Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 23 January 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
EU Presidency: Discussion with Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade
I remind members and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting, as they cause interference with the recording equipment, even when left in silent mode.
I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, and his officials. It is great to see a good turnout of members and a packed Visitors Gallery. The Tánaiste is accompanied by Mr. David Donoghue, political director at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Adrian McDaid, Europe division - enlargement and eastern Europe, and Mr. Dónal Denham, director, Europe division, with responsibility for Presidency planning.
Members and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the foreign affairs priorities for Ireland's EU Presidency which has got off to a great start. We will be interested to learn about the Minister's approach to supporting the work of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European External Action Service. The European Union has an important contribution to make to conflict prevention and resolution and must ensure it finds an approach that maximises its effectiveness and coherence. The challenges facing the Union in its external relations are considerable. The joint committee has been monitoring with great concern the humanitarian crisis in Africa, the deteriorating situation in Syria and developments which are making the prospect of progress in the Middle East peace process much more remote. We are interested to hear what the Government has to contribute during the Irish Presidency in the search for solutions in these areas.
The committee will also meet the EU Special Representative for Human Rights in February. We are interested to learn how Ireland will contribute during its Presidency to the promotion of human rights, including through the Office of the Special Representative.
Development co-operation has long been a key component of Irish foreign policy and the record of the Department in this field is one of which we are justly proud. The Presidency offers us an opportunity to help to make progress in this area and the Tánaiste may wish to elaborate on his plans to contribute in this regard.
An informal meeting of Ministers with responsibility for trade will also be held during the Presidency. I ask the Tánaiste to provide an update on the United States-European Union trade agreement and progress in the recently commenced process aimed at achieving a trade agreement between the European Union and Japan.
In the context of the parliamentary dimension of the Presidency, the joint committee, in conjunction with the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, will host the interparliamentary conference on the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence Policy at the end of the March. We hope this will be an opportunity for parliamentarians to make a contribution to policy-making at EU and government level. We look forward to the participation at the conference of the Tánaiste and Baroness Ashton. Without further ado, I invite the Tánaiste to commence his presentation, after which we will have questions from members.
Thank you, Chairman. I am pleased to have the opportunity to brief the joint committee on Ireland's Presidency priorities in the foreign policy area. By way of introduction, I will refer briefly to our overall Presidency priorities before focusing more specifically on the areas of particular interest to the committee.
As members are aware, our Presidency programme is built around the core priorities of stability, jobs and growth. The Irish Presidency will be that of a recovery country driving recovery in Europe. We will aim at restoring stability through effective implementation of the banking union proposals and economic governance measures such as the European semester process. We will push ahead with legislation across the Europen Union's agenda that can stimulate jobs and growth. We will focus strongly on promoting the digital economy. We will support the President of the European Council in securing agreement on a multi-annual financial framework, MFF, for the period from 2014 to 2020. An adequate MFF is essential to underpin Europe's economic recovery, future growth and social cohesion.
While our official Presidency programme sets out in detail the legislative and other priorities across all formations of the Council, the main priorities can be summarised as follows: securing stability; investing in sustainable jobs and growth; and Europe and the world, in particular, the importance of looking beyond our borders and engaging with global partners. It is on the third priority that I propose to focus today.
While this is Ireland's seventh EU Presidency, it is the first in the post-Lisbon treaty era. The Lisbon treaty architecture has resulted in important changes to the role of the rotating Presidency in relation to foreign policy. Essentially, the Presidency now plays a supporting rather than a leading role in the external representation of the European Union. A key objective for our Presidency is to actively support the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and the European External Action Service in responding to current foreign policy and security challenges. We expect the ongoing crisis in Syria, tensions across the wider Middle East, the Iranian nuclear dossier and instability in Africa to continue to feature prominently on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council in the first half of 2013.
Support for the Middle East peace process is, as members are aware, a key priority for Ireland nationally. I hope to see the Foreign Affairs Council follow up as a matter of urgency on its conclusions of last May which considered, in particular, the implications of Israel's settlements policy for the achievement of the two-state solution. We have also been emphasising for some time the need for the European Union to adopt a higher profile in pursuing overall political progress in the Middle East peace process. We will continue to pursue this matter in the coming months on the Council.
The situation in Syria is a source of deep concern to all of us. President Assad's speech on 6 January was extremely dispiriting and offered nothing to the Syrian people in terms of ending the violence and repression and the long nightmare inflicted on them. The priority for all in the international community must be to bring about an end to the violence and promote an overall political settlement, leading to genuine change and transition. The European Union has been very active in highlighting the appalling human rights situation within Syria and making the case for accountability. It has also contributed substantively to urgent humanitarian efforts. Ireland has joined 25 other member states in endorsing a letter by the Swiss mission in New York to the President of the Security Council formally asking for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
On the Iranian nuclear issue, Ireland is fully supportive of the twin-track approach, namely, negotiations combined with sanctions, being pursued by High Representative Ashton on behalf of what is known as the E3+3, consisting of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia and China. It is very much in Iran's interests to engage seriously in the negotiation process and address the very real international concerns. I hope we will see a more positive Iranian attitude in the next round of negotiations which is likely to be held in the coming weeks.
I expect that developments in Mali, the wider Sahel region and north Africa will be a key focus for the Foreign Affairs Council in the period ahead. The convening of an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council meeting last week in Brussels in response to the rapidly evolving position on the ground highlights the seriousness with which the European Union views the position in Mali. It supports rapid deployment of the African-led international support mission in Mali, AFISMA, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2085 and has committed to providing swift financial assistance for the mission. The European Union also formally adopted a decision on 17 January to establish the European Union training mission for Mali which will be responsible for providing the Malian armed forces with military training and advice. The mission is expected to be launched by mid-February at the latest.
During the Presidency Ireland will work to promote implementation of the European Union's external human rights strategy, as set out in the EU strategic framework and action plan for human rights and democracy which was adopted on 25 June 2012. Particular elements of the EU action plan which I hope will be achieved in the next few months include the adoption of EU guidelines on freedom of religion or belief and the development of new EU guidelines on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, persons. I am pleased the European Union's Special Representative for Human Rights, Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis, will visit Ireland next month and will meet the joint committee during his visit.
