Ceann Comhairle, I would like to begin today by saying our Party Leader Micheál Martin is not here this afternoon as he is actually on his way to Brussels today to meet the ALDE group on Brexit. He will of course be wearing the ‘green jersey ‘so to speak as he highlights the issues that are important to the country in the context of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations
As has been said before this is a moment of great uncertainty in relation to the future of the European Union yet this week’s summit involves no significant move to addressing any major challenge.
It is a ‘business as usual’ summit where all items on the agenda appear to have been agreed in advance and no new ideas will be considered.
For all those who wish the European Union well and who want it to be more dynamic and effective, this summit is far from encouraging.
Inevitably the decision of the UK to leave the Union has led to a huge amount of uncertainty about future policies. The arrogant and blustering approach of the London government over the last eight months has made a bad situation worse.
There is no clarity whatsoever on how relations with the UK will be conducted. While Mrs May has said she wants a “red, white and blue Brexit” she and her colleagues fail to understand that this is exactly the narrow, backward-looking type of approach designed to minimise the chance of a constructive deal.
Why on earth would any other country want to agree to a “red, white and blue Brexit”?
John Major’s excellent speech in Chatham House made the case very persuasively that the London government has to start showing some respect for the interests of others or the consequences will be grave.
We do not have the time here to fully discuss the details of Ireland’s position in relation to Brexit, but there are points which need to be made about developments in the last two weeks.
From the beginning the London government has claimed that Northern Ireland and Scotland will have their interests listened to in the negotiations.
They may have been listened to, but they certainly have not been responded to. In fact there is no case evident of a Northern Irish or Scottish concern being reflected in the government’s public position.
Prime Minister May has now said that she is not proposing to transfer to the devolved administrations any power repatriated from the EU. If we take this with the White Paper’s stated objective of ‘Strengthening the Union’ it appears that Brexit is seen as a way of increasing London’s control over the devolved administrations.
Assuming that the DUP/Sinn Fein axis can re-establish the Assembly and Executive and that Northern Ireland again has political leadership, the powers of the Assembly and Executive are not something which are a matter to be decided on unilaterally in London.
The complex architecture of powers which is reflected in the peace settlement is a matter for negotiations between the governments and with the parties.This explicitly reflects the position of policies currently decided at EU level. The Northern Ireland Act, which was the product of negotiations, reflects this.
I am saying very clearly to you Taoiseach, that you have an obligation to say to Prime Minister May when you meet her on Thursday that London is directly undermining the spirit and letter of the settlement by failing to negotiate on how the repatriation of policies will be treated for Northern Ireland.
This reinforces the fact that we need to immediately begin substantive discussions on the impact of Brexit on the Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act. The Article 50 negotiations do not have to be completed in order for us to proceed with these discussions.
The 1998 referendums reflect the established will of the people and they must be respected.
Unlike others, I don’t see how legally they can prevent Brexit, but certainly they do prevent London from taking any unilateral action in a series of areas – with human rights law being the most important.
These matters are entirely distinct from the Common Travel Area and potential special status for Northern Ireland. The longer we go on without a definitive statement from London that it accepts the need to negotiate before changing past agreements on Northern Ireland, the longer we risk a major crisis.
The House should note that the Tory government appears increasingly likely to use Brexit as an opportunity to squeeze regulations which protect workers and consumers. And of course there is already a push to greatly expand free trade with lower wage economies.
All of this makes our hard-Left’s support of Brexit all the more striking. Given that Sinn Fein has decided that it both hates everything the EU does and is fully committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the EU, it will hopefully work to persuade its uniformly anti-EU group in the European Parliament to change its mind.
Last week President Junker published the Commission’s document on where the Union should go from here. While it is called a White Paper, in reality it is nothing of the sort. It is a short document which contains some useful perspectives but actually proposes nothing concrete.
Five very general options have been presented which are effectively the same options which have been on the table for thirty years.
What would be more helpful would be the presentation of hard evidence on how a reformed Union could help more. Instead of ratcheting up the rhetoric we need to undertake the much harder work of identifying the areas where enhanced or reduced activity would deliver a quantifiable benefit to citizens.
If this document is the basis for further discussions then we risk another rerun of frustrating, technical and ineffective negotiations of the past.
We must also be careful of the approach of deciding that because something is possible to do that it should be done. A good example of this is in the area of security and defence.
The current arrangements are effective and allow member states to cooperate on a basis which respects everyone’s particular tradition.
The predictions of nuclear weapons being paraded down O’Connell St made during referendum after referendum have been shown to be bogus. Instead, we have states working closely to serve humanitarian causes. This cooperation has strengthened the wonderful work of Óglaigh na hÉireann.
Taoiseach, in relation to the security and defence agenda to be raised at this summit the case for change has not yet been made. Before the agenda moves from generalities to specifics we should make it clear that we are content with the current strategy.
The summit is due to briefly discuss the outcome of the semester process and responses to country specific recommendations.
The greater flexibility of the Commission is to be welcomed, as is the change of its tone.
Unfortunately there has not yet been a change of policy in relation to Greece.
Syriza has long-since abandoned its original approach of demanding the right to abandon debts, receive more money and implement a massive expansion in spending. Greece needs significant debt relief – be it a freezing of debt or some other measure, it cannot achieve sustainable growth without further relief.
Allowing this issue to keep rolling along risks a return to the debt crisis of recent years and its impact will be felt by all through rising cost of borrowing.
Ireland should speak against the drift and call for a new urgency on this issue.
In relation to the President of the Council, Donald Tusk has filled the role excellently. He has shown strength in moving the agenda forward as much as he can and he has shown an ability to speak hard truths.
I have been particularly impressed by how he has been consistent in speaking up for the rights of small nations particularly those threatened by outside aggression.
It is Fianna Fáil’s position that President Tusk absolutely deserves a new term and that Ireland should actively support him.
The summit will briefly discuss external affairs. The humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian government with the active aid of the Russian Federation remains as acute as ever. To read and watch families in Mosul under consistent attack is actually heart-breaking. There will be a whole generation of children that will never be able to have a normal life after seeing indiscriminate bombings, shootings and random assassinations. Historians will look back and ask why Europe didn’t do more to stop it.
Given the position of the Trump administration on refugees and its intention to massively cut overseas aid, Europe must take a different route. The case for a significant increase in direct humanitarian aid remains overwhelming.
Finally Taoiseach, the awkwardness of holding an anniversary celebration at the moment when a member begins the process of leaving is obvious. I would hope that the Treaty of Rome events to be held on March 25th will have some substance and that they will be a demonstration of respect and solidarity.
Europe has achieved incredibly positive progress in the last 60 years and rejected the destruction of the ideological extremes. It is worth renewing but to achieve this we need leadership, urgency and ambition.