Tuesday, 19 January 2016
European Council: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the outcome of the European Council which took place on 17 and 18 December. The context for the meeting was no easier than it is today, with the ongoing migration and refugee crisis continuing to pose the most serious of challenges for the European Union. This crisis was the first item on the Council agenda. Heads of State and Government assessed what has been done so far and looked at further shaping and implementation of a comprehensive EU approach.
Another important item was the debate about Britain's membership of the EU which, post the European Council, has moved forward into a crucial phase. The November letter from Prime Minister Cameron and the December letter from the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, set the context for a substantive and constructive discussion by Heads of State and Government about the British proposals for reform of the EU, with the intention now to reach agreement on a package of measures at the February European Council.
The meeting also reviewed Europe's actions in the fight against terrorism, building on the decisions taken at its February meeting and in light of the barbaric attacks in Paris and elsewhere.
These three items dominated the discussions in December. A number of other items were also discussed, including international developments such as the situations in Syria, Ukraine and, briefly, Libya; certain economic and financial issues, taking stock of discussions on the five Presidents' report on economic and monetary union and developments in the Internal Market; and, finally, energy union and a forward-looking climate policy. I have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, to address the issues of energy union and the climate policy in his statement.
The migration crisis was central to discussions at the December European Council, as it has been for much of last year and as it is expected to be in the year ahead. This is a highly challenging issue. The number of people seeking refuge over the past number of months is without precedent for the European Union, and it is true that as a Union we have struggled to chart an effective way through the complexities of the situation. Recent appalling events in Cologne and elsewhere in Europe, as well as the unprecedented border closures, some involving countries such as Sweden and Denmark which had a common travel area that predated their EU membership, have called into question fundamental principles of the European Union and demonstrate the need to respond in a measured and balanced fashion.
For our part, Ireland has consistently called for an approach at the European level which addresses the root causes as well as the humanitarian challenges. This has also been a feature of our national response. I am proud of the contribution that Ireland has made in response to the crisis, in particular the endeavours of our Defence Forces, which have deservedly been commended in this House and elsewhere on previous occasions. The Union has worked hard to develop a comprehensive response to the crisis, with many difficult discussions along the way. However, having reached agreement on critically important issues such as "hotspots", registration, control of external borders, relocation and returns, implementation has been disappointingly slow.
In our case, for example, the Government agreed in September to take 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers into Ireland through a combination of resettlement and relocation programmes, and although the resettlement aspect of this is advancing with 176 individuals having already arrived in the State and more expected over the coming months, the relocation aspect has been very slow. We await an update this week on the progress of the first grouping of asylum applications under this framework. The delay has been due mainly to administrative difficulties with the establishment of the hotspots and the setting up of the relocation programmes in Italy and Greece. Consequently, in our discussions there were calls across the board for implementation of agreed measures to improve in the weeks ahead. If we are to chart an effective response to the challenges posed by this crisis, we must deliver on the commitments we have made.
Another feature of our discussions at the December European Council was co-operation with regional partners in the Western Balkans and in Africa, where in contrast there has been some progress, building on the high level conferences that took place last year. In addition, we addressed relations with Turkey, a critically important partner in the region. The European Union is committed to working with Turkey and to establishing a €3 billion fund for supporting Syrian refugees based there. Member states, including Ireland, will contribute to this fund, once the final arrangements have been agreed. Here too, implementation will be key. Both Turkey and the European Union have made commitments under the joint action plan agreed in November and it is imperative that these are fulfilled. Up to now, the flow of refugees through Turkey to the EU has not diminished.
Finally, in regard to migration, there was a discussion of the European Commission's proposals for a new European border and coast guard and agreement to prioritise work on this within the next six months. Ireland is of course not obliged to opt in to any eventual decision on this. However, I want to make the general point that although Ireland does not participate in Schengen, we view it as a profoundly important achievement and we are committed to engaging constructively, as we have done over the past year, for example in co-operation with Frontex.
The migration crisis, or more precisely our response to that crisis, has been described by some as the issue that will define our times. What is clear is that we need to see much more action in the weeks and months ahead. As member states, it is incumbent on us all to deliver on the commitments we have made. I therefore welcome the agreement at our meeting to assess progress and to return to the issue at the next European Council in February.
I turn now to the issue that is of the greatest strategic interest to Ireland, namely, the UK's renegotiation of its relationship with the European Union. As I have stated many times, the UK's continued membership of the EU is a priority for Ireland, and our approach to the negotiations remains constructive and pragmatic. At the political level, there have been regular discussions about this issue, including in my own exchanges with David Cameron. In parallel, work has been ongoing at official level for many months now to prepare for these critically important negotiations. As part of these efforts, officials from the Department of the Taoiseach liaise closely with other Departments as well as with our permanent representation in Brussels, our embassy in London and our embassies across the EU to ensure a comprehensive, whole-of-Government response to the key questions.
Last month's European Council provided a first, very welcome, opportunity to have a collective discussion of the issue, with all 28 EU Heads of State and Government and the Presidents of the EU institutions, framed by the earlier exchange of letters between Prime Minister Cameron and President Tusk. Prime Minister Cameron opened the discussion by outlining the four broad areas where he is seeking change and by explaining the complex domestic politics around the issue in the UK. I intervened in strong terms in the subsequent discussion to present the Irish point of view, which is of course well known to this House and to the UK and other EU member states. I spoke about the importance of the issue to Ireland, given the uniquely close political, social, economic and cultural ties between our countries. I also emphasised the significance of UK membership to the EU as a whole and I stressed the importance of working together to find a solution that will enable the UK to remain in the EU.
Regarding the proposals themselves, Ireland is supportive of moves aimed at delivering more for our citizens. We share the UK's enthusiasm for sustained effort under the "competitiveness" heading. The issues here are the drivers of long-term prosperity for the citizens of the EU. Under the "economic governance" and "sovereignty" headings, although the details of the proposals remain to be clarified, we can also see where solutions might lie. In the immigration and free movement area, we can probably support the proposals, subject to the details, in regard to addressing fraud and abuse and changing the way in which child benefit is paid abroad. The idea of limiting access to in-work benefits is more difficult and there is widespread opposition to the proposal in its current form. However, I am hopeful that with willingness and determination, a workable solution in this area can also be found.
