Tuesday, 14 December 2021
European Council Meeting: Statements
Amárach, beidh mé ag cruinniú tábhachtach sa Bhruiséil, ag labhairt agus ag plé leis na páirtnéirí ó gach cearn den Eoraip. Tá mé ag súil leis. Gan amhras, beidh an-chuid ábhar faoi chaibidil againn i rith na laethanta atá le teacht. Tomorrow, 15 December, I will attend the eastern partnership summit in Brussels. On Thursday, 16 December, I will attend a meeting of the European Council, followed by a euro summit, also in Brussels. At the eastern partnership summit, European Union leaders will be joined by our counterparts from Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan for discussion on the theme of recovery, resilience and reform.
At the European Council meeting, EU leaders will discuss Covid-19. That discussion will deal with the epidemiological situation, including in light of the Omicron variant, vaccinations, including boosters, and internal co-operation, including vaccine sharing. Energy prices remain a topic of concern across Europe and leaders will follow up on our discussion in October on this issue.
Under the agenda item on security and defence, we will provide guidance on the ongoing development of the strategic compass, which aims to set out a common strategic vision for the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, over the next decade. The external aspects of migration continue to require the focus of the European Council and we will assess implementation of conclusions from June and October of this year. We will also discuss several important EU external relations issues. I will provide more detail presently relating to Belarus and Ukraine. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, will provide more detail on the EU-Africa summit and the situation in Ethiopia in his concluding statement. He will also address the pressing issue of energy prices and the planned stocktake on crisis management and resilience.
Before I turn to the European Council meeting, I take the opportunity to update the House on the eastern partnership summit. The eastern partnership, launched in 2009, is a framework that aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the EU, its member states and six of its eastern neighbours, namely, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It is regrettable that Belarus's participation in the eastern partnership was suspended by the Lukashenko regime earlier this year. Belarus will be represented at tomorrow's summit symbolically by an empty chair. In the meantime, the EU, including Ireland, will continue our engagement with, and support for, citizens, civil society and independent media in Belarus.
Robust democratic processes, diverse media voices, gender equality, good governance and the rule of law are essential to enable our societies to face the challenges of the 21st century. They are ultimately key to enhancing the resilience of eastern partner countries and the EU itself and will provide a stable and just basis from which we can continue to tackle Covid-19, the climate crisis and new security challenges such as disinformation and cybersecurity. That is why I endorse the "more for more" principle at the heart of the eastern partnership, which means that greater economic links and investment are linked to increased reforms in support of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. In particular, the promotion and protection of civil society space is an important priority focus for Ireland. While we recognise the many challenges faced by countries in the region, it is vital that all are committed to ensuring the will and voices of citizens are at the heart of decision-making. Despite challenges, the eastern partnership has been a valuable platform for co-operation that has reaffirmed shared values and brought improvements in trade and investment, infrastructure, people-to-people contacts, environmental standards and quality of life generally.
Wednesday's meeting will be the sixth such meeting and the first in-person one since 2017. The theme of the summit will be recovery, resilience and reform. It is clear there is a willingness and enthusiasm among a number of partner countries to accelerate integration and co-operation with the EU. This week's summit will be an opportunity to agree on a way forward, taking the different aspirations of the six partner countries into account, and affirming that this is a partnership that is at its heart values-based and a driver of reform. I particularly welcome recent moves in the region to tackle corruption and the strengthened action in promotion of gender equality, including adherence to the Istanbul Convention. As members are aware, this summit is taking place at a time of heightened tension across the region. It will be a timely opportunity to recall the importance to the EU of an active and positive relationship with partner countries, our support for de-escalation of tensions and the promotion of stability and prosperity across the region.
Covid-19, unfortunately, continues to be a cause of concern across Europe as we enter into a new phase of the pandemic. Many member states, including Ireland, have decided to put in place further measures to protect public health. While the situation is uncertain, it is important to remember that we now have a range of tools and improved knowledge to address the situation in a way that was not possible in earlier phases. This week's meeting will be a timely opportunity to discuss developments, particularly the Omicron variant. This new variant of concern was only identified in the past few weeks. Scientists are working around the clock to provide updated information and analysis each day, better equipping us with the evidence base for next steps as we look to the short and medium term.
I will be stressing to my EU counterparts our experience of the effectiveness of vaccines. Ireland's vaccination uptake is consistently among the best in Europe and this is bearing fruit. I thank both the people of Ireland for how positively they have embraced the vaccine programme and the workers who have worked tirelessly to deliver it. We are accelerating our booster programme based on the evidence showing the benefits of third doses. It is important, at EU level, that we co-ordinate our approach as much as possible. Leaders will also discuss international co-operation on fighting Covid-19. Universal and equitable access to vaccines around the world is a priority and Ireland remains committed to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, COVAX, initiative. I firmly believe the COVAX initiative represents our best chance of bringing the global pandemic to an end.
The analysis underpinning the work to date on the strategic compass is that the global security situation at present is marked by growing strategic competition and complex security threats. Ireland supports efforts to improve the effectiveness of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy, bearing in mind the very different approaches of member states, including Ireland. We are engaging constructively in work on the strategic compass. In addition to reflecting the challenges facing the EU, this initiative will need to focus on the actions we must take to contribute to international peace and security, project our values and protect our citizens. In particular, we see the compass as an opportunity to reiterate the importance of EU-UN co-operation.
Ireland has specific interests in the areas of crisis management and partnerships and the central role of a civilian Common Security and Defence Policy. We also welcome the strong focus in the compass on work to strengthen the EU's ability to respond to new types of threats, such as cyberattacks and hybrid threats. At this week's European Council meeting, I will be underlining the importance of ensuring the compass is anchored in our commitment to effective multilateralism and a rules-based international order with the UN at its heart. This week, leaders will provide guidance on the further development of the compass. It is expected that, following further work over the coming months by foreign affairs and defence ministers, the strategic compass will be on the agenda of the European Council next spring with a view to its adoption.
The European Council has discussed the external aspects of migration at two meetings so far this year, in June and again when we met in October. This week, we will revisit the implementation of our June 2021 conclusions. Ireland would like to see sustainable progress on irregular and forced migration issues. This should be based on a genuine partnership with countries of origin and transit and a common European asylum system that ensures effective member state management of migration flows. I fully support EU efforts to deal with migration in a comprehensive and holistic manner, including through co-operation with key third countries and by tackling root causes. Action plans have been developed at working level for eight priority countries, namely, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tunisia, Iraq, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco and Libya. Those plans now need to be put into operation and adequately financed as quickly as possible. The social, economic and political stresses arising from the migration situation are considerable. No matter how difficult, it is essential that humanitarian and legal obligations continue to be met.
The complexities of the external aspects of migration have been apparent in recent months on the EU's borders with Belarus, where the Lukashenko regime has been cynically exploiting migrants. Ireland was glad to co-sponsor the fifth package of sanctions in response to the Lukashenko regime's appalling misuse of migrants. This crisis was designed to put political pressure on the EU and to divide internally. In that it has failed and the response within the EU has been one of solidarity. The signs of de-escalation at the Belarusian border in recent weeks are encouraging.
EU diplomatic work done with countries of origin and relevant airlines has been impressive. Nonetheless, it is important we continue to engage on this issue at the highest level. This includes ensuring international aid workers and experts are given access to both sides of the border so that the safety and welfare of the people still there can be assured.
This week the European Council will call for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Belarus and for an end to the repression of civil society and independent media. Ireland remains steadfast in our support for a sustainable, democratic and peaceful resolution of the situation in Belarus. It is the right of the Belarusian people alone to decide the future of their country.
This week Ireland will join calls on Russia to de-escalate the situation near Ukraine's borders, where there has been a concerning build-up of Russian troops. Ireland is a steadfast partner for Ukraine and, at this week's European Council, we will welcome broad, resolute European Union solidarity with Ukraine and support for its territorial integrity. Our first priority will be to see a de-escalation in the situation on the ground.
Leaders will also meet on Thursday for a euro summit, where we will hear from the President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, and from the President of Eurogroup, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. We will discuss the economic situation and review progress on the banking union and the capital markets union. The focus of the June euro summit had been on the economic challenges for the euro area in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis. In June, we acknowledged the strong, swift and co-ordinated economic policy response of the European Union and its member states in preparing the ground for a robust, inclusive and sustainable recovery from the pandemic.
