Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Questions (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17)

Micheál Martin

Question:

8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the conversations he has had with the UK Prime Minister since 8 October 2019; and if he subsequently met him, the issues that were discussed. [41956/19]

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Brendan Howlin

Question:

9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone conversation with the UK Prime Minister. [41977/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the UK Prime Minister in the week of 7 October 2019. [42161/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the proposed veto was discussed when he met with the UK Prime Minister in Liverpool; and the rationale for same. [42309/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if a timeline on the backstop was discussed when he met the UK Prime Minister; and the response that he gave. [42310/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the UK Prime Minister since the EU Council meeting on 17 and 18 October 2019; and if so, the matters that were discussed regarding Brexit and the Northern Assembly. [43222/19]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

14. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the engagements he has had with the UK Prime Minister. [43229/19]

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Joan Burton

Question:

15. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his conversations with the UK Prime Minister since 8 October 2019. [43264/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagement with the UK Prime Minister. [43409/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

17. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the status of the withdrawal treaty; and if he has spoken with the UK Prime Minister since the October 2019 European Council meeting. [43597/19]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 17, inclusive, together

I spoke by phone with Prime Minister Johnson on Saturday, 19 October after the day's events in Westminster following which the UK requested an extension to the Article 50 process. I did not have any scheduled bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Johnson at the European Council meeting on 19 October but, of course, I did see him along with other EU Heads of State and Government at the Council.

I welcome the draft withdrawal agreement reached between the EU and the British Government. It is a good agreement allowing the UK to leave the European Union in an orderly fashion with a transition period running to the end of 2020, and perhaps as long as 2022, which is very important tor businesses and citizens across the EU and UK. It also creates a unique solution for Northern Ireland recognising the unique history and geography of Northern Ireland. It ensures that there is no hard border between North and South, that the all-island economy can continue to develop and it protects the Single Market and our place in it. There will not be any further changes to the withdrawal agreement agreed between the EU and the UK last week and on both sides, we wish to see the process move forward.

While I would consider the risk of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October to be relatively remote, we nonetheless must continue to prepare for it.

Before the Council meeting, I spoke by phone with Prime Minister Johnson the previous day, 16 October, when we discussed the position at that time. Previously, I met with Prime Minister Johnson in Cheshire on 10 October. We had detailed and constructive discussions on the situation at that time, which concentrated on the challenges of customs and consent. We also discussed the potential to strengthen bilateral relations, including on Northern Ireland. We agreed to reflect further on our discussions and that officials would continue to engage intensively on them. Following our discussions, I consulted with the EU task force and the UK Brexit Secretary and I met Michel Barnier the following morning. I am pleased to state that on foot of those engagements, negotiations got under way between the UK and the EU task force led by Mr. Barnier, which ultimately resulted in the agreement being reached by the EU 27 member states on Thursday, 17 October.

Given the number of questioners, I must insist that Members stick to the allocated time. I call Deputy Calleary.

I wish to acknowledge the huge work that went in on Ireland's part, including that of the Taoiseach, to get to that agreement. In the context of the Taoiseach's most recent discussions with the Prime Minister, what was his assessment of the events yesterday? Has the Taoiseach tabled or had conversations around the institutions at Stormont and their relevance and role in this new agreement?

I too acknowledge the work done by our own officials, as well as the Barnier task force. I expressed that directly to Michel Barnier last week. It showed great solidarity with a small member state and its particular needs.

On where we go from here, I understand that the Taoiseach has agreed with President Tusk today to an extension to 31 January 2020, in what the Taoiseach has described as a flexible extension. What, if any, are the conditions attached to that or are there no conditions attached to it? Is it simply when Britain passes the legal framework for the agreement that is now on the table? Is it contingent on a referendum or on a general election in Britain? There seems to be no timeline to the conclusion of the discussions on the enactment of legislation in the British Parliament. We do not know when, if ever, that is going to come to an end. If there are amendments to it, which we understand to be highly likely and one of which may be to require all of the UK to stay within the common customs territory of the European Union, will that be acceptable? The Taoiseach states that there will be no change to the agreement. If there was an agreement that was to be beneficial to the European Union, like, for example, an amendment that said it will stay within the common customs territory, would that be acceptable? What is the basis upon which the matter is going to be progressed now?

How can the Taoiseach describe the agreement as a good one? Does he not agree that this is worse than the agreement with Theresa May, which was bad enough? This is an agreement which paves the way and points towards a bargain-basement, race-to-the-bottom Brexit after the end of the transition period that is evidenced by the changes, for example, in the political declaration between the May agreement and this agreement, as well as the removal of the reference to alignment with EU regulations.

Second, on the North, does the Taoiseach not see that the arrangements are extremely dangerous in respect of the sectarian tensions they are likely to increase? In the first instance, there will be a real substantial hardening of the border east-west, which means border and customs infrastructure etc. in the ports of Belfast and Larne, which can become the focal point of protest. Furthermore, the Taoiseach states that there is no hardening of the North-South Border, which is not true. It ensures no hardening of the Border between North and South for a period of four years, after which one could have a vote at Stormont and could have a very hard border appear very quickly between North and South. Finally, and most importantly, the mechanism of consent sets up a recurring time bomb of a sectarian conflict around this vote, every four or eight years, depending on whether it is a simple majority, or it has the majority of both designated nationalists and unionists, according to how he has set this vote up. Does the Taoiseach not see how destabilising and increasing in tensions that process is?

Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to flesh out the references to the level playing field in particular, in the second part of the agreement? People, including the Taoiseach and particularly all of the officials, have worked very hard to get to the point we have got to now. The level playing field is not part of the agreement which will be incorporated into the treaty, as it includes areas like workers' rights and wages. There is a real fear is that it will, in fact, result in wage, living and employment standards in the UK being reduced to a bargain-basement-type arrangement. This is of particular concern for Northern Ireland and Scotland.

