Dáil debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

European Council Meeting: Statements


4:40 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will attend a meeting of the European Council later this week on 24 and 25 June in Brussels. At this week’s meeting, we will, as has become usual, discuss Covid-19. This week, our focus will be on vaccination rates across the EU, including in the context of new variants, and on progress on the EU digital Covid certificate, as well as an initial exchange on lessons learnt from the pandemic. We will also discuss the EU’s economic recovery post-pandemic. We will discuss migration, in particular its external aspects, including our co-operation and support for countries of origin and transit. We will also return to discussions on relations with Russia, on Turkey and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean more generally, and on the worrying situation in Belarus. While not part of the formal agenda, the Presidents of the Council and the Commission will brief us on their discussions at the recent G7 meeting, as well as at recent European Union summits with NATO, the US and Canada. Our meeting will begin on 24 June with an exchange with United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who was recently re-elected to his post for a second term. On Friday, 25 June, we will also meet as the Euro Summit in inclusive format. The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, will provide more detail on Russia, Turkey and Belarus in his concluding remarks this afternoon. I will address all other agenda items.

Before turning to this week’s meeting, let me take the opportunity to report briefly on the special meeting of the European Council that was held on 24 and 25 May. At that meeting, we discussed Covid-19, including ongoing developments on vaccination across Europe, and the operationalisation of the EU digital Covid certificate this summer. As we had agreed to do when we met last 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 discussed Belarus and agreed additional sanctions should be imposed in response to the shocking 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 which have guided the EU’s policy towards Russia since 2016.

We had a short discussion on relations with the United Kingdom as they have developed since the end of the period of transition in January. In this, we reaffirmed that the trade and co-operation agreement, together with the withdrawal agreement and its protocols, provide the framework for EU-UK relations and should be fully and effectively implemented. I expressed my support for the approach being taken by the Commission and encouraged continued engagement in good faith with the UK.

EU leaders also welcomed the Israel-Palestine ceasefire, which had come into effect in the days before our meeting, following the devastating loss of lives over the preceding weeks. We reiterated our commitment to a two-state solution and agreed to continue to work with international partners to restart a political process.

We condemned the kidnapping of the transitional President of Mali and the Prime Minister, and called for their immediate release.

In preparation for this week’s meeting of the European Council, I met last week by video call, VC, with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the leaders of Estonia, Greece, Poland and Slovenia. President Michel regularly convenes such meetings with small groups of EU leaders to help prepare the agenda for European Council meetings. We had a good exchange on the agenda of this week’s meeting.

Our meeting this week with UN Secretary General Guterres is a timely opportunity as he starts his new term to exchange views on how the European Union and the United Nations can better work together. Our discussion will build on the assessment on co-operation between the EU and the UN given by EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, to the UN Security Council on 10 June. Engagement with the UN is always a vital part of Ireland’s foreign policy but, of course, it is particularly important at present due to our membership of the Security Council. Multilateral and UN-centred responses are essential for responding to complex global challenges in an interconnected and interdependent world. Since taking up our seat on the UN Security Council on 1 January, Ireland has taken an active role and engaged constructively in the Security Council’s work on a range of country situations and thematic issues. Ireland has also assumed a number of leadership roles on the Security Council, including as facilitator for Security Council activities under Resolution 2231 on the Iran nuclear issue, and as co-penholder, with Norway, on Syria humanitarian resolutions. I look forward to taking part next week in a debate at the UN Security Council, under the Presidency of my European Council colleague, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia, on "Maintaining International Peace and Security in Cyberspace".

Ireland is currently one of three EU member states on the Security Council. It is important to maintain EU co-operation and ensure a clear European Union voice on the many issues of concern to both the EU and UN. The EU and UN are key components of a multilateral and international rules-based approach which provides the best protection and response to international peace and security issues, Covid-19 recovery, human rights, sustainable development and climate change.

On Covid-19, this month’s meeting will allow for further discussion on epidemiological developments, vaccination programmes and preparations for implementing the EU digital Covid certificate. The decision that the European Union should come together as one to order and distribute vaccines was the right one, and very much in Ireland's interests. It has given us access to a portfolio of billions of doses, and deliveries continue to increase. Well over 355 million doses have already been delivered across the EU and more than 55% of the adult population have received at least one dose.

The EU is the largest exporter of Covid-19 vaccines to the world and will continue its efforts to increase global vaccine production capacities in order to meet global needs. Hundreds of millions of doses have been exported from the EU around the world to over 90 countries. Universal and equitable access to safe, effective and affordable diagnostics, treatments and vaccines is crucial in the global fight against Covid-19. Accelerating work on vaccine sharing and production will be a focus of this week’s meeting, including the concrete aim agreed in May of donating at least 100 million doses by the end of the year. On 4 June, the EU, within the WTO, submitted a proposal to agree on a global trade initiative for equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics. The three key components of this proposal are: ensuring vaccines, treatments and their essential ingredients can cross borders freely; concrete actions to expand production and ensure affordable supply; and clarification and facilitation of TRIPS agreement flexibilities relating to compulsory licenses. It is clear that production capacity is a key issue, and I welcome the European Commission’s announcement of €1 billion in funding to create long-term sustainable production capacity in Africa.

The EU has also played a role in responding to the immediate health crisis in a number of countries. In April, Ireland contributed to EU efforts in providing life-saving equipment to India and, last week, we responded to Nepal’s request for assistance from EU member states with donations of medical equipment and PPE. This material was donated by a number of organisations, including the HSE, and will support front-line workers delivering essential care.

Next week, we will have a first discussion of the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic, drawing on an initial report presented by the Commission last week. We must ensure that we enhance the EU’s preparedness, response capability and resilience to future crises.

While the European Union and its member states have accomplished much during the pandemic, it is clear that the European Union must be better equipped to support our collective efforts in the sphere of public health, while acknowledging areas of national competences. There is scope to reduce unnecessary duplication of effort across member states, to improve co-ordination, and to harness our collective strengths as we address common challenges. The success of the vaccination programme shows us what can be achieved when we work together as a Union.

The Conference on the Future of Europe, which met on Saturday for the first time in plenary session, will no doubt also reflect upon the impact of the pandemic and our collective response during its work.

On travel, we should acknowledge that the agreement reached on an EU digital Covid certificate is a significant achievement in a short timeframe. The Government's advice is still to avoid non-essential travel. Subject to the prevailing public health situation, Ireland will operate the new digital certificate from 19 July for travel originating within the European Union and the EEA. Ireland will broadly align itself to the European Union approach to non-essential travel into the European Union from third countries, including Great Britain and the United States of America. This will facilitate the safe return of international travel underpinned by clear safety and public health protocols, including an emergency brake mechanism coordinated at European Union level to react swiftly to epidemiological developments of particular concern. The Government agreed last week to enhanced quarantine arrangements for passengers arriving from Great Britain.

This month's European Council will be an important opportunity to take stock of economic developments as we look ahead to the next phase of post-pandemic recovery. The European Commission presented its European semester spring package on 2 June, with a focus this year on implementation of the €750 billion NextGenerationEU. Formal ratification of the own resources decision by all member states has cleared the way for European Commission borrowing on the markets to fund the NextGenerationEU package, with an initial €20 billion raised last week. The Commission has indicated that it will issue approximately €80 billion of long-term bonds this year in addition to significant issuance of shorter-term bonds.

Most member states have now submitted their national recovery and resilience plans with a view to accessing funding under the recovery and resilience facility, which is the centrepiece of the NextGenerationEU package. Ireland submitted its draft plan to the European Commission on 28 May. This has been developed by the Government over recent months, guided by the requirement for a minimum of 37% of expenditure on climate, 20% expenditure on digital investments and reforms, investment and reform challenges identified in relevant country-specific recommendations to Ireland in recent years, and ensuring alignment with national economic and investment plans, particularly the national economic recovery plan. Ireland is expected to receive €915 million in grants in 2021 and 2022, which will be used to support investments between now and mid-2026. Further grants will be allocated in 2023, taking into account economic developments.

Ireland’s national recovery and resilience plan proposes investments and reform commitments in three priority areas, which are advancing the green transition; accelerating and expanding digital reforms and transformation; and social and economic recovery and job creation. The Commission has two months to assess the plan, followed by up to four weeks for member states to consider and approve it following the Commission's assessment. An initial summary of our draft plan was published earlier this month in conjunction with the Government's economic recovery plan.

Leaders will meet next Friday for a euro summit, where we will hear from the President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, and from the President of Eurogroup, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. We agreed in March that the focus of this month's discussion would be on post-pandemic economic challenges for the euro area, as well as reviewing progress under the banking union and capital markets union. The continued activation of the Stability and Growth Pact’s general escape clause, this year and next, provides an important window of opportunity for ensuring we continue to have the right mix of monetary, fiscal and structural policies for the period ahead. This includes a stronger focus on unlocking the full potential of our Single Market, including for next-generation digital services. I look forward to constructive discussions with leaders to this end.

