Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 24 September 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Engagement with MEPs elected from Constituencies in Ireland
I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off. This is important as they cause serious problems for the broadcasting, editorial and sound staff.
We will have an engagement via video conference with MEPs elected from constituencies in Ireland. I am delighted to welcome the new and returning MEPs from constituencies in Ireland, including Northern Ireland. I congratulate each and every one of them on his or her recent election to the European Parliament and wish him or her the very best of luck in his or her new term.
The European Parliament plays a vital role in representing citizens. The committee has a strong appreciation of the role played by MEPs. We very much value their insight into and expertise in dealing with European issues. This opportunity to engage with them is very important. I am delighted to pilot this way of engaging with them. We are very interested in hearing about their priorities, the work they have started since the elections, the priorities of the committees of which they are members in getting ready for the Commissioner hearings and how the European Parliament considers the state of play on Brexit which, as we all know, is changing not by the hour but by the half hour. This is the first of what I hope will be many engagements between Members in Dublin and MEPs in Brussels and Strasbourg via video link.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are only entitled thereafter to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence concerned 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 entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
As I said to members before the start of the public session, the meeting will work best if we manage to have an open discussion. I do not want it to be rigid in the sense that we hear first from the MEPs and then have members ask questions. I want it to be more fluid as we all know one another.
On a personal note, to the MEPs in Brussels, some of whom are newly elected, while others have represented us ably in the past, I say I have no doubt that the people we send to Brussels from whatever political party and none are extremely experienced politicians. They started at what I call the grassroots level of politics and worked their way up. They are now our public representatives in Brussels. I am very proud of each and every one of them following his or her election. I know that they will do their level best to represent all of us to the very best of their ability. This is what I call a friendly committee in that we very much work together and have done so for a number of years. We thank the MEPs for giving of their time.
We will start with questions from the Vice Chairman, Senator Leyden.
I send greetings from Leinster House to Brussels. I hope the MEPs can hear us loud and clear. I congratulate them on their election. I say, "Well done," to Mairead McGuinness, First Vice President of the European Parliament, for the excellent work she has been doing for a long time in Brussels. I congratulate Luke Flanagan; Matt Carthy; Maria Walsh; Barry Andrews who will take up his position, depending on the outcome of Brexit; Seán Kelly; my former colleague in the Seanad, Grace O'Sullivan, whom we were sorry to lose because she was a terrific contributor, but I am sure she will bring the great commitment she showed in the Seanad to the Europe Parliament where she will certainly be a great addition; Mick Wallace, to whom I also say, "Well done,"; and Deirdre Clune who will join the Irish MEPs in due course when Brexit is concluded. There will probably be an agreement, but whatever the outcome, I do not see the United Kingdom continuing to have MEPs in Brussels. However, sin scéal eile.
I congratulate Phil Hogan on his reappointment by the Government as Irish Commissioner and his nomination by the President of the European Commission as Commissioner for Trade designate, subject to the approval of the European Parliament. That will be a matter for the MEPs. I know that he will be a Commissioner for all of Europe, but he will also be of tremendous assistance to the Government and all others throughout Europe in the work he has been and is doing. I also acknowledge his commitment to and work in the area of agriculture.
I do not have many questions for the MEPs because they have only just taken up their roles. Some of them were outgoing MEPs. The few I can see are new MEPs and just getting to know the ropes in the European Parliament. As the Chairman said, what is of vital importance is the position on Brexit. I would like to hear about the discussions they have had in that regard as they have a very important role to play as MEPs. It is not us, as members of the committee, but they who will have to ratify the agreement reached between the European Union and the United Kingdom, which is a major responsibility. Irish MEPs will play a vital role in that regard because what they say in Brussels will be listened to as this is the country that will be most affected by the decision of the United Kingdom Government to leave the European Union.
On the renegotiation of the Common Agricultural Policy, because of the deduction of funding from the United Kingdom, it will not receive the share of the pool. Northern Ireland farmers will not receive any of the money, nor will British farmers. It is vitally important that Irish MEPs seek to protect the Common Agricultural Policy. There cannot be any reduction in subsidies. They are well aware of the dispute between farmers and the meat factories. If there is any cut in subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy, it will leave farmers in dire straits, even worse off than they are now. I come from an agricultural area where we depend greatly on the subsidies paid by the European Union for organic suckler cow herds. I will be relying on all Members of the European Parliament to ensure they will fight tooth and nail to preserve the subsidies payable under the Common Agricultural Policy at the maximum rate. I am in favour of capping them at a reasonable amount, not the major amounts paid to individuals.
Mr. Mick Wallace:
I thank the Chairman and Senator Leyden for all of their kind words. It has taken us a while to find our feet. Everything is very different, but we are trying.
On Brexit, if truth be told, we are very much at the mercy of what the British will decide. They do not yet know what they want, where they are going or what will happen. Therefore, it is very hard for anyone else to know.
Anything could happen. It is not guaranteed that it will happen but, obviously, it looks like it will. The shape of it is very much in the hands of the British and there is not much that others can do about it.
There will be opportunities to question some of the new Commissioners next week. There was a lot of debate over the election of President-elect von der Leyen but whether things change very much remains to be seen. She talked a lot about an emphasis on environmental issues from now on. Whether she matches that talk with deeds remains to be seen. Hopefully, she will match it with actions. If one had attended or watched the plenary for the three different weeks during which we were in Strasbourg, one could see that the environment and dealing with the challenges of climate change are paramount in all the groups and there is a broad consensus that things must change. I know that President Tusk made an announcement yesterday and spoke as if everything is grand, the EU is doing great and everyone else would not do as well but truth be told, the EU is not doing near enough and things must change otherwise we will not solve the problems at which we are looking. Significant changes are required. I believe MEPs from various countries and different parties are all feeling pressure from their own people that things cannot continue as they are and must change. There is no doubt that environmental issues will be paramount. They will be the biggest game in town for the next couple of years.
