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Gov must insist on a deadline for UK to resolve backstop at EU Council

27 June 2018

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

Taoiseach, this will mark your fifth EU Council meeting.

It will also mark two years since the UK voted to leave the European Union.

 

Unfortunately, we can report that little progress has been made on addressing Ireland’s core outstanding concern.

 

The bullet proof backstop that was agreed last December has not been translated into an agreed legal text.

 

While talks on the future relationship between the UK and the EU were opened after the last Council meeting without any such fall back in place.

 

Ireland is continually reassured of the solidarity of our fellow member states and the EU leadership

However we stand at a cross roads.

 

On the 30th April addressing the civil dialogue in Dundalk you said “Over the coming weeks, I hope and expect that we will see further progress in the negotiations on developing a close overall relationship between the EU and the UK, as well as on the necessary completion of the legal text on the backstop.”

 

Sadly two months on that has not happened.

 

A month ago you said that the Irish government position was that progress had to be made by the June meeting.

The Tánaiste also said there must be significant progress by the June meeting.

 

Sadly there has been no additional substance agreed.

So now the already delayed process will become incredibly compressed.

There is simply no time for further delay.

 

The political challenge is therefore to come up with creative solutions that are also robust.

 

I believe it is essential now that the Government insist on a deadline for the UK to produce a backstop agreement on the border

 

It should be well in advance of the European Council meeting in October,

 

So that Ireland is not pushed into a last-minute compromise that could fundamentally damage our interests.

 

The ball is now firmly in the Taoiseach's court, and he must now use the commitments and expressed solidarity from our colleagues in Europe to ensure a deadline is agreed well in advance of the October EU Council.

 

Taoiseach, you also warned at the weekend that a no deal Brexit is more likely

 

The ongoing failure of the UK government to arrive at a settled position and address the inconsistencies of their publicly stated red lines continues to drag out the process.

 

A fortnight ago, I spent the day in London meeting with UK Labour colleagues, Open Britain and the trade union movement.

 

I firmly believe the possibility is growing that the UK could crash out of the EU before a comprehensive deal is struck

 

Not because of the position adopted by the EU at Ireland's behest, but because the internal dysfunction and rivalries in the Conservative Party make the British Government incapable of making a deal, and sticking to it.

 

Prime Minister May won an important victory in the commons on the exit bill but her Cabinet remains at war.

 

While it continues to negotiate with itself, the consequences of a hard Brexit for jobs in Ireland, particularly in the agri-food sector, would be catastrophic. 

 

The economic relationship between Ireland and Britain has shifted from a historical dependence to one of mutual inter-dependence.

 

Nearly 14 billion pounds of goods are exported from Ireland to the UK, including an important percentage of the UK’s food.

 

In turn, we import almost 16 billion pounds of UK goods into Ireland.

 

The Customs Union is what makes this trade possible: No quotas; No tariffs; And standardised regulations that mean consignments don’t have to be checked at the border.

 

Ireland also exports 16 billion pounds of services to the UK, including from many multinationals based in Ireland. And Ireland buys 10 billion pounds of services from the UK.

 

The European Single Market facilitates this through standards for services in different sectors, the free movement of money and workers, and the legal certainty for business provided by the EU’s Court of Justice.

 

Our trade represents over one billion pounds in goods and services every week and supports tens of thousands of jobs.

 

The uncertainty surrounding the final outcome of Brexit has led to financial companies and major industries delaying investment or moving part of their activity out of the UK.

 

We’ve also heard major employers like Airbus in the UK starting to speak out with their concerns.

 

It is very hard to see how we can avoid having border infrastructure on the Irish border, as well as border checks at British and Irish ports, if the UK is outside of the Customs Union and Single Market.

 

Or at least, if the UK does not find a way to remaining close to these institutions.

 

The real problem of course is that free trade depends on sharing the same set of regulations and standards on both sides of a trade agreement.

 

All of the UK Government’s proposals to maintain the open border have been rejected by the EU, including Ireland.

Not out of spite.

But because they won’t work to achieve frictionless trade.

 

We want free trade North-South on the island of Ireland, and free trade East-West across the Irish Sea.

 

But we can’t have that free trade if the UK doesn’t maintain the same standards as the EU.

 

If the UK rolls back on regulation of the financial sector this would undermine the level playing field for Irish financial services, which would again risk large numbers of jobs.

 

And if the UK dilutes workers’ rights or environmental standards, this again will lead to new barriers being put in place to ensure that a race to the bottom is not allowed to undermine Irish or European competitiveness when trading with the UK.

 

And many of these regulations are the cornerstone of the project of Social Europe that the Party of European Socialists have been working on for decades.

 

After this summit, where little or no progress will be made,

Theresa May will hold a cabinet meeting in Chequers to finalise a white paper on their plans for a future relationship with the EU.

 

The emerging May position appears to be a form of maximum facilitation rather than a customs partnership, so they will leave the Customs Union as demanded by the Brexiters.

 

However it could take a decade to develop this, tying the UK to the Customs Union for all that time to maintain the backstop.

 

On the single market they will seek access for manufactured goods to maintain their industrial base and protect major employers like the car industry. Such an arrangement if agreed with the EU would smooth issues at the border on our island but present other problems.

 

The UK would still diverge on services and in this scenario take EU rules on goods and likely be subject to the European Court of Justice.

 

It is not clear what impact such an agreement would have on the principle of the four freedoms, and freedom of movement specifically.

 

From our perspective, including Northern Ireland’s economic wellbeing, it is critical that the UK remains very close to the Customs Union and Single Market, including in terms of regulations.

 

It remains implausible that the UK will get better deals than are already available through the EU except through abandoning social and environmental protections.

But the time to make hard decisions is fast approaching.

There is also a growing campaign in the UK for a second vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

 

It makes sense to me to put the outcome of negotiations to the people so that they can make their judgement and importantly ensure acceptance.

 

The Council will also consider important reforms on asylum and migration.

 

This is a burning sore at the heart of Europe that must be addressed.

From Italy to Germany, the rise of the far right is pushing the centre to more extreme positions.

 

The German Chancellor is in domestic political trouble if a solution is not found.

 

However, people will continue to travel for a better life if we don’t address the problems in their own countries