Last week EU and UK negotiators completed work on a draft agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, including the draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. This was followed by approval by Prime Minister May and her Cabinet of the draft agreement as an acceptable basis on which to proceed. On Sunday the Taoiseach will join other EU 27 leaders at a special meeting of the European Council to endorse the agreement, together with a joint political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Ahead of this crucial meeting, the Government welcomes that a strong signal was sent by the Dáil last night that Ireland wholeheartedly supports this withdrawal agreement as the best way to ensure an orderly UK exit that protects the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process. I am sure this House will send a similar message today.
Last week represented an important breakthrough in the negotiations as we head towards 29 March next year, when the UK will formally leave the European Union. Brexit presents a major challenge for us all, following 45 years of what has been close co-operation and partnership with the UK as fellow EU members. The complexity of this process and the scale of the challenge it presents have become all too clear over the course of these negotiations. The draft withdrawal agreement sets out the terms under which the UK's withdrawal will happen in an orderly manner. It provides the best way of ensuring we avoid a hard Brexit which would see the UK crash out of the Union, with the serious consequences that would bring.
With the agreement, a transition period to the end of December 2020 will help to ensure a manageable transition for citizens and business as the UK ceases to be a member state of the Union and becomes a third country. During this time, the EU and the UK will negotiate an agreement on our future relationship, which we hope will be as deep, strong and comprehensive as possible. The option to extend the transition is there, if more time is needed to conclude such an agreement.
We did not ask for Brexit. Indeed, we deeply regret the UK’s decision to leave and believe that all parties will be diminished as a result. Since that decision was taken, the Government has sought to ensure that we in Ireland can minimise the negative impacts of Brexit on the island. In particular, we have sought to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, for which we share responsibility with the UK. Importantly, the agreement secures many of our objectives. From the very start, we worked to ensure that our concerns were understood by all our EU partners - the member states and the EU institutions. Their unity and solidarity has played a significant role. They took Ireland’s concerns to heart and made them European concerns and priorities. Throughout the negotiations, they have demonstrated strong understanding of and support for the need to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland and to maintain the necessary conditions for North-South co-operation, avoiding a hard border and protecting the peace process. These were also accepted by Prime Minister May in repeated political commitments made in December and March, and as recently as September.
The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which forms an integral part of the draft agreement, addresses all the issues I have just outlined. The protocol contains important commitments and assurances regarding the Good Friday Agreement, North-South co-operation and the all-island economy. It includes commitments to ensure no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, and it also confirms that people in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy their rights as EU citizens. It acknowledges the common travel area, whereby Irish and British citizens can live, work and study and access healthcare, social security and public services in each other’s jurisdictions. It assures continued support for the North-South PEACE and INTERREG funding programmes.
The protocol also includes clear measures to prevent the re-emergence of a hard border on this island, or the backstop, as we call it.
The absence of a hard border has been critical to what has been achieved on the island under the peace process. This has been a priority for Ireland from the very start of the negotiations. The backstop simply acts as an insurance policy, which we hope will never have to be used. It means that should it be required after the period of transition, the UK and the EU will establish a shared customs territory. It will involve no tariffs or quotas and includes well-established rules to ensure a level playing field. Northern Ireland would remain aligned to those rules of the Single Market that are indispensable to avoiding a hard border. To facilitate this and to ensure 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 agreement makes clear the backstop will apply unless and until it is replaced by alternative arrangements that make it no longer necessary. A review mechanism will look at this. The agreement also makes clear this decision cannot be taken unilaterally but must be taken jointly by the EU and the UK. This also comes under the review process. This translates the UK’s political commitment, which was given last December, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland into a legal guarantee. As we have said many times before, we hope and believe those alternative arrangements will be negotiated. However, it is important we now have the insurance policy we need if all other efforts fail to produce a better solution. Importantly, at the same time, nothing in the agreement prejudices or seeks to undermine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.
Ireland maintains a strong and constructive bilateral relationship with the UK. We share unique and profound ties fostered by centuries of shared history, culture and trade. We are fully committed to developing and enhancing that relationship and our close bilateral co-operation over the coming years. The common travel area, CTA, which is acknowledged in the agreement, will contribute to this. Under the CTA, Irish and British people can live, work, study and access healthcare, social security and public services in both jurisdictions. Equally, it remains our priority to achieve a deep and comprehensive future relationship between the EU and the UK in a post-Brexit world. Over the next two years we will be working very closely with the UK and our EU partners for an agreement that can achieve that on the basis of the political declaration on the future relationship that EU leaders are expected to endorse at the European Council on Sunday, and which many of you have seen today have already been agreed. Work is continuing on finalising this declaration and the Prime Minister will return to Brussels for a further meeting with President Juncker on Saturday to settle the text.
Ireland has always said we want the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK and we welcome that this outline of the political declaration points to such a relationship, including in areas of great importance to Ireland such as trade, transport, energy and judicial and police co-operation, as well as protecting key sectors such as agriculture and fisheries. We do all this knowing that our place is at the heart of a strong European Union. We must respect the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union. Membership of these is a core element of our economic strategy, including in attracting business.
The Government is taking nothing for granted. Significant steps will need to be taken. The European Council will meet on Sunday to endorse the draft agreement. The UK must ratify the agreement according to its own constitutional arrangements. The European Parliament must also provide its consent. Ireland will be the EU member state most affected by Brexit and it will bring significant negative consequences for us. Therefore, the Government is continuing our intensive work to prepare for all eventualities, including a no-deal Brexit, to make sure we are all ready. Departments and State agencies continue to develop and roll-out action plans, to advance mitigating measures which they have identified in the areas of their responsibility. The Government is putting in place measures needed on an east-west basis, preparing our ports and airports. We have already given approval in this year's budget to start hiring over 500 of the 1,000 staff needed.
We are also actively engaged with the European Commission on areas where the lead policy role lies with the EU. An important example of this is our close work with the Commission and other member states to ensure continued effective use of the UK land bridge. The withdrawal agreement also reaffirms the commitment of the UK to facilitate the efficient and timely transit. The Government is providing an array of supports on top of this and information measures to businesses. We have overseen and co-ordinated a communication and outreach campaign through the Brexit website, social media and public events. Those reach-out events are happening throughout this month. The next event is taking place in Letterkenny next Friday.
While the approval of the draft withdrawal agreement marks a crucial step forward, there are many significant challenges ahead. There is no room for complacency. I will take the opportunity to express again my deep appreciation and gratitude to all our EU partners for their unwavering solidarity in ensuring these have been taken into account in the draft withdrawal agreement. In particular, I acknowledge the commitment and professionalism of Michel Barnier and his exceptional team with whom we have worked extremely closely over the past 20 months.
It was never the case that Brexit would be straightforward or easy. This has become increasingly clear as the negotiations have gone on. It is important for us all, citizens, enterprises and even our international partners, that the UK’s withdrawal happens in an orderly manner. The withdrawal agreement provides the best and only way to achieve this. No one benefits from a hard Brexit and the serious consequences it would bring for the UK, the EU and Ireland. We regret the UK’s decision to leave and believe that both parties will be diminished as a result. However, the fact remains that in the very near future, the UK will leave the European Union and it is the responsibility of the Government to represent and protect the interests of Ireland and its citizens.
We are very grateful for the support and advice we have received from all sides of the House on this issue and will continue to keep the Seanad fully informed of developments in this important issue which has far-reaching implications for all of us. I thank Senators for their support and ask for their continued support for this motion.