Wednesday, 26 June 2019
Post-European Council: Statements
I attended a series of meetings of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 20 June, and Friday, 21 June. On Thursday, we met all 28 European Union, EU, Heads of State or Government, to discuss a wide range of issues. We adopted the new EU strategic agenda for 2019 to 2024, and had a substantial exchange on climate action, as well as the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, the European Semester, and cybersecurity. We also had a constructive exchange about the high-level appointments to the EU institutions, which are to be made in the coming months.
Under external relations, we discussed developments in Russia and eastern Ukraine, and Turkish activities in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone. We also discussed the downing of flight MH17, the eastern partnership, developments in Moldova and relations with Morocco and more generally with Africa. We endorsed the conclusions on enlargement and the stabilisation and association process, which the General Affairs Council had adopted earlier in the week. On Friday, we met in eurozone summit formation, to discuss economic developments across the eurozone and the strengthening of economic and monetary union, EMU. We also had a brief discussion on Friday, in Article 50 format, about Brexit. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will focus on external relations and enlargement in her remarks. I will outline our discussions on other issues.
The European Council began on Thursday afternoon with the customary exchange of views with President Tajani of the European Parliament. President Iohannis then reported on Romania’s work as the holder of the EU Presidency since the beginning of the year. This was the first time Romania has fulfilled the role of holding the EU Presidency since it joined the Union. I offer my sincere congratulations to the President and the Romanian Government for their efforts and achievements over the past six months.
As I have said previously, it is important for the EU to show leadership on climate action, so that we can credibly ask others to follow suit. This is something that affects different member states in different ways. We all face different challenges so our discussions on Thursday were long. They were largely focused on preparations for the UN summit in September, which I look forward to attending. We all agreed to continue to work towards achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement and a carbon-neutral EU. I believe we should not view climate action purely as meeting targets to avoid paying financial penalties. Climate action is good environmental, social and economic policy as well. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will help to stabilise the climate and will give us cleaner air, warmer homes and a better quality of life. We should, therefore, look to seize the opportunities and this is what our climate action plan, published on 17 June, does. It sets out an ambitious vision for the country including carbon neutrality by 2050, and a road map as to how we can get there.
I am happy to report that on Thursday most member states were able to commit to aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050. However, we have more work to do at EU level over the coming months to prepare the ground for this transition. We also invited the European Investment Bank, EIB, to invest more and lend more to projects that will help us to achieve these ambitions. I had an opportunity to discuss this further with the President of the EIB, Werner Hoyer, during my visit to Luxembourg on Friday and Saturday, directly after the European Council. We had a useful exchange on the MFF – the seven-year budget for the EU - and agreed to continue our discussions at the next scheduled meeting of the European Council in October with a view to reaching agreement by the end of the year.
Under the important item of disinformation and hybrid threats following the European Parliament elections, we heard a report prepared by the Romanian Presidency, with contributions from the Commission and the High Representative. This set out lessons learned from EU activities to counter disinformation campaigns targeting elections. We agreed that sustained efforts are required to strengthen the resilience of our democracies when faced with disinformation. We also agreed to continue working together to protect the EU and its member states from hybrid and cyberattacks. We discussed our objectives and priorities for the next five years and reached a formal agreement on the EU strategic agenda for 2019 to 2024.
I am pleased that the paper reflects Ireland’s priorities, as outlined in our national statement, discussed in this House on 18 April. This in turn took into account the views expressed during our citizens’ dialogue led by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. Our priorities are the completion of the Single Market in all its aspects, with a free trade policy that champions opportunity and a level playing field, developing economic and financial policies that are socially responsible, working to prepare for the social and economic challenges of the digital transformation, ensuring that the EU plays a lead role in climate action and sustainability and, finally, maintaining peace and security, including by developing stronger relationships with Africa and other partners. The EU strategic agenda provides us with a strong framework to seize the opportunities and meet the challenges that face us and to deliver for our citizens in the years ahead.
On Thursday evening, we had a long and constructive discussion on the high-level appointments to EU institutions to be made in the coming months. The President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council, the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Central Bank, ECB, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy must all be replaced, in accordance with the treaties. Different rules apply to the appointments to the various roles. The European Parliament will elect its own President, and we have agreed that, given its specific non-political mandate, the appointment of the President of the ECB should be handled separately and not be part of a package. A candidate for President of the European Commission, however, must have a super majority in the European Council and then an absolute majority in the European Parliament. No majority was apparent for any candidate on Thursday evening and we agreed to meet again next Sunday evening to resume our discussions.
We agreed that compromises will be needed to achieve the necessary gender, political, geographic and demographic balance. From Ireland's perspective, it is also important that suitable and qualified people fill these posts, who have an understanding of Ireland’s particular issues and concerns, especially when it comes to Brexit. It is essential that we come up with a compromise package that reflects the diversity of the EU and that can gain adequate support in the European Council and the European Parliament but also reflects the outcome of the European elections.
The current President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, attended his final meeting of the eurozone summit on Friday and I took the opportunity to thank him on behalf of Ireland for his excellent work over the past eight years. We agreed that finance ministers should continue their work on strengthening EMU, including the budgetary instrument for convergence and competitiveness, BICC. The new budgetary instrument is a step towards a eurozone budget and will be designed to promote convergence and competitiveness within the eurozone. I would also like more progress towards a European deposit insurance scheme but I acknowledge that some countries have reservations about this.
We are working to ensure that the European economy continues to bring increased employment and greater prosperity to our citizens. Before the European Council ended on Friday, the EU 27 leaders had a brief discussion on Brexit. We re-affirmed that, irrespective of who will be the next British Prime Minister, our position is unchanged. The withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, is not for renegotiation, and any unilateral commitments by the UK Government must be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal agreement. We are, of course, prepared to amend the political declaration on the future relationship, if the UK position evolves, and we will of course listen to any proposals or ideas the new Prime Minister has.
The decision of the European Council in April to extend the Article 50 deadline until 31 October was taken to facilitate the cross-party talks in the UK and for a further round of binding indicative votes.
Regrettably these failed, so a no-deal Brexit cannot be ruled out. We are, therefore, continuing our intensive preparations at domestic and EU level for the possibility of no-deal.