Strong fiscal policy co-ordination has clearly helped to mitigate the damaging economic impact of Covid-19, including through the application of the general escape clause of the Stability and Growth Pact. This has allowed member states to depart from the budgetary requirements, which would normally apply, to tackle the economic consequences of the pandemic.
The Commission also presented a communication in October, relaunching public debate on reviewing the European Union economic governance framework. This is open for public consultation until the end of December and the aim is to build broad-based consensus on the next steps well in time for 2023. The time is now right to discuss possible reforms to the existing economic governance framework, and Ireland will play a constructive role in these discussions.
In June we also reiterated our commitment to completing the banking union and strengthening the integration of our capital markets, including providing the Eurogroup with a strong mandate for advancing further work in this area. Our meeting this week will be an important opportunity to review progress.
I look forward this week to continuing to engage collectively and bilaterally with my European Union counterparts as well as eastern partners on a broad range of pressing issues. I will report to the House on our discussions in the new year.
I propose to share time with Deputy Brady.
I am very pleased to hear that the eastern partnership summit will be mindful of things like robust democratic processes, media diversity and gender equality. I welcome the moves to tackle corruption and strengthen actions in the promotion of gender equality, including adherence to the Istanbul Convention. Similarly, we might reflect on those things here at home.
The Taoiseach said the issue of energy prices will remain a topic of concern across Europe and that he would follow up on his discussion in October on the issue. Winter is now on us. We have dark nights with often very cold temperatures and our energy bills are soaring through the roof. People throughout the country have a cost-of-living crisis. Bills for electricity, gas and petrol are skyrocketing and people's pay packets struggle to keep up. I have raised this matter with the Taoiseach on a number of occasions and he has proved slow to act or respond to these realities. He has been slow to stand up in any meaningful way for ordinary workers and families.
The Government has at last proposed this scheme for a €100 relief. I again record my deep frustration and disappointment that the Government is unwilling to move swiftly on this matter. I proposed the Dáil would sit again next week if necessary to bring forward legislation on the matter and the Taoiseach has refused to do so, which I find astonishing.
Of course, people rely on energy other than electricity. The Taoiseach will know the statistics that 37% of households use home heating oil to keep them warm, and prices have increased by 71%. The cost-of-energy crisis is not going away and will be raised with the Taoiseach repeatedly. He will, of course, be aware that many of our European colleagues have made the decision to intervene in a meaningful way for their citizens. In October the European Commission launched a toolbox for action and support to tackle rising energy costs. Across Europe, governments have responded to soaring prices to shield households. In Spain, for example, VAT on electricity bills was slashed by 7%. In Italy the government has launched a package worth €6.2 billion to protect households from rising energy prices to the end of this year. I cite those two cases as a demonstration of ambition and commitment to delivery. I ask the Taoiseach to work with our European colleagues to deliver on this and put in place credible detailed plans to tackle the cost-of-energy crisis on an ongoing basis.
Of course, the Taoiseach will be aware that talks on the Irish protocol continue. Will he avail of the opportunity to make it clear the protocol has strong majority support in the North of Ireland among people, among business communities and at the elected assembly? Will he leave our European colleagues in no doubt the protocol is the best essential way to protect the all-island economy and the Good Friday Agreement, and to avoid a hard border on our island? Political brinkmanship from the British is a failure of leadership and cannot be pandered to. We must stand with our European colleagues in standing up for the protocol and the protections it contains.
We also have a duty to show political leadership on the TRIPS waiver. It is the best way and the essential first step to stand up for equality and ultimately to protect all against new variants of the virus. Despite more than 100 countries supporting a TRIPS waiver on Covid-19 vaccines, Ireland and the EU continue as a roadblock, which is an indefensible position. The waiver would facilitate the maximum roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines worldwide. This is necessary to protect everyone against the emergence of new variants. By refusing the waiver, we prolong the pandemic and the suffering of the poorest people in the world. I believe the Government's position is out of step with the public mood. I ask the Taoiseach to do the right thing on behalf of Ireland and raise with European leaders the importance of this global solidarity.
I begin by addressing the issue of Brexit. The British continue to behave in the most obtuse and difficult manner possible. Whenever a solution can be found to address outstanding issues, the British have invariably returned to the table with another problem. It has been suggested the Tory Administration is more intent on using Brexit to fight another election rather than to seek solutions to the issues with the protocol.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs held a meeting with Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič last week and I found his commitment that the EU would hold firm on the Irish Border and the protocol very reassuring. I welcome the stance, the solidarity and indeed the common-sense approach of the EU to date, which stands in stark contrast to that of the British and political unionism. The abject failure of leadership by political unionism must be called out and, in particular, the reckless and dangerous behaviour of Jeffrey Donaldson. His continuing threats to take down the assembly are much more a case of naked electioneering than anything we have seen by Boris Johnson.
I want dialogue to continue between the EU and the leaders of political unionism. We need to be clear on the emerging situation, namely that unionist business leaders in the North have recognised the value of the Irish protocol and the advantages it offers. As the North is outperforming Britain economically, the EU must take cognisance of the fact that political unionism is increasingly at odds with the needs, ambition and sentiment of the business community. I would argue that the EU should commence the process of planning for the likelihood of Irish reunification to ensure a transition that is as orderly and as manageable as possible whatever the timeframe may be. We are on a trajectory towards Irish unity which increasing numbers of Irish people wish for and something that business and economic developments will establish as being inevitable.
As the first fatalities from the Omicron Covid-19 variant are revealed, the issue of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, waiver must be addressed by the EU Council. Current EU proposals offer little more than that which is already available. The approach of the EU to date appears to be one of delay and to derail any attempt to consider the TRIPS waiver. Ursula von der Leyen promised the world that the EU would make vaccines a global good which would mandate a change of position at the World Trade Organisation. It must be said that the EU has whitewashed its moral responsibility. It has defied the democratic wish of the EU Parliament and has refused to make a stand against the vaccine apartheid.
While the EU has claimed it has sent 1.4 billion vaccine doses to approximately 150 countries, these vaccines were not donated; they were exported. With close to half of them being sent to high-income countries such as the United States, Japan, Britain, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Australia, the EU has been deliberately misrepresenting its record on an ongoing basis. How will the Taoiseach respond to Mary Robinson, our former President, who described the European Union as "the biggest roadblock to [an] effective solution to ramp up the supply of lifesaving vaccines"? According to current estimates, there are six times more vaccines administered in high-income countries than in low-income countries. If the EU will not support the TRIPS waiver, will it put in place an alternative proposal? Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, COVAX, is not the answer. Even if the EU meets its goal to vaccinate 20% of the population in 92 target countries, it will be well short of the levels of immunity that are needed and that is what the experts say.
The stormy clock. I have a mere five minutes which is always something I complain about. After a referendum on European treaty's, we were given a firm commitment that we would debate in advance of and afterwards European Council meetings. I do not wish to use up my time, but we really need better than this. I wish to deal with a few of the agenda items that the Taoiseach is facing.
I welcome the fact that the issue of energy prices is on the agenda again, but it cannot be generalisms and tokenisms. Gas and electricity prices in Ireland are already among the most expensive in Europe. Despite significant moves in recent years to wind energy, we are still significantly dependent on fossil fuels, particularly gas, in this country for electricity generation. As a consequent, we are very vulnerable to international fluctuation in gas prices, even those that are motivated by political action. If Russia determines the price of gas is to increase, it will happen because Russia can simply reduce the supply into Europe and that is completely unacceptable. Irish tariffs, both transmission and distribution use tariffs, that suppliers pay to the State companies EirGrid, Gas Networks Ireland and ESB Networks, are also among the highest in Europe. These are all adding to the cost. A series of price increases throughout this year has made bills now landing in the hallways of households up and down the country completely unbearable for people. Families and individuals are barely keeping their heads above water and they simply cannot face that. We must take domestic action.
The tokenism of €100 per household that may come once legislation is passed sometime in the new year is no good to people who are facing bills and are frightened right now. When announcing the once-off €100 payment for every household, the Minister with responsibility for energy acknowledged that the European Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, ACER, calculated that gas prices between April and October of this year - a matter of months - have increased by 400%. Tokenism will not work. I hope there will be a concerted action across Europe to deal with this real crisis. The Minister is saying that these are temporary increases and that by the middle of next year they will abate, but that will be too late for people. If that is a fact, let us take immediate action here. The VAT rate of 13.5% applies not only to the increase in cost - a windfall to the Exchequer - but to the public service obligation, which is also taxed at an additional 13.5%, and to the increases in carbon taxes. We really need action taken on that.
