Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 4 October 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Engagement on the Future of Europe (Resumed): European Movement Ireland, Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Assocation and Macra na Feirme
Before we begin our business today, members will have noted the order passed by the Dáil yesterday approving the 12th report of the Standing Committee of Selection which discharged Deputy Seán Crowe from this committee and nominated Deputy David Cullinane to it. I thank Deputy Crowe for his work on the committee. He always took the committee's work very seriously and provided invaluable insights from which we all have benefitted. While he will be missed, I am sure Deputy Cullinane will ably take his seat and we welcome him to the committee.
We have received apologies from Senators Richmond and Craughwell.
I welcome the ambassador from Sweden, Ms Anna Brandt, in the Visitors Gallery and thank her for her attendance.
I remind members to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off. This is important as it causes serious problems for the broadcasting, editorial and sound staff.
Today's meeting is an engagement on the future of Europe with European Movement Ireland. On behalf of the members, I welcome Mr. Maurice Pratt, chairperson, and Ms Noelle O'Connell, executive director, to our meeting as we continue our engagement on the future of Europe. I previously had the privilege and pleasure of meeting Ms Noelle O'Connell in her role as executive director. Few organisations are as active in European Union affairs as European Movement Ireland, an organisation that is very familiar to this committee for explaining the EU and how it works to our citizens and for encouraging many to engage and work with the institutions. We are delighted the witnesses are present today.
Before we begin I must remind everybody of the rules on parliamentary 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 Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. 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 persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite Mr. Pratt and Ms O'Connell to make their opening statements after which members will ask questions.
Mr. Maurice Pratt:
I thank the Chairman and distinguished members of the committee for the invitation to attend today's proceedings to discuss the future of Europe and, in particular, the five scenarios outlined in the European Commission's White Paper on the subject. I am chairman of European Movement Ireland. It was founded in 1954 and is Ireland’s longest established not-for-profit membership organisation dedicated solely to European issues.
I will start by congratulating the joint committee for engaging with this important and timely future of Europe debate. The input of national politicians and institutions on European issues is a crucial bridge between citizens and the EU. Through being an engaged member state, willing to hold sessions such as this in our national Parliament, Ireland can amplify and attach greater significance to our voice in the EU. Reasoned and robust debate on how we, as Irish and EU citizens, would want a reforming EU to look is important. This helps us to formulate our views and thoughts on these multifaceted issues, thereby progressing the European-wide debate in the process.
As an organisation, European Movement Ireland is increasingly concerned about the need for greater debate on this topic in Ireland. Given that Ireland will be the remaining member state most adversely affected by the UK decision to leave the EU, the Irish focus has understandably been on Brexit. However, we must remember that the focus in many of the other EU member states is more on the future of Europe process. Indeed, only last week we saw an example of this in President Macron’s widely covered speech. We must ensure that we do not let Brexit completely define our vision on the future of Europe. Let us have those conversations as to how the EU will develop. For example, where do we stand on potential pan-European voting lists in the upcoming 2019 European Parliament elections? How do we feel about more European integration in the area of security and defence? How do we see the future functioning of the eurozone?
These are wide-ranging and critical questions. It is crucial that we in Ireland interrogate our views on these issues and more. They directly affect all of us and if we want to have a say on their development, we must first of all be clear on our position. Ireland’s future remains steadfastly in the EU, but there is a responsibility on all of us to ensure that we do not miss the opportunity to engage in this ongoing, live debate and how we in Ireland wish to influence it. European Movement Ireland commissioned Red C to conduct a national Irish EU sentiment survey in May, around Europe Day, aimed at tracking and measuring Ireland's relationship with Europe. This year, it found that 88% of those polled think Ireland should remain in the EU, and these numbers are highest in the younger generations - 90% of young people feel Ireland’s future continues to remain in the EU. On the question of whether Ireland should also leave the EU, given the UK has voted to leave, it is notable that only 16% of Irish people agreed with this statement. Back in 2013, in the first of these polls, that figure stood at 29%. Interestingly, when asked whether "Ireland should be part of increased security and defence co-operation", 57% of those polled agreed that it should be.
These figures illustrate that there is no real public appetite for Ireland to leave the EU. Therefore, rather than focusing on a binary question of Ireland's EU membership, it would better serve our national interests to actively feed into and shape the European Union of which we will be remaining a part. Time is of the essence and we need not to shy away from this debate.
While it is necessary and important to critique and evaluate our EU relationship, to put it quite bluntly, EU membership is not the political behemoth that it is in the UK. As we know, it is the fundamental issues which the future of Europe process is currently raising that requires more informed debate and frank discussion. In the context of the importance of this debate, I will now pass over to Ms Noelle O'Connell, who will speak about those issues
Ms Noelle O'Connell:
A Chathaoirligh agus a bhaill coiste, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh as an gcuireadh labhairt libh inniu ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo ar thodchaí na hEorpa- ábhar fíorthábhachtach dúinn in Éirinn sa lá atá inniu ann. Is mór againn i nGluaiseacht na hEorpa in Éirinn a bheith mar chuid den chomhrá seo. My name is Noelle O'Connell. I am the executive director of European Movement Ireland. We are very grateful to the Chairman and the distinguished members of the committee for the invitation to input into this important and timely future of Europe debate. I will now go through the five scenarios presented in the European Commission's White Paper on the future of Europe and throw out some topics for discussion.
As members know, on 1 March 2017, the European Commission presented a White Paper to open up debate on the future of the European Union. It initiated this process against the backdrop of increasing challenges from the rise of populism, globalisation, new technologies and security concerns, as well as Brexit. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, presented his vision for the future of Europe in his state of the Union address last month, in which he outlined three values that he believes should anchor the EU. Those values are that Europe is a Union of freedom and equality, underpinned by the strength of EU law. He referred to this as his "sixth scenario" for his vision for the future of Europe.
In terms of the next stages in the process, conclusions on the future of Europe will be drawn at the European Council summit in December 2017 and a course of action will be presented prior to the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2019. The first thing to say about the five scenarios is that they are not mutually exclusive. There is overlap between the options and the White Paper was intended to drive the debate rather than confine it. Having said that, let us consider the scenarios in the order they are listed in the paper. The first is entitled "Carrying On".Under this scenario, the EU 27 would continue to focus on implementing policies and reform agenda by collectively settling on long-term priorities. There may be positives in maintaining the status quo, given that EU membership has served us incredibly well. Indeed, 87% of people polled in our Red C survey this year thought that taking everything into consideration, Ireland has on balance, benefitted from being a member of the EU. However, it also risks ignoring the underlying problems Brexit and the refugee crisis, for example, have brought into sharper light. The problem of the disconnect that exists between citizens and the EU decision-making bodies and processes was clearly underlined by the Brexit vote. How much these issues could be addressed if the carrying on option was pursued is questionable.
In the second scenario, entitled "Nothing but the Single Market", the EU 27 would be re-centred on the Single Market and move away from co-operation on policy in areas such as migration, security and defence. It would, in effect, be a return to the days of the European Economic Community, EEC, whereby attention is focused on the functioning and operating of the internal market with foreign policy becoming increasingly bilateral in nature. We must question whether a return to such a purely economic relationship with our European neighbours and partners would be in our best interests, particularly given that Ireland has recently become a net contributor to the EU budget. After all, it is far more than just economic attractiveness which Ireland gains from membership of the European Union. As the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Helen McEntee, recently said, the EU is much bigger than the sum of its parts and membership is not a zero-sum game. EU membership elevates Ireland's political clout on the world stage. Membership allows small states to amplify their interests in Europe and onto the international playing field. Many of the challenges we face in the twenty first century are global in nature and do not respect borders. As an outward looking nation, we are best served to meet these challenges through continued co-operation, engagement and influencing solutions as part of a reforming EU.
Under the third scenario, entitled "Those Who Want More Do More", the EU 27 would allow coalitions of the willing to act together in specific policy areas. Member states have the continuous option of joining those coalitions. This scenario is often termed "multi-speed Europe" and, in many respects, it is a scenario that is already occurring. For example, 19 of the current 28 member states have adopted the euro as their common currency with economic policy integration. Most EU member states are in the Schengen area, allowing citizens to cross borders without being subjected to immigration controls; however, some including us, are not. In practice, if not officially, a multi-speed Europe is already a reality. Following the European Commission’s publication of the White Paper, EU leaders committed in the Rome declaration in March 2017 to acting together "at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction, as we have done in the past, in line with the Treaties and keeping the door open to those who want to join later". This implies that a multi-speed Europe may well continue to be a reality. In Ireland we need to think about how to ensure that we are not left behind. We also need to think about diversifying and intensifying our existing alliances across Europe, both politically, on a policy-by-policy basis and economically in terms of our trading relationships, especially in the context of our nearest neighbour’s decision to leave the EU. In the area of the digital Single Market, for example, we could look to intensify our co-operation with the "Digital 9" group of member states, which includes the Baltic states. Estonia’s current Presidency of the Council of the EU has shown the potential of co-operation in the area of data hubs, for example.