In terms of the debate itself, I was encouraged by the substantive and constructive exchange of views about the four categories of reform proposed by Prime Minister Cameron, including the difficulties in regard to in-work benefits. There can be little doubt that this is a challenging and sensitive issue, but the atmosphere at the European Council meeting was very positive and there was a willingness to find a way forward. David Cameron himself, while not withdrawing his proposal, signalled his openness to alternative ideas that would have the same effect.
We agreed therefore to work closely together in the period ahead with a view to reaching agreement on a package of measures at the February European Council. The sense is that, as regards the large majority of the issues, the broad lines of agreement are emerging. Whereas the question of welfare benefits and immigration remains difficult, work here also appears to be progressing and, as I stated, I am hopeful a solution will be found that addresses the legitimate concerns of all countries.
The legal form and implications of the final package remain to be teased out but I welcome the fact that the British Prime Minister is not pressing for early treaty change. We await the emergence of detailed proposals from President Tusk, which are expected in very early February. These will allow all member states to develop further their responses under all four headings and to participate actively in intensive and collective preparatory work at official level leading up to the February meeting. The aim is to secure agreement at that time on a package of measures acceptable to all of us and that will allow the British Prime Minister to recommend and campaign for a vote to remain in the European Union.
The European Council took place in the aftermath of the appalling terrorist attacks in Paris in November. These were an affront to the very values we all cherish in Europe and in the democratic world. As I have stated before, Ireland stands in solidarity with France and we are united in our determination to counter the threat posed by global terrorism. The discussions took stock of progress since last February when a detailed programme of criminal justice, law enforcement and border control actions was set out. The central point of our discussions in December was that the EU has now to deliver on the agreed measures. Building on the work of justice Ministers, we looked at enhancing information sharing and early implementation of the passenger name record directive, which was finally agreed in early December. Further emphasis was placed on systematic and co-ordinated checks at external borders - this primarily concerns Schengen area member states - and there was a commitment to examining Commission proposals on new directives for combatting terrorism and on the illegal firearms trade. Proposals were also made for increasing the effectiveness of the fight against terrorist financing, which were further considered by finance Ministers last Friday.
Ireland has consistently called for a co-ordinated international response and a comprehensive approach to combatting terrorism. In this regard, we welcome that the European Council proposed the stepping up of engagement with partners in North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and the western Balkans. The Commission, High Representative Mogherini and the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator were tasked with taking this work forward and reporting back to the European Council.
I now turn to a number of economic issues that were discussed at the European Council in December. Deputies are aware that a report on Completing Europe's Economic and Monetary Union was produced in June. This so-called "five presidents' report" was published under the personal authority of the President of the European Commission, in co-operation with the presidents of the euro summit, the Eurogroup, the European Central Bank and the European Parliament. Following consideration last year in some Council formations, the report and the proposals put forward by the Commission as initial follow-up were discussed by Heads of State and Government. The five presidents' report is an important contribution to the debate about the future of the single currency area. It sets out the authors' vision for achieving a "deep, fair and genuine" economic and monetary union by 2025 in two stages. The first of these phases, which should run to 2017, focuses on boosting competitiveness, maintaining responsible fiscal policies and completing banking union. A second stage would run to 2025, involving more fundamental changes to the EU's economic and institutional architecture.
Ireland's consistent position has been that we need to concentrate on strengthening and fully implementing the many significant reforms already agreed over the past few years. We need to press ahead on banking union and in this context, we have welcomed the proposals for a European deposit insurance scheme presented by the Commission in November. A further positive development on banking union was the entry into force of the Single Resolution Mechanism on 1 January of this year following ratification, including by Ireland, of the intergovernmental agreement on the transfer and mutualisation of contributions.
We must also continue to improve our collective engagement with the European Semester process of economic policy co-ordination. As part of this, the Commission presented its annual growth survey package on 26 November, setting out the key priorities for supporting growth and jobs under the 2016 European Semester. This retains the threefold emphasis established last year on investment, structural reforms and responsible public finances, which are priorities with which we fully agree. I am pleased to note that after years of sacrifice by the Irish people, our national economy is recovering strongly but we also need to see further improvement in the economic performance of the wider euro area and EU economies. This is important for creating the right conditions for investment and job creation, including here in Ireland. As regards the longer-term proposals put forward in the five presidents' report, these are widely agreed not to be the immediate priority. We agreed in December that they and other ideas need to be explored further and we undertook to come back to them before the end of 2017.
The European Council also assessed the development of the Single Market, in particular in the context of the new strategy published by the Commission on 28 October. This is a crucial initiative, including in the context of the current UK debate, and we endorsed it at our December meeting and called for ambition in its implementation. The Single Market is Europe's main engine for growth, job creation, investment and competitiveness. Discussions at the December European Council focused on the need to achieve a deeper and fairer Single Market for goods and services in all key areas. The need to implement the digital Single Market and to fulfil the action plan on capital markets union was also highlighted. These are, of course, both areas where Ireland strongly supports progress. The meeting also highlighted the importance of the negotiations with the United States on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, agreement. Again, this reflects our national position. In broad terms, we see the key issue here as pressing ahead with a high level of ambition, agreeing concrete timelines and delivering results.
The European Council also had a relatively brief consideration of external relations issues. First among these was the position of Syria, where there was agreement that while only an inclusive political process can lead to a solution, there cannot be a lasting peace in Syria under the present regime. Countries expressed support for the efforts of the global coalition to defeat the regional and global threat posed by ISIL or Daesh. We understand appalling events have happened in recent days. Turning to Libya, the signature of an agreement between the main parties was welcomed, although there were no illusions about the fragility of the process. Lastly, Heads of State and Government had a brief examination of relations with Russia and the situation in Ukraine.
As I have outlined, the December meeting of the European Council dealt with a diverse range of issues but with the focus very much on migration and the UK issue. I look forward to hearing Deputies' comments.
