The holding of tomorrow’s EU summit is essential but it is nonetheless a statement of just how badly the Brexit process has proceeded over the past three years. Two weeks after the date on which the UK was due to leave the EU there are some hopes that something may emerge from Westminster which is both acceptable to the EU and can win a majority in the House of Commons.
The passage last night of legislation designed to make a no deal scenario less likely is very welcome. However, in concrete terms it has achieved little beyond reaffirming what has been clear since January – which is the opposition of the Commons to a no deal Brexit.
We are still confronted by the major issues of how long this process can carry on and what the final permanent relationship with the UK will be. There is no more clarity on this today than there has been at any stage and new concerns have arisen relating to various options on the length of any new extension which is agreed tomorrow night.
It has been Fianna Fáil’s consistent position that the damage threatened by a no deal Brexit was too severe to allow it to happen and therefore we argued for and strongly supported the flexibility shown by the Council at the last Summit.
There was a clear tension at that summit between those emphasising the need for the EU to move on from Brexit and those emphasising the need for further patient and openness to a potentially longer-term extension.
The risk that impatience would lead to a rapid no deal was real and it was very welcome that key leaders compromised and accepted the need to prevent a Brexit crash on March 29th even if it meant more uncertainty.
The situation for tomorrow is that what was supposed to be the final Brexit summit is highly unlikely to be so. The task for the Summit, as determined by President Tusk, is to consider how much time to give the British government to reach a point where the Withdrawal Agreement can be ratified and an amended political declaration can be sought.
Obviously the best outcome would be for the UK to either hold a referendum to remain or to quickly ratify the Agreement and to seek a much closer connection with the EU than the free trade agreement agreed last year.
It has been established for some time that simply reaching an agreement with the British government is not enough and that most speculation about voting in Westminster is nothing more than speculation. Therefore there are many legitimate points of view on the length and scope of an extension.
We support the idea of offering any extension required to enable a process which has a credible chance of reaching a concrete conclusion. Whether it be a short or a long extension – or the sort of flexible extension which President Tusk has proposed – it remains absolutely the case that the EU should do whatever it takes to avoid the damage of a chaotic Brexit.
It is however important for Ireland to acknowledge that an extension which requires the UK to hold elections to the European Parliament carries a potentially dramatic downside which we need to help to manage. A long extension may be the best option – but let’s not pretend it is an easy option.
The opinion of President Macron and some other leaders that such a scenario threatens to destabilise the elections and radicalise some contests is one we have to take seriously. Therefore if the Summit agrees to maintain the demand for the UK to hold the elections it must also agree some initiative to tackle the backlash.
The threat from extreme forces and radicalised anti-EU rhetoric is one which must not be ignored and it must be challenged.
It has been suggested that the elections could be avoided even if the Withdrawal Agreement has not been ratified if the UK adopted some measure such as a referendum to ratify an outcome and this brought with it a certain conclusion to the Article 50 process.
We have not seen any legal opinions on this and other alternative scenarios, but it is one which we would support if it were legal and it could avoid undermining the European Elections.
Those elections are more important than they have been at any stage in the last forty years. They should be a direct fight between those who believe in the EU and want it to work better for their citizens and those who seek to undermine it and have opposed it relentlessly. They should be about where we go once Brexit is finished and anything which can make this happen should be endorsed by Ireland.
I would say as an aside that if it is the case given recent reports that Fine Gael actually intends to campaign on the basis that people should vote Fine Gael in order to “Back the Backstop” it would be almost breathtakingly cynical.
Given the cross-party support and lobbying for Northern Ireland from even before the early negotiating guidelines were drawn up, any attempt to exploit EU solidarity with Ireland for partisan interests would simply confirm that for this government politics always comes first.
An extension beyond this week is inevitable in all circumstances and this will give Ireland more time to prepare. I want to acknowledge that the Taoiseach has sent me a lengthy letter on the issue of no deal preparations following regular requests from me for this information over recent months.
Unfortunately the letter contains no information that wasn’t already in the public domain.
On March 29th 50% of businesses identified by the Revenue Commissioners as trading with the UK had not completed the first step of commercial registration. This is much worse than was expected when figures were released early last year showing the lack of follow-through from information to action on Brexit preparations.
On March 29th less than 10% of the funds in the main Brexit loan instrument were awarded.
Just as seriously, in the past two weeks a wide range of basic and fundamental notices about what different sectors must do in a no deal situation have been issued every day. This information is being published, the government says, because businesses need to be ready. Which raises the obvious question of why this information was not distributed in the week of March 29th – when the UK came perilously close to a no deal Brexit?
Whatever further delay is agreed tomorrow has to be followed by a completion of no deal preparation so that we will be genuinely ready for any eventuality.
And we also need some assurance about the process which will follow any final agreement. Under the Withdrawal Agreement the backstop is contingent on the EU engaging with the UK in good faith on issues related to the Irish border. What is the process to be followed on this and what arrangements are being contemplated? Are they in some way related to the company and ports based measures briefed to the media last week?
Of course the damage being caused to Ireland by the absence of the Northern Assembly and Executive continues. The people of Northern Ireland have been left without a voice at this dramatic moment in their history because their democratic institutions were collapsed two years ago over a heating scheme which appears to have lost a fraction of what was originally claimed.
The threat of imposing direct rule in Northern Ireland is unacceptable and we need a serious effort to try to break the impasse.
This summit confirms again that those who were demanding that we collapse this Dáil and government and spend months on campaigning and government formation were wrong. Ireland’s position is strong because Europe knows that Ireland’s approach is based on a broad consensus established in mid-2016 and strengthened continuously.
There are no circumstances in which Brexit will end any time soon. If everything works out, we will still have nearly two years of new Brexit negotiations to undertake – and the economic hurt caused by Brexit will continue. The fall in Sterling has directly undermined many businesses, particularly smaller indigenous firms which are reliant on the UK market alone.
We can’t wait for finality from London. We need much greater urgency in helping businesses and communities which are already hurting from Brexit and are scared of what lies ahead.
As we have before, we will support any reasonable proposal from the Summit which protect the EU and limits the damage of Brexit. The fact that this Summit has to be held at all is a failure of the process and of the UK political establishment. We should all hope that what emerges from the Summit moves the core issues to a resolution and doesn’t just move the can one step down the road.