Wednesday, 4 July 2018
European Council: Statements
Tá áthas orm labhairt os comhair na Dála inniu faoi chruinniú Chomhairle an Aontais Eorpaigh a bhí ar siúl sa Bhruiséal ar an Déardaoin agus ar an Aoine seo caite. I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, 28 and 29 June. On Thursday, we met in regular format to discuss migration, security and defence, the European economy and trade and relations with Russia, as well some economic issues. On Friday morning, we met in Article 50 format to discuss the Brexit negotiations. Later on Friday, we met as the euro summit to exchange views on economic and monetary union. While Brexit is, of course, a priority for Ireland, migration is of concern to many partners and was the main focus of the meeting. In addition to the European Council itself, I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday, 28 June to discuss Brexit and the situation in Northern Ireland. I welcome that we finally agreed that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference should be reconvened and this institution, established under the Good Friday Agreement, will now meet on 25 July. I also met informally other EU counterparts over the course of the two days, including the new Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, and the new Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez.
The European Council began on Thursday with a short exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and an update from Prime Minister Borissov of Bulgaria. I congratulate the Prime Minister and Bulgaria on the conclusion of its first and very successful EU Presidency. Bulgaria has now passed the baton to Austria, which will hold the Presidency for the next six months. At the main meeting, we exchanged views on security and defence, reviewing progress on a number of fronts, including PESCO, which provides a mechanism through which crisis management capabilities can be developed by member states in support of Common Security and Defence Policy operations, as well as military mobility and funding for capability development. Ireland is a founder member of PESCO and is participating in two projects. We also heard a presentation from the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, who emphasised the importance of complementarity between the EU and NATO and the need for strong European defence co-operation. Ireland is one of six EU member states which are not members of NATO and this, along with our military neutrality, is a foreign policy strength. We are, however, in favour of co-operation with NATO, which co-operation is set out in the EU's global strategy.
Turning to jobs, growth and competitiveness, our discussions included the country-specific recommendations, trade and taxation. I am pleased that our views on taxation were taken on board and that the European Council conclusions recognise the long-term importance of the OECD work on this, while also instructing finance Ministers to work on the Commission proposals. On trade, there was strong support for the Commission's proportionate response to the unjustified US tariffs on steel and aluminium and agreement on the need to maintain a rules-based multilateral approach. President Tusk confirmed that he will visit the US on 21 and 22 July. Like others, I believe it is important to keep advancing a positive trade agenda and we restated our commitment to negotiating trade deals with third parties like Mexico, Japan, Mercosur, Australia and New Zealand. Under the heading of digital and innovation, which is a priority area for Ireland, we gave direction to EU efforts to encourage and reward disruptive innovation and help to boost Europe's success in commercialising its world class research.
Our discussions on Thursday evening included an exchange on Russia and Ukraine. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron updated us on the Normandy format meetings and, in light of Russia's failure to implement the Minsk accords, we agreed to extend the EU sanctions for another six months. I am very pleased that we also endorsed the conclusions on enlargement and the stabilisation and association process, which had been agreed at the General Affairs Council on Tuesday, 26 June, as well as the agreement on the post-Brexit redistribution of European Parliament seats. Ireland will gain two additional seats.
Most of our time that evening, however, was taken up with illegal migration. This has been a divisive issue and our discussions were difficult and lengthy. This reflects a political crisis more than a migration crisis as the numbers of people travelling to Europe illegally are well down compared with 2015, which proves that the actions which the EU has already taken are working. However, many European citizens and voters clearly fear a return to those previous levels of immigration and the political reality is that some populist and anti-immigration politicians have been elected as a result of them. In our discussions, we reached agreement on several new steps, including increased funding for the Africa Trust fund. Ireland agreed to increase its funding for the fund to €15 million, which is the third highest level per capitaof any member state. We also agreed about the need to increase funding for the facility for refugees in Turkey and to establish dedicated funding for migration through the EU budget, as proposed in the multi-annual financial framework, MFF. We also agreed to explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms and the voluntary establishment of control centres within EU member states.
This reinforces the importance of what I have described as the three-pronged approach which we need to take: securing our external borders; strengthening co-operation with countries of transit and origin; and dealing with the management of migrants within the European Union, where a balance of solidarity and responsibility is needed.
From Ireland's perspective, I stressed the need to develop a close partnership with Africa. We have to build up institutions, improve security and provide economic opportunity in Africa in order that people can enjoy better prospects in their home countries. As a result, this week Ireland agreed to increase its commitment to the EU Trust Fund for Africa to €15 million, as I mentioned. We should never forget why people risk their lives and the savings of their entire families, even those of their entire communities, to make the journey to Europe. It is because they come from countries that lack security, democracy and economic opportunity. This is a root cause and until we fix it, the issue will not be resolved.
The concept of regional disembarkation platforms is at an early stage and we will take careful note of how it develops. As I stated at the meeting, any such platform would have to be managed in close co-operation with the UNHCR, the IOM and relevant third countries and with full respect for international law and human rights standards.
As Deputies will be aware, Ireland is less directly affected by migration than many other member states. However, in a spirit of solidarity, we have played a constructive role by opting into the 2015 EU relocation and resettlement measures, sending the Naval Service to help in humanitarian efforts in the Mediterranean and significantly increasing our financial contributions. Last week, at the request of the Maltese Government, we agreed to take in some migrants from aboard the Lifeline. As I mentioned, we have also offered to further substantially increase our contribution to the EU Trust Fund for Africa. I intend that we will continue to play an active and constructive role in dealing with migration.
The euro summit on Friday took place in an inclusive format, that is, with all 27 member states present - Britain did not attend - with the Eurogroup president, Dr. Mário Centeno, and the ECB president, Mr. Mario Draghi. We agreed that the European Stability Mechanism should provide the common backstop to the Single Resolution Fund and that preparations should begin for negotiations on a European deposit insurance scheme, thus guaranteeing bank deposits across the European Union, rather than individual member states being responsible for them. Finance Ministers will bring this work forward and also examine other proposals before we review progress at the euro summit in December. From Ireland's perspective, we support the completion of banking union, with both risk reduction and risk sharing.
On Friday, over breakfast, the European Council met in Article 50 format - without Prime Minister May - to discuss Brexit. The Prime Minister had outlined her thoughts to us the previous evening at the regular European Council, stressing her commitment to deal with the Irish-specific issues and also to publish a White Paper in July on Britain's vision of a new long-term relationship with the European Union. At the Article 50 meeting we heard an assessment from Mr. Michel Barnier of progress in the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement. He stated serious divergences remained on the Irish issues, including the backstop. We all agreed that the lack of progress had been disappointing since March and that intensified negotiations were urgently needed. The United Kingdom gave commitments and guarantees in December and again in March. We need to see detailed, workable proposals from it to deliver on these commitments. The EU 27 have agreed that, if we do not get agreement on a backstop or the other outstanding elements of the withdrawal agreement, it will not be possible to finalise it as a whole, including the transition period. I am grateful to our EU partners for their ongoing support and solidarity on this issue. Ireland's concerns are at the very heart of the negotiations and the collective view of the EU side is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
I have always said I hope the future relationship between the Euorpean Union and the United Kingdom will be as close and comprehensive as possible and that it will remove any need for a hard border, but it will not in any way remove the need for a legally robust backstop to apply, unless and until better arrangements enter into force, ensuring there will never be a hard border on the island, whatever circumstances prevail. I reiterated these points to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, at our bilateral meeting and expressed my view that there was not much time left if we were to conclude a withdrawal agreement and have it ratified by the time the United Kingdom left in March. I also stated that I looked forward to the publication of her Government's White Paper and that I hoped it could be a basis for negotiations on the future relationship.
The Article 50 General Affairs Council will meet on 20 July. It will provide an opportunity for the EU 27 to discuss the UK White Paper which should be published by then. While I am hopeful we will achieve a close, comprehensive and ambitious future relationship with the United Kingdom, the Government is, of course, continuing to plan for the full range of scenarios. Our work is well advanced and we will be in a position to take the necessary decisions, if and when required. With other EU leaders on Friday, we agreed that we should all step up our work in that regard.
I assure Deputies that the Government will continue to defend and promote Ireland's interests in the Brexit negotiations and across the EU agenda.
The Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee, will speak about some of the other issues discussed at the European Council.
On a point of order, may we have a copy of the Taoiseach's script? Under Standing Orders, we are entitled to one. We did not receive a copy of the script either last week when the issue was discussed.
Last week's summit was a long one, but it did not mark any major move forward on the most important issues facing the European Union. For Ireland, it marked a moment when a deadline which had repeatedly been identified by the Government passed without progress and any explanation of what would come next. While the final communiqué addresses a wide range of issues, there were two issues that were urgent, one of which caused negotiations to continue long into the night, while the other was passed over, with no discussion and no attempt to provide clarity. Unfortunately, it was the issue of Brexit that received almost no attention. As migration was the issue that dominated most of the time and attention at the summit, I will deal with it first.
There is no question that the scale and pace of migration across the Mediterranean in 2015 and 2016 put incredible pressures on many countries. The most dramatic and difficult element of the migration was the entirely man-made humanitarian crisis in Syria. A civil war started by an increasingly repressive regime against its own people was escalated dramatically because of the decision of Russia to intervene, support the regime and target attacks against regions held by moderate forces, rather than those held by ISIS. It is a pity that many, although not all, voices in this House and elsewhere in Europe that are raised loudly in other circumstances had so little to say about the conflict when this extreme escalation was mounted. If ever there was a reasonable definition of refugee, it was people fleeing that conflict. The statement of the German Chancellor, Dr. Merkel, "We will cope", was an exceptionally brave one as it led to her country welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees. It was, unfortunately, a gesture of human decency which placed her under enormous political pressure, domestically and now throughout Europe.
The enormous pressures exerted at the height of the migration crisis have been over for some time and many places along the Mediterranean which were nearly overwhelmed are now coping well, yet in spite of this, some politicians in some countries have decided to escalate the issue dramatically. The Prime Minister of Hungary has used it as part of repeated xenophobic and deeply sinister campaigns, including the introduction of laws to close down and intimidate non-governmental organisations. It is shameful that the Taoiseach and Fine Gael remain silent on this issue and are more interested in solidarity within the EPP than with terrorised refugees. The Prime Minister of Austria has decided to make migration the number one issue for the Council in the next six months and announced that there will be a special summit in September to deal solely with migration. He announced the holding of the summer in a joint press release with his deputy who is the leader of a party that is so far to the right that many members spent their youth promoting a revision of Nazi-era history. It appears that the Taoiseach did not have time to oppose this hijacking of the European Union's agenda by the far right, but he did have time to take a selfie with Mr. Kurz. Obviously, the behaviour of the new Italian Government is deliberately controversial and inflammatory. The issue for Ireland and every other country is that we have to stop this attempt to exploit what is, undoubtedly, a serious issue as an excuse to undermine the humanitarian values which underpin the European Union.
Fianna Fáil supports the offer that Ireland participate in relocating refugees from countries which are carrying an undue burden. In that respect, we acknowledge the particularly constructive approach the governments of Spain and Greece took last week to promote an agreement.
In contrast we strongly oppose the enforcement only approach advocated by some governments. The only reasonable long-term solution is to make a major and sustained commitment to the development and reconstruction of the countries in north Africa and the Middle East which so many of these people are fleeing from.
In contrast to the deep and impassioned debate on migration, there was no debate on Brexit even though June was supposed to be a critical deadline. During last week’s Dáil statements on this issue, every Opposition party, with the exception of Deputy McDonald's, who told us we were being too tough on the Taoiseach, called for an explanation from the Taoiseach about why he and the Tánaiste had threatened so much if there was no progress by June and why they had simply gone silent when the deadline passed. No explanation was offered. I would remind the Taoiseach that both he and the Tánaiste said as early as 12 December last year that any attempted backsliding by the British would necessitate a suspension of the negotiations. They have been backsliding since then and nothing has happened. In what is, sadly, an increasingly dominant approach to Brexit at a political level in Government, nobody in this House has received any explanation publicly or privately as to why June was no longer a decisive date. More seriously, we have received no information about what, if anything, the Government intends to do to try and change the current failing dynamic in the talks, insofar as they relate to Ireland.
