Wednesday, 13 June 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
5. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium on 24 May 2018 and his comments on the issues discussed such as Brexit, the proposed new customs partnership with the UK, the future of Europe and international issues. [23791/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 7, inclusive, together.
I was pleased to welcome the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Charles Michel, to Government Buildings on Thursday, 24 May, where we had a constructive and friendly meeting.
Belgium and Ireland have excellent bilateral relations, including strong trade relations. We are also like-minded on many EU issues and we discussed how to further intensify our co-operation across the EU agenda.
This is particularly important in light of the debate on the future of Europe, where both of us are positive and ambitious. We both believe that we should implement agreed measures in areas that directly benefit our citizens' daily lives. For example, we wish to complete the Single Market, the capital markets union and the banking union. We want to rapidly progress the digital Single Market. We also want to develop our relations with other parts of the world.
Prime Minister Michel and I discussed the Brexit negotiations in advance of the June European Council and the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, and all that flows from it - peace in Britain and Ireland, power sharing in the North and ever closer North-South co-operation.
I thanked the Prime Minister for his strong, ongoing support regarding our unique concerns and highlighted the need to ensure the commitments and principles agreed between the EU and the UK last December are translated into legal text of the withdrawal agreement.
After Ireland, Belgium is one of the countries most likely to be adversely affected by Brexit due to its strong trading relationship with the UK. We both agreed that we want the future relationship between the EU and the UK to be as deep, close and comprehensive as possible, while insisting that there be a level playing field, fair competition and that the integrity of the Single Market be protected.
The Prime Minister and I discussed a range of other EU issues, including the EU budget. We agreed on the need to ensure continued funding for agriculture, cohesion and research and development, and to be open to looking at other areas if they bring additional European value. We both support the EU enlargement process.
We exchanged views on transatlantic relations, where we agreed on the need for a strong EU response to US tariffs. We also acknowledged the long-term importance of the relationship. We have a united front on relations with Russia.
We agreed that the EU should reinvigorate its relations with Africa to develop a dynamic and political relationship that produces results.
Prime Minister Michel had some other engagements during his visit to Ireland. I was pleased that he took the time to visit the Border region, where he was accompanied by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and where he had the opportunity to speak with people and see the Border at first hand.
My meeting with Prime Minister Michel was part of my ongoing bilateral engagement with EU and international counterparts, which remains crucial on Brexit and other important EU issues. In this context, I look forward to meeting the new Prime Minister of Spain, Mr. Pedro Sanchez, tomorrow in Madrid.
I am also scheduled to meet the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, in Dublin on 21 June and the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, in Dublin on 9 July. In addition to such scheduled bilateral meetings, I meet and speak regularly with my EU counterparts at formal and informal meetings of the European Council and also of the EPP, where I use every opportunity to advance Ireland's interests.
I attended the most recent EU summit on 17 May, the week before my meeting with the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Michel. I will, of course, attend the next meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 28 and 29 June.
The main issue of discussion with the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Michel, was Brexit and the other EU matters that will arise at the June Council. Most of us are now deeply concerned about the way the negotiations on Brexit with the United Kingdom are unfolding. Did the Taoiseach raise the following matter which might have had some consideration with the Belgian Prime Minister and will he raise it with the new Socialist Prime Minister of Spain when he meets him tomorrow? I refer to the potential of extending the period of time for the completion of Article 50, in other words to move beyond the 29 March 2019 deadline if it was felt there was an advantage to having further time. Has that been given any consideration?
In terms of the strategic importance of trade with the United Kingdom, as the Taoiseach has rightly said, Belgium will be one of the member states that is significantly impacted. Up to now we have maintained a very strong sense of solidarity across the EU 27. Many of us were concerned that when we reached the trade section of talks, if we had not got the Irish Border matter resolved, there would be pressure put on us to ensure that the final settlement would be agreed because trade would be so important. Was that matter broached with the Belgian Prime Minister and was there a clear sense of that continued solidarity?
On the discussions on Africa, migration is a highly significant issue. It has caused political upheaval and the rise of nationalism and populism in many countries. Did the Taoiseach discuss with the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Michel, and will he discuss with other EU leaders the notion of an EU Marshall-type plan for Africa to ensure people have economic prospects in their own home countries?
As the Taoiseach said, the core of his discussion with other governments has rightly been on the issue of Brexit and Ireland has benefited from significant solidarity from our European partners. When we look back over transcripts and reports of the Taoiseach's words in recent days, it is striking how far he is willing to go to avoid admitting how a critical deadline set by him is being missed. It is unfortunately the way of these things that the Taoiseach will probably respond by saying that this is somehow the Opposition's fault.
For six months we have been told in this House and recently in Dundalk that we needed substantial progress on a backstop legal text by the end of June, and that this was, according to both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, "a very important date from an Irish perspective". We were supposed to have locked down the bulletproof, concrete and ironclad backstop text by 22 June. We were told that continuing the negotiations would require significant progress on the backstop text. Is the Taoiseach standing over the claim that the backstop as interpreted by him is bulletproof, concrete and ironclad? Can the Taoiseach confirm that it is his position that the talks will proceed without any significant progress on the backstop text?
