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Brexit: Taoiseach hopeful of EU-UK deal but says trust has eroded

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By Shona Murray
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Brexit: Taoiseach hopeful of EU-UK deal but says trust has eroded
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In this episode of Global Conversation, I spoke with the Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin.

For four years, Brexit has dominated Europe, but in the next few weeks, it is hoped that an agreement on the EU-UK future relationship can finally be negotiated.

The talks have gone into extra time but how long will the EU be prepared to negotiate for? I put that question to the Taoiseach.

POST-BREXIT AGREEMENT

"Well, sometimes you can get a good result in extra time," Micheál Martin said.

"And I think it’s important, given the enormity of the issues here, the enormity of the implications.

"May I say, in terms of the economy of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Europe, that we must use all the available time that we have to reach an agreement.

"Because - and I say it straight out- I believe a no deal would be very damaging to our economy, to the United Kingdom’s economy, and indeed to Europe as well.

"So politicians have an obligation to the people that they represent," he added.

RATIFYING A DEAL

We’re almost already at that point where it won’t be possible for each member state to perhaps ratify the deal, for the parliament to have its say on the deal. So what’ll happen if it takes another week or so? Will there be a bridging situation? Could the deal that was agreed prior to ratification in January be applied? The Prime Minister set out what could happen.

"Well, our immediate focus, obviously, is in trying to make sure that the EU and the UK can arrive at a deal, that would be satisfactory in terms of the future relationship.

"Europe has it within its capacity to develop proper ratification procedures.

"It is tight, I acknowledge that - and time is running out.

"But I do believe that with some degree of creativity, we can facilitate the ratification of a deal, perhaps on a staged basis.

"But I think it’s one that we can satisfactorily resolve once we actually get a deal in place," he said.

OUTSTANDING ISSUES

The outstanding issues remain - fisheries, where there’s been very little progress since March, state subsidies, and governance.

Micheál Martin updated us on what stage they are at with them.

"On a level playing field, I think we do all realise the fears on both sides, in terms of one getting an advantage over the other in relation to the application of state aid and so forth.

"But I do believe there is a landing zone on the level playing field, that then leads into a dispute resolution mechanism that would enable both sides to react if one was undermining the agreement, and in breach of the agreement.

"I think underlying all of this is a necessity for trust and to rebuild trust between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

"It’s on the basis of solid trust that the future relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe can work best," he said.

INTERNAL MARKET BILL

The UK Internal Market Bill is contentious because it proposes to override parts of the EU's legal divorce deal, known as the Withdrawal Agreement, which came into effect on 31 January 2020.

The bill was drawn up to ensure trade between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remains barrier-free after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020.

One of the major issues is how that can apply to Northern Ireland when it shares a border with the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU.

I asked Prime Minister Micheál Martin what he thought about the bill and if it had damaged relations with Ireland.

"Well, I do believe that the UK internal markets bill did erode trust.

"That said, I think the measured response from the European Union has been important here in terms of settling things down, and keeping the focus on the actual substance of the negotiations themselves - around the future trading relationship.

"Because if a future trading relationship can be arranged, that should then neutralise the offending clauses in the UK internal market bill and would not necessitate their reintroduction.

So I believe it’s been handled in a measured way and in a proper way, given the enormity of what’s at stake in terms of Brexit for so many people," he said.

The Irish Prime Minister also expressed the need to take things "step by step".

"I think the House of Lords has given a very emphatic verdict on the offending clauses and on the Internal Market Bill.

"And the bill itself has had a very choppy journey so far, in the context of Scotland, for example, and Wales - and at the recent British Irish Council meeting that became very clear.

"But leaving that to one side, I think if the substance of the agreement is such that we have a very viable future trading relationship with the United Kingdom, then I think a lot can follow from that, and a lot can flow from that.

"And fears and assertions made by the UK side clearly would not materialise if if they had a trade deal with Europe," he added.

EU RESCUE FUND

Moving on to other issues in Europe, and the subject of the EU rescue fund - which would provide money to member states in need of financial support as a result of the health pandemic.

Hungary and Poland strongly objected the idea and are currently stopping its progress.

Mr Martin said he was "very disappointed with the move," and called it "unwarranted".

"This is a very significant financial package.

"It was a historic breakthrough in terms of the collectivisation of debt and all of the EU states working together to raise money on the markets.

"And to have it slowed down or held back because of two member states having difficulties with the agreement made between the parliament and the council {on rule of law} is very regrettable.

"My position is that they should withdraw their objections to this package and facilitate the passage of the money to member states," he said.

"I believe the treaty is there to deal with undermining of basic EU core values.

"I have great concern in terms of the attitude of the member states, particularly in Poland, for example, recently in relation to LGBT plus issues.

"And that’s not acceptable to many people in Ireland, for example, in terms of that issue.

"And more broadly speaking, I would say, however, that there are mechanisms there within the treaty where any undermining of the values of the EU should be dealt with.

"And in my view, given the severity of the crisis brought about by Covid-19, it is very, very important that these remaining obstacles are removed.

"And I think also the member states (Hungary and Poland) should take cognisance of the genuine views held by other member states on these issues," the Taoiseach concluded.