Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Post-European Council: Statements
I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 13 December and Friday, 14 December. We met in three separate formats over the two days and discussed a wide range of issues. Chancellor Kurz reported on Austria’s work as the holder of the EU Presidency for the past six months. I congratulate the Chancellor and his country on what has been a very efficient and effective Presidency, and extend my best wishes to the incoming Romanian Presidency, which will take over responsibilities at the beginning of January. There was a euro summit on Friday where we discussed progress towards economic and monetary union, and we also met in Article 50 format on Thursday evening to discuss Brexit.
I will focus my remarks today on Brexit and outline our discussions on the multi-annual financial framework, which is the EU's five-year budget, external relations outside of the EU, the Single Market, migration, security and defence as well as developments at the euro summit. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will speak on disinformation and the fight against racism and xenophobia in her wrap-up remarks, as well as the citizens’ consultations on the future of Europe, in which she has played a leading role.
I met bilaterally with Prime Minister May on Thursday morning, when she briefed me on recent political developments in the UK and on the state of play regarding ratification of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement. We discussed whether further clarification of the terms of the withdrawal agreement might be offered, though I stressed to her that the agreement, including the backstop, could not be renegotiated. Prime Minister May made a similar presentation to the EU 27 later on Thursday, before leaders met in Article 50 formation that evening. As Deputies will be aware, the withdrawal agreement took over 20 months of negotiations and represents a finely balanced compromise among 28 countries. It was negotiated around the red lines imposed by the UK on itself.
There was a very strong consensus at our meeting that the withdrawal agreement, which we agreed on 25 November, and which was endorsed by the UK Government, cannot be substantively renegotiated. We agreed that we will go ahead with our own ratification procedures, in which the European Parliament will have a central role. I look forward to hearing the debate in the European Parliament. I know it will be thorough and considered, in keeping with its ongoing involvement in the issue.
The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, including the backstop, is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement. The backstop is necessary to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, something which underpins the Good Friday Agreement, a legally binding international agreement for which the Irish and the UK Government are co-guarantors. The backstop is also necessary to protect the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union. It is an issue of concern for the whole Union and not just for Ireland. We hope and expect it will not need to be invoked but it is there as an insurance policy to be employed, unless and until alternative arrangements are in place.
I am glad that, in the Article 50 conclusions, we were able to offer important clarifications and reassurances to the UK. We reaffirmed our commitment to a close relationship with the UK and to start negotiations on this as soon as possible after the UK’s withdrawal. This is with a view to concluding them by the end of 2020, so that it would not be necessary to extend the transition period or to invoke the backstop. We re-emphasised that if the backstop were to be triggered, we would use our best endeavours to ensure that a new agreement is concluded expeditiously. These assurances are intended to provide clear signals to the UK that the EU will act in good faith to ensure that arrangements for the future relationship are agreed and implemented quickly. The backstop, if needed at all, would apply only for as long as is strictly necessary.
We also agreed on Thursday that preparations for all possible outcomes should be stepped up. Here in Ireland, we are building on the comprehensive preparations already under way and have stepped up planning for a no-deal Brexit. While I hope this will not be the outcome, the persisting uncertainty in London means that these preparations are necessary. The European Commission published its legislative proposals for a no-deal Brexit this morning. These focus on 14 areas where a no-deal scenario would create particular disruption. Tomorrow, the Government will provide an update on our approach. Once the Commission preparedness expert meetings conclude in January, the Government will publish a further update.
Turning to other issues, this was the first time that the European Council held a substantive discussion on the multi-annual financial framework, to cover the period from 2021 to 2027. Leaders had an opportunity to set out our overall positions and priorities. I emphasised that one of Ireland’s priorities is a well-funded Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. I also stressed the need to protect the Structural and Cohesion Funds for countries in central and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Ireland benefited enormously from the investment in our infrastructure that was made possible by these funds.
I indicated the need to continue to fund INTERREG and PEACE, which are particularly important for Northern Ireland and the Border. It is essential that we continue to fund other projects that work well such as Erasmus+, which is especially valuable to young people, and Horizon for investment in research and development to create the jobs and wealth in the future. Each member state has its own priorities and it will be necessary to find resources if we are to be able to fund them. It also will not be possible to fund everything.
From Ireland’s perspective, we are willing to consider an increase in our contribution to the EU budget over and above that which would happen for the next multi-annual financial framework, MFF, but only if the new programmes add European value and only if existing programmes like CAP and the Cohesion Fund continue to be funded at current levels. Additional funding should then be committed to new priorities.
Our discussions on external relations on Thursday evening included preparations for the EU–League of Arab States summit, scheduled to take place in Egypt in February. Given that Saudi Arabia is the current chair of the Arab League, we agreed that we would use the summit to raise our concerns about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the situation in Yemen.
We had an exchange on relations between Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the post-election situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I share the Croatian Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkoviæ’s, concern about the disenfranchisement of Croats living in the federation.
We also discussed recent developments regarding Russia and Ukraine, including the escalation at the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. We expressed grave concern at these and agreed to continue the sanctions on Russia. I expressed our support for Ukraine and its Government, independence, and territorial integrity.
I believe strongly the Single Market is central to Europe’s prosperity and competitiveness on the world stage. Deepening it is Irish policy. The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, launched a major report last month, along with her Finnish, Danish and Czech counterparts, which highlighted the importance of unlocking the untapped potential in the Single Market, as well as the need to ensure its fitness for new trends in the trade of goods and services. I am pleased to report that we called for increased efforts in this regard. It was agreed to hold an in-depth discussion on the future development of the Single Market and European digital policy at the March European Council.
In our discussions on migration, we reviewed progress in implementing our comprehensive approach agreed in June. From Ireland’s perspective, we support the three-pronged approach co-operating with countries of origin and transit, strengthening external border security and dealing with the management of migrants within the EU. Intensified efforts to co-operate with countries of origin and transit, to control our external borders through Frontex and naval operations in the Mediterranean, as well as combatting smugglers are showing some positive results. The number of detected illegal border crossings is significantly down and is back to pre-crisis levels. Work on solidarity and burden-sharing, however, as well as efforts to reform the European asylum system, including the Dublin Convention, are still difficult. There has been no real progress in this area.
On security and defence, we welcomed the significant progress made on implementation. I am particularly pleased that we endorsed the civilian Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, compact, which provides a new EU framework for civilian crisis management and CSDP missions.
On climate change, we heard a presentation on the European Commission’s communication, A Clean Planet for All. Taking into account the outcome of the COP24 in Katowice, we invited further work to be carried out. This will enable the Union to submit a long-term strategy by 2020 in line with the Paris Agreement.
The euro summit on Friday focused on deepening and strengthening economic and monetary union. We endorsed the agreement reached by finance Ministers earlier this month on reform of the European Stability Mechanism, which will have an enhanced role in the areas of crisis prevention and resolution in the eurozone. I expressed Ireland’s backing for deepening and strengthening the eurozone, including for banking union, a European deposit insurance scheme and capital markets union. These will serve to strengthen the resilience of our banking system and the overall stability of the eurozone, along with increasing competition, lower interest rates for borrowers and strengthening guarantees for depositors.
I also expressed our backing in principle for a eurozone budget as a subdivision of the MFF. This should focus on additional measures to help eurozone economies become more competitive and more productive. We agreed eurozone reform should be discussed in inclusive format, particularly to enable countries which are in line to join the euro to participate, including Croatia and Bulgaria, along with those closely aligned to the euro like Denmark.
In addition to my bilateral meeting with the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, I met the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, on Friday morning. As well as bilateral relations and EU issues, we discussed international political developments, including in Brazil.
On Brexit, the Portuguese Prime Minister confirmed his backing for the EU approach and his hope that the UK would now take the necessary steps to ratify the withdrawal agreement in order that negotiations on the future relationship can start immediately. I also engaged informally with my other EU counterparts in the margins of the European Council, using the opportunity, as I always do, to defend Ireland’s concerns and to promote our interests.
In exactly 100 days the United Kingdom will cease to be a member of the European Union unless current UK law is changed. Without a transitionary period the impact on Ireland next year alone will be €3.5 billion. It is an unprecedented threat and one for which we are clearly not ready. Last week’s meeting of the European Council was deeply depressing for anyone who seeks to limit the damage of a Brexit referendum which was secured using a combination of dishonest arguments and dishonest means.
It has long been commented that the EU is a formidably tough negotiator which stands by the interests of its members. However, it is also, as an institution, formidably bad at politics. It is clear that the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, failed to propose specific measures which could be both agreed and ratified. However, it is equally clear that the EU itself failed to promote a constructive message. It also failed to refrain from the damaging perception of being dismissive to a person who appears to be the only party leader in Britain who is actually trying to get November’s deal ratified. Within hours of the summit’s end, EU leaders were briefing that they had made a serious error in the tone of the outcome. It is hard to disagree with them.
With time running out, last week was a wasted opportunity to move something forward even if it was only specific no-deal preparations. There are many possible outcomes to the crisis in Westminster. Perhaps the most likely remains the November deal but the reality is that we now have no option but to assume the worst and urgently prepare for a no-deal outcome. There will be no clarity in the UK’s position until the vote scheduled for 15 January which will leave only 73 days to Brexit. Delaying Dáil action on a no-deal scenario until after that vote is simply not an option any more.
There should be no doubt that there is no evidence that planning for a no-deal situation is anywhere close to where it should be with 100 days to go. If one compares it with the preparations by the Dutch Government, what we see in Ireland are half-measures, secrecy and a ministerial complacency rather than action. There has been an unwillingness to provide even basic briefing which goes well beyond the normally secretive and non-constructive approach of the Government. Over the weekend, several journalists were briefed that a memo on Brexit preparations was to go to Cabinet yesterday. In the House yesterday, the Taoiseach said there is a package of measures which will be revealed on Thursday. He also said legislators are welcome to attend a public forum and put up their hand to ask a question if they want to know anything. This will, as has become standard practice from the Government, almost certainly be given to a few journalists in advance to maximise the headlines and minimise the initial scrutiny. The political sniping through the sending out of occasional Senators and backbenchers to deliver messages on the Taoiseach’s behalf is petty.
It shows a Government which is simply incapable of accepting legitimate concerns.
