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.