Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 13 March 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Forthcoming General Affairs Council: Minister of State
I welcome the Minister of State with special responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. As apologies have been received from the Chairman, I am stepping into his place. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss with the Minister of State the agenda for the forthcoming General Affairs Council meeting in Brussels next Tuesday which he will be attending. The main item on the agenda will be the preparations for the March European Council meeting. There will also be a discussion of the European semester synthesis report and the European Commission's communication on the rule of law mechanism and an informal debate on subsidiarity. I invite the Minister of State to make his opening remarks.
I thank members for allowing me to hold the meeting at this time to facilitate an event on encouraging more people to consider jobs and roles within the European Union.
Let me start, as I normally do, by updating members on the contacts I have had with European colleagues since we last met. I am pleased to say I was able to travel at the end of February to Warsaw where I had a very useful exchange with my Polish counterpart, Minister Serafin, across the range of EU issues. I also met the responsible Minister of State at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Development and raised our concerns about the difficulties three Irish construction companies had experienced as a result of their involvement in Poland's motorway construction programme. We had a very constructive and productive meeting with my Polish counterpart and are working with companies on the issue.
As part of the Government's programme of enhanced engagement with the European Parliament, on 25 February I attended the European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg. During the visit I met many MEPs to discuss a wide range of issues that mattered to Ireland. I had a very productive and wide-ranging meeting with Commissioner Štefan Füle to discuss various issues, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo, following my visits to or meetings with Ministers from these countries. Overall, the visit confirmed my belief in the importance of continued engagement with the European Parliament. It will be vital to ensure early engagement with the new Parliament following the European elections in May.
I attended the last General Affairs Council meeting on 11 February in Brussels where we had some preliminary discussions on preparations for the March European Council meeting. The focus of the discussion was largely on the 2030 climate and energy framework. The discussions also touched on industrial policy, banking union, the European semester and EU-Africa relations. The Greek Presidency presented its Presidency programme and there was, as planned, a discussion on a decision to authorise the cultivation of GMO maize. The General Affairs Council meeting took place shortly after the Swiss referendum on EU migration, an issue on which we had a lengthy exchange.
Let me turn to next week's General Affairs Council which will continue the preparatory process for the European Council meeting on 20 and 21 March. The agenda covers a new Commission initiative on the rule of law mechanism. We are due to hold a discussion with President Van Rompuy on both the preparations for the European Council and the issue of subsidiarity.
The main item on the agenda next Tuesday is the preparations for the next European Council meeting on 20 and 21 March which comes against the backdrop of the extraordinary meeting of Heads of State and Government last week to discuss the conflict in Ukraine. We expect this will remain a major focus for leaders next week. Foreign Affairs Ministers are due to discuss the situation at a meeting next Monday of the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels which I will attend on behalf of the Tánaiste. As the Taoiseach and I spoke at length about the conflict in Ukraine and the Irish and EU position during the pre-European Council debate in the House yesterday, I will not repeat much of what we said.
Let me reiterate, however, the Government's condemnation of Russian actions and calls for Moscow to initiate immediate contacts with the government in Kiev. The European Union has been abundantly clear about its expectations.
As is usual for the spring European Council, the main focus of deliberations will be on economic issues. Under the general rubric of growth, competitiveness and jobs, Heads of State and Government will consider the European semester, the Europe 2020 strategy, industrial competitiveness and climate and energy issues. The European Council will also consider taxation issues and banking union. The completion of banking union remains a priority for the Government and we want to see agreement reached with the European Parliament on the Single Resolution Mechanism, SRM. The ECOFIN meeting on Tuesday was updated on the Presidency's mandate for the SRM negotiations with the Parliament which continue urgently. Again, both the Taoiseach and I spoke in detail about all of these issues in the Dáil yesterday. The committee is already familiar with the European semester process which I am looking forward to discussing in depth on 1 April.
We are also expecting the discussions at the European Council to lead to the Commission launching a full public consultation process in April on the future of the Europe 2020 strategy. When the Commission’s Secretary General, Catherine Day, met the committee on 23 January, she emphasised the importance of strong stakeholder engagement with this renewal of Europe's post-crisis growth strategy, including from national parliaments. This is an important issue to which I am sure we will return in the period ahead.
Separate to the European Council preparations, the General Affairs Council's agenda includes an item on a Presidency synthesis report, essentially a compilation of the outcomes of discussion on different Council formations of the semester and particularly the annual growth survey. Significant discussion of the report is not expected next Tuesday.