The Taoiseach needs to wake up and realise that his normal way of carrying out political business is not good enough as we stand 100 days away from an enormous threat for which our country is not prepared. He said there are 45 legislative measures required in the next 100 days in the event of a hard Brexit. Some will be secondary legislation which will require scrutiny by an Oireachtas committee. Some will be detailed primary legislation which will have to pass at a speed faster than anything comparable for many years, yet the Taoiseach thinks it is good enough to tell Members to go along to a general forum while offering no detailed briefings until the week the Dáil returns.
These are not the actions of a Government which is confident that its preparations should be open to genuine scrutiny. This is a minority Government. The Taoiseach has been given a security to hold office during this period which no other Government in Europe has received. It is time to stop the messing. The Government needs to put aside this dismissive attitude towards basic parliamentary scrutiny. There is a rock solid, constructive majority for managing Brexit in this House. The Taoiseach, however, has to show some commitment to working with us.
We expect to receive detailed briefing papers on the legislative measures which the Taoiseach believes may need to be passed in the next 100 days. The Government needs to provide a timetable for this legislation and allow us to start preparing the accelerated scrutiny which will be required. In addition, we expect the Taoiseach to publish an update of budget projections in the event of a no-deal Brexit to at least inform the House of scenarios which might have to be addressed during 2019.
I am not talking about business as usual but about the budget implications of a no-deal Brexit. Surely that work has been undertaken in the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance. Given that the Estimates will be before committees, the very least the Ministers can do is include the proposed contingency funding in their presentation of the Estimates. If, as we have been told, there are detailed plans prepared for which facilities need to be built and which staff need to be hired, the details must be presented to the relevant Oireachtas committees. Only yesterday Deputy Lisa Chambers asked whether planning permission had been received for port extensions and facilities at Rosslare Europort and Dublin Port, as well as Dublin Airport, and whether costings, etc. had been made. All she received was a reply that the Office of Public Works was in detailed discussions with Departments and that it would be premature to disclose the results. Why is it premature to disclose whether the work has advanced at ports and airports? That is in the context of any type of Brexit, not just a hard Brexit.
This is a parliamentary democracy and the Taoiseach's delay in providing information will not give him the right to try to force through in hours legislation for which he has had two years to prepare. It is true that the European Union only finalised some no-deal guidance this week, but most guidelines have been available for some time, while we have been told repeatedly this year that preparations for specific actions such as increased supervision at ports are under way. There is no excuse for refusing to provide information before now. My party has repeatedly pointed to the Government's own statistics for the numbers of businesses which are not Brexit-ready and which are threatened by sterling devaluation and disruption to supply chains. The Taoiseach accepted that the target should be to have all companies Brexit-ready. For this to happen, we need a dramatic step change in activity immediately.
A defining characteristic of the Government has been a chronic and growing delivery deficit. Major plans are launched and advertised regularly, but on the ground delivery has been appalling. Only this week we have learned that the development plan which has been the main focus of the Government's advertising this year has a massive hole in it owing to overruns on projects which have not even begun. The gap between promises on housing and delivery has caused real hardship. We cannot afford for this to happen on Brexit. We need much more openness and much less of a refusal to open plans to basic scrutiny. We will entertain any reasonable proposal for reordering business in the coming months to enact vital Brexit legislation. We will support the provision of additional funding for key public services and businesses under pressure. We have already given the Government a guarantee which it initially dismissed as not needed, that it can focus on tackling Brexit, rather than continuing its much hyped election preparations. What we will not do is accept the continued refusal to give this parliament even basic information on actions that may be needed in the next 100 days.
For the majority parties, the wider public and the media, there has been a reasonable agenda so far of "wearing the green jersey". The focus of criticism has been on the shambles in London. This has been so much the case that the Government has over-reacted to even the mildest questioning. This agenda of putting the country first will continue for us and parties here with a real, rather than a tactical, commitment to our place in Europe. However, we have a right and a duty to demand that the Government respond with more than platform speeches and unchallenged statements. If the Taoiseach genuinely believes it needs to be a national effort, he should start acting like it and engaging with the majority in this House in meaningful and detailed discussions on steps to manage the immediate threat of Brexit. I again repeat that we will support any reasonable proposal agreed to by the European Council that will allow a no-deal Brexit to be avoided next year. I stated very clearly to the Prime Ministers who attended last week’s meeting of the ALDE group that the Irish Government had a secure parliamentary mandate on Brexit.
As a final point on Brexit, it must again be said how the absence of the Northern institutions continues to undermine the ability of the people of Northern Ireland to have their voices heard. In the past week a succession of Sinn Féin representatives have been sent out to attack me and my party for saying this. They have gone as far as implying that theirs is the only party in Dáil Éireann entitled to comment on the lack of a working Assembly or Executive. I remember no such strategy on their part in the past when they were calling on me and other Fianna Fáil members of a Government to help to get the institutions established and re-established and they certainly never rejected our right to comment when we succeeded in getting the Democratic Unionist Party to share power with them or secured the devolution of policing.
Our most consistent anti-European Union party will some day accept the right of others to criticise it and point out how the attempt to link Brexit with the constitutional position of Northern Ireland has undermined the attempts of others here to get unionists to accept Dublin’s good faith.
Last week's summit also addressed, albeit too briefly, a series of other fundamental matters that would have been the primary focus in the absence of Brexit. As Fianna Fáil has stated repeatedly in the past year, we strongly disagree with the Taoiseach’s refusal to support more ambitious reform of the workings of the European Union. Ireland should not be part of a group that is arguing against any increase in the Union’s budget when just such an increase is very much needed to address structural weaknesses in the European Union and the eurozone. We have reservations about some of President Macron's reform proposals, but Ireland should have given genuine support to his efforts to set a new agenda.
We welcome the agreement to set up a new funding stream to help eurozone countries at times of crisis. The fund is nowhere near as ambitious as it should be, but it is welcome and should be implemented as soon as possible. A new effort needs to be undertaken to address critical eurozone weakness in terms of deposit insurance. The early discussions on the Multi-annual Financial Framework are not encouraging. It appears that once again we will be caught in a zero sum debate that will see pressure exerted to cut effective programmes, especially those for rural communities, in order to create space for expanding other essential programmes such as scientific research. The Taoiseach owes it to the House to make a statement early next year on exactly what position he will be taking on the new budget, as well as remaining points in the reform of the eurozone. In addition, he should outline his approach to the discussions on the Single Market that have been scheduled to take place at the spring Council meeting.
The attack of populist parties and governments on the United Nation’s migration pact is a sad and disturbing development. The pact is a reasonable attempt to set core principles. It is a small move forward and we must join those countries that are defending it. Fianna Fáil will support steps that can be taken early next year to demonstrate more effectively Ireland’s commitment to the United Nations' endeavours on migration.
The summit briefly addressed climate change, action on which has been one of the stand out failures of Fine Gael in government. Unless Ireland starts to get serious in 2019, we will continue to be one of the world laggards and have failed to join countries that are working hard to prevent an environmental, social and economic disaster.
The summit discussed disinformation and attempts to interfere in elections in free democracies. The facts indicate a deep and ongoing commitment by one increasingly rogue regime to promoting division and extremism in Europe. Russian linked campaigns have spread racist fears of minorities, supported the far right and far left and attacked parties that speak out for a free democracy. The European People's Party has been lax in tackling Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán and what he has done in that country which is not compatible with basic European norms and values. What is going on there and in other countries poses a potentially existential threat to core democratic values. Europe is being far too complacent about the spread of authoritarianism across it, even within the European Union.
We support the summit’s call for "swift and decisive action" and call on the Government to move on from general reviews and round table discussions and start to make specific proposals for protecting our elections and political debates from manipulation. Implementing the Bill presented by Deputy Lawless would be a commendable start in 2019. It will be a defining year for Europe and Ireland. We need new urgency and ambition from the Government. We need a new commitment to work with others on urgent measures and move from words to action. When we return in January, there will be no time left for political business as usual.
As I have said several times in statements before and after European Council meetings, one quarter or one third of the Fianna Fáil leader's contribution is always about attacking Sinn Féin. He does not attack any other Opposition party. He does so because of the electoral threat Sinn Féin poses.
Deputy Martin should be under no illusions. Sinn Féin is not above criticism and welcomes constructive advice from all quarters in this House, especially and including those who do not contest elections in the North. We still accept advice from those parties. The leader of Fianna Fáil and the Taoiseach need to understand, and I think the Taoiseach has a better read of it than the leader of Fianna Fáil, that none of this plays out well in the North. Everybody knows we do not have an Executive and Assembly. We had a deal earlier this year to which all parties bar one signed up. It is not possible to have a power-sharing administration if one of the main parties to form that government will not sign up to it and walks away from the deal. That is not something the leader of Fianna Fáil wants to accept. He wants to use this issue to score political points. As I said, however, it has no impact whatsoever on Sinn Féin's vote, North or South, and only serves to alienate the leader of Fianna Fáil from nationalist people in the North. In fact, I think it is a source of irritation to the leader of Fianna Fáil that a Fine Gael Taoiseach is seen as more popular among nationalist opinion in the North than the leader of Fianna Fáil. This is a very peculiar position for a leader of Fianna Fáil to find himself in.
I thought it warranted at least some response. I said earlier that it is extraordinary that we are 100 days away from Britain leaving the European Union. A withdrawal agreement is in place. One area on which I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin is that there was cross-party support in this House for the Taoiseach and the Government getting a deal and the withdrawal agreement in place. That is very precious to us because it involves only the basic set of protections that are necessary to avoid a hardening of the Border and protect the Good Friday Agreement. While that plan is on the table, the real threat of a no-deal Brexit and Britain crashing out of the European Union is increasingly becoming an option. I still believe it is the least likely option but if it is an option, as I believe it is, we must look at how prepared we are and how prepared Europe is for such a scenario.
The European Commission's plan, as outlined today, shows the seriousness of this issue. It states: "Contingency measures should not replicate the benefits of membership of the Union, nor the terms of any transition period, as provided for in the draft Withdrawal Agreement". It notes: "Contingency measures will not remedy delays that could have been avoided by preparedness measures and timely action by the relevant stakeholders." A couple of concerns arise from these statements from the European Union. First, they appear, on the face of it, to say the North will not be treated differently from Britain in the event of a hard Brexit. The reason I say this is that the Commission, in its communication, "reiterates its calls on Member States to remain united also as regards contingency action, refraining from bilateral arrangements that would be incompatible with EU law and which cannot achieve the same results as action at the EU level". The Taoiseach needs to clarify whether the Commission is saying that, in the event of a hard Brexit, the Border on the island of Ireland will be subject to the same checks and rules as those that will apply to Gibraltar or Calais. If this is the case, it will be completely unacceptable. We cannot allow a situation where the Border on the island of Ireland becomes de-normalised and we slip into the past.
