Tuesday, 19 January 2016
European Council: Statements
Over the past five years, we have spent an enormous amount of time on statements such as these. In addition to post-Council statements, which have been held for decades, we have had the extra opportunity to each speak for ten minutes before summits. However, if one looks back on the record, one will find that the statements have been defined by the Government’s refusal to share any information not already in the public domain and its failure to set out any coherent account of what Ireland's policy is towards the reform and development of the European Union. In order to find out what our Government is saying on our behalf, we have had to rely on media reports and connections in other governments. This matters because the Union continues to be faced with the most serious crisis in its history and direct threats to its core principles are stronger than ever and yet our Government is a bystander that waits to find out what will happen before trying to claim some level of credit for it.
Control on national budgets is a major issue and when a new treaty was being discussed, the one and only request of our Government, according to the then President of the Council, was that whatever emerged should not have to be referred to the people. There was no proposal about fixing serious flaws in economic and monetary union or a proposal about helping regions in trouble. Absolutely no suggestion was made that aid be given to countries carrying debt linked to failed European policies. On issue after issue in the past five years, the policy of saying as little as possible has been seen.
The only proactive policy in Europe has been a public relations strategy at home designed to reinforce the Government fairy tale about its own actions. An enormous amount of effort has gone into distorting the reality of how many decisions have been taken and to make patently false claims about how decisions have been reached. Using the quite strong European freedom of information regulations, we have sought details of how or when our Government set out demands for any relief from bank-related debt or attempted to implement any of the major changes in policy that Fine Gael and the Labour Party promised in 2011. There was nothing there. The Dáil was told that the Taoiseach bravely stood up to the leaders of France and Germany, who may or may not have had two pints in their hands at the time, but the record shows nothing of the sort.
While Fine Gael and the Labour Party already claim to have "won" major interest concessions, the record shows that concessions negotiated by others were automatically extended to Ireland without any negotiation. In fact, the major decrease in debt service costs was four times what the Taoiseach had requested. He will remember when he and his Ministers showered praise on themselves for a supposed "game changer" on bank related debt. The Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform said we might receive up to €30 billion. I remember it well. It was in 2012. In the end, we have received exactly nothing, the same amount for which we asked.
The bluster and rhetoric with which we have had to put up have failed to cover up a serious policy failure. At a time of great danger for the European Union, standing on the sidelines and focusing on national politics make us part of the problem - a timid Union that is scared to stand up to its opponents and unwilling to show the urgency or ambition which its citizens so badly want to see. In this, the Government has abandoned 40 years of precedent. It is the first Government to end its term having failed to express a concrete opinion on reform of the European Union. In the past, Governments of all parties set out their vision for the Union and how it might develop. In discussing possible changes to EU treaties every previous Government set out a public negotiating position, lobbied for it and, when it was agreed to, published a detailed statement on how Ireland's interests were impacted on by the proposed changes. It is undeniably true that the Taoiseach has had meetings with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, and Chancellor Merkel. He appears to get on well with both. Equally, however, there is no evidence of any concrete outcome for Ireland from these meetings, again, unlike many previous Taoisigh who built strong relations and showed important progress had been made on Ireland's interests. Ireland was always a country which prided itself on not being afraid to speak up on important issues. We must return to this tradition because it is the single most important reason we have succeeded in shaping so many policies. It is why, even in the midst of the economic crisis in 2009, other states invited us to chair the OSCE and why they have supported us in many international efforts such as our initiatives on non-proliferation and banning cluster bombs.
The most recent summit addressed a list of vital questions and delivered little progress. It was a dispiriting outcome. The item which took the most time to deal with was migration. Incredibly, it focused purely on border control as a means of controlling migration to Europe. This fundamentally ignores the reality of why so many have tried to come to Europe and from where they have come. It is wrong for people to dismiss the idea that this scale of migration of people with no resources and links with European countries is not a problem. The countries that are hosting the greatest numbers are feeling undeniable pressures which must be recognised. However, let us never forget that this is, first and foremost, a humanitarian crisis which has become a migration crisis. People are making treacherous and often fatal journeys because they believe they have no alternative. They were driven out of their homes by a combination of a regime which was determined to prevent democracy and a fundamentalist army which was determined to impose mediaeval barbarity. In refugee camps they have found places which offer no future and worsening conditions. While the European Union has increased its humanitarian assistance, it has been a fraction of what is being into proposals on border controls and aiding people after they have felt the need to flee the camps. In addition, the budget of the United Nations and other relief agencies has been squeezed. Food is inadequate, shelter is poor, education for children is rare and employment opportunities are impossible. The first priority must be the provision of humanitarian aid. However, the Taoiseach and his colleagues appear to have done nothing but note past decisions at the end of their meeting.
Many of the migration proposals agreed to are reasonable, as are the proposals on combating terrorism. However, it is the duty of leaders not to succumb to the nasty populism of those who seek to spread fear and label innocent people with the deeds of a tiny minority which lack any legitimacy to speak on their behalf. We must never forget that others refused to blame and label us for the murderous and sectarian brutality of the Provisional movement. We must stand with the Muslim community against the rising intolerance and overt racism of many extremists in Europe.
