Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 9 November 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Key Developments on European Agenda: Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Helen McEntee
Before I invite the Minister of State to make her opening statement, I welcome Ms Valérie Gomez-Bassac, members of the French Embassy in Ireland and their interpreter and colleagues to the Houses. They are very welcome to this Joint Committee on European Union Affairs meeting, and I wish their visit to Ireland every success. I am delighted they have an opportunity to meet our Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee.
I have received apologies from the Chairman, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, for whom I am deputising today.
I remind members and witnesses about their phones. I will set an example and turn mine off.
On behalf of all the members of the committee, I very much welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee, and her officials from the Department back to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. Since taking up her role, the Minister of State has been very busy between Council meetings and engagements in other member states, certainly a very strong start to her Ministry. On behalf of the members, I thank her for the invitation to the launch of the Government's programme of engagements on the future of Europe. As she knows, this committee has undertaken in a very detailed way its own work in this regard, which will continue, but we are interested in seeing this discussion broadened to include as many citizens as possible. That is exactly what our colleague from France is doing. It is part of our task in Ireland to see where the French can go in this regard. I am sure all members of the committee will be interested in the work the Minister of State has been doing on her plans for the future of Europe debate on recent and future developments in the General Affairs Council and the European Council and her impressions of how the Brexit negotiations are going.
Before we begin with the Minister of State's opening statement, I must remind everyone of the rules of privilege in this Parliament. 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 the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege. However, this does not apply because the Minister of State has full privilege as a Member of the House, so I do not need to continue reading the notice. I now ask the Minister of State to make her opening statement. Again, I personally welcome her here and congratulate her on the work she is doing. I know she has made a very big impression throughout the European countries. I think she has visited most of the 28 member states. I know she continues to meet her colleague Ministers throughout Europe. She is in a most crucial position in the Brexit discussions and negotiations, so we look forward to hearing her statement.
I thank the Vice Chairman and Senator. I have not quite made it to all the member states yet but I hope to achieve that sooner rather than later. I thank the committee for the invitation to be before it again. I welcome Ms Gomez-Bassac and her team from France as well. We look forward to engaging with them while they are in Ireland. With the Vice Chairman's permission, I will probably speak for about 15 minutes, which is perhaps a little longer than normal, but normally we outline past work, whereas I wish to outline what we are planning on doing in the future as well, particularly regarding the future of Europe debate.
I am very pleased to be back before the committee. This is the second time I have had the pleasure of engaging with the committee since I was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs in June. I look forward to updating the committee on some of the key developments within my area of responsibility and answering any questions members of the committee might have. With the Vice Chairman's agreement, I will take about 15 minutes to cover the specific areas of the future of Europe and October's European Council and then give the committee a summary of the General Affairs Councils in September and October along with developments in the ever-discussed Brexit. I am happy to take questions afterwards.
Next week the Taoiseach and I, together with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, will formally launch the Citizens' Dialogue on the Future of Europe at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin. This will mark the formal start of a process designed to engage the Irish public directly in a debate on the kind of Europe it wants to see evolve. Our aim is to raise awareness of the issues involved, to encourage participation in the debate and to use this engagement process to formulate Ireland's contribution to the wider European debate. Before I go any further, I wish to acknowledge the committee's own work in this regard and the leadership role the committee has shown in launching its own public consultation process on the future of Europe. I know the committee has already heard from a number of interest groups, including the National Youth Council of Ireland, Macra na Feirme, IBEC and European Movement Ireland. I know too that the French ambassador to Ireland made a presentation to the committee, and I would be very interested to know in due course what the committee's findings are in this regard.
As the debate on Europe's future post-Brexit gains momentum, it is extremely important that Ireland's position is informed and supported by the views and interests of our citizens. The Government's starting point is to focus on the needs of our own people. This includes a focus on jobs and growth, opportunities for our young people, completion of the Single Market and the key role of the EU in meeting many of the key challenges that will face us, including climate change and violent extremism.
Later this month, the Taoiseach will represent Ireland at the EU social summit in Sweden and I will attend with him. It will be an opportunity to ensure there is a social dimension to the wider future of Europe debate. To date, the debate on the future of Europe has been informed by inputs from a variety of sources. In March, the European Commission published a White Paper and followed it up with a series of reflection papers on important policy areas including globalisation, EU finances and defence. These papers are for the most part cross-cutting in nature and are being examined across a number of Departments.
At last month’s European Council, President Donald Tusk formally launched his leaders’ agenda. What he is proposing is an ambitious work programme for the next two years. His intention is to maintain unity among the 27 member states by facilitating a more dynamic process, restoring ownership to the European Council and seeking to find pragmatic ways forward. He is proposing that future discussions be around a set of decision papers on issues on which there has been no agreement as yet. The increased tempo would see discussions at scheduled meetings of the European Council as well as a number of additional informal summits. President Tusk’s approach should ensure an inclusive approach, building on the Bratislava process and ensuring the initiative is not left to others to set the agenda.
We strongly support President Tusk’s positive forward-looking agenda, focused on some of the key challenges facing European, including Irish, citizens. We are cautious about any element of the agenda that focusses on institutional change, for example a eurozone budget or eurozone parliament, and would not support reform that required treaty change.
As EU members of 44 years standing we have amassed considerable knowledge and experience and it is only right that we should share our insights and assessments throughout the process. If any members have questions on the launch next week and what will be entailed in it, I am happy to answer.
