Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Pre-European Council Meeting: Statements

 

4:55 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Tomorrow I will attend a special meeting of the European Council in Brussels. This meeting, which will take place in Article 50 format, was convened by President Donald Tusk following the rejection of the withdrawal agreement by the UK Parliament on 29 March.

At the last European Council, on 21 March, we agreed to extend the Article 50 deadline until 22 May, provided the withdrawal agreement had been ratified. If it had not been ratified, we agreed to extend it until 12 April, by which time the UK should outline an alternative way forward. As part of this, Prime Minister May wrote to President Tusk last Friday requesting a further extension until 30 June 2019, in order to pursue cross-party talks with the objective of finding a way forward.

From our perspective, the British Prime Minister’s letter is a positive step. It offers welcome assurances that the UK will prepare for the European Parliament elections and will hold them if the UK has not left the EU by 22 May. Importantly, from our perspective, the Prime Minister acknowledges that the withdrawal agreement cannot be changed, and that any solution must respect that agreement in its entirety.

The EU has always stated that the withdrawal agreement, which includes the backstop, cannot be renegotiated. It is the outcome of almost two years of difficult negotiations between the EU and Ireland and the UK. It represents a finely balanced compromise, including the challenge of the UK leaving the EU without giving rise to the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Our ambition is to see a future relationship which is so deep that the backstop will never need to be triggered. However, until this happens, it is needed as an insurance policy to protect the Good Friday Agreement and ensure there will be no hard border on our island. It has been obvious for some time that the solution to break the deadlock lies in London and that the impasse there can only be resolved at Westminster. It is welcome that cross-party talks are under way and that the focus is on the shape of the future relationship. When I spoke by telephone to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, last night, we discussed the latest developments, including the cross-party talks. I hope those involved will be able to build sufficient consensus to ratify the withdrawal agreement, thereby allowing the transition period to take effect and enabling an orderly Brexit to occur.

Our focus tomorrow at the European Council will be on the question of a further extension. We are conscious of the British Prime Minister’s request for an extension until 30 June. We will also take into account any additional request that might come from the cross-party talks in London. As President Tusk said, we should continue to show patience. The talks in London are likely to require some time. It would be damaging for everyone if the United Kingdom was to crash out of the European Union without a deal on 12 April. From Ireland's perspective, we are open to extending the deadline to allow time for the discussions to run their course and conclude. From our perspective, three things are crucial: a decision must be based on a coherent and realisable plan; any extension must not be used to try to reopen the withdrawal agreement; and the talks in London must focus on the shape of the future relationship.

In the past week I have spoken to many of my EU counterparts about Brexit and the matters for discussion at the European Council tomorrow. On Tuesday, 2 April, I met President Macron in Paris, while last Thursday Chancellor Merkel visited me in Dublin. I also met Michel Barnier, the EU chief Brexit negotiator, during his visit to Dublin yesterday. I had discussions with the Prime Ministers of Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands and will make some more calls this evening. There will be a preparatory meeting of the EPP Heads of Government before the summit tomorrow. These have all been very positive and constructive conversations. We were all in agreement that the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and protect the Good Friday Agreement was to ratify the withdrawal agreement. We were adamant that it was not open for renegotiation and that there could be no withdrawal agreement without the protocol on Ireland. As Members know, during her visit Chancellor Merkel participated in a round-table discussion with people from Northern Ireland and the Border counties. It was an opportunity to hear their perspectives on the impact any return to a hard border would have on Border communities and business, even if it were to happen gradually over time. The Chancellor and my other interlocutors understand these concerns very well and fully recognise the importance of the backstop as an insurance policy but also as a mechanism to set a floor under the future relationship, giving us an enduring assurance that whatever may happen in the future as a consequence of Brexit, a hard border is not one of them.

I took the opportunity during my meetings with Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Michel Barnier and my phone conversations with other EU leaders to reiterate Ireland’s appreciation of their solidarity and understanding throughout the Brexit negotiations. The European Union has consistently recognised the unique position of Northern Ireland and the unique situation in which it has been put by the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the Union, noting that Northern Ireland voted to remain. The European Union has always maintained that, should the UK red lines change, we would be prepared to amend the political declaration on the future relationship. I sincerely hope it will be possible to build sufficient consensus at Westminster to enable ratification of the withdrawal agreement and an orderly Brexit thereafter. From Ireland’s perspective, we are open to extending the deadline to allow time for the discussions to run their course and come to a conclusion. Above all, we want the withdrawal agreement to be ratified in order that negotiations can begin on a future relationship which I hope and expect will be a new economic partnership between the United Kingdom and the European that is as close as can be achieved. I also think it will be a close security partnership.

All of this will be discussed at the European Council tomorrow. There will be different views, but I am confident that we will reach agreement. However, given the ongoing uncertainty in London, we need to continue our preparations for a no deal Brexit. The people and businesses deserve reassurance and security. Therefore, we have ramped up our planning at home and at EU level for all outcomes and this work will continue to intensify. Brexit will have negative consequences in all scenarios but most acutely if there is no deal. We will be as ready as we can be. This work is not new. We have been preparing for well over two years. In the last three budgets supports were introduced to help businesses and farmers to prepare for Brexit. A comprehensive contingency action plan is in place. It is a whole-of-government response, working in tandem with the European Union to implement measures to mitigate the impact of a no deal Brexit.

We have regular discussions at the Cabinet, including today. The Tánaiste has chaired regular stakeholder meetings. We are working to ensure ports and airports will be ready to deal with new customs and trade controls. The necessary infrastructure, staffing and ICT, will be in place to ensure trade flows will continue, although some disruption is inevitable.

The President signed the Brexit omnibus Act on 19 March and it became law. It has been designed to protect citizens, the economy and jobs, particularly in the sectors that will be most exposed to Brexit. It complements measures in place at EU level, including contingency actions on air connectivity and road haulage. It also reflects our focus on protecting the Good Friday Agreement, North-South co-operation and building an all-island economy.

We have taken actions to maintain and strengthen the common travel area between Ireland and the United Kingdom, ensuring people in Northern Ireland can continue to access the European health insurance card and that third level students will continue to access the Erasmus+ higher education programme. We have been engaging with the European Commission on the support that would be required in a no-deal scenario, including for the agrifood sector.