People have real concerns about what will happen in a no-deal, hard-crash scenario. I appreciate to some extent that the Government does not want to talk up a hard crash. Nobody wants to do that. I put these questions to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade as well. I said at the start of my speech that I regard a no-deal Brexit as the least likely option but people, businesses and others who are concerned about Brexit want to know what would happen in such a scenario. We know that World Trade Organization rules would kick in but what would the Government do in the immediate aftermath of a hard crash? Would it impose a hard border? Would Europe force it to impose a hard border? If so, what would it look like? If the Government was not prepared to do it, what negotiations would have to take place with Britain and the European Union to find some other agreement that would avoid a hard border or a hardening of the Border? These are real issues that businesses, farmers and citizens who live either side of the Border are worried about because in the event of a hard crash, any disruption to the movement of goods, services or people will present real difficulty for people who live on the island of Ireland.
If we look at the House of Commons, the position of the Opposition parties and some of the more pro-European members of Conservative Party suggests there is a majority for Britain staying in the customs union and elements of the Single Market. However, the failure to find an avenue to bring this majority together and make that happen is the reason politics is not working in Westminster and the rest of Britain. Irrespective of what happens, and we all hope we have the softest possible Brexit, it will still have economic, social and political implications for the island of Ireland and this State.
Previous speakers put questions on this matter to the Taoiseach during Leaders' Questions. We must look at how prepared we are in any Brexit scenario. Sinn Féin believes not enough is being spent on capital investment. The roll-out of the national broadband plan has stalled. We have not built up our defences relating to ports, roads and infrastructure generally. We gave the example of Rosslare Port, which is losing a ferry. There is an argument for deepening the port to increase capacity and the same applies with regard to Waterford port. A great deal could be done for the regions. Some regions will feel the effects of Brexit, irrespective of whether it is hard or soft. Like Deputy Howlin, I come from the south east, which has a very strong agrifood sector. Many companies that operate in the region and elsewhere export to Britain and the rest of the European Union. Many agrifood businesses are already suffering because of currency fluctuations between the euro and the pound. The Government does not seem to have put any plans in place to support these businesses. There has been poor uptake of some of the loan schemes it has introduced. I understand uptake of one scheme stands at 9%, which is inadequate. Businesses are speaking with their feet in this regard. It simply is not happening.
We cannot see a credible plan for even a soft Brexit. What worries me even more is what plans are in place for a hard Brexit. I look forward to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade publishing proposals tomorrow. We will mull over those and a debate on them will be necessary early in the new year. I appeal to the Taoiseach to listen to what the Opposition is saying in respect of being prepared for a hard crash. It is a prospect about which people are very concerned.
I know Brexit has been discussed here but I will concentrate on some of the other serious issues raised at the European Council meeting, particularly migration. The European Council agreed to continue to follow the EU's failed and disastrous migration policies to date. The EU is increasingly giving in to the demands of the far right. I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin that this is no surprise considering that Viktor Orbán, the openly fascist Prime Minister of Hungary, and his Fidesz party are welcomed with open arms by the European People's Party, EPP, grouping where they continue to spread their poisonous rhetoric.
The EU's policies surrounding migration are based on an inherent contradiction. On the one side, there is an acknowledgement that migration is a structural phenomenon with long-term implications driven by deep developmental and governance shortcomings. On the other, the EU's reaction is for the most part tailored towards the short term. We have seen an increased tendency to divert funds formerly allocated to European development co-operation to the task of migration management and border security. This undermines and weakens EU action in the realm of poverty reduction and good governance.
Libya shows how a focus on short-term fixes largely ignores deeper, structural challenges. Despite the chaotic political situation on the ground, the EU has invested heavily in border and migration management in Libya. This includes supporting a brutal coastguard and armed militias involved in human slavery and trafficking. The EU's aim is clearly to stop people leaving Libya to seek asylum, which is a human right, and to keep them in the country where their human rights are violated. According to EU data, all EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, EUTF, contributions to north Africa, particularly Libya, have so far been devoted to the issue of migration management and control. The combining of the securitisation of migration and overseas development aid is a dangerous and counterproductive development.
Ireland should stand resolutely against the increased focus on the short-term security implications of migration when it comes to overseas development assistance.
The UN global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration was signed last week in Marrakesh and I am astonished at the amount of lies and misinformation being spread about this non-binding compact. Sinn Féin supports the compact. I welcome that the compact recognises that migration is a global phenomenon and it needs a global framework to deal with some of the challenges it can create, but also recognising the huge positives it can bring. Globally we need to tackle illegal migration, including human trafficking, and make legal migration more orderly and regular on a global scale, while protecting human rights and international law. However, the far right and others are spreading lies on social media that the compact will lead to open borders, that it will legalise all migration, and that illegal migration will no longer exist. These people suggest it will lead to a tidal wave of immigration into Europe and that the compact says migration is a human right, and other similar things. There is no foundation to most of what they say. All of us in this House have a duty to stand up and counteract these lies and explain the reality and positivity of the compact.
Tackling climate change was the other big issue addressed at the European Council meeting. The recent climate change performance index, CCPI, ranked Ireland last in addressing climate change in the EU and among the worst in the world. That is a colossal embarrassment. The Taoiseach said it did not have much status because it was published by an advocacy group, but the failure of the Government to tackle climate change is going to cost the Irish taxpayer in financial terms and in climatic and environmental terms because we are failing to meet EU emissions and renewable energy targets for 2020. The Government seems quick to sign international agreements and climate conventions, but when it comes to delivery and practical steps to combat climate change, it has repeatedly failed to meet targets or introduce the necessary changes.
Although we are a small state in global terms, we as an island should lead by example. It is frustrating that we continue to import billions of euro worth of fossil fuels each year while we have a wide variety of renewable energy sources available which are lying underdeveloped and unused. Even basic steps are being overlooked, with future development plans not being climate proofed. Simple steps like having a facility for homes which harness excess power to transfer that to the national grid is an obvious place to start. Sinn Féin introduced a Bill to do this in November, and the Government must continue to support its passage through all legislative stages.
A quicker roll-out of retrofit schemes of homes is another basic step that needs to be developed, encouraged and requires greater State intervention. Sources such as offshore wind, hydro, biogas and solar need to be developed and will form an important part of our energy mix. Pilot schemes on these sources simply will not cut it at this stage and they need to be mainstreamed.
Clear action must be taken on a cross-departmental basis to address climate change and the aim for the Government must be to develop broad sources of renewable energy technologies. We need to specify our future energy sources. We need to recognise the opportunities we have available to us on this island in the move to greater renewable energy in job creation, security of energy supply and improving the national and global environment around us.
Like many others, I have been shocked by the images of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We are all hopeful that the peace talks in Sweden, which have led to some localised ceasefires, will continue and develop. The humanitarian crisis falls completely at the feet of the Saudi regime. We have seen how it has used its military might to bomb civilian infrastructure, homes and even school buses. I hope this breakthrough in the talks will lead to a wider and sustainable ceasefire and ultimately the end of this devastating war which has been caused by Saudi Arabia.
Many important discussions took place at the European Council meeting last week. There are a host of policies that need to be advanced. On economic policy, we need the next seven-year financial framework and reform of the Single Market to strengthen the EU’s social pillar, as I have said so often in the past, and to support people and communities that are being left behind. We also need the financial framework and Single Market reform to be centred on action to mitigate climate change. We need Europe-wide social insurance policies as part of reforming monetary policy and the euro currency.
The Labour Party endorses, as I have just heard Sinn Féin do, the UN migration pact, and this should be at the centre of the EU discussion of migration policy. I have discussed the need for a Marshall Plan for Europe’s neighbourhood, in particular significant European investment in the Arab countries in Europe’s neighbourhood to boost political stability there and to help their economies develop. On migration, will the Taoiseach assure this House that all member states have been fully briefed about our common travel area with the UK and how we need that to function in parallel with EU migration policy? That will be doubly true if there is no withdrawal agreement in place.
On security, we need to see concrete actions being implemented to safeguard the European elections next May from any outside interference, including online through social media.
I also want to focus on the looming spectre of Brexit. There are now four realistic outcomes from the UK Parliament’s deliberation of the withdrawal agreement. As things stand, there is not a majority for any of them. There is no majority for the current text of the withdrawal agreement and it was made abundantly clear that the legal text will not be reopened. The solidarity from EU member states for Ireland's position on the Border is very welcome, but if the agreement does not pass Parliament, what next? A second possibility is a general election, which under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act requires a two thirds majority that seems unlikely to occur. Even if an election was held and a new British Government formed, it seems unlikely that the deadlock in Parliament about Brexit would be overcome as no significant change to the withdrawal agreement would be on offer from Europe.
A third possibility is a new referendum to allow the public in Britain a new choice between the withdrawal agreement and the status quoof continued full membership of the EU. The case for a new referendum has been greatly strengthened in recent weeks and there is now a focus on how a new referendum can come about, as a delay to Article 50 would be required. As the Taoiseach has said, we should certainly be open to extending the Article 50 process to allow a new referendum if that was the will of the British Parliament.
The very real prospect of a no-deal Brexit is also growing in likelihood. There is a risk of no deal by accident rather than design as the time runs out. The only legal certainty is that there will be a no-deal Brexit on 29 March unless the UK Parliament changes matters as they are now legally fixed. As this prospect looms, there will be enormous pressure on the Government, including from business here, to dilute the Border backstop. This must be resisted, and I believe it will be.
The Taoiseach has announced that a volume of emergency legislation will be required to prepare the country for a no-deal Brexit scenario. There are only 29 sitting days scheduled in the Dáil between our return after the Christmas break and Brexit day. The Government has dropped the ball on these preparations.
How are we to have a proper scrutiny and debate of what appears to be a significant volume of legislation, all to be enacted in less than three months, alongside all of the normal business that these Houses have to deal with, such as the health and housing crises that we cannot simply sideline?
