Tá áthas orm labhairt os comhair na Dála inniu faoi chruinniú Chomhairle an Aontais Eorpaigh a bhí ar siúl sa Bhruiséal ar an Déardaoin agus ar an Aoine seo caite. I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, 28 and 29 June. On Thursday, we met in regular format to discuss migration, security and defence, the European economy and trade and relations with Russia, as well some economic issues. On Friday morning, we met in Article 50 format to discuss the Brexit negotiations. Later on Friday, we met as the euro summit to exchange views on economic and monetary union. While Brexit is, of course, a priority for Ireland, migration is of concern to many partners and was the main focus of the meeting. In addition to the European Council itself, I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday, 28 June to discuss Brexit and the situation in Northern Ireland. I welcome that we finally agreed that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference should be reconvened and this institution, established under the Good Friday Agreement, will now meet on 25 July. I also met informally other EU counterparts over the course of the two days, including the new Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, and the new Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez.
The European Council began on Thursday with a short exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and an update from Prime Minister Borissov of Bulgaria. I congratulate the Prime Minister and Bulgaria on the conclusion of its first and very successful EU Presidency. Bulgaria has now passed the baton to Austria, which will hold the Presidency for the next six months. At the main meeting, we exchanged views on security and defence, reviewing progress on a number of fronts, including PESCO, which provides a mechanism through which crisis management capabilities can be developed by member states in support of Common Security and Defence Policy operations, as well as military mobility and funding for capability development. Ireland is a founder member of PESCO and is participating in two projects. We also heard a presentation from the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, who emphasised the importance of complementarity between the EU and NATO and the need for strong European defence co-operation. Ireland is one of six EU member states which are not members of NATO and this, along with our military neutrality, is a foreign policy strength. We are, however, in favour of co-operation with NATO, which co-operation is set out in the EU's global strategy.
Turning to jobs, growth and competitiveness, our discussions included the country-specific recommendations, trade and taxation. I am pleased that our views on taxation were taken on board and that the European Council conclusions recognise the long-term importance of the OECD work on this, while also instructing finance Ministers to work on the Commission proposals. On trade, there was strong support for the Commission's proportionate response to the unjustified US tariffs on steel and aluminium and agreement on the need to maintain a rules-based multilateral approach. President Tusk confirmed that he will visit the US on 21 and 22 July. Like others, I believe it is important to keep advancing a positive trade agenda and we restated our commitment to negotiating trade deals with third parties like Mexico, Japan, Mercosur, Australia and New Zealand. Under the heading of digital and innovation, which is a priority area for Ireland, we gave direction to EU efforts to encourage and reward disruptive innovation and help to boost Europe's success in commercialising its world class research.
Our discussions on Thursday evening included an exchange on Russia and Ukraine. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron updated us on the Normandy format meetings and, in light of Russia's failure to implement the Minsk accords, we agreed to extend the EU sanctions for another six months. I am very pleased that we also endorsed the conclusions on enlargement and the stabilisation and association process, which had been agreed at the General Affairs Council on Tuesday, 26 June, as well as the agreement on the post-Brexit redistribution of European Parliament seats. Ireland will gain two additional seats.
Most of our time that evening, however, was taken up with illegal migration. This has been a divisive issue and our discussions were difficult and lengthy. This reflects a political crisis more than a migration crisis as the numbers of people travelling to Europe illegally are well down compared with 2015, which proves that the actions which the EU has already taken are working. However, many European citizens and voters clearly fear a return to those previous levels of immigration and the political reality is that some populist and anti-immigration politicians have been elected as a result of them. In our discussions, we reached agreement on several new steps, including increased funding for the Africa Trust fund. Ireland agreed to increase its funding for the fund to €15 million, which is the third highest level per capita of any member state. We also agreed about the need to increase funding for the facility for refugees in Turkey and to establish dedicated funding for migration through the EU budget, as proposed in the multi-annual financial framework, MFF. We also agreed to explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms and the voluntary establishment of control centres within EU member states.
This reinforces the importance of what I have described as the three-pronged approach which we need to take: securing our external borders; strengthening co-operation with countries of transit and origin; and dealing with the management of migrants within the European Union, where a balance of solidarity and responsibility is needed.