Ireland is also committed to working for more effective EU action at multilateral level on human rights issues. This will apply, in particular, at the UN Human Rights Council, to which Ireland was elected for a three year term beginning on 1 January. As a member state of the Council, we will be fully supportive of the work of the European External Action Service and will help the European Union to advocate effectively and coherently for the robust protection of human rights. As High Representative Ashton has put it, human rights are the "silver thread" running through Europe's foreign policy. We will work to ensure the European Union upholds its commitment to peace, democracy and human rights, despite the difficult financial circumstances which prevail. These values are central to Ireland's foreign policy and will be central to our Presidency.
The promotion of arms control through a strong international rule of law is another key foreign policy priority for Ireland and a further area in which we hope to provide support and encouragement for the European Union's work. One of the major issues facing the international community during our Presidency will be the negotiations on an arms trade treaty which will take place in New York from 18 to 28 March. Ireland believes a strong, comprehensive and legally binding treaty is urgently needed, one which will prohibit irresponsible arms dealing and further curb the illicit and grey markets in conventional arms.
The second preparatory committee meeting in the 2015 review cycle for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty will take place in late April and early May in Geneva. This meeting will assess the progress made to date in implementing the 2010 nuclear non-proliferation treaty action plan. It will also give states parties an opportunity to begin to look at possible outcomes for the next review conference in 2015. We will watch very closely developments regarding the proposed Helsinki conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction. We hope further preparatory consultations in Geneva in the coming weeks will make it possible for the co-conveners to hold the conference within the first half of this year.
We will also have in April a third review conference on the chemical weapons convention. Ireland will act as EU co-ordinator for the preparations for this conference in The Hague where the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is located. As recent threats from the Assad regime in Syria demonstrate, we can never assume complacently that these weapons will not fall into the hands of non-state actors or never again be used as a battlefield weapon.
For this reason, it is important to ensure that the convention continues to function effectively, and the review conference will be an important event in that context.
Ireland has an established track record in the area of conflict prevention and we would like to see a reinforcement of capacity for this purpose at EU level. Building on our successful chairmanship of the OSCE last year and on our national experience of conflict resolution in the Northern Ireland peace process, we have plans to highlight this issue in various ways during our Presidency of the EU.
Ireland has always been a strong advocate of an efficient and effective UN. In recent years there has been ever closer co-operation between the EU and the UN in areas such as peacekeeping. The EU also plays a critical role in the development agenda at the UN. During our Presidency, we will work for stronger EU-UN relations, especially in the areas of crisis management and peace support operations, and we will work to ensure the EU speaks with one voice in international negotiations.
I know this committee takes a keen interest in developments in the western Balkans. Enlargement is a key priority for the Irish Presidency and we will work to facilitate and advance the process for all candidates and prospective candidates. The Presidency will prioritise a credible enlargement policy based on the principle of conditionality. Ireland will oversee consideration of the final monitoring report on Croatia and we expect to see Croatia ready to join the Union on 1 July 2013. For those countries currently in negotiations, the Presidency will work further to advance the ongoing accession negotiations with Iceland. We will seek to open one or two chapters with Montenegro and push for progress on the rule of law chapters. Progress on Turkey's accession will depend on the willingness of all parties - that is, the EU member states and Turkey itself - to facilitate this. We are hoping to open at least one chapter, if that proves possible.
The December European Council proposed returning in the first half of 2013 to the possibility of opening accession negotiations for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and for Serbia. We stand ready to progress these areas during our Presidency, should the council so decide. The December European Council conclusions also proposed returning, in the first half of 2013, to consideration of the possibility of granting candidate status to Albania and of opening stabilisation and association agreement negotiations with Kosovo. Both countries need to deliver on a number of outstanding reforms. Their progress in achieving these will be reported on by the Commission and the High Representative. Ireland is supportive of agreeing to grant candidate status to Albania following a positive report from the Commission and we are hopeful it may be possible to consider this during our Presidency. Ireland also supports the negotiation of a stabilisation and association agreement with Kosovo and we will do our best to progress this during our Presidency, should the Council so decide.
Ireland is supportive of Bosnia and Herzegovina's EU perspective. However, the Bosnian Government and political leaders must make real and sustained progress in order to realise this. While we will not have a direct role to play in the EU's relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina during our Presidency - this is now the responsibility of High Representative Ashton and the European External Action Service - we will, nevertheless, do everything in our power to encourage movement on the path to EU integration.
Turning to the EU's development and humanitarian work, Ireland will liaise closely with the High Representative to ensure this agenda is efficiently progressed during the Presidency. We will have a particular focus on three key issues. First, we will work with the High Representative, the Commission and the member states to agree an EU position for the 2013 UN special event on the millennium development goals, MDGs. The Irish Presidency comes at a critical time in advance of the UN special event and as work begins to shape the development framework after 2015, the target date for the MDGs.
The EU and its member states provide more than half of global development assistance. Given the EU's central role, we believe it is important that the EU actively engages in the global discussion on the post-2015 development framework with a coherent and credible position. To facilitate substantive discussion on this and other major development issues, we will, together with the High Representative, host an informal meeting of EU development Ministers in Dublin on 11 and 12 February 2013. Second, we will use our Presidency to highlight the links between the thematic issues of hunger, nutrition and climate change. Tackling hunger in the world's poorest countries is a cornerstone of Ireland's development programme. This focus on fighting global hunger is rooted in Ireland's own famine experience but also in our analysis of the reality of poverty in the lives of people in the developing world. We will host an international conference in Dublin on April 15 and 16 on the theme of hunger, nutrition and climate justice, with the aim of opening dialogue and debate on these linked challenges. The conference is being organised in co-operation with the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice, MRFCJ, the World Food Programme and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR.
Finally, Ireland will use the Presidency to forge stronger links between emergency humanitarian relief and long-term development aid. The increasing frequency and intensity of disasters is a major threat to long-term development and to the economic progress of poor people in developing countries. Large-scale emergencies have occurred every year over the past decade, from the Darfur conflict which started in 2003 to the Horn of Africa food crisis in 2011. As the number of such crises increases, the need to plan for them as part of our overall development assistance becomes more critical. Ireland, during its Presidency, will work with its EU partners to build on the progress we have made in forging stronger links between humanitarian relief and development aid.
