Tuesday, 9 April 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 to 17, inclusive, together. I was pleased to welcome Chancellor Merkel to Dublin on Thursday, 4 April. We had a very constructive and friendly meeting at Farmleigh House and our discussions focused mainly on Brexit, looking ahead to tomorrow's special European Council meeting. Chancellor Merkel has been a strong and consistent ally of Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations and I was pleased to be able to reiterate our gratitude to her in person.
Both Ireland and Germany want the future relationship with the United Kingdom to be as close, comprehensive and ambitious as possible and we would like the withdrawal agreement, which represents a fair and balanced outcome to almost two years of difficult negotiations, ratified, so we can begin negotiations on a new economic and security partnership without delay. We must, however, continue to prepare ourselves for all outcomes and therefore we discussed planning at EU and domestic level for no deal, including how we can work together to meet our twin objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and protecting the integrity of the EU Single Market and customs union, on which our economic model, jobs and prosperity are founded. On this the Chancellor expressed her understanding and support.
Before our formal meeting, the Chancellor and I had an opportunity to meet with, and hear directly from people for whom the Border is a very real and live issue, people from communities along the Border, from business, and some whose lives have been profoundly touched and shaped by the Troubles. I would like to express my appreciation to those who gave their time to explain why the issue is such a fundamental one and for sharing their stories with us. The meeting served to underline, for both the Chancellor and me, the importance of what is at stake. We also had the opportunity to take stock of wider EU developments ahead of the European Parliament elections in May and to discuss other international issues including EU-US trade and the events in Ukraine. Our exchanges also acknowledged the excellent bilateral relations between Ireland and Germany, including our plans to open our new consulate in Frankfurt later this year to complement the embassy in Berlin.
It is very clear that Chancellor Merkel represents a sane and supportive voice on Brexit but also on avoiding a hard Brexit. She has experienced difficulties before at European level in various crises and she knows that a hard Brexit would be difficult for Europe as a whole, given the precarious nature of the European economy. She is clearly anxious to avoid it.
From what the Taoiseach said earlier, it seems to me that the British Prime Minister has indicated to him that she wants to give the withdrawal agreement one more go. Is that the Taoiseach's sense? A short extension is probably more preferable to the British Prime Minister than a long extension at this stage because a longer extension could have implications for her premiership and for the cohesion of her Cabinet, given that the majority of the Cabinet are apparently against a long extension. We are in a very precarious situation in terms of British parliamentary politics and its governmental system. Am I correct in saying that the sense is that the British Prime Minister will give the withdrawal agreement one more go? Or alternatively, will she look to whatever emerges from her talks with the British Labour Party Leader because the Taoiseach said earlier that she indicated to him that if she manages to get the withdrawal treaty through, she would be anxious to leave the European Union as early as possible.
In very recent times the Taoiseach has had the opportunity to speak honestly with Chancellor Merkel, Monsieur Barnier, Prime Minister Rutte, Prime Minister Bettel of Luxembourg and Prime Minister Muscat of Malta as well as holding direct talks with the British Prime Minister again. Several times we have got to the point of this being the defining week but one week will be the defining week and this may well be it. In terms of the critical decision, and I understand the Taoiseach's explanation of how he will ultimately decide on the length of the extension, has the Taoiseach given up on the prospect or is it still the understanding that the optimum outcome is if the possibility existed for Britain to remain a member of the European Union? My judgment on this, which is a political judgement and no more than that, is that given sufficient time that would be an achievable objective and the optimum objective. In the absence of that, the withdrawal agreement is obviously the optimum option on the table.
Since the Bill of Yvette Cooper MP has become an Act and received royal consent yesterday, parliament in Britain has declared clearly that it does not want a no deal exit. It still can happen by accident because if no deal is in place and Britain runs up to the deadline for Article 50 to be triggered, then a disorderly fallout would happen by mistake. We should provide sufficient time for Britain to think again. Does the Taoiseach have a view on that matter and what tactics will he deploy with that objective in mind?
Most people were relieved that Chancellor Merkel made references to the Berlin wall and the problem that the division of Germany and walls and borders made. She showed empathy with the cause of preventing a hard border on this island. On foot of the earlier question, there have been discussions about intensifying the detailed discussions on that outcome which we hope will not happen, can the Taoiseach tell us anything about the details of those negotiations?
