Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

EU-UK Reform Negotiations: Discussion

Deputy Dominic Hannigan took the Chair.

3:00 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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On behalf of the joint committee, I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Dara Murphy, to the meeting to update the committee on the EU-UK reform negotiations. Prior to Christmas, the committee heard the views of Professor Faull on the current state of play. We are keen to hear the Minister of State's views on the situation.

The Minister of State will be aware that this subject is of particular interest to the joint committee and that it prepared and published a report in May or June of last year on the impact of a Brexit on Ireland. We are interested in hearing how the Minister of State sees the negotiations developing.

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to have this opportunity to meet with the committee today. Although the details are yet to be confirmed, we know that there is a significant event before us this spring. I thank the joint committee for its engagement with me since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs in 2014. When first elected, I had the privilege of being Vice Chairman of this committee. From Ireland’s perspective, this committee fulfils an invaluable role in the scrutiny of EU affairs and I thank members for their balanced and even-handed approach in that regard. Every member of the committee and, in particular, the Chairman, deserves credit for that.

Before I address the EU-UK issue in detail, I am conscious that I have not been before the committee since November and so I would like to take this opportunity to touch upon the December General Affairs Council, the broader items on the agenda of the December European Council and the more recent January General Affairs Council.

There were five main items on the agenda of the December General Affairs Council, which I attended, including preparations for the European Council; political agreement on the inter-institutional agreement on better regulation; approval of the 18 month work programme of the Council; European Semester 2016 and the Commission presentation of its annual growth survey; and enlargement. The inter-institutional agreement on better regulation was negotiated on behalf of the Council by the Luxembourg Presidency, which did an excellent job in shepherding through an accord with both the Commission and the European Parliament. Although it was not perfect, Ireland was happy to support the final text. The Council work programme, essentially the trio Presidency programme, was an uncontentious item. The Commission’s presentation of the annual growth survey was criticised for coming two weeks later than planned but, nevertheless, found broad agreement. The Commission’s publication of its package of enlargement reports was also delayed but in this regard the majority of member states were also able to signal overall support for it, albeit with significant commentary by many of our partners.

On the December European Council, the Taoiseach attended this meeting and, as the committee will be aware, he made a statement in that regard to the Dáil yesterday. To recap briefly, at that meeting EU Heads of State and Government, in addition to migration and the EU-UK question, also reviewed Europe’s actions in the fight against terrorism, building on the decisions taken at its February meeting and in light of the barbaric attacks in Paris and elsewhere. A number of other items were also discussed, including the situations in Syria, Ukraine and, briefly, Libya. Certain economic and financial issues, taking stock of discussions on the Five Presidents’ report on Economic and Monetary Union and developments in the Internal Market were also discussed. Following the successful COP 21 in Paris, energy union and a forward-looking climate policy were also discussed.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, represented Ireland at the January General Affairs Council, which took place in Brussels on Monday afternoon.

The meeting was exceptionally short, following on from a Foreign Affairs Council that took place before it. There were two substantive items on the agenda: the work programme of the Netherlands Presidency and preparation of the next scheduled European Council, which will take place on 18 and 19 February. The General Affairs Council also briefly discussed the language regime relating to EU recruitment following a recent court case. The February European Council will focus on the EU-UK issue, which dovetails nicely with the topic for discussion this afternoon. It will, of course, also deal with migration and the euro area recommendations agreed by ECOFIN on 15 January.

The January General Affairs Council heard from the Netherlands as it began its 12th Presidency of the Council, and as the first member of the current Trio along with Slovakia and Malta. This is a standard presentation of priorities at the first GAC of a Presidency term. We, like others, anticipate that the Netherlands will run a very efficient Presidency given its extensive experience. We are generally happy with the proposed overall programme. The Dutch Presidency’s three key principles are: a Union focused on essentials; innovative growth and jobs; and connecting with citizens. However, a number of immediate priorities are dominating the European Union agenda, including migration, security, the UK-EU question, EMU, and climate change policy.

The Dutch Minister for Foreign and European Affairs wrote to his ministerial colleagues earlier this month setting out the following priorities for the work of the GAC over the coming months: a review of the multi-annual financial framework; work on the rule of law, to include a Presidency seminar on fundamental values, migration and integration to be held in Strasbourg on 2 February; implementation of the inter-institutional agreement on better regulation; consideration of the better regulation package and the Commission’s REFIT programme; consideration of transparency in the way the Union operates; discussions on better governance in the context of the European Semester and country-specific recommendations; and follow-up to the European Council.

