26 Apr 2018


Brexit, Brussels, Brussels Daily

Chairman, members of the Oireachtas, it is a great pleasure for me to be back here in Leinster House and to have the opportunity to engage with the two joint committees this afternoon.

I am grateful for the invitation and the opportunity, which comes at a very important time for European and indeed Irish agriculture.  Earlier this week, I participated in an interparliamentary committee meeting with the Agriculture and Rural Development committee of the European Parliament as well as representatives of the agriculture committees of the MS parliaments, including members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food & the Marine.

Engaging with national parliaments is probably something of which we don’t do enough. Just last week, I spoke in a debate in the European Parliament where, on behalf of the European Commission, I acknowledged that “national Parliaments play an essential role in bringing the Union closer to its citizens, by both scrutinising the activity of their own government at European level and engaging with the European institutions.”

As public representatives, I expect that you will be busy in the coming months scrutinising the Commission’s forthcoming legislative proposals for the future of the Common Agricultural Policy as well as the Commission’s proposals for the next budgetary period.

Before moving to deal with those issues, I want to recognise the immense hardship caused by the prolonged winter and the near record rainfall levels on livestock and tillage farmers throughout the country. I am very conscious of the stress that this brought on farmers, both financial and emotional. Thankfully, the weather does seem to be improving and the images of animals going back out into the fields were very heartening.

As you are aware, the European Commission was requested to allow Irish tillage farmers to derogate from the crop diversification requirements of the CAP, the so-called “three-crop rule”. My services evaluated the data provided by the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine and I was in a position to confirm very quickly that such a derogation is being granted to those tillage farmers, though the technical approval of the derogation will take a little longer.

My services are also in contact with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland with regard to a similar derogation being granted and I expect that, as soon as the necessary supporting data has been provided and assessed, I will be in a position to confirm that the derogation will also apply to tillage farmers north of the border.

This meeting comes at a very opportune time. Next week, the European Commission will adopt its proposal for the next MFF for the period 2020-2027. As you all know, budgetary or estimates exercises are rarely easy, especially for big-spending departments or, in my case, big-spending DGs.

The difficulty of this particular budgetary cycle is exacerbated by Brexit, which is blowing a €12 billion hole in the annual European budget. Meanwhile, another €12 billion is being demanded by many Member States to ensure delivery of policies such as security, migration and defence, all of which have grown in prominence in recent years.

Unlike national governments, the European Union cannot run a deficit, so we are bound by budgetary constraints. Of course, Member States have the possibility to make up the shortfall by contributing a higher percentage of Gross National Index, a point made by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food & the Marine in last week’s contribution on the Reform of the CAP.

I have made this point strongly to a number of heads of state and agriculture ministers across the EU in recent months, including the prime ministers of Ireland, Hungary, Portugal, France, Slovenia and the Baltics, all of whom were receptive to my arguments.

I have also been offering a robust defence of the CAP and the value for money it delivers. I genuinely believe that the CAP has stood the test of time over the last half century, notably by adapting to meet new and emerging challenges, and I am convinced that it is something worth fighting for.

However, nobody here should be under any illusion about the extent of the challenge facing the CAP budget. In many quarters the CAP is viewed as the obvious target for cuts. A Commission discussion document published in February provided budget modelling based on different options – including a 15 per cent cut or a 30 per cent to the CAP budget.

We need to be realistic – in the absence of more money from member States, there will be a cut to the CAP budget, and there’s no point trying to sugar-coat that fact. My job is to build the strongest possible coalition to resist the worst of these cuts, and achieve the best outcome in a difficult scenario.

In the interparliamentary meeting on Tuesday, I pointed out that “ultimately, the key decision will not be made by the Commission at all, but rather by the Member States, whose leaders have to decide whether or not they are prepared to increase their contribution to the EU budget and, if so, by how much. It is this decision that will determine the extent to which the budget for the CAP can be protected.”

