The EU Council is to meet before the end of the month and I made the following contribution in the Dail today about the priorities and agenda the Irish Government should have at the EU meeting:
This is clearly the most important European Council summit an Irish head of government will attend since our accession to EEC membership.
The Brexit negotiating mandate is about our vital national interests, and the vital interests of this island as a whole.
Our first priority must be to protect the political and institutional arrangements established by the Good Friday Agreement.
But we have many other concerns. We are an island off an island off the rest of the European Union. Inevitably, our geography must dictate our policies.
It is disappointing, to put it mildly, that there is still no obvious sign that the Government has settled on its policies towards these negotiations.
Apart from a glossy sort of ‘Ladybird Guide’, that wouldn’t detain any serious reader for very long, there is as yet nothing published by this Government on its approach to Brexit.
In fact they say they will not publish anything approaching a substantive position paper until the 29th April – the very day the European Council meets.
We do have the draft guidelines published by President Tusk. As expected, they place a premium on an orderly, non-disruptive withdrawal.
They also place a premium on the Union acting as one.
These are important enough statements of principle and I wonder if we will achieve a common understanding of their interpretation and application.
If insisting on an orderly approach means we won’t talk about the future relationship with the UK until we have signed off on the current one, then the EU is simply surrendering to the section of opinion that wants to punish Britain, by imposing on it economic isolation.
If we allow that wing to gain supremacy, then we too will suffer economically – and we will suffer proportionately far more than any other EU state.
And if the EU speaking as one means that we in Ireland cannot make that point as often and as loudly as is necessary, then this language of cohesion simply disguises bully boy tactics.
I do not see the point of, and I would be minded to reject, the blunt insistence in the draft guidelines that: “So as not to undercut the position of the Union, there will be no separate negotiations between individual Member States and the United Kingdom on matters pertaining to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union”.
I do not see how, in practical terms, there could be anyone better suited to debate future arrangements for the Common Travel Area than the officials and politicians of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
If the negotiating guidelines do not permit such issues to be devolved to the relevant authorities by the main negotiators and to be resolved bilaterally and reported back, then that is a defect in the guidelines that should be highlighted and the guidelines should be improved.
It is clear by now that the integrity of the Single Market requires free movement of workers. The UK can no longer buy into free movement and so the single market will be closed to it.
Closed to it also, unless we come up with some radical solutions, will be the customs union. And Ireland will be partitioned by an external frontier of the European Union, with the obligation to police it accordingly.
On the all-island related issues, I have no doubt but that solutions are available, provided there is good will and some imagination. There will no doubt be talk of ‘variable geometry’. Free movement of workers does not raise exactly the same issues as free movement of British and Irish citizens. And free movement of goods requires separate consideration again.
It may be that some of this, for some purposes, will mean moving the border into the Irish Sea. It may be that our ports and airports can be more effectively policed than the Irish land frontier ever could.
As I’ve said, I cannot imagine anyone better placed to debate these issues with a view to resolving them than teams from Britain and Ireland.
The Common Travel Area and the effect of the EU’s new border on our island are by no means the only issues we have to face, although they are the most obvious.
But the draft guidelines, with their insistence on ‘first thing first’, manage to postpone consideration of these vital issues.
It would be a tremendous waste of time and resources if the negotiating teams spent two years locked in argument over disentangling the United Kingdom from the Union, and from Union rights and obligations, without any attempt to sketch out our future relationship.
Of course it is important to provide clarity and legal certainty about the immediate effects of British withdrawal. But that requires clarity and certainty about the day after tomorrow as well as tomorrow, about the position in March 2021 as well as March 2019.
Remember that under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, these talks are meant to be about negotiating an agreement with the UK: “setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”.
That last phrase is worth repeating: “taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”.
The future relationship must, from the start and always, be to the forefront at these talks. It cannot be relegated to subsequent consideration – certainly not to being considered only after bloody-minded infliction of punitive divorce terms and the extraction of a multi-billion settlement.
That sort of approach, which still seems to appeal to many of our counterparts, would do enormous damage to this country and this State.
The draft guidelines say that “an overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship could be identified during a second phase of the negotiations”.
But this second phase can only begin once “sufficient progress has been made in the first phase towards reaching a satisfactory agreement on the arrangements for an orderly withdrawal”.
The authors are seemingly oblivious to the direct contradiction between insisting on this phased approach and the earlier insistence, set out in fact as the second ‘Core Principle’, that negotiations must be conducted as a single package, in accordance with the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
So, which is it to be? A ban on discussion about future relationships until our all colleagues believe enough progress has been made on the ‘disentangling’ agenda?
Or instead single package negotiations, designed to fulfil the Article 50 mandate and take full and proper account from the start about the need to plan our common future?
The difference is an important one in principle and could be a vital one for us in practice. The Taoiseach must tell us where he stands on this.
He must tell us that he wants, as an Irish priority, a clear EU commitment to a comprehensive EU-UK trade deal from the start. To relegate this to ‘Phase 2’ would be to neglect the vital national interests of a loyal and continuing member state.
The draft guidelines do recognise the special position of Northern Ireland. I’m not so sure they specifically recognise the unique challenges we will face south of the border.
Brexit means that, from Ireland’s viewpoint, the ideal of the single market has been set back a generation or more.
Bluntly, once the UK leaves, it will no longer make any real, practical, day-to-day sense to talk about a single market in the goods and services that we import and export.
Talk of the single market will, from our perspective, revert from being something approaching reality to a pious aspiration.
We in Labour have published our Brexit Policy Paper. We outlined 20 concrete actions aimed at protecting our society and economy and our relationship with Northern Ireland.
One of these proposals is particularly important, but I don’t see it reflected in President Tusk’s draft guidelines.
We say that Europe itself must adapt in response to Brexit. We have, for example, proposed changes to the Stability and Growth Pact and the fiscal rules. The rules are rigid, opaque and complex. Worse, they stop us from making investments that our society needs, now more than ever.
We are also calling for State aid rules to be suspended for two years from the date of Brexit.
And for the European Global Adjustment Fund to be made available to reskill workers impacted.
As I said earlier, our geography must dictate our policies. There will in future be a large chunk of ‘non-Europe’ between us and the rest of the Union.
So I want to mention one final issue that so far has not received sufficient attention. Brexit will impact on every aspect of our economic, social and cultural lives. More specifically, it will impact on every network we are connected to including, in physical and infrastructural terms, our transport, energy and telecommunications networks.
And it will therefore impact on our ability to adhere to EU law. It will affect, for example, our ability to comply with an EU directive requiring a single EU market in electricity – when our only power connections are with Northern Ireland and with Britain – or another directive that requires an EU-wide ‘Television without Frontiers’ – when most of our TV comes from Britain.
So, the notion post-Brexit of us adhering to policies and laws designed for an internal EU market – when we are so far geographically removed from that market and have no direct infrastructural connections to it – is yet another issue that needs urgently to be re-examined.