Dáil debates

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

2:00 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I attended a meeting of the European Council in Brussels last Thursday and Friday, 10 and 11 December. I also attended a meeting of the Euro summit. We began as usual on Thursday with an exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli. In his contribution, President Sassoli stressed the urgency of having the recovery plan and multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which were agreed by European Union leaders when we met last July, in place and accessible from the new year. We also paid tribute to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former President of France and a committed supporter of the European Union, who passed away on 2 December.

The agenda for our meeting was particularly full and included a number of complex and far-reaching issues, such as Covid-19, climate action and the European Union's relations with Turkey and the southern Mediterranean. We also needed finally to sign off on the €1.8 billion package that includes the European Union's budget for the next seven years and the recovery fund we agreed at our meeting in July. This is a vital tool to support the EU’s economic recovery and the green and digital transformations. I pay tribute to the German Presidency for brokering that agreement. We also, of course, took stock of the state of play in the Brexit negotiation. In my contribution today, I will address Covid-19, climate action, the multi-annual financial framework and recovery package, and Brexit. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will address security and external relations issues in his concluding remarks this afternoon.

As the House will be very aware, Covid-19 continues to pose a major challenge across Europe. In many member states, cases are continuing to rise and a number of countries have announced further restrictive measures this week. At our meeting, we took the opportunity to share information on the situation in our respective countries. It is fair to say that a number of leaders expressed serious concern as we approach the holiday season. While it is enormously heartening that vaccines are expected to come on stream in the weeks and months ahead, it remains essential, as I said earlier, that people continue to abide by public health recommendations and rules. There can be no letting down of our guard. This is the case across Europe, where winter holidays and other activities remain a cause of concern.

Our discussions also focused on the authorisation and roll-out of vaccines. We were encouraged by European Commission President von der Leyen’s presentation in this regard. We agreed to continue to co-ordinate on vaccines, including on vaccine certificates. The Commission’s work on vaccines is a clear example of the European Union responding to citizens' needs and supporting member states' efforts to combat the pandemic. The European Union will continue its efforts to contribute to the international response to the pandemic, including through the COVAX facility. We must continue to ensure that nobody is left behind. With a view to better managing future pandemics, we agreed that the European Union should promote ways to reinforce international co-operation, including through a possible international treaty on pandemics within the framework of the WHO.

It is clear that even when vaccinations are rolled out and restrictions ease, it will take considerable time for economies to recover across the European Union. The European Union budget and the recovery fund will help to drive this recovery, as well as supporting the green and digital transformations. The agreement we reached in our long meeting in July was historic. For the first time, we agreed to allow joint borrowing, given the scale of the challenge the pandemic presents. Following our agreement, the German Presidency engaged constructively with the European Parliament to secure its consent for what had been agreed.

These discussions reached a positive outcome in November. This was a significant achievement and at our meeting last week we expressed our appreciation to Chancellor Merkel.

Some member states, however, were concerned that the instrument to give effect to rule of law provisions departed from what had been agreed by leaders in July. Most member states, Ireland included, did not believe that this was the case. However, the conclusions that we adopted last week make clearer the circumstances in which the measures might be invoked and on that basis all member states were prepared to give the package, as finalised with the Parliament, their support. Ireland firmly supports the rule of law as a core value of the European Union and will support the objective, proportionate and effective implementation of the conditionality mechanism for the budget.

This agreement now enables the Council and the European Parliament to formally adopt the MFF and recovery package and the 2021 budget for the EU so that it can take effect at the start of next year. As well as ensuring crucial funding for Europe’s recovery from Covid, it also paves the way for the roll-out of important new programmes, such as PEACE PLUS, and the Brexit adjustment reserve.

We had long and difficult discussions on climate action that went through the night. It could have been a record that one meeting went on for 23 hours. However, I am pleased to be able to report that the European Council agreed to endorse a binding EU target of a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 of at least 55%, compared with 1990 levels.

This weekend marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, and I very much welcome the strengthening of the EU's existing 40% reduction target. At the meeting I conveyed Ireland's strong support for stepping up our ambition at EU level. It is a crucial step on our path to a climate-neutral EU by 2050. This enhanced EU target will be submitted to the UN by the end of the year. We also agreed to raise our climate ambition in a manner that will drive sustainable economic growth, create jobs, deliver health and environmental benefits for EU citizens, and contribute to the long-term global competitiveness of the EU economy.

What was agreed last week was an increase in ambition at EU level. The specific implications of this for each member state will be worked through next year, taking account of considerations of fairness and solidarity, and member states' specific national circumstances. Over the first half of 2021, the Commission will be bringing forward a suite of proposals in its "fit for 55" package. Some member states wished to see greater detail in last week's conclusions. Most, however, preferred to leave greater detail until the Commission has completed its work on impact assessment in particular. Our discussion was long and detailed, but I am pleased that it was possible to bring everyone on board and the EU will now notify this new target to the UN by the end of the year.

The European Commission has now been asked to assess how all economic sectors can best contribute to the achievement of this new level of ambition. By the middle of next year, the Commission will publish its package of proposals, which will be accompanied by an in-depth examination of the environmental, economic and social impact at member state level. Leaders will return again to this issue and adopt additional guidance in advance of the Commission bringing forward its proposals.

The summit began on the day following a dinner in Brussels between President von der Leyen and the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. On Friday morning President von der Leyen provided an update on the then state of play. At that point, the two sides remained far apart on the remaining open issues of level playing field, fisheries and dispute resolution, and had agreed that the negotiation teams should immediately reconvene to try to resolve these essential issues.

While the prospects for a deal were not strong, I recalled to other leaders the extent of what was at stake for Ireland, for the EU, as well as for the UK. I took the opportunity also to welcome the agreement in principle reached between the Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefcovic, and the UK Secretary of State, Michael Gove, on all issues related to the protocol. The two weeks which led up to that agreement illustrate what can be done when negotiating teams knuckle down with a commitment and a political will to get agreement. It is to their credit that they managed to iron out some of the genuinely difficult issues around the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol emanating from the withdrawal agreement.

I welcome that this week both negotiating teams continue to make every effort to bridge the remaining gaps, with a view to reaching a deal that will ensure fair competition and workable arrangements on fisheries. I hope that, with creativity and political will, it will be possible to get a deal across the line.

President von der Leyen confirmed that the Commission was proposing a set of targeted contingency measures which will ensure basic air and road connectivity in the event of no deal, as well as allowing for the possibility of reciprocal fishing access by EU and UK vessels to each other’s waters during 2021. This is a reminder yet again of the need for us all to prepare for the changes that 1 January will bring, even in the case of a deal. It is particularly important that this message of preparedness gets home to many of the small to medium-sized enterprises across the country, whether there is a deal or no deal. No deal would be much more severe on our economy but a deal on the future relations between the UK and the EU would still mean significant change and a significant burden of documentation, form-filling and customs declarations. Revenue has said we will go from 1.5 million to 20 million customs declarations per annum. This will have significant implications, including an impact on hauliers and on the need for capacity. Significant work has to be undertaken by all State agencies - there must be very good co-ordination across the agencies and there must be a team-based approach between Revenue and all the Departments, including those with responsibility for health and agriculture - to prepare for Brexit and its aftermath, particularly in the first week of January. It will be challenging and difficult. Every company that trades with or through Britain must be sure to double-check its compliance regime. Those involved must be sure that their customers and those they engage with, on both sides, are fully aware of the implications of Brexit generally. Preparation is absolutely essential.

On Friday, there was a meeting of the Eurosummit in inclusive format, that is to say, including all 27 EU leaders. We were briefed on economic developments by the president of the ECB, Christine Lagarde, and by our Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, in his capacity of president of the Eurogroup.

We welcomed the agreement reached in the Eurogroup on the reform of the European Stability Mechanism. This includes the backstop to the Single Resolution Fund which will now be introduced by the beginning of 2022. This is an important step towards strengthening economic and monetary union and banking union. I wish to pay warm tribute to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, for navigating and facilitating what is a very important agreement for banking stability into the future, from a Europe-wide perspective. The Eurogroup will now work to prepare a more detailed work plan on all outstanding elements needed to complete banking union. The president of the ECB outlined the Central Bank's approach to the continuing impact of Covid-19 on economies across Europe and the likely position going into 2021, and gave guidance to member states on our respective economic policies and frameworks.

Our discussions last week were not always easy. EU leaders expressed strong views, in particular on the MFF, on the recovery fund and on climate, but we kept talking and we found agreement. The negotiations on climate were particularly difficult. Differences of these kinds between EU partners are not a sign of weakness. Our strength lies in our ability to hold discussions, even when they are difficult, and to reach common ground from which we can move forward together. As a challenging year nears its close, I draw real encouragement from the progress we made last week. We have laid a solid foundation for strong co-operation in 2021.

I pay tribute to the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the President of the Council, Charles Michel, on their very constructive engagement with the Government and with this country and for being mindful of the issues we have across all the matters under discussion, particularly the Brexit situation, where they have shown very commendable interest and continued commitment. I look forward to the debate, after which the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will report on our discussions on security and external relations issues.

2:20 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Brady. It has been said many times in this House that we have reached crunch time or the endgame in Brexit negotiations. All of those moments were indeed critical and they were important junctures in Britain's Tory-induced withdrawal from the European Union. However, here we are, in the final days of 2020, on the final straight. While there has been a great deal of pessimism recently, it now seems there is a growing sense of optimism that a trade deal can, in fact, be done. We need a fair, workable deal and it is good that both sides have committed to keep talking.

I have always said that there is no such thing as a good Brexit. We in Sinn Féin said from the start that Ireland is uniquely exposed to the economic and political fallout from Brexit. For this reason, we argued the need for special arrangements for our country in any agreement reached between the EU and Britain. Early on, this perspective was met with some resistance by those in government, but I am happy to say that it gradually became the unified position of the Dáil. I have no doubt that this unified approach played a major part in ensuring that Ireland's position was understood and taken seriously. Special arrangements for Ireland are now encapsulated in the Irish protocol to the withdrawal agreement. Those protections were hard won and I am glad that a guarantee has been cemented as regards the implementation of the protocol.

