Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

General Affairs Council: Discussion

2:30 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off. We have received apologies from Deputy Brophy and Senator Leyden. Today we have an engagement on the work of the General Affairs Council, GAC, in particular those issues expected to be addressed at its next meeting. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, back to our committee. We last met at the end of September. The Minister of State is well aware of the rules on privilege as are the members. I invite the Minister of State to make her opening statement.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to update the committee on the work I am doing. It is quite a lengthy update as it has been a busy period since we met last September. I ask members to indulge me and allow me to go through my statement. I am happy to take questions afterwards. This month’s General Affairs Council meeting, which takes place next Tuesday, will focus on a number of issues, including a presentation by the Commission on the European Semester; the rule of law in Poland and the values of the Union in respect of Hungary. However, I expect the most substantial discussions to focus on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and preparation of the December European Council. With your permission, Chairman, I propose to focus on four key headlines. Of course, members are free to raise any matters they choose during the question and answer session later. The four key areas are, first, of course, the current state of play in respect of Brexit; second, the MFF for the period 2021 to 2027; the Single Market, particularly in respect of services and the digital Single Market, which is going to be a key focus; and the future of Europe debate and citizens' dialogues, on which I will outline what we have done and the report we have published as well as discussions and meetings last year.

Since I last spoke with the committee, we have seen significant progress with respect to the Brexit negotiations. The withdrawal agreement ensures that the UK will leave the EU in an orderly manner. It will avoid a scenario where the UK instead crashes out without a deal, a scenario that would have severe consequences for everyone, but particularly for Ireland. The withdrawal agreement achieves our negotiating priorities. Since the beginning of the negotiations, we have insisted that there could be no scenario that would result in a return of a hard border to the island of Ireland. The backstop provisions constitute an important insurance policy that we will not see the return of any kind of a border on this island. If invoked, these rules will apply unless and until another agreement, which delivers the same outcome, is in place. This agreement was achieved with the support of our EU partners as well as the tireless efforts of Michel Barnier and his taskforce, as well as all of our own Irish officials at home and abroad. We are very grateful to them for their understanding and solidarity. As the Taoiseach said, there could be no better example of the advantages of EU membership for a small country. Under this deal, the Good Friday Agreement and the gains made by the peace process are protected. Rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement are protected and EU citizenship rights for people in Northern Ireland are confirmed. This agreement underscores continuing North-South co-operation, which is vital to all of this island.

Last month at the European Council, member states gave their unanimous approval to the agreement. They also approved the political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. This document provides us with a roadmap to begin negotiations with the UK on what kind of relationship the EU and UK will have in the years ahead. While the UK may be leaving, it will remain an important partner both to the EU and to Ireland and to that end it is extremely important and welcome that both sides have committed to agreeing a deep and comprehensive relationship. The withdrawal agreement represents important compromises on both sides. However, it ensures that the key interests of the EU and the UK are addressed. As EU leaders have made clear, it represents the best way ahead for all of us, delivering an orderly withdrawal, which we all want, including through an effective transition period, and lays the foundations for a constructive negotiations on the EU’s future relationship with the UK. It is a fair and balanced agreement achieved after long and difficult negotiations and it is in all our interests that it is ratified and not reopened. Of course many challenges lie ahead, and the withdrawal agreement will be subject to a meaningful vote in the UK House of Commons on 11 December, next Tuesday. We hope that Prime Minister May can succeed and that it will be accepted. However, nothing can be taken for granted, and the Government will continue its intensive programme of work to prepare for all eventualities, including a no-deal Brexit, to make sure the Government, industry and citizens are as prepared as possible.

On the MFF, the European Commission published its overall proposals for the EU’s financial framework from 2021 to 2027 in May.

I shall now turn to the multi-annual financial framework, MFF. The European Commission published its overall proposals for the EU Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2021-2027 in May 2018. Since then an intense programme of analysis and negotiations has been continuing at official and political level under the Bulgarian and Austrian Presidencies. The MFF is now a standing item on the agenda of the General Affairs Council, GAC, and I expect that will continue to be the case under the Romanian Presidency, which begins in January next year. At the General Affairs Council next week, we will discuss the latest Presidency report on the state of play of the negotiations. The Austrian Presidency has focused on identifying the key budgetary and associated elements and principles on which agreement is needed. These components will be included in a set of draft conclusions but without the actual financial amounts. The purpose of the so-called “negotiating box” is to single out issues that will be for Heads of State and Government to decide under unanimity. Broadly, Ireland agrees with the elements identified as requiring political agreement. They are broadly balanced and reflect competing priorities for all member states. At the European Council later next week, Heads of State and Government will discuss the progress report. My expectation is that the European Council will welcome the significant progress achieved under the Austrian Presidency and will call on the Romanian Presidency to continue that work on the basis of the Austrian progress report.

