Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 20 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
European Union Issues: Discussion
On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, and his officials. Before we begin, I will read a note on privilege and go through some housekeeping matters.
Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or to engage otherwise in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if the statement of a witness is potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, the witness will be directed to discontinue these remarks. It is imperative to comply with any such direction.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or against an official either by name in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. For anyone watching this meeting, Oireachtas Members and witnesses now have the option of being physically present in the committee room or to join the meeting remotely via Microsoft Teams. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that members must be physically present within the confines of the Leinster House complex in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit members to participate where they are not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. In this regard, I would ask any member partaking via Microsoft Teams that prior to making a contribution to the meeting, they confirm they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus. If attending in the committee room, as a number of members are, they are asked to exercise personal responsibility to protect themselves and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19.
They are strongly advised to practise good hand hygiene and leave at least one seat vacant between themselves and others attending the meeting. Attendees should also maintain an appropriate level of social distancing during and after the meeting. Masks should be worn at all times during the meeting, except when speaking.
I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, to make his opening statement.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus le baill an choiste uilig as an gcuireadh seo theacht os a gcomhair. Ar dtús, rachaidh mé i ngleic le prótacal Thuaisceart Éireann.
First, I will update the committee on the Northern Ireland protocol. Last week, the European Commission delivered on its promise to people and businesses in Northern Ireland to address their practical, genuine and real concerns. The European Union's proposals will make it easier to move goods and medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. They will also provide a framework for Northern Ireland having a greater say in how the protocol works. However, the European Union cannot resolve these issues alone. We need a partner who is willing to work with us. We want to get to a jointly agreed and durable solution that provides stability, certainty and predictability for people and investors in Northern Ireland. Now is the time for the UK Government to engage constructively on practical solutions in order that the benefits of the protocol can be shared by people from all communities. It was clear from talking to my European colleagues in Luxembourg yesterday that there is strong support for the Commission’s approach and strong solidarity with Ireland but, most important, there is strong interest in the issue from around the European Union.
Yesterday, at the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg, I also discussed a range of other issues on the EU agenda, including the Commission’s second annual rule of law report, the Conference on the Future of Europe, Next Generation EUand the draft conclusions for the European Council taking place tomorrow and Friday. I am happy to speak on any or all of these areas with committee members in further detail.
The European Union is a union of laws and values. The rule of law is a fundamental principle for all EU member states and it is of vital importance that the rule of law is preserved, protected and promoted across the Union. I welcomed Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen’s strong words on protecting the rule of law and European values in her recent state of the union address. I also welcomed her speech in the European Parliament yesterday morning - which I did not see live as she delivered it at the same time as the General Affairs Council meeting was under way - in which she once again emphasised the importance of the rule of law.
Ireland has consistently supported the development of a more comprehensive range of tools by the European Commission to ensure that member states stick to these basic obligations under the EU treaties and basic democratic norms. This includes the Commission’s annual rule of law report and the rule of law budget conditionality mechanism. As EU member states, there is an onus on us all to comply with determinations of the European Court of Justice with a view to maintaining our shared legal order. As part of membership of the Union, it is also essential that member states accept the primacy of European Union law, which is a principle of the European Union going back to a time prior to when Ireland was a member.
The judgment of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, which has been made official, is therefore a cause for serious concern for Ireland. This ruling is the latest development to heighten concerns about judicial independence in Poland following justice system reforms. These include changes to the disciplinary system for judges, which the Court of Justice has said are not compatible with EU law. This development underlines the importance of ongoing scrutiny and discussion of the kind provided by the rule of law dialogue.
I also updated my Council colleagues yesterday on Ireland’s national programme for the Conference on the Future of Europe. I will also participate in the second plenary meeting of the conference this weekend as will my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Pippa Hackett. I also raised an issue, of which the committee may wish to be aware. The European Council meeting will take place this week and the plenary meeting of the conference in December is scheduled for the same week as the December European Council meeting in December. That will affect the ability of ministers of state with responsibility for European affairs in various European countries to physically attend the meeting in Strasbourg. However, I certainly encourage Oireachtas members to be there in person.
We must all do as much as we can to publicise the conference and encourage greater public engagement. We cannot be indifferent about the conference as it is too important in terms of the valuable opportunity it provides for ordinary citizens to have their say on Europe’s future and also the recommendations which might ultimately result from the process now under way. I thank the committee for its engagement in the Conference on the Future of Europe. I know it has been a priority of the committee for some time. I am happy to take questions from members.
