Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Ceisteanna (29, 33, 37, 48)

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

29. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on his recent meeting with Mr. Michel Barnier. [19857/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

33. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Michel Barnier. [19110/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

37. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has spoken with Mr. Michel Barnier recently. [17678/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

48. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on his recent engagements with the Barnier task force on Article 50 negotiations with the United Kingdom. [18781/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (28 contributions) (Ceist ar Foreign)

My general question which was transferred from the Department of the Taoiseach relates to the exact same topic. What will happen if there is no withdrawal agreement? Where will our backstop be in such circumstances? As I listened to what was said in Dundalk and as I watched what happened at Westminster subsequently, it struck me that the prospect of there being no withdrawal agreement was, unfortunately, increasing. If we get over the difficulties on the Border issue, agreement will need to be reached on the role of the European Court of Justice in governance matters. Even after that, approximately 700 areas involving regulations will have to coalesce and the European Union will have to maintain unanimity. There is a real risk that the British political system may not be able to do this. What will happen in these circumstances? Where will our backstop be then?

We have made it very clear that there will be no withdrawal agreement without a backstop on the Border issue. I think that is accepted by the British Government. If there is no withdrawal agreement, there will be no formal agreement on transition and no agreement in a range of other areas. Much of the text of the draft withdrawal agreement that the European Union has provided is agreed to but some of it is not. Some of it has been partially agreed to. Anybody who takes the time to read the draft agreement, the base document for negotiation, will realise this is about a very practical divorce arrangement. When Britain leaves the European Union, it will leave many agreements, organisations, licensing systems and so on.

We are dealing with Question No. 29.

The clock is ticking.

I think what I am saying is relevant because the context in which I am speaking is the conversations that have taken place with Michael Barnier, but it is the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's call.

The Tánaiste will not have another opportunity to provide an initial reply.

We are going through a very delicate and serious period of negotiation. I do not say lightly that there will be no withdrawal treaty without a backstop. That is the position of the EU side because that is what the United Kingdom has signed up to. If we are not going to follow through on what we have committed to in the negotiations, we have to ask where are we going. Ireland needs a withdrawal treaty, as does Britain. Ireland and Britain, more than any other member state of the European Union, need a withdrawal treaty. I believe we will get one, but I do not think it can happen unless the British Government follows through on the commitments it has made.

The Tánaiste did not clarify that a number of questions were being taken together.

My apologies. Questions Nos. 29, 33, 37 and 48 are being taken together.

I call Deputy Eamon Ryan to ask his first supplementary question.

I absolutely agree that we need a transition deal. My reading of the political environment-----

Just to clarify, the first time the Deputy spoke on this group of questions was when he was given 30 seconds in which to introduce them. He now has the right to make a further one-minute contribution.

I agree that we need a transition arrangement, but my fear is that the UK political system might prevent us from getting it. The UK Foreign Secretary, Mr. Boris Johnson, has said the customs partnership solution makes no sense. Many remainers and soft Brexiteers on the other side of the Tory Party are saying that to get a customs union agreement without also getting a Single Market agreement would be the worst of all worlds. They believe the United Kingdom would be better off in having a Single Market agreement. There is real confusion in the UK Labour Party because it does not seem to know what exactly it wants. It seems to be opting for a completely suboptimal solution. In circumstances in which the European Union does not have to move, the United Kingdom has to give on everything. My fear and my political assessment are that there is a real risk that the United Kingdom will not be able to square the circle and get a transitional arrangement. It will not easily get an extension of Article 50 because, as Michel Barnier said in Dundalk, that would lead to problems with European elections and budget contributions, etc. There is an increasing risk that there will not be a withdrawal deal. In these circumstances, the backstop arrangement for the Border will surely be imposed by the European Union which will insist on WTO rules applying, for example, at the border between counties Monaghan and Fermanagh.

It is important to draw a distinction between the withdrawal agreement and the future relationship agreement. Many of the issues being raised by the Deputy will not be dealt with in the withdrawal agreement. I refer to future relationship issues concerning trade, security, aviation, fishing and agriculture, etc. Consideration will have to be given to the potential for UK associate membership of EU bodies that are responsible for regulation, licensing and approval systems, etc., in order to ensure it will be able to trade into the European Union. All of these things are going to be difficult to negotiate for the United Kingdom and take time. Ireland will be a big ally of the United Kingdom in many of these discussions. We want to have the closest possible future trading relationships between Britain and Ireland and between the European Union and Britain. Separately, the withdrawal agreement is essentially about four things: citizens' rights, financial settlement issues, transitional arrangements and the question of Ireland and Northern Ireland. As part of the latter issue, consideration will have to be given to the common travel area, the protection of all parts of the Good Friday Agreement and the need to deal with Border issues through a backstop. They are the withdrawal agreement issues. The debate often conflates the future relationship and backstop issues. Some of the Irish issues are also trade issues because they cannot be avoided when Border issues are being discussed. The backstop is about maintaining full alignment with the rules of the Single Market and the customs union to prevent a border in areas of North-South co-operation where the all-island economy needs to function.

Go raibh maith agat.

Am I not answering for a whole load of Members?

Wait one minute. The Minister took his question off the cuff. He did not respond to Question No. 29 at all. That is his prerogative. We are now back to one minute questions and answers.

Okay. I am in your hands.

Before I call Deputy Joan Burton, I will allow Deputy Eamon Ryan to ask his second supplementary question.

