European Council: Statements

Tá áthas orm labhairt os comhair na Dála inniu faoi chruinniú Chomhairle an Aontais Eorpaigh a bhí ar siúl sa Bhruiséal an 14 Nollaig agus an 15 Nollaig. Bhuail an Chomhairle le chéile i gceithre bhfoirm difriúla le linn an dá lá. Bhí an phríomhchruinniú ar siúl Déardaoin, 14 Nollaig, agus dhírigh sé ar chomhoibriú sóisialta, oideachais agus cultúrtha, chomh maith le cúrsaí slándála agus cosanta. Níos déanaí an tráthnóna sin, bhuaileamar le chéile mar chuid de chlár oibre na gceannairí ar thodhchaí na hEorpa. Bhí béim ar an imirce, ach phléamar cúrsaí eile freisin, ina measc caidrimh sheachtrach agus trádáil. Maidin Dé hAoine, 15 Nollaig, bhí cruinniú mullaigh an euro i bhfoirm leathan leis an 27 ballstát chun an aontas eacnamaíoch agus airgeadaíochta a phlé. Ina dhiaidh sin, bhuaileamar le chéile i bhfoirm Airteagal 50, gan an Bhreatain, le dul chun cinn maidir le Brexit a phlé.

The Thursday afternoon meeting opened with a short exchange of views with President Tajani of the European Parliament. I look forward to meeting President Tajani again tomorrow in Strasbourg where I will be the first EU Head of Government to address the European Parliament as part of its debate series on the future of Europe.

The European Council then moved on to review security and defence. As on previous occasions, the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, attended the meeting and in his remarks underlined the importance of complementarity between his organisation and the European Union and the need for strong European defence. A Europe worth building is a Europe worth defending and Europe should not rely on the United States and the United Kingdom to do it for it. Within the European Union work has moved forward with the launch of the permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, arrangement. I am happy that Ireland is among the 25 member states to participate from the beginning. We are a founder member of PESCO, just as we were of the euro and the Single Market. PESCO provides a mechanism through which crisis management capabilities can be developed by member states in support of common security and defence operations. As I have said previously, participation in PESCO in no way changes our policy of military neutrality. We will continue to make our distinctive contribution based on our own traditions and strengths. However, we should also recognise that there are new challenges that confront all countries, including Ireland, such as terrorism, uncontrolled mass migration, cybercrime and drug and human trafficking and that it makes sense to work together to respond to them. No nation state can do so on its own. I look forward to Ireland participating in projects that are suited to our particular capabilities and position. I restate my view that our military neutrality and non-membership of NATO are a foreign policy strength and enhance our position as an honest broker and as UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and other parts of the world.

The next item for discussion was social, educational and cultural co-operation, following on from the successful social summit in Gothenberg in November. While member states remain primarily responsible for these areas, much can be achieved by working together. A number of interesting points were raised such as including the social agenda as part of the European Semester, although a decision on this was not taken at the European Council. The concept of European universities was also raised and we are very enthusiastic about exploring it further. The Commission will report back in the coming months on how some of these ideas might be brought forward. I see real opportunities in this for one or more Irish universities in becoming part of a European university. We also had a short discussion on climate change and the One Planet summit held in Paris last month.

In our evening session we had an extensive discussion on migration. While there were no formal conclusions, there was a clear recognition that much had been accomplished on the external dimension, with a sense around the table that the European Union needed to take further action externally to tackle the root causes of mass migration. On the internal dimension, different positions were aired and it was agreed that we would return to the discussion later in the year. Europe needs an effective and sustainable policy which will respect the responsibility and solidarity of member states. We also discussed a range of external relations items, including Russia and Ukraine and Jerusalem. The Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, will provide more detail on some of these issues and the social dimension in her remarks.

On Mercosur, we heard a presentation by the Iberian countries on the advantages of a trade deal for Europe. As the House is aware, while Ireland recognises the potential for a deal to be of great benefit to Irish industry and the economy, we have some concerns about the beef industry, in particular. France shares this position and both President Macron and I intervened to give our strong views on what should and should not be included in such a deal.

The Friday morning euro summit which met in its extended format took place in the presence of outgoing President of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem and the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, whom I welcomed to Dublin late last year. Both noted that the economic situation across Europe was much improved, how the single currency was in better shape and, in contrast to previous years, that there was greater convergence among eurozone economies. However, both called for this period of relative calm to be used to make European Monetary Union more resilient. I supported this call in my remarks, pointing out that the European Council did not predict the last financial crisis and that there could be no room for complacency about the future. We agreed that the banking union should be completed, although the timing and sequencing, particularly of risk reduction, was still being worked out. I expressed strong support for completing the capital markets union.

There was some discussion about institutional change, including the possibility of establishing a European monetary fund to replace the troika and a possible Finance Minister for the eurozone. Ireland has an open mind on these proposals and would welcome more detail before making a decision. It was also agreed that Finance Ministers should advance their work on these issues, with the European Council retaining oversight. President Tusk has announced that he will convene another eurozone summit in March, at which we will consider these matters further. The European Council met in Article 50 format, without Prime Minister May, and formally took the decision that sufficient progress had been made in phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations to allow us to move on to phase 2. As the House is aware, Ireland was able to rely on the strong support and solidarity of our partners in ensuring what was agreed represented an acceptable outcome on issues related to Ireland and Northern Ireland. I expressed our thanks to my colleagues around the table and they, in turn, assured me that we could continue to rely on their support as the negotiations continued.

As we move into phase 2, when transitional arrangements and the framework for the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union will be considered, it will be important to remain vigilant to ensure the commitments entered into in December are delivered in full. There can be no back-sliding. I am pleased that we agreed to negotiate a transition period and prioritise discussion of it in the first part of phase 2. Such an arrangement is essential if we are to provide certainty for businesses and citizens and enable them to plan for permanent changes that may occur as a result of Brexit.

In addition, internal preparatory discussions among the EU 27 on further guidelines at the European Council in March on the framework for the future relationship will begin. In parallel, the European Council called on the EU and UK negotiators to complete their work on withdrawal issues and start drafting the relevant parts of the legally binding withdrawal agreement. Later this month the General Affairs Council which will be attended by the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, will adopt additional negotiating directives on transitional arrangements and discussions with the United Kingdom on agreeing these transitional arrangements will then begin. This could be a status quo agreement, with the aim of avoiding gaps or cliff edge effects between the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the entry into force of the future relationship agreement.

In parallel to the negotiations and related work in Brussels, the Government’s detailed planning to prepare for the United Kingdom’s exit, including contingency planning for all possible scenarios, will continue at home. We have already taken some important steps to prepare the domestic economy, including the Action Plan for Jobs and the trade and investment strategy. Several dedicated measures were announced in budget 2018, including a loan scheme for business and additional supports for capital investment in the food industry. The House can be assured that, as we have done up to now in the negotiations, the Government will continue to advance and defend Ireland’s interests and seek to mitigate the negative effects of Brexit for the country and exploit opportunities. I look forward to hearing Deputies’ views.

Is léir nach raibh cruinniú na Comhairle Eorpaí i mí Dheireadh Fómhair chomh práinneach agus a cheapamar roimhe sin, cé go raibh ceist Brexit beagnach réitithe roimh an gcruinniú. Is maith an rud é sin ach bhí go leor rudaí tábhachtacha le plé ag na rialtais éagsúla ag an gcruinniú chomh maith.