I will now turn to last month’s European Council meeting, which I attended with the Taoiseach. The main agenda items were migration, security and defence, digital Europe and external relations with a focus on Turkey. The Taoiseach made a comprehensive statement to the Dáil so I do not propose to go into them in great detail now but I will touch on a few of the key issues I addressed.
EU leaders agreed their comprehensive migration strategy was bringing results and should be consolidated. At the same time they highlighted the need for vigilance on all migration routes and readiness to react to any new trends or developments. The Taoiseach raised the distressing human rights reports from Médecins Sans Frontières on the reception facilities in Libya. He also spoke about the question of support for Africa more generally and what needs to be done to remove the root causes of migration. At the meeting, he confirmed Ireland will double its commitment to the EU Trust Fund for Africa up to 2020, taking it from €3 million to €6 million, which was received well and is a positive move forward.
On digital Europe, leaders examined how the EU could seize the opportunities and address the challenges posed by digitalisation. They agreed on a series of priorities to build a successful digital Europe including bringing governments and public sectors fully into the digital age and completing the digital single market strategy by the end of 2018. As members will know, completion of the digital Single Market is a Government priority. The language agreed for the European Council conclusions was substantially proposed by Ireland and a group of like-minded countries. The conclusions included a high level of ambition for completing the digital Single Market, including the free flow of data and agreeing a future-oriented regulatory framework. There was a good exchange on the issue of taxation of digital companies. The Taoiseach emphasised that in a globalised world, a solution on tax must be global in nature and this is reflected in the conclusions that were adopted. He insisted that the OECD is the best forum for dealing with this.
On security and defence, given the challenges the EU faces both from external threats and home-grown terrorism, there is an increasing focus within the EU on security and defence issues. Most of our partners want to press ahead with permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, and this is provided for in the treaties. Ireland has been taking a realistic and constructive approach to the discussions on PESCO and we hope to be able to participate in it in a way that respects our long-standing policy of neutrality and constitutional guarantees as reflected in the Lisbon Treaty protocol. Ireland is neutral but not when it comes to issues such as human trafficking, terrorism or cyber-crime. We are very much in favour of co-operating with EU partners on a range of security issues. The Government will approach PESCO and the other issues on the agenda in that spirit. The European Council agreed to have a fuller discussion and a progress assessment of PESCO and other security and defence issues in December.
On the external relations item, the Council held a very wide-ranging debate on Turkey. Given the negative trends in Turkey on human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy, it is clear that it cannot be business as usual with Turkey. However, our position, and that of many other member states, is that we need to keep the lines of communication open, including through the accession process and that we must be open and frank in our engagement.
The European Council called on the DPRK, often referred to as North Korea, to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, stressing that lasting peace and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula must be achieved through peaceful means. The European Council also reaffirmed its full commitment to the Iran nuclear deal and endorsed the statement by the Foreign Affairs Council of 16 October 2017.
I will move on to Brexit and will brief the committee on the most recent developments, taking into account that we are looking at a new phase beginning today. Both the General Affairs Council and the European Council met in their Article 50 formation during the month of October. I attended both these meetings, which represented an important opportunity for all EU 27 member states to take stock of the progress made in the Article 50 negotiations to date. At the European Council, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, briefed Heads of State and Government on the five negotiation rounds that had taken place from June to October. Taking account of his assessment, the European Council welcomed progress to date but agreed further work is needed before it can agree that sufficient progress has be made on all three exit issues - citizens’ rights, the financial settlements and Irish-specific issues. The conclusions of the European Council also called for the negotiations to continue and that it will reassess progress at its next meeting in December. In this regard, I welcome that a sixth round of negotiations is under way in Brussels today. The European Council asked Michel Barnier and the Council to start preparations within the EU 27 member states for phase two and that if sufficient progress is made by the UK on the three exit issues, additional guidelines will be agreed on the framework for the future relationship and on possible transitional arrangements. Overall, the conclusions were fair and balanced. They were clear on what the EU expects from the UK in phase one but also recognised the positive momentum created by Prime Minister, Theresa May’s Florence speech and the EU's willingness to begin discussions on transitional arrangements and future relationship issues once there has been sufficient progress in the first phase.
The strong language on Ireland was also welcome. While acknowledging that progress is being made, the conclusions made clear that more work is needed and that the UK must present and commit to flexible and imaginative solutions called for by the unique situation Ireland finds itself in. More broadly, the support we enjoy from our EU partners on these issues also remains clear. This is a message that I and my Government colleagues consistently receive through our continuing extensive engagement with our EU counterparts. The visit of Guy Verhofstadt to Ireland in September was also very welcome in this regard. I know members of the committee engaged with him also and found it very useful and informative.
In the immediate term I am hopeful progress can be made in the negotiations in the coming weeks so that by the end of the year a decision can be taken by the European Council that discussions with the UK can begin on future relationship issues, including on trade and sectoral concerns. We want to move on to this phase as soon as possible.
Our overall objectives for the negotiations remain clear and have not changed. They are to protect the gains of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts; to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, to maintain the common travel area, which is something that is specific to Ireland and the UK; to put in place an effective transitional arrangement leading to the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK and; to work for the future of the European Union with Ireland at its heart.