I had a good bilateral meeting with Mr. Michel Barnier before the European Council on Thursday morning at which we also discussed Brexit. We noted the strong and consistent
EU position and agreed to stay in touch over the months ahead. In addition to participating in the formal discussions over the two days, I also engaged informally with many of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meetings, using the opportunity, as I always do, to promote Irish interests. I was pleased to welcome the new Finnish Prime Minister and the new acting Chancellor of Austria.
I look forward to hearing statements from Members.
This was a disappointing summit by any measure. Its conclusions were largely written well in advance, it failed to agree anything on its major items and there was a setback on what had previously been a consensus on the critical challenge of climate change. At a moment the EU is on the edge of an economic downturn, faces unprecedented political threats and needs to demonstrate unity and purpose, this was not a summit to encourage anyone.
The failure to agree on any of the key institutional appointments for the next five years was not a surprise. These always drag on. What has been a surprise is the continued attachment
by some leaders to the discredited and undemocratic spitzenkandidat system. Interviews published yesterday in which the Taoiseach's candidate, Manfred Weber MEP, said that he is the only legitimate choice for the Commission seem to suggest that he and his party put their own interests ahead of finding a widely accepted outcome. Even if one accepts that the European parliamentary elections are fought on a cross-Europe basis with leaders known to the public - which of course they are not - parties with the support of a quarter of the electorate do not have the
automatic right to control key institutions. Mr. Weber has not demonstrated that he has the skills needed to lead the Union and form a new bond with citizens. He has never held any executive role outside of parliamentary management and has never held any role that requires active engagement with the public. He should have the good grace to stand aside.
We remind the Taoiseach that the presidency of the European Central Bank is critical for the future of this country and the entire eurozone. It is inevitable that it will form part of a package with the jobs currently being filled. Under no circumstance should any person be nominated for the job who has been an opponent of Dr. Mario Draghi's interventionist policies during his term. We do not want last-minute converts seeking to grab the job with convenient changes of mind. President Macron's position on this, while unusually strident, is absolutely right and we should support him on this. Economic and monetary union is incomplete and the ECB needs a leader who understands this, not one wedded to the failed orthodoxies of ten years ago.
The summit also agreed to return to the issue of the MFF in October, with the intention of reaching a conclusion by the end of the year. It is not yet clear where these
discussions are going but we believe Ireland should join those countries that are being more explicit in supporting an increase in the Union's budget, particularly to support action on innovation, regional cohesion and climate change. The budget should not be allowed to become another zero-sum game where the objectives set are ambitious but the financial means are yet again less than 1% of the size of Europe’s economy.
The decision of a small group of countries to block the adoption of ambitious climate change targets is a serious development. The excuse they used was the need for extra funding for their energy and automotive industries. If this type of approach is seen during the rest of this year, it will be almost impossible to reach a credible outcome or to move from words to action on key policies. These countries need to understand that a 2050 climate goal is one every country can, and should, work towards. The countries with the largest car industries and energy sectors are willing to sign up, so their excuses simply do not wash. Applying short-term negotiating tactics to leverage a small amount of funding does not impress anyone.
Of course, a major issue in discussions on the budget is the continued uncertainty about the relationship we will have with the UK. It is often hard to know just how seriously we
should take comments from the Tory leadership candidates, because they are manifestly using arguments they must know have zero real-world credibility. In a month there will most likely be a new Prime Minister and there will be no clarity as to what their Brexit policy is, unless Mr. Boris Johnson, MP, is committed to trying to inflict the vandalism of a no-deal outcome on everyone. As we saw in yesterday’s economic statement nothing has been put aside for a no-deal outcome. No net stimulus is planned or available. Money earmarked for items such as the health overrun, which is under way, is simply due to be transferred to help sectors that will quickly be caught in a crisis on 31 October.
A fortnight ago, the Taoiseach acknowledged, at least implicitly, that Ireland was not ready for a no-deal Brexit in March. He claimed that the Government was ready, something which simply does not stand up to scrutiny, but admitted that the wider economy was not. Part of this was his usual tactic of pushing the blame onto others but much of it was an admission that claims that everything that could be done had been done were not true. As we focus now on the harsh deadline of 31 October, it is time to up the game and for the Government to accept its responsibility to make sure that the disruption to business is minimised. We need to end reliance on useless metrics such as the numbers viewing websites and take a more active and interventionist approach. At a minimum, every business that needs to register to continue trading needs to be contacted again and again until action is taken. Equally, we need to know as soon as possible what is to be
done to help industries and communities experiencing disruption.
During the recent election campaign, Commissioner Hogan, the Government and Fine Gael candidates issued co-ordinated statements about potential aid for the agrifood industry. This appeared to break previous accepted limits for action during an election. More important, however, we need this promised aid to be put in place immediately. Let us not continue the policy of waiting until all the damage is done before trying to help. Rather than having a third summer in a row in which the media is filled with the Taoiseach and others making self-congratulatory statements about Brexit, we need a detailed and credible update on Ireland's preparations for all scenarios that might emerge on 31 October or later.
The summit briefly considered reports on hybrid threats and attempts to undermine free democracies in Europe. Yet again there have been attempts by one country to promote division, undermine the European Union and support extremists, primarily on the right but also on the left in some countries. On several recent occasions, Deputy Boyd Barrett has objected when I have pointed to the silence of many of our left wing parties on the issue of Russian aggression against European democracies, in Syria and in support of repressive regimes in many parts of the world. Because of the structure of these debates, I do not have the opportunity to reply to him. As such I would like to point out again that I fully appreciate the unique position of the Socialist Workers Party within the Solidarity-People Before Profit alliance as a party of the far left that takes an anti-Putin line. This is emphatically not a position shared with some other parties and Deputies here.
Far too often we have had to listen to people lecture us about rights and then either fall silent about Russia's aggression or actively justify its behaviour. Sinn Féin's pro-partition approach to
Ukraine is particularly striking. Europe needs to protect its democracies and we need greater urgency in pushing the major social networking platforms to use more of their substantial income to track and take down misinformation and incitement to hatred and division. This is a restatement of the need to take action to protect the viability of independent journalism as a profession and a viable industry. Fianna Fáil believes that it is past time for the Government to take up our proposals on this matter.