On the discussion of security and defence, I listened the Taoiseach when he said, "Ireland supports efforts to improve the effectiveness of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy, bearing in mind the very different approaches of member states." What does that mean? We need a frank and open debate on this because everybody talks in general terms about defence. We are all scandalised by the actions in Belarus. We are scandalised by the fact that the Russians are building an army on the edge of Ukraine right now. What is Ireland’s role on it? What are we going to do and what exactly do we mean by the "strategic compass"? There is European speak about the Taoiseach’s contribution today. We need a frank, open and honest debate about Ireland’s role in common defence.
We talked about cyberattacks. We have been the victim of a monumental cyberattack this year into which the Committee on European Union Affairs is preparing a report. There are so many issues about which we glibly say we are neutral. What does that mean in real terms? I would welcome if, in their concluding remarks, the Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, would commit to talking in the new year about preparing a proper debate for this House, that is grounded by a position paper from the Government, on what the strategic compass means, how we will contribute to it and how we will build stability.
My final sentence – five minutes, as I said, is ridiculous - is this. I listened to the Lithuanian foreign minister this morning on television when he said that tensions in his part of Europe are at a greater level of height than they have been since the Second World War, which is something we need to take notice of.
There is a lot on the agenda of the European Council meeting, including the Covid-19 pandemic, crisis management and resilience, security and defence issues, the upcoming EU-African Union summit, the situation on the EU border with Belarus, energy prices and the external aspects of migration. Meanwhile, negotiations between the UK and the EU on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol continue.
As we heard last week, the Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič attended our meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs.
He said he had just come from a meeting of the Commissioners at which the broad range of issues facing the EU at this time had been considered. These issues included the threat of an invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the crisis on the Belarusian border.
It is in everybody's interests for the negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol to be concluded as soon as possible. It now looks like the negotiations will continue into next year. However, it appears some progress has been made in respect of medicines. Although Vice President Šefčovič has been reported as saying time is running out and that it is now time to act, he has also said the EU is ready to move on its own if a joint approach is not possible. The vice president has consulted widely with business groups and civic society in Northern Ireland and has brought forward practical solutions to the real problems that have emerged in respect of the implementation of the protocol. These include problems concerning the supply of medicines and customs and regulatory checks on goods.
I welcome the apparent change in position from the UK side as regards the European Court of Justice. The UK seems to be acknowledging that the Commission has no mandate to renegotiate the protocol. Governance will no doubt be an issue in due course, but for the moment it is best to deal pragmatically with the problems businesses are experiencing right now.
Meanwhile, in a letter last week, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, again threatened to collapse the Northern Ireland institutions unless progress was made on the so-called Irish Sea border. This new threat has been rightly criticised by the other parties in the assembly in light of the wide range of problems in Northern Ireland that need to be addressed. The management of the pandemic is just one of these. No doubt, these remarks are aimed at DUP supporters in light of next year's elections, but this new threat is not helpful in any way. I wish the negotiators success and hope all remaining outstanding problems can be successfully resolved in the near future.
As we are on the subject of Brexit, I welcome last week's announcement of the approval by the EU of an allocation of €920 million to Ireland this year under the Brexit adjustment reserve fund. As we know, the EU has put in place a fund of €5.4 billion in total. We are the member state most affected by Brexit, so it is right we are set to be the greatest beneficiary of the fund.
This will be the first summit attended by the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. The former Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will be missed by the EU. She was a problem solver and totally committed to the ideals of the European Union. Chancellor Scholz leads a centre-left government which is highly pro-European. I suggest that is a good thing for smaller member states such as Ireland. I hope the Taoiseach will use the opportunity presented by this meeting of the European Council to initiate a good personal working relationship with the new Chancellor as this would be in the interests of our two countries and the EU as a whole.
France takes over the Presidency of the EU next month. President Emmanuel Macron has been setting out his vision for this presidency. It can be summed up in three words: recovery, power and belonging. He outlined the wide range of issues the EU must confront at this time, including the threat by Belarus to push migrants into the EU and the issue of migration more generally. The EU also faces issues regarding the rule of law in Hungary and Poland and EU economic growth and development. President Macron has also been talking about European defence and the White Paper on defence, the so-called strategic compass. He wants a powerful and independent EU. That is all very well and good but any new proposals for further integration or for security and defence generally will have to be carefully scrutinised by Ireland because our interests do not always necessarily coincide with the French agenda.
I welcome what the Taoiseach had to say in his remarks on the strategic compass. He talked about the very different approaches of members states, including Ireland, and suggested we are engaging constructively in work on the strategic compass. He also spoke about the need to contribute to international peace and security and to protect our values and our citizens. He also mentioned the need to co-operate fully with the United Nations in the context of the strategic compass. In this regard, I encourage all citizens to engage with the Conference on the Future of Europe, which is now under way, so that the EU of the future will be one to which we can all subscribe.
I wonder whether the meeting of the European Council will consider the human rights situation in China. As we know, there are concerns about the fate of tennis star, Peng Shuai. The International Olympic Committee is coming under pressure to cancel the Winter Olympics to be hosted in China in February. Some countries have announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, which means their government officials will not attend the games. This is something Ireland should consider. I would like to know whether the EU as a whole will be examining this issue at the upcoming meeting.
It has not been mentioned yet but I will make reference to Russia generally and the Russian veto on the UN resolution on climate and security this week. As we know, Ireland played a key role in bringing this resolution to the table. It was a terrible pity Russia vetoed it at the final hurdle. The issues still remain, however. I have no doubt the issues under consideration in this motion can be revisited and worked on again.
Speakers in this debate have already talked about the humanitarian crisis on the Belarusian border with the EU. I too condemn the weaponising of these migrants. I welcome the Taoiseach stating in his contribution that the EU will call for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus. That would be a powerful statement.
I join other speakers in mentioning the position as regards Ukraine. US intelligence reports that up to 175,000 troops are being massed on the Ukrainian border. This is a big worry. Ukraine is talking about embracing NATO. That is Russia's fear. Again, we need to mediate a solution to this crisis. The crisis needs to be de-escalated. I hope the leaders at the European Council meeting will take such an approach.
Many speakers have already mentioned the fact the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union recently met with Vice President Maroš Šefčovič. He spoke about the difficulties being faced, including the issues regarding Russia and Ukraine and hybrid warfare, or whatever term people want to use for the weaponising of the migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border. These are very significant issues. He was steadfast in his position.
The vice president is dealing with the British Government, which is never particularly easy. In fairness, he is a lot more diplomatic than me. I believe the term he used was that it can be "difficult". I do not believe I have burnt him in any way shape or form by saying that. That is the reality we have all being dealing with, whether 100 years ago, during the Brexit negotiations or now. Obviously, there is still a threat to the Irish protocol. We have good soundings followed by not-so-good soundings. We know a British government will always make hay politically. We are never quite sure what its endgame is in this regard. It has also created instability among political unionism which is at this time engaged in the politics of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
We have all heard of or seen the research done concerning the major benefits that businesses, farmers and others have derived from the Irish protocol and its attendant protections and mitigations. It gives access to the British market and, equally and importantly, the EU Single Market. That is what we must work on. We want to have dialogue and to ensure that we have European solidarity in this regard. We want to ensure that we bring this uncertainty regarding the protocol to an end.
The only end, however, that will mean that the British problem in Ireland has been dealt with will come about when we get to grips with Irish unity. It is a conversation happening in wider society, among some of the people in this room and among the members of all political parties and those who are non-party. Even if people do not necessarily agree with unity, they must realise that it is a possibility. Therefore, it is utter madness if we do not prepare and plan for that eventuality and that must be done within this State and across this island. It is also necessary that conversations happen at EU level to allow for the required planning to be put in place. I reiterate the call that many of us have made previously regarding the need for us to have this conversation. We need a citizens' assembly in this regard and we even need an expanded shared island dialogue. It is necessary that we bring this conversation to the centre of Europe.
I agree with much of what has been said about the waiver of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS. We all know the difficulties we are facing with the Omicron variant, but we cannot have a situation continuing that has led Mary Robinson to say that the EU "represents the biggest roadblock" regarding what needs to be done in respect of vaccinations. I therefore call for the implementation of the waiver on the agreement on TRIPS and for the Government to support it. If that is not the case, then we must see the alternatives that are going to deliver. I say that because none of us is safe until all of us are safe.