Over the past five years, we have spent an enormous amount of time on statements such as these. In addition to post-Council statements, which have been held for decades, we have had the extra opportunity to each speak for ten minutes before summits. However, if one looks back on the record, one will find that the statements have been defined by the Government’s refusal to share any information not already in the public domain and its failure to set out any coherent account of what Ireland's policy is towards the reform and development of the European Union. In order to find out what our Government is saying on our behalf, we have had to rely on media reports and connections in other governments. This matters because the Union continues to be faced with the most serious crisis in its history and direct threats to its core principles are stronger than ever and yet our Government is a bystander that waits to find out what will happen before trying to claim some level of credit for it.
Control on national budgets is a major issue and when a new treaty was being discussed, the one and only request of our Government, according to the then President of the Council, was that whatever emerged should not have to be referred to the people. There was no proposal about fixing serious flaws in economic and monetary union or a proposal about helping regions in trouble. Absolutely no suggestion was made that aid be given to countries carrying debt linked to failed European policies. On issue after issue in the past five years, the policy of saying as little as possible has been seen.
The only proactive policy in Europe has been a public relations strategy at home designed to reinforce the Government fairy tale about its own actions. An enormous amount of effort has gone into distorting the reality of how many decisions have been taken and to make patently false claims about how decisions have been reached. Using the quite strong European freedom of information regulations, we have sought details of how or when our Government set out demands for any relief from bank-related debt or attempted to implement any of the major changes in policy that Fine Gael and the Labour Party promised in 2011. There was nothing there. The Dáil was told that the Taoiseach bravely stood up to the leaders of France and Germany, who may or may not have had two pints in their hands at the time, but the record shows nothing of the sort.
While Fine Gael and the Labour Party already claim to have "won" major interest concessions, the record shows that concessions negotiated by others were automatically extended to Ireland without any negotiation. In fact, the major decrease in debt service costs was four times what the Taoiseach had requested. He will remember when he and his Ministers showered praise on themselves for a supposed "game changer" on bank related debt. The Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform said we might receive up to €30 billion. I remember it well. It was in 2012. In the end, we have received exactly nothing, the same amount for which we asked.
The bluster and rhetoric with which we have had to put up have failed to cover up a serious policy failure. At a time of great danger for the European Union, standing on the sidelines and focusing on national politics make us part of the problem - a timid Union that is scared to stand up to its opponents and unwilling to show the urgency or ambition which its citizens so badly want to see. In this, the Government has abandoned 40 years of precedent. It is the first Government to end its term having failed to express a concrete opinion on reform of the European Union. In the past, Governments of all parties set out their vision for the Union and how it might develop. In discussing possible changes to EU treaties every previous Government set out a public negotiating position, lobbied for it and, when it was agreed to, published a detailed statement on how Ireland's interests were impacted on by the proposed changes. It is undeniably true that the Taoiseach has had meetings with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, and Chancellor Merkel. He appears to get on well with both. Equally, however, there is no evidence of any concrete outcome for Ireland from these meetings, again, unlike many previous Taoisigh who built strong relations and showed important progress had been made on Ireland's interests. Ireland was always a country which prided itself on not being afraid to speak up on important issues. We must return to this tradition because it is the single most important reason we have succeeded in shaping so many policies. It is why, even in the midst of the economic crisis in 2009, other states invited us to chair the OSCE and why they have supported us in many international efforts such as our initiatives on non-proliferation and banning cluster bombs.
The most recent summit addressed a list of vital questions and delivered little progress. It was a dispiriting outcome. The item which took the most time to deal with was migration. Incredibly, it focused purely on border control as a means of controlling migration to Europe. This fundamentally ignores the reality of why so many have tried to come to Europe and from where they have come. It is wrong for people to dismiss the idea that this scale of migration of people with no resources and links with European countries is not a problem. The countries that are hosting the greatest numbers are feeling undeniable pressures which must be recognised. However, let us never forget that this is, first and foremost, a humanitarian crisis which has become a migration crisis. People are making treacherous and often fatal journeys because they believe they have no alternative. They were driven out of their homes by a combination of a regime which was determined to prevent democracy and a fundamentalist army which was determined to impose mediaeval barbarity. In refugee camps they have found places which offer no future and worsening conditions. While the European Union has increased its humanitarian assistance, it has been a fraction of what is being into proposals on border controls and aiding people after they have felt the need to flee the camps. In addition, the budget of the United Nations and other relief agencies has been squeezed. Food is inadequate, shelter is poor, education for children is rare and employment opportunities are impossible. The first priority must be the provision of humanitarian aid. However, the Taoiseach and his colleagues appear to have done nothing but note past decisions at the end of their meeting.
Many of the migration proposals agreed to are reasonable, as are the proposals on combating terrorism. However, it is the duty of leaders not to succumb to the nasty populism of those who seek to spread fear and label innocent people with the deeds of a tiny minority which lack any legitimacy to speak on their behalf. We must never forget that others refused to blame and label us for the murderous and sectarian brutality of the Provisional movement. We must stand with the Muslim community against the rising intolerance and overt racism of many extremists in Europe.
European values face a far bigger threat from the far right and Russian-inspired autocracy than they do from any other source, but the summit's communiqué is disturbingly silent on Russia's invasion and partition of a sovereign European country and its continued attempts to destabilise it. Ukrainian democracy remains fragile. It will be difficult for it to survive if it cannot show that it can marshal continued support for its sovereignty. I hope that in the coming weeks the media will take a break from discussing the political process and allow us to have a debate about issues such as this where the gaps between parties are becoming wider. The support some of our representatives in the European Parliament are giving to the invasion and partition of Ukraine deserves to be exposed.
The basic structure of EMU remains unsteady and the need for reform is undeniable. Therefore, the bland discussion held at the summit is worthless. New proposals may emerge in June, but how they might help remains a mystery. So far nobody has produced any justification for the claim that strengthened fiscal controls would assist growth and create employment.
