Pre-European Council Meeting: Statements

Tomorrow and Friday, I will attend a meeting of the European Council in Brussels and a meeting of the euro summit. On Thursday afternoon, we will focus on the multi-annual financial framework and follow that work with a discussion on external relations in the evening. On Friday, the meeting will begin with a discussion of citizen consultation on the future of Europe followed by an exchange on the Single Market. The euro summit will take place at lunchtime. Other issues to be discussed include migration, the challenge posed by large-scale disinformation, the fight against racism, xenophobia and climate change. I will focus my remarks today on the Single Market, migration, disinformation and external relations as well as on the euro summit. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will speak about the other European Council issues in greater detail in her statement. However, I will turn first to Brexit, which we will also discuss in Brussels on Thursday in Article 50 format.

The UK Government has postponed the planned vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons and there have been further developments this morning within the Conservative Party. As I said before, the withdrawal agreement, of which the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, including the backstop, is an integral part, has been endorsed by the European Union and agreed with the UK Government. Therefore, it carries the support of 28 Governments. It is the result of over 20 months of complicated technical negotiations and represents a carefully balanced compromise among 28 states. It is the best possible deal to protect the European Union's interests and those of the United Kingdom to ensure an orderly withdrawal and it cannot be renegotiated. The European Union and the 27 member states are united on this. We should not forget that the backstop is not just an Irish issue. It is there to prevent the emergency of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland but it is also there to protect the Single Market and ensure that an open Irish border does not become a back door to the European Union. As such, it is a European issue too.

We should recall that a UK-wide backstop rather than a Northern Ireland specific one was included at the request of the UK Government. It is important to bear in mind that the United Kingdom took the decision to leave the European Union and thereafter the UK Government set out a number of red lines, including no customs union, no Single Market, no free movement of people and no recognition of the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The agreement we reached was achieved, working around the constraints, by drawing around the UK's red lines. The European Union has always stated that if the United Kingdom's approach to the future relationship evolves and the red lines are erased, we will be willing to take that into account in the negotiations on the future relationship treaty in accordance, of course, with our guidelines and based on the balance between rights and obligations.

I hope that the withdrawal agreement will be ratified by the UK Parliament and the European Parliament in due course, but the Government, in close co-operation with the EU, is continuing its work to prepare for all possible outcomes including the central case scenario and the no-deal scenario. We are accelerating the recruitment of customs officers and veterinary health inspectors and we are developing infrastructure in ports and enabling legislation. We will be as ready as we can be for all eventualities. Whatever happens, Ireland will remain at the heart of the European Union, the eurozone and the Single Market in the common European home we helped to build.

Four times in our nation's history we have travelled a different path from that of Britain: when we became independent and founded the Free State; when we declared a republic; when we floated the punt; and when we joined the euro without the United Kingdom. On each occasion there were risks, challenges, opportunities and a transition period, but on each occasion we emerged stronger and wealthier. That will be the case again.

My final remark on Brexit is to recognise the noteworthy contrast between the political situation here in Dublin and that in London. Both the United Kingdom and Ireland are faced with existential threats because of Brexit. However, we have a degree of political stability and a degree of consensus across the House. That makes our country a much better place and puts it in a much stronger position as these negotiations continue.

The Single Market, which marks its 25th anniversary this year, is one of the great achievements of the Union. It has brought about increased employment, increased trade and greater competition and higher living standards for our citizens. It has also given us, as European citizens, the freedom to work or study anywhere in the Union. Its further development is essential to ensure Europe's continued competitiveness on the world stage. This is a priority for Ireland as a trading country. We have been working closely with like-minded partners to ensure a high level of political ambition with a particular focus on unlocking the Single Market's full potential in the areas of digitalisation and trade in services. Our approach is informed by the work led by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, in conjunction with her counterparts in Finland, Denmark and the Czech Republic. Last month, they launched a report commissioned from Copenhagen Economics entitled Making EU Trade in Services Work for All.

This meeting of the European Council also provides a timely opportunity to reflect on the implementation of the comprehensive approach to migration agreed at the June Council meeting. Europe can only respond effectively to large migratory flows by working together and I support the three-pronged approach we agreed in June. These three prongs are: securing our external borders, strengthening co-operation with countries of transit and origin, and dealing with the management of migrants within the EU on the basis of solidarity. The European Union needs an asylum system that can respond effectively to large-scale migratory movements, both legal and illegal. We are engaged in efforts to reform the common European asylum system. Discussions on controlled centres and disembarkation platforms have taken place in recent months. As I have stated previously, we would only seek to progress these initiatives if we were satisfied that they would be fully compliant with our obligations under international law. We continue to co-operate closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration to this end.

Collaboration with these organisations is also an important part of our efforts to support our African partners both through Irish Aid and the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. We have pledged €15 million for this purpose. This is the third highest contribution per capita in the European Union. The global compact on migration, which was signed at Marrakesh earlier this week - with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, representing the Irish Government - reflects the need for co-operation at a global level without dictating how states should determine their own policies. It is regrettable that some EU member states did not participate in the compact. I hope they will revisit this decision in the future.

Following our discussions at the June Council meeting, the Commission will present its action plan against disinformation. I fully support the efforts to see off this evolving threat. It is important that we work together to counter disinformation activities that threaten our shared democracy. The plan sets out four things we must do, namely: improve detection, analysis and exposure of disinformation; strengthen co-operation to enable a more cohesive response; engage with industry; and raise public awareness and support quality media and journalism. It is essential that the electoral process is safeguarded from inappropriate online interference and manipulation and that we respect international law and fundamental rights. The open policy forum held in Dublin Castle on 6 December examined some of the issues related to this including the regulation of transparency of online political advertising. The EU must act in a co-ordinated and comprehensive way and I look forward to discussing this further with EU partners.

On external relations, we will discuss preparations for the summit between the European Union and the Arab League, which is scheduled to take place in Cairo in February. Recent developments in Russia and Ukraine are also likely to be discussed. The Government is gravely concerned about the increasing militarisation of Crimea and the Sea of Azov. We support calls for all sides to de-escalate the situation. Ireland is unwavering in its support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and we do not recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea. As part of our efforts to develop relations with Ukraine, we will open an embassy there as part of the Global Ireland 2025 initiative. I firmly believe that unity at EU level must continue to be the cornerstone of our approach to Russia. The EU is at its strongest when it speaks with one voice and I will emphasise this in my engagement with European partners.

We will also have an exchange on the fight against racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Ireland fully supports the ongoing efforts in this area, including the Council's declaration on 6 December on the fight against anti-Semitism. All states share a duty to work towards achieving societies that are free of inequality, repression and discrimination in accordance with their international obligations.

The focus of our discussions at the euro summit will be on strengthening and deepening economic and monetary union. The summit is expected to endorse the positive outcome of negotiations among Finance Ministers in recent months. These negotiations recently saw agreement reached on the reform of the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, which will now have additional responsibilities in the areas of crisis prevention and resolution in the eurozone and in advancing banking union. I welcome these positive developments which mark a further step in the development of economic and monetary union and which will serve to strengthen the resilience of our banking system and the overall stability of the eurozone. I expect that some will also want to discuss the possibility of a budgetary instrument for the eurozone as part of the multi-annual financial framework. This is a proposal which we are open to considering.

I look forward to reporting back to the House next week on 19 December on the outcome of these meetings.

According to current legislation, Brexit will take effect in 107 days. The deal on the table was reached after two years of tortuous and repetitive negotiations. It is a deal which reflects the commitments made by both the United Kingdom and the European Union to Ireland from late 2016 onwards. It is a good deal for all involved. It would allow for an orderly transition period, reduce the short-term economic damage and allow time to develop a long-term model for co-operation. Regardless of how good it is, a deal which will not or cannot be ratified ultimately becomes inoperable and worthless.

In the nearly three weeks since the deal was agreed we have all witnessed an escalating political crisis in London. It was the intention of the UK Government to hold a vote last night. There is no prospect of another vote being scheduled for some time. There are many scenarios but unfortunately there is no clarity. While Prime Minister May works to salvage the current deal she is confronted with a political class which has descended into open warfare between angry factions. Today’s no confidence motion is only the latest outbreak from members of a fundamentalist group in her own party who seem to be determined to destroy all around them rather than ever compromise. Their extreme Europhobia has developed over 40 years and it will not respond to evidence or reason.

It would be wonderful to be able to dismiss what is happening in London as a sideshow but we cannot do so. Ireland and Europe are directly affected. Regardless of whether Prime Minister May survives today, the core blockage to any deal remains. There is an overwhelming majority of MPs standing against the withdrawal agreement but there is no route to a majority for any alternative course of action.

The only thing which is clear is that no one has the faintest idea what the course of Brexit will be in the coming weeks and months and potentially for much longer than that. With the exception of the fundamentalist fringe of the Conservative Party and, unfortunately, the DUP, all accept the idea of a guaranteed open Border in Ireland but they do not agree on the wider issue of the UK's relationship with the European Union. The fact is that this is at its core. It is not about negotiations with the European Union; it is about a debate within British politics and society over which we have little or no influence. This period of growing chaos and uncertainty is not one we can assume will come to a halt by 29 March. Regardless of whether the deal is ratified, and there is still hope that this may happen because of the damage which any alternative will cause, the risk of a no deal outcome has risen dramatically. Circumstances have changed and we must respond accordingly. Ireland is now in a period of heightened danger for our economy and for a political settlement which has been a beacon of light in our modern history. This is not a crisis of our making but it is a crisis which we all have an urgent duty to which to respond.

