Wednesday, 31 March 2021
Post-European Council Meeting: Statements
I participated in a videoconference meeting of the members of the European Council last Thursday, 25 March. Provision had been made for this meeting to continue on the morning of 26 March. This did not prove necessary, however, as we concluded our discussions on the evening of 25 March.
Our meeting began at noon with the customary exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, Mr. David Sassoli. Following our exchange with the president, we worked through each of our agenda items, namely, Covid-19, European Union relations with Turkey and Russia and the Single Market in industrial policy, digital and the economy.
We were joined by the President of the European Central Bank, Ms Christine Lagarde, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in his capacity as president of the Eurogroup, for a meeting of the euro summit in inclusive format. For the final part of our meeting, we were joined by the US President, Joe Biden, with whom we held a short exchange. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will provide further detail on our discussions on Turkey and Russia in his concluding remarks. I will report now on all other matters.
As well as sharing his views on the issues on the agenda of the meeting, President Sassoli took the opportunity to express his concerns at the sanctions imposed by China on five Members of the European Parliament, the Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Council's Political and Security Committee.
Prime Minister Costa then presented a report on the work of the Portuguese Presidency to date. As well as highlighting progress on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, he welcomed the agreement reached on the Conference on the Future of Europe and looked forward to its launch on 9 May.
We then began our consideration of Covid-19. As expected, this was a difficult, lengthy and sober discussion given the trajectory of the disease across Europe in recent weeks and the importance of this issue for every EU leader. We discussed the epidemiological situation in our respective countries. The main focus of our discussion was on vaccines. President von der Leyen provided an overview of status of delivery of vaccines to and within the European Union. She confirmed that approximately 88 million doses had been delivered across the EU up to the end of last week. Notwithstanding disruptions to anticipated supplies, approximately 100 million doses will have been delivered in the first quarter of this year. This is expected to increase significantly to around 360 million doses over the second quarter, starting tomorrow.
As I stated in the House last week, we should not lose sight of the scale of what has been achieved in developing effective vaccines in such a short timeframe. The decision that the European Union should come together as one to order and distribute vaccines was the right one, and very much in Ireland's interests. The European Union has given us access to a portfolio of more than 2.6 billion doses, and deliveries will continue to increase as production accelerates.
In our discussion last Thursday, there was agreement on the need to further increase vaccine production, supply and distribution. Leaders confirmed the pro ratakey for the allocation of vaccines. In a spirit of solidarity, we agreed that our ambassadors in Brussels should consider the speed of delivery of vaccines in allocating 10 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine advanced from quarter 4 to the second quarter of this year. For my part, I emphasised that to facilitate increased vaccine supplies, we need to work with global pharmaceutical companies and protect global supply chains. Of course, it is also vital that pharmaceutical companies uphold their side of contracts that they have entered into with the European Union. We agreed on the importance of transparency around vaccine supplies, which has been assisted through the transparency and authorisation mechanism for Covid-19 vaccines.
The European Union is an important exporter of vaccines and this should be acknowledged. The pandemic is a global challenge and we must work together to overcome it. Equally, the production of vaccines relies on a range of inputs, from the elements of which they are constituted to the vials in which they are bottled, and is a global activity relying on complicated and easily disrupted relationships.
It cannot be stressed enough that until all of us are safe, none of us is safe. This is why we must continue to work in solidarity, both within and outside the European Union.
We agreed on the need to accelerate work on a vaccine-sharing mechanism which will complement the work of COVAX, Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, in ensuring universal access to vaccines. The European Union will continue to strengthen its global response to the pandemic. We need to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines right across the globe.
Looking to the future, we agreed preparations should begin on a common approach to the gradual lifting of restrictions when the situation allows. Legislative and technical work on interoperable Covid-19 digital certificates will be taken forward as a matter of urgency. We will work constructively with colleagues across the European Union as we consider this proposal further.
The Government's focus now is on avoiding non-essential international travel, keeping the number of new infections low, accelerating the vaccination programme, as well as reopening our economy and society in a phased and safe manner. The economic challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic highlight the importance of a strong and resilient Single Market and of policies which strengthen our competitiveness.
Integral to this is, and increasingly will be, our ability to lead and to manage digital transformation. When we met last week, EU leaders considered the European Commission's digital compass proposals. This sets smart digital ambitions for the decade ahead for digital skills, for data and connectivity infrastructure, for the digital intensity of business and for the modernisation of our public services. We also considered the social aspects of the digital transition, in particular its implications for skills and working conditions. We agreed that work on digital compass should be examined swiftly. The social dimension will be considered when we meet for the social summit in Porto on 7 May.
We endorsed the policy priority areas of the annual sustainable growth strategy published by the European Commission. These will be reflected in each member state's national recovery and resilience plan on which work is ongoing. An open, well-functioning, competitive and innovative digital economy is the essential basis for the European Union's future economic strength. Recent events have highlighted our interdependence and shown that the role of the EU as a champion of open, rules-based multilateralism has never been more important. That is why we agreed that the European Union should strengthen its efforts to promote EU digital standards and to develop global digital rules in close co-operation with like-minded partners. We agreed also that the European Union should continue to work towards a global consensus-based solution within the framework of the OECD on the issue of international digital taxation. I support that goal.
On Thursday, European Union leaders also met as the euro summit in inclusive format. All 27 EU leaders participated, not just the leaders of euro area member states. The President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, gave a presentation on the international role of the euro. We were also joined by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in his capacity as president of the Eurogroup. Our discussions complemented those on the Single Market, industrial policy, digital and the economy, in particular on the need for a strong economic recovery within the European Union as a necessary foundation to strengthen the international role of the euro.
We highlighted the importance of a sound financial architecture and of preserving the European Union's ability to ensure its financial stability and resilience. We called for a stronger and more innovative digital finance sector and more efficient and resilient payment systems. We asked that exploratory work on the possible introduction of a digital euro be taken forward. I support the emphasis placed in our statement on the need for a strong economic recovery, integrated financial markets and payment systems and delivering on green and digital finance. These provide the basis for the strong underlying economic performance on which the international role of the euro depends.
We also emphasised the role of the recovery and resilience facility in financing the green and digital transition needed to ensure our future prosperity. We need to continue our efforts strengthening economic and monetary union, completing banking union and making further progress on the capital markets union. We will return to these issues and review progress when we meet again in euro summit format in June. We will also return to our discussion of the economic challenges for the euro area arising from the Covid-19 crisis.
The US President, Joe Biden, joined us to discuss his commitment to strengthening EU-US relations, as he did when I met with him bilaterally on St. Patrick's Day. This was the first time in 11 years that a US President joined in a meeting with European Union leaders. The European Council President, Charles Michel, warmly welcomed the US President on behalf of the European Union.
I welcome the fact that there is now real ambition on both sides of the Atlantic to revitalise our relations and to do so with energy and immediacy. The EU and the US are very like-minded on many issues, for example, climate change. We should be providing leadership to the world. Working together where we can in multilateral settings is the best way of ensuring positive outcomes for Ireland, the European Union and the world. I welcome President Biden's clear commitment to multilateral co-operation on which he has already delivered concrete action including at the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the Paris Agreement. On Covid, we would like to see the US export vaccines in particular to the parts of the world most in need. I welcome the US recognition of the need to protect global supply chains for the ongoing production of vaccines.
Last week's meeting was the third meeting by videoconference of EU leaders this year and the thirteenth such meeting since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. What was an innovation last year is now almost routine. This is instructive of how to embrace change successfully and digital transformation when necessary. Last week, we succeeded again in advancing the EU position on a wide range of topical and pressing issues. Our very warm engagement with the President Biden highlights the value and opportunities of such meetings by videoconference. However, every EU leader would prefer that the epidemiological situation was such that we could meet in person, even if it was the right decision not to do so last week.
Today's debate in the House takes place on the last day of the first quarter of this year. It has been an exceptionally difficult quarter for us all. That is why my unrelenting focus in the second quarter, and that of EU leaders, will be on the acceleration of the production, delivery and deployment of vaccines. At the end of the second quarter, we will be in a very different place.
The next regular meeting of the European Council will take place on 24 and 25 June. Before that, we are scheduled to meet in Porto for the EU social summit on 7 May, followed by an informal European Council meeting and an EU-India summit on 8 May. I look forward to taking this important agenda forward with my EU counterparts.
As I already indicated, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will report on our discussions on relations with Russia and Turkey. I look forward to hearing Members' contributions to the debate.
The meeting of the European Council which took place last week was a crucial moment in the European Union's battle with Covid-19. Over the course of the past year, the virus has wreaked havoc across member states. The economic and social devastation caused by this pandemic has been severe. The people of the EU and Ireland have experienced months of hardship. They have endured lockdown and massive disruption to their lives as they adhere to public health restrictions in order to curb the spread of the virus.
The mistakes by the European Union in the procurement and supply of vaccines have caused an understandable level of frustration and anger among citizens. There is no doubt that citizens have played their part in the fight against Covid-19. The mess made of the initial stages of the EU vaccine strategy, however, created a sense that officials were failing to play their part.
It is very welcome that the European Commission has acknowledged those early mistakes and is now focused on improving supply as we move into the second quarter of the year. It is important and welcome that a commitment to keeping Covid-19 vaccine supply chains open was affirmed at the meeting. That is the right thing to do. While we must have a realistic view of vaccine supply across all countries, especially while some steam ahead and others lag behind, the truth is that the fight against this virus has to be an international effort.
