Wednesday, 3 November 2021
Post-European Council Meeting: Statements
I attended a meeting of the European Council on Thursday, 21 October, and Friday, 22 October, in Brussels. The meeting had a very full agenda, touching on some of the most pressing issues facing the Union. We discussed Covid-19, with a particular focus on vaccination rates across the European Union, in the context of rising infection rates in some member states and tackling disinformation on the pandemic. We also discussed the importance of the global roll-out of vaccines and the central role of the World Health Organization in global health governance. We discussed 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. We also considered medium- and long-term measures to increase the European Union's energy resilience and green transition. We also discussed digital issues, including ongoing progress on the digital services Act and digital markets Act, ahead of the publication of a European chips Act planned by the Commission. We discussed trade, including its coherence with the overall international perspective of the EU, and, of course, critically, the importance of trade to global economic recovery. We discussed migration, including ongoing work to support countries of origin and transit. We called on Turkey to implement fully the European Union-Turkey Statement of 2016, including vis-à-visthe Republic of Cyprus. We also discussed a new issue of enormous concern, namely, the instrumentalisation of vulnerable migrants by the Lukashenko regime in Belarus. We agreed conclusions on a number of important summits, including COP15 and COP26, which I attended in Glasgow over the past two days; the Asia Europe summit, which I will participate in when it will be held virtually on 25 and 26 November; and the European Union-Eastern Partnership Summit to be held in Brussels on 15 December. We also had a frank discussion on the rule of law in the European Union. The Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will address the discussion of migration in his concluding remarks this afternoon. I will address all other items.
Prior to the formal European Council meeting, I met with my counterparts from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden for a useful and constructive exchange of views. This Nordic-Baltic+1 format is a valuable addition to Ireland's European engagement, allowing us to discuss topical issues with like-minded partners.
Sadly, Covid-19 continues to be both a significant concern within the European Union and a global challenge. At our meeting last week, a number of European Union leaders reported rising infection rates in their member states. Our first focus was on vaccination rates across the European Union, including tackling disinformation and efforts to overcome vaccine hesitancy. We need to challenge disinformation and remain vigilant against this deadly disease, which continues to circulate in our communities. We agreed to further co-ordination on free movement and travel, preparedness for future health emergencies, the global roll-out of vaccines, and the European Union support for the World Health Organization.
Very significant progress has been made in tackling the pandemic, with safe and effective vaccines providing the means to protect ourselves from Covid 19. The decision of the European Union and its member states to join together to support the development and the procurement of vaccines has been remarkably successful. Well over 800 million doses have already been delivered across European Union. I am pleased to inform the House that Ireland now has the highest level of full vaccination among adults in the European Union, with more than 93% of adults having now received their first vaccine dose, and more than 92% fully vaccinated against the disease. Vaccination has been extended to children aged 12 years and older, with 71% of eligible children having now received a vaccine dose and 67% fully vaccinated. This is a remarkable national achievement.
We cannot take our eye off the ball. I encourage those who have not yet availed of vaccination and for whom it is deemed clinically safe, to come forward for vaccination at the earliest opportunity. In doing so you will help to protect yourself, your loved ones and the wider community this winter. At the European Council we also discussed our approach to vaccine booster doses and vaccine sharing. The pandemic is a global challenge. Ireland is committed to the universal and fair access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. The European Union is the largest exporter of Covid-19 vaccines to the world. We need now to work together to increase global vaccine production capacity, as well as supply, to meet global needs.
We had a serious discussion on energy prices as across Europe 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 concern here in Ireland and right across the European Union. I am acutely aware of the negative impacts of significant energy price rises on citizens and businesses. This is manifesting itself in different ways across the Union. EU leaders welcomed the Commission toolbox presented prior to our meeting. We invited the Commission to study both the functioning of the gas and electricity markets with the help of European Union Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, ACER, as well as the EU emissions trading system, ETS, market with the help of the European Securities and Markets Authority, ESMA. The Commission will also assess whether certain trading behaviours require further regulatory action. This study will provide an evidence base for further next steps.
We also called on the European Investment Bank to examine how to speed up investment in the energy transition. Our focus in the short term is on actions member states can take to protect those most vulnerable to the effects of energy price increases. In budget 2022, 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. Leaders also tasked the energy ministers, who met last week, to examine further work on this pressing area of concern. 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.
The European Council also took stock of progress on digital issues and set further important political orientations for the ambitious legislative agenda being advanced by President von der Leyen to make Europe fit for the digital age. As I indicated to the House last week, key elements here include broad support for the Commission's digital compass and digital decade proposals, including setting high levels of ambition for skills development, digital connectivity, and responsive public services; unlocking the full potential of our Single Market, including in services, and making it as easy as possible for our SMEs to scale their businesses across Europe's borders and beyond; promoting a cutting-edge European microchip ecosystem through stronger research and innovation policies; continuing to ensure high levels of protection for personal privacy, while providing strong new protections against illegal and harmful digital content; further upgrading our collective capabilities and toolboxes in responding effectively to growing cyber threats, including to democratic values; and providing strong leadership and strategic direction in the development of global standards for fast-evolving applications in the field of artificial intelligence, working closely with like-minded global partners.
I welcome these conclusions as continuing to strike the right balance on shaping Europe's future in a direction that remains open, competitive and innovation friendly. They are consistent with my own view that setting the right strategic orientations for positive digital transformation must be seen as an essential basis for the EU's future dynamism and strength.
We had a useful strategic discussion on trade, following on from our discussions earlier this month in Slovenia on the international role of the EU. I supported an open approach, underpinned by an international rules-based order. During the discussion, I underlined my view that agreements are about more than reducing barriers. They are also about raising standards around the world, whether in the field of human rights or environmental standards. The reality is we share the world with powers that do not always share these values. We must strive to make our collective interdependence fair and safe. It makes sense, therefore, to encourage global partners to be on the same high and broad level playing field in terms of environmental standards and human rights.
I look forward to the upcoming Asia-Europe Meeting summit on 25 and 26 November. It will be an important opportunity to discuss economic recovery in partnership with our Asian counterparts.Before the European Council meets again in December, we will also meet at the eastern partnership summit. Again, it is crucial that agreed European Union values underpin all of our engagements. It is not an either-or situation. We can strive for both economic development and the good governance, human rights, and rule of law improvements that will benefit societies in partner countries.
We also discussed rule of law within the European Union.Ireland has consistently supported the development of a more comprehensive range of tools by the European Commission to ensure member states adhere to their obligations. We have consistently expressed the view the budget conditionality regulation is fair, proportionate and serves a legitimate, important purpose. As such, we recently intervened, along with several other member states, to oppose an action to annul the regulation brought by Poland and Hungary. Judgment on this case is now awaited. There are important principles at stake. I believe shared membership of the EU means that, as close partners, we need to be able to raise concerns and questions with each other in a constructive and open way where there are challenges.All member states have signed up to the same treaty obligations and there is an onus on all of us to comply with the determinations of the Court of Justice of the European Union. EU membership means all member states accept the primacy of EU law where it applies.
The existence and prosperity of our Single Market and the upholding of our common values, particularly rule of law, are both predicated on respect for this core principle. As such, I am very concerned by the recent ruling from the Polish Constitutional Tribunal that aspects of Articles 1 and 19 of the Treaty on European Union are incompatible with the Polish Constitution. This is the latest development of concern with respect to Poland, including as regards judicial independence. At the European Council last week, Prime Minister Morawiecki set out the key elements in his view of the Polish approach. I do not agree with all of his views and I made that clear at our meeting. I support the Commission approach as guardian of the treaties. There is much to be gained potentially from member states continuing to engage in dialogue. It is in the collective interest of the Union to resolve this issue.
The October European Council was also an opportunity to bid farewell to leaders from Sweden and from Germany. The meeting was my Swedish counterpart Stefan Löfven's last one. He has been a strong and constructive leader at the European Council on issues such as innovation, openness and human rights. He has an especially strong empathy with Ireland from his former days as a trade union leader when he had good collaboration and engagement with trade union leaders in Ireland. I wish him well and look forward most sincerely to continued partnership with his successor, including as part of Ireland's Nordic strategy.
I was pleased to receive German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier for a courtesy call as part of his state visit to Ireland last week.
German-Irish relations continue to grow closer all the time and our governments share a joint plan of action for enhanced bilateral and EU co-operation. There can be no doubt that Chancellor Merkel's departure from the European Council marks the end of an era. She participated in the European Council for a truly remarkable 16 years. During that period, she played a significant role in helping the European Union collectively to weather many storms and crises. She has truly carried on the European legacy of Konrad Adenauer as a pragmatic unifier.
The European Council will continue to strive for this combination of strategy and pragmatism to preserve our most powerful asset, our unity. Leaders will next meet at the European Council in December, when we will return to our discussion on Covid-19. We will also discuss the EU's resilience and its crisis response capability, learning from our experiences. We will discuss EU relations with Africa, including the EU–African Union summit planned for February. I will report to the House in advance of discussions.
The European Council met again at another significant point in the Brexit discussions. As the Taoiseach knows, the Commission's Vice-President, Mr. Maroš Šefčovič, published proposals last month designed to address concerns about the protocol and ensure it is workable for businesses and communities. The EU and Britain are continuing talks on this issue. I want to make clear yet again the resounding support for the protocol in the North of Ireland and across the rest of Ireland. Despite the loud claims of a small minority in political unionism, the vast majority of people in the North accept the protocol and want workable solutions. The protocol is the best way to protect the all-island economy, prevent a border in Ireland and protect the Good Friday Agreement. It offers opportunities for businesses in the North to have what might be called “the best of both worlds”, with access to both EU and British markets. Businesses are increasingly speaking of the unique advantages and opportunities the protocol affords them. Trade across this island is booming.
British negotiators have recently claimed the European Court of Justice is a new barrier in talks. It is clear that this is yet another red herring. It must not be allowed to serve as an excuse for Britain to block further progress. The role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing the protocol is essential for fair oversight. Its role is therefore off limits, and it must not be allowed to become a sideshow to block solutions.