I will say a brief word about the September and October General Affairs Council, GAC, I attended. As is the norm, preparation of the European Council is the main work of the GAC. Since I have already spoken about the European Council, I will deal here only with items addressed by the GAC other than Brexit, migration, digital Europe, security and defence, and external relations. At the September meeting all member states intervened in the discussion on the rule of law situation in Poland. Interventions were broadly supportive of the importance of the rule of law and urged the resumption of a dialogue to try to find a reasonable solution to the difficulties there.
Over lunch, Ministers discussed issues related to the composition of the European Parliament post-2019. While there was broad agreement that at least some of the seats being lost by the UK must be eliminated, there is no agreement yet on how to go about any possible redistribution of some of them after Brexit.
The October General Affairs Council, GAC, dealt with the annual rule of law dialogue. The dialogue has formed part of the agenda since 2014. The topic - media pluralism in a digital age - was strongly influenced by the murder the previous day of a prominent journalist in Malta. The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was an unspeakable attack on freedom of expression and we extend our condolences to her family and the bereaved. The two main themes of interventions in the dialogue from member states were that more needs to be done to educate the public on matters of digital literacy so they can better identify fake news and that, in the efforts to tackle them, more needs to be done to involve the online platforms that host both fake news and illegal content.
I once again offer my apologies for speaking for so long but there was a lot of material to cover and I wanted to make sure that the Deputies and Senators were as informed as possible. I welcome my MEP colleague.I thank the committee for the invite to attend here and I look forward to members' questions.
Unfortunately I have to leave shortly but I have just a couple of short questions. We could also ask Mr. Brian Hayes MEP a few questions on these issues while he is here. I thank the Minister of State for her contribution. She has been very busy, obviously. The Taoiseach has also outlined Ireland's position on many of these issues in the Dáil, having regard to pre-council meetings, pre-council discussion and post-council discussion.
On the issue of Brexit, yesterday the Taoiseach informed the Dáil that he was optimistic that sufficient progress will have been made by the December council meeting to allow it to move on to the next phase of the negotiations; the future relationship and the transitional arrangements. Would the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee agree with this? Is there any basis for that optimism? Are we making progress on the issues of particular concern to Ireland, citizens' rights and financial settlements? Perhaps the Minister of State could give us an insight into the Taoiseach's optimism around the December Council meeting.
With regard to the General Affairs Council, I understand that a decision will be made at its next meeting on relocation of the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority. Where stands Ireland's bids for these agencies? I get negative vibes in the media about Ireland's bids but perhaps the Minister of State will enlighten us on that.
The Taoiseach informed the Dáil yesterday that the situation in Catalonia was not discussed at the European Council meeting at all, but that the Spanish Prime Minister was asked if he would like to speak on the issue and he declined. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee was there and there was a lot of discussion. It is a big issue facing Spain and the wider community and I wonder what the feeling is around it. We certainly have concerns about how citizens were treated when they went out to vote. While respecting the legalities of the situation there are concerns there and perhaps the Minister of State could comment on them.
Absolutely. I thank Deputy Haughey for raising these issues. I will address the first question on the Taoiseach's optimism. It is important that we are optimistic. Obviously I cannot base his words on any specific progress that has been made since the last set of dialogues because it is only starting today. It probably takes into account the fact that in the last set of negotiations we saw a significant amount of progress and movement, especially from Prime Minister Theresa May's Florence speech, talking about a transition period, which had not been discussed in a previous phase, and talking about ensuring that no member state is left out of pocket, which also had not been made clear in previous rounds. There was movement in particular around Ireland and the very clear and firm commitment that there would be no border on the island of Ireland, which had not been made clear previous to that. To see that progress has been made in all three areas we need to be optimistic that we can make further progress on those issues between now and Christmas. Time is ticking on and we should not allow this to go on for any longer than it needs to. At the same time I believe there is willingness from both sides. I have been to London, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney has been to the UK. I get a sense that there is a willingness there to work with Michel Barnier and the task force to progress to stage 2 of the negotiations. This shows the EU 27's willingness to move to phase 2, and by beginning our own discussions on the transition period it sends a very clear message to the UK that we want to move on to phase 2, but not at any cost. The Taoiseach is optimistic, as am I, that we can reach the significant progress by December but it has to be based on very clear actions and movement following on from today.
I shall now turn to the General Affairs Council and the European agencies. We are still in negotiations and discussions with all the member states. We feel that we have two very credible bids and that we have two industries that would very much be able to support the European Banking Agency and the European Medicines Agency. Ireland has the proximity to London and the advantage of being the only English speaking country left in the EU. We have very clear access and routes via our ports and airports through Dublin and in to surrounding areas. We continue to engage with the EU member states in this respect and the Ministers in Health and Finance are engaging in the process as are all the other Members who are working abroad at the moment. In less than two weeks time Ireland will have more of an idea about where it stands in both bids.
Catalonia was not raised at the European Council meeting. It was also not raised at the General Affairs Council meeting. I believe, however, that there is a very clear consensus from the majority of member states that Ireland is in unity with Spain on this issue. We need to ensure there is no threat to the rule of law here. As a Government, the Taoiseach has made it very clear that we do not accept or recognise the Catalan unilateral declaration of independence. We do not, of course, agree with or condone any violence. Any scenes that were seen around the time of the referendum cannot be, and should not be, condoned. We would, however, agree that there needs to be a dialogue and further discussion around this issue. It is not something that we, as Government, will interfere in.