I thank the Minister of State for that update. Before we proceed to questions, I commend the Minister of State and his officials for the outreach and engagement from his office, in particular, regarding the Conference on the Future of Europe. It has been a great opportunity seized by his office.
The Minister of State is welcome to the committee. I thank him for his comprehensive update. I would like to touch on two issues. The first, to which the Minister of State referred, is that of Poland and the rule of law. Can he give us some further detail on what potential actions the European Union is considering taking in this regard, not only with respect to the treatment of the judiciary but also the treatment of women’s rights and the attempt to row back on female reproductive rights in Poland, which is of major concern to many citizens in Ireland?
The second issue is the Northern Ireland protocol. The Minister of State referred, mainly with respect to Poland, to the supremacy of European Union law and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That still remains the key issue, unfortunately, with the protocol. We are all well aware of the Commission’s position on that. I ask the Minister of State to outline the next steps in this ongoing negotiation and process and what we might see happen in the next number of weeks or months.
Regarding the Conference on the Future of Europe, are there detailed plans for what Ireland will do to engage with citizens? Are there projects or events planned in the coming months, of which the committee should be aware?
I thank the Minister of State for his update. To follow up on the questions asked by Senator Chambers regarding the Northern Ireland protocol, we need practical solutions. The Commission has made its proposals and I hope there will now be constructive engagement. Vice President Maros Šefovi has risen to the occasion, consulted widely and come forward with these practical solutions. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's view on the comments by David Frost regarding the European Court of Justice and his suggestion that it would not be an acceptable arbiter of any disputes.
I agree with what the Minister of State and Senator Chambers on the rule of law, with particular reference to Poland. To follow up on what Senator Chambers asked, what are the tools available to the Commission to deal with Poland and this issue? I understand some sort of legal process is under way under Article 7 and there is also the issue of funding. Will the Minister of State outline what tools are available to the Commission to deal with Poland?
I hope the Minister of State does not mind my raising an issue he did not mention in his opening statement, namely, the issue of enlargement in the context of the admission of the six countries that comprise the western Balkans. The summit in Slovenia does not seem to have been particularly successful. Presumably, the Minister of State can clarify that Ireland is totally supportive of the accession of the six western Balkans countries I ask him to comment on what happened in Slovenia and why the summit was not a particular success?
Members have raised interesting questions that cut across a number of issues. Senator Chambers asked specifically about the next steps with respect to the protocol. As we speak, the UK team is in Brussels discussing with its counterparts at a technical level. I understand the discussion is focusing on the EU papers - the documents published last week. David Frost and Maros Šefovi will meet again. I noted from Mr. Frost's Lisbon speech last week that there is an openness to engage, and that is happening. We must welcome and acknowledge that a discussion is taking place, much of which is being kept confidential. We must also acknowledge that the European Commission has come a very long way, supported by the member states. That is really welcome.
We will certainly be as constructive as possible in the coming weeks and continually reassure our friends in Britain that, as far as we can tell in all our engagements and in the European Commission's engagements, business and the people of Northern Ireland are, by and large, happy with what has been proposed by the European Commission. This will lead to a substantial reduction in checks while at the same time, importantly, protecting the Single Market, which is crucial for Ireland. It gives Northern Ireland the real benefits of the best-of-both-worlds approach, with Northern Ireland in the Single Market for goods but also part of the customs territory of the UK.
The European Court of Justice was raised by both Deputy Haughey and Senator Chambers. It is important to be very clear. First, in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement there is no role for the Court of Justice. In the protocol it has a very limited and specific role which, to be honest, I cannot see really arising in practice. It is difficult even to think of how it could arise in practice. Essentially, Northern Ireland is in the Single Market for goods. Disputes relating to goods' standards or whether goods are allowed in the Single Market could theoretically end up in the Court of Justice of the European Union but, as I understand it, it is such a theoretical issue that there is currently only a handful of cases across the entire European Union relating to goods before the Court of Justice. In fact, cases in the Court of Justice relating to goods are actually some of the foundational cases dating back up to 50 years, which Senator Chambers and Deputy Haughey would probably have studied in college. They go back that far and they are foundational aspects of the Single Market. All that the provision in the protocol does is apply that.
