Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I attended the Committee for Budgetary Oversight earlier today and it was good to hear that the Minister for Finance is to introduce a Brexit package to support Irish businesses, exporters and hopefully the Irish farming sector. Witnesses at a recent Committee for Budgetary Oversight, including the Irish Tax Institute, IBEC and the chambers of commerce, all called for additional supports for companies that will be strongly impacted by Brexit whether in 2019 or 2021. I hope that any such tax expenditure will have detailed costings and that a time cap is put on whatever provisions the Minister will bring forward. Undoubtedly some supports are necessary for Irish industry and agriculture and the EU 27 should contribute heavily to their funding. I welcome that the Minster for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, inaugurated the stakeholders’ forum. The reality of the vital necessity to protect the North of Ireland and its people, in respect of Brexit, came home to us recently when the UK Office for National Statistics, in conjunction with Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and Ireland’s Central Statistics Office showed us quite clearly the incredible amount of interaction between the North and the South. There are 110 million Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland crossings back and forth annually and a huge number of rail passengers.
There are nearly 300,000 UK citizens living in the Republic of Ireland while there are well over 100,000 persons of EU birth living in Northern Ireland. It is therefore welcome that Prime Minister Theresa May announced in her recent speech in Florence that the UK did not plan to bring forward new border infrastructure such as the infrastructure we had during the disastrous years of the Troubles. I also welcome the emphasis by Mr. Michel Barnier on the protection of the common travel area as a core objective. It was good to see that the Florence speech at last signalled an acceptance that a transition period was essential prior to Britain leaving the EU.
While the visits to the House of Mr. Michel Barnier and Mr. Guy Verhofstadt seemed reassuring at the time, it is fair to say that profound concerns remain among our citizens North and South as to whether our interests will really be protected in March 2021. Last week, we thought there had been strong progress on the three issues of our own country, citizens’ rights and the financial settlement, but we have now heard that there has not been. A lot of people have concerns about both sides in this negotiation. In the UK, Minister David Davis and his Brexiteer allies were clearly ready at the start of the negotiations to have a so-called “hard Brexit” and to drive their economy and country, and us with them, off the cliff. That would have been disastrous for Irish and UK trade and for our economies. It is good to hear the British Labour Party say through Mr. Keir Starmer that there is a need for a transition period. The current and very popular leader, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, has indicated that there may have to be a second referendum on the result. Of course, the UK Labour Party feels the ordinary working people of England, in particular, and Wales made a decision to leave which has to be respected.
On the other side, it sometimes seems with Europe that it is a case of one step forward, two steps back. I have always been unhappy that Ireland is not directly represented at the table and that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, is not part of the actual negotiating team. We remember in the House the great former Finance Minister of Greece, Mr. Yanis Varoufakis. He detailed in his book “Adults in the Room” how impossible it was to negotiate with the EU. Mr. Wolfgang Schäuble, Mr. Jerome Dijsselbloem and the rest of them sidelined him and refused, almost, to accept him as the Finance Minister of his country. Eventually and in effect, they got him sacked.
The most astonishing thing of all on the European side is that at the very moment when one of its largest economies and member states is leaving, the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has come forward with federal proposals including qualified majority voting on the CCCTB – the tax base – which could be disastrous for us. We then had President Macron addressing the kids in the Sorbonne to say there will be one president and parliament for the eurozone and one finance minister. Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, who came to the House, is dedicated to creating a federation in Europe. At the very moment that people are leaving and five or six other member states, including Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, have grave concerns about the European Union, we get this agenda. What happened to multi-speed Europe? We have so much in common in terms of culture, history, trade and other interests and Britain could have stayed somewhere in the outer part of that planetary system.
I welcome the fact that there will be a Brexit package. I welcome the moves which have been made to link up and work closely with Denmark, the Netherlands and others to encourage a situation in which, if there must be a divorce, it is a velvet one. There are 22 smaller member states, of which we are one, in the remaining 27. Sometimes when one reads Mr. Yanis Varoufakis, one is reminded of the Hotel California from the famous song which the Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan, may remember from his rock and roll days. As he knows, one of the lines states “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”. A lot of people think the European Union is exactly like that and that, in some way, Britain will always be with us as a member state.