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Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 23 October 2019

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings with EU leaders and others when he attended the UN meeting in New York; and if the backstop was discussed. [39633/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the EU leaders he met or with whom he spoke at the UN meeting and since Brexit. [39948/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to EU leaders since 18 September 2019 about Brexit or other issues. [39632/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

4. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to President Macron recently. [41943/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken directly to the German Chancellor recently. [41957/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Swedish Prime Minister. [41981/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Danish Prime Minister. [41982/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (5 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

I attended the recent General Assembly of the United Nations in New York between 23 and 25 September, where I had the opportunity to meet many of my EU colleagues, including President Tusk, with whom I took stock of the then state of play on Brexit. While in New York I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Johnson, at which we exchanged views on possible means to break the impasse on Brexit. I have spoken to the Prime Minister on several occasions since. As the House is aware, I met him in Liverpool on 10 October. We spoke most recently by phone yesterday evening.

While in New York I also took the opportunity to speak to many European colleagues, including Council President Charles Michel and the Prime Ministers of Spain, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Malta, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Sweden and the Netherlands and the Presidents of France, Cyprus and Bulgaria. In these conversations I took the opportunity to brief leaders on Ireland's views on the most up-to-date position on Brexit at the time, including the backstop and other relevant matters.

I travelled to Stockholm and Copenhagen on 3 and 4 October where I had bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Lofven and Prime Minister Frederiksen, respectively. In both capitals we discussed Brexit, climate change, the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and bilateral relations. Both Sweden and Denmark reiterated their full support for Ireland in the ongoing Brexit discussions.

I also spoke by phone to both President Tusk and President Juncker about Brexit on 3 October. Of course, I met each of the EU Heads of State and Government and the institution's Presidents again last week when I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. On that occasion we endorsed the revised withdrawal agreement negotiated between the Barnier task force and the UK Government. We also discussed what we would do in the event of a request for an extension from the United Kingdom. We agree that were that to happen, President Tusk would co-ordinate consultation on the response. I spoke to President Tusk by phone this morning. I will be reporting separately to the House and answering other parliamentary questions on the issue shortly

I thank the Taoiseach. As we have a debate coming up later, we will await that report. Has an impact assessment of the new deal been prepared in the week or so since it was published? There are substantially different arrangements within that deal. Is an assessment under way and, if so, when will it be published? When will the Government have a chance to actually measure it? In the context of the conversations with Presidents Tusk and Junker, it is fitting to wish them well as they move on from the stage. I could not help but note the frustration in President Junker's voice yesterday about the amount of time he had had to spend since 2016 on Brexit-related issues, time he could have been spent on other issues, but that is how it arose during his term. Will the Taoiseach give us a brief sense of his conversation with President Tusk this morning? Did he lay out any timetable for when he will come to a decision on the extension?

The three groups of questions overlap in the sense that we are discussing matters the Taoiseach discussed with a variety of EU Ministers. I am going to use the first group to ask about a matter that was debated at the socialist group meeting I attended last week at which I had the pleasure to meet Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, and Zoran Zaev, the Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia. There was an impassioned plea made by the high level representative, Federica Mogherini, about not closing the door on the applications of these countries and allowing them to progress. It is quite clear that their accession to the European Union is not imminent. It is a long way away, but we really need to give people hope and confidence that they are on a journey. It is really important and a very passionate debate took place on the impact it would have on the Balkans. It would be unfortunate if people felt the European Union was closing the door on them, particularly after the enormous strides they have taken. Macedonia has changed its name. Albania has allowed judges to be vetted by independent panels and Frontex to operate. We really need to ensure this is reciprocated by a hand of friendship. I know that there was a very strong rejection by the President of France. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's view on how this is going to progress.

