Laois TD and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan addresses Senate on Brexit in Ireland

Laois TD and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan addresses Senate on Brexit in Ireland
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Laois TD and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan TD, addressed the Seanad today on Brexit, outlining the Government’s approach to defending and protecting Ireland’s strategic interests.

The Minister dismissed calls a Brexit Minister, outlining the Government’s approach. He stated:

“I might take this opportunity to address calls by some in the Opposition for a “Minister for Brexit”. My own view, informed by my deep engagement in EU matters, is that it would be a mistake to appoint a Brexit Minister. Why? Well in the first instance, Ireland and the EU are so integrated - and our relationship with the UK is such - that each and every Department is impacted – and we need each and every department to engage with Brexit and mitigating its effects.

“Add to that the fact that at political level, it is the European Council, of which the Taoiseach is a member, who will set the political direction of the negotiations. In turn the Taoiseach chairs the Cabinet Committee on Brexit which oversees the government response, coordinating the work right across government.

“As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I will be working closely with the Taoiseach and with all of my ministerial colleagues. My Department has a unique role coordinating our response to Brexit. As you know, my Department is works closely right across government at all times in all policy areas with an international or North-South dimension.

“And, of course, the 80 strong mission network under my Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a crucial role to play both within the EU in respect of our EU strategy and outside the EU in terms of our wider trade and other bilateral interests. In this respect the missions in key capitals including but not limited to Brussels and London will be important players.

The Minister described some of the work underway at EU level and Michel Barnier’s forthcoming visit to Dublin.

“I wish to update you also on some of the activity taking place at EU level where the Institutions are also taking practical steps to deal with the challenges ahead. The EU Council Secretariat has established a Brexit Task Force led by Didier Seeuws, a former Chief of Staff to the previous European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy. The European Commission has appointed Michel Barnier, a former French Minister and former EU Commissioner, as its chief Brexit negotiator. And former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has been named as the lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament. I expect Mr. Barnier to be in Dublin in the near future and I look forward to engaging with him.

Noting the radical Cabinet changes in the UK, Minister Flanagan stated:

“In the UK, we have a new Prime Minister – who the Taoiseach has met formally and who I have met informally, and a radical Cabinet shake-up – with a number of new ministries. I’ve already had discussions with Foreign Secretary Johnson and David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU – as well as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire.

“We share a common desire to protect the invisible border, the Common Travel Area and the strong bilateral trade relationship – and we are now faced with the challenging task of ensuring those goals can be achieved in the context of the future relationship between the UK and the European Union.”

Later in his speech, he addressed recent comments by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May:

“So, where exactly are we now? Recent days have brought greater clarity on the timelines we will be working to. It is positive that there is no longer any uncertainty about the date by which Article 50 will be invoked – the end of March 2017 - thereby setting the negotiating process in train. This was in line with our expectations and our extensive contacts with UK and other EU partners.

“The united EU position remains that there can be no negotiations before the notification under Article 50 is made. We adhere to that approach, but it does not mean that we cannot have exploratory discussions on the important bilateral issues which will need to be sorted out.

“This would mean that the UK could depart the Union in spring 2019. However, it remains to be seen how, and within what timeframe, the linked negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be taken forward. From Ireland’s perspective, we would like this relationship to be strong and positive. I believe that is a goal to which we all, in the European Union and in the UK, should be committed.

“However, the Prime Minister’s comments indicate that the UK will not seek a so-called “soft Brexit” under which it would seek a relationship with the EU similar to that of Norway or Switzerland. This would not be compatible with controls on the free movement of people, which appears to be a cornerstone of her position and runs contrary to the EU’s insistence on the indivisibility of the four freedoms which underlie the Single Market.

“I appreciate the factors underpinning the Prime Minister’s approach, though clearly it is not what we would have ideally wished to see and will pose challenges all round. That said, the rather general concept of “hard Brexit” allows for a range of possible outcomes on key issues and these will have to be teased out in detail, first by the UK itself and then in the negotiating process. We will work actively to ensure the best possible outcome for Ireland and the EU as a whole, and in particular to ensure, as I said earlier, that our very particular concerns are safeguarded to the greatest possible extent.”

Minister Flanagan outlined plans for an all-island Civic Dialogue, agreed by Cabinet yesterday (Tuesday):

“Having spoken of our economy and of Northern Ireland, I am acutely conscious that there is a need for the widest possible conversation on the implications of the referendum result for Ireland, North and South and for North/South relations. There are many organisations and individuals across the island of Ireland who must be given a real opportunity to make their voice heard. This is in everyone’s interest.

