The meeting of the European Council that took place last Thursday and Friday was particularly challenging. We were faced with many difficult questions of fundamental importance for the Union. Discussions, which continued late into the night, were undoubtedly robust. However, it must also be recognised that important progress was made on a range of critical and sensitive issues.
On Thursday, we first discussed the situation in Greece. We then considered in some detail how the European Union can most effectively respond to the migration crisis, recognising the importance of solidarity with those member states at the front line. Prime Minister Cameron outlined UK proposals for European Union reform, marking the beginning of a process of exploration of these issues. On Friday, we moved on to consider security and defence challenges, in addition to efforts to boost jobs, growth and competitiveness, in particular the implementation of the digital single market strategy.
Let me say a few words about Greece. Although it was not formally on our agenda, the situation in Greece was discussed by the European Council for some considerable time, following a presentation by the President of the Eurogroup. At that time, there was considerable commonality between the proposals from the institutions and Greek authorities, giving a reasonable expectation that the remaining gap could be bridged to reach an agreement acceptable to all parties. I, together with other Heads of State and Government, urged Prime Minister Tsipras to make every effort to conclude an agreement and to put an end to the instability that is having a detrimental effect on the Greek economy and the Greek people in particular.
The Eurogroup was due to meet on Saturday to bring forward negotiations and, we had hoped, conclude an agreement. Unfortunately, however, before the Eurogroup meeting on Saturday, the Greek authorities announced that they were unilaterally withdrawing from negotiations. Prime Minister Tsipras indicated that a referendum would take place on Sunday, 5 July during which the Greek people would be asked to accept or reject the latest compromise proposals put forward by the institutions.
Meanwhile, against the background of last week's turmoil and uncertainty, deposit outflows accelerated from the Greek banking system. On Sunday, Prime Minister Tsipras called a bank holiday to last until at least 7 July and has imposed capital controls. As we all know, Greece did not meet its repayment of €1.5 billion due to the IMF last night, meaning that it is now in arrears to that organisation. Late yesterday, Prime Minister Tsipras wrote to the President of the Eurogroup proposing a new ESM programme, debt restructuring and an extension of the current programme. The Eurogroup reviewed the content of the letter, which was very brief. I understand that a second letter has now been received and the Eurogroup will have a further conference call this evening.
The situation facing Greece and its people is now extremely grave. Last week, we believed a solution was in sight. This week, we have entered uncharted waters. That said, I would underline that the door remains open to dialogue, in a spirit of solidarity and responsibility. Continuing volatility and uncertainty are not in the interest of the Greek people. Our objective remains a sustainable and mutually acceptable agreement which will return Greece to growth within the eurozone.
Following discussions on Greece, the European Council addressed the migration crisis facing the European Union. We know that insecurity and conflict in Africa and the Middle East has resulted in unprecedented numbers of migrants attempting to enter Europe. Prior to the recent reinforcement of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, we were witnessing a tragic loss of life on a large scale. The LE Eithne alone has rescued at least 3,000 people since arriving in the Mediterranean on 23 May to support the Italian coastguard. The discussions at the European Council on migration were difficult and lengthy, but also constructive. Despite the anticipated differences of approach, it should be acknowledged that significant progress was made on what is a very complex and politically sensitive issue. All member states agreed on the importance of balancing solidarity with responsibility, and on the need for a comprehensive approach to the migration challenge.
The approach agreed by the European Council, and reflected in its conclusions, demonstrates a balanced and comprehensive response to the problem. The response focuses on three distinct pillars: relocation and resettlement; return and readmission; and co-operation with countries of origin and transit. This includes an agreement to help 60,000 vulnerable people, through a mixture of resettlement of refugees based outside the European Union, and relocation of those in need of international protection who are already within the European Union, currently in Italy and Greece. The relocation, which will be exceptional and temporary, will now be on the basis of a voluntary distribution plan to be agreed by consensus between member states by the end of this month, July.
