Post-European Council Meetings: Statements

I attended a series of meetings of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, 21 and 22 March. Our discussions on Brexit took place on the Thursday, first with Prime Minister May and, subsequently, in Article 50 format without her. On the Friday we met the Prime Ministers of Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. The regular meeting of the European Council then took place to discuss issues related to jobs, growth and competitiveness, as well as external relations, particularly with China, and our ongoing efforts to combat disinformation and election interference.

I attended two preparatory meetings, the first being the EPP summit which was attended by President Juncker, Chancellor Merkel and Chancellor Kurz, among others. In advance of the first session on the Thursday, I attended, for the second time, a Nordic-Baltic group meeting, with Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands. The group includes Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and on many issues across the EU agenda we are of like mind. It is a very useful opportunity to strengthen our co-ordination in this way, particularly as we look towards a post-Brexit future. I also had a short bilateral meeting with Prime Minister May on the Thursday afternoon.

I will focus in my remarks on Brexit and also outline our discussions on jobs, growth and competitiveness, climate change and relations with China. The Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, will speak about the other external relations items discussed, as well as our efforts to combat disinformation and secure free and fair elections.

Brexit was the main focus of the European Council. Our discussions began on the Thursday afternoon with an exchange with Prime Minister May. She made two main requests, including for a formal endorsement of the agreements reached at Strasbourg the previous week and for Article 50 to be extended until 30 June. We listened very carefully to her and used the opportunity to discuss recent developments in London and her intentions in the period ahead. I had discussed these issues with her during our bilateral meeting earlier that afternoon.

The 27 EU leaders then had a detailed and constructive discussion on the best way forward. As one would expect, there were different views on how best to achieve the right outcome, but there was overwhelming consensus on our shared objectives and priorities. We stayed firm in our view that there could be no reopening of the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, and that any unilateral commitment the United Kingdom might make needed to be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the agreement. We endorsed the two documents agreed by Prime Minister May and President Juncker in Strasbourg on 11 March which provided further reassurances for the United Kingdom. We also agreed to extend Article 50 until 22 May, if the withdrawal agreement is approved at Westminster this week. If it is not, we agreed to extend Article 50 until 12 April, an important date in the context of the European Parliament elections. The United Kingdom has to indicate an alternative way forward before this date, which would then have to be considered by the European Council. The United Kingdom now has a short space in which either to endorse the withdrawal agreement, which is still our preferred outcome, or to present a credible alternative way ahead. We always said the joint political declaration on the framework for the future relationship could be amended, for example, if the United Kingdom were to decide to stay in the customs union, align itself closely with the Single Market or join the European economic area, EEA. Today, the responsibility lies in London with the UK Government and MPs at Westminster. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the European Union, a no-deal outcome is a real possibility. Therefore, the European Council also agreed that contingency planning and preparations should continue at both EU and domestic level for all scenarios.

From Ireland’s perspective, we have been working intensively to prepare for all eventualities, including a no-deal scenario. The Brexit omnibus Bill was enacted last week and other initiatives to prepare ports and airports and help business are well under way. A no-deal outcome would cause serious disruption for Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union. We will be as ready as we can be.

However, as I said over the weekend, Brexit will define and consume the UK for many years to come but it will not define us. We are in control of our destiny, and have the power to build a better future for all of our citizens, and that is what we will do.

Turning to other issues, we met the leaders of Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein on Friday morning, and marked the 25th anniversary of the European Economic Area. This partnership demonstrates the flexibility of the European project and the European family. These three countries are outside the EU but still participate in the Single Market, a reminder that it is possible to create forms of mutually beneficial co-operation with non-member countries.

EU leaders then met the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. He outlined his views on the current economic outlook, and we discussed how best to prepare the EU for increasing global economic competition, including by strengthening the Single Market, a policy Ireland strongly supports. The European Council called on the Commission to present a long-term vision for the EU’s industrial future by the end of this year. We also said that we would continue to update our European competition framework to take account of new technological and global market developments.

On trade, we said that the EU should continue to push for an ambitious and balanced trade agenda through the conclusion of new free trade agreements, promoting EU values and standards and ensuring a level playing field with more choice and better value for consumers. On climate change, we reiterated our commitment to the Paris Agreement and emphasised the importance of the EU submitting an ambitious long-term strategy by 2020. We will return to this issue in June.

We formally appointed Philip Lane to the six-person executive board of the European Central Bank as its chief economist. He is the first Irish citizen to be appointed to such a position. He is an outstanding economist, and I am confident that he will make a contribution at the ECB.

We also had a good discussion on our priorities for the EU-China summit on 9 April, and our overall relations with China in the global context, including on issues relating to trade and industrial policy, human rights and competition. The upcoming summit is an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to co-operating closely with China within the existing rules-based international order and multilateral institutions.

The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, will report on the other issues we discussed in her wrap-up remarks.

In addition to participating in the formal discussions over the course of the two days, I also engaged informally with many of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meetings, using the opportunity, as I always do, to promote Irish interests. While Brexit is still a priority, it is important that we also play an active role in shaping our future as we move towards a Union of 27 member states.

Two days before the date on which Brexit was scheduled to take place, it has been delayed. This is undeniably good news. There is more time to try to ratify the withdrawal agreement and its essential transition period and even more importantly, there is some prospect that a move towards a less damaging Brexit will be supported by the House of Commons.

Today’s votes in Westminster will not bring finality and they may not even bring clarity as to what will happen, but the combination of these votes and last weekend’s march in London have put the focus back on where it should always have been, which is the permanent relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The chaos in British politics which has been caused by the negative and destructive agenda of the fanatical anti-European Union fringe is a tragedy. In a short period relationships of trust and co-operation built up over decades have been smashed. The deep and sincere attachment to a shared European identity felt by those who marched on Saturday and the millions who stand behind them is something we should never forget, and it should always remind us that anger with a political elite should never be allowed to stand in the way of solidarity with those who are still, at least for a short time, our fellow European Union citizens.

The outcome of the summit was a reasonable compromise driven by the sincere commitment to avoiding a no-deal scenario by key European leaders. I wish to acknowledge the continued interest and support for Ireland I found during the meeting of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, leaders on Thursday, and indeed their understanding that frustration with the British Government was no justification for being inflexible. Yesterday the Taoiseach came up with the entirely novel argument - for him - that he would never divulge anything discussed at a Council meeting. Anyone who takes the time to review the coverage of past Council meetings will find the Irish media full of accounts of who said what – accounts clearly coming directly from an Irish perspective.

This is another conspiracy theory.

Equally, he has had no difficulty in the past in going into some detail when discussing the Council with the Dáil. Of course, the point is that the Government has no difficulty briefing on matters which it believes might reflect well on it and clams up when any information might be challenging. This is, after all, a Government which had no problem spending much of last year promoting a project while at least one member of the Government already knew it was massively over budget.

According to accounts in a range of European media outlets, direct questions were put to the Taoiseach about Ireland’s policy towards a no-deal scenario and what Ireland was prepared for. The fact that no such information appeared in the Irish media confirms that the Taoiseach and his staff decided not to brief on this. This is the first time in seven years that Ireland was a substantive topic of conversation at a Council and our Government has refused to detail the conversation.