However, it should also be said that the protocol is far from perfect. It represents the bare-minimum protections we need, namely, a commitment of no return to a hard border and protections for our all-island economy. It should also be pointed out that protections needed for Ireland go far beyond trade and economic concerns. The diminution of citizens' rights along with the preservation and, indeed, strengthening of all-Ireland co-operation are issues that will require further scrutiny as part of the work in upholding and defending the Good Friday Agreement. There is clear political agreement on the Irish protocol. However, the implementation of some measures contained within the protocol is dependent on the realisation of a wider trade agreement. There can be no switching off on behalf of the Government as the pressure now ratchets up.

Progress on the level playing field is welcome, particularly when it comes to protecting against divergence in standards into the future. We could not accept a trade deal that would see the North exposed to a low-wage, deregulated Tory economy. A final trade deal must also be good for the Irish fishing industry. Any loss to the catch will require a renegotiation of how the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, is applied to Irish waters. A no-deal Brexit would not be a good outcome for anybody, to put it mildly, including Britain. The chance of the ratification of an agreement by the end of this year has truly narrowed and the prospect of a no-deal interregnum in the new year is now very real. The fault here, let it be said, lies squarely with the Tory Government. Boris Johnson wasted months playing games with his Internal Market Bill instead of engaging in substantive, good-faith negotiations. Businesses are on tenterhooks wondering what they will face in January and how best they should prepare as they wait to find out. The very last thing that business and industry needed was another layer of confusion. Support and advice to businesses will have to be intensified over the coming weeks.

We have had four long years of Brexit talks laced with Tory Machiavellianism and disregard for Ireland. We must always remember that the British Government is dragging the people of the North out of the European Union against their democratic wishes. It is clear that the ultimate answer to Brexit is Irish unity and the removal of the problematic British Border on our island. It is absolutely essentially that the Government starts planning for orderly, peaceful and democratic constitutional change and for the reunification of Ireland. That conversation is now under way right across the island and beyond. Everyone who calls this island home needs to be part of that discussion. I know that a referendum on unity will happen in the not too distant future and I, for one, look forward to that moment when people will have their say.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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As a matter of record, my concerns and those of my party over the disparate allocations of resources from the EU Covid recovery fund are well established. With the dual challenges faced by our country through the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, Ireland merits consideration of a fairer allocation of funding than that envisaged at present. As things stand and as we are all aware, Ireland will contribute more to the fund than we will receive. When this is coupled with reports that the EU Brexit fund introduced to assist the worst-affected member states with the impact of Brexit is being coveted by EU leaders, ostensibly to compensate for the potential loss of fishing income in the event of a less than equitable deal on fishing but primarily as a means to influence domestic politics, we need to become much more assertive about our needs. The French President, Mr. Macron, stated on the fishing issue: "I'm not giving my piece of cake away." The Government needs to ensure we are not left waiting on the periphery once more, hoping to pick up the crumbs.

Notwithstanding concerns over the distribution of funds, I welcome the agreement between all EU member states on the EU budget and the multi-annual financial framework, albeit that this agreement was reached through the fudging of the need to deal with the serious concerns relating to the actions of the Hungarian and Polish Governments. In effect, whatever way we choose to proclaim it, the EU, as an institution, was held to ransom by the vetoes of both Hungary and Poland, both of whom are allies of Fine Gael in the European People's Party in the European Parliament. The failure to find the means to address this issue comes at an ongoing cost, namely, the continued erosion of the liberal values of the European Union by the Hungarian and Polish Parliaments. Just last Monday, the Hungarian family affairs Minister, Katalin Novák, posted a video on social media which claimed there is no need for a woman to have the same salary as a man. On Tuesday, the Hungarian Parliament approved a series of amendments to the Hungarian constitution that further erode the rights of the LGBT community there. We cannot allow the erosion of the liberal idea of Europe to be sacrificed for the sake of expediency.

I wish to make a few comments on the situation regarding Brexit. At this stage, until we learn otherwise, we must work with the proviso that we are facing into a no-deal Brexit. Warnings from Irish road haulage industry leaders indicate that the anticipated disruption and obstruction that will arise as a result of new customs and import controls at points of entry to Ireland in the aftermath of Brexit will have catastrophic consequences and will potentially bring the haulage industry to a standstill. Reports suggest we are facing into a period of unprecedented disruption for the movement of goods. Indeed, there have been calls for the immediate introduction of a single entity - a national traffic body - to provide the on-the-spot decision-making that will be required to deal with the potential chaos that may emerge.

With half of all goods leaving Dublin Port heading to Holyhead, reports of the lack of preparedness in Wales are very concerning. In the past week the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee has expressed huge concerns over the absolute lack of preparedness at Welsh ports. With barely two weeks to go until we reach the deadline, decisions are still awaited on the placement of inland border control facilities away from Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke. The British Government is sleepwalking towards the precipice of disaster and is dragging Ireland with it.

2:30 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I do not want to take up my time with mentioning this, but giving Opposition parties five minutes to respond undermines the commitments made after the Lisbon treaty to deal with European affairs in a much more structured way. I hope we can revisit that.

Normally we would now be talking about the detail of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and the EU's recovery and resilience facility. There is no doubt that we will have opportunities to do that in the future. In normal circumstances we would be talking at some length about the climate action agreements which were hard-won at the European Council. I welcome the new emissions reduction target of 55% and the commitment to a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. The Taoiseach was right in saying that consensus is often arrived at after 23 hours of discussion. However, that consensus often comes at the lowest common denominator. A reasonably ambitious target has been agreed in this instance. We will need to see the detail of how we can play our full part in achieving it.

As I said, these are the things we would normally be talking about but for the unique situation with Brexit. I want to spend my remaining three minutes dealing with that. In passing, I must comment on Deputy McDonald's claim that Sinn Féin's position on the unique situation of Ireland set the tone for everybody. That has been an absolutely unanimous view of all parties in this House from the beginning. I remember going to meetings with leaders of European socialist and social democratic parties to win people over to prioritising that above all else. This has been an achievement across all groupings. We can be very pleased with this.

This morning the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told the European Parliament that there is now a path to an agreement. We have found a way forward on most issues, but some remain. She particularly instanced fisheries as an unresolved issue. In all the stakeholder forums I have attended from the very beginning of this process it was the settled position that we would not leave fisheries to be the last item. We wanted to address it before the trade talks were concluded. It will be a failure if we allow that to happen, but it looks as though fisheries may be the final unresolved issue. I am not suggesting that the level playing field issues are entirely resolved, but a pathway to resolving those issues seems to have been found. Hopefully they can be worked out.

I am an optimist, and I have repeatedly said that I expect an outcome to be arrived at. Rational decision-making ultimately prevails. Most people who go into negotiations do so on the basis that their interlocutors will ultimately act on the basis of reason and rationality. However, we live in an era when rational decision-making cannot be depended upon. Even now we cannot be certain that the Johnson Government will support any final deal, however damaging and upsetting to the British economy the alternative will be. We must continue to plan.

In that context, I have said for more than two years that our first test on 1 January will concern our ports and our ability to export and import goods. The Taoiseach and the Minister of State will attest to that. I have been extremely critical of what I can only describe as the complacent attitude of the Department of Transport towards this matter. It has not been proactively looking for alternative direct links. These links have not been found because of proactive decision-making on the part of the Government or State agencies. The Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, testified before the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs this morning. Rather, it happened because commercial decisions were taken. It is almost in spite of State agencies and the Department that direct linkage will be significantly increased from January. I am not sure it will be enough.

We have seen some of the disruption that may arise. If fisheries is ultimately the sticking point and fishermen are excluded from their traditional fishing grounds, which are now claimed by the United Kingdom, I can see no way that there will not be disruption at French ports. We must be absolutely prepared for that eventuality.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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The talks on a free trade agreement between the EU and the UK continue. As we have heard, the President of the European Commission stated this morning that there is now a path to an agreement. The path may be very narrow but it is there, and it is therefore our responsibility to continue trying. The British Prime Minister also told the House of Commons this morning that he hopes the EU bloc will "see sense" and do a deal. We would say the same about him.

In the past few days all sorts of new issues have arisen. We have been told that the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, tried to tear up the rule-book and negotiate bilaterally with France and Germany. It was a good try, but that was something to which the EU was never going to agree. We were told that negotiations might not conclude before the end of this month, leaving everyone, including the European Parliament, in limbo for the first few weeks of January. We were told that 97% of the deal has been agreed and that the issues in dispute remain the same; the level playing field, fair competition, governance and fisheries.

Before dealing with these issues I wish to say a few words about the Northern Ireland protocol. As we know, agreement has been reached between Michael Gove, MP, and Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič on the implementation of this protocol. The offending clauses of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill 2019-21 have been withdrawn. As a result, Northern Ireland will effectively remain in the Single Market and customs union and EU rules will prevail as regards food and agricultural produce generally. In addition, Northern Ireland producers will have tariff-free and quota-free access to the EU market. This is good news for Northern Ireland producers and producers on this side of the Border. It certainly has implications for unionism and the future of the union itself, but that is a matter for another day to which I will return at a later stage. What has been achieved is a triumph of Irish diplomacy and should be acknowledged as such.

Regarding the level playing field and fair competition, the EU is right to insist on common high standards. Globally, the EU has been at the forefront of bringing about high social, employment and environmental standards, climate change measures, fair competition regarding state aid, various taxation initiatives and high consumer standards. A non-regression clause, whereby standards in existence in the UK as of 31 December 2020 remain in place, would be sensible. However, the EU will inevitably move on in these areas, and it will always be ambitious. A ratchet clause, whereby the EU could impose tariffs on UK goods if any increased standards are not met, would also make sense.

It is best, however, to leave those issues to the negotiators, and I wish them well in their endeavours.

As for fisheries, the British Government's decision to have Royal Navy gunboats on standby to protect UK fishing waters in the event of no deal is a little disturbing. It is a throwback to the middle of the last century, when the world was made up of nation states which were often in conflict with one another. Britain talks about sovereignty and taking back sovereignty but has failed to realise, or does not want to realise, that we now live in an interdependent world in which multilateral diplomacy prevails and nation states agree that pooling sovereignty is in their best interests. I note that Commission President von der Leyen said this morning that, in all honesty, it may not be possible to get agreement on the fisheries issue. That is something to be concerned about.