Let nobody be in any doubt, every single piece of evidence suggests that the impact of Brexit is under way and may escalate significantly. Far more worryingly, the evidence also shows that Ireland is nowhere near ready for many of the outcomes which have become far more likely in recent days. While past research has shown the medium-term and long-term impact of different Brexit scenarios this morning’s quarterly economic review includes a study of the impact in 2019. Using a very conservative approach, it states that a no deal outcome will reduce GNP growth by roughly 1.4%. That is a loss of €3.5 billion in only the eight months following Brexit. The shock will initially be concentrated in the trading sector but will, according to the report, be transmitted through that sector to the wider economy. This carries with it an immediate knock-on impact on public finances. While we have requested that the Minister for Finance publish details of the impact of a no deal scenario, a rough estimate shows that a hole of at least €1 billion will open in the budget figures for next year and this will escalate in subsequent years. The Government’s budget assumes an orderly Brexit, with a lengthy withdrawal period and no sudden shifts in policy. Two months after the budget his assumption is simply no longer valid. In fact, things could get much worse than this forecast suggests because it does not factor in a major devaluation of sterling or administrative chaos in the move to new systems.

According to the Central Bank and others, the impact of Brexit is already here. The bank’s latest report has identified evidence of trade with the United Kingdom being hit and causing a slowdown in expectations. My colleagues from Border constituencies, in particular, are reporting that companies are already struggling from lost competitiveness and heightened uncertainty. Consumer confidence has been hit and there is a growing sense of unease and even fear about what lies ahead.

Analysis by State agencies suggests that sterling devaluation is the biggest threat to many exporters, especially Irish-owned companies. Some 47% say they face serious difficulties as a result of the exchange rate reached this week, with most of the remaining firms facing serious difficulties if the exchange rate falls a further 10%. The hit to Irish business from Brexit-related devaluation is deep. Since David Cameron announced the date for the referendum in 2016, sterling has fallen by 25% against the euro. It really does not matter how efficient or dynamic one's business is, a 25% loss of competitiveness is enormous and is an existential threat. Yesterday, the Government announced that it will ramp-up preparations for a no deal scenario. This is the third time this year that the Government has announced such a ramping-up, yet the available evidence is that Ireland is nowhere near ready for a no deal scenario. This morning the Tánaiste detailed some preparations in the hope that they would impress us all. In fact, his article leaves a very worrying impression. He stated that the Government "does not take ratification of the deal as a given", however, it has taken this as a given in the budget and in the fact that no Ireland-specific no deal guidance has been issued.

Brexit has been a core political issue for my party since before the referendum was held. In the past two years I, as well as our spokespeople, Deputies Donnelly and Chambers, have regularly pushed the Government on levels of preparation. The only response has been to claim that everything is fine. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests preparations which are incomplete and some of which are really only starting at the very last minute. With little more than 100 days to go, it is no achievement to be citing the numbers of companies seeking basic information or the number of applications received for jobs. We cannot afford a repeat of what we have seen from the Government in so many other policy areas where spin about activity levels is used to cover up the lack of action on the ground.

The facts published by Government show that only a minority of impacted companies have preparations in place. Few have currency hedging strategies. Few have begun procedures for essential freight travel registrations. Minor grant schemes are helping a minority of companies in small but important ways. However, significant funding for cashflow disruption, tackling loss of competitiveness and diversification has not been distributed. The short-term loan scheme has allocated only 5% of its funding while the long-term loan scheme will not have distributed a single euro by next March. The Government itself does not appear to be anywhere near the needed level of preparedness.

The Taoiseach yesterday mentioned a series of actions which are required for a no deal scenario, none of which has had funding allocated or legislation published. The situation is that Ireland is facing a major threat and great uncertainty. This poses a direct challenge to everyone in this House as to how we react. Business as usual is not acceptable.

Can we show our ability to put the national interest ahead of party interests? As things stand, the first period of the agreement, which allowed the formation of this Government, is ending. My party entered this agreement in 2016 because it was the only way of being true to what we had promised our voters while also fulfilling the basic democratic responsibility on any parliament to form a government. In spite of many provocations and difficulties, we have honoured our commitments. This has included refusing to respond to the Taoiseach’s attempts over recent months to find an excuse to increase instability and undermine his own Government. There has been no talk from us about oiling printers or careless talk about elections in the middle of sensitive negotiations. This is why in October we took the unprecedented decision to state that we would not support an election until some certainty on Brexit had been reached at earliest. No one can now seriously question that our decision then was the right one for Ireland. This has ensured that we have been able to proceed with a detailed review of the implementation of the confidence and supply agreement. We refused to move straight to a negotiation and insisted on a deep review in critical areas, including health, housing, education, Brexit and public finances. Fianna Fáil’s participants in this review have detailed the outcomes for me and these have been reported to our parliamentary party. The review has unfortunately confirmed a complacency and lack of urgency in government. There is no understanding that the public has a right to be concerned at near-systematic failures to deliver on housing, health and many other issues. Equally there has been an attempt to stonewall us regarding basic information about fiscal reserves.

While the Taoiseach has announced that there is no problem with an unfunded €3 billion tax give-away, his Minister for Finance will not justify this claim. The chronic deficit in delivery, the failure to understand public concerns, and the increased politicisation of public funding points to the need for a new Government. In normal times, there would be no issue. An election now would be the right thing for our country. However, these are not normal times and Ireland is immediately confronted with one of the biggest threats for many decades. It is a threat which is not just of a short-term nature; it impacts on the core economic, social and political future of this island.

To replace this Government would require a lengthy election campaign and most likely a lengthy period of Government formation. In 2016, this entire process took four months to complete. Fianna Fáil is determined that the political chaos we see in London will not be allowed to spread to Ireland. We simply do not believe that the national interest could in any way be served by taking up to four months during next year to schedule and hold an election campaign and then form a government. With business and communities already fearful about the impact of Brexit and with Ireland manifestly not ready for many of the potential outcomes, how could it possibly be in the national interest to have extended political uncertainty next year?

This is why Fianna Fáil will extend a guarantee that Government will be able to operate throughout 2019. This will allow the introduction of any emergency legislation and budgets, as well as the full end of year budget and associated legislation. This will in turn allow the holding of an election early in the following year. Free of Brexit uncertainty, there can be an election about the need for a new approach to housing, ending systematic political failures in health and addressing the needs of people who want a Government that understands their concerns. This decision has been reached reluctantly but it is unavoidable.

We have all seen in Northern Ireland what happens when political parties undermine the functioning of government at a moment of critical risk. Northern Ireland's position has suffered dramatically from political game-playing and the absence of a democratic voice. The majority in Northern Ireland and in the Northern Ireland Assembly want to remain and also support the current deal. The absence of the Assembly and Executive has empowered people who believe the opposite. In the next few weeks we will seek to finalise as much as possible critical concerns which have been the focus of the review. Specifically, these are actions required to minimise the impact of a no-deal Brexit; the chronic under-delivery of commitments in health, housing and supports for children; the likely and potential state of public finances in 2019 and 2020; and the unacceptable politicisation of public spending through the sidelining of expert agencies in funding decisions in areas such as culture, rural affairs, local development and research. If the Government shows good faith, this can be completed quickly. Of course, we cannot guarantee that the Government will not undermine itself and stumble out of office, but it is receiving a guarantee of stability unprecedented for a minority government in its situation. If we could have a new Government in days then we would be able to act differently but it will take a process of months and Ireland does not have months in which it can indulge in putting politics before the people's interests.

Tomorrow morning, I will meet colleagues from throughout the European Union, including eight members of the European Council. I will tell them that Ireland will be a stable and reliable partner for them in the months ahead. The contagion of political chaos will not spread here from London. There is a clear majority in Dáil Éireann which will ensure stability and the national interest will be put first.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

It is astonishing even by Deputy Micheál Martin's dithering standards that it took nine weeks to establish that his Government has failed in areas such as housing. I offer our services from the real Opposition benches to speed up any future reviews.

Look at how Sinn Féin has done in the North. Deputy McDonald is joking.

I could have told them that in two minutes and we could have spared ourselves the melodrama and the pretence of a-----

What about Belfast?

-----critical tension between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

No representation in the North. Deputy McDonald ran away.

Deputy O'Brien will have his opportunity.

Deputy McDonald ran away again.

She was not even there to contest it.

She abrogated her responsibilities.

Deputy McDonald might not invite interruptions.

Indeed, Leas-Cheann Comhairle, or perhaps I might.

Sinn Féin did not pass one budget.

It seems that the Tories' difficulty is Fianna Fáil's opportunity to run away again from the Irish electorate-----

-----and to deliver more of the same, more failure and more homelessness, and yet to cry crocodile tears. Bravo, Deputy Micheál Martin. Well done. That is some kind of stability, as described by the soldiers of destiny.

However, I will go on to more prosaic matters, which might be less provocative and upsetting to the delicate souls on the Fianna Fáil benches. The European Council will meet to discuss the shambles that is Brexit. Once again, the Council must remain resolute in its view that the withdrawal agreement that has been negotiated in good faith between Britain and the EU, including the Irish protocol in particular, cannot be renegotiated, diluted and picked apart in any way, shape or form. I made the point previously that any type of Brexit will represent a very bad day for Ireland, North and South. The withdrawal agreement cannot, and will not, change that. Even it is ultimately agreed, as the least worst option, it will still be a bad day for our country. It is by no means perfect and the political declaration relating to the future relationship remains aspirational.

However, it must be acknowledged that the withdrawal agreement on offer mitigates against some of the worst aspects of Brexit. The so-called backstop is a mechanism to reduce the damage caused by Brexit and nothing more. It is not a panacea for all of Brexit's ills. It is an insurance policy that ensures there will be no hardening of the Border on our island and that the interests of citizens in the north, the majority of whom voted against Brexit, will be protected. It is a means of recognising in some small way the democratic will of the majority of the people of the North who voted to remain in the European Union. The four pro-remain parties in the North - Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance party and the Green Party - which represent the majority, believe there is no such thing as a good Brexit. We accept that the majority of ordinary people across the island and those in business and in civic society do not want Brexit, and that we have a shared responsibility to protect jobs, our economic stability and people's livelihoods. That is essential. In contrast, the DUP does not speak for the people of the North on Brexit; we do.

