Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I welcome the opportunity we will have later in the week to hear directly from Mr. Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator of the task force for the preparation and conduct of negotiations with the United Kingdom. Last month, I spoke again of the need for Ireland to have direct representation at Brexit negotiations given the serious impact the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will have on this country, first and foremost the North-South relationship but also the east-west relationship in the areas of trade and business. I have also called throughout for the appointment of a dedicated Brexit Minister. We were assured by the Taoiseach that he was best-placed to act as Brexit Minister because of his role in the European Council. It appears, however, that he will not be Brexit Minister for much longer.
I note the Government document, Ireland and the Negotiations on the UK’s Withdrawal from the European Union, states that the Heads of State and Government agreed that the European Council would be “permanently seized of the negotiations.” What precisely does this phrase mean? Will the European Council be informed of what is happening at the negotiations daily or hourly? The document also stresses that Ireland will be actively involved, and the Taoiseach centrally involved, in all the negotiating steps. The Cabinet committee on Brexit and other arrangements are far from having direct representation for Ireland at the negotiations. Perhaps the matter will be raised with Mr. Barnier on Thursday.
I note the European Union negotiating guidelines, which issued on 29 April, will be updated by the European Council “as required”. What does that phrase mean? What type of changes could be envisaged in that regard? I welcome that the initial reaction of Chancellor Merkel and others to the structure of the negotiations in insisting on complete separation of the divorce between the United Kingdom and European Union from the negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and UK has been abandoned. The position has changed to one of having parallel discussions on the shape of the future relationship between the EU and UK commence once sufficient progress has been made in the discussions on the divorce. I also welcome the commitment made to achieving a close partnership between the UK and EU.
There remain, however, issues of grave concern. In recent months, there have been ominous and concerning signs for Irish business and the economy. For example, we heard reports from hoteliers and guest house operators in the Dublin region that the number of British tourists has declined significantly. There has also been a significant fall in sales of new and used cars, with large increases in the number of used cars being imported from Britain and the North. Reports have also indicated a slowdown in the British economy in quarter 1, which was before the UK general election was called. Given the importance of the UK economy for Irish business, this is a highly significant development. A Central Bank economist recently estimated that a hard Brexit could result in up to 40,000 job losses. The election of the Conservative Party in the forthcoming British election on 8 June could bring further grave volatility to the negotiation process because, tragically, the Tory Government’s election programme appears to be predicated on working towards a hard Brexit. We must hope that the disastrous Tory Government will not continue after 8 June and that the British Labour Party and other parties will be in a position to lead the UK into a much better negotiation on Brexit.
There has been considerable discussion about the final bill for the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union. Whether the figure is €20 billion or €60 billion, given that the UK contributes approximately €10 billion per annum to the EU, we must ensure it does not have a significantly negative impact on our contribution. Like the UK, Ireland is a net contributor to the European Union’s budget.