Wednesday, 6 April 2022
Post-European Council Meeting: Statements
I attended a meeting of the European Council on Thursday, 24 March and Friday, 25 March in Brussels. This was the third meeting of EU leaders within a month and since Russia's brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February. Prior to my attendance at the most recent meeting, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, updated the House on my participation at the other meetings - a special meeting of the European Council on 24 February and an informal meeting of the European Council in Versailles on 10 and 11 March.
The European Council of the 24 and 25 March had a full agenda addressing the most pressing issues facing the Union and our neighbourhood. While our meeting took place in advance of the evidence emerging in recent days of large-scale horrific crimes against civilians, EU leaders have condemned the war since the start as immoral and unjustifiable, and we did so again on 24 March.
We discussed the impact of Russia's aggression from a range of perspectives: humanitarian, migration, energy, nuclear security and safety, and reconstruction. We agreed to establish a Ukraine solidarity trust fund. We discussed security and defence and endorsed the strategic compass. This is a strategy document that will provide enhanced political direction for the Union's approach to security and defence policy for the next five to ten years. We discussed energy, including energy prices, storage, energy security and phasing out dependence on Russian coal, gas and oil.
We agreed conclusions on economic issues, including building a more robust and open economic base, realising the full potential of the Single Market, and food security. We also took stock of developments with Covid-19, including EU co-ordination efforts and global health solidarity and governance, and we discussed the EU's external relations, including the European Union-China Summit, which subsequently took place on 1 April, and the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.We also re-elected Mr. Charles Michel as President of the European Council for a second term ending in November 2024.
The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, will address economic issues and external relations in his wrap-up. I will address all other items.
At the start of our meeting, we heard from the President of the European Parliament, Ms Roberta Metsola. She is of the view, with which I agree, that informed hope and belief will help to sustain the people of Ukraine. For this, they need to know that the European Union and the international community are supporting them.President Metsola has since travelled to Kyiv to convey in person a powerful message of solidarity on behalf of the European Parliament to the members of the Ukrainian Parliament.
We also had an exchange of views with the President of the United States, Mr. Joe Biden, which underlined the strength and importance of the transatlantic relationship in the struggle between democracy and autocracy. Our co-operation on issues such as sanctions has already proven to be impactful.
We will continue to work together on a range of other areas from cybersecurity to energy.
President Zelenskyy also joined us via video link. As he did in this House this morning, he called for strengthened EU sanctions, accountability for the perpetrators of unspeakable crimes in Ukraine and an accelerated process to allow Ukraine to join the EU. He has my full support. In the discussion that followed, leaders condemned Russia's actions in Ukraine, which are a gross violation of international law causing appalling loss of life and injury to civilians and destroying the vital infrastructure of a peaceful country. President Putin's regime and its supporters should be in no doubt that justice will rise up and those responsible will be held accountable for their crimes. Leaders also reaffirmed the Versailles declaration, acknowledging the European aspirations and European choice of Ukraine. Just as Ireland has over time made its own informed choices about who we are, our priorities and with whom we align ourselves, so too should Ukraine be able to make its choices.
The EU will continue to provide co-ordinated political, financial, material and humanitarian support. We call on the European Commission to continue to provide technical assistance to Ukraine to undertake the steps necessary to facilitate its path to EU candidate status. Looking to the future, we agreed to develop a Ukraine solidarity trust fund to support the costs of the government of Ukraine, which is continuing to work on behalf of its people despite the immense challenges it faces, and to help support the reconstruction of the country when the time comes. Leaders called on all countries to align with existing sanctions, which are having a massive impact on Russia and Belarus. Ireland stands ready to adopt further robust sanctions with our EU partners and ensure that any attempts to circumvent sanctions or to aid Russia by other means are stamped out.
We also discussed the impact of the conflict on displaced people, refugees and hosting states, especially those on Ukraine's borders. We recognise the need for collective efforts to support and provide for refugees. Irish people moved quickly to provide protection to Ukrainians driven from their homes. It will not be without cost and challenge but it is the right thing to do. Recognising the pressures across the EU, we call for work to be completed on European Commission proposals to support member states in this regard.
I will speak further on the question of energy shortly, but in the context of Ukraine we underlined our commitment to ensuring continuous and uninterrupted electricity and gas flows to the country. The recent synchronisation of Ukrainian and Moldovan electricity grids with the EU's grids is a remarkable achievement and shows that our futures are now interconnected. It is also enormously important that the safety of Ukrainian nuclear facilities is ensured, including through the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This will also remain a focus.
We endorsed the strategic compass. This is a strategy document that will provide enhanced political direction for the EU's approach to security and defence policy for the next five to ten years. Ireland has always engaged constructively in the development of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, guided by our traditional policy of military neutrality and our contribution to crisis management and peacekeeping. That continues to be the case. We have played an active role in shaping the strategic compass, working to ensure it reflects the core values that underpin our approach to CSDP, including our commitment to the United Nations and the rules-based international order. The text sets out the significant security and defence challenges faced by the EU, including existing and emerging threats, the increasingly contested multipolar world and the strategic implications for the EU. It provides a strategic perspective for the next decade and sets out the tools and initiatives required to enable the EU to act more quickly and decisively when facing crises, to become better equipped to anticipate and mitigate threats, to stimulate investment and innovation to develop our capabilities and technologies, and to deepen cooperation with partners, including the UN, which remains the essential core of international peace and security.
While work began on the strategic compass some months back, the text also reflects the immediate security situation following Russia's unprovoked and unjustified military aggression against Ukraine. Different member states have different traditions and approaches in the area of security and defence. This is fully understood and respected by all partners. For Ireland, we are clear that our active participation in CSDP does not prejudice the specific character of our security and defence policy or our obligations.
We held an important discussion on energy issues and reaffirmed the agreement reached in Versailles last month to phase out Europe's dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal imports as soon as possible. This can be achieved by reducing our overall reliance on fossil fuels faster, diversifying supplies and routes, developing an EU hydrogen market, accelerating the development of renewables, and improving the interconnection of European electricity and gas networks.We will also work to reinforce EU contingency planning for security of supply, and enhance energy efficiency and management of energy consumption.
On energy security, work will continue to complete and improve gas and electricity interconnections in Europe. I welcome the agreement whereby member states can opt in to collective purchase arrangements for gas, liquid natural gas, LNG, and hydrogen to secure better prices. The European Commission will work to pool demand by drawing on the collective strength of the EU, which is a model that worked for the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines. Ahead of next winter, member states will work with the Commission to ensure that gas storage facilities are replenished, helping to mitigate against supply disruption. In his presentation to us at the start of our meeting, President Biden committed to helping Europe with additional LNG supplies. This will see the United States work to ensure the provision of an additional 15 billion cu. m to the EU this year. This energy partnership with the US will help phase out EU fuel dependence on Russia and will also work to support energy-efficiency solutions and the rapid deployment of clean energy technologies.
I am acutely aware of the negative impact high prices are having on households and businesses, especially our vulnerable citizens and SMEs. We looked at various options to cushion the impact. A number of measures aimed at curbing rising energy prices were discussed, drawing on options presented by the Commission. To provide relief to consumers, member states were encouraged to continue to make the best use of the toolbox of measures identified by the Commission, including the application of the state aid temporary crisis framework as a time-limited departure from the status quo, temporary taxation of windfall profits and various direct supports to consumers.
We asked the Commission and member states to urgently assess further short-term options that could help to reduce gas and electricity prices. We discussed how to take work forward on monitoring and optimising the functioning of the electricity market. The findings of the final reports from the EU's Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators and the European Securities and Markets Authority will feed into these deliberations in the coming weeks. The Commission will come forward with a REPowerEU plan in May. It is important that any proposals to address the problem of excessive electricity prices do not have unintended consequences for the integrity of the Single Market, that they maintain incentives for the green transition and, above all, preserve security of supply. Leaders will keep this important matter under regular review.
Covid-19 has been a standing item on the agenda of the European Council and we again took stock of the epidemiological situation across Europe. Our focus was on co-ordinating efforts in response to the pandemic, as well as the strengthening of pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. We also welcomed the progress made recently in the World Trade Organization, WTO, concerning the issue of intellectual property rights. While Omicron remains the dominant variant and is highly transmissible, thankfully, it has not caused the same degree of threat as previous variants. Many member states have taken the opportunity to ease restrictions and shorten the isolation and quarantine periods for close contacts. Collectively, it is important to maintain an appropriate level of vigilance against Covid-19, which continues to circulate in our communities.
We also re-elected the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, for a second term ending in November 2024. I congratulated him on his re-election and look forward to continued positive collaboration with him, including at future meetings of the European Council.
We find ourselves at a historic inflection point. European Union leaders are working together in an unprecedented way to leverage our collective economic, strategic and political power and influence to stop Russia's war in Ukraine. We want to see a just end to this war and will continue to apply targeted and increased pressure to bring that about, in partnership with like-minded global partners. Ukraine deserves no less.
The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan will address economic issues and external relations in his wrap-up remarks.
Leaders agreed to hold a special meeting of the European Council to follow up on the issues discussed. This will take place in advance of the scheduled meeting the European Council in June. I will continue to report to the House on these discussions.
The recent meeting of the European Council provided leaders with a prime opportunity to address the cost of living crisis and in particular the skyrocketing energy bills that have hammered workers and families for more than a year now. For more than five months, Sinn Féin has been calling on the Government to engage with the European Commission to cut VAT on these extortionate bills. Unfortunately this is something that the Taoiseach and the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform have pushed back against. All the while, the price of energy has soared and households found it increasingly difficult to light and heat their homes or to put fuel in the car to get to work.
