Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 5 July 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
European Agenda Developments: Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off. This is important because it causes serious problems for broadcasting, editorial and sound staff.
Today, we will engage with the new Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with responsibility for European Union affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee. Last week, in her absence, members and I congratulated her on her appointment and expressed our desire to work with her. We complimented the outgoing Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, who was work-like in his duties. I know the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will be the exact same. We are genuine in wishing the Minister of State every success and happiness in her new role.
It is important the relationship between the Minister with responsibility for European Affairs and the committee is strong. We had good interactions with the previous Minister of State and I hope to have similar strong engagement with the new one, Deputy McEntee. I have watched the career of Deputy McEntee and since her elevation to ministerial office I have seen her work very diligently in government. I admire Deputy McEntee and I look forward to working with her. It is very positive that we can have this initial engagement so soon after Deputy McEntee taking office. We realise the Minister of State has to read herself into the brief. We may have less to speak about today than we will in the future but nonetheless it is the beginning of our relationship of working together. I know that members look forward to interacting with her.
I extend a warm welcome to the officials accompanying the Minister of State and acknowledge the good work of the Department. I thank the Minister and her officials for taking time out of their busy schedule to be here.
Let me remind members and witnesses of the rules of privilege. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to make her opening remarks before opening the floor to my colleagues.
I thank the Chairman and members for their well wishes. I agree it is important we have a strong relationship and that there is strong engagement between us. I am at the disposal of the Chairman and members should they need me at the committee. I am delighted to be here today, the first time I have had the pleasure of being before this committee since I was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs two weeks ago. I was honoured to be asked to take on this important job at a time when Ireland’s place in the European Union is centre stage.
Ireland’s future prosperity is best served by our membership of the European Union. Brexit only serves to underline that our membership of the Single Market and customs union are the cornerstones of our economic success. We are all too well aware of the disruption and negative impact that Brexit may have on key sectors of our economy, in particular agriculture, agrifood and the drinks industry, but that does not in any way weaken the case for our remaining committed members of the European Union – quite the contrary.
Chairman, I look forward to working with you and members of the committee to deepen our national and parliamentary dialogue on the full EU agenda. National parliaments and committees on European affairs play a vital role in EU policy formulation and implementation and in ensuring that the EU improves its engagement with all our citizens. I assure the Chairman and members of my openness to working with the committee in the period ahead.
In the time available today I would like to touch on three issues: the outcome of last month’s European Council meeting; the unfolding debate on the future of Europe, a topic that is of particular interest to the committee; and the incoming Estonian EU Presidency, and I welcome Her Excellency, Mrs. Kristi Karelsohn, Ambassador of Estonia to the meeting.
One of my first official engagements following my appointment as Minister with responsibility for European Affairs was to accompany the Taoiseach to the June European Council. Items on the agenda included security and defence; migration; jobs, growth and competitiveness; external relations; the Paris Agreement on climate change; and Digital Europe. The Taoiseach has already made a comprehensive statement to the Dáil so I do not propose to go into great detail on it now, however, I will touch on a few key issues.
On Brexit, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier updated the European Council on Article 50 format - that is, the 27 member states minus the UK - on the recent opening of formal negotiations with the UK which took place just over two weeks ago, which were seen as generally positive and constructive. In line with the EU guidelines, the Irish-specific concerns - protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process; avoiding a hard Border through imaginative and flexible solutions; and maintaining the common travel area – will be prioritised in the first phase of the negotiations, before we move to discussions about the shape of the future relationship.
In respect of jobs, growth and competitiveness, the European Council considered a range of economic issues. The President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, gave a generally positive presentation about the EU and eurozone economies.
There was a discussion of the Single Market and trade policy. Members will be aware that Ireland has a high level of ambition for the Single Market, in particular with regard to cross-border trade in services and in advance of the European Council we worked with like-minded partners to ensure that a specific reference to services was included in the Council conclusions. We strongly support the priority the incoming Estonian Presidency has attached to Digital Europe.
On trade, the Taoiseach stressed our support for a robust, free trade policy, upholding an open and rules based multilateral trading system.
The discussions on security and defence covered both the internal and external aspects. Discussions covered efforts to tackle the spread of radicalism online and its financing. The challenges inherent in tackling terrorist communications, while at the same time safeguarding privacy, were acknowledged.
On the external dimension, the High Representative, Ms Federica Mogherini, briefed on the implementation of the EU global strategy one year after its adoption. Ireland strongly supports the strategy, and we have emphasised the need for the comprehensive implementation of all five of its priorities, which is important if all member states are to contribute and play an active part. Using the Union’s unique mix of diplomatic, civilian and peace-keeping capabilities will help protect our citizens, and contribute to peace and security in our neighbourhood and beyond.
The strategy also provides the framework for EU co-operation with NATO, focused on peace-keeping and maintaining international peace and security. Ireland’s neutrality is, of course, fully respected, and has not been brought into question and we do not participate in any military alliance. However, we favour initiatives to strengthen the EU’s capacity to act as an international peace provider, in particular in support of the United Nations. We also support co-operation within the Union to achieve common objectives in response to the range of new and growing threats. We have all witnessed them in the past number of weeks and months.
While there have been some positive developments on migration, in particular a significant decline in activity along the eastern Mediterranean route, the situation remains critical in terms of irregular visits and arrivals through the central Mediterranean. The Council agreed to improve co-ordination efforts in this respect, provide more support for Italy and try to end the tragic situation where so many people are unfortunately losing their lives.