Given that Michel Barnier has formally ruled out the UK proposals, which the Taoiseach welcomed and clearly preferred, does he accept that a new approach is required? In particular will he support a Northern Ireland-specific permanent proposal rather than continuing to focus solely on the overall deal? We were told last year that delinking Ireland from the final negotiations on the withdrawal text was vital. The Taoiseach can keep claiming that it does not matter, but he cannot keep claiming that it has not happened.
Further to the questions on trade, in rural Ireland agriculture and food providers will be most at risk from Brexit. In his discussions with the Belgian Prime Minister did the Taoiseach get into details of how best to protect Ireland's interests? What synergies do we have with Belgium on that? I understand that Belgium may have a different demographic with more of an urbanised culture. I ask the Taoiseach to update us on that.
Was trade with Asia discussed as part of the briefing, given the success of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, with Irish beef now going into China? The Asian population of 4.5 billion represents 60% of the world's population. While we may compete with countries in selling products to that market, smaller countries with significant economic relationships with the UK and which are facing risk may have some synergy regarding trade with Asia. If that has been discussed, I ask the Taoiseach to update us on that and if not, perhaps he might propose to do so.
Did the Taoiseach discuss the issue of multinational tax evasion with the Belgian Prime Minister? I say that because it was reported late last year that $221 billion worth of profits were shifted offshore from Belgium to tax havens around the world, which is obviously a matter of very serious concern to the tax authorities. That equates to about half of Belgium's GDP. We might be discussing it with Belgium this week as yet more evidence has been uncovered showing Ireland's role in the international network of tax havens. US and Danish economists have pointed out that more profits are shifted to Ireland because our tax code is riddled with loopholes than to all the tax havens in the Caribbean combined. This is further evidence that Ireland is a tax haven and is part of an international architecture of tax avoidance and tax evasion which is costing tax authorities around the world about €200 billion annually, which is absolutely starving tax authorities of revenue needed for vital public services.
Deputy Howlin asked whether it would be possible to extend the Article 50 deadline beyond 29 March 2019. I understand that is possible under the treaties, but could only be done by unanimity - it would require all 27 member states to agree to it. Currently the United Kingdom has not asked for it and I do not see any benefit in offering it at this stage. I believe the UK needs to make decisions and choices. The British continually seem to have internal debates among each other. While there has been some improvement in recent months, very often the policy of "having your cake and eating it" seems to be at the centre of the UK's requests of the European Union. Some decisions need to be made by the United Kingdom Government. Putting off a decision does not make it any easier. I would rather not talk about extending that deadline at the moment. As I have said, the UK has not requested it and so I do not think we should even consider it at this stage.
We did have a conversation about an EU Marshall-type plan for Africa. I have an interest in the matter and I discussed it in my speech to the European Parliament earlier in the year. Chancellor Merkel is also very enthusiastic about it. Belgium has history in central Africa, as do we but coming from a very different perspective and history. Both of us are very much of the view that part of Europe's external efforts in the future should be focused on Africa, in order to build up Africa as a trading partner and also to remove some of the push factors that cause mass migration from Africa to the European Union. We spoke about how if we get it right, the Africa of the future could be a little bit like Asia now, a continent where 1 billion people have been lifted out of poverty and a continent with which we now want to cut trade deals rather than provide aid to. That will require not just aid but assistance with governance, democratisation and so on.
As is always the case on European issues, there can often by agreement on sentiment and policy but when it comes to agreeing to increase budget contributions people are less enthusiastic. Ireland is one of the countries that is willing to increase its budget contribution to the European Union.
Deputy Neville asked if agriculture and trade was one of the issues discussed at the meeting. We discussed the impact potentially on the ports of Zeebrugge and Antwerp which receive a lot of trade from Britain and Ireland as well. We are very much aligned in our wishes that countries neighbouring the United Kingdom retain trading arrangements that are as close to what they are now. We also discussed Mercusor. The House will be aware that Ireland and France have expressed real concerns about the impact a free trade agreement with the Mercusor countries could have on our beef industry. What I did not know until the meeting was that this concern is shared by the Belgian Government because Belgium also has a large agriculture sector and a very important and sensitive beef sector. These talks are ongoing. We do have allies in taking the view that a free trade agreement with the Mercusor countries would benefit all economies in Europe but we must also protect sensitive sectors such as the beef sector. We had that discussion and agreement over a working lunch.
I reiterate that the deadline for the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish protocol is and always has been October. I said this last March when the European guidelines were issued. We do need to see real and substantial progress by the June summit. The European leaders - the prime ministers and presidents - will determine at that meeting whether they believe real and substantial progress has been made. While the UK's proposal last week is welcome and is a small step forward, it falls short. Without more from London, as things stand today, I cannot say that we have achieved real and substantial progress but there is still two weeks between now and the summit.