Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
European Council Meetings
3. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the EU Council meeting held on 10 April 2019; the issues that were discussed; and if he had bilaterals before or after same. [16667/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 11, inclusive, together.
I attended a special meeting of the European Council in Article 50 format in Brussels on 10 April. At the request of the UK Government and in light of the fact that the UK had not ratified the withdrawal agreement, we agreed to a further extension of Article 50, to last only as long as necessary and no longer than 31 October 2019. If the withdrawal agreement is ratified by both parties before that date, the UK will leave on the first day of the following month. In agreeing this extension, the European Council reiterated that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be renegotiated and that any unilateral commitments made by the UK must be compatible with its letter and spirit. Prime Minister May has acknowledged this fully. We made it clear that the period of extension cannot be used to start negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. However, we said also that if the UK's position evolves, we are prepared to reconsider the political declaration on the future relationship. As it is still a member state, the UK has committed to participating in the European Parliament elections later this month. If it fails to live up to this obligation, withdrawal will take place on 1 June. The UK has also committed to act in a responsible and constructive way during the extension period. This is important in order to safeguard the effective functioning of the EU. Given the ongoing uncertainty, a no-deal outcome is still a possibility and the Government therefore is continuing to prepare for all outcomes.
While I did not have any formal bilateral meetings on 10 April, I had extensive engagement with several of my EU counterparts, including at a meeting of the European People's Party leaders. In addition, I attended a meeting hosted by Prime Minister Michel of Belgium, which included President Macron of France and the Prime Ministers of Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands as neighbouring states of the United Kingdom. I also took the opportunity to speak with colleagues on the margins of the European Council meeting itself. I had formal bilateral meetings with President Macron, Chancellor Merkel and Michel Barnier on 2, 4 and 8 April, respectively. I also spoke by phone with the Prime Ministers of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Malta in the days before the European Council. I thanked all my colleagues for their support and for the support they have shown to Ireland throughout the course of Brexit. I spoke with Prime Minister May by phone on Monday, 8 April before the summit. Most recently, I met the Prime Minister at the funeral of Lyra McKee on 24 April. We will meet tomorrow again in Paris. I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Rutte in the Hague on 8 May, at which we discussed bilateral relations between Ireland and the Netherlands and the Union’s future agenda. I also attended an informal meeting of EU Heads of State and Government in Sibiu, Romania, on 9 May where I had further engagement with my EU counterparts. Prime Minister May was not present at that meeting.
Cabinet committee C, which covers EU and international issues, including Brexit, met last on 21 June 2018 and its next meeting has not yet been scheduled. Given the significance of Brexit for the country, it is discussed regularly at full Cabinet level rather than at Cabinet committee level. That included discussions on Brexit today.
As the Taoiseach said, a no-deal outcome remains a real and most undesirable possibility in the Brexit scenario. This is causing huge difficulties across Irish society, North and South. Damage is already accruing to many industrial and economic sectors, not least agriculture and farming. Also, the population has been unnerved by the lack of clarity around whether a deal will in fact be landed across the water on the island of Britain. Particular sensitivities exist in the North around the rights of citizens in all Brexit scenarios but in particular in the case of a disorderly, no-deal Brexit. I ask the Taoiseach to comment on the De Souza case which cuts to the chase in respect of citizenship rights and the recognition of Irish nationality. The Taoiseach is familiar with the case. Can he confirm whether it has been the subject of discussions between the Irish State and Britain and what remedy he has secured for Irish citizens living in the North?
On a separate issue, I register the dismay felt by many people right across Irish society at the decision of RTÉ to participate in the Eurovision song contest in Israel. It is a reprehensible decision and a wrong one given the record of Israel and the ongoing brutalisation of the Palestinian people.
It is not a decision which the majority of Irish people support. I resent deeply the spending of even 1 cent of the taxes I pay to facilitate participation in what should be a celebratory event but which is now deeply unacceptable for being held in Israel.
Yesterday, the Tánaiste implied that a change of British Prime Minister would not end the Brexit deadlock. He said this is not about personalities, but about facts and the complexities of Brexit. Unfortunately, we have seen the complete disregard for facts by some of the key figures throughout the Brexit saga and indeed from the initial referendum. Events are now moving at a fast and unpredictable pace, not to find a solution to Brexit issues but in terms of the political realities of Westminster. We have no idea what Prime Minister will be in office when we approach the new Brexit deadline to which the Taoiseach referred. For instance, we know the newly formed Brexit party, led by Nigel Farage, who has described the withdrawal agreement negotiated and endorsed by this House, as a surrender document, is leading the European election polls in Britain.
