Tomorrow I will attend a special meeting of the European Council in Brussels. This meeting, which will take place in Article 50 format, was convened by President Donald Tusk following the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement by the UK Parliament on 29 March. At the last European Council, on 21 March, we agreed to extend the Article 50 deadline until 22 May, provided the Withdrawal Agreement had been ratified. If it had not been ratified, we agreed to extend it until 12 April, by which time the UK should outline an alternative way forward. As part of this, Prime Minister May wrote to President Tusk last Friday requesting a further extension until 30 June 2019, in order to pursue cross-party talks with the objective of finding a way forward.
From our perspective, the British Prime Minister’s letter is a positive step. It offers welcome assurances that the UK will prepare for the European Parliament elections and will hold them, if the UK has not left the EU by 22 May. Importantly, from our perspective, the Prime Minister acknowledges that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be changed, and that any solution must respect that Agreement in its entirety. The EU has always stated that the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the backstop, cannot be re-negotiated. It is the outcome of almost two years of difficult negotiations between the EU and Ireland and the UK. It represents a finely balanced compromise, including the challenge of the UK leaving the EU without giving rise to the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Our ambition is to see a future relationship that is so deep that the backstop would never need to be triggered. However, until this happens, it is needed as an insurance policy to protect the Good Friday Agreement and ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. It has been obvious for some time that the solution to the deadlock lies in London and that the impasse there could only be resolved in Westminster. It is very welcome that cross-party talks are now underway and that the focus of these is on the shape of the future relationship. I spoke by telephone with Prime Minister May last night, and we discussed the latest developments, including the cross-party talks.
I hope that those involved will be able to build sufficient consensus to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, thereby allowing the transition period to come into effect, and enabling an orderly Brexit. So, our focus at the European Council tomorrow will be on the question of a further extension. We are conscious of the Prime Minister’s request for an extension until 30 June. We will also take into account any additional request that might come from the cross-party talks in London. As President Tusk said, we should continue to show patience. The talks in London are likely to require some time. It would be damaging for everyone if the UK were to crash out of the EU without a deal on 12 April.
From Ireland’s perspective, we are open to extending the deadline to allow time for these discussions to run their course and conclude.
From Ireland’s perspective, three things are crucial:
- any decision must be based on a coherent and realisable plan;
- any extension must not be used to try to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement; and
- the talks in London must focus on the shape of the future relationship.
Over the past week, I have spoken with many of my EU counterparts about Brexit, and the matters for discussion at the European Council tomorrow.
Last Tuesday, 2 April, I met with President Macron in Paris and last Thursday, 4 April, Chancellor Merkel visited me in Dublin. I also met with Michel Barnier, the Chief EU Brexit Negotiator, during his visit to Dublin yesterday. I also had discussions with the Prime Ministers of Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands. And I will make some more calls this evening. These have all been very positive and constructive conversations. We were all in agreement that the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and to protect the Good Friday Agreement is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. We were adamant that this is not open for re-negotiation, and that there can be no Withdrawal Agreement without the backstop.
As you know, during her visit, Chancellor Merkel participated in a roundtable discussion with people from Northern Ireland and the border area. This was an opportunity to hear their perspectives about the impact that any return to a hard border would have on border communities and business. The Chancellor and my other interlocutors understand these concerns very well, and fully recognise the importance of the backstop as an insurance policy, setting a floor under the future relationship and giving us the assurance that whatever may happen in the future, as a consequence of Brexit, a hard border is not one of them. I took the opportunity during my meetings with Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Michel Barnier - and indeed my phone conversations with other EU heads of government - to restate Ireland’s appreciation for their solidarity and understanding throughout the Brexit negotiations. The EU has repeatedly recognised the unique position of Northern Ireland, and the unique situation in which it has been put by the decision of the UK to leave the EU. The EU has always said that, should the UK red lines change, we would be prepared to amend the Political Declaration on the future relationship.
I sincerely hope that it will be possible to build sufficient consensus in Westminster to enable ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement and an orderly Brexit thereafter. From Ireland’s perspective, we are open to extending the deadline to allow time for these discussions to run their course and come to a conclusion. Above all, we want the Withdrawal Agreement to be ratified so that negotiations can begin on a future relationship, we I hope and expect can be a new economic partnership between the UK and the EU that is as close as can be achieved.
All this will be discussed at the European Council tomorrow. There will be different views, but I am confident that we will reach agreement there. However, given the ongoing uncertainty in London, we need to continue our preparations for No Deal.
A Cheann Comhairle,
Our people and our businesses deserve reassurance and security. So, we have ramped-up our planning at home and at EU level for all outcomes, and this work will continue to intensify. Brexit will have negative consequences in all scenarios but most acutely if there is a No Deal. We will be as ready as we can be. This work is not new. We have been preparing now for well over two years. The last three budgets introduced supports to help businesses prepare for Brexit. A Comprehensive Contingency Action Plan is in place. This is a whole-of Government response, working in tandem with the EU to implement measures to mitigate the impact of a No Deal.
We have regular discussions at Cabinet, including today, and the Tánaiste has chaired regular stakeholder meetings. We are working to ensure that our ports and airports will be ready to deal with new customs and trade controls. The necessary infrastructure, staffing and ICT will be in place to ensure that trade flows continue, however some disruption and delays is inevitable.
The President signed the Brexit Omnibus Act on 17 March and it became law. This Act is designed to protect our citizens, and our economy and jobs, particularly in the sectors most exposed to Brexit. It complements measures in place at EU level, including contingency measures on air connectivity and road haulage. It reflects our focus on protecting the Good Friday Agreement, North South cooperation, and building an all island economy.
We have also taken actions to maintain and strengthen the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the United Kingdom, ensuring that people in Northern Ireland can continue to access European Health Insurance cards, and that third-level students will continue to access the Erasmus+ higher education programme. And we have been engaging with the European Commission on the support that would be required in a no-deal scenario, including for our agri-food sector. In terms of the border, a no-deal outcome would not change our priorities. These are: first of all to protect the Good Friday Agreement, to avoid a hard border, and also to protect the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union upon which our economy and economic model is founded.
As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish and British Governments continue to have obligations. We will continue to work together to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The UK’s own papers say that, in a no-deal scenario, they would quickly need talks with the EU and Ireland to get a deal to avoid a hard border. For us, the backstop would be the starting point for these discussions. There is no better solution. There are no alternative arrangements. We are in close contact with the Commission about how best, in a no-deal scenario, to meet our shared objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, while also protecting the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union, ensuring that we are not dragged out of the customs union by the decision made by the United Kingdom.
Our contacts with the Commission on this have intensified in recent weeks. The Commission and our EU partners fully understand the challenges here, and are supportive and understanding about finding a way forward. Should “No Deal” arise, these will be shared challenges. Ireland’s greatest protection from the challenges that Brexit will bring is our EU membership. The EU is a home that we have helped to build and whatever happens we will stay at its heart.