Ireland has consistently called for a comprehensive response to the migration crisis that addresses its effects as well as its underlying root causes. We have agreed to take up to 4,000 asylum seekers, including 200 minors, and refugees, provide naval vessels to help with search operations - since May 2015, seven of our vessels have saved almost 17,000 migrants - and supply humanitarian assistance to those affected by the Syrian crisis. To date, we have provided more than €78 million for that.
On the external relations items on the agenda, the Council expressed regret at President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. On sanctions against Russia, the Council decided that Russia's ongoing actions in eastern Ukraine left little choice but to renew the restrictive measures for a further six months. This is a decision that Ireland has fully supported. Leaders discussed relations with Turkey, with concerns being expressed about its human rights situation. The President of Cyprus updated the European Council on the ongoing UN-sponsored talks between the two communities on the island.
I will turn to the debate on the future of Europe, a matter on which this committee is actively engaged. On 1 March, the European Commission published the White Paper on the Future of Europe. As well as setting out the main achievements of the EU over the past six decades, the White Paper addresses the challenges that Europe is facing and presents five scenarios for how the Union could evolve by 2025, depending on how we choose to respond. The Commission has since published five accompanying reflection papers on a range of diverse topics that will also contribute to the Europe-wide discussions that the White Paper seeks to initiate.
The Government has welcomed the paper. It contains much valuable food for thought about the international context as it is now and may develop over the coming decades and sets out a number of scenarios for how the EU might evolve and develop in the period ahead. The White Paper takes an open and non-prescriptive approach and is presented as an initial contribution to a Europe-wide discussion and debate. This open, inclusive and transparent approach is welcome and is in keeping with the need to renew the EU's contract with its citizens.
The European Commission will lead a public engagement strategy to discuss and debate the future of Europe in all member states. I understand that the head of the Commission representation in Ireland, Mr. Gerry Kiely, appeared before this committee last month to facilitate an initial exchange with members on the White Paper. I would be interested to hear from members what themes emerged from that discussion and what discussions they had subsequently. I understand that the committee is planning a call for public submissions on the future of Europe for later this month. National parliaments play an important role in debating the future of Europe and the Oireachtas should facilitate and encourage as wide-ranging a debate as possible on this matter of national importance. The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs is best placed to take a lead role in this regard and I am happy to encourage that lead.
Ideally, the debate should be followed in the autumn by a wider Government-led consultation process, with the outcome of the process that the committee has launched making an important contribution to the Government's consideration. The consultation process should be as inclusive as possible and involve all interested parties, including social partners, business partners, the voluntary sector, academics and members of the general public. It is important that the debate engage the public to the greatest extent possible. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is examining a number of options for facilitating and encouraging that wider debate. I hope that we can work together to further that aim.
I welcome the new Estonian Presidency of the Council, which has just begun. The ambassador to Ireland, H.E. Mrs. Kristi Karelsohn, is present and will address the committee shortly on her country's priorities. Ireland welcomes the priorities identified by Estonia, given their emphasis on preserving our shared values of prosperity, security, peace and stability in Europe. In particular, we welcome the focus on a digital Europe and Estonia's intention of holding a summit meeting in Tallinn on 29 September to discuss Europe's digital future. I understand that the Taoiseach will be attending that. We wish the Estonian Presidency well for its upcoming six months.
Some of our Seanad colleagues have been working on a paper on Brexit. I thank them for their work and look forward to engaging with them next week during the Seanad debate.
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to address the committee and I look forward to working with members on promoting Ireland's place in the EU.
I thank the Minister of State. I apologise for some of our members in that this meeting clashes with other meetings and we understand that they must come and go. I also neglected to acknowledge some of the ambassadors and their officials who are present. I welcome them and thank them for attending.
I join in the Chairman's welcome to the Minister of State. I am delighted to see her taking up her role and I wish her best wishes in the coming months and years of her service. I do not doubt that she will be a success and the Government will flourish with her in this vital role. I thank her for her kind words about the Seanad committee's report, which was launched yesterday. Alongside Seanad colleagues, I look forward to engaging in a debate on the report with her next week. I will not discuss Brexit today. I am sure that other committee colleagues might have a word or two to say about it, but I will have 80 billion words to say to her about it next week and many other times socially.
I wish to touch on two matters, both of which the Minister of State has mentioned, and I am grateful to her for doing so. The first matter is the White Paper on the Future of Europe. I will not mention Brexit because it has happened, is being negotiated and is playing out. Our Government has played an excellent role in putting Ireland in the best position in that regard, which is to be commended, but we have moved on and must now consider the future of Europe and the European Commission's suggestions, some of which are welcome. Like anything when it comes to dealing with European affairs, however, I fear that some of those suggestions could be taken for granted, jeopardised or misrepresented by ill-informed or nefarious elements in civic society. We need to be careful in this regard. When we approach the idea of the future of Europe, we should set out exactly how Ireland sees its role in that future.
