Dáil debates

Thursday, 5 March 2020

European Council Meeting: Statements


2:25 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I attended the special meeting of the European Council held in Brussels on Thursday, 20 and Friday, 21 February, the first meeting of EU leaders this year. The meeting was convened by President of the European Council, Charles Michel, following our request at the December European Council for him to take forward negotiations on the post-2020 multi-annual financial framework, MFF. When we last met in December, the MFF was discussed but as part of a longer agenda. This included climate action - we endorsed the objective of a climate-neutral EU by 2050 - and, of course, Brexit.

Following our request, the European Council President, Charles Michel, presented a revised budgetary proposal or negotiating box on 14 February.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Can we have order, please?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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This proposal was informed by a series of bilateral meetings he held with leaders in the preceding weeks. I discussed Irish interests and concerns with him on 12 February. It also built on extensive consultations at official level.

As the House will be aware, the Commission published its proposal for the next MFF in May 2018. This proposed an overall level of 1.11% EU 27 GNI.

Sectoral proposals covering 37 EU funding programmes were also presented by the Commission.

Negotiations intensified in the latter half of last year under the Finnish Presidency. These discussions revealed marked differences between member states. Some considered the level of spending proposed by the Commission as too high, including a group strongly of the view that spending should be kept to no more than 1% GNI. Others believed that continuing to support existing successful programmes, while also equipping ourselves to meet new challenges, required a higher ceiling and a bigger budget. The European Parliament, which must give its consent to the new budget, shares the view that a larger budget is required.

For our part, the Government has always stated that we are open to increased contributions, once existing policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, are properly resourced and added European value is demonstrated.

The Finnish Presidency proposal ahead of the December Council set out a ceiling of 1.07% GNI. In his revised negotiating box, President Michel proposed 1.074% EU GNI, or some €1.095 trillion.

As Deputies will appreciate, these negotiations are broad and cover many areas of EU policy. Each member state has its own particular areas of interest and priorities. As with all budget discussions, especially those involving 27 member states, it takes time and effort to bring positions closer together, and to find a compromise on which everyone agrees.

The negotiating box sets out proposed funding across seven major headings. These include the Single Market, innovation and digital; cohesion and values; natural resources and environment, including CAP; and neighbourhood and the world.

Reflecting the importance of tackling climate change the budget aims to mainstream climate action and to achieve an overall target of at least 25% of expenditure having a climate focus. A new just transition fund is proposed to deal with the social and economic consequences of far-reaching climate action and achieving climate neutrality by 2050. This fund will be open to all member states and I welcome the inclusion of the Irish midlands and other peatlands within its scope.

President Michel also aims to increase the capital available to the European Investment Bank to mobilise up to €500 billion of additional investment for climate change, green energy and other actions. There is also a strong PEACE PLUS allocation which will deliver a significant and much-needed cross-border programme.

While the latest proposal shows an increase for CAP compared with the original Commission proposal, it does not go far enough. I raised this point with President Michel when I met him in Brussels. In this meeting, I set out Ireland’s well-established position on the need to protect CAP as an important, long-standing and well-functioning policy, and one of vital assistance to our rural communities, the rural economy and farming families.

I also set out the many challenges facing our farming sector, including Brexit and pressures and prices in the beef sector. I expressed my strong view that we cannot ask farmers to do more on climate, sustainability, animal welfare and food security while accepting less funding at the same time. I was unambiguous that this position has widespread support in Ireland across all parties.

For his part, President Michel has on many occasions expressed the view that as a result of the departure of the United Kingdom, a significant net contributor to the budget, there is a gap in EU funding that needs to be filled. As a result, member states can expect to be contributing more while receiving less. Reaching agreement on such a proposition was always going to be a very difficult task and so it proved. Those who pay most into the budget have concerns about the overall size of the budget, with others sharing our concerns about possible funding cuts to priority programmes.

Due to rapid economic growth our annual contributions have grown significantly in recent years. The Department of Finance estimates that our gross annual contribution will increase further in the years ahead. Our economic success cannot be decoupled from our membership of the EU. As a large recipient of EU funding over many years, we got a leg up when we needed it most. As a small trading nation on the periphery of Europe, our economy has also benefited greatly as a full and committed member of the Single Market, the benefits of which dwarf the amounts being discussed in the negotiations.

It is significant that last week’s discussion of a new budget comes at a time of change and reflection within the EU. In addition to the departure of the UK, in May last year a new European Parliament was elected, and a new European Commission under the Presidency of Ursula von der Leyen took office in December.

Work is under way to prepare for a conference on the future of the EU. Irish people are strongly supportive of our membership of the EU. We want one built on values, and this perspective is very much reflected in the strategic agenda agreed by the European Council last June. This focuses on protecting citizens and freedoms; developing a strong and vibrant economic base; building a climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe; and promoting European interests and values on the global stage.

Ireland’s input was informed by a series of citizens' dialogues on the future of Europe led by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. These significant conversations, held across the country, were about what Europe means to our citizens and what they want it to mean in the future.

In recent times we in Ireland have seen at first hand the value of European unity. The EU is a union of nations as well as of peoples, in which small states are protected and respected. While we should not neglect the costs of EU membership, we must also reflect on the benefits and advantages it confers on members.

Investments made through the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, are vital for delivering European added value and for furthering the European ideals of solidarity, partnership and co-operation. It is important that the MFF is appropriately funded to meet the challenges faced by the European Union.

In addition to discussing the MFF, last week’s European Council also agreed a declaration on the situation in Idlib in light of the renewed military offensive by the Syrian regime and its backers. We called on all actors to cease hostilities, to respect fully their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, and to allow unimpeded and direct humanitarian access to all those in need. The Tánaiste will provide further detail on developments in Syria in his statement.

While agreement on the MFF was not possible on this occasion, I expect the European Council to return to the matter in the weeks and months ahead. The next regular meeting will take place later this month, on 26 and 27 March. The agenda for the March European Council typically includes an economic element, and the provisional agenda provides for a discussion on strengthening our economic base. It is also proposed to discuss digital issues. Leaders will also discuss enlargement again, having agreed in October to revert to this subject before the EU-Western Balkans summit, which will take place in Zagreb in May. As ever, leaders will take the opportunity to discuss external relations and other topical issues. I anticipate we will have the opportunity for a pre-European Council debate here in the House, and further detail can be provided on that occasion.

When it comes to European matters there has always been a large degree of consensus in the Oireachtas and support for the Government of the day. While a new Government is being formed, however long that may take, the current Government will continue to represent Irish interests in Europe and make the case for what we believe is better for Europe as a whole.

I welcome the views of other leaders today and in the days and weeks ahead, which will inform our approach in these negotiations. Our strength during the first phase of Brexit was the unity we enjoyed and built up with fellow member states and the unity we saw at home. I believe the same approach will be our strength as we begin the second phase of Brexit and it will ensure the Irish position is strongly articulated during the negotiations over the seven-year budget.

2:45 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Ar dtús báire, admhaím go bhfuil deacrachtaí faoi leith ag baint le cúrsaí san Eoraip, go háirithe ó thaobh cúrsaí eacnamaíochta, cúrsaí airgeadais agus polasaí sóisialta de. Is léir ó chruinniú na Comhairle go raibh deacrachtaí faoi leith ag baint leis an gcáinaisnéis. I mo thuairim agus i dtuairim Fhianna Fáil, níl go leor ann chun aidhmeanna na hEorpa a bhaint amach nó a chur i bhfeidhm, go háirithe i gcomhthéacs cúrsaí taighde agus cúrsaí a bhaineann leis an timpeallacht. Is oth liom a rá nach raibh ceannaireacht ag teacht ó aon áit san Eoraip maidir leis an treo gur cheart dúinn dul sna blianta atá romhainn sna cainteanna a bhí ar siúl an tseachtain seo caite. Is léir go bhfuil géarghá ann i bhfad níos mó áiseanna a chur isteach i gcáinaisnéis na hEorpa chun na haidhmeanna sin a bhaint amach sa todhchaí. Maidir le stair na tíre seo ó na 1970í amach, is léir go bhfuil dul chun cinn an-mhór le feiscint maidir le cúrsaí eacnamaíochta agus sóisialta na tíre seo de bharr go rabhamar inár mball den Aontas Eorpach. Caithfimid é sin a rá. Tá dlúthbhaint idir dul chun cinn eacnamaíochta na tíre seo le 50 bliain anuas agus muid a bheith páirteach go lánaimseartha san Aontas Eorpach. Caithfimid an bunfhírinne sin a bhaineann leis an Eoraip a chur os comhair na Dála.

This is a period of great uncertainty for the European Union and its members.

The basic principles upon which this community of free democracies has been built are under attack and there is a desperate need for leadership in overcoming genuinely historic social, economic and environmental challenges. The debates have been going on for most of the past decade and there is no more time to waste. Ireland and the whole of Europe need real urgency, ambition and leadership. Unfortunately, once again, the latest summit failed to take decisive action. Most radical and progressive options for developing the Union appear to have been shelved. Yet again, we are stuck in a zero-sum negotiation which looks set to deny the Union the ability and capacity to deliver on the mandate it has received.

All of the reports from the negotiation suggest that the dispute is focused on an amount of money which is a fraction of the national income of any of the principal countries involved. Those who oppose an increased budget also demand cuts to existing programmes to create the space to address other areas, such as energy, research and the just transition to a zero-carbon Union. Yet again, we see the repeat of the debate that has undermined the Union for much of the past four decades. Every time a major issue arises, the member states agree that common action supported by the Union is the only way to tackle the issue and it is added to the agenda. However, member states also insist that the Union's budget should continue to be limited to 1% of combined national incomes. This is why every time the budget is being negotiated pressure is placed on the CAP and it is claimed that somehow it is a waste and should be scaled back. This pressure is not based on an objective assessment of the fact that the CAP has delivered food security to Europe for the first time in its history or that it is central to efforts to protect rural life. Countries stating that their citizens simply will not accept any increase in the budget repeat the same error that successive Governments in the United Kingdom made in the decades before Brexit. Their rhetoric directly empowers Eurosceptics by promoting the idea of a wasteful Brussels spending our money. Instead, they should be saying that if we want greater economic security, clean energy and the innovation upon which our future relies then one tenth of 1% of national income is really not that much to pay.

While Ireland made very serious errors in the past three years by aligning itself with the opponents of any increase, the reversal of this position in the past six months has been welcome. We agree with the basic approach that Ireland should be willing to see its contribution increase in return for protecting existing programmes and expanding support for new actions, particularly the European green deal proposed by the Commission. It is, at best, a shame that Ireland refused to engage with the move made by President Macron early in his term to discuss how we could help the Union to be more dynamic and effective. What is different in the negotiations for this budget period is that many other issues are being discussed. Those issues combine to greatly complicate the ability to reach an outcome.

There has been some suggestion that the Polish and Hungarian Governments are seeking to use negotiations to block actions against them for violations of basic democratic and rule-of-law principles. This is a very worrying and regressive development. Ireland should stand with the countries refusing to accept this type of behaviour. To break the deadlock, it is likely that something will have to be done on the wider challenges of not just the size of the European Union budget but also reform of broader European Union economic policies.

Fianna Fáil believes that many of the Commission's proposals are reasonable and have the potential to form part of a more flexible outcome to discussions. There is simply no way that member states will meet essential climate targets without a dramatic increase in the scale and affordability of financing for dedicated climate programmes. An historic challenge requires a breaking of existing constraints. The European green deal proposed by the Commission must be supported. It is an exceptional action which, in the context of those parts that require direct funding rather than financing, simply cannot be implemented within current budget constraints.

We very strongly support the flexibility proposed by the Commission in the recently published fiscal rules review. Countries will not be able to rapidly or comprehensively implement plans for clean energy, energy-efficient buildings, expanded public transport and other critical actions if they are forced to operate within existing inflexible fiscal rules. Allowing extra space to fund climate projects should be agreed well before the current deadline of the end of next year.

Giving national governments this flexibility will take some of the pressure off the EU budget.

We also strongly support the proposal to reform state aid rules by allowing for a green priority. This would directly enable countries such as Ireland to start showing greater dynamism in building a leading-edge industrial base in climate innovation. In the past, we went from a standing start to being a world leader in sectors such as medical devices, microprocessing and software. We must aim to do so again in the field of carbon-free innovation. A green priority in state aid could make a critical difference and deliver major social, economic and environmental benefits. We also support the proposal to turn the European Investment Bank into a dynamic climate bank, taking the lead in financing both public and private programmes to reduce carbon emissions permanently. However, this will not replace the need to finance programmes directly, particularly in the case of just transition investments for industries and support for rural communities, which will bear the greatest impact of transition measures if they are not helped. Funding the EU in order that it will meet the challenges we set for it starts with a fair budget agreement but also includes this much wider agenda. At a minimum, Ireland should support all efforts that take climate action out of the realm of a zero-sum debate against existing projects.

Separately, I reiterate that Fianna Fáil supports the expansion of research and education funding in general. Europe's critical innovation and social inclusion goals cannot be achieved without more ambitious programmes. We also believe that funding for the asylum, migration and integration fund is nowhere near the level it needs to be at, not least in respect of the ability to fund proper support programmes for new residents. EU funding supports almost all activity in this field but it is not enough to meet the needs of Europe post 2015.

The summit briefly discussed the appalling circumstances in the Idlib province in northern Syria. The attacks by the Assad forces and their Russian allies are bringing in a new wave of misery to more than 1 million people. Syria continues to be the greatest humanitarian disaster of the century, and the brutal conflict inflicted on the Syrian people by the regime remains the core reason for this. There have been many reports about the knock-on effects of the renewed attack, including a return to widespread emigration and the pushing of refugees both towards and away from the Greek border. This is fundamentally something that must be dealt with in accordance with basic humanitarian principles. We believe that Ireland should work with other countries to get full information about what is happening and to insist that the rights and dignity of people fleeing a brutal conflict are respected.

The issue of the mandate for trade negotiations with the UK was not discussed at the summit but we should note it. There are deeply worrying signs that the UK Government is prepared to seek what is effectively a no-deal outcome. While we can pass comment on how the UK is changing its position from the joint declaration, it is true that the declaration has no legal force and the UK is entitled to set whatever red lines it wishes. However, two urgent points arise in respect of Ireland. First, commitments relating to the Border have legal force, and we need immediate clarity on whether the British Government intends to honour such commitments and on what exactly it is doing to honour them. Second, it is clear we need to ramp up dramatically preparations to help companies that would be hit by new barriers to east-west trade. A failure to reach a trade deal will threaten Ireland with a permanent loss of more than 3% of GNP, as well as tens of thousands of jobs, unless mitigating actions are taken. Brexit is done but it has not yet been decided what its full impact will be. Ireland must continue to see this as a core national priority.

3:05 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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We have not had the opportunity to discuss issues relating to the EU since the UK formally left the EU on 31 January. I begin my remarks, therefore, by paying tribute to the former Sinn Féin MEP for the North of Ireland, Martina Anderson. I commend her on her tireless work and effort as a Member of the European Parliament for the past eight years. Go raibh míle maith agat, Martina, agus maith thú. I also wish the new Sinn Féin MEP for the Midlands-North West, Chris MacManus, the very best of luck in his new role as he takes up the post previously held by the new Teachta for Cavan-Monaghan, Deputy Carthy. I know from experience that being an MEP is no easy job, so I wish Chris well as he takes up the baton from Matt. I commend both of them on all of their efforts.

Europe finds itself facing many challenges in the coming years. The outworkings of Brexit rumble on; it is far from done. The climate emergency looms as an issue requiring urgent international and European co-operation. Migration, and the manner in which European countries and the system as a whole respond to it, is a significant issue, as can be seen in what is currently happening in the Mediterranean and at the Greek-Turkish border.

