Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Ceisteanna (7)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Prime Minister May since the publication by the European Commission of the draft text of the withdrawal deal on 28 February 2018. [11263/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I last spoke to Prime Minister May on Monday, 26 February, as I reported to the House on 28 February. We discussed Brexit and I restated our preference that a solution on the Border be found within the overall future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. I pointed to the necessity on the EU side to have the detail of the backstop option spelled out in the draft legal text of the withdrawal agreement.

I listened with interest to the Prime Minister's speech on Friday, 2 March - the Mansion House speech - in which she gave a number of important reassurances, including stating her overall goal of having a very close relationship with the European Union after the United Kingdom left. I particularly welcome her clear commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland peace process, the need to avoid a hard border and also the agreement reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union in their December joint report, over which she stands. Her speech included a number of signals about the type of future economic relationship there might be between the European Union and the United Kingdom, but it also recognised that the United Kingdom would have to face hard choices, given the constraints between some of its stated aims and objectives and the red lines it had set out, including departing from the Single Market and the customs union and rejecting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

For our part, a close economic relationship and free trade are very much in the interests of Irish business, Irish citizens and public services, as is having a smooth transition period. I am concerned, however, that some of the constraints in leaving the customs union and the Single Market are not fully recognised on the UK side. Therefore, we will now need to see more detailed and realistic proposals from the UK Government.

I welcome the real progress that has been made between the EU and UK negotiating teams on the withdrawal agreement. The Government, as part of the EU 27, has pushed hard for sensible and practical approaches to citizens' rights, the financial settlement, the transition period and issues specific to Ireland. There has been progress on the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. On Monday last the United Kingdom conceded that a backstop solution on the Border issue would form part of the legal text of the withdrawal agreement. It has also agreed that all of the issues identified in the European Union text will be addressed to deliver a legally sound solution to avoid a hard border. Prime Minister May confirmed these agreements in her letter to President Tusk last Monday, in addition to reiterating the United Kingdom's commitment to agreements reached last December on protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including the overarching guarantee to avoid a hard border.

Meanwhile, the Government has continued to work closely with Michel Barnier, whom the Tánaiste met as recently as Monday, the Commission task force and our EU partners as we prepare for the European Council later this week. I expect to see Prime Minister May at the meeting on Thursday. I also expect further guidelines to be agreed to by the Council to enable detailed discussions to begin on the European Union's future relationship with the United Kingdom. Progress on the recently published withdrawal agreement, including the Irish issues, will be important in the next phase of discussions.

I hope the Taoiseach will not continue the extraordinary and petulant line taken by the Tánaiste yesterday when he basically accused anyone who was questioning the Government of undermining the country. It has to be said there are very legitimate questions people have a right and duty to raise in discussing this issue. The Government's obsession with spin means that people are increasingly unwilling to take its claims at face value, which is an unfortunate consequence. The very direct issue is how the unagreed backstop text will be turned into a final text. Most non-Irish commentators have said Monday represented the kicking of the can down the road for a few months. The comfort of the Tory Brexit fanatics with what has been agreed to on Ireland suggests no significant progress has been made. Will the Taoiseach explain to the House the exact process between Friday and a final backstop text? Will he confirm that there will be no agreement to proceed to final status discussions until the final withdrawal treaty is completely finished, other than for the most minor of technical discussions? There is a real danger that the issue will be isolated down the road. Therefore, it needs to be brought to a head sooner rather than later.

On the east-west axis, people tend to forget that the east-west relationship is critical economically to the island, North and South. It is absolutely critical, not just in terms of the agrifood sector but also to industry, SMEs, the midlands and the west. There are times when the discussion takes place on Brexit and that dimension is not brought to the fore to the degree it should be. It is critical that we get the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom right.

I was going to raise the issue - it is probably better coming from me - of the tetchy response from the Tánaiste yesterday to a very legitimate question put by the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Brexit. Those of us who are seriously grappling with every legal document, trying to be supportive of the Irish position and working as Team Ireland on this issue deserve better than that. The questions are legitimate. From what emerged from the discussions on Monday a view can be put on it that the European Union gave in to the United Kingdom on its position on the backstop, whereby the legal text drafted by the European Union interpreting its understanding of the December agreement was rejected by the United Kingdom. What we now have is an acceptance of the issue in principle by the United Kingdom but a legal text to be negotiated sine die. If one reads all of the background stuff - there are interesting articles in The Guardian today - there is real concern that in the context of the focus on the wider trade agreements, the Irish issue which the Irish Government included successfully in the phase one discussions will be more marginalised in the general discussion. When push comes to shove, there is a view among some commentators in Britain that the trade demands of the French and Germans and so on will at the end of the day ensure Ireland is pushed off its position. It is a very legitimate question to ensure we will keep our focus on what is important to us. I understand also the dialogue that there are some in Europe - the Taoiseach is very close to his colleagues in the European Council - who believe Theresa May's Government is hanging by a thread and that if they are pushed too hard, it will collapse. Therefore, it was important to cut her some slack last Tuesday. Perhaps that is the case and I will return to the issue in my pre-European Council statement later.

