Tuesday, 6 February 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions
15. To ask the Taoiseach if his statement to the European Parliament represents the Government's official position for the forthcoming negotiations for the European Council. [3174/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 18, inclusive, together.
I was honoured to be the first EU Head of Government to be invited to take part in the European Parliament debate series on the future of Europe. My speech to the European Parliament took place in Strasbourg on 17 January. In my intervention, I spoke about the achievements of the European Union, the benefits for Ireland of EU membership, and my thoughts about how best the Union should evolve for the future. I also spoke in some detail about the Brexit negotiations.
I stressed the importance of our values - respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law – and the principles of solidarity, partnership and co-operation and how we need to keep these to the fore as we respond to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. I said that Europe needs a forward-looking agenda with ambition and direction. Acknowledging the achievements of the European Union, we can lead the way with imagination, creativity, and courage and create opportunities for all our citizens.
Rather than looking for great institutional changes, we should focus on implementing what we have already agreed. This should include completing the Single Market, the digital Single Market, the capital markets union and banking union with a view to delivering concrete benefits for our citizens in areas that directly affect their lives.
I stressed that the needs and expectations of our citizens must inform thinking about Europe's future and that a wide debate is therefore crucial. I outlined Ireland's Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe, which I launched in Trinity College last November and which will run until 9 May, Europe Day. Our aim with this is to facilitate an open and wide-ranging debate with our citizens which will help to inform our approach on a range of key issues.
On Brexit, I highlighted the unique challenges this poses for Ireland and thanked the European Parliament for its strong support and solidarity in the negotiations to date. I also stressed the need to ensure the commitments and principles agreed in December are translated into the withdrawal agreement. I also noted our ambition for a close and comprehensive future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
In their interventions, Members of the European Parliament reiterated their support for Ireland in respect of Brexit. President Juncker's statement that we are all Irish was particularly welcome, as is the Commission’s commitment to propose continued PEACE funding beyond 2020.
In addition to the debate, I had a bilateral meeting in Strasbourg with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani. I thanked him for his strong support with regard to Brexit. We also exchanged views on the future of Europe and I expressed appreciation for his initiative in bringing forward the series of debates in the European Parliament. I also had a bilateral meeting with the European Parliament’s chief Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt. We discussed developments since our last meeting in Dublin in September, and I expressed my sincere appreciation for his understanding and his commitment to ensuring that Ireland's unique concerns are addressed. I also attended a lunch hosted by the first Vice-President of the Parliament, Mairead McGuinness, which was also attended by party group leaders and other MEPs.
I met briefly and exchanged a few words with President Juncker and Michel Barnier, although I did not have a formal bilateral meeting with either. I had a short bilateral meeting with Commission Vice-President Katainen in relation to Mercosur. I emphasised our commitment to free trade generally but highlighted our strong concerns around the very sensitive beef sector and our views on what should and should not be included in any agreement.
I find how the Taoiseach has articulated this to be extraordinary. He said that he spoke on his thoughts about how Europe should evolve and on the future of Europe. He said two or three times today that he did not share his speech to the European Parliament with any of his Cabinet colleagues. I must remind him that the constitutional framework under which he has his position is far different to that of President Macron or indeed President Trump. Those leaders are directly elected by the people. The Taoiseach is not directly elected by the people. Parliament elected him as Taoiseach and when he speaks to the European Parliament on the future of Europe he speaks as Head of the Irish Government, not in a personal capacity. I find it extraordinary that he has presented a case today that, in speaking to the European Parliament, he was essentially speaking in a personal capacity.
The future of Europe is not an issue of conscience. It is an issue of substantive policy and it is extraordinary that in preparing a presentation to the European Parliament on a live debate on the future of Europe, he does not feel any necessity to convene a Cabinet sub-committee, which is specifically in place, on Europe. He did not consult with his Cabinet colleagues or the Parliament here in terms of the future of Europe, including issues such as federalisation and a closer banking union or what will happen if there are further issues with banks concerning guarantees of deposits. There is a whole range of issues out there. Some of the European leaders are pushing for closer harmonisation and closer integration, while others are pursuing different agendas.
