MoS McEntee address at IBEC EU Affairs and Trade Policy Committee
News26 June 2019
Good morning Ladies and gentlemen,
I’d like to thank Edel for the introduction and Pat for the invitation. It’s a pleasure to be speaking again at IBEC.
Let me begin with the elephant in the room and discuss matters in the UK.
As you know, the process of electing the new Conservative Party leader is in full swing with the result expected towards the 23 July. We will await to see who will emerge not only as Party Leader but as the new UK Prime Minister.
Obviously, we will work constructively with whoever that is, just as we did with Prime Minister May.
However, a change of Prime Minister will not change the facts or reality of Brexit.
President Tusk again made clear the EU’s position after the European Council meeting last week when he said:
“We are open for talks when it comes to the Declaration on the future UK-EU relations if the position of the United Kingdom were to evolve, but the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation.”
During the Conservative leadership campaign, much has been said about the backstop on how to replace it or to get around it. Despite the bluster of the campaign, it remains to be seen how a new Prime Minister will actually address these issues.
Let me just say that the border is not an issue that can be wished away, and requires answers based in reality.
This is why the proposals in the interim report by the think tank, Prosperity UK, on alternative arrangements, raise so many questions and serious doubts about whether they can achieve the same outcome as what is provided by the backstop. That is the benchmark which must be reached.
It is important to remember what needs to be achieved is to avoid a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls, while at the same time ensuring that we fully protect the EU Single Market and Ireland’s place in it. Only this can properly protect the all-island economy, North-South cooperation and the Good Friday Agreement.
There are also many suggestions around time-limiting the backstop. It cannot be arbitrarily time limited. It needs to be in place for as long as it is necessary, and no longer.
The backstop is the only deal on the table that achieves this. There are currently no such technological solutions in operation anywhere which could replace those set out in the Withdrawal Agreement. This is why, for Ireland, and our EU partners, the backstop forms an essential part of the Withdrawal Agreement, an insurance policy to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process.
It has always been our hope and aim that the future relationship agreement between the EU and UK would resolve the border issue.
The EU has made clear its commitment to looking at alternative arrangements as part of the negotiations on the future relationship. These discussions can only begin once the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified.
In this context, I welcome that the UK Government's announcement that it is to establish working groups to examine alternative arrangements in order to prepare for that future negotiation. It is good that this approach looks to hear from a broad range of opinion, including from key stakeholders in Northern Ireland who have real experience of the invisible border on this island.
Without the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop, there are no easy answers. There is no doubt that a no deal Brexit will have severe economic and political implications for Ireland, North and South. We continue to work with the Commission on how we meet our shared twin objectives of at least avoiding any physical infrastructure at the border and protecting the EU’s Single Market and Ireland’s place in it.
Unfortunately, any such arrangements in a no deal scenario will be temporary and will be sub-optimal compared to the backstop.
This is why the Government continues to firmly believe that the Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated by the UK and the EU, provides the best way to resolve all these issues, and to provide certainty as we negotiate and put in place the deep, ambitious agreement which will provide the foundations for our future relationship.
The responsibility for this lies with the UK. It is vital that the UK, regardless of whoever the next Prime Minister is, uses the time up to 31 October to find a way forward.
A no deal Brexit remains a serious concern, and an ever greater possibility. We are preparing accordingly, across Government, for all Brexit scenarios, including for no deal.
Managing a no deal Brexit can only be an exercise in damage limitation. It will be impossible to maintain the current seamless arrangements between the EU and UK across the range of sectors which, at the moment, are facilitated by our common EU membership.
We continue to advance our extensive and detailed Brexit contingency work and are working closely with our EU partners.
Many aspects of our work were completed in advance of the 29 March deadline, such as the Brexit Omnibus Act. However, there are other aspects for which are using the time afforded by the extension to further develop and refine our work. This includes our work on more permanent and long-term infrastructure and arrangements at the ports and airports.
Important work on the Common Travel Area has also advanced. On 8 May, the Tánaiste signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the CTA with David Lidington, the British Cabinet Minister. This reaffirms both countries’ commitment to the Common Travel Area, and to maintaining the associated rights and privileges our citizens under it. This will ensure that Irish and UK citizens can continue to reside, work, study, and access healthcare, social security and public services in each other’s countries, as well as to vote in certain elections.
While the Government is doing all it can to ensure the country is prepared, it is vital that businesses and individuals use this time to ensure that they are prepared for Brexit. There are many cost-free practical steps that businesses can take, that are good general business practice. These include diversifying markets, reducing exposure to currency fluctuations, and registering with Revenue for new customs numbers. Individuals should also look at their personal circumstances and see if any action is required, such as exchanging a British driving licence for an Irish one.
As a first step, businesses, large and small, should now register with Revenue for a Customs, or EORI, number. For further steps, or to avail of the Government’s range of advisory and financial supports, information is on the Government website (gov.ie/brexit).
The European Parliament elections, which took place across all 28 Member States at the end of last month, marked the end of the EU’s five-year institutional cycle. This Autumn, the mandate given in 2014 to President Juncker’s Commission will come to an end, and a new College of Commissioners will be appointed. Similarly, leaders of the EU’s Member States will choose a replacement for the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.
At the same time all 751 newly-elected MEPs have been busy joining and reshaping the Parliament’s political groups in advance of their first Strasbourg plenary session in July. During that session, MEPs will vote to elect the new President of the European Parliament for a two and half year term.
