I thank the Chairman and committee members for their invitation to address them. I have been following the committee's proceedings and applaud the important work it is doing on this issue which is of critical importance to Ireland, as well as the wider European Union.
Brexit is a tragedy for Europe and Ireland and eventually will be for the United Kingdom. The European Union is the world's most successful peace process. It has brought together in co-operation European nations which slaughtered one another's peoples in the world wars of the 20th century. It has united around its core principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights countries which had been until recently ruled by suppression and the denial of freedom. It has created the biggest single market on the planet. It offers the hope of fresh opportunity to neighbouring states. It donates more than half of all the development and humanitarian aid in the world. It has given global leadership on the issue of climate change.
For all of its shortcomings and it has many, the European Union is one of the greatest forces for good in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world. None of the challenges facing the European Union today - conflicts in neighbourhoods, migration, globalisation and demography - would be better addressed by the 28 member states acting separately rather than collectively. In Ireland, we know this better than most. We know that how our economy and living standards have improved since Ireland's accession to the EEC; how the European Union helped us to develop our infrastructure; how it encouraged us to improve environmental standards, consumer protection, working conditions and rights for women; how it supported the Northern Ireland peace process; and how it has enabled our Irish identity to thrive in a European context. Now, for the first time in its 60-year history, the European Union is being put into reverse. One of its largest and most influential member states, our nearest neighbour, has decided to leave, but the European Union will survive its departure. The danger that other member states might follow the United Kingdom to the exit has, for the time being at least, been halted by the recent elections in the Netherlands and, last Sunday, France. However, without the United Kingdom, it will be a lesser European Union and that is the first negative consequence for Ireland. As a small country, we need a strong, united European Union to provide the main market for our export-led economy, stability for our shared currency, the euro, and the political union to amplify our voice and influence in the world.
The departure of the United Kingdom will, I fear, also change the European Union. Ever since it joined, with Ireland and Denmark, in 1973, the United Kingdom has been a champion for the Single Market which it now wants to leave. It promoted enlargement to include the very countries the peoples of which Brexit is now designed to exclude. Throughout its 40-plus years of membership, the United Kingdom has been a consistent advocate for the open society values on which EU membership is based. The United Kingdom's departure from the European table will weaken the defence of these values at a time when so-called "illiberal democracy" is on the rise in some member states. Earlier this year I had the privilege of teaching at the Central European University in Budapest, which is now threatened with closure by the Government of Hungary. This is the first time there has been such an attack on academic freedom in a member state of the European Union. I hope the departure of the United Kingdom and the consequential weakening of the European Union and its values will not embolden those political forces which place little worth on freedom of thought and expression.
Many hope the United Kingdom may yet somehow change its mind about departure. The President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, has suggested the option of the United Kingdom remaining in the absence of a withdrawal agreement should be kept on the table. I agree.
I agree, too, with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has promoted the idea of a second vote. However, I think both scenarios are highly unlikely. Any prospect that the decision to leave might be reversed has been rendered almost impossible by the political support at Westminster for an extreme interpretation of the referendum decision.
I am surprised, especially given the closeness of the referendum result, that there is so little political challenge to the assumption that Brexit now means the hardest Brexit possible. Many of those who voted to leave believed - and were led to believe - that they were voting for a future relationship between the UK and EU akin to that of the EU and Norway. For all the talk of respecting the will of the people, it is not convincing to interpret last June's vote as a mandate to leave the Single Market and the customs union, nor as a mark of support for the prospect of crashing out altogether should the negotiations go badly for Prime Minister May.
I do not understand or agree with the way in which the current leadership of the British Labour Party and the remainers within the Conservative Party have folded into such a consensus on the defining issue in contemporary British politics. The people of the UK, whose decision last June has led to the triggering of Article 50, ought at least to be given the final say on the outcome of the negotiations in a final referendum. Had the result gone the other way, and by such a slim margin, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Farage and his collaborators would not already be seeking a re-run.
It is of course possible that the political climate may change in the UK, maybe in response to the realities of the withdrawal negotiations and their consequences or perhaps if the general election on 8 June gives the Prime Minister more time and flexibility. The working assumption for Ireland must, however, be that the UK’s withdrawal is going ahead and that we have to address the implications for this State and this island. It is a significant achievement for Irish diplomacy that the Irish dimension of Brexit has already won acknowledgement and prioritisation, both in the UK’s statement of principles and in the EU negotiating guidelines, which were agreed by the European Council on 29 April. Throughout Europe, not only in governmental and diplomatic circles but also among the wider public, there is an understanding that Ireland requires special consideration and that issues such as the land Border, the peace process, the common travel area and trade must be central to the eventual separation settlement.