I am pleased that the German Council Presidency has brokered a deal to resolve the impasse in respect of the multi-annual financial framework and the €750 billion Covid recovery fund. Poland and Hungary have removed their threat to veto the deal. No doubt their antics will come back to haunt them at some stage in future negotiations. This deal must not result in any diminishing of the EU's resolve to deal with rule-of-law issues in these countries. Separately, I ask the Taoiseach and the Government to come forward with more information as to how Ireland will access the EU Covid recovery fund. Work is continuing in this area, and we need to receive details on this as soon as possible.

Like other speakers, I welcome the agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% before 2030.

The Government was wise to base budget 2021 on a no-deal Brexit. I note that a €5 billion support fund for sectors worst hit by Brexit has been established. Irish food and dairy exporters could certainly tap into this fund. I understand that the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is working on a package, having regard to the final outcome when it becomes available. We need to see the details of that as soon as possible.

Consumers also need to be aware of Brexit. It could lead to higher prices and difficulties with online shopping, delivery delays and the availability of products in our supermarkets. Consumers will have to be prepared for this, and every effort should be made to promote Irish and EU products in this context such that work in that regard can continue.

I noted what the Taoiseach had to say about Covid-19 vaccines, in particular the availability of these vaccines throughout the world, especially in poorer countries. EU leaders, I understand, also discussed the global efforts against the pandemic and restated that the EU will continue to contribute to the international response, including via a COVAX facility for guaranteeing affordable and fair access to vaccines for all. I think Irish people would agree with that, having regard to our philosophy of promoting human rights throughout the world, and I welcome the European Council's decision in that regard.

I also note that the Council spoke at its meeting about EU-US relations. The EU, I understand, looks forward to working together with the United States to reinforce the global fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, tackle climate change, enhance the economic recovery, co-operate on digital and technological matters, strengthen mutual trade, address trade disputes, reform the World Trade Organization and promote multilateralism as well as peace and security. That is certainly a change. We look forward to the incoming United States Presidency. When I say it is a change, I mean it is a change from the point of view of the United States. I look forward to developing all these concepts in the new world order, so to speak, as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take up office.

The Council has a long meeting, and a lot of issues were discussed, but there was generally an acceptable outcome to its deliberations.

2:40 pm

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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I wish to address the Taoiseach's comments on the necessity for everyone to do as much as they can to be prepared for 1 January in the context of Brexit. I fully agree that we face huge challenges in the agrifood sector and fisheries for exporters and importers and, if there is no deal, households, who could face increases to their bills of more than €1,000 per year. In the Government's comments to date there has been no comment as to how it would assist households in the case of a no-deal Brexit. Plans to assist businesses have been announced, which is welcome, but there have been no plans to assist households. It is in this context of preparations and readiness that it is remiss of the Government not to have carried out a form of national audit of Brexit readiness or preparations. This is being done in the UK, for example, and it has shown up huge and very concerning gaps in its preparations. Given the risks we face, I cannot understand why the Irish Government has not done this. Yes, there have been plans and the omnibus legislation, but there has not been an independent assessment as to where there may be gaps. We have seen in recent weeks that areas where we were given assurance that there would be no issues have now emerged as key concerns. We were told not to worry, that Irish trucks would be green-laned at French ports, and then we find out the French do not have the technical capabilities to do so. We have growing concerns being expressed by the Irish Road Haulage Association. The plans and the aspirations in our preparations are all well and good but they should be tested independently ahead of 1 January, before problems arise. That is very important. It is also regrettable that the Government has refused to facilitate questions and answers on Brexit readiness and preparations, which I have asked for, this week in the Dáil. Yes, there will be statements on this, but we do not need more statements. We need questions and answers so we can raise these matters directly and specifically and get answers to them.

As we approach the final hurdle in the Brexit negotiations, it is worth taking stock. There is probably one area where the UK Government has succeeded in its strategy. It had wished to run down the clock on these negotiations to get to this point, at which only a minimalist deal is possible. It has succeeded in running down the clock but has failed in its attempts to provoke rows over the internal market Bill and its stated attempts to breach international law. It has failed in its negotiating tactic to try to gain additional leverage through those tactics. It has failed in its attempts to divide and conquer and negotiate separately with different EU leaders. The EU leaders across the board, with one exception, have been steadfast in not engaging with Boris Johnson on this.

Fisheries is now left in the balance. This is not where the European Union negotiators wanted to be. We wanted fisheries to be agreed long before this point. It is worth remembering that while the EU wants access to UK waters for our fleet, the UK needs and wants tariff-free access to the European Union market to sell its fish. It will not be able to sell all the fish caught in UK waters, so there is the grounds for us holding firm and strong on that, and at this point I would urge that is done. Fish do not know borders, and as far as fish conservation and sustainability are concerned, it is very important a deal is struck in close co-operation.

I welcome the historic agreement relating to a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030. It is very important that we play a full role domestically in achieving that reduction.

The rule of law provisions which have been hard fought for by the European Parliament in particular are significant. They mark a shift in attitude by the European Union. There is a risk that the provisions are not strong enough and are, in fact, more of an anti-corruption tool than a rule of law measure. We could do with stronger sanctions in this area. We need to defend from attacks on press freedom, civil society and the LGBTI+ community anywhere in the world, but especially in the European Union. I am concerned that the comments of the Taoiseach on this issue have not been strong enough. I note and acknowledge the strong comments of the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, on the issue.

In conclusion, I note the significance of the milestone in terms of the EU getting to the point of collective EU debt issuance. It is very significant.

2:50 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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A quick look through the conclusions adopted by the European Council at its meeting on 10 and 11 December gives us a good overview of what is likely to dominate the domestic and European agenda in the coming six to 12 months, with one exception to which I will return. The five conclusion headings from the post-meeting communiqué were the multi-annual financial framework for 2021 to 2027 and the next generation EU recovery plan, Covid-19, climate action, security and external relations. The statement of the Taoiseach and the communiqué itself report progress on most of those headings. That, in itself, is positive news. I heard the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, speak in the same vein subsequent to the summit.

The communiqué notes that the Council paid well-deserved tributes to the former French President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who passed away on 2 December. It referred to him as a driving force behind the European project who played a key role in creating the European Council. It is a fitting tribute to a good European statesman and politician and one to which I think we should refer during this debate in a positive vein as well.

On item 1 relating to the finances of the EU, we should welcome the fact that the Council made progress on finalising the finances of the EU to 2027 and resolving the stand-off on a rule of law provision between Poland and Hungary on one side, and the rest of the European Union on the other. The progress made should not be taken as sufficient to address the real rule of law concerns held by many Deputies with regard to what is happening in Hungary and Poland when it comes to interference with freedom of the press or judicial independence. It is long past time for real political action on the issue. I believe the European People's Party must take effective measures with regard to the membership of its group and send out a clear message of its intent in this respect.

The European Council discussions around the development, purchase and EU-wide distribution of effective Covid-19 vaccines are critical, as is the plan to take forward proposals for an EU health union. The news yesterday that the European Medicines Agency, which is the EU agency responsible for the evaluation and supervision of medicines, has brought forward to a date before Christmas its meeting to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is very welcome. All Members are agreed that every single day counts. We work at full speed to authorise Covid-19 vaccines that are safe and effective and to get them distributed as effectively and efficiently as possible. President-elect Biden made the point very well that vaccines alone do not save lives; vaccinations and people do. We need to vaccinate as many people as humanly possible as speedily as possible.

This year, we saw the awesome power and force of nature, so I am very happy to see that EU leaders achieved a significant breakthrough in combating climate change by committing to a binding EU reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 55% by 2030. This is progress. Now comes the hard part of implementing it in a way that does not penalise those who have been doing most to protect the environment.

The conclusions of the Council on external relations, specifically with the eastern Mediterranean south neighbourhood, and those on security, particularly in strengthening the mandate of Europol and securing Europe-wide police and judicial co-operation, are important.

As I stated at the outset, I wish to briefly address one issue that did not appear in the meeting conclusions but clearly was a part of the background discussions to the meeting, namely, Brexit. The fact that Brexit is not part of the conclusions of the meeting is confirmation that, for most in Europe, Brexit is a regrettable fact of life. Contrary to the Tory spin, Europe is not trying to undermine Brexit but, rather, to mitigate its impacts. As I have commented many times previously in the House, Brexit is a lose-lose game. Both sides suffer in Brexit. The difference is that EU Governments recognise that fact now and are trying to ease its negative impact. We in Ireland know this better than anyone else, and the people of my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan and the other Border constituencies know it even better. The negative impact of Brexit is not some theoretical outworking we have yet to see. In my region, we have already seen it impact adversely, but we know, sadly, that worse is to come.

I have made the case previously in the House for mitigation measures and will do so again. The specifics of what we will require still depend on what emerges from the EU-Britain talks. What we know for sure is that we will need to have systems and mechanisms for the maximum levels of all-island co-operation no matter what is agreed between Michel Barnier and Mr. Frost.

The shared island unit and substantial funding are very welcome, but practical and tangible implementations are what matter. We need key projects such as the A5 upgrade and the Narrow Water Bridge to be advanced speedily. We also need greater co-operation across a range of areas such as health, transport, education, agriculture and IT infrastructure. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 facilitates co-operation in all of those areas and we wish to maximise the potential of that agreement.

I had discussions with An Taoiseach recently regarding progressing the Ulster Canal. I am very glad that he is clear in his commitment that funding will be provided under the shared island initiative, that it will be possible to progress the project quickly and that funding will be made available without delay. It is an all-Ireland project that was committed to. Some small-scale works have been carried out and I look forward to it being part of the great network of inland waterways we have throughout the island, North and South.

I urge the Taoiseach and the Government to move speedily to create opportunities for ministers, North and South, as well as, most importantly, officials from both parts of this island, to interact and meet regularly to look at the nuts and bolts of how we can ease the impact of Brexit across the Border regions. That is something we must do at parliamentary level as well.