As discussions between the EU and Britain continue, I want to stress again the importance of sensible, pragmatic solutions. Following through on threats to trigger Article 16 would push economic and political relations across these islands into a new and unprecedented crisis. The Tory Government and its Brexit fellow travellers need to step back from the brink now.
It is time for leadership and dialogue. That is what the people of Ireland need. As talks continue, will the Taoiseach make it clear to the British Government that it needs to engage in the talks in good faith? Will he make it clear that Ireland will never be the collateral damage done by the British Government's reckless approach to Brexit?
The cost-of-living crisis is affecting homes right across Ireland. Bills are soaring while wages remain the same, putting more and more pressure on households' finances. Rent and bills for childcare, groceries and energy have skyrocketed.
We must do everything in our power to stand up for workers and families hit by this cost-of-living crisis. That must mean action internationally as well as domestically.
I raised earlier with the Taoiseach the issue of cutting VAT on energy costs to give ordinary workers a break from sky-high bills. As he knows, the EU can approve a VAT reduction to facilitate this. The Czech Government, which is experiencing energy price rises similar to those in Ireland, requested this just weeks ago.
In his remarks, the Taoiseach said the cost-of-living crisis, particularly the issue of the cost of energy, is a pressing area of concern. I do not note great urgency in his approach to all these matters. I asked him about VAT earlier today but he did not answer my question. Therefore, I will reiterate my call. I want him to approach the Commission with a view to achieving a VAT rate of 0% on energy for the winter months, on a temporary basis, to afford some relief to those who are struggling badly just to make ends meet. If this were a pressing area of concern for the Taoiseach, he would have taken that action and would not need me to propose it to him here.
Will the Taoiseach direct the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, to use his influence in this matter because rhetoric will not cut it and kind words will not pay anybody's bills? I want the Taoiseach to stand up for workers and families facing a spiralling energy-costs crisis and ensure they get the help they need.
Ireland's fishing communities continue to be failed by the Government. Before the Taoiseach went to the European Council meeting, I urged him to stand up for Irish fishing communities and make clear the absolute need for the full reform of the Common Fisheries Policy so our fishing communities can have just a fair chance, a fair share and the prospect of a livelihood. I can judge by the Taoiseach's response to my colleague Deputy Mac Lochlainn that he did not make that case. The Government must make it on behalf of our island and fishing communities.
We are in the midst of two global crises of unprecedented proportions. The Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact across the globe and no nation or people has escaped unscathed. Covid has resulted in countless deaths, devastated industries and disrupted the lives and livelihoods of millions, if not billions. Worrying, rising infection rates testify to the ongoing threat of the pandemic as we move into the winter. Of the 1.8 billion vaccine doses promised to the world's poorest countries, only one in seven has been delivered, meaning that only 1.3% of people in the poorest parts of the world are fully vaccinated. This, with the continued refusal of the EU to push for the waiving of intellectual property rights on vaccine production, is contributing to the ongoing threat of the virus as it continues to mutate.
Alongside the Covid-19 crisis, we have the climate crisis – a potentially existential crisis entirely of our own making. One thing the Covid and climate crises have in common is that they have both impacted the poorer nations of the world much more severely than others. It has been estimated that since the start of Covid, a full decade of progress in the international war on hunger has been overturned. In the future, scarcity and extreme weather, leading to drought and famine, will have a hugely destabilising effect on the global stage.
As the world's leaders arrived in Scotland on board their private jets to discuss the climate crisis, a key area to be addressed was the need to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C. Under the Paris Agreement, the target was set at 2°C. In the difference between the two targets, which is half a degree, lies the fate of many nations and island states, which will simply cease to exist as their homelands become either uninhabitable or completely flooded. Prior to the start of the COP26 negotiations, it was revealed that the chief carbon-producing countries were lobbied to weaken the UN climate report. In Europe we are still overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels, a reality that has left the EU vulnerable to the whim of geopolitics, which has contributed to the driving up of gas prices at an alarming rate. In turn, this has driven up the cost of electricity, which in turn is putting Irish households to the pin of their collars.
Failure to invest in the future has left us facing into winter under threat of blackouts. The European Commission has already recommended that member states work to lower the cost of energy prices for consumers by cutting taxes and levies, alongside providing subsidies for those facing energy poverty. On an electricity bill of €220, a typical user will currently pay a standing charge of €35, a public service obligation, PSO, levy of more than €13 and VAT at 13.5%, which amounts to just over €36, leading to a total bill of more than €304. That is an extra €84 on top of energy costs that are rising at an alarming rate. This is not sustainable for ordinary families. Taken together with the aggregate rise in the cost of living, people are going to go hungry and cold and will be driven to despair. They are being continually failed by the Taoiseach and his Government. The cost of rent, childcare and feeding and clothing a family must be addressed by the Government.
I am alarmed at the situation in Poland. The emergence of populist right-wing governments in eastern Europe continues to be a matter of the gravest concern. The erosion of liberal values continues unabated. The actions of the Polish Government in stacking its judiciary with right-wing government appointees seriously undermines the independence and legitimacy of their rulings. This is a matter that bears further scrutiny in the questions and answers session that will be taken at the conclusion of statements.
As the Taoiseach indicated in his commentary, there was a multifaceted agenda before the European Council on 21 and 22 October, including the ongoing and worrying issue of Covid across Europe, digital transformation, energy prices, migration and external relations. In the five minutes allotted to me, I have very limited time to address these extensive issues, so I will only deal with a couple of them.
The issue of energy prices is the most urgent to be dealt with right now because hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland are despairingly facing a cold winter unless we do something about it. I thought there would be a conclusion from this particular meeting but the conclusions of the Council state the Council invited the Commission to study the functioning of energy markets to see if further regulatory reform is required. Clearly, that will not bring any instant relief to millions of European Union citizens in real trouble this winter in terms of heating their homes and being unable to pay fuel bills. The Council did mandate energy ministers to convene an extraordinary meeting to follow up on the Council conclusions, and those ministers agreed that short-term measures have to be taken as a matter of urgency to shield vulnerable customers from enormous price hikes. The Commission has issued a clear policy framework that allows member states to take action, including temporary tax breaks.
The surge in energy costs is an unexpected boon to the coffers of government. It is an unexpected windfall. The State charges 13.5% VAT on top of the bloated price of energy. In fact, not only does it charge 13.5% on gas and electricity, it also charges 13.5% on the carbon tax and the PSO levy. The levy that is designed to support alternative energies is also taxed and the money is being put into the Exchequer from that. The Commission has pointed out that, on average, taxes and levies on electricity and gas retail prices in the European Union account for 41% of household electricity prices and 32% of household gas prices. The EU energy taxation directive and the VAT directive give flexibility to member states to exempt or apply a reduced rate of VAT on electricity, natural gas, coal and solid fuel used in households. The Government must act to ensure all households can address the unexpected and extraordinary surge in the cost of fuel this winter. I hope the Taoiseach will have something positive to say about that.
In the minute and a half I have left, I wish to deal with the issue of Poland and the rule of law. The Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has asserted that the Polish Constitution supersedes EU law, even where it is clear the matters in question are an EU competence in accordance with the EU treaties. This is a fundamental test for Europe. If the European legal framework is undermined and compromised, then there is no EU. The debate at the Council on this matter was described as taking place in "a serene atmosphere", whatever that means. It is noteworthy the Polish Prime Minister met with Marine Le Pen, one of Europe's loudest eurosceptics. In my view, the Polish Government is perfectly entitled to reject the fundamental rights and structures of the European Union and campaign to leave the EU if that is its choice, but it cannot be allowed to dismantle those rights and structures from the inside. It is simply not an issue that can be allowed to drift.
As the Taoiseach stated, it was probably the final Council meeting with Angela Merkel, who has been a giant figure on the European landscape. I wish her well, but I look forward to Olaf Scholz replacing her and having a different perspective on European matters into the future. I join the Taoiseach in wishing Stefan Löfven, my Swedish Labour colleague who is a good friend of Ireland, as the Taoiseach stated, well in whatever lies ahead for him.
I thank the Taoiseach for, as ever, a fulsome report on a lengthy meeting of the European Council that covered a range of topics. I will address just some of those topics as it is simply impossible to address them all in the time allotted.
Like Deputies Howlin and Brady, I refer to the situation in Poland and the continuing crisis in the context of the rule of law. During statements prior to the European Council meeting, I commended the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, on his very strong comments on the margins of the General Affairs Council, where he rightly criticised the current actions of the Polish Government to undermine the rule of law in Poland and threaten the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the whole premise of European law throughout the Continent. I stand by those comments and I reissue the challenge to both the Minister and the Taoiseach that this cannot be allowed to slide. To be frank, following the Council meeting I was quite disappointed in the decision taken by the leaders, which was a little too pedestrian in the context of dealing with the Polish Government.
As Deputy Howlin rightly stated, the comments by the Polish Prime Minister on the floor of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and the decision for him to meet with Marine Le Pen, the leader of authoritarian right-wing fascism in Europe at the moment, were a direct snub to all the other leaders across the European Union and, quite frankly, a snub to the tens of thousands of Polish people who in recent weeks have taken to the streets to reaffirm their continuing commitment not just to Poland's membership of the European Union but also to its requirement to abide by the rules of the European Union for which all present are so grateful. We only have to look to the country that has just left the EU or to other countries in the European neighbourhood to realise how much better they would have it if they were within the European Union. It is a really risky game of domestic political populism that is under way in Poland and we raise it in this Chamber because it is our duty to do so in the context of discussing European Council matters and as European citizens.
