I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the outcome of the European Council which took place on 17 and 18 December. The context for the meeting was no easier than it is today, with the ongoing migration and refugee crisis continuing to pose the most serious of challenges for the European Union. This crisis was the first item on the Council agenda. Heads of State and Government assessed what has been done so far and looked at further shaping and implementation of a comprehensive EU approach.
Another important item was the debate about Britain's membership of the EU which, post the European Council, has moved forward into a crucial phase. The November letter from Prime Minister Cameron and the December letter from the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, set the context for a substantive and constructive discussion by Heads of State and Government about the British proposals for reform of the EU, with the intention now to reach agreement on a package of measures at the February European Council.
The meeting also reviewed Europe's actions in the fight against terrorism, building on the decisions taken at its February meeting and in light of the barbaric attacks in Paris and elsewhere.
These three items dominated the discussions in December. A number of other items were also discussed, including international developments such as the situations in Syria, Ukraine and, briefly, Libya; certain economic and financial issues, taking stock of discussions on the five Presidents' report on economic and monetary union and developments in the Internal Market; and, finally, energy union and a forward-looking climate policy. I have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, to address the issues of energy union and the climate policy in his statement.
The migration crisis was central to discussions at the December European Council, as it has been for much of last year and as it is expected to be in the year ahead. This is a highly challenging issue. The number of people seeking refuge over the past number of months is without precedent for the European Union, and it is true that as a Union we have struggled to chart an effective way through the complexities of the situation. Recent appalling events in Cologne and elsewhere in Europe, as well as the unprecedented border closures, some involving countries such as Sweden and Denmark which had a common travel area that predated their EU membership, have called into question fundamental principles of the European Union and demonstrate the need to respond in a measured and balanced fashion.
For our part, Ireland has consistently called for an approach at the European level which addresses the root causes as well as the humanitarian challenges. This has also been a feature of our national response. I am proud of the contribution that Ireland has made in response to the crisis, in particular the endeavours of our Defence Forces, which have deservedly been commended in this House and elsewhere on previous occasions. The Union has worked hard to develop a comprehensive response to the crisis, with many difficult discussions along the way. However, having reached agreement on critically important issues such as "hotspots", registration, control of external borders, relocation and returns, implementation has been disappointingly slow.
In our case, for example, the Government agreed in September to take 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers into Ireland through a combination of resettlement and relocation programmes, and although the resettlement aspect of this is advancing with 176 individuals having already arrived in the State and more expected over the coming months, the relocation aspect has been very slow. We await an update this week on the progress of the first grouping of asylum applications under this framework. The delay has been due mainly to administrative difficulties with the establishment of the hotspots and the setting up of the relocation programmes in Italy and Greece. Consequently, in our discussions there were calls across the board for implementation of agreed measures to improve in the weeks ahead. If we are to chart an effective response to the challenges posed by this crisis, we must deliver on the commitments we have made.
Another feature of our discussions at the December European Council was co-operation with regional partners in the Western Balkans and in Africa, where in contrast there has been some progress, building on the high level conferences that took place last year. In addition, we addressed relations with Turkey, a critically important partner in the region. The European Union is committed to working with Turkey and to establishing a €3 billion fund for supporting Syrian refugees based there. Member states, including Ireland, will contribute to this fund, once the final arrangements have been agreed. Here too, implementation will be key. Both Turkey and the European Union have made commitments under the joint action plan agreed in November and it is imperative that these are fulfilled. Up to now, the flow of refugees through Turkey to the EU has not diminished.
Finally, in regard to migration, there was a discussion of the European Commission's proposals for a new European border and coast guard and agreement to prioritise work on this within the next six months. Ireland is of course not obliged to opt in to any eventual decision on this. However, I want to make the general point that although Ireland does not participate in Schengen, we view it as a profoundly important achievement and we are committed to engaging constructively, as we have done over the past year, for example in co-operation with Frontex.
The migration crisis, or more precisely our response to that crisis, has been described by some as the issue that will define our times. What is clear is that we need to see much more action in the weeks and months ahead. As member states, it is incumbent on us all to deliver on the commitments we have made. I therefore welcome the agreement at our meeting to assess progress and to return to the issue at the next European Council in February.