December's Council meeting was, at one point, likely to be a dramatic event with tough decisions coming down to the wire. In the end, it was low key and simply confirmed decisions which had already been announced. In advance of the summit we discussed the outcome of the first round of Brexit negotiations. Now that some of the smoke and hubris which surrounded the agreement have passed, there is much greater clarity on where we find ourselves. A transition deal followed by a comprehensive free trade agreement is the only negotiated outcome which is compatible with the core positions of both sides.

For the European Union, the bottom line is that the United Kingdom will not be given preferential treatment which will undermine the basic legal foundations of the Union. For the United Kingdom, it is about not being subject to the European Union's judicial mechanisms and being able to conduct an independent free trade policy. It is ridiculous that it took the United Kingdom 18 months to recognise the reality that it no longer had the ability to intimidate the European Union by threatening a barrage of tabloid headlines and a possible veto.

Michel Barnier and his team have done an excellent job so far in their overall approach to the negotiations and we should have confidence in them to conclude a common-sense deal in the next ten months. The situation as it affects Ireland is far less clear. As we have said before, Fianna Fáil strongly welcomes the reassertion of the continued EU citizenship of Northern Ireland residents post-Brexit. This is a matter which we raised first and which was, for us, an absolute red line. However, we are very concerned about the basic contradiction within the agreement about the introduction of new economic divisions on the island. The final text repeats the assertions of the UK Government from very early in the process about its intentions to avoid new barriers. This is contradicted by its new statement that all parts of the United Kingdom will be treated exactly the same. All of the commentary we have heard from the government in London and much of what appears to be the focus of the Irish Government concerns the absence of physical barriers on the Border. The Taoiseach, reflecting what is, unfortunately, his very partisan way of presenting history, has emphasised the issue of physical barriers. The fact is that what is being discussed is a differently managed border, not the absence of a border, and it appears that the Government has gone all-in on a strategy of emphasising the overall UK-EU agreement rather than a special arrangement for this island. This is exactly the opposite of the self-aggrandising claim to be the first leader in 95 years to care about the North. As we have said many times before, some special economic zone is likely to be the only means of mitigating the full impact of Brexit on this island.

The final negotiations revealed a breakdown in relations between the Government and the May Administration, with a display of negotiation through the media not seen for over 30 years. Building close relationships and setting out detailed proposals are much more difficult than focusing on the public dimension, but if anything concrete is to be achieved this year, we need greater urgency and a greater focus than we have seen to date. As President Tusk said in December, what was agreed was the easy part of the process. It is time to put in place an approach which will be capable of delivering a substantive result for Ireland in the negotiations this year.

The bulk of the summit was concerned with other matters. We strongly support the Council's opposition to the unjustified and damaging decision of the Trump Administration to take steps to move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognise Jerusalem as the capital. I note that the Taoiseach did not refer to what he had stated at the meeting, but I presume the Minister of State will elaborate on that issue. There is no positive dimension to this decision for anyone who supports a fair peace based on a two-state solution. The continued drift of the Netanyahu Government towards a position of undermining any potential Palestinian state has been escalated by this decision. Ireland should continue to stand with its European partners in supporting a fair peace and opposing moves which entrench and promote long-term conflict.

The summit also formally addressed the PESCO defence agreement. As has been shown time and again, EU defence co-operation has respected the positions of members that are not in NATO. PESCO is about developing capacities. In our case, it will help us to continue to develop defence forces which have unique skills in peacekeeping and civil protection. Therefore, we welcome it. However, let no one be in any doubt that the principal issue in hand for us is whether we treat members of the Defence Forces decently with fair pay and fair conditions. In the seven years since the Department of Defence had its own separate full member of the Cabinet there have been drift and neglect. Dealing with this issue should be a priority.

In regard to the Commission’s action on Poland and the rule of law, there is a vital principle at stake.

The European Union is not just an economic entity, it is also fundamentally based on the values of liberal democracy which include fair elections, a balance of powers and respect for rights. The attempt by the Polish Government to take direct charge of the judiciary is clearly against these core values. That said, the various illiberal decisions of the Orbán Government in Hungary, including taking political control of every independent state institution, seem to have gone even further and been subject to no intervention. Before this matter proceeds, it would be a good idea to have a wider discussion on where it is going and the specific objectives involved. I do not think we have had sufficient debate on these issues in this House in terms of the drift in the direction Hungary and Poland are taking or as fully fledged members of the European Union in enshrining the values the European Union espouses. To a certain extent, there has been silence and a brushing under the carpet in the domestic debate here and at European level. That said, I welcome the more recent initiatives on that front at European level.

The euro summit which accompanied the full summit had no substantive outcome. The upturn in the euro economy is very positive, but the last thing it should lead to is complacency or a sense that the need for reform has been removed. The banking union is far from complete and the full separation of banking debt and sovereign debt has not been achieved. A unified system of control and a unified currency require a broad-based system for risk sharing and bank resolution. Continued German objections to it are holding back an essential reform. We are unconvinced by the Commission's proposal to subsume the mechanism for aiding states with borrowing problems under its oversight.

We repeat our call on the Taoiseach to state exactly what Ireland is proposing on the digital taxation initiative. During Taoiseach's questions I repeatedly asked him to clarify his strategy for the March summit which is due to decide the issue, yet he has repeatedly refused to say anything. The more he does that the more it will look like he is simply waiting to see what will happen.

While leaders noted actions concerning migration, there was no substantive discussion of the continued humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 5.4 million registered refugees from Syria. Of these, 1 million have sought asylum in the European Union. Ireland has, rightly, agreed to participate in the resettlement of refugees, but we should also acknowledge the generosity of Germany and Sweden which have, between them, taken fully 64% of all refugees. The political bravery of their leaders, particularly Chancellor Merkel, in standing for humanitarian values in the face of intolerance is something we should acknowledge and honour. However, more needs to be done. First, there should be a significant increase in support for basic facilities for refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and other countries in the region. The UNHCR states there is a €2 billion gap in the budget for 2018. Ireland and the European Union should take immediate steps to help to close the gap. Second, we should continue to speak up for the victims of war crimes committed during the Syrian conflict. That Russia has repeatedly vetoed the efforts of the United Nations to investigate likely gas attacks by the Syrian regime against its own people is a shocking reflection of how far it is willing to go in supporting a dictatorship and playing geopolitics.

This year will be dominated by the Brexit negotiations. In the journey from generalities to a hard agreement an enormous amount of work must be undertaken. For Ireland, the challenge is to build the missing constructive relationships and be willing to start proposing specific solutions to at least limit the inevitable damage caused by Brexit. Deputy Donnelly is in London with Deputies Niall Collins and Darragh O'Brien. It is interesting that the perspective on Brexit they are getting from British interlocutors is far different from the message and sense of what the agreement means here. I met the Scottish Minister responsible for Brexit, Mr. Mike Russell, in Killarney at the weekend, with Mr. Mark Drakeford from Wales, and they were very surprised by my explanation of our understanding of what the phase 1 agreement constituted vis-à-vis what they were hearing from the Westminster Government on the same issue. That indicates clearly the need to be vigilant in the months and years ahead.

Beidh mé ag roinnt ama leis an Teachta David Cullinane.

Cuirim fáilte ar ais roimh an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Tá súil agam go raibh sos maith aige i dTír Chonaill.

Bhí mé ann fosta, leis an fhearthainn. Ahead of the crucial meeting of the European Council last month, Sinn Féin made it clear that it was vital that the Government secure additional guarantees from the British Prime Minister about the legal standing of the joint report issued by the European Commission and the British Government in December. We said that additional guarantees were needed because at the very heart of the report was a set of fundamental contradictions. Contradiction No. 1 is that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland but that the North will be dragged out of the customs union and the Single Market. Contradiction No. 2 is that there is no threat to the Good Friday Agreement, yet there 142 areas of all-Ireland co-operation that could be adversely affected by the Tory Brexit. Contradiction No. 3 is that there will be no erosion of rights for citizens living in the North but Britain is to push ahead with its withdrawal from the European Court of Justice. Contradiction No. 4 is that the people of the North voted to remain in the European Union, but that decision that has been ignored by the British Government, the DUP and others.

