Tuesday, 19 October 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 to 24, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on Europe oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in relation to the European Union and related issues. It generally meets in advance of a meeting of the European Council. It last met on 14 October 2021 in advance of this week's meeting of the European Council on 21 and 22 October. The next meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Europe is expected to take place in advance of the next scheduled European Council meeting in Brussels on 16 and 17 December 2021.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the so-called strategic compass which is due to be published in November by the European Commission. It is a roadmap for European security and defence capabilities. The initiative can be seen against the backdrop of recent global developments, including the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan, the cyberattack on the HSE, the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Belarus and ongoing Russian activities generally. What will be Ireland's approach to the strategic compass, having regard to our traditional policy of military neutrality?
I would also like to ask the Taoiseach about rule of law issues, particularly following the rejection of Poland's constitutional court of the supremacy of EU law. This is certainly a threat to the European Union given that EU law has primacy over national law, including constitutional provisions. What can be done about this? For example, can Covid recovery funds be withheld from Poland? In my view, it would not be in the interests of the EU were Poland to leave the European Union. Will this issue be addressed at the forthcoming European Council meeting and what is Ireland's view on these developments?
On the Taoiseach's attendance at the summit in Slovenia dealing with the western Balkans and the question of the enlargement of the EU, the admission of the various countries from the western Balkans requires the unanimous support of all 27 member states, but what is Ireland's view on the admission of these countries? Does the Taoiseach believe their admission would promote peace and stability in the region and, also, democratic values generally?
The Taoiseach will be aware, I hope, that a very important motion was passed in the Assembly yesterday which welcomed Vice-President Šefčovič's support for formal dialogue between the Assembly and the EU. That was very significant. The motion set out where the democratic majority in the North stands when it comes to these matters. The motion, as adopted, acknowledged the support of MLAs for the inclusion of the views of the North's elected representatives and stakeholders' views on matters relating to the protocol and the broader peace process.
Following on from the Taoiseach's previous response to me, one of the issues Sinn Féin has been consistently raising is the need for Northern voices to be heard throughout the Brexit process. The Taoiseach will recall that in the post-Brexit scenario we argued for political representation in the European Parliament for the North. Unfortunately, this was rejected by the previous Government. We have made a number of practical proposals for the here and now, such as securing observer status for MEPs from the North, representation at the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee, the ability of Executive members to participate in meetings of the Council of Ministers as part of the Irish delegation and the ability of civil servants from the North to participate in Council working groups where there are very clear all-Ireland dimensions. The European Commission proposals for a more structured dialogue with the North and its political leaders is very welcome. It is my hope that the Taoiseach and his Ministers will endorse this and actively progress enhanced representation for the citizens of the North at EU level.
I raise with the Taoiseach the question of the homophobic and transphobic attacks being carried out by the ruling party in Poland, Law and Justice. Like the Hungarian regime, it has engaged in continuous attacks on LGBTQI+ people. The Polish President has described homosexuality as a foreign ideology that is "worse than communism". The Archbishop of Krakow has described it as "a rainbow plague that is worse than Bolshevism". There is a certain trend in terms of analogies. At a national level, there have been restrictions on the right of LGBTQ people to adopt, but the latest is a series of attacks at a regional level, whereby regional councils, overwhelmingly including the ruling party, Law and Justice, have passed resolutions declaring themselves so-called LGBT ideology-free zones. In reality, they mean LGBT-free zones, which means that for LGBTQI+ people who are inevitably still there and present, being out would represent a serious danger to their health and their lives, that danger effectively being State-sanctioned violence.
I want to send People Before Profit solidarity to LGBTQ+ activists in Poland and to socialists who are fighting against these attacks.
I just want to put that on the record. When will the European Council set aside time to discuss an action plan to combat femicide? In Ireland, the death toll mounts. I refer to Nadine Lott, Anne Colomines and many others, including Katrina Rainey who was burned alive in her car in Derry last week. In Europe, in just 20 countries more than 1,000 femicides took place in 2018. There is a shadow pandemic of violence against women. How many femicides will Europe count when 2021 is done? Action is being taken, but it is taking place from below. Last Thursday, workers at a Mercedes plant in the Basque Country took strike action to protest the murder of their work colleague, Erika Tavares. This was an inspiring act of worker solidarity. I hope it provides an example for others to follow. What action is the European Union establishment taking? If 1,000 Europeans were killed in a terrorist act, a natural disaster or a pandemic, it would surely act. Why the lack of action when every year more than 1,000 women are being killed in Europe?
I thank the Deputies for the many issues raised. Deputy Haughey raised a range of issues in respect of the strategic compass, Afghanistan, cybersecurity and Slovenia and the western Balkans, which reflects his deep interest in European affairs.
