Wednesday, 10 July 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
European Council Meetings
2. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the June 2019 European Council meeting; and if he contributed to the discussion on the agenda on items on the next institutional cycle, the multi-annual framework and climate change. [26559/19]
3. To ask the Taoiseach if Brexit was discussed at the June 2019 European Council, or at other meetings before or after the Council meeting; and if the issue of the backstop was mentioned. [26561/19]
6. To ask the Taoiseach if he met any of the six EU prime ministers who were elected as co-ordinators to select replacements for the President of the European Commission and European Council positions and others when he attended the European Council meeting on 20 and 21 June 2019. [26858/19]
12. To ask the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Mr. Michel Barnier or the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently or since the European Council meeting in June 2019. [28205/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 12, inclusive, together.
I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 20 June and Friday, 21 June. We adopted the new EU strategic agenda for the period 2019 to 2024, inclusive, in which Ireland’s priorities are well reflected. We also had an initial discussion on high level appointments to the EU institutions, a discussion which we concluded successfully on 2 July. We had a substantial exchange on climate action in preparation for the UN climate action summit in September. I emphasised the need for the European Union to show leadership in order that we could credibly encourage others to follow suit. I also briefed leaders on Ireland’s climate action plan. We also discussed the multi-annual financial framework, which we hope can be finalised by the end of the year, the European semester, disinformation, as well as enlargement and the stabilisation and association process.
On external relations, we discussed developments in Russia and eastern Ukraine, Turkish activities in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone; the fifth anniversary of the downing of flight MH17, the eastern partnership, developments in Moldova, the situation in Libya, as well as relations with Morocco and, more generally, Africa.
On the Friday we met in euro summit formation to discuss economic developments across the eurozone and the strengthening of Economic and Monetary Union. We also had a brief discussion in Article 50 format about Brexit and reaffirmed our position that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, was not for renegotiation. I had a good bilateral meeting with Michel Barnier on the Thursday morning before the European Council. We noted the strong and consistent EU position on Brexit and agreed to stay in touch in the period ahead.
In addition to participating in the formal discussions over the course of the two days, I engaged informally with many of my EU counterparts on the margins of the meetings, using the opportunity, as I always do, to promote Irish interests.
I travelled to Luxembourg on Friday, 21 June, following the European Council. I had a bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, at which we discussed the positive bilateral relations between Ireland and Luxembourg, issues on the European Council’s agenda, as well as the growing co-operation between us on EU issues of mutual concern.
At the headquarters of the European Investment Bank, EIB, I met the bank's president, Werner Hoyer, and its vice president, Andrew McDowell. I was present for the signature of an EIB loan of €350 million to the Dublin Airport Authority for the development of operations at Dublin Airport.
I also visited the European Court of Justice where I met the president of the court, Koen Lenaerts, as well as the Irish Judge and Advocate General at the Court of Justice and the Irish judges at the General Court. We discussed the role of the court in upholding the European Union’s treaties and laws, as well as the implications of Brexit for its work.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Has he spoken to European Commission President-designate Ursula von der Leyen since she was nominated to discuss her plans and proposals that she envisages pursuing in her role in the next five years? The current nominee did not campaign for the position. She was not involved in any of the Spitzenkandidatdebates which were televised. Many of us are unaware of her specific views on the policy platforms and issues she wants to highlight during her term in the next five years.
The Government has reappointed Phil Hogan for a second term as Commissioner. It is reported that he is being tipped to be given the prestigious trade portfolio in the new Commission. That would be an important and prominent position to hold, given the ongoing uncertainty about Brexit and the impact of the proposed Mercosur deal, for which, as agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, had been advocating. Has the Taoiseach raised with Ms von der Leyen the portfolio Mr. Hogan might be given? Is there an agreement in that regard? If so, will he share it with us?
The greatest challenge facing the next trade Commissioner will be negotiating a new trade deal with the United Kingdom post Brexit. It will be the most significant issue for the European Union, especially for us. There are thousands of farmers outside Leinster House protesting about Mercosur. They are concerned about the beef industry specifically. Likewise, there are other issues which will very much be on the next Commissioner’s agenda.