Discussion next week will also return to the issue of migration. Our focus will be mostly on the external aspects of migration. We will take stock of the migration situation on different routes and will discuss how best to co-operate with third countries to manage this. In 2019, the number of irregular crossings into the European Union was at its lowest level in six years and this fell further in 2020, largely as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. However, the number of irregular border crossings at Europe's external borders in the first four months of 2021 reached 36,100, about a third higher than last year, and this is expected to rise further throughout the summer.

This has, regrettably, brought with it an increase in the number of people who have lost their lives while trying to reach Europe. Ireland has consistently supported European Union efforts to deal with migration in a comprehensive manner. This includes the need to make sustainable progress on the challenges posed by irregular and forced migration. To achieve this, we need to establish and strengthen mutually beneficial partnerships with key third countries. We recognise the importance of development co-operation in helping to create the conditions in which people do not feel that migration is their only option. We need to keep a focus on tackling the root causes of forced migration such as conflict and climate change. However, it is important that we do not let migration define the European Union's relationship with third countries. It should be only one part of a wider partnership. In this context, the entry into force of the new neighbourhood, development and international co-operation instrument, known as NDICI-Global Europe, is welcome. An indicative 10% of the NDICI-Global Europe financial envelope of almost €80 billion for 2021 to 2027 is to be used for migration-related activities. Ireland looks forward to continued work together as team Europe on this issue.

I look forward to the opportunity this week of engaging collectively and bilaterally with my European counterparts. In advance of the formal meeting, I will meet informally with leaders from the six Nordic-Baltic European Union member states, a group with which Ireland shares many policy priorities. I will report to the House on our discussions next week.

4:50 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Taoiseach. EU leaders will meet at a crucial juncture. I will raise a number of issues. As we emerge from the pandemic, we have to plot our way ahead carefully and thoughtfully. The Council will meet in June, which is the month of Pride. I cannot let this opportunity go to reiterate our abhorrence towards the discriminatory and bigoted approach adopted by the Hungarian Government in respect of LGBT+ citizens. I know the Commission is investigating this matter but there have to be consequences for Governments that behave in this way.

As we rebuild, there are opportunities and challenges. The challenge is to rebuild an economy which is better, stronger and fairer for everyone. There cannot be a return to the old economy which served a privileged few at the top but failed ordinary workers and families. We can do better and we must do better. The focus of our recovery must be on jobs that are secure and well-paid. Businesses will need to be supported to protect existing jobs and create new ones. The future is a new green, sustainable economy which can preserve our environment for future generations. We need a balanced economy, in which rural communities get their fair share of jobs, growth and investment. We need a specific focus on micro, small and medium businesses, which form the backbone of our economy and economies across Europe.

When we look to the North, we need to work through the challenges and maximise the opportunities of the Irish protocol because business wants the protocol to work and expects political leaders to work together to deliver solutions to the practical challenges they face. All political parties, bar one, are doing this. The joint committee has an important job to do. Neither the DUP nor David Frost speak for the majority of people in the North of Ireland, whether MLAs, businesses or, crucially, citizens on any of these matters.

Nobody wants recurring extensions of grace periods, which only kick the can further down the road and fail to provide the essential certainty and stability businesses and all of us need. Through dialogue and engagement, solutions can and must be found and delivered.

We must also highlight the opportunities the protocol brings to the North. It places the North in a unique position in respect of access to markets and we need to explore what that can mean for investment and growth. This week, one of the largest businesses in the North, Dale Farm, won a contract to supply ingredients to a major European company. InvestNI has spoken of the significant interest it has had from outside investors sparked by the opportunities of the protocol. There are success stories but we do not often hear them.

Leaders at the European Council must be in no doubt that contrary to the loudest doomsday voices, the silent majority in the North supports the protocol. All of us across the island recognise its necessity and that needs to be made clear at the European Council.

The Council also has an important opportunity to challenge the injustice of the Common Fisheries Policy, a policy that has been devastating for our fishing community. The Government has sat idly by while a situation has developed in which Ireland has 12% of the waters in the EU but our fishing communities are only allowed to catch 4% of the fish. This costs our State thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of euro worth of seafood every year. The Common Fisheries Policy must be revisited. In the short term, we need equal burden sharing of the loss of fish quotas arising from the EU-British trade and co-operation agreement among the fishing fleets of all member states. The current situation is unreasonable and Europe must address it. Ireland must stand up for our fishing communities at the European Council.

The Taoiseach again mentioned the Palestinian situation. I have said this to him previously, but I wish to say it again. It is not enough for Europe simply to restate positions and support for a peace process and for a two-state solution. The challenge for Europe is much more profound than that. In the face of Israel consistently flouting and breaching international law and in the face of what is an apartheid regime in Israel, what will Europe do? It is not a question of what it will say, but what it will do. What will we do? What will the international community do to bring this to a head and to ensure that Palestinian lives matter, that Palestinian self-determination is realised and that this open wound in the heart of the Middle East that affects all international diplomacy but above all has devastated the lives of men, women and children who have the right to a homeland, who have the right to peace and security, and who have the right to have their human and democratic rights recognised and vindicated? What will Europe do? The Taoiseach should ask that question because that is the question on the lips of Irish people.

5:00 pm

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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Undoubtedly, the primary issue facing the EU at this moment continues to be the Covid-19 pandemic followed by how we, both as an independent nation state and as a contributing member of the institution, are to chart the course of economic recovery from the unprecedented events that have occurred since March 2020. The impact the pandemic has wrought on our economy has been compounded by the added impact of Brexit. The geographic position that we occupy of having Britain as our nearest neighbour, the political complexities of our relationship with the British and the impact of Brexit on our export economy positions Ireland as the nation most severely impacted by Brexit. While I welcome the reports that Ireland will receive €1 billion from the EU Brexit adjustment reserve fund, it is imperative that these funds find their way to where they are most needed.

Significant issues remain to be resolved relating to access to traditional fishing waters by Irish trawlers as a consequence of the failure to safeguard the rights of Irish fishers. The impact on our coastal and fishing communities is potentially devastating.

Many of our businesses have made heroic efforts to stay afloat during the pandemic lockdown. Their ambitions have been reduced to just staying in the game. This funding must be directed towards keeping people in work and keeping businesses going. Legislation before the House concerning our maritime jurisdiction offers an opportunity to send a message on the sovereignty of our waters and to put in place the mechanisms required that will allow our nation to harness our natural resources to become a world leader in the development of offshore renewable energy.

On the issue of Covid-19, the global focus is on the vaccination programmes. The emergence of new more infectious variants of the Covid-19 virus leaves us with the inescapable conclusion that we are in a race against time to administer vaccines globally before a variant emerges that is immune to existing vaccines. The threat to global health, the economy and social cohesion concerns us all. Until all are safe, no one is truly safe.

It is welcome, therefore, that the European Parliament endorsed a resolution earlier this month calling for a temporary waiver of Covid-19 patents. The steadfast opposition of the European Commission to this measure is disappointing, even though it alluded to having different plans to accelerate the global vaccine roll-out despite the growing global consensus in favour of the policy of waiving the vaccine patents. The Government owes an explanation to the House as to why its Members in the European Parliament refused to vote in support of that resolution. I call on the Taoiseach to answer where Ireland stands following the recent expressions of support for the WTO waiver for Covid-19 vaccines by political leaders in both France and Spain in the aftermath of the adoption of the resolution and the earlier expression of support from the Biden Administration in the US.

Migration is one of the most important challenges facing the EU. Conflict, poverty, persecution and global warming have led to the displacement of millions of individuals in recent years. It is a political, moral and humanitarian issue. It is also an issue we cannot discuss without broadening the debate to include the role of Turkey and how the EU's dependence on Turkey to act as a bulwark against migrants attempting to gain access to Europe has undermined the ability of the Union to address some of the more provocative actions that Turkey has taken in recent years, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean.

Just this week, the United Nations Human Rights Council heard from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, that we are heading towards a severe cascading of human rights setbacks across the globe. The situation has been exacerbated by the human rights agenda of the EU having been compromised by its relationship with and dependency on Turkey to help resolve the issue of migration. The irony is that the continuing erosion of human rights feeds the flow of refugees. Last year, even though we were amid a global lockdown due to the pandemic, a staggering 82.4 million people were forced to flee war, violence, extreme poverty and human rights abuses. More than 500 people have already died this year in attempting to cross into Europe.

We stand on the cusp of potentially horrific humanitarian disasters in both Yemen and Ethiopia.

The head of the UN has warned that Yemen is facing into the worst famine in decades and that more than 30 million people in the Tigray region remain at risk of famine. The failure of the EU to use its influence on the global stage to address these issues while simultaneously examining its current migration policy will inevitably lead to a fresh exodus of migrants fleeing the horrors of famine and conflict.