We support the Government’s strong position on not lifting Russian sanctions and the summit's commitment to standing by Ukraine. Among other factors, the attempt to strangle Ukraine through closing the Kerch Strait, holding soldiers as hostages and giving Russian citizenship to Ukrainians in the occupied east as well as the refusal to hand over those accused of murdering hundreds on flight MH17 to the Netherlands for trial add up to a situation where nothing has improved and no sanctions should be lifted.
Regarding Turkey, the Istanbul election result is encouraging but it is necessary to remain firm with the Turkish Government, particularly in light of its growing repression of the Kurdish minority.
When the Council reconvenes, it should take time to note the deteriorating situation in Israel and Palestine. The latest so-called peace initiative from the White House is nothing of the sort. As The Washington Postwrites today, it is a policy which seeks the surrender and humiliation of millions of stateless people. A policy of illegal annexation is under way and an attempt is being made to bury any possibility of a just solution. It appears also that the more embroiled Prime Minister Netanyahu becomes in legal troubles, the more willing he is to radicalise Israeli politics. As this happens, the Government cannot sit quietly on the sidelines. We must reconsider our actions and speak out against what is a very dark turn of events.
In the absence of any real development on Brexit, the big news emanating from the European Council last week was the regrettable failure of Heads of Government to find unanimous support in working towards a target of net zero carbon emissions across the European Union by 2050. That is very worrying. While the House might disagree on how Ireland will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the vast majority of Members at least agree that we have to get there, that climate change must be tackled and that we are way behind where we need to be in tackling the problem. That is not just the position in this state, it is also the situation across the European Union. Why is there such reluctance to tackle the issue at European level? Why has the Taoiseach's party's own group in the European Parliament voted consistently against Europe-wide climate action measures, including binding renewable energy targets? The failure to set direct, goal-based, binding targets for member states means that many countries, including Ireland, have simply not bothered to put in the effort required to meet targets. They know that they can just buy credits to avoid non-compliance. It is estimated that we will spend upwards of €7 billion from 2020 to 2040 to buy our way out of missing our emissions targets. That is bonkers. It is bonkers money which equates to three times the cost of the national children's hospital. It requires a serious rethink at European Council level and in the European Parliament. It is incumbent on the Taoiseach as Head of Government to outline the Government's approach in that regard.
The Mercosur trade deal has been raised with the Taoiseach a number of times today in the House. It is important to raise it with him again in the context of the European summit. I noted with interest the contents of the joint letter the Taoiseach sent to the European Commission last week with the President of France, the Polish Prime Minister and the Belgian Prime Minister to outline their concerns about the proposed Mercosur trade deal. The time for writing letters on the issue has long passed. My colleague Matt Carty, MEP, has called on the Taoiseach repeatedly to withdraw his support for the deal in recognition of the impact it would have on Irish agriculture. We had a great deal of debate on the matter in the Oireachtas in the context of the report of the all-party committee on climate change which looked at how we could do more to reduce carbon emissions and transition from a high to a low carbon economy. There is no doubt that there are challenges in every sector, inlcuding agriculture, in the transition to a low carbon economy, but farmers in Ireland are up for the challenge. In many ways, they have led the way in transitioning to a more green economy. One of the things of which we are all proud in this country is that we do farming very well. If one takes beef production under the family farm model in Ireland as an example, cattle graze and are fed on grass and we do not have a proliferation of the factory farms one sees in many parts of the European Union. It is the type of farming that is best and that we do well. We produce some of the best beef in the world. It is of high quality. It is the type of farming that serves the country well. I come from the south east and it certainly serves that region very well. We are all very proud of the high levels of productivity but also the high standards of Irish farmers not just in the beef sector but also in the dairy sector, as well as others.
The difficulty with the Mercosur trade deal is that we could end up signing up to a deal which would mean huge amounts of beef being imported into the European Union, even into Ireland if farmers here were forced to reduce their productivity. In many cases in South America, rain forests are being cut down to facilitate the farming sector. It would be ironic in the extreme if Irish farmers were told that they would have to do a great deal more, which they accept and for which they are up, in particular, where it would mean a reduction in beef production, while at the same time beef would be imported from other parts of the world which did not operate to the same standards, certainly environmental standards. That would be self-defeating and would defeat the purpose of what we are doing. It would be very bad for Ireland. That is why we have concerns about the deal. The European Commission is intent on offering a tariff-free EU quota of 99,000 tonnes of Brazilian beef a year. How many trees will be cut down to facilitate its production? What quantity of rain forests will have to go?
Other sectors are at risk too, including the poultry sector, from the deal, in which I do not see the positives for Ireland. Certainly, the farmers I have met in County Waterford and the wider south east do not see the positives. The deal is being pursued solely in the interests of German car manufacturers. Why then is the Taoiseach playing with words, rather than putting his foot down to stop the deal? Writing letters is not enough. Expressing concern is not enough. It is incumbent on the Government and the Opposition to take the same approach as we took to Brexit, namely, having a clear and unanimous Irish position on protecting the interests of the economy and Irish farmers and doing what is in the best interests of the people of this country.
I refer to Brexit. Since the Taoiseach last made a pre-Council statement, the field of Tory leadership contenders has been whittled down to two. I do not have a particular grá for either candidate or their politics, given the party from which they come. Both have stated their intention to ditch the withdrawal agreement and that they are fine with the prospect of a no-deal scenario. The real danger is that we will see a great deal more of what we have seen in the past two years with Mrs. Theresa May and I said as much in pre-Council statements. We went through a tortuous two-year process during which all sorts of make-believe solution were put on the table by politicians in Britain, sometimes with the acquiescence of the Prime Minister because she was playing to different factions in her party. As a result, we lost vital time in dealing with magic solutions. It must be made very clear to both contenders and whoever wins that the withdrawal agreement and the Irish backstop are sacrosanct and that we cannot go through two more years of the nonsense we have seen. Whoever wins the Tory leadership contest and becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will have to deal with the fact that there is no majority in Parliament for a hard crash. That is the simple arithmetic. There is no appetite for and there are not the numbers in the British Parliament to support a hard crash. That must inform the thinking of the new Prime Minister, as well as the thinking of the European Commission and the Government.
