Tuesday, 22 March 2016
European Council Meeting: Statements
I wish to express my deepest sympathy to the victims of the horrific bomb attacks that took place in Brussels this morning. These acts were utterly indiscriminate and an attack on our society and democratic values. I condemn them in the strongest possible terms, as I also condemn the attacks in Mali last night. Those who seek to use death and violence in this way must be confronted, will be confronted and will be defeated. Reports are still coming in from Brussels and our embassy there is seeking to establish further details about the loss of life and serious injuries. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is monitoring the situation very carefully and has activated its incident centre to deal with queries. The relevant contact details have been made available to the media and the public. Our thoughts are with the people in Brussels, the families of those who have lost their lives and those who were injured and, of course, the many Irish citizens living and working there, including many Irish public servants.
The European Council met twice recently, on 18 and 19 February and on 17 and 18 March. There have also been two EU summits with the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, both held in March. Therefore, I would like to focus my remarks today the two main areas addressed by these two meetings, namely, the EU-UK relationship and the recent discussions with Turkey on the migration crisis. I will also touch on the discussion of important economic issues. I have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, to outline in his wrap-up statement broader developments in regard to migration that have been discussed at these European Council meetings, as well as some other issues addressed last week.
I note on 18 March, the European Council also adopted conclusions on climate and energy, recalling the need to reinforce energy security and sign and ratify the Paris agreement as soon as possible, as well as agriculture and the steel sector. In February the European Council also adopted conclusions on Syria and Libya. The Council conclusions agreed in February and March have been laid before the House for Deputies.
I wish first to address an issue of great strategic relevance to Ireland, that is, the UK's relationship with the European Union. This is also of great international interest. I was pleased to have the opportunity to update President Obama on the latest devolvements when I met him in the White House on 15 March. As I have said on many occasions, Ireland's approach to EU negotiations on this issue, which culminated in the new settlement last month, was consistently constructive and very pragmatic. We have also been very clear that we believe the UK's continued membership of the European Union is in our best interests and those of the EU as a whole.
Discussions at the February meeting of the European Council were lengthy and detailed, as there were many complex and sensitive issues to be addressed. The objective was to reach an agreement which allowed Prime Minister Cameron to launch his campaign for the UK to remain in the Union, while also being acceptable to EU partners. The agreement actually achieved these aims. In my intervention at the European Council, I acknowledged the work of President Tusk, President Junker and their teams in preparing a balanced and detailed text for discussion.
I outlined the importance of the issue for Ireland and for the Union as a whole. I emphasised the wider benefits to us all of some of the reforms under discussion, as well as of the United Kingdom's continued membership of the Union, and I urged partners to support Prime Minister Cameron in seeking to secure agreement.
The Decision of Heads of State and Government that emerged on 19 February is a binding agreement under international law and, as such, it was registered with the United Nations in New York on 24 February. Some of the measures will be implemented by amending existing EU regulations while others, for example, those regarding economic governance and sovereignty, will be incorporated into the EU treaties whenever the treaties are next being amended.
The measures agreed were in four key areas, namely, economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and social benefits. On economic governance, principles were agreed to ensure a balanced and equitable relationship between the eurozone and non-eurozone member states such as the UK. Ireland's position, while supporting this objective, was also to ensure that the euro area has the capacity to do what is necessary to ensure financial stability and economic growth. However, it must also act in full respect of the Single Market and of the integrity of the Union as a whole, and without prejudice to the interests of other member states. We were satisfied that the agreement delivers on these important points.
Under the competitiveness heading, it was clear from the outset that Ireland shared the UK's enthusiasm for reform in this area. The agreement commits the European Union to further strengthening the Internal Market, including the Digital Single Market, where Ireland has been particularly active. The agreement also contains new mechanisms and commitments to review and, as far as possible, reduce regulatory requirements and to accelerate work on international trade agreements, including the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, TTIP, which probably will not now be concluded before the American presidential election.
On sovereignty, the language agreed regarding "ever closer union" struck a careful balance between the British requirement that it be clear that it was not committed to further integration and the importance that many partner countries attach to this integration. There was also agreement on a so-called "red card" procedure, which enhances the role of national parliament measures to prevent abuse of free movement.
Finally, on social benefits, after lengthy negotiations agreement was reached in two key areas: child benefit and in-work benefits. On child benefit, our programme for Government already contained a commitment to modifying this to reflect the cost of living in the member state where a child resides, so Ireland was supportive of the concept of indexation. The measure, which will be open for any member state to implement, will apply in respect of the children of all new EU workers, and of existing EU workers after a four year period. From Ireland's perspective, the question of whether we would seek to avail of this mechanism is for a future Government decision, when the appropriate financial and administrative factors have been considered.
On labour migration, a safeguard mechanism was agreed that would allow access to in-work benefits to be limited for a total period of up to four years. The measure is designed to reduce the pull factor of the distinctive UK social welfare system and the intention is that it applies to the UK only, certainly at this stage. Like other partners, Ireland was insistent throughout the negotiations that any changes in this area would not undermine fundamental principles such as freedom of movement or equal treatment. In this respect, the decision was prepared in full consultation with the Council and the Commission legal services and has been judged by them to be compatible with all the treaties.
Although it was not raised in the negotiations at EU level, the Government is aware of the possible implications of these changes for Irish workers in the UK. I assure the House that this matter has been raised with our British counterparts, including in my own discussions with Prime Minister Cameron. The UK Administration is therefore well aware of our concerns and is sympathetic to them. The unique status of the Irish in Britain over very many years is fully recognised. This issue will have to be taken forward by the next Government as a detailed scheme is prepared.
After the European Council, the British Government announced that the referendum will take place on 23 June - three months and a day from now. As we are all aware, a vigorous debate is under way. The outcome is of course in the hands of the UK electorate. However, I believe it would be appropriate that efforts continue to ensure that the Irish perspective is explained and presented to them. I hope that voters, including the Irish in Britain and the people of Northern Ireland, will be very much aware of our close economic ties, the importance of the EU to the development of Northern Ireland, and the importance of the EU partnership between Ireland and Britain.
I will say a few words on the European Union's engagement with Turkey, which was the focus of the European Council on Thursday and Friday of last week. These discussions were framed by the set of principles agreed at the previous meeting, on 7 March, with the Turkish Prime Minister. In the interim, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, advanced work to elaborate the details of a potential agreement to ensure that partners' concerns were addressed and that the proposed deal was compatible with EU and international law. The joint statement agreed commits Turkey to readmit from Greece all irregular migrants and protect them in accordance with international standards, to tackle people smugglers, and to help prevent new migratory routes to the European Union from opening up. As of last Sunday, the new rules will apply to all new irregular migrants, and it is planned that implementation will start in a couple of weeks.
For its part, the EU will resettle Syrians currently in Turkey on a one-for-one basis where other Syrians are returned from Greece. This is to be within the framework of commitments already made, in our case up to an overall ceiling of 4,000 people. Visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens travelling to the Schengen countries will be accelerated, as will preparations to open new EU accession negotiation chapters, but in both cases existing criteria will continue to apply. If the one-for-one scheme is working, the EU is also committed to deciding on further financial assistance for refugees in Turkey in addition to the €3 billion already agreed. We also agreed to work together to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria so that safe areas might be established there.
The core intention of the agreement is to break the business model of people smugglers who are profiting seriously from the suffering of the vulnerable, and to stop migrants attempting the treacherous journey across the Aegean Sea. We know this agreement alone will not resolve the crisis. It will not stop people leaving Syria and it will not prevent people from wanting to come to Europe, but it should help us to manage the flow of asylum seekers more effectively, more humanely and, obviously, more fairly. Critically, it should stop people getting into unsafe boats and risking their very lives. Implementation, therefore, will be crucial, and both Greece and Turkey have to take important measures. The European Commission has already presented the first analysis of what is needed to help Greece deliver on the deal and is now actively considering with member states how to clarify and respond to the needs of a large number of personnel with a range of expertise. Ireland will make its contribution to this collective effort and we are urgently considering how best to do so. The need to comply with international law was at the heart of the discussions. The legal advice of the EU institutions is that there is such compliance. This is also the view of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has, however, emphasised the need to ensure that all commitments are met.
