Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Europe Day: Statements
It gives me great pleasure to open this debate to mark Europe Day. Europe Day is a celebration of peace and unity in Europe. It marks the birthday of what is today the European Union, the direct enabler of historic progress on this island and throughout Europe. In the face of constant opposition from the extremes of the right and the left, the European Union has prevailed. It has led to a dramatic improvement in living standards for every community. It has protected democracy and spoken up for solidarity. It has opposed the many extremist voices which continue to promote ideologies which offer nothing more than angry words and an ignorance of history.
It is a Union which Ireland joined freely 50 years ago with hopes and aspirations which have been met and exceeded time and again. In a world where the arrogant, defensive and inward-looking nationalism of the past has tried to reassert itself, the European Union has stood for a positive vision. It is a vision where sovereignty is enhanced by confident nations working together constructively and with strong rules to ensure fairness.
Like any entity built by people, it has its flaws and some of these are serious. In any honest debate, however, we have to make time to acknowledge its overwhelmingly positive contributions. We need to reaffirm our commitment to the core spirit of co-operation at its heart. The idea of working to replace conflict with co-operation is as old as Europe itself.
History records many visionaries who looked at a Continent defined by warfare and called for a new approach. In the 1920s and 1930s, one finds Irish leaders like Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass responding to rising tensions in Europe by calling for strong rules-based organisations. De Valera's appeal to the League of Nations to respect limits of the actions of states remains one of the shining high points of Irish foreign policy and is one of the most prophetic predictions in the 1930s about where Europe might head. Seán Lemass, as a young man imprisoned after the Civil War, devoted himself to reading economic and political texts which might show a new road forward for Ireland. His attraction to the idea of European economic co-operation began at that point.
So it was that the generation that fought for our independence continued to define our future as a positive and outward looking one, just as we find in the spirit of the 1916 Proclamation. It remains the greatest tragedy of modern history that it took the disaster of the Second World War for Europe to turn to building strong rules-based co-operation. Robert Schuman wished to see a Europe where war between European nations would become a thing of the past.
Much has happened over the past 70 years. The European Union now comprises 27 member states from all parts of Europe, including many for whom membership of the Union has been central to overcoming the legacy of right-wing and left-wing totalitarian regimes. While the European Union is by no means perfect, there are great advantages for a small, open, trading nation being at the centre of the European project. Over the decades, we have shared many significant milestones and weathered many storms together. There were good times like the reunification of Germany in 1990 or the addition of ten new member states under the Irish Presidency of the Council in 2004. There have also been more difficult ones including the economic crisis, the departure of the United Kingdom and, of course, more recently the Covid-19 pandemic. In good times and in bad, there has always been strength in unity.
I acknowledge in particular the role of the European Union in supporting the Good Friday Agreement and peace on this island. The European Union has been an essential backdrop and forum where Irish and British Ministers and officials built the relationships which made possible the Anglo-Irish Agreement and later the Good Friday Agreement, as well as subsequent agreements. Peace has been the most transformative change of all in Ireland over the past 20 years and more. Throughout the peace process, the European Union has stood with us.
Our partners in the European institutions worked to protect peace and the Good Friday Agreement throughout the negotiations on Brexit. They are working with us now as we seek to bed down the new arrangements. This is the first Europe Day since the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was signed in December last year and ratified by the European Parliament last month. We are now in the earliest days of a new European Union-United Kingdom dispensation. It is clear that it will take time for the United Kingdom to become comfortable with its new relationship with the European Union and vice versa.
At an early point in the Brexit negotiations, the United Kingdom decided to leave the Single Market and the customs union, even if it sometimes cavilled at what the inevitable consequences of this choice would be. In choosing that path, the United Kingdom stepped outside the seamless trading environment of the European Union. Being outside means friction. While this is an obstacle to trade, it should not be one to partnership. It is a time now to rebuild trust, which has become a scarcer commodity following more than four years of negotiation and upheaval.
As we in Ireland know from all our key relationships, whether as a member of the UN Security Council currently, as a EU member state or as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, trust is the very stuff of peace, prosperity, partnership and success. That is also why Ireland has chosen our own path. It is the path of the European Union, where countries play by the same rules, co-operate freely and fairly and try to raise all boats. Never did our choice resonate more than it did over those four and a half years as the European Union and United Kingdom negotiated the UK's withdrawal agreement and then the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. At times, there were difficult days during these negotiations. Amidst all of the uncertainty caused by Brexit, one unequivocal certainty came to the fore, namely, the certain value of the solidarity that comes from being a member state of the European Union.
Over the past year, Covid-19 has challenged us all and tested our resolve. Governments in the European Union and beyond have been faced with difficult choices as they sought to protect life and health, while also limiting the damage to jobs, enterprise and economies. The European Union's institutions were also faced with a crisis and a challenge of immense scale in an area where the Union's competence and ability to respond were constrained.
Despite this, the European Union has played a pivotal role in our collective response to the pandemic. The European Commission has supported vaccine development and procurement. We can clearly see those benefits now. Approximately 200 million doses of safe and effective vaccines have already been distributed inside the European Union, not much more than a year since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. A further 200 million vaccines have been exported from the European Union to 90 other countries. This makes the European Union the foremost bloc in the production and distribution of vaccines in the entire world, a point which does not get the commentary it deserves and gets undermined in domestic commentary here. This is a remarkable achievement by the European Union in itself.
The Commission's work on vaccines is a clear example of the EU responding to its citizens' needs and supporting member states' efforts to combat the pandemic. As I noted, large quantities of vaccines produced in the EU have been exported to over 90 countries across the world.
However, we acknowledge we must do more to support global solidarity. The European Union will continue its efforts to contribute to the international response to the pandemic, including through the COVAX facility, and we must continue to ensure nobody is left behind. The European Union launched its Team Europe initiative in April last year and has so far mobilised a budget of over €40 billion of resources from the European Union, its member states and financial institutions. Ireland will play its part. We responded rapidly in recent weeks to provide life saving equipment to India in response to the worsening Covid-19 outbreak there. This support is part of the coordinated effort by the European Union member states, through the European Civil Protection Mechanism.
It is clear Covid-19 will leave deep and lasting economic and social impacts. Last year, the European Union, its institutions and its member states came together in a way that has demonstrated to its citizens the strength there is in unity. The €1.8 trillion budgetary package agreed by the European Council last July – my own first meeting as Taoiseach - represents a new and important milestone in European Union solidarity. The spectre of the pandemic was to the forefront of all our minds as we worked over the course of four long days and nights to address the gravity of this unprecedented collective challenge. Despite sometimes very difficult negotiations, we agreed a fair, balanced and ambitious package to support Europe’s economic recovery and to drive the climate and digital transformation on which our future well-being and prosperity rely. This includes a targeted and front-loaded investment, through the recovery and resilience facility, and reinforcement of key MMF programmes. Importantly, the recovery package sent a message that in the most testing of times, even when there are differing views as to the right approach and the best way forward, European Union leaders can work together and find a compromise that delivers for our citizens. In the middle of possibly the greatest challenge our Union has faced, there probably could not have been a better outcome.
Over the next seven years we will contribute more to the EU budget than we will receive and in doing so we will extend the same solidarity to others that we have benefited from over many decades. We do this because this is a model that works. The path to full economic recovery will be very challenging and we will need to use all of the tools available to us. Among the most important of these is the Single Market. We will need to harness its full potential to drive the digital and climate transformations on which our future prosperity depends. In building the Single Market of the future, economic openness remains crucial. The European Union should continue to work and advocate for strong, open, rules-based, multilateralism as a framework within which we can advance our interests and defend our values. In that respect, recent work in respect of the value of trade deals, under the aegis of the European Union, revealed very significant benefits for small to medium-sized enterprises in Ireland and indeed for the multinational presence in Ireland. Therefore, the House, and those who are opposed to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, and other trade deals need really to reappraise that opposition because the evidence about the Canada deal and also the Japan deal, South Korea deal and other trade deals is quite significant in terms of the value to GDP and also the value added to Irish companies which create jobs here and produce products and solutions for the global market and help to solve many problems across the globe.
As I said, the European Union is more than just a shared marketplace. The Porto Declaration, signed by European Union leaders this weekend, makes clear that our shared European ideal is first and foremost about improving the lives of our citizens. It marks an important milestone in setting a progressive EU agenda for the decade ahead. I joined European Union leaders at the social summit at the invitation of the Portuguese Presidency to reinforce our collective national and European Union-level commitment to implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights. The concrete employment, skills and poverty-reduction targets to be achieved by 2030 are an exemplar of the practical focus I believe is necessary in setting the strategic direction for the period ahead. These European Union targets are for an adult employment rate of 78%, 60% of adults to be in training annually and a reduction of at least 15 million in the number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion, including at least 5 million children. They provide the right political emphasis for the European Union and member states in steering the European semester process of economic governance for annual budgets, including this year’s national recovery and resilience plans. It is very welcome that the social pillar will continue to provide a clear political compass for our collective actions in responding effectively to 21st century challenges and opportunities and equipping our citizens with the skills and capabilities for full economic and social participation.
There are other important challenges that can only be faced by working together with others. Last December, European Union leaders took the opportunity to reinforce Europe’s leadership role on climate. As we reached the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, the European Union stepped-up its ambition level and committed to an increase in the EU 2030 target to at least 55% emissions reduction. We also agreed to raise our climate ambition in a manner that will drive sustainable economic growth, create jobs, deliver health and environmental benefits for European Union citizens and contribute to the long-term global competitiveness of the European Union economy. The European Union green deal is at the forefront of European Union priorities and we collectively grapple with the challenge of transforming our economies and societies in the years ahead. Later this month, the European Council will continue its discussion on climate and over the summer the Commission will present its Fit for 55 suite of measures to drive implementation of our target.
We must also work together on the twin challenge of progressing the digital transition. The Digital Compass proposals presented by the European Commission in March are a further important contribution in this regard. They include clear ambitions for digital skills, data and connectivity infrastructure and for increasing the digital intensity of business and our public services. In March, European Union leaders set important political orientations for the ambitious legislative agenda being advanced by the Commission on digital issues, which are becoming fundamental to the dynamism of the Single Market. An open, well-functioning, competitive and innovative digital economy is clearly the essential basis for the European Union’s future economic strength. It is important we continue to strike the right balance here, shaping Europe’s future in a direction that remains open, competitive and innovation-friendly while strengthening the European Union’s commitments to rules-based multilateralism.