On the day of the Israeli election, where we have a government in Israel that is all about walls, borders, annexing people's territory, dividing people up and so on in the most brutal way, did the Taoiseach take any time to discuss that with Angela Merkel?
Germany is one of the most unflinching supporters of Israel and the most muted in criticising Israel for its mistreatment of the Palestinians. Given her welcome comments about borders and walls in Germany and Ireland, she might take the same view in terms of Israeli walls in Palestine.
I think that is a very worthy question in respect of Palestine and I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's answer. It is hard, when we look at Germany now and witness its political and economic strength, to imagine what it was like 30 years ago when it was divided, disunited and split by the iron curtain. I very much welcomed the fact that Chancellor Merkel made the equivalence between any notion of hardening the border on the island of Ireland and the Berlin wall itself. Politically, there is certainly a parallel. A decision was taken by the European Council in Dublin Castle in April 1990 and, as a result of that decision, the EEC as it was then became an active persuader for the reunification of Germany, quite correctly.
What I would like to know is the extent to which the Taoiseach has had discussions with Chancellor Merkel in respect of Irish reunification. Has he started that conversation? I imagine it is a conversation in respect of which she could offer very valuable insights and perhaps some wisdom.
There was an expectation before the Taoiseach's meeting with Chancellor Merkel that she was going to be very strong on the issue of protecting the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union, even despite the other aim of protecting the Good Friday Agreement. I think that expectation did not come to pass, but did Chancellor Merkel offer any practical suggestions or solutions to that major problem, having regard to her experience? If the UK gets a longer extension to Article 50 and it contests the European Parliament elections, presumably it will be a full, legal member of the European Union, entitled to participate in the institutions and to make decisions along the same lines as other EU member states. Would that be the Taoiseach's understanding of the situation as well? They cannot be half in and half out. It is either one or the other.
Picking up on some of the questions I missed earlier, Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned that the leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, wants to see dynamic alignment between the UK and the EU when it comes to workers' rights and environmental standards. That is something we would welcome and support too. Part of what the European Union is all about is preventing a race to the bottom. In fact the European Union has caused us to raise labour and environmental standards across the Union. Competition with a level playing field and high standards is what the European model is all about. We would very much like the United Kingdom to still be part of that, should it agree to do so.
In terms of the general election in the United Kingdom, that is really not my business so I would prefer not to comment on it. I was asked about the Celtic interconnector. That is an undersea electricity connection which will link Cork to Brittany. It has been officially designated as an EU project of common interest, meaning it is an EU energy project of the highest importance. We strongly back it, as it would create a direct electricity link between Ireland and continental Europe. It also reflects our strong and deepening links with France. Our national regulatory authorities are working closely on this and we should be in a position to sign a memorandum of understanding, MOU, between our two Governments in the near future.
In my conversations with Prime Minister May, my impression is that she accepts that the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation. She is not seeking to reopen it and the focus of her talks with the Labour Party and other parties is very much on the future relationship. If possible, she would like to come to an agreement with the main Opposition party which would allow the withdrawal agreement to be ratified. Then we can go on to discuss the future relationship. If not, it is intended to try to agree on a series of proposals with the Opposition which would then be put to a vote in Parliament. She is committed to being bound by such a vote. That is what is intended.
Deputy Howlin asked me what I thought the optimal outcome would be. I believe in the European Union and I believe that the United Kingdom is part of Europe. The optimal outcome in my mind for Ireland and for Europe and the UK would be for the United Kingdom to remain. However, we have to respect their democracy and their referendum. They voted to leave. We also have to respect the fact that Parliament voted not to have a second referendum. That may change but it is none of our business really. We have to respect the decisions of their Parliament and their people in a referendum. In the absence of an option to remain, the withdrawal agreement is the best outcome for us and I think it can be achieved. Whatever happens, if the United Kingdom does leave the European Union, and I expect that it will, I think we should always leave a light on for it should it ever decide to come back. Ultimately, the United Kingdom is part of Europe and if it ever wishes to return, even if it is ten, 20 or 30 years' time, I think we should welcome it with open arms.