The impact of the coronavirus is being felt across our Continent. In light of recent proposals on the EU's multi-annual financial framework, our farmers face a dramatic loss of income, on top of existing pressures in the agriculture sector.

Meanwhile, we face massive pressures at home in housing and health, in securing a dignified pension age and in making our tax system fairer. These are challenging times. Despite that, we have two parties in the Dáil engaged in shadow-boxing and playing games with the intent of laying out a pathway for government together. That is an outcome which would fly in the face of the type of change that people voted for on 8 February. We all know what they are at. They might at least be honest with themselves and with each other. For Sinn Féin's part, we are intent on something different because we want a Government for change. Our efforts in that regard are serious and real. We have worked hard with others to form that Government. By that, I mean a Government that will invest in public services, address the trolley crisis and open hospital beds, build homes, reduce and freeze rents and give workers and families a break.

On the future relationship between our island and Britain, we want to be clear that we need to build very strong and lasting relationships. It is a matter of alarm, although it should not be a matter of great surprise, that the British Tory Government appears to be reneging on commitments it has entered into and we must resolve not to allow that to happen. It is essential that the protections agreed in the Irish protocol of the withdrawal agreement are maintained, honoured and implemented. That is vital and that is what Sinn Féin will work towards. We want seamless trade and all that goes with that to be a feature of the future relationship between this island and Britain. After all, that is in our interests and in Britain's interests. On this matter, I believe there is political consensus in this Dáil. There certainly was in the previous Dáil and I hope that will continue.

We should not lose sight of the fact that in the coming years it will be necessary to recognise and address the reality that one part of our island is now outside of the European Union, while the other part is inside it. That is not sustainable into the future. That is why Sinn Féin has made it clear that planning for a referendum on Irish unity has to start now. There can be no further delay and a referendum in that regard should be held within the next five years. To that end, it will be essential to publish a White Paper on Irish unity, to establish an Oireachtas joint committee on Irish unity and, importantly, to establish an all-island conversation - an assembly or forum - to discuss and plan the pathway ahead for all of our people. We should not lose sight of the fact that the North voted to remain inside the European Union and that the people of the North had their say on that matter. They must have their say again in the future on a new Ireland. Unity is the way forward.

After a long and frustrating period since we last met to debate in this format, the North's power-sharing Government has been re-established. There is no contradiction in actively working power-sharing and the arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement, while at the same time preparing for constitutional change. Since the institutions have been re-established, the Executive has done good work. I commend every party to the power-sharing Government. I particularly recognise the work of the Sinn Féin team under the leadership of joint First Minister Michelle O'Neill. They are hard at it and are determined to do much more in the time ahead. So far, the bedroom tax has been binned and 38,000 households have been protected from Tory cuts. They have moved quickly to end the pay inequalities for health workers, who now enjoy equal pay.

A new housing programme has been announced, along with additional funding for education, and the victims and survivors of the contaminated blood scandal in the North will receive the compensation they are due. These are examples of good government leading from the front. That is what must apply at a European level as well as here at home.

The current European Union multi-annual budgetary proposals to increase European defence and military spending dramatically flies in the face of Irish foreign policy and Irish priorities. We are militarily neutral, and we have no business sending money to Brussels to be spent on the development of an EU army, on munitions and to involve ourselves further in NATO.

Not alone are these matters wrong, what makes it worse is that all of this comes at a time when there is a proposal to decrease dramatically the funding for the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, to the tune of €53.2 billion over six years. Let us speak plainly about that. This will make Irish family farms unviable. It would have a devastating impact not only on farmers but also on rural Ireland.

Alongside this, Irish farmers need to contend with the EU-Mercosur trade deal coming down the tracks. This is a matter we debated in the previous Dáil. It is essential that the Irish Government protects Irish interests and Irish agriculture and rejects this deal.

Sinn Féin is very clear with regard to the CAP. There should be no budget cuts, and we need to restructure payments to ensure that funding available is used to increase payments to farmers on the lower end of the scale and not to the big ranchers.

Ireland is now a net contributor to the EU budget and has been for some time. As such, we need to ensure we use our voice to reject any proposal to decrease CAP funding. This Government, in its caretaker capacity, should immediately convene a discussion on this matter with all parties in this Dáil because it is a matter of vital national importance.

By the time we have European Council statements again, I very much hope we will have a new Government in place. I have made the point already that there is no need for a lengthy delay in this process. There is a lot of work to be done. There are many changes to be made.

Sinn Féin wants to deliver on our commitments to the people and to deliver for those who have placed their trust in us. Other parties here also have that mandate for change, and we want to work alongside them. There are others who are intent on extricating themselves from that process and there are those who still cling desperately to the status quo.

We know well that the politics of exclusion does not work. It never has and it never will. Those who choose to disrespect the hundreds of thousands of people who vote for Sinn Féin should wise up and accept that the days of the political establishment having it their own way are over. The people have said so loudly and clearly and their message must be heard.

The business of doing politics, the business of better government and the business of delivering for the people is all about charting something new - a new way forward. I have laid out some of the very serious issues facing us at home and abroad. We are all more than up to facing those challenges with real solutions that deliver for our people domestically, across the European stage and internationally.

3:20 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Eamon Ryan. Is the Deputy sharing time with Deputy Noonan?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Noonan. We are in a difficult space in the European Union. We are still seeing the backwash from the failed way we expanded. The book, The Light That Failed, by Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev, got it right in that Europe, as it expanded, told everyone that it was the end of history, that there was only one model, that we should do what the Commission said, that these were the rules and that we had no choice. That left a bitter taste in many of the accession countries that still has consequences today. We need to take that into account in any further expansion of the European Union, which we would support, to ensure we do not make the same mistakes.

In Germany, that factor is still at play. The big story in German politics now - the Christian Democrats working with the far right - is unsettling. I would imagine that Germany is looking inward rather than looking to Europe in those circumstances. The same is happening in France. Monsieur Macron announced his big initiative, but since then he has lost the political capital at home.

His loss of political capital means that no one takes the future of Europe programme that he set out as seriously. The UK, which is the third of the traditional three largest EU member states, has not only left the EU but almost seems willing to act as a rogue state in international affairs, if we believe what it has said as part of its negotiating position. This makes our place in Europe a difficult one.

Perhaps partly as a result of some of the knocks taken by the EU in recent years, it is moving towards a process which allows more subsidiarity. I will refer to two areas that were considered at a recent meeting of the European Council. On climate change, it has told nations that as they draft national energy and climate action plans, they should return with approaches that are appropriate to themselves within broad parameters. There was real concern yesterday in Brussels that the draft of the new climate law shows a lack of ambition. This may be because of the current lack of certainty in Europe and lack of leadership because of the division between east and west within the EU. There has been a failure to set a higher 2030 target, although it may well come - we can expect it to come - in the coming months. That should not stop us. We are similar to Denmark and the Netherlands in size and our position within the EU. Like them, we should set ourselves ambitious targets for 2030 as the House has already done. The closing action of the Committee on Climate Action in the last Dáil was to commit each party to a 50% reduction by 2030. No matter what happens in the EU, we should stay on that course because it will bring Ireland economic opportunity and place ourselves as leaders rather than laggards on this critical issue.

Similarly, I understand that the Commission is leaving considerable flexibility to each nation state in how it implements Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, reform. We accept the nine goals, including a fair income for farmers, addressing the power imbalance that exists at the moment, tackling environmental issues and ensuring we have good rural development. Accepting the broad outline goals set by the EU, it is up to us to decide how we implement CAP reform. I support the comments of Deputy Micheál Martin and others that we should look to enhance our contribution as part of a more dynamic Union which functions better. If funding does not come from Europe, we will have to set funding aside ourselves to support whatever CAP proposals we set to ensure our farmers are paid a proper income and we address the crisis in our own way.

These are only two of the issues which were considered but they are two of the biggest and they are connected. We must show leadership even if the Union remains in an uncertain state.

3:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call on Deputy Noonan to make his maiden address to the House.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Is mór an onóir é feidhmiú mar ionadaí don phobal, do dhaonra Cheatharlach-Cill Chainnigh, agus do dhaonra na tíre mar Bhall den Tríocha-tríú Dáil. Gabhaim comhghairdeas le gach duine a bhí tofa agus le gach duine a bhí misniúil go leor chun iad féin a chur in iúl don toghchán. It is a great honour for me to represent my community, the people of Carlow-Kilkenny and indeed the people of this country in the Thirty-third Dáil. I congratulate all those who were elected and all who had the courage to put themselves forward for election.

The Green Party has had an interesting and challenging 12 days, engaging in collaborative dialogue with other parties and independent Deputies to explore common threads in policy which could lead to Government formation. While some parties have entrenched themselves towards opposition or oppose negotiating with others, we believe there is a collective responsibility on us all once elected to this House to provide stable and strong Government for the people of Ireland in these important years. For us, everything must change from here on in. We need to change how we organise our whole society, move from a linear to a circular economy, change our food, mobility, housing, health and energy systems, and empower communities to lead the change from the ground up, using creative practices. To achieve this, we must challenge the economic growth agenda and consider broader and alternative measures of the progress of our nation. It is no longer acceptable to hope that a rising tide will lift all boats. Invariably that leaves behind vulnerable groups like migrants, asylum seekers, Travellers and people with disabilities.

Equally, it does not address the ecological crisis. Billy Bragg put it well when he said: "Capitalism is like fire: keep it under control and it will give you heat and light; leave it untended and it will consume everything in its path." I hope we can work collaboratively and collectively, share views and legislate for the common good, with compassion and empathy, challenging the current paradigm with what Wolfgang Streeck terms eco-solidarity, whereby human rights and ecological principles are highly valued. This requires a co-operative and cultural revolution.

In regard to the European Council statement, the deal forged between the European Union and Turkey in 2016 to contain refugees within Turkey's borders is unravelling. A humanitarian crisis of our own making is taking place along the Turkish-Greek border, where tear gas is being used on men, women and children. The Russian-assisted Assad campaign in Idlib is forcing tens of thousands of people to flee as the Syrian conflict nears its bloody end. The level of human suffering is indescribable, yet the EU is set to spend €38.3 billion on border security between 2021 and 2027 and increase the number of Frontex border force guards to 10,000 within that timeframe. Imagine if we were able to sink that same level of investment into development aid, conflict resolution, climate adaptation and the global south. Some 18,000 souls have drowned along the world's deadliest border - the Mediterranean Sea. NGOs are being prosecuted for rescuing migrants, despite it being a matter of international law to rescue persons in distress. Civil society vessels have rescued as many as 40% of the 80,000 people rescued from search-and-rescue, SAR, zones. President Erdoğan is using the threat of allowing people to move across the Greek and Bulgarian borders in order to force the EU to back his campaign in Syria. This is, to say the least, sickening.

Free movement of people has been the cornerstone of the European project since its foundation but, obviously, this only applies to people who are economically useful to member states. This is surely what we rallied against with Brexit. Yet, of the 26 million people displaced overseas globally, 85% are living in the global south. The World Bank estimates that 143 million people are likely to be displaced internally within their own countries by 2050 due to the impacts of climate change. In Australia and California, we witnessed climate refugees from the developed world standing on beaches, waiting to be rescued as their homes burned behind them. Our German Green MEP colleague, Erik Marquardt, stood witness to the scenes in Lesbos, an island community that can no longer cope. The new European Council must adopt a new approach to the migrant and refugee issue because it will not go away. What we are standing over is shameful: statements of solidarity from the EU for Greece but not for the refugees. This is not the European Union that we, as Greens, value and cherish. It is not the European project based on peace and solidarity and has more in common with the wall erected by the Trump regime. These walls and barriers need to be torn down.

3:40 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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The European Council of 20 February failed. It failed to reach agreement on the multi-annual financial framework for the next seven years. It failed to take robust action to resolve the humanitarian rights abuses and the growing crisis occurring in Syria, and, according to official documents, it failed to even discuss Covid-19, which had already been declared a public health emergency of international concern three weeks before, on 30 January last.

As others have stated, there is a crisis of leadership in the democratic world. The European Union needs to present solutions to the rise of the xenophobia, protectionism and backward-looking nationalism that is all too visible in Britain and the United States, and on Europe's eastern borders. It also needs to provide leadership on the challenges of climate change, on migration and on new infectious diseases.

Speaking to the European Parliament, Michel Barnier described a conversation he had with one of the architects of Brexit, Nigel Farage. Barnier asked Farage about his vision of UK relations with the European Union post Brexit. Farage's simple reply was that the EU will not exist after Brexit. This is clearly the attitude of Brexiteers and, potentially, the attitude of some within the current British Government. There is no doubt that the United Kingdom will continue to influence the European Union for the foreseeable future.

This is inevitable, given the geographical proximity of Britain, and the size of the British economy. There are still many people in the UK who are pro-EU but the current British Government is clearly not. In recent statements, British Government spokespeople have retreated from legal commitments made in the withdrawal agreement about a level playing field and they are coy about Northern Ireland's status. It has also walked back from our clear understanding of the future EU-UK relationship as outlined in the negotiated political declaration.

Some senior British spokespeople have called for unlimited trade with the European Single Market but without any of the legally binding commitments to equivalent standards. Given the volume of trade involved, British access to the Single Market on the same basis as Canada would constitute a genuine threat to the cohesion of the European Union from Brexit. In this context, where we need to strengthen the EU, the wrangling over the EU budget for the next seven years is a failure of leadership and solidarity. The so-called "frugal four" governments of Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, including, regrettably, two governments involving the Labour Party's sister parties in Europe, are making a serious error of judgment by trying to limit the EU's budget to 1% of GDP.

It is as clear as day that the EU needs to do more to tackle climate change. It is equally clear that it needs to do more to solve the tragedy of the growing refugee crisis on our own doorstep, which has worsened in recent days, as other speakers pointed out, as Turkey has weakened its co-operation with Europe. We have to carry out these major undertakings without the financial contribution that the UK made previously as a member state. It is simply nonsensical for member states to insist that the EU do more without being willing to put in place adequate funding to address these major challenges. What we are seeing is several governments echoing Thatcher's narrow-minded transactional perspective of Europe, one based on what one pays in and gets out. The existence of the European Union is being viewed in those very narrow balance book terms, which ignores the enormous benefit of being part of a Single Market of over 400 million people where governments routinely co-operate to their mutual advantage. It is time for all EU member states to show solidarity with each other and with the people of Europe. If issues like climate and migration are best dealt with at EU level, as we are saying, then that is the level where we should put in the necessary funds, rather than keep the same money at national or local level for policies that demonstrably will be less effective and cost-efficient in achieving our common objectives.

Getting the seven-year budget framework agreed at the next Council meeting scheduled for 27 March will be a major test of leadership for the European Union. The situation in Syria is another major test. I mentioned that the European Council failed at its previous meeting to take robust action. To be more specific, human rights abuses are being committed right now in Syria by the Assad regime. It is not enough, as the EU has done, to simply condemn these attacks and call for others to cease fire. The EU should and could have done more to tighten sanctions, not only on the Syrian regime but on the backers of the Assad tyranny. Europe needs to speak and act with both clarity and firmness.

The EU's negotiating position for engaging with the UK has been recently published. Likewise, the UK's negotiating position has also been set out. To say the least, there are major differences in the starting position of two sides. The UK has rowed back on its commitments to a level playing field, while the EU has rightly doubled down on our collective insistence that we protect workers' rights, consumer rights and the hard-won environmental standards that we put in place.

We are likely to see difficult negotiations on dispute resolution, data protection, fishing rights and whether the EU gives British financial services access to our financial markets. I have confidence that Michel Barnier will robustly defend European interests. I know that he is well briefed on Ireland's vulnerability to Brexit and on the details of our specific concerns.