It is clear to everyone that the shambles in the Tory party has prevented the British Government from outlining what exactly it wants the final relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union to be. This is a shambles which has been nearly 40 years in the making and has its foundation in three generations of politicians who scapegoated Europe for everything and angrily demanded a return to a long disappeared imperial grandeur. We do not need the Taoiseach to wag his finger at the failures of the British but we need him to outline what exactly he is seeking as a final status for economic relations on this island and what he intends to do to achieve it.
There are times when the Taoiseach sounds more like a commentator on events rather than someone who is proposing solutions, and after the deadline for progress by June has passed and Ireland is now caught up in the final stages of the withdrawal negotiations, there is no sense of what his new strategy is. It appears that he kept a straight face last Friday when he solemnly announced to journalists that it was unrealistic for the backstop to apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. What he failed to mention was that he himself was the first person to propose applying the backstop to the whole of the United Kingdom. On 8 December, at the start of a round of overspinning the draft political agreement, the Taoiseach stated: “So there is a backstop arrangement in which Northern Ireland and perhaps all of the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union”. In the same speech the Taoiseach also stated that the backstop would bring no new barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland, an assurance which showed that he accepted the position of London about an east-west border.
London’s incompetence and indecision is creating a dangerous vacuum at the heart of these negotiations and we need to remember that we are directly threatened by this vacuum. It remains our position that there is no credible way of having a soft border and protecting the pillars of the peace settlement without a form of special economic status for Northern Ireland. More importantly, there is no way of addressing the economic problems of Northern Ireland and the Border region without a form of special economic status which provides access to both the European Union and the United Kingdom.
It is as yet unexplained why our Government has decided not to make any proposals for a permanent arrangement for Northern Ireland. At very best the backstop is simply that, a temporary arrangement which awaits agreement on a permanent arrangement, and given that there has been zero progress in turning the December backstop into an agreed legal text, the lack of any proposals for the permanent arrangement carries with it serious risks. The most important of these risks is that we will be faced with a decision in October or November of accepting an arrangement more directly linked to the yet to be negotiated final status or vetoing any withdrawal treaty, something which seems fanciful given the last six months and the cost of the hard Brexit which would follow such a veto.
What we need is for the Government to be more open about its clearly changing strategy. We need to know what is going to change to move away from an obviously dangerous strategy of hoping that London will either get its act together or reverse its referendum decision. Contacts with our European Union partners are always welcome, but given the scale of the dysfunction in relationships between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister and the fact that the Irish dimension of the negotiations have only three important elements, namely, London, Brussels and Dublin, why is a tour of other capitals the major initiative planned for the next month? In March we were told by the Government that it had put down a marker and that substantial progress was needed by June. The summit’s conclusions state in stark language that there has been no substantial progress. It is long past time for the Taoiseach to put aside the spin and talk candidly about why he has now ruled out his preferred outcome and what he intends doing in the next four months to change the dynamic of these critical, yet floundering negotiations.
The much-awaited European Union summit and European Council meetings last week ended in political and diplomatic failure for Ireland. This was to be a defining moment when we would see delivery on the commitments made to Ireland in December of last year, commitments that the Taoiseach told us at the time were cast iron. Despite this, he returns to Ireland after the summit with no progress, no certainty and no legal clarity. Since December, the British Government has ignored every deadline. It has acted in bad faith and its actions in bad faith are its responsibility and it is accountable for it, not the Taoiseach. That is the point I made so I hope that Deputy Micheál Martin can absorb that simple concept of accountability resting with the British for their own intransigence.
The Taoiseach, however, has accepted this bad faith and he has not sufficiently challenged it. His approach and that of the other European Union leaders has emboldened the Tory party and their fantasy Brexit. A lot of the excuse-making about the chaos which Mrs. May faces simply feeds and verifies all of that because they now believe that they are involved in a game of chicken with the rights and interests of Ireland. We cannot stop Britain from leaving or prevent it from crashing out of the European Union through bluster, whether that is by accident or by design, but what the Irish Government can and must do is ensure that Irish interests are protected, that the rights of citizens are safeguarded and that our international peace agreements are enforced. The Irish Government must make clear that it will not allow the British to impose a hard border or to walk away from the internationally binding Good Friday Agreement. The Taoiseach needs to stop rowing back from his own deadlines and he needs now to deliver on what he described as cast-iron guarantees. There should be no further negotiation on future relations until the British Government delivers on that agreement from last December. The Irish Government and our European Union partners must now develop a contingency plan to safeguard Ireland's interests, the rights of citizens and our peace agreements in the event of the British Government refusing to live up to its obligations.
We are now sailing in very dangerous waters and our navigation system seems rather scrambled. The approach of the Irish Government has become muddled and lacks the precision needed in these negotiations. It also lacks the steel necessary to influence and inform the wider direction of the European Union strategy in an effective manner. The position of "Ireland first", much trumpeted by European Union leaders and by this Government, now seems like empty words, rhetoric aimed more at keeping Irish public opinion on side than a genuine negotiating doctrine to be utilised in dealing with the Tories. The failure to follow through on the promise of "Ireland first" means that the Rees-Mogg fantasy of a destructive game of chicken between the European Union and the British Government now edges ever closer to a reality.
Tory playacting has been accepted and the Tory strategy of playing for time has been tolerated. This is to the detriment of Ireland and our national interests. It has resulted in stagnation, wishful thinking and a refusal by the Government to recognise the nature of the British Government's Brexit agenda as regards our island. It is simply unthinkable that this should remain the condition of the Government's approach during the summer months.
We need to see a radical change of tack. We need a lot more plain speaking and the application of common sense when it comes to engaging with the Tories. First, Theresa May needs to be called out directly for the game-playing and stalling for time on the part of her government and this needs to be done publicly, privately and repeatedly. There will be no progress made if the British Prime Minister believes, even in a deluded way, that the Tory approach is working. Make no mistake, right now back in London the British negotiators feel they have what they wanted, that is, the can kicked firmly down the road until October. They have achieved this without delivering any legal guarantees or workable proposals on the Irish question and they have been allowed to dodge the political agreement made last December. They have been allowed to dodge making binding commitments as regards the backstop outlined in that agreement and their obligations to set out how a hard border will be avoided, the Good Friday Agreement upheld and the rights of citizens protected. How can we accept the Ireland first position as genuine when the British have been let off the hook on so many important issues? The Government must outline how it intends to ensure these matters are addressed during the summer. What engagement does the Taoiseach intend to have with the European Union? I understand he intends to make a tour of EU capitals and, unlike Deputy Micheál Martin, I believe that is a wise thing to do. What will be the substance of that and of the engagement between the European side and the British in coming weeks?
Waiting until the autumn runs a major risk of Ireland's concerns being rolled into the wider new relationship between the EU and Britain. This would be calamitous for Ireland. We cannot simply wait until the 11th hour, put on our crash helmets, close our eyes and hope for the best. That is not a strategy. To rebuild the confidence of the Irish public in the position of Ireland first, we need to see progress, clarity and legal assurances from the British Government and we need to see that happen now.
It is clear that we need a Brexit summit focused solely on Irish concerns prior to the October meeting, not a conversation about Brexit over breakfast. This is something that the Taoiseach must put forcefully to our European partners. The backstop agreed in December - signed, sealed, delivered and enforceable - is the bottom line and the very minimum needed to protect our island, jobs and economic progress. We also need to see recognition from the Tories that the people of the North voted to remain, not to exit.
Given how the negotiations have gone to this point, it is clear the British Government cannot grasp the importance of these issues to Ireland. It either cannot grasp it or it does not care but, either way, the result is the same. If the British Government refuses to do the right thing by Ireland, refuses to produce credible proposals and continues along a path that will only deliver economic devastation and political upheaval on this island, then those decisions should be taken out of its hands and placed in the hands of the people of this island. In the event of a Brexit crash, a disorderly Brexit or a hard Brexit, to which the Tories seem wedded, the British must not imagine that the Irish people will simply sigh and resign themselves to their fate. Mrs. May and her Government need to understand that, in the event of a crash, a chaotic or a hard Brexit, they will have no democratic alternative other than to put the constitutional question on the issue of ending partition and Irish reunification. A shared, agreed, new Ireland is by far a better vision for all the people of this island than the destruction the Tories seem intent on. As somebody who is committed to Irish unity, this is not the scenario in which I would wish a debate on reunification to occur; far from it. However, if it is the case that we are left with that mess, Mrs. May needs to understand that the question, democratically, will have to be put.
I said to the Taoiseach last week that it was essential that Ireland insist on a deadline for the UK to produce an acceptable legal backstop agreement with the European Union on the Irish Border issue. I believe such a deadline could and should be set well in advance of the European Council meeting in October, so that Ireland is not forced under pressure from all sides to accept any kind of last-minute compromise on a matter of such profound importance to the future of this country and all our people.
Unfortunately, no such commitment or demand was forthcoming. I acknowledge and welcome the support for Ireland in the agreed conclusions of the European Council meeting but those conclusions are truly worrying, namely, that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop. There need to be intensified efforts in accordance with the conclusions to bring a conclusion to the withdrawal agreement. I welcome the continued support for Ireland of Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker but we must not forget that the final decision on Brexit will be made by the 27 EU countries and not by the current negotiating team, who are so well versed in the issues and supportive of us.
Few could have predicted the drama that unfolded last Thursday night at the European Council. While we have been rightly preoccupied for months with the progress on Brexit, the migration crisis has continued to engulf much of the EU and could still cost Chancellor Merkel her position. The new Italian Prime Minister used his domestic concerns to stall progress on every other European issue. I do not suggest for a moment that Ireland should employ the same tactics but we should acknowledge that issues move very quickly on the European agenda. The other 26 national governments are subject to a variety of domestic pressures and our national concerns may well, at this crucial juncture, become sidelined.
For six months we were told by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste that the June European Council meeting would be the make-or-break moment. The Government billed June as a deadline for the British and our EU negotiators to have certainty about the future but the British did not deliver and Brexit ended up being a side item on the Council agenda. It is, therefore, incumbent on the Government to take the necessary risks to demand that we have clarity on the UK position well in advance of the October summit. I have been saying for a year that constant moving of the goalposts will leave us in a critical position for October.
As matters stand, the British Prime Minister will present a third post-Brexit model for discussion to her Cabinet colleagues at Chequers this Friday. If we assume that there is an agreed British Cabinet position - and that is a rather big assumption - it will be entirely reasonable for the Government to insist that, over the next eight weeks or so, it gets hammered out into something that provides legal clarity on the Irish question. There is no point in having a proposal that is not acceptable, just to hold the British Tory position intact.
Alternatively, if there continues to be discord within the British Government, which again is a possibility, resulting in another unworkable set of proposals, then there will be even more urgency to insist on clarity well in advance of the October summit. There is a solid argument for Ireland to seek a special summit of EU Heads of Government in September to copper-fasten the Irish Border agreement in advance of October. It was a suggestion put forward by the former Taoiseach on the day he was presented with the European of the Year award. It has merit. There may well be a need for an additional summit so that we are not facing a last ditch chance in October with a variety of other agenda items.
On the terms of trade, the planned transition period provides extra time to finalise the EU-UK relationship and the details on the specificities of trade, but once 29 March next year is passed, the UK, including Northern Ireland, is outside the EU framework, and our leverage to protect the Good Friday Agreement, as we have all acknowledged in this House, is very much reduced. To be clear, Ireland's interests are of a shorter timetable than the interests of our European partners on this one matter. The fundamental economic and social pressures that will push them towards a final deal with the UK will not be in force, as the Taoiseach will be aware, until the end of 2020. The risks of a half-baked agreement falling apart in October will be felt disproportionately negatively in Ireland. We have only 268 days left to safeguard the peace and prosperity that has been hard won over more than 20 years.
