Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

European Council Meeting: Statements


4:40 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

Amárach, beidh mé ag cruinniú tábhachtach sa Bhruiséil, ag labhairt agus ag plé leis na páirtnéirí ó gach cearn den Eoraip. Tá mé ag súil leis. Gan amhras, beidh an-chuid ábhar faoi chaibidil againn i rith na laethanta atá le teacht. Tomorrow, 15 December, I will attend the eastern partnership summit in Brussels. On Thursday, 16 December, I will attend a meeting of the European Council, followed by a euro summit, also in Brussels. At the eastern partnership summit, European Union leaders will be joined by our counterparts from Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan for discussion on the theme of recovery, resilience and reform.

At the European Council meeting, EU leaders will discuss Covid-19. That discussion will deal with the epidemiological situation, including in light of the Omicron variant, vaccinations, including boosters, and internal co-operation, including vaccine sharing. Energy prices remain a topic of concern across Europe and leaders will follow up on our discussion in October on this issue.

Under the agenda item on security and defence, we will provide guidance on the ongoing development of the strategic compass, which aims to set out a common strategic vision for the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, over the next decade. The external aspects of migration continue to require the focus of the European Council and we will assess implementation of conclusions from June and October of this year. We will also discuss several important EU external relations issues. I will provide more detail presently relating to Belarus and Ukraine. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, will provide more detail on the EU-Africa summit and the situation in Ethiopia in his concluding statement. He will also address the pressing issue of energy prices and the planned stocktake on crisis management and resilience.

Before I turn to the European Council meeting, I take the opportunity to update the House on the eastern partnership summit. The eastern partnership, launched in 2009, is a framework that aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the EU, its member states and six of its eastern neighbours, namely, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It is regrettable that Belarus's participation in the eastern partnership was suspended by the Lukashenko regime earlier this year. Belarus will be represented at tomorrow's summit symbolically by an empty chair. In the meantime, the EU, including Ireland, will continue our engagement with, and support for, citizens, civil society and independent media in Belarus.

Robust democratic processes, diverse media voices, gender equality, good governance and the rule of law are essential to enable our societies to face the challenges of the 21st century. They are ultimately key to enhancing the resilience of eastern partner countries and the EU itself and will provide a stable and just basis from which we can continue to tackle Covid-19, the climate crisis and new security challenges such as disinformation and cybersecurity. That is why I endorse the "more for more" principle at the heart of the eastern partnership, which means that greater economic links and investment are linked to increased reforms in support of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. In particular, the promotion and protection of civil society space is an important priority focus for Ireland. While we recognise the many challenges faced by countries in the region, it is vital that all are committed to ensuring the will and voices of citizens are at the heart of decision-making. Despite challenges, the eastern partnership has been a valuable platform for co-operation that has reaffirmed shared values and brought improvements in trade and investment, infrastructure, people-to-people contacts, environmental standards and quality of life generally.

Wednesday's meeting will be the sixth such meeting and the first in-person one since 2017. The theme of the summit will be recovery, resilience and reform. It is clear there is a willingness and enthusiasm among a number of partner countries to accelerate integration and co-operation with the EU. This week's summit will be an opportunity to agree on a way forward, taking the different aspirations of the six partner countries into account, and affirming that this is a partnership that is at its heart values-based and a driver of reform. I particularly welcome recent moves in the region to tackle corruption and the strengthened action in promotion of gender equality, including adherence to the Istanbul Convention. As members are aware, this summit is taking place at a time of heightened tension across the region. It will be a timely opportunity to recall the importance to the EU of an active and positive relationship with partner countries, our support for de-escalation of tensions and the promotion of stability and prosperity across the region.

Covid-19, unfortunately, continues to be a cause of concern across Europe as we enter into a new phase of the pandemic. Many member states, including Ireland, have decided to put in place further measures to protect public health. While the situation is uncertain, it is important to remember that we now have a range of tools and improved knowledge to address the situation in a way that was not possible in earlier phases. This week's meeting will be a timely opportunity to discuss developments, particularly the Omicron variant. This new variant of concern was only identified in the past few weeks. Scientists are working around the clock to provide updated information and analysis each day, better equipping us with the evidence base for next steps as we look to the short and medium term.

I will be stressing to my EU counterparts our experience of the effectiveness of vaccines. Ireland's vaccination uptake is consistently among the best in Europe and this is bearing fruit. I thank both the people of Ireland for how positively they have embraced the vaccine programme and the workers who have worked tirelessly to deliver it. We are accelerating our booster programme based on the evidence showing the benefits of third doses. It is important, at EU level, that we co-ordinate our approach as much as possible. Leaders will also discuss international co-operation on fighting Covid-19. Universal and equitable access to vaccines around the world is a priority and Ireland remains committed to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, COVAX, initiative. I firmly believe the COVAX initiative represents our best chance of bringing the global pandemic to an end.

