Tuesday, 17 December 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
European Council Meetings
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 22, inclusive, together.
I attended the European Council and euro summit in Brussels on Thursday, 12 December, and Friday, 13 December.
On Thursday, we discussed the idea of a conference on the future of Europe. We asked the incoming Croatian EU Presidency to work towards defining a Council position on the content, scope, composition and functioning of such a conference.
We had a substantial exchange on climate action and endorsed the objective of achieving a climate-neutral EU by 2050. One member state was unable to commit to implement this objective for itself at this stage and agreed to come back to the matter in June 2020.
Following a presentation of a negotiating box with figures by the Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, we discussed the main features of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, the EU's budget for the period 2021-2027. We called on the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, to take the negotiations forward with a view to reaching agreement.
On external relations, we discussed EU-Africa relations, Russia and Turkey, as well as expressing solidarity with Albania following a recent earthquake there. We discussed the situation in the World Trade Organization.
At the euro summit, the new European Central Bank President, Christine Lagarde, gave an assessment of the current economic situation in Europe. We took stock of progress made by finance ministers on strengthening economic and monetary union.
Finally, we met in Article 50 format where we invited the Commission to draft a comprehensive mandate for the Council to consider for as close as possible a future relationship between the EU and the UK.
Since the European Council in October, I have met several of my colleagues. I met Charles Michel, the new President of the Council when he visited Dublin on 17 November in advance of formally taking up office.
I met the Prime Minister of Croatia, Mr. Plenković, in Zagreb on 21 November, ahead of the Croatian Presidency of the EU. We discussed the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, Brexit and bilateral relations. I was accompanied at that meeting by Ireland's ambassador to Croatia and by a small delegation of officials and advisers from my Department.
In the margins of last week's European Council, I launched a new climate action forum with the Prime Minister of Denmark, Mr. Frederiksen, and the Prime Minister of Sweden, Mr. Löfven, which will serve as a useful mechanism for our three countries to exchange best practice between us.
I also engaged informally with other counterparts, as I always do, to promote Irish interests, including with the Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, whom I congratulated on her recent election.
Tomorrow, I will have the opportunity to brief the House on the European Council in more detail.
On future travel engagements, I plan to attend the European Council meeting in Brussels on 26 and 27 March 2020. I expect to attend the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January, where the theme for the meeting is "Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World". I also expect to travel to the United States in March for the annual St. Patrick's Day programme of events in Washington DC and Boston.
Other visits are being given consideration, but at present none is confirmed.
Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to consider the proposed new European green deal by the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen? Is he in a position to enlighten Members as to the likely implications for Ireland of this deal?
The Taoiseach referred to the WTO. As we know, there is an ongoing dispute in the WTO with the United States of America relating to appointments within the WTO. Does he anticipate that this will create difficulties with the Brexit negotiations? If, unfortunately, there were to be any kind of hard Brexit, there could be a reversion to WTO rules. At the moment, given the state of the WTO rules, I do not see how that organisation would be in a position to manage that appropriately, particularly with the very serious interests affecting the island of Ireland that would be at stake. Have the Taoiseach and his fellow European Heads of State and Government had any opportunity to discuss the notion of a border down the Irish Sea or will that be a matter solely between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, assuming that the talks are successful and the Assembly recommences?
As the Taoiseach mentioned, there was talk in Europe of radical action on climate. However, the signs are that it is just talk. The green new deal is good on aspiration but very short on detail. In any event it was not possible to get everybody to sign up to it because Poland has opted out. When I say it is good on aspiration, carbon neutrality by 2050 is not a bad aspiration, but if we were very serious about things, we would be aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030 and taking much more radical measures than are being proposed and we would be considerably more specific in those measures. Of course, the COP talks did not really achieve much at all.
Looking behind the rhetoric in Europe, the picture is not so good at all. The Mercosur deal exposes any commitment on the part of Europe to addressing the climate emergency, because at the same time as talking about an environmentally sustainable economic model, Europe is trying to negotiate a deal with the Bolsonaro regime to import large amounts of cheap beef from Latin America based on the cutting down of rainforests, the lungs of the earth. Similarly, in this country the Government talks about climate action but presses ahead with a liquefied natural gas terminal, fails in its targets on afforestation and refuses to ban the extraction of fossil fuels. Is it a case of lots of rhetoric but not so much action?
In recent weeks I have been asking and raising with the Taoiseach the increasingly extreme stance of the Prime Minister of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu, and whether Ireland will advocate for any action against the threat of annexation of land on the West Bank. I think we can all agree that the Tánaiste's claim that his relationship with the US and with Mr. Netanyahu might lead to some form of breakthrough in the Middle East peace process has not turned out to be the case. More than a year ago the Tánaiste made forceful representations to me that we were on the cusp of a big breakthrough and that Ireland was playing a key role between the US and Israel. At the time I thought it was wildly optimistic and somewhat naïve, but nonetheless it was trying to get the Dáil to pull back from the motion on the trading issue with the settlements and Europe.
In response there have been general statements but no commitment to take any action or advocate any action. The Government has consistently refused to support the Dáil majority view of the need to act directly to stop illegal settlements from having access to selling their goods here and in other countries. The justification for this is the claim that it would infringe on European Union competence. This can be disputed, and we and others have received legal opinion using examples from the past. However, if what the Government says is true, then the obvious step to take is to seek European Union support for the policy.