Under the fourth scenario, "Doing Less More Efficiently", the EU 27 would decide to focus their limited attention and resources on a reduced number of areas, choosing new priorities to allow the Union to act more quickly and decisively in these areas. Again, like scenario three, in some respects this already operates in practice. The current European Commission has sought to be big on the big issues and small on the small ones. Under the Juncker Commission, the number of new initiatives being put forward each year has been reduced from more than 100 to less than 25 and those initiatives are grouped around ten key political priorities.
In the fifth scenario, entitled "Doing Much More Together", the EU 27 would decide to pool more of their power and resources and centralise their decision making. This would involve closer co-operation in areas such as defence and security, economic and monetary union as well as foreign policy, such as a unified migration policy. It is by far the most ambitious scenario outlined in the White Paper and offers solutions to some of the structural problems the Union currently faces. However, it may also be regarded by some as going too far. It is vital that, as a nation, we consider and put forward arguments as to how much we want Europe to do, what we are comfortable with and what we are not. We have a limited window of opportunity to input into this critically important and moving process. First conclusions will be drawn at the European Council summit in December, so it is vitally important that we grasp this opportunity to have our say. President Juncker has emphasised the need for the EU to “catch the wind in our sails” and we, as a nation, cannot afford to miss the boat on this debate.
EM Ireland welcomes the ongoing work and commitment by the Government to furthering and facilitating this vital debate. We look forward to playing our part and engaging with both the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney and the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee on these issues.
Mr. Maurice Pratt:
It has become somewhat of a truism to say the EU needs to be reformed. Most politicians, commentators, officials and citizens agree on this and arguably Brexit has created a renewed sense of urgency to the process.
The next phase is agreeing in which direction to reform the EU. Inputting into the White Paper process on the Future of Europe is a crucial step towards this. Let us remember, as I said earlier, that Ireland’s future remains firmly in the Union, so when talking about the future of Europe, we’re also talking about Ireland’s future in Europe. It is vital, therefore, that we input into the future of Europe process fully to make sure that our voice is heard and that we have our say.
This fits into a wider point, on which I will conclude. It is imperative that we do not just frame the case for Ireland’s continued EU membership solely around a Brexit discourse. We must also make the positive case for Ireland's EU membership, what we gain from being a part of the EU, what the EU gains, in turn, from our membership, and what we want to gain in the future. The future of Europe process provides the ideal platform through which to engage with citizens and policy makers in order to do this. I thank members for their attention and we look forward to any questions they might want to put to us.
I thank both witnesses for an excellent presentation. I thank Deputy Crowe very much for his service on the committee and I wish Deputy Cullinane good luck in his new role on the committee. It is a dedicated and workmanlike committee and I am sure he will enjoy it very much. I am sure he will make excellent contributions on his own behalf and on behalf of the party he ably represents in Dáil Éireann.
I thank the Chairman. I am not sure whether he was trying to put manners on me. I hope our discussions will be robust as well. I thank him for his kind words in respect of Deputy Crowe. He will continue to take an active role in the issues and work he has been engaged in.
I welcome the two witnesses. It is timely that there is a discussion on the future of Europe, although that discussion has been ongoing since the foundation of Europe. There has always been a debate at the heart of the European project as to what it is we are trying to create. There has always been a conflict between those who want to use the three phrases - "ever closer Union", "deeper integration" and a more federal Europe - and those who want a less federal Europe and a more democratic and social Europe. I fall on the side of wanting a more democrat and social Europe and I am concerned about moves to create a more federal Europe. We cannot divorce Brexit or even the rise of parties on the far right from reform of the Union because we have to acknowledge that while we have enjoyed huge benefits from the European project, there are also huge challenges and citizens look at Europe sometimes and do not see what Mr. Pratt and Ms O'Connell see. They look at the reaction to the economic crisis in Europe, what happened in Ireland and in Greece and what has happened in Catalonia in recent times and ask, "Is this the type of Europe I want to live in?".
Ireland should be at the heart of Europe and our place is in Europe. I would like the entire island of Ireland to remain in the Union. That a different issue and it will be worked out though negotiation. Do the witnesses agree with the viewpoint that there is a need for more democratic Europe as a starting point? Do they also agree there is a need for a more social Europe? The central argument for many is that the economic orthodoxy, neoliberalism, that has underpinned the Union has created the circumstances for Brexit and the rise of the far right and we have to rise to that challenge by making sure the Union works for citizens. Do we need more democracy or more federalism? That is one of the key questions that has to be answered.
Mr. Pratt referred to deeper integration on security and defence. I have concerns in this regard. I support Ireland's neutrality and I would be concerned if we had to spend more on security and defence at a time we have many pressing problems domestically. I am concerned about the democracy element of this in the context of decisions being made to which Ireland is potentially not a party.
Mr. Pratt omitted the issue of consolidated taxation. Every party is having a critical engagement with the EU because there are more concerns as get closer to the "ever closer Union" with talk about more scrutiny of budgets and finance Ministers, and consolidated taxes. People are beginning to say this may be a step too far. Is that a concern for the EMI? What is the organisation's views on security and defence? I would like to hear its view because Mr. Pratt posed a question to us in this regard. What is the EMI's view on consolidated taxation?
People who have concerns about Europe are not on the fringe or on the margins of society. Even those who believe in being part of the Union, like me, believe it needs to be reformed and that there are difficulties. Sometimes the argument can be condensed down to concerns among fringe elements, politically or otherwise, but that is not the case. Many organisations at the centre of politics are asking questions and they want to be part of a debate and part of the solution. I thank the witnesses for their contributions and I look forward to the responses.
I welcome Mr. Pratt and Ms O'Connell. I attend EMI meetings whenever I can. I thank them for the work they do in providing information to Oireachtas Members and the public regarding activities and developments in the EU generally. The EMI's publication, Just the Facts, is useful for parliamentarians. It is an excellent two-page sheet which condenses all the issues of the day.
We are very much in the process of having the debate on the future of Europe in Ireland. The President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, recently made a state of the Union address and the President of the French Republic, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, made a speech last week. There was a great deal of food for thought in the president's speech, some of which was good but some of which we would have concerns about. One of the positive proposals he mentioned was halving the size of the Commission, which would be popular but, as Deputy Cullinane said, Ireland will be concerned about the corporate tax harmonisation proposals, deeper integration as regards defence and so on. At one of end of spectrum, people think that the EU is a partnership of member states while, at the other, people think there is a federal super state. As politicians, we have to find out where the public is at. I urge a note of caution in that regard in respect of treaty change, deeper integration, and heading towards a federal super state. The Irish people will not go there and, therefore, we need to establish where we are at. Any treaty change arising out of this process will have to be clearly thought out, clearly desirable and clearly put before the people in a referendum. We have to be at centre of, and have an input, into the debate. The Franco-German alliance has been re-established and all of us are looking on as both countries put forward proposals. We want to be part of the debate, which is under way. I note the urgency the EMI has injected into this, which we will take on board. Has the EMI a view on the five options, for example? Has it canvassed its own members on that? Where are they at in this regard? EMI members are committed Europeans and perhaps they favour more integration. Will Mr. Pratt clarify where the organisation as a whole stands in that regard?
I thank the witnesses for attending. I echo the comments of the Chairman regarding Deputy Crowe, a constituency colleague of mine whom I have known for many years. His depth of knowledge and contribution to the committee was valued.
There is a good line in the EMI's presentation about there being five options, which are not mutually exclusive.
At the heart of it we see the real contradiction in respect of how to tackle further development in Europe. My own view is that federalism has, ironically, probably increased democracy because federal countries view themselves as incredibly democratic. Yet I would have a huge problem with the notion of a federal European state. I am pro-European. I have supported the EU in every referendum we have had. I believe in greater and deeper integration but, to echo Deputy Haughey's comments, I certainly do not believe that the Irish people or the European people buy into the notion of a super-federal Europe. The founders of the European Economic Community, the EEC, did not believe in that.
