Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Post-European Council: Statements
I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few observations on the European Council meeting that took place last week. It is important to debate matters discussed at the European Council in this House. As I said this morning, the single biggest economic challenge facing the European Union is providing global leadership on climate change and forming the vanguard on climate action, not least as the current US President and his Administration are in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. I listened with interest to the Taoiseach's comment that perhaps a change in Administration in the United States might change that direction of travel. That is certainly to be hoped for.
The Labour Party strongly endorses the European Council's decision to back the objective of making the European economy climate neutral by 2050 in line with international commitments. I welcome the fact that the Vice President of the European Commission, Mr. Frans Timmermans of the Labour Party's sister party in the Netherlands, is leading on the EU's green deal programme. I have no doubt that this programme will be designed to help the creation of new, sustainable jobs and to provide targeted support to the regions of Europe that find the transition to a carbon-free environment most difficult to achieve. It is regrettable that one member state, Poland, could not commit to the 2050 objective. This is to be revisited in June 2020 when I hope the Polish Government will be brought on board with respect to the collective will of the Union. If this is not possible, the EU will need to look at measures to make sure that our collective targets are not undermined by one member state, especially given that Poland still has a significant coal-mining industry.
Two things are clear from the European Council's conclusions on climate action. First, every member state needs to have a forward-looking vision of how it can transform its economy through research and innovation. This transformation is not just a challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity. Second, this transformation will require major investment, and the State will have to take a lead role in providing this investment. The Labour Party welcomes the European Council's call for the development of strong research and innovation policies.
What are our Government's plans in that regard? What additional resources will be made available to universities, including the new technological universities we are in the process of creating, to engage in the kind of research that could assist the development of sustainable low-carbon technologies? What additional investment will be made in State enterprises, those engines of growth we have had since the beginning of the State which have been transformative in a range of areas, particularly energy production? How will they be enabled to scale up their pilot programmes in various sustainable economic activities, including wind energy, recycling and new forms of land management? Alternatively, is the Government planning to rely on the private sector to lead on all of this? The Government should clearly outline an ambitious strategic approach and show willingness to back investment as part of a transformative climate strategy.
The Labour Party welcomes the European Council's focus on an economic transition that is just, socially balanced and fair, not just cost-efficient and competitive. I welcome the intention of the European Investment Bank, EIB, to facilitate €1 trillion of investment in climate action and environmental sustainability in the period from 2021 to 2030. That sounds like a mind-numbing sum of money, but over ten years it equates to €100 billion per year. Ireland's share by population size would be only around €1 billion per year. Will Ireland benefit from €1 billion of EIB investment every year? Do we have the plans and the capacity to absorb that? What is the Government going to do to ensure that we are ambitious and have those plans?
The European Commission has announced that €100 billion of investment will be made available through the just transition mechanism. The Labour Party has been calling for such a just transition approach, meaning investment to create new, sustainable jobs in the regions that will have to undergo the greatest level of change to become climate neutral. This will allow the entire country to become climate neutral. I cautiously welcome the invitation extended by the European Council to the Commission to consider changing state aid and public procurement rules in order to facilitate our climate neutrality objectives. I have no doubt that State enterprises will have to play a significant role, and we should be willing to rethink rules that may hold State enterprises back from making major capital investments that would help address these ambitious climate change targets.
As I have said before, I am critical of the strategic agenda set out by the new Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen. It lacks the level of ambition needed to drive Europe towards an ambitious social and environmental programme. However, I am glad to see that the European Council has recommended a Europe-wide conference on the future of Europe.
This will be an important opportunity to spell out a vision of a people's Europe based on sustainability and on the highest standard of life, rather than just a recreation of a European market, which is what the von der Leyen agenda largely offers to date.
As others have mentioned, I note that in June next year there will be another EU summit with the African Union. As I said previously, this is a vital relationship and I hope that Europe's strategic interests will be matched by a willingness to invest in Africa, such as through a new Marshall Plan for Europe's neighbourhood. We must also look at how European corporation tax policies impact on Africa and we need to reform them.
I welcome the solidarity shown to Albania and hope the assistance offered will have an impact. I welcome the offer of assistance to Albania and North Macedonia. The European Council could have done much more.
I also welcome that the European Council has clearly stated that "a balance of rights and obligations" and "a level playing field" must be maintained in the next phase of the UK-EU relationship. This is particularly important as Boris Johnson's announcement that he will legislate to prevent any delay to the UK's transition period means that we are very time constrained in our capacity to negotiate a comprehensive trade agreement in the short 12 months ahead. The prospect of a no-deal conclusion, unfortunately, has loomed again on the horizon. No deal would be unlikely to last for long given the dire economic consequences of such an occurrence for the UK itself, but a rushed deal could have negative long-term consequences if it does not sufficiently protect the European market from being undermined by a race to the bottom in terms of both labour and environmental standards. It is already rumoured that the new Conservative Government may remove social and environmental protections from the withdrawal agreement. These concessions were negotiated by the British Labour Party. If that happens, it will clearly signal that Prime Minister Johnson intends for the UK to become an even more deregulated market economy in stark contrast to the regulated norms we have built up over 40 years in the European Union.
I am pleased to see Michel Barnier continue to act as head of the negotiation team for the European Union in the next phase of contact with the United Kingdom. Mr. Barnier has shown a steadfast commitment to Ireland's interests, and I have every confidence that this will remain the case. From a Labour Party perspective, we recognise the real economic harm and hardship that would follow from the UK leaving the EU at the end of 2020 without a deal or with the bare bones of a deal. We also recognise that a poor deal could undermine workers' rights and environmental standards, and not only in Britain because the contagion could impact right across Europe. That is an outcome we should work might and main to avoid.