Sinn Féin flagged the contradictions with the Government and advised that it needed to be very careful in its dealings with the British Government. I note the Taoiseach's warning today that we need to remain vigilant to deliver on the commitments made in December, to ensure they will be delivered on in full and that there will be no backsliding. I have learned from decades of experience that British Governments are adept at ensuring the text of agreements is written in such a way that they allow for various interpretations on another date. The interpretation they adopt is always the one which advances British interests over all others. They argue that that is their job. In fact, a senior civil servant once said it was their job to allow for whatever interpretation was required.

The job of the Taoiseach and the Government is to protect, defend and advance the national interest. For too long the Government has seen itself purely as acting in the interests of the State. It is welcome that the Taoiseach is looking out for the interests of the people, North and South. It is a source of some bemusement for me that at this time the Fine Gael leader is more sound on issues to do with the national question than the Fianna Fáil leader.

We want the Taoiseach to move beyond the rhetoric. We want him to drill down and ensure there is delivery on some of what he has been saying.

Are we warming up for a coalition?

Rock solid, iron-clad guarantees that resolve the contradictions were required to allow the negotiations to move to the next phase with the approval of the Irish Government. That is what has happened, but the question is whether we have rock solid, iron clad guarantees. I can only assume that the Taoiseach sought them. We could ask him whether he secured legal assurances from his British counterparts and European colleagues. I assume that they delivered the necessary clarity, certainty and confidence that are so lacking in the joint report. Will the Taoiseach tell the Dáil what additional legal assurances he sought and secured, as opposed to it being a matter of the Irish interpretation or the European Union and British interpretation? Will he give a commitment to publish assurances he may have received in order that Members of the Oireachtas can take the time to examine them?

I also wish to take a moment to address remarks made by the DUP leader, Ms Arlene Foster, in Killarney at the weekend. I acknowledge and welcome her statement that she is opposed to a hard border. The problem is that while Ms Foster and the DUP state they are opposed to a hard border, they are also demanding that the North leave both the customs unions and the Single Market. If that happens, it will guarantee the imposition of a hard border. We have been championing a practical solution, namely, for the North to have special designated status within the European Union. That is the only and best solution. It would also respect the vote of the people in the North and is endorsed by the majority of MLAs. It is endorsed, in particular, by the people of the North and also by the Dáil. I commend it to the Government and also the DUP.

There should be no shying away from this because it came from Sinn Féin. We do not care who gets ownership of it or what it is called. I urge An Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and Ms Foster to examine once again the proposals contained in the various policy documents and discussion documents produced by Sinn Féin.

Three issues emerged from the last European Council meeting: Brexit, defence and monetary reform. All three are crucial and central to the future of the people of this island. All of these Council meetings are at a time when there is a focus on the future of Europe and discussion on the type of Europe we want to build. We all now recognise that this future will be without Britain and that Britain is intent on leaving the European Union. It is the job of the Irish Government to ensure we protect our interests and those of Irish people.

With regard to Brexit, we welcomed, as the Taoiseach knows, the relative progress made in recent times in the joint agreement and joint report agreed by all member states regarding the Irish issues and others also. We are now entering a second round of talks at which the heavy lifting will be done, at which the flesh will be put on the bones of all these issues and where the real negotiations will begin. The caveat and background to all that is that the other member states will be really focused on the big issue of whether there will be a trade agreement between Britain and the European Union. Obviously, we want such an agreement and, if possible, Britain to stay within the customs union and the Single Market. The difficulty we have is that there are real contradictions. By "we", I mean everybody on the island of Ireland, particularly those who want to avoid a hard border and those who want to ensure we protect the rights of citizens, be they Irish citizens or citizens from other member states living in the North or South, and protect the Good Friday Agreement.

What we are hearing from the Tory party depends on what wing one is listening to. It is very difficult when one is negotiating with three wings, or possibly four, of another political party, but that is what the member states are trying to do. If one listens to the British Government and British Prime Minister, however, one notes they are saying that Britain and the North will come out of the customs union, Single Market and legal framework of the European Union. That means the Good Friday Agreement also. Thus, we do not have assurances that citizens in the North will enjoy exactly the same rights as European citizens in the South when the North is taken out of the European Union. These are contradictions that cannot be squared unless we have absolutely firm commitments that the North will stay in the customs union and the Single Market and remain subject to the Good Friday Agreement.

We have consistently said all of this is possible. We, and even members of the Taoiseach's Government and the former Taoiseach, heard that any kind of special solution for Ireland was not possible. It is possible. It is possible for the North to remain within the European Union. It is possible to have special status. It is possible for the North to stay in the customs union and Single Market if the political will exists. If the political will exists, anything is possible. All of this is unprecedented in terms of Britain leaving the European Union anyway. Let me state my words of caution to the Taoiseach. I doubt that he needs them. He has been described as being a bit greener than previous Fianna Fáil leaders in the past, which some might regard as quite ironic. Even leaving that aside, I do not need to remind the Taoiseach that when the heavy lifting will be done over the coming months and when we begin to negotiate the actual detail, the British Government will act in British interests, as Teachta Adams said. That is what it would be expected to do. The Taoiseach must act in the interest of Irish citizens in the North and South. He has to make sure he gets the best possible deal for us and make sure full alignment means full alignment. The only way he can achieve full alignment is by having the North stay in the customs union and Single Market. If he comes back with something less, if there is a hardening of the Border, if the Good Friday Agreement is not protected and if EU citizens who live in the North do not have the same rights that they have now, it will be a problem and a matter for which his Government will have to account. As long as the Taoiseach is acting in the national interest for all people who live on the island of Ireland, he will enjoy the support of Sinn Féin. I am sure he will enjoy the support of many people across the island.

We are very focused on the time ahead. We want to get the best possible deal and result but that will require considerable diligent, hard work and attention over the coming weeks and months. My party will not be found wanting in making sure we do whatever we can to achieve the best possible outcome for everybody. As I stated, that means the North staying in the European Union, the customs union, the Single Market, the political framework and legal framework, in addition to remaining subject to the Good Friday Agreement.

I call Deputy Brendan Howlin.

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Fáilte romhat ar ais.

Go raibh maith agat.

It is nearly a month since the December European Council meeting. Significant progress was made on Brexit and on the leaders' agenda, discussed prior to Christmas. It is unfortunate that debate on many of the changes under way in Europe has been limited and more often lost in the understandable focus on Brexit. Europe is changing, however. The rush to advance the defence agenda just prior to Christmas is just one example.

For six months, I called in this House for a debate on PESCO. I listened to the leader of Fianna Fáil give his view on it. It was perfectly reasonable but we should have the debate and a full, open discussion on these matters.

Permanent structured co-operation on defence and security matters has been central to the changes under way in Europe. It is a shame, therefore, that these matters were rushed through in two hours. We were not to have any debate at all in this House on the matter until I insisted on it. It was a joke of a reference to the defence committee of the House when the debate on its report was scheduled for the next day. Thus, there was no opportunity to hear any expert witnesses on important matters. That is not the way we bring people with us in an important debate on the future of Europe. We have made such mistakes in the past. Any changes will be subject to referendum in the future. Therefore, let us bring our people on a journey of understanding as we discuss fundamental issues pertaining to the future of Europe, including this country.

