Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Ceisteanna (42)

Lisa Chambers


42. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on whether there is sufficient time to negotiate an agreement on a future trading relationship by the end of 2020 if the withdrawal agreement agreed in October 2019 is ratified in the European Parliament and the UK House of Commons; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46439/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (10 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Foreign)

My question relates to the withdrawal agreement that has been negotiated and agreed by the UK Government with the European Union. If it is to be ratified in the European Parliament and then in the House of Commons, does the Tánaiste believe there is sufficient time after that to negotiate a future trading relationship by the end of 2020, which is when the transition period expires?

The first thing on which we need to concentrate is to try to get a withdrawal agreement concluded.

I refer to after that fact.

I take that point. After a general election in the UK, if the Parliament ratifies the latest withdrawal agreement that has been agreed between the British Government and the EU then, in all likelihood, the UK will leave the European Union at the end of January. As part of that withdrawal agreement the political declaration sets a course for what the future relationship might look like, but the timescale for the negotiation of that says the transition period would end at the end of 2020 unless both sides agree on the back of the UK applying for an extension to that period by either one or two years. That request would have to be made by 1 July next year, which essentially only leaves five months in advance of that request. The British Prime Minister has said he will not seek an extension of time.

Personally, I think it will be very difficult to negotiate a future relationship in all of its complexity before the end of 2020, but it is possible. That is a matter for the two negotiating teams. For some time now the EU side has been preparing for that negotiation. Michel Barnier will effectively lead a task force on the future relationship negotiation, even though individual Commissioners and the Commission will also be involved in the negotiations across various sectors.

The answer to Deputy Lisa Chambers's question is that I think the timeline will be very tight. The end of 2020 was originally envisaged as a timeline that would have been a lot longer, before the extensions were granted in an effort to get a withdrawal agreement ratified and agreed. We are going to have to respond to these issues as they develop and, as ever, Brexit will not be easy and the European Union will have to make difficult choices, depending on the approach of the UK side. The future relationship negotiations will be difficult because the target is tariff-free, barrier-free and quota-free trade.

If that is to be the case, then level playing field issues will have to be negotiated across multiple sectors, which will take time.

The transition period was initially due to be 21 months. It appears to have been an oversight that, during the renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, it was not dealt with. I agree with the Minister that we hope and expect that the UK Government will apply for an extension of the transition period by 1 July 2020. Boris Johnson has pledged that if he is re-elected, which is looking quite possible, that he will not seek an extension to the transition period beyond 2020. In a recently posted video, he stated:

We can get a fantastic new free trade agreement with the EU by the end of 2020 and we will not extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020.

I disagree. I do not think it is possible to get a trade agreement concluded within five months or 12 months. In fact, even 21 months was ambitious. The Minister mentioned level playing field provisions with regard to where both sides are starting from. The new agreement that has been negotiated allows the UK to further diverge. It will not be in the customs union by the end of 2020. It wants to strike new trade deals. That means that the very close arrangement that we want is looking quite unlikely. Given that both sides are starting from wildly different and separate positions, I think we have a mammoth task ahead, with many years of negotiation. The Government appears to be relying on this extension just happening at the end of 2020. I do not think we can rely on that.

The Deputy has made a number of statements as if they are absolute facts. The truth is that there are still many unknowns with regard to how the future relationship negotiations will go. I share the Deputy's concern that the timelines are tight. Given the recent history of negotiating trade deals with other parts of the world, it generally takes years, not months, to negotiate trade deals. Even the ratification process often takes longer than a year. It is very ambitious for a British Prime Minister to expect that all of this can be done in ten or 11 months. Once we get into a transition process, the challenges and the timelines to resolve them will become clear. We will have some time in the build-up to the summer of 2020 before there is a need to decide whether an extra one or two years are required. Regardless of what is being said now, I think the current focus should be on trying to get a withdrawal agreement across the line, which has not yet been done. Once that creates a legal framework related to a transition period, we can move through that process and deal with the issues as they arise.

It is a fact that an extension must be applied for by 1 July. The UK Government says it does not want to do that. Most people tend to agree that it will take a considerable amount of time to negotiate this agreement. I am speaking about those because they are reasonable points to make. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, appeared before the business and enterprise committee and spoke about the transition period being extended by two years as if that was a fait accompli and was guaranteed. I challenged her on this and she amended what she had told the committee. My point is that the Government is relying on this just happening because the alternative is so bad. We have to have learned at this point that the worst could happen. Professor Imelda Maher from the UCD school of law was before the Joint Committee on Health. She is professor of European law. Addressing the end of the transition period and negotiating a free trade agreement in that time, her written submission stated "The unravelling and redefining of 45 years of union membership is going to take more time than that and unless further extensions are sought, there will be a fall back to WTO rules which will greatly impede trade between UK and the EU (but for Northern Ireland)." Has the Government conducted an economic impact assessment of what the country is facing at the end of 2020 if there is a hard exit by Great Britain?

I do not disagree with the Deputy about the concern about attempting to get a future relationship on a whole range of things, not just a trade deal, including fishing, data, aviation-----

Policing, security.

-----defence and security co-operation. I accept that it is very ambitious to expect that that can be done in 11 months. We should not, however, be making statements that we will be relying on two more years being applied for. First, we have to get into a transition period. We are already preparing, as a Government, for the negotiations that will take place to make sure that the Irish perspective is fully understood within the EU approach during that transition period to a future relationship. The focus over the next six weeks should be on a withdrawal agreement, getting it ratified and, if it is ratified by the end of January, then ensuring that we are well prepared for a withdrawal agreement. As with everything related to Brexit, the job of Government is to be ready for multiple potential outcomes. Depending on the result of the British general election, those outcomes could still be very different. To make decisions for the end of 2020 is probably premature.