A key argument is coming up for us. Unfortunately, this is where Europe will really feel the loss of Britain. On many issues Britain and Ireland combined together to provide a particular viewpoint on the dynamic of Europe and the development of its policies. There is therefore a worry that the loss of a country of that size might allow a Franco-German alliance or co-ordination of policy to dominate. The biggest risk to deeper European integration is the feeling among the remaining states that their voices are not as important. I always find it really, deeply disappointing. I know there is sometimes a tendency for the media to report things in a certain way rather than how they are in actuality. A statement by the French President or German Chancellor can be covered as if it was European policy. It is not. It is a statement by one leader of one country within the EU which has as much validity as the viewpoint which any other leader brings to the table. That has to be fought and looked at.
I disagree with some populist viewpoints, for example I disagree with Deputy Haughey on the proposal to cut the Commission. I have major objections to such an action. The Commission is at the heart of driving much of the reality of European progress. A reduction of the size of the Commission would affect the marginalised smaller countries and their ability to contribute to the Commission. We had this discussion before. They tried it the last time around as well, for want of a better description. I know commissioners swear an oath to Europe and that there is no room for national interest, but we could end up in a situation where Ireland could be without a representative at Commission level for ten years. I would not like to see that. Those are the type of things against which we need to guard as we progress towards greater integration between the member states. If decisions are made to structure a future Europe in that way it will eventually result in more countries wishing to leave. I would be very interested to hear where the witnesses' views on this issue tie into mine. Some European leaders are in danger of running away and building an edifice to themselves, before realising that an awful lot of people do not want to be involved in that particular version of Europe.
I will be very brief. To come in on the back of the comments which have already been made I, like others, would like to know what the witnesses see as the major challenges in dealing with Europe's problems and the negativity surrounding it. In the recent Brexit vote we saw opportunism, selective negativity and campaigning being used to achieve an outcome. Some of the leaders involved at the time are no longer around to follow through on the commitments and promises which were given should people in the UK vote to leave the EU. That was being selective. What are the witnesses' opinions on the best way to approach the likes of that into the future, so that other countries do not take the same actions? What is the best way to ensure breakaway groups do not promote the same type of campaign, which could lead to further splits within the EU? I know that the EU itself has mechanisms for dealing with that. It is taking a hard line with the UK at the moment. That might not result in the desired outcome, but it will not stop other countries or splinter groups advocating to leave the EU in the interim.
When one goes out to rural Ireland, it is felt that there is a major disconnect between the EU and the ordinary people of Ireland who are operating and working daily. While the people of rural Ireland acknowledge all the excellent benefits which have come from Europe - and I am pro-Europe myself - they feel that some of the legislation and regulations which have come in have made it difficult for different areas to operate, as they are introduced on an umbrella basis and one does not fit all. Sometimes such a vacuum can create an energy to oppose the EU or the establishment. Do the witnesses see any way to reconnect if such a disconnect is there? It is felt on the ground. Whether it is real and whether it is isolated cases or a general feeling, it is felt. Will the witnesses also address that issue?
Ms Noelle O'Connell:
-----I will pass over to Mr. Pratt. I will pick up on a couple of points. Deputy Cullinane made many salient and valid points. I fully agree with him. There has always been a debate at the heart of the European project. There has always been robust challenges between those who desire an ever-closer union and those who do not. We absolutely concur that we must work to ensure a European Union which works for all citizens. As an organisation, we see our role and our mission as developing the connection between Ireland and Europe and ensuring that we in Ireland have our say on what type of Europe we want. We also try to explain, communicate and act as a conduit in Ireland for the European side of things. We would certainly never claim that the EU is perfect. It is not a panacea for all ills. It absolutely is not. Has it been in Ireland's interest to be a member however? We are unequivocally of the view that it has been and that it will continue to be, provided that we have our say and make sure to influence and shape the ongoing debate which the Deputy outlined.
In respect of the issue of social Europe, we absolutely agree. It is important that Europe continues to work to promote and strengthen the connection between citizens and the institutions. The Deputy touched upon some of the challenges which the EU faces. In many cases it can seem to be a matter of them versus us, but it is not. We are all citizens and there is an onus and a responsibility on all of us to have our say and to try to influence and improve the EU.
On neutrality and defence, the question which we asked in the Red C poll, and which Mr. Pratt outlined, was an interesting one. In 2015 the president of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, mooted the possibility of an EU army. We asked about that in the Red C poll, to genuinely see what Irish people thought about the idea. While we must respect that polls and barometers are only a snapshot of viewpoints at a particular point in time, 66% of Irish people polled in 2015 did not favour Ireland being part of an EU army as proposed by Mr. Juncker at the time. Interestingly, the poll we commissioned this year, which we referenced in our address, was taken to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Brexit vote, around Europe week. We wanted to see where Irish people's views on the issue were. It was interesting that 57% of Irish people favoured closer defence and security co-operation. We fully agree-----
Ms Noelle O'Connell:
I fully agree with the Deputy. We just wanted to take snapshots of the current, timely debates.
There are differences in and a variety of views, which are perhaps evolving.
To go back to what Mr. Pratt and I have tried to bring across in our presentation to the committee today, this is part of a wider discussion. We should not be afraid to have the debate on that point. We certainly believe the EU can continue to be reformed and made more efficient. We certainly welcome that ongoing debate as part of the solutions.
I thank Deputy Haughey for his kind words about Just the Facts. We are delighted. We take great pride in trying to demystify and de-jargon the EU. This can be a bit of a challenge at times so we are very grateful for the Deputy's kind words. He actually posed an interesting question. There is a spectrum of views among our organisation's members. I believe the chairman, Mr. Pratt, would agree with me. We are a very broad church. Some of our members would absolutely favour more federalist, closer integration, whereas others would not. The common theme that brings together all our members is that we do believe Ireland's are best served by remaining a part of a reforming European Union and that we have a responsibility, role and opportunity to influence the shape of that. Time is of the essence.
With regard to the five options, and to follow on from Deputy Brophy's question on whether we have a particular view, we do not regard the options as mutually exclusive. This is part of an ongoing debate, dialogue and process. As the debate evolves, it will feed into this future of Europe process. The Chairman is to be commended on having the initiative to have this debate. We are determined to have an input into the process and support the important work of the committee in whatever way we can.
I thank Deputy Brophy very much for his contribution. He made a really interesting point on the pronouncements and the various EU leaders. Sometimes we in Ireland can lose sight of the fact that we have a voice at the table. The Taoiseach has a voice in the same way as the French President, Mr. Macron. It is important that we become quite vocal in this regard and not shy away from the challenges, and also the opportunities that will arise as we seek to air our view and ensure it is heard.
When I conclude, I shall pass over to the chairman, Mr. Pratt. I thank Deputy O'Rourke for his comments. I come from a rural background, as he might have picked up from the accent. I am obviously well aware of the challenges that rural areas face. I would argue also the far better position that rural Irish communities are in thanks to our membership of the EU and the support it continues to give. Let us not lose sight of the principle of subsidiarity, which presents an important opportunity for national parliaments in influencing the decision-making process.
With regard to the disconnect and the threats associated with the communications on the Brexit referendum, I would be more than happy to come back for a five-hour session and do a workshop on it, with the permission of the Chairman. It is a matter on which European Movement Ireland has very strong views. Last year's Brexit referendum is a matter on which we worked very actively. As part of ensuring that people's voices were heard, we ran, with great support from Members of the Oireachtas, the PhoneAFriend voter-registration campaign. It is really important that people have their say. It is something we will continue to do.
Mr. Maurice Pratt:
I shall respond to some of the questions the Deputies have raised. They were very interesting and constitute a very important part of the debate, which is great. In terms of the scenarios that have been aired, my view is that we will probably end up with a hybrid of all five, or maybe a hybrid of four. I am not being specific about which ones they might be. The crucial point to me is that we get the debate going and that people look into the depths of those scenarios and test them out. Crucially, the citizens must be brought along in the debate.
It is absolutely the case that the European Union needs reform. As somebody who has been very involved all his life in consumerism, I have long held the view that if people live in a bubble and do not understand what is going on in the daily lives of people, there is a disconnect. The longer one lives in that bubble, the greater the disconnect. For me, the really crucial piece is how Europe explains to its citizens its relevance to their daily lives. There are great examples that rarely come up in the popular debate about Europe. Commentary is mostly about red tape, the Union being too big or too structured. There is less talk about the benefits of travel and the opportunity concerning the freedom of the skies. What about roaming and water directives? There are many things that Europe has done very positively but classically the debate is frequently on the negative and not on the positive. A balanced debate is important.
