I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. As the Taoiseach said, this week's meeting of the European Council is an important one, for the European Union and for Ireland.
Finding an agreement on the MFF will represent a welcome shot in the arm for the European Union and its member states. On Monday, I chaired the General Affairs Council and we were briefed by President Van Rompuy on the MFF. From what was said at that meeting, the task facing President Van Rompuy, who is charged with steering the discussions this week, will not be an easy one. While good progress was made in November, it is clear that difficult issues remain to be resolved. The President is faced with a position where some countries are seeking further cuts in order to secure agreement while arguments for increased spending in particular areas are being advanced by other member states. Sometimes, indeed, the arguments for cuts and increased spending are being made by the same country. It will require all member states approaching the table with minds open to compromise if agreement is to be found.
Of course, agreement at the European Council is a first step to putting the framework in place. The treaties require that the consent of the European Parliament must also be secured. On Monday, therefore, I also met the MFF team from the European Parliament as preparation for the work we will have to do, as holders of the Presidency, after the agreement. It was clear to me that their support cannot be taken for granted. Particular issues have been highlighted as being of particular concern to the Parliament, including flexibility, its own resources and a mid-term review, and the Parliament will weigh any outcome carefully before reaching a decision.
In opening the debate today, the Taoiseach highlighted the important discussion the European Council will have on trade. I share the assessment that an ambitious trade agenda is an essential element of any plan for generating growth and creating jobs in Europe. The achievement of an EU-US trade agreement is a great prize. A high level working group has been engaged in finding ways to tap into this huge potential and we are awaiting its report. It is widely expected that it will come out with a strong positive message recommending the opening of negotiations towards a free trade agreement. We have said that if this is the case, we will make every effort towards agreement in the Council on a mandate during the term of our Presidency. This is an area where Irish and European interests are absolutely aligned.
This week's European Council will also provide an occasion to consider two important foreign policy issues, the Arab Spring and the situation in Mali. The European Council will review Europe's relations with its southern neighbours two years after the first democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011. Such a review is timely, given the momentous changes that have transformed the Arab world over the past 24 months. The EU strongly supports the process of democratic transition that is underway. We will continue to do so, while respecting clearly that it is ultimately for the countries concerned to best determine their own pace of political and economic reform. The European Council is likely to invite High Representative Catherine Ashton and the Foreign Affairs Council to review the effectiveness of the EU's current policies and instruments in assisting the political and economic transition of the region and to report back by next June.
On Syria, draft conclusions have been prepared calling for an immediate end to the violence and reiterating support for the efforts of the UN and Arab League joint special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, to achieve a political solution. The European Council is also likely to reaffirm the EU's commitment to continue providing aid to address the appalling humanitarian situation in Syria and its neighbouring countries. The total EU contribution in humanitarian aid since the start of 2012 now amounts to over €830 million. Last week, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, announced a further Irish contribution of €4.7 million, bringing our total humanitarian assistance to Syria, over the past year, to €7.1 million.
I welcome the fact that the leaders will adopt conclusions on Mali, which is of pressing concern. This week's European Council will review the latest developments on the ground and on the political track. We welcome the adoption by the Mali Government of a roadmap towards political reform and elections, and this has been approved by the Mali Parliament. We also welcome the accelerated deployment of the UN authorised African peacekeeping force, AFISMA. While the situation remains volatile, the EU is playing a significant role in support of Mali and its neighbours through political and diplomatic engagement, the deployment of the European Union training mission, humanitarian assistance, and financial and logistical support for the Mali authorities and the regional military force. We are, of course, concerned by reports of human rights violations and are continuing to monitor all developments closely.
It is evident that this week's European Council meeting has an extremely full agenda ahead of it, with the aim of concluding the MFF negotiations as well as considering an important range of other issues which will impact on us economically or politically to one degree or another.
The House can be assured that Irish interests will be advocated and defended at every opportunity in the formal agenda of the European Council. With regard to the national interests which the Government is pursuing on behalf of the country I assure Members that we lose no opportunity to make our case forcefully and, I hope, effectively.