At the same time, the European Council will be highly influential on the EU's decisions about trade with the UK. There is no doubt that there will be pressure from many sources simply to get a deal done rather than allow trade to revert to WTO terms at the end of this year. In the short term, trading on WTO rules would be seriously damaging to Ireland. Nobody is under any illusion about that. However, we cannot let the short term dictate our long-term national interest. Ireland's basic freedom to develop its own economy and society as it chooses will be highly constrained if the UK is permitted to trade with the European Single Market with lower environmental standards, weaker data protection and fewer workers' rights. This would create an intolerable future for Ireland in which the size of the UK in terms of population and economic clout would pull Ireland down to lower standards to compete.

Whatever deal is made, there will be no political appetite to reopen the future EU-UK deal in the short term. As such, Ireland will be locked into whatever deal is done in the coming months. That is why we must defend our long-term interests, which are aligned with high-quality standards and robust regulation of the Single Market, not the deregulatory approach that the UK is advancing.

The UK left the EU at the end of January, but the real challenge of Brexit has yet to come. It is imperative that we have a strong Government in place as soon as possible to fight for Ireland's long-term national interest. There will be difficult battles in the months ahead. Whoever is Taoiseach on 27 March will travel to the next European Council meeting, which will be a pivotal one. He or she should outline in the House in the coming days how he or she foresees those vital interests being defended. Perhaps the three Members of this House who see themselves as potential taoisigh might rise to this challenge and set out in the coming days their visions for how those interests will be protected.

3:50 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Holly Cairns will now make her maiden address to the House.

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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I would like to say how grateful I am to the people of Cork South-West and what an honour it is to represent them here. Brexit-related uncertainty might be at the front of our minds since the European Council meeting, but it is fair to say that a reduction in Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, payments has been on the cards since the European Commission put forward its original budget proposal in May 2018. At the very heart of the new arrangement discussed in February is the Irish protocol, which appears to guarantee unfettered trade on the island of Ireland, North-South and vice versa.Of course, the question is whether this measure will stay in place regardless of whatever future trade arrangements are agreed between the UK and the EU. From an agricultural perspective this means looking at issues that could disharmonise agri-trade arrangements on this island. The most obvious one that springs to mind is a distortion in support measures between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Given the dependence of Irish farm incomes on CAP payments, there is inevitably concern over what future negotiations could mean for CAP payments to Irish farmers and the possibility of any disparity or unfair advantage arising on the island.

We know that in recent weeks the Westminster Government has committed to maintaining farm funding at 2019 levels for the next five years. This of course includes Northern Ireland, where the new Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has already confirmed the farm support budget for 2020. In the South, within this largely unchanged total, the Commission proposed to shift spending priorities away from the two big-ticket items, namely, cohesion and agricultural spending, towards other priorities. With respect to the CAP, it proposed a reduction of 15% in constant 2018 prices. This was skewed in favour of a small 11% cut in Pillar 1 spending and a much larger cut of 27% in Pillar 2 spending. In real terms, average direct payments would fall by between 10% and 11%, with a greater cut of 25% in rural development spending. The cuts are less significant in nominal terms. Farmers would see an average 3% cut in the nominal amount of their direct payments, while nominal spending on rural development would be cut by 12%. There has never been any attempt or commitment to inflation-proof these payments. From this perspective, a cut of 3% or 4% to the nominal direct payment may sound small, but it will have a big impact on smaller family farmers already struggling to make ends meet.

Although this will not in itself be a decisive factor in the future of Irish farming, the climate and biodiversity crises will be. I am honoured to be the agriculture spokesperson for the Social Democrats. I was advised by family and friends not to touch this brief with a bargepole because it is seen as a lose-lose role. To date, all we have seen in the House is farmers pitted against environmentalists. The conclusion is that someone is always going to be offended. As a west Cork farmer, I believe changing the narrative is an important place to start. We have to be able to have a productive conversation, no matter how controversial or emotive the issue can be. It is fair to say that CAP, more specifically CAP reform, can be an emotive topic. There is a good reason for that. As payment systems go, CAP often raises more issues than it solves.

There are many of us in the farming community who do not believe it is fair that a small number of farms are able to take the lion's share of the payments when smaller family farmers throughout the country are at factory gates because they cannot get a fair price for their hard work. More farmers are left wondering why we are now being blamed for the climate change crisis because of practices we were actively encouraged and financially incentivised to engage in. The climate and biodiversity crises are real, but it is not outlandish to suggest that both of these things, ironically, have been funded by taxpayers through the CAP. This is not a personal failure of farmers but a systemic and policy failure. I will give an example. A few years ago a Department official came to my farm and docked me €800 from my area aid payment because I had bushes encroaching on fields. In other words, I was financially incentivised to damage the biodiversity of my own farm.

I am a farmer but I am also a scientist. It is time to change the way we talk about farming in this country. Instead of viewing farmers as the problem, we need to realise that they are the solution. I include farmers themselves in that, because we have to change. This is what succession planning looks like in 2020 and in the face of our climate and biodiversity crises. If we want the next generation to stay on the land, we have to give them a reason to stay. We have to allow them to make a reasonable and fair living for what we would all agree is extremely hard work.

What if we paid our farmers to take care of the landscapes on which the future of the industry depends instead of incentivising them to industrialise it? What if we paid and supported them in moving away from practices we now know are destructive and helped them open up the new opportunities that will come with the changes we need to make? I would rather see CAP reform that supported farmers and protected the sector in a sustainable way than a system that forces us into intensified production, depends on overconsumption to survive, and allows farmers to take the blame for the inevitable results we are now facing.

As smaller farmers have seen all too clearly over the past 12 months, they are likely to be swallowed up by that system, yet all we ever seem to hear from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is a defence of the sector's growth targets. Officials quote old data to tell us that we in Ireland do things with some kind of magic formula that means it is all right for us to release greenhouse gases, because if we do not, another country will. There is no sustainability in that. More recent data from the UN tells us that we release more carbon per euro's worth of food produced than any other European country. There is no sustainability in that. We say things like we need to feed the millions around the world, but we are already a net calorie importer. We decry the burning of the Amazon to clear land for cattle and then import feed grown on that cleared land for our own cattle. There is no sustainability in that. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that the world depends on topsoil to grow 95% of its food, but that is rapidly disappearing under the strain of intensive production. If we continue to degrade our topsoil at the rate we are now, we could run out within 60 years. Imagine 60 harvests of food left. There is no sustainability in that.

Our sector is vulnerable. We all know about the small number of very wealthy businesses, but for the overwhelming majority of us, farming is not a lucrative business. However, it plays an extremely valuable role in our rural towns and communities, and CAP plays an extremely valuable role in sustaining those family farms and food producers. A representative from a farming organisation told me earlier this week that talk of sustainability in Irish farming was airy-fairy. I cannot agree. Sustainability means making sure there is something to farm tomorrow.

It means making sure our kids will also be able to earn a living on the land. It means producing an exceptional, high-quality product that people will pay for and value precisely because it is the product of a truly sustainable system. It is time to view CAP reform through this lens and support farmers through the changes we need to make.

4:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank Deputy Cairns very much and congratulate her on her first contribution.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Paul Murphy.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is that agreed? Agreed. This certainly is not Deputy Boyd Barrett's maiden contribution here anyway.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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It is not, a Cheann Comhairle. It is my maiden speech in the Thirty-third Dáil, but actually it is not that either.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We must check the figures.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The EU's shame is on display in the Greek islands at the moment. Its pretence to be some bastion of progressivity is exposed with the harrowing and terrible scenes of thousands of desperate men, women and children fleeing the most horrendous circumstances of war, oppression, displacement and conflict and then being penned up in this way, subject to violence and living in the most appalling conditions. It exposes the horrible priorities and moral bankruptcy of the EU that we are going to spend €38 billion on beefing up fortress Europe to keep human beings out. It is nothing more than shameful. That this most recent wave of the crisis results essentially from the rotten deal we did with the brutal and repressive regime of Erdogan, and other similar deals we have done with rotten, vicious, brutal militias in Libya and so on, should bring shame to the EU. Deputy Paul Murphy and later Deputy Bríd Smith will take this issue up in more detail. I expect our representatives in Europe to speak out about this and ask to end the inhumane policy of keeping these human beings out. Instead of putting resources into more military spending, Frontex and more fortress Europe security, they should be put into giving a welcome to people fleeing here, providing the resources and services we need for them and for all of our citizens in Europe and ending the shameful treatment of these desperate people.

The dominant issue in Europe now is the coronavirus. I know it will be discussed later but there is a European dimension to this global crisis we now face. As we speak, the figures are rising in the EU. We need to address a number of issues at European level. First, we must say that any actions we need to take to address this crisis and threat that may run foul of intellectual property rules around vaccines and research in these areas, or proprietary or property rules governing medicine and its distribution - for example, relating to the use of the capacity of private, for-profit hospitals to deal with the capacity problems we may face - should be taken. If rules, including fiscal or state aid rules, need to be broken to address any of these issues, that should be done. It is terribly important that we do that. We should also say that if there is any profiteering across Europe on the back of this crisis involving people trying to raise prices and profiteer from shortages in personal protective equipment, hand sanitisers or any of the medicines people may need to access, it should be severely punished. Severe sanctions should be imposed on any sign of that across Europe. I want to make those points about containing the virus, notwithstanding the debate later this evening on our specific situation here in Ireland.

Any talk of commitment to dealing with climate change is completely incompatible with anything other than abandoning the Mercosur deal. We should be saying that loud and clear. We should also be saying that state aid rules should be completely suspended when it comes to taking the sort of emergency measures or action necessary to address climate change issues. We need to start to say that very loud and clear because many of the state aid rules are completely incompatible with the necessary actions we have to take to address the climate emergency.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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People should look at what is happening at the borders of Greece right now. It is utterly horrifying and shameful. Of all of the disgusting things the EU has endorsed in the past decades, this has to be one of the worst. Dinghies of frozen refugees coming from a war-torn country are being turned away by a European coastguard. As tens of thousands of refugees from Syria, including mothers and children, approach barbed wire fences, they are being shot at by a EU police force - the Greek police force - and being hit by rubber bullets and tear gas to force them away from entry into the EU. Gangs of far-right activists are attacking and marauding through refugee camps in Greece. At least two people so far have been killed while trying to reach Greece, including a young child in a capsized boat. All of that has been endorsed by the EU with the language of saying that Greece is playing Europe's shield, according to the Commission's President, and promising Greece more money and more support to bolster border security. It is utterly disgusting and gives the lie to any imagined EU that is a paragon of democracy and human rights. This is the EU that exists today: a deeply racist, anti-democratic project built on the militarised borders of fortress Europe. These are the real human consequences as a result of it.

The Government should distance itself. It should criticise the approach of the EU. It should do that immediately and speak out about it. The vast majority of ordinary people in Europe would find von der Leyen's comments about Greece being Europe's shield repulsive. We should be distanced from that approach. The Government should also call on the EU to refuse to endorse the Greek proposal to suspend the right of asylum. There is no basis whatsoever to do that under international law. The UN has said that. The right of asylum is now being suspended for a month because the Greek Government has said so. Instead of being endorsed by the EU, that should be condemned by it. The immediate cause of this is decisions for its own purposes by the right-wing Turkish Government. As Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned, it has its roots in past decisions of a right-wing, racist character by the EU, most fundamentally the decision repeatedly to outsource European borders and to outsource to other countries the human rights abuses that are required to keep refugees that are fleeing wars and conflict situations, fuelled by western imperialism. In this case the outsourcing was to Turkey in 2016 in a disgusting, dodgy deal worth €6 billion for the Turkish state at the expense of human rights abuses for those who faced it. That is only one of many deals that have been done with authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, etc. It is also in line with the decision to stop search and rescue missions by NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontières, in line with the vote of Fine Gael MEPs to back that up, supposedly because of not wanting the operations of Frontex to be exposed. We need an entirely different approach instead of the militarised border security approach of Frontex.

Frontex needs to be abolished and all of the money relating to it should be invested in search-and-rescue missions. The borders need to be opened to allow Syrian and other refugees into the EU. We need to restore the running of Mediterranean humanitarian rescue operations to member states. The Irish Naval Service should be put at the disposal of the service. The left and the workers' movement need to be to the fore on this issue. If we are not to the fore in demanding both the rights of the refugees and the resources necessary to ensure adequate homes, jobs and services for everybody — there is enough wealth in the EU to achieve this — the far right will certainly be seeking, as in Greece, to divide the poor and very poor and to divert attention from the wealth and resources that exist in society and from those responsible for the crises faced by working-class people.

4:10 pm

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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It is 25 days since the election, yet there is no Government with a mandate in this State. This is a scandalous situation. The urgency in the voices of all Deputies before the general election has been replaced by a political establishment that is now an urgency-free zone. It appears that the political establishment is ambling along as if there were no rush whatsoever regarding the crises relating to housing, health, crime, transport and the coronavirus. We are being represented at European Council meetings by a Government that was pushed out of office by the people. The Dáil is not scheduled to sit again until 19 March, which is two weeks away. For most people, that is the length of a summer holiday. It is incredible.

During the last hiatus of the Dáil in 2016, the House was allowed to function at some level. A housing committee was constituted. This was a good idea, and the committee did good work. It is incredible that, right now, every journalist in the country is able to ask questions of the Tánaiste, Ministers and the Taoiseach, yet Deputies with a fresh mandate are not allowed to ask questions of those individuals. The European Council is just another example of that.

The headline issue for the European Council meeting was obviously the super-sized Brexit hole in the budget. A chasm of €75 billion now exists. This is now likely to hurt many sectors, regions and policy ambitions within the EU. One of the sectors most under pressure in Ireland is that which relates to farming. We know already that farmers have been radically hit by a dysfunctional beef market in Ireland. Beef barons are allowed to earn hundreds of millions of euro virtually tax-free, yet the farmers are expected to bring their beef to the factory gates at prices below the cost of production. The average farmer in this State is earning between €8,000 and €10,000. That is less than the pension or welfare. It is an unbelievable figure for a man or woman working approximately 50 hours per week. The income is at this level only because there are subsidies in place. Teagasc estimates that about one third of farmers in the State are making a living from farming. Another third are making a living only because someone else in the household is working off the farm. A full third of farmers are not making a living at all and have either been pushed into poverty or radical debt. The subsidy makes up in the region of 140% of the income of the farmers. If it was taken away, many farmers would be earning incomes in minus figures. In the previous Dáil, we in Aontú sought to bring about a ban on the below-cost sale of beef in order to fix this dysfunctional market. We will do so again in the current Dáil at the earliest opportunity. There is a need for the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission to be properly resourced in order that it can tackle the oligopoly that exists in the sector.

The problem is that there is a massive gap in the EU budget which is likely to be filled using cuts in certain areas or increases in national budgets. Obviously, the CAP is coming under fierce pressure. My concern, given that the negotiation has to be completed by the end of the year, is that this country will come under radical pressure with regard to the CAP budget. If that budget decreases significantly at the same time as farmers throughout the country are suffering at such a rate, it will lead only to further poverty and difficulties. The number of farmers in this State is actually very low. There are only about 130,000 farmers operating here at present. Every year, we see that number decrease further.

The other point of pressure on the Government is the contribution the State makes to the budget of the EU. It is reckoned that approximately €720 million was contributed by this State to the European budget last year. It seems as if the Government is already agreeing to a doubling of that amount. There is an opportunity cost if that is the case because the money has to come from somewhere. Given the crises in housing and health, it is very difficult to see where the budget will come from.

I wish to talk about climate change. Climate change is by far one of the most significant challenges the planet faces. It is incredible that, despite all the green-washing within the establishment, this State is at the bottom of the list when it comes to climate amelioration policies and implementation. It is amazing that, at these types of Council meetings, Ireland is doing its best to talk up EU decisions relating to climate change amelioration and the economic changes necessary in this regard when it will fail in it comes to implementing the latter at home. This has the potential to result in the accrual of massive fines for Ireland.