It will continue to be a Government priority next year that we secure Ireland’s interests in the negotiations on the EU’s financial framework for the seven years from 2021 to 2027. The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, as all members will agree, remains a priority for Ireland. Agriculture expenditure helps to support at least 44 million jobs across the EU and contributes to food safety, animal welfare, rural sustainability and environmental standards. The Government is also supportive of programmes to keep pace with the rapid changes in the global economy and to help support jobs and growth. I am thinking specifically of measures such as cohesion funding, the research and innovation budget, known as Horizon Europe, Digital Europe and the Connecting Europe Facility. We also welcome the focus on young people, with increased funding for an expanded Erasmus+ programme, among others. Lastly, we must ensure flexibility in the budget to deal with the potential negative consequences of Brexit and possible consequences of other issues that might arise in years to come.

While there had been initial ambitions to conclude the MFF negotiations by next year, when we know the European elections will take place, that timeframe has become increasingly unlikely. The most important thing is to get the budget right. I expect that the European Council will look to reach agreement on the MFF later in 2019 after the elections. An agreed budget that meets our requirements to deliver on the EU’s programmes and on which agreement can be reached by all member states is essential.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Single Market, a landmark achievement of the European Union. The March European Council called on the Commission to present, by the end of the year, an assessment of the functioning of the Internal Market and remaining barriers to intra-EU trade of goods and services. The Commission’s communication - adopted on 22 November and presented to the Competitiveness Council on 29 November – is entitled The Single Market in a Changing World – a Unique Asset in Need of Renewed Political Commitment. The European Council had been expected to hold a policy debate on the Single Market at its December meeting, based on that Commission communication. In fact a detailed discussion is not now expected to take place until March 2019. Ireland is, however, working with a large group of like-minded partners to ensure that the European Council adopts meaningful, focused conclusions this month calling for a new forward-looking approach for digital policy and Single Market policy, including for services. This is extremely important given that more than 50% of our exports are in the area of services this.

Last month in Brussels, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, together with her colleagues from Finland, Denmark and the Czech Republic, launched a report examining the functioning of the Single Market, particularly in the area of services. The report is titled Making EU Trade in Services Work for All and was commissioned from Copenhagen Economics, from which we have had a number of reports in recent years. It finds major shortcomings in EU services sector performance but great potential for future development. Although the Single Market is a key to the EU’s welfare, prosperity, and competitiveness, it has not delivered the same benefits for services - in terms of reducing barriers to intra-EU trade - as it has for trade in goods. The service sector gaps are critical in an economy where digitalisation is becoming the norm, and where services are increasingly an intrinsic part of manufactured goods. The flipside is that there is great potential for improving the functioning of the EU services sector, global competitiveness, productivity, and the EU share of the world economy. I share the Minister's hope that our report will help shape the discussions in 2019. As the Minister said last week in Brussels, making it easier for companies to buy and sell services, especially across borders in the Single Market, is crucial to our competitiveness as digital activity grows. The study is a concrete example of alliance-building by Ireland. The project illustrates Ireland’s ability to build and leverage relationships with other member states to advance common policy interests.

I shall now turn to the debate on the future of the EU which has been ongoing across Europe. As the committee will be aware, last year the Government launched a Citizens' Dialogue on the future of Europe, in which many members here have taken part. It has taken me all around Ireland listening to people discuss about the Europe they want. They shared their views on how we can build a Union that is prosperous and competitive; safe and secure; sustainable; socially responsible; and how we can best equip ourselves to meet the challenges of the future in an ever increasingly global world. The level of engagement was fantastic and the overriding message I heard was one about fairness. People want environmental protection, intergenerational fairness and opportunities for young people while supporting and protecting our older generations. It was also striking to see how much our citizens see the EU through the prism of values. Words like peace, community, education, solidarity and diversity continue to come up in all of the discussions we have. We need to use them and make sure they are at the heart of all the decisions we take about the future of the Union.

