Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 7 February 2024
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
EU General Affairs Council Meeting: Discussion
On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for European Union affairs, Deputy Burke, who is accompanied today by his officials. The committee will discuss the recent General Affairs Council meeting in Brussels. I believe the Minister of State is also accompanied by Mr. Martin Boyhan who is on a student placement in his office.
It is a very important part of democracy for people to see the workings of an office, a committee and the Dáil. We welcome Martin to the Public Gallery.
Before we begin, we have a note on privilege. I will go through the normal process of reminding the witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with that 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 an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I also remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the Leinster House complex to participate in public meetings. I cannot permit a member to participate if he or she is not adhering to that requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. I ask any members participating via Teams to confirm they are on the Leinster House campus prior to making their contribution to the meeting.
With that done at good speed, I will hand over to the Minister of State to make his opening statement.
I will first acknowledge the passing of John Bruton, considering we are dealing with European affairs. When I was before the committee to discuss the Stormont brake and aspects of the Windsor Framework, he was one of the first to get on to me about really looking at the detail and getting into the weeds as to how the Stormont brake worked and the concerns he had regarding aspects of it. You can really see how much of a European he was. He really wanted to protect the Single Market and to get Stormont up and running again. I just wanted to acknowledge that.
I attended the most recent meeting of the General Affairs Council in Brussels on 29 January. This was the first meeting of the Council under the Belgian Presidency and, as is customary, the foreign minister, Hadja Lahbib, began with a presentation of the priorities under Belgium's Presidency, which has adopted the overall theme of “protect, strengthen, prepare”. Ireland welcomes and supports the Belgian Presidency programme, particularly its emphasis on promoting and strengthening European competitiveness and upholding the rule of law.
Before proceeding, I should also extend a word of praise to the Spanish Presidency, which achieved real progress in a number of important areas during its semester. I refer in particular to enlargement and the decision to open accession negotiations with both Ukraine and Moldova at the December meeting of the European Council and to migration, where political agreement was reached between the Parliament and Council on the migration and asylum pact after lengthy negotiations. This latter agreement represents a real political advance, which we hope will equip the EU to be better able to efficiently manage the difficult migration situation confronting all member states.
The two main substantive items for discussion at the Council were the Commission’s legislative package for defending European democracy and a review of four member states under the annual rule of law dialogue.
On the defending European democracy proposals, while there was a broad welcome for the Commission’s package, some concerns were expressed regarding a proposed directive aimed at regulating interest representation by third countries within the Union. Ireland shares these concerns as the proposed directive would potentially involve a lowering of the standards we apply domestically as regards lobbying and the registering of lobbying interests. The divergence in approaches pursued by member states on this issue was recognised as an obstacle and the Commission has undertaken to do further work to address this.
Under the rule of law item, four member states, Italy, France, Croatia and Spain, provided updates and responded to questions regarding their 2023 rule of law reports. Ireland very much welcomes the fact that the annual rule of law report and regular GAC dialogues are now an established part of the EU’s toolkit in reviewing and reinforcing rule of law standards right across the Union. It is a valuable opportunity to engage in peer review with other member states and to learn from their experiences, while reaffirming how respect for the rule of law remains a cornerstone of the Union.
Under the heading of "any other business" at the Council meeting, Slovenia and Germany presented a non-paper on extending the use of QMV in respect of the accession process. Specifically, the intention was that decisions on the opening of individual clusters and chapters in the accession process would in future be taken by QMV rather than by unanimity, as at present. The committee will be aware that Ireland has recently become an observer member of the group of friends of QMV in the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, CFSP, on the basis that we recognise that there is now a growing discussion about moving to greater use of QMV within the CFSP as part of the Union preparing itself for future enlargement and that we believe it is in our interests to follow developments in this area closely.
