Dáil debates

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Singapore: Motion


4:25 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the terms of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and its Member States, on the one hand, and the Republic of Singapore on the other, signed in Brussels, Belgium on 19th October, 2018, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 10th June, 2021.

I am pleased to introduce this motion on the approval of the EU-Singapore Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

Deepening our presence in the Asia Pacific region is a key strategic goal for the Government, as outlined in Ireland's dedicated Asia Pacific strategy to 2025. EU-Singapore relations go back several decades and are built on a long history of friendship and close historical, political and economic ties. This partnership and co-operation agreement, PCA, will strengthen the EU's partnership with Singapore, providing the basis for more effective bilateral engagement by strengthening political dialogue and enhancing co-operation across a broad range of areas, of both agreement and friction. It should be noted that the PCA is a separate agreement to the EU-Singapore free trade agreement, FTA, and the EU-Singapore investment protection agreement, IPA. I ask Deputies to bear this in mind in their consideration of this motion. I will now take some time to outline the nature of our partnership with Singapore before discussing the PCA and its benefits in greater detail.

As small, outwardly focused countries with strong commitments to multilateralism and the rule of law, Ireland and Singapore are natural partners. The Ireland-Singapore trading relationship is particularly strong. Having successfully positioned itself as the gateway to south-east Asia and an attractive location for foreign direct investment, FDI, in the region, Singapore has an exceptionally high level of human development and is considered one of the Asian tiger economies. As a founder member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, Singapore has advanced the cause of regional multilateralism in south-east Asia.

Singapore's relationship with the EU goes back decades and the EU views the city state as central to its engagement in south-east Asia. This partnership, built on shared values and a commitment to a peaceful and prosperous world, is one that both sides have sought to strengthen in recent years. In the context of increasing great power competition and tension, the EU is appreciative of Singapore's contribution to regional and global security. Singapore and the EU are like-minded on issues such as supporting freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea, through which one third of global shipping passes. Singapore is a key partner in responding to humanitarian disasters in south-east Asia and shares many of the EU's approaches to issues such as the humanitarian and political crisis in Myanmar.

Ireland and Singapore have a long history of diplomatic relations and co-operation dating back to 1974. Trade and economics also feature prominently. The importance of the Asia Pacific region to Ireland is evidenced by the Government's Asia Pacific strategy to 2025 which sets out the framework for growing our political, economic and people-to-people relationships in the region. The Asia Pacific region is home to more than 4 billion people and is the primary engine of the global economy, contributing more than 60% of global growth. Between 2008 and 2018, Ireland's two-way trade with the Asia Pacific region more than doubled from €23 billion to €56 billion and despite the impact of Covid, we are on course to increase this to more than €100 billion by 2025.

Singapore is an important economic partner and priority market for Ireland in Asia, with just under €1 billion in two-way merchandise trade last year, a figure which increased in comparison with 2019 despite the impact of Covid. Ireland has continued to maintain a trade surplus with Singapore. The latest figures on trade in services show exports to Singapore in the region of €2.7 billion which is more than our exports of services to Canada and only marginally less than our export of services to the whole of the African continent.

Singapore is also an important base for Irish companies and our State agencies operating in this dynamic and opportunity filled region. Currently 120 Enterprise Ireland client companies have operations in Singapore, mainly in sectors such as ICT, financial services, pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, and aviation. Our embassy in Singapore operates alongside Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. With this strong team Ireland presence, I am optimistic we will see continued growth in our relationship in the coming period. Finally, it is worth noting that approximately 4,000 to 5,000 Irish people are resident in Singapore.

The PCA is a mixed-competence agreement which was negotiated alongside the EU-Singapore FTA and IPA. The FTA entered into force in November 2019 following its endorsement by member states. The IPA will enter into force following ratification by each EU member state according to its own procedures. As such, the Dáil will have an opportunity to discuss all aspects of the IPA when it is brought for consideration in due course.

The PCA is a separate agreement which covers a much broader range of issues in the EU's relationship with Singapore. The PCA will be an important bilateral framework agreement between the EU and Singapore. The agreement builds on the extensive political, economic and sectoral co-operation between the EU and Singapore and will serve as a platform for closer co-operation and dialogue across a broad range of bilateral, regional and multilateral issues.