The discussion on the Single Market was somewhat more substantive. My party remains a supporter of the principle of freer and fairer trade. Ireland simply could not achieve decent standards of living without the security access to international markets provides. What we do not support is the idea that it should include measures which allow unfair competition against critical industries and the agrifood sector, in particular. We also believe the Commission is in danger of wasting enormous time and resources in picking fights for the sake of being tough, rather than delivering meaningful competition improvements. If one looks back at the Microsoft action, the Commission rejected arguments which turned out to be true concerning the transitory nature of technological dominance. The increased competition in browsers did not come from litigation; it was part of the inherently disruptive nature of modern technology. In fact, if one looks back over the past 50 years, one will see a constant and natural process of companies winning and losing dominance in different markets. Google, Apple and other major companies are always one significant development away from losing their edge and it would be a foolish person who said they could not be challenged. I respect Commissioner Verstager who is a valued colleague of ours in the ALDE group. Her aggressive agenda of seeking to open and fair competition for all should be supported. However, I hope time and money will not be wasted in the pursuit of cases which may attract major attention but which will be of marginal benefit to European business.
The summit noted the recent Paris agreement on climate change. As a fitting end to five years of moving away from ambitious action on climate change, the Taoiseach's speech in Paris has been rightly criticised by a wide range of experts and non-governmental organisations. There are communities throughout the country which are experiencing at first hand the impact of the more frequent extreme weather with which climate change is linked. I hope that after next month we will again have a Government which will show a genuine commitment to addressing a problem which requires a global solution but which has a very clear and growing national impact.
The decision to postpone serious discussion of Great Britain's demand for changes in the European Union resulted from the fact that progress in the negotiations was more talked about than real. The failure to have a national debate about what terms we would be willing to support to retain Great Britain in the Union is inexcusable. It is clearly in our national interest for Great Britain to remain in the Union. It is also in the Union's interest. However, there has to be some limit. There has to be a point beyond which what is being asked for simply goes too far. Nothing short of reducing the European Union to a hollowed-out and toothless free trade area would satisfy the English Eurosceptics. They even oppose the idea that a country should be subject to sanctions for breaking agreed rules. Given what the Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, has said, he will at least need agreement for some measures to be included in a future treaty, just as concessions for Ireland were included in subsidiary treaties rather than the main text of the Lisbon treaty. Whatever is agreed to on 18 and 19 February will fall to the next Government to implement and the next Dáil to agree to.
That is, of course, in the event that there is no referendum required and that if there is a change to the concept of freedom of movement and the respective powers of institutions, a referendum may be required.
The Taoiseach needs to know that he has no blank cheque. He must defend Ireland’s interests in a European Union which is capable of addressing core problems and a eurozone which can manage its own interests. He should also be aware that any attempt by his staff to repeat for this summit the type of media manipulation on which they spend so much time will damage him and public support for whatever will emerge.
If the UK referendum happens in June, it is Fianna Fáil’s intention to lay out the case in Northern Ireland for it to remain as part of the European Union. For the other jurisdictions which will be voting, it is up to them to assess what is in their best interests, but the case for Northern Ireland remaining in the European Union is overwhelming and we should not and will not be silent in the campaign. This will apply, even if we are in the new Government the country so badly needs. Having opposed EU membership, both North and South, and every single EU proposal in the South, Sinn Féin has chosen to join the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, in calling for Northern Ireland to remain in the European Union. This is welcome. I hope its hard Eurosceptic rhetoric of the past four decades will not have done too much damage.
On the long list of items which the next Government will have to address urgently is a European Union in which there is no credible reform agenda which can deliver the social and economic progress citizens so urgently crave. The case for shared rules which prevent a race to the bottom, the exploitation of employees and unfair competition for business is stronger now than ever, but its enemies on the right and the left continue to attack and undermine it. It needs those who believe in the idea of shared progress to speak up and show urgency and ambition. Ireland must stop standing on the sidelines.
I agree with some of Deputy Micheál Martin's opening remarks on this process. It would be helpful in the next Dáil, if we are returned, for us to know exactly what the Irish position is in many of the negotiations taking place. If the Taoiseach were to impart that information, it would help the discussion we are having. It would also be useful for the people at home who are listening to it.
I understand Britain’s in-out referendum on membership of the European Union was discussed at the recent European Council meeting. A new Survation opinion poll - apparently it is the British equivalent of Red C - published in the Mail on Sundayshows support among British voters for leaving the European Union rising to 53%, while 47% want to stay within it. However, undecided voters were excluded from the count.
Sinn Féin firmly believes a British withdrawal from the European Union would represent a political and economic setback for Ireland and hinder the process of democratic transformation in the North. On 29 January the Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson will hold a conference in Belfast on the referendum, as well as on the Tory plan to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. It is welcome that the Taoiseach at the recent Council meeting raised the economic, social and political implications a Brexit would have for Ireland. There is support across the House on this issue. As the referendum will allow the views of English voters to dictate the future relationship of the North and, therefore, the island as a whole with the European Union, has the Taoiseach ever raised with the Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, the undemocratic nature of the referendum? This is not just an issue for the North because people in Scotland and perhaos a majority in Wales have a similar view. There is a rump in London that seems to be opposed to the European Union.
In Dáil statements made before the Council meeting Deputy Gerry Adams said climate change was one of the defining challenges facing society and that while the Paris agreement was a good step forward, it fell far short of what was needed to protect humanity from the growing environmental crisis created by our abuse of the planet and its natural resources. We have seen some of its disastrous consequences in recent weeks with the devastating floods that have affected the island and its people. The agreed conclusions to the meeting state the Commission and the Council will review the results of the Paris conference in March 2016 and prepare the next steps. Sadly, it is widely accepted that the State will not even reach the European Union’s 2020 target of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This is a bit of a farce with developed countries buying off less developed ones. It does not do anything to improve or save our planet. We need to urgently review the State's commitment to reform in order to tackle climate change and reverse its current inaction because we are rapidly running out of time. We need a plan.
More than 1 million refugees arrived in the European Union last year by land and sea. It is the biggest crisis of forced displacement since the Second World War. I raised the issue at the pre-Council meeting discussion. One of the primary responses of the European Union was an agreement to resettle 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece. Considering the scale of need and the crisis, this was seen as a shockingly low number, yet to date only 322 refugees have been resettled. I raised this issue personally with the Taoiseach after the debate. There is something radically wrong when only 322 refugees have been resettled across the European Union. In contrast to the slow pace of joint projects, EU countries have taken snap unilateral measures, including border lock-downs in the heart of the Schengen free travel zone and tighter asylum laws in Denmark, Germany and Sweden. While the current EU President, the Netherlands, is shepherding the process, the next EU President, Slovakia, which will takes over in July wants to tear down the 160,000 person relocation scheme and has lodged a case against the plan at the European Court of Justice. We are in the middle of one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world and the European Union is simply failing to act in a unified manner and is making the position worse. The State has been asked to take in only 20 refugees under the programme. What is the failure here? What is wrong with the system? Ireland agreed to accept 2,600 refugees.