That is why, since the Brexit referendum result became clear, we have been unequivocal in stating that Brexit presents the most serious social, economic and political threat to our island in a generation. We have been clear in stating that the Government’s approach to negotiations had to be guided by the fact that citizens in the North voted to remain and that democratic verdict had to be respected. We are glad that has been the case, for the most part, and I have acknowledged the work of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and, more importantly, Irish officials on that, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. I am happy to do that again.

We are now at the end of the negotiating process and the outcome is far from clear. On Monday, the British Prime Minister shelved her plan for a "meaningful vote" because it was clear that it was going to be defeated by a substantial margin. That and the overnight machinations in London heightened the prospect of a no-deal scenario or crash scenario. No one here wants that but it is now a distinct possibility which needs to be faced up to, not accepted as an inevitability or fait accompli but a prospect that needs to be met. In the absence of the withdrawal agreement and the backstop contained therein, there is no way of guaranteeing no return to a hard border. On the contrary, there will be an automatic hardening of the Border. Citizens' rights will automatically be undermined and the Good Friday Agreement automatically sabotaged.

I have repeatedly made it clear to Theresa May - and I put this to the Taoiseach here yesterday and again today - that in the event of a crash-out Brexit, or a no-deal scenario, we in Sinn Féin believe it will be necessary to put the constitutional future of the North to the people in a unity referendum. I firmly believe it is time for the Taoiseach to take up that position. If the people of the North are to be disregarded in this process, then they must have their say. This is a reasonable position which I believe all parties here should support. Uniting our country would end the need for a backstop definitively and permanently. As the Taoiseach rightly pointed out earlier, the Border in Ireland is no longer simply a problem for us but a European problem, not least, as he said, because it presents a real and present danger to the integrity of the beloved Single Market. The debate about Irish unity is well under way regardless of what position the Taoiseach might adopt but it is time to accept that Irish unity is now the logical and sensible option to put an end to this messing once and for all.

Deputy Pearse Doherty and I spoke to Ms Theresa May last night and reminded her again that in the absence of an agreement, a unity referendum must be called as a matter of urgency. I also told her that the basic protections contained in the backstop are non-negotiable and cannot be unpicked or diluted. The British Government signed up to an agreement last December to protect the Good Friday Agreement, to avoid a hard border and to put in place a legally enforceable backstop. That agreement must be honoured, even in the midst of the madness at Westminster.

The current position of some in the Conservative Party and the DUP is reckless and irresponsible. We need a deal that recognises the unique circumstances that present for our island. This is critical to safeguard investment and to protect jobs, trade, the integrity of the peace process and our citizens' rights. This is what is required. Nothing short of this is acceptable. The Taoiseach and the Government must stand firm on that point and the EU must remain true to its word that without an agreed, legally enforceable backstop, there will be no withdrawal agreement.

I hope the Taoiseach will bring that message to Brussels tomorrow and I hope he will consider, perhaps quietly away from this Chamber, the necessity to look to the prospect of a crash and all of the long-term damage that presents and begin planning the pathway for constitutional transition because it is surely upon us.

I would like if the Fianna Fáil leader when contributing in the Dáil on statements on the EU summit would not when speaking about the North attack Sinn Féin. It does not impress anybody. Many of the Fianna Fáil backbenchers have previously referenced Sinn Féin walking away from its responsibilities. We do not walk away from our responsibilities in the North. We have a mandate.

Sinn Féin walked away from Stormont.

I did not interrupt speakers from the Fianna Fáil benches. Sinn Féin contests every election in the North and it has a mandate from the people. Fianna Fáil has no mandate in the North, nor does Fine Gael. They do not like elections in the North. They are the hurlers on the ditch.

What has Sinn Féin done with its mandate? It walked away.

Neither party should criticise those who contest elections when they run away from voters in the North.

Regardless of what happens today in Westminster, we have to make a number of observations about Brexit, the obvious one being that there is a withdrawal agreement on the table which provides basic protections for the North in the event of a no-deal Brexit. These include maintaining cross-Border co-operation, supporting the all-island economy and protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. It will do this by ensuring that the North essentially remains in the customs union and large elements of the Single Market. This is not ideal and the Taoiseach will accept that the best solution for Ireland is no Brexit and the entire island remaining in the EU.

The issue for Westminster is that large elements of the backstop would apply to Britain as well. It would also mean more checks between Britain and the North and this would essentially mean Britain effectively remaining in elements of the customs union. This is the reason the hard right in the Tory Party wants the backstop dropped. We have all heard the clamour from some on the hard right of the Tory Party, and the DUP, for the backstop to be dropped. Can the Taoiseach assure this House, the people of this State and the remaining people on the island of Ireland that the terms of the backstop are non-negotiable?

The EU Council will be under pressure to give some leeway to Prime Minister, Theresa May. While she is seeking clarifications, the message that must go out from the European Union and the Irish Government is that there cannot be any renegotiation on the terms of the backstop or the agreement that has been reached, which was voted on and passed by this House. A backstop that is temporary cannot be a backstop. The best way for those in Britain who are concerned about the backstop to ensure it is not temporary is for Britain to remain in the customs union and elements of the Single Market. This is a matter for them and they have to face up to that reality.

Last weekend, one Tory MP threatened to starve Ireland unless the backstop is changed. Yesterday, an unnamed Tory MP said that the Irish need to know their place. We know our place. Ireland's place, North and South, is in the European Union. As stated by Teachta McDonald, in the event of a hard crash by Britain from the European Union - Sinn Féin does not want to countenance a hard crash but it is somewhat outside of the control of politicians in Ireland - we will have to plan for every eventuality. In my view, and as indicated by the opinion polls, an increasing number of people in the North want a united Ireland in that scenario, such that there will be a responsibility on the Government to prepare for such an eventuality. No amount of hand wringing and statements that this cannot happen can take away from that reality. Nobody wants a hard crash. We all want a deal passed by the House of Commons and put in place but if that does not happen, then every eventuality has to be examined.

The people of this State cannot have confidence in what we heard from the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach in respect of a no-deal Brexit or a hard crash. We are not hearing of any preparation and people, farmers and businesses are concerned. For example, companies in the south east that export to Britain, employ large numbers of people, and are affected by the currency fluctuations, and that would be affected disastrously if there was a hard Brexit, are also concerned. It is not only people in the North but people across the island of Ireland who will be affected. There can be no negotiation downwards on what has been agreed. A hard Brexit will result in a drop of between 4% and 7% in GDP for the South and potentially the loss of thousands of jobs.

Collectively, we have all got behind getting a solution for Ireland. We all want a deal that protects Ireland from the worst effects of Brexit. We all accept that Brexit is not good, that there is no good outcome and no good Brexit. We all want a deal to be put in place that will avoid a hardening of the Border and protect the Good Friday Agreement but some in Britain do not want this to happen, will attack the backstop and have no difficulty using Ireland as collateral to get their Brexit through. On behalf of the people we represent, that cannot happen. The people of the North, and this island, need these basic protections fully protected. My message for the Taoiseach is that there can be no renegotiation of those basic protections that collectively we have secured for the people of our island.

Technology is advancing relentlessly. Every year, workers, businesses and consumers have to adjust to new ways of working. Some jobs decline and new occupations emerge. Businesses and workers have to adapt. The downside is that technology is voracious in its appetite for energy and too reliant on fossil fuels which have caused climate change and the destruction of the natural world. All of these challenges mean that the work of Government is never done. Government is needed to provide leadership on climate action, job security and the just transition that the planet now requires. Governments cannot stand still. The same applies to the EU Council.

When the Council meets on Thursday, one member state, the United Kingdom, will project its turmoil onto the other 27 members, as it has done periodically throughout its membership. Sometimes, the UK's disruptive influence has been beneficial in shaking up or confronting bureaucracy and giving the EU more urgency on trade with the wider world. On other occasions, such as now, the UK's influence is just disruptive. In her statement this morning, the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, said:

The people want us to focus on the other vital issues that matter to them, including building a stronger economy, delivering first class public services and the homes that families need. These are the public's priorities.

Mrs May was speaking about the British people but the same is true of the Irish people and people of every nation across the EU. There is no doubt that future generations in the UK will look back at the lost years when Brexit caused a lack of progress on so many important fronts.

As the Taoiseach said, the EU Council agenda is wide. To what extent has dealing with Brexit slowed down, distracted or impeded the progress of the EU on the pressing issues I have mentioned? On the substantive issues of the Council meeting, this will be the first discussion of the 2021-27 multi-annual financial framework, MFF, for the EU. I recall the detailed discussions at the conclusion of the last MFF. First, are all background papers and projections being prepared on the basis that the UK will definitely be out of the Union by 2021 or are separate scenarios being drawn up that would include either a UK contribution to the EU budget or even a scenario based on UK full membership should a second referendum be held in the United Kingdom? Second, to what extent does this seven-year framework involve a stronger social pillar?

Throughout Europe we have witnessed the rise of far right, nationalists and populists feeding on people’s insecurities. Many of those insecurities relate to precarious work, unaffordable housing and weakened public services. The far right has scapegoated migrants and asylum seekers, but European socialist and labour parties know that the problem is largely to do with inequalities created and maintained by the economy. What will change in the next seven-year EU spending framework to address these issues and support jobs and people's living conditions in a way that is genuinely fairer?

The Council will discuss the Single Market. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, has said we have only 12 years left to take decisive action to prevent the worst climate change scenarios becoming a reality. To what extent is the EU Council deliberating on Single Market reforms that will make our economies more ecologically sustainable, with the radical reduction in emissions and fossil fuel use which is now manifestly required? It is amazing to think that this will be the last full seven-year spending cycle in which we will be able to do the heavy lifting on climate action. Within 12 years it will be too late. What changes are planned for the Single Market in that context?