I wish to speak about a number of issues that were not included on the agenda at the recent European Council meeting. One of these relates to how the EU is to go forward. The Union has probably experienced one of the most significant existential crises in recent times. Losing a significant member such as Britain should have led to some self-examination within the EU. However, there appears to be absolutely no introspection within the Union at all. I am firmly of the belief that the biggest challenge to the EU currently is more EU. Federalists and militarists are causing significant damage to the EU project. There seems to be no push-back whatsoever from our Government in that regard. The EU should be a democratic partnership of nation states working together economically on the big-ticket issues, the issues that individual states cannot deal with, such as climate change. There needs to be some flexibility within the EU to allow for democracies to decide on major issues for themselves also. Decisions made closer to the people they affect are better because people can feed into the decision-making process and hold the decision makers to account. It is a truism that it is impossible for citizens in Ireland to hold decision makers in Brussels or Berlin to account on many issues.

I am amazed that the issue of the coronavirus was not, as far as I am aware, raised to any significant level at the EU Council meeting. It obviously represents a significant crisis internationally. Various countries are approaching it in different ways. Considerable respect is due to all the front-line workers who are currently working to mitigate and reduce the spread of the virus throughout Ireland and the rest of the world. It is significant that different countries are dealing with this in different ways. I would like to find out the influence of the EU regarding how we are approaching coronavirus mitigation. Perhaps the Minister will tell us. In Britain, people who returned from affected areas were told at the very start that they should self-isolate. A different policy was proposed here, namely, that only those who came from affected areas and were experiencing symptoms should self-isolate and that the remainder should go on as normal. Other countries are significantly restricting travel from countries that are affected but obviously Ireland is not. From what the Minister for Health has stated, I understand that one of the reasons Ireland is not doing this is because of the free movement of people within the EU. I would like clarification on whether the EU is directing that element of our policy on mitigating against the spread of the coronavirus.

It seems strange that we have a Minister telling Irish people not to go to the infected areas in Italy, while also saying he will not tell people from the affected areas in Italy not to come to Ireland. It is important to know whether Ireland, as a European country, has a full armoury of tools to be able to deal with this crisis.

4:20 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The next speaker is Deputy Mattie McGrath, who is sharing time with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal rá ar an rud sin. After attending the previous European Council meeting in December, the Taoiseach stated in the House that he had set out Ireland's position on long-established, well-functioning and successful policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and had made clear that those policies needed to continue to be properly funded. At the European Council meeting in February, he clearly outlined that Ireland was willing to contribute more to the budget over the next seven years. This cannot be done. It means that payments to Irish farmers and important regional and social development programmes, such as INTERREG, will be cut. That is obvious. We now know that despite the Taoiseach's efforts, the Council members essentially rejected Ireland's position, leaving farmers and the agricultural community here with deep concern regarding what cuts to CAP funding will mean. It was reported after the February meeting that Chancellor Angela Merkel had said that the differences were "still too great to reach an agreement" and "we are going to have to return to the subject of the budget" during discussions on the multi-annual financial framework, which is meant to be operational from next year. This is simply unacceptable to Ireland.

As the Government knows, Irish farmers are heavily dependent on EU subsidies, with 56% of average family income coming from direct payments from CAP funds. The CAP also has a significant social reach, not just here but right across the EU. Some 11 million farmers and 22 million other people work regularly in the agriculture sector in the EU. In Ireland, agriculture is the most important indigenous sector. Some 167,500 people are employed in the agrifood sector, while food and drink exports are valued at €12.6 billion annually. That is massive and important. Anything undermining the stability of these sectors will, therefore, have a major knock-on effect.

We have to remember that the proposed cuts to CAP, which appear increasingly likely, will take place in a financial environment that has already seen farmers enduring life-changing cuts to income. We saw the protests during the summer, which were the result of pure desperation. Farmers cannot survive. Having spoken to my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group, it seems people do not understand or believe that point. The sad reality, however, is that small to medium family farms cannot survive. Farmers are leaving the land and their farms are being gobbled up by vulture funds and conglomerates. The ongoing instability and chaos in the beef and suckler sectors are just two issues. We also have the recent bad weather and problems caused by flooding. It is infuriating for farmers to hear talk of how EU budget negotiations often come down to a battle between the net payer countries, represented this time by the "frugal five" of Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, and net recipient countries such as Ireland.

Ireland was far from frugal when it came to putting up billions of euro for the so-called bailout after the European banking fiasco. I called it a clean-out at the time because that was what it was. We were fleeced. We lavished money into EU coffers to maintain stability, while our own people emigrated in their tens of thousands and tens of thousands more lost their jobs, homes and livelihood. This is not a matter of Ireland not being willing to play its part. We have always played a constructive role in Europe, even when it was against our better interests to do so. We need the next European Council meeting to resolve this matter in a fair and proportionate manner and in such a way that the integrity of Irish agriculture can be protected. That is the least Europe can do for us.

I am very concerned, as are the farming community and farming organisations. We have to up our game here. We have an interregnum at the moment. While the Taoiseach told the House an hour ago that we still have a Government, and that is correct, there is also great uncertainty. There does not seem to be any hurry or urgency in forming a Government. This is very damaging to the rural economy. I remember three recessions and it was the agricultural sector that took us out of them. We cannot go on as we are. We need a strong and coherent voice, one that has a mandate from this Dáil and the electorate. That needs to be done expeditiously. It will be four weeks on Saturday since the people voted. What is going on in here that we cannot get our act together to try to get over this situation? Self-preservation seems to be the name of the game among the bigger parties, rather than having a Government for the people. The message from the people was that we must serve the people and not be self-serving. We must do that post haste.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad to get the opportunity to talk about this important topic. Farmers, especially suckler and beef farmers, are at a crossroads. Many are not making money. Indeed, they are losing money. We must remember that farmers are not getting payments from Europe as a gift or present. They are supposed to compensate them for not being paid properly and in order that food can be sold more cheaply to the consumers of Europe. We must remember that farmers are entitled to payments because they are not being paid properly for the food they produce. If farmers were being paid properly, they would not be looking for payments.

We must remember that farmers are not beggarmen, thieves or robbers of any kind or distinction but honest and hard-working people who deserve to be paid properly. Mention has been made that the CAP is to be cut by €200 million. Whoever makes up the next Government, whether it is Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, Sinn Féin or whoever, it cannot accept a cut during the negotiations because that would sound the death knell for rural Ireland. It has been said that funding for Pillar 1 could drop by 10%. We cannot accept that. If Ireland has to pay more into the fund, surely we should insist that we get more out of it. Pillar 2, which includes rural development, the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, the areas of natural constraint scheme, ANC, and the pearl mussel scheme, is meant to be cut by 25%. If that happens, it will greatly affect all of the payments coming into the poorer and more deprived areas in rural Ireland.

It has also been said that young farmers who do not give more than 50% of their time to the farm - part-time farmers - will not be entitled to payments. That is absolutely scandalous and ridiculous and it cannot be allowed to happen. Many young farmers cannot survive on the bit of land they have but they do want to keep the door open on their farms. They want to keep their roads in such a way that someone is going up and down and ensure there is life to be seen. It cannot all be about planting forestry and closing down rural Ireland. If we are worth our salt at all, we cannot stand for that. I ask whomever is in the next Government not to stand for that.

There is also talk that, outside of designated areas, regulations and State penalties will apply to carbon-rich soils if farmers do simple things like draining the land to improve it. We cannot allow that to happen. Farmers need to utilise the little bits of land they have and produce as much as they can if they are to survive.

When we discuss the levelling off of payment schemes, especially for sheep farmers, it must be remembered farmers in the west need to get more attention than the farmers on the eastern side of the country who have all the options. In places like Glencar, Mangerton in Kilgarvan or other mountainy-hilly land along the west coast, there is only the option of sheep, suckler or beef farming. Farmers cannot plough, sow grain or milk cows on such land. Those farmers have to be looked after and their payments cannot be cut. Maybe the bigger fellows on the eastern side can afford it. The Ceann Comhairle is looking at me. He is a part-time farmer as well.

4:30 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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On the plains of Kildare.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Farmers in the west cannot afford any cuts, especially those in Kerry who are trying to survive but are not being paid for their produce. We have raised so much about the sucklers. If they do not get some payment in the near future, many of them will close down and have to give up because they are not making a profit. They cannot afford any cut in their payments. Again, it is not a gift or a present like is got at Christmas. It is compensation for not being paid properly for the food they produce.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Tá sé dochreidte agus, i ndáiríre, osréalach a bheith anseo i mbun díospóireachta agus dhá óráid ón Taoiseach agus ó cheannaire Fhianna Fáil gan tagairt, beag ná mór, don ghéarchéim atá ag tarlú ar an teorainn idir an Ghréig agus an Tuirc. Tá sé deacair glacadh leis sin. I mo thuairim, díríonn sé sin an spotsolas ar ár mbréagchráifeacht agus ar an gcur i gcéill atá ar siúl againn mar rialtas. Níl muinín agam go bhfuil muid in ann ár nguth a úsáid mar uirlis síochána sa domhan. A mhalairt atá i gceist. Tá muid ag taobhú le lucht an rachmais agus leis an lámh láidir atá á himirt ar na daoine atá thíos. Ní hé sin an cúlra atá agamsa. Is dócha nach sin an cúlra atá ag an tír seo. Cuireann an cur i gcéill agus ár mbréagchráifeacht ó thaobh na dteifeach olc orm. Tá an bhearna sin le feiceáil sna hóráidí inniu.

It is almost surreal to be taking part in a debate about the future of Europe. We have no copy of the Taoiseach's speech. I am not sure why that is the case. I listened carefully to it when he spoke about the next step, which will be a conference on the future of Europe. It will not be a conference on the emergency existing on the border between Turkey and Greece.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will try to get a copy of the speech.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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It was mind-boggling to listen to a speech of the nature given to us today. It brings into focus our complete hypocrisy as a country – not that of the ordinary people - and ostensibly using our voice as a tool for peace in the world when we are doing the opposite. We had a speech which did not refer to anything concerning the situation in the borderland - the no man’s land, the no woman's land and, certainly, the no child's land - between Turkey and Greece with tear gas, guns and violence. When that debate is mentioned, it is reduced to Turkey shoving out people and Greece refusing to take them in. There is no context whatsoever as to why that might have arisen.

D'eascair sé as margadh lofa a rinneadh idir an Eoraip agus an Tuirc in 2016. Tá an margadh sin lofa amach is amach. Rinne an Eoraip iarracht ollmhór éalú as a cuid dualgas agus airgead a chur ar fáil don Tuirc chun an jab a dhéanamh seachas dul isteach leis an dúshlán.

The crisis has arisen from the utter failure of Europe to deal in a positive way with the challenge it faced in 2015 when more than 1 million people fled to Europe for various reasons. Rather than dealing with that, Europe made a rotten deal with Turkey. Europe sought to buy its way out of its obligations. We are now in a situation where Greece is refusing to comply with its international obligations to take in refugees. In a sense, I understand Greece but I do not condone its failure to comply with international legislation.

Will the Ministers in the Chamber address this issue, as well as the failure of the Taoiseach to address it, where a member of the European Union is blatantly refusing to comply with its obligations under refugee legislation? It is not the only country. We have had the unprecedented situation where Irish judges, or at least their representatives, have gone to Poland to march in solidarity such was their concern for the lack of respect shown to the democratic process there. I can mention many other countries, including Hungary and Italy. One would imagine they would have been the subject of a debate today to highlight that we are letting the far right take over. We have created a vacuum in Europe. Instead of dealing with that vacuum, we have an empty óráid from the Taoiseach in which he spoke about a conference on the future of Europe and protecting values and interests. The only thing that is being protected is fortress Europe.

We cannot have a sense of outrage or upset about what is happening in our names. I object to the fact it is being done in our name. There is a failure to speak out and say it is not acceptable. The deal was rotten. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade knows that it was utterly rotten from the start and we were trying to buy our way out of our obligations. Any organisation worth its salt on the ground told us that and that it would not work. It has not worked. There was a crisis well before this crisis when Turkey purported to open its gates to let refugees, asylum seekers and migrants out. The crisis was on the ground in Greece which was left to deal with extraordinary numbers of people in unacceptable situations.

How many did Europe take in? One would imagine the Taoiseach would have told us that today. A cap of 72,000 was put on the number to be taken in under that deal. We failed to meet that ridiculous cap and took in 27,000 Syrians from Turkey in four years. That was well below the cap. It is significant which countries stood up and took in those refugees, namely, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Finland.

I say all of this in a context of figures which are so damning that it is difficult to say them. In six years, between 2014 and 2019, 19,140 people went missing or drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Holidays to the Mediterranean take on a new meaning when one looks at the number of people who drowned or went missing. These are the figures I got, which could be wrong. I suspect they are higher.

One would imagine that when we entered into the deal, part of it would have been to monitor it and follow up year on year to see if we were complying with our obligations, bad and all as the market was. We did not even do that. We wait until there is a humanitarian crisis and then we send over an unelected president to show solidarity with Greece, as was pointed out by a Green Party Deputy, but not with the people on the ground. We praise Greece for being a shield and our protection from the influx of these people. These people are seeking protection under international law under which we have the most serious obligations. Do we show solidarity and attempt to analyse or use our voice, a small voice as it is, even to question how this could have happened? How could the ambassador from Turkey be on "Morning Ireland" this morning disputing the amount of money Europe has given Turkey?

Surely it would be simple enough to confirm, given the size of the EU and the number of auditors there. Given their attention to detail when it comes to transgression of EU law, we should have the details written down on paper as to how much money was given and the reason for the delay on it.

I am ashamed - I say that reluctantly - to be here as part of this Dáil while men, women and children are in a no-man's land and certainly a no-family land. It is all being done in our name. It is all for €6 billion given to Turkey which should never have happened. In fairness, Turkey has taken in an astronomical number of people. I do not know how it has managed that, nor do I know how Greece has either. What have we done in this country? Perhaps the Tánaiste might give us the figures today in respect of the 4,000 that we promised to take in many years ago. How many have we actually taken in? It would be helpful if we had a written copy of the speech from the Taoiseach and if that was outlined for us and the difficulties. We have none of it. It is utterly unacceptable.

Ní féidir glacadh leis. Ní féidir leanúint ar aghaidh mar seo. Seo Dáil nua le Teachtaí Dála nua agus tá gá le hoscailteacht agus le trédhearcacht. Is gá dúinn a bheith mar dhaoine daonna agus ceisteanna a chur ar ár shon.

4:40 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I understand that copies of my speech are on the way so that Deputies who want it will get copies.

Following the Taoiseach's update on the most recent European Council meeting, I will focus on the following issues: the Syrian crisis; migration; the multi-annual financial framework, MFF; Brexit; and the new European Commission's work programme. That is a lot to deal with in ten minutes, but I will try to do as much as I can.

The European Council issued a declaration on Idlib calling on all actors to cease hostilities immediately and to guarantee the protection of civilians. It also called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, which I believe to be particularly important.

In following up on this, last week I signed an op-ed with 13 other EU foreign ministers calling on the Syrian regime and its supporters to end this offensive and resume the ceasefire established in 2018. In the past three months, nearly 1 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Government's military offensive. The humanitarian situation is nothing short of a human disaster.

The EU is urgently responding to this crisis and exerting whatever political pressure it can bring to bear to try to deliver a de-escalation of violence. The Commission is working to release €60 million in humanitarian aid for north-west Syria. Ireland contributed over €25 million to the Syrian crisis in 2019 and already this year funding has been authorised specifically to address needs in north-west Syria. I will attend an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council in Zagreb that has been called for tomorrow to discuss this situation and the associated migration crisis.