Furthermore, any potential export ban raises the menace of checks at the Border, which could have serious ramifications for the Irish protocol. That is the last thing we need, especially considering the unilateral actions of the British Government, the thoughtless thinking out loud about the triggering of Article 16 by the European Commission in January and the persistent political attacks waged by political unionism in the North. The protocol is Ireland's protection against the sharpest edge of the Tory Brexit. It protects the all-island economy, prevents a hard border on the island and ensures the Good Friday Agreement is upheld. These protections were hard won through a unified all-Oireachtas approach and they are very important to the future of our island, North and South. It is vital that the standing of the protocol and the consequences for Ireland are the foremost considerations when political decisions are made in either London or Brussels. It cannot be jeopardised in any way during this pandemic or, indeed, into the future.
I welcome that the presentation delivered by US President Joe Biden has been hailed positively as a new era in transatlantic relations. It is necessary that the EU and US work closely together to remove obstructions in the supply and delivery of vaccines and the commitment of the US President to such an effort can only be a good thing. By working together internationally, we can strengthen the fight against the pandemic. There has been justified criticism of the EU regarding the vaccine strategy. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Irish Government to ensure we have enough supply here to drastically improve what has been a very slow and stuttering roll-out. Ramping up supply is especially important given that the slow pace of the roll-out directly influenced yesterday's decision to ease restrictions only very slightly.
The announcement that Johnson & Johnson will supply the EU with 200 million vaccines in the second half of April, 2.2 million of which are reportedly destined for Ireland, will undoubtedly raise spirits. However, while supplies through the EU will increase in the second quarter, it is still prudent and necessary for the Government to seek additional supply through additional deals outside of this pathway. That is, after all, what other EU member states such as Germany and Denmark have done and we should be doing the same. Furthermore, should the opportunity arise to source additional vaccine supplies from Britain, that opportunity should be seized. Everything must be done to move beyond projections and speed up the roll-out. This means not only increasing supply but also enhancing our logistical operation in order to ensure we can quickly take advantage of any increased supply. To get this right, we must be prepared. We need detailed plans for the staffing of mass vaccination centres and the system for the delivery of vaccines to doctors needs real and substantial improvement. Vaccination is the key route out of this crisis. The faster we get vaccines into people’s arms safely, the closer we will get to a reopening and better days during the summer.
Fairness is key to the success of the vaccination programme, both at home and internationally. We must always be mindful that this is a global effort. The EU cannot allow profit protecting patents on vaccines, which are medicines developed for the public, to hamper the worldwide vaccination effort. The more vaccines that are produced, the less chance there is for resistant strains of this virus to develop. The imperative and the benefits are clear. The EU should not stand in the way of vaccine production in other parts of the world. There should be no circumstances in which profit becomes the foremost consideration in this pandemic. Everyone - I repeat, everyone - deserves protection from Covid-19.
Across the Continent of Europe, the single most important project that faces governments in this moment remains the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is only right and just that the European Council would focus on vaccines as the primary political issue at its recent meeting. Across Europe and here in Ireland, we have measured the impact of the pandemic across several key areas, for example, health, through the number of fatalities and hospitalisations, including ICU referrals, and infections. Financially, we have seen the impact on businesses and families and on the nation's economic outlook. In the social sphere, there has been an impact on families, individuals and various sectors of society due to the effects of isolation and much more.
The key and prevailing theme put forward by both the Government and commentators has been that we are all in this together. It was this sense of social cohesion that drove the nation's efforts at key junctures when we were all forced to dig deep as we attempted to bring the infection rates down at the moment in which we came closest to despair. It is a tragedy to witness an unravelling of this social compact from the centre of acquired privilege. It appears that a self-appointed elite in this country continues to march to a different drumbeat. Today, the doling out of Covid-19 vaccines has become akin to the dispensing of patronage. The first phase of the pandemic in Ireland was marred by "golfgate", where the cosy relationships between politicians, financial institutions, the Judiciary and the media were exposed against the backdrop of a sense of entitlement. These links are yet to be fully explored. The latest phase is marred by the scandalous revelations regarding the Beacon private hospital, an institution that turned its back on the people of this State in the moment of our most dire need. The CEO of this hospital sees fit to behave in the manner of an Italian Renaissance prince by dispensing vaccines to the great and good at the expense of the people, some of whom may very well die as a result.
We need to know what measures will be put in place to ensure the EU funding programme to aid the economic recovery from the coronavirus will not suffer the same fate as the vaccination programme. The Taoiseach said that we will not be out of this until everyone is out of it and I agree wholeheartedly with that. Some pharmaceutical companies are attempting to profiteer on the back of this pandemic, which I absolutely deplore. I urge the Government to step up to the mark and, along with other European countries, sign up to the Covid-19 technology access pool, C-TAP, initiative, which would allow the patents of those pharmaceutical companies to be used in developing countries and countries that are less well off. I urge the Government to take the lead and sign up to C-TAP with immediate effect.
I only have five minutes. I always complain about the time given to live up to the commitments we made to have proper scrutiny of European Council meetings. The Taoiseach left the Chamber before the first contribution was made. I know he is very busy but we need to take our responsibility to deal with the European Council seriously.
I will briefly deal with three issues. As I said last week, the most important issue by far to be addressed by the European Council was Covid-19. I refer in particular to the failures in the responsibilities we entrusted to the European Commission at the early stages of this pandemic and, more recently, the roll-out of the vaccine.
I asked last week for accountability for the accepted failure that was laid out by the Commission. None of that was evident in anything that I have read. In the conclusions, the EU leaders committed to accelerate production, delivery and deployment of vaccines. I would have hoped that they had always committed to accelerate these three aspects. It is in respect of those aspects that they have failed to date. What was decided in this regard and what will flow from the meeting in the context of production, delivery and deployment of vaccines? We need to have that spelled out in detail, which is why I had asked for a copy of the speech because I had hoped to have the specifics of all of that and an acknowledgement of the lessons learned.
For those of us who are deeply committed to the European project, there is a requirement to know that when we devolve responsibilities to a central authority, that authority is as accountable as our Government is to this Parliament. We need to hear very clearly what the position is in that regard.
There are two other issues which flowed from last week's Council meeting and which I wish to touch upon. The first of these relates to the discussion on the euro and the creation, from the existing euro, of a truly global currency. Some would rightly say that it perhaps already is a global currency. It is the currency of 19 of the 27 member states but it is also used by 60 countries and territories that either use the euro as their normal currency or whose currency is pegged to the euro. After the US dollar, the euro is the second most important international currency. The commitment is to build a stronger role for the euro, benchmark international commodities, including energy and raw materials, in euro as opposed to dollars into the future and make it more attractive as a currency of choice for investors. These are worthy aims and I hope, in the context of future debates, that we will have the opportunity to debate the specifics with regard to how what is envisioned is to be achieved.
The second and related issue is that relating to international digital taxation, which was briefly touched upon by the Taoiseach. When he talked about digitalisation, he briefly referred to international taxation and stated that he supports the OECD framework. Interestingly, in its conclusions, the Council agreed that if no agreement is reached within the OECD, the EU will then act alone. The Commission is currently preparing a digital levy proposal. That is being formulated and the Commission has stated that it is exploring a number of policy options, including: a corporate income tax top-up to be applied to all companies conducting certain digital activities in the European Union; a tax on revenues created by certain digital activities anywhere in the European Union; or a tax on transactions conducted business-to-business within the European Union. These are very profound changes and given the scale of digital company activity in our State, we need to have a clear analysis of the impact of each of the proposals. I clearly stated a long time ago that I am in favour of digital taxes. These companies need to have a clear basis for paying tax but it must be fair to all companies and not simply a transactional tax that will accrue even greater taxation benefit to the very large countries where many of the transactions involved take place. These are matters to which we need to return and on which we need to have much deeper and clearer presentations by the Government in the context what exactly is being said on our behalf.
A new wave of Covid-19 cases is evident on the Continent of Europe, particularly in central Europe, the Balkans and the Baltic states. The B117 UK variant, which is extremely contagious, is now the dominant strain. This is a matter of concern and, as the Taoiseach stated, it was considered in detail at the European Council meeting last week. As I have stated previously, the Commission’s handling of the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out has been less than sure-footed. The sharp, public exchanges between the Commission and the UK are not something we are used to, especially those from the Commission. I welcome the fact that the rhetoric between the two blocs has been dialled down, so to speak, and that background diplomacy has been set in train. I am glad that a blanket ban on the export of vaccines from the EU has not been pursued, particularly in view of the interconnectivity of global supply chains, and I am of the view that the policy on this issue agreed at the Council meeting represents the best way forward.
I note what was said in the Council’s statement on the EU’s relations with Turkey. There is no doubt that it is in the EU’s interests to have stability in the eastern Mediterranean and a co-operative and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey. The EU needs to co-operate with Turkey on migration, particularly when one considers that Turkey is temporarily home to approximately 4 million Syrian refugees. We have a problem, however. There are difficulties in respect of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Turkey. President Erdoğan has targeted political parties and the media. He intends to proscribe the mainly Kurdish Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP, also known as the People's Democratic Party. Recently, he sacked the governor of the Turkish central bank and has withdrawn Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, which protects women from domestic violence. While I welcome EU engagement with Turkey, as a country it is a long way off EU membership when these issues of democracy, rule of law, and human rights remain to be resolved.
The European Council briefly considered EU-Russian relations. I note that this matter will be considered further at a future Council meetings. This, of course, follows an unsuccessful visit by EU policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles to Russia last month. Ireland, the EU and the UN need to do more about the case of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. There are reports that he is being subjected to torture in prison, which is totally unacceptable.
I also welcome the attendance of US President Joe Biden at the video conference relating to the Council meeting. This new chapter in EU-US relations gives us great hope. We live in a world of free trade and subscribe to the promotion of liberal, democratic values and basic human rights. The attendance of the US President at the meeting is a further sign that the many global problems of the day, including climate change, can be best tackled through international organisations and multilateral diplomacy.
