Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 12, inclusive, together.
I joined European Union leaders in Brussels on 24 and 25 May for a special meeting of the European Council. We discussed Covid-19, including ongoing developments on vaccination across Europe, and the roll-out of the EU digital Covid certificate this summer. We reaffirmed our commitment to accelerating vaccine sharing with the aim of donating at least 100 million doses by the end of the year.
As agreed in December, we provided guidance to the European Commission on climate issues ahead of the expected publication of the Fit for 55 package in July.
We agreed that additional sanctions should be imposed on Belarus in response to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk on 23 May, and the detention by Belarusian authorities of journalist Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. We held a strategic debate on Russia and restated our commitment to the five principles that have guided the European Union's policy towards Russia since 2016. We will have a further discussion of EU-Russia relations at our meeting on 24 and 25 June.
We discussed relations with the United Kingdom and reaffirmed that the trade and co-operation agreement, together with the withdrawal agreement and its protocols, provide the framework for European Union-United Kingdom relations and should be fully and effectively implemented. I expressed my support for the approach being taken by the Commission, which continues to engage in good faith with the United Kingdom, working towards the full and effective implementation of what was agreed. I stress that I am absolutely clear on the bona fides of the Commission and its desire to bring these issues to an effective and pragmatic resolution. That requires political will on all sides. The Commission is there, as is the Government of the United Kingdom, and we have made the point that a deal can be reached on outstanding issues.
The Council welcomed the Israel-Palestine ceasefire, reiterated our commitment to the two-state solution and agreed to continue to work with international partners to restart the political process.
We also condemned the kidnapping of the transitional President of Mali and the Prime Minister and called for their immediate release.
It was a significant meeting of the European Council in May. A strong statement was made on the diversion of the Ryanair flight to Minsk and the sanctions against Belarus. Those sanctions need to be very strong because what happened was unprecedented. I ask the Taoiseach to update us with any other information he has on that matter.
Are we still on track to have the digital green certificate in place by 19 July? Hopefully all our 60 to 70-year-olds will be vaccinated by then. It is so important given all the discussions on the aviation industry. Are we still on track? We also need to know how far along the EU is in co-ordinating such a certificate with the likes of the US. Can the Taoiseach provide us with any information on that? How advanced are those plans? We need to look at our strong connections with the US. Such a digital certificate being interoperable is critically important. As we were very reliant on foreign direct investment, FDI, over the past year and a half, being able to travel between the EU and the US under a certificate that is completely interoperable would be a big plus. I ask the Taoiseach to provide us with some information on the status of those plans.
I thank the Taoiseach for that report. Beyond generalised assertions around restarting the political process, the two-state solution and so on, what is the European game plan as regards Palestine? In the face of the fact that Israel has been flagrantly in breach of international law time out of number, in the face of the bombardment of Gaza, the constant violations of human rights and the fact that Israel is an apartheid regime, what is the plan from Europe, bar occasional statements about a process that ran out of steam many moons ago? This situation is dire and desperately needs planned, cohesive and consistent action.
I ask the Taoiseach to give us his reflections on the comments of David Frost at a Westminster committee this morning, in which he made clear that British unilateral action in respect of grace periods and the protocol is still very much on the table. That is very worrying. President Biden's intervention was extremely helpful and we had all hoped that it would clarify matters and concentrate the British mind. What is the Taoiseach's response to what David Frost had to say? I also ask him to address substantively the issue of Palestine. What is the plan for peace and for Palestinian self-determination?