I turn now to the issue that is of the greatest strategic interest to Ireland, namely, the UK's renegotiation of its relationship with the European Union. As I have stated many times, the UK's continued membership of the EU is a priority for Ireland, and our approach to the negotiations remains constructive and pragmatic. At the political level, there have been regular discussions about this issue, including in my own exchanges with David Cameron. In parallel, work has been ongoing at official level for many months now to prepare for these critically important negotiations. As part of these efforts, officials from the Department of the Taoiseach liaise closely with other Departments as well as with our permanent representation in Brussels, our embassy in London and our embassies across the EU to ensure a comprehensive, whole-of-Government response to the key questions.
Last month's European Council provided a first, very welcome, opportunity to have a collective discussion of the issue, with all 28 EU Heads of State and Government and the Presidents of the EU institutions, framed by the earlier exchange of letters between Prime Minister Cameron and President Tusk. Prime Minister Cameron opened the discussion by outlining the four broad areas where he is seeking change and by explaining the complex domestic politics around the issue in the UK. I intervened in strong terms in the subsequent discussion to present the Irish point of view, which is of course well known to this House and to the UK and other EU member states. I spoke about the importance of the issue to Ireland, given the uniquely close political, social, economic and cultural ties between our countries. I also emphasised the significance of UK membership to the EU as a whole and I stressed the importance of working together to find a solution that will enable the UK to remain in the EU.
Regarding the proposals themselves, Ireland is supportive of moves aimed at delivering more for our citizens. We share the UK's enthusiasm for sustained effort under the "competitiveness" heading. The issues here are the drivers of long-term prosperity for the citizens of the EU. Under the "economic governance" and "sovereignty" headings, although the details of the proposals remain to be clarified, we can also see where solutions might lie. In the immigration and free movement area, we can probably support the proposals, subject to the details, in regard to addressing fraud and abuse and changing the way in which child benefit is paid abroad. The idea of limiting access to in-work benefits is more difficult and there is widespread opposition to the proposal in its current form. However, I am hopeful that with willingness and determination, a workable solution in this area can also be found.
In terms of the debate itself, I was encouraged by the substantive and constructive exchange of views about the four categories of reform proposed by Prime Minister Cameron, including the difficulties in regard to in-work benefits. There can be little doubt that this is a challenging and sensitive issue, but the atmosphere at the European Council meeting was very positive and there was a willingness to find a way forward. David Cameron himself, while not withdrawing his proposal, signalled his openness to alternative ideas that would have the same effect.
We agreed therefore to work closely together in the period ahead with a view to reaching agreement on a package of measures at the February European Council. The sense is that, as regards the large majority of the issues, the broad lines of agreement are emerging. Whereas the question of welfare benefits and immigration remains difficult, work here also appears to be progressing and, as I stated, I am hopeful a solution will be found that addresses the legitimate concerns of all countries.
The legal form and implications of the final package remain to be teased out but I welcome the fact that the British Prime Minister is not pressing for early treaty change. We await the emergence of detailed proposals from President Tusk, which are expected in very early February. These will allow all member states to develop further their responses under all four headings and to participate actively in intensive and collective preparatory work at official level leading up to the February meeting. The aim is to secure agreement at that time on a package of measures acceptable to all of us and that will allow the British Prime Minister to recommend and campaign for a vote to remain in the European Union.
The European Council took place in the aftermath of the appalling terrorist attacks in Paris in November. These were an affront to the very values we all cherish in Europe and in the democratic world. As I have stated before, Ireland stands in solidarity with France and we are united in our determination to counter the threat posed by global terrorism. The discussions took stock of progress since last February when a detailed programme of criminal justice, law enforcement and border control actions was set out. The central point of our discussions in December was that the EU has now to deliver on the agreed measures. Building on the work of justice Ministers, we looked at enhancing information sharing and early implementation of the passenger name record directive, which was finally agreed in early December. Further emphasis was placed on systematic and co-ordinated checks at external borders - this primarily concerns Schengen area member states - and there was a commitment to examining Commission proposals on new directives for combatting terrorism and on the illegal firearms trade. Proposals were also made for increasing the effectiveness of the fight against terrorist financing, which were further considered by finance Ministers last Friday.
