Thursday, 13 April 2017
European Council: Statements
I am pleased to address the House ahead of the meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 29 April. The meeting has been scheduled following the formal notification by the UK of its intention to leave the EU. As provided for under Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union, it will be a meeting of the 27 EU Heads of State and Government without the UK. We will discuss the EU guidelines for the upcoming negotiations with the UK with a view to their formal adoption.
The Government has been clear from the start that the UK's departure from the Union would and will have significant economic, political and social implications for Ireland. For over two years, even before the UK referendum, we have been examining the issues and engaging with sectors across the island of Ireland to analyse fully our main areas of concern and to develop our negotiating priorities. These are to minimise the impact on our trade and the economy, to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process, including through maintaining an open Border, to continue the common travel area with the UK and to work for a positive future for the European Union.
In my speech to the IlEA on 15 February, I outlined the Government's preparations, including the new structures and resources which have been allocated, the ongoing sectoral analysis and research throughout Government Departments, our engagement with industry and civic society, which has to date included nearly 280 separate meetings, and the all-island civic dialogue, which I convened with the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and which to date has included 16 sectoral events and two plenary meetings with more than 1,200 delegates representing industries and organisations from across the country.
We have also been very active at political and official level in engaging with our EU partners and the EU institutions, raising awareness of the unique circumstances in relation to Ireland and the need to address these in the negotiations. To date, we have had more than 400 engagements with partners, which have also, of course, enabled us to understand better their concerns and objectives. In addition to meeting my EU counterparts regularly at the European Council, I have had bilateral meetings with the leaders of France, Spain, Belgium, Cyprus. Malta, Croatia and Poland as well as with the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. Last week, I met Chancellor Merkel again, in Berlin, and next week I will meet the Dutch and the Danish Prime Ministers. I also had separate bilateral meetings recently in Brussels with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and the chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. In all these engagements I have expressed my strong view that any manifestation of a hard Border would have very negative consequences for our country and the peace process. This is a political challenge and we will have to be creative and imaginative to deal with it.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs have also had extensive programmes of engagement, while other Ministers have been engaging with their respective counterparts. Engagement at senior official level, including through our permanent representation in Brussels and our network of embassies overseas, has been very extensive. We have also, of course, had opportunities to discuss Brexit with London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast via the long-established connections through the Good Friday Agreement, while clearly respecting the "no negotiation without notification" principle.
Across the board, there is now a good understanding of our unique concerns and an openness to working closely with us in addressing them in the run-up to the negotiations. This was reflected first in the indication from Michel Barnier that Ireland's specific conditions and concerns should be addressed as a priority for the exit negotiations.
On 31 March, the draft EU negotiating guidelines were circulated by President Tusk. I am pleased that these include a very strong acknowledgement of Ireland’s unique circumstances, the need to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and our intention to maintain bilateral arrangements with the UK, such as the common travel area. There was also a strong reference to our specific concerns in the resolution which was adopted by the European Parliament on 5 April. Prime Minister Theresa May’s letter of 29 March and her statement to the House of Commons the same day reaffirmed the British Government's objective of avoiding a return to a hard Border on the island of Ireland and its commitment to maintaining the common travel area. It is clear therefore that our extensive political, diplomatic and official campaign of recent months has been effective in ensuring that our unique circumstances, our specific issues and our special case are understood and acknowledged. We will continue to defend the Good Friday Agreement in its spirit as well as its letter and to make clear that, as an internationally recognised treaty registered with the UN, it provides a unique political and constitutional framework on the island of Ireland. Whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations, nothing should undermine the peace and stability in Northern Ireland that has taken so long to achieve and in which the EU has played such an important role.
It is important to make clear that there will be at least two sets of negotiations. The first will deal with the UK’s official exit from the EU, covering issues such as the UK’s financial commitments and reciprocal rights – Europeans living in Britain and British people living in the European Union. The second will address the EU’s future relationship with the UK: this will be particularly important for our future trading relationship and any potential implications for our economy.
The UK Government’s White Paper and the Prime Minister Theresa May’s letter and statement on 29 March provided some clarity around the UK’s objectives for the future relationship. These include the pursuit of a bold and ambitious free trade agreement, an outcome that would be in Ireland’s interests. It is in all our interests that the UK should maintain the closest possible links to the EU and I welcome Prime Minister Theresa May’s comment about wanting to have a positive and constructive partnership between the EU and the UK. Knowing more about their intentions will be important as we continue to prepare for the negotiations.
From Ireland’s perspective, it is crucial that the negotiations are conducted in a constructive and orderly way and we will continue to encourage our EU partners and the UK to maintain a calm and balanced approach. We are now studying the draft guidelines carefully in terms of the overall approach to the negotiations and the many other issues that arise, beyond those unique to Ireland. The guidelines will be further discussed among the EU 27 member states at ministerial and senior official level before the European Council on 29 April. Once they have been agreed, negotiating directives for the European Commission will be prepared for adoption by the General Affairs Council in May. Negotiations with the UK are therefore likely to be launched in late May or early June. As Deputies will be aware, the day-to-day technical EU negotiations will be led by Michel Barnier and his team on the basis of the mandate from the European Council. Member states, however, including Ireland, will have control of the process. The European Council, that is leaders of all member states, will discuss the negotiations on a very regular basis and will take all final decisions. Of course, the European Parliament also has to give its consent to the eventual outcome. We are in constant contact with the Barnier team and are participating fully in all the EU 27 structures in preparing for the negotiations. We will be part of the EU team and look forward to working with our fellow member states in delivering the best possible results for Ireland and for the EU. Our priorities have been developed, opportunities are being pursued and risks and mitigation measures are being identified. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, we are preparing a consolidated policy paper which will be published in advance of the European Council on 29 April, and which will set out Ireland’s approach to the negotiations. At the same time we will continue to make the economy resilient and future-proofed. We have already taken important steps in this context, including in Budget 2017, the Action Plan for Jobs 2017 and our new trade and investment strategy. Looking ahead, a new ten year capital plan is in preparation, we are revising our Enterprise 2025 policy and we are in active discussions with the European Investment Bank for a potential increase in investment in the country. Our enterprise agencies will in the meantime continue to work with exporters and potential investors, helping them to deal with issues as they arise, making companies competitive, diversifying market exposure and up-skilling teams. We regularly hear about the importance of this from those involved directly in the agri-sector. We met with the IFA last weekend and will continue to make this area a priority.
We have had some very positive outcomes to our efforts over the past few weeks. However, this is only the beginning of a complicated process which could take years to conclude. Our efforts will continue to involve all Ministers, Government Departments and agencies, extensive engagement with stakeholders and ongoing strong co-ordination from the centre.
