EU Council will determine a shared vision for future of Europe

19 June 2019

Statement in advance of the EU Council meeting, 19 June 2019 by Brendan Howlin TD.

The European Council meeting on Thursday will bring together the heads of government from across Europe to agree a shared vision for what is a crucial period in the history of post-war Europe.

It is no exaggeration to say that national leaders are facing major threats to our economic prosperity and our way of life.

In 2014, the Council agreed five priorities for the period 2014 to 2019.

And a lot was achieved.

The EU has seen five years of uninterrupted economic growth, with increasing wages. Youth unemployment fell by a third. And greenhouse gases have fallen by 22 per cent compared to 1990.

The European Commission has already published its contribution to the discussion of the next five years, as well as a list of “unfinished business”.

Labour welcomes their focus on the European Pillar of Social Rights, including fair and modern tax policy.

We welcome their focus on sustainability and climate change, as well as on maintaining a rules-based global order and developing stronger relations with close neighbours.

Under the heading of the European Pillar of Social Rights, the Commission names “access to quality, energy-efficient affordable housing for all in Europe”.

This was Frans Timmermans’s focus, as the second most senior Commissioner after Jean-Claude Juncker in the outgoing Commission, and who is still a contender to become the next Commission President.

Timmermans will doubtless play an influential role in the next Commission, and I hope that his initiatives to open up European funding for public housing projects will be embraced by the Government.

However, from Labour’s perspective, the European Commission’s proposals are a skewed and incomplete agenda.

Their focus on the single market does not include sufficient emphasis on protecting workers in precarious jobs and it does not address the problem of income and wealth inequality across Europe. The next five years must also include decisive action to improve workers’ rights and the security of jobs.

Europe needs a more positive agenda on inter-culturalism and integration rather than just managing migration.

Insufficient attention is paid by the Commission to the still-existing deficiencies in the Euro zone institutions and our lack of instruments to help us deal with the next economic crisis.

And there will inevitably be another economic crisis.

There is also insufficient mention of the core-periphery structure of the single market. This will be crucial for Ireland if the UK does leave the single market, as our peripheral location will be even more pronounced, with greater costs likely to affect the import and export of goods.

Ireland – and other countries – need a set of rules that are designed to counter-balance the economic advantages enjoyed by countries at the centre of the single market.

With the increased push towards tax harmonisation, of VAT as well as corporation tax, Ireland will need a new strategy to ensure our future economic prosperity.

In addition to its strategic agenda for the next five years, the meeting of European Council will also see heads of government consider the Union’s multiannual financial framework for 2021-2027. This will undoubtedly be planned on the basis of the UK having left the Union, which means all remaining countries, including Ireland, will be paying that bit more to keep European programmes operating.

I want to comment on one Euro myth that gets frequently circulated here.

This is the myth of the “net contributor”.

This concept is misleading and badly misunderstood.

Technically, the UK was a net contributor to the European Union. In cash terms, the UK paid more to the EU than it received in direct payments such as CAP, LEADER funds and so on.

As part of the Brexit narrative, it was claimed that this was British money being lost into a Brussels black hole.

That narrow, transactional view of the EU is not only deeply tainted by Euroscepticism and hostility to supporting poorer countries, it also seriously misrepresents how modern economies work.

Access to the single market and customs union removes tonnes of red tape, because countries agree to share common standards and rules, not only for goods like foodstuffs, but also for services.

Easy access to a market of 500 million people provides every single European country with massive economic benefits. The whole is literally greater than the sum of the parts.

What we are paying for is easy access to a very large market, which also has decent social and environment protections.

We are paying for a well-functioning single market and customs union, for the very simple reason that we benefit enormously from membership in terms of cheaper imports and greatly expanded markets for our exports.

In this way, every member state is a net beneficiary.

We need to learn some lessons from the Brexit debacle, and to avoid reinforcing misunderstandings such as the idea that what we pay into Europe is somehow less than the total economic benefit we receive from membership.

The other major issue to be formally discussed by the heads of government at the European Council meeting is climate change.

I’m sure the Taoiseach will be keen to show off the Government’s new climate action plan to European colleagues, to reassure them that Ireland intends to rise up from our current position at the bottom of the European league table on climate action.

But I would caution against too much self-praise for the plan.

There are good things in the plan, but there is also a lack of ambition at the heart of it. The Government appears to have abandoned the core commitment to get our carbon emissions down to 33 million tonnes by 2030. We can’t rely on our European or international partners to do this for us. I hope the Government will reflect on how the plan can be strengthened to achieve this core target.

Brexit will inevitably loom large in the informal discussions around the European Council meeting.

Theresa May is now formally in a caretaker role until her successor is chosen.

We are now closing in on the next deadline by which time the UK is expected to leave the Union, and Theresa May’s successor will only have a matter of weeks to have any impact on the current situation.

We have held off holding a general election precisely because of the risk of instability in our government at the crucial moment when the UK actually leaves the European Union.

But the changing of the guard at EU level creates instability at a particularly difficult moment for us.

On 1st November, the new Presidents of the European Commission and Central Bank will take office, along with the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. One month later, the new President of the European Council will take office to replace Donald Tusk.

This is important because if the UK does crash out of the European Union on 31st October, the new President of the European Commission could begin his or her first day in the job facing a disorderly British exit from the Union and a crisis in Ireland with respect to the border and the all-island economy.

The Government must use all of its influence to ensure that the next senior officials of the European Union are not only well-briefed on Ireland’s concerns but that they have a track record of support to Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations.

Just six months ago, the government was assuring us that the backstop agreement was “cast iron” and “bullet proof”. Now, a number of candidates to become British Prime Minister are giving no evidence that they care about the impact of a disorderly Brexit on the people of Ireland or Northern Ireland.

A survey of the Conservative Party membership that will choose the next leader has shown a willingness to see the break-up of the United Kingdom if necessary to secure Brexit, which is a dangerously narrow fixation.

There is even talk of future coalition governments involving Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which would clearly not be in Ireland’s interests.

I am sure that we will receive solidarity and support from our European partners in any worst case scenario. But it would be preferable for us to avoid any further cliff edge negotiations never mind an actual fall into the abyss.

For this reason, I would hope that the Government will convey Ireland’s support for unconditionally giving the new UK Prime Minister a further extension to the UK’s exit date from the EU.

We can and should prolong the UK’s departure, not least because it is very likely that a majority of British people now favour remaining inside the European Union after all.

However, the UK needs to go through a democratic process in order to resolve some of the tensions and divisions that have arisen due to the whole Brexit issue.

It would be in the interests of Ireland and the EU for the UK to remain a member, and we should afford the possibility every opportunity to become the end-result of this torturous process.

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