It will come as no surprise to the Minister of State or other members of the committee that I wholly believe that Ireland's future has to be at the heart of Europe. She remarked on this matter at the start of her address, which was welcome, but it is not something that can just be written down or shown. We need to become living and breathing examples of what it means to embrace the European ideal. To date, we have only done that at a half pace. We have kept ourselves semi-detached and connected to the UK instead of looking to the rest of Europe and the European project. This is our future - the UK is our past. We will maintain as strong a relationship as possible, but the UK has made a decision for us. Ireland must now make the decision that not only will we be at the heart of Europe, but we will defend it and say why this is right. I will not go into too much detail because the Minister of State has a great deal of work ahead of her. It is probably the busiest junior Ministry and should be a full Ministry, given that the Minister of State will have the workload of a full Minister, so I wish her well. Every meeting should be underlined by us voicing our commitment to Europe and our reasons and by taking on those who put out the idiotic suggestion that we would somehow be better off out of Europe. That is the challenge that I lay down to the Minister of State and I wish her every bit of luck.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, her officials, the ambassadors, their staff and the diplomatic corps. We appreciate their attendance at our meetings and they add to the meetings' importance. The Chairman has been active in meeting all the EU ambassadors. We commend him on his efforts. All members have been available to meet ambassadors to discuss issues.
I commend the former Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy's efforts and co-operation over the past number of years. We welcome the new Minister of State in that capacity and congratulate her. She will make as big an impression in Europe as she makes in my area of Castlecoote in County Roscommon, which she has visited many times. We are always delighted to meet her there. She is approachable and will undoubtedly make that impression in Europe.
The Minister of State's speech was excellent and covered many matters. She is working her way into the situation, but she has a good knowledge.
She has previous ministerial experience and acquitted herself very well. She came up with new initiatives which were very welcome. Like other members, I was in Malta when it held the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. I will be representing the committee at a COSAC meeting in Estonia at the weekend. I commend Estonia and wish it well during its Presidency. I also thank the Maltese in what was an excellent Presidency.
I welcome the peace talks initiated by the United Nations now taking place in Switzerland. We could play a very important role in dealing with the Cypriot issue, particularly in resolving issues between Turkey and Greece which very much reflect the difficulties we have had on our island. Our experiences and achievements in the peace talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement impressed the Cypriots. I know that the Minister of State met the President of Cyprus who updated her on the current position. It is an area in which I would like to see her get involved as her experience would be of benefit. She also has responsibility for the Council of Europe; I think it is part of her portfolio, but I am not quite sure. Normally the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs attends Council of Europe ministerial meetings. It is a very important forum at which 47 countries are represented and meet on a regular basis - four times a year. Our representative is Senator Joe O'Reilly. He is the leader of the Irish delegation which comprises excellent members. I wish the Minister of State every success in that regard. I am not here to ask her questions, just to wish her well. There is no doubt that she will have a tremendously busy time in dealing with her portfolio. She will be one of the busiest Ministers in the Government, but I have no doubt that she is ready, willing and able to take on the role.
I join the Chairman and colleagues in wishing the Minister of State well in her new role which I have no doubt her excellent abilities will enable her to perform very well. There are a number of issues arising from her contribution, one of which is the migration crisis. It was very disappointing to hear some of the recent comments made by countries. I fully understand that for ones directly affected, it is very difficult to deal with the inflow, but, collectively, the European Union has an incredible responsibility. We are dealing daily with men, women and children's lives and it is one of the most defining issues on which it will be judged. It is at the heart of what it is supposed to be about in terms of how we treat people. The last thing we want to see happen is future generations to look back and ask the question that has been asked: how could people enjoy their lovely holidays on the shores of the Mediterranean in the months of July and August at a time when the Governments of those countries were allowing people to die? As a country, we have made a tremendous effort. We have to acknowledge the deployment of the Naval Service and other members of the Defence Forces and the role they have played, but, collectively, EU member states need to do more. There is a need for a greater integrated response because one life lost is one too many and thousands dying is almost becoming a non-story for the media. We should never forget what is happening.
Senator Neal Richmond has mentioned the other point I want to raise. I welcome the restatement of our commitment to the European Union. It should not be necessary to do so, but it is. It is regrettable there are people who, for whatever reason, are willing to sell a story to which there is no logic that this country would somehow benefit from being outside the European Union. There has always been a cohort who are negative about or anti-the European Union. We, therefore, need to redouble our efforts, particularly in the process of looking at and shaping the future of the European Union, and restate the central benefits to the country, its economy and future, of membership of the Union. In Britain there has always been a very strong anti-EU group. Eventually there was a referendum that took it out of the European Union. Britain played a central role with us as members of the European Union in terms of the way we sought to shape it with the rest of our European partners. Shaping it is one of the greatest challenges facing the Government, in the next stage of which the pro-EU voice in Britain will be missing. Britain does not acknowledge its achievements within the Europe Union, particularly in its enlargement and expansion. As a country, we need to look at how we, without the British voice, can redouble our efforts to make sure the future shape of the European Union reflects the interests of all mainland Europe countries and will take account of what it is like to be a country on the periphery or at the very edge of Europe.
I welcome the Minister of State and her colleagues and wish her well in her ministry which is very important and pivotal and growing in importance. The challenges are ten a penny, now more than ever before, but Meath people tend to rise to a challenge, which is why I have no doubt that she will be well able for her role.
Even against Kerry from time to time, Meath has been known to put in a good display.