Before concluding, I would like to stress that Ireland’s place remains firmly at the heart of Europe. The Union has been central to the success of our small, open economy and the basis for much of the social and political progress we have achieved. We will be very much central to the EU team for the negotiations ahead. We will continue to engage with our partners calmly and patiently and to negotiate firmly but fairly in the best interests of the country and our citizens.
The Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Dara Murphy, will deliver a wrap-up statement at the end of this session. I look forward to keeping the House fully informed of developments in relation to Brexit and repeat that the opportunity is open to the leaders of the different parties in the House to have a full up-to-date briefing at any time they wish.
While this special summit is intended solely to address the Article 50 negotiations, people expect Europe's leaders to take some time to discuss and act on the recent events in Syria. Once again the Assad regime has committed a war crime against the people of Syria. The latest chemical weapons attack was another grotesque and inhuman act. This adds to the daily accounts of the targeting of civilian facilities and disregard for even the most basic standards of respect for the lives of people the regime claims to be its citizens.
Syria is by some distance the greatest humanitarian crisis of this generation. Assad's actions are the direct cause of the refugee crisis and the escalating destruction and barbarity. It is not clear what further sanctions can be implemented on his regime, however we should assert the basic principle that any entity that continues to trade with or aid Assad should, at minimum, be completely banned from the European Union.
The deeply dishonourable behaviour of Russia becomes starker by the day. Having directly enabled Assad and encouraged his aggression, Russia has even vetoed a call for an independent investigation of the use of chemical weapons which have been banned for well over half a century. These are also weapons which Russia assured the world four years ago that Assad had destroyed. The Taoiseach has a duty on behalf of the Irish people to issue a strong statement and credible action by the European Union against Assad and all who enable his barbarity.
The summit discussion of the guidelines for the Article 50 negotiations marks the end of the beginning of the Brexit process. There is no positive outcome possible to these negotiations. Whatever emerges will be bad for Ireland, bad for Europe and quite frankly bad for the world. Irrespective of the bluster from London or the shrill jingoism of the anti-EU press, the UK is taking a step backwards towards a more unilateral, isolated and nationalistic approach to relations with other states. Damage from Brexit is inevitable; in fact it is already underway. All that can now be achieved is to limit the damage as much as possible.
As far back as May 2013, on behalf of Fianna Fáil, I first laid out our policy on the threat of Brexit and Ireland’s role in the future of the EU. Since the referendum result last year we have gone much further and have outlined a detailed approach to the main issues and specific action which we believe should be taken. These short statements do not provide an opportunity to go into most of the issues. However, I want to repeat yet again that there are urgent actions required which can be pushed forward entirely independent of the Article 50 negotiations. We must not wait quietly until these negotiations are over before addressing the already evident impact of Brexit on many Irish businesses and communities.
Whatever emerges from the negotiations we will need a major programme to aid those worst hit. They need support for diversification and innovation. There is no deal possible which removes all economic disruption. The UK is already funding businesses to protect supply chains – we need this action now and we need EU support in doing this.
Through the course of last week’s debate on Brexit and the many questions tables since Article 50 was triggered the Taoiseach has refused to give any details on whether Ireland is seeking any changes to the draft text circulated on 31 March.
We have to assume from his statements that he is fully content with the draft.
Reports from this week's meeting of officials in Brussels have referenced the contributions of a number of different countries but Ireland is not one of them. Fianna Fáil believes this is a mistake and we should seek important changes to the negotiating text. We are supportive of the general approach proposed by President Tusk. His proposals relating to sequencing and timing are reasonable. We welcome that he is proposing to make clear to the United Kingdom that the European Union will promote the interests of the 27 in these negotiations. The British Government should be told politely but firmly that we have no intention of being influenced by its usual approach to EU negotiations, which is to caricature and hysterically denounce anything which does not suit it. The UK has chosen to go it alone and cannot expect special treatment. It has eaten its cake and no longer has it.
Separate from the text on these matters, the 27 should be asked to agree a general statement expressing solidarity and supporting the principle that the European Union will, in the negotiations and its other actions, seek to prevent countries from being damaged disproportionately. This is important because of a potential pitfall in the negotiating text as it relates to Ireland.
As I stated previously, we acknowledge Michel Barnier's positive attitude to Ireland and that of Donald Tusk. They are sincere statesmen who are friends of this country. However the current text is incomplete and raises some concerns. We welcome the commitment to finding "flexible and imaginative solutions" relating to Ireland. However, there is a serious problem where special measures relating to the connections between Ireland and the United Kingdom are required to be "compatible with EU law" and protect the "integrity of the Union legal order". This implies a significant inflexibility. It is highly likely that any full implementation of the common travel area or any "flexible and imaginative solutions" protecting cross-Border activity will require new EU laws to permit them. Current laws relating to trade and customs are completely inflexible.
As the Government has not produced an analysis of what is possible within existing EU law and what changes we may need to seek, these provisions in the draft are a serious concern. At a minimum, they should be amended to include the idea that changes to EU law may be required. The insistence on the applicability of the "integrity of the Union legal order" appears to be a reference to the legal roles of the European Commission and European Court of Justice in investigation and arbitration. Given the position of the British Government, we should seek a guarantee that unique arrangements will be considered.
As I stated previously, we are deeply disappointed that the draft makes no reference to the fact that 1.8 million residents of Northern Ireland will continue to have the right to EU citizenship post Brexit. Simply referring to the Good Friday Agreement does not address this point. Recognising their citizenship upfront immediately sets a new tone and pushes all parties to greater flexibility. This is a unique situation and it should be explicitly referenced in the text. It is simply inexplicable that the Taoiseach has refused to seek this small but important change.
On a separate but important matter, Prime Minister May's Article 50 letter again fails to acknowledge that nearly half of her electorate voted to remain. Sixteen million people resisted the lies and anti-EU hysteria and remained true to the ideal of Europe. It would be symbolically very positive if the EU in its statement explicitly mentioned this and the fact that two devolved administrations voted to remain. While this is a matter for a separate process, a fast and generous approach to EU membership for Scotland, should it choose to become independent, should be agreed policy.
One of the few changes agreed already to the text has been inclusion of the role of the European Parliament in the process. This is welcome because of the positive role the Parliament is taking on Ireland. Last month, I discussed this matter with the Parliament's lead negotiator, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt who I believe is very supportive of Ireland and eager to respond to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and its EU citizens. We welcome the Ceann Comhairle's positive response to our proposal that Mr. Verhofstadt be invited to Dáil Éireann in the near future.