We are also likely to see new directives coming from the European Commission, as it too is stepping up preparations for no deal. Like the Taoiseach, I have also been in here since 12 o'clock so I have not had a chance to study the Commission documentation since it was published but there are clearly real implications for us in this Parliament in the European preparations. There is a real risk that this simply will not work. If the Government rams through a raft of new laws, without due debate and scrutiny, it will have serious implications for the primacy of our job to scrutinise legislation to the full and to make sure that it is fit for purpose.
We saw Fianna Fáil sign up last week to a new confidence and supply deal with the Government, but has it agreed that laws vital to the national interest will be rushed through the Dáil without full debate? I am heartened by the contribution from Deputy Micheál Martin today and yesterday in that regard and I believe he will demand full and complete scrutiny. Part of the first step in that is for us to be briefed before Christmas so that we can take advice over the Christmas break on what is right.
If we assume that the withdrawal agreement will not be agreed at Westminster, there is only one scenario that we should then contemplate and that is a change of heart among the British people about the whole Brexit misadventure. According to several surveys, public desire in the United Kingdom for a second vote has grown, while public appetite for Brexit has declined. Since June 2016, much has been revealed such as illegality in the referendum campaign by the "Leave" side, deception and false promises and decades of false reporting about the EU by the British media.
That aside, the general public’s understanding of the European Union has changed over the last 30 months. The EU is not a monolith, but it is a collection of legal agreements built up by consensus and negotiation among member states, initially a small band of member states and now 28. The UK has been a net beneficiary of all of these agreements over 40 years or more. There have been agreements on atomic energy, on university and research co-operation, on access to satellites, on police and security co-operation and on mobile phone roaming which has been one of the big benefits for all of our citizens as we travel around Europe. There have been countless small benefits enjoyed by individuals and businesses that will only become apparent when they are lost. Truth be told, the UK has distinctly influenced the development of most of these agreements. It has been the co-author of many of the agreements, most particularly the anchoring agreement of the European Union, namely the Single Market itself.
Although some of these benefits can be preserved outside of the union in a new UK-EU agreement, should one be negotiated and come to pass, they will not be provided free of charge. The very opening picture of officials going into Downing Street shortly after negotiations commenced two years ago with a briefing note saying: "have our cake and eat it" underscores what the negotiating position of the United Kingdom and the delusion of many in the United Kingdom was from the beginning.
The supporters of hard Brexit are also those who are quite happy to jettison all co-operation with European states in favour of this fantasy of British isolationism. It is a withdrawal to a view of Britain that actually never existed. One British politician said to me that they voted for a Miss Marple Britain, a fantasy. Yet they claim that the EU will still offer them frictionless trade. It is actually more than a fantasy, it is a lie.
One of the telling statements from Theresa May’s premiership has been her argument some months ago that Russia is threatening the international legal order. As a matter of fact, it is the hard Brexiteers who are a clear and present danger to the international legal order of the European Union and the World Trade Organisation. They cling to the simplistic 19th century notion of sovereignty that is incompatible with realistic interdependence and co-operation among countries and governments that have characterised all international developments of the last several decades and certainly the period since the conclusion of World War Two. They ignore the enhanced capacity that is gained when countries co-operate through an international legal order such as the EU has created.
The solution to Brexit, if there is one, now lies with the British Labour Party. I have engaged with my Labour colleagues on Brexit since before the vote. I campaigned in Liverpool for "Remain" with a number of British Labour Party colleagues both in the European Parliament and from the Westminster Parliament. I remain in close contact with Labour shadow cabinet members and they are well informed on Ireland’s concerns about Brexit. The British Labour Party is more likely to back a new referendum than it is to back the current withdrawal agreement. No plausible change to the withdrawal agreement would satisfy the British Labour Party, and at any rate we should not go down the road of even trying to dilute the withdrawal agreement that was so hard negotiated over 20 months and more. That deal is the deal that is on the table.
That puts the focus squarely on what the EU can do to make continued membership of the European Union more attractive to the people of the United Kingdom. We received real concessions when the Irish people voted against previous European treaties. That is a fact. There is every reason for the European Union to show understanding, flexibility and responsiveness to the real dilemma facing the UK right now. Without any compromise on the fundamental principle of free movement of people and workers within the Single Market - we should not compromise on those basic, bedrock principles - there is still room for clarification and better regulation of internal migration. That was the deal that was negotiated and offered to David Cameron and it should be offered again in full, and better explained, as I outlined last week. The Cameron deal, which simply pointed out the options available within the treaties and the arrangements that the United Kingdom never availed of, addressed many of the concerns, some rational and some irrational, that were put up by those who voted to leave the European Union.
All over Europe, railways, water systems and postal systems remain in public ownership. These are three flagship British Labour Party commitments, and they can all be achieved within the European Union. The EU should make that potential crystal clear. Likewise, if it remains, the UK should retain its opt-outs, including its option to remain outside of the Euro currency if that is what it chooses.
At this crucial juncture, time is running out. The Government should undertake to convince our EU partners to make a declaration to the British people that the EU would welcome a fresh decision to remain a member. We do not need to pretend indifference to UK internal affairs on this point.
Whether the UK remains in the European Union is very much in Ireland's national interest, and we are well within our entitlement to make the British people a good offer to fully engage with the prospect of voting again and reversing this disastrous decision.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:I call Teachta Boyd Barrett.
That is true. They share the time and the wealth.
I want to start by paying tribute to the protestors in Hungary against the sister part of Fine Gael and the Taoiseach which is in government, that of the right wing Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. It is a party whose actions to which the European People's Party and Fine Gael have turned a blind eye. They are a right-wing, racist, anti-migrant and anti-Semitic regime. Their actions are anti-democratic in terms of their repression of protest and crackdown on the independence of the media. Workers in Hungary have been provoked into mass protests of tens of thousands of people over the past week against the so-called slave law, from which Fine Gael might draw some inspiration. It is a law which incredibly states that workers can be forced to work up to 400 hours overtime in a year, which is about eight hours per week. It also states, incredibly, that they do not have to be paid for that overtime for up to three years after they have worked it. The result is mass protests on the streets, people wearing yellow vests in solidarity with the protestors in France, which has spread to Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, the involvement of trade unions, young people and students and the occupation by opposition MPs of the state broadcaster in protest against the non-coverage of the protest movement.
It is excellent to see the protest movement. It shows the power that exists not within the EU or the likes of the European People's Party but for ordinary working class people to stand up to right-wing regimes such as those that exist in Hungary. It has the potential to force the Orban government back, and what is needed is the emergence of a genuinely left socialist and democratic force to give consistent voice to the opposition to the right-wing anti-democratic and anti-worker policies of the Orban government. Such a movement is well within the proud traditions of the Hungarian working class going back, for example, to the revolt against Stalinism in 1956.
I want to move on to the latest developments in Britain. Hopefully, what we are watching is the death agony of a Tory Government. A pyrrhic victory is defined as a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a pyrrhic victory has also taken a heavy toll that negates any true sense of achievement. That sums up the victory of Theresa May in the no-confidence vote in her own Tory party, a Tory party which voted only by a margin of 83 votes to maintain her as leader. One day before the planned vote in Westminster on the deal, she was forced to cancel it, not simply because she faced losing that vote, which everybody expected, but because the scale of the loss of that vote would be immense.
The Tory party is riven with division. On the one hand, we have the ultra right Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, writing that May's approach to Brexit was like a "Carry On" film and absurd and, on the other wing, we have Philip Hammond describing his own party colleagues as extremists trying to advance a particular agenda which would not be in the interest of the British people.
There is a vital opportunity now, which is in the interest of ordinary people in this country, for Jeremy Corbyn to act decisively and help bring down the hated and discredited Tory Government. What is needed is not simply parliamentary action but backed up by action outside by the trade union and Labour movement for mass action and mass protests to kick out the Tories. Such action would mobilise the millions who have suffered a decade of austerity.
The war on the 99% means that according to a recent TUC report, the average worker has lost more than £10,000 in real earnings since 2008, and the UK experienced a wage slump that was worse than many other leading economies. In one particular borough, workers lost 34% in real terms over the course of the past ten years. In approximately 75% of local authority areas, real wages are still lower than those a decade ago.
Hypocrisy has been on display from the British Tories, as it has been around this Brexit debate since the very start, but not just from the British. It has been on display also from the right wing EU politicians who all of a sudden like to pretend they care for ordinary working class people. Guy Verhofstadt, the right wing Brexit co-ordinator in the European Parliament, tweeted at the Tories saying, "It is not the job of politicians to make the people they lead poorer, remove opportunities, rights & make lives more uncertain." Where is the concern of Verhofstadt and the European right wing when the lists of refugees killed in the Mediterranean as a result of fortress Europe are seen?
Where was the concern for removing opportunities when EU-IMF troika austerity drove up, for example, youth unemployment from Greece to Ireland and created horrific conditions for people? Where was the concern for the rights of people when the EU supported the Spanish state, repressing the national aspirations and the rights of people in Catalonia? Where was the concern for making lives more uncertain when Trichet warned that a bomb would go off in Dublin if bondholders are burned? We reject all the right-wing sides of those arguments and we agree with Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, when he said we should reject the false choice of a bad deal versus no deal.
There is potential for a general election in Britain and if Corbyn fights that election on the basis of building on the success of the 2017 election, adopting clear socialist politics that can point the way forward in the interests of working class people, including on the question of Brexit, he can win a victory and that will transform the entire picture. That does mean rejecting the EU-Tory neoliberal deal. Deputy Howlin listed all the things that Corbyn could do within the framework of the EU but he could not, for example, within the framework of the deal that has been outlined, nationalise rail, which is a key commitment he has made.
There needs to be a reopening of negotiations on the basis of opposition to all Single Market and customs union rules that go against the interests of the working class - those on state aid, market liberalisation or the posted workers directive. Instead, we need to demand an entirely different relationship with the EU, including new trading custom arrangements based on the interests of working class people, not the 1%.
A Corbyn Government would open up a very different process of negotiation, speaking over the heads of the Commission and the heads of the right-wing governments to speak to working class people across Europe about agreeing a new deal across Europe, the cancellation of odious debt and ripping up the right-wing neoliberal fiscal rules.
In Ireland, the trade union movement has an historic responsibility to stand up for any jobs that are threatened, and workers need to get organised. The labour movement should be unequivocal in taking action against any moves which increase sectarianism, including any would-be hardening of borders or any raising of the prospect of an east-west border in the Irish Sea.