Given the gravity of the migration situation and notwithstanding the desire to discuss the EU-UK issue, it would be remiss not to say a few words on the migration and refugee crisis. We are all aware this is a complex and emotive issue. From Ireland’s perspective, we continue to emphasise the importance of addressing the root causes as well as the humanitarian dimension of this crisis. This has been our consistent approach both in Europe and in terms of our own national response.

Migration remains the highest priority issue on the European Union agenda, although we have struggled as a Union to tackle successfully the challenges posed by the crisis. There have been important agreements at EU level over recent months on various elements of a multifaceted, comprehensive response to the crisis. These include agreements on so-called hotspots, registration, control of external borders, relocation and returns, as well as very important agreements on how we can improve our co-operation with Turkey.

However, delivering on many of these commitments has been far too slow. As our Heads of State and Government stated at the European Council last month, implementation of agreed measures must be speeded up. In our own case, for example, and despite our opt-out under Protocol 21, members will be aware of the Government offer to take 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers into Ireland through a combination of resettlement and relocation programmes. The resettlement aspect of this is advancing albeit slowly, with 176 people having already arrived in the State so far and with more expected over the coming months. However, on relocation and in spite of our best efforts to implement our agreed approach and our early engagement with the relevant authorities, progress has been very slow. This is due mainly to administrative difficulties with the establishment of the hotspots and setting up the relocation programmes in Italy and Greece.

Ireland has deployed two experts to the Greek island of Lesbos to support the European Asylum Support Office and we have also nominated liaison officers to both Italy and Greece to support the work of the hotspots. We await an update this week on progress regarding the first grouping of asylum applications under this framework.

Delivering on relocation and on other measures, some of which were agreed in very difficult political circumstances, is important for the Union's credibility, and it is in all our interests to maintain that focus in 2016. In February, the European Council will return to the migration issue with an assessment of how progress is advancing on implementation. Between now and then, it is incumbent on all involved to fulfil their obligations.

I now come to the main agenda item for us this afternoon, the issue of the United Kingdom and its relationship with the European Union. It is, of course, of very important strategic interest to Ireland. As committee members know, it will remain a priority throughout the negotiation process and into the subsequent referendum. Our two countries are bound by uniquely close economic, social and political ties. Furthermore, from an EU perspective, we share many common positions and issues of common concern with the UK. These are close ties and there is a very strong belief that the European Union as a whole benefits and will continue to benefit from UK membership.

From a political perspective, we have been involved in frequent discussions on this issue, including at the highest level in the Taoiseach’s exchanges with the British Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron. Ministers have also discussed it regularly with their UK counterparts - the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, with the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Philip Hammond, and I with the Minister of State at the British Foreign Office, Mr. David Lidington. This committee has, of course, engaged in some excellent work, including travelling to the United Kingdom. The Department of the Taoiseach has been engaging closely with other Departments as well as with our permanent representation in Brussels, our embassy in London, and our embassies across the European Union, to ensure a comprehensive, whole-of-Government response to the key questions.

Where are we in terms of the negotiations? Following initial discussions at the June and October European Councils, the end of last year saw a significant increase in activity on all fronts. The British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, issued a letter to President Tusk on 10 November which kicked off discussions in earnest by outlining the British concerns in broad terms under four headings or baskets, as they are referred to. This was followed by a series of consultations between senior officials from all EU member states, including Ireland, and the EU institutions, on foot of which President Tusk sent a letter to EU Heads of State and Government on 7 December, presenting an initial reaction to the British reform agenda and confirming that there would be a two-stage approach at EU level: a political discussion of the issue at the December European Council and, one hopes, a final decision at the February European Council on 18 and 19 February.

The December European Council provided the first opportunity for a collective discussion of the issue among all 28 EU Heads of State and Government and the Presidents of the European Union institutions. The British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, outlined the four broad areas where he is seeking change and also spoke about the complex domestic politics which surround the issue in the United Kingdom.

