Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
European Council Meetings
12. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the outcome of the informal European Council meeting held on 28 May 2019; if the appointment of the new President of the European Commission was considered at the meeting; and the approach taken by Ireland on the issue. [23321/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 14, inclusive, together.
I attended an informal meeting of the EU Heads of State and Government in Brussels on the evening of 28 May. We discussed the outcome of the European Parliament elections and procedures for the important appointments to the European institutions that fall to be made in the period ahead. We mandated President Tusk to start consultations with EU member states and the European Parliament and agreed to continue discussions at our next meeting of the European Council on 20 and 21 June.
Before the dinner, I co-signed a letter with President Macron requesting President Juncker's backing for our joint grant application for the Celtic interconnector. The interconnector, which will run between Ireland and France, will improve security and diversification of electricity supply, decrease the cost of electricity and help us to achieve our climate ambitions.
I also spoke informally with several of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meeting about Brexit and other important EU issues. I used the opportunity, as I always do, to promote our interests.
I have not had any discussion with other EU leaders since the meeting on 28 May, but I will meet again with my European counterparts at the next European Council meeting in Brussels on 20 and 21 June.
I have asked the Taoiseach about the issue of the budget and whether he supports the idea of additional revenues for the Union. The broader question facing us will be the budget to be spent by the Union and the financial framework for the next five to six years. The Brexit situation looms large and we do not know who is going to win the Conservative Party's leadership battle and become the next Prime Minister, but it could have a particular bearing on the financial outlook, given that Britain leaving the EU has financial implications for the overall EU budget and, particularly from an Irish perspective, on the CAP. Unsurprisingly, Commissioner Hogan has already indicated that there will be a reduction in the CAP budget. It is important that the Taoiseach indicate that the Government is consistent in supporting an increase in the overall EU budget as being in Ireland's best interests in terms of our sectoral needs, agriculture and rural Ireland in particular.
The Taoiseach is correct in saying that it is a more fragmented European Parliament. It is obvious that, at European rather than Irish level, various groups will negotiate a package and a compromise on the key positions. That said, will it still be the EPP's position, for example, to rely on leaders like Orbán to support its candidates and give it with the strength that it enjoys in the European Parliament?
On a broader level, the European Union has been under threat for some time. Luckily, the European elections turned out reasonably well in some countries. In others like France, there are still some alarm bells ringing in terms of the far right making progress. There must be much less tolerance of the far right's approach to many issues. Democrats need to stand up for the fundamental values that have informed the European Union from the outset, in particular free speech, independent judiciaries and independent and free media, in order that people can speak out without fear or favour. Where regimes within the EU are suppressing free speech in the media and undermining the independence of the judiciary, the EU must take a much stronger stance in response to those countries. Such behaviour is incompatible with continued membership of the Union.
Concerns around the budgetary position post Brexit will have been raised even more loudly by those who saw the statement in the weekend's edition of The Sunday Timesby Boris Johnson, potentially the British Prime Minister, that he would withhold the £39 billion in outstanding British contributions to the EU budget for 2019 and 2020 unless the EU agreed what he called more favourable terms in Brexit. There are deep concerns, particularly regarding CAP, about the sustainability of the budgetary forecasts. Some might accuse Boris Johnson of simple bombast. That might prove to be the case but given that he is certainly one of the runners for the Prime Minister's position, this is a matter that we must take most seriously.
President Macron responded to this assertion - rather, a source close to him responded to Reuters - by saying that withholding Britain's contribution to the EU budget would amount to a sovereign debt default. President Macron has a habit of upping the ante in the debate with Britain. While Britain must be held to account and, as we all agree, this country cannot be the collateral damage in the Brexit debacle, there is a danger that we will get caught between anglophone and francophone bombast on some of these matters.
Given the new European Parliament term and the dynamic introduced by Brexit, now is the time to have a debate on the future of Europe and on protecting the democratic foundations and values of the Union. As democrats, however, we must open up to scrutiny the direction being taken by the European project. That would be a necessary and healthy thing to do.
How does the Taoiseach propose to promote that debate? I am not talking about a shouting match or a scenario in which those with critical views are denigrated as anti-European or negative. We need to have a grown-up, mature and democratic debate about the future direction of the European project.
The results of the recent European Parliament elections are to be welcomed. As others have done, I congratulate the four Deputies who have been elected to the European Parliament and I wish them well. It is to be welcomed that the expected swing to the far right did not materialise. It seems that we now have a fragmented and diverse sector. This will be challenging. I have no doubt that the political system will rise to the occasion in the interests of the citizens of Europe.
I would like to speak about the United Kingdom and Brexit. We are in despair as we watch developments in UK politics at this time. The Conservative Party leadership race is particularly depressing. Now that we know the positions of a number of the contenders, it is especially depressing that many of the candidates seem to have no interest in, or feel for, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. I suspect that Anglo-Irish relations will be particularly difficult in the months ahead. I think the Taoiseach will need all his diplomatic skills to deal with that. The Rockall fisheries dispute is now on the agenda as well. It is a sign of things to come. I would say that the leadership race in the Conservative Party is especially depressing.
When the Taoiseach spoke in his previous contribution about last month's European Council meeting, he outlined his position on several important and central posts that need to be filled. Does he think it would be worthwhile to pursue Jean-Claude Juncker's suggestion that there should be gender balance in the filling of these positions? I think we need to give serious consideration to the suggestion. Although the wheeling and dealing is fascinating, I would say it is a little unseemly. I suppose that is democracy in action. Will the ultimate decision be taken by the European Parliament or by the European Council? It looks like the ALDE group, to which Fianna Fáil is affiliated, will have a central role in the make-up of the European Parliament. It will be very interesting to watch. I hope the best people fill the positions in due course. If we get a new President of the European Commission, we will have to appoint Commissioners and Ireland will have to appoint a European Commissioner. Has the Taoiseach given any thought to that yet? What qualities does he think our newly appointed Commissioner should have? I would be interested to know what he thinks about what might transpire in respect of the Irish appointment over the next couple of months.
