Brexit talks are ‘of national importance for Ireland’, Kenny says

Taoiseach arrives in Brussels for EU summit as Cameron says he is ‘battling for Britain’

Brendan Howlin was speaking after a cabinet meeting to discuss a possible British exit from the European Union. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Brendan Howlin was speaking after a cabinet meeting to discuss a possible British exit from the European Union. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said EU talks on the renegotiation of the UK’s membership terms are a “matter of national importance for Ireland”.

EU leaders, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny, will meet in Brussels on Thursday in an effort to reach agreement on a revised settlement on Britain’s EU membership ahead of an expected referendum later this year.

Arriving in Brussels for the two-day summit, Mr Kenny said that the State was extremely supportive of the UK remaining in the European Union.

“We are very supportive of Britain remaining a central member of the European Union and we reiterated that this evening.”

Mr Kenny said he was hopeful of a deal on the UK’s membership terms by Friday.

“We will back up the claim that Britain should remain a central member of the European Union and I do hope that it can be concluded tomorrow so that the prime minister can make his timing of a referendum known to the British people.”

Earlier, British prime minister David Cameron said he was “battling for Britain” as he arrived in Brussels for the summit.

“If we can get a good deal I’ll take that deal. But I will not take a deal that doesn’t meet what we need.

“I think it’s much more important to get this right than to do anything in a rush. But with goodwill, with hard work, we can get a better deal for Britain.”

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said ahead of the summit he was “quite confident” that European leaders can reach a deal with Britain over its future membership of the EU.

The State could be allowed to limit welfare benefits to migrant workers from other European Union member states under a proposal under consideration by the European Commission ahead of the EU summit.

However, the move is likely to be staunchly resisted by central and east European countries.

It remains one of the key points of contention going into the meeting.

Mr Kenny declined to comment on whether the State would secure a special opt-out for Irish people living in Britain from proposed benefits restrictions.

Benefits restrictions

Earlier on Thursday, two Labour Ministers confirmed that the State was seeking to curb child benefits for migrants.

A proposal to limit welfare benefits to migrant workers from other European Union member states would only apply to child benefit, Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin said.

He was speaking after a Cabinet meeting to discuss a possible British exit from the European Union.

Mr Howlin said the cap would only apply to child benefit and discussions have been underway with the European Commission for some time on this already.

The Minister said child benefit here is significantly higher than other member states.

Mr Howlin said: “The Tánaiste has had discussions for a protracted period on that.

“In number terms it has diminished but is something that we would be supportive of if there is a treaty change that would allow that in the future.

“Other benefits are insurance-based so people who pay a contribution to the Social Insurance Fund gain an entitlement and we have no difficulty with those who have paid insurance claiming their entitlement.”

Brexit plan

Speaking after the meeting Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has said a Government paper assessing the impact of Brexit on the Irish economy was not a contingency plan but an analysis of the risks involved.

Mr Noonan said his Department was inputting figures on the effect on job numbers or the effect on the economy but would not get into the detail.

He said: “We have a huge awareness of the risk and making sure the Taoiseach’s Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs is aware of the risk.”

The Minister said the Government would be “unashamed supporters” of Britain remaining of the European Union.

He said: “We have, of course, selfish interests. We have vested interests. We think a British departure would add to instability at this point.

“We think to ensure the continuing recovery of the Irish economy we need stability on our doorstep with our neighbours.”

Mr Noonan said the common trade arrangements and labour markets would not be effected by any Brexit.

He said it was enshrined in law and this would not change regardless of the decision by the British people.

Anti-fraud measures

The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said on Thursday that since she became the Minister in the social welfare area the amount of benefit being paid for children abroad had come down from €20 to €11 million as a result of anti-fraud measures.

She said the State was obliged under EU law to pay full-time benefits to people abroad but it should be examined if it would be more appropriate to link the payments of those supports to the relevant local child benefit payments in the countries abroad.

Ms Burton said she had met both the last and the present EU Commissioners and had put to them very strongly the fact that in the State, as in the UK and a number of other countries, people pay social insurance contributions.

“Our social welfare system, the contributory system is based on the fact people during their working lives contribute.

“Therefore if people come into the system, unless they have built up contributions, we don’t expect them to be broadly taking from the system”, she said on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1.

She said a difficulty in paying benefit money abroad was how you actually satisfy yourself the children are there.

She was confident the level of child benefit payments abroad will continue to fall as a result of new anti-fraud measures in the Department of Social protection.

Programme for government

The programme for government contained a commitment to examine the issue of child benefit paid in respect of non-resident children of EU citizens living in the State.

It said the Coalition would “seek to have the entitlement modified to reflect the cost of living where a child is resident”.

Ms Burton has previously raised the issue with the commission.

Paying child benefit at lower rates to children of EU citizens living outside the UK has featured in the negotiations on the British reform package.

A proposal to index link the payment to the rates in the home country, rather than British child benefit rates, has been discussed.

Sources said the State is likely to follow suit if such a deal is offered to Britain, adding that it would be possible for the Department of Social Protection to index link child benefit payments in respect of non-resident children to the rates of other EU countries.

While most EU countries chose to impose transitional labour restrictions on new migrants arriving from the 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004, Britain, Ireland and Sweden chose to open their labour markets completely.

The commission is now considering recognising this fact as justification for allowing Britain to curb migrants’ access to benefits.