I should note that I used the opportunity of the summit to tell the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr. Davutoğlu, about the concerns raised by the aid agency GOAL about the possible closure of the border crossing between Turkey and north-western Syria at Bab aI-Hawa. Every month, 500 trucks cross this border crossing and service 1 million people in Syria. I outlined for him the humanitarian aid transported across the border, to which this country is a very significant contributor, and said that if it closed people's lives would be endangered and more people would be encouraged to cross into Turkey. The Prime Minister acknowledged these concerns and gave me his assurance that the Bab aI-Hawa crossing would not close.
The EU has also made clear that Turkey's desire to progress towards EU membership cannot be realised without meeting all the standards and benchmarks that European Union membership requires. Of course, the agreement with Turkey is only one part of a multifaceted response to an unprecedented migration crisis, which has also included extensive co-operation with other regional areas in the western Balkans and in Africa. The Union has engaged in serious efforts to develop a comprehensive response to the crisis, with many difficult discussions along the way. The Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, will elaborate on these aspects.
In February, the European Council agreed that economic policy should have a threefold emphasis: relaunching investment, putting in place structural reforms to modernise European communities, and ensuring responsible public finances. These remain the right priorities for supporting growth and jobs over the period ahead. The discussion last week was aimed at providing further guidance to member states.
In the run-up to the European Council meeting the Commission produced individual country reports and in-depth reviews of member states, including Ireland. In general, our report was very positive. It underlines that a broad-based economic recovery is under way. The issues which it highlights, both economic and social, such as housing and increased investment in infrastructure are well known to all Deputies.
The European Council also committed to further implementation of all aspects of the Single Market. This includes delivering on the Commission's Single Market and capital markets union strategies but also on the digital Single Market, which is key for Ireland and on which we insisted. Ireland has strongly supported the further deepening of the Single Market and the digital Single Market with a view to exploiting their untapped growth and productivity potential.
These two meetings of the European Council addressed a diverse range of issues, although the focus was very much on migration and the EU-UK issue. I look forward to hearing Deputies' comments and thank the Ceann Comhairle for his indulgence.
I commence my speech on the European Council meeting by again condemning the attacks in Brussels and extending our deepest sympathy to the families of those who have been bereaved and the many who have been wounded and injured. The reports are still coming in. It is an horrific attack on our institutions, democracy and fellow citizens across Europe and beyond. On another occasion it will be appropriate for the House to reflect on these happenings, with others, in what is a changing international environment and a continually evolving situation in respect of terrorist attacks that have as their sole objective the murder of innocent civilians and citizens across the globe, the creation of mayhem and the undermining of a values system that we cherish and hold dear as a country and union.
Five years ago, in March, a group of Syrian teenagers were arrested and tortured for writing graffiti that called for democracy in their country. The mass demonstrations this caused were brutally suppressed and the cycle of violence now called the Syrian civil war began. It has become the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history. Instead of engaging with its people, the Assad regime chose to suppress them brutally. As the United Nations has stated, from the very beginning war crimes have been committed, including the regular use of chemical weapons denounced as barbaric 100 years ago when deployed in the First World War. The role played by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in 2011 and 2012 in supporting President Assad in his refusal to allow a UN path to peace has been disastrous. Their targeting of attacks against moderate forces has helped the most repressive and radicalised elements to strengthen their position. The conflict, unfortunately, is testament to the weakening of international institutions and international co-operation in recent years. The use of Russian warplanes to bomb moderate forces, including Kurdish fighters who were successfully engaging the barbaric ISIS, is something even its most uncritical apologists have struggled to justify.
I hope peace talks will finally begin in a serious way. However, the first and absolute priority has to be aiding the victims of the conflict. Over 250,000 people have been killed and 11 million displaced, of whom over 4.5 million have left for other countries. They are living in desperate conditions in, at best, basic accommodation and with none of the social or economic facilities that might give them hope. There is no question that there is a refugee crisis. People in search of a future are leaving their homes and the camps. The pressures being faced in Europe are the inevitable outcome of five years of growing despair.
When we look at the scale of the crisis and the appalling humanitarian catastrophe involved, the outcome of last week's summit is, at best, inadequate and, at worst, shameful. The core agreement reached at the summit focused solely on trying to block the main migration route to Europe through tougher border controls enforcement.
This is to be achieved primarily through Turkey preventing refugees from leaving, in return for which the Turkish Government is to receive a range of long-sought demands. I will return to this deal in a moment, but the first thing that has to be said is that it is incredible that nearly two days were spent discussing the refugee crisis after which a communiqué was produced which makes almost no reference to the single most important factor: why these refugees are fleeing to Europe, which is, of course, the conditions they are living in having fled their homes. The absolute priority should be an emergency programme to ensure decent conditions for refugees. Unfortunately, this is not the priority. The United Nations and relief agencies continue to struggle for funding. They are pushed to the very limit to provide basic shelter, food and safe water for millions. There is a basic moral duty on us and on all countries to step up and do more. We must not agree with the idea that our focus should be just those who are seeking refuge in Europe.
Ireland is doing proportionately more than others but this is not enough. I believe we should immediately review our support programme, both our direct aid to organisations and the funding we provide to international bodies. We should work with other countries to set, cost and deliver at least basic standards of provision. Fianna Fáil continues to support increased funding for aiding the victims of the horrific conflict, and we call upon the Government to prepare proposals in conjunction with the main relief organisations for how this can be done. In addition, we believe that a further expansion in EU humanitarian support should be tabled at the Foreign Affairs Council.
The deal with Turkey concerning the handling of refugees seeking to travel to Greece was the dominant topic at the summit. What has emerged is highly unlikely to deliver significant benefits and it runs the risk of causing very serious damage to core principles of the European Union. Discouraging refugees from taking highly dangerous sea journeys is reasonable. However, linking this to visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and the speeding up of accession talks for Turkey sets a dangerous precedent. As Deputy Brendan Smith stated last week, we still oppose any measure which goes against clear legal obligations. Just as importantly, we insist that the European Union cannot compromise on core values which it demands of all members and of all countries that have automatic rights to access the Union.
For all the attacks on the Union which are made by its enemies on the extreme right and extreme left, it is a community of nations which respects the rule of law and upholds human rights to a level unmatched elsewhere in the world. Equally, these are the very values which mean that it is to Europe that so many are looking for refuge rather than to the countries which seek to undermine Europe. There is no way of looking at recent developments in Turkey and saying it is upholding core democratic values. The closing down of critical media is one part of what appears to be a growing intolerance to democratic ideals.
We must all stand in solidarity with the people of Turkey against the recent terrorist attacks. They and their Government are entitled to take strong action against those who clearly have no respect for the lives of innocent people. However, as has been shown elsewhere, the most effective way a democracy can combat terrorists is by upholding the rule of law.
Fianna Fáil is extremely concerned about developments in relation to the Kurdish population. The winning of seats in parliament by a party primarily backed by Kurds should have been welcomed as a positive development but was unfortunately treated as a threat. A long-term sustainable peace in Turkey requires a return to negotiations between the Government there and the main organisations representing the Kurdish people. The role of the PKK in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq is one which shows that it is an organisation which cannot be dismissed.
Few commentators have suggested that this deal will play a decisive role in reducing the number of refugees seeking to journey to Europe. What all have agreed is that elements of the deal have nothing whatsoever to do with refugees. However one wants to describe these demands by Turkey, the decision to agree to them makes last week's summit one which will not have an honourable place in the history of the Union.
On agricultural matters, these will be dealt with by Deputy Ó Cuív and others later today in a separate debate. The other items on the summit's agenda were merely formal. Leaders failed to have a substantive discussion about economic policy even though there are enormous concerns about deflationary pressures. The decision of the ECB to go further with extraordinary measures to try to lift economic demand should have caused some comments, yet the decision was to just keep ploughing on.
On Brexit, which was discussed at previous summits and which the Taoiseach referred to today, I am a little concerned about the Taoiseach's remarks about the situation of Irish workers in Britain. He is hinting or implying that there will be some unique bilateral deal done between the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of Irish workers in Britain. It needs to be set out more transparently and honestly whether it is possible under the EU framework to have a UK-Ireland bilateral deal that would be separate from every other set of relationships within the European Union. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach could forward me a paper on the matter and, indeed, circulate that to the House, because it is a significant issue coming down the tracks in terms of the changes that have been made to welfare and workers' entitlements and benefits, particularly how these affect Irish workers in Britain.