I note that the EU discussions on the various foreign policy issues included a discussion about sanctions on Belarus. It is inevitable that the EU would discuss that but it is extraordinary that there has been no discussion at that level about possible sanctions on Israel. The fragile truce is now broken and, as we speak, Israeli aircraft are bombing Gaza yet again. Those 11 days of vicious attacks on the Gaza Strip led to over 260 deaths. We do not know where this is going to lead. For EU leaders to just say they welcome the truce and expect it to last is naive in the extreme. This is an ongoing situation of a racist apartheid state with ultranationalist Zionist troops of hate marauding through Arab areas, kicking in doors and screaming "Death to all Arabs". This situation is not normal. The Israeli state is not normal. Yet, the European Union has economic ties with it, through the EU-Israeli deal, that are worth billions to that state every year. There has been no discussion about imposing strong sanctions against Israel if such attacks resume. The EU will discuss Russia, Belarus and the whole nine yards but ignores the possibility of doing anything about the Israeli state. It is treating it as if it as a normal state when it is not. It is clearly an apartheid, racist, vicious state and that has to be dealt with by the European Union. What is the Taoiseach doing to put pressure on our European partners to have that discussion about sanctions on the Israeli state? I have no doubt that in the next few weeks we will have to put pressure on the Taoiseach again about the potential expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from this country, should this situation escalate.
I raise a particular case of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and ask that the Taoiseach raise it at the European Council. Yesterday, the Saudi authorities executed a young man called Mustafa Hashim al-Darwish. He was arrested as a minor in 2015 as a result of participation in protests. He was held in solitary confinement and brutally tortured and in those conditions he confessed to various crimes. When he was brought before the court he recanted his confession because it was a result of that torture. Nonetheless, he was executed yesterday. Not only is that a horrific abuse of human rights, it is also a clear breach of the commitments the Saudi authorities have previously made that they do not apply the death penalty to children. This is another example of them doing precisely that. I am completely opposed to the death penalty full stop, but the death penalty applied to those who were children at the time of their alleged offences - and this is a case of participating in a protest - is particularly abhorrent.
The Saudi regime receives substantial support from the United States Administration in the form of funding and arms. However, Saudi Arabia also buys weapons from European Union countries. The question then is whether the EU will make a strong statement about this particular case and about the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
Deputy Kelly raised issues in respect of Belarus. There was great anger at the meeting of the European Council regarding the hijacking of the Ryanair aeroplane and the subsequent treatment of Roman Protasevich and his partner. There was a sense at that meeting that a line had been crossed by the Lukashenko regime and that it was unacceptable. A move was made immediately to initiate strong sanctions against Belarus for its behaviour. In many ways, against the backdrop of President Biden's visit to Europe in the past week or two, this really sets the context for what is essentially now a struggle in the modern world between democracies and authoritarian regimes. More and more, that is where this is heading, when activities of this kind are now almost casually entertained by dictators such as Lukashenko. I condemn what his regime has done. I did not hear any condemnation regarding it in respect of the questions that I have been asked by others, but it was unacceptable behaviour.
Regarding the Covid-19 certificate, the Deputy's point concerning interoperability with the United States is a good one. We are on target. It is challenging. The Covid-19 certificate is fine and we have PCR tests from different providers etc.. Work is progressing to meet the 19 July target. The idea of Europe and the United States having an interoperable certificate is very important and it is something we are advancing. We are doing that with third countries more generally as well, where vaccination programmes have advanced significantly. It makes a great deal of sense and that is what we are pursuing.
Turning to Deputy McDonald's points, and starting with the issue of Palestine, Europe has consistently had a clear position on the Middle East peace process for many years. There is support now, including from Ireland, for a reinvigorated role for the Middle East Quartet, namely, the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations, in working to restart the peace process and a political process to try to bring this situation to a sustainable outcome. That is what is required. Humanitarian assistance from the European Union has been very strong in respect of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, in particular, and in supporting Palestinians on the ground in the West Bank and in Gaza. It is not often acknowledged in this House, but it is very substantial. Such support will continue. Ireland has engaged at the United Nations Security Council regarding this conflict and that engagement has included strongly underlining the Security Council's responsibility to speak out. We will again continue to keep doing that.
Deputy McDonald also raised other issues. I did not hear those comments this morning from David Frost-----
I just want to make the point, if I may, that unilateral behaviour in respect of international agreements is not acceptable and it is not the course of travel for any country that has signed up to international agreements. A mechanism exists to resolve this issue and it can be resolved with some goodwill and common sense.