I suggested that, as members of the respective parliamentary committees of agriculture, we all share the same starting point: that we want the policy to remain strong, well-funded and committed to supporting farmers’ incomes while strengthening the fabric of rural areas and contributing significantly to a higher level of environmental and climate ambition.  That being the case, I urged members of national parliaments to use their influence to encourage an increase in the GNI contributions.

We have made some significant headway with a number of Member States, but a number of countries which are net contributors to the EU budget such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Austria are still saying “no”. I have been to all four countries personally to make the case at the highest level.  Beginning with the Commission’s proposal next week, we are now entering a decisive phase.

And to those that question the need for a well-funded CAP, my answer is very clear – we should continue to support farmers’ incomes. Indeed, that is the role and duty of the CAP, as outlined in the founding treaties. Those Treaty objectives remain as relevant today as ever they did and will be reflected in the Commission’s legislative proposals.

Let me recall what was said in the Commission’s Communication, in which we were very clear that income support remains fundamental. The Communication states clearly that “direct payments partially fill the gap between agricultural income and income in other economic sectors. They provide an important income safety net, ensuring there is agricultural activity in all parts of the Union including in areas with natural constraints (which also receive income payments under Rural Development Policy) with the various economic, environmental and social associated benefits, including the delivery of public goods.  Therefore, direct payments remain an essential part of the CAP in line with its EU Treaty obligations.”

Guaranteeing a fair level of direct payments for farmers to support their work is, in my view, not alone essential and not alone for the benefit of farmers, but for the benefit of the wider society. Not alone are farmers the producers and providers of our food, but they are the custodians of our countryside and the frontline in the protection of the rural environment and our ‘boots on the ground’ in fighting the climate challenge.

My priority is protecting the European and Irish small and medium-sized farmer who remains the backbone of Europe’s food production and rural communities. I have been making the case throughout Europe that this is about equity and fairness for our farmers, who provide our citizens with so many public goods.

Pure economists including some from Ireland believe that direct payments should be abolished because we have enough food now in the EU to feed our people. I disagree. The bottom line is farmers’ incomes must continue to be supported – particularly small and medium-sized farmers. This is role and duty of CAP. If we expect farmers to make bigger contribution to climate challenge and other societal goals, they must be rewarded.

As you are all well aware, the Commission is continuing its work on the preparation of the legislative proposals for the next iteration of the Common Agricultural Policy. In this respect, we are being guided in our work by the Commission’s Communication on the Future of Food and Farming, published last November, and reflecting on the views expressed on that Communication, by Members of the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, various national parliaments and other stakeholders.  It is in this context that the political contribution from the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine is another welcome contribution to our preparatory work.

We want to present a proposal which is workable and broadly acceptable, particularly if we are to achieve the overall goals of simplification and modernisation.

As you know, a central feature of the Commission’s proposal is a greater focus on subsidiarity, with Member States taking greater responsibility for their decisions. This approach is consistent with the Commission’s overall objective of subsidiarity and having decisions impacting on citizens taken closer to those citizens.

As public representatives, I’m sure you are familiar with the frustrations of farmers trying to apply a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, which is designed to be applicable from the Inishowen peninsula to the Greek islands or from Slea Head to Lapland.

Well, we have decided to address that challenge by allowing Member States to decide how best to meet EU-wide objectives. In our forthcoming legislative proposals, we will set down EU-level specific objectives, limited to nine or ten. Member States will have discretion to decide on the appropriate measures to meet those objectives, having regard to their own specific circumstances, whether that is in terms of farming practices or climate or other conditions. In Ireland’s case, these measures will have to be included in Ireland’s CAP Strategic Plan, which will be subject to approval by the Commission and the achievement of those measures will be assessed by reference to indicators which will be set by the Commission.

Some of you, at least, will be aware that the existing Commission approval process for Rural Development Programmes can be lengthy, cumbersome and very frustrating.  We are determined, as part of our commitment to greater simplification, to make the new approval process more straightforward and efficient.