Some aid agencies are reporting that many new arrivals are reluctant to apply for asylum in Greece or Italy, a prerequisite for entering the relocation scheme, either because they fear they will be stuck in these countries or because they do not wish to move to certain EU member states. That is understandable considering the hostility in some states shown to people from different backgrounds. What solutions to this problem did the Taoiseach propose at the Council meeting? The Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Dara Murphy, might reflect on this and give us some more information in his response.
The International Organization for Migration has stated 31,244 migrants and refugees have arrived in Greece by sea since the start of the year - 21 times more than in the same period last year. The organisation states projections indicate the number of arrivals in Greece in 2016 "may significantly exceed" last year's record figure of 853,650.
There is a general acceptance that this crisis is not going away. Many European politicians, particularly those on the right, want to close their eyes and somehow wish away this problem or are seeking to shift the problem onto the shoulders of others. There is a lack of solidarity with those countries on the front line, particularly Greece and Italy. Their solutions are not grounded in reality. We need to act with unity in providing these refugees and asylum seekers the protection and support they need.
In addition to the asylum seeker relocation programme, the Government has committed to taking in 520 refugees under a UNHCR programme. According to reports, 176 refugees entered this State in 2015 under this programme and yet the Government has committed to receiving 4,000 people under relocation and resettlement programmes by the end of 2017. How many refugees does the Minister of State expect Ireland to accept in 2016? There was widespread support across the State but the process seems to have dragged on. At one point, thousands of people were offering accommodation but we do not seem to be following up on that.
It is a pity the Taoiseach has had to leave the Chamber, as I now wish to raise the issue of Turkey. For months, the Turkish army has been running an operation, with special police forces, of unprecedented violence against towns located in Kurdish regions of the country. Some 10,000 soldiers, supported by tanks and helicopters, have been mobilised for this offensive which virtually turned the country's south-eastern region into a war zone. The repression has escalated further in urban areas of the region, reaching a level unprecedented since 2002, with more than 50 curfews in 18 Kurdish cities and districts.
Elected representatives, including from the HDP which received more than 10% of the votes during the last legislative elections, have been particularly targeted as well as more than 1,200 academics and lecturers who signed a petition denouncing these operations. A well-known human rights lawyer, o Elçi, was assassinated recently.
This violence, affecting more than 1 million people, has already led to the exodus of more than 200,000 inhabitants from the region. The conflict's main victims are civilians, with 360 killed as of 13 January, including 61 children and 73 women.
In his speech, the Taoiseach spoke about Turkey being an important partner but our partner seems to have gone rogue given what is happening in that region. Does the Government have any concerns about the Turkish Government's approach to its large Kurdish population? It does not seem to be within the framework of any rule of law, including Turkish law, including respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights.
Would the Minister of State not agree that indiscriminate military operations and the systematic use of curfews represent an unacceptable collective punishment? During this window of opportunity, will the Taoiseach raises these issues, including the tactics used in Turkey, with his Turkish counterpart? The Minister of State might have an opportunity to do so also.
Turkey is also included among what the EU is calling "safe countries of origin", which allow the asylum application process to be streamlined and applicants returned to their country of origin faster. People have concerns about Turkey’s inclusion on this list. Turkey does not meet any of the criteria, especially that of a fair application of the law within a democracy, into addition to concerns over the ongoing persecution, torture and violence that the state is conducting. Some 23.1% of people who left Turkey to claim asylum have a well-founded application. Those figures raise concerns. That is a huge number for a country of so-called "safe origin".
I note that once again, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not raised at this Council meeting. It seems that this issue, including the huge suffering of the Palestinian people, has for whatever reason dropped off the EU agenda. Since the last EU statement on the conflict in July 2015, Israel has advanced 2,410 new housing units for illegal colonial settlements.
Peace Now, an Israeli NGO, says that the Israeli government is planning to build 67,000 more illegal settlements. Will the Taoiseach and his Department raise these concerns as the prospects of creating a two-state peace process are disappearing? Will the Taoiseach ensure that Israel and Palestine will be discussed at the next European Council meeting in February? In the final days of this Government, will he abide by the motions passed in the Dáil and Seanad, and in line with the wishes of the vast majority of Irish people, to formally recognise the state of Palestine?
Tens of thousands of Polish citizens have taken to the streets in protest at the alarming anti-democratic measures of the new government there. Does our Government have concerns about that? The new Polish Government has taken control of public TV, radio and print media by firing previous directors. I am worried about the direction in which some European countries are going. Has that matter been raised at meetings with our European counterparts?
Those are some of the concerns I have. It would be helpful if Ireland's position on many such issues was clearly outlined. We should be told whether such arguments were made and if they were successful. We should not have to trawl through records to try to discover the Irish position. We should know exactly what the Irish position is on these issues when they arise, including what we said and argued for. That would reassure people at home, especially those who are sceptical about the direction in which Europe is going. Many people in Ireland would like to see Europe moving in a far different direction.
I, too, am concerned about recent events in Europe. During the lifetime of this Dáil, we have argued with our Government that it would be good to put a lot more effort into working for peace and taking a neutral position, rather than taking sides in wars and facilitating the American war machine.
Some years ago, Europe had a more neutral position in terms of what was happening internationally than it has at present. I find its approach to many things now is worrying. Europe's failure to address the Palestinian issue has been evident for a long time. The manner in which we have dealt with Saudi Arabia is also worrying. This month, 47 people were executed in Saudi Arabia, 43 of whom were beheaded. I do not remember hearing any protest by our Government or other western governments about that but maybe I missed it. What Saudi Arabia is doing is similar to what ISIS does. God knows, people are right to condemn the barbaric nature of ISIS but I wish they would also condemn the barbaric nature of Saudi Arabia in much of what it does.