I would like to conclude with a few short comments on co-operation with the European Parliament. The Lisbon treaty significantly altered the balance of powers within the EU institutions and, notably, gave the European Parliament an expanded and strengthened role. An effective working relationship and a close partnership with the Parliament will be front and centre of our approach to the Presidency. With this in mind, the Government has invested considerable time and effort in developing our contacts in the Parliament since it took office. Yesterday I had the opportunity to brief the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs on our Presidency programme and I look forward to engaging with that committee as well as this committee in the months ahead.
I thank the Tánaiste. Before I hand over to members, who I am sure will have a lot of questions on what is a very comprehensive programme, I ask the Tánaiste to comment on David Cameron's pledge today to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. He has pledged to hold an in-or-out referendum between 2015 and 2017.
It was a very significant speech by the Prime Minister, during which he set out a strong case for the importance of the UK's continued and active membership of the European Union, which is very welcome. Obviously we will need some time to study the speech in all its detail and assess its full implications. I do not think it is a speech to which we should give an immediate, knee-jerk reaction.
Britain's relationship with the European Union poses significant strategic questions for the European Union itself as well as for Britain. It also poses significant strategic questions for us as a country. It is important, at the very outset, to make it clear that Ireland's position in, and relationship with, the European Union is not in question. At the same time, we have a very special relationship with Britain. We became members of the European Union at the same time. It is 40 years since we both joined the then European Economic Community, EEC, and we have travelled that road very much together. Irrespective of where this debate goes in Britain, it is important to recognise that Ireland's relationship with Britain will remain strong. It is very much the case that Ireland, in any event, will remain at the heart of the European Union but will also remain close to Britain.
The Prime Minister set out a roadmap and timetable whereby, after the next general election, if the current Government is re-elected, a referendum will be held at some stage during the lifetime of that parliament. Ultimately that is a matter for the British people. Obviously there will be a lot of debate about this but it is important that we are not distracted at this time from what the European Union needs to do. The priority for the European Union at this time is to improve the European economy, create jobs and address the issues that are particularly urgent in Europe, including the issue of youth unemployment.
Whether a young person is living in Glasgow, Genoa or Galway, if he is out of work his priority is to get a job. That is what the European Union needs to be focused on and this is why the Irish Presidency has made such priorities of stability, jobs, growth, completing the decisions that were already made in respect of the banking union, and other matters which are about supporting and strengthening the European economy.
I thank the Tánaiste for his detailed presentation. He noted that this is the seventh Irish Presidency. The previous six were successful and we wish the Tánaiste and his colleagues every success during this Presidency.
He remarked at the outset on the need to finalise the multi-annual financial framework. We hope this can be resolved as quickly as possible. It is the budgetary framework for the European Union for the coming years. Naturally, the Common Agricultural Policy is of critical importance to this country, but the review of it cannot be finalised until the MFF is finalised. Will the Tánaiste indicate his thinking on the likely date for finalising the MFF and the Common Agricultural Policy review?
Does the Tánaiste expect to finalise a trade deal with Canada during the Presidency? Will he indicate how far advanced these negotiations are at present? Are there any particular sticking points in those negotiations?
There has been much speculation on when the European Union and the United States will be ready to commence discussions on a US-EU trade deal. Will the Tánaiste give some indication of the likely timescale? There was a suggestion in the media that Mr. Cameron planned to use the UK chairmanship of the G8 group to advance the agenda of a US-EU trade agreement. Has the Tánaiste been talking to his British counterpart about these proposals and how they might work? Will the Tánaiste indicate how the talks on a US-EU trade deal can be progressed when the European Union is considering a data protection regulation that could make it more difficult and costly for businesses to transfer data between the European Union and the United States? Has this subject been a matter of discussion and dialogue with the Tánaiste's colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality?
On a local note, I raise an issue relevant to the constituency I represent. Will the Tánaiste outline how he plans to work with the British Government to make the G8 summit in Enniskillen, a town close to my home, a real cross-Border event? It comes at a time when we hold the Presidency of the European Union and our neighbour, Britain, holds the chair of the G8.
The briefing note correctly stated that the General Affairs and External Relations Council is largely driven by current events. The Tánaiste correctly referred in detail to the many trouble spots and said he was keen to give these troubled areas a higher profile. We wish him success with this and I welcome the fact that a special meeting of the council was held last week on Mali and the difficulties that have emerged there.
We are all aware - the Tánaiste has referred to it himself - that Ireland's record on peace support and peacekeeping is second to none. Our status in this regard has been recognised in the EU through the leadership roles Ireland has played in the EUFOR missions to Chad and the Central African Republic and in support of those who were fleeing the war and famine in Darfur. Will the Tánaiste outline or expand on how we can build on this record and how we can play a leadership role in developing the EU's support of the UN?
I welcome the fact that there will be a major conference on development in Dublin. Will the Tánaiste elaborate on his priorities for the April meeting and how it fits in with the millennium development goals?
There is seldom mention nowadays of the World Trade Organization talks or the possibility of a plenary session. This is critical not only for trade but for the developing world, although it sometimes tends to be left out of the equation when we discuss the absolute need for development and assistance for impoverished countries and the developing world.
I imagine all members of the committee received correspondence today on EU enlargement, which the Tánaiste has outlined as a key priority for the Irish Presidency. There is some disappointment on the part of people who take a particular interest in Bosnia that it does not feature more specifically in our Presidency work programme. We have had a long record of association with that country and with peace support operations there. In addition, refugees came here in the 1980s and 1990s from Bosnia. Will the Tánaiste indicate why that particular accession issue is being left to the former EU High Representative there, Paddy Ashdown? I understand he addressed this committee and he spoke about the dangers to stability in the region if the Bosnian issue is not given more attention and if there are not greater efforts to give some momentum to its possible accession to the European Union.
I appreciate that. Deputy Smith will be aware that the Commission initially made a set of proposals for a multi-annual financial framework or European budget for 2014 to 2020. Ireland supported those proposals. There were considerable differences among member states, some of which sought a reduced European budget while others wanted the Commission budget enlarged or in some cases an enlarged budget overall. Within that, it is fair to say there were probably 27 specific positions of member states with differing priorities. The Cypriot Presidency proposed a negotiating box. Subsequently, the issue was taken on by President Van Rompuy, who made a set of proposals to a European Council meeting in November following consultations with member states. The proposals involved significant reductions to the Commission's original proposals. President Van Rompuy has been engaged in further discussions with heads of State and Government. He briefed the Taoiseach and me when we met in Dublin a little over a week ago to discuss the progress of those talks.
