I welcome this opportunity to address the House in advance of the European Council, which begins tomorrow in Brussels. The agenda includes a discussion of the current migration situation; security; a range of economic and social development issues including youth; and external relations, specifically the Dutch ratification of the EU association agreement with Ukraine and the situation in Syria. Russia is also likely to be discussed. I have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, to address the foreign policy issues in his closing remarks.
The December European Council will be followed by a separate meeting of the 27 Heads of State and Government, without Prime Minister May. This will be the first opportunity since June for a substantial discussion in this format about Brexit and our plans for what lies ahead. Ireland, as we all know, stands to be most affected by the UK's withdrawal from the EU and that issue is discussed regularly in the House. The meeting in Brussels on Thursday evening is likely to focus on the mechanics and timing of the negotiations from the EU perspective.
In June, the 27 Heads of State and Government agreed that the European Council will provide overall political guidance for the negotiations and that the Commission will lead on the technical discussions. As Deputies will recall from previous discussions in the House, Mr. Michel Barnier, the head of the Commission task force on Brexit, visited Ireland in November. He and his team are very aware of our concerns arising from Brexit, including regarding Northern Ireland, the peace process, the common travel area and our deeply entwined economic and trade links with the UK. There has been good ongoing engagement on these issues at official level.
I expect tomorrow night’s discussion to touch upon the process whereby the European Council’s guidelines for the negotiations will be agreed once the UK has triggered Article 50. This will allow for an orderly commencement of the negotiations. Our discussions tomorrow are also likely to restate the principles we agreed in June, namely, that there can be no negotiation without notification, that the UK remains a member of the EU with all the responsibilities that implies, and that the Single Market and four fundamental freedoms are indivisible. I do not anticipate a detailed discussion about the future of Europe, otherwise known as the Bratislava process. This will be the focus of discussions at a separate meeting of the 27 in Malta in February, before the process concludes in March to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
The European Council will begin earlier than usual at 12.30 p.m. with a meeting with President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. There will then be a short update from Slovakia's Prime Minister, Robert Fico, on the implementation of decisions of the European Council. The President of Cyprus is also expected to provide an update on developments in his country's ongoing reunification talks.
Turning to the agenda, Heads of State and Government will begin by returning to the migration and refugee situation which is still very much a priority for the EU.
The Commission is expected to give an update on progress on a range of EU measures, including relocation and resettlement, the EU-Turkey statement and the partnership frameworks or "migration compacts" with third countries. A discussion is also expected on reform of the common European asylum system. Many of the EU measures are having a positive impact. The number of people attempting to cross the Aegean has reduced substantially since the EU-Turkey statement was agreed in March, and this is to be welcomed. Estimates from the International Organization for Migration show that there were more than 865,000 arrivals during the eight months before the EU-Turkey statement and a little more than 22,800 during the eight months thereafter. However, other routes remain extremely dangerous, and far too many people are still risking their lives attempting to travel to Europe.
The migration compacts aim to ensure coherence between EU migration policy and its external and development policies. These were discussed at the October European Council. Overall, we welcome the development of the migration compacts and their focus on working even more closely with countries of origin and transit as well as with countries hosting large numbers of displaced people. We support efforts to build on existing progress and policies. The first countries the compacts are being developed with are in Africa, and Ireland is supportive of the intention to make swift progress on the external investment plan in order to boost investments and job creation in these partner countries.
Although we are far less exposed to the full force of the migration and refugee crisis because of our geographical location and our non-participation in certain justice and home affairs measures, we continue to contribute to the EU response. As the House knows, the Government decided voluntarily to opt into measures and take in up to 4,000 persons in need of international protection under the resettlement and relocation programmes. There has been a good response to resettlement, that is, taking people from outside the Union. To date, 507 people have arrived in Ireland, mostly from Lebanon, and we are almost on course to meet our target of 520 by the end of the year.
On relocation, that is, taking migrants who have already arrived in Greece and Italy, progress has been slow. There have been some positive developments recently and 109 people have now come to Ireland from Greece. The Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Zappone, visited Greece this week. Arrangements are being made for more people to start coming here, and it is expected that there will be a further intake before the end of 2016. Thereafter, the plan is to increase the pace and receive up to 1,100 people by September of next year.
We have provided €42 million in response to the crisis in Syria since 2011 and we now pledge to bring this to €62 million by the end of the year.