I am deeply concerned with the migration situation developing at the external EU borders with Turkey. The Syrian crisis has not just had a serious impact on Syria's neighbours, which host over 5 million refugees between them, but also has the potential to impact on the EU. Since the start of the crisis in 2015, I have consistently called on all EU member states to play their part in burden sharing and helping to relieve the pressure on front-line states, such as Greece, Italy and others. We also need to ensure that people are treated in a way that is consistent with international humanitarian standards and law. I express Ireland's solidarity with Greece and Bulgaria as they face the enormous task of dealing with the thousands of new arrivals at their borders. I also urge both countries to ensure people's personal well-being and to ensure their protection is guaranteed, which clearly has not been happening.

We continue to support the European Council position that a comprehensive approach is essential for a properly functioning EU migration policy. We cannot simply allow some EU countries, which happen to be geographically close to crisis areas, to carry an unfair share of the burden which is what has been happening. While the social, economic and political stresses are considerable, it is essential that humanitarian and legal obligations continue to be met.

I, on behalf of Ireland, have consistently been critical of the EU in the context of the ending of the humanitarian element of the rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea. I was the Minister for Defence who decided to send Irish Naval Service ships to the Mediterranean Sea in the first place. We had six such missions. I believe Irish ships managed to rescue about 16,000 people from the water. I would certainly be open to committing to do that again in the future if we can have a collective EU position to ensure that is done properly. That is not the position at the moment. It is not possible to get political agreement across the EU on virtually anything relating to a collective approach to migration. This is the core of the problem. I understand the frustrations that many in this House have expressed today.

The MFF is related in many ways. Under heading 6 relating to neighbourhood and the world, the new MFF will align EU actions more closely to our international commitments under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the EU global strategy. Importantly, this will also give the EU the means to reinvigorate its relationship with Africa, which is an important priority for Ireland and which tallies with the new strategy for Africa which the Government published a number of months ago. We are also very supportive of continuing support to the Caribbean and the Pacific, as well as to small island developing states, with which we have forged close relationships in recent years.

Such investments make sense. On issues such as climate change, migration, peace and security, and counterterrorism, the external and internal aspects are intimately interlinked and the new EU budget needs to respond accordingly. We need an external action budget which is more flexible, responsive and coherent, enabling the EU to engage more strategically with its partners across the globe, pursuing our values and protecting our interests. Far too often, external debates within the European Union in the context of our relationship with Africa, north Africa in particular, are dominated by the one issue of migration and it needs to be far broader than that.

While the political focus in Ireland in the context of the MFF will continue to be on Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budgets for our farmers, it is also important to refer to the important external actions that will need to be funded in the future.

In answer to Deputy Connolly's question on the Irish refugee protection programme, out of the 4,000 that we have committed to accommodate in Ireland, as of December 2019 we had accommodated 3,151, of whom 1,022 were under the EU relocation mechanism. We will certainly follow through in full on that commitment for 4,000 people. I am glad to put that on the record.

The General Affairs Council on 25 February authorised the opening of negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK and agreed the EU's negotiating mandate. Along with the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, I met the EU Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, last week in Brussels in advance of the General Affairs Council.

The EU mandate sets out the EU's clear position, based on the political declaration agreed between the EU and the UK on 17 October 2019, as well as European Council guidelines and conclusions. It provides a generous and fair foundation on which a new EU-UK relationship can be built.

There has been extensive co-ordination across Government to ensure that Ireland's priorities are reflected in the EU mandate, which affirms the EU's ambition for a close and deep partnership with the United Kingdom. Of course, the level of ambition on the UK side will also influence what is possible to achieve.

We welcome the continuing focus in the EU mandate on protecting the Good Friday Agreement and on ensuring that issues arising from Ireland's unique geographic situation are addressed, as well as the protection of the common travel area. Protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process in all circumstances continues to be a key priority for Ireland and this priority is shared by our EU partners.

The UK Government published its approach to the negotiations on 27 February, in advance of the start of negotiations between the EU and the UK on Monday, 2 March. Negotiations will be conducted on behalf of the 27 member states by the task force for relations with the United Kingdom, under Michel Barnier, and the Commission.

Given the UK position that the transition period will not be extended beyond the end of 2020, it may not be possible to reach agreement on all issues being discussed as part of the negotiations in the available time. We will continue to work closely and assess progress with our EU partners as the talks progress. I look forward to updating the House as often as I can while I hold the position that I do.

The work of the period ahead will be to achieve an ambitious and fair partnership that works for the benefit of all and provides a new and strong foundation for the EU-UK relationship, which is certainly in Ireland's interest. At the same time, it is important to see the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. The link between implementation and future relationship negotiations is also reflected in the mandate, and so it must be. The ratification of the withdrawal agreement means that, regardless of the outcome of the EU-UK future relationship negotiations, the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland will be in place. The protocol includes measures to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, to maintain the common travel area and the single electricity market, and to protect continuing North-South co-operation into the future.

Ireland welcomes the Commission's work programme for 2020 and broadly supports its proposals. The strong focus on implementing the priorities contained in the strategic agenda adopted by the European Council last June is particularly welcome. Addressing the biggest concerns of our citizens must remain the EU's overriding objective.

We welcome the clear roadmap outlined in the EU's green new deal and its transformative agenda. We look forward to working with all member states and the EU institutions to translate the ambition of the green deal into real and lasting change here and across the European Union.

We welcome the recognition in the Commission's programme of the ongoing work at the OECD on international tax reform. We remain ready to engage constructively to address any tax challenges that arise from the digitisation of the economy across the EU.

We welcome the review of the EU forest strategy. It is important that natural and plantation forests continue to be recognised for the important role they play in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies as applied in Ireland and across the European Union.

4:50 pm

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this debate. It is important that the House is kept updated on developments in the European Union, despite the uncertainty on Government formation.

There are huge challenges facing the European Union, some of which were dealt with at the European Council meeting last month. These include negotiations on the 2021-2027 multi-annual financial framework, MFF; the Brexit negotiations; climate change and the EU green deal; the spread of Covid-19; the conflict in Syria; the faltering EU-Turkey migration agreement; and the real threat to European values in Hungary and Poland, which includes blatant discrimination against the LGBT community in Poland. There are a lot of issues there.

On the Brexit negotiations, it seems that the EU-UK trade talks have not got off to a good start. It is clear there is a certain amount of positioning going on between David Frost and Michel Barnier. The UK has said it will cease negotiations if not enough progress has been made by June and that it will not seek an extension of the transition period. Big differences remain with regard to the role of the EU courts, acceptance of EU regulations, fishing rights and financial services, to name just a few issues. There could be a crash out by the end of the year and a no-deal Brexit. In that situation we would then have the World Trade Organization tariffs and controls. We in this House are all aware that a crash-out Brexit would seriously impact on Ireland, particularly in the food sector, manufacturing, tourism and small and medium enterprises. We need a comprehensive free-trade agreement negotiated between the EU and the UK.

There also seems to be some unravelling with regard to the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol. We need to commence putting in place the mechanics of this agreement and to provide for the necessary checks. Ireland must prepare also for all Brexit outcomes. Every effort should be made to ensure that companies and businesses are ready for all eventualities. The Government would do well to pay attention to that.

There has been cross-party consensus in this House on Brexit to date. The Government thinks it has done a very good job on the situation so far, but it should not be taken for granted. I hope the Tánaiste and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs will keep the party leaders and the House fully briefed on future developments on Brexit negotiations.

I shall now turn to the budget and the 2021-2027 multi-annual financial framework. It appears that not much progress has been made on this issue at the recent European Council meeting. Ireland is a net contributor to the EU since 2014. In 2018 our net contribution was €315 million. The new president of the European Commission has set out an ambitious programme for the EU for the next few years, including the new green deal. This programme will need to be funded and the situation is not helped by the €75 billion shortfall, which is a result of the UK leaving the European Union. I agree with the Government's stance on the MFF that we are prepared to increase our contribution, but we must also protect CAP and the cohesion programmes.

Many contributions have been made in the House today on the migration crisis. Nobody could be unmoved by the humanitarian crisis now developing on the Turkey-Greece border. Fianna Fáil expressed reservations about the deal and the impact it would have on refugees fleeing war and persecution. While understanding and supporting the need to protect the EU borders, it is essential the EU abides by and adheres to the fundamental human rights of refugees and migrants. Migration is a complex and challenging issue. Conflict, forced displacement, extreme poverty, smuggling of migrants and trafficking of human beings cannot be solved with a simple remedy, but as a party we believe it is imperative that all countries take a fair and proportionate share of refugees. We need a humanitarian response to what is happening on the border in Turkey and in Greece. I am delighted that this issue has been debated extensively in the House this afternoon.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Membership of the EU has granted Irish businesses unhindered access to a market of more than 500 million people. EU membership has also established the State as a focal point for foreign direct investment. The recent European Council meeting comes at a very challenging time for businesses across Europe and Ireland. With increased trade disruption, tariff increases from across the Atlantic on key Irish goods and our nearest neighbour leaving the European Union, Irish businesses are facing multiple threats and need to be safeguarded. The onset of the Covid-19 virus will impact on global trade, and the Department of Finance is set to revise economic output in April.

I welcome that the Council meeting will examine improving support to small and medium enterprises, SMEs. Irish SMEs have few alternatives to banking finance and SME loan rejections and SME interest rates are double the EU average. Agreeing a new seven-year MFF budget for the EU requires all member states to match ambitious policies set out for the new green deal, climate change, innovation and digitisation, and with the financial resources to achieve these. Ireland must build support with other countries to reverse the proposed cuts to CAP, given the centrality of the agrifood sector to the rural economy and its role in generating employment. It is imperative that the next MFF budget supports an ambitious and robust research and innovation programme and the establishment of the European innovation council to lead financial supports for businesses.

The EU should always put the consumer at the heart of its policies. We are all too well aware that insurance costs are excessive and cripple consumers on a daily basis. In helping to tackle costs in Ireland, the EU can play a role in fostering more competition to help drive down costs for customers. Therefore, I urge the powers that be at EU level to push to create an EU-wide insurance market in order to reduce costs for consumers.

I welcome the inclusion of the midlands in the just transition fund. I ask for an accelerated roll-out of this and that consultation with local community groups be ensured.

5:00 pm

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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I will focus my comments on the CAP budget. The CAP is a cornerstone of the EU's formation. Unfortunately, in recent years, we have seen the importance of the CAP being eroded. It was the key policy objective of various Governments in the history of the EU but now it has slipped to No. 4 in importance. The family farm structure of which we are so proud in rural Ireland is under serious threat and if we do not restore the CAP as a top priority of EU policy that structure, it will disappear.

We can speak about the financial framework and what cuts will come in the budget, but the reality is that since the MacSharry reforms, when we went from price supports to direct payments to farmers, the real value of the payment has dropped enormously. Now, it is proposed to take another €4 billion out of the budget. Over the lifetime of direct payments, their value in real terms has dropped by more than 40%. This is why the average age of our farmers is so high and we do not have youth entering the farming sector. This is the case not only in Ireland, where obviously the importance of our agrifood industry is huge, with €13.6 billion of exports and 174,000 people employed. The family farm structure is important throughout the EU. We have to reverse this policy and ensure that rural Ireland is protected. It does not really matter whether the cuts are proposed in respect of Pillar 1 or Pillar 2 because family farm incomes are at an extremely low base. Unless we get serious about supporting our family farm structure, rural Ireland and rural Europe as we know them will change forever.

If we do not arrest this change in this financial framework plan, it will be too late. In the past six months, we have seen farmer protests in this country such as we have not seen in a long time. We can argue about convergence and the flattening of payments but the reality is that unless money is put into the CAP, our family farm structure will disappear.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I will share time with Deputies Carthy and Andrews. It was suggested by the European Commission that the next EU budget should have €6.5 billion for military spending. Many of us in this House, as we heard in earlier contributions, oppose this direction. The increased militarisation of the EU and the moves to create a standing army have to be opposed. It is a negative development that undermines Irish neutrality and is the wrong direction for the EU to go. Ireland should remove itself immediately from these plans and should not provide one cent of Irish taxpayers' hard-earned money to PESCO and other EU military projects.

The European Council also discussed the situation in Syria and released a declaration on the fighting in Idlib. We all agree that we have to see an end to the conflict in Syria and a political solution to the crisis through an inclusive peace process for the Syrian people without foreign interference. Disappointingly, the EU's declaration did not mention the fact that Turkey has illegally moved its forces into the region. There was no mention of this in the speeches of the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste. Since the beginning of hostilities, Turkey has repeatedly backed radical jihadist groups in the conflict and has provided assistance to them, which has drawn out the war. It has also attacked the YPG and other Kurdish forces which successfully repelled ISIS and other extreme jihadist groups. Turkey has accused the EU of betrayal for failing to uphold an agreement on Syrian refugees.

Sinn Féin opposed the EU-Turkey deal because it involved transferring billions of EU money to Erdoğan's autocratic regime in return for it forcibly stopping refugees seeking asylum. The deal clearly violated international law and the human rights of Syrian refugees. It gave additional powers to President Erdoğan and has allowed him to use refugees as pawns as he attempts to extract concessions from his NATO allies. In response to recent military defeats in Syria, Erdoğan is doing just this. This has led to appalling scenes and clashes on Greek islands. Greece and Italy were already struggling to process and take care of refugees. Moria refugee camp in Lesbos is a former detention centre with capacity for fewer than 3,000 people. The camp currently has more than 20,000 inhabitants, almost half of whom are children. One child died on Monday after a boat carrying 48 people capsized in Greek waters south of Lesbos. No child should drown in European waters while fleeing violence and seeking safety.

We know that refugees and those who provide assistance to them, for example, volunteer doctors, have been attacked. Inflammatory and militarist language from EU and national policymakers contributes to the risk of violence against people seeking protection and against the organisations and individuals who provide support and show solidarity. Ireland and other EU member states need to mount a collective emergency response and provide humanitarian assistance and humane reception conditions and access to asylum processes for people arriving. This should be through a coalition of all of the countries willing to work together to support border countries. There is clearly no need to wait for those unwilling to assist. This is the message I want to send today.

I appeal to Deputies who are interested in what is happening in that part of the world to read the article in the Irish Examinerby Caoimhe Butterly. She writes about harrowing scenes and the desperation of people in the camp. She also writes about the sound of children coughing echoing throughout the camp at night. I appeal to people to read the article, after which they might have a different perspective on what is happening to refugees in Europe.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Two years ago, I was present in the European Parliament when the Taoiseach addressed Members on the future of Europe. I feared then that he had handed over a blank cheque, as he was the first European leader to commit to making an increased contribution to the EU budget, and, crucially, he did so without setting out what we would expect in return. Now, we are faced with the prospect of hundreds of millions of euro of additional Irish taxpayers' money going into the EU budget while, at the same time, seeing a reduction in the programmes that are important to our country.

I listened carefully to the Taoiseach's contribution in the hope that lessons had been learned. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Taoiseach spoke about the Council's budget proposal in the context of how Ireland got a leg-up in respect of EU funds in the past and that we now have a responsibility towards other, perhaps poorer, states. He spoke about the large levels of support that EU membership has among the Irish people. However, the budget proposals from the Council, just like those made by the Commission beforehand, are not about giving a leg-up to poorer states or building on the support for the EU among citizens.

Ask people in Ireland what they support about the EU, then detail the programmes that have benefited the Irish economy and society and compare them with the associated budget lines in the Council's proposals and those in the European Parliament's proposals. The proposals include a 13% reduction in regional development and cohesion, a 27% reduction in social cohesion and values, a 25% reduction in the LIFE Climate Action programme, a 48% reduction in the Erasmus+ programme and a 34% reduction in the Connecting Europe Facility. In addition, we are now faced with a massive cut to the most important budget line for the economy and, in particular, our rural communities, namely, the CAP.