The idea of linking with committees at home in this manner is an excellent idea that makes sense. Obviously, it cuts out the travel, which is a significant factor. It is mind numbing at times and we must do less of it. Holding a meeting using this format is an excellent idea because it is important for us to tap into the committees at home as much we can.
I omitted my good colleague, Billy Kelleher, our Fianna Fáil MEP. That is a total error because he was on the list. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa- we miss him in the parliamentary party. I cannot say, "Come back soon", but as former Minister of State for trade and commerce, he will have a successful career in the European Parliament.
Ms Frances Fitzgerald:
I thank the Chairman and Senator Leyden for their comments. We all appreciate them. It is a great honour to represent Ireland in the European Parliament and to get the support of the public. People are engaged in European issues in a way they probably have not been previously, particularly with Brexit. I will start with the support we have received here, which is striking. We hear about it all the time but to go into the parliament and see the seven-page resolution that was passed last week, which is totally supportive of the Irish position on the backstop and issues such as protecting the Border, making sure there is no hard Border and protecting the all-island economy, is striking. It is also striking to see the depth of knowledge among MEPs from all countries and the level of support so it is very strong. Michel Barnier, who has spoken to us on quite a number of occasions, and Ursula von der Leyen are following through on the policy we have seen with Mr. Barnier saying this is a critical time. It is a time to tell the public the truth regarding the impact of Brexit. The new developments in the UK Parliament earlier are disturbing.
I am a member of the European Parliament's committee on economic and monetary affairs, which is an important committee for Ireland because it deals with financial services and banking and has been caught up in the significant challenges Europe has been through over the past ten years. I agree with what Mick Wallace MEP said about the green deal. Ursula von der Leyen is very striking and strong on that. It is everywhere. People are utterly committed and it is now about the implementation of that. We will do a lot of work together because this is where there is a lot of compromise as opposed to adversarial politics. There is a lot of working together. Different parties will put forward their priorities and we will end up with stronger action but it will take time.
The committee on economic and monetary affairs is also examining money laundering and more effective legislation across Europe. Ireland does well in this regard but it is a critical issue. It is a much bigger problem in other countries and we need to get working on that. Sustainable finance will be a significant topic that the committee will hear more about. Our banks and financial institutions will need more instruments to support what can done in respect of financial support for green energy. I attended an interesting meeting last week on the sustainable development goals. It was very disturbing to hear about the trillions of euro that are needed to implement those and the low level of support from the public and private sectors. Both sectors need to up their game considerably if we are to implement these goals. That is a topic that this committee might like to pursue at another point.
The European Investment Bank, EIB, has a significant amount - €700 billion - to invest over the next number of years. We must make sure that Ireland gets its fair share of that. Approximately €1 billion is currently going towards climate change initiatives and support for small business that will experience difficulties one way or another during Brexit. The EIB makes funding available through the banks for small businesses. This is something this committee might be interested in keeping an eye on to see how the implementation of that fares over the next few years and to make sure we put forward reasons we should get money from this fund. In the past, we have not always taken down the full amount of European funding we could have taken.
I am also a member of the European Parliament committees on development and women's rights and gender equality. A new gender equality strategy will be brought forward by the Commission, which will be important. It will involve making sure every project that comes from Europe has a gender budgeting aspect.
Good morning everyone, this is Dublin calling. It sounds like Eurovision. Apparently, the Chairman is going to buy the pints afterwards so I do not know how he is going to deliver them to the MEPs. I do not know how relevant my questions are. I welcome our witnesses, including my friend and colleague, Martina Anderson MEP. The first question is the most obvious one. How can we better support the work of our MEPs in the European Parliament, specifically their work on designated committees, and how can we improve engagement between them and the Oireachtas? I know it was a challenge previously. The day the Joint Committee on European Affairs met, we tried to tie in so it might be too soon to ask that question but we are all agreed that we want more serious engagement with MEPs so how can we facilitate that and the witnesses' work on various committees?
Do our MEPs believe the European Commissioner-designates will be supported by the European Parliament? Will they vote to support them and if not, why? What do they think about the decision by the President-elect von der Leyen, to create a vice president with responsibility for protecting our European way of life? Do they agree that this is the language of the far right and racist? Even Marine Le Pen endorsed the new portfolio calling it an ideological victory. What exactly is President-elect von der Leyen talking about when she refers to protecting our European way of life? That might tie in with some of the more controversial statements that have been made by Irish politicians about refugees.
That is also one of the major challenges facing Europe. I know Mick Wallace MEP would have been involved in going to Calais, and many of the MEPs have been interested in this issue. The number of refugees Ireland takes in compared with Italy, Greece and so on is a major challenge for Europe. If there is time, I would like one of the MEPs to comment on that.
The MEPs will have heard about the decision of the UK Supreme Court and people are calling for Prime Minister Johnson's resignation and so on, but Ireland is in a unique position. In fairness to all the previous MEPs, a lot of the groundwork has been done. Will the MEPs give us a sense of how they can work together on the Brexit issue?
Like Senator Leyden, I congratulate the MEPs on their election and I am looking forward to working with them in the future.
Ms Grace O'Sullivan:
It is a great honour to be in the European Parliament and to be speaking to our Oireachtas colleagues. I mention the first point Deputy Crowe raised about communications and the facilitation of same. This is it and this is the start of it. It is great the initiative has been taken for us to make an input to the committee and to share points of interests.
On the last point Deputy Crowe raised on Brexit, we had Mr. Barnier in last week to brief us in the Greens-European Free Alliance on the negotiations. The one thing I noticed in that briefing that I have also noticed more generally in the European Parliament is that every time the word "Brexit" is used, Ireland is mentioned. It is almost like they are glued together. Everyone recognises the greatest impact of Brexit, should it happen, will probably be on the island of Ireland and on the UK itself. Ireland is clearly front and centre in all talk about Brexit, and that is to be welcomed.