On the Border, a no-deal outcome would not change our priorities which are to protect the Good Friday Agreement; to avoid a hard border; and to protect the integrity of the Single Market on which the economy and our economic model are founded. As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish and British Governments continue to have obligations. We will continue to work together to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom’s own papers state that in a no-deal scenario they would quickly need talks with the European Union and Ireland to get a deal to avoid a hard border. For us, the backstop would be the starting point for these discussions. There is no better solution; there are no alternative arrangements. We are in close contact with the Commission on how best in a no-deal scenario to meet our shared objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, while also protecting the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union, ensuring we would not be dragged out of the Single Market by a decision made in the United Kingdom. Our contacts with the Commission on this issue have intensified in recent weeks. The Commission and our EU partners fully understand the challenges and are supportive and understanding in finding a way forward. Should there be no deal, they will be shared challenges between the European Union and Ireland. Our greatest protection against the challenges Brexit will bring is, of course, our EU membership. The European Union is a home that we have helped to build. Ireland was a founder member of the euro and the Single Market and is a member of the customs union. Irrespective of what happens, we will stay at the heart of Europe.

5:05 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The holding of the EU summit tomorrow is essential, but it is nonetheless a statement on just how badly the Brexit process has proceeded in the past three years. Two weeks after the date on which the United Kingdom was due to leave the European Union, there are some hopes something may emerge at Westminster which will be acceptable to the European Union and can win the support of a majority in the House of Commons. The passage last night of legislation designed to make a no-deal scenario less likely was very welcome. However, in concrete terms, it has achieved little beyond reaffirming what has been clear since January - the opposition of the House of Commons to a no-deal Brexit. We are still confronted by the major issue of for how long the process can carry on and what the final permanent relationship with the United Kingdom will be. There is no more clarity on this issue today than there has been at any stage and new concerns have arisen about various options on the length of any new extension which might be agreed to tomorrow night.

It has been Fianna Fáil’s consistent position that the damage threatened by a no-deal Brexit would be too severe to allow it to happen. We have, therefore, argued for and strongly supported the flexibility shown by the European Council at the last summit, at which it was clear there was tension between those who were emphasising the need for the European Union to move on from Brexit and those who were emphasising the need for further patience and openness to a potentially longer term extension. The risk that impatience would lead to a rapid no-deal Brexit was real. Therefore, it was very welcome when key leaders compromised and accepted the need to prevent a Brexit crash-out on 29 March, even if it meant more uncertainty.

What was supposed to be the final Brexit summit tomorrow is highly unlikely to be so. The task for the summit, as determined by President Tusk, is to consider how much time the British Government should be given to reach the point where the withdrawal agreement can be ratified and an amended political declaration can be sought. Obviously, the best outcome for us would be for the United Kingdom to either hold a referendum to remain or to quickly ratify the agreement and seek a much closer connection with the European Union than the free trade agreement proposed last year.

It has been established for some time that simply reaching an agreement with the British Government is not enough and that most speculation about voting in Westminster is nothing more than speculation. Therefore, there are many legitimate points of view on the length and scope of an extension. We support the idea of offering any extension required to enable a process which has a credible chance of reaching a concrete conclusion. Whether it be a short or a long extension or the sort of flexible extension which President Tusk has proposed, it remains absolutely the case that the European Union should do whatever it takes in the context of an extension to avoid the damage of a chaotic Brexit.

It is, however, important for Ireland to acknowledge that an extension which requires the United Kingdom to hold elections to the European Parliament carries a potentially dramatic downside which we need to help to manage. A long extension may be the best option, but let us not pretend it is an easy option. The opinion of President Macron and some other leaders that such a scenario threatens to destabilise the elections and radicalise some contests is one we have to take seriously. Therefore, if the summit agrees to maintain the demand for the UK to hold the elections, it must also agree some initiative to tackle the backlash.

The threat from extreme forces and radicalised anti-EU rhetoric is one which must not be ignored and it must be challenged. It has been suggested that the elections could be avoided even if the withdrawal agreement has not been ratified if the United Kingdom were to adopt some measure such as a referendum to ratify an outcome and this brought with it a certain conclusion to the Article 50 process. We have not seen any legal opinions on this and alternative scenarios, but it is one which we would support if it were legal and it could avoid undermining the European elections. Those elections are more important than they have been at any stage in the past 40 years. They should be a direct fight between those who believe in the European Union and want it to work better for their citizens and those who seek to undermine it and have opposed it relentlessly. The elections should be about where we go once Brexit is finished, and anything which can make this happen should be endorsed by Ireland.

I would say, as an aside, that if it is the case given recent reports that Fine Gael intends to campaign on the basis that people should vote Fine Gael to, as it were, back the backstop, it would be almost breathtakingly cynical. Given the cross-party support and lobbying for Northern Ireland from even before the early negotiating guidelines were drawn up, any attempt to exploit European Union solidarity with Ireland for partisan interests would simply confirm that for this Government, politics always comes first.

5:15 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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For God's sake.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Has the Tánaiste seen the poster?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Sorry-----

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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The Tanáiste said "For God's sake" in response to that remark and I asked him had he not seen the poster.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That poster is up. That is the Tánaiste's party's campaign slogan. An extension beyond this week is inevitable in all circumstances and this gives Ireland more time to prepare. I acknowledge that the Taoiseach has sent me a lengthy letter on the issue of no-deal preparations following regular requests from me for this information over recent months. Unfortunately, the letter contains no information that was not already in the public domain.

On 29 March, 50% of businesses identified by the Revenue Commissioners as trading with the United Kingdom had not completed the first step of commercial registration. This is much worse than was expected when figures were released early last year showing the lack of follow-through from information to action on Brexit preparations. On 29 March, less than 10% of the funds in the main Brexit loan instrument were awarded. Just as seriously, in the past two weeks a wide range of basic and fundamental notices about what different sectors must do in a no-deal situation have been issued every day. This information is being published, the Government says, because businesses need to be ready, which raises the obvious question of why this information was not distributed in the week of 29 March when the United Kingdom came perilously close to a no-deal Brexit?

Whatever further delay is agreed tomorrow has to be followed by a completion of no-deal preparation so that we will be genuinely ready for any eventuality. We also need some assurance about the process which will follow any final agreement. Under the withdrawal agreement, the backstop is contingent on the European Union engaging with the United Kingdom in good faith on issues related to the Irish Border. What is the process to be followed in this and what arrangements are being contemplated? Are they in some way related to the company and ports-based measures briefed to the media last week?

