Exchange of views with Mr. Michel Barnier, Chief Negotiator of the Taskforce for the Preparation and Conduct of Negotiations with the United Kingdom (Continued)

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 950 No. 2

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  12 o’clock

:  Dear Speakers and honourable Members, I have been a national parliamentarian for more than 17 years, both in the National Assembly and the French Senate. I will now listen carefully to the views of the Taoiseach and of all party leaders. In these negotiations and the public debate that now starts you have, as a national parliament, an essential role to play together with the European Parliament and civil society. That is why I have been so honoured by your invitation to address the two Houses of the Parliament of Ireland. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Merci, Monsieur Barnier, and thank you for that valuable overview of the major challenge that lies ahead for us all. I call the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny I am pleased to address the Houses today in the presence of Michel Barnier. Thank you for your fine contribution, Michel.

I thank him for his statement in which he outlined the complexities of the Brexit negotiations and for his acknowledgement of their importance for Europe and of course for Ireland.

Michel Barnier is a longstanding friend of this country, not just as a leading French politician and Minister, but also as a European Commissioner. Indeed, his time as Commissioner for Regional Policy gave him a particular insight into the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, which will be central to the talks ahead.

I also want to thank him sincerely for his willingness to engage with Ireland since his appointment as head of the Commission Brexit task force last July. This is his second visit to Dublin since that appointment but we have also met on other occasions, including on my visits to Brussels in February and March, and at the European Council.

Michel and his colleagues in the Brexit task force have been more than co-operative and accessible to our Ministers and our senior officials. I know that he has also been open to a range of other important stakeholders from Ireland. I thank him for this engagement. The challenges for this country arising from Brexit are extremely serious; and it is essential that all those affected have the opportunity to make their voices heard.

This has also been the approach of the Government here. Along with ongoing sectoral analysis across Departments, we have engaged widely with industry and civic society, holding almost 280 separate meetings. The all-island civic dialogue, which I convened with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, has included 16 sectoral events and two plenary meetings, with more than 1,200 delegates representing industries and organisations from across the country. This kind of consultation has informed our positions on the negotiations, and enabled us to publish our thinking in a comprehensive Government document last week.

Events have moved on quickly since Prime Minister May formally notified the European Union of the UK's intention to leave. The European Council agreed the EU negotiating guidelines on 29 April and on 3 May, the European Commission proposed its draft negotiating directives, which build on the guidelines and provide more detail on the issues to be addressed.

The extensive preparation by member states, the EU institutions and Mr. Barnier's task force meant that the guidelines were agreed very quickly. This was by no means a given. We know just how complicated and serious the issues are for Europe as a whole and particularly for Ireland.

For over two years, the Government has been analysing the issues and engaging with sectors across this island to identify our main areas of concern and to develop our priorities. Some of these have been referred to here by Michel Barnier. These are the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, including by avoiding a hard Border; to retain the common travel area; to minimise the impact on our economy and to work for a positive future for the European Union.

We have also been extremely active at political and official level in engaging with our EU partners and the EU institutions, with a view to highlighting and explaining the significant implications for Ireland arising from Brexit, and the need to take account of our particular concerns in the negotiations ahead. Indeed, since the UK referendum last June, we have had over 400 engagements on Brexit with our EU partners.

In all these meetings, we have explained the background and context of the Northern Ireland peace process and emphasised the need to avoid the re-imposition of a hard Border on the island of Ireland. As I have stated previously, this is a political challenge and we will have to be both flexible and imaginative to deal with it.

Thanks to this strategic and patient work, and the understanding and support of our European partners, I am pleased that Ireland's specific concerns - Mr. Barnier has mentioned this specifically - and the unique circumstances that apply here are fully acknowledged in these guidelines. Supporting and protecting the achievements, the benefits and commitments of the peace process; avoiding a hard Border; and protecting the common travel area will now be addressed as part of the withdrawal negotiations. The guidelines provide an excellent basis for the negotiations. It was crucial that we got this right from the start and again, I would like to thank Mr. Barnier for his role in making that happen.

In more general terms, we are pleased with the tone of the guidelines which is open and constructive, while nevertheless clearly and firmly outlining the EU's objectives and principles. They highlight the importance of getting clarity in respect of EU citizens' rights, a key issue across member states and important in terms of providing certainty for people and for families.

The approach to the sensitive question of the United Kingdom's financial liabilities is also welcome. It is only reasonable that the United Kingdom be asked to honour the commitments it entered into as a member state of the European Union. Mr. Barnier's approach to this is sensible, to focus first on the principles and methodology before considering the numbers or the structure of payments that might be involved.

Importantly from our perspective, the guidelines acknowledge the need for transitional arrangements. This will be crucial in order to provide a level of continuity and certainty for our citizens and businesses. As Ireland stands to be more affected than any other member state by the departure of the UK, we believe it is necessary to begin work as soon as possible - and I am glad you referred to this - on scoping out the future EU-UK relationship. I am pleased therefore that the guidelines acknowledge that the shape of the future relationship can be considered once the European Council, that is, the Heads of State and Government of the 27 member states, agrees that "sufficient progress" has been made on the withdrawal issues. This phased approach is also a sensible and pragmatic way forward.

From Ireland's perspective, our objective is for a close and positive future relationship with the UK, and we are pleased therefore that the guidelines indicate the EU wants an ambitious agreement, not just in economic terms but also in areas such as security. We will continue to work with partners to achieve such an outcome.

Consequently, I welcome the European Council guidelines from a substantive perspective and that their principles and approach have been carried forward into the draft negotiating directives. I appreciate the thorough preparatory work carried out by Mr. Barnier and his task force, as well as the European Council team and other EU partners, whose willingness to listen to us, to listen to our story and to acknowledge our unique and special circumstances has brought us to this point. The outcome is an endorsement of the approach by Government and a clear recognition of the specific challenges we face.

The Government has robustly defended the Good Friday Agreement process throughout these negotiations so far, making clear that, as a legally-binding, international treaty, it provides a unique political and constitutional framework on the island of Ireland. We know that it was vital to provide reassurance that Brexit does not in any way undermine any provision of the Good Friday Agreement.

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