Wednesday, 20 October 2021
Pre-European Council Meeting: Statements
I will attend a meeting of the European Council tomorrow and Friday, 21 and 22 October. Tá agenda cuimsitheach ann a chlúdóidh Covid, cúrsaí eacnamaíochta agus go háirithe, ról na hEorpa i gcomhthéacs cúrsaí polaitíochta an domhain agus cúrsaí trádála. Beidh sin faoi chaibidil againn agus mar aon leis sin tá cruinnithe a bhaineann leis an Eoraip le teacht.
At this week's meeting we will have a very full agenda, touching on very many important issues facing the Union. We will discuss Covid-19, with a particular focus on vaccination rates across the European Union, including in the context of rising infection rates in some member states, and tackling disinformation regarding the pandemic. We will also discuss the global roll-out of vaccines and the central role of the World Health Organization in global health governance.
We will discuss energy prices and what we can do individually as member states and collectively, as the European Union, to mitigate the impact of recent price fluctuations on vulnerable citizens and businesses, and to consider medium and long-term measures to increase the European Union's energy resilience and green transition.
We will discuss digital issues, including ongoing progress on the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, and the publication of a European chips Act planned by the Commission.
We will discuss trade, including its coherence with the overall international perspective of the European Union, and, critically, the importance of trade to global economic recovery.
We will discuss migration, focusing on its external aspects, including our co-operation and support for countries of origin and transit as well as the serious humanitarian situation at a number of European Union borders, including those member states bordering Belarus.
We will consider a number of upcoming summits, including COP15 and COP26, the Asia-Europe Meeting, ASEM, summit, which will be held virtually on 25 and 26 November, and the EU-Eastern Partnership summit to be held in Brussels on 15 December.
The Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will provide more detail on the external relations issues on this week's European Council agenda in his concluding remarks this afternoon. I will address all other agenda items.
Before I turn to address those agenda items for this week's meeting, I take the opportunity to update the House on a recent informal meeting of members of the European Council, which I attended on 5 October, hosted by Slovenia as part of its Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The meeting was an opportunity to discuss the European Union's role on the international stage and relations with key strategic partners, including the US and China. In our discussions in Slovenia there was a general agreement that the European Union needs to leverage its economic power more effectively and strengthen its capacity to act. It is in our shared interest that the European Union continues to be a leader in setting global standards in trade, technology, data, human rights, the environment and so much more. We agreed also that in driving this work forward, our collective values should guide our approach. I underlined the importance of the transatlantic relationship - the European Union and the United States share an important commitment to the global level playing field. I also agreed with other EU leaders that the closeness of our partnership with the United States should not deter us, as the European Union, from having a distinct voice in our co-operation with China, not least on economic recovery and climate change but also in terms of asserting and promoting our values.
I attended an EU-western Balkans summit the following day, 6 September, in Slovenia. The summit saw the coming together of the European Union 27 leaders with the leaders or our six western Balkans partners, Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. We met over two sessions. In the first session, we were joined by representatives of the Regional Co-operation Council, the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank and the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli. The focus in this session was on the European Union as the primary driver of sustainable economic recovery and growth in the western Balkans.
The second session was a discussion among leaders only where we reflected on the broader question of the strength of the commitment on both sides to an EU path for the western Balkans countries. A joint statement was agreed at the summit, which reaffirmed the European Union's support for the enlargement process, while also referring to the EU's capacity to integrate new members. I met bilaterally with my counterparts from Albania and North Macedonia, Prime Minister Edi Rama and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, respectively, in the margins of the summit. I expressed to them my full support for their EU path. EU membership has transformed our country. I assured them that I would like to see the same opportunity afforded to their people. While clearly frustrated at the slow pace of progress and ongoing political obstacles to advancing the accession process, both leaders were appreciative of Ireland's support.
When I meet European Union leaders at this week's European Council, we will, as we have throughout the pandemic, discuss Covid-19. This week our focus will be on vaccination rates across the European Union, including tackling disinformation and efforts to overcome vaccine hesitancy. We will also discuss further co-ordination on free movement and travel, preparedness for future health emergencies, the global roll-out of vaccines and European Union support for the World Health Organization.
Very significant progress has been made in tackling the pandemic, with safe and effective vaccines providing us with the means to protect ourselves from Covid-19. However, as rising infection rates in a number of member states remind us, we must remain vigilant against this deadly disease which continues to circulate in our communities. The decision of the European Union and its member states to join together to support the development and procurement of vaccines was the right one and has been remarkably successful. Well over 800 million doses have already been delivered across the European Union. I take this opportunity again to thank the people of this country who have responded so positively and played their part so commendably in tackling Covid, including through achieving such a high vaccination rate.
At the European Council this week, we will also discuss our approach to vaccine booster doses and vaccine sharing. The discussion will also include preparedness for and response to future health emergencies in the European Union. The pandemic is a global challenge and we will discuss how we must work together, including beyond European Union borders, to overcome it. The European Union is the largest exporter of Covid-19 vaccines to the world and we will need to continue our efforts to increase global vaccine production capacity and supply in order to meet global needs.
This week's meeting will also take stock of progress on Europe's digital transformation. When we met in March, leaders set important political orientations for the ambitious legislative agenda being advanced by President von der Leyen to "make Europe fit for the digital age". The House will recall my view that setting the right strategic orientations for positive digital transformation must be seen as an essential basis for the European Union's future dynamism and strength. This means continuing to strike the right balance - shaping Europe's future in a direction that remains open, competitive and innovation-friendly. We need to set the high levels of ambition necessary for skills development, digital connectivity and responsive public services. We must work to unlock the full potential of our Single Market, including in services, while recognising that digitalisation is itself making traditional distinctions between goods and services less relevant. We must make it as easy as possible for our SMEs to scale their businesses across Europe's borders and beyond. It is also important to provide strong new protections against illegal and harmful digital content, including robust new institutional arrangements to promote digital safety, oversee efficient and effective take-down procedures, and ensure strong remedial measures for non-compliance.
The European Union is leading the development of global standards for fast-evolving applications in the field of artificial intelligence, working closely with like-minded global partners to ensure the strongest possible underpinnings of integrity and trust. The reality is that data-driven innovation is the key source of productivity growth in today's advanced economies, while also equipping us with exciting new capabilities to improve the collective performance of our public sectors, support higher living standards and strengthen human welfare more generally. We will also discuss further strengthening our collective capabilities and toolboxes in responding effectively to growing cyber threats, including to democratic values. I also welcome the recent establishment of the Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council as a significant initiative to enhance transatlantic dialogue on the basis of a substantive economic agenda.
We will also have a timely discussion on energy prices as we look ahead to the winter months. Higher demand as the global economy recovers and tighter gas supply have contributed to sharp rises in energy prices. This issue has given rise to widespread concern in Ireland and across the EU. I am acutely aware of the impacts of significant energy price rises on citizens, particularly the most vulnerable in society. Last week, the European Commission published a communication on energy prices, which is an important contribution to our discussions this week. This includes a toolbox of measures that the EU and its member states can use to address the immediate impact of current price increases and to strengthen resilience against future shocks.
In the short term member states are best placed to support their citizens. In last week's budget we introduced a range of measures to support households through higher welfare payments to increase and expand the scope of the fuel allowance and to improve energy efficiency. Over the medium term, the European Commission has suggested examining a number of measures at EU level, including additional energy storage capacity, reviewing electricity market design and voluntary joint procurement of gas stocks. Energy ministers will meet next week to progress further work on this issue. Ultimately, increasing our supply of renewable energy and improving energy efficiency are the best ways to ensure security of supply, tackle energy poverty and protect people from the impact of high energy costs.
EU leaders will also discuss our collective approach to COP26 in Glasgow in November and will call for an ambitious global response to climate change. The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in August, was a hugely important statement on international science's understanding of the climate system and climate change. Translating science and urgency into policy and action is one of the most important challenges we face. The EU has taken a strong position and will lead by example.
The European Council will assess the implementation to date of the June 2021 European Council conclusions, which focused on progressing the external aspects of EU migration policy and intensifying work on co-operation with key third countries of origin and transit. It will also discuss financing for Syrian refugees and host communities in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and other parts of the region. The instrumentalisation of migrants at the EU's external borders for political purposes and the humanitarian consequences of that action is of particular concern. This practice, which has developed of late, is reprehensible.
We will have a discussion on trade, and in particular a strategic reflection following on from last week's discussions in Slovenia, on the international role of the EU. I will be supporting an open approach underpinned by an international rules-based order.
I take the opportunity to update the House on my attendance at the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism last week. This conference is a reminder that no effort should be spared in fighting all forms of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. Old prejudices and hatreds are being reanimated through new technologies and platforms. We have to learn and empower ourselves to tackle hate both offline and online. This will be among the issues I will raise when I meet other EU leaders in Brussels this week.
