Speech by Brendan Howlin TD on pre European Council Meeting 13-14 December
Technology is advancing relentlessly.
Every year, workers, businesses and consumers have to adjust to new ways of working.
Some jobs decline and new occupations emerge.
Businesses have to adapt.
The downsides of that technology include its veracious appetite for energy, which is too reliant on fossil fuels which have caused climate change and the destruction of the natural world.
All of these challenges mean that the work of Government is never done.
Government is needed to provide leadership on climate action, on job security and on a just transition to a sustainable economy.
Government can’t stand still.
And the same goes for the EU Council.
When Council meets on Thursday, one member state – the United Kingdom – will be projecting its turmoil onto the other 27 members, as it has done periodically throughout its membership.
Sometimes, the UK’s disruptive influence has been beneficial, in terms of shaking up bureaucracy and giving the EU more urgency to trade with the wider world.
At other occasions, such as now, the UK’s influence is just disruptive.
But I would like to quote one thing that Prime Minister Theresa May said this morning about the people:
“they want us to focus on the other vital issues that matter to them too. Building a stronger economy, delivering first-class public services and the homes that families need. These are the public’s priorities”
Mrs May was speaking about the British people but the same could be said of people across Europe.
There is no doubt that future generations in the UK will look back at several lost years, where Brexit caused a lack of progress on so many other fronts.
Taoiseach, the EU Council has a wide agenda, as you have mentioned.
Can I ask you at the outset, to what extent has dealing with Brexit slowed down or distracted the EU from all of the other pressing issues facing our people?
On the substantive issues of the Council meeting, this will be the first discussion of the 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework for the EU.
Firstly, are all background papers and projections being prepared on the basis that the UK will definitely be out of the Union by 2021, or are separate scenarios being drawn up that would include either a UK contribution to the EU budget or even a scenario based on UK full membership, should a second referendum be held?
Secondly, to what extent does this seven-year framework involve a stronger Social Europe pillar?
All around Europe we have seen the rise of far right nationalist populists feeding on people’s insecurities… and many of those insecurities are about precarious work, unaffordable housing and weakened public services.
The far right have scapegoated migrants and asylum seekers, but European socialist and labour parties know that the problem is largely to do with inequalities created and maintained by the economy.
So what will change in the next seven-year EU spending framework to support jobs and livelihoods in a way that is genuinely fairer?
The Council will discuss the Single Market.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said we have only 12 years left to take decisive action to prevent the worst climate change scenarios.
To what extent is the EU Council deliberating Single Market reforms that will make our economies more ecologically sustainable, with the radical reduction in emissions and fossil fuel use that is required?
This will be the last full seven-year spending cycle, where we need to do the heavy lifting on climate action.
What changes are planned for the single market in this context?
The Council will discuss migration.
In that regard, Labour supports the UN’s global Migration Pact as the foundation of a humane and principled approach to dealing with global migration.
Does the Taoiseach endorse the UN Migration Pact?
In terms of Ireland’s specific concerns under this topic, can the Taoiseach guarantee us today that every EU head of government has received or will receive tomorrow a written briefing on the Common Travel Area, so that they are clear about the free movement of people and workers between Ireland and the UK that will continue regardless of the Brexit outcome, and in parallel to EU migration policy?
The Council will discuss external relations.
In preparation for the summit with the League of Arab States in 25 February 2019, what consideration has been given to the idea of a Marshall Plan for Europe’s neighbourhood.
There is instability and conflict in many Arab states, including Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan and Yemen.
This is driving migration to Europe, as well as radicalisation.
Investment and stability is needed in all of these countries.
Will the Council discuss European assistance and investment in Arab countries in Europe’s neighbourhood?
We now have evidence of Russian involvement in online ‘disinformation’, seeking to manipulate elections and referendums.
What concrete actions will be discussed by the Council to safeguard our democracies?
What will be changed by May next year for the European elections?
EU leaders will also discuss the reform of the Euro Monetary Union.
Based on the papers made available, this appears to be tinkering with the Euro currency rather than major progress.
