A Cheann Comhairle,
I welcome this opportunity to speak to the House on last week’s meeting of the European Council, and the subsequent informal meeting of twenty-seven Heads of State or Government.
The outcome of the UK referendum, of course, was the dominant focus of the discussions.
The current migration situation was also discussed, as were a number of economic, foreign and security policy issues. I have asked Minister Flanagan to address the external relations issues in his closing remarks.
A Cheann Comhairle,
There was an extensive discussion of the outcome of the UK referendum and its implications.
There were two separate exchanges on the issue – the first on Tuesday evening, in the European Council proper, where Prime Minister Cameron gave a very interesting and frank account of the referendum and more recent developments within the UK; and the second, on Wednesday morning, where the 27 other Member States had a first discussion on the withdrawal process, as well as the future direction of the EU.
The atmosphere throughout the discussions at the meeting with David Cameron was subdued, but very calm and constructive. Most leaders spoke, all in a spirit of regret. Many emphasised the importance of their relationships with the UK, and hoped for strong ties to continue, but also made clear the need for the European Union to plan for a future without Britain. I should emphasise that David Cameron offered his analysis of why the Leave side won the referendum, including the immigration factor; but he did not seek to anticipate the approach to be taken by his successor.
I took the opportunity to outline our long and complex history with the UK, emphasising how relations had developed remarkably in recent years. A symbol of this was the participation of President Higgins in the ceremonies at the end of last week to mark the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme – in which very many Irish soldiers, from both North and South, lost their lives. I also stressed the importance of the Northern Ireland peace process and our joint responsibility for the Good Friday Agreement.
I noted that we had joined the EU together in 1973 and that the current strength of our bilateral relations was in no small part due to our common membership. I highlighted our specific interests and concerns including in relation to Northern Ireland, North-South relations, the Common Travel Area and the interconnectedness of our bilateral trade.
At the meeting of twenty-seven the following morning, all partners shared the view that, while regretting the outcome of the referendum, the democratic decision of the UK electorate must be respected. While of course there was concern about the effects of the British vote on the politics of some other countries, there was little evidence of a punitive approach. We all have a strong collective interest in a strong, stable and prosperous UK.
Further, we all agreed that Article 50 provides the only legal framework for the UK to withdraw from the EU. It is up to the British Government to notify the European Council explicitly of its intention to withdraw. However, it was agreed that the notification should be made as quickly as possible.
Around the table, as in wider debate, there were different perspectives on what “as quickly as possible” should or could mean, but it was generally accepted that notification could not be expected until the political situation in the UK has settled down, and a new Prime Minister has been appointed.
As Deputies will be aware, different candidates for the Conservative party leadership have said different things about the timeframe they envisage for the triggering of Article 50.
On the one hand, I think it is reasonable for the British Government, under its new leader, to take the time necessary to formulate its approach and to engage in the consultations required with Parliament and with the three devolved administrations, including Northern Ireland. On the other hand, too lengthy a gap will simply prolong uncertainty in the rest of the EU but also, above all, in the UK itself, with the negative consequences for business and consumer confidence we are already seeing.
Any sense that the British Government was engaging in game-playing or deliberate procrastination would be received negatively by partners and would damage the confidence and goodwill needed for a successful future negotiation.
It was mainly for this reason that it was emphasised that there can be no negotiations of any kind before this notification has taken place, contrary to what has been suggested by some in Britain.
As a point of clarification, however, this refers to negotiations as such on behalf of the 27 as a whole. It can of course be assumed that informal contacts will take place between different Member States and the UK. Certainly, I think it important that the Government start exploratory work with the UK in regard to our very specific concerns to analyse what might be possible on a bilateral basis – without of course prejudicing EU negotiations.
Once formal negotiations begin, those under Article 50 relate to the exit of the UK only – and not to its future relationship with the EU. These negotiations are expected to cover such issues as the status of UK citizens currently in Europe and EU citizens in Britain, what happens to existing contracts under EU programmes, the position of British officials in the EU institutions, and so forth. They cannot last more than two years, unless there is unanimous agreement to prolong them; and a withdrawal agreement needs the agreement of a qualified majority in the Council, and not of all member states.
