Tuesday, 14 December 2021
European Council Meeting: Statements
The stormy clock. I have a mere five minutes which is always something I complain about. After a referendum on European treaty's, we were given a firm commitment that we would debate in advance of and afterwards European Council meetings. I do not wish to use up my time, but we really need better than this. I wish to deal with a few of the agenda items that the Taoiseach is facing.
I welcome the fact that the issue of energy prices is on the agenda again, but it cannot be generalisms and tokenisms. Gas and electricity prices in Ireland are already among the most expensive in Europe. Despite significant moves in recent years to wind energy, we are still significantly dependent on fossil fuels, particularly gas, in this country for electricity generation. As a consequent, we are very vulnerable to international fluctuation in gas prices, even those that are motivated by political action. If Russia determines the price of gas is to increase, it will happen because Russia can simply reduce the supply into Europe and that is completely unacceptable. Irish tariffs, both transmission and distribution use tariffs, that suppliers pay to the State companies EirGrid, Gas Networks Ireland and ESB Networks, are also among the highest in Europe. These are all adding to the cost. A series of price increases throughout this year has made bills now landing in the hallways of households up and down the country completely unbearable for people. Families and individuals are barely keeping their heads above water and they simply cannot face that. We must take domestic action.
The tokenism of €100 per household that may come once legislation is passed sometime in the new year is no good to people who are facing bills and are frightened right now. When announcing the once-off €100 payment for every household, the Minister with responsibility for energy acknowledged that the European Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, ACER, calculated that gas prices between April and October of this year - a matter of months - have increased by 400%. Tokenism will not work. I hope there will be a concerted action across Europe to deal with this real crisis. The Minister is saying that these are temporary increases and that by the middle of next year they will abate, but that will be too late for people. If that is a fact, let us take immediate action here. The VAT rate of 13.5% applies not only to the increase in cost - a windfall to the Exchequer - but to the public service obligation, which is also taxed at an additional 13.5%, and to the increases in carbon taxes. We really need action taken on that.
On the discussion of security and defence, I listened the Taoiseach when he said, "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." What does that mean? We need a frank and open debate on this because everybody talks in general terms about defence. We are all scandalised by the actions in Belarus. We are scandalised by the fact that the Russians are building an army on the edge of Ukraine right now. What is Ireland’s role on it? What are we going to do and what exactly do we mean by the "strategic compass"? There is European speak about the Taoiseach’s contribution today. We need a frank, open and honest debate about Ireland’s role in common defence.
We talked about cyberattacks. We have been the victim of a monumental cyberattack this year into which the Committee on European Union Affairs is preparing a report. There are so many issues about which we glibly say we are neutral. What does that mean in real terms? I would welcome if, in their concluding remarks, the Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, would commit to talking in the new year about preparing a proper debate for this House, that is grounded by a position paper from the Government, on what the strategic compass means, how we will contribute to it and how we will build stability.
My final sentence – five minutes, as I said, is ridiculous - is this. I listened to the Lithuanian foreign minister this morning on television when he said that tensions in his part of Europe are at a greater level of height than they have been since the Second World War, which is something we need to take notice of.