Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Questions (36)

Seán Haughey

Question:

36. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views as to the required next steps in the Brexit negotiations; the way in which he plans to ensure the unique interests of Ireland are kept to the fore going forward; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53622/19]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

I ask the Tánaiste his view on what he believes will be the next steps in the Brexit negotiations and how the Government plans to ensure that Ireland's unique interests are kept to the fore going forward. I think the House would also welcome an update on the Brexit situation at this crucial time.

Following the UK general election, we welcome the British Government's intention to ratify the withdrawal agreement as soon as possible. This is a key step to enable an orderly withdrawal and to move on to the future EU-UK relationship discussions. The European Council discussed the future relationship on 13 December, and adopted conclusions on preparations for negotiations. The Deputy can be assured that we have been preparing for those negotiations for quite some time.

Once the UK has left the EU, the European Commission will present a draft negotiating mandate on the future relationship for the Council to consider. The Commission has established a task force for relations with the UK, led by Mr. Michel Barnier, to co-ordinate work on Brexit. Having Mr. Barnier leading these efforts is something that Ireland is very strongly supportive of. Meetings of the European Council, the General Affairs Council and the Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union, COREPER, assisted by a dedicated working party, will ensure that the negotiations are conducted in line with European Council guidelines.

Ireland wants to see the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK while also ensuring level playing field provisions to facilitate fair competition. We will be engaged in all stages of the negotiations to ensure that Ireland's priorities and interests are appropriately reflected in the EU’s position.

The negotiations will be challenging, as is the timeline. The transition period, which lasts until the end of 2020 may be extended once, by mutual agreement, for up to two years. A decision on extension is needed by 1 July 2020, and I note that the UK may not wish to extend. In any event, I would stress that the EU will work hard to secure a successful outcome to the negotiations whatever the timeframe. Our focus will be on content. I do not believe the EU will be rushed by any new legislation in Westminster, one way or the other. The EU will focus on content and getting the right deal as opposed to timelines.

Substantial work will also be required during the transition period to finalise a range of issues arising relating to the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the implementation of the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland. Preparedness work for all possible Brexit outcomes will continue to be important in the phase ahead.

Protecting Ireland's interests will require a continued whole-of-government effort underpinned by the same cohesive approach that has characterised our Brexit strategy from the start. We will continue to build on our strong relations with the task force, Commission and member states and engage with Oireachtas Members and stakeholders across the island. I hope that regardless of what happens next year in terms of a general election here, we will maintain a cohesive approach in this House to get the best possible deal from an Irish perspective through the next round of negotiation.

The UK elections have provided clarity on Brexit and we can assume that the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, will secure the passage of the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons by 31 January. While this is, of course, preferable to a no-deal Brexit, the deal reached in October represents a hard Brexit and will negatively impact on the Irish economy. Following the ratification of the withdrawal agreement, the UK will enter a transition period which is due to expire at the end of 2020. That leaves a few short months to negotiate a future trading relationship which, I think we can all agree, is a challenging timeframe.

Furthermore, arrangements in Northern Ireland also have to be worked out, in detail and in practice. The revised Irish protocol ensures that there will be no hard border on the island. Northern Ireland will be de facto in the EU Single Market for goods and agrifood and complying with the EU's customs code. This is a complex and complicated situation. It will require new infrastructure and systems and it will involve increased volumes of paperwork, checks and increased cost for businesses. It is envisaged that a specialised sub-committee that forms part of the overall joint committee created to manage the new relationship between Britain and Europe will put the protocol on Ireland into effect. Will the Tánaiste give us any detail at this stage on the specialised sub-committee - who will be on it, how it will work and when will it be up and running?

First, I will challenge a couple of points the Deputy made. What is being delivered is not a hard Brexit. We do not know yet whether it will be a hard or soft Brexit. That will be determined by the future relationship discussions. What we have delivered to date is a withdrawal agreement that protects core Irish interests in key areas - the peace process and preventing physical border infrastructure. Whatever happens in the future relationship now, we have that deal done, and if there is a future threat of no agreement on a future trade deal and because of an absence of an agreement, World Trade Organization rules applying to trade, we will still have the Northern Ireland issues resolved.

I am confident that a sensible trade deal can be done that allows for tariff-free and quota-free trade between the EU and the UK, but for that to happen the UK must give reassurance to the EU that there is a fair and level playing field for that trade in terms of equivalence of standards across so many areas, including workers' rights, environmental rights, consumer protections and animal welfare.

That is what the free trade agreement negotiations over the next year or so will be about.

I am confident that we can get a good deal. Whether it will be possible to get it done in 11 months is a different question. I do not think we should be distracted by the UK legislating domestically and tying its hands with its own legislation. The EU will approach the negotiations in the way that it would be expected to, which is to focus on content and getting this right. This will determine the relationship between the UK and the EU for decades to come. It will not be rushed. At the same time, however, everybody wants to move on and get this done in a timely manner to end the uncertainty that continues to revolve around Brexit.

The Irish protocol relating to the withdrawal agreement is most welcome. What kind of trade agreement are the Tánaiste and the EU hoping to achieve? There have been references in the media refer to the bare bones of a trade deal that could be agreed by the end of next year. Are we hoping for something more comprehensive than a bare-bones trade agreement, with some general issues also covered? The question of the UK legislating so that an extension will not be sought in the summer is probably more related to internal politics within the Conservative Party. I accept what the Tánaiste has to say in that regard, namely, that we must proceed without that threat hanging over the EU. What kind of trade agreement he hoping to achieve for Ireland, as a member state of the EU? I presume the specialised sub-committee will be up and running in the coming weeks.

The legislation that is passed in the UK is a matter for the British Government and Prime Minister. He now has a strong majority and can legislate for what he sees appropriate. Since he has a strong majority, he can also amend that legislation in the future if he wants to. UK and British legislation is a matter for Britain. The EU will not be bound by British law and will negotiate on the basis of content and trying to get the best possible deal for the EU, while also respecting the British mandate in those negotiations. There has been a lot of talk about legislating in a way that prevents the British Government from seeking a further extension beyond next year. That is a political decision for the British Prime Minister. Whether legislation is in place is largely incidental in my view because his decision can be facilitated by changing such legislation in the future if he wants to do so because he has a majority.

That is a British political debate. Our issue relates to how the EU approaches this. The approach will be based on trying to get the closest possible trading relationship between the UK and the EU. The latter is in the interests of both parties, and certainly of Ireland. We have a €70 billion trading relationship between the UK and Ireland which we of course want to protect.

I will conclude on this point. People should not forget that the next negotiation is not just about a trading relationship, it will also involve bilateral negotiations on fishing, data, aviation, security and a range of other matters. All of this needs to be done in a very tight timeframe if there is not to be an extension. People should not view this challenge purely through the prism of a free trade agreement.

I ask all Members to extend a bit of Christmas spirit to the Chair and the staff. As I said earlier, I granted leeway because these questions are so important but when I am in the Chair, I always strive to have as many questions answered as possible. I really feel annoyed when we come up to 12 noon and people have been sitting here who do not get their questions answered. Everybody sees the clocks on the walls flashing, which indicates to Members that they have about ten seconds left. I am not going to close anybody down if they are ten seconds over. Please try to co-operate so that we can get through as many questions as possible.