brexit steering group, Guy Verhofstadt, as well as Commissioner Phil Hogan. I also spoke by telephone with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani.
President Tusk and I discussed the latest political developments in London and noted the approaching deadline for the UK's departure from the EU. We agreed that the withdrawal agreement is the best deal possible and that it cannot be reopened. While we hope that the backstop will never be used, it is needed as a legal guarantee to ensure there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, while protecting the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union. In my meeting with President Juncker, he restated his firm view that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, should not be renegotiated. We agreed that while on the EU side, we will continue to seek agreement on the orderly withdrawal of the UK, given the ongoing uncertainty in London we will also further intensify our preparations for a no-deal scenario.
President Juncker confirmed that the Commission stands ready to assist Ireland in meeting the specific challenges we face as a result of Brexit, particularly in very vulnerable sectors such as agriculture, agrifood, fisheries and small exporters. He also confirmed that programmes providing assistance for cross-Border peace and reconciliation will be strengthened, not diminished. We agreed that Ireland and the Commission will continue to work closely together over the period ahead. A number of other issues also arose in my meeting with President Juncker, including the free trade agreement between the EU and Japan and the situation in Venezuela.
Both President Tajani and Guy Verhofstadt, MEP confirmed to me that the European Parliament is committed to protecting peace and stability on the island of Ireland and that it wishes to emphasise and remind people that any withdrawal agreement must be approved by the European Parliament as well as Westminster. I thanked all my colleagues for their strong commitment and noted that as a small country, this strong solidarity resonates deeply in Ireland and other small countries.
I engage regularly with Prime Minister May. Most recently, I met with her over dinner in Dublin last Friday and we briefed each other on our respective engagements in Belfast and Brussels earlier that week. We discussed developments in Northern Ireland and our shared interest in seeing the devolved institutions restored. I reiterated our wish to see the withdrawal agreement ratified in order that negotiations on a close, ambitious and comprehensive relationship between the EU and the UK can start immediately. Other EU and international engagements are envisaged in the period ahead. I will be happy to inform the House of these in due course.
We have six speakers and we must give the Taoiseach an opportunity to reply. As my clock is showing about 13 minutes, I ask Members to be brief in their questions if they all want to get an answer.
As the witching hour approaches in terms of the approaching Brexit deadline, has the Taoiseach discussed with the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council the arrangements that will be put in place with regard to Irish hauliers, for example, coming to French ports? From the French media, I understand that they will have an EU queue, into which I assume the Irish hauliers will allowed, and a UK queue. Can the Taoiseach tell me whether information is available and when will it be made available to hauliers? Most hauliers are self-employed and have either one truck or just a couple of trucks so many of them are smallish firms. Has the Taoiseach identified working protocols with the EU with regard to what none of us want but what may happen for some time, namely, a difficult Brexit and a difficult withdrawal from the EU by the UK?
In particular, have any additional insurance arrangements been put in place? What is going to happen in regard to people driving in Northern Ireland on their Irish insurance?
This afternoon the British Prime Minister is due to update the Westminster Parliament on the state of Brexit talks. She is supposedly going to tell MPs to hold tough. It is vital that the Taoiseach stands firm in the face of this last-ditch attempt by the British Government to renegotiate the backstop. It is our only insurance policy to prevent a hard border on this island and it is supported by the majority of citizens, businesses and other key sectors across the entire island. Any retreat would jeopardise Irish interests, the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. With the exception of the unionist parties, there is political consensus North and South on the need to protect the backstop. The actions of the British Government in seeking to ditch it are not only an act of bad faith but have made the prospect of a no-deal situation much more likely. In the event a no-deal situation transpires, the Government must immediately begin preparing for a referendum on Irish unity. A unity referendum is consistent with the Good Friday Agreement and, if passed, would see the entire island retain membership of the European Union. It is a common sense alternative to a no-deal scenario. People voted to remain in the EU.