As I said in December, Ireland should have taken the same position as Malta, which adopted a wait-and-see approach because it believed certain operations may be in breach of the neutrality clause in its constitution. The Irish Government has still not informed us which of the 17 joint projects under PESCO it intends to sign up to. There should be no fear about an open and reasonable debate on these matters.

On foreign policy in the Middle East, I welcome the firm commitment by leaders reiterating support for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and the fact that the EU position on Jerusalem remains unchanged. It is three years since the Dáil unanimously voted to recognise the state of Palestine. The Irish Government should now move to declare its recognition of Palestine as a state, and more efforts are needed to stop and reverse the development by Israel of illegal settlements. This is an important item for the agenda of the European Union. It seems we are moving away from peace as opposed to towards it, as we had hoped. So many of the problems of the world have their genesis in the conflict in the Middle East.

The Council welcomed the progress on climate change and the outcome of the One Planet Summit in Paris. That work now needs to be progressed further.

In the context of the next EU budget, there is an interesting proposal from the Commission that proceeds and profits of the EU emissions trading system should move from state level to EU level. This is one of the proposals put forward to fill the EU budget gap that will be created when the UK leaves the Union. The Government's view on this proposal and the other financial proposals should be set out clearly for us and we should have an opportunity to debate that also.

More than likely Ireland will be asked to make a larger contribution to the EU budget. There should be an open public debate on that. Again, we need to address that matter and explain, if there are to be increased contributions, what they are for and how they are to be constructed.

The second agenda item for the Council was the social dimension, education and culture. Last month, I flagged a number of ideas proposed by the Party of European Socialists. I hoped then that the Government would consider those. A key agenda item at the Council was extending the ERASMUS programme on its 30th anniversary. It is timely, as we recall with sadness the death of Peter Sutherland, to remember the work he did to create that ground-breaking programme when he was a European Commissioner. It is one of the really important instruments that brought European citizens together.

The proposal from the leaders' agenda to envisage an ERASMUS programme for young artists would be a fitting legacy to and expansion of his work, as well as a tangible benefit for all EU citizens. The outcomes of the Council also refer to a proposal to encourage the emergence by 2024 of some 20 European universities. Will the Government outline what this will mean and if an Irish university will be encouraged to pursue this goal?

The last Council was dominated by Brexit. I was sceptical as to whether progress could be made. It went to the wire but, thankfully, agreement was reached. We would be under an illusion if we were to think that significant challenges do not remain. It is a challenge for all of us when we are asked how the apparent opposite objectives of the UK Government's commitment to have no border on the island of Ireland while leaving the customs union at the same time can be achieved. We need to get down to concrete detail ourselves, as well as those in the discussions taking place between Michel Barnier and UK Government, to ensure we have a deeper step-by-step understanding as how this will be envisaged and achieved.

The December Council meeting agreed to begin work on the type of transition agreement that will be put in place for approximately two years. It also will open discussions on the type of framework for the future relationship of the EU and the UK. In advance of the March Council meeting, the detail of both the transition and the future relationship will have to be worked out. Some details are beginning to emerge. I believe that only the UK staying in the Single Market and customs union can deliver the type of border and future trade arrangements that Ireland needs. Having listened to some Members earlier, I do not want a customs union barrier between Rosslare and Holyhead or Fishguard or Dublin and Liverpool. While the issues discussed in some detail about the Border are important, the bulk of our trade is east-west and it is critical for all of us.

The recent move by the UK Labour Party to acknowledge the need to stay in the customs union, as well as some form of linkage to the Single Market, is welcome. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. However, the news that Norway would seek radical changes to the European Economic Area, EEA, agreement in the event of special UK access to parts of the Single Market is a further reflection of the constraints on the UK's manoeuvrability in this regard.

Moves are under way to identify funding for the next EU budget. Where will the EU go when the UK exits? The debate started by the French President has been added to in Germany by the Social Democratic Party of Germany, in the context of coalition discussions. The future of Europe is a core concern for the Labour Party and for all social democrats, as well as democrats, on the Continent. Across Europe, parties of the left fought long and hard to advance this political project and the benefits it would bring to all Europeans. Laws, like the working time directive, parental leave and women's rights, have been an enormous advance for EU citizens. As I said in December, we need the debate on how we can bring Europe closer to all our citizens, and that it is not merely some economic or trading entity but has an impact on the quality of lives of everybody else.

We need to have a view on how Europe will be structured in the future. Due to our understandable focus on Brexit, the future of Europe debate has been somewhat put to one side. I note the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, has been pivotal in this discussion but I share the concerns expressed in the House about the drift away from liberal democracy and adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, which were the drivers of the European project in the aftermath of the Second World War. We need to understand what kind of European Union we want in the future. Ireland should be a leader in that. Although we have interests, we have also got values. Those values should be clearly articulated in all discussions about the next steps to be taken about Europe's future.

I am sharing time with Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I want to raise the question of Palestine and the EU's relationship with Israel. I know it was on the Council agenda.

I must say goodbye to the Taoiseach. I note his regular departure once Solidarity-People Before Profit Members start to speak.

I have been here for the past four hours. How long has Deputy Paul Murphy been here?

Has the Taoiseach ever stayed for any of our contributions in any of the debates he leads off on?

No. For every single European Council debate, the Taoiseach stays until the Labour Party, with its seven Members, speaks, as he rightly should. Then he leaves when Solidarity-People Before Profit, with six Members, starts to speak because our ideas are not worth listening to. I am sure he can read the Official Report later.

The Rural Independent Group has seven Members. I do not get the Deputy's point.

The Taoiseach should also stay and listen to Deputy Mattie McGrath's group. He should stay to listen to what all Members have to say in these debates in which he leads off.

Obviously, the question of Jerusalem was on the agenda of the European Council meeting. The European Union is not like the US or Donald Trump in enthusiastically endorsing and cheering on Israeli oppression with, for example, the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. The EU can try to bask in an inverted reflected glory of not being Donald Trump and look as if it is somehow friends of the Palestinian people. However, the reality is different. While the EU has a different approach in how it puts the case forward and sheds crocodile tears for Palestinians, the same complicity exists between the EU and Israel. The relationship between the EU and Israel has actually deepened over the past several months.

A graphic demonstration of why this is absolutely abhorrent, morally wrong and outrageous as a foreign policy is the treatment of the 16 year old Ahed Tamimi over the course of the past several months. She is a Palestinian activist and a recognised human rights defender who was arrested in the early hours of 19 December. She was taken from her home by Israeli soldiers, put into a military jeep and has been held in a military prison, Ofer Prison, since. Her mother was detained on the same day when she went to a detention centre to ask of her daughter's whereabouts.

One day, prior to her arrest, Ahed Tamimi was protesting against occupation soldiers who shot her 15 year old cousin in the face, putting him in a critical condition. During the raid, soldiers forcibly entered her home, physically assaulted her mother and her siblings and confiscated electronic devices including laptops, cameras and mobile telephones. Her treatment comes after her challenging the presence of the Israeli Defence Forces in her family's courtyard, following the injury of her 15 year old cousin. The village in which he lives has been the location of regular protest in which she has played a role because it is illustrative of the growing occupation by Israel, forcing people out of their homes. For example, water was redirected to a local Israeli settlement, leading to a lack of water for Palestinian farms. Ahed Tamimi faces 12 charges in a military court, which have grown over time, as a result of her being involved in protests.