I look forward to the opportunity this week to engage collectively and bilaterally with my EU counterparts on a broad range of pressing issues. In advance of the formal meeting, I will informally meet leaders from the six Nordic and Baltic EU member states, a group with which Ireland shares many policy priorities. I will report to the House on our discussions next week.
EU leaders are meeting this week at another crucial period for the protocol. It has never been more important that the North has a voice in Europe. On Monday, Assembly Members in the North backed a motion calling for direct dialogue between the Assembly and the European Parliament. Sinn Féin has consistently raised the need for continued representation of the North at an EU level throughout the sorry saga of Brexit and the negotiation process. The people of the North must not be silenced by Brexit; their voices must be heard.
The Taoiseach will not need me to remind him that the people of the North voted to reject Brexit and remain in the EU, but were dragged out by the British Government against their will. As a result of that, the protocol was necessary to protect communities in the North. It protects the Good Friday Agreement, protects our all-island economy and prevents a border on our island. The protocol has been in place for several months and while there have been issues to iron out, businesses and communities are keen to find workable and practical solutions. Despite the loud rhetoric of a small minority within political unionism, there is majority support among the public, political parties and Assembly Members for the protocol. Many businesses are finding that the protocol provides considerable opportunities for them as their unique position gives them access to British and EU markets.
As the Taoiseach will know, last week the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, announced a series of proposals to address issues around the protocol and deliver practical, workable solutions for businesses. My colleagues and I have engaged extensively with Vice-President Šefčovič on the protocol and left him in no doubt about the support there is in the North and across Ireland for the protocol. It is time for political leaders to engage with these proposals seriously. Political grandstanding and rhetoric help no one and solve nothing. I dearly hope our colleagues within political unionism will respond to these proposals with the same commitment to finding solutions that we have shown.
As we are at this vital stage, I ask the Taoiseach to make clear to our European colleagues the depth and strength of support within the North for the protocol. Will the Taoiseach make clear to EU leaders the expressed views of MLAs on the need for direct dialogue between the Assembly and the European Parliament? Will he ensure that the people of the North have a voice in Europe and that their voice is heard loud and strong?
The Taoiseach cannot be in any doubt about the cost of the energy crisis which is hitting ordinary workers and families. Prices are spiralling and becoming unaffordable for many on ordinary incomes. We must tackle this cost-of-living crisis and ensure ordinary people get a break from their sky-high energy bills. Earlier this month, European finance ministers met in Luxembourg to discuss this crisis. That meeting was chaired by the Taoiseach's Government colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. Despite this, we have heard nothing from the Minister about what solutions were discussed at the meeting and what this Government will do domestically and at European level to meet this crisis.
We know that solutions are there if the will is there. Spain, for example, is cutting VAT on electricity and targeting €2.6 billion in excess profits from utilities that have benefited from the rising gas and electricity prices. France is blocking further gas and electricity price hikes until the spring and has also increased energy vouchers for the lowest income households. Italy has allocated €3 billion to cancel system costs on household bills and allocate more for social supports. I could go on. Meanwhile, here in Ireland little has been done to protect our citizens from the crippling cost of energy price hikes. That is not good enough. The Government has failed to tackle the cost of the energy crisis with the urgency it deserves. I am asking the Taoiseach if he will work urgently with European leaders to tackle energy price hikes and ensure Irish citizens get the break they need from these spiralling costs. Will he prioritise this at the European Council and ensure the issue of energy prices gets the attention it deserves?
At the European Council we also have a vital opportunity to stand up for our fishing communities and ensure fishermen get a fair deal. Government after Government has failed our fishing communities and this Government has sadly become no exception. Last week, the report of the seafood task force released by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine was yet another blow for Irish fishermen. It acknowledged the Government’s failure to stand up and defend Irish fisheries during the Brexit negotiations and subsequent trade deal with Britain. It is proposed to decommission 60 vessels from an already reduced Irish fishing fleet.
While temporary cessation and voluntary permanent decommissioning may suit a small number of people in the fishing industry, for the majority, these proposals are another body blow to an industry that is fighting for its survival.
Where is the commitment to seek full reform of the Common Fisheries Policy? Where is the commitment to seek fair and equal burden sharing, new quota and new opportunities? I am urging the Taoiseach once again to stand up for Irish fishermen and deliver full reform of the Common Fisheries Policy to meet our fishing communities' needs and protect their livelihoods. We have been here many times before. Fishers do not need vague promises or more lofty rhetoric from the Taoiseach or anyone else. He must take their fight to the heart of Europe and fight for fairness for Irish fishermen. Will he fight for our fishing communities at the European Council? That is the challenge.
If we reduce the mood, attitude and atmosphere surrounding the relationship between the EU and the British Government to a phrase that could capture the situation in which we find ourselves, "perfidious Albion" resounds. Despite continuing attempts by EU negotiators to lower the political temperature, take British demands seriously and focus the British on working on the technical aspects of the negotiations, the British never had any intention of standing by their word according to Dominic Cummings, formerly a senior figure in Downing Street. Apparently, the British Government's intention from the outset was to abandon the protocol. We are continually forced to contend with a blatant and obtuse approach by the British, one that is hell-bent on ensuring that they remain locked in perpetual dispute with the EU and designed to distract from the impact of Brexit on Britain itself rather than searching for a meaningful solution. The EU has displayed a maturity, a commitment to political consensus and a resolve to find solutions to previously intractable problems throughout the process, but it is repeatedly met with unreasonable and ill-thought-out demands accompanied by displays of the worst kind of nationalist jingoism from British politicians and commentators.
While I am sure that there are many in Ireland and elsewhere in the EU who do not quite know how to respond to the British claims that the EU has surrendered in the sausage wars, the key overriding concern for every public representative - indeed, for every right-thinking person on this island - remains the continued protection of the Good Friday Agreement. The way the British are behaving is, at best, irresponsible. They cannot and must not be allowed to play domestic politics with the most important political development on this island in a century. The Good Friday Agreement must be offered every possible protection by the EU. What has Brexit achieved for the British? There are empty shelves, empty petrol tanks and staffing shortages across all areas of industry, yet the British Government's response is to continue insisting on playing poker with the peace process. It is contributing to the stoking of community tensions among unionists over the protocol, all of which is designed to distract British voters from the mess that it has made of Brexit. I add my voice to that of my colleague, Deputy McDonald, in asking that the Taoiseach communicate with our EU colleagues the depth and strength of support in the North for the protocol.
Poland has endured a difficult past of invasion, occupation, betrayal and economic deprivation. Emerging from such a past, there is an onus on Poland, like Ireland, to stand as a champion for liberal democratic values, values for which Polish citizens made clear their support when taking to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in recent weeks in support of Polish membership of the EU. There are serious concerns with the extreme right-wing Polish Government and the direction it is taking its people. There is an onus on the EU and the Taoiseach to raise these concerns about what is happening in Poland and other countries, such as Hungary, at the next meeting.
Leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday and the key issues on the agenda are Covid-19, digital transformation, energy prices, migration and external relations. However, the issue that will dominate coverage is the growing split with Poland and the long-term impact that this will have. There is a dark cloud over the EU. Poland continues to take a confrontational approach to the rule of law and the interpretation of EU law, openly flouting rulings of the European Court of Justice. The latest escalation stems from a court ruling in Warsaw that declared that parts of EU law were not compatible with the Polish constitution. This comes after the Polish Government diluted the independence of its judiciary by taking greater control of the appointment process and making attempts to purge its Supreme Court by lowering the retirement age. It also introduced a disciplinary regime that allows judges to be punished for their rulings. This was targeted at those who criticised much-needed reforms.
The Polish Government's approach strikes at the heart of the treaties that underpin the EU. It is a challenge that must be dealt with. The ongoing row was escalated further yesterday by the Polish Prime Minister when he made an incendiary speech to the European Parliament that was clearly targeted at his home audience. The insistence of the Prime Minister, Mr. Mateusz Morawiecki, that the Polish constitution supersedes EU law has put the Polish Government on a collision course. It continues to stoke tensions by accusing the Commission of blackmail while it dismantles democratic checks and balances at home. The Polish Opposition is warning that this is putting Poland on track for an EU exit.
We cannot have a situation where a country is directly targeting the independence of its judiciary and media by ignoring EU law without us taking effective action. The Commission is responding by holding back Covid stimulus funds, but this plays directly into the hands of the right-wing Polish Government by allowing it to set up a David versus Goliath narrative. Some member states also want the Commission to start a conditionality mechanism to withhold other EU Cohesion Funds, which would cost Poland billions of euro. A legal challenge to the Polish court ruling is also possible. Any action to strip Poland of membership rights under Article 7, which would be the nuclear option, would require the support of all states. We know that Hungary, which is also controlled by a right-wing government, will likely veto that. In Hungary, we have recently seen the targeting of the LGBTI+ community.
