Dáil debates

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Post-European Council: Statements


3:55 pm

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I would like to have ten minutes because a number of questions were raised about disinformation.

I thank Deputies for their statements and questions about the December European Council meeting. As the Taoiseach indicated, I shall focus in my wrap-up remarks on the efforts to combat disinformation, the fight against racism and xenophobia, as well as citizens' consultations on the future of Europe.

Based on an independent report published in March by the European Commission's High Level Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation and following the European Council's conclusions in June and President Juncker's state-of-the-Union address in September, the Commission and the European External Action Service prepared a joint action plan to fight disinformation, focusing particularly on strategic communications policy. The joint action plan was presented to the European Council on 13 December and its aim is to create an integrated approach to addressing issues associated with disinformation activities among EU institutions and member states and solidify a collective way forward in that regard.

At the European Council meeting leaders called for the prompt co-ordinated implementation of the joint action plan and action on the internal elements, which deal primarily with election interference, as well as external elements. There were also calls for swift and decisive action at EU and national level in securing free and fair European and national elections. The Council was invited to continue to work on this issue and report back in March next year.

Ireland is fully supportive of EU efforts to tackle the evolving threat of disinformation campaigns that threaten to undermine social trust in governance, media sources and our shared democracy. It is vital that we address the issue in a co-ordinated and comprehensive way.

This is a complex matter and any policy response needs to assess the phenomenon in an ongoing manner and adjust policy objectives in light of its evolution over time. An interdepartmental group on the security of the electoral process and disinformation was established here and has been working since March to identify best practice in securing our electoral processes. This has involved widespread consultation throughout Departments and our network of embassies overseas. Our focus at present is on expediting the establishment of an electoral commission and regulating online political advertising. On the latter, we held an open policy forum on 6 December which involved participants from industry, academia, political parties, the media, civil society and the European Commission.

In terms of the fight against racism and xenophobia, leaders condemned all forms of racism and xenophobia and emphasised the importance of combating intolerance. They welcomed the adoption on 6 December of the Council declaration on the fight against anti-Semitism. Ireland is supportive of the measures proposed in the Council declaration and we are already carrying out many of the initiatives. We acknowledge the special nature and historical context of recognising anti-Semitism as an important manifestation of xenophobia. We will continue to work towards an holistic strategy to prevent and fight all forms of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination.

Leaders also discussed the main outcomes of the consultations on the future of Europe that have been taking place throughout the Union. This initiative has encouraged people in all member states to have their say on the future shape and direction of the European Union. As I have mentioned many times, I was delighted to join the Taoiseach and Tánaiste in Trinity College last November when we launched our dialogue on the future of Europe. Since then, we have hosted a series of regional dialogues in Galway, Cork, Donegal, Meath and Dublin. These culminated in a national citizens' dialogue in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham on 9 May, which was Europe Day. A future of Europe website was also established to raise public awareness and help people engage with that debate.

Our dialogues were characterised by inclusivity, genuine engagement and positivity about the EU and Ireland's role in it. I will take this opportunity to outline the main concerns and priorities raised during the dialogues. First and foremost, our citizens see the European Union as an expression of their values. Peace, solidarity, co-operation, respect for human dignity, personal and economic freedom, human rights and the rule of law are shared values that underpin our Union and they must be at the heart of every decision we take about its future. Our citizens want to see the EU continue to do what it does well, for example, by continuing to support programmes that deliver concrete benefits, such as the Common Agricultural Policy and Erasmus. The Europe of the future must focus on new challenges, such as climate change, cybersecurity, terrorism and migration. Our citizens want the Union to be a global leader in tackling climate change, with incentives for the transition to renewable energies along with more protection for rural landscapes and a concerted effort to close the rural-urban divide. It must also engage citizens more, including by better explaining and communicating European policies and our objectives and achievements.

We have learned that European Union needs to reaffirm its relevance in the daily lives of its citizens and that this renewal needs to be constant and not just in times of crisis. During the dialogues, I announced €100,000 worth of funding to support groups and organisations in projects aiming to communicate European issues, the role of the European Union and Ireland's place in Europe.

The principle of subsidiarity must ensure decisions are taken at the appropriate level. A strong overarching theme throughout our citizens' engagement process has been the need, in an increasingly competitive world, to ensure fairness between member states in education and employment opportunities and between generations. Our citizens are clear they want to see social exclusion tackled and stronger intervention at European level to combat discrimination, integrate migrants and improve access to services. They want to see more investment in youth, education, jobs, innovation, competitiveness and sustainable growth, which have emerged as priority issues. It was also very clear that our focus should be on implementing practical measures that will improve the lives of citizens, such as the completion of the Single Market, particularly in the area of services, and the full implementation of the digital Single Market.

On external relations, our citizens believe the EU has a moral imperative to do more for countries to the south and east and to promote education and empowerment in Africa. They also believe globalisation should not be allowed to proceed at the expense of human rights. These points were included in a report on our citizens' dialogue that fed into a collective report on the main outcomes throughout the EU. This collective report suggests most participants have a positive view of the EU, although many have noted the need for reform.

The main priorities of European citizens relate to ensuring a Union that is safe and secure, convergent and competitive, that protects the environment, promotes sustainability, ensures well-being and opportunity, is strong on the global stage and fosters common values and diversity. We have a huge amount of work to do to ensure we can achieve and obtain all of these goals. The various reports are intended to assist leaders to identify priorities for action in the run-up to the informal summit that will take place in Sibiu in Romania next May. At that meeting, the Heads of State and Government will prepare the strategic agenda for the EU from 2019 to 2024, with a view to agreeing it at the European Council in June next year.

As the Taoiseach outlined, this was a very lengthy European Council and a wide range of issues were discussed. Of course, for Ireland, Brexit was a priority and remains a priority. We are very satisfied with the conclusions agreed between the EU 27 leaders. There was very clear consensus that the withdrawal agreement, which includes the backstop, is not open for renegotiation. We hope it will never have to be used but it is there as an insurance policy unless and until alternative arrangements are put in place. I am pleased that, in the Article 50 conclusions, leaders were able to offer important reassurances to the UK by reconfirming our commitment to a close future relationship but, most importantly, to start negotiations on that relationship as soon as possible after the UK's withdrawal with a view to concluding them by the end of 2020. I share the Taoiseach's hope the UK will now take the necessary steps to see the deal ratified and implemented.


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