Given the intense pressure people are under, and given that a VAT break is a common-sense solution, it is astonishing that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, wrote to the European Commission only three weeks ago, on 10 March, months after the idea was first raised with the Government in the Dáil. The constant refrain from the Taoiseach and from the Minister was that barriers presented by Europe prevented the Government from implementing a VAT cut. Time and again, Government representatives said they were awaiting movement from the EU and the Commission for further cost-of-living measures. This Council meeting surely provided the Taoiseach and the Government with the platform to make it clear to our European partners that workers and families in Ireland desperately need a VAT cut on energy bills. Therefore, I am very disappointed that the Taoiseach did not elaborate on this specific point in his contribution. He stated, "A number of measures aimed at curbing rising energy prices were discussed, drawing on options presented by the European Commission." I, for one, would have appreciated clarity on the VAT issue because movement on that will make a big difference for many families who do not have a spare euro to give and who saw the Government's €200 credit wiped out before it was delivered. I assume, given the intensity of the crisis faced by workers and families, that the Taoiseach has taken the opportunity to request a special derogation on fuels and energy; on electricity, gas and home heating oil. Indeed, the statement outlining the conclusions from the European Council meeting makes clear that there is flexibility from the Commission for member states to seek a reduction on VAT on energy bills for consumers. The Government now explicitly has the space it said it required from Europe to implement a VAT cut. The urgency required must be demonstrated to do what needs to be done to give hard-pressed households the break they so desperately need.
I ask that the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, tell us whether the Government has, in fact, formally requested a special derogation on the VAT directives. We are in a real crisis and people need to get real help and support from the Government. There can be no doubt about it. Across the State, people are faced with the choice of heating or eating. I have said this many times in this Chamber but I want to give one example, as it is of value to place it on the record. My colleague, Deputy Kerrane, conducted a cost-of-living study recently. The stories we were told are utterly heartbreaking. I will give one. One person responded that they and their partner are both students in their final year of college. So these are young people. They said that there are days we have had to miss college and their daughter has missed preschool because they could not afford petrol to drive there. Other days they have had to lie that we forgot our daughter’s lunch because they had no lunch box options left in the fridge. That is the reality of it. I am sure that everyone recognises those types of stories. There can be no more excuses and there cannot be further delay. The Government cannot hide behind an alibi of complexity although, of course, these matters are complex. I have told the Taoiseach many times that the Government cannot do everything, and there is no expectation that it can do everything to get living costs down, but it can certainly do much more and it must do so. That includes cutting VAT on energy bills as an emergency measure. This must be done as soon as possible. It will make a real and substantial difference for those struggling to make ends meet and who simply need breathing space.
I will continue with some of the questions I brought up previously. Maybe there will be an opportunity, when the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, takes questions later, that we might get some answers. President Zelenskyy stated clearly what Ukraine is facing, including Russian war crimes. We have all seen the images out of Bucha. We welcomed Anastasiia, the little girl who was in the Chamber, and heard how her father is at this time fighting for his homeland. That is what the Ukrainians are dealing with. We have to do whatever we can that has an impact on the ability of Russia and the Putin regime to fight this war. We need answers on due diligence being done on section 110 and the money that has sloshed through the International Financial Services Centre, IFSC, but also in respect of the list the ambassador, Ms Larysa Gerasko, had given to the Department of Foreign Affairs of companies that were still trading with Russia. I understand there has been movement in this regard but we need to ensure that as much as possible is done to remove Russia's ability to fight this war. It would be good manners to get an answer back to the ambassador and her team. We all understand the difficulty that arises with the embeddedness and connectivity of business but we need to do due diligence and get to where we need to be on that.
The Taoiseach spoke a lot about energy security. We all understand the situation that we are dealing with. When we talk about sanctions and Russia, that means fuel. We need to see movement at a European Union level on block-buys. It is vital that the Minister of State would give the House updates on all the interactions there have been on seeking the derogation on the VAT rate that would allow us a tool to reduce the pain people are suffering here at present. During the pandemic we made many decisions on the basis of keeping the ship afloat, keeping families safe, keeping businesses afloat and ensuring that we had an economy afterwards. We need to ensure that again in these circumstances and at this time. The block-buys are huge. We know that in the long term we need to escalate everything we are doing to move towards renewable energy. We know we can be a wind energy hub or superpower. That is where it needs to go but in the short term, we need to ensure that people have fuel and energy and that they have electricity that is affordable and that we do not push them into further poverty. That is a given. We need whatever plans can be put in place from the European Union and here as soon as possible. May will just not come quickly enough for that.
Can we get details on any conversations that have taken place on China and its current relationship with Russia?
We would like to see the Chinese not supporting what is a disgraceful war in Ukraine. I am sure they realise it does not suit them in the long term.
I welcome the fact there have been conversations around Bosnia. I, among others, have met the Bosnian ambassador and he spoke of some of the hybrid threats we have been dealing with from Russia, its power plays, how this has impacted and the obvious difficulty with Republika Srpska. I would like an update on that.
We support providing a roadmap to the likes of Ukraine for accession to the EU. Moldova is doing a huge amount of heavy lifting with the current humanitarian difficulties. Deputy Brady is there with a delegation from the EU affairs committee to look at what is happening from a human point of view and what can be done to make that roadmap clear.
We are talking security and defence so it is straight to say any moves, or even making moves that look like we are moving the EU towards a military alliance, could create difficulties if, as we hope, Vladimir Putin gets to a place where he needs a way out. We do not need that to be part of the negotiating gambit.
We still have a huge body of work to do on the humanitarian aspect, especially where housing is concerned. There is going to be need for imagination. There is going to be free flow of credit. We will have to make up for the mistakes we have not dealt with in relation to addressing the situation.
Indeed. The European Council met on 24 and 25 March. Unfortunately, it did not deliver the additional sanctions against Russia, supports for the Ukrainian people or the much-needed derogation on VAT we require to allow us reduce the costs of energy for struggling households.
The Labour Party is in strong support of Ukraine joining the EU and we as a union need to speak as one voice to expedite that. We have consistently called for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador. The crimes against humanity uncovered in Bucha are just some of the atrocities the Russian Army has carried out across the territory of Ukraine. Mariupol, Sumy, Chernihiv and hundreds of other cities, towns and villages have borne witness to Russian barbarity. Let us not forget Russian forces never expected to have their crimes in Bucha uncovered. They expected that territory to stay conquered. We must respond to the horrors perpetrated by Russian soldiers. Ireland has expelled four Russian diplomats but that still leaves 27 officials here, at least ten of whom are accredited diplomats under the Vienna Convention. They must go and it is no longer acceptable. There is no legitimate reason for that number of Russian diplomats to be based here.
The Ukrainian people have fought valiantly and defeated the Russian army in the Kyiv region but they face new challenges in the south and east. There will now be a fifth package of EU sanctions with bans on Russian coal, on ships accessing EU ports, blocks on road transport operators, bans on the export of advanced semiconductors and machinery and a ban on Russian companies tendering for contracts across the EU. However, it simply does not go far enough. The Taoiseach said earlier Ireland wants the strongest possible sanctions against Russia. We must continue to increase the economic pressure on the Russian Federation. The Labour Party is calling for an embargo on Russian oil and gas. EU countries have paid €35 billion to Russia in energy payments since the start of the year. That is funding Putin's war effort and it must cease. President Zelenskyy wants us to do this. The remaining Russian banks and financial institutions must be cut off from SWIFT and financial sanctions must be rigourously enforced. That means resourcing teams to track down those trying to circumvent and avoid them. Secondary sanctions must also be implemented to ensure current measures cannot be circumvented and other measures considered to target commercial activity that takes place outside the EU and US. The Labour Party calls once more on the Government to expedite our Magnitsky Bill to crack down on human rights abusers. We must also bring transparency to the IFSC and name those who are the beneficial owners of section 110 special purpose vehicles that are subject to sanctions.
Ireland can and must keep the door open to Ukrainian refugees and do all we can to support those who reach our shores. However, we must massively increase our humanitarian support to those remaining in Ukraine with food, medical supplies and cash. We have contributed to the EU €500 million defence package with non-lethal aid and provided €20 million of humanitarian aid but multiples of that will be required. We must be ready to rebuild Ukraine when peace eventually comes. Now is the time to start looking at how we finance that and requisition those Russian assets that have been frozen around the world and deploy them to build a new Ukraine following the wanton destruction caused by Putin's army. Methods to reduce and cancel Ukrainian debt must also be part of that future.
In conclusion, since last November the Labour Party has advocated a reduction in the VAT rate on electricity and gas supplies, which is currently 13.5%. In January we tabled a motion in the House explicitly calling on the Government to seek a derogation from the EU that would allow us to reduce this VAT rate and restore it back to that pre-crisis level. We again call on the Government to secure that derogation to help tackle the cost of living crisis.
The special European Council meeting held on 24 February and the informal meeting held in Versailles on 10 and 11 March, as well as the scheduled Council meeting that took place on 24 and 25 March were all dominated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and rightly so. The situation in Ukraine is becoming more horrific by the day. What has been revealed in the town of Bucha and around Kyiv following the retreat of the Russian forces is appalling. Innocent victims have been targeted. Sexual violence, torture and summary executions have been carried out by Russian troops. No doubt this was done with President Putin's knowledge. President Zelenskyy has described these events as genocide.
