Wednesday, 31 January 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements: Supplementary Questions
The Taoiseach read the following reply: I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 21, inclusive, together. I travelled to Budapest on 4 January for a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and onwards to Sofia on 5 January to meet Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. I was accompanied on both visits by the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee. The meeting with Prime Minister Borisov was an opportunity, in particular, to have detailed discussions about plans and priorities for the incoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council over the next six months. The visits were also part of the Government's ongoing programme of political engagement with EU partners in the context of discussions on the future of Europe and the Brexit negotiations. Agendas for both meetings included Brexit; enlargement of the European Union, particularly into the western Balkans; the need to ensure the EU remains economically competitive; the post-2020 European budget; and bilateral relations. I thanked both Prime Ministers for their support and understanding on the specific Irish concerns arising from Brexit. This was especially important in facilitating the agreement reached at the European Council in December, allowing negotiations to proceed to the second phase. In reply, both Prime Ministers expressed their continuing support for ensuring the commitments entered into are delivered in full, including in the legal text. While Brexit does not affect countries in central and eastern Europe in the way it affects Ireland, I am reassured that Bulgaria and Hungary are 100% behind Ireland's position. In addition, we agreed on the need to provide certainty to our citizens and businesses on the nature of a period of transition and to begin to shape the framework for the United Kingdom's future relationship with the European Union. Both Prime Ministers agreed that this future relationship should be as close as possible. I will continue to work closely with them and our other EU partners as this work advances in 2018. Regarding the western Balkans and their perspective for EU accession, this issue is of strategic importance to both Hungary and Bulgaria owing to their geographic proximity to the western Balkans. It is also one of the Bulgarian Presidency's key priorities. I reaffirmed Ireland's support for the eventual accession of the western Balkan states to the European Union once the necessary conditions have been met. The EU has been a driver of peace and prosperity and the forging of closer links with this region will be of benefit to the countries of the western Balkans in bringing growth and stability. In this regard, I pointed to the important role of the UK's and Ireland’s shared membership of the EU in securing peace on this island. I am, therefore, reassured that the countries of central and eastern Europe view Brexit as we do and that we view the western Balkans as they do. On EU competitiveness, I emphasised the importance of unlocking the full potential of the digital single market. Both Hungary and Bulgaria are fully supportive and agree that this is crucial to supporting the growth and jobs of tomorrow. On the EU budget, I had very constructive exchanges with both Prime Ministers on the need to ensure Europe is equipped with a budget to meet the challenges of the future. This is a debate that will get fully under way in 2018, including at next month's informal European Council meeting on 23 February. Both Prime Ministers expressed their concern to ensure adequate Cohesion Funding and both agreed the need for continued support for the Common Agricultural Policy. During the meeting with Prime Minister Orbán, I raised the issue of rule of law in Hungary and the concerns raised by the European Commission and others regarding freedoms of the press and judiciary, which I share. I also raised the Hungarian law on non-governmental organisations and its law on higher education which threatens the Central European University in Budapest and for which Hungary has been referred to the European Court of Justice. I also discussed with the Prime Minister our differing views on Europe's approach to managing migration. This matter has been difficult and divisive in recent years, including the question of quotas. As always, ensuring progress depends on dialogue and seeking to forge a genuine consensus which will allow the European Union to respond effectively. In my meeting with Prime Minister Borisov, I congratulated him on the ambitious programme set for the Bulgarian Presidency and assured him of Ireland’s commitment to working with him and his team in making the Presidency a success. Its slogan, United We Stand Strong, and the key themes of consensus, competitiveness and cohesion capture very well the essential needs of the European Union at this time. Prime Minister Borisov briefed me on Bulgaria's relations with its neighbours, Turkey and Russia, and geopolitical implications, including for energy supply. He expressed the hope that Bulgaria would join the euro as soon as possible and I expressed my full support for the country doing so. Ongoing political engagement with our EU and international partners will remain crucial, particularly as the Brexit negotiations proceed. I will continue to meet my counterparts and use every opportunity to advance Ireland's interests. I have been asked why I did not make explicit reference to these visits when informing the House of my travel plans on 13 December 2017. As Deputies will be aware, it is not customary to announce a visit until the host is ready to do so, which was not the case at the time. Plans and arrangements were still being advanced. However, I stated at the time that other arrangements, including meetings with European partners, were being prepared. This reflected the position at the time. I can confirm that the Prime Minister of Estonia, Mr. Jüri Ratas, will visit Dublin this week.
I will briefly restate the questions I posed. I said that when I asked on 13 December 2017 where the Taoiseach was visiting, he did not tell me that he was going to Budapest and it is surprising that an important visit such as that was not scheduled a matter of weeks beforehand. The Taoiseach in his reply yesterday indicated that he laid out to Prime Minister Orbán concerns in respect of the policy being pursued by his government. What reply did he get? I also asked whether any NGOs in Hungary had asked to meet the Taoiseach on his visit and whether he met them.
The Taoiseach's speech to the European Parliament was surprising in the extent to which it failed to address most of the most urgent issues facing the EU. One of these is how we react to member states that seem to reject basic democratic norms such as the balance of power and independence for both the media and academia. Hungary is a member state and we must deal with it. I do not have an issue with the Taoiseach meeting the Hungarian Prime Minister but it is striking that he has so little to say on this core issue. What does he think the Union should do when a member state tries to put the judiciary under the direct control of government, attacks journalists and tries to undermine funding for NGOs? Like Deputy Howlin, I would like clarification on whether the Taoiseach made any attempt to meet civic society representatives in Hungary during this visit. This will become a bigger issue in the near future. The far right FPO in Austria will, if it is true to past form, start attacking important pillars of the Union. Last weekend, a journalist was physically attacked at a press conference held by the Czech President and the new Czech Prime Minister verbally attacked a journalist on the same day. Is it not reasonable to expect the Taoiseach to be clearer on this issue than he has been and to be so in Strasbourg, Brussels and elsewhere? He said he would raise the issue of the rule of law in Budapest. What exactly did he say and what was the response?
