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European Council: Statements (Continued)

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 963 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar]   The Friday morning euro summit which met in its extended format took place in the presence of outgoing President of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem and the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, whom I welcomed to Dublin late last year. Both noted that the economic situation across Europe was much improved, how the single currency was in better shape and, in contrast to previous years, that there was greater convergence among eurozone economies. However, both called for this period of relative calm to be used to make European Monetary Union more resilient. I supported this call in my remarks, pointing out that the European Council did not predict the last financial crisis and that there could be no room for complacency about the future. We agreed that the banking union should be completed, although the timing and sequencing, particularly of risk reduction, was still being worked out. I expressed strong support for completing the capital markets union.

  There was some discussion about institutional change, including the possibility of establishing a European monetary fund to replace the troika and a possible Finance Minister for the eurozone. Ireland has an open mind on these proposals and would welcome more detail before making a decision. It was also agreed that Finance Ministers should advance their work on these issues, with the European Council retaining oversight. President Tusk has announced that he will convene another eurozone summit in March, at which we will consider these matters further.

The European Council met in Article 50 format, without Prime Minister May, and formally took the decision that sufficient progress had been made in phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations to allow us to move on to phase 2. As the House is aware, Ireland was able to rely on the strong support and solidarity of our partners in ensuring what was agreed represented an acceptable outcome on issues related to Ireland and Northern Ireland. I expressed our thanks to my colleagues around the table and they, in turn, assured me that we could continue to rely on their support as the negotiations continued.

  As we move into phase 2, when transitional arrangements and the framework for the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union will be considered, it will be important to remain vigilant to ensure the commitments entered into in December are delivered in full. There can be no back-sliding. I am pleased that we agreed to negotiate a transition period and prioritise discussion of it in the first part of phase 2. Such an arrangement is essential if we are to provide certainty for businesses and citizens and enable them to plan for permanent changes that may occur as a result of Brexit.

  In addition, internal preparatory discussions among the EU 27 on further guidelines at the European Council in March on the framework for the future relationship will begin. In parallel, the European Council called on the EU and UK negotiators to complete their work on withdrawal issues and start drafting the relevant parts of the legally binding withdrawal agreement. Later this month the General Affairs Council which will be attended by the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, will adopt additional negotiating directives on transitional arrangements and discussions with the United Kingdom on agreeing these transitional arrangements will then begin. This could be a status quo agreement, with the aim of avoiding gaps or cliff edge effects between the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the entry into force of the future relationship agreement.

  In parallel to the negotiations and related work in Brussels, the Government’s detailed planning to prepare for the United Kingdom’s exit, including contingency planning for all possible scenarios, will continue at home. We have already taken some important steps to prepare the domestic economy, including the Action Plan for Jobs and the trade and investment strategy. Several dedicated measures were announced in budget 2018, including a loan scheme for business and additional supports for capital investment in the food industry. The House can be assured that, as we have done up to now in the negotiations, the Government will continue to advance and defend Ireland’s interests and seek to mitigate the negative effects of Brexit for the country and exploit opportunities. I look forward to hearing Deputies’ views.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Is léir nach raibh cruinniú na Comhairle Eorpaí i mí Dheireadh Fómhair chomh práinneach agus a cheapamar roimhe sin, cé go raibh ceist Brexit beagnach réitithe roimh an gcruinniú. Is maith an rud é sin ach bhí go leor rudaí tábhachtacha le plé ag na rialtais éagsúla ag an gcruinniú chomh maith.

December's Council meeting was, at one point, likely to be a dramatic event with tough decisions coming down to the wire. In the end, it was low key and simply confirmed decisions which had already been announced. In advance of the summit we discussed the outcome of the first round of Brexit negotiations. Now that some of the smoke and hubris which surrounded the agreement have passed, there is much greater clarity on where we find ourselves. A transition deal followed by a comprehensive free trade agreement is the only negotiated outcome which is compatible with the core positions of both sides.

For the European Union, the bottom line is that the United Kingdom will not be given preferential treatment which will undermine the basic legal foundations of the Union. For the United Kingdom, it is about not being subject to the European Union's judicial mechanisms and being able to conduct an independent free trade policy. It is ridiculous that it took the United Kingdom 18 months to recognise the reality that it no longer had the ability to intimidate the European Union by threatening a barrage of tabloid headlines and a possible veto.

Michel Barnier and his team have done an excellent job so far in their overall approach to the negotiations and we should have confidence in them to conclude a common-sense deal in the next ten months. The situation as it affects Ireland is far less clear. As we have said before, Fianna Fáil strongly welcomes the reassertion of the continued EU citizenship of Northern Ireland residents post-Brexit. This is a matter which we raised first and which was, for us, an absolute red line. However, we are very concerned about the basic contradiction within the agreement about the introduction of new economic divisions on the island. The final text repeats the assertions of the UK Government from very early in the process about its intentions to avoid new barriers. This is contradicted by its new statement that all parts of the United Kingdom will be treated exactly the same. All of the commentary we have heard from the government in London and much of what appears to be the focus of the Irish Government concerns the absence of physical barriers on the Border. The Taoiseach, reflecting what is, unfortunately, his very partisan way of presenting history, has emphasised the issue of physical barriers. The fact is that what is being discussed is a differently managed border, not the absence of a border, and it appears that the Government has gone all-in on a strategy of emphasising the overall UK-EU agreement rather than a special arrangement for this island. This is exactly the opposite of the self-aggrandising claim to be the first leader in 95 years to care about the North. As we have said many times before, some special economic zone is likely to be the only means of mitigating the full impact of Brexit on this island.

The final negotiations revealed a breakdown in relations between the Government and the May Administration, with a display of negotiation through the media not seen for over 30 years. Building close relationships and setting out detailed proposals are much more difficult than focusing on the public dimension, but if anything concrete is to be achieved this year, we need greater urgency and a greater focus than we have seen to date. As President Tusk said in December, what was agreed was the easy part of the process. It is time to put in place an approach which will be capable of delivering a substantive result for Ireland in the negotiations this year.

The bulk of the summit was concerned with other matters. We strongly support the Council's opposition to the unjustified and damaging decision of the Trump Administration to take steps to move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognise Jerusalem as the capital. I note that the Taoiseach did not refer to what he had stated at the meeting, but I presume the Minister of State will elaborate on that issue. There is no positive dimension to this decision for anyone who supports a fair peace based on a two-state solution. The continued drift of the Netanyahu Government towards a position of undermining any potential Palestinian state has been escalated by this decision. Ireland should continue to stand with its European partners in supporting a fair peace and opposing moves which entrench and promote long-term conflict.

The summit also formally addressed the PESCO defence agreement. As has been shown time and again, EU defence co-operation has respected the positions of members that are not in NATO. PESCO is about developing capacities. In our case, it will help us to continue to develop defence forces which have unique skills in peacekeeping and civil protection. Therefore, we welcome it. However, let no one be in any doubt that the principal issue in hand for us is whether we treat members of the Defence Forces decently with fair pay and fair conditions. In the seven years since the Department of Defence had its own separate full member of the Cabinet there have been drift and neglect. Dealing with this issue should be a priority.

In regard to the Commission’s action on Poland and the rule of law, there is a vital principle at stake.

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