In October, I was joined by my colleague Gernot Blümel, the Austrian Federal Minister for the EU, Arts, Culture and Media for the launch of the narrative report on the Citizens' Dialogue. I was delighted to have the opportunity to launch the report, not just with the EU Presidency, but in close co-operation with the EU. I was also very pleased that members of this committee were able to attend and I thank them for that. On a broader stage EU leaders are committed to listening and to responding to the concerns of their citizens. We all want to offer a vision of Europe that people can trust and support. The Citizens' Dialogues are part of wider citizens’ consultations taking place across the European Union; both in member states and at a pan-European level. All of these presentations will be concluded at a dialogue in Sibiu next May when EU leaders will come together. Despite its imperfections, Irish people see Europe at the heart of their future and Ireland at the heart of Europe. In May, an opinion poll found that 92% of Irish people believe that Ireland should remain a part of the EU. This rises to 97% among young people, so it is obviously very positive. These numbers are encouraging, but they are no reason to be complacent. I am sure that each and every member here would agree that people do not spend their lives thinking about Europe on a daily basis. The European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly pointed out at our final Citizens' Dialogue that politics continues to be local for people. We need to make sure that people know and understand how the EU impacts on their daily lives and not just what happens on a larger scale, and how what we are doing reflects the treaty-based values that bind us together as Europeans.

Before I conclude, I will briefly outline two important topics that have been preoccupying the General Affairs Council lately, namely the rule of law in Poland and the values of the Union in relation to Hungary. The committee members will be aware of these issues. The central issue is the rule of law and its application in Poland. In October, the European Court of Justice issued an interim ruling, ordering Poland to adopt measures to temporarily suspend the application of the relevant Polish legislation. Poland has since adopted legislation to amend the Supreme Court law and enable the return to work of judges who were forced to retire. Following on from the hearings in June and September, the GAC will hold another hearing next week. Ours is a Union based on shared values, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Ireland has consistently supported the Commission in this matter. We have also emphasised that dialogue between Poland and the Commission needs to result in substantive outcomes that address the concerns identified. Ireland has taken part in both of those hearings to date, and will take part in the hearing next week.

Separately, in September, the European Parliament adopted the report that was a reasoned proposal inviting the council to determine whether there is a series risk of a breach by Hungary of the values on which the European Union is founded. The Hungarian Government has issued a written response in relation to the report. The Commission has also prepared a paper on the values related infringement procedures that it has taken to address concerns with the situation in Hungary. At next week’s GAC meeting, there will be a smaller discussion on these documents and hopefully a proposal on how to move forward. The main issue on people's minds relates to the Central European University in Hungary. I very much regret that it has been forced into a situation where it is required to relocate from Budapest to Vienna.

Academic freedom is one of the fundamental values of the Union and it is a sad day when an institute feels that it has no other choice but to leave an EU member state in order to continue its operations in the way it should. These are issues that we need to raise and address.

I thank committee members for their attendance and apologise for going on for so long.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Not at all.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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A great deal has happened. Before we rise for Christmas, I want to thank the Chairman, his team at the committee and the committee members for their support throughout the year. I wish them a happy Christmas and new year.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State. We wish her, her family, her staff and everyone else the very best of luck. We also thank the Minister of State for attending. She put a great deal into her comprehensive report.

I will call Senator Craughwell first, who is under a time constraint.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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The Minister of State will forgive me for flinging a few questions at her before running out the door. I have a name for throwing the grenade and running anyway, but on this occasion I have other meetings arranged, so I apologise.

I will start by congratulating the Minister of State and, more importantly, those officials who work on behalf of Ireland all over Europe - the ambassadors and their staff with whom the Minister of State engages on a daily basis. Their work on Brexit must be acknowledged by those of us in political life. Without them, we would not have half the work done. There is not a corner of Europe that is unaware of Ireland's unique situation in terms of Brexit. While the Minister of State breaks her heart ensuring that is so on a daily basis, her officials have been doing that in each country.

My fear is that all of that work will have been for nothing if Britain falls apart in Brexit. We are hearing screams for a second referendum and so on. It looks like Prime Minister May will not be able to carry her Government and the House of Commons on the Brexit vote. If so, we will be thrown into a quagmire. We do not know where they are going.

We in this country have never addressed the concept of a hard border or where we are going. There has never been a hard border in Ireland since the foundation of the State. There have been what I would call militaristic crossings, Border crossings have been difficult to get through and border management has been a major problem, but there have never been barbed wire and walls across fields and unapproved roads to stop people crossing back and forth. However, there is now a likelihood that we could find ourselves going back to border management again. The Fianna Fáil Party made the point on television on Sunday night that we needed to increase the number of gardaí to look after the Border should such a situation arise. We reorganised the Defence Forces in 2012 and moved all of the troops south. Most soldiers, airmen and naval personnel are accommodated south of a line from Dublin to Galway. We only have military people in Donegal and Dundalk, with the latter's units providing day-to-day security services in Dublin. With the barracks in Cavan and Monaghan closed, has the Government war gamed a managed border as we had during the horrible 1970s to 2000s? Have contingency plans been put in place on the military side as opposed to the Garda side?

