This week’s Council meeting is a very serious one which is important for Ireland, Europe and the broader international community. The run-up to the meeting has presented a false sense of calm which is belied by the fact that none of the major items to be considered is anywhere near resolution.
It has been indicated that the Council will note progress in relation to the Withdrawal Treaty which will cover the period from March 2019 to December 2020. In relation to general issues, the current text effectively represents the UK government facing up to the fact that to continue to have access to the Single Market and Customs Union during this period it must respect the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union. Rarely before has so much time and energy been wasted on getting a government to acknowledge the blindingly obvious.
In the text released on Monday there remain major gaps where there is no substantive agreement and the reality is that the Irish border is the largest of these gaps.
One of the casualties of the government’s obsession with spinning everything is that it is almost impossible to take it at its word any more when it comes to a political issue. It has shown itself incapable of acknowledging setbacks or unanticipated problems. As such the declarations of happiness with Monday’s agreement cannot unfortunately be taken at face value.
Equally the petulant aggression which has been shown to any party which has the temerity to question the government on Brexit is now on daily display. We saw more this yesterday when the Tánaiste made an extraordinary attack on Deputy Stephen Donnelly and my party. He claimed that we were undermining the government and that “all informed commentary” agrees with the government. This followed by the equally bizarre claim that the opposition was failing to consult the government enough.
The Taoiseach and his ministers would do well to understand that others are entitled to disagree with them. This remains a democracy and we have both a right and a duty to challenge them where we believe this is necessary. Equally they do not define what is and is not a Euro-positive position. As Ireland’s most consistently pro-EU party, which has negotiated and campaigned for a strong EU for nearly sixty years, we will not be taking any lectures from people incapable of offering a confidential briefing or going beyond vague and self-congratulatory public statements.
I would also point out that we have been signalling Brexit as a priority since the moment the British referendum was announced. We were pushing for preparations well before they commenced and we have been relentless in stating in both Britain and Europe the fixed political will of the overwhelming majority that Ireland remains committed to a strong EU and that the rights and interests of Northern Ireland are protected.
The Taoiseach should also look back and see that we were the first to point out the need to provide explicit, treaty-level, protection of the EU citizenship rights of residents of Northern Ireland.
The fact is that outside of Ireland the overwhelming majority of informed commentary has said that Monday’s deal represents a potentially dangerous kicking of the Ireland’s concerns. The UK has reaffirmed that it supports the principle of a backstop. It has absolutely not agreed to the backstop sought by Ireland which would involve the automatic continuance of Northern in the Customs Union and Single Market until we agree some other arrangement.
No text covering the substantive content of a backstop has been agreed. Prime Minister May’s letter confirms that she is committed to there being no East/West division in the UK. Equally the DUP has said it is entirely comfortable with Monday’s outcome – hardy something which inspires confidence given that party’s very negative attitude to the EU’s proposed text on a backstop.
Substantial commentary has suggested that this marks a moment where Ireland is losing traction on the principle that there will be no final status negotiations until a final status for Ireland is agreed. Reports from last week’s meeting of the 27 suggest that many countries have already started raising their final status demands.
We remain highly concerned that the Government failed to put forward any proposal for a special status for Northern Ireland early enough because of a misplaced belief that Ireland could force the UK to agree a major compromise on its overall relationship with the EU. This has now been dragged into a deeply unhelpful and destructive debate where it is being misrepresented as a threat to the agreed constitutional framework on this island and within the UK.
Unfortunately we have yet to hear, publicly or privately, anything from our government about how it sees option two working. Monday’s statements suggest that our priority is to make the overall EU/UK relationship as close as possible thereby making option two or a status-quo backstop unnecessary. How this might come to pass has not been explained even in the most general way.
The background to this is continuing evidence to Westminster committees that a no impact Border is impossible to create if the UK as a single trade area leaves the Customs Union or Single Market.
What we need is a lot more clarity and a lot less spin.
What exactly is our government’s bottom line? While it says it doesn’t want a hard border when will it give us a proper definition of what this means? Is it simply about the physical management of the border or does it encompass wider regulatory issues? Will we block the Withdrawal Treaty later this year if it does not include the current proposed backstop? What is the process by which the enormous gap between the EU position and UK position on the specifics of the backstop will be bridged?
Instead of more short-term spin it’s long since passed the time when we need some clarity on these issues. Unless we get it the suspicion will be that whatever emerges will be declared a victory irrespective of its likely divisive impact on this island.
The Summit will also address the issue of future steps in relation to taxation and in particular digital taxation. Fianna Fáil strongly objects to the attempt to push forward a proposal on which even the most basic background work has not been prepared. There has been no attempt to outline its impact on member states. It is a headline not a policy and it fails to address any of the causes of economic problems in the Eurozone or the Union as a whole. No member state would propose such a speculative measure within its own legislative process. It should be sent back to the Commission to be reworked in light of the OECD’s work and not returned until an impact assessment is produced.
In terms of the wider economic reform agenda, it is the duty of the Taoiseach to explain here the full detail of what he appears to be signing Ireland up to. It has been reported that Ireland is against an expansion of the EU’s budget and is against a number of measures which would give the EU some fiscal clout. It is also reported that we have aligned ourselves with countries who oppose some important elements of a true banking union.
The truth of these reports is unclear because the Taoiseach has made no public statement on them and his normally hyper-active briefers have said nothing to our journalists. He needs to deal with this before moving further and he should seek the legitimacy of a Dáil vote.
Our position remains that we believe in the need to expand the Union’s budget, if necessary through a new dedicated revenue stream, and that addressing the causes of the Eurozone crisis requires a more comprehensive set of reforms.
It is also reported that the replacement for Mario Draghi at the ECB is being negotiated. Mr Draghi is the person most responsible for the recovery of recent years. Under no circumstance should Ireland support a candidate who opposed the policies which saved the Euro and addressed the enormous errors which pushed Ireland and others into further difficulties.
The summit will also respond to the murders and attempted murders of Russians in the UK. There is no credible doubt about who is responsible for this savagery. This is a defining moment for Europe and the democratic world. Will we defend the rule of law or will we allow an increasingly undemocratic and aggressive country to undermine it?
While it is understandable that the UK’s decision to turn its back on strong cooperation between European states causes real anger, we must not have any doubt that we stand with them on this issue.
The response so far has been weak enough. Any proposal to reduce sanctions or appease anti-EU aggression should be opposed.
In this context, I believe that our government should immediately reverse its resistance to Deputy Lawless’s bill to protect our elections and must significantly increase the resourcing on the Data Protection Commissioner. Because of the companies based here we have a responsibility to work with and for other European states in addressing the already real attack on democratic discourse.