It is also a telling lesson to every single one of us in this Chamber about how the tolerance of latent casual Euroscepticism can grow and manifest into something much more worrying, as we are seeing across central and, indeed, parts of eastern Europe at the moment, most pronouncedly in Poland and Hungary. I repeat my challenge to the Minister of State to take this up at the next meeting of the General Affairs Council and essentially, to keep up the good work. I ask him not to let it slide and be pushed on because it is an uncomfortable conversation to have. It is vitally important not just to the millions of people in Poland, but to the millions of European citizens in this jurisdiction, too.
One of the key areas that I also raised prior to the European Council meeting concerned trade policy, to which the Taoiseach referred in his report, and which got an element of coverage. It is vital that we remind ourselves of the importance of European trade deals to us, and our requirement to engage proactively. I am referring specifically to CETA and the fact that it needs to become before this House for ratification. I urge the Government to bring it forward in a swift manner to allow us to have a fulsome debate in this Chamber, as we have already done in the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs, and crucially, for this House to pass the agreement as quickly as possible.
A second ongoing trade agreement, namely, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, continues to present a number of difficulties, not just for this jurisdiction but for all EU member states. It is really dispiriting to look on at British domestic politics at the moment, all the various things that are going on, and the outworkings of the terrible decision that was Brexit. That can be seen in the fact that raw sewage is being pumped into waterways, carcasses are now being exported to the EU because there are not enough butchers in abattoirs to process them, there are not enough HGV drivers, forecourts have run dry, and a multitude of negative impacts of Brexit are felt daily. Crucially, in light of the responsibilities that the British Government has to EU member states, and particularly, to this member state, through the TCA and indeed, the withdrawal agreement, it is vitally important that this Government works with European partners to hold the British Government to account to ensure that it fulfils its obligations to those agreements and that the EU is not taken for a ride. We are seeing it constantly. We are seeing the bad faith on display in the British media, newspapers and parliament, in the margins. We cannot allow for the EU to continue to be the punchbag for a British Government, that, whenever it has difficulty domestically, will pick a row with the French, will give out about the protocol or will find one of many reasons to relive the debate that happened in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum.
One of the key issues that was addressed at the European Council meeting was that of vaccine hesitancy. On our own front, we have all talked widely about the pride we have in the vaccine take-up numbers in this jurisdiction, particularly in comparison with eastern European states, and how it has ensured we are weathering the pandemic in a much better place than we would have been previously. However, it is remarkable that in the last five days alone, 95,000 first-dose vaccines have been administered in this jurisdiction. That just shows that we can never be finished with dealing with vaccine hesitancy in this jurisdiction and across the EU. We are dealing with the battle against Covid-19 and many other illnesses and viruses. It is something twofold that is going to require a continued level of work in the EU. Is there going to be European-wide agreement in relation to booster shots? We have seen changes in this jurisdiction. We have already seen the UK go much further on booster shots. We must look at the role that vaccine passports will play in terms of accessing services and hospitality and in ensuring that society can continue to move along and we can continue to live with Covid and not regress to bringing in more restrictions. If it is feasible, I ask the Minister of State, in his reply, to outline the extent to which that ongoing co-ordination is happening. We know that health is not a European competence, but EU member states can co-operate with one another, as we are seeing at the moment in north-eastern Europe, where a number of member states have come together to provide ventilators and PPE for European member states that are struggling. We have seen doctors and nurses move across jurisdictions to target Covid infection black spots. When we work together as a union, it makes it a lot easier for people to deal with the real impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I am aware that most Members have already referred to the last area that I want to mention briefly, and indeed, there is wider and much more detailed discussion on it. I know that my Government colleague, Deputy Leddin, will be referring to it. It concerns the ongoing energy price crisis, and the wider debate on the climate emergency. I welcome the comments made by the Taoiseach yesterday at COP26, and the fact that he reaffirmed them in this Chamber today. However, it is an area in which, as a small island nation, our ability to co-operate with 26 other member states in dealing with the greatest challenge that the planet has ever faced, in terms of the climate emergency, is so vitally important. We must focus on where European institutions can lead and where Ireland can lead within the EU. If the EU tackles the issue, it will provide a lesson to countries around the world.
I am going to reiterate some of the points I made to the Taoiseach earlier about the reality of what is happening around our coast today. I will put it back on the record. The Irish fishing fleet is allocated 15% of the quota in fish in our own waters under the Common Fisheries Policy. The other 85% is allocated to the fishing fleets of other EU member states. This is under the relative stability principle, a principle that dates back to the 1970s, when Ireland joined the EU as it is today.
What does this mean? It means that we are not getting fair share of the fish in our own waters. We talk about climate change. I am talking about the fish that are closest to our piers and harbours. Because we are not getting that fair share, we are losing thousands of jobs in coastal communities and hundreds of millions of euro each year. That is a conservative estimate. It is having a devastating impact on coastal communities.
Since 2006, the number of boats in the Irish fleet that are over 15 m in length has been reduced by a third. If the Irish Government gets its way, another 60 vessels will be decommissioned, as per the recommendation in the report of the seafood sector task force. It is a fait accomplibecause the outcome of the Brexit trade negotiations and the agreement is that we lose more of our quota, if you would believe that. We get 15% of the fish in our own waters, or 15% of our own pie and immense natural resource. We are the only island state, island nation, in the EU today and that is where we are in terms of an allocation. It is an absolute disaster. The Taoiseach said that I was sloganeering earlier, so I will present some facts that can be put on the record again. In the north-east Atlantic waters, of which 29% belong to Ireland, we get 7.6% of the quota of monkfish, 5.3% of the hake and 5.3% of the haddock. Let us look at France. France owns less of those waters than Ireland, with 23%. It gets 59% of the quota of monkfish, 45% of hake and 67% of haddock. For Christ's sake, we are the laughing stock of Europe. We have the richest fishing grounds in all of Europe. We are an island nation with an immense resource and we have just given it away. Why are we not screaming outside the Berlaymont about this? Why are we not demanding justice for our coastal communities?
I am beyond appealing at this stage. I beg the Government to get a plan together, go to Europe and fight for our fair share. I ask the Government not to make me come here again before and after the next meeting of the EU Council and make the same speech. I ask for some words of reassurance today.
I thank the Taoiseach for a comprehensive presentation. I will start by focusing on the parts on which we find agreement. The Taoiseach's statements, both today and in the past week, in relation to Europe and the Polish challenge to the primacy of EU law were strong and effective.
I do not think we can equivocate in this belief. There seems to be a change of tone from Ursula von der Leyen, who seems to be somewhat equivocating and trying to find a compromise with people who are not being fair players on the rights of the LGBTQI+ community in Poland and the rights of women. I want to make it very clear that there can be no appeasement of people who seem unwilling to find common ground on values. I do not think we can compromise on other people's human rights. I strongly endorse the position taken by the Irish Government in advocating for conditionality of funding where necessary, particularly with regard to Poland's treatment of minority communities within its borders. It is absolutely essential and we should not equivocate. I do not feel we are doing so.
The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will speak about migration in his comments but I will quickly touch on it before he does so. EU funding simply cannot be used for barbed wire, fencing or any structure of this type that seeks to pen people in or make Europe a fortress. This rhetoric has come into the conversation from countries that are admittedly under pressure. People such as Lukashenko and governments such as the Turkish Government seem to be making pawns out of people trying to flee war and conflict. It should never be the case that EU funding is used for fencing, borders or to make Europe a fortress. It is anathema to the values on which the European Union was founded. We all have a role to play. We all have our fair share to do in terms of providing sanctuary where needed for people fleeing conflict and trying to find safety. I accept this. EU funding should never be used to fund borders and fencing.
The issue of rising energy costs has been mentioned substantially throughout the Chamber. It is one on which we will find common ground on our sentiments but differ on approach. There are geopolitical aspects to this. Energy costs have increased substantially and we have been encouraged by the Commission to find our own solutions. Tax breaks are also being advocated. I cannot step away from the fact that until June we had a moratorium in this country on disconnections. This moratorium was taken away during a period when the weather was hot. Now the weather is cold. We are being promised there will not be blackouts on a mass scale. This is the same in Ireland as it is in various parts of the European Union. This does not take from the fact that there is genuine fear in homes the length and breadth of the country that people will have their energy cut off due to an inability to pay.
Energy poverty was referenced in the Taoiseach's speech and it is welcome to see. What has not been referenced too much, not only in the Taoiseach's speech but also in conversations throughout Europe, is the extent to which energy poverty is a symptom of general poverty experienced by people in the European Union and Ireland today. Poverty is one of the greatest threats to the Union at present. A total of 22% of people in the European Union are living at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This will manifest itself in an inability to keep their homes or wear warm clothing. We need to tackle this on a macro scale. When I think of poverty I think of places in Britain that voted for Brexit such as Holyhead and Anglesey that are totally dependent on trade, and places such as Sunderland that had huge communities built on building and exporting products. Because they did not feel the warm hand of progress and felt poverty and experienced all that goes with it, they voted to leave. There are 112 million people in the EU who experience not only energy poverty but all of the other sources of poverty that go with it. Ireland should be a leader in advocating on behalf of these people and bringing poverty to the fore of our conversations.
The rise in cases of coronavirus throughout the EU is a source of concern. We are speaking about approaching this from a position of unity, and why would we not within the European Union? Let us be very clear. While the pandemic is surging and there is an inequality of access to vaccination throughout the world, we are all at risk. We cannot have a scenario where we are focused on vaccine boosters in the European Union and Ireland. It is a welcome conversation but to have it at the same time as people throughout the developing world have not had any vaccine brings a lie to it. Unless we are advocating for a TRIPS waiver on patents that can create an equity of vaccinations, we are all going to be at risk. We need to be advocating strongly for a TRIPS waiver. It will not be a panacea and we will need to provide access to technology and fridges in the globalised south. We need to create a lot more urgency with regard to vaccine justice. Otherwise we will all continue to be at risk.
I am conscious of the fact the G20 summit has taken place following the October European Council meeting and in advance of the COP26 climate conference, which is under way in Glasgow. It is fair to say the outcome of the G20 meeting was a disappointment as far as climate change is concerned. These economies account for 80% of global emissions. While they agreed to deploy meaningful and effective action to limit global warming, they failed to agree on clear pathways as to how to proceed and few concrete commitments were given. The UN Secretary General said his hopes for this G20 summit were unfulfilled.