Ultimately, any single market for goods needs regulation, which is the rules of the European Union. The protocol lists a certain set of regulations that apply to goods in Northern Ireland and, ultimately, there has to be an arbitrator, a court, that is the bedrock of the Single Market, and that is the Court of Justice of the European Union. It is part and parcel of the Single Market. When we say Northern Ireland is part of the Single Market for goods, it means that goods can flow freely from Northern Ireland to the European Union and, most importantly, between the North and South on this island, which is the rationale for it, that those goods must adhere to certain standards and, ultimately, in theoretical cases, that the Court of Justice of the European Union could decide on issues relating to those matters. The rules for the Single Market are so set in stone and specifically set out in the protocol that it is very hard to see how this issue would arise in practice, but it is part and parcel of the Single Market and the benefits that it gives to Northern Ireland. I do not see it as a burden in any way. In fact, I do not see it as an interference in any way with British sovereignty. Northern Ireland is in the Single Market as a type of exception with a specific international agreement, which is what the protocol is. This is simply part of it, and I doubt there will be many lawyers in Belfast taking cases to the Court of Justice of the European Union on goods issues. It is very difficult to envisage it. However, it is part and parcel of what Northern Ireland gets with the Single Market.
Poland is obviously a major concern, and Senator Chambers and Deputy Haughey asked similar questions about what we can do about it. There are many hard and soft powers. The Article 7 proceedings were mentioned by Deputy Haughey. That is one of the most important measures the European Union has. However, it is very difficult to operate in practice. There are the Article 7 hearings that take place at the General Affairs Council, on which I sit. Ultimately, if they were voted up to the European Council, technically some voting rights could be withdrawn as punishment for a breach of the rules, but the voting majority requirements to get it out of the General Affairs Council are quite steep and at the European Council there must be unanimity, which would be difficult to achieve in the current political circumstances, as members of the committee will understand. However, the Article 7 proceedings have been started and it is difficult to see a way to finish them. It is important. We had Article 7 hearings in June and that shone a light on certain issues at that time, particularly in Hungary. Yesterday, we had a rule of law dialogue where we again shone a light on particular issues.
In terms of the practical next steps, the public pressure from the Dáil and Seanad and from the general public in Ireland on LGBT rights, for example, has had a direct impact on some of those towns that had LGBT-free zones. We can talk to our friends, the Poles, and say that we do not believe this is acceptable, that it needs to change and the reasons are that it is about human decency, human dignity and human rights. In quite a number of cases, those designations by local authorities in Poland have been reversed through public pressure, much of it coming from Ireland. In addition, the European Commission has withdrawn funding for certain municipalities in Poland which have initiated these designations. That public pressure cannot be understated. There is also, of course, the conditionality regulation, which would make the disbursal of European moneys, particularly from the recovery and resilience fund, conditional on adherence to the rule of law and democratic values. That regulation is in force, but it is being challenged in the Court of Justice of the European Union at present.
The Commission is taking this very seriously and carefully. For example, it has not yet approved the recovery and resilience plans for Hungary and Poland. It is also conscious that there is a case before the Court of Justice. Ireland took part in that case in support of the Council. Last week, our lawyers were arguing that case. That is a very important step by us to show that we take this very seriously. We certainly support the conditionality mechanism and want to see it implemented, provided the Court of Justice rules in favour of it. That is a very practical measure. The Polish and Hungarian people are our friends and common Europeans. We have to keep talking and keep a dialogue going in respect of all these issues. That is very important. The committee can play its role in that too, and I am sure it does. We need to keep in touch. They are our friends and not everybody in those countries agrees with the direction the governments are taking, and that provides an opportunity.
With regard to enlargement, Ireland is totally supportive of the enlargement of the European Union. The Taoiseach made very strong comments in Slovenia on that. He had good engagement with his counterparts from the western Balkans countries, in particular. I have had similar engagement, too, and I strongly encourage the committee to have whatever engagement it considers fit with its counterparts in the western Balkans. Yes, there are obviously processes to go through. We have to make sure that the rule of law, democratic values and economic reforms are all bedded down, but we should be as encouraging and helpful as possible. In any of my engagements with colleagues from the western Balkans I have offered Ireland's full support not only in terms of the ultimate ambition of EU membership but also our help along the way on the road to it.
I hope that answers the members' questions.