This morning at a meeting of the European Parliament Committee on Fisheries, PECH, we had a Commissioner in to talk about the technicalities of access to EU waters by EU members should Brexit happen. Equally, the issue of British access to Irish waters was raised in terms of reciprocity so some kind of an agreement would be made. It was very clear from the language that was being used today at that meeting in terms of the fishers on both sides that there is still a sense, just five weeks out from a potential Brexit, that we are not really ready should the UK leave. For European nations, particularly the eight countries that use the UK waters, because nothing has really been finalised, there is still a great sense of uncertainty for the fishers. Inasmuch as some attempts have been made at trying to achieve some kind of agreement, it is difficult because the EU is finding it difficult to get engagement with the UK on this. Also, there is an issue with the habitual use by many fishers in Ireland of UK waters. What will happen? Will some kind of barrier go down on 31 October or on 1 November? There is a lack of security for fishing communities, processors and the industry in general. It is concerning. The members of the committee have all alluded to the fact there have been significant developments today, so we will see how it plays out in the UK.
I am also on the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, ENVI. I will go back to what Mick Wallace MEP said on this. Climate change is another area that is front and centre. To my mind, Brexit and climate change are probably the two areas that are most spoken about in the European Parliament since I have entered it. I will be very involved in all environmental issues, such as public health, food safety and the environment in general. I am a member of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with Mercosur, DMER, as well, so we have to get going on that, but we have been watching closely what has been happening in Ireland in recent weeks with the negotiations between the Minister and the different farming organisations. I am also on the Delegation for relations with Palestine. That gives a sense of the work areas I have in my portfolio.
The new Commissioners-designate will come before us next week. I am the co-ordinator in PECH for the Greens-European Free Alliance, so I met Commissioner-designate Sinkeviius, who is from Lithuania. He seems quite competent but he will come before the Parliament to be questioned and scrutinised, as should be the case. Maybe that is an area where the members of the committee could contribute. If they had questions they thought we could ask on their behalf of the Commissioners-designate next week, that is something we could do.
It is good to see the MEPs looking so well over there. I do not see anybody wearing any green, but I am sure they will all do us proud and we wish them well in their functions in the European Parliament. Now that it has been clearly established that Parliament is sovereign in Britain, I would be interested in a preliminary view from Brussels from the MEPs on that. Do they see Prime Minister Johnson having to obey the law and write for an extension of time on the basis that he probably will not be able to get a deal in place before 14 October? How do the MEPs see that? Will he be extreme and resign? I would be interested in any preliminary views the MEPs have on that matter. I have no doubt that, from Ireland's point of view, the MEPs will all work well together and they will get on and work very well with Commissioner Hogan, as has already been said by Senator Leyden. I would be interested to hear any view the MEPs have on that and on the new Commission.
Mr. Billy Kelleher:
I thank the members for their kind words and I wish them well. We are at two ends of political cycles. We are at the start of our cycle and the members of the committee are coming to the end of their cycle, so I can understand that the focus will change dramatically in the coming weeks in the Oireachtas. From the perspective of the matters raised by Senator Coghlan, what was interesting in recent days was the exceptional and intense briefing by the UK, both semi-official and unofficial, around the European Parliament. They were saying Ireland will be under huge pressure and Ireland would be exceptionally vulnerable in the event of a crash-out Brexit. They were doing a lot of briefings like that quite intensively. They were also trying to divide the European members, especially those that are affiliated to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, by pointing out that the UK is a NATO member, that the UK would defend European interests, and that Ireland is a neutral country and it would not defend European interests. That was more or less targeting the eastern countries that have major concerns about threats from further to the east of the European Union. There has been an intensive lobbying in recent days to drive a wedge between the varying views and groupings in Europe.
Overall, I can safely say that there is significant solidarity among all political groupings and countries for Ireland's predicament with Brexit and what could flow from it. The Supreme Court decision will bring about its own internal issues in the UK. From our perspective, there is a simple view that we must do everything to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. It would undermine all that we have achieved on the island. It certainly is not in keeping with the spirit and possibly even the law of the Good Friday Agreement relating to the all-Ireland economy, North-South co-operation, and normalising life on the island. There has been strong support and solidarity from all political groupings and countries for Ireland's position and our vulnerabilities to a Brexit with no deal or a bad deal. We have been gazing into the crystal ball for some time about this issue, guessing what will happen, but we know for sure that there is a political crisis in the UK, and many of the decisions that will have an impact will be made in Westminster or by the Executive itself. As long as the UK sticks to its original commitments to the Good Friday Agreement and has that as its base point, I expect that the UK is honour and duty-bound to do nothing and should do nothing to install a hard border, either by design or by accident, on the island itself.
The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, has been mentioned. We can all say nice things. I get the sense that the CAP budget will be under a lot of pressure in the next years. While the previous agricultural committee in the outgoing Parliament made its recommendations, there is no doubt that CAP recommendations will be revisited by the new agricultural committee. It may not open it up to full discussions and amendments from outside the committee itself, but it will certainly have a view on it, as will Parliament, along with the new Commissioner, who will most likely be the Polish candidate, Janusz Wojciechowski. He will be a Commissioner for the European Union but there is a lot of pressure from the east to talk about parity of payments in any CAP reform. There will be pressure there, but our duty as elected representatives is to defend Ireland's interest in those negotiations.
Ms Frances Fitzgerald and I sit on the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, ECON. Significant issues there include access to credit for small and medium-sized businesses, capital markets, and how we fund small and medium-sized businesses in the years ahead. The committee probably knows more than anybody else that the Irish banking system is not functioning as we would like it to. It seems to be incapable of assessing business loans and unsure of whether banks should be interested in lending and in supporting small and medium-sized businesses. The latest figures indicate that it is not lending to the broader economy and that it is not acting as a stimulus to support small and medium-sized businesses. That is having a profound effect on the capacity of businesses. If we have a shock Brexit with short-term cashflow problems for many small and medium-sized businesses, the Irish banks have to step up to the plate and significantly improve on what they are currently doing, where they do not lend into the broader economy. That is an issue which Oireachtas committees and Members should pursue in the short and medium term to address the immediate issues of Brexit, a potential crash-out and cashflow crisis and, in the longer term, the sustainability of the economy and underpinning that with proper credit.