In terms of the immediate social and economic pressures facing our European partners, migration was obviously the overwhelming and main focus of the Council meeting. Migration numbers, as the Taoiseach acknowledged earlier, have declined. In 2017, there were around 720,000 applications for international protection in the European Union, which is a decrease of 44% on the previous year, 2016, when there was almost 1.3 million applications. If anything, however, and I believe the Taoiseach has also said this, the political migration crisis has got much worse due to the reaction to that 2015 and 2016 peak. Clearly, the crisis has shown up flaws in the EU's systems for processing asylum applications, but the main danger is that migration has been politicised across Europe - it is now, as the Taoiseach has acknowledged, a cornerstone of the Austrian Presidency agenda - often in the context of political movements using misinformation to stoke up fear and resentment for their own political advantage in a variety of European countries.
Many of the asylum seekers are fleeing a brutal war in Syria and others are fleeing conflicts in the Middle East or Africa. I agree with the remarks of Donald Tusk, the President of the Council, that the real challenge now is to implement the migration reforms of last week. We can see domestic political strain in Germany, Austria and Italy and that will manifest itself elsewhere.
I welcome the announced transfer of €500 million of development money to the EU Trust Fund for Africa. It is something for which I called, including in my very short address to President Juncker when he was here. A Marshall plan for Europe's neighbourhood to foster economic development in the countries surrounding the EU is the best way in the long term to stem economic migration because it ultimately reduces the economic disparities between Europe and its neighbours, but it will require a great deal more money than is currently on the table.
We also need to show leadership on the migration issue in Ireland. Compared with the European countries we talked about, the ones at the coalface, Greece, Italy, Germany, Spain and so on, Ireland has relatively low migration, even on a per capita basis. I was shocked, however, by a headline in the media today that Ireland was found to be seriously deficient in addressing hate crime. That is contained in a major report published today. It is jarring for us because we did not believe that was true. Hate crime is disproportionately focused on visible minorities such as people from Africa or the Middle East. We had rightly prided ourselves as a country that has integrated many newcomers, particularly in the recent past, and that we have not had a rise of a particular political party that is xenophobic, but we should not take these things for granted.
As part of playing our role to create a Europe that is open, welcoming and tolerant, we should ensure that hate crime legislation meets international best practice. Similarly, as I have said previously, we need to end direct provision and provide a pathway to Irish citizenship for the undocumented migrants here. Otherwise we are in great danger of institutionalising a second tier of unofficial residents who are forced to live their lives in the shadows. That is not an acceptable situation. We are only dealing with small numbers of people at a time when this country has nearly full employment and we can easily accommodate the few thousand people in asylum centres now. When there are dark clouds over our Continent, let us show moral leadership on this important issue.
Yes. I am sharing my time with Deputy Barry.
The forces of hate and racism and even those who associate with outright fascism are on the rise in Europe. As important as Brexit is to this country, it pales into insignificance compared with the rather terrifying developments happening right across Europe and in the heart of the European Union. We are in a sort of happy bubble in this country in that, thankfully, no political party, at least represented in this Dáil, has sought to play the race card. For that reason, there is a sense of myopia about what is happening in Europe and it is quite terrifying. The Taoiseach should be very careful about his choice of words against that background. These developments are to be found not only in Europe but in the United States. The Taoiseach said he was misquoted about his comments in the United States and perhaps that is true, but it is very ill-judged to make any kind of common cause with Donald Trump given that he has been instrumental in encouraging these forces across Europe. They openly say that Trump has encouraged them, and these forces are on the march.
The fact that this guy Kurz from the Austrian Freedom Party, which is openly associated with and was set up by former Nazis, is now the President of the European Union, that the German political establishment is coming under pressure from the far right and has capitulated to that pressure in this anti-migrant narrative, and the fact that a hate monger and racist like Orbán in Hungary and Salvini in Italy are linked to the far right are frankly terrifying. Detention centres are being set up. There is talk of the wholesale transfer of desperate people fleeing conflicts, but in many cases the European Union or members of it have directly contributed to the disastrous conditions in the countries that have forced those people out of them, leaving 35,000 to die in the Mediterranean in recent years. What is going on is shocking.
It makes me think of the policies of appeasement and ignoring developments in the run-up to the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s where people ignored what was going on and played footsie with these people. I did not know about the selfie the Taoiseach took with Kurz and, if that is true, it is shocking. These are seriously dangerous people. Lives are being lost and incredible misery and hardship are being imposed on desperate and vulnerable people. We need to make clear where we stand on that, that we will resolutely fight and resist these forces of hate and racism and challenge them. I refer to the upscaling of the EU budget for fortress Europe, for the European wall, multiplied by five, and for more external border controls to keep desperate people out.
It was very annoying to hear Deputy Micheál Martin saying, obviously with a sideswipe at the left, that people were not jumping up and down about the Russians in Syria. Some of us were. I did not notice Deputy Martin on the marches to the Russian embassy. We were there.
I have no doubt about the rotten role of Russia in Syria but the rotten role of the European powers and the United States of America in bombing Syria is not mentioned, nor is the role of European powers in bombing the hell out of Libya and creating the disaster we now see which is leading to the horrendous treatment of migrants and deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. We need to stand up against the rise of racism and the far right in Europe. We need to be clear about it and we need to oppose resolutely the policies of fortress Europe.
The migration deal that was signed last week has been described by Oxfam as "a recipe for failure, [which] directly threatens the rights of women, men and children on the move". Médecins sans Frontières, MSF, has said that the deal "aimed to turn away even the most vulnerable people from Europe's shores". Compare and contrast the comments of Oxfam, MSF and many other NGOs with the words of Matteo Salvini, who said that progress had been made in principle on the issues of protecting the EU's external border. He said that Italy had succeeded in setting the agenda. Matteo Salvini is Italy's new interior Minister. When he took office he said he would like to organise a census of the Roma population in Italy. This census would be based on ethnicity. This is the man who said he would like to see all non-Italian Roma expelled from Italy. I suspect that this would mean an expulsion of some 100,000 people. This is the man who praised the race laws that were implemented by Mussolini.
Campaigners at the front line of assisting refugees and migrants are deeply disappointed in the results of the negotiations on migration in the EU last week. Racist barbarians such as Salvini are relatively pleased. They rub their hands and say, "Much done, more to do." The Governments of Europe, including the Taoiseach's Government, danced to their tune last week.
Let us consider the deal that was signed. There will be a stepping up of deportations and the establishment of reception centres for states that want them, which will basically turn back migrants. Consideration is to be given to the establishment of regional disembarkation platforms in north Africa. This means people would be fished out of the Mediterranean Sea and brought back to north Africa where they would be kept and prevented from getting into fortress Europe. There will be a stepping up of support for the Libyan coastguard. Let us remind ourselves that Amnesty International Ireland has said the Libyan coastguard intercepts people who are in distress at sea, transfers them to Libya where they are held in detention centres and exposed to systematic and widespread human rights violations such as arbitrary detention, torture, rape and exploitation. The system of reception centres at the borders and the disembarkation centres in north Africa would be very similar to the set-up that the US has lined up for the US-Mexico border.
Reflected in some of those decisions made in the EU last week are some of the comments of the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach is reported to have said “Some of these NGOs are doing great work, some aren’t up to much good, quite frankly.” The Taoiseach was referring to NGOs that pick up migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and attempt to bring them onshore in Europe. The Taoiseach made the very dubious claim that these NGOs are encouraging people smugglers. Contrast these comments with those the Taoiseach made about the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Victor Orbán is a hero to Steve Bannon. He was described by the United Nations human rights chief as racist, a bully and a xenophobe, which I believe is an accurate description. The Taoiseach, however, has said that, "Victor's view is that he wants Hungary to stay Hungarian." The Taoiseach went on to say that Hungary does not need migrants. What kind of a statement is this to come from the Taoiseach?
Recently in the Dáil the Taoiseach said that "We have seen how the power of the free market in Asia has lifted 1 billion people out of poverty in 20 years" and how this was the way forward in the context of migration. Leaving aside the fact that in 2016 the World Bank reported that of 766 million people worldwide who live below $1.90 per day, 33% live in south Asia, the number of people in Africa who live in poverty increases at the rate of 12 per minute under capitalism. Under the privatisation programme of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Zambia, which has the world's third largest copper reserves, has 64% of its population living below the poverty line and 80% are on less than $2 per day. Yet, we leave aside the imperial wars and interventions-----
I put it to the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, that while the Irish were campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council, we did not hear a lot about neutrality. The fact that Ireland was competing for the gig with two NATO members - Norway and Canada - might have had an influence in that we were probably more eager to align ourselves with the US than with neutrality. It could have been a significant factor. I am not sure whether Bono can spell "neutrality" anyway, so we were not expecting him to come up with it but I thought the Taoiseach might have done a little bit in that area.
There is an unparalleled humanitarian crisis happening right now in Yemen. I am not sure how much the Irish Government members say about Yemen when they get the opportunity while in the EU. There seems to be an incredible silence, even by the UN, which is not a radical group by any stretch of the imagination, about the fact that 10 million people in Yemen are at risk of starvation right now. It is reckoned that by the end of the year nearly 18 million people will be at risk of starvation. Cholera has also become a massive problem in the region. Cholera was almost wiped off this planet with the use of medication but the United States of America supported the Saudi blockade, which is stopping medical products getting in to the area, and it is frightening to contemplate what might happen there.
The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, is probably aware that a group of Independents 4 Change travelled to Syria last week. While we might not necessarily agree with our good friends, Deputies Boyd Barrett and Barry, who have just left the Chamber, we suggest that they go there to see for themselves the serious problems in the area. Members of the Irish Government should also travel to the region. They could find out that it is not actually a civil war. It is a war between the Syrian Government and various groups. The Syrian Government is supported by Russia and Iran. For legality purposes those countries were invited in by the Government of Syria. They are not imposing themselves on it without being invited in, unlike the Western powers. The Syrian Government is fighting jihadist groups such as al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. The Free Syrian Army is another section that, sadly, the EU armed and supported. This beggars belief.
We travelled to Aleppo and met some industrialists and factory owners. They showed us some of the industrial estates in Aleppo. There are three huge industrial estates there.
Aleppo once had an industry of 40,000 companies employing almost 1 million people. One of the first things that the Free Syrian Army, Al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam did when they reached Aleppo was not to attack the Syrian army, but to destroy the industrial infrastructure. They had control over much of the plant in those factories. They looted them and moved the plant to Turkey. For confirmation, Dr. Ed Horgan of Shannonwatch, who was working for the OSCE as an election monitor in Turkey at the time, was on the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015 when lorries took material out of Syria and into Turkey. President Erdoğan's hands are covered in blood. He was one of the main reasons so many jihadists got into Syria. The Saudis, Chechens and Israelis were involved. The Americans and other western powers armed and funded them. They have created a hell in Syria, but we are still backing UN sanctions. This is like what happened in Iraq. We will eventually reach the same point that we reached in 1998 when Madeleine Albright, the then US Secretary of State, said after it was put to her that the 500,000 children who had died because of sanctions was a terrible price to pay that, yes, but it was worth paying. Are we going down the same road?
Another week, another European deal on migration that treats the relatively small number of desperate, traumatised refugees who are trying to get to Europe as some kind of marauding, overwhelming army that has to be kept at bay at all costs. Let us remember why we sit here. Over the weekend and into Monday, 200 migrants died in the Mediterranean. During the first six months of this year, fewer than 40,000 undocumented migrants made it to Europe, yet we call it a refugee crisis. That is not a crisis in anyone's book. An excellent article in The Guardian made the point last week that what European politicians called a migration crisis had nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with politics. Mainstream and fringe politicians are using the desperation of people fleeing the wars that Europe happily engaged in and stoked in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to distract attention from the real problems at home. Civilians whose lives have been destroyed by war are paying the price for the rescue of the European banking system in 2010. That is the grubby, despicable reality of geopolitics. For those who call themselves liberals, it is not a place where morality is given much quarter.
In 1917, Kafka wrote a short story, The Great Wall of China, anticipating fortress Europe and the lies that would hold it together for a century. He described the construction of a great wall to keep out all the foreign marauders and the creation of myths by the leadership to make these people seem terrifying. I will not quote him because I do not have the time. The majority of us who speak about these people have never visited the lands from which they are fleeing. The dearest hope of Europe's racist hierarchy is that the people will, as Kafka wrote, "lose themselves in empty air" between those lands and Europe. Why else push them into the sea or detention camps run by armed militias in failed states like Libya?