I thank the Minister of State for appearing before the committee. I will follow up on a number of the issues he has dealt with. Obviously, the Irish protocol remains paramount for us. In fairness, it appeared that the Commission and Vice-President Šefovi pushed themselves as far as they possibly could to find a solution which, I believe, a considerable number of people in the North, even with a unionist background, who are businessmen, farmers and so forth will be quite happy to work with. I have not seen the large level of demonstrations and whatever else is happening within political unionism. Is the Minister of State aware of whether there is that general constructive feeling on the ground of just getting on with it? We have the background noise of Boris Johnson and particularly David Frost while we have the positive that there is an element of engagement, which has to be welcomed. To a degree, one is second-guessing on the basis of what someone says which might be for a particular constituency, and that can change overnight. I understand that the Minister of State cannot give complete clarity, just his interactions with regard to the North, particularly as regards the business community and so forth in respect of working this.
We also had the European Commission representation in Ireland and they said officials from the Commission were ready to go the minute these documents were done, from a point of view of ensuring all this was workable. We are all in agreement that the Irish protocol is the only show in town and is not for moving. As long as the EU and the Commission maintain that as the starting point and we get workable operational changes, that is where the future is. Anything else that is possibly being threatened would be utterly unacceptable, particularly in an Irish context.
Senator Chambers brought up the Conference on the Future of Europe and the events that are to be organised throughout this State. The European movement is carrying out lead in relation to it. It is about ensuring we get out and beyond those that are interested. It can be difficult for even regular, localised politics to get to those who see themselves as outside the political sphere. There is an onus on us to make it real and involve as many people as possible. The northern dimension is a big thing. We have a democratic deficit and there seem to be moves towards dealing with that. Will the Minister of State go into a bit of detail on that? Maroš Šefovi has been supportive. It is difficult in the North in that there is not representation or, necessarily, engagement on a localised level. That is something we would have to deal with.
What is the timeline for the rule of law issues, as regards the case in front of the European Court of Justice, ECJ? We have all asked what leverage there is within the European Union as regards dealing with breaches of the rule of law. I accept what the Minister of State has said to the effect that positive peer pressure can have an impact regarding local authorities and localised actions by councils that were twinned and pieces of work like that. Our first port of call should always be talk and negotiation, rather than leverage, but there is the question of the recovery and resilience funding. The multiannual framework or whatever one wants to call it is the big money issue. There was a difficulty in twinning that with rule of law issues. Where does that stand?
There are other issues beyond those, such as those relating to Poland and Hungary. I imagine those states from time to time say there is rule of law for them but not for some of the more senior members of the European Union or those who were there earlier. I am back talking about the disgraceful way Catalonian representatives have sometimes been dealt with by the Spanish Administration.
On the European Council, the main issues regarding Government focus at this point will relate to that. We are in a different place here as regards the pandemic. Just when we thought we were out, we are back in. It is almost like a Mafia film. The big issue is around none of us being safe until all of us are safe. I heard a great amount of narrative around the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver. We have had a Commission representative state it is a misnomer and that there is greater capacity in the pharmaceutical community now to produce what is needed. How do we deliver what needs to be delivered throughout the developing world and provide more than COVAX, which is only looking at 20% of the populations in developing countries? I am not wedded to a TRIPS waiver, but we need a solution that means the developing world can get vaccines relatively cheaply and then we can deal with the logistical questions of getting them out. The likes of the European Union has a huge role to play in this.
I confirm I am in the wilds of Agriculture House. I thank the Minister of State. I listened to what he said and it reminded me of the discussion we had last week with Barbara Nolan. We discussed the rule of law. I will make one or two comments and ask one or two questions. Coming back to Article 7, at one level one wonders if it is toothless. How can we get out of the General Affairs Council and the European Council? It depends who votes what way. It is not that I have an issue with that but how useful is it in this situation? My question is deeper than that. If the ECJ were to come back with a finding that did not allow the EU to proceed, that would have significant ramifications for current and future issues around the rule of law. That is musing on my part. I do not necessarily want the Minister of State to comment unless he wants to, but I would be delighted to hear it.
