The European Union needs to present solutions
Remarks by Brendan Howlin TD on Dáil statements after the European Council meeting of 20th-21st February
The European Council meeting on the 20th February failed.
It failed to reach agreement on the Multiannual Financial Framework for the next seven years.
It failed to take robust action to resolve the human rights abuses occurring in Syria.
And according to the official documents, it failed to even discuss COVID-19, which had already been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern three weeks before, on 30th January 2020.
There is a crisis of leadership in the democratic world, and the European Union needs to present solutions to the rise of xenophobia, protectionism and backward-looking nationalism that is all too visible in Britain, the United States and on Europe’s eastern borders.
It also needs to provide leadership on the challenges of climate change, migration and new infectious diseases.
Speaking to the European Parliament, Michel Barnier describes a conversation he had with one of the architects of Brexit, Nigel Farage.
Barnier asked Farage about his vision of UK relations with the European Union after Brexit.
Farage’s simple reply was that “the EU won’t exist after Brexit”.
This is clearly the attitude of Brexiteers, and potentially the attitude of some within the current British government.
There is no doubt that the United Kingdom will continue to influence the European Union for the foreseeable future.
This is inevitable given the geographical proximity of Britain and the size of its economy.
There are still many people in the UK who are pro-EU, but the current British Government is clearly not.
In recent statements, British Government spokespersons have retreated from legal commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement about a level playing field and they have been coy in relation to Northern Ireland’s status.
They have also walked back from our clear understanding of the future EU-UK relationship as outlined in the Political Declaration.
Some senior British spokespeople have called for unlimited trade with the European single market without any legally binding commitment to equivalent standards.
Given the volume of trade involved, British access to the single market on the same basis as Canada would constitute a genuine threat to the cohesion of the European Union from Brexit.
In this context, where we need to strengthen the EU, the wrangling over the EU budget for the next seven years is a failure of leadership and a failure of solidarity.
The so-called “frugal four” governments of Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden – including regrettably two governments involving Labour’s European sister parties – are making a serious error of judgement by trying to limit the EU’s budget to 1% of GDP.
It is as clear as day that the EU needs to do more to tackle climate change.
It is equally clear that the EU needs to do more to solve the tragedy of the refugee crisis on our doorstep, which has worsened in recent days as Turkey has weakened its co-operation with Europe.
And we have to do these things without the financial contribution made by the UK as a member state.
It is simply nonsensical for member states to insist that the EU does more without being willing to put in place adequate funding to get these things done properly.
What we are seeing is several governments echoing Thatcher’s narrow-minded transactional perspective of what you pay and what you get, rather than seeing how we all benefit enormously by being part of a single market of over 400 million people where governments routinely co-operate to their mutual advantage.
It is time for all EU member states to show solidarity with each other, and with the European people.
If issues like climate and migration are best dealt with at EU level, then that is the level where we should put in the necessary funds rather than keep the same money at national or local level for policies that will be less effective and less cost-efficient in achieving our common goals.
Getting the seven-year budget framework agreed at the next Council Meeting on the 27th March will be a major test of leadership for the EU.
The situation in Syria is another major test. I mentioned earlier that the European Council failed to take robust action.
To be more specific, human rights abuses are taking place in Syria by the Assad regime.
It is not enough, as the EU has done, to simply condemn these attacks and call for a ceasefire.
The EU could and should have done more to tighten sanctions, not only on the Syrian regime but on all its backers.
Europe needs to speak and to act with clarity and firmness.
Finally, the EU’s negotiating position for engaging with the UK has been recently published, and likewise, the UK negotiating position has been outlined.
To say the least, there are major differences in the two sides’ starting positions.
The UK has rowed back on its commitments to a level playing field, while the EU has – rightly – doubled down on our collective insistence that we protect workers’ rights, consumer rights and environmental standards.
We are likely to see difficult negotiations in relation to dispute resolution, data protection, fishing rights, and whether or not the EU gives British financial services access to the single market.
I have confidence that Michel Barnier will robustly defend European interests. And I know that he is well briefed on Ireland’s vulnerability to Brexit and our specific concerns.
At the same time, the European Council will be highly influential over the EU’s decisions about trade with the UK.
There will be pressure from many sources to simply get a deal done, rather than allow trade to revert to WTO rules.
In the short-term, trading on WTO rules would be seriously damaging to Ireland.
However, we cannot let the short-term dictate our long-term national interest.
Ireland’s basic freedom to develop our economy and our society as we choose will be highly constrained if the UK is permitted to trade into the European single market with lower environmental standards, weaker data protection, or fewer workers’ rights.
This would create an intolerable future for Ireland, where the size of the UK in terms of population and economy would pull Ireland down to lower standards in order to compete.
Whatever deal is made, there will be no political appetite to reopen the future EU-UK deal any time soon. So Ireland will be locked into whatever is agreed.
That is why we must defend our long-term interests, which are aligned with high quality standards and robust regulation of the market, not the deregulation approach that the UK is currently pursuing.
The UK formally left the EU at the end of January, but the real challenge of Brexit has not yet been overcome.
It is imperative that we have a strong government in place as soon as possible to fight for Ireland’s long-term national interest.
Whoever is Taoiseach on 27th March will travel to the next European Council meeting, and he or she should outline in the coming days how Ireland’s interests will be defended.
Perhaps the three members of this house who see themselves as potential Taoisigh might rise to this challenge.