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Statement by An Taoiseach on draft Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, Dáil Éireann, 21 November 2018


Issued by the Government Press Office

Check Against Delivery

On behalf of the Government, I propose this motion asking Dáil Éireann to support the draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This agreement was reached at negotiators’ level on 14 November 2018, and includes the draft Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, of which it forms an integral part.

After almost 20 months of intensive and difficult negotiations, I ask the House to join me in welcoming this agreement and also the outline of the Joint Political Declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

It is an agreement that fully secures the negotiating objectives we set out at the start. Most importantly, it fully protects the Good Friday Agreement, and ensures the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

I am pleased that Prime Minister May has secured her Cabinet’s approval for the draft Agreement.

On Sunday, President Tusk will convene a meeting of the European Council with a view to its formally endorsing the draft Withdrawal Agreement and the Joint Political Declaration.

It is worth restating that we have always said that we regret the decision of the UK to leave the EU.

The UK is our closest neighbour and our friend. We are bound together by geography and by centuries of shared history, culture, kinship and trade. So, we deeply regret that the UK chose to leave the European Union - a Union, which, together, we have helped to shape over the last 45 years. However, we respect the vote of the British people. We also regret that the British Government has ruled out ongoing membership of the EU customs union, single market and the European Economic Area thus limiting the scope for a solution. Nevertheless, we respect their decision to do so.
At the outset, we agreed our unique concerns and identified our priorities for the negotiations and these have stayed constant throughout.

These are:
· Protecting the Peace and the Good Friday Agreement;
· Maintaining the Common Travel Area and its associated benefits;
· Minimising the impact on our trade, jobs and our economy; and
· Reaffirming our place at the heart of a strong and prosperous European Union.

On each of these priorities, we have reached a satisfactory outcome.

From the very start, we worked to ensure that our unique concerns were understood by our EU partners - the Member States and the EU institutions.

As Taoiseach, I have had formal bilateral meetings with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Finland, Estonia, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia either in Dublin or in their capitals.

I have also met many times with the Presidents of the European Council, the European Parliament, and the European Commission, as well as the Chief EU Brexit Negotiator, and the Head of the European Parliament Brexit Steering Group.

I have used the EPP network of sister parties of Fine Gael as well to Ireland’s advantage. The house will know that Presidents Juncker, Tusk and Tajani, Michel Barnier, and Chancellor Merkel are both interlocutors and party colleagues.

I have attended 11 formal and informal meetings of the European Council, as well as many other international meetings, where I have engaged with EU leaders - to explain, and to contextualise our unique concerns and to ensure that our priorities were taken on board.

The Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, and the Minister for European Affairs, Helen McEntee - and their predecessors - have traversed the continent to engage with relevant EU counterparts.

Other Ministers have met with their counterparts, and at official level, there have been extensive and detailed consultations. I would like to thank all concerned for their hard work and personal commitment, especially officials in my Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the permanent representation in Brussels and our Ambassadors and Diplomats on the ground in member state capitals.

I would also like to recognise the members of this House who have played their part in helping to ensure that Ireland’s concerns were communicated and understood through their party and inter-parliamentary networks.

All these efforts have been reflected in the series of European Council Guidelines, Commission Communications, and European Parliament Resolutions - and in speeches and statements by EU leaders across Europe. They have taken Ireland’s concerns to heart and have made them European concerns and priorities for the EU negotiators.

At the core of these concerns lies our awareness of the tragic history of violence in Northern Ireland. After twenty years of relative peace, we are determined to ensure that there can be no return to the past.

The Government has been determined to protect the Good Friday Agreement - an international, legally binding Agreement - in all its parts.

The absence of a hard border has been critical to what has been achieved North-South, the development of the all-island economy and practical co-operation in areas like education, health and tourism.

We have insisted that there could be no going back on this, no new barriers to the movement of people or commerce.

The draft Withdrawal Agreement provides that, in the event that it is required after the period of transition, the UK and the EU will establish a shared customs territory. Northern Ireland will apply some additional rules for goods to ensure there would be no need for a hard border between North and South.