I congratulate all those whose efforts have secured a pre-negotiation position for Ireland expressed in very strong language, which I believe has the potential to go beyond areas already in public discussion. At the heart of all this is the Good Friday Agreement, which is primarily about Northern Ireland, but which is also an international agreement between the United Kingdom and Ireland on the totality of the relationships between our two countries. One of those relationships is our common membership of the European Union. The Good Friday Agreement, in several of its parts, makes specific provision for discussion and some management of EU-related matters, for example in the British-Irish Council, at the North-South Ministerial Council and in bilateral discussions. Matters within the purview of the North-South Ministerial Council, including agriculture, environment and transport, the cross-Border bodies on food safety, trade, and the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, were all chosen on the assumption that both the UK and Ireland would continue to be members of the EU and that the shared EU regulations and policies would facilitate increased cross-Border co-operation. The Good Friday Agreement, the foundation on which relations between Ireland and the UK are built, clearly assumed continued membership of the EU by both countries. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has fundamental implications for that agreement which are deeper than obvious issues such as a possible hard Border.
In her letter to President Donald Tusk, Prime Minister May acknowledged this by referring to “the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and the importance of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland” and her commitment “to continue to uphold the Belfast Agreement” as being among the UK’s principles for the forthcoming negotiations with the EU. This is very welcome. The EU guidelines of 29 April go even further, stating:
The Union has consistently supported the goal of peace and reconciliation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, and continuing to support and protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the Peace Process will remain of paramount importance. In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order. In this context, the Union should also recognise existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland which are compatible with EU law.
I found it interesting that the phraseology used today by Monsieur Barnier in his address to the Houses of the Oireachtas echoed that reference to the Good Friday Agreement. He did not use the phrase "in all its parts" but used instead "in its several dimensions". This clearly recognises that the Good Friday Agreement is broader and has further implications for the UK-EU negotiations than just the obvious issue of a hard Border. What all of this means is that “the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland” or “the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland”, whichever formula is preferred, is not just one more item for the withdrawal negotiations, but instead has the potential to shape and influence the very nature of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
The UK has to find a way of reconciling its exit from the EU with its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement and the EU has effectively confirmed that this is how it will approach the negotiations. It is possible to envisage how that could be achieved in the context of a softer Brexit, but it is difficult to see how the Good Friday Agreement "in all its parts" can remain intact if the UK is out of the Single Market and the customs union. We may hear a lot more about the phrase “in all its parts” as these negotiations proceed. The institutional and constitutional arrangements made under the Good Friday Agreement are described in the agreement itself as interlocking and interdependent. They are not open to be unpicked to facilitate a hard withdrawal agreement. In my opinion, therefore, the UK's commitments to the Good Friday Agreement and its wish for an absolute exit from the EU, including from the Single Market and the customs union, are not compatible. If the UK is to continue to uphold its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, it will have to change its tack and opt for a softer exit from the European Union.
It is deeply disappointing that at the very time the UK, through its Government and Parliament, was formulating its negotiating position on Brexit, the Northern Ireland Assembly had fallen silent. There is still no restored Executive, and consequently North-South Ministerial Council meetings are not taking place. The opportunity for Northern Ireland’s leaders to shape the nature of Brexit has, therefore, perhaps been partially lost. I hope that the Executive can be restored before much longer. The issues at stake for the whole island because of Brexit are surely greater than the differences which apparently are preventing the two largest parties from reaching an accommodation.
Those issues which are of impact for the whole island include the economic consequences of Brexit. In that context, I recommend to the committee an excellent document recently published by the Labour Party, entitled Our Island, Our Europe, Our Future, which make a number of specific recommendations to allow Ireland flexibility in responding to post-Brexit challenges. These include the modification of the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact and fiscal rules, the establishment of a Brexit trade adjustment fund, the development of new EU markets, and the inclusion of a new Irish protocol to the EU treaties.
It is already clear that the negotiation of a withdrawal agreement will not be easy, not least because it has never been done before. The outcome will have to be approved by the Council and passed by the European Parliament. It will also have to be ratified by each of the remaining 27 member states of the EU. Ratification will inevitably raise the question of a referendum in Ireland. Irrespective of the legal advice which will be available to the Government, it is almost certain that some Irish citizen will seek a determination in the courts. There is a good case for the Government and the Oireachtas to decide now, at the beginning of the negotiations, that a referendum will be held on ratification of the withdrawal agreement. An early political decision to hold such a referendum would strengthen the hand of the Irish Government in the negotiation phase, and would help to keep the Irish dimension at the centre of the talks.
Finally, as the committee has asked me here in my capacity as a former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I wish to refer briefly to the foreign policy and security dimensions of Brexit, which have received very little attention to date.
Following its withdrawal from the EU, the UK will no longer be a party to the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence Policy. The UK has made a significant contribution to the foreign, security and defence policies and actions of the EU since it joined in 1973. The position on such issues taken by the UK was often similar to Ireland’s position. The departure of the UK therefore removes an ally on many important external issues.
Its departure will probably also result in its increasingly concentrating on involvement with NATO and with its North American friends. Most EU member states are also members of NATO and there is a risk that the locus of European decision making and action on foreign policy, security and defence will shift from the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU, at which Ireland is represented, to a military alliance to which we do not belong.
To counter this, Ireland will need to become more engaged on these European issues and be prepared to perform even more actively in areas such as peace work, development, humanitarian aid and the promotion of the soft power approach of EU foreign policy. It is welcome that the UK has said it wishes to continue to co-operate with the EU in these areas. However, this is an area of our EU engagement on which there is a need for greater discussion by the Oireachtas.
I thank members for their invitation and their attention.