There has rarely been a time in history when the Members of one Parliament watched the actions of another assembly – the House of Commons is voting as we speak – with such profound frustration and sadness. Although all communities on the islands of Britain and Ireland, including business, farmers and civic society leaders, plead for some degree of certainty regarding the Brexit decision by the British people in 2016, the tortuous manoeuvres at Westminster and between the UK and the EU just go on and on. Of course, even the Theresa May deal only extends to December 2020 and we hear with dismay that major trade deals, such as that between the EU and the UK, may take up to seven years. This ordeal might continue throughout the 2020s.
When we read the documents agreed by President Juncker and Theresa May yesterday, it seemed that at last, a formula had been devised to permit the withdrawal agreement to be approved. The instrument relating to the withdrawal agreement acknowledged once again that the parties to the agreement do not wish the backstop to become applicable and that both were committed to a subsequent agreement to ensure that there would never be a hard border in Ireland and that both parties would use their best endeavours to conclude by 31 December 2020, an agreement to supersede the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland in whole or in part. Section 12 of the instrument, of course, referred to the use of the dispute mechanism enshrined in articles 167 to 181, inclusive, of the withdrawal agreement.
The joint statement of the EU and the UK seemed to amplify the reassurance given to the UK on the backstop and this is also reflected in the declaration by the UK Government on the Northern Ireland protocol and backstop. Therefore, it is mind-boggling that the Prime Minister’s efforts were fatally undermined by her own Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox MP. While he concluded that the instrument and other documents reduce the risk of the UK being detained indefinitely without further agreement in a backstop, his final and unnecessary paragraph that the UK could not legally exit the backstop “save by agreement” with Ireland and the EU seemed to have given another excuse to hardline Brexiteers to prolong the UK withdrawal agony. It is no wonder that many commentators have wondered why the Prime Minister could not have run an agreement past her Attorney General in the first place, but they have also lamented that she had not chosen a reliable Attorney General as Tony Blair did in relation to the Iraq war, when he launched his disastrous campaign in there.
The publication of the UK’s proposed initial tariff regime today under a no-deal Brexit crystallises the profound anxieties of our farming and business community. The threat of tariffs on beef of 53% of the EU external tariff, poultry of around 60% and 100% on sheepmeat are a frightening prospect for our indigenous exporting economy. It is little reassurances to us to learn that these tariffs would not apply to our exports to Northern Ireland. It raises the issue, which was mentioned by Deputy Boyd Barrett and others, of what happens in a situation where the EU seems to expect us to erect a hard border on non-EU or UK goods coming into this country against our will and how we will react to that.
The UK says it intends to cut tariffs to zero on 87% of imports to the UK but acknowledges that imports of beef and cheddar cheese will be severely hit. The publication today is not only designed to put pressure on recalcitrant Brexiteers of the European Research Group but also on the Taoiseach and the Irish Government. The so-called temporary tariff regime document and so-called strictly temporary unilateral approach are clearly a direct threat to end the backstop which the Dáil and Irish Government must relentlessly resist.
I strongly support other speakers who have supported whatever budgetary steps are necessary to protect our economy and all sectors of our society. I agree with the Irish Congress of Trade Union and Sinn Féin proposal of a Brexit redress fund. I opposed the rainy day fund, as have other Deputies, at this time in our country’s development given the severe problems in health and housing but now that the fund is coming into existence, it and other national savings managed by the NTMA and its various funds should be allocated to protect against the severe existential shock of a no-deal Brexit or the many problems which may also arise with a much softer Brexit.
As my colleague, Deputy Boyd Barrett, noted, earlier this afternoon, the Committee on Budgetary Oversight had before it the EU Commission’s Deputy Director General of the EU Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, Mr. Carlos Martínez Mongay and his team who were responding to our questions on the European semester. I asked why the EU was not taking much more seriously the kind of scenarios that will arise for Ireland in budgetary and fiscal terms if there is a hard or disorderly Brexit.
I referred to how our 7% stellar GDP growth in 2018 could simply evaporate within a year or two. The Department of Finance is issuing ever more dismal forecasts of what may happen to us. Our own Parliamentary Budget Office, PBO, in its recent paper No. 8 of 2019 on the impact of a disorderly or no-deal Brexit, included estimates of cuts in GDP for 2019 by the Central Bank of 3%, the Department of Finance’s forecast of 1.5% and the ESRI’s suggestion of 1.4%, with longer-term estimates of cuts in growth by 6% from the Central Bank, 4.5% from the Department of Finance and 3.8% by 2027 by ESRI, and with the loss of 55,000 jobs. In the event of hard Brexit, these figures may be too sanguine.
Let us hope tonight, when the vote in the House of Commons is announced, the no-deal resolution will have been taken off the table. Of course, it will also depend on the UK Government seeking an extension to Article 50 to enable the final passage of a withdrawal agreement.
I believe the formula for implementing the Brexit referendum decision by the British people, which has been developed by Sir Keir Starmer MP and Mr. Jeremy Corbyn MP, of a customs union with EU market access for the UK and clear alignment, in particular, protection of workers’ rights in the UK, would seem to be the fairest basis for a future close relationship between Britain and the EU 27, including this country. Such a resolution, of course, as a colleague said, will depend on the Labour Party winning a general election, which, hopefully, will put an end to the current shambles, confusion and stasis of the House of Commons.
In a related context last week, I thought that President Macron’s letter to the so-called citizens of Europe was unhelpful. The federalist tone of that letter and the French President’s earlier speech at the Sorbonne only seemed to reiterate many of the reasons such a large segment of British public opinion voted for Brexit in the first place in 2016. President Macron’s so-called roadmap for the EU not only includes possible useful initiatives, such as combatting cyber threats to democracies, an EU minimum wage and an EU climate bank but also included a new treaty of defence and security, which, incidentally, will include the UK, with a European Security Council and a so-called true European army. Macron’s Ministers admit that his federal proposals scare people, but the whole tone of this address was one of ever greater convergence and integration. As our colleague, Senator McDowell, argued cogently in The Sunday Business Post last week, nobody in Ireland voted from 1973 onwards for a united states of Europe. Rather than allowing the European Union and, indeed, all of Europe, because much of Europe is still outside the European Union, to develop as a free and flexible confederation of the European peoples, at the worst possible time President Macron comes out with these statements, with the European future of Britain completely in the balance.
In reality, Macron, Merkel and all the other EU leaders should be doing everything possible to keep the UK in the EU orbit and desist from threats and deliberately confusing roundabout negotiations which also represent such a serious threat to all the people of Ireland. For example, why are there withdrawal and future arrangement negotiations? Why were there not one single divorce negotiations? Of course, that plan for a double negotiation came from the European Union.
Let us hope anyway that the proposed Europe 2.0 or Norway-plus type model is the relationship Britain will maintain with the EU, if and when Brexit happens. Whatever happens, the Irish Government cannot concede on any element of a hard border during any backstop period or in any future long-term relationship.