Dáil debates

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

2:15 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I attended the meeting of the European Council and the eurozone summit in Brussels on Thursday, 12 December, and Friday, 13 December. At the European Council meeting on Thursday, we discussed climate change, the EU's long-term budget and external relations, particularly the EU-Africa partnership and Turkey's recent actions in the eastern Mediterranean. We agreed to continue economic sanctions against Russia. We expressed solidarity with Albania following the recent earthquake there. We considered the idea of a conference on the future of Europe. On Friday, we held a eurozone summit to take stock of progress on economic and monetary union. We then met in Article 50 format to discuss Brexit and the preparations for the negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship after the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

In addition to the formal Council meetings, I launched a climate action forum with Prime Minister Frederiksen of Denmark and Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden. This initiative developed from my meetings with them in Copenhagen and Stockholm in October. It will enable us to pool experience, offer leadership and encourage others to act. The climate action forum strengthens the exchange of information, ideas, experience and best practice between us. At the gathering, I congratulated Finland's Sanna Marin on her recent election, at the age of 32, as the youngest Prime Minister in Europe. I also congratulated her on Finland's successful EU Presidency, which will draw to a close at the end of the year.

The European Council had a long discussion on climate action. We heard from President von der Leyen. I welcomed the proposal for a European green deal that was published by the Commission last week. We endorsed the objective of a climate-neutral EU by 2050. As one member state was not in a position to commit to that goal for itself, we agreed that the European Council would come back to the matter in June 2020. Our agreement represents a major step forward. Climate neutrality by 2050 is now EU policy. The new EU budget and the work of the European Investment Bank and other bodies will be directed towards achieving that goal. Our action will help to create an opportunity for green growth, new jobs, new businesses and a cleaner and more biodiverse environment. The transition to a climate-neutral Europe will require significant public and private investment. The European Investment Bank will invest an estimated €1 trillion in climate action and sustainability between 2021 and 2030. We also agreed that there would be a just transition mechanism to assist the regions and industries most affected.

Prime Minister Marin of Finland presented the Presidency's negotiating box for the multi-annual financial framework, which is the EU budget for the period 2021 to 2027.

In the discussion that followed, I set out Ireland's position, saying that we want to see long-established, well-functioning and successful policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, Cohesion, Horizon and Erasmus+, continue to be properly funded. We also want significant investment in meeting new challenges, such as migration, security and climate action. I welcomed the proposed special allocation of funding for a PEACE Plus programme of €100 million for Northern Ireland and the Border counties. The European Council agreed to continue working on the basis of the negotiating box, and President Michel will now take the negotiations forward.

On Thursday we discussed a possible conference on the future of Europe with the President of the Parliament, David Sassoli. Arising from this, we asked Croatia, as the incoming holder of the Presidency, to explore the content, scope, composition and function of any conference. At the euro summit on Friday we heard an assessment from new ECB President, Christine Lagarde. We asked the Eurogroup to continue its work on reforming the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, and on strengthening the banking union. Ireland sees a European deposit insurance scheme, EDIS, as an important part of that work. We also agreed that a budgetary instrument for convergence and competitiveness will be finalised as part of the negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and invited the Eurogroup to provide its views on this swiftly.

The European Council also met on Friday in Article 50 format to discuss Brexit. Our discussions were informed by the decisive results of the UK general election the previous day, and by a presentation by Michel Barnier, the European Union's chief negotiator. The expectation is now that the UK will leave the EU on 31 January on the basis of the withdrawal agreement and that there will be a transition period. For this to happen, the withdrawal agreement will need to be ratified in Westminster and in the European Parliament. As the House is aware, the agreement guarantees that there will be no hard border on this island. It also protects the common travel area and the existing rights of British and Irish citizens to travel, live, work and access public services and welfare in both jurisdictions.

At the European Council, we also considered the proposed next steps. The EU's high-level position is already set out in the joint political declaration and in the political direction provided by the European Council at successive meetings. Last week we invited the European Commission to present a draft mandate for the future relationship negotiations for the Council to consider once the UK has exited. These negotiations will create the basis for EU-UK relations for years to come. It is vital that we get this right and create the best possible framework for working and co-operating with our close neighbour and friend. Together with our EU partners, we will work for the closest, deepest and broadest possible relationship with the UK.

At last week's European Council, we confirmed that our future partnership with the UK will go beyond trade. It needs to cover a broad range of issues, including citizens' rights. There was a strong view that we want free trade with the UK with no tariffs, no quotas, as little bureaucracy and as few checks as possible. However, it has to be on the basis of a level playing field and common minimum standards. Health and safety and environment standards, employment rights, production methods, product standards and state aid will all need to be considered.

Throughout these Brexit negotiations the unity of the EU has been notable, and the solidarity of our EU partners with Ireland particularly so. We must maintain the same solidarity and unity in the next phase.

I wish to reflect on the future of Europe. Past generations knew instinctively that a united Europe could bring an end to war and set us on the path to peace, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity after the Second World War. For young people today, the horrors of world war and the evils of fascism and communism are not in their memory. For them, Europe needs a new project, a new raison d'être. Dealing with challenges that can only be overcome through collective, multilateral action must be that raison d'être, with climate action first among them. Others include security, migration and the regulation of large corporations, many of which are now larger than states. This was a crucially important European Council meeting. It marked a very significant moment in the EU's emergent global leadership on climate. It also prepared the ground for the challenges we will face in 2020, in particular in three areas: the negotiation of the EU's future relationship with the UK; the EU's seven-year budget; and the EU's external relationships, including with Russia, Turkey and the continent of Africa. In her wrap-up remarks, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will focus more on external relations, including the EU-Africa Partnership and Turkey, as well as the current situation at the World Trade Organization.

2:25 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Last week’s summit discussed many topics but delivered very little progress. It was in many ways a summit about beginning the transition to the slightly revised agenda introduced by the new presidents of the Council and the Commission and continued shadow-boxing over profound issues that must be resolved in the coming year.

Europe has been a world leader on climate change. It has not done enough and it must do much more, but it has taken a lead in trying to introduce legally enforceable and financially supported action. Every significant study says that we must immediately and rapidly accelerate efforts to reach carbon neutrality in our economies and to protect our gravely endangered biodiversity. It is a profound challenge that is not just environmental but also potentially touches every aspect of economic, social and cultural life. Therefore, the debate on setting a clear target for achieving carbon neutrality and refocusing activity on reaching this target is so important, and equally it is why it is so disappointing that agreement is proving so difficult to achieve.

It is entirely fair to say that a target that is jointly agreed and jointly enforceable must also have a significant amount of joint funding. This is at the root of the problem in reaching agreement. No government is supporting the position of the climate change deniers and no government has, publicly at least, argued against the idea that the only way of achieving climate goals is to act collectively. This is a positive start and it sets Europe apart from much of the world. However, what we have not yet done is to set out a credible pathway from today to achieving carbon neutrality. We need to be honest enough to admit clearly that there are industries and activities that face a dramatic, and in some cases terminal, period of change to meet the goals. We cannot stand back and simply let the communities and families involved find their own way forward. We know there is a need for targeted investment and a permanent programme to help create not just new jobs but also jobs that offer a good and sustainable future.

