That Dáil Éireann supports the Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community (the draft Withdrawal Agreement), as published on 14th November, 2018, including the draft Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland which forms an integral part of the Draft Agreement.
On behalf of the Government, I propose this motion asking Dáil Éireann to support the draft agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This agreement was reached at negotiator level on 14 November 2018 and includes the draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which forms an integral part of it. After almost 20 months of intensive and difficult negotiations, I ask the House to join me in welcoming this agreement and also the outline of the joint political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. It is an agreement that fully secures the negotiating objectives we set out at the start. Most important, it fully protects the Good Friday Agreement and ensures the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland. I am pleased that Prime Minister May has secured her Cabinet’s approval for the draft agreement. On Sunday, President Tusk will convene a meeting of the European Council with a view to it formally endorsing the draft withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the joint political declaration on the future relationship.
It is worth restating that we have always said that we regret the decision of the UK to leave the European Union. The United Kingdom is our closest neighbour and our friend. We are bound together by geography and centuries of shared history, culture, kinship and trade. We deeply regret that the UK chose to leave the European Union, a Union which, together, we have helped to shape over the past 45 years. However, we respect the vote of the British people. We also regret that the British Government has ruled out ongoing membership of the EU customs union, Single Market and the European Economic Area, thus limiting the scope for a solution. Nevertheless, we respect the decision to do so.
At the outset, we agreed our unique concerns and identified our priorities for the negotiations and these have stayed constant throughout. These are protecting the peace and the Good Friday Agreement, maintaining the common travel area and its associated benefits for citizens, minimising the impact on our trade, jobs and our economy and reaffirming our place at the heart of a strong and prosperous European Union. On each of these priorities, we have reached a satisfactory outcome. From the very start, we worked to ensure our unique concerns were understood by our EU partners, the member states and the EU institutions.
As Taoiseach, I have had formal bilateral meetings with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Finland, Estonia, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia either in Dublin or in their capitals to emphasise these issues. I have also met many times with the presidents of the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission, as well as the chief EU negotiator, Mr. Michel Barnier, and the head of the European Parliament Brexit steering group. I have used the EPP network of sister parties of Fine Gael as well to Ireland’s advantage. The House will know that Presidents Juncker, Tusk and Tajani, Mr. Michel Barnier and Chancellor Merkel are both interlocutors and party colleagues. I have attended 11 formal and informal meetings of the European Council, as well as many other international meetings where I have engaged with EU leaders to explain and to contextualise our unique concerns and to ensure that our priorities were taken on board.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee, and their predecessors have traversed the Continent to engage with relevant EU counterparts. Other Ministers have met their counterparts and at official level there have been extensive and detailed consultations. I thank all concerned for their hard work and personal commitment, especially officials in my Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the permanent representation in Brussels and our ambassadors and diplomats on the ground in member state capitals. I recognise the Members of this House who have played their part in helping to ensure that Ireland’s concerns were communicated and understood through party and interparliamentary networks. All these efforts have been reflected in the series of European Council guidelines, Commission communications and European Parliament resolutions, as well as in speeches and statements by EU leaders across Europe.
They have taken Ireland's concerns to heart and have made them European concerns and priorities for the EU negotiators.
At the core of these concerns lies our awareness of the tragic history of violence in Northern Ireland and in Ireland and Britain. After 20 years of relative peace, we are determined to ensure that there can be no return to the past, so the Government has been determined to protect the Good Friday Agreement, an internationally and legally binding agreement, in all its parts. The absence of a hard border has been critical to what has been achieved North-South and the development of the all-island economy and practical co-operation in areas like education, health, infrastructure and tourism. We have insisted that there can be no going back on this and no new barriers to the movement of people or commerce.
The draft withdrawal agreement provides that, in the event that it is required after the period of transition, the UK and the EU will establish a shared customs territory. Northern Ireland will apply some additional rules for goods and ensure there would be no need for a hard border between North and South. To facilitate this and to ensure that there can be no unfair competitive advantage, the agreement also provides that, if the backstop is invoked, rules to ensure a level playing field in areas such as environment, state aid and labour standards will apply. The Union's customs code will apply to Northern Ireland so that businesses there do not face obstacles in accessing the Single Market for goods, including here, south of the Border. Northern Ireland business will continue to enjoy unfettered access to the Great Britain market as well as that of the whole of the European Union.