A number of countries, including Italy and France, have raised concerns about how the current fiscal rules are being applied and there have been calls for greater flexibility to be shown. Ireland should be supporting them in this rather than quietly going along with an approach which has manifestly failed to return Europe to sustainable growth. Ireland is doing well because of the core strengths of its economy built up over decades. It would have helped the outgoing Government if it had spent less time trying to sell a cynical story of post-2011 deliverance and more time talking about the long-term sources of growth for our country. Across Europe, unfortunately, there have been strong advocates for an orthodoxy of austerity for all, which has not worked. There are countries and circumstances where it is avoidable, but there are others where an expansionary approach, such as that seen in the United States, could be implemented and would work. Europe has been badly served by leaders going quietly along with pre-determined and inflexible plans. We still need leaders willing to show the level of urgency and ambition capable of addressing the social, economic and humanitarian crises facing our countries.
I extend my condolences, once again, and my party's sympathies to the families of those who were killed or injured in Brussels this morning and I condemn in the strongest possible terms these horrendous attacks. News is still emerging about the extent of the attacks and the scale of the casualties. I extend the solidarity of Sinn Féin to the people of Belgium at this difficult time.
I will limit my remarks on the European Council to the refugee crisis because the conclusions of the latest Council meeting make for sober reading. Since Sunday all so-called irregular migrants who arrive in Greece are supposed to be sent back to Turkey, a country with a deplorable human rights record and a history of discriminating against minorities. The Taoiseach agreed to this. We are being told that everyone will first be screened and that only those who are deemed to be what the European Union considers irregular will be sent back across the Aegean. More than 800,000 refugees landed on Greek islands last year, yet the Taoiseach now thinks that Greece can rapidly set up a functioning and quality refugee screening programme while 2,000 refugees a day continue to arrive on makeshift boats from Turkey. We are being told that there will be no mass expulsions and that international and European law will be respected, but does the Taoiseach really believe that Greece, which is dealing with the social and economic fallout of its disgraceful treatment by the Eurogroup, including Ministers of his own Government, will be able to process hundreds of thousands of asylum claims and appeals in record time while at the same time respecting European and international laws and standards? Why does the Taoiseach ignore the concerns of notable human rights organisations and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who stated that this deal will inevitably lead to human rights violations? Oxfam accused the EU of trading human beings for political concessions to Turkey, a country the EU has defined as a safe country of origin despite the mass human and civil rights violations that are being committed there.
The response to the refugee crisis has been inadequate. What is important for this Dáil and the people of this island is that the Taoiseach has agreed to it and is going along with it. It is a further attempt to shift the problem away from the EU and to close our eyes to what can only be described as a humanitarian catastrophe.
Last year, the agreed plan was to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy to other EU countries, and Sinn Féin supported it. The Taoiseach's announcement that the State would take in 4,000 refugees was a start to finding solutions, although we called on the Government to do more and to create more legal avenues for refugees to be resettled here. To date, only 885 people have been relocated to other European states and only a handful have been relocated here. This is a disgrace in the face of the humanitarian crisis that has been building up for years. As an island people, with our history of coffin ships, we should have more affinity with those who are fleeing devastating war, hunger and oppression to seek asylum in Europe.
Today, the Taoiseach repeated that he had agreed to improve humanitarian conditions and establish safe areas within Syria. More than 250,000 people have been killed in Syria and 11 million people have been displaced, almost twice the population of this entire island. What is the price of returning vulnerable and desperate people to the place from which they have tried to flee? The EU will pay Turkey €3 billion and offer to open a further chapter in accession talks, despite Turkey's continuing occupation of half of Cyprus and its continued and well documented violations of human rights.
The founding principles of the EU were to combat social exclusion and discrimination, promote social justice and protection, protect human rights, foster solidarity between generations and protect the rights of the child. The latest decisions of the European Council show up the reality of these principles in practice, when the Mediterranean Sea has been turned into a graveyard. The EU, with the Taoiseach's acceptance, is planning to deport vulnerable and desperate men, women and children to the lowest bidder.
Last year, Naval Service vessels engaged in humanitarian actions in the Mediterranean saved thousands of lives, and we are thankful for and very proud of them. Each day, more refugees continue to drown. When will the Government reallocate a Naval Service vessel to the region?
I, too, want to be associated with the condolences to the families of those killed and injured in Brussels this morning. These attacks bring into sharp focus why millions of people are fleeing the violence, conflict and terror in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world. The system by which these people and their families can get asylum, protection and safety is broken. We urgently need to fix it and create a system that will deliver a legal pathway for these vulnerable people.
A 70-page report was released by the European Court of Auditors on Thursday, 17 March, on the day the European Council meeting began. Unsurprisingly, it found that EU-funded migration projects in north Africa and eastern Europe have not achieved their goals and have largely ignored human rights. Was this element discussed at the meeting? It is another damning indictment of the EU's abject failures on the growing humanitarian and refugee crisis. The report noted that the return and readmission projects failed to deliver primarily because they were regarded by the receiving countries as part of the EU's security policy and that EU states neglected to prepare migrants for their return home. Due to a complete lack of oversight and accountability, the auditors have no real idea how much of the total €1.4 billion over the period was spent.
Jobs, growth and competitiveness was an important subject during the European Council meeting. Unfortunately, but again not surprisingly, it focused on completing the economic and monetary union, which will only further undermine the economic sovereignty of member states and try further to lock them into the disastrous economic and austerity models that have wreaked havoc on those on low and middle incomes across the EU.
My party colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, has secured documents released under the Freedom of Information Act that suggest that millions of euro, which were provided to Ireland through the European globalisation adjustment fund, EGF, had to be returned to the European Commission unspent. These funds were supposed to be spent on supporting workers who lost their jobs as a consequence of globalisation and €2.49 million was to be allocated for the 424 redundant Lufthansa Technik workers in Rathcoole, County Dublin. Considerably less than half of the Commission’s €2.49 million contribution will be spent, while the remaining €1.5 million will be returned to Brussels. Why is this money not being fully utilised and spent on education and training, not only for workers who have lost their jobs at Lufthansa Technik, but also to support hundreds, if not thousands, of other young people from Dublin Mid-West and Dublin South-West who are not in education, training or employment?
On Sunday, 6 March, Ibrahim Halawa's trial was postponed for the 13th time and is supposedly to take place on 26 June. He has been detained without charge for more than 32 months, and has increasingly faced inhumane and unacceptable treatment. Did the Taoiseach specifically raise Mr. Halawa’s case at the European Council meeting and did he seek the fully fledged support of other EU Heads of State to free this Irish and EU citizen? There are expressly clear grounds for Ibrahim’s immediate release under Egyptian law, so-called law 140. Has the Taoiseach encouraged any other EU Heads of State to lobby the Egyptian President for Ibrahim’s immediate release under this law?
There is a strong sense of disbelief that, as we discuss very important and vital European issues, we do so in the context of another terrorist atrocity striking at the heart of Europe. This morning's events in Brussels seem to be, yet again, the cold-blooded murder of innocent people. The clear objective behind the attacks is to destroy that which we cherish most, namely, our freedom. Families across Europe are worrying and praying for children and relatives. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Government will do everything it can to assist the people of Belgium and Irish citizens living there who may be affected in the hours and days to come.
The Schuman Declaration states:
Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.
We will not allow terrorism to destroy that solidarity. In the recent election campaign, the Labour Party made it very clear that we are, and will continue to be, very committed to the development of a social Europe of full employment, investment, social progress, social provision and equality for men and women. We believe Ireland will be strong and our interests best served when there is a strong Union.
The economic crisis, Europe's handling of it and the impact on citizens has severely tested the solidarity between EU member states. It has meant a retreat into an intergovernmental mind set, despite an increase in the EU's powerful transnational institutions. This has undermined the vision for the EU to become a leading political and economic powerhouse in the world.
It is, therefore, essential for the EU to enter a new phase of rebuilding its institutions, its infrastructure and its place in the life of all the citizens of Europe. Of course, the possibility of a British exit from the EU poses its own risks to this crucial mission. It is undoubtedly in the interests of Ireland and the EU as a whole for the UK to remain in the Union. This is a vital issue for the whole of the island of Ireland. We are commemorating 1916 this week. It is remarkable that 100 years later, through the development of the EU and its institutions, we now sit with the British as equals at the European table.