The decision of the EU yesterday to renew sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, which have been in place since 2014, stands in stark contrast to the tepid response of the EU in regard to the ongoing annexation and apartheid policies of Israel. Why can the EU not extend the restrictive measures being imposed on Russia? EU imports emanating from the areas which have been annexed, along with the infrastructural or financial investments in these areas and exports from the EU for use in transport and telecommunications, gas, oil and mineral exploration, are all included, yet the Irish Government's response to the apartheid policies in Israel is to establish an IDA office there. This is unacceptable. The citizens of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are entitled to the same consideration as the citizens of eastern Europe. Ireland being the first country in Europe to formally recognise the reality of Israel's annexation of Palestinian land has given the Irish Government the imprimatur of the Dáil to use the motion on annexation and take it to the European Council. The Irish Government can use its voice within the European Union to call for Brussels to support measures to review and downgrade its economic, cultural, military and diplomatic relationships with Israel until the occupation fully ends.

Ireland can become the first EU country to ban trade with illegal Israeli settlements through the enactment of the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018. The Irish Government has been given the authority to use its voice and seat on the UN Security Council to support the efforts of the International Criminal Court to investigate potential war crimes in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. It is not good enough to make statements of condemnation and to pass resolutions within this Dáil and not take meaningful action. The Taoiseach has the mandate of the Dáil to take that voice to the European Council and to urge our European partners to follow suit and take action against the apartheid policies.

5:10 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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As is evident from the Taoiseach's contribution, there is a wide agenda for this week's EU Council meeting. There will be a sharp focus on Covid-19, the vaccination situation across the European Union and the post-Covid economic recovery plan, all of which relate to our business and our prospects as a country. A number of related matters are important to us. I will briefly touch on a few of them.

On the roll-out of the vaccines and vaccine acquisition, after a slow start it is reasonable for the Taoiseach to suggest that the co-operation agreement across Europe in acting jointly on vaccine acquisition has been the right one, but our experience with individual companies has not been uniform. As it turns out, Pfizer BioNTech has been the workhorse of the vaccine programme in this country and in many others. Its delivery has been reliable, its word honoured and its contract good. The same cannot be said of AstraZeneca and that has posed real issues for us. The cohort of people in their 60s, who are among the most vulnerable in terms of age according to the criteria set by the Taoiseach and the Government, have not been fully vaccinated because they are still awaiting their second dose of AstraZeneca. I hope that when the Taoiseach or the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, are concluding this debate, they will make it crystal clear that, as per the schedule set out, everyone in that cohort who has received their first dose of AstraZeneca will get their second dose by mid-July, as expected, and that AstraZeneca is committed to providing those vaccines. In terms of the planning for vaccination next year and so on, the Taoiseach touched on that during Leaders' Questions. There are questions to be set straight in regard to the necessity for booster doses for those who have received the Janssen vaccine and the availability and timeline for same. We will return to that on another occasion.

Another important aspect is the issue of free movement of European citizens, one of the four pillars underpinning the legal framework of the European Union. The EU digital Covid certificates are to be issued from next month and Ireland is to participate. I sincerely hope that commitment becomes a reality. On the post-pandemic recovery plan, there is a lack of clarity in how the financial supports set out are to be made available to Ireland. The Taoiseach mentioned the recovery and resilience facility. That facility consists of €672.5 billion, of which less than half, or €312.5 billion, is grant aid. According to the Taoiseach's statement, of that €672 billion Ireland is to receive of the order of €915 million, which is a very small percentage for Ireland. According to the EU Commission website, the €915 million is EU and national funds. I would like to have underscored exactly how much money Ireland will get and when we will get it.

Other issues that will be discussed include Russia. The May conclusions pointed to a stark underlining of the worsening of the relationship between the EU and Russia. In those conclusions, the Council condemns "illegal, provocative and disruptive Russian activities against the EU, its Member States and beyond". Those are very strong words from the EU in relation to Russia. We have since had the cyberattack on the HSE and the Department of Health. We understand that the cyberattack emanated from a criminal gang based in St. Petersburg. Has the Government raised directly with the Russian authorities what action they have taken to find out how this group operates, if they will take action to ensure those involved are brought to justice and if they will co-operate with Ireland in that regard?

Turkey was mentioned. The human rights record of President Erdoğan is shocking. We depend on Turkey to absorb migrants that want to come to this country and to the European Union. I listened to other Deputies mention this and they are right, but the solution to that is not so evident. If we do not depend on Turkey, what do we do? There are 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. A shocking number of people have been dislocated, thrown out of their own countries fearing persecution. Not only are there 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, there are 400,000 others from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. We need to have a different dialogue with Turkey and to not become complicit with the human rights abuses that are ongoing in that state.

In the time remaining to me, I want to mention the Israel-Palestine conflict. There is a new Israeli Government and, I hope, a prospect for a new initiative. As I said in the last three contributions I made on this issue, we get very focused when there is conflict and we then lose our focus when the conflict results in ceasefire but the underlying reason for that conflict - the annexation - continues.

We need a very clear proactive initiative by Ireland and like-minded countries to bring about a two-state solution once and for all, as opposed to the endless talk about such a solution. Perhaps there is an opportunity to do so in light of the new Israeli Government.

5:20 pm

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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I will begin by referring to the previous meeting of the European Council, which was held in May. It is regrettable that this summit did not reach any substantial conclusions with regard to climate change and reductions in carbon emissions. The EU agreed last year to reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, having regard to the 1990 levels, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. However, no agreement was reached as to mechanisms to be used to reach these targets. It is reported that Poland in particular put forward objections on the basis of its continued reliance on coal. In any event, we await the "Fit for 55" package from the European Commission. Achieving these targets will be challenging for all member states but we have no choice but to proceed with this agenda with haste. Ireland in particular is rising to the challenge with the recent passing of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 in the Dáil.

A lot of time at the May meeting of the European Council was spent discussing the situation in Belarus and the state-sponsored hijacking of a civilian aircraft, which the Taoiseach mentioned. We cannot move on from this issue. What do we now know about the fate of the Belarusian journalist and opposition activist, Roman Protasevich, and his partner, Sofia Sapega? We must continue to call for their release and for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus. The EU must continue to take strong action to deal with the unacceptable situation in Belarus. The issue of Belarus must not slip down the EU agenda. I welcome the commitment the Taoiseach has just made to the effect that Belarus will be on the agenda of this forthcoming meeting of the European Council.

I take this opportunity to welcome the outcome of the Brexit adjustment reserve negotiations. It has been confirmed that Ireland is to receive approximately €1 billion out of a total fund of €5.4 billion. This is a great achievement for Ireland. The Taoiseach and all involved in the negotiations, including the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, can be very satisfied with the outcome. Ireland is one of the member states most affected by Brexit and it is clear that our EU partners have shown solidarity with us. We now need to ensure that this funding is given to those who need it most. By this I mean the business and economic sectors most affected by Brexit and, the fishing industry in particular.

US President Joe Biden recently attended the G7 summit in Cornwall. He went on to have meetings with the EU, NATO and Russian President, Vladimir Putin. It is welcome that President Biden raised the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol and the Good Friday Agreement with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He started by proposing a démarcheto the Brexit minister, David Frost. The President has steadfastly supported the need to implement the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and has requested that the specifics and modalities as to the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol be finalised as soon as possible. I hope his words will not fall on deaf ears. In response, the UK Prime Minister said that he will do whatever it takes to protect the territorial integrity of the UK. This is obviously rhetoric meant more for a domestic audience. The trade and co-operation agreement between the EU and the UK and the Northern Ireland protocol have nothing to do with the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister knows that.

The Irish Timesreports today that the Taoiseach has suggested to European leaders that an extension to the grace period in which EU regulations governing the importation of chilled meets to Northern Ireland are not applied should be granted. This is a sensible and practical suggestion. We need to be sensitive to the political situation in Northern Ireland. Such an extension would calm tensions and allow for constructive negotiations to continue. I also welcome the ongoing support and solidarity of EU Heads of Government on this issue. It is reported that French President, Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, and European Council President, Charles Michel, all took the UK Prime Minister to task on this matter in their recent meetings with him. Such solidarity has been unfailing since the Brexit nightmare started on 23 June 2016, five years ago, almost to the day.

Ireland is not a member of NATO, but we have to take note of the fact that NATO declared China a security threat at its recent meeting. Of specific concern are the persecution of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. These concerns were also referred to in the G7 communiqué. There are other concerns about China which I do not want to go into today. Ireland has good relations with China but we need to highlight these human rights issues at the EU, the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. The EU is divided as to how to respond to China's activities at this time for various reasons. The cornerstones of Irish foreign policy, however, are rules-based multilateral diplomacy and the promotion of basic, fundamental human rights. Those issues arise to a great degree in respect of China.

I have no doubt but that the European Council meeting will devote some time to the Covid-19 position and the prevalence of the Delta variant. I ask that the summit take decisions on vaccinations in developing countries and on the question of global vaccine inequity. As we all know, nobody is safe until everyone is safe. The COVAX scheme is a good one and it is working but it needs more financial support. While Europe and the western world generally appear to be getting a grip on the pandemic, the same cannot be said of developing countries. We are morally bound to assist them financially and in any other way we can.