Deputy Crowe asked about one of the portfolios of a Commissioner-elect, namely, protecting the European way of life. We should really talk about protecting life in Europe and across the planet. Our priorities in every aspect of policy will be first benchmarked with regard to environmental impact. That is my reading of the political dynamics now at play in Europe and across national governments, with an increase in people participating both civically and electorally, who are pushing the climate change agenda. It is now very much in the mainstream here. That will have implications for agriculture, transport and how we construct in Ireland. We should be at the forefront of it. There is a question of how we fund all these things in the Irish context when our banking system is not sound enough to lend into the broader economy to stimulate investment in the green agenda and green economy.
Those are thoughts and opinions. Brexit is the short and medium-term issue here that we are concentrating on. The Commission hearings will happen and there will obviously be varying views from political groupings and individuals, and one or two may not make it into the final selection process. My view on Commissioner Hogan is that he will be a great asset to the European Union. Facing potential trade negotiations with the UK in the context of Brexit, I welcome that we have Mr. Hogan as trade Commissioner because he will bring a perspective and understanding of the all-Ireland economy and what is required to ensure that we have as little disruption as possible between the Republic and the North, and the island and Britain.
I congratulate the MEPs, who fought a sterling campaign. I am delighted for them and think that we have a solid team representing Ireland. The first thing that I want to talk about is Brexit, as everybody here seems to talk about. Eleven countries, between Finland and Greece, have borders. What would make Ireland different in the event of a soft or a hard Brexit? I have been saying since 2016, and it is beginning to catch on, that we would have no choice but to manage a border. The level of management will be a function of the way in which Britain leaves the EU. As I am sure the MEPs would agree, there cannot be an open border with a third country.
The European community has failed to deal with the issue of migration, forcing economic migrants to declare themselves as refugees. We have no policy with respect to economic migration and Ireland, above all countries, should be leading on this. We have been economic migrants for as far back in our history as we can remember. Forcing people to declare themselves as refugees so that they can get residency in Europe is causing significant problems across Europe, especially in eastern Europe and lately in Ireland.
The final matter relates to defence. There is an ongoing discussion in this country about a European army. One cannot have an army without an intelligence unit that is independent of all countries. Can any of the MEPs see a situation where the European Parliament and the 27 members ratify the setting up of an intelligence agency for Europe independent of all countries? I cannot see it happening in any way and I think there is an obligation on those who have been elected to the European Parliament to dispel myth. I can certainly see a need for a defence or security agreement. We need greater co-operation between our police forces with respect to people trafficking, drug trafficking etc., but the notion of a European army is miles away from that. There is an onus on those in the European Parliament to spell out whether we are heading in that direction or that this is a nonsense and that we are trying to have a security policy rather than a defence policy.
I thank the MEPs for their time. It is always good to see them. I congratulate them. Can I have Ms O'Sullivan's soft armchair back now that she is gone?
Mr. Ciarán Cuffe:
I thank the committee for having us all. I feel like I am back in the Oireachtas, which in a sense I am, although remotely.
It is good to be representing an all-Ireland group of MEPs from both north and south of the Border this afternoon with my colleagues, Ms Martina Anderson and Mr. Matt Carthy.
Brexit is very much on the agenda. Mr. Michel Barnier spoke passionately and wisely last week, not only at the main plenary session in Strasbourg but also to groups. He spent about an hour with the Green group. He said very clearly that he has listened to the voices of women on the Border, who are very afraid of what might happen. When a man like that, a negotiator, has sat down to listen to those voices, one can have confidence that the EU is acting in the best interest of Ireland and the Union. Brexit is very much in the news. Our colleague, Ms Naomi Long, is hosting a Brexit hearing tomorrow. Two former taoisigh, namely, Mr. John Bruton and Mr. Bertie Ahern, and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair will be addressing it. It will be great to be at that event. Ms Long has just joined us in the room. I congratulate her on organising the event and bringing so many of us together.
In a sense, however, Europe has moved on. We are looking at the next Commission and the multi-annual financial framework. We should not kid ourselves that Brexit is the only show in town in Brussels or Strasbourg. There have been significant negotiations on what Europe will spend the money on over the next seven years. All of us in our respective committees are part of that process. From my party's perspective and the perspectives of all of us, we are very focused on the speech from Ursula von der Leyen about a green new deal and the prospect of aiming for lower emissions. That was summed up in the incredible video from yesterday in which one saw the US President walk past a child from Sweden, therein capturing the global challenges we face at the moment.
The Chairman and I realise that these challenges are not easy. They are tough and will affect what we build, where we build, how we travel and what we eat. It is a huge challenge to reduce our carbon footprint. Finding a meeting ground in the middle is a challenge to the policies the Chairman and I espouse. I look forward to further discussion on that.
I will respond briefly to three questions, the first being on the challenge associated with the European way of life. I am a European and very proud of it but I do not believe Europe would be what it is today without the influences of culture, food and people from the Middle East, China and Africa. That is a significant part of what makes Europe. It was very dangerous for Ursula von der Leyen to pit migration and the European way of life against each other in the same portfolio. That was wrong. I hope she will reconsider that proposal.
On the second question, Senator Craughwell raised the issue of the 12 countries, stretching from Finland to Greece, that have a border with the region outside the Union. The difference is that Ireland is very dependent on its friend and nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom. The countries stretching down the eastern border of the European Union do not have strong economic, social or environmental links with their neighbours but Ireland is inextricably bound to the United Kingdom and must manage the separation process. It looks likely that there will be very significant job losses as part of that. That is where the European Union comes in and where the Irish and UK Governments have to show leadership.