“I am pleased that yesterday the Government approved a proposal that the Taoiseach and convene an all-island Civic Dialogue on Brexit. This event will provide an opportunity to hear the voices of the people affected by the vote, both directly and through their representative groups. It will also provide an opportunity to map the challenges presented by Brexit and how they might impact on different elements of society and the economy on an all-island basis. The main output will be a report and recommendations which will be used to help inform the Government's position on issues related to the UK’s exit negotiations.

“Preparations for an all-day Conference in Dublin on 2 November are now underway and invitations will soon be extended to a broad range of civic society groups, trade unions, business groups and non-governmental organisations as well as representatives of the main political parties on the island.”

Minister Flanagan outlined his approach as Trade Minister:

“Coming into office I inherited the Export Trade Council which draws together all senior government ministers with an economic focus, the heads of the State agencies involved in promoting trade, tourism, investment and education abroad with the support of the Embassy network, and members drawn from the private sector.

“The ETC is a valuable forum. In the run up to the referendum it facilitated useful discussions between Government, our State Agencies and the private sector. That dialogue continues. We are also looking, in conjunction with IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland among others, at potential opportunities for Ireland arising from Brexit.

“We are all acutely conscious of the importance of the UK market to Irish exporters. I intend to intensify our focus on other markets, near and far. I believe we have the capacity for much greater market penetration in other EU member states and I am focussed on that. But we are also looking beyond Europe’s borders. For example, the next ETC meeting will focus on Asia-Pacific. I’m just back from the UN General Assembly where I had a series of bilateral meetings with countries from the Americas, Asia and the Antipodes. I gave the strong message that Ireland will remain at the heart of Europe; we will continue to be an English speaking gateway to a market of 500 million people; we will continue to offer a business friendly environment and a talented and adaptable workforce. I undertook a similar set of meetings at the Asia-Europe Summit in Mongolia in July. I take every opportunity to promote Ireland as a country to invest in and to trade with and I intend to carry out a series of trade engagements within the EU, in the Gulf, and further afield in Asia in the weeks ahead.

“In January this year, I launched an Economic Diplomacy Strategy that seeks to build on the consolidation of the Department’s trade role in recent years by establishing a network of locally hired Commercial Attachés to extend the range and impact of our Embassies’ activities in support of trade. In the coming months Commercial Attachés will be appointed in Mexico, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Bucharest, and Jakarta – these are locations where economic opportunities exist to be explored and where either there is no State agency presence on the ground, or a relatively light one.”

Ends

Full text of Speech - Check Against Delivery

Cathaoirleach,

I am delighted to be back in the Upper House today to engage with Senators on what is, undoubtedly, the highest priority and biggest challenge on my desk as Minister – addressing the implications of Brexit.

Cabinet has been discussing Brexit on an almost weekly basis since plans for a referendum were first announced. Yesterday, the Taoiseach and I presented a Memorandum to colleagues and a series of actions were agreed - we released a detailed statement following the meeting which I hope you have all had a chance to read.

I wish to thank Senators for their ongoing engagement in the national debate now underway and I look forward to hearing your contributions today. First, I will provide an update on activity in government.

You are all well aware of the Government’s priorities on Brexit in relation to the economy, Northern Ireland, the Common Travel Area, and the EU itself.

There has been a huge amount of activity underway in Government – some of it very public, for example the Taoiseach’s meetings with Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, Prime Minister May and President Tusk…..and my own bilateral meetings with EU colleagues, some of whom visited Dublin, including Minister Gentiloni, Davis, Brokenshire and Koenders. But, behind the scenes, I have, in fact, had talks with all of my EU colleagues. In these discussions I have set out clearly the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. Most of them are familiar with the success of the Irish Peace Process and all of them agree the gains of peace must be protected.

In this context, I have also, of course, engaged with all of Northern Ireland’s political leaders.

In Departments, Missions and Agencies at home and abroad, our officials and diplomats are extremely busy – analysing, planning, engaging with counterparts and stakeholders - supporting the work of the Taoiseach and Ministers.

There has been considerable restructuring, particularly in the Departments of An Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs and Trade. My own Department’s EU policy function is being significantly strengthened and it will work alongside our Ireland, UK and Americas Division. The Department of the Taoiseach continues its cross-government work and in particular supports the Taoiseach in his work on all dimensions of Brexit.

I might take this opportunity to address calls by some in the Opposition for a “Minister for Brexit”. My own view, informed by my deep engagement in EU matters, is that it would be a mistake to appoint a Brexit Minister. Why? Well in the first instance, Ireland and the EU are so integrated - and our relationship with the UK is such - that each and every Department is impacted – and we need each and every department to engage with Brexit and mitigating its effects.

Add to that the fact that at political level, it is the European Council, of which the Taoiseach is a member, who will set the political direction of the negotiations. In turn the Taoiseach chairs the Cabinet Committee on Brexit which oversees the government response, coordinating the work right across government.