We must also acknowledge the role the European Union plays on the world stage. The US President, Mr. Biden, recently joined European leaders by video conference. The European Union and the United States will not agree on everything but no serious progress on global challenges is possible without strong EU-US cooperation. Ireland’s ambition is for the European Union to become an ever-stronger advocate and actor in support of resilient, open, rules-based political and economic multilateralism. This is the most effective and indeed only effective way to advance our interests and to defend our values. This pandemic has shown, in very sharp relief, just how interlinked the world is. No country can stand aside and ignore the global context for social and economic inequality, organised misinformation, the erosion of core values and the existential issues of climate change and the biodiversity crisis. We must do more than recognise these issues. We must contribute actively to global, international and regional alliances and initiatives to tackle and to counter them. That is why Ireland puts such store in our international engagement, through the European Union and United Nations in particular.
On Sunday the Conference on the Future of Europe was formally launched in Strasbourg. I welcome the conference as a practical way of boosting citizen engagement with the European Union. The peace and prosperity brought by this unique political project has undoubtedly improved the lives of all Europeans. In securing this peace and prosperity for the 21st century and building together our bridge to a brighter future, this is the right time for a stronger citizen-focused dialogue that can reinvigorate our democracies, give new voice to the priorities of our families and communities and begin a deeper engagement with the collective intelligence of our villages, towns, cities and regions. The joint declaration signed in March by the European Parliament President, David Sassoli, the Prime Minister of Portugal, António Costa, on behalf of the Presidency of the Council and Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, paves the way to a series of debates and discussions that will enable people from every corner of the Continent to share their ideas on shaping Europe’s future. Our own national launch event will take place this Friday, 14 May led by the Minister of State with responsibility for EU Affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, and I look forward to constructive and considered Oireachtas support for this important initiative.
As we mark Europe Day, let us recall that Ireland will be an advocate for a strong and effective European Union, defined by democracy, the rule of law and solidarity. We will actively engage bilaterally and through international organisations to support open and fair trade, combat disinformation, protect democracies and promote understanding. Whether we are acting globally or locally, there are many challenges best faced in solidarity and co-operation with European partners.
Mar a deir an seanfhocal, ní neart go cur le chéile agus is é sin croílár chlár an Aontais Eorpaigh. Is aontas é atá thar a bheith tábhachtach i saol na linne inniu, go háirithe don tír seo ach, mar aon leis sin, don domhan ar fad. Tá tionchar faoi leith ag an Aontas Eorpach. Is iontach an scéal é go bhfuil an tír seo fós páirteach sa chlár seo agus go bhfuil an-chuid ag teacht as, ach go bhfuil muidne, chomh maith, ag déanamh an-chuid laistigh den Eoraip agus den Aontas Eorpach agus go fada buan an chláir seo.
We mark the 71st anniversary of the Schuman Declaration at a time of profound change and challenge for Ireland and Europe. The global pandemic has given us pause to think about the world in which we live. In these days of loss and uncertainty, people have demonstrated a remarkable resilience to weather the present and to look to the future with ambition. As we continue the fight against Covid-19, the prospect of getting our lives back fills our hearts with immense hope.
This is not a hope born of a desire to return to normal or to life as it was before the pandemic. This has been a period of enormous social trauma but it has also been a period of a great collective soul-searching across society. People have found a fierce appetite for something far better than what had gone before. This is a future shaped by true European values of solidarity, equality, human dignity and democracy. We saw this desire in how Germans sang "Bella Ciao", the Italian resistance song, in support of the beleaguered Italian people; in how Spaniards clapped health workers on their way into work cada noche, every night; and in how households in Ireland put candles in the window to honour all those who have tragically lost their lives.
The peoples of Europe have turned not to individualism, not to private interests but rather full-face to the public good. They recognise that strong public services and a fair economy are essential. There is a lesson in this outpouring of human solidarity and there is inspiration there too, a guide for the road that Europe must now travel. As the desire for fairer societies grows stronger, the European Union cannot simply remain tethered to the past. Seven decades on from the Schuman Declaration, we have an opportunity to reimagine what the European Union can be. We have a chance to respond to citizens' ambition for a better future. Too often the EU has promoted austerity and privatisation, which is an economic model that has failed. Too often the EU has facilitated the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, from the many to the few.
The Conference on the Future of Europe was launched on Sunday to engage with citizens on how the EU should deal with the challenges facing it, and it is very welcome. The truth is we cannot have more of the same. We must learn from Brexit that many people feel deeply disempowered. This is not all the fault of the EU. Governments often blame the EU for their own policy choices and failures. When the EU promotes the economic model that favours the well-off at the expense of ordinary people, the elites at the expense of citizens, there should be no surprise that people will reject it. This is the discussion we need to have.The European Union must become a vehicle for social progress for the many rather than a vehicle for the enrichment of the few.
We can construct a social Europe in a way in which citizens and member states have a greater say in formulating positive policy positions within the Union. This would be a social Europe of equals, partnership and solidarity, guided by democratic principles and based on the premise that it is by states working together as equals on matters of mutual interest that we can best serve citizens of the EU. I believe that European Union can be a force for good. It can be a champion of peace and human rights all around the world, nowhere less than in the Middle East where the people of Palestine again desperately cry out for international protection and justice.
Right now being a force for good means the EU supporting the intellectual property waiver on Covid-19 vaccines because we are a global community and the fight against this virus is global. We have a humanitarian duty to ensure all the peoples of the world have access to the vaccines they need. This is not only a humane approach but one based on enlightened self and mutual interest.
A progressive Europe must also be to the fore in responding to climate change and in shaping a transition that is truly just. It must lead advancements in workers and union rights. Europe should be a refuge for those in need of help and shelter, not a privileged fortress cut from plight and suffering. A modern Europe should look not to militarisation or federalism but to progress in solving the common challenges of humanity. This is about education for all, housing for all, healthcare for all and prosperity for all. These principles are crucial as Ireland and the EU face the future together.
As the world changes and as soul-search together to chart a new course, the parallel journeys to a new Europe and a new and united Ireland are powerfully complementary. Irish unity is the very best idea for the future of our island. It is a destination shaped by currents of change that shape lives and history. The pandemic and Brexit have utterly transformed the conversation and debate on Irish reunification. A new and united Ireland within a new social Europe is now a real prospect. Citizens recognise that it makes sense for Ireland in its entirety to be part of the same trading bloc and the same Single Market with the four freedoms that ensue. To be a part of Europe - that is what the people of the North want and that is what the people of the South want. To stand still or tread water is no longer an option for leaders in Ireland or Europe. Change is coming and there will be a referendum on Irish unity so the people will have their say. It is all of our jobs to prepare for that and to make the transition to a united Ireland a success for all the people who share this island. Just as with the support for the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the securing of the protocol, the EU will have a central role in this.
We are not a nation of little islanders. Ireland’s place, North and South, is within a Europe of equals. We will look again, as we have before, to our gallant allies in Europe to continue positively engaging with the process of Irish reunification as we transform our society. We will look to them as we build the all-island economy, all-island public services and an all-island society that is home to all, regardless of background or identity.
Unity will be the watershed moment in the history of Ireland and a moment we must seize. Just as both Governments should prepare for unity, the European Union must also prepare for the day that Ireland, in our totality, joins as a united nation. There is no doubt in my mind that a united Ireland would form part of a positive and progressive reshaping of the European dynamic.
In the words of Bob Dylan, the "old road is rapidly aging.” The old order is being exposed like never before. We have an opportunity to recast Ireland and Europe on the foundations of equality, hope and economic justice. The future will either be reactionary or revolutionary. Now is the time to confidently step forward with big and ambitious ideas to build a better Europe and a better Ireland. In order to achieve change we have to reach out to people who do not feel represented. From the smallest village to the largest cities, we need to address the real social and economic challenges. We need to empower people and communities and encourage them to take the future into their own hands. We need to give them power to shape the society in which they live.
This is a good vision for how to shape Europe and Ireland in the years that lie ahead. The future of Europe and Ireland’s relationship with Europe will be shaped by the decisions we make today. Let us not cling timidly to the past. Let us boldly move forward in partnership, common purpose and common cause. Let us move forward in hope to refound a Europe of social solidarity and a new united Ireland for all of our people.
I am delighted to have the opportunity for a short few minutes to speak on the issue of Europe Day. Europe, the political and economic vision of close co-operation and significant integration, has been the major post-Second World War project for most European democracies. Through the steps of the European Common Market and the European Economic Community, EEC, we have achieved a European Union founded on the shared values of tolerance, equality and peace on our Continent. We have a way to go, however.
The expansion of our Union has often been based on political pragmatism. We had the accession of Spain post Franco, Portugal post Salazar and Greece post the colonels. This did not happen because the democratic values in those countries had reached such levels that they could instantly involve themselves in the institutions of the European Union but to bed down democracy. That has been one of the driving forces of the European Union since the Second World War. That is hugely important in ensuring a democratic base in Europe. Even in our lifetime, we have seen in the Balkans what the absence of bedding down that fundamental democracy can mean. That has been significantly undervalued and insufficiently recognised.
The underpinning principles of the European Union are human rights and economic cohesion. I want to say a word about each of those. Human rights are based on equality. The concept of equality on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race and religion is fundamental. We still have a way to go, even within the European Union, to ensure those values are defended and exported. On economic cohesion, a basic principle was to bring the economic well-being of all of our citizens up to the highest levels. We established the Cohesion Fund for that very purpose, and Ireland has benefited from that fund.
I sometimes listen to commentary about the European Union exporting austerity or being a conservative economic force. In truth, the European Union is what the people of Europe elect it to be. When the European Union had socialists and democrats in dominant positions, at the time of Jacques Delors and others such as Romano Prodi, there was a different vision. At times of crisis, such as during our economic crisis, for example, the dominant political forces have, unfortunately, been conservative, primarily the European People's Party, EPP. That is the reason that conservative approach exists. The European institutions themselves do not have a political flavour. They are determined by whomsoever is elected to government in the member states of the Union. If we want progressive politics, we must elect progressive politicians to achieve that objective.