The analysis underpinning the work to date on the strategic compass is that the global security situation at present is marked by growing strategic competition and complex security threats. Ireland supports efforts to improve the effectiveness of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy, bearing in mind the very different approaches of member states, including Ireland. We are engaging constructively in work on the strategic compass. In addition to reflecting the challenges facing the EU, this initiative will need to focus on the actions we must take to contribute to international peace and security, project our values and protect our citizens. In particular, we see the compass as an opportunity to reiterate the importance of EU-UN co-operation.

Ireland has specific interests in the areas of crisis management and partnerships and the central role of a civilian Common Security and Defence Policy. We also welcome the strong focus in the compass on work to strengthen the EU's ability to respond to new types of threats, such as cyberattacks and hybrid threats. At this week's European Council meeting, I will be underlining the importance of ensuring the compass is anchored in our commitment to effective multilateralism and a rules-based international order with the UN at its heart. This week, leaders will provide guidance on the further development of the compass. It is expected that, following further work over the coming months by foreign affairs and defence ministers, the strategic compass will be on the agenda of the European Council next spring with a view to its adoption.

The European Council has discussed the external aspects of migration at two meetings so far this year, in June and again when we met in October. This week, we will revisit the implementation of our June 2021 conclusions. Ireland would like to see sustainable progress on irregular and forced migration issues. This should be based on a genuine partnership with countries of origin and transit and a common European asylum system that ensures effective member state management of migration flows. I fully support EU efforts to deal with migration in a comprehensive and holistic manner, including through co-operation with key third countries and by tackling root causes. Action plans have been developed at working level for eight priority countries, namely, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tunisia, Iraq, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco and Libya. Those plans now need to be put into operation and adequately financed as quickly as possible. The social, economic and political stresses arising from the migration situation are considerable. No matter how difficult, it is essential that humanitarian and legal obligations continue to be met.

The complexities of the external aspects of migration have been apparent in recent months on the EU's borders with Belarus, where the Lukashenko regime has been cynically exploiting migrants. Ireland was glad to co-sponsor the fifth package of sanctions in response to the Lukashenko regime's appalling misuse of migrants. This crisis was designed to put political pressure on the EU and to divide internally. In that it has failed and the response within the EU has been one of solidarity. The signs of de-escalation at the Belarusian border in recent weeks are encouraging.

EU diplomatic work done with countries of origin and relevant airlines has been impressive. Nonetheless, it is important we continue to engage on this issue at the highest level. This includes ensuring international aid workers and experts are given access to both sides of the border so that the safety and welfare of the people still there can be assured.

This week the European Council will call for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Belarus and for an end to the repression of civil society and independent media. Ireland remains steadfast in our support for a sustainable, democratic and peaceful resolution of the situation in Belarus. It is the right of the Belarusian people alone to decide the future of their country.

This week Ireland will join calls on Russia to de-escalate the situation near Ukraine's borders, where there has been a concerning build-up of Russian troops. Ireland is a steadfast partner for Ukraine and, at this week's European Council, we will welcome broad, resolute European Union solidarity with Ukraine and support for its territorial integrity. Our first priority will be to see a de-escalation in the situation on the ground.

Leaders will also meet on Thursday for a euro summit, where we will hear from the President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, and from the President of Eurogroup, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. We will discuss the economic situation and review progress on the banking union and the capital markets union. The focus of the June euro summit had been on the economic challenges for the euro area in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis. In June, we acknowledged the strong, swift and co-ordinated economic policy response of the European Union and its member states in preparing the ground for a robust, inclusive and sustainable recovery from the pandemic.

Strong fiscal policy co-ordination has clearly helped to mitigate the damaging economic impact of Covid-19, including through the application of the general escape clause of the Stability and Growth Pact. This has allowed member states to depart from the budgetary requirements, which would normally apply, to tackle the economic consequences of the pandemic.

The Commission also presented a communication in October, relaunching public debate on reviewing the European Union economic governance framework. This is open for public consultation until the end of December and the aim is to build broad-based consensus on the next steps well in time for 2023. The time is now right to discuss possible reforms to the existing economic governance framework, and Ireland will play a constructive role in these discussions.

In June we also reiterated our commitment to completing the banking union and strengthening the integration of our capital markets, including providing the Eurogroup with a strong mandate for advancing further work in this area. Our meeting this week will be an important opportunity to review progress.

I look forward this week to continuing to engage collectively and bilaterally with my European Union counterparts as well as eastern partners on a broad range of pressing issues. I will report to the House on our discussions in the new year.


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