11 days after the result of the UK referendum the future direction of the European Union is no clearer. In fact, the incoherence in London has actually become worse.
Anything which increases uncertainty and drags out the process before hard decisions are reached is damaging for Europe and for Ireland.
Last week’s summit involved no significant progress. It is welcome that leaders expressed their solidarity, but this is something they express on every issue at every summit even when they are fighting relentless battles on issues. Warm words and anodyne clichés about shared visions are irrelevant when set beside the urgency of the issue at hand.
The Dáil’s debate on this topic last week demonstrated that Deputies representing the overwhelming majority of the Irish people agree on the core principles of Ireland’s response. We are absolutely committed to remaining a full, active and constructive member state of the European Union. We recognise the scale of the economic and social threat posed to all parts of this island from the decision of the UK. We believe that this issue must now be an absolute priority for us.
This is a consensus which has a strong democratic legitimacy and an even stronger basis in the facts of progress directly linked to Ireland’s place in the European Union. We are not uncritical, we see the need for reform, but we also refuse to accept the anti-EU rhetoric which pushes aside as irrelevant the peace and prosperity enabled by the Union.
This view was not, of course, unanimous. A minority of Deputies continued in the anti-EU tradition of accusing it of being some vast neo-liberal conspiracy beating down the people of Europe and inflicting aggression on others. To them there is a socialist utopia available outside of the Union.
Sinn Fein of course continued its new policy of attacking everything the EU does and its core principles and then claiming that it wants to stay in the EU.
Incredibly, and in the face of overwhelming evidence, out far-left anti-EU deputies again claimed the result as vindicating their critique. According to them the xenophobic, neo-liberal and anti-social campaign for Leave had nothing to do with the decision to leave.
This ridiculous position, a political manoeuvre more cynical than anything they have accused other parties here of in the past, is even less tenable a week later. As we have all seen, the first response in London has been to plan lower Corporation tax and argue over how to have the maximum amount of free trade with the minimum amount of free movement, workers’ rights and consumer protections. The sinister attacks on EU nationals, particularly those from more recent member states, are a new development directly linked to the Leave rhetoric.
The speeches we heard denouncing the sinister anti-foreigner rhetoric of some English politicians were, as usual, forceful and eloquent. But if you won’t acknowledge the centrality of these views in driving anti-EU sentiment in the referendum and in other countries then clearly you can’t help confront it in reality.
The far-right in France, the Netherlands, Greece, and Italy and in many other countries is to the fore in pushing an agenda of dismantling the EU. Nothing should be done which can help to legitimize their arguments. This was the core mistake which David Cameron and his allies made when they embraced the idea of panting the EU as an enemy to be fought.
The fact that the clear majority of the Irish people, of all parts of society, and their representatives reject this gives us a very positive foundation upon which to move forwards.
Given that all of the potential holders of the office of Prime Minister after the start of September have ruled out maintaining full freedom of movement and continued budget payments, the so-called ‘Norway Option’ of the UK joining the European Economic Area appears to be a non-starter. As such a very complex trade negotiation is required.
The idea, floated by some in Brussels, that the UK could only start post-exit is foolish and one we should oppose. It is in everyone’s interests that the UK’s exit causes as little disruption as possible and that the terms be as generous as possible within the major constraint of protecting to core principles of the Union – particularly fair trade based on agreed standards of worker’s right, consumer protection and freedom of movement.
In relation to the timetable, a delay in triggering Article 50 until the new London government is in place is reasonable. Anything which delays it for a substantial period would be unacceptable. We are not looking at the equivalent of the Canadian trade negotiation which took 6 years because there is a vast body of shared regulation in place. 2 years is an entirely achievable goal. Ongoing uncertainty helps no one.
I welcome the meetings which the Taoiseach is to hold with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande. It should however be noted that these meetings have a poor record of producing substantive results for Ireland.
We have to be clear exactly what we want.
At the top of the list should be Irish involvement in the negotiations as part of a specific team appointed by the Council. President Junker has not been reassuring in his response so far and it would be unacceptable for him and the Commission to be in charge.
One very real issue within the Union has been the failure to find a mechanism for ensuring that more voices are involved in critical discussions. The growing number of initiatives between a limited numbers of members must be opposed as it is causing real damage.
These negotiations are an opportunity to address this by ensuring that those involved represent distinct interests, including those of countries with a major stake in the final deal with the UK.
The Taoiseach should also use the period between now and the special summit in September to launch a specific diplomatic initiative to ensure that each member state is briefed at a high level on Ireland’s position.
At the meeting last week of our European party the ALDE I outlined for the 5 prime ministers present and the other governments represented the importance of this issue for Ireland. I am convinced that there would be a substantial positive outcome from a comprehensive initiative to tour and brief all our partners and not just the largest two.
