First of all thank you for the invitation to speak this morning and to talk with you about the future of the Brexit negotiations.
Before I get into the details of the issues of the moment I would first like to step back and talk about the bigger picture of Ireland and Europe. It has been my position from the very beginning that this is not a normal negotiation. Our national interest is complicated and cannot be defined in narrow terms. We have to pay close attention to short, medium and long-term issues – and not all of our objectives are aligned.
The most obvious point is that we both want an outcome which limits the damage of Brexit and a policy which protects the European Union and makes it more dynamic. I am not sure we are anywhere close to coherence on these matters at political level in government. An approach which seems focused substantially on spinning short-term developments is both risky and carries with it substantial opportunity costs.
The future of the European Union and Ireland’s role within it has been one of the most important issues for me as leader of Fianna Fáil. As far back as 2012 I began what has become a lengthy series of detailed speeches outlining our policies and calling for a new departure in how Ireland interacts within its defining relationship.
Our position has been absolutely consistent in calling for a more urgent and ambitious programme of engagement within the European Union and support for both the development and reform of the Union.
We did this as a part of our overall work to properly understand the lessons of the recessions in both Ireland and Europe. While in other countries parties saw the recession as a moment to blame Europe our analysis was and remains that there is no credible way for European countries to protect living standards and the fundamental principles of liberal democracy outside of a strong, rules-based and ambitious community of nations.
We believe that the Union needs a new source of revenue, a larger Budget in order to both protect existing programmes and allow for essential new ones and that it must complete a proper banking union.
Our starting position in relation to Brexit is of a Euro-positive party which believes that Ireland has to start speaking up for a far more ambitious Union. The reality of domestic politics in some countries, and especially Germany, may make many of these objectives unobtainable – but if there is one thing the recession should have taught us it is that an EU which refuses to evolve is one which will continue to face existential threats.
The UK, and England in particular, is a tragic demonstration of the damage which can be caused by sustained Euroscepticism by centrist voices.
From early in the term of the Cameron government it became obvious that it was incapable of breaking out of the damaging cycle of irredentism which had plagued the Tory party for 30 years. The Review of Competencies which they commissioned failed miserably to find evidence to back up the claim that the EU was costing them huge amounts or smothering them in red tape. Inconveniently, the feedback in nearly every sector was that EU bureaucracy was welcome because it replaced multiple national rules and it directly enabled trade.
Yet they ploughed on and entered a futile negotiation based on trying to find a rationale to back up little more than prejudice.
In February 2015 I said in a speech to the IIEA:
“The lack of a credible agenda for treaty revision means that it is almost impossible to imagine the Tories getting what they want. And the idea of hollowing out the EU to be a glorified free trade area… is one we should never agree to.
It is Ireland’s duty to prepare for the possibility that Britain may leave the Union. We need to prepare for what our position would be on negotiating a new East-West relationship in these islands.”
I think valuable time was missed here at a political level in the vain hope that David Cameron could follow a decade of anti-EU rhetoric with a successful pro-EU campaign.
After a very slow start, I would have to say that in the final six months of his period as Taoiseach, Enda Kenny showed serious commitment to building a national consensus. In particular he was open to input from us during the process of discussing the critical negotiation guidelines and the directives for the Barnier team. For example he took up our point that we must seek a commitment to the ongoing EU citizenship of residents of Northern Ireland.
Since then, to be honest, the sharing of information has been very limited and the political leaders of government have taken an approach of attacking anyone who has the temerity to question them. They have been very lucky that the strength of the pro-EU consensus amongst most of the opposition means that we have actively avoided conflict.
I know this is not a political forum, but it is impossible to see the last week’s worth of newspaper reports and not mention the role of Brexit in domestic politics.
As has been revealed in multiple articles, the government has been actively looking at scenarios where it might be able to use Brexit as an excuse for calling an election. This is based on the premise that the Taoiseach will continue to get uncritically positive media coverage on this topic and that the public will rush to the side of him and his party.
It appears that they have not fully internalised the fact that calling an election to get a stronger negotiating hand on Brexit has a somewhat poor record as a strategy.
I think this recent talk is grossly cynical and does our country a great disservice. For a government to talk-up the idea of instability where it does not exist and to try to link this to such a critical negotiation is a disturbing development.
There is no lack of a negotiating mandate on Brexit. Cross-party support couldn’t be clearer – and the only basis on which a deal might be rejected would be if it undermines our EU membership or if our government seeks a hard border. Neither of these outcomes is conceivable at this point so there is no doubt that the government has a clear mandate for its stated negotiating objectives.
This does not mean that we think they are correct in elements of how they handle the negotiations – with the political over-spinning of everything being a particular problem. But the essential point is that the only way there will be a doubt over Ireland’s Brexit stance is if the government continues to try to hype the idea of calling an election over Brexit.
As the correspondence records of Michel Barnier and Jean Claude Junker will testify, we have taken an approach of emphasising to the Union’s negotiators that there is a broad national consensus behind the principles of remaining in the Union, protecting the Good Friday settlement and respecting the integrity of the Union’s legal order. This approach will continue.
We are very concerned about how three months of talking about June being an important deadline have been abandoned without any adequate justification. Expecting people to have short-term amnesia over what the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have been saying is a bit much even for this hyper-political government.
As stated last December, the direct contradiction between the backstop idea for Northern Ireland and the text relating to the integrity of the UK must be resolved before we can bank any achievement. The overselling of the agreement was a mistake and we are now entering a more uncertain period.
There are 39 billion reasons why it is dangerous for Ireland to be left until October. No matter how strong the vows of solidarity are, Ireland’s hand is now weaker than it was.
Given how the British government has so far been incapable of coming up with a credible proposal on how to avoid imposing new border controls in Ireland, we now need to address the fact that it may not be capable of doing so at all.
This is where Ireland’s decision to refuse to table any proposals may be unsustainable.
The Taoiseach tried and failed to get some momentum behind the idea that the backstop could be used to keep the whole of the UK in the Customs Union and Single Market.
So the question now is how can something like the proposed backstop work? How can we respect both sides of the constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland but avoid a hard border?
For two years London has failed to produce anything to deliver on its early and consistent promise to avoid a hard border. It’s probably beyond time for Ireland to start tabling specific mechanisms.
I remain convinced that a form of special economic zone is the only credible way of doing this. It would offer Northern Ireland more than a way of avoiding the worst of Brexit – it would offer it a development agenda which it currently lacks.
Long-term, the UK and EU red lines indicate that the relationship will be one of a deep free trade agreement. No other solution which is politically credible in both London and the EU 27 has been suggested.
This being so, I think Ireland needs now to switch to a more aggressive stance in relation to helping industries to diversify in products and markets. This will almost certainly require an agenda which includes subsidising new compliance costs and limited exemptions from state-aid rules. Both of these require EU agreement and work has to start on them as soon as possible.
We also need a genuine political commitment to trying to have the Northern Institutions restored. Without the Assembly and Executive there is actually no workable mechanism available to ensure continued convergence.
The Copenhagen Economics study suggests that the current best-case outcome of the negotiations will involve the permanent loss of 4.3% of GDP – equally roughly €2,500 per capita. This assumes no other policy changes – so we have to take this baseline and start being aggressive in seeking opportunities to reduce the impact.
I believe that there will be a withdrawal treaty and that it will contain text about Ireland. There is a Gordian Knot which needs to be cut – and this requires more than us shaking our heads at the undoubted incompetence and incoherence of the British government.