Wednesday, 17 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.
I attended a meeting of the European Council on 21 and 22 October in Brussels. The agenda covered Covid-19, energy prices, trade, external relations, migration and digital transformation. We also had a discussion on the rule of law in the European Union.
We discussed Covid-19, with a particular focus on vaccination rates across the European Union in the context of rising infection rates in many member states and tackling disinformation about 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.
On energy prices, we discussed what we can do individually, as member states, and collectively, at European Union level, 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 European Union 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: the instrumentalisation of vulnerable migrants by the Lukashenko regime in Belarus.
We agreed conclusions on a number of important summits, including COP15 on biodiversity; the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, which I attended; the Asia-Europe summit, in which I will participate 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.
Tomorrow, Seán Binder, an Irish NGO worker and trained maritime search and rescuer faces trial in Greece for the crime of saving people's lives. In 2017 and 2018, he worked with a registered non-profit body that regularly engaged and joint operations with the Greek Coast Guard. His job was conducting search and rescue operations in the Aegean Sea, saving drowning refugees. Now he faces up to 25 years in prison for this humanitarian work. His rescue work is now being called smuggling. The charity fundraising he was involved in is being called money laundering. Monitoring for information about boats in distress is being labelled as espionage. This is a brutal and very worrying attack on humanitarian work and an attempt to scare other NGOs and humanitarian activists away from supporting and saving the lives of refugees. What will the Government do to support Seán Binder and to protect him from a potential gross miscarriage of justice? Will the Taoiseach speak out against this practice of attempting to criminalise humanitarian activity? Will representatives from the Irish Embassy attend the trial tomorrow?
I wish to raise the issue of migration, which the Taoiseach mentioned. It is clear that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding on the Belarusian border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Thousands of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing enormous suffering and are living in appalling conditions with sub-zero temperatures. Their plight is becoming increasingly desperate. As we know these migrants are being flown in at the instigation of Alexander Lukashenko and are then being bussed to the borders. These migrants are in effect being weaponised. These actions by Lukashenko are totally unacceptable and reprehensible.
I welcome the fifth package of sanctions agreed by the EU foreign ministers this week. Unfortunately, this will affect Irish aircraft leasing companies, but they must be imposed for the greater good. If Belarus continues with these actions, would the Taoiseach ask the EU to consider further measures to sanction Belarus? Is there anything that Ireland or the EU can do immediately to alleviate the pain and suffering being experienced by these migrants caught up in this hybrid warfare?
I also ask about the massing of 90,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. Russia, as we know, continues to interfere with Ukraine generally. I know the Taoiseach has been quite outspoken about Russia's activities in recent years. Does he think that an invasion of Ukraine by Russia is under consideration? As we know, Russia is a staunch ally of Belarus. What is the Taoiseach's assessment of the situation?
As I have a bit of time, I will throw in a second question with the Ceann Comhairle's permission. The Taoiseach mentioned COP26. Some people were disappointed with the outcome of COP26, particularly when the phasing out of coal was watered down to the phasing down of coal. Obviously, there were some successes. The 1.5°C target is in place and there are commitments to financial support for the various countries affected by deforestation. Given the Taoiseach's participation at COP26 and his participation at the European Council meeting, I would be interested to hear his thoughts on the outcome of COP26.
I will not repeat what has been said. Obviously, I add my voice in support of Seán Binder. I put the same question about Lukashenko and the weaponisation of migrants which shocks us all.
We all know how the energy crisis is impacting people. We are all beginning to get stories of people who cannot afford to pay for their gas, oil or electricity and are forced to consider alternatives that are not necessarily the greatest from the point of view of climate change, but that is what people will do.
The Taoiseach spoke about solutions by the State, which is one element, but the European Union has capacity on a wider level to engage in negotiations. I accept there are certain elements outside the State but the European Union can definitely provide a greater bang for our buck. What will that consolidated effort look like?
Beyond that, when we are speaking about climate change, where is the conversation on green bonds and long-term moves that need to be made? There is the question of the free flow of credit to facilitate states to do what needs to be done and the really heavy lifting so we can deal with the carbon budgets ahead of us. There is also the question of fiscal constraints, some of which were jettisoned during the pandemic.