Of course, the damage being caused to Ireland by the absence of the Northern Assembly and Executive continues. The people of Northern Ireland have been left without a voice at this dramatic moment in their history because their democratic institutions were collapsed two years ago over a heating scheme which appears to have lost a fraction of what it was originally claimed to have lost. The threat of imposing direct rule in Northern Ireland is unacceptable and we need a serious effort to break the impasse. I have said time and again that it is incomprehensible that we do not have the institutions up and running in the North given this dramatic moment in the history of the island and the implications for jobs and livelihoods as a result of the Brexit issue.

This summit confirms again that those who were demanding that we collapse this Dáil and Government and spend months on campaigning and Government formation were wrong. Ireland’s position is strong because Europe knows that Ireland's approach is based on a broad consensus established in mid-2016 and strengthened continually. There are no circumstances in which Brexit will end any time soon. If everything works out, we will still have nearly two years of new Brexit negotiations to undertake, and the economic hurt caused by Brexit will continue. The fall in sterling has directly undermined many businesses, particularly smaller indigenous firms which are reliant on the United Kingdom market alone. We cannot wait for finality from London. We need much greater urgency in helping businesses and communities which are already hurting from Brexit and are scared of what lies ahead. As we have before, we will support any reasonable proposal from the summit which protect the European Union and limits the damage of Brexit. The fact that this summit has to be held at all is a failure of the process and of the United Kingdom's political establishment. We should all hope that what emerges from the summit moves the core issues to a resolution and does not just move the can one step down the road.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Táim buíoch as an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo um thráthnóna. Once again, the European Council meets tomorrow to discuss the Brexit debacle and specifically to discuss another request by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, for an extension to the Article 50 process. Brexit was a bad decision made worse by the refusal of the British Government to deal with the reality of the needs of Ireland, its failure to meet its own commitments, and a startling lack of understanding of the rules-based nature of the European Union. The approach by the British Government has only created greater uncertainty and instability, and that approach continues to this day, because despite the speculation, the commentary and the Westminster drama, the British Government and Parliament are in reality no closer to accepting the withdrawal agreement. While we all wish to avoid a crash or disorderly Brexit, we have to accept that that is, sadly, a real prospect or possibility. At this 11th hour we need to ask that logic and rationality might finally prevail.

Any extension must maintain pressure on the British Government to deliver the withdrawal agreement, with all of its limitations, because our citizens, businesses and society require certainty and stability. Therefore, any extension, whatever its duration, must be an extension with a purpose. The important thing is not the granting of the extension to Article 50 in and of itself. The important and potentially significant thing is where any extension might lead in respect of Brexit and its impact on our country. We must remain steadfast in that view.

The withdrawal agreement, and the Irish protocol and backstop in particular, must be honoured as the least worst option for our island and it cannot be renegotiated or picked apart in any way. What the withdrawal agreement offers, and I made this case to the Labour Party leadership in Britain yesterday, is a deal that mitigates against some of the worst aspects of Brexit for Ireland.

It is a means of upholding, in some way, the democratic will of the majority of the people of the North who voted to remain, as well as the majority view of people in the South who do not want a hard border on this island under any circumstances. Neither the withdrawal agreement nor the backstop are the perfect answer to Brexit for Ireland. In any event, our country, our island, will incur damage. It is a matter of degree and extent.

A no-deal scenario is in nobody’s interests, whether in Dublin, London, Belfast, Cork or Derry. It is something none of us wants to see. In the absence of an agreement and the backstop, there is no way of guaranteeing that there will be no return to a hard border, that citizens’ rights will be protected or that the Good Friday Agreement will be upheld in all of its parts. I have set out on many occasions to the British Prime Minister what must happen if there is no deal and, therefore, no backstop. I set out very clearly that in the event of no deal, what we will require is a backstop because the protections required and committed to for Ireland must be honoured in full. I also said to her that in the event of no deal and a crash out, then the constitutional question looms large and it must be put to the people of the North by way of a referendum. That is essential. The Taoiseach and the Government must also now articulate that view because the onus must be on the Irish Government and on us in this Dáil always to defend and promote an all-island view. That has, regrettably, been lacking in challenging times during the course of this State’s history. It is not enough to say that no Irish Government will ever leave the North behind. Deeds in this context say much more than words. I once again press the Taoiseach on the need to prepare for change, and that preparation must include the convening of an all-Ireland forum on Irish unity as well the preparation of a White Paper on Irish unity. That work should be initiated immediately, deal or no deal.

If there is an extension to the Article 50 process, then it is inevitable there will be elections to the European Parliament in a couple of weeks in the North. Sinn Féin will be there. We will contest, as we always do, and we will give the people an opportunity to vote for a candidate who will stand for their interests and who has stood for their interests, for Ireland’s interests and against the efforts of the Brexiteers and the DUP to ride roughshod over the Good Friday Agreement, over progress and over people's rights. I take this opportunity to invite all of the other parties here to do likewise. They can be vocal when it comes to criticising Sinn Féin’s record in the North, as they see it, so let them avail of this opportunity and put their own pitch to the people of the North.

5:25 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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The Taoiseach is smiling so maybe he does have candidates up his sleeve in the North. If he does not, the smile will not be on his face come election day.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We might endorse somebody. You never know.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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We work with all parties.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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There are increasing calls from within the European Council for a European army. Angela Merkel has publicly backed the idea of creating what she calls a "real, true" army for the European Union. She said the EU "will have to create a European intervention unit with which Europe can act on the ground where necessary". This echoed similar comments by Jean-Claude Juncker who said "a common European army would show the world that there would never again be war in Europe". This is an increasingly worrying development. Having a militarised EU and an EU army is not the way to ensure we do not have war in Europe. I would say the last thing the world needs is an increasingly militarised EU.

In recent years, the European army agenda has been increasing at rapid pace. This agenda includes increased military and defence budgets as well as moves towards a European defence union. This includes a vast increase in funding for military purposes. Post 2020, these funds will go from €500 million to €13 billion, a 2,000% increase, and this is on top of a 180% increase for internal EU security and a 260% increase for migration and borders.

The people I represent and meet, the people the Taoiseach claims to speak to, although I do not believe he represents them, are ordinary working people who find it hard to make ends meet. They are people who work and who struggle to pay mortgages and meet the costs of childcare and sending their children to education. They do not want their taxpayers' money, the money they earn, spent on a militarised EU. They want taxpayers' money spent on increasing public services and reducing the cost of living for those working people, who get up early in the morning, as the Taoiseach said, and go out and work.

