Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
1. To ask the Taoiseach further to the reply to Parliamentary Question Nos. 5 to 14, inclusive, on 5 February 2019, if he will report on any contacts he has had with a person (details supplied). [21768/19]
3. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Paris on 15 May 2019 and the Christchurch call to action which commits governments and online service providers to undertake a series of actions to counteract and remove extreme violent activity online. [21774/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
On 15 May I travelled to Paris for a series of events co-hosted by the French President, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, and the New Zealand Prime Minister, Ms Jacinda Ardern. These events were part of an initiative spearheaded by Prime Minister Ardern in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on the Muslim community in Christchurch on 15 March.
I joined several other leaders, including Prime Minister Ardern, President Macron, Prime Minister May, Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada, President Sail of Senegal, Prime Minister Solberg of Norway, King Abdullah of Jordan and the European Commission President, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker. Representatives of leading technology companies, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, also attended.
Ireland has endorsed the Christchurch call to action, which commits governments and online service providers to undertake a series of actions to counter and remove terrorist and violent extremist content online. I attended a dinner hosted by President Macron with more than 150 business leaders, at which I outlined Ireland's solidarity with the Christchurch call. While technology company leaders were present, I did not have specific bilateral meetings with them.
I was asked a question on contacts with Facebook representatives. I have not had any contact with the chief operating officer, Ms Sheryl Sandberg, since an exchange of letters following our brief meeting in Davos in January.
I spoke with Prime Minister Ardern about the Christchurch call and what practical steps we can take to try to prevent the spread of terrorist content online. I spoke to Prime Minister May about the latest developments on Brexit. Prime Minister Trudeau and I spoke about Brexit and ratification of CETA. President Macron and I discussed the European elections and Brexit developments. We did not discuss agricultural issues or CAP on this occasion. King Abdlullah and I spoke about the opening of Ireland's new embassy in Amman and the strengthening of bilateral relations between our two countries.
Ireland is committed to eliminating terrorist content online and countering radicalisation through educational and social inclusion initiatives. No civilised society can tolerate a situation where extremist ideology of the type that motivated the Christchurch attack finds oxygen and spreads its poison online. For this reason Ireland was pleased to endorse the Christchurch call and we continue to engage at national, EU and international levels to ensure its implementation.
I was asked about my plans for visits abroad over the next six months. I expect to travel to Brussels for the meeting of the European Council that is taking place on 21-22 June. After the Council, I will travel to Luxembourg to visit the European Investment Bank, the European Court of Justice and have a bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr. Bettel. I will then attend a meeting of the British-Irish Council in the United Kingdom during the summer in Manchester. I plan to attend further scheduled European Council meetings on 17-18 October and 12-13 December. Other visits are being given consideration but at present none is confirmed.
I refer to the discussions on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. It is very important that every opportunity is used to discuss CAP at European level over the next while because there are many challenges coming in relation to funding cuts. The agricultural industry feels a lot of pressure with regard to Brexit, how it will pan out, and what the future is going to be, particularly on the beef side of it. We have seen many challenges over the past 12 months with beef and the future of the beef industry, and there are comments coming from the European Union about decoupling payments or reducing cattle numbers. It is vitally important that the Taoiseach discusses CAP at every opportunity he has at European level. We have had a great relationship with the French over many years in discussions on CAP, going right back to our joining the European Union, and we should use every opportunity to build that friendship further and to ensure that the advance of Irish agriculture is kept at the forefront of any discussions on CAP.
This group of questions includes a number of distinct elements, including CAP reform, cybersecurity, Brexit, and the future of the European Union. I do not know whether we can get a bit more time on it, but there we are.
On the discussions about CAP with France, we have formed a very positive working relationship with the French Government historically on this issue over many years. The important thing is to avoid a return to the zero-sum approach to the European Union's budget, which always leads to unreasonable demands for cuts to agriculture and rural development. This is especially acute in the context of Brexit. Will the Taoiseach explain if he has backed off his support for the letter issued earlier this year by some governments which rejected the idea of additional revenues for the Union?
Regarding the informal session the Taoiseach had, it is disappointing that he continues to support the Spitzenkandidat system for party political reasons. We need a European Commission President who will be a clear and focused leader and who will address the problems with communications in Europe generally that are evident at the moment. It is surprising that Ireland is so enthusiastically backing someone who has no record to indicate that they have these skills. Anyone looking at the record of the past seven years will know that the President of the European Central Bank, ECB, is a most critical appointment and has made far more of an impact in delivering recovery than our self-regarding Government is willing to admit. We should be clear that it would be against the interests of Ireland, and indeed Europe as a whole, if there was any attempt to return to the failed orthodoxies of the pre-Draghi era. This is a decision which is, in my view, more important than the multi-annual budget, and countries such as Ireland, which were damaged by the policies Mario Draghi eventually abandoned, need to speak up and oppose the attempt to bring back policies which could undermine both the euro and the European Union. Is it the Taoiseach's intention to say anything on the topic of the appointment to the ECB? The Taoiseach should also be aware that there will be a major backlash if there is any attempt to put a person associated with the far right in either of the other two jobs being discussed. The politics of Orbán, Salvini, and others cannot be allowed to destroy the independent institutions of the European Union, and we need a far more robust approach to the politics these individuals are pursuing across the Union.
