When the UK voted narrowly to leave the European Union it did so on the basis of an ugly and fundamentally dishonest campaign. Those who promoted a Leave vote were unanimous in claiming that it was all going to be easy and there would be no problem keeping all of the best bits of EU membership.
It would be easy to spend all our time talking about how wrong they were and how they have inflicted enormous damage on the welfare and standing of both their country and the democratic world. The wilder elements of the Tory party certainly provide enough openings for comedy – but the harsh reality is that there is nothing funny about what is going on and time is now running out.
In less than a year Brexit will take effect. Yet there is clarity on effectively nothing.
This is, of course, the fault of one side of the negotiations – however the impact of this uncertainty is broad and deep. The decisiveness and clarity which was claimed for elements of December’s deal, particularly in relation to Ireland has been followed by delay and dispute.
It is a major cause for concern that the Brexit Secretary last week said that there is no problem waiting until October to agree the text for the Withdrawal Treaty – something which leaves no time for last minute disputes to be resolved and maximises the pressure on others to accept whatever deal is on the table.
I would like to thank Michel Barnier for being here today and for his continued attention to Ireland. His interest and understanding of issues concerning North/South relations is one my party has long experience of and we remember his early and active support for special funding to underpin the peace settlement of 1998.
M. Barnier, when you visited Dáil Éireann almost a year ago you gave us a commitment that you would be accessible and open. You and your excellent team have been true to this. My party is thankful to you for the briefings and discussions which have been held since then.
It has been a textbook case of maximising transparency and accessibility – an example which others could well consider following.
The situation today is that there remains a democratic consensus that Ireland’s future is with the European Union and that the Brexit process must be managed in a way which does not underpin the core principles of the Union. This will not change.
It is my party’s position that the full need for economic and other reforms within the Union has not been addressed. In particular we believe that the Union needs to have a budget which is capable of addressing the expectations which are put on it.
In relation to the negotiations, there is a considerable and growing unease about the failure to move from generalities to concrete and final agreements.
Allied with this is a concern that the damage of Brexit – which is already here and will get worse under any credible scenario – is not being responded to with the necessary urgency or ambition.
In relation to the Withdrawal Agreement, it is a great concern that the clear contradictions in December’s text remain unaddressed.
Prime Minister May’s letter on this matter at the last Summit simply restated that her government is both in favour of a soft border and will not introduce any trade or other barriers within the UK.
This position is indistinguishable from the position stated by London for the last 18 months.
To be fully candid, we are extremely concerned with how technical negotiations on the Irish text have now been twin-tracked with the final status negotiations – and the confusion over whether we are working to a June or October deadline is increasing this uncertainty.
An outcome where there is ongoing regulatory alignment North and South – and where Northern Ireland has effective access to both the Custom’s Union and Single Market is one which we fully support. Unfortunately what is being discussed at Westminster falls some distance short of this.
We are particularly concerned that the UK government is currently refusing to delegate to the devolved governments measures such as agricultural regulations – in fact they are taking them to the UK Supreme Court on the matter.
This brings into stark relief the fact that regulatory alignment will effectively be impossible unless we have working institutions in Belfast. This is something the parties involved should reflect on, particularly given the anti-Brexit majority in the still-suspended Northern Assembly.
The proposals for a customs union passed by the House of Lords and which have a high chance of success in the House of Commons, actually represent the second-worst scenario in the economic review commissioned by our government – with certain agri-food sectors and the services sector as a whole being particularly badly hit.
This study suggests a permanent loss to national income of over 4% – a level on par with the hit to the British economy.
The importance of the overall future UK/EU relationship to Ireland is clear – and the majority of the economic damage will be caused by new barriers in this relationship.
The need to help our businesses to diversify in terms of both products and markets is more urgent than ever – as is the need for a period where the state is allowed to support these efforts more directly than is currently allowed.
When states join the European Union their accession treaties include measures which allow a period of adjustment in select areas. While there is some flexibility in the existing treaties, including within the Withdrawal Treaty a provision which allows direct state aid for the worst hit regions and sectors would give certainty.
M. Barnier, we wish you well in your continued work and we look forward to maintaining the ongoing contact which has characterised your work to date.
In the coming months you have very serious barriers to overcome, especially the massive contradiction at the heart of the UK government’s negotiating position.