Good politics, particularly in these very tumultuous times in Europe, is about seeing the connections between things. Bad politics is about isolating issues and imagining they can be resolved in isolation. Bad politics is not understanding the connection between what is happening in Hungary, France and the debacle in Tory Britain, the issues that affect this island in terms of Brexit and the wider political landscape. All of us, the European Union and certainly the crisis-ridden Tory party, are often guilty of that politics and not seeing the connections between these things.
In terms of the immediate issues affecting this island, I do not believe any sane or sensible person could see any value whatsoever in putting up borders, certainly on this island, but borders, obstacles, checks or anything that will interfere with the movement of people, goods and services between this island and Britain and Britain and Europe. However, the Tory right are not sane and sensible people. They are driven by a fairly rotten, right-wing, parochial, nostalgic for an imperial past nonsensical outlook, so we cannot take much hope from them.
Beyond that sane and rational understanding or recognition, we believe borders are not good for any of us. That is where I am trying to promote what I call good politics. Those of us who are socialists do not see the value in having borders. We see internationalism as the prerequisite for sorting out the problems Europe faces.
The situation in Hungary really allows us to fully understand what we are facing. We have the Orbán Government which, as has been said, is affiliated to the European People's Party – Fine Gael's party – and doing terrifying things. This week people from his government dragged four MPs out of a television station – the national broadcaster – one of whom was hospitalised. This happened while thousands of people were on the streets protesting. They included representatives of civil society, trade unions, left-wing organisations and so on. They were protesting about the incredible attempt to make people work 400 hours of compulsory overtime and not be paid for three years for doing so. Meanwhile, a Minister in the Orbán Government was on television talking about pigeons. Such is the level of censorship the national broadcaster will not talk about the issue that has people on the streets, but it insists on talking about pigeons. All of this was taking place while MPs were occupying the offices of the State broadcaster. Violence was used to take them out and also against the protesters.
One of the ironies is that the measures being imposed by the Orbán Government are causing labour shortages. They echo things that are happening here. Labour shortages are developing in Hungary precisely because of the Orbán Government's anti-immigrant policies. Organisations in Hungary need people just as the whole of Europe needs more of them. Instead, the Orbán Government is concocting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. We even saw some people promote these ideas outside Leinster House last week. They were blaming George Soros. Believe me, I have no time for vulture capitalists like George Soros, but the idea that he is orchestrating some grand conspiracy across Europe is absolutely preposterous.
The point is that this stuff is taking hold. Mr. Orbán is in power promoting dangerous anti-Semitic extreme right proto-fascist politics and Europe is tolerating it. Fine Gael's political party in Europe is tolerating it. The question we have to ask is why is Fine Gael tolerating it. Is there any recognition that the mad right-wing politics of the Tories, the mad extreme right politics of Mr. Orbán and the rise of the far right in Europe may have something to do with the political failures of the European Union and the economic policies it has imposed? I emphasise that it is not only the European Union. The Tories did most of the damage in Britain through their policies without the help of the European Union. The same neoliberal economic policies, whether imposed by the Tories or the European Union, are creating the seedbed or ground for the far right to rise all over Europe. They are causing people to go onto the streets in France over regressive taxes on fuel, while public services are being cut. They are causing extreme attacks on workers in Hungary and the housing and health crisis in this country. They are causing the destruction of industry in northern Britain. The common feature is that working people are being affected by poverty, precarious work, economic insecurity and increasing inequality throughout Europe and in this country. We are seeing the failure of the political system to address these issues and the consequential rise of dangerous far right-wing politics.
While I am at it, I highlight that the term "populism" is complete nonsense. It is not populism; it is fascism and far-right politics. The idea that the people on the left who are on the streets campaigning for workers' rights and against racism are somehow the same as those who are racists attacking workers' rights is preposterous. How are they the same? Mr. Orbán is with Fine Gael's party; he is not with the parties of the far left which are protesting against racism and attacks on working people.
By the way, it has nothing to do with social media either. I hear the narrative that it is all a problem of social media. The fascists in the 1930s grew without social media. They have nothing to do with it. There is Government propaganda on social media. There is fake news, extreme right-wing propaganda and so on. We did not have social media in the 1930s, but we still had the rise of fascism. It was for the same reason: the political establishment failed to address inequality, poverty, political alienation and the increasing polarisation in society because of misguided economic priorities. These are the things EU leaders should be considering before we stumble our way back into the horrors of the 1930s.
It is good to see the Taoiseach here. We do not normally see him here for statements on the European Council. He usually absconds before they are taken. Is he leaving already? Come on. Will he not sit down for one minute?
What is he like? God help us.
The notion that the Government is Brexit-ready is astonishing. I have said all along that if things work out well with Brexit, I will not give the Government the credit for it, but if they work out badly, I will not blame it either. It really depends on the Brits and what they do.
What is happening at Rosslare Europort is a serious indictment of the Government. For the life of me, I simply do not understand why it has not taken a more rational position. Some months ago the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, came into the Chamber to announce the provision of €587 million for infrastructure in ports in Dublin, Cork and Shannon. The aim was to enhance national and international connectivity. However, there was nothing for Rosslare Europort, the closest port to mainland Europe. Perhaps the Government is being dictated to by the private entities involved. Irish Ferries has decided that there is better money to be made elsewhere, but that is its business. It is a private entity and not even remotely Irish, but the Government allowed it to happen. It does not control any of the boats coming in. In fact, it does not even control the port. Irish Rail and an entity in Britain control it and the Government has done nothing about changing its ownership. It is an absolute disgrace. Some weeks ago the Taoiseach talked about Rosslare Europort needing infrastructural investment. It has needed such investment for a long time.
I could forgive those in government for finding it difficult to take what the Labour Party has stated. The Labour Party was in government for five years and watched Rosslare Europort go down the Swanny in that time. Those in the Labour Party watched as the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government looked to privatise as much as it could. God help us. The attitude is wrong, which is one of the reasons Rosslare Europort is in such a bad place.
I have heard that representatives of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport are due to meet Irish Ferries to discuss the announcement. I could be cynical and think Irish Ferries is negotiating to secure a better deal on berthing charges in Rosslare Europort, but it probably does not even go that far.
For the life of me, I do not understand why Rosslare Europort was not developed into a strategic harbour a long time ago. I do not understand why successive Government have not done this. The Government is made up of the Independent Alliance and Fine Gael. The last Government involved Fine Gael and the Labour Party. They have totally ignored Rosslare and Wexford. It is as if the place does not exist. It is as if the Government only cares about running a country that involves Dublin with miniscule crumbs thrown in some directions, although County Wexford is not one of them. It has the highest unemployment rate in the country. It has had the highest suicide rate for four years running. It has the third highest teenage pregnancy rate and one of the lowest educational achievement rates. What is happening about this? Who is doing anything about it? The answer is no one.
How do those in government get away with it? Clearly, they believe they can be re-elected. Will Deputies D'Arcy and Kehoe be re-elected in the next general election? They probably will, but that is what guides the Government's principles. It is nuts. It is totally unfair and not the way to run a country.
There is no rationale for how this country is run and how the Government has abandoned regional Ireland. The provinces have been left to go to hell. If the Government wanted to do things properly, there would be a far more even distribution of everything in this country. Instead, we are now probably the most centralised in all Europe. Anyone not within 50 km of Dublin is not at the races. Every county, including that of An Leas-Cheann Comhairle, is feeling it. It is nonsense and nothing is changing. It is a joke. How can the Government stand over it? I know their Members will be re-elected, but how can they stand over it? Do they not care how this country is run? Do they not care that Wexford has the highest suicide rate in the country for the last four years? Does it matter? Rosslare Port is part of the issue. The decision will represent a huge blow to Rosslare Port but the Government has not given a damn about it. Not only does Irish Rail not give a damn about it, but it took €2.5 million of its profits out of the port last year.
The Taoiseach can disappear and not listen to what we have to say. He can live on spin and Twitter and think he can get away with it. Maybe he will, but it will be time to leave the country and turn off the lights if the country keeps going as it is.
Guím Nollaig shona don Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Bhí mé ar tí comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Taoiseach ach faraor géar tá sé imithe. Cheap mé go raibh sé anseo don chéad uair chun éisteacht agus b’fhéidir chun beagáinín a fhoghlaim. I have only four minutes. I realise the challenge which Brexit is and realise the work that the Minister of State is attempting to do. Ultimately, the challenge is a trading one. I have looked at the conclusions from the Council meeting. They come to five or six pages, one on Brexit. Nowhere do I see recognition of the challenges facing Europe of climate change, the challenges from within the EU itself in the countries I mentioned, to which I will return if I have time, and the building up of the military industrial complex and European army. If anything encapsulates the failure to recognise these it is where, in the conclusion, five lines are given to climate change, the biggest threat facing Europe.
In the last year or two, three journalists have been murdered, namely the Maltese journalist investigating corruption there who was killed on 16 October 2017, the Bulgarian television journalist Viktoria Marinova, and, in February, a journalist in Slovakia. The murder of journalists as they attempt to bring accountability to the system is a serious threat to Europe. Then there is the failure of Europe, and this country, to say anything about the murder of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi because the arms industry is far more important. Outside the USA, the EU is the largest maker and exporter of arms, particularly the UK and France, and particularly to Saudi Arabia. Look at what has happened in Europe; some of the countries have already been mentioned. Look at Viktor Orbán in Hungary. There are four unelected presidents of Europe heading the Central Bank, the European Council, the European Commission and the euro, all of them men. One of them, the unelected man who addressed this House, is on record as saying that Orbán was his favourite dictator. As others to my left here have noted, Orbán has just passed a slave law which will allow employers to ask their workers to take on up to 400 hours overtime annually. There is a serious crisis in Poland and one in France, where Paris is burning. There are any number of other countries where democracy is threatened, yet there is absolutely no recognition of that in any of the documents that I have read here.
Around the same time that the Council was meeting, two other very significant conferences took place. At the beginning of December the Berlin security conference, which discussed an army for the Europeans, and there was the annual conference of the European Defence Agency. There the German defence minister said that the European defence union was in the making and she spoke of Europe providing its own security entirely to legitimise EU wars - unfortunately, that was a woman speaking. We have the European Defence Agency and the fund, and behind that there is a committee of personalities - maybe the Minister of State has met some of them - but luckily for us, the European Ombudsman has had great trouble with these. The purpose of the European personalities was to advise on military conflicts and defence. Of that committee, a significant proportion were from various industrial complexes who have benefitted from it.