I note in particular that while a stabilisation function was discussed, including an unemployment insurance scheme, there has not been agreement on this.
It was clear ten years ago that the Euro monetary union was radically incomplete.
Do we have to wait for yet another economic crisis before measures are taken to ensure that there are greater social protections built into monetary union?
It could act to automatically counter-balance unemployment during recessions.
Will the Taoiseach commit to supporting EU-wide unemployment insurance?
Finally, the EU-27 leaders will meet on Thursday to discuss Brexit, in the absence of Prime Minister May.
Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker have made it clear that the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Irish border backstop, will not be re-opened.
That is vital.
When I met with my colleagues from the Party of European Socialists last weekend, I was also reassured by the level of understanding and solidarity for Ireland shown by socialist Prime Ministers and leaders from across the EU.
Will the Taoiseach guarantee us that no legal changes will be made that weakens the backstop, including in any legal text in side letters or annexes.
The Council of 27 will also discuss the possibility of a ‘no deal’ scenario.
Taoiseach, the Northern Ireland energy regulator has acknowledged that there is insufficient capacity in Northern Ireland to generate electricity to meet its needs. Northern Ireland needs the all-Ireland energy market. It is no exaggeration to say that the lights could go out in Northern Ireland if there is a ‘no deal’ scenario.
I know that this is included in the Withdrawal Agreement, but what provision has been made for a rapid redeployment of the all-island energy market in a ‘no deal’ scenario?
Ireland cannot make a quick bilateral agreement with the UK to restore it, as energy markets are an EU competence.
Can you assure us that plans are being made to quickly put in place single-issue agreements between the UK and EU to mitigate the worst harm from a ‘no deal’ scenario that could occur in little over 100 days’ time?
Similarly, it is in our vital interest that the all-island agriculture and food safety zone is preserved, but this is much more complicated.
What preparations are being made to preserve this in the event of ‘no deal’?
British politics are in a state of flux.
It is likely that Theresa May will survive the challenge to her leadership of the Tory party.
But it is unlikely that the Withdrawal Agreement will survive a vote in Parliament that will now be held before the 21st of January.
‘No deal’ is a real risk.
As I’ve said to the Taoiseach before, there is now going to be a risk right down to March 29th of EU member states asking the Taoiseach to choose between ‘no deal’ and some dilution of the legal backstop, in order to avert the ‘no deal’ disaster.
The Government must resist that pressure, which will inevitably grow as businesses react to the cliff edge scenario.
Another real possibility is that the UK will, in the end, hold a second referendum to choose between the Withdrawal Agreement and its alternatives.
According to several surveys, public desire in the UK for a second vote has grown, while public appetite for Brexit has declined as what it really means has become more apparent.
I hope the UK does hold a second people’s vote.
I also hope that the EU is ready to support the Remain argument.
Ireland received real concessions when we voted against European Treaties.
There is every reason for the EU to show understanding, flexibility and responsiveness to the UK.
Without any compromise on the fundamental principle of free movement of people and workers within the single market, there is still room for clearer, better regulation of internal migration.
And the EU is already well aware of the need to improve on how we deal with external migration into the Union.
The deal that was offered to David Cameron should be offered again in full, and better explained.
The UK were offered an opt-out from ever closer political integration and the creation of a new veto mechanism for national parliaments to slow Commission proposals/
It allowed the UK to limit access to social welfare by EU migrants and to apply a ‘brake’ on EU migration for seven years. The UK already had an opt-out for its own currency, and their exemption from aspects of economic and monetary union was reaffirmed.
Combined with flexibility on the issues behind the Brexit Leave vote, the EU can and should respond to the UK people in a way that makes remaining in the EU attractive for a large majority of them.
If there is a second vote in the UK, I will personally travel to Britain to advocate for a Remain vote.
Taoiseach, will you guarantee to this House that you will take steps to encourage the EU Council to adopt a responsive position to the UK, that would make remaining in the EU more attractive to its people, and make a People’s Vote a real possibility?