As I said in the Dáil yesterday, the Government has been very active in preparing for the discussion on industrial competitiveness at the European Council. We are expecting a productive discussion on the issue next week. In our view, creating the right conditions for internationally competitive manufacturing companies, including linkages with bundles services, will be an important feature of a successful European recovery.
The European Council will hold a first policy debate on the climate change and energy framework for 2030. Discussion will be on the basis of the Commission communication issued in January. The debate will, of course, be followed closely at a wider international level owing to the importance of EU engagement and influence in the international climate process. In the first place, the communication is a basis for a timely policy debate on the next phase towards the European Union's objective of transitioning to a competitive, low-carbon European economy by 2050. Ireland recognises the benefits of increasing the share of renewable energy in our fuel mix, both from the economic and environmental perspectives. The issue requires careful consideration, however, in terms of both the challenges and the opportunities in a global transition to a low-carbon future. Both ambition and flexibility are important features of the package, but we must also reach an outcome that is sustainable for the European Union, as well as for individual member states, on environmental, economic and competitiveness grounds. Since the last General Affairs Council, intense work has been ongoing in various Council formations on the climate change and energy framework. It is clear from these discussions that many member states believe more clarity is required around the analysis, process and implications of the proposed headline EU targets for member states. Ireland shares this view. The European Council will also discuss completion of the internal energy market by 2014, developing gas and electricity interconnections and the importance of moderating energy costs.
As I told the committee last month, Ireland welcomes the proposal in the communication to examine and pursue the most appropriate climate policy approach to agriculture and land use. This is an important development from Ireland's perspective. We believe a coherent and cost-effective approach to the parallel priorities of sustainable food production and climate change is fundamental to a realistic way forward at national, EU and wider international level under the UN convention. In anticipation of a new international climate treaty in 2015, we look forward to early development of this strand of the 2030 framework.
In addition to the situation in Ukraine, Heads of State and Government will also consider external relations issues, including the fourth EU-Africa summit in Brussels on 2 and 3 April. The summit which will be attended by the Taoiseach provides an opportunity to look at how we can move the EU-Africa relationship from an aid-based one to one based on trade and investment. It also presents a good occasion for Ireland to meet some of the leaders of key countries in Africa to build on our existing strong relationships and explore new opportunities for engagement. Our relations with African countries are becoming more multifaceted, encompassing political, economic and development co-operation aspects. Exchanges in areas such as trade, investment and people-to-people links will continue to increase. Ireland has developed expertise in the area of sustainable and inclusive growth specifically around the issue of agriculture and food security. This will form the basis of Ireland's intervention at the summit and is an area which also complements the priorities of the African Union which has identified agriculture and food security as its key focus for 2014, the tenth anniversary of the comprehensive Africa agriculture development programme.
The agenda for the General Affairs Council also includes a European Commission communication on the rule of law which was published yesterday. As member states will not have had an opportunity to fully consider the communication, a substantive discussion on the initiative is not expected. During our Presidency of the European Union in 2013 Ireland initiated a debate at the Justice and Home Affairs Council about protecting fundamental rights and enhancing the rule of law as a means of tackling the growth in hate crime, xenophobia and other forms of extreme intolerance across EU member states. The need for a method to better protect the values on which the European Union is based was also the subject of a joint letter in 2013 from the Foreign Ministers of Denmark, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands EU Presidency. Following a discussion of both the letter and the Irish initiative at the General Affairs Council last year, the Commission undertook to produce this communication which we will, of course, be examining in detail.
Subsidiarity is, I know, of great interest to the committee and has been raised with me here on many occasions. At next week's General Affairs Council there will be an informal debate over lunch with the European Council President, Mr. Van Rompuy, on the question of subsidiarity. A Presidency paper has been prepared setting out the issues involved. The issue has been the subject of some discussion at European level in recent months, following the publication of a review by the Dutch Government last summer. It has also been raised in the context of the British Government's ongoing balance of competencies exercise. Several ideas have been presented as to how the institutions and member states might look at ensuring the principle, as set out in the treaties, is respected. It is the Presidency's intention on this occasion to allow the Council to discuss some of these ideas at greater length.
National parliaments have an important part to play in safeguarding the subsidiarity principle. The issue has been the subject of discussion between national parliaments for some time, including at COSAC, the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union, and I will be interested to hear the committee’s comments and reflections in due course. In discussing the issue it is important to affirm, first, what the principle of subsidiarity means and, equally, what it does not mean. As laid down in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union, the principle affirms that the European Union should act “only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states ... but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level”.
