Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk. [15015/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

2. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he has had recent discussions with President Macron of France; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11990/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk; the persons who attended the meeting; and the issues that were discussed. [13887/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk on 19 March 2019. [13955/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk. [13970/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he and Mr. Donald Tusk discussed various scenarios on Brexit and the withdrawal treaty; and if they discussed the length of the extension to Article 50. [14281/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Mr. Donald Tusk since 27 March 2019. [15113/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Paris and his meeting with the French President, Mr. Emmanuel Macron on 2 April 2019. [15750/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with President Tusk or Mr. Michel Barnier since 1 April 2019. [16355/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meeting he attended with President Macron; the persons who attended on both sides; the issues that were discussed; the responses that were made; and the actions that will be taken. [16361/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

11. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings or conversations with the President of France, Mr. Emmanuel Macron. [16387/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with President Macron. [16403/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 12, inclusive, together.

I met Donald Tusk in Dublin on 19 March. The focus of our discussions was on Brexit, ahead of the European Council which took place in Brussels later that week, on 21 and 22 March. We exchanged views on political developments in the United Kingdom. We agreed that the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and protect the Good Friday Agreement was to ratify the withdrawal agreement. We were clear that this is not open for renegotiation and that there can be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop. We also agreed that if the UK were to change its red lines about the future relationship, then the European Union would be willing to amend the political declaration. I expressed my appreciation to President Tusk for the strong leadership that he has shown throughout the Brexit negotiations and his support and understanding for Ireland.

In addition to Brexit, President Tusk and I discussed other items on the agenda of the March European Council, including jobs, growth and competitiveness, seeking to boost the European economy, which is showing some signs of slowing down; preparations for the EU-China summit; climate change; and efforts to combat disinformation, particularly in the run-in to the European elections. President Tusk and I were accompanied by advisers and officials from our respective teams but we also met tête-à-tête in private.

I met President Macron in Paris on 2 April at his invitation. Our discussions focused on Brexit in advance of the special meeting of the European Council, which is being held tomorrow. We were both accompanied by advisers and officials from our respective teams but again, there was a tête-à-tête. We exchanged views on recent developments in London and our shared priorities in advance of the special meeting of the European Council, which has been scheduled for 10 April. President Macron and I discussed contingency planning at both EU and domestic level in the event of a no-deal exit. We also exchanged views on bilateral relations between Ireland and France, which are excellent, and welcomed progress on the proposed Celtic interconnector for energy, and how we can develop links between our ports. I appreciate the strong ongoing support of President Macron and my other EU counterparts with regard to Brexit.

I met Michel Barnier in Dublin yesterday in advance of the special European Council tomorrow. We exchanged views on political developments in the United Kingdom and I expressed my sincere appreciation for the work of Monsieur Barnier and his team in having negotiated the withdrawal agreement with the United Kingdom. I reiterated my view that this is the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal. I will continue to engage closely with EU member states and institutions with a view to protecting Ireland's interests and ensuring positive outcomes on Brexit and other issues.

Tomorrow marks the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It was and is an agreement that, despite the challenges that remain as a result of the partition of our country, we can collectively hold up as an illustration that tolerance and inclusivity are the way forward for our island. Over the past two decades, our island has changed beyond recognition and for the better. Regrettably, Brexit fundamentally alters the relationship between Ireland and Britain and threatens the progress that we have made over the past 21 years. Yesterday, in London, I met with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. I pressed him on the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided. He fully understands and supports these imperatives. I put it to him that these objectives must be met whether or not there is agreement and whether or not there is an extension of any duration.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response in setting out some of the matters that he discussed with Messrs. Tusk, Macron and Michel Barnier. What is the Taoiseach's understanding of Monsieur Macron's view of any extension that might be afforded, as requested by Mrs. May? What, if any, measures do any of the parties, Michel Barnier or Donald Tusk, envisage to ensure the objectives of protection of the Good Friday Agreement, the avoidance of a hard border on our island and protections of citizens' rights, in the event of a crash or disorderly Brexit?