We are supportive of the intention behind the German and Slovenian initiative, as it is clearly intended as a means of improving the enlargement methodology. We also have made clear that we are open to exploring ways in which greater use of QMV within the CFSP can be extended within the parameters provided under the current treaties. Views differ within the Council on any move towards a greater use of QMV, while quite a few member states are still very hesitant about such a prospect. It is an era of evolving discussion to which the Council will need to return, which will also continue to be prioritised by the Belgian Presidency. Ministers also looked ahead to the forthcoming European Parliament elections, with the Presidency organising a lunchtime discussion on how to promote increased turnout at elections in June. This is an issue of interest to all member states and I appreciated the opportunity to discuss with colleagues both what are likely to be the predominant themes on citizens' minds when they go to the polls in June and how we can encourage increased turnout, particularly among younger voters, as well as dealing with the real threat posed by this information.
On the margins of the Council I also had a short bilateral meeting at his request with the Hungarian State Secretary for European Affairs, János Bóka. The state secretary wished to brief me on plans for the Hungarian Presidency, which begins on 1 July, and I in turn updated him on our own preparations and planning, which are now well under way. It was also an opportunity to impress upon the state secretary our strong hopes that agreement could be found by all 27 member states on future multi-annual funding for Ukraine at the extraordinary European Council meeting on 1 February.
The General Affairs Council itself was not directly involved on this occasion in preparing the discussion on the future for Ukraine and completion of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, medium-term review, which took place at last week's European Council, as it was an extraordinary Council and essentially a continuation of the discussion which took place and ended inconclusively at the December European Council. I accompanied the Taoiseach to the European Council on 1 February, and it was obviously welcome that an agreement was finally reached on the overall MFF medium-term review, including the €50 billion in multi-annual financing to Ukraine, which is absolutely vital to ensure that Ukraine can continue to defend itself and resist Russia's unjust aggression. The agreement demonstrates both the strength and resilience as well as the value of EU unity, while also making clear our determination to continue to provide full support and solidarity to Ukraine and its people. I thank the Cathaoirleach again for the invitation to address the committee here this morning. I will be happy to respond to any questions members may have.
I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the Minister of State. I also will begin by paying tribute to the late John Bruton. I was privileged to be a member of the rainbow Government from 1994 to 1997 under his Taoiseachship and found him to be an excellent chairman of the Cabinet and an exemplary statesman. We all have had our opportunities to pay tribute to him but it is appropriate at a European affairs committee, given his absolute passion for the development of Europe and his understanding of Ireland's role in it, that we pay tribute to him here. I also thank the Minister of State for his hospitality during our recent visit to Brussels. Some of the discussions outside the formal discussions are the most interesting, for which I thank him.
A number of issues came up at the GAC and maybe one or two that did not but which are more important in many ways in the context of the full European Council meeting that followed it. Obviously, foremost in all our minds is Gaza. On the issue of cessation of hostilities there, a ceasefire apparently now is growing momentum within the European Council. Hopefully the initiative under way right now by the US Secretary of State might bear fruit in the next day or two. I would be interested in the Minister of State's perspective on his discussions outside the formal setting with colleagues to see if the momentum developed by Ireland, Spain, Belgium and others s growing and if there are other moves in terms of strengthening our pressure points on Israel to bring about a ceasefire.
Similarly, on Ukraine, obviously we welcome the decision of the European Council to make the allocation to Ukraine to sustain it over the next four years.
It is interesting that the Minister of State had discussions directly with the Hungarian secretary of state. Did the obstructionist attitude of Hungary to so many issues form part of the discussions with the secretary of state? Did the Minister of State set out the concerns of the rest of the Union that one member state would now seek to exploit almost every issue for its own advantage with regard to how that can be addressed?
I will conclude on two issues that were formally discussed. Obviously, we have concerns about qualified majority voting when it comes to taxation issues. We read and had presented to us the German-French position paper that went to the full Council. The Minister of State was talking about a new German-Slovenian paper and although I have not seen that, maybe it is in circulation and I would be interested to hear what exactly is proposed. I think we would support the extension of QMV to issues like enlargement where countries are now being held up by individual countries putting in unreasonable bilateral conditionality that would not apply in any normal expansion. I am interested in the Minister of State's view on that.
On the regulation of lobbying, I was privileged to bring in our own regulation of lobbying legislation, which was an exemplar at the time, and we were invited to present not only in Europe but elsewhere on how to do that. In the context of some of the recent scandals in the European Parliament, the regulation of lobbying on a Europe-wide basis is essential. I would welcome the Minister of State’s update on the likelihood of that happening in the foreseeable future.