The G20 countries agreed to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C by taking action this decade but China and Russia, for example, do not want to reach net zero emissions until 2060. In addition, it is clear that countries such as Australia, China, India and Russia are still very reluctant to cease coal production. In contrast, the EU arrived at COP26 with very clear aims following the European Council meeting on 22 October. The Council called for an ambitious global response to climate change. It stated the 1.5°C global warming limit must be reached. It reiterated the need for effective national targets and policies. It outlined again the need to reach zero emissions by 2050. It called for the collective climate finance goal of $100 million per year up to 2025. These are goals to which we should all subscribe. I am proud to be part of an EU that is to the forefront in the global endeavours to tackle climate change.
I welcome the commitments given by the Taoiseach in his address to the COP26 summit yesterday. He agreed to more than double climate finance to poor countries by 2025 to tackle climate change as part of our overseas development aid programme. He also said Ireland will sign up to the global pledge to cut methane gas emissions by 30% by 2030 and to the pledge to protect global forests and prevent deforestation.
I regret that China only engaged with the conference by sending a written statement. China is a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions and it did not make any new commitments to address climate change. For example, no commitments were given to cap energy consumption or to reduce China's use of coal earlier than 2026. I also regret that the Russian President did not turn up in person at the conference. Let us hope for all our sakes that action and implementation will follow the deliberations of the COP26 conference.
I understand our climate action plan will be published tomorrow. No doubt it will be criticised by the various sectors and interest groups but we have no choice but to implement it. The time for further consultation is over and we must now firmly commit to implementing this plan without delay.
As regards migration, the European Council stated it will not accept any attempt by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes. This is a clear reference to the actions of Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Migrants from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Yemen are being pushed into EU states through Belarus. This, of course, is in response to the EU sanctions imposed on Belarus following the hijacking of a Ryanair plane. These actions by Belarus are reprehensible and the EU is right to call out this hybrid threat and take all appropriate measures to deal with it. Desperate refugees are being weaponised. As a result, men, women and children are dying at these borders.
The EU Council meeting also considered the rise in energy prices, including wholesale gas prices, which is now having a serious impact on households and SMEs through increased energy bills. Rising inflation and increases in the cost of living are now real issues in all member states, including Ireland.
As usual, at EU Council meetings, it was very difficult to get agreement from all member states on how to tackle this problem. Arguments about what constitutes renewable energy, how gas should be classified and even the role of nuclear power, were the order of the day.
Some states wanted the EU to be more proactive and to act collectively through the common purchase of gas and the creation of a strategic gas reserve. They also wanted to prohibit speculation in the carbon market, which drives prices up. However, a toolbox, no less, is in place which member states can consult.
The Irish approach to this issue was the correct one for various reasons. This is to use the tax and social welfare systems to counter rising costs of living and, of course, significant measures in this context were announced in budget 2022 with particular reference to changes in the eligibility criteria for the fuel allowance.
I note that the Taoiseach took a strong line at the summit as regards Poland. This was the subject of much debate in this House during the discussion on pre-EU Council statements. Issues such as the independence of the judiciary and the challenge to the supremacy of EU law were considered during that debate. I see that the European Court of Justice has since agreed to a proposal from the European Commission to fine Poland €1 million a day until it suspends a supreme court chamber for disciplining judges. I also note what the Taoiseach said in his contribution on the conditionality of the funds going to Poland and to other member states, particularly in the context of Covid-19 recovery. We await the court judgement on that. The Taoiseach is also reported to have stated that Poland has gone too far. According to all reports Ireland took the lead on this issue. This is as it should be and I wholeheartedly welcome this stance.
I also mention the recent decision by the Israeli Defence Minister to declare six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organisations. These well-established human rights NGOs are working in the occupied Palestinian territory. Some of these organisations receive support from Irish Aid and from the EU. This decision should be condemned and reversed.
Finally, I also note that a group of European foreign ministers, including our own Minister, have jointly called on Israel to reverse its plans to expand the settlements in the West Bank. This is a positive development and is also to be welcomed. Hopefully, these European foreign ministers can persuade the remainder of the EU foreign ministers to adopt a similar approach because the EU has a major role play in the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.
I support the contribution of my Sinn Féin colleague, Deputy Mac Lochlainn, on the fishing industry and the treatment of our fishing families. It is absolutely scandalous. As he said, we are the laughing stock of the EU. Fishing communities all around this country are being destroyed. Fishing communities in my own county of Mayo are being decimated and the Government is standing by and watching this happen. It has to stop.
Yesterday, an electricity provider announced its fifth price increase of the year. Every household in the State has seen its electricity bill rise substantially. We must use every means possible to make electricity affordable and that includes lowering the VAT rates, as has been submitted by my party colleague and president, Deputy McDonald. Some of the escalating costs are caused by factors beyond our immediate control such as the global price of gas going up. Yesterday, BP posted quarterly profits of €3.3 billion. That is as opposed to €86 million last year. There are many people making a great deal of money on the backs of people who are really suffering from fuel poverty.
The real issue here is how the electricity markets operate. Under the current system the wholesale electricity price is set on a daily basis by the last power plant needed to meet the overall demand for power. The gas plants often set the prices in this system. This is unfair as it results in a cheap renewable energy being sold for the same price as the skyrocketing fossil fuel based-power. Our system is a model that has been pushed by the EU on member states for the past couple of decades. Sinn Féin has long opposed the liberalisation of the electricity market and, indeed, the proposition that it was a silver bullet to both promote renewable energy and deliver affordable electricity prices. It has failed on both counts. We have all this precisely because it prioritises the transition to renewable energy based on private market ownership and it removed the ability of the State to provide stable electricity prices to consumers. Now, with the price of gas skyrocketing, we are being hit by extortionate electricity prices.
Spain has led calls for a revamp of the wholesale power market in response to the price spike. Instead of engaging with the concerns of the Spanish, other member states and citizens here, the Government has joined with the minority to block any debate at the European Council. Why is this? Should we not thoroughly examine every option to make electricity affordable for hard-pressed households and families? Ahead of an emergency meeting of the energy ministers to discuss the recent price spike, Ireland and eight other member states released a joint statement that they would not support reform of the electricity markets, ending any discussion on reform that might help people through this winter. This is based on a dogmatic belief in market liberalisation and the idea that we should not interfere with the functioning of the market even if there is manipulation of supply. We need state-led transition, however, to green energy, not significant incentives to private energy providers to deliver renewable energy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated at least the temporary changing of state aid and fiscal rules and we need to look at something like this in respect of escalating electricity prices.
I will focus my remarks on COP26 and the coup in Sudan.
The Taoiseach’s doublespeak on methane is precisely the kind of blah, blah, blah, that Greta Thunberg was warning about. Yesterday he signed up to a global target of 30% reductions in methane by 2030, the absolute minimum necessary, and today he says that Ireland will not even try to meet that target, by setting a 10% target instead. The Taoiseach and the Government, it seems, are fully committed to other states tackling climate change. Fair play. I wonder do the Taoiseach and his Ministers adopt a similar approach to new year’s resolutions pledging that his neighbours will take up jogging, his barber will quit smoking, and that his friends will reduce the amount they drink. Ireland talking about climate change but refusing to tackle methane is like Saudi Arabia signing up to the global targets but saying that it will not do anything in respect of oil production. It is useless spin: blah, blah, blah. To tackle climate change in this country, we need to stand up to the beef barons, to the Larry Goodmans of this world and to big agribusiness. We need to take them into public ownership so that we can plan the nature of our agriculture and incentivise a shift by small farmers, with an increase in their income, to sustainable farming, in order to pay them for carbon sequestration and ecosystem services. This is to guarantee everybody a decent quality of living.
I also want to take up the question of capitalism. Interestingly, it was a focal point of the Taoiseach’s remarks earlier today on COP26. During Leaders’ Questions he went as far as to say that in his opinion Ireland is not a capitalist state. This is reminiscent, perhaps, of the time he said that we did not bail out any banks. I am not sure what else that is if it is not capitalism.
This is interesting, however, because it reflects a growing fear on the part of the establishment that workers and young people looking at the crisis of climate and the catastrophe that we are heading into are open to the conclusion that the system change we need is a change from the capitalist system. That is not just about activists on the ground. For example, the newly leaked second draft report from the IPCC states that we must "move away from the current capitalist model to avoid surpassing planetary boundaries and to avoid climate and ecological catastrophe".
That organisation understands that a system of production for profit is incompatible with doing what we need to do to avoid climate catastrophe. This is because capitalism treats nature as a free gift to be exploited, just as it exploits labour. It treats damage to the environment as an externality of which it does not have to take account. It is incapable of co-ordination because it is based on competition. Bluntly, the big oil and gas companies that are at the centre of capitalism have approximately €5 trillion to lose if we leave the oil and gas in the ground, as we certainly need to do. This is precisely why we need a socialist transformation and a planned economy for a rapid and just transition.
I want to speak briefly about the brutal coup in Sudan, which was carried out by Lieutenant-General Al-Burhan. On day one of the coup, seven peaceful protestors were killed, with three more killed the following day and ten in the four days that followed. I am sure the number has increased since then. The people of Sudan, who made the revolution, are facing the remains of the old regime, various warlords and regional and some international supporters whose interests are in controlling Sudan's resources through their local agents. I agree with the view expressed by the trade union committee of the Sudan Doctors Union in the UK, as follows:
The coup leaders cannot turn back the hands of the clock, as the Sudanese people have declared "no way back". Our people are capable of achieving what they want despite the attempts of the tyrants to kill our dreams of freedom, peace and justice... We call on the masses to declare complete civil disobedience and take to the streets to oppose this coup. Our trade union committee will resist the coup by any means possible and will mobilize solidarity...for a total general strike.