Nonetheless, I appreciate that you, as public representatives, may be understandably concerned about any delay in the approval process for the continued timely flow of direct payments, which will now be covered by the plans. In order to ensure an uninterrupted flow of such payments, we will include a specific provision in the legislation to allow for partial approval of Member States’ plans to allow the uninterrupted flow of payments, even where the Commission is in dialogue with that Member State in relation to other aspects of the plan, which cannot be approved at that time.

At the beginning of my presentation, I referred to the dreadful weather conditions under which farmers have been trying to operate through these last few months. These conditions have added to the costs of farming and it won’t be easy for many of those farmers to recover those costs.

Farmers deserve a fair price for their produce and should have their position in the food supply chain protected. The issue of farmers’ position in the food chain is not a new one but finally, after talking about it for years, the Commission has delivered on my commitment to do something about it.

Earlier this month, the Commission published a proposal to outlaw a number of Unfair Trading Practices across Europe.  These proposals are targeted not just at farmers and SMEs, but at tackling the broader food waste crisis across Europe.  Buyers will have to become smarter and more responsive to consumer demands, when they can no longer load the risk – and cost – of food waste on producers.

A more ordered, well governed food supply chain, in the context of a market oriented Common Agricultural Policy, is in the interests of all actors in the chain, not least consumers. The next phase will come later this year, when it is my intention to bring forward improvements to market transparency.

The Commission’s proposal is in the form of a Directive, which recognises that many Member States already have UTP rules in place.  In our view, it would not be proportionate to remove their systems in one fell swoop. Under the Directive Member States will remain free to complement the Directive with their own national measures. In legal terms it is a minimum harmonisation approach.  As Minister Michael Creed said at the April Council of Ministers’ meeting, the purpose of the legislation is to complement, not replace existing well-functioning legislation.

That said, I look forward to the early transposition of the legislation in Ireland and I count on you, as members of the Oireachtas, to ensure that the legislation serves its purpose to strengthen the position of Irish farmers in the food supply chain.

Ireland is an exporting country and agri-food exports play a hugely important part in the country’s economic performance. Last year, the Irish food and drink sector recorded the eighth consecutive year of export growth.  For the year as a whole it is estimated that the value of food and drink exports increased by 13 per cent, (€1.5 billion) to €12.6 billion – representing growth of almost 60 per cent or €4.7 billion since 2010.

Exports to the UK rose by an estimated 7 per cent to some €4.4 billion despite the ongoing weakness of sterling. However, Bord Bia figures suggest that the share of exports to the UK has continued to fall despite the topline growth figure; the market share for exports to the UK is now estimated at 35 per cent – down two points on last year. Meanwhile, exports to other EU countries have risen to over €4 billion accelerating last year’s growth rate, in line with Bord Bia’s Market Diversification Strategy.

Brexit presents an existential challenge to Ireland and the Irish agri-food sector in particular, given the traditional dependence on the UK as our biggest and closest market. Despite the UK’s departure from the EU, it will obviously continue to be Ireland’s closest and, in all likelihood, largest market, at least for some time to come.

However, the diversification strategy is essential if the sector is to be protected from the worst effects of the Brexit, given that we have no idea yet what kind of a future relationship will exist either between the EU and the UK or on the island of Ireland.

For my part, I am continuing my economic offensive to identify and access new and emerging markets.  The EU is the best food address in the world, and our agri-food exports continued to grow in 2017. Our most recent figures showed monthly exports at a record level of €11.5 billion, adding up to a 12-month value of more than €130 billion – the highest ever.

I have been travelling the world to find new markets for our products, most recently to Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2017.  In May, I will make my 4th official visit to China, bringing with me a business delegation of agri-food operators, including many from Ireland.

This is particularly fortuitous timing given the recent decision by China to lift the restrictions on beef imports from a number of Irish operators, for which I would like to congratulate all involved. I have had a number of face-to-face meetings with the Chinese Ambassador to the EU on this issue and I am delighted with the positive result.