I thank the Deputy for his comments. With regard to the Middle East, obviously, this is of paramount concern and is the number one issue facing the European Council, given the horrific context that we can see on our screens every week, the atrocities carried out in Gaza and the reprehensible response by Israel against very vulnerable people. It is also in the context of the destruction of critical infrastructure that underwrites that population, such as schools, hospitals and so many items of infrastructure that citizens rely on, and also because the risk of starvation is huge in that area.
First, we are trying to expand the coalition calling for a ceasefire. The Deputy is correct to point out that we came together with four countries to try to shift the dial at the European Council level by putting forward a submission together. We are currently trying to increase the number of co-authors that can put a submission to the European Council that would bring significant pressure to bear to bring about a united call for a ceasefire in the conclusions of the Council. It is very challenging and we should not understate that. We can see today that the High Commissioner is under pressure in terms of the original call by the Council in December to have a list of aggressive settlers drawn up for sanction by the EU. This morning, I note that some countries are raising issues with regard to that which were not raised at the December European Council. It is a huge concern for Europe. We saw the dial move at UN level in the two votes but, significantly, some countries, in particular, Denmark, voted one way at the UN and then changed that view at European Council.
We have a lot of work to do. We are doing our best and using all of our diplomatic muscle. I raise this regularly at the General Affairs Council meeting and also on the margins with my fellow Ministers. We are all well aware that some countries have a particular history and really need a push to get over the line to what seems to us a very straightforward human rights issue, namely, that we would have a ceasefire and humanitarian corridors would be opened. I know a lot of work is going on at present to get a second ceasefire but it needs to be permanent. The Tánaiste is in the US this week and he will be carrying that voice as strongly as he can. We continue to meet with interlocutors in the region and the Tánaiste has been there on a number of occasions to try to shift the dial. It is challenging but we are doing our best.
I remind people that Ireland was at the forefront in calling for a ceasefire. We have a very strong track record on this. I would also be very clear that we are doing a huge amount of work. I feel that we are doing our very best, using multilateralism, not disengagement, which is important.
One has to talk to people to challenge them on their views. That is what we are doing as a country. We have always had a strong record, like getting the two-state solution through as European policy. We also have a strong record where we are best-suited in diplomacy. We will continue with that. I am concerned that we do not make it a wedge issue in Ireland because the Irish people are on one side. They know what is happening in Palestine is atrocious and reprehensible. We see the suffering. We are all from families with parents and children. We know exactly what will happen, which is that much fertile ground to grow Hamas will be provided by what Israel is doing, with its disproportionate collective punishment on those people. I assure members we will continue to do our very best in that regard.
It was great to get agreement about Ukraine. It was interesting to see that the ask was not as significant as some would have thought. There is a provision for the Commission to be invited to make a review after two years. That is interesting language from the conclusion of the European Council meeting. I have raised it with my Hungarian colleague. It is unacceptable to hold European leaders to ransom at every single meeting. That is why we could not have a situation whereby a review mechanism would be built in every single year, because that is really just offering a political stage for Hungary to meet the President of the European Council and some of the larger states in the Union, which I think comes off poorly for people looking in, because it looks like it is not equality of opportunity for everybody around the table. We have much work to do on that. They are still, at informal meetings, raising the issue of Hungarian minorities on Ukraine. That is ongoing and we have heard clear arguments back to Hungary on that. We hear a series of excuses from them. We continue to raise these issues firmly. At the General Affairs Council, we got a bit of confidence from the Hungarians and their minister for European affairs that they were signalling that an agreement was in sight. There was some comfort in that regard. There is much more work to do. We have to have our eyes open to the enlargement process so that when countries come in, they espouse European values and are up to the mark that would be required to be in Europe.
On the French-German issue, that was a think-tank paper, not a European paper. It was just a think-tank from the two ministers, which they presented. There was significant opposition to the paper at the General Affairs Council when the think-tank presented it. I see it as a valuable tool in one respect, in articulating various sides of the debate, which is coming from two larger countries. Lithuania has stepped forward since that, having put its paper together for the General Affairs Council. It was informal and not an official paper. I will circulate the Slovenian-German paper to the committee. It is quite a short paper.