I heard what the Taoiseach said recently about the backstop before and after the Council meeting. It was very strong and forceful. He reiterated what was necessary from an Irish perspective, namely, that while there may be scope to discuss the political declaration, the debate on the withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened. That would be in no one's interests, including those of the British Government. It is done. It took two years of very painful negotiations and was a compromise. We must be very clear in expressing our position to any incoming British Prime Minister that we can no longer indulge them with fantasies or what they call existing technologies which do not exist or solutions they say can be put in place but that do not exist.
That is the position on Brexit, but we have to wait and see what happens in the Tory leadership election which is not a matter for anybody in this House. The Tory Party will decide in due course who its leader will be. The new Prime Minister will have to deal with the Taoiseach, this state and party leaders in the North. We will deal constructively with whoever that person is as we focus on the need to get the institutions in the North up and running again. We want the ongoing talks to work and succeed in order that we can get to a place where people's rights can be vindicated and previous agreements made can be implemented. We have to ensure the voice coming from the North - it is a majority voice coming from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Green Party and all those not in favour of Brexit or a hard border - is heard. We have to ensure the false and fantasy solutions being regurgitated by the two contenders do not gain any traction whatsoever. We have a great deal of work to do. I ask the Taoiseach to continue to hold the line on the issue of the Irish backstop as forcefully as he has been doing. I urge him to continue to protect the withdrawal agreement which people fought hard to negotiate.
I want to focus in my remarks on the publication by the European Council of its new strategic agenda for the period from 2019 to 2024, inclusive, to which the Taoiseach referred in his remarks. It is worth recalling the composition of the European Council. Eight of the 28 Prime Ministers and other Heads of Government from around Europe come from the conservative European People's Party which is the Taoiseach's and Fine Gael's group. Seven come from the economically liberal ALDE group, now known as Renew Europe, to which Fianna Fáil belongs. A further seven come from the Labour Party's group, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. The others are Independents or from smaller groups. Given that there is a clear majority of right-wing Heads of Government, it is not surprising that the Council's new strategic agenda reflects a conservative free market economic policy. The first priority of the agenda is security and the rule of law, including control of Europe's borders and migration. There is also a strong commitment to European foreign policy, defence co-operation and support for the rules based international order. Economic policy is the second priority. Social policy and environmental policy have been relegated to further down the list.
There is some hopeful language used in the European Council's document. There is an important commitment that the European Pillar of Social Rights should be implemented at EU and member state level. There is an important recognition in the document of the growth of inequality, especially among Europe's youth. However, limp promises of ensuring "opportunities for all", "adequate social protection" and "inclusive labour markets" show the lack of appetite among conservative European governments for taking more robust action on these issues. On the call for "good access to healthcare", it is easier said than done because there is no suggestion in the agenda of how it might be achieved in every member state. This highlights the weakest part of the document, the section on implementation. Essentially, the new strategic agenda commits to laissez-fairefree market principles. It calls for the non-regulation of social and economic actors by the European Union. It states the Union "must leave economic and social actors the space to breathe, to create and to innovate". The implication of the new strategic agenda is that while European leaders recognise the problem of inequality, they cannot agree on measures to address it or they are content to rely on free market forces to resolve the fundamental challenge that has been posed in recent years. It is a real political challenge to the very survival of the European ideal. It is certainly not one about which we can be complacent.
The position adopted in the new strategic agenda is wholly contradictory. Market forces are the reason there is growing inequality in Europe. We cannot expect to have so-called "opportunities" and "space to breathe" to resolve the visible failures of free markets. Recent examples of so-called "innovation" in the economy have included zero-hour contracts, the replacement of workers by automation and speculative investment in housing that is driving up the cost of housing across Europe without adding any value. We have spent the last five years legislating to reduce the harm caused by these innovations in the economy and thereby protect citizens. There is no reason to believe the market will produce better innovations in the next five years than it has in the last five.
European leaders should focus on agreed regulations to steer the economy in a new direction that will rebuild the momentum of and support for European ideals. As others said, this is an even bigger concern when it comes to climate change. The Labour Party welcomes the pledge to make sure no one will be left behind by the changes to the economy being made in response to the required transition to a low or zero carbon economy. The European Union has the potential to be a world leader in environmental policy. The big test of this approach will be when powerful economic interests have to be curtailed to protect biodiversity and the oceans. There is almost nothing in the strategy that suggests the European Union will push forward with an ambitious agenda to regulate the economy in new ways or channel economic activity into sustainable action. There is no reason to think it will make exceptional advances in the crucial period ahead. This is extremely worrying, given that international experts have told us that we have just 12 years left in which to make substantial changes to economies to meet our climate change goals. All of these matters are of fundamental importance.
Yesterday in this Chamber the Taoiseach expressed concern about gross human rights violations by the regime in Sudan. Many of these violations have been led and organised by rapid support forces drawn from the old Janjaweed militia who have engaged in beatings, rape, torture and killings. They have fired live ammunition in hospital wards. They have been responsible for the widespread dumping in the River Nile of the corpses of murdered people. They have been funded by the European Union to the tune of millions of euro to curb migration from Sudan to the European Union. Was there any discussion at the European Council meeting on the ending of these payments to such a murderous force? EU member states have supplied weaponry on a mass scale to the Saudi regime. Some of these weapons have ended up in the hands of the Sudanese armed forces and been used to gun down Sudanese protestors. Was there any discussion at the European Council meeting on the ending of arms sales by EU countries to the Saudi regime? Were decisions made at the meeting in that respect?