Deputy Cullinane asked about the consolidated tax base. From an Irish point of view, it is really crucial that we retain control of decisions around tax. We all know how open our economy is and of the threats posed to it by Brexit. I personally regard that as a red-line issue for the future of Ireland, its citizens and job opportunities.
Mr. Maurice Pratt:
Very much so. That is part of what we do as an organisation. For us it is about how we communicate to the average citizen in Ireland about what Europe is doing so he or she will understand how important it is to have a view and to be able to express it.
On Deputy Brophy's comments and the size of the Commission and so on, every organisation has to live in an iterative world. Nothing is perfect, things move on and we live with change. It is really important that the Commission examine its structure and size and find a mechanism whereby it becomes more fit for purpose for citizens. It is a great challenge to relate a massive budget to the daily lives of citizens. After all, we are part of a community of 500 million citizens. That is how we should think about it.
On the very valid questions as to what would happen to the Irish voice in Europe if the structure were slimmed down and whether we would have commissionerships and so forth, possibly the only positive thing I could say about Brexit, or the threat of it, because it has not happened yet, is that I feel it has made Ireland more aware of the importance of getting closer to like-minded member states. That will be of significant benefit to us in the future. Had the Brexit issue not arisen, that might not have happened. That is really important.
I have always been impressed when visiting Brussels by the degree to which the Irish nation has integrated itself into European Union activities. In many respects, it has punched above its weight in its ability to influence. I hope we do not lose that capacity. With the prospect of Britain leaving - I say "the prospect" because it has not happened yet - I share the concerns based on the view that Britain has been a really important partner for us in many of the debates. If I examine the long-term prospect of a European Union without Britain, or any other major nation state, I note that large countries have such a scale that they will recover in time. It is much more difficult for small member states to do that because they simply do not have the economic heft of larger states.
Broadly, those are our views.
In conclusion, the European Union has major challenges but we have a major challenge in Ireland to raise this debate beyond the issue of Brexit. Clearly, all of the Deputies are in favour, from what they have said about us continuing to be a member of the European Union because they have seen its positives. We have got to get that positive message out there. That is difficult to do in a digital world where it is hard to get somebody to pay attention for 60 seconds when one is dealing with complicated stuff, which is why, frankly, our campaign Just the Facts has been of great benefit. The campaign draws people's attention to what we believe are really important communicative issues and we will continue do so. It is a challenge. Our role in Europe in positing the importance and the benefit of being a member of Europe has never been more important for us to continue to press forward, as an organisation.
I will be brief as I have just two supplementary questions. I thank both witnesses for their responses and I agree with almost everything they said.
Earlier the word "Eurosceptic" was raised and I appreciate the context in which it was raised. It was also mentioned earlier that the debate often comes down to a "them and us" type of debate and that feeds into the notion of labelling people as Eurosceptics and putting them all into one box. I know many people who are Eurosceptic but do not want Ireland to leave the European Union. Sometimes it cuts both ways. People who are more enthusiastic about Europe also have to recognise that simply because people have a difficulty with elements of Europe does not make them anti-European or anti-Europe. In fact, sometimes it is quite the reverse because they are genuinely interested in wanting to build a different type of Europe. We have to allow that type of discourse and understand it.
I also agree that we should not allow ourselves in Ireland to be defined by Brexit in terms of how we see the European Union. Something has happened with Brexit that is relevant to this debate on the future of Europe and it is as follows. We have to listen to people and engage with them. One of the issues that was at the heart of the Brexit debate, if we want to be honest, was immigration. People had a fear of immigration. I come from a political viewpoint where I see immigration as positive. I believe in multiculturalism and I believe immigration enriches society. When people express their concerns to me about immigration I listen and engage but, unfortunately, sometimes we do not, we shout them down, label them as racists and lose the argument. The same applies to Europe. The way to talk about the future of Europe is not to immediately see somebody who has a different viewpoint on Europe as Eurosceptic or as somebody who wants Ireland to leave the European Union. That is the type of environment we need to create.
Earlier I made the point that my party would have been seen as more critical than others of the European Union. However, all parties are now more critical particularly when one considers such issues as consolidated taxation and so on, mainly because it impacts more now on issues that affect them, maybe less than when it was social issues. Now the issues are more economic so people are more alert to them. That is fine but they are still engaging critically with Europe and that is healthy.
If we do not see it as healthy then we have problems. We will have problems with the rise of the far right, we will have more Brexits, and we will have more of what happened in America with the rise of Trump. Let us learn from these situations. If all of that teaches us anything it is that the debate on the future of Europe must be inclusive and people must refrain from putting people into boxes and labelling them. Labelling people will only create difficulties for us.
I thank the Chairman for allowing me to contribute. When I was out of the room I followed the debate with interest.
I have one suggestion on which I would love to hear the thoughts of the delegation. There is a danger in considering Junker's five scenarios as our frame because we would lose focus on what actually needs to happen in Europe. Much of his focus and the focus of his scenarios is about the speed of Europe, is it going to be multi-speed, etc. and it is not about the direction of Europe. There are options that are not about simply carrying on or where we pool the new or centralise decision-making further, they are about doing things somewhat differently from how we do them at the moment. We must ensure that Ireland takes very seriously the role it has to play in every arena we have at the moment, for example, the European Council and the Council of Ministers. Ireland should not simply attend and see what is on the agenda. We should debate what Ireland brings to the agenda of the Council of Ministers and demanding to be on the council. In terms of the European Commission, to what extent are we waiting for edicts to be produced? Are we pressing the European Commission? A very important point is coming up now whereby the European Commission will need to seek a new trade negotiation mandate for phase 2 of Brexit. Are we going to have public discussion on what should go into that trade negotiating mandate or will we wait until after the fact and then complain that we do not like the mandate? There are key spaces that need to be activated now. The "for or against" Europe discussion has an inherent danger because it is not that at all; it is about Europe.
I have a serious concern about a key role on which I would love to hear the comments of the delegation. I refer to the narrative on defence and the suggestion, for example, that to be with Europe one must be uniformly onboard with the idea of what Macron has now proposed in terms of defence. Ireland has a key history in peacebuilding. It is an asset to Europe to have a country that has international credibility in peacebuilding. I ask the delegation to comment on why Europe needs to widen its skills, especially in terms of the securitisation agenda, and start delivering in areas such as peacebuilding and diplomacy, which are almost at the origin of the European project. Have peacebuilding and diplomacy fallen by the wayside? As we have seen in Catalonia and elsewhere, Europe seems to have washed its hands of those jobs.
Earlier I made my point about the European Commission quite clumsily. If we have learned anything from the referendums is that the Irish people would be very slow to get rid of the European Commissioner. I think Irish people would like to reform the institution in terms of its expense and bureaucracy. That is an area that we need to consider.
Ms Noelle O'Connell:
I know. In terms of them versus us, in Ireland we sometimes tend to nationalise success and Europeanise failure a little bit and it is Ireland versus Europe. Sometimes we forget that we are a part of Europe and we have a role to play, as outlined by Senator Higgins. Therefore, we must ensure that we continue to have our say.
Deputy Cullinane mentioned immigration, migration and listening to people. I could not agree with him more. The tone of the rhetoric, how divisive and how challenging everything was during the Brexit referendum was something that we did not welcome. While respecting that it was a decision for the UK electorate, we were unequivocal in our view that Brexit would not be in anyone's interest.
On the migration issue, we would like it to gain more prominence. More than 700,000 Irish people live in Britain and 5 million British people can claim at least one Irish born grandparent. Again, it is something to bear in mind.
Deputy Cullinane also mentioned Eurosceptics. I believe it is important to be constantly critiquing, interrogating and questioning our relationship with Europe. It is also only right that political parties do so, and is to be welcomed. From a European Movement Ireland perspective, the ongoing future of Europe debate should be fully inclusive and, as Mr. Pratt said, we must make sure that the voices of citizens are involved.
Deputy Haughey raised some interesting and important points in terms of the opportunities for a more effective functioning of various EU institutions. I also thank Senator Higgins for her interesting points and wish we had more time to flesh them out a little bit further.
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins is correct in saying we have a template or a number of scenarios that President Junker has laid out, but it will not be based on them only. Mr. Pratt has hit the nail on the head that it will be about much more than that. It returns us to the fundamental point made in our submission, that in Ireland we must be clear about the what we want the European Union to look like in the future and on our role in it and make sure we seize the moment. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we have a voice at more than one table. For instance, the European Parliament will also have to have a say on the deal. Therefore, it behoves all of us to make sure the Irish point of view is communicated robustly in each of the institutions and at all levels. We must ensure we bring citizens with us by making sure their views will be heard.