As Deputy Wallace stated, we spent the past week with some of our colleagues in Syria. It was not the first time we went there. For the record, we paid for ourselves, went where we liked and talked to whom we liked. We would defy anyone to say that the children we met on the roads and the people we met on the streets who waved at and welcomed us and told us their stories were somehow paid by some regime. These were Syrian citizens. We met businessmen in Aleppo. I laughed as we sat there, as one of them would have been at home in Fine Gael. He was tailor-made - a businessman who wanted to make money. He came from one of the oldest families in Syria. He traded in textiles and olive oil until 2010 when he suddenly started getting leaflets. Civil movements had erupted and people had taken to the streets to challenge Assad following the Arab Spring. Many participated genuinely in those demonstrations. Six years on, not a single area that has been taken over by the rebels has any form of democratic control. These areas are run by religious courts and jihadi, bearded men primarily from other countries. People's freedoms disappeared. The people of Aleppo who stayed out of the war and were just making a living suddenly found their factories surrounded and leaflets coming in telling them to get out or die. Some of them were assassinated and their factories taken over or destroyed.
In his constituency, we made representations to the Tánaiste about discussing Aleppo with a genuine and reputable documentary maker who had gone there last November. I lay down a challenge to the Government to issue a visa to Fares Al-Shehabi, who is from a distinguished Syrian family, is not a member of the Ba'ath Party and is a Member of the Syrian Parliament, so that he might come to Ireland as a businessman and Sunni Muslim who believes in secular values and talk about what has happened in Syria.
Deputy Boyd Barrett can talk about the crimes that Russia perpetrated in Syria, but I defy him to travel there and ask the people what they think about the Russians. In many cases, they think the Russians are heroes.
Deputy Danny Healy-Rae will not be here, but I am not sure about Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. If he arrives, I will give way.
I am happy to make a few brief remarks. For most of us who followed the European Council meeting, the main point that jumped out was that Brexit received all of 60 seconds of consideration on the agenda. That must worry any right-thinking Irish person, given Brexit's imminent onset. For anyone watching, it was obvious that the bulk of the time was given over to saving Chancellor Merkel's backside from her own internal political disputes on the issue of migration. It was not the first time, and will not be the last, that German concerns dominated the Union's political agenda. It is a pity that we did not see such interest or support from Chancellor Merkel and others in power, including EU chiefs, during our banking crisis.
We read in yesterday's UK newspapers that Prime Minister May's Brexit White Paper is expected to propose that the UK remain indefinitely in the Single Market for goods after Brexit so as to avoid the need for checks at the Irish Border. When President Juncker appeared before our joint sitting, I put the example of the newly constructed border compound between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia to him. How could it be any different here if there was a hard border? It could not. I cannot imagine it.
It is also understood that, while the UK is offering concessions on financial services, it wants restrictions on the free movement of people. Therein lies the problem. We all know that the EU will never agree to this. According to reports, a former head of the European Council's legal service stated: " ... it would be impossible for the EU to split the four freedoms underpinning the bloc's internal market, which are[we joined in the 1970s]: free movement of goods, services, capital and people." Where are these freedoms now?
All of this demonstrates that we are set for another round of tortuous political wrangling that will do nothing but create a deeper level of political and economic uncertainty. Such uncertainty is already with us and growing with each passing day thanks to the utter confusion across the water. It could continue during the summer, yet only 60 seconds were given to discussing Brexit. People were concerned with massaging Chancellor Merkel's ego and giving her the royal salute. We must face up to reality. It is time that we did.
Where is the failure proof position and the cast iron guarantee the Taoiseach announced last Christmas? I think the heat is having an inordinate effect on the Government.
I do not normally find myself agreeing with my colleague Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, but he put his finger on the main issue when he asked President Jean-Claude Juncker a very simple question: can we trust him? Can we trust the European Union to finally back us when push comes to shove? Our experience following the economic crash has not been good. Their banks recklessly shovelled money into Ireland and they then penalised and crucified us. They are still doing so. Where are our friends when we need them? Will they back us? President Juncker might say it, but will it be the reality? That will be a key issue when all of what is happening back and forth finally comes to an end, for better or worse. It is time it came to an end. Can we trust the European Union not to throw us to the wolves as collateral damage in the broader scheme of things? That is the worry that thousands of Irish people and I have. Our experience has not led us to believe we can trust the European Union. Our bitter experience is that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be paying back these so-called friends. With friends like them, we do not need many enemies. Perhaps they sense that, regardless of what they do to us - they have good reason for thinking this - we will go back to pleading to be accepted as the best in the class. We have history and form in that regard. I call it lick-something-that-starts-with-an-A.
I did not offer any profanity. It is what we are good at. We want to be the best boys and girls in class at all costs and have to be up there with our cheerleaders, as we are proving every week. Perhaps they sense that, regardless of what they do, we will go back to pleading with them. Why would they treat us otherwise when that is what we do continuously? Going back to looking to be the best boys and girls in the class is not a mistake we ought to make again. I observe how quickly the Council can act when it comes to saving the skin of the esteemed German Chancellor. We spent the entire summit minding, charming, supporting and manicuring her and ensuring she would not be damaged in any way politically. We had to so at all costs. We should mind our own business when it comes to doing so. She is big enough to look after herself, as is her country. It confirms what the European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs said after the Council meeting, "The facts and reality tell us we are no longer in a migration crisis. The crisis we are confronted with is purely political." If anyone took a glance, it is a political crisis which has nothing to do with migration. They do not care, as Deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, among others, said, about migrants. I call on everyone not to protract this political crisis any longer and to get down to the real business and real work of finding real solutions.
The migration crisis is being made fundamentally worse because it is not being addressed at a pragmatic level; rather, it is being addressed in a piecemeal political manner that is making things much worse. Perhaps someone ought to point out to the German Chancellor the next time he or she sees her that her actions at the Council have proved that she is primarily interested in political survival, not addressing the scale of the migration crisis in the way ordinary people are demanding and deserve, especially the unfortunate migrants. We do not blame any politician for trying to mind himself or herself and hang on to power, but do we and the other countries of Europe have to use the entire summit to try to create a way out for Ms Merkel? As far as I can see, it is a case of smoke and mirrors. We should be more preoccupied with our economy and the difficulties that face us and the uncertainty no outcome to the Brexit negotiations causes for businesses in Ireland, especially those that export so much.
I keep asking the Minister of State about migrants in these debates. We have never had any real debate in the Dáil about the migrant crisis and the persecution of Christians and minority Muslims in the Middle East which we supported in allowing Shannon Airport to be used to refuel planes. The bigger state went in with our tacit support, even though we are supposed to be neutral, and wrecked the place. I salute Deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace for going there to see what was happening at first-hand. I went to Lebanon - I did not get to Syria - where I saw the refugee, the torturous way they were being dealt with, the never-ending poverty trap they were in and the refugee camps, about which we do not seem to care. That is what we should be raising at EU summits, given our track record as a neutral country that stood up against what was wrong and sent proud peacekeepers all over the world. We should not be out this week to primarily save Ms Merkel's skin and somebody else's next week. One can be sure it would be one of the stronger nations in Europe, one of the big boys, not the ordinary boys and girls in the class. We want to be the best in the class, look after and suck up to the biggest in the class and neglect like-minded countries and the problems they face on their borders with migration. We see the crisis unfolding on a daily basis.
I do not know how the Minister of State can go to summits and devote 90% of the time to saving Ms Merkel's skin, while ignoring the thousands of lives that have been destroyed. Havoc was caused in Aleppo and other places, as Deputy Clare Daly said, which wiped them out and there was no proper democratic solution. It is time we stood up as a nation, the proud people we are, and played our rightful part in the European Union, not just massage Ms Merkel and try to be the best boys and girls in the class.
I was fascinated when listening to Deputies Mick Wallace and Clare Daly talk about their experiences in Aleppo. I was interested because last year I was on the border between Syria and Turkey where I met many people coming from Aleppo, many of whom had been blown apart by the conflict. I would be hard put to know where to point the finger of blame, whether at Russia, America, Saudi Arabia or everyone else involved in the conflict which has drawn people from so many areas. A strength of our country is our neutrality in the sense that we can try as well as we can not to take sides, particularly in highly militarised conflicts in which in knowing what is right and wrong one can become increasingly confused in the fog of war. That neutrality gives us real strength and integrity and we should protect, defend and develop it. We should not be passive. There may be times when what is right and wrong in a conflict is clearly exposed and one can call what one sees, but sometimes that takes bravery.
Today is 4 July and in a sense se should be willing to call out our biggest benefactor. The United States is the biggest investor in this country, but we should not miss the opportunity to describe what President Donald Trump's Administration is doing along its border as being fundamentally in breach of United Nations' values and rules. It is an example of where we could be brave and stand up and call out what is wrong by not going to the Phoenix Park tonight to attend the ceremonies. It is not out of disrespect to the American people but to make a protest. Sometimes it is not just a matter of calling out what is wrong but also of stepping up and being proactive, generous and active to do what is right. Given that the Council meeting was rightly concentrated on the issue of migration which is dividing and tearing Europe apart, I would like to see us going into that forum and to see the Taoiseach in New York giving an example of how we could step up to the plate in using our neutrality in a positive way. Such an example would be following through on some of the words spoken last year about increasing our overseas aid. I recall that in the last budget it was increased from a very low level, but we are still at a figure of 0.33% of GDP.
I understand the Taoiseach said last December there would be a ramping up of overseas aid, starting with this upcoming budget. In April we had a public consultation on what the public wants from the overseas aid programme. I would like to see specifics at this stage in terms of what we are thinking in that regard. That would give us a certain strength as we apply for a seat on the United Nations Security Council or at the European Council meeting in the sense that in a discussion on migration we could rightly say we are playing our part in addressing the root cause of the problem, which is the chronic poverty, climate stress or war in Africa and the Middle East being the key driver of migration. We have reached only 0.33% of GDP while our target is 0.7%. In other words, we have reached less than half of our target. As a country, we are undoubtedly one of the greatest beneficiaries of globalisation. All the investment in our country is often in the European headquarters of EMEA, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. As a country where corporate tax returns are going through the roof because of the benefit we have of being in that position, instead of putting money into the rainy day fund, which I support, we should put it into overseas aid straight away. I know one has to be careful and that one cannot ramp it up immediately. One has to make sure one uses the money wisely. That would give us an authority and help us encourage other countries to do what needs to be done in terms of addressing the root causes of the migration crisis and other wars. We should be proactive in saying the aid is not tied and that it is not connected to economic advantage. There are certain things we are good at and we should double down on those. I would like to have seen that as one of the statements. I know the budget has to be done in October but we all know that now is the time when the budget deals are being done. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to give me an indication of what deal we are looking for in overseas aid. What is the scale of ambition we are ramping up to? That would speak volumes, in other words, that we are not all plámás but that we made difficult decisions in this regard.
I read with interest what the Taoiseach said in his speech on the discussions around PESCO and the militarisation of Europe that is taking place. Earlier, there was a meeting of elected representatives in the Dáil who have an interest in neutrality. One of the things on which we agreed is that there is no clarity on what we are spending, what our commitments are and what is happening in terms of the development of PESCO. I tried to ask straight questions of the Minister of State with responsibility for defence to try to get transparency on what is involved but it has proven to be incredibly difficult. We have an advantage in our effort to get a seat on the UN Security Council by differentiating ourselves from both Norway and Canada who were involved in possibly one of the worst examples of western intervention, the bombing of Libya. Ed Horgan said in his letter to the newspaper today that Canada dropped up to 300 bombs and Norway dropped twice that number.