So subsidiarity is not a question of limiting EU competences or avoiding EU legislation, but of ensuring that, within the EU, initiatives are taken at the right level. It is not about more Europe or less Europe, but better Europe. The enforcement of this principle plays an important role in ensuring the efficacy of the legislative system. At the forthcoming GAC discussion, I will emphasise Ireland's support for constructive measures which aim to strengthen Europe's capacity to enforce the principle within the framework of the current treaties. We have already welcomed the Commission's commitment to a smart regulation agenda, evident in its use of roadmaps, impact assessments and, most recently, the development of the regulatory fitness, REFIT, programme.
In common with other member states, we would like to see these initiatives further developed and built on by the Commission, with greater scope afforded to national parliaments to present their opinions and concerns early in the process. We recognise, as I said, the role national parliaments have in ensuring compliance with subsidiarity, as set down in the Lisbon treaty. Measures which support parliaments in making full use of their treaty powers warrant consideration, whether through a deepening of co-ordination, for example at COSAC, or through enhanced engagement with the European Parliament. There is merit in the suggestion that commissioners should appear more often before national parliaments and that Commission experts should be available for technical briefings, not least in connection with the European semester. A well-functioning and independent European Commission is essential to the future of the Union.
It is important that the Commission be accountable, and greater use of impact assessments, sunset clauses and engagement with national parliaments will contribute to this. However, we share the view of many member states that, in improving our subsidiarity checks, we should be careful not to impinge on the Commission's independence or right of initiative, a point I will repeat at the GAC discussions. I hope this has given the committee members a reasonable overview of the many discussions of next week. As ever, I look forward to their questions.
I thank the Minister of State for the very comprehensive overview. It does not give rise to many questions because he has covered all the areas and explained what he will do. I welcome the fact that he had a meeting with Mr. Kurt Bassuener of the democratisation policy council in Bosnia. In a paper he recently produced, he said: "Even if the protest movement dissipates, the deep social frustrations that underlie it will continue to simmer and eventually find another outlet – with the potential for violence which could be diverted ethnically." I am sure when he met the Minister of State, Deputy Donohoe, he said all is not well and Bosnia is not functioning as a normal society and there is considerable violence, trouble and strikes.
The goal is that it would function properly. Mr. Bassuener's contention is that EU policy to date is not succeeding there in that the carrot of enlargement and the prospect of joining the EU is inadequate and is not functioning satisfactorily. He argues that there needs to be a change of direction in policy, maybe a much more straightforward, direct language from the EU to Bosnia, in the mode of what must be said to Russia about Ukraine. When the Minister of State responds later, I would be interested if he would respond to that contention that the EU strategy on Bosnia is failing, as evidenced by the reality on the ground, and that a change of tack is necessary. Does the Minister of State agree that a change of tack is necessary? If so, what precise form should that take? Does he agree with the analysis Mr. Bassuener states publicly in papers and which he, presumably, put to the Minister of State privately as well?
I welcome the Minister of State's statement that he will work on behalf of our Government and people on banking union. That is of great interest to all of us in this country and I applaud it and concur with it. I would like to hear the Minister of State say that he will continue to pursue the retrospective separation of sovereign and banking debt for this country. Hard-pressed taxpayers, people who are in a difficult place and are collectively referred to as the "coping classes", have put a lot of their money into bailing out the banks with great pain. Ireland was a pilot scheme in that respect and should not be retrospectively victimised. We should be put on a level playing field. There have been commitments in this regard at the highest level and I recently heard the Minister of State speaking about this in the national media.
I would like to hear that it remains a top priority and that the Minister of State will try to advance it in the context of this meeting. I would like the Minister of State to enlighten us on how he feels he is getting on with that and where he sees it going from here. The eyes and ears of the whole country are waiting on that issue. Given our history, there is considerable interest in the Bosnia question too. Whether or not there is a mass interest in it, there is objective merit in pursuing it properly.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Donohoe, and his officials, together with his comprehensive presentation. In addition to what the previous speaker said, I understand the Minister of State met the Commissioner for enlargement, Mr. Stefan Füle. Could the Minister of State talk us through his views a little more? Deputy O'Reilly has outlined the views coming from the democratic policy council and Mr. Bassuener, which I agree with in principle. There seems to be a view that the carrot of enlargement or membership of the EU is not enough and maybe the interaction at European level needs to be broader than just examining the enlargement opportunity. It appears that the structured dialogue approach which the Commissioner has undertaken, in the views of some in that region, would "just pile new failure upon a three-year history of counterproductive policy." That is a rather strong statement, but it is a view that is emanating. Could the Minister of State tell us a little more of what the Commissioner has been saying? It is clear that there is deep concern and the achievements that have already been made are starting to be undermined and we are facing into a period of considerable unrest. The Tánaiste talked about that back when Ireland held its Presidency. We have a role to play there. Could the Minister of State talk that through a little more?