At the Council, the Taoiseach must outline Ireland's position clearly. Where does Ireland stand and what will we do about this? Our judges have stood in solidarity against what has happened to Poland's judiciary by joining a silent protest in Warsaw in January 2020. Our Government must also do so. There is an option under the treaties for a country to take another to court. Will Ireland continue to sit idly by while the foundations of the EU are challenged? A country can sue Poland at the European Court of Justice over damage being done to the rule of law and the European legal order. It would be political and risky, but also a clear signal of intent that what Poland was doing does not just damage the EU, but also fellow member states. The Taoiseach might indicate whether this option is under consideration or what action Ireland might take.
The past month has seen dramatic changes in some governments across Europe that may derail efforts to take effective action. The former Chancellor of Austria, Mr. Sebastian Kurz, resigned over an allegation that public funds were used to fund his rise to power through the purchase of adverts in favourable newspapers. Germany went to the polls, heralding a dramatic change in direction, with our sister party, the German Social Democratic Party, winning the election and on track to form a coalition with Alliance 90/The Greens and liberals. This could be Chancellor Merkel's last Council meeting, but we look forward to Mr. Olaf Scholz replacing her.
In the time remaining to me, I will touch on two issues. First, COP26 is on the agenda, as are energy prices. The Greek Government has objected to the EU's carbon reduction plans, as it believes that the goals for maritime transport under the Fit for 55 proposals are not realistic. Shipping is to join the emissions trading system over a three-year period from 2023. This is an issue for Greece, which accounts for over half of the EU merchant fleet. Will the Taoiseach outline whether Ireland has also raised objections to the Fit for 55 proposals?
Second, the Stability and Growth Pact is not directly on the agenda of the Council but will no doubt be discussed. A review of and consultation on the pact are under way. The pact contains the budgetary rules that determine the fiscal capacity of our State. This is an issue that the Labour Party has sought action on since 2016 when it became clear that Ireland needed to ramp up capital investment in housing and climate action but was restricted in doing so by the borrowing rules. We also had the ridiculous situation of Ireland borrowing at near-zero interest rates and, when selling off our stake in AIB, using that to pay down debt.
The rules were correctly suspended during the pandemic to facilitate borrowing to save our economy and to cover increased health and social protection costs. As has been stated many times, the rules, as they stand, are too rigid, opaque and complex. They have stopped us from making investments. It is clear that productive capital investments need to be addressed in the pact, in particular investments that we will need to make for a just transition and a zero carbon society.
I welcome the publication last week by the European Commission of the package of proposals on the Northern Ireland protocol. Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič has taken a huge interest in this issue. He has consulted widely and listened to the concerns of businesses, stakeholders and individuals on the ground in Northern Ireland and he has done everything possible to address the challenges. We now need serious constructive engagement by the UK with the European Union, through the established mechanisms, to resolve these problems. Practical and pragmatic solutions can be arrived at in regard to the movement of goods and medicines, customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, provisions. In addition, there will be greater participation by politicians in Northern Ireland, and by civil servants and civic society generally, in this ongoing process.
We need to remind ourselves of the rationale for the protocol, that is, to protect the Good Friday Agreement, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and to protect the integrity of the EU Single Market. I hope that the UK will engage constructively. The remarks by David Frost concerning the European Court of Justice in this context are a bit of a red herring. It is a theoretical issue of no practical consequence for the day-to-day problems being encountered on the ground in Northern Ireland. As an arbitration in this regard is unlikely to arise in practice, all concerned now need to get on with it.
Like others, I would like to comment on the rule of law issues, with particular reference to Poland. As we know, Poland's constitutional court has rejected the supremacy of EU law. Questions arise as to whether the ruling Law and Justice party actually subscribes to European values and democratic norms, having regard to issues such as media freedom, an independent judiciary and the treatment of the LGBT community. The question is how should Europe react to these developments. Article 7 proceedings have commenced but at the end of the day, sanctions arising from this process must be agreed by the General Affairs Council and, ultimately, by unanimity at the European Council, which is unlikely. Funding, including recovery and resilience funding, can be withheld. The European Court of Justice is due to issue a ruling next month on the conditionality regulation. We await the outcome of that. This issue is probably best tackled by way of dialogue and moral pressure brought to bear on Polish politicians and society generally. All of us have a role to play in that regard. It is in nobody's interest for Poland to leave the European Union. Hopefully, these issues can be resolved and it will not come to that.
I would also like to address the issue of the so-called strategic compass, which is to be outlined in November by the European Commission and will point a pathway for European security and defence capabilities. According to the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, it will define policy orientations and specific goals and objectives in four clusters, namely, crisis management, resilience, capability development and partnerships. As I mentioned in the House yesterday, this initiative should be seen in the context of recent events, including the cyberattack on the HSE, recent events in Afghanistan, the hijacking of a Ryanair flight in Belarus and the AUKUS decision on nuclear submarines involving France, the UK and the US. Yesterday, in this House, the Taoiseach outlined to me Ireland's defence policy in an international context. I agree with what he stated in that regard. We need to be cautious about France's call for a greater self-reliance but we also need to be conscious of these recent developments; these new threats so to speak. Ireland is not neutral when it comes to terrorism, extremism or cyberattacks. We await the publication of the strategic compass proposal and look forward to a comprehensive debate on it in this House in due course.
I thank the Taoiseach for the very detailed report ahead of what I have no doubt will be an extremely busy couple of days at the European Council meeting. I am grateful to the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, for his engagement this morning with the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. Many contributors to the debate have spoken about the rule of law. There is a collective opinion in this House that the situation in Poland simply is not tolerable. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, in particular for his strong comments on the margins of the General Affairs Council, which reflect the opinion of the wider House and not just the governing parties.
As set out by the Taoiseach, the agenda comprises many important issues. Deputies from across the House have touched on many of those issues or on specific issues. I would like to refer to one specific element, that is, trade, which the Taoiseach referenced in his address today and spoke about last week in terms of Europe and the wider world at the meeting in Slovenia. There are three areas we need to look at. All of them are related to the fateful decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Ireland is a small export-based country, with an economic region that goes beyond our nearest neighbours. On trade within the European Union and within the Single Market, that is, access to the world's largest global bloc, it is important that we continue to support indigenous companies through the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to work with partners within the Single Market to have more Irish products going not only to Germany and France, but much further afield into Bulgaria, Romania and many other countries. There are huge opportunities for Ireland to not only insulate from the true impact of Brexit but to grow our economy and continue to move way from our dependence on our nearest neighbours. That is tied to our trading relationship not just within the Single Market but beyond it with third party countries through a plethora of European trade deals. It is vital that Ireland leads and shows example in a European context and that we swiftly ratify the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, in this House now that it has completed the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs process. We must also continue to work with European partners on European-based trade deals that are good for the Irish economy and good for the wider global economy, as well as our responsibilities to the climate emergency. We need to bear in mind the draft deal with the Mercosur region in that context.
The most important trade deal at the moment is the trade and co-operation agreement, TCA, between the EU and UK post Brexit. I welcome the decision this week by the European Parliament to appoint Irish MEPs such as Barry Andrews and Seán Kelly, who is from my own political family, to the new EU-UK body. It is crucial that there is constant engagement between parliamentarians, be it through the European Council or the British-Irish Parliamentary Association, as well as between the European Commission and the United Kingdom Government. As stated by many other Deputies thus far in the debate, there are huge concerns in regard to the British Government being a trustworthy partner to the European Union and, specifically, to Ireland. Those concerns are held by every person on this island. There is a massive economic and societal impact of the actions that are being taken at the moment in Whitehall, for whatever reason. Once again, Ireland finds itself in the middle in a European context in terms of playing the most important role when it comes to the Brexit discussion to ensure that the very generous offer made last week by the European Commission, through Commissioner Šefčovič, is genuinely followed up. I appreciate that huge sacrifices and comprises were made within the European Union, between member states and between various Directorates General of the European Commission. That should not be lost on our friends in the United Kingdom.
As others have referred to, the introduction to the talks at this late stage of the competence of the European Court of Justice is absolutely a red herring. It flies in the face of, as I mentioned earlier, so many other trade deals in which the European Commission has engaged with other third party countries and which the United Kingdom was happy to sign up to when part of the European Union or as it rolled over trade deals with other countries. That is what is at stake in a trading capacity. I fundamentally believe that a trading relationship that can salvage something from the post-Brexit fall-out has to be one based on good faith and trust. The implementation of the protocol is crucially important to this.