So far there is zero evidence of the Taoiseach or Tánaiste advocating for a strengthened economic boycott of illegal settlements or taking any meaningful steps to oppose threatened annexations. The Government could show its good faith on this by writing to the Council and Commission Presidents, asking for a proposal to take stronger steps to block the illegal settlements from trading with the European Union. Will the Government take such action or is the Taoiseach saying he is happy that enough has been done on this issue to date?
Regarding the Taoiseach's discussions in Europe on future funding, every individual and business, particularly businesses in the Border region is conscious of the impact of Brexit. Even if there is a deal or process that works out before the end of 2020, which everyone doubts very much, contingency plans will need to be put in place. It would be quite unfair to require the Irish Exchequer to fund that entirely. We are in this position as a result of Britain taking a unilateral decision to leave the European Union. It would be appropriate for the European Union to come to our assistance in respect of that. I am not just talking about moral assistance and support, but financial assistance to help the businesses that will undoubtedly be dramatically exposed.
In Spain, nine Catalan politicians have been imprisoned because of the holding of an independence referendum. What is likely to happen with that? It is clear that the political way forward is through dialogue and engagement, in which EU leaders should be playing a constructive role. Does the Taoiseach accept that withholding voting rights from citizens on self-determination and the subsequent imprisonment of political leaders in this manner is totally unacceptable and flies in the face of the democratic principles of the European Union? A similar situation could soon arise very close to us in Scotland with the Parliament in Westminster refusing to allow a referendum on Scottish independence in any circumstances. If the Scottish people decided to organise it themselves, a similar scenario could unfold in our close Celtic neighbour. It would be essential that we would be prepared to stand up to that.
Will the Taoiseach and his Government make a clear statement of condemnation about the systematic human rights abuses in Bahrain? More than 5,000 people are currently imprisoned on political charges, with many of them subjected to torture, including sexual abuse. I will give a few examples. Nabeel Rajab was incarcerated for posting so-called false tweets criticising Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and the torture in Bahrain's Jau Prison.
Hajer Mansoor Hassan was, incredibly, imprisoned based on the human rights activities of her son-in-law. She has been spat on, verbally abused and subject to psychological torture as part of her arrest. Part of the "Bahrain Thirteen", who are human rights activists, includes a doctor who suffers from paralysis and was forced to stand on one leg while he signed his supposed confession. There is a consistent pattern of mass trials, where the very idea of justice is a joke. More than 500 people have been convicted in a process of five mass trials in the past two years. There is no freedom of expression and one can be convicted of promoting terrorism simply for liking a tweet that is critical of the Government or the ruling family. Will the Irish Government speak out clearly against this in the context of the trade mission attended by the Minister in November? It was a major trade mission to the Middle East that included Bahrain. When asked by Deputy Crowe if concerns had been raised about human rights, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, said that it was not possible to raise our concerns about the human rights situation directly on that occasion. This begs a very serious question as to whether human rights are being put into second place behind trade and profits.
I am very supportive of the European green deal. I am encouraged that President von der Leyen and the new Commission have decided to take a lead on this. When Ms von der Leyen was nominated by the European Council for Commission president she said she would do so and the President has already shown her sincerity in that regard. The objective is to transform Europe into the first climate neutral continent by 2050. The approach, and the way the President and the Commission have framed it, is a very good one. It is less in the vein of a climate apocalypse and more in terms of the opportunities that can be gained for the European Union in being leaders in climate action, be it creating new jobs and businesses, green growth, new technology, innovation and - in particular - new wealth. It is just an initial document and it now needs to be built upon and funded. I believe the European Investment Bank, EIB, has a role in this regard and it may be able to lend up to €1 trillion towards climate action projects in the decades ahead. The projects must be commercially viable so the money can be returned to the EIB.
The Mercosur political agreement has an environmental clause that requires Latin-American countries to honour their commitments on climate change. If they do not the deal is off. This is significant because previous trade deals have not included environmental clauses of that nature. It may become a model for the future.
On Israel and Palestine, I am strongly supportive of Palestinian statehood and we are strong advocates of the welfare of Palestinians. We do this in international forums, be they the UN, the EU or in bilateral meetings. We will continue to do so. This is well recognised by the Palestinian Authority and by other Arab countries. With products that are made in the settlements, Ireland intervened to support the labelling case, which now ensures that products made in the settlements are labelled as thus. This allows people and businesses to boycott them. In our view, an outright ban on imports would be contrary to European law because trade is a sole competency of the European Union.
We absolutely condemn any human rights abuses, in Bahrain or in any other country.
With regard to the WTO, international trade requires agreed rules for countries to trade with each other under a common set of principles. The WTO is at the core of that system. For it to function properly it must have a mechanism to resolve disputes. It is, therefore, very regrettable that the United States of America has decided to block the appointment of new judges to the appellate body. Without them it cannot function. At last week's European Council we expressed support for the European Commission's efforts to set up an alternative arbitration panel, interim arrangements, with third countries other than the US, while actively pursuing a permanent solution. Essentially, it is a work-around, except for disputes that involve the US. We are committed to finding an agreed solution to end the impasse.