This EU agenda of militarising Europe is not supported by the majority of people who live in this State and, I would argue, across the island. Peacekeeping and having EU peacekeeping operations is something we and the majority of people support. The figures I have given and the increased military spend, however, are not in the interests of smaller nations such as Ireland. While the Taoiseach may have his own view, and his party is entitled to its view, it is my clear understanding that the majority of Irish people support Irish neutrality and the majority, North and South, do not want to see a European army. Whether it is the view of Guy Verhofstadt, of Jean-Claude Juncker, or of any of these federalists who want a more federal Europe, a European army, and more taxpayers' money from Ireland and elsewhere spent on a militarised Europe, it is not something we should support. It is not something we in Sinn Féin will support and I do not believe it is something the Irish people will support. We have a Private Members' motion on Irish neutrality this evening and these issues will be debated. It is an issue that surfaces again at the European Council meeting and it is something that will concern many people across the island of Ireland.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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The European Council is meeting tomorrow for one reason, which is to decide whether to grant a further extension of membership to the UK and, if so, for how long. As we know, the UK was meant to leave the European Union on 29 March but its Parliament was unable either to support the withdrawal agreement or to support any alternative to it. Prime Minister May sought an extension to this coming Friday, 12 April, to maximise leverage on Parliament to vote for a withdrawal agreement, but Parliament has again rejected it. It has also overwhelmingly rejected leaving the EU without a deal, however, so Prime Minister May has once again asked for an extension, on this occasion until June.

UK politics, quite simply, is stuck in a bind. Theresa May is leading a minority Administration and many people are openly speculating now that she has only weeks left of her premiership. The Conservative and Labour parties are deeply divided on the issue of Brexit, as are the British people as a whole. The British Government has agreed to prepare to hold European Parliament elections, which are due to take place across the Union between 23 and 26 May, even though British MEPs may not take up their seats. Many European leaders have expressed their frustration at this stop-start process, which is understandable. They are angry that the UK’s political chaos is interfering with normal EU business. We have many other important issues to address, such as climate change, migration and the need for decent standards for workers across the Union. There are two schools of thought on the extension. Some, like Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the ALDE liberal group, to which Fianna Fáil belongs, have cautioned that any long extension will create prolonged uncertainty in the EU. Others have gone as far as to say that the UK might interfere with the EU’s budget process or trade policy in a damaging, interfering and obstructive way. On the other hand, Council President, Donald Tusk, has taken a much softer approach with his proposal for a one-year flexible extension which would permit the UK to leave at a time during the year if it finally can get Parliament to agree to terms acceptable to the other EU partners for its departure.

In my judgment, there are two fundamentals that should inform us on whether to advocate for a long or a short extension. First, what is in Ireland’s best interest? Second, what relationship with the EU is likely to attract majority support within the UK?

It is clear that in Ireland’s national interest we must take all possible measures to avoid a no-deal scenario in which the United Kingdom will suddenly exit the European Union. As we have said during Taoiseach's Questions, this could happen by accident or by design. A no-deal Brexit would be most damaging to the economy, with some sectors being completely devastated as a result. Many thousands of jobs would be at risk in such a scenario. On that basis it seems a longer extension would be in the national interest. We also do not want to see use of the guillotine at the end of a long extension. We do not want to reach a sudden impasse. If the United Kingdom has still not made up its mind after one year, we do not want a no-deal Brexit to happen by default on a date picked from the air.

There was a strong demographic factor at work in the 2016 referendum in the United Kingdom, with older people more inclined to vote to leave and younger people much more likely to vote to remain. That is a simple fact. Judged objectively, the longer the extension the more likely it is that the majority of the British people will coalesce to remain. For all of these reasons, a long extension would seem to fit best with Ireland’s interests and the middle ground of British public opinion which appears to be shifting, as we have seen in many articles in recent days.

My proposal is that we support a long extension. I will be making this same proposal tomorrow in Brussels when I meet socialist Prime Ministers and other Labour Party leaders in advance of the European Council meeting. My judgment, on which I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's view, is that we should offer the United Kingdom a five-year flexible extension, to last for the term of the next European Parliament and the next cycle of officers within the European Union. We should offer this to the United Kingdom without a range of preconditions or caveats on the basis that we expect it to honour its obligations as a full member, until and unless it actually comes to an agreement to leave. We have the same expectations for all member states, including those headed by far-right nationalists. We should not confuse our frustration with the UK Government with our real and enduring ability to co-operate and do business with the United Kingdom now and in the future. The five-year extension could be flexible, in identical fashion to the flexible one-year proposal made by President Donald Tusk. The United Kingdom could leave during the five-year period if it comes to an agreement on the terms of its departure. A five-year extension would also make it clear to it that we were not going to keep pandering to it on short-term issues, crisis after crisis and month after month. We are not going to keep calling special emergency summits of EU leaders and clearing the European agenda to deal with this one issue. Any new UK proposal could be dealt with at the regular quarterly European Council meetings.

I have been thinking about this matter in some detail. If we offer anything less than a five-year extension, all EU institutions and member states will be constantly looking over their shoulders to gauge the United Kingdom's current level of commitment and second-guess its suggestions in case they are designed to undermine the European Union’s best interests. We should not choose an extension based on speculation about who might be the next UK Prime Minister. We should not make decisions based on a suspicion about what he or she might or might not do. Instead, we should build on 40 years of close co-operation between Britain and the European Union. We should give the United Kingdom a long and open-ended period in which to reflect on its vision for its future in the light of the negotiations that have taken place in the past three years.

There is the notion of an arbitrary date being picked. It is speculated that President Macron suggested the end of December. Why pick a date and then have another crisis? If we get over the hump of the European elections - it is a real issue - with the United Kingdom participating as a full member, let us allow it to be a full member and offer the flexibility to enable it to think again if that is what it wants. If it does decide to leave during the five-year period, such a long extension will remove the needless rolling crisis and the constant drama we have endured for more than a year. It will allow us to build close relationships. Such an extension will help to prevent the damage to jobs and livelihoods now threatened week in and week out. If the United Kingdom does not leave during the five-year period, we should deem its Article 50 notification to have expired and its membership of the European Union to be normalised again.

Some will say the United Kingdom staying in the European Union after June will lead to a group of wreckers in the European Parliament. It is said Mr. Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party and other Eurosceptic extremists will be elected in Britain and take their seats in the European Parliament. In my judgment the United Kingdom will also send an equally strong cohort of pro-EU MEPs. The threat from the British far right is hardly greater than the threat from Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, the newly rebranded French National Front and all of the other extremists who will be standing for election in May, many of whom are likely to be elected. We need to face the far-right challenge to the next European Parliament, but let us face this threat with our British comrades and friends, rather than painting a false stereotype of modern British politics. It is a radical proposal, but in my judgment a five-year extension would give the best possible chance to those in the United Kingdom who wish to remain in the European Union to develop a stable and persuasive majority public opinion. Let us give them a real chance to succeed in that objective.