That was a disastrous intervention. You will remember, a Cheann Comhairle, our time in Egypt when we met the authorities there and they pointed out that to its west Libya was in flames, to the right, Syria was in flames, to the south, Yemen was in flames and Iraq was in flames to the south east. In each of those countries there was international intervention. I keep going back to the same questions. What is our place? What is our role? What is our benefit? You will recall the discussion we had, a Cheann Comhairle, with the Arab League. It was apparent from that visit that one of the strengths we have is that we come with a different perspective in that we are not the experts on everything. We are not telling everyone what to do. We are not taking sides. That is a useful position for Ireland as a neutral state. It does not need investment in PESCO for us to provide that role. It needs investment in the overseas aid budget, in honouring the sustainable development goals and in aligning ourselves to that strategy. The world needs countries like that at the moment. The world needs Ireland to step up to the plate and we could benefit from it. We would feel as a people that it does us proud and its suits our tradition in a variety of different ways.
As part of that, and in response to the ongoing migration crisis, we should take more than the 25 additional programme refugees I understand we recently agreed to take from Malta. It is important that it is not just an issue for the Austrians, the Italians or other countries on the border. As distant as we are from the immediate entry points, we should be willing to review the Dublin convention and we should be willing to play a more proactive role. That is all the more important in a world where both America and Britain are going down the route of economic nationalism. That is not the way to go. It is a way which leads to conflict and competition rather than to co-operation, which is what we need. Ireland stands out. We are between those two big countries, which are historically powerful. We are small. We are only a little cork on the ocean of what is going on but if we stand up and are an example of what might work in an alternative way, it would not be insignificant and could play a beneficial role. We should grab that opportunity. More than anything else, I am keen to hear what the Minister of State has to say. Let us grab the opportunity and invest in overseas aid. Let us ramp it up in a way that does us proud and sends out a signal that this, more than anything, is the way to go to manage migration..
In his statement, the Taoiseach spoke in some detail about the European Council's discussions on Brexit, migration, jobs, growth and competitiveness, and economic and monetary union. As he indicated, I will now speak about some of the other items discussed by Heads of State and Government, including the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, digital and innovation issues, and the enlargement and stabilisation process.
First, I will speak about enlargement concerning the Western Balkans in particular. In relation to the enlargement and stabilisation process, the European Council welcomed the agreement reached between the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece regarding the long-running dispute over the name of the former. It is very good to finally have movement on this issue which has been a source of tension for countries in the region. It gives a positive impetus to the prospect for an improvement in relations there. While the deal has yet to be ratified, it is important that we welcome and support it at this early stage. It is clear that the constructive role of the EU, and the prospect of EU membership, are powerful drivers for co-operation and mutual respect, even in very divisive situations. It is worth bearing that in mind when we look at our candidate countries and enlargement policy in general.
The European Council also endorsed the conclusions of the General Affairs Council on enlargement. Those had been agreed, after lengthy discussion, at the General Affairs Council, which I attended and spoke at earlier that week. The conclusions relate to the seven candidate and potential candidate countries. They reaffirm the Union's commitment to enlargement, welcome the reform efforts across all of those countries, and outline the progress that has yet to be made there. In particular, the Council agreed to respond positively to the progress made by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania. A small number of member states felt that these two countries need to carry out further reforms before accession negotiations could be opened. Following the query that was raised in intensive discussions, we agreed that the Council should set out a path towards opening negotiations with them in June 2019. If progress continues to be made on the reform priorities, a decision can then be taken by the Council to allow negotiations to be opened. The Commission will now begin the preparatory work required to ensure that, if the conditions are met, negotiations can be opened by that time next year, which is welcome progress.
Ireland is a firm supporter of EU accession for countries willing to take on the responsibilities and obligations of membership, provided that all conditions are met, and we support the European perspective on the Western Balkans. We were also strongly supportive of the EU strategy for the region, published in May, which outlines a framework for those aspiring to join the Union in the foreseeable future. That was a priority for the Bulgarian Presidency and it deserves credit for its hard work, including in successfully convening and chairing the informal summit in Sofia in May, which I attended with the Taoiseach. It produced a declaration and a priority agenda outlining practical initiatives for further co-operation between the EU and the Western Balkans. I had the opportunity to visit the region and to meet with my counterparts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro.
I encouraged them to seize the momentum provided by the renewed focus on the western Balkans and assured them of Ireland’s support as they carry out the reforms necessary to meet the high standards expected by the European Union.
The June European Council set out important strategic directions on innovation and digital policy issues, reflecting the very constructive discussion by our Heads of State and Government in Sofia in May. Specifically, the strong focus is on supporting breakthrough and disruptive innovation in Europe. It is very encouraging that the Commission is proposing a €100 billion research and innovation envelope under the post-2020 multi-annual financial framework, MFF, including a new European innovation council, EIC, with a focus on supporting top-class innovators with ambition to scale internationally. Ireland supported the pilot running of the innovation council under the current multi-annual financial framework and we are pleased to see the concept gaining wide support. We must also continue to unlock the full potential of Europe’s digital Single Market, setting a direction that is open, competitive, innovation-friendly and open for business. This includes high levels of protection for personal privacy under the new general data protection regulation, GDPR, underpinning trust and confidence in new digital services while removing unnecessary barriers to the free flow of non-personal data. A fully developed Single Market will remove unnecessary barriers to doing business digitally and across borders, which will present significant opportunities for all business, particularly Irish small and medium enterprises, SMEs, and consumers. The digital economy is an increasingly important driver of economic growth globally as information and communication technology, ICT, related technological development transforms operational and business models. Most young people in school, as well as future generations, will work in jobs that have not yet been created as we move more and more into this sector. Ireland’s participation in the development of the EU's digital Single Market is an enabler of our digital economy.
By early May, the Commission had presented just over 30 legislative initiatives under its digital Single Market strategy. The most recent package was issued on 25 April and largely completes the legislative framework envisaged by the Commission for the digital Single Market. The Parliament and Council have already agreed on a third of the Commission proposals. Many of the proposals are particularly significant, including those on roaming, which people understand and have seen recent changes in, general data protection, geo-blocking, portability and the 470 MHz to 790 MHz frequency. The co-legislators are likely to soon agree on a further five proposals. Ireland has been very proactive in encouraging and pushing forward work on the digital Single Market with the current Presidency and the previous Estonian Presidency which had the issue in high priority during its term. We will continue to co-operate closely with like-minded member states in supporting a high level of ambition for Europe's digital transformation.
I will outline the European Council discussions on the multi-annual financial framework. The Commission proposal for the multi-annual financial framework, which was published on 2 May, and its subsequent sectoral proposals mark the beginning of a very important and lengthy debate. The main discussion among Heads of State and Government last week regarded the timeline, with the European Parliament and Council now invited to examine the proposals in a more comprehensive manner as soon as possible. The Commission in particular hopes that agreement can be reached before the European Parliament elections in May of next year. Although this is an ambitious timetable, Ireland is prepared to work at an accelerated rate if it can help to reach agreement. It is worth noting, however, that neither Ireland nor any other member state is interested in sacrificing quality for speed.
In recent years, Ireland has moved from being a net beneficiary of the EU budget to being a net contributor and will be a net contributor for the full period of the post-2020 multi-annual financial framework for the first time. We are nonetheless open to contributing more, but only where it brings clear added European value and provided that our core priorities are protected. It is important to note that there is a variety of opinions on whether member states should pay more. We are willing to contribute more but not at the expense of our core priorities.
This is a time of change within the European Union. We understand that we must deal with new priorities, including security, climate change and other issues, as well as the departure of the United Kingdom. The migration debate at the June European Council underlined the need for the EU budget to remain relevant to changed circumstances and there is little doubt that there will be a significant increase in the EU funds spent on migration over the next budget. It is also important that policies with demonstrated European added value continue to be properly supported. The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, remains a priority for Ireland because it delivers excellent value, protects agriculture and gives us the tools to support change as we prepare for the challenges of the future. Cohesion funding is also important, especially in helping less developed member states. Ireland received cohesion funds in the past and we are well aware of the transformational impact they can have in unlocking a country's economic potential and we would like to see newer member states avail of those benefits. In its proposals, the Commission has also emphasised other policies that function well, including ERASMUS+, the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation and the PEACE and INTERREG programmes, which are particularly welcome here. The Commission also proposed that we double our funding in regard to young people, which I very much welcome.
From Ireland’s perspective, we will carefully consider the implications of these proposals within the budget. We have given our very strong view that CAP and other well-functioning programmes such as ERASMUS and Horizon 2020 should not be cut. Our negotiating position will be that there should be no cut in CAP payments to farmers. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, recently attended a meeting with like-minded countries on the issue and I have raised it regularly, including at a discussion with Commissioner Oettinger last week. As I noted earlier, we are willing to increase our contribution to the EU budget to protect these and other well-functioning programmes where there is demonstrable EU added value and we will work with our allies across the Union to achieve that. The Commission has also put forward some ideas for additional ways to fund the budget, including proposals in regard to a possible tax on plastics or a common consolidated corporate tax base. Although it will examine these carefully, the Government believes direct payments from member states are the fairest and most effective way to fund the EU.
I thank all Deputies for their statements and assure them that the Taoiseach and I will continue to report to the House in advance of and following the regular meetings of the European Council.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for her comprehensive report on the meeting of the European Council. It seems that many issues aside from those reported in the media were discussed at it. As expected, the migration crisis dominated the agenda of the two-day European Council summit last week. Migrants from the Middle East and north Africa - and Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea in particular - who cross the Mediterranean are a major concern for the European Union. Indeed, it is one of the biggest challenges facing Europe at this time and has the capacity to threaten its future existence. Migration is also one of the great global issues of the day, as is evident from political issues in the United States. As a result, a new wave of populism has emerged in the politics of Italy, Hungary, Poland and Austria, where right wing parties are now in the ascendancy. We see too that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is under pressure on the issue as she seeks to accommodate her junior coalition partner, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria. However, all right-thinking people must condemn unnecessary scaremongering in regard to migrants and asylum seekers. Political parties should not exaggerate the problem for their own political ends. Some deliberately target vulnerable people, mostly Muslims, to gain political support. That is not in accordance with the liberal democratic values of the European Union and must be rejected. The reality is that arrival rates of migrants and asylum seekers to the EU have declined in recent years, as was pointed out by other contributors to this debate.
What was agreed in the joint statement after a long night of discussions in Brussels last week? What compromise was reached? Incidentally, this episode gives an indication of what might happen at the October summit, at which Brexit and the backstop issue will be finalised in the withdrawal agreement. The warning given by the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, is relevant: in the early hours of the morning when patience is wearing thin, Ireland could be forced to compromise on the question of Brexit. That is a real worry of which we must be conscious in view of how the European Council operates on big, contentious issues.
The European Council agreed to examine the establishment of regional disembarkation centres to process rescued refugee asylum applicants in non-EU third countries, presumably in north Africa.
These would be migrant processing centres. Agreement was reached to stem illegal migration and increase funding to control the EU's external borders to strengthen Europe's frontiers, so to speak. It would be important also to increase aid to these African transit states and to increase economic opportunities in these failed nation states.
In addition, everything should be done to stop the boat smugglers and to discourage migrants from getting these boats. We have to stop migrants heading off on these perilous journeys to Spain, Italy and Greece in particular. What is needed is a humanitarian response. There must also be burden sharing and an openness to the proposal for mandatory quotas. I note there is resistance to that concept from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria. We need to show solidarity with other EU states in respect of this problem and encourage a dispersal for those caught up this nightmare. We also need a common European asylum policy. It is obvious to everyone that the Dublin regulation is hopelessly out of date and no longer fit for purpose.
In terms of Ireland's position on this matter, we are not on the front line and are somewhat removed from it all but we should honour our commitment to take another 2,000 migrants, bringing the total to 4,000. We are to treble our contribution to €15 million to EU funds to support migrants through the EU Trust Fund for Africa. Ireland must adopt a humanitarian response. Operation Sophia is working well and we should be proud of our participation in that. I hope to get to ask the Minister of State a few more questions at the end of the debate.
I am both disappointed and concerned that we did not have any progress on the Irish issues and the Border in last month's Council meeting even though we had known for some time that that would be the case. It is even more disappointing to see the measly four paragraph conclusion paper published by the Council regarding Brexit. It illustrates that Brexit most definitely was not top of the agenda and that we are not the only show in town, although one would be forgiven for thinking otherwise given the spinning the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste embarked upon, citing the June Council meeting as a key deadline in these negotiations that they had set for significant progress and one that has now been missed.