While the Taoiseach has spoken about the need to protect CAP, he has not yet been unequivocal in stating he will reject any budget that does not do at least that. In fact, we should demand, at a minimum, that the CAP budget is increased in line with inflation. The family farm is under threat and, therefore, the rural communities that depend on such farms face further decline. CAP is just one of the measures that will play a role in addressing the threat, although it is not the only one. Farmers need fair prices for the goods they produce and an end to the stranglehold of retailers and processors on their sector. They need the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to start treating farmers as partners rather than enemies, and they need a radical rethink of EU trade deals such as the Mercosur agreement. Without a strong CAP, family farming will face an unprecedented crisis and, therefore, the Government cannot and must not support any EU multi-annual financial framework without one.

Listening to the Taoiseach's remarks earlier, I was astounded that he failed to reference the enormous expenditure proposed by the EU for military spending. Some €13 billion was proposed by the Commission and €8.3 billion by the Council for a new budget line that will go directly to the EU arms industry. This is not what the EU should be spending our money on. It is out of tune with the desires of citizens throughout Europe and completely out of sync with the position of a State that claims to be neutral. The proposition that Irish farmers, Irish communities and European citizens will see cuts in the programmes that make a positive difference while we divert those funds to an EU war machine is something that the Government must reject in the strongest possible terms. We have shown throughout the Brexit process that Ireland can help to shape EU policy in our interests and for the wider good. The people have said time and again that they want Ireland - all of Ireland - to be part of the EU, but they want that EU to serve citizens rather than corporations and vested interests such as the arms industry. That is the vision for a better EU that the next Government must bring to the heart of the debate on the future of Europe.

5:10 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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The European Council called on all parties in Idlib and wider Syria to "fully respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law and to allow unimpeded and direct humanitarian access to all those in need." It went on to call for the actors "to be referred to the International Criminal Court", ICC. While I do not wish to diminish the tragedy that is Idlib and Syria, I think it would be positive to hear the European Council support the case of Israel being referred to the ICC, where it is currently being considered. The ongoing attacks on Palestinian civilians, medical staff and journalists in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are unacceptable. EU support for the ICC to investigate Israel would be the humane and correct step to take. It would be important to see the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and army chiefs and former defence ministers in the dock in the Hague. If this does not happen, international law will be undermined.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Gannon to make his maiden speech. Congratulations, Deputy.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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As this is my maiden speech, it is customary for me to thank the people of Dublin Central who saw fit to send me here. I send them the warmest thanks. It will be through work done in the Chamber and outside it that I hope to validate the trust they placed in me.

I am happy that the first speech I get to make in the Chamber concerns the EU and our relationship with it. Like many Deputies, I am a supporter of our position within the EU. Since we joined in 1973, we have become a fundamentally different, and in many ways better, society. We have become more outward-looking, progressive and confident in who we are. That will become more evident now that our nearest neighbours have departed. We have a greater responsibility to be more assertive, to stand up for ourselves and not be subservient, and to demonstrate on the European stage the very best of what it means to be Irish. I am part of the first generation of Irish people to consider ourselves European. As we approach the negotiations for the new European financial framework, it is important that we assert ourselves and that we remember the values and what we hold dear. Often, such campaigns have to be green-jersey campaigns; they are not a time to take shots at one another unnecessarily. Nevertheless, when we have to, we should be able to stand up for what we believe we should hold dear. As my colleague, Deputy Cairns, noted earlier, it is essential that we stand up against the 14% cuts to CAP. Being a net contributor to the EU can be a source of pride for us. We benefited greatly from the EU and, therefore, it is important that we offer the same opportunities to those neighbours that have joined recently. It is also important in conversations about rebates for the more frugal member states to remember that rebates are a sad legacy of the British and should perhaps be ceased as the British remove themselves from the EU.

When I think about the EU, I think about what it was built on. It was built on the ideals of shared peace and prosperity. If that shared peace and prosperity is not extended to all, it will leave us in a more vulnerable position. The very ideals of the EU mean we must assert ourselves not only in conversations about the economy, or about how we allocate resources, or about the financial framework, but also in conversations about the Union, which we are a part of. When member states, including Ireland, fail, we should be able to pull one another up on those failings.

We can point to a number of such examples in the Union. One that comes to mind, which has not been mentioned in the debate, relates to the current circumstances in Poland. It is essential that we demonstrate solidarity with members of the LGBTQ+ community in Poland, who are experiencing the injustice of one third of Poland now describing itself as an LGBTQ+ exclusion zone. That is anathema to the Union and the ideals of shared peace and prosperity. Such exclusion zones mean that in one third of Poland, there is a restriction on the sharing of LGBTQ+ literature and information. Furthermore, there have been attacks on members of the community who have engaged in the Pride parade. We have to be vocal about that. There is a reason we have the Cohesion Fund and we commit our shared wealth to building up other nations, but that comes with a responsibility. Rule-of-law caveats are included in the charters of the EU, such as Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, on freedom of expression and information. The Law and Justice Party in Poland, which has removed that right from the LGBTQ+ community, is in complete violation of that. Article 21 of the same charter, on the non-discrimination of people based on their sex or religion, concerns another right not being afforded to members of the LGBTQ+ community in Poland. If we are to build this Union together, we must demonstrate solidarity with people who do not experience that promised peace in Europe. We need to be vocal, not just by condemning it as the European Council and Parliament have, but by enforcing it in any way we can because it is simply unacceptable.

A point was well made several times earlier about the migration crisis being experienced on the borders of Europe. The conversations in the Chamber that pertain to the migration crisis are appropriate because in Ireland, we are uniquely qualified to talk about migration and the plight of migrants. We are a nation built on migration. Throughout our history when times were bad, we looked overseas and travelled to the US, Britain, Europe and further afield. We were often met with hostility. It is incumbent on who we are and our place in the world that when we see injustice happening to people fleeing their homes because of war, famine or the climate and ecological breakdown that is happening around the world, we demand they are met with compassion and a humanitarian response, but that is not happening. It is not happening on the border between Turkey and Greece or in the Mediterranean, but we cannot close our eyes to that. We have to stand up for those people.

Other injustices are happening in Europe. When we talk about the EU and the threats it faces, we talk about the rise of the far right, the climate crisis and what developments in technology will mean for our place in the world, but other, more bread-and-butter threats that we rarely speak of face the EU. They include the fact that 22.4% of people in the EU live in poverty or at risk of social exclusion.

A Union built upon the ideals of shared peace and prosperity cannot exist while 22.4% of its citizens, over 120 million people, are living in such precarious circumstances that mean they are finding it difficult to feed themselves, house themselves and look after their families. If we promise shared peace and prosperity, it must be for everybody, not just the wealthiest cohorts within the Union. That is a fundamental threat to the European Union. If we believe other people's poverty is no business of ours, I ask Members to look across the water to Anglesey, Holyhead and the ports of Wales where over 80% of our HGVs and exports previously went to. Holyhead is statistically the poorest part of the UK, with an average income of just over £15,000 per annum. Those people, despite being dependent on exports for their existence, voted to leave the European Union because they were not feeling the warmth of Europe. Poverty and exclusion are a threat to the European Union. If we believe ourselves to be involved in this and to be intrinsically connected, we must be able to acknowledge that, seek to confront it and see it as a genuine threat to the fundamental values we hold dear.

I have highlighted the injustices that are experienced throughout the rest of Europe and I want to say we have our own injustices in Ireland also. In my maiden speech, I want to acknowledge the documentary that was on television on Tuesday evening about redress for survivors of institutional abuse. It once again highlighted the failure this State has afforded to victims of institutional abuse and incarceration that happened since the foundation of our State. Whoever takes on the role of Taoiseach must fulfil the promises that were made 20 years ago by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and in 2013 by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny that we would acknowledge, show respect towards and deliver for people who have experienced those injustices. That has to be a challenge for the next Taoiseach. I am putting this Chamber on notice that this must be the last Dáil where people who have experienced such injustice within our State are neglected. We need to deliver on those promises.

We are not too far away from the Republic that we have promised. Our future is intrinsically connected to the European Union and I look forward to engaging in these discussions in the future and to seeing this Chamber as a place of delivery moving forward.

5:20 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Deputy on his maiden speech. I call on Deputy Bríd Smith.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I take a certain amount of pleasure in discussing the European Union in a post-Brexit situation because pre-Brexit, People Before Profit in particular, north and south of the Border, was accused of having a pro-Brexit stance because we made criticisms of the European Union. We made criticisms of the European Union on the basis of its militarisation, its policies towards migrants, its bailout that wrecked the Greek economy and its subsequent bailout that wrecked the Irish economy and brought this country into a dreadful state of austerity. The carnage that was wrought on the Greek economy was something the Greek people have paid for and are paying dearly for. I have never heard a word of solidarity with the Greek people from anybody on the opposite benches on enduring the worst austerity imposed on any country in the history of the world.

The hypocrisy the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, showed when he went to the EU the other night and expressed through his tweets his absolute solidarity with the European Union and with what the Greek Government was going through and doing was shameful. It angered me and it angered so many people because what is happening in Greece is not something to be proud of or to show solidarity with. It is barbaric and inhumane and it should be utterly condemned. Deputy Flanagan did not speak for the majority of Irish people. The solidarity of Irish people with refugees and against fascism, war, climate chaos and famine has always been expressed. Even when I was a kid, we constantly collected pennies for what they called the black babies. We never saw them as our enemies or as people to be beaten over the head or drowned in the sea. Even though there have been arguments and protests in this country recently over the location of direct provision centres, in the main the arms of the Irish people were open to those who were misfortunate enough to have lived in Syria through the worst prolonged war on the edge of Europe for a long time and to those who lived in conditions of famine, drought and climate change who have been forced to seek refuge in Europe. It is shameful that the Irish Government has expressed solidarity with the behaviour of the Greek Government in this circumstance. If others in this country, whether they are far right fascists or racists, feel they cannot welcome refugees, Deputy Flanagan and this caretaker Government have fed into that idea. They have given them comfort and solace, rather than telling them they are utterly wrong to take a view of showing solidarity with the torturers of desperate people who are being treated barbarically. We should be decrying the behaviour of the Greek Government and the solidarity Europe has shown with it. The Greek Government is acting in breach of its laws, the laws of the European Union and international law. We know Turkey is trying to use the refugees as a bargaining chip but then, as a Government, we endorse the EU paying Turkey millions of euro over the year to house, hold and harbour those refugees, just as we have done in even worse circumstances in Libya. It has been a shameful record. On this side of the House, People Before Profit was critical of the EU for all of those reasons. We were never Brexiteers but we believed a critique of the EU was fair and open. That reality is exposed today and that criticism of the European Union has been vindicated.

I want to read a letter I received from somebody who is directly involved with this crisis. It will take a few minutes but it is an articulate and impassioned letter. I would like people to listen to the details as follow:

I'm writing to urge immediate action and international intervention on the Greek island of Lesvos, in accordance with international and humanitarian law. The Aegean Islands have descended into crisis. Five years of neglectful EU policy has finally culminated in days of strikes and protests, violence, and extreme danger for refugees, volunteers working for NGOs on the islands, and locals. Turkey announced it was opening its border to Europe last weekend, and in response Greece officially decided to suspend the fundamental human right to seek asylum for the next month, as well as deploying major military forces to the border. Neither of these actions is permitted by international law. As the events on Lesvos unfold this Ireland is once again impotent and the silence in our media is deafening. Events since Saturday 29th February 2020 on the island include the following: Local militia mobs have taken to the streets. They are intercepting boats carrying refugees from Turkey to Greece and beating them as they come ashore... The Hellenic Coastguard are no longer responding to boats in distress... Two children drowned this morning off the coast of Lesvos, and many more people have been hospitalised... The Hellenic Coastguard has been filmed driving large boats very fast past refugee dinghies in an obvious attempt to capsize the boats, attacking small boats, or not responding to calls... The violence has turned towards volunteers working for NGOs, demonised as part of the problem. They have been attacked by local Greek groups and beaten... They are now forced to stay inside their houses with lights off, meaning there is no NGO help on shore or in the camps... Locals have made a road block between [two cities where there are major refugee camps] meaning food supplies and medical help cannot get to the camp and the people there are isolated... Last night (1/3/20), the original reception centre for refugees was burnt down and can no longer be used, fostering a climate of fear and violence and sending a clear message to refugees... The Greek Army have today (2/3/20) started a military exercise with LIVE AMMUNITION, shooting towards the area where most of the refugee boats are crossing. This will be ongoing 24/7 until further notice... The first victim of Greek fire — a Syrian man — was killed at the land border this morning by a bullet in the neck... This is not a problem for Greece alone. For too long the international community has been silent, offering no help as it is not physically our shores receiving these people. I am asking for immediate discussion and action in The Dail and with the wider international community on a solution to move people from the Greek islands to a place of safety for processing in accordance with obligations set out under Article 78(3) of the TFEU and the 2001 Directive on Temporary Protection, recognition of the need for NGOs to continue to act on Lesvos, and the promise of safety and protection for them from the Greek and international security forces while they do this in accordance with Humanitarian Law, an immediate international recognition of and request for a halt to the Greek Army's military action using live ammunition off the coast of Lesvos and at the land border. I remain steadfast in my belief that asylum seekers and refugees have the right to legal processes, and that political irresponsibility can be made good through effective and humane policy governance. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. Europe must act.

I would like the caretaker Minister to explain to us exactly what the Irish Government has done about that. Anything would be better than the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, standing up in Brussels saying "Solidarity" with this kind of behaviour. It is outrageous. It does not represent the sentiment of the Irish people. Something more positive, humane and direct must be done. The message that the Greek Government must stop breaking EU and international law needs to come from this State. Otherwise, we are utter hypocrites.

5:30 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Neale Richmond to make what I believe is his maiden speech. Congratulations.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Like the previous speaker, Deputy Gannon, as appropriate, I would like to thank very much the good people of Dublin Rathdown for electing me to this Chamber. It is an honour of which I am immensely aware and humbled by, and as long as I am a Member of this House, I hope to serve them to the best of my capabilities.

I am delighted to make my first contribution on this key issue of reflections on the most recent European Council meeting. The European Union, and everything that goes with it, is something I have been passionate about my entire adult life. It is what drove me into working in politics and seeking political office for the Fine Gael Party many years ago.

Three of the key outcomes of this European Council meeting sum up many of the challenges the European Union will face in the coming years both in the short and medium term, but equally in the long term. In the short term, the real challenge facing the European Union, particularly Ireland as a member state within the European Union, is the ongoing Brexit negotiations. It would be remiss of me not to pay credit to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for the work they have done with Deputies opposite and throughout this Chamber and, importantly, with their partners in the European Union over recent years to garner that level of solidarity in respect of the serious crises Brexit could create for this island and this jurisdiction.

The negotiations have begun between Michel Barnier and Britain's envoy, David Frost, but much more is presenting itself. I welcome the colloquial comments of Commissioner Hogan this morning when he likened the initial exchanges in the negotiations with a bit of argy-bargy in a pre-match tunnel. There will be extremely testing days ahead when we consider some of the reflections in a certain sector of the UK media but especially some of the commentary from British politicians who should know better. However, I firmly believe that an agreement can be reached between the European Union and the United Kingdom that will allow for the least worst Brexit. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a good Brexit for this country and for the European Union as a whole, but equally there is no such thing as a good Brexit for the United Kingdom.

In the medium term, we look at the discussions over the multi-annual financial framework, MFF. This is where we must act decisively as a changing European Union. We are one of 27 member states - not 28 member states - of a European Union that is reduced significantly with the departure of a large member state that not only contributed so much financially to the workings of the Union and supported many programmes but provided great weight to the work of the European Union to deal with global crises. There are many crises facing this Continent and the world as a whole. We are in the grips of one in respect of Covid-19, which exposes how Ireland, as a small island, cannot work alone, how we are reliant on other members states, and how the UK will be missed. The challenges that the new financial framework presents are great and very different from the challenge the early EEC faced in the 1970s, when Ireland joined as a member, and as it changed during the 1980s and the 1990s.