Whatever is agreed at this summit will not undo the harm of Brexit. However, in charting the course of negotiations we should start with clarity and a substantive commitment to aiding those who remain true to the European Union. To avoid significant difficulties during the negotiations and in the years afterwards, it is imperative that the Taoiseach seek small but important changes to the draft text.
There is no doubt Brexit poses the biggest threat to the socioeconomic future of the people of this island. It also has the potential to do serious damage to the Good Friday Agreement. The British Government has ignored the democratically-expressed will of the people of the North. The majority of the people in the Six Counties voted to remain in the European Union. Theresa May is pushing on with her Brexit strategy as if this vote did not happen.
The threat to Ireland arising from Britain's divorce from the European Union does not register in any substantive way with the British Prime Minister. London is intent on pulling a part of this island out of the European Union despite the dire consequences this will have for everyone across Ireland. We should not be surprised by the approach taken by a Tory government. However, the Irish Government cannot be excused for an approach to Brexit which ignores the rights of citizens in the North and abdicates its responsibility to uphold their democratic vote to remain in the European Union. The Sinn Féin president, Deputy Gerry Adams, asked the Taoiseach last week if he had stated to the British Government that it should accept the vote of the people of the North. It is clear he has not done so and will not do so. This approach is in line with his Government's failure to hold the British to account for their policies in Ireland.
The letter triggering Article 50 and the European Council draft negotiation guidelines demonstrate the Government's negligence when it comes to representing the interests of the Irish people. The article relating to Ireland in the draft negotiating guidelines, Article 11, is vague, ambiguous and conditional. It contains little that would provide confidence that Ireland's unique position is appreciated or that the interests of the island as a whole will be protected. This is far from satisfactory.
The people of Ireland have an expectation that the Government will demand more, argue for more and achieve more in these crucial negotiations. The Spanish Government has already shown what is achievable if one approaches the Brexit challenge with a concrete commitment to upholding national interests. The contrast in the language and substance of Article 22, which relates to the future of Gibraltar, when compared with Article 11 is striking. Article 22 is clear, committal and definitive. It states that after Brexit, no agreement between the EU and British Government may apply to Gibraltar without the agreement of the Spanish and British Governments. It is clear, when one compares the two articles, that the Government has a responsibility to adopt a much stronger negotiating position. Not to do so would represent a serious dereliction of the Government's duty to fight its corner on behalf of the people of this island.
The veto achieved by the Spanish Government in regard to Gibraltar is exactly the type of substantive commitment that the Government should have sought in respect of the North. It would be in keeping with its responsibility for the North under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, yet the Taoiseach did not even raise this possibility for Ireland. In a continuation of the Government’s feeble approach, the Taoiseach has just returned from Europe with very little to show for his efforts. The Government's negotiating strategy is non-existent and the Taoiseach looks very weak because he has not adopted a solid and meaningful negotiating position for Ireland. He is happy to collect vague expressions of understanding of Ireland's unique position when it comes to Brexit and amass a catalogue of non-binding declarations of support. Pats on the back and thumbs-up from other EU leaders will not protect the people of this island from the impact of Brexit.
The solid and meaningful negotiating position, which the Government must now formally adopt, is designated special status for the North within the European Union.
It is the only solution that deals with the intricacies of the problem. It is the only way to stop a hard economic border on the island of Ireland.
Designated special status within the European Union will allow for the economic prosperity, trade relations and jobs of the entire island of Ireland to be protected and enhanced together. It is the type of imaginative and innovative approach that has been called for by the European Union itself. Given the Government's obligation to uphold the new relationships within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain under the Good Friday Agreement, it has a duty to advocate for such a position. It is the position that has been democratically decided upon by this Parliament but the Taoiseach turns his face to it. Incredibly, the Taoiseach and the Government have refused to advocate for this position. We need to ask ourselves why.
I have my suspicions that it is not because of the merits of the proposal but because the proposal originated from Sinn Féin. Perhaps it is because the case of designated special status within the EU challenges the view of the Government that Ireland actually ends at the Border. That is despite the fact that every single citizen in the North has the right to Irish citizenship and the legal expectation that the Taoiseach's Government will uphold their rights, which also include the right to EU citizenship even after Brexit.
My party leader, Deputy Adams, has written to the Taoiseach to urge him to support a motion that we have tabled which would commit the Government to seek a number of commitments from the EU in these negotiations. First and foremost, the Government must adopt the position of the Dáil of supporting special designated status within the EU for the North of Ireland. Yesterday we heard lectures from the Taoiseach about how democracy works. Fifty plus one he tells us. Let me remind the Taoiseach that we had a vote in this House. The Dáil has spoken and the Dáil has stated that the position should be special designated status for the North within the European Union.
I will stop Deputy Doherty for a moment. Deputy Doherty, just one moment. The Taoiseach indicated that the Minister of State would be wrapping up this debate. I ask the Minister of State to hold his comments until that time. I would appreciate it.
Second, we need a commitment that the Good Friday Agreement will remain paramount. Third, the Government should seek a veto to ensure no agreement between the EU and Britain may apply to the North of Ireland without the agreement of Ireland and Britain first. That is similar to what has been achieved by the Spanish Government. The European Union should also recognise that other existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between Ireland and Britain which were compatible with EU law would remain.
The reality is that the Government needs to get serious about this issue. It needs to get very serious about the issue of Brexit. We all know that Brexit poses a major threat to Ireland, North and South. At the moment, the Taoiseach and his Government, his Ministers, are asleep at the wheel. The challenge posed by Brexit must be met with the urgency and with the strategic vision it demands. The approach I have outlined represents a logical strategy for representing national interests of the whole island of Ireland. This must be the goal of the Taoiseach and the Government. Special status will ensure that the whole island of Ireland can remain within the EU together. I urge the Taoiseach to make these points at the European Council meeting on 29 April.
I note that in the Taoiseach's opening statement - in his first sentence - he speaks about the meeting of the European Council in Brussels. Yesterday when I challenged him on the issue, he denied that a European Council meeting was taking place at all-----
Deputy Doherty, will you please sit down? On numerous occasions there is a problem getting you to sit down when your time has passed. I would appreciate if you would be like other Members, including many of your own party, who respect the Chair.
This is clearly the most important Council summit an Irish Head of Government will attend since our accession to EEC membership. To judge by the previous comments, it is building up to feel rather like the time Michael Collins went to London. Lots of people are obviously getting the knives and the pickaxes ready. On behalf of everyone in Ireland, I wish the Taoiseach well at the summit. It is probably the most important summit for Ireland in the 44 years of our membership. That membership has been valuable. Notwithstanding issues with the EU, it has been in the best interests of the whole island of Ireland, North and South.
