Post-European Council Meetings: Statements

I am pleased to have an opportunity to update the House on the special meeting of the European Council, which I attended in Brussels last Wednesday. President Tusk convened this meeting following the UK Parliament's rejection of the withdrawal agreement on 29 March last. As Deputies will recall, at the previous meeting of the European Council on 21 March, we agreed that if the withdrawal agreement was not ratified by the UK Parliament, we would extend Article 50 until 12 April, by which time the Prime Minister should have outlined an alternative plan.

Brexit was the only item on the agenda for our meeting last Wednesday. The meeting began with an exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani. These exchanges are always useful, particularly when it comes to Brexit, because the European Parliament has a crucial role to play in this respect. The European Parliament must ratify the withdrawal agreement in order for it to take effect. Prime Minister May was then invited to speak to the 27 EU leaders. She elaborated on her request for a further extension to Article 50. She described the cross-party talks which are under way in London. She said that more time is needed to facilitate an agreement on the way forward. The Prime Minister fully accepted that the withdrawal agreement is closed and will not be renegotiated. Therefore, the cross-party talks are focusing on the shape of the future relationship. From the perspective of the EU, we have always said that if the UK changes its red lines, we will be ready to amend the political declaration on the framework of the future relationship. We have consistently said that we want the withdrawal agreement to be ratified in order that there is an orderly Brexit. This will allow negotiations on a new economic and security partnership with the UK to begin without delay, which is in all of our interests because it helps to avoid a no-deal scenario.

We took account of the Prime Minister's view that the cross-party talks could produce an outcome which would enable the withdrawal agreement to be ratified by the House of Commons. We were favourable disposed towards allowing time for this. Our subsequent discussions focused on the length of a possible extension. We assessed Prime Minister May's request for an extension until 30 June, President Tusk's suggestion of a year-long flexible extension and other proposals from leaders. Our aim in our discussions was to be as helpful as possible to the UK, while keeping in mind the need for European unity and the need for us to protect ourselves, the EU institutions and the work of the Union. Differing and very valid views on the best way to achieve this aim were expressed. On balance, we agreed that a flexible extension until 31 October would be the best way forward. This means the UK can leave the EU before that date if the withdrawal agreement has been ratified. In such circumstances, the UK will leave the EU on the first day of the first month after it has been ratified.

If the UK has not left the EU by the time the elections to the European Parliament take place, as a member state it will participate in those elections. The Prime Minister has said she wants to see the withdrawal agreement ratified before then. Nonetheless, the UK Government has already made the order for the elections to be held. If the agreement has not been ratified and the UK does not hold European Parliament elections, it will leave without a deal on 1 June. The UK has also committed to act in a responsible and constructive way during the extension. This allays any concerns - justified or otherwise - about the risks that an extension could pose for the Union and safeguards its effective functioning and its capacity to take decisions that will affect our citizens into the future. I was pleased to hear President Juncker advise at the European Council that long-term decisions can be discussed among the 27 member states without the UK. However, the UK will continue to have full rights as a member state and therefore must continue to comply with its obligations. We avoided a no-deal Brexit on 12 April and we provided the UK with more time to ensure an orderly withdrawal.

On that basis, I welcome the outcome of the European Council meeting.

Once again, we emphasised that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be renegotiated and that any unilateral commitments made by the UK must be compatible with the letter and spirit of the withdrawal agreement. This point was also reinforced during my earlier meetings with Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Mr. Michel Barnier, in my telephone contacts with Prime Ministers Rutte, Muscat, Kurz, Ratas and Bettel, and my engagements with other EU counterparts. Responsibility for finding a positive way forward between now and the end of October now lies with the United Kingdom.

As I said before, the European Union is not a prison. Nobody is forced to stay. The EU is our common European home and no country should be forced out. The UK effectively has three options. It can ratify the withdrawal agreement, it can revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, or it can leave without a deal.

Before the European Council proper, I had the opportunity to engage with some of my EU counterparts, including a meeting of the Heads of State of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland, hosted by the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Charles Michel. There was a meeting of the European People's Party leaders. I also had many discussions with colleagues at the margins of the meeting. I thank them for their support for Ireland. We agreed to continue to co-operate closely in the period ahead. The strong unity at EU level that had been such a feature of the Brexit negotiations will continue. In addition to Brexit itself, we have many important challenges to meet and decisions to take in the coming months. The extension until 31 October will allow the EU to focus on other matters. At the next scheduled meeting of the European Council in June, for example, we will discuss economic and other issues. We agreed, however, that we would use the meeting very briefly to review progress regarding Brexit and consider any issues that may have arisen in the interim.