We believe the agreement that was reached at the February Council meets the political requirements of the UK Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, and is acceptable to all EU partners. I would like to refer briefly to an area of the agreement that falls under the remit of the Department of Social Protection. In the 2011 programme for Government, we committed to "raise the issue of payment of Child Benefit in respect of non-resident children at EU level". We did so because the bill in respect of non-resident children had increased significantly to a peak of €20.9 million in 2008. I raised the issue personally and in great detail with the Commissioner. The Union chose not to engage with the issue at that time despite strong efforts on the part of the Government, so we took another approach, namely, to ensure child benefit was paid only to families who legitimately had an entitlement to it. Rigorous checks were introduced and made under the Department's control and fraud prevention programmes. Customers of the Department whose children are resident abroad are now required to confirm their continued entitlement to the benefit every six months. This must include a statement from the person's employer confirming that he or she is employed in Ireland. As a result of this approach, the cost of paying child benefit in respect of non-resident children decreased by 39% to €12.7 million last year. This is an important saving for the State. I make no apologies for ensuring the payment goes only to those legitimately entitled to it. I have always championed our social welfare system as a safety net for those who need it most. That safety net is more important than ever in the current economic climate. However, it is precisely because the State's limited resources should go to those most in need that we must prevent any abuse of the system. As a result of the February Council meeting, the concept of indexation is now on the table. This would mean linking the rate of payment to the country in which the child resides. In my view, it is a much fairer system for every member state. The question of whether Ireland will seek to avail of this mechanism as it develops will be a matter for the next Government - taking account of financial and administrative factors - to decide upon.
I would like to turn to the issue of migration, which has been the focus of all the recent meetings. It is an unspeakable tragedy that men, women and children are dying daily in the Mediterranean. Sadly, the migration crisis has underscored the Union's inability to move at the required speed, which is one of its great weaknesses. The EU has engaged in some serious efforts to develop a comprehensive response but the implementation of key elements of that response has been tortuously slow. That is why the Government has placed a strong emphasis on the need to step up the implementation of agreed measures. At the recent Council meeting, agreement was secured with Turkey on a series of action points to end irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and to seek to reduce the power and, indeed, the profits of the people smugglers. This controversial agreement, which has attracted some criticism, seeks to save lives by tackling the people smugglers and deterring migrants from attempting the treacherous journey to Greece. They are the objectives that Europe is seeking to address. Time will tell how possible it will be to achieve much of what the agreement seeks. This agreement alone will not solve the crisis. If, however, it is properly and fairly implemented, it can be an important part of the EU's overall response. Ireland will play its part in all of this. We have consistently emphasised the importance of responding to the root causes of the migration crisis, as well as the humanitarian challenges posed by it.
Making peace in Syria has to be the primary objective of EU policy. Millions of people have been displaced and forced into exile. The vast majority of those who have had to flee for their lives want to see Syria at peace so they can return home to seek to rebuild their lives. That should be the central part of Irish and EU policy in this regard. Last September, we committed to admitting 4,000 people under the various resettlement and relocation programmes. When I spoke about that figure previously, I said I would like the focus with regard to resettlement in this country to be on families with children. Furthermore, when people resettle here, I would like there to be a focus on language skills, particularly those relating to English, and on helping people to obtain employment. We have provided significant humanitarian assistance to Syria. We had given €42 million by the end of 2015 and we will further increase our level of humanitarian assistance this year. We are very proud of our Naval Service, which has saved the lives of more than 8,500 people, and we will participate in further humanitarian efforts to save people in the Mediterranean. This may well be a matter for the next Government. It is essential for the EU to continue to strengthen its response to this appalling humanitarian crisis. The pace of that response should be stepped up.
I want to start by expressing solidarity and sympathy with the people of Brussels following the awful and outrageous attacks that have taken place in an airport and at a train station there this morning. All of our hearts, minds and thoughts go to the people of that multicultural and cosmopolitan city, regardless of where they come from. Our thoughts are with them and their families. Our thoughts also need to be with the people of Istanbul, where a bombing earlier this month cost at least four people their lives and led to many others being seriously injured. It is important also to mention last month's car bomb in Baghdad, as a result of which 70 people lost their lives, because it has gone completely unmentioned and unnoticed by most people on the planet. All people's lives are valuable, regardless of whether they live in Brussels or Baghdad. We need to take note of that. All of these people are victims of terrorism and war. I just want to make a comment on that. I believe that, at present, the world is locked into a cycle of war on terrorism. There seems to be no break in that cycle. In fact, matters seem to be escalating all the time.
One of the priorities of any leader in the world today must be to find a way of breaking the cycle of countries engaging in occupation, war and intervention in parts of the world in which they have no business. This is the message that should go out from a so-called neutral country such as Ireland through the European Council. In this regard, Ireland could lead by example by refusing to allow Shannon Airport or any other utility in this country to be used for intervention and imperialist activity in other parts of the world.
On the substantive issue before us, perhaps the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, will say whether, at the European Council meeting - where, according to himself, he is well respected - he indicated, with as much vigour as did David Cameron in representing his people, that owing to the serious, extraordinary and unprecedented housing crisis in Ireland, the details of which we will discuss further later this afternoon, although I will mention that there were 700 families, including 1,500 children, in emergency accommodation last night, we will have to build at least 5,000 social houses each year for the next ten years, such that we will have to break its fiscal rules and do whatever it takes to ensure the human rights of our population. Has the Taoiseach ever done that? If not, why not? Would the Taoiseach not take a leaf out of David Cameron's book - although the latter's motives are more selfish - and determinedly represent the people of this country in terms of address of this crisis?
Ireland has promised to take in 4,000 refugees. However, it has so far taken in fewer than 300 refugees. While the knee-jerk reaction will be for people to ask why we are taking in refugees when we cannot look after or accommodate our own people, the response must be that we have to look after both the people of this country and the refugees in the current crisis. I have many friends in Syria. It is a country I have visited many times, and I loved it. While I have heard recently from many of my friends there, I have not heard from many others in the last four or five years. Some of them are stuck in the Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, where people are literally dying of famine. We have no idea of the suffering, treachery, rape, plunder, pillage, murder and terror visited on those people by proxy armies from Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime. These people, in their droves, risk drowning, misery or being encamped on borders for months on end with young children, and losing their families at sea, because that threat still exists, yet they are hopeful of a future for their families.
To say that the deal with Turkey with regard to the refugee crisis is any more than horse-trading is probably being a bit kind to that deal. According to The Financial Times, Turkey will get €6 billion, visa-free travel for its citizens and accelerated European Union membership. However, this does not mean that Turkey will comply with the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. It already has 3 million refugees inside its borders, most of whom are not living in organised camps but are scattered in towns, villages and rural areas, living in deep poverty. It is being said that Turkey is capable of taking in more refugees and that Europe is over-loaded, but the contrary is the case: Europe is one of the richest parts of this planet, but it has not done its fair share in taking in refugees.
I will conclude on this point. Those people about whom we are speaking, in the context of the removal of people from Greece and their return to Turkey, will be taken by force. These people, of whom there are approximately 46,000, will not go gently into the night; they did not cross the seas, risking life and limb and spending all of their money, and sit on the Macedonian border for months, only to agree to be returned to Turkey. There will be violence and state terrorism. This is already happening. If we stand over it, shame on Ireland. On the anniversary of the Easter Rising, shame on Ireland for voting for this agreement. I ask that the Taoiseach return to the European Council and withdraw Ireland's support for this outrageous agreement.
There have been many low points for the European Union over the past few years, including the campaign of terror unleashed against the Greek people for daring to stand up to the troika's austerity, the fiscal treaty outlawing any policies other than Thatcherism, and the silent coups led by the European Central Bank against the Greek and Italian Governments, but regardless of how low the Taoiseach and the other European leaders have previously gone, they have now managed to go lower with this agreement with Turkey. To be blunt, it is an agreement to breach the basic human rights of some of the most vulnerable people in the world, namely, those fleeing Syria. It is an agreement for the mass expulsion of refugees from Greece and an agreement to outsource keeping refugees out of Europe to an authoritarian regime with a record of ongoing and systematic abuse of human rights. It is an agreement to turn Turkey and, apparently, a supposedly safe area of Syria into a prison camp for those fleeing war in the Middle East.
