Tuesday, 22 November 2022
Report of Committee of Selection: Motion
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
I had a short courtesy meeting with European Commission Executive Vice-President for a Europe fit for the digital age and competition, Margrethe Vestager, on 30 September. This year marks 50 years since the Irish people voted to join what is now the European Union, and Ireland and Denmark became members on the same day, 1 January 1973. Executive Vice-President Vestager and I reflected on the impact of European Union membership in our respective countries over those years. Our discussion also focused on topical European Union issues. We discussed Russia's escalating war against Ukraine, and the resolute response of the European Union. I expressed Ireland's strong support for Ukraine and its people, highlighting the generous response of the Irish people, and our support for Ukraine's application for membership of the European Union. We also discussed how to ensure continuing effective support from the European Union to Ukraine, including our humanitarian response as winter approaches, and how we can support its immediate and future financial needs. We discussed the impact of the war on energy supply and prices and we agreed the need for a co-ordinated and effective response at European Union level to ensure security of supply and support for citizens and businesses. I acknowledged the importance of the temporary crisis framework that was adopted by the Commission in March to enable member states to use the flexibility foreseen under state aid rules to support the economy in the context of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
We also discussed the economic outlook for the European Union and the risk of a sustained downturn. We agreed the need for the European Union to remain flexible in our response, while preserving its global competitiveness and the integrity of our Single Market. Next year will mark 30 years of the European Union's Single Market. Executive Vice-President Vestager and I reaffirmed the importance of the Single Market of over 450 million people, which is at the heart of today's European Union and is among its finest achievements. It enables free movement of people, goods, services and capital; reduces transaction costs for cross-border trade; facilitates the market-based competition that delivers greater quality and choice to consumers; and sets the strategic context and regulatory standards for innovation and productivity growth. I was pleased to have the opportunity on 27 October to deliver the opening address at the Ireland and the Single Market conference, organised as part of our national EU50 programme. In my remarks, I highlighted the strategic importance of the Single Market as a core foundation of Europe's peace and prosperity.
The Taoiseach outlined some of the issues discussed at the recent meeting. I want to follow up on two of them. The first is Russia's brutal war in Ukraine. There are reports today that the EU plans to confiscate the assets of Russian sanction evaders to provide support for Ukraine to rebuild. Will the Taoiseach consider removing the Government block on a Bill proposed by our colleague, Deputy Howlin, namely the Magnitsky legislation proposed by the Labour Party before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began? It would allow for the assets of those abusive of human rights to be seized. In particular, it would allow for assets held by Russians who are sanction evaders to be seized. Reports this year have stated that anywhere from €34 billion to €50 billion worth of assets are in special purpose vehicles in the IFSC.
My second point concerns energy policy, a key focus of Commissioner Vestager's visit to Dublin. In the context of the Cabinet finally agreeing plans for a windfall tax, which is welcome, can the Taoiseach confirm that the solidarity contribution announced today on fossil fuel companies will also ensure that there is a windfall tax on the profits of the Corrib gas field which will cover all of the windfall gains it has made this year? Was he lobbied in any way by Vermilion Energy on the rate of tax will apply to Corrib and what the baseline profit rate would be?
At the weekend, there was further evidence of the desire of Fine Gael to abandon Ireland's neutrality with its resolution to get rid of the triple lock arrangement and, essentially, create more flexibility for the Government to deploy Irish troops in military adventures and conflicts. That is an outrageous attack on our neutrality and is not in line with what the majority of people want. Could the Taoiseach comment on whether he supports this line of thought? Will we remove one of the important restrictions on any Government abandoning our neutrality and further galloping towards the involvement of this country in NATO or the project of EU militarisation?
Does the Taoiseach agree that COP27 was a dismal failure and that, in the words of the UN Secretary General, we are still on the road to climate hell and politicians and big business continue to have their foot on the accelerator? COP27 failed, yet again, to commit to phasing out fossil fuels or to meaningful measures to reduce emissions. It could not even commit to a weak proposal to ensure that emissions peak by 2025. It has become a process used by leaders like the Taoiseach to turn up for a photo opportunity, make a fine self-serving speech and return home with no intention of changing their actions.
The one positive was the loss and damage fund. It took 30 years to make this small advance, but there is no admission of liability by the EU or US and no agreement on who will provide the funding, when it will be funded or who will fund it. It will be delayed again and again. We are headed towards absolute catastrophe. Will the Taoiseach take some action that recognises that?
The crux of the conference the Commissioner attended concerned the Single Market and the impact on the energy crisis we are facing, in particular. One area of the Single Market to which we are all well attuned is the access that Northern Ireland continues to have through the protocol. Once again, at the weekend we saw more internal party politics and messing across the water regarding negotiations between the EU and the UK. In the discussions the Taoiseach held, did the Commissioner lay out where exactly there would be grounds for optimism and when exactly we can expect the British Government to make some tangible suggestions regarding the protocol?
In July, The Irish Timeswrote, in reference to the European Court of Justice hearings on the Apple tax case, that a spokesman for the Department of Finance said it was expected that the hearings in Luxembourg would be held in the autumn and it was anticipated that the court would provide between four and six weeks' notice once it had decided on a date to hear the case. This month, the Tánaiste told me in the Dáil, "I do not have an update on the timing in relation to those cases. That matter is handled by the Minister for Finance rather than me". I would have thought the Tánaiste might have a better idea of what is going on with the biggest tax case in corporate history, given that the State has a direct involvement in it. Incredibly, it is still trying not to take any of that money. Maybe the Taoiseach is in a better position to provide that information, having met Commissioner Vestager, and to tell the Dáil how things currently stand on this matter.