The final question was on an intelligence service or army for Europe. The European Union has an internal security and situation centre. We have an external action service. Therefore, there is a lot of co-operation on how we meet the threats Europe faces within and without. It is a very large jump to go all the way to the suggestion of a common European army from the clear need to have internal and external co-operation on issues of security. We should be very careful not to conflate good security and intelligence with the need for a common European army.
I will leave it at that. I must attend a meeting of the industry and energy committee so I will not be able to remain here for much longer.
I thank all the witnesses for taking the time to link up with us this afternoon. I am sure they are very busy in the European Parliament. I congratulate them on their election. There was a gruelling campaign and they did very well. I congratulate them on taking up their roles in committees in the European Parliament. We miss the Deputies and Senators who have been elected and we will deal with the by-elections that they have left us with in due course. I thank them very much for that.
The European Parliament elections were very interesting in that the European People's Party and the Socialists and Democrats no longer command a majority. There were gains for Renew Europe and the Greens. It is quite a fragmented Parliament. Do the witnesses believe there is any fallout from the appointment of the new President of the European Commission, in that the Spitzenkandidat system broke down and the European Council leaders did their own thing? Is there bad feeling about that? The mechanism for making major appointments in Brussels seemed a bit unseemly from this distance.
To follow on from that, it is suggested that Ursula von der Leyen had to rely in the European Parliament on votes from far right and populist MEPs from Italy, Poland and Hungary. Is she compromised in that regard, in that she will not be seen to be effectively doing everything possible to ensure the rule of law is enforced at European Union level? This is related to some of the questions some of my colleagues asked.
I have a final question. The Brexit situation is unfolding as we speak and every day there is a new development. The UK Supreme Court's judgment today is significant. How do the MEPs and other movers and shakers in Europe feel about another request for an extension of Article 50? It must be a genuine possibility arising from developments today.
Ms Martina Anderson:
I thank the committee for the invitation to address it today. I will deal with the questions in three parts. First, I will deal with the Committee on Constitutional Affairs, AFCO, of which I am a member and the co-ordinator. I am also member of the Committee on International Trade, and I am the co-ordinator of my group on Brexit.
On the AFCO committee, I will run through the current position on the files. The committee is the lead committee dealing with Brexit. The right of inquiry is one of the files that is still on our table. It was on the table before the last mandate. Unfortunately, the European Council, of which the Irish Government is a member, is blocking the right of inquiry in the sense of the Parliament having a role in strengthening the power of the Parliament. That said, we have had legal services telling us we could possibly take the Council to court. That is a discussion that is taking place among the co-ordinators and the Chair.
The other objective is to enhance the remit of the ombudsman. As the committee knows, will be voting for the ombudsman in the time ahead.
We are currently doing work, led by me, on a proposal on possible treaty change that will cover climate justice and climate accountability.
Reference was made to the Commissioner's comments on European values. When it comes to the environment and the carbon credit allowing global industries to pay to pollute, this does not meet the values promoted by our group. The AFCO committee will be the lead committee in respect of the receipt of information on Brexit.
On trade, I am a member of the trade committee, on which, along with my colleague, Mr. Matt Carthy, I am working hard on issues relating to the Mercosur agreement. The Dáil has already indicated its opposition to this agreement and Mr. Carthy and I propose to organise a hearing on the matter in the future, on which we will provide information to the committee.
Like Ms Grace O'Sullivan, I work on the Palestinian delegation and previously chaired that delegation. I have been calling relentlessly for the suspension of the association agreement because of the behaviour of the Israelis acting with impunity. The Dáil has supported the occupied territories Bill, which provides that the EU should not access goods made in the illegal settlements.
The Australia-New Zealand trade agreement, which is at an advanced stage, is likely to provide for agricultural access. Mr. Carthy is very concerned about the implications it will have in Ireland. On the question of the difference between us and the other 11 countries referenced, Ireland is partitioned, it has had a conflict and is party to an international agreement that was lodged at the United Nations. I could go on.
Brexit will have profound implications for the island of Ireland. The North of Ireland will be severely damaged by it. This meeting is more than just an exchange of views between MEPs and Members of the Oireachtas or the observer status that exists. This committee should be facilitating the conversation that is well under way, particularly in the North of Ireland, with regard to our future. That is a democratic right. People cannot speak out of both sides of their mouth, in my opinion. They cannot continue to say they are going to uphold the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts, respecting the democratic provision in that agreement that affords us the opportunity to get out off this train that is going to potentially crash and go over a cliff, and at the same time tell us that we have to remain on it when there is a trigger mechanism in the Good Friday Agreement, an international agreement, and in law in terms of the two Governments having put in statute our right to self-determination. Nine opinion polls have shown that the majority of people in the North do not want to crash out of the EU and do not want to be taken out of the EU.
In regard to Brexit and the backstop, the backstop is the least-worst option, which we have stated repeatedly, but it still drags us out of the EU. We do not want a situation where cows and washing machines have more EU legal standing than people. This is about people. It is about the peace process and the political process. While not speaking for the people of Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal, I would say the last thing they want to see is physical infrastructure being moved onto that part of the island because of a UK crash-out from the EU, with the North being designated a third country. This should not be tolerated and nor should it be expected that the people of Ireland would put up with it. The sum of €1.2 billion in weekly trade supports 200,000 jobs across this island. This list of possible damage is endless. Time does not permit me to go into all of the likely affected areas.
Next week, on 9 October, Matt Carthy and I will launch a report here in the European Parliament by Colin Harvey and Mark Bassett, which sets out the role the EU should be playing, as it did in Germany and Cyprus. They identify all of Cyprus as being in the EU, even though the north of Cyprus is under Turkish control. They set out the role the EU could play in facilitating a calm and considered conversation about the time ahead with regard to when a unity poll should be triggered, what should happen were the outworkings of that poll to be consent across the island - obviously, the consent of the two parts of the island is required - and the role and the work that would need to be done by the EU in planning for the day when the country would be reunited.