I will finish, in fairness to my colleague. We have a Europe which is seriously unable to put a mirror before itself to look at the lack of democracy. That is why the far right is rising throughout Europe. We ignore that at our peril.
Brexit is the overarching issue but we must also remember the European Union’s responsibility for the incredible mess that we are in now. It was the European Union which insisted on separate negotiations for the withdrawal, or divorce treaty, and the future relationship. In any divorce, the basic premise is that the future relationship will be at the forefront, but that is not what happened here, which people have often likened to The Eagles song “Hotel California” because “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”. How the EU organised this is part of the problem, which is not only the responsibility of the horrendous Tory party and its crazy ideas, as my colleagues discussed earlier. We now have only 99 days to go. British Government ministers are buying fridges and are beginning to ramp up toward leaving at the end of March. It is profoundly affecting us. Even the timing of our general election has been affected by it. It is a great mess, but we should remember the European Union’s own responsibility for this.
The conclusions referred to the Multi-Annual Financial Framework, MFF, and the single resolution fund. These measures shore up the euro but our fiscal freedom may be circumscribed, particularly in the continuing need to meet the fiscal rules.
I have spoken before of the grave reservations across the European Union towards President Macron’s proposals for a federal European Union, which are probably shared by most people in Ireland. His Thatcherite economic policies have thankfully received a severe setback as a consequence of the gillets jeunesin Paris and other French cities in the last six or seven weeks. The relentless pressure from France and Germany to move to a federal-style EU budget continues to pose significant dangers for Ireland and other smaller states. I often have noted the growing net contribution by Ireland to the EU budget and the fact that post-Brexit, our EU contribution will be larger still.
There appears to have been no discussion on the European Central Bank’s withdrawal of quantitative easing and that it will no longer buy assets. Surely that will have a huge impact in 2019, 2020 and beyond as it did provide a stabilising backdrop, even though I profoundly disagreed with the approach as it rewarded those with property and assets instead of spending the money on ordinary EU citizens.
In pillar 3 there was discussion on migration. The European Border and Coast Guard, EBCG, negotiations are ongoing, as are other negotiations on areas such as the Asylum Agency, the Return Directive and the Common European Asylum System. The impacts of these institutions on our country and on our management of our Borders needs to be spelled out.
I note the reiteration of the PESCO plans.
I was one of the 45 Members of this Chamber who objected to permanent structured co-operation. I have great fears, particularly when I heard the Minister of State commenting in one of her conclusions about what happened at the Kerch Strait which opens onto the Sea of Azov and the stand-off between Ukraine and Russia. I have grave concerns that the European Union and Ireland could be dragged into any militaristic conflict in that region. Differences between those two countries can only be settled by peaceful discussions.
Our overarching concern is that this Christmas we are left in the most uncertain position that the country has been in since 1945. The UK Government making these dramatic moves towards a cliff-edge Brexit certainly seems to put us in very sombre situation. I wish the Minister of State well in the remaining discussions. It is a very critical moment for our country.
When I last spoke in the Chamber on the subject of Brexit, I made the point, as did many others, that the hubris with which the draft withdrawal agreement was greeted was premature and potentially damaging to Prime Minister May’s chances of guiding the deal through Westminster. While we cannot know the impact that the excessive fanfare from Dublin and elsewhere had on the perception of MPs, it is safe to say that the deal is in serious jeopardy. While on paper the deal represents a decent compromise for the EU and UK and a legally sound solution to the Border issue, it may prove not to be worth the paper it is written on.
It is simply a ludicrous position where the EU is negotiating a deal with a Prime Minister who has no parliamentary authority to enforce it. The deferral of the so-called meaningful vote and the resulting motion of no confidence has done nothing to assuage the demands of those who are unhappy with the deal in its current form. It simply reinforces the Prime Minister's position of being in office but not in power, to coin a phrase. If this charade is simply a power play by those seeking to change the Tory leadership for their own ends, that is one thing, but it is quite another to ask seriously what further assurances the UK needs for this deal to be acceptable.
It was reported that Chancellor Merkel was heard to exclaim, “What else do you want?”, during Theresa May’s presentation to other EU leaders in Brussels last Thursday night. The UK was further accused of being "nebulous" in what it wanted by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. I would say that with discussions still at this point after more than two and a half years of Brexit, "nebulous" was quite a polite term to use.
The reality is that Prime Minister May cannot tell us precisely what she wants out of the deal because what she wants is dictated by the parliamentary arithmetic of Westminster. While it is welcome that the EU is willing to offer assurances and clarifications on the deal, including the backstop, I concur with the Taoiseach, the European Commission and the other Heads of State in their assessment that a full-scale reopening of negotiations must not be on the table. The United Kingdom has had more than two and a half years to decide what form Brexit should take. That its Government still cannot nail down precisely what this will be at the 11th hour is shocking.
Leaving aside the internal politics of the UK, it is fundamental that the backstop must remain as a key component of any withdrawal agreement. I am very glad to see that the EU supports us in this. It should of course be reiterated that if the backstop was ever to be used, it would only be as a temporary mechanism. As President Macron said, “it is not a durable solution and nobody is trying to lock the UK into the backstop”. It is in no one's interest to have the UK in limbo where the transition agreement is allowed to drag on for an extended period. It is very much in Ireland’s interest that the trade deal between the EU and UK, when it does materialise, is as similar to the current arrangement as possible. Given the intransigence and slow pace of the negotiations that brought us to this point, it is hard not to be pessimistic about talks on the future trade relationship between the EU and UK.
Will the Minister of State outline the status of the preparations for a no-deal Brexit? It is important that we get all of the detail of what is proposed at this point. When some of us raised this possibility in 2016, we were told that it would never happen. From my understanding, the default planning position for Departments has been switched to one where no deal is in place in a little over three months. I am unsure if the scale of what this would mean is fully appreciated. That is why we need the detail to be set out for us here this evening.
I refer to the report of the Revenue Commissioners which assessed the impact of a no-deal Brexit on cross-Border trade, which I have referenced previously. It paints a very stark picture. The view of the Revenue Commissioners is that the idea of a frictionless Border for trade is unworkable and naive. Along with additional infrastructure such as storage facilities for goods at Border crossings and increased staffing at ports and airports, it is estimated that an external frontier would mean an 800% increase in the volume of customs declarations for companies trading with the UK. This would mean a huge increase in the volume and complexity of paperwork for firms, delays, additional costs and an inevitable knock-on effect on the wider economy, both North and South.
In 2017, exports to Britain increased by €1.74 billion compared with 2016 to reach €14.454 billion. In the same period, imports from Britain increased by €1.5 billion to €17.303 billion. By any measure, trade with the UK is vital to our economy and it is growing. Any restrictions on this flow of imports and exports would have enormously negative consequences for the whole island of Ireland. While we all hope for the best, we must do a lot more than that. We must prepare for the worst, and that means having very clear contingency plans. While it is not up to Ireland to put forward the solutions, we should be ready if the worst happens and the UK exits the EU with no deal in March and World Trade Organization, WTO, rules are activated.
I note that Ministers have been told to prioritise legislation that will equip us to deal with the scenario of a no-deal Brexit. I wish to ask the Minister if this is feasible, given the other pressures of the forthcoming legislative programme. Given the complexity and volume of legislation that would be required in this scenario, is there enough time to prepare for this eventuality? We have seen media reports in recent days stating that the UK Government is preparing a public information campaign in case of a disorderly Brexit. We also saw the frankly horrifying story of the British Secretary of State for Health mass-purchasing fridges to stockpile medicine in case supply chains are cut in March. While these are very extreme examples, I ask the Government to think carefully about how it plans to communicate with businesses that rely on access to the UK market. Many of these businesses have persistently been told that a no-deal outcome was very unlikely. As a result, they are in the dark regarding the ins and outs of WTO rules surrounding trade. Given the short amount of time they have to prepare for March and with the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit increasing daily, I urge the Government to engage with these businesses as soon as possible to ensure they are as fully prepared as they can be.
It is no longer good enough for the Government to say it is pessimistic or a self-fulfilling prophesy. It would now be extremely reckless not to be in full planning and preparation mode for no deal. I request that the Minister set out in great detail the contingency plans as soon as possible to allay fears and ensure we have the best chance of minimising the inevitable serious damage Brexit will cause, whatever form it takes.
I read the Taoiseach's speech to see if it contained any new development in response to the suggestion in UK newspapers that the British Government believes it might be able to broker a deal with the DUP. I read in one newspaper that a 5% movement from the Irish side could unlock everything and it would be plain sailing. I did not read any such comment in the Taoiseach's speech. He gave assurances that we would use our best endeavours to ensure a new agreement is concluded expeditiously. I am not too sure what that might be or whether such assurances would unlock the difficulty but that seems unlikely. We seem to be at a complete stand-off that is historic in terms of the risks it brings.
I wonder what engagement the Government is having with the Labour Party in the UK because that party does not have an insignificant role in this process. I understood the British Labour Party was supportive of the backstop arrangement and may even have said that publicly. I was surprised, to say the least, when it joined members of the Conservative Party in using the Irish backstop as the great impediment to progress. We should maintain our communications with the British Labour Party and ask it to explain what exactly it is doing and what exactly it would do differently. Similarly, we should keep our diplomatic channels open to those who seek a people's vote in the UK. To do so will not be easy and carries risk but we should be connected to that approach as one of the possible ways out of the current cul-de-sac.
Reading the suggestion by the former British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, that the solution is to go back to Europe and secure a change in the European Union's approach to migration, one realises the challenge and political difficulty involved in that. It seems, therefore, that this is a logjam and there is no way out.
What exactly is the role of the European Parliament at this stage? Perhaps the Minister of State will provide details in that regard. Will the European Parliament address the withdrawal agreement regardless of what is happening in the UK political system? Are the timelines for this dependent on what happens in London? Is there any mechanism by which the European Parliament, in which UK members will presumably continue to be involved in the debate, could seek to mediate a possible solution?
