Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union: Discussion

2:00 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Apologies have been received from Senator Paul Coghlan. I remind members that it is important to ensure their mobile phones are switched off as they cause serious problems for broadcasting, editorial and sound staff.

I am particularly pleased that we are having an engagement with Mr. Branimir Zaimov, ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to Ireland. On behalf of the joint committee, I welcome him and his assistant, Mrs. Milena Ivanova, at the beginning of the period in which his country will hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. That is both very important and significant and we very much appreciate him taking time out of his busy schedule to be here to engage with us on his country's priorities for the Presidency.

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 any official 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, however, they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, 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.

I invite the ambassador to make his opening statement. I will then open the floor to members to make their contributions and him questions.

H.E. Mr. Branimir Zaimov:

Thank you, Chairman. Please allow me to start by thanking you for your invitation to speak to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. It is a great honour for me to do so on the topic of the priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

On 1 January, a little more than a decade after its accession to the European Union, Bulgaria took over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time. For my country, it is not only a great honour but also a great responsibility. During the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the period 1 January to 30 June the Republic of Bulgaria will strive in a positive spirit to achieve future-oriented realistic results, following the principles of transparency and accountability, and realise an open-to-all-citizens Presidency. Bulgaria will try to find a balance between the specific priorities of the member states and the strategic priorities of the European Union to achieve real, visible results in active dialogue with citizens on European issues and respond to their expectations for greater security, employment, sustainable growth and a stronger EU presence on the world stage.

The leading principle of the Bulgarian Presidency will be maintaining unity and solidarity among member states by offering compromise solutions within the Community method. The Bulgarian Presidency will work on youth and security issues as horizontal priorities, in view of the complex nature of the challenges facing young people and the contemporary security environment. Our goal is to respond to the real needs of European citizens and turn challenges into opportunities. Today Europe needs more security, solidarity and stability. To that end, we will work to secure a secure Europe because the migration crisis and the terrorist acts in recent years have shown how vulnerable we are; a stable Europe because citizens want to know that the European Union is taking care of their prosperity and well-being; and a Europe of solidarity because all member states are faced with the main challenges which can be overcome only through joint action, not at national or local level. How are we going to achieve this? We will achieve it through applying the 3 Cs - consensus, competitiveness and cohesion. We are convinced that they are fundamental for the future of Europe and to achieve them one will need courage, political vision and shared efforts.

The key to attaining our common goals is unity. It is not by chance that we chose "United We Stand Strong" as our slogan. It is the motto of our national assembly and on the coat of arms of the Republic of Bulgaria. It will be the slogan of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union and which our country will follow in each action as the rotational President. We will work for unity between the member states, as well as between the European institutions. Tomorrow Europe will be what we make it today.

The Bulgarian Presidency will work in a transparent manner, be open to all European partners and, above all, all European citizens. Bulgaria will seek a broad consensus among the member states on issues of importance to the citizens of the European Union. As President of the Council of the European Union, the Republic of Bulgaria will work on building and implementing effective mechanisms for enhancing the security of EU citizens, strengthening border controls and managing more effectively migration processes. Achieving a sustainable migration management system and increasing the effectiveness of the return policy will be a top priority, the realisation of which will be pursued by enhancing dialogue with third countries.

In the field of security and combating crime and terrorism, the efforts of the Bulgarian Presidency will be aimed at improving the interoperability of EU information systems and databases; finalising work on the proposals to amend the legal framework for the functioning of the Schengen Information System; and laying the foundations for the effective implementation of the passenger names record directive.

One of our main priorities is the future of the western Balkans in the European Union. As the committee will be aware, the European Union has a clear interest in the stability, security and prosperity of the Western Balkans where its rules and values are respected. Delivering a tangible European perspective for all of the western Balkan countries, including dialogue based on the fulfilment of the conditions and principles of own merit, political will and decisive reforms by these countries, is key not only for the region but also for the European Union as a whole. The Republic of Bulgaria attaches great importance to deepening regional co-operation and developing good neighbourly relations. We share the importance of the so-called connectivity agenda - transport, communications, infrastructure and energy - with the understanding the aim is to improve the links with the Single Market. The potential initiative for digital connectivity which the Bulgarian Presidency plans to offer is a step by step adoption of roaming rules within the European Union by the western Balkan countries also, passing through a gradual reduction in roaming charges and an increase in broadband Internet access opportunities for these countries.