As the committee members will have learned from the Taoiseach’s statement to the House yesterday, the subsequent exchanges were, overall, positive and constructive. The Taoiseach intervened to present the Irish perspective in strong and forthright terms. In doing so, he addressed the importance of the issue to Ireland but also emphasised the significance of the UK's membership to the EU as a whole. He struck a positive and supportive note, underlining the need for partners to work together to find a solution that is mutually acceptable and that will enable the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to recommend and campaign for a vote to remain in the European Union. In addressing the House of Commons after the European Council, Prime Minister Cameron singled out the Taoiseach’s address as having been particularly helpful.

In terms of the substantive issues, the committee will be familiar with Ireland’s positioning across the four headings. Under the competitiveness heading, we share the UK’s enthusiasm for sustained effort to do more. These issues are the drivers of long-term prosperity for all EU citizens, and we support measures that would give further impetus to growth, competitiveness and employment, including through strengthening the Single Market, building a real digital Single Market and expanding the EU’s network of relationships and trade agreements across the globe.

On economic governance, we believe the principles set out by the UK provide a good basis for discussion. The euro area must have the capacity to do what is necessary to ensure financial stability and economic growth. It must, however, also act in full respect of the Single Market and of the integrity of the EU as a whole, without prejudice to the interests of all member states. We appreciate the concerns of the UK and other non-euro member states in this area and we are committed to examining carefully and constructively the detail of what is proposed. We must keep in mind the importance of our financial sector and the need to ensure it is not disadvantaged in any way. This view is shared by many member states regarding their own sectors.

Issues under the sovereignty heading relate to strengthening the role of national parliaments in the EU as well as addressing the concept of ever closer Union as it applies to the UK. Ireland has a constructive approach to practical proposals and we firmly believe that workable solutions can be found. Although the details remain to be clarified, and we must always apply the caveat that the devil is in the detail, it is felt that broad lines are emerging in these areas that will address the key issues.

The fourth heading, welfare and immigration, is more difficult. An element of consensus is emerging. For example, agreement is moving well on finding solutions to addressing fraud and abuse, and there is good progress on changing the way child benefit is paid abroad. The idea of limiting access to in-work benefits is tricky, and there was widespread opposition to the proposition as it was originally put forward. Nonetheless, work is progressing on it and I am hopeful that, with willingness and determination, a workable solution can be found in this area.

It was the overriding sense of a willingness and determination to chart a way forward that struck me most from the Taoiseach’s report of the December European Council yesterday. While it is a challenging and sensitive issue, it is very encouraging that the exchanges at the December European Council were substantively rich and constructive in tone, which led to a very positive atmosphere.

EU leaders have agreed to work very closely in the very short period ahead with a view to reaching agreement on a package of measures at the February European Council, a few weeks from now. President Tusk is expected to present a paper in very early February, perhaps on 5 February. This will contain - finally, some might say - concrete proposals under the four headings and will be the subject of two meetings in early February at senior official level before the matter comes to the European Council via the General Affairs Council on 16 February.

While the legal form and implications of the final package remain to be teased out, it is to be welcomed that the UK is not pressing for early treaty change. The overriding sense is that, for the large majority of issues, broad lines of agreement are already emerging. Even on the more difficult issues, we can be optimistic that a solution will be found which addresses the legitimate concerns of all partners, and which will meet Prime Minister Cameron’s political objectives.

From the Government’s perspective, we move into the next and critical phase, with a significant amount of work already completed at both political and official levels. This leaves us well-placed to continue our positive and constructive engagement with the negotiations at EU level in the weeks ahead. We know Ireland's strategic priorities, we understand the British requests and our own views on them, and we have a sound understanding of the perspectives of the other 26 member states.

As things stand, we have good grounds to hope an agreement can be reached in February which is acceptable to Ireland and other partners, and which will allow Prime Minister Cameron to recommend, and campaign vigorously for, a vote to remain in the European Union. It has been a three-step process. First, there was the decision to hold a referendum in Britain, now the negotiation period is, it is hoped, reaching a conclusion, and the third phase will be the referendum campaign in the UK. A referendum may take place in June.

I look forward to any questions the committee members may have. Although the exact detail of the text that is coming on 5 February has not emerged yet, I hope to be as helpful as possible to the committee. I thank the members for their engagement over the past year and a half and wish them all the best of luck over the next two months.