I agree strongly with my colleagues who have referred to the unhelpful comments made by people who have made proposals on the direction Ireland should take in considering the future of the European Union. To say the least, such comments are unhelpful and they have come from people who should know better. It is timely for us to recognise that the Government, the Oireachtas and Members of the Houses, collectively, have a responsibility to keep firm lines and our position on membership of the European Union clear and transparent. We have long since committed to membership of it and intend for it to remain that way. We also need to be absolutely certain that pre-emptive strikes will not take place. One or two have already been made and we could find ourselves negotiating in a situation where some ground had already been conceded by virtue of some of the suggestions made. It is a little like tackling somebody before a rugby match starts. It involves red and black cards, sin bins and everything else. What I am trying to say, without mentioning names, is that pre-emptive strikes are unhelpful in the context of negotiations. The EU negotiating team is led by Michel Barnier and it is the appropriate route to follow.
We have a particular interest in Brexit because of the position of Northern Ireland which is of particular importance to us on this island. Nothing has changed in that regard and the commitment made by the Government prevails in terms of its anxiety to ensure continued access to the Single Market. There can be no fudging on the issue. It should also be recognised that the Irish and British Governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. It is on that basis that both of them have responsibility. The Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement and attempts to unwind it by stealth are not to the benefit of either Northern or Southern Ireland or the European Union. The European Union has given a commitment in that regard and there are also global commitments. I strongly reiterate the need for us to remain steadfast in our objectives and ensure we will not in any way be distracted by people who tend to make unhelpful, unfounded and unresearched suggestions that would lead us nowhere except into the sand.
We are glad to see that in terms of job creation, growth and competitiveness the position in the European Union is beginning to improve. It is focusing on the issues and bringing about results.
It remains with the larger economies in the European Union to take maximum advantage of this turning trend. Without that, it will fizzle out again.
In this country, we tend to think only of the security and defence of Europe. The passage of time and recent events indicate, however, we all have security and defence issues which we have to keep in mind. We need to be fully supportive of our security forces, the Garda and the Defence Forces, and be reliant upon them to do the job in ensuring their ability to counter any terrorist or potential terrorist attack. It is not to our advantage to highlight alleged weaknesses in our system. I do not believe we need to advertise to anybody these weaknesses. We must keep in mind also that some of the most security conscious countries in the world have not been able to withstand or detect in time the issues which have caused serious loss of life in the UK, France, Belgium and all over the globe. Tending in this country to downgrade our capabilities in this area is neither helpful, useful nor supportive. In actual fact, it undermines our ability to provide the adequate protection to our citizens.
It is not acceptable that countries throughout the European Union, notwithstanding that some of them are next door and closer to the action than we are, will not assist with the refugee crisis. Collectively, the European Union must be well disposed in catering for refugees. However, it seems we cannot do it because we cannot get the agreement of all member states. That is a failing not on the part of the Union but on the part of the countries who refuse, are incapable of or are unwilling to negotiate and cater for that situation. As I have said in the past, if, in the 21st century, the best we can do is offer razor wire to kids who are fleeing from torture, hunger and war, that is a sad reflection on the European Union in general, and an even sadder reflection on the individual countries concerned, particularly countries which have had themselves first-hand experience of the kind hardship that some of these people are now experiencing.
I apologise that I must leave but I have to attend a meeting next door. I wish the Minister of State well.
I also welcome the Minister of State to the meeting this afternoon. I wish her well in her new brief. By and large, all of us wear the green jersey when it comes to EU affairs. Accordingly, I have no doubt any dialogue we have with the new Minister of State will be constructive and in the national interest.
The White Paper on the Future of Europe was published by the European Commission in March. It set out five possible scenarios, namely, scenario one, carrying on; scenario two, nothing but the Single Market; scenario three, those who want more, do more; scenario four, doing less more efficiently; scenario five, doing much more together. A briefing note from the EU division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, suggests, more or less, that scenario one, carrying on where the EU focuses on the delivery of its positive reform agenda, certainly represents a predictable safe course in the short to medium term. Are we proceeding along these lines? By and large, Ireland has always adopted a pragmatic approach to the European Union and EU negotiations. It seems the Government’s suggestion is to opt for a wait-and-see pragmatic attitude. Is that our position? Have we any firm commitments regarding the future of Europe?
I hope the consultation on the future of Europe will be extensive. There is a danger that this debate will bypass the majority of our citizens. Obviously, this committee will do its bit. Will the Minister of State reassure me that the Government will do its part in promoting a debate on the future of Europe? We must also ensure that the European Commission plays its part in ensuring citizens of Europe engage in this process. The danger is, if a referendum ever comes on aspects of the future of Europe regarding treaty change, that the citizens will not become engaged until a week before polling day. We need to do everything possible to engage citizens in this national and European debate.
I agree with everything stated in the communiqué from the European Council meeting on internal security. We have all been shocked by recent terrorist attacks. The measures proposed at that meeting are to be welcomed. As regards external security, several measures were agreed on defence. The most important one was the establishment of a permanent structured co-operation, PESCO. Over the past few days, The Irish Timesran a series of articles on the future of Europe, which have been useful for this debate. Basically, the articles stated Ireland is enthusiastic about the PESCO initiative, but will not participate in any of the measures proposed or the other measures outlined at the recent European Council meeting. There seems to be a contradiction in that we are enthusiastic about all of these initiatives but will not participate in them. Will the Minister of State clarify our position on this, particularly from the point of view of Irish neutrality?
I congratulate Deputy Helen McEntee on getting the toughest portfolio for any Minister of State. She will probably meet herself coming off Aer Lingus flights as she represents the country abroad. I wish her well in it.