In passing, I pay tribute to UNICEF for its Get a Vaccine, Give a Vaccine campaign. The former Minister of State, Peter Power, is the executive director of UNICEF Ireland. Its advocacy for increased vaccine sharing deserves our support.

I also acknowledge the fact that Ireland's national recovery and resilience plan has now been finalised. Ireland is to receive €1 billion or thereabouts from the EU's Recovery and Resilience Facility, which is the centrepiece of the next generation EU. Whatever about its response to the securing of vaccines in the first place, the EU has not been found wanting when it comes to the need for economic recovery following the pandemic. The initiation of this EU fund is unprecedented in many ways and signals that the EU can effectively respond to crises in a practical and timely way. The Irish plan aims to advance the green transition, accelerate and expand digital reform and transformation, bring about social and economic recovery and create jobs. It has been integrated into our recently announced economic recovery plan. The Government must proceed with all haste to bring about our post-pandemic economic recovery, which all of us await.

I note that there are several other issues on the agenda of the meeting of the European Council, including relations with Turkey and the issue of migration. Of course, Turkey has a big role to play in respect of that issue.

In addition, the summit will revert to the issue of relations with Russia. That is an issue of much concern to many Deputies and we await the outcomes in that regard.

I welcome the contribution of the Taoiseach regarding the role Ireland is playing on the UN Security Council. Ireland is very much active on the global agenda and the issues of the day that are of concern to the United Nations and countries throughout the world. I believe we are making a major contribution in resolving many of the intractable issues in global politics at this time. I welcome the report the Taoiseach gave in that regard.

I wish the Taoiseach well for his meeting. I have no doubt that he will keep the flag flying. Obviously, the question of how Europe recovers from the pandemic is big on the agenda, as are the lessons to be learned. There will be significant changes as a result of all our experiences with the pandemic in terms of work practices and so many other facets of our lives. It will be interesting to see what the summit comes up with in that regard, how lessons can be learned and how economic recovery will be rolled out for the EU and the member states.

5:30 pm

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Next week, we may have agreement on the next Common Agricultural Policy. I raised the CAP process with the Taoiseach two weeks ago and he accused me of being anti-European. I raised the CAP with the Minister for Agriculture, Deputy McConalogue, last week and he accused me of wanting all decisions to be made at European level. It would be appropriate for Fianna Fáil to learn that it is possible to defend Irish family farmers both at Irish and EU levels. Given that so many of the policies, standards and regulations that guide the work of family farmers are being decided at European level, it is absolutely appropriate that an Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine would fight on their behalf at EU level. However, that is not what we have had from the Government.

In fact, one of the first actions of the Taoiseach on taking office last year was to sign off on a really bad European budget deal. That budget negotiation - I am being generous by referring to it as a negotiation - saw the proportion allocated to agriculture reduce from 37% to 30% and therein lies the crux of the challenges we now face. There was no word of flexibility on whether Ireland would agree to or have any flexibility regarding how the €13 billion of the so-called common defence fund, the centralised military structure now to be created within the EU, would be allocated. There was no sense of or argument in terms of flexibility for the hundreds of billions of euro that will be spent on various other streams of the European budget that will bring virtually no benefit to the Irish people.

The first indication that the Irish Government was the defender of sovereignty and the need for flexibility at a national level came when at a European level there were proposals that would take money away from those such as Larry Goodman and the sheikhs and put it into the hands of family farmers. All of a sudden, the Government became the defender of the Irish people. Of course, that is a ruse because, despite arguing for flexibility and sovereignty, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine acknowledged in the House last week that he has no intention of bringing before the Houses of the Oireachtas the CAP strategic plan that will outline how he intends to use the flexibility for which he has been fighting so hard and actually stalled the CAP talks. The Minister should speak to his constituents in County Donegal. What he would hear might surprise him. They see very little difference in terms of the outworkings of decisions made by bureaucrats in Brussels or in Agriculture House. They are all bureaucrats at the end of the day. What people want are decisions that are made in the best interests of rural communities and family farmers. Therefore, today is an appropriate day for the Government to come clean regarding its intentions.

The Minister for Agriculture, Deputy McConalogue, appears to be the only person with any interest in Irish farming who does not have a position on the key elements of the next CAP. He has no position on how much should be redistributed in the context of convergence even though his fellow spokesperson on agriculture while in opposition for Fianna Fáil during the last CAP talks organised public meetings the length and breadth of the country, slamming the then Fine Gael Government for refusing to support redistributive measures. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine appears to be the only person who does not have a position in respect of whether there should be front-loading and what proportion of acreage should be allocated to front-loading, a position and proposition that would disproportionately support and benefit farmers in his constituency. The Minister says he supports an upper limit CAP payment in terms of the payments that any single entity can receive and that he supports that level being at €60,000 but he has not put on the record clearly that he is going to fight against any discretion or opt-outs that would allow people to continue to draw down the obscene sums that we have again seen in recent weeks. He still has not articulated whether he has put that proposition to the European negotiations or whether he is willing to stall the negotiations a second time if it means that those on obscene payments would continue to be allowed to do so under the current arrangements. Next week will tell a big story. I hope we will finally reach a point where an Irish Government and an Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine go to Brussels and actually fight for Irish family farmers.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Taoiseach in absentianot just for his detailed preview of the upcoming European Council meeting, but also for his review of the previous European Council meeting which I particularly appreciated. As I said at the time, it was disappointing that the House was unable to have stand-alone statements on it, but I truly appreciate the opportunity the Chamber had to have an extensive and meaningful debate on the situation in Belarus in light of the downing of an Irish-owned aeroplane there. I look forward to the comments of the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, in terms of a further update on the situation in Belarus and activity at a European level in respect of how we can continue to tackle the flagrant breaches of international law as well the absolutely despotic regime being run by a dictator in Belarus. Ireland has a strong and prominent role to play in this regard. This cannot be simply a one-time-only debate that we ignore when the issue no longer seems apparent. We have deep and meaningful ties to that part of the world and, moreover, the very worrying contagion that comes out of such a regime in Belarus and the efforts of non-state actors supported and protected by the regime in Belarus and the money men in Moscow is extremely concerning. One only has to look to the recent cyberattack on the HSE to see exactly how damaging that can be for all in society.

The first issue on which I wish to focus in advance of the very important meeting of the European Council later this week is, obviously, that of the pandemic. There is much to compare and discuss in spite of the air of cautious optimism in this country that the vaccination rate is going extremely well. The HSE and all those involved deserve much credit in that regard. I am delighted, as, I am sure, is the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, that the vaccination programme has made its way down to registering those in their 30s, although the Minister of State may have a while to wait yet. A significant part of this issue is a reopening strategy across Europe in the context of looking at other European countries that got things right and taking the warnings where they got things wrong. I know many Members may be quite envious to see crowds of 12,000, 25,000 or even full stadiums at the European Championships while we are still running test events. It is disappointing but perhaps it shows what we can achieve and how we can work against the very worrying rise of the Delta variant.

In his opening remarks, the Taoiseach referred to the progress on the digital Covid certificate. I have no doubt many Members will refer to this issue in this debate and have consistently raised it in recent months. It is vital for Ireland on every level.

We think in this regard of our airline industry, which has been decimated, and our airline staff, whose representatives we have all met outside both this building and Leinster House in recent weeks. We think about the correspondence we have received. Crucially, we think about those who have been apart from loved ones for more than a year. We also think about the many small and medium-sized businesses up and down the country that depend on safe and reliable overseas visits for their patronage.

I want to raise an issue on which I am seeking clarity and in respect of which the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, said earlier today on the radio that there are plans afoot. I refer to the need to ensure the digital Covid certificate is available to Irish citizens around the world who have received recognised vaccinations. Among the people who may not have been vaccinated in this jurisdiction are Irish citizens living in the UK who have had an EU-approved vaccine, whether AstraZeneca or otherwise. They must be able to access the digital certificate. It is crucial that people in Ireland have access to the certificate, as well as those in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, whether we can get clarification that people in Northern Ireland will be allowed to access the digital Covid certificate. This issue has been raised a number of times by my colleague, Senator Currie, in the Upper House. It is vitally important that we have an element of joined-up thinking on this island when it comes to the digital certification system. In dealing with the pandemic, we have seen that when we worked together, when, in particular, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Northern Ireland Minister, Mr. Swann, had meetings together, it was for the betterment of everyone on this island.

The issue into which I will segue from that point relates to the discussions on economic recovery that are due to take place at the Council meeting. We had a lengthy, although slightly fragmented, debate in this Chamber on the EU's recovery and resilience plan. It kind of became a free-for-all discussion on the national development plan and every sort of funding that may be available. The €950 million allocated to Ireland under the recovery and resilience scheme is vital and we must see progress in that regard at European level. We need that funding at this critical time, as we come out of the pandemic. Crucially, and I hate to say it, we need to have the preparations done and everything in place for the next time we may need that type of funding. The groundbreaking decision that the EU would be able to generate own resources and float eurobonds is very welcome, particularly for a small member state such as Ireland that has, at times, borne the brunt of European solidarity in terms of the response to the financial crisis. It is an important development for the whole of the EU and it provides a major opportunity.