It appears all that happened in regard to Brexit at the June meeting was to welcome a small amount of progress on other elements of the withdrawal treaty and to give Prime Minister Theresa May a stern talking to, which I am sure she is getting quite used to at this stage. Essentially, the EU warned Theresa May to get a move on and honour the commitments she and her Government gave last December and March. We await to see the progress on that.
Reports coming from the United Kingdom suggest she will propose a third option, distinct and separate from maximum facilitation, or max fac, and the customs partnership about which we have heard, and that she will seek approval for that. We await the much hoped for white smoke from the incoming White Paper this weekend.
What we do know is that we do not have an agreed backstop. There has been zero progress on the Irish issues since last December. We are expected to have a withdrawal treaty in place by October and ratified by next March and the UK still has not decided what it wants. Ireland is in a very precarious and vulnerable position with time fast running out. It is becoming a real possibility that the UK may crash out of the EU next March with a no-deal Brexit scenario.
The focus of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to date has been to overspin short-term developments as big political wins and, in the process of doing so, they have failed to give a true and accurate picture of the genuine state of play of Brexit negotiations to our citizens. We saw that with the backstop last December, which did no one any favours. That allowed complacency to set in in government and across the business and farming community because our Government essentially told us that everything would be okay.
We do not know the Government plan in terms of a scenario of a no-deal Brexit. Despite the numerous information briefings the Tánaiste has provided, and many glossy policy papers, having sat in those briefings I am none the wiser as to the Government's plan for a no-deal Brexit. I can get the information we get from The Irish Timesor The Guardian. It is not anything additional to what is in the media.
We do not even seem to be prepared for a soft Brexit, never mind a hard Brexit. The Taoiseach seems far more interested in touring the European capitals on the mainland rather than trying to build relationships with the UK in what is already a very strained situation.
Can we really just sit back and wait for Theresa May to put a solution on the table? The Minister of State will know the saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. It is utter madness at this stage just to sit back and wait for the Tory party, some of whose members have been openly hostile to Ireland and want to call our bluff, to use their words, to provide a solution to the Irish Border issue. Is it not time now to start putting some of our own proposals on the table when we are essentially in the 11th hour of these negotiations?
It must be remembered that for most member states, Brexit is merely an inconvenience. It does not affect every member state in the same way it affects Ireland, and other member states have other issues to worry about. The European Union is under attack from so many avenues. I refer to the change to a populist government in Italy, the anti-migrant rhetoric of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, a member of a party associated with Fine Gael's own party in Europe, the European People's Party, German Chancellor Angela Merkel coming under huge pressure in terms of the migrant crisis, and severe levels of poverty and unemployment across many of the southern member states. All of those threaten the European project and it would be wise for us to remember that here in Ireland. I read recently that 5 million Italian citizens are living below the poverty line. That provides a stark contrast to the projected problems for our county in the event of a hard Brexit and reminds us that we are not the only issue the European Union is dealing with. Guy Verhofstadt gave a sobering warning in this Chamber last month when he said something we in Fianna Fáil have been saying from the very beginning and I have been saying since taking up my post. Although a hard Brexit is unlikely, we must prepare. It was only after that remark in this Chamber that the penny finally dropped for Government. Scenario planning then began to deal with all the possible outcomes, including a hard Brexit. That planning should have started 18 months ago.
It is now time to step up preparations considerably to do whatever we can to encourage businesses to take up the available supports, something they have not done in the numbers we expected them to have done at this point. We must diversify our agrifood markets and start working on improving relationships with the UK. These are all actions the Irish Government can and must take now.
Last December, the Government told the Irish people that it had a cast-iron guarantee regarding the North and that in the event of a no-deal scenario, there would be no hard border or no hardening of the Border on the island of Ireland and this deal was designed not just to avoid any hardening of the Border but to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and to protect the rights of citizens on the island, including those in the North who are Irish citizens and who, as a consequence of that, would continue to be European Union citizens.
The reason that was described as cast iron was that it was a backstop, and a backstop is not some temporary arrangement. A backstop, by its very nature, is a permanent arrangement. It was never meant to be ideal or the only option on the table. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste were right when they said on several occasions that the backstop option was only in play in the event there was no deal between Britain and Europe on trade or if a better deal was not put on the table. It was designed to make sure we had an insurance policy if the current talks between Britain and the European Union fail. That was the nature of the backstop arrangement. We now have the British Prime Minister talking about a temporary backstop arrangement, with time limits imposed. It is not a backstop at all. It has now become a UK-wide extension of the implementation period and, essentially, nothing more than that.
I had some quarrels with the Tánaiste over this because my observation of where the British Government is at is that it has torn up the backstop agreement and is clearly focused on some sort of arrangement or deal at the end of the day that will cover Britain in its entirety and would see the North being part of that arrangement. We are now left with no guarantees.
We have to go back to the start of this process when many people in this Chamber supported an Irish position, which was that we must avoid at all costs stumbling into October still negotiating with Britain on the wider issues without having any guarantees and any solutions for Ireland. We were promised by the Irish Government that would not happen. We were promised that even before we would even move on to phase two of the negotiations we would have a resolution of the Irish issues. That came and went and then we had this backstop agreement. We warned the Minister of State's Government at the time it was published.
We warned the Government not to oversell the agreement, not to be naive, to keep its feet on the ground and see it as the political agreement that it was. It was not a legal agreement. Flesh had to be put on the bones of the December agreement which needed to be built on. It did not include services or all areas of trade. It was not even envisaged that the North would stay fully in the customs union and the Single Market. It only envisaged the North staying in the customs union to protect what it called the all-island economy, the Good Friday Agreement and North-South co-operation. Even then, it was quite limited, but at least it was something. However, that something has now been taken of the table.
I have attended almost every meeting of the stakeholder forums which the Tánaiste hosts once a month. I go to listen and engage and the Tánaiste sets out the position of the Irish Government. None of it is secret. There are some things he will share with us in confidence, but the overall thrust of the Irish Government's position that it wanted progress by June was very public. It was the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach who set the bar that we could move beyond June if we did not have real and substantial progress on the Irish issues. When he came to Dundalk, Mr. Barnier made a very similar commitment. I was at the lunch where the Tánaiste and Mr. Barnier were at one that we could not move past June without having what they both described as real and substantial progress. I have my view on what the bar should have been, but even by the Government's own measure, its strategy has failed. That is the reality.
The European Council's statement following the meeting expressed concern that no substantial progress had been achieved on a backstop solution for the North and Ireland. For all of the talk and promises that we would have real and substantial progress and were not going to stumble into October without any resolution of the Irish issues, that is exactly what happened, yet we move on regardless. There are no consequences for the British Government and no pressure. Brexit was not the dominant issue at the Council meeting. There was no real reprimand for the British Government or, it seems, real pressure exerted by the Irish Government. That is a dereliction of its duty. All other European partners have their concerns and issues, all of which I respect, but the Irish Government's position has to be to protect the interests of those who live on the island of Ireland. At the end of the day we cannot depend on anybody except ourselves and have to make sure that at the very least the Irish Government is holding Britain to account, forcing the European Union to hold it to account and using whatever leverage we have to make sure that will happen. That was the Irish Government's stated intention, according to its rhetoric, but it seems that it was comfortable in allowing the phase 1 negotiations to move on without real concrete solutions. Now it seems content to leave the June summit without concrete solutions, even though it stated all the way along that it would not allow that to happen.
The Minister of State must accept that this is not a good outcome for the Government. It is certainly not a good outcome for Ireland or the people I represent who now have very real concerns about what is going to happen. Leaving aside all of the differences we can have on these issues, with the British Government and the European Union and leaving aside all of the different scenarios with max fac, max fac plus and all of the things we are hearing that might come from the Chequers meeting and the White Paper in which Mrs. Theresa May will put some options on the table, the hard reality is that the British Government is still intent on taking the North out of the European Union, the customs union and the Single Market. There may be some sort of customs partnership, but we do not know how it would work in practice. What we do know is that services will not be included. Not every area of trade will be included. There are real question marks about whether the European Union will agree to any type of arrangement which will allow Britain to stay in the Single Market without supporting the four freedoms which include the free movement of people.
I have no difficulty with the European Union defending its position and making sure the rules of the Single Market and the customs union are protected. We are a member of the European Union and it is taken as a given that that must happen. However, if there is divergence and the North is not aligned with the rules of the Single Market and the customs union, we will have a problem. That would be a step backwards and we did not vote for a step backwards, North or South. We should not accept it under any circumstance. The Government has an awful lot of work to do between now and October to recover lost ground. Pressure needs to be exerted on the Minister of State and the Government to come back with a solution that will protect the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts, avoid any hardening of the Border and protect the rights of citizens.
I also want to address the immigration issue. It is important that it featured at the summit as it is a huge issue. I listened intently to the debate and opinions expressed by Members on whether Russia or western allies were right. I do not side with Russia or western governments in the conflict in Syria. They have all failed that country and region. I am very concerned about the welfare of the people who live there and the fact that many of them are being forced to flee and are not being given the protections and supports they should have. As other Deputies said, we are very fortunate that we do not have a far right party or politicians to any great degree in this state. We should be very proud of this, given what is happening elsewhere in Europe.
There are some examples, but we have to be fair. By and large, the Irish political system, although not unique, is certainly in a better position than that in some other European countries where the far right is on the increase and much more strident. The Irish people are very tolerant and know that we need to do our best. However, we are a little removed from the crisis. Countries such as Greece, Germany and Italy are seen as being at the coalface and have their concerns. We must at all times uphold people's human rights, EU rights and conventions. The solution is to deal with the root causes of the conflicts in the countries in question and make sure we do not have regimes in them that treat people in that way or others who are involved in terrorism which also forces people to leave.
I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy.
About a week ago the Dáil debated a motion which condemned President Trump's immigration policy whereby he was separating children from parents at the US border. Even Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael joined in and initiated the motion. Looking back, I have to ask if it was really motivated by concern about what was happening to the children and their parents, or if it was just because President Trump had fallen out of favour with the European Union and, therefore, it was an opportune time to condemn him. The same parties have been deadly silent on EU immigration policy whereby children are not being separated from their parents by border guards because they are not even reaching here; rather, they are floating lifeless in the water of the Mediterranean. Anybody who was not moved over the weekend by the pictures of the three babies floating fully dressed in children's clothes, looking as if they were alive, had a heart of stone. They were the latest victims of the migrant crisis in which people are trying desperately to reach Europe and will risk anything to do so. Some 100 people were feared dead on the rubber boat which capsized off the coast of Libya.
Italy has closed its ports to ships that are rescuing migrants. The European Council stated it was determined to prevent a return to the "uncontrolled flows" of 2015 and stem illegal migration. President Macron said we would look for a European solution. That solution is to have regional disembarkation platforms, hopefully in north Africa or elsewhere outside Europe, to stop people from getting here and save the European Union the trouble of even having to deal with these human beings. Europe has a population of 500 million.
In 2018 a total of 42,000 people came, which is actually not a lot. Even in 2015, the figure was 1 million, in the context of an acute crisis. A total of 16,000 migrants have died or gone missing at sea since 2014, yet not once have I heard Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or any of the other big parties represented in this Dáil condemn the European Union for that policy.
Médecins Sans Frontières asked the European Union to show some basic decency - it used these very frank words - by allowing search and rescue operations to bring people to a place of safety and not return them to Libya. Please excuse me, but I am using the words of Barack Obama. Can we be clear on why Libya is a "shitshow"? It is because of the Clintons and Baraka Obama who took a decision to intervene to try to change the regime in Libya to increase US influence in the Arab world and US economic interests in that oil rich country. Again, I have never heard it being condemned by the Minister of State, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Taoiseach or anybody else. In fact, Hillary Clinton was awarded a doctorate in this city last week for her efforts. It was done in conjunction with our European partners, as Baraka Obama said at the time. There was loss of civilian life and infrastructure on a large scale, as well as the promotion of unaccountable militias, religious fundamentalists and, of course, Islamic State.