The Brexit negotiating mandate is about our vital national interests and the vital interests of this island as a whole. Our first priority must be to protect the political and institutional arrangements established by the Good Friday Agreement. It is disappointing, to put it mildly, that there is still no obvious sign that the Government has settled on its policies towards these negotiations. Apart from a glossy sort of Ladybird guide to Brexit that would not detain any serious reader for long, there is as yet nothing published by the Government on its approach to Brexit. In fact, it states that it will not publish anything approaching a substantive position paper until 29 April, the very day the European Council meets and before this Dáil will have reassembled to have an opportunity to speak and address that particular paper.
The Taoiseach has given us these answers continuously.
I am basing this on his answers to me on numerous occasions.
As expected, the draft guidelines published by President Tusk place a premium on an orderly, non-disruptive withdrawal. They also place a premium on the Union acting as one. These are important enough statements of principle. I wonder if we will achieve a common understanding of their interpretation and application, which is what this debate should be partly about. If insisting on an orderly approach means that we will not talk about the future relationship with the UK until we have signed off on the current one, then the EU is simply surrendering to that body of opinion that wants to punish Britain by imposing on it some form of economic isolation. If we allow that wing to gain supremacy, then we will also suffer economically. We will suffer proportionately far more than any other EU state. If the EU speaking as one means that Ireland cannot make that point as often and as loudly as is necessary, then this language of cohesion simply disguises what can be bully-boy tactics. I do not see the point of - and I would be minded to reject - the blunt insistence in the draft guidelines that, “So as not to undercut the position of the Union, there will be no separate negotiations between individual member states and the United Kingdom on matters pertaining to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union”. In fact, an arrangement has already been agreed in respect of another member state in the case of the relationship between Spain, the United Kingdom and Gibraltar. I do not see how, in practical terms, there could be anyone better suited to debate future arrangements for the common travel area than the officials and politicians of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. If the negotiating guidelines do not permit such issues to be devolved to the relevant authorities by the main negotiators, resolved bilaterally and referred back, then that is a defect in the guidelines which the Taoiseach should highlight on our behalf. The guidelines should be improved.
It is clear by that the integrity of the Single Market requires free movement of workers. The UK can no longer buy into free movement so it seems inevitable that the Single Market will be closed to it. Closed to it also, unless we come up with some radical solutions, will be the customs union. Ireland will be partitioned by an external frontier of the European Union, with the obligation to police it accordingly.
I have spoken at length on the all-island related issues, and so has the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Howlin. The Taoiseach is aware of our views; we have voiced them often enough here. We advocate an all-island, all-Ireland approach, taking guidance and using some of the models that are available from the Good Friday Agreement. I have no doubt but that solutions are available, provided there is goodwill and some imagination. To use diplomatic language, there will be talk of "variable geometry". Free movement of workers does not raise exactly the same issues as free movement of British and Irish citizens. They are not the same thing. There are parallels but they are not the same thing. Free movement of goods requires separate consideration again. It may be that some of this, for some purposes, will mean moving the Border into the Irish Sea. It may be that our ports and airports can be more effectively policed than the Irish land frontier ever could. We are all united in this House in not wanting to see a land frontier dividing the island of Ireland. As I have said, I cannot imagine anyone better placed to debate these issues with a view to resolving them than teams from Britain and Ireland. The common travel area and the effect of the EU’s new border on our island are by no means the only issues we have to face, although they are the most obvious. The draft guidelines, with their insistence on a firsts-thing-first approach, manage to postpone consideration of these vital issues. It would be a tremendous waste of time and resources if the negotiating teams spent two years locked in argument over disentangling the United Kingdom from the Union - and from Union rights and obligations - without any attempt to sketch out our future relationship. The Taoiseach should respond to that point because it is vital to how these negotiations go forward and their impact on us.
It is important to provide clarity and legal certainty about the immediate effects of British withdrawal but that requires clarity and certainty about the day after tomorrow as well as tomorrow and about the position in March 2021 as well as in March 2019. It must be remembered that, under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, these talks are meant to be about negotiating an agreement with the UK, and "Setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union". The future relationship must, from the start and always, be to the forefront at these talks. It cannot be relegated to subsequent consideration, and certainly not to being considered only after bloody-minded infliction of punitive divorce terms and the extraction of a multibillion settlement. That is where there is such doubt about the Taoiseach's negotiating stance and his following, in detail, Mr. Barnier's approach without putting the Irish interest first, frankly. The sort of approach which still seems to appeal to many of our counterparts would do enormous damage to this country and this State. The draft guidelines state, "An overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship could be identified during a second phase of the negotiations". I have the charts in my office, as does the Taoiseach, of how the whole thing is to happen. We all have them. We need to discuss them because there are dangers inherent in the design of the architecture that the Taoiseach is building.
The second phase can only begin once "sufficient progress has been made in the first phase towards reaching a satisfactory agreement on the arrangements for an orderly withdrawal." The authors are seemingly oblivious to the direct contradiction between insisting on this phased approach and the earlier insistence, set out as the second core principle-----
-----that negotiations must be conducted as a single package in accordance with the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Which is it to be?
We have published a very detailed statement on Brexit. The Labour Party has recommended 20 separate actions which need to be addressed in terms of the island of Ireland.
In terms of the Taoiseach's communication with me - he did not get a chance to stand up and say it - a consolidated policy paper is being prepared and will be published in advance of the European Council on 29 April.
The Minister of State is completely out of order this morning. I do not want any other interruptions. The Minister of State is concluding this debate. If there are points that he wants to take up, he should read what Deputy Pearse Doherty and Deputy Burton have said. He can put them into his notes and address them in his reply. He should not interrupt people. We will move on to Deputy Coppinger. I am asking her to correct the record because nobody's place was changed.
The Deputy should not make statements like that. It is up to her if she wants to respond.
I am sorry. I am so used to the Labour Party not being here. I am sharing time Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, who is at a committee meeting but who will, I hope, be here shortly.
A strong backdrop to the European Council on the 29 April will be the fallout from the first round of the French presidential election. I will focus my remarks on that election and the general situation in France because both serve to highlight the crises being faced by European capitalism. All the ingredients in the election are the result of a crisis in this system in the past few years. The election will be a historic one and in order to understand it, we must look at the context. The election comes after years of vicious austerity policies implemented by the outgoing Hollande Government and by the Sarkozy Government which preceded it. In the past year there have been huge attacks on the historic gains of the working class in France, on the retirement age and on the right of workers to enforce collective bargaining. There have been laws to create precarity and these have been combined with an attack on democratic rights, with protests and assembly being declared illegal.
