Tuesday, 14 December 2021
European Council Meeting: Statements
There is a lot on the agenda of the European Council meeting, including the Covid-19 pandemic, crisis management and resilience, security and defence issues, the upcoming EU-African Union summit, the situation on the EU border with Belarus, energy prices and the external aspects of migration. Meanwhile, negotiations between the UK and the EU on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol continue.
As we heard last week, the Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič attended our meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs.
He said he had just come from a meeting of the Commissioners at which the broad range of issues facing the EU at this time had been considered. These issues included the threat of an invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the crisis on the Belarusian border.
It is in everybody's interests for the negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol to be concluded as soon as possible. It now looks like the negotiations will continue into next year. However, it appears some progress has been made in respect of medicines. Although Vice President Šefčovič has been reported as saying time is running out and that it is now time to act, he has also said the EU is ready to move on its own if a joint approach is not possible. The vice president has consulted widely with business groups and civic society in Northern Ireland and has brought forward practical solutions to the real problems that have emerged in respect of the implementation of the protocol. These include problems concerning the supply of medicines and customs and regulatory checks on goods.
I welcome the apparent change in position from the UK side as regards the European Court of Justice. The UK seems to be acknowledging that the Commission has no mandate to renegotiate the protocol. Governance will no doubt be an issue in due course, but for the moment it is best to deal pragmatically with the problems businesses are experiencing right now.
Meanwhile, in a letter last week, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, again threatened to collapse the Northern Ireland institutions unless progress was made on the so-called Irish Sea border. This new threat has been rightly criticised by the other parties in the assembly in light of the wide range of problems in Northern Ireland that need to be addressed. The management of the pandemic is just one of these. No doubt, these remarks are aimed at DUP supporters in light of next year's elections, but this new threat is not helpful in any way. I wish the negotiators success and hope all remaining outstanding problems can be successfully resolved in the near future.
As we are on the subject of Brexit, I welcome last week's announcement of the approval by the EU of an allocation of €920 million to Ireland this year under the Brexit adjustment reserve fund. As we know, the EU has put in place a fund of €5.4 billion in total. We are the member state most affected by Brexit, so it is right we are set to be the greatest beneficiary of the fund.
This will be the first summit attended by the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. The former Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will be missed by the EU. She was a problem solver and totally committed to the ideals of the European Union. Chancellor Scholz leads a centre-left government which is highly pro-European. I suggest that is a good thing for smaller member states such as Ireland. I hope the Taoiseach will use the opportunity presented by this meeting of the European Council to initiate a good personal working relationship with the new Chancellor as this would be in the interests of our two countries and the EU as a whole.
France takes over the Presidency of the EU next month. President Emmanuel Macron has been setting out his vision for this presidency. It can be summed up in three words: recovery, power and belonging. He outlined the wide range of issues the EU must confront at this time, including the threat by Belarus to push migrants into the EU and the issue of migration more generally. The EU also faces issues regarding the rule of law in Hungary and Poland and EU economic growth and development. President Macron has also been talking about European defence and the White Paper on defence, the so-called strategic compass. He wants a powerful and independent EU. That is all very well and good but any new proposals for further integration or for security and defence generally will have to be carefully scrutinised by Ireland because our interests do not always necessarily coincide with the French agenda.
I welcome what the Taoiseach had to say in his remarks on the strategic compass. He talked about the very different approaches of members states, including Ireland, and suggested we are engaging constructively in work on the strategic compass. He also spoke about the need to contribute to international peace and security and to protect our values and our citizens. He also mentioned the need to co-operate fully with the United Nations in the context of the strategic compass. In this regard, I encourage all citizens to engage with the Conference on the Future of Europe, which is now under way, so that the EU of the future will be one to which we can all subscribe.
I wonder whether the meeting of the European Council will consider the human rights situation in China. As we know, there are concerns about the fate of tennis star, Peng Shuai. The International Olympic Committee is coming under pressure to cancel the Winter Olympics to be hosted in China in February. Some countries have announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, which means their government officials will not attend the games. This is something Ireland should consider. I would like to know whether the EU as a whole will be examining this issue at the upcoming meeting.
It has not been mentioned yet but I will make reference to Russia generally and the Russian veto on the UN resolution on climate and security this week. As we know, Ireland played a key role in bringing this resolution to the table. It was a terrible pity Russia vetoed it at the final hurdle. The issues still remain, however. I have no doubt the issues under consideration in this motion can be revisited and worked on again.
Speakers in this debate have already talked about the humanitarian crisis on the Belarusian border with the EU. I too condemn the weaponising of these migrants. I welcome the Taoiseach stating in his contribution that the EU will call for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus. That would be a powerful statement.
I join other speakers in mentioning the position as regards Ukraine. US intelligence reports that up to 175,000 troops are being massed on the Ukrainian border. This is a big worry. Ukraine is talking about embracing NATO. That is Russia's fear. Again, we need to mediate a solution to this crisis. The crisis needs to be de-escalated. I hope the leaders at the European Council meeting will take such an approach.