As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I will be working closely with the Taoiseach and with all of my ministerial colleagues. My Department has a unique role coordinating our response to Brexit.

As you know, my Department is works closely right across government at all times in all policy areas with an international or North-South dimension.

And, of course, the 80 strong mission network under my Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a crucial role to play both within the EU in respect of our EU strategy and outside the EU in terms of our wider trade and other bilateral interests. In this respect the missions in key capitals including but not limited to Brussels and London will be important players.

I wish to update you also on some of the activity taking place at EU level where the Institutions are also taking practical steps to deal with the challenges ahead. The EU Council Secretariat has established a Brexit Task Force led by Didier Seeuws, a former Chief of Staff to the previous European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy. The European Commission has appointed Michel Barnier, a former French Minister and former EU Commissioner, as its chief Brexit negotiator. And former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has been named as the lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament.

I expect Mr. Barnier to be in Dublin in the near future and I look forward to engaging with him.

In the UK, we have a new Prime Minister – who the Taoiseach has met formally and who I have met informally, and a radical Cabinet shake-up – with a number of new ministries. I’ve already had discussions with Foreign Secretary Johnson and David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU – as well as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire.

We share a common desire to protect the invisible border, the Common Travel Area and the strong bilateral trade relationship – and we are now faced with the challenging task of ensuring those goals can be achieved in the context of the future relationship between the UK and the European Union.

I would like to now outline in more detail our approach to our key priorities, namely: the economy and trade, Northern Ireland, the Common Travel Area, and the EU itself.

In the run up to the referendum, the Government engaged in extensive contingency planning, and we continue to update and develop our analyses as circumstances change and evolve. The economy is naturally an area of core concern, and the market volatility we’ve seen since the referendum – in particular in the currency markets – was unwelcome if, regrettably, not unexpected.

Let me summarise the key elements of the Government and state institutions’ response to the economic aspect of Brexit.

First, I will address matters with my Trade Minister hat on. Coming into office I inherited the Export Trade Council which draws together all senior government ministers with an economic focus, the heads of the State agencies involved in promoting trade, tourism, investment and education abroad with the support of the Embassy network, and members drawn from the private sector.

The ETC is a valuable forum. In the run up to the referendum it facilitated useful discussions between Government, our State Agencies and the private sector. That dialogue continues. We are also looking, in conjunction with IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland among others, at potential opportunities for Ireland arising from Brexit.

We are all acutely conscious of the importance of the UK market to Irish exporters. I intend to intensify our focus on other markets, near and far. I believe we have the capacity for much greater market penetration in other EU member states and I am focussed on that. But we are also looking beyond Europe’s borders.

For example, the next ETC meeting will focus on Asia-Pacific. I’m just back from the UN General Assembly where I had a series of bilateral meetings with countries from the Americas, Asia and the Antipodes.

I gave the strong message that Ireland will remain at the heart of Europe; we will continue to be an English speaking gateway to a market of 500 million people; we will continue to offer a business friendly environment and a talented and adaptable workforce.

I undertook a similar set of meetings at the Asia-Europe Summit in Mongolia in July. I take every opportunity to promote Ireland as a country to invest in and to trade with and I intend to carry out a series of trade engagements within the EU, in the Gulf, and further afield in Asia in the weeks ahead.

In January this year, I launched an Economic Diplomacy Strategy that seeks to build on the consolidation of the Department’s trade role in recent years by establishing a network of locally hired Commercial Attachés to extend the range and impact of our Embassies’ activities in support of trade. In the coming months Commercial Attachés will be appointed in Mexico, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Bucharest, and Jakarta – these are locations where economic opportunities exist to be explored and where either there is no State agency presence on the ground, or a relatively light one.

I will continue to work assiduously to promote Ireland’s trade interests. In reference to next week’s Budget - clearly, Brexit looms large and my colleagues, Minister Noonan and Minister Donohoe, will be ensuring that the Budget is “Brexit proofed”.

Moving on to Northern Ireland: Obviously, a key concern - for us all, and, in particular, for me as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade - is the potential impact of a UK exit for Northern Ireland and for the Peace Process. Overall, we will be working for special arrangements which take account of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances.

Our priorities in this area are to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement and the overall balance of the settlement is not in any way disturbed by the UK’s exit from the European Union and of course to maintain the open, and effectively invisible border.

The wider economic impacts for the all-island economy are of course also a concern as is the potential consequences for EU support under the PEACE and INTERREG programmes.

Last week I discussed the implications of Brexit for the Agreement and the Peace Process with the Members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There was I believe a shared sense that there are no guaranteed solutions to any of the issues arising for Northern Ireland. The Government and the British Government have reaffirmed that Good Friday Agreement is the indispensable foundation for all engagement on Northern Ireland.