In the meantime, the UK remains a full member of the Union with all the rights and obligations which membership confers. These obligations include the full application of European law. So there will be no change in current arrangements regarding trade, free movement, or any other issue.
Separately, there is the probability of a negotiation between the UK and the EU over its future relations with the Union. I say probability, because it would be for the UK to seek such a negotiation. It is the possible options here – such as UK membership of the European Economic Area, like Norway, or a more distant relationship with fewer obligations, but also fewer rights – that are the main focus of current debate. I would stress, however, that there are many issues beyond trade which would need to be discussed and agreed.
Legally, there can be no agreement on the relationship between the EU and the UK until it leaves the Union and becomes a third country. It is also the case that negotiations on these issues may very well take longer than the two years envisaged for the withdrawal negotiations. However, it would be very much the hope that the two sets of negotiations could proceed in parallel; that at least the broad outline of what the relationship would look like would have emerged before withdrawal; and that sensible transitional or bridging arrangements could be put in place.
If this is to be achieved, however, the UK would have to be seen to be negotiating constructively and in good faith. And the EU for its part would need to take a positive approach also.
Last Wednesday’s statement by the 27 stated that, in the future, the hope would be that the UK would be a close partner of the EU. It was also stated that any agreement would have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations. It was also underlined that access to the Single market requires acceptance of all four freedoms -which include the free movement of EU citizens within the Union, above all for the purpose of working.
Some commentators have seen this as some sort of hardening towards the UK. It is simply a statement of what the Treaties require. The essential purpose was to disabuse people in the UK that they could have full access to the Single Market but major restrictions on free movement. How exactly the balance of rights and obligations referred to in the statement would be achieved would of course be for negotiation. And the most important element will be what the UK sets as its objectives.
As negotiations are unlikely to start for some months, there is also time for the EU – and its Member States, including Ireland – to identify key issues and begin to prioritise and prepare.
What is absolutely clear is that the European Council will play the decisive role in the negotiations. Heads of State or Government are adamant that it will be for them to make the key decisions, and that national officials will be closely involved. Clearly the European Commission, with its technical expertise, will also have an important role to play, and the final package will require the approval of the European Parliament - but the overall political direction of the process will be provided by the European Council.
I stress this for two reasons. First, there has been a great deal of comment by a wide range of European personalities, much of it rather premature and ill-considered. I advise Deputies to focus instead on what the European Council says. Second, in the setting of the negotiating mandate, all leaders, including myself, will be closely involved.
From Ireland’s perspective, we have advanced, and will continue to progress, comprehensive contingency work across Government in order to define our national interests and work out how best they can be protected during the negotiations process. This process will continue before and during the negotiations and I look forward to an intensification of work at both official and political level, including in this House. The Government is also very conscious of the need to consult widely with all stakeholders and will build on the arrangements already in place.
At our North South Ministerial Council meeting yesterday, 4 July, we had a detailed discussion about the potential impact of the UK referendum result. We agreed to work together to ensure that Northern Ireland's interests are protected and advanced, and that the benefits of North/South co-operation are fully recognised in any new arrangements which emerge as regards the United Kingdom's future relationship with the EU.
Yes, Ireland will be part of the overall EU team of 27. But from my exchanges with other EU leaders I can say that our partners fully understand and acknowledge the unique nature of our relations with the UK, especially with regard to Northern Ireland, North-South relations and the Common Travel Area. I have no doubt that they will be sympathetic to our concerns in framing the negotiating mandate. And, as I said earlier, we will do the maximum possible to reach arrangements on a bilateral basis on all issues which can be handled that way.
It is evident that Ireland has a particular interest in a stable, prosperous and outward-looking UK. The closer the future relationship is between the EU and the UK, the better it will be from our perspective. We will work for that in negotiations. But let me be clear – the approach the UK itself takes will be fundamentally important to our chances of achieving that goal.
Much has been said already about the wider implications of the outcome of the UK referendum. It has certainly highlighted the crisis of confidence not only in the European Union, but in politics and political institutions throughout much of the western world.