Bulgaria will be a balancing player and promote the competitiveness environment that is important for the economic prosperity of the citizens of the European Union. We will focus on the Digital Single Market as a source of growth and competitiveness in order to achieve a greater share of online service users and the rapid penetration of information and communications technologies across all sectors of the economy. The main aims of the Presidency will be the promotion of entrepreneurship and social innovation; economic and monetary union in the European Union; a sustainable and future-oriented environment; a stable European energy union and a reformed multiannual financial framework post-2020. Other aims include sustaining the cohesion policy after 2020. The Bulgarian Presidency will make an effort to have an open debate on the future of the cohesion policy and its role in the implementation of the European Union's priorities post-2020 in working to preserve its leading role in the EU budget post-2020.

Another aim is the simplification and modernisation of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. In today's conditions of globalisation and growing core populations the role for agricultural production and rural development as an important economic, social and political factor is growing. It is of crucial importance for the future CAP parameters beyond 2020 to be defined in a way that will help to improve the sustainability of agricultural holdings and ensure stable levels of farmers' incomes. During the discussion on the future CAP the Bulgarian Presidency intends to place the emphasis on preserving the CAP budget and the instruments of the current CAP structure that have proved their effectiveness, including the single area payment scheme and coupled support, as well as on developing sustainable agricultural production in the context of environmental protection. Another aim is to have culture as a strategic resource for the better future of the European Union.

The four main priorities for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union will be, first, the future of Europe, its young people, economic growth and social cohesion. Economic growth and social cohesion are key to the future of Europe. There are many challenges, but we shall overcome them together. It is important that the member states' economies continue to grow and that all EU member states participate in the debate on the reform of the eurozone as equals, regardless of whether they are members of the latter.

The second priority is security and stability in a strong and united Europe. Security and migration policies are some of the topics on which we need consensus and to make joint efforts. The Bulgarian Presidency will work towards long lasting and fair solutions in the area of asylum policy, efficient policies for return and readmission and a balanced approach between short and long-term measures, aimed at the source of migration, not only the consequences thereof. That is why great emphasis in our efforts will be placed on security, whereby we will focus on strengthening border controls, the exchange of information between the various bodies and prevention.

The third priority will be the European perspective and connectivity of the western Balkans. The ambition of the Bulgarian Presidency is to achieve a clear action plan with each of the countries without creating unrealistic expectations but with concrete steps. That is the way to long lasting peace, security and prosperity in the region. The goal is to provide connectivity for the western Balkan countries through transport, air, energy, education and digital connectivity. Bulgaria invests consequent efforts in this direction by promoting the digital policies of the European Union among the countries in the western Balkans through the gradual reduction of roaming charges and increasing the possibilities for broadband Internet access.

The fourth priority is the digital economy and skills for the future. Europe's role in the rapidly developing world is directly linked with the competitiveness of the European economy. The Single Digital Market, access to innovation and the link between education and the requirements of the future labour market are the basis of technological development. It is not by chance that they are a major element of the programmes of the trio of Presidencies, Estonia-Bulgaria-Austria, and a priority of the Bulgarian Presidency. Electronic communication, the provision of transboundary services, particularly for the SMEs, copyright, e-privacy and cybersecurity are some of the items on the agenda that need to be decided on. Linking the education of young people with learning the skills of the future is the way to achieve a competitive, flexible and successful Europe.

On Brexit, I assure everybody here that the Bulgarian Presidency is aware that the topic will be of paramount importance during its Presidency. If I have not mentioned it previously in my statement it is only because the Presidency as such is not directly responsible for the ongoing negotiations with the United Kingdom. As the committee will be aware, the negotiations are due to move to the second phase during the Bulgarian Presidency. Bulgaria is well aware of the importance of the negotiations for Ireland and the whole of Europe. Members may rest assured that in my capacity as ambassador I have informed my government of Ireland's position and concerns which include that a hard border might not only have grave economic consequences but could also endanger the peace process in Northern Ireland and affect the island of Ireland as a whole. I am pleased to inform the committee also that during his visit to Sofia on 5 January the Taoiseach personally informed the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Mr. Borisov, of Irish concerns regarding the negotiations on Brexit. The Taoiseach and the Bulgarian Prime Minister agreed on the importance of continuing the second phase of the negotiations and promised mutual support in this endeavour. We are greatly encouraged by the fact that the person leading the negotiations for the European Union side, Mr. Michel Barnier, pledged his support for the Irish position during his visit to Ireland and before the committee, as well as during his recent visit to Bulgaria.