This provides much needed reassurance for people and the political system in the North but I am under no illusions about the hard work needed to deliver it. As the Taoiseach and I have made clear, as a co-guarantor of the Agreement, the Government is determined that its institutions, values and principles be fully protected, throughout and at the end of the UK’s negotiation of its new relationship with the EU.

As an institution of the Agreement, the North South Ministerial Council has a very important role in preparing for and seeking to mitigate cross-border implications of a UK exit. Protecting EU funding, sustaining the economy and trade and maintaining the Common Travel Area are priority areas where the NSMC Plenary agreed in July that we need to work together.

It was also agreed that a full audit would be undertaken in all sectors of co-operation to identify the possible impacts, risks, opportunities and contingencies arising in the phases preceding and following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. This work commenced immediately and is progressing across all of the North South cooperation sectors.

The next NSMC Plenary meeting on 18 November will provide an important opportunity to build on the discussions between Ministers within the NSMC sectors and to explore further the agreed key priorities for both the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive in dealing with the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Having spoken of our economy and of Northern Ireland, I am acutely conscious that there is a need for the widest possible conversation on the implications of the referendum result for Ireland, North and South and for North/South relations. There are many organisations and individuals across the island of Ireland who must be given a real opportunity to make their voice heard. This is in everyone’s interest.

I am pleased that yesterday the Government approved a proposal that the Taoiseach and convene an all-island Civic Dialogue on Brexit. This event will provide an opportunity to hear the voices of the people affected by the vote, both directly and through their representative groups.

It will also provide an opportunity to map the challenges presented by Brexit and how they might impact on different elements of society and the economy on an all-island basis. The main output will be a report and recommendations which will be used to help inform the Government's position on issues related to the UK’s exit negotiations.

Preparations for an all-day Conference in Dublin on 2 November are now underway and invitations will soon be extended to a broad range of civic society groups, trade unions, business groups and non-governmental organisations as well as representatives of the main political parties on the island.

Let me now turn to the developments which have been taking place in Europe. There has been a lot of discussion – and rightly so – at EU level about the lessons that our can be drawn from the referendum result. In that regard, I think it is particularly welcome that the Taoiseach and the other 26 leaders began an earnest process of reflection in Bratislava in mid-September.

We are all aware that these developments come at a time when we in Europe are struggling with many critical issues, in terms of jobs, prosperity, migration and security – both internal and external. But I am confident that the EU and Ireland will rise to this challenge.

I should emphasise one very important point here: although much has been changed by the result of the UK referendum, one thing has stayed constant, and that is that Ireland remains absolutely committed to EU membership. Public support here for Europe and for EU membership remains consistently high.

So, where exactly are we now? Recent days have brought greater clarity on the timelines we will be working to. It is positive that there is no longer any uncertainty about the date by which Article 50 will be invoked – the end of March 2017 - thereby setting the negotiating process in train. This was in line with our expectations and our extensive contacts with UK and other EU partners.

The united EU position remains that there can be no negotiations before the notification under Article 50 is made. We adhere to that approach, but it does not mean that we cannot have exploratory discussions on the important bilateral issues which will need to be sorted out.

This would mean that the UK could depart the Union in spring 2019. However, it remains to be seen how, and within what timeframe, the linked negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be taken forward. From Ireland’s perspective, we would like this relationship to be strong and positive. I believe that is a goal to which we all, in the European Union and in the UK, should be committed.

However, the Prime Minister’s comments indicate that the UK will not seek a so-called “soft Brexit” under which it would seek a relationship with the EU similar to that of Norway or Switzerland. This would not be compatible with controls on the free movement of people, which appears to be a cornerstone of her position and runs contrary to the EU’s insistence on the indivisibility of the four freedoms which underlie the Single Market.

I appreciate the factors underpinning the Prime Minister’s approach, though clearly it is not what we would have ideally wished to see and will pose challenges all round. That said, the rather general concept of “hard Brexit” allows for a range of possible outcomes on key issues and these will have to be teased out in detail, first by the UK itself and then in the negotiating process. We will work actively to ensure the best possible outcome for Ireland and the EU as a whole, and in particular to ensure, as I said earlier, that our very particular concerns are safeguarded to the greatest possible extent.

Finally, Cathaoirleach, may I say that that the enormity of Brexit combined with the question marks over how the UK will approach negotiations and where the landing zone will ultimately be, has given rise to a great deal of comment and speculation. For our part, we are knuckling down and doing all that we can do to ensure that Ireland defends and protects its strategic interests in the time ahead. Having given an overview of where the Government currently stands, I now look forward to hearing the perspective and analysis of the members of this House this afternoon.