The outcome we agreed at the European Council meeting last Wednesday was practical and sensible. Unfortunately, however, given the ongoing political uncertainty in London, the risk of no deal has not been fully averted. It still could happen by accident. The UK Parliament has indicated it does not want a no-deal outcome but unless it takes decisive action, by finding a majority for a way forward, this is a possibility. In light of this, we are continuing our preparations for all outcomes, particularly no deal.

Brexit will have negative consequences but we are determined to be as ready as we can. A comprehensive contingency action plan is in place, with a whole-of-government response. In recent months, we have ramped up our planning at both domestic and EU levels, and this work will intensify. The Brexit omnibus Act, which was passed by the Oireachtas last month, was signed into law by the President on St Patrick's Day. Once again, I thank the Opposition for its co-operation in ensuring the rapid passage of this legislation. The common travel area has been protected and strengthened. Work on the required secondary legislation, covering a wide range of issues, from driver licenses to the recognition of qualifications, is progressing in parallel and will continue. We are also working hard to ensure our ports and airports will be ready to deal with new customs and trade controls. Although some disruption will be inevitable regardless of what kind of Brexit occurs, we are determined that the necessary infrastructure, staffing and ICT will be in place so the trade flows can continue. Budget 2019 included €78 million for farmers, fishermen and food SMEs to cover the additional costs associated with Brexit. Low-cost loans are available, as are grants and copious amounts of information and advice.

The Cabinet reviews and discusses this work on a weekly basis. The Tánaiste chairs regular meetings of the Brexit stakeholders' forum, which had its 17th meeting last month. Finally, it is worth restating that the European Commission understands and acknowledges fully the specific challenges Brexit poses for Ireland, particularly in the event of no deal and particularly at the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. We will continue to work closely with the Commission to find solutions for our citizens, businesses and farmers.

The need to hold an emergency summit of the European Council on the sole topic of how long to extend the period before which the UK will leave the European Union was itself a failure. Six years after Mr. David Cameron began the process leading to a referendum and three years after that referendum, we appear nowhere near resolving the issue of what the UK's relationship will be with its former partners. The bulk of this blame lies squarely with London, but equally we need to understand that the European Union itself is failing to get to grips with the situation and the urgent need to address threats to itself. The situation today is that we have hit roadblocks regarding both the withdrawal agreement and the future relationship. On the first, it is not clear how a majority for the agreement can be achieved in the House of Commons because opposing it is seen by different sides as maintaining their leverage. Remainers want to avoid the definitive exit that would follow immediately upon ratification. They want, at a minimum, to secure a much closer long-term connection. The hard-line Brexiteers want to avoid the close relationship implied by the agreement and its links to the political declaration. It should be noted in passing that the majority of these Brexiteers continue to be disinterested in Ireland.

The record of the many debates held by the House of Commons in recent months shows that Ireland-related matters are not a primary concern, and a majority would probably vote for the agreement with a Northern Ireland-only backstop and be able to pass it even if the DUP voted against it. It is also striking how the sole focus of the negotiations between Labour and parts of the UK Government is the future relationship. No one really has any idea what is likely to happen in the near future. There is a chance that a section of Labour MPs will support the agreement in order to avoid another referendum; however, there is little we can do to influence this. The critical decision by those at the summit was to make a choice between an October final deadline and a much later deadline. It is not clear which of these options was better because President Macron's core point about how Brexit is undermining the EU's day-to-day functioning at a critical moment is valid. We have not held any emergency summit to discuss the reform of the Union, how it can tackle the anti-EU campaigning of the left and right, the need to complete the banking union, the need for an increased budget, or the vital issue of the leaderships of the Commission, Council and European Central Bank, all of which become vacant during this year.