We are pleased to hear the same position reiterated by both European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. In this respect, please be assured the Bulgarian Presidency will do its part in assisting the negotiations in a most favourable way.

In conclusion I express my great satisfaction that as I mentioned, during his recent visit to Bulgaria on 5 January, the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, expressed his Government's support for the priorities set by the Bulgarian Presidency of the European Union. He stated he wished to support the priorities as set out by the Bulgarian Presidency and that Ireland will assist the Presidency in implementing these priorities. I am now happy to hear comments and I will try to answer any questions from members of the joint committee on our priorities. I thank members for their attention.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Before going to members I acknowledge the warm reception the Taoiseach got when he went to Bulgaria. He was very grateful for the reception he received and the work that he and his team did while there. They were very glad to be able to fit that visit into his schedule.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the ambassador for his very thorough presentation and I particularly enjoyed his closing remarks relating to Brexit. I wish Bulgaria the best of luck with its first Presidency of the Council of the European Union. I worked on the 2013 Irish Presidency and it was definitely a very rewarding part of my professional career before I entered politics full-time. I know how important it can be for a host country and it is a great opportunity for all our Ministers to visit Bulgaria over the coming months. I hope to join our delegation to the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, COSAC, meeting in due course. As the Chairman outlined, I know the Taoiseach really enjoyed his visit last week and got on very well with Prime Minister Borisov. There is much to build on there.

There are some key areas and I will start with what the ambassador finished with in Brexit. I fully appreciate the position of the rotating Presidency when it comes to the negotiations. We have moved to the phase two aspect negotiations and this is where there is a trade element and everything starts to move into the various sectoral parts, with direct responsibility to the wider European Council. It is important that all discussions in Bulgaria over the next six months would bear Brexit in mind. If we are starting to plan elements like the single digital market or Common Agricultural Policy planning, we should always reflect on what our relationship will be with the UK after 2019. It is very important for every member state and particularly Ireland that we ensure those discussions are future-proofed.

I will touch on three areas, based on the ambassador's remarks. The first relates to energy. I fully appreciate the matter of energy security and I stress its importance, as Ireland and Malta will be the only two member states that will not be connected to the continental European grid after 2019. All our connectivity is currently through the United Kingdom. We are working with our French counterparts to deliver the Celtic interconnector from Brittany to Cork. We have received quite a bit of support from the European Commission in terms of funding and with the planning authorities on both sides. However, this must be brought into the Council's discussion of energy security and policy. If the worst was to happen in ten or 15 years, all parts of the European Union should be connected to essential energy supplies.

The second area relates to accession and particularly the ambassador's remarks on the western Balkans. I have one question and one point to make. I am very much of the opinion that the relationship between candidate, accession or applicant countries with the European Union must be formalised. There must be a clear path to membership and it cannot be an unending possibility that is not obtainable to certain states. There is a clear example with the Turkish application to join the European body, which has been in the mixer for two decades now. It seems to have drifted so much that it is no longer necessarily something to which many in Turkey aspire. Domestic politics have taken a step backwards there in this regard. As Bulgaria is a very recent accession country, how does it feel the European Union can act better with respect to applicant and accession countries? How can it ensure the relationship would be formalised and not be a vague aspiration? It should have a material benefit. The countries that hope one day to join the European Union or have ever closer relationships should be able to benefit materially from the process. Rather than seeing benefit at the end of the road, staying the course as an applicant country should be worthwhile. We need to prove to all member states, in light of Brexit, that being part of the European Union is absolutely worthwhile. We need to redouble our efforts with applicant and accession countries to ensure that while membership in due course is really worthwhile, continuing along the accession process is equally worthwhile.