It is 45 days until the UK is due to leave the EU, according to the current legal situation in both the UK and the EU. In order for this to change, something has to be both agreed and ratified before then. In terms of our domestic preparations, we are likely to be the last country in the EU to have enacted legislation to cater for a no-deal scenario. Given we are likely to be the worst hit, can the Taoiseach explain why we are so far behind on this? The Netherlands, which has just as complex a situation to deal with, has all its staffing in place and all its legislation is not only published but it will be law this month.
In regard to the meetings with President Tusk, it is indeed a red herring that everyone keeps talking about whether Europe will stand by Ireland. There is no doubt about this: if Ireland refuses to accept what is proposed by the UK, the EU will accept Ireland's refusal. The far more important issue is whether Ireland will be ready to face any eventuality. Last December the Taoiseach said that all firms that need to be prepared should be prepared by 29 March. Given the claim that everything is being monitored closely, can the Taoiseach confirm to us that all firms which will be impacted by Brexit will actually be prepared by 29 March? I draw his attention to the AIB report yesterday which showed only 51% of SMEs are prepared.
For three weeks in a row the Taoiseach has refused to answer a very simple and direct question I have put to him, and which every other Prime Minister in Europe has already answered, namely, what exactly will happen on the Border if there is no deal on 29 March?
He cannot, on one hand, say we need a deal in order to keep the Border operating as it does and then refuse to say what will happen. We know he is not contemplating or planning anything but this is no help to Border communities and businesses, which are deeply concerned about what they might face in 25 days' time. The Taoiseach might indicate whether it is his view we are heading into extension territory in terms of Article 50.
The Taoiseach last week held meetings with the EU Presidents and with Prime Minister May. If no progress is made in the weeks ahead, the Taoiseach will face a significant decision at the March EU Council summit. It is very hard to know exactly what Prime Minister May's strategy is. However, it seems to be to push to the very last minute, to be bland again this week and give the opportunity for an amendable motion at the last minute to hold her own people together, and then expect that she can get her deal over the line with the alternative being a catastrophic fall out of the EU by the UK. Since it is now crystal clear there will be no reopening of the withdrawal agreement, was alternative wording to the political statement discussed by the Taoiseach and did he have any discussions with Prime Minister May on what might be acceptable, in her judgment, to a majority in the House of Commons?
The obnoxiousness and political bankruptcy of the Tory Brexiteers and UKIP mean that just about anybody else looks good compared to them but in recent weeks it has maybe masked the lack of principle and ethics of the EU itself, when one looks at how it is dealing with events that are unfolding in Catalonia or, for that matter, Venezuela. The Europe that proclaims itself as an upholder of human rights, democracy and so on is standing idly by while 12 people - many elected representatives or former Ministers of Catalonia - are today starting trial and facing up to 25 years in prison because they organised a referendum, which they won, for Catalonian independence. It is quite shocking it is happening in the centre of Europe yet there is deathly silence from the EU.
I also think it reprehensible that the EU and now our Government have decided to join with Donald Trump in intervening in Venezuela.
Maduro is an authoritarian. I am not a supporter of Maduro. I am a supporter of the people's revolt that happened a number of years ago against the deep inequalities in Venezuelan society.
Maduro is an authoritarian but that does not give Trump or anybody else the right to interfere in the political processes in Venezuela. That is up to the people of Venezuela. Does the Taoiseach really think the Government or the EU should be interfering and, essentially, giving cover to Trump, who is threatening military action in Venezuela?
I thank the Taoiseach for meeting the co-leader of the European Green Party, Philippe Lamberts, last week. Mr. Lamberts is on the Brexit steering group in the European Parliament and we found the meeting very useful. What Deputy Howlin said is true. There is not a hint of a chink that we may blink either in Europe or Dublin with regard to any fundamental change to the withdrawal agreement. That is also what I hear from Mr. Lamberts, who I would trust on what is happening in Brussels.