While the United States continues its increasingly isolationist and protectionist attitude, Europe is moving ahead with its ambitious international trade agenda. Just last Saturday, Commissioner Malmstrom and I concluded a new trade agreement with Mexico. The EU is Mexico’s third biggest trading partner, and Mexico, with 128 million people, is the EU’s second biggest trading partner in Latin America after Brazil. The EU exports of goods to Mexico are worth €38 billion (2017), with further €10 billion-worth of exports in services (2016). Given the challenge presented by Brexit, it is worth making the point that the population of Mexico is almost twice that of the UK.

I am certain that this deal is very positive for our agri-food sector, creating new export opportunities for our high-quality food and drink products, which in turn will create support more jobs and growth, particularly in rural areas.  It is already encouraging to see the positive reaction to this deal from the Irish dairy and whiskey representative organisations.

At a time when we have very substantial stocks of skimmed milk powder in public intervention in the EU, the deal secures a very significant volume of duty-free milk powder exports in one of the largest markets, starting with 30 000 tonnes from the entry into force, rising to 50 000 tonnes after 5 years. Milk powder is currently taxed at up to 50 per cent.

Likewise, sales of Irish whiskey in Mexico grew 20.5 per cent between 2012 and 2016, with a staggering 103.4 per cent growth in 2016. The new EU-Mexico FTA comes at just the right time to support even greater export growth and I’m confident that there will be many such new opportunities in the coming months and agri-business needs to be ready to take full advantage.

There are many issues that one could cover in this statement and I’m sure that there are many questions that you wish to ask. The purpose of this statement was to address some of the issues on which we are working to update you on important developments for European and Irish agriculture, notably in terms of the MFF, the reform of the CAP, the EU’s trade policy, and our proposals to tackle UTPs. It is far from an exhaustive list and, as you’ll have noted, I only touched briefly on Brexit, about which we could spend the day talking, without necessarily coming to any definitive conclusions.

Thank you once again for the invitation to be here today and for the opportunity of this engagement.

Senators, it is my honour to address this house for the second time as EU Commissioner. I was due to be here in February, but circumstances intervened! The whole country had to batten down the hatches and wait for the snowstorm to pass, before getting on with things when the weather improved.

If you will forgive my use of weather metaphors, both Ireland and the EU have had to weather some heavy storms in the last decade. First, we were battered by the global economic crisis, which almost brought Ireland to its knees and forced the EU to drastically recalibrate its priorities.

Thankfully, that particular storm is now in the rear view mirror, and today we are meeting in better times. The European economy has picked up, with Ireland leading the charge.

EU economic growth hit 2,7 per cent in the final quarter of last year and should hit 2,8 per cent this year.  Investment is picking up; the employment rate is above 72 per cent – higher than ever; unemployment is down – 10,3 per cent three years ago, 7,3 per cent now.  In the four-year lifetime of this Commission, the economy has created nine million extra vacancies – a big achievement.

The European economy grew faster than the US for the first time in years last year.

A heavy storm forces you to check the strength of your foundation, and that is what the EU has done.

The Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker can and should claim a fair chunk of the credit for this recovery, through successful large-scale investment programmes financed by the European Investment Bank; improved coordination of EU countries’ economic policies; and the Social Pillar which promotes fair working conditions, equal opportunities and greater social protection for EU workers.

These actions are helping to storm-proof the European economy, helping Member States to withstand future crises through deeper reforms. Economically speaking, the wind is in our sails.

But another storm appeared on the horizon in June 2016, and we are still waiting to see the final cost of its impact, particularly here in Ireland.

Brexit was a hurricane force storm. It caused an existential panic at the heart of the European Union, and there was a real fear of a domino effect that would tear the EU apart. By late 2016, Eurosceptic forces were on the rise across Europe, polling well in a number of key elections, egged on across the Atlantic by the new American President Donald Trump.

The EU’s response was smart, and proportionate: check the foundations and see what defences need strengthening.

President Juncker initiated a bottom-up process to see what type of Europe our citizens want, going forward.

I am very glad that Ireland is playing its part.  The Citizen’s Dialogue on the Future of Europe has a programme of discussions and consultations that will continue all around the country up to Europe Day on May 9th.