I salute the masses of the Sudanese people whose uprising and revolution ended the regime of the hated dictator. However, as is so often the case in the first phase of a revolution, the dictator fell but state power remained in the hands of his associates - in this case, the army officers of the so-called transitional military council. When the transitional military council launched bloody attacks on the people at the start of June, the response was truly heroic. The repression was met by a two-day general strike, which featured powerful strikes by port workers, oil field workers and pilots among others; the building of barricades in Khartoum made of bricks and burning tires; the blocking of bridges; and the spread of this type of neighbourhood resistance nationwide. It has become increasingly clear that the real power in the land and the protector of democratic rights and freedoms is the masses of the Sudanese people, led by the urban working class. The strike committees in workplaces and the neighbourhood committees that organise the resistance on the barricades have the potential to provide the foundation of a new genuinely democratic and socialist government in that country. We support the organised self-defence of the Sudanese people, who can appeal to the ordinary rank-and-file soldiers to join the revolution, disarming the regime and brushing it aside. There must be the release of all political prisoners; one person, one vote; the return of all troops from Yemen; the scrapping of military and security budgets with the money being put into health, education and jobs; nationalisation under workers' control of all the companies and assets of the old regime; a free, democratic and socialist Sudan that recognises the self-determination of all oppressed minorities and ethnic groups; and the spreading of such a change to all neighbouring countries.
It was a sad reflection when we saw the EU's inability to sort out the top job as there was no majority for any one candidate. However, there is an essential lack of democracy in that process. The EU electorate does not have a direct role in who gets the top jobs in the EU. I noted one positive, namely, President Tusk's remark that the European Council agrees that there needs to be a package reflecting the diversity of the EU.
It was surprising in one way but not in another that unanimity was not reached on ensuring a climate-neutral EU in line with the Paris Agreement by 2050. Again, listening to what President Tusk said, no country ruled out the possibility of achieving this so he is hopeful of a positive decision in the coming months. When I read about taking account of member states' national circumstances and respecting their right to decide their own energy mix, it raised alarm bells that some countries might be able to slide further down the scale when it comes to climate change. We also need more detail about how the EU will scale up the mobilisation of international climate finance from private and public sources because, again, we wonder what agenda private-public sources are working to.
It is also a sad reflection that we are not seeing in a real way that the EU will be a driver on climate change. It must get into the main driving seat on that. This is the only planet we have. I have recently become aware of Costa Rica due to a personal situation. There is a significant example for us in that country. We look at the militarisation of the EU. Costa Rica actually forbids an army and has had no army since 1949. It also has plans to be carbon-neutral by 2021. It takes up 0.03% of the planet but hosts 5% of the world's biodiversity. At one stage, it was third in the world and first in the Americas on the Environmental Performance Index, so there are good examples there at which we could look. This is imperative, particularly when we consider the very ambitious agenda for the sustainable development goals by 2030. I would hope that the EU would have that as a continuing item on its agenda.
I have a great problem with sanctions because at the end of the day, they hurt ordinary people the most. The richest people are rarely affected by them. Economic sanctions against Russia will continue for a further six months but it is ironic that the Council of Europe took a very different approach just recently. We know the US sanctions against Iran are hitting ordinary people. I have previously referred to how the long-standing US sanctions against Cuba are having a disastrous effect on the Cuban economy.
The strategic agenda sets out four priorities. One is a strong and vibrant economic base while the other was promoting European interests on the global stage. I want to look at those two in terms of trade agreements the EU has been and is negotiating. There are concerns about the EU-Vietnam trade deal regarding serious consequences for workers, not to mention climate issues. The investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS, mechanism is included. This is a system that threatens public budgets and the environment. It means that foreign investors can use the ISDS to sue governments. Two oil firms have already used it to avoid paying taxes in the country. One of the current ISDS cases against Vietnam involves two companies suing the Vietnamese Government over a takeover of one particular company. One of the companies involved made a profit of €787 million on the sale but is refusing to pay taxes. We know that foreign investors can use the ISDS to sue a government, which has an effect on budgets. There is a similar ISDS case in Croatia and another one in France where a company was able to weaken a climate change law by threatening to bring an ISDS case. We have raised that in the Chamber quite a number of times over the past number of years. There has been much criticism of the ISDS - mainly because it is biased in favour of the interests of the investors at the expense of the public interest. The public can sue companies on human rights issues or labour rights. The EU has not listened to the criticism and concerns. With this EU-Vietnam trade deal, there is no obligation on EU companies and corporations to respect human rights, which is very serious.
A free trade agreement is being negotiated with the Mercosur bloc encompassing Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. I will refer to a letter from over 350 civil society organisations to the EU asking it to halt the negotiations because of the deteriorating human rights and environmental conditions in Brazil. It follows a call in April from 600 scientists and representatives from 300 Brazilian indigenous groups asking the EU to support human rights and sustainable development in the face of increased human rights violations and threats to indigenous peoples and their lands in areas that are very valuable ecologically. Civil society is under severe threat in Brazil. The Brazilian President's campaign of ending any form of activism is being implemented, which means that the Brazilian Government has the power to supervise and monitor the activities and actions of international agencies and NGOs in the country. The foreign affairs minister and the environmental minister are also global warming deniers. The Brazilian department of climate change was abolished. As the EU is Brazil's second largest trading partner, I feel the EU is not taking its responsibilities seriously when it comes to human rights. It seems to be a case of negotiating the best deal for Europe regardless of what is happening. Further deforestation must end. Will it, labour and human rights and climate issues be discussed or does promoting European interests, which is on the strategic agenda, take precedence over European values?
During pre-European Council statements last week, I referred to the protection of migrants. I recently put a question to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the Libyan detention centres. The centre in question concerned the Qasr bin Ghashir detention centre. Since then, there have been reports of two other centres south of Tripoli in the Nafusa Mountains - Zintan and Gharyan. Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, was recently granted access and found catastrophic medical situations that were confirmed by the UN agencies with 22 dead from suspected TB and other diseases since last September. MSF visited Zintan detention centre where 900 people are detained in May. Seven hundred people were housed in an overcrowded hangar while there were four barely functioning toilets and sporadic access to water that was not even drinkable.
The Gharyan centre is on the front line of the conflict between the Libyan Government and the Libyan National Army. These migrants fled harrowing situations in their own countries. They have had harrowing situations with traffickers. Now they are in further harrowing situations in the detention centres. While it might be stated policy not to return migrants there, the EU is facilitating this illegal pushback to Libya. The EU is not proactive enough in dealing with these issues and preventing such atrocities. The strategic agenda referred to effective migration and asylum policy. Surely, respect for the human dignity of migrants is central to that.