Over the course of 2015 and 2016, Irish naval vessels have rescued 15,621 migrants in the Mediterranean. LE Samuel Beckett concluded operations on 5 December. On behalf of every Deputy and the people of Ireland, I commend the exemplary service of our naval personnel and thank them for their courage and professionalism. Consideration of a further deployment in 2017 will take into account a number of factors, including the ongoing situation in the Mediterranean, the overall EU response, the demands on the Defence Forces, overseas commitments and available resources.
Regarding security, the European Council will consider the implementation of the EU global strategy, the Commission's Communication on a European Defence Action Plan and EU-NATO co-operation.
These issues are of keen interest to the Irish people. We have a proud tradition, upheld by Governments from all sides of this House over many years, of military neutrality and non-participation in military alliances. This is subject to constitutional provisions and is protected in the treaties of the European Union. All of us intend to preserve this.
Tomorrow, the EU Heads of State and Government will hear from the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, before considering the matter of EU-NATO co-operation. This follows the statement on co-operation agreed in June, which took on board Ireland's specific concerns. Similarly, the EU global strategy reflects some of Ireland's key concerns. It commits the EU to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy and the rule of law. It has a positive focus on the Middle East peace process, disarmament, gender, the UN and the importance of multilateralism more generally. The strategy recognises the need to invest more in conflict resolution and tackle the root causes of instability. This involves using a mix of EU policies coherently to support international peace and economic development and help build state and societal capacity on governance, rule of law and human rights.
The Commission's Communication on a Defence Action Plan was published at the end of November. It examines how European industry can provide the capabilities required for the EU's peacekeeping and crisis management activities and ensure more effective and responsive common security and defence policy, CSDP, missions. We will consider these proposals very carefully. The EU common security and defence policy is an integral part of the Union's common foreign and security policy. It provides the Union with an operational capacity to undertake missions outside the EU for peacekeeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter. Our approach has been constructive and realistic. We are a strong supporter of initiatives, through the CSDP, which improve the capacity of the Union to contribute to international peace and security, particularly in support of the UN. We support co-operation with international partners where this adds value and contributes to the achievement of these objectives.
The follow-up to the EU-NATO joint declaration made in Warsaw, the implementation of the EU global strategy and the proposals in the defence action plan have no implications for Ireland's neutrality.
The European Council will also look at a number of issues under the heading of economic and social development and youth including the European Fund for Strategic Investments; energy union; the Youth Guarantee, the youth employment initiative and European Solidarity Corps; and, most importantly, the Single Market and Digital Single Market.
The Council will welcome last week's agreement by Finance Ministers to strengthen and extend the European Fund for Strategic Investments, and hopefully negotiations with the European Parliament can now be concluded quickly. While the impact of EFSI in Ireland remains modest at this point, we support strongly the further development of what is a key building block of the investment plan for Europe. The new Dublin office of the EIB, which I opened last Friday, should also provide further complementary support for project development in Ireland, building from the experience gained in tackling investment bottlenecks across Europe. The role of an enhanced EFSI in mobilising a stronger pipeline of SME finance will be very significant for Ireland, including in the context of the unique challenges we face on foot of the UK decision to leave the EU. More generally, we are not yet in Ireland at the vanguard in deploying EIB financial instruments to tackle investment bottlenecks. I want to see us make much better use of the enhanced lending volumes and risk capacity now available to the EIB, including through next year's mid-term review of the capital plan. I expect this to be quite significant.
We also have a keen interest in fighting youth unemployment and are supportive of the proposals in this regard.
We welcome the renewed commitment on energy union to promote energy efficiency actively as the most important means of achieving our shared climate and energy goals.
There will also be consideration of Single Market and Digital Single Market issues. I have spoken many times in this House on the priority we attach to completing this and the advantages for all of us in properly establishing the Digital Single Market. We have been active in generating support for an ambitious approach by the Commission. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation co-signed a letter last month highlighting the need for decisive action on services. I am leading an initiative in respect of the Digital Single Market in advance of this week's meeting and will be joined by 15 member states in my letter to President Tusk reaffirming the importance of maintaining strong political momentum in this regard. This work builds on that of the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, in co-ordinating a core group of digitally advanced countries.
I will leave the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, to respond to the debate.