As Deputy Micheál Martin has said, this is an eclectic grouping. My question is about the Taoiseach's intended meetings for the next six months. I regard the next six months as being potentially crucial ones for Ireland's foreign policy. There will be a new British Prime Minister, who could be and most likely will be a harder Brexiteer than the current one. As a result, there is a very strong view that a hard Brexit is more likely and we, particularly our businesses, have to up our preparations for that. The European Union is also gearing up for a series of major cyclical changes, including the election of a new Commission President and a new Council President, and the next few months will be critical in this. We are also preparing ourselves for the next round of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which will be pivotal in areas like CAP, our demand for a change in structural funding in areas like housing, and for co-ordinated pan-European action on climate. Despite the visit of President Trump, we still have real fears about the trading impact of this nation and Europe generally with the European Union. In that context, I am interested in where the Taoiseach intends to visit and who he intends to talk to internationally in the next six months, especially during the holiday period when he might have more time to have impactful one-to-one meetings. He gave a list of meetings, including meetings in Brussels and Luxembourg and British-Irish Council and European Council meetings, all of which are important but all of which are routine. Has he given strategic consideration to the meeting he needs to have in the next six months, bearing in mind the crucial issues for our country that I have just instanced?
I suggest that the Taoiseach prioritise a visit to Edinburgh and that he very speedily ramp up the conversation with the Scottish Government and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in particular. The stance adopted by the Scottish Government on fishing and fishing rights around Rockall is, frankly, bewildering. Scotland wishes to remain within the European Union, and that position has been well articulated and mandated democratically. Scotland is part of the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, and therefore I cannot understand, in either diplomatic or economic terms, the stance taken by the Scottish Government. This matter requires immediate and high-level attention because, as others have said, the matter of Brexit now looms and the prospect of a hard Brexit looms ever greater with the prospect of a hard Brexiteer Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street. This scenario threatens the livelihoods of fishing families directly in the here and now, raises the hackles, and raises real concerns as to what Brexit might look like and how it might play out. Scotland is considered an ally on the matter of Brexit, and both fishing communities and people beyond them are saying that if this is the stance adopted by an ally, heaven help us if we are to consider a stance that might be adopted by those who are not an ally of Ireland. Will the Taoiseach, in the course of his response, set out his contact to date with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and if he intends to go directly to Edinburgh to raise, and I hope resolve, this issue with her directly?
The issue of CAP funding and reform, which was raised by Deputy Michael Moynihan, is going to be our top priority when it comes to negotiating the new MFF, which is the next five-year budget for the European Union. There are different views across the European Union. Some countries believe that we should reduce that budget, invest in other areas and tackle other problems, while some believe it is well-functioning EU programme and one that we need to protect. We are very much in the latter camp and are building alliances with like-minded countries - not just France, but also many Mediterranean and central eastern European countries which benefit a lot from CAP. The best way to ensure the CAP budget is protected is by having a very strong environmental and climate action component to it. Often the best way to succeed in a budgetary negotiation is to have two objectives rather than one, and marrying the need to protect the incomes of farmers and rural development with environmental action and climate action is our best chance to protect the budget for CAP. That means greening CAP. It means more investment in green schemes like the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, for example. Some 60,000 farmers are participating in that already, but there could be a lot more. It means funding for diversification and incentivising farmers financially to move into areas of agriculture that are better in terms of climate change and which help promote biodiversity. That is the negotiating approach we will be taking and it is the right one.
Regarding additional revenues for the Union's budget, the Government has stated that we are willing to increase our direct contribution to the EU budget, but only if important programmes like CAP, Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 and others are protected.
On the Spitzenkandidaten system, I support it not for partisan reasons, but for democratic reasons. The European elections matter. When it comes to selecting who holds the most important positions in the EU institutions, we should have regard to what the people said in the European elections. On this occasion, the EPP won those elections both here and across Europe, but it could have been different.
Had it been different, I would not have changed my position on it and would have been willing to support a candidate from a different group. The way it is going to work is that, because nobody has a clear majority or anything remotely approaching it, there will have to be a coalition involving three or four groups - the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and possibly the Greens-European Free Alliance - and the four top jobs will have to be shared out. In that regard, everyone knows where I stand. I would welcome knowing from the Opposition parties where they stand and which candidates they would support for those top jobs - the Commission Presidency, the Council Presidency, the High Representative and the Presidency of the Parliament. The Deputies know where I stand. I would love to see Mairead McGuinness as President of the Parliament. I would love to see Manfred Weber as President of the Commission. I think he would be a good one. However, I know that there will have to be a negotiation. I know it is going to be a package. If other parties have particular candidates they believe the Irish Government should support when it comes to voting in June, I would welcome their opinions. Whether the candidate is Commissioner Vestager or Vice-President Timmermans, I would like to know. It is easy to criticise but not always as easy to put forward-----
What we did agree at our last European Council meeting was that the position of the head of the ECB should not be considered as part of the package. It is different to the other four posts; it is not as political a post. We agreed that that would not be part of any deal, as it were. I have to say that I think Mario Draghi has done a really excellent job as head of the European Central Bank and has pursued broadly the right policies in saving the euro, keeping interest rates low and reflating the European economy. I would like to see his replacement following a similar approach to the euro and not the one that perhaps was followed by his predecessor.