The European Parliament must approve the budget, and therefore there is also the issue of negotiations as it goes through the European Parliament. I will attend the European Union Latin America summit later this week. Present Van Rompuy will also attend and I expect to hold a discussion with him on the state of play of the proposals. We hope he will be in a position to make a further set of proposals to the European Council meeting scheduled to take place on 7 and 8 February, but that remains to be seen.
I agree with Deputy Smith that we need to get the MFF agreed as quickly as possible to clear the way for the discussions that must take place subsequently on the Common Agricultural Policy and other agenda items. Approximately 70 tranches of legislation will arise from the conclusion of the MFF and it will be our responsibility as the Presidency holder to take these through the European Parliament.
We have made a priority of negotiating trade agreements as part of our Presidency package on the jobs and growth agenda. If trade agreements with the United States, Canada, Japan and other strategic partners are concluded, there is potential for the GDP of the European economy to grow by 2%. There is considerable potential for economic growth but there are difficulties. Deputy Smith asked about the prospect of a trade agreement with Canada. There are issues arising which are of concern, including some with regard to beef and access to the beef market. A high-level group was due to report before Christmas on a possible trade agreement with the United States. It is due to report shortly and we hope it will be possible for the European Union to get a mandate to progress a trade agreement with the United States based on that. Interestingly - this relates back to the Chairman's question - Britain shares Ireland's wish to see these trade agreements progress, because it is in our economic interest to do so.
We are in touch with our British counterparts in respect of their plans for the G8 summit in Fermanagh.
Obvious issues arise of which the Deputy will be aware and which will need to be discussed bilaterally. It shines a light on the country and I hope it will have a positive outcome. On the development issue, our Presidency is taking place at the same time as the UN special event on the millennium development goals. Preparation for this event includes the informal meeting of development Ministers which will take place in February and which will be hosted by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello. We are joint organisers with the Mary Robinson Foundation of an event which will bring together the themes of hunger, nutrition and climate change. These are the areas which our development programme emphasises. We will continue to have an active role in peacekeeping. Our focus is European Union and UN co-operation in this area. A seminar will be held in Ireland on this subject.
Bosnia-Herzegovina has an EU perspective but the Bosnian Government and political leaders in Bosnia must make real and sustained progress in order to realise this. The lack of progress on reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially when compared with their neighbours, is a matter for real concern. Ireland encourages Bosnian leaders to continue their efforts to find a solution, but it is for them to find agreement because it cannot be imposed. While Ireland will not have a direct role to play during our Presidency, which arises from the provisions of the Lisbon treaty and the EU's relationship with Bosnia-Herzegovina, we will do everything in our power to encourage movement on their path to EU integration. The road map agreed by Bosnian leaders last summer still stands, although some deadlines have been missed. Nevertheless, it provides an agreed outline for getting to the point where an application for EU membership can be made.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the meeting. What new actions will be taken during the Irish Presidency on youth unemployment? Foreign and security policy is the main focus but I ask him to deal briefly with this topic. The Tánaiste stated previously that youth unemployment is a priority issue across the EU.
The Tánaiste has stated that Ireland will continue to pursue the issue of the Middle East peace process in the coming months. How does the Tánaiste plan to push this agenda? What has been the effect of the outcome of the Israeli elections on the peace process? The settlements were an issue during that election campaign.
The Tánaiste referred to human rights in Syria. He made the case for accountability and a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Will the outcome be successful?
The Tánaiste spoke about sanctions on Iran. He hopes for a more positive attitude in the next round of negotiations to be held in the coming weeks. Is it known how the sanctions are impacting on the Iranian people, particularly the poor? There are reports about an economic downturn in the country. The difficulty seems to be that the Iranian Government admits it is involved in uranium enrichment but not for weapons production. On the other hand, the EU and others are of the opinion that the opposite is the case. There seems to be very little information but we know that the sanctions are having a serious impact.
Will Irish personnel be involved in the establishment of an EU training mission to Mali? I refer to the event that occurred in Algeria. We send our condolences to the families of those who died in those circumstances. Will the Tánaiste revert to the committee with a report on what happened in Algeria? I refer to Stephen McFaul's account of how he escaped. The response of the Algerians to the crisis is worrying.
Herman Van Rompuy proposed a cut in the EU aid budget by 11%. What is the Irish response to this cut? Will this matter be raised at the next Council meeting in February? The Tánaiste referred to the negotiations on an arms trade treaty. He said that he hopes also that it will be possible to include ammunition within the scope of the treaty. I ask about spent uranium shells and the effect of same on populations in many of these regions. He also said that as this review cycle proceeds, Ireland will look increasingly to the nuclear weapons states to demonstrate that they are serious about fulfilling their commitments to disarm. Will the Tánaiste recommend that the Israeli Government be asked to sign up, considering the favourable status it enjoys within the EU on this matter?
I ask the Tánaiste to elaborate on the point in his opening contribution about conflict prevention and mediation:
Building on our successful chairmanship of the OSCE last year and on our national experience of conflict resolution in the Northern Ireland peace process, we have plans to highlight this issue in various ways during our Presidency of the EU.Perhaps the Taoiseach might elaborate on that area.
I apologise to the Tánaiste that I have to leave early. I wish him and the Government well for the Irish Presidency. I note his mature political response to the suggestion by the Conservatives in Britain that they will have a referendum to pull out of Europe. It is very clear that not only are most member states are disturbed at this development but so also is the United States of America which has issued stern warnings that it regards it as a retrograde step by Britain to even consider pulling out of Europe. The US would rather see Britain remaining as a strong member of the EU.
In his capacity as Minister with responsibility for trade, it is important that the Tánaiste states loudly and clearly that Ireland is well used to having plebiscites and referenda on European treaties. Time and again we have supported the treaties. It may have been necessary to have a second vote on some occasions but we have always proven to be very loyal and supportive members of the European community. In that context, given the important role of foreign direct investment in the world economy and given the nature of Ireland as an open economy, I trust the Tánaiste to highlight at every opportunity to the world - particularly those non-EU countries seeking to make investments - that Ireland is in for the long haul within the European community and that we would welcome all forms of foreign direct investment to further the investment prospects of those who take the chance with us.