In that context, we must also pay close attention to the delivery of the Brexit adjustment reserve fund. The funding of more than €1 billion announced last week for Ireland, which makes us the member state getting the largest part of the first €5 billion tranche, is important. We will have to wait a couple of months until we see those funds in accounts, which is completely understandable. I would like to see a discussion taking place on this issue at European Council level and Eurogroup level. I understand the latter is to meet with the Council in due course. We need to ensure account is taken of the sectors in Ireland that need the supports available under the Brexit adjustment reserve. I refer to the sectors most impacted by Brexit, including agrifood, and logistics and freight exports. We need to consider how we can use the Brexit adjustment reserve fund, together with the overall recovery and resilience fund and, indeed, the general Government strategy, to mitigate the difficulties and challenges associated with the sorry state of affairs that is Brexit but also to realise the opportunities that arise out of it.

We must use European Council meetings and any other opportunity we can to ensure we make the most of Irish exporters having access to the word's largest economic bloc. The volume of exports from Ireland to the Continent simply must increase. They are at record levels but we can do much more. There are traditional markets and products in respect of which Ireland has good business relations on the Continent, including in France and Germany, but we also need to look further afield. We must look at the requirements of other large European economies, where, I would argue respectfully, we are simply not performing. We can do much more, for instance, in the Nordic countries. I note that the Taoiseach is to have a side meeting with the Nordic Prime Ministers. There are huge opportunities in that regard. We also need to look at countries such as Italy and Poland and how we can further develop our trade with them. I repeat my call that the overall review of our foreign missions should consider the additional economic and consular opportunities that arise, having regard to the success of the second consulate offices in Lyons and Frankfurt and, in particular, the additional consulates in Great Britain, in Cardiff and Edinburgh, with another soon to be opened in the northern powerhouse region. We need to see much more of that happening across the Continent. We must, in due course, have consulates in Barcelona, Milan, Gdansk and the many other cities that offer real opportunities for Irish businesses impacted by Brexit to diversify and reap the opportunities of access to the world's largest economic bloc, the Single Market.

A very important issue that will, of course, be discussed at the upcoming Council meeting is one the Taoiseach referred to in the opening lines of his statement. That is the fallout, for want of a better word, from the G7 summit ten days ago. We have discussed it in this Chamber and in a range of contexts. We must be serious in expressing to our European colleagues that significant concerns remain in this Parliament and this country regarding the impact of the British Government's treatment of the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement. Even today, we see Lord Frost continuing to operate as a one-man propaganda machine in doing down the very protocol he negotiated and criticising the EU. He should be back in the room, whether with Maroš Šefčovič or with people on the British side such as Michael Gove and the Prime Minister, talking about what this British Government negotiated and ratified, on the basis of which it won an 80-seat majority.

We must look at the areas of the protocol that need to be implemented. A very interesting study was released recently, with comments by Matthew O'Toole, an MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly, about how no one is talking up the advantages of the protocol for Northern Ireland. We have seen, for example, a massive investment in one Northern Irish factory that produces whey protein and all the opportunities it will have to export, not just to the market in Great Britain but also to the Single Market. The message that must come from the European Council is the same message we have been getting from our European partners, including the Heads of State in Germany, Italy and France as well as the European Commission and Council Presidents, all of whom attended the G7 summit, namely, that the British obligations under the protocol simply must be met. We appreciate that things are difficult in Northern Ireland. There is, to put it mildly, an ongoing element of change in political unionism. Where there are concerns, they should, of course, be addressed. Ireland should always play a proactive and productive role within European circles to ensure the protocol is applied reasonably. However, that comes with the requirement that the British Government meet its legal obligations and act responsibly in respect of the international treaty it signed months ago.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to address the House and the Taoiseach for his remarks. I look forward to the reply from the Minister of State in due course.

5:40 pm

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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I want to discuss two issues. The first is the upcoming review of the EU's fiscal rules and the second is the reforms Ireland was requested to make as a requirement of accessing the Recovery and Resilience Facility. In March last year, the European Commission suspended the fiscal rules by activating the general escape clause. Those rules place limitations on member states' deficit and debt levels and, as such, have a significant impact on the economic performance of member states and the EU as a whole. There was some irony in the timing of the suspension, as it occurred just as the long-awaited review of the fiscal governance framework was to begin. The speed at which the rules were suspended gives a clear indication of their procyclical nature. There was widespread recognition that, following the previous financial crisis, they served to stymie recovery, acted as a rationale for austerity and meant the eurozone spent a decade teetering on the brink. Fortunately, last year's suspension of the rules allowed member states to engage in the kind of countercyclical deficit spending that was necessary to prevent the worst from happening. The President of the Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, said at the time that "national governments can pump [money] into the economy as much as they need". It goes without saying that this was a far cry from the response to the previous crisis.

The review of the fiscal rules is scheduled to recommence later this summer. The Commission is widely expected to put forward proposals for simplifying the rules, thereby providing greater incentives for productive investment and changes to debt levels. The question is whether the changes will go far enough. The European Parliament has just produced its draft report containing proposals for reform and I was very disappointed to see they do not go nearly far enough. The Commission will soon seek submissions from members states and interested parties and it is essential that this State has its say. I hope the Government will outline what its position will be in this regard. The rules are now nearly 30 years old and, as long as they have been with us, so, too, have been the calls for their reform.

Reforms proposed have included exempting public investment, cyclically adjusting the 3% ceiling, shifting from a deficit ceiling to a public debt ceiling, swapping the system of fiscal rules for fiscal standards, and so on.

At a bare minimum, we need to introduce a golden rule that would exempt member state investment in green and social capital infrastructure from debt and deficit considerations. I cannot see how a new European green deal and just transition will be possible without such a measure. The report of the European Parliament considers a golden rule, but it is so restrictive that it is unlikely that most member states will qualify. In the absence of this, I cannot see how we will reach our climate targets. Yet, I already detect the obsession with fiscal discipline being prioritised above all other concerns. That is creeping back in. It is exemplified in the article by former German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, published recently in The Financial Times, which called for a hasty return to fiscal contraction. Thankfully, a response was written and signed by almost 150 economists, stating that the exact opposite of that is what is now required. Not only does Europe need expansionary fiscal policies, we need fiscal rules that support public investment and do not straight-jacket policymakers from engaging in the kind of expenditure required to meet the needs of the moment. We need more economic sovereignty to make decisions based on our conditions and needs.

Lastly, I wish to address the issue of the conditionality that was attached to the access of states to the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the concerning request by the Government for confidentiality. The European Council examined the recovery plans for the EU. The Government has now submitted its plans. It has been confirmed that Ireland requested the Commission to redact certain sensitive information from its recovery and resilience plan as officially submitted on 28 May 2021. It is deeply concerning that such a large amount of public money is subject to privacy conditions. We need confirmation of when the entire plan will be published. We need a full list, without any redactions, of the reforms that the State has committed to implementing. As the Minister of State will be aware, the EU's so-called country-specific recommendations made specific demands on Ireland to reform certain tax rules and schemes. A full account must be given of how the Government intends to meet these recommendations in its national plan through changes to tax law over the coming years. The fund is significant and it is a welcome aid to our recovery, but the people must know what agreements were reached in return for it.

5:50 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I wish to raise a specific question that was put to me. I do not expect the Minister of State to answer now, but I would appreciate it if he could get back to me. On the issue of the EU digital Covid certificate and plans for travel within the EU, a person asked me very valid question. In the case of a person who has been told by their doctor - not through scepticism about vaccines - that because of a particular condition they have, they cannot be vaccinated, is that person going to be discriminated against in their ability to travel, when others who are vaccinated are allowed to travel? It is a fair question. People who are in that situation deserve an answer on it. They should not be discriminated against. If it is decided at a certain point that based on vaccination, people are allowed to travel, or particular conditions around international travel resuming within the EU, green listed countries or whatever are introduced, there should not be unfair discrimination against people who, through no fault of their own and because of particular conditions, are unable to be vaccinated. That is a specific question on which I hope to get a response.

The main point I wish to make concerns the references to Palestine and the discussions around Palestine. The Taoiseach's references to the discussion were fairly minimal in just saying that there was a restatement of the commitment to the two-state solution. I wish to assert that the two-state solution is not a solution. It has been tried since the Oslo Accords were concluded and it has been an absolute disaster. By the way, it essentially legitimises and accepts the principal of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the ethnic-religious partition of people who used to live in one country as equals, but who were ethnically partitioned. Imagine if somebody said that the two-state solution in Ireland was a legitimate solution. I think many of us would baulk at that. Yet, we continue to go on about a two-state solution, which is, in effect, legitimising and endorsing the ethnic-religious partition of the land of Palestine. In fact, to my mind, it is the main basis on which Israel continues to seize Palestinian land and ethnically cleanse Palestinians. It reinforces the idea that because at some point borders will be fixed, Israel should grab as much land and ethnically cleanse as many Palestinians as possible. It is having disastrous consequences. Therefore, it is time to question the two-state solution as an absolutely failed and dangerous fantasy and to start to talk about equality of everybody in the historic land of Palestine, whether they are Jews, Arabs, Christians or have no religion. We would not accept anything less anywhere else in the world. Why do we accept the idea of ethnic cleansing and ethnic partition which has been so disastrous for the Palestinians?