October is a reasonable compromise that maintains some pressure on the UK to come to a fixed position, allows for a referendum or election, if that is required, gives space for the inevitable Tory leadership contest, and allows countries like Ireland, which have not completed no-deal preparations, to catch up. If there is a credible reason for a further extension at some point, that can be granted at an autumn summit. It is important for us all to understand that the holding of European Parliament elections in the UK next month carries with it important risks if they take place in an air of complete uncertainty. Were the UK definitely staying in the Union, the elections would be a moment to reconnect, but the great uncertainty and aggressive rhetoric that has already begun could actually comprise a radicalising moment. I do not believe any state, least of all Ireland, would benefit from the further degradation of British politics and the empowering of more extreme voices. Therefore, Europe should be ready to move quickly to respond to anything positive that might emerge from the negotiations in London or from any other development. We also need to use the time now available to us to do something which we failed to do before, that is, to be ready for a no-deal scenario. We dodged a bullet on 29 March. On that date, 50% of companies that trade with the UK had not completed basic registrations required to keep trading in a no-deal scenario. Only 10% of key financial supports had been allocated, with a much smaller number actually distributed. In Dublin Port, the management said the customs plaza was ready but that the staff were not. Since 29 March, a long list of fundamental no-deal guidance has appeared that should have been in place when the UK came within days of crashing out. A defining characteristic of this Government is the gap between its rhetoric, including its paid marketing, and its delivery. This delivery deficit was a feature yet again last month on Brexit, and it must not continue.

Industries and communities which are already feeling dramatic pressure from sterling's volatility need more active engagement. They should not have to be threatened with closure before anything is done to help them. We need a greater honesty about the impact of the mass increase in stocks in the UK and here that have distorted key markets and are a burden for many companies. The economic update yesterday confirmed that Brexit has hit the growth forecasts published in the Budget last year – forecasts which were based on the optimistic assumption that the withdrawal agreement would be ratified and effective by 29 March. While the fiscal gap this causes has been closed by unexpected revenue on business taxes, we need much greater transparency on what is planned if the slowdown continues.

We need much greater urgency and to be actually ready regardless of what happens in June or October. We need less talk about activity and a more focus on impact.

Given the events of recent months and the rapidly changing situation, I do not think anyone here can any longer credibly argue that Ireland would have been served by spending three months holding an election and trying to form a Government. Irrespective of the Taoiseach’s new habit of labelling any media stories which are inconvenient as empty conspiracies, it appears that much of his own Government has been regularly trying to create the pretext for a Brexit election.

Fianna Fáil stands fully behind its decision not to force on Ireland the political instability which has caused so much damage to Northern Ireland and Britain. Indeed, had we been without a functioning Parliament and Government in recent months, we would have had zero no-deal legislation.

We must also address the grave situation in relation to the Good Friday Agreement, which goes well beyond the very serious issue of Brexit. Two of the three strands of the agreement are in complete suspension, while the third is in a grave condition. Added to this, one has the threat of direct rule being imposed. It is more than two years since the democratic institutions of the agreement were collapsed because of a heating scheme which appears to have lost nowhere near the amount of money used to justify the collapse. It is inexplicable and the rationale for collapsing the Executive is in no way acceptable. If such a scandal happened in government here, we would not collapse the Dáil or Seanad. Parliaments do not get collapsed because of scandals. It was a grave mistake by Sinn Féin to collapse the Executive at the time. Equally, it is a grave mistake by the DUP not to agree to go back into the Assembly. I believe we would have marriage equality by now had the Assembly been up and running, notwithstanding the petitions of concern. For far too long since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and too often, the reflex to simply collapse the Executive and Assembly has been used. There have been periods when the default was to simply pull out and collapse the institutions. That is no longer acceptable and cannot be acceptable in the future because vacuums are dangerous in situations such as this, particularly in the context of Brexit. I made that point earlier in the Chamber but I think Deputy McDonald may have misunderstood what I was saying. Brexit is a grave threat to the island and to Northern Ireland. I cannot understand how anyone can stand by and say that it is grand that we do not have the Assembly and Executive and not make every effort to restore them so that the anti-Brexit majority in the North would have a voice in the Parliament, just as those in Scotland and Wales have.

It is now two years since the institutions were collapsed. At a time when its future has been at the centre of international affairs for the first time in 21 years, Northern Ireland has been left without a voice at the table. The pro-EU majority in the Assembly has been gagged by the two largest parties who agree on only one thing, that someone else is to blame. We do not need our Government to take the position of "We’ll help if we can". We need it to show leadership, to get involved, and to try to get re-engagement.

If people are not even talking then of course they cannot reach agreement and nothing can be achieved. At a minimum we should demand that a civic forum be convened to give the people of Northern Ireland some place to express their views on reforming the institutions and getting through Brexit.

Now that there is some new breathing space, Ireland’s best interests require a rapid increase in Brexit preparations. Businesses need to start seeing real support for diversifying products and markets. Vital indigenous sectors which are already hit by sterling's devaluation have to be engaged with and helped to replace lost business. Most of all, Ireland has to speak up for a more effective EU, with a renewed leadership and focused on an urgent reform agenda.