We need a clear statement from Ireland unreservedly condemning the military coup and a similar statement from the EU. We must express our solidarity with those who were on the streets in Dublin and around the world on Saturday mobilising against this coup.
I welcome this important debate. One of the key points of the debate in Europe concerned the question of energy. Many speakers today have addressed the issue of rising prices, how they can be controlled and what more we can do in this regard. I take a totally contrary position to Deputy Paul Murphy in regard to how we produce electricity in this country and how we should react to the huge increase in prices, for which the monolith called the ESB is partly to blame. It is time the ESB was broken up because its dominant position in the market is actively working against the interests of consumers and the industry. It is time for it to be stripped of its ownership of our electricity grid, comprising the network of overhead lines and underground cables supplying power to homes and businesses, and to allow new competition into the market. New firms with new ideas must be allowed to build new power stations, which will force the ESB companies to cut their costs and result in lower bills for all of us.
I am not the first person to make this case; it was made by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, previously known as the Competition Authority, as far back as 2006. It is time to look again at what we can do to make sure energy prices are lowered. The initiatives taken by the Government to increase the fuel allowance and living alone allowance are very welcome for hard-pressed families. It was a former Fianna Fáil Minister, Noel Dempsey, who proposed a restructuring of the ESB some time ago and it is time for us to look at that proposal again. The current situation must not be allowed to continue. Regulatory reform is one thing and regulatory capture is another. I believe the ESB has captured the system and is controlling it. We must, at the very least, request that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission look again at its previous report and produce a new analysis of how we can reduce costs in Ireland by breaking up the ESB, making it cheaper for companies to compete with it and addressing the reality of that body as a totally vertically controlled entity.
Another issue that is important to address, which is relevant in an EU context, is the fact that in this country, 1,300 people die every year as a result of very poor air quality, often through the use of fuels that have a very high content of sulphur and carcinogenic substances. If we really believe in addressing climate change, we should believe in controlling the fuel that is used in people's homes to ensure it is safe. One of the problems is that we have coal coming in from outside the State and being sold on the streets and delivered to homes all over the country for approximately €360 a tonne. The people selling this coal are avoiding paying any carbon tax on it and it is also seriously challenging the health of the people who use it. The evidence I have seen in this regard will have to be properly, appropriately and independently examined, but the fact is that we are allowing Revenue to do nothing about this coal, perhaps because it does not have the powers to do otherwise. There is a €40 million cost to the taxpayer arising out of the sale of this illegal coal, which in many cases is bituminous and of indeterminate quality.
If we are serious about ensuring there is vigorous management of all the people who break the law in this area, as we have pledged to do from next year, then we must tackle this issue. I recently asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the number of prosecutions issued for breaching the smoky coal ban from 2015 to date. The figures are as follows: there were two prosecutions in 2015 and 2016; none in 2017; one in 2018 and 2019; and I am waiting for the number for 2020. There is something seriously amiss in our management of the health of our people in this area, which relates to climate change. We are affecting their health by not acting effectively to prevent this bituminous coal from being sold illegally in our country. To be clear, the product is legal in that it can cross borders as part of the free transport of goods, but there is no tax being paid on it. We must challenge the health aspect of that. Local authorities, which have the power to act in this matter, have failed in their duty of care. It is an absolute joke that there have been six prosecutions since 2015. It is time to get our act together and look to how our future health and climate change strategies can be made to work. I am not blaming the users of coal; I am blaming the abusers of the system and the people who are, illegally and without challenge, importing it and avoiding tax. It is something like the bootleg liquor in the 1920s. In this case, we have bootleg coal, to use a simile that may or may not find favour with people.
I welcome the continuing commitment of the European Union and all its institutions to protecting Ireland and supporting, and insisting on the implementation of, the Northern Ireland protocol. I am extremely worried, however, about the way things are going. I have no faith whatsoever in Prime Minister Johnson. He and Mr. Frost put their names to a consensus between Europe and our country, only to go on to frustrate the process. I regret very much that, in my view, they are going to break that consensus, which will plunge this country, North and South, into a very difficult position. We are relying absolutely on our European partners to support us in this.
I welcome the influence Ireland has, as exerted by the Minister of State and his Department, within the EU. We must continue to be extremely active in articulating that the relationships between the people on our islands, North and South and east and west, are being badly affected by what is happening. It is not acceptable and we must make sure we put all our efforts, as I know the Minister of State and his Department are, into our relationship with Europe. We are Europeans first and last. Britain can go its own way but what it is doing has significant and adverse implications for our society, North and South, and our political and economic systems. The only people who gain are the English nationalists who live far away from Belfast and Dublin.
I welcome this debate. I reiterate the need for us to put our house in order.
We must tackle the conglomerates and the ESB and, opposite to what was said by Deputy Paul Murphy, introduce choice, private enterprise and private investment so cheaper energy is produced for us to consume. We should break up the monolith and, as I said, ask the consumer protection body to investigate again and to report as quickly as possible on the monopoly position and the abuse by that monopoly company of our energy.
The right to freedom of expression and the freedom of the media are protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is considered one of the pillars of democratic society and security in Europe, yet when it comes to the persecution of journalist Julian Assange our Government's and the European Council's silence is deafening. He is still incarcerated in Belmarsh prison. He has been incarcerated for years and we know he is in very ill health. It is generally accepted that if he is extradited to the United States he could face up to 170 years in prison. The National Union of Journalists, NUJ, has made its concerns very clear about this. It states:
If this extradition is allowed, it will send a clear signal that journalists and publishers are at risk whenever their work discomforts the United States government. Media freedom the world over will take a significant backward step if Julian Assange is forced to face these charges at the behest of a US president.
We are told he will be treated humanely if he is extradited, but as his barrister, Edward Fitzgerald, recently reminded us, revelations have shown that the CIA had made serious plans to kidnap and even assassinate him. I ask the Minister of State to take the next opportunity he has to raise this at European Council level. The European Council should speak out strongly on this.
For those who do not know much about Julian Assange, his crime is that he exposed war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have raised this matter in the House several times previously and I have raised the use of Shannon Airport for wars in the Middle East and the damage that has done. Why not begin undoing that damage by speaking up for this man and by giving protection to whistleblowers?
The recent allegations against six civil society advocacy organisations in Palestine are a result of apartheid Israel's failure to challenge the work of the organisations on the basis of law and evidence. Apartheid Israel has now resorted to systematic harassment of the six organisations. I am aware of the solid and important work one of the six organisations, Al-Haq, does. This is an ongoing process by Israel which aims to dismantle all community structures that highlight the nature of apartheid Israel. We must stand with the six organisations. If organisations are going to be treated like this, young people will be driven into armed resistance. That is the reality, and who could blame them?
Ireland's position on the UN Security Council is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. It has made no difference to the Palestinian community. We get loads of words from this Government, but no action. There must be action. The Government must act and tell apartheid Israel that what it is doing is unacceptable. In view of apartheid Israel's actions, we must recognise the state of Palestine and also pass Senator Black's Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018.
I acknowledge the Taoiseach's opening remarks. I am grateful for the update on the Council meeting two weeks ago. I have four points to make with regard to the debrief and the Council meeting. The first relates to the rule of law. I share the concerns voiced by a number of Deputies about what is happening in Poland and Hungary at present. The rule of law, fundamental freedoms and democracy are central tenets of the European Union and, from our point of view, they should be non-negotiable red lines. I agree with President von der Leyen that what is happening in those two countries is a direct threat to the legal order in the European Union and, by extension, to the existence of the European Union.
I am a little disappointed that more stringent action was not taken against Poland and Hungary. I appreciate the political nuances that are at play, but if the Polish constitutional court has a problem with the compatibility of European Union legislation it is up to Poland to amend its constitution accordingly, just as Ireland did numerous times over the last 50 years. That is the direction in which we should go. We should apply all the levers that are available, judicially, diplomatically, politically and economically, to apply pressure to those two countries. There are conditions associated with EU funds and while I know we should not use that as a first resort, it certainly should be used as a last resort. It is something that should be considered at the next EU Council meeting before Christmas, if it comes to that.
The second point I wish to raise is energy prices, which has been mentioned often today. There is a massive spike in energy prices. We can see it at the petrol pumps. It is going to drive more people into fuel poverty. Also, and almost as important, it is going to undermine the key message with regard to the transition to renewable energy. People will blame the transition to renewable energy as the reason for the price spike. Yes, it is a factor, but it is not the dominant factor by any means. I agree with the European Union's approach that short, medium and long-term measures should be put in place and I welcome the fact that the European Investment Bank will be mobilised for the medium-term to long-term solutions.
However, I wish to dwell a little on the short-term solutions. I appreciate that the Government introduced amendments to the fuel allowance in respect of both its size and longevity, but there a few other measures mentioned in the EU tool kit that I am not convinced we have fully explored or exploited. The first is deferred payments, and perhaps the Minister of State will comment on this in his closing remarks. Have we explored with the energy companies the possibility of people deferring their payments until later in the winter once the spike is over? Are there any safeguards introduced to prevent people having their electricity supply cut off? That is another measure that could be explored fully. Have we the safeguards to ensure there is no cartel-like behaviour or any speculation taking place to drive up the prices? The energy companies are very lucrative and profitable and the question many people are asking is: should the energy companies not be absorbing these losses? They are far more capable of absorbing spikes such as this than the average consumer in Ireland. Perhaps it is something we should explore.
Another key point was mentioned in Brussels. We know the national grid is particularly vulnerable at present. From a cyber point of view, we know how vulnerable we are after the attack on the HSE. Has the National Cyber Security Centre carried out an audit of the national grid? Are we convinced and assured that we have the necessary safeguards in place and that we are not vulnerable to a cyber attack on the national grid?