I note what the Taoiseach said on digital taxation and the fact that it will be considered following further reports from the OECD. This is of concern to Ireland. If the EU is to go it alone, we would have to do everything possible to protect our corporate taxation regime, which is the model upon which our economic development is based on. I will finish on that point.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus leis an Teachta Haughey for the precise sharing of time. It is very much appreciated. We are mastering our double act on European Council statements at this stage.
There are three issues I would like to raise in the context of this debate. The first concerns a matter that the Minister or other Members may not have been aware of, namely, to the very harrowing report on "RTÉ News At One" detailing the decision by the station's correspondent Yvonne Murray to leave China due to the increased levels of surveillance. In the context of the European Council meeting, David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, raised the serious concerns that five members of the European Parliament's human rights' subcommittee have been hit with significant sanctions by the Chinese Government. This is merely the latest in a series of very troubling actions on the part of the Chinese Government. One such action relates to the treatment of the Uyghur population.
There is also the crackdown on democratic values in Hong Kong, the continued incarceration of Irishman Richard O'Halloran and so much more. It is about time we made it clear at European level, because it is only at European level that real impact can be made, that we will stand for the continuing, flagrantly brutal actions of the Chinese Government domestically and internationally. We see the academic independence here in Ireland constantly being undermined by the Chinese Government. It is a truly worrying state of affairs. The situation that Ms Murray and her husband find themselves in is merely the latest example and we simply cannot stand for it.
I also want to refer to the transatlantic alliance and continued co-operation between the EU and the US. As others have correctly stated, this is so important. I was slightly disappointed, and I am willing to be corrected, that the Taoiseach did not use his opportunity in the joint videoconference to stress again and wholly the importance of the protocol in the withdrawal agreement, not just to Ireland but to the entire European Union and Northern Ireland, to ensure the many challenges that Brexit has thrown up can be overcome. This is an issue that goes quiet for a while but we know it will come back. It has a cyclical nature. Everything to do with the post-Brexit relationship is cyclical. We have to be clear that there is flexibility, patience and consideration for the troubling situation in Northern Ireland and an element of sympathy and an ability to work with those who have concerns about the protocol, the majority of whom are from the unionist community. None of this can be done unless there is effective and transparent engagement. Unilateral action is simply not helpful. Those who seek to remove the protocol are misguided in their actions. There should be greater focus on what can be achieved.
My next point is probably the most important issue of the day, not just in the context of the European Council but regarding everything impacting on our country at every level. This is the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccines. I have a series of questions to which the Taoiseach might be able to respond in writing. I put some of them to the Minister for Health through parliamentary questions. The new allocations are being announced. When will we know the precise amount of vaccine that will be allocated to Ireland? When will we receive these vaccines? What is the impact of the slightly truculent attitude of the Austrian Government in terms of the allocation? How can we ensure Irish citizens do not suffer as a result?
Can we see a comparison of EU member state vaccination strategies? A major decision has been made by the Government, stating it is following scientific advice. Like many, my phone and email have been hopping with members of An Garda Síochána, teachers, special needs assistants and many others who are concerned. What is the European approach? What are other EU countries doing in terms of allocating vaccines? Is it done solely by age or is it by vulnerability or cohort? I simply seek clarity on this issue because it is very important.
My final point is on ensuring the contractual obligations of drugs companies are met. This is not a new point. The ongoing reluctance of a certain drugs company to be transparent with its contractual obligations to the EU and UK has caused huge problems in recent weeks and months. These problems need to be addressed and in due course, although possibly not in the next couple of weeks, the drugs company in question needs to be held accountable for its duplicity and inability to fulfil its obligations to the European Union.
The Minister of State is aware of the outrage in our fishing communities around the coast at the outcome of the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement. The cost to our fishing industry every year is at least €43 million. This is a 15% loss. In areas such as mackerel and prawn, which are crucial to particular ports and harbours, the impact is huge. The reason people are so angry is not only what has happened in the trade agreement. It has historical context. As we speak, Ireland's waters account for 12% of overall European Union waters yet in terms of fish we catch 4%. We get one-third in proportionate terms. This is nowhere near a fair share of the fish in European Union waters.
What is the impact of this? It is that every year tens of thousands of jobs are lost in our seafood sector. It is estimated that the loss to our economy is €600 million per year because we do not get a fair share of the fish in our waters or overall European Union waters. This is the context that has led to an even bigger injustice now, whereby we are taking a proportionately much bigger hit from the deal.
This is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable. What I hear from the Minister with responsibility for the marine, Deputy McConalogue, and from the Taoiseach today, is that we should be grateful that we were not entirely blocked from getting access to UK waters. They are missing the point. The historical context is that we have never got a fair share of the fish in our own waters. This is not about sustainability. This is about us getting a fair share. This was costing us tens of thousands of jobs every year and €600 million before the trade deal and now it is even worse. That is why people are so angry.
I also want to put on the record the issue of bluefin tuna. Bluefin tuna is one of the most lucrative fish in the world. It is in abundance at present in our waters. In the past four years, there has been a 73% increase, or 8,000 additional tonnes, for the European Union fishing fleet. However, not one fish or one pound of that increase was given to the Irish fleet, even though the species is in abundance in our waters. Right now, our fishermen can only catch and release bluefin tuna but huge volumes are caught in our waters by foreign fleets. This practice is being allowed to continue. I put to the Minister of State the cumulative injustice and the example of bluefin tuna. Our fishing communities are being treated with absolute and utter contempt. I urge the Minister of State to up the game of the Government and put all of these facts on the table with our European partners and demand fair play and justice for our coastal communities.
No one is safe until everybody is safe. This is an incredible expression we have heard time and again in recent weeks. It was said with honest intent by Mike Ryan in his capacity as head of the World Health Organization and it has been repeated several times, including by the Taoiseach. As the European Council came on the horizon last week, it was not where the various countries were. In fact, they were far from it. What seemed to predate the European Council meeting was a vaccine arms race in which the only intention seemed to be who could get their entertainment industries, pubs, nightclubs and concert venues opened first by getting vaccines into the arms of their citizens quicker, with procurement and negotiation with pharmaceutical companies at the top of the agenda. Let me be first to say I have no interest in whether Wetherspoon pubs open in the UK before we get to open our pubs. That has absolutely no interest for me.
What I believe is of utmost importance when we speak about the idea of vaccinations and increasing supply is that we do so as world actors. For me, this is infinitely more important in the conversation. Thankfully, we have moved away from the conflict and vaccine arms race between the UK and Europe. I believe there is potential now for Ireland, which has always been neutral and stood for human rights and justice, to create a bigger role for ourselves in speaking about vaccine justice throughout the world. This is a part of leadership that we need to take on.
At its very heart and at its most fundamental, the EU is a project of peace. There is no greater threat to global peace at present than the pandemic ravaging the world. It is exacerbating inequalities on a global scale. Ireland can stand up for the initiatives that others are proposing, such as COVAX and the Covid-19 technology access pool, C-TAP, and signing up to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, to waive the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies. The phrase "nobody is safe until everybody is safe" is just words.
I strongly encourage the Taoiseach to bring action and meaning to those words by allowing Ireland to sign up to COVAX and C-TAP and to allow Ireland to advocate that we sign up to TRIPS. To me, that would have meaning and it would place us on a pathway to leadership. That could be the most important thing we do this at this moment in time.
It is immoral that 75% of vaccines that have been given out in the world to date have been given out in just ten countries. That will prolong this pandemic far beyond where it needs to be. We have spent much of this morning talking about our own vaccine programme, which will see 70% of the population vaccinated by the end of the summer. If we are allowing the developing world to become an incubator for new variants, that will not mean anything in terms of making our own population safe or making the global population safe. I strongly encourage the Government to take a leadership role in terms of vaccine justice in the global world and to be a voice at a European Union level.
There are other issues at a European Union level that will be waiting for us as we, hopefully, begin to emerge from the pandemic, in particular, a global climate crisis that still requires a unified approach. There are also conflicts that will create massive challenges. I do not have time to speak about the presence of Russian troops in the Nagorno-Karabakh region at present but it creates a challenge for the European Union and the US in terms of our role in the world in alleviating conflict. What Russia did was simply to put troops there and nobody else had an answer to it. There is also the issue of what is happening in Tigray in Ethiopia, where an armed conflict is continuing, and even if it is stopped, there is still massive potential for famine and drought, which will be a lasting legacy of that conflict. These are real challenges for the European Union without even mentioning the continuing rise of the far right and the challenges that will pose in the coming years. I hope we can demonstrate leadership at a European Union level and, in particular, I strongly encourage that we sign up to COVAX, C-TAP and the TRIPS waiver programme.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on the post-Council statements. Understandably, as other speakers have said, the priority issue was the Covid-19 pandemic, which, unfortunately, has been with us for more than 12 months. Of course, the Government leaders had the opportunity to review what has been achieved and what has not been achieved in regard to the roll-out of the vaccine programme. As we discussed here on the last day, it is very disappointing that there has not been greater speed in getting vaccines sourced and distributed throughout Europe. I sincerely hope the Commission President had some answers to the legitimate questions in regard to the contracts the European Union had with the pharmaceutical companies and how strong were those particular contracts.
Unfortunately, we are witnessing a very high level of infection throughout the European Union. It is most disappointing that this pandemic is still with us and that this deadly virus is so prevalent in most countries throughout the European Union. As we all know, the variant B117 has caused particular difficulties. I sincerely hope Europe can honour its commitments and that the pharmaceutical companies will honour their commitments to the European Commission in regard to supplies. We all know how valuable, how important and how essential a successful roll-out of the vaccination programme is.