Our solidarity with Ukraine and the solidarity of EU member states must remain firm. Ireland has not been found wanting in our response to this war. We have consistently supported comprehensive sanctions on Russia, including the fifth round announced yesterday, which involves a ban on Russian coal imports and on Russian ships entering EU ports, among other things. I understand a ban on Russian oil is also being worked on and I hope this can be agreed on at the earliest opportunity. We got behind the measures proposed under the European peace facility. We fully responded to the enormous humanitarian crisis now unfolding. We wholeheartedly backed Ukraine's application for EU membership and I hope the European Commission's opinion in this regard will be available quickly and that it will be a positive one. President Zelenksyy, in his address to both Houses this morning, thanked Ireland for our financial and humanitarian support and also asked us, through our Taoiseach, to bring pressure to bear on the European Council and indeed the Commission to go further with the sanctions. In his response the Taoiseach said he would do that, which I welcome. We must do everything possible to bring this war to an end, stop the slaughter of innocent civilians and have a ceasefire put in place as soon as possible.
President Biden has stated the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the world to a tipping point of fundamental change with a battle for supremacy between democracy and autocracy.
That is certainly an interesting analysis. In this context, I want to draw attention to the meeting in recent days between the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council with the Chinese President and Prime Minister. The response of China to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been ambiguous. The EU must insist that China does not try to assist Russia in evading sanctions or to supply Russia with weaponry. China should be proactive in trying to bring about an end to the conflict and encourage a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. We have lots of reasons to be critical of China but it would be doing the world a great favour if it embarked on this diplomatic course of action.
Questions have also been asked about India's position on the war in Ukraine and the Taoiseach has also raised this issue. India has not agreed to sanctions or condemned the Russian invasion. Recently Russia's foreign minister, Mr. Sergeĭ Lavrov, has actually praised the neutral stance taken by Prime Minister Modi with regard to the war. This is disappointing and must surely have consequences, as countries take sides in the aforementioned democracy vs autocracy conflict.
As we know, there have been many calls to expel the Russian ambassador to Ireland, Mr. Yury Filatov, and in effect, to break off diplomatic relations with Russian, given the blatant lies he has told us on national television and elsewhere. At the very least, that man needs to do a course in Carr Communications or maybe our former colleague, Mr. Ivan Yates could assist him when he is doing television appearances. I am aware of the advice given by the Government on this matter, having regard to the provisions of the 1961 Vienna Convention. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has said that any move to expel the ambassador as well as staff and so-called operatives would result in reciprocal action being taken by the Russian authorities in respect of our embassy in Moscow. This could jeopardise our strategic interests, including the need to obtain on the ground, first-hand information and also the prospect of assisting Irish citizens in need in the region. He has also said that any action in this regard will be taken in co-ordination with our EU partners. Of course, he was dead right to block the planning application by the embassy to greatly expand its buildings on the Russian embassy site. As we know, four Russian diplomats based in the Russian embassy in Ireland have been expelled. Other EU member states have taken similar action. In diplomatic speak, the expelled Russian diplomats in Ireland were engaged in activities that were "not in accordance with international standards of diplomatic behaviour". There is no doubt in my mind that these so-called diplomats were military spies engaged in the collection of intelligence and espionage and sources close to An Garda Síochána have said as much. The suggestion is that the four were part of the Russian military agency known as the GRU. There are still many more Russian diplomats based in Orwell Road and the option of expelling the ambassador or more staff and operatives must be kept under active consideration.
The European Commission agreed to phase out our dependency on Russian oil, gas and coal by 2027. At the moment 40% of Europe's gas and 25% of Europe's oil comes from Russia. Arising from this, there have been huge increases in the price of fuel generally. It seems that there was agreement in principle at the European Council meeting to reduce VAT on fuel to 9%. Further engagement with the Commission in this regard is underway. As we know, the current rate is 13.5% in Ireland as a result of a derogation we obtained previously. If nothing changes and we implemented a temporary cut in VAT, the rate would revert to the standard rate of 23% afterwards. I hope that we can hear back from the European Commission on this matter in the near future.
I am pleased that the strategic compass has also been agreed by the European Council. Our traditional policy of military neutrality has been the cornerstone of our foreign policy and there should be no question of us joining a military alliance. That said, we should continue to play an active part in the development of the EU's common security and defence policy, having regard to the new challenges confronting Europe at this time. The demands for crisis management and peacekeeping should remain our guiding principle as regards the common security and defence policy and the associated strategic compass.
Finally, I would like to comment on the Conference on the Future of Europe. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues arising from that have given the conference an added impetus. It is hoped that the conference will conclude its business by 9 May next. This is an ambitious target. Concerns have been expressed about the methodology to be utilised to finalise the report. I hope that the voices of citizens will not be drowned out as this process concludes and that real and lasting improvements to the future workings of the EU and its institutions will be the outcome of this extensive consultation and deliberation by so many people.
The 50th anniversary of Ireland's referendum on joining the EU falls on 10 May next. The Government will be putting in place an EU 50 programme. I look forward to that celebration of our membership of the EU and the democratic values that it represents
Usually the Taoiseach or the Minister of State with responsibility for Europe would be present for these debates. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy O' Donovan, to kindly ensure that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue and, more importantly, his departmental officials are provided with a transcript of what I am about to say because it has major implications for our fishing industry.
The Minister of State knows that our industry is in the worst state that it has ever been in, following a number of blows, the first of which was Brexit and the EU, UK trade agreement. This resulted in another huge reduction in quota for Irish fishermen. It is a mortal sin that we have 12% of the waters of all of the European Union but only around 4% of the fish. We actually get about 15% of the fish in our own waters. That is why we are now in a situation where the Government is asking the industry to decommission another 60 vessels. If we compare the situation 15 years ago to today, we will have only one third of the fleet that was over 18 m. This is coupled with the pandemic, the impact on the markets for our industry and the latest disastrous blow which is the huge increase in fuel costs. Incredibly, there has been no real substantive intervention by the Minister to deal with this.
Why do I raise all of this now? I raise it because many of the problems we have are due to the fact that access to our fisheries is governed by the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP and Europe is the place to make that fight and get our fair share. What we are doing in this country is punishing fishermen more and more. As we speak, a Norwegian vessel has been forced to land in Derry rather than Killybegs because of a decision of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA regarding the blue whiting on that vessel and on another vessel from Denmark. The whiting is for human consumption and is destined for places like west Africa. It is a really important and affordable source of protein for communities in West Africa. It was supposed to go through a fish producer and processor in Killybegs but the SFPA said that the water had to be separated from the fish. That essentially turns the blue whiting into fish meal so rather than turn food into fish meal, the Danish vessel turned away and today, the Norwegian vessel has had to go to Derry. The processor in Derry operates under the same European Union rules but commonsense is in play. This means that approximately 40 lorry loads of fish will be coming from Derry to Killybegs while we get lectured about climate change and our responsibilities. This is the madness and insanity of the way we interpret EU rules. An episode of "Father Ted" would not compare to what we are seeing right now in Killybegs.
It is madness to ask fishermen to turn food for human consumption, destined for places like West Africa, into fish meal. This matter was raised earlier by Deputy Doherty. I appeal to the Minister of State to ensure that the transcript of my contribution is urgently given to his colleague in Cabinet, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue in order that he can he intervene as a matter of urgency. We are making a laughing stock of ourselves here in terms of our fishing industry. After everything it has been through, this is the last thing it needs.
President Zelenskyy spoke powerfully to the Oireachtas this morning about the effect the ongoing war is having on the civilian population in the Ukraine and about how civilians fleeing war are being killed in cars on roadways as they attempt to leave the besieged city of Mariupol. We must all condemn in the strongest possible terms the treatment of the civilian population in Ukraine by the invading forces from Russia, the bombardment of cities and civilians, the use of hunger as a weapon, as mentioned by President Zelenskyy, the humanitarian disaster in the besieged city of Mariupol and the atrocities at Bucha, where innocent civilians were murdered with their hands tied behind their backs. We have heard of children being murdered while trying to escape with their families in cars while waving white flags.
Condemnation is never enough. We need action. Irish people want the Government to do everything it can to support the people of the Ukraine. It is very important to recognise that there has been very significant help and assistance given to date. However, it has not been enough. Ireland, the European Union and the international community must do everything they can to stop these atrocities. Measures taken to date have not been sufficiently effective. The Russian ambassador should be expelled immediately, as should the entire Russian embassy staff. There must be much stronger sanctions and much stronger practical assistance given to the Ukrainian people. We are at a point where partial measures simply are not enough. This is a moment of truth for the European Union. Will it not just stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine? Will it also act in the strongest possible way to defend them?
We must stand up against the aggression, the war crimes and the slaughter of innocent civilians. If we do not do that now and with full measures, when will we do it? We cannot allow the short-term economic interests of some countries to take precedence over stopping these atrocities. There is the point that the longer this war goes on, the longer will be the economic damage to various economies, including European economies, and the longer it will result in food shortages and unaffordable, high food prices, especially in lower income countries, as pointed out earlier by President Zelenskyy.