Mr. Maurice Pratt:
I agree almost entirely with Senator Alice-Mary Higgins' comments which are on the money. It is important that the mandate for phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations go back to citizens because they will consider what will happen in this matter since where it ends will affect their future. On defence, the Senator is correct in saying Ireland has a skill set in peace building and diplomacy and that we ought to look to our natural skill sets and offer them in the context of whatever the European Union will look like in the future.
I thank Ms O'Connell and Mr. Pratt for taking time out of their busy schedules to come before the committee to share their analysis and thoughts. I thank them for engaging with us on this important topic. They have given us a number of things to think about. Ms O'Connell mentioned the prospect of returning. On behalf of the committee, both she and Mr. Pratt would be warmly welcome here at any time. We appreciate the work they do which we acknowledge by engaging with them here.
I welcome from the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association Mr. John Comer and Mr. John Enright and from Macra na Feirme Mr. James, Healy, Mr. Denis Duggan and Mr. Derry Dillon. Ireland's membership of the European Union has had an enormous impact on agriculture and rural communities through the common standards applied, access to the European market, CAP funding, structural and development funds, rural development programmes such as the Leader programme and so on. What the future of the European Union will look like is, therefore, of fundamental importance to farming communities.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on or criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
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 it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to 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 asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
We will first hear the opening statements which will be followed by questions. I ask Mr. Comer to make his presentation first.
Mr. John Comer:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for giving me this valuable opportunity to make a presentation on such a critical topic. I do not suggest for one moment that my organisation has all of the answers, but it is very important, now that our nearest neighbour has voted to leave the European Union, that we examine and understand why it has done so and ensure such an outcome will not be repeated elsewhere.
The ICMSA is a pro-European Union organisation. Since Ireland joined the EEC, with the United Kingdom and Demark, in 1973, there have been many benefits from membership. There have also been some negative effects, but as an organisation, we set out to maximise in a pragmatic fashion the benefits for our members who happen to be citizens of the European Union, while minimising the negatives. This meeting presents a valuable opportunity to discuss matters with people who get to make decisions on a day to day basis, unlike the public which only gets an opportunity to decide every five years or so.
We very much welcome the White Paper on the Future of Europe and the opportunity it gives us to have an open and honest discussion and reflect on where we are at this point. However, the White Paper does not refer to agriculture or rural development in any specific way. It refers to trade, trade deals, taxation, defence. That is disappointing because, from the perspective of the ICMSA, agriculture and rural development are the most important points.
The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, has some inconsistencies and the messaging around it is not as clear as we would like. One example of these inconsistencies is the fact that we must do more with less. The EU wants the family farm structure to provide food for the citizens of Europe and I am of the view that this resonates with every single person on the Continent. Everybody has to eat and although many do not understand food, they can identify with its importance. However, politicians do not put food-related issues front and centre. It is integral to all our lives. That is why I feel there are inconsistencies. Ask any European consumer how they want their food produced, and they will reply that food produced on family farms in Europe is the ideal, but there is talk of EU cuts to the budget. We feel that is an inconsistency and there is a requirement to have an adequate budget to achieve what the EU sets out to achieve in terms of maintaining its model of agriculture. The opening round offer on the table for a Mercosur deal is that 70,000 tonnes of beef from the Mercosur countries will be allowed into the EU market tariff free. We are very much opposed to that deal because we feel it down plays standards and sustainability. Sustainability is defined in terms of the economic, social and environmental pillars. If we do not get all three pillars of the sustainability model correct, then imbalances will cause it to fall. That needs to be addressed when we are discussing the future of Europe.
We believe there is unfair implementation of the habitats directive and the birds directives and the ability to generate an income from farming in these areas is compromised because of the derogations and the regulations and the fact that land is effectively sterilised. This will end up with land abandonment. There must be more discussion in greater depth on this.
In global terms, urbanisation is increasing by 1% per annum. What can the European Union do to implement pragmatic policies that will help maintain, support and sustain viability in rural areas, not only in Ireland but in all member states? I have the luxury of sitting on the board of the European Milk Board and other bodies and I get the opportunity to speak to European counterparts from all member states. I am aware, therefore, the urbanisation process is reflected all across the member states of the EU and there is a lack of viable alternatives in the context of retaining populations in regional and rural centres.
There is a need to get matters right when it comes to regulation for farmers and small businesses. Increasingly, multinationals have an unfair advantage over small traders and businesses because the same regulation is being applied to both. This makes matters impractical for those small traders and businesses.
We need to improve how we communicate the values of EU membership. If the European Union is to remain strong, we need to be able to explain to our children the values it espouses. We need to engender more pride in how we communicate and describe what it means to be a member of the European Union. First, one wants to be a proud European citizen, then a proud Irishman or Irishwoman and it filters down to being a proud parish man or parish woman. We need to get the balance right. What has happened in Ireland which has distorted the message regarding the importance of the Union, is that we - and I include politicians here - blame the EU when things go wrong. When things go right, however, Ireland takes the credit. Ultimately, Joe and Josephine Public have the vote. We saw what happened in the UK. We, as Europeans, cannot be complacent or believe that this voting pattern will not be replicated. I know the threat of contagion has waned a little but we need to be able to explain and justify policies. Let me provide an example. If one asked any person in Dublin who is not a direct primary producer or farmer "What is the CAP and what does it do?", they would say that it is a subsidy for farmers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The CAP has been in existence since the Treaty of Rome to provide sustainable, affordable and safe food for the citizens of the Continent. It is as much a consumer subsidy as it is a farmer subsidy, yet people are afraid to say that and CAP is never explained clearly. That creates division and derision among our population. We need to be upfront, honest and able to deal with explaining the reasons for the CAP.
Our task was to examine the five different scenarios proposed in the White Paper. We would favour scenario 1, the status quo, with some tweaks from scenario 4 as being ideal. This would make matters more efficient. Scenario 2, which is just to focus on the market, will never work. We are utterly opposed to scenario 3, a two-speed Europe. I think that would ultimately lead to the collapse of the Union. I think scenario 5, giving more power to the centre of Europe, would not work for small member states, and Ireland would be very vulnerable.
I thank the Chairman and members for their time.
Mr. James Healy:
Chairman and members, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to begin by thanking the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs for giving us the opportunity to present to it today. My name is James Healy. I am national president of Macra na Feirme. I am joined by my colleagues, Mr. Denis Duggan, chief executive, and Mr. Derrie Dillon, agriculture and rural affairs manager.
Macra na Feirme is a voluntary organisation for young people between the ages of 17 and 35. The organisation consists of a nationwide network of clubs, with six key areas of activity: agriculture; sports; travel; public speaking; community involvement; and performing arts. The vision of Macra na Feirme for rural Ireland is to have rural and agricultural communities that are active and vibrant socially, economically and culturally, in which young people, including young farmers, play an active and recognised role and that are attractive and nurturing places in which to live and work. By means of our work and our commitment to Europe, through our participation in Rural Youth Europe and European Council of Young Farmers, CEJA, we advocate a similar vision for rural Europe.
As the EU marks 60 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, we welcome the opportunity that exists to input the views of citizens on the Union's White Paper on the Future of Europe. One of the key questions relates to how we can support and engage with the next generation of Europeans. These Europeans are the most skilled, educated and mobile generation ever. How can Europe achieve the vision of vibrant rural communities akin to that which Macra na Feirme has set out for rural areas here? How can Europe address the new challenges it faces while retaining its founding principles and core values? How can Europe communicate and engage with and address the needs of young EU citizens who are the future of the Union and who will ultimately shape it into the future?
Macra na Feirme has always been a strong advocate of the values of the European project.
Prior to Ireland joining the European Union, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Dr. Sicco Mansholt, addressed a Macra na Feirme national conference in 1970 in Tralee on his infamous Mansholt plan. Macra na Feirme held a series of information meetings and seminars and lobbied for a "Yes" vote in the 1972 European Economic Community referendum. The commitment of Macra na Feirme to Europe then and now has never been in doubt. Fast-forwarding to 2017, the ten policy areas under the Jean-Claude Juncker agenda for jobs, growth, fairness and democratic change are boosting jobs, growth and investment, the digital Single Market, a resilient energy Union, a fairer internal market, fairer economic and monetary union, balanced free trade agreements with the US, justice and fundamental rights, migration policy, and being a stronger global actor and a Union of democratic change. These are important policy areas that will shape the future of Europe and impact on future generations.