I spoke previously to the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, who is present, both in discussions at our parliamentary party and privately, regarding the need to ensure that the EU cross-border healthcare directive is protected post Brexit. All Members have helped and know patients who have travelled to various health facilities or clinics in Northern Ireland to have procedures or treatments carried out. Deputies are aware that the EU healthcare directive will be available to Irish citizens in the 26 other EU countries post Brexit, but the reality is that more than 90% of people who currently avail of that healthcare directive source treatment or procedures, or both, in Northern Ireland or in Britain. We need to ensure the arrangements that are in place at present are continued after 1 January. I know people who have begun treatment or are awaiting dates to commence further or follow-up treatment. It is an extremely important part of our healthcare delivery to be able to access capacity in Northern Ireland. Similarly, we must ensure that citizens of Northern Ireland are not deprived of the opportunity to avail of healthcare facilities in the South when there is capacity.

I urge the Minister of State and his officials to ensure that the negotiations that have been ongoing for some time are brought to a successful conclusion in regard to the need to protect the cross-border healthcare directive.

3:00 pm

Rose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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Obviously, I welcome the progress made across the areas of the multi-annual financial framework, the Covid recovery and climate action. I also welcome the European Council's commitment to treating the vaccination as a global public good. There were positive steps recently at EU level in the conclusion of common advance purchase agreements to guarantee access for Ireland and other member states to the vaccines as they become available. As was said previously, it is not the vaccines that are important, but the vaccination. It is important that, alongside this, we ensure the poorer countries have vaccines as well. Many corporations should be commended on the work they have done so far on vaccines, but corporate interests cannot be allowed to be the determining factor in regard to who has access to vaccines and who does not. There must be increased transparency on pricing and costs.

The COVAX Facility is the international initiative which is intended to ensure that poorer countries have access to the vaccine. I sincerely welcome the EU's commitment to contribute to the international response to the pandemic, including via the COVAX Facility for guaranteeing affordable and fair access to vaccines for all. However, we need more than words. The COVAX Facility is currently €5 billion short of the funds it needs to procure its target number of vaccines for 2021. The window to act to ensure a fair approach to Covid vaccines is closing fast. The new seven-year budget was given the green light by the European Council. It will last until 2027. While the COVAX Facility needs €5 billion, the EU is moving ahead with the European defence fund, an €8 billion subsidy to the arms industry. It is a fund that is explicitly intended to increase EU arms sales and exports. I certainly believe that vaccines would be of far greater use. I welcome the European Medicines Agency, EMA, announcement that it should have approval for the vaccine before Christmas.

The Government must provide much greater clarity to the people about all aspects of the European budget and what it contains, as well as more information about what it will cost and what benefits we can expect. It is important to remember that the EU budget does not cover housing, education and social protection, which are the biggest spending areas in a national budget. I am concerned about the funding for the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, particularly rural development. The overall EU budget has been increased, but in real terms that of the Common Agricultural Policy has been reduced. This is alarming in view of the dire situation being experienced by family farms. It also comes at the same time we are asking farmers to do more for environmental protection. Looking at the various budget lines we have received, there are billions at the expense of the traditional programmes such as CAP and Cohesion. In addition, it is absolutely vital that we protect our fishing industry for the coastal communities.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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On a number of occasions in recent weeks and again with the Taoiseach today I have raised the issue of access to the vaccine on a global basis being critical to the effectiveness of the vaccine anywhere. If access is not provided to the vaccine for poorer countries, this potentially will create a massive hole in vaccine cover which will allow for mutations and potentially undermine the efficacy of the vaccine. We are literally all in this together. The report from Johns Hopkins University public health school today that up to a quarter of the world's population in the poorest countries may not have access to the vaccine until 2022 is a major cause of alarm. The report goes on to say that pricing issues are a problem. There are also different attitudes. While some are co-operating with poorer countries and with generic producers of vaccines in poorer countries, others are not. What will we do about it?

People Before Profit has tabled a motion in this regard but, unfortunately, we do not have Private Members' time, so it cannot be taken until the new year. However, we appeal to the Government to look at the motion on the Order Paper today. It calls on the Government to raise in Europe the need to support the proposals from India and South Africa that aspects of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, relating to intellectual property regarding the vaccines and vaccine technology would be waived so there is no profit inhibitor on the distribution of the technologies that are necessary to produce the vaccine quickly and so generic producers around the world would be able to produce it.

Indeed, we hears the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, saying there will be very low numbers of the vaccine here, that it will be perhaps by the end of the year and that the Government is not quite sure when it will have the rest of the population vaccinated, we start to worry even about this country. When will we get all these vaccines? There is massive pharmaceutical capacity in this country. Is there an issue with us having access to the technology, once it is available, and all the data? I ask the Government to support the proposals that have been brought forward, to vote accordingly at the WTO and to raise it in the European Union. All the normal mechanisms through which multinationals protect their profits, and are allowed to do so with laws on intellectual property, patents and so forth, should be waived. If we are serious about us all being in it together and trying to eliminate Covid-19, this is an absolute necessity. The Government must be very vocal and proactive in pursuing it.

I also wish to raise the issue of content moderators. It is somewhat Covid-related but has another dimension. I do not know if the Minister of State has read some of the articles in the Business Post, but I have been in contact with some of the people who work in this area, although not directly in the well-paid jobs in Instagram and Facebook. They work for CPL/Covalent and Accenture in badly paid jobs but do incredibly traumatic work. They have to moderate vile content such as suicide and self-harm promotion, terrorist activities, abusive posts, videos and so forth. In one report by Facebook, over a three-month period there were 1.3 million posts relating to the promotion of self-harm and suicide. Human beings have the job of trying to weed these things out, and many of them are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. They had to sue Facebook and so forth about it, and they did that successfully. Something must be done about this at European level to protect those workers and ensure they have proper counselling support.

I also discovered when I talked to these people that, during the level 5 restrictions, more than 1,000 of them were working in the office when they should have been working at home. I believe there were similar situations in East Wall. It must be asked why the infection rates did not go down low. It was because the level 5 injunction that if people could work from home, they should do so was not being enforced and respected in some of these big workplaces that have more than 1,000 people going into them. That must be investigated.

James O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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I congratulate Deputy Cathal Crowe on being nominated to the standing panel for the Ceann Comhairle.

I will use my time to highlight the historic trade deal that was achieved at last week's European Council meeting. The €1.8 trillion deal is a major vote of confidence to the world that the European Union is ready and able to tackle Covid-19 and to build back better after the pandemic.

The €390 billion being distributed in the form of grants raised by new EU debt mechanisms by the European Commission also highlights that the EU is taking a stand to help those countries most affected by the pandemic. The response to the pandemic must be stimulus-led and we must not be afraid to spend billions in order to save trillions. This is not a time to return to the austerity policies of the past that created enormous inequality and hardship for millions of people, including here in Ireland. That should be avoided at all costs. That is not to say that we should not be careful of how the money is spent.

As I indicated in the House previously in the debate prior to the European Council meeting, the need to uphold the rule of law is critical for the functioning of the European Union. We must also look at the protracted Brexit negotiations on a level playing field. I welcome this morning's news that there seems to be some degree of progress in that regard. That is incredibly important for every constituency right around the country. I think of the farmers in Cork East, as it is one of the most productive regions in the country for dairy products, and the devastating impact in the event of a crash-out Brexit. We must try to avoid that at all costs. I know the Minister is making great efforts in that specific area. It is a reminder that the functioning of the Single Market is based on the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, based on harmonised standards across the European Union. We cannot allow that to be weakened. Too many lives and livelihoods are at stake. Likewise, we cannot let countries such as Hungary and Poland flout the rules, as the implications of doing so are potentially dangerous. We must focus on those countries to ensure they are toeing the line and obeying the same rules as everybody else.

Investment in the long-term development of State airports is critically important. Under the Next Generation EU funding that will be made available, some must be ring-fenced for spending on long-term development and capital infrastructure. We should be looking at ways we can bolster international trade, not just within the European Union, but elsewhere. That is critically important.

Much progress has been made in recent days with our European counterparts on energy. I raised the matter with the Minister previously in the Dáil. We should also look at our airports, as they are very important in terms of Brexit-proofing the economy to the greatest extent possible. Cork Airport could potentially benefit from Next Generation EU money to fund ongoing projects at the airport. That is critically important. I encourage the Minister to highlight that to his colleagues.

From the point of view of vaccination research and antigen testing, one of the major crises facing the European Union in the coming months has just been raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett in terms of new outbreaks and mutations of the virus. We must have a degree of concentration on the matter and invest in antigen testing at European level. I urge the Minister to bring that message back. We in Ireland have a critical role to play in that fight as we are home to the European base of many of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies. Nine out of ten of the top ten companies in the world are located in Ireland. They are a significant part of the economy and society now, so we should be leading the battle to improve antigen testing to ensure that we can have accurate rapid testing in place in the event of more outbreaks of new strains of the virus in some European countries and in the United Kingdom recently, which is highly concerning. Perhaps that is a matter the Government could consider at a European level as well.

3:10 pm

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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At this point in any debate, most of the good points have already been made, so I will add my voice to everything that is commendable and obviously not to anything that I disagree with.

We all accept that the collective action by the European Union on vaccines has been very positive. We must ensure the roll-out of the vaccines. Several speakers referred to the difficulties there may be if we do not get a steady supply quickly enough in this State. There are difficulties in the sense that we have heard reports that poorer parts of the world will not receive the vaccines at the same time. Outside of the fact that this is utterly wrong and reprehensible, even from a purely selfish point of view, it is a bad idea. We must treat the pandemic on a global basis for it to be successful. That is straightforward.

On some level, it is welcome that the multi-annual financial framework is sorted, but there are concerns about the CAP, for example. A bye-ball may have been given on the rule of law, in particular as regards Hungary and Poland but if we are serious about the rule of law at a European level, we must look at the actions of the Spanish Government on Catalonian elected representatives. Its actions have been utterly reprehensible. If that is not a breach of the rule of law, I do not know what is.