It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge the role played by her predecessor, Deputy Dara Murphy. Everywhere I have travelled in Europe, I have heard about the work being done by the Irish Government in pushing the Irish case. I acknowledge his efforts in this, as well as the former Taoiseach’s.
I congratulate the Maltese on their EU Presidency and extend a vote of thanks-----
While the Minister of State is on the job out there in Europe, two things need to happen when we talk about Europe getting closer to its citizens. First, Europe needs to change, become less bureaucratic and needs to get closer to the ground to the people. Second, European Governments, including our Government-----
-----that is what has led to this disastrous Brexit.
Europe was blamed for everything that was wrong in the UK, instead of the UK Government admitting it. I am delighted the Minister of State can bring that message that we need to get closer to the people and to build a strong Europe.
On the issue of the Border, everyone who has focused on it, including the negotiators, have said imaginative and flexible solutions are needed.
What does it mean? I have not heard one solution yet that would pass muster on either side. I would be more than interested in the answer, but do not expect the Minister of State to answer it today as I am sure we are in a negotiating stage. However, at some stage we will have to start talking about what we see as the solution. I know that Michel Barnier and various other people we meet in Europe say the same thing which is that, no matter how off the wall it is, we should bring them a solution and that they may be able to live with that solution.
I have spoken on the issue of co-operation and security many times and I make no apology for talking about the weakness in our system. We do not have a security service that operates at the same level as our partners in Europe, the UK or the United States.
I apologise to the Senator and am sorry to interrupt him. This is very unusual but we have a technical difficulty and the recording devices have stopped. We cannot continue when it is not being recorded. I apologise sincerely for interrupting the Senator and he in full flow.
I am sorry. I am being told that we have to suspend for something like five minutes. I apologise that it has happened to the Senator. Even if it was the Minister who was speaking, I am told we would have to suspend for five minutes. I am only doing what I am told.
I thank the Chairman and the technical support people who have given my voice a recording again. I thank them for their swift action on it.
The Minister of State has had time to cool off, so I will kick back in again and try to put the pressure on. We were talking about security. It is my view that our State is not dealing with security on the same level as the 27. There is co-operation among our police forces and defence forces. I have no doubt about that. However, when we move into the higher levels of security services, I do not believe we have the level of co-operation that we need. I have been calling for the appointment of a director of homeland security for some time and for the development of a homeland security service. I do not expect the Minister of State will do much in that regard - I do not think it comes under her portfolio - but it is something that she will find levied at her as she goes around Europe. She needs to be aware of that. We do not have a relationship with the likes of MI5. It is as simple as that, and I make no apology for pointing it out.
The other issue is the issue of online security and monitoring. In particular, much of the terrorism is now taking place through social media and various other types of media. By Government admission and not mine, we need to amend 50 pieces of legislation. As far as I recall, that was announced in 2016. Nothing has been done to bring that legislation before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Unless we amend the legislation, we are not able to co-operate on a European level with the tracking of digital data as it is moving through the system.
On migration, the Irish Government has lived up to its commitment so far. I am very grateful to the Department of Justice and Equality. I travelled to Sicily some time ago to look at the migration crisis as the part of COSAC. I was the Irish representative. There is an issue. We still have 1,298 migrants to relocate into this country and the Italians are refusing to allow our immigration people on the ground. I made the point at the meeting that, unless that happens, we cannot fulfil our full commitment. This morning we heard the Italian ambassador on the airwaves speaking about the problem in Italy. There is no getting away from the problem, which is massive when out there on the ground. Last year some 19,000 people landed at the tiny port of Pozzallo that I visited in Ragusa.
By the time I got there, which is now almost two months ago, close to 5,000 had already arrived. Some of my colleagues have spoken about the need for European countries to stand up and take ownership of this crisis and to offer a place of refuge to those migrants.
This is a major humanitarian crisis. I am the first person here to point out that we must recognise the difference between an economic migrant and a refugee or asylum seeker. When I looked at the numbers coming through Pozzallo, roughly 3% of those who were rescued in the Mediterranean came from countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. The remainder had come from countries such as Nigeria, Eritrea and Bangladesh. We must recognise that a significant number of those arriving in Europe are economic migrants. Just because they are economic migrants, that does not mean we do not have to look after them. We in Ireland above all countries should know what it means to be an economic migrant as many of our people have been economic migrants since the time of the Famine. We need to establish clearer guidelines on how we deal with economic migrants versus how we deal with refugees and asylum seekers. Every refugee landing in any country in Europe deserves to be given a place of safety. For those who are arriving for economic needs, we will have to come up with strategies. Those strategies will involve investing in their home countries in order to incentivise those migrants to return home and stay at home, and ensuring that the corporate world is made to pay its share.A teeshirt manufacturer based in Donegal moved to Morocco because it could get labour at 20% of the cost it was paying for it in Donegal. A major sports manufacturers moved from County Meath to China because it could get labour at 20% of the cost there. Have those manufacturers reduced their prices? No, they have not. They are making super normal profits on the backs of workers in Morocco and other African countries, in China and other parts of Asia. The European Union need to penalise and tax those people in order that we can invest in Morocco, Nigeria and other countries and give them a reasonable standard of living. Those corporate entities have to be made to pay. I made that point in Germany. I was there as part of the German-Irish friendship group and the Germans feel exactly the same as I do. Those corporations have to start becoming good citizens of Europe. With respect to the definition of an economic migrant versus an asylum seeker or a refugee, we have to come up with that strategy.