We are now just shy of three year's since the Brexit referendum result. Despite the great time and effort that have been put into negotiating the withdrawal agreement, the many debates, consultations and sittings of the Brexit stakeholder meetings which were organised by the Tánaiste and which the Opposition have worked constructively on, we are no closer to the ratification of the withdrawal agreement. This must be very concerning for all of us. Despite serious reservations about the agreement and the absence of several issues therein, especially the rights of EU citizens in the North and aspects of the Single Market in relation to services, our view is that it is the least-worst option for Ireland and is a deal that must be honoured if we are to minimise the impact of Brexit. There is an extension of the Article 50 process, as per last week's agreement of the European Council. The extension buys us time and gives six months more to try to pass an agreement. The most important thing is what happens over the next six months and if Westminster and British politics can arrive at some sort of consensus to pass the agreement and something else, whether a customs arrangement or otherwise.

What cannot be allowed happen is for hard Brexiteers and those opposed to the withdrawal agreement and its protections for Ireland be given an opportunity over the next six months to rehash all the old arguments which have been put to bed by the European Council, the European Parliament and by European negotiators. We in Ireland and the EU must remain steadfast that the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol or backstop must be honoured and cannot be renegotiated or picked apart in any way. We made this case that the backstop must be honoured to Theresa May and to Jeremy Corbyn last week when our party leaders met with them. It is the only realistic deal, which mitigates some of the worst aspects of Brexit for Ireland. Our party leader outlined this to the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, this morning. We welcome her steadfast support for the Good Friday Agreement and ruling out any post-Brexit trade deal for Britain if Brexit weakens the Good Friday Agreement.

Despite the vast majority of people on this island, North and South, across all 32 counties, nationalist, unionist and otherwise, who support the backstop and protections for Ireland, we cannot take anything for granted. There is still the possibility that six months down the line that a no-deal scenario will present itself again. We must be mindful of what will happen. Hopefully, it will not come to pass but in the event it does, we will remind the Taoiseach that this constitutional issue must be put to the people. It is time for the Irish Government and Fianna Fáil to get serious about the unity of our country. There is nothing to be feared in relation to Irish unity, it is a legitimate political aspiration. It can only be achieved through democratic means. No one should be afraid of the ballot box or a referendum. The two larger parties in this State do not seem to understand that but it is a matter for them.

Local and possibly European Parliament elections are coming up in the North in coming weeks. I welcome that for the first time Fianna Fáil will be part of truly national politics and will field candidates with the SDLP. We will see its outcome. I put my faith in the people. Let us see what they say about candidates from Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil-SDLP.

The Deputy has changed his story from last week.

I did not interrupt the Deputy and he had a fair run. For the first time there will be Fianna Fáil-SDLP candidates. It does not surprise me that the Fianna Fáil leader says he cannot understand how people in the North accept and welcome the fact that we do not have institutions. That is not the case. Certainly, Sinn Féin acknowledges that the institutions should be in place. If the Fianna Fáil leader was talking to people in the North and was on the ground, as I was last night, campaigning in the North and talking to people, he would understand where people in the North are coming from and would have a greater understanding of Northern politics. He would know that it is not about blaming anybody but how the issues are resolved. We know what the issues are and they were resolved through negotiation last year but the DUP walked away from it. That is a fact. We stand ready to talk to any political party, including the DUP, on the basis of getting the institutions restored, but on a sustainable basis. That is what the people in the North want.

As I said, we will have elections in the North in the next number of weeks. That will tell us again, clearly, who represents Northern nationalists. Is it people in here who pretend they do, who continuously speak for them, who speak over them, and who talk down their representatives in this Chamber in trying to present some sense that we do not represent them truly or we do not understand where nationalists are?

As I said, we will have elections in the North in the next number of weeks. That will tell us again who represents Northern nationalists. Is it Members here who pretend that they do, who continuously speak for them, who speak over them, and who talk down their representatives in this Chamber in trying to present some sense that we do not represent them truly or we do not understand where nationalists are? Let us see. Let us also see what the outcome of those elections will be. I look forward to having that debate with the leader of Fianna Fáil after the next election.