Further reflection on the best way forward will be necessary and our discussion last Wednesday was rightly preliminary in nature. At this stage, I think most leaders are strongly of the view that this is not the time to take a great leap forward towards integration – or a backward step towards weakening the Union. There was little talk of Treaty change, or new powers for the EU. The real need is to focus on implementing more effectively and dynamically concrete measures that improve the lives of all our citizens – such as measures on jobs, on growth, on investment, and on counter-terrorism. These are the essential building blocks of long-term prosperity and stability for us all.
We agreed to return to the matter in the autumn and, to this end, an informal meeting of EU leaders has been scheduled for 16 September, to be hosted by the Slovakian Presidency, in Bratislava.
A Cheann Comhairle
The migration and refugee situation rightly remains an issue of the highest priority for the Union although the time for discussion at last week’s meeting was more limited than usual. The EU has developed a comprehensive approach to the migration challenges as set out in a range of specific measures. There has been good progress on many of these measures – including the establishment of a European Coast and Border Guard (which Ireland will not opt into) and a package of measures agreed with Turkey – and, for a variety of reasons, slower progress on others.
Overall however the measures are having a positive impact. The Commission report of 15 June indicates - and this is also confirmed in other reports - that the numbers crossing the Aegean Sea, for example, have reduced very substantially since the EU-Turkey deal was agreed in March. This is to be welcomed sincerely. However, the challenge remains both in the Aegean and on the route from Libya to Italy, which remains perilous.
At last week’s meeting, the main focus was on the external dimension of the crisis where the proposed Migration Partnership Framework, which aims at ensuring coherence between EU migration policy and its external policies, was examined. In general terms, we welcome the Framework’s focus on working even more closely with countries of origin and transit. We also welcome the intention to work closer with countries hosting large numbers of displaced people, and would support the approach that Partnership Frameworks build on existing policies in this area.
Jobs, Growth and Investment
A Cheann Comhairle.
The European Council dealt with a number of important economic issues under the broad heading of Jobs, Growth and Investment.
The European Council generally endorsed the Country Specific Recommendations and thereby completed the 2016 European Semester process.
The European Council also adopted conclusions on the Single Market, and we support the affirmation that swift and determined progress must be made. We also support the call for the various strategies and action plans proposed by the Commission to be implemented by 2018 and the fixing of an annual review of progress.
It is especially welcome that leaders placed such emphasis on the need to bring the full benefits of the Digital Single Market to all stakeholders. These measures are welcome from an Irish perspective, given the enormous opportunities which the deepening of the Digital Single Market presents for our economy.
I intervened during a brief exchange on trade, where I stressed that the Commission should follow through and seek to agree a TTIP deal with the United States. This is a huge opportunity to set the standards of global trade for the next fifty years. As the conclusions confirm, the European Council will return to the trade agenda in October, when a more comprehensive discussion is expected.
Investment Plan (including EFSI)
Separately, the European Council noted the progress which has been made through the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) in mobilising private investment, and called for the Council and European Parliament to urgently examine new proposals on the future of the Fund. The Commission will bring these proposals forward soon. Ireland has welcomed EFSI as an additional instrument in support of growth and investment and we look forward to the Commission’s detailed evaluation of the first results of the Fund. It is essential that any obstacles to investment be removed.
Note was also taken of recent steps on the development of Economic and Monetary Union. At European Council level, there appears to be a limited ambition for a major push towards deeper integration at the current time.
While the issue was not discussed, Heads of State or Government affirmed the importance of the continuing fight against tax fraud, evasion and avoidance, noting, in particular, the Anti Tax-Avoidance Directive.
Finally, the European Council took note of the difficult situation in the agricultural sector, notably in dairy and pigmeat. We welcome the call to the Commission to provide all necessary supports to assist farmers, including financial assistance, where appropriate.
A Cheann Comhairle.
As is evident, last week’s meeting of the European Council addressed a number of issues of great importance and we will return to them in future meetings – above all the UK question. I look forward now to hearing statements by Deputies.