I thank the Vice Chairman. I apologise for missing the beginning of the Minister of State's opening address as we had a vote in the Seanad that I could not miss. I am sure it was vitally important.
There are four areas I wish to discuss, and I will be as brief as possible. I want to get a bit more detail on the issues already raised by the Minister of State. With regard to the future of Europe, I very much welcome the initiative being led by the Taoiseach and the Minister of State. I look forward to attending the event next week in Trinity College Dublin. We in Ireland have had quite a lot of experience around citizens' dialogues. We did a lot of it during our last rotating presidency of the European Council, and since then. I look forward to that experience. I wish to repeat comments that I made to the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, in the Seanad when we debated the future of the EU some weeks ago. It was a really good debate, even if some contributors missed the idea that it was a discussion on the future of the EU and a debate on the white paper; others just used it to talk about various other issues. During that debate I stressed the need for a really strong detailed speech from the Taoiseach to lay out Ireland's vision for the future of Europe, similar to the speech given by President Junker or President Macron. I repeat that call now. I am aware that we may be going through this process but there is a huge opportunity for Ireland to lay out an alternative vision for the future Europe that is not necessarily dominated by an original member state of the European Coal and Steel Community, or a larger member state, but which may have something a bit more palatable for other member states than EU accession countries, and which might allow us to drive the EU in a direction that will make sure we can keep the 27 members that remain and make it palatable and attractive to those who seek to join the EU.
I shall now turn to security and defence, issues which the Minister of State touched upon at the most recent European Council meeting and that was very important. The area of cybercrime, which the Minister of State briefly mentioned, is becoming more relevant and is increasingly in the news.
Will the Minister of State go into more detail on what discussions were held and what plans are in place at European level to deal with the ever increasing role of outside forces and commercial entities in influencing business transactions, elections and behavioural attitudes, especially when online and using social media?
On Monday, Senator Craughwell and I joined about 20 colleagues from a cross-party delegation from the Dáil and the Seanad, organised by Senator Frank Feighan, to visit Westminster. It was a productive engagement and gave us a great insight into the real appetite for interparliamentary discussion in the Brexit debate. I fear that is being left behind. Irish parliamentarians - not necessarily Ministers - need to up their game in ensuring we meet as many other parliamentarians as possible. We had a good meeting with a delegation from Hungary yesterday. Today, I am meeting several French parliamentarians at 5 p.m. We have met with the Danish Brexit committee here. We could do much more, however.
Some of the discussions we held in Westminster were reassuring but some were disappointing. The discussion with the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party in Westminster was a great big love-in. Discussions, however, with the UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and the shadow Foreign Secretary were a little more revealing, however. These are areas which will become difficult if we are going to mark sufficient progress in the Brexit discussions when it comes to Ireland before the December European Council meeting.
It comes back again to the customs union. I picked up an air of a veiled threat from the Foreign Secretary that if they do not get what they want, there are forces within the British Cabinet - which is falling apart everyday - who are quite willing to pull plug on this process. The hard Brexit no-deal scenario is something about which we should be concerned. Will the Minister of State give us more detail about the proposals for the customs union? The Taoiseach made reasonable proposals and the British Labour Party has tweaked its position on this. However, it is not a position of the British Government. It is not the British Opposition which is in discussions with Michel Barnier, however.
The Taoiseach mentioned he would favour a five-year transition period. What is the exact Irish aim on this? Hopefully, it is not too premature to go into the phase 2 priority. The Minister of State referred to sectorial and trading interests. Will she give more detail on this? I raised the urgent priority, well before the March 2019 phase 2 discussions, for an EU-US-UK open skies agreement with the European Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, and Brian Hayes, MEP.
In recent weeks, Ireland has applied to be observers of the Nordic Council and La Francophonie, Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. These are welcome but belated endeavours. There are other councils such as the Arctic Council to which we should apply. Obviously, I am a long-time supporter of re-joining the British Commonwealth, as popular as that seems to be with 98% of the rest of Oireachtas Members. This is important and gives us opportunities to strengthen existing alliances. Will the Minister of State give an update from a European Council perspective on the work being achieved and our position in Ireland as a leading member in an EU of 27, after March 2019? Who will be our obvious allies? Once the UK leaves the EU, our strongest and oldest ally in it is gone. We joined the European Economic Community with the UK. France is our next nearest neighbour. We have good ties with France when it comes to the Common Agricultural Policy, energy security, building the interconnector. We also have good ties with the Benelux and Nordic countries. Will the Minister of State give more detail on how the work on strengthening and developing alliances is going?
The Minister of State is most welcome to the committee. I also welcome my colleague, Brian Hayes, MEP, who always makes himself available to Members, as do his colleagues, Marian Harkin and Nessa Childers. Every time I turn around, Brian Hayes is here listening to what is going on and bringing back information from Brussels. For that, I am deeply appreciative, although he is a tough guy to debate against on radio.
The Minister of State, her predecessor and the Government are to be congratulated on the work they are doing. As we enter this phase of rediscovering or reappraising where we are going with Europe, I hope they will take on board the presentation made to the committee by the National Youth Council. It was looking forward to a more socially aware Europe, one more interested in the citizen than in the corporate world. I realise one cannot have a Europe without the corporate world, but the citizens somehow or other, have to be central to everything we do. Expanding youth operations and programmes, such as ERASMUS+, are extremely important. The greater integration and co-operation for our young, the more secure Europe will be as we go forward. That was evidenced in the Brexit referendum in the UK. The youth of England were not really that motivated towards breaking from Europe. There is a lesson to be learned from that.
