This week’s summit was due to mark a moment of significant progress on Brexit. Unfortunately this will not now happen.
For Ireland many warning signals are now going off which suggest that, at best, meeting our negotiating objectives will be extremely difficult.
Given the scale of how important this is I will use this brief statement to focus solely on Brexit. My colleagues will address the other important issues on the Council’s agenda during their contributions.
It is now over two years since the Brexit referendum and over six months since a political text was agreed and the Taoiseach, in an obviously euphoric mood, said, to quote him directly, “we have achieved all we set out to achieve.”
Yet the reality of the situation today is that the only agreed text in relation to Ireland concerns matters which were never actually in doubt. What has been agreed are points which were found in the negotiating positions produced by both sides in the first half of last year.
A deadline which we were repeatedly told was central to the achievement of Ireland’s objectives will be missed this week. The draft conclusions for the Summit state clearly “no substantial progress has yet been achieved”. Yet the government’s tactic is to throw a few digs at London and hope that nobody notices that its negotiating strategy is at best in deep trouble.
The major questions which must be asked today are what exactly is the current status of the negotiations on Ireland and what is our government going to do to try and change a dangerous dynamic which may lead to a very poor outcome later this year?
One of the problems in talking about Brexit has been the shift over the last year to a situation where the bulk of coverage in our media is dominated by official briefings. There has been very little tough questioning of government and no real attempt to our leaders to reconcile obvious contradictions in their positions.
At a political level, what had been an open approach to discussions with other pro-EU parties on this issue changed completely in the middle of last year. In place of dialogue we have seen a remarkable level of arrogance and a demand that other parties basically shut-up and toe the line.
In fact, there has also been growing evidence of a government which is willing to play cynical political games with Brexit – even going as far as to try to talk up the supposed instability of its negotiating mandate.
Fine Gael’s leaked research and its always industrious briefers confirm that the Taoiseach wants to try and engineer a way of recreating the wave of uncritical support he received after last December’s agreement.
My party will not let this messing by the government distract from the hard substance of the challenge which Brexit poses to Ireland and the need for clarity about what Ireland is seeking and what Ireland believes is a credible outcome.
The position today is less clear than at any stage since early last year. The simple, hard fact is that the government spent six months saying that June was a critical moment when we had to see substantial agreement on Ireland-specific proposals.
The government’s strategy had two main tactical objectives from the very beginning – first, that Ireland would not be still on the table when the final status element of the Withdrawal Treaty was being discussed and second that we would support the UK if it tried to find a backdoor to continued access to the Custom’s Union and Single Market. Both of these tactical manoeuvres have failed leaving us in a deeply uncertain position.
The Taoiseach has taken to claiming that he has always insisted that June was not a deadline but the record shows this to be simply not the case.
The record of the House is full of his statements saying that progress was required by June in order for there to be a deal.
Separately, the Tánaiste, on the 16th of March said Ireland was “putting down a marker” for June. On April 29th he said that Ireland would not allow negotiations to move forward without clear signs of a solution and “we need to see substantial progress in June”.
On May 14th he said that Ireland “certainly” needed to see a solution on the backstop “taking shape by the end of June.”
It’s possible to go on and on with similar quotes demonstrating that June was indicated as a decisive date for Ireland by our own government.
In fact, the government went further than this at one stage. On December 12th and in various media appearances afterwards, both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste said that the Phase 2 talks would be suspended if there was any attempt by the UK at “backsliding” on the backstop agreement.
Well they have attempted to backslide, the June deadline has been missed and no significant progress has been made.
In this circumstance the very least the government owes the Dáil and the Irish people is an honest explanation for what this means and why they decided not to follow-through on their loud and repeated threats.
And let’s be clear – we have not called for a suspension of the talks at any time, but the government has threatened this needs to explain its backing-off.
It is not good enough for the government to effectively try to cough into its hand, have another go at the Brits and hope people haven’t noticed that they have just missed their own key deadline.
Yesterday the government issued another official update on Brexit developments. It includes a range of reports and six photos of the Taoiseach – but it contains no mention whatsoever of this week’s summit and the missed deadline.
Fundamentally, this mess is purely the creation of a particular class of English politician for which self-regard and a disinterest in facts has elevated prejudice to the level of ideology.
They have turned their country from the fastest growing in Europe to the slowest and have already reduced their national income by an estimated €400 million a week. They have been as incompetent and as incoherent as it is possible to be.
But this does not absolve our government from its responsibility to be open about the status of the negotiations, the increasing risk of new barriers to trade and what appears to be a complete breakdown in political-level contacts with London on this issue.
And we also need government to have the honesty to admit that it may have wasted months in the hope that London could use the backstop as a way to reverse the UK as a whole into the Customs Union and Single Market.
This was the proposal made early this month by Prime Minister May.
When the Taoiseach was briefed by her about it he welcomed it as progress, but he has been distancing himself from it since Michel Barnier rejected it, as unacceptable cherry-picking which endangers the EU’s legal order.
I know the Taoiseach denies this, but the record shows that he has supported this option for some time. In fact, in the written statement he released on December 8th when praising himself for achieving “all we set out to achieve” he explicitly stated:
“So there is a backstop arrangement in which Northern Ireland and perhaps all of the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union”.
The Taoiseach himself supported the use of the backstop for the whole of the UK, it was proposed by the UK and it has now been rejected – involving a waste of scarce time in the process.
The backstop was sold by the Taoiseach, to quote just a few of the descriptions he has used, as “bullet-proof”, “concrete”, “cast-iron” and “rock-solid”.
Yet six months on there has been no progress on turning it into an agreed legal text – or in reconciling his interpretation of the backstop with the claim he also made on December 8th that there would be no new barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain.
Following passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill last week in Westminster Brexit is for the first time a legal fact in British law.
There appears to be no reasonable scenario where it can be reversed and Brexiteers now have a stronger hand.
Equally, there are 39 billion reasons to believe that the momentum for a Withdrawal Treaty is unstoppable – and given how Ireland cried wolf about suspending the negotiations if London tried to backslide, we have to assume our government accepts this.
So what is the dynamic which takes a non-productive strategy over the last six months and delivers a new impetus behind the type of deal we were told was already in the bag last December?
Is it really the Taoiseach’s position that our government can go through this process without proposing anything concrete? Do we really have no proposals for how continued free trade would work on this island?
Unless something serious is done, the final status paper the UK government is to produce will be the new focus of negotiations and will confirm that Ireland is directly linked to this wider issue.
We need this summit to mark the end of a period of tough talk matched by ongoing drift. We need our government to put aside the spin and be direct and honest about how it believes this process can reasonably end.