I will make brief mention of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which is often criticised. It was created by Sicco Mansholt, a Dutch farmer who remembered the two post-Second World War famines in his country of the Netherlands. He designed an agricultural strategy for Europe to obliterate hunger, which in and of itself is not a mean or poor objective to have for someone who had experienced the famine that ravaged his country in the winter of 1945-46. To ensure that Europe would never go hungry again was a desirable and noble objective.
We must be clear on what Ireland wants or expects of the European Union. Many, including many Members of this House, measure our involvement in a purely transactional term. They ask how much we put in and how much we get back. Brexit is our wake-up call. If we see the European Union as something separate from us, as being over there in Brussels and a place to go for funding or for access to markets or goods, whether it is vaccines or something else, then we miss the fundamental point of Europe. The point of Europe is to build a different concept and politics to ensure peace, prosperity and cohesion, the rule of law and fundamental equality.
Ireland has to help create the European Union. We have done our job to date in all its flaws and complexities. It is a place of democratic stability, rule of law, equality and economic opportunity but we have an awful lot further to go to achieve the objective that each of us can envisage for our Continent as the best possible place to live for our peoples in the future. We have to do it outside the shadow of Britain and be willing to contribute in every sense to make that noble vision a reality.
I am conscious of the fact that today, 11 May, is the 50th anniversary of the death of my grandfather, former Taoiseach Seán Lemass. He was a man who did so much to open up this country and lay the groundwork for accession to the EEC in 1973, as the Taoiseach stated. In that way, it is entirely appropriate that we are having this debate today.
I note that there was a European Council meeting in Portugal last weekend. Under discussion were EU social policies in a post-Covid world. The Council pledged, among other things, that 78% of citizens will be in employment by 2030, 15 million people will be lifted out of poverty and 60% of workers will get training and upskilling every year. This is the EU at its best, a social Europe.
I welcome the statement issued by President Higgins for Europe Day 2021, along with other European Heads of State.
The President referred to the need to reflect on the core multilateral values of the EU institutions and is of the view that the EU should not be seen purely in economic and monetary terms. The EU is not just an economic union, although the Single Market is very important for Irish businesses. The EU has been transformative for Ireland. It has been a force for progressive social and cultural change. It has been responsible for dragging Ireland kicking and screaming initially into the 20th century and now into the 21st century. So many areas of Irish life have been transformed as a result of our membership of the EU, including labour law and the rights of workers, environmental laws, our commitment to tackle climate change and consumer legislation to name but a few. However, there is no room for complacency. The EU is not perfect and there is always room for reform of its institutions.
The economic and financial crash of 2008 and the consequent austerity measures resulted in high unemployment levels, particularly among young people. Inequality became more pronounced. The EU was seen to be imposing these unpopular measures and social cohesion was threatened. Hence the need to ensure the EU should never be a force for the implementation of neoliberal economic policies. The EU is much more than this. It needs to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of all its citizens and liberal democratic values are at its core.
Brexit was a wake up call for us all. Populism and intolerance will flourish when the system is not working. This brings me to rule of law issues and problems in Hungary and Poland in particular. Adherence to democratic values is central to membership of the EU, including fundamental rights, media freedom, free and fair elections, judicial independence and ethics in politics. These values are central to the EU and there can be no backsliding in enforcing these values in member states where it is necessary and by whatever means possible. In particular, the establishment of LGBTI+ zones in Poland is unacceptable and needs to be called out by the EU.
As we know, the Conference on the Future of Europe has been launched. This should cover a wide range of issues, including building a healthy continent post-Brexit, the fight against climate change and environmental challenges, an economy that works for people, social fairness, equality and intergenerational solidarity, Europe's digital transformation and European rights and values, including the rule of law, migration challenges, security, the EU's role in the world, the Union's democratic foundations and how to strengthen democratic processes governing the European Union. These have been outlined by the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne. The range of issues is wide.
The consultation in this country needs to be genuine and engaging and reach as many people as possible, particularly the young. For my part, I do not see any real need for treaty change. I believe the existing treaties have not been fully utilised to deal with the ongoing challenges we face including, for example, public health, of which we are all very much aware during the pandemic. I also believe that we need to ensure the protection of the treaty-guaranteed right to set our own tax rates during this consultation process and when it comes to a conclusion.
Ireland's policy of military neutrality in no way means that we lack solidarity with the EU. Ireland strongly supports international co-operation in ensuring peace and stability in the world and in promoting peace and justice and basic human rights, and we do this through the United Nations and through selected permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, operations among other things.
In December, the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs published a report on the Conference on the Future of Europe which contains a number of recommendations. The main recommendation is that national parliaments need to be very much involved and that we need to find new ways to engage with the citizens in this country, to reach out to them and not just reach out to the usual interest groups and social partners and see whether we can get a really meaningful debate under way. I hope the Government will look at the committee's recommendations as we set about launching the consultation process in this country this week.
I also welcome the launch by the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, of the EU careers strategy. We need to increase Irish representation in the EU institutions and agencies as we face the so-called demographic cliff with the imminent retirement of Irish senior officials. It is an excellent initiative brought forward by the Minister of State and I hope it will reach young people, in particular our graduates and masters students, so they consider a career in the European Union institutions.
As we speak, the EU recovery and resilience fund of €750 billion is under discussion, as is the Brexit adjustment reserve of €5 billion. The House could do with an update on where Ireland stands in the context of these funds at present. Have our plans been submitted? When will the process with regard to these two funds be concluded?
Ireland and Irish citizens continue to show support for the EU. A poll undertaken recently by European Movement Ireland showed that 84% agreed that Ireland should remain part of the EU. This is a significant figure and is at the top of support for the EU among member states. The poll undertaken for European Movement Ireland is well worth studying. It includes many percentages on Europe, the European Union and where we should go. No doubt it will be part of the consultation process on the future of Europe.
We need to see the full implementation of the trade and co-operation agreement between the EU and the UK and the Northern Ireland protocol and make them work. Ireland experienced extraordinary solidarity from our EU partners during the Brexit process in the formulation of the trade and co-operation agreement and, more particularly, in the formulation of the Northern Ireland protocol. It is unfinished work and we need to see both of these implemented and carefully scrutinised in the coming months and years.
It is important that we get the Conference on the Future of Europe up and running in this country and finalise our conclusions so we can plan for the Europe ahead. Europe has brought peace, prosperity and progress to this country, and to Europe as a whole, and this should never be forgotten. It has been the most successful peace process in the history of mankind and this is something we should never take for granted.
The admission of new member states should also be under active consideration. The Taoiseach noted that in 2004 we admitted ten additional member states. It is not a time to pull up the ladder. It is not a time to say we are all right now, everything is grand and we will keep everybody out. We need to be magnanimous and the admission of new nation states, particularly from the Balkans region, would enhance Europe and improve security. Admitting new states is in everyone's interests.
People should not be afraid of enlargement, once, of course, all the rules are met by the member states.
I welcome this debate and look forward to listening to the other contributions.
On the back of a century that witnessed two global conflagrations - two world wars which led to the slaughter of tens of millions of people - the European project was born out of a design committed to making war not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible. The Europe that emerged out of this search to achieve a peaceful coexistence has allowed the formerly belligerent nations of western Europe to not only coexist, but to prosper in a spirit of mutual dependency. With such success and prosperity comes responsibility.
However, Europeans have differing views as to how this should be allowed manifest itself. Among those at the helm of the political leadership of the EU, there are those who believe that the EU must develop a degree of military muscle and that the EU needs to develop its own independent military capacity. Some suggest that there are already plans in place to send EU forces into Mozambique by the end of this year to protect French mining interests in a gas-rich province. The irony of sending European troops back to what was a former Portuguese colony to preserve European interests is apparently lost on Europe's politicians.
There are those, too, who believe it more incumbent on the European Union to focus on the development of moral muscle. I do not believe that there is any other issue where this absence of moral intent is felt more keenly than on the issue of the plight of the Palestinian people. The International Criminal Court has recently opened an investigation into Israel for war crimes and last week, Human Rights Watch, a reputable and respected international organisation, laid the accusation of gross human rights abuse, that is, the policy of apartheid, at the feet of the Israeli state. The various responses we have witnessed tell their own tale. The EU offered a salutary response possessed of worthy sentiment but little of tangible consequences for Israel for continuing with its abhorrent policy. The Government decided to sit on its hands again and prevaricate, hiding behind Government attempts at deciphering the legal meaning of the word "apartheid". One could argue that there is little time for such niceties when an Israeli army bulldozer is bearing down on one's family home threatening all that one holds dear. Then we have the Israeli response: an arrogant dismissal; followed by an assault on the third holiest site within the religion of Islam, leading to the injury of and assault on hundreds of Palestinians; and an assault on Gaza, with two dozen deaths, including nine children. The EU was quick to impose sanctions on Russia for its actions in Crimea. The time for the Government to sit on its hands is over. It is not a time for words. It is a time for action. At the very least, we need to see the same array of sanctions that were put on Russia being put on the table in this instance, such as the censoring of diplomatic relations, the freezing of assets and travel for individuals directly implicated in illegal Israeli practices, the potential restructuring of EU–Israeli relations; and a restriction of economic co-operation such as would impact on the Horizon Europe 2021-2027 programme.
These are only some of the many actions and options open to both the Government and the EU. Concurrent to this, we need to see the Government take this issue to the UN Security Council as a matter of urgency. We need to call for an emergency session and for the public implementation of all the UN resolutions on Jerusalem and occupied Palestine.
It is critical to note that the Palestinian people are a people marked for complete erasure. The Israeli Government wishes to force them off their land to reduce their existence to disparate groups struggling to survive on a few dozen Bantustans, removing the potential for a two-state solution and condemning what will be left of the Palestinian people to the perpetual state of refugee in what is legally their own country.
The time for the Government to act is now. We do not need more meaningless words. We need action, and action now.
Europe Day is a day celebrating peace and unity. I echo that - a day celebrating peace and unity - given all that is going on in the world, all that we have seen on television screens and all that has been experienced by the people of Palestine, not only over the past 24 hours or the past week, but for many decades. We should be cognisant of talking about how we celebrate a day of peace and unity while 27 people were killed last night, including nine children, but I will talk about Europe.