The PCA will provide a legal foundation for improving bilateral co-operation as well as co-operation in international and regional organisations and forums. It will help to promote shared values and principles, particularly democracy, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also encompasses co-operation in areas such as health, climate change, energy, the environment, natural resources, tax, education, culture, labour, employment, social affairs, science, technology and transport. The agreement further addresses legal co-operation, money laundering, terrorist financing, security, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, organised crime and corruption. The agreement establishes a joint committee with the objective of co-ordinating the overall partnership built upon this agreement. The joint committee may set up specialised sub-committees to provide dedicated space for co-operation in some of these areas.

The PCA will allow more effective bilateral engagement with Singapore on issues of human rights. Although Singapore is, as outlined already, a natural partner of both Ireland and the EU, there are certainly areas of divergence between us in respect of human rights. Specific concern exists with regard to the death penalty, judicial corporal punishment, freedom of speech and public assembly, as well as the rights and protections afforded to the LGBTI+ community, among others. Ireland and the EU have never shied away from having difficult discussions with Singapore on issues of tension and the closer structured engagement that the PCA will precipitate will serve to create a platform for progressing discussions on human rights. Furthermore, this agreement, similar to those concluded by the EU with other partner countries, contains binding political clauses based on the shared values of both parties. As such, the Government warmly welcomes the conclusion of the PCA and endorses its approval by Dáil Éireann.

4:35 pm

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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First and foremost, I have significant concerns in relation to this proposed agreement and I outlined some of those last week in committee. In the first instance, there are serious and long-standing concerns shared by all democratic states at the appalling human rights record of the Singapore Government. Second, there are very serious concerns surrounding the similarities between the Singapore agreement and the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, particularly the investor court system, ICS, provisions and how they relate to our rights as a sovereign nation. While I note what the Minister of State said about the terms of the trade agreement, there is provision and specific mention in this agreement also.

Ireland stands on its record as a neutral, non-aligned nation with a long history of participation in UN peacekeeping missions across the globe. That record formed part of the arguments put forward for consideration of Ireland's election to the UN Security Council. Ireland also stands as an independent nation that works, as a member of the EU and of the international community, to place the human rights agenda at the very centre of international discourse.

The record of Singapore on human rights is a serious cause of concern as regards our acceptance of this agreement. South Korea, the United States, Switzerland, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Mexico and, indeed, Ireland all raised concerns relating to human rights issues in Singapore during a UN review in May of this year by the UN Human Rights Council. Areas of specific concern include freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and a failure to comply with relevant human rights standards. Government opponents and critics continue to be persecuted under repressive legislation in Singapore and there are strict attempts to control media coverage, from the targeting of journalists to the blocking of news sites and social media through the repressive Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019. NGOs, including Amnesty International, have raised concerns about the treatment of migrant workers, over 300,000 of whom were forcefully quarantined during Covid in overcrowded conditions. There are also significant concerns relating to the targeting of human rights defenders in Singapore. There are incidences of journalists being targeted for activity on social media. One human rights defender was charged with illegal assembly for posing for a selfie on his own. There is also continued persecution of the LGBTI community, the practice of flogging and the death penalty. These are but a few instances that must be a matter of concern for the Government. If they are not, this House is entitled to an explanation for that very worrying development. The overall attitude and ambition of the EU, in which I of course include Ireland, stands in stark contrast to the obliviousness and lack of commitment shown by the EU towards attempts by the UN to introduce binding and enforceable obligations in the area of business and human rights on multinational businesses to abide by a set of urgently needed international laws, which would make them accountable for their actions and the actions of subsidiaries throughout the world.

The other area of concern relates to our rights as a sovereign and independent nation and the privileged position that we are surrendering to multinational companies under the ICS. I champion the right of this country to secure trade agreements and encourage investment within the State but some of the language of this agreement is taken straight from the ICS playbook. We need to be very clear. We need to have a Government that retains the autonomy to develop its own policies, not one hamstrung by the investor court system that is dedicated to the interests of corporations. We need a balance, we need stability, and we need to ensure that the public interest is at the forefront of all our international agreements.