Once again, we return to Brexit, the story that will not stop giving. We have reached the final hurdle. How many times have we been here before? We welcome the fact there have been moves and promises by what is not necessarily the most trustworthy British Government. That is saying something. The British Government will not now undermine the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol. That is a necessary mitigation. We have all heard today and in recent days about Brexit preparations. According to the National Audit Office the UK is an absolute basket case. The necessary preparations have not been done. We accept that will have a significant impact, in particular on Irish companies and others using the land bridge. We have also heard from the port companies, the Irish Road Haulage Association and numerous other groups. I add my voice to the fact that there is a need for an audit to be carried out. Eugene Drennan spoke today about the fact that he believes there has been insufficient collaboration between the stakeholders. He was referring to the hauliers, the port companies and the ferry companies and there are also the businesses that require these operations. We cannot ensure what type of Brexit will occur. It is going to be bad. We do not know how bad it is going to be, but we can introduce whatever mitigations are necessary to ensure we do not have chaos on this island.

Matt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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Two of the issues that faced the European Council in recent days must go down as seismic events in recent European history. I refer to Covid and Brexit. It is not unfair to say that the Union was already challenged with defending the impacts of Brexit before the body blow of Covid arrived. The Covid story is probably taking centre stage now, given the upheaval it has created both economically and socially for the bloc of 27 member states. All countries are in the pendulum swing of lockdown and feeling the economic and social effects.

That said, European integration has also proven itself by the joint collaborations on the development of vaccines which are under consideration by the European Medicines Agency. On approval, significant mobilisation of resources will be required to inoculate and protect the European population. Ireland will also have to engage in similar activity in lockstep to ensure that we defend against the virus until a level of herd immunity has been achieved and we can continue to remain that way. This will require vigilance and compliance, which will only prove possible if vaccine take-up is successful and European financial supports are of the significant order that is required. It appears that the Council is prepared to make significant versatile funding provisions and also to achieve agreement in order to implement a multi-annual budgetary and recovery fund, the outline of which was drawn up in July.

On the agenda also was an ambitious objective to achieve climate neutrality for the European Union by 2050. As part of this commitment there is an ambitious proposal to a reduction of at least 55% in carbon emissions by 2030. It gives credibility to Europe's leadership on climate as the Union marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris accord. As well as creating benchmarks for how the EU seeks to initiate climate reductions, this ambition will have a significant effect on Irish emissions and must surely herald the need for a whole-of-government approach to climate action and change.

We have heard much about the possible reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through taxation policy, innovations in housing retrofits, electrification in motorised transport and renewable energy developments, as well as moves away from fossil fuels in energy production. Although laudable, many would suggest that some of our climate ambition is not achievable in the timeframe committed to, without significant and radical social change. Our target for the penetration of electric cars, for instance, within the car fleet to 2030, has been shown to be overly optimistic considering the availability and cost of electric vehicles, allied with the infrastructural capital developments required to provide a feasible network of charging points around the country.

The move away from utilising turf in our electricity generation heralds a new lease of life for the Irish bog, but we must implement a just transition to ensure viable new work streams for those who must cease employment in that industry.

Brexit is a particular concern for Ireland, but it gets little mention in the post-European summit press briefings, and I presume this is because the work is ongoing. I hope the worsening unemployment figures announced in recent days in the UK as a result of Covid-19 will focus the attention of all parties in the UK to committing to a deal to minimise further economic harm to the UK bloc, and in that regard this Parliament resolutely supports such an outcome.

The relationship between Europe and the United States also appears to be a discussion point, and I hope Ireland can be a strong beneficiary of future White House policies in trade and immigration as well as in developing further our strong US trade links. President-elect Biden may have come along just at the right time to help provide a backstop to the Northern Irish protocol to Brexit and, I hope, to Covid-19 as we await vaccine deployment.

The news on a European banking union also appears to be positive, as it has been credited to contributing to financial stability and helping to maintain finance to economies seeing the impact of Covid-19. Financial instruments were also on the agenda with the banking union, and the question of progress in capital markets was under discussion. All this dialogue is a result both of our membership of the European Council and our dependence on EU funding to provide a lifeline to our economy given the significant deficit we are currently running. It is important we continue to be proactive Europeans and positively engaged with the European project, particularly given that the UK is gone in another direction.

A Minister in this House years ago suggested that Ireland is closer to Boston than Berlin, but that statement, if made today, would require some scrutiny. There is no doubt Ireland's future is now inextricably bound with Europe like never before, and our future economic prosperity will largely rest not only on our place in Europe but also how we adapt to the constraints of European federalist thinking.

This year, 2020, has indicated how vulnerable our country is to political, economic and social upheaval not of our making. That is now a fact and wishing otherwise will not make it so. Our only course of defensive action for the future as a small European player is to become the best pound-for-pound performer in the European Union. We must continue to invest, innovate and educate, and to execute microeconomic and social policies that continue to ensure Ireland remains a force to be reckoned with. Although small in stature, our representation within Europe must continue to exert influence over future EU thinking.

Issues similar to Covid-19 and Brexit will appear and disappear across the European horizon over the coming years. Our island's mission must be to ensure that when decisions are being taken, we have a place at the top table. To that end I commend the ongoing work of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Minister for Foreign Affairs and all other actors and State agents who continue to contribute positively to Ireland's future standing on the European stage.

3:20 pm

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to have the opportunity once again to contribute to post-European Council statements. I appreciate the Taoiseach's full debriefing and look forward to the Minister of State's concluding remarks.

I will touch on a couple of matters that have already been raised by other Deputies in this debate, and I was fortunate to have the time to sit in for a little longer than usual. Before speaking to any other matter, I note the most important result of this European Council meeting is the final agreement on the multi-annual financial framework and the funding it will provide over the next few years throughout the Union. Where we see real importance and power with this is in the Covid-19 recovery fund and the collective desire and will of the entire Union to see an equal recovery across it. It is so vital to every member state, and not just those which have seen the most impact by the Covid pandemic, and we are all in this together. We all have that shared responsibility.

The ability of the European Central Bank now to issue eurobonds is important to provide that level of solidarity among member states. A Covid recovery needs a collective approach, as other Deputies have mentioned, with a proper equitable roll-out of a vaccine from the five vaccines secured by the European Commission heretofore. I welcome the Government's vaccine roll-out plan, which was announced yesterday, and I look forward to seeing that being taken up on a European level.

An element of reality must be added to this debate. Many people got very excited a week or so ago when the UK launched its vaccine slightly prematurely. People thought it was the start of the process but the number of vaccines made available was in the tens of thousands as opposed to the tens of millions. We need to be realistic, fair and straight with people that all these vaccines are not going to come in the next fortnight or month. All of us have a personal responsibility in social distancing, mask wearing, limiting contacts and hand hygiene. Everything is so important, not just through the festive period but for many weeks and months to come.

The second aspect of this budget is also very important and it demonstrates the power and strength of acting as a Union of 27 member states rather than simply one member state, or even a small member state, as in the case of Ireland. This is the Green New Deal and the very ambitious targets that have been set by the Union. It is therefore important that this Government continues to work with European partners to pursue such matters. This might include the Celtic interconnector linking Ireland and France for the purposes of energy supply or drawing down resources from the European Investment Bank to have proper approaches to the green development of our economy.

Another aspect is difficult for us who are members of Fine Gael. Deputy Smith made reference to the European People's Party and the ongoing connection of the group to Fidesz. I want to be clear on the floor of the Dáil that although Fidesz is currently suspended from the European People's Party, it is my very strong feeling it should be expelled and that process should be expedited. When it comes to the rule of law, the actions of both the Hungarian and Polish Governments have been absolutely deplorable. I welcome the funding stream and compromise of the budget but I regret that the rule of law aspects of this budget are not strong enough.

In saying this I give credit to the Minister of State for his comments at the Institute of International and European Affairs LGBTI+ event this week. It is important to see Ireland standing at the top table of the EU when it comes to the rule of law and rights of women, the LGBTI+ community, minorities or anybody who comes in. We must truly believe in that Europe of equals and equal opportunities.

One aspect that has not really been referred to in much depth is the conclusions of the European Council on security and the commitment of the European Council to double down on the levels of police and judicial co-operation across the Union. That applies to areas such as data sharing and the sharing of information to deal with dissident terrorist groups. Unfortunately, we know much about them on this island. There is also the question of the fundamentalist terrorists who have been active across Europe, and we send solidarity to all member state colleagues who have been a victim of any terrorist atrocity.

There is also the question of organised crime. We will debate legislation later in the Dáil relating to money laundering and counterfeiting and how this is factored into the activities of so many organised crime groups across the Continent. Organised criminals simply do not recognise borders, which we have seen both in the form of money laundering and new approaches to using cryptocurrency.

Yesterday there was the conviction of a certain individual in the Irish courts for money laundering to fund ongoing drug cartel activity in this State. This activity is fuelled by narcotics, weapons, information and, crucially, funding from across the European Union. If we are absolutely serious about tackling organised crime and the high level criminals who are absolutely terrorising our streets, piling misery on so many households that are pumped full of drugs, weapons, extortion practices and violence, we need to see a level of European co-operation. We must ensure the level of co-operation on security in the EU as a whole, along with the United Kingdom, is maintained post Brexit.

The House of Commons intelligence and security committee still receives reports of a severe level of threat from dissident terrorism in Northern Ireland. We must also see the importance of cross-territorial communication and co-operation between police forces and security agencies in tackling organised crime.

I will devote approximately 90 seconds to Brexit and this is not much less than the level of discussion of the subject at the European Council meeting.

I believe it was ten minutes all-in over dinner. The Minister might be able to go into a bit more detail, not necessarily on the formal discussions but on the informal conversations that happened on the margins either between himself and his other ministerial colleagues, the Taoiseach or with officials, about the state of play in the Brexit negotiations.

I welcome the comments by President von der Leyen this morning in the European Parliament that there is a pathway, albeit a narrow one, to a Brexit deal. It behoves all of the actors in this process, both British and European, to dedicate all of their energy to securing a Brexit deal in the coming days. To be honest, any such deal will not be good for Ireland, the EU or the United Kingdom but it will limit the damage. A no-deal scenario is so unbearably awful for all actors that it is important that we secure a deal, even if it is a thin one. Having a trade deal with the UK is of vital importance to so many workers and businesses across this country. I look forward to contributing tomorrow evening to the discussion on Brexit preparedness. Even as we go into recess for Christmas, I hope that Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas are kept fully abreast of any new developments in the negotiations and hopefully a post-Brexit agreement.