In that regard, I also ask the Taoiseach why we are practising apartheid against Palestinians when it comes to access to the EU. Israelis have a visa waiver coming into the EU, but Palestinians do not. Why are we discriminating in favour of Israel in that regard, as against Palestinians? Is that not a case of apartheid being practised by Europe and should it not cease? If we are serious about seeing people as equals in the historic land of Palestine, Israel or whatever you want to call it, why are we treating those two groups of people differently, particularly when Israel behaves quite disgracefully towards EU passport holders who happen to be of Palestinian origin and who enter Israel trying to access the West Bank or Gaza?

Finally, I appeal to the Government to do everything it can to assist the people of Gaza in the reconstruction effort. Gaza has suffered four attacks in the past 12 years. In the latest attack, 1,148 houses were destroyed, 15,000 were damaged and 100,000 people were displaced. In many cases, people had their homes destroyed for the second, third or fourth time. We urgently need to get assistance to the people of Gaza to help reconstruct their shattered society, particularly in the area of housing.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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June is Pride month throughout the world. It is 52 years this month since the Stonewall uprising, when LGBTQ+ people in New York city rose up against police harassment and violence. Since that time, the movement for gay liberation has spread to every country in the world. Every June, the community celebrates and takes stock of the journey travelled and the journey yet to come. Stonewall's tradition of resistance and struggle lives on, despite attempts by the corporate world to co-opt and monetise the issues. Here in Ireland, much has been achieved, but homophobia is still alive and kicking, as shown by recent events in Waterford and Ballyfermot. Meanwhile, the Government failed to challenge the homophobia of the church's new sex education programme for our schools or to insist on objective, factual sex education for our students.

The EU projects itself as modern and liberal, yet same-sex unions have not been legalised in five countries and same-sex marriage has not been legalised in 13 countries. In Poland, there is a state-sponsored ideological war against the LGBTQ+ community, and so, too, in Hungary, which banned adoption for same-sex couples late last year and now has banned what it describes as "the display and promotion of homosexuality" among under 18s, thereby criminalising large numbers of young gay people in that country.

EU governments have been far too quiet on the issue. The Irish Government has been far too quiet on it. What does the Minister of State intend to say and do at the European Council? If governments fail to act, then it will be a revival of the Stonewall tradition, a tradition of militant struggle from below, along with international solidarity, that will hold the key to challenging these regimes and approaches.

6:00 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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This week's meeting of the European Council comes at a critical time for many economic sectors in member states. That is very true for Ireland. The pandemic has left a trail of damage in its wake, taking the lives of thousands in Ireland and hundreds of thousands across the European bloc. This has brought significant suffering to Europeans, presenting fundamental challenges to our economy and our way of life.

From the outset of this crisis, EU member states have acted in good faith with one another, working together to share information and respond to an unprecedented challenge not seen in the past century. The development of more reliable vaccines in a short time has been nothing short of remarkable. Moreover, the ability we have demonstrated in terms of solidarity, bearing in mind some early bumps on the road in terms of supply, to efficiently roll out a vaccine to our peoples has given real hope for a timely and much wanted return to an open society.

As a united bloc, we must now consider the medium-term prospects for the Irish and European vaccination programmes and the economy, both of which are intrinsically linked. I believe in a strong vaccination response, one that avails of continued co-operation with nation states outside of the EU, as well as pharmaceutical companies and production sites. We cannot have certainty without open dialogue. I urge all of our partners to continue to engage with each other to avoid any potential pitfalls.

I also believe that we in Europe are among the most privileged in the context of vaccines. From such a position, it is, therefore, right that we ask if we can do more to help ease the burden on nations still struggling to control the virus. Encouraging a global take-up of vaccines in as short a time as possible will benefit everyone living in Europe and allow us to avoid delays in our reopening. We know that it is a matter of time before further Covid-19 variants emerge. We do not yet know what some of these variants might look like and what might be the ramifications of a further aggressive strain emerging. That is why we must act.

The European Union has the means and capability to extend the hand of friendship around the world and supply millions with protection from Covid-19 which will, in turn, leave a legacy of hope in what has been an incredibly difficult time for the world. I commend organisations such as UNICEF on their efforts in providing vaccines to the most vulnerable around the world. I hope Ireland can also bring the issue to the heart of the UN and advocate for those very same people. I am aware of COVAX and the European Union's ambition but I would like to see more being done. Allowing other countries with the facilities to produce vaccines the ability to do so through waiving vaccine patents is a step which should be encouraged. Like all Members, I was very heartened by the steps in some jurisdictions and by some companies in this regard. This can transform the speed at which we can reduce the impact of Covid-19 on lives around the world.

I spoke earlier about the unity in which the EU has acted throughout the pandemic. We are already on the path to dealing with the recovery in a united manner. This is evidenced in the EU recovery and resilience plan under which approximately €750 billion will be provided, of which Ireland will receive nearly €1 billion. However, I would repeat that which has been said by some of my colleagues on the detail of that €917 million package. The House has not had the opportunity to assess that or to determine what is appropriate in terms of where the money should be expended. I note from attending various committees over the past number of weeks that no committee has been provided with any information. That is somewhat of a short-sighted approach to the provision of almost €1 billion.

Despite these positive developments, there remains a clear difference between Ireland and the rest of the EU in respect of one critical sector of the economy. The Ceann Comhairle will not be surprised to hear that is aviation, an issue which I have raised in this House on many occasions over the past number of months. As has been said countless times over the past 18 months, it was the first and most badly affected industries in Ireland. However, unlike many industries that were severely curtailed, the aviation sector remains in a situation where it is unclear as to many of the aspects on which it requires clarity in order to fully restore it to its previous position of strength. Recent reports regarding air traffic in the EU suggest we saw a recovery of up to 50% as compared to 2019. Air traffic in Ireland, however, is expected to lag behind this average recovering to just 43%. More disturbing are the recent published figures from the Central Statistics Office which showed that, in April of this year, daily passenger traffic through Irish airports stood at just 4,700 people. This represents just 4.5% compared to the level seen in 2019. At that same moment in April of this year, American Airlines was hiring new pilots.

These figures and facts cannot be ignored. The alarm bells are ringing and the industry is calling on us to act. Thousands of jobs are on the line on top of the 4,000 already lost. Providing a clear path to restoring consistent and safe travel in Ireland is of paramount need. We must learn from the experiences of other nations and use all available to tools to deal with the issue with the urgency it requires.

While I am pleased the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, has written to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, requesting a trial of antigen testing within the aviation sector, I believe it is several months too late and most certainly will be too late for some within the sector. It is my firm belief that Ireland should introduce antigen testing for the aviation industry, most especially for vaccinated individuals. I listened carefully to the transport committee hearing with Dr. Holohan and his colleagues last week. What was effectively discussed was a second layer of testing alongside PCR. I do not think that is what other EU nations are doing and I am not convinced it is what we should be doing, particularly as it applies to individuals who have been vaccinated. We lag behind many of our European partners in this respect.

We will reap the consequences of that in the event that we do not regularise antigen testing in our travel hubs. Further clarity must also be given with respect to children who are travelling. We must acknowledge that children will be among the last to be vaccinated. While in Europe many parents of young children are vaccinated or due to be vaccinated shortly, this underscores the importance of setting coherent plans for travel. It will provide clarity to both passengers and the industry as more people begin to plan a return to international travel on 19 July.

If we are sincere in our commitment to the aviation sector, we must recognise its extraordinary contribution to the Irish economy in supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs, creating billions of euro in revenue and connecting Ireland to the world. We must put into action what we commit to and deliver results for the industry which we desperately need to help at this time. An assistance scheme for testing for travel should be provided, as has been provided in other EU member states. I would like to see Ireland follow those countries. We are an island off the coast of the world. We need our aviation sector and we need to find supports for it. We need these in place before 19 July.

The digital green certificate is a welcome EU initiative and there is clearly a place for more information to be provided to the public in advance of unfettered travel in July. It is incumbent on the Government to move appropriately to provide the public information campaign in due course. As we begin to look towards an increase in return to international travel, the EU should engage with our partners around the world, most notably the UK and the United States, in order to facilitate reciprocal agreements and recognition of official documentation. The upcoming EU meeting this week is another opportunity to press for these developments which will contribute to providing certainty for the wider travel and hospitality sector. Our hospitality sector is important and will have a good summer with domestic travel. It will benefit even more, however, with international travel to these shores.

Also to be discussed at this upcoming meeting will be the increasing belligerent behaviour of the Russian Government. For some years now we have seen Russia threaten countries attempting to move towards EU values, interfere with the domestic democratic processes of EU member states and exert its influence on its own people, notably journalists and opposition leaders. We cannot stand by and allow this behaviour to go unchecked. To do so would be to encourage all those who have been unfaithful to the principles of democracy around the world, as well as here in Europe.