I know the normal process here involves Opposition Deputies asking questions of the Taoiseach, who then answers those questions. On this occasion, I do not mind answering the question the Taoiseach has asked. I could give a fuller answer in respect of all the positions. The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats candidate for the position of President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, is an exemplary candidate. He understands Ireland very well. He has had a long involvement with this country. I have been involved with him over many years in various Ministries. He understands Ireland and is very supportive of Ireland. He would be an excellent choice for us.
I would like to mention another important position that is coming up. The Taoiseach has said that the position of President of the ECB is not part of the general brokering. I have a great deal of experience in this area. I know the Taoiseach was not a great fan of the Economic Management Council during the period for which it existed. When we started to tackle the worst economic crisis this State has met in many generations, it was very important to have a tight-knit group of people grappling with these issues. The transition from Jean-Claude Trichet to Mario Draghi was critical and essential not only for our economic survival but also for the survival of the eurozone. It is important that whoever replaces Mr. Draghi is of the same mindset as him. When he said the ECB would do "whatever it takes" to preserve the euro, he meant that every ounce of strength in the bank and in the economies of Europe would be deployed to that end. It was a pivotal moment in the preservation of the eurozone. I do not want to have an auction of candidates, but I must mention that Mr. Jens Weidmann, who is being touted as a candidate, opposed all of that. He did not believe it was the role of the President of the ECB, or the ECB itself, to preserve the eurozone. He continues to argue this extraordinary point of view on the basis that the role of the ECB is simply to maintain a low inflation rate within the eurozone countries. I say these things because this is very important. Many good candidates could fill the other positions, but the mindset of the President of the ECB will be critical. Will the Taoiseach comment on this issue? I am sure he is well briefed on it. I would be very happy to discuss it with him. I am sure Deputy Noonan will have briefed the Taoiseach separately about the pivotal position of the ECB at critical junctures in our economic travails.
As Deputy Howlin probably picked up from my remarks on the previous group of questions, my assessment of the characteristics of the new President of the ECB is very similar to the Deputy's assessment. I agree that Mario Draghi has done a very good job in saving the euro and keeping interest rates low. He pursued a policy of quantitative easing when it was necessary. It is still necessary at this point in time. I would like the next President of the ECB to be somebody of a similar mindset who would continue to adopt similar policies to those of Mr. Draghi. It is useful that the position of chief economist of the ECB is now held by an Irish person in the shape of Philip Lane.
Deputy Micheál Martin asked about revenue raising on two occasions. I am not sure if I misunderstood the question. We are not advocating any new EU-wide taxes. That is not something we propose.
Perhaps the Deputy asked his question twice because he did not hear what I said earlier. I said that Ireland has indicated that it would be willing to increase its direct contribution from its own resources. It will increase anyway because our GDP is increasing. We are willing to increase the percentage as long as the programmes we support continue to be well funded. We are willing to pay more into the budget as long as important programmes like the Common Agricultural Policy, Erasmus, Horizon and INTERREG are protected. We do not want to end up paying more into a budget only to see the programmes we find most valuable being cut back.
I was asked about the package for the four top jobs. It is anticipated that three or four of the major parties will come together to create a majority in the European Parliament. It has to be an absolute majority. We will have an absolute majority that does not require the support of parties like Fidesz that have been suspended. I am very conscious that the V4 nations - Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic - tend to stick together at European Council level. Even though their Governments are in different groups - liberal, centre-right and socialist - they tend to stick together. Often, the dynamic is not just one of political groups as there can be regional groups too. They will stick together on these issues. It will be necessary for the European Council to vote by qualified majority on some positions.
Like everyone in this House, I am a little concerned about political developments in London at present. Theresa May was not a bad negotiator. She had a good team. I believe they got the best deal they could have got, given the limited leverage that a country leaving the EU has. It took two years to negotiate the withdrawal agreement. It is not perfect. It is a finely balanced compromise. Everyone had to give and take. Sadly, the House of Commons failed to ratify that agreement. I am a little concerned that some people in London seem to think the failure of the House of Commons to ratify the agreement automatically means they will get a better agreement. That is a terrible political miscalculation. I hope it is not the one that is being made across the water. They made some miscalculations along the way. After the UK decided to leave the EU, they initially thought that Ireland would somehow fall into line and leave too. We did not leave and we are not leaving. Some of them thought that when push came to shove, Ireland would be abandoned and EU unity would break.
They were wrong about that. I hope they are not making a further political miscalculation, which is to think that the House of Commons, having failed to ratify the deal, will somehow get a better deal. That is to really misunderstand how the European Union works.
In terms of the wider future of Europe debate, we have had a detailed public consultation, led by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, with meetings held all over the country and a lot of people engaging. A few months ago we issued a Government statement on the future of Europe that sets out our vision for how the EU should grow and develop in the coming years. If we have not had one yet, a Dáil debate-----
-----on that would be very wise.
Deputy Haughey asked about balance. It is essential that we have gender balance, political balance among the groups, geographical balance and balance between big and small as well as between new and old member states. It is very hard to have that level of balance when there are only four jobs but we need to achieve it. President Macron and I are very keen to see at least one of the major top jobs going to a woman. The high representative position is currently held by a woman but it seems to me that one of the presidencies should be held by a woman in the next term and there are some very good candidates who could potentially fill those roles.