I want to take up some of the issues that were raised. It is not the case that no political party has played the race card because individual councillors have been playing it for many years. I will give three examples in Fine Gael. The Limerick councillor Stephen Keary said welfare recipients saw Ireland as the home of hand outs and easy pickings. Councillor Brian Murphy talked about sharia law operating in Ireland and subverting our legal system. Councillor Darren Scully said he would not represent black Africans. These comments are seized on on social media forums and elsewhere and the people in question have not been kicked out of Fine Gael.
The left should not support any imperialist intervention in the region. I have not visited Syria, but I have spoken to Syrian refugees fleeing the barrel bombs and all other weapons used in the region in which Russia is assisting a murderous regime. That is the reality and we should condemn it, as well as western intervention.
I will focus on the galloping pace of militarisation of the European Union. We consistently need to ring alarm bells about it because the Government's approach is to state "there is nothing to see here". We are joining PESCO which represents a real and qualitative increase in the State's role in the militarisation of the European Union. The notification states "a long-term vision of Pesco could be to arrive at a coherent full spectrum force package – in complementarity with Nato, which will continue to be the cornerstone of collective defence for its members". That is just one recent illustration of the pace of militarisation. If one looks at the European Council's conclusions, item No. 1, which has been well discussed, is the issue of migration which is about raising even higher the militarised walls of Fortress Europe, while item No. 2 is security and defence. It states:
The Union is therefore taking steps to bolster European defence, by enhancing defence investment, capability development and operational readiness. These initiatives enhance its strategic autonomy while complementing and reinforcing the activities of NATO, in line with previous conclusions.
It goes on to call for the fulfilment of PESCO commitments, welcome progress on the issue of military mobility and call for the swift implementation of the European Defence Industrial Development Programme, further progress on the European Defence Fund and a further deepening of EU-NATO co-operation. This is happening in a context where there is a certain weakening of ties and a certain breach between US imperialism and the big European imperial powers. It is also happening in a context where there is the threat of rising Russian imperialism. It was President Juncker who spelled it out clearly in 2015 when he said a common European army would convey a clear message to Russia that the European Union was serious about defending European values. These values are, of course, about keeping migrants out, allowing people like Viktor Orbán to do what he likes, allowing people like Matteo Salvini to come to power in Italy, enforcing austerity, with a complete lack of democratic controls on the periphery of Europe and using trade deals to exploit less developed countries for the benefit of European corporations. They are the European values they are talking about defending and its pace is increasing. The Meseberg Declaration by the French and German Governments, in addition to a joint intervention force, called for the exploration of the use of the majority vote in the field of Common Foreign and Security Policy. What that means is an end to the veto over the European Union intervening directly, as opposed to using the likes of PESCO. That is what the French and German Governments are now calling for and they may well get their wish ultimately. They have also committed to together progressing towards a better integrated European defence policy. That declaration already has its real world implications with the establishment of a joint European military intervention force. The French and German Governments also have a clear wish for it to be linked with PESCO, in which Ireland is involved.
The final issue I want to highlight in the framework of militarisation is the establishment at the last meeting of Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers of what is called the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, CARD. It will be a review conducted by the European Defence Agency to "provide a better overview of national defence spending plans". It is an EU body that will monitor defence spending to ensure governments across the European Union are spending 2% on average. It is the military equivalent of the sixpack, the twopack, European surveillance and the methods used to monitor implementation of austerity. The same undemocratic moves are being made to enforce and increase the pace of militarisation.
What is most shocking for people is the massive increase in military spending - it is taxpayers' money in Ireland and across Europe - contained in the latest proposal for the Multiannual Financial Framework, a seven-year budget for the European Union. The Commission proposes a budget of €13 billion for the European Defence Fund. That would place the European Union in the top four of defence research and technology investors in Europe. To really highlight the point - this comes directly from a Commission document - it is 22 times the current level of spending. This is money that could be used for investment in public services, but instead it is money that will go to the manufacturers of killing machines - drones, bombs and weapons of all sorts - while some of it will end up with Israeli armaments companies, in particular.
I go back to the EU motto and values. Its motto is unity in diversity, while its values include human rights and freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality and the rule of law. I must ask where are these values at times, particularly in dealing with the migration issue. It is almost as if the European Union is circling the wagons and battening down the hatches. It is internal EU policies that seem to be dominating or, in the case of Germany, about compromising in the interests of the ruling coalition. We have the rise of populism and a very disturbing form of nationalism which seems to be dictating policies on migrants. Of course, the irony is that the causes of migration today can be traced back to the old imperialist and colonialist powers of Europe, including Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium and the empires they carved out for themselves in Africa and other countries, with no respect for ethnicity or culture, not to mention land grabs and the grabbing of resources.
I know that migration is a complex issue. The European Council does talk about adopting a comprehensive approach, but such an approach must be allied with a caring approach because we are dealing with people who are extremely vulnerable. On other occasions the European Union will talk about tackling the root causes of migration. We know what they are. They are conflict; climate change which leads to drought and famine; the lack of health services; the abuse of human rights; and poverty. Where are the comprehensive EU plans to deal with these issues?
I know the EU is a massive aid donor but there is a need to look at exactly where multilateral aid is going and the effect it is having, if any, or whether it is being swallowed up in bureaucracy.
There are other issues that relate to the causes of migration. One is war and conflict. We have to ask who benefits from that, and those who benefit are those in the arms trade. Who is in the arms trade? It is those countries that carved out empires in the developing world, now allied with other countries like the US, Russia and Saudi Arabia. It is a powerful irony that the EU will give aid with one hand while some EU countries are sending bombs with the other. We know that if people are living in peace and with respect for human rights, this creates an atmosphere in which people will stay in their countries.
Another reason people will migrate is if they cannot make a decent living in their country, and, of course, tax comes into that. While the EU is making some progress, many of the countries from where migrants are coming are being deprived of badly needed financial resources through tax injustice. I pay tribute to the Irish NGOs doing work on this issue. African countries are faced with very powerful multinational lobbying groups. There is at times a need for capacity building on their side so they can deal with these issues on an equal footing and not be taken advantage of.
I believe Europe strolled into the migrant crisis without a common policy and even without a coherent loose position. Despite this, different academics will tell us that after the events in the Middle East emerged, the migrant crisis could have been predicted and prepared for and the consequences could have been significantly mitigated. Different nations are taking up different positions based on their geography, security fears, labour market issues, the presence of far right parties and, of course, the fear of the electorate. It is sad we are seeing sound, comprehensive, caring policies being displaced. The way the EU is going is very disturbing, with more extreme views than ever before.
I have raised the Libyan issue and the Mediterranean issue. The Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence is meeting Médecins sans Frontières again tomorrow to get an update. It is bizarre that we are supporting a Libyan coastguard that will return people to detention centres in Libya where there is torture, rape, starvation and slavery. It seems that once the flow is stopped at the European borders, it is believed that the problem is solved. However, a real human rights abuse is happening. It is unfair to the Irish Naval Service, which has a very humane record, that it should be seen to be facilitating that kind of human rights abuse with the Libyan coastguard, many of whose members are, as NGOs and migrants themselves will say, worse than the smugglers. At the same time, the smuggling has to be stopped due to the risks people are taking and the amount of money they pay before going on these totally unsafe boats.
We are told the EU will continue to stand by front-line states such as Italy in this respect. I thought it appalling that the boat was stopped from docking in Italy. It was gratifying to hear the voices of ordinary Italian people who were equally horrified at what their Government was doing.
On the positive side, I read in the conclusions that the EU and its member states will rise to the challenge through increased co-operation with countries in Africa and increased development funding. I hope it is co-operation at an equal level, which would be a positive.
There is an agenda for reform of the new common European asylum system. While there will be a report on progress during the October European Council, how will that be measured?
It is said that the Union is taking steps to bolster European defence, enhancing defence investment, capability development and operational readiness. This is the whole militarist agenda coming from the EU which is very disturbing. The Irish Timestoday contains a letter from Mr. Ed Horgan, who is retired from our peacekeeping forces. While he is talking about the UN Security Council, the points he makes are also valid for Ireland's voice in Europe. He asks why, if we want to be a member of the Security Council, we are not bringing something different and promoting our neutrality. Canada and Norway, as he points out, are members of NATO and have been involved in bombing other countries. Is it the case that we are suddenly ashamed of our neutrality? We know of the undermining of our neutrality that is happening at present and we should be more ashamed of that. Mr. Horgan speaks as a former member of our peacekeeping forces and his point is that it is extremely disrespectful to those 88 Irish peacekeeping force members who lost their lives on peacekeeping missions because they were there as part of a neutral Ireland peacekeeping force.
That brings me to the European Defence Fund and the figures on militarisation. I would like to have this clarified. All of these increased figures will come from the EU budget yet we know humanitarian needs are greater than ever. I would hate to see competition between the defence budget and the humanitarian budget. The budget for the research and technology phase until 2019 is €90 million but, from 2021 onwards, that will increase to €4.1 billion. The development phase budget is currently at €500 million for 2019-20 but it will be €8.9 billion after that. Where is this money coming from?
Ireland has to go back to being that independent neutral voice but we are moving ever further away from that. Having been with other Deputies in Syria last week, I believe we can see more than ever that Ireland needs to be that independent neutral voice. There is no good or bad side in war because it is the ordinary people who suffer the most in war. Certainly, allying ourselves with any particular side is not doing any good for our formidable reputation as a humanitarian country with a strong record on human rights. We need to remember this point. Whatever about being on the Security Council, we need to bring something different to our bid to be on it. That comes back to our human rights agenda, our independence and our neutrality.
I have some questions and it would be good to get answers. While I do not want to pin the Minister of State down to providing the answers today, it would be great to get a response.
To put things in context, I echo the words of Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. We are also of the opinion that we should not be taking sides in any war. It was unfortunate that Syria had to seek the help of Russia and Iran for protection because it was about to be obliterated by the jihadists, who were being armed by the Saudis, the Israelis, the US and, sadly, the EU. Syria would rather be independent and not dependent on any imperialist power, of which the Russians are one. There is no such thing as a nice imperialist power, no more than, as Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan said, there can be a nice side in any war.
A huge problem is brewing in Syria. The jihadists were holding out in many different regions of Syria and they are slowly but surely being forced out of them. Deals are being done where the government and the Syrian Arab Army get the people to move out and offer an option to the jihadists to move to Idlib. At this stage an incredible number of people have arrived in Idlib, which is controlled by the jihadists with the help of Turkey. It is not far from the Turkish border and we were not too far away from it ourselves last week. There are now thousands of jihadists in Idlib and nobody wants them. The US and the EU armed and funded them, as did the Saudis and the Israelis. Turkey let them across the border, or at least, if some crossed from Jordan, most came from Turkey. Now, nobody wants them.
Turkey, which let them in, does not want to let them come back. The Arabs do not want them. Certainly, Syria does not want them. Syria says it is prepared to work with Syrians who took sides against it but not with the foreigners and I note that 95% of them are foreign.
Europe does not want them. I can understand why Europe does not want to flood the EU with mad jihadists but what is the EU plan to deal with the jihadists in Idlib who nobody wants but who the EU was actually involved in funding and arming? My final question is as follows. Does the EU have any concerns around Erdogan's relationship with the Kurds and the threat of genocide against the Kurds in the near future? Is that on the EU's radar and is it concerned? I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his patience.
We welcomed two weeks ago a member of the Cuban Parliament, Fernando González Llor, who was one of the Cuban five. He attended the launch of the Irish-Cuban parliamentary friendship grouping and met the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. There are issues in relation to Cuba and the agreement signed with the EU. Can Ireland be a voice for progressing that further? I ask also about our own Irish-Cuban relations, which I acknowledge is a completely different matter. However, there is a European aspect to this.
I have been told I cannot do a wrap up as part of this. There is another Minister doing the wrap up while I am taking the questions. I might have to come back to Deputy O'Sullivan on the Cuba question, if that is okay.