As Deputy Haughey mentioned earlier, it is very heartening that President Biden partook in this Council meeting. It is long overdue that the American President would meet with his counterparts in the European Union. We all know of the need to have good US-EU relations. As a country that has a particular interest in the United States, and as the United States has a particular interest in our island, we know strong EU-US relations will benefit both continents and that, in particular, we can be major beneficiaries. We know not just of the historic links between our two countries but also of the huge economic ties our country has with America. We often hear about foreign direct investment coming to this country and there are well over 100,000 people employed in US companies in our State. Similarly, there are more than 100,000 US employees working in Irish businesses in the United States, so it is a huge and very valued business linkage between both countries.
I value the engagement I have had with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, in recent months in regard to the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol. I brought to his attention in the early days of the new year the need to have particular difficulties ironed out. I have highlighted in numerous debates in the House that we need stability and trade between Ireland and Britain and between North and South. Thankfully, since 1998, we have witnessed the growth of the all-Ireland economy and the huge strengthening of links, North and South and east and west as well.
It is just not acceptable that Britain can make unilateral decisions in regard to an international agreement. I welcome the fact that, as I understand it from the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, sub-committees are meeting to ensure that the protocol is implemented in a sensitive manner. There have to be workable and deliverable solutions. The engagement I have with my neighbours north of the Border, from businesses and individual citizens to public representatives, is that they want the protocol to work. Those people see the benefit there is in having that unique trading relationship with Britain and the European Union. I urge the Minister of State to urge all his colleagues in the different European Union fora in which he participates to ensure that the protocol is implemented in a sensitive manner and that it delivers for the people of both Britain and Ireland.
The House will be aware there are a large number of small and family-run car dealership businesses in a state of turmoil post Brexit given the interpretation of the Union customs code regarding returned goods relief. There are a number of these businesses in County Longford, and they include the family-run Clonfin Car Sales in Ballinalee. This business has extensively researched the issue and clearly set out a number of anomalies in the current Revenue interpretation of the legislation. That Revenue interpretation states:
Under UCC (Art 203) goods can be exported from the EU to a 3rd country and re-imported into the EU without payment of Customs Duty .... The goods must have been originally exported from the EU, must not have been altered and must be re-imported within three years of export from the EU.
The Revenue Commissioners’ interpretation of the article continues: "When a motor vehicle was originally moved from the EU to the UK before the end of the transition period and is imported to the EU within three years of the original movement to the UK, the vehicle can be imported to the EU under the provisions of returned goods relief." However, a further interpretation from the Revenue states that the original date of the export of the vehicle to the UK is the date it employs to set the clock in motion for the three-year rule. Unfortunately, this erroneously fails to acknowledge or recognise that, prior to 31 December, the UK was, in fact, a member of the EU, and the vehicle in question was exported from an EU country, that is, Germany, to another EU country, as the UK then was, although it subsequently became a non-member state of the EU after 31 December. Therefore, if the clock is to be started, surely it must be started when the conditions of the article are complied with, namely, when the vehicle is exported to a third country.
I know that is all very technical and legalistic but vehicles exported from the EU to the UK prior to 31 December have been exported to a member state and, as such, no third-country status applies. The erroneous application of the article must be addressed. I have passed on details of the case to the Minister's office and I have also corresponded with the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Donohoe, as well as with the Chairman of the Revenue Commissioners. It would appear Revenue is retrospectively classifying the UK as a third country for the purposes of the Union customs code but it seems there is, in fact, no authority within Article 203 to provide for this retrospective application of the legislation.
I believe it is critical for those businesses I mentioned that this matter is reviewed. The survival of small family-run businesses such as Clonfin Car Sales is in grave danger given the current interpretation of the article, which is weighted in favour of vehicles registered since January 2018, when, ordinarily, the purchase of these vehicles is beyond the financial capacity of many of our citizens.
It has been reported in recent weeks that Ireland's share of the EU's pandemic recovery and resilience fund may be reduced by somewhere in the region of €321 million as a result of GDP figures over-inflating the health of the Irish economy. Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise to me and many others. I have been highlighting the inappropriateness of GDP as a measure of the condition of the Irish economy for some time. Despite the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, forecasting that real GDP would decline by 12.4%, somehow this country, with the longest lockdown in the EU and record unemployment numbers, not only managed to grow but outgrew all of its EU peers. I cannot imagine that it is just me who thinks that there is something seriously off here. Lots of developed nations would not sneer at GDP growth of 3.4% in a normal year so to record that during a global pandemic certainly seems like the stuff of divine intervention.
The reality is that the ESRI, the Central Bank and even the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, are aware that this measure is more or less useless for international comparisons. In fact, from an Irish perspective it is worse than useless because it is proving harmful to usvis-à-visthe reduction in pandemic emergency funds and the oversized contributions we have to make to the EU budget. GDP is a metric that is hurting this country. Basically, the use of GDP means that we have to contribute more to the EU budget than we should and, as the example of the pandemic emergency fund shows, we receive less than we deserve. In the EU's defence, it is not singling us out here. The fact is that Ireland's distorted GDP figures are the product of the kind of economy that successive Governments have constructed. Herein lies the triumph and the tragedy of this metric that is bandied out, with which some people sense there is something amiss but most do not stop to question. It is very clear that it is simply a vanity metric at this point. I ask the Minister of State to raise and address this issue at Cabinet and at a European level.
I also want to raise the case of Julian Assange. My colleague Deputy Andrews and I raised this with the Tánaiste last month and I raise it again today because I am deeply concerned at reports about Mr. Assange's poor state of health, which is being exacerbated by harsh prison conditions. As elected representatives of the Irish people it is our democratic duty to be vigilant about human rights abuses both at home and abroad. Mr. Assange's case is of particular interest as the charges against him relate to his role as a journalist and publisher. His incarceration in a prison institution designated for those deemed to be the most dangerous in British society is of considerable concern. A country's defence or suppression of freedom of speech and of the press is a touchstone of how healthy its democracy remains. The Minister of State may also be aware that in recent days even the Pope has written to Mr. Assange. I ask the Minister of State to raise this case with the British ambassador at his earliest convenience.
The People's Vaccine campaign, which is supported by 80 countries, many NGOs, the UN Aids programme, Oxfam and others, published a survey of epidemiologists, immunologists and infectious disease specialists in 28 different countries, 88% of whom predict that within nine to 12 months, variants of Covid-19 will have evaded the first generation of vaccines. That is a very stark warning. In roughly the same timescale it is anticipated that only 10% of the population of the some of the poorest countries in the world will be vaccinated. If those predictions are correct we are in deep trouble. The misery and the darkness of the last year of this pandemic could roll on for years to come if variants of Covid-19 evade the first generation of vaccines. The key to addressing this very frightening prospect is to ramp up the global production of vaccines to the absolute maximum level to get people all over the world, not just in wealthy countries, vaccinated as quickly as possible in order to prevent the development of new variants.
The science is absolutely clear on this but the European Union, including Ireland, failed to support the People's Vaccine campaign which calls for the waiving of patents, intellectual property rights and other protections for vaccine production technologies. The EU did so because it dances to the tune of the big pharmaceutical companies who do not want to waive those patents and intellectual property rights because they want to make cash from the pandemic. This is particularly disgusting in the context of the threat to public health, as well as the fact that it was public money that allowed those companies to develop vaccines in the first place. It was the advance orders of taxpayers and working people from all over the world that financed the development of vaccines in record time. It is absolutely shameful and unacceptable that the EU is not supporting the People's Vaccine campaign and is not insisting that technology patents and intellectual property rights are set aside in order to enable the open development of vaccines so we can ramp global supply. It is worth noting that Cuba is developing four vaccines as we speak and is willing to waive intellectual property rights. We should take our lead from the Cubans.
More than 5,000 peaceful protesters were arrested in just one day in January this year in Russia and the repression has continued since then. I wish to focus on two of the less high-profile cases. The first is the case of Anastasia Ponkina, a feminist and environmental activist. On 9 March she was charged in Izhevsk for attending a protest in January. She now faces the prospect of up to five years in prison and her organisation, the Russian Socialist Movement, faces being branded by the state as an extremist organisation. On 22 March in a Moscow court, Matvey Aleksandrov, a member of the Socialist Alternative, a sister organisation of the Socialist Party in Ireland, was imprisoned for 15 days, having just completed a 25 day jail sentence for the crime of distributing leaflets promoting protests on International Workers' Day. He can be arrested and charged again on his release, in a revolving door-type scenario. There should be a right to assemble, associate and protest in Russia and every other country. I ask the Minister of State to contact the Russian ambassador to oppose what is being done in the aforementioned cases and to oppose the wave of oppression that is sweeping across Russia at this time. If he contacts me after this debate, I will happily pass on the details.
I want to speak about the European Council summit in the context of Covid-19 vaccines. I note that the transparency and authorisation mechanism for vaccine exports has been extended until the end of June. I also note that the UK has received 9.1 million vaccine doses from the EU, which is virtually three times the amount exported to the next highest on the list, Canada. While it is important that we continue to export vaccines, the UK must acknowledge the level of vaccines coming from the EU and must stop playing games. While Ireland will obviously accept any spare vaccines, the UK should not be playing political games with Covid-19 vaccines because lives are at stake.
The agreements in place between AstraZeneca and the UK and EU, respectively, are very different. The UK agreement was signed on 28 August 2020, one day after the EU agreement was signed, yet one could easily assume the UK had been dealing with AstraZeneca long before that point. Furthermore, the EU got defined supply chains within its agreement, with specific manufacturing sites mentioned. I expect the bulk of those were in the UK but they certainly had access to sites in Europe. The question for the EU is whether we are satisfied with security of supply. This is the most important feature at the moment.