The Council will also discuss migration. In that regard, the Labour Party supports the UN's global migration pact as the foundation of a humane and principled approach to dealing with global migration. Does the Government support the UN migration pact? Regarding Ireland's specific concerns under this topic, can the Taoiseach guarantee that every EU Head of Government has received or will receive tomorrow a written briefing on the common travel area so they are all clear about the free movement of people and workers between Ireland and the UK, which will continue regardless of the Brexit outcome and in parallel with EU migration policy?

The Council will discuss external relations. In preparation for the summit with the League of Arab States scheduled for 25 February 2019 what consideration has been given to the idea, which I have mentioned more than once in this House, of a Marshall plan for Europe's neighbourhood? There is instability and conflict in many Arab states, including Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan and Yemen. This instability is driving migration to Europe, as well as promoting radicalisation. Investment and stability are needed in all these countries. Will the Council discuss meaningful European assistance and investment in Arab countries in Europe’s neighbourhood on its border? We now have evidence of Russian involvement in online disinformation, seeking to manipulate elections and referenda. What concrete actions will be discussed by the Council to safeguard our democracies? I welcome the Taoiseach referring to these issues in his statement. What will be changed before the May European elections to mitigate any such interference?

EU leaders will also discuss the reform of the Economic and Monetary Union, EMU. Based on the papers made available, this appears to be tinkering with the euro currency rather than making any significant progress. I note in particular that while a stabilisation function was discussed including, most importantly, an unemployment insurance scheme, there has not been agreement on this. Why not? It was clear ten years ago that the euro monetary union was radically incomplete. Do we have to wait for yet another ten years and another economic crisis before measures are taken to ensure greater social protections are built into monetary union? It could act to automatically counterbalance unemployment during periods of recession. Will the Taoiseach commit to supporting an EU-wide unemployment insurance scheme?

Finally, the EU 27 leaders will meet on Thursday to discuss Brexit, in the absence of Prime Minister May. Mr. Donald Tusk and President Jean-Claude Juncker have made it clear that the legal text of the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish border backstop, will not be reopened. This is vital. When I met my colleagues from the Party of European Socialists last weekend, I was reassured by the detailed information available to them and by the level of understanding and solidarity for Ireland shown by socialist Prime Ministers and leaders from across the EU. Will the Taoiseach guarantee that no legal changes will be made that weakens the backstop, including in any legal text contained in side letters, annexes or letters of understanding?

The Council of 27 will also discuss the possibility of a no-deal scenario. The Northern Ireland energy regulator has acknowledged that there is insufficient capacity in Northern Ireland to generate electricity to meet its needs. Northern Ireland needs the all-island energy market. It is no exaggeration to say that the lights could go out in Northern Ireland if there is a no-deal scenario. I listened to the absolute bunkum of the some of the Tories when they spoke about floating barges with batteries. What they are saying about the reality facing people on this island and in Britain is mind-boggling and beyond imagination. The all-island energy issue is included in the withdrawal agreement but, without that agreement, what provision is being made for a rapid redeployment of energy into Northern Ireland in a hard Brexit scenario? Ireland cannot make bilateral agreements with the UK to restore it. I discussed this with Maroš Šefovi, the EU energy Commissioner. This is an EU competence. Even if we wanted to, we could not agree a detailed arrangement with the UK so we need to be making those preparations now.

Can the Taoiseach assure us that plans are being made to put in place quickly a single issue agreement between the UK and the EU to mitigate the worst harm from a no-deal scenario, which could come about in a little over 100 days?

Similarly, it is in our vital interest that the all-island agriculture and food safety zone is preserved, but this is much more complicated. What specific preparations are being made to preserve this in the event of no deal? I asked these questions of the Taoiseach earlier today and he undertook to give Members a briefing in the context of the stakeholders' meeting. That is not good enough right now. Parties in the House that supported a united position over the last two years and who have argued along with our colleagues across Europe need to be fully involved in understanding what is being done in the event of a scenario coming to pass that none of us want, which is a hard exit by Britain from the EU.

British politics is in a state of flux. In my judgment it is likely that Theresa May will survive the challenge to her leadership tonight, who knows, but it is unlikely that the withdrawal agreement will survive a vote in Parliament. I hear the Taoiseach being optimistic again. Right now he is in a minority of one in that optimism, but who knows. There is a real risk that a no-deal scenario will come to pass. I have said to the Taoiseach before that there is now a real risk that must be prepared for. A no-deal scenario would be a disaster for us. The Government must resist that pressure, which will inevitably grow as we reach the cliff edge.

It is a real possibility that the UK will, in the end, hold a second referendum to choose between the withdrawal agreement on the table, and the status quo. According to several surveys, the UK public's desire for a second vote has grown and public appetite for Brexit has declined as it has become unclear what replacement is to be voted on. I hope the EU is ready to support the remain argument.

Ireland received real concessions when we needed them after a rejected treaty vote in the State. There is every reason for the EU to show understanding, flexibility and responsiveness to the concerns of the UK right now. Without any compromise on the fundamental principles around issues such as the free movement of people and workers within the Single Market, there is room for clearer, better regulation to be spelled out. What was offered to the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, needs to be offered again and better explained. If those real concerns were addressed there is a real prospect of a second people's vote not only taking place but also-----

Perhaps I could finish this sentence please. There is a real prospect of a second vote being successful. That would really be the best outcome for this island.

Go raibh maith agat. The Deputy's time is up. Deputy Boyd Barrett is to share his time with Deputy Coppinger.

The Tory Party is in a mess of its own making. Its members have played with the fires of xenophobic nationalism, of anti-immigrant sentiment, of nostalgia for some imagined historical imperial glory and whatever else motivates these rather strange people in the Tory Party. They are tearing themselves apart currently. Frankly I am not sorry to see them do so given the dangerous politics they play with and the damage that successive Tory governments have done to working class people in the United Kingdom.

One hopeful sign from this mess is when Theresa May starts talking about the real possibility of a united Ireland. Even though she desperately wishes to avert it and while others speak of "my precious union" one has to acknowledge the possibility of a united Ireland. It is time for us to take it very seriously. While all of us would prefer some sort of resolution to prevail in the situation, if it does not prevail and Britain crashing out of the EU is on the agenda, then it seems that the issue of a united Ireland also comes very seriously onto the agenda. It has to be completely unthinkable for us to consider for even one moment the possibility of a border being erected for any reason by anybody in that context. This is not just the possibility that the Tories or the DUP might wish to erect a border in the circumstances of a hard Brexit: the European Union might insist on it to protect its precious Single Market. The Tories want to protect the precious union and the EU leaders want to protect their precious market. Ireland's position has to be to insist that from no direction and for no reason are we willing to accept or co-operate with the installation of a border between the North and the South. We should argue publicly that in the circumstance where that might become a possibility or threatened from any direction the people north and south of this island should have the right to express their will democratically in a referendum on Irish unity. Democracy and a commitment to the unity of the island should require that.

Another interesting aspect of the currently unfolding debacle in the Tory Party, members of which are quite happy to tear each other part, is that the one thing the Tories are capable of uniting on is their fear of a Corbyn government and their fear of a left wing government. This is the reason Theresa May will survive politically, if she does. As much as they are taking lumps out of each other they want to stop at any costs the possibility of a left wing Government. It is worth considering the significance of that, especially given the events unfolding in France at the moment. Among other considerations that would have been discussed at the European Council, the upheaval and elemental social explosion taking place in France is a welcome counter blast to the rotten politics that have been played out in the Brexit debate and it has been a very welcome counterblast to the terrifying development of the rotten rise of extreme forms of nationalism and the far right taking place all over Europe.

Although the yellow vest movement is somewhat incoherent, and while there are certainly some dodgy elements operating in certain places, overwhelmingly this is a mass movement of the poor, the dispossessed and the working people who are angry at social and economic inequality and the misguided, unfair and unjust priorities of the Macron government. These priorities were best characterised by the attempt by the Macron government to on the one hand get rid of a wealth tax and reduce taxes on the rich, and at the same time unload the cost of that measure onto the poor in the form of regressive taxes under an apparently environmental guise that would hit the less well-off. This is at the base of the yellow vest explosion. As I said earlier, there are some far right elements in certain places trying to take advantage of this and turn it in a nasty right wing direction but overwhelmingly one can see in the pictures of the protesters that faces are black, white, north African men and women. The demands they make are for economic and social justice, for an end to precarious work and for fairness in how the tax system works.

The anger over those issues runs right across Europe and into this country and elsewhere. In respect of the revolt that is taking place, there are now protestors in Iraq wearing the yellow vests. In Egypt, where I note this conference referred to in the Council is taking place and where the al-Sisi dictatorship is digging the grave of the Arab Spring, they have banned the sale of yellow vests out of fear that on the anniversary of the Arab Spring, the Arab masses might take to the streets wearing them. There is an internationalism - the internationalism of the poor, the downtrodden, the vulnerable taking to the streets and demanding economic and social justice. That is something we should consider strongly for this country, the world and Europe, as the counterblast to the rotten Tories and the far right.

The Taoiseach and the representatives of the Government must take note of what is happening in France. This is one of the largest countries in Europe and a massive tide of protest is taking place. The yellow vest movement is an inspirational revolt by working people and the poor against the President of the rich, Emmanuel Macron, and his policies. The protests show that these policies can be challenged. Austerity has wreaked havoc in French society. The struggle to make ends meet is now an epidemic. The Socialist Party and our sister organisation, Gauche Révolutionnaire, support these movements against anti-working class policies.

I refer to some quotes from people taking part in the protests. A young restaurant worker on the minimum wage said, "I did not eat yesterday or at last night's dinner." Another said, "We yellow vests represent the poor of France, those with modest or low incomes who are being crushed." Another said, "I am here for all those people left crying by the 15th of each month because they have gone into the red." That is what has happened because of austerity policies in France and across the EU. The movements have seen blockades, militant occupations and weekly protests in every major town and city. There has been important industrial action as well. Protests involving young people, school students, university students have been met with vicious and brutal state repression, exemplified by the shocking images on social media of more than 140 young people forced to kneel in front of the police with their arms behind their backs, their only crime protesting outside their school. That is children and that is what is being done by Macron and his police force. This protest movement has also linked with environmental protests and movements against violence against women, which we witnessed the weekend before last. The policies of Macron's terror regime are being imposed across Europe and the globe. As has been mentioned, the sale of yellow vests has been banned in Egypt in case there is contagion. The mood that exists in France exists in many other countries in Europe, including Ireland.