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I acknowledge the receipt of the Taoiseach's letter last Friday evening with details on Brexit preparedness, which I had sought, along with others in the House, for quite some time. That includes details of levels of business preparedness for a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. The letter came after that date and contained information that was put in the public domain after 29 March. It is fair to say that Mr. Donald Tusk has been very supportive and that support is welcome. He has also called for patience. Notwithstanding the fact that some European Union leaders are becoming impatient or are losing patience with the British political system, I think that an extension is clearly in Ireland's interest. A no-deal exit would significantly damage the United Kingdom, Ireland and other EU countries. It is in Ireland's interest to have as long an extension as possible. There are clearly ramifications for the United Kingdom and the European Union elections. We are in an unprecedented situation with a country leaving and then the onset of European elections, and whether that country participates in the Parliament for a period. We have legislated to deal with that. Did the Taoiseach have any discussions with Donald Tusk on Britain's continued participation in the Union after the European elections and the likely participation by the UK in those elections?

In terms of the Good Friday Agreement we must agree and I am somewhat concerned that there was a sense and attitude from the Government side and from all parties involved in the North that we should postpone any attempt to reinstate the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in the North until after Brexit was dealt with. That seems questionable because the only way to sustain the Good Friday Agreement is to live and work the institutions. Their absence has been a contributory damaging factor to what has been a very difficult process on Brexit. It seems to me there is no accountability in the North. There is no voice for the anti-Brexit majority in the North and it is time, even in the context of Brexit, to push the parties very strongly for an immediate restoration of the Executive and the assembly so that dialogue can develop and people can be accountable to some parliament and executive in the North.

What views did President Macron express in the Taoiseach's discussions with him on the request for an extension of the time limit before the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty? It is reported today that President Macron would support an extension not later than 31 December of this year. I am confused about why an arbitrary date would be picked. I am interested in the Taoiseach's views on this key issue. I understood the real concerns were about an extension that went beyond the date of the European Parliament elections because there are consequences to that. Now that Secretary Lidington has signed the orders to prepare for British participation in those elections, I do not understand why there would be any arbitrary date put beyond that rather than allow as much time as necessary. There are concerns that Britain might be disruptive in the process after that, but it if is in the ring, if its members are there, they are participating in the election of the Commission President, the President of the Parliament and so on. It is involved. Would it not seem more logical to allow sufficient time, whatever time, for Britain to reconsider the position? The tumult happening in Britain is evident to everybody. Rather than the view that seems to be emerging there of, "We know what is going to happen is profoundly wrong, it will be damaging for all but let us do it", would it not be better to give as much space and time for calmer thought processes to prevail and to allow those decisions to be made in a rational way with a real prospect of Britain remaining a member of the European Union? I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's views on what exactly President Macron said about ports and shipping connections between Ireland and Britain, as the Taoiseach instanced.

It is clear since Theresa May abandoned her futile attempt to engage with headbangers like Boris Johnson, the European Research Group, ERG, Rees-Mogg and the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, that there is now a little bit of hope that reason might prevail and we might avoid the crash-out because she is talking to a man much maligned in this House, Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist and left-winger, and Corbyn does not want a race to the bottom Brexit. He is saying he is willing to consider backing the deal as long as workers' rights and environmental and health standards are not undermined. It is the headbanger politics on the right of the Tory party that have left us in this mess. What is the European Union's attitude and the attitude of the Taoiseach towards the possibility of a general election in Britain? If that becomes a prospect, that would be a very good thing for us and Europe. Ireland should be very tolerant of creating the space for a general election that might change the political landscape in the direction of the left and of Mr. Corbyn in Britain because we would be looking at a far better opportunity for a deal that was not a crazy crash-out.

I note from the Taoiseach's comments about meetings over recent days that there were more detailed discussions about arrangements for the Border issue and so on in the event of a crash-out, which we hope does not happen. Will the Taoiseach elaborate on these because there is an anxiety, notwithstanding positive statements from European leaders, that in the event of a crash-out, Europe might push for Border infrastructure to protect the Single Market?

The solidarity shown to Ireland by President Macron, Chancellor Merkel and the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in recent days has been quite remarkable and very welcome. The UK is scheduled to crash out of the European Union, this Friday, 12 April. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has suggested an extension to 30 June. Donald Tusk has suggested a one-year extension. What is the Taoiseach's thinking on this? There will be pre-Council meeting statements later today. In some member state parliaments the parliament plays a much bigger role in mandating the Head of State on these meetings. Will the Taoiseach be forthcoming either now, or in the statements later, on the Irish position on an extension? Does he agree that a long extension is far preferable to a crash-out Brexit? I would welcome the Taoiseach's views. Views are being sought throughout the EU. I am sure the draft of the communiqué is being put in place. What is the Irish view of an extension? Are we looking for a short-term or a long-term extension?