I watched "Newsnight" on BBC last night. I saw a Tory backbencher call for a formal alliance between the Tory Party and the Brexit Party to form a Government in Britain and I saw a British Labour Party member describe the current British Parliament as being like the end of days where everybody is sitting around and nobody knows what is happening or how matters are progressing. In that context, I will ask the Taoiseach a difficult question. What is his assessment of how this additional period between now and October is being used? The fear is that it is simply an endless recycling of the same issues to no avail or purpose and that the chances are that by the end of October we will be in the same set of circumstances in which would found ourselves at the previous deadline.
With the stalemate in Britain and the likely radicalisation of the situation after the European elections, no one really has an idea where matters are going to go from here. That issue of the radicalisation of the political situation post the European elections is significant in that, on the one hand, it could potentially radicalise and harden people's attitudes, perhaps making no deal more possible, and, on the other hand, it is entirely possible that the withdrawal agreement could be ratified because that would require only a very few MPs to change their minds. If the agreement were to be accepted, we would immediately enter a period of negotiations. Can the Taoiseach explain how these negotiations are to be handled? What preparations are under way for our technical submissions, for example? It has been established that the European Union side is legally obliged to act in good faith in these negotiations, which requires making proposals about future relations, particularly the operation of trade and regulation on this island. If the withdrawal treaty is accepted, the next phase of negotiations would be different from the discussions that took place over the past two and a half years. How will those discussions be handled?
At last week's informal summit, there was a discussion about choosing the new heads of the European Council, the Commission and the European Central Bank. To date, the only comment the Taoiseach has made on this is to back the European People's Party, EPP, candidate for President of the Commission. Given the importance of these positions, can the Taoiseach outline what he stated on Ireland's behalf as opposed to on behalf of Fine Gael? What was Ireland's position at the summit? Fianna Fáil's position is that the priorities of the new presidents are more important than where they come from. Can the Taoiseach assure us that under no circumstances will Ireland support the replacement of Mario Draghi with someone who will try to reverse the latter's highly successful policies, which saved Europe from deflation and prevented the break up of the euro. This is a crucial appointment for Ireland and it is important that we have a clear policy framework for appointing and supporting Mario Draghi's successor.
I also want to ask about Ireland and RTÉ's participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, particularly in light of the horrific treatment by Israel of the Palestinians, the fact of an apartheid state in Israel and the systematic, regular and relentless flouting of international law and the human rights and civil rights of the Palestinians by Israel. I put it to the Taoiseach in simple terms - were people right to boycott apartheid South Africa? Most people around the world think we were. They are of the view that the boycott had a significant impact on bringing down apartheid in South Africa and Nelson Mandela testified to that. Can the Taoiseach provide any reason for the arguments which justified the boycott against apartheid South Africa not applying to Israel? To my mind, they do in spades? To a major extent, what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is even worse than what was done to black people in South Africa. Is the call for a boycott, sanctions and divestment and also the boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel not justified?
If we are to deal with the rise of the far right, we first need to understand that what is happening is not a peculiarly British phenomenon. It is happening all across Europe and we need to pull the rug from under these people. The way to do so is to deal with issues such as deprivation, alienation from the political system, homelessness and so on. All of these things are on the increase right across the Continent. At the informal meeting where the strategic goals for the European Union were being set out, was there any acknowledgement that there is a real problem with poverty, deprivation and homelessness, not just in this country but right across Europe, and that unless we address those issues as a matter of urgency, the growth of the far right will continue?
As the Taoiseach knows, there have been a number of developments since the European Council meeting last month. We have had the signing of the memorandum of understanding on the common travel area by the Irish and British Governments. As he also knows, this affirms the commitment of both Governments to maintaining the rights, reciprocal arrangements and social benefits associated with the common travel area. However, it is not a legal document and it could be changed in the future. Has the Government given any consideration to making the common travel area an internationally-binding treaty? I throw that out there because of the uncertainty in British politics and in all aspects of Brexit.
Last month, we debated the national statement on the future of Europe. This informed the debate at the European Council meeting in Sibiu on 9 May and I understand that a strategic agenda will then be agreed at the June meeting of the European Council. Nine member states put forward proposals regarding action on climate change in advance of the meeting but Ireland did not feel that it was in a position to sign the letter containing them. Why was that and what is the Taoiseach's commitment to climate change in the context of the meeting in Sibiu?
To take up a point raised by my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, on the election of the new President of the European Commission, at that European Council meeting in Sibiu there seemed to be a tension regarding how the latter will be appointed in the context of whether the European Parliament will have a role or whether the European Council will be central to the process. Can the Taoiseach outline his views on the matter? As Deputy Micheál Martin stated, we want to get the best person for the job. The Taoiseach is committed to the EPP nominee, Manfred Weber, but can the he comment on how the process is likely to unfold? There was uncertainty following that European Council meeting and how we will get a new President of the European Commission. What are the Taoiseach's views on that?
