Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

European Union Issues: Discussion

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

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.