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Statement by Labour leader Brendan Howlin TD, ahead of European Council, Brussels, 14-15 December 2017

13 December 2017

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

Dáil Éireann, December 13th, 2017

13th December 2017


As you will recall this will be the third time I requested a briefing from your officials in advance of the EU Council

I hope in future that we will be able to receive more comprehensive briefings on the agenda for the meeting.

I appreciate that recent weeks have been very busy, but the challenges and future of Europe are core concerns for us in the year ahead.

And it is important before we have contributions like this that we have a deeper understanding of the Irish position on agenda items.

While Brexit will dominate the Article 50 Council on the 15th, the meeting on Thursday will discuss a number of important issues.

The Estonian Prime Minister is to provide an overview on the implementation of earlier Council conclusions. You might furnish us with those details after the Council.

The first official item on the agenda on Thursday is Defence, welcoming the launch of Permanent Structured Co-operation

Since the Dáil rushed through ratification last week, after little public debate or engagement, Ireland will now take part in PESCO.

Alongside the original 23 announced in November, Ireland and Portugal have also now signed up.

Both Malta and Denmark have chosen not to.

While the UK will be exiting the EU.

The Danes have had a defence opt out since 1992.

Separately, Malta has decided to take a wait and see approach, as it believed certain operations may be in breach of the neutrality clause of their constitution.

It is a shame the Irish Government did not take the same approach.

There are 17 joint projects that will fall under the scope of the PESCO agreement so the Government should tell us which ones they intend to sign up for.

It is interesting that the key point for discussion under defence is a review of progress in other fields notably EU-NATO cooperation.

Ireland isn’t a member of NATO but the direction of future policy is clear.

On Monday Jean Claude Juncker tweeted that: ‘the Sleeping Beauty of the Lisbon Treaty is happening.

He welcomed the operational steps taken today by Member States to lay the foundations of a European Defence Union.

Europe has a very different idea about what PESCO is for, and will achieve, compared to what Ireland has said.

While the Government may protest that PESCO has nothing to do with a European Army it is clearly the intent of many others.

The French President has said he wants an EU army. And now PESCO will provide a stepping stone to that.


The second agenda item relates to Social, Education and Culture.

I am not clear what the conclusions referred to are, following on from the Gothenburg Social Summit.

Maybe the Minister for State could outline that later on.

There has been a focus on the Erasmus Programme as it celebrates 30 years in existence.

There is a proposal from the Leaders Agenda to ‘envisage’ an Erasmus for young artists.

That would be very welcome and a tangible benefit for Eu citizens.

The Party of European Socialists through it’s Act For Youth campaign has called for a widening of the accessibility and increases to the funding of Erasmus+,

That would allow secondary school students, technical and professional apprentices to also benefit. I hope the Government will take these proposals onboard in future discussions.

We have also campaigned for a European cultural cheque for all young people similar to those in Italy and Malta,

Young people would be encouraged to take part in cultural activities and access cultural performances and heritage.

Such a ‘cheque’ would allow for free access for all young people in the EU to cultural events and venues.

Many museums are free here, but others are not, and a grant of this kind would open up new horizons for citizens to access facilities across Europe.

Developing deeper cultural understanding and exchange is central to fostering closer ties among the 27 member states.


The Agenda also says that in light of events the Council may address specific foreign policy issues.

You might report back to us on what will be discussed, but I hope the Irish Government will raise the decision of the United States to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there, and what the Leaders will jointly say on it?

Under the Leader’s Agenda there will also be a debate on the external and internal dimensions of migration policy. Tusk has said that mandatory refugee quotas are “ineffective” and “highly divisive”.

You might inform us as to what the Irish position and contribution will be?


Turning to Brexit,

A number of significant developments have opened up the prospect of a soft Brexit.

I have repeated many times my view that only the UK staying in the single market and customs union can deliver the type of border and future trade arrangements that Ireland needs.