Yes. It is quite a short paper. It was a submission to the General Affairs Council. It re-presents the argument that, in the accession process, so many thresholds require unanimity. Take North Macedonia for example. It had to change its name. That process took a long time. Now Bulgaria is raising issues with minorities, which again took a huge amount of diplomatic pressure. Citizens in that country are wilting because of all those issues. It is about trying to unlock those obstacles. How it legally fits into the treaties is a big question. We will circulate it to the committee. A number of issues were raised about it at the General Affairs Council. We will give the committee sight of it and members can judge themselves.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Burke. I add my words of condolences on the loss of John Bruton. It is a serious loss to his family and friends. Beyond that, he was former leader of Fine Gael, the Minister of State's party. One can hear in the public domain the high esteem in which people held him, even on a personal basis. He was a former Taoiseach who played a huge role. I might have disagreed with him on almost everything but he played a huge role in the State and in public service.
He played a role in the peace process with all the difficulties that entailed. He is a man who will be remembered. I would like to be associated with what was said previously.
In fairness to Deputy Howlin, he probably has dealt with a significant number of the questions that I was going to deal with but as members are aware, I am never in fear of repeating myself. It goes without saying that the crisis in Gaza is an absolutely brutal slaughter. We become bored by using the same words. Yesterday, the total number of dead was 27,585, of whom 12,000 were children and 8,190 were women. I do not think anybody in this entire building could stand over those ratios as to what Israel is doing or what it may claim to be doing. We all hope we have seen what may be the possibility of a ceasefire that involves the Egyptians, the Qataris and the Americans. I would like to think that America would start to play a more powerful role in its relationship with Israel. We would all agree that we would like to see that happen. It has to be a permanent ceasefire and it has to lead to negotiations. Outside of the deaths and the 60,000 to 70,000 people who have been injured, many of them brutally, as the Minister of State noted, infrastructure in Gaza has been destroyed. Unfortunately, we have heard Benjamin Netanyahu say that there will be no Palestinian state. In fairness, this is probably something he has said many times and in many ways before. We all know the other characters who are involved in what is the most right-wing government Israel has ever had.
As much as we try to be hopeful, it is very difficult to be so. We need to see the Western world, and particularly the European Union, play a more significant role. That is taking into account the difficulties faced by countries such as Ireland that are more progressive. It is unacceptable for other countries to basically back what is an absolute slaughter and what many people more eminent than me would label as genocide. We hope the ceasefire happens.
We welcome the engagement of the Irish Government with others from the point of view of getting the very obvious request for a ceasefire. I do not think there are many people in the wider world who can understand in any way, shape or form why this has not been possible up to now. That is not to take away from the political differences that exist. I have heard the Czechs and the Germans and at times it is brutally shameful what has been said and the views that have been espoused. However, the Taoiseach also spoke about getting the support of a number of countries. That may be the way it has to happen. A number of countries may get agreement on recognising Palestine. Beyond that, the Taoiseach spoke recently about dealing with the EU-Israel Association Agreement, particularly regarding the human rights conditions which we can all take for granted have been flagrantly flouted.
While there are a number of things we could do within this State with the occupied territories Bill and the illegal settlements divestments legislation, it would be beneficial if we could get a number of countries to be on the right road with us. We need to do things that are practical and concrete. Engagement with the Americans is important because they are the big players who can move things along. The fact that the European Union has been all over the place and very weak on this issue has probably let America and Israel off the hook. That goes without saying. I was going to ask the question in relation to QMV.