As to how we proceed, last week when discussing this with Barbara Nolan, I said I agreed that we need to tread very carefully. The escalation this week was significant. For the first time since I left the Parliament, somebody contacted me about that speech. That surprised me. This person found it so significant and wondered what my perspective was. I listened to Sean Kelly MEP. I have heard him make many speeches over the years on this and other issues, but his speech indicated a very strong position. I would consider it a change in position from the Government. Would the Minister of State be happy to comment on that?
When it comes to conditionality, we had many debates. My concern about conditionality is always that it is a double-edged sword. If we use the withholding of European funds, that becomes a weapon for those in power to say there is an impact on the people of Poland because the EU is withholding funds. I understand there is carrot and stick and that money talks; nonetheless, we could get badly bitten by this.
The last point I will make is a general comment. When we talk about the supremacy of EU law, it is important we understand that we do not have EU law in every circumstance. Things happen throughout Europe that we as individuals, as politicians or as members of political parties might not agree with but not all of it is covered by EU law. That means the European Court of Justice can only act in certain circumstances. Sometimes we need to be careful when we talk about the EU acting in areas where it does not have competence.
It is something I have noticed over a long period of time and it can confuse people outside the system. It is not that I am an expert in it - far from it - but I have seen on many occasions people talking about the EU acting when in fact, there is probably no legal basis for it to act. I will be speaking in the Dáil in a short while so I must leave soon.
I will answer the question on the Conference on the Future of Europe first because it was a follow-up question from Deputy Ó Murchú that I did not really address in my previous answer. The Government has organised a number of events. Obviously, Covid has restricted things. With EMI and through the Department of Foreign Affairs, I have met a wide range of groups in my capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, including meetings on a regional basis and meetings with marginalised groups and civic society. I have met young people, LGBT groups, people from the Gaeltacht, islanders and inner-city representatives so I have met a wide range of groups.
Covid has hampered this process. With restrictions having eased, we are planning other events. The Conference on the Future of Europe is not dependent on the Government organising meetings or events. Everybody can do that. This committee has done it. The Dáil and Seanad can do it. Fianna Fáil has done a seminar on the Conference on the Future of Europe. I encourage other parties to replicate that. We will do more as well. There will be Government-run events.
We are looking at the citizens' panel that will take place in Dublin in December. That is obviously a European event. It is not our event but it probably would be an opportune time for all of us to raise the profile of the Conference on the Future of Europe at that time because there will be substantial media interest in these randomly selected European citizens coming to Dublin to have their conversation. If any of the Irish randomly selected citizens would like to speak out about their experience, it would be really helpful and interesting because about eight Irish citizens are involved in this. I do not know any of them. Commissioner Reynders, who is also responsible for GDPR, said that if we can get this through GDPR, he would certainly like to facilitate it. If anyone out there who is involved, it would-----
Present themselves - I think the Irish media would be fascinated to hear from them as opposed to just politicians all the time so I think that would also help. I would certainly encourage that. I ask anybody who would be interested - and I do not know their identities - to please speak out and say whether he or she thinks it is a good or bad process and what he or she thinks of the issues involved.
Regarding the protocol, I again thank the Opposition and members from all political parties for the unified approach to Brexit in this country. We adopted that approach in opposition and I see the Opposition doing it now. It is so important that when a member of the Government, whichever party is in government and that changes all the time, goes to Europe there is a united approach in this country on this issue. It speaks volumes to our colleagues in Europe. When I arrived at the General Affairs Council yesterday, quite a number of my European colleagues approached me to see what my reaction and the Irish reaction was. I had spoken to some of them already. Members will find that, by and large, European colleagues listen to the Irish reaction and accept it. Many of them do. Yes, there will be different nuances from some member states regarding particular issues but, generally speaking, the Irish approach is certainly asked for and adopted. I thank my colleagues for that.
I know that this time last year, I was telling Deputy Ó Murchú that a European minister was coming to the Deputy's constituency along the Border. It did not happen because of Covid and we did not know about numbers but another minister from another country has indicated that they want to come to see the Border this year. We wonder all the time whether the interest is being sustained. It is being sustained. All long as Covid allows it, which I suspect it will, I will invite Border Deputies to meet that minister once the visit has been arranged and we get confirmation. We have not confirmed it yet. It is fantastic to see that interest and that ministers from other countries ask to visit the Border. That is very welcome. They are also very aware of the peace process and are as frustrated as the Deputy and I are at times but they also know that what we are doing here is to make sure there is peace on the island and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
I broadly welcome the unionist approach, particularly when they talk about welcoming, engaging and acknowledging that the Commission came a long way. These are phrases we heard from the unionist community. That type of reaction gives space this week for talks. The significant and immediate public support from business and agriculture on a cross-community basis was really welcome. People in Europe are pleased to see that and that what they feel is a good package has been received as such.