The Minister of State will forgive me if I move through a number of issues quickly. The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, has been the backbone of the Irish agricultural industry. As we move towards a new Europe, will the CAP become more aligned with environmental concerns? Agriculture is our backbone, but if it is destroying the environment, we have to find a balance. I do not wish to see the farming community suffer, but the CAP will have to be reorganised. I will read the Minister's response.

With her colleagues, the Minister of State has done a tremendous job in engaging the population in a discussion on the future of Europe. The Timmermans task force is moving towards subsidiarity and proportionality, that is, bringing decision making to the lowest common denominator in terms of lawmaking, regulation, etc. Surprisingly, though, we in Ireland seem to be centralising rather than distributing power. We are moving towards larger councils and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is taking more and more away from local authorities. How does all of that fit into the future model of Europe? The Minister of State referred to 92% of Irish people, and 97% of our young people, being totally committed to Europe. That is the micro level. At the macro level, though, there is a disturbing movement of people condemning Europe. We in politics have to take a bit of blame for that insofar as we constantly blame Brussels for decisions that we have agreed to in the first place. Has the Minister of State anything to say on the question of subsidiarity?

The ability to travel throughout Europe and take educational and training courses has committed every young person to Europe. To a certain degree, however, that is something for the bourgeoisie, those who can afford university education and so on. I want to see more movement on training and apprenticeships across Europe. Has the Minister of State seen any real desire to bring that idea on board over the 2020-27 period? Will there be a greater effort to engage at that level? I am referring to training rather than academic and to apprenticeships rather than university. A great deal of apprenticeships will be undertaken in technological universities, but the Minister of State understands what I am talking about.

I thank the Chairman for giving me this opportunity. I will take the time to read the Minister of State's answers. I thank the Chairman for allowing me to leave now.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Fine Gael)
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I apologise for having to pop out for a vote in the Seanad. I welcome the Minister of State back to the committee for one of her regular and appreciated updates on a range of areas ahead of next week's important GAC meeting. I will start at the finish and work back to the meatier subject of Brexit.

Needless to say, what has been happening in Hungary in recent days is worrying. The Irish Government has repeatedly raised the matter with the Hungarian Government at official and political level. However, we now need to do more than simply voice our concerns with the Hungarian Government. I welcome the measures taken in Poland and the efforts that the European Commission and Council have made in that regard. We need to step up the pressure on the Hungarian Government, and the sooner, the better.

Looking ahead to the key Council meeting in Romania where everything about the future of Europe has been compiled for discussion, has the Minister of State an insight into what the results might be? Given the report that she produced and launched, what will be the key aims of the Irish Government and how will we work to influence other member states? She mentioned her Austrian partner at the launch.

Regarding the multi-annual financial framework, I will leave the issue of CAP to colleagues who have a more rural focus in their constituencies. I am greatly enthused by the potential increases for Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020. However, they pose a unique challenge to our Government in our approach going forward. We are under-represented in Erasmus+ receipts at academic and civic society levels. We could be doing much more. Compare the number of French students coming to Ireland under Erasmus+ with the number of Irish students going to France. There is a large deficit. We need to plug those gaps and encourage more young Irish people to take up the opportunity of an Erasmus+ place in third level and, through that, develop their European language skills. We could also work that into the EU jobs campaign. We need more Irish people taking the concoursand taking up positions in European institutions.

I acknowledge the massive efforts made by the Minister of State and her Department in encouraging EU jobs. That has been vital.

Horizon 2020 will pose a unique challenge after Brexit. Many of the co-ordinated efforts of the Irish third-level institutions in the research area involve British alternatives. Many institutions are receiving grants in respect of work they are doing in partnership with British universities. It will be difficult for them to replace their British partners with universities from continental Europe, particularly those that do not use English as a first language in academic terms. Obviously, no other remaining member state uses English as a first language. We need to be alive to this. It is great that the multi-annual financial framework will award more funds to these two really important programmes, but there is no point in increasing the funds if Ireland is not in a position to avail of them. I know the Minister of State needs to work with the Ministers, Deputies Zappone and McHugh, in this regard. We need to be poised to take those funds and use them in the best possible way.

It is very difficult to know where to start when it comes to Brexit. The ongoing pantomime at Westminster is proving to be quite a distraction during the overall management process. The UK reaction to the withdrawal agreement package, which is quite simplistic, is in marked contrast to the reaction here and on the Continent. When we see some of the rhetoric and revelations, for example in respect of court rulings and UK Attorney General advice, it seems that this is new news for certain people. Much of this stuff has been known and has been on the record for a long time. I appreciate the consistent approach to this matter that has been taken by the Government and the EU as a whole.