I imagine the Ukrainian situation is front and centre in the discussions and will occupy most of the time. It is an emerging and changing landscape so it is probably difficult to set out today the nature of the discussion. It will depend on how things ramp up.
With regard to Ireland's role, I support the Tánaiste's engagement with the Russian ambassador to this country. Has consideration been given by the Government to the non-attendance of its representative, namely, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Alex White, at the St. Patrick's Day festivities in Moscow in the next few days? While the Tánaiste started out correctly in taking a broad European approach by engaging with the ambassador, for us to be seen to be doing our own bidding on the side sends the wrong message. This is one of the most serious issues to befall Europe for some time and it will take strong diplomacy by all states. We are in a strong position as a neutral country to lead the diplomatic charge and would have the respect of all sides in that regard. However, we will undermine our own position by taking part in the St. Patrick's Day festivities considering what has happened in Ukraine in recent months and, more particularly, the approach taken by the Russians on the Crimean Peninsula.
The Minister of State and I have locked horns previously in the banking debate and I am sure we will have an opportunity to do so again. While it is important and an issue the Government needs to continue to raise, some positive statements emanated from the EPP congress which was held in Dublin and during which I am sure the Minister had a central role. We often hear positive statements on the margins of various meetings or political grouping interactions, but we do not see the hard movement that is important. Will the Minister of State update us on the status of banking union because it seems to be the prerequisite for all of this to happen?
I refer to the sad decision by Switzerland to restrict the movement of people within Europe. What have been the repercussions of this decision to date? I understand the country has lost senior education positions within the European Union, but what penalties has it suffered? What are the implications for Swiss nationals in Europe?
I welcome the debate on Africa and Europe. It is wonderful that we have moved so far from the black baby box to support African children to recognising that the continent has come of age with major economic development and growth in certain areas. As a member of another joint committee, I have listened to ambassadors from Africa argue in favour of the development of trade as a mechanism to empower them to address poverty issues. We are trying to alleviate poverty in Europe through jobs and competitiveness.
With regard to the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, visiting Russia to attend St. Patrick's Day festivities, I applaud the Government's decision to pick the most uniquely suited Minister to travel to the country. He is a level headed, competent barrister who has been well briefed by the Tánaiste. The Government could not have chosen a better person to represent Ireland in Russia on St. Patrick's Day.
The Russian ambassador appeared before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade yesterday. I have three questions regarding the situation in Ukraine. The Minister of State has said he has had talks on Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo. The Russians claim the legitimacy afforded to Kosovo is the same as that they are demanding for Crimea. Will the Minister of State comment on that claim? The Russians argue, on foot of the release of a recording of a conversation between the Estonian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Catherine Ashton in which he suggests the sniper bullets were used from the same weaponry, that this is proof that the snipers who killed people in Ukraine were from the right-wing parties in the country. The interim government intends to hold a presidential election on 23 May. The Russians claim this is an illegal government which cannot make this decision, but they will abide by it if the election is held later in the year, presumably around September. Ukraine, funnily enough, tends to have elections in the middle of winter, as I have attended a few of them. What are the potential difficulties confronting the holding of elections, given the conflict in Crimea, the Russians' refusal to recognise the interim government and their argument that the elections should be held as part of the natural progression in September or October as opposed to having a "rushed" election under "an illegal regime"?
On a point of clarification, Deputy Eric Byrne misunderstood my comments on the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, for whom I have huge regard and respect. I do not doubt his credentials. My comment was related to the symbolism of Ireland's participation in a celebration of Irishness at a time when the host was taking an aggressive position on the Crimean Peninsula. I mentioned the Minister of State because he was the person travelling. I do not doubt his qualities and hugely respect him.
I thank the Minister of State for attending. He was in my constituency earlier while I was representing his interests in his constituency in his absence and I hope we were both successful.
On the previous issue, the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, is well placed to be a positive influence during his visit to Russia and I have no doubt that he will reinforce the issues raised at the other committee meeting yesterday to good effect. It is important that this be done on a regular basis.