Russia is interested in destabilising the EU because all governments which lean towards authoritarianism fear the values that we hold dear, namely, a free press, an independent judiciary and the right of people to freely choose their leaders. We in Europe learn these developments and values the hard way. We saw the suffering and pain caused by extreme political ideologies and undemocratic leaders. We resolved to build a better union, one in which freedom is paramount and despots are unwelcome. Unfortunately, some lessons of the past cannot be forgotten.

We now see member states, namely, Hungary and Poland, in direct contradiction of the values of the EU. We see those attacks on media and on the courts in an effort to suppress criticism of the government and we should be under no illusion that these events have been welcomed in Russia. We must send a clear message to Russia, in respect of those who would do their bidding in Europe, that their actions will be met by repercussions.

In my remaining minute, I want to talk briefly about solidarity with members of the LGBTQ+ community across Europe. We have seen infringement of their rights in two member states and have seen further infringements of their rights across other member states in recent months and years. In Pride month it is appropriate for me, as a member of Parliament in Ireland, to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in the gay community right across Europe because it is very important that we recognise that we are all equal and the laws should reflect that. That is why it is particularly disheartening to see a country like Poland and other countries act in contradiction of the principles of the EU. There is a context for a wider debate on how there could be consequences for an EU member state if it is found to be acting in a way that is unfitting with the principles of the EU.

I wish the Taoiseach well in his upcoming EU meeting and I look forward to our continued co-operation with our EU partners.

6:10 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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As antigen testing was raised, the only commentary I will make is that it has been a tool that we have missed in the opening up of society but it may have a particular fit for aviation. We all know NPHET's view on it at this stage, and Dr. Tony Holohan stated that there is an insufficient amount of evidence on antigen testing, particularly around travel and aviation. There has been a failure and this needs to be rectified quickly, even if it is very late from the point of view of putting a proper pilot testing scenario in place to provide the evidence, so that it can be audited properly and, if as many of us believe, antigen testing is proved to be useful for aviation, that it is put in place. That needs to be done as quickly as possible as we are way behind the curve on it.

We welcome the move that is to be made on the digital Covid-19 certificate. It is Europe operating at its best when one has an element of working together and one has a sensible solution that will be operated throughout the European Union. We need to ensure that there are no hiccups from our end and that all of the technicalities and the logistics are put in place as soon as possible. Communication with all stakeholders is necessary. In regard to 19 July, we need to accept that the aviation sector has been significantly hammered and it does not need anything to happen beyond what has happened with Covid-19. That which is within our control needs to be sorted out. We need to ensure we deliver for this sector.

There has been much talk about certain difficulties around the recovery and resilience funding. We all welcome the €1 billion funding from the Brexit adjustment reserve fund but we have to ensure that we put these funds where they are necessary from the point of view of economic recovery. A significant amount of work still needs to be done on that.

I have mentioned Brexit. We received great solidarity from across Europe and we have heard the recent statements from Boris Johnson and David Frost. We have also heard these statements from certain elements of unionism as it goes through the particular difficulties it has at this point in time. On some level, the British Government is probably providing succour, in that people believe there is a major political move that can be made on the Irish protocol. This protocol is like the Good Friday Agreement which is there to stay. Solutions will be found to whatever difficulties there are. We need to ensure we maintain that element of solidarity and that Britain is left in no doubt that solutions will be found but that the Irish protocol is there to stay. This, to me, is continuity of the failure of British rule in Ireland and the absolute failure of partition. Once again we will have to have a proper and real conversation on what a united Ireland will look like and which allow everybody to be part of the conversation. Then we can have a plan. Eventually, we will have a referendum. Everybody in the wider world believes it is going to happen so we need to have a bit of reality check. In this House, I recognise there have been moves by certain political elements, which are very welcome. We need to have this conversation, to have the plan and to deliver, following 100 years of absolute failure.

We really need to look at a TRIPS waiver, even if it is temporary, to ensure the steadiest and biggest supply of vaccines is delivered across the world. This State, and across this island, we are in a race of vaccines versus the Delta variant. We need to ensure we reduce the number of variants across the world and that we bring every other state and nation to the place we are in now because none of us are safe until all of us are safe.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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As we do not have anybody from the Regional Group offering our next contributor is Deputy Mattie McGrath who is sharing with Deputies Michael Collins and O'Donoghue.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Tá ceist mhór agam i gcomhair an Aire Stáit. What was the delay in putting Ireland's application forward? The big question remains as to the delay at the European Commission and why we only looked for €1 billion. I was always taught as a little buachaill óg going to the shop to look for more than one could get and take one's share then.

Denmark, which has a similar population to Ireland, is receiving an allocation of €1.6 billion, which is almost double the allocation Ireland is receiving, which is €900 million. Belgium with a population twice that of Ireland will receive €5.9 billion under this programme, which is three times the allocation Ireland is receiving based on population. Croatia, with a population less than that of Ireland, will receive €6.3 billion, which is more than six times the allocation of Ireland. Are we or are our officials the laggards? Sweden, which has a population of about twice that of Ireland, requested a total of €3.2 billion.

Here we are the good boys of Europe, where we rock up to say that we are a month late putting in the application. What are Department officials doing? This is across all Departments because we cannot get an answer from any of them. They had better wake up and dust themselves down from Covid-19, look for these answers and pony them up. We are being blackguarded in Europe and treated like schoolboys in the bold boy corner. Imagine getting €900 million when other countries with similar populations are getting three or six times as much as we are. What is going on? I know that we are the lackeys of Europe where we sold and destroyed our fishing industry and everything else, but this is outrageous. The Minister of State has a great deal to answer for as has the Taoiseach and everybody else.

It simply beggars belief that this could be allowed to go on, where we receive such a pittance. Why would we not accept this when we always take what we get, are the good boys of Europe, pay homage to it always and do not even look for money? We looked for €1 billion and we received €900 million. The others looked for €6 billion and they received €3 billion or €4 billion. This is crazy stuff and we need answers.

EU passports are part of a plan. We discussed EU passports in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Nobody blamed Covid-19 then as it was not an issue. This is all part of the control. We are the wonderful boys who will do anything that is asked of us. We will lie down and let them eat cake. This is a shocking indictment of our officials and of our country. That we can come back with that sort of a package, which we applied late for and in such a feeble manner, is scandalous.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I ask the Minister of State to check the record of the Dáil where he will see that more than six months ago I asked why we had not applied for more funding and for our fair share from Europe. We just heard that €750 billion was available. Ireland is receiving €915 million and other countries are receiving triple this amount even though they are of a similar size. The Irish application did not prioritise broadband, infrastructure or housing, even though we have a housing crisis.

I have been in business and self-employed all of my life. I know that when one goes out looking for business, one has to sell oneself. I was elected to the Dáil just over a year ago and I can only be critical of the people who are going out to fight for this country. We are not getting our fair share.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Good man.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I was six years on a council. All I see is the failure of people to speak up for Ireland.

The Government should seek our fair share in Europe and get a response. The figures show that Croatia, which has a smaller population than that of Ireland, is getting €6.3 billion, while we are getting €915 million. We need to get people from a business background to do deals on behalf of the Government because it is not capable of fighting for Ireland or putting forward a business model in Europe on behalf of the country.

6:20 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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In July 2020, the European Council, comprising the Heads of State and Government of each EU member state, adopted an historic €750 billion recovery package for Europe. This package, Next Generation EU, is Europe's shared response to the severe health and economic crisis caused by Covid-19. The European Commission announced on 28 May that it had received an official recovery and resilience plan from Ireland and Sweden. Sweden, with a population about twice that of Ireland, had requested a total of €3.2 billion in grants under the recovery and resilience facility, RRF, while Ireland had requested a total of €1 billion. Many of the other figures were outlined by my colleagues Deputies O'Donoghue and Mattie McGrath. In comparison with other countries, we have been left far behind.

Deputy McGrath is correct; we are the good boys in Europe. We have been the good boys in Europe for decades and we can see what it has cost us. I plead with the Minister of State, before the fishermen's protest that is to take place tomorrow, to get back out to Europe, fight for the Irish fisherman and farmer, fight for Ireland and not walk away with a bad deal. We walked away with a shocking deal in regard to Brexit. We are scared of asking for a slightly higher quota. We do not want to insult anybody by asking for a bluefin tuna quota for the fishing industry because we might insult other European countries that have very high quotas. We are an absolute disgrace when we go to Europe. We are scared. It is time to stand up, get the best team out there and put up the best fight. There should be no more good boy attitude.

Where are we going to be in the CAP negotiations? Are we going to be the whipping boys again? Are we just going to give to the wealthy farmer in Ireland and let the small man go, as we have done before? A total of 40% of farmers in this country get between €1,500 and €5,000 from the CAP. Will they be neglected again under the CAP agreement? Will the powers in Europe look after the fat cats and leave behind the ordinary men and women in this country? It is time to step up and we need the Government to do so. It failed in regard to fishing but surely he will not fail in regard to agriculture. If it does, it will have devastating consequences.