On that deal and the commitment that was repeated again in the House last night to have comprehensive analysis done on its impact of, I specifically ask the Taoiseach if that overview and analysis will include specific inputs and involvement from the trade union movement on labour law and labour standards as well as involvement and input from environmental groups on climate change?
I welcome and acknowledge the apology the Taoiseach gave earlier and the withdrawal of remarks he made last week.
The Taoiseach did not respond to my question yesterday about Commissioner Hogan's highly irregular intervention during the local elections. From what I can see, there is no precedent for a Commissioner to announce a politically important support scheme during an election, particularly when the full details are not available. We would like the full details of that support package to be published as soon as possible. Can we expect more of this co-ordination by Government with our Commissioner during future elections?
More importantly, at the recent European Council meeting, the Taoiseach decided that Ireland should stand with Kaczyński in Poland and Orbán in Hungary in seeking to block Frans Timmermans, MEP because of his tough stand in favour of core democratic values within the European Union. It is a deeply sad situation that at no stage did the Taoiseach say that Ireland really wants the best person for the job. The Taoiseach instead joined with those who threw a fit at the idea that one party might lose its grip on the Commission presidency. Given that the EPP's vote has fallen from 39% to 24% since it gained the presidency of the Commission, and that it included Orbán's votes in its claims for legitimacy, there is nothing to commend in this party-first approach. It is sad that the Taoiseach did not speak out against the anti-Timmermans campaigning by actively illiberal and increasingly anti-democratic leaders. If we do not call it out when these people are flexing their muscles, it does not send out a good signal for the future of the European Union and our basic values of freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and an independent media. It is worrying when punches are pulled in these instances in terms of those who are advocating the undermining of those values. It is the first time in the history of our membership of the European Union that Ireland has stood against a reasonable compromise on leadership positions.
It is also reported that when Dr. von der Leyen was proposed as President, a series of leaders talked to her and received assurances before the vote. Italy claims it was promised an economic portfolio and Hungary and Poland say they are reassured by her. What assurance did the Taoiseach seek from Dr. von der Leyen before deciding to support her? Can the Taoiseach indicate to us what meetings he has had with her, how often he has met her as a presumptive candidate and why does he believe she is a better appointment than the man whose nomination he helped to veto?
There were two European Council meetings in June and July and the five key positions have been filled, subject to ratification by the European Parliament. To take up the points raised by Deputy Micheál Martin, I would be interested to know the position taken by Ireland in respect of these negotiations. When it became clear that Manfred Weber from the European People's Party would not succeed in becoming President of the European Commission, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron hammered out a deal at the G20 summit in Japan to make the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats candidate, Frans Timmermans, the President instead. It is widely reported that the Taoiseach led the rebellion within the EPP against this deal. His appointment was opposed by several eastern European states. Can the Taoiseach outline his reasons for opposing Frans Timmermans? Was he trying to promote the candidacy of Michel Barnier instead? Have relations with Angela Merkel and the socialist group been damaged as a result of this? We need all the friends we can get as the Brexit deadline approaches. Will the EU still ensure that the rule of law is enforced under Article 7 proceedings in Poland and Hungary, now that Frans Timmermans has effectively been blocked by these eastern European countries? Was Ireland right to side with these countries on this basis? What are the implications of all this for the Spitzenkandidaten process following the outcome of this European Council meeting?
I also express my continuing and ongoing dismay at the way in which the Taoiseach and the EPP continue to tolerate, collude with and co-operate with the vile regime of Viktor Orbán. There are farmers outside today protesting against an EU plan to do a deal with another vile regime, that of Bolsonaro and the Mercosur countries. With that in mind, I would like the Taoiseach to explain to me how we could in any way consider working with a regime that is accelerating a devastating programme of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon rainforest produces 20% of global oxygen, and in the last ten years alone, an area the size of Portugal has been cut down. Bolsonaro is systematically dismantling the Brazilian environmental protection agency, he has called for an extermination of the indigenous people of the Amazon to be carried out on a similar scale to the extermination of the indigenous population in North America and he told a political opponent that she is not worthy of raping. This guy is filthy. How can we give favourable trade status to regimes such as this in order to then destroy beef farmers in this country, with the devastating consequences they are facing? How is that in any way in tune with the progressive values the Taoiseach so often ascribes to the European Union? What about the transport emissions that would be involved in massively expanding the sale of gas-guzzling German cars and pharmaceuticals in Brazil and Brazil in turn cutting down rainforests in order to send beef back here? Does that not just make complete hypocrisy of the European Union's claim to be a progressive and environmentally-forward defender of human rights and so on? Is it not just the purest hypocrisy?