I do not know whether the Tánaiste has already congratulated Benjamin Netanyahu who has just won the general election in Israel, albeit in a weaker capacity. I understand that some gains may have been made by the centre-left parties, which would be extremely progressive in the context of Israel. A weaker coalition might temper Mr. Netanyahu's attitude to the role of Israel in the Middle East. Is it the Tánaiste's intention to engage with the new Government with a view to pursuing on behalf of Europe and Ireland the need to establish serious negotiations with the Palestinians within the region to bring peace?
We mentioned Algeria, which is one of many countries in north Africa confronted by terrorism by fundamentalist Muslim groups. Countries across the region such as Mali, Mauritania, Niger and northern Nigeria, around the region of Kano where massacres have been reported, are also confronted by it. There is a common thread regarding those carrying out their terrorist gangster activities from Algeria across the Sahara and into these various countries. Can the Tánaiste assure me that while the French saw their role as stalling the growth of terrorist movements in Mali, we will argue very strongly with both the Nigerian and Algerian Governments, which have the most powerful armies in the region, to work under the guidance of the African Union in conjunction with the UN to stymie and stall the growth of terrorism in that region?
I am delighted the Irish Government is taking a supportive stand on the candidate status of Albania. I suppose we will be able to look at the outcome of its election process this year with a view to assessing its further determination to change with a view to entering the EU.
The Chairman asked a question I intended to ask to which a very clear and authoritative reply was given by the Tánaiste, namely, the proposal for an "In-Out" referendum by the UK Prime Minister.
I will refer to a few things in the Tánaiste's speech. He referred to the conclusions of last May regarding the implications of the Israeli settlements. I would put that in the context of the unprecedented and alarming expansion of those settlements and the commitment given by Mr. Netanyahu to do this in east Jerusalem, which would have serious implications for the possibility of a two-state solution. In light of that, I wonder how this country can use the opportunity of the EU Presidency to put real pressure on Israel, particularly where one will have a weakened coalition Government or a strengthened centre-left. The Tánaiste took a very courageous and principled stand regarding settlement goods. Will there be any action on that issue, particularly from the Tánaiste, during our Presidency to advance the policy he announced of urging a ban on settlement goods in line with international law?
The Tánaiste referred to the multi-annual financial framework. Given the fact that the aid programme, particularly development aid, may experience a disproportionate cut in light of our commitment and very good track record in this area, to what extent will the Tánaiste be able to use the Presidency to at least secure the level of existing funding if there is any possibility of using our position to ensure it remains as it is?
This committee was addressed in very passionate and moving terms by people in respect of the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I know the Tánaiste has taken an interest in that and we have passed resolutions concerning the wars and sexual violence and its use as a military weapon. The motion about violence has been passed by Seanad Éireann. I have a substantial motion down at the moment and it looks as if there is all-party agreement but we have not received the nod from the Tánaiste's Department. We hope it will be a unanimously passed with all-party agreement. Will the Tánaiste be able to indicate fairly soon the attitude of the Department on this, which I imagine will be positive? I believe the Tánaiste also received communication from Oxfam on this subject but I gather he has not had an opportunity to reply to the letter yet.
My second last point relates to climate change. At the talks in Doha, only a small number of EU countries - Germany, France and Denmark - made new climate finance pledges for 2013, while Ireland did not do so. Can the Tánaiste reassure us that we will give a climate finance pledge and, if so, when will this be?
My final question relates to biofuels, which many of us were naïve enough to think were a solution to many problems, particularly energy. They have had the unintended consequence of displacing people, particularly poor communities, in developing countries. Will we use our Presidency to ensure the Commission's proposal on indirect land use change is strengthened and adopted so that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by indirect land use change can be included in the calculation of the carbon footprint of all biofuels? I think I asked six questions.
There are a lot of questions with a lot of detail, quite a number of which are probably outside the scope of this committee. I will start with Deputy Crowe's question on youth unemployment because there is no doubt that it is the big social and economic issue Europe must address. Getting young people into employment means growing the European economy, which is why we have put a very strong emphasis on completing the Single Market. There is a range of dossiers that remain to be completed in the Single Market that are being taken forward by the individual Ministers in their capacities as chairs of their various Council formations. They include mobility of pensions. There is one on a professional qualifications directive, while there is work being done on the digital Single Market, including e-signatures and cyber-security. Specific dossiers and legislative proposals in these areas are being taken forward.
The second issue concerns trade and I have already spoken about the potential for trade to grow the European economy. The third issue is the completion of the decisions made in June on a compact for jobs and growth, which we want to see progressed and implemented and will be driving forward. The fourth issue concerns proposals specific to young people. A set of Commission proposals have been produced and will be dealt with by the Minister for Social Protection in her capacity as chair of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council. A proposal for a youth guarantee to which we attach a lot of importance and to which the Minister for Social Protection hopes to get agreement, is included in that.
On the Middle East peace process, it is hoped that, in the aftermath of the US presidential election and the elections in Israel, there will be an opportunity to make progress. It remains to be seen whether the government formed following yesterday's elections in Israel will take a different position from that which has been adopted up to now. If it does not do so, the question of external pressure will come centre stage. A critical aspect in this regard will be the role the European Union will play. Regrettably, Israel effectively is implementing certain settlement plans, which will render a two-state solution impossible. The European Union must respond to this action. That is why I hope that during our Presidency the Foreign Affairs Council will return to the conclusions reached last May on such settlements. I hope it will also consider events in the region and whether meaningful discussions are under way in reaching a settlement. We must respond in whatever way we can to what is taking place. One of the options the Foreign Affairs Council may be obliged to consider is placing a ban on the importation of products originating in the settlements.
Ireland is now a member of the UN Human Rights Council. In conjunction with our Presidency of the European Union, our membership of the Council is going to be important. We will certainly ventilate our views on the action plan on human rights agreed last June.