The Government failed to bring this fund to Ireland in a sufficient manner to allow us to have some kind of recovery. Businesses throughout my county and others, such as pubs and hotels, are starved in the need of funding. Their doors have not been open for more than 400 days in some cases. They are in a desperate position and they are getting only meagre money, and that is no wonder because we cannot fight our corner in Europe.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Connolly. The agenda for the European Council meeting includes Covid-19, economic recovery, migration and external relations, including relations with Turkey and Russia. Will the leaders also discuss the TRIPS waiver issue and the lack of equity in regard to vaccine distribution and the epidemiological situation pertaining to Covid-19? "None of us is safe until everyone is safe" is the mantra we keep hearing, but what about the question of what is the morally right thing to do? We cannot just continue to vaccinate ourselves and say "to hell with everybody else". That is why migration is such an important issue. The EU and the wealthy north continue to enjoy that wealth at the expense of the south, and then we wring our hands when people from the south try to get here.

This is a topic on the Council's agenda, namely, the migration situation on the various routes. Will the leaders examine which route has resulted in the most deaths? Are some routes safer for children and babies or is there a data-deficit because bodies have not yet washed up on shores? That may sound callous and facetious, but the EU's migration policies are callous, cruel and inhumane. No doubt, the leaders will examine which routes can be easily closed.

The EU leaders will discuss the implementation of Next Generation EU and recommendations on the economic policy of the eurozone area. They will talk about the impact of Covid-19 on our economies and the challenges we face, and review progress made on the banking union and the capital markets union. Will that discussion involve how to make policy more responsive to citizens than to banks and capital markets?

On 25 March 2021, the Council issued a statement about discussions on relations with Turkey, while at the end of May 2021, it was decided that relations with Russia would be discussed again. Is it not remarkable that an EU member state that has been a member for 17 years could introduce legislation that discriminates against the LGBTQI+ community? Just last week, Hungary voted for regressive measures for members of that community who under the age of 18. Similarly, Poland has also been a member state since 2004 and has been allowed to flout common decency and human rights legislation by having designated LGBT-free zones. The Hungarian Government has stated that anything that “promotes deviation from gender identity, gender reassignment and homosexuality shall not be made available to persons under the age of 18.” A Hungarian LGBT+ group, the Háttér Society, surveyed about 2,000 people and found that 42% had thought about suicide and 30% had attempted it. The survey found that 64% of the respondents who had thought about suicide were teenagers. That is shocking and it should be discussed at EU level.

This month is Pride month, and people ask why Pride is still needed. Pride is a protest, and Irish EU leaders must make a stand at this month's Council against these dangerous, outdated and disgusting laws.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. I have read a copy of the Taoiseach's contribution and it contains some welcome aspects. What stood out for me was that he stated that next week, we will have a first discussion of the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, drawing on an initial report. If we have learned anything from this time, it was that we were utterly unprepared for such a pandemic because of our failure in this country to invest in public health and our hospitals. We will recall what the World Health Organization stated more than a year ago, namely, that the failure to act, on the part of Ireland and other countries, was truly shocking. I would like to see a transformative action emerge from the Council meeting in order that language will mean something.

There are many other issues I would like to address but time is limited and some of them, relating to Hungary and Poland and refugees, were mentioned by my colleague, Deputy Pringle. Some 60 million people have now been displaced, the highest number since the Second World War. I will use the brief time that remains to focus on Colombia. I am surprised and shocked that the Taoiseach did not mention the country, given the level of unrest, violence and deaths that has obtained there in the past while, and particularly since April of this year. I acknowledge that the former Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party is the EU envoy and that he is deepening his understanding of Colombia in regard to this matter as we speak. Nevertheless, our role on the UN Security Council is a very special and privileged one. We secured it because of hard work on the part of the Government but also because we are respected as an independent voice.

I ask that we use that voice and that, at the very least, Colombia be put down on as the number one item on the agenda of the next Council meeting. The figures are horrific. The latest protest followed on from those in 2019 and 2020, but the current unrest began at the end of April. Human Rights Watch has stated that 34 deaths occurred in the context of the recent protest, comprising two officers, one criminal investigator and 31 demonstrators or bystanders. There are many other figures I could quote but time is limited, so I will outline what two non-governmental organisations on the ground have stated. They are highly respected NGOs. They have stated that 43 massacres have been committed in Colombia this year alone, with 164 victims. They define a massacre as the killing of three or more people in the same place at the same time.

The protest has become a massive movement for change. I ask that it be put on the agenda of EU meetings and that we have reports back. Will the Minister of State clarify when the Minister for Foreign Affairs will report back to the House regarding his role on the UN Security Council? How are topics on that body's agenda determined?

We have a good relationship with Colombia. I had the privilege of meeting the ambassador in a different role lately. We have connections going back to Roger Casement. However, we have to use our voice on what is happening there at present and the unacceptable level of state violence or state-sponsored violence.

6:30 pm

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputies for their statements and questions. The Taoiseach has outlined his expectations for the European Council's meeting with the UN Secretary General, Mr. Guterres, and for their discussions on Covid-19, economic recovery, migration and the Euro Summit. I will now turn to the foreign policy items on the agenda of this week's European Council.

With regard to Russia, at their last meeting on 24 to 25 May, leaders held a discussion on the EU's strategic relationship with Russia. In addition to condemning recent illegal, provocative and disruptive Russian activities, leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the five principles which have guided the EU's policy towards Russia since 2016. These five principles are full implementation of the Minsk agreements on the conflict in Ukraine as key to any substantial change in the relationship; strengthened relations with the eastern partnership countries and with Russia's central Asian neighbours; strengthening EU resilience to Russian threats; selective engagement with Russia when it is clearly in the EU's interest, for example, on issues such as counter-terrorism; and support for people-to-people contacts and for Russian civil society as a whole.

This approach has aided the EU in maintaining unity in its engagements with Russia. Preserving EU unity is a primary concern for Ireland. Disunity would result only in weakening our voice and would undermine our credibility, interests and values. On foot of a leaders' request at the main meeting, the EU's external action service and the European Commission have produced a joint report in line with these principles. Ireland agrees with its analysis that relations with Russia are unlikely to improve in the short term. However, it is important we explore paths which could help the current dynamics gradually into a more predictable and stable relationship.

Ireland will also continue to utilise its bilateral contacts with Russia in support of the overall EU approach. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, spoke with his Russian counterpart, the foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov, on 17 May. They discussed a range of bilateral and UN Security Council-related issues. In that conversation, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, raised the EU's concerns around human rights and the oppression of minorities.

With regard to Turkey, the discussions on relations between the EU and Turkey and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean follows from leaders' discussions by videoconference in March. At that meeting, it was agreed the EU-Turkey relationship could be developed in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner, provided Turkey sustained its de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean and adopted a constructive attitude.

This week, the European Council will assess the situation. Since the March meeting of the European Council, Turkey has largely refrained from its previous provocative behaviour, such as drilling in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has also engaged bilaterally with Greece at senior levels. However, Turkey's relationship with Cyprus remains much more complex. Turkey has unacceptably continued to call for a two-state solution and has continued its construction works in Varosha in northern Cyprus.

The rule of law and human rights situation in Turkey continues to be of concern. From Ireland's perspective, there is justification for maintaining a degree of positive momentum, if possible, including through continued co-operation with Turkey on migration. It is important we continue to support the 4 million refugees in Turkey and their host communities. Basic humanitarian needs, education and healthcare will remain key priorities for future funding. However, hand in hand, we will continue to seek concrete steps to improve the human rights situation and the rule of law in Turkey and to express solidarity with Cyprus.

Although the situation in Belarus was not formally included on the agenda, leaders are expected to return to the situation there. This was subject to extensive discussion in May, when the European Council agreed on concrete steps to protect our citizens, including introducing new sanctions calling on airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and commencing work to ban Belarusian airlines form EU airspace. These measures are now either in place or will shortly be so. Ireland supported the opening of an independent investigation into the incident at a special meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization held on 27 May and this is now under way.

Ireland has serious concerns for the welfare of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, concerns which have grown in light of the so called confessions which have been released. We continue to call for their immediate and unconditional release. The overall situation in Belarus remains grave and violations of human rights continue on a regular basis. Ireland will continue to highlight these violations and work with its international partners to ensure those responsible are held accountable. Ireland will take an active role on this issue at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

On 1 June, this House unanimously supported a Government motion condemning the actions of the Lukashenko regime and expressing strong support for the Belarusian people. It is important we continue to keep this issue high on the international agenda and in doing so, demonstrate the ongoing support of Ireland and the EU for civil society in Belarus.

In addition to the issues I have outlined, leaders may also raise other current external relations issues. The agenda for this week's meeting at the European Council is being discussed by EU affairs ministers at the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg today. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, is representing Ireland at that meeting.

I wish to thank the Members for their active participation in this debate and the Taoiseach will fully report to the House, following the European Council meeting next week.