In his opening remarks, the Taoiseach mentioned COVAX and support for that endeavour, which was very disappointing. COVAX does not increase the production of vaccines. We know that now because we are almost two years into this debate. COVAX is not working. It does not add to know-how in vaccine production. It is an extremely limited undertaking because it only involves a secure supply that is possible only through the purchase of vaccines on the open market. It is a laissez-faire approach when what we need is a hands-on approach across the board. COVAX relies on the open market and increases competition with the same rich countries that provide the funding for COVAX. It means that the countries we are hoping to support and to develop their vaccine output must now compete with the same rich countries they are seeking support from. It is illogical.
Fewer than 6% of people in African states had been vaccinated against coronavirus by late October. Global solidarity has been ineffective. COVAX has so far only shipped approximately 400 million vaccine doses globally, compared to its initial target that envisaged the delivery of 1.9 billion doses in 2021. COVAX is failing and I cannot reiterate this point strongly enough. Donations from richer countries are also failing to materialise. As of late October, developed countries had delivered only 43 million doses of vaccines, from pledges that had been made to donate approximately 400 million doses overall. Even that would still be far below what is needed. After one year of forecasting global vaccination timelines, our latest projections are the starkest of all. Our data show that most countries will have vaccinated the bulk of their populations either this year or not earlier than 2023. There is no middle ground and it is really a case of vaccinating people now or probably never. This shows how deeply unequal access to vaccines has become between richer and poorer countries. The data I refer to are contained in a report authored by Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director with the Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU.
If we cannot appeal to the sense of collectivism on which the EU was supposedly founded or to decency regarding vaccine equity, then surely we can appeal to our sense of self-preservation. If we do not help the developing countries with their vaccination programmes, and I mean really help them, instead of this hands-off,laissez-faire, let-the-market-help approach, through getting to grips with the production of vaccines via a waiver of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, and other mechanisms, then we will all be at risk. The variants that have emerged during the last year have stemmed from countries with low rates of vaccination. That is just a fact. We must get real and get serious about this. I am bewildered that the Taoiseach still comes in here and again mentions COVAX almost two years into a global pandemic. I remember when President Joe Biden intimated some months ago that the United States was going to support a waiver of the TRIPS Agreement. Very quickly thereafter, the Taoiseach came in and said that we might support such a waiver too. We cannot be subservient on this point and a little bit of courage is required.
I turn briefly to address what is happening on the EU's border with Belarus and some of the responses in that regard. It is clear that Alexander Lukashenko is weaponising human beings for his own purposes. Poland's response is no more decent in deploying 20,000 border police officers, firing water cannon and tear gas at asylum seekers, reinforcing its border fence and blocking access for journalists and aid organisations. The root cause of this weaponising of people is the fear that has emerged in the EU since about 2015 and Brexit concerning the migration of people. This fear has been whipped up by elites in the Tory party in the UK and of the right wing. They have tried to create a scapegoat by saying that these people over there, who are fleeing starvation, poverty and the danger of being killed in their homes by bombs made in America, are the real source of concern and fear.
We have weaponised those asylum seekers because of a fear of migration. That fear has loomed over and dominated migration policies, which have included the deployment of illegal push-back practices at the external borders of the EU, the towing back of migrants in the boats in which they arrived, the rounding up of refugees on land and forcing them back into the sea and informal detentions. The Polish Government has long been implementing a strict immigration agenda and has been closing its borders in breach of EU law. In doing so, Poland has defied calls for the humane treatment of asylum seekers. Poland is no exception in that regard. Deals done by the EU with non-EU countries have set a precedent for this. For example, to secure the EU's deal with Turkey in 2016, member states turned a blind eye to that country's human rights' violations in return for Turkey stemming the arrival of refugees to Greek islands. By effectively paying Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to keep migrants out, it was the EU that first introduced refugees into foreign policy as bargaining chips.
Questionable migration deals and anti-immigration messaging not only undermine the right to asylum, but also threaten the very foundation of the European project. I could point to any number of other examples, but time is short. Essentially, I am asking for us to show a bit of decency concerning a waiver of the TRIPS Agreement and stopping weaponising people and using them as political pawns. If the Irish State could stand for those aspects, that would respect our own history of being people who migrated.
I appreciate the opportunity to raise several issues ahead of yet another vitally important European Council meeting. I appreciate as well the comments made by the Taoiseach. I look forward to the response from the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, as well, because I think this is the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing him respond to this traditional subject of debate. It is a jam-packed agenda because a great deal is going on. It is difficult, as we will all find, to try to address every issue due to come up at this European Council meeting and, indeed, the issues that are not on the agenda but that will undoubtedly arise. I will address one or two of those matters.
First, however, I will address the latest wave of Covid-19 infections caused by the Omicron variant and the importance of a couple of issues, the most significant of which is the roll-out of the third dose of vaccines, that some people call a booster dose, across the EU. There is a need for co-ordination and co-operation in this regard among member states. That is especially the case when addressing major issues such as vaccine hesitancy, which we see devastating parts of Eastern Europe, and the importance, when we go on to explore this aspect, of how we can retain the gains made through vaccination and co-ordination. I refer to keeping those aspects open during this difficult period.
In addition, we must ensure that basic freedom of movement is retained within the EU. Huge strides were made to maintain this ability through the introduction of the EU digital Covid certificate and its mutual recognition among member states. We now see our State, to be frank, introducing new testing requirements and various other discussions in this regard. We remember the fateful days leading up to last Christmas and the major concern that caused, but we must ensure that when invest in and agree on a system of co-operation concerning travel for vaccinated people, or those who have recovered or have proof of a negative test, that it is rigorous and can meet the tests posed by the various waves of the virus. That is a major challenge, not just for our Government but for the governments of all member states of the EU. This matter must therefore be taken extremely seriously at this meeting of the European Council to ensure we can maintain the gains we have made.
In addition, when we discuss Covid-19 and examine how the virus is impacting member states so differently, it will be evident that those countries with much higher vaccination rates are seeing much lower rates of hospitalisation and mortality. When we look at member states with a low level of vaccine uptake, particularly those in eastern Europe, not to pick on one geographic area, we can see how devastating that has been for people there.
Solidarity is continuing in respect of medics going between member states and member states alleviating each other's ICU capacity. That is really important.
At this European Council meeting there is going to be a discussion on defence and security on the strategic compass. I am not going to discuss the supposed partnership in respect of NATO because it would be a false approach to discuss that in this House. Ireland has a very serious and important role to play when it comes to co-ordinating security and defence policy. The security and defence requirements of the European Union are changing rapidly. We got a very nasty taste of that in this jurisdiction with the cyberattack on our HSE. Those of us who are members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs heard testimony on this in recent weeks from the European Defence Agency's various experts and our own officials and Minister. The only way we can try to keep up with those malevolent actors who attack the very structure of the State for profit is to maintain co-operation between member states, sharing of information and best practice and investment in security and defence technologies, resources and skills. That leads into a wider discussion, perhaps for another forum. It is something we have to bear in mind. If we go to the European Council meeting when we contribute are we able to ensure that Ireland will meet its requirements? Will Ireland be able to engage in true levels of solidarity with European partners? There is no easy answer to that question.
External relations, as has been noted by both previous speakers, are an increasingly important aspect. We can and others will refer to harrowing scenes in Belarus and on the Polish-Belarusian border or the situation in Ukraine.
As was noted by Deputy Ó Murchú, it is our absolute duty to maintain the continuing discussions and negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom on the agenda even if they are not listed in the pre-Council press release. I refer to the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement and a genuine acceptance of the responsibilities that come with it and with the trade and co-operation agreement. Such responsibilities range from the rights of French fishers to, crucially, the maintenance of the Irish-Northern Irish protocol and its importance not just for this island but for all future negotiations, be they between the United Kingdom and other third countries or the European Union and other third countries. Those of us who have been engaged in the Brexit process for the last five or six years know that depending on the various issues of the day, the level of interest in and focus on Brexit will wane between other leaders and other member states. We are seeing changes in leadership in certain Governments. Brexit does not simply end because there is an agreement in place. Brexit is going to be with us for a generation and we will continue to be the member state most impacted, not just economically but also socially. Therefore it is our responsibility to put it on the agenda of every European Council meeting, regardless of whether there is agreement in the talks between Lord Frost and Commission Vice President Šefčovič this week. It is unlikely that there will be agreement, despite them meeting twice. Hopefully there is progress on ensuring the free flow of medicines into Northern Ireland. We have to continue to ensure that the protocol is implemented, that the British Government meets the terms of the agreement it signed and, equally, that our European partners continue the level of solidarity and commitment that has been utterly unwavering over recent years. Much of that is down to the good work of politicians from all sides of the House as well as our public servants and diplomats.