The handling of the possibility of establishing an all-island forum on Brexit has, unfortunately, been close to shambolic. It is genuinely extraordinary that ministers would do interviews about a proposal before making contact with Northern parties. It is the inevitable outcome of five years of stepping back from deep, ongoing involvement in all-island issues.
The rejection of the idea by First Minister Foster is regrettable and her statement that there are more than enough all-island bodies is unacceptable given her duty to examine areas for such bodies as part of the required review under the Belfast Agreement.
What was missing from her comments was an acceptance of the deep threat to our economies. She is fully entitled to believe in the Brexit cause – her dismissal of the potential threat of Brexit is a completely different thing and ignores the will of the people of Northern Ireland and the mounting economic evidence.
It is the right and obligation of our government to speak up for the social and economic interests of the whole island in Brexit negotiations. We cannot impose our will on the people of Northern Ireland, but we can and must make sure that their importance to us and vis-versa is not ignored.
As I said in our debate last week, this is too urgent for us to leave it to business as usual. The government must now publish details of how it intends to use existing structures to ensure deep engagement with institutions in the North and to ensure that economic and social interests on both sides of the Border are heard.
The joint DUP/Sinn Fein exclusion of formal civil society dialogue from the Northern institutions in contravention of the Belfast Agreement must be challenged immediately.
We should offer all necessary assistance to employer bodies, trades unions, farmers’ organisations and others to convene dedicated North/South expert groups on their concerns and to present their views as soon as possible.
On the issue of a potential unification referendum, the demand for one was made by Sinn Fein without any attempt to reach out to other parties or groups. It was made without the provision of any evidence that it might pass. It was clearly intended to be nothing other than a bit of grandstanding from our most consistently anti-EU party.
I hope that Brexit will mean that a substantial number of people in Northern Ireland change their position and become supporters of unification. If this happens then we should have a reunification referendum. The partisan posturing of a party which only last year issued leaflets calling on Belfast voters to vote on sectarian lines simply puts off the day when a reunification referendum could be held and won.
Until we see the result of the Tory election the nature of negotiations with London will be uncertain. Mr Gove as a journalist was one of the most consistently wrong and ill-informed commentators on Northern Ireland. The other candidates have no significant record to assess.
What we do know is that all appear to support the basic economic strategy outlined by Chancellor Osbourne yesterday. As predicted this is moving in the opposite way to the social vision claimed by our anti-EU Deputies as the basis for the Leave vote.
Until 2011 it was tradition that the Taoiseach would have a meeting with the British Prime Minister within a week or two of either taking office. We should seek to have this tradition restored.
Last week I set out my party’s policy concerning Scotland and the fact that it must not be treated like a normal candidate country should it vote for independence and seek to retain EU membership. I welcome the Taoiseach’s presentation of the views of First Minister Sturgeon at the summit.
The objective of reducing Corporation tax below 15% is a serious issue for Ireland. A detailed study included in the latest ESRI quarterly review directly addressed the issue of the possible impact on Ireland of reductions in the British rate. By the figures they produced a reduction of over 5% in the British rate would potentially reduce investment in Ireland by non-EU firms by over one quarter.
What this figure might be following Brexit is unknown – but certainly it won’t turn from a major negative to a positive.
This reinforces the need for us to resist domestic and European voices calling for greater taxation of employers. In this context, a message in forthcoming meetings should be that Brexit cannot be used as an excuse for resurrecting old demands to end national discretion in tax policy.
The ESRI study also demonstrated that the decision taken in 1997 to invest in research and build the knowledge base of the economy is central to Ireland’s long-term prospects. It is one area where we have the ability to create high-value, high-security employment.
The delayed and then rushed science strategy published before the election contained many things but a financial commitment to a broad research community wasn’t one of them.
We should note that the British science community, one of the strongest in the world, is in near panic over the impact of Brexit.
This has to be revisited. We have to use research and innovation to increase our opportunities and limit the threats from Brexit.
In other business, the summit agreed to give more flexibility to Spain and Portugal in relation to meeting fiscal targets. This is welcome. The Semester process cannot be allowed to degenerate into a crude and inflexible control mechanism which ignores economic reality.
Some have begun to lobby for the lifting of sanctions concerning the invasion and partition of Ukraine. In all cases this is justified by business interests. I hope the Taoiseach remains strong in opposing this. There is no surer way to ensure more aggression against European states than to reward aggression by removing the limited penalties which have been applied.
I believe we also need to request a shared initiative against the rising tide of intolerance and scape-goating which we see in many countries. Ireland should take the lead in pushing for greater solidarity and resolution in the face of an immediate threat to fundamental values.
Last week’s summit set no definitive course. September should bring some greater clarity. In the meantime Ireland has no time to waste.