The government is making its own contribution to the Future of Europe debate, and so is the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs. This is to be warmly welcomed, and I commend the members of this house for their contribution.

The EU institutions have been shaken from their slumber and there is a noticeable new energy and desire to get things done. In a world of rising nationalism and retrenchment, the EU is occupying the space vacated by others to lead from the front across multiple policy areas.

We are now the unquestioned global leader in promoting open, fair and rules-based trade. In the last 2 years we have signed important new deals with Canada, Japan and Singapore, and earlier this week I was delighted to announce an agreement with Mexico. Many of these deals are immensely positive for our agri-food producers, pharmaceutical sector, and financial services – which is very good news for Ireland.

Size matters in trade, and as the world’s leading trading bloc, the EU is in a position of strength to build mutually beneficial agreements with our global partners. I will return to this point later.

We are also driving the global agenda on climate and sustainability, which remains the single greatest challenge of our time and one to which this country needs to urgently step up its contribution.

And we are trying to relight the flame of Europe’s enlightenment values, making truth and reason relevant again in a world of mistruths and “fake news”.

Yet again, Brexit is important here.

EU membership was a successful policy in the UK too – accepted as such by the majority of politicians and commentators.  But that didn’t stop a majority of people voting to scrap it.

And that is strange.  Because one thing the Brexit story has shown is that the UK does not have an alternative policy to EU membership. Not by a long shot.

Even Brexiteers are happy to keep one foot in the EU: security, transport agreements, and continued participation in some of the EU agencies all spring to mind as examples.

However, the fact remains that people in the UK voted to leave.  We, as politicians, might think that successful policies will always commend themselves.  Evidently, it is not so.  Successful policies need to be defended.  Brexit has taught us a sharp lesson.

Understanding this, and incorporating it into our political life, should be one part of our stocktaking.  We cannot take for granted that people will like the EU just because it works.

But, perhaps we can go a stage further, and ask how everyone failed to spot the disconnect arising between citizens and their representatives – a disconnect that dominates so much of our politics today.  How did we allow our public discourse to be dominated by fake news and half-truths?  How can we begin to remedy things and stop it happening here?

Here, again, Brexit is a lesson.

Because another thing the Brexit story has shown us is a brand of politics in which:

concern for people’s real well-being has gone out the window;

the soundbite has become more important than the truth; and

people can “groom” a majority to act against its own welfare.

In short, we now have a brand of politics and commentary that, all too frequently, misleads rather than leads.

It is remarkable that a successful UK economy is determined to be divergent rather than convergent with its neighbouring countries.

If we look a little more widely, we see it is not only Brexit.  Our political arguments are becoming coarsened and are having knock-on effects on our behaviour.  One sign is the trigger-finger readiness of so many people to play the immigration card, even the race card.

Much of this is the result of “fake news” – the way in which what we used to call tall stories and gossip no longer goes from mouth to mouth but from one set of fingers to a million sets of eyes.  With a tap on the keyboard.  Brexit shows us how vulnerable we are.

This is why the Commission is alerting Member States to the dangers, advising them to set up an infrastructure that can counter the lies and half-truths. The respected Irish Independent editor-in-chief Stephen Rea is making a sterling contribution to this work, having been appointed to the European Commission’s high level expert group examining the issue of ‘fake news‘.

And next year’s election to the European Parliament gives this added significance and urgency.

We must be on our guard.

My final thought on this is to underline the difference between bad publicity, contrary opinion and fake news.

As politicians we know all about bad publicity and contrary opinion.  It comes with the turf.  We deal with it.  But we do it in the world of truth.

We have been slow to recognise that fake news is something else.  It is not bad publicity; it is not contrary opinion; it is not in the world of truth.  It is a fiction; a harmful fantasy.  As I say, it is urgent that we find the way to reveal it for what it is.   Political mischief.  The wrecking ball.

These are the positive actions taken so far by the EU to withstand the Brexit storm, but of course that storm has not yet passed.