It is about getting the detail of the German and Slovenian proposal. We all recognise the difficulties in dealing with Viktor Orbán. At times, unfortunately, he is presented with an opportunity to grandstand. That needs to be dealt with but Ireland knows it would be a very different European Union if QMV was to disappear. Everyone here would be interested in the detail of the German and Slovenian proposal. I think the Minister of State said we were somewhere supportive of that. There was movement in respect of Ukraine but it is a very different set of circumstances and is being made more difficult by the escalating situation in the Middle East. That creates its own difficulties and I would say the Ukrainians understand that very well. Beyond that-----
I thank Deputy Ó Murchú for his intervention. He has detailed the situation in Gaza and the challenges we face in a European context. We are not a federal union but a collection of democracies. That presents a challenge when trying to get unanimity. The huge advantage is when we get unanimity we are exceptionally strong. Unfortunately, we have not reached that threshold yet. We are doing everything we can to shift the dial. We saw the two UN votes. I had hoped at one stage we were moving a bit further but it has been challenging. The Government will work as hard as it can to get the text conclusions agreed. I noted at the last European Council meeting the President of the Council said we will have to have text in the conclusions at the next Council meeting. We will work hard on that.
The Deputy is right on the US. It is important we continue engagement with officials and politicians in the US. That will be critical. Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan are in the region trying to work on a ceasefire. I know people are frustrated. Foreign policy is very emotive. As a country, we have to be careful to do the right thing that yields results. Sometimes doing something might make you feel good and you can get a press release out of it but it does not make any difference. That is why the Government has a narrow tightrope to walk when it tries to bring more countries on board for the two-state solution, which it did in the eighties, or in terms of recognising the state of Palestine. It is important to get other countries on board so that when it is made, it is a bold move and brings others with it.
We will continue our efforts and will continue supporting UNRWA. That is important and has been raised in discourse. Members should think of the context. A couple of months ago, they were trying to cut off aid in Palestine when that Commissioner made a tweet. Ireland was the first to stand up, be counted and say that could not happen and that the Commission had no jurisdiction to do that. It is important to look at the context of UNRWA. It has 13,000 people working there supporting the region and 100 of them have been killed. That is the challenge they face, what they offer in the region and why the Government has to support them. We have given €18 million of the €36 million allocation through UNRWA and the work it is doing. In areas like that the Government has been counted; where it matters and is helping vulnerable people. We have to continue doing that at pace and, in the wider geopolitical region, use our voice, which has clout in the US and will hopefully build greater coalitions in the European context.
We will get that paper to the committee so it can look at it. There are many thresholds that trigger unanimity along the accession path. In the current European context, that created a massive debate but it got over the first hurdle. We do not want to be going through that display every single time. There are many legal issues that have to be looked over but the committee can have a look at it as well.
I thank the Minister of State.
I call on Deputy Haughey and I acknowledge his recent announcement. He is one of the key members of this committee and his wisdom and contributions, since I have become Chair and long before that, have always been appreciated. Thankfully, we still have many months of the Deputy's involvement, but it is just to-----
I do not know. That is a question that perhaps the Minister of State could answer.
I acknowledge and thank the Deputy for all the work he has done, and will no doubt do, on this committee until this Dáil concludes.
-----including the former Chairperson. It might be because there is a lot of wisdom and experience on this committee and the time comes eventually to move on.
I wish to be associated with the sympathy expressed on the death of John Bruton. I recall John Bruton coming before this committee in a previous Dáil. I believe he had retired from the Dáil by then but he was a member of a forum on the constitution of Europe - whose members we called "the three wise men" - that came before the committee. It was clear that he was committed to the European project and that he had huge experience and wisdom. The constitution for Europe was eventually scuppered by a referendum in France but John Bruton certainly put a lot of work into it. As an Opposition backbencher during parliamentary questions, I appreciated that he was constructive and helpful in trying to answer my questions on the floor of the Dáil. It was always nice to meet him socially, which more recently happened at funerals, unfortunately. He was full of chat and conversation. I send my sincere sympathy to his family, the Minister of State and the Fine Gael Party.
As the Minister of State knows, we were in Brussels recently and we met with the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefovi. Has the Commission issued any formal response yet to the deal between the UK Government and the DUP? It is great to see the institutions up and running; it was a historic day last Saturday and a lot of work and effort went into achieving that. When we met Vice-President Šefovi, the deal had just been announced and he had not seen the detail of it at that point. I hope the European Commission can live with what was agreed between the UK Prime Minister and the DUP.