Later today, wearing my hat as co-ordinator of the AFCO committee and as GUE-NGL co-ordinator for Brexit, I will meet one of the Commissioner-designates and I will meet another tomorrow. Mr. Carthy will address Commissioner Hogan's appointment. Ireland could have nominated someone that had garnered the support of more of the people of Ireland than he did. Mr. Carthy has been quite vocal on that issue. I could say a lot more but I will leave it at that.
Mr. Seán Kelly:
I thank the Chairman and members for this opportunity. I will be brief. I am a member the Committee on Industry, Trade, Research and Energy, INTE and the Committee on International Trade, INTA.
On trade, as the committee will be aware the outgoing Commissioner for Agriculture, Commissioner Hogan, is now the Commissioner-designate for trade. His hearing will take place here in Brussels next Monday at 6 p.m. in respect of which we do not envisage any problems. Based on the meetings I have attended thus far, Parliament has up to nine Commissioner-designates in its sight. One or two may be dropped, or to use the unfortunate word used here, "killed", but Commissioner Hogan will not be one of them. He will get through with flying colours and he will do a very good job.
On data, earlier this morning Ms Frances Fitzgerald and I had a meeting with Facebook on issues such as fake news and how to control it, etc. I also attended another meeting with representatives of the biopharma industry in Ireland who are concerned about Brexit and industrial policy here and the IT climate, which is an area in which I have been involved for the past five years. The areas on which I will be concentrating over the next few years are climate, industry, trade and agriculture.
Senator Craughwell asked whether Boris Johnson is likely to resign as a result of today's decision. As we would say in Kerry, he will like hell, not a hope of it. He is likely to come up with some other concoction. There is no point going into too much detail on that issue. We will just have to let it run its course.
On Brexit and Deputy Haughey's question regarding whether, if an extension was requested, it would be granted, I believe it would. It is encouraging that last Wednesday in Parliament, we voted on the European Parliament's resolution on the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union, which provided for the granting of an extension, if required, and the result was 544 for and 126 against. This is an indication that if there is a crash out, the European Union will not be to blame for it.
As has been said, a meeting has been organised for tomorrow morning by Naomi Long, at which all Irish MEPs, North and South, will, hopefully, be in attendance, to discuss Brexit and its consequences. Ms Long will be able to elaborate further on that meeting. There is cross-party support here on Brexit, with not only MEPs from Ireland but from across Europe wearing the green vest on this issue. We have held the line and this will be a further indication in that regard. I will leave it at that because I also have to attend the INTA committee, which has already commenced.
I welcome the opportunity to engage with former and new colleagues in this fashion. We are living in very interesting times. We wish all the MEPs the very best in the challenges they face into the future. I have long held the view that the UK leaving the European Union will be a disaster for the UK and will be of no great help to the European Union. The European Commission, Mr. Barnier and his negotiators, have remained constant on the unified approach of the European Union. That is the secret of success.
There will be other challenges. There will be challenges to the rule of law across Europe, but I have no doubt that the European Parliament will be well able to deal with them as they arise. However, we are living in a changing world. It will be dramatically different from the world of the past 15 or 20 years. In dealing with the challenges we, as Members of the national parliament, and the Members of the European Parliament need to keep in touch with each other to co-ordinate our approaches and recognise a common cause.
It is often said the European Union should be brought closer to the people. I have the opposite view, that the people need to be brought closer to the European Union to ensure we all recognise each other as contributors to the European agenda, as well as major stakeholders in the European picture.
For several months there will be a serious recognition on many sides of the dire consequences if a member of the European Union breaks out with or without a deal. The theory about a better deal being available after a break-out needs to be dealt with as it cannot be that way. If it were to happen, the European Union would be no more. There is a recognition on all sides that Brexit was not a good idea to start with and will not improve anybody’s position, either elsewhere in Europe, the United Kingdom or Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement was agreed to by the UK Government, supported by the United States and the European Union, while the Irish Government was a co-sponsor. Much has been said about how the backstop is undemocratic. The Good Friday Agreement was not undemocratic. It was strongly supported by people on both sides of the political and social divide in Northern Ireland, as well as in the South. In the time ahead Members of the national parliament and the European Parliament need to keep in close contact with each other to ensure we will have an influence on the agenda, as well as to recognise the challenges faced. We must also recognise that the next five years in the formulation of the modern Europe will be vastly different from what we have experienced in the past 40 years.
Mr. Matt Carthy:
I thank members of the joint committee for hosting and facilitating this engagement. It is another useful opportunity for us to share our views.
I hope Phil Hogan will be a success in his new commissionership role. As Seán Kelly said, I do not see much opposition in the European Parliament to his appointment. I personally hope he will succeed, but I do not believe he will as he has not succeeded in any political role he has ever had before. He was a disaster as a Minister and failed miserably as European agriculture Commissioner. His final act in that role was to endorse the Mercosur trade deal which was a kick in the teeth for Irish farmers, the environment and the domestic economy. It was done for the sole purpose that he did not want much opposition at European level to him taking on the trade commissionership. Time will tell and I hope I will be proved wrong. It is important that we have a strong Commissioner and it would have been my wish for the Government to appoint somebody with a track record who would have given confidence.
There are significant debates occurring all at once. The EU trade agenda is the subject of one such debate. I get the sense that the prevailing political opinion in Dublin is that free trade has been good for Ireland and that, therefore, all free trade deals are good. I accept that free trade has been good for Ireland and that we need an open economy with trade agreements. However, I do not agree with the premise that all trade agreements are good. I do not believe the Mercosur trade deal is a good one for Ireland. I am also concerned about the New Zealand trade deal. What the beef sector will lose in Mercosur, the dairy sector will lose in the New Zealand trade deal. I disagree with the proposition of investor-state dispute courts which will allow foreign corporations to sue national governments for implementing democratic decisions if they believe their profits have been impacted on. This has been incorporated into most of the EU trade deals being negotiated.