In terms of taking the toughest possible action and doing that in regard to diplomatic staff, our first instinct should always be to use diplomatic means. We should always support efforts to de-escalate and diplomatic efforts to find peace. However, this invasion is not the first act of aggression by Russia towards Ukraine. It follows years of aggressive armed occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine and years of use of gas as a weapon to undermine the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. It follows the breaking of international agreements, including the guarantees that Russia gave Ukraine when it surrendered its nuclear weapons shortly after independence and the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the failure of Russia to withdraw its troops from eastern Ukraine, as promised under the Minsk agreements.
On Leaders' Questions, my colleague, Deputy Catherine Murphy, raised with the Taoiseach issues relating to energy, energy security and the cost of energy. She made a point about the personal crisis that many families are facing and contrasted that with the unintended windfall for the Government in terms of increased VAT receipts. There is a need to address this matter as quickly as possible. It is welcome that it has been raised at the European Council, that flexibility is being sought and that some progress is being made, but families and households need urgency on that. Last week and this week, people are being obliged to make impossible decisions about whether to pay rent, make mortgage repayments, pay utility bills or do their weekly shop in order that they can put food on the table. These are impossible decisions. We need urgent action on this matter. This is key to building cohesion within the European Union. Building the ability of the European Union to act cohesively means that, in conjunction with governments, it does everything it can to provide the flexibility to allow cost of living and energy costs to come down for people.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this very important debate. I am grateful to the Taoiseach for updating us on the special European Council meeting that took place on 24 and 25 March. I will not lie. The results of this are extremely disappointing. The fifth round of sanctions that were announced yesterday at the ECOFIN meeting, while very welcome, are yet another piecemeal approach to this situation. If we truly want to have an impact and cut off the financing of President Vladimir Putin's vicious war machine, we need to stop messing around. We need to go straight to the level of meaningful and far-reaching sanctions that will have an impact. That the EU is still paying Russia for oil, gas and, up until a couple of days from now, coal is abhorrent. This money is going directly into financing the guns, tanks and bombs that are ruining Ukraine and taking the lives of women, children, men and fighters on an hourly basis.
I was appalled this morning when an Irish Member of the European Parliament stated that the latest round of sanctions make her sick. What makes me sick are the images of children having their names and address written on their backs, some of whom are the same age as my daughter and wearing nappies, and those of children who have been raped and murdered lying strewn on the street. That particular Members of this House could not have the good grace and courtesy to applaud a man who is leading his country against a vicious war machine was absolutely reprehensible. The whataboutery and the sheer mental and ethical gymnastics utilised to excuse this lack of dignity, for a brief moment made me ashamed to be a Member of this House. The vast majority of Members of this House, like the vast majority of people across this country, know that what is happening in Ukraine is a fight between good and evil. The evil is very much being directed from Moscow by President Vladimir Putin and the stooges and oligarchs who surround him. They are the people who the European Union is continuing to allow access SWIFT completely. They are the people who are lining their pockets while they send young boys off as conscripts to murder women and children in Ukraine. It is an absolutely appalling state of affairs, the likes of which have not been seen on this Continent since the darkest days of the Second World War. That is why at the next emergency European Council meeting, because there will be another meeting held in an emergency status and another round of sanctions, we need to see the most meaningful, purposeful sanctions and to see the Irish Minister take the lead at that meeting. No more whataboutery and no increments.
This afternoon, we heard the absolute appalling comment by the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Hungary, Mr. Viktor Orbán, when he said that he has no problem paying the Russians in roubles for their gas. What sort of a cretinous line is that to take? The EU cannot just be strong with its own members; it also has to look at its partner countries around the world and ask them to state clearly if they are with us or against us. It needs to look at the United Arab Emirates and countries far closer to home such as Serbia, which aspires to join the European Union, and Brazil, Russia, India and China - the BRIC countries - and the North African countries that are happy to continue to facilitate and service the Russian war machine. They need to be cut-off from European markets.
The EU needs to take its place as the leader of the free and open Western world. The EU is the largest economic bloc. We have spent the past number of years talking about the power and importance of he Single Market. Where will that power and importance be when the people of Bucha return to their homes and see them levelled and the bodies their loved ones lying not in a ditch or a shallow grave but strewn along the roadway? We have seen the tactics of this vile and brutal Russian machine in these cities. No doubt, when the Ukrainian Army liberates Mariupol, it will uncover the sort of sites and scenes that will make us all genuinely sick to our stomachs. We will sickened not by faux words about sanctions, but by genuine scenes. The approach of the Russian Government to the people of Ukraine and the people of Europe is appalling.
The response of the European Council at its most recent meeting and at ECOFIN yesterday simply is not good enough. I am probably the most pro-European Member of this House. I spend pretty much every day talking about the importance of Europe but I have no problem being critical when I need to be. The European response to the war in Ukraine so far has not been good enough. I know our response will strengthen. We thought the first round of sanctions again Russia would be good enough. We are now on the fifth round of sanctions.
Decisions will, unfortunately, also have to be made in Ireland. We talk about solidarity and we received the warm words of President Zelenskyy this morning. We must ask if we are doing enough and if we have a credible plan to do enough, not just for the Ukrainian people but for our partners in the European Union as we deal with the fallout of this brutal war.
There are two more areas I would like to raise, the first of which relates to our response to receiving refugees and the need for a co-ordinated European Union plan. I do not believe a plan has been fully worked out yet. We need a plan for the next couple of months and for relief efforts to buttress the efforts of Poland, Moldova, Slovakia and other member states but we must also realise that our guests from Ukraine are going to be in our countries for a number of years. That realisation needs to be accompanied by a genuine Europe-wide plan for their relocation and shelter, and for the provision of employment opportunities and social protection. We must also bear in mind that these people are coming from a war-torn area and a traumatic situation and will be facing into many more months when traumatic stories from war-torn areas will be coming to their homes. How are they going to react when they get news that their 19-year-old son, their brother or husband has been killed in action? How will they feel when they see the images coming from Bucha or Mariupol, knowing well that they could be their neighbourhoods, as they sit in Lisdoonvarna, Killiney, Roscommon or wherever they might be? We need to be able to take this approach. Some 10 million Ukrainians have lost their homes in the largest displacement of people since the Second World War and we need a level of joined-up thinking.
The cost of living crisis is one that everyone across this House talks about on a daily basis. Everyone presents different solutions. We must listen to each other and disagree when we need to. It is key that we consider the European approach to the cost of living crisis. I was disappointed that the read-out from the European Council meeting showed that the European Commission asked member states to look at the open toolbox of opportunities. What is needed is clear. The Irish Government needs to bring to the next European Council meeting a resolve to achieve a derogation on VAT rates for fuel. The ability to cut VAT has saved other sectors of our economy during tough economic times in the past. This is about providing genuine relief to households and businesses across the country quickly. It would be far more meaningful than many of the other suggestions that are being made.
Today we heard the powerful and moving testimony of President Zelenskyy. We all expressed our solidarity and support for Ukraine and its people as they suffer during this brutal war. We need to do all we can, even as a militarily neutral country. That starts by looking at domestic policy and legislation.
We know that the International Financial Services Centre, IFSC, has become a major offshore financial centre for the Russian economy and I have been raising this issue since 2020. Most people are now aware of it as an issue. The Central Bank recently confirmed that almost half the Russian connected vehicles in the IFSC are linked to sanctioned individuals and companies. We know that the IFSC was previously used for sanction avoidance.
I will raise the so-called golden visa and golden passport schemes, which allow elite foreign investors to buy residency and citizenship. Back in 2020, the EU Commission issued letters of formal notice to Cyprus and Malta regarding their golden passport schemes. Both countries are major havens for laundering Russian money. In March, the EU Commissioner for Justice noted that the phasing out of citizenship by investment schemes "is fully in line with the Commission's priorities".
I note that the Government has now frozen applications for these visas and passports for Russian investors. I note the same has been done in the UK. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said that was being done to stop "corrupt elites who threaten our national security and push dirty money around our cities". Given these concerns and the historical role the IFSC has played, it is high time for an audit because there are serious security risks and, potentially, fraudulent behaviour involved.
In many regions around the world, people are facing intense oppression and humanitarian crises brought on by oppressive regimes. All these wars are extremely challenging for Europe. The brutal war being raged by the Russian Government in Ukraine has no end in sight. President Zelenskyy has shown strong leadership since the war started, as he did in speaking to the joint Houses of the Oireachtas this morning. Day by day, more horrific accounts of war crimes are coming to light. These must be punished and Putin must be held responsible.
We are witnessing increased violence in Palestine at the hand of apartheid Israel. There are illegal settlements and administrative detentions. The voices of Michael Lynk and Amnesty International are among an increasing number of reputable voices calling out Israel's apartheid nature. If we are going to be consistent in our condemnation of terror, Israel must be sanctioned for its crimes, which have made a two-state solution virtually impossible.
War in Yemen is destroying countless lives with the arms industry in Europe the only beneficiary as it makes eye-watering profits. If we are going to be consistent, Saudi Arabia must be sanctioned for its crimes.
From the Council of Europe to the UN Security Council, Ireland needs to be a progressive voice and a leader for developing nations such as Western Sahara, which for years was under European colonial rule and is now under Moroccan occupation. Ireland is a small nation and needs to be a voice for other small nations such as Western Sahara. We must promote the right of the Western Saharan people to self-determination and allow them to complete the process of decolonisation.
I express our solidarity with the people of Ukraine. People across the world have been horrified and moved by the graphic pictures of horror and brutality unleashed by the invading imperialist Russian forces that have emerged. Those images cannot but move people and give them a sense of the extreme horror of war.