I will address the future of agriculture and the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. A worrying concern is there is no reference to the Common Agricultural Policy in the Future of Europe document. In all of the five scenarios put forward, there is no impact assessment of the outcomes on the Common Agricultural Policy, which accounts for close to 40% of the EU budget. The CAP has been in place since 1962 and benefits not just farmers, but the European population as a whole. Outside the agricultural community, the benefits of the Common Agricultural Policy are often overlooked, as well as its importance to rural communities. A case in point is the absence of a reference in the Future of Europe White Paper. The CAP has an economic multiplier effect of five to one and the public good and social benefit to rural Ireland and Europe are immeasurable.
At present, 55.7% of European farm owners are aged 55 or over and therefore "approaching or beyond the regular pension age", with a mere 6% of farm owners under the age of 35. That is from EUROSTAT 2016. Young farmers and generation renewal within agriculture are essential for ensuring the long-term competitiveness and sustainability of European agriculture. With this said, it is crucial the next CAP addresses the current age demographic within European agriculture and implements measures to lower it. Young farmers are the lifeblood and future of rural communities, providing direct and indirect employment, raw materials for exports and further processing environmental and countryside management. The future of agriculture and rural areas relies on young farmers, and it is imperative the necessary resources and supports are made available to allow the development of their farm businesses to fulfil this expectation.
Another point on the Common Agricultural Policy is the budget for the next CAP programme. The budget of the EU and the proportion the CAP receives from the budget is a very topical matter. Ongoing global events and challenges, such as the migrant crisis, terrorism and climate change, cannot put pressure on the CAP budget. Increasing the Common Agricultural Policy budget will deliver and contribute to the EU Commission’s jobs and economic growth agenda. The Common Agricultural Policy 2020 must include measures to protect Irish farmers from the fallout of Brexit. The CAP budget cannot be sacrificed to meet the very real and present dangers associated with terrorism or migration. National parliaments and governments must find new money to contribute to tackling new European problems.
Europe has been poor at communicating what is great about the EU. Engagement and active participation of young people in EU issues and developing their interest and understanding of what the EU can achieve is critical to the future of Europe. Supporting and recognising the value of young people's organisations as vehicles for training and development of informal life skills is critical to unlocking active engagement. Youth organisations facilitate structured dialogue with young people to feed into decision-making processes. They also contribute to the personal, political, social and economic development of young people. The significant importance of EU-funded programmes such as Erasmus+ to support youth organisations delivering intercultural development of young people highlights what is great about EU activities and engagement.
As outlined, it is important that young people engage and shape the debate on the future of Europe. Macra na Feirme engages in European policy development through active participation in the Council of European Young Farmers and Rural Youth Europe. Young farmers and rural youths meet with European counterparts and understand each others' perspectives in achieving a European multifunctional agriculture, which is underpinned by the Common Agriculture Policy. There are differences in farming practices across Europe, but young farmers from all member states work together for the betterment of European agriculture in the spirit of being European. A good example of this is in the current Common Agriculture Policy. Macra na Feirme developed a policy proposal for a young farmer support and with the help of our European colleges, this became the European young farmers policy and subsequently formed part of the Common Agricultural Policy.
Access to a quality, sustainable job market is a key deliverable of the EU. Up to one in five young people is out of work in the EU, and this is a major economic and social cost. Fostering and supporting entrepreneurship among young people and progressing the Youth Guarantee scheme must be a key priority for the EU. Young people need to have confidence in their future. In the words of former Vice President of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin:
Unemployed youth, with no prospect of being integrated into a better future is a prescription for disaster. If young people do not have a stake in the existing social order and political order, if they do not feel there is a way for them, why should they sacrifice today for a better tomorrow? Why should they have an interest in protecting the stability and social safety of that system?
With all the challenges posed in Europe by terrorism, migration, radicalism, and so forth, the former World Bank Vice President has offered some possible insight to part of the problem.
Travel broadens the mind and encouraging young people to explore the EU and learn from different cultural experience helps delivers on the objective of lifelong learning. Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps programmes support the mobility of young people for working abroad, studying or volunteering. According to the European Youth Forum, the youth sector represents only 10% of the Erasmus+ budget but mobilises more than 25% of all programme participants, and it is not able to respond to the increasing demands of young people across Europe. We caution against the populist rhetoric on integration and its constant association with the negative. Ease of travel in every way, from cost, visa and passport control, deregulation, and so forth has been one of the great success stories of the European project.
The European Fund for Strategic Investment helps drive investment. Ireland is ranked 17 for utilising this instrument. Finance is the engine for growth and developing financial instruments and tackling the investment gap for small and medium enterprises, SMEs, in Europe will help develop rural areas. Improving access such as roads, ports and interconnections; funding and guarantees for SMEs, including the agri sector; and capital investment by universities are all stimuli that will help EU citizens reach their potential.
On the matter of trade deals, the mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles of our members are outside protesting today with the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, over beef access into the EU under Mercosur. Macra na Feirme supports them in their efforts to highlight the absolutely detrimental impact this would have on Irish and European beef farming. Negotiating a trade deal with South American countries that has such a potential negative impact on our largest indigenous industry is grossly irresponsible, especially when the impacts of Brexit are still unknown. We recognise the importance of EU trade deals to prosper but not at the cost of sacrificing agriculture. Macra na Feirme calls for a full impact assessment on all trade deals, current and prospective, and this must be undertaken before any deal is agreed on Mercosur. We need balanced trade deals that benefit European and Irish farmers, and trade deals that recognise the threats and impacts of Brexit. Entering into a Mercosur with such a large quantity of the EU beef market available to countries that do not meet equivalent European standards is reckless.
At a committee in May, Macra na Feirme outlined six solutions for Brexit, including maintaining the strongest possible trading relationships with the UK post-Brexit; securing as favourable UK market access as possible and sufficient resources to identify new markets for Irish agri-business products; an all-island approach to animal health and environment; access to the European Globalisation Fund for upskilling; increasing spaces in Irish third level institutes to compensate for expected increase in places due to reduction in access to UK universities; and maintaining the CAP budget at European level. We note the RTE news story this morning citing an EU Commission memo that suggests an all-island solution for customs. We cautiously welcome what would appear as the emergence of some practical solutions for dealing with the significant impacts of Brexit.
The White Paper on the future of the European Union outlines five scenarios, but it does not draw conclusions as to the Commission's preferred scenario. In his state of the European Union address in September Jean-Claude Juncker presented a sixth scenario based on the principles of freedom, equality and the rule of law. His vision for the European Union to be more united in the areas of banking, the eurozone and the Schengen agreement included all member states. Of concern is the rhetoric he used. We do not want a federal Europe. We do not want a European Union that is focused solely on expansion and integration. As Europeans, we need to develop an emotional connection to the European Union which must encourage this connection between it and citizens. People in the European Union need to feel European for that connection to work. It will ultimately lead to greater awareness of what the European Union is doing to benefit citizens.
Looking at the five scenarios posed in President Juncker's vision document, we ask which is closest to achieving all of the above. It is perhaps a combination of scenarios Nos. 1 and 5. A two-speed European Union is not a solution for the future, while the Single Market approach will not address collective challenges such as security, defence, terrorism, migration or climate change. Therefore, the scenarios entitled, "Carrying On" and "Doing Much More Together", appear to be closest to achieving a positive future for Europeans in line with the four founding freedoms enshrined in the Treaty of Rome. To borrow a phrase from the European Commissioner Phil Hogan, the future of the European Union should be an evolution of ideas and policies, not a policy revolution.
Mr. Healy had me until the last quote. I welcome both groups and the opportunity to discuss the future of the European Union. There will be an overlap with the questions put to the previous group as it is on the same topic. We discussed the same issues with the group which attended earlier.
It appears that there is consensus among the farming groups, which I welcome, that they would not favour a more federal Europe. That is something I support. Do they also agree that there is a need for more democracy in the European Union and that it needs to be a more social Europe which delivers more for citizens? Both groups mentioned Brexit as well as other issues which have given rise to concerns about the European Union. I want Ireland to remain within the Union and be at the heart of it, but it must be a European Union of which people want to be part and one which they see delivering for them. When we talk about reform, notwithstanding the big principles and the five questions posed as to what we want, are democracy and having a more social Europe in accordance with the delegates' values? That is the bigger vision of the European Union.