There will be a big battle over the EU budget. This is the crux of Senator Craughwells’s point and where our opinions diverge. There is an argument about whether we are on the road to having a European army. Oireachtas Members and others across Europe, including the Commissioners responsible, have cited permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, and the European Defence Fund as pivotal building blocks for a European army. That is their language, not mine, and they celebrate that fact, which is regrettable. The proposal made by the European Commission is that Ireland will pay hundreds of millions of euro extra into the European budget. In return, we will get less back under important programmes such as the CAP, in cohesion funding and other vital funding streams, for which EU membership is so valued. Instead, the Commission is proposing that we open up a new budget line of €13 billion for a European Defence Fund. Ironically, that amount corresponds to what the British Government contributes to the European Union. This is a militarisation agenda which does not have the support of people across Europe or the Irish people. It is one of the mechanisms by which we see growth in the far right and other xenophobic elements. This is a crucial time in terms of the direction the European Union will take. If it wants the support of peoples across Europe, rather pursuing an expensive vanity exercise which will contribute nothing to peace and more to conflict, we need to change tack. The Irish people, through their representatives, should be leading the charge in that regard.
CAP reform has fallen slightly off the agenda, but it will be crucial. We have to protect and increase the budget, but this will proving difficult considering that our Commissioner signed off on a budget which will see a 15% cut in real terms in CAP funding. For several weeks we have seen farmers protesting at beef factory gates because they have reached breaking point. While it is welcome that the protests have been lifted, there is an onus to use all mechanisms to address the inequalities in our farming model. They will be addressed partly through reform of the CAP. I look forward to working with our colleagues in Dublin to ensure we will have a strong voice in calling for a redistribution model for the CAP that will ensure family farms that need most support receive an increased contribution under the CAP which, in turn, will allow them to continue providing the most sustainable agrifood products.
Much has been said about Brexit. What we saw happen today was another outworking of the dysfunctionality of the Westminster system.
Given that the British Government is being taken to court and losing, with the court essentially describing its actions as unlawful, one can see why more and more people in Ireland are turning their backs on Westminster. We have a big job of work to do. We have been working here in the EU with everybody who will work with us to try to minimise the damage Brexit presents.
On Senator Craughwell's question, I am astounded that somebody would ask what is the difference between the border of Finland with another country and the border that partitions our country. That is the fundamental difference. The Border in Ireland is an artificial border that was put in place for political purposes and has been nothing but a cause of grief since being implemented. The Border and partition has cost Ireland economically, politically and socially. It has cost us countless lives as a result of the conflict and, therefore, the mechanisms that were put in place to undo the damage of partition and undo the impact of the Border were twofold. These are the Good Friday Agreement and the rights that were provided within it, especially the right of the people in the North to identify themselves as Irish citizens if that was their choice. This means there is a responsibility on Oireachtas Members to protect the rights of those citizens. Coupled with that was the membership of the Single Market and the customs union, which meant the physical manifestations of the Border could be undone.
I am from County Monaghan and my nearest county is Armagh. To suggest to me or to anyone in the community where I live that we would just have to accept checks or regulations between Monaghan and Armagh is the equivalent of someone saying that the Chairman should have to do the same between counties Kerry and Cork. It would not be tolerated in Munster, and it should not be in Ulster. I believe we should be strong in that position. If the British Government or the EU are insistent that some checks or hardening of the Border takes place, there will be an onus on us to consider constitutional avenues to ensure this does not happen. Those constitutional avenues are available within the Good Friday Agreement. There is an onus on all of us to start having the conversation in event that we need to use those avenues to undo the damage of Brexit in our country so that the preparatory work is done and we will have had the conversation around the constitutional, economic and political frameworks of a united Ireland, the transitional arrangements, and what all of the outworkings would look like. There is an onus and responsibility on all of us to have those conversations now so that we do not make the same mistakes as the Brexiteers and end up having a referendum with nobody knowing what happens next the day after the referendum. We want to make sure that does not happen, but for us to be able to that we must collectively have those big conversations.
Ms Naomi Long:
I thank the Chairman and I thank the committee for the invitation to speak. I apologise for running late. Reference was made to the events unfolding in Westminster today and before I arrived, I was dealing with some of those issues in the media.
I shall briefly outline the committees I am on and I shall also refer to the appointment and election of Ursula von der Leyen. I want to focus on Brexit because that is my central focus in the EU Parliament. Brexit is at a critical juncture and it is important that I retain my focus on that above everything else.
I am a member of the EU Parliament's committee on regional development, REGI, and of the FEMM committee, both of which are important in terms of equality and rights. Those committees will also have an impact on funding in a post-Brexit scenario, which I take a particularly keen interest in. I am also a sub on the committee on agriculture and rural development, AGRI. Some of the joint committee members will have rehearsed the challenges of Mercosur, especially for beef farming, and for agriculture more generally. I am keeping an eye on this for farming and environmental reasons. I have quoted the figures I got from the Ulster Farmers' Union, UFU, previously. A kilogramme of beef produced in Ireland has a carbon footprint of about 16 kg. A kilogramme of beef produced in South America has a carbon footprint 80 kg. When it comes to reducing carbon uptake, this is a significant difference. We need to get this across. There is no point having high ideals on the environment if our trade relations do not reinforce those high ideals.
Reference was made to Ursula von der Leyen. I have no issue with promoting EU values such as openness, equality, freedom and democracy. These are all very valuable values that we should act to protect and promote. I have a problem, however, when people use phrases such as "our European way of life" because I believe there is a tendency for phrases like that to be used as a dog whistle to those on the far right, those who are Islamophobic and those who are xenophobic. The President-elect, Ms von der Leyen, has coupled this with the work on migration and this is an unfortunate juxtaposition because I believe it says that it is in some way related to migration. I do not believe that immigration is a threat to our way of life. Some of the threats to democracy at the moment are coming from within, not from without. We need to be conscious of othering people who come to the EU from all around the globe and who make a valuable contribution. I will wait, with a degree of scepticism, to see how that pans out.