As for farmer protests, it is an issue we picked up from speaking to several people in Brussels. As the Minister of State knows there are a lot of protests across Europe; namely Poland blocking imports of grain from Ukraine, French and German farmers opposed to the cessation of tax breaks on diesel, Spanish farmers no longer being allowed to use river water to irrigate their fields and there have been protests in Ireland as well. There seems to be a crisis in agriculture and that will feed into the European elections and will affect the working of the EU institutions generally. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has set up something called "strategic dialogues" on the future of agriculture in response to these protests and the concern around agriculture. Has the Minister of State any view on this issue around farmers being generally unhappy with the model within which they must operate, the subsidies they receive and so forth? Does he have any view on the "strategic dialogues" and what does he believe will come out of that?
To reiterate what other members have said on Palestine, the Taoiseach made a number of comments on the situation in the Middle East when he came out of the summit meeting, namely the recognition of the state of Palestine.
I assume the Tánaiste is raising that issue in the US as we speak. The Taoiseach also spoke about the need to continue funding UNRWA and to review the EU-Israel trade agreement. I support him on all of that. The Minister of State has answered those questions.
He mentioned that there are a lot of legal issues with regard to qualified majority voting. Can it be done within the existing treaties? That is the bottom line. What, if anything, can be done within the existing treaties to reduce the use of qualified majority voting in respect of various specific issues?
On the EU pact on migration and asylum, the decision-making process in the EU seems very complex. I am not quite sure what stage that pact is at. I know the various parties have agreed to aspects of it. It is hoped that it will finally be agreed by everybody by April. The pact specified various measures that member states would be obliged to implement or that Ireland could opt into. When will Ireland make a decision on that? That is probably more of a question for the Department of Justice but are we considering the various measures under this pact and whether Ireland will opt into them?
I acknowledge Deputy Haughey's contribution to European affairs. Every time I have been in the Dáil to talk about the European Council, he has been there asking pertinent questions about the European context and the issues facing Europe. I wish him well, although I hope there is a long time to go yet in this current Dáil and look forward to working with him into the future.
On the Deputy's second last question, which was about Israel, we spoke about that issue and I share his views on the importance of the Tánaiste being in the US at the moment pushing this issue, getting our voice heard at the highest level and working with the US's interlocutors in the region.
On the agreement with the UK authorities, we have not formally heard anything from the Commission but I suspect it is okay. I do not see any great concerns being raised in connection with it. The agreement on data sharing a few months before the Windsor Framework was a significant milestone because it gave the EU authorities full access to the revenue and customs authorities in the UK so that they could, in real time, see data on the profile of goods coming in. The more knowledge and real-life information we have, the more flexibilities we can live with as regards penetrating into the Single Market. That basket of goods has been rebalanced and I do not hear any negative soundings as of yet. I am hopeful that everything is okay in that regard.
On farmers, when we were over in Brussels, they were holding very large protests, as were also seen here, about the regulatory environment they now operate in. I come from a farming background myself as my dad was a farmer and I know how frustrating it can be for farmers to try to keep up. They feel like they are running on a treadmill trying to stay still because so much new regulation comes down the tracks. Agriculture has a lot of ground to make up. The sector has a lot of commitments to fulfil into the future. We have to work through those and try to support farmers in every way we can. We see new schemes like ACRES being of great advantage. People were concerned about it at the start but when it first began, it was greatly oversubscribed. We are now trying to expand the scheme to get more people into it. That was very interesting. I note that President Macron was one of the most outspoken at the European Council meeting as regards farming, Mercosur and other areas in which we have to work and support farmers.
We would join with him on that, particularly on the sustainability piece of Mercosur. It is important to get legal terminology in there which can be counted on and continue on that path.
As for qualified majority voting, QMV, there is scope for it within the treaty around enlargement in general and in the process of how decision making will be made and so forth. Obviously, we must be careful when we talk about that. That is why Ireland is an observer member of the group of friends of QMV. We observe the movement on that and then prepare ourselves to put our arguments forward as to how it would affect us as a country. On accession, it is quite different when a country is meeting milestones on entry into the European Union. A lot of legal concerns have been raised on whether this is possible under the parameters of the treaty. The Lisbon treaty is obviously enlargement-proofed in the case of a country being in there but getting there is the question. We will share the paper with the committee and it can look and seek clarifications on it, which is important.