I would differ slightly from Deputy Howlin in regard to the possibility of London agreeing something on alternative wording within the political declaration. While I would welcome that, I believe the likelihood is very slim. It seems to me there are three possible courses. The first is a worrying possibility, given Prime Minister May is saying today in Westminster they should stall for more time and get closer to the edge, when the fear is they could go over the edge, which would be deeply damaging for everyone. The second, which is a recent development, is that she could cross the House of Commons, take what is in Jeremy Corbyn's letter and agree some sort of arrangement which would provide for the UK to remain within the customs union and the Single Market in some form, even though that would go against her red lines. The third is a second referendum.
With regard to the second possibility, if Jeremy Corbyn's approach was returned, it might give the DUP something it could swing behind in the sense it would not breach its red line of not infringing the UK single market or ours of infringing the EU Single Market. Jeffrey Donaldson wrote a positive article in the Sunday Independentlast weekend saying we need statesmanship and dialogue and that we need to engage. I encourage the Taoiseach to make further such approaches. I know he met with the DUP recently and he should continue on that track. I accept we cannot do much and this is London's call.
However, we should encourage in every way we can that they might help facilitate such a second solution along the lines of what Jeremy Corbyn has outlined in his letter.
In relation to haulage, I and the Government are very aware of the extent to which the United Kingdom is used as a landbridge to get our product to mainland Europe and to get product from mainland Europe to Ireland. There is of course the option of going by sea and there is a lot of capacity on existing vessels going directly from Ireland to continental Europe, but that takes much longer and involves additional cost.
If there is a deal, there will be no change in haulage arrangements until 2021, but if there is no deal it is anticipated that the UK will join the common transit convention. However, at Dover that would leave Irish hauliers joining the EU queue and delays could occur there.
It is anticipated that there will be transitional arrangements to limit the delays at ports and that haulage licences will continue to apply, at least for a number of months. On legislation, the legislation is on schedule. It is still our intention to publish the Brexit omnibus Bill on 22 February, and with the co-operation of the Opposition in both Houses to have it enacted by mid-March, well in advance of the 29 March deadline.
I am afraid I cannot confirm that all firms are prepared. It is up to individual firms to make their own preparations with the assistance of the Government and it is not possible for me to confirm that they will all be prepared, but I would anticipate that those firms most exposed to trade with the UK will be the most prepared.
If we face a no-deal scenario, obviously we have a dilemma. The United Kingdom will be bound by WTO rules and we will have EU laws around the protection of the Single Market and the customs union, and we have the Good Friday Agreement, which I believe is paramount. Part of the Good Friday Agreement is that we keep the Border open and invisible between the two islands. It may not be written into it, but I believe it is implicit in it, so I think at that point we would need an agreement on customs regulations between the EU and the UK, and we have one now and I would like to see it ratified.
On Article 50 being extended, I cannot say whether it will be extended or not. It really is up to the United Kingdom to make an application for an extension, should it so wish, but I do note that it is quite far behind in its plans, in particular its legislative plans, with regard to Brexit, much further behind than we are.
I did not have any discussions on alternative wording with Prime Minister May. I believe that would constitute negotiation and negotiation really can only happen between the EU on the one side, including Ireland, and the UK on other, but we did discuss what might be acceptable to the UK Government and it will not surprise anyone in this House to know that it is in the space of either alternative arrangements yet to be defined, or a time limit or unilateral exit clause for the backstop, and that is something we cannot accept. I understand where the British Government is coming from. It has a real fear that the backstop might become a trap and were the backstop invoked that the UK could end up permanently in the orbit of the European Union against its will, so we need to find a way that provides an assurance to the UK Parliament and the UK Government that that will not happen, while at the same time not diluting our legally binding and legally operable guarantee that there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
I do not wish to comment on Venezuela in much detail because I have spoken on it before, other than to say that neither I nor the Government would support or endorse military action in Venezuela by any other country, including the United States, but we do advocate that there would be free elections, the restoration of democracy and human rights and that economic opportunity for the people of Venezuela should be restored.