There is a lot of background noise. I acknowledge it is very difficult to stay out of that at times but sometimes we have to do so, for example, to allow space for these conversations to take place this week and in the coming weeks. I hope the process will not be too long. The Commission has gone a long way and it is very hard to find real arguments. The argument about the European Court of Justice is not a sovereignty question. We saw the issue of weights and measures this week. Again, nobody knows what an ounce is - let us be honest about it - so I suspect that is not going to be an issue. We already have some exemptions in Northern Ireland. For example, there was never any issue with miles or yards on signposts in Northern Ireland so sometimes these issues are exaggerated. We want what is best for business and people in Northern Ireland.
I might briefly discuss Covid. What the Taoiseach would like to see this week from the European Council, particularly with regard to Covid, is very strong messaging on booster vaccines. That is something he has been talking about and about which he is very keen. We have seen the efficacy of the booster vaccines in countries where they have been applied. We are delighted that booster vaccinations for the over-60s have got the go-ahead from the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC. We are obviously concerned about the rest of the population, particularly healthcare workers, who have been among the longest vaccinated. We know about the effect of the vaccines waning. The European Medicines Agency has already spoken about booster vaccines in a very positive way and I think the Taoiseach will be very keen to have the issue advanced at a political level as well. He will be looking for strong statements on this from the European Council.
Regarding the rule of law, which was raised by Deputies Ó Murchú and Harkin, many different measures are being used but, ultimately, we just have to keep talking as well. That is what I am saying. I could go through the entire Article 7 process. There is a long process and we are not near the end. It is useful to keep these issues in the spotlight. It is not just for us to keep them in the spotlight. It keeps them in the spotlight in home countries as well. The European Court of Justice made a decision in July and the Commission sought from the court what it calls an exceptional step to impose a daily penalty on Poland citing a lack of compliance with the July court decision. It has, therefore, been taking this matter very seriously. This is only for a matter of months.
Deputy Harkin asked what would happen if the conditionality regulation fails at the ECJ. I do not think I should get involved while the court is deciding the case. Ireland intervened in a very strong way in support of the Council position. I think that will be very strong. This funding is important. We want to see progress, particularly in eastern Europe and less developed economies, but we are also paying for it. We pay for that with a generous heart. The Taoiseach and the previous Government did not join the frugal four at the time but when we are funding this, it is reasonable for us to ensure that democratic values and the basic values of the EU are upheld.
I disagree with Deputy Harkin that there is any change in the position of the Government. I have spoken to the Taoiseach and at meetings of ministers with responsibility for European affairs. We have taken a very strong line on this and I am very strong in my interactions with the General Affairs Council and the public media regarding these issues.
We have also been a member of a like-minded group on the rule of law for quite a number of years so we are certainly not out of the mainstream on these issues. I would not say there is a change in position from Government on this. The Government is very strong on this, and it is likely to be raised at the European Council. It is not on the agenda at the moment but it is certainly likely to be raised. There will be some strong statements on this which will be looking for action.
On the supremacy of EU law, the European Single Market for example could not function if there was a standard set by the European Union and then some countries opt not to comply with that but to have a different standard. It is not actually a matter of power, or sovereignty. It is really a matter of practicalities about how we ensure that the rules are the same in every country. Those rules traditionally were those of the Single Market but of course our values are also fundamental to us.
It is important when we are talking about the European Court of Justice to keep saying - it is a great phrase from an Austrian colleague - that Europe is not Brussels or Strasbourg or Luxembourg. This is Europe. Achill Island is Europe. Recently we had a judgment from the European Court of Justice as Gaeilge. I met the plaintiff who took the case, he is from County Meath. This is our court. It is not some foreign court as it would perhaps have been described in the debate in Europe. This is a court that is the ultimate arbiter of areas, and Deputy Harkin is right, where the European Union has competence. If the European Union does not have competence then the European Court of Justice will not get involved. It is our court. Our people are on that court. Gerard Hogan, one of the most respected legal jurists in this country ever, who has just been appointed to the Supreme Court here has just come from being Advocate General to that court. So this is a court with a huge Irish influence over the years and that continues today with the current appointees as well.