All that is to say that we are currently in the middle of a busy period in Brussels, with a series of personnel changes taking place all at once at the top of the EU’s core institutions.
These senior posts have traditionally been viewed as a package, the aim being to reflect the varied political make-up of the European Union and its constituent Member States.
At the centre of this process is the appointment of the new Commission President.
After a preliminary discussion at the Heads of State and Government meeting on the 28th May after the European Parliament elections, the European Council met on the 20th and 21st June with the objective of electing the President of the European Council and proposing its candidate to be President of the European Commission.
Given the need for geographical, political and gender balance across these high-level institutional posts, it is perhaps unsurprising that leaders could not come to agreement on the first attempt. President Tusk will reconvene EU leaders on Sunday next with a view to reaching a settled European Council position in advance of the European Parliament’s first plenary session in early July.
The names of the candidates ultimately chosen by leaders will of course be influenced by President Tusk’s consultations with individual leaders and the European Parliament over recent weeks. The European Parliament’s voice during this process will be of particular importance given it has the power to accept or reject the Council’s chosen candidate for Commission President.
In a final step, nominees for individual European Commissioner posts must appear before the relevant committees of the European Parliament to answer MEPs’ questions. Once all Commissioners have attended a hearing, the Parliament will vote to approve or reject the new Commission as a whole. If the current timetable is adhered to, the new College of Commissioners will be in place by October of this year.
The Irish Government will be involved throughout the decision-making process and has been clear in its position that these high-level appointments should reflect geographical balance as well as demography.
It is important that both large and smaller countries are represented in the highest positions in the EU. In the spirit of the Treaties, gender as well as political balance, should also be taken into account.
At this point, it is still too early to concretely discuss the relative merits of candidates who may or may not be in the running for these top level posts, I will leave that to others. The dust has not yet settled following the European Parliament elections and time needs to be afforded for appropriate consultations to take place before then.
Ireland, like all other Member States, will designate a candidate for the post of EU Commissioner. The nomination is a matter for the Taoiseach and a decision will be made in due course. Again, I don’t propose to speculate in this regard.
I have already outlined the series of changes due to take place at the top of the EU’s institutions over the coming months. It is in that context that Finland will assume its Presidency of the EU, which commences on the 1st of July.
The Finnish Presidency will be different to others in the sense that there will be little, if any, new legislation emanating from the Commission, although there are still some files to complete.
As incoming Presidency, Finland will take forward work of the Romanian Presidency towards reaching agreement on the MFF. We will support the work of Finland in achieving its ambitions to move the MFF negotiations on considerably. It is still not clear whether it will be possible to conclude the negotiations this year but I expect that the Heads of State and Government will give guidance to the discussions at their next meeting in October.
Of particular importance to Ireland will be the Presidency’s approach to the Single Market, digital policies, industry and competitiveness. Climate Change will be another policy area of major interest to us.
Ireland has traditionally emphasised the need to maintain a well-funded Common Agricultural Policy as a key priority for the European Union and its Member States. In our interactions with the Finnish Presidency we will continue to make the case for a strong Common Agricultural Policy. Similarly, we will help the incoming Presidency promote the continued need to protect the EU’s Structural and Cohesion Funds.
On climate change, the Commission published its Communication “A Clean Planet for All” at the end of 2018, setting out its vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral Europe by 2050. The Communication identifies strategic areas, in which joint action will be needed to achieve climate neutrality in 2050: energy efficiency; renewables deployment; clean, safe and connected mobility; competitive industry and circular economy; infrastructure and interconnections; as well as bio-economy, natural carbon sinks and CCS.
In the May 2019 Sibiu Declaration Member States committed to jointly tackling global issues including the preservation of the environment and combatting climate change. Debates on climate change action will take place at the Energy and Environment Councils taking place this week. The EU also plans to adopt and submit an ambitious strategy by early 2020 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) as required under the Paris Agreement.
For our part, Ireland subscribes to the maximum ambition goal and at the same time wants national particularities to be reflected properly so as to achieve a socially fair and cost-efficient transition.
We will also support the Finnish Presidency’s stated goal of completing open files related to the EU’s Digital Single Market (DSM) Strategy, which aims to open up digital opportunities for people and businesses in the EU while enhancing Europe’s position as a world leader in the digital economy.
Work will continue towards the completion of various initiatives under the DSM Strategy. Under the recent Austrian and Romanian EU presidencies progress was made on several files including the Digital Europe Programme, Copyright Directive, and the Platform to Business. Other files, for example the ePrivacy directive, the establishment of the European Cybersecurity Industrial, Technology and Research Competence Centre and the Network of National Coordination Centres, have proven more difficult to conclude. I have no doubt that work will continue on progressing these files throughout Finland’s period at the helm of the EU’s rotating presidency.
With the Juncker Commission’s mandate coming to an end, time will be of the essence for the Finnish Presidency to conclude this legislative work. Ireland stands ready as always to assist our Finnish colleagues in carrying out the important role of steering the EU’s work over the coming months.
Time pressure, combined with the challenges posed by Brexit and the bedding-in period that a new Commission and Parliament will need, mean that this upcoming Presidency will be one of the busiest in recent memory.
With all that said, I look forward to hearing your views at this point.