It must also never be forgotten that one of the core foundations of the European Union is that it offers each of its members an opportunity to achieve and sustain prosperity. Where members impose a major commitment on all, they have the responsibility to help implement the commitment. Action by the European Union is realistically the only way of achieving the climate goals being discussed. The European Union must be the leader in helping to achieve a transition that is just and that prevents large numbers of communities from suffering the decline that is likely if nothing is done. Fianna Fáil’s proposal for the just transition fund for communities in the midlands is an example of how this can be done. Indeed, it is an example that is so good that the Taoiseach wants to claim credit for it even though he wanted to spend the money on a tax giveaway. The EU cannot only reach agreement on a target but also reach the target, but to do this it has to accept a step-change in the funding of climate initiatives, including research and innovation supports and direct aid for the regions that will be worst hit by the transition to a carbon-neutral economy and society, which simply has to be made.

Of course, action by Europe is only one part of the more important global challenge. In this respect the failure to achieve a breakthrough in the COP 25 negotiations in Madrid is deeply regrettable. Europe must now consider with other willing partners what other actions can be taken to enforce climate objectives, including within trading agreements. The lack of movement on financing was at the core of the failure to move the climate agenda onwards during last week’s council meeting, and this is linked to the discussions on the EU’s future budget.

The communiqué contains only two lines on the budget. Unfortunately, it appears that the debate is driven by countries, supported by Ireland, trying to hold the EU to a budget level that will directly prevent it from addressing many vital issues. How is it possible to demand and expect an organisation that represents 1% of the combined economies of the EU to meet the demands that are placed on it? The fiscal hawks are doing great damage to the Union and to our economies because they are preventing more serious action on driving innovation, supporting a just climate transition, and helping communities and regions to prosper. The position of countries like Ireland to start with the red line on funding rather than asking the basic question of how much is required to fund the activities we have prioritised is also self-defeating.

This is particularly so with the eurozone. An essential part of making sure there is no repeat of the eurozone crisis is to create a fiscal capacity that can help convergence and ensure that regions experiencing an economic shock have some stimulus available, given that devaluation is not an option.

Yet because of a group of countries, including Ireland, the massively watered-down and ridiculously-named budgetary instrument for convergence and competitiveness, or BICC for short, has been hobbled before it has been even established.

This is unfortunately a continuation of the sort of casual Eurosceptic opinions which have been so common in England since Margaret Thatcher’s day, namely, the idea that everything which goes to the Union is "them" taking "our" money. The facts show that the net fiscal and economic benefit to net contributors are enormous. Even net contributors gain from the increased effectiveness of the Union and overall convergence.

The idea that next year some form of conference on the future of Europe will be convened is reasonable. However, things should be made clear at the start. There is no public interest or support concerning the major rewriting of the treaties or starting on a new round of constitutional change. It seems increasingly obvious that the issue is not how do we change the competencies of the Union, the issue rather is what will we do to help it be more effective in fulfilling the roles we have already set for it.

Many parts of the Union are dealing with a period of great change in terms of population changes, both depopulation and rapidly expanding populations, communities outside of major metropolitan areas are feeling squeezed, we must tackle the climate emergency, we must deliver energy security and the Union’s core values are under threat. What is needed is a practical agenda for the future, showing how the Union intends playing a leading role in tackling these and other problems. A Union based on never-ending zero-sum arguments about money and influence cannot be effective.

A number of other important issues arose at the summit. It was right that the leaders decided to stand with Greece and Cyprus against Turkey’s aggressive posture in the Mediterranean, including completely unacceptable drilling activity. The continued repression of opponents of the Ankara government and its shocking attacks on Kurdish communities in northern Syria suggest a further move away from respecting basic rights and seeking to be part of the free democratic world. It is now over five years since Russia invaded and partitioned Ukraine. Since then Russian-controlled and supplied forces have worked to partition off further major parts of the country. It is one of the most striking things of recent years how the far right and far left in much of Europe have served as apologists for Vladimir Putin in this, and they have recently been stepping up efforts to remove any consequences for Russia of this behaviour. The European Council was correct in rolling-over the sanctions for the next six months. While it is correct to support the Minsk process it is the responsibility of Europe to stand with Ukraine in opposing any moves to create another permanent frozen conflict in the east of the country.

Finally, the Council commented on the World Trade Organization, WTO, and reaffirmed its commitment to the idea of a rules-based trading system. At a time when many international institutions are breaking down it is right to defend principles which have directly enabled enormous numbers of new jobs and opportunities both here and throughout the world. If the rules-based trading system breaks down it is the workers of the world who will suffer the most. The US behaviour in this regard is very regrettable. The Government should be making representations in that regard.

This was a low-key start to the work of the new Commission and President Michel at the Council. It achieved little but it did discuss important issues. Hopefully, 2020 will see significantly greater urgency and a willingness by countries such as Ireland to help break the self-defeating arguments which are preventing the Union from doing the job which we need it to do.

2:35 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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In October, we all welcomed the fact that an agreement between the EU task force and the British Government had been reached. Following a meeting with the Tánaiste, Sinn Féin was satisfied that the agreement ensures there will be no hardening of the Border and that no veto would be given to the DUP. However, the Taoiseach and the Irish Government must be vigilant and it would be wise to take consideration of the manner in which Brexit negotiations have unfolded over the past three and a half years. In the Tories, we are dealing with a party with very little understanding of Ireland, our history or our people. Their approach throughout the recent negotiations is evidence of that fact. We are dealing with a British Prime Minister who once compared the Border on this island with a boundary between boroughs in London. Again, that shows no real understanding of the geography or history of Ireland and the impact of partition and years of conflict on our island.

We know there were agreements previously that were not acted on and some of them were ignored. There have been false dawns before and the British Government, by delays, has whittled away at the progress and goodwill that have been achieved in the peace process. If one were to talk to many communities throughout the North people would talk about the lack of a peace dividend for their community and that is right across the North.

Emboldened by his majority, the British Prime Minister has amended the Brexit withdrawal Bill to insert a legal clause that future trade negotiations must conclude by 31 December 2020. That can happen only if the British Government agrees to a near full-aligned deal with the EU or, on the other hand, a bare bones trade agreement. While remaining optimistic a positive deal can still be struck, it is the responsibility of the Irish Government to prepare for all possibilities.

Caution, vigilance and an unwavering commitment to the protection of Ireland’s interests must be how the Government proceeds in the new year. Ireland will need significant support in the future and the Government needs to push for EU funding in this regard because Brexit will have a hugely negative impact on the island of Ireland and its people.

Nowhere is such a resolute approach more needed than in defending the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish peace process. We must see an end to the sustained and dangerous attacks on the agreement from the British political establishment. Mr. Johnson must receive that message loud and clear from all governments. Both Governments, as co-guarantors, must honour their obligations to uphold the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts but it is also the responsibility of the Government to champion the vote in the North. Ireland, North or South, did not consent to Brexit. That reality cannot be forgotten, sidelined or brushed under the carpet. Last Thursday, the people in the North once again used their vote to reject Brexit. That was seen most powerfully in the historic result in north Belfast.

