MPs’ behaviour over Brexit deadlock ‘unacceptable’

An EU Commissioner has branded the behaviour of MPs amid the Brexit impasse as unacceptable, and warned there are no more excuses for failing to strike a deal.

Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan also said the UK Government’s no-deal tariff plans – proposals that would see no import duties levied on goods entering Northern Ireland across the border – would likely breach World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

He branded their unveiling a “political stunt”, designed only to divert the news cycle from the “political chaos in London”.

Phil Hogan
Phil Hogan

Mr Hogan, Ireland’s nomination to the EU Commission, said Brussels stood ready to support Irish farmers who might be adversely impacted by a disorderly Brexit.

Arriving at an agriculture conference in Dublin, Mr Hogan was asked to react to this week’s events in Westminster and the ongoing failure to find a Brexit plan that commands majority support.

He said: “They have had a long time to do all of this up until now, and leaving it until the eleventh hour is creating instability and uncertainty for their own people, but also for Irish people and for the European Union generally.

“That is certainly not an acceptable way of political behaviour from the mother of parliaments.”

He said he would not pre-judge whether European leaders would be prepared to offer Prime Minister Theresa May a Brexit extension.

#Brexit is a disruption to trade in #EU & especially #Ireland. I want to assure Irish farmers that EU resolve will not buckle: solidarity behind Ireland remains rock solid, steadfast, & unwavering. @EU_Commission has a strong toolbox of support measures ready to go. 🇪🇺🇮🇪

— Phil Hogan (@PhilHoganEU) March 15, 2019

Mr Hogan, who was keynote speaker at the Irish Farmers Journal’s Navigating Global Trade Conference in Dublin’s RDS arena, noted that “intensive discussions” were taking place within parliament on potentially backing Mrs May’s deal – in particular within the DUP and among some Brexiteers.

“They do realise they are risking a no-deal but also a no Brexit, and I think that’s concentrating their minds,” he said.

“I hope she (Mrs May) is successful in getting some deal because the deal is on the table from the European Union side with the UK since November 25. All the clarifications that were needed were given in a very open and generous way by the European Union last Monday – there’s no more excuses.”

No import tariffs will apply to goods entering Northern Ireland across the Irish border under the Government’s no-deal Brexit plans.

Phil Hogan
Phil Hogan

The region will be treated differently from the rest of the UK, where tariffs will be imposed on some EU goods if a Brexit deal fails to materialise.

The arrangements, which the Government insists will be “strictly temporary”, will be introduced as part of efforts to maintain a free-flowing border.

Mr Hogan said the plan would likely breach WTO rules. He claimed they were published to deliver a “change in the news cycle from the political chaos in London”.

“I think they are incompatible with WTO rules,” he said.

Mr Hogan added: “I think the timing of it was unfortunate and it was a deliberate attempt to put Ireland more on the agenda, as if it wasn’t on the agenda already.”

The plan represents only the UK side of what a post-Brexit border would look like in the event of no-deal. It will be for the EU and Irish government to set out what tariff regime would apply to goods travelling the other way if the UK exits without a trade agreement.

Government lawyers are confident the approach will be compliant with the UK’s international legal obligations, respecting both WTO rules and the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement.

A bull is prepared for sale
A bull is prepared for sale

The Government may need to invoke an exemption from standard WTO rules, on the grounds of “public morals”, to enable it to allow goods to enter Northern Ireland tariff-free.

It would likely cite the 1998 peace deal as part of its justification for taking steps to prevent a hardening of the Irish border.

Mr Hogan said the EU stood ready to support Irish farmers who might be adversely impacted by Brexit.

But he urged those in the sector to “remain calm” until the final shape of Brexit was clear.

“We are well advanced for all scenarios, including very difficult situations for farmers in Europe generally and indeed for Irish farmers because we are very exposed, particularly in the beef sector,” he said.

He added: “The European Union is ready to help them at the appropriate time when we see what the conclusions of the negotiations in London are.”

Mr Hogan said there was not yet a market crisis – characterising the situation as only a “political crisis”.

He said Irish farmers had weathered previous troubled periods, such as mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases, with EU help.

“We shouldn’t talk ourselves into a crisis,” he added.