It is a pity the Taoiseach is leaving the Chamber right now. He might take the opportunity to go out and meet the children who have been waiting for him for the past hour and a half. I am disappointed I did not get the chance to make the following statement before the Taoiseach left the Chamber. The Taoiseach alleged that he was not invited to meet protesters. He was sent an email, as were other Ministers. The Taoiseach clearly was invited but he chose not to attend. Hopefully, when he gets a chance, he will correct the record in that regard.
He might even take the chance now as he leaves. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, usually takes these statements and in fairness, it is usually him who receives the comments. That is why I was surprised to see the Taoiseach stay so long today rather than go out and meet the children at the front of these buildings, which I would say, according to anybody listening in to these debates across the country, was his top priority and responsibility today.
On the challenges the Government faces, my colleague and party leader, Deputy McDonald, has referenced fisheries. There is a seething anger across fishing and coastal communities at the ongoing failure to ensure there will be burden-sharing of the quota loss that arises from the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement. As the Minister of State is aware, in some cases, especially with mackerel, there is a huge loss of quota that has a devastating impact. That is why the Government is suggesting 60 more vessels will have to be decommissioned. It is because of the failure of Government after Government to secure a fair share of the fish in our own waters. The Government has not secured burden-sharing despite repeated assurances it would seek it. The EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries was in Ireland recently. When the question was put to him, it was clear we had not put any pressure on him to agree to burden-sharing of the quota loss that would have prevented the need to decommission these 60 vessels.
Right now, Irish fishermen around our coast can only attain 15% of the fish in our waters under the Common Fisheries Policy. If that was not bad enough, we now have an additional hit from that trade agreement. This is ongoing. We are the laughing stock of Europe. When we talk to MEPs and senior politicians in Europe privately, they cannot believe we allow this situation to continue. It is a profound injustice. We talk about all the legislation we are bringing in around the marine at the moment, the immense resource it is and the potential for coastal communities. What has more potential than the fish in our own waters? We have a situation where on the south coast, our boats are tied up while day after day, Spanish, French and Belgian boats land fish at our harbours, with no checks from the Sea-Fisheries Protection Agency, SFPA, to be exported back to their own country. There is no value, no checks and no equality for the fishermen there. I am asking for the Minister of State, along with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to get some fire in their bellies and stand up and fight for Irish fishermen. That is their challenge.
It was indeed a very comprehensive opening statement from the Taoiseach. It was nine pages long. The most eye-catching part of it was what was missing, namely, any mention of Poland. I accept the Government parties have referenced it but it was not in the statement. One of the most important aspects of the EU, its cohesion and its values will concern the issue of Poland. We need to put that front and centre in our statements and I was surprised it was not. When we talk about what has just occurred in Poland, and the Polish challenge to the supremacy of EU law, we should put words to what that actually means, that is, what it means for genuine Polish people on the ground. I am also conscious that in my constituency of Dublin Central, and in all our constituencies around the country, we represent people who came here from Poland, who have contributed massively to our country and who are very conscious of what is happening in their homeland. We represent them and they want us to be advocating for them.
I will detail what the reality is on the ground in Poland at the minute. We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal decision, which essentially banned legal abortions. It led to the largest public protests in Poland for decades, which were led by women and human rights defenders. Abortion Without Borders, which aids women in European countries where abortion is illegal or access is highly restricted, reported that 17,000 women in Poland contacted the organisation in the six months after the ruling looking for help to access an abortion. The organisation continues to receive 800 calls a months. The Polish Government has also undermined efforts to combat gender-based violence, including by initiating Poland's withdrawal from the landmark European convention on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention, which we ourselves were quite late in signing up to. Last August, a 2019 study commissioned by the government, which was not made available to the public but was leaked to the press, found 63% of Polish women had experienced domestic violence during their lives. The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, GREVIO, highlighted the need for Poland to change the definition of rape from a forced-based definition to one covering all non-consensual sexual acts.
The suppression of the LGBTQI+ community in Poland is something that has raised eyebrows but needs substantial action. While the highly controversial LGBT-free zones in 100 Polish towns have been defended as largely symbolic and unenforceable, how does that make them any less significant to members of the LGBTQI+ community in those towns? Earlier this year, the regional assembly of Swietokrzyskie became the first region to abandon the declaration of an LGBT-free town on foot of threats of losing its EU funding. This shows the importance of what we can do as EU members. According to the ILGA-Europe 2021 report, the status of LGBTQI+ rights in Poland is the worst among EU countries.
We have recourse to action. It is important we discuss all three options when we go to the European Council meeting. Option 1 is infringement, which is being discussed. This involves the Commission legally challenging the Polish court's judgment and this could, and hopefully will, lead to fines. Option 2 concerns conditionality of funds. Poland received €23.9 billion in grants and €12.1 billion in cheap loans it has applied for as part of the EU's recovery fund. The Irish people are, proudly in my view, net payers to the European Union project, having benefited massively when we joined. I do not think we want to see taxpayers here and in the rest of Europe paying for LGBTQI+ exclusion zones and the suppression of fundamental rights. Option 3 is the application of Article 7 of the EU Treaty. It states the rights of member states, including the right to vote on EU decisions, can be suspended. I am conscious that when we joined in 1973, and right up to recently, Ireland ways in many ways a conservative country. I am also conscious we changed our own Constitution in 1972 to remove the special place of the Catholic Church in advance of our own membership.
A union based on peace cannot only be about peace when it comes to conflict on a macro scale. It must be peace when it comes to how people live within that union. It is absolutely fundamental that peace is extended to women, minority groups and LGBTQI+ people. When we go there this week, we should go there with the message we will not accept anything less because to be part of a union is to recognise we stand not only for Irish people but for Polish people or for any person in the European Union. That must be what we go there with the intention of doing.
I dtosach báire, mar gurb é seo an chéad deis atá agam, ba mhaith liom nóiméad a thógáil chun cuimhneamh ar bheirt dár mórfhilí a chailleamar le cúpla lá anuas – Brendan Kennelly agus Máire Mhac an tSaoi. Mar a tharlaíonn go minic, is iad focail na bhfilí féin is fearr chun ómós a mharcáil. Mar sin, i bhfocail Mháire Mhac an tSaoi ina dán “Finit”:
Ag éalú i ndearúd le hiompú ráithe
Gur dabht arbh ann duit riamh, ná dod leithéidse...
Ach go mbeidh poirt anois ná cloisfead choíche
Gan tú bheith os mo chomhair arís sa chúinne
Ag feitheamh, ceol ar láimh leat, roimh an rince
Is diamhaireacht na hoíche amuigh id shúile.
Guím suaimhneas síoraí orthu beirt.
I agree with a great deal of what Deputy Gannon has just laid in front of us. The second law of thermodynamics might not be an obvious jumping-off point for statements such as this but I am worried about the future of the European Union because, as Deputy Gannon and Deputy Duncan Smith said, the European Union is a conscious and continuous act of creation we have all entered into as European citizens. We have done that in the memory and the consciousness of the conflicts that gave rise to the European Union. It is the great peace project of our time. However, unless we stand by those values, and as Deputy Gannon said, we do so not just on the macro level but on that micro level between communities and minorities, then we are not living true to the values that hold the European Union together. We cannot take it as a given that things do stay together, because entropy increases.
Things will tend to fall apart unless we participate actively in the conscious act of creation and live out those values. We have heard a clear message from the Polish Government in terms of its reaction to the EU's response to the disciplinary chamber of the Polish Supreme Court. We know that the EU is critical in terms of its annual rule of law report and it was predictable that Hungary would row in behind the Polish Government in this regard. However, we have also heard from the Polish people, as Deputy Gannon said, both here in Ireland and in Poland. It is important that Ireland lends its voice to the protests of the Polish people who see the value of the EU and I hope the Minister of State takes that message to the EU.
Very good. I do not doubt the Minister of State.
I note that Deputy Boyd Barrett has a copy of the same letter that I am about to reference. The Taoiseach would also have received a copy of the letter from the People's Vaccine Alliance Ireland concerning the TRIPS waiver. Would that we were able to say that Covid is in the rear-view mirror in this country but unfortunately, it has caught up with us again. In a worldwide context, we are moving inexorably towards 5 million lives lost to Covid. In Africa, less than 5% of people have been fully vaccinated while we move towards 90% and beyond of our adult population. The letter argues that the global crisis of vaccine inequity is evident and is not only morally unacceptable but also pragmatically self-defeating if we are to bring Covid-19 under control. The argument is that we are not safe until everybody is safe and I fully agree. The TRIPS waiver, while not a silver bullet, as I have said repeatedly on the floor of the Dáil, should be part of the solution and the discussion. If the TRIPS waiver provision that was written into the WTO rules is not for now, why is it there? It should be up for discussion again at the European Council meeting.