Concerning the meeting with the Bulgarian Prime Minister, will the Taoiseach be more specific about the proposals he put to him regarding Ireland's priorities within the Council of Ministers?
The European Council President, Donald Tusk, at the EU summit in December endeavoured to launch a major review of the Union's migration policy. It seems that there was much disagreement on this issue and that Hungary and other member states were opposed to mandatory relocation quotas. It was agreed to set up a fund to stem the flow of illegal migration and to consider further the reform of the Dublin Convention at the meeting to be held in June. Given its geographic location, Ireland is not at coalface of this problem but I hope that our approach is based on the view that this is a humanitarian crisis that needs a humanitarian response.
There has been an increase in illiberal tendencies within the EU in recent years. Traditional liberal and democratic values are being challenged in Poland and Hungary, in particular. The EU has invoked Article 7 in respect of Poland in response to changes made to the appointment of judges there. Hungary is siding with Poland in opposing this move by Brussels. In addition, both countries are opposed to deepening EU integration. The Council will have to address this issue. Sanctions may be imposed on Poland and the flow of Structural Funds may be hit. Did the Taoiseach discuss this matter with Prime Minister Orbán? Did he also discuss the issue of tax harmonisation with him? I presume Ireland and Hungary have the same view on this. All of this can be viewed in the context of the future of Europe and the ongoing debate in this regard.
Viktor Orbán is part of a dangerous political cancer that is growing in Europe, which is characterised by extreme racism, authoritarianism and anti-democratic tendencies and which in some cases, is directly linked to fascist organisations.
While it is reasonable to say we should talk to people even if we disagree with them which I know is the Taoiseach's standard line on these matters, there is a problem and a line in terms of what is acceptable. To take the obvious example, appeasement did not work with the fascist movement in the 1930s because it was not interested in democracy. It was interested in promoting a filthy, racist, anti-democratic, authoritarian version of politics. This week Viktor Orbán is meeting the Freedom Party of Austria which was set up by former Nazis. They are clubbing together as an extreme right-wing group which is promoting racism, flouting the UN Convention on Human Rights when it comes to the treatment of immigrants, suppressing press freedom and compromising the independence of the judiciary. At some point the Taoiseach has to recognise that when democracy, whatever stripe one supports, is under threat from people such as Viktor Orbán, we have to take a clear stand against those politics and begin to work out a strategy to defeat rather than conciliate it.
Prime Minister Orbán gave me and the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, quite a lot of time. There was an opportunity for the two of us to understand, parse and analyse his philosophy a little better. Essentially, he believes in four pillars: Christianity, the Hungarian nation, the family and competitiveness. Even though his party is part of the same political family as mine, it is fair to say we are at the opposite ends of the internal spectrum. We are more secular, globalist and internationalist and have a wider view of what family means, but we are very much aligned with Mr. Orbán's party on issues surrounding economics and competitiveness. As Deputy Seán Haughey pointed out, Hungary and Ireland share the same view on tax. In fact, it has a lower corporation tax rate than we do and will certainly be an ally of ours in opposing any attempt to remove tax sovereignty from member states. We have a similar view on Brexit and the western Balkans and share a view that the European budget should be well funded and continue to provide adequate structural funds in central and eastern Europe and adequate funds for the Common Agricultural Policy.
There are many issues on which we are aligned, but we were certainly able to discuss in detail issues on which we were not. There were no meetings held with anyone else in Hungary. I met the Prime Minister and then finished for the night and flew on to Bulgaria for further meetings. I did raise the issue of non-governmental organisations, NGOs. Mr. Orbán pointed out that the matter was before the European Court of Justice. Hungary believes it will win the case. One of the things it is pointing out - this may be of interest to Members of this House - is that Ireland has laws which ban NGOs from receiving foreign money for referenda and campaigns. I do not believe it is quite the same thing, but it is interesting that it is part of Hungary's defence. By the way, I did tell Mr. Orbán that I did not think it was the same thing. On university laws, Mr. Orbán pointed out that all of the other foreign universities had accepted the new laws. On the judiciary and the media, he pointed out that those cases were closed as far as the European Commission was concerned. The Commission is satisfied that Hungary has complied and responded to European concerns about judicial and media freedom. I anticipate that Poland will also respond to European concerns, thereby avoiding a situation where we would have to impose sanctions on it. We profoundly disagreed on the issue of migration. We are accepting quotas of refugees, Hungary is not. While we profoundly disagreed on the issue, we did agree that the Dublin Convention system was not working.
To pick up on Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett's comments, he is right. I do believe in engagement and I am not going to depart from that belief. However, I am also not naive in respect of the move away from liberal democracy which is under way in central and eastern Europe. It is something about which I am very concerned. However, I ask the Deputy to avoid double standards. I have heard people from his political movement, if not him, laud the Bolívarian revolution that happened in Venezuela some years ago. We all see what is happening there now. Democracy is being totally undermined and the country is in slow collapse as can be seen in the rise in the incidence of infant mortality.