I attended the meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly yesterday and this morning. Many of the people attending from the United Kingdom, whether Conservative or Labour Party members, are deeply concerned. In the context of European policy, while the Barnier withdrawal agreement is available, I doubt if the United Kingdom will sign up to it as is. I presume that the diplomats are doing what they normally do, namely, working to express the ideas in a form of language which will win the approval of the different parties in the UK. However, these European elections are important because of the growth of extreme populist forces, most on the right but some on the left. I wonder if the European Council had an opportunity to discuss what in many ways is possibly the worst threat to democracy in Europe for a long period. I know the Council did not discuss Brexit, but the EU should reflect on what is going to happen in the context of maintaining - whatever the outcome - a strong friendship with Britain and its people. I say this because, inevitably, there is going to be a significant change in the relationship between Britain and the EU. Whatever the precise outcome, Ireland's interests must be protected. However, we also need access to the British market. Farmers know that. The support for Ireland among the other EU member states has been impressive and strong.
Does the Taoiseach have any sense of how it is moving? The Prime Minister of Hungary, Mr. Orbán, was delighted with his party's suspension from Fine Gael's group because it suits him down to the ground. Is the Taoiseach satisfied he could become a party to supporting the candidate of Fine Gael's group for election to various European offices? The Taoiseach should state his position on that.
As we have run well over time, we will take five minutes from the next item to allow the Taoiseach time to respond. We have already taken three minutes. Is that agreed? Agreed.
On the De Souza case, which I was asked about earlier, I always refer back to the Good Friday Agreement in respect of issues of this nature. The Good Friday Agreement is explicit that people in Northern Ireland are entitled to be British, or Irish, or both, and are accepted as such. I think the British Government has got it wrong in this case and the matter has been raised in our bilateral conversations. I have raised it with the Prime Minister, and the Tánaiste has raised it too. While we respect that the British have their own courts system, the Good Friday Agreement is clear in both letter and spirit and I think the UK Government has got it wrong in that case.
The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, met last week. Our delegation was led by the Tánaiste, while the British delegation was led by Mr. David Lidington. At the meeting, the bilateral agreement between Britain and Ireland to continue the common travel area was signed, which will protect and strengthen it by giving it a stronger political and legal underpinning. It was an important achievement and a significant outcome for Irish and British people alike, as it gives us a guarantee that no matter what else may happen as a consequence of Brexit, we will still be able to live, travel, work and access healthcare, education, housing and the welfare system in each other's country as though we are citizens of both. That is being protected and retained and I am pleased we were able to bring that to a conclusion last week, notwithstanding the great uncertainty of other matters.
The BIIGC can also be an institution through which we maintain the strong friendship to which Deputy Burton referred. Irrespective of what happens as a consequence of Brexit, we will naturally want to continue to have a close economic and political relationship with the United Kingdom, our nearest neighbour and one of our largest trading partners, which is particularly important for the agrifood sector, some small exporters and others. We will try to do that with two methods. Through the European Union, we will negotiate a new free trade agreement and a close relationship with the UK, while we will also enhance our bilateral relations, for which extra work will have to be done because the UK will not be in the EU any more. We can use the institutional framework of the BIIGC as part of that but we will also take other steps, such as reopening our consulate in Wales and examining the opening of a consulate in the midlands or the north of England, perhaps in Manchester or Birmingham, to deepen our diplomatic and agency presence in Britain. We will have to undertake many more ministerial visits to the UK because until now, we have had the opportunity to meet our UK counterparts three or four times a year, at Council of Europe meetings in Brussels, but that will no longer be the case. We will have to make a special effort, therefore, to maintain the bilateral relationship, for which organisations such as the BIIGC can play a useful part.
Deputy Howlin asked about my assessment but it is difficult to know. Nobody can predict the future with any certainty in respect of Brexit and we must continue to prepare for the various potential outcomes. Currently, we must await developments in Westminster. European elections will be held next week here, in Britain and in Northern Ireland, the last of which could be especially interesting as the third seat is very much up for grabs. We will have to assess the outcome of those elections in the following week. Talks are ongoing between the Conservative Party and the British Labour Party. We do not know whether they will be able to come to a conclusion, although I hope they can in such a way that allows the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion, if it must leave at all. I am told by the Prime Minister that if those talks fail, Westminster will move to a further set of indicative parliamentary votes, which may help to guide the outcome. The European elections and their outcome could harden attitudes in the UK but we should bear in mind that many parties are in favour of a second referendum or are pro-Remain but their vote is divided. That is less the case with those forces that support a no-deal Brexit or hard Brexit, which must be taken into account.
The next phase of negotiations will arise only if the withdrawal agreement is ratified. We anticipate that those talks will be led by the European Commission, which would be logical, and they may involve the establishment of a task force, or something similar to what currently exists under the leadership of Mr. Michel Barnier, although that has not yet been worked out in detail.