3:30 pm

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I will begin with cross-Border initiatives. When I was elected to Dáil Éireann I was lucky enough to get involved in a group, along with Deputy Michael Collins, that helped me to transport people from Limerick to Belfast for cataract surgery. Today I heard the Taoiseach saying that he does not know if this will continue after Brexit. He could not give us a definite answer on that. I asked earlier this week about the management of our hospitals. If the proper structures were in place, we would not have to bring people to Northern Ireland for operations. There is no structure there. I have raised the issue of an audit of hospital management in University Hospital Limerick, UHL, which has the highest number of patients on trolleys. It is not the care provided in the hospital that is the problem, it is the management. There is no structure. We have all of the investment and top of the range equipment required but the management is wrong and needs to be fixed. The HSE made a statement about nurses being bullied who then left their jobs. This is an issue with management and structure.

The next issue I wish to raise is renewable energy which is being pushed down our throats. We are hearing nothing but electric cars here and electric cars there. How can we have electric vehicles in this country when we have no charging infrastructure? We do not have the infrastructure to build houses, including sewage systems and we have no charging infrastructure for electric vehicles in rural Ireland. All that the Government has done is raise taxes on fuel. Who uses the most fuel in this country? It is people from rural settings with no infrastructure. How does the Government look after us? It raises taxes on the people who have to use the most fuel. The people who use it the most are the same people who have no infrastructure. Where are the taxes spent? They are spent in areas where the Government wants to have more infrastructure, namely in cities like Dublin. The Government must give us back our money. It must invest in infrastructure in rural Ireland and rural Limerick and stop spending our money, raised by taxing us to death, elsewhere. It must give us infrastructure so we can have the same quality of life as others.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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It is a good time to be debating the European Council meeting, given that so much is dependent on a resolution to the Brexit negotiations. The Minister is well aware, given his own constituency, of the negative effects of Brexit on Irish agriculture. A recent report from the Central Bank indicates that beef and sheep farmers will be the most economically vulnerable and that up to one third of Irish farmers could be forced out of business.

I am also very worried about the negotiations on fishing rights in Europe at this time. I raised this matter last week with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I asked, in the context of the 18% figure referred to by Mr. Michel Barnier in his negotiations with the UK, where that percentage of the catch was coming from. They failed to give me an answer but it is quite clear that these fish will be coming from Irish waters. I asked the Taoiseach today why the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not involved in these negotiations and he told me that I cannot expect all 27 states to get involved but I certainly do expect the Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to be involved. Irish fish will be taken out of our waters, our seas will be attacked and our Taoiseach will stand idly by and allow that to happen. We stand to lose 18% of our fish or possibly more. God only knows what is on the table right now but we have no Minister at the table. The other member states are not offering their fish. The French, Spanish and others are fishing in our waters because they have no fish in their own waters. They are taking our fish and now we are handing more over. We have done this for decades without any consideration of Irish fishermen. I called for a minister for fisheries during the negotiations to form a Government but that call was rejected and we are going to pay a heavy price in this country for that.

Finally, I wish to speak about the EU cross-border directive which was also raised by Deputies O'Donoghue and Brendan Smith. The cross-Border healthcare initiative is excellent. Obviously the ideal cure for all of these things is in our own jurisdiction but that is not happening. The Taoiseach said earlier today that approximately 7,000 people crossed the Border for healthcare. We need a seamless transition vis-à-visthat scheme. We cannot have a situation where there is a different wording and people are left waiting for longer. People are suffering; they are going blind and are living in pain. We need the cross-border directive to continue to function. I accept that it is an EU directive but we need a new initiative to be put in place so that people from the Republic of Ireland can go to the North and have procedures carried out to save their eyesight. That must continue and I ask the Minister to clarify the matter. Some Fine Gael politicians have said that it is sorted and that we are wasting our time jumping up and down about it. Other Ministers are saying that it is not sorted and I respect what they are saying. I do not think it is sorted but it might be sorted in the days ahead. I would appreciate a comment from the Minister on that.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I have been reviewing the conclusions of the European Council meeting which seems to have covered a lot of topics. What strikes me about how the conclusions are presented is the unnecessary language used. Do the European Council, the European Commission and other EU bodies ever produce materials in accessible format? We hear about civic engagement and involving citizens in our democracies, yet reports are produced in a way that prevents people from understanding what is going on. If these reports were written in plain English and plain languages, it would make a lot of sense. Our legislative and policy processes can exclude people and make it seem that local, national and European issues are not matters for them. I know that parliamentary language must be used but there should also be concurrent, accessible information for people who are interested.

The Council dealt with Covid-19, climate change, security and external relations. Section 2 in the conclusions relates to Covid-19 and the advance purchase agreements. The Council has invited the Commission to present a proposal on rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of test results. It is welcome that the Council is looking for a co-ordinated approach around vaccination certificates and common frameworks. It makes sense to work together on this if we want to re-open cross-border tourism which is vitally important.

Section 3 on climate change talks about delivering in the most cost-effective manner possible. Earlier this morning, I spoke about the €50 million that the Irish Government is spending on statistical transfers of renewable energy for missing our own targets. Our climate change actions will not be cost-effective for us if we keep missing our binding targets. The Commission has also been asked to bring forward a proposal on a possible EU green bond standard and to look at ways to strengthen the EU's emissions trading system.

Section 4 deals with security. Points 25 and 26 of this section reference the importance of preventing radicalisation online. There are calls for illegal online content to be addressed, as well as the dissemination of terrorist content online. The Council called for support for initiatives to understand better the spread of extremist ideologies. This is a very important issue and is connected to the measures that will be taken around Covid-19 and vaccinating the population. The rise of conspiracy theories as well as anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests across Europe have links with the far right and must be addressed. However, I do not think the far right is the intended target here and I ask the Minister to tell us what is the target.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Much has been made of rule of law breaches and potential sanctions for Hungary and Poland.

These breaches of the rule of law were brought about through two primary methods. One was to circumvent and hollow out democratic debate. Parliamentary majorities were used to ensure that debate was stymied and that issues were not properly debated. The second method was to appoint cronies as judges. On the first point, I will return to the issue that 55 minutes was given to this Parliament to debate the ratification of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA. That has now been pulled to spare the blushes of the Green Party. I hope we will have a proper debate next time and the Green Party will not sell out its principles for another cycle path somewhere. Cycle paths are important but some elements of CETA are deeply problematic. Yesterday, I heard the Taoiseach babbling about Seán Lemass, a man I greatly admire. I use the word "babbling" because he equated Seán Lemass's favouring of multilateralism with what is happening with CETA. CETA is not about the pooling of sovereignty between member states but about the dilution of state sovereignty by corporate power, particularly through the investment court system envisaged in the agreement.

I also oppose CETA because it envisages the importation of beef from Canada into the European Union. Canada, of course, does not outlaw the hormone treatment of cattle. While it is clear under the agreement that beef imported must be hormone-free, how does one ascertain whether hormones were administered to 30-month-old steers when they were calves of just a couple of weeks old? It is simply not possible.

The Mercosur agreement must also be dealt with. We have seen leaks from EU diplomats to the effect that we need assurances from South American states, and Brazil in particular, that the price of producing cheap beef will not be the destruction of Amazonian jungle or rainforest, because that is what is happening. As we risk losing some of our market in Britain as it gains the ability to conclude free trade agreements with other countries, there will be pressure on our beef sector. I am certainly opposed to the import of beef from South America or Canada into Europe at this time because it will put further pressure on European farmers, and Irish farmers in particular.

3:40 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I am not entirely clear on the format, but I am happy to make some remarks.

Cathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I am briefed that there is to be a five-minute statement from the Government before 20 minutes of questions and answers on a rotational basis. We may even get around to a second round of questions. There will also be a final concluding statement from the Government at the very end.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Okay, I will leave my concluding statement until then. In the past, I have just answered questions as they arose, which I will do for the next five minutes. I will then be happy to take questions.

I will go through some of the points that have been raised. If I heard her correctly, Deputy McDonald spoke about the protocol's full implementation or operation being dependent on a wider free trade agreement. I want to be clear that the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement was designed to be an evergreen solution which would operate with or without a trade deal. It would clearly be less complex with a trade deal, but it will operate regardless. I compliment the work of the EU and British negotiators in making sure that protocol will be fully implemented.

Deputy Brady raised a number of issues. The Welsh border situation and general preparedness in Britain are of great concern to us. Traders are telling us that they are not convinced that their counterparts in Great Britain are fully prepared. There is not a whole lot we can do about that from this side other than to keep talking about it and to make our voices heard as strongly as possible. We are trying to do the best we can within our own system. There is a lot of talk about green lanes and green lights. There may not be a physical green lane in France, but there should be a green light system on an app with regard to customs checks for goods coming through the land bridge. Trucks coming to Ireland through Holyhead about which customs officials have no concerns will effectively get a green light on an app telling the drivers that they do not have to go through customs when they arrive at Dublin or Rosslare. There are high-tech solutions on this side to make sure this will be as seamless as possible. If customs officials have concerns about trucks or want to investigate particular shipments, the drivers will get a red light and will have to go to the relevant facility. There are ways to follow that up. The system is designed to make matters as seamless as possible on this side.

I do not know what the situation is in Britain other than what we and our diplomats are hearing and what is being announced publicly. We are working very closely with the French to ensure that issues on that side with regard to goods leaving Ireland destined for the European Union can be cleared. I have met a number of significant traders in this country who have told me they are abandoning the land bridge entirely and are moving towards direct ferries. I listened very carefully to what Deputy Howlin said and there certainly is a lot of demand for the many new direct services that are operating.

