Monday, 29 March 2021
Matters Arising from the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Statements
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Since 2016 we have been caught in the middle of what, for many, has been the Brexit nightmare. Its prevalence in the public mind has been more or less continuous. Obviously, Covid-19 changed that somewhat but Brexit has never fully gone away and we continue to deal with its fallout. As an issue, it deserves much thought and constant attention, now and in the future. Here in the Republic, we have gained a growing appreciation of the fact that while we are not quite serving two masters, we are seeking to keep two friends. Our membership of the EU mandates support for the associated law, yet our irreplaceable trade links with the UK mean we cannot afford to place a foot wrong in either direction lest we step on some toes. All of that is in addition to the unique challenges presented by the fact of there being two jurisdictions sharing this island, with one no longer bound by EU law although still within the Common Market.
While we spoke earlier in this House about the vaccination programme, I did not get to welcome any supply of vaccines that we might obtain from our neighbours in the UK. We should, of course, seek new supplies wherever we can get them at a fair price and in a way that is ethical and does not result in vulnerable people in other countries going without the vaccine, which we should always keep in mind. I was surprised and disappointed by the reticence of the leader of Sinn Féin on this issue yesterday. Others have said, and I have often said, that when it comes to Brexit, an anti-British mentality and an associated style of rhetoric directed at the UK should have no place in our politics, yet there is still plenty of it around, latent or otherwise. The UK Secretary of State for Health, Mr. Matt Hancock, has said that Britain does not currently have surplus Covid-19 vaccines but will consider how they are allocated as they become available. Our Minister for Foreign Affairs has said he would be very interested in talking to the British Government about that, which is a position everyone should support. Given that the UK remains on course to offer a first dose to all of those aged over 50 in the UK by 15 April and all adults in the UK by the end of July, it is very plausible that the UK will have surplus vaccines that we could avail ourselves of in this country. We should be trying to plan for that now so we will be ready to receive and distribute them when the time comes.
I find it remarkable that in much of the talk about Brexit, it has been portrayed fairly constantly in this country as Britain shooting itself in the foot, acting against its own national interest and being unable to let go of its vision of its past glory, so to speak. In the fullness of time, maybe Brexit will turn out to have been a big mistake for Britain, it will be the end of the union, and Boris Johnson will end up as king of Wessex, turning the clock back 1,000 years, but there are times when one believes the British could just make a go of this.The United Kingdom has shown remarkable resilience. Certainly, its speed in moving to get adequate supplies of the vaccine and its efficiency in distributing the vaccine is something we should admire. We should give credit where credit is due.
I thought there was something of the "Cool Britannia" in recent developments. It would certainly be a diplomatic masterstroke if Britain was to make vaccines available to this country. It would do much to improve relations between our two islands at a time when they have been under strain for obvious reasons, largely through no fault of ours. There was something of the "Cool Britannia" about this and perhaps something of the "Cruel Britannia" about the way the UK has interacted with the European Union on occasions in this matter as well.
I believe the suspension of the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine was poorly handled. I cannot help but take the view that Brexit had as much of an impact as any perceived danger from the vaccine itself. I have looked at the figures relating to those at risk of developing a blood clot and the understandable concerns about that. However, when we look at the figures and the claimed incidence of blood clots, we have to wonder whether there is something more going on. The inevitable slowdown in the rate of vaccination and the damage to public trust in the vaccine generally will sadly lead directly to deaths that could have been avoided. One concerning question is whether the European attitude to this had something to do with the idea that it was a British-driven project trumpeted by the UK as an example of its ability to thrive outside the EU. Did that lead to a latent hostility towards that particular vaccine and, as a result, cause a knee-jerk reaction? That is a question we need to engage with honestly.
We should have regard to the attitudes and actions of the European Commission in recent months. I regard myself as someone who is pro-European albeit not uncritically so. There are many things about the EU project that I have had a problem with in the past and that I continue to struggle with. I am a person who is in favour of our membership of the European Union and the great benefits it has brought our country. However, I struggle sometimes to love the EU and the way it does business. The handling of the AstraZeneca issue was one example. Its handling of the vaccine roll-out more generally is another. I note Austria and Denmark have already broken ranks with the EU. They have said they will not rely solely on EU channels in future and will work with Israel to develop second-generation vaccines. This prompts the question of whether we too need to take a more independent line than we always do. I know it is difficult as a small country and I know we rely on the support and solidarity of the EU as we deal with our economic and other challenges.
In three days' time, on 1 April, further new UK trade import requirements were scheduled to come into effect as per the Northern Ireland protocol. Despite the date, the controls are no joke. Pre-notification to the UK authorities of all consignments of products of animal origin entering Britain were to be required and these had to be accompanied by veterinary certificates or export health certificates, over 350,000 of which will be required per annum according to estimates from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Obviously, that will not happen at this point. The UK Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, has postponed the increased import requirements until 1 October. That move has been welcomed by some but not others. Our Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine was pleased, saying that Irish exporters should maximise their use of the additional time to prepare in a comprehensive manner for the next phase of Brexit.
After that date, the second slew of import controls will come into effect three months later in January 2022. While the postponement of these requirements may be a boon for Irish trade, it must be pointed out that there is an issue in respect of contravention of the protocol which was agreed by both parties. We know about the European Commission and the infringement proceedings that have been launched. Northern Ireland is in a legal limbo. Do the supermarkets and food suppliers there abide by the EU's imposition of import requirements or by the UK's postponement of such? In many ways we find our Government having to play the part of interpreter between the British and EU sides. While we must honour our EU membership by upholding the rule of law, the more time we have to prepare for costs associated with Brexit red tape around trade, the better.
I am keen to touch on the issue of farming. I note Ciaran Fitzgerald said in his Agrilandcolumn last week that mainstream media's consciousness and representation of agriculture rests solely these days on the characterisation of agricultural output in terms of carbon emissions or environmental impact.We must remember the hundreds of thousands of jobs supported across the economy by agriculture. We produce food for the equivalent of 40 million people. It is absolutely vital that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is successful in his engagement with the Commission in fighting for the lion's share of the Brexit adjustment reserve. The €1 billion portion of that fund allocated to this country will be badly needed when those trade barriers eventually kick in.