Last week's summit reached no major or unexpected conclusions. While it was an important summit, unfortunately, it was not decisive in changing the direction of the European Union on any of the topics it discussed. If the House looks back to the early months of the Taoiseach’s predecessor and his first summit meetings, it will find a striking similarity in the claims made about what had allegedly happened. Deputy Enda Kenny, the then Taoiseach, had, according to his staff, broken with his predecessor in a whirlwind of breezy informality, addressing colleagues without notes and facing down a dastardly attempt by President Sarkozy to undermine our corporation tax regime. Of course, the full details which emerged later came nowhere near supporting the spin. Six years later, the Taoiseach, according to his staff, broke decisively from his predecessor by being a steady force, addressing his colleagues without notes and facing down a dastardly attempt by President Macron to undermine our digital tax policy. We should also remember that there were a number of bilateral meetings at the Élysée after which the then Taoiseach, to use yesterday’s quote, hailed improved relations.
An already defining problem with this Government is that it spends so much time hyping things which were happening anyway. Indeed, it has established a new unit and a large budget dedicated solely to presenting ongoing activity as news. When it comes to something as serious as European policy, this gets in the way of an honest debate about fundamental issues. Off-the-record briefings focused on giving the illusion of candour to a favoured few journalists actually reveals nothing and is more about short-term management of headlines than promoting the type of discussions we urgently need.
What was important about last week’s summit is that it addressed two fundamental challenges for both Ireland and Europe, namely, managing a deeply damaging Brexit and reforming the future Union of 27. It remains the case that the Government has no stated policy on most of the issues which have now been placed on the agenda for discussion. It is purely reactive, responding to the initiatives of others and more concerned about what image it presents than having any real influence. Let no one be in any doubt, a policy will not magically appear because the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, has been sent around the country to hold meetings promoted with the Government’s new corporate branding. In fact, it will have as little impact as when exactly the same tour was conducted by the then Minister of State, the former Deputy Lucinda Creighton, five years ago.
On Brexit, the Taoiseach’s policy has veered wildly in recent months and has increasingly been seen to be driven by his hyper-partisanship. He has already established himself as more tribal in his core political instincts than any predecessor in recent times. This was one of his core pitches to his parliamentary party colleagues during the recent leadership election. He is breaking new ground with the regularity on which he tries to make puerile debating society points against others who have consistently sought and promoted a pro-European consensus among democratic and non-extreme parties.
When we last discussed Brexit here the Taoiseach insisted that he would not seek a special deal concerning Northern Ireland because he was not prepared to contemplate failing in achieving effectively a free trade area that also covered east-west trade. He also justified the decision not to consider alternative scenarios. Yet three days later he went to Derry and explicitly said he was preparing for other circumstances, that he would seek special solutions for Northern Ireland and was very much planning for what to do if the UK-EU free trade area was not attainable. These lines were delivered with a breezy indifference to the content or tone of what he had been saying in the Dáil. The core of this point is that he either wants a constructive Brexit process and will change his approach or he can continue with a strategy which is failing to put in place the foundations for a broad agreement and consensus.
The Taoiseach has said repeatedly that briefings are available to pro-EU parties on the negotiations. So far we have yet to be told a single substantive piece of information which was not already in the international media or announced by a member of Government. Unless we begin seeing some element of candour, the only conclusion we can reach is that Ireland’s preparations are as incomplete as many fear and its negotiating stance is as incoherent as the Taoiseach’s various pronouncements since August.
The conclusions of the summit on the Article 50 negotiations are reasonable. Given that the May Government is unclear in what it is seeking or offering, there is no real basis for moving to the next stage. The next six weeks will be a moment of truth on whether it is willing to become more specific and to do the hard work of acknowledging that the European Union has a right to determine its own interests.
We strongly welcome the communiqué’s statement that the EU 27 are committed to "to flexible and imaginative solutions [reflecting] the unique situation of Ireland". This is language which is very different from what the Taoiseach said here two weeks ago. The obvious and immediate problem is that there is zero evidence that our Government has developed any proposals for "flexible and imaginative solutions" - in fact, until 12 days ago it was the Taoiseach’s stated intent not to look for any such solutions.
As Fianna Fáil has pointed out repeatedly, there is only one credible way of fully addressing the need to ensure that this island as a whole retains access to the customs union and Single Market, while also leaving the constitutional status of Northern Ireland unaffected. This is the development of a special economic zone. It is long past time that we tabled this as a proposal and started working on specifics.