Ireland has consistently called for a co-ordinated international response and a comprehensive approach to combatting terrorism. In this regard, we welcome that the European Council proposed the stepping up of engagement with partners in North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and the western Balkans. The Commission, High Representative Mogherini and the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator were tasked with taking this work forward and reporting back to the European Council.
I now turn to a number of economic issues that were discussed at the European Council in December. Deputies are aware that a report on Completing Europe's Economic and Monetary Union was produced in June. This so-called "five presidents' report" was published under the personal authority of the President of the European Commission, in co-operation with the presidents of the euro summit, the Eurogroup, the European Central Bank and the European Parliament. Following consideration last year in some Council formations, the report and the proposals put forward by the Commission as initial follow-up were discussed by Heads of State and Government. The five presidents' report is an important contribution to the debate about the future of the single currency area. It sets out the authors' vision for achieving a "deep, fair and genuine" economic and monetary union by 2025 in two stages. The first of these phases, which should run to 2017, focuses on boosting competitiveness, maintaining responsible fiscal policies and completing banking union. A second stage would run to 2025, involving more fundamental changes to the EU's economic and institutional architecture.
Ireland's consistent position has been that we need to concentrate on strengthening and fully implementing the many significant reforms already agreed over the past few years. We need to press ahead on banking union and in this context, we have welcomed the proposals for a European deposit insurance scheme presented by the Commission in November. A further positive development on banking union was the entry into force of the Single Resolution Mechanism on 1 January of this year following ratification, including by Ireland, of the intergovernmental agreement on the transfer and mutualisation of contributions.
We must also continue to improve our collective engagement with the European Semester process of economic policy co-ordination. As part of this, the Commission presented its annual growth survey package on 26 November, setting out the key priorities for supporting growth and jobs under the 2016 European Semester. This retains the threefold emphasis established last year on investment, structural reforms and responsible public finances, which are priorities with which we fully agree. I am pleased to note that after years of sacrifice by the Irish people, our national economy is recovering strongly but we also need to see further improvement in the economic performance of the wider euro area and EU economies. This is important for creating the right conditions for investment and job creation, including here in Ireland. As regards the longer-term proposals put forward in the five presidents' report, these are widely agreed not to be the immediate priority. We agreed in December that they and other ideas need to be explored further and we undertook to come back to them before the end of 2017.
The European Council also assessed the development of the Single Market, in particular in the context of the new strategy published by the Commission on 28 October. This is a crucial initiative, including in the context of the current UK debate, and we endorsed it at our December meeting and called for ambition in its implementation. The Single Market is Europe's main engine for growth, job creation, investment and competitiveness. Discussions at the December European Council focused on the need to achieve a deeper and fairer Single Market for goods and services in all key areas. The need to implement the digital Single Market and to fulfil the action plan on capital markets union was also highlighted. These are, of course, both areas where Ireland strongly supports progress. The meeting also highlighted the importance of the negotiations with the United States on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, agreement. Again, this reflects our national position. In broad terms, we see the key issue here as pressing ahead with a high level of ambition, agreeing concrete timelines and delivering results.
The European Council also had a relatively brief consideration of external relations issues. First among these was the position of Syria, where there was agreement that while only an inclusive political process can lead to a solution, there cannot be a lasting peace in Syria under the present regime. Countries expressed support for the efforts of the global coalition to defeat the regional and global threat posed by ISIL or Daesh. We understand appalling events have happened in recent days. Turning to Libya, the signature of an agreement between the main parties was welcomed, although there were no illusions about the fragility of the process. Lastly, Heads of State and Government had a brief examination of relations with Russia and the situation in Ukraine.
As I have outlined, the December meeting of the European Council dealt with a diverse range of issues but with the focus very much on migration and the UK issue. I look forward to hearing Deputies' comments.