The text says that, if this backstop would apply, it should apply "unless and until" alternative arrangements are found to supersede it that make it no longer necessary in part or in full. It is therefore intended to be temporary and to act as a bridge to a future relationship. As I have said many times before, I hope and believe that those alternative arrangements will be negotiated. It is, however, important that we now have the insurance policy we need if all other efforts fail to produce a better solution. The agreement also provides a mechanism for review of the backstop, which would allow it to cease to apply, in whole or in part, if and when a better solution was agreed that superseded it.
It is important to underscore that any such decision will be a joint one for the European Union and the United Kingdom to take together. Therefore, the agreement says that there can be no unilateral withdrawal from the backstop if it is ever activated.
The draft withdrawal agreement contains other important commitments and assurances regarding the Good Friday Agreement, closer North-South co-operation and the all-island economy. Once again I would like to say that we have no hidden agenda or motivation here and the draft withdrawal agreement states in black and white that Ireland and the European Union fully respect the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and that this can change only if the majority of people in Northern Ireland vote for it to change. It ensures that there will be no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, and it recognises the right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish, become Irish citizens and, therefore, be European citizens as well.
It also ensures that Ireland and the UK can continue to operate the common travel area. This means that the arrangements that have enabled us to live, work, study and access services in each other's countries as though we are citizens of both will continue into the future. It confirms that the single electricity market will be maintained on the island of Ireland and confirms that PEACE and INTERREG funding will continue. This is really important for Northern Ireland and for the Border counties.
It is important to note that the UK agrees that it will facilitate the transit of goods moving to and from Ireland. This is significant, as the UK landbridge is the most important route from Ireland to mainland Europe and, of course, Ireland is a landbridge to Great Britain for a lot of exporters in Northern Ireland. The agreement provides a basis on which we can avoid a hard Brexit, which would see the United Kingdom crash out of the European Union without an agreement.
If it secures the necessary endorsement in Westminster next month and the consent of the European Parliament, there will be a period of transition, which will run until at least to the end of December 2020. As we approach the end of this period of transition, the UK will be empowered to ask for the period of transition to be extended - on one occasion - if agreement on a future relationship that would avoid a hard border is not yet in place.
I have acknowledged the integrity of Prime Minister May in honouring her promise to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and her commitment, despite the many difficulties along the way, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. For our part, we have consistently said that we are absolutely committed to working with Prime Minister May and the UK Government to secure a deep, comprehensive and ambitious future relationship between the UK and the European Union so that the backstop does not need to be invoked in full or in part.
I would also like to take this opportunity to express again my deep appreciation and gratitude to all of our EU partners - my fellow members of the European Council, the European Parliament and the Commission. They have understood our unique concerns and made them their concerns, and they have shown unwavering solidarity in ensuring that these have been taken into account in the draft withdrawal agreement. Many people predicted that, in the final moment, our European partners would turn on us or put pressure on us. That did not happen. We have had unwavering solidarity and support throughout.
In particular, I want to acknowledge the commitment and professionalism of Michel Barnier, Sabine Weyand and their team, with whom we have worked extremely closely over the past 20 months. There could be no better example of the advantages of EU membership for a small country. Sometimes, when people calculate the value of EU membership, they talk about how much we pay into the budget and how much we get out, but the intangible benefits of being part of the largest free trade area in the world and a single currency, and the intangible benefits of solidarity among 27 member states, are incalculable and enormous. We have seen that demonstrated for Ireland in recent months, so no matter what happens anywhere else, Ireland will stay a fully committed member of the European Union. It is a home that we have built together and it is where we will stay.
The draft agreement represents a finely balanced compromise between the concerns and priorities of all 28 countries involved. Finalising and approving it is the best way of ensuring an orderly withdrawal. I will attend the special meeting of the European Council in Brussels this Sunday, 25 November. I hope and expect that EU leaders will be in a position there to sign off on the draft withdrawal agreement and the joint political declaration. It is my sincere wish that the withdrawal agreement will then receive the necessary approval of both Westminster and the European Parliament. It represents a good outcome for Ireland, for the EU as a whole and for the UK itself. It protects people's jobs and the economy and defends the rights and freedoms of our citizens.
I commend this motion to the House.