The Taoiseach will remember that his predecessor had no difficulty describing his exchanges with the German Chancellor and French President, and the Taoiseach himself has repeatedly characterised and explained what has been said. Why this matters is that the refusal to share basic information or to allow an informed debate means that the levels of uncertainty here are high and rising all the time. Every day, Members of this House meet business owners desperate to know what they need to do under different scenarios, yet nothing is being clarified.

For the past year the position of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste has been that the North-South Border under a no-deal scenario would be discussed only if it arose, that nothing was being contemplated and that it both threatened a hard border and there would under no circumstances be a hardening of the Border. Yesterday, for the first time the Taoiseach stated that there had been discussions. On Leaders’ Questions he stated “Talks with the Commission have been happening at official level”. An hour later, during Taoiseach’s Questions, he said, “I am sure there have been discussions about what might be done” and that they are “preliminary discussions”. Yet the Taoiseach then went on to make the extraordinary claims that even though there are discussions “there is nothing to share”, and, “there are no papers or documents”. Using his new favourite political attack, he then said it was a conspiracy theory to say that anything was discussed or to question the idea that there could be meetings without papers or documents. This is his equivalent of the Trumpian habit of attacking any inconvenient question as fake news. From December 2017, it has been Fine Gael strategy to try to engineer an election where the party could try to present Brexit as a defining division between the parties.

That is another conspiracy theory.

We can help the Deputy with that.

Last year, ours was the only government in Europe seeking to promote its own instability and last weekend we saw this cynicism enter a new phase. The Taoiseach should remember that he has been handed a unique situation of guaranteed stability through Brexit. All Opposition parties have held back in Brexit-related debates even in the face of extraordinary provocation, such as the habit of members of the Government to claim that even the mildest challenge is against the national interest. Fianna Fáil took a decision not to use the demonstrable failures of the Government in critical issues like health and housing to force an election during these critical months and has lobbied extensively in Europe to promote the idea of a secure national consensus on Brexit even though we have very significant issues with the approach the Government has taken. I refer especially to its refusal to advocate special status for Northern Ireland in 2017 and the enormously damaging campaign of messianic self-regard in which the Taoiseach and many party members have engaged.

This nonsense and partisan posturing has to stop. We need basic transparency about what is being discussed. The situation at the moment is that if the withdrawal agreement is ratified, and its prospects are improving by the day, then Ireland will have a legal obligation, with the European Union, to offer credible proposals to whatever the United Kingdom proposes for the Border. In fact, the backstop is only guaranteed if the EU meets the requirement to negotiate in good faith, so the position of the Taoiseach, that no proposals should be made, becomes irrelevant on the day the withdrawal agreement is ratified. The only change since November has been a legally relevant assertion by the EU that the backstop is intended to be temporary and that the EU will negotiate in good faith and quickly to find an alternative long-term arrangement. The withdrawal agreement, if ratified, is not the end of Brexit. It is the opening of a new phase of Brexit.

When it comes to the Border, the hard work will actually only begin once the agreement is in place. We need a bit more openness and a lot less partisan positioning. We must also constantly remind ourselves that Northern Ireland’s positioning has been dramatically weakened by the absence of the Assembly, a body collapsed two years ago because of a heating scheme which was already reformed and appears to have lost nothing like the amounts claimed at the time.

At a time when Northern Ireland most needed a voice, this voice was taken away and the damage gets worse by the day. It was confirmed in Westminster this week that the United Kingdom Government is considering imposing direct rule in Northern Ireland. Why have we received no details about this? At a moment when the entire Good Friday Agreement is under threat, the impasse in Northern Ireland and the lack of basic co-operation between the two Governments is about more than just Brexit. If we truly want to protect the Good Friday Agreement, we have to understand that Brexit is only one threat among many, which need to receive proper attention.

Brexit will not be complete on 12 April, 22 May or any other date announced for a withdrawal agreement to come into effect. It will go on for a number of years at least and its long-term impact on Ireland will be permanent. We need to widen our focus and start paying much more attention to the fundamental challenges facing communities and businesses throughout our country. We have to show much greater urgency in trying to revive contacts and practices which delivered peace on this island but which have been undeniably undermined in recent years.

It is an incredible achievement by Deputy Micheál Martin that he could read that speech with a straight face. There remains massive uncertainty surrounding Brexit. We are just under 60 hours from the original deadline but the House of Commons is only now starting the process of deciding what type of Brexit it wants. It will not decide today which option to choose but rather will merely vote on a range of options. It is incredible that we are in this space today. Although a hard crash is the most unlikely outcome, it remains an outcome in which we could find ourselves because of the lack of solutions coming from Westminster. It is also possible that Britain could instead end up with a long extension to allow it to do what it should have done two years ago, namely, decide for itself what Brexit means. It is incredible that two years later, following all the negotiations and having negotiated a withdrawal agreement, Westminster still does not know what Brexit means, and a series of indicative votes that may provide some way forward will take place today.

The reality is that there will be more uncertainty, which is why we in Sinn Féin hoped for a deal and hoped that the withdrawal agreement would be passed. We need to remove the uncertainty that has existed since Brexit was made a reality for us more than two years ago. The uncertainty affects businesses, farmers, citizens, people who use the all-island economy, people who are involved in transport and logistics, people who use the Border for commerce and travel and many other people throughout the island of Ireland. We know that the Government's plan in the event of a hard Brexit is to implement the omnibus Bill that was passed to support different sections of the economy. We in Sinn Féin, however, believe that the Government should go further and, whether there is a hard or soft Brexit, we have called for more contingencies, investments in the economy, supports for small and medium-sized enterprises and a Brexit stabilisation fund of €2 billion. The Tánaiste has stated in previous debates on the issue that if there was a hard crash, the Government would consider such a proposition and borrow money if necessary to ensure that the proper investments were made. Notwithstanding what might emerge from Westminster or that at the end of a long two-year extension we could face either Britain staying in the European Union or a softer Brexit, there remains much uncertainty and we are putting off the inevitable in respect of what the eventual agreement will be. That will create problems through the currency fluctuations that affect many businesses, exporters and others in the agrifood sector, who need supports now. The Tánaiste has put that on the record, which I welcome. I accept that some of the Taoiseach's comments on the Border can, and will, be taken out of context by people in Westminster who wish to undermine the backstop.

The United Kingdom cannot take an à la carte approach to the Single Market or just take a decision to opt into it. If there is a hard crash, and if the North leaves the customs union and Single Market, the rules of the Single Market will have to be protected. That is legally the case. it cannot be opted out of. The Single Market is a legal mechanism and legal protections are built into it to ensure that the integrity of it, that is, of the Common Market or Internal Market, is protected. That will mean some form of checks and disruption, and we need to be honest with people, especially those in Westminster who believe that such checks would be a substitute for the backstop. They cannot be because the backstop ensures that the North of Ireland will remain in the customs union and elements of the Single Market to protect the all-island economy. Anything short of that is a disaster, a step backwards for the people of this island and in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement.

With every passing day, we lurch closer to a British exit from the European Union without a deal that safeguards the interests of Ireland North and South. That is not something which anyone in the House wishes to see because we all know the dire consequences that it would entail, namely, the return of a hard border, severe economic difficulties on both parts of our island, the erosion of the Good Friday Agreement and the weakening of citizens' rights. Despite nobody in the House desiring such an outcome, however, it is regrettably a real and distinct possibility which we must face up to. It may well happen by accident or design. Instead of staring blindly into the abyss, I challenge the Taoiseach to look beyond it and stand up and be counted as a Taoiseach for the whole island of Ireland. Will he state loudly and clearly that if a no-deal Brexit happens, he will put forward the case for Irish unity? Will he state he will call on the British Government to take the only step it should in that scenario, namely, put the constitutional future of the North to the people in a referendum? If the people of our island are to be disregarded and have their futures upended by a political establishment in Britain that does not care for them, they must have their say.

