Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Developments at European Union Level: Commissioner Mairead McGuinness

Ms Mairead McGuinness:

I miss this sort of politics. It is really good to hear that it is alive and well. Deputy Ó Murchú's lack of sleep has not impacted on his ability to ask questions. Fair play to him. I will try to answer them all because they are really important questions and I thank him for them.

The issue regarding single-use plastics has been around since 2019. As I understand it - and I hope I am correct in saying this - there are some stocks still in storage but these can be depleted. I will certainly double-check to ensure that I have given the Deputy the correct answer. Agriculture is near and dear to my heart. There are many areas of the agricultural supply chain in the context of which we are going to have to look at resilience with regard to where our vulnerabilities lie, but perhaps that is a matter for another day.

Europe does not have competence in health but it needs to. Again, the initiative by the President of the Commission pushed out the boundaries, if you like, but did it in a way that has given us positive results around protective equipment and vaccines. The record stands despite a difficult start where many people rightly had concerns and great fears.

On COVAX, again the EU led the charge in acknowledging that even if we look at ourselves and our children it is not enough and we must look after the wider world. That is being done at EU level. We are pushing this strongly. Equally the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Ms Kyriakides, and our colleague Mr. Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Market, are trying to motivate companies to invest in Africa and to construct plants.

There is a lot of talk about the rules around intellectual property rights, but all of that will pale into insignificance if the facilities, skills and people are not there. We are working at that level and that is where we will see the results.

On the Delta variant, we should be as cautious as our public health experts are. Around Europe, we are starting to become as concerned as Ireland is and we do not want this to get out of control again.

The Deputy's third point was on the digital levy. As he knows, the proposal is not being moved forward because these OECD discussions are ongoing. We will look to see where those discussions are in the autumn. That might point to what will happen with the digital levy.

On business in Northern Ireland, I want to say clearly that I understand the sensitivities of the unionist community well. We cannot dismiss those genuine fears and concerns. I would hope to convince the unionist community that we negotiated in good faith with their Prime Minister. There were other options and the Theresa May option would have avoided all of these problems, but the unionist and loyalist community did not particularly want that option so we now have the protocol. There is an obligation and duty on the EU and the United Kingdom Government, led by Boris Johnson, to implement what has been signed up to and to stress we have found solutions to particular problems. What troubles me is that every time we find a solution, the UK finds another problem. That is not a good way to do business because we have to make sure the protocol is implemented fairly and in full. I hope business will show the full value of the protocol by action rather than word.

On legacy issues, I am aware of the statements made and this is a sensitive issue. I will not give a direct answer on what our role will be in that because it is a sensitive issue. I will just express our sympathy with families that will carry these traumas to their graves. We are all sensitive to that.

The foreign ministers have to agree on the issue of Palestine. There is a conversation to be had on unanimity on this and that is something the committee might look at.

On the democratic deficit and the fact Northern Ireland is not represented at EU level, that is a fact of life because it is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Therefore, the voices should be coming from the UK side. I would hope our colleagues in the European Parliament - I know the Deputy has a colleague there, as I have - would, either informally or formally, work towards having links with elected representatives in the House of Commons and in the Assembly. In politics, it is important we talk to each other and try to listen to each other. That is important for Northern Ireland in these difficult times.

The Deputy mentioned the supply chain problems with raw materials. That is something to watch for because there has been an unusual disruption to the supply chains. Timber prices have skyrocketed, for example. I took part in the debate on this last week and one statistic was that shipping costs have gone up by 400% in some cases. We are looking at pressures on that side of the system.

On insurance, I am aware of all the issues in Ireland and the work being done to get through them. The truth is that if we had a fully fledged single market in financial services, we would not worry about having something in Ireland. Rather, we would want to make sure we had access to the best. We have a strong insurance sector in Ireland that services a lot of European business. Maybe we need to broaden that out and develop it further. If anything comes up from the Deputy's work and if there is anything he thinks I should know in my role, I am happy to get information from him in that regard. The single market in financial services is key to resolving the issue.

As to the future, let us first examine what has happened already. When Covid happened, governments responded. Rules that were normally strictly applied were disapplied and the ECB worked to make sure there was money in the system. No one I have spoken to in and around this House has any desire to see a cliff-edge effect. In other words, we want to keep supports going for as long as we deal with Covid but we are conscious that at some point the issue of non-performing loans may arise, for example. We do not want to see those on the balance sheets of banks because that chokes off credit. Everything has its own impact. We are watching all these matters guardedly. We believe that the resilience funds that are being sent out to member states will have an impact. It is interesting that in some sectors we are seeing labour shortages.

There have been interesting developments because of Covid, which are probably more long-term and not fully understood. The only thing I want to say about Covid is that it was a great wake-up call and I hope we were shocked by our lack of resilience and by how powerless we were. In one sense, we were cheeky to think that Covid would be a three-day wonder. I was one of those guilty of it. I left Brussels in March 2020 thinking I would be back in three weeks and it would all be fine. How wrong we were. It is not as if Covid is the only problem we will face.

Equally, we will see other issues around public health linked with climate change. Maybe we were lucky that we had a bit of a wake-up call this time around before it was too late. I would hope the committee could look at the work we are doing around Fit for 55. There is a need to explain what we are doing and it is not something we can force societies to do. We need to change and everything needs to change for the future. I hope we could have a conversation around the enormity of that change at another stage and how we cannot leave anyone behind. We have to make sure that when we talk about a just transition, it is more than just words. I am conscious of the midlands, Northern Ireland and the horticulture industry that is worried about peat supplies. Every sector will face a similar trauma, including the growing of maize, as Deputy Ó Murchú said. That requires us to step back and tell everyone, as we rightly did with Brexit, to look at their supply chains and make changes where they are vulnerable. The same applies to climate change.


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