The racist and thuggish policing of minority communities has continued and was given the green light by a French Government that has attacked the citizenship rights of migrant communities and the right to asylum and whipped up Islamophobia. The corruption of the French capitalist elite is also on graphic display, highlighted by the right-wing candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, dipping into state funds to enrich their families and close supporters. Hollande has pursued an aggressive interventionist foreign policy with the bombings of Mali, Syria, Niger and Libya. These policies gave rise to a massive reaction on the part of workers and young people last spring, with a wave of strikes, mass demonstrations and the Nuit Debout movement. The election is seeing the collapse of the Parti Socialiste, the members of which are in disarray. Like their co-thinkers across Europe, they are paying the price for their wholehearted implementation of the policies to which I refer.
Much of the commentary internationally has been on the potential breakthrough for the Front National, FN, a racist organisation which poses a real danger to workers and minorities in France. FN has tried to pose as a voice for ordinary French people and exploit the anger that exists to gain a foothold. Despite its rhetoric, however, the reality is that the FN is also a neo-liberal party. In every local authority area in which it holds power, there have been cuts to social programmes and to workers' rights. The FN is also deeply homophobic, opposes marriage equality and is against the right of women to choose. These are policies it shares with Fillon.
The most significant development of the election has been the rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's campaign. He has electrified the election and attracted tens of thousands to his rallies across the country. Some 130,000 attended a rally in Paris and 70,000 another attended in Marseilles this week, while Macron could only muster 3,000. Mélenchon has stood against the neo-liberal status quo. In his programme, he calls for a reversal of the attacks against workers' rights and for workers to have the right to a democratic say in how their workplaces are run. He has called for €100 billion in state investment that would benefit the environment and society and he has challenged the logic of privatisation and the religious creed of neo-liberalism that beset EU bureaucrats by calling for state ownership and nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, such as banking, transport and energy production. He has also called for a ban on evictions, which our Government refused to entertain, and for free water and electricity, with a ban on cutting water from people's homes. He has called for free medical care and an end to two-tier medical treatment. He has also stood strong against racism, Islamophobia and division. He is currently in third place in the polls and is challenging for a place in the second round.
The idea of a President who stands against neo-liberalism and defends the rights of workers is petrifying the establishment in France and across Europe. It is no wonder that, in recent days, a French Project Fear has been launched and has been whipped up in the media. Mélenchon has been labelled as dangerous and a potential dictator and billionaires have been lining up to say how they will flee the country. His candidature shows the potential to build a left. It also shows how Le Pen and those on the far right can be defeated.
There have now been four solid weeks of general strikes in French Guiana in response to decades of exploitation, neglect, corruption and poverty. I would like to express our solidarity with the movement there. I also express solidarity with the campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Solidarity and the left in Ireland appeal to French workers and all those who have much to lose from the current system, and from the prospect of Le Pen coming to power, to come out in droves. We appeal to women, Muslims, young people and minorities to support the idea of a French President who would stand for complete change to the neo-liberal creed and to the policies of division and fear that have beset Europe.
I want to move the discussion to a more global arena and look at some of the global aspects to Brexit. I hope these issues, some of which we have discussed recently at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence will be priorities for the European Council. My first issue is the implications of Brexit for the UK's contribution to humanitarian aid. This is not getting very much attention but the UK was a major contributor to the EU's development fund and its was a respected voice in the development of policy at times. There will be a major loss to the budget and we discussed the figures at the recent committee meeting. The question is whether the shortfall will be made up by other EU members. EU funding comes through the EU budget and the European development fund and Britain contributed 13.4% to this budget last year, amounting to €1.23 billion out of a total of €9 billion. The UK's share of the development fund was €4.48 billion out of a total of €30 billion. These are sizeable contributions and there are serious questions regarding what is going to happen if they are no longer going to be available to the poorest countries in the world.
There are also questions in respect of the absence of Britain from the EU table when it comes to development policy. Britain's was a voice in the argument that development co-operation should focus strongly on the root causes of migration, which are poverty, abuse of human rights, land grabs and climate change. No one can deny the importance of those matters. People should have to leave their countries of origin because they are hungry, cannot find work, have had their lands taken away or are subjected to human rights abuses because of their gender, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
There are major questions regarding the EU development fund and the trust fund in the context of moneys going to countries that are instrumental in human rights abuses. Instead of tackling the root causes of migration, they appear to leave people in abject circumstances so that they do not intrude on our comfortable existence. We need greater transparency and accountability on exactly where EU development fund and trust fund moneys are going.
We recently witnessed the regularisation of thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco, where, I understand, they are very welcome. This, however, cannot be at the expense of the Sahwari people. A recent European Court of Justice ruling on an agricultural deal treated the disputed territory of Western Sahara as independent from Morocco and, suddenly, there was a bigger influx of these migrants into Europe.
One area in respect of which the UK will not be missed is the fact that, under the past two Tory Governments, its policy has been leading to more privatisation of aid. At least Ireland is holding on to its reputation for untied aid. With the British Government gone from policy formulation, we might have a greater emphasis on untied aid, so that aid will be for the betterment of the receiver rather than for the economic benefit of the donor. British aid had become more and more tied to private finance. Irish NGOs have been much stronger in the context of trade deals and economic partnership agreements, EPAs, but there are major questions over Britain's trade deals and the issue of human and workers' rights. There are voices in Britain highlighting this and concerns are emerging about the appearance of a British empire part 2, in which deals will be done with dictators who abuse human rights. I read an article about Britain in The Guardianrecently which states, "A ruling elite tortured by its inability to rule the world, which believes such a role is its birthright, can still make dangerous decisions."
If the British are not in the EU, there is far more scope for them to do that.
We are looking increasingly at the potential positive outcomes for Ireland from Brexit, including the possibility of international financial sector firms moving here. It was estimated recently that if 1% of companies moved here, it would mean an extra 6,000 jobs.
It is good to see a growing consensus across Europe for further transparency on tax issues. That means public country-by-country reporting, which we seem to be resisting. We appear to be supportive of country-by-country reporting but not publicly. As such, there is a need for enhanced regulation and oversight of our tax policies because our reputation is already tarnished as a result of the term "tax haven" being applied to Ireland. Those financial and taxation practices have an impact on developing countries and, as such, the question is whether we and the EU are committed to tax justice and whether it will be a feature at Council meetings going forward. The EU is the largest contributor to ODA, but UN figures show that developing countries lose more money through tax dodging than they gain in aid. The figure in this regard is $100 billion annually. As such, the question is about policy coherence.