The east-west dimension which accounts for the bulk of our trade is as important as the North-South dimension. Both are critically important to the journey on which the country has been, economically and politically, in the past 30 years. We have to ensure we will not compromise it in whatever emerges. The Government has done a reasonable job, but it is also legitimate for us to continue to ensure our concerns will be the focus of the negotiating position of the EU 27.

We are all concerned to ensure the European Union will hold the line in there being no hard border on the island and there being full protection for the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts. The indications are that our European partners understand this. Nonetheless, nothing is finished until it is finished and nothing will be achieved, in a legal sense, until it is written in a legal text and agreed to. There is a challenge in that regard. A worry I have is that periodically one hears from the British system some very far-fetched and outlandish technical solutions to have a frictionless border. Has the Taoiseach seen them off in the Government's dealing with Michel Barnier and the discussions he has had with Mrs. May? It reminded me a little of a motion passed at the last Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis which raised eyebrows. It was toll-free, M50-style crazy stuff-----

That is not the position of the party.

-----which Deputy Micheál Martin disavowed, but it was on the clár and voted on. I do not want to be distracted by that piece of strangeness. The Border is 300 miles long and porous.

Sinn Féin will have to reconvene its Ard-Fheis.

The Europeans are very clear that they want to protect the Single Market which it seems trumps all else. Therefore, the stakes are very high for us. The British have not come forward with what they view as the backstop. I seek reassurance from the Taoiseach. I do not blame him for the inefficiency and the messing of the British system. It would be unfair to do so, but we have a legitimate expectation that he will keep the pressure on and hold the line. Have these technological wonderland musings been seen off? Have they been disabused of these notions?

It is always legitimate for the Opposition to ask questions about the Government's work on Brexit. It is the job of the Opposition to ask such questions and I have no difficulty with it. I do not expect to receive blind support from it, either on the North or Brexit. I ask for support and those with influence at a European level, whether in their transnational party groups or other contexts, to use it. Parties have done this. I acknowledge that the party leaders represented in the House have done it in their contacts with MEPs and the respective parliamentary groups, of which they are members. I am grateful for this on behalf of the Government and the people generally.

On the Irish protocol which essentially is the backstop, there will now be a process of talks which will involve the United Kingdom on the one side and Ireland and the task force on the other. The meetings have been scheduled and will occur in Brussels, which we think is the most appropriate place for them to occur. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and there will be no withdrawal agreement finalised until everything in it is finalised, including the Irish protocol, unless a better solution can be found in the interim. I have seen some commentary suggesting option A and option B, as I call them, have disappeared. They have not. It is still a possibility. It is still open to the British to come forward with option B and option A and if they do, we will examine them. It makes sense to talk about the final status and trade now. We should not agree by any means, but we should talk about the final status and trade precisely for the reasons mentioned by the Deputies.

The east-west dimension and the trade that occurs between Britain and Ireland are important to the economy, the agrifood sector, SMEs, jobs and many different things. We want to conclude a free trade agreement or better with the United Kingdom because it is in the interests of the economy, the people and jobs to do so. It is also possible that in coming to such an agreement we may be able to resolve or largely resolve the issues related to the Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. One of the things the British have put forward in some of their papers is a customs union partnership.

I do not know what the difference is between a customs union partnership and a customs union, but if a customs union partnership is something very close to a customs union, that would solve many of the problems that may arise between Northern Ireland and Ireland and we could have a bespoke arrangement to deal with the aspects that could not be solved. That is one of the ways it might go but it is impossible to predict at this stage.

The transition period will run until 31 December 2020. No changes will occur therefore until the first day of 2021. The UK has agreed, although this was not its position some time ago, that the acquis will apply during that transition period. The rules of the customs union and the Single Market will apply even though it will have no influence on or say in them. That is welcome because it gives public services, people and businesses the best part of two years to plan for any permanent changes that may take place. I acknowledge that it is very difficult to plan for permanent changes when we do not know what they are. That is why it is important that we conclude matters sooner rather than later.

In answer to the final question, we have not seen any technical solutions from the UK Government that we consider workable. We have made that clear. We will of course consider any technical solutions put forward, but I refer to a report carried out by a committee of the Houses of Parliament which studied this again in detail. It has come to the conclusion that such technology does not yet exist and that is a solid conclusion.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.