When elected in May 2017, Macron was the shiny new face of neoliberalism. The Taoiseach went out of his way to emulate him and fell head over heels to bask in his radiance - Trudeau, Macron, Varadkar, etc. There is a warning here for the Taoiseach. Support for Macron has plummeted and he is now one of the most hated presidents in French history. This is a millionaire former banker who represents a system built on maintaining inequality and undermining living standards of working class people in the interests of profit. One yellow vest protestor correctly characterised the concessions Macron was forced to make, when he came out of hiding after a week, as putting plasters on a third-degree burn. They know much more can be won. The idea of tous ensemble, everyone together, has become the sentiment in French society and there is great willingness to fight and to get organised. We need action committees to be brought together from workplaces, schools and the yellow vest protests to discuss and to organise this struggle and campaign. As we saw in May 50 years ago, due to its economic power and its traditions, the organised working class and trade union movement in France has a crucial role to play. The day of action on 14 December called by the General Confederation of Labour, CGT, is a step forward. A 24-hour general strike is needed to put a stop to the Macron government and to force him to go much further. A system run for private profit means the further squeezing of living standards. It is essential that this movement unites all working class people of all colours, regardless of background. Any racist or anti-immigrant sentiment needs to be stood against. To make these demands a reality, a government of the working class that ends the rule of the CAC 40, major banks and industries that dominate the French economy, the parasites whom Macron represents, is needed. They should be taken out of the private ownership of profiteers and placed in public ownership under democratic control of working people in an economy planned for the needs of the majority, not run for economic elites. A struggle for a socialist France can open a struggle for a socialist Europe, uniting working class people in opposition to the rule of the bosses and the EU that represents them.

I want to take up the situation with regard to Brexit. We should remind ourselves that the 2016 referendum for withdrawal from Europe was another manifestation of the widespread alienation from political parties that have pushed neoliberal policies for three decades. The majority of those who voted for Brexit were angry at years of austerity that resulted in falling living standards and cuts in public services. They were fed up of being told that the pain must be shared when their pockets were being picked to bail out the banks. Now Theresa May has pulled back on a vote for the draft Brexit agreement at the eleventh hour and faces the sack herself. Solidarity-PBP and the Socialist Party understand and share the anger of ordinary people across Europe. France is in turmoil. The Brexit deal is stuck for related reasons. The system simply cannot deliver for working people and it cannot deliver democratic rights either. Anger and alienation are widespread and unexpected referendum results and burning barricades in Paris are simply a manifestation of this.

During the referendum campaign, the RMT rail workers union in Britain and the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, NIPSA, the public sector union in the North, both took principled positions of opposition to the EU in favour of a left alternative. These unions have shown the way and if the trade unions were now to bring their combined weight behind a movement for a new Europe organised in the interests of the 99%, millions of people could be mobilised across these islands and across Europe. It is not just a question of the trade unions organising to protect jobs and terms and conditions of working people. The union movement in Ireland has a proud record of uniting working class people, Catholic and Protestant, and has a historic responsibility to act now with resolution in the interests of working people across the island. The unions must mobilise to counter any measures that result in an increase in sectarian division in the North and there must be no hardening of borders North, South, east or west.

Deputies Daly, Wallace and Maureen O'Sullivan are sharing time. I call Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.

Ladies first. One of the few ladies in the whole place.

I take it Deputy Wallace is last.

I hope he is not using my time now. Migration is to be discussed at the Council under the heading of implementation of the comprehensive approach to migration. Does that comprehensive approach include the increasing securitisation agenda when it comes to migration? It is undermining and certainly threatening the EU aid budget. There is a fear of considerable funding going to the securitisation agenda. The "fortress Europe" image is damaging to the founding principles of the EU. There is undeniable hypocrisy in President Tusk's recent statement following the Salzburg summit, when he said that we may not agree on everything but we agree that the main goal is stemming illegal migration to Europe. EU policies and the actions of certain countries created the reasons people are migrating. I refer to issues such as arms sales, tax measures and unfair trade treaties. They are the factors keeping those countries impoverished, which leads to migration. Europe will talk about tackling the root causes of migration but it is much easier to put up barriers. That also loses sight of the fact that there is far more internal migration within Africa than there is outward migration from Africa. President Tusk also spoke about co-operation with third countries. If we look at some of them, however, Libya is a failed state, while Turkey has a questionable human rights agenda.

Preparation for the upcoming summit with the League of Arab States is also on the Council agenda. Yemen has to be the main item of that summit. The conflict going on since 2011 is a seven-year conflict in a country that had so many challenges even without a war. This war is not about Yemen. It is a power struggle between Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, and what they see as Iranian influence and support for the Houthi rebels.

While the peace talks are happening, there has been very little condemnation of the war, the attacks on civilians, the starvation and the malnutrition. We know about the lucrative arms deals. French contractors delivered €2 billion worth of equipment to Saudi Arabia. In the first half of 2017 arms sales from the UK to Saudi Arabia came to €1.25 billion. While Germany has stopped selling arms to that conflict, there are questions over its motives, as the arms industry is not as vital to Germany's GDP as it is to that of France and the UK.

It appears that the EU's economic relationship with Saudi Arabia is more important. Given the wealth among the Arab countries, surely they have a moral obligation to stop fuelling a conflict that has such consequences for the population and to step up humanitarian aid. It is reckoned that more than 60% of deaths in Yemen were caused by Saudi airstrikes.

South Sudan has experienced nearly five years of civil war with 50% of the population in need of humanitarian aid and millions of people displaced. It is now on its 12th peace deal which is very fragile. There is a role for the international community, including the EU, to ensure that this peace deal lasts. The EU can play a role with those who are genuinely committed to reconciliation and sustainable peace. Ireland has been very forthcoming in giving vital aid. More challenging and equally vital is Ireland working through the EU to ensure the peace holds.

Regardless of the views and our relationship with the Spanish Government, there is support for Catalan independence. Two Catalan civil society leaders, seven Catalan politicians, including a former speaker of the parliament, and others are in exile across Europe. While it is an internal matter the EU could be more proactive in trying to prevent an escalation of unrest in one of its member countries.

There is a certain irony that Time magazine's person of the year announced yesterday are journalists when there has not been a single mention of the increasingly precarious situation facing Julian Assange. The Government has a responsibility to raise this case in the upcoming European Council. In a fortnight Assange will have spent his seventh Christmas trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. For six and a half years he has been corralled there by the British Government and refused safe passage to asylum to Ecuador. He is now an Ecuadorian citizen and still the British Government refuses to let him leave in safety. The threats to his life and health grow bigger every day.

Since the election of President Moreno in Ecuador last year, Julian Assange's presence in the Ecuadorian embassy has grown increasingly precarious. President Moreno has described Assange as a stone in his shoe. The former president, Mr. Correa, has said that President Moreno would throw Assange out following the first pressure from the United States, which is exactly what we are seeing. In November the US Department of Justice accidentally revealed the existence of sealed criminal charges against Assange in a document filed in a New York court. That document read:

The complaint...and arrest warrant...would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter.

We must remember that this threat of extradition to the US and a lifetime of solitary confinement or worse hang over Julian Assange because he had the audacity to commit acts of actual journalism. He had the audacity to refuse to become just another stenographer of the powerful like so many of his colleagues because he made available information that threatened the United States' imperial project, information that upset the liberal consensus of Western good guys and the big bad others that we hear about so much, information that was raw, genuine and direct from the source and not spoon-fed by spokespersons or laundered by PR.

He is now facing criminal charges in the United States because in 2010 he published the collateral murder video which showed US forces gunning down 12 civilians, including two journalists, in an airstrike and laughing about it. He is facing criminal charges and a lifetime in solitary confinement in a supermax prison because a few months later WikiLeaks published the Afghan war logs, followed by the Iraq war logs, the biggest leak in the history of the United States military. The Iraq war logs proved that the US Government had covered up 15,000 civilian deaths in Iraq and the US authorities had failed to investigate hundreds of cases of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers who killed hundreds of unarmed civilians some of them pregnant women for the crime of approaching checkpoints.

In light of Assange's contribution to journalism, it is grim and shocking how easily the United States along with its allies in the UK have manipulated both left and right wing mainstream opinion in regard to his character and his work. We have had a relentless propaganda campaign over the years resulting in the apparently universally recognised idea in the mainstream that his detention is really not something to worry about. It is regarded as not being that important because it is suggested he is unstable, irresponsible, creepy etc. which is exactly why I am raising it today. Human rights do not depend on character references.

The world's media were rightly up in arms over the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi on the basis that state-backed attacks on dissident journalists represent a red line that should never be crossed. I agree with that. However, if Assange is ever talked about in these days it is never in the context of his arbitrary detention and rather in the context of the smears against his character, which is absolute hypocrisy when we see the outcry at the treatment of Jamal Khashoggi and so on. A journalist has been arbitrarily detained for six and a half years with no apparent discomfort from any section of the establishment anywhere. I again ask the Government to raise this case before this man dies inside that embassy. If they get him out he faces a lifetime in solitary confinement in America.

In the context of journalists, there is hypocrisy between how we raise the case of Jamal Khashoggi while at the same time refusing to countenance arms boycotts on Saudi Arabia as it slaughters and starves innocent Yemeni civilians. That has gone on for three years and suddenly now following that murder everybody in Europe wants to talk about it. They did not care about it when thousands of Yemeni people were being killed - yesterday the media quoted a figure of 60,000. I appeal to the Government to speak up before it is too late for Julian Assange.