Not in public session though. I thank the Minister, Deputy Byrne, for a comprehensive answer to what was a considerable number of questions. On the rule of law issue, I accept that talking has to take primacy. I accept what is happening at the minute and the processes in regard to Article 7 and then the recovery and resilience funding, which matters because money counts on leverage. At one stage when budgets were being finalised there was talk of there possibly being rule of law implications but there was a constitutional difficulty around that. Has the European Council or the EU in any general sense looked at that? Are we any further on in regard to operating that on a wider basis? I refer only to having the leverage, one might not necessarily ever use it. Better to have the stick than not have it.
The other question goes back to - obviously we are in a different place in regard to Covid-19 at this time and booster vaccines could be a mitigation that would make a huge difference, so that needs to be top of the agenda, I agree with Deputy Byrne on that - the TRIPS waiver and the European Commission has placed itself in a particular place on that argument. I do not particularly care if somebody puts a plan out and says "here is how we deliver for the developed world" and I mean something more than COVAX, the best-case scenario for which is 20% of the populations in developed countries and that is accepting there will be logistical difficulties in regard to it working.
On the rule of law conditionality, this is the sequence. The recovery and resilience fund was agreed last year as part of the budget negotiations, an unprecedented financial boost from the European Union to try to boost the economies of the entire European Union. We need to get away from - and I do not accuse this committee of this - sometimes speaking in terms of "how much is Ireland getting" and "how much is Italy getting" or whatever because actually a country like Ireland benefits no matter who gets it. Our companies will be trading with those countries and we depend on those countries doing well. Also some of the money that is allocated to other European countries will end up being spent here, maybe on computer or pharmaceutical companies, whatever the case may be.
There was concern that funding would be subject to rule of law conditionality so there were many discussions this time last year from October to Christmas between the European Council and the European Parliament. Ultimately agreement was reached after much discussion and the rule of law conditionality regulation was put in place. It was then challenged by Hungary and Poland, and it was part of the political agreement with the European Council that they could do that. That case is now pending before the European Court of Justice. We supported the conditionality regulation, and the rule of law conditionality in regard to funding being allocated. We took part in that case at the European Court of Justice. Our lawyers were central to the arguments being made in support of the European Council position. We will await the outcome of that decision. I cannot give a timeline but I understand it will be relatively soon. It took place only last week so we will let the European Court of Justice decide that case. My understanding is it will possibly be next month but I am not a spokesperson for the court so we will let it do that, but it has happened very quickly. That is the sequence of events and once this goes through, I hope in accordance with the arguments that we made, the challenge will not be successful. It would then be a real tool for the European Commission. It will be a game changer in terms of what can happen.
It would be highly significant. It would force a change of pace. At the moment the European Commission has not approved the recovery and resilience plans for Hungary or Poland. Some other countries have not put them in, but in those cases they just have not done it yet. I am happy to let the European Commission do its job there and I support what it is doing. I do not want to make its job more difficult on that because this is very important to all of us.
On vaccines and the TRIPS waiver, this is discussed on a regular basis. What I would say is that the European Union has done more than any entity or any geopolitical actor to provide both doses abroad but also the components for doses. While there was an export mechanism, one supply of vaccines was actually refused to be exported. There has been a huge exporting of vaccines. There are COVAX, direct donations, on which the Irish Government has given a major commitment. We must also recognise that the research and development part of this is really important for the entire world, but that research and development does not come out of nothing. I pay tribute to those Irish people who have been involved in this. We have a very strong name for pharmaceuticals. We have not heard too much about the aspects of the supply chain that were in Ireland but there were some. Obviously we recently heard that Pfizer is opening a plant to supply more of that supply chain. The issue of the TRIPS waiver will continue to be discussed and there are varying views at a European level on that, to get agreement on it. What the Government will do, and it is absolutely committed to this, is make sure that as many people throughout the world get access to this vaccine as quickly as possible in whatever the most efficient method is. We have been very clear about that all along.
If no one else is offering, I sincerely thank the Minister, Deputy Byrne and his officials for coming here this morning, for the opening address and for giving such detailed responses. We wish the Minister of State continued luck with all his work. It is always greatly appreciated. No doubt we will see him before the committee again soon.