94. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his speech in Leuven. (Question 19621/18 asked on 08 May 2018)
103. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on Brexit negotiations being delayed until October 2018; and the detail of the British red-line issues. (Question 19621/18 asked on 08 May 2018)
The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 93 and 94 together.
I delivered an address on the Future of Europe at the Catholic University of Leuven as part of its Wilfried Martens series of lectures. This is an annual event, with previous speakers including Commission President Juncker and former German Finance Minister Schauble. The event was live-streamed and the text of my speech is available online.
My speech covered the many achievements of the European Union, the benefits for Ireland of EU membership, and my thoughts about the future direction of the Union, including the importance of completing the Single Market and Digital Single Market, and working together to deliver concrete benefits for our citizens. I also, of course, spoke about developments in the negotiations on Brexit.
In my address, I emphasised the need for an ambitious and positive approach to our discussions about the future of Europe, and the importance of maintaining our core EU values and principles - respect for human dignity, personal and economic freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights.
I noted that many of the challenges we face - climate change, cyber-security, illegal migration, international trade and the regulation of major corporations - cannot be resolved by 28 states coming up with twenty-eight different solutions, and that we need to work together to respond effectively.
I also emphasised the importance of our relations with the rest of the world, including Africa and the Western Balkans, and noted my intention to participate in the Western Balkans Summit in Sofia on 17 May.
I stressed the importance of communicating and engaging with our citizens on key issues relating to the future of Europe. From Ireland’s perspective, I outlined our Citizens’ Dialogue which I launched last November, and explained that the intention of this has been to facilitate an open and wide-ranging debate with our citizens, which will help to inform our approach.
On Brexit, I noted the particular issues arising for Ireland and the need to preserve the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, and the gains of the Peace Process. I noted the commitment to translate into the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement the principles and commitments agreed between the EU and the UK last December, including in relation to the border, and stressed the need to make real and solid progress on this before the June European Council.
After the speech, I attended a reception in the University where I had the opportunity to meet a range of academics and students, including Irish students studying there.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Simon Coveney): I propose to take Questions Nos. 103 and 107 together.
Following on from the March European Council, the EU and UK agreed to five additional formal rounds of negotiations between April and the next European Council in June. These negotiations are focused on all outstanding issues in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as the future relationship.
The UK has agreed that a backstop solution for the border will form part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, in line with paragraph 49 of the Joint Progress Report agreed last December. The UK has also agreed that all the issues identified in the EU draft of the Protocol will be addressed to deliver a legally sound solution for the border.
Prime Minister May confirmed this in her letter to President Tusk of 19 March, in addition to reiterating the UK’s commitment last December to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including the overarching guarantee on avoiding a hard border.
The Government has always maintained that the backstop will apply unless and until another solution is found. While we share Prime Minister May’s preference to resolve these issues through the wider agreement on the EU’s future relationship with the UK, it is crucial that we have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments already made on Ireland and Northern Ireland.
It is also the case that the UK’s repeatedly stated positions, including its wish to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union, limit the depth of the future partnership and have consequences for the ability of the EU-UK future relationship agreement to deliver on all the commitments and guarantees provided by the UK with regard to protecting North South cooperation, the all island economy and the Good Friday Agreement, including avoiding a hard border.
Negotiations are ongoing, including detailed discussions between the EU and the UK on issues relating to Ireland and Northern Ireland. Significantly more progress is needed on agreeing the Protocol, including the backstop on avoiding a hard border, ahead of the June European Council.
The EU has always made clear that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” and that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full. The European Council is therefore continuing to follow the negotiations closely and will return in particular to the remaining withdrawal issues, including the Protocol, and to the framework for the future relationship at its next meeting in June. It is essential that real and substantial progress be made by the June European Council meeting.
The objective of the negotiators is that the full legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, and a detailed political declaration on the framework for the future relationship, should be concluded by the October European Council. This limited timeframe underlines the urgency of the work ahead in the coming weeks.