I wish to go a little off the programme with my contribution vis-à-viswhat others have said. In the last 12 months, the Irish Government and its counterparts in Europe have looked at the issue of supply chains in the context of making vaccines available to Europe and dispersing them throughout the EU. This has been very successful. Many potholes were met along the way, particularly in the early days. We saw with both Oxford and Janssen how difficult it was at times to get supplies into the country but that has all been overcome, thankfully. Around 93% of the adult population in Ireland is now fully vaccinated. Who would have believed we would get there? Bloomberg, the colossal media outlet, now recognises Ireland as a world leader in terms of tackling Covid.
I want the Government to go to our European colleagues again to try to fix another supply chain, namely the one related to construction. As we know, for the past 12 or 14 months, construction prices have spiralled, with costs now 30% higher than they were pre-Covid in 2019. Analysis of the figures show that labour costs in the period have risen by 4% but material costs, particularly steel, insulation and timber, have increased dramatically. Timber is something that we can largely supply ourselves but products like steel and insulation come from further afield. The construction materials deficit is being felt in every country west of the Ural mountains and in North America. I cannot understand why there has not been an EU-wide approach to this. If the bloc of member states was able to fix the vaccine and medicine supply chains collectively, why are we not tackling the construction materials supply chain deficiencies as a bloc too? I hope the Taoiseach and Ministers can raise this with their counterparts in Europe at the European Council meeting and external to it. It is very important that such a dialogue would happen and would deepen. I believe it can be fixed.
I will conclude by referencing Poland. I have many Polish friends and neighbours. I also did a block of Erasmus study when I was in college in a small Czech Republic town near the Polish border. It was a fabulous place. I was there in 2002, a couple of years before Poland acceded to the EU and there was huge excitement about what the EU would bring in terms of economics and also in terms of the value set that the EU has stood for over many decades. The erosion of LGBT rights that we have seen in Poland in recent months is really regrettable. Poland is now in violation of EU discrimination laws.
On a separate issue, Poland is not fully playing its part as far as Covid digital certification is concerned. One of my constituents in Clare got his first vaccine in Ireland. He asked the HSE if it would be possible to get his second jab in Poland as he was relocating there. The HSE said it would be no problem because Covid digital certification policy, which is EU-wide, allows for that. He now does not have a digital certificate because Poland has decided, despite his best efforts, that all agreements that are in place in terms of certification do not apply in Poland. Polish authorities will not certify that he is fully vaccinated so all of the privileges and freedoms available to those who are certified are being denied to him. I ask the Minister of State to engage with his Polish counterpart on this matter. Poland is either a part of the Covid digital certificate system or it is not. If it is part of the system, then it needs to sign off on people, whether they are Irish or from other EU countries, who had their first vaccine dose in their home country and their second dose in Poland. That is what Poland signed up to and it needs to start issuing these certificates.
It is fair to say that we are not beyond the Covid pandemic yet and are still dealing with something that is incredibly serious and dangerous. That needs to be top of the agenda at the European Council. It goes without saying that the conversation on vaccines must include a discussion on booster shots. That is absolutely necessary and everyone here would be very supportive of that. That said, I add my voice to those who have said that we need to get to grips with the fact that none of us is safe until all of us are safe. We must put a plan in place to ensure the plentiful supply of cheap vaccines to the developing world although I do accept that there are significant logistical difficulties. Some have said that the TRIPS waiver is a misnomer and arguments have been made for the protection of pharmaceutical companies in the context of research and development, although I would not always be open to listening to them. The fact is that we need a solution. Pharmaceutical companies are part of the world and they need to be part of the solution. The European Council, the Commission and the EU also needs to be part of a solution. I am not worried what it looks like. I am not worried whether we call it the TRIPS waiver or we engage the waiver, as long as we come up with a solution that delivers. That is what needs to be done.
I also agree with what many have said in relation to the situation in Poland and the absolutely brutal breaches of the rule of law. I understand that the EU is putting leverage mechanisms in place. There are certain questions that are before the European Court of Justice at the moment and we need them to be progressed as soon as possible. Obviously it would be better to deal with these issues through talking but leverage may be required and recovery and resilience funding is relevant in that regard because money talks.
It goes without saying that everyone here agrees that the protocol is the only show in town. Vice-President Šefčovič and the European Commission have shown how far they are willing to move in order to deliver solutions that will make a difference, particularly for people in the North from all communities. They are working to provide solutions for farmers and business people and officialdom has kicked in. While there is terrible mood music coming from certain elements within unionism and from the British Government, we need to plough on with solutions. We need to ensure that every part of the European project is aware of where we stand in relation to that and of the absolute necessity of protecting the Good Friday Agreement.
We also need to deal with the wider issue of the energy crisis. Some of that can only be dealt with at European Council level and it must be put at the top of our list of priorities.
I am also very disappointed that the Taoiseach has left. I hope the Minister of State will pass on the points I wish to make, which largely revolve around the issue of Palestine. It is an extremely urgent matter that six Palestinian prisoners are currently on hunger strike. Two of them, Qayed Fasfus and Mukdad Qawasmeh, have been on hunger strike for almost 100 days. Their lives are very seriously in danger. All of the six are on hunger strike because they have been imprisoned without trial and in many cases repeatedly denied any kind of due process. This is a very urgent, life-threatening matter. They, as well as their supporters and families and so on, are asking that this be raised as a matter of urgency and an appeal made to Israel to give them due process so they can come off that hunger strike, or, indeed, to release them.
That raises a wider issue. The Taoiseach referred to his attendance at the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism and I would really like to ask him some questions about that. At the outset, I want to say that anti-Semitism is a vile phenomenon. The Holocaust is one of the greatest crimes that was ever committed by humanity against a particular group, that is, the Jewish people. Although it is worth saying that there were other victims of the Holocaust, such as Gypsies, communists and trade unionists, the major victims were the Jewish people in a genocidal assault by the Nazis. We must absolutely commemorate the Holocaust and insist that it never ever happens again. However, it is disturbing that at that conference, as is the wont of Israeli political leaders, President Herzog made the following statement:
... when criticism of a particular Israeli policy mutates into questioning Israel’s very right to exist - this is not diplomacy, this is demonization and anti-Semitism, because Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People.
This is a very familiar refrain. You can question this or that policy of Israel but if you question the right of what some of us happen to believe is an apartheid state to exist, you are an anti-Semite. That is not acceptable. We should not sign up to definitions of anti-Semitism that suggest that and we should be aware that Israel's claim to be the Jewish state representing the Jewish people is not a view shared by millions of Jews across the world. For example, a recent study of the Jewish electorate in the United States found that 25% of Jewish electors believe Israel is an apartheid state, 22% believe it is committing genocide against the Palestinian people, 34% say that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is the same as racism in the United States, and 20% of young Jewish voters said Israel has no right to exist. They are hardly anti-Semites. It is appalling misuse of the terminology of anti-Semitism and is an insult to the memory of the Holocaust to try to equate those two things.
Israel is an apartheid racist state and I say that based on its own legal constitution, particularly around the law of return. The law of return prioritises the rights of Jewish people to gain entry to the historic land of Israel or Palestine - whatever you call it - and denies that right to Palestinians. That right exists under international law, UN General Assembly resolution 194, which Israel denies and has denied since its foundation, when it ethnically cleansed 1 million Palestinians. It is a racist state in its fundamental laws. It practises persecution of the Palestinian people and the denial of their rights on an ongoing and systematic basis. It is entirely legitimate to say that we should not accept the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, that Palestinians have the right to return and therefore to question the existence of the Israeli state and pose the possibility of a single state where Jews, Palestinians, Christians, Arabs and people of no religion would have equality in a single state. Not everybody agrees with that but a lot of people believe it and it is not an anti-Semitic view to hold. We absolutely have to stand against that and I commend the author Sally Rooney for publicly declaring her support for the boycott, divestment, sanctions campaign against the apartheid regime.
I did not have time to raise the issue of the people's vaccine but I ask the Minister of State to pass on to the Taoiseach the request from the people's vaccine group to meet with him to discuss the waiving of the TRIPS patent restrictions on the production of Covid-19 vaccines, medicines and so on because that is seriously inhibiting the global fight against the pandemic in the developing world.
