Speech by Brendan Howlin TD on pre European Council Meeting 22-23 June

Issued 21 June 2017

Taoiseach,

 

This will be an important occasion for you, your first European Council, at a critical time in our country, and our European Union’s history.

 

It is unfortunate that as Brexit negotiations finally get underway, that the team that represents our country and the institutional knowledge they had in Europe has been completely changed.

 

The sacking of the European Minister for State Dara Murphy, and the appointment of a new Minister for Foreign Affairs to replace Charlie Flanagan, alongside your own election, means that a new political team must quickly get up to speed.

 

Important relationships on Brexit, that have been built up over the last year by the former Taoiseach, and the outgoing Ministers have now been lost and must be rebuilt.

 

Europe is undergoing change.

 

A new French President has been elected, and Germany will soon face elections.

 

Meanwhile Russia continues to be a destabilising influence on our eastern borders.

 

I understand you will engage in a bilateral meeting with the President of the European Council Donald Tusk in advance of the meeting.

 

When he wrote to you on your election he did highlight the challenges our island faces from Brexit. Your predecessor, while criticised on many things, ensured that the EU and our member states were well briefed on Ireland’s concerns.

 

When you meet with Tusk, I hope you will also raise with him the future approach of the EU to the Paris Agreement and the decision by President Trump to withdraw.

 

There is an urgent need for the EU to step up and show global leadership on climate change in the absence of our American friends.

 

The dominant conversation of the Council will of course be Brexit.

 

In advance of the Article 50 meeting on Thursday, the Council will exchange views with the President of the European Parliament.

 

I hope you will use the opportunity to build a relationship with Antonio Tajani who will have a crucial role in the approval of the final Brexit deal.

 

It is critical that a deep understanding of Ireland’s concerns is communicated to the Parliament as MEPs have in effect a veto on the final withdrawal agreement.

 

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Formal Brexit negotiations have now begun.

 

It is welcome that the Prime Minister of the UK committed again to the goal of a frictionless border when you met her on Monday.

 

However as we know, their intention to withdraw from the single market and the customs union makes that all but impossible to achieve.

 

I am gravely concerned at the approach thus far by the British.

 

It does not bode well for Brexit that at the first formal meeting with Barnier, that the Secretary of State for Brexit, David Davis, came with no prepared negotiating papers instead simply referring to their White Paper and the Prime Ministers Lancaster House speech.

 

We have little time as it is. The British have just squandered more time on their snap election.

 

And have come out of that without a mandate nor a majority nor a clear position on Brexit.

 

Frankly, they are floundering, and the scale of the challenge they face is slowly dawning on the British people.

 

We have no detail on what the British Government want apart from an unrealistic desire for all the benefits of EU membership without the costs.

 

At some point in the coming months they will have to make a choice. And no matter what they choose, it will be damaging for Ireland – both our society and economy.

 

I hope when the intense negotiations with Barnier start on the 10th July that we will see some more detail from the UK.

 

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Saying that, it is welcome that the British have agreed to the EU’s proposed phasing of discussions.

 

However, the strand of the negotiations dealing with Ireland will now be subject to a slower dialogue. This is disappointing and I hope you will raise it with Barnier when he briefs the EU27 Council.

 

We cannot rest on our laurels having secured commitments in the negotiating mandate and having brought our concerns to the attention of all member states and officials.

 

The process must be continuous, right up to Brexit and afterwards.

 

The acceptance of the UK of the EU’s phasing means that any discussions on a free trade agreement will not occur until after other details have been decided including the exit bill, and the issues facing Ireland.

 

However the issues facing Ireland are also intrinsically linked to the future trading relationship between the EU and the UK.

 

With so little time available before we reach the Article 50 deadline in less than two years, a comprehensive free trade agreement as sought by the UK will not be achieved in that time.

 

It will be imperative that a transitional agreement is put in place as we in the Labour Party have argued for, for some time. This will ensure that Irish companies have time to adjust and grandfather in changes.

 

The impact of Brexit will fundamentally alter and impact on our island. It particular it will destroy jobs.

 

I have raised with your predecessor many times the need for domestic policy action, and also the need to secure funding and policy changes in Europe.

 

The Labour party published our policy document on Brexit in March. While much has changed since, the actions it calls for are still needed.

 

We have consistently argued for increased investment in infrastructure – both in our ports and roads, but also in housing and schools.

 

Further, since the first civil dialogue in Dublin Castle I have highlighted the need for an early warning system between employers and trade unions, and critically, the need to seek changes to the European Globalisation Adjustment fund to support workers and employers impacted by market changes due to Brexit.

 

One of our ambitious ideas was the need to seek a waiver to state aid rules and establish a Brexit Trade Adjustment Fund of €250 million to support companies to transition post Brexit.

 

These three key ideas – investment, support for workers and support for companies have all been championed by IBEC this week.

 

There is a growing consensus on what Ireland must do to support jobs, people and the economy. Labour has put forward ideas.

 

Now the Government must act. Europe has an open ear. We need tangible policy decisions now on the EGAF and state aid. Words are not just enough.

 

The Council on Friday will also discuss migration, and the crisis in the Mediterranean.

 

As Taoiseach I hope you will deliver on the commitment we made together in Government on accepting refugees. We had committed to accepting over 2,600 by September,

 

So far, we have yet to take 700 asylum seekers from Italy that we pledged to. I hope you will use the power of your office to resolve this and ensure Ireland lives up to our commitments.

 

You might also outline your approach on Security and Defence issues, and your view on enhanced integration at an EU level on this?

 

Finally, the Council will address Jobs Growth and Competitiveness.

 

Once again I call on you to seek changes to the EU fiscal rules so that Ireland can make the investments it needs.

 

In your FG policy manifesto you committed to increased investment and scraping the rainy day fund.

 

I welcome that you have adopted these Labour Party policies.

 

Now it is time to deliver.