3:10 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his positive assessment of our situation.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and his officials and thank him for the comprehensive outline of the state of play. Migration is a relatively significant issue for me. Across Europe, there has been a lack of movement on achieving a resolution, notwithstanding that there probably can be no immediate resolution. There is inertia. While it is identified as the highest priority, it almost reminds me of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly. While I do not want to be political, although everything is his highest priority, so-called, nothing necessarily happens. Although European leaders are generally saying migration is the highest priority, the Heads of State bemoan the fact that nothing has happened at the Council meeting, that the appropriate action has not been taken, or that there has not been enough action. It is unacceptable. My point is not directed at the Minister of State. It is a collective issue for all the member states.

To some extent, there has been an easing off in the passage of migrants due to the change in season and the weather, although there has not been as much of a decrease as originally expected as winter began. Ireland could do much more. While I was critical of the 4,000 we settled on, it would have made a difference had we moved more quickly to welcome 4,000 here.

We could have accommodated them and we are in a position to accommodate them but we have been far too slow to address those issues of red tape. There is an opportunity for us to step away from the pack a little bit. We can explain away the lack of action as the inability to reach agreement among member states because some members do not share the same views. The challenge is for us to recognise our own history, culture and views and to do much more on an individual basis rather than staying part of the herd and accepting the roadblocks and issues that prevent the process from proceeding at greater speed. Has any consideration been given by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or European affairs at the Department of Taoiseach to reach ahead of the actions of other members states and do more on a bilateral basis?

On the British situation, we look forward to the text of such an agreement. We hope it will be enough for David Cameron to resolve, to some extent, the mess he has created for himself. That would be a political charge. I do not want to do that because we are all on the same side but it is an issue that needs to be comprehensively addressed. It is to be hoped there will be enough in it to allow him to convince the people of Britain to remain in the European Union.

The Minister of State mentioned that child benefit was a tricky issue. Could he give us more information on what he thinks is being proposed or the direction in which that is being taken? Notwithstanding our desire to keep Britain as part of the Union, which is a major focus - a high priority, as the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, might say - we cannot at the same time diminish in any way the principles upon which Europe is founded, particularly the in-work benefits which accrue to the individual regardless of the residence of their family. These benefits accrue in the country in which people pay their insurance and while that is unpalatable for some in this country, it is an issue politically. We have to stand up to people who make these kinds of statements, even thought it might not be electorally advantageous. It goes to the core of addressing an issue that exists in every society and which is linked to racism. It is often presented as or hidden behind an assertion that there is not enough money to pay those people. There is a view that we are assisting people through the social welfare code to a far greater extent than we are. Such charges usually come from people who, in my view, have racist tendencies. Anything in the text of this that will give succour to those people should be resisted, and I am sure it will be. We have to be very careful about the language we use while supporting David Cameron. We cannot give succour to those who would seek to be divisive and racist in their outlook.

3:20 pm

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and his team. There have been a number of referendum campaigns in this country and very often it is a case of perception versus reality - perception of what a vote is about versus the reality of what it is about. We saw this with the referenda on the Lisbon and Nice treaties. The emigration and financial crises have tested the resolve of many of the firmest EU supporters over recent years. It is especially difficult for a country such as the UK where there are splits on a likely referendum campaign between and within leading parties. It seems to have come faster than any of us would have anticipated and there is talk of a referendum in June. It may not happen then but it will certainly be in the very near future.

On the Minister of State's and Taoiseach's discussions on the UK's demands, what areas does the Minister of State feel Ireland has been particularly helpful on? On the migration situation, there is a perception that people are coming to the EU for welfare. The view that people are getting benefits that others are being denied is especially prevalent in the UK. Deputy Dooley touched on it and it comes up the odd time in canvassing. How is that being fed by the migration crisis that exists at the moment? Ultimately, if a referendum takes place in the UK or anywhere in the EU, that view will certainly be at its core. Is there growing support because of the migration crisis across the EU that something has to be done about the unnatural draw of the welfare system, as has been stated by a Minister in the UK? Is there increasing support in other countries, such as Germany or France? We know the situation that has pertained in Germany over recent weeks and how this issue has been heightened.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I do not know whether I am being artificially lulled into a sense of optimism. My memory of the British Prime Minister's attempts to renegotiate treaties was of a very virulent, hard-hitting and destructive campaign as a reaction to the growth of UKIP in the early days. Today we are hearing more about Mr. Cameron's position that he vigorously campaigned to remain in Europe. The Minister of State has spoken of the plausibility of the other 27 members accepting that we can negotiate with the UK and that by 18 or 19 February, all will be rosy in the garden. That strikes me as somewhat contradictory. I do not know whether the Prime Minister of Great Britain acted improperly under duress from the growth of the extreme right wing in England and whether this is gamesmanship by him and a belief that he will succeed if he shouts and roars enough. He has promised the British people revolutionary reform and reform of treaties. He has said openly and publicly that he will not argue in favour of Europe unless he succeeds in the negotiations.