On the asylum and migration pact, the Deputy is quite right. Hopefully, there will be agreement in April. It will probably take until June 2026 for it to be applicable and operable throughout the European Union, which is a significant period of time. I understand the Department of Justice is preparing a memo for Cabinet which is due to be received at the end of March for the Cabinet to decide whether to opt in to the pact. Obviously, there are a whole new set of procedures and rules essentially for people who have misled authorities. I think there is a 24-week window - 12 weeks for application and 12 weeks for appeal. There are new processes for safe countries as well as a general scope of six months to adjudicate on an application. There is a huge amount of work to do in this area, as everyone is quite aware. We will keep briefing members. The Cabinet will have a memo presented to it by the Department of Justice next month.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Burke, to this committee this morning. I wish also to be associated with the sympathies for John Bruton. He was a giant in Meath and Irish politics. I was speaking to some people in my town of Duleek and he was held in high esteem throughout our county and my sympathy goes to all his family and all the Fine Gael supporters around the country.
I have two issues. There are a number of pieces of legislation going through the Dáil and the Seanad at the moment and obviously, they row into the European Parliament. The first is the Digital Services Bill 2023. All the Stages of this Bill will be dealt with tomorrow in the Seanad. It is a massive piece of legislation and it is timely coming up to the European elections. We must have a decision made on this legislation by next week. All Stages of the Bill will be dealt with tomorrow in the Seanad. It will probably go to the President tomorrow or early next week, but it must be signed off by 17 February.
While there are many good aspects to this legislation, the free speech element is a real concern to me. Who will regulate the "trusted flaggers" that would be appointed on misinformation and disinformation? What is seen as illegal contact? What is seen as misinformation and disinformation? Often, online platforms are similar to town squares for open debate and free speech. This is very much-----
If the Chairperson is not prepared to allow this question, that is fine.
I will move onto the EU migration pact which is also coming before us. Ireland has an opt in or opt out option on this. I have huge concerns in this regard. The Minister, Deputy Burke, stated that it might not be up and running until June 2026.
Yet, the Government came out last week and said it was going to have processing centres and 12-week asylum processing. We know that is not going to happen in 2024 or 2025, and it will possibly happen in 2026. The processing centres have to be built for asylum seekers. They get detained for up to 12 weeks and that can be extended if there is a crisis.
Thank you. I want to know if the sanctions that will be placed on Ireland will be based on our GDP. I am more concerned about that than anything else. That would apply if we cannot take certain numbers. Our GDP is based on the multinational companies that are here, so it is quite an inflated figure. I have huge concerns about this pact and I would like the Minister of State's views on it. All of these regulations in regard to the Digital Services Bill and the EU migration pact seem to be very timely, coming up to a European election. I wonder if this is just a smokescreen for the public in respect of the election.
I thank the Senator for her questions. With regard to the operability of the asylum and migration pact, the date of June 2026 applies throughout the Union but individual states will deal with it in their own right prior to that. The Senator will have heard various announcements as to what the State is doing in regard to its processes, which are not in line with this pact and, in fact, we were much worse in terms of our adjudication times and the time it took to process applications.
The first thing we should do is tackle some myths. When people say that we have an opt-out, that is almost said in the vein that if we invoke an opt-out clause, we take ourselves away from any migration. This is Europe that we are talking about. The key is that we have to work together with our European colleagues to try to meet the challenge of migration and respond to it. Most importantly, we have to try to unlock the root cause of migration and work with other countries that people are coming from to improve their democracies, to give financial assistance to improve their infrastructure and to open up channels, which is critical. That has to be at the forefront.
It is sometimes all about easy solutions such as Brexit in the UK, where we saw Nigel Farage and the picture with so many Syrian refugees behind him. Syrian refugees do not come from Europe. It was the same in Italy when Meloni took office and migration was supposed to be finished. Then we had Lampedusa and migration soaring through the roof, even through a right-wing Prime Minister had taken over in Italy. These are very complex problems to resolve. People come to countries seeking refuge for many different reasons. Ireland is a country that tries its best to provide a safe haven for people but it also adjudicates fairly on their applications. People who are genuinely seeking asylum are provided for and attain refugee status, and those who are not have an obligation to leave the State. It is a very sensitive and challenging issue and these problems will not go away.