Brexit has changed the political landscape in Ireland, Britain and Europe. The Taoiseach said that the political tectonic plates had shifted in the North. All the old certainties are gone. In the election, voters clearly responded to co-operation between pro-remain, progressive parties. That has demonstrated once again that the majority of people in the North are opposed to being dragged out of the EU, opposed to any hardening of the Border in Ireland and want to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the all-Ireland economy. This election was a defining moment in our politics. It delivered a majority of Irish nationalist and progressive MPs. The Irish Government must pay attention to this.

Sinn Féin wants to see a successful conclusion of the talks established by the two Governments this week and for the political institutions to be restored on a credible and sustainable basis. We need a new kind of politics, a new Assembly and a new Executive, which is underpinned by resources to deliver quality public services. We need an inclusive Executive that brings together parties which are truly committed to delivering good and inclusive governance. After a decade of austerity and underinvestment that has stifled economic growth, public services and communities in the North need adequate financial commitments from the British Government. I also welcome the commitment given by the Tánaiste today that the Irish Government would not be found wanting in this regard. All of this is achievable. It is time for party leaders and both Governments to show their political will to deliver on good Government for all.

This European Council meeting had a significant discussion on climate change. Last week the European Commission launched its vision for a European green deal. It is a compromise document, one that Sinn Féin believes could or should be more ambitious and more radical in its outlook. The Commission at least recognises that the existing targets are not good enough and wants to increase the greenhouse gas emission reduction target from 45% to 55% by 2030.

This is a real problem for the Government as it has consistently failed to achieve even the current modest targets. Last week also saw the publication of the climate change performance index, in which the Irish State went from the worst performer in the EU to the second worst performer in a year. This was spun as a success by the Taoiseach and his Ministers. We are only ahead of Poland, which gets 80% of its energy from coal. The European Commission has called for a review of the framework for energy infrastructure to ensure consistency with the climate neutrality objective. It is hard to see how Fine Gael's love for fracked gas terminals will survive such a review. This is an issue that has received cross-party support. However, the Taoiseach and his Ministers, as is their style, have simply ignored the views of the House and want to make out that fracked gas is somehow climate neutral energy.

The Commission's green deal also calls for a new circular economy action plan, including a "right to repair" and other provisions around reparable rather than obsolete goods; a requirement for the design of all new buildings to be in line with the needs of the circular economy and climate proofing of the building stock; increased and expanded use of rail, including the transport of freight by rail, an area where it will be interesting to see what level of Government investment is prompted; a review of all current tax exemptions for aviation and maritime fuels; improved and expanded public transport, another area which will be interesting to watch; and an increase in the area of land under organic farming in the EU, to be coupled with a farm to fork strategy that will strive to stimulate sustainable food consumption and promote affordable healthy food for all. These are just some of the proposals in the EU's green deal. I believe they are progressive and show real potential.

I also note that there was a discussion on the Africa-EU Partnership. This was primarily focused on migration. The new President of the European Commission, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, promised she would make migration a "core topic" of her Presidency. The EU's current policies have turned the Mediterranean into a graveyard. They have involved pushing refugees back to Libya, where they are tortured and brutalised in so-called detention centres or in slave markets. It has involved throwing money at autocratic leaders and has led to further human rights abuses. This has all been funded by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. This trust fund should be spent on development and improving socioeconomic conditions. Instead it is leading to increased human rights abuses and is preventing refugees from seeking international protection. In this review of the Africa-EU Partnership Ireland should seek massive reform of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Either the fund's harmful focus on migration should be removed or we should simply stop paying into it.

2:45 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few observations on the European Council meeting that took place last week. It is important to debate matters discussed at the European Council in this House. As I said this morning, the single biggest economic challenge facing the European Union is providing global leadership on climate change and forming the vanguard on climate action, not least as the current US President and his Administration are in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. I listened with interest to the Taoiseach's comment that perhaps a change in Administration in the United States might change that direction of travel. That is certainly to be hoped for.

The Labour Party strongly endorses the European Council's decision to back the objective of making the European economy climate neutral by 2050 in line with international commitments. I welcome the fact that the Vice President of the European Commission, Mr. Frans Timmermans of the Labour Party's sister party in the Netherlands, is leading on the EU's green deal programme. I have no doubt that this programme will be designed to help the creation of new, sustainable jobs and to provide targeted support to the regions of Europe that find the transition to a carbon-free environment most difficult to achieve. It is regrettable that one member state, Poland, could not commit to the 2050 objective. This is to be revisited in June 2020 when I hope the Polish Government will be brought on board with respect to the collective will of the Union. If this is not possible, the EU will need to look at measures to make sure that our collective targets are not undermined by one member state, especially given that Poland still has a significant coal-mining industry.

Two things are clear from the European Council's conclusions on climate action. First, every member state needs to have a forward-looking vision of how it can transform its economy through research and innovation. This transformation is not just a challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity. Second, this transformation will require major investment, and the State will have to take a lead role in providing this investment. The Labour Party welcomes the European Council's call for the development of strong research and innovation policies.

What are our Government's plans in that regard? What additional resources will be made available to universities, including the new technological universities we are in the process of creating, to engage in the kind of research that could assist the development of sustainable low-carbon technologies? What additional investment will be made in State enterprises, those engines of growth we have had since the beginning of the State which have been transformative in a range of areas, particularly energy production? How will they be enabled to scale up their pilot programmes in various sustainable economic activities, including wind energy, recycling and new forms of land management? Alternatively, is the Government planning to rely on the private sector to lead on all of this? The Government should clearly outline an ambitious strategic approach and show willingness to back investment as part of a transformative climate strategy.

The Labour Party welcomes the European Council's focus on an economic transition that is just, socially balanced and fair, not just cost-efficient and competitive. I welcome the intention of the European Investment Bank, EIB, to facilitate €1 trillion of investment in climate action and environmental sustainability in the period from 2021 to 2030. That sounds like a mind-numbing sum of money, but over ten years it equates to €100 billion per year. Ireland's share by population size would be only around €1 billion per year. Will Ireland benefit from €1 billion of EIB investment every year? Do we have the plans and the capacity to absorb that? What is the Government going to do to ensure that we are ambitious and have those plans?

The European Commission has announced that €100 billion of investment will be made available through the just transition mechanism. The Labour Party has been calling for such a just transition approach, meaning investment to create new, sustainable jobs in the regions that will have to undergo the greatest level of change to become climate neutral. This will allow the entire country to become climate neutral. I cautiously welcome the invitation extended by the European Council to the Commission to consider changing state aid and public procurement rules in order to facilitate our climate neutrality objectives. I have no doubt that State enterprises will have to play a significant role, and we should be willing to rethink rules that may hold State enterprises back from making major capital investments that would help address these ambitious climate change targets.

As I have said before, I am critical of the strategic agenda set out by the new Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen. It lacks the level of ambition needed to drive Europe towards an ambitious social and environmental programme. However, I am glad to see that the European Council has recommended a Europe-wide conference on the future of Europe.

This will be an important opportunity to spell out a vision of a people's Europe based on sustainability and on the highest standard of life, rather than just a recreation of a European market, which is what the von der Leyen agenda largely offers to date.