The second batch of questions deals with the meetings with Chancellor Merkel. Given that there are so many questions, can we maybe take five minutes from the second group of questions, to get an answer to them because the Deputies have consumed all the time asking questions? Is five minutes all right, Taoiseach?

Deputy McDonald asked me about President Macron's disposition towards an extension. I am always reluctant in this House to act as a spokesperson for a Head of Government or, as in this case, Head of State, of another country. I do not want to misquote or misrepresent him in any way but I think it is fair to say he is certainly open to it. I have no reason to believe, despite some suggestions in some newspapers, that France would even consider vetoing it. He certainly wants to know about conditionality, particularly the issue of the United Kingdom being involved in future decision-making. If it is leaving, should it be involved in shaping the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, in the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, or in electing the next President of the Commission? It is also fair to say that, as is the case in many European countries, people are increasingly concerned that Brexit is taking up so much of the EU agenda that it is causing other important work not to be done, and many countries are frustrated about that.

I am confident that an extension will be agreed tomorrow at the European Council but there will be different views and there will be a discussion on the length of it and the conditionality connected to it. The United Kingdom has only asked for an extension until 30 June. If we were to offer a longer extension, what would that offer be? Would it be that the UK must accept this longer extension or it must leave on Friday? We will have to think this one through. It is requesting an extension. It does not want a crash-out on Friday. If we are to offer a longer extension, it will have to be an offer that it is willing to accept because we do not want to cause a crash-out on Friday by only offering a long extension which it would then be forced to refuse. I will need a bit of flexibility from the House and Government in getting that right. In my discussion with Prime Minister May last night, she was very firm in saying that no matter how long the extension, the UK should be allowed to leave once it has ratified the withdrawal agreement and passed the necessary legislation.

Even if it was nine months, 12 months or 15 months, they would not have to stay in that long if they ratified the agreement and ratified the legislation it needs to do it could then leave earlier and that is a reasonable request from Prime Minister May.

The Irish Government obviously prefers an extension to no deal and we have no objection to a long extension, but we need to bear in mind that if the extension is very long, certain dates in the withdrawal agreement start to be passed. The withdrawal agreement has specific dates in it such as a date to agree on fisheries so once a certain point has been passed, the withdrawal agreement has to be amended and I would not like to see the withdrawal agreement opened up because one amendment can lead to another and that is something that we have to bear in mind when it comes to any extension.

On the participation of the United Kingdom in the European elections, it will be required to take part in the European elections if they have not left the European Union by 22 May. As I understand it, the European treaties say that it is the right of European citizens resident in the European Union to be represented in the European Parliament so we would have to amend the treaties in order to stop the elections happening in the UK and that is not feasible. If they are in the European Union beyond 22 May, it certainly seems that they will have to take part in those elections although there are others who express the view that were they to leave before 30 June they still would not have to participate because the European Parliament does not sit until 2 July. Either way, if they are staying they will have to participate in the European elections because EU citizens will still be EU citizens and therefore they have a right to have seats in the European Parliament. There is a concern, however, about the European Parliament not being constituted legally. If the United Kingdom were to stay a member of the European Union but not hold European elections, then there is a risk that the new European Parliament would not be legitimate and therefore would not be able to legislate and would not be able to agree to a new President of the European Commission and that would be a big problem for everyone, so that is a real concern.

I very much agree that the Good Friday Agreement institutions should be re-established. That is principally up to Sinn Féin and the DUP but the Government stands ready to assist in any way that it can as a co-guarantor of the agreement.

The ports are an issue I raised in the meeting with President Macron. I raised the possibility that we would need to enhance sea links between Ireland and France if there were delays in using the UK land bridge or if there were delays at Dover of course. For some products it might make more sense to go directly from Ireland to France and that would logically be new or enhanced sea links between Cork and Rosslare and Cherbourg, Le Havre and some other ports but we did not get into much detail on that. It will all really depend on demand. I am told that there is already excess capacity on the existing lines.