With specific reference to the pact, there is a solidarity clause contained within the asylum and migration pact that relates 50% to population and 50% to GDP, and that has to be worked through with regard to making a financial contribution instead of taking in asylum seekers. Again, that is trying to work in a European context. If one country gets overrun, do we just walk away and say that it will never be our problem? It will. People move and people get here. The Dublin regulation relates to people who have sought asylum in other jurisdictions.
This strengthens the agreement regarding how they are processed and turnaround times. It opens avenues for returns policies. We all know the challenge if someone genuinely should not be here. It is not as easy to deport someone. Some of these countries do not have open channels or returns policies. One just cannot load someone up on a plane and send them off to a country that potentially does not even have a government. It could have a dictator in place. There are so many reasons for asylum. Ireland is a very open country. We went through a very particular day. On St. Patrick's Day, we travel all over the world and see where the Irish diaspora ended up and the contributions they made to other countries. We should also acknowledge the contribution that people who were not born in this country make. Every day, they hold up our public services, be it our health service, our hospitality or transport services. They provide so much of a contribution. We need to act fairly and humanely and to work through these problems. We need to work as a society.
As I mentioned about Palestine and Israel, let us not make it a wedge issue. Let us make it an issue to which we want to respond compassionately as a society and in a way that protects our own interests, protects the EU and ensures that we try our best to unlock the root causes of migration.
I would like to raise one or two points in conclusion. I would like to take a moment to talk about John Bruton. I had the privilege of knowing John since I was a teenager. He was one of the people fundamental to me in shaping my politics and why I got involved in the Fine Gael political party. There are so many occasions and things that I could talk about. There are two things I want to focus on. At the very start, as a member of and later on as head of the youth movement, there was his absolute passion for Europe and his desire to instil in young people how important Europe was and what Europe as an institution came out of. We forget sometimes that it was the collective answer to war across a continent that had destroyed Europe for centuries. It was also about what it could be for Ireland. We were only members for ten or 12 years and he saw that potential. He always fought within the Irish political system to deliver that. It is a real credit. So many of the benefits that not just we as members of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs but people have in this country today, including social and economic benefits from how Ireland has transformed, come from some of the incredible work that was done by John throughout his public life.
After he finished here as a parliamentarian, he chose to be the European ambassador to Washington at a key point when Europe needed to build and strengthen that relationship. As a former Irish Taoiseach, the ability that he took into that and the access that he had in Washington was a tremendous strength for Europe in building that really important relationship at that time. He was incredibly helpful to many Irish people who wanted to engage with the American Administration of the time. For me, and I know it has been said by many people, when one forgets all the politics and the things that he did, it was always his laugh and humour. It was just the most infectious thing. If John decided he wanted to laugh, no one in the building would ever not hear him, because you could hear him from here to the far side of Kildare Street. That is what I will miss most. I just wanted to say that.
I thank the Minister of State for all his contributions right across the whole spectrum and for the work he does for us as Minister of State. It is a complex period. In our recent visit as a committee, we were able to see first-hand some of the really complex issues that face us. That nuanced approach that we as a country take, of building a coalition and bringing people with us, is so important. I was glad he mentioned that. We had some excellent meetings when we were there.
I am now going to do something that may be a bit mean and ask you a question which you do not have to answer if you do not want to. We met Commissioner McGuinness as well as Commissioner Šefovi . Do you think the Irish Government should nominate a man and a woman when we are looking at the replacement Commissionership after the next European elections? It was a principle we applied the last time and I think it stood us in very good stead.
I think we should put forward the best person for the job. I know a lot of water will have gone under the political bridge by the time we face that hurdle. I understand and always feel in politics that the best person for the job should go forward. I think we have to get more women into politics. During my previous role as the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, we introduced maternity leave legislation and a host of supports to allow female candidates to come through. The more women we get into politics the better. Hopefully, they will get the opportunity to put themselves forward for these jobs. It is a very big portfolio, so it is at the discretion of the Government to put forward the most suitable candidate.