I am sure that most of the leaders of the European Union look down their noses at the right-wing, anti-migrant populism of Donald Trump. I am sure they laugh at the idea of him saying that he will force Mexico to pay for the construction of a wall to keep migrants out, but they are no better than him. This agreement is the equivalent of paying Mexico to build a wall to keep migrants out. The European Union is agreeing to turn Turkey into a wall to keep migrants out to protect fortress Europe. The agreement is so bad that it breaches the European Union's own rules. Collective expulsions are prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights. The first sentence of the first point of the agreement states that all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as and from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey. In what world is that not a collective expulsion? The second sentence states that this will take place in full compliance with EU and international law, thus excluding any kind of collective expulsion. It belongs in 1984. "War is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength." Collective expulsion is not collective expulsion because we say it is not collective expulsion. It is the equivalent of Richard Nixon saying to David Frost, "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal."
In order to meet this legal fiction, one has to declare that Turkey is a safe third country. In what planet is Turkey a safe third country? It is not a safe country for its own citizens, so how can it be a safe country for Kurdish people fleeing Syria whenever it is engaged in a war against its own people - Kurdish people - within the Turkish borders, or for those who criticise it in the media and those who stand up to it? It imprisons such people. Turkey has a horrific human rights record. It is a country that is currently guilty of returning refugees to Iraq and Syria, a country guilty of not giving refugee status to those who are fleeing Syria. This is the country to which EU border control is being handed. People will have seen the videos of Turkish coast guards deliberately trying to capsize boats of refugees attempting to reach Europe. Blood will be on the hands of EU leaders, as it currently is, if they proceed with this.
The Greek borders are to be policed by an additional 4,000 people from Frontex. The Taoiseach, echoed by other EU leaders, has said that, critically, this should stop people getting into unsafe boats and risking their lives. People are not risking their lives for a laugh; they are fleeing war, poverty and oppression, and they will not stop. What is being done will result in more people being killed. Some 85% of migrants in Greece are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and other countries in which there is Western intervention. Defend the right to asylum; end fortress Europe and allow people to come here.
It is somewhat poignant that this discussion is taking place against the backdrop of the appalling terrorist attacks in Belgium, a slaughter of innocents and an experience which, unfortunately, is an almost daily occurrence in the Middle East and is now happening in mainland Europe. While we obviously offer our deepest sympathies to the victims of that atrocity and condemn those actions utterly, we cannot divorce what is going on in terms of the rise of terrorism from the emerging catastrophe and humanitarian refugee crisis.
They are both by-products of imperialist interventions in the Middle East and unless we take these points on board and address our complicity in these matters, we will never get justice and the terror being experienced so horrifically today will continue unabated.
Obviously, the primary purpose of the Council meeting and this debate was and is to deal with the humanitarian crisis involving refugees. Never in the history of the operation of human rights organisations has there been such condemnation of the activities of the European Union. When have the executive director of Human Rights Watch, the secretary general of Amnesty International and the secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles ever jointly written to the European Union to say nobody should be under any illusion that the very principle of international protection for those fleeing war and persecution is at stake? They have pointed out that governments had a choice. The choice before them was whether they should defend the right to asylum or to horse-trade with a country with an inadequate record in supporting human rights. Unfortunately, the EU establishment and Ireland have an ignominious history of horse-trading on these issues. Since the deal was announced and agreed, every human rights organisation has been in uproar. They have not minced their words, describing what has happened as a dark day for the refugee convention, Europe and humanity. Sometimes, exaggerated statements are made in the House and across the airwaves. However, these sentiments are probably an understatement regarding what is going on.
What has the European Union done? It is stating refugees arriving in Greece exhausted, terrified, cold, wet and desperate will be promptly picked up, put on boats and sent back to Turkey. There is no question whatsoever that the process will be one of illegal mass expulsions from Europe of people who - let us face it - have an absolute right under international law to seek asylum in Europe. Mass collective expulsions are prohibited under the ECHR. That is what this deal facilitates because there is no institutional capacity on the Greek islands to process refugee applications in such a short time. The only thing that will result is mass expulsions which cannot be made legally. We are supposed to believe Europe will accept in exchange 72,000 refugees under a one-to-one resettlement scheme. As it stands, that equates to 2.6% of the 2.7 million Syrians in Turkey, but we all know that nothing like 72,000 will get into Europe, given that by January this year, fewer than 800 had been brought to Europe under a 2015 deal to resettle 22,500 refugees. If the European Union cannot even do that, how will it deal with larger numbers? Ireland has to look at itself in this regard.
When the crisis broke and refugees were drowning in the numbers that they were, there was an outpouring of grief and sympathy from Irish citizens and a demand that we take more than the 4,000 refugees we had agreed to take. The State has not even taken in a fraction of that number and the Government has only planned for approximately 5% of the number. When he replies to questions, the Taoiseach needs to address how he will deal with that issue. Every principle of international law on asylum has been contravened by the deal. How Europe deals with the refugee crisis and those fleeing atrocities in which both it and Ireland are complicit must be addressed. It is a stain on the continent's collective history and we will reap a whirlwind for it, unless it is addressed. We have been horrified by refugees being tear-gassed and beaten in Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia and France. We stood by and allowed refugees to drown in their thousands. We can look at Council meetings that took place as a perfect example of what Hannah Arendt called "a banality of evil". The Council is bartering humans, which is dehumanising and despicable. It is akin to what happened in the 1930s in attitudes to refugees. I do not make that point lightly, but there are parallels worth noting because following the Anschluss in 1938, the British Government tightened entry requirements for Austrian Jews by introducing strictly controlled visas precisely to restrict their numbers. A total of 65,000 Austrian Jews died in the Holocaust. At the Evian Conference in 1938 all 32 nations attending, including Ireland and the rest of Europe, made sad faces about the plight of the Jews fleeing persecution in Germany but the only country to accept more was the Dominican Republic. In 2016 Europe wants to barter human lives with a country that does not fully recognise refugees and that will almost certainly return as many of them as possible to the countries from which they came because the Union will not accept responsibility for dealing with the humanitarian crisis.
I could go on all day about this, but we need to consider Turkey specially. Its human rights record is bad and getting worse. The country is rapidly deteriorating into an authoritarian, repressive state with severe restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, a compromised judicial system and a terrifying security crackdown on anyone who dares to speak out. Last week three academics were jailed for signing a petition which talked about security operations against the PKK youth movement. There have been persistent reports of the abuse of refugees, with guards at unofficial border crossings shooting at and beating refugees and pushing them back to the Syrian war zone, the closure of borders arbitrarily and so on. These are facts. Other Deputies have referred to the fact that Turkey has never done away with the geographical limitation which was lifted by most signatories to the Geneva Convention in 1967, whereby refugees from anywhere except the European Union can only claim a limited form of temporary protection that falls far short of the full protection to which they are entitled elsewhere. Turkey cannot be considered to be a safe third country to return refugees. EU law specifically states a third country can only be considered safe if it has ratified the provisions of the Geneva Convention without any geographical limitations, but Turkey has not done so. Refugees do not have the right to work there and there are severe restrictions on numbers which make it almost meaningless. There is no judicial oversight or independent inspection of many of the detention centres where many refugees are held and NGOs are not allowed to monitor what is going on. President Erdoğan recently said "establishing a safe zone [which he is doing in conjunction with the European Union] constitutes the basis of 1.7 million Syrian refugees' return." They are talking about building refugee camps inside Syria and returning refugees to them. As Human Rights Watch stated, this is a little like creating the so-called safe zones that were established in Srebrenica and we all know what happened there.
What happened in Europe this week was described as being "on the edge of the law". That is not the case because it has gone over the edge. There was an excellent article in The Irish Times last Saturday by Thomas Klau in which he described the consequences of this deal. He stated: "If ... Europe ... now leaves millions of grandparents, mothers, fathers, youths and children to fester in hopeless poverty, vegetating in shantytowns and squalor, all this a few hundred or dozens of kilometres away from our borders, then we had better prepare for the price to pay." That is poignant in the context of what has happened today because terrorism and refugees are two sides of the same coin of imperialist intervention and until we shape up to our responsibility in that regard, we, too, will be complicit in that action. As a neutral country, Ireland should positively stand against this. I am ashamed to say the Taoiseach did not, even if he had to stand alone in Europe. He should have done so to be true to the history of his country.