I am interested in a finding that has been produced by JP Morgan today. It has changed its prediction significantly. I know that analysts in many countries have to be very wary with their predictions. According to JP Morgan, the likelihood of an orderly Brexit has decreased from 60% to 50%, the likelihood of no Brexit has increased from 20% to 40% and the likelihood of no deal being reached has decreased from 20% to 10%. It is welcome that JP Morgan believes we are moving further away from a no-deal scenario. The Minister of State rightly spoke about preparations for all scenarios, which is something that has been mentioned by Donald Tusk. Senator Craughwell has also gone into detail on that. I know that work is being done as part of a whole-of-Government approach.

I am of the view that an orderly Brexit is where we are going. It is quite clear that there is just one deal on the table. It is a question of this deal, no deal or no Brexit. I presume it is taken as a given that no Brexit would be welcomed. If the UK were to change its mind at government level, obviously Ireland would be the first EU member state to say "Stop the rollercoaster and get off". It would be difficult, but we could go back to a relationship with an EU of 28, and hopefully of 29 or 30 in due course. I continue to believe fundamentally that there is no such thing as a good Brexit. It would be far more beneficial for the UK to remain within the EU than to leave the EU under any deal at any stage.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and her assistants. I compliment her on the role she played in the recent long-running Brexit debates and negotiations. I also compliment the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, all other Government Ministers and all Opposition people who played a role in this intricate operation. The Government adopted the correct position in respect of this matter. That position has been held throughout. There is a very good reason for this - there was no alternative position. There was no alternative to the role adopted by the Government. I think that was recognised by the EU, particularly by Michel Barnier. The way the rest of the EU member states supported the Government is to be recognised and acknowledged. It underlines the importance of having support at a crucial time in business of that nature. There was no other place to be. I compliment and thank the Minister of State.

Many people have been inquiring about what plan B might be. I would very respectfully advise them to stay away from that spot. When one is negotiating, it is like playing poker - one must never announce what one's next move is going to be. The point at which one makes such a disclosure immediately becomes the position from which one will resile. That is not a good place to be. We have had 100% success so far. It was very important for us to hold the position that was being held. That position will continue to prevail and will eventually bring about something that is acceptable right across Europe.

I will not go over all the issues. The future of Europe comes to mind. I am not certain that we always get the full benefit of the Single Market. I have spoken about this at meetings of the health committee and other committees. We need to be constantly aware of the fact that we are part of the European Single Market. The power that goes with being part of a population of over 500 million is very important. When one is sourcing goods, materials and services, one is in a far better bargaining position by virtue of being part of a market of 500 million people than one would be if one were coming from a market of 5 million or whatever the case may be. When we are negotiating with the pharmaceutical sector or any other sector of business throughout Europe or globally, we need to reiterate the need to avail of the full benefits of being part of the Single Market.

Like many of those who have already expressed their opinions about the future of Europe, I am concerned that some Europeans have recently shown a tendency to look outside Europe or to move away from the central core of fundamental European policy that has stood the test of time extremely well. As I have said previously, I think that is a dangerous place to go. It runs contrary to the ideals of modern Europe. Our combined history shows us that this is not the place to be. We have had a peaceful and prosperous Europe for a considerable period. We continue to have a peaceful and prosperous Europe, albeit under duress. We would not want to lose sight of the fact that the EU has been the biggest single peace arrangement in the world for the past 50 or 60 years. People will have issues from time to time. They will look at alternatives overseas. It is a very good thing for them to look again and again so that they are not under-impressed by the success of Europe as it was, as it should be and as it will continue to be as long as it is supported.

I would like to comment on what Europe is to us. I believe we have taken ownership of our part of Europe. We are Europeans. We should never resile from that. I think that has been our strength. I do not believe every country on the Continent of Europe and within the EU is fully committed to that process at the present time. There are slight indications of a movement away from the centre. I think it is a dangerous place to go. If we really want to know what the dangers are in this respect, we can consult our combined history.

I welcome the success that has been achieved in respect of the issues in Poland. We are worried about some of the tendencies that have shown up in Hungary in recent times. We are worried about tendencies that have emerged in the last couple of years. We have spoken about such matters at this committee. It is not because we are furthest away from the immigration issue across Europe that I am saying that barbed wire and walls do not resolve a problem. Unless that is recognised by everyone right across Europe and the globe, we will have a serious issue to deal with at some time in the not too distant future. If we want to avoid conflict, we need to recognise that. It is very difficult to say to people that they are on the wrong side of a line or a border, that they must stay there and that we will ensure they do so. As an EU member state, Ireland must show solidarity with European principles in this regard.