A refugee or any individual who arrives in Sicily is picked up the Mediterranean. Those unfortunate people are treated horrendously before they are put on to some miserable piece of rubber or a timber boat and pushed out into the Mediterranean. They are told by the traffickers that it is only five or six mile over there and that they will be fine, knowing in their hearts and souls that it is not the case, but they also know that the Irish Navy, the Norwegians and the Italians will be there to rescue these people. When migrants arrive in a port, they are first allowed to have a shower, they are given clean clothes and a SIM card and then they are brought for interview. The purpose of the interview is to establish who the migrants are. Most of the migrants arriving have no identification papers. If they had them, they were taken off them by the traffickers and, in some cases, they destroyed them themselves. This is the best way for a migrant to get a brand new identity. When a migrant on arriving in Sicily is asked him name, he may say his name is John McCormack. When asked if he has papers, he will say he does not. He is told he is welcome to Sicily and to take a seat until an officer talks to him. The migrant gets a brand new identity and he can then move through Europe.
I am not saying we are importing terrorists. I want to be very clear about that. I am saying that there is a security risk. Most of the terrorism that has taken place in Europe recently has been carried out by from home-grown terrorists. Therefore, the issue is not one of terrorism. We strongly vet the people coming into this country. How do we do that and establish who anybody is coming into the country? We have no way of knowing. Do we pick up the telephone and ring the Nigerians and ask them do they know John McCormack? When we do that and they say they do not him, we tell them that he is a big heavy guy who is balding and ask them are they sure they do not know him, they say that they do not know John McCormack. In a that way, John McCormack becomes a new personality who moves through Europe and once he gets into Europe if he within the Schengen area, he can move anywhere he wants. We have to find a better way of dealing with the migration issue.
On the issue of our sister countries within the European Union, I have spoken directly to people from Hungary and Poland and I have attended meetings with them in Pozzallo in Sicily. The problem they have is not unlike our own. They have masses of homeless people. Their politicians, just like ourselves, know that they will have to face their electorate in the not too distant future. Politics is taking over from where humanity should be. It is taking over because the politicians are with faced with the problem of whether they can really bring migrants into the country and house when their own nationals are homeless. There is a moral issue here. It is not right for us in this country to turn our eye on anybody else and criticise them. They have their problems and we have ours.
Having spoken to people from different countries around the European Union, it is my view that the greatest single threat to the European Union and the European community is migration. It will cause the rift and the division that Brexit will not cause. Unless we come to terms with the migration issue and do so soon, we will find ourselves in serious trouble. One of issues the Minister of State might consider when talking to her opposite numbers around Europe is that we would consider giving economic migrants a visa for five or ten years, where they could come to a country, work, earn money, sent it home, just like the Irish did in America and in London. When I went to London in 1968 I sent a fiver home a week. I used to get it all back when I came back on holiday but that is neither here nor there. Anybody I knew who was in London at that time was sending money home. Any house one would visit in the west would remember the dollars coming in from the United States. Economic migration is not such a terrible thing. We did it for an awful long time and we did it again in 2008. Let us not knock it but let us find a strategy that allows it to be orderly and manageable. Instead of allowing these traffickers to traffick people, let us set up migration places in Nigeria, Eritrea and Bangladesh, and if people want to come here they can apply for a visa in the proper way and we would allow them into the country. Having said that, I am acutely aware of the fact that Irish people go to America without visas and perhaps they too should observe what I am talking about. I am sorry for taking a little longer than I should have but the Chairman did cut me off earlier.
I congratulate the Minister of State on her new job. We all want her to be successful. There is a huge burden on her. We all want to work with her and her officials to get the best deal for Ireland. It is important to have a common Irish voice on many of these matters. It helps in negotiations and moving the process forward but it is a two-way process. She needs to keep not only members of her party but members of the Opposition on board in these negotiations. Does she have a view on how she plans to move to forward in regard to these matters in terms of keeping not only this committee involved and up to date but also the spokespersons on the Opposition side?
My colleague spoke about the refugees crisis. I listened to what the Italian ambassador said this morning on the radio. He spoke about the scale of the challenge facing Italy. The Italians feel that there is a lack of solidarity from the rest of Europe when it comes to the huge number of refugees landing on their shores.
The fact is that boats can bring refugees to any safe port, but they are coming to Italian ports in the main and not to anywhere else. There is a lack of solidarity. I do not believe we should equate the two when we talk about this because it raises fears over security, terrorism and refugees. I do not believe they should even be in the same sentence, although many people try to lump the two issues.
Clearly there is a link between poverty, inequality, global warming, conflict and war. Many countries in Europe are responsible for many of those issues and we have a responsibility. These are vulnerable people at the end of the day. People can label them as economic refugees or those who are fleeing poverty, equality and all the rest, but they are vulnerable people and we need to look at that.
One question that people continually ask is what Ireland is doing. A friend who has left here said that he visited Italy and looked at the camps and so on to get an idea of the experience there. The first thing that people ask me is how many people from Italy have actually arrived in Ireland. We know some have come from the camps in Greece, but what are the barriers to people arriving in Ireland? Are there any plans to increase the amount of people who are going to come to Ireland? I am conscious of what my learned friend was saying about the difficulties and so on. The goodwill of the Irish people exists in respect of refugee matters.
