Tuesday, 26 June 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
1. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Spain; the meetings that were held; and the issues that were discussed and the response that he received. [26549/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
I was honoured to be the first EU leader to meet with Pedro Sanchez since his appointment as Prime Minister of Spain when I visited Madrid on 14 June. Ireland and Spain have a long history of excellent bilateral relations and our discussions were especially friendly and constructive.
The Prime Minister and I exchanged views on important issues on the EU agenda, including Brexit, foreign policy issues and bilateral relations. In addition, I briefed him on developments in Ireland, including in respect of the economy, and he briefed me on developments in Spain, including priorities for his incoming Government. He assured me of Spain's strong commitment to the EU, and we agreed that the union should focus on issues that can have a positive impact on the lives of its citizens, including jobs and growth. We both agreed that maintaining an open and rules-based approach to trade is important for Europe’s future prosperity.
I briefed Prime Minister Sanchez on Ireland’s concerns regarding Brexit, particularly the vital importance of the backstop arrangement to ensure that there can be no return to a hard border on this island. I stressed that there was now an urgent need to intensify efforts if we are to reach agreement on the withdrawal agreement in good time, securing a period of stability that is of great importance to citizens and enterprises in the EU and, of course, the UK. He offered me his full support and solidarity.
On migration, the Prime Minister briefed me on his Government’s decision to accept migrants on board the Aquarius, and we agreed on the need to find long-term solutions to this issue, which has become such a divisive one within the Union. We agreed that any solution had to include supporting economic and political development in Africa, and creating better life opportunities for people there, especially young people, as well as improving security and governance.
We discussed the Commission’s proposal for the new EU budget and we agreed on the importance of maintaining spending on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, at its current levels, which is vital for our rural and regional communities. We also agreed on the importance of cohesion spending. We both support a forward-looking budget to meet the challenges of the future, including considering new priorities if they bring added EU value.
My visit to Madrid included an event with the Spanish-Irish business network, where I had the opportunity to engage with our state agencies working in Spain, and representatives from the telecommunications, banking, tourism, and agrifood sectors. I was impressed by the growing and vibrant links between our enterprise sectors.
I have not yet had an opportunity to speak with Prime Minister Conte of Italy. I have written to congratulate him on his appointment and to wish him well in his new role. I look forward to meeting him at the European Council in Brussels later this week.
I have had three scheduled bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands - in Tallinn on 29 September, in Dublin on 6 December and, most recently, in Brussels on 22 March. I have previously reported to the House in detail on those meetings. I also meet Prime Minister Rutte at formal and informal meetings of the European Council, including those in June, October, November and December of last year, and February, March and May this year. We will meet again later this week. We both attended a meeting of the Nordic-Baltic group prior to the European Council last October, and an informal dinner hosted by Prime Minister Michel in Brussels in February. Ireland and the Netherlands are like minded on many EU issues, and my exchanges with Prime Minister Rutte are always open and constructive. Prime Minister Rutte has been strongly supportive of Ireland’s position and we are together in our wish to see a comprehensive and ambitious future relationship with the UK, particularly in the area of trade.
I tabled two questions regarding the Prime Minister of Spain and the Prime Minister of Italy. On 12 December 2017, the Government stated that phase 2 Brexit talks would be suspended if there was any backsliding by the United Kingdom in respect of the backstop text. Since then, the Taoiseach has said on a number of occasions that they have, indeed, been backsliding. In recent days he said that no progress had been made in turning the backstop into a legal text. Can the Taoiseach confirm his statement at the weekend that he believed there had been no progress on the backstop text? Given that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have spent months demanding progress by June, can the Taoiseach outline how he reconciles this with the fact that there is no consequence whatsoever for the backsliding? The Tánaiste said if there was no agreement or some progress, by June, it was questionable whether there would be agreement at all on the issue. While we see no alternative to the approach which the Council will take on Friday, it has badly exposed the tough talking of our Government as overhyped and more focused on headlines than substance. Can he outline what initiatives he has planned for the next two months to ensure progress is made before the run-up to the October summit?
It is reported that the Government, along with 11 others, signed a letter which has been criticised today by the French Government because it opposes proposals for a eurozone budget. Had such a budget existed in 2010, there is no doubt that the Portuguese and Irish bailouts would not have happened. It is an essential element of preventing a reoccurrence of the sovereign debt crisis. Why did the Taoiseach agree for Ireland to sign up to such a letter? Ireland should be one of the strongest supporters of the Franco-German initiative on this matter. However, at the first opportunity, we have rowed in behind a counteroffensive. Why?