The sanctions on Iran were introduced with a view to bringing that country to the negotiating table. They had the effect of doing so, but when one gets to the table, one must negotiate. There have been a number of rounds of E3+3 discussions and while there has been a great deal of talk, a satisfactory outcome has not been forthcoming. This is a matter in respect of which we want to see progress being made. We are very vigilant with regard to measures which might have a disproportionate impact on the Iranian people. I reiterate, therefore, that the purpose of the sanctions was to bring Iran to the negotiating table and encourage it to negotiate. The issue of its right to develop a peaceful nuclear energy programme is not in question. However, that development must take place under the provisions of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to which Iran is a party, and involve full implementation of the IAEA's safeguards agreement.
The issue of Irish personnel serving on the EU training mission to Mali is being considered by the Minister for Defence. If it is proposed that Irish personnel serve on the mission, the Minister will bring the matter to the Government.
In the context of heading 4 of the European Union aid budget, reference was made to cutting the budget. It is important that we get matters right in this regard. The proposed cut relates to the Commission's original proposals which we support. They made provision for a substantial increase under heading 4 and in the context of the development aid budget of the European Union. President Van Rompuy's current proposals would still involve an approximate increase of 8% in the European Union's overall budget for development aid. They also make provision for a 2% increase in the European Development Fund, outside the main budget, and, at the request of the UNHCR, for the removal of the emergency aid budget from the main budget. Again, there is a significant increase proposed in respect of the latter. I am very familiar with these figures because I was involved in a lengthy discussion on this matter this morning with Mr. Bill Gates in his capacity as head of the Gates Foundation. We are working closely with it in the context of our development programme. Mr. Gates was very interested in being updated on where the discussions on the European Union budget stood. These discussions are extremely significant because the European Union provides approximately 55% of the total world aid budget, making it the largest single contributor. What happens with the European Union's budget is, therefore, hugely significant.
Deputy Seán Crowe also inquired about conflict resolution. Ireland's experience in this area feeds into our commitment to prevent conflicts. During our 2004 Presidency of the European Union we organised a major conference on conflict prevention and the role of civil society. We have been consistent in the attention we have paid to this topic. We will, of course, build on the lessons we learned in respect of this matter during our chairmanship of the OSCE.
Deputy Eric Byrne referred to the importance of trade, a matter on which I commented. We are operating in a globalised economic environment and very much focused on attracting inward investment to encourage job creation. We are also focused on promoting exports and trade out of Ireland. Irrespective of the debate that takes place in Britain on its relationship with the European Union, we will be making it absolutely clear that Ireland's place is within the Union. We will provide that certainty in this regard for investors and potential investors.
On the situation in Mali and the wider Sahel region, the European Union underlines the importance of maintaining stability in the region and on ensuring there will be no negative repercussions for neighbouring countries. We have, therefore, reiterated our commitment to supporting Mali's neighbourhood states within the framework of our strategy for the Sahel region in order to strengthen their security and development. The High Representative has been asked to present a Council decision immediately in order that an EU special representative for the Sahel region can be appointed rapidly. It is vital to do everything possible to curb the growth of terrorism in the region.
I take the opportunity to roundly condemn the recent terrorist action in Algeria, namely, the seizing of hostages. Some of the hostages were Algerians, while many others were from different countries. Included among their number was an Irish citizen, Mr. Stephen McFaul. The people involved were working at a particular installation which was seized by terrorists and their lives were put at risk. Unfortunately, many of the hostages lost their lives. I express my sympathy and that of the Government to the families of those killed. We are still receiving reports on what actually happened in this instance, but it is clear that it was a very difficult situation. When we have completed a comprehensive examination of the facts, it may be possible to make an assessment of what occurred. There should be no doubt, however, that responsibility rests with the terrorists who seized the hostages.
I agree with Senator David Norris on the alarming nature of the building of settlements by Israel. I have referred to the conclusions reached in this regard last May. The issue of settlement goods will obviously have to be considered when the Foreign Affairs Council carries out its review of the conclusions. As the Senator will be aware, I have referred to heading 4 of the European Union's multiannual financial framework, MFF.
The issue of the DRC is under consideration by my Department and I expect it to be before the Foreign Affairs Council. The Senator asked about climate change and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is handling those discussions. He is in Brussels and I spoke to him earlier. I might pass and get a letter for the Senator on the matter.
I offer the Tánaiste my best wishes for the next six months which will be a busy time. In consideration of that, I will ask only one question on the millennium development goals. The next six months will be critical in developing a framework for the period after 2015. There is a need to prioritise MDG 3 and MDG 4, relating to gender equality and empowering women, and child mortality. I understand the Tánaiste is planning a conference in April on hunger, nutrition and climate change. Those are sustainability issues and such issues cannot be extracted from population issues. We should prioritise family planning for the poorest women in the world. It tends to be forgotten and regarded as something nice to do as soon as we have solved world hunger. However, we will never solve world hunger if we do not deal with the population issues and give women some control over their fertility so that they can plan their families and space them in a way that is consistent with their ability to feed their children. The reality is that it underpins the achievement of every other goal. Healthy women mean healthy families. Healthy families mean productive families. Productive families mean productive societies, which is what we want to achieve. I note the Tánaiste is having an informal meeting in Dublin with the High Representative next month. That may represent an opportunity to get across the importance we attach to family planning and those millennium development goals. They should be an important part of targets within the new framework.
I take the opportunity to wish the Tánaiste and his Government colleagues well in the next five to six months, which will be a critical time for Ireland and for the European Union. I welcome the Tánaiste's initial response to today's speech by the British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron MP. We have our views on that and of course we cherish our relationship with the United Kingdom. It is important to state that it is an evolving situation and our views on the matter will form over the coming months and years. The responses I have read from employers in Britain have been largely negative about the proposition to be put to the British public after the next general election if the party in power at present returns with an overall majority. It was good that the Tánaiste took the opportunity to reaffirm and restate Ireland's commitment and determination to be at the centre of decision-making in the European Union because it is in our interest and in the interest of jobs, and our economy and society.
The Tánaiste said that Ireland had joined 25 other member states in endorsing a letter by the Swiss mission in New York to the president of the SECCO formally asking for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. What is the status of that at the moment?
I join the Tánaiste in condemning terrorist activities in Algeria. I commend him and his staff on the support they provided to the McFaul family during what was clearly an extremely difficult time.