If we look ahead for the moment, to the post-Brexit Union, one thing is already becoming evident, the changing relationships between Member States.  The disappearance of a Member State, and a large one at that, makes this inevitable.

Ireland will be separated from a friend and partner in EU discussions.  We joined what was then the Common Market together – indeed it was unthinkable that one of us should join without the other – and have worked together on many of the major issues.  Now Ireland has to reconsider its role, its objectives, its relationships.  Sometimes, for example, starting next year, we shall be speaking for the whole island.

The development of new relationships has already begun.  For example, the Irish government is in the forefront of efforts to coordinate the views and voices of like-minded members.  On the trade question, Ireland is alongside Nordic and Baltic states in the informal “Hanseatic League Mark Two”.  On digital matters allies and friends are also in contact.

But there is another, strategic, level for us to consider.  When the EU talks security, eyes normally turn east or south.  For us, bordering the Atlantic Ocean security questions may sometimes seem remote.

But is this a moment for us to review our thinking on these wider, strategic questions?  Despite our secure position in the west, we have come under a security threat – from Brexit.

A threat that An Taoiseach and the government are resisting by pressing, pressing, pressing until a soft border between us and the north is guaranteed.  They have mobilised themselves to carry the case to Brussels and have done so with such clarity the Union, the other twenty-six members, stand with us shoulder to shoulder, never wavering.

We have felt the strength and benefit of EU solidarity over the past couple of years.  Imagine what it means to our fellow members in the Baltic region, for example, who border Russia and have large Russian-speaking populations.

Imagine what it means to those member countries that are in the front line in dealing with immigration from the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

As part of the EU we all share the Union’s destiny.  We, who have felt, and are still feeling, the benefits of its solidarity should be ready to ask how we may better contribute to the solidarity offered to others.

We value our neutral status but should not stand aloof because of it.  We should also want to play our full part in the Union’s security.

* * *

Brexit can only be declared over when the future relationship between the EU and UK is known. This is perhaps most urgent in relation to the Irish border.

The UK has twice said it will be a soft border.

And Prime Minister May said in her Mansion House speech that the UK wasn’t about to walk away and leave it to us and the EU to deal with the question.

This is positive.  But we are still stuck fast in the UK’s self-imposed contradiction between its reassurance of a soft border and its hardline demands, its red lines, which have led the EU to offer a free-trade agreement.

The UK wants to keep its red lines, understands that a free trade agreement means a hard border, and is trying to escape by “inventing” a new type of border.

It says a soft border can be assured – even in a free trade agreement – through new customs practices and modern technology, what I have called a cyber border.

The EU has looked at the UK’s ideas; is not convinced that they can give us the border security we need, within the Brexit timescale; and has sent the UK back to the drawing board.  Meanwhile it insists on the back-stop of a customs union for the whole island.

An Taoiseach and the government, supported by the EU, have made it clear that they are not fudgers.  The UK has to face up to the fact that decision time is here.  The EU must be satisfied the UK’s invention will work or it is the back-stop.  The deadline is set for June.  No decision, no Withdrawal Treaty; no Withdrawal Treaty, no transition.

* * *

As I say, the government has the border issue under close surveillance.  Let us consider for a moment the final piece of Brexit business – the future arrangement between the EU and the UK.  Here the target is to agree the broad lines by the autumn and fill in the detail ready for the agreement to be in force by January 2021.

In her Mansion House speech in March, Prime Minister May revealed that the UK wants to retain many of the advantages it gains from EU membership.  She has given us a long list of what the UK wants to keep.  A very long list.

On the other hand, she maintains her red lines.

Future discussions will show us how badly the UK wants what the Prime Minister has asked for.  And by future discussions, I don’t just mean Brussels-London, I mean also the London-London discussions.  Indeed, I would say that London-London is the more critical.

Now that its battle is won, now that the UK is within a year of leaving the EU and becoming a third country instead of a member, can London-London climb down from the barricades and evaluate future arrangements with the EU to find a solution which will be in the best interests of UK people, as workers and as consumers?