4:45 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Acting Chair for the opportunity to speak on this important motion. The trade agreement between EU member states and the Republic of Singapore has been in place for some time now. I know from observation of the debate on this agreement in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence last week that the Minister of State believes it to be working very well. As with all trade agreements, I hope it will be continuously monitored to ensure that it delivers for this State and that it upholds fair trade, human rights, workers’ rights and environmental rights. A number of Deputies have previously raised the matter of human rights in relation to this particular deal. When trade deals like this are entered into, are human rights concerns taken into account in a serious way? During the committee meeting last week, an Teachta Stanton raised concerns regarding human rights, the suppression of media, freedom of expression and LGBTI rights. These have been raised already by an Teachta Brady. Then there are concerns over the death penalty in Singapore and the very high rates of execution. Indeed, caning and public flogging are still allowed in Singapore, which really shocked me. Are such issues taken into account by our State and by the EU when negotiating trade agreements, and specifically this trade agreement?

The trade nature of this agreement expands the trading remit available to indigenous companies, especially SMEs. It is important for jobs and growth but we must always ensure that this growth is sustainable and that the jobs that are created are sustainable long-term jobs. I understand that the agreement includes many priorities for Ireland in the region such as health, climate change, energy, education, science, technology and transport. I also understand that trading goods and services with Ireland in the region in 2019 was worth more than €10 billion. I ask the Minister of State to give an update on the overall balance of trade going both ways. It would be very interesting and informative for us to have these figures.

While we are talking about trade agreements, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA. This was discussed recently at the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, where the Government’s defence of the investor court system was unconvincing to say the least. The core of our opposition to CETA is due to the investor court system, a new court that is only accessible to foreign multinational corporations. That should worry all of us. It is a brand new court system and the only people who can access it are these global multinational corporations with deep pockets. Yet the Government does not seem to be at all concerned about this and I was quite disturbed by the session we had at the committee last week. As to how this relates to the trade deal with the Republic of Singapore, my colleague, an Teachta Brady, has already raised this on a number of occasions with the Minister of State directly and as part of his ongoing work. I note that the agreement mentions encouraging open and non-discriminatory rules for investors. This is very similar language to that used to promote investor courts. What are the procedures around the ICS? Are they implicated in the European Union-Singapore free trade agreement? We need to know that and we need to hear from the Minister of State in that regard.

The Singapore agreement talks about the promise of demand-side management of energy. I know from engagement with Senator Boylan that Singapore has strong demand-side management in the form of a moratorium on data centre development, an issue that we have debated in the House. Senator Boylan has asked the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action to write to the Singaporean authorities about the impact of the moratorium on energy and climate targets, on FDI and on business and consumer use of data services. Such information would help pave the way for a similar moratorium on data centres in this State. If we can learn something from what has been done in another state, it behoves us to do exactly that. I sincerely hope the Minister of State will be able to provide some answers to the queries I have raised. If he does not have them here I would be happy to receive them in writing.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence discussed this issue last week, as we have previously heard, and my colleague, Deputy Stanton, raised significant issues at that committee. My understanding is that there were no significant objections to the agreement but a number of issues were raised. For a small country like Ireland that has focused on growing our trade around the world, an agreement like this offers many opportunities. Our trade with the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, region amounted to more than €10 billion in 2019. It is also essential that the EU maintains a strong relationship with countries in the Pacific region as China aggressively expands its influence. That is why the EU recently published its Indo-Pacific strategy on how it will engage with the region.

However, these statements on the agreement also offer us a chance to be very clear about our values and what we stand for as a trading bloc. In many ways, Singapore is a major competitor of Ireland’s, as it has also positioned itself as a hub for global trade and commerce. However, we have concerns about human rights and the protections available in Singapore. The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act 2021 that was passed just two weeks ago is deeply concerning because it targets so-called "foreign influence" and many think it will be used to stifle dissent. It gives the home affairs minister the power to investigate individuals suspected of being foreign agents engaged in "hostile information campaigns". An independent panel chaired by a judge will consider appeals against the minister's findings, although persons marked as "politically significant" will not be allowed to file such appeals.

What does "politically significant" mean? Is it someone campaigning against the laws and rules of Singapore, for example? Authorities will also be allowed to compel social media platforms and website operators to hand over user data without any justification in select instances. In 2019, it also passed a law giving authorities the power to police online platforms and even private chat groups. This does not sound in line with EU values.