Europe is often talked about as a peace project. In many ways, it has been a very successful peace project. I am somebody who considers himself, in addition to being a proud Dub and a proud Irish person, a proud European. I believe that Europe, on the whole, has been good for Ireland. When we joined in 1973, Ireland was a predominantly agrarian society more connected to the 19th century than to the 20th century. From 1973 onwards, we accelerated ourselves more into the 21st century and left many of our neighbours and contemporaries in Europe far behind in terms of the type of society that we have created here that is modern, forward-thinking, progressive and outward-looking.
There have been stand-out moments in our relationship with the European Union, the most important of which, for me and for all of us here who value our peace on this island, was the support and solidarity that was given to the Irish people throughout the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement. That will live long in memory. While that peace is still very much a process, the somewhat stability we have on this island is a recognition of that contribution.
In terms of the past 24 months of Ireland's pathway toward and engagement in the withdrawal negotiations as Britain sought to leave the European Union, there is an old saying in international diplomacy that the strong do what they will while the weak suffer what they must. It is fair to say that during the withdrawal negotiations, Ireland's position certainly was not weak. We were able to stare our neighbours in the eye confidently and, I would argue, more strongly and that was due to our relationship with the European Union.
The Taoiseach stated that European is not perfect. It is far from perfect. The rate in the European Union of those at risk of poverty or social exclusion stands at 21%. Poverty is the greatest threat to the European Union. When I walk along where we are at present in the heart of what was once - and still is to some degree but not the same way as I remember it - Dublin's docklands, I think about when I used travel with my family on holidays to Pwllheli where we would often go through Holyhead. I often take the ferry and head over to Holyhead. Holyhead is a place that I have lots of great memories of. It was only in later years I learnt that Holyhead and the province of Anglesey where it is located is statistically the poorest part of the United Kingdom. Twenty-two per cent of the children born in Anglesey and Holyhead are at risk of or in poverty. The people of Holyhead chose to vote in favour of Brexit. Despite the fact that they were entirely dependent upon trade and exports for their livelihoods, they still chose Brexit and a shot into the unknown because of a European Union which had moved towards economic principles that were, they felt, and many would agree, strongly against their interests. A shot in the dark was better than the reality of what they were experiencing.
Poverty is the greatest threat to the European Union. The European Union has too often turned its back on the real-life experiences of those who have resided within its borders. A fruit of that poison orchard for me is what is seen in the rise of the far right. People manipulating communities who have been to the fore of collectivism and telling them that other people were the cause of their ills while being backed up by powerful forces within the European Union is a poison fruit of that orchard. I utterly refuse, however, to accept that the same communities, which are always to the forefront of embracing collectivism, which have been the ones who were the first in terms of accepting diversity and welcoming in people from foreign shores, be they fleeing persecution or simply looking to build a better life for themselves or their families, are the ones who have been advancing this hatred within the European Union; far from it.
It is people in positions of power and influence such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary or those in Poland whose far-right principles have been accommodated, to some degree, in terms of their denigration of LGBT+ communities and their efforts to lobby to remove gender equality from EU statements. We must condemn and confront the far right, wherever it may be, whether on the streets or in the European Parliament.
I echo the sentiment already expressed that while Europe Day is a day celebrating peace and unity, there can be absolutely no peace and unity if the EU refuses to take a position of strength in calling what is happening in Israel, Jerusalem and the occupied territories exactly what it is, which is an annexation. It needs to be called that; otherwise the EU's claim to be a Union built on peace and unity is a fraud. We cannot put a fortress around our own peace and unity and commend ourselves on 9 May every year while people in the occupied territories in Palestine are being bombed. The median age of the population in the Gaza Strip is 17 years and seven months. When the Government of Israel chooses to drop bombs on the Gaza Strip, it is willingly killing children. If the European Union, and Ireland as a member state, are not willing to call that out and stand against that injustice in the strongest possible terms, then the very purpose of the Union is rendered obsolete. I call on the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach to take the strongest line on this and to call this annexation for what it is. Ireland must use its power, position and influence to condemn, in the fullest terms, the Government of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinian people. We must say "No more", draw a line in the sand and demonstrate fortitude on this issue.
I have always considered myself a European. From early on, it was part of my self-definition. I was an Irish citizen first and foremost and within that, there are local and tribal loyalties like the address lines on an envelope marking townland, parish, county but in the wider frame, I am a European, a member of the European Economic Community as it was and, now, of the European Union. I have been a beneficiary of the four freedoms in a Europe without borders, particularly the right of free movement of people. I have worked in Germany and Italy without hindrance or impediment. Indeed, I was in Italy for the changeover to the euro in 2002. In Ireland, we had cashed in our punts by the end of the first week in January whereas the Italians clung to their beloved lira right up to the six-week deadline, a small anecdotal measure of the high regard we have for the European project in Ireland.
We are one of the most pro-EU member states, according to Eurobarometer polling. We have seen and felt the improvements in our own country derived from our membership of the EU, socially, economically and environmentally. It is to our shame that progress in this country on social and environmental issues has often come at the insistence of Europe rather than through leadership on our own part from this House. I refer, for example, to the water framework directive and the general data protection regulation, GDPR, which is among the most important and robust EU legislation in the last decade.
We have also known peace here in our own country and across the EU and have experienced a period of relative stability, free from warfare. Europe had torn itself asunder for centuries and the European project emerged from the smouldering ruins of a continent that self-immolated through two world wars of almost unthinkable savagery. I am sure Robert Schuman has been much quoted already today. He was a pragmatic dreamer who understood that there can be power in the prosaic. He argued that Europe would be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. In 1998, John Hume acknowledged the European Union as "the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution". He argued that the peoples of Europe "had created institutions which respected their diversity ... but allowed them to work together in their common and substantial economic interest. They spilt their sweat and not their blood and by doing so broke down the barriers of distrust of centuries and the new Europe has evolved and is still evolving , based on agreement and respect for difference". Both men knew that the European Union was not an inevitability but a conscious and creative act of the imagination, rooted in the practical and pragmatic pursuit of a shared common good underpinned by respect and a tolerance for our differences. We are both the same and different and it is in our diversity and solidarity that we are strong. However, our union is not inevitable and I wonder if we are forgetting that through long habituation. In Hungary we see sustained pressure on democratic institutions, civil society and the rule of law, while in Poland there has been a crackdown on LGBTQI+ rights, attacks on independent media and a near total ban on access to abortion in January of this year. Our closest neighbour, with which we have the longest and deepest cultural ties, has chosen to leave the European Union. Much of the debate in the referendum and the subsequent fallout was tinged with nationalist rhetoric and a focus on borders.
To my mind, the European project is as essential today as ever and we must re-engage in a conscious way with that continuous and creative process of making and remaking our shared European identity. If the European Union has been a force to the good for human rights and workers' rights within our borders, which it has been in the main, then let us fiercely defend those advancements and seek to project them beyond our borders. In our trade agreements with others, let us insist on due diligence when it comes to human rights and insist that the intrinsic dignity of the person is preserved in the supply chains of those products we allow into our markets. Let us vindicate the UN's sustainable development goals here in Europe and work in partnership with governments in the developing world to help them do the same. In the immediate term and in the teeth of this pandemic, let us use every lever, including the sharing of materials, manufacturing knowledge and intellectual property, to accelerate the global vaccine roll-out and safeguard us all from the prospect of vaccine escape. Let us face up to our shared responsibility as one of the most developed parts of the globe to deal with the existential threat of biodiversity and climate breakdown. The European Union, and Ireland as a member state, must achieve and exceed its climate ambitions and, in doing so, support a just transition to a climate neutral economy in Europe and further afield. This can and should be the practical and pragmatic project that binds us as a union to the common good for another 70 years and more. Let us continue to invest in that collective act of the imagination that allows me to call myself a European citizen.
My experiences of Europe Day have been a bit strange. I must admit that before I was an MEP, I did not even know that such a thing existed. When I was in the European Parliament I often found it bizarre that European institutions treated the day as if it was being marked on every street corner and in every community centre in each member state. MEPs would gather in Strasbourg where the EU flag was flown everywhere, including a massive one unfurled at the centre of the Hemicycle and Beethoven's Ode to Joy, which somebody decided was the EU's anthem, would blare out across the sound system before speakers from each institution would rise and decry nationalism. It was a surreal experience that was far removed from the reality of the citizens across member states who, on that day, were simply getting on with their lives. Many were struggling and I suspect, like the pre-MEP me, the majority were unaware that it was a day that the great and good expected them to mark. That experience was a good reflection of the European institutions which all too often are far removed from the communities, workers and families affected by their decisions.
The European Union has delivered much that should be celebrated. It has established universal rights and embedded peace among its members. The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, has created an open market that has sustained many farming communities in Ireland and across Europe.
The cohesion policy has diverted infrastructure resources to regions that were long neglected by national governments. The role the EU played in supporting the Irish peace process is something we are all grateful for.
The people of Ireland want to be part of the European Union. We saw that most recently in the Six Counties when a majority voted to remain part of the European Union against a Brexiteer agenda that was led by the right and the Tories in Britain. In recognising the Irish people’s wish to be part of the European Union, it is important to also recognise some of the deeply worrying flaws and moves the European Union is currently taking. Just last week, Members of the European Parliament voted to endorse €7.9 billion as part of the next multi-annual financial framework, MFF, going towards a so-called European defence fund. In reality, that fund is a massive subsidy taken from the peoples of Europe to go to the European arms industry. I am not sure any ordinary citizen in Europe believes that is the correct way to spend money.
At the end of the next MFF, we in this country will contribute an additional €1 billion per annum to the European Union budget but we will get less back in the most important EU programmes, those that made the Union popular in the first place. There will be less money coming back to Ireland in the Common Agricultural Policy and very little money coming back in cohesion funding. Instead, every single line in the EU budget is facilitating and creating the wherewithal for the EU arms industry to draw down even more money than the €7.9 billion allocation. Some estimates suggest upwards of €15 billion from the next seven-year financial programme could end up in the hands of that industry. That is not the Europe Irish people want.
The days in which the EU can celebrate itself as a peace process will be numbered unless the European Union at every level, including our Government, takes a stand on behalf of the people of Palestine. The state of Israel, which is recognised as an apartheid, rogue state that is trampling on the human rights and lives of the Palestinian people, is considered a favoured nation by the EU. That needs to change. Today is a day for reflecting on the positives but it must also be a day on which we collectively determine that we will create a better EU and that Ireland will ensure that the EU delivers for citizens rather than corporations and arms companies.