The third point I wish to raise is forced migration. Obviously, this is a major issue on the Belarusian border at present. I agree with the characterisation of what is happening there with refugees as the "instrumentalisation" of refugees. "Instrumentalisation" just means exploitation or further exploitation. What is happening there is a disgrace and the EU is right to call it out for what it is - a hybrid attack on Lithuania and other EU countries by the Belarusian regime. As a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, I will highlight the case of one political prisoner in Belarus, Artsiom Bayarski. He is a student and his only alleged crime was to use his freedom of speech, which he is entitled to do. His show trial is coming up in the next few weeks. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has been publicising other political prisoners as well. I wish to send my solidarity and to emphasise the fact that Ireland, through the European Union, should be absolute in putting maximum pressure on the Belarusian regime to prevent these trials and to ensure the immediate release of the prisoners. Sanctions is the appropriate way. The European Union has agreed to the principle of increased sanctions on Belarus, but I would prefer if the sanctions were actually implemented. There should have been a pallet of sanctions available to the leaders of the countries two weeks ago, rather than waiting for December. Hopefully, that is something we can work on before Christmas.
The last point I wish to raise relates to the pandemic. It is good that Ireland is top of the class for vaccination, at 93%. We should never try to meet the standard, but always try to be the standard. We are, for a change, at the top of the list. That is exactly how it should be. More work needs to be done to tackle misinformation about the vaccine. That will improve the vaccine hesitancy in this country and beyond. Also, although we have done some work on this already, we must do more on the roll-out of vaccines across the world, particularly for resource-poor countries. Finally, I agree with the principle of an international treaty on pandemics under the governance of the WHO. That is a good way to go. Obviously, we have to see the details of it, but the principle is sound.
In summary, I am grateful for the update on the meeting two weeks ago. What I wish to see in the last Council meeting between now and Christmas is more sanctions imposed on the Belarus authorities in respect of political prisoners and the hybrid attacks that are taking place on EU countries and more pressure brought to bear on Poland and Hungary to regularise their rule of law issues.
The conclusions from the last European Council meeting restated Europe's unambiguous approach that it is essential to keep the 1.5°C global warming limit within reach. I take this opportunity to congratulate An Taoiseach on his speech to the Conference of the Parties in Glasgow yesterday. It was an eloquent statement of Ireland's and Europe's commitment. The praise An Taoiseach's speech received, both here in Ireland and internationally, was well deserved.
The European Council highlighted the importance of climate financing for developing countries to help them respond to the challenge of climate change. We absolutely need to hit that $100 billion target. We committed to $100 billion and we must reach it because trust is so low from developing countries that rich countries are really prepared to stand by their promises. We must rebuild that trust. The Taoiseach's announcement that we will more than double Ireland's contribution to climate financing, to reach €225 million by 2025, is very welcome in that regard. We have a good reputation when it comes to financing and aid compared with other countries. It is a profound statement of our own identity as a country, especially in this decade of centenaries, that we help countries that are least responsible for climate change but which, unfortunately, will have to deal with its worst effects.
We are not only in a climate emergency; we are also in a biodiversity emergency. The European Council took note of the preparations for the COP15 meeting on biodiversity in Kunming in China. This is particularly relevant given the upcoming Common Agricultural Policy strategic plan for Ireland. Yesterday, I chaired a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Climate Action where we heard from farmers and advisers who are working on programmes to enhance the capacity of their farms to support wildlife and biodiversity. Projects like the biodiversity regeneration in a dairying environment, BRIDE, project in Cork and the Burren programme in Clare are showing how farmers can take the lead on biodiversity because they are the people who best know the habitats on their land. They told us that the current systems in Ireland do not reward farmers enough for increasing biodiversity on their farms. They also said that Ireland is a European leader in the design of results-based environmental schemes and we have the know-how to make a big difference on biodiversity.
On 15 December, the eastern partnership summit will take place with the now five post-Soviet states to the east of the EU. I am deeply concerned about the situation with political prisoners in Belarus. I am aware Belarus was suspended from the eastern partnership in June, but I was gratified to see strong language from the European Council calling for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus. Of course, we in Ireland have our own special link with the opposition in Belarus and we must not forget the plight of people there as democratic rights are continually eroded.
I want to address the energy crisis, which was discussed at European Council. European countries have been encouraged to use short-term measures to alleviate the effect of rising gas prices across Europe on households. It frustrates me that we are actually using short-term measures to do this but those measures are being opposed. I am talking about the carbon tax, where we specifically targeted increased social welfare payments on the cohorts most at risk of energy poverty. Yet in the media and in this Chamber, I hear the carbon tax increase being condemned by the Opposition. Let me be clear: households on lower incomes are better off because of the carbon tax increase. Those parties calling for the carbon tax increase to be reversed are in effect calling for energy poverty to be increased.
Taxation is a good thing because it gives us revenue to redistribute. We are increasing carbon tax in a progressive way. We did it last year, we will do it this year, and we will continue to do it for the lifetime of this Government.
Of course, the European Council also noted that ultimately we need to accelerate the energy transition so that Europe is not at the whim of third countries for its energy supply. We talk about Ireland's opportunity with offshore wind, but when we look at the potential of offshore wind on the Atlantic coast, it is as much a European opportunity as an Irish opportunity. We have so much more generation potential than other European countries, and with the development of a pan-European supergrid, we can help to power the Continent and create jobs on the western seaboard in counties like my own, Limerick, as well as in Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal.
Digitalisation is a key focus for the European Council and we may need to focus more on it at home. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, was in Limerick yesterday to meet organisations and businesses. As one of the Ministers responsible for digitalisation and e-government, he is committed to making Government services more accessible and efficient. One of the success stories, despite the recent delays in application processing, has been the online passport application system, which was developed by ActionPoint, a company in my constituency. E-government can deliver significant savings to the Exchequer and can make citizens' interactions with Government easier and quicker.
In the private sector, the Council has focused on data portability. Allowing citizens and companies to move their data between platforms decreases lock-in to proprietary platforms and increases competition. As we have seen from the activities of social media firms, there are competition concerns if a few companies become dominant in their sectors. We are right to pursue a regulatory regime that encourages competition, privacy and interoperability.
The HSE cyber hack in Ireland reminded us of the importance of digital systems resilient to attack and the large human and economic damage that can be caused by criminals. Part of our strategy to improve cybersecurity must be led at a European level. Co-operation between countries in Europe will help us maintain resilience and the safety of our systems in particular against cyberattacks.
I conclude by returning to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Ireland and Europe need to lead on global ambition on climate. As the Taoiseach said yesterday:
Those of us in the developed world - those who have, frankly, contributed most to the problems that confront us all - have an obligation to support those who are most acutely challenged by their consequences. Ireland accepts that obligation.
I repeat these words of the Taoiseach and endorse them. The time to act is now.
While at the European Council, I hope the Minister of State took the opportunity to discuss the fishing crisis in this country, which has long been overlooked here by successive Ministers. As I have said before, having a dedicated Minister for the marine appears to be off the agenda. We certainly need a focused new-style leadership for the fishing industry in this country. Our greatest resource is surrounding us and we are handing it away to every European country that wants its quota. There is an opportunity to get a bluefin tuna quota. Every other European country can apply for it and get it. Why can the Irish not get some bluefin tuna quota? What deals has the Government done out there? What nodding and winking is going on out there in Europe to sell the fishermen down the Swanee? All the fishermen know it. The best thing the Government can come up with is decommissioning.
I listened to the Taoiseach's statements at the COP26. This COP26 is farcical. He committed more than €200 million of taxpayers' money without the consent of this State. The people living on the breadline in this country are furious. The Taoiseach is splashing money left, right and centre while the Indians, Chinese, Russians and Australians are falling over laughing. He could have stayed talking from here until eternity if he lived for another 50 years and, in a couple of hours, they would switch it like that regardless of what we do here.
We in this country are suffering. The Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will know about it because the people I meet on the doorsteps are furious. They cannot take any more. The Government has pushed them very close to the edge and they will remind Government Members about throwing more than €200 million so that others can spend our hard-earned money for this codology that is going on out there at present. There are ways and means of achieving climate change, but the Government is certainly going about it the wrong way. The Taoiseach claimed there will be no culling of cattle as far as he is concerned, but there certainly will be.
I went through the report from the Taoiseach on the European Council meeting in detail and I saw nothing on the escalating cost for hauliers in this country. The week before the European Council meeting, I spoke in the Dáil to stress the urgency of the escalating cost of fuel for hauliers. Having met representatives of the hauliers' association, I again ask why the Government has not introduced a proper fuel rebate scheme for diesel as it is the only means for getting our produce to the export market and around Ireland.
Customers can pay only so much and they cannot keep taking price increases. When diesel goes above €1.08 plus VAT, it is no longer feasible to keep Ireland moving. Currently, the rebate scheme only applies up to a maximum of 7.5 cent per litre but today we are looking at prices of more than €1.25 plus VAT per litre. Belgium is paying its hauliers a rebate of 23.6 cent per litre until fuel prices come down again.
The basic cost goes back to every household in the country. We are looking for a proper rebate system. If the hauliers have greater costs in getting our produce to shops, those shops will charge more to get that produce to customers. The Government must address the matter with hauliers and specifically the fuel rebate system. It must be done now. Under European law, we could go to 16 cent per litre now. For every person in a house in Ireland, it would put more money back in their pockets as the hauliers' costs would decrease.
I listened to the Taoiseach and he did not mention anything about fisheries and it looks like he has closed the book on that. It is not acceptable that the fishermen of Ireland can only fish 15% of Irish waters. The Government must do something about that. Ministers must take off their coats and should not take "no" for an answer. This does not only affect trawlermen and fishermen as it affects all coastal communities from Malin Head to Mizen Head. The Government must do something about it.
The Taoiseach indicated there were discussions on increasing energy and gas prices. What will we do about that? As Deputy O'Donoghue said, hauliers can only go so far. Anybody with a wheel is seeing costs increasing every day, so they cannot continue. The country will grind to a halt because hauliers cannot continue in the vein they are in if they do not get assistance through a proper rebate.