The Minister of State averted to defence and neutrality at the same time. Sometimes in this country we get a little bogged down on the neutrality issue. Ireland is a neutral country. If there was an attempt to establish a European army, I would be the first person to shout, "Down with that sort of thing". Unfortunately, our security services, the Garda and the Defence Forces, wear two hats, a security and policing hat and a security and defence hat respectively. There is nothing wrong with greater integration in the security of Europe. I do not believe it undermines our neutrality in any way. For example, we need to integrate intelligence services right across Europe. On several occasions, I have called for the establishment of an Irish security service with a director of intelligence. It is extremely important if we are to deal with organisations such as MI5 and its European equivalents. We have to have someone of equal standing. It is simply not good enough for a Garda Commissioner to expect to deal with the director of MI5.
We need greater integration, particularly with the threats which exist across Europe today. We should not fool ourselves in Ireland that there are not terrorists being radicalised and trained here or being exported to other parts of the world. They are there under the surface. Our own police are to be congratulated because they have uncovered several terrorist cells in recent years and have brought people to justice. However, I would like to see greater integration in this area.
We always talk about defence co-operation in Europe but rarely talk about police co-operation. While there is a police co-operative service through Europe, I would like to see it enhanced and better resourced. Counter-terrorism has to be at the front of everything we do today. The other day in London with Senator Frank Feighan's delegation, someone pointed out how a busy street is an ideal target for a lone wolf terrorist. Everyone is aware of what happened in Barcelona recently and New York earlier this week. One is not safe anywhere. The only way to tackle that is by having a good intelligence and solution service, working hand in hand.
For the sake of argument - I do not want to be accused of scaremongering - if a group decided to hijack a bus of tourists in Moll's Gap, Clifden or Westport, how quickly could we get troops to that part of the country? The truth of the matter is we do not have the military hardware to get them there. Being part of a joint purchasing scheme through Europe, we possibly could buy military equipment at a much cheaper cost and equip our services much better.
I have made a similar point several times on the purchase of medicines. I cannot understand the reason Europe does not use its purchasing power. While we are capable of establishing common policies in agriculture and other areas, we appear to be incapable of forcing the major drug companies to provide drugs at the same price across Europe. I am sure Mr. Hayes will offer a reason for this in a few moments. I would like the European Union to act on this issue.
My welcome for President Tusk's vision is qualified. The Taoiseach has taken a proactive approach to various issues, including telling the European Union to keep its hands off our corporate tax rate. We will watch how this develops over time. It is great that Europe has spoken out on the nuclear deal with Iran, which is extremely important for world peace. The world has enough problems without offending the Iranians. I was a member of a recent parliamentary delegation which visited Iran where we were treated extremely well. Everywhere we went people spoke about the dangers presented by the rejection of the nuclear deal, not only to Iran, the only stable society in the region, but also to the rest of the world. It is excellent that Europe has spoken out on this issue. If the Minister of State wishes to make a comment, I would love to hear it.
Having spoken to the British this week, I am concerned that there is not enough pressure on the Brexit negotiations. At this stage, we have heard so much about Brexit that the yawn factor is beginning to emerge. When an issue such as this becomes boring, it becomes dangerous. Any move to negotiating on trade without first resolving the Northern Ireland issue leaves us in a position where the Border issue could very well be pushed aside over a period. I understand there may be a requirement to enter phase two of the negotiations in some areas. For example, one cannot talk about tariffs and customs without exploring where one is going there but I am not sure we should move fully into phase two negotiations.
I will conclude. What plans are in place for the Taoiseach to put forward an Irish vision for Brexit? This question may be a little premature because the public consultation is only now commencing. I would like to hear a strong statement on this matter. The Vice Chairman has put me in my box again.
I will take account of the Vice Chairman's comments and try to phrase my comments as questions. I thank the Minister of State for appearing before the joint committee. Senator Richmond asked many of the questions I intended to ask and I do not propose repeating the points he made. The Senator referred to the terminology of a speech made by the Taoiseach on the Irish position. While I like consultation as a process, the party the Taoiseach leads has a very strong tradition in Europe and a very clear position on the matter. Speaking as a member of the Fine Gael Party and a Deputy, there is a clear need for an enunciation by the Government of what we would like to see in terms of the federal future of Europe.
During my most recent conversation with the Minister of State, I noted that one of the greatest threats to the long-term future security of Europe is the belief among certain large member states that they have ownership of Europe and their view that the rest of us are almost an inconvenience who are along for the ride. This view must be challenged by all the smaller member states. The belief that this view is held among certain member states may not be shared at governmental level but it is certainly felt by citizens of the European Union, particularly in smaller member states. It is not helped by the Franco-German axis behaving in a way that sometimes gives the impression that their view of Europe is the only view of Europe. Many other member states, notably new eastern European and smaller states, hold similar views to those of Ireland. We need a stronger, deeper and more integrated Europe but it must be a confederation of equal states that are proud of their traditions and heritage and want to work together in a stronger deeper Europe. We must get this message out very clearly. My party has believed in this approach for many years. All Irish Governments have held the same view of where we should go on Europe and we should be at the forefront of leading this approach.
