Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Questions (34, 58)

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

34. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the implications of the decision to defer the need for agreement on the Brexit backstop to the European Council meeting in October 2018, which will address preparations to ensure the protection of cross-border workers' rights post-Brexit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16354/18]

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Charlie McConalogue

Question:

58. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the details of his engagement with the EU Brexit negotiating team and the UK Government with a view to ensuring regulatory alignment on agriculture matters post the UK leaving the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20907/18]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

The first of the two questions asks what are the implications of the decision to defer the need for agreement on the Brexit backstop to the European Council meeting in October 2018 which will deal with preparations to ensure the protection of cross-border workers' rights post-Brexit. The Taoiseach indicated that the backstop agreement could wait until October. The Tánaiste has since firmed up the position by saying it needs to happen in June. It was supposed to be delivered in December 2017, however. Approximately 5,500 people cross into Northern Ireland from County Donegal every day for work and study and they are seriously concerned about how Brexit will impact on them. What is the Tánaiste's understanding of the reasons for the absence to date of an agreement on the backstop?

I ask the Tánaiste to be economical in reply given the time constraints.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 34 and 58 together.

I must correct the Deputy as Ireland has not deferred anything and nor has the Government. We are trying to secure a deal as quickly as we can. In December, we had a clear commitment on the outcome needed in respect of the process of Britain's withdrawal from the European Union. We now have an agreement, which was reached in March, that a legally operable backstop text on the Irish Border issue that guarantees there will be no border infrastructure will be part of the withdrawal treaty. We are not in the process of trying to negotiate the wording. The EU has put forward a proposal, a legally operable wording that would deliver that outcome, and the United Kingdom has indicated it cannot accept that approach. We have asked the UK to come back with an approach that could deliver the same outcome. We have stated we need to make progress on this by the end of June because the full legal text of a withdrawal agreement needs to be concluded by the end of October.

The Tánaiste states progress needs to be made by June because the withdrawal agreement needs to be concluded by the end of October. A backstop is something that is available in the event of a final agreement or another agreement not being reached. If the backstop is not agreed until October, it will not be a backstop but a final agreement. Unfortunately, as matters stand, there is no agreed backstop.

In the run-up to the December negotiations, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste made clear that negotiations would not proceed to the next stage unless the issue of the Irish Border was solved. The Tánaiste subsequently described the agreement as bulletproof. It has since become clear that there are two different interpretations of the agreement and it is still not clear what the agreement will be. What are the implications of this for the 5,500 people who travel daily from County Donegal to Northern Ireland for work and study, including 3,000 people who travel to Derry to work? It is crucial that we provide some clarity for them. What is the Tánaiste's view on where these people stand in the Government's engagement with Mr. Barnier's team and Mr. Barnier's negotiations with his counterparts in the United Kingdom?

The Deputy is correct that a backstop is normally something one implements if nothing else can be agreed. What we have achieved in these negotiations is an acceptance from the United Kingdom and European Union sides that we would agree the backstop first, if one likes, because we will not know what the final deal looks like until the future relationship negotiations have been completed. It will take a couple of years to agree the future relationship in trade, security, data sharing, aviation, agriculture, fishing and other areas that must be negotiated over time. The Government has stated we will not proceed with that unless we know we have agreed a backstop at an early date that can reassure people in Donegal and Derry that the Border, which does not impact on their lives today because it is largely invisible, will remain that way through Brexit. The British Government's agreement to that approach was the significant step forward achieved in March and we are now trying to agree a legally operable text for the backstop.

Everybody involved in the negotiations accepts there will not be a withdrawal treaty unless it includes a backstop. The withdrawal treaty is just that - the divorce arrangements. A future relationship agreement will then need to be achieved and if we can reach an agreement on borders and trade that is so seamless and attractive as not to require any border infrastructure on the island of Ireland, we will not need the backstop. However, we will insist on having the backstop in place as an insurance or fallback mechanism as part of the withdrawal treaty. To use the language of the negotiators, the backstop will be there unless or until something better is agreed.

I will be brief because I am keen to hear the Tánaiste's response. Is it his understanding that the negotiations on the future trading relationship will be completed by October and in advance of the treaty negotiation? I understood they were to be completed by October, after which a two-year transition period would apply. Will the Tánaiste clarify the position in that regard?

In December, the red line from Ireland's point of view was that clarity would be provided. People expected a legal text at that stage but what we got instead was a form of words, with a legal text to follow. The legal text has still not been agreed. It will not be a backstop unless it is agreed in June because otherwise it will be the final agreement.

As the Tánaiste understands, the issues at stake are serious, particularly for County Donegal. It is important that the line is held in June, clarity is obtained and there is no slipping back.

The Deputy raises an important issue. The future relationship will not be agreed by the end of October. The detail of the future relationship agreement will not be agreed before Britain leaves the European Union. The full length of the transition period will still be a negotiation around what the final future relationship looks like post-transition. However, the withdrawal agreement needs to be agreed by the end of October because it must be ratified by the European Parliament.

The two separate agreements that are needed are essentially agreements on divorce arrangements and the future relationship. The divorce arrangements or withdrawal agreement is where most of the key Irish issues are being dealt with. These are the Border, protecting the Good Friday Agreement, the common travel area and so on, in other words, where we will stand on the day after Britain leaves the EU. With that, we will probably have a statement or some kind of framework agreement on the future relationship which sets the parameters for a detailed future relationship agreement. This will be a combination of a free trade agreement and many other things and it will certainly take some time to negotiate.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.