We also agreed that new reception facilities should be established in front-line member states to improve the processing of refugee applications and to strengthen procedures for the return and readmission of irregular migrants or those who do not qualify for refugee status. EU assistance and policies will be used to create incentives for implementing existing readmission agreements and concluding new ones. Importantly, the conclusions we adopted also emphasised the need to reinforce our overall co-operation with countries of origin and transit to tackle the root causes of irregular migration and to combat the smuggling networks. In my intervention, I made it clear that Ireland believes an approach based on solidarity and responsibility is essential. We have already offered to resettle 520 refugees between this year and next as well as deploying the LE Eithne to assist in search and rescue operations.
Ireland also provides extensive humanitarian assistance to regions affected by conflict. We will continue to examine the situation with a view to possible further assistance.
Under Protocol 21 to the Lisbon treaty, Ireland can choose whether to opt in to the relocation measure. At the European Council, I indicated that we are prepared to give the issue careful consideration as an emergency and one-off measure. We need to see how the proposal evolves before making a decision. Of course, participating in such a measure would also require Oireachtas approval. Realistically, any proposal for Ireland to opt in could only be properly considered after the measure has been agreed and adopted at EU level.
Staying with migration, I want to mention briefly the launch of the EUNAVFOR Med mission, which was raised in this House during our pre-European Council debate. The decision to launch this mission was taken by the Foreign Affairs Council on 22 June and subsequently noted by the European Council. The mission is one element of the comprehensive approach to addressing the migration crisis. It is important to be aware that the mission will be implemented in sequential phases, with the first phase focused on supporting the detection and monitoring of migration networks through information gathering and patrolling in accordance with international law. This phase will commence shortly. To move beyond this first phase and into a phase which might involve the targeting, seizure and destruction of the smugglers' vessels and assets, the Council will assess whether the conditions for transition have been met. This will require taking into account any applicable UN Security Council Resolution and the consent of the coastal states concerned. I would underline that consideration of participation by the Irish Defence Forces in the EUNAVFOR Med mission will only occur if there is a UN Security Council resolution and the applicable national statutory requirements are met.
The EU-UK relationship was considered briefly by the European Council. Prime Minister Cameron provided a short outline of his proposals for possible changes to EU policy and legislation. As expected, there was no substantive debate. Given Prime Minister Cameron's prior series of bilateral engagements with EU leaders, including our own meeting in Downing Street on 18 June, little of what he said in Brussels was unexpected. He has already outlined the areas in which he would like to see change. They include improving competitiveness, enhancing the role of national parliaments, making clear that the UK is not bound by the concept of "ever closer union", managing the relationship between member states within and outside the euro area and addressing the possible interplay between migratory flows and welfare entitlements. It was useful however for the European Council to hear collectively about Prime Minister Cameron's commitment to a successful outcome and about the priority areas for the British Government and to mark the beginning of a fully inclusive process aimed at resolving the question of the UK's membership of the EU. It was agreed that the matter will return for consideration by the European Council in December. In the interim, it is expected that there will be a technical process of scoping out and clarifying possible measures and their implications before a move to negotiation as such begins later in the autumn.
The challenge is to find a consensual basis that will ensure the UK's continuing presence within the Union. That is the real challenge. As I have said previously, this process may not be easy and there are likely to be hurdles to overcome along the way. However, I am confident, especially following the positive start last week, that an acceptable solution for all parties can be reached. I repeat that given Ireland's very clear national interest in the UK's continued place in the Union, this will continue to be a very high priority for the Government. We will continue to adopt a positive and constructive approach while assessing specific issues on their merits.