As others have mentioned, I note that in June next year there will be another EU summit with the African Union. As I said previously, this is a vital relationship and I hope that Europe's strategic interests will be matched by a willingness to invest in Africa, such as through a new Marshall Plan for Europe's neighbourhood. We must also look at how European corporation tax policies impact on Africa and we need to reform them.

I welcome the solidarity shown to Albania and hope the assistance offered will have an impact. I welcome the offer of assistance to Albania and North Macedonia. The European Council could have done much more.

I also welcome that the European Council has clearly stated that "a balance of rights and obligations" and "a level playing field" must be maintained in the next phase of the UK-EU relationship. This is particularly important as Boris Johnson's announcement that he will legislate to prevent any delay to the UK's transition period means that we are very time constrained in our capacity to negotiate a comprehensive trade agreement in the short 12 months ahead. The prospect of a no-deal conclusion, unfortunately, has loomed again on the horizon. No deal would be unlikely to last for long given the dire economic consequences of such an occurrence for the UK itself, but a rushed deal could have negative long-term consequences if it does not sufficiently protect the European market from being undermined by a race to the bottom in terms of both labour and environmental standards. It is already rumoured that the new Conservative Government may remove social and environmental protections from the withdrawal agreement. These concessions were negotiated by the British Labour Party. If that happens, it will clearly signal that Prime Minister Johnson intends for the UK to become an even more deregulated market economy in stark contrast to the regulated norms we have built up over 40 years in the European Union.

I am pleased to see Michel Barnier continue to act as head of the negotiation team for the European Union in the next phase of contact with the United Kingdom. Mr. Barnier has shown a steadfast commitment to Ireland's interests, and I have every confidence that this will remain the case. From a Labour Party perspective, we recognise the real economic harm and hardship that would follow from the UK leaving the EU at the end of 2020 without a deal or with the bare bones of a deal. We also recognise that a poor deal could undermine workers' rights and environmental standards, and not only in Britain because the contagion could impact right across Europe. That is an outcome we should work might and main to avoid.

2:55 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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At one level, Ursula von der Leyen's commitment to a new green deal and addressing climate change is positive because the climate emergency is a terrifying reality that is hurtling at humanity at a ferocious pace and threatening our existence and that of future generations. Insofar as the popular movement, in particular of young people and environmentalists, has forced this issue, through people power, strikes, protest and direct actions, to the top of the political agenda to such an extent that Ursula von der Leyen feels the need to state it is her key priority, that is all very positive. I contend that at a European-wide level and, similarly, in the rhetorical commitments of this Government, there is a stark contrast between verbal commitment and a capacity or even willingness to deliver on the sort of radical climate measures that are necessary to address the climate emergency. At a European-wide level, when one looks at the fine print of Ursula von der Leyen's paper, I believe Europe will be prevented from taking the radical action necessary because it hopes to do so while upholding key pillars of the economic philosophy that is hard-wired into the European treaties, in particular in the form of state aid rules and the commitment to market mechanisms. Every policy objective is rammed through the requirement that it be delivered through a competitive market and through preventing state aid to particular industries. That means, in effect, that nothing will happen because Europe is committed to a privatisation agenda as a result of those state aid rules, perhaps not consciously but certainly in effect. Public transport is the most obvious example of that. If one pursues the privatisation of public transport, as the Government is doing here and as is being done right across Europe, and state aid rules preclude a renationalisation of the public transport system and transport has to operate on a for-profit basis, how does one deliver a public transport system that will be attractive enough for large numbers of people to move away from the private car to using public transport? The answer is that it cannot be done.

Ursula von der Leyen referred to carbon pricing. What is the effect of carbon pricing? One effect is that the cost of bus fares and fares for other forms of public transport will increase rather than decrease. That is what has happened consistently in this country. Despite privatisation and all the talk that it would deliver greater efficiency and competition, it does not deliver that at all. Fares continue to go up and private providers have no interest in providing public transport on routes on which they cannot make a lot of money. As a result, public service obligation routes are cut. One can even see that in the BusConnects plan under which public service obligation routes are being threatened in favour of high frequency and highly profitable commuter routes. Less profitable routes, for example, those used predominately by elderly people with a bus pass, are the ones that come under threat. The way to address that is by means of heavier levels of subsidisation, in other words, distorting the market, but we are prevented from distorting the market because of the legal rules of the European Union that say we cannot do that.

Afforestation in this country is another example. We are in the bizarre position that the State company set up with the specific objective of increasing afforestation is effectively precluded from afforestation because of state aid rules. Coillte has therefore delivered a dismal result in terms of afforestation levels, which are falling. They have fallen in the time I have been in the Dáil from approximately 6,000 ha a year when I first came into the Dáil to approximately 3,000 ha now. Notwithstanding all sorts of interesting targets that are never met, the actual delivery does not happen. Similarly, that prevents the sort of subsidies that would be necessary for small farmers because it would distort the market. What we end up with is companies like Coillte becoming much more commercial and focused on commercial forestry crops that are not very good for the environment. Increasingly, the company is even cutting down forests to make way for wind farms or other such developments, thereby departing completely from its core objective of planting trees and stewarding the national forest estate.

Those are just some examples. The necessary dramatic shifts, including on retrofitting and the insulation of homes, and the State intervention in the economy that is necessary if these dramatic shifts are to be made will simply not happen because the neo-liberal rules of the European market prevent them.

The other important point I would make in this regard is that if we are to have the sort of radical climate action that is necessary, we need to bring the people with us. For many who are suffering from poverty, particularly fuel poverty, or who were at the wrong end of the growing level of income inequality in this country and the rest of Europe, action on the climate is increasingly looking like a threat that will make them poorer rather than make their lives better. The carbon tax is obviously a good example of that. The poorest people are likely to be hardest hit, which is hardly endearing the climate agenda to people who are attacked in that way.

This flows from another critical fact about the European Union, or Europe and western capitalism more generally. In this regard, consider the comments of the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, on the wider European agenda preventing the horrors of the 1930s, 1940s and so on. Hello? The far right is on the rise everywhere in Europe. Notwithstanding that the EU is supposed to act as a buffer, the opposite is happening. The far right is on the rise in Austria, Germany, France and all across Europe. Why? European leaders had better start asking themselves this. When one saw some of the nasty elements gathered outside the Dáil last Saturday – far-right elements actively and consciously seeing themselves as linked to the far right across Europe – it led to the scary thought that this stuff is on the way back. Why is it happening all across Europe? The answer, of course, is that inequality is growing massively. Wage share – the share that working people take out of national income – has fallen dramatically all across Europe for the past 30 years. This is worst in Ireland. Ireland has seen the biggest fall. In the 1970s, labour, or workers, took 60% of national income. This is now down to 40%. The rest, a much higher proportion, is going towards profits and the super-wealthy. That pattern is reflected all across the European Union and the western world.

