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Taoiseach fails to secure deadline on backstop at EU Council

4 July 2018

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

Howlin calls for special summit of EU Heads of Government in September to copper-fasten the Irish border agreement before the October Council meeting

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD on Post- EU Council Statements, Dáil Éireann

Taoiseach,

I said to you last week, that it is essential that Ireland insist on a deadline for the UK to produce an acceptable backstop agreement on the Irish border.

I believe that such a deadline could and should be set well in advance of the European Council meeting in October.

The reason for this is so Ireland is not forced, under pressure from all sides, to accept any kind of last-minute compromise on a matter of such profound importance to the future of this country.

Unfortunately no such commitment or demand was forthcoming.

I acknowledge and welcome the support for Ireland in the agreed Conclusions of the European Council meeting.

Yet their conclusions are worrying.

That “no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop solution”

And that there needs to be “intensified efforts” to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement.

I also welcome the continued support for Ireland in the words of Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker on behalf of the European Union.

But we must not forget that the final decision on Brexit will be made by all 27 EU Governments, not by the EU negotiation team.

Few could have predicted the drama that enfolded last Thursday night at the European Council.

While we are rightly preoccupied with progress on Brexit, the migration crisis has continued to engulf much of the EU and could still cost Chancellor Merkel of Germany her position.

The new Italian Prime Minister used his domestic concerns to stall progress on any other issue.

I am not saying that Ireland should do the same, but I think we should acknowledge that issues quickly move on in Europe

The 26 other national Governments are all subject to all sorts of pressures of their own,

And our national concerns could become side-lined.

For six months we were told that the June Council meeting was going to be the “make or break” moment.

The Irish Government billed June as a deadline for the British, and our EU negotiators certainly echoed our concerns about urgency.

But the British didn’t deliver, and Brexit ended up being a side-item to the main Council meeting.

It is therefore incumbent on the Government to take the necessary risks to demand that we have clarity from the UK well in advance of October’s European Council meeting.

As things stand, the British Prime Minister will be presenting a third post-Brexit model for discussion with her cabinet colleagues this Friday.

Assuming that an agreed British position is then published in some form, it would be entirely reasonable for your Government to insist that over the next eight weeks or so this gets hammered out into something that provides the legal clarity we have been seeking on the border issue.

Alternatively, if there continues to be discord within the British Government, resulting in another unworkable proposal, then it would be even more urgent for your Government to insist on clarity well before October.

In fact, there is a solid argument for Ireland to seek a special summit of EU Heads of Government in September to copper-fasten the Irish border agreement before the October Council meeting is asked to sign off on the whole agreement with the UK.

There shouldn’t be anything left hanging to negotiate in October as the whole deal should be agreed by then, for the Council’s approval.

In terms of trade, the planned transition period provides extra time to finalise the future EU-UK relationship, and all of the details on trade.

But once March 29th is passed and the UK, including Northern Ireland, is outside of the EU framework, our leverage to protect the Good Friday Agreement will be much reduced.

To be clear, Ireland’s interests are on a shorter timetable than the interests of our European partners.

The fundamental economic and social pressures that will push them towards a final deal with the UK will not be fully in force until 2020.

The risks of a half-baked agreement falling apart in October will be disproportionately negative for Ireland.

We have only 268 days left to safeguard the peace and prosperity that has been hard-won over the last 20 years.

* * *

In terms of the immediate social and economic pressures facing our European partners, migration was obviously the main focus of the Council meeting.

As you know, in fact, the migration numbers eased significantly last year.

In 2017, there were around 720,000 applications for international protection in the EU, which is a decrease of 44% compared to 2016, when there were almost 1.3 million applications.

However, if anything, the political migration crisis has gotten worse due to the political reaction to the issue.

Clearly, the crisis has shown up flaws in the EU’s systems for processing claims for asylum.

But the main danger is that migration has been politicised across Europe, often in a context of political movements using misinformation to stoke up fear and resentment of people seeking safety in Europe.

Many of them are fleeing a brutal war in Syria and other conflicts in the Middle East.

I agree with the remarks of Donald Tusk, President of the Council, when the real challenge now is to implement the migration reforms agreed last week.

Already, we can see domestic political strain in Germany, Austria and Italy around Angela Merkel’s plans to sell the deal to her CSU party allies.

I particularly welcome the announced transfer of €500 million euros of development money to the EU Trust Fund for Africa.
A Marshall Plan for Europe’s neighbourhood, to foster economic development in the countries surrounding the EU, is the best, long-term way to stem economic migration because it will ultimately reduce the economic disparities between us and our neighbours.

But it will require a great deal more money.

We also need to show leadership on the migration issue in Ireland. Compared to the European countries at the coalface of the issue, like Greece, Italy and Germany, Ireland has relatively low migration, even on a per capita basis.

However, I was shocked by a headline story today that Ireland was found to be “seriously deficient in addressing hate crime” in a major report.
And hate crime is, of course, disproportionately focused on visible minorities, such as people from Africa or the Middle East.

We have, rightly, prided ourselves as a county that has integrated many newcomers in a relatively short period of time.
And we are fortunate that no political party has politicised this issue, unlike many other EU countries, where anti-migrant rhetoric can be heard from within government parties as well as from extremists in opposition.

So, as part of playing our role to create a Europe that is open, welcoming and tolerant of differences, we should ensure that hate crime legislation here meets international best practice standards.

Similarly, as I have said before, we urgently need to end the Direct Provision system and provide a pathway to Irish citizenship for the undocumented migrants here, as we are in great danger of institutionalising a second tier of unofficial residents who are forced to live their lives in the shadows because of their situation.

We are only dealing with small numbers of people, at a time of near-full employment, and therefore we can easily institute an amnesty for the current generation of the undocumented, while also ensuring that future asylum and migration applications are processed rapidly.