Last Thursday we discussed legislation introduced by Senator Colette Kelleher on family reunification for refugees. Before we could even start debating it, we were told the Government would not provide a money message for it. I am concerned that the Government would take such an approach. Migration is on the agenda for this week's European Council meeting. The background notes strike a celebratory tone. The main infographic has a caption which boasts that EU support for Libyan coastguards is paying off. It has trained 237 coastguard officers and has rescued 13,185 people up to 30 August, a 190% increase over 2017.

Operation Sophia is a military blockade of the Mediterranean which is forcing people who are fleeing wars, famine and economic conditions to remain trapped in brutal and inhumane conditions in Libya. The root causes of the flight of these people are the economic and foreign policies of the global north. Only two weeks ago in the Dáil the Minister of State at the Department of Defence confirmed that it was a military mission. The root causes will not be addressed by the €2.5 billion in aid funding, the Common Security and Defence Policy missions or by partnering with authorities in already destabilised countries to stop people crossing their borders.

The global north needs to recognise that the aid narrative is based on the falsehood that EU countries become rich because of their own brilliance, hard work and good institutions, and now reach out across the chasm to give generously of its surplus to poor countries, helping them up the development ladder. The anthropologist Jason Hickel has just written a wonderful book, The Divide. I suggest people read it for Christmas. He has written:

This story presupposes a fundamental disjuncture between the wealth of rich nations and the poverty of poor ones, as if the two have nothing at all to do with one another, either historically or today.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, the aid that the North gives to the South is vastly outstripped by financial resources that flow the other direction, in the form of interest on external debt, profit repatriation, illicit financial flows and so on. In fact, for every dollar of aid that the North gives to the South, the South loses up to $24 in net outflows because of how the global economy is structured. The South is a net creditor to the North. Poor countries are effectively developing rich countries, not the other way around.

Hickel's remarks are based on research published in 2017 by the US-based Global Financial Integrity and the centre for applied research at the Norwegian School of Economics. It is the most comprehensive assessment of resource transfers ever undertaken and it puts Ireland at the centre of the crisis in the global south. If we look at all the years since 1980, net outflows add up to a mad total of $16.3 trillion. That is how much money has been drained out of the global south over the past few decades. One of the central ways in which this transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich has been executed is through illicit tax flows through tax havens, of which Ireland is one.

It is not Common Security and Defence Policy missions but stopping the flow of arms into the global south that will address one of the root causes of people fleeing war and instability. In South Sudan, for instance, English, Ukrainian, Israeli and Emirates firms are on record as having sold arms to both sides in the dreadful war there. The annual report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute finds that global arms sales have increased by 2.5% since 2016 and the top 100 arms manufacturers sold $398 billion worth of arms in 2017. Of these sales, 57% were made by US companies while western European companies accounted for 23.8%. This effectively means that 81% of weapons sales by the biggest 100 global companies were based in NATO countries. The West produces the armaments that heighten conflicts from northern Africa to central Asia. America, France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Spain, Belgium, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Norway, Switzerland, Finland and Greece have all profited by fuelling the war on the people of Yemen, where up to 14 million are at risk of starvation. The situation in Yemen is horrific and we have stayed silent on it. We do not send peacekeeping missions to Yemen. We send our politicians to shake hands and do business with men who are using famine as a weapon of war.

Neither will the root causes be addressed by sending the Naval Service on a military mission to the Mediterranean to help Libyan militias to capture refugees and bring them back to sites of torture and rape. The stories coming out of the detention centres there are nothing short of shocking. Most of the detained are in Tripoli and the fighting has kicked off again with opposition militias, many of whom are being backed by the UN. They are fighting for control of the north west of the country. Médecins Sans Frontières and its partner SOS Méditerranée have been forced by the Italian state and other European governments to terminate operation by its search and rescue vessel, the Aquarius. The EU wants the people who are trying to escape the mayhem we have created for them to rot in detention or drown in the ocean. The EU describes this as a plan that is paying off. We should raise our voice and challenge this because it is terrible.

Deputy Mattie McGrath is sharing four minutes of his time with Deputy Seán Haughey, in the spirit of confidence and supply and co-operation.

Indeed I am, in the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of the acclamation that Deputy Micheál Martin made to the nation in the course of this pre-European Council meeting debate. As the singer Johnny Logan would say, "What's another year?" What is five minutes in the context of another year? It is nothing.

The Taoiseach is imithe now but almost every time that a meeting of the European Council has taken place in the last year, it has been preceded by one crisis or another. It has been a very rocky and bumpy road. However, the crisis engulfing the politics and Parliament of the United Kingdom now appears to be genuinely chaotic and looks set to confirm our worst fears in terms of the negative impact of a hard Brexit. It is astonishing. Management of the crisis, if it was ever real, is now slipping out of all control and that is quite apparent to one and all. Despite her determination and resilience, Mrs. May is, to all intents and purposes, a lame duck Prime Minister who appears likely to become yet another victim of Tory party infighting over Europe. It is a sad spectacle to watch as the uncertainty around the effects on our economy and many other economies grows.

Mrs. May postponed the vote on the withdrawal agreement in Westminster because she simply could not generate the support required for what almost everyone agrees is a deeply problematic arrangement. It is unfair to members of the UK Parliament to expect them to sign up to and support an agreement that locks them into a backstop arrangement from which they cannot extract themselves. As we know, our nearest neighbours are a very proud people whose ancestors conquered the world and developed the British Empire. Pride, which is one of the seven deadly sins, is a big part of the problem here. The British want to be proud and to borrow a phrase, they want to make England great again. It seems that the backstop issue is one where politics, as the art of the possible and of compromise, is destined to fail. Is mór an trua an rud sin. It is very sad.

The British Prime Minister said that she would go back to the EU and seek further clarification on the legal nature of the backstop protocol but before she even landed in Brussels, the door was slammed in her face by Mr. Juncker which is a real pity. While I must recognise and acknowledge the support we have received from our EU colleagues, I am suspicious of it at the same time. The support is certainly there and the agreement, on which I was briefed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, when it was finalised, is very good for Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is quite a good agreement for the Republic of Ireland too. While we must acknowledge that, we must also ask, at what price? What will we be expected to deliver afterwards, when and if there is a crash-out Brexit? There is serious uncertainty about the impact of a crash-out Brexit on our lives and our economy. This is especially true with regard to rural Ireland and the agricultural sector which exports so much of its produce to the United Kingdom.

The EU's approach is giving fuel to those elements of the UK political class who have their faces set against any constructive deal. Closing the door in Mrs. May's face before she had even gotten off the plane was not constructive; she should have been embraced. This has been going on from the very start. There has been no empathy for or understanding of the British position. Neither has there been any examination or in depth analysis of the reasons for the Brexit vote. We all know that there were many reasons for that vote, with immigration being only one. Other reasons include a lack of autonomy and a sense of being governed from afar by big brother, as well as of being neglected. Neglect by the EU was demonstrated during our financial crisis with the so-called bail out, which I described as a clean out. I voted against it because the EU charged us 6% while the IMF loaned us money at less than 3%. In the meantime, we face unimaginable consequences if a hard Brexit or no deal scenario comes to pass. People are so fearful, especially those who have invested heavily in businesses. There are many fears with regard to job security too.

Added to this crisis, the European Council must also deal with the continuing difficulties with Italy and the ongoing rows about budgetary oversight. The Italian people and their leaders are simply not prepared to take threats about punitive financial penalties lying down and nor should they. They have seen what happened to us and to other member states like Greece in the past. Youth unemployment in Italy is over 30%, which is staggering. The population is expected to face declining living standards, lowered prospects for upward mobility and high unemployment. This is the next crisis. The hard men in Brussels might not get away with their tough talk so easily when it comes to the Italians. Yet again, the EU leadership is adopting a hardline approach to this issue which is astonishing the Italian people. It is also antagonising them. They are starting to look over their shoulders and to understand why the British voted for Brexit. As I said, the Italian people and their leaders are not prepared to take threats about punitive financial penalties lying down.

These issues point to massive levels of disruption up ahead.

We know that if the UK economy is hit, we will suffer badly. As I always say, if England catches a cold, we get the flu. The UK is our nearest trading partner. Many Irish people live there and many of our businesses are intertwined. If Italy enters a severe debt crisis, the entire European economy will suffer major damage. That these two scenarios look more likely than ever is deeply concerning to my constituents, throughout Tipperary from Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel and Cashel to Thurles, Roscrea, Templemore and Nenagh, including the farming community. There is already an astonishing crisis in the beef industry and many other farming sectors. It is shocking.

I could not finish without saying something about the uncaring attitude at EU level towards the persecution of Christians, as well as Muslim and other minorities, in the Middle East. Yemen was mentioned, where there is an atrocious war. I recently visited the Middle East and the situation there is shocking. Countries such as France and England export massive amounts of weapons to countries in the region, thereby helping to heap destruction on men, women and children. The war in Yemen is savage war. I have tried on several occasions - since I first went there 2011 - to have a meaningful debate in the House about the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Middle Eastern countries such as Yemen. I have received no support and there is no appetite across all the parties. They are able to unify for everything else. They unified for months to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution and to rush legislation through the House, but there has been no debate on this issue. They have turned a blind eye to it because we might offend someone in Europe. It is outrageous but I thank the Ceann Comhairle who allowed four of us, Deputies O'Keeffe, Grealish, me and one other, to engage in a Topical Issue debate on Holy Thursday evening a couple of years ago. That is all we got. Were it not for the Ceann Comhairle, we would have got nothing.

The parties have turned a blind eye to this issue in order to be the good boys and girls of Europe and to salute the EU. When it says "Jump", the parties ask "How high?" The Minister of State has done all the jumping, the box-ticking and the tours of European capitals, and she has received support for the country, which must be recognised, but at what price was it? Cén costas a bhí leis sin? That is my worry. What is going on behind closed doors and to what are we signed up? We signed up to the UN declaration on migrants this week. What else have we signed up to or exposed ourselves to without any debate in Parliament?