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, FICA, is a deeply chilling law that will impact on freedom of expression, association and privacy and we should be very concerned about its implications, especially for those campaigning to strengthen human rights. Eleven organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have called on Singapore to withdraw the law because it contravenes international legal and human rights principles.

The treatment of migrant labour in Singapore is also an area of major concern. The rights of workers and the conditions they have to work under in a tropical climate is deeply concerning. As for the retention of capital punishment, including the death penalty and public flogging, four people were executed in 2019, including two for drug-related offences. There is a mandatory death sentence for importing or exporting certain quantities of drugs.

Another major concern is about LGBTI rights in Singapore. The Minister of State might make clear to the House how we intend to ensure that we defend and promote the rights of members of the LGBTI community, an area in which Ireland has been a world leader, and how they will be protected and enhanced.

The Minister of State will also be aware that in February 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on this agreement calling for LGBTI rights in Singapore through the free trade deal. The European Parliament condemned the lack of such rights and protections and called for the abolition of laws penalising same-sex relationships and for full protection of LGBTI and women's rights through anti-discrimination legislation. It is important also to note that Singapore retains a colonial-era law from the 1930s. Section 377A of the Penal Code continues to criminalise sex between men.

The question for Ireland must be how we leverage our trade relationship and position within the EU to influence and change this. Passing this agreement despite all these human rights issues is deeply problematic. That is why before we in the Labour Party can agree to support this motion, therefore, we ask the Minister of State to outline what Ireland and the EU will do about these deeply concerning matters.

4:55 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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The Minister of State got two words into what I believe was the final page of his speech before he mentioned some areas of the divergence between Ireland and Singapore. Let me be very clear that there are very significant areas of the divergence between Ireland and Singapore, which make the passing of a trade agreement difficult.

I will say some words on them because I, like my colleagues across the Chamber, believe it is very important that we highlight these areas of quite significant human rights abuses and violations. It is very difficult, as we approach an EU summit where we will attempt once again to place the rule of law. We will talk of rule of rule of law violations from Poland and Hungary, while at the same time placing a velvet glove on trade associations with Singapore.

Let me, therefore, talk about some of the violations of freedom and peaceful assembly as taken from the Human Rights Watch report of 2021 on Singapore. The report states:

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which came into effect in October 2019, allows a minister to declare that online content is “false” and order a “correction notice” to be placed on the relevant [social media] pages. Failure to comply with a correction order can be punished with the shutdown of social media pages in Singapore, up to 12 months in prison, and a S$20,000 ... fine. While those receiving a correction notice can appeal to the minister and then to the Singapore High Court, one High Court judge has ruled that the burden is on the appellant to prove that the statement is true, while another high court judge has ruled that the burden of proof falls on the government, as international law requires.

Another excerpt states:

Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Act contains overly broad and vague powers to punish for contempt, with penalties of three years in prison or a fine of S$50,000 ... In March, the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of activist Jolovan Wham under that law for stating on Facebook that “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications.”

A further example states:

On July 28, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew, Li Shengwu, was found guilty of contempt and fined S$15,000 ... for a 2017 private Facebook post in which he said the Singapore government is “very litigious and has a pliant court system.”

There are far more significance and gross violations of human rights, no less than the death penalty. The report states:

Singapore retains the death penalty, which is mandated for many drug offenses and certain other crimes. However, under provisions introduced in 2012, judges have some discretion to bypass the mandatory penalty and sentence low-level offenders to life in prison and caning. There is little transparency on the timing of executions, which often take place ... [at] short notice. After a halt in executions due to Covid-19, in September 2020 authorities began notifying death row inmates of scheduled execution dates. ...

Use of corporal punishment is common in Singapore. For medically fit males aged 16 to 50, caning is mandatory as an additional punishment for a range of crimes including drug-trafficking, violent crimes such as armed robbery and even some immigration offences. The caning, which constitute torture under international law, is allegedly of those caned where permanent injuries.

There are far more examples of discrimination when it comes to the LGBTQI+ community, such as:

[rejected] challenges to criminal code section 377A, which makes sexual relations between two male persons a criminal offense. There are no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity [in Singapore]. Singapore law precludes LGBT groups from registering and operating legally.

At the same time, we are going to rightfully reprimand Poland for its cruel discrimination against the LGBT community while we are shaking hands with Singapore.