The final area relates to the debate on the future of Europe. Although it may have clashed with another of the ambassador's engagements this morning, we saw a major speech from the Taoiseach at the European Parliament in which he laid out his vision for the future of Europe. I suppose that was in response to French President Macron's slightly lengthier speech at the end of last year. It is part of a wider process. Senator Craughwell, the Chairman and I, along with others, attended the kick-off of the future of Europe events being hosted by the Irish Government in tandem with European Movement Ireland to get the discussion going among people. This involves quite a number of stakeholders and various European Commissioners will address them and examine the five key areas as outlined by President Juncker. They concern what is best for Ireland and what Ireland feels is best for the entire European Union, the 27 remaining member states. Is anything similar happening in Bulgaria? How much emphasis will the Bulgarian Presidency put on the debate around the future of Europe?

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I say good luck to everybody in the new year and wish everybody success. I warmly welcome the ambassador and his colleague today. They have given a very comprehensive outline of proposals for the Presidency, on which I congratulate them. Bulgaria is a recent member of the European Union and it is a great honour for the country to assume that Presidency for six months. The slogan, "united we stand strong", is very appropriate in the current climate as we see developments from Brexit etc.

I have the honour of representing our Chairman, Deputy Healy-Rae, and the committee in Sofia at the COSAC meeting. I look forward to meeting the ambassador's colleagues and colleagues from throughout the European Union to discuss objectives and plans, which we will do in detail. The witnesses have set out their position comprehensively. I have no doubt, having heard reports from the Taoiseach's visit on 5 January, that he had a very successful visit. He outlined the policy of the State to fully support the objectives of the Presidency of Bulgaria. I can say without any fear of contradiction that it would be the united approach of this joint committee. We are with Bulgaria in its Presidency and we look forward to meeting colleagues. I hope Bulgarian colleagues will visit us during the next six months.

This is an enormous opportunity for Bulgaria. I know they are taking this very seriously and giving it 100% attention. Connectivity is very important and I am delighted Ryanair flies to Sofia three times per week. It is a big step forward and I again recognise the work of Mr. Michael O'Leary and Ryanair. Ryanair has done much for Ireland and Europe by creating connectivity throughout the European Union. I can say it has done more than any other airline in this respect, as it travels to every part of the European Union and beyond. I recognise that work and commitment and, as Irish people, we are very proud to have an airline like Ryanair servicing Bulgaria. When I meet the ambassador's colleagues and learn more about the Presidency, I will be in a better position to contribute to later discussions.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We wish the Senator well on that trip.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the ambassador and Ms Ivanova. I thank the ambassador for his presentation. As the ambassador is aware, this is a very historic occasion from the point of view of both Bulgaria and Europe.

We have something in common. Bulgaria is on the eastern extremity of the European Union as it stands at present and we are on the western extremity. Unlike Ireland, Bulgaria has direct access and it is possible to drive to any part of the mainland of Europe. We cannot unfortunately. We are a little bit isolated. In the context of Brexit, we will be slightly more isolated. As a result, we will have to try harder, work harder, influence more decisions, as we have done in the past in fact, and be good Europeans. Bulgaria needs to do the same thing and is conscious of that.

The ambassador's comments on the principles of security, stability and solidarity are well mentioned and well timed. The acquis communautaire, and I take my cue from my colleague because I agree with him, sets down certain principles that we have to work towards and under that umbrella, we strive toward a goal. It is important to accept the acquisboth at accession time and during the course of one's membership. Each country has a responsibility in that regard. There are occasions from time to time during which one would review the degree to which all countries still aspire to and adhere to the acquis.

It might be no harm to remember that in some instances in the course of the Bulgarian Presidency. I refer not to Bulgaria itself, but in respect of some other countries. It is a nice way of saying that we join on the basis of one set of principles. I believe that if we are to have a truly successful Europe, we must remain on the basis of the same set of principles. The Single Market to which the ambassador referred is hugely important as well. We emphasis that repeatedly. Whatever country, region or part of the European Union in which we live, we must have access at all times to that Single Market. We must have the benefit of that Single Market. We must be able to show to our people that membership of the European Union is in their interest and that they benefit directly from it. It is of huge importance. The degree to which we utilise public relations in getting that message across is more important now than it ever was. I refer particularly to times of populism, which usually involve short-term remedies to long-term problems. We have history right across Europe which should teach us lessons in that regard.

The currency comes to my mind again. I have always held the view that a single currency across Europe would be of huge benefit to the European Union. I have used the comparison with the United States. I cannot for the life of me understand why it would have been beneficial for any state in the United States to have its own currency. I know we have technology tokens now that go beyond that, but the fact still remains that a single currency applicable right across the European Union would be far better than a multiplicity of currencies. I hope that day will come.