The strategic agenda also reaffirmed the importance of the eastern partnership. Our foreign affairs committee made an official visit to Georgia and we know the extent of the work it has done on this.
Also noted in the strategic agenda was a reference to fostering entrepreneurship, innovation and increased research efforts. Several weeks ago on Leaders’ Questions, I raised the issue of access to medicines. The EU could take on a more progressive model in research and development. Currently, it is not driven by affordability or accessibility. There is a massive escalation and extortion with regard to prices of life-saving drugs. For example, one company claimed it could produce a drug for €150 million while another, big pharma, said it would cost €2.5 billion for the exact same drug. Reform is needed in this area because the universities and research institutes are publicly funded in the main. However, when it goes to the pharmaceutical companies, more conditions need to be attached. There are less expensive biosimilar alternatives. At the 2016 European Council, under the Dutch EU Presidency, strong recommendations were passed for this kind of reform. It would be a positive sign if a working group was established to drive these recommendations further.
The strategic agenda stated, “The EU also needs to take greater responsibility for its own security and defence, in particular by enhancing defence investment, capability development and operational readiness; it will co-operate closely with NATO” and then later it stated, the EU “will respect the principles of democracy, rule of law, transparency and equality between citizens”. I do not believe the two complement each other. On one hand, we are looking at a military solution, while on the other we are looking at more of democracy with increasing militarisation.
On this special day, I would like to be associated with all the tributes paid this morning to the family of the late, great, former Deputy Jackie Healy Rae.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the European Council meeting of 20 June. The European Council agreed a strategic agenda for the EU for the next five years. I wonder how the Council got around to agreeing this, especially with the backdrop of what is happening with our neighbours across the water and their ongoing deliberations regarding Brexit. The strategic agenda sets out the priority areas which will steer the work of the European Council and provides guidance for the work programme of other EU institutions. The strategic agenda focuses on four main pillars of priority.
Pillar 1 concerns protecting citizens and freedoms. That is fine on paper but there are significant issues such as the persecution of Christians and some minority Muslim populations. The EU, as well the Government and this Parliament, has not had any meaningful debate on this matter. We seem to ignore it. It is remiss of us that we have not had any practical debate on this matter. The only debate was several years ago on a Holy Thursday - an appropriate date – when the Ceann Comhairle allowed it raised as a triple Topical Issue matter.
The second priority is to develop a strong and vibrant economic base. Again, with the onset of Brexit and the challenges it poses, this goal looks wonderful and admirable on paper. How is it going to be achieved, however, in the choppy waters when Britain leaves the EU in Hallowe’en? There are significant challenges ahead, particularly for the agricultural economy. To add to that we have the whole green dream. There has been a knee-jerk reaction to climate change all of a sudden. Who is blamed? The Irish farmers and rural dwellers. We are the vagabonds, the polluters. Nothing can be further from the case when many aspects of government are responsible. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, for example, refuses to allow bus lanes to be created on the way into Dublin. The Minister, Deputy Ross, will not countenance such obvious solutions which are as plain as the nose on one’s face.
Pillar 3 addresses creating a neutral, green, fair and social Europe. We are not neutral any more. Who are we codding? It is a case of rose-tinted glasses. We are not fair. The Government thinks we are greenhorns but we are not. This green agenda has to be dealt with holistically and equitably. Every sector should take its own responsibility.
Pillar 4 is about creating and promoting European interests and its values in the world. One has to wonder what the interests are when one sees the Mercosur deal. I met with beef and suckler farmers this morning, some from the Acting Chairman’s constituency. They are facing wipe-out. There is a €100 million package from the EU with €50 million backed up by the Government. However, no one knows what the guidelines are. No one knows how to get a penny of it. Are the dairy producers who are overstocked going to get part of this too? What will be left for a sector vital to the rural economy and villages? After much pressure, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, announced the programme but there is no sign of how it will be drawn down or will it be equitable. When it reaches the farm gate, will it even provide the price to buy two new farm gates or will it just be a few hundred euro? Again, it is lovely glossy PR document and spin.
Much of these pillar points are fine in principle. As I said at the pre-Council statements, however, we will need to see a far greater amount of detail, specifically when it comes to the building of a climate-neutral Europe. As the document states, the EU can and must lead the way in this by engaging in an in-depth transformation of its economy and society to achieve climate neutrality. It must, however, be conducted in a way that takes account of national circumstances and is socially just. That is the key requirement of the strategy which must not be lost sight of. There is not much social justice coming from EU policies. That is why we probably have Brexit. We know that this will present us with significant challenges when it comes to the agrifood sector.
The new strategic agenda clearly stated:
The EU also needs to take greater responsibility for its own security and defence, in particular by enhancing defence investment, capability development and operational readiness; it will co-operate closely with NATO, in full respect of the principles set out in the Treaties and by the European Council.
This is the kind of alarming talk to which I referred earlier. I am sure it will set off alarm bells for the Minister of State as well. Such talk has caused controversy in this House with respect to our involvement with European militarisation and the threat to our neutrality to which I have referred. This kind of speech is downright dangerous and very provocative. It is as clear as night gets dark or daylight comes in the morning that our Government, our Taoiseach, and Deputy McEntee, as the Minister for State with responsibility for European affairs, should say that although we are part of the European movement and we are a neutral country. We are being sucked into travelling down this road in our rush to be good Europeans and to curry favour with our European friends in advance of Brexit.
I agree, however, with the strategic agenda's emphasis on jobs. We need a strong economic base given that it is of key importance for Europe's competitiveness, prosperity and role on the global stage. I also agree with the view that as technological, security and sustainability challenges reshape the global landscape, we need to renew the basis for long-term sustainable growth and strengthen cohesion in the EU. The only part of the Council's statement that concerns me is its intention to ensure that we deepen EMU in all its dimensions, complete the banking and capital markets union, and strengthen the international role of the euro. This is, again something on which we will need to see much more detail given the potential that economic union has to disrupt the entire economies of smaller nations like our own.