In my view, a landing zone involving some form of customs arrangement and softening of the red lines must be in the best interest of all concerned.

Or do the Brexiteers want to carry on the civil war until there’s not a building left standing on the other side?  Is this the sort of victory they seek? If so, they don’t only endanger the UK’s economy but its society also.

The recent statement by Jacob Rees-Mogg in relation to Irish beef is a good example of a comment that is both unhelpful and irresponsible. But of course this is his stock in trade.

His comments highlight that the rift between the Brexiteers and the Remainers risks going on and on.

Instead, both sides should compare and honestly weigh the costs and benefits of a free trade agreement versus a customs union; this is a moment for balanced judgement, not costly immoderate ideology.  Now that Brexit is irreversible, such a review would be the statesmanlike option.

Let’s be frank, the importance of this for Ireland is that the more the red lines are softened, the less disturbance there will be to our UK trade and the easier it will be to achieve a soft border without relying on technical and bureaucratic wizardry.

So Ireland certainly has its own preference for the outcome of these talks between London and London.  But it is not in either Ireland’s or the EU’s power to realise it.  Both are on the sidelines.

The UK has asked, in effect, for a free-trade agreement.  Yes, it wants all sorts of additions, but its basic demand is a free trade agreement.  And this is what the EU is offering.

* * *

Wrapped into the argument between a free trade agreement and a customs union is the ambition of Global Britain.

In her Mansion House speech, Prime Minister May listed the UK’s freedom to negotiate its own trade deals as an advantage of Brexit.

But, for this freedom to improve the lives of UK people, the UK would need to offset its losses in trade with the EU – which are certain to take place as businesses cut British companies out of their supply chains – and gain additional benefits.

This is the ambition of Global Britain.  Is it realistic?

I know that the freedom to seek and negotiate trade deals seems intimately connected to sovereignty.  But the UK needs to look at this issue with cold-eyed realism.  Its overall objective is to achieve a better future for UK citizens.  This cannot be achieved on a wing and a prayer.

What are the factors that make me so certain that Global Britain is not the answer?

First, outside the EU, the UK will see its standing and importance reduced.  Global Britain will feel that pain. As I mentioned earlier, size matters in trade.

Second, despite the sometimes effusive language, a trade deal with the US will be very difficult to negotiate. “America First” will be ringing in the ears of the US negotiators.

The US will certainly seek market access in areas that will bring the UK in direct conflict with European standards, for example on genetically-modified crops, hormone beef, chlorine-washed chicken, and so on.

Third, the UK wants to turn again to the Commonwealth.  Yes, the Commonwealth has a common language and similar legal systems but it is not a cohesive bloc.  There is no single negotiating partner, nor is it geographically compact.  And Commonwealth countries have their own demands – India is determined to keep its high tariffs on Scotch whisky, for example, and would probably want the UK to ease restrictions on work visas: something that would not be acceptable to Brexiteers.

Global Britain is stepping out of the huge network of global trade deals that the EU has negotiated and into a difficult world. It is legitimate, therefore, to doubt whether it can achieve more trade for the UK than at present, at least on any realistic time scale.  On optimistic assumptions, even UK civil servants say it can’t.

They forecast that Brexit will cause a 2,6% hit to GDP.  But if some of their assumptions on trade are made more realistic, the potential losses become greater.

And doubts about betting the house on Global Britain only increase when you count the loss of benefits on the Prime Minister’s negotiating list – benefits that don’ accompany a free trade agreement.

The facts say: “Reconsider.”

* * *

In conclusion, Senators, the Brexit storm has yet to pass, although we have, in the last couple of months, made good progress towards safeguarding our future.

The EU has stood with Ireland, defended Ireland and, in doing so, has demonstrated its value.  We are not out of the woods by any means.  But we can draw confidence from everything that has happened so far.

I firmly believe we have a European Union that is proud of us as members and of which we can be proud.  I want us to build further on this foundation. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

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