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.