Vaccination is clearly working and is having an effect in Israel and other countries. Cases are rising in certain countries but the way forward is vaccination. Is the Taoiseach satisfied with the security of supply? Is he satisfied that the EU has got to grips with AstraZeneca? When will Ireland and individual member states have a defined timetable of vaccine supplies with regard to quantities and specified dates? Ultimately, the level of vaccines we have in Ireland is determined by the flow of vaccines into the EU. Has the Taoiseach sought to have a mechanism put in place at EU level so that we can tell people which vaccines are being supplied in the EU and provide a timetable for vaccination?
We are looking to vaccinate approximately 1 million people per month from tomorrow. That is the way forward. Our supply is, correctly, coming from the EU. We opted for diversity of supply. The UK got lucky with AstraZeneca. If AstraZeneca had not worked out, the UK would now be in a dire situation. As a small country, Ireland played the right game. Reports from Germany suggest AstraZeneca is no longer being used on people under the age of 60. What is NPHET's view on that?
I have a slightly different take on aspects of this discussion. We are living every day according to NIAC, NPHET and the HSE. These entities are part of everyday parlance and every time we turn on the television or radio, we hear figures and statistics. Mother ship Europe also has a co-ordinating agency, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, based in Stockholm. The ECDC is an alarmingly small agency, with only 300 staff. RTÉ just up the road from us has six times that number of employees. The centre runs on an annual budget of €50 million whereas its US equivalent runs an annual budget of $12 billion. It should come as no surprise that an agency set up in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak in 2002 is, 18 years on, a rather inept mother ship organisation trying to steer every other European Union nation. This proves that the HSE, the NHS and all the national agencies are outperforming mother ship Europe. Something drastic needs to be looked at in that regard.
The European Space Agency operates with an annual budget of €6.7 billion. That is a European fund for sending rockets into space. There is plenty of merit to scientific discovery, but perhaps that European Union budget could be channelled back into public healthcare for this year. I believe that is necessary.
The EU also needs to find out if it has the scientific knowledge in its expert laboratories throughout the member states to allow it, as a political bloc, to have its own vaccine creating and roll-out capacities. We are fully reliant on third parties and companies. We have seen that AstraZeneca has completely let us down. I ask the Minister of State to consider that.
We also need to look at novel approaches. Time and again in the past three decades, governments in Norway, which is not in the EU bloc, have identified key strategic companies in which to become a stakeholder. The EU also needs to consider that approach. Perhaps there could be less money for space rockets this year and more money for jabs into people's arms to save lives.
The Minister of State is leading on the digital green certificate in Europe, for which I thank him. We cannot get there quick enough. This is a pathway back to safe international air travel. Ireland, more than any other country, has the most to lose by not signing up and investing everything in this regulation.
I have mixed feelings about quarantine. It stymies the spread of aggressive new Covid strains such as the B117 variant that is ravaging Europe at the moment, putting many people in hospital and causing deaths. On the other hand, there is an inherent inflexibility in quarantine. It is time Europe and third countries such as the United States and United Kingdom started striking bilateral deals with regard to people coming to Ireland who have been vaccinated. A lady in Clare contacted me today. She is a dual citizen of the US and Ireland and has been vaccinated. She is getting mixed messaging on quarantining. The EU and Ireland now need to strike some urgent bilateral deals with other countries to ensure the number of people going into quarantine is minimal. Quarantine is necessary but not for the masses. We want to see safe, Covid-free international air travel. The digital green certificate is one crucial way to achieving that but a number of bilateral deals need to be struck also.
Many states across the European Union are experiencing a new wave of Covid-19. This is terribly frightening. The European Commission has admitted to the mistakes it made in procurement and we know of the issues with follow-up and contracts. It is fair to say there was an element of naivety in trusting the likes of AstraZeneca. One point on which I will agree with Boris Johnson is the connection between greed and some of the decision-making of that particular company.
We are all very hopeful about increased vaccine deliveries, with approximately 100 million doses set to be delivered in the first quarter and 360 million doses expected in quarter 2. I would welcome a timeline or breakdown on that. We are all hoping that 1 million or possibly more vaccines will be administered each month. We have our own difficulties, including with the roll-out. We had issues with the connected few who have been able to jump queues. We need to ensure none of this happens. We need people to respect and trust our roll-out. We need to do everything possible on that.
I would welcome any information the Minister of State has on the work of Thierry Breton, the Commission's vaccine hunter, including his contacts with pharmaceutical companies. Beyond that, what conversations have taken place in the European Commission on access to medicines, the WHO and C-TAP? The idea behind C-TAP is that, for a fair price, the pharmaceutical companies would forgo intellectual property rights and share knowledge to maximise the supply and distribution of vaccines. We have all heard the horror stories and seen the figures indicating that vaccination may not be completed globally until 2023 or 2024. It has been said many times that none of us is safe until all of us are safe.
I would also welcome an update on the conversations with President Joe Biden on the involvement of the United States in this matter.
It is absolutely necessary that we ensure that the full capacity of the pharmaceutical industry is put into delivering these vaccines to make our people safe. People need to be safe in this country, across the EU and the world. The dangers of importing strains are beyond belief so we must do everything necessary to ensure the safety of all our people.
Yesterday, Minister after Minister was wheeled out to say that there was light at the end of the tunnel but what they did not say was that for many people that tunnel is getting longer. All of the Government's plans indicated yesterday were dependent on vaccine timescales but to date it has missed every one of those. I am doing my best, like many other people, to stay positive with regard to the situation we are in but the plans the Government indicated yesterday could very well be rolled out further into the future if it does not meet the vaccination timescales it set out.
It must be remembered that this Government has implemented the longest lockdown workplace closure in Europe. People looking at this pandemic often say that every country is dealing with the same issue but the truth of the matter is that this Government has been an outlier in its dependence on blanket lockdowns. The length of time we have been locked down is a multiple of the time many other countries have been locked down and we have not seen the benefits in terms of improved mortality and morbidity figures.
I have raised the issue of cancer services that have been partially stopped. That is a serious issue that has to be dealt with. I have also raised the fact that, currently, 9,000 people in this State are homeless. Seventy-nine people died in homelessness in Dublin last year yet building sites to be used for building homes are closed. We can build State homes, which I welcome 100%, but building them is not any safer than building private homes.
I have raised the fact that outdoor sports for children are still blocked. Parks will be full this weekend but if we give them a golf club those people will have to walk home.
An issue that has not been raised in the past 24 hours is the extraordinary information about religious services in this coming Easter weekend. Ireland is in an infamous group of nations where there is a full ban on religious services. North Korea and Saudi Arabia are practically the only other countries that are banning religious services. I was shocked that the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach basically placed religious services at the same level as visits to museums. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the practice of religion is a human right. For millions of people in this State it is an essential element of their lives. That a Fianna Fáil Minister would literally place that human right at the same level as visiting a museum is incredible.
I raise the issue of what I believe are the Government's poor efforts with regard to the procurement of additional vaccines outside and in addition to the European supply chain. It has failed to seek vaccines outside that supply chain. When the Taoiseach met President Joe Biden online on St. Patrick's Day, despite the close personal ties between the two countries there was not an effort to secure vaccines from the President. Believe it or not, we now have a situation where the British are telling Ireland that they will give us their excess vaccines. We are in an embarrassing situation now where this country may have to go cap in hand to our near neighbour to seek excess vaccines.
The European Union's approach to this illness has been a disaster. I welcome the mention by the Government Deputy of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. From the start of the pandemic, it told governments not to stop the movement of people within the European Union. That has been a serious and damaging mistake on the part of the Government.
Europe has purchased enough vaccines to vaccinate the entire population of the European Union twice over but it is way behind many other organisations in the world in that regard. Britain has administered more than 34 million vaccines while the country with the closest figure in the European Union - Germany - has administered less than one third of that number. There are vaccines by their thousands in storehouses throughout Europe yet they are not being made available to countries like Ireland. The European Union is exporting millions of vaccines outside the European Union yet they are not available to countries like Ireland.
I raise also the fact that Ireland's income from the European recovery fund was slashed recently by hundreds of millions of euro. The calibre of our team battling for Ireland's economic interests at the heart of the European Union at a time of serious economic crisis worries me. It must be remembered that by 2025, this country will have built up a national debt of €270 billion. Every worker in the State will owe €100,000. That will be the third highest public state debt per capitain the world yet the European Union is slashing the amount of money being given to Ireland because of our hocus-pocus GDP figures. Our hocus-pocus GDP figures, or leprechaun economics that Paul Krugman mentioned, have us on the hook for massive investments into the European Union on an annual basis.
We are seeing the pharmaceutical and technology sectors in this country doing well but the domestic sector is being gutted. It needs radical investment. This is no time for the so-called European solidarity to be switched off. I urge the Government to fight for our economic interests in the European Union.
I thank the Minister of State for being in the House to discuss some of the work he is doing within his own Ministry and in terms of what is going on in the European Union. I do not agree with Deputy Tóibín on many issues but some of the points he made around the economic issues relating to the European Union were points I had stressed with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne. They should be of the highest priority for the Government.
The pandemic has caused enormous economic strain on the eurozone and on the European Union. Our response to the crisis has cost hundreds of billions of euro across many democracies in Europe. I am extremely worried about the economic ramifications that are coming down the line once herd immunity has been obtained within the European community. As the youngest parliamentarian in the Republic of Ireland and one of the youngest in the world, I want to stress that a return to austerity politics and monetary policy within the eurozone could be the deathknell for the European project. I am extremely concerned about that. Democracy will not be able to take another round of austerity.
