I propose to take Questions Nos. 107, 108 and 131 together.
We have now entered a crucial phase of the negotiations.
The overall objective is that the full legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, as well as a detailed political declaration on the framework for the future relationship, be concluded by the October meeting of the European Council.
With a view to achieving this overall goal, negotiations are ongoing between the EU and the UK to close the remaining gaps in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, including detailed discussions on the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.
We have made very clear our wish to see real and substantial progress on agreeing the Protocol ahead of the June European Council. The fact of the UK’s presentation on 7 June of a paper on a temporary customs arrangement, which it sees as relevant to aspects of the island of Ireland backstop, was a welcome, though incomplete, step forward in this regard.
After its publication, Michel Barnier, while also welcoming this step, raised questions and concerns about the proposal. The absence of proposals on regulatory alignment is clearly a major gap – though the UK has acknowledged that this aspect needs to be addressed – as is the suggestion that the arrangement should be time-limited, though it is welcome that the date of end-2021 is aspirational. The Commission, in its further analysis of the paper, has identified numerous issues related to the proposal’s legal and technical viability, and to its compatibility with the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union. It is the Commission which is the Union’s negotiator with the British Government on these issues.
The Government’s focus remains on the outcome we need to see, of which a key element is ensuring the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. It is welcome that the UK’s commitment to this is reaffirmed in its proposal, and that the commitments and guarantees provided by the UK in the joint progress report of December 2017 and repeated by Prime Minister May in her letter to President Tusk in March have been reiterated.
Michel Barnier and his team also provide regular updates to the EU27 Member States on the discussions on the future EU-UK relationship, which are progressing, albeit slowly. The EU is approaching these discussions in accordance with the March European Council Guidelines, which reaffirmed the EU’s determination to have as close as possible a partnership with the UK in the future. These Guidelines also emphasised that any future agreement must have the correct balance of rights and obligations and that the integrity of the Single Market must be preserved. Clearly, it is in Ireland’s strong interest to have the closest possible EU-UK relationship, within the parameters set by the UK’s own red lines, which we hope may be modified.
My Government colleagues and I also engage frequently with our UK counterparts on a wide range of issues of mutual interest. In addition to further strengthening our bilateral ties, such engagement also provides an opportunity to build the UK’s understanding of the EU’s position on the Irish-specific issues and underline the importance of finalizing the Protocol as an integral and indispensable part of the Withdrawal Agreement
I have spoken with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, David Lidington, on a number of occasions in recent weeks. During these exchanges, I have stressed that, while our preference is still for an overall EU-UK relationship which would resolve all issues, it remains essential that a backstop is agreed which provides certainty that in any circumstances, and no matter what the outcome of the negotiations on the EU-UK future relationship, a hard border will be avoided. I have underlined that we must have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments made on Ireland and Northern Ireland and that this certainty requires agreement on the Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement. The sooner this can be agreed, the sooner substantial negotiations on the future relationship, which will determine the arrangements for east/west trade and many other important issues, can begin.