I disagree with Senator Craughwell, who is now absent, in the context of the CAP. The policy will continue to be very important for this country and for a number of other food-producing countries throughout Europe. It is important that we do not lose sight of its importance. People have to eat. One of the reasons the European Economic Community was founded in the first instance was to ensure that starvation was eliminated. Europe had first-hand experience of starvation in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Like other members, I will have to go to the Dáil shortly. We would like to offer our congratulations to all the negotiators - officials and politicians - who took part in the crucial negotiations over the last couple of years. We wish them well in the future. We are absolutely certain that the route being pursued is the right one. There is no other route. We could not be in any other place.

We could not have done anything else for this island, in terms of North-South trade and the Good Friday Agreement. To act in any other way would have been a disaster. I compliment the Minister of State and offer her our support.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive report to the committee on the issues being confronted by the European Union at present. On the special European Council meeting, the political declaration and the future relationship generally between the UK and the EU, could the Minister of State tell us what Ireland's priorities in those areas are? I asked the Taoiseach about the European Council meeting earlier today in the Dáil, and he told the House that all Heads of Government were consulted about their priorities. Is there general agreement among the EU 27 about what it wants to see happen in terms of the future relationship, having regard to the declaration? More importantly, what are Ireland's priorities for those negotiations, which we hope will proceed in due course?

I note the Minister of State has said that the Government is preparing for all eventualities and scenarios in terms of Brexit, including for a no-deal Brexit. Can she give us a little bit more information on that? Are we talking about the upgrade of our ports and airports? Does it include supports for small businesses and SMEs? I believe we are facing a rocky period, especially if the vote on 11 December goes the way we all think it will go, although it is true that a week is a long time in politics. We must brace ourselves economically for anything that might happen after that date, including changes in the value of the pound, cross-Border trade and Christmas shopping. Things could happen quite quickly. Can the Minister of State please reassure us that the Government is prepared for all eventualities and scenarios?

I wish the Minister of State well in her endeavours with the Single Market. It is an ideal worthy of further action and should be pursued. It is in the interest of the citizens at the end of the day; they will greatly benefit from the agenda set out for the future of the Single Market, and that is to be welcomed.

On the future of Europe, I note there will be a major European Council meeting in Romania in May 2019. How does the Minister of State see that panning out? Does she envisage that big decisions will be taken at that meeting or that big changes will take place? Will it be more aspirational? Will it set out a new vision for Europe or will major practical steps be announced on the future of the European Union? I am particularly interested in moves towards further integration, which we discussed last week with the representative of the European Commission in Ireland. Is there a move towards further integration among many or all of the EU states? How is that likely to proceed? I agree with what has been said about Poland and Hungary; democratic, liberal European values are dear to us all and I welcome the moves taken by the European Commission in that area.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I apologise for being late; Seanad business and a vote held me up. I agree with my colleagues generally, and congratulate the Minister of State and her colleagues at Government level for all their inputs at the various meetings in the recent past. On Brexit, the most significant of the three votes in the House of Commons yesterday was the final one, the motion proposed by the former Attorney General of the UK, Dominic Grieves. He is a very learned man. While Downing Street would not admit it, that motion could be interpreted as a Downing Street backstop. It is clear that thankfully there is no majority for a no-deal scenario in the House of Commons. Parliament will have a stay if, as expected, the Prime Minister loses the vote next Tuesday. The important thing now is to consider the future arrangements; I am sure the Minister of State has begun to think of those arrangements already. While nobody envisages any change to the deal hammered out, I understand that the declaration document on the future arrangement can be tweaked. Perhaps it is largely a fudge anyway; the Minister of State will be more familiar with that than I am. It might not be appropriate for the Minister of State to comment on that. At this stage we have to look beyond next Tuesday. Presumably the Prime Minister will attend the following summit, and it is possible that things will happen there. There will then be subsequent votes in the House of Commons due to the decision on the Grieves motion yesterday. I look forward to the comments of the Minister of State.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the members for their questions; if I forget any or skip any it is not intentional. Please let me know if I do.

Senator Craughwell asked about Brexit and the concept of the hard border. As we have said throughout this entire process, and in particular over the past year, our preparation for all possible outcomes has increased. This ranges from the best possible outcome, where we have a close and comprehensive free trading relationship with the UK, to a no-deal scenario. We have been working with all Departments and Ministers, who have been asked to identify the possible challenges they and their industries, sectors and Departments may face in that regard. They have been asked to identify possible measures, be that funding, changes to legislation or additional supports or measures, they would need in those scenarios. They are doing this without the knowledge of the full extent of what might happen, but as much as they can. Each Department, if it has not already done so, is now preparing a report or action plan to be put in place. Those plans have not been published and given that we are still in negotiations, it is not something that would be published. In the interim, we have been trying to support businesses that have been impacted already. There is such uncertainty out there. Some €750 million from the past three budgets has been provided to directly support small and medium businesses. This year alone, an extra €115 million was allocated to support Government agencies to continue with expanding programmes such as Global Ireland 2025, which seeks to expand our horizons beyond the UK and Europe to the rest of the world by doubling our global footprint. Many measures have already been put in place. We are making contingency plans for when we know what the actual outcome will be.