I will address the point that was made by Deputy Richmond which was, in some ways, an attempt to suggest that People Before Profit and others on the left are in some way pro-Putin because we do not support further escalation by the West or the ratcheting up of sanctions. It is important to remember that while the West was rolling out the red carpet for Putin, it was the socialist left which consistently opposed him as a despot and warmonger. Many of those who today are attacking the left were silent when Putin was committing brutal war crimes against the people of Chechnya. Let us not forget that during that invasion, Putin was given a state visit to the UK by Tony Blair and Fianna Fáil's own Bertie Ahern shook his bloodstained hand while socialists were protesting outside. The socialist left were the ones who spoke out against that war. Even at the start of this year when Russian troops were sent to Kazakhstan as part of a Collective Security Treaty Organization, CSTO, operation to put down and intimidate a workers' uprising, it was the socialist left that spoke out and organised international events in solidarity with Kazakh trade unionists and socialists. The Department of Foreign Affairs was utterly silent on the matter.
Deputy Boyd Barrett today reiterated our total opposition to Putin and his bloody war. We stood with the people of Ukraine today and we stand with them in their struggle against the Russian invasion. However, that does not mean we have to go along with the calls for the escalation of the conflict by the West. For example, what does a NATO no-fly zone mean in reality? It means a hot conflict and an air war between NATO forces and Russia over the territory of Ukraine. It is a recipe for a global conflict and, potentially, a global nuclear conflict. The French finance minister has described the escalation of sanctions as "total economic war". They have been described as the harshest sanctions that have ever existed.
What is the impact of these sanctions? What is their impact on the ordinary Russian people who are not responsible for this war? There is an impressive anti-war movement from below. People look back now at the wars in Iraq. What came before the first war in Iraq were horrendous sanctions that were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 children. Everybody acknowledges that was wrong. Sanctions that impact on ordinary people are wrong. They also serve to undermine what we need, which is for the anti-war movement to grow. They bolster Putin in the polls by portraying this as coming from the outside, as opposed to showing ordinary Russian people that they do not benefit from his warmongering.
I note the re-election of a far-right, racist and homophobic Government in Hungary at the weekend. While this will no doubt dismay fighters for social progress, it should be noted that four separate homophobic and transphobic referendums were defeated on the day. The questions were defeated by a spoil the vote campaign, which ensured that the threshold of 50% was not reached. I express solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Hungary. I salute those who successfully fought those referendums but who must now face the horrors of another Orbán Government. The LGBTQ community in Hungary is not the only community that faces repression at the hands of the Orbán Government. Immigrants face racist laws, while organised workers face his anti-union laws. Others can suffer at the hands of that Government as well. I note the EU intervention but the key to challenging and toppling this far-right, racist, homophobic Orbán regime lies with the working class and the oppressed in Hungary.
Listening to President Zelenskyy this morning was a very moving experience. His words were thoughtful and reflective. The truths he told about the appalling things that are happening to his fellow citizens in Ukraine are shocking and horrifying. Worse is probably yet to come. Putin's soldiers are massacring civilians and razing cities to the ground just like the Nazis did in the Second World War. What is happening is shocking and unbelievable.
Some people in this House have spoken about Israel. That is fine. That is their right and their entitlement. During the Second World War, one in every four Jews killed was massacred by the Nazis in Ukraine. We cannot ignore what happened to the Jews right around Europe during the Second World War.
In the play Julius Caesar, it is stated about Caesar that, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." So let it be with Putin when his time comes. He will be remembered forever for the evil he has done. Coming from Drogheda, I am reminded of a previous evil person, Oliver Cromwell, who slaughtered most of the inhabitants of my town. Just as Cromwell slaughtered inhabitants and deported citizens of Ireland at that time, Putin is doing the same by removing people from where they live in Ukraine and bringing them under arrest to Russia. That is entirely unacceptable.
The lessons we are learning today are very serious and will be long-lasting. The world has changed utterly. Ireland is taking the right steps in the right way at the heart of our policy on Europe. President Zelenskyy clarified his support for what the Government is doing and stated the need to continue to support Ukraine's policy. Any steps we can take in the United Nations to further support the advent of peace in this war must be accepted and lauded. For the generations to come, for the young people being born today, for my grandchildren, other Members' children and so on, we need to ensure Europe is stable, with Ireland at its heart. This dictator, Putin, must be put down by any means necessary. As a neutral country, we can only go so far but every possible effort we can make must be supported and advanced. At the heart of all of this is the fact that evil can never triumph and good must win in the end.
I welcome the opportunity to speak following the European Council meeting the week before last. On the mind of everybody in this House, as well as across the country and across Europe, is the energy crisis. That crisis is leading to a very severe cost-of-living crisis that is making life difficult for our people. Our short-term challenge is solving the energy crisis. This has already been spoken about in the House today and on many previous occasions in recent weeks and months.
I want to talk about the medium- and long-term energy crisis. There has been some debate about that but I do not think there has been enough debate or that it has been good enough. There is a tendency from many commentators to double down on some of the technologies and solutions of the past. Those solutions may have served us well but, especially given the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changereport on Monday, of which colleagues will be aware, we do not have any time to lose in transitioning to a clean energy economy. Ireland has vast renewable energy resources off our coasts, particularly the west coast. If we put our minds to it and if we seek the help of Europe, we can provide ten times as much energy as we will ever need. We can satisfy our domestic need and we can help Europe get off its addiction to Russian fossil fuels. This is the medium and long-term challenge that we must follow.
We are at a fork in the road. The Ceann Comhairle and the Minister of State will probably appreciate me quoting Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We are at the fork in the road. We are looking at the path diverging and we have a choice. Will we do what we did in the 1970s during the oil crisis? We built a coal-fired power station, unlike the Danes, who invested heavily in renewable energy. That was quite a new concept at the time. Now, because they did that in the 1970s, the Danes have a €10 billion industry. They got behind the Germans, the Spanish and the Americans to some extent. Ireland played it safe and built a coal-fired power station, and now we are in a very challenging situation. We should not make the same mistake again.
We have an opportunity to be world leaders and innovators. We are innovators in many sectors and we can be innovators in the development of offshore wind technology, including both floating and fixed technology. To make this work, we have to develop a green hydrogen economy. This is not a technological challenge but a societal and economic one. We have to be the first to do it. We should do it because we have the energy - more clean energy than nearly any other country. While the solution for many countries across Europe and the world might be LNG or nuclear power, these are not the solutions for Ireland. Ireland has a clear and clean path that it can follow. If we speak to Europe, and to the European need for clean energy, and ask for help to scale up, escalate and expedite the delivery of clean energy from the western flank of Europe, we can get there much more quickly than we had planned heretofore.
Let us be under no illusion that it is a huge challenge but it is the right path and the one we should follow.
I was honoured to be in this Chamber this morning to listen to the address of the Ukrainian President, Mr. Zelenskyy. There is a serious need for us to support the Ukrainian people and to push the UN, European Commission and other relevant bodies to investigate the war crimes that are being committed in Ukraine every day. Alongside this, we cannot forget the plight of those in Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Yemen and other countries where parents put their children to bed every night without knowing what the following day will bring. We must stand against all atrocities against humanity. We have a proud history of military neutrality in global conflicts. We must protect this but we must also use our reputation to push for severe sanctions on those who would deny people their human rights. The Government's opposition to legislation such as the occupied territories Bill must end. Why is Fine Gael preventing the Government from passing this much-needed Bill? The Bill has the support of the majority of Deputies.
We must also end the inhumane conditions of direct provision, which is something the Government has committed to in its programme for Government. That needs to be delivered. This House has a chance to deliver on these issues and I ask the Minister of State and the Government to ensure they do so.
I have read the 11 pages of conclusions following the recent European Council meeting and I have less than two minutes so I will just pick out a couple of points. It is clear from the meeting that the EU recognises that we have a cost-of-living crisis and that a significant part of this is energy costs. While the EU is willing to act we need clarity on how it will do so as soon as possible. In the meantime, the Government must act to alleviate the pressure people are under. I spoke to a lady yesterday who had just received her two-month electricity bill and it came to €490. She is genuinely fearful for her family's solvency and if a similar bill comes next time she does not know what she will do. She is not alone. The Government must stop offering ridiculous money-saving suggestions if it will not put its money where its mouth is.
The European Council also discussed the worsening situation in Ukraine. I would like to express my condemnation of the 9 March Russian air strike on the maternity hospital in Mariupol. Russian soldiers have forcibly deported the surviving staff and patients of the hospital, sending more than 70 people into Russia. Under the Geneva Conventions, it is a war crime for an occupying power to deport people to any other country during an international conflict. The perpetrators must be held to account for this atrocity and for their deliberate targeting of the most vulnerable in Ukrainian society. We need to send a message that Russian aggression will not be tolerated and that message should be sent home to Russia, along with the Russian ambassador.
I want to pick up where Deputy Leddin left off. Last December, Dáil Éireann unanimously passed a motion that, among other things, called on the Government to design 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 to the mainland European grid. This would provide large quantities of clean and green electricity to the EU and create tens of thousands of jobs along the western seaboard in the next decade, bringing about balanced regional development in this country. That is something that has been talked about for a long time and this is the opportunity to implement that. This measure would also significantly reduce the cost of electricity for Irish homes, providing us with the cheapest electricity in Europe. To do that, we need to establish an offshore renewable development authority to drive the type of change and strategic thinking needed in this country to make this opportunity a reality.
