Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
I met with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, in Dublin on 8 October 2020. We discussed the programme of work for the European Council for the period ahead, with a particular focus on the agenda for the meeting of the European Council which took place on 15 and 16 October. This included Brexit, Covid-19, climate action and European Union relations with Africa.
President Michel and I took stock of progress in the Brexit negotiations. We agreed further progress was required on outstanding issues in the negotiations, including level playing field, governance and fish, if agreement is to be reached. We also agreed that our preferred outcome continued to be as close as possible a partnership with the United Kingdom, following the end of the transition period.
We are also in complete agreement on the importance of full and timely implementation of the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland. On climate action I expressed Ireland's support for the Commission's proposal for increased ambition at European Union level, including setting a target of at least a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030. We held a good discussion on this at the European Council the following week and will return to this matter at our meeting in December.
I outlined to President Michel Ireland's goal, as set out in the Government's Africa strategy, for a more ambitious and effective European Union-Africa partnership. At the European Council the following week, leaders confirmed the high priority the European Union places on strengthening its strategic relations with Africa and on its partnership with the African Union.
President Michel and I also discussed how we can best improve co-ordination at EU leveI on Covid-l9 and on Europe's recovery. I also briefed President Michel on the situation in Ireland. In light of the serious epidemiological situation across the Continent, as Deputies will be aware, we agreed at the October European Council to revert to this matter regularly.
On 29 October, I met with other EU leaders by video conference. We discussed how to share information and expertise, the need to assess and validate tests, how to make best use of track and trace including the interoperability of tracker apps on which Ireland is an early leader, the importance of having the right arrangements in place for distribution should a vaccine become available as well as travel and quarantine policies.
Our collective focus continues to be on Brexit, and rightly so. There are other outstanding EU trade negotiations that are of great concern to member state citizens. We know that the European Commissioner for Trade is particularly enthusiastic about breathing new life into the Mercosur dispute despite widespread opposition to this trade deal. Is the Commissioner’s enthusiasm shared by the Government? I note that Fianna Fáil MEPs took contradictory and opposing positions during a recent vote in the European Parliament on a resolution that stated that the EU Mercosur agreement cannot be ratified as it stands, which is the correct position. UPLIFT-TASC has published a very detailed assessment of the social and environmental risks posed by Mercosur. Its study highlights the significant impact of the agreement on the environment as well as on social, human and worker rights. The report concludes with this very stark warning:
The EU’s track record with FTA’s, coupled with the initial conditions into which this agreement would be launched, marked by poor governance, weak institutions and shrinking civil society space in Mercosur countries does not bode well for the fair and sustainable implementation of the proposed agreement.
The authors also warn that the EU values put forward in the Green Deal and the farm to fork strategy are inconsistent with the values exhibited by Mercosur on climate and agricultural policy. Does the Taoiseach accept that Mercosur cannot and should not be breathed back to life?
In the Taoiseach’s discussions with the President of the European Council, has the issue of the denial of women’s rights in some EU countries been part of these? As the Taoiseach will be aware there has been a magnificent mass movement of women and young people on the streets of Poland for abortion rights in recent weeks. These protests were provoked when Poland’s constitutional court, stacked with conservative judges, backed by the far-right Law and Justice Party, Pis, Government and the Roman Catholic Church, proposed to tighten Poland’s anti-abortion laws which were already amongst the strictest in all of Europe. The court proposed to rule out foetal anomalies as grounds for abortion, even in cases where the baby would, without question, be born dead. There were 200,000 Polish abortions last year which were either illegal or carried out abroad. Under the court’s proposal all but 30 of the 1,100 abortions legally carried out in Poland last year would be illegal next year. The protest movement was spontaneous and enormous. People took to the streets every day and there were more than 1 million people on the streets on some days. This was the largest demonstration since the end of Stalinist rule more than 30 years ago.