I would like to make a couple of points about the last aspect of the engagement this week: the Euro Summit meeting that will happen after the European Council meeting and the address by our own Minister for Finance and president of the Eurogroup, Deputy Donohoe, and the president of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde. The Covid-19 pandemic will continue to dominate this aspect of discussions and rightly so. That is why it is so important that resilience and fiscal flexibility continue to be demonstrated by member states to ensure the economies and therefore the societies of all member states are as protected as possible from the damaging impacts of this pandemic that is shutting down our daily lives.
On the banking union and continuing discussions on a full banking union within the euro group, this is a significant opportunity for Irish consumers where we see banks leaving this market and other banks creating changes. It is serious upheaval and extremely worrying but we have to look to the Continent and engage with partners to ensure that Irish consumers are thoroughly protected and also provided for in respect of their business and commercial needs.
I am sharing time with Deputy Martin Kenny. The reality is that the EU, Britain and Switzerland are the biggest barriers to the global roll-out of the vaccine because they are blocking the TRIPS waiver in the WTO. The EU, including this Government, is prioritising the profit margins of a handful of pharma companies over human life. The official death toll from Covid is 5 million but Oxfam puts that figure closer to 17 million due to under-reporting of deaths in poorer countries. That is 17 million human beings. We need to have a debate in this House on Ireland's role in denying poorer countries access to the Covid vaccine. This is not just something that is happening somewhere else. As long as the pandemic continues, new variants will cause ongoing restrictions, potential lockdowns, sickness and loss of life right here. Workers will continue to be hit hard. People are already struggling to make ends meet and cannot afford to be out of work. Our underfunded healthcare system will be overburdened and people will go without treatment that they need. Healthcare staff are already at breaking point. They will continue to shoulder the burden. The pandemic was a disaster but every new strain is a failure to roll out vaccines globally. How individuals and states act on this issue will be remembered for a long time. I ask the Minister of State to ensure this is raised at the European Council meeting.
It is clear that the primary discussion at the meeting this week is going to be around the pandemic, the managing of it and how that is progressing. Really the TRIPS waiver is the issue for the world that we need Europe to lead out on. Talking about COVAX and everything else simply does not cut it. It has simply failed. There needs to be recognition of that. Ireland needs to take this opportunity to lead and make it clear everywhere that we need the TRIPS waiver. The world needs it. As long as we drag our feet on it, we are going to have continuous variants of Covid-19. It is going to cause problems and we are going to be in this crisis for years to come. That is one of the primary things we need to work towards.
We need to get our voice clearly heard in respect of the issues around European security and all that. I saw reports this week on inter-agency co-operation across Europe which were referring to some kind of "shoot on sight" by an authority from other European states. We have a crisis across eastern Europe and particularly in Belarus. Europe needs very steady heads here. Ireland needs to lead that out and needs to be very clear on our position. The Taoiseach has a job of work to do in respect of that.
The continuing use of migrants as political chips on the table is simply wrong and repulsive to the vast majority of people everywhere across Europe. In most countries in Europe we need new people to come in to take up jobs and progress our economies yet we see this fortress Europe being built at every opportunity. There needs to be a very hard conversation in respect of that.
Going back to the Covid-19 situation, many countries in eastern Europe have a low take-up of the vaccine and this also needs to be learned from. Indeed, many people from eastern Europe who live in Ireland are among the slowest to take up the vaccine here. That is another issue that we all need to work harder to ensure we address.
The role that the Irish Government is playing in blocking people around the world getting access to Covid vaccines is criminal, murderous and absolutely scandalous. We are one year into the global roll-out of the vaccines and just one in 12 people in poor countries have received even one dose. In Haiti only 1% of the population has been vaccinated. In many African countries vaccination rates are between 2% and 5%. Three quarters of healthcare workers across Africa are not fully vaccinated.
It is not because of a lack of demand or capacity to produce the vaccines. Manufacturing facilities in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Senegal, Denmark and Canada have all said they could be producing vaccines. Why are they not? It is because they are being blocked by big pharmaceutical corporations, which are artificially restricting supply to protect their super profits. Massive amounts of public money are poured into the research but it is now benefiting the corporations in the form of private profits. One factory alone in Bangladesh estimates it could produce 1 billion vaccine doses if only the intellectual property rights could be waived. What does the Irish Government do? It says COVAX this and CTAP that, and that it is not against the proposal necessarily, but behind closed doors in the European Council it is lobbying on behalf of big pharma. It is scandalous.
In response to a parliamentary question last week, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, stated:
I have an open mind on the alternative suggestion of a TRIPS waiver. I have always said that if we receive a WTO proposal [in writing], we will examine it. That has not happened yet.
This is misleading, to say the least. The first formal proposal from India and South Africa to the WTO came in October 2020. As for the open mind, why is the Irish Government lobbying at European Council level against a TRIPS waiver? It is absolutely scandalous and causing the deaths of people around the world, including in this country, owing to the spread of new variants such as Omicron. We cannot afford more delays, variants, deaths and restrictions; we need to scrap the patents now and share the vaccine recipes worldwide. The vast majority of countries in the world have backed the call for a TRIPS waiver. Even the United States has backed it.
I want to deal with a different issue, that is, the crucial call for the cancellation of eurozone countries' debt to the European Central Bank. The call, published across Europe last week, has been made by academics, activists, trade unionists and public representatives on the left, including the People Before Profit Deputies. The reason for the call is that public debt has expanded by over 20% across eurozone countries. This is because the governments refuse to go after the increased wealth and profits of the super wealthy that accrued during Covid. Instead, there is an increase in debt. That debt will be used later to say we need fiscal discipline and a return to neoliberal policy. Instead of these, we need a simple bookkeeping operation: cancel the eurozone countries' debt to the European Central Bank now.
The Minister is supporting vaccine apartheid. In the European Union, 320 million people have been vaccinated and 70 million have received their boosters. That is fine and as it should be, but more than 3 billion people worldwide have not even received their first dose yet. In Africa fewer than one in five have been vaccinated. In fact, in one fifth of African countries fewer than one in 20 have been vaccinated. The governments continue to support holding the line against abolishing the TRIPS waiver or the intellectual property rights of the vaccine companies to allow generic production. Last week in the Seanad the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, stated:
[I]t is better to have governments and pharmaceutical companies working together to find a solution rather than trying to create conflicts and turn one against the other. I do not think that is the right approach.
In other words, there is a veto for the big pharmaceutical companies. The Tánaiste's alternative is the COVAX programme. The COVAX programme has delivered less than one third of the vaccines that have been pledged. The solution is to waive the intellectual property rights.
The Government must change its position. It is a scandalous position. We need vaccine production to meet the needs of people and not to be for profit. Furthermore, we need to take the big pharmaceutical companies into public ownership and run them under workers' control and management to meet the needs of people.
I acknowledge the unfolding circumstances at the Ukrainian border, as raised by other Deputies, including Deputy Berry, earlier today. As with other Deputies, I believe the amassing of troops at that border is deeply worrying. Ireland and the EU should be preparing and they should be hoping for a de-escalation. In that regard, we should be looking forward. We should be preparing a full suite of EU sanctions. These should be authorised and communicated in advance so that, in the event of an attack, they can be triggered immediately. We must keep an eye on our own territory. If hostilities are to break out, we should plan for an increase in incursions around Ireland and for more cyberattacks, potentially against our national grid. There have already been significant fuel price increases this winter, but we can anticipate more because the Nord Stream 2 project would likely be paused. Seeing as we have a new Irish Embassy in Kiev, we should use the facility to get a full briefing on the circumstances on the ground.