5:35 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I made most of the points I want to make about Brexit in the earlier engagement, but I will summarise briefly. It is very welcome and long overdue that Prime Minister Theresa May has moved away from trying to engage or have reason to prevail with the headbangers on the Tory right like Mr. Boris Johnson, MP; Mr. Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP, and the European Research Group, ERG. They are driven by their own personal ambitions, a really rotten nostalgia for Britain's imperial greatness as they imagine it, little Englandism and xenophobia. As they were never likely to listen to reason, it is welcome that Mrs. May has started to engage with Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, MP, notwithstanding the tendency of people both here and in Britain to malign him for his left-wing views. This engagement actually offers the possibility of a deal being done because Mr. Corbyn does not want a race-to-the-bottom Brexit of the sort the Tory right wants. It is noteworthy that the issues he is raising in his engagement with Mrs. May are ones that really matter to British people and people across Europe, issues such as workers' rights, health and safety standards and so on. He is saying clearly that he wants a deal that would not undermine these standards. Left-wing politics of Mr. Corbyn's kind are precisely about raising standards in areas such as workers' rights and environmental ambitions, opposing militarism and promoting an egalitarian and progressive agenda. They are quite alien to Mrs. May and will make her reluctant to do a deal with Mr. Corbyn, but there is a glimmer of hope. The best hope, however, lies in having a general election in Britain to remove the Tories and open the way for a left-wing Government with politics of the kind Mr. Corbyn is articulating.

It is welcome that the clear message from here to the European Union is that in no circumstances can a hard border in Ireland be considered for any reason and it seems to be having an impact.

I hope we can trust our European counterparts in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which we hope will not come to pass, and that they will not intend to put pressure on us to impose border infrastructure between the North and South, something that should be hotly resisted if there is any attempt to do it. It would seem that the message at least from here is clear in that regard.

I wish to move on to some other issues, which the Taoiseach will probably not have much time to discuss at the European Council but it would be remiss not to mention given the day that is in it, that is, the Israeli general election. I made the point to the Taoiseach earlier that it is a very positive thing for Angela Merkel to come here and say that the bitter experience of the Berlin Wall and the division of East Germany, which ended with the wall being pulled down in 1989, led her to somewhat empathise with our concerns and opposition to a hard border North and South. That is a positive development, but Europe is failing to take the same attitude when it comes to the walls and borders brutally imposed by Israel, and in particular by the Netanyahu Government on the Palestinian people. We are seeing the rottenness of Israeli politics manifest in a particularly repugnant way in recent weeks and months. The talk by Mr. Netanyahu of annexing further illegal settlements on Palestinian territory follows the acceptance by the United States of the annexation of the Golan Heights. All of those things completely fly in the face of international law, yet the European Union does nothing about it.

An Israeli lawyer came into my clinic in the past week who represents Palestinian children who are locked up. He explained in detail how an apartheid legal system is in operation. I do not know why the Taoiseach is smirking. Palestinian children, almost always, are arrested in and around areas of illegal Israeli settlements. They are arrested in the middle of the night, tied with plastic ties, blindfolded and their parents are not allowed to go with them. They are dragged into cells and interrogated under military law. In the same towns and areas, Israelis who might be accused of the same crimes are brought to civil courts where none of that sort of mistreatment and abuse of children is allowed. It is illegal to do that to an Israeli child, but it is done every single day to Palestinian children because a different set of laws applies to Palestinian children than to Israeli children even though they live in the same place. That is the definition of apartheid. What is being done is appalling. Thousands of Palestinian children are arrested every year and at any point, hundreds are in prison. The Israeli lawyer explained that those children are marked forever by that experience. They are damaged and traumatised forever but nothing is being done about it.

Similarly, adult prisoners commenced a hunger strike on Sunday. Some 30 Palestinian prisoners initially refused food and water and it is going to escalate to 1,500 because conditions in Israeli prisons, in particular Ramon Prison in the Negev, are deteriorating. Conditions are so appalling and obnoxious that the Palestinians simply cannot take it anymore. According to human rights groups, 1,800 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons are very seriously ill and are not getting the medical treatment they need. Hundreds more have chronic illnesses and in some cases they are life-threatening illnesses. That is going on under the nose of the international community and nothing is done.

Israel sticks two fingers up to Europe when it comes to Europe putting money into projects in Gaza and in the West Bank which the Israelis just go and blow up. They blow up projects that are funded with European money and Europe does nothing. While I welcome the statement the Tánaiste issued yesterday, it is not good enough. Countries like Germany, and in particular Merkel, have a hands-off attitude to what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and do not want to take any action. We continue to give preferred trading status to Israel under the Euromed association agreement. The agreement contains human rights clauses which mean it should be suspended, but we do nothing about it. When will there be sanctions over the systematic, ongoing, unacceptable human rights abuses, including most horribly the systematic abuse of children's rights who are being treated in the most brutal fashion? In the case of Ahed Timimi, a family relative of hers was shot through the skull and permanently damaged by an Israeli soldier. Following her protest at what happened, she ended up in prison and was treated in the same way that hundreds of other young children are being treated by the Israelis. I appeal to the Taoiseach to do something about that and to demand that, finally, Europe shows a bit of moral backbone and imposes some real sanctions on Israel for its systematic ongoing brutal suppression of human and civil rights in Palestine.

5:45 pm

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I wish to share time with Deputies Clare Daly and Wallace.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I know this special meeting is dominated by Brexit and the position of Ireland and the EU is very clear, but what we are seeing in the House of Commons is MPs going around in circles and now making a request for another extension. In the meantime, other very serious issues are not getting the attention they should be getting from the European Parliament and I wish to refer to two of them in the time available to me.

While the issues in Catalonia are presented as being internal matters for the Spanish Government and there are matters before the court, the EU has been conspicuously silent on the human rights issues involved. No one should be prosecuted for exercising the fundamental right to free expression but if there are grounds for prosecution, three things must be in place. First, there should be a lawful investigation. It should be free of political considerations and there should be a presumption of innocence. What we are seeing are serious irregularities being noted by international observers at the trials. The concept of spontaneous demonstration is covered in international law but what we are seeing is an acceptance of the criminalisation of the practice and of the exercise of the right to demonstrate. We also see violations of EU regulations on the presumption of innocence and the abuse of pre-trial detention. As well as the ongoing trial in the Supreme Court, there are three other court cases going on simultaneously, which are having an adverse effect on the defence teams. With the defendants being tried in the Supreme Court, there is no hope of appeal except to the Constitutional Court. Of those people on trial, two of them are civil society leaders. They were involved in peaceful assembly to express their opinions and at this stage they have been in jail for 17 months.