In respect of refugees, Oxfam tells us that the wealthiest countries in the world host just 9% of the global refugee population. There are countries in the EU with very regressive policies on refugees. The mantra seems to be "good migration management", which means that the EU trust fund is being used for security and border management by states with appalling human rights records. This is at a time when certain African countries face the horror of famine. One country is already experiencing a famine and three others are on the brink. Where is the awareness and willingness to cope with these matters at European Council level? I am talking about northern Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. The UN has designated what Yemen is experiencing as the worst humanitarian crisis across the globe, with 70% of the population depending on humanitarian assistance.
The conflict in Yemen is fuelled by official arms sales by some EU countries and other western states, primarily the UK and the USA. Will that be raised at the European Council meeting this week as well as at UN level? Will Ireland be an influential voice to stop countries selling arms, which practice is fuelling the conflict, and will we condemn sales of arms to Saudi Arabia by the UK and other member states? Where are the voices of the EU and Irish ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and what is our embassy there doing? Is it making known the concerns about this? There will be a Yemen donor conference in Geneva this month and it is important for our Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to attend. If he does, will his be a strong voice on these matters?
As of 15 March 2017, the humanitarian response plan is only 7% funded. Ireland has been very strong in its commitment to humanitarian disasters. However, while we are talking about narrow interests here, there are people in certain countries in the world who are starving. There are hundreds of thousands of malnourished children. Where stands the European Council on that? It is providing funding, but is that funding going to the right places?
Finally, I return to Palestine. The EU is demanding that Israel put an end to the demolition of Palestinian homes in Area C of the West Bank at the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar where there will be a forced transfer of residents in violation of the Article 49 of the Geneva Convention. Article 49 prohibits individual or mass forcible transfers as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territories of the occupying power or any other country, occupied or not. Nevertheless, the European Council is not a voice in that regard. While it says the words, it is not taking matters further. What can the European Council do to protect these Bedouin people and to uphold and respect the Geneva Convention? Palestinian human rights organisations confirm that 97 Palestinian people, including 36 children, were killed in the West Bank and Gaza in the past year alone. A hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners is impending. I acknowledge those Israeli groups and individuals who do not subscribe to what has been going on in their country. However, the fact is that Europe is sustaining illegal settlements.
There are a number of countries which do not have embassies in Ireland but whose ambassadors to Britain also present credentials here. That is an important link with those countries. Are there any plans to deal with that issue in light of Brexit?
The 2017 management plan of the EU Directorate General on Agriculture and Rural Development states:
The last reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was agreed in 2013. Since then, significant developments have taken place:
First, falling agricultural prices have left farmers feeling highly vulnerable. Unfavourable terms of trade for the sector may well persist for some time.
I note that it is not a question of "may" but rather that they will persist. The plan continues:
Secondly, the Commission's 'Trade for All' strategy has led to an increased number of international negotiations which in turn increases the pressure on the EU agricultural sector.
Thirdly, agriculture and forestry sectors need to play a key role in our new EU 2030 climate and energy framework, as well as to respond to ongoing global challenges such as migration and the new Sustainable Development Goals.
There are huge issues here but the fact that - while probably an oversight - this meeting nearly slipped through without pre-Council statements taking place in the House raises the question of whether we are ready, thinking properly and focused. The head of Dairygold says that unless an EU plan to combat customs and tariff barriers is put in place, rural Ireland will be decimated. We can talk all we like about post offices, road traffic laws and other issues affecting rural Ireland, but this is a bombshell waiting to explode. It will explode if we fail to obtain meaningful respect for our vulnerable situation and, indeed, that of our counterparts in Northern Ireland who currently trying to form an Executive.
Regarding the North, we must push the Border back to where it should be in the first place, around Ireland as an island off the west coast of Europe, surrounded by water. Now is our chance. I believe that passionately. We must do so in light of the prospect of tariffs and barriers. I think of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle who travels to the House from Donegal and who passes through the North, crossing the Border at many places where there used to be controls. I recall all of the skullduggery that went on in areas along the Border, including smuggling and God knows what else. We cannot have that. We have motorways connecting everything now and the existing position has to be maintained at all costs. I note the implications of Brexit for EU citizens, which is not being dealt with properly. The EU has been blasé about this and probably thought it would never happen, but it has. It is time for the EU to pinch itself, wake up and smell the coffee.
This is coming down the track and it is not going to be derailed. There are huge issues and we need to get bang for our buck. We have been the exemplary Europeans and the good boys in class and it is now time we were supported by the EU 27 and got a bit of payback. Some may claim we have been supported well by Europe, but that is questionable. Nevertheless, if we are going to stay in the Union while our nearest partners go out, there will be huge consequences. That is not being engaged with properly. What is the point of EU Council engagement by Ireland if there is still a shortage of personnel in Departments to deal with the issue? This matter was also raised yesterday on Leaders' Questions. I ask the Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, to outline what specific personnel have been put in place in Departments, what specific roles they have, what specific issues they have raised and what timeline of debate and discussion with EU counterparts has been set. We need a headcount on this to dispel the myth that they are not in place. We need to be told who they are, how they are earning their crust and what they are about to deliver or trying to deliver for our country. I see the Taoiseach conferring with his senior officials and I hope we get those answers, if not today in the Minister of State's reply, then in writing at a later time.
This is serious stuff. We have never been at such a juncture before. I was going to school when we joined the EU and while we have been there for better or for worse, divorce is here now. Divorce was introduced in Ireland a long time ago and I see there was a Bill last week to shorten the time to get one, but Brexit is a divorce for which we are not ready.
The two parties are going two steps forward and one step back. This is a divorce that is going to happen. There is a date and cut-off point. The article has been triggered, and it will be a very unholy and messy affair if proper planning is not put in place for it. It is kind of foisted on the couples without arbitration and without mediation, so now it is bitter warfare, to use the parallels of a couple separating.
I want to raise the issue that was raised by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, which is the financial contribution the UK was making to international aid and to different NGOs that are working in the most horrific of situations. I thank the Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing Deputies Noel Grealish, Michael Collins, Kevin O'Keeffe and me a debate this evening in Topical Issue matters about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. That is happening and we are all turning a blind eye to it, or not turning our eyes to it, which we should be doing. I thank them for giving that time and hope that we get a good response from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. A huge contribution has been made by the NGOs and almost €2 billion will be lost from that fund. I also have concerns, like other Members, that some of these donors are donating the money for their own benefit. It is not because of moral ethics or humanitarian needs that they give it. They are pulling the strings. Big business in Europe, including the bankers and all those in the big high-rise buildings based around the EU capital in Brussels and elsewhere are pulling the strings. The tail is wagging the dog of the EU masters. The big businesses are calling the shots.