From Ireland's perspective, I stressed the need to develop a close partnership with Africa. We have to build up institutions, improve security and provide economic opportunity in Africa in order that people can enjoy better prospects in their home countries. As a result, this week Ireland agreed to increase its commitment to the EU Trust Fund for Africa to €15 million, as I mentioned. We should never forget why people risk their lives and the savings of their entire families, even those of their entire communities, to make the journey to Europe. It is because they come from countries that lack security, democracy and economic opportunity. This is a root cause and until we fix it, the issue will not be resolved.
The concept of regional disembarkation platforms is at an early stage and we will take careful note of how it develops. As I stated at the meeting, any such platform would have to be managed in close co-operation with the UNHCR, the IOM and relevant third countries and with full respect for international law and human rights standards.
As Deputies will be aware, Ireland is less directly affected by migration than many other member states. However, in a spirit of solidarity, we have played a constructive role by opting into the 2015 EU relocation and resettlement measures, sending the Naval Service to help in humanitarian efforts in the Mediterranean and significantly increasing our financial contributions. Last week, at the request of the Maltese Government, we agreed to take in some migrants from aboard the Lifeline. As I mentioned, we have also offered to further substantially increase our contribution to the EU Trust Fund for Africa. I intend that we will continue to play an active and constructive role in dealing with migration.
The euro summit on Friday took place in an inclusive format, that is, with all 27 member states present - Britain did not attend - with the Eurogroup president, Dr. Mário Centeno, and the ECB president, Mr. Mario Draghi. We agreed that the European Stability Mechanism should provide the common backstop to the Single Resolution Fund and that preparations should begin for negotiations on a European deposit insurance scheme, thus guaranteeing bank deposits across the European Union, rather than individual member states being responsible for them. Finance Ministers will bring this work forward and also examine other proposals before we review progress at the euro summit in December. From Ireland's perspective, we support the completion of banking union, with both risk reduction and risk sharing.
On Friday, over breakfast, the European Council met in Article 50 format - without Prime Minister May - to discuss Brexit. The Prime Minister had outlined her thoughts to us the previous evening at the regular European Council, stressing her commitment to deal with the Irish-specific issues and also to publish a White Paper in July on Britain's vision of a new long-term relationship with the European Union. At the Article 50 meeting we heard an assessment from Mr. Michel Barnier of progress in the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement. He stated serious divergences remained on the Irish issues, including the backstop. We all agreed that the lack of progress had been disappointing since March and that intensified negotiations were urgently needed. The United Kingdom gave commitments and guarantees in December and again in March. We need to see detailed, workable proposals from it to deliver on these commitments. The EU 27 have agreed that, if we do not get agreement on a backstop or the other outstanding elements of the withdrawal agreement, it will not be possible to finalise it as a whole, including the transition period. I am grateful to our EU partners for their ongoing support and solidarity on this issue. Ireland's concerns are at the very heart of the negotiations and the collective view of the EU side is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
I have always said I hope the future relationship between the Euorpean Union and the United Kingdom will be as close and comprehensive as possible and that it will remove any need for a hard border, but it will not in any way remove the need for a legally robust backstop to apply, unless and until better arrangements enter into force, ensuring there will never be a hard border on the island, whatever circumstances prevail. I reiterated these points to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, at our bilateral meeting and expressed my view that there was not much time left if we were to conclude a withdrawal agreement and have it ratified by the time the United Kingdom left in March. I also stated that I looked forward to the publication of her Government's White Paper and that I hoped it could be a basis for negotiations on the future relationship.
The Article 50 General Affairs Council will meet on 20 July. It will provide an opportunity for the EU 27 to discuss the UK White Paper which should be published by then. While I am hopeful we will achieve a close, comprehensive and ambitious future relationship with the United Kingdom, the Government is, of course, continuing to plan for the full range of scenarios. Our work is well advanced and we will be in a position to take the necessary decisions, if and when required. With other EU leaders on Friday, we agreed that we should all step up our work in that regard.
I assure Deputies that the Government will continue to defend and promote Ireland's interests in the Brexit negotiations and across the EU agenda.
The Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee, will speak about some of the other issues discussed at the European Council.