It is good to have an opportunity to speak on this particular conference. A number of things come to mind that we need to comment on at this particular time. Needless to say, I do not go the way of the previous speaker. I would recommend Leon Uris's book on the subject, which entails a fairly broad description of the founding of Israel and what it is today. I do not agree with many of the things Israel has done - I totally disagree with them - but we need to be very careful not to pander on the side of suggesting that there may be a reason to level the scores in some way or fashion. We need to be cautious about that because it is a dangerous place to go.
I compliment the Taoiseach and the Minister of State for their work in attending to their duties in the European context. On the Northern Ireland protocol, it is sad that we find ourselves at a juncture where the European Union has gone out of its way to accommodate the concerns expressed by our friends across the water in the UK. It appears that they will not accept it no matter what happens. A crucial issue is the failure to accept the European court's primacy in areas of dispute. What is the alternative to that? Do we set up a whole new courts system that will be in accordance with what our UK friends want, or do we assume that the UK in future will not adhere to any agreement it has entered into and cannot be relied upon to carry out and observe what it has signed? There are many people who believe that that was always UK policy. There is some foundation to that and, unfortunately, it has been confirmed in recent times. My humble submission is that times have changed. That is the case right across Europe with regard to Poland, Hungary and all the other countries as well. Times are not the same as they were. We must not forget that we transferred from what was essentially a set of communist countries on the one side, and previous to that they transitioned from imperial states that had no regard for democracy at all.
There has to be a coming together of minds on this issue. There has to be some recognition of a level playing field whereby the European Union stands for fairness, democracy and benign authority. The benign bit is the important aspect of that. That does not mean that we should not question things. We have to ensure that the European Union is at all times in accord with the wishes of the people within it. I had occasion last evening to mention the money laundering legislation, which creates some problems for a lot of people. It creates problems for us in this country. I mentioned this already on the Order of Business with the Taoiseach. We are unique in the sense that in Ireland we have directly elected Members of the national Parliament. That means that every Member who comes into our Parliament has the right to represent the people who elect them directly. In European countries that does not necessarily apply. In many countries there are people appointed to parliament and ministries and so on. I am not in favour of that particular prospect. The European Union, as an entity, needs to realise that there is a lot of reading to be done on the rights of individuals and in particular the rights of Members of Parliament.
There is no situation whereby we should be maligned in the course of European legislation, which suggests that members of Parliament are high-risk with regard to corruption.
I thank Deputy Durkan; I believe I have time. I echo the sentiments that have been expressed in the House this afternoon in respect of Poland. I share the grave concerns that have been expressed by Members across the House with respect to what is happening with the European Court of Justice regarding climate, about which I intend to speak about today.
Poland is seeking to cancel elements of the European Union's Fit for 55 package, namely, those parts that relate to carbon markets being set up for transport and buildings. This was a hard-fought agreement; it is not the time to revisit it. We are in an urgent climate crisis and the package needs to be implemented as soon as possible.
The external affairs agenda item for this week's Council of Europe meeting will undoubtedly feature the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow. As Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Climate Action, I led the Irish delegation to a meeting of the interparliamentary pre-COP26 meeting in Rome the weekend before last, at which my colleagues made very strong contributions.
It was notable that delegates from the developing world who approached us afterwards were keen to discuss themes we raised that had not actually been broached by other nations. Of particular interest was the issue of trust between our developed societies, that is, those with greatest responsibility for climate change and those which have least responsibility but are bearing its worst effects.
Ireland must work within EU structures to restore trust with developing countries on the issue of climate. We are rightly concerned about the very hard work we must do at home in Ireland in the area of climate and, in particular, the difficult tasks ahead of us in the areas of agriculture, transport, retrofitting homes and renewable energy. That task is nothing compared to that in countries where millions will die from hunger due to climate change, however, or countries that will face large-scale flooding or, in the case of small island nations, being wiped off the face of the earth completely.
In Rome, I heard from parliamentarians from developing countries that commitments made to those countries more than ten years ago in Copenhagen have not been met. It is totally understandable that there is an issue of trust and we should seek to rebuild that trust. We need to act to show that we are indeed trustworthy and that we can keep our promises.
Another point made by members of our delegation was that Ireland as a country is leading with respect to ambition in reducing carbon emissions. We were able to say that we, as a small nation, have made an ironclad commitment to reducing emissions by more than 50% within a decade. The aggregate of small nations will have a greater positive impact on the climate agenda than any one superpower. We should know that and understand Ireland’s influence internationally. Ireland can lead in the EU and the EU can lead in the world. We are important, even though we are a small country. We are important because we are a small country.
I pay tribute to the three party leaders in Government but in particular, to the leadership provided by the Taoiseach on the international stage, particularly at the United nations in New York. He has been showing leadership on climate on the global stage and I urge that we continue to do so through the European Council. The future of Ireland, the EU and, indeed, the planet depends on urgent global action in climate.
I note that a number of items are on the agenda for the upcoming European Council meeting ranging from rising energy costs to migration, external relations and foreign policy issues.
In this State, we have seen more than 30 energy price hikes announced by Irish energy suppliers since the start of the year. These sharp increases in the cost of energy are adding to increasing costs of living and having a severe impact on people across the State, from students and workers to pensioners.
The ESB provided safe and secure electricity generation to every corner and community in this State. For many years, our energy prices were among the lowest in EU until the ESB had to set prices higher to encourage competition in the market. As a result, electricity prices here have gone from being among the lowest to now being among the highest in the EU. Once again, the market has failed to provide lower and more competitive prices for consumers. We have already seen several EU member states such as France, Italy and Spain taking decisive action to reduce the burden of these price hikes on ordinary people. Notably in Spain, consumers will see their average monthly bill drop by 22%. Therefore, it can be done.
Previous governments were happy to drive up energy prices to encourage competition in the energy sector. We now need this Government to step up to the plate and follow the lead of other EU member states to put a halt to these runaway energy prices and take some of the burden off ordinary people.
I will raise one particular issue of concern with regard to international relations and issues of foreign policy. Four days ago, German war planes flew over Jerusalem, Ramallah and the occupied Palestinian territories, undoubtedly terrifying countless people beneath them. On behalf of my friends who are living in occupied territories, I would like it made clear to European Council members such as Germany, Italy, Greece and France that the racist terror state of Israel does not have the sovereign right to host its military air shows over the occupied territories.
These military incursions are wrong. They show absolute contempt and are unnecessary. Most of all, however, they are illegal. We need, therefore, to make our voice heard and say this display of force and power is not acceptable. Will the German jets join Israeli jets in bombing Gaza families? Is that what will happen next? This sort of behaviour is an act of aggression dressed up as an air show. The reality is that it is a show of power.
I ask that other EU member states such as Italy, Greece and France, which are taking part in this air show with the Israeli Air Force, need to respect Palestinian airspace and not violate it like the German Luftwaffe has done. Germany is effectively rubber-stamping Israeli terror. This is an act of solidarity by Germany, France, Greece and Italy with the racist apartheid state of Israel.
I wish the Minister of State a good afternoon. I welcome this opportunity to make a statement in advance of the European Council meeting in Brussels tomorrow and Friday. I thank the Taoiseach for outlining the agenda, which seems quite full.
I am reassured by the fact that that the pandemic is still top of the list because it is actually still with us. I am also happy it is there because Ireland has a good story to tell from a pandemic point of view. Were there imperfections and shortcomings in our response? Absolutely. The direction of travel is good, however, and there is a further tranche of reopening on Friday. We have been a success story despite all the imperfections because of a huge whole-of-society response, which has turned out to be very successful.
Following on from a pandemic point of view, I want to hammer home three points. First, it was mentioned in the opening statements that there will be increased investment for preparedness and to provide early warning and horizon scanning. I would definitely be in favour of that. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, needs more resources. If that could be brought up and nudged forward, it would be very much appreciated. Vaccines solidarity with the rest of the world is absolute must. Again, it is in their interest. There are ethical reasons for it but there is also a self-interest. Ireland would be very vulnerable if a new strain of the disease or a new mutation in the Delta strain emerged. It is, therefore, in our interest as well as everybody else's to ensure there is vaccine solidarity.
A proposal is floating around about an international treaty on pandemics, which is being sponsored by the World Health Organization. I am very much in favour of the principle of such a thing. We must see the detail, obviously enough, but pandemics by definition are global and, therefore, the response should be global as well. It would make sense that we capture the lessons learned from this pandemic in order that if another takes place in five months, five years or 55 years’ time, we have one singular document into which we can put the lessons we have learned over the last couple of years as a response.
I echo the sentiments of some of my colleagues from an energy prices point of view. It is a massive issue and we are reasonable enough to realise that there are factors beyond our control. The world economy is opening up. There are geopolitical frictions and games at play. We appreciate that. Many speculators are making a lot of money from it as well. Perhaps there is some mechanism by which the EU could apply downward pressure on prices by taking on these speculators.