On the questions raised by Deputy Paul Murphy, we always provide consular support to Irish citizens in any sort of difficulty. I will check to see that the embassy will be represented in the courts tomorrow. Greece is a member of the European Union and we do not, ordinarily, interfere in the judicial process in countries but we will keep a very close eye on this. We support humanitarian endeavours to protect migrants and we have been involved, as a state actor, in helping migrants in a very challenging position on our seas. I will examine this and ask officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and elsewhere to pursue the matter.
Deputy Haughey raised a key issue in respect of Belarus and the Lukashenko regime. Suffice it to say that I am particularly angry about this matter, as are most leaders of the EU Council. We have condemned without hesitation the Lukashenko regime's exploitation of migrants for political purposes. We heard first-hand what is happening on the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and it is quite shocking how people and migrants in particular are being used by Lukashenko as a retaliation measure against Europe for earlier sanctions arising from the kidnapping of a journalist on a plane in European airspace.
Ireland is co-sponsoring a fifth package of EU sanctions and new, broadened criteria were agreed by the European Union foreign ministers on Monday this week. I welcome that. This new package of sanctions will be finalised very soon.
Essentially, Lukashenko has stranded thousands of migrants in a freezing cold forest in an attempt to blackmail the European Union and that simply will not work. We must ensure migrants are warm, safe and fed, and Ireland has donated €100,000 to the Lithuanian Red Cross to help it to achieve that aim. We want to see international aid agencies and independent monitors given access to assist migrants on both sides of the border and we will continue to work towards this.
Some recent reporting has implied that because Ireland is an international hub for aircraft leasing companies, we will oppose sanctions on Belavia, the airline, and this is entirely untrue. Ireland fully supports the sanctions against all those responsible for the exploitation of migrants and we are co-sponsoring a fifth package of sanctions in this regard, as I stated. We all want Belarus to stop these flights using any aircraft, including those that are EU-owned. Irish officials are currently assisting the Commission in working out the legal and practical difficulties involved in ensuring sanctions are legally sound, work in practice and are not counterproductive.
We must also stem the flow of migrants to Belarus by sending clear messages about the risks involved. The European Union Commission and the European External Action Service have already successfully persuaded certain countries of origin and airlines to take action on this, which is welcome. They have gone to country authorities and airlines, explained what is going on and asked them to stop. It is a fairly strong response, to be fair. We must also be mindful of international protection and our duties and obligations under the Geneva Convention. We must respond in a balanced way and ensure the humanitarian crisis experienced by migrants is also addressed. It is a challenging issue all around.
On the question of Russia, there is some concern around increased mobilisation but it is very difficult to assess because this has happened before but not led to an invasion. One hopes it will not lead to an invasion. The indications some time back were that it would not but one can never be certain of this, of course.
On COP26, although there has been disappointment about the fossil fuels provisions, the work keeps alive the 1.5°C ceiling. The biggest game changer has been the United States and its changing of the preceding US Administration's approach in signing up to the Paris accords. President Biden's Administration has been very proactive in working with the European Union and China on climate change. In my last conversation with him, I paid tribute to him on the China partnership relating to climate change. It was at the weekend, when he rang to congratulate me on Ireland's success in the rugby. We discussed climate change as well. That the US is pushing so strongly in a global approach is yielding results. A fair degree of momentum will come from Glasgow, particularly with climate finance and adaptation supports. There is also a new dialogue emerging on loss and damage. These are concrete supports and declarations on deforestation have also been important.
The last-minute changes were disappointing, specifically the change in wording from "phasing out" to "phasing down" with regard to coal. It is still a very ambitious deal and that is the overall observation of our team there. I pay tribute to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who chaired an important session of the negotiations on behalf of the European Union. Ireland played a very proactive, strong and positive role at COP26 on a number of fronts.
The challenge for all of us is to deliver domestically and at European level. Deputy Ó Murchú spoke about the energy crisis. Europe is limited in this in some respects but what was clear from the meeting was that renewables are ultimately the way to go to reduce total dependence on Russian or imported gas. We will return to this regardless of whether Europe engages in the procurement of energy supplies on a pan-European basis. There is some distance to go before that happens, if we look at the realpolitik. Nonetheless, Europe is seized of the crisis. Looking at the energy mix, gas will always be a transitional fuel and we must push on with renewables.