A number of Deputies opposite expressed their concern about the increase in military spending on defence or research, but we need to acknowledge that things are changing. The militarisation of the world or the threats faced by this country and our partners in the EU are no longer about troops on the ground. It is about the cyber threat. It is about the threat of influencing across social media and online platforms and playing a very dangerous role within the functioning of democracy throughout this country and throughout the European Union. We need to look at the European budget scientifically. There is a gap to be filled.

Like Deputy Gannon, I see it as a great source of pride that we are becoming net contributors. The financial contribution this State has made to the European project cannot be quantified or based against a financial return because the returns are so much greater than sheer monetary value. I would argue that our membership of the European Union has been the single, most transformative act on this island in centuries. It has liberated us socially and economically and has allowed us become a truly sovereign and mature State. We need to reflect on that and the long-term threat towards the European Union, that is, the threat to the existence of the European Union. For the first time, the European project is losing a member state, not just any member state but a large influential member state. We need to look towards the future of the European Union and reflect not only on the speech that French President Macron made some years ago, as referenced by Deputy Martin, but equally on the speech made by the Taoiseach in Strasbourg some years ago about the role the European Union will play in the world and how the European Union will evolve against growing international pressures.

We must look at our own neighbourhood also. We are losing the United Kingdom, which is a very important member state, but what are we gaining? No new member state has joined the EU since Croatia in 2013. We have to acknowledge and accept that applicant countries - accession countries - have been standing on the periphery of this Union for far too long. Have we lost the imagination within the European Union to take those applicant countries and formalise their relationship?

Many people have referred to the actions taking place in Turkey and the worrying threat to democracy sometimes posed by President Erdoğan, but we must ask if we in the EU are responsible for that. For how long did we string Turkey along with promises of potential accession to the EU without providing the social and material returns for whatever reforms it might have put in place? We look particularly at the Western Balkans, the former Yugoslavia and those member states that have been looking towards the European Union as a light for the future for so long. How are we to treat them? Will we be proactive during this Croatian Presidency of the European Council? That is not only the short-term challenge in dealing with our neighbours but the long-term challenge. Will the EU become a closed club of 27 or will we continue to evolve into a potentially wider and deeper entity? I hope that we seek to grow within the European Union.

We are very lucky in Ireland. We have a pro-European population. The latest opinion poll by the European Movement indicates that 93% of the population believe our membership of the EU is a good thing. However, we know that can be fickle and may be reliant on the decision of the UK to depart, because prior to Brexit that number decreased to approximately 86%. If we do not continue to stress the importance of our ongoing membership of the European Union domestically as well as internationally, we run the risk of many people here and further afield taking that for granted. We have to remember how far we, as a member state, have come and the things that my generation take for granted. We can live, work and travel across this Continent without any restrictions or worrying about the need for foreign currency. We know that our rights are protected and that our healthcare needs will be met if we travel throughout this wonderful European Union. We have to remember that that was not always the case. Our friends in the United Kingdom will start seeing things changing greatly for them in the next ten months or a year. We have to make sure that is not the situation for this country.

It behoves all of us in this Chamber and in the other Chamber to make sure that, when we speak about the European Union, we are fair and reasonable and we reflect on not only the opportunities European Union membership can still present to this country but also the responsibilities we have as citizens of this State and as citizens of the European Union as per the Maastricht treaty. We must look at that going forward and use this European Council and the next one to reflect constantly on the short, medium and long-term challenges the European Union faces. I fundamentally believe that the challenges Brexit presents to this State and to the European Union can be overcome. Some opportunities may even be presented, but our single most important strength facing into the challenges of Brexit is our continuing membership of the European Union.

I take this opportunity once again to wish the Minister of State, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste well in however much longer they will be dealing with this process.

I hope we can see out the Brexit process and take the European Union forward in a way that continues to benefit all the Irish people.

5:40 pm

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I acknowledge the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Ireland in recent days and thank them for continuing to build on the friendship between our two countries. The warmth and generosity of spirit being shown to them by the Irish people is appropriate and underlines the close relationship our two islands share. I am sure they are aware of the economic relationships between the UK and Ireland and the challenging conditions that a hard Brexit might create between our two states. It is in our joint interests that Ireland, the United Kingdom and our EU partners should continue working closely together to achieve a managed Brexit that minimises the impact on our trading relationships and does nothing to diminish the respect that has been fostered between our two nations, particularly over recent decades.

Notwithstanding the importance of our shared ambition, recent media reports indicate a hardening stance by the new UK Government on aspects of its negotiating position with regard to the withdrawal agreement passed by the House of Commons. This House will wish every success for our future trade teams, as well as those of the UK and EU, in arriving at a satisfactory agreement that meets the needs of all concerned. The substance of this new future trading agreement will be a matter of negotiation. It will highlight longer-term political, economic and social challenges for Ireland in our national strategic planning, which at its heart must deliver equity and fairness and secure the future of our vibrant country and its people.

Ireland faces increasing challenges to remain at the forefront of European decision making. Politicians negotiating on our behalf must continue to ensure our open economy remains a European centre, one which embraces advancing world-leading technological change. For Ireland to retain its place as a First World country providing for all her people, we can no longer defer consideration of the social, cultural, environmental and economic shifts we will need to make to future-proof our national competitiveness, thus enabling the advancement of the social prosperity of our people. The technological economy is enlarging with great speed, transforming not only the way we live but also how we work. Many of our standard work practices and work areas are being challenged. Many traditional jobs will disappear in the coming years to be replaced by new opportunities that will require new learning. Industries that are slow to adapt to the use of technology in their manufacturing, innovation and service delivery will be increasingly exposed to international price-led competition. This information age, which is evident all around us, will become completely transformative, increasingly displacing traditional jobs.

The challenging effects of globalisation can be seen in our educational output and the difficulty with retaining and employing those who graduate annually from our third level institutions with significant engineering, technical, scientific and medical competencies. India is an example of a peer country which places great focus on literacy and education and where millions graduate annually as doctors, engineers, scientists, researchers. Many will work in industries that we in Ireland want and need to attract. Unless we continuously resource dynamic and technologically-driven ambition, our economy will fail to grow adequately and will not compete sufficiently to sustain the level of national income necessary to support the needs of our population and meet demographic challenges such as providing adequate reserves for pension needs and elderly care.

In understanding such challenges, we must set policy objectives, particularly in education and future learning that prepare coming generations for success in the world into which they are entering. One such objective is to have a regional, functioning third level education system which delivers courses and graduates to meet the requirements of our advanced employers. It must exhibit regional balance, be based on critical mass and have an ability to scale. Significant opportunity exists through science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, or STEAM. Along with traditional areas such as history, geography, economics and languages, students can expect to immerse themselves in areas such as big data, artificial intelligence, complex programming, machine-based learning systems, robotic interfaces, etc. They must also become adept in the creation of thought leadership to deliver innovation, problem solve and deliver accelerated learning. Achieving such high ambition will require a step-change in the educational attitude and attainment of our students and third level institutions. The Government must begin to provide substance to such policies.

My constituency of Waterford and the surrounding south-east region has suffered a significant delay in the delivery of a city region university. Many of our school leavers must go outside the region to access third level courses and many fail to return after graduation, creating a brain drain and forgoing an economic benefit. The lack of investment in Waterford Institute of Technology, which has more than 6,000 undergraduates, over many years has contributed to the regional brain drain and forced a wealth transfer from parents in the south east who struggle to fund student education, including paying for expensive accommodation in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and overseas. Capital investment in the Cork Road campus at WIT was last delivered in 2010, despite significant investment in third level facilities in other regions. An application to build a new engineering building on site at WIT remains unactivated. The project, which awaits build tender approval, would only marginally improve the college's capacity and ability to increase student uptake. Without significant investment in capital structures at WIT and provision of further STEM course opportunity, the idea of regional regeneration through education remains for Waterford and the south east a promise and policy unfulfilled. This is more than unfortunate for the city and region given the vibrant tech and pharma clusters that have been developed over the past 20 years. That these industries are crying out for suitably qualified graduates who should be available within the educational ecosystem of the south east but are not there in number, is a failure that no future Government can allow to continue in the south east or any other region.

As part of regional rebalancing and regeneration, there must be focus on our indigenous small and medium sized enterprises, SMEs. These are our largely Irish owned businesses that employ between ten and 250 people. They are overlooked for enterprise supports as they do not qualify in both micro-enterprise and local enterprise board categories. They cannot access Enterprise Ireland funding if they do not have export-led activity. There is an opportunity for third and fourth level institutions to engage with these companies and explore how they might innovate and adapt to counter the possible downturns of a negative Brexit environment. These SMEs represent one of the largest employment groupings in Ireland. They comprise 54% of all those working in the State, yet bizarrely they are not represented in social partnership discussions. This is a disparity that a future Government must address.

The direction of negotiations regarding Brexit remains a matter of discussion. I welcome the Taoiseach's recently stated position that no diminution of the Common Agricultural Policy, which would significantly affect many in Irish agricultural production, will be accepted. A hard Brexit has always presented a clear and present danger to Ireland. Alongside this, a significant consequence will be the loss of a voting partner for Ireland in future Commission decisions. It is imperative that this House generate momentum for the formation of a new Government, not only to deal with Brexit but also the significant other challenges we face today. We must also immediately begin planning the equitable rebalancing of Ireland.

At its core, policy must secure the future of our indigenous and multinational industries by providing them with opportunities to access the third and fourth level skills and educational supports they require. We must also test and test again policies on housing, healthcare, education, the environment and economic planning to ensure they can deliver a socially just future with opportunity for all.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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A European trading agreement must cover all. Farming needs investment, not cuts, especially where I live in Limerick. Farmers are out in all weather and conditions 365 days of the year. They must maintain their stock. Dairy farmers must get a minimum of 26 cent per litre of milk to be viable. Harsh weather conditions and flooding mean that cattle have been brought indoors earlier than expected.

That means fodder is now going down and if they have to buy fodder, it is expensive. Farmers do not need cuts from Europe; they need more funding. Beef farmers are in the hands of the factories in regard to what they get paid for their produce, which is wrong. If beef farmers lose an animal, they have lost their profit for the year, yet people who go into a hotel or a restaurant pay premium prices for any type of beef or other meat. Again, the person at the end of the chain is the person supplying the food. Everyone in this Chamber eats their produce. Milk, cheese, bread and everything else comes from the farming sector yet farmers are the worst off, especially those who have small landholdings and have to work part-time to keep the farms which have been in their families for generations.

We are the best country in the world for looking after people's culture but we now need to look after our own culture as well. Our farming communities are the ones who have kept food on our tables and kept us fed, through all conditions. We need to invest in farming. A scheme was rolled out in January of this year to improve the position following the catastrophe last year, when calves could not be sold, especially Friesians, because they were making no money. People were giving them away and they were not being taken. A calf investment scheme was introduced but while it was supposed to be rolled out in January to help the farming community, it still has not been rolled out. The calving season is nearly over but farmers have been put under pressure after all the commitments that were given that they would get help this year. Again, it is a failure.

We need to invest in the next generation, invest in our cultures and invest in infrastructure in rural areas. It is not city-based or town-based; it is the whole of Ireland that has to be looked after. We need to invest if we want Ireland to go forward for all of the generations. I come from a farming background. Farming has raised me and my family members. If the farming community is doing well, they invest locally in shops, in machinery and in upskilling on their farms, and they put money into infrastructure within the area. This deal has to favour rural Ireland; it has to favour our farming community. People talk about big farmers but a big farmer has big investments and has to get the staff to work the farm. If we have a harsh winter with low fodder or flooding, it puts farmers under pressure. In all of the guidelines that have been put in place, down to hedge cutting and putting slurry out on a field, everything has been regulated to make it harder and harder for farming communities to work.

We need to look forward. Everyone in this country, no matter who they are, needs to be looked after through a holistic approach. Common sense will have to prevail. Regulations will have to be relaxed to help communities in rural Ireland, including rural Limerick. All of the schemes and regulations in our areas, whether for educational or environmental issues, are set out to close down rural Ireland. When people sit down at their tables tonight to have something to eat, they should think where the produce is coming from. When they look out the window and see rain, snow or harsh conditions, they should think where the food is coming from. No matter whether somebody is a vegan or otherwise, all of their food is produced in rural Ireland, which should be looked after. What I want today is a commitment from all of the people in government that we will holistically look after the whole of Ireland and stop making regulations and stipulations which are closing us down.

5:50 pm

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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This is not my maiden speech but it is my first speech in the Thirty-third Dáil. I start by thanking the people of Sligo-Leitrim for electing me to this House and, like every other Deputy, I cannot wait to get stuck in.

When I looked to my right a few minutes ago, I saw Deputy Matt Carthy, and it was precisely the same in the European Parliament. It is interesting that both of us should be here. In that context, while he is not of my party, I take this opportunity to wish Chris MacManus, a fellow Sligo man who is replacing Deputy Carthy in the European Parliament, the very best. He represents all of us and I wish him well.

Another point which I find unusual is that I have ten whole minutes to speak. I am not sure I will fill that time because it was one or, at most, two minutes in the European Parliament.

As a former MEP, it is interesting that my first opportunity to speak in Dáil Éireann is on the European budget, but this time from the other side of the fence, as it were. One of the issues for discussion at the European Council was the MFF, or budget, which is approximately €1.9 trillion. It seems a lot of money but, in fact, it is about 1% of what member states spend. The whole idea of the budget is that by acting collectively, whether on CAP, the social fund, the regional fund or climate change, we add value.

One of my main concerns around the new EU budget is the proposed cut to CAP. The Taoiseach said earlier today that we cannot ask farmers to do more regarding climate action and pay them less. In this country, we operate farm to fork and we have strict regulations around pesticides, animal health and the delivery of public goods. The new green deal will impose significant further requirements on farmers and unless they are paid, they will go out of business. We heard earlier today about Mercosur and the possibility of significant tonnage of tariff-free beef entering the EU and, of course, the possibility of real market disturbance under Brexit. Therefore, it is easy to see that agriculture is in an extremely precarious position and, at the very least, the most basic safety net is an adequately funded CAP.

As I said, however, I am now on the other side of the fence. The share-out of moneys at national level is of crucial importance to farmers, particularly those who farm in that part of the country I represent. The current Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine said that convergence will pause during transition. That is unfair and unjust. Convergence is a process that must be ongoing. Many EU countries have full convergence and the Commission proposes up to 75%, whereas Ireland is still at 60%. Full convergence would deliver about €10 million per annum for farmers in Sligo and Leitrim and about €13 million for those in Donegal, so it is a hugely significant contribution to the local economy. We currently have what is known as the Irish model, which, of course, was put in place under the Irish Presidency. However, it is not serving parts of the country well because we are still using production levels from 2000 to determine current payments, which makes no sense.

An equally crucial issue is that of the eco-schemes within Pillar 1.

It is proposed that they will have 30% of the budget. Right now, we have farmers implementing precisely the same greening measures on grassland throughout the entire country but getting paid different amounts for doing the same work. For example, farmers can be paid as little as €50 per hectare or as much as €210 per hectare for doing precisely the same work and having the same requirements. This is completely unjust. A flat rate payment for all farmers would be approximately €80 per hectare. We must ensure this is part of the new CAP when we agree it in this House. This situation was unfair on day one and is still unfair. The new eco-schemes will impose significant requirements on all farmers. It is imperative that all farmers are paid equally for their equal work. It would be unthinkable that farmers in different parts of Ireland would be discriminated against on this basis.

On CAP, the last time out we did not fully co-fund Pillar 2. I understand there were economic reasons, etc., for this but that must be reversed this time.