Deputy Haughey raised the issue of the rule of law, as did Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, Deputy Richmond and, I am sure, many others. It is a really important issue. It should be noted that this is the first time that EU funding has been conditional on respect for the rule of law. That is in place. It is not perfect but it is as agreed at the European Council and at the European Parliament. We have not rolled back on that. It is happening and, in my opinion, it is very welcome. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan was concerned that it may have been more about fighting corruption but corruption is one of the big problems in some of these countries. Issues regarding the rule of law allow for corruption. We need to look at the issue very carefully.

On the cross-border healthcare directive, I will defer to what the Taoiseach said. It raises extremely complex issues. It is correct to say that they have not been resolved yet. Britain has decided to leave the European Union and that presents a problem regarding access to that particular scheme. There will be no difficulties with what is called cross-border healthcare. If one is in Britain or the North and has an emergency, one will be able to use the hospitals there. That will not be an issue. As things stand, one will not be able to arrange the type of treatments we currently arrange, but the Taoiseach is personally committed to overcoming the very genuine difficulties that exist in that regard.

I heard what Deputy Boyd Barrett said about content moderators. I will take that issue up with the Minister because I have serious concerns in that regard having read those particular articles.

With regard to antigen testing, the Commission has published fantastic documents on what is happening on a co-ordinated basis. Some Members will have read these. Antigen testing is very useful but it is not the panacea some present it as.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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It is not being used here at all.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I am saying that it is not a panacea. I am not a doctor or a scientist but I understand that antigen testing can be very useful for screening, but it is not a replacement for PCR testing. I do not believe anyone thinks it is.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I agree, let us have screening.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I have one final point to make before I finish with this particular part of the debate. Deputy Pringle raised issues of plain English. It is something in which I am very interested. The classic example of bad English for me is the name CETA for the Canada-EU trade agreement. I would love to know who conceived of that particular title for the agreement because it makes the issue confusing and scary. When 27 member states, the vast majority of whose representatives are not native English speakers, are trying to negotiate wording and unanimously agree on something, as they did on climate change, throughout the night, the results may end up being a little bit complex to read. It is the result of a multilingual democratic process. Perhaps it is something that could be looked at.

Cathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The agenda now allows for 20 minutes of questions and answers. It is proposed that 20 minutes will be put on the clock and we will proceed to rotate through the parties and groups of Independent Members. I ask people to be concise. I know the Minister of State has already answered some questions but we will try to get through some more. We will have one speaker per group and then, if time allows, we will go back around. Does anyone wish to put a question on behalf of Sinn Féin?

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister for Foreign Affairs is on the record as saying that Ireland will do well from the Brexit adjustment fund. I believe the Minister of State has also said that he expects us to get the lion's share of this €5 billion. I know that the French, under President Macron, have their eyes on this fund. They expect to use it to look after their fishermen.

What actions is the Government taking to ensure we get a just amount given the serious impact Brexit will have on economic sectors across the board?

3:50 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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That point was raised during the debate and I did not get to everything, so I am glad to have this opportunity. The Brexit adjustment reserve is part of the overall budgetary proposals for the next seven years and the recovery fund. Progress on it was to some extent held up because of the situation pertaining to Hungary and Poland which put a veto on an own-resources position until that was resolved last week. That issue was resolved, and the European budget process could then move forward, including the Brexit adjustment reserve. Progress was stalled on that, but it is now back in action.

I give full credit to the Taoiseach and his then Belgian counterpart, the former Prime Minister of Belgium, Sophie Wilmès. Interestingly she is only a couple of years older than I am and she was in intensive care for a couple of weeks with Covid-19, which is a salutary lesson as to how devastating that disease is. I am delighted to see her back in action; she is now deputy prime minister. She worked with the Taoiseach during the summer to ensure the Brexit adjustment was in the conclusions. Belgium and to a much greater extent Ireland are the two countries most affected by Brexit.

The Brexit adjustment reserve states that the €5 billion is to be shared out among the member states and sectors most adversely affected by Brexit. Despite the Hungarian and Polish veto situation, which is now over, our officials have been in contact with our counterparts and have discussed it. The Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, have been in touch with Commissioner Hahn, and the Taoiseach has been in touch with the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, expressing our concerns. We need the fund to be flexible and available quickly. We need to be able to react to help the sectors affected in the new year. Those are our concerns and our officials have been working very hard on this.

I had understood the Commission would publish a proposal within days, but that is not the official note I have so I will not state that definitively on the record. I certainly understood it was to happen very quickly once the budget was resolved last week. Much of the background work has been done and we will decide how that gets spent once the allocation key is announced. That is in addition to what the Government has allocated in the budget, which was based on a no-deal scenario and in addition to other funding coming from the European Union in the coming years. Clearly, we are hoping for a trade deal - we make no bones about that - to minimise the impact of Brexit.

Cathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The Labour Party, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit and the Regional Independent Group do not seem to have representatives in the House. I call Deputy Pringle from the Independent Group.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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The Minister of State mentioned the Brexit adjustment reserve. It has been widely reported that the French are looking to use that reserve to offset losses in the fishing industry. Does that mean that fishing has been sold out and gone as a result of Brexit? Ultimately, we will go along with what the French decide because I imagine we will not fight for the fishing industry.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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One of the reasons fishing is such a difficult issue to resolve is because the British place a higher priority on it. They see these as their seas and when they leave the European Union as they see it, they will keep all their seas. That is what some of the hard Brexiteers see. They may not understand the other side - that they need to export their fish.

It is taking so long because the Irish and French positions on the issue of fish have been unified. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue and the rest of the Government, including the Taoiseach, have taken a very strong line with Michel Barnier to ensure that our fishers, small and large but particularly small fishers, and those fishing communities are protected from the impact of Brexit. We have been at one with, not just our colleagues in France, but also with our colleagues from Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. Germany is also in that mix on the North Sea. We stand together and work together. There is an informal group for which fishing is a big issue.

Clearly it is an enormous issue for us, which is why it is at the top of the agenda here. Negotiations are taking place to ensure our fishers and our fishing industry do not suffer unfairly because of Brexit. That was a big risk at the outset when Britain decided to leave. Simply because we fish in much of its waters, we want to be as fair as possible. This is so difficult precisely because those communities and people who depend on fishing for their livelihoods deserve and need protection.

British fishers and British fishing communities do not just need access to the seas, specifically the North Sea; they need markets in which to export their fish. The British do not eat most of the shellfish, in particular, that they catch; it is sold into European markets. I hope that is in their minds. That European market is just as important for fish as the British market is for cars.

I wish the negotiators well. In know that Michel Barnier is fully apprised of the situation with Irish fishing communities as he is of French fishing communities. I discuss these issues with my French colleagues regularly and we have full solidarity with fishing communities. I look forward to a positive resolution to this, but it is a difficult issue. Deputy Howlin expressed the situation with fish very bluntly a few weeks ago. Let us see what the negotiations come back with.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I deeply appreciate the opportunity to come in with a few questions. I return to the point I made in my earlier remarks about keeping the Houses apprised of any developments, deal or no deal in the coming days when it comes to future relationship negotiations between the EU and the UK. How will that be communicated, bearing in mind that we rise for the Christmas late tomorrow night? Of course, we hope we will be learning details of a deal in due course. We understand it is very much in the balance and we should not jump to conclusions. Are there plans to convene a European Council meeting and how quickly could that happen? Would it need to meet in person or would meeting virtually suffice?

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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The Acting Chair made the point that some people were not here. To be fair to them, this is officially the format and was always the format when we sat in Leinster House, but we have not really stuck to that since we came to the convention centre for various reasons. I find no fault in anyone who is not here to ask questions. It could well be a better system, allowing more people to ask questions, but that is up to the Dáil to decide. I am only here to do what I am told to do.

Deputy Richmond made a good point about the communication strategy. Officials are working very hard on planning that. I hope we will have a trade agreement and it may run to 1,000 pages, which will need to be translated into all our languages, including the Irish language. We do not yet have any of the text of that trade agreement, formally or informally. For negotiating purposes, it has not been published. We know the big issues and the ones that are most intractable - the level playing field, fishing and governance. However, there are many other items in that agreement, including security, police and judicial co-operation, which is not discussed but is probably critical to our friends in Britain; we will see. Considerable planning is required, including planning my schedule and that of the officials particularly in the Department of Foreign Affairs and other Departments to ensure that details are made available if an agreement is reached. It will, of course, be published and available, but clearly people will want briefing notes and summaries of its contents.

Most preparations that have been made for, and advice given about Brexit by the Irish Government, apply deal or no deal. I appeared on "The Week in Politics" on Sunday. Customs facilities have been built outside the port at Rosslare and in Dublin Port. They apply, whether a deal is reached or not. Companies will need to comply with extra bureaucratic hassle, deal or no deal. Issues such as chilled prepared meats coming in from Britain will be affected, deal or no deal. There will be many issues like that.

That is all available on the Government website now, and businesses which might be affected need to read that information, if they have not already done so, because a deal will not affect it in any material way. Those businesses also need to contact their British counterparts and ask them if they are also ready, in the context of Irish businesses wanting to continue trading with them. Hopefully, there will be no tariffs, but Irish businesses will need to ask if the paperwork and supply lines of their British counterparts are in order. Just yesterday, somewhat tragically, the makers of Hornby train sets, a well-known British company, whose train sets many of us might have had, stated that it will not be delivering orders outside of Britain before it sees how things are in the middle of January. That is really an indictment of the preparations at a national level in the UK. We must ensure that we are as best prepared as we can be, but all the information is available on the Government website.

Turning to ratification, there are many different views and much speculation regarding this issue. We should probably wait until the agreement is published and we see the proposals that come from the negotiators. Clearly, we are clearly running out of time. It was not envisaged, I think, that the agreement would go to national parliaments, although at some point, undoubtedly, I imagine the Government will seek a motion in the Dáil on any trade agreement, even if that is not required. The European Council will not have to meet physically. Agreeing to any proposals can simply be done by written procedure or videoconference. The European Parliament, however, will have to approve any deal. If an agreement is reached, however, we think it is in everybody's interest that we do whatever is practicably possible in the most flexible manner to ensure there are no gaps or lacunae, and that it is implemented immediately on 1 January.