The current war in Yemen is really worrying and what is occurring there is absolutely terrible. Every human rights body on the planet has condemned what Saudi Arabia and the US-Britain supported coalition is doing there. The Minister of State probably does not remember but a few weeks after Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize, he ordered a cruise missile strike in Yemen complete with cluster bombs.
It ended the lives of 35 women and children, none of whose humanity was acknowledged in virtually any western media reports.
Last year the marketplace in Fayoush in Yemen experienced a massive airstrike that killed at least 45 civilians, wounding another 50. We can be sure that none of the victims was profiled in western media. Their names were not mentioned. No television network interviewed their grieving families. We never learnt about their extinguished life aspirations or the children turned into orphans. There was no Twitter hashtag in memory or support of them. This was an horrific bombing and there have been many others. Given that the war started only last March, to date just under 3,000 civilians have been killed by airstrikes supported by the US, Britain and Saudi Arabia - the so-called coalition, along with support from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
I do not understand why we do not have a position on this. Are we okay with it? The statistics coming out of Yemen are striking. Along with the Saudi coalition’s bombing campaign, American warships have also helped to enforce a naval blockade. According to the UN, this collective punishment has left the country on the brink of famine, with desperate shortages of food, medical supplies and fuel which is used for pumping increasingly scarce water from the depths of the country’s depleted water tables. To the best of my memory it has a population of approximately 27 million people. Four out of five Yemenis are now in need of humanitarian assistance and we have very little to say about it. Europe has very little to say about it because Saudi Arabia is a friend of the US.
What kind of credibility do we have if we will not call a spade a spade? We are right to condemn the atrocities of ISIS, but why are we not condemning the atrocities of Saudi Arabia? Last year the Saudis bought 22,000 bombs from the Americans at a cost of $1.2 billion. They are cluster bombs in nature. This afternoon I watched a scary video showing how they work. People should look at it because the way they spread and target multiple areas is barbaric. One dropped from an aeroplane can hit ten or 12 buildings at a time. It is horrific. The Minister of State should watch it to bring home the barbarity of it all.
In 2014, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation visited Saudi Arabia. After the meeting the Taoiseach said, "I congratulated Saudi on their leadership in terms of moderation here in the Gulf region and their desire for a peaceful situation on a lot of very complex and technical issues." The Taoiseach also said that he raised the issue of human rights by offering his congratulations to the prince on being invited to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. My God, we are congratulating these people.
I think people are starting to accept that the Turks represent a serious problem in the region given how they have been massacring the Kurds. They have actually helped ISIS to develop. ISIS uses the Turkish border like a sieve and Turkey is okay with it because its main concern is the Kurds and it is using this situation to obliterate as many Kurds as it can.
When will people wake up to the fact that the Saudis are every bit as big a problem if not a bigger problem? Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have helped fund ISIS and other extreme fundamentalist terrorist activities for a long period. It is unbelievable that everyone is okay with that. Some 16 of the 19 involved in the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York were from Saudi Arabia, but the Americans went and bombed Afghanistan and are still bombing it.
We talk about atrocities. How many people has ISIS killed since 2006? Has it killed 10,000 or 100,000? I do not know. It is not more than 100,000 for sure. Figures now show that the US military machine and the US and western forces have killed in the region of 2.1 million civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq alone since 2001. Where is the terror coming from? Who is causing the most terror? Who is killing the most people? Why can we not call the truth? What is wrong with that anymore? It is just horrific.
The arms industry has never been in such a healthy state. It is running out of cluster bombs and cruise missiles. Shares in arms companies are increasing rapidly because so many arms are being used. It is interesting that in President Obama's two election campaigns, the arms industry gave him more money than it gave his Republican opponents. His four biggest contributors were the arms, pharmaceutical, oil and coal industries. One gets nothing for nothing in this world and payback always comes. If the US were not dropping bombs on people's homes and villages, the arms industry would not be doing very well. It would not be making as many bombs, fighter planes and God knows what. I wish to God Ireland would just call it as it is and tell the truth. It is just too bad.
The Government's abject failure to behave as a sovereign nation and put its stamp on a different type of foreign policy for the EU is incredibly disappointing for many people. The EU is now complicit in the world being much more unsafe and unstable than it has been at any time previously. Not only is Europe turning a blind eye, it is actually profiting from that.
From the Taoiseach's earlier statement, it is quite clear that the Council meeting spent a considerable amount of time dealing with the so-called problem of refugees. However, the reality is that the refugees have a European Union problem rather than the other way around.
We all know it was a record-breaking year for people smugglers in Europe, making about €5.5 billion from exploiting the misery of people fleeing from war. Some 90% of refugees who manage get to Europe do so with the help, if one could call it that, of a smuggler, being exploited to the tune to the tune of €3,000 to €5,500. We know the reports of the abuses, the kidnappings, the sinking of boats and the horrors endured on these journeys. There is no secret about that horror and the people making the journey know they are putting themselves at risk at the price of their whole life's savings.
Why are they doing it if they know the risks? They are doing it because what they are escaping from is even worse. Their families are being murdered. Their homes are being annihilated and they are starving to death in some instances. This is a consequence of western wars and invasions. That is why they are fleeing. The EU has set up a system whereby people cannot claim asylum in Europe without reaching Europe first. They can only do it illegally and by putting themselves at the hands of smugglers and so on. Many organisations have highlighted the EU's failure to operate a humanitarian visa system.
The EU's response, namely, the so-called war on smugglers which at one stage was going to launch military strikes against them, is going to be just as ineffective as the war on drugs and terror with the victims ending up being revictimised.
It is disgusting that the EU has moved back to the position of concentrating efforts on preventing and discouraging people from attempting to get into EU territory rather than dealing with issues such as humanitarian visas. Why can this not be done? Has the Government raised this at European meetings? Small consular outposts could be created outside of the European Union in countries such as Libya. Obviously, the routes migrants take change but the posts could be moved around with them. At these posts, people could have their applications for asylum assessed and be issued with a humanitarian visa. They could then get a boat or airplane into the EU rather than having to venture forward illegally.
