Dáil debates

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

European Council: Statements

 

5:15 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

Is léir nach raibh cruinniú na Comhairle Eorpaí i mí Dheireadh Fómhair chomh práinneach agus a cheapamar roimhe sin, cé go raibh ceist Brexit beagnach réitithe roimh an gcruinniú. Is maith an rud é sin ach bhí go leor rudaí tábhachtach le plé ag na rialtais éagsúla ag an gcruinniú ach an oiread.

December's Council meeting was, at one point, likely to be a dramatic event with tough decisions coming down to the wire. In the end, it was low key and simply confirmed decisions which had already been announced. In advance of the summit we discussed the outcome of the first round of Brexit negotiations. Now that some of the smoke and hubris which surrounded the agreement have passed, there is much greater clarity on where we find ourselves. A transition deal followed by a comprehensive free trade agreement is the only negotiated outcome which is compatible with the core positions of both sides.

For the European Union, the bottom line is that the United Kingdom will not be given preferential treatment which will undermine the basic legal foundations of the Union. For the United Kingdom, it is about not being subject to the European Union's judicial mechanisms and being able to conduct an independent free trade policy. It is ridiculous that it took the United Kingdom 18 months to recognise the reality that it no longer had the ability to intimidate the European Union by threatening a barrage of tabloid headlines and a possible veto.

Michel Barnier and his team have done an excellent job so far in their overall approach to the negotiations and we should have confidence in them to conclude a common-sense deal in the next ten months. The situation as it affects Ireland is far less clear. As we have said before, Fianna Fáil strongly welcomes the reassertion of the continued EU citizenship of Northern Ireland residents post-Brexit. This is a matter which we raised first and which was, for us, an absolute red line. However, we are very concerned about the basic contradiction within the agreement about the introduction of new economic divisions on the island. The final text repeats the assertions of the UK Government from very early in the process about its intentions to avoid new barriers. This is contradicted by its new statement that all parts of the United Kingdom will be treated exactly the same. All of the commentary we have heard from the government in London and much of what appears to be the focus of the Irish Government concerns the absence of physical barriers on the Border. The Taoiseach, reflecting what is, unfortunately, his very partisan way of presenting history, has emphasised the issue of physical barriers. The fact is that what is being discussed is a differently managed border, not the absence of a border, and it appears that the Government has gone all-in on a strategy of emphasising the overall UK-EU agreement rather than a special arrangement for this island. This is exactly the opposite of the self-aggrandising claim to be the first leader in 95 years to care about the North. As we have said many times before, some special economic zone is likely to be the only means of mitigating the full impact of Brexit on this island.

The final negotiations revealed a breakdown in relations between the Government and the May Administration, with a display of negotiation through the media not seen for over 30 years. Building close relationships and setting out detailed proposals are much more difficult than focusing on the public dimension, but if anything concrete is to be achieved this year, we need greater urgency and a greater focus than we have seen to date. As President Tusk said in December, what was agreed was the easy part of the process. It is time to put in place an approach which will be capable of delivering a substantive result for Ireland in the negotiations this year.

The bulk of the summit was concerned with other matters. We strongly support the Council's opposition to the unjustified and damaging decision of the Trump Administration to take steps to move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognise Jerusalem as the capital. I note that the Taoiseach did not refer to what he had stated at the meeting, but I presume the Minister of State will elaborate on that issue. There is no positive dimension to this decision for anyone who supports a fair peace based on a two-state solution. The continued drift of the Netanyahu Government towards a position of undermining any potential Palestinian state has been escalated by this decision. Ireland should continue to stand with its European partners in supporting a fair peace and opposing moves which entrench and promote long-term conflict.

The summit also formally addressed the PESCO defence agreement. As has been shown time and again, EU defence co-operation has respected the positions of members that are not in NATO. PESCO is about developing capacities. In our case, it will help us to continue to develop defence forces which have unique skills in peacekeeping and civil protection. Therefore, we welcome it. However, let no one be in any doubt that the principal issue in hand for us is whether we treat members of the Defence Forces decently with fair pay and fair conditions. In the seven years since the Department of Defence had its own separate full member of the Cabinet there have been drift and neglect. Dealing with this issue should be a priority.

In regard to the Commission’s action on Poland and the rule of law, there is a vital principle at stake.

The European Union is not just an economic entity, it is also fundamentally based on the values of liberal democracy which include fair elections, a balance of powers and respect for rights. The attempt by the Polish Government to take direct charge of the judiciary is clearly against these core values. That said, the various illiberal decisions of the Orbán Government in Hungary, including taking political control of every independent state institution, seem to have gone even further and been subject to no intervention. Before this matter proceeds, it would be a good idea to have a wider discussion on where it is going and the specific objectives involved. I do not think we have had sufficient debate on these issues in this House in terms of the drift in the direction Hungary and Poland are taking or as fully fledged members of the European Union in enshrining the values the European Union espouses. To a certain extent, there has been silence and a brushing under the carpet in the domestic debate here and at European level. That said, I welcome the more recent initiatives on that front at European level.

The euro summit which accompanied the full summit had no substantive outcome. The upturn in the euro economy is very positive, but the last thing it should lead to is complacency or a sense that the need for reform has been removed. The banking union is far from complete and the full separation of banking debt and sovereign debt has not been achieved. A unified system of control and a unified currency require a broad-based system for risk sharing and bank resolution. Continued German objections to it are holding back an essential reform. We are unconvinced by the Commission's proposal to subsume the mechanism for aiding states with borrowing problems under its oversight.

We repeat our call on the Taoiseach to state exactly what Ireland is proposing on the digital taxation initiative. During Taoiseach's questions I repeatedly asked him to clarify his strategy for the March summit which is due to decide the issue. yet he has repeatedly refused to say anything. The more he does that the more it will look like he is simply waiting to see what will happen.

While leaders noted actions concerning migration, there was no substantive discussion of the continued humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 5.4 million registered refugees from Syria. Of these, 1 million have sought asylum in the European Union. Ireland has, rightly, agreed to participate in the resettlement of refugees, but we should also acknowledge the generosity of Germany and Sweden which have, between them, taken fully 64% of all refugees. The political bravery of their leaders, particularly Chancellor Merkel, in standing for humanitarian values in the face of intolerance is something we should acknowledge and honour. However, more needs to be done. First, there should be a significant increase in support for basic facilities for refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and other countries in the region. The UNHCR states there is a €2 billion gap in the budget for 2018. Ireland and the European Union should take immediate steps to help to close the gap. Second, we should continue to speak up for the victims of war crimes committed during the Syrian conflict. That Russia has repeatedly vetoed the efforts of the United Nations to investigate likely gas attacks by the Syrian regime against its own people is a shocking reflection of how far it is willing to go in supporting a dictatorship and playing geopolitics.

This year will be dominated by the Brexit negotiations. In the journey from generalities to a hard agreement an enormous amount of work must be undertaken. For Ireland, the challenge is to build the missing constructive relationships and be willing to start proposing specific solutions to at least limit the inevitable damage caused by Brexit. Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly is in London with Deputies Niall Collins and Darragh O'Brien. It is interesting that the perspective on Brexit they are getting from British interlocutors is far different from the message and sense of what the agreement means here. I met the Scottish Minister responsible for Brexit, Mr. Mike Russell, in Killarney at the weekend, with Mr. Mark Drakeford from Wales, and they were very surprised by my explanation of our understanding of what the phase 1 agreement constituted vis-à-viswhat they were hearing from the Westminster Government on the same issue. That indicates clearly the need to be vigilant in the months and years ahead.

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