Brexit is important. It is a huge challenge for the European Union. It is a huge challenge for neighbours like this country that are very close geographically to the UK. We have very strong trade and political links. We have borders which have been subject to a great deal of discussion in recent times. It affects us greatly. It would be a great idea if our UK colleagues had second thoughts. There are huge benefits within a market of 500 million people. It is not so easy to replicate that market outside it.

My colleague has referred to the issue of energy. The European grid is hugely important. We are somewhat more isolated, as I said already. It is now more important than ever for us to gain access to the European grid. I think we have to have a change of mind ourselves as well. We must recognise in Ireland that we must expect in the future to be obliged to rely on alternative energy, be that wind, sea, hydro energy or whatever. Those alternatives will have to become part and parcel of our lifestyles. To have access to the grid means continuity of supply. Lack of access to the grid means that if we are dependent on wind energy, and we have calm for a couple of weeks, it will not be such a good idea. It is like the yachtsman on the sea waiting for the next breeze to turn up.

The most challenging issues are the reaffirmation of the European ideals and I think the Bulgarian Presidency is in a good position to do that. We have spoken about this many times in the past, and at every meeting that I have ever gone to in Brussels or in Strasbourg or wherever. I will not say how many years I have been doing that for.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Five or six years.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A couple of years. We repeatedly state we must reaffirm our objectives, our cohesiveness and our solidarity. We must determine where we are going and if we are happy to be going in that direction. We must also consider the alternatives. What we have is much better than any of the alternatives. It is of huge importance that we as individual member states are in a position to be able to illustrate to the people that we represent the benefits of all of the things that we have come to expect from the Single Market, namely, solidarity, unity of purpose, cohesion and the standing together of 500 million people. Hopefully, our British colleagues might even see fit to change their minds.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Chairman and the ambassador for outlining the priorities of the Presidency. I wish Bulgaria well in its endeavours. It is a big undertaking. A comprehensive programme has been outlined, which the other member states will be happy to support.

I also welcome the ambassador's comments on Brexit. He obviously appreciates the position of Ireland with regard to the negotiations. Bulgaria's support in that regard is very welcome. I can understand why Bulgaria will give migration serious attention. It has a long land frontier with Turkey. I note also that the European Council meeting in Brussels in December failed to reach any agreement on these issues. I refer to the position in respect of mandatory quotas and reform of the Dublin Convention. A lot of work needs to be done. It is a big issue and Bulgaria could be quite central in trying to resolve these issues at EU level.

There was an article in The Irish Times, dated 2 January, by Daniel McLaughlin on how Bulgaria's EU Presidency will deflect attention from its domestic problems. It mentioned that Bulgaria will "nudge forward" the prospect of its neighbours in relation to accession, which is welcome, but also mentions a position regarding "rampant corruption, threats to press freedom" and comments made by the deputy prime minister on the Roma and asylum seekers. While this may be none of our business here, given that this article has appeared and is out there, the ambassador might like to comment on that and on what the Bulgarian Government is doing with regard to those issues.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the ambassador and apologise that I was a little late getting here. The eyes of Europe are on Bulgaria right now as it takes over the Presidency. I wish it well. I am sure Bulgaria will rise to the occasion and it will all go fine. On the issue of Brexit, as the ambassador is aware, we got through phase one as a solid cohesive unit in Europe. As we move through the other stages of Brexit, there will be a natural tendency for each country to look towards its own specific economic needs. On looking at the ambassador's words, "security, solidarity and stability", to my mind solidarity and stability are the two greatest things that are required now as we face into Brexit. I am sure the Bulgarian Presidency will play its part.

I turn to the issue of security and migration. While Brexit is a threat to the economy of Europe, security - and migration in particular - is a threat to the cohesiveness that holds Europe together.

We have many different views across the European Union as to how migration might be dealt with. It has always been my view that we need to get away from the label of "refugee" and start talking about migrants. We need to start talking about those who are economic migrants. There will always be a home in all of our countries for genuine refugees who are running for their lives in fear of war and oppression. However, in the case of economic migrants we differ as we move across Europe. The Bulgarian Presidency will now be faced with the challenges involved there. We cannot expect Italy and Greece to handle all of the migrants who present. Nor can we set up border controls that are so rigid we finish up with massive bottlenecks in Libya and various parts of north Africa.