Young women carried placards saying: ”Women’s Hell”, “This is War”, “I wish I could abort my government”. When the protests were taken into the churches to challenge priests who were preaching against women’s rights, the leader of the Law and Justice Party addressed the nation accusing the protesters of wanting to destroy Poland and calling for the churches to be defended at any cost. The address was made against a backdrop of Polish flags and was widely compared to General Jaruzelski’s address to the nation in 1981 when martial law was introduced to clamp down on the Solidarity trade union. Given that the leader of the Law and Justice Party is also in charge of police and security, the speech was rightly and widely criticised for promoting the idea of a violent crackdown, with backup from football hooligans and far-right thugs. Notwithstanding all of this just 15% of the population polled gave their support to the proposed new laws. The protest continued to grow in size and to broaden its demands. It was organised by the All-Poland Women's Strike group. From below protesters start calling for the legalisation of abortion, separation of church and state, increased state spending on health and education and an end to the rule of the far-right government. Groups like Rosa Polska, the sister organisation of ROSA in Ireland, began to raise the idea of a general strike.
These protests have taken place after the Taoiseach’s last formal discussion, I believe, with the President of the European Council but the denial of women’s rights in Poland and in other countries make it inevitable that these types of mass movements can and will occur. This is a live issue in Poland at the moment. Has there been any follow-up at EU Council level in discussing these very important matters?
The conditions for Palestinians under Israeli occupation are horrendous at any time but the fact that last Tuesday week Israel carried out, in the midst of a pandemic, the biggest demolition of homes of Palestinian families, 11 in number, making 80 people homeless including 41 children, is truly shocking. The pictures show the demolitions destroying water containers, farm equipment, solar panels and so forth. Much of this equipment was funded by Irish Aid and European Union money. This is happening, incidentally, in a year when the number of Palestinian home demolitions is the highest since 2016, which was the highest record year of demolitions by Israel of Palestinian homes. I remind the Taoiseach that the forcible transfer of populations in this manner is a war crime under international law.
I note that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, condemned this but beyond words, is anybody going to do anything about this? This is EU-funded equipment in many cases being destroyed by Israel. I note that on 15 October Deputy Coveney said that Ireland and the EU states were looking to get back from Israel €625,000 which has been lost as a result of the destruction that Israel is wreaking on projects, equipment and so forth that was Irish and EU fund-aided. Have we got the money back from Israel and what are we going to do to stop the shocking ethnic cleansing and destruction of homes by Israel which is beyond words?
Deputy McDonald spoke initially on the Brexit issue and the EU trade negotiations more generally and, in particular, on the Mercosur trade proposition. In my view, and I raised this at a recent EU Council meeting where we discussed climate change, there is an incompatibility in the climate change agenda of the European Council and European Commission proposals on climate change.
We will return to this in December when there will be a more detailed and comprehensive discussion on climate change in terms of the European Union's own targets and objectives and the more ambitious targets we want to set. The behaviour of certain countries, particularly Brazil and the government of President Bolsonaro in particular, has been negligent in respect of the climate change agenda and, in particular, in terms of the destruction of forests to make way for grazing on an unprecedented scale, which is causing enormous damage to biodiversity but also, critically, is impairing the world's capacity to deal with climate change. There are issues in that regard. From our perspective as a Government, we are very mindful of that and the implications of Mercosur being adopted in respect of climate change. Those are issues we will continue to pursue at EU Council level. Europe has always endeavoured to pursue free trade agreements. As a general rule, Governments are pro-free trade. The Deputies opposite may be against it. For example, we supported the Canada deal. I support the European trade deal with Japan because those open up opportunities for Irish companies, particularly the small to medium sized companies, and create opportunities for jobs to be created in this country. In terms of Mercosur, however, there is a climate change context that cannot be ignored.
With regard to Deputy Barry's points on the overall situation in Poland and Hungary, governments are elected by their people and they can pursue policies that we may not agree with in this country. It is important that every EU state upholds the right to protest and the right for opposition to mobilise legitimate and non-violent protest on the streets and to ensure that free speech and freedom of action and association are provided for. It is no secret that there have been issues around the rule of law in some states in the European Union. It has been a very contentious issue in at recent meetings, for example, on the multiannual financial framework. I am talking more generally in terms of the separation of powers within certain countries in Europe that has caused concern for others. Those issues have been raised at Council meetings in terms of the absolute necessity for civil liberties and the rule of law to be respected and for the separation of powers to be a core value of member states. That is something that we, as a country, continue to articulate and argue for and we will continue to do that along with other countries that have similar views to ourselves on those issues.
Briefly, I share Deputy Boyd Barrett's condemnation of the attack by Israel and the demolition of the 80 Palestinian homes. I am not aware as of now whether that money has been recovered. The EU provides very significant funding to support housing, education and social services in Palestine and to support the Palestinian people, as does Ireland, and we will continue to do that.