From the Taoiseach's perspective, only his personal thoughts were articulated. That is an extraordinary take on the situation and in my view is an incorrect approach that is not in keeping with the constitutional framework governing the position he holds as Taoiseach of the country. We function with collective responsibility in this Parliament. He is a member of Government and he speaks on behalf of that Government. He should not speak in a personal capacity on such a key issue, which involves all of our futures. He committed to prior consultation with this Parliament prior to major European debates, and he did not do so on this occasion. He might indicate the reason why that happened.
I will focus on the Taoiseach's address in the European Parliament and the meetings he attended in Strasbourg and will turn to the theme of Brexit, which dominated and underpinned both of those events. Downing Street has unfortunately restated its determination to leave the customs union and Single Market in the past 48 hours. Mr. Barnier stated yesterday that Britain will face unavoidable barriers to trade if that happens. The Taoiseach and I can agree that both of us want Britain and the North of Ireland to stay in the customs union and the Single Market. We both desire that and notwithstanding any backstop agreement that might be in place, that is the best outcome for Ireland. I appreciate there is a difficulty where there is a negotiation between Britain and all of the other member states while within Britain, the Tory Party is divided with different opinions held within it. It is very difficult to know who has the upper hand and what exactly is happening and what exactly the British Government wants at any given time.
Given those meetings, is the Taoiseach in a position to update the House on his assessment as to where Downing Street and the British Government stand on any trade deal that might emerge and on what are their intentions? It seems that those who advocate a hard Brexit are again gaining the upper hand and that is playing out in a potential leadership struggle within the Tory Party. We cannot become collateral damage in any of that. We cannot allow Ireland to become collateral damage in any of that. It is important that we have as much clarity as possible.
Can the Taoiseach update the House as to when he expects the distinct strand of discussions on the Irish issues to take place? We were promised trade talks between Britain and the European Union on the future trade agreement to be put in place but also parallel talks about how we put flesh on the bones of the joint report on Ireland that was agreed and when that will be put front and centre.
I find that there is regularly an Orwellian disconnect between the pious rhetoric often associated with these set piece speeches in Europe and the aspirations that are articulated and the reality of what is actually happening in Europe.
The Taoiseach spoke about a Europe which respects the rule of law and human rights, and about peace. He then contrasted that with 90 emigrants drowning in the Mediterranean. This month, 246 people on one boat drowned because Europe does not want to let them in and because of what European states have done to wreck Libya and the consequences of that. Where is the respect for human rights and the sense of solidarity in all of that? I do not understand it.
Similarly, to return to the issue of Palestine, I do not understand how we can talk about respect for the rule of law and yet the European Union does nothing whatsoever about the fact that Israel acts flagrantly in breach of United Nations security resolutions on the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. There is ongoing ethnic cleansing but it does nothing. It does nothing about the fact that it continues its murderous siege of the people of Gaza, and sanctions are not taken. I genuinely do not understand it. At a certain point, the world acknowledged that apartheid South Africa was a regime that could not continue. At what point will the European Union say that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians cannot continue, that we will no longer continue to treat it as a normal state and that we will impose some sort of sanctions? We have tried conciliation for decades and it has not worked. The situation just gets worse.
Before the Taoiseach comes in, I would not want to inadvertently mislead the House. The Taoiseach tendered for market research on that issue and we were told it would be published. He might check that.
-----but I am happy to confirm once again that I have no difficulty whatsoever in publishing the outcome of any market research commissioned by my Department. I am happy to give that commitment.
In terms of my speech to the European Parliament, I was not speaking in a personal capacity; I was speaking as Head of Government. I was invited there as Head of Government but it is not required and has never been required that speeches made by a Taoiseach, a Tánaiste or a Minister in any international forum, whether it is the United Nations, the Council of Europe-----
-----the European Parliament or any other parliament requires a Government decision or parliamentary approval. Anything that requires a Government decision has to go to Cabinet and anything that requires parliamentary approval has to come to this House and the Seanad. I did not make any policy commitments on behalf of the Government or the country and anything I said was very much in line with Government policy. If there is something in particular I said that Deputy Micheál Martin objected to or that was contrary to Government policy-----
If the difference between us is process rather than substance, fair enough. If the Deputy has any substantial criticism of anything I said to the European Parliament, he might have mentioned it. However, he did not.