The media also have a role to play, and I extol them to be more investigative and energetic in talking about these issues and the lack of debate on them in Parliament. Last week, the decks were able to be cleared of any business to ensure a horrific abortion Bill could be rushed over the line. There was co-operation from all the parties. Even expressions of sympathy for Fine Gael's former Taoiseach, the late Liam Cosgrave, were pulled from the agenda to accommodate the unified parties in ensuring the Bill's passage. The Fianna Fáil Party propped up Fine Gael on that issue more than anything else, against the wishes of its members as voted for at its Ard-Fheis, and now it seems there will be another year of the confidence and supply agreement.

Most people want rid of Theresa May because of the appalling way that housing, agriculture, children etc. have been neglected.

The Deputy should speak on the European Council meeting.

I am doing so but others digressed and gave us a state-of-the-nation address on the confidence and supply agreement. I hope, therefore, that I am allowed some latitude.

People want rid of the Government, more than it knows, because it is anti-democratic and, above all, uncaring. It has turned a blind eye to Yemen and the rest of the Middle East. We have a proud reputation for neutral peacekeeping but it is fast disappearing and I am worried about that to which the Government has signed up.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for sharing time.

It is hard to believe what is going on in British politics. After 45 years of membership of the EU, the UK is leaving on 29 March next, after which it will have third-country status. That is the current position although things may change. The UK electorate was not told the truth during the referendum campaign. The debate was ugly and nasty, at times, and centred around immigration, which is now one of the major global issues. A false scenario was presented to the electorate, and the UK public and Members of Parliament have only recently become aware of the reality that exists. The British Prime Minister recently explained the hard facts of the situation, which has led to her difficulties in getting approval in Parliament for the withdrawal agreement. If nothing else, Theresa May is resilient and tenacious, and we await developments in that regard in London this evening.

I note the comments made by the leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Micheál Martin, earlier. Providing political stability to the country at this dangerous time is welcome. Irish businesses are doubtless becoming exercised about Brexit, as are the wider public. It was a difficult decision for Deputy Micheál Martin to embark on the road he outlined for us earlier, and it will cause difficulties within our party, but it is in the national interest. When one compares what is happening in UK politics with what is happening here, there is a significant contrast. In general, people will welcome the political stability he has offered.

I listened to a great speech by a former British Prime Minister, John Major, in Dublin yesterday. He is such a sensible, pragmatic man and politician. One of the main concerns in his address was the future of Anglo-Irish relations. If the UK is no longer in the European Union, it is clear there will be less opportunity for interaction with Ministers from both jurisdictions to discuss the major issues of the day. He outlined many other concerns but that was one of which we must be conscious.

The major issue is to prepare for a hard Brexit. We need to be prepared for Britain crashing out of the European Union, that is, a disorderly Brexit. I note that the Cabinet mandated all Departments yesterday to give full priority to activating their plans for a no-deal or disorderly Brexit. We need to prepare for the no-deal scenario. There was some discussion in the House earlier on the legislation which the Oireachtas will have to pass in preparation. It needs to be addressed quickly and considered over the Christmas recess with a view to dealing with the situation in the new year. It will be necessary to hire customs officers, vets and food and safety inspectors for our ports and airports, a matter which I assume the Government is dealing with as we speak. Businesses need to be fully aware of the situation. Many other issues will be discussed at the European Council meeting, including the multi-annual financial framework. I hope that cap can be protected, as I have previously told the Minister of State. Migration is also an important issue, and it is probably one of the reasons that Brexit is happening. I hope that practical measures can be taken to deal with the major issue of migration, which affects Europe and the rest of the world.

With the Acting Chairman's indulgence, I will refer to the general political situation here. It indirectly relates to the European Council because it seems the Council will concern nothing but the nature of politics in France, Italy and, most of all, Britain. How we engage in politics, however, is part of the discussion.

Before I entered the Chamber, I was working in the bowels of the Joint Committee on Climate Action and, therefore, I did not hear Deputy Micheál Martin's speech, but he had the good courtesy to approach me to inform me of his decision. It is only good courtesy of me to contribute with honesty because I had also spoken to him in private about the issue last week.

We happened to have a Green Party office party upstairs in a pub while the Fine Gael national executive moved in downstairs. The two met briefly and we chatted about our political situation. I did not expect this Dáil to run through the next budget. I thought it would go after Brexit had been done. As I said yesterday at a public meeting on the 100th anniversary of the First Dáil, we have done a good job in this Dáil over the past two and a half to three years. It seems like only yesterday the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, was a mere slip of a new backbencher. I did not think we would last this long or that she would last this long. Collectively, it has been better that we did this. If there is another year, and there may not be, there is a lot-----

There is many a slip between cup and lip.

I would prefer us to use this next year wisely and not do the same as we did over the past three years. We have been strong in our approach to the Brexit process. We worked for consensus and were strong not because there was a confidence and supply agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but because there was widespread agreement here on the broad strategy and tactics applied. On the fundamental issue of whether there is a backstop agreement, there has not been a dissenting voice in this House.

The chaos in the UK political system, in both the Labour and the Conservative Parties, on this issue has given us strength in a way that is unimaginable in our historic relationship with the neighbouring isle. We should be very careful not to antagonise what must be a sense of absolute dismay within the UK at how its system is not coping with this real challenge. We should stand up for, and insist on, a certain honesty over there that the Irish backstop is not the key dividing issue. It was used by various sides, particularly the UK Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, to get a soft economic Brexit, a customs arrangement of some sort to assist British business in what was always going to be a difficult situation. The political situation in Northern Ireland somewhat set up that opportunity but to then turn it around and say it is all about the backstop is a slightly dishonest approach. Without any disrespect to the people over there, who do not need to be lectured to, we should hold that line and demand that the Labour and the Conservative Parties do not distort the reality of what is happening.

Somebody used a metaphor during the week for the role of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, saying he has to be careful not to be like Colonel Nicholson in "The Bridge On the River Kwai". People may remember the film about the British officers imprisoned by the Japanese and building the Burma rail line, and the bridge across the river. It was fraught and there were all sorts of difficulties and tensions. When eventually the bridge is built the British officer leading the prisoners feels great pride but when he realises that his allies are about to blow it up he has a sense that he does not want them to do that. If we feel this deal or withdrawal agreement that we have constructed, like a two year bridge construction job, is the be all and end all, our protecting it would be a bit like Colonel Nicholson in not wanting it to be blown up. If it has to go, it has to go.

We work very closely with our party in the UK and it wants a second vote, as do our colleagues in the North. We should not stand in the way of that through pride in the construction of the withdrawal agreement. We do not play a role because it is a golden rule of referenda to leave other countries to hold their debate. This issue, however, might be slightly different and break that rule because we are being dragged into it in a way that is not quite honest or true. That gives us a certain license to clarify the truth should it come to a second vote and I hope it will because I hope Britain does not leave. It fundamentally weakens our union, our relationship with the neighbouring island and if there is a possibility of that being reconsidered by the British people I hope that arrives.

I have friends on the Brexit side and I have quizzed them to try to understand why. They would not be Deputy Boyd Barrett's friends on the socialist side, they are from the business side although there was socialist support for Brexit two or three years ago. The business argument is strange because it saying that Europe and the West in general are in decline and it asks why it would hitch itself to a declining global institution when development is occurring in India and China and elsewhere. Fintan O'Toole wrote a brilliant article last week on the historical mythology behind some of this thinking. I think it almost goes back to the Elizabethan era when Francis Drake and others were out on the high seas. They had to have this ability to do trade deals and to act in that way on the global stage. That is where their thinking comes from. It is deeply flawed because global trade and the globalised model will not work on a privateer basis. We need to reconstruct globalisation towards sustainability in every way and towards sustainability in social and environmental policy.

It was interesting that in his contribution today the Taoiseach referred to another issue for discussion at the Council, the implementation of the Services Directive, the radical scaling up of that project to deliver greater competitiveness and economic growth. He referred to the Copenhagen Economics report, Making EU Trade in Services Work for All. I briefly availed of the chance to try to read some of that document before speaking. To my mind, it did not address this issue. I do not get a strong sense from it or in anything I have heard from the Taoiseach that the economic model has to change, that it has to be for all. The rise in right wing, nationalist and populist sentiment in Europe is because we do not have that collective care for how an ultra-competitive, ultra-productive and ultra-growth-orientated globalised economy can look after all. It does not look after all. That has to change.

Further on in his speech the Taoiseach referred to disinformation and the role of political operators or Facebook and others as being on the agenda for discussion. Deputy Naughton and I happened to be in the House of Commons the week before last attending a committee hearing on disinformation and the regulation of Facebook. I asked Facebook whether it would apply the General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR, in all its global operations and it said it would, that it is the new standard. That connects with the Brexit issue. No matter what Britain does, in this critical area of digital services and in every aspect of the digital revolution, Facebook will apply GDPR standards, and effectively the European Court of Justice will remain the arbiter of disputes in that area, as will EU legislation because that is increasingly the one global standard. We have to be careful. Where do we stand on the regulation of Facebook and the new digital services economy? We have to stand for workers' rights and better pay. We do not stand for the American growth-at-all-costs and greed-is-good model. That old economic model is dead and gone. We need a new and different one.

To come full circle, we should apply that thinking in the year ahead of us, start thinking and doing things differently and try to achieve the same consensus on some issues that we achieved consensus on the Brexit negotiations so that we have strength in the development of our economy in every way.

I will give some examples of where we should apply that. We can refer to it in our discussions on the European Council. First, in our budget approach we should heed what Seamus Coffey said last week, which we all know has validity to it and is worth attention. Before having another budget we should make sure that it is not just the usual election budget where we buy votes either with tax cuts or with spending as that is not the key priority for us. Could we achieve consensus on that in the future?