On Friday morning, the European Council discussed security and defence issues. We initially had an exchange with the NATO Secretary General, which was useful in understanding the strategic challenges facing both organisations and where they might usefully co-operate. The conclusions underlined the importance of intensifying partnerships, namely, with the UN, NATO, the OSCE and the African Union. The European Council renewed our commitment to developing a more effective, visible and results-orientated common security and defence policy, CSDP, which involves the further development of both military and civilian capabilities, and strengthening the ability of EU industry, including SMEs, to deliver those capabilities. The CSDP has made an essential contribution to crisis management and conflict resolution globally, including with participation from the Irish Defence Forces, gardaí and civilian personnel. However, the EU must continue to work to ensure missions can be deployed as effectively and efficiently as possible. The European Council also recalled the need for member states to allocate a sufficient level of expenditure for defence and for the EU budget to provide appropriate funding for CSDP related research.
The conclusions also flagged the need to mobilise EU instruments to counter hybrid threats, an increasingly common feature of our security environment. In light of the changing international security environment, the European Council mandated High Representative Mogherini to prepare a new EU global strategy on foreign and security policy in close co-operation with member states. This is to be finalised by June 2016. Ireland looks forward to contributing to the preparation of the strategy in the months ahead.
At the time the second session of the European Council on Friday morning was beginning, word was just beginning to filter through of the barbaric slaughter of an individual near Lyon in France. I conveyed my condolences to President Hollande and through him to the French people as he returned early to Paris. That afternoon, we witnessed the horrendous attack in the Tunisian resort city of Sousse during which 38 tourists, including three Irish citizens, lost their lives. We also heard of the deadly attack on a mosque in Kuwait. Over the weekend, I asked that my condolences be conveyed via our embassies to those EU partners whose nationals were murdered in Tunisia. Yesterday, I spoke personally to Prime Minister Cameron in light of the particularly appalling scale of British casualties, which numbered 30.
Recognising the security challenges within the EU's borders, the European Council agreed that work would be taken forward on the renewed EU internal security strategy, which identifies the tackling of terrorism, organised crime, cybercrime and online radicalisation as key issues. This builds on priorities identified at the European Council meeting in February, which called for increased information sharing between police and intelligence services; addressing online radicalisation and the removal of illegal content; engagement with third states exploited by foreign fighters, notably Turkey; and the enforcement of greater controls over and the tracking of illegal firearms.
One issue which, for once, did not feature on our agenda was the situation in Ukraine and EU relations with Russia. This was because clear orientations had already been provided by the March European Council. The June meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council took the necessary formal decision to extend EU sanctions until 31 January 2016 due to Russia's role in destabilising eastern Ukraine. I expect the issue to feature prominently on the European Council agenda again before the end of the year.
Although much attention was understandably focused on the situation in Greece, the European Council also provided important orientations on broader economic issues. Economic prospects across Europe have clearly improved over recent months. However, we must continue to press ahead on the key initiatives that will reinforce this momentum and further strengthen the outlook for jobs, growth and competitiveness. In my intervention, I took the opportunity to highlight the crucial role of a fully functioning digital single market that is both open and competitive. The reality is that barriers to doing business digitally and across borders are barriers to growth and jobs. The House will recall that I wrote in these terms to President Tusk in advance of last week's meeting. The letter was co-signed by my counterparts in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, the UK, the Netherlands, Poland and the Czech Republic and many of the sentiments were shared by other member states. I am pleased that strong political endorsement for the new digital single market strategy is reflected in the conclusions of the European Council and I expect to see regular reporting on implementation progress. Given the transformative potential of digital technologies, there is no greater opportunity at our disposal to make a real difference for investment, growth and jobs in Europe.
The European Council also adopted conclusions generally endorsing the country-specific recommendations to member states, including Ireland, under the European Semester and noted the publication of a report by President Juncker and the heads of other institutions on completing the economic and monetary union. I have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, to address these issues in his closing statement.
Adversity is not new to the EU. Indeed, it is an organisation born in response to challenges that are unimaginable today.
In more recent years, we have come through an economic crisis that shook the Union to its core. At times there will be differences of perspective as this is inevitable in a Union of 28 member states. However, solidarity and responsibility must continue to guide our approach as we work together for a stable, prosperous and compassionate Union.