In tandem with that, the Government needs to engage directly at European Council level to push for the need to develop this Atlantic interconnector and connect it to the European grid. In so doing, we would bring Irish-generated clean electricity into the heart of Europe. We will be pushing an open door on this with the European Commission and with our European colleagues but the initiative must come from the Government. I am focusing on this issue because I have personal experience of dealing with the Celtic interconnector and of how imperative it was for Ireland to take a leadership role on that. We brought our French colleagues along that road with us and tremendous work had to be done on that. We did that and we secured the support of the European Commission for it. We need to take a similar approach today if we are going to bring about this project as a reality. The Commission is already looking at having major grid interconnection from the western seaboard to the European grid but we need to see this prioritised because if we get a positive decision from the Commission on this and if we put a strategic authority in place to drive this project in Ireland to develop our offshore renewable energy then we can be to the fore, not just in Europe but globally, in offshore wind technology. Earlier this week the German ambassador went to Cork to meet the researchers involved in this and to meet some of the businesses investing in this. Germany sees the huge opportunity we have in Ireland and it is about time that we took up that mantle and ran with this issue to ensure we can provide the type of interconnection needed to maximise the potential off our coast. In tandem with that, we also need to develop our opportunity with hydrogen, which is another mechanism to transport renewable and clean energy from Ireland to the European energy network. Funnily enough, Ireland is one of the few European countries that has yet to establish a green hydrogen strategy and this needs to happen immediately.
Another issue in European co-operation that I want to raise is rare diseases. Rare diseases are not rare. In Ireland, approximately one in 12 people will at some stage in their lives be affected by such a condition. Some 825,000 people are impacted by rare diseases when family members, many of whom are carers, are included. Sadly, the west and north west have among the highest incidence rates of rare disease in Europe. While most rare diseases appear early in life, with approximately 30% of children affected dying before their fifth birthdays, many of them are not diagnosed until adulthood. There is nothing worse than being unwell and not being believed, even though you know something is fundamentally wrong; except of course if it is your child who is unwell and you are being dismissed by the medics as just another over-anxious parent. Accurate diagnosis is often only made late into the disease. Some 37% of people spend five years trying to get a diagnosis, by which time the patient will have already been treated for many months, or even years, for other more common diseases. This puts an unnecessary financial burden on our health service. We can speed up this diagnosis process through genomics. There is an EU-wide initiative, Beyond One Million Genomes. This initiative brings together 22 EU countries, along with Norway and the UK, looking to sequence at least 1 million genomes over the next period and to share that data securely across Europe.
Ireland today remains an observer country to that initiative. We need to put the legislative mechanism and funding structure in place to become fully part of that programme and to utilise the information that is being generated all over Europe to treat and help our people in Ireland.
The war in Ukraine rightly dominated the agenda of the European Council. Many people are wearing the colours of Ukraine today and many have asked about my tie. Conveniently, it is my old Clare County Council tie. Once the yellow and blue of Clare were the colours of war and battle. They were the colours that Brian Boru wore as he went into battle.
They instilled fear in the enemy, but these days, the yellow and blue of Clare are the colours of welcome, love and peace. As of census night last Sunday, 1.5% of the entire population of Clare is Ukrainian. We have one third of all Ukrainians in Ireland. Up until last week, we had more Ukrainians than the entirety of Britain. We are very proud as a county and community for the role we are playing. We are militarily neutral, as everyone says, but that does not stop us from having a position. It does not stop people from Clare and communities throughout the country from knowing what the right thing to do is, when it is right to embrace someone, and when it is right to open one's door and welcome in a family from a war-torn country. We are so proud that 1.5% of our county's population being from Ukraine, sharing these colours with us. They are so welcome.
The European Council considered sanctions against Russia again. This is the only way we will get through to Vladimir Putin, because he does not understand humanity. He is a war criminal. The past four or five days have exposed the true deeds of his army, including genocide and breaches of the Geneva Conventions. This man does not understand humanity, but he understands the value of the rouble. His oligarchs and all his associates understand the value and greening of money. At the beginning of this war, an analysis stated it was costing $2 billion per day for Russia to wage war. In the past week, that figure, in analysis by economists, has crept up to $20 billion per day. That is not just the cost of the army, weapons and military salaries, but the cost to the economy collectively, seven days a week, and I believe this will ultimately grind him down.
Addressing this House in June 1963, President John F. Kennedy stated: "Ireland pursues an independent course in foreign policy, but it is not neutral between liberty and tyranny and never will be." Although that is from six decades ago, that perfectly encapsulates the psyche of the Irish people and the view and policy of Government. The Ukrainian people are watching in Clare and following many of the debates happening in the House today. To them, I say slava Ukraini.
Deputy Naughten referred to the green hydrogen strategy. It is essential that Ireland, along with European partners, leads this. An incredible project is being planned off the west shore of County Clare, the Green Atlantic project. It will be one of Europe's largest wind farms, capitalising on the significant winds coming in from the Atlantic. It is three times more efficient than onshore wind. There will be capacity onshore at the former Moneypoint station to process the wind energy coming in and to store it as hydrogen. That will have knock-on effects for Shannon Airport, where we are trying to devise more sustainable and greener ways of putting planes into our sky. Ireland is leading the way. It does not always show that. We need to lead the way across all European nations in being to the forefront of sustainable aviation and green energy.
A previous speaker mentioned Ambassador Filatov and his residence on Orwell Road. He has shown contempt for the people of Ukraine and for the good people of his own country who do not wish to wage war. He has also shown contempt for our Government, Taoiseach, Ceann Comhairle, and democracy in Ireland. It is time for him to go. It is time for the Government to bring his suitcase to the airport and wave goodbye as he boards a flight back to Moscow.
I acknowledge this morning's events in the Chamber. President Zelenskyy's address was extraordinary. Leaders have addressed this Chamber previously, including John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Nelson Mandela. This address was as powerful as, if not more powerful than, any we have heard previously given the context the address was made in. It is unbelievable that in 2022 a leader of a western democracy is appealing to the Government and Parliament of Ireland for help because of an invasion by its neighbour. I never thought we would see this day, but here we are.
I acknowledge the response of political leaders. The Ceann Comhairle's response was measured. He did us proud in how he demonstrated our solidarity with the people of Ukraine. I thank him for that. The responses of other political leaders, including that of the Taoiseach, need to be applauded. I specifically refer to what he said to the people of Ukraine who find themselves in Ireland as refugees, that "our home is your home." We have to echo that and put those words into action. With 32,000 Ukrainian refugees expected to arrive in Ireland before Easter, there is a massive task to accommodate them. It will not be an easy challenge. We need to put as many supports in place as possible to make sure that can be accommodated.
At the moment, unfortunately, despite the amazing goodwill of the people of Ireland and the voluntary efforts, we find ourselves on the back foot. As recently as yesterday in west Cork, 54 Ukrainian refugees arrived. There was a breakdown in communication between international protection accommodation services, IPAS, the volunteers, the Red Cross and everybody else, and that bus had to be redirected to Killarney. These people have had an horrific experience. Having to then deal with a diversion is not good enough. I understand the challenges and this will be difficult. We need as many resources as possible on the ground to help those incredible volunteers who are preparing emergency accommodation in places such as Clonakilty, where they are transforming the community hall into accommodation for refugees. That is not sustainable. We need to ensure proper resources and measures are in place to ensure that when that happens again, we have beds and accommodation ready to accommodate Ukrainian refugees.
Ukrainian refugees who find themselves in towns such as Bandon should have the security and knowledge that they will be able to stay there for a long time. They want to enter the workplace and to work. They want to secure an income. There is no point in trying to secure a job if they are unsure about where their future lies. They need that element of security too, which I ask for today.
I was studying the report from this Council meeting. I am extremely disappointing that no solutions were found or even sought to support our pig industry. The European Commissioner for agriculture came here some months ago and told us to use every tool in the toolbox. We have used nothing. The pig industry is still waiting for some support before it disappears. We lost our fishing industry and did nothing about it. We lost our beef industry under a Fianna Fáil Government too. I am disappointed about that. Something has to be done now, not in a few weeks or after Easter. They are not able to sustain themselves.
Ireland has 2 million vehicles, more than 1.5 million houses, and 250,000 small businesses that use fossil fuels for heating, manufacturing and the movement of goods and people. When will the Minister, Deputy Ryan, the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, other Ministers and backbenchers grasp that nettle and say that we cannot just keep taxing them and expect them to change their ways?
They must get supports so that it is not all the stick, or the big bata that the Taoiseach has. We must encourage them. We must get rid of the folly and the old pipe dreams that we have and deal with things practically by supporting our people. We are not getting support from Europe because we are not looking for it. All we want is to be the good boys of Europe. When the master says, “Jump”, we say. “How high?”. That has served us badly. We got badly burned over the decades.
The Taoiseach has been going to EU Council meetings regularly over the winter months. However, it appears that he and his Government are only raising a genuine question pertaining to the energy crisis at an EU level now when the worst of the dark and the cold winter months are behind us. Our Taoiseach has some neck to claim he gets permission from Europe to lower the VAT on fuel, but on the other hand the Government will increase the carbon tax in May, further burdening hard working Irish people. Since last October, we in the Rural Independent Group have been calling on the Government to act by addressing this fuel crisis through cuts to VAT and to the carbon tax on all energy products, including petrol, diesel and home heating oil.
