We need to ensure the survival of the mushroom industry
Following on from the European Council meeting last week, it would be easy for all of us in this Chamber to focus on Brexit. I will certainly make some references to it. Given that the British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, took only a few minutes to set out her views at about 1 a.m., it clearly was not the focus of that meeting, but I will come back to the issue.
On the issue that dominated the European Council meeting, namely, Russian aggression in Syria and the migration crisis, the distressing scenes of devastation in Syria have, rightly, caused outrage and dismay. Last week in the Seanad the Labour Party spokesperson on foreign affairs, Senator Ivana Bacik, secured all-party agreement on a motion condemning the appalling bombardment of civilians in Aleppo and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria. The Dáil also debated the issue last week in some detail. At such a remove from the war, it can be hard to make a real difference, but the Labour Party will continue to question the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, about what Ireland is doing and to ensure there will be a concentrated effort to deliver whatever assistance we can, humanitarian or otherwise. We have asked the Minister to express in the strongest possible terms Ireland’s condemnation of Russia’s support of the Syrian Government and its role in the horrific and inhumane bombardment of Aleppo. We want Ireland to support the extension of sanctions against Russia and vote against its admission to the UN Human Rights Committee. We have also called on the Minister to support the stronger approach being adopted by the German and French Governments to Russia’s complicity in war crimes being committed against the civil population in Syria. The failure of the European Council to include any reference to possible sanctions against Russia, given this complicity, is hugely disappointing, to say the least. I hope Ireland was not one of the country’s responsible for this omission.
It is not acceptable for the European Union to stand on the sidelines and not take action. The delay in welcoming those fleeing the war to Ireland deserves criticism in this House. It is an issue for all Europeans. Surely, we can now all accept the need for greater urgency in the resettlement and relocation of Syrian refugees. Delays are occurring in Italy in the admission into that country of Irish personnel to help to process applicants for inclusion in the programme. It is about time we were given a concrete timeframe for the admission into Ireland of the 4,000 refugees we have committed to receiving. Our target is to have 520 refugees resettled in Ireland by the end of the year. Will the Taoiseach commit to increasing that number? Ireland is ready to provide for the safe relocation of those fleeing the war and w must deliver on our commitment.
When the budget was unveiled, the Labour Party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, criticised the Government for failing to include any increase in the Irish Aid budget, with only an extra €10 million being provided for overseas development assistance. Perhaps the Taoiseach might confirm if the additional €10 million will be used to support the EU-Turkey refugee deal. Faced with such a grave humanitarian crisis, we could have done better. Like Deputy Micheál Martin, I salute the commendable work undertaken by Naval Service personnel and also for their humanitarian efforts and professional approach which has earned it respect and admiration across the world.
On the Friday the European Council discussed the issues of trade and the CETA. The collapse of the trade deal does not bode well for a possible UK-EU settlement following Brexit. A key issue with the CETA was the lack of an input by national parliaments across Europe. If the European Union is to retain competency on trade issues, it must do substantially more to reflect the concerns of the peoples of Europe expresses through national parliaments and their representatives. There are many who welcome the stance adopted by Wallonia and Belgium as it highlights, in stark form, the democratic deficit at the heart of trade talks. Future trade deals are dead, unless legitimate concerns, in particular about agricultural and food products and the investor court, are addressed.
On Brexit, on which issue I made a 20-minute contribution in April, the greatest challenge facing Ireland in Europe is presented by the prospect that there will be a hard Brexit. A hard Brexit would not be in Ireland’s interests. The taking of a hard line in Europe means bad outcomes for Ireland. Whatever our views and whether we like it, the people of the United Kingdom have spoken and decided to leave the European Union. This is the time to engage in serious planning. We most definitely need to accelerate our planning process. I have heard too many people who think they are informed experts on this issue speculate about what might happen. My view is that a Brexit will take a considerable period of time to complete. Two years is only the starting base. It took Greenland three years to leave and it is a small country. A Brexit will take much longer to complete and this will create huge uncertainty. It could take four to five years for it to be completed, irrespective of people’s commitment. I am, therefore, extremely concerned about this process.
Last week, according to reports, the British Prime Minister was given just a few minutes at 1 a.m. to set out her views on Brexit. That her contribution was met with silence before a group moved on to discuss other items should tell us a lot. It was reported that Mr. Juncker had responded to questions with a phut. Francois Hollande said the negotiations would be hard, while Ms Merkel said they would be rough. It appears we are facing a further five months of uncertainty, as Article 50 will not be triggered until March. Has Ireland sought a place on Mr. Barnier’s team? There are many experienced negotiators in Ireland, both politicians and civil servants, who played key roles in the peace process and EU negotiations. These skills should be available at the Brexit negotiating table, principally to protect the peace process, as alluded to by Deputy Gerry Adams, but also in the context of the unique circumstances faced by Ireland.
In recent days I read with interest the national risk assessment 2016 report which indicates that Britain’s departure from the European Union is the number one threat to Ireland’s prosperity and that this will impact on the economy, our social infrastructure and standing on the international stage. That is clear. We should not, therefore, underestimate the significant change that is likely to occur at EU level from a political perspective in terms of maintaining a balance.
As the UK and Ireland often found themselves on the same side in debates on critical decisions, a valuable ally will be lost in terms of future arguments. As my colleagues have mentioned, huge issues arise for this country with regard to the North and the South, the common travel area, the absence of customs and trade barriers and, of course, the Good Friday Agreement. From the agricultural perspective there are issues relating to bio-security and veterinary check and inspections, which are very important. All of these issues will require sustained argument and planning to achieve our objectives, which should be clearly spelt out.
What will happen following Brexit will remain a matter of conjecture and speculation. We are in a vacuum until the trigger is pulled next March. After that, I foresee a further period that will create grave uncertainty. We know how important trade is to our economy at all levels. That must be the focus of significant attention, and I acknowledge that the Taoiseach has set up interdepartmental groups to work on that. More than €1 billion worth of goods and services are traded between Ireland and the UK every week and 40% of our exported goods arrive into the UK market. Our food, drinks and agriculture industries are highly dependent on the maintenance of this trade in a free flowing fashion. The imposition of trade tariffs would have a disastrous and negative impact.
With regard to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and I am the Labour Party spokesperson on agriculture, the UK makes an €11 billion contribution to the EU budget. That is significant. The loss of this funding will have a significant impact on our CAP benefits, which will become the subject of renegotiation in 2019. We receive €1.2 billion in single farm payments, so that is another area that undoubtedly will be the focus of attention at the relevant time. There are a number of mushroom producers in my constituency. That industry sustained significant losses immediately. Three major mushroom producers have gone to the wall and two more are in the departure lounge, as it were, due to that impact. I was disappointed that some emergency measures were not brought forward in the budget. I believe that if the mushroom industry is assisted now in a short-term manner, it will be in a position to survive and continue. There were over 600 mushroom producers in the country ten to 12 years ago, now there are just over 60. The number has declined, although they have increased in scale. The industry involves high volume production but very little profit, and the currency situation has impacted it significantly in a negative way.
I cannot understand why we have not done what was done five or six years ago, whereby the PRSI rate for people in the industry could have been reduced from 8.5% to 4.25%. That would have had a significant impact. I implore the Taoiseach to ensure that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, examines this as a temporary arrangement to ensure the survival of the mushroom industry. A total of 85% of its exports go to the UK, so it will be significantly affected over the next couple of years. We must help it now. It is no use crying crocodile tears when it collapses.