Let me give another example of this sort of thing. Just look at what is happening on the streets of France because of pensions being attacked. We are wealthier than we have ever been in the western world. One would think that would yield a dividend for people so they might enjoy their old age a bit more and have to work a little less than they once had to. What is actually happening is that people's pension rights are being attacked. They are being attacked most in Ireland. Everywhere they are under attack. President Macron is attacking them in France, which is bringing millions of people out on the streets. He wants to move the pension age from 62 to 64. Here we are planning to move the pension age to 68. That hardly endears people to the European vision or the necessity of climate action. Unless these issues are addressed, dark clouds will loom environmentally, socially and politically on the European horizon.

3:05 pm

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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Let me consider the topics discussed at the meetings in the past two days. Obviously, the multi-annual financial framework was discussed. Nobody denies the importance of that and of the budgets for the work of the European Union. I believe, however, that there are certain rights issues that are not receiving the attention they deserve and are not being acted upon sufficiently. Speaking during the pre-European Council statements last week, I referred to a statement by the EU's ambassador to the African Union to the effect that, in spite of the EU being the world's largest overseas development aid donor, there is a core group of the world's poorest who are receiving less than 10% of EU aid. While the EU is stressing the importance of the EU-Africa partnership, and there is going to be a summit, there is a need to spell out exactly how it will be a real partnership, not the traditional Europe-dominating-Africa relationship we have seen in the past.

Another rights issue that arose last week concerned Libya. I refer to what is now happening with General Haftar, to the Rohingya and to the case in the International Criminal Court.

Disappointingly, we are not hearing that the EU is being proactive on the issue of Catalonia. While I accept that Spain is the EU member, it is not right that people such as teachers, town mayors, community activists and others exercising their right to peaceful protest are being issued with arrest warrants. Some are in prison. We are aware of the sentences that have been imposed on the seven elected representatives and the two leaders from civil society. There is much concern about the conviction of Mr. Jordi Sànchez and Mr. Jordi Cuixart, who gotnine years in prison for leading a peaceful protest. This is opening the door for criminalisation of activities such as peaceful civil disobedience. The two men had already spent two years in preventative custody ahead of their trial. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for their release. EU member states are allowing the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be violated. I am referring to rights such as rights to a fair trial, to freedom of thought, to freedom of assembly and to freedom from discrimination. The men are being denied their constitutional right to appeal their convictions through normal channels of the lower courts.

The former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Ms Carme Forcadell, was sentenced for allowing parliamentary debate on independence. She said her role as Speaker of Parliament could not be to censor debate and that her duty was to defend the sovereignty of parliament and political pluralism. She also stated, "In a democratic parliament, the word has to be free." For that, she got 11 and a half years in prison. The EU is conspicuously quiet on this.

At the meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence yesterday, we had an interesting discussion that included Brexit. It is all very well for Prime Minister Johnson to say everything will be done and dusted by 31 January, but we know there is a different reality. It is in the months soon after 31 January that the reality will hit and that the elements of the unknown will arise. Who really knows exactly what will happen?

There was a word of warning at the meeting yesterday on the disconnects. It concerned the unionist-loyalist community's attachment to the Crown and its fear of minority status for the unionist community and their sense of British identity. The younger generation is so caught by the past, some would see reconciliation as betrayal. While many of us look forward to a 32-county republic, unionists will feel threatened by a border poll. Instead of a border poll, there should be a discussion on a new Ireland and what a new Ireland or 32 counties would look like. This would be just like the plans for a conference on the type of Europe that we would want. In the midst of Brexit, these issues are still very alive and relevant because the legacy was never really resolved under the Good Friday Agreement.

I just noticed a report from the Seanad special select committee on this. Evidence was presented from a wide number of industries, including those from the food and drink, agriculture, fuel, and energy sectors. The main thrust was the impact of Brexit on the food industry, and especially the impact of no deal. This is not as far-fetched a possibility as it may seem if Britain is going out one way or the other on 31 January. The introduction of tariffs will decimate Ireland's food and drink exports to the UK. Northern Ireland farmers are already feeling the effects of losses. We are seeing the repercussions of our over-reliance on one market, the UK market. While negotiating Brexit was challenging and fraught, it might be nothing by comparison with implementation.

I realise we are discussing climate change tonight but I do not believe there can be progress on this unless there is a real commitment to climate justice. The EU at least recognises there are serious challenges associated with achieving carbon neutrality. It recognises a need for significant public and private investment. There are a number of positive points in the conclusion in that the next multi-annual financial framework has to contribute significantly to climate action, with a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality. I hate using the cliché about time running out but I believe this is the reality. There is a need for much more action of this. I am not just talking about funding.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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It is welcome that the European Council has endorsed the aim of making the European Union carbon neutral by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement. I note the Taoiseach's comments about the new climate action forum involving Ireland, Denmark and Sweden. Its work could be very valuable but the targets for Ireland for 2030, laid down in Ms Ursula von der Leyen's green new deal, will be certainly challenging for the next two Irish Governments.

When will we see definitive proposals for the so-called socially-balanced and fair transition referred to in the European Council’s communiqué? What proposals, if any, did the Taoiseach make on the fair transition and climate mitigation measures that we heard about? He mentioned a just transition mechanism for regions and industries, but what on earth does that mean for people who are struggling, those in fuel poverty, etc.? Earlier today, I discussed with the Minister of State's colleague, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, our increasing ties and co-operation with Scotland. With the UK now definitely leaving the European Union and, potentially, Scotland leaving the UK and wanting to maintain its membership of the EU, it is time to question the whole structure of membership and enlargement.

On the basis of recent meetings of the Council, it seems that, although we had the annual enlargement package and country reports on 29 May 2019, enlargement has been put on the back burner. I asked the Tánaiste about the futures of Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Armenia, Georgia and even Turkey. It seems that the Minister of State's colleagues once again parked enlargement, even though it is absolutely critical for Balkan security and economic development. We have seen Turkey's recent unfriendly moves in respect of the republics of Cyprus and Greece, our sister states in the European Union.

It is planned to hold a conference on the future of Europe. That is timely in light of Brexit. Conclusions 19 and 20 of 12 December mention Turkey and Albania but do not go into anything further about possible membership for Albania, for example, even in the short term. We know, however, that Germany’s opposition to Turkish accession since negotiations started in 2005 - those negotiations have been ongoing for almost a decade and a half - has been a major reason for the rise to and maintenance in power of President Erdogan and his AKP party. The current regime in Turkey has some disturbing policies.. The country has turned away from the great reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the Turkish Republic earlier in the last century. What kind of definitive actions can be taken about this situation now?

The policy and plans for enlargement are critical to how we see Europe evolving. If certain countries with a long tradition in European affairs - these might include various former Russian states, Ukraine and Kazakhstan - are precluded from membership in the medium term, what then will be the position? Serbia and Montenegro, for example, have been candidates for membership since 2012 and 2010, respectively. The report on Kosovo stated that the situation there is challenging. We know about the situation in Serbia and Kosovo. It seems, however, that we should be taking action in respect of North Macedonia and Albania, which have been candidates for membership since 2005 and 2014, respectively. If Europe is for all Europeans, then clearly the current situation is not tenable, particularly with the UK leaving.