I will ask the Minister of State the hardcore questions. What will Mr. Cameron sell to the British people if the other 27 nations are happy to concede? I have always conceded one of the points the Minister of State mentioned, namely, fraud and abuse of the welfare system. What country would not argue for the elimination of fraud and abuse of welfare systems? It is natural and we do not support fraud in the welfare system in this country. That is easily conceded but is not the key point Mr. Cameron was making. In so far as I can understand his position, it was that the power and sovereignty of national parliaments was being lost. The British argued they were losing their sovereign status, being engulfed by the other 27 nations and being neutered in the process. Will the Minister of State enlighten me as to how it all seems to be so much on an even keel at the moment?

The key question is what plan B is for the Republic or for Europe if the electorate in the UK rejects these revolutionary changes that Mr. Cameron is seeking to achieve by negotiations and banging the table with his European partners. Ireland played its own role in the negotiations. Did we make any positive contribution to the debate on the arguments with Mr. Cameron to facilitate his position? I cannot quite figure out how we are so lovey-dovey on the one hand without making a contribution to his political demands.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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We discussed this yesterday during the post-Council statements.

3:30 pm

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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We did.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I will try not to repeat some of those points, but I raised the migration issue with the Minister of State. I apologise for repeating myself, but he stated at this meeting that it was one of the highest priorities on the agenda. Yesterday, we discussed the relocation of 160,000 people. To date, only 322 have been relocated across Europe. Hardly a weekend goes by in which 322 people do not arrive in Italy, Greece or so on. The Minister of State mentioned that there were inefficiencies in the system, but that is not the case. It is broken. It is not working. I accept his assertion that we must address this issue again, but whoever takes over the leadership might have a different view of the matter and it will be pushed to the side.

The front-line states of Greece and Italy are dealing with this day to day, but there is a lack of solidarity with them. Ireland has agreed to take 4,000 people, which is a substantial number, but there is a blockage in the system. For the life of me, I do not know what is causing it. When people were debating the numbers involved, several of us gathered together on a cross-party basis because we did not want it to be used to promote the racism card or negativity. We tried to be positive. The various groups that were supportive of it have decided to gather again. Something is wrong. Clearly, we are out of the loop as politicians, but many of the groups that support relocation are also out of it. I do not get a sense of what is going wrong across Europe. I am not criticising the Minister of State, but I do not understand this problem.

The proposed Brexit seems to be based on fear. Fraud and abuse have been referenced, but are there statistics to support claims of a widespread abuse of the system? If it is happening across Europe, no one will oppose a change, but I do not believe that it is happening to the extent the British public has been led to believe is the case by tabloids and so on. Stirring up this trouble is easy. What are the red line issues for Ireland in this regard? One contentious demand is that workers from other EU countries be required to wait four years after moving to Britain before they can claim benefits. What is Ireland's position on this demand? It is a reasonable question.

Does the Minister of State view Brexit as a divisive issue in respect of the North? Yesterday, I referred to the strength of the majority English vote. People in Scotland and Wales are clearly opposed to a Brexit and a poll was conducted in the North. The majority in England will determine the outcome. The figure that I cited yesterday was high at 53% in support of a withdrawal. I am worried. There will be an impact on the island of Ireland. The British Government will not replace the moneys being invested in many communities in the North.

According to media reports, Poland is willing to trade its welfare rights for UK support for NATO bases. Poland joined the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia as the Visegrad Group to oppose discriminatory welfare restrictions. It is changing its tune. Will this have an impact on the negotiations?

I have asked many questions, so I might wait for the answers.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his interesting and broad-ranging presentation. He mentioned that security and the situations in Syria, Ukraine and Libya had been discussed, but what discussions have there been on internal security? For example, what is the position on the suspension of the Schengen Agreement and what measures are being taken to improve European security?