I am particularly anxious to find out what our thinking will be in the event of the Brexit negotiations failing. We consistently monopolise the view that negotiations will fail because the British will be awkward or obstinate. However, the ratification process for the Brexit deal through the European Union structures is as likely to result in the deal failing as the British stance. If a deal is reached, as I believe probable, what is our position on the possibility that it will not be ratified?
In the context of the position that there should not be a border on this island, what is our position on where the border should be? There is a significant amount of east-west movement and many goods are transported across the United Kingdom into the Continent. Given that we will be on the wrong side of the UK after Brexit, what is our position on the swathe of industry which needs to access the continental market?
I welcome Mr. Brian Hayes, MEP. I know it has been difficult for him to attend. I thank him for looking after the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly Brexit B committee when we visited Brussels recently. I invite Mr. Hayes to address the Minister of State.
Mr. Brian Hayes:
I thank members for the opportunity to attend this meeting and apologise for not appearing before the joint committee more often. The issue is one of scheduling. As an Irish Member of the European Parliament, I appreciate the invitation to take part in this debate.
I apologise to the Minister of State for missing her speech, although I have read it. I thank her for the work she has done since her appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for European Union affairs. She has brought to her role great energy and a new perspective, which is always useful in government.
In my day job in Brussels and Strasbourg, I see daily the extraordinary work of officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, other Departments and the diplomatic service. They work very hard on the Brexit negotiations. I noted some announcements in the recent budget on additional support and funding for diplomatic efforts. Will the Minister of State provide further detail on this funding? As a result of the economic crisis, a smaller group of people had to do the same amount of work as was done prior to the crisis. If we are serious about advancing Irish and European Union interests, we must support our colleagues at permanent representation level in Brussels who do extraordinary work. Additional resources will be crucial and I would appreciate further information in that regard.
The Minister of State referred to the importance of having this debate now. President Juncker, in his state of the union speech in Strasbourg two months ago, stated he hoped that by the time of the Romanian Presidency in March 2019, just before elections to the European Parliament are due, we will have reached some finality regarding the White Paper and what conclusions can be drawn from it. We have, therefore, an 18-month period in which to engage in a nationwide public dialogue to be led by the Minister of State and Taoiseach.
It is really important that we have this dialogue now. We have it in a vacuum, in a sense, as we have a White Paper but, in fairness to Jean-Claude Juncker, he has said it is just the Commission's view. The Council will come to a view. The Parliament has already come to a view, in terms of the work we have concluded on the report of the five Presidents. In this 18 month period, it is important for all political parties to sketch out what are our priorities. Too often in the past we have responded to treaties. I do not believe, quite frankly, there is any appetite in the Council, and certainly not a majority of Parliament, for treaty change at present. I see the next two years as a period of mini-bargains and mini-deals as we move forward. I do not think there is support for a full federation, but equally there is no support for leaving things as they are. We must work for something in between, such as a twin-track approach which, effectively, we have at the moment with the eurozone, or working out a more co-ordinated policy in economic affairs. We have an opportunity. I ask the Government to work with all of the political parties in trying to map out our priorities and be part of the debate.
Not only have we had the White Paper published by President Juncker earlier this year, but five reflection papers have also been published. One is on social Europe, on which a point has been made, and the others are on globalisation, defence and security, the question of deeper economic and monetary union, and future financing and the question of the EU budget. Does the Government plan to respond officially to these five papers, either by a collection of Departments or centrally? If so, what is the timeline on it?
I want to pick up on remarks made on defence and security. I agree fully with what my colleagues have said on all sides of the debate. The Taoiseach said yesterday the debate on where we go with regard to permanent structured co-operation on security and defence, PESCO, is very interesting, and obviously the Government will contribute to it. This is an opportunity for Ireland to look at defence and security differently. No one is suggesting there will be any challenge to our traditional policy of being militarily non-aligned. I have never accepted the principle of neutrality. I do not think we are neutral on the question of European, Irish or western values. We are not neutral on these questions. We are non-aligned militarily. No one is suggesting there will ever be a challenge to this. No one is suggesting a common mutual defence pact a bit like the old WEU Article 4 commitments, whereby once one country is attacked another country automatically comes to its defence. No one is suggesting this, and no one is suggesting dragooning our children into a common European army, but we can do things differently to show our common cause to other member states. One could argue solidarity clauses already exist in the treaties. We could possibly have a reworking of the triple lock for circumstances where at the UN, for political reasons, for example, China and the rest cannot agree on a resolution. Perhaps it is an EU response that is required.
On the question Senator Craughwell raised on economies of scale and procurement, we have less than 0.4% spending on defence at present. It is not enough in a circumstance of threats. Even if one looks at the White Paper on Defence from some years ago, there have been rapid changes in the past two years with cybersecurity and other issues regarding terrorism.
I am aware of the debate on PESCO at present. There are things we can do which will show our solidarity to the 27 other member states, soon to be 26, which will not cut across our traditional policy. We can do these in an open, honest, transparent way rather than pretending to some people and dressing it up as neutrality when it is not.