In a constructive way I suggest to the Minister of State, his Department and the unit within the Department of the Taoiseach that Ireland, as one of the countries that suffered the most from austerity politics, would lead the call to continue along the lines our partners in the United States took in terms of quantitative easing and direct economic stimulus to individuals and not only to industries. What President Biden did recently in terms of the stimulus cheques provided to individual citizens was wonderful. Doing something similar would be a wonderful way to thank the people of this country, regardless of the sector in which they were working. It has to be stated that we do not control our own monetary policy; it is done by the eurozone. However, Ireland is in a powerful position. A colleague of the Minister of State, whose office is a few corridors from his in Government Buildings, is the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, who is chair of the Eurogroup. We are in a very strong position to lead that particular argument. One of our partners in government, Fine Gael, is a member of the European People's Party. Many of its Prime Ministers are Heads of Government or are in prominent positions within the eurozone. I call on our Fine Gael colleagues to follow a similar argument to the one I am making today.
I have significant concerns around the procurement process the European Union has brought us through. It was a miserable exercise trying to explain that to many angry constituents who were ringing our office asking why we were not procuring more vaccines. It has been a complete and utter failure on behalf of the European Union and the European Commission in terms of their planning and process regarding the manufacturing of vaccines and the procurement process for individual member states.
It has done significant harm to democracy. There has to be some accountability for that. Our former European Commissioner was sacked for playing a game of golf in Ireland, yet the European Commissioner in charge of health and vaccination procurement seems to be getting off scot-free. How is that fair in any democracy? The European Union is in a position where there does not seem to be any accountability when it comes to its failures with vaccinations. If I asked how many resignations there have been from the European Commission, the answer would be zero. That is not good enough. This is something that has to be said and I, as a Member of Dáil Éireann, am happy to say it.
Those are my simple messages. We cannot return to austerity politics or to austerity monetary policy because it would do substantial harm to democracies throughout Europe and to the European Union. There is also the issue of accountability regarding the failures relating to procurement.
I am going to change tack slightly, but I will still bring my contribution back to the European Council meeting. During that meeting, there were discussions about societal well-being. That is an aspect of this pandemic that we do not talk about enough in the House. There is a mental health epidemic across continental Europe and in Ireland. That epidemic needs to be addressed and resources and funding must be provided in order that we can find solutions and address people's deteriorating mental health. The latter is becoming a major issue throughout the country. As Deputies, we can attest to this on foot of the nature of the calls that we get to our constituency offices. People are at their wits' end. They are despairing and incredibly frustrated.
A good measure of how people's mental health has deteriorated comes in the form of evidence I was given when I went to my local butcher a couple of weeks ago. A butcher's shop is the type of place where one would have this type of conversation. The butcher said to me that he had noted from February on, for the first time in the pandemic, that while one in ten people might be in a bad mood or might not be in the best form normally, it has been happening more and more. Almost everybody coming in to the shop and having a daily discussion was just despairing and had essentially given up. We are seeing that across the country. As a Government and a society, we need to intervene and ensure that the long-term impacts of this pandemic are minimised as much as possible.
It is not just my local butcher who has given me this evidence. Statistics show that there has been a 150% increase in the number of people seeking access to mental health services and that there was a 36% increase of people seeking support from the Samaritans in 2020. The evidence in there. We need to analyse that evidence and make sure that we use the statistics to which I refer to support the argument for significantly increasing funding for mental health, particularly as people are struggling. There is no doubt that people are struggling and we, as a Government, need to intervene. There has been an increase in the budget for mental health services but because of the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns and of people not being able to see family members or friends, travel or work and having reduced incomes, there has been a significant impact. I extend that to the recent announcement about the lifting of restrictions. The fact that those under 18, after 26 April, will be able to participate in training for sport so long as there are fewer than 15 and it is socially distanced and monitored, is welcome. It is tough when a 17-year-old person and someone who is 18/-and-a-half years old are friends and in the same class and the latter has to look at his or her friend going to sports training, whether it is for camogie, football, rugby or badminton. It will be difficult for that person to accept. There has to be room for flexibility in this regard because there is a level of unfairness that is hard to accept.
On the vaccine supplies from Europe, Ireland has had some of the strictest restrictions and they has worked. We have kept the case numbers and the mortality rate among the lowest in Europe. We need to be rewarded for that with increased vaccine supply.
The European project has failed Ireland and it is failing Ireland, from the fiasco at the summit last year, where we provided a substantial net contribution and were the second-lowest beneficiaries in the whole EU. There are affected individuals in Clonmel and in Tipperary, at South East Car Sales, McCarthy Motors and Eurocar Logistics, and a Deputy from Longford spoke about the problems that car importers are having. There is a stupid regulation whereby cars made in a European country, were imported into England while it was in the EU and now, because it has left in the aftermath of Brexit, we cannot get the Revenue Commissioners to understand simple dates and times in respect of those vehicles. Revenue is onerously penalising people. This is having a significant effect on those owners and garages and, by extension, customers who want to buy cars because Revenue is charging penal rates and an excess of duty in respect of these vehicles. This should be done when the vehicle registration tax is being paid. It is just making work.
I have to question our officials who are dealing with Europe and the Ministers. Deputy Michael Collins referred earlier today to how the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, might as well stay at home and not attend summits because he did not open his mouth and let our fishing be wiped out. Now we are here with the vaccines. We are a joking. England has administered 36 million vaccines and we are here looking for crumbs from the table of Europe. Phil Hogan lost his job because he went to a golf game. I want the European Commissioner in charge of health to be sacked because he has not delivered. Is there any accountability? We are the nice boys in Europe all the time, being told to jump and asking how high. We love the project. Europe is fleecing us now and is not delivering for us in any shape or form. The contract that was signed with AstraZeneca by EU officials is bizarre. A three- or four-year-old child would not sign it. Now we have the consequences. The one signed the day before by the British was clever and shrewd. It has delivered and will continue to deliver.
The roll-out and the support we are getting here is pathetic. Social issues will arise and debt will be forced upon us again as it was previously by the EU with the bail-out, which I called a clean-out. We have no heads in Europe any more. I want heads to roll if there is to be any accountability. Does the Minister of State think the people are monkeys? Tomorrow is 1 April but the Minister of State might want to wake up and smell the coffee. Every day is April Fools' Day for him, with the European project making a clown of him.
I am just a mere mortal when it comes to European law and the ongoing European Council meetings. Clearly, there are not enough mortals from Ireland going to these meetings. I had to read through the minutes of the meeting we are discussing and nowhere did I see any mention of the horrors that hauliers and firms in Ireland are going through in order to get their goods delivered. Ireland is the most disadvantaged country in Europe as a result of Brexit. The latter took place just three months ago and it is as if it never happened. We are an island located off the coast of another island, the UK, which stands between us and Europe. Europe has all the choices while Ireland is clearly disadvantaged on many levels. Why do hauliers still have a paper-based T-forms instead of digital forms? Requirements should be effortless, modern and technology-based. Try driving around Europe with a perishable product such as shellfish and try to find a customs agent. This is unfair to any industry and it does not even get a mention on our airwaves or here in the Dáil. What about products arriving on time? Ask the owners of garages that are waiting for tyres and factories that are not getting supplies and are unable to function.
Since Brexit, the additional cost relating to every lorry leaving Ireland has been €500. We need concessions in European law regarding air, sea and rail transport. Why is this not being asked for by the Government? Cabotage is another avenue that we could look at for Ireland. In France, companies can only make two drops, thus eliminating income generated by securing a backload. This is where people could make a profit. How can Irish suppliers compete when it now takes six to eight hours longer to reach their destinations? This is not about the ferries. They are providing a service but it is more expensive. Why are issues like this being ignored at European Council meetings, particularly in circumstances in which Ireland is surely the most disadvantaged member state?
I will finish with a quotation from the European Council meeting:
With a view to the upcoming Porto Social Summit, we [the EU] underline that a successful digital transition requires that no one is left behind. We need the necessary tools and infrastructure ... while ensuring fair working conditions and high standards in the digital economy.
This quotation is not about Ireland, but it should be.
I wish to ask a question of the Minister of State. I know he does not have the capability to answer now. Subject to a ruling of Leas-Cheann Comhairle, who is occupied, I do not think the Minister of State can answer straight away, but I would appreciate it if he could.
I would like to know what was concretely concluded with regard to the digital pass. The digital pass has the potential to be a very good thing. Equally, it has the potential to be a negative and destructive thing. Obviously, the EU is based on three freedoms, namely, the freedoms of the movement of people, goods and services. I do not need to tell the Minister of State this; he knows it well, from a variety of perspectives. Nobody is suggesting that-----
I look forward to that.
The concern among people is that while the Commission has framed it as something that will facilitate the free movement of people in a safe way, ultimately it will become a barrier to free movement.
In particular, the Minister of State should answer in respect of sunset clauses. As I have seen two sunset clauses extended with regard to Covid restrictions in Ireland, I do not have huge confidence in them per se, or at least the Irish approach to them. For example, I do know that in Italy a quarantine measure has been introduced. It is the second country to introduce quarantine measures in respect of other EU nationals. However, the measure introduced in Italy is to be place for a very limited period of time. I have no reason to believe that it will be extended. The Irish quarantine measure is more open to extension.
Yes, but it is quarantining of EU nationals and it is the second country to require EU nationals to quarantine. We were the first, in respect of Austrian nationals.
The proposal in Ireland is to extend the quarantining measure to the nationals of a number of other countries. I wonder where that sits in respect of free movement. Most EU countries, if not all at this stage, are only allowing essential travel. There is no need for the Minister of State to tell me that; I understand that. However, there is a hope and expectation that this will ease this summer, which is part of the reason - not the only reason - this digital pass has been proposed. I do not know where the proposal to extend quarantining to many of the EU member states sits with the essential right to freedom of movement. I am not just referring to the freedom of movement of people, but also of goods. How are we going to maintain agrifood exports? Europe is a huge and important market for us. How are we going to maintain that in terms of delivery if there is quarantining? In respect of live exports, we export cattle, calves in particular, live to Spain to an important if not huge extent and particularly to Italy. Have we thought about that?