We are not preparing for a hard border, to answer the question the Senator asked. We are looking at customs and checks for east to west transportation of goods because we know that, even with the best possible outcome, there will still be some changes. Funding was approved in this year's budget for more than 500 staff, including customs officials and officials for Revenue, sanitary or phytosanitary checks. The remainder will be allocated in time, but we are not preparing for a hard border between North and South on the basis that every political party, the UK Government, every member state, the European Commission, the European Parliament and indeed the Irish Government have all committed that there will be no return to such a border. We believe that, irrespective of the outcome, we all need to maintain and uphold that commitment.

There was a proposal to reduce the overall Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budget. We do not agree with that at all, and I have consistently reiterated at every General Affairs Council I attend how important it is, not just for our rural farming community but for our towns and villages, for the production of food and for all the reasons I outlined in my earlier presentation. We recognise that there are other priorities which need to be addressed, and our farmers in particular are very willing and ready to work with the environmental pillar to ensure that anything they do can help to mitigate the impact of climate change and reduce our carbon footprint. The EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. Phil Hogan, is very much in favour of co-operation and allowing both of these agendas to work together to reduce our carbon footprint, while at the same time supporting our farming and rural communities. We should be able to do that. This is an ongoing discussion within the European Parliament, the European Council and in the General Affairs Council, of which I am a member.

We have always indicated that we would be willing to pay more in the upcoming budget, but only if CAP and the Cohesion Fund are protected. The latter are traditional programmes which we feel provide added value to Europe.

There were a few questions on the future of Europe and subsidiarity. One of the early questions on the future of Europe discussion related to whether Europe should do less more efficiently and whether it should be big on the big things and small on smaller things. We feel we should focus on the areas to which we are already committed. There was considerable discussion on the Single Market. The Single Market is only 80% complete in the context of goods and 40% complete in the context of services. The digital Single Market, which people are saying will be like the fifth freedom, is only approximately 30% complete. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, recently suggested that completing all three would add €1 trillion to the overall GDP of the European Union. While it is not all about the economy, when that money is coming back into our economy we can obviously use it to improve our social settings as well as invest in our infrastructure and other key areas for us. Our focus is to continue the work we have promised to do but obviously we would not be particularly fond of anything that would suggest further treaty change, which is often asked.

Senator Craughwell referred to education and training. The new Erasmus+ programme is not just for people who attend university; it can apply to students in primary school or secondary school, or people working in trades and possibly even outside the European Union. I attended an event last night at which a question was asked about people from Africa taking part. I am of the view that even something like this would be possible under Erasmus+. It is about broadening the horizons and ensuring that as many people benefit as possible.

Senators Richmond and Coghlan and Deputy Haughey asked about Hungary. Many things are happening with which I and the Government disagree. On the rule of law, dialogue with Poland has been ongoing for some time. It reached a point where the ongoing dialogue was not making an impact. That was obviously when Article 7 was triggered. We have had two hearings within the General Affairs Council and will have another hearing next week. Through that dialogue we have started to see progress and change. The EU is built on dialogue and we all agree that is the best way to address issues.

Of course, if a country is not upholding the core values of the European Union, there must be accountability and we need to be able to hold each other accountable - we would expect the same to happen in our case. The debate on Poland is continuing. We have seen changes but we need to see further change. With Hungary, we are probably starting at the beginning of that process. On the many occasions I have met my Hungarian colleagues, I have encouraged them to engage with the Commission. There is a legal process we need to follow. Ultimately, the key priority for us is to see results.

Senator Richmond asked how much we are using Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020. Approximately 55,000 students have availed of Erasmus since it began and since Ireland took part. We can always improve that and increase our numbers. We are focused on that particularly with Erasmus+. There is an increased focus on languages with the publication of the languages strategy in September by the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton. We want to increase by 25% the number of students taking two languages in the junior certificate and leaving certificate. I hope the renewed focus on languages will encourage people to study abroad, to travel to other countries and to become more integrated in that sense. Obviously, further work remains to be done and we need to focus on it.