The Government must start preparing for the worst possible outcome, namely, a no-deal, crash-out Brexit. Recently, I visited the city of London where I spoke to people involved in the legal system about what exactly might happen in the energy area, in which I have a particular interest. In the event of a hard Brexit, I do not believe the sky would fall in. We would still trading through the interconnectors and gas contracts and other energy business would proceed. However, the process would become cumbersome and inefficient. I presume the same would apply across a range of other areas. The planes will still fly but the real risk is that long-term damage, fundamental distrust and a lack of co-operation would become embedded in the future relationship from the start. We must try and avoid that at all costs.
It is time the Government set out in detail what its proposals are in the event of a hard border. I presume we are all agreed on the basic approach that we would not, even in those circumstances, introduce any sort of border controls between North and South. Surely that would require us to introduce some form of border checks at Rosslare, Dublin Port and elsewhere. It is incumbent on the Government, given the current timeline and the political situation we are in, to be open not only with the Dáil but also with the business community on how this would work.
If I may, I will broaden my contribution to cover other aspects of the Taoiseach's speech on the European Council. We have had support from Europe and we need now to show support for Europe. We should give commitments to provide additional funding for the multi-annual financial framework. We should seek to have areas that would benefit this country prioritised, for example, in the revised Common Agricultural Policy. However, we should also be upfront and confident in our willingness to provide additional funding at this difficult time.
Similarly, when it comes to migration, all the Taoiseach's words at European Council count for little if we have taken only 1,700 of the 4,000 refugees we were meant to take under the EU agreement made last year. That undermines our credibility and good name in any negotiations on that issue.
I understand the Minister of State is due to comment on the disinformation issue which was also discussed in the European Council statement. There was a debate last week by free legal aid counsel on the issue of privacy. In 2009, Canada ordered Facebook to close some of its open data sharing systems but the company did not do so. In 2011, the US International Trade Commission issued Facebook with a similar order to change its data sharing and data collection mechanisms and the company failed to do so. In the same year, the Data Protection Commission here did the same. The failure to close some of the data sharing arrangements led to what happened with Cambridge Analytica which directly influenced the Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump in the United States. It is time this country took a stronger stance and supported the Data Protection Commissioner in taking much more rigorous enforcement actions against such disinformation, with a view to standing by high standards and playing our part in maintaining sane, democratic processes. I hope the Minister of State will have something to say on that.
A wide range of issues was discussed at the European Council meeting, including Brexit, the multi-annual financial framework, the Single Market, migration, external relations, economic and monetary union, climate change, security and defence, disinformation - which I understand the Minister of State will address - and the fight against racism and xenophobia. It was a comprehensive agenda.
There are 100 days to go to Brexit. The European Commission has published its no-deal contingency action plan for 14 specific sectors, including citizens' rights, financial services, transport, climate policy, the PEACE programme, which is worth €2 billion to this country, customs, and the export of goods. All of this will involve proposals to adapt EU law. From the Irish point of view, 45 legislative measures have been considered. I join other Deputies in requesting that the Oireachtas be given a priority in the discussions about these legislative matters. We need to be briefed as soon as possible because we will have a very busy new year, one way or another. The Oireachtas should be treated with respect in connection with these legislative measures, whether they are primary or secondary legislation.
On strengthening economic and monetary union reform or EMU reform as it is known, I note that two decisions were made in respect of the banking single resolution fund. These were to ensure defaults can be better dealt with and to give stronger powers to the European Stability Mechanism for EU bailouts. I also note that there are plans for stabilisation and competitiveness funds. What are the plans for a eurozone budget? What is the Irish position on this controversial proposal? What alliances is the Government forging in the European Union on the Irish position?
On migration, I understand seven issues were discussed at the European Council meeting.
Negotiations are continuing on the European border and coastguard proposal as well as on the common European asylum system, the so-called Dublin regulation. The Taoiseach today stated that no real progress has been made on reform of the Dublin regulation. Why is that the case? Is it because a package of measures was considered and, therefore, no agreement was possible? Migration is a controversial issue. Some EU states are opposed to mandatory quotas. It is clear that the Dublin regulation is not fit for purpose. Will the Minister of State please outline the issues at stake in this regard and why progress is not being made?
I thank the Deputy for his question. I join other Members in wishing everyone a happy and peaceful Christmas. I hope everyone gets a good break.
I am sorry to disappoint Members, but I will not be outlining in great detail the contingency planning that will be announced tomorrow by the Taoiseach. As many Members have mentioned, the Commission has published its communication on implementing the Commission's contingency action plan, which includes 14 measures in areas where a no-deal scenario would come into play. It focuses on various issues which, obviously, are of great significance for Ireland, such as the land bridge, aviation, tourism, the agrifood sector, EU programmes, climate policy and so on. As the Taoiseach stated on Leaders' Questions, much of our work in terms of legislation and contingency planning will follow on from this plan, and I hope that the Cabinet will be updated in that regard later this evening. Of course, leaders of Opposition parties will then be given that information, and it will be officially published tomorrow. It will also be discussed at the stakeholder forum where, along with political representatives, representatives of sectors such as agriculture, education and labour will be able to engage on the issue.
It is very important that we get this right. It is not a matter of us trying to hide anything from anybody. It has taken a long time for Departments, and Ministers focusing on issues within their remit or working collectively, to identify the possible challenges and to ensure our policy is aligned with the position and plans of the European Commission. We will endeavour to get that information to Deputies as quickly as possible.
The key issue for Ireland in the discussions at last week's euro summit was protecting our position on non-performing loans. We believe the text which emerged from the meeting does that. We also had concerns on voting and debt sustainability which we believe are protected in terms of the euro area budget. The discussions at the summit focused on paragraph 4 of the summit statement relating to the French and German proposals in that regard. The draft summit statement set a spring 2019 deadline for an agreement on the general features of the budget, but the Finnish Prime Minister asked for the deadline to be changed to June 2019, and that was supported by many member states, including Ireland.
As Deputy Haughey mentioned, there was also discussion of the risk-sharing components of economic and monetary union, EMU, including the European deposit insurance scheme and its stabilisation function in the European area. The final text makes no such reference but the President of the Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, and the President of the European Central Bank, Mr. Mario Draghi, noted the need for greater risk sharing in the future. In terms of the overall discussion of the insurance fund, we are very much open to that concept.
On the euro area budget, we mandated our finance Ministers to work on the design, method of implementation and timing of the budget line for the euro area which would sit within the wider EU budget and be specifically aimed at enhancing the convergence and competitiveness of the euro area. In addition to the deadline which has been set, finance Ministers have been given several additional priorities. In particular, they will prepare the necessary amendments to the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, treaty by June 2019, after which any revision of the treaty would have to be ratified by all 19 ESM member states, which would require the involvement of the national parliaments and, obviously, would come before this House.
On migration, the discussion is ongoing at the General Affairs Council, which I attend, and the issue is discussed regularly by European leaders at European Council level. Although there is much disagreement on how the issue should be dealt with, we agree that we can only do so effectively by working together. The June meeting of the European Council, which particularly focused on the issue, took a three-pronged approach involving strengthening our co-operation with countries of origin and transit, securing our external borders and dealing with the management of migrants within the EU. It is fair to say that progress has been slow in these areas, as Deputy Haughey outlined. Two additional concepts have been advanced since June, namely, control centres and disembarkation platforms. However, they did not get very much support because they require countries external to the European Union to accept migrants, and not many have been forthcoming in that regard.
Our focus is on working with countries of origin, and we have consistently stated that, particularly in regard to our relationship with African countries. The Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, attended the EU-Africa summit earlier this week at which good progress was made in terms of trying to strengthen and develop our relationship. Particular progress was made in the area of agriculture, with agreement to work together on developing a plan. The more we focus on the countries of origin of migrants, the fewer people will travel to Europe. We have also pledged €15 million to the EU-Africa trust fund which will have a significant impact in that regard.
On migrants, I referred to the compact agreed in Marrakesh, its impact and the disinformation in that regard. What are the views of the Minister of State on that issue? There was some commentary on expected population growth in Ireland which would be measured in the forthcoming census. That growth was linked to open door migration into Ireland. Is there any substance to such views?
Those spreading the disinformation have alleged that the population of Ireland will rise by 1 million by a certain date, based on growth patterns and birth rates and so on, and that that growth is linked to the Marrakesh agreement. My understanding is that the agreement is non-binding and does not have any implications in terms of the number of migrants coming to Ireland. That should be made clear.
Many Members, including Deputy Wallace, touched on the issue of preparation for Brexit. I acknowledge that the Minister of State confirmed an announcement will be made tomorrow. Deputy Wallace raised concerns in regard to Rosslare Europort. Members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement recently visited Derry and met representatives of the North West Strategic Growth Partnership who impressed upon us the significance of the A5 in terms of getting goods to market. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the importance of fast-tracking that proposal was agreed. It would be logical to develop Derry port at Lisahally, which straddles the Border, to open the area further to tourism. We met representatives of the port authority who promoted the development of a deep sea port there. That would involve minimal investment.
We are told that there is significant goodwill towards Ireland, the peace process and the ongoing development of links between North and South. Those projects are examples of issues that could and should be progressed but are not being mentioned anywhere. The national development plan does not contain such projects. It stops at the Border. There is no sense of the joined-up thinking on an all-Ireland basis which is needed to prepare for the situation post Brexit. The Government needs to consider an all-Ireland outreach as part of its planning.
Reference was made to a hard crash. What will be the impact on infrastructure, increased capacity at our ports, the roll-out of the broadband plan, support for our exporters and SMEs, and the Passport Office?
I expect considerable growth in these areas after Brexit. The expected increase in paperwork, in the order of 800%, was touched on. How will it be dealt with? These are all major concerns. I am aware that the Government is holding meetings throughout the country. Citizens are attending them and expecting answers, but in many cases they are going away frustrated with the answers. I hope many of the answers being sought will emerge tomorrow. When we come back to the House to discuss them, almost one month will have elapsed. We do not have weeks or months to spare in regard to what is coming down the tracks owing to Brexit. Perhaps the Minister of State might expand on what we could do to prevent the hard Border that no one wants to see.
Following on from earlier comments, will the Minister of State tell me whether there was or is recognition at the European Council of the major significance of developments such as the yellow vest protests in France where Paris and other cities were burning and the protests in Hungary? How are the latter protests connected to the very dangerous direction in which Mr. Victor Orbán is taking Hungary and the wider and terrifying rise of the far right across Europe? There is even a connection with the extreme right-wing politics of the Tory Party and the mess it has led it into. If there is no reflection on this issue and particularly how it might have contributed, Europe is stumbling in a very dangerous direction.