My second question is related to the CAP. Agriculture and the European Union have gone hand in hand in Ireland. The CAP is very important to the farming groups in terms of their relationship with the European Union and obviously agriculture is very important to Ireland. In the south east from where I come agriculture and the agribusiness sector are hugely important. Both groups stated funding levels under the CAP had been cut. Are they simply calling for the budget to be increased or are they calling for reform of the CAP? Depending on the farming organisation to which I talk, some focus more on simply increasing the budget, but others will state the CAP needs to be reformed because it is unfair and benefits a certain category of farmers over others. Is there a view among the delegates' organisations that the CAP needs to be reformed or is it simply the case that they want the budget to be increased? I acknowledge that they can only speak for their own groups, but it is a genuine question because the committee needs to understand the position. I have to be able to understand it because that will frame how I respond.
Regional development was mentioned. That issue cannot be divorced from the national planning framework, on the one hand, or from what is happening in the European Union, on the other. What are the views of the delegates on the national planning framework? Have their organisations made submissions on it? It is accepted by almost every organisations that there is a severe lack of capital investment in the State because of the inflexibility of the fiscal rules and how they are applied. IBEC, trade unions and others have been very vocal on the need to reform the fiscal rules to allow for greater investment in capital infrastructure which is one of the big asks in rural Ireland. Do the delegates' organisations have a view on the matter? It is obviously going to be part of reforming the European Union. Are the rules too rigid? Are they one-size-fits-all? Do they work, or do they need to be reformed? Have the organisations given the matter any thought?
As a party which represents people across the island, Sinn Féin is very concerned about the North of Ireland leaving the European Union on foot of Brexit. Having one part of the island in the European Union and one part outside is not good. Notwithstanding any positivity in the language from Britain or the European Union, we are still concerned about what the end product will be. What are the views of the delegates' respective organisations? Different sectors will be affected differently by Brexit. I can only set out my experience in the south east where I have met many agrifood business organisations which are affected by currency fluctuations most especially. They see Brexit as a real threat. Is the Government doing enough and are we doing enough politically, as it is not just about the Government, and as a country to protect different sectors against Brexit? What more could be done to protect the farming sector from all of the threats coming from Brexit? Are the farming and agrifood sectors challenged to a greater extent by it? What about the geographical considerations? For example, the south east is facing a big challenge. If the delegates' agree, what solutions should be put in place?
I thank the delegates for their presentations in which a number of really interesting points were raised. Luckily, Deputy David Cullinane picked up on some of them. There are one or two areas in which we could probably have a disagreement, but this is not the place in which to do so. I may have had different views from those of the delegates on the habitats and birds directives which have a role to play in the national pollination plan and the quality and sustainability of our agricultural products, albeit there may be flaws in their implementation. However, our focus here is on the bigger picture and the European Union.
I welcome the key points made about rural development. It is not an accident that the issue of rural development has fallen off the agenda. It maps very closely the changes made since 2008 and the focus on national fiscal targets as the top-line main message in terms of the European Union's engagement, semester products and regional development targets having falling by the wayside. The message on balanced regional development is crucial not only economically but also socially in terms of cohesion and co-operation. We are seeing across Europe that where there is a failure to deliver balanced regional development, it has very severe consequences for the European project. I would really like to hear the delegates' thoughts not just about the economic but also the social importance of reframing regional development in the European Union. What are the delegates' thoughts about the way in which high level fiscal targets alone may be failing to capture the issue?
The fiscal rules and the national planning framework have been covered. Macra na Feirme highlighted eloquently young farmers being the lifeblood of rural communities. Sometimes, the charts we see from the Commission suggest employment moves around. While there may be the same number of jobs, transplanting people out of their communities is different. There is a different question about the quality of employment created through schemes such as the European Youth Guarantee. I worked with a group in Wexford. There was an urban pilot European Youth Guarantee scheme. I wonder if the delegates' would support the Wexford group in what it was pushing for, a rural pilot European Youth Guarantee scheme to address specific issues in delivering for young people in rural areas. There is a different set of challenges and obstacles to creating employment in that context. I would love to hear the delegates' thoughts on the matter.
A key area on which I want to focus is trade. I commend both groups but the ICMSA, in particular, for diving into the detail of the trade agreements the European Union is negotiating.
We can often be pushed into simplistic narratives such as that we are either for or against trade or Europe. That does not really work. We can be very much for Europe and for trade, but want a better kind of European trade deal within that. I welcome the call from Macra na Feirme for full impact assessment of all the trade deals. I echo the concern about the danger of the suggestion from Europe under scenario 4, the fast-tracking of trade deals.
Mercosur has been talked about in detail. There are very specific concerns there. I would like to hear the witnesses' thoughts about Mercosur, CETA, which I have worked on, and what they think the European Commission should be learning from the flaws in the previous model of trade deal. We are about to give the European Commission a new negotiating mandate for phase 2 of Brexit. Should it be taking the next trade negotiating mandate off the same peg as CETA and TTIP? Should we be excluding investor courts, given that they are being challenged in the European Court of Justice at present? How can we ensure that environmental, equality and employment regulations are really strongly enforced within the next trade negotiating mandate? We know that a race to the bottom is one which no-one wins. A race to the bottom in a trading agreement with the UK will devastate Ireland and farming. I would love to hear the witnesses' thoughts in detail on what the lesson should be from the public opposition to previous trade deals. Do they think we should delay ratification of CETA until we have a European Court of Justice ruling?
Mr. John Comer:
I do understand the questions about the democratic process in Europe. It is fundamental that democracy is upheld and that Europe be a paragon of democracy. I believe it is as close as we can get to it. There can be tweaks in it but, fundamentally, I believe Europe to be democratic.
On the social issues, there is need for a balance. Speaking as an individual and on behalf of my organisation, I think either more federalism or more centralised governance would be a retrograde step, particularly for the feeling of some sort of benefits from the Union for sure. There is a symbiotic relationship between the 27 member states that are going to remain, yet each must have a national identity as well. Getting that balance right is central to the future of Europe. If we go too far in one way or the other, there will be member states that will not be happy and there will be objections, rumblings and protests.
There were specific questions on the CAP from Deputy Cullinane. I think it is excellent value for money. When it is explained to people, they also understand the value. It is only 1% of the GDP of Europe, which returns in spades to the taxpayer. Let us be upfront and honest here. I never hear people saying this is taxpayers' money and we need to justify it. It is never a conversation down at citizen level, yet that is where it needs to be. Even farm organisations and individuals are afraid to say so. We need to justify it and say that taxpayers are getting a return on their investment.
I wholeheartedly believe that a well-funded CAP will serve the citizens of our continent very well, although that certainly needs to be communicated better. What I feel has crept into the mood music of the Commission and the Parliament over the last three to four years, and has become more pronounced in the last two, is the sense that they want it both ways. They want to have all the benefits, including the regulation, traceability, animal welfare, environmental aspects. Those benefits are all very noble but they come at a cost. What I am putting on the Official Report today is that we cannot have it both ways. The primary producers will not be able to be economically sustainable if they have all the regulation without the financial supports. If the supports do not come from the European Union, the consumer will have to pay a lot more.
I am afraid Mr. Comer may have misunderstood my point about CAP, as the question I asked was not answered and his response may have misrepresented what I said. At no point did I call into question the validity of CAP and its value. Quite the opposite. The ICMSA and Macra na Feirme have both said they want the budget increased. I am not against that but am asking if the witnesses also looking for CAP to be reformed. That was my question to both organisations.
Mr. John Comer:
I was going through the questions in chronological order as I have them written down and I get a bit passionate about that issue. Elements of CAP certainly need to be reformed. It needs to be targeted where we get best value. The external convergence piece is taking place. Internal convergence is another matter. We sit in the middle so it is not as important for us. We certainly feel that there are elements that can be reformed. I have no problem getting into a full debate on what type of reform we would like to see, if the Deputy wishes. We have a full list of what we would like to see prioritised. It would take some time to exhaust it. In general, reform is always good, even if one does not reform that much but just has a look to see if the scheme is ticking the boxes and doing what it says on the tin.
The problems caused by Brexit are huge. We have members whose cows will potentially be grazing in the EU in the morning and in a third country in the evening. From memory, 26% of Northern Irish milk is processed in the Republic. That is 9% of the total volume of the milk we process here. It is a wholly integrated processing and production infrastructure and there will be pronounced negative effects unless we get the deal right. We are certainly open to the paper that was released this morning in terms of having an all-island situation. We would like to see that fleshed out a bit to see how workable it is.