There are significant issues with regard to migrant workers and labour exploitation. The report states:

Foreign migrant workers are subject to labor rights abuses and exploitation through debts owed to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, confiscation of passports, and sometimes physical and sexual abuse. Foreign women employed as domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse. foreign women employed as domestic workers particularly vulnerable to abuse.

In September 2020, an Indonesian maid was acquitted of stealing from the family of the Changi Airport Group chairman, four years after her employment was terminated and the family brought charges against her, with the court finding that the employer acted with the improper motive of preventing her from filing a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower.

There are significant violations, which go on repeatedly. I will not continue. I accept the fact that we have to trade but as we do so, we should also be willing and ready to call out human rights violations where we see them. I accept that the Minister of State will tell me that is catered for in the provision of the Act but that actually has to mean something. What does the Government intend to do to ensure that we are not shaking hands with people who at the same time are executing, caning and prohibiting the human rights of people in the LGBTQI+ community?

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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We are being asked to ratify the partnership and co-operation agreement with Singapore today. Only 15 days ago, Singapore passed the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act. It is legislation which allows the authorities to force social media platforms and Internet service providers to hand over user data, to block contacts and remove applications that share information considered by the authorities to be anti-state. Ms Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for research, said:

The passing of Singapore’s foreign interference law constitutes a brutal attack on the rights to freedom of expression and association, creating yet another tool that can be used arbitrarily by the authorities to stifle government critics and crush dissent in the country.

It is a brutal attack on the rights of freedom of expression and association and the Government wants us to send a signal, 15 days later, that it is no problem and we are happy to ratify a partnership and co-operation, PCA, agreement with Singapore.

Last week, Mr. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, commented that, "It’s hard to believe that the Singapore government could make the laws against fundamental freedoms even worse than they already are, but the Foreign Interference Act manages to do that". He went on to say that, "Failure to withdraw the law would reinforce Singapore’s international reputation as a human rights disaster, both online and off."

One would presume so, but then the actions of the Irish Government and the EU in pushing ahead with this PCA agreement with Singapore suggests that trade and profit are being put ahead of solidarity and human rights by them. In Singapore, capital punishment is mandatory for certain drug offences and is in effect for a wide range of other crimes.

The use of corporal punishment, including caning, continues to be a standard practice within the Singapore criminal justice system and in many instances is mandatory. Singapore also continues to criminalise consensual sexual relations between men, under criminal code section 377A. Associations of more than ten people are required to register with the government and the registrar of societies has broad authority to deny registration if he determines the group could be "prejudicial to the public peace, welfare or good order". The Societies Act makes explicit reference to gender, sexual orientation and human rights as grounds for denying the registration of a group. The registrar has refused to allow any LGBTQ organisation to register as a society on the grounds "it is contrary to the public interest to grant legitimacy to the promotion of homosexual activities and viewpoints". On the one hand, rightly, one has the European Commission criticising the Polish Government for doing precisely that by seeking to outlaw LGBT in whole areas of Poland but proceeding to ratify a PCA with a country which proceeds and continues to do this on the other.

The state-owned media development authority effectively prohibits all positive depictions of LGBTQ lives on television or radio. In June 2017, the advertising standards agency asked a shopping centre to remove the phrase "supporting the freedom to love" from a promotional ad for a 2017 Pink Dot festival on the grounds it "may affect public sensitivities". We are being asked to ratify a partnership and co-operation agreement with a government and state with this track record, which is not only appalling but which is getting worse by the week. In effect, this will be an encouragement to continue along these tracks.

It is also worth mentioning the PCA comes together with the EU-Singapore investment protection agreement. The latter includes notorious investment court system provisions and as with the CETA, and the attempted Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, before it, these provisions will establish a permanent, institutionalised, alternative legal system; a parallel justice system set up exclusively for corporations, enabling them to sue the State, not in the Irish courts but in special parallel courts, basically for anything that interferes with their right to profit which can be determined as indirect expropriation. The Tánaiste recently admitted to me in committee that if we ratified CETA, the Canadian company which owns IRES REIT could sue the State in a special investor court, were we to introduce further rent controls. The EU-Singapore investment protection agreement would mean the same would apply to any Singapore company or one able to say it has a headquarters or base in Singapore. For all those reasons, we should not be ratifying this agreement.