There is an ongoing migrant crisis internationally, as we know. The inability of the EU to effect the international plan to deal with this has been dismal, appalling and a glaring example of how we have failed to handle humanitarian issues. The European banking sector is indeed in need of reform. It is stopping us from reforming ours. We know how bad ours is. German banks have community banking, as does Switzerland. Different models were put up for examination, and I compliment the Public Banking Forum of Ireland. We are not going to get a look in here. The pillar banks and the Central Bank, with its tentacles reaching in everywhere, are stopping that. People can get loans in European countries for 2% interest rates. We are paying between 4% and 7% here.
We are being destroyed as an economy by the greed and the control of the Union and what it is doing. That is maybe why we got Brexit. There are very good business-minded people who thought it would not happen, so we let it drift on thinking it would not happen and, all of a sudden, it happened. The gun is loaded and is ready for the gunpowder to be ignited and for the bullet to be let out. It will not be a silver bullet for us. It will be a nasty bullet for us. We are sleepwalking into it - pardon the saying, and I do not mean to be disrespectful to anyone. We are not giving the due diligence and due concern that we should be giving it here. We have Dairygold and big businesses like that that are world-renowned. They might not have the best of practices and might need to be investigated but they are flagship developments. We need to sit up and listen when they are concerned and when other Europeans are concerned about the European nucleus that wants to hold on to the power. They are being cajoled on an hourly, probably a half hourly or even on a by-minute basis by the big business in Europe.
We cannot be left with a hard Border, with an unfit for purpose vehicle for our exporters, for our road hauliers and goodness knows for so many other things. We are an island country. We export much of our produce both to the UK and to other parts of Europe and farther and we cannot have these tariffs. The European Central Bank, ECB, is still clinging on to an old model. The model is broken. We often say that if it is not broken, do not fix it. The UK has driven a coach and four through it. That is its democratic decision and there may be a good reason for it. It is broken, so we have to get that mindset away from the ECB and clinging on to that old model. The ship has sailed and if we do not get the life buoys and jump soon, we will all be left in the you-know-what.
European policy is directionless on a whole host of issues. I mean that very honestly. The migrant crisis is one of the issues. It is a very obvious, pertinent and timely issue. European policy is directionless and has lost its vision, certainly since the founding fathers and what they set it up for. The EU seems to care little about us lesser minions here on this side of Europe, who have been the good boys in class, have done all the rights things and obeyed and accepted everything. We accepted many directions here without even contesting them, when there are chances here, and this is still going on, for us to get exclusions and derogations. We do not even ask for them. We just say to pile them on. What do we often do? We add more to directives here to make it more punitive on our rural community and our people. Rural Ireland is languishing in the depths at the moment. This could have astronomical effects on it if we do not step up and do our job.
I want to return to a point I think I have made to the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, in the past. It is worth repeating that I think our interests in this European Council and in the upcoming talks around Brexit are that we play a constructive role in trying to get agreements on some of the standards and working arrangements that are not necessarily the big headline issues around trade agreements. We have to get the UK to buy in to existing and future standards and regulations from the European Union if we are going to minimise the effect of dislocation. To make that point and to give credence to it, I want to give a couple of practical examples of what I am talking about.
The first area is energy. We have to think big and long-term for energy. We have to think of the next couple of decades rather than just the next two years if we are to get a relationship that is going to work. I would love for the UK to reverse out of this Brexit process, but that does not look likely. If we are going to think, let us think of decades rather than just the next couple of years. In that period, we are going to have to decarbonise our energy system completely. We are going to go to a variable power supply. It is clear now that renewables are winning. It is going to require an incredibly complex balancing system to allow that to provide for our industries. We know now that technology has come down in price. The key thing is around some of the standards and market rules to make it work. It is not in any trade agreement. It is about specific sectoral agreements.
For example, in the area of energy, one of the projects that I think is going to come in the next decade or so is a big offshore development in the Irish Sea. Offshore wind energy has come down in price and is competitive. It is competitive with any other fossil fuel and is half the price of nuclear energy. People are now looking at the prospect of us building something like 3 GW worth of offshore wind power facilities in the Irish Sea and connecting it to the Isle of Man. I know this sounds slightly fanciful or scientific, but this is the reality of what people are thinking about now. It will use a converter station on the Isle of Man and ship that power. There will be a grid line coming from Scotland, a grid line coming from Ireland and a grid line going into Wales and England. That is what people are investing in and thinking about now. These are the projects that are real. The Danes recently showed that they can bring the cost right down. This can be done by getting the market rules conditions right, which takes uncertainty out. It is all capital costs, so by bringing uncertainty down, the costs come down. The Danes got bidding prices right down to 5 cent per kilowatt-hour.
One of the things we need to do in the negotiations and which needs to be done reasonably quickly is to ask if we are agreed on the market rules around how these interconnectors work. Are we agreed on the half hour or 15-minute balancing arrangements to make this wider regional market work? Are we going to agree on the digital communications systems that will back it up? When power is being shipped over distances like that, it is run on a very complex network system which comprises not just cables but also a digital network. We need to get those standards right. The UK will want to do this. It just published a policy document saying that, going forward until 2030, its big investment is in offshore wind and in interconnection. It is short of power. Its only other options are expensive, so it will want to do it. It is in our interests to do it. If we get it right, not only do we get it right for east-west connections, but it will also help North-South connections, and it will help our economy because we have a very large sea area and very strong wind resources. I do not think the agreement on that set of rules can wait. Rather than wait until after Brexit and all the other stuff is done and then start talking about those arrangements, we are better off getting in early on that set of details.
The second example, and it is related, is that I said that that energy network we are going to have to build is also going to be centred around a digital network. The switching on and off of devices for energy efficiency will be involved in this balancing system.
That requires digital signals and the sharing of data.
The second big area of critical importance for our economy is to get the rules on digital policy agreed, not necessarily in any trade agreement but we must agree on what will replace the privacy shield and the former safe harbour arrangements. Do we trust our data if it is over in the UK? It will affect the companies in the silicon docks here. Everyone is rightly concerned about agriculture but if we do not get those standards arrangements right, it will be the first shock. It will be a shock if, the day after Brexit, people are told they cannot buy anything online from the UK because we do not trust its entire system. Those standards around privacy, access to data and copyright are really complex legal areas where we need to adapt and change to make sure we have the public confidence to operate these systems. We saw in our debate last night on the water issue what the lack of confidence in sharing data and information can do. The capability to develop this new economy can be shattered. It is absolutely in our interest. I am speaking for my constituency of Dublin Bay South. We have 50,000 to 60,000 jobs in this industry. If we can get this right it will be hugely important for our industry here but it is wider than that.