Previous speakers, including Deputy O'Connor, spoke about when Europe is vaccinated. I read an article very recently in The Lancetby members of the French Covid-19 scientific council, which is the French equivalent of NPHET. I do not know if it holds as much sway over Government policy in France as NPHET does in Ireland. The article stated: "The fervently awaited end of this global health crisis might be continually postponed, as new variants emerge and immune evasion reduces vaccination effectiveness in the short and medium term." It concluded: "Using stop-start general confinement as the main response to the Covid-19 pandemic is no longer feasible." That is a hugely different approach to the approach we are taking at present. We are hoping that vaccination will be the magic bullet. It is fair to say that we are less concerned that this might prove elusive. How do we reconcile that difference in approach in France with the approach we are taking here in the longer term, while maintaining free movement? If there are vaccine-resistant variants evolving right through the EU, that means there will permanent quarantining here or we will have to deal with the reality.
It seems to me that in Ireland, we have not dealt with the reality of living with Covid for a long time. We seem to think that we are like New Zealand or Australia and that we can suppress it. We are not. We have a very different social structure and-----
I wish to make one last, brief point.
The free movement of people is important for attracting foreign and direct investment into Ireland, because many US-based and other international multinationals base themselves in Dublin on the basis that they can bring in young, skilled workers from across the EU. That becomes much more difficult if those young, skilled workers cannot see their families throughout the-----
If I may, I am in the hands of the Acting Chairman and those of the Members. Sometimes at this point, I answer the questions that have been raised already. However, if Members wish to ask questions now, I am happy to do it either way.
I asked a question and the Minister of State offered to answer it, so I would appreciate it if we could start the questions and answers with an answer, rather than taking time to ask the same question again, particularly if the Minister of State is minded to answer it.
I asked a number of questions in my contribution. I want to ask a number of supplementary questions of the Minister of State which I did not cover in my contribution.
I want to raise the issue of Catalonia. Sinn Féin defends the right of nations to choose their own destiny through democratic means. The objective of the Spanish Government is to criminalise those who have peacefully worked to see the will of the Catalonian people realised, namely, their independence. This persecution strikes at the heart of European democracy. Recently, the European Parliament voted in favour of removing parliamentary immunity for three Catalonian MEPs facing extradition to Spain on charges essentially linked to the Catalonian referendum. It sets a dangerous precedent in the European institution. Indeed, were this China, Russia or Syria, there would be outrage. Perhaps the US would be trying to funnel arms and weapons to them. Yet, there is complete silence on the issue on the part of the Irish Government and the European Council. I ask the Minister of State why that is the case. Has the issue been raised at European Council level? What is the view of the Irish Government on the rights of the Catalonian people to self-determination?
I also want to raise an issue concerning Turkey. On the EU approach to Turkey, how much of that relationship is coloured by the fact that Turkey houses more than 4 million refugees, primarily from Syria, who would otherwise make their way to Europe? The fact that Turkey is prepared to accept payment from the EU for the hosting of refugees appears to be a factor in the failure of the EU to deal with a host of transgressions by Turkey, including the ongoing attempts to ban the third largest party in Turkey, the HDP, along with a decision by Turkey to withdraw from the Council of Europe accord, which was introduced to prevent, prosecute and eliminate domestic violence and to promote equality. There are other issues in respect of Cyprus, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the kid glove approach by the EU in relation to Turkey.
I ask the Minister of State to provide an explanation for that. Why is that approach being taken? Is it primarily to do with the failure of the EU to deal with the refugee situation stemming from neighbouring countries and refugees who are housed in Turkey?
I am more than happy to answer as many of the questions as I can. Deputy Brady asked about Catalonia. It is a matter for the people of Spain and the people of Catalonia as to how their affairs are dealt with, in accordance with the rule of law. It is a matter for the European Parliament to make decisions regarding the application of its parliamentary privileges and immunities. It is up to the MEP of the Deputy's party to vote in accordance with his views on this issue and other MEPs are likewise free to vote as they choose. There is no role for the Government in telling the European Parliament what it should do on this issue. MEPs are our democratically elected representatives in Europe.
The Deputy raised important points in regard to Turkey. I fully agree with him on the Istanbul Convention, which is an issue the Taoiseach raised at the European Council last week. There were quite detailed conclusions issued on that matter. The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is an issue of serious concern. It is always necessary for us to show solidarity with Cyprus and Greece in particular because there is a great deal of hassle, suffering and real hardship for the people there arising out of the huge migrant crisis there. We want to see whether we can move things along in Turkey by helping to develop the country economically while also making sure there is adherence to human rights and democracy. Work will go on in regard to the customs union. We are prepared, as set out in the Council conclusions, to launch a high-level dialogue with Turkey on the major issues. It is important that we do so while making sure that Turkey is held to account in terms of its international and national responsibilities.
We have seen from the minutes of the Council meeting, from which I quoted, that Ireland has lost its voice in Europe. Do our MEPs need a Lemsip or lozenges to get their voice back? The minutes referred to every other member state but Ireland was not mentioned. What has gone wrong?
On the issue of vaccines, we have seen what is happening in regard to the contracts with AstraZeneca. I asked people in Russia about vaccines and I was the only Deputy in Ireland to do so. Other European countries were doing the same, once the Russian vaccine was cleared for use. We in this country have lost our voice and we need to get it back without delay. We need to have our voice heard in Europe. We are a good country that can hit well above its weight but we seem to have gone silent when it comes to Europe. We need to get a bit of backbone and start roaring and shouting. I heard a Minister say recently that we are not elected to this House to roar and shout. In fact, it seems that the only way the Government will listen is when we roar and shout. We need members of the Government to shout for Ireland and get us going.
Hopefully, the Deputy will give me the opportunity to answer quite a few questions that have been raised in respect of the general issues he has raised. Before Christmas, Deputy O'Donoghue was anti-vaccines. Now he is telling us that we should be going to Russia-----
On a point of order, I said I would take advice from my doctor in the context of having an underlying condition. Again, the Minister of State goes to the gutter and cannot give answers to the questions raised. If he were as good at answering questions as he is at-----
In regard to what Deputy O'Donoghue said about Ireland not being mentioned in the conclusions - or minutes, as the Deputy calls them - of the European Council, he should look back at all the conclusions of previous Council meetings and all the records of discussions at the General Affairs Council and in the European Parliament, particularly since Brexit. I honestly think he will find that no country has been mentioned more than Ireland in terms of the effects of Brexit. I urge him to look back at all the other Council conclusions and all the other discussions that have taken place. Our officials have been working hard for us on a broad range of issues.
I agree with some of the points raised by the Deputy. Brexit has brought huge inconveniences. However, the problem is not the European Union or the Government. The problem is the fact of Brexit. We did not decide that there should be customs barriers with Britain. Britain decided to leave the Single Market, the customs union and the European Union. It does not want to align with the standards for our products. In the case of cabotage, for example, an absolutely huge effort was undertaken by our officials to negotiate what has been negotiated in that area. There are huge efforts under way by officials and Ministers to make sure the protocol for Northern Ireland is implemented. There is a huge effort being made to resolve some of the issues referred to by Deputy Flaherty. The problem is Brexit. The problem is that our nearest neighbour and trading partner has left the European Union. We have been working really hard over the past number of years, on a cross-party basis, to make sure the negative effects of that are ameliorated to the greatest extent possible. However, we cannot bring back what we had before because Britain, in its wisdom, although I do not think it was very wise, decided to leave the Union.
A number of speakers, including Deputies Cathal Crowe, Haughey, Brendan Smith, McNamara, Howlin and O'Donnell, raised the issue of vaccine supply. In regard to the projections for quarter 2, which is starting this week, Deputies should note that approximately 100 million doses have been delivered to EU member states up to now. That is almost on target, as are our own figures. We have managed to get 95% of the delivered vaccines into people's arms within a week. That has been a huge challenge. In the case of Moderna, as I understand it, it is necessary to hold back vaccine for the second dose. We are not doing that with the other vaccines. The projection for quarter 2 is that 360 million vaccines will be delivered on a European basis. That is made up of 200 million Pfizer vaccines, 35 million Moderna vaccines, 70 million AstraZeneca vaccines - that company has contracted to deliver significantly more than that - and 55 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines. It is important to note that the latter is a single-dose vaccine. I understand that 55 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines are equivalent to 110 million doses of a different vaccine. The leaders agreed at the European Council that the pro ratasystem that has been implemented for the distribution of vaccines will continue. There have been various media reports on how we will benefit from that. There is no question but that deliveries are ramping up. Deputy Ó Murchú mentioned Commissioner Thierry Breton and the work he is doing in this area. There is a huge effort under way and we are beginning to see the fruits of that.
Before I move on to digital green certificates, I want to put some matters on the record.
The difficulty is that I have been asked to mention Turkey and Russia in my wrap-up. I want to get through some of the questions now, if I can. In regard to new variants, which were mentioned as a cause for concern, there is a great deal of work under way in the European Union on that issue. The EU's early warning and rapid response system is providing some data on the circulation of variants but the information is not complete. We are working with other EU member states on the response to new variants and making sure we have enough vaccines not just for this year but for next year.
We tentatively support the idea of a European health union but further work needs to be done on how it would operate in practice. We are still considering in detail the information the Commission has set out on the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, HERA, Incubator but we are very positively disposed to it. We are looking for greater detail in that regard and we will work with the Commission on it. The HERA Incubator is a central pillar of response that the EU is proposing for the future. Dr. Ronan Glynn has been nominated as Ireland's representative on the high-level expert group. That is an issue for the future.