Another area of real concern to the part of the country I represent is the fact that the Border, midlands and western, BMW, region has been downgraded from a developed European region to one that is in transition. This is because of a fall in our growth and wealth levels, etc. I can hardly believe it is nearly 25 years since I was involved in the Objective One campaign, which eventually resulted in the BMW region being on the same level as the south and east region. It has now been downgraded. A recent report by the northern and western regional assembly has shown the chronic, consistent under-investment in the region. That must be rebalanced in order that we can have regional development. This must be addressed by the next Government. From a European perspective, we must utilise fully any extra funding and whatever flexibility around state aid, etc., that is there to bridge the gap. We have to be proactive. It is fine that there is some flexibility on state aid, but we must use it proactively.

I am encouraged to see that the European Investment Bank has up to €2.5 trillion available for projects on climate action. The next Government must take full advantage of this facility to put in place climate action measures. Some of this will be for a just transition for workers in the midlands and elsewhere, and where appropriate, for creating new jobs in the green economy.

I have some real concerns around the €13 billion for security and defence. I hear the argument made from the other side of the House that it is not necessarily about arms, etc. This is very thin ice for Ireland and I have concerns. I also regret the cuts proposed to the European budget. I support what seems to be an all-party or many-party stance in this House that we would be open to increasing our contributions in order that the European budget can fulfil some of its objectives. At home, we have to take every opportunity afforded to us by the European budget, both in terms of flexibility offered and spending.

6:00 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We will now have 20 minutes of questions and answers. I ask Deputies to indicate whether they wish to speak. We have three Members offering. I will try to allow everybody to speak. I call Deputy Seán Haughey.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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We have had a long debate. I would like to ask the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, about the upholding of European values and ideals and the rule of law I mentioned earlier in my contribution. What is the position regarding the proliferation of LGBT exclusion zones in Poland? There has also been the undermining of an independent judiciary and free media in Hungary. Ireland has spoken out about these developments. Will the Minister of State update the House on what exactly is happening at European Council level or in other committees of the EU? Is firm action going to be taken on these issues in these countries? I would appreciate an update on the position at this stage.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I am unsure if we will be discussing this issue later. Has the Minister for Health been in contact with or met his European counterparts? Are EU-wide health meetings planned? One of the issues to have been brought up is the possible cancellation of flights and travel to certain regions in Europe, particularly in northern Italy. Has this been discussed at EU level? Is there a possibility that borders might be closed and travel stopped?

The Tánaiste said he was heading off on a flight to Zagreb to meet foreign ministers. When one goes on aeroplanes nowadays, they are filthy. These are just basic matters. Will extra responsibilities be placed on airlines in respect of the threat that is facing people who are travelling? As we know, aeroplanes are not just carriers of people but also of diseases. Will there be a different approach to this now?

On the EU-British trade talks, the British Government appears to be attempting to renege on its commitment to its future relationship with the EU. Will the Minister of State confirm that the interim Government will not allow this to happen? Does she agree it is essential that the protections agreed in the Irish protocol of the withdrawal agreement are maintained and implemented? The political consensus in the Dáil on this matter should continue. We all understand that the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the all-island economy must be protected in any future agreement. Was this raised with our counterparts at the February meeting?

On the CAP question, which is not my area, the current proposals would make many Irish farms unviable and would have a devastating effect on farmers and rural Ireland. Alongside this, Irish farmers need to contend with the EU-Mercosur deal that is coming down the tracks. Will the Minister of State confirm that the interim Government will fight against attempts to cut the CAP massively?

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I have two questions for the Minister of State.

Earlier today, I heard Deputy McDonald speak positively about Martina Anderson's contribution on Brexit. She made a positive contribution, as many Irish MEPs have done. When I sat in the European Parliament in Brussels, I was proud of the contribution the Irish Government made on the issue of Brexit. I am happy to put that on the record. What is the view at European level on Boris Johnson's statement that if things are not basically concluded by June, his Government will pull out of the negotiations? I will not repeat Deputy Crowe's question on the Irish protocol.

My second question is on whether Ireland has a bottom line on the CAP budget. Is it all in the mix for now?

6:10 pm

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I wish to ask two questions. The first follows the points made by Deputy Harkin on the ongoing negotiation process between the EU and the UK. Can the Minister of State outline a timetable by which the European Council can expect updates on progress from the EU chief negotiator, Mr. Michel Barnier? In a speech today or yesterday he identified four areas where there is difficulty and how they might be approached. My second question relates to the MFF and timelines. Can the Minister of State indicate when the European Council might be able to agree the MFF or outline when the Irish Government hopes that will be achieved?

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. I dtús báire ba mhaith lion Seachtain na Gaeilge shona a ghuí ar gach duine. Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí ar fad as ucht a gceisteanna. Is iomaí ábhar ata luaite acu agus déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall iad ar fad a fhreagairt. B'fhéidir go dtosóidh mé leis na ceisteanna maidir leis an gCreat Airgeadais Il-bhliantúil, an MFF, given the fact that this is what the European Council and the overall discussion today is about. I will start by wishing everyone here a happy Seachtain na Gaeilge. I will try to answer all the questions in the best way I possibly can.

Regarding the MFF, a lot of the discussion has been in respect of the CAP. Deputy Harkin is right in stating that there is a unified position on the CAP proposals. There are some in Europe who feel that a smaller EU should mean a smaller budget. With the UK leaving, we are looking at a hole worth between €65 billion and €70 billion. However, as Deputy Richmond rightly pointed out, while it may be a smaller EU now, we hope that it will get larger again. There have been discussions on the enlargement process and opening up the accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania. We have new and competing priorities as well as more traditional priorities such as the CAP. We have consistently said that we are willing to pay more, but that is not at the expense of traditional policies like the CAP. I refer also to the Cohesion Fund, from which we have benefited hugely in the past, and other policies including those relating to Horizon, Erasmus and climate action, which is a priority for most Members here.

We know how much the CAP benefits Irish farmers. It provides employment for 180,000 people, which represents approximately 7.7% of our overall workforce, and contributes in the region of 7.5% of our GNI. That has an extremely important knock-on effect, providing safe, easily accessible and cheap food, protecting our environment and protecting our rural towns, villages and local economies. This is why we have consistently stated - we did so as recently as a week and a half ago when an extraordinary meeting took place to try to reach an agreement on the MFF - that we would not be accepting the current proposals. A new negotiating box was presented which suggested further changes in the form of an increase of 2% for Pillar 1 and a reduction of 8% in respect of Pillar 2. There was further flexibility between both pillars, but this would result in a loss of hundreds of millions of euro for Irish farmers. This is something we simply cannot accept.

There have been suggestions from some Deputies that while the CAP budget is decreasing we will spend more funding on security and defence. The overall suggested figure for security and defence is 1.3% of the overall budget. The overall suggested figure for the CAP is 30% of the overall budget. While it is not enough, it is still a significant amount. We must ensure that this figure increases even more.

Regarding EU values, it has been suggested that the new MFF should include conditionality mechanisms to be applied where member states are in breach of the rule of law. This would apply to all member states in the same way. This is something we fully support. This mechanism would be new to the MFF. I hope it would take into account a lot of the concerns that member states have had around some of the countries that have been mentioned here, such as Poland and Hungary. The General Affairs Council, which met last week and which I attended, did not go into detail on the rule of law. However, we will be having further discussions when the General Affairs Council meets again in two weeks. The rule of law will be on the agenda and I will be raising some of the concerns Deputies have raised here. We have had several hearings on Poland through the Article 7 process. While we have seen progress in certain areas, we have also seen regression in certain areas. New mechanisms, separate to the MFF, have been proposed by the European Council. These will not duplicate the Article 7 process. We hope these will enable progress in certain areas. I share Deputes' grave concerns on some of the new issues which have been raised, particularly regarding the LGBT community. This is not something that we should be accepting within the European Union and it is certainly something I will be raising with my colleagues.

Regarding the coronavirus and Ministers with responsibility for health, my understanding is that there is will be a meeting of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council configuration, EPSCO, tomorrow. I am not sure whether Ministers are travelling or whether it will be carried out by means of videoconferencing. I know that Finance Ministers spoke about this issue in a teleconference yesterday and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has met many of his European colleagues to discuss how we can protect all of our citizens. Any of the advice we are taking is being replicated in other member states, particularly when it comes to travel. A Deputy asked how we can advise against travelling to certain regions but not offer advice to those who are coming from those regions. We can only offer advice to our own citizens. We can only give our own view, based on medical evidence, of the best thing to do. Telling individuals not to travel to certain regions has not been welcomed by the countries concerned but we felt it was the right thing to do to protect public health. This was not discussed at the European Council meeting we are discussing today, but I expect that it will be a topic of discussion at the European Council at the end of March.

Regarding Brexit and the overall discussions, I have been in the Chamber since Mr. Michel Barnier and the UK Government gave their presentations today. However, I very much welcome the confirmation by the UK and Mr. Barnier that they will uphold and adhere to everything that was agreed in the Irish protocol. That is extremely important from our point of view. I have also been informed that an oversight committee will be put in place to oversee the implementation of the protocol. This body will not change what has already been agreed in any way. It concerns the implementation of the protocol. It is due to meet on 30 March. There will be representatives from Ireland, Northern Ireland, the UK and the EU. We will receive regular updates. Regarding updates on overall progress, Mr. Barnier met the General Affairs Council a week and a half ago. He will continue to update us regularly in the same manner. I do not think a timeline has been set, but he will continuously update us as he sees fit. Regarding the possibility of reneging on the protocol, given the fact that this is international law we expect the UK to fulfil its obligations and it has made that commitment today. We will certainly be keeping an eye on that.

There were questions on timelines for the MFF. Many people would have liked to reach an agreement at the previous Council meeting. Such an agreement is probably some way off at this stage. The matter is not on the agenda for the March European Council meeting, although I thought it might be. That might change depending on the level of engagement between President Charles Michel and the member states. The sooner we can get it implemented the better. It needs to go before the European Parliament, which cannot amend or change what is put before it but can reject it. Given the fact that the Parliament's preferred overall figure was 1.3% of GNI and the current proposals are at 1.074%, there will be difficult conversations between the Parliament and the Council. The sooner we have those conversations the better.

I was asked if we have a bottom line on the CAP. The Taoiseach has clearly stated that we cannot accept the proposals that have been put forward. We cannot accept paying more if our farmers are going to get less. That is not going to change.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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We all touched on the refugee crisis. Has the Tánaiste been in touch with his Greek counterpart? I heard him state that he was trying to get broad agreement on responses to the crisis but I do not think he will do so. Is there a view on what can be done by those who are willing to help?

We have seen the shocking scenes. There is a crisis there and it will get worse. We need to do something. We need to stand in support of the refugees but also to support the Greek people who are facing this huge challenge. I do not think anyone wants to see the scenes we are seeing on television, the attacks on refugees, the firing of live ammunition and people being assaulted and tear gassed. What can we as a country do?

6:20 pm

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The Tánaiste touched on a lot of this but I will reiterate what he said. I share Deputy Crowe's concerns and the concerns that have been expressed by most Deputies who have spoken. It was not outlined in the Taoiseach's speech because it was not an item on the agenda but that is why the Tánaiste in particular wanted to raise this issue. He has consistently showed solidarity and called for a de-escalation of the conflict in Syria, in particular in recent weeks given the fact that we have seen more than 1 million people displaced since December alone. I do not think it is about showing solidarity with one group of people over another and that is why we have consistently shown solidarity not just with our European colleagues in Greece, Bulgaria and those other countries in front-line situations where they are struggling to deal with the amount of people who are coming across their shores but also showing solidarity with those in Syria, in Idlib, and those who have been displaced. Financially, we have contributed €114 million since 2012. Last year alone, we contributed €25 million to try to ease and support those who are currently still in Syria. What we need to try to do is come together to form a consensus but that is not something we have been able to do. Every time I have spoken about this I have spoken about my frustration in this area. We cannot reach an agreement or consensus when it comes to setting a clear path forward. There were dissenting views on whether some should financially contribute or take in more refugees. We have always opted in where it has not been forced upon us. The figure of 4,000 might not seem like a lot but that is what was asked of us through the process that has been put in place. The Tánaiste already outlined that we have taken in 3,151 out of that 4,000. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, committed recently to take a further 2,900 refugees. We will fulfil those commitments. This is about trying to put in place a system that works.

I again stress that the agreement between the EU and Turkey in 2016 needs to be upheld because we have seen how that has helped to stem the flow of migration but we also need to make sure that those who are still being forced to move, irrespective of whether an agreement has been put in place, are protected and that the humanitarian assistance and aid is provided for them but that we are addressing the root cause, that is, why people are being forced to flee their homes and towns in the first place. That is a matter on which we have not seen huge progress. This week alone, the Tánaiste, with 13 other member states, highlighted their concern and asked for a de-escalation in Syria, in particular by those who are supporting the Syrian regime. We must do what we can to support our Greek colleagues because they have a right to protect their borders but there is an obligation on all of us to protect those who are fleeing war and persecution. I do not think any of us would like to find ourselves in those positions. The situation is very difficult and complex but we have been consistent in providing financial support and calling on people to do the right thing.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Tá na ceisteanna críochnaithe. Five minutes have been provided to wrap up the debate, but doing so is optional.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Members from across the House for their contributions. The cross-cutting nature of the MFF means that it impacts on a wide range of policy areas and political priorities, not just for member states across the Union but also for parties and groupings in this House. As the Taoiseach has noted, there is further work to be done to finalise the MFF package. There remain differences between those member states favouring a smaller budget, and those arguing for a larger budget. There are also differing views on how the proposed funding is balanced between long-standing and successful policies such as CAP and cohesion and newer priorities.

President Michel and leaders across the EU are reflecting on the recent summit and will return to these discussions in due course, but we do not have a date for that discussion. The European Parliament is also required to give its consent to the new European budget after agreement is reached by the Council. We have stated clearly our openness to increased contributions to the new budget, once existing policies such as CAP are properly resourced and European added value is demonstrated.

We must remember the value of EU membership in these discussions around the budget and Exchequer contributions. For example, Ireland has benefitted hugely from membership of the Single Market. We have also seen the solidarity shown to Ireland in recent years, in particular in relation to Brexit. There is strength in unity. Only together can we address the big issues that matter to citizens across the EU, in particular, issues such as climate change. In this regard, we support the mainstreaming of climate action within the budget and are open to President Michel's suggestion to increase the capital available to the European Investment Bank to support investment in climate action. The inclusion of peat areas such as the midlands within the scope of the recently proposed EU just transition fund is very welcome in providing support to those regions most impacted.

We are also very supportive of a strong PEACE PLUS programme, as a tangible demonstration of the EU's continuing support for cross-Border co-operation under the Good Friday Agreement. We very much welcome the fact that the proposal by the Finnish Presidency to increase that to €100 million has been maintained in the current negotiating box. This is particularly important in the context of Brexit as well as the recent restoration of the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.

The Taoiseach also set out Ireland's well-established position on the need to protect the CAP, as have all Deputies in the Chamber this evening. It is a long-standing and well-functioning policy and is a vital support for rural communities, farming families and in providing food security. We cannot ask farmers to do more for climate, sustainability and food security with substantially less funding. Farmers are low income earners across the EU and they are highly dependent on CAP direct payments. In Ireland, these account for 74% of family farm incomes. At EU level, the CAP maintains up to 10.8 million family farms. It also manages some 40% of the land area of the EU, around 175 million ha. It ensures the EU is self-sufficient in food production, that it is a world leader in sustainable agriculture and that it delivers the highest standards of food safety, animal health and animal welfare. We will continue to make the case for the CAP as the negotiations progress. While it is not currently envisaged that the European Council meeting in March will discuss the MFF, it will be reverted to in the coming weeks.

As has been noted already, the special meeting of the European Council also agreed a declaration on the situation in Idlib in light of the renewed military offensive by the Syrian regime and its backers. I share my deep concern at the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib and with the migration situation developing at the EU's external borders with Turkey. This is an issue foreign ministers will discuss when they meet in Zagreb tomorrow.