With regard to Bosnia-Herzegovina, it was well known for many years that the situation in the western Balkans was going to be a difficult issue to deal with comprehensively, satisfactorily and successfully and that it could not be dealt with through standard enlargement negotiations.
The recent street violence in the region is enough to indicate that it is time for the European Union in general to focus on the issues involved, to try to deal with them in a more expeditious way and to address the issues and concerns that are obviously now uppermost in the minds of the people. Civil unrest in a situation that is volatile, to say the least, is something that can bring all of the effort to date to nil.
Let us reflect on the war in Bosnia. Much tearing of hair, beating of breasts and shedding of crocodile tears took place throughout Europe and the free world while the free world tied its hands behind its back, looked on and did nothing about it. I recognise the Minister of State is focused on this area and I hope he will convey to the European Commission and his colleagues the importance of focusing on the issue once again. It will not go away by itself and it will not melt. It requires ongoing treatment, as is the case in all similar situations throughout the globe where there has been a history of political division, doubt, prejudice and, sometimes, hatred. Add to this situation all the ingredients with which we are familiar in this country and it becomes a recipe for disaster.
I have some concerns about climate change and energy. I am somewhat confused about where Europe is going with energy and the generation of electricity using non-fossil fuels. We know that the Union has changed its targets in this area in recent times. However, it has not been explained to us in any great detail the reason for the change of targets or the reason for the shift from wind energy to other sources of energy. I reckon I might know the answer but I am keen to have it explained by those who make the decisions. They should recognise that we in this country have had a debate on the issue for some considerable time and we thought we had the answers heretofore. If the Commission moves away from what it has already committed to, it can leave individual member states in particular situations isolated on the shore.
I have no wish to comment in detail on EU Africa relations, save to say it is a good thing. However, the Minister of State should be careful and watchful in the area of trade versus aid. Several countries have placed one against the other - trade for aid -and the combination has been of dubious benefit to the people for whom it was intended. We need to consider this carefully. Some countries are benefiting to a far greater extent than those who give aid without any conditions and the European Union should keep an eye on this.
I raised the matter of genetically modified organisms and maize at the last meeting. I am pleased to see that it is featuring in discussions. These may have implications for this country and we need ongoing reassurance in this area.
I will try to come to a quick conclusion on Ukraine. It was interesting to listen to the Russian ambassador. We have had previous discussions with the Ukrainian ambassador and several other people. There is a difference of opinion about how things should happen in such situations. However, there is a certain similarity between the way the situation is unfolding in Ukraine and the situation that unfolded previously in the Western Balkans. There is a possibility that when unilateral action is taken nothing else can happen of a remedial nature to address the political, social and economic issues that arise. There are implications for everyone in the region politically, economically and diplomatically if the current conflict is allowed to continue. The European Union must be more insistent - I realise that word carries a certain amount of doubt - in asserting recognition of the rule of law. In other words, it is not a good idea for a neighbouring country in one way or another to superimpose its authority on an adjoining country within or outside Europe Union and it will lead to a serious problem for all of us in the event of things progressing in that direction.
My final point is something I have referred to many times before and I believe the European Union must address this issue. There is evidence to suggest that some member states within the Union look outside the Union or seek to have a preference for a looser arrangement with it. There are several countries to which this applies. I have no wish to go through the list but they are well known at this stage. As far as I can see, if that trend is allowed to continue indefinitely, if it remains in place and is not answered or addressed and if nothing is done to change the emphasis then, ultimately, it will lead to a lesser European entity in future. Individual member states and those with an association outside the Union will feel free to travel in their own way gaining benefit from having access to membership with none of the responsibilities involved in being part and parcel of the inner sanctum of the European Union. I am sorry for going on for so long but I had indicated at the beginning of the meeting and unfortunately you did not see me. It is not that I have diminished to that extent in the course of time, I hope.
I am jesting. I will finish up with some brief questions. I realise you have many questions before you, Minister of State. However, will you flesh out a little the rule of law initiative and how you see that proceeding? Reference was made, as is often the case, to working within current treaties. Will you give your assessment of the broader European view? Is there a shared position within the European Union to the effect that progressing within the current treaty structure is the way Europe should proceed for the foreseeable future or the near future?