5:05 pm

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I am delighted to be here today to speak on this motion. The motion is close to my heart for a number of reasons. First, my sister-in-law, Cindy Lee, is Singaporean-Chinese. I have close family out on the island and have been fortunate to have visited the island three times over the past number of years. I can see, understand and speak highly of it. I am also reassured by the fact there is an Irish Embassy on the island. It gives us a good sense of what is happening on the ground there. I hope I can speak a little bit more authoritatively than most, because I have personal experience out there. I understand the human rights concerns, which I will address later on in my talk.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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That is deeply patronising. It is the most condescending statement to make towards fellow Members. We speak with some level of authority and proof.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I can assure the Deputy it was not meant in that way, in any shape or form. It is just that I have personal experience in that regard and that simply is the objective position I have adopted.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I thank the Deputy for clarifying that.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I am in favour of the motion for a number of reasons. First, I have read it and have been through it forensically and can see, from the articles, there are human rights safeguards in there, which gives me a certain amount of reassurance. Second, I have sat through the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence hearing. I have listened very carefully to what the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, said and have listened carefully to the alternative views expressed, which I take on board. I will make one point on the alternative views, which I fully respect. I am old enough to remember what Ireland was like in the 1980s and 1990s. I am familiar with the extensive shortcomings and serious imperfections we had and am glad the European Union did not prevent us from joining the European Union on that basis. In fact, the European Union allowed us to join knowing fully that we had imperfections. It was the influence of the European Union that was a catalyst to promote our prosperity and social progress. I look forward to the same thing happening from a Singaporean point of view.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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Can we change its constitution?

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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It managed to put manners on Israel as well. It is really working.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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The clue about what is good about this partnership and co-operation agreement is in the name. It is about partnership and co-operation. There is co-operation on a number of different strands; including from political, economic, climate change, anti-terrorism and judicial points of view. There are many positives. It was never meant as a fait accompli or a final document. It specifically states that it is as stepping stone. It is a first step that allows for further engagement and influence thereafter. I am conscious of the clock and will summarise. I am very much in favour of this, recognising the imperfections of the situation out there. It is an initial step that allows for further dialogue and development. I have seen the progress Singapore has made in the past 50 years, from being a country that was very poor - which is the ultimate human rights violation - to being a country that is at peace and is prosperous, open-minded and open to influence from the European Union. I look forward to the concerns my colleagues have raised being addressed over time. I know it has taken a number of years to develop this PCA agreement but perhaps before the decade is out, a second agreement could be developed and negotiated which takes on board the concerns that have been rightly raised in this Chamber. I thank the Minister of State and my colleagues.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I have great concerns about this EU-Singapore agreement, which is meant to build along the lines of a friendship with the Asians and intends to grow co-operation across many areas where a free trade agreement has been drawn up since November 2019. There are many human rights issues with regard to Singapore and its government in comparison to our country. We are a neutral country, which is different to what Singapore stands for. We have freedom of the press, even though it is sometimes stifled a bit, but it is a freedom as good as we can expect and far better than what Singapore has. We have freedom of expression, of which Ireland is proud and in which Singapore has an appalling record.

Many believe and I have heard some speakers here state that it creates money opportunities but I fear it could create many difficulties. One is also talking about a free trade deal and I would like to look into what that stands for in more detail, because we are not far away from a Brazilian Mercosur trade deal, through which most political parties in this country are throwing Irish agriculture under the bus. Will they consider doing the very same thing here? Is this what we are facing? The devil can be in the detail. One of the biggest offenders in respect of climate action, the Brazilians, will be able to bring their beef into this country and all over the world and sell it because of the trade deal that has been done out there with little or no concern for the worries of Irish farmers and agriculture.

Will we be facing the same here if a trade agreement made with Singapore? Does this include Irish agriculture and the beef trade deals that can be done behind the scenes? There are no concerns about climate action when it comes to other countries with this Government but there is a severe worry about climate action when it comes to our country. Due to the human rights issues and because we need further clarity on the trade agreement, I have serious concerns over it.

I will be opposing this every step of the way until we have further clarity on many those issues.