In a series of polls, a majority in the North have indicated that in a no-deal scenario, they would vote for a united Ireland, while polls indicate a similar sentiment in this part of our island. It is time for the Taoiseach to grasp the gravity of that and articulate that he, too, would like to see a unity referendum held in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It is a more than reasonable proposition which all of us in the House should support and there is sound rationale for so doing. In 2017, the European Council agreed that our entire island would be afforded membership of the EU in the event of national reunification. While none of us wants a no-deal situation to transpire, if that is not possible, a referendum on Irish unity, which is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, must be called as the only sensible, logical and rational response which could provide a pathway for the entire island, North and South, to retain membership of the European Union.

This conversation is happening anyway, regardless of Brexit. The great upheaval, however, that a crash out will cause could well be the catalyst that accelerates the demand for Irish unity throughout our island, and we need to be prepared for that. We are already behind the curve in respect of preparing to facilitate constitutional and political change, but there is an imperative for such preparation. A momentum is building, as can be seen every day by anybody who has any inkling of what is happening in the North of our island. It is building for Irish unity and we need institutional and legislative arrangements in place to manage that change. The Taoiseach and his Government need to prepare for change and that preparation should include convening an all-Ireland forum on Irish unity without delay, deal or no deal. The onus on the Government must always be to defend and promote an all-Ireland view.

I appeal to the Taoiseach to say that if a no-deal Brexit transpires, he will call on the British Government to hold a referendum on Irish unity in the North. I call on him to say that he will organise a referendum on Irish unity in this State in line with the provisions set out in the Good Friday Agreement. There is nothing radical about what I am asking the Taoiseach. A referendum on unity is expressly provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. It is an agreement that was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of our island, North and South, over 20 years ago. Instead of staying silent on this issue, defending the agreement and doing right by it in a no-deal scenario requires sticking with the agreement and its provisions. It must be our ultimate backstop and our mission statement in finding a way forward for our country where all 32 counties will be respected and can stay within the European Union if a no-deal Brexit transpires. That means that a referendum on Irish unity needs to be held and an all-Ireland forum on Irish unity needs to be convened without delay.

When it comes to our statements on EU Council business, we might be better served in this House by having separate Brexit statements and statements on the actual business of the EU Council. Naturally, we all have a significant interest in the latest Brexit developments. We have to keep one eye on our phones because the landscape changes with such alacrity and regularity. It is equally important to keep up to date with a number of important policy developments that are taking shape at EU level. Our understandable focus on the impact of Brexit on Ireland has often diminished our focus on other fundamentally important issues that are happening in the European context. We may need to have separate time to debate these issues, which I think the Taoiseach has acknowledged previously.

With that in mind, and having regard to the other opportunities we have to speak on Brexit, I will make a few remarks on Brexit developments before I focus on other EU policy issues. We are, as other speakers have said, facing a very real prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Hopefully we can still avoid that. As I have said before, we need to keep our focus on the long-term goal of ensuring no hard border on this island. That has been the consensus in this House from day one. With the fear of the UK leaving the EU without a deal, there will be pressure from business when we come to the last minute to allow some level of border infrastructure in order to minimise the disruption of trade and commerce. We should not do that. If we allow any border infrastructure after a no-deal Brexit, whatever we allow to be put in place will be there forever.

We need to hold the British Government to its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement. It has said that it wants to retain an open border, and that commitment still applies whether the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal. Its solemn international commitment to the Good Friday Agreement endures. The Government cannot allow any future EU-UK trade deal to be agreed if that long-term relationship does not include an open border on the island of Ireland. In the meantime, the UK can and must choose trade policies that eliminate the need for a hard border. In that context, we in the Labour Party support the Government's continued insistence that there can be no return of the old borders of the past.

We already have a form of non-physical border control in some specific areas and it is important to talk about these technicalities. People from outside of the European Union need permission to enter this State. Someone from outside the EU could be legally visiting or resident in the UK and he or she could walk across the Irish Border but that would be unlawful, and just like many other breaches of the law, we enforce it through the normal operation of An Garda Síochána and the public agencies that we charge to do that job. Similarly, we continue to control the movement of diesel fuel across our Border. Fuel transports must be registered and we have a system of administrative controls and checks to ensure that those systems work. I cannot imagine that we cannot deal with these matters but I am mindful of the point that the Taoiseach has repeatedly made and that the Tánaiste made again today, that there are Brexiteers who would immediately seize upon the points that I am making to claim that this means we could use some form of administrative controls to maintain an open border even in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We need to be clear that the answer to that is, emphatically, no. We do not have technological solutions to cover the movement of livestock, the quality standards of food and consumer goods, and so on, let alone trans-border services.

The rules of the Single Market and customs union exist to allow trade to be as free as possible and we should not accept anything less when it comes to continued open trade on the island of Ireland, in line with the hard-won, hard-fought, hard-negotiated and publicly endorsed principles of the Good Friday Agreement. Meanwhile, when it comes to east-west trade between Ireland and Britain, we know that any kind of Brexit will be harmful to levels of trade. To be clear on the threat to jobs, the ESRI report from this week claims 80,000 fewer jobs would be created in the coming years in a no-deal scenario. That is one problem but there is no doubt that there is a serious threat to current jobs should our access to the British market for beef, dairy or other products be affected by tariffs or other barriers to the free trade that we now enjoy. Euro-pound exchange rates risk becoming less stable, which is bad for businesses. Their ability to plan and to make long-term investments would be compromised. Imports from the UK may become more expensive due to time delays, tariffs or more paperwork. All of these things pose a threat to thousands of jobs. Notwithstanding that reality, we made a conscious decision as a Parliament and a people in the Brexit negotiations to make only one red line for Ireland. Alongside that, as we come to the finale of the Brexit process, we also want open trade on an east-west basis and we should not be shy about promoting the closest possible trade with the UK.

In the time I have remaining, I want to make some comments on the direction that the EU is now taking based on the other matters discussed at the most recent Council. I warmly welcome the fact that the European Council has reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris Agreement and all the climate change targets. It is particularly timely, given that the all-party Joint Committee on Climate Action will hopefully be reporting tomorrow on how we can make real changes to reduce Ireland's emissions from 60 million tonnes of greenhouse gases today to 33 million tonnes by 2030 and effectively to reach zero emissions by 2050. This is effectively the 60 million tonne challenge and it is incumbent on all of us to study the details of the report to be published and all of its recommendations to see how we can ensure that future generations are well-served by this generation and those targets are achieved. I note that the EU will have its ambitious long-term strategy for climate neutrality and we have to be serious about ensuring that its Irish component will achieve our part of those targets because failure to do so is frankly not an option.

I would like to mention the tripartite social summit that took place in advance of the EU Council meeting. The summit discussed new ways to strengthen social dialogue within the EU. Will the Government comment on the extent to which its deliberations informed the council's conclusions? I would like to hear the Government's view on how we can improve collective bargaining rights for workers in this country and across the Union, and strengthen social dialogue on the future of our economy. Labour is also pleased to see the creation of a new European labour authority. I note that member states may not be required to work with the authority as I understand that it will be introduced on a voluntary basis.