Commissioner Vestager is very accustomed to problems in the Irish insurance market, having overseen the investigation into the motor insurance industry over recent years for operating a cartel. That investigation and political pressure from Sinn Féin and Deputy Pearse Doherty led the Government to set out the 66 actions on insurance reform. The Government recently published a report claiming most of the actions have been, or are in the process of being, implemented. However, the director of the Alliance for Insurance Reform, Peter Boland, said all of the gains made are being pocketed by insurers and, in fact, premiums are increasing. This is particularly true for small businesses that are already being crippled by rising costs. Homeowners are seeing huge jumps in the cost of home insurance at a time when mortgage rates are going up and bills are skyrocketing. I am concerned about what is happening with home insurance. Construction inflation and the cost of rebuilding are major issues, but I am hearing about cases where insurance premiums have increased from €400 or €500 to over €1,000. Such increases negate all of the cost-of-living measures implemented by the Government.
On the reference to Ukraine by Deputy Bacik, that would be more immediate than the Magnitsky legislation. I discussed the matter with the Minister for Justice. The view was that the Bill, as tabled, would have no real effect. The Prime Minister of Estonia first mooted the idea of confiscating Russian foreign reserves in respect of rebuilding Ukraine. There is a lot of merit in that proposal, and we support such a measure because the damage done to Ukraine by Russia is enormous in terms of economics and the destruction of housing and residential blocks, factories, the public realm and buildings. The costs run into the billions. Russia needs to know it will have to pay for a lot of the reconstruction of Ukraine. That is a very important principle. It is quite complex from a legal perspective and the matter remains to be worked out. I will speak to the Minister again in respect of the proposed legislation the Deputy's party colleague, Deputy Howlin, brought before the House.
On the solidarity tax, it will include the Corrib field. Did Deputy Bacik raise that matter?
To the best of my knowledge, I was not lobbied in respect of the tax. I do not know whether an email was sent. I was not lobbied in any way. I met the company some months ago regarding its plans for the field in terms of carbon storage and a renewable future post extraction, something that is currently under way. That is the position on that.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referenced the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis and the proposal from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney. The Government has no intention of changing its current policy in respect of military neutrality. There is no galloping towards new alliances or anything like it. The Deputy consistently makes that false assertion in the House, but that is not the case.
The Minister referenced the triple lock more in the context of the need for reform of the United Nations, in particular the veto Russia has at the Security Council. Let us be straight about it. The outrageous attack on Ukraine is, by any objective yardstick, an appalling, inhuman and immoral attack on the people of Ukraine, yet the country that is doing that is on the Security Council.
There they go again. The "whataboutery" is a constant. The Deputies are against the pro formabut then they attack America. The bottom line is they attack America far more than they do Russia.
My point is, without interruption, it is not tenable that this situation continues. There has to be reform of the UN and the Security Council. When we were on the Security Council, Ireland put forward a good proposal linking climate change with security. India and China were sceptical at the beginning. Both of those countries abstained. One country stopped what the overwhelming majority of the UN wanted, which was to link climate with security that Ireland was championing. All the small island states of the Pacific were pleased with Ireland following up on the commitments that we made in the election to the Security Council. Who opposed and vetoed it? Russia. There are issues. Deputies are putting their heads in the sand if they do not think there is an issue there. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is entitled to articulate a view on that. We still need a triple lock in regard to the General Assembly and so on. I have suggested that we need a citizens' assembly to discuss these issues in a more informal and deliberative way than has been the case to date.
I do not accept Deputy Murphy’s view that COP27 has been a dismal failure. He mentioned politicians. He is a politician just as I am a politician. He opposes carbon tax. Some would say that is a dismal failure on his part in respect of climate change. Many politicians are sincere about climate change and good progress was made. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, deserves a great deal of credit for the extremely hard work he put in over the past two weeks. All the Irish team, including the civil servants in the climate section of the Department of Foreign Affairs, deserve great credit on loss and damage. Ireland was a leader on loss and damage. We have allocated funding under the global shield towards loss and damage, which was one small, concrete proposal around trying to prepare for that. Ireland is committed to that area and we remain committed.
Deputy Richmond raised the issue of the Single Market. I raised the question of how can we expand the Single Market. There is work not yet done in respect of services, for example, in the Single Market. We need to widen the Single Market in regard to services, which could help insurance costs and so on in the country. On the protocol, we discussed it generally in respect of where we were. At that time. Members will remember British politics was in a different space. The European Commission stands ready under Vice-President Šefčovič to move on the protocol issue and to be flexible. We want intensive talks to commence between the UK Government and the European Union.
Deputy Barry raised the ECJ. We did not discuss the Apple tax case. That is now with the courts and remains to be resolved.
The question is in the context of my meeting with Vice-President Šefčovič. It is important to put on the record that we did not discuss the Apple case. The updates are there to be had in terms of the proceedings of the court and the court's timetable. I can get the update for the Deputy and communicate that to him.
Deputy Conway-Walsh raised a separate issue on the motor insurance industry more generally. The cost of motor insurance has come down and the Government has implemented the vast majority of the recommendations of the group it established to make recommendations on the insurance industry. Now it falls to the industry to reduce premia in other areas of insurance that have not yet been reduced.