I start by expressing on behalf of the Social Democrats our deepest sympathies to the people of Belgium, the people of Brussels and the many foreigners living there, including Irish people. I was living in London and working for Transport for London when the Tube bombings took place. The effect of horrific attacks on cities and people cannot be overstated. I express our deepest condolences and solidarity with the people of Belgium and Brussels.
I am sorry the Taoiseach has just left. I will direct my comments on the European Council meeting instead to the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy. The Social Democrats are very disappointed with what has just happened at the European Council meeting in respect of the migration crisis. It is very clear from the statements from the European Council that the main focus has been on securing Europe's borders rather than on doing what is best for the people fleeing five years of horror and conflict in Syria. The communications from the European Council meeting include a focus on border guards and returning a great number of asylum seekers to Turkey. The European Council statement mentioned that priority would continue to be given to regaining control of our external borders. It does not say anything as strong or definitive about giving priority to the rights and dignity of the many men, women and children fleeing conflict. It is very disappointing to see that. Indeed, it was very disappointing, as I listened carefully to the Taoiseach's statement this morning, not to hear him give such priority to the fleeing asylum seekers, the so-called irregular migrants. What of the priority of the dignity and rights of these Syrians? With regard to the joint action plan with Turkey, what measures are being implemented to ensure that the asylum seekers being relocated are treated with dignity? I imagine they will be forcefully relocated if they do not want to go back to Turkey. According to the European Council statement, the EU reiterated that it expected Turkey to respect the highest standards when it came to democracy, the rule of law and respect of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. This statement was made in the context of Turkey's track record in these areas. It is very clear that words are not enough. Expecting Turkey to do the right thing by these men, women and children is not enough. The EU needs to put in place very clear safeguards and standards, including monitoring of how returned fleeing migrants are treated in Turkey.
Amnesty International's response was unambiguous. It decried the joint action plan for Turkey as "an historic blow to human rights". Amnesty says Europe is turning its back on these refugees. The Amnesty response continues:
Guarantees to scrupulously respect international law are incompatible with the touted return to Turkey of all irregular migrants ... Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and migrants, and any return process predicated on its being so will be flawed, illegal and immoral.
I cannot see any safeguards that have been put in place for these migrants. It is safe to assume that the return of migrants - of asylum seekers - to Turkey is predicated on words in the statement to the effect that the European Union expects Turkey to do right by these people, to respect international law and to respect human rights. I cannot see any resources being put in place to ensure that those rights are respected. It seems sadly safe to conclude that the return of irregular migrants to Turkey will be flawed, illegal and immoral.
I would like the Minister of State to set out when he addresses the House what safeguards are being put in place for these migrants and, critically, to say what safeguards, measures and resources the Irish Government has insisted on for migrants being forcefully relocated back to Turkey, given its track record. He might provide a report to the House. It is welcome that emergency resources are being provided to Greece to help cope with the crisis as long as those resources are used to support migrants and their human rights and dignity. I ask again what measures the Irish Government asked for and advocated for at the European Council meeting in that regard. We need to play a role in ensuring the protection of the rights and dignity of people fleeing conflict in Syria.
We also need to play whatever role we can, as a small neutral country, to address the underlying causes of the migration crisis. Nearly 5 million people have fled their homes in Syria over the last five years and we are now entering what has come to be known as "drowning season" in the Mediterranean. The situation in Syria is so bad that people feel they have no choice but to risk their lives and those of their children to get out of Syria and Turkey and into the European Union. It appears that the European Union has just agreed to send back to Turkey people who have risked their lives and the lives of their children to get into the EU. It is unclear how they are going to be treated once they are relocated. Providing resources to tackle people smuggling and to discourage people from attempting the journey is really not going to have much of an impact as long as people feel the situation is so bad that they have no choice but to risk their lives and those of their children. As such, we must support peace building efforts in Syria so that the Syrian people can return there to live without fear and rebuild their country after five years. Ireland can provide more resources directly. We have sent our Naval Service vessels, and the Social Democrats recognise fully the role they have played. We must also support calls for more funding for the UN Commission on Human Rights, as well as Amnesty International, Oxfam and other groups trying to work in Syria and outside it to support the people fleeing that country. What plans does the Government have not only to contribute more but also to call on others to step up? The UN has been calling China out on its contribution of less than €1 million. If that is not the exact sum, it has certainly been a very small amount so far. There has been a focus on the lack of aid from some Asian countries. We can obviously play more of a role in that regard.
It feels to the Social Democrats, based on what emerged from the European Council meeting and the Taoiseach's speech today, that the Irish Government is fine with relocating these people to Turkey without the right safeguards being put in place. In his summing up to the House, I ask the Minister of State to indicate whether the Government is satisfied - and if he is satisfied, as Minister of State with responsibility in this area - that all of the necessary supports and monitoring mechanisms for the welfare of the men, women and children being returned to Turkey are in place. If the Government is not satisfied as to that, what will it do to advocate that these things be established? If it is not satisfied, will it advocate at European Union level that these men, women and children should not be returned to Turkey?
We are debating this matter under the shadow of the attacks in Brussels this morning. There is obviously a connection.
There is a connection in the sense that the wars that are flaming in Syria and Iraq and involve extremist Islamic groups are extending into our own Continent. We must question what is happening on the Continent on that wider scale. One point that we should agree on is that in our response in defence of our European beliefs and values, we should stick to the rule of law and the agreement on the use of international collaboration and follow the proper protocols and legal mechanisms as set out in the various conventions on human rights. We should stand by these as a way of defeating those who believe they can justify the killing of innocent civilians.
By this yardstick, the deal that was agreed between Europe and Turkey and signed off on at the recent European Council meeting fails the test. Europe is not living up to the ideals for which we stand. This weakens rather than strengthens us and does a major injustice and potential harm to the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere.
I am speaking as a member of the European Green Party, which approaches this issue collectively. We regret deeply that a legal agreement has not been signed, only a statement that is not subject to parliamentary oversight in the European Parliament or nationally. We can discuss it but we do not have a mechanism to challenge it legally or question its provisions. As other Deputies mentioned, it is a question of signing up to the statement and hoping that those who will be refused access to our borders will find safe havens in the so-called hot spots or Turkey, to which we are consigning people. We are saying "No" to that right of asylum, that right to arrive on our shores and seek refuge. These people are coming from the cradle of our civilisation. While the level of war and turmoil in the Middle East is unprecedented, this situation is not new and has been around since Abraham, Jacob and Moses migrated. Homer travelled those same waters. That migration is a central part of us. I had not realised something until I read about it recently but the iconography that we look at down the road in the Book of Kells stems from a Syrian tradition. While the situation is distant in some way and we as an island are separated from it, we are not removed in every sense. We have a responsibility to look after those who are fleeing.
Particularly reprehensible in the approach that is being taken is the differentiation between those fleeing different countries. Most are seeking asylum on the basis of need and yet Syrians are treated differently from those fleeing Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries that are in deep turmoil. This approach will not be effective. As much as we might try to police our borders and restrict access to new arrivals, they will find other paths, as we have seen from the hundreds of thousands of people queuing up in Libya and the recent arrivals in Sicily as opposed to taking a Greek route. The answer to this cannot be fortress Europe. We must maintain the standards and rights by which we live and extend them to those who are fleeing if we are to try to dampen the immediate crisis.
There are concerns about the increasingly restrictive administration in Turkey but we should look to our own door and what has happened in Europe. The way that Europe approached Turkish accession in the past ten years is coming back to haunt us because we did not deal with it as a proper community. We took last-minute decisions under which a promised accession process was withdrawn without agreement or a common European approach. Our problems are partly caused by the breakdown in our collaborative approach, which has led to individual deals and member states trying to manage crises on a case-by-case basis.
I will revert to the Taoiseach's statement in this regard. The Council meeting considered a wide range of issues beyond just that of migration. The Taoiseach also referred to the February Council meeting on which he was unable to report at the time. His report on that meeting was extensive. That Council saw an international legal agreement to try to placate British interests and arrange cover for Prime Minister Cameron on the Brexit issue. Britain's approach of distancing itself from Europe and opting out of a common European approach to refugees and other issues is shaping the whole European approach. There is a concern about the nature of the direction that Britain wants to take internationally and that we are aligning ourselves too closely to it.