Everybody knows the details of the 60% of the cheddar and 52% for beef and so on and so forth. We would like to see a trade deal concluded. First, we have to have a transitional arrangement to get to a free trade agreement, FTA, providing for zero tariffs. That would be fundamental.
I have not addressed Senator Higgins's questions but we must move on.
Mr. John Enright:
The big issue on CAP is that there is going to be a gap post-Brexit because of the loss of UK funding. Our position is that the other member states will have to increase their contributions to keep us standing still. As Mr. Comer said, there are certain elements of the current policy that we believe need to be reformed, particularly in the area of income volatility. It is a huge issue for farmers which needs to be reformed. On rural and regional development and the national planning framework, we believe there has to be a counterbalance to Dublin.
This country is getting very skewed to one side and capital investment in rural areas and outside Dublin is essential in the future to address those issues.
The Deputy asked what can be done on Brexit. We believe there must be measures in the budget next week relating to Brexit. Brexit is effectively 18 months away. Our sector, in particular, is very exposed. Over the next 12 months the sterling exchange rate will go up and down and create challenges for all agricultural sectors, but what scenario will be in place post-Brexit? We believe next week's budget must include measures on Brexit. Waiting until budget 2018 will be too late. There must be something in that regard next week.
Our president mentioned the Border issue. There are 32,000 milk lorry journeys across the Border annually. How will that continue in the case of a hard or soft border? Issues such as that will have to be addressed.
To respond to Senator Higgins, we understand the need for the habitats and birds directive. The question we are posing on that relates to the policy inconsistencies in Europe. Europe wants to have a directive but our question is whether farmers have been treated fairly in all cases. We believe they have not. There are major gaps and major genuine frustrations for farmers. Ultimately, we believe it will lead to land abandonment unless the issues are addressed.
With regard to Mercusor, the key issue is that we continually hear people talking about standards and saying they will respect food safety and environmental standards. They also talk about equivalence. History has shown us that it does not happen. We see what has happened with Brazil this year. There might be a certain level of equivalence on food safety, but there is absolutely none on environmental or employment issues. That is our experience and I believe we will be found to be correct in the future unless those issues are addressed. That is the farmers' main objection. As a European farmer I must meet a huge amount of regulations on food safety, environment and traceability, yet at the same time I am expected to compete with farmers who have no such standards. It is just not possible. That is the major objection farmers have.
Mr. James Healy:
I will try to address as many questions as possible. Deputy Cullinane referred to more democracy in Europe and a more social Europe. From our point of view, we consider Europe fairly democratic. However, we envisage some reform of the European Parliament, with perhaps more powers for it and the parliamentarians to make for a more efficient decision making process. We also believe that having two parliaments, one in Brussels and one in Strasbourg, cannot help the efficiency of a European decision making body.
With regard to reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, as Mr. John Comer said European member states are currently spending 1% of GDP to the EU budget and, as we said in our opening statement, we would seek to have that input increased, particularly with the UK pulling out and leaving a gap in the budget. The amount that is suggested is an increase to perhaps 1.1% of GDP. We would support that, particularly in view of the new European problems that are arising. On the question of reform of the CAP, we were the first European farming organisation to have a policy document before the Commission, which was early this year. It was a roadmap for generational renewal and it ties together the rural development side with the agriculture side. We view young people as key to the future of both farming and rural development. Rural communities cannot survive without farmers to keep them alive. As has been said, many of the manufacturing and service jobs in this country are moving further east and drawing more young people out of our rural communities. Unless there is investment in those communities we will not be able to keep young people in them. However, to justify that investment there must be farmers in the community who are providing employment. A recent Teagasc report stated that we will need 6,000 young people for the dairy industry alone in the next couple of years. There are some employment opportunities there, but investment must be made in those rural areas to allow people to stay there.
With regard to the environment, the Senator referred to the pollination plan. We made a submission to that and we were glad to see the report that emerged. However, we believe that element of the Common Agricultural Policy could be reformed as well. There should be practical, targeted and measurable schemes whereby farmers should be compensated to the value of the public good they are providing. The schemes in place at present are not the best vehicle for achieving the type of results that are required. When we speak to young farmers they tell us they believe they are environmentalists. They are guardians of the countryside, they want to take ownership of the problems and issues and to lead the drive towards improvement on them.
As regards regional development and the national planning framework, we made a submission earlier this year to the Ireland 2040 plan. A draft of the plan only emerged in September and with the National Ploughing Championships and everything else we have not had a chance to go through it. We will make further comment when we have had that chance. However, we attended a rural development plan monitoring committee meeting recently. Indecon produced a report, an ex anteassessment of financial market failures, which showed that there was a capital expenditure gap of €105 million last year and that if Ireland is to continue towards its Food Wise 2025 targets that would stretch to up to €350 million. Financial measures must be introduced to allow young farmers to make the investments that must be made both to expand their business and do so in an environmentally sustainable way.
On Brexit, various sectors in different areas of the country are experiencing different levels of impact. The currency fluctuation is clearly having a huge impact. Whether it is the mushroom sector or any other sector, people are struggling massively even though Brexit has not happened yet. We appeared before the Seanad committee on Brexit earlier this year and put forward our six solutions. We believe it is vital that the investment is made now to protect people because volatility will be a huge factor. It is part of our budget submission that the income volatility must be addressed, not only at European level but also at national level. Europe cannot fix everything for us. Investment opportunities, be it more access to low-cost loans or similar financial instruments, would be a positive way of sheltering not just young farmers but all small and medium sized employers. They are equally open to that type of impact.
I have probably jumped around in answering some of the questions.
Mr. James Healy:
From time to time manufacturing and services jobs appear to be put to the fore and prioritised over agriculture. That balance is the issue. It comes back to the fact that the benefits of Europe are not always communicated properly but also that Europe must listen to what its people are saying. That might be why we have a more radicalised youth and a political scene that is now more extreme left and extreme right. Unless that problem is noted and addressed, those issues will continue. Europe must communicate the benefits it is creating but it also must listen to its people.
With regard to the European Youth Guarantee, we would certainly favour a rural pilot. To be honest, we do not know enough about the Youth Guarantee, but we would certainly support anything that would benefit rural young people.
First, I thank all of you for attending the meeting today.
I have to apologise because some of our members were not here today. They are members of other committees. The abortion issue is being debated today and there is a lot of interest in that. People were disappointed that they could not be here.
We very seldom have people from the agriculture sector at this committee. I appreciate the fact that the witnesses are here today because it is important to hear what they have to say. It is my opinion that small family farms are in great danger. The farming organisations and local and national politicians working together have an important job to do to ensure that in five, ten, 20 or 30 years' time small farmers will be able to exist. We are all practical and sensible and know that they will not be full-time farmers. We would dearly like it if they could be, if they wanted to be but unfortunately it will be a part-time occupation as it is already. People are managing and we want to see the family farm intact and something of worth to be passed on to the next generation. I have come across families who are making the decision about the next generation. Whereas in the past Johnny or Mary would have the hand up hoping it would come to them, now, and it is an awful thing to say, those young people look on being given a farm as a drawback. That is very serious. I want to ensure that will not be the case in the years ahead and that people will be proud and glad and very happy to continue working the land, even on a part-time basis.
The figures in the agricultural colleges are back up. It is like a yo-yo. They were going up and down but they are steady enough at the moment. I have regular contact with them and know what is going on there. The people who are doing the green certificate, whether online or full-time in the college are getting on well and know the importance of it. I compliment the people running those programmes because they give our young people a good sound ordinary grounding and they enjoy it.
I thank the witnesses for their work. There is now a Macra club in Killarney which was never there before. It is nice to see it in an urban area. I was delighted to be present at the launch because I know the parents of the people involved. It is great to see them enjoying a new Macra club. I was a member of Macra in my earlier days. We used to enjoy the outings, there was great camaraderie. I would like to see organisations like that being there forever so that our young lads and the next generation will have the fundamental values we all have.
My views on environmental issues are well-known. I am not going to get into arguments about them. To put in the politest possible way, common sense has to prevail when it comes to environmental issues. The best custodian of the land ever is the person who owns it. That person will never want to do anything to their farm that would downgrade or damage it in any shape or fashion. They will only want to pass it on in better shape, with whatever resources they have.
All the witnesses who spoke were sound in their views and spoke from the heart. I appreciate that. I know they are extremely busy. I and the members of the committee appreciate their coming here today.