The wording is quite bland, but also quite stark. The strategic agenda refers to "deepening the Economic and Monetary Union in all its dimensions, completing the Banking and Capital Markets Union and strengthening the international role of the euro". That should ring as hollow with the Minister of State and with her predecessors as it does with me. It sticks in my craw. When we needed a bailout, we got a total clean-out. When the IMF would lend us money at 2.9%, our so-called friends and colleagues in Europe charged us 5.9% or 6%. We are still paying that back while the bondholders were let off unscathed. They are laughing all the way to the bank because not only did the bondholders receive their money but they had insurance policies that would have repaid them for the collapse. The German and French banks shovelled money into Ireland when we knew that Rome was burning and that Ireland was facing economic meltdown. Where were our friends then? They told us to hump off. They fleeced us and they are still fleecing us. Where is the economic cohesion there? Where was the fairness and equity? Where was the support of our sister and brother countries in the European Union - ní neart go cur le chéile? Where was the support for little Ireland then?
It was nowhere to be seen.
The national statement on the future of Europe was discussed in the House on 18 April. I appreciate that this followed consultation throughout the country initiated by the Minister of State and European Movement Ireland but that statement is very technical. It is not very creative or imaginative. Perhaps it is realistic. In any event, this has fed into Ireland's position on the EU's strategic agenda for 2019 to 2024. I will follow up on something Deputy Howlin said. Does the Minister of State agree that the strategic agenda is a very conservative document in its outlook? It involves a reassertion of free market principles. Deputy Howlin was quite critical of it. What is the Minister of State's response to that criticism? I am certainly sympathetic to Deputy Howlin's point of view.
My second question is on the filling of the European posts: the President of the Commission, the President of the European Council, the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Central Bank, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. There is speculation that at the heart of this impasse is a dispute between Germany and France on the very future of Europe and the direction it is going to take. Does the Minister of State accept that, having regard to the state of negotiations, the candidacy of Manfred Weber is over and that he is out of the running? Frans Timmermans of the socialist grouping is a realistic possibility for President of the Commission, as is Margrethe Vestager of the liberal grouping. Is there any possibility that Michel Barnier might come through this process? What is the Government's view in that regard? Basically I am asking what is Ireland's position on these negotiations. I know we are only a small country, but I presume we have a view. Perhaps the Minister of State will be prepared to disclose that to us.
My third and final question relates to the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and the avoidance of a hard border. At the same time the European Council meeting was being held, the European Commission published a paper on the importance of the backstop for the future of North-South co-operation. The Northern Ireland Department for the Economy has published a similar report with regard to threats to trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and to the complex set of relationships between the two. During the Conservative Party leadership contest we keep hearing talk of a technological solution, maximum facilitation, and so on, which is worrying. With regard to the two reports to which I have just referred, there are 145 areas of North-South co-operation. All of that is under threat in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It is obvious that a backstop is necessary and that a no-deal Brexit would be devastating. Will the Minister of State assure the House that the solidarity of our EU partners is fully secured in respect of the backstop and the avoidance of a no-deal Brexit?
I am just looking for a response to three of the issues I brought up earlier. The first related to the detention centres in Libya. How does what is being allowed to happen there tie into the EU having an effective migration and asylum policy?
The second issue relates to free trade agreements and the lack of interest and commitment when it comes to human rights and workers' rights. It took a long time for Ireland to get its business and human rights policy together and for the committee to be appointed. I am not to sure if the committee has met yet or if it is planning to meet but at least the chair and, I believe, the members have been appointed. Unless labour rights, human rights, and workers rights are built into free trade agreements, the State is only paying lipservice to the notion of rights.
The third issue relates to the EU being the driver of action on climate change. Is the Minister of State confident that will happen?
I will start with Deputy Haughey's questions. On the question of Brexit and a no-deal scenario, as he said, this poses both great economic threats and great political threats to North-South relationships and our east-west relationships with the UK. We have set a very clear benchmark as to why the backstop is necessary. It is there to protect the Good Friday Agreement, the areas of co-operation which the Deputy rightly mentioned, and our all-island economy. It also protects the Single Market and the customs union. Alternative arrangements have been proposed by different groupings, some of which are independent of the UK Government. The current Prime Minister and sitting government also put in place a group to consider alternative arrangements. What we have seen so far focuses on technical solutions that do not address or reach the very clear benchmarks we and the UK have set, benchmarks to which the EU is very committed.
As to whether we still have solidarity, we absolutely do. Last week's meeting of the European Council is the first I have attended at which Brexit was not top of the agenda. It did not take over much of the discussion. The very clear and simple statement from Donald Tusk was that we will be willing to engage on the political declaration on our future relationship if there is movement from the UK, but that we will not move on the withdrawal agreement, which includes the backstop, the financial settlement, and citizens' rights. Regardless of what is said in the midst of the current contest and irrespective of who becomes the next prime minister, it is clear that the facts will not change. The past three years will not change. The agreements reached in negotiations cannot be changed, with the exception of the political declaration on the future relationship.
On the EU posts and positions, I cannot tell the Deputy who might get what position. EU leaders, meeting last week, spoke for a long time and no candidates were eliminated. Nobody was voted on, but obviously no conclusions were reached. There are a number of moving parts in this regard. The Taoiseach earlier spoke about five positions. The European Central Bank post will most likely be dealt with separately, but the positions in the European Parliament, the Council, the Commission and the High Representative will be presented, most likely as a package, at the same time. The European Parliament has the ability to approve or reject the proposals for the European Commission as well.
Going back to what Deputies Howlin and Maureen O'Sullivan said about people do not having a say in this, 751 MEPs have a very clear and direct say and the Heads of Government from all member states have a very clear say in this extremely important matter. There will be considerable discussion this week with all the Heads of Government, including Ireland's. We have a voice and we are very clear that there needs to be a geographical balance, a political balance and absolutely a gender balance. In line with the treaties we need to ensure that smaller member states are represented and, of course, we need the best people for the jobs, irrespective of whether they come from the proposed Spitzenkandidaten, Ms Vestager, Mr. Timmermans and Mr. Weber. The EPP has come out again today to express our support for Mr. Weber as our lead proposed candidate. We need to see how the discussion goes next Monday. The sooner we can put this in place the better, with the Finnish Presidency starting on 1 July. The suite of Commissioners also must go through the committee stages and the questioning by the European Parliament to allow business to move on as quickly as possible. It is extremely important given the context in which we find ourselves.