Not only has the issue of humanitarian visas to be addressed but the Dublin regulation has to go. We should be championing that. It has been a disgusting provision which the Government has milked a little bit. The Government should be pushing for an end to the closure of land borders as these are far safer for people than crossing the Mediterranean in a leaky boat. I am interested to hear what was said on this matter at the Council.
Dealing with the people who end up here is only one matter. We could be doing much better in this regard. The key issue is what we are doing as a neutral State to raise the issue of western military interventions which are the ultimate cause for the scale of the crisis that is unfolding. Has the Government pushed for an end to air strikes and other interventions? Has it raised the issue that these matters need to be debated? If it has not done so, why? As a neutral country we should be raising the despicable role of Turkey, which has facilitated the growth of ISIS for its own opportunistic and strategic goals vis-à-visSyria as well as having a role in the plight of the Kurdish population there. Why is the Government not doing so? I think I know the answer and Deputy Wallace has highlighted it. It is because the Government is putting economic interests, trade deals and deals with these people above the human rights of others. It is just not good enough. It is not in the interest of the Irish people or those who support our neutrality. The Government should be doing better rather than being an Uncle Tom to the EU which is ultimately playing that role to US imperialism.
Has the undemocratic nature of the Brexit been discussed with the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron?
To date only 322 refugees have been resettled, meaning these humanitarian schemes are clearly failing. What solutions is the Government putting forward for this? Is there any idea of the number of refugees coming to Ireland in 2016?
On the role of Turkey against the Kurds, along with curfews imposed, will concerns about this partner - this rogue partner - be raised in the future? Much money, almost €3 billion, is being pumped into that whole region. What about the ongoing issue with Israeli settlements?
Germany's finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has proposed an EU-wide tax on petrol to cover the costs of the refugee crisis and, specifically, to secure the Schengen external borders. Again, he has not given any details as to how the tax would be collected and if Brussels would be in charge of the moneys raised. Has the Cabinet discussed this proposal? What is Ireland's view on this?
The Syrian conflict is creating the bulk of refugees, yet many countries have helped intensify the conflict by providing arms and covert support to militant groups in the region. I note the issue was discussed at the Council meeting and I welcome the statement supporting a political process to bring peace to the country. Will Ireland play any part in the Syria conference to be held in London in February?
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, was referred to in flowery and positive language. Has there any been Council discussions about the potential lawsuit being brought by TransCanada against the US Government? TransCanada is suing the US Government to the tune of $15 billion because it had to cancel plans to build its environmentally disastrous Keystone XL pipeline. Two lawsuits against the US Government will not take place under US law or in the US courts but, apparently, under the secret arbitration process, ISDS, the investor-state dispute settlement. Have any concerns been raised about what this process holds for EU governments if we push ahead with TTIP?
On the question on whether the decision that will be taken by way of referendum, possibly in June, by the people of the UK is democratic or undemocratic is very subjective. It is not for us to comment. We are more than aware of the various break-ups of the UK with Northern Ireland and Scotland. It is not for us to comment on how the different elements of the United Kingdom may or may not vote. The reality is that there will be a referendum and all the people of the UK will have their say on it. It is a decision for the people of the United Kingdom to make. Of course, what comes following that and how different parts of UK will vote will be part of the debate that will take place after the vote. Our position remains absolutely categoric, however. We want the people of the United Kingdom to vote to stay in the European Union. We believe it is fundamentally in their own best interests. Clearly for Ireland, it is the case that we will be the most affected outside of the UK should it vote not to remain in the EU. It will also affect all the member states as well as the European Union itself.
On the question raised by Deputy Clare Daly about the number of people who have come into the country so far for both resettlement and relocation, it is fair to say, particularly with respect to relocation, that the pace across the European Union has been disappointing. Between both measures, we have committed to bringing in 4,000 people to Ireland. To date, only with respect to resettlement, we have not seen any significant numbers. We are optimistic, however. We have people located in the hotspots trying to assist and ensure a significant number of people will come through to this country over the next couple of months. With respect to resettlement, which is coming from outside, I must correct a point made by Deputy Clare Daly. It is possible for people to apply for asylum outside of the European Union. That is our preferred way for people to come in. We hope, under resettlement over the next few months, to see more people, again in the hundreds, coming to this country. We accept the points raised by the Deputies that the system is nowhere close to being as efficient as it should be. The European Union collectively needs to ensure the target of achieving 160,000 people, who can come properly into the European Union through both measures, starts to happen quickly.
With respect to the Deputy's question about Turkey, on which Deputy Wallace commented, we must remember that Turkey is a very important partner for the European Union, especially in the current context of the migration crisis. Notwithstanding some of the criticisms, we must continue to work with Turkey. An EU-Turkey joint action plan, agreed on 29 November, is designed to help Turkey in providing for the refugees in its territory and also to prevent uncontrolled migration from Turkey across to the European Union. There is a €3 billion fund for supporting Syrian refugees who are based there. Again, implementation of this will be key both for Turkey and the European Union. There have been some positive moves since 29 November, including the opening of Chapter 17, which is with respect to Turkey's EU accession. Many of the issues that have been raised and some of the concerns will be addressed through the various chapters of the ongoing Turkish accession negotiation. Frans Timmermans, the First Vice President of the Commission, recently met the Turkish Ministers for foreign affairs and justice to discuss the need to speed up some of these measures, which will address some of the concerns that have been raised.
With respect to comments made by Wolfgang Schäuble, I would hazard a guess that they have not been discussed at Cabinet. The Deputy will be aware that taxation remains a national competence in any event. I am aware of the media reports about his comments with respect to various taxation measures, but I am not aware that it has been considered or discussed at Cabinet. The Deputy will be aware that I am not a member of Cabinet.
I inadvertently consulted the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on this earlier and thought there would be more questions, but that is a genuine oversight on my part. On the summit and the Council meeting and the deal and discussions between the European Union and Turkey in terms of seeking to prevent people leaving the camps to travel to Europe, in the overall context has the Government a position on what is happening in Turkey? The issues that are emerging are of growing concern. There were bombs in Istanbul which killed nine tourists. There has been a drift from essential democratic norms in a number of areas in terms of the Turkish Government applying pressure to independent media and a growing indifference to minority rights. What was the contribution of the Irish Government or that of the Taoiseach to the summit in regard to those issues and what is the state of play in that relationship?