The Minister of State, in her response, might make it clear that we are committed to working within the guidelines and recommendations of the new European labour authority. If that is not the case, maybe she will explain why not. We also should seek to have that agency based in Ireland. Is that a bid that we have made? We came close to having one of the dislodged agencies from the UK come here. In fact we had an equality of votes, the Taoiseach may recall. Why not make a bid for this authority? I note that the authority will have a role in mediating on cross-border employment disputes. That should be of particular interest to Ireland, as the continued existence of the common travel area and the shared labour market between Ireland and Britain could lead to all sorts of new legal loopholes and disputes and it would be useful to have a mechanism to address those issues.

All roads seem to lead always and inevitably back to Brexit. When we discuss shared EU laws and regulations we are reminded of the body of shared rules that we have taken for granted that we built up over more than four decades, rules that we have shared up to now with Britain. I very much hope that the current political chaos in Westminster may yet deliver a sensible outcome, because a disastrous no-deal would be in the worst interests of the citizens of the island of Ireland and of the UK and of the EU as a whole.

Before I make some remarks on Brexit, I want to start with Fine Gael and the Taoiseach's relationship with Viktor Orbán and Fidesz, the far right populist party in Hungary. The European People's Party, EPP, has taken some action. It is far too late and far too little in being only a suspension rather than an expulsion. The rhetoric of Orbán and Fidesz in Hungary is one of extremely right-wing, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma language, speeches and so on. It is very consciously whipping up hate, for example, saying about refugees:

We don't see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders.

He uses similar rhetoric against the Roma people, suggesting that they are not really from here, and do not belong here. This does not stay in the realm of rhetoric but is put into action through the building of a fence more than 500 km in length on the Hungarian border to keep migrants out and through plans for a so-called immigration special tax, with 25% extra tax on aid groups that support migration. Until recently the response of the Taoiseach and the Irish Government, and Fine Gael, a sister party of Fidesz, has been to turn a polite blind eye, saying that while they do not agree with him on everything that is how it is. In 2018 the Taoiseach said, "Viktor's [note, "Viktor"] view is that he wants Hungary to stay Hungarian." He also said "I don’t agree with Viktor Orban's views on immigration; I don't agree with him on lots of things but you have to respect the fact that other countries come [from] a different perspective". That reflects and illustrates the absolute failure of the so-called centre of politics, in reality the orthodox right, the extreme centre, to challenge the ideology of the right and the far right. Far from being a bulwark against the rise of these right, far right and populist right forces, it is a gateway and by legitimising discrimination against oppressed minorities and authoritarianism, it lays the basis for the rise of these sorts of forces.

On Brexit, I note and thought it was interesting that the Taoiseach made a point at the Fine Gael event at the weekend criticising Corbyn's proposal for a customs union without any state aid or neoliberal rules. He said that was trying to have your cake and eat it. That seemed to illustrate and expose that the EU as a whole, but also the right-wing Irish Government, places avoiding a hard border on this island second to maintaining the neoliberal rules of the European Union because that is what Corbyn's position potentially offers. The Irish Government, however, seems to be saying no, it must insist on maintaining the neoliberal character of the customs union and the rules as part of that.

In terms of preparation for Brexit, there is much that is unknown at this stage. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report published yesterday was interesting and very worrying because of what it indicates about the quite severe impact of a no-deal or a disorderly Brexit in terms of wages, disposable income, consumption etc. That raises the need for trade unions and workers’ organisations to prepare to resist a potential onslaught of attacks on workers by companies saying that because of Brexit they have to cut wages, conditions and jobs etc. That poses the need for workers to come together throughout this island but also with working-class people in Britain in a conference of trade union activists to discuss how those attacks can be resisted to say that no burden for Brexit should be paid by ordinary workers.

At governmental level, the Government's programme focuses primarily on giving aid and grants to private companies to assist them through Brexit. Unfortunately, it is not focused primarily on the interests of workers. We need a programme to defend the interests of working-class people in Ireland in the event of a hard, a disorderly or a Theresa May Brexit. The starting point for that must be to say no job losses, to say that companies that threaten redundancies or attacks on workers' conditions should have their books opened and should be inspected by workers' representatives and if necessary, rather than bailing out private companies, they should take them into public ownership under the democratic control of the workers and be used to pivot and turn the economy in a different, sustainable direction away from our current unsustainable reliance on finance and the nature of agribusiness and so on.

I apologise for missing the earlier part of the debate. I was at a committee meeting, not that it ever bothers the Taoiseach when he walks out while we are speaking, even when we have been here since the beginning.

Not all pigs are equal.

The pigs are listening.

The clock is ticking.

The Taoiseach again today took an opportunity to raise the spectre of populism and particularly had a go at what he described as "the far left populists" in this country. This common theme is repeated and has become a theme throughout Europe. This term is being used as a way of failing to understand the very serious political dangers and threats arising in Europe. It was not an amorphous thing called "populism" that led to the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the Holocaust.

It was one of them.

It was fascist right-wing-----

National Socialism.

Exactly. Extreme nationalists.

National Socialism.

A Leas Cheann-Chomhairle.

Deputy Durkan is normally very orderly.

I apologise but it is true.

This failure to distinguish extreme right-wing politics with racism at its heart and what it did to Europe in the 1930s and to throw that accusation at others comes at a time when our own Government is in a political alliance with the most dangerous manifestation of crypto-fascist extreme right racist, Islamophobic politics in the entirety of Europe, in the form of Viktor Orbán, a person who has spewed out anti-Muslim filth of the sort that legitimised the massacre in New Zealand. That is what is going on. The Taoiseach then had the audacity to attack the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and somehow equate him with Viktor Orbán. Jeremy Corbyn does not have a racist bone in his body. He has fought his entire life against racism, anti-Semitism and anything even remotely like it. The people who are attacking Corbyn are those who say that if one criticises Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, one is anti-Semitic, which is the most dishonest accusation imaginable because what Israel is doing to the Palestinians - Europe stands idly by while it does it - is the absolute vicious persecution of the Palestinians and the denial of their most basic rights and the right to return to some sort of self-determination and sovereignty.

It locks up hundreds of Palestinian children without trial. The European Union ignores what Israel does and ignores the fact that today, in defiance of international law, Donald Trump is legitimising the illegal annexation of Syrian territory and that Israel is planning another assault on peaceful protestors in Gaza as they prepare to protest for their rights under international law and for the right to return. Europe stands idly by. The Taoiseach stands idly by and then pops out allegations against the left when he is conspiring with or failing to challenge the political forces that visit death, destruction and illegality on the people of Palestine and colluding with obnoxious political forces in Europe such as Viktor Orbán. The hypocrisy of it is absolutely stunning.

It is that kind of hypocrisy, playing around with these political forces and appeasement of those sort of political forces to use the terminology of the 1930s, it is appeasement of the fascist far right, racism, authoritarianism and all that goes with it that led to the horrors of the past and that is the very real danger that is growing right across Europe. Instead of playing petty politics to have pot shots at Members on the other side, the Taoiseach should start to show a little bit of a moral compass when it comes to the very dangerous far right political threat that is emerging across Europe.

