When I downloaded the 585 page draft agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU last Wednesday evening in my office, like many others, I turned very quickly to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland on page 302. On first reading, the protocol seemed to satisfy Ireland’s core and essential demand that there could not be a return to a hard border in Ireland. The preface to the protocol acknowledged, among other basic realities, the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, the importance of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement and the rights of Irish and EU citizens in Northern Ireland. The commitment to unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK and the UK being committed to protecting and supporting continued North-South and east-west co-operation also seemed to indicate that Michel Barnier, the EU 27 and the various UK negotiators had produced a reasonable compromise on avoiding a hard border and arranging the exit of the UK from the EU. On a number of occasions during visits to this House, several Deputies stressed to Mr. Barnier how much we depended on EU solidarity with the Irish Government in this whole endeavour.
The backstop in Article 2 of the protocol, the extension of the transition period in Article 3, the rights of individuals in Article 4 and the common travel area in Article 5 all set out the important basic requirements of preventing the return of a hard border. Most important, Article 6 keeps the UK in the customs union but also refers to the joint committee adopting detailed rules for the two parts of this customs union before 1 July 2020. I note that unfortunately, access to waters and fisheries is not covered by this commitment. The reference to the single electricity market in Article 11 is noteworthy as are the common provisions in Article 15. The specialised committee and the joint consultative working group on implementation of the protocol in Articles 16 and 17 and the review of the backstop protocol in Article 20, although framed very briefly, seem to give a basic guarantee that the protocol cannot be abandoned unilaterally by the UK and that the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland must have an input.
While the protocol gives some satisfaction that the worst impacts of a no deal Brexit on Ireland, North and South, may be avoided, the substantive draft text of the overall agreement still faces a momentous challenge. Of course, the profound east-west economic and social connections between Ireland and Britain would be best served by the UK remaining in the European Union and working with us to achieve much-needed democratic change in the European institutions. I do not disagree with my colleagues who spoke earlier about a future democratic and socially just Europe. This halfway house agreement continues the deep uncertainty for our economy and country which the withdrawal agreement now pushes out to December 2020 and possibly to late 2022.
Articles 9 to 39 of the draft agreement refer to citizens’ rights but again Ireland is in a unique situation with the common travel area. The Taoiseach informed me last week that bilateral agreements will have to be forged between Ireland and the UK in addition to the future trade relationship agreement between the EU and UK after 2020 because of the shaky legal basis of the common travel area. Article 40 and subsequent articles deal with the divorce or separation provisions for the UK and the EU. The UK Brexit department’s commentary on the draft agreement refers to the EU economic and legal order in the UK being brought “to an orderly conclusion” which sounds very ominous for Ireland, North and South. That said, sections like Articles 62 to 65 on ongoing police and judicial co-operation, Articles 70 to 74 on data and information and Articles 79 to 85 give some hope that a clear alignment of the EU and UK in key areas will continue after 2020 or 2022.
Articles 126 to 132 of the withdrawal agreement on the transition period confirm that Brexit uncertainties and disruption may continue for many years into the future. The UK has achieved a time limited implementation period from 29 March next up to 31 December 2020 which, remarkably, includes continued attendance at many EU meetings, especially around common foreign and security policy. It is alarming for our fishing communities that the UK intends to negotiate its own fishing opportunities from 2021. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland gives the UK the right to request an extension of the implementation period before 1 July 2020 if a future agreement to supersede the protocol cannot be finalised by December 2020. The UK then has the choice to either implement the agreed Northern Ireland backstop or to seek an extension of the implementation period.
The UK’s financial settlement with the EU in Articles 133 to 157 of the withdrawal agreement will have significant implications for Ireland’s budget after 2020. The British Treasury has estimated the total to be in the region of between €45 billion and €60 billion. The possible budgetary impact is worrying, despite reassurances from the Minister for Finance on the UK’s continuing payments to the EU up to at least 2031 and possibly up to 2064 in the context of pensions. We had a debate previously with the EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. Phil Hogan, on the proportion of an increased budgetary contribution that we will have to make to Europe. Given the fact that we are now a net contributor, that proportion could be very significant, with estimates ranging from 0.102% to 0.112% or even 1.3%, as demanded by some MEPs.
Obviously, the draft agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol would seem to need a small miracle to pass through the House of Commons. Like many others, I have closely followed the debate in the British Labour Party about the whole Brexit policy of UKIP and the chaotic Tory Government. The admirable Keir Starmer, MP, has devised six tests that the British Labour Party believes any Brexit deal should include. These tests are a future close relationship with the EU, the exact same benefits as the UK now has in the Single Market and customs union, the fair management of migration, rights and protections for workers, the protection of national security, including against crime, and being fair to all regions and nations of the UK. It is hard to see how the draft agreement before us can possibly pass the second test. In that context, it is understandable that many UK Labour Party representatives and activists want to reject the agreement and go all out to eject this terrible Tory Government. Commentators such as the distinguished journalist, Paul Mason, have urged the party to offer a second referendum when the Prime Minister, Theresa May, is defeated on this deal and a general election comes about.
UK socialists and social democrats, in common with the broad left across Europe and in this House, need to look again at the core reasons behind the UK vote for Brexit. These include protest at the bureaucratic and remote character of the EU institutions and the ferocious race to the bottom character of much EU economic policy, including the disastrous unregulated financialisation which devastated so many EU countries in the crash from 2008 and which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael implemented here. The unforgivable treatment of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and many regions of the larger states created the atmosphere which produced Brexit. Those of us who want a confederal Europe – arguably most of us in this House – see that President Macron and Chancellor Merkel still have not learned the lessons of Brexit. The fantasist who is now the President of France, Mr. Macron, is demanding a European army while his own people put on yellow high-vis jackets and march on the streets in pursuit of their rights. It would be best if the UK stayed beside us and worked to reform Europe. Its departure will leave Ireland as the only common law jurisdiction in the EU.
The negotiation process led by Mr. Barnier has been predicated on making it very hard for any state to leave the EU. Indeed leaving the EU has been compared to the Eagle’s old song “Hotel California” where “you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave”. In the draft agreement before us the UK, even from the Brexiteer point of view, has at least got out of the hotel lobby and is now in the hotel grounds. For that reason and respecting the vote of the British people, the UK should accept the agreement and we in this country should use the breathing space to 2020 or 2022 to encourage Britain to rejoin us in the EU in a campaign for major changes to EU institutions and laws and especially for the retention of the EU’s confederal character.
I will be supporting the Tánaiste’s motion. I am also happy that he should accept the Sinn Féin amendment.