I was in the Chamber yesterday when you addressed the House on the Ukraine issue, as did the Taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Micheál Martin. There seemed to be broad agreement between all parties. Anyway, does the situation in Ukraine show up once again how ineffective European foreign affairs policy is? Has Europe the tools, the unity of purpose or the threat capacity to deal with any issues that occurs outside its borders? You have a lot of questions so we will give you the floor immediately.
I thank the Vice Chairman and members for their questions. I will go through each of them in turn. I will start with the questions raised by my colleague Deputy O'Reilly in respect of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The theme was echoed by several others, including Deputy Dooley, Deputy Eric Byrne and Deputy Durkan - all the committee members. It reflects the broad interest that the committee and the country have in the issue. It also reflects the size of the Bosnian community here and the circumstances in which our country facilitated their arrival at a time of great difficulty for them, something which did great credit to the then leaders of our country in terms of how they handled it.
I was in Sarajevo some weeks before the unrest broke out. One thing I did in Sarajevo was to organise and speak at a public meeting in the University of Sarajevo at which any students, members of the public or organisations were free and welcome to turn up. I experienced at first hand at that meeting the serious level of concern that people young, old and in between have regarding the future of their country. I was, therefore, saddened to see how it was articulated in the riots that the committee members have referred to and the difficulties that arose.
Members also referred to the engagement of the European Union with Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is a view that the focus of the European Union was too preoccupied with the requirement for co-ordinating mechanisms to be set up to allow greater efficiency in dealings between Bosnia-Herzegovina and the European Union.
When I attended the public event in Sarajevo I met a member of the Jewish community who is not currently permitted to stand for any public office in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If the European Union is about anything, it is about equality and opportunity for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, religion or community. This is a demanding objective to which we struggle to aspire and which we do our best to deliver. It is a core value of the European Union and it is correctly the focus of Mr. Sorensen and the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council.
In light of events, members have questioned whether that position can be developed and if further focus should be given to Bosnia-Herzegovina specifically. We must acknowledge the role of the EU in the great progress made in the Western Balkans in general. I refer to the results delivered by the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, the courage of the people and the leadership of their leaders in Kosovo and Serbia. I refer to the role of the Government of Croatia in bringing Croatia to full membership of the European Union. The European Union in this region is delivering results of real worth to the people in the different communities of the Western Balkans.
Since I was there, the Commissioner has returned to the area at least once. The violence occurred during the period of that visit. I refer to the developments resulting from the EU engagement in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The structured dialogue is the means by which the EU Commission engages directly with the federal Executive in BIH and this has been broadened to include measures to tackle corruption. There has been a renewed focus on the issue of economic governance in the country. More support will be given to the leaders and government to allow them to assist in drawing down EU funding. We need to recognise the difficulties faced by the people in the communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This has to be reciprocated and matched by leadership and by the Government of Bosnia-Herzegovina responding to the European Union's work.
We know from our own experience in Ireland that the best response to difficulties are those delivered by the people elected to respond to the difficulties and for whom the European Union cannot be a substitute. We work with the democratically elected leaders and we need and expect them to continue to demonstrate leadership.
I refer to points raised by Deputies O'Reilly and Dooley about the proposed banking union. Negotiations between the Presidency and the European Parliament are currently under way on the nature and funding of the single resolution mechanism. At last week's ECOFIN meeting a renewed mandate was granted to the Presidency to achieve agreement on this area before the end of the term of the current European Parliament. Deputy O'Reilly raised the issue of banking debt and I have discussed this issue with Deputy Dooley on many occasions and will continue to do so. We will continue to pursue all options for dealing with the portion of our national debt created by the need to support the banking system at a very vulnerable time and banking union is an important element.
I have answered the questions about new developments for the expansion of the structured dialogue and the economic governance and the support for the drawing down of EU funding. I was asked about the Minister of State, Deputy White's visit to Moscow. He still plans to travel to Moscow to attend events to support the Irish community there. The Government has a role in recognising that community and supporting it on an important day being celebrated a long way from home. His visit will consist of engagements associated with the Irish community and with the embassy. It is absolutely appropriate that we reach out to Irish communities working all over the world and his visit is undertaken in that spirit. We will be asserting our view on the situation in Crimea and in Ukraine, as the Tánaiste and this committee expressed to the Russian ambassador. While making our views clear on the situation in Ukraine, we must do so in an environment in which dialogue is possible. The Minister of State goes to Moscow in that spirit. We will make our views clear on developments in Ukraine.
Deputy Eric Byrne raised the issue of the Swiss vote. He asked whether there are any consequences of that decision.