In the absence of any significant developments in Brexit, and everybody is waiting until October to see what happens once the implementation period and the extension end, the big issue emanating from last month's European Council meeting was the failure of Heads of Government to find unanimity in working towards a target of net zero carbon emissions across the EU by 2050. This is something the European Union must do. As we speak, we have a President of the United States of America who wants to tear up the Paris accord and who is talking about the United States not fulfilling its mandate in those targets. It is important that the European Union is a leader in this and strives towards the highest targets that can possibly be agreed and met.
I take a simple view that climate justice and social justice are flip sides of the same coin. What we need to do first is set the most ambitious targets, which Europe has failed to do, and then we have to look at the real solutions, which are public housing of the highest standard, public transport of the highest standard and making sure that people have alternatives. That is simply not the case today. On the one hand the European Council is not in a position to agree targets that need to be met for a zero carbon economy across Europe, and on the other hand we have a trade deal with South America, which will accelerate the cutting down of rainforests and which undermines all the efforts made by Irish farmers to produce products such as beef to the highest quality, with traceability and the highest environmental standards.
While the Taoiseach says that it is not a deal yet and that there are protections built into the agreement, people do not believe it because they know what the view of the Brazilian Government is and its track record in this.
The failure of the European Council to agree targets regarding zero carbon is serious. Why is that the case? When we see what is happening in the United States and the very negative approach by its president, why is the European Union not able to agree binding zero-carbon targets by 2050?
The Taoiseach is quoted from time to time as being very close not just to some of the eastern European countries, but also to Mr. Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, who is part of the Hanseatic League. I understand the Dutch are particularly concerned about the issue of the Border in Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit in the context of Europe's frontier being open. Is the commentary in the media regarding the Taoiseach's European and EPP contacts correct in this respect? Have the Dutch given him a sense of what they would like to see if, unfortunately, a hard border emerges?
It was welcome that yesterday the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was finally more forthcoming about what might unfold. The Taoiseach needs to be more upfront with people in Ireland. What discussions did he have on the side about the implications for the Border in Ireland? We do not want to see a hard border but it would appear that the Dutch and others are very strong on maintaining the European border. How does the Government propose to address this?
When Viktor Orbán's party, Fidesz, had its membership of the EPP suspended, the Taoiseach stood by him, in that he supported that group of countries when it came to making a decision on the potential presidency of Mr. Timmermans. What is the Taoiseach's view at the moment of the Fidesz Government of Hungary led by Mr. Orbán in respect of the vindication of human rights in Hungary and the implications of that for the wider European Union?
I thank Deputy Burton. She very kindly mentioned that I am often quoted as being close to particular EU prime ministers, including Mr. Rutte. I thank her for her comments. Over the past two years I have put tremendous effort into building up personal relationships with all prime ministers in the European Union regardless of their political colour because I need them to be on our side when it comes to Brexit. I have put a considerable amount of time and effort into that. It does not matter which group they are from; I put the effort into it.
She is not correct in suggesting that Mark Rutte is in the EPP; he is actually part of the liberal Renew Europe group. Notwithstanding that, we have a very close relationship, as I do with other liberal prime ministers, such as Charles Michel and Xavier Bettel to give two other examples. I have already built up a relationship with the new Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whom I know very well through the EPP and Sebastian Kurz, who I anticipate will return as Chancellor of Austria in the coming months. I put a significant effort into that and their political family does not matter. Ireland needs friends and allies at this time and I will make sure we have as many as we possibly can.
The Deputy referred to commentary that the Dutch had a particular interest in the Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. I do not think that is correct. I had a very long meeting in The Hague with Mark Rutte not too long ago and our objectives are shared, in terms of protecting the Single Market and the customs union which the Netherlands will also need to do at its ports. Understandably the Dutch have a particular interest in that and also we will want to do the same in our country.
