Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil
Dáil Éireann, Tuesday 4th April 2017
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In the days before Prime Minister May formally triggered Article 50 the leaders of the EU’s institutions and of the remaining 27 countries gathered in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. The declaration which they issued is full of pious aspirations but very little substance and it is far from clear that there is a shared concept of what the Union’s priorities should be.
In his speech to the leaders Pope Francis took a very reflective and important look at the founding ideals of the Union and its current troubles. He criticised what he termed “today’s lapse of memory” as being at the heart of how so many are ignoring the sustained achievements of the European Union. In looking to the future he said to the leaders that especially in a time of uncertainty and the exploitation of fears “Those who govern a charged with discerning the paths of hope – you are charged with discerning the paths of hope.”
The next two years represent a moment when we will decide the future direction of our country and of the European community of nations and citizens. It is a genuinely historic turning point. The publication of negotiating documents marks the end of the phoney war and a move to grappling with the substance of the hard, destructive and narrow-minded Brexit which the British government has decided to proceed with.
While this is a matter between UK voters and their government, it should be noted that the form of Brexit which is now underway is very different from what was promised by the majority of the Leave campaigners. Exclusion from the Single Market and the Custom’s Union was dismissed by the prophets of having your cake and eating it.
On this matter, the Article 50 notification marks only the first of many times when claims central to the Brexit campaign are casually abandoned.
I have already addressed the fundamental issue of the future of Europe in other speeches, so I would like to address the focused issue of the situation currently facing Ireland and what we can do in the next month before the negotiations begin.
The Article 50 notification letter does contain some welcome language in relation to Irish/British connections and the draft EU document also contains important reassurances in relation to protecting peace and avoiding elements of a hard border.
However, on balance these documents are not encouraging and they only address one element of a much larger challenge for Ireland.
On the most basic level it is extremely disappointing that the special circumstances of Northern Ireland have not been properly acknowledged.
As I outlined in detail in a speech in Belfast last year, post-2019 there will remain in Northern Ireland 1.8 million people who will be entitled to claim EU citizenship. The frustrating of their democratic decision to remain in the EU is an important issue which the British government refuses to even reference let alone address.
However, this is an issue not just for the UK, it is an issue which should be addressed in the EU’s negotiating mandate. It would be unacceptable if an EU citizen were to find their rights within the EU to be compromised in any way following Brexit. Only by explicitly acknowledging this in the negotiating document can there be any hope that the final agreement will deal with this.
EU citizenship is something which was loudly and aggressively campaigned against by Sinn Fein and our other knee-jerk anti-EU groupings, but it is now a right protected by international treaties and which must be protected.
We are calling on our government to go back to President Tusk and to seek the inclusion of a specific reference in the negotiating mandate to the fact that the EU is conscious of the continued citizenship rights of Northern Ireland residents and will seek to underpin them in any exit treaties.
We also believe that a form of special status for Northern Ireland and the border region remains possible. The deep interlinking of social, economic and cultural ties is unique across any border in Europe. It would be absurd and incredibly damaging if basic supply routes across short distances were to be undermined.
The Article 50 notification included for the first time the possibility that the British government might seek credible transitional arrangements. This includes the possibility that it would accept the continued role of the European Court of Justice in underpinning dispute resolution and enforcement.
This potentially opens the way for a transitional arrangement which is specific to the unique circumstances of Ireland. For example, where traceability can be determined, a lengthy period during which we could operate a separate approach to some customs issues could be sought. In particular, a transitional arrangement specific to Ireland which bridges any gap between Brexit and a permanent trade agreement should be sought.
A point which is now inescapable is that we have to establish a new approach to working with the British government on an ongoing basis.
Protecting the many dimensions of the Common Travel Area – including not just employment but also access to health, education, welfare and other services – requires more than a once-off agreement. It requires a permanent and intense working relationship.
At present we do most of this through common EU policies. Absent this we need a new forum to ensure a structured and secure approach.
A new Irish-British Agreement dealing with matters other than the peace settlement will be required and we should be progressing this now.
Because the British government has chosen a hard Brexit and will opt-in to the very minimum of programmes, such as Horizon 2020, we know already that we need bilateral negotiations on other areas to define current practice and protect it for the future.
Separate entirely from the Brexit negotiations the EU needs to develop its own response to ensuring that the impact on member states is minimised as much as possible.
The UK government has already announced a fund for trying to move the supply chain in certain industries from EU states to the UK. In effect it has already fired the starting gun on using direct state aids to poach businesses. Any attempt by the Commission to enforce EU laws in this area would be irrelevant given that such enforcement takes much longer than 2 years. We can’t simply stand by and do nothing.
At a minimum we should seek immediate agreement that member states can take action during the next 2 years to combat any poaching efforts which are incompatible with current state aid principles. This should include the right to immediately support sectors most threatened by Brexit’s disruption.
Because it has received so much attention in recent days it is worth noting the controversy concerning the Gibraltar sentence in the EU document. The scale of reaction in London merely confirms how little they had thought through the implications of last year’s vote.
There is nothing controversial about the Spanish government’s position and the clause merely acknowledges the concessions made by Spain during it accession negotiations.
I welcome the comments from the Spanish Foreign Minister relating to Scotland. Should Scotland become an independent country and wish to join the EU, it should be welcomed without delay. It is a modern, liberal, democratic country which has demonstrated how in the modern world a national revival can happen with generosity to all and without any recourse to violence.
The acknowledgement of the Good Friday Agreement in the EU document removes the need to specify at this stage that Northern Ireland would be immediately incorporated into the EU should a majority vote for unity. This would be similar to the handling of German unification.
Some of the worst of the bombastic complacency heard from London since last June appears to have been replaced by elements of realism. The first sense of the Tories trying to avoid a chaotic Brexit has emerged. What we have not yet seen is a willingness to properly engage with the unique situation of Northern Ireland. Equally we have not begun the intense discussions required to have bilateral issues addressed in time for March 2019.
In Europe, the approach proposed by President Tusk is reasonable. His openness and the openness of Michel Barnier to Ireland is welcome. Before the final negotiating document is agreed we need to seek an explicit acknowledgement of the EU citizenship of Northern Ireland residents – and we should propose the immediate commencement of a parallel, internal process in which EU states can agree actions to mitigate the worst impacts of Brexit.
Brexit remains a historic mistake, driven by nostalgia for an imperial past and founded on crude attacks on outsiders. There is no beneficial Brexit. It is already causing damage and will continue to do so.
For Ireland there has been some progress but equally we need urgent engagement to address the many serious issues we face but which have, so far, been ignored.