On the strategic compass, security and defence issues are still under consideration. Deputy Haughey is correct to identify those issues as having caused significant debate at European level. Indeed, at the dinner in Slovenia, the entire debate was about the role of Europe in international affairs. The sudden pull-out from Afghanistan and the lack of proper dialogue with partners was one subject matter. The AUKUS decision on nuclear submarines involving France, the US and the UK was another issue. Therefore, there is a growing sense within some European Union member states of the need - France in particular advocates this - to develop a greater self-reliance within Europe. That is not agreed. Other member states, especially on the eastern European side, are very conscious of the benefits of NATO to their security given their history with Russia and so on. They have NATO troops on the ground and were very clear in their articulation of the importance of that. A discussion of a draft of the strategic compass is scheduled for a meeting of foreign and defence ministers in November. It is expected to be on the agenda of the European Council in March 2022.
On the security and defence policy more broadly, it provides the EU with the capacity to conduct peacekeeping and conflict prevention missions and to strengthen international security in accordance with the principles of UN Charter. We have participated in and will only participate in Permanent Structured Cooperation, PESCO, projects, for example, that contribute to the enhancement of capabilities for UN mandated missions engaged in peacekeeping, conflict prevention or the strengthening of international security in accordance with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. Ireland is currently participating in one PESCO project, the Greek-led upgrade of maritime surveillance, and we have confirmed observer status on a further nine projects, including military mobility, cyber threats and incident response information sharing platforms. We will keep that under ongoing review.
As the Deputy knows, we have a legally binding Irish protocol to the Lisbon treaty which states the treaty does not affect or prejudice Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality. That continues to be our policy but that does not mean we should not or cannot take a position in the face of, for example, cyberattacks, terrorism or extremism. We need to share knowledge and expertise on those threats and so we must work in co-operation with EU partners in that context.
On the rule of law issue Deputy Haughey and others have raised, it is a very serious issue that the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that aspects of Articles 1 and 19 of the Treaty of the European Union are incompatible with the Polish Constitution. The Union is a union of law and values. Acceptance of the primacy of European Union law is an essential criterion for membership of the EU and the existence and prosperity of our Single Market and upholding of our common values are both predicated on respect for this core principle. It is important for the EU to have the necessary tools to monitor the rule of law across member states and respond effectively to challenges where they arise.
The multi-annual financial framework, MFF, Next Generation EU recovery fund package finalised last December requires member states allocated funding from the EU budget to respect the rule of law. We have consistently expressed the view the conditionality regulation to protect the EU budget is fair, proportionate and serves a legitimate, important purpose. We respect the decision of Poland and Hungary to request the Court of Justice review the conditionality mechanism's compatibility with EU law but we do not share their view on this. We believe the regulation was adopted on a correct legal basis and achieves necessary balance between fairness to member states and installing a more rigorous regime for proper disbursement of the EU's budget. Ireland is one of ten EU states to have made an intervention in the case in favour of the regulation's validity. The point is that this is the mechanism by which we can get some traction on adherence to the rule of law within the European Union.
Proceedings in relation to Hungary and Poland under Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union are ongoing and there have been a number of hearing at the General Affairs Council. Ireland supports the continuation of Article 7 proceedings. We hope discussions at Council level can continue towards a constructive resolution. I believe this will come up at this week's meeting. It would be improbable that it would not. That will be an issue for our agenda.
On the western Balkans, we agree on the accession programme. It has gone on for too long and too slowly. We have benefited from the European Union journey. We formally joined the EU in 1973 and we have benefited enormously from it. We believe the western Balkan countries deserve the same. I had bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia. Both are very frustrated or disappointed that the summit did not open the way for accession talks with their countries to begin. There is an issue between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. We hope that can get resolved before Christmas. The electoral cycle might have had an impact there.
We are a long-standing supporter of an EU pathway for the western Balkan countries. I agree with the Deputy that it would be transformative for stability and peace in the region and also transformative for the countries concerned. We were unequivocal in our articulation of that at the meeting in Slovenia, which was held last week or the week before. The weeks are coming fast. That is what we did in relation to that.
I appreciate Deputy Carthy's providing information on the Assembly. Vice-President Šefčovič's proposals are very generous and imaginative. He listened to people on the ground. He also has provision in his proposals for greater stakeholder involvement and engagement in relation to the protocol issue into the future so that people can have access to Europe and European institutions so that people can hear the on-the-ground concerns people have, particularly in relation to the operation of the protocol itself.
Brexit was a mistake in our view. We respect the decision of the United Kingdom to secede from the European Union but we think the repercussions were not fully thought through and have had damaging consequences. Potentially, in respect of the island of Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit has created difficulties and challenges. In that respect, we need to resolve this issue and then, in the aftermath of resolving it, we need to develop a sensible post-Brexit relationship and a framework for that bilateral relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom. That is an objective of ours. It is important we get the protocol issue resolved and then move on from that. I appeal to the UK Government and the EU to do everything they possibly can to get this resolved.