Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence

Foreign Affairs Council: Minister for Foreign Affairs

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

On the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu's suspension of annexation, we are uncomfortable with the fact that he has essentially described it as a temporary stalling of plans to annex part of the West Bank. We want that to be a permanent commitment from Israel not to annex parts of the West Bank. The land is not theirs. Israel is an occupying power in occupied territory. It was interesting because when the Israeli Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, was asked about this, in the context of more recent initiatives around normalisation with some Gulf countries, he made the case that, as long as normalisation is progressing, annexation will not be progressing. It was about the most definitive step I have heard a senior Israeli politician take in terms of a commitment not to allow annexation to proceed. That is something we will watch closely.

It is a time for Ireland to engage with all parties but also to see what follows in the context of the presidential election in the US and whether that impacts US policy in the Middle East process. Many people are waiting to see where this will go next. Certainly Ireland will do everything it can to influence this in a constructive way, speaking to both Israel and Palestinian leaders, to progress a peace process that can result in a successful outcome, as opposed to what we have seen in the past several years.

On Belarus, many of us were pretty shocked by what we have seen there.

We have seen women protestors thrown into the back of vans and taken away, detention without trial and a lot of clear intimidation. As has been rightly said, perhaps the most prominent Opposition spokesman, who is not in Belarus but is from Belarus, is someone who has a very close personal connection with Ireland and was here as a child. We are watching this closely. We are in absolute solidarity with those who seek democratic reform. Most importantly, this is not Ireland trying to intervene in another country's affairs. This is Ireland trying to speak out for, along with others in the EU, free and fair elections that would allow the Belarusian people to decide who governs them democratically. We do not believe that the last election was either free or fair and that is why we have supported the peaceful demonstrations and pro-democracy movement in Belarus, and will continue to do so.

In terms of Poland and the rule of law, I will say a number of things. We note with concern the recent rhetoric in Poland regarding the LGBTI+ community, and the development of so-called LGBTI ideology-free zones. It is extraordinary that a country in the European Union even has that terminology on a sign anywhere. Our embassy undertakes a number of initiatives to raise awareness and to facilitate discussion on the rights of LGBTI+ people and this includes taking part in the Warsaw equality parade each year. The embassy is also one of a number of diplomatic representations that sign an annual letter in support of the Warsaw equality parade and other such parades around Poland. This autumn the embassy will support a number of engagements, including events to showcase the experience in countries, such as Ireland, ensuring the adoption of equal rights for the LGBTI+ community.

As for concerns that were raised regarding Hungary, the rule of law is a fundamental principle for all EU member states. Our concerns about issues relating to the rule of law in Hungary are well known, particularly around judicial independence, civil society space, media freedom, academic freedom and fundamental freedoms. Under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, there have been a number of hearings at the General Affairs Council over the past two years, involving the Commission, Hungary and other member states. We have participated actively in these, highlighting the importance we attach to respect for the rule of law. We support the continuation of Article 7 proceedings against Hungary. Constructive dialogue should continue with a view to ensuring that the values of the EU are respected by everybody.

Deputy Stanton has raised the issue of €35 billion. What the EU has done but not communicated as well as perhaps it should have, is that it has been extraordinarily proactive in funding supports for Covid responses such as healthcare systems, personal protective equipment, PPE, and supporting countries all over the world that simply could not afford a response themselves, ranging from Africa, Latin America to parts of Asia, and in our own neighbourhood in particular, in terms of some of the eastern partner countries and so on. The European Union has even made commitments, or has already funded, programmes that are supporting a public health response to the challenges of Covid all over the world. Other countries are sometimes far better at trumpeting what they are doing than the Union is collectively but I hope that is changing.

In terms of South Sudan, I have been asked to make sure that South Sudan and Yemen remain a priority and part of Foreign Affairs Council, FAC, debates and I can assure the Deputy that we will do that. There has been a focus, particularly on Yemen. Over and over again we have items on the agenda on Yemen and, more recently, there has been discussion on South Sudan as well.

Deputy Cowen raised the issue of Australia and called for an international inquiry into how Covid began. We need to understand what happened so that we can learn lessons to make sure this does not happen again. Part of the problem is that some have been very targeted in terms of their blame so that, politically, there has been a focal point for anger and blame against where Covid originated. That has resulted, I think, in a tension that makes getting an international and credible inquiry agreed. We need to approach this matter in a way that is likely to succeed in getting co-operation from countries like China and others on how did this happen, when was it spotted, what was the response, what were the mistakes, how can we do it better the next time, how can we have a global alert system for a virus like this when it is forming in its initial cluster and before it starts to spread, and how can we stamp it out more efficiently. These are very real and genuine questions that at the end of all of this we are right to ask, albeit while getting buy-in in order that this does not turn into an international targeting of one country, particularly when it happens to be as large and influential as China. If we are going to get buy-in from China then the approach that we take has to be one of partnership, which is less about blame and more about establishing facts.

As for the EU's response to Covid-19, at the outset the European Union was, like every country, taken by the pace at which the disease spread. What happened was that countries looked after themselves as best they could. They shut borders, ignored EU rules and concentrated on trying to protect their own populations. As a result, countries like Italy in particular were torn apart by the virus. I am not sure what the EU could have done to help them faster. As we have moved on through this pandemic, the European Union has really got its act together. In the early days we were really effective at co-ordinating a response on getting people back to their home countries. There was really good co-ordination in terms of rescue flights where European countries shared information with each other and brought each other's nationals home. For example, when we organised a rescue flight out of Nigeria we brought other EU nationals back and dropped them off in London. When we had a rescue flight out of Peru, we did the same. Of course, we got Irish citizens on rescue flights that were organised by other member states and by the UK, that formally is not a member state any longer but certainly behaved in a way that was hugely helpful and responsible towards helping us to get Irish citizens home or helping them to get off cruise liners and so on in a way that friends and neighbours should support each other.

That co-operation demonstrated very good early solidarity within the European Union. Since then, on vaccines, PPE and international travel, there is a lot more co-ordination and leadership coming from the EU. The big thing is the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, the budget and the recovery fund that has been put in place and the scale of it, which is going to help the countries and their economies that have been hit the hardest to recover. As a country that is going to have to recover in a post-Covid environment, I am very happy that we are a member of the European Union in terms of the supports. As a country, I would not like to be fighting on our own to access vaccines, for example, when there is going to be a lot of pressure and competition to access them early. We have the European Commission now centrally purchasing, in advance, vaccines in hundreds of millions of doses to make sure that large and small EU member states can be protected. It does not matter whether a country is Germany or France, or Cyprus or Malta, it is going to be protected as an EU member state and get fair access and so on. We have learned a lot of lessons. The EU has really responded to the Covid crisis in the second half of the pandemic thus far in a way that has learned lessons from the pressures of the first half.

It is important to recognise that. The European Union's response has been far from perfect but no one is talking about a shortage of personal protective equipment, PPE, in the second wave. I hope we will not be talking about a shortage of vaccines, even though other parts of the world will be desperately trying to get their hands on vaccines and may not be able to. By the way, the EU will be extraordinarily generous in using its buying power to buy up vaccines for parts of the world that will not be able to afford to compete, and so it should. It is an opportunity for us to build relationships with countries that are fearful they will not be able to afford to compete in the market to buy vaccines when they become available. The EU is planning a big funding programme to help other parts of the world in that regard. Not only are we showing solidarity within the European Union but the value system the EU represents will, I hope, ensure our wealth, buying power and influence will see to it that countries which otherwise would not be able to compete to access vaccines when they become available will be able to do so. All of that is positive and worth putting on the record.


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