This is in the context of a Europe that is emerging where human rights and the right to free assembly and free expression are seriously under threat. Recently, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade had an informal meeting with activists from Poland and Ukraine. The ladies from Poland told us of their experience of violence while they were protesting peacefully. They were at a march where there were thousands with banners proclaiming "A White Poland", "Europe will be White or Deserted" and the witnesses to the joint committee had banners stating "Fascism Stop". The women were physically assaulted and they were charged with interference with a lawful assembly. The right to protest is under serious attack in Poland and it would appear that there is no support from the authorities. The lady from Ukraine told us about serious attacks on their march on International Women's Day, and said a particular target is LGBTI people. While Ukraine might not be in the EU, Hungary is, and what we are seeing there is a trampling of independent and dissenting voices.

Last September, in an historic vote, the European Parliament called for the triggering of Article 7 of the European treaty, which would mean challenging the Hungarian Government on its laws and policies and for failing to uphold basic human rights. The founding principles of the European Union are the rule of law, respect for human rights and freedom. Is very obvious, therefore, that European Union member states and national parliaments need to be more proactive on what is not acceptable within the European Union, particularly given the forthcoming European elections.

In looking at Prime Minister May's letter the one thing that struck me was that it was riddled with ironies. She makes the point that if the talks do not lead to a unified approach, there will be consensus on a small number of clear options and a series of votes. We have had all of that already. She states: "These steps demonstrate that the Government is determined to bring this process to a resolution quickly." We are certainly not seeing that from what has been happening in the House of Commons. Her last point is: "It is frustrating that we have not brought this process to a successful and orderly conclusion." There is little or no acceptance of its responsibility in the current debacle.

5:55 pm

Photo of Clare DalyClare Daly (Dublin Fingal, Independent)
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Thirty years ago I flew into Tripoli Airport on a Libyan Arab Airlines flight. Yesterday the one functioning airport in Tripoli was bombed. Twenty-eight people are dead. In 2011 we had only just been elected to this House when the then Minister of State Lucinda Creighton bragged about the success of the mission in Libya. It gives me no comfort whatsoever to say we warned that she would live to regret those words. There is a sad irony in the words of the then Labour Party leader and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore, during the same debate:

These developments and the uprisings which have followed in other countries throughout the region such as Yemen [dear God], Bahrain and now Libya are historic in nature. They rightly bear comparison in many respects to the collapse of the former communist regimes in eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

That naivety would be touching if the consequences were not so serious. The Tánaiste knows that what happened in Libya was certainly historic. However, the then Government was certainly on the wrong side of history because it was always about regime change and only the very credulous would have thought it had anything to do with humanitarian reasons. During the intervention NATO supported an array of rebel groups fighting on the ground which were dominated by Islamic extremists. It pummelled Libya with air strikes and the outcome was grimly predictable. We see the consequences in the escalation of violence over the weekend and in recent days in which thousands of people have died. Millions of Libyans have been displaced and nearly one third of the population have fled to Tunisia. In the midst of all of this - we might deal with it in the questions to be asked - the European Union has decided to trap desperate refugees in Europe. Will the Government bring up this issue with the European Council or will Europe's leaders pretend that the destabilisation of Libya and its transformation into what is in reality a nightmarish "Mad Max" replica has nothing to do with them or the decisions they made at the time? When will our neutral Government try to shake the European Union out of its complacency in that regard? I ask the Tánaiste to deal with that issue and the issue of the thousands of desperate refugees and migrants who are trying to get into Europe and essentially being forced back into the hands of the Libyan coast guard, open slave markets and so on.

While he is doing so, the Tánaiste might deal with the issue we raised in the previous pre-European Council meeting statements of moving from one regime change to another and indicate the reason he decided to take a call from Juan Guaidó, a person who had no authority under international or Venezuelan law to be declared as President of Venezuela, whether he regrets that stance and if he will outline his latest protestations against the continued economic, not humanitarian, crisis in Venezuela.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I call Deputy Wallace who has been given an additional three minutes by the Rural Independents Group.

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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Thank you very much. I will spare the Tánaiste advice on Brexit, although I know the summit tomorrow will be dominated by it. I am sure he has enough wise fellows telling him what to do, but it is important that we put some other issues back on the table, as the two previous speakers have done.

The corporate capture of the European Union and national governments has rarely been as evident, while the rationale for our decisions, in the context of foreign policy, has scarcely been so utterly and transparently false in many ways. As in so many regressive policy areas, from failing in the mitigation of global warming to robbing the global south through our tax haven operations, when it comes to global economic and foreign policy, Ireland leaves much to be desired. Frankly, our positions on Iran and Venezuela are insane. One would think we would have learned something from the disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The formula is familiar. I refer to former colonies which, as a result of colonisation, have the majority of their economic activities centred on one commodity such as oil, minerals, sugar or whatever else. Some of these countries elect leaders to try to stop the cheap acquisition of these commodities by corporations and businesses in the global north, but more often than not the powerful fight back. Chile is a perfect example. Mr. Allende who was democratically elected nationalised the copper sector in July 1971, but the telecommunications giant ITT, Pepsi-Cola and the copper monopolies put pressure on the US Government to protect their financial interests and sanctions were imposed. The then CIA director, Richard Helms, said he wanted to make the economy of Chile scream and that he was not concerned about the risks involved. The CIA made contact with elements of the military which were seen to oppose Mr. Allende and on 11 September 1973 helped them to overthrow the democratically elected government, install the brutal dictator, General Pinochet, with many US economic advisers, and restore the flow of cheap natural resources to the private sector in America.

The ongoing coup attempt in Venezuela has been taking a similar shape. The Tánaiste and I have spoken about it. As Deputy Clare Daly pointed out, we very much regret the position he took with Mr. Guaidó and believe it was a serious mistake. It was totally in breach of international law and had no standing in international law. The position the European Union took, with the Tánaiste’s support, with Mr. Guaidó did not stack up. Since the Bolivarian revolutionary regime came to power in 1998, the United States has fought constantly and relentlessly to overthrow it and undermined it in a terrible way. Idriss Jazairy, the UN special rapporteur, in speaking about the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures, has said the US-led sanctions against the Venezuelan state-owned oil company and the new sanctions that restrict access to food and medicines are killing Venezuelan citizens, starving others and that it is women and children who suffer the most. The sanctions are illegal under international law and our support for them constitutes the perpetration of economic violence against the people of Venezuela. We have to play a different role. We should be working with governments that want peace, are not violently expansionist in their foreign policy and do not exploit whatever they can around the world for their own financial benefit. We have to play a different role and can be a neutral voice. I know that it is difficult, but our voice can be very significant.