Far right and far left. It is both.

I call Deputy Wallace, who I understand may be sharing.

I may be. I re-echo Deputy Boyd Barrett's comments about the Taoiseach's attack on Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party and the notion of anti-Semitism. It is the height of inaccurate populism on the Taoiseach's part. It is totally inaccurate and he could serve himself better.

The Government's decision and the decision of 23 governments of the EU to recognise Guaidó as the interim President of Venezuela is shocking. It walks roughshod over international law. There is no basis in international law for the position that our Government took on Venezuela. There is absolutely zero basis for it. In 2013, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, FAO, included Venezuela in a group of 18 nations that had cut their number of hungry people by half in the preceding 12 years. We could not blame them for that. The FAO said that Venezuela reduced the number of people suffering from malnutrition from 13.5% of the population in 1990 to 1992 to less than 5% by 2012. Some 19% of the children in Dublin are at risk of poverty. Similarly, the United Nations Economic and Social Council published a report in 2015, two years into the presidency of Maduro, that said the council: "Takes note with satisfaction of the progress made by the [Venezuelan Government] in combating poverty and reducing inequality". Some people think that Venezuela was a better place when inequality was thriving and the income per head of population was going through the roof because of oil, but only a few people had it. The crime of Maduro and Chávez is that they spent a fortune trying to reduce poverty. Does the Minister of State know that they have built 2.5 million social housing units since 2015? Maybe the Government should get them over here. Even Deputy Durkan would agree with that because we are refusing to build social housing units in this country.

International pressure on Venezuela will not help the crisis in Venezuela. Venezuela had loads of problems. Is the place well run? No it is not, no more than Ireland is not well run and France is not well run as far as I am concerned. The Government is not raising a word about the economic sanctions from the US. The Government is saying it does not support military intervention but US sanctions are an intervention that is just as vile as military intervention. The so called humanitarian aid that was orchestrated on the Colombian border turned out to be a total sham. As that has failed, what the US will carry out now is the same as what it is taking part in in Yemen. It will starve the population into submission. The Government should be calling for an end to US sanctions at EU level. The Government should be calling for mediation between the different parties out there. We are not saying that Maduro is brilliant, no more than we will not say that the present Taoiseach is brilliant. The Government and the opposition there should be brought together. There should be a neutral entity from Europe involved and there should be mediation. The US should stop what it is doing because it is totally in breach of international law.

I do not have an awful lot of time but I want to make a point on Iran. Our factories are stocked with beef. They are packed with it and we cannot sell it. Why will the Government not open the embassy in Iran? Every western European country worth talking about has opened its embassy in Iran. We are saying that we will not go there because of US sanctions. Does the Minister of State know that the soya bean sales from the US to Iran have increased under Trump? The soya bean sales from the US to Iran have increased because they do what they like. The US has sold umpteen Boeing jets to Iran in the last four years. Does the Minister of State know why? They do so because there is money in it. The Government is cowering under them and it will not reopen its embassy. The Government should cop on to itself. The Government would do the agricultural sector a favour by reopening the embassy.

As for the Golan Heights, how bad does it have to get? The Government has no problem dealing with Saudi Arabia, which has put 13 million people at risk of starvation in Yemen. It has no problem dealing with the US, which has created untold havoc all over the planet and it has no problem dealing with Israel. Now the Government is actually complaining about Israel annexing the Golan Heights. Was it not an awful pity that the Government abstained at the UN vote last year when that subject came up? Why did the Government do that? Where is the logic in it? What is the sanity of it?

The Government is incredibly damaged at the moment because of its refusal to deal with the children's hospital properly. It is insane. The Government is refusing to save €400 million or €500 million by revisiting the contract because it is politically expedient for the Government to ignore the problem and hope it goes away. The Government is seriously damaged by that project.

When international law is ignored, the slippery slope starts and there is a certain irony in the fact that hot on the heels of the attempts of the US State to gift Venezuela to itself against all precedent in Venezuelan and international law, it followed it up with a claim to gift the Golan Heights to Israel. I welcome the fact that on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's website there appears a statement where the Irish Government says that it upholds its position that the territory of the Golan Heights is Syrian territory and any territory seized through military acts of aggression cannot be recognised and that is the case with what Israel has done in the Golan Heights. However, as Deputy Wallace has just said, why did the US feel secure to be able to sign that nonsensical, illegal declaration on the Golan Heights? It was probably in part as a result of the sitting on the fence of so many nations last year in the UN resolution calling on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. The fact that Ireland abstained in that as one of 66 countries that abstained, is absolutely reprehensible because if the Government is saying an act of aggression is illegal, which it is, then they should withdraw from there. Contrary to what the Minister for Defence says, that is has not destabilised the Middle East, it is quite clear that Trump's actions here have already destabilised the Middle East.

The turning point here in the evasion of international law is the situation in Venezuela. What we have in Venezuela now is a stalemate. There was clearly a belief on behalf of the US about putting forward their puppet, Juan Guaidó, who has no basis of support whatsoever in Venezuelan society, whose group is the minority of the right wing opposition groups and many people on the right wing do not even respect him. The fact that our Tánaiste telephoned this individual, who in his lifetime has probably got fewer votes than I have, to say that the Irish Government supports him as President of Venezuela, really is the slippery slope.

The Tánaiste should account for his actions in making that phone call. It is quite clear now that he has no support in Venezuelan society. The so-called effort to bring in humanitarian aid was a big sham event, and how could it be otherwise when they were supposed to be bringing in $20 million of aid? The US has already seized $500 million belonging to the people of Venezuela. That has been handed over without any democratic accountability to individuals linked with Juan Guaidó. Why have the international community and Ireland not stepped in to say those assets belong to the Venezuelan people? In other jurisdictions such as Brazil and so on, a process was embarked on so that any proceeds from corruption or whatever were given back to the country and the people. In Venezuela, none of this money is going back. It is going to be used to finance guerillas on the border, for illegal mercenary armies to come in and destabilise the situation in Venezuela. It is only the ordinary people who are suffering. That is what we have now.

Last night, the power went out again in Venezuela. It was not the Government of Venezuela that put it out. At best, it is the creaking infrastructure that is a result of the sanctions. At worst it is deliberate sabotage to undermine support for the Government. It is not a perfect Government; nobody is saying it is. There is not one anywhere in the world that I know of. However, what the Government could be doing as a neutral country in the heart of Europe is to say that the idea of winner takes all, which is being promoted by Guaidó and the US, cannot solve anything. Dialogue of all parties is the only way forward. We cannot have dialogue with the gun of starvation being held to people's heads or with the sanctions that are in place. All we are looking for is recognition of international law. The European Union has disgraced itself in being so quick to come behind the US in this illegal manoeuvre in Venezuela. The Government has a chance now to pull back and I am begging those at the heart of the EU to use their position to argue for the adherence of international law and dialogue involving all sides for a resolution in the interests of the Venezuelan people without sanctions and without military intervention.

I am sharing time with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. I note that President Tusk has just appealed to the European Parliament to be open to a long extension, if the UK wishes to rethink its strategy. This is very welcome. It is a different mode of language from when England first decided it was leaving. We need that kind of conciliatory tone and reflection. We must not box the UK in if progress can be made at all. We need to give it that latitude. Prior to this meeting, the Council met and, as we know, it discussed several vitally important matters and adopted conclusions on the multi-annual financial framework, the Single Market, migration, external relations, climate change, security and defence, misinformation, the fight against racism, and citizens' consultations.