The answer to that question is "Yes". I am not aware of the particular point the Deputy made in respect of individuals. However, there have been consequences in terms of the ability of Switzerland to access and gain support from the Horizon 2020 and Erasmus programmes. The Government and the General Affairs Council have both stated that it is now up to the relevant Swiss bodies to decide how they will respond to the referendum. I understand that the framework the Swiss have for doing this spans three years. What we will do is emphasise now that any action which impacts on a core European value, namely, freedom of movement, will be the subject of substantial consequences. However, we must wait to see what action will be taken within Switzerland in response to the vote by its people.
I completely agree with the point to the effect that it is important for the relationship between Africa and the EU to develop and broaden. I would make the point - this struck me as I was making my opening contribution - that while I believe it is extremely important to broaden our relationships, in the context of investment and trade, in the areas to which reference was made, we will also continue to focus on development policy and on the kind of work Ireland, Irish aid, volunteers and NGOs do very well. We should also focus on the trade and investment agenda, recognising the fact that the leaders of many African states want to engage at that level and their ambassadors have indicated as much. In view of the developments across the continent of Africa - the phrase "African renaissance" has been used in this regard - there is a need for a changed relationship. The Minister of State, Deputy Costello, and the Tánaiste are leading the work relating to this matter and are well aware of what is required.
Deputy Eric Byrne also raised a number of points in respect of the situation in Ukraine and I will respond to each of them in turn. There are no parallels between what happened in Kosovo and the situation in Crimea. What we believe should happen is that people should independently make their own decisions with regard to the future of their communities and the parts of the country in which they live. This should be done in a manner that is consistent with the law of their country and with broader international law. What is taking place in Crimea does not meet either requirement. In other words, it is not consistent with international or Ukrainian law. I need hardly state that the developments and events which took place in the region prior to this vote also show how very different it is to other countries and regions in the western Balkans and the way these have developed in the recent past.
On the activities of snipers and the origin of the ammunition used to murder people, I do not wish to comment on the details involved. However, I welcome the fact that an impartial independent investigation will be carried out into this and related matters. As I have stated on previous occasions, we have always believed that restraint must be demonstrated by everybody and that there is a greater responsibility on those who are in government and who control police and armed forces to exercise particular restraint in terms of how the latter are used. We welcome the fact that an independent investigation will take place in respect of some of the matters to which reference was made.
The Deputy also referred to the holding of elections. Of course, these are taking place within a country - this could also be said for the wider region - that is very volatile at present. We are of the opinion that the only way inclusive political arrangements can be put in place is through the holding of elections in the first instance. It is clear that there is a diversity of views within Ukraine and I need hardly tell the Deputy that the ballot box is the best way to resolve matters.
Deputy Durkan referred to Bosnia-Herzegovina and climate change. I have already touched on the former. In the context of the latter, the key point of difference - as has been the case in the past - is that while binding targets remain in place across the EU, member states are meant to have greater flexibility in the context of how they deliver their share of a binding EU-wide target. That is why the Government has been placing particular emphasis on the very large agricultural component of our economy, on our future plans for our national herd and on how our land use generates certain things which, for us, must be recognised in these national plans.
I have also already touched on the point the Deputy made in respect of trade. He is aware of the decision made in respect of GMO maize at the General Affairs Council's previous meeting. I voted against the proposal which was on the table at that point.
The Vice Chairman referred to the rule of law. The initiative in this regard involves putting in place an instrument which will be as strong but not as hugely powerful as other such instruments which currently hold sway, to deal with issues relating to freedom of the press, the independence of institutions and free speech. The initiative relates to issues as diverse as xenophobia, the growth in hate crime and extreme intolerance. There are worrying signs that the latter is prevalent in small portions of the European Union and that it is arising in the context of political debate taking place at present. The initiative in question emanates from the Commission and is a response to the difficulty to which I refer. It was published yesterday and will be the subject of some initial debate at next week's meeting of the General Affairs Council.
On current treaties and whether this is an issue which is shared by everybody, different countries have different views. Many countries share our view that the existing treaties offer the tools required to deal with many of the political issues arising at present. I re-emphasise my own view that many of the political difficulties which have arisen are a consequence of the economic crisis. I remain of the opinion that we should continue to invest our energies in dealing with that crisis in the first instance.