I often hear very strong promoters of the European Union say the main reason we need it is to avoid the conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s and the war they produced. If that is the case, is it not worth reminding ourselves that it was actually the growth of the far right in the 1930s that led to the Second World War and all of the associated horrors? Is something not going wrong if the European Union is presiding over circumstances in which there is an alarming rise of the far right within its boundaries? Is EU policy contributing to it?
There was some humility and recognition after the Brexit referendum result when the European Union stated it might have made mistakes, but that has all disappeared. There is now no such recognition and we are back to business as usual. One can see the consequences on the streets of Paris and in Hungary. Although the European Union often presents itself as very progressive, it gives succour to the arguments of the extreme right by using phrases such as "burden sharing" in dealing with immigrants. Who are the burden? Is it immigrants? It is giving succour to the logic of the far right in even suggesting immigrants are a burden. They are not; they enrich our society. In the case of Hungary and much of Europe, immigrants are needed because there are extreme labour shortages. The language implies an us-and-them logic and a European version of internationalism that ends at the boundaries of white Christian Europe. The internationalism does not extend in any significant way to north Africa or the Arab world and the European Union is erecting boundaries to keep migrants out. It is discussing with regimes in these regions which are often very obnoxious how migrants can be kept out. That gives succour to the far right. It also deflects from the fundamental economic and social injustices that are leading people to become angry and alienated with the political structures of Europe. If the European Union does not start to reflect on this, it is stumbling into very serious circumstances.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. I should have outlined at the beginning that while there are announcements to be made tomorrow and there will be further clarity on the legislation about which we are talking, a lot of work has been done in trying to prepare. Certain industries, particularly agriculture, have already been affected by Brexit. In the past three budgets we have been putting measures in place not only to support people now but also to mitigate future threats. A sum of €450 million was allocated this year in business supports, while the Brexit loan scheme is worth €300 million. There is also the long-term loan scheme fund. We have taken steps to prepare the economy generally, including through the Action Plan for Jobs 2018.
To comment on Deputy Wallace's point, nine out of ten jobs created in the past year have been outside Dublin, in Galway, Cork and the major towns and cities. The last Action Plan for Jobs, like the current one, was very much focused on the regions and trying to spread the benefits. Also to be borne in mind is Project Ireland 2040. Earlier the Taoiseach mentioned the 25% increase in the budget for infrastructure. The Government has a trade and investment strategy. There is the hiring of staff in the area of ICT, as well as infrastructure measures for ports catering for east-west journeys. All of this work is ongoing, without having to start to look at legislation or anything else. That work will continue. We will also continue to engage with Deputies and share information as it develops.
On the global pact, it is not legally binding, but it is extremely important that we are part of it. I am not aware that it is having an impact on the population or growth. The population is growing. A total of 17% of those living in the country are not from Ireland. We welcome immigrants and celebrate immigration, as one can see from the recent ceremony at which the Taoiseach welcomed 3,000 people who became citizens. We very much welcome this and hope it will not change.
On what is happening throughout Europe and the recognition that there are challenges, the position was made very clear when Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker set out his White Paper on the Future of Europe. We have been engaged in dialogue with citizens for the past year. When Romania takes over the Presidency next month, at the summit in Sibiu, there will be a particular focus on a strategic agenda regarding what the European Union will look like and its plan, not only economically but also socially, in the coming years. I hope the collective work, with each member state engaging with citizens and EU leaders coming together to establish priorities and put the plan in place, will address some or many of the concerns expressed about the rule of law and what is happening in Hungary and also in Poland. This issue has been up for discussion many times. At the General Affairs Council I asked questions of my Polish colleague. The Polish Government has been very forward in answering them, but at the same time there are still concerns. We welcome the changes it has made, particularly in reinstating judges who had retired. Of course, there is still work to be done. We have stated very clearly that we are not happy with some the changes that have taken place, most recently this week, in Hungary. Anything that does not conform with EU labour regulations will be challenged. I can see that happening very soon.
I would like to have ten minutes because a number of questions were raised about disinformation.
I thank Deputies for their statements and questions about the December European Council meeting. As the Taoiseach indicated, I shall focus in my wrap-up remarks on the efforts to combat disinformation, the fight against racism and xenophobia, as well as citizens' consultations on the future of Europe.
Based on an independent report published in March by the European Commission's High Level Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation and following the European Council's conclusions in June and President Juncker's state-of-the-Union address in September, the Commission and the European External Action Service prepared a joint action plan to fight disinformation, focusing particularly on strategic communications policy. The joint action plan was presented to the European Council on 13 December and its aim is to create an integrated approach to addressing issues associated with disinformation activities among EU institutions and member states and solidify a collective way forward in that regard.
At the European Council meeting leaders called for the prompt co-ordinated implementation of the joint action plan and action on the internal elements, which deal primarily with election interference, as well as external elements. There were also calls for swift and decisive action at EU and national level in securing free and fair European and national elections. The Council was invited to continue to work on this issue and report back in March next year.
Ireland is fully supportive of EU efforts to tackle the evolving threat of disinformation campaigns that threaten to undermine social trust in governance, media sources and our shared democracy. It is vital that we address the issue in a co-ordinated and comprehensive way.
This is a complex matter and any policy response needs to assess the phenomenon in an ongoing manner and adjust policy objectives in light of its evolution over time. An interdepartmental group on the security of the electoral process and disinformation was established here and has been working since March to identify best practice in securing our electoral processes. This has involved widespread consultation throughout Departments and our network of embassies overseas. Our focus at present is on expediting the establishment of an electoral commission and regulating online political advertising. On the latter, we held an open policy forum on 6 December which involved participants from industry, academia, political parties, the media, civil society and the European Commission.
In terms of the fight against racism and xenophobia, leaders condemned all forms of racism and xenophobia and emphasised the importance of combating intolerance. They welcomed the adoption on 6 December of the Council declaration on the fight against anti-Semitism. Ireland is supportive of the measures proposed in the Council declaration and we are already carrying out many of the initiatives. We acknowledge the special nature and historical context of recognising anti-Semitism as an important manifestation of xenophobia. We will continue to work towards an holistic strategy to prevent and fight all forms of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination.
Leaders also discussed the main outcomes of the consultations on the future of Europe that have been taking place throughout the Union. This initiative has encouraged people in all member states to have their say on the future shape and direction of the European Union. As I have mentioned many times, I was delighted to join the Taoiseach and Tánaiste in Trinity College last November when we launched our dialogue on the future of Europe. Since then, we have hosted a series of regional dialogues in Galway, Cork, Donegal, Meath and Dublin. These culminated in a national citizens' dialogue in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham on 9 May, which was Europe Day. A future of Europe website was also established to raise public awareness and help people engage with that debate.
Our dialogues were characterised by inclusivity, genuine engagement and positivity about the EU and Ireland's role in it. I will take this opportunity to outline the main concerns and priorities raised during the dialogues. First and foremost, our citizens see the European Union as an expression of their values. Peace, solidarity, co-operation, respect for human dignity, personal and economic freedom, human rights and the rule of law are shared values that underpin our Union and they must be at the heart of every decision we take about its future. Our citizens want to see the EU continue to do what it does well, for example, by continuing to support programmes that deliver concrete benefits, such as the Common Agricultural Policy and Erasmus. The Europe of the future must focus on new challenges, such as climate change, cybersecurity, terrorism and migration. Our citizens want the Union to be a global leader in tackling climate change, with incentives for the transition to renewable energies along with more protection for rural landscapes and a concerted effort to close the rural-urban divide. It must also engage citizens more, including by better explaining and communicating European policies and our objectives and achievements.
We have learned that European Union needs to reaffirm its relevance in the daily lives of its citizens and that this renewal needs to be constant and not just in times of crisis. During the dialogues, I announced €100,000 worth of funding to support groups and organisations in projects aiming to communicate European issues, the role of the European Union and Ireland's place in Europe.
The principle of subsidiarity must ensure decisions are taken at the appropriate level. A strong overarching theme throughout our citizens' engagement process has been the need, in an increasingly competitive world, to ensure fairness between member states in education and employment opportunities and between generations. Our citizens are clear they want to see social exclusion tackled and stronger intervention at European level to combat discrimination, integrate migrants and improve access to services. They want to see more investment in youth, education, jobs, innovation, competitiveness and sustainable growth, which have emerged as priority issues. It was also very clear that our focus should be on implementing practical measures that will improve the lives of citizens, such as the completion of the Single Market, particularly in the area of services, and the full implementation of the digital Single Market.
On external relations, our citizens believe the EU has a moral imperative to do more for countries to the south and east and to promote education and empowerment in Africa. They also believe globalisation should not be allowed to proceed at the expense of human rights. These points were included in a report on our citizens' dialogue that fed into a collective report on the main outcomes throughout the EU. This collective report suggests most participants have a positive view of the EU, although many have noted the need for reform.
The main priorities of European citizens relate to ensuring a Union that is safe and secure, convergent and competitive, that protects the environment, promotes sustainability, ensures well-being and opportunity, is strong on the global stage and fosters common values and diversity. We have a huge amount of work to do to ensure we can achieve and obtain all of these goals. The various reports are intended to assist leaders to identify priorities for action in the run-up to the informal summit that will take place in Sibiu in Romania next May. At that meeting, the Heads of State and Government will prepare the strategic agenda for the EU from 2019 to 2024, with a view to agreeing it at the European Council in June next year.
As the Taoiseach outlined, this was a very lengthy European Council and a wide range of issues were discussed. Of course, for Ireland, Brexit was a priority and remains a priority. We are very satisfied with the conclusions agreed between the EU 27 leaders. There was very clear consensus that the withdrawal agreement, which includes the backstop, is not open for renegotiation. We hope it will never have to be used but it is there as an insurance policy unless and until alternative arrangements are put in place. I am pleased that, in the Article 50 conclusions, leaders were able to offer important reassurances to the UK by reconfirming our commitment to a close future relationship but, most importantly, to start negotiations on that relationship as soon as possible after the UK's withdrawal with a view to concluding them by the end of 2020. I share the Taoiseach's hope the UK will now take the necessary steps to see the deal ratified and implemented.