A number of Deputies have spoken about the TRIPS waiver. I first spoke on this as far back as 24 March. In that speech, I talked about Covid variants and the potential for vaccine escape. I emphasised that none of us is safe until we are all safe. I have acknowledged on numerous occasions that the TRIPS waiver is not a cure-all and does not do everything that needs to be done in the global fight against the pandemic, but nobody has convinced me yet that the other approaches are working at the speed, and with the urgency, required. As Dr. Mike Ryan has told us, when dealing with a pandemic speed trumps perfection. The COVAX mechanism is falling short. The CTAP was an approach that I believed had promise but it failed to get buy-in from the pharmaceutical companies. The very fact that compulsory licensing has not been used to produce vaccines at scale is proof enough for me that it is not a workable solution. I just cannot accept the argument that we must safeguard research and development funding streams to produce vaccines when so much of the research into the vaccines was substantially underwritten by European and American taxpayers.
For the body of my speech, I will turn to another item on the agenda of the European Council meeting, that is, the upcoming EU–African Union summit. This is overdue by some two years, for entirely understandable reasons. It is supposed to be held every three years but the last one was in 2017. That in no way diminishes the urgency. Ireland can proudly stand over both its peacekeeping record in several African countries and its approach to overseas development aid. We may not be the biggest contributor in gross terms, but it is generally acknowledged that we make our expenditure on overseas development aid travel a long way. From my short time teaching in Uganda with the Réalt programme, I know at first hand of the warm regard there is for Irish people in our partner countries on the African Continent. Great credit is due in this regard to Irish Aid and the Irish NGOs, in particular. We must look beyond traditional aid structures, however. We must not consider aid structures alone. We must begin to ready ourselves to work with the African Union as an equal partner. The IMF recently declared Africa as the world's second-largest growing region. Many are predicting it is well on its way to becoming a $5 trillion economy, because household consumption is expected to increase at around 3.8% per annum to about $2.1 trillion by 2025.
The 2021 EU–African Union summit represents a key moment at which African and European leaders will meet to determine their joint priorities for their common future. There is likely to be a focus on aspects such as conflict and fragility, and also climate change, as drivers of instability. This reflects the 2020 document of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa. It proposes working together on five key global trends: green transition and energy access; digital transformation; sustainable growth and jobs; peace, security and governance; and migration and mobility. These are interlinked. They cannot be torn one from the other, especially considering the projection for the expansion of household consumption across the African Continent. This expansion may be from a very low base, and there is a clear global equity issue in this regard, so we cannot reasonably expect African peoples to restrict their economic growth or, in particular, their standard of living. However, we must reconcile that with the urgent need for climate action in the face of climate breakdown, which is perhaps more evident in Africa than anywhere other than the poles. The solution must be that we help not only Africa but also other developing countries to skip the fossil-fuel age altogether and decouple their economic growth from their emissions increases.
This brings us back in a circle to the issue of intellectual property and whether some of those intellectual property rights relating to sustainable and renewable energy technologies need to be suspended, for example, to allow for what the comprehensive strategy terms a low-carbon, climate-resilient and green growth trajectory that avoids inefficient technologies, employing instead new renewable energy sources and hydrogen production.
Something else Ireland can be rightly proud of is its central role in producing the UN sustainable development goals. Ireland and Kenya led on that process. That must be the template and must be put at the heart of how we interact with the African Union. Such progress can be achieved only by working together on the basis of shared global commitments such as the 2030 agenda for sustainable development goals, the Paris Agreement on climate change and Agenda 2063.
I hope the Minister will bring these concerns with him as he travels to represent us in Europe.
A couple of weeks ago in the Dáil, the Minister for Foreign Affairs said he believed it was not best for Ireland to act unilaterally in support of Palestine against Israeli abuse and terror inflicted on the Palestinians. He said he believed Ireland should work with Europe as a unit to try to deliver a two-state solution. That would all be credible if Ireland influenced other European leaders; unfortunately, we do not. We are takers, not influencers, of European policy. We seem to be passive observers in Europe. Yes, the Government states how serious the situation is, but nothing ever follows through with action. If the Government wants to influence policy, why does it not take action? One course of action would be to approach like-minded countries to publish a collective statement of EU member states denouncing the designation of six Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organisations and calling on the Israeli Minister of Defense to rescind the designation. That is not a lot to ask for. What is being done at Union level to protect EU funding of Palestinian human rights NGOs? Three NGOs have had their funding suspended by the EU as a precautionary measure based on the 74-page document of evidence for May that was widely condemned by member states as not substantiated. What is the Government doing to revoke immediately these precautionary measures on Palestinian funding? Where is the action? When will the Government put aside the kind words? People in Europe love us; of course they do because we are not being active, not delivering on change and not taking action. They are happy with us. We need action. We need to support Palestine and we need to make our support clear to the EU.
I wish the raise the case of Julian Assange again. Last Friday, it took just nine minutes for the British magistrates to uphold an American appeal against a district court judge's ruling that Julian Assange should not be extradited. That judge had accepted in January that hell on earth was what awaited Julian Assange and that extradition would mean he would likely take his own life. On hearing the news that this ruling had been overturned, Julian Assange had a stroke, such is the stress and mental anguish his extradition has caused him. To call that decision justice would be a crime against the English language for the extradition is not just a miscarriage of justice but also an onslaught against justice and on journalism and free speech. In an age when the media are now driven by clickbait, ad traffic sensationalism, conventional wisdom commentary, access and embedded journalism, Mr. Assange's work, which revealed war crimes, atrocities and the destruction of civil liberties by the US military and its allies, shone like a light in the darkness. I have raised this case several times in exactly this slot, statements on European Council meetings. When we see what happened last Friday and the anguish Julian Assange is in and see the work he did, it is time for the Government to step up and to speak up for journalism and for Julian Assange.
European leaders will this week discuss energy prices and resilience across the European Union. One of the ways in which they can improve resilience throughout the Union is to improve digitisation of the EU economy. To do so, they need to change what meets the definition of "high-speed broadband" at European Commission level. Today the threshold that has to be reached for high-speed broadband under EU state aid rules is just 13 Mbps. This will leave thousands of homes throughout this country with copper-wire broadband connections. Most rural homes, just like their city cousins, will have direct fibre connections, but people in hundreds of villages across the country who live within 1 km of the green Eir cabinet and who have just 30 Mbps will be left with a copper-wire connection, even though they do not have one but two fibre cables running outside their doors. To address this, the EU needs to change its definition of "high-speed broadband" under EU state aid rules. The EU digital agenda set an ambition in respect of broadband of universal speeds of 30 Mbps, but today, under the EU digital compass, the ambition is to have universal access to gigabit broadband by 2030. Ireland is well positioned to be the leading member state in this regard and to have gigabit connectivity available universally across this country by the second half of this decade. However, people will be left behind by this outdated definition, and it is imperative that the Taoiseach uses his influence with the Commission to ensure that this outdated definition does not leave behind people in this country and elsewhere around Europe.
The second issue I wish to focus on is energy. I ask the Government to do something radical, that is, to think long term in Ireland. It is in our interests and in the EU's interest, particularly when it comes to energy security, to do so. Colleagues have raised the situation on the Ukrainian border. Russian troops are massing at the Ukrainian border, yet the Russians are turning down the tap on gas coming into the EU. Over the medium term, Ireland will generate 60,000 MW of renewable electricity off the west coast that will be surplus to its requirements. We need to start planning now for a new Atlantic electricity interconnector running from the west coast directly into the European electricity grid.
Last week, Dáil Éireann passed unanimously a motion that, among other things, called on the Government to design immediately a strategy in conjunction with the European Commission to fund and construct an Atlantic electricity interconnector that would connect west-coast and south-west-coast renewable electricity directly into the mainland European electricity grid. This could provide huge quantities of clean electricity to the Union, create tens of thousands of jobs right along the western seaboard, bringing about balanced regional development, and significantly reduce the cost of electricity to Irish homes, making it the cheapest electricity in Europe. To do that, however, an offshore renewable development authority needs to be established to would drive the type of change and the strategic thinking needed in this country. In tandem with that, the Government needs to engage directly at EU Council level pushing for the need for the Commission to spearhead the development of an Atlantic coast electricity interconnector, bringing that clean, green, Irish-generated electricity right into the heart of Europe. It is imperative that we lead from the front on this objective. I ask the Taoiseach to put it to Olaf Scholz, the new German Chancellor, when he meets with him later this week, that Ireland can help Germany to meet its long-term sustainable energy objectives. Germany has a significant challenge to meet its renewable energy objectives up to 2040.