In December, an agreement was reached with Turkey on stemming the tide of migrants into Europe. A significant amount of money was to be made available to Turkey for that purpose. Although it is not relevant, a backstop was placed on Turkey's ultimate membership of the EU. How is the agreement working in practice? Will the recent bombings in Istanbul impact on the co-operation between Turkey and Europe in terms of broader security and migration?

Would the early holding of a referendum in the UK - it has been mooted for as early as June - be a positive or a negative? It could be positive in light of the visible uncertainty that is being created by Britain's position, as evidenced by a decrease in the value of sterling, which has impacted on Ireland. Given the polls, would it be better to have the referendum sooner rather than later or would a longer run-up to the referendum be more in our interests? I take Deputy Crowe's point about fear being a part of the issue. I am concerned that much of the narrative in the UK describes people as wanting to go and feeling that they would be better off because of sovereignty and "Rule, Britannia" without showing many of the downsides that would result from an exit. From what I have seen in the British media, even the narrative that existed early in the debate about an exit possibly damaging business, foreign direct investment and so forth has changed. It is not as much of an issue in the debate anymore. This is worrying from Ireland's point of view.

The Minister of State commented that treaty change seemed to be off the agenda. That contradicts some of this committee's engagement with the various British representatives who have appeared before us. It was made clear that treaty change would not be off the agenda and would be a necessary part of any successful deal to prevent a Brexit.

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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That was an extensive set of questions. I will start with one asked by Deputy Dooley, which was picked up by others, in particular Deputy Crowe. Deputy Dooley stated that the approach to migration was not working. I agree with his sentiments, as we do not believe it is working. This country showed good, strong ambition that reflected the views of the Irish people. We are a welcoming nation and, notwithstanding our opt-out, we were willing to take 4,000 people. A low number of migrants have come to our shores. Regarding relocation in particular, this approach is not working for a variety of reasons. We have sent our officials to the hotspots in Italy and Greece. The December Council was politically aware that the agreements, which were very difficult to achieve, exceptionally divisive and involved a qualified majority vote, had not delivered for people the opportunity we know they want, namely, to live in the EU and escape from the barbarity of regimes in certain parts of the world.

To that end, it will be on the agenda for the February Council to consider why procedures and processes have not worked, particularly with respect to relocation. As to whether we can act - Deputy Dooley asked, quite understandably, if we should act unilaterally - we cannot at this time. We are working as a small peripheral member state. This is a major crisis for the European Union and, given the quantum of people involved, progress must be made collectively. I understand the frustration; we experience it too. It is something that must be acted on quickly. There is a small period of grace given that it is winter, but we can expect that, unless action is taken, there will be an increase in the numbers as soon as the weather improves.

All of the members had questions in respect of the UK. While we support the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union, we do not support it any cost. We do not support it if it diminishes two core principles - first, that there is full and free movement of European citizens, including ourselves, around the Continent and, second, that in any member state all people regardless of what European Union country they come from are treated equally. That applies to work benefits, social protection benefits, employment and everything else. These are core principles.

It is fair to raise the debate in the UK. Deputy Crowe asked if perception was a problem. First, the United Kingdom has benefited significantly from the free movement of people. It has one of the lowest levels of unemployment and has a strong and dynamic workforce. In terms of so-called foreigners, be they from inside the European Union or outside it, the United Kingdom is about average with regard to the number of people who are not British living within its borders. For example, there are more eastern European people living in the Republic of Ireland, as a proportion of our population, than is the case in the United Kingdom. To be blunt, there is a strong benefit in having a country that will attract young, well educated Europeans because there is a cost in educating them. It has been a strong benefit to the UK such people in its workforce. We believe that the principles of free movement of people and goods and services have worked for the European Union and we do not believe there is a need for change in these areas. I tend to agree sometimes that the fears of fraud and abuses can be overstated. However, that is not to say there cannot equally be ways of addressing them as well.

We have made a significant contribution to the debate in Ireland, particularly by pointing out that many of the suggestions from the UK, especially in the first three baskets, are things we should have been doing to a greater extent in any event. I refer here to making the Union more competitive, improving governance in some sectors, developing trade agreements and so forth. There are many elements in the original set of proposals from the United Kingdom which benefit our citizens as well as the UK. The Taoiseach, in particular, was to the forefront on that.