The Government has plans to increase the amount of refugees that we agree to relocate from Italy or other front-line states. What is the Government doing to ensure the human rights of refugees are being protected and to ensure that lives are not lost? I am conscious of the role of the Naval Service and so on. Part of that role has to include our stepping up to the plate in respect of the difficulties of other states.
We also need to raise our voice in respect of those countries clearly supplying the conflict and supplying weapons of war to the conflict in that region. There is a direct correlation between conflict and refugees. If people are bombed out of their homes, where are they going to go? Are they going to go somewhere they believe to be safe? Many believe Ireland is safe or safer than where they live. There is a direct correlation and many of those countries with barriers and barbed wire fence and so on are precisely those directly feeding the conflicts by their arms industry. I do not see a contradiction for us but I believe we need to start raising our voice and becoming louder internationally in respect of those countries that are basically putting barbed wire fences up to exclude those fleeing the conflicts and wars in which their governments and arms industries have direct involvement.
I wish to comment on Brexit and the Border. I listened to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, at the launch of the Good Friday document on Brexit. Given the disastrous impact that Brexit will have on the island of Ireland, it is important that we have a common language that we agree to. The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, is aware of the position of the Dáil on special designated status for the North of Ireland within the EU. It would be helpful. The Government voted against that motion. Does the Minister of State not agree that it would be helpful if we had a common Irish position? Again, we are being asked to wear the green jersey. That is the position of most parties on the island of Ireland. We see it as the best way forward for the economy and for the people. We need to agree the terms of what we are looking for. Again, I am keen to hear what the Minister of State believes in respect of special status for the North within the EU.
Can the Minister of State outline the timetable for Brexit negotiations? When is the deal expected on the divorce Bill? When will it be agreed?
One of the things that came as a surprise during the week was the issue of fishing and Brexit. I saw a report that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, learned of it for the first time on the edge of the talks in the North. I talked to a secretary of the Scottish Cabinet during the week. It came as a surprise. They are arguing that the fishing issue is a devolved matter. Is the Minister of State aware of that? Is that the understanding of the Minister of State on the matter? When was the Minister of State first made aware of this decision to pull out of the London Fisheries Convention? Has it come as a complete surprise to the Government?
The EU military was referenced. I raised this issue during the pre-Council meeting. I am deeply concerned about the increased militarisation of Europe. There is talk of spending €1.5 billion per year in the EU budget on what I see as regressive military projects. There is a view that part of this funding will go towards the establishment of a standing EU army. The reports from the reflection paper on the future of Europe, which was launched on 7 June, refers to how member states and defence forces will one day be pre-positioned and made permanently available for rapid deployment on behalf of the Union. In simple terms that means we are talking about a standing EU army. Was that raised at the pre-Council meeting? What is the Government's view in respect of this standing army?
Again, we need to separate the idea of the improvement of domestic security. We are all conscious of the recent attacks and so on. The creation of an external force is an extra financial burden not wanted by anyone. Most of us here have the view that rather than going down this route we would like to see the money being spent on housing, trolleys, people on trolleys and mental health. There is an extensive list. The priorities are wrong and I have said as much in the pre-Council speeches.
I do not think anyone has touched on taxation but it is one of the issues. Yesterday in Strasbourg MEPs voted on a report on corporate tax and tax transparency. For more than a decade civil society groups, NGOs and tax justice groups have been campaigning for country-by-country company reporting. We are talking in terms of possibly a sum of $500 billion that is lost to tax dodgers. Again, I am keen to hear whether the Minister of State has a view. What is the Government's view on country-by-country reporting and the idea that we would allow profit-shifting to tax havens to continue unhindered? I note the fact that Fine Gael MEPs voted with their EPP counterparts to allow this loophole for multinationals.
What is the view of the Government on the fiscal rules as part of this negotiation? Does the Government have a view? We have long argued that the EU fiscal rules would stifle essential investment and starve public services. We can see that with the uneven development and under-development in many parts of the country. The impending effects of Brexit demand that, at a minimum, whatever flexibility exists currently is used by us to the greatest effect. Is part of the strategy to try to look at flexibility with the fiscal rules? We have a globalisation fund at the moment.
Has there been any talk of a Brexit fund for those countries whose workers will be impacted upon negatively? Does the Minister of State think that will be part of the negotiations and will it be seen as a priority by the Government?
I will be brief as I have to leave for another meeting. I welcome the Minister of State and wish her the very best in her new role. I had a number of opportunities to engage with her in her previous role and I found her to be extremely engaging, effective, courteous and co-operative. I am sure they will be very valuable assets in the role she is taking on, which no doubt will be challenging. Like all good Meath people, I am sure she is up for the challenge. It is important that she uses the role effectively to continue to build on the relations we have with our EU colleagues, which will help Ireland, as a small island, in so many important areas such as trade and business that are crucial to the economy.
I wish to focus briefly on two areas. I agree with my colleagues that sometimes the perception of Europe is negative and that is probably based on the fact that when various policies affect people negatively, then everything is blamed on Europe. Much remains to be done to improve the perception of Europe among Irish citizens. Most of the people I meet who have any interest in the various European policies that affect the country have a somewhat negative view. That is unfortunate because Europe has been very positive for the country as well. That is something that must be examined.
We must promote trade and commercial activity, especially in light of Brexit. That would be very important for the economy and the country. It is important to ensure that exports to and via the UK are taken into account because that activity is relevant to the economy. I wish the Minister of State the very best and I look forward to further engagements with her.