My final remark on Brexit, knowing the committee has a lot on his plate, is that assuming we get to a deal, and I welcome what the Taoiseach said recently, it would be a disaster for Europe, the UK and especially for us if, by December, we cannot get to phase 2. We have to show a degree of flexibility around this in my view. I appreciate it is more difficult for the Government to say this. We need flexibility on the European side as well as on the British side. We need some sequencing. The question of transitioning is the most important issue at present for our businesses throughout the country. Will the Government ensure that as part of the EU negotiations an early commitment will be given on transitioning, rather than a commitment at one minute to midnight, because if that is the case we will lose so much time in the negotiations? Businesses are making their decisions now, or will have to make their decisions by the first quarter of next year. This is the challenge we face on the business front.
I thank the Vice Chairman. If I miss any questions I ask committee members to alert me and I will try to come back to them. I thank all of the members for their contributions and questions. To answer Senator Richmond on the debate on the future of Europe, which is starting next week, it has been catapulted forward because of what is happening with Brexit. While Brexit is one of our key priorities, we will not be left behind on the discussion on the future of Europe. However, we are very much at the beginning of that process. While I understand that people want the Taoiseach to make a speech that is one or two hours long to set out where we are going, this is much harder while we are at the beginning of the process. He will speak next week, obviously, and set out some of the priorities, but we are at the beginning of this process and what we hope to see following next Wednesday is this initial phase bringing us up until May and that it will have two elements.
Probably the most difficult issue, and I am sure our French colleagues and those from other member states would agree, is to engage people who would not normally engage on politics and European issues. Getting the conversation going will be the challenge, but we very much hope we will be able to do this with the support of members here and through our various institutions, schools, colleges and local authorities, so that throughout the country we will be able to engage on all of the issues we have discussed today, including jobs, growth, opportunities available for our young people, environment, security, defence and migration. People need to have a say on all of these key issues.
What I would like to see happening throughout the debate is that we have a very positive discussion on the benefits of Europe and how Ireland has already benefitted. The statistic that most surprised me recently was that more than 50% of people here were not born when Ireland became a member of the European Union. For most people, it is the status quoand it has always been there. Senator Craughwell spoke about social issues and our young people. We receive €610 million from Europe to add to our programme on employability and training. We have additional funding for our youth guarantee scheme, which is for those under the age of 25. We have the Erasmus programme, which allows our young people to live, work and travel abroad and allow people to come to us here. We must get all of this positive message out, build on it and ask how it can be improved and work better for our citizens. I thank the committee for its work to date on this, and I look forward to working with it, all Members and our MEPs as the debate moves forward. We are engaging with other member states to see how they carry out this process. While there needs to be a discussion within countries and among leaders, there also needs to be a discussion among citizens. Some member states have already started this process. They have already started their engagement and debate, so it will be very interesting to see how we can work with them on these areas.
With regard to Brexit, Senator Richmond touched on our engagement and the fact we are losing our nearest friend and closest ally and how will we look to make new friends. It is very positive that the Taoiseach was asked to join the Nordic and Baltic meeting before the Council meeting. Denmark was also invited. In the past week, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, had a meeting with similar member states at an informal lunch prior to the finance committee meeting. We have a very high attendance rate by Ministers, at almost 100%, at all of our Council meetings. We are also engaging with all of the other institutions. Between now and next June, we will have at least one Minister attending all of the European Parliament sessions. It is very important that we engage with our MEPs and MEPs from other countries. This is something we see as a priority and something we can build on and improve with time.
In the context of the Minister being quoted as seeking a five-year transition period, I do not believe that is the case. The UK has suggested two years. We have all seen how things have taken a little longer than the British would like. Given that start talking about a transitional period and what that might look like, it would be unwise to give an exact timeline until we know what it actually might be. There is a suggestion that it could take up to five years or anything around that amount of time. There is no specific timeline at this stage.
In phase 2 of the negotiations, consideration will be given to different industries and scenarios. We will do as much as we can to prepare ourselves in the absence of knowing what phase 2 will look like. The all-island civil dialogue has taken place a number of times. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, will chair the cross-party civil forum, which is a smaller version of the dialogue group. It will bring together the various stakeholder forums, representatives bodies and organisations. We want this process to remain as open and transparent as possible but it is a two-way system. We inform the industries and bodies about our work and what is happening but we also want them to give us feedback on what they feel we should be doing and on what is happening to them. In the absence of any clear vision of what phase 2 will look like, as much work as possible is being done in that regard within each Department.
A question was asked about a hard Brexit scenario and whether the Government in the UK pushed for that. My view is that the latter was not the case. That is just on the basis of the engagement I have had with Members of Parliament across the board in the UK. Again, it is very difficult to identify what that might be when we are not in that scenario.
Senator Craughwell discussed a more socially aware European Union. When we talk about the future of Europe, we often hear about the Single Market, the digital Single Market, security and defence. We will also focus on and debate opportunities for our young people, what the Single Market means and how its full implementation will transpire into jobs. We have seen that ourselves in our economy and with the number of people back in employment. This is proof of how that can have a massive impact on the social aspect of people's lives. When a Government spends more money on those elements, there is a huge impact. All of these aspects feed into that element. Obviously, we need to ensure that people are aware of that. The Taoiseach, possibly, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and I will attend the EU Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg next week and I hope that signals our commitment in this area.
