Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Questions (28)

Lisa Chambers

Question:

28. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the progress he is seeking on the backstop by the next European Council meeting in June 2018; his definition of sufficient progress in this regard; the steps he will take if sufficient progress is not made on this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21311/18]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

Will the Tánaiste outline the progress he is seeking on the backstop by the next European Council meeting in June and what he considers to be sufficient progress? Will he also detail the steps he and the Government are taking to ensure that sufficient progress is made? If we do not see sufficient progress, what then?

The Deputy asks reasonable questions. Following on from the March European Council, the EU and UK agreed to five additional formal rounds of negotiations between April and the next European Council in June. These negotiations are focused on all outstanding issues in the draft withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as the future relationship. The UK has accepted that a legally operative version of the backstop for the Border will be included in the withdrawal agreement, in line with paragraph 49 of the joint progress report agreed last December, and that all issues identified in the draft protocol reflect those that must be addressed. These are important steps forward but these commitments are not reflected in the debate and much of the media commentary, especially in the UK. Prime Minister May confirmed this in her letter to President Tusk of 19 March in addition to reiterating the UK's commitment last December to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including the overarching guarantee on avoiding a hard border.

The Government has always maintained that the backstop will apply unless and until another solution is found. Our preference is for another solution. We do not want to be relying solely on the backstop but it needs to be there as a fallback or an insurance mechanism. While we share Prime Minister May's preference to resolve these issues through a wider agreement on the EU's future relationship with the UK, it is crucial that we have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments already made on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Negotiations to close the remaining gaps in the draft withdrawal agreement are ongoing, including detailed discussions between the EU and the UK on issues relating to Ireland and Northern Ireland. Real and substantial progress is needed on agreeing the protocol ahead of the June European Council. This means the UK delivering on the clear commitments it made in December and again in March by engaging meaningfully on the text of the protocol in the coming weeks and, in particular, the text dealing with the backstop on avoiding a hard border and coming forward with workable proposals with a view to seeking agreement on the text so that the entire withdrawal agreement can be concluded by October.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The EU has always made clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full. The European Council is continuing to follow the negotiations closely and will return to the remaining withdrawal issues, including the protocol, and to the framework for the future relationship at its next meeting in June. It will be for the European Council to assess progress based on a report from the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and to draw conclusions on what this assessment will mean for the overall negotiations. However, the Irish Government and Michel Barnier have been consistent in our position that real and substantial progress be made by the June European Council meeting. This is a position shared by all our EU partners who continue to show steadfast support for Ireland.

In December we were told that the commitments given on the border were "bulletproof", "rock solid" and "cast iron". Fast-forward six months and it is quite clear that those commitments were oversold. While I acknowledge that what was agreed in December, albeit tentatively, was progress, it certainly was not the level of progress articulated by the Tánaiste at the time. The issue of the Border is far from resolved and it does not look like it is going to be resolved by June either. The backstop is being interpreted very differently by the Irish and British Governments. Fianna Fáil is very concerned at the direction of the Brexit talks which has the potential to lead to a hard border. The UK has accepted some sort of a backstop, as agreed last December, but it did not accept the wording put before it in March. In fact, Ms May said that it was a constitutional threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom. The Tánaiste has said that he wants to see progress by June. Will he outline to the House what he considers to be sufficient progress. If he does not see such progress, will he stop the talks, as he said he would at the Brexit stakeholder meeting in Iveagh House a number of weeks ago?

This is not the first time I have heard pessimism in this House on the negotiations, with suggestions that this is going nowhere and that we are going to have a hard border. We have a cast-iron commitment from the British Government that there will be no border infrastructure of any kind and no checks or controls. What we do not have from the British is a plan to deliver on that. The EU has a plan to deliver on that through its backstop, but the British Government said that it could not accept that wording. That is fine. This is a negotiation so let us wait and see what the British are thinking and hear their wording proposals. We have said that we will consider any new ideas as long as they deliver the outcome to which the British Government has committed.

A distinction must be made between what has been committed to in terms of outcome and the process that can achieve that outcome. That is what the Taoiseach meant when he said that we have a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no border on the island of Ireland and I support him in that because we do have such a guarantee. We have a commitment in writing from the British Government to the EU and its institutions. We also have a commitment to President Tusk as recently as March that the commitment, in terms of the backstop, will be in the withdrawal treaty. Michel Barnier said again yesterday in front of all of the EU foreign Ministers that there will be no withdrawal treaty if there is not a legally operable wording on the Irish backstop. That is the position and we want to see that approach taking shape by the end of June. It does not need to be perfect or concluded at the end of June but we certainly need to see it taking shape so that we can have this finalised by October.

With respect, the phrase "taking shape" leaves me no clearer as to what the Tánaiste considers to be sufficient progress. I do not know what he means by that and he did not answer my question as to what he will do if he does not see sufficient progress. Will he put a stop to the talks? This is not about pessimism or optimism but about realism. Are we edging towards a hard border? It is not just Fianna Fáil that is saying this. The Central Bank, the business sector and others are also concerned. It is my job as Opposition spokesperson on Brexit for the Fianna Fáil party to highlight these issues, to ask questions and to seek answers, but the Tánaiste is not providing answers today.

We all want to avoid a hard border, but as the Tánaiste has said before, we cannot just wait and see. We must prepare for that possibility. The Copenhagen Economics report suggests that in a worst-case scenario, Brexit could cost Ireland in the region of 20,000 jobs, mostly in the agrifood sector. We have to prepare for this. We know from a recent report by AIB that businesses are not prepared. I recently met representatives of Chambers Ireland who told me that 15% of its members will be affected by Brexit but that the majority of them do not have the capacity or the resources to prepare for Brexit. Fianna Fáil is very concerned that we are not prepared and that we are burying our heads in the sand. We do not know what level of progress the Tánaiste is seeking by June and we believe that we will see very little progress. We are edging closer and closer to the cliff edge.

The Deputy should at least acknowledge the progress that has been made.

I have done so.

She keeps quoting a business survey conducted last November, but it is very clear from a much more recent survey conducted by IBEC that there has been a dramatic increase in the level of preparedness across businesses in Ireland. It is not where it needs to be yet and we are going to help businesses to get there. Very few people in Ireland are putting their heads in the sand on Brexit. People are asking questions. They want help and advice.

They want to know what the various possible outcomes are. My job is to help people to prepare for the worst and, more importantly, negotiate for the best possible outcome which I still think is achievable. The Deputy is asking me for answers that are not yet available in the context of what the final outcome will look like. We are reliant on negotiating with a partner - the United Kingdom - that does not yet have a settled approach. It has a settled commitment to an outcome on the Border, the common travel area, in protecting the Good Friday Agreement, citizens' rights and so on, but we do not yet have a legally operable text to deliver it. We have texts in some areas where we have made a great deal of progress. They are now coloured green, but there is still a lot of work to be done on the key issue of the Border. That is why I have spent a lot of time in London recently and Michel Barnier and I and many others are continuing to ask the British Government to provide some new thinking in the context of the negotiations.