Regarding the question about Northern Ireland, my view is that the journey we have travelled on this island has been remarkable. Regardless of any vote in any referendum, the people of these islands have made remarkable progress. Equally, we must acknowledge the reports. The ESRI points out that the country that would be most disadvantaged economically by excluding the UK will be ours, while there are other reports which indicate that within the United Kingdom the area that will be most disadvantaged will be Northern Ireland. If one combines the interests of the North and the South, we collectively have a significant interest in the development of this discussion. There is the possibility that the land border between the United Kingdom and Europe would be the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. That clearly would create difficulties. A total of €2.3 billion has flowed in the past five years from the European Union to Northern Ireland from both the Structural Fund and the Cohesion Fund. It is correct to point out that these would be difficult to replace. Yesterday, the Dáil discussed the issue of whether the referendum is undemocratic in light of the nature of the four countries within the United Kingdom. However, that is a matter for the UK. At this stage, it would be speculative to consider what would occur if certain countries within the UK voted one way and others voted differently. While all of this is speculative, a British exit would potentially cause some difficulties.

Senator Hayden is correct. The Schengen Agreement is under significant threat. It is currently suspended. We are all aware of the challenges now faced by the legislators. Ireland is not part of the Schengen Agreement but the free movement of people is threatened when some countries have borders between each other as they have now. Aside from the British question, that is yet another reason that this migration crisis must be addressed. To be clear on treaty change, I fully accept there is a nuance here. The British and David Cameron want legal certainty to the outcome of these talks. We have no issue with that. However, we do not believe at this point - we are not alone in this view - that there is a requirement to open the Pandora's box of widespread treaty change. Perhaps, as happened with ourselves and the Danes, legally binding protocols which would satisfy UK demands could be agreed and these would then come into effect at the next point of treaty. We hope and believe that this could satisfy the UK's concerns.

I do not have anything to say about the rumours from Poland. I have only seen the reports but not anything else, so I cannot comment on that only to say that it seems quite a stretch. The rumours in question were stringently denied by authorities in Poland subsequently. I do not wish to toss out the phrase, "Do not believe everything you read", but in this instance there might be some merit in that.

I note there was also a question about a plan B.

3:40 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I asked the Minister of State about that previously.

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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Yes. On plan B, I do not wish to reiterate what I have said many times and what many others have said. However, we are very much focused on plan A, namely, the current negotiations. Then all of us in all our member parties and, indeed, in the diplomatic world, the business world and so forth will see how best to engage in the debate in the UK.

A disproportionately large number of people who live in Great Britain, as opposed to Northern Ireland, have either an Irish parent or grandparent. Moreover, there is a significant level of Irish commercial membership of boards in the United Kingdom. Consequently, we will have some role to play in the referendum in the United Kingdom. However, members should recall how other countries becoming involved in our referendums - on either side of the argument - went down. This is a matter for the United Kingdom. I refer to the reason a plan B would be so hard were there to be a vote to leave. There would then begin a lengthy process of deliberation as to the terms under which the United Kingdom might stay. It would be very much in the interests of Ireland to be engaged in that process, as we certainly would not wish to be disadvantaged in any way but, then again, neither would other member states. Work is ongoing in the Department of the Taoiseach to consider various potential outcomes. At this point, however, the focus must be to ensure that two objectives are met from the current process. The first of these involves reaching an agreement the United Kingdom is satisfied fulfils its desires and ambitions. From Ireland's perspective, the second objective, which is shared by the other 26 member states, is that such an agreement would not in any way disadvantage our citizens or undermine any of the core principles that have allowed the European Union to travel so far in recent decades.

3:50 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his participation. I expect this is a subject on which the next committee will focus. It is clear this committee will probably be dissolved within the next few weeks and members will not be returning to this subject. However, we have asked the secretariat to write briefing papers in order that the next committee can pick up where the current committee is leaving off. I again thank the Minister of State for his attendance and for his participation in these meetings in the year and a half since his appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs.

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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It was a pleasure.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I wish the Minister of State the best of luck in the coming weeks.

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chairman and the joint committee's secretariat in particular. It undoubtedly is the best secretariat of any committee of the Oireachtas. Moreover, with the diplomats who attend meetings regularly, this also is the best attended committee. In fairness to them, they also deserve our thanks.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.05 p.m. and adjourned at 4.10 p.m. until 12.15 p.m. on Wednesday, 27 January 2016.