The Vice Chairman's final point was about whether the difficulties in Ukraine demonstrate the ineffectiveness of European Union foreign policy. The European Union only has at its disposal the competences which member states choose to give it. We should not be criticising the European Union in the context of powers and competences it does not possess and which member states decided not to give it. The European Union put forward the association agreement with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and both Georgia and Moldova signed it. If one considers the efficacy and strength of the European Union's foreign policy and the instruments available in that regard at present, one will discover that an example of the strong successes it has enjoyed is the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. Until recently, many commentators thought such an agreement would be exceptionally difficult to achieve. Another example in this regard is the rule the EU is currently playing in the negotiations taking place in respect of Iran in the context of weapons, etc. There continue to be difficulties but High Representative Ashton is playing an exceptionally prominent role in respect of that matter. I am certain that the European Union - in the context of next week's meetings of the General Affairs Council and the Foreign Affairs Council - will continue to demonstrate that using the tools member states have made available it can continue to play a strong and positive role in dealing with the difficulties in Ukraine.
That was not my question. I asked whether it has the necessary tools available to it rather than whether those it already possesses are sufficient. In light of what the Minister of State said, can I take it that the EU does not have the necessary tools but that it is doing as well as it can with those it possesses?
On the question of whether the European Union has the tools, yes, it does. With the tools at its disposal, from an economic point of view, it has put in place a support programme of €12 billion - admittedly it has been done in conjunction with other international bodies - to support the stabilisation of Ukraine. It has already made it clear that it will suspend future visa arrangements with Russia in response to what has happened in Ukraine, but it has also made it clear that it will take further steps in terms of what could happen. We must hope that what could happen does not happen, that a good agreement can be reached to resolve the current difficulties in Ukraine and Crimea. The tools are in place and use has been made of them and more use could be made of them in the coming period.
On Deputy Bernard Durkan's question on the neighbourhood policy, I point to the strong and prominent role the European Union is playing in Serbia and Kosovo. In any evaluation of the Union's success we should remember two aspects, namely, the positive role it is playing in these two countries and that anything it does must be matched by leadership in the countries in which we are operating.
I will not recite my previous statement on my reservations about implementation of the eastern partnership programme, about which I asked a number of questions in the past, but I will not labour the point, other than to say I was not happy that the Russian language element in the eastern portion of Ukraine had been adequately addressed. We saw what happened in Armenia and there were telltale signs way back that there would be a rough ride ahead for Ukraine. Nobody seemed to notice Armenia and its reasons for opting out of the eastern partnership programme. The former Soviet states of Albania and Moldova, in particular, will be feeling very insecure as a result of what is happening. Will the Minister of State assure me that the Europe Union is consciously boosting their morale, investing in and working alongside them in a more intensive way, given the ramifications of what is happening in Ukraine?
Deputy Eric Byrne said he was concerned that we had not given sufficient recognition to the language to be used in Ukraine. If he was referring to my contribution, I apologise if I made such an omission and he should allow me to rectify the matter now. I emphasise the Government's view that the upcoming referendum is illegal; that the actions we believe have been taken by Russia should not have happened; and that there is a strong need which has been articulated by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste for a peaceful resolution of the difficulties. We have been very consistent of and strong on this point for many months and will continue to adopt this role at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday and the European Council next week.
On Deputy Eric Bryne's specific point on the neighbourhood policy and the situation in Moldova and Albania, I assure him that Moldova will be the subject of discussion at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday. The point he has made is correct, namely, that we also need to recognise the countries that signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement - Moldova and Georgia. In the context of what is happening within their neighbourhood, we need to ensure they receive the support they need. This will be the subject of discussion at the meeting on Monday. I have met representatives of the Moldovan Government and I am very much aware of their concerns. A good articulation of our interest and support for Albania is that I understand the members of the committee will be travelling there. Am I correct?
The candidate status of Albania will be the subject of discussion at the European Council that will probably take place around that time. We are very much aware of what is happening in its neighbourhood, but we will continue to emphasise that we need Albania to continue to take steps that are needed in a number of areas. I said this when I was in Tirana.
I believe I have dealt with all of the issues raised.
In the context of the European Union's relations with the continent of Africa and my reference to the suggestion aid becomes conditional on trade in some quarters. The Minister of State may not want to comment on the issue.
It is a matter that falls more within the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello. It is certainly not a proposal or matter for discussion at either the Foreign Affairs Council or the General Affairs and External Relations Council next week.
I thank the Minister of State, once again, for his extremely comprehensive presentation and responses to all of our questions. I also thank his officials. I thank members, staff and the broadcasting unit. I wish members and those in the Visitors Gallery a happy St. Patrick's Day.