The main outcome of last week’s Council is welcome but it is certainly not something which we should celebrate because it brings closer the finality of the Brexit project.
Brexit is one of the most profoundly regressive and damaging projects for many decades. It is based on an approach to national sovereignty, rules-based cooperation and the protection of the environment, workers and consumers which seeks to return Europe to a model of competition which brought nothing but destruction in the past.
We need to be very clear, that the principal changes negotiated with the Johnson government in recent weeks are a step backwards, albeit probably unavoidable given the behaviour of London. This involves a decisive move towards a long-term hard Brexit and the adoption of a final status for Northern Ireland which is welcome but has serious uncertainty built into it – and as we are seeing in the crisis which has overtaken the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, uncertainty can have a very negative impact over the long term.
As the Taoiseach accepted here during questions a fortnight ago, the proposed deal sets out a framework for the UK to leave both the customs union and the Single Market and to do so without any legally enforceable rules in relation to fair competition.
When we first discussed this matter here in 2016 this was accepted as the definition of a hard Brexit and it was the worst-case outcome for the overall relationship between the EU and Britain.
In acknowledgement of this, both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste repeatedly stated in mid-2017 that the east/west relationship was of paramount importance to them because of the scale of Irish trade involved. In fact they went so far as to directly criticise those of us who were then talking about special arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Obviously, the political situation in Westminster remains as fevered as ever and we have no guidance on what might change in relation to this final status discussion.
This said, the votes yesterday and the overall direction of events suggests that this deal is probably as good as it will get in terms of the final status.
It is hard to see how legally enforceable measures come into place which moves away from an FTA hard Brexit or indeed a WTO Brexit either at the end of next year or a couple of years later.
The Brexit fanatics who appear to set the limits for how far the prime minister is willing to go have decided that ending all legal and financial connections with the EU after 2020 is their absolute red line so it is hard to see how he will move away from that position.
This being so we need our government to publish an updated economic assessment of this new deal and a revised list of action for helping businesses cope with the reality of what is on the way.
The belated No Deal preparations of recent months come nowhere near the systematic long-term action we need to cope with the structural problems which will now impact businesses trading with Britain.
The permanent rise in costs and loss of competitiveness which will come from increased regulatory compliance and sterling volatility.
The situation is more serious again in the services sector, where existing WTO rules and established models of free trade deals offer little or no comfort for many Irish businesses in terms of market access and charges.
We now know that the British government does not seek the deep relationship with the EU which can only come from agreeing common rules and external trade policies. We need to move beyond the short-term and address the scale of the challenge which is now evident.
In relation to Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach said last week that the deal replaces the iron-clad, all-weather, bullet-proof nature of the previous text with something which includes more risks. It appears likely that this was the most any tory government would agree to, but we can’t just ignore the reality of these risks.
It has been reported that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill published on Monday night does not address in any detail how the provisions relating to Northern Ireland are to be implemented.
In terms of the most contentious part, which is the consent mechanism, this carries with it a major problem, which is that if this is not dealt with now we run the risk of losing a lot of leverage with the British government.
Northern Irish businesses in the services sector are deeply concerned about what they face in the future. Their trade with the EU is worth hundreds of millions and is disproportionately focused on areas which are high value and significant employers.
Rather than leave this to some later date to be sorted out – or indeed for the British government to be allowed use it as a negotiating point in the trade negotiations, this needs to be sorted out now.
As my party has been saying since 2016 we strongly support a special status for Northern Ireland and we reject the idea that this threatens anyone’s constitutional protections. It offers the best of both worlds and a potential to develop a new economic model to break the long-term cycle of under-development and disadvantage in Northern Ireland.
It is a good deal for Northern Ireland and it should be supported.
In early 2015 my party first addressed the issue of a potential Brexit and we have been consistent in our position since then. We have been clear in supporting a Euro-positive agenda and seeking ways of reducing rising tensions particularly in relation to the debate around Northern Ireland.
As the Taoiseach knows, at key stages we also directly contacted EU leaders to emphasize the core national unity in relation Brexit.
This included on one occasion having to reassure them that the Government’s claim that it might have to have an election to have a mandate on Brexit was simply partisan posturing by the main government party.
Indeed it has been one of the most consistent features of the past two years that every time there has been positive Brexit news Fine Gael starts talking about holding a snap election.
I’m sure the Taoiseach would like to acknowledge the role of non-government parties in ensuring a clear Irish message on Brexit – something which has been unique in Europe.
I’m sure he would also join us in acknowledging the work done on the negotiating guidelines early in 2017. It is a wonderful example of European solidarity that at no stage has there been any question of Europe stepping away from the commitments made early in the process.
I would like to acknowledge the support for Ireland provided by governments from our Renew Europe group.
And I would also like to thank Michel Barnier for his remarkable openness to opposition politicians since his appointment in 2016.
At different times it was striking how we were easily able to get information in Brussels which our own government did not make available.
Brexit is nowhere near over. Even if some way of ratifying the deal is manufactured in the next few weeks the Withdrawal Agreement just opens up a new phase of Brexit.
Years more of negotiations will follow. In terms of Northern Ireland we need to find a way of stabilising a situation where politics is failing and we face into a series of votes which could mean that Brexit never leaves the agenda.
We must also stop being one of the countries which resists key reforms of the European Union, especially in the realm of fiscal policy. We need to reverse the policy evident in recent weeks of actually being one of the leaders in opposing critical new funding to stabilise the Eurozone and help countries when they face the most pressure
I welcome the fact that Leaders expressed their opposition to the actions of Turkey in Syria and in particular the mass displacement and attacks which is ongoing in Kurdish areas.
It is a genuinely shameful situation where a minority is now squeezed between Turkey, Syria and Russia. The Kurds are amongst the biggest victims of the dissolution of empires in the twentieth century. Denied basic cultural and human rights in the four new countries they are spread across, they have developed a basic approach which is inherently more moderate and respectful of rights than any other group in the region.
I don’t realistically see what we can do for them which will make a major difference at this point, but at the very least we must stand with those who speak out against the repression to which they are being subject and to show the countries involved that consequences will flow from their actions.