The reaction of the right wing is appalling. The education minister stated that she should end her life in prison. Ahed Tamimi is still in prison, as is her mother. She should be released. Their case illustrates the treatment of Palestinian children by the Israeli occupation. Some 8,000 have been arrested, detained or charged with offences in military courts since 2000. Three out of four of those detained by the Israel Defense Forces experience violence and are the subject of conviction rates of 99% in military courts. When I was in Gaza seven years ago, I saw some of the instruments of torture used against these children.

The reality of the relationship between the EU and Israel is demonstrated by a so-called informal meeting at the end of December involving all of the EU ministers for foreign affairs and Benjamin Netanyahu. It is an incredible relationship which would not happen anywhere else and illustrates that, with the EU-Israel association agreement, Israel is incorporated into the Single Market. Israeli companies, including military companies, have been the beneficiaries of over $2 billion in the past 20 years in the context of research funding. That is public funding, some of which ends up with those arms industries. That relationship has to end. Ahed Tamimi and her family must be released immediately.

I also want to raise the issue of Palestine. I echo the comments about Ahed Tamimi and the horrendous treatment of a child and her mother protesting against the illegal and immoral occupation of Palestinian territory in defiance of any notion of a two-state solution or international law and yet we continue to allow Israel to effectively act with impunity.

I want to talk about Gaza, the other part of Palestinian territory, and the shocking humanitarian crisis that is unfolding and worsening there. We often only talk about Palestine when there is war and places are being bombed to bits. We talk little about what the disastrous humanitarian consequences are afterwards and the impact that the siege is having on nearly 2 million people in a tiny pocket of land in Gaza. The facts are shocking. Some 20% of the housing stock has been destroyed as a result of various Israeli assaults. A total of 1.3 million people - 70% of the population - are dependent on humanitarian assistance. Nearly 50% of the people there are food insecure, 55% do not have a consistent energy supply and fewer than 5% have potable piped water. There is a horrific situation regarding patients trying to get out of Gaza to get medical treatment whereby the number that Israel or the el-Sisi regime in Egypt allows out has been slashed. Many people in desperate need of medical treatment simply cannot get out of Gaza. There is no medicine or medical equipment in the hospitals. The goods that can be transported in or out are tightly controlled, which impacts on medical supplies in particular since Israel claims they are dual-usage and could be used as weapons. This is a nonsense used to strangle the population into an appalling situation. Fishermen are only allowed to fish in one third of the fishing waters in which they were supposed to be allowed to fish under the Oslo Accords. The international community sits by and does nothing.

The Minister, Deputy Coveney, went to the region last week. He met Benjamin Netanyahu, the person who is illegally occupying Palestinian territory in defiance of international law and the Geneva Convention. As a result of the occupation, 2 million people in Gaza are the subject of collective punishment. The Minister was happy to meet Mr. Netanyahu . When he went to Gaza, and wrote a very moving blog about what he saw there, he refused to meet the democratically-elected members of the Gaza Parliament. One line in his blog states that Hamas is deemed an international terrorist group and that we do not deal directly with them. Benjamin Netanyahu, in the context of what he is doing, is a terrorist by any definition. Our representatives can meet him no problem and yet they go to Gaza and will not meet the democratically-elected representatives of the people of that territory. Let us remember that Gaza is in the current humanitarian mess because Israel refused to recognise the outcome of democratic elections over which there was international observation. They were shown to be absolutely free and fair elections, yet, when our Minister went there, he refused to talk to the representatives in question. I am not even referring to talking to Hamas.

I want to pass on a direct request from the Gaza Parliament, which has contacted me. It says it was delighted to see the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in Gaza, but wished that representatives of this democratically-elected Parliament would go and meet representatives of the democratically-elected parliament there or that we might invite the speaker of the Gaza Parliament to this Parliament to talk. We should listen to the elected representatives of the people of Gaza who are suffering this appalling situation have to say. That is elementary. If we can talk to Benjamin Netanyahu - I would rather we did not - then can we also talk to the people who represent the suffering millions in Gaza who are putting up with an appalling situation? That is a direct question to the Minister of State and the Government. Will they talk to the elected representatives of the people of Gaza about the disastrous humanitarian situation that the vast majority of that population is suffering?

I am sharing time with Deputy Clare Daly. Looking at the agenda from the EU summit, we noticed that security and defence played a big role. I know we have had a debate on PESCO. Those of us who have reservations and criticisms about PESCO aired those views. I hope those reservations and criticism do not come back to haunt us because I believe we are playing with our neutrality. I do not believe we are respecting it and it has already been undermined by the misuse and abuse of Shannon airport. We have a significant reputation from our humanitarian role and also our work in securing agreement on the sustainable development goals. No matter what is said, PESCO is about military capabilities and projects. How will this be managed? What will the role of the Dáil be when it comes to these operations? What sort of say are we going to have? We have a different role and different relationship with the countries in Central and South America, in Africa and in south-east Asia. It is different from the relationship that other European countries have with them because many of those European countries were colonial powers and we have to recognise that.

We also see a greater link between security, defence and migration. We know we have an unprecedented migrant crisis in Europe and a global refugee crisis. At present, there are 65 million refugees and displaced persons across the globe, the largest number since the Second World War. President Tusk was talking about preventing new arrivals at external borders and tackling the root causes of migration. The latter is a very long-term goal but in the meantime we have migrants who are totally at the mercy of unscrupulous traffickers and they are still being returned to detention centres in Libya. Is there an update on what is happening in those centres in Libya?

Culture and education were discussed. I would make a particular plea for those migrant young people living in European countries, many of whom are disaffected, and for there to be a way to bring them into the education system because many are not engaging. The EU is committed to the two-state solution but while it is stating that commitment, as we are speaking here, there is more encroachment with the building of settlements. The viability of a Palestinian state is being further encroached upon. I know there were talks and reconciliation is going on between Hamas and Fatah. I would like to see the EU supporting that and doing more than saying that it is committed to a two-state solution.

Ireland played a role in the Colombian peace process, as did the EU, and I want to bring up the issue of Honduras. I know it has been brought to the Minister, Deputy Coveney's, attention. The EU has a delegation in Honduras and there is an EU electoral observation mission there. It is due to release its report but not for some months and there is much violence in the meantime. The presidential candidate and Opposition Alliance leader, Salvadar Nasralla, is shown by official data, backed up by considerable evidence, to have had an insurmountable lead prior to the electronic vote management system going offline. The EU electoral observer mission noted irregularities in the conduct of the election but is not releasing its official report. Unfortunately, some countries recognise the result even though there were irregularities with the election. The Organization of American States is calling for fresh elections.

While it was relatively calm over Christmas, violence has resumed. There has recently been very heavy-handed tactics from the state forces and militias.

I know that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade called on all sides to be respectful, but one side definitely is not. Recently eight regional leaders, with one Jesuit who is working with them, were called "an axis of evil". There is the intimidation and harassment of civil society, peasant leaders and environmentalists. Can Ireland be a progressive voice at EU and UN level in supporting democracy - there was an EU election observation mission - and the citizens of Honduras?

At December's meeting the assembled Ministers discussed migration. Yet again, we are told the discussion was based on a note circulated by President Tusk which focused on "preventing mass arrivals at external borders and tackling the root causes of the migration crisis". In the short time available to me, I would like to raise two subjects that circle the questions of asylum and migration which often result in a red mist descending over western liberal eyes. They are the position of Julian Assange and the situation in Syria.

Since Julian Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London five years ago and was granted asylum, the focus has drifted from him and his rights under international law; in its place there is a poisonous consensus in both the right-wing and left-wing media that he is in the embassy of his own free will, that he can walk away any time he likes, that the threat posed by the US Government is overstated, that he is just a publicity seeking narcissist and that people who are not great and who have character flaws do not deserve human rights. The media consensus on this issue is a complete distortion of the reality and an uncritical acceptance of what can only be called UK and US Government propaganda.