I am open to correction but I do not believe there is any reference to the devolved parliaments and assemblies. It is a pity we do not have a Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive currently. Has the Taoiseach, in his conversations with Mr. Johnson, ever discussed what will happen with labour standards and environmental standards, for example, in the context of the North remaining in the customs union? What will happen countries such as Scotland and Wales, which engage in a vast amount of trade with Ireland and which have, in certain respects and in particular in relation to agriculture, many comparisons with Ireland?

By definition, the Tory Brexit was always a ruse for social dumping. That not should come as a surprise to anybody, including those who, like me, listened for five years in the European Parliament to various shades of Tories and UKIP personalities giving out about straight bananas and not ever dealing with the real, deep structural problems within the European Parliament. Surprise, surprise, they want social dumping.

It is good that there is an agreement. I commend An Taoiseach and all those involved in our system, and Mr. Michel Barnier, on arriving at an agreement. It is good that we have an agreement but it is not a good agreement. But then there was never a good agreement available, particularly in respect of Ireland.

There is no ticking sectarian timebomb over Brexit. Opinion right across the North is very settled, in business, agriculture and quintessentially unionist pillars of Northern society. They want in to the European customs union and Single Market. Nobody but nobody wanted a hardening of the Border. All of that is good. I would not have favoured the rolling consent mechanism personally. It needs to be de-dramatised away from the kind of language used by Deputy Paul Murphy. The major concern is that when we talk about consent, we do not mix our metaphors or get confused. Brexit is not a devolved matter. There is no requirement for cross-community consent. The type of consent envisaged and needed is a simple majority. I am very confident that will be forthcoming now, in four years and until the time Ireland is reunified.

On speaking to Prime Minister Johnson, he was very pleased that he got Second Stage of the withdrawal agreement Bill through the House of Commons last night by a very clear majority of over 30 votes. That was the first time in quite some time that anyone managed to get the House of Commons to vote for any clear plan on Brexit. It was a huge achievement by Prime Minister Johnson to get it through the House of Commons last night. He was very concerned, however, that he had not won the vote on the programme motion. That did not pass and that means the objective of leaving the EU by 31 October is now very much in jeopardy. As Deputies know, a decision was made yesterday to suspend the Bill. We will have to await developments in London over the coming days.

To clarify a point I made earlier, there is no extension agreed. The EU has not agreed to an extension for the UK as of yet. President Tusk is currently consulting the 27 Heads of State and Government. We spoke this morning. He is recommending that we accept an extension until 31 January 2020 that could be terminated early if the House of Commons and House of Lords ratify an agreement, but that is not yet agreed unanimously by the 27 member states.

Does the Taoiseach agree to that?

I agree to that but it has not yet been agreed by the 27 member states. We may have to have an emergency European Council meeting over the course of the next few days to discuss it if consensus cannot be reached. If there is consensus, it can be done by written procedure. If there is no consensus, it will be necessary to meet. My bags are always packed for Brussels, and packed they are again.

I was asked a hypothetical but very relevant question by Deputy Howlin on what would happen if the withdrawal agreement Bill was amended to allow the UK to enter a customs union with the EU. It is very much an hypothetical question. If it were to happen, it would not be done just by an Act of the British Parliament; the UK would have to try to negotiate a customs union with the EU. It would not, in itself, change the withdrawal agreement concluded last week.

The EU position towards the UK for decades has always been very reasonable, friendly and facilitative. When the UK asked to join the EU, the EU said "Yes". When the UK voted to stay in the EU, the EU said "Yes". When the UK decided it wanted to opt out of the social chapter, the EU said "Yes". When the UK decided it did not want to be part of the single currency, the EU said "Yes". When the UK said it did not want to be part of the Schengen arrangement, we said "Yes". When the UK said it did not want to be part of some elements of the fourth pillar, we said "Yes". When the UK said it wanted to leave, we said we were really sorry but said "Yes". Therefore, despite what might come across in the British press sometimes, the entire history of the relationship between the EU and the UK has involved the EU saying "Yes" and asking whether we could help it, facilitate it and make exceptions for it. That has been the approach. It has been a really friendly approach from the EU towards the UK. We have never tried to force it into anything or to make it stay in the EU. History says that.

The reason I described the agreement we made last week as a good agreement was because it met our objectives: no hard border between the North and South, and I share Deputy McDonald's assessment of the profound unlikelihood of the people of Northern Ireland ever voting for an Assembly that wanted a hard Border; North-South co-operation continuing under the Good Friday agreement; the all-island economy continuing to develop; let us not forget the common travel area between Britain and Ireland, which has now been underpinned and strengthened and is really important for many reasons; citizens' rights have been protected in terms of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU; the financial settlement, which is important; and the guarantee of funding under PEACE II for Northern Ireland and the Border communities. Obviously, a UK decision to remain within the EU would have been better, or a decision by the UK to stay within the Single Market, but these were not on offer. Sometimes, the perfect and the very good are the enemy of the good. This is good; it is not perfect.

On the question of the level playing field, it is absolutely a discussion for the next phase, on the future relationship, when we get to it. It is important to state there is already a lot of flexibility within the EU on issues such as labour standards. In the UK, people get much more holiday leave than in most of the rest of the EU. There are more bank holidays in the UK than in most of the EU. Pay levels in the UK are much higher than in Bulgaria or Romania, for example. Actually, in recent decades, the UK has had higher standards and more rights than are required by the EU as the minimum. Will the UK depart from this? I hope not. I do not believe the British people will ultimately vote to have their holidays cut and their pay reduced. That may be the agenda of some but I do not honestly believe it is what the British people want.