As Deputy Boyd Barrett pointed out, in our lifetime the Israelis have not behaved as poorly with the Palestinians as they have for a number of years and the European Union is doing very little about it. What stop is being put to the activities of Israel? The situation in the Golan Heights is just another example. The truth is that Israel is practising apartheid and carrying out genocide in Palestine and with the European Union we are not doing enough to stop it. I acknowledge that the Tánaiste has been good at speaking out about it at times, but we need to do much more.

A girls' school in Yemen was bombed at the weekend. There are horrific pictures of girls running to try to get away from the bombing. It is a US supported Saudi-UAE coalition that is carrying out unbelievable atrocities in Yemen and we are not doing enough to stop it.

Consider what is happening in Libya. The place is a casino now. There is nothing but suffering and madness there. It all started with a NATO intervention and, unfortunately, we supported it. Even if his voice is a voice in the wilderness against them when the Tánaiste attends the Foreign Affairs Council meetings in Europe, it would mean a great deal for him to speak truth to those powers. He could have a positive impact.

6:05 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am delighted to contribute on this important topic, although it is like a spinning top in that we do not know whether we are coming or going. The EU 27 leaders will meet tomorrow, 10 April, to discuss the latest developments on Brexit. In fact, it is an iconic date for people in south Tipperary as the leader of the Irish Republican Army, General Liam Lynch, met his death on that date. We commemorated that last Sunday.

The European Council meeting is happening as a result of the rejection of the withdrawal agreement by the House of Commons. On 5 April last, the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, sent a letter to Donald Tusk asking for an extension to Article 50. She proposed the date of 30 June 2019, adding that the UK Government would continue to prepare to hold European Parliament elections should the UK still be a member at the time of the elections. That is confusing in its own right, and it is obviously confusing for the constituencies here which are set to get an extra seat each, Ireland South and Midlands North West. People do not know whether they are coming or going. However, that is probably not unusual here. The Government does not know whether it is coming or going on many issues, not to mention Brexit. I have acknowledged the hard work of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in respect of Brexit on several occasions, as well as the various briefings he has given us. That is unlike his boss who has sometimes said things that sent out mixed messages. The Tánaiste has put a great deal of hard work into this.

I am delighted he found time to visit Cluain Meala last Thursday evening. It is a pity he did not let me know he was coming as I would have been there to meet him. I am delighted he called to our mutual friends, the wonderful businessmen, Mr. John FitzGerald, and his colleague, Mr. Donagh Dougan, to see their new expanded offices in this rising economy. They are two good business people who are providing great employment. I am glad the Tánaiste had time to call to them and if he had let me know, I would have had a cup of tea ready for him in my office. I hope he got tea anyway. In Tipperary we always give a special fáilte for a Cork man.

On 21 March, the EU 27 leaders decided to delay the Brexit date until 12 April 2019 should the withdrawal agreement be rejected. It has been delayed. It is clear, therefore, that we are in incredibly dangerous times in terms of the chaos and inability that is afflicting Westminster. The Prime Minister, Mrs. May, has almost caused a civil war in her party by reaching out to the Labour Party leader, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, who she has repeatedly said is unfit for government. This is creating major additional instability.

I heard the leader of the Labour Party in this country, who would not claim to have anything to do with the Labour Party leader in the UK, call for a five-year delay. There is merit in that for one reason, namely, the absolute uncertainty that has been created for Irish business people, workers, farmers and everybody in the Twenty-six Counties. There has been absolute nonsense. Confusion has reigned. I must refer again to the EU leaders. When the sovereign people of Great Britain decided to leave they received much derision and many lectures from the big boys in Europe. That was uncalled for and did not help. I believe it poured petrol on the emerging flames.

We are in a perilous situation. When we had referendums on the Nice and Lisbon treaties - we will be discussing another one later - we went back to the people again. That is the type of democracy we have here, an elasticated one. We even have an elasticated Government and a confidence and supply agreement. The pipe is jerking but the water is still going through. It is a case of "I am all right, Jack". The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is fine. There is no need to worry about the cervical cancer or the children's hospital, on which there is a report out today. The Government has a free pass to do what it likes, but that is no good to the man who wants bread and butter on his table and to look after his children's future. We have passed the omnibus legislation but that will not be good enough either.

There is complete uncertainty. If there is a crash out, which almost happened and still might, it would be economic sabotage. It would be waging economic war on us in our little island country. I do not use those words lightly. That is the impact it would have. Uncertainty has been generated and it has mushroomed. One day the Taoiseach says we will have soldiers on the Border, next he says there will be no Border. Then there are the customs and Revenue Commissioners staff being hired. What will we do with all the people we hire if we do not need them on the Border? I hope we do not need them there. The Good Friday Agreement, and this is its anniversary, must be respected. It is an international agreement. People such as the late Fr. Alec Reid, my former colleague, Dr. Martin Mansergh, and many others played a part in that and it cannot be touched.

We are putting up with too much. We are being the nice boys in Europe, but what are we getting at times from our friends across the Border? We are getting kicked where it hurts. That is not good enough. Too many people's livelihoods and too many people's hard work in setting up expert businesses in manufacturing, agrifood and other industries are affected. The people are having sleepless nights and do not know when the end will come, so I believe there is merit in what Deputy Howlin said. I do not agree with him on many matters much of the time but we need to have a decent period in which to work on a withdrawal date, if there will be a withdrawal date. We must stop the knee-jerk reactions that we only have 20 or 30 days more and that we might see what happens in the European elections. It should not be up to us in this Parliament to second-guess who might be elected to the European Parliament to represent the people of Great Britain. Everybody who is elected has the right to be in the Parliament regardless of where they come from. They are elected by the people and that is democracy. We should not be sounding off as to who might represent England. Obviously, we must have clarification of whether it will have seats. That is why we need certainty, now more than ever.