I understand the comments the Deputies are making about the V4 countries, namely, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Those four countries tend to work together in European Council summits and they are four countries that are under considerable pressure from the European Commission over the rule of law, democracy, academic freedom and so on. I note that the focus of this Chamber is always on Hungary and its Prime Minister, Mr. Orbán, whose party has been suspended from the EPP, but there are four countries in that group. They work together and have similar issues with the European Commission. They include the Government of Slovakia, which is part of the socialist group and has not been sanctioned or suspended in any way from that group.
The Taoiseach should be fair to people. People mentioned Hungary and Poland, not the four countries. The Taoiseach knows what we are talking about. We are talking about the rule of law and a decision to oppose Frans Timmermans-----
Other questions related to Ursula van der Leyen. It is important to say that she has not yet been ratified by the European Parliament - that procedure is yet to happen - nor has Commissioner Hogan for a second term. I hope the MEPs from Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil will vote in favour of her election as President and for the re-nomination of Commissioner Hogan.
I have not spoken to her since her nomination. We are trying to schedule a phone call for this week or next week. I am confident that she will stick to what she has said in the past, particularly about Brexit and the backstop. I am confident that she will be in line with the political programme of the EPP, which is the one to which her party signed up.
I will speak to her about the portfolio that she will assign to Commissioner Hogan. There are 27 posts, or 28 as there will still be a UK Commissioner. I have not sought or received any promises on them. I know it is difficult for a small country to get an influential portfolio. I will be working hard to ensure that our Commissioner gets an influential portfolio.
I have not met Ursula van der Leyen personally, but the Ministers, Deputies Flanagan, Donohoe and Kehoe have, and they have very high regard for her. She was personally recommended to me and to the European Council by Chancellor Merkel.
On the EU-Mercosur agreement, there will be a detailed economic and environmental assessment, which will look at the impact on Irish jobs and business in particular. A similar exercise was done for CETA, the agreement with Canada. It will be headed up by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and her Department. We would very much welcome input from business, trade unions and environmental groups.
The political agreement on Mercosur - it is a political agreement not a trade deal at this stage or a free trade agreement, FTA, to be absolutely accurate - links South American countries, including Brazil, into the Paris accords. I would be strongly of the view that if they do not abide by those Paris accords on climate change over the next two years, the deal is dead in the water.
I do not know if Commissioner Hogan's announcement on beef is unprecedented. Perhaps it is, but I have not gone through that looking for precedents.
Regarding the EU summit, it is important to point out that neither of the Spitzenkandidaten - neither Manfred Weber nor Frans Timmermans - was able to command a majority in the European Parliament or the European Council. Neither was a compromise candidate in that sense. Neither could command a majority in the European Parliament or the European Council.
Eleven countries did not support Mr. Timmermans' nomination of which only four came from the Visegrad Group, V4, countries.
Four out of 11 is a minority. Eleven countries did not want to support his nomination as President of the Commission, only four of which were V4 countries. His defence of the rule of the law was not an issue for me or for Ireland. I said that to him at our meeting. I am sure that when he continues in his role as First Vice-President, he will continue to pursue those issues. After a certain point, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel agreed that it would not be sensible to appoint a President of the Commission who did not have the support of so many countries, whether that be Manfred Weber or Frans Timmermans, so the compromise candidate, as nominated by President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, is Ursula von der Leyen and we were very happy to support her as the compromise candidate just as we would have been happy to support Michel Barnier if he had emerged as a compromise candidate.
The Spitzenkandidaten system does need to be reviewed. One thing that was evident in the debate was that the different groups had a different understanding of how it might work. For some it was the candidate of the largest group, for others it was not necessarily that, but that groups could come together and find a new majority. It could be looked at as the difference between a coalition and a confidence and supply arrangement. Some take the view that it might make more sense to make the Spitzenkandidat the President of the Parliament rather than the Commission because these are parliamentary elections. Others take the view that we should have transnational lists and should allow people around the European Union to vote for that list. That would make more sense in selecting a Commission President.
We have used up a lot of time on that question; it was important and there were many supplementaries. We will just have time for one more round, that is, Questions Nos. 13 to 17, inclusive. I respectfully suggest that if we are to get an answer from the Taoiseach I will put one and a half minutes on the clock for each of the five Members to question the Taoiseach.