I noted the Taoiseach's comments on an issue that will arise for consideration in the House in the coming months, that being, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, negotiations. According to the Taoiseach, there was agreement "to accelerate work on international trade agreements, including the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, TTIP". At this uncertain point in the world, some of the underlying assumptions and ideology that have applied for the past 34 years - that trade must trump justice and the needs of international corporations must be looked after for us to be able to progress and develop effective economies - are no longer true or fair and need to be questioned. The other Deputies on this side of the House who spoke today were right. Instead of continuing to tie ourselves to a British Conservative world view, be it on migration, trade or environmental standards, we should be willing to stand up, question it and state that different models of economics and justice are necessary.
I wish to discuss the two other elements that the Taoiseach raised. He referred to the need for increased investment in the EU, as set out in the Council conclusions. He also mentioned that the country report on Ireland recognised the need for investment. However, he passed over a matter that is of critical interest to the House and needs to be debated in the context of our EU engagement. The European Commission's country report was damning of our lack of long-term investment in basic infrastructure such as housing, water and transport. The Taoiseach claimed that we all knew this but he failed to recognise the Commission's statement that the Government's capital plan was inadequate. He glossed over this even though it was an issue at the European Council.
I am covering many issues in a short contribution. Last but not least, the Taoiseach mentioned the reference at the European Council meeting to the recent Paris agreement and the need for governments to sign up to it. While that is true, of concern was the EU's inability to show leadership and act on the agreement as opposed to saying that we should sign up to it. These issues are connected. The migration in Syria that started with the war five years ago came on the back of a stressed country suffering an extreme drought. According to all of the analysis from the best climate scientists, such extreme weather conditions will drive mass migrations from India, Pakistan, the Middle East and north Africa in the future. We must prepare for this. The inaction and lack of debate and engagement on this climate issue at the recent Council meeting show a continuation of short-term and narrow thinking that does not address the fundamental causes of the problems.
The EU-Turkey deal on migration agreed recently is unprecedented. There are no agreements similar to this. It is a play on and manipulation of existing agreements, both bilateral between the European Union and Turkey and within the European Union itself.
The European Union states:
People who do not have a right to international protection will be immediately returned to Turkey. The legal framework for these returns is the bilateral readmission agreement between Greece and Turkey. From 1 June 2016, this will be succeeded by the EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement, following the entry into force of the provisions on readmission of third country nationals of this agreement.
There are considerable legal ambiguities here, but even more disconcerting are the severe human rights issues that could be at play. How can the authorities decide so quickly that somebody is not entitled to international protection and to return them to Turkey again? We have seen in Ireland how long it takes to decide on the cases of asylum seekers.
I reiterate the view of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the Irish Refugee Council and other organisations that a humanitarian crisis needs a humanitarian response, with the needs of men, women and children central to any development. This is clearly not the case in the recently agreed EU-Turkey deal. There is supposedly an understanding that no decisions will be taken without being compliant with international and European law. How do we actually know that? We do not. We are relying on Turkey and Greece to satisfy us in this regard. How will part of the €3 billion dedicated to oversight in Turkey prevent potential mass deportations of people entering either Turkey or Greece, and how will the safety of these people be ensured, regardless the outcome of their application for asylum? There are significant problems in this regard.
The agreement asserts that if one has tried to get to the European Union illegally, one will be at the back of the line in the legal resettlement process. On the ground, this translates to a policy whereby anyone entering Greece from Turkey from now on will automatically be sent back to Turkey because, all of a sudden, Turkey is now classified as a safe third country despite its dismal human rights record. We have only to consider how Turkey has been treating its own Kurdish population in this regard.
Turkey provides to Syrians only temporary protection that falls short of full refugee status. Human rights groups deem Turkey’s sudden transition into what is termed a “safe third country” as ludicrous and highly improbable, meaning the European Union will overlook a certain amount of human rights abuses in order to push ahead with this deal. Even under the most generous interpretation of the rules, only Syrian asylum seekers, who currently make up half of those arriving in Greece, could be returned to Turkey.
The procedures Ireland has put in place are such that it has accepted only 5% of the agreed 4,000 refugees, which amounts to only 200 people. Only ten have actually accepted relocation in Ireland. Should we not address our own lack of engagement in this humanitarian crisis before we support others and before we support changes in EU rules and procedures that will have such a huge impact on this humanitarian crisis? The undignified attempt to swap one refugee for another is in itself an affront to the notions of human rights, dignity and respect for vulnerable people. Some 2,000 people are still attempting to reach Greece from Turkey every day despite this agreement last week. The agreement will only result in refugees taking even greater risks to trek across more treacherous ground or seas to enter Europe. This deal brings greater risk to already extremely vulnerable people and is again an affront to human rights.
Today I call on the caretaker Taoiseach to respond to these humanitarian concerns and express opposition to this EU deal. With only an acting Government in place there can be no opposition to tie the Taoiseach into such an agreement. Not only are there issues regarding international human rights breaches within this agreement, but there are also concerns regarding the legality and monitoring capacity of this agreement. Although there is no start date set, the European Union has been quick to implement this agreement in the hope of avoiding a “pull factor” before the new system takes effect. Real questions remain as to how everyone is going to monitor what is termed the “swapping” of Syrian refugees on the ground, and nobody seems to be able to explain this. The commitment by Turkey to overhaul its own asylum system so it adheres to Geneva standards and can carry the “safe third country” status is a non-legally binding one, and there are many questions as to how both Greece and Turkey will overhaul their systems overnight. We know the European Union is prepared to turn a blind eye to this in order to have a potential wall around the Union to prevent people coming in.
There are alternative channels for migration and legal pathways, including an important high-level meeting on global responsibility-sharing through pathways for the admission of Syrian refugees on 30 March, to be hosted by the UNHCR. This meeting will attempt to address commitments for over 170,000 resettlement and humanitarian admission places for Syrian refugees, with a target for admission for 10% of Syrian refugees over the next three years. The EU-Turkey deal attempts to overshadow and undermine this agreement, which would be international. That is where the European Union should be engaging.
Today at South Tipperary General Hospital, there are 44 patients on chairs, trolleys and corridor beds awaiting admission. I am told this is the highest number on trolleys in the hospital in the whole country. What has this to do with the debate we are having here today? It has, of course, everything to do with it. The hospital is starved of resources. Approximately 25% of its budget, or approximately €15 million, has been cut over recent years. This is because the previous Government, namely the Fianna Fáil–Green Party Government, and the current Government, the Fine Gael–Labour Party Government, have agreed to pay €7 billion in debt repayments every year to EU institutions and banks. I wonder whether the Taoiseach raised the issue of debt and its renegotiation at the recent meetings. He told us approximately two and a half years ago that there would be a game-changer in regard to debt. It never happened. Now our services, including health and housing services, and economy are being absolutely devastated by the fact that huge sums of money are being paid out of the country to financial institutions right across Europe, including very wealthy ones. Some €7 billion per year is being paid.
The fiscal treaty agreed following the Lisbon treaty has created a new colonialism within Europe. That treaty flies in the face of the 1916 Proclamation. It is not a sovereignty-sharing treaty. It effectively sets aside Irish sovereignty and hands it over to big EU powers. It must be renegotiated. This could best be done in the framework of a debt-neutralisation conference. Ireland should demand such a conference and seek support for this demand from Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, Spain, Italy and others. The fiscal treaty requirement for Ireland is essentially a continuation of austerity over the next 20 years. This is linked to the circumstances we note today in South Tipperary General Hospital and the 1,600 children living in emergency hotel accommodation.
The fiscal compact requires that the current budget deficit be reduced below 3% of GDP, that the structural deficit be eliminated by 2018 and that the public debt–GDP ratio be reduced to 60% over the next 20 years. Despite the physical exit of the troika from Dublin, the Government and this country are still bound by the treaty to keep the current budget deficit below 3%. On the other hand, the current budget deficit in Germany, for instance, has been below 3% for the last number of years. It has no structural deficit and the German national debt–GDP ratio is at 57%, already below 60%. In other words, there are no impositions whatsoever on Germany under the fiscal treaty. The treaty is merely a device to force the programme countries and other indebted countries to make huge repayments to stronger countries, led by Germany, although all EU countries were responsible for the banking busts and European recession.