We need to take a proactive approach to economic migration. We need to make rules and regulation that provide for orderly economic migration, be it on a temporary basis whereby people come to build a set of skills and go home to help their economies, or be it that we bring migrants for specific economic purposes. We must manage the migration issue in a humane way. That is something all of the countries in Europe have to do. We all have to carry the load because, returning to the solidarity issue, it is one we must all face. We must take the illegal aspect out of migration. We have to put the traffickers out of business. We can only do so by setting up proper European visa authorising agencies in north Africa and various parts of the world. When I went to Italy late last year to look at migration, I was horrified to learn how far people had travelled only to finish up on some little rubber dinghy being pushed out into the Mediterranean and told Italy is a couple of miles over that way. We know what that has left in its wake. It is a big challenge for the EU Presidency to deal with.

On the issues of crime and terrorism, I constantly get attacked for my concern over terrorism. We are living in a very dangerous world and no country is immune to or totally protected from crime or terrorism. With that in mind, I am delighted to see that Bulgaria is committed to the development of an inter-European information system. It will be vital as we move forward. The passenger name recognition directive will be vital as well. The quicker we get that through, the better.

On the issue of cyber-security, if someone wants to collapse an economy it can be done in cyber-space in a matter of hours. We saw what happened when there was an attack on the health system in the UK last year. The cyber-criminals are out there all the time. It is no longer acceptable for Europe to have 27 different member states working on cyber-security. We need a cohesive, single European-based cyber-security organisation that manages, trains and provides the level of security we need to maintain our economies. I would hope to see something coming in on that front.

I note the interest of the Bulgarian Presidency in promoting entrepreneurship. One of the issues I would like to see addressed is placing a greater focus on micro-economic activity, in other words, the very small start-ups. The ambassador and I both know that a small business with one or two people today can turn out to be the Google or Microsoft of tomorrow.

Having come from an education background, I am extremely committed to anything that would open up pathways for the young. I would like to see the Erasmus programme extended to vocational as well as academic programmes. I want to see apprentice bricklayers, carpenters, toolmakers and so on travelling from Ireland to Bulgaria and vice versa. We need to share those skills and training methodologies across Europe. While it is all fine and dandy for the academic high fliers, as they would be seen in this country, to travel across Europe, those who build and maintain Europe are the tradesmen and craftsmen. We need a programme that will allow them to avail of Erasmus. There is some work being done in that area already in the field of transport.

While the focus on the young is all very well, I came back to education in my 30s as a mature student. We are living in an extremely dynamic world in which the skills of yesterday are long gone in a very short space of time. The need for continuing professional development, CPD, upskilling and retraining is a phenomenal challenge to all countries. As one economic driver dies, another is born. While I am very committed to developing programmes for the young, I would also like to see an emphasis on the cohort that can very quickly become long-term unemployed, namely, those whose skills are no longer required by the economy and who remain unemployed for a period of one year or longer. Somebody who is out of work for a year should be back in a training programme somewhere. That is a function of the Union.

I wish Bulgaria well with its Presidency. Our door is always open in this committee and we look forward to seeing the ambassador on a number of occasions over the period of the Presidency.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Thank you, Senator. I invite the ambassador to respond and kindly ask that he condense his replies. We are grateful that he is here today.

H.E. Mr. Branimir Zaimov:

Thank you, Chairman. I thank all the Deputies and Senators who have expressed their good wishes to my country and the Presidency we are to hold over the next six months. I will briefly try to answer some of the questions.

Most of statements by the distinguished Deputies and Senators are in agreement with what I have said. I would like especially to mention the statement by Senator Craughwell. I really appreciate his ideas on dividing the refugees from the so-called economic migrants, Bulgaria is one of the front-line countries. Although we have a long border with Turkey, we do not have as many people crossing over as is the case for Italy or Greece. We know that this is due not only to the fact that migrants are not so much interested in coming into Bulgaria but rather in going on to the central and western parts of Europe, but also because of the agreement the European Union has with Turkey on border controls.