Of course, there is only one issue preoccupying all of our attention here and that is Brexit. Why would it not? I come from a rural constituency where there are several meat plants and there is rich production of beef, lamb, poultry and pigs. We are greatly worried about the numbers of employees in all those plants, the spin-offs and service people and the farmer at the farm gate. All these people are greatly concerned. We are fed up to the high teeth with the uncertainty at this stage. At the moment it feels like we are just waiting for the blow of the hammer and nothing is going to prevent it. What a heavy hammer blow that would be.

We read reports today that the European Commission says it has started to implement its preparations for a no-deal Brexit. Hey presto, it is about time they announced this because we had to have a dual strategy of trying to avoid it but also to be ready for it. According to these reports, the Commission has announced temporary measures to try to reduce the impact but says it cannot counter all the problems it expects. That is a fairly big statement. The European Commission says its measures will not and cannot mitigate the overall impact of a no-deal scenario. We have been warning them of that for the past couple of years. "This is an exercise in damage limitation," added the Commissioner in a news conference, saying a contingency plan was necessary "given the continued uncertainty in the UK". The Commission then laid out 14 measures to cover legislation that will aim to ensure some continuity. They include a very welcome provision for road hauliers to carry freight by road into the EU for a nine-month period without having to apply for permits. That is a tangible step and I welcome it. It is vital to have that reassurance for road hauliers and their employees, for the products they carry and the industry they service.

With respect to our own Government's preparedness, I acknowledge that it has introduced a range of measures to support the agrifood sectors, including the introduction of measures to help reduce farm gate business costs such as a €150 million low-cost loan scheme. Accessing this is difficult, however. The Government has also introduced new agriculture taxation measures and increased funding under the rural development and seafood development programmes. However, we were debating a fishing issue here yesterday and the Government was trying to steamroll it. I also acknowledge the dedicated measures announced in budget 2018, including €25 million allocated for the agrifood sector. However, €25 million would not fix the hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza. Fix it, dear Leo. That sum would not fix anything in this context. There is a big black hole in the bucket and no point in trying to fix it. It is blown wide open.

Budget 2018 also provided additional supports for capital investment in the food industry and Bord Bia marketing and promotion activities, all amounting to more than €50 million. I do not think Bord Bia is up to the job. It is not active enough. There is a fair investment in it and I do not think we are getting value for money. We need to be more aggressive selling our excellent quality products that are produced by excellent farmers here within a serious regime of regulation. While these budget measures are welcome and necessary, they are looking increasingly insufficient in terms of the scale of the damage that could materialise in a no-deal scenario. That would be quite obvious to a student in second class. At this point it could be argued that even if the worst-case scenario did not come to pass, it will take business and the agriculture sector years to stabilise following such a prolonged period of uncertainty as that which we have currently endured. We must have the delivery of far more specific contingency plans from the Government. We must get the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister, Deputy Creed, to wake up, meet the farming organisations and listen to them. We need the Government to meet the fears of the communities and sectors that are going to experience enormous shock and volatility in the coming months and years.

It is obvious that Brexit is going to have serious consequences for all sectors of our community. We have all mentioned agriculture several times. Then there are small businesses and hauliers. Fishermen are also going to be affected. I am very disappointed that the Government, supported by Fianna Fáil, is rushing the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill through the Parliament in the coming days to the detriment and loss of the inshore fishermen of Ireland. There are 14 coastal counties and I represent one of them, which is Kerry. I am very disappointed that this Bill is being rushed through to satisfy the Northern Ireland fishermen and the British Parliament, just to please them, even though England has said that if she leaves the European Union, she will be taking back her fishing waters. What is the hurry to rush this Bill through the Dáil tomorrow? What is the hurry until we see what Brexit throws up? We all hope that England stays but with this day-to-day way they are running, we do not know whether they are coming or going. It is time for them now to make up their minds. If they are going to postpone or delay Article 50, it should be postponed for two years to give them plenty of time to make up their minds. We need to be allowed to continue our work and ensure that our people can survive in the meantime and that their job opportunities remain.

The Government is saying now that it met the organisation for the big trawlers that fish outside the six-mile limit.

My phone in the office downstairs is hot, with inshore fishermen ringing from all around my county and others to ask us not to support the Bill tomorrow. It is premature until the United Kingdom decides what it is doing and we see what it will do within its waters. Why are we trying to satisfy the British and letting them fish up to our door on the mainland? In doing so we will clean out whatever fish small fishermen along the coast can catch. From Kenmare Bay, along by Blackwater, Tahila, the Oysterbed and Sneem pier and all the way to Reenard, small fishermen continue to try to put food on the table for their families. Are we going to blow them out of existence? Is that what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are going to do to small fishermen to satisfy Northern Irish fishermen, even though we do not know what we will have after they leave the European Union? This is totally unfair. The United Kingdom has stated it will take back all of its waters.

The Government is to introduce a Bill next year to require 50 ft. boats to stay outside the six-mile limit. However, it will be easy to get around it by making a boat 48 ft. or 49 ft. long which will be able to operate inside the six-mile limit. What is the reason for the hurry with the Bill the Government is rushing through? It has not been in such a hurry to deal with other things that are vital to people in dire straits. What is the hurry to deal with the Bill to be taken tomorrow? I ask the Government to postpone it. The inshore fishermen have copped on and know what the Government it is at. It is only a ruse to please some Minister in the UK Parliament at the expense of small fishermen in Kenmare Bay and Dingle and all the way along west Cork who are barely eking out a living from our waters. It is totally wrong. I do not blame the Minister of State personally, but I do blame her as part of the Government. I also blame Fianna Fáil for backing the Bill. I cannot understand what it is at.

The Deputy will have to come ashore as his time is up. We now have time for questions.

I welcome the commitment on the Paris Agreement given at the European Council meeting. We have seen the movement started by Greta Thunberg and the demands of the younger generation on climate change. It was timely that the European Council reiterated its commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Earlier the Taoiseach informed the House: "I also engaged informally with many of my EU counterparts on the margins of the meetings, using the opportunity, as I always do, to promote Irish interests ... It is important that we also play an active role in shaping our future as we move towards a union of 27 member states." I refer to new alliances as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. I presume the Irish delegation took the opportunity at the summit to continue the efforts to secure new alliances in the European Union now that the United Kingdom is leaving. The United Kingdom was a close ally of Ireland on a number of issues, including tax and social policies. It will be a big challenge for us. We need to forge new alliances in dealing with a number of issues such as farm subsidies, corporation tax, security and defence, eurozone integration and EU integration generally. Dr. Catherine Day who was a special adviser to President Juncker will address the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs next week to discuss the issue of alliances. Will the Minister of State update us on the issue?

Earlier the Fianna Fáil leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, asked the Taoiseach about discussions that had taken place at official level on the Border in the event that there was a no-deal Brexit. I am sure my colleague, Deputy Lisa Chambers, will pursue that question in more detail.

We will take all of the questions together.

I know that the Minister of State and I have had the opportunity to have this conversation at the stakeholder meeting, but I would like to have the issues dealt with in the Dáil. Will she clarify reports carried on RTÉ two days ago that EU officials were talking about checks being carried out far away from the Border, if at all possible, and that it need not be visible infrastructure. It indicates that certain conversations have taken place. Will the Minister of State outline to the House what the conversations have entailed in so far as she possibly can?