To facilitate this – and to ensure that there can be no unfair competitive advantage – the Agreement also provides that, if the backstop is invoked, rules to ensure a level playing field in areas such as environment, state aid, and labour standards will apply.

The Union’s Customs Code will apply in Northern Ireland so that businesses there do not face obstacles in accessing the Single Market for goods, including here in the south. Northern Ireland business will continue to enjoy unfettered access to the Great Britain market as well as the whole of the EU.

The text says that this backstop would apply ‘unless and until’ alternative arrangements are found that make it no longer necessary. It is therefore, intended to be temporary and to act as a bridge to a future relationship if needed.

As I have said many times before, I hope and believe that those alternative arrangements will be negotiated. It is, however, important that we now have the insurance policy we need if all other efforts fail to produce a better solution.

The Agreement also provides a mechanism for review of the backstop, which would allow it to cease to apply – in whole or in part - if and when a better solution is found.

It is important to underscore that any such decision will be a joint one - for the EU and the UK to take together. The Agreement is clear that it cannot be taken unilaterally.

The draft Withdrawal Agreement contains other important commitments and assurances regarding the Good Friday Agreement, closer North-South cooperation and the all-island economy.

We have no hidden agenda or motivation here and the draft Withdrawal Agreement states in black and white that Ireland and the EU fully respect the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and that this can only change if the majority of people in Northern Ireland want it.

It ensures that there will be no diminution of rights, safeguards, and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

It recognises the right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish, and therefore as European citizens.

It also ensures that Ireland and the UK can continue to operate the Common Travel Area. This means that the arrangements that have enabled us over many years to live, work and access services in each other’s countries will continue into the future.

It confirms that the Single Electricity Market will be maintained on the island of Ireland.

It confirms that PEACE and INTERREG funding will continue. This is really important for Northern Ireland and the border counties.

It is important to note the UK agrees that it will facilitate the transit of goods moving to and from Ireland. This is significant, as the UK land-bridge is the most important route from Ireland to mainland Europe.

The Agreement provides a basis on which we can avoid a ‘hard Brexit’ which would see the UK crash out of the Union without Agreement.

If it secures the necessary endorsement in Westminster, and the consent of the European Parliament, there will be a period of transition until the end of December 2020.

As we approach the end of this period of transition, the UK will be able to ask for this period of transition to be extended – once - if agreement on a future relationship that would avoid a hard border is not yet in place.

I have acknowledged Prime Minister May’s integrity in honouring her promise to protect the Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement, and her commitment - despite the many difficulties along the way - to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

For our part, we have made it clear that we are absolutely committed to working with the Prime Minister and the Government to secure a deep, comprehensive and ambitious future relationship between the UK and the EU, so that the backstop does not have to be invoked in full or at all.

I would like to take this opportunity in the House to express again my deep appreciation and gratitude to all our EU partners - my fellow members of the European Council, the European Parliament and the Commission. They have understood our unique concerns and made them their concerns, and they have shown unwavering solidarity in ensuring that these have been taken into account in the draft Withdrawal Agreement.

In particular, I would like to acknowledge the commitment and professionalism of Michel Barnier, and his exceptional team, with whom we have worked extremely closely over the past 20 months.

There could be no better example of the advantages of EU membership for a small country.

No matter what happens anywhere else, Ireland will stay a fully committed Member of the European Union.

It is our home – one we have built together – and it is where we will stay.

Ceann Comhairle,

The draft Agreement represents a finely-balanced compromise between the concerns and priorities of all 28 countries involved. Finalising and approving it is the best way of ensuring an orderly withdrawal.

I will attend the special meeting of the European Council in Brussels this Sunday, 25 November. I hope that EU leaders will be in a position there to sign off on the draft Agreement and the Joint Political Declaration.

It is my sincere wish that the Withdrawal Agreement will then receive the necessary approval of both Westminster and the European Parliament.

It represents a good outcome for Ireland, for the EU as a whole, and for the UK itself.