I will be very brief. I understand the complexity involved. I agree that there is a difference between the withdrawal deal and the subsequent transition arrangement. We hope a transition arrangement will be put in place after the withdrawal agreement is finalised and implemented. I have to come back to my key question which the Minister has not answered. What will happen if we do not get a withdrawal agreement? Surely what will happen in such circumstances - the actual backstop - is what the European Union applies. Has the Tánaiste discussed this with Michel Barnier? Are preparations being made for this if it should happen? Please God, it will not. Looking at it from the outside, unfortunately, it seems to be a real possibility that the UK political system will be unable to organise this to get internal agreement on what the withdrawal agreement should be or to sign off on such an agreement. What will we do in such circumstances? What arrangements will apply along the Border in such circumstances? How will we manage such an eventuality? Are we planning for it? It is now a real risk.

For the record, I am answering Question No. 29 which is about my meeting with Michel Barnier. I am dealing with all of these issues. The Chair has twice said I am not answering the question.

The Tánaiste has answered the question. We have moved to supplementary questions. One minute is provided in which to ask each supplementary question. The Tánaiste did not take full advantage at the start.

That is fine. The issue to which Deputy Eamon Ryan is referring requires contingency planning. That is what has been happening. We have been doing a huge amount within the Government and across Departments. We will publish some papers on it in the coming weeks, but we will not publish everything. I do not think it would be wise to do so in the context of the negotiations taking place.

I believe the EU Commission is also putting contingency plans in place. However, everybody is focusing publicly on the negotiations because everybody wants to try to achieve a deal, which certainly makes sense for the UK, Ireland and the rest of the EU. While Michel Barnier is more than aware of that, he is also aware that there is a possibility of failure. If the political system in Britain cannot deliver an outcome which is consistent with the commitments that have already been made, then of course the UK, Ireland and the rest of the EU have to put contingency planning in place for what that will look like. I suppose in the absence of any agreement at all, World Trade Organization rules would initially apply. We are certainly intent on not allowing that to become a reality. I do not believe that the British Government will allow it to become a reality either. That is all the more reason to focus on making progress and on creating some optimism in this negotiation by the end of June.

Mine is essentially the same question. I have a number of specific things I want to ask the Minister. He mentioned that having commissioned papers, some of the papers on Brexit have been published but others have not. It would be helpful to the House if he could indicate those areas where he has chosen not to publish.

In respect of people on both sides of the Border, including those in business, what is the Minister's take on the UK Brexiteer proposal on max fac? What exactly would that mean? Does the Minister have any idea of what it envisages? Essentially, it is a technological solution of an advanced kind to replace a traditional border. The very significant Brexiteers in the British Cabinet and Tory Party seem to be now quite hung into that. What is the Minister's take on it? Is it likely to happen?

In the same vein, what is the story in respect of the other arrangements for the Border, in particular the favoured trader status? Lots of firms go back and forward, not to mention agricultural products and livestock.

On what we publish and do not publish, I am happy to meet the Brexit spokespeople from each party or the party leaders to give them a very detailed briefing on all the work we have been doing in terms of contingency. For some of the work we have been doing, I do not think it is helpful to put it into the public domain. I certainly do not want to create an expectation that this is what is going to happen. Sometimes we can create self-fulfilling prophesies and that is not the way we approach these negotiations. We are negotiating to get a good outcome for Ireland. We already have clear commitments from the UK and the EU in respect of outcomes in a whole series of areas. In terms of the maximum facilitation option, or max fac, as it is called, I do not see it as a runner, unless I am missing something, which I do not think I am because we had looked at this issue. The idea that we can actually have a border that does not impact on movement of goods, services or people on the island of Ireland and does not impact negatively on North-South co-operation and an all-island economy, by having technology monitoring how goods move around on the island of Ireland, when we have at least 208 major road crossings between Ireland and Northern Ireland and many more by-roads - I just do not see how that works. It is also not consistent with the commitment that has been made that there will be no border infrastructure on the island of Ireland and no related checks and controls. That is not me being stubborn, that is just stating the commitment in black and white that has already been given. That is why I have said we would like to see more exploration around this concept of the shared customs territory or a customs partnership as a basis for negotiation.

Is the shared customs partnership primarily in respect of the island of Ireland? I know the area of the Border around Dundalk very well because of family relationships there. I do not get the sense from the Government that it fully understands what it would be like to go back to how it was before the Good Friday Agreement. In the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in fairness, the Good Friday Agreement is one of its major achievements. How does the Minister propose to protect the gains achieved by the Good Friday Agreement? Derry and Donegal are to all intents and purposes really one area except that they straddle two sides of the Border. What is going to happen in terms of Donegal and Derry itself in terms of its viability as an important city in the north west? I just do not get that the Minister understands quite how nervous, worried and upset people are. Through the British-Irish Parliamentary Association, I have met many people from farming and business over the last couple of years. I just do not get the sense of that from the Minister's contribution today.

With respect, I do not think the Deputy has been talking to me enough. I have been crystal clear in respect of the Border. Every time I speak in the media or privately in terms of briefings and stakeholders' groups, we have made it crystal clear that we cannot support any solution that is going to reintroduce physical border infrastructure onto this island. I regularly visit Northern Ireland. Two weeks ago I was in Derry. Between Derry and Donegal, in a stretch of just over 20 miles, there are 320,000 Border crossings every week - people going to college or work, going to the doctor, visiting family friends and so on. I get it. I have spoken to many people who live on the Border and have visited the Border with foreign Ministers from other EU countries to explain it to them too. Believe me, we get it. That is why we took the position we took in December, which created all the stress and strain around a very difficult week when we got an absolute commitment and a guarantee from the British Government in respect of no Border infrastructure. Now our job is to translate that into a legally operable text in a withdrawal treaty, which is what we are trying to do at the moment. It is not easy but we will do it in the end, in my view.