Our national statement fed into the EU strategic agenda, in the same way as did the statements of the other 27 member states. While it may not seem that everything is reflected, overall we are happy with the agenda that has been set, particularly the focus on progressing the economy and the Single Market, and ensuring that we continue to do what we are doing right. We need to look at the new priorities and challenges we are facing, including climate and the changing world around us, our engagement and our relationships with our neighbours. We also need to consider education for our young people. I am pleased to see today's announcement that 114 universities throughout Europe will be working more collaboratively. DCU and Trinity College have been selected as two of those universities and I wish them every success in that regard.
Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked three questions. The EU - this includes an Irish voice - has clearly called for the detention centres in Libya to be shut down because as the Deputy rightly said they are not fit for purpose. We would not want anybody to be detained in those conditions. We are dealing with a very challenging issue in general in Libya. While the EU policy is not to direct migrants back to Libya, the EU is working with the Libyan coastguard and is helping to train them with human rights a key focus in that training. They are doing that inasmuch as they can, but also ensuring that where migrants are returned, where possible they are returned to the country from which they have come if it is not Libya. Considerable work is ongoing in that regard at the moment.
On the free trade agreement, we have only just established the new European Labour Authority for the European Union and Slovakia was selected as its base. We take workers' rights very seriously. At the moment there is no clear link to free trade agreements. However, the closer we are and the more engagement we have with either groupings of countries or individual countries, be it on a bilateral basis or otherwise, the more engagement we can have not just on trade issues, but also on human rights issues. We can use that as a forum and a platform to work through and provide support, financial or otherwise, where there are challenging situations to try to improve any member state where it seeks that and where we can help it.
On climate, there is a priority from a European point of view that we are not just trying to catch up on targets, but we are actually setting the agenda and leading the agenda. Last year the Commission published a document clearly setting out that we do not just want to reach our own targets, but that we want to be leaders on the global stage. While there was some disagreement between member states at last week's Council meeting, we need to take into account that individual member states have challenges in reaching targets. Ireland is very clear. The document we launched last week, which has involved months of extensive consultation among political groupings and Independents here, as well as working with the Departments, sets out not just our targets to reduce our emissions by 2030, but also how we will reach climate neutrality by 2050. The Commission's document does not set out the targets for reduction of emissions for 2040 and 2050, but we want to work towards that. We have a number of opportunities, particularly at the UN climate meeting, which is taking place in September, to restate our position and our ambitions. We need to be as ambitious as we possibly can be. We acknowledge there are challenges and Ireland has its own challenges in reaching those targets just as other member states do. We need to work together to help one another to try to reach those targets.
The Taoiseach mentioned a number of issues which were addressed at the European Council. In my wrap-up remarks, I wish to focus on enlargement and the external relations that were discussed last week. On external relations we discussed a range of issues, including developments in Russia and Ukraine; Turkish activities in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone; the eastern partnership; recent developments in Moldova; the EU’s relationship with Africa, including with Morocco and Libya; and the fifth anniversary of the downing of flight MH17.
We agreed to roll over the sanctions against Russia in light of the ongoing situation in eastern Ukraine, and the fact that the Minsk Accords have not been fully implemented. I know Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan also raised the issue of the Council of Europe. She is right in saying that we need to ensure that we try to protect the individuals on the ground. I believe that is why the decision was made in terms of the voting rights for the Council of Europe.
We discussed Turkey’s ongoing illegal drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean. We again called on Turkey to cease such activities and to respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus. From Ireland’s perspective, we stand in full solidarity with Cyprus. Together with our EU partners, we will continue to monitor developments closely and to respond appropriately. The Taoiseach made a very clear statement at the Council last week.
In terms of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine, which Russia continues to breach through its illegal annexation of Crimea and Sebastopol, we fully support the decision to roll over the sanctions. The European Council noted that 17 July will mark the fifth anniversary of the tragic downing of flight MH17, which claimed 298 lives, including an Irish citizen. Leaders welcomed the announcement by the joint investigation team on 19 June that criminal charges will be brought in the Netherlands against four individuals.
Leaders also took the opportunity to mark the tenth anniversary of the eastern partnership and agreed that work should proceed on a further set of long-term policy objectives in advance of the next eastern partnership summit. Ireland supports this programme, which has matured in a challenging geopolitical environment, while helping to promote security and prosperity in the region. In advance of the European Council, I hosted an event in Government Buildings to mark the anniversary.
I am pleased that leaders also agreed on the importance of the EU's strategic partnership with Africa, and committed to further developing these ties. Ireland has been active in calling for this and we highlighted it as a priority in discussions over the next EU strategic agenda. It builds on the positive engagement at the first EU-African Union meetings that took place at ministerial level and the EU-African Union summit held in Abidjan in November 2017.
Given the EU’s focus on ensuring Libya’s peace and long-term stability, I am pleased that leaders reiterated our support for the UN-led political process to bring about a peaceful resolution and a political transition there.
The European Council also welcomed the renewed impetus in EU-Morocco relations. Ireland's bilateral relations with Morocco are strong and we intend to open an embassy in Rabat in 2020.
I attended the General Affairs Council on 18 June where we adopted conclusions on the enlargement and stabilisation and association process. Leaders endorsed these conclusions at the European Council last week.
From an Irish perspective, we welcome the findings of the Commission’s annual enlargement package, including the recommendations to open accession negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania. North Macedonia has made significant progress on key reforms. Due to its importance, leaders agreed to return to this issue in October.
The issue of Albania is obviously more complex, but progress has also been made in this area. It is extremely important that we be able to give both countries a positive signal when we return to this issue in October.
As the Taoiseach said, it was a lengthy series of meetings at the European Council at which a huge number of issues were discussed. I thank all Deputies for their statements and assure them that the Taoiseach and I will continue to report to the House in advance of these meetings.