Will the Minister of State outline the timeline for the financial aid package that will be available from the European Commission in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit. How quickly would we be able to access funds? What level of negotiations has she had and what stage have they reached?

I highlight the chilling impact Brexit has already had on business. There has been positive feedback on the training provided by Revenue and the Customs service. However, a lack of consumer confidence, with people holding off on investments, in hiring staff and agreeing to new contracts, indicates that damage has been done. What plans does the Government have to conduct an assessment of the impact of Brexit on business, even in getting a deal over the line?

My question is related to the situation in Venezuela. It is incredibly significant and could be a real game changer in world politics. The Irish Government and the European Union have the potential to play a positive role. I appeal to the Government to start that role in a positive way. It was a big mistake for it and the European Union to support the unelected Juan Guaidó, who is a little far right-wing thug with very little support in Venezuela. He was educated in the ways of the Chicago school of economics in the hope that one day he could implement US neoliberal policies in Venezuela.

The position the Eurpean Union took was totally in breach of international law. I plead with the Minister of State to revisit the issue. The European Union should withdraw its support for Mr. Guaidó as interim President. It is absolute rubbish because he is not the President of Venezuela and never will be, bar a military intervention to impose him and him becoming a dictator, but he will never receive the support of the Venezuelan people. Do the Irish Government and the European Union have an appetite to play a positive role? Will they withdraw their support for Mr. Guaidó and act as intermediaries? The Government in Venezuela has done some great things in reducing the incidence of poverty and inequality, but it has also made many mistakes and is far from perfect. We would like it to sit down with the opposition, with intermediaries from Europe, to allow for dialogue between the different factions. What is required is mediation, not conflict. Supporting Mr. Guaidó and US sanctions will lead to polarisation and, at worst, bloodshed. Will the European Union play a mediation role in Venezuela? However, it first needs to withdraw its support for Mr. Guaidó as interim President.

I know that it is difficult having everybody ask a series of questions in one go and the Minister of State answer them in one go. It is not the best way to deal with them.

First, in terms of the Golan Heights and any discussions that have taken place regarding the impact on our troops going back out there as a result of the US's unilateral declaration and decision that it has decided that it is in its gift to give Israel the Golan Heights against any precedents in international law, it is an incredible situation. I note the Minister of State at the Department of Defence has said that this does not make any difference to Ireland's troops and it does not change the position in the Middle East but will the Minister of State comment, in more detail, on that because it does change the situation in the Middle East and it has acted already as a destabilising factor? I note the Syrian Government asked today for the UN Security Council to convene a meeting on this legalised illegality the US is attempting. What is the position of the Irish Government in the context of the European response? I put that forward genuinely in the spirit of the points I made earlier that I recognise and was glad to see the very clear statement on behalf of the Tánaiste condemning what the US has done, which clearly stated that what has happened here is a de facto effort to recognise illegality, which cannot be done. Given that the Tánaiste has said that, what will the next step be in terms of trying to change that situation because the US has ratcheted this up a gear?

In that context, my second question relates to the issue of Venezuela and some of the points made by Deputy Wallace. There is a major problem there now, and it is not about scoring points, but the EU made a fundamental mistake in quickly coming out and recognising Juan Guaidó, an individual who has virtually negligible support inside Venezuela and that is a problem. Clearly, in January when the US nominated him the tactic was that there would be a quick coup, he would be imposed, an effort would be made at the border to bring in humanitarian aid, the Venezuelan Government would fall and the US puppet would be put in place. That has not happened. It is now six weeks since then and the situation has moved on and we are in a bit of a stalemate. It is clear he does not have the support but it is also clear that if the current situation is to continue for the Venezuelan people, that it will be unsustainable. We returned from Venezuela the week after the attempts to bring in humanitarian aid. We saw the impact of the some of the economic sanctions, for example, the power cuts and the impact that would have on closing the metro. Workers are stranded on one side of the city who cannot get home because of those power cuts, which are a direct result of the interference. What is the Irish Government's attitude to how we can save face on this? This is not about anybody winning. There needs to be dialogue. The Venezuelan Government has said it wants dialogue. Until very recently there was dialogue. The Spanish Government was talking and the Vatican was talking but has the Minister of State any information on that? The Vatican has now become a point of attack by the US and the Guaidó forces, which are saying that the Vatican is supposed to be a puppet for the Maduro regime, but I do not believe that for a second. What is the Government's attitude towards brokering talks where all the parties would get together and resume talks in the context that the only alternative is hardship and interventionism?

I call the Minister of State to respond to the questions.

A number of issues were raised by Deputies who have left the Chamber, specifically Deputy Howlin with respect to the social agenda. It was not discussed at the European Council this weekend or last weekend but it is very much continuously on the agenda. We have 25 different initiatives currently in force. Moving on from the discussions that took place in Stockholm, the introduction of a European labour authority was part of that. A question was asked as to whether we are putting ourselves forward for that but we are not. Three countries, namely, Slovakia, Cyprus and Latvia, have already put themselves forward to seek that. Our opinion is that we should allow member states that do not have such an authority to seek to host this agency. We are engaging with them and we will make a decision on that as soon as we possibly can. On the question of whether we would support it and work with it, the answer to that is "Yes".

A number of people raised the issue of Fidesz, which was not necessarily on the agenda. Whether it is Fine Gael politically, myself individually, MEPs or others in this country, we have always been very clear that there have been decisions made and movements by the political party in Hungary with which we are not happy and do not agree. I have raised this numerous times, as have the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste at various meetings. The suspension was supported by our political party. Whether it is in terms of the Central European University, the implementation of new legislation which would directly have a negative impact, or whether it is with respect to voluntary or community groups or charitable organisations, we have raised all these issues as well as the impending Article 7 process, which is due to come before the General Affairs Council, at which I sit. We continuously raise these concerns but we need to and want to work with our colleagues within the European Union. Dialogue is always the best way to try to address many of these concerns but it has now got to the stage of a suspension and I hope we can engage on these issues to try to find a solution to all of them.

In terms of Brexit, and the programme and aid, two suggestions were made by Deputies, who have left the Chamber, to the effect that we are not providing enough support to those who need it, particularly that we are only providing direct grant-in-aid to private companies, but that is not true. I would point to the supports that are being provided particularly for the agrifood sector, where more than 90% of companies in the sector are small and medium enterprises based in our constituencies and rural areas. Most of the grants and the support we have been providing is to try to assist those, whether by way of the €300 million scheme, and a second scheme was launched today by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, or by way of the additional support for Bord Bia or Enterprise Ireland to help those companies not only to examine their structures but to try to restructure and look beyond the UK as a trading partner, which, for many of them is their key objective and goal. Unfair comments were made about Bord Bia and the work it was stated it is not doing. It is doing a massive amount of work. Only this morning, as Deputy Lisa Chambers would attest, we had an update from one of its representatives, Tara McCarthy, who has consistently engaged with the Government to make sure we understand what its members and their companies are going through and the types of supports they need. It also has been actively engaged in an outreach programme to try to ensure that its companies are as supported as possible. Again, these are the small and medium enterprises, people employing one or two people in communities in our rural towns and villages. Almost 70% of our companies and employment that is created is through small and medium enterprises. There are supports for the larger companies but much of it is focused on those who need it, particularly in the rural and the agricultural communities and sectors.