Earlier, the Taoiseach said that what defined the European Union was that it is an institution based on the idea of rules-based international co-operation. He argued that the European Union is a bulwark against extremism. Let us test that proposition against the EU's relationship with Israel on the day that Israel is, once again, committing war crimes in Gaza. As we speak, it is launching missiles which have claimed the lives of 28 innocent people in Gaza in the last 24 hours, including ten children. One of the dead was due to marry the day after tomorrow. This is indiscriminate murder of civilians. As we speak, Benjamin Netanyahu is saying that he has no intention of stopping. What did the European Union do? We heard words of sympathy and condemnation but no action against war crimes by the rogue state of Israel.
What preceded the current missile strikes against Gaza? If one believes the false narrative about what goes on between Israel and the Palestinians, one is encouraged to believe this is some intractable conflict between two sides that, for some reason, cannot get on with one another. That is not the truth about Israel. What preceded this latest flare-up was the attempt to evict and ethnically cleanse – let us use the correct term – 28 families from the Sheikh Jarrah area of Jerusalem in order to replace those Palestinian families with illegal Jewish settlers. It is an attempt to evict them, take their homes and put other people in those homes. It is worth stating that those families in that area are now going to be double refugees because they came to Sheikh Jarrah after being ethnically cleansed from Haifa and Jaffa in 1948.
In the year the Israeli state was founded and in one of the most barbaric acts of ethnic cleansing seen in the 20th century, close to 1 million people were expelled by Zionist terror gangs from their homes and villages and driven to the West Bank. They were left to fend for themselves and it was only later that the United Nations helped them build refugee camps and new homes. Now, they are being evicted again contrary to law and international rules, which the EU is supposed to uphold. They are doing it again. During the holy month of Ramadan, Palestinians were blocked from going on to the Temple Mount in an orchestrated, premeditated military action by the Israel authorities in order to provoke the Palestinians while they continued the campaign of illegal settlements and ethnic cleansing. Annexation is much too nice a word for it. This is ethnic cleansing. What is happening in Gaza today is a crime against humanity. It is a crime against humanity that, on an ongoing, systematic and orchestrated basis, Israel continues to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians, as it has done since the beginning of the state in 1948. People need to understand that. In Ireland, more than ever, we should know of the need to show our affinity with the Palestinians and move beyond words of concern to action.
I wonder whether people know that in 1936, the military governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, explained what the plan was for the Israeli state, which was to be set up in 1948. He was the first military governor general since Pontius Pilate, sent in as part of the Sykes–Picot carve-up of the Middle East and the Balfour Declaration, which was to support the plan for the new state that Britain would support. How did he describe the Israeli state they were planning to build? He said that “we want to build a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”. Balfour, who had signed the declaration, and Herbert Samuel, another of the main figures, had been involved in Ireland in suppressing land protests in the late 19th century. Samuel interned 2,000 people after 1916 and oversaw the hanging of Roger Casement. He and Balfour went on to become senior figures in mandate Palestine, planning the establishment of the Israeli state, the partition of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in order to create a loyal little Jewish Ulster amidst a sea of potential hostile Arabism. In other words, it was for the great powers to control the Middle East at the expense of the Palestinians and causing decades of conflict, division, murder, tyranny, the denial of democracy and all the horrors the Palestinians and people of the Middle East have had to suffer.
Who is Israel’s biggest trading partner? It is the European Union. Last year, the EU and Israel did €31 billion worth of trade. All the weasel words and words of sympathy from European leaders, when they do nothing about the murderous criminal activity that Israel is engaged in, are hollow and the Taoiseach’s premise that the European Union is a rules-based international guardian is nonsense.
I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this important debate 71 years on from the Schuman Declaration, when Robert Schuman put a very simplistic idea to the people of Europe at a time when they needed simplistic ideas, sensitivity and a vision. That vision has stood the test of time. It is a vision which, unfortunately, in this Parliament and in parliaments across the European Union, we very rarely discuss. In fact, it is quite clear that for many people across the EU, the best thing to do is use Europe as a handy punching bag. The lessons about doing so can be seen just across the Irish Sea, when we look at what our friends and cousins in Great Britain have been left with. Over 40 years of continuous lies and misinformation about the European project has led to the UK being pulled out of the European Union on the basis of yet more lies and deceit. Even now, when the UK has left the EU, the lies and deceit continue. One just has to pick up a particular British newspaper on any day to see a ridiculous headline about the EU. It might be about Covid vaccines, taxation or anything else. If in doubt, kick the EU. That is a lesson for all of us because it is something in which we engage far too much in this country.
We have a remarkable opportunity to contribute to a lengthy debate and to pull in many issues that are pertinent to so many people in Ireland, in jurisdictions across the European Union and in the countries it deals with every day. How often do we have these debates? Once a year. How many times leading up to the Brexit process did we talk about European issues? Brexit happened and all of a sudden we had to talk about it on a daily basis because we realised that the EU and everything that emanates from Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg comes into every aspect of our lives. That is why we cannot simply talk about the EU during referendums or in the context of occasional annual declarations.
It was disappointing that on Sunday, our national broadcaster - which employs one of Europe's finest journalists, who has covered the European Union for over a decade and is lauded across EU member states - did not take a single moment in either of its news bulletins to talk about the Conference on the Future of Europe, which was being launched by the President of the European Commission that day. We say that people are removed from the European process and do not engage with it, but we are not talking about the biggest ever conversation involving European citizens that will happen over the next 12 months. We love throwing out negativity and misinformation but we do not necessarily play our part in ensuring that real, meaningful discussions happen about the future of the European Union. The future of the European Union matters a lot to every single person across this island, not just in this jurisdiction.
The Conference on the Future of Europe could have so many possibilities but I fear that two things might happen. One is that it could become the plaything of the European Union institutions, the Commission, the Members of the European Parliament and the Council, and become a detached exercise in navel-gazing. The second is that our member states, be it their national governments, parliaments or citizenry, might not engage with the process. We could have a Conference on the Future of Europe that discusses institutional issues rather than the practical issues that matter to everyday life. We in this country, and our friends in the UK, have seen what happens when the practical issues on which the EU impacts are on the line. We know what it means when people start talking about borders and checks and veterinary legislation. We need to talk about the practical things that affect us.
The generation that went before us knew what it was to struggle in the European process and they knew what life was like before Ireland joined the EEC nearly 50 years ago this week. Today, we take for granted the world's most successful peace project, and all we do is hammer on about the supposed militarisation of the European Union. The security and protection of citizens is not equivalent to a military project. It is disappointing that people look at something that makes up 1% or 2% of the EU's seven-year budget and focus solely on that rather than on the priorities that matter for practical life on an everyday basis. There are things people can do today that they simply could not do 20 years ago. The EU has played a role in making sure our food and air are safe, our water is clean, our citizens' rights are protected, that we retain our freedom of movement and can live, work, travel and study in any one of the 27 member states, as well as many other states with which the European Union is in agreement.
When Brexit happened, Irish exporters and businesses still had the opportunity to sell to the world's largest economic bloc. When we joined the EEC in 1973, 55% of our exports went to the UK. That figure is down to 11%. The social progress this country has enjoyed in parallel with our membership of the European Union should never be forgotten. We cannot take these things for granted or be allowed to forget about them or the important role the European Union plays in all our lives. That is what people did in the UK for far too long.
When talking about the future of Europe and reflecting on the 71 years since Robert Schuman's remarkable speech, we must ask what big achievements and challenges the European Union will lead the way on in the next decade or two. Why is it that when people talk about the EU they fumble for achievements and then say it is great that roaming charges have been abolished? One cannot compare roaming charges to decades of peace, freedom of movement or the vitally important opportunities and safeties given to Irish citizens. That is why I look positively on the opportunities before the European Union today, which we in this Oireachtas should be playing our part to feed into.
We talk about things like the post-Covid response. Remarkable decisions were taken by the European Union in its budgetary response, through coronabonds and eurobonds and by putting funding in place that will allow this jurisdiction to economically and socially lift itself out of the malaise of this pandemic in due course. Of course, the vaccine roll-out is a handy stick with which to beat the EU and we heard Government backbench Deputies doing so a month or two ago. In the wake of a bye-election, the British Prime Minister said the UK's success in that regard was all because they are out of the European Union, when that has absolutely nothing to do with it. We should be very clear. The European vaccination programme, which is kicking into gear across this State at the moment, would not be available to us as a small state outside the European Union. We need to be honest with ourselves. We are very good at putting everything down and looking for the negatives but, while there are lessons to be learned from the Covid response within the EU, when we compare ourselves with the rest of the world, there are achievements as well.
We are having this discussion 49 years after a referendum took place in this jurisdiction about whether we should join the EEC. Two political parties at the time, namely, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, backed that referendum and it was backed by 83% of the Irish population. Last week, an opinion poll from European Movement Ireland showed that 84% of Irish citizens support remaining in the EU. That is remarkable. Nearly 50 years on, the numbers are essentially the same. That is not always reflected in the dialogue in this Parliament or in the discussions in the media. We like to look at all the focused, small issues. People try to use the European Union as a scapegoat for things like agricultural inspections or restrictions that are in place to protect people and support our economy and society.
The problem is that people go down the rabbit hole of misinformation, disinformation and taking things for granted. I am not saying the EU is perfect but why is it that every time the EU faces a challenge, the commentariat says that that challenge will define the EU? They always ask whether the EU will survive it. No one has ever questioned whether the United State or the German Federal Republic would survive something. Yet, every conversation is about whether a stand-off between Germany and France over budgetary measures could pave the way for the end for the EU, or whether Ireland is going to be picked on. People say again and again, on social media or wherever, that Ireland is going to be thrown under the bus. For five years we heard repeatedly that the German car manufacturers and Italian Prosecco makers were going to throw Ireland under the bus but it never happened.
We consume an awful lot of British media in this State, both broadcast and print. They have some of the finest journalists in the world. However, we are far too reliant on consuming the shock headlines and clickbait about straight bananas, blue passports and all these great things. We are better than that, in Ireland and in this Oireachtas. We use every opportunity we have, be that during post- or pre-European Council statements, the annual reflection on Europe Day, or when engaging with a European Commissioner before a committee, to give the EU a kick and blame Brussels for the decisions being made in this country, which we are required to make.