With respect to the ongoing tensions between Turkey and Russia and the shooting down of a plane prior to Christmas which received global attention, was that discussed in any great detail at the summit? Is the Taoiseach confident that all diplomatic efforts are being made by the European Union to ease tensions?
In terms of our bank debt, which the then Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore described in 2012 as being a game changer, will the Minister of State confirm that it is now the Government's position that there will be no retrospective relief on debt and that essentially this chapter is closed despite what the Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Howlin, and the Taoiseach said in 2012? We never really sought any debt relief and we have now closed the chapter in terms of seeking any debt relief in terms of Anglo Irish Bank, given that the European Union and the European Central Bank in particular were adamant that no bank should fail and that bondholders would not be burned. That is what happened when Jean-Claude Trichet told the Minister, Deputy Noonan, that a bomb would go off and that it would not be in Frankfurt but in Dublin. Is that chapter finally closed in terms of the debt issue?
In regard to Ukraine, will the Minister of State explain why the conclusions of the summit are disturbingly silent and is a softly-softly approach now emerging in terms of the relationship with Russia, with Ukraine being left without any support?
The Deputy is correct in that the internal situation in Turkey is a matter of serious concern. As the Deputy will be aware, the conflict between the Turkish Government and the PKK restarted in July 2015 when 180 civilians were killed. We are aware there are some serious human rights concerns. Ireland strongly condemns the horrific suicide terrorist attacks, the bombings in Ankara in October which killed 102 people and bombings in Istanbul where 12 people were killed this month. The latest European Commission report on the accession process has noted a number of concerns, including with regard to significant shortcomings affecting the independence of the judiciary, as the Deputy mentioned, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Ireland continues to raise concerns in this regard, including most recently at the Council of Europe in December and with our European partners, and there will be ongoing dialogue with Turkey.
The question with respect to Russia was briefly discussed at the European Council. My understanding is the Taoiseach did not contribute.
With respect to the Deputy's question on debt, I have attended this House over the past year and a half and the Deputy consistently seems to forget that the terms of the bailout that was negotiated by his party's Government, the promissory note being one example, would have cost many tens of billions of euro more than is currently the position with the renegotiation of the terms, the extension of the maturities, the extension of the terms of many of the loans and the reduction of interest rates. By any objective analysis, having regard to the work that was done with the troika programme given the disastrous economic position in which this country was left, it is clear that the Government, especially the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach, worked very effectively with our European partners to identify ways for the fiscal position of this country to be where it is. As the Deputy will be aware, there is still a small gap of less than 3% between what this country collects in income and what we spend, but the Deputy will remember when that when his party was last in government this country economically was on its knees. When he brings up the issue of the fiscal position of this country at this stage at the end of the Government's term of office, he would do himself great credit to acknowledge the extraordinary journey this country has made over the past five years under the stewardship of the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, the Tánaiste, Deputy Joan Burton and others.
The chapter, as the Deputy will well know, will read well for the Government and the previous chapters will continue to read horrendously badly for the stewardship of the Deputy's party in government.
I remember being phoned by Deputy Niall Collins the day before that, but we will talk another day about that matter - the integrity of the Fianna Fáil Party.
I am very much pleased to wrap up this debate on the December European Council. Some areas were not touched on in the questions and answers. The Taoiseach said that I would focus on energy union and a forward-looking climate policy.
As expected, the European Council discussions dealt with both the historic agreement reached in Paris on climate change and the legislative package needed to advance the energy union project, which had been endorsed by energy Ministers in November.
It is worth welcoming again in this House the new Paris agreement, which sets the framework for a truly global response to the enormous challenge of climate change. The December meeting of the European Council gave a clear endorsement of this achievement and rightly congratulated France in particular for its presiding role in COP21. The European Council agreed to request an assessment of COP21 and the next steps in light of the 2030 climate and energy framework in particular. The Commission, with the Council, will prepare this in advance of the European Council next March. There are 196 signatories to the Paris agreement. It is both ambitious and legally binding and puts all countries in a position to take significant action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to build resilience. All actors and all stakeholders, from the private sector to citizens to civil society, can clearly see that governments are serious about the challenge of global warming and about taking the necessary steps to confront it together.
Collectively, we are now committed to keeping the rise in global temperature to well below 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and also to keeping the more stringent target of below 1.5° Celsius in sight. The agreement strengthens the financial and technical supports necessary for the most vulnerable countries and, crucially, through its transparency mechanism, ensures that each country can have confidence in the others' progress.
We can be proud that Ireland played a key part within the EU’s very effective negotiations in Paris. In the coming months, the EU will look at how each member state will contribute to achieving our collective obligation as set out in the EU climate and energy targets for the year 2030. I want to recall once again that Ireland has been clear and consistent in wanting a fair and achievable target that does not place a disproportionate burden on any one country but allows every country to play its part.
As expected, the December European Council encouraged swift implementation of the Commission’s energy strategy as set out in the energy union package. The goal of this package is to achieve an energy resilient Union with a forward-looking climate policy. To achieve this, the energy union encompasses a wide range of policy areas, including climate, transport, industry, research, the digital economy and agriculture. We in Ireland strongly support energy union. As a poorly interconnected member state, it is critical for us that we diversify the routes and sources of our energy and put in place appropriate supporting infrastructure. Regional co-operation will assist us in achieving EU-wide market integration and will further contribute to unlocking the full potential of renewables.
In the discussions at the December European Council, several member states raised the proposed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline which would create a second direct link from Russia to Germany. The Commission is considering the proposal and will give its opinion in due course. Under the energy union legislative framework, member states will be required to produce national energy and climate plans by 2019. By definition, these plans will be closely linked with work on achieving the EU’s targets for 2030 under the climate and energy framework. In Ireland’s case, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act has set work in progress on the development of a national mitigation plan and a national adaptation plan. The launch of our new White Paper on energy sets the framework for Ireland’s transition to a low carbon economy and society by 2050 and aligns fully with the principles set out in the energy union strategy. I thank Deputies for their contribution.