I agree that there is a short-term need to address the short-term problem.
The first frost will be landing in a few weeks' time. However, the long-term need is microgeneration of electricity and its democratisation. Some of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants come indirectly from Brussels but if we could increase those grants, it would certainly make a big difference. People are keen to microgenerate but they do not have the upfront cash to install the relevant equipment. We are okay in Ireland on the digital transformation agenda. The national broadband plan is eight months behind, but there are reasons for it. Cybersecurity was mentioned in the opening statement. There have been modest improvements in cybersecurity since the HSE attack a few months ago, but there is certainly much more work to do. Cyberattacks are a transnational issue. Perhaps we need an entity at European level to co-ordinate and improve our defences. I wish the Taoiseach and the Irish team well and I look forward to his update when he returns.
I welcome this debate and the commitment by the Government to raise very important issues, such as energy prices. I welcome also the attempt throughout the EU to mitigate the impact of the price fluctuations and huge increases on vulnerable citizens and businesses. I am all for dealing with climate change, but I am concerned there is a rip-off in this country, especially in the sale of petrol and diesel. I had to visit Kerry over the weekend. A litre of petrol there was €1.64 but it can cost €1.70 in north County Dublin. There is a need for the Government to ensure prices are regulated and that inspectors can go in if people are ripping people off, which I have no doubt they are. It is time to change that. It is also time we challenge the ESB on climate change and the cost of its electricity supply. The ESB ought to be broken up and EirGrid ought to have ownership and not just management of the infrastructure.
A key point I want to make today is about the Irish protocol. As Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I am especially concerned about the dangerous game being played by Lord Frost and others in the current Tory Government. It is leading to a crisis in our country, in Britain and in Europe. The Government is doing an excellent job in trying to ensure common sense prevails. Whatever is happening, what is hugely important for the North, the South and the EU is that a meeting take place between Prime Minister Johnson and the Taoiseach as soon as possible. I know it will not be possible to restore the status quo ante before Brexit but we need to restore the excellent relationships which were there before because now there are seeds of doubt, concern and worry.
I am especially concerned, as Chairman of the Good Friday Agreement committee, that the actions of the British Government towards the European Union are dividing whatever growing consensus and middle ground we had in the North and South. We need to ensure we have a vision for change.
The European Union has been especially supportive of us at all times in our attempts to ensure equality and fairness in society in the North continue. That will not be the case if the divisions that have been driven by the present British Government are allowed to continue unchecked.
Our relationship with the European Union is excellent and the EU has tried extremely hard to support this Government in trying to avoid dissonance in Europe, which was commented on yesterday in The Irish Times in that there were concerns that Irish boats and produce will be stopped on entry to the EU. That is driving the agenda for change in the North. The possibility of a united Ireland is something we all need to address. We in the South need to show our vision for the totality of relationships on this island and respecting all the traditions on our island in order that we move forward with a plan that will gain ground, especially among middle voters.
I wish the summit every success, but I will go back again to what I said at the beginning. We need to deal with the energy crisis in a more effective way, locally and internationally. People are worried, concerned and angry at some of the increases they know are being exploited by those who supply these services.
The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, stressed that while there might be political space in which to forage a European response to the fuel crisis, the energy mix is a national responsibility. Some 1.8 million people in Ireland have seen a video I did here last week to show that the people who are ripping off this country are the Government. I mention the €57 per €100 in petrol and the €52 per €100 in diesel. The Government can help the people of Ireland now by waiting for six months until fuel prices go down before it takes another percentage and puts the working class people in Ireland, the SMEs, hauliers and farmers into the ground. The Government is responsible and should look in the mirror when it says people are ripping people off. The Government is ripping people off.
The national broadcaster of Ireland is not broadcasting it, but we are lucky enough to have TikTok, Facebook and Twitter to catch the Government out for what it is doing to the people. It can help the working class now. It can help every industry now by reducing the percentage on fuel. The VAT and excise duty can come down. It can even reduce the National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, part of it, but it will not do it. It puts out this spin.
People in Ireland will starve because of this Government. Businesses will fail because of this Government. People cannot go to work because of this Government. It should wake up and look around. Some €40 is the minimum cost to any family at present and the Government has it in its hand to reduce the prices now. I call on the Government and every Deputy, rural and urban, in this regard. We want the Government to reduce VAT and the percentage on fuel for at least six months to allow the fuel prices to come down in order that our businesses and families can survive this winter.
Ahead of next week's important summit, it is of grave importance that we deal with the hike in energy prices, migration and, of course, external relations. There is currently no co-ordinated EU policy on strategic gas reserves, with each member state having its own mechanisms for the building of gas docks. Some, including Italy and France, have some storage regulation, such as on maintaining minimum storage levels while others depend solely on market dynamics. Of the gas infrastructure we have, our sites are filled to 75% capacity compared with 95% capacity one year ago. We are in a crisis situation because 90% of the gas we use in Ireland and Europe is being imported into the EU.
Globally, the economies are picking up and the demand is rising, but the supply is not rising accordingly. Our European leaders have an awful lot of work to do, but I have to lay the blame fairly and squarely for what I see happening in Ireland. It is not just the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Of course, I am critical of his handling and political ability, or should I say inability, to deal with this situation. His answer to everything is to follow the green agenda, with nothing about the reality of today. People are trying to pay for the increased cost of electricity and gas and go to work and all he can talk about is slashing emissions. While he is slashing emissions, I know people who have to live.
The Minister has forgotten completely about his constituents. While I hate talking about people when they are not here, I would go so far as to say that he does not care about his constituents. If he did, he would be saying that in taking these measures, we have to allow people to live at the same time.
Brussels appears to be reluctant to take the lead in tackling the issue. This is leaving countries to fend for themselves. We are not able to fend for ourselves. We are facing an unprecedented crisis that requires extraordinary and serious measures from the European Union to control the price hikes we are enduring. I have been the holder of a carbon licence for over 30 years. I am probably the only person in this Chamber that holds such licences. This means I am acutely aware of the costs of fuel over the last three decades. In those three decades, I have never seen what is happening now. It is frightening because the cost of everything will go up accordingly.
The European green energy transition strategy is also a leading cause of the crisis. The Minister of State and the Government will have to catch this by the horns. I am not standing up here to fight with the Minister of State. I am asking him, for God’s sake, to wake up to the crisis. People have to go to work and they have to heat their homes. We need assistance in controlling these prices that have gone out of control.
I support the Minister of State’s stance on Poland and the importance of rule of law. However, in advance of criticising the rule of law Poland, on which I share the views of the Minister of State, we need to reflect a little on the rule of law in Ireland. There are a couple of issues I would like to bring to the Minister of State's attention. First, the failure to properly promulgate in a timely manner the statutory instruments on restrictions for Covid-19 has been repeatedly criticised in this Chamber, as well as by legal academics and human rights activists. Today is 20 October and the new regime is to come into place on 22 October. People are supposed to act accordingly, yet no law or regulations have been promulgated and we have no idea when they will be promulgated. It will probably be some time on 22 October, after they have theoretically come into effect. That is not rule of law. One of the central tenets of rule of law is that people can ascertain what the law is and behave accordingly. That needs to be addressed.
The second issue I will raise relates to the challenges brought to the previous regulations in courts. The regulations had lapsed by the time the court got to hear the challenge and the court stated it did not have sufficient resources to hear it. That is an absence of an effective remedy, which again is a huge problem. The exact same regulation was brought in subsequently, even though it could not be challenged previously. Again, access to an effective remedy is a central tenet of the rule of law.
The third issue I draw to the Minister of State's attention is the O'Keeffe judgment against Ireland in the European Court of Human Rights. ECHR judgments are not enforceable, or cannot be relied upon, in the domestic legal order in the same way that judgments by the Court of Justice of the European Union, CJEU, can. Nevertheless, there is an expectation that human rights violations will be remedied, not just for the applicants in a particular case but more broadly. That has not yet happened in this case. We need to look at that. I would hate for the Minister of State to go over there and speak about the rule of law in Poland and to be labelled a hypocrite while he is there. It would be embarrassing for Ireland, which has a proud tradition of adherence to the rule of law, democracy and human rights.
The next European Council meeting will certainly keep the Taoiseach busy. Much of the preparatory work will be done by 21 October. Nonetheless, some important issues will be on the table. Among the headline topics are the response Covid-19, soaring energy prices, digital transformation and some upcoming international summits. However, since Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki commandeered the microphone in the European Parliament yesterday and accused EU institutions of undermining Polish sovereignty, the stage has been set. Perhaps it was already set, with the ruling from the Polish constitutional court, but yesterday’s public ramping up of the conflict was deliberate. President von der Leyen was up-front in her comments.