What is happening with energy provision and electricity? On the one hand we hear Deputy O'Dowd saying we should take on conglomerates, but at the same time his party is going after people selling coal, perhaps to the people who cannot pay for anything else. He was like the Director of Public Prosecutions saying these people should be prosecuted. Does he want people to be perished in their homes as if they lived in igloos in Iceland? God almighty, the Government must do something about this.
The fertiliser situation is very serious. I asked the Taoiseach what he will do about it to ensure the agricultural community and farmers can continue. If we do not have fertilisers at a reasonable cost, the farmers will grind to a halt as well.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. I am looking at the conclusions of the European Council meeting and there are eight pages, six titles and 29 paragraphs. They are just the conclusions so forgive me if I just focus on one or two of them in my five minutes.
The titles include Covid-19, digital, energy prices, migration, trade and external relations, and that final one will be interesting when I refer to Israel later. The first title is Covid-19. When we talk about uniting to tackle disinformation on vaccines and vaccine hesitancy, the best way to do it is without spin and by treating citizens and residents as equals in the fight against the pandemic. That has not happened in this Chamber.
It has not happened in the Chamber. We have introduced legislation and read the regulations as elected Deputies after the event. We have never had a proactive discussion on it. I challenge any of the Ministers to return to have a proactive and rational debate on how best to ensure we are all in this together and we can all get out of it together.
I can then jump to the back of the document and I see external relations. It is interesting that Israel is not mentioned. When the Taoiseach was being interviewed in Glasgow he said he bumped into the Israeli Prime Minister, which was interesting, and the Israeli Prime Minister was extremely insightful in speaking about Covid-19. I wonder was he extremely insightful on the decision made by Israel just before the Council meeting in designating six human rights organisations as terrorist organisations. Did the bumping into the Israeli Prime Minister allow the Taoiseach to discuss that?
It is interesting to see Israel is not mentioned under the external relations title. As an addition to the document, in a section under three stars, it states that following the Council declaration of 6 December 2018, there was agreement on the fight against antisemitism across policy areas. I fully agree with that. The section welcomes the new EU strategy on "combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life adopted by the Commission". I have absolutely no problem with any of that.
Yes, it is very important. That section is added under three stars, inexplicably, with no context provided as to what the Israeli Government, as distinct from its people, had done just two days before that. On 6 October, it designated six prominent Palestinian human rights organisations as terrorists. I will explain this to the Minister of State if he will listen, although I know it is difficult. It was not raised in the Council, but two days before the meeting, six prominent Palestinian human rights and civil society groups were designated as terrorist organisations under a 2016 Act by the State of Israel.
I know the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, is from yesterday on a four-day visit to the Middle East. He is travelling to Israel but will he raise this matter there? I welcome the fact Ireland is a signatory to a statement issued by 12 countries to ask Israel to reverse the decision to construct 3,000 settlements in the West Bank. It is good and positive. I also welcome the fact the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has expressed his concern about what is happening, particularly the organisations that have quite unacceptably been designated as terrorist organisations. We give Irish aid to these organisations and the Minister has expressed his concern in this regard. We want much more than concern. We want a call on Israel to reverse this decision immediately.
I am told the Minister has said there was no advance information on the designations. I find that difficult to understand but perhaps it is true. Two days before the Council meeting the designations were made but they were not mentioned there. I find that difficult to understand. I am asking for a public statement rejecting clearly Israel's designation of these organisations as terrorists. One of them helps children and it was formed in 1979, the year of the child, mind you. Here we are with that organisation designated as a terrorist organisation. I want the Government, in our name, to call on Israel to reverse this decision immediately and support Palestinians.
In the ten seconds I have left, I say that I am sick and tired of having to stand up here on different topics to say I am not anti-vaccination or aligned with people who are antisemitic. It should not be necessary to say that when we raise questions about human rights violations and a government acting in a manner that is absolutely appalling. I do not have the time to get into what the UN rapporteur said, with two of the people involved being Irish. There is clear misuse of anti-terrorist legislation to put this designation on human rights organisations.
That concludes the speaking slots and 20 minutes are now allocated for a questions and answers session. There is a protocol whereby we will move through various groups in the Opposition. Questions have been raised and I propose to move now to the Sinn Féin allocation of time in this session. We can then move through the various Members.
I have no problem with that whatever. However, many questions were raised by Members who had to go to other meetings. This slot might provide an opportune time to reply to those questions as well. That was certainly the practice when we sat in the convention centre, although there may have been only one Member left in the entire place. I am in the Acting Chairman's hands.
I therefore propose to stick with the order of speakers and move to the questions and answers session. I am hopeful there will be enough time at the end. Perhaps ten minutes within the 20-minute slot will be sufficient for the Minister of State to respond to the other questions.
I also want to raise the issue of Palestine. What measures or actions were taken at the European Council to raise the continual violation the rights of the Palestinian people, the continued illegal colonial expansion within the occupied territories, the fact a further 3,000 colonial settlement units were given the go-ahead in the West Bank, and the fact Israel has breached international law by designating six Palestinian human rights organisations as terrorist organisations, which is an attempt to censor the ongoing work they do to highlight the apartheid policies of Israel?
I also raise the issue of the hunger strike of seven Palestinians who are protesting against their illegal detention, while no charges have been brought against them. One hunger striker, Kayed Fasfous, is on his 111th day of hunger strike. We are awaiting at any moment the terrible news of his passing. The silence is absolutely deafening from the international community and, indeed, this Government. We took the unprecedented move before the summer recess to declare as illegal the actions of Israel in annexing Palestinian land, but we have done nothing to follow that up. We issue statements of condemnation, which of course is the right thing to do, but we have the power to do more. I have heard Members speak in this House about imposing sanctions on Belarus, but there has been no mention of sanctions as a result of the daily violation of international and human rights laws by the Israeli state.
I do not want to hear words of condemnation. I want to hear words of action. What will this Government do about the hunger strike of seven Palestinian prisoners, who are illegally detained, about the designation of human rights organisations as terrorist organisations, and the continued expansion of illegal colonial settlement units? What actions will be taken at European level and at national level within this parliament? We have the power to take action; we do not have to wait for the EU. We need action and not just empty words of rhetoric.
I want to be clear: the purpose of this debate is to discuss what was on the European Council meeting agenda and its follow up. As it happens, this issue was not on the European Council agenda during this summit nor was the issue of fishing, as another example. The idea that Ireland is doing nothing about the Israel-Palestinian situation, as alleged in this Chamber, is completely belied by the fact the Minister for Foreign Affairs is in Israel and Palestine at present representing the country and conveying many concerns raised by the Deputies here.
The Middle East peace process remains a key priority for Ireland, particularly in our term on the UN Security Council. I reject what was said by Deputy Andrews about our participation on the Security Council. Ireland engages actively in the monthly Security Council meetings on the Middle East. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, addressed the council on this issue in January and May this year. We must also accept that while we are a member of the UN Security Council and the European Council, the latter operates through unanimity while the five great powers have a veto on the Security Council. That is the way it works and it is not simply the case that Ireland goes in, says "we do this" and everyone must agree. There are delicate politics at play in this. It is a political reality that not every member of the Security Council or even European Council agrees with what is said by Opposition Members in this House. We must go in there as honest brokers to put forward the views of this country, which in regard to Israel and Palestine is the recognition of a two-state solution.
Members have raised the issue of the NGOs that have been designated as terrorist entities. The Minister made a strong statement on 27 October, as has been acknowledged by Deputy Connolly, joining with other countries in highlighting our concern and underlining our support for Palestinian civil society. The EU has been in touch with Israeli authorities seeking further clarification on the matter. The Minister has travelled to Israel and Palestine, which is his fifth visit. The Taoiseach may have been one of the first Ministers for Foreign Affairs to visit Palestine when he was in that position. Brian Lenihan senior was the first foreign affairs minister anywhere to put forward a two-state solution. We have a strong track record on this issue. The Minister will also visit communities in the West Bank today and tomorrow, including those we often hear about and which we welcome hearing about in this Chamber, to hear directly from them about the challenges they face and to see what Irish aid is doing. We consistently and strongly oppose settlements which are illegal under international law. We are also concerned about the violence perpetrated by some settlers and the attacks on Palestinians and their properties, and we have raised these concerns with the Security Council.
Can we keep the issue of the Malmö declaration completely separate? The Malmö declaration was added to the European Council simply because it just happened in October. It is focused on four main themes, just to be clear, because there is some confusion in the House about it: Holocaust remembrance, Holocaust education, antisemitism on social media platforms, and combating antisemitism and other forms of racism in all spheres of life. I would certainly welcome this House's support for the Malmö declaration, which has attracted international support. It was noted on the European Council conclusions and is very important in light of the increase in antisemitism across the world at present, which is very dangerous.
I am a lifelong opponent of antisemitism. More than a decade ago, I brought an Auschwitz survivor to this city, organised meetings and got her on "The Late Late Show" to remind people of the horrors of the Holocaust, and I would do it again. We should always remind people of how horrendous the Holocaust was. The point we were making is that Israel consistently equates criticism of the apartheid policies it practises against the Palestinians with antisemitism. It promotes a definition of antisemitism that includes labelling those who criticise the apartheid structure of the state as antisemites, and it threatens ten-year prison sentences on those who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. That, by the way, would include Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela, if he were still alive, who called for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. Under that definition, they would be antisemites. That must be roundly rejected and we need to be clear that while condemning, as we must, antisemitism, it should never slide into giving some sort of absolution to the Israeli state, which is an apartheid state.
On the issue of the hunger strikers, which I also raised before the European Council meeting, the Minister of State said this issue was not on the meeting agenda, but the point is we asked the Taoiseach to raise the issue of the hunger strikers. If you look at the photographs of Miqdad al-Qawasmi, it is horrendous.