Although nobody can doubt that there are some problems at the moment with Turkey and the authoritarian regime which exists there, Bulgaria as a neighbour to Turkey is always interested in continuing the dialogue, especially in the aspect of Turkey keeping its obligations to prevent migrants from crossing over its land borders with Bulgaria and Greece. We are understanding of the plight of the migrants and I am fully supportive of the idea that we should treat all of them in a humane way. However, there are some concerns among central European countries that a new division should be made between real asylum seekers, who need all our support, and economic migrants who might be trying to reach our borders just for economic gain. I fully support the proposition by the Senator that we should make a clear distinction between those two categories and that we should try to be more proactive in our approach to migration. That is one of the priorities of our Presidency.

I thank Senator Richmond for his statement. Of course energy security is one of the main topics of our Presidency. We support the idea of a clean energy package, and the main point in our programme on the energy sector is to contribute to the establishment of a stable energy union in the European Union. We aim to maximise the possible results of the negotiations with the European Parliament on the clean energy for all Europeans package.

Coming back to the topic of Brexit, we welcome the progress achieved during the first phase of negotiations on all three main topics. Citizens' rights have been secured, investment financed by the EU budget has been secured and the peace process and the conditions of North-South co-operation on the island of Ireland have been secured. The main task, in our view, for the coming months is the adoption of negotiating directives on transitional arrangements by the General Affairs Council, which is supposed to happen on 29 January, and the adoption by the European Council of guidelines on the framework for future relations on 23 March. The Bulgarian Presidency has already scheduled all Council and COREPER meetings which will lead to the implementation of these tasks.

If all goes as planned we know the agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union should be ready for signature in October 2018. This gives enough time for ratification and entry into force before March 2019, which is the date set by the British for their withdrawal. Unfortunately, Bulgaria and Ireland are not happy with the idea of withdrawal and hope something else might be arranged. However, we still need clarification from the UK side on its intentions with regard to the future of its trade agreement with the EU, because depending on whether it stays in the European market or the customs union, which it has declared it plans to leave, the negotiations, of course, might take another path. This would lead us to something similar to the trade agreements the European Union has with Canada or South Korea, for example. If it remains in the Single Market or customs union it will be much easier to negotiate something along the European Union agreement with Norway, which, of course, would be a much better perspective for Ireland and all other EU countries.

With regard to young people, economic growth and social cohesion are key to the future of Europe. The future of the Union is to continue efforts for social cohesion. Our Presidency will work for an active and constructive debate on the multiannual financial framework. We are aware the world is changing, and overcoming the challenges will require resources. We are convinced we must look for balance between new and existing funds and between financial instruments and grant financing.

With regard to security and stability in a strong and united Europe, our Presidency will work towards lasting and fair solutions in the area of asylum policy, as I mentioned, with efficient policies for return and readmission and a balanced approach between short and long-term measures aimed at the source of migration. We share the opinion of the Irish, which is we should try to deal with the source of migration, that is to say to provide more funds for African and Asian countries which might develop and, thus, stop the flow of migration to Europe by helping them in their development.

With regard to the topic raised by Deputy Haughey, of course we are aware of the negative reports. I assure him the Bulgarian Government is treating these reports very seriously. Very recently, just a week ago, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted a new law in the fight against corruption, which creates a new independent body that will examine corruption in high places.

We know of similar reports on the topic of migrants and mistreatment. The Minister of Interior is doing his best to avoid having such accusations in future because some of the stories are, frankly, made up either by migrants or opposition parties in Bulgaria. The Government is doing its utmost to prevent such stories spreading as fake news. Bulgaria supported the idea of having migrant quotas. We wanted to take our quota of migrants at the time, but things have changed and now there are discussions in Brussels on a new way of dealing with this situation.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the ambassador for the comprehensive response he has given to the queries. Along with committee members, I join in wishing him every good luck during the term of the Presidency. Committee members and I believe in engaging with people such as the ambassador, particularly in light of Brexit and all of the problems and difficulties it will bring. From today, we look forward to having continuous further engagement with the ambassador. We want to make it quite clear to him the committee is at his disposal in any way we can help and assist him in his role. I have always said I am extremely proud of the experience of the committee members. They have vast experience in the Senate and the Dáil, going back over decades. We do not get this on every committee and I appreciate and acknowledge it again today. I thank the ambassador for taking his valuable time to be with us. We are honoured he came here today and we are very glad of his presence. We thank him again for the very valuable insight into his views, particularly at the start of the Presidency. It means a lot to all of us and we thank him.

The joint committee went into private session at 3 p.m. and adjourned at 3.15 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 24 January 2018.