There are risks involved. The UK tends to be good at digital policy so it will be badly missed from the European Union for the formulation of digital policy. We tend to be slightly closer to the UK, because we are both common law systems, than we are to a German or French model. It is in our interest to make sure the UK is still involved in setting, adapting and abiding by those digital rules. One risk is that there will be complete dislocation if the UK is just shut out because then we will be on the far side of the UK in a very difficult way. The other risk is they may go and just have higher standards and better rules and we would lose some of the investment we get here. It is those standards we need to get right.
When we discussed this a number of months ago, the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, said we will do the difficult Brexit stuff first and the divorce Bill, and six or nine months later, if it is going well we will maybe start to set up the talks around those further strands. I do not know if that is in our interest. It would be better for us to act in some ways as an interlocutor and to use our strategic position to create a safe space before we even start talking about this because it is incredibly complex stuff. In a sense, we hold the cards because I cannot see the UK walking away from digital, energy or environmental standards that the European Union sets. The UK is not big enough so it risks being cut off if it ignores those standards. I think it will opt in. If it opts in to those standards it is as significant as all the talk about trade arrangements and tariffs and so on. We need to get the standards and regulations right. In some way, it is an opportunity for us to look at where those standards in digital policy are going. In my mind, we need to go to a much more citizen centred standards approach on digital policy in the European Union and not just a system of big state control or one of huge state surveillance. There has to be trust in these networks. It should not be a system in which only corporate interests such as the Facebooks, Googles, Microsofts and Yahoos of this world are setting standards. It should be the European Union creating a citizen centred digital regulatory system. We have the opportunity in these talks to push that and to be seen as an ethical, high standard home of good digital policy. That is the opportunity if we take the interlocutory role in the negotiations. It is the same on energy. We should get those regulations right. The time is right because the European Union is revising its whole European governance market rule system so it is up for grabs. Why would we wait? Why would we not get in early and be seen to be an ethical leader in terms of moving to this cleaner digital economy? The same can apply in agriculture. If we set the standards on GMOs, steroids in beef and so on, they will protect our interests as much as the tariffs or other arrangements which have such prominence in our debate.
I am not closely involved in the talks but we have a lot of political capital because people are very concerned about the all-island network. We should not expend all our capital just looking at our own island. We should think slightly bigger and broader. We should put our capital behind those standards negotiations and create a safe space for talks because we get on well with the British. It would serve our interests well. It would minimise the risk of a hard Border on this island. It also places us, as a country, in a forward thinking progressive new economy area. We have good contacts in the UK Government. The permanent secretary in the area of industrial strategy is our former communications regulator. The UK energy regulator is our former energy regulator. We happen to have good contacts and abilities to talk to each other. We have a similar common law system. We should not expend our political capital within a narrow focus. We should think big, think long term and think of where the real economy is going. That would be a better strategy to apply in the Council.
We have listened with great interest to all of the contributions in advance of the European Council meeting on 29 April. As the Taoiseach and others have said, this is a crucial meeting for Ireland as it will set the initial negotiating guidelines for the talks, which will begin subsequently in great detail. We know we must listen to all the voices from around this island, as the Government is doing and will continue to do, and to ensure there is an open and inclusive approach. It is the approach the Government has adopted from the outset. The Oireachtas has a central role to play. Deputy Haughey and others were at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs yesterday when we had a very detailed and lengthy exchange. I wish them continued success. The Government has always been aware of the deep challenge that lies before us. As Deputy Martin and others have said, the potential for a good outcome for Ireland from this process does not exist so it is up to us to minimise the effect on our country and on the island. Our overriding priority from the outset has been to get the very best deal for Ireland in the negotiations ahead. The challenge is significant and many have called it the challenge of a generation. I agree with that assessment.
I will address some of the contributions made and address some of the questions that came from Deputy Martin. We will look at this with respect to all of the guidelines. It is absolutely clear that changes to EU law will be required. It seems to me to be absolutely implicit. We will look at that when looking at the guidelines. The Deputy referred to the common travel area and the 1.8 million people in Northern Ireland who have the entitlement to an Irish passport and therefore a European Union passport. The guideline text is a concise document, therefore the elements relating to Ireland are also concise. This is why we have the phraseology we have within the text. We are very satisfied with the text. It is Irish text that we have supplied and worked with our partners in Europe to achieve. It does not mean there is not space for some further clarifications.
Deputy Ryan is correct in his assessment of standards. It will be remarkably challenging for the United Kingdom, particularly given its public commentary about the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. If the UK chooses not to abide by European standards, it will cause significant difficulties for it if it chooses to continue to export into the European Union as we assume it must. The Deputy is correct. The future relationship, which will probably be a new trade deal not unlike CETA or a new version of TTIP, will not only involve the question of tariffs but the issue of standards. To date, Europe has shown leadership in global standards with respect to data and privacy and other areas.
I will respond to the contribution made by Sinn Féin. I will meet the Scottish Minister in Cork next Thursday night. The other devolved assemblies and the British and Irish Governments are all working to promote their own needs and those of their citizens. Northern Ireland is sadly at a disadvantage because of Sinn Féin's inability to conclude a deal and put the Northern Ireland Executive in place.
I had an exceptionally productive meeting with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir at a General Affairs Council, GAC, cohesion meeting at which the positions of two Ministers from the island of Ireland were put together to our colleagues. To now hear the hypocrisy of Sinn Féin talking about the Government not doing enough for the people of Northern Ireland in the context of there being no Northern Irish voice in these talks thanks to Sinn Féin and its inability to do its job having been elected by the people of Northern Ireland-----
With specific reference to these guidelines, it has always been our intention to have separate reference to the issues regarding Ireland. Round one will deal with acquired rights, budgetary issues and the issues around Ireland. These issues will be discussed separately in advance of the new relationship. There are many complex questions regarding the European Union, including the relationship between the UK and Spain with respect to Gibraltar. Unlike that instance, we have an agreement-----
-----which we thought Sinn Féin agreed with. That is the Good Friday Agreement. The situation with regard to Northern Ireland is agreed. The pathway to a united Ireland is agreed between the British and the Irish. The Government's position is to maintain that agreement.