Deputies McNamara, Cathal Crowe, O'Connor and a number of others asked about the digital green certificate. The conclusions from the European Council were that the leaders agreed that work would continue on this matter. The Commission has published a proposal for a regulation that would be legally binding in regard to digital green certificates. It would involve an interoperable certificate that outlines one's vaccination, test and recovery status. What these certificates might eventually be used for would be a matter for each member state.
The key point is the information would be there and it would be interoperable between member states. Currently, the Council of Ministers is agreeing its position and the European Parliament is considering it. They agreed to an expedited procedure and the Commission wants this in place by the summer. When agreement is reached between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and the legislation is passed, it will be directly effective and we will have to apply it. The Taoiseach and the Government has said we are committed to doing the technical work to ensure we can comply with that regulation.
There is much positive work on that. Currently the focus is on the medical position, including vaccines and ending the pandemic so we can open as best we can. We will continue to work on the digital green certificate proposal. We will see in the near future what particular uses it may have.
I noted in the pre-European Council statements that the Minister of State indicated this would be used for collecting information. Without putting words in his mouth, I understood the implication was that rather than it being for facilitating free movement. This goes to the final point made by the Minister of State when he referred to the use it can be put to. It would be a concern for people if it were to be put to a use other than that for which it was intended or ostensibly developed, which was solely to facilitate free movement. Will the Minister of State clarify that?
The Minister of State indicated it is hoped to have this developed and legally binding by the summer. It would be open to countries to determine the use for people coming in but it is very difficult to see how we can prevent countries stopping their nationals from leaving because there is freedom of movement. One must be an Irish citizen to be in the Dáil and I carry a purple passport. It is not a green passport, although I once had one. I am a citizen of the European Union. I appreciate that citizenship is complimentary to and does not replace nationality but it is existing and the Irish Government in some of its measures, and certainly the Department of Health in its recommendations, has no cognisance of the fact we are citizens of the European Union with all the rights and duties that entails.
I am very happy to echo the comments of Deputy McNamara. We were in a state of some disagreement last week but I completely agree with his comments in that the fundamental right of free movement is not only a human right but a legal right. It is one of the benefits of European Union citizenship and the treaties. The Deputy also mentioned free movement of goods, which is another critical area.
There is a debate ongoing as to what this will be used for. Fundamentally, it will be for member states. Some of the member states want these used for travel and some of the northern countries have really serious concerns about human rights and ethical issues. These matters will be teased out and discussed in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. I understand it will come before the General Affairs Council on which I sit, so I am happy to engage on discussions with the Deputy, along with Deputies Cathal Crowe, James O'Connor, Lawless, Richmond and others who have come to me about this, as it happens. If it comes to my Council, it is possible we will deal with it. MEPs will also have an input.
There is a division of opinion in what this will be used for. The Government here has not said they will be used for travel, although that may change at some point. The Deputy is correct that it is a fundamental right.
If the Greek Government wants to accept something like this, that will be its concern. Currently, the position here is it is an offence to travel abroad unnecessarily. It is complicated. The vaccine roll-out is getting under way fast and we hope we can put this behind us. We must be very careful.
I would be very glad to avail of the offer to sit and meet to discuss those matters. We can also discuss the various strains of republicanism on these islands, both historical and current, when we meet. I thank the Minister of State.
I welcome the Minister of State breaking down the 360 million vaccine doses. Is it possible to get a timeline on when in the second quarter they will be delivered and if we can get the specifics for this State? That would be beneficial.
I understand there will not be a pile of time for the work of Commissioner Thierry Breton, specifically with regard to the contracts between the EU or Britain and AstraZeneca, or the conversations that the Commission has had on the likes of C-TAP, maximising global vaccine supply and looking at the possibility of waiving intellectual property rights.
Just to put it on the agenda again, what mention was there of dealing with the Irish protocol? As much as everyone is up for sensible solutions, it is not going anywhere, and there are people on this island and further afield who need to know that.
Global solidarity is really important and fair and equitable access to a vaccine is vital, regardless of income, around the world. EU engagement will accelerate global efforts to bring the pandemic under control and scale up the distribution of successful vaccines when available. We strongly believe in a co-ordinated and multilateral response to Covid-19 as an unprecedented global health crisis.
We have quadrupled funding to the WHO in 2020. We support COVAX, the Covid-19 vaccines global access programme, very strongly, and this supports 92 countries. It has shipped over 31 million vaccines to 57 countries. Irish Aid recently announced a planned contribution of €4 million to COVAX to finance procurement for developing countries. We will contribute an additional €1 million to the WHO to support oversight of the COVAX mechanism to ensure it is fair and transparent. The EU announced last month that it would double funding for COVAX from €500 million to €1 billion, and we make a pro ratacontribution to that as well. The entire EU pledge to COVAX is €2.2 billion.
Some of the benefits of COVAX can be seen in the developing world but the example of Palestine struck me most. We congratulate Israel on its vaccination programme success but it is us, along with Britain, in fairness to it, as well as other wealthy countries, that are paying for the start of the vaccination roll-out in Palestine.
Last week the EU gave authorisation for a number of vaccine factories, including Marburg for the Pfizer-BioNTech, a factory in the Netherlands for AstraZeneca and a factory in Switzerland for Moderna. The process, along with many others, is ongoing. These are designed to ensure we have the capacity to supply ourselves.
I thank everybody for their statements and questions. As the Taoiseach indicated, I will report on the discussions of the members of the European Council on the two external relations items on the agenda, namely, Russia and Turkey.
As the meeting was by videoconference, the discussion on Russia was only an information point. European Council President Charles Michel briefed leaders on his phone call with Russian President Putin on 22 March. Ireland fully supports the EU's position on Russia, which has been set out in five principles since 2016. These principles form a stable and effective framework for our interaction with Russia and it is important that the EU maintains its unified approach. EU leaders agreed to hold a strategic discussion on relations with Russia at a future in-person meeting of the European Council.
EU leaders discussed relations with Turkey and welcome the recent de-escalation of tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. Provided this de-escalation is sustained and Turkey engages constructively, leaders indicated the European Union is ready to engage with Turkey with a view to enhancing co-operation in a number of areas of mutual interest. The engagement would be phased, proportionate and reversible. Its purpose, however, is to bolster the more recent positive dynamic and EU leaders will return to this in June.
Leaders also agreed to provide financial assistance for Syrian refugees and host communities in Turkey. There are approximately 4 million Syrian refugees so this is a humanitarian imperative not just for Turkey but all of Europe really. These refugees and the communities that host them deserve our support and solidarity.
EU leaders also confirmed their commitment to a comprehensive statement of the Cyprus problem in accordance with the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. In our capacity as a member of the UN Security Council, our priority is to see both sides resuming talks. We welcome the convening of the "5+1" talks in Geneva in late April and hope these talks will be conducive to the resumption of negotiations on the Cyprus matter.
This is a priority issue directly that directly affects the European Union. The Union's participation in the talks as an observer is essential. We stand ready to help the parties in their efforts. On the shape of a future settlement, Ireland, like other partners on the UN Security Council, remains committed to the achievement of a bizonal, bicommunal federal state as the basis of a solution.
It was also important that the European Council's conclusions took into account the human rights situation in Turkey. There have been regrettable backward steps by Turkey on the rule of law and human rights in recent weeks. The move to ban Turkey's third largest political party, the HDP, and thus deny representation to millions of voters is really troubling. At last week's meeting, the Taoiseach raised concerns about the decision of Turkey to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. I thank Deputies for raising that matter today. The convention is essential in protecting women and girls from violence and this is a serious setback to the rights of women in Turkey. Some recent actions against students and the targeting of LGBT groups also run counter to Turkey's stated commitment to pursue a closer relationship with the European Union.
The European Union is built on an adherence to fundamental values, including defence of human rights, freedom of expression and respect for democracy and the rule of law. For any meaningful progress on Turkey's relationship with it to occur, Turkey will need to take positive concrete actions to address its internal human rights situation. Dialogue on fundamental rights will remain an integral part of the EU-Turkey relationship. In light of the aspects I have just outlined, Ireland agrees with the incremental approach set out by leaders. The EU has set out a pathway to a more positive EU-Turkey relationship, which will be implemented step by step and will be reversible if required.
As the Taoiseach stated, a good deal of the European Council's time was taken up with discussing Covid-19. There was a strong focus on economic issues, with discussions on the Single Market, industrial policy, digital policy and the meeting of the euro summit, which the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, attended in his capacity as President of the Eurogroup. In all these discussions, it was vital that the EU maintained a united, dignified and ambitious approach. The challenges we face are too great for any member state to deal with alone. By working together, we can achieve better outcomes not just for Ireland but for all of Europe. That applies to pandemic preparedness and vaccine procurement. Despite all the problems that have been rehearsed, it is undoubtedly the case that we are far better placed within the European Union structure, which is beginning to bear fruit in terms of delivery, then we would be on our own.
The point was made about the British vaccines by, I think, Deputy McDonald. There has been no offer of vaccines from Britain. If there were, we would certainly consider it. If there is such an offer, according to what their ministers are saying publicly on the record, it will presumably be later in the summer when they have vaccinated their own people.
Reference was made to the recovery and resilience fund. Work is under way by our officials in this regard. I pay tribute to them. They were criticised by a number of Deputies, something for which there is no precedent and which was a bit unfortunate. I do not think that should happen in the House. The officials are working hard negotiating which the Commission on the recovery and resilience fund. There are no conclusions yet in that regard. The amount we get could go up depending on economic performance. There is a huge amount of work going on in the context of the Brexit adjustment reserve. Ireland is by far the largest beneficiary of that fund because, as Deputy O'Donoghue said, we are seen as having suffered the most. That fund is an example of the practical solidarity that European Union leaders are showing toward us. I thank all Deputies for their contributions.