I also give the Tánaiste my best wishes for the next six months ahead. Wearing my AWEPA hat, I ask about the development aid budget. I hope the various NGOs, which have been very concerned about what they saw as a real possibility of that budget being cut, are reassured by what the Tánaiste said today that it is not being cut and will, in fact, increase. It must be a priority for us that the poorest of the poor do not suffer in recessionary times.
We have previously discussed the issue of tax avoidance and tax evasion. The policy document makes reference to VAT fraud etc. A recent conference in Malawi addressed this area. I acknowledge the work that Christian Aid and the Debt and Development Coalition have done. We need to be a very strong voice in stating that we are not facilitating, allowing or contributing to multinationals not paying their just taxes in African countries and thereby robbing African countries of the benefits from their resources.
I refer to the arrest and detention in Zimbabwe of the human rights activist Mr. Okay Machisa, who, I understand, is being held in leg irons at the moment. Some years ago he brought to Ireland a photographic exhibition showing the violence associated with the previous elections in Zimbabwe. President Higgins opened the exhibition. A number of organisations support the call for this gentleman's release from jail. I ask the Tánaiste to encourage our ambassador to South Africa, who presented his credentials in Zimbabwe, to be a supporter of free and fair elections in Zimbabwe when they come. I know he is interested in promoting trade, which is fine, but we are not seen to be a presence at some of the human rights trials taking place in Zimbabwe.
On enlargement, there is considerable support to encourage Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. There seems to be an attitude of letting the Bosnians look after themselves. There is a real fear among analysts that within 20 years Bosnia and Herzegovina could be lost to both Serbia and Croatia.
We talk about conflict prevention. This is the group involved with human rights issues for prisoners in Northern Ireland. We have been there and we are scheduled to meet the Tánaiste. It is unfortunate we were not able to meet before Christmas as the Tánaiste had planned. We need to look at what is happening in our own country. There are issues in the North that are undermining the Good Friday Agreement. They have been allowed to fester for nearly three years. People, whose licences have been revoked, are in jail and no charges have been brought against them.
In all our discussions and priorities we should include people with disabilities. They do not get a heading and were not included in the millennium development goals. We could be a voice on that issue.
I welcome the Tánaiste and wish him well in his work during Ireland's Presidency. He has a particularly heavy workload. It is interesting that a recovery country is driving the recovery of Europe as he said in his address. I very much welcome the commitment to putting investment in sustainable jobs and growth at the top of the agenda. Is there anything that the Tánaiste hopes to achieve during the six months that might be a game changer and might have an impact in Europe and in particular in our country given our high level of unemployment? Are any innovative ideas being explored?
The situation in Syria is of grave concern to us all. While there is obviously agreement in EU countries on what needs to be done, does the Tánaiste envisage any significant breakthrough being made in this conflict during the Presidency? Does the Tánaiste have any plans to drive some initiatives that might make a difference?
I join with colleagues who have raised the issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina's prospects within the EU. I very much welcome the statement that this country is supportive of Bosnia and Herzegovina achieving membership eventually. Would it be possible for the Tánaiste to outline in more detail what the political leaders in Bosnia must do in order to make progress and assist their membership application? There is grave concern that within a short period the country will face years of drift, division and further conflict unless there is more support for them within the EU. Most committee members would wish that this country would not alone be supportive but would be seen to be so and helpful to the situation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I wish the Tánaiste well. No doubt we will have further engagements during the course of the Presidency.
I wish the Tánaiste and Government well in the Presidency. This country has an excellent record when holding the Presidency of the EU. I hope our efforts on this occasion will at least emulate past performances in that regard.
In the context of human rights the Tánaiste referred to the adoption of EU guidelines on freedom of religion or belief and the development of new EU guidelines on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, persons. What specific initiatives are involved under each of the headings? We recently heard from the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa, AWEPA, about the threat to homosexuals in Uganda and the committee discussed the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, across the Middle East and in other countries. We also have discrimination against Christians within the EU. It is much more subtle but, nonetheless, it exists. I would like to see such discrimination rooted out. I am interested in hearing what exactly the Tánaiste is doing in that regard.
I wish to follow up on a point made by Deputy Mitchell on sustainability and population planning. It is a significant issue in Africa in particular. I expect family planning education is a significant part of it. However, I am also aware that sometimes family planning and reproductive health are euphemisms for abortion, which is one of the greatest infringements of human rights. In America, 500,000 abortions take place every year and in Britain it is 200,000. That is a significant issue.
I am following up on that. I wish to relate it specifically to a point made by the Tánaiste on his engagement with Bill Gates today. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is involved in measures involving the euphemisms to which I referred. Sometimes in the western world we are inclined to impose values. We have significant challenges such as crime levels, including murder, drug addiction and suicide. I am concerned about imposing western values on Asian or African countries. I urge that we would be careful in our policies and the approach we take and with whom we align ourselves. It is not just all about money. There should be an ethical and moral underpinning of the policies we pursue.
I compliment the Tánaiste – a former active member of Parliamentarians for Global Action, PGA, in the House – on the support he and the Government have given, and in particular our representatives in the UN, to the negotiations on the arms trade treaty, ATT. It is imperative that the treaty is concluded and agreed in the March meetings. I give the Tánaiste every encouragement although I am aware that he does not need it as he is motivated to deal with it himself. I like the suggestion that it would be possible to include ammunition as part of the ATT. That would be a welcome development because much of what is happening in the arms trade is ending up in the hands of people who use it for the most foul of human rights violations, in some countries often even against their own people. I applaud the Tánaiste in that regard.
I wish to endorse a point made by Deputy O’Sullivan on Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is good to see that we are actively pursuing countries, in particular in the Balkans where Europe failed so miserably to deal with issues there 20 years ago. I am pleased that we are now working to get those countries to become part of the European Union. Bosnia has to some extent been left behind. I accept there are political and other difficulties in the country, but the accession of Croatia will have economic consequences for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The High Representative, Mr. Inzko, when he addressed the UN Security Council recently, said Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot afford to continue falling further and further behind other countries in the region. He said the consequences of that would be dire economically, socially and politically. Mr. Paddy Ashdown, who was the first High Representative, who did so much in the early stages of the peace process there is on record as saying that the policy of the international community in recent years has been utterly disastrous. He said Europe absent-mindedly found itself being the instrument for the realisation of the plans of Karadzic. I ask that we would give some leadership during our Presidency to try to make progress on Bosnia and Herzegovina that I hope would lead to a situation where it too can be a suitable candidate for joining the EU in the not-too-distant future.