This is what we must really focus on if we are going to talk about the future of Europe. We must talk about how in this State our relationship with Europe is not necessarily a healthy one. Even though we are so pro-European, and when we have needed solidarity we have received it, we just love giving the EU the kick. Why? We do it because it is easy and it gives us somewhere else to allocate the blame. We had a very thoughtful opening speech from the Taoiseach. I listened in intently. He touched on the history regarding when we have needed Europe, it has been there for us.
Crucially, however, what we must touch on as well is the future and I hope the Minister replying will focus on it. Ireland's future is in the EU. Ireland is Europe. It has been good to us and it is about time, when we reflect on those debates and discussions, that we talk perhaps about the meaningful issues and how we can improve them, without always looking for the scapegoat.
Europe has a history of civilisation, invention and innovation, but also a history of vicious colonial powers, wars and a balance of power that was maintained through threat of war and mass armaments. The EU project itself was born out of the end of a genocidal world war. The EU has played its part in changing the nature of relationships across Europe. It has played a vital role in the development of our own peace process. I must commend the solidarity shown to Ireland throughout the entirety of the Brexit negotiations and the ongoing difficulties.
There have obviously been difficulties regarding the vaccine roll-out, but the attempts at solidarity across the entire EU are to be commended, combined with improved operational oversight, involving the Commission and Commissioner Thierry Breton. We have raised with him previously the issue of global solidarity concerning the vaccine roll-out, but we have now seen the President of the United States, Joe Biden, support the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, agreement waiver. I accept there is a wider conversation regarding intellectual property rights. What we need, however, is a best-case fix to ensure a global health solution. We have all said this before: none of us is safe until all of us are safe.
The EU Commission has engaged in a substantial amount of work in dealing with pharmaceutical companies regarding partnership agreements to deliver increased amounts of vaccines. We must ensure this continues and that whatever needs to be done must be done to ensure maximum delivery for the entire globe and that costs are not prohibitive for those in the developing world. There would be no better sign of an EU working for its people and for all people. Many of us have stated in this Chamber the utter madness of Brexit, but this weekend we saw spectacular results in the Scottish elections from the perspective of people looking to achieve their independence within an EU framework. Our congratulations should go to Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party, SNP.
Within this context, we must remember that the majority of people in the North voted to stay within the EU in respect of the Brexit debate. This Brexit debate has catapulted the conversation in respect of Irish unity on this island and in the EU. We have seen the chaos Brexit has brought. We must ensure we have the requisite conversations and do the necessary planning in that regard. I commend the work of many European politicians, including our own Chris MacManus, MEP, in ensuring when the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, deal was done that a resolution was added in respect of ensuring Northern representation. We must ensure that goes from just being nice words into a concrete result. We cannot have a democratic deficit for those who obviously will be impacted by the Irish protocol and by the rules of the EU. Therefore, they must have a voice, and we must ensure that happens. Europe has a major part to play in respect of connectivity, so we need the conversation to continue and we must ensure we are not wanting here in allowing for aviation connectivity, combined with ensuring that health measures are followed. I would like to think we would do the heavy lifting on antigen testing and anything else that may be required to free us from the situation we are in.
I commend the Ballymurphy families who got an element of justice today. It would be remiss of me not to say that we really need the European Union and the Irish Government to stand up for the rights of the Palestinian people who are being absolutely slaughtered by a war criminal-led Israeli Government that seems to operate as if it were a schoolyard bully that does not realise the disparity between itself and the Palestinians. Land has been annexed, families have been evicted and people have been oppressed for far too long. We must use our seat on the UN Security Council and we must also ensure that the Irish Government and the EU do their utmost. That is how apartheid was broken in South Africa.
I am delighted to be here to speak on Europe Day as a member of the Regional Group. Ireland joined the European project in 1973. I was born in 1977 and as such I am one of Ireland's lucky generations really. We were the first generation to be born within the European Union, the first generation to benefit fully from its membership and the first generation to witness first-hand the transition from national poverty and despair to at least some measure of national prosperity and hope. My generation did not have to read about Ireland in the 1980s, we lived through it, and through economic depression, mass unemployment, mass emigration and armed conflict. Thankfully, that is a country which is now unrecognisable from the one we know and love today. This transition did not happen by chance, however. Mindful of our past, I am also acutely aware of what could have been and what would have been our alternative future had we chosen otherwise and if we had not opted to engage with the European process and be rescued from our collective predicament and our particular circumstances. We should never, ever forget that.
Despite all its shortcomings and well-known imperfections, therefore, the European project has been an overwhelmingly positive journey for this country and this Continent. Let me tell the House why. First, Europe is now at peace for the first time in centuries. How ironic it is that this Continent, which used to be the very origin of so many global conflicts, has reinvented itself to be an exemplar of respect and a beacon of hope and stability throughout the world. Countries are now clamouring to get in, and for good reason. Again, this process has not happened by chance. This progress has been brought about by the promotion of dialogue and good governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law. Having lived in countries that do not enjoy these benefits, I assure the House that we should never, ever take them for granted, not for one second, for they are privileges bestowed on few and freedoms that others can only dream of. One only has to observe the current difficulties in Northern Ireland as a result of the complications caused by Brexit to appreciate the involvement and positive influence of the European Union.
Second, from an education perspective, the European Union has had a transformative effect. Multiple infrastructure, education and research grants provided to our schools and universities have greatly improved the educational experience of our young people. The Erasmus programme alone has benefited tens of thousands of Irish students since its inception decades ago. It has promoted tolerance, understanding, cultural awareness and respect for diversity. I am heartened to see that the Erasmus programme is going to continue for students in Northern Ireland. That is a very positive development that I approve of immensely.
Third, the support provided by the European Union during the recent Brexit negotiations is also worthy of particular mention. When one contrasts the conduct and behaviour of both negotiating teams, I am very glad of which side we have chosen to align ourselves with, for one side was cavalier and reckless and the other was constructive and consistent. The outcome was the best possible result for Ireland, given the circumstances forced upon us against our will. Our European partners have once again showed they are reliable colleagues and the accommodation reached regarding Northern Ireland proves they are acutely aware of the particular sensitivities on this island and will continue to support us in future.
Of course, it has not all been plain sailing and good news. While I understand that the European project is still a work in progress, more needs to be done to address a number of areas. First, Ireland is still reeling from the aftershocks from the years of austerity imposed on it not by the IMF, but by the EU institutions. At least we can see from the response to the current crisis that they are willing to learn from their mistakes. They are recognising this crisis to be the natural disaster that it is, rather than just an economic recession. Instead of imposing austerity, they are providing liquidity to protect economies and societies and get us through this catastrophe, which is progress of sorts, at least.
Second, the four freedoms of the EU in respect of goods, services, capital and people have yet to be fully realised, in particular, the freedom to establish and provide services. We should be able to purchase insurance policies from companies in France or mortgages from companies in Germany to foster competition in this country, reduce the cost of living and improve quality of life. On the Continent, the costs of mortgages and insurance policies are half what they are here. Therefore, much more work is required to be done in this area.
Third, while the EU has showed significant leadership in tackling the problem of climate change with the European Green Deal, more needs to be done to ensure a just transition for Ireland to move to a carbon-neutral society. As there simply is not the money available to retrofit all homes, electrify all vehicles, provide renewable energy sources and support our farmers, more financial supports are required from Brussels to support this just transition.
To conclude, if there are deficiencies in the European Union, they are not its deficiencies alone, for the shortcomings are as much our fault as that of the EU. The European Union is not some obscure entity far away in Brussels - it is us. We are the European Union, with the ability to shape and remake it as we see fit. We must engage more. I am happy to see the recently announced initiative encouraging increased representation of Irish people in the various institutions.
What does the future hold for the European Union? I look forward to the likely return of Scotland in the not-too-distant future and in time, the Union's expansion into the Balkans and beyond. Unfinished business remains in tackling inequality, the climate emergency and addressing the challenge of ultranationalism. This country should become more involved, engaged and interested in the project. As a small, open economy and society, our future belongs in Europe and it is therefore very much in our interest to shape it as we see fit.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of former Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, who was pivotal in creating an open, inclusive, and dynamic Ireland at the heart of Europe.
Such forward and progressive thinking is again required. Ireland at the heart of Europe can play a leading role in building back a more inclusive and sustainable society. We know this to be particularly to be true in Ireland, as a small open economy at the most westerly point of the EU. Ireland must do all that it can to remain a leading example of how to attract and grow business and be a welcoming place for tourism around the world. We must not isolate or cut ourselves off from the rest of Europe or the wider world. The pandemic has created a sense of inward-looking obsession, which has been damaging to both our economy and society. Thankfully, with the vaccination programme under way, we now need to ensure that Ireland remains at the heart of Europe.
International travel across the EU is vital for Ireland. This week's Irish aviation financial and traffic statistics are extremely worrying for a sector which needs to be at the heart of our economic recovery. The Government must bring industry leaders together to implement recommendations for the safe reopening of international travel. Air traffic decline of over 700,000 flights over the past 12 months is equal to the entire air traffic handled in this country in 1998. I welcome the announcement of the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, in the Seanad on Friday that the Government is committed to the digital green certificate proposal from the EU that would enable a return to EU-wide international travel. Every effort must be made to achieve the alignment of travel policy across the EU to prepare for the opening of travel again. It is vital that we have a common framework for the issuance, verification and acceptance of certificates relating to vaccination, testing and recovery. Ireland must make sure that it is not left behind. As the EU home to many of the world's leading tech companies, Ireland should be leading the way in the development and execution of a digital green certificate.
A return to international travel is vital to the recovery of Ireland's aviation sector and the wider tourism sector in Ireland. Too many livelihoods are at stake if we fail to act. Aviation was one of our economy's strongest performing sectors before Covid-19, with over 140,000 livelihoods being sustained by the industry in this country. We must protect and rebuild post Covid. The aviation sector helped to get us out of the last recession due to its huge economic contribution to our economy. If it does not survive, we will suffer the consequences.