4:00 pm

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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In the meeting of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs earlier, we dealt with Mr. Liam Lacey of the Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO. He seemed very relaxed in respect of Brexit. When asked a question regarding Calais and difficulties with IT systems, however, one thing he said was that there had been some element of communication between the IMDO and the port of Calais. Some of the difficulties indicated in the media in the past two weeks were not foreseen nor was how they will be sorted out. I would like confirmation on that matter, if the Minister of State has any information in that regard.

The other thing Mr. Lacey said was that market forces would sort everything out regarding Brexit preparations. That was in stark contrast to several speakers at the transport committee, especially Mr. Eugene Drennan, who represents the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA. He stated straight out that he believed there had been an insufficient number of meetings between the stakeholders. Perhaps there is a necessity at State level to make that happen and to ensure that the ferry companies are talking to the ports companies and hauliers, and that they are all talking to those business sectors which sometimes require just-in-time delivery and other alternatives.

Traffic has been highlighted as a major difficulty which will affect the ports, particularly three or four ferries arriving at the same time. They come in at the same time because businesses want their goods to land at particular times. It was accepted an adjustment was needed, but I am afraid of just leaving it to the market and a disaster occurring on 1 January. I state that in the context of accepting that we do not know what kind of Brexit there is going to be, other than that there is going to be major change. Is there anything we can do to mitigate that situation at this stage and could the State involve itself in doing any of that?

The question I have concerns the multi-annual financial framework, MFF. At one stage, there was talk about the connection with rule of law issues, particularly regarding Poland and Hungary, and I believe further issues should be involved in that regard. I think Angela Merkel said at a COSAC meeting that there was a difficulty in respect of European directives. Is that a matter at which we can look in the future? I ask that because obviously the European Union is like everything else, in that leverage is needed to deal with what is basically political wrongdoing on a major level in respect of something which is utterly unacceptable to the ethos of the European Union.

I welcome what the Minister of State said regarding fisheries. Mentioning France again, there was a fear in recent weeks that the French, and President Macron in particular, were talking about the need for the French to have a great deal of the Brexit adjustment fund. Has there been much discussion in that regard and do we have any clarity on that aspect? In that context, we have always said that no one is going to suffer, for want of a better term, more than us from a bad Brexit.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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On the matter of the Brexit adjustment reserve, I said what I have said. We have been working closely with the European Commission to express our concerns about Brexit, which are well known. The fund was devised by Ireland and Belgium, although I am certain we will not be the only countries to avail of it. I think, however, that we should be pretty satisfied when the proposal comes through but that will be in addition to provision we have made ourselves.

Regarding traffic at Dublin Port, there is a contingency traffic management plan, and there have been some references in the media in that regard. I will, however, get a copy sent out to the Deputies. The plan involves the various stakeholders coming together. Clearly, though, there can be difficulties sometimes when it is a matter of dealing with private limited companies, as they are not public companies. A great deal of work has been done, however, and we are hoping these types of contingency measures will not be needed to the extent we have been talking about. They must be created, however.

Part of this context is that a great deal of the customs checks which will be done will be paper-based. When I say paper-based, I mean online. Documentary is a better term, I suppose. It will only be necessary in a minority of cases for officials to check products. In the vast majority of cases, the lorry drivers will get a green light on the app and will just drive out of the port without doing anything, because the proper checks will already have been done. If there are concerns, however, and Revenue, the Department of Health and-or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have reason to check particular shipments, they will do that and the lorry driver will get a red light.

For anybody listening, regarding shipping capacity, the new services which have started to offer direct links to the Continent are doing really well and have a high level of reservations. For any shipping companies thinking of starting new services between Ireland and the Continent, those new services have been really successful so far and have a large number of bookings. We strongly encourage people in that industry to look at this possibility. As I said earlier, I met some significant traders in this country who are completely abandoning the land bridge. Despite the direct service to Dunkirk, for example, in theory being significantly longer, the certainty and the lack of bureaucracy and traffic that route offers certainly means a great deal to traders. Anyone who has driven across the land bridge, perhaps returning from a vacation, will know it is possible to be stuck in traffic on some of the roads through Britain. More and more traders, therefore, will now look favourably on the new routes.

Turning to the issue of the rule of law, there should be a debate on this issue in the Dáil. I said that previously, and I will try to arrange it because we need to have a strong voice in all these issues. Generally speaking, however, the adoption of the rule of law mechanism has been welcomed as a step forward in enhancing and encouraging the rule of law across Europe. We all have our part to play and it is not just going to be on this matter as there are many different mechanisms.

Cathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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One final speaker is indicating. I call Deputy Pringle.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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In his statement, the Taoiseach welcomed the intention to move to a target of 55% for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2030, an increase from the 40% target we have now. From an earlier debate, we are aware that we are relying on Denmark and Estonia to bail us out in that regard. What discussions happened on the sides of the European Council meeting, if any, with representatives from Denmark and Estonia to see if they will bail us out again in future?

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I will come back to the Deputy on the exact point raised, but the climate debate the leaders had took place throughout the night. There were many side discussions, mainly involving the Taoiseach, to be fair, because it was a meeting of leaders. The meeting continued throughout the night to try to reach an agreement on this issue. Again, nothing is ever perfect when 27 member states are around the table, but it is a hugely significant step forward. I look forward to the European Union working together. From these conclusions, the Commission will then publish its plans during the year.

Those will marry very much with what we are doing on climate change. Despite what Deputy O'Donoghue said about renewable energy being forced on all of us, it is absolutely necessary that we adopt it because we do not want force dirty smoke on people. The key aspect is that there is a transition, and some people will be adversely affected by that transition and they need help. That is the message from this Government and the European Union, and it is one of the issues which I talk about with my colleagues.

That is a key focus not just of the climate change policy, but of budgetary policy as well.

4:10 pm

Cathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State has already made a brief statement and answered a lot of questions but the agenda allows for a five-minute closing statement if he wishes to make one.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I do. It is important that I read the script. It deals with issues that the Taoiseach promised I would raise and it is important the Dáil be apprised of them. I thank everybody for their participation in the debate.

On 8 December, I participated in a meeting of European affairs ministers online, where we prepared the agenda for the European Council of leaders. Unfortunately, it is not possible to have side discussions when a meeting is held online. We had a good discussions on Covid, the MFF recovery package and climate. We were briefed by Michel Barnier and Maroš Šefčovič on the state of play of the negotiations with the UK, the trade agreement, the future relationship agreement and the withdrawal agreement as well. The Taoiseach reported on these items in his opening remarks this afternoon and I have replied to a number of follow-up questions on those issues too. These are the most exciting issues with which Europe is dealing now in terms of the difference it can make for people in regard to the serious problems they face, including the Covid life and death situation, the MFF, which is about the life and death for our economy, and climate life and death issues. The European Union is coming together, which is a complicated process in that there are 27 member states involved, to get real answers and solutions for our citizens across the Continent.

In addition, I met other European Union affairs ministers and we discussed security, the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. We also discussed relations with the so-called southern neighbourhood, which is the countries bordering the southern and eastern edge of the Mediterranean, relations with Turkey and EU-US relations as well. All of these issues were then subsequently on the agenda of EU leaders, which included the Taoiseach, when they met in the European Council last Thursday, throughout the night until about 11 o'clock on Friday morning. EU leaders reiterated their condemnation of recent terrorist attacks in France and Austria and welcomed the presentation by the Commission of a new EU agenda for counter-terrorism.

Among the issues discussed was the need to tackle the dissemination of terrorist content online. Ireland agrees there is a pressing need to advance work on this issue. We strongly support efforts to progress this matter. I heard what Deputy Boyd Barrett said about the workers who have to deal with this type of content and I take on board his point. The leaders also discussed how to facilitate closer co-operation between law enforcement and judicial authorities, both online and offline.

On the southern partnership, EU leaders agreed in October to discuss relations with the southern neighbourhood. In the time ahead, the Commission and High Representative Borrell will make proposals for a renewed partnership on Libya. The European Council recalled the offer to support the Libyan coastguard through training and monitoring, as well as the provision of equipment and vessels in accordance with international law.

In regard to Turkey, before the next European Council in March 2021 High Representative Borrell and the Commission will compile a report on the situation in the eastern Mediterranean and EU-Turkey relations. They will present options on how to proceed, including the possible extension of restrictive measures. I welcome that High Representative Borrell will also forward a proposal for a multilateral conference on the eastern Mediterranean and I welcome the commentary of the incoming US Government around its commitment to multilateralism, in which Ireland has always been very proud to be involved. We want to see the development of a more stable and constructive relationship with Turkey, but for this to occur, Turkey needs to actively engage in finding solutions to current tensions, in addition to refraining from negative and provocative actions for a sustained period. Ireland stands firmly with Greece and Cyprus and what they have to suffer at this time.

On EU-US relations, the leaders took the opportunity of their first meeting in person since the presidential election in the United States to consider relations with the US. Ireland hopes to play an important role. The European Council highlighted the importance of a strong strategic transatlantic partnership in light of the need to tackle pressing global challenges. The Taoiseach has noted the opportunity to reset relations with the US and to work closely with President-elect Biden, who shares the EU's commitment to multilateralism. Ireland will play its part in making the connections and building that partnership between the EU and the incoming Biden Administration.

In addition to the issues I have already mentioned, EU leaders emphasised the importance of ensuring the safety of the Belarusian nuclear power plant at Astravets. The Commission will investigate possible measures to prevent commercial electricity imports from nuclear facilities in third countries if they do not meet EU safety standards. EU leaders welcomed the adoption by foreign ministers earlier last week of an EU global human rights sanctions regime. They also agreed that sanctions on Russia should be rolled over on 31 January.

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí go léir as ceisteanna tábhachtacha a chur orm agus tá súil agam go raibh mé in ann na freagraí cuí a thabhairt ar ais dóibh. Leathnóidh an Taoiseach ar aghaidh ag tabhairt tuarascála ón gComhairle Eorpach roimh agus i ndiaidh na gcruinnithe. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go bhfuil an freagracht dhaonlathach ansin maidir leis an gComhairle Eorpach agus go bhfuil spéis ag Teachtaí sa Teach seo sna tarlúintí ag an gComhairle sin.

Sitting suspended at 4.15 p.m. and resumed at 5.15 p.m.