On EU jobs, we are only reaching approximately 40% of our target regarding graduate programmes. We are significantly lower than we should be. We have always had a very proud tradition of holding very high positions within the European institutions. It is not because of any reduction in calibre, but unfortunately the numbers are decreasing. Many people are reaching retirement age and we do not have the same level of people applying. We are asking the Commissioner to provide geographic-specific competitions to target countries that have the same problem as us. Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden hold views similar to ours. We are having an ongoing discussion but if we do not address the issue now, we will have increasingly less representation around the table within the institutions and we know how important that can be.

Senator Richmond asked about Brexit. I do not know whether the changed predictions happened on foot of last night's vote or whether the idea of a no-deal scenario has changed that.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Fine Gael)
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It was really the Article 50-----

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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We see these changes daily. We will all keep an eye on how things go next Monday most importantly.

Would no Brexit at all be welcome? I would say "Yes". While obviously this has taken considerable time, cost, energy and effort, nobody wants to see the UK leave. It has been an instrumental partner in the EU for the past 45 years, joining at the same time as us. We have many of the same priorities, goals and objectives. Of course in the way the conversation is happening on the future of Europe there would be questions we would have to be able to answer and address. This is something the UK would need to request. I do not think we would be stopping it.

As the Senator stated, we do not want people to leave; we want the Union to expand. We want the process of enlargement to continue. The ambassador from Georgia is present. We want states in the western Balkans and further afield to benefit in the same way that Ireland has, once they comply with the rules and regulations. We should be looking out and not looking to make the Union smaller.

Deputy Durkan talked about staying away from a plan B. We are not preparing for a border on the island of Ireland. It is not that we are hiding any planning from it. We are just not because it is not something we feel we can countenance happening.

I was asked if we get the full benefit of the Single Market. As with anything, there are winners and losers. In certain parts of it we will benefit more. Ireland has made its membership work over the past 45 years through the Single Market, allocations from the Cohesion Fund, infrastructural investment funds and CAP. The focus now should be on improving the commitments we have made and ensuring we complete the digital Single Market, the services Single Market, banking union, capital markets union and all the other key areas on which we have focused. This again goes back to whether we are a Europe of a Single Market or a peaceful Europe of values. While it is important financially to complete all these other areas, we need to return to our values and ensure the issues being raised in terms of the rule of law, the freedom of speech, freedom of the media, and particularly education are upheld at all times.

Deputy Durkan asked about CAP. It is very important to engage with our colleagues. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, has had meetings with like-minded agricultural Ministers and this is at the top of his agenda. He is also keen to ensure the budget is not reduced but if possible increased, which we would all appreciate.

Deputy Haughey asked about the political declaration. We cannot get into too much of the detail until the UK is a third country. First and foremost, the commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and the continuation of PEACE+, which is the new PEACE and INTERREG programme being proposed, are obviously significant for us. There were significant commitments on transport and aviation. As an island country this has been a priority for us and in particular the commitments given on the land-bridge, which was something we welcomed and which is in the political declaration.

Senator Richmond asked how Erasmus will operate if the UK is not part of it or the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. The UK has given a commitment in the political declaration that it wants to be part of the Horizon 2020 the research and innovation programme and Erasmus+. This has been a priority for us.

Two key areas that were not specifically included in the context of the customs element of the backstop are fisheries and financial services. These two industries are significant for Ireland and the UK, as well as for some of the other member states with coastlines.

We have a commitment in these areas. Many of our priorities are very similar to those of other member states, especially the provision of PEACE programme funding, as well as in the areas of transport and aviation which are of significance to us, given that we are an island nation. Fisheries are also important. Member states are still engaging on the European Council meeting to be held in May and what will be announced at it. We finished the citizens' consultation process last May, have published our report and will present an outline of it at the December Council meeting next week. Other member states are still putting theirs together, but between now and next May we will have a clearer idea of what their priorities are. I am not sure if we will have any announcement of specific policy directions at the event in Sibiu in May, but we will have much greater clarity on the direction we want to take and some of the specific issues people want to address within individual member states.

In response to Senator Coghlan, a lot of the discussion was about Brexit. I hope I answered most of the questions.

I thank members for their indulgence and those in the Visitors Gallery.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State and her officials. The coming days and weeks are important for our future, the rest of Europe and our neighbours across the water. The Minister of State; the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and all of the officials are working as diligently as they can and have the support of the committee. Everybody hopes we will have something with which we can live, that it will be possible for us to continue to trade to the best of our ability and that future generations will look back on this time as being turbulent politically, with difficult negotiations. I hope everyone will be able to honestly say no one in opposition or government took their eye off the ball or did anything wrong. It is important that both the Minister of State and the Minister know that.

The joint committee went into private session at 3.35 p.m. and adjourned at 3.40 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Wednesday, 12 December 2018.