The Taoiseach referred to the EU negotiating guidelines and to how the negotiations would proceed. Ireland needs direct representation at those negotiations because the sad Brexit decision by the UK is so significant for us. The Taoiseach said negotiations will take place under Michel Barnier and his team, who will report back to councils, but they will not necessarily be responsive enough to the minutiae of negotiations. Our vital national interests are at stake. Countries on the other side of Europe, such as Slovakia and Slovenia, have fundamentally different interests from ours. It is on the line for us as this is the most serious thing to have happened to us since the Second World War so it is not enough to be one of 27, as the Taoiseach suggested.
The team comprises Michel Barnier, chief negotiator, President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker from the Commission and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the alliance of liberals and democrats. One would wonder how, despite the balmy words of President Tusk, those officials will ensure that Ireland’s interests are fundamentally protected when the chips are down. Guy Verhofstadt, for example, is a very strong federalist and an advocate of ever closer union – the kind of point of view that ensured the UK would have a referendum in the first place. Jean-Claude Juncker is associated in this country with the LuxLeaks scandal and President Tusk’s own Government wanted to recall him so I am not sure I have that much confidence in them. We have clear evidence that the North-South issues have been accepted at European level. The common travel area has to be maintained because we cannot have the Border back in our country. The president of Sinn Féin argued earlier that all of Ireland must stay in the European Union and I am very sympathetic to that viewpoint.
We do not seem to have got across sufficiently the east-west aspect of these negotiations. I give credit to the Government for the reflections we have seen in the letter of the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and also in the response from the European Commission of the importance of Ireland’s interest being protected. I give credit to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and his colleagues for having achieved that. I also give credit to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and our diplomats.
The nature of our interaction with the island across from us is profound in trade, industry and culture. My colleagues referred to culture and sport. We operate as one area in so many respects. Some 40% of all flights from Dublin Airport are to London, one of the busiest routes in Europe and the world. We have massive agrifood exports to the UK and massive energy connections. We have very fundamental east-west connections. If we ended up with a hard Brexit, we would be facing a total disaster and whichever Government might be responsible to this House would have desperate situation to try to pursue.
We need to ensure that a free-trade area is agreed with the UK enabling us to operate as close as possible to the way we operate at present. That has to be our ambition. We need a much more vigorous approach than what the Taoiseach seemed to outline this evening. I feel we should have direct representation.
This has been spoken about as if it was a divorce between people – make the settlement first and then deal with the future. We need to deal with all aspects at the one time. I note that President Tusk seems to be changing his tune on that and has accepted that when issues such as UK payments to the EU and so on are being progressed, there will be fundamental discussion then on the free trade area. These are the most critical issues any Irish Government has faced since the 1940s. I ask the Minister to bear those points in mind.