During our pre-Council discussion, I mentioned the multi-annual financial framework. As I stated, our budget contributions are increasing fairly rapidly, from €3 billion next year to €3.5 billion in 2023. Before the Council meeting, the Taoiseach said that he expected our contributions to increase dramatically. We do not want a situation where these contributions will be an overwhelming part of the budget, similar to our interest payments in the past. Did the Taoiseach have any input in respect of the so-called "negotiating box" relating to the multi-annual financial framework, prepared by the Finnish Presidency and presented by the new Finnish Prime Minister? Has the Taoiseach got real commitments? He mentioned a peace dividend. Have we got real commitments for support from the European Union in the context of the UK leaving in a few weeks' time?

3:15 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I wish the Minister of State well. I understand that she was unwell during the week. I also wish her well in her work. I wish a Happy Christmas to her, to her family and to the other Ministers dealing with this matter.

In the course of the recent pre-Council statements, I raised the challenges that would emerge to Ireland's farming and agriculture sector in the context of the EU commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. I did so while highlighting the findings of the European Commission Joint Research Centre report which found that Ireland was the most carbon-efficient producer in the European Union per unit of dairy production and the fifth most carbon-efficient producer of beef per kilogram. Those are its findings and not ours. I also asked what would be the policy position or guidance we would be giving to the EU when it comes to outlining the ways in which we can approach carbon neutrality by 2050. I would very much like to hear some detail of that today. If the Minister of State cannot provide it, I ask that she commit to communicating the information to my office as soon as possible.

The conclusions reached by the Council acknowledge that the transition to climate neutrality will bring significant opportunities, such as potential for economic growth, for new business models and markets and for new jobs and technological developments. It also accepts, however, that achieving climate neutrality will require overcoming serious challenges and that work must be done to put in place an enabling framework that benefits all member states, taking into account different national circumstances in terms of starting points. We must also establish our starting point on the record of where we are with our carbon footprint and the good strides and achievements we have made. We cannot be totally demonising the farming community all of the time. That is what is happening in this House and abroad. We need to stand up, assert our position and let them know from where we are starting. I say that because if we start on the floor, where they would like us to start, we will be destroyed.

That is a vital point to remember. As I pointed out a few moments ago, Ireland and Irish farmers have an excellent reputation in the context of reducing carbon emissions. I met some of the farmers who were outside yesterday a number of times. Very few politicians went out to meet those farmers on the street. Those farmers do not want to be here on the street. They left early yesterday evening, thankfully, and did not cause much disruption, but they could have. Those farmers are frustrated by the prices and by the way they are being treated in being dismissed and demonised. It is totally unfair. I wish Mr. Tim Cullinane, a Tipperary man and the incoming president of the IFA, well. He was elected yesterday and I offer him my congratulations.

There was a low turnout in the recent by-elections and there was also a low turnout in the election of the new IFA president. Institutions are failing the people. The farming institutions and the EU institutions are failing rural Ireland and the farm families. We are just demonising them and portraying them as bad people and polluters who do care about the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are good custodians of the environment and do much in that regard, including in the context of animal husbandry, crop management, planting trees and various other kinds of work. They are interested in doing that. Young people, as young as ten, were making tea and soup for people inside in a horse box yesterday. They are interested in the future and that is why they were here yesterday. It was not to glibly cause trouble with Dublin protests. That is happening while the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, is almost absent. He was away yesterday and some of the people outside thought he was on holidays. I do not know where he was. I think he was in Brussels and I said that to the people outside. He could have been on holidays for the last four years because he has paid lip service to farmers and done nothing for them. Farmers have an excellent reputation in respect of reducing carbon emissions. Day in and day out, they are being demonised in this House, in the media and all over. It is the duty of the Minister of State, at this level, and that is why I asked before she went, what she was going to bring to the table at that meeting. I am asking her now to let us know in her reply, or to at least communicate with my office, what she put on the table. She should have defended the people who put her in here.

They are a responsible sector and they want to play their part. I cannot reiterate that point enough. I also refer to the farm organisations. That said, the sad thing is, however, that they are not getting thanked for their work on mitigating carbon. They do not want thanks. They are not getting it, but they do not want it nor expect it. They do want to be recognised and respected for what they are doing. Instead, they are being demonised and held up as killers of the planet and other such nonsense. That is patent nonsense. It is unfair, unnecessary and unwarranted. This is going to present very real challenges, not just for farmers but also for our entire economic model.

In 2016 alone, the agrifood sector generated 7% of gross value added to the tune of €13.9 billion, produced 9.8% of Ireland's merchandise exports and provided 8.5% of national employment. That is not something to be sniffed at. It is vital that we protect and sustain this area. When employment in inputs, processing and marketing is included, the agrifood sector accounts for almost 10% of all employment in our State.

That is no mean figure. It has to be acknowledged and supported but the Government only pays lipservice to it. We fought hard in the programme for Government negotiations to have every policy rural-proofed. The Government must have shredded the document the hour after it got into office because nothing has been rural-proofed since. I have yet to see any proposal from the European Commission which would be capable of protecting our economy from the kind of shock that would happen if we were to pursue this climate neutrality approach.

The European Council in its conclusions last week also welcomed the European Commission's announcement that it will aim at facilitating €100 billion of investment through the just transition mechanism. The fact is, however, that we have seen what just transition means in an Irish context with the loss of jobs to the midlands region, as well as in Littleton, County Tipperary, and the complete erosion of industries which have supported those counties for generations with nothing to replace them. The fund put in place by the Government to get the workers affected into new jobs or reskilled is pathetic. It would not even pay the envelopes containing the redundancy notices. Just transition is a great phrase. It sounds almost gentle. The reality is quite different, however. In most cases, wherever it goes, it brings thousands of job losses with it and nothing to replace them.

Who is really benefiting and what are we actually transitioning toward? Sin é an cheist mór. There is a subterfuge going on here with many platitudes but no benefit. We do not want benefit over anyone else. We want recognition and fair play. I have always believed that fair play is fine play. Many countries are expressing doubt and a great deal of caution around where Europe is going with climate policy. We have seen this with respect to the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP25, held in Madrid. Those countries that are not wholehearted supporters of the COP25 agenda were accused of obstruction, even when they presented specific concerns with the proposals which would negatively impact their economies. Where are we going if we cannot have meaningful dialogue and representatives are demonised as obstructionists? If countries cannot bring forward objections to these forums, then what is all the talk about consultation and agreement really about? Our little country and the efforts it has made must be recognised.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, announced that Ireland is signing up to a multi-annual pledge to the green climate fund which helps developing countries make the transition while doubling our annual commitment with a total contribution of €18 million from 2019 to 2023. This is in addition to €196.7 million in international climate finance Ireland has contributed from 2016 to 2018 to developing countries, a not so insignificant sum to our small economy. Ireland has also committed an additional €3 million in total funding in 2019 to the least developed countries. This support is focused on those countries that are vulnerable to climate change. While I support this, we need to be acknowledged for what we are doing. Although most of that is worthy, there is still a concern that we have given €200 million to international climate financing without any real public engagement on that amount. We are told we are obstructionists if we ask questions about this.

I noted that in its conclusions, the European Council invited the European Commission to report regularly on the socio-economic impact of the transition to climate neutrality. We must see more of this. We must know the social and economic impact of what we are signing up to. That information needs to be made widely available. Will the Government make this kind of analysis much more readily available to the public to allow it to assess the social price of our carbon commitments?