Passenger numbers at Cork Airport, for example, fell by over 95% during lockdown compared to the same period last year. Air traffic is not expected to recover to 2019 levels until 2024. Cork Airport is Ireland’s second largest international airport with 2.4 million passengers passing through it in 2018. The airport offers more than 50 routes to destinations in the UK, Europe, and the United States. Such a loss would not only be a huge blow to jobs in the region but to connectivity throughout the south east and the south of the country more generally.
Progress is being made at an EU level. The European Parliament adopted its mandate on 29 April 2021 and the Parliament and the European Council commenced negotiations this week. I was also delighted to read in The New York Timeson Sunday that American tourists who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 will be able to visit the European Union over the summer, according to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. I must say that it is of critical importance for the Government here in the Republic of Ireland to do all it can to allow the safe reopening of transatlantic travel in alignment with many of our European neighbours in the Schengen area. Obviously, the fact that Ireland is part of the common travel area has presented us with some minor difficulties, which could be dealt with, in my opinion. It is critical that the Government does this.
The fast pace of vaccination in the United States and advanced talks between its authorities and the European Union over how to make vaccine certificates acceptable as proof of immunity for visitors, will enable the European Commission to recommend a switch in policy that could see transatlantic leisure travel restored. This is huge news for Ireland, rural Ireland and the hospitality sector in this country, as vaccinated tourists from America represent huge economic opportunities for tourism, hospitality and aviation. The Government must provide a clear roadmap before the end of May on inbound tourism.
It was heartening to see the level of solidarity among the EU member states in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are stronger together than apart. By working together, we achieve more than on our own.
The next generation EU recovery plan will enable Ireland to put the necessary funding in place to make the country a greener and more digital place in which to live, raise a family and do business. There is a huge level of supports available to grow and develop our economy. We need to grab this opportunity to shape a bold vision for Ireland's future. The time for action is now. In terms of funding, Ireland is set to receive an estimated €1 billion in recovery and resilience facility grants. There will also be €89 million available in 2021 under REACT-EU package and €77 million from the just transition fund. It will include specific supports for sectors that are important to Ireland's economy, such as agriculture, to secure food supplies and protect the income of farmers. Ireland will also receive almost €1.2 billion in cohesion policy allocations from the latest long-term EU budget, as well as over €8.3 billion in direct payments from the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund. There will also be €2.25 billion available through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. The European Commission recently disbursed €2.47 billion in financial support to Ireland as a first transfer under the support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency, SURE, scheme. The support will be provided in the form of loans granted on favourable terms and will assist Ireland in covering the costs related to the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme, which has been a critical income supplement for many people in this country. The Commission has approved two Irish schemes worth €10 million and €7 million for Ireland’s coach tourism and entertainment sectors, which were badly hit by the pandemic.It has also approved a €45 million Irish scheme to support companies active in the beef sector and a €60 million Irish scheme to support SMEs affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Ireland will also be the largest recipient of the €5 billion Brexit adjustment fund, which is significantly good news for this country.
I come from a farming background, as I have often discussed in the House. It is critical for the European Union, on a day such as today, to understand that agriculture has a critical role to play in our economy in the Republic of Ireland. Many of our farmers, particularly in the dairy sector, are engaged in some of the most sustainable practices on the planet in terms of how they treat their animals. Their stock is reared in grass-fed settings on many farms in the country, which is something of which dairy farmers are particularly proud. It is something that differentiates us from much of the competition on the international stage and helps us to develop markets for our produce both within and outside the European Union.
In regard to the cutbacks in herd numbers that may come in the future, internationally and in Ireland, I encourage the EU to take a more sensible approach. It should look at countries where animals are kept indoors all year around as the places to cut back, not places like Ireland where farmers engage in incredibly sustainable practices that are very well researched. It should consider that in an economy such as ours, agriculture plays an enormous role in terms of economic investment in rural communities and the rural economy in its entirety. In my constituency, there are tens of thousands of people who are supported by the agrifood sector, whether they are working in places like Kerrygold, on the distilling side with Jameson, or, at a primary level of the economy, directly on farms. I know many Deputies in Munster and south Leinster are dealing with similar circumstances in their own areas. The agrifood sector really is one of the world-leading parts of our economy and we must do everything we can to protect it. I accept that, from a sustainability point of view, it is important that we find new ways to incentivise farmers financially to engage in more sustainable practices to help the climate, internationally and on a European level. However, this needs to be led from the top down, at Government and at European level. It is enormously important that we keep that in mind.
I have already mentioned the aviation sector. I reiterate that I am exceptionally worried about Ireland's speed of development in terms of the digital green certificates and how well connected we are going to be to the entirety of the European Union over the next couple of months. There are many thousands of people vaccinated in Ireland who would love to re-engage in international travel when it is deemed safe to do so. We seem to be a little behind our European colleagues in terms of how we are going to deal with this particular issue. It must be addressed as quickly as possible because it is critical to balanced regional development in this country. I am thinking of the airport in Cork, where a great deal of enormously positive work has been done in recent times. I am also thinking of our major international airport in Dublin.
Having transatlantic options and the European Union becoming, once again, a major host of North American tourism are of critical importance to the constituency of every Deputy. According to some hoteliers to whom I have spoken, up to 75% of their revenue comes from guests from the US and those guests account for 65% of bookings. This shows that US customers are an incredibly important part of tourism in this country. We need to move in lockstep with our European colleagues to ensure hospitality gets the strongest possible reopening later this year. That will be beneficial not just to the hospitality sector but also to the aviation sector. I have pointed out in the House before that 140,000 jobs in Ireland are supported by aviation. The sector is enormously important and it needs to play a firm and significant role in the economic recovery of this country in the post-Covid era.
I am sharing time with Deputies Danny Healy-Rae and Mattie McGrath.
Last Sunday, 9 May, the member states of the European Union celebrated Europe Day. This year, the day took on a special dimension with the launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe. In the context of the fatigue of the pandemic and the longing for stability and predictability, Europe has entered a crisis stage. Crisis fatigue has now become a widespread sentiment in Europe, especially in Ireland. Evidence in replies to a series of parliamentary questions from my office confirms that the Government blindly supported the EU negotiation mandate in respect of the Brexit negotiations on fishing, giving away 25% of our pelagic fish. Here we are again now, with the so-called weighing debacle leaving every fisher and processor up and down the country shocked. Another European rule was thrown in on top of us and the Government accepted it.
The mismanagement of this entire debacle is adding to the anti-European sentiment in our country. On face value, it is an act of madness to throw the fisheries industry into turmoil in the space of one hour. On 16 April at 4 p.m., the industry was told that everything was normal. At 5 p.m., nothing was normal and a new regime was in place. This is not acceptable behaviour from the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA. Earlier today, representatives of the SFPA told the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine that they are in negotiations with the industry, but representatives of the industry told the committee it knew nothing about this. We are being misled. I asked the Taoiseach to set time aside today to debate the weighing issue but he ignored my call. Ireland has the most regulated fishing industry in the world because of the EU insistence on trying to squeeze Irish fishermen out of the seas. It is astonishing that the Government is assisting it to do so instead of getting Europe to back off Irish fishermen and give them a chance to survive.
Achieving that will not be an easy thing at this stage. We see how the European bureaucrats enjoy the comfort and conformity of weak Governments such as this Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party Government. That weakness allows the unelected bureaucrats who roam the corridors in Brussels to dictate issues that impact on Irish people on a daily basis. The world will be different after this pandemic. In that new world, it is crucial that the European Union does not leave ordinary people and rural communities like those in Ireland behind. It is important that our Government stands up for the best interests of citizens when exchanging views on this issue.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this very important matter. There is no doubt in the world but that we have benefited magnificently from Europe over the past 40 to 50 years. However, we are now at a crossroads and we may no longer get as much out of Europe as we would like. We are getting a lot of dictation and directives that are hurting people, including farmers and working-class communities. The climate change directives are pushing our society towards a radically different future that will make many of our citizens in rural Ireland poorer, as well as people right across the country and in the rest of Europe. That is my considered opinion.
We are hearing a lot of talk at present about reducing the dairy herd. Deputies in this House have pointed out that Irish farmers produce the best milk in a cleaner and more efficient way than do many of the factory farmers in Europe. Irish farmers feed their cattle on green grass for most of the year and they must be rewarded for that.
This State and this Government have not demanded sufficient funds from Europe for basic infrastructure. I am thinking, for instance, of sewerage schemes in rural towns and villages in County Kerry. All of that could be financed out of the EU's emergency pandemic response fund, but Ireland has not looked for that funding.
I am very disappointed with the Minister, mar níl sé anseo. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, but I used to listen to a radio programme many years ago that was known as "Dear Frankie". The Ceann Comhairle may remember it. It seems Frankie has been put forward to answer everything in here. It just goes to show that the Government has no respect for this House. Members of the Government love to pay homage to the European bureaucrats, and the bureaucrats know it. That is why we are being penalised, perished and literally terrorised by these non-elected bureaucrats of Europe.
The Taoiseach said earlier in reply to Deputy Nolan's question about the situation with the selling of veterinary medicines by merchants, "Oh, it is a European directive." That is a reply he is good at giving. France gets these European directives and what does it do with them? It tears them up and puts them in the bin. We are the best boys in the class for obeying European directives. That is what we are good at, but we are feeble and inadequate in applying for funds, even those set up for recovery from the Covid pandemic. I nearly said "plandemic" instead of "pandemic" and I do not know whether there was not a bit of a plan. In fact, there is a plan in all of this, as I said a week or two weeks ago to the Taoiseach. Our country has given away so many of its freedoms during this pandemic. The last Fianna Fáil speaker invoked the anniversary of Seán Lemass. He was a great man and a visionary.
He is turning in his grave at such a speed that evolution and science would be unable to measure it. I thought the Deputy might go back as far as Éamon de Valera but he did not. I am glad he acknowledged that the national herd will be cut because some of his colleagues are saying it will not be cut, which is a pipe dream.