With the spotlight off Julian Assange's human rights, it is up to us to put the issue centre stage. In February 2016 the working group on arbitrary detentions which falls under the UN's Human Rights Council ruled that Julian Assange, effectively after more than five years of imprisonment, had been deprived of his rights under international law and was the subject of arbitrary detention. It called for him to be allowed to exercise his right to freedom of movement and be offered compensation for his detention. The UK and Swedish Governments responded by completing ignoring this call and, in doing so, ignored their obligations under international human rights law. When the same group issued a decision in 2008 that Aung San Suu Kyi was being held in arbitrary detention, the UK Government, with its European counterparts, were quick to condemn it and call for her release.

Universal human rights do not mean one law for people we like and another for people we do not. We should remind our European counterparts of this. The working group's decision was made two years ago, but the issue of Julian Assange's human rights has faded from public discussion in favour of tidbits about celebrity visitors and involvement in publicising the Democratic National Committee leaks. There is little discussion of the basic fact that he is being detained arbitrarily by the United Kingdom in contravention of international law and his right to asylum. This is all the more surprising given that in April last year the director of the CIA called WikiLeaks "a hostile, non-state intelligence service" and Julian Assange a demon who had no right to the protections of the First Amendment. In the same month he confirmed that the United States had prepared a warrant for his arrest which it called "a priority". It is worrying that the United Kingdom and the United States have manufactured this consensus on human rights and international law and the right to asylum. The next time the Minister of State sits down with her European counterparts I ask her to make it known that Julian Assange must be allowed to leave the embassy with cast iron guarantees on his release that he can exercise his right to asylum in Ecuador without fearing extradition to an English or an American super-max prison.

One of the root causes of migration is the conflict in Syria. The way in which the debate is represented in Ireland and across Europe has been incredibly naive and simplistic, as it is portrayed as a debate between good and bad, with a demand that one has to take only one side. Deputy Mick Wallace and I were criticised for our visit to Syria and call for an end to sanctions which we based on our support for fundamental human rights and decades of evidence that sanctions hurt ordinary people far more than regimes. However, in some quarters that was somehow filtered through the Syrian distortion filter as expressing support for Bashar al-Assad. I hope that when the Government goes to the European Union, it will portray the reality of Syrian politics and society which is a kaleidoscope and not black and white. No society is black and white and it is profoundly wrong and short-sighted of those who are not part of Syrian society to assume entrenched positions on what is happening there. All we can do is listen to the people whose country it is and be guided by them to support them in their efforts. It is not for us to impose our will or conception of what is right for them. That is precisely the paternalism that drove 19th century imperialism and that is driving western interventions in sovereign states, which has led to 65 million people being driven out of their homes. If we want to help the Syrian people, our only choice is to embrace nuance and avoid at all costs the temptation to assume the right to speak for and represent them.

I refer to the words of a Syrian youth activist who is implacably opposed to both President Assad and ISIS and puts forward a view that is the way forward when he talks about those from outside deciding what is right. He said:

They are interested in high-politics, not grassroots struggles. They are dealing with grand ideologies and historical narratives, but they don’t see people - the Syrian people aren’t represented. They are holding on to depopulated discourses that don’t represent human struggle ... We as a people are not merely a tool for the narratives of the western left. This is our country. We are not guests.

I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Minister of State a happy new year.

The outcomes of the European Council meeting before Christmas are important and cover many areas. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, I will refer mostly to the Brexit negotiations.

It is welcome that significant progress has been made to allow the negotiations to move from phase one to phase two. The negotiations are important for Ireland and likely to impact one way or another on every parish, workplace and home. While many in the United Kingdom believe that no deal is better than a bad one, I do not agree. We all know that the potential consequences of the United Kingdom crashing out of the European Union could be disastrous. The confirmation that the United Kingdom has proposed and the European Union has accepted a transition period of two years is good news. It gives all of our businesses time to get ready and prepare. This step was hugely significant for Ireland and the rest of the European Union. The impact of Brexit on Ireland will be significant because of geography, history, trade and so on; therefore every aspect of the negotiations is vital for all of us.

There are, however, issues that are unique to Ireland and they have been extremely well recognised by the other member states. I congratulate all those on the Irish side who worked so hard to explain the position and recognise the solidarity we received from all of these countries. The Government, the Civil Service and our diplomats played their parts, while Oireachtas Members also made every effort to talk to fellow parliamentarians in other member states to raise issues and explain their context every time they had an opportunity to do so. A strong consensus was built and our friends supported us, which ended up being important in getting us to where we are now. However, while all of that was complicated, the next phase will be more difficult as there will be negotiations on a transitional arrangement, a withdrawal agreement and the start of work on the framework for a future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

The full and final solution which takes into account the particulars of the Irish Border has not been found yet. We know what the parameters of it are but not how every little piece will work or what exactly regulatory alignment is and in what areas it is needed. The EU will need to go into all of this with the UK.

My sense is that if we are to look at the central parts, that is, the customs union and the Single Market, to ensure there is no hard border on this island, we might be better drawing up a list of what is not essential rather than trying to start with what is essential. We have all seen the reports on the trade, the number of people and, in particular, the volume of milk crossing the Border every day. There is the example of how Baileys is made, with movement backwards and forwards made possible partly because we all recognise the same standards. While the European Council noted in its position that the Brexit transition arrangements must suit the EU, it also highlighted its willingness to establish partnerships with the UK in other areas besides trade after Brexit. This is very helpful. At the end of the day, there is a lot of excitable talk about all of this but the islands are not moving. We are still going to be neighbours and we will need to work together on many issues. With regard to the rest of the issues that were dealt with at the European Council, it is always helpful to continue to co-operate with other member states. Some of the issues that were discussed are ones where, while it is important Ireland has a different focus and approach because of our military neutrality, we can still co-operate on them. We need to take care on all of these issues. The final issues of importance the Council looked at focus on improving co-operation on social, educational and cultural policies. While we all set our own policies in these areas, we can still learn from each other and try to improve.

I want to put on the record my compliments and gratitude to all of the members of the committee. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, continued success. The committee members look forward to working with her in a very proactive way in trying to deal with all of the issues of importance to Ireland post-Brexit.

I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Minister of State and everyone in the House a happy new year. As there was no time to do so on the Order of Business, I did not sympathise on the sad passing of Dolores O'Riordan, the famous singer. She was an excellent ambassador for Ireland throughout the EU and, indeed, all over the world. She is a huge loss, not only to her own young children, her family and those in the music industry, but also to us and to her many admirers all over the world.

I am happy to speak on these statements. It can be taken as a given that, for the foreseeable future there will be only one topic dominating our engagement with the European Council and that, of course, is Brexit. The agreement reached in December on the first phase of the negotiations is to the credit of the Government. I have no hesitation in commending the work of the Irish team who worked so hard to get to that point, and I will always give credit where it is due. Up to that point, the entire process was marked by a chaotic and messy approach whereby both the UK and the EU sides seemed to be working in complete opposition to each other - they were like two horses on a plough that were pulling in different directions. This created very real fears in this country that the process would generate considerable long-term damage in terms of addressing the need for certainty.