It is hoping to take all coal-fired electricity generation out of its system by 2040. To do that, it will require importing a substantial volume of green energy. Ireland can help provide that by having that interconnection from its west coast directly into the European electricity grid. It is not just to meet the renewable energy targets that are set throughout Europe, but it is to deal with those geopolitical challenges that we are now seeing amassing on the Ukrainian border. As we know, the Russian-owned Gazprom, the world's largest producer of gas, typically supplies one third of the needs of gas to countries in the EU. However, this November, the flow dwindled to a six-year low. It is all right for the EU to talk tough, but it is very difficult to talk tough when the Russians are turning down the gas tap. Not only do we need to focus on electricity being transported into the European grid, but we also need to look at hydrogen from the west coast of Ireland being manufactured there and transported to many other member states. To do that, Ireland, which is one of the very few EU countries without a green hydrogen strategy, needs to expedite that immediately.
I support the words of my colleague, Deputy Naughten. Everything he said is correct. We do not have any time to lose in harnessing the vast resource on the western seaboard. If we do that, we will set this country and Europe up for many decades to come. I commend the Deputy on his comments.
The Trans-European Network for Transport, TEN-T network, was agreed by the European Council in July 1996. It has been on the agenda at many European Council meetings since then, most recently back in June of this year, when the smart-TEN-T was discussed. This is relevant to events back home in Ireland because the TEN-T programme was cited by An Bord Pleanála as a reason the Galway city ring road project should be approved. I appreciate that different bodies are acting at different speeds when it comes to climate action, but the time for continuing with outdated planning practices is over. It is my duty, as a legislator, to remind the House that the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which I played a small part in bringing through the Oireachtas, is clear: public bodies must act in a manner consistent with the national climate objective of net-zero emissions by 2050 and the ongoing task to reduce emissions. The Galway city ring road will not reduce emissions; it will increase emissions. The act of approving the Galway city ring road is not consistent with our commitment to reduce Ireland’s emissions. In the middle of a climate crisis, as we see the unprecedented political unity around climate action, a State body is approving a project that will scar the landscape, destroy homes and habitats and increase the level of CO2in the atmosphere. Building the Galway city ring road will be an act of vandalism against current and future generations. Permission should not have been given for it to proceed. I pay tribute to my party colleague, Senator Pauline O’Reilly, because she has been consistent about opposing the ring road, a stance that has not been universally popular. Sometimes, we must have the courage of our convictions. Some people think that the current congestion in Galway city will be solved by another road, but every transport planner agrees that the phenomenon of induced demand exists: new roads cause new traffic, more emissions and more pollution.
I also want to address the issue of the highway industrial complex in Ireland. I call it a highway industrial complex because it is a coalition of vested interests that co-operate to continue the road building mania that makes a mockery of our climate commitments and will do untold damage to our towns, villages and communities, both urban and rural. The highway industrial complex must be challenged and stood down. We have reached the patently ridiculous situation, as is apparent in Galway, where the existing bypasses are full, so we are trying to bypass the bypasses. It is utter madness. Other countries have managed to deal with this problem better. The Welsh Government has suspended all road building plans and is reviewing each road project in turn to determine whether it will increase emissions. It established a roads review panel led by Dr. Lynn Sloman, whom we heard from at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Action earlier this year. The reviews are starting to come back, and even for bypass projects, the answer is clear, as Dr. Sloman outlined to our committee. More roads means more cars, which means more emissions. It is unconscionable that Ireland and the EU are trying to expand road building. It makes a mockery of our claim to be acting on climate.
At the European Council meeting there will be discussion of our foreign relations with countries in Africa, the continent that is perhaps most at risk of famine because of climate change. We are still laggards in EU terms. Depending on what base year is used, Ireland has either the third or the fourth highestper capitaemissions in the EU. In his submission on behalf of An Taisce, the eminent figure, Frank McDonald, quoted Lewis Mumford, saying "adding car lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity". It was picked up by the An Bord Pleanála inspector. I am sorry we did not listen to Frank McDonald. In fact, I am sorry we have failed to listen to experts like Frank McDonald for decades now. We would have a much better country if we had listened to them.
However, it is not too late. We know what we need to do. We need quality public transport everywhere. We need to plan new housing in a way that is not disadvantageous to those who do not or cannot own a car. There are a number of valid reasons to take a judicial review of the decision to approve planning for the Galway city ring road, not least the provisions in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act. I hope that campaigners in Galway will challenge the decision. My Green Party colleague, Senator O’Reilly, is supporting campaigners in this regard.I hope we can very quickly reverse course and turn away from being European climate laggards to European climate leaders. We cannot afford to waste any more time.
I want the Government representatives who are going to Europe to highlight the emergency situation that our farmers are facing in respect of fertiliser. Fertiliser currently costs in excess of €900 per tonne. Most outlets are refusing to even quote prices for it. I know of one farmer whose costs went up by 54% this year. At a time when farm prices had begun to increase, they are now being fully eroded by the fuel and fertiliser cost. Russia is easily supplying the world with gas, which is used to make fertiliser. The crisis is all about global politics. Russia is currently supplying China with all the urea that it can produce. Equally, it will supply Europe, but the gas pipeline is not ready. This needs to be highlighted as a matter of priority. If the EU is considering imposing sanctions on Russia, I ask it to bear in mind that Ireland and its agricultural sector will suffer the most through such sanctions. The Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine told Teagasc to advise farmers to use different clover swards for grassland management. What he did not say was that clover will not grow without nitrogen and will only grow when the temperature is at least 14°C, which is probably from May onwards. That is too late. New grass will die out without fertiliser. Old grass grows at a temperature of 7°C, but is less responsive when it is not fed with fertiliser. The EU advised all European countries to reduce taxes. What did the Government do? It increased taxes using a percentage model, setting the fuel tax at 56.23%, which raised the fuel cost in this country. Now, it is taking €1 per litre in fuel tax from every person in Ireland. In 2020, it was taking 81 cent per litre. It raised the tax by 19 cent, giving it an annual turnover from the increased tax on fuel of €5.6 billion, when it is giving back €170 million in the ESB. The Government is taking €5.6 billion from the people of this country. It should be ashamed of itself.
I welcome the opportunity to comment briefly on the EU Council meeting.
I note the European Council will discuss the Covid-19 pandemic in the context of the emergence of a new variant, and that participants will also exchange views on how best to tackle vaccine hesitancy and disinformation and the effectiveness of various measures and strategies adopted in this respect. What I would like to know, and what I need to ask, is the following question: when will we have a debate in the House on the fact the Department of Health employed a social media monitoring company to gather and report all online and Oireachtas commentary, some of which was only questions, relating to Covid-19 and the Government's approach to the handling of the crisis? This was at a cost of almost €100,000.
In October, it was revealed to me following a parliamentary question I tabled on this matter that the Department employed Kinzen Media in early 2021 to monitor the online dissemination of misinformation and disinformation relating to Covid-19 and the Covid vaccine. Were it not for Gary Kavanagh at Gript media the public would not have been made aware of these issues. I pay tribute to Gript for focusing on stories that are of real public concern. Our role as parliamentarians is to ask questions and find better ways to do things. Many Deputies were quoted in these reports. They include many statements of genuine concern from Deputies and Senators. There were also statements from others, including doctors. They were gathered together in daily reports to the Department and the HSE. This was unknown to us and without our consent. By an amazing coincidence, an enormous volume of the so-called misinformation and disinformation related to comments critical of the Government and the policies it has adopted. There was no tendering process for the particular contract awarded. There has been absolutely zero accountability for the fact that a private company was employed by the State to monitor and report the legitimate concern of Oireachtas Members as if they were a threat to the State.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute. I welcome what was set out in the Taoiseach's statement but what was absent is notable. I echo what Deputy Howlin said. The time we are being given is not sufficient to discuss the range of topics covered in the nine-page statement. There are notable absences as it did not deal with Ethiopia or Tigray, although I understand the Minister of State will come back on this. This has been an ongoing conflict for more than a year with 1.7 million people displaced in Tigray alone and thousands outside in the Sudan. It is not mentioned. It was not worthy of a line except that it will be dealt with by the Minister of State at the end of the debate.
Another matter not dealt with is Palestine and I will come back to this. Another issue not looked at is the TRIPS waiver, which has been mentioned by everyone. The statement by the unelected President of the European Commission that mandatory vaccination is on the way and must be considered was also not mentioned. I hope that when the Taoiseach goes to Brussels he will repeat that he is not in favour of mandatory vaccinations, as he said a few days ago. I make my comments as always in the knowledge that 5,788 people have died in this country. Today there are 4,688 cases with 108 people in ICU and 492 in hospital. I make these comments because I believe we are facing a serious public health crisis. We have been doing so since we recognised Covid in March, although it was here prior to this. Vaccination is just one part of the overall response. I have made this clear every time I have spoken.