We are the good boys of Europe, the best boys in the class. A totalitarianism has crept into Ireland, especially in the past 13 or 14 months but also before that. It is the European plan. There is now talk of a green passport. That was planned in 2018 and there were meetings about it in 2019, ever before we had Covid-19. It is shocking and diabolical. We are supposed to be an independent state. I do not know to where our independence has gone. We have feeble leaders and representatives who will not even come in here to listen or talk to us.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the statements to mark Europe Day. Sunday, 9 May was Europe Day. To mark the occasion, the Government paid for a four-page spread in the Sunday Independent. I assume similar content was bought in other Sunday newspapers. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us at the end of this discussion as to how much that cost. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, wrote about peace and solidarity. Mairéad McGuinness, the European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets Union, wrote about solidarity and Next Generation EU. The pieces in the four-page broadsheet spread covered such topics as the European regional development fund, supporting small businesses, building emotional resilience, and peace for future generations.
There is no doubt there have been some benefits to membership of the European Union. However, I do not think institutions and bureaucrats spend any time on critical reflection. There was certainly none of it in this House today.
When we joined the European Economic Community, it set about stealing our fishing resources. It did that to Ireland, England and Denmark when they joined because these three countries brought significant fishing resources to the EU, as it existed at that time. That is important because development in this country has been completely unbalanced ever since, with Dublin becoming the economic driver. Members have spoken of how much we have got through Structural Funds, CAP payments and so on, as if that is something for which we should be thankful. Europe should be thanking us every day-----
-----for the €120 billion worth of fish we gave the EU and allowed its members to take out of our waters before the year 2000. In that same period, we received €45 billion in CAP payments, Structural Funds and every other kind of fund from Europe. Even at that time, in 2000, the deficit was €75 billion in our favour, and that figure has only grown in recent years. It is vital to remember that.
We have talked about how great Europe is and how it has delivered peace across the world. The asylum and migration policies of the EU have enabled and indirectly contributed to the deaths of untold numbers of people, including children and babies, in the seas around Europe. There is, for example, an ongoing humanitarian crisis in a camp in Lesbos where there are more than 7,000 people seeking asylum, over 2,000 of whom are children. The camp has just 350 toilets and 36 shower cabins. People are dying when they come to Europe because Europe has facilitated the devastation of African countries. We talk about peace. EU representatives are currently in Mali, bringing so-called peace to the country. They will be in Mozambique soon. We will be going there to facilitate the colonial ambitions of Portugal, France and countries like them to ensure they get their cut out of Africa.
It is vital that Europe stands up for the Palestinian people and clarifies what relationship Israel has with the European Union. That would help to move the issue along the road.
I have to choose my words carefully as I only have two minutes and 57 seconds. Forgive me if I do not join in the hymn of praise. I am, nevertheless, obliged to say I am a proud Irishwoman and European woman. However, nowhere in the speech given by the Taoiseach did he refer to Palestine. I am going to quickly go back to something that was said earlier. One of the Social Democrats Deputies referred to the greatest threat to the European project as poverty. I second that. Poverty and inequality are threats, as is the twisting of language. The Minister and Minister of State should note that. Language means nothing any more when Israel tells us it had military targets. Nine children, among many other innocent people, are dead at a military target. Israel is one of the EU's biggest partners. Something is seriously wrong here. It is a serious threat to democracy when we twist language on its head.
I will not get through all of the notes I have made out but I will speak about the image of Europe that I see. Imagine having to declare this, but I am someone who, proudly, has family in Germany who speak fluent German. I am proud of them. We have all spent time in Germany. Let us leave that aside and look at the image we see of Europe as it progresses. We see fortress Europe and deaths in the Mediterranean Sea. I do think I will ever swim in the Mediterranean again, out of respect. The deaths of 621 migrants have been recorded in 2021, up to the end of April. Some 19,000 migrants have been reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean in the past six years. There has been a marked increase in the ratio of deaths to attempted crossings. The Minister of State is familiar with these figures but chooses not to use them. The Taoiseach chooses not to use them either. We are building up fortress Europe and an "us and them" mentality. That is the greatest threat to democracy.
The Minister of State will be more than familiar with the Frontex agency. I understand it is being investigated by the European Anti-Fraud Office, among other investigations. It is the agency the European Union has tasked with looking after our borders. It is working in collusion with the Libyan Government so that people are sent back to Libya. We have a terrible agreement with Turkey.
I have the greatest of respect for the Minister of State and I accept his bona fides on foreign affairs but surely in the midst of this hymn of praise to Europe, 71 years after the Schuman Declaration, we should have the confidence to ask if we have grown in wisdom. Has the European project grown in wisdom such that we realise when we distinguish between "them" and "us" that we are going to lose? The European project has failed to look at getting rid of intellectual property rights in the face of a pandemic. One year after the pandemic began, it has made no progress in that regard. In that way, we reinforce the "them" and "us" mentality that turns the Mediterranean into a coffin, a place in which people have died. If we are proud Europeans, surely that is what we should be looking at today. Surely we can be leaders in the world and show people that what is so important about Europe is that we are open and inclusive, and will actively work with others. When wrong is done, as is the case in Israel, we need to show that we, as a small country, have the courage to say we will not tolerate it in our name, nor will we allow Europe to do so.
I am sorry I was not here for all of this debate but I got a sense towards the end of the debate of some of the criticisms of, and frustrations with, Europe as it is today. I would be the first to recognise that Europe is far from perfect but the fact that we have regular, open debate and often strong disagreement on some of the issues that have been raised is a reflection of a European Union that is much bigger and more diverse than it ever has been and which contains different political perspectives. At the same time, the positives and strengths of the European Union far outweigh its weaknesses and inadequacies. It is up to us, as democrats, and up to me, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, to ensure that an Irish perspective and value system have the greatest possible influence on the collective approach the European Union takes. That is why, for example, in the context of the Mediterranean, we sent, for the first time ever, a Naval Service vessel on a humanitarian mission of such a scale. In fact, we sent a series of vessels, one after the other.
I thank the House for making time available for statements to mark this year's Europe Day and Europe week. I thank the Taoiseach and all the Deputies who have spoken for their contributions and work on a European stage.
On Israel and Palestine, I hope Deputy Connolly will be around later for parliamentary questions on foreign affairs when I will address that issue in some detail.
It is difficult to do so now at the end of a debate.
Over the past year, the EU endured a period of enormous change. It has faced an unprecedented global pandemic, which has impacted on the health of our peoples and shaken our societies and economies. It has also negotiated and navigated the formal departure of the UK from the Union. Europe Day is an important opportunity for us to reflect on the resilience of the Union in tackling a series of unprecedented crises over the past decade. Member states, of course, have their occasional disagreements but we all agree that the major challenges of our time require a global response, shaped by an ambitious European Union. Europe is at its best when we act in unity and solidarity.
Ireland's vitality and evolving national identity remain inextricably linked to the success of the European Union. We need, therefore, to be more active than ever in shaping and influencing the Union and its priorities for the future.
Above all, Europe Day and Europe Week are about celebrating the EU's contribution to peace and unity over the past 71 years since the Schuman Declaration, which was referred to earlier, was signed in 1950. That is something I do not believe anyone in this House takes for granted. We must never cease to remind ourselves, especially our young people, that the Union remains at its core an inspiring example of peacebuilding and reconciliation based on the rule of law, not force of arms. We should cherish its values, avail of the opportunities it provides, be ambitious for its global role and deliver change, where required. There is a constant need for change and development.
Solidarity is a necessary cornerstone of European unity. Throughout the Brexit process, Ireland consistently received and was grateful for such solidarity. Representatives from our fellow member states visited the Border, listened to our concerns and stood firmly by us through the challenging negotiations between Brussels and London. The Union put its concerns and those of Ireland at the heart of all its negotiations.
Of course, the House is keenly aware of the challenges that have arisen in the implementation of the protocol. Yesterday, I met with Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, who has become a true friend of Ireland and shows leadership and vision in trying to find constructive solutions to the ongoing negotiations with the UK. The Government fully supports his efforts to agree a roadmap which can achieve the implementation of the protocol. I welcome the ratification of the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement and look forward to an early establishment of its implementation structures, particularly at the partnership council, which should meet in the first week of next month.
On Europe Day last Sunday, the Conference on the Future of Europe was officially launched in Strasbourg. Ireland fully supports the conference and our national launch event will take place on Friday. As we begin to emerge into a new era of European recovery, it is timely to engage in some reflection on what kind of Europe we want. We want to see an inclusive conference with citizen engagement at the forefront. It is the Government's view that the focus of the work of the conference should be on practical policy issues rather than abstract debates on how the EU is governed or how it operates in the context of inter-institutional discussions.
Following the launch of the conference in Ireland, my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for EU Affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will manage our national programme over the next year. Through this programme, the Government is strongly committed to hearing the voices of young people and also the views of EU citizens living in Northern Ireland. The conference programme will include a number of all-islands events as well.
This year's Europe Week has been accompanied by an important milestone in the work led by the Minister of State and me. I will now take the opportunity to inform the House about that milestone. Last week, we launched A Career for EU, Ireland's new strategy to increase our representation among the staff of the EU institutions and agencies. The promotion of EU careers in Ireland is a key whole-of-government priority. We recognise that more must be done to encourage and help Irish people to successfully apply for posts in the EU institutions when many Irish senior officials are about to retire. This new strategy contains commitments to expand our existing EU careers, a promotional campaign across second and third level institutions, commitments to increase the supply of suitable candidates and to provide tailored support for Irish candidates for EU recruitment competitions, as well as measures to increase the European expertise of officials in the Civil Service.
Once again, I thank the House for its sustained engagement on European issues. Today's debate demonstrates our shared commitment to the Union and how it is central to the progress of our own country. Since its foundation, the Union has faced many challenges. Its demise has frequently been predicted. Rather than retreat and stagnate, the EU has been at its best when responding to the greatest challenges with ambition and unity. Today, we respond collectively to the systemic impact of the pandemic, provide global leadership on sustainable climate policies, ensure the highest standards in the regulation of the digital sector and insist that respect of human rights and the rule of law are cornerstones of civilised global engagement. We should certainly not be complacent, however. If the Union has risen to challenges and overcome them, it is only because of the sustained commitment and effort of its citizens, parliaments and governments working together. Ireland’s voice in and contribution to the Union is more necessary and important than it has ever been. Our fellow Europeans want to hear ideas. They want our active contribution, ambition and solution-oriented approach. I am confident that we can fulfil and surpass these expectations.
As I said, I look forward to taking questions on some of the issues that were specifically raised with regard to Israel and Palestine on Question Time later this evening.