While the Government stood down a €5 million spin team, it still does much spinning. It might put some of that energy into telling our colleagues across Europe and the world that our farmers and farming families have played, are playing and will play their part. They try to be self-sufficient and export the best of beef. All we want is some modicum of respect and fairness.

3:25 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We will now move to the question and answer session. Each group will have three minutes. I call Deputy Haughey for Fianna Fáil.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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The headline from the European Council meeting was the green new deal put forward by the new European Commission President, a legally binding commitment by the EU to work towards carbon neutrality by 2050. This includes a 50% to 55% emissions reduction target for 2030. That is a big deal. Involved in this is the establishment of a just transition mechanism worth up to €100 billion. In this context, the outcome of the COP25 summit in Madrid was disappointing. There was no breakthrough there. I appreciate the positions of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic which had difficulties signing up to this. I gather Poland did not sign up to it in the end.

Has any thought been given as to how Ireland might access the just transition fund in due course? Is peat production in the midlands envisaged as an area that could be addressed by the fund?

I gather there were difficult negotiations around the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which were deadlocked for much of the time. Will the Minister of State indicate what contribution from Ireland is being sought? What are we offering at this stage in the negotiations? The Taoiseach has spoken about a €1 billion fund to support Northern Ireland after Brexit. Is that a realistic possibility?

I welcome the decision of the Government to work to protect the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, Horizon, Erasmus+ and the Cohesion Fund.

What is Ireland’s position on the future of Europe conference to be held next year? Will it involve treaty change or an intergovernmental conference? I do not believe that is something we should envisage. My colleague, Deputy Micheál Martin, said earlier that what we really need is a more practical agenda to tackle the problems faced by the citizens of Europe.

While I have the floor, I wish the Minister of State a happy and peaceful Christmas. We all appreciate her coming into the Chamber during the course of the year, as well as appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, to answer our questions. It is appreciated by all Members.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for his questions.

Despite the fact that there was a lack of a conclusion to the COP25 negotiations, the new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, was positive and made significant steps in the right direction with the launch of the green deal last week. The endorsement by the European Council of the objective of climate neutrality by 2050 was also positive. There were lengthy discussions among member states. Poland still has concerns, not specifically around the overall EU objective but its ability to reach that by 2050. It did not prevent the Council as a whole from approving this overall objective, however. Ireland signed up fully to it.

A new College of Commissioners has just been appointed. We need to give them time to set out their goals and objectives. A significant amount of funding, up to €100 billion from the Commission, has been put behind this, along with a European Investment Bank supported €1 trillion sustainable Europe investment plan.

The Commission is expected to publish its sustainable Europe investment plan in early January 2020. That is obviously giving the Commission time to put that plan in place. Of course, when we get that, individual countries' finance departments will need to examine those proposals accordingly.

Last week we repeatedly raised our need to access the €100 billion just transition fund, in particular relating to peat in the midlands. It is not fair, as Deputy Mattie McGrath mentioned, to say that hundreds of people are being let go from their jobs and that there is no opportunity here. The tone of last week's discussion, particularly on the part of the new Commission President, was very positive. While there will be change and challenges, this is an opportunity to transition to new technologies and look at new kinds of jobs. We know that the vast majority of our younger generation will be working in jobs that have not even been created yet.

The fund from the European Investment Bank, EIB, and the just transition fund will allow us to look at these new types of mechanisms. Deputy Howlin asked how we would to that. At the Council last week, the Taoiseach met the Prime Ministers of Denmark and Sweden. They signed their own agreement to consider how we can work with each other to share information and insights as to how we can develop these technologies, not just working with the private sector but also with the public sector. Investment will be needed in both areas. The issue of peat was raised in the context of the just transition mechanism. This is not just an issue for us. Our colleagues in Finland also have concerns. We will continue to raise the matter, and once we have further detail on how we can access that, we will let Deputies know.

There was quite a short discussion of the MFF at the European Council, but it was discussed in great detail at the General Affairs Council I attended earlier in the week. This is the first time the General Affairs Council met with new figures put in place - the new negotiating box with the figures by the Finnish Presidency. On the whole, Ireland was probably somewhat more satisfied with the proposals than most member states. However, there are still some significant areas of concern for us, the main one being that the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, proposals still see a reduction. While there was a proposal to increase the Pillar 2 payments by €10 billion, there was still a cut to Pillar 1. We will naturally pay more as a country because we will be net contributors for the full term. We have consistently said we could pay above and beyond that, but not if the more traditional priorities as we see them, including CAP, Cohesion, Horizon and other such areas, are being cut.

I personally engaged with my Finnish counterpart on the €1 billion fund. It was proposed that the European Commission would provide €60 million per year, with matched funding by the Irish and UK Governments. Over the lifetime of the seven-year budget, that would amount to just under €700 million. Through discussions, we were able to achieve an increase to a contribution of €100 million from the European Commission, which with matched funding from the Irish and UK Governments would bring it to almost €1 billion over the lifetime of the fund. I would be confident that that funding will remain in place as proposed.

In the context of Brexit, given the significant impact the PEACE programme has had already, the next phase of PEACE will be equally important. A significant amount of work remains to be done on reconciliation and bringing communities together.

We also support other things, including allocating 25% of the overall budget to climate change, the rule of law mechanism and own resources. We are looking at plastic, which obviously is a self-depreciating fund, but something we are willing to look at.

The conference is something that has stemmed out of the future of Europe debate in which Deputy Haughey and many other Deputies present took part. Our own priorities as a Government fed into the new strategic agenda which the Commission and the new College of Commissioners are now tasked with implementing. I would like to see that implemented through people-to-people contact. We should focus mainly on implementing the strategic agenda as it has been laid out while also looking at other areas. The Croatian Presidency starting in January has been asked to work towards defining a position with all the member states, looking at the content, scope, composition and functioning of such a conference. Obviously, we would hope to play our part and make a contribution to how that will be defined.

Most importantly, this will happen not just from a Council point of view but working with the European Parliament and the Commission. Most importantly, we need to ensure that everything we do feeds back to the citizens because this should all be about engaging with people and ensuring that the work we are doing is based on the work they want us to do.

3:35 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We have nine and a half minutes left and I want to get in two speakers. The Minister of State also needs time to wrap up.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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To use a seasonal metaphor, turkeys do not vote for Christmas. We absolutely must address the climate emergency. There appears to be no recognition by the European Union that if addressing it seems like punishment for large sections of the population, they will just not buy into it and, worse still, they will react against it. I mentioned that the far right is worryingly on the rise across Europe. One feature of those on the far right is that they are climate change deniers. If we are to take these people on, we need to pull the ground from under them by ensuring that life will be better for people by addressing the climate emergency, which it should be. However, Europe must recognise that if it is going to win people over to that position - I see no sign of it but maybe the Minister of State can cheer me up on this front - it needs to address these things. The most obvious thing is people's quality of life.

I mentioned pensions. How will the attack on people's pension entitlements across Europe endear people to the agenda of Europe? How does the consistent reduction in wage share as a proportion of national income across Europe endear people to the European project on climate change?