I compliment the Tánaiste, as I have done several times both privately and publicly, on his tireless efforts in this area. However, the man who was sitting to his right earlier, the boss, has been a little flippant at times and all over the place. That is nothing unusual. He is used to that, along with sending selfies and so forth.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Before dealing with the main topic of the Council meeting, which is Brexit, I will respond to some of the other issues raised. I agree with the expressions of frustration by many Members of the House that Brexit is taking up so much bandwidth for the European Union at present when there are so many other areas internally and particularly in foreign policy on which it should be focusing.

Libya is on the verge of a civil war. It is very worrying. I did not attend the Foreign Affairs Council meeting yesterday where it was discussed because Michel Barnier was in Dublin and I had to be here. With regard to the human rights consequences of what has happened in Libya, we have tried to respond in a pragmatic way. I was Minister for Defence when we first decided to send a ship to the Mediterranean. Many people said that it was impossible and would not work but over the past three years, it turned out to be a very successful humanitarian mission. I also spoke out directly at the previous Foreign Affairs Council meeting before yesterday's on my concerns about what is effectively the ending of Operation Sophia from a humanitarian perspective in terms of a capacity in the Mediterranean. The EU, collectively, has been unable to make decisions on landing locations for refugees who are taken out of the water. That is a quite disgraceful failing of politics within the European Union.

I continue to advocate for solutions that can allow countries like Ireland and others to continue to operate on a humanitarian basis and also to be effective in tackling the scourge of people trafficking and the crimes that are taking place there.

On Venezuela, I remind the House that Ireland's position on this, along with other EU member states, is clear. We recognise Juan Guaidó as interim President to call elections. This is not about a recognition of somebody for a permanent status as President but an interim status. At the last EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting, I spoke about the need for the EU to look at its position, to review it and to examine whether we should be advocating at this stage for international mediation in Venezuela. I have subsequently spoken to a number of EU ministers on this by phone and in person to advance that thought process. I have not received feedback from the latest international contact group meeting in South America, but when I get that, those conversations will continue.

On Israel, I made a statement last night on more announcements around expansion of settlements deep into the West Bank, some of the very unwelcome commentary, which I would regard as electioneering, in the last days before polling today, and the signals that have been sent from a brand of politics that is constantly shifting to the right in Israel now, which is worrying. We will have to wait and see what happens in the election today and what kind of government is formed in the coming weeks. My approach to Israel has and will continue to be to have direct conversations and not to shy away from being critical when necessary. Ultimately, however, we cannot succeed in a peace process in the Middle East without talking to both the Palestinians with whom we have very good relationship and the Israeli Government, with which we will also continue to work, despite the fact that we strongly disagree at times with policy decisions that it makes.

On the critical meeting, as part of the Article 50 process that is taking place tomorrow, the European Council will reflect on Prime Minister May's request for an extension of Article 50. The EU 27 will need to decide unanimously on any further extension. At the same time, talks are ongoing between the UK Government and the Labour Party leadership to see if a joint approach can be agreed on Brexit and the future relationship with the EU. That is a serious process and the feedback that we are getting is that it is a serious engagement and we will have to wait and see where it goes.

I discussed developments with Michel Barnier during his visit to Dublin yesterday and again this morning at the EU General Affairs Council meeting, which I attended. The solidarity on the Irish issues, I am glad to say to this House, is stronger than it has ever been. As the Taoiseach said earlier, Ireland favours an extension. At the same time, an extension is not a solution in itself. For us the best outcome is that talks result in an agreement in London that will allow approval of the withdrawal agreement. President Tusk has rightly said the patience is needed. We need to allow time for the talks in London to come to a conclusion and to encourage the UK to find a way to secure the ratification of the withdrawal agreement.

However, an extension cannot be used for endless prevarication either. The UK must provide a clear concrete plan on how it intends to proceed. Westminster needs to make a choice on Brexit and its future relationship with the European Union. EU member states are rightly asking that they would know what the choice is going to be. We will also need to ensure a proper functioning of the European Union. As Prime Minister May acknowledges in her letter, it commits the UK to taking part in the European parliamentary elections. As the Members are aware, if the UK continues to be a member of the European Union through an extension period and does not take its seats in the European Parliament, then the European Parliament is not legally constituted under the treaties and therefore cannot make decisions. We cannot allow that to happen.

It is also clear that under no circumstances can the extension be seen as an opportunity to reopen the withdrawal agreement or the Irish protocol in it. This was clearly set out in the European Council conclusions of 21 March and is repeated again this morning in the EU General Affairs Council meeting. The solution to the impasse in London can only come from Westminster. We hope that the way forward set out by the Prime Minister and her ongoing discussions with the Opposition will deliver a solution and soon.

Should the discussions in London see a change in red lines, the EU has always been clear that it is open to looking again at the political declaration in such circumstances. The EU is fully committed to achieving an ambitious and comprehensive future partnership with the UK. A no-deal Brexit is not in anybody's interest and is certainly not in Ireland's interests. Time is short, but there is still an opportunity for a sensible, managed and orderly outcome. While the risk of a no-deal scenario may have receded slightly this week, the Government continues with our intensive preparedness and contingency work which has been going on now, as the Taoiseach said earlier, for the past two years. This includes our engagement with the European Commission on how we can work together to avoid a hard border in the case of a no-deal outcome while also protecting the integrity of the Single Market and customs union. As I have said repeatedly, we cannot allow Ireland to be dragged out of the EU Single Market in a no-deal scenario.

In my meeting with Michel Barnier yesterday, he made clear the EU's solidarity with Ireland on this issue. Throughout this process there has been a strong understanding from EU partners of the need to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. The EU has been clear that it is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a border and to protect the peace process. Intensive discussions with European Commission are continuing in good faith to find operational solutions. Our basic priorities are not changed which are to avoid a hard border in Ireland, to protect the Good Friday Agreement, and at the same time to protect the integrity of the EU Single Market and customs union and Ireland's place in them. Achieving these twin goals is difficult. Without a withdrawal agreement, avoiding a hard border would become a more complex and demanding challenge. There are, in simple terms, no easy answers.

All options are being discussed within the rules of the customs union and Single Market right now. Such a solution would be suboptimal compared with the backstop, however, and I want to make that point very clearly to Parliament here. While it may be possible to avoid physical infrastructure at the Border, it will be difficult to avoid serious disruption to the functioning of an all-island economy. The seamless trade that we enjoy today will not be possible, and the benefits of the backstop for business in Northern Ireland will be lost, at least in the short term, in a no-deal scenario without the co-operation of the UK. This is why the backstop is an essential part of the withdrawal agreement and why we remain focused on securing its ratification. It provides the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal while fully protecting the Good Friday Agreement, and it enables both sides to move on to negotiate a deep and ambitious future relationship.