EU leaders have endorsed the UN 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Goal No. 8 commits to promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. In addition to the economic uncertainties attached to Brexit, there are wider global challenges at play which impact on member states' economies. For instance, the German economy has contracted for the third quarter this year. Its central bank has warned that early indicators provide few signs of a sustainable recovery of exports and stabilisation of industry. Here at home we have discussed the significant job losses in Cork and Shannon. Political leaders' previous responses to economic contraction and recession were to pause, undermine or roll back fundamental rights and entitlements of workers. We saw this most recently in the Taoiseach's decision to withhold a much needed increase in the national minimum wage in the recent budget. The European Trade Union Confederation, ETUC, has called for a new social contract between governments, business and workers and is engaging with political leaders across the EU institutions. The ETUC's Time For 8 campaign recognises the challenges facing European and global economies by advocating for inclusive and sustainable economic growth, as well as employment and decent work for all. The right to collective bargaining which still eludes workers here is also woven into the campaign, as well as the economic and social need for the introduction of a living wage. What, if any, engagement has the Taoiseach had with the ETUC or his counterparts on the aims and objectives of the Time For 8 campaign?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. We have not made a new impact assessment of the withdrawal agreement agreed to last week, but there have been quite a number of impact assessments made of different hypothetical scenarios. It may be possible to look at the data and apply them to the revised withdrawal agreement. We will do so. What is fair to say is that if the withdrawal agreement is ratified, there will be no significant impact on the economy, at least until the end of the transition phase and implementation period because it is a stand still period during which the United Kingdom as a whole will effectively remain in the customs union and the Single Market. It will run until the end of 2020, but I think most people are of the view that concluding a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom and having it ratified by nearly 30 parliaments, including some regional parliaments, would be quite a challenge such that we may see the transition or implementation phase extended, as it can be under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, to the end of 2022. It is very unlikely to have any impact of significance on the economy before then. Afterwards, what will matter is the nature of the future trading and economic relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. That has to be determined.

If we get through this phase of Brexit, that is, withdrawal, the next phase will be negotiating the economic partnership, the security partnership and the free trade deal with the United Kingdom. In the joint political declaration the United Kingdom states it wants to have tariff-free, quota-free access to the European Union. We want to have tariff-free, quota-free access for our farmers and business people and agri-food sector to the United Kingdom. The European Union responds that if that is to be the case, we must have agreed minimum standards and a level playing field when it comes to environmental protection, health and safety, workers' rights and all of those things. That has still to be determined. Brexit will go on for a very long time. When we get through the withdrawal phase, the next phase will be the future relationship, which will be just as important to Ireland in many ways. We will have resolved the issues in avoiding a hard border, but we will not have resolved the issues related to east-west trade. That will be the next phase of negotiations, assuming we get through this phase in the next couple of weeks or even months.

Regarding a decision on an extension, the United Kingdom has formally applied for an extension until the end of January, although the Prime Minister has indicated that he is keen to leave the European Union by the end of October. Essentially, President Tusk is ringing the various Heads of Government to ask for their views.

If there is consensus, we can do this by written procedure without having to have another meeting of the European Council. If there is not a consensus, then we will have to convene another meeting of the European Council, possibly next Monday, maybe even on Friday, to discuss whether to grant an extension to the UK, for how long and under what conditions. The Irish Government has always said that we want to avoid the risk of no deal happening either by consequence or accident and that is the approach that will be taken to this.

Deputies will recall that the extension that was granted to Prime Minister May was what was called a flexible extension. Even though the extension was granted to October, it was possible for the UK to leave at any time before that, provided that its Parliament was able to ratify a deal. That was not done during that period. I hope that Parliament will now proceed with reasonable speed in concluding this withdrawal agreement.

On the issue of enlargement raised by Deputy Howlin, we had a very long discussion at the European Council over dinner on whether to open talks with Albania and North Macedonia on their joining the European Union. Sadly, there was not consensus, which is how we operate. A few countries took the view that they did not want - or thought it was too soon - to open talks with North Macedonia and Albania. We agreed to revisit the issue before May of next year. From Ireland's point of view, I expressed our support for opening accession talks with both Albania and North Macedonia. I believe both countries, as Deputy Howlin said, have made a lot of progress in recent years and have brought about some very significant reforms. They were given a legitimate expectation that if they did certain things, talks would begin. North Macedonia, in particular, was given a legitimate expectation that if it changed its name and settled its dispute with Greece, talks would then open. While NATO has honoured that commitment, the European Union has not. I think that is a shame and a mistake. It will potentially cause reforms to slow down. It may cause young people who are very much in favour of joining the European Union in Albania and Macedonia to lose hope. It may cause some political forces in those countries to look elsewhere, perhaps to Turkey or Iran. That is a major concern. The European Council was wrong, in my view, not to open those negotiations. It is not ruled out, and we will come back to it again before May.

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