I thank Deputy O'Rourke and all the members. Deputy Crowe referred to the fishing industry and the threat to the livelihood of Irish fishermen. What has emerged in recent days is an important development. Even without that there is an imbalance in the quotas and restrictions on Irish fishermen. In County Kerry, Deputy Ferris, the spokesperson for Sinn Féin, is always to the forefront on this issue. We are deeply concerned about the future livelihood of fishermen because if what they are facing becomes a reality they could be wiped out. They have suffered enough through the decades since we first joined the then EEC. Their ground, if we could call it that, has been taken from them. If what the UK has announced comes to pass, it will be an awful situation. I trust in the Minister of State and her colleagues to fight on behalf of fishermen and to put this matter at the top of her agenda. I invite the Minister of State to respond to the questions that have been asked. We understand that she will have to condense her response.
I will try to condense my response and I can return to issues if necessary. We will have other opportunities for engagement. I thank all members for their good wishes. I also thank Deputy Dara Murphy for the work he has done in the role previously. I pay tribute to Malta on the role it has played in the previous Presidency and wish Estonia well in its Presidency.
I am certain that Ireland's place is within the EU, at the heart of it. In the most recent survey that was carried out approximately 88% of Irish people agree with that. That said, I agree with some of the comments made by members to the effect that sometimes people feel the things that go wrong in their everyday lives can be attributed to something that comes from Europe. Perhaps they do not often see the positive things that happen in Europe that have an impact on their lives. A body of work needs to be done in that regard.
Deputy Haughey spoke about the future of Europe, where we see ourselves and what route we are going to take. Ireland has always been ambitious and we will continue to be ambitious. No position has been decided on. At this stage, we need to look at all avenues and discuss matters in the committee and with the wider population. Just having public meetings is not enough. There must be a different type of engagement, whether it is online or through colleges or schools. I very much intend to start that process and to open up a dialogue because while Brexit is the biggest thing on our agenda, as Senator Richmond correctly said, it has happened and we must focus on that but what happens afterwards is also important and we must be very much prepared. I look forward to working with all of the members in that regard.
It is regrettable that we are where we are in the context of Brexit. It is not a decision Ireland or the other member states have made but we must deal with it and our priority will continue to focus on the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process and the work and effort that has gone into that. The Single Market and the customs union have played a key role because they automatically took down the existing barriers. We must ensure that we have as close a relationship as possible with the UK, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. We are talking about imaginative and flexible solutions. We do not know what they are just yet but we need to be realistic and look at all possibilities and eventualities. We owe citizens and industries that too.
One of the first engagements I had was to travel to Brussels with the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar. It was very clear from our engagements with the various Heads of State and Government that Ireland's specific situation is very much on their agenda. It has been very clearly laid out over the past year or year and a half through engagement at the level of civil servants and Ministers. That will continue. Our position is well known, particularly on the common travel area, which is unique to Ireland and the UK. It is in place since 1922 and other member states are very conscious of that. The work in that regard must continue. I have no doubt that will be the case. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, the Taoiseach and the Irish MEPs will continue to wear the green jersey, as it were.
We will be judged on how we deal with migration. It is an extremely difficult situation. While Brexit is our main priority, the further east one goes it becomes less of a priority and migration becomes more of an issue. As a country we have been very ambitious and we have put our best foot forward. Seven vessels have saved almost 18,000 people in the past two years. That clearly shows our commitment, as does the funding of €78 million that has been given to support refugees in Syria. Not only that, we have shown commitment to work with EU member states to try to get to the core of why those problems are happening, be they economic or related to climate change, war or persecution.
We have always been at the heart of peacekeeping. Reference was made to PESCO. We are not stopping other member states from following their own route in that regard. We have no plans to join NATO in the middle of the night but we are very much open to supporting the peacekeeping process and getting to the heart of what the problems are and why people are fleeing their own countries.
There are probably some other questions that I have not touched on but if I can I will come back to them again if there is another stage. I look forward to engaging with the committee.
The Minister of State is fine. I suggest that if matters arise in reply to particular queries raised by some members then she and her officials could actually correspond with them in due course, if that was suitable.
That is one of the final things I wanted to discuss. I thank the members and the Minister of State for her responses. Senator Richmond is correct. My final comment is around our future engagement. We had a very good and continued interaction with the previous Minister of State, so I am sure that we can have that also with the current Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. The secretariat, like her own officials, will be very diligent, and will work closely together. We can arrange that to suit the Minister of State's timetable, as we need to meet. Is that satisfactory?
With regard to the fisheries issue, I share members' concerns. This is part of the negotiation process and nothing can happen within the two years. I know that the Minister, Deputy Creed is very conscious of this matter and is already dealing with it, with his Department. Obviously I will work very closely with him on this.
On security and defence, Ireland's neutrality has never come into question. Any decision to change that position would always have to come back to the Irish people. We are, however, facing a different type of threat. I am glad the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union is particularly focusing on the free movement of data as being the fifth freedom. As we have recently seen, incitement to hatred and the radicalisation of people online is not something that Ireland can step away from or stand back from. We must work with EU member states on it. While it is not about an army on the ground there is a lot of work we can do. I am glad to see that it is a focus for the next Council Presidency.
I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to be with us today. We appreciate her engagement with the committee. I shall suspend the meeting for a few minutes to allow the Estonian ambassador to take her seat.