It is noteworthy that the person chosen by the Taoiseach to head the new strategic communications unit announced to the Public Relations Institute of Ireland - a body until recently headed by another of the Taoiseach’s advisers - that next year he will be launching a campaign on Brexit. Consequently, before our policy is fixed and before any direct aid is planned for most businesses being hit by Brexit, the marketing campaign for Government is already funded and planned. This says a lot about priorities.
The Taoiseach is reported to have made comments concerning people in Northern Ireland choosing Irish passports. The reports suggested that he had used a form of words which implied that this is an issue principally for the Brexit implementation period. This may have been misreported, but the Taoiseach should use an early opportunity to clarify that he is not trying to introduce a new understanding of the Good Friday Agreement in this area similar to his incoherent comments on the majorities required for implementing constitutional change under the agreement. To be clear, the core of the agreement is that Northern Ireland residents maintain a permanent right to Irish and therefore EU citizenship. The very point of the detail of the text is that people are not forced to choose a fixed identity and that their rights do not change based on their identity. As I said soon after the referendum last year, it is Fianna Fáil’s absolute position that we will not support any deal which infringes on the core and permanent citizenship rights of persons ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland.
As a related point, the common travel area has been supported in principle by both sides in the negotiation and the bulk of its details will be separate from any Northern Ireland-specific provisions. We need to see evidence that proper preparations are under way to define and legally underpin the common travel area when Brexit is finalised.
The summit agreed a list of topics and dates for discussions on the issues of eurozone reform, migration, internal security, trade and the future financing of the European Union. This is President Tusk’s initiative to try to put some shape on a very disorganised series of initiatives concerning the future of the EU.
We welcome this agenda but it is important to realise that there are certain problems with what has been proposed. At the most basic level, far too little work has been done on the specifics of proposals and on defining the realm of what is and is not achievable through legislation that falls short of a treaty. Conducting discussions in the absence of a model of what is proposed and a study of what its impact might be is foolish. In the past, the approach to major reforms was to empower a group to study specific problems and propose options. Each of the major reforms of the Union has proceeded in this manner. The objective was to try to stop a process that did not encompass both analysis and negotiation. Such an approach needs to be adopted now.
The issue of the digital economy, which was discussed last week, is a very good case in point. It is entirely legitimate to be discussing how to ensure fair taxation of online commerce. What is not legitimate is to push for decisions in the absence of the most rudimentary work on the impact of measures on individual states, businesses and the Union as a whole. The final wording of the communiqué was well signalled in advance of the meeting. Given the lack of preparatory work on legal, political or economic matters, it is arguable that the discussion should have been postponed. The proposal that action be taken only in the context of cross-OECD work is exactly the proposal adopted on wider issues six years ago. Ireland should join others in insisting that before the Commission returns with any proposal early next year, it should circulate a full economic impact study. Let us have a fact-based debate and not one driven by one-sided advocacy.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the Council’s decision to reaffirm its support for the internationally agreed Iran nuclear deal. Fundamentally, there was no innocent purpose behind Iran’s nuclear effort. However, the deal reached after years of negotiations is a fair one that promotes security and offers the hope of Iran being more open to constructive international relations. The decision of the US President to refuse to certify the deal is dangerous, particularly in light of the fact that we need some process for de-escalating the current proliferation. We should join our European colleagues in calling for the US Congress to maintain the deal and avoid an escalation at such a dangerous moment.
We should also note events yesterday whereby Russia vetoed a renewal of the UN’s independent investigation into chemical attacks by the Syrian Government against the Syrian people. Not only did Russia veto the renewal, it also attacked the clear findings of the most recent report about how a Syrian air force plane dropped chemical weapons on one village, resulting in 80 people being killed and many more being maimed. It is a deeply disturbing moment in world affairs when the covering up of war crimes receives so little attention.
In the context of migration, the summit marked no major move forward. We continue to support the principle of solidarity between members and we call for a significant expansion in support for humanitarian and development efforts. The reason so many have risked so much to reach Europe is a lack of hope. The only way this can be provided is to be far more ambitious and generous in terms of aid. Far too many things are compared to Marshall aid, which rescued democracy in Europe after the Second World War. However, we need something of this magnitude to help countries throughout the Mediterranean. Millions of people remain stuck in camps and are denied the basic opportunities to provide for themselves. Before the crisis surges yet again, we need to be looking at far more radical action.