I have a very specific question. Is there a recognition that state aid rules and market rules need to be changed, challenged or even abandoned in many cases to implement a just transition approach to the climate emergency?

I have a question on Palestine, which I did not mention earlier. Israel is acting like a complete rogue state in its treatment of the Palestinians. After the move effectively to annex east Jerusalem, Israel is moving to annex parts of Hebron. The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, is now talking about annexing the Jordan Valley. It just goes on and on. Ethnic cleansing is the only way to describe it and yet Europe is taking no action to sanction Israel, which it continues to treat as a preferred trade partner. Is there any serious discussion about taking any action? The Taoiseach always says that certain states in Europe will not tolerate sanctions, but I do not see the debate. If Ireland is speaking up about this, where is the debate? What is the response of those who are resistant to imposing sanctions on Israel for its flagrant breach of human rights?

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I raised the Palestinian question at the pre-Council discussion but that has already been asked. I also raised the current situation in Malta. As the Minister of State knows, there have been serious protests and mounting concern over the alleged involvement of the Prime Minister's former chief of staff and other employees in a murder and subsequent cover-up of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. She was investigating corruption that went to the heart of government before she was assassinated. Her family have said that the Prime Minister had been left deeply compromised and should resign because he failed to take action to clean up politics in Malta. They argued that as long as he remained in place, a full investigation into her death was not possible. I already raised it with the Taoiseach.

Was the situation in Malta discussed? Did the Taoiseach raise the matter with his colleagues?

I welcome the strong statement from the European Council unequivocally affirming its solidarity with Cyprus with regard to Turkey's illegal drilling activities in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone. Like Ireland, Cyprus is a small, partitioned island. Partition on both islands has had a massively negative effect. I believe the EU should work towards unification in both our countries. Will the Minister of State indicate if the Taoiseach discussed with the Cypriot President Turkey's illegal activities in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone? Did the Taoiseach personally express Ireland's full solidarity with the President?

With regard to Brexit, I welcome the Minister of State's comments on the €100 million in funding in the negotiations. When will this funding be released? The Minister of State has said it will be over a seven-year period, but when can we expect to see the effect of it? I am conscious that Brexit is not just a situation that will impact negatively on the North or the Border region. Has there been any discussion around a relaxation of fiscal rules? When one considers the €20 million being invested in making Dublin Port Brexit ready, this cost could be multiplied across different industries. We know there will be a cost and a price to Brexit. Will the Minister of State indicate if additional funding is to be made available for that?

3:45 pm

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will start with the last questions, around Brexit and when the €100 million funding will be ready. We are still implementing funding from the EU-funded INTERREG and PEACE programmes, which will finish when this current budget term ends. There is a question as to whether the next EU budget will be implemented on time. We are pushing to try to make sure it is ready, which will be the end of next year. The Croatian and German presidencies are the last two EU presidencies to deal with this. We will push to try to ensure it is agreed by the end date and it can move to the European Parliament, so all of these programmes, including the new PEACE+ programme, can be implemented from 1 January 2021. That is what we are aiming for and that is what we hope to see happen.

On the relaxation of state aid rules, we have already seen with the rescue and restructuring fund through the Department of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, which has allowed funding to be accessed in excess of what is normally allowed under state aid rules, specifically for companies to be rescued and restructured in the context of Brexit, where there are significant challenges for markets that are specifically focused on the UK and where they need to readjust and adapt. We would expect and hope that this would continue. Ireland and Belgium in particular throughout the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, have always sought flexibility within the next budget that would allow for possible challenges such as this, given that while we have been able to address Northern Ireland's specific concerns, we do not know what the future relationship will look like. There may still be significant concerns and issues for businesses, for small and medium businesses especially, who are mostly dealing with the UK.

On the issue of Cyprus and the question of Greece, I am not sure whether the Taoiseach spoke directly to either prime minister but through the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and I we have certainly expressed absolute solidarity with Cyprus and we have condemned the illegal drilling off Turkey in what are Cypriot waters and the move towards an illegal movement in what are now Greek waters. This was addressed and discussed at the most recent European Council meeting. We expressed solidarity with both of our European Union colleagues on this matter.

With regard to Malta, I share Deputy Crowe's outrage at what happened. We need to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. This is a matter for the police and we are aware that the Prime Minister had said he will step down by 12 January. If there was any involvement at any level of government, then it is a matter for the police and needs to be investigated. We would fully support that. I do not believe the issue was raised specifically at the European Council meeting, but I will come back to the Deputy on whether the Taoiseach raised it directly with the Prime Minister.

On the Middle East peace process, our position has not changed. Ireland has always supported a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Tánaiste is very focused on this. The Tánaiste visited Israel and Palestine in the past two weeks where I believe he held useful meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, and his foreign minister Mr. Katz. He also met President Abbas and others on the Palestinian side. We have always tried to encourage engagement and dialogue in this regard, but at the same time, when we see wrongdoing or statements we do not agree with, we are willing to call them out. The comments made by Mr. Netanyahu in September about annexation of the Jordan Valley were particularly grave. The Tánaiste raised this matter with him and made sure Ireland's opposition, and our position on it, was known. The annexation of territory by force is prohibited under international law, including the UN Charter. Our position on that will not change. We need, however, to ensure that we address this through dialogue. This is the position we have always taken, particularly given our position as a peacekeeping country. We will maintain this approach.

On the question of addressing the climate issue and people seeing it as a punishment, it is people who have driven this agenda. As the Deputy and many others have said, it is our younger generations who have taken to the streets and demanded that we bring about this change, but that we do so in a fair way and in a way that acknowledges that times and technologies are changing, including the ways in which we go about our daily lives and the ways we develop our businesses, industries and other sectors. This has come from the people, but we must make sure that we implement it in a way that is feasible and possible. This is why the Government's plan is based for the most part on a cross-party consensus to implement our objectives and goals to reach our 2030 targets and climate neutrality by 2050 in a way that is achievable, that would not put undue pressure on specific industries and sectors, that is affordable for people, and that is possible. We cannot ask people to drive certain cars or implement certain ways of living if they are not available to them, if there are not enough electricity ports, if there are not enough supports available to adapt or change their homes, and if businesses cannot access or avail of the new technologies. There is a lot of work to be done but a plan is in place. A funding mechanism will come through the Exchequer and we also hope to work with the private sector. We also hope to access EU funding, and not just around the just transition. There is also the €1 trillion fund that will be made available.

We have increased the State pension by €15 per week. It might not seem like a lot but we have tried to ensure that given the difficult times we have had with the economy, our older people in particular and those who are most vulnerable are seeing the increase and the positive turnaround in our economy. Obviously, that did not happen in this year's budget because we implemented a no-deal Brexit-specific budget, but we hope to return to that increase again next year, or in the next budget if that does not happen.

Reference was made to Europe moving towards a more right-wing position, but it is simply not the case that EU countries are not engaging on this, especially from Ireland's perspective. There is 92% support for the European Union in Ireland. People took to the streets in the same way they did everywhere else in the world to demand action on climate change. We acknowledge and accept, however, that we need to support people to be able to make that difference and make the change in their own homes. This is exactly what the Government is trying to do.

Sitting suspended at 4 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.