The Joint Report published on Friday marks the start of a process, not an end, and the devil will be very much in the details of discussions ahead.

The commitment in the agreed text that the British Government will maintain full alignment with internal market rules on the island of Ireland in the absence of a satisfactory UK-EU agreement is a strong backstop.

Full alignment on this island and between our two islands implies a particular kind of Brexit outcome that may not satisfy hard Brexiteers in the UK.

And as we saw in the Brexit referendum, the level of debate, and plain untruths told about leaving the EU now continue to infect efforts to negotiate an exit agreement.

The internal politics of the British Conservative Party could derail the prospects of a ‘soft’ Brexit.

And that is what we saw at the weekend.

It was deeply disappointing but not surprising to hear comments from a number of cabinet members that the agreement arrived at with the EU and Ireland was ‘meaningless’ and ‘not binding’ or had limited effect to a number of areas. 

I am well aware that complex negotiations such as these are often subject to multiple interpretations - that is often the nature of such agreements, particularly when they are simply staging posts on the way to a comprehensive agreement. 

I am not so naive as to expect British ministers to publicly endorse the Taoiseach’s interpretation of the guarantees in relation to Ireland as ‘bulletproof’.

But words must mean something in international agreements.

Efforts by senior UK Cabinet Ministers to resile from what has been agreed show the need for stronger reassurance from the UK, and also from the EU.

The joint report on Friday clearly says in paragraph five that 'the joint commitments set out below in this joint report shall be reflected in the Withdrawal Agreement in full detail', while in paragraph 50 it committed that 'In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment'

Clarification is also needed on the implications of the phrase 'all-island economy' as used in paragraph 49 of the Joint Report, and the reference by Prime Minister May on Tuesday to 'economic cooperation across the island' and how it would be interpreted.

Ireland should now seek stronger reassurances from the UK Government, and I think at a minimum that Westminster should collectively affirm the agreement reached last Friday between the UK and EU.

UK politicians and officials need to realise that their melodrama is being played out very publicly and the obvious interpretation from an Irish and EU perspective is that the UK is negotiating in bad faith.

A weak and divided British Government remains charged with squaring a very difficult circle in the months ahead.

Importantly, Phase 2 will include an Irish strand that will delve again into the detail needed to make the Joint Report commitments tangible.

There is now in reality less than 10 months left to finalise those details.

And this week’s remarks have already had consequences in Europe.

Donald Tusk circulated draft guidelines for the second phase of Brexit negotiations on Friday.

According to reports, EU countries have sought changes to the guidelines in reaction the comments of David Davies.

Talks will likely only start in March and will be focused on the transition period rather than a future trade deal.

It says the UK will have to comply with EU trade policy and not strike its own deals during the transition, despite losing access to trade agreements with 50 countries once it leaves in March 2019.

And it will have to follow all rules and regulations, with no voice in deciding their content.  

Once the British realise the impact of these conditions it will make progress even harder.

So in the months ahead, we must all remain focused on the ultimate endpoint of this process and premature declarations of victory or defeat are not alone meaningless but counterproductive - on all sides.


Finally, I want to highlight the recent remarks by some leaders on the future of a federal Europe.

Ireland has rightly been distracted by the impact of Brexit and the need to secure commitments on the border.

However we cannot ignore the emerging debate sparked by both Macron, and the recent comments by the German SPD leader Martin Schulz.

I don’t agree with his view on a federal Europe that would exclude member states who don’t progress to a United Europe.

But there is a debate needed on how we can bring citizens with us on the future type of Europe we want – not in a top down approach, but through proposals and reforms that will deliver better wages and better public services from the ground up.

We need to focus on making good for European citizens on the lost decade of the financial crisis.

In the year ahead Ireland now needs to discuss what type of Europe we will want, one that will no longer have the UK in it, that will be more driven by the French-German axis, but also strongly influenced by the emerging Eastern block of countries.


We as a country need to discuss again where we want the EU to go.