In terms of new alliances, there is a great deal of work ongoing. Many have acknowledged that the UK has been our nearest neighbour, ally and friend on many issues and we have had very similar agendas for the past 47 years, but obviously we are looking further afield. I think some students from Denmark are still in the Gallery. Part of our outreach is with our Nordic, Baltic and Dutch colleagues. Something that started off as an invitation to not only the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, but also Mark Rutte has now turned into something of a more of a formal arrangement. For example, I meet my European colleagues at the European Affairs Council meetings but also the Minister for Finance meets those colleagues on a regular basis as does the Taoiseach. We have a number of various groupings that are not specific to countries but specific to issues on which we are working. The D9 or the D9 plus specifically focuses on the digital agenda and the digital Single Market economy, which we are pushing and perceive as being significant to our economy and implementation of the Single Market. In terms of agriculture, it is a major issue for us.

Stepping away from Brexit, there is a matter of the next multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and the possible proposal from the Commission of a 5% cut, which would have a major and detrimental impact on our farmers. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is engaging, and has been for some time, and has led some discussions on the next MFF. He is trying to ensure our farmers and farming community are protected. That engagement is part of his discussions with the European Commissioner, Phil Hogan. Other discussions are taking place involving our Minister for Finance and Ministers of State at the Department of Finance with like-minded groups, whether it be on taxation, open competitiveness or other key issues. A massive amount of work is ongoing, whether it is specific to countries with which we would not see eye to eye on everything but which are very like-minded, as well as with specific groups focusing on specific issues.

With regard to the Good Friday Agreement, the protection of the Single Market and the customs union, the Border issue and what was or was not said by RTÉ, given there were many different comments last week, there has been a lot of speculation based on things that were said by the Commission and by Michel Barnier, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron when entering and leaving the Council. What was very clear and what has been consistently repeated to us is that there must be protection of the Single Market and the customs union, and we support that. What was also made very clear is that we must find a way to protect the Good Friday Agreement. Obviously, we know it is extremely difficult to do that in the absence of a closer trading relationship with the UK and the EU, or in the absence of the backstop. That is why we are doing everything within our power to ensure there is a withdrawal agreement and an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU and that, no matter what, we can protect the invisible border that currently exists. However, there is no detailed discussion ongoing at the moment.

As to what might happen in a no-deal scenario, there were of course conversations that suggested this would have to be discussed. However, we are not at that stage and we are still hoping that, either today or in the next week, the Prime Minister will be able to find a new way forward through a closer relationship, a new referendum or an extension towards something more significant or, indeed, that she can get agreement on the withdrawal agreement. We would welcome any of those developments.

I agree that damage has already been done. There are a huge number of companies and individuals who are not making plans and I would go so far as to say people are not even buying houses because they are unsure of what might happen and what the environment might be. We need to make sure we are doing as much as we can now, as we have been in the past three budgets, whether that is through financial supports, putting new plans in place through our infrastructure programmes and financial services programmes, or the new action plan for jobs which the Minister has been working on. The fact that three out of five jobs created have been created outside of Dublin in the last year has not been by accident but is part of trying to ensure that any ongoing implications of Brexit are addressed before it even happens. Obviously, our no-deal planning forms part of that. Without knowing exactly what the outcome will be, we can only do our best to engage with people and provide financial support where possible.

With regard to the timeline and our engagement with the Commission, as I have said a huge amount of support has already been put in place which people can access. The Minister for Finance has been working with the Ministers, Deputy Humphreys and Deputy Creed, with regard to specific packages for businesses and the agricultural sector. It is likely this can come to Cabinet, if and when needed, in a very short space of time. We have been engaging with the Commission for some time and we have been told that if funds were needed, they would become available when needed, whether in regard to flexibility on state aid rules, direct payments to farmers or business, or otherwise. Of course, we know that the timeline set out and agreed last week by the European Council and agreed by the UK in terms of the extension means we will not have that 24-hour cliff edge which we could have been facing this week if the UK did not come forward to say it is running European elections with an agreement on the withdrawal agreement, or with a possible way forward. It is within the remit of the Council and the Commission to set a date, possibly 22 May, on which the UK would leave with no deal, so we would have time to plan. I assume it would be within that period that the Commission would indicate the figures and timelines and the ways in which it would be able to support us.

On Venezuela, there was a question of whether we have the appetite to play a positive role, which we absolutely do. When we support Mr. Juan Guaidó, we see this as an interim measure which is not meant to be permanent. That was our intention, along with the other 24 member states that have supported this action. The EU's international contact group is there to try to deliver urgent humanitarian aid, although I accept it is not getting through and this is something we need to try to address. We need also to initiate a credible electoral process. The only way we can do that is by getting people to engage and to talk, as the Deputy rightly outlined. What the exact process within that contact group is I am not sure, but I can get that information for the Deputies. Another way is through the rapid responder deployment to assist the UNHCR, which is trying to support the Colombian Government's efforts to try to enhance the asylum system and to respond to the humanitarian issues that are ongoing and which have been ongoing for some time. Again, I will try to get clarity as to the international contact group's priority and agenda. We are working with EU colleagues to try and address, first and foremost, the humanitarian crisis which needs to be addressed.

It is an economic crisis, not a humanitarian crisis. There is a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

We need to provide humanitarian aid. It is a humanitarian crisis, particularly when millions of people are leaving the country at the same time.

As the Taoiseach indicated, I will focus my concluding remarks on external relations and on our ongoing efforts to combat disinformation and to secure free and fair elections. Under external relations, in addition to the broad-ranging discussion on our relationship with China, in advance of the EU-China summit on 9 April leaders also discussed the situation in Ukraine. Last week was the fifth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sebastopol, and this remains a cause for concern. The EU remains absolutely committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and does not recognise this violation of international law. From Ireland’s perspective, we fully share this position and believe that we must continue to call on Russia to observe the fundamental principles of international law and restore Ukraine’s internationally agreed borders. Unity at EU and international level must remain the cornerstone of our approach to Russia. Ireland fully supports the five principles agreed by EU Foreign Ministers in 2016 that guide our interaction with Russia. Of these, we attach particular importance to the idea of increased people-to-people contact. A strong and stable relationship between the EU and Russia is desirable as a long-term strategic goal. Unfortunately, however, we see little evidence currently that Russia is seeking to improve its relationship with Europe.

With regard to the recent tropical cyclone in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, Ireland contributes to the EU humanitarian response mechanisms, which include an initial emergency aid package of €3.5 million, as well as €250,000 in initial humanitarian assistance. In addition, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, have confirmed that Ireland will contribute over €1 million to the affected countries, and this includes €400,000 to be released by the embassy of Ireland in Mozambique to the World Food Programme.

Ireland has been proactive in countering disinformation, including through the establishment of an interdepartmental group on security of the electoral process and disinformation, which has been working since December 2017. The current EU Presidency places a huge emphasis on this, particularly given the upcoming European elections. We are doing everything we can to work with it.

I want to reiterate the Tánaiste's earlier points in regard to the Golan Heights. We see this as Syrian territory under Israeli occupation and we have no plans to change that position. What we are trying to do is engage with our international counterparts to highlight the serious concerns we have and to continue to try to support those people. The Tánaiste is working with us and will engage further with Deputy Daly.