European values face a far bigger threat from the far right and Russian-inspired autocracy than they do from any other source, but the summit's communiqué is disturbingly silent on Russia's invasion and partition of a sovereign European country and its continued attempts to destabilise it. Ukrainian democracy remains fragile. It will be difficult for it to survive if it cannot show that it can marshal continued support for its sovereignty. I hope that in the coming weeks the media will take a break from discussing the political process and allow us to have a debate about issues such as this where the gaps between parties are becoming wider. The support some of our representatives in the European Parliament are giving to the invasion and partition of Ukraine deserves to be exposed.
The basic structure of EMU remains unsteady and the need for reform is undeniable. Therefore, the bland discussion held at the summit is worthless. New proposals may emerge in June, but how they might help remains a mystery. So far nobody has produced any justification for the claim that strengthened fiscal controls would assist growth and create employment.
The discussion on the Single Market was somewhat more substantive. My party remains a supporter of the principle of freer and fairer trade. Ireland simply could not achieve decent standards of living without the security access to international markets provides. What we do not support is the idea that it should include measures which allow unfair competition against critical industries and the agrifood sector, in particular. We also believe the Commission is in danger of wasting enormous time and resources in picking fights for the sake of being tough, rather than delivering meaningful competition improvements. If one looks back at the Microsoft action, the Commission rejected arguments which turned out to be true concerning the transitory nature of technological dominance. The increased competition in browsers did not come from litigation; it was part of the inherently disruptive nature of modern technology. In fact, if one looks back over the past 50 years, one will see a constant and natural process of companies winning and losing dominance in different markets. Google, Apple and other major companies are always one significant development away from losing their edge and it would be a foolish person who said they could not be challenged. I respect Commissioner Verstager who is a valued colleague of ours in the ALDE group. Her aggressive agenda of seeking to open and fair competition for all should be supported. However, I hope time and money will not be wasted in the pursuit of cases which may attract major attention but which will be of marginal benefit to European business.
The summit noted the recent Paris agreement on climate change. As a fitting end to five years of moving away from ambitious action on climate change, the Taoiseach's speech in Paris has been rightly criticised by a wide range of experts and non-governmental organisations. There are communities throughout the country which are experiencing at first hand the impact of the more frequent extreme weather with which climate change is linked. I hope that after next month we will again have a Government which will show a genuine commitment to addressing a problem which requires a global solution but which has a very clear and growing national impact.
The decision to postpone serious discussion of Great Britain's demand for changes in the European Union resulted from the fact that progress in the negotiations was more talked about than real. The failure to have a national debate about what terms we would be willing to support to retain Great Britain in the Union is inexcusable. It is clearly in our national interest for Great Britain to remain in the Union. It is also in the Union's interest. However, there has to be some limit. There has to be a point beyond which what is being asked for simply goes too far. Nothing short of reducing the European Union to a hollowed-out and toothless free trade area would satisfy the English Eurosceptics. They even oppose the idea that a country should be subject to sanctions for breaking agreed rules. Given what the Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, has said, he will at least need agreement for some measures to be included in a future treaty, just as concessions for Ireland were included in subsidiary treaties rather than the main text of the Lisbon treaty. Whatever is agreed to on 18 and 19 February will fall to the next Government to implement and the next Dáil to agree to.
That is, of course, in the event that there is no referendum required and that if there is a change to the concept of freedom of movement and the respective powers of institutions, a referendum may be required.
The Taoiseach needs to know that he has no blank cheque. He must defend Ireland’s interests in a European Union which is capable of addressing core problems and a eurozone which can manage its own interests. He should also be aware that any attempt by his staff to repeat for this summit the type of media manipulation on which they spend so much time will damage him and public support for whatever will emerge.
If the UK referendum happens in June, it is Fianna Fáil’s intention to lay out the case in Northern Ireland for it to remain as part of the European Union. For the other jurisdictions which will be voting, it is up to them to assess what is in their best interests, but the case for Northern Ireland remaining in the European Union is overwhelming and we should not and will not be silent in the campaign. This will apply, even if we are in the new Government the country so badly needs. Having opposed EU membership, both North and South, and every single EU proposal in the South, Sinn Féin has chosen to join the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, in calling for Northern Ireland to remain in the European Union. This is welcome. I hope its hard Eurosceptic rhetoric of the past four decades will not have done too much damage.
On the long list of items which the next Government will have to address urgently is a European Union in which there is no credible reform agenda which can deliver the social and economic progress citizens so urgently crave. The case for shared rules which prevent a race to the bottom, the exploitation of employees and unfair competition for business is stronger now than ever, but its enemies on the right and the left continue to attack and undermine it. It needs those who believe in the idea of shared progress to speak up and show urgency and ambition. Ireland must stop standing on the sidelines.