Nothing can be taken for granted on Brexit
Speech by Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin on Government’s Brexit Preparedness
The British Parliament has voted overwhelmingly against the Withdrawal Agreement.
We are now in a period of acute uncertainty.
Many of the possible options require time to develop.
But we do not have that time.
There is little over two months to go until the end of March.
It is not possible for Westminster to legislate and prepare for a second referendum in that time.
And it is not plausible for a substantive re-negotiation of an Agreement that took two years to come to fruition.
The EU-27 might permit an extension to Article 50, but that is not guaranteed.
The UK may not seek such an extension, if their Government decides to negotiate a future relationship from outside the EU, while simultaneously pursuing other international trade deals.
Nothing can be taken for granted.
That is the context within which we have to judge the success or failure of the current Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil government arrangement.
But it is not the only context.
The EU is important to us for reasons of trade.
But the EU is also important for its higher social and environmental standards.
The current international situation is precarious in terms of both trade and social protections.
The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was not an isolated event.
It is part of a series of unprecedented and dangerous developments around the world.
The USA now has the most controversial President in living memory.
A man who has undermined the normal functioning of the American political system and worsened already polarised politics.
Much needed healthcare reform has been reversed under this US administration, leaving tens of millions of people without health insurance cover.
Meanwhile, several member states of the European Union are being led by right-wing nationalists who are xenophobic, homophobic and anti-liberal.
And they are also anti-socialist.
Their policies have undermined workers’ rights and protections.
Populists have risen to the fore in several countries, making wholly unrealistic promises and advancing ‘tyranny of the majority’ that ignores minority rights and democratic dialogue.
On the trade side of the equation, the US has engaged in protectionism unlike anything seen in decades.
The Chinese economy is slowing down, which is affecting the whole world economy.
The German economy is slipping into a second quarter of technical recession.
Germany is the engine of the European economy, and if it falters, that will impinge upon the Irish economy very soon.
The whole European economy still has enormous challenges, including unemployment (especially in Southern Europe), migration, climate change emissions, inequality between the different regions of Europe, and a failure to complete the Euro currency union in a way that supports rather than punishes weaker Euro countries.
In this wide ocean of events, there is a common metaphor that Ireland’s small open economy is like a ship, which must inevitably rise and fall on the tides of world events and the global economy.
This perception of Ireland’s geopolitical position is often used as an excuse.
Laissez faire – do nothing – is too often Government policy.
And that is wholly inadequate, and wholly inappropriate as a response to the waves that are crashing down on our shores.
It is true that Ireland’s population and economic output are only a tiny fraction of the European Union or the wider world, but size is not an excuse for inactivity.
Let’s continue with the analogy of a ship.
Is Ireland ‘shipshape’? Is our infrastructure in top repair and working as well as it should?
And are we being steered in the right direction? Does the captain of the ship even have a map or a clear destination in mind?
I’m afraid the clear answer is No.
Just last week, I returned to Rosslare Europort to see what preparations are underway and how prepared will the port be to handle trade in the event that transport of goods across Britain to the continent becomes blocked or prohibitively expensive.
There is preparation for the introduction of customs, agriculture and Garda facilities, but the current timeline is for those to be delivered in three to five years’ time. They are still at design stage!
That’s wholly inadequate when the storm may hit in little over two months’ time!
It seems that the risk of a no deal Brexit has really not been taken seriously.
Some people here have scoffed at the surprise shown by the UK’s Brexit Secretary when he discovered the sheer volume of goods that cross the Dover-Calais route between Britain and France, and the importance of this link to the UK economy.
In November last year, The Financial Times reported various scenarios under which capacity on this route could drop to quarter of its current capacity, in the best case, or an eighth of its capacity in the worst case.
Does anyone here think that sealed containers of Irish freight are going to be given a free pass, to skip the queue at Dover and make their way to Calais without added delay?
On the contrary, the most likely scenario is that Irish goods vehicles using the so-called ‘land bridge’ of Britain will be put to the end of the queue, of least priority to the UK which will be struggling to keep shops and pharmacies stocked in many plausible Brexit scenarios.
Recently, I have engaged with pharmaceutical firms about the availability of short-life medicines in the event of a no deal Brexit.
Apparently, they have spent months seeking clarity from the HSE and Department of Health, but it is only in recent days that there has been a flurry of official activity.