I refer to the Taoiseach's visit to Spain and wish to raise the ongoing political crisis in Catalonia. Did the Taoiseach raise the issue with the new Spanish Prime Minister? The silence from many European states has been deafening when it comes to condemnation of political repression in Catalonia, which has been orchestrated mainly by the Spanish Government. There are now nine political prisoners jailed and awaiting trial for so-called rebellion for organising last year's independence referendum. In Germany, an extradition warrant for the former President, Carles Puigdemont, was declined because the court decided there was no evidence of any form of violence by the organiser of the referendum and, in Belgium, we had the bizarre spectacle of prosecutors urging a court to throw out the warrant request for two former Catalan Ministers. The position that political repression in Catalonia is an internal matter for Spain is no longer a practical way of moving forward. The Government needs to condemn the Spanish Government for jailing political prisoners and political activists and I sincerely hope the Taoiseach raised concerns about these matters in his recent visit.
ETA recently announced a definitive end to the organisation and created a historic opportunity for the Spanish Government to send a positive signal of its intent to embrace a peace process in that region, which is long overdue. Basque prisoners dispersed throughout Spain need to be brought back home as an initial step in that process. On 10 June, over 175,000 people from across the Basque region formed a 200 km human chain across the country demanding the right of these prisoners to be brought home and that of the people of the Basque region to democratically decide their own future. I am sure whether the Taoiseach is aware of these events. Did he raise them with the Spanish Prime Minister in his recent visit?
We are insulated from the fire that has taken hold in southern Europe as a result of the migration crisis. Spain is now at the centre of it, along with Italy and Greece. The Taoiseach said that the upcoming Council is centre stage.
In the Taoiseach's conversations with the Spanish Prime Minister, who will be looking at things such as a new government and security arrangements, did Mr. Sánchez give any indication as to what that might mean for us and what we might be required to support? In an earlier question today the Taoiseach cited the fact that we had previously agreed to accept 4,000 programme refugees from Syria in the last iteration of the crisis. Does the Taoiseach believe that, after the upcoming meetings, we will be looking to increase our intake of refugees as part of the overall management of this crisis and not leave everything on the shoulders of Spain, Greece and Italy?
With regard to the Dutch Prime Minister, it is true we are close and, as I understand it, an informal relationship is developing, not just with the Dutch Government but also between the Scandinavian governments, the Baltic states and ourselves as an antidote to the potential future departure of Britain from the EU. Can the Taoiseach tell me if the Dutch Prime Minister has indicated, or is there collective work on, any kind of informal meetings with such a grouping, either meeting together in advance of or separate to a European Council meeting so that it would take on some sort of shape other than just a media notion? Have there been any sort of informal approaches to how we could work with such states within the Union in a collaborative way?
Two issues will dominate the upcoming European Council meeting and we will have a chance to deal with them tomorrow in statements. Those are the issues of migration and Brexit. We had assumed up to relatively recently that the Brexit issue would be the definitive one. It may well be eclipsed now by migration. On the strong words expressed in this House last week by the President of the European Commission, does the Taoiseach remain confident that support for Ireland is solid? I am hearing reports from Brussels that the so called Visegrad group of countries - Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary - is suggesting that a deal on trade is very important and might be more important to their interests than any issue in Ireland. It would be interesting to hear the Taoiseach's view on that.
We were supposed to have a definitive decision on the Irish Border issue for this Council meeting. I expressed my concerns for some months now that this may well be fudged again and that we would be in a difficult position in the run up to the October Council. We are, however, where we are and we can only hope that all member states have a clear line supporting the Taoiseach to ensure that we too are crystal clear that there can be no ongoing trading relations or no long-term deal until these matters are resolved.
I address the issue of migration. I presume the Taoiseach expressed congratulations to Prime Minister Sánchez on accepting a migrant boat into Spanish ports when it was rejected by Italy and Malta. What did the Taoiseach suggest that Ireland, in concrete terms, could do to address the European problem with migration?
On the issue of Brexit, the Border, the backstop and all that, last week I asked President Juncker whether we could trust him and the European Union on this issue. He looked slightly annoyed but shouted "yes", that we could trust them, across the Chamber. Is the Taoiseach fully confident that the European Union, if negotiations fail and there is no agreement with the UK, is not going to protect the Single Market and insist that some sort of Border is put in place?
