Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Committee on Transport and Communications: Select Sub-Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport

EU-Israel Aviation Agreement: Motion

6:00 pm

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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This meeting has been convened to consider the following motion which was referred to the select sub-committee by Dáil Éireann on 28 May:


That Dáil Éireann approves under Article 29.5.2° of the Constitution the terms of the Euro-Mediterranean Aviation Agreement between the European Union and its Member States, of the one part, and the Government of the State of Israel, of the other part; and the provisional application of the Agreement from the date of signature, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 27th November 2012.
Members will have received briefing materials prepared by the Department.

Apologies have been received from Deputy Ann Phelan. I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and his officials and invite the Minister to make his opening statement.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the select sub-committee for facilitating this discussion at short notice. The Euro-Mediterranean aviation agreement between the European Union and its member states and the State of Israel has been negotiated by the European Commission for the past few years. The Council granted the Commission a negotiating mandate to do so in April 2008. The agreement was initialled on 30 July 2012 and will be signed at a ceremony on the margins of the Transport Council in Luxembourg on 10 June.

Article 29.5.2° of the Constitution states the State shall not be bound by any international agreement involving a charge on public funds unless the agreement has been approved by the Dáil. This agreement does not give rise to significant expenses for the State. However, the Office of the Attorney General has advised that article 23 of the agreement which outlines the dispute resolution and arbitration procedures could potentially create small expenses for the State. On that basis, the advice is that the approval of the Dáil is required prior to the signature of the agreement next week. That is what has given rise to the urgency of the matter. We had not anticipated this and I apologise for any inconvenience caused to members.

The European Commission has consulted stakeholders throughout the negotiating process, in particular through the consultative forum comprising representatives of member states, air carriers, airports and labour organisations.

Negotiations took more than three years, involving eight negotiation rounds and numerous EU preparatory meetings.

Air services between the European Union and the State of Israel currently operate on the basis of bilateral agreements between individual member states and Israel, including an agreement between Ireland and Israel made in 1993. It is part of the EU's external aviation policy to negotiate comprehensive air services agreements with neighbouring countries, in particular the Mediterranean region, where the added value and economic benefits of such agreements have been demonstrated.

The agreement's aims are: gradual market opening in terms of access to routes and capacity on a reciprocal basis; promoting regulatory co-operation and harmonisation of regulations and approaches based on EU legislation in the field of aviation; promoting air services based on competition among air carriers with minimum government interference and regulation; and non-discrimination and a level playing field for economic operators. This is a mixed competency agreement requiring ratification by each participating member state. Pending entry into force, the agreement will be provisionally applied from the date of signature.

Ireland is supportive of the European policy of negotiating such agreements with neighbouring countries. Historically commercial aviation relations between Ireland and Israel have been limited, although as mentioned a bilateral aviation agreement between Ireland and Israel was agreed in 1993. Various services have been approved over the years under this agreement. No Irish airline currently operates scheduled services to Israel and one Israeli airline operates a summer-only scheduled service. Many individual charter flights; between the two countries have been authorised mainly to cater for tourist traffic - mostly for pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

The agreement will gradually open up the entire EU-Israel aviation market to Irish airlines, which may well have an interest in servicing Israel from Ireland or indeed other EU member states. I ask for the committee's assent to its ratification.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister. I oppose the agreement, which ignores many of the problems the State and the EU has had with the behaviour of Israel. At present Israel continues to occupy Palestine and enforce an illegal blockade on Gaza, making it effectively the largest prison camp in the world. Israel denies sufficient humanitarian aid thus causing the most horrible deprivation and preventing rebuild following the onslaught of the Israeli Army. Israel has shown complete disdain and disregard for human rights and international law. I am not anti-Israeli and I believe Israel has the right to exist. I also believe the Palestinians have the right to exist. This state, the EU and its member states have spoken out strongly against these abuses and are fully aware of them, but we continually reward Israel with economic agreements and deals, unavailable to most states neighbouring the EU.

In 2001 Israel destroyed Yasser Arafat International Airport in Gaza. The airport, run by the Palestinian Authority, opened in 1998 was bombed by the Israeli Army. The airport was built with funding from EU member states, as well as other countries, and the total cost was $86 million. Israeli bulldozers cut the runway apart in January 2002. After the destruction of Gaza airport by the Israeli Army, the International Civil Aviation Organization condemned Israel for the destruction of a civilian airport and navigational devices used for civilian purposes only. Israel's justification was that it might be attacked from this airport, as it was the best equipped in Gaza. The only remaining runway in Gaza after 2002 is that of the Gaza airstrip, but an Israeli air blockade of Gaza prevents it from being used. Israel also controls the airspace. Why do we reward any country that would block off another, impose severe restrictions on its population and deny the basic right of freedom of movement to another country nearby? The Palestinians have no proper airport and just a strip that is restricted by the Israelis.

However, the EU believes it is appropriate to sign an aviation agreement with Israel. The agreement completely ignores the crimes against the rights of Palestinians to travel freely in and out of their own country. It also ignores Israel's crimes of destroying civilian transport facilitates in Gaza and the West Bank, facilities which were funded by EU member states. The agreement will strengthen ties with Israel and create opportunities for industry and consumers, but it ignores the rights it is denying another country nearby. For that reason, we should not sign up to any agreement that would benefit Israel until it is brought into line with proper international practices and it recognises the rights of the Palestinian people.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I recognise Deputy Ellis's comments in this regard. They are in the main foreign policy questions which are beyond my competence and are really matters for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade who, it is fair to say, has taken a very strong line in supporting the human rights of the Palestinian people and also supporting Palestinian statehood and membership of the UN. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has approved this agreement which was agreed by Cabinet on Tuesday. I point out that a bilateral agreement between Ireland and Israel has been in place since 1993. Therefore, the practical effect on Irish citizens will be minimal. However, it will allow Irish airlines to fly between Israel and third countries.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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However, it will not allow the Palestinians to avail of the same thing because they do not have an airport. That is the point.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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Does this require unanimous approval by all EU member states in order to come into effect? Does the Minister envisage Irish airlines taking up the option of being able to fly into Israeli airports? Many people from my part of the world visit Israel as part of pilgrimages to the Holy Land. It is not easy to get there and it is expensive. I would welcome anything that would make it easier for such people to get there and would fully support it.

While I know it is outside the scope of this agreement, is there any possibility of making it easier to get visas for Irish people planning on visiting Israel to visit the sites of the Holy Land?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The agreement requires a qualified majority vote. The main traffic between Ireland and Israel is for people going on pilgrimages from Ireland to the Holy Land and also Irish people visiting Palestine who often fly to Ben Gurion Airport and then go on to Bethlehem or Ramallah from there. That should also be borne in mind.

I do not know the answer to the Deputy's question on visas. I do not believe EU passport holders need a visa to go to Israel.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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I am referring to passage to other sites in the Holy Land.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Is the Deputy referring to getting through to places such as Bethlehem?

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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Yes.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That can be difficult sometimes. We will certainly follow that up.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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Have any countries that have gone through the process not ratified this agreement in their own ways?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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There are none that I am aware of. The signing will take place next week at the Council in Luxembourg. No country has refused to ratify it.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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That concludes our consideration of the motion.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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I intend to call a vote, as I am opposed to the motion.

Question put:

The Committee divided: Tá, 8; Níl, 1.

Question declared carried.