A new economic colonialism has been established within Europe through the fiscal treaty. Owing to this and the payment of €7 billion in interest, the Irish economy and public services, including health, education, housing and other services, are being devastated. Ireland will continue to pay over €7 billion per year in interest on borrowings. Our public service will remain under-funded. Any attempt to reduce our reliance on foreign direct investment through public investment in modern indigenous industry will fail because of that huge payment out of the country.
The combination of our over-reliance on multinationals and the provisions of the fiscal treaty mean the State has virtually no sovereignty or power to ensure the economic and social well-being of its citizens.
The new Dáil must demand the renegotiation of the fiscal treaty and the convention of a European debt mutualisation conference to ensure moneys are available to provide for citizens and public services in health, education, housing and many other areas.
I will recap. Has the case of Ibrahim Halawa been raised? Like all other Deputies, I am concerned about where this case may lead and I would like the Government to use every avenue and means to raise the matter.
On refugees, the European Union describes Turkey as a country of safe origin. Does Ireland share this view on the status of Turkey? In this regard, I am particularly concerned about people from a Kurdish background.
The Tánaiste noted that more than 8,000 people were rescued by the Naval Service last year when it was on duty in the Mediterranean with the Italian navy. Has the Government received a formal request for further deployment of Naval Service vessels? When I raised this matter with the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, he expressed his personal view that additional Irish Naval Service personnel should be deployed to the region. Would the Government consider positively any such request by the Italian or Greek navies? This is an urgent matter. Only last Saturday, for example, a boat transporting refugees sank off the coast of Turkey, resulting in the death of a four-month old child.
Between 12,000 and 15,000 people have been stuck in squalor at Idomeni on the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia since the border was shut three weeks ago. Is the Government doing anything to help the people in question? Normally, some type of announcement would be made on matters of this nature. Is any such announcement pending?
As Deputy Crowe will be aware, the trial of Ibrahim Halawa is ongoing. The Government is trying to be as measured as possible in its public comments on the case, in respect of which our objectives are twofold. The first is to ensure Mr. Halawa is released by the Egyptian authorities in order that he can return to his family and the second is to provide consular support to him while he is in detention. Mr. Halawa has received 50 consular visits while in detention, which is an extremely high level of consular visitation.
With respect to the deployment of a Naval Services vessel, the Minister for Defence, responding to a question from the Deputy, indicated that the Government is willing to make a Naval Service vessel available again. We have not received a specific request on the matter, which is ongoing. The Taoiseach and Minister have both stated that, given the excellent work done by several Naval Service vessels in rescuing more than 8,500 people in recent months, we would make such an offer again.
With respect to the conditions on the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, support for both countries is being channelled and co-ordinated at European Union level. A broader response is needed to many aspects of the current crisis and it is vital that this agreed response is co-ordinated and shows solidarity towards all member states.
I will address the other questions the Deputy raised in his earlier contribution when I wrap up the debate.
I add to the comments made by the Taoiseach and many Deputies this morning in expressing my deep sadness and shock at the terrible news of explosions in Brussels this morning and the reported high level of loss of life. This was a deliberate attack on the capital of the European Union, the citizens of Europe and democracy all over the world. Our thoughts are with the victims and those directly affected, the people of Brussels and the large Irish community living and working in Belgium and its capital. Many Irish people, including me, travel frequently through Brussels Airport and the city's metro system. I have visited the city three times in the past four weeks. Brussels Airport is a vital link for Irish officials as the city is at the heart of Europe. I urge all Irish citizens in Brussels and Belgium to exercise caution and closely follow the instructions of local authorities and the advice of the consular section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Irish embassy in Belgium.
I spoke this morning to the ambassador to the European Union, Mr. Declan Kelleher and have since received a further update. He informs me that, fortunately, all staff at the Irish embassy and Permanent Representation office in Brussels and their dependants have been accounted for. On this terrible day for Europe, we must acknowledge the fear people have for their loved ones who are based in Belgium. The Garda authorities are liaising with their Belgian counterparts and will offer any assistance possible in supporting the investigation into the terrible atrocities.
I am pleased to conclude statements on discussions at the most recent European Council. As the Taoiseach stated, I will focus my remarks on the broader aspects of the migration crisis and touch on some of the other questions raised in Deputies' interventions. In the context of the migration crisis, the number of people seeking refuge in Europe remains very high and is without precedent for the European Union. We cannot ignore the fact that the EU has struggled to chart an effective way through the complexities of the issue, which, in addition to the immense human impact, is placing very great strains on many partner states.
The Union has engaged seriously to develop a comprehensive response to the crisis, with many difficult decisions having to be made along the way. Having reached agreement on critically important issues, however, implementation on certain key aspects has been slow. Consequently, in all discussions at EU level, particularly at the European Council meeting in February, there has been a strong focus on stepping up the implementation of already agreed measures and Ireland has been particularly supportive of this aspect of discussions. If we are to chart an effective response to the challenges posed by the crisis, we must deliver on commitments already made and we are seeing some signs of improvement in this area.
Discussions on the establishment of a new border and coastguard are advancing well. While we will of course co-operate with this new agency, we cannot participate in the adoption of the instrument because we are not full members of the Schengen acquis.
In another positive development at the General Affairs Council last week, which I attended, we adopted a regulation on emergency support for EU member states with special reference to Greece. This mechanism, which Ireland strongly supported, rightly recognises the severe pressures that are being placed on member states on the front line of dealing with the migration crisis. I hope these measures will address some of the concerns people expressed in the House this morning with respect to how the Greek authorities can manage the crisis.
In addition to last Friday's agreement with Turkey, which the Taoiseach has outlined, the EU has focused on relations with other relevant partners, including those in the western Balkans and Africa. Following a meeting in Valletta last November a trust fund for Africa was established. There have been important developments in respect of the establishment of hotspots, relocation and establishing a list of safe countries of origin as well as a proposed amendment to the Dublin regulations.
We were asked about Ireland's response. We have consistently called for an approach at European level to address the root causes as well as the humanitarian aspects. This is a feature of our national response. As announced last month, in 2016 alone Ireland will contribute at least €20 million in assistance to support those affected by the Syrian crisis. The endeavours of our Defence Forces have deservedly been commended in this House and elsewhere.
As the House will be aware, a Government decision was taken last September to welcome 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers into Ireland through a combination of resettlement and relocation programmes. I am pleased to say that the resettlement project has been advancing well. We have exceeded half of our resettlement commitment for 2015-16. Moreover, in the mission to Lebanon in January 2016, Irish officials selected a sufficient number of refugees to complete the resettlement commitment. Unfortunately, progress on relocation overall has been slower. This is due to delays in Greece and in Italy in establishing properly functioning systems. While I am pleased to note that a family of ten people arrived in the State last month from Greece, in the context of our overall commitment it is clear that far more work has to be done, not only by us but by all member states. While the complexities of the migration crisis remain testing, we can at least point to some positive developments. Certainly, more needs to be done.
Quite rightly, the migration crisis will remain a priority for the European Union for the foreseeable future. Ireland will be constructive and will seek to continue to play our part in responding to the challenges posed. It is acknowledged in the agreement that certain changes to Turkish procedures will be required before all elements of the plan can become operational. This includes confirmation that standards are up to the level of the 1951 convention. The EU institutions, member states and NGOs are working together to ensure this happens as soon as possible.
In response to comments made today, I am keen to acknowledge that the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has revised its initial opinion and now considers the agreement to be in compliance. The agreement is in compliance with European Union and international law as long as the safeguards required are properly implemented. The UNHCR will remain on the ground to this end. The EU has also agreed to speed up the disbursement of funds to help Turkey to provide adequately for refugees. The €3 billion to be committed by the European Union and to which Ireland will contribute its share will be going directly to support Syrian refugees in Turkey through the provision of schools, housing, health care and other necessities.
The March meeting of the European Council dealt with other areas under its consideration of jobs, growth and competitiveness issues, including the steel sector and other sectors.
Thank you for your time today, Acting Chairman. This has been a testing day for all of us who support the European Union and this great project of democracy. The Government and the Irish people must continue to show our solidarity with the people of Brussels and Belgium. Europe has been through many testing times over its long history, but the rule of law and democracy must bind us together. We must all play our part in ensuring the ambition of the terrorists, which is to divide the people of Europe, can only be defeated.