Could we also take what we are doing in the Joint Committee on Climate Action, which we know is central to where the economy has to go? We know that by the end of next year under European Union governance rules we must have a national energy and climate action plan that is fit for the following ten and 20 years. Could we work in consensus on a revised national development plan that delivers some of the objectives of decarbonisation that we seek.

One could broaden it out as there is a range of different areas where people might seek consensus. When Pope Francis was here the Taoiseach mentioned a new covenant between church and State. Could we in a safe space, in a synodal way, without the understandable confrontation we have seen in the past six months in terms of the abortion issue, bring people from churches and none together to work collaboratively in a broader way, much as we did recently with the Citizens' Assembly and other debates, to consider issues such as the role of religion in the education system or in the health system? I say that having attended my own local parish meeting the other night which asked the exact same question. It is happening from the ground up so why would we not try to do it from the top down at the same time? That would make this country a very interesting place because some of the values in such a forum might inform a more social, caring and environmentally sustainable economy.

We have not answered those hard questions in the past three years. We have not said how we will fund third level education. Neither have we said how we will fund the media. There are so many different areas where we are failing and where what we are doing is not working. To return to my central point, we should go to Brussels this week somewhat proud, first of the solidarity our European colleagues have shown to us. I was at a meeting yesterday and I mind an image which came to me. It would be akin to Wolfe Tone sailing to Bantry Bay and instead of facing a storm him reaching it on a sunny day. Europe came to our aid in this time in a way that was real. It came home to us that solidarity with our European colleagues can deliver real strength. We should thank them for that. We should not antagonise, look down on, demean or get into a slagging war with the UK no matter what the 50 Tory MPs on the nationalist side say, which is very antagonistic towards us. We should not rise to that. We should retain our close relationships and good friendships with the likes of John Major and so many others in that party and in the Labour Party, despite the lack of leadership we are seeing in that quarter and the blame it puts on the Irish backstop, which beggars belief as a political analysis of the political issues they face.

We are established 100 years and we need to think about what we will do in the next year in an innovative way. Deputy Boyd Barrett and I were part of the debate yesterday. I thought it was a useful discussion. We should bring that thinking into this Chamber and for however long next year as we would do the State some service.

I thank Deputies for their statements in advance of the December European Council. The Taoiseach already spoke in some detail about expectations for the Article 50 meeting on Brexit, the euro summit, and several items for discussion tomorrow and Friday. That includes the multi-annual financial framework, which I will go into in more detail in due course, the Single Market, migration, security and defence, and external relations, as well as the fight against racism and xenophobia, disinformation, and climate change.

As the Taoiseach mentioned, I will speak about the other issues on the agenda of the European Council, in particular the multi-annual financial framework, and preparations for the next strategic agenda, including the outcome of the citizens' dialogues and consultations on the future of Europe. We will have a chance for further questions next week. I have taken many of the suggestions and statements that were made on board ahead to the meeting.

On the next multi-annual financial framework, which is to cover the period from 2021 to 2027, the House will recall that the June European Council invited the Council and the European Parliament to examine the Commission proposals in a comprehensive manner and as soon as possible. At the European Council this week, leaders will review the progress that has been made on this by the Austrian Presidency in the negotiations over the past six months. While this is the first time the leaders will meet and have a detailed discussion, this has been ongoing within the General Affairs Council, which I attend, and also the finance committee, the agriculture committee and all of the other various bodies for almost two years. I expect that leaders will call on the incoming Romanian Presidency to advance the next phase of the negotiations with a view to reaching agreement at the European Council in autumn 2019.

The European project has helped to transform Ireland from one of the least developed member states when we joined, to one of the more prosperous today. We all recognise how we have benefitted from membership of the EU and it is important to use that experience to help shape the debate on the future of Europe and what our priorities should be. The post-2020 MFF comes at a time of change and adjustment for the EU. Long-term challenges such as economic competitiveness and climate change, emerging challenges to international trade and access to the Single Market, as well as international challenges, such as migration, security and terrorism have become more pronounced. The departure of the UK will also cause short and longer-term practical challenges for the MFF, the most obvious being a smaller budget that might entail member states paying more.

With Ireland's growing prosperity, we have moved from being a net beneficiary to a net contributor to the EU budget. Recognising how we have benefitted in the past, we are open to contributing more, provided that it meets European added value objectives. From Ireland's perspective, as Deputies have already outlined, it is important that current policies with demonstrated value continue to be properly supported. The CAP remains a particular priority for Ireland. Expenditure in the area of agriculture helps support 44 million jobs across the EU, while contributing to food security and safety, rural sustainability and environmental standards.

Cohesion is a traditional policy that is also important in helping member states to unlock their economic potential, which will benefit all of us in the long run. As a country that has benefitted from cohesion in the past we see that other newer or smaller member states which join should benefit in the same way.

In particular, I welcome the emphasis on other policies which function well, such as ERASMUS+, the Connecting Europe Facility, Horizon, which supports research and development, and the PEACE+ and INTERREG programmes which are part of the cross-Border community initiatives. I believe that budgets for such fundamental areas should be protected and we hope that they will be. We also acknowledge the concerns of our partners and support investment in evolving priorities including migration, climate change, digital transformation and security and defence, which again must bring added European value.

In terms of the strategic agenda, a meeting will take place in Sibiu next May where leaders will also discuss the main outcomes of the citizens' consultations that have been taking place across the Union. This initiative has encouraged people in all member states to have their say on the future shape and direction of the European Union. I was joined by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste last November when we launched our own citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe in Trinity College Dublin. I then hosted a series of regional dialogues in Galway, Cork, Donegal, Meath, and Dublin, culminating in an event in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham on Europe Day. A future of Europe website was also set up to raise public awareness and to help people to engage in the overall debate. We also travelled to various universities. Many of the institutions such as the European Movement Ireland, the Institute of International and European Affairs, IIEA, the Commission and the Parliament have all hosted their own series of events, including ones for industry and sector representative groups.

Our citizens' dialogues were characterised by strong positivity about the EU and Ireland's role within it. For the future, our citizens want to see the EU continue to do what it does well, by supporting programmes that deliver concrete benefits for all, such as the Common Agricultural Policy and ERASMUS+. In Ireland, Horizon 2020 has been especially beneficial.

It was clear that we should continue to focus on implementing practical measures that improve the lives of our citizens, such as the completion of the Single Market, especially in services, and the full implementation of the digital Single Market. As Mark Rutte said recently, if we implemented fully the Single Market in the area of goods and services we could add €1 trillion to the overall budget of the European Union, which would have a positive impact on the economy of all member states.

Our citizens also want the EU to focus on current challenges including climate change, migration, terrorism, cybersecurity and cross-border crime; and to maintain the principle of subsidiarity by ensuring that decisions are taken at the appropriate level. Yesterday at the General Affairs Council we had a discussion over lunch on subsidiarity. At the outset the Commissioner said not to ask him to explain what subsidiarity means, because it means different things to different people.

Throughout the dialogues, what was very interesting was that some people felt Europe interfered too much, particularly in the context of legislation in areas such as agriculture, the environment and small and medium enterprises, whereas others they felt it did not interfere enough, and still others felt it should be more involved in social issues. The question is how we make it work and how we ensure the Union is strong while, at the same time, ensuring that people feel it is democratic.

A number of proposals have been forward in the context of ensuring further scrutiny of legislation and building on the REFIT programme, which is ongoing. There are proposals to ensure more transparency with regard to legislation and to make sure it is fit for purpose. There is also the question of ensuring that people are connected from the ground up, particularly by means of proposals whereby local authorities within each member state would have greater connectivity and access to the European Parliament and the Commission. This gets to the heart of some of the issues raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett in that people would feel that their issues and concerns at local level are also being raised at European level.

An overarching theme in the citizens' dialogues was the need to ensure fairness in an increasingly competitive world, that is, fairness between member states, fairness in education and employment opportunities and fairness between generations. Citizens want to tackle social exclusion and they want stronger interventions at European level in combating discrimination, integrating migrants and improving access to services. they also want more investment in young people in the context of education, training and innovation. I welcome the Commission's proposal to double the amount spent on young people. Citizens want the EU to be a global leader in tackling climate change, with incentives for the transition to renewable energies, along with more protection for rural landscapes and a concerted effort to close the rural-urban divide.

On external relations, citizens believe that the EU has a moral imperative to do more for countries to the south and east and to promote education and empowerment in Africa. They also believe globalisation should not be allowed to proceed at the expense of human rights.

It is clear that citizens want the EU to engage better and to explain and communicate its policies and overall objectives. We learned that the Union needs to reaffirm its relevance in the daily lives of its citizens and that this needs to be constant, not just at a time of crisis or change. During the dialogues, I announced €100,000 worth of funding to support individuals, groups and organisations in projects aiming to communicate European issues. Similar funding was given out last year and it will be announced again early next year to allow community groups and organisations to apply.

The citizens' dialogue process in Ireland has been of invaluable assistance in creating the vision of an attractive EU that citizens can trust and support. I am grateful to everyone who responded to our call to get involved. I was pleased to launch the report on the process in October. It is available for anybody to read. Along with other member states, we have provided a report to the Commission, which has compiled a composite report for presentation to the European Council this week. The intention is that this will guide leaders as they work to identify key priorities in advance of the informal summit that will take place in Sibiu next May. At that meeting, leaders will prepare the strategic agenda for the EU from 2019 to 2024, with a view to agreeing it at the European Council in June 2019.

The European Council is expected to take note of the Commission proposal for a long-term climate strategy for the EU and to invite the Council to prepare for discussions early next year. This is, of course, a very important issue and we will participate actively in discussions.

The agenda for the December European Council covers a wide range of issues. As the Taoiseach made clear, Brexit remains very much a priority for the Government and we will use every opportunity at this critical time to ensure that our interests are protected. At the same time, we will continue to play a constructive role on the issues which are of significant concern to our partners and the EU as a whole. I thank Deputies for their attention and for their remarks. I look forward to the discussion we will have during questions next week.