On security and defence, we have been very insistent. Previously, the debate tended to focus more on defence. Security has come into the equation more. In fact, so much so that the term "security and defence" is now being used. I agree with what Mr. Brian Hayes, MEP, has said. We cannot stand by and say that we are neutral because we know that in certain areas this is not and should not be the case. We need to discuss the matter with citizens. We must discover, if we are to keep our military neutrality, where we stand when it comes to terrorism online, supporting other member states and supporting our families and friends in the UK when attacks take place, as was recently the case. Where do we stand when it comes to people being attacked indiscriminately in the middle of the street? How do we work together in such circumstances?
In terms of PESCO, it is something that we will working towards at the December Council meeting. It will allow us and enhance our capability to engage in crises management around those key issues. We are very keen to bring that debate back to the Dáil and the Seanad and I hope we can reach agreement in respect of it. Again, that feeds into better police co-operation, integration, etc.
I accept the comments that were made on the nuclear deal. Deputy Brophy mentioned the federal future of Europe and other member states. It is any member state's prerogative to set out its ideas. There have been some strong statements on some key issues with which we might not necessarily agree. Again, they are just member states setting out their priorities and agenda. Jean-Claude Junker's priorities, agendas and scenarios are not exclusive or exhaustive. They can act as a springboard or a mechanism to commence debate. We can participate in the debate. While we might not agree on areas of taxation, or changes to our institutions, we must have that debate ourselves and bring it forward. A number of countries of similar size - and with similar priorities - to Ireland would probably agree with us in other key areas in respect of which some of the larger countries, for example, France and Germany, would not agree. While we may be small we have shown in the past that we conveyed our views across and our voice was heard.
Members asked what happens if negotiations fail. We are working to ensure that does not happen. All 27 members states are making every effort to ensure that negotiations do not fail. To see the unity that has remained among the 27 member states on all issues, particularly on those relating to Ireland, has been wonderful. This shows that while some thought the European Union might crumble and fall apart following Brexit, the EU has actually become stronger. At the same time, we are not there to strong-arm the United Kingdom or put it under pressure. We have reached the current stage based on negotiation, having a mutual respect and through co-operation. The negotiations must continue in that manner. We have shown a willingness to move on to phase 2 and to discuss the transition period again. I hope that all shows we are willing to engage and are ready to move on to phase 2.
In terms of our exact views on the Border issue, we have made it very clear that no physical infrastructure can be put in place on the island of Ireland. This matter is not just about customs and trade, is a political issue. We very much feel that the United Kingdom needs to come forward with a solution. We welcome its commitment to having no frontier but it is a contradiction for the UK to leave the Single Market and the customs union. Our preference would be for the UK to remain within the Single Market and the customs union in order that there would be no hard border. In the absence of that, it needs to be acknowledged that the scenario in Ireland is very unique and thus requires a unique and imaginative political solution. Nothing needs to be fully resolved by the conclusion of phase 1 but further progress needs to be made than heretofore has been the case.
In terms of Brian Hayes, MEP, and doubling our footprint, the Taoiseach has given such a commitment, as has the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. It was announced in the budget that Ireland wants to double its global footprint. I think we gave a very clear commitment during the economic and financial crisis here that we did not close any of our missions within Europe or any of our embassies. We did not close them because we understood the significance and importance of maintaining close relations and ties with all of our European counterparts and those further afield. As things change and we seek to expand, we have already increased staff numbers at our various offices in Brussels and Paris. However, we are also looking further afield. The President announced a new office in New Zealand. We already have an office in Vancouver and other offices will be opened. We have an ideal to establish an Ireland house in countries where we may be weaker and in places where our institutions and bodies, such as Bord Bia or Enterprise Ireland, do not have as strong a footprint. An Ireland House would allow them to work together under the same roof thus ensuring a stronger connection to the host countries. We are working on the initiative and funding has been made available. We hope to develop the initiative further in the new year.
On the 18-month dialogue, we agree with President Tusk's view that it should be up to a two-year process, which we are starting now. When we have that engagement, we will be able to see where we need to move on from, what we need to consider in greater detail and whether we must consult the citizens of Ireland on any key specific issues.
In terms of the five reflection papers, so far the Minister for Finance is the only member of Cabinet who has done specific work on one of the papers. We have asked the Institute of International and European Affairs, IIEA, to analyse all of the five papers and report back to us in the near future. I shall keep the committee updated on all of them.
Absolutely. I apologise for not answering the question properly. Senator Richmond also asked it. At the General Affairs Council meeting, this was discussed. It was the key area of discussion for our informal lunch throughout the day. While the completion of the digital Single Market was a key priority, there was unanimous support for the Commission's proposals on cybersecurity at the Tallinn digital summit. It was attended by Minister of State, Deputy Breen. I was not in attendance. It highlighted cybersecurity as a key priority for the European Union. Included is an action plan to ensure work advances in line with agreements at the General Affairs Council. At the November meeting, which will be in the next two weeks, we will adopt conclusions on the cybersecurity package proposed. It is progressing. It is a key priority for the Estonian Presidency. We have been very vocal and very much to the fore in supporting it throughout the process.
It is important that this committee meet the Minister of State regularly. The committee is her sounding board in a sense. She will have heard the tremendous contributions by members today. They aired comprehensive views that I hope will assist her and her senior officials, who were very welcome today. I thank the Minister of State. I thank the witnesses from the embassies. I thank Ms Valérie Gomez-Bassac for attending and listening to the response. I wish her well on her visit to Ireland.