I accept that it has not been easy trying to balance our clear national interests with maintaining respect for the delicate nature of the Good Friday Agreement, for example. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, made some very blunt statements in that regard and I think he was fully justified in being so candid at the time. It always amazes me when others, particularly those within the EU, seemed totally surprised that the Irish negotiating team would come out fighting for our national interests. What do they expect us to do? Are they so used to us asking "How high?" when they say "Jump" that they think we would kowtow to them altogether? I would remind them we are a sovereign country. We should not abandon diplomacy but we should certainly not pretend that this process will be anything other than brutal. I encourage the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and others to be absolutely up-front in their view that we will always put the interests of the Irish people first, as is our duty.

I note from the report on the phase one agreement that both parties, the EU and the UK, have reached agreement in principle across the following three areas under consideration in the first phase of negotiations: protecting the rights of Union citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the Union; the framework for addressing the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland; and the financial settlement. I also note that progress was made in achieving agreement on aspects of other separation issues under the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Where have we heard that before? It is certainly the crux of the matter.

While progress is being made, there is still the potential for the whole thing to descend into another sorry spectacle. All it would take is for the ever-increasing political instability in the UK to get to the stage where the more hardline elements of the Leave campaign gain a stronger hold over the Conservative Party. All of that is outside our control, however. For now, the only responsible approach is to support the Government, where possible, and try to make the existing agreement as legally binding as we can, particularly with respect to the Border issue and the status of Northern Ireland. As Professor Cormac Lucey has noted:

Ireland’s economic priority is that the UK’s exit from the EU is as soft as possible. It is not in our interests for the UK to exit the single market. It would suit Ireland much better if, outside the EU, the UK opted for similar arrangements to those of Switzerland and Norway, both of which are inside the single market. It is clearly up to the UK to decide what it wants. Yet it is of vital national interest that we and the EU encourage as soft a Brexit as possible.

I compliment Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, the Chairman of the Committee on European Affairs, Deputy Haughey and all the other members on the work they have done. It has been a very trying time and has not been easy. Deputy Healy-Rae met all the EU ambassadors and even brought some of them to Kerry, and he gave them a good outline of what is happening here in Ireland.

I see the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is wiggling his pen. I thought he might be a little easier on the draw in this new year period. I am only starting and am going at a nice slow pace. I am not really over time, as such.

You are being presumptuous but you have reminded me you are over time. To put some structure on this, there are 20 minutes for questions and answers and five minutes for the Minister of State to wind up. If Deputies who wish to ask questions would indicate, we will deal with them. I call Deputy Haughey.

I have two questions. Obviously, the main focus in this country in regard to the summit was the Article 50 negotiations, where it was decided that sufficient progress had been made during the first phase of the Brexit negotiations and where guidelines for the second phase of the negotiations were adopted. However, there were other issues discussed at the summit, including security and defence, the EU pillar of social rights, the EU action plan to tackle the gender pay gap, the concept of European universities, issues in regard to European languages, climate change, Jerusalem, the Russia-Ukraine situation, migration and economic and monetary union. Like other speakers, I believe we need to be very conscious of the debate taking place on the future of Europe at this time and I appreciate the work the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, is doing on that. I note she is briefing Oireachtas Members this week, there is a major conference in DCU in association with European Movement Ireland and, obviously, there are meetings taking place throughout the country as well.

As regards security and defence, PESCO was launched at the summit. Some 17 common projects have been agreed so far and I understand further work is needed in that regard. Will the Minister of State undertake to keep the House briefed on this and assure us that any projects in which we participate will not compromise Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality?

The House needs to be informed every step of the way so that we can scrutinise these projects and give them our agreement if they are compatible with our traditional policy of military neutrality.

It seems that President Donald Tusk attempted to launch a major review of the EU's migration strategy. He suggested that we should abandon the mandatory relocation of asylum seekers. I understand that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were singled out for not sharing in the responsibility in this regard. It was agreed to set up a fund to stem the flow of illegal migration. A reform of the Dublin Convention is also envisaged.

We in this country are somewhat removed from the issues of migration, but I hope that, in any input into the debate that we have, our traditional humanitarian approach will be to the fore and we will seek a humanitarian solution to this problem. I hope that the Minister of State can give me an assurance in that regard.

As there are so few of us and we have 20 minutes remaining, perhaps we might go back and forth.

I wish everyone a happy new year and success throughout the year.

I will answer Deputy Haughey's two questions. The House agreed that Ireland would join PESCO at the initial stage so that we would have an input into what happened in future and not join later as a third party country. That was the right course to take. Since the co-operation involved is in line with the Lisbon treaty, it does not impact on our neutrality. Nor would we allow it to reach that point. Politically, there would have to be a referendum to put the question to the people if there were an impact. We have been clear that, similar to countries like Austria, Finland and Sweden, which are neutrals, the kinds of project in which we will be involved will be maritime surveillance, cybersecurity and strengthening of our current peacekeeping missions. Ireland and its soldiers have an excellent reputation on peacekeeping missions. We view PESCO as a mechanism to enhance that as well as our co-operation with other member states. The climate has changed. As the Taoiseach outlined, we need to be able to co-operate with other member states on tackling terrorism, cybercrime and drug trafficking.

I see no reason not to keep the House updated on those missions in which we take part. None of them will impact on our neutrality.

Regarding migration, the EU and Ireland as a part of it have adopted a broad range of measures. We are engaging with countries of origin and transit to try to address the root causes of migration. We have agreed to a plan relocating migrants in Italy and Greece across the EU. We have launched the EUNAVFOR Med, or Operation Sophia, and have provided substantial financial assistance to countries that are hosting large numbers of migrants.

At the European Council meeting, leaders held an informal discussion on migration. No conclusion was reached. Currently, the two schools of thought are whether countries that have given substantial amounts of funding should also have to take in substantial numbers of migrants and whether specific figures should be allocated to specific countries. There has been no resolution to that debate yet, but I hope for more definition in the coming Council meetings.

Ireland's view is that there should be a stand-alone solidarity instrument that is not attached to the Dublin review. That is the position that we have put forward and we will put it forward again at the next stage of discussions or negotiations.

Next are Deputies Cullinane, Boyd Barrett and Mattie McGrath. Will we take the three together?

I did not signal, so I do not need to speak.

In that case, I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

I will follow up on my statement and the questions about Gaza with which I concluded. Jerusalem was discussed at the Council meeting, but I would like a response on the issue of Gaza. I do not know whether the Minister of State can tell us much about what the Minister, Deputy Coveney, did there last week. He met some people, but they were linked to one faction, namely, the Ramallah-based Government, and so he should have. However, that he did not meet elected representatives from Gaza itself is a problem. Let us remember that Gaza was the trigger for the Israeli assaults. Israel did not accept the outcome of a democratic election and then attacked. Last week, the Minister saw some of the consequences of that. He was clearly aware of them, yet he has reinforced the Israeli position by not talking to the representatives of the people of Gaza. It legitimises Israel's position, which we should not do. At the very least, we should be balanced. Some reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is now happening.

I have received a direct request from the Speaker of the elected representatives in the Gaza Parliament for us to send an all-party delegation to Gaza to meet them or for us to invite the Speaker to the Oireachtas. We should do that if we are serious about talking to all sides. According to the request, since Ireland has incredible credibility among all Palestinian factions, there is nothing that we could propose that they would not seriously consider. That puts us in a privileged position. We should use our credibility to talk to the political representatives in Gaza. The Government should consider doing so, given the appalling and intolerable humanitarian situation there. I was told about some of it and the statistics show more. Anecdotally, people are suffering bad health conditions - for example, kids and others in need of dialysis and new kidneys - but they cannot get out to get treatment. Apparently, kidneys are being sold for €30,000 and €40,000 in Cairo, but someone needs €5,000 to bribe an Egyptian guard to get out through Rafah. That is how it works. The number of people being allowed out for medical reasons has reduced significantly.