Any move away from fossil fuels here or at EU level should only occur when reliable and consistent alternatives and inexpensive renewable sources are in place and are available to all. This Government and EU bureaucrats must wake up and realise this. People in rural areas are especially targeted by these taxes due to the complete lack of any alternative modes of transport across rural Ireland. I say it again for the umpteenth time in the Dáil: only for West Cork Connect, we would have hardly any public transport in west Cork.
Switching equipment, cars and heating systems away from fossil fuels is very expensive and takes a lot of time. Most people who I know cannot go and buy an electric car. Most of them cannot even afford the fuel to put into the cars. The approach of this Government is to rush to set emission targets and move away from fossil fuels overnight so they can be the best boys in Europe. However, the people of this country know that we are now being called the best fools in Europe, punishing the hard-working people in this country. This is the wrong approach. It has been seen to be the wrong approach during this energy crisis.
I ask the Minister of State not to misinterpret what I am saying. I, for one, am all for looking after the environment, but not for putting the pain on the wrong people.
The Minister of State, Deputy Donovan, is a fellow Limerick man. Are the people of Europe aware that we cannot move away from fossil fuels because we have no alternatives? The Minister was elected by the people of County Limerick, who he represents, including pig farmers, workers in small industries and truckers. Everyone who has elected the Minister of State has asked him to have a voice, not to be told by his party's whip what to say and when to say it.
We have 2 million vehicles in this country. Most of them are in towns and villages around the rural areas that the Minister of State represents. These people have no public transport in place. Basically, the people in our area of County Limerick and other counties are paying for the infrastructure that the Government is putting into the cities. Yet, they are failing to put infrastructure into the counties. People are going to go hungry. People are going to be cold. People are going to have debt. This is all because of the failure of this Government to act.
The Government has been asked to cap the price of the tax on fuel. It has refused to help us on that. It brought out a system yesterday for €18 million, but it is only given to one sector of the truckers. It only covers people who have a road haulier licence. Every supplier in this country does not have a road haulier licence. Every producer does not have a road haulier licence. Only the people who transport, the subcontractors, do. The Government therefore has not helped anyone in our rural area, such as the producers who elected the Minister of State to represent County Limerick.
Much of the European Council statements were rightly focused around the Russian military aggression against Ukraine. We must continue to condemn Russia's bloody and destructive attack on Ukraine at every opportunity we get. I am glad that this was the main focus of the European Council talks. We stand with Ukraine and its people. We should continue to condemn Russia at every opportunity we get. We also must continue to maintain and strengthen our military neutrality at every opportunity. Both are not mutually exclusive. This is not to say that we are morally neutral in the face of war crimes either. We never have been and we never will be. President Zelenskyy himself when addressing the Dáil earlier said although Ireland is a neutral country, it has not remained neutral to the disaster Russia has brought to Ukraine.
Our response has rightly been victim focused. Our role as a neutral voice that condemns violations of international law and supports victims is internationally recognised. It is important that we continue to protect this neutral voice. I welcome that the European Council agreed to develop a Ukrainian solidarity trust fund to help to provide support to Ukraine for its immediate needs and for the reconstruction of Ukraine, following the incredible destruction and loss suffered there. I was concerned, however, about the European Union's endorsement of a strategic compass, which intends to provide a shared assessment of the strategic environment in which the EU is operating and of the threats and challenges the Union supposedly faces.
I know that the Commission, in conjunction with the European Defence Agency, EDA, intends to look at defensive investment gaps and to introduce initiatives to strengthen the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base, EDTIB, next month. We need to tread very carefully here on this. We need to ensure that our neutrality is not compromised when such discussions take place. The European Council has stated that it intends to harness EU funding instruments and initiatives to strengthen the defence capabilities of member states. We cannot allow them to rope Ireland into this. We cannot allow them to get involved in the way we conduct our Defence Forces. We must stay strong in our neutrality. We all know that in the House that the EU will have willing partners here to weaken our neutrality and we need to watch out for that.
In terms of energy issues, I am glad to see that the national circumstances will be taken into account and I think that we should look at all the options that are provided for. The Government is quick to make the point that it cannot act on VAT on energy costs and that may be so, but the Commission is pointing out the options that are available, such as temporary taxation of or regulatory interventions on windfall profits. Those options are available from the Commission itself. What is being done about that?
We have that we have been constantly led to believe that that is the only game in town but now we see that it is not. It is interesting that we have been very vocal on the import of oil and gas from Russia and have said that we should stop them straight away and rightly so. Yet, that it is a stance that would cause hardship for the citizens who depend on them. Yet, interestingly, there are not many Irish citizens who depend on gas from Russia. There may be a knock-on effect if a ban comes into force and time will tell in relation to that. At the same time, we appear to be protecting the Aughinish Alumina plant from sanctions. That is hypocritical of us. If we need to protect that plant, the Government should be considering taking it over straight away and to take it out of the hands of the oligarchs. Why should we protect that plant for an oligarch? Should the Government not take it into public control so that we can run it ourselves? We can dispose of it at a later stage, rather than protecting it and keeping it free from sanctions.
I will not.
I said earlier that the Minister of State is a fellow Limerick man. This is where I want his help. The pig farmers were here last week. The introduction of the subsidies for fuel for heavy goods vehicles is only available to people who hold road haulier licences. That counts out the quarries that own vehicles and supply their own goods. It takes out the pig industry that runs the produce to the factories using its own vehicles. It takes the farming and agricultural sector out of it by using their own vehicles. It only covers people who have a road haulage license. That is 38% of the HGVs in this country. Therefore, 62% of the HGVs are getting no subsidy. I am asking the Minister of State to take this to Government. Should it not cover everyone? Everyone who has a HGV is covered under the RSA. They also have to go for the Road Safety Authority, RSA, MOTs. Then, they tax their vehicles on a commercial basis under HGV goods. The right way of doing a subsidy would have been that anyone who is compliant with a current MOT on a HGV with the RSA and is taxed should qualify for the fuel subsidy. That would cover everyone. We could take this to Europe because it would work for everyone, for every person in Ireland. The Government could cap the tax on fuel at €1.30. After that, we would pay the increase in the fuel, but we would not pay tax on it. That is something that the Government can introduce now.
It would actually help every householder in this country whether he or she is working, elderly or retired. It would cover every person in this country. People would see it first-hand at the pumps. This would help people. It would also help registered businesses that do not qualify at the moment under any other scheme that is available.
My last question is about public transport, which does not cover everyone outside of the towns and villages in this country. If somebody wants public transport, it means that we must have infrastructure. As I said earlier, there are 2 million vehicles and 2.4 million people working in this country. That means public transport only covers 400,000 people plus those who live in an area where they have public transport. It does not cover 2 million people, however. Where is all the taxation going on the fuels? It is coming from fuel taxes. I want the Minister of State to help me make a difference to every household. I want him to stand up here for the people of County Limerick who elected him to help all industry for the area he represents.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I have been here for 12 years now representing the people of County Limerick. In response to Deputy O'Donoghue, I do not need to be reminded of my job. I am well capable of being reminded of that by the people of County Limerick. Having been returned by them three times now, I must be doing something right. A number of questions were asked. I will try to do my best. Most of the Deputies who asked them are not in the Chamber now. Many of the questions pertain to different Departments. We have made records of them and we will reply to them in writing because they do not actually relate to the European Council at all.
I will take the last questions first, which relate specifically to the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Transport. I will refer Deputy O'Donoghue's questions to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan and get a reply to him.
In general, with regard to rural infrastructure, I note that in the Limerick Leader, Weekly Observerand Vale Mallow Star and Observer, the Deputy is very quick to welcome much of the Government's investment in rural roads. As someone who works in construction, I note the Deputy is very praiseworthy of the Government's increased investment in roads all over County Limerick. We are doing a very good job in investing in roads in County Limerick. The Deputy is also very praiseworthy of the Government's rural transport infrastructure improvements, which have been done all over County Limerick. We are, therefore, doing an awful lot of very positive things as well. The Deputy gets a lot of speaking time in this Chamber. He is no stranger to taking a lot of credit for some of the stuff the Government is doing in County Limerick. During some of the times he uses that speaking time here, he might put in the odd plug for the positive stuff we are doing as well, because it is not all negative.
I will start at the beginning of the questions. Deputy McDonald raised the issue, as did many Deputies, including previous speakers, of the area of VAT. In his opening remarks the Taoiseach said this issue relates not only to Ireland. All member states have asked that this be dealt with. In fairness, Deputy McDonald did say, and I wrote it down, that "the Government cannot do everything" and that she recognises this is a very complicated issue. Every speaker who came in here said the Government cannot do everything and then went on to say the Government should do everything. It is a case of the oxymorons; the Government cannot do everything. I recognise that the cost of living in every household in the country has gone through the roof. A person would want to be living on a different planet not to recognise that. The Government simply cannot do everything but it is trying to respond, as every member state of the European Union is doing.
The Taoiseach was one of the first out of the blocks with regard to being one of the first Prime Ministers to raise the issue of VAT. Further work with the European Commission is required to do this because previous speakers, who I think were from Sinn Féin, said that once this war passes - and it will pass - there will be a requirement for the VAT rate to go back up. When that does happen, I am sure many people will be clamouring to tell the Government not to do that. The Taoiseach is very conscious of that issue.