It is an established fact that the availability of contraceptives is the single biggest contributing factor to reducing abortion in the developing world where, because of the absence of family planning-----
The first question was raised by Deputy Mitchell about the millennium development goals and their objectives in respect of gender equality and child mortality. Ireland is strongly committed to the achievement of both of those goals. That is why one of the major initiatives in the development programme is the SUN, scaling up nutrition, programme. It is based on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, including the time spent in the womb, which is critically important. I have worked closely, for example, with the United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, on it for the past two years. We are pleased the programme has now been very much mainstreamed in the UN system and is very much a cornerstone of the initiatives that are now being taken to address hunger and nutrition. I expect it will form part of the conference we will have in April. Similar to the approach taken to addressing hunger, in respect of gender equality we are focused on supporting smallholders in Africa where 80% of smallholdings are headed by women. We are actively working on the capacity of smallholdings to sustain families, households and to generate income for poor families.
We make no apology for supporting family planning programmes which liberate women, protect their health and in many cases protect their lives.
That is an area in which we collaborate with the Gates foundation and it was one of the issues I discussed with Mr. Gates in reviewing the programme and the joint work we were doing. In that regard, we do not often see results in development work. Results can be very slow in coming through. One of the issues on which the Gates foundation is focused is the eradication of polio which has now been eradicated in all but three countries of the world. There are no more cases in India and the figures are down in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. One of the issues we discussed was the prospect of driving on to completely eliminate them. This is now an achievable objective for the development programmes of countries such as Ireland, the European Union and a foundation such as the Gates Foundation. We are seeing results from the development programme. In the review of the millennium development goals we must see where we are and what more needs to be done. There will be a special event at the United Nations in September and, as we hold the EU Presidency, we will prepare, in so far as we can, a co-ordinated European Union position, given the scale of its contribution to development funding.
On Syria, a matter raised by Deputies Seán Crowe and Gerald Nash and Senators David Norris and Michael Mullins, this is an issue that is very much at the top of the agenda for the European Union Foreign Affairs Council, as I expect it will be for some time. The first aspect to consider is the scale of the slaughter. The estimate, to date - some say it is conservative - is that 60,000 people have been killed, 600,000 have been driven from the country into refugee camps and 2 million have been displaced from their homes. It is a huge humanitarian crisis.
We continue to support the work Dr. Brahimi is doing and I had an opportunity to meet him here just before Christmas. We were pleased to be able to host the meeting he was able to have with Secretary of State Clinton and the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr. Sergey Lavrov, in the margins of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting.
Of the things we need to do - it is one of the reasons Ireland is among the countries taking a lead position in calling for the reference of what is happening in Syria to the International Criminal Court - the message must go out loud and clear to those responsible for the slaughter in Syria and those directing it that there will be a day of accountability for what they are doing. I am not immediately optimistic, however, that the Security Council will make that reference because we know about the difficulties at the Council in getting agreement on these issues, but the fact that a very large number of countries, including 25 of the member states of the European Union, are looking for this reference sends a clear message to those responsible that their day will come to account for the slaughter taking place. I hope it will have the effect of causing it to be reduced.
I thank the members who complimented the staff of my Department on their handling of the kidnapping in Algeria. I am delighted that Mr. Stephen McFall is free and well, but, unfortunately, many of his co-workers were not so lucky. The accounts he has brought home of what happened are chilling.
On the European aid budget mentioned by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, the figures I quoted are still very much in play. There has been no agreement yet on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF. The 8% figure I mentioned is the latest proposal on the table, but it has not been agreed to. We will not have a budget until we have agreement, but I did not want the message to go out that the current state of play represented a reduction. It does not, but we are still a distance from agreement.
On the tax issues involved, Ireland is opposed to tax avoidance and evasion. We are fully compliant with internationally agreed standards on tax transparency. There is a wider issue in respect of tax matters that must be addressed at United Nations, European Union and multilateral level and we are committed to engaging in that regard.
On the issue of Zimbabwe, we will have it looked at by the embassy and our ambassador in Pretoria. On the issue of Bosnia raised by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan and Senators Michael Mullins and Jim Walsh, regarding the issues that need to be addressed, as I mentioned, a road map was agreed to by Bosnian leaders last summer. That is the outline to get them to a point where they can make an application for EU membership. Among the issues involved is a requirement to bring the constitution into line with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. Once credible efforts have been made in that regard the European Council will consider final ratification of the stabilisation and association agreement. There is also the issue of the establishment of an effective EU co-ordination mechanism to ensure the country is able to speak with one voice on European Union matters and can make the best use of EU pre-accession assistance. Once these issues have been addressed it may be possible for Bosnia-Herzegovina to submit an application for membership, but I emphasise that we would like to see progress made on this issue, as the Irish Presidency does not want to see Bosnia-Herzegovina left behind. We encourage movement and will work to that end.
Senator Jim Walsh asked for specific initiatives in the context of freedom of religion and beliefs and LGBT rights. We will be seeking consensus on an extension of a strong, independent mandate for the European Union rapporteur on freedom of religion and beliefs. In respect of LGBT rights, we will be working towards the development of new EU guidelines on the rights of LGBT persons.
I agree with Senator Jim Walsh on the need for a strong arms trade treaty. There is a strong sense within the international community that a comprehensive and robust arms trade treaty is within reach. A final conference will be held in March to agree to such a treaty and the European Union is now finalising its approach to the negotiations. Ireland will work with its EU partners and other like-minded countries to reach agreement on a treaty that will provide for the highest possible standards.
I welcome the response of the Tánaiste on the millennium development goals. I also welcome his comments on the issues of gender equality, maternal mortality and nutrition. I have no difficulty with collaboration with anyone, but does our engagement with the Gates Foundation involve promoting or co-operating with it in providing for or trying to instigate abortion as part of the family planning set-up?
I thank the Tánaiste for attending to inform the committee about the priorities of the Presidency and for his constructive contribution. On behalf of members, I wish him and his officials well during the Presidency. We look forward to seeing him again to discuss progress.