With regard to what is happening in EU Parliament on Brexit, which is of acute concern to those of us in Northern Ireland in the Border counties and beyond, I detect that patience is starting to run out with the process. I detect this particularly among some of our French colleagues. I believe there is something of a power play going on at the moment. The exit of the UK would leave France in a much stronger position within the EU, and I suspect this has contributed somewhat to their eagerness to see this resolved in sharpish fashion. We also need to be careful because it plays into the general exhaustion of the public, the political class and the media with Brexit. People are sick of Brexit and I hold my hands up because I am also sick of Brexit. There is a tendency of people to get into the mindset of, "Just let us get this done." One of the key messages I am trying to get out with colleagues is that this will not go away once a decision has been made. Over the next ten to 15 years, this will continue to be on the political agenda, affect decision-making going forward and influence policy. Right now, it is more important to get this right than to get it done. It is much more important that we take the time to make decisions correctly and not rush towards a conclusion simply because of people being fed up.
It is almost inevitable that the UK Government will not survive the current crisis without a general election. There is also the possibility of a second referendum, momentum for which is growing in the EU Parliament. Even if a deal is possible in the short timeframe available, there will need to be an extension for it to be ratified in the UK Parliament and in the EU 27 member states. Some form of extension is almost inevitable. I am reasonably confident that this extension will be granted if asked for, and certainly the resolution that was passed last week in the EU Parliament indicates support for that. I have a concern that there is a degree of conditionality attached to this. While I have sympathy with those who want a clear answer as to what the UK intends to use the extension for, I am concerned that the conditionality could give Boris Johnson wriggle room to say that he has complied with the letter of the law in asking for an extension but that he will not accept the extension given because of the attached conditions. We need to tread cautiously. There is work for the Irish Government and others to make sure that any extension is not framed in a way that allows Boris Johnson to wriggle out of his responsibilities. As we saw with the ruling of the Supreme Court today, he is more than happy to wriggle out of responsibilities at every single level. On the question of his future and whether he should resign, I have no doubt whatsoever that he should. He is unfit for office and this has been reinforced by today's judgment, not discovered by it.
He ought to go but will he resign? I do not believe he will. He may use today's ruling to try, through some machinations, to get a vote of no confidence moved in the British Parliament against him that would put the Labour Party in the invidious position of having to vote confidence in the British Prime Minister to keep the British Parliament standing and avoid the snap general election that he has sought all along. That could cause real problems. Trying to predict what might happen from here is incredibly difficult but I am pretty certain that whatever is Mr. Johnson's next move, it will be to try to sustain himself in Downing Street. That is his only objective.
It has been mentioned by others that we will have an event tomorrow focusing specifically on Northern Ireland and the issues around the Good Friday Agreement and people's quality of life. Much has been said about the economic impact of Brexit and that is understandable because it will have a massive impact across the island. There are also psychological, political and social ramifications of Brexit that we must consider. We must examine how people's lives will be impacted by changes at the Border. Tomorrow we will start by looking at the Good Friday Agreement and we have a former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, as keynote speaker. We will also have contributions from Mr. Tony Blair and Mr. Bertie Ahern. All the MEPs from Ireland, North and South, and the UK who are pro-remain have been party to the organisation of the event. I have also invited Ms Diane Dodds, MEP, from Northern Ireland. I invited a member from the Brexit Party because it is important that such people hear first hand the realities of the Border and do not simply sweep away or dismiss the concerns that people are expressing.
The second panel will involve people from Northern Ireland. They started to arrive today. It is a broad mix, with people from Border Communities Against Brexit and the Climate Change Coalition in Northern Ireland, as well as a community worker from Derry and some academics. It is a broad panel and the idea is to try to give a lived experience that brings colour to the concerns relating to the Border. MEPs who observe the proceedings should feel they can understand better than when they arrived the complexities of the position.
There are different views among all the parties and I have listened to Mr. Carthy and Ms Anderson understandably arguing that the solution to this is a united Ireland. It is the solution to everything when one speaks to them and I understand where they are coming from on that. There are complexities in other people's positioning. Some of the UK MEPs want a people's vote and others want a general election, etc. We are trying to get to a point where everyone agrees that a hard Brexit would be incredibly damaging, as all the Northern Irish parties do, on the surface at least. That is a common position taken North and South and it is a position that I want to see other UK MEPs bring on board, as well as other MEPs from across the European Union. We need to reinforce at this point just how vulnerable Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement would be to any hard border.
It is also important to say that I hope we will be able to get some kind of joint statement from all the MEPs as a result of this, which would be quite a powerful counter to what we have seen of late where much of the diplomacy between Dublin and London feels like megaphone diplomacy. I do not necessarily hold Dublin responsible for it and the way the UK Government has responded to the Brexit issue has made it incredibly difficult. I was a member of the Assembly but it has been suspended for three years and there is no serious prospect of it being restored because of what is going on with Brexit and the inability of the UK Government to shake loose of the Democratic Unionist Party. I am concerned that the Good Friday Agreement should be front and centre of the discussions we have on Brexit and the restoration of the Agreement in all its parts. I agree with Ms Anderson as all its parts should include having a working Assembly and delivering for people on the ground through it, as well as all the other structures North and South, east and west, as envisaged. Until we get to that point, we have much work to do.
To those who were able to make the meeting today this has been a very worthwhile experience. I hope this is the first of many engagements with our MEPs using this video link. It has been very worthwhile and it will set a precedent for other Oireachtas committees in using this technology. I express gratitude to the technical staff and our secretariat, as well as the people in Brussels who had to do technical work to put this together. It is worthwhile because there should be continuous engagement with MEPs, whether it is through this or other committees. For example, it would be worthwhile for the agriculture committee to deal with MEPs who specialise in agricultural matters or attend agriculture committees in Brussels. When they wish to engage with the Houses of the Oireachtas, this is a great forum to use. I have been looking forward to this meeting for a while and we tested it earlier. We wanted to get it up and running properly and today is the first success. I thank the MEPs for their time as I appreciate they all have meetings to attend. I am also conscious that Dáil proceedings will begin soon.