Many speakers raised the issue of where we are specifically around EU-China affairs and about EU-India affairs. Credit must again go to the Taoiseach. He was the first Prime Minister to raise the issue of India's position on the atrocities that are happening in Ukraine at the moment. I also wish to make a personal comment, a Cheann Comhairle. Being a Minister of State, one does not get speaking time like many Deputies do on different matters. I wish to mention some specific issues that have been raised. Ireland's relations with China are closely linked to the EU perspective. The EU strategy of managing complex relations is a good one. We understand and accept the differing elements that need to be addressed in a strategic and united matter when it comes to China. The same issue runs through with regard to India. The Taoiseach has been very clear in relation to that.
Deputy Cian O’Callaghan said that condemnation is not enough and we need action, and that practical assistance will be required. However, then other speakers and questioners said that practical assistance cannot involve Ireland getting involved militarily. This is, therefore, the dilemma in which the country is involved. How far do we move towards getting involved that does not see this country being practically militarily involved? That is a dilemma the country has confronted from the outset of this war. We have confronted it in a very practical sense by making sure we provide humanitarian aid but also by providing very practical assistance.
I wish to pay tribute to the Ceann Comhairle's initiative of inviting the President of Ukraine to address us this morning. In many ways, it was historic. We can use every kind of cliché we want. It was also a source of terrible embarrassment, however, to be in a Chamber where colleagues refused to clap. I come from a part of the world where we use an expression that goes when you are in a hole, you should stop digging. They came in then and tried to give an explanation as to why they did not clap. One can see in his face and from his facial expressions, by his demeanour and from photographs that have been taken of him, how this war has run President Zelenskyy down and how it has destroyed his country and his people. They used these mar dhea excuses, together with their colleagues in the European Parliament in some sort of warped ideology, not to support him. They say they will support his country but they will not support him. I feel sorry for them that as parliamentarians, they would do that today. They brought shame on themselves but they also brought a degree of shame on us because as colleagues of theirs, we have to share a room with them. I ask them to reflect on it and to come back and apologise for it. One of them happens to be an officeholder of this Parliament. To me, that is a source of embarrassment.
Outside being a Member of this Parliament, I am a husband and father to three young children. One image has really stuck in my mind in the last couple of weeks. It is an image of what people say is potentially a three-year-old child who is gagged, blindfolded, with hands tied and possibly raped. I have a seven-year-old, a three-year-old and a two-year-old. That three-year-old could potentially be mine in any other circumstance. There can be no equivocation in this. There can be no hiding places and no excuses. There can be no press statement saying they did not clap because of X, Y or Z. To me, this is very black and white. A person is either in or our out with regard to these atrocities.
I did not get a chance to speak to the whole Ukrainian situation during the statements that were given the previous week. To me, the Ceann Comhairle's position this morning really summed up the question of whether we are neutral. We are not neutral. How can we be neutral in this?How could we not have a position with regard to right or wrong? Before I came into the Dáil, I was a primary teacher. Deputy O'Donoghue took issue one morning on Live 95 with the fact that I was a primary teacher. He said there were too many primary teachers in the Dáil. I was also an engineer, by the way. I was an industrial chemist, to satisfy the Deputy's curiosity in that respect as well.
I always told children that if they ever had a doubt about something being right or wrong, it was probably wrong. Some Deputies had an issue earlier relating to whether they should clap in response to President Zelenskyy’s address. Some of them began clapping, looked to their colleagues and then stopped clapping. To me, they are a source of embarrassment to this Parliament and to us as colleagues. They should reflect on what they have done, come back to the Chamber and set the record straight. They should make a personal statement to the House and apologise for their actions. Given what has been said on Twitter, they have invited unnecessary commentary on what was an otherwise very positive initiative on the part of the Ceann Comhairle.
Turning to some of the issues Deputy Mairéad Farrell raised in respect of the IFSC, which Deputy Sherlock also raised in the context of legislation proposed by his Labour Party colleague, they will be referred to the Minister for Finance.
I have dealt with the issue raised by People Before Profit regarding solidarity.
I agree entirely with Deputy Leddin regarding the issue of green energy but, unfortunately, like Robert Frost's line about two roads diverging in a yellow wood, I am going to take a different road. He is going to take the road of green energy in the medium term, but our definitions of "medium term" might differ. That we have gas storage, which we need, in a different jurisdiction proves we need a policy on gas storage in this country in the short term. We cannot rely on a third country, outside of the European Union, to store our gas, which is happening at the moment. An LNG facility in a country outside of the European Union is storing our gas and that policy is not sustainable into the short and medium terms, by which I mean ten years. We need a policy on green energy that will allow electricity to be brought into Moneypoint to be converted into hydrogen, stored, transferred across the grid and sold to France - I am all for that - but what will we do between now and then?
We need to be able to import gas from different sources such as the Gulf of Mexico and the United States, with conditions applied to that, rather than simply finding an Irish solution for an Irish problem, which has been done for other, social elements in the past to deal with problems we wanted to sweep under the carpet in this country. We have dealt with issues by exporting them to the United Kingdom. We did that very unsuccessfully, historically in this country, to our shame in respect of other issues, and we are now doing it with gas importation. We are already importing fracked gas through a gas interconnector, and it suits the narrative of some people whereby just because it is done from the UK, we need not talk about it.
We do need to talk about it and have a discussion in this country about our energy security. The discussion needs to be honest and open and it needs to be held here and now. We need to start talking about gas storage. Deputy Leddin is correct in respect of the coal-fired station, but we are damn lucky we have it now. If we had not built it in the 1980s, what would we have now? I would probably be talking to the House under candlelight because the lights would have gone out if not for Moneypoint. Moneypoint is going gangbusters at the moment and God help us if we did not have it. While we are lucky to have onshore wind, it is not reliable.
Deputy Naughten referred to offshore wind electricity. Again, we will refer those issues to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, but I nonetheless fully concur.
Deputy Pringle, who is no longer in the Chamber, referred to an issue that concerns my constituency and Aughinish Alumina. It is a pity when people get their information from online sources, which tend to be based on rumour and innuendo. If he had asked somebody like me, or perhaps Deputy O'Donoghue, who might know something about Aughinish Alumina, he would know that what he said about the operation of the plant was an utter fallacy. The plant employs well over 1,000 people in my constituency and it is not in any way connected to a war machine. In fact, it provides Europe with up to 30% of the alumina required for the Continent’s construction and aircraft and car manufacturing and is an integral part of Europe's alumina industry. It is not connected, as some people might want to suggest, to any sort of Russian empire.
If there are any points I have not responded to, I will come to them in my closing remarks.
I appreciate the Minister of State might not have all the details to hand, but can we get an update for the Ukrainian ambassador, H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko, on the list of companies that were, supposedly, still dealing with Russia, which she provided to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs? I understand some of the companies have discontinued their business with Russia and this issue has probably evolved over the past fortnight.
I thank the Minister of State. In his concluding remarks, he might give some information on the interactions and conversations regarding VAT and the toolbox that will apply if we end up considering taxes on windfall payments. Beyond that, what wider conversation took place at the European Council meeting regarding the hybrid or cybersecurity aspect of defence, which has become a major issue here as well?
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. As the Taoiseach indicated, I will address some of the economic and EU external issues discussed at the most recent meeting. The European Council in March endorsed the political emphasis of the Versailles declaration insofar as strengthening Europe's economic base is concerned. This includes unlocking the full potential of the Single Market to underpin the green and digital transitions essential to Europe's future prosperity and well-being. The leaders also endorsed the strategic priorities of the Commission's annual sustainable growth survey and invited member states to reflect them in their national reform programmes and stability programme updates to be submitted this month as part of their European semester process.
Ireland agrees that the annual sustainable growth survey produced by the European Commission in November provides the correct political emphasis for economic policy co-ordination at this time. It highlights four key dimensions of competitive sustainability as guiding principles for Europe's economic renewal. They are also consistent with the strategic direction established by the recovery and resilience facility forming the core component of the historic Next Generation EU budgetary package. The four dimensions comprise environmental sustainability, productivity, fairness and macroeconomic stability. The Commission will update its assessment of the economic outlook in May and has acknowledged significant downside risks since its February forecast, which did not take account of the impacts of the war in Ukraine. Given the renewed uncertainties and risks, Ireland's view is the EU needs to remain agile and flexible in our political response to the current circumstances and we welcome the conclusions adopted at the Council meeting in March.
On 24 and 25 March, the leaders also exchanged views on the EU-China summit, which subsequently took place on 1 April. The leaders discussed relations with China in the changed and urgent context of the situation. At the EU-China summit, the EU and China extensively discussed Russia's military aggression against Ukraine, which is endangering global security and the world economy. It is the EU's assessment that the shared interests of the EU and China should be to work together to stop Russia's war in Ukraine as soon as possible. From the EU's perspective, we view the EU and China to have a common responsibility to support peace, stability and a sustainable and safe world. While the focus of the summit was very much on Ukraine, EU and Chinese leaders also discussed the state of bilateral relations and areas of shared interest such as climate change, biodiversity and health, as well as ways to ensure a more balanced and reciprocal trade relationship.
The European Council also discussed the prolonged and political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, reiterating its commitment to a European perspective of that country and the western Balkans more generally. The EU wants to see leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina demonstrate a strong commitment to constitutional electoral reform, which is vital for the stability and full functionality of that country, an essential precursor to obtaining EU candidate status. The EU stands ready to continue high-level engagement in this regard.
I thank all the Deputies for their statements and questions. The Taoiseach will continue to report to the House following the regular meetings of the Council. We will try to respond in writing to any questions that have been collated.