5:15 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I welcome this debate but I too have concerns on the following grounds. When studying another country’s history, even if it has been improving in recent times, it is important to look at how it treats people who are less well-off, how it treats people from a health point of view and how it treat different sexes. In some countries, girls a in family are treated in an awful and horrible way in comparison to the boys. In some countries, there was the one-child rule. We know what happened to the girls in those cases. These are awful and horrible things. I have concerns about Singapore's track record, and about much of what it has done over the years. Some people seem to be welcoming of Singapore tonight and are suggesting that it has come on a lot. I, however, would be slow to comment from a political point of view. Every one of us here is an individual when it comes to voting and when it comes to expressing his or her viewpoint. My viewpoint is one of concern and trepidation.

I am fearful of what this would mean for us in trade. It is fine to say trade goes both ways, but I am concerned. At the moment, we seem to be signing up for an awful lot of hurt and for little gain when it comes to trade. The carbon budget is looming on the horizon. Its implications will be hard-hitting for business, farming, tourism, sport and in how we go about our daily lives. I urge caution on this subject.

I would be mindful and fearful of signing what I consider a blank cheque on behalf of the people. I would err on the side of caution. I want more time and debate on this matter before I can say that this is great.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I thank everyone for their careful consideration and contribution to the debate this evening. Hopefully, in the short few moments that I have I will be able to address some of the concerns raised this evening. To go back to the point I made at the beginning, it is important to differentiate between the partnership and co-operation agreement, PCA, and the EU-Singapore free trade agreement, which was enforced in 2019, and indeed from the EU-Singapore investment protection agreement, which has yet to be brought before the Dáil for ratification. That will be brought before the Dáil in due course, which will enable every Member of the Dáil to debate the investment protection agreement.

With all international trade agreements there is a dispute resolution arrangement in place. The investment court system that has been proposed in relation to this replaces the old investment state dispute settlement mechanism, which has been in existence since the 1950s. That is not what is being discussed today. It will have to come before the Dáil for further discussion before ratification and for a vote of the Dáil.

The EU-Singapore free trade agreement was passed two years ago. For the benefit of those who are here, in the past two years, we have seen just under €1 billion in two-way merchandise trade last year. This figure increased by more than 5% on 2019, despite the Covid-19 period. The latest trade figures in services show our exports to Singapore were in the region of €2.7 billion. To put that figure in context for the benefit of Deputies, this is more than our exports of services to Canada. It is only marginally less than our exports of services to the whole of the African continent. I hope that gives a flavour of the benefit of the free trade agreement with Singapore. The people who benefit from that are the Irish companies trading and supporting jobs the length and breadth of this country. People depend on these jobs to ensure that they have a relevant income.

The other point that was what was raised quite forcefully was on the points of friction we have with Singapore, particularly in the area of human rights. I have just outlined the area that unites us, which are the economic benefits. In the area of human rights, however, the PCA we are considering today will provide a legal basis for more effective bilateral engagement with Singapore across a broad range of areas. It will do this by strengthening political dialogue, enhancing co-operation across areas as diverse as human rights, health, climate change, culture, labour, and security. The PCA specifically targets the promotion of shared values and principles, in particular, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Neither Ireland nor the EU has hesitated to raise human rights concerns with Singapore. Most recently, on 12 May 2021, Singapore held its third universal periodic review of human rights. In its intervention, Ireland made clear recommendations regarding the death penalty and freedom of expression. As noted previously, the PCA with Singapore provides the basis for more bilateral engagement by the EU and its member states with Singapore, including in regard to human rights.

I cite the Philippines as an example because we have a PCA it. It is a close partner of the EU, but it is a country about which the EU has notable human rights concerns. The EU-Philippines PCA was signed in 2011 and came into force in 2018. That PCA has allowed the creation of specialised sub-committees on a range of topics, such as development co-operation, trade, investment and economic co-operation. It includes a specific committee on good governance, rule of law and human rights. This committee met for the first time in February of this year. It is through co-operation like that, and a through a formal arrangement like this, that we will be best placed to raise our human rights concerns. Everybody shares these concerns.

I will finish by saying the free trade agreement has been in place since 2019. The investor court mechanism has yet to be debated. It is not part of this discussion. This is about the PCA and enabling us to have a formalised relationship with Singapore in which we can raise the concerns raised by so many Deputies today.

Question put and declared carried.