This man is on the brink of death as a result of his hunger strike over the horrendous system of administrative detention, as are many other hunger strikers. There is also the designation as terrorist organisations of six organisations that have a long history of standing up for human rights, protecting the rights of children in administrative detentions and organising women's committees, agricultural committees and so on. They have been designated as terrorist organisations. When are we going to move beyond words and take action? I ask the Minister of State to please not say we have opponents on the UN Security Council. We know that but, given that is the case, what are we going to do? Are we just going to be paralysed by that? Will there ever be sanctions against Israel for its routine, systematic and brutal denial of civil and human rights?
I have probably answered these questions insofar as I can. As Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, I do not deal with the Israel-Palestine situation on a daily basis. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is in that part of the world today doing great work on behalf of this country. He is following a long tradition among the governments of this country, going back to Brian Lenihan Snr., of being involved-----
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, will undoubtedly be here next week to be accountable and to answer questions or reply to a Topical Issue debate on his visit. He will be more than happy to go through the issues in detail. While he is there, it would not be a good idea for me to answer questions on these issues any further than I already have. I suggest that the Minister do so next week. The facts are that he is there today, that these issues are raised regularly at the Security Council, that we also discuss them in other fora and that we are trusted by both sides in that conflict to try to work together to bring peace to that part of the world. That has been a very important objective for Ireland. I have no doubt the Minister, Deputy Coveney, will be only too happy to update the House on that matter in the coming weeks on his return from Israel.
In the last section, I was just getting to asking the Minister of State to ensure that the export of dairy-bred bull calves will continue because there was an article in yesterday's paper suggesting this may not happen and that these environmentalists in Europe are trying to stop such exports. That would be a disaster for the Irish beef and dairy industry because it would increase the stock of beef animals and destroy the farming situation entirely. I appeal to the Minister of State to fight for the continuation of the export of dairy-bred bull calves because we are an island nation and it takes a good deal of time to get out of the country by boat or whatever.
When I raised the issue of fisheries and asked whether the fishermen were finished, the Minister of State shook his head. Will he expand on that while he is nodding his head?
I will take the opportunity to answer on the issue of fisheries, which was raised by a number of Deputies here today. It is welcome that they did so. The European Commissioner who is responsible for fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, visited Ireland for two days in September. He went to Donegal with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and met the Taoiseach. He has been left in no doubt as to Ireland's views on the issue of fisheries and the concerns that we have about quotas, which are shared by Government. The Taoiseach also raised this matter with Ursula von der Leyen when he met her. We have ongoing contact with the European Union on fisheries. This is a very important subject. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, will continue engaging in that regard.
The export of animals was not directly discussed at the European Council meeting but it is safe to say the European Union is the strongest protector of family farms we have seen in world history and will continue to be so through the Common Agricultural Policy.
The Minister of State said the matter was not on the agenda simply because it was not but, as Israel made this decision before the Council met, surely it would have come up at some point, even as a postscript. I was not, in any way, going against the Malmö declaration. I am very familiar with it. I put the matter in context, saying it is outside the area of trade relations. This decision was made on 19 October. While I have the time, I will tell the Minister of State what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said. She said the designation of the organisations was "an attack on human rights defenders, on freedoms of association, opinion and expression and on the right to public participation, and should be immediately revoked". Surely that should have been enough to include the matter as a postscript to the post-Council meeting conclusions. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called the move appalling and unjust and "an alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organisations". On 25 October, leading Israeli human rights groups issued a joint statement calling this a "draconian measure that criminalises critical human rights work".
On 25 October, UN special rapporteurs, including Fionnuala Ní Aoláin from Galway and Mary Lawlor, unequivocally condemned the decision declaring the designation - I ask the Minister of State to please listen to this because, if we do not have a view on this, we might as well throw our hat at it - "a frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere". They also stated it is "not what a democracy adhering to well-accepted human rights and humanitarian standards would do" and that "The misuse of counter-terrorism measures in this way by the government of Israel undermines the security of all". It undermines the security of all but did not merit half a sentence in the conclusions of the Council's meeting. I recognise what the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has done but we need more than concerns. We need to say this is wrong and ask Israel to revoke this decision.
The reason I raised the Malmö declaration is that the Deputy asked why it was printed under three stars. The reason, of course, is the great seriousness of that issue, which occurs across the globe and is not related to any specific conflict. The matter of Israel's decision was not on the agenda for the European Council meeting but the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is in the region today. We have consistently raised our voice very loudly on this in a very serious way. The Minister will be doing that, and probably has already done that, at the very highest levels in Israel. That is a very important intervention by the Minister.
There are less than two minutes left in this component of the debate. The Minister of State stated earlier that he wanted some time to address the questions raised by other Members. I propose that we do that now. After this slot, there is a further five minutes for the Minister of State to respond to the debate in total.
Deputy Paul Murphy raised an issue in respect of Sudan, which is very important. The Government shares the Deputy's concerns with regard to recent developments there. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, spoke about that. It is important that the United Nations and the African Union collaborate urgently to respond to developments including by strengthening peacekeeping measures. Ireland is, of course, engaged in this at the level of the UN Security Council. We are using our position in that regard.
I welcome what Deputies have said about the protocol and Article 16. I again thank everybody in this House for the solidarity they have shown with regard to the protocol. I will highlight what the Taoiseach said during Taoiseach's questions just before this debate. He made a very important intervention regarding the protocol. I hope people in Britain are listening. The Taoiseach said it would be irresponsible, unwise and reckless of anyone to invoke Article 16 and that, if it were invoked by the British Government, it would have far-reaching consequences for EU-UK and UK-Irish relations. I fully support that sentiment, which the Taoiseach has outlined in the strongest possible terms. I imagine it would be supported across the House.
I will also speak about Poland and the rule of law and other rule of law issues that have arisen in the European Union. I thank those Deputies who recognised that the Taoiseach made what may have been the strongest intervention with regard to the rule of law in the media last week. That was welcomed by many people who are very concerned about this and was noted by various media outlets.
There was a discussion at the European Council meeting and I again remind Deputies of the dynamics at the Council. All Council members have a veto. While Deputies or the Government may have issues with conclusions, there are 27 countries, each of which can prevent any conclusion. The conditionality regulation is welcome. While there is a case before the European Court of Justice, Ireland supported the position of the European Union in respect of that conditionality regulation and that is very important. I am proud of the comments the Taoiseach made and the work he did. Nevertheless, the Polish people and state are our friends and allies. Poland's place is in the European Union and we absolutely want Poland to be, as it has always been, a strong and good partner of Ireland within the European Union. We are always interested in strong relations and co-operation between Ireland and Poland, but sometimes you have to say these things to friends and I am glad the Taoiseach did so in forthright terms last week.
To conclude, I thank Deputies for their statements and questions. As the Taoiseach indicated, I will focus my closing remarks on the external dimension of migration. Colleagues will be well aware that the focus of external aspects of migration has been on migrants arriving at our EU borders via western, central and eastern Mediterranean routes. At the European Council meeting last week, there was agreement on the importance of the action plans developed regarding priority countries of origin and transit, namely, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Nigeria, Niger, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. Leaders agreed on the need to operationalise these without delay, in co-operation with the partner countries concerned, and to underpin them with adequate financial support. We can all look forward to the Commission's report on its financing plans in November. Leaders have called for urgent financing proposals in regard to all migratory routes and planned use of at least 10% of the neighbourhood, development and international co-operation instrument, a financial envelope and other related instruments of migration action.
A disturbing and morally reprehensible new phenomenon has developed in recent months on the EU's borders with Belarus. The Lukashenko regime is deliberately stranding vulnerable people, some of them unaccompanied minors, in the border regions of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. As the Taoiseach said, this is a heinous act. At the European Council meeting, the Taoiseach and other European leaders were in full alignment regarding the development of a fifth package of sanctions against individuals and entities complicit in the Lukashenko regime's exploitation of migrants. This includes the Belarus national airline, Belavia. Ireland stands in solidarity with those EU member states affected by this weaponisation of migrants. We must remain firm and united in response to Lukashenko's provocations.
I visited the Lithuania-Belarus border last week along with my Lithuanian counterpart, Arnoldas Pranckevičius, and his colleague the state secretary for home affairs to assess circumstances on the border and hear about the ongoing humanitarian work by the Lithuanian Red Cross, to which Ireland has donated €100,000 to help migrants who have been moved into Lithuania's border region by Belarus. I saw the dangerous and precarious position migrants have been pushed into by the Lukashenko regime, and I welcome Lithuania's engagement with civil society to try to learn how to deal with this issue. Quite frankly, it has been presented with a really difficult situation of which it has limited experience. I saw videos last week of migrants being brought to the border, with Lukashenko's forces in riot gear to prevent them coming back into Belarus. As we understand it, somewhere between 8,000 and 22,000 migrants are on the streets of Minsk. This is very destabilising in Belarus and it presents the possibility of a serious humanitarian crisis in the coming weeks and months, particularly into winter.
We are treating this as a concern from a hybrid warfare point of view but also from the point of view of the people at the centre of this issue. We condemn all hybrid attacks. We cannot accept any attempt to instrumentalise vulnerable human beings for political purposes. International and human rights laws are always important and need to be protected. At the European Council meeting last week, leaders agreed that efforts should be sustained to reduce secondary movements, which is especially important for our partners in the Schengen area.
When I visited Lithuania last week, I also took the opportunity to convey again our support and that of this House for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the people of Belarus. Lukashenko's election last year was illegitimate and his regime should prepare for fresh elections that are free, fair and internationally monitored. We fully support her work and that of the co-ordination council as they prepare the way for a democratic transition. They tell me they are thus far pleased with how the sanctions are working - they seem to be having some impact - and they look forward to more sanctions, for which Deputies have expressed support.
I thank all Deputies for their statements and questions. I assure them the Taoiseach will continue to report to the House in advance of and following the regular meetings of the European Council. This is very important, given that when I was questioned by the media or other colleagues last week about the issue of Poland and the rule of law, I was able to say that this is a very important matter in the Dáil. On a range of other issues that have been raised as well, we can say as much in all our international engagements.