We need to intervene. We have a great deal of credibility. We should use it by engaging with the political representatives in Gaza. I hope that the Government will consider doing so, as this request comes straight from Gaza.

I cannot speak on the Minister's behalf, but I can send that request to him. If I outline some of what the Tánaiste did on his visit, perhaps the Deputy can ask him for more detail and about what happened at the next Question Time.

He met the Palestinian President and the foreign Minister, Dr. Malki. He also announced an increase of €200,000 in funding for Palestinian students seeking education and training in Ireland. This came during his meeting with the Palestinian Minister for education. Ireland's overall funding to the Palestinian people in 2017 amounted to €11.19 million, with €4 million of assistance for this year announced by the Tánaiste during his visit last week. He met the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, the UNRWA, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza-based NGO.

I will raise a similar matter regarding PESCO. We debated it before the Christmas break. Assurances were given by the Tánaiste, the Minister of State and others. Will the Minister of State ensure that those commitments will be lived up to so that our personnel who are serving on UN missions will not be asked to do anything that would infringe upon the highly respected role that we have developed around the world?

We are respected far and wide because we are a neutral country. I hope we will not be sucked into any of the areas against which we railed during that debate. I certainly opposed it and voted against it. In that context, I ask the Minister of State to reassure us that our personnel will be respected. I refer in particular to the Naval Service and commend it on the great work that it is doing out at sea, trying to rescue massive numbers of unfortunate people who have, in some cases, been tricked and duped and who had to pay money to get onto totally unsafe, makeshift boats. We have all seen the consequences of that and I commend the Naval Service on its work in that area.

On the matter of Gaza, we need to take a more upfront role because of our respected position internationally. We must heed the humanitarian crisis that exists there and the Taoiseach, if he is visiting, must engage in an even handed fashion. We must respect the result of the election, unlike many other countries.

I can repeat and absolutely confirm that Ireland's neutrality will not be impacted by our membership of PESCO. In fact, we were one of the last countries to sign up to it and that was because officials in the Department were making absolutely sure that there was no possible way that our neutrality could be compromised or that the work we do could be impacted in any way by PESCO. I can give the Deputy that assurance. We will be focusing on continuing our peacekeeping missions, strengthening co-operation with member states and looking at projects in areas like maritime surveillance and cybersecurity. These are the types of missions on which we will be focusing while also enhancing the capabilities of our Defence Forces here in Ireland. I am happy to give the Deputy the reassurance he seeks.

We will have two final supplementary questions from Deputies Haughey and Boyd Barrett.

I welcome the conclusions of the summit relating to Jerusalem. The European Council reaffirmed its firm commitment to the two state solution and confirmed that the EU's stance on Jerusalem is unchanged, which I welcome. My question relates to climate change. I note that the summit endorsed the One Planet summit conclusions in Paris and reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris Agreement. There is a reference to supporting and adopting a number of pending legislative proposals at EU level relating to climate change. I do not expect the Minister of State to have those proposals with her today but I ask her to give an undertaking that details of pending legislative changes at EU level would be brought before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs so that members are fully briefed on matters relating to climate change.

I will not rehearse the debate about PESCO again. As the Minister of State knows, we are against involvement because we believe it is the slippery slope towards involvement in a European army. The Minister of State and the Government dispute that but I will not get into that debate now. What exact commitments are we going to have to honour as a result of this? The Minister of State and the Taoiseach have identified specific areas but one that I worry about is terrorism because that is a catch-all term. What are our commitments in terms of "combatting terrorism"? That was the justification for the Iraq war. What exactly are we involved in, in the context of combatting so-called terrorism? That is a term that can be used to justify just about anything and to potentially involve us in just about anything. Will the Minister of State be precise about what commitments we have to give under the monitoring process for arms expenditure and the type of arms expenditure, which is referenced in what are described as the "binding" commitments in the annexe of the PESCO agreement. What exactly are our commitments in that regard? Do we have to produce an annual report on the nature and quantity of arms and military expenditure, which is then overseen or dictated by Europe? What is going to happen between us and this new European body with regard to arms expenditure, in terms of both the type and amount of such expenditure?

Regarding Deputy Haughey's question on climate action, it will not be a problem to provide the information to which the Deputy referred and I will engage with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment on that. As the Deputy said, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, represented Ireland at the One Planet summit in Paris on 12 December, the second anniversary of the conclusion of the Paris Agreement. He reaffirmed Ireland's commitment to the global objectives of that agreement and supported the call for ambitious contributions to managing global emissions from the international shipping sector. This was reaffirmed at the European Council meeting and member states reaffirmed the implementation of the Paris Agreement. We are happy to provide the relevant information to the Oireachtas committee.

In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett's questions on PESCO, involvement in various projects is on an opt-out basis. It is not that we are specifically tied to any of the programmes or projects; we can opt in or opt out. As I mentioned earlier, cybersecurity is an area in which we feel we can contribute in the context of combatting terrorism. We know that terrorism has changed in its format and is not what is was 20 years ago. There is a lot of terrorist activity happening online through cybersecurity attacks, through YouTube videos aimed at brainwashing people and so forth. We feel that we can co-operate and work with various member states in that regard.

On the question of expenditure, we are looking at a 2% increase of each individual member state's defence expenditure but that is an overall figure. Ireland will not necessarily have to increase its budget by 2%. If France, for example, were to increase its budget by more than 2%, then Ireland could increase its expenditure by less than 2%. However, we would seek to ensure that any money expended on our behalf is spent in areas that we feel fit with Ireland's profile, that such spending does not impact on our neutrality and that it is in line with what we have already agreed in signing up to PESCO.

I accompanied the Taoiseach to Brussels for the December European Council, as he indicated earlier. I will focus my concluding remarks on social, educational and cultural co-operation and migration, which were all discussed on Thursday, 14 December. Following on from the social summit in Gothenburg in November, discussions continued at the European Council on social, educational and cultural co-operation between member states. These are areas in which member states have primary responsibility but where the Union plays an important role in co-ordination, co-operation and sharing best practice while fully respecting the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. This debate is central to Europe's future. Education and culture are key to building inclusive and cohesive societies and to sustaining our competitiveness. The aim is to ensure that as we continue to develop and co-operate economically we also protect and promote social standards and labour rights. The Taoiseach intervened in the European Council on these issues, including to express his view that the social pillar allows us to go back to the founding principles of the social market economy. He highlighted several elements, including pension rights and student cards, noting the need to focus on specific initiatives, to set timelines for them to happen and to monitor implementation. President Macron of France has also been very vocal in this debate and the Taoiseach supported the President's proposal for a network of European universities. The European Council will come back to these matters in March 2018 to ensure that there is a follow up.

Migration was discussed over dinner and there was a useful exchange on the internal and external dimensions in an effort to explore how best to achieve and effect a substantial policy which would respect the concepts of responsibility and solidarity. Key to this is working with countries of origin and transit in Africa and the Middle East and building on our development assistance in order to do this. As intended, this was an open ended discussion with no conclusions but it was agreed to come back to this issue with an ambition to be able to take some decisions by June.

The leaders also discussed President Trump's decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and agreed to restate the EU's common position, with which the Taoiseach agreed, that EU embassies will remain in Tel Aviv. The European Council also expressed its opposition to actions that undermine the viability of the two state solution. There was also a quick exchange about Russia and Ukraine, with the leaders agreeing to a roll over of the sanctions on Russia. These will now be renewed when they fall later this month.

That concludes our discussion on the European Council meeting, pursuant to Standing Order No. 111.