Tomorrow, the European Parliament will vote on a resolution which "deeply deplores the decision of the illegitimate 'Constitutional Tribunal' of 7 October 2021 as an attack on the European community of values and laws as a whole". Given the comments of many MEPs, including Government MEPs, I expect that motion will be carried. That is what the Taoiseach is walking into. To be honest, I would liked to have heard a little more of his perspective on this matter. While I am not calling for megaphone diplomacy - there has been far too much of that already - I would still like to hear some clear, straightforward statements, either from the Tánaiste or the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, in his intervention, on the issue of rule of law in Poland. My view is that while we must be firm and resolute in our defence of the rule of law, human rights, LGBTI and women's rights, equally, we must not be provoked into any tit-for-tat reaction. We must continue to seek a common approach at EU level. There are issues around conditionality of EU funds, which need to be explored. However, we need to look at them carefully because there are double-edged sword.
In regard to the EU protocol, I place on record my appreciation of the work of Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. As with Michel Barnier, Mr. Šefčovič's knowledge and deep understanding of the many complex issues surrounding the protocol, the Good Friday Agreement and the context in which they are set have proven invaluable.
I thank Deputies for their statements. The agenda for this week's meeting of the European Council was discussed yesterday in Luxemburg at the General Affairs Council, GAC, which I attended. The Taoiseach has outlined his expectations for the European Council's discussions, as Members have also reflected, on Covid-19, digital, energy prices, trade and migration. Deputies should make no mistake; energy prices will probably be the signature issue of this particular summit.
A number of Deputies mentioned EU-UK relations and Brexit. These are not on the agenda, but I have no doubt that leaders will consult the Taoiseach and listen to his views on the matter. If my engagements yesterday or anything to go by, they will be interested in the Irish position and supportive of the European Commission. I am pleased that the proposals from the European Commission have been well received across the board in Northern Ireland.
The issue of the rule of law has been raised. I agree with almost everything that Deputies said, as does the Taoiseach. I have spoken out on this, both publicly and privately, at every opportunity. The General Affairs Council deals with the rule of law at almost every meeting. The European Union is a Community of law and values. Without acceptance of this and consistent implementation, our unity and the functioning of the Union breaks down. The values in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union underpin everything we do together, including the rule of law. This must be respected by all member states. As member states, there is an onus on all of us to comply with the determinations of the Court of Justice of the European Union. As part of membership of the Union, it is essential that member states accept the primacy of EU law where it applies. The judgment of the Polish constitutional court is a cause of concern. It is only the latest development to highlight concerns about the direction of travel in Poland, including as regards judicial independence.
Ireland has supported the development of tools, such as the budget conditionality. In fact, we were party to the case in the European Court of Justice last week in support of the European position. We want to support the Commission in fulfilling its vital role in ensuring adherence to the obligations of the EU treaty. We fully welcome and support what President von der Leyen said in the European Parliament on Tuesday.
The issue of anti-Semitism will be on the agenda. I was proud that the Taoiseach attended the Malmö conference. I appeal to Deputies, when speaking about anti-Semitism, to keep that issue and Israel-Palestine separate. They should not bring Israel-Palestine into discussion. Anti-Semitism is an evil which needs to be tackled, full stop. The Taoiseach was at the Malmö summit representing us proudly on ways to deal with this evil. I appeal to Members to deal with anti-Semitism separately and not to bring extraneous issues into the discussion because it does not give-----
Yes. However, the issue of anti-Semitism is very serious at the moment. We must remember the Holocaust, learn lessons from it and have it constantly in our memories and on our minds.
We must constantly be on guard so that nothing like it can ever happen again. We cannot mix anti-Semitism into a discussion about the situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine. Ireland has been a supporter of a two-state strategy for decades. The late Brian Lenihan Snr was the person who brought forward this proposal. Deputy Boyd Barrett should reflect on questioning the right of only one country to exist. That is not acceptable. The state of Israel is recognised by us and by almost every country in the world. We want two states, a Palestinian and an Israeli state-----
It is the mainstream of European left-wing opinion too. Some left-wing politicians in this House are completely out of the mainstream. We have to be constantly on our guard about anti-Semitism. It is so dangerous. Issues are being raised at a global level about comments made in this House about Israel.
This is something that we must be clear and have a full stop on. We have a proud record in this country of our dealings as an honest broker in the Israel-Palestine situation in support of a peaceful solution that protects all of the people of that region.
The European Council will take stock of preparations for the November Asia-Europe summit, the Eastern Partnership summit, the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow and the UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15. The European Council will discuss preparations for the 13th Asia-Europe Meeting, ASEM, on 25 and 26 November. This biannual summit will bring together leaders from the 51 ASEM partner countries along with the institutional leaders from the EU and Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, under the theme of strengthening multilateralism for shared growth. This year's event is under the chairmanship of Cambodia. Due to Covid-19, the summit will be held in a virtual format. It will mark the 25th anniversary of ASEM. There are two planned outcome documents for the summit, including a chair's statement on the theme of multilateralism and the Phnom Penh statement on post-Covid socioeconomic recovery, a matter of shared interest to European and Asian leaders alike. The Taoiseach will represent Ireland at the summit.
The Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009 as a framework for co-operation between the EU and six partner countries, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine's relations with the EU are based on respective association agreements and the countries aspire to eventual EU membership. The EU's relationship with Azerbaijan and Armenia is based on partnership agreements. The Lukashenko regime in Belarus suspended its involvement in the Eastern Partnership in June following our sanctions. The sixth Eastern Partnership summit will be held at head of state or government level on 15 December 2021, preceded by a ministerial summit in Brussels on 15 November. On 2 July 2021, the European Commission published a joint staff working document setting out a new framework for the Eastern Partnership, focusing on the themes of reform, recovery and resilience. This will be accompanied by a €17 billion investment plan to deliver on objectives. The Commission hopes that the new framework will be endorsed at the December summit.
Ireland has three priorities relating to the Eastern Partnership. We believe in greater economic links and macrofinancial assistance but only to the extent that partner countries make domestic improvements in the areas of gender equality, good governance, human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Second, on a related matter, Ireland believes that the Eastern Partnership as a framework must be more values-driven. Third, we support the principles of inclusivity and differentiation within the partnership, tailoring the partnership to the different needs and aspirations of each individual partner.
The COP26 is due to take place in Glasgow from 31 October until 12 November. COP26 is the five-year COP after the Paris Agreement. Parties are expected to submit updated and more ambitious nationally determined contributions which articulate the parties' climate policies. This exercise, which was established by the UN parties, is on track to reach the objective of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C and to drive it towards 1.5°C. The EU has submitted a nationally determined contribution, NDC, on behalf of member states outlining at least a 55% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and the achievement of net-zero emissions by 2050. Ireland is an active member of the EU delegation to COP26, participating in EU expert groups, including financing, adaptation, science and agriculture, and finalising the Paris rulebook which will govern the implementation of the Paris Agreement. In line with the EU's position, Ireland will continue to reiterate its strong support for the Paris Agreement as the foremost multilateral mechanism to drive global climate action.
A key issue ahead of COP26, which will influence the outcome of the COP, is climate finance. The financial commitments made by developed countries party to COP15 in 2009 and COP21 in 2015 have not yet been met. There is increasing pressure on donor countries, including EU member states, to signal further actions to meet their climate finance commitments, with a particular focus on financing adaptation to climate change. Ireland has a long track record of providing for balanced shared climate finance for adaptation and grant-based finance for least developed countries and small island developing states.
The first part of the 15th meeting of the UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15, took place from 11 to 15 October. The second part will reconvene with in-person meetings in Kunming, China, from 25 April to 8 May next year. Ireland was represented at the high-level segment from 12 to 13 October by the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan. Reversing the trend of biodiversity loss is a major challenge for the coming decade and should be one of our top priorities. It is in this context that discussions have taken place on the development of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, to be agreed in Kunming in 2022. Ireland is working with EU partners to present a strong, coherent voice for a global biodiversity framework that provides for the transformative change that the biodiversity crisis demands.
In 2020, the EU published a strategy for biodiversity to 2030. The headline goal of the strategy is to transform at least 30% of Europe's lands and seas into effectively managed, protected areas and to bring back at least 10% of agricultural area under high diversity landscape features. This strategy was endorsed by the European Council in October 2020. The strategy forms the basis of the negotiation position for the EU and member states at COP15.
I thank members for their active participation in the debate. This particular format does not allow me to answer questions but I will do so next week. I thank all Members of the House, both Government and Opposition, for our unified approach to the issue of Brexit. That gives the country incredible strength when dealing with our European partners, which also show the same unity. We are grateful for the unity here and within the European Union.