As far back as a year ago, South Africa and India called for a TRIPS waiver. We are very interested in pushing vaccination whereby we get booster and further boosters while ignoring the rest of the world. I understand fewer than 7% of people in low-income countries have had a vaccine. We can pick many figures to illustrate our arguments. The Minister of State will have to accept we have utterly let down the countries outside of rich Ireland and rich Europe while we keep pushing that we need more and more boosters for the richer countries with the deeper pockets. It is totally unacceptable. Many organisations, including Amnesty, have asked us to introduce a waiver for a while. It would mean a few pharmaceutical companies could not hold a monopoly on production and cost. It would lead to more production.
I have little time to get this out. With regard to vaccination we have utterly ignored the Meenan report, which was done not in the context of Covid but on the necessity to have some type of redress or compensation scheme for injuries from vaccination. We never considered it. There has been no discussion whatsoever on what point we will drop the Covid pass, which is utterly discriminatory. There is no evidence to show it has worked. It is inculcating a hatred rather than bringing everyone on board in a public health crisis.
In the time I have left I want to discuss Palestine. There has been no mention of what the Israeli Government is doing with regard to the occupied territories. I am tired of standing up and asking the Government, as my colleagues have done, to deal with the Israeli Government, among many other things, designating as terrorist organisations six human rights organisations, two of which we fund. This has gone a step further. If the organisations want to appeal the designation, they have to stop functioning. This was by military order. Between January and December this year, 86 Palestinian children were killed in the occupied Palestinian territories. As a mother, female and Deputy, I find this totally unacceptable. I find the designation of six organisations unacceptable. I find it unacceptable that we continue to express concern but we do nothing else with regard to Israel. However, we highlight the Ukraine and China, and rightly so, but what we do is extremely selective.
The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said Brussels had not received convincing evidence from Israel about the terrorism designations and that it was looking for more information. Two months later, there is no sign of more information. We have asked our Minister for Foreign Affairs whether the EU has evidence but we have not received an answer. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the designation as terrorist organisations is an attack on human rights defenders. We speak about human rights. The Taoiseach's statement mentioned human rights. However, we make a mockery of language. HE stated, "The analysis underpinning the work to date on the strategic compass is that the global security situation at present is marked by growing strategic competition and complex security threats." This is an absolute insult to the English language. More importantly and significantly, it is an insult to the democratic process.
I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate. The agenda for this week's meeting of the European Council is being discussed by EU affairs Ministers at the General Affairs Council meeting today at which the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, is representing Ireland. The Taoiseach has outlined his expectations for the Eastern Partnership summit as well as the European Council's discussion on Covid-19, security and defence, external aspects of migration and external relations items on Belarus and Ukraine. He has also outlined his expectations for the Euro Summit.
I will turn to the issues of energy prices, crisis management and resilience and external relations items on the EU African Union summit and Ethiopia. The issue of energy prices is of significant concern for citizens throughout the EU. This week's discussion follows the EU leaders' discussion in October and that of EU energy Ministers earlier this month. In recent weeks, work has been undertaken to study the functioning of the gas and electricity markets as well as the EU emissions trading systems market with the help of the European Securities and Markets Authority. The Commission also undertook to assess whether certain trading behaviours require regulatory action. Many member states, including Ireland, have used the Commission's toolbox of measures to help address the impact of current price increases on consumers and small businesses.
Here in Ireland, our focus has been on investment in energy efficiency and in renewables supported by competitive markets and enhancing electricity interconnection for the long term. With the support of the Commission’s toolbox, Ireland allocates significant funding to targeted welfare support measures for energy costs and has added to them in budget 2022, such as the increase in the fuel allowance, the expansion of the eligibility for the fuel allowance and the announcement today on the €100 payment. While certainly not a panacea, the measures provided for under the toolbox should help assist Irish and, more broadly speaking, European citizens in dealing with the sharp increases in prices they have faced. Official representatives from the road hauliers group met with the Department of Transport last Friday to look at how the fuel rebate scheme could be modified to assist the haulage industry at this time.
In the medium to longer term, we need to take steps to avoid such pressures arising again in the future. This means building greater resilience into our energy systems and decarbonisation. Moving towards sustainable sources of energy will make a significant contribution towards that goal. It also means ensuring markets remain competitive with enhanced energy interconnection, as we are doing with the Celtic interconnector that will link Ireland and France.
This week’s meeting of the European Council will assess the situation and review ongoing work on this issue. On foot of this discussion in June, the European Council will take stock of work to enhance our collective preparedness, responsibility, capacity and resilience to future crises. I expect the leaders will endorse the conclusions agreed at the General Affairs Council on 23 November and invite the council to take this work forward and to keep this important topic under review. Ireland supports these conclusions and sees co-ordinated EU-level crisis response as crucial to protecting and safeguarding the Single Market.
Building resilience against future crises means working now to strengthen the Single Market, especially in removing unnecessary barriers to trade in services where there is so much untapped potential. We see this as vital for continued recovery and growth.
The next challenge we face may be very different but we have learned we are best equipped when we act collectively. This is particularly evident in the case of vaccines. The integrated political crisis response arrangements developed in 2013 have proven to be a flexible and useful instrument for addressing immediate challenges in times of crisis and have been particularly useful the during Covid-19 period. It is welcome in this context that the HERA, the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, has been established with a budget of €6 billion for the coming years.
I note the issue of the vaccine rate in the developing world has been raised by many speakers in the debate, and it is something that urgently needs to be addressed. It is true there is a difference of approach in how best to accelerate the roll-out of vaccines to the developing world. As many have said in the debate and which we all can agree on, no one is safe until everyone is safe. We have a moral responsibility to ensure an effective roll-out to the developing world. We not only have a moral responsibility but it also makes sound economic sense.
While trade is a competence for the EU, I advocated a number of months ago for the need for us to have that debate on the waiver. In having that debate, we need to be truthful and honest on the impact a waiver would have on future research and innovation and whether there is sufficient capacity across the developed world if a waiver was to be implemented. We also need to acknowledge the role the EU has played to date, because to listen to some contributors today, you would swear it has done nothing. It is the largest exporter of vaccines across the world, and some who have been advocating for a waiver over recent months have pulled up trade barriers and currently are not exporting any vaccines to the developing world. We have already seen 166 million doses going from the EU to low and middle-income countries with a commitment to increase that to 500 million doses by mid-2022. Much more needs to be done and Ireland has a responsibility to convey that message to the EU, which I firmly believe.
Under the external relations agenda item, the European Council next week will discuss the preparations for the European Union-African Union summit on 17 and 18 February 2022. The summit will be an important milestone in the EU’s relationship with Africa after two challenging years. The considerable preparatory work for the summit is a clear recognition our futures and future well-being are deeply intertwined. Ireland will wish to deliver a clear message of solidarity with Africa and, at the summit in February, an honest and ambitious assessment will be made by the EU and the African Union of what we can do better. It will be in the EU and the African Union’s shared interest to put in place a more ambitious and effective partnership. We will need to acknowledge the particular impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Africa, not just on public health but also in socio-economic terms and the very important role African Union countries have played in managing the pandemic. Ireland looks forward to adopting joint, ambitious and concrete initiatives at the summit. Ireland will be strongly supportive of initiatives that support recovery from Covid-19, boost jobs and sustainable economic growth and trade, progress our shared priorities on climate action and enable the EU and the African Union to work together more effectively on the global stage.
At this week’s European Council, EU leaders will also consider the implications of the crisis in Ethiopia. The situation on the ground is of great concern and requires both continued political engagement to secure a ceasefire and an urgent response to the acute humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia. Of course, as Members will be aware, Ireland was deeply disappointed by the Government of Ethiopia’s decision, communicated on 22 November, to restrict the size of our embassy in Addis Ababa as a result of the positions that Ireland has taken on Ethiopia at the United Nations Security Council. These positions have been firmly based on the EU’s Common Position with regard to humanitarian access, the need for a ceasefire and dialogue, accountability for violations of human rights, and a peaceful resolution of that crisis.
I thank Members again for their active participation in the debate, and the Taoiseach will report to the House in the new year following the European Council meeting.