I apologise. Syria was not discussed at the most recent European Council but was discussed at the February Council. Ireland is extremely concerned by what is happening and has continued to provide aid to support those affected in Syria. We have provided €110 million since the conflict started albeit we would like to do more. We are working with our European counterparts. We regret that the UN Security Council has been unable to take meaningful action to maintain international peace and security. It is disappointing that there are those who have vetoed effective UN action. Those parties bear a heavy responsibility. The Russian veto risks offering a licence to attack civilians with impunity. Different states have formed different conclusions as to how best to act in these different circumstances. Our position has been always to move away from military action and to encourage the government at hand to deal with this situation itself. I might come back to the Deputy with greater detail from the Council meeting in February and let him know when Syria will be on the agenda again. Deputy Daly raised a question about someone coming to Ireland, which I will bring back to the Tánaiste also.
A number of issues were raised about Brexit and the migration crisis, respectively. There has been a great deal of talk in the context of Brexit of the backstop ceasing to exist or being no longer on the agenda and of the strategy put in place by Ireland or the EU having failed. I remind Deputies that Brexit has not yet happened, that negotiations are still ongoing, that the deadline for Brexit is March 2019 and that the deadline for the withdrawal agreement is October 2018. We were extremely disappointed that sufficient progress was not made in the June European Council. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have been very clear in stating that without progress the likelihood of having no deal or agreement grows. Obviously, we need to ensure in the next weeks and months that this does not happen. Every focus is on ensuring we have an outcome in October. As to the suggestion of a September summit, many Deputies have already pointed out that preparations for the Council itself take a number of weeks. Rather than prepare for a summit at which there will be no actual conclusions, our focus must be on the discussions, engagements and negotiations between the EU task force and the UK.
There was also a suggestion that it is a waste of time for the Taoiseach or another Minister or Member of the House to travel to other member states. I acknowledge that when one travels to Poland, Austria or Italy, for example, Brexit is not at the top of their agendas. While it is not a priority for other member states in that regard, Ireland is top of their agenda when it comes to the overall withdrawal agreement and the outcome of Brexit. That is because of our continuous engagement and travel to other member states while welcoming their representatives to Ireland. We have ensured the Irish backstop is on their agenda. On foot of that engagement, we have been able to come to the point we are at. I stress that while the conclusions may seem short and while they outline that sufficient progress has not been made, they also outline that without the Irish protocol, there will be no withdrawal agreement. Without a withdrawal agreement, there will be no transition period. That is something the UK Government must take very seriously at this point.
It has also been suggested that we are not preparing for a hard Brexit and that it was not until Guy Verhofstadt visited Ireland that we started to prepare. I assure Deputy Chambers and others that following the vote, immediate action was taken to engage with our Departments and industry to ensure they identified the possible challenges and threats in all eventualities from a hard Brexit to the best possible outcome. They have since been engaged in identifying what procedures, measures and changes to legislation and so on are necessary. Obviously, we are not going to start explaining to people in the middle of negotiations what those possible measures are when the outcome is not yet known.
A number of issues were raised having regard to migration. I point out that while there was a significant difficulty in reaching a conclusion at the discussions last week, a framework for moving forward was agreed. The challenge now is to implement that framework. Ireland has been consistent in offering solidarity and support to those member states most impacted and we have agreed to increase our contribution to the Africa Trust fund, first from €3 million to €6 million and, now, to €15 million. Many Deputies have referred to the need to address root causes and this is one of the ways to do it. We will continue to work with organisations in Africa to ensure we identify and address the root causes which are leading people to travel.
Strengthening our borders and, in particular, Frontex is about stemming illegal migration. Last year, illegal migration decreased by 80% and the overall figure has decreased by 95% since 2015. However, we are absolutely dedicated to helping those migrants who are in sincere need of our support and to working with member states and hosts. We have demonstrated that by our involvement in Operation Sophia to tackle illegal smuggling. Our sailors have rescued more than 17,000 people at sea who might otherwise have drowned. We also accepted migrants from the Lifeline ship last week and while it may seem like a small number, we were one of the first member states to offer our support and solidarity in that regard. We are working to ensure that all of these measures are put in place and that we accept our fair share of the burden. I do not mean that people are burdens, but refer to the process. We are also providing financial and other support wherever we can. The question of militarisation was also raised.
The budget has only been discussed and a proposal has been made of €896 million for the proposed MFF. The very first discussion of the overall individual issues took place only last week in a meeting with Commissioner Oettinger and as such discussions are at a very early stage. The Government has stated consistently that while we support the need for newer funding avenues, the older, traditional measures must remain. CAP, research and innovation funding and cohesion funding must be also supported. While an initial figure has been put out there, we are at only the very early stages of negotiations.
I welcome what the Minister of State has said about enlargement, in particular in respect of the western Balkans. If we are to bring peace, stability and progress to that region, we must be accommodating where countries meet the standards required by the European Union.
I also welcome what the Minister of State said about the multi-annual framework and the need to protect the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, in particular. Some reform of CAP is needed, but the policy is of major importance to Ireland and we should do everything possible to protect the payments under CAP.
I have a question about PESCO. I understanding we are participating in two projects. There is a need to report back to the House regularly on this and maybe to put a formal mechanism in place because there was a great deal of concern about joining PESCO when the vote was taken in the Dáil. It is not necessary to go into the detail of the two projects, but how would the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, feel about putting a mechanism in place to report to the House on our participation in these projects and the contemplation on participation in further projects?
The elephant in the room is the major trade dispute with the US, and it would seem that President Trump is threatening the multilateral world order. It would seem also that the EU is very much on its own in respect of many issues because of the changed policy in the USA. There is a major trade dispute under way. Was there much talk about that at the European Council meeting? Are the Heads of Government concerned about that? Is there a danger that these tariffs will be extended to agricultural products? That would be a real concern for us in Ireland and the EU generally.
The eurozone reform is being driven by France and Germany in particular. There has been a suggestion that a eurozone budget will be created and other proposals arising from that. Does the Minister of State agree that Ireland would be cool towards these proposals? These discussions are under way. We would need to be careful in respect of these proposals if we are to bring the citizens along with us in support of any measures along these lines.
I thank the Deputy for his comments and questions. First, in terms of enlargement, Ireland has been consistently a supporter of the enlargement process, something which would have transcended Governments, given how it has transformed itself significantly through membership of the European Union over the past 45 years. There are three states, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro in the official accession process, and significant progress is being made in a number of the chapters in each country. There is still a significant way to go. I was glad to see that at the summit earlier this year timelines of 2025 were given for those countries to join. We need to work with and encourage them. Certainly in visiting them I got a sense that if we as the European Union do not engage with them, other larger powerful forces will. We need to continue to engage.
We are also talking about the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania. We had a lengthy and somewhat difficult discussion at the General Affairs Council last Tuesday where a number of member states had concerns that to open up the process to these two states would not be the right course given that they felt the states did not make enough progress in other key areas of reform. I was glad to see that agreement was reached. It was an important step in showing a European front, that we are open to this process and that we want possible member states to work with us to aim to become part of the European Union. It was a good signal to agree an overall framework to move forward. The two countries have not yet progressed as far as is possible. We need to keep negotiations and the process with Turkey open while, given the challenges we face, not moving it forward.
In terms of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, I stress Ireland's priority is to ensure that our traditional forms of funding are maintained in terms of CAP, Cohesion, research and innovation, but we understand there are newer issues that need to be addressed. We will have much discussion about that in the months, and possibly years, to come.
The trade dispute was discussed but, as far as I am aware, it was not a significant item on the agenda. With the Council, there was a considerable agenda. From an Irish point of view, we do not want to see this escalate any further. The imposition of the counter-tariffs has taken it to the next stage, but we would hope that we would be able to reach an agreement and a settlement. The Commission is working on this. We have made clear our position that we want this to be resolved.
Eurozone reform is a topic that we thought would be opened up for much lengthier discussions last week. In the end, it was not. Ireland is clear in that our focus is on completing the Single Market, particularly in the area of services, the banking union and the capital markets union. Any proposed reforms that would require a referendum or change in those terms is not something that is a priority for us at present and not a direction that we are keen to go, but we are open to any proposed suggestions that may be put to us.
In terms of PESCO, I am sure there would not be any issue with these projects being raised on the floor of the House, although the Business Committee would have to find space for a mechanism through which to do that. The Minister for Defence would have to agree to it but I see no reason that could not happen. Our projects are very much focused on collaboration and peacekeeping, in particular, in terms of maritime surveillance. I saw a comment last week that throughout our entire membership of the European Union there has not been a day where we have not had peacekeepers working somewhere throughout the world. This is where we want to focus all of our efforts through our membership of PESCO.
As the Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, outlined, the European Council considered a number of important issues on Thursday and Friday last. Meeting in three different formats, leaders discussed migration, security and defence, jobs, growth and competitiveness, digital innovation, external relations, economic and monetary union as well as, of course, Brexit.
While Brexit remains the priority of the Government, migration, which is of concern to many partners, was an important focus of the meeting. As the Taoiseach outlined, although we are less directly affected than other member states, we have played a constructive role in the EU response to migration. In advance of the meeting on Thursday, the Taoiseach confirmed that Ireland is to take in migrants from the MV Lifeline. He also announced a significant increase in our contribution to the EU Trust Fund for Africa, bringing it from €6 million to €15 million, as the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, highlighted, and the third highest contribution per capita.
The European Council called for substantial socio-economic transformation of the African continent so that the people are less likely to attempt dangerous journeys to try to get to Europe. This was especially welcome from our perspective, as the Taoiseach stressed. The EU needs to develop a close partnership with Africa to help build up institutions, improve security and provide economic opportunity there so that many people can enjoy better prospects in their home countries.
Much of the focus of the discussions last week was on strengthening external border controls, including through bolstering resources for Frontex and addressing the internal management of the Schengen area. While Ireland is not a member of Schengen, we co-operate in many areas and seek to be helpful where we can. As there was no major breakthrough in terms of reform of the common European asylum system, leaders agreed on the need to find a speedy solution to the package and they will be reviewed this again at their meeting in October.
The discussions on security and defence provided a welcome opportunity to review progress across a number of fronts, including permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, military mobility, co-operation with NATO and strengthening the civilian Common Security and Defence Policy.
Ireland is a founder member of PESCO and we are participating in two projects: a centre of excellence for EU military training missions and the upgrade of maritime surveillance systems. This in no way affects our policy of military neutrality and we will continue to make our distinctive contribution based on our own traditions and strengths.
Leaders also considered a number of issues relating to jobs, growth and competitiveness. There was strong support for the Commission's proposed response to the US steel and aluminium tariffs. Ireland fully subscribes to the EU view that these tariffs are unjustified and in conflict with WTO rules.
There was a relatively short discussion on digital taxation, with more time devoted to effective VAT collection issues. Ireland supports the position that all companies should pay their taxes. We need an approach, however, that is global, evidence-based, sustainable and focused on aligning taxing rights with the location of real substantive value-creating activity. It was positive that Ireland's position was acknowledged in the European Council conclusions, which emphasised support for the ongoing OECD work in this area.
We will engage positively as we always do. We were cautious about rushing to take short-term measures which can have unintended consequences. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, spoke in some detail about the discussions on the multi-annual financial framework. From Ireland's perspective, we are open to spending more if it adds European value provided our core priorities, particularly the Common Agricultural Policy and cohesion funding, are protected. As the Taoiseach outlined, leaders agreed at the euro summit that the European Stability Mechanism should provide the common backstop to the Single Resolution Fund and that preparations should begin for negotiations on a European deposit insurance scheme.
As Deputies are aware, the European Council meeting on Article 50 format adopted a set of conclusions on the Brexit negotiations. Leaders expressed disappointment at the lack of progress on the withdrawal agreement and called for intensified negotiations. As the Taoiseach stated, the United Kingdom gave clear commitments in December and again in March and we need to see detailed, workable proposals from the UK to deliver on these commitments. The EU 27 leaders agreed that if we do not get agreement on the backstop and the other outstanding elements, it will not be possible to finalise the withdrawal agreement as a whole, including the transitional arrangements. While we are hopeful that we will achieve a very close, comprehensive and ambitious future relationship with the United Kingdom, the Government is continuing to plan for the full range of scenarios and the EU 27 leaders agreed that we should all step up our work in this context.