It is another example of too little, too late due to complacency and lack of initiative at the heart of this Fine Gael government.
Is there a reason for this inactivity?
The only plausible answer is that this government has an ideological aversion to a strong State as a strategic influence in the economy.
The government’s inaction displays a profound lack of understanding of industry and commerce.
Business owners know that sometimes you have to make investments just in case of a bad turn of events.
That cost has to be absorbed, so where possible such investments should be ones that will benefit the business in any future scenario.
The bottom line is that Fine Gael will not commit to major investment unless and until the crisis is upon us.
All around Europe, there is a compelling case for investment in aging and inadequate infrastructure.
Ireland needs investment in the electricity grid to increase capacity for smaller towns, to make it possible for larger industries to be situated there.
Ireland needs investment in renewable electricity generation to avert climate change and the fines that Ireland will receive for failing to meet our emissions targets.
Ireland needs investment in our roads, rail and ports to allow greater volumes of trade from our ports that link us directly to France and other continental countries.
Even if Brexit never happens, all of this investment would pay dividends in terms of quality jobs, sustainable regional development and environmental sustainability.
But in the context where Brexit risks tens of thousands of jobs and livelihoods, it is wholly irresponsible of the Government not to have made major investments to reinforce the economy.
What we see is that investment in Rosslare Europort has been an afterthought.
When the National Development Plan was launched, the Taoiseach stood up in the Dáil and told us that Irish Rail did not ask for investment, and therefore the matter wasn’t taken any further.
Labour in Government commissioned an independent review of Rosslare Europort that set out a series of recommendations to improve the port, long before Brexit was a looming potential disaster.
But this Government has undertaken little or no action on that report.
No surprise that there are higher levels of unemployment outside of Dublin.
A laissez faire economy does not deliver a fair economy or equal opportunity for every worker.
Far from it.
Many of the best industrial jobs have been in State enterprises like the ESB or Bord na Móna, or in private enterprises such as the Dairy Co-ops that have benefited from close co-operation with the State in the development of the agricultural economy.
The laissez faire economic policy will never deliver quality jobs for all, because this Government is not truly motivated to do so.
What is more worrying for Labour and for working people is the disregard of this government for social rights and workers’ rights.
This government is happy to associate with the far right nationalist government of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian premier.
Orbán has refused European consensus on migration. He has made homophobic and misogynistic speeches.
He has proposed ‘slavery laws’ that would require hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime from Hungarian workers.
Increasingly, we see Orbán’s government taking a heavy-handed response to protestors, with pepper spray used indiscriminately against crowds of young people.
Security guards have dragged opposition members of parliament out of State TV offices when they protested against government censorship of news about the protests that are sweeping Hungary.
In the latest twist, Orbán has now called for a far right rival to the European People’s Party to emerge, and has encouraged Italian populists, Polish ultra-nationalists and others in the creation of such a political grouping so that ‘anti-migration’ politicians can take over the institutions of the European Union.
How can Fine Gael or any other member of the EPP tolerate a situation where one of their own members is calling for a rival to undermine themselves?
Brexit is about far more than just trade.
It is about the kind of country that we have been able to build because of the supporting framework of the rights and protections that are a mandatory part of membership of the EU.
Our position in Europe is about upholding democracy, upholding worker’s rights and upholding social and environmental protections that are a shining light in the world.
Our government has been exposed as woefully unprepared for the trade dimension of Brexit, by the lack of a serious economic investment plan to address the country’s post-Brexit needs.
We can look at the UK and ask what have they been doing in the time since the Brexit vote.
But we can ask the same question of Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
To take one example.
I have no confidence that the Minister for Transport has an adequate grip on his portfolio.
I have no confidence that a strategic review has been taken on Ireland’s infrastructural needs in terms of Cork, Shannon and Rosslare ports.
I have no confidence that transport policy has listened to the concerns of hauliers or that the Government has any real clue what will happen if access to the British ‘land bridge’ is restricted for even one month.
And it’s not only about problems getting goods vehicles from Ireland to Wales and onto British motorways.
We are in a worse position that the UK’s Brexit Secretary.
Is our Minister for Transport aware of the sheer volume of Irish goods that passes through Dover?
So my simple question now is, after putting all of Ireland’s eggs in the basket of the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement, what is Ireland’s Plan B?
Or are we to be mere spectators as a potential disaster looms?