I ask that because while I do not trust Mrs. Theresa May one inch and I find her Little Englander, xenophobic nationalism obnoxious in the extreme, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act that passed today in the Houses of Parliament, and this has not been mentioned in any media discourse, actually has legal provisions saying that there will be no Border. Section 17 of the Act says that after negotiations, regardless of the outcome of those negotiations, there will be no customs posts, no Border checks, no random stopping of cars or vehicles etc. There will be no Border. It is absolutely spelt out in the EU (Withdrawal) Act and that is law now in Britain. They can of course change the law and I do not trust them but at least it is in the law and it has been passed by the British Houses of Parliament. Where is the guarantee from the European Union?
At least it is legal. It now has legal force. The law will have to be changed to impose a Border. That is obviously because of the pressure from this country, within Britain and from all sorts of forces but it is now translated into law. That is binding on the British Government.
Where is the binding obligation on the European Union to hold the line on the assurances that it has given that there will not be a Border? In the Taoiseach's discussions with the Spanish Prime Minister, did he discuss the issue of Palestine and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza which takes on more importance now that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, is saying that it does not have money to sustain its aid and education programmes in Gaza and the West Bank?
It is important to say, and I have said it before, that the Brexit negotiations are dynamic and things change week on week, so we have to make judgment calls week on week as to what is the right approach to take. It is my judgment, and the Tánaiste's, currently that stalling the talks would not be the right approach. What happens invariably when walking out of talks is that sooner or later there is a need to walk back in again. It is our view that what is required now is that we intensify the talks and that is what we expect to happen so that we can come to an agreement in October. As Deputies will know, the withdrawal agreement has to be ratified both by the UK Parliament and the European Parliament and we need those few months between the end of October and end of March to make sure that agreement is ratified. I am also confident that the European Parliament will not ratify an agreement that either undermines the integrity of the Single Market or for some reason would leave Ireland adrift.
When the recess comes, I intend to use that period to do some shuttle diplomacy. I have managed to meet bilaterally with many prime ministers, either here in Dublin or in their capital cities, and I intend to use the recess to meet some more, visit some more EU capitals and receive some more people here. We will also be involved in intensifying negotiations through the task force and we will have to continue to step up our contingency planning to prepare for the possibility, however remote, that there may be a no-deal Brexit.
On the eurozone budget issue which Deputy Micheál Martin raised, I am not sure which letter he is referring to but if there was-----
Yes, well, I am not entirely sure which letter that is. There is a group of us that signed letters on the digital Single Market, and a group of us that signed a set of letters a number of months ago-----
I am helping the Taoiseach out. Will the Taoiseach answer the question? It is in the Financial Timestoday. Ireland is one of 12 countries expressing concerns about plans for the eurozone area budget. It is a bit disingenuous for the Taoiseach to say that he does not know.
-----when France and Germany jointly prepared a letter where they proposed a eurozone budget. They did not suggest for a second that such a budget would be used for bailouts. It is the section in the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, that they talk about bailouts. It is proposed that the eurozone budget be used for other things and that is one we would have to pay into.
It is proposed that the ESM would do that. To answer the question I was asked earlier, I am fully confident that the EU 27 have our back.
Each member state knows that I will not agree, nor will the Government, to anything that gives rise to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
I have not heard anything from the Visegrád Group, V4, to give me concern. Deputy Micheál Martin said that that group is keen to negotiate a trade deal with the UK. Ireland would also like to have such a deal, but everyone realises that it will take-----
I thank Deputy Howlin for letting me answer his question; at least he gives me a chance to answer. I have no particular concerns regarding the V4 group, but I thank the Deputy for alerting me to that. I will make sure to check that out on Thursday and Friday. We also want to have a trade deal with the UK, but if the UK persists with its red-line issues, such as leaving the customs union and the Single Market, we will have to negotiate a new free trade agreement de novo, from scratch, which will take years. No free trade deal has ever been written in a few months; they all take years. If the UK persists with its views on leaving the Single Market and the customs union, a free trade deal will take many years to negotiate. There must be a withdrawal agreement first. I do not see how we could have a trade agreement without having a withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, first. That is my position.
The Basque Country was not discussed. Palestine was not discussed either. Venezuela was discussed, but the Deputy did not mention it so I will not go through it in too much detail.
Catalonia was discussed. I raised the issue, and I get the impression from Prime Minister Sanchez that, given that there is now a new prime minister in Madrid and a new president in Barcelona, there is an opportunity for a rapprochement. I got the sense that the new Spanish Prime Minister wants to arrive at a solution within the constitutional rules of Spain and that a more conciliatory approach will be adopted towards Catalonia.