There are many other issues that emerged and are important in terms of the future of Europe. Brexit has brought that into sharp focus. I have always been a Euro-critical person. I believe in the European Union and that Ireland's place is in the European Union but I believe that we should at all times be critical of aspects of the European Union. I believe in a social Europe and in a democratic Europe but I do not believe in an increased militarised Europe. I do not, and cannot, support a European army. It is something that is being promoted by federalists in the European Union. There are people in Europe who want an ever closer Union, who want a deeper political union and a deeper economic union. That is a legitimate political viewpoint to hold. I have no difficulty with people holding those views. In my view, it is not the dominant view in this State and on this island. People want us to be a member of the European Union. In the context of Brexit, they want to see the entire island of Ireland stay in the European Union. However, they want us there as equal partners, and in a more democratic Europe. They certainly are very concerned about the increased militarisation, which I spoke to the Taoiseach about in the pre-Council statements. Where we have a fight in this Chamber almost every week in relation to scarce resources, with funding needed for health, housing and childcare, people will not be happy with more taxpayers' money, in this State or, indeed, across the European Union, being spent on an increased militarised Europe.

The only way we will fight the far right and make sure that it does not get a foothold in this State, and, indeed, fight the far right across the European Union, is to make Europe a more social and democratic Europe so that on issues, such as workers' rights and public services, people see that Europe will deliver for them. They do not want an increased militarised Europe. They do not want a European super state. They do not want what some of the federalists are arguing for, some of which, I think, has given succour to the far-right in Europe.

We also need to be careful that we do not have a situation where we allow politicians, in this State or elsewhere, to pitch immigrants against those who are at the margins of society here who are victims of very bad policies by the Government and other right-wing Governments across Europe which deprive public services of investment and which create situations such as the housing crisis. I refer to people, such as those in the Taoiseach's constituency and in Dublin, who pay exorbitant rents so that significant amounts of their income are gone on living, and for whom the cost of living is very high. That is what I hear from people. They want to see the Government reduce their cost of living. We cannot allow the debate on immigration to be framed in the context of scarce resources, and almost allowing people to scapegoat immigrants for what is the problem - I would argue the fault - of right-wing politics. That is where the far right is gaining traction in some parts of Europe. The best way we can ensure we do not have the rise of the far right in this State is to provide for our citizens, to invest in public services, to defend workers' rights, to make sure that people have a home, to make sure that people do not wait longer than 15 months to see a consultant or that we do not have record numbers of people on trolleys or homeless, and all the obvious problems that face people. We need to make sure, through State investment and fair taxation, that people are cared for from the cradle to the grave. That is what I would like to see happen.

We have still a long way to go, as I said, in relation to Brexit. My party certainly has been supportive of an Irish position of getting a backstop. We have that, we have to protect and maintain it, and we have to be vigilant in the time ahead. Let us hope over the next six months that common sense will prevail, that some consensus will emerge in Europe, and that the British parliament will support the withdrawal agreement and possibly something better in terms of a customs arrangement which, I believe, is in the best interests of not only the people of Ireland but also the people of Britain and Europe.

The ESRI recently published the finding of its macroeconomic study into the possible impact of Brexit, deal or no deal. It is a valuable contribution to our understanding of what might happen to our economy, both in the immediate future and ten years later. It is yet more evidence of the harm that Brexit, whatever form of Brexit ensues, will be for Ireland. The ESRI model finds that unemployment will rise in any Brexit scenario and participation in the labour market will also decline. Participation in the labour market declining is a very important factor. When these two effects are added together in today's terms, that could mean between 55,000 and 105,000 fewer jobs created in Ireland over the next ten years due to lower economic growth. That is only one projection, but I remain extremely cautious about the stability of employment, given all the other possible negative influences on our economy, such as housing costs. I would urge that the Government do more to consider new initiatives to prepare for a potential spike in unemployment in the years ahead. The effects of Brexit will be acutely felt in those sectors most exposed to the British economy, such as agriculture, food, tourism and hospitality. I want to see the Government confirm what studies it has commissioned into the possible employment effects in the sectors I mentioned and what preparations are being taken to alleviate any sudden rise in unemployment, not only in those sectors but also in the geographical areas the ESRI has pointed out.

This is the shadow that hangs over Ireland, and the public interest is clearly to prevent any Brexit occurring, if that is possible. I believe it is. The certain harm to Ireland should inform how we interpret the result of this European Council meeting and how we seek to influence what happens next in so far as we can.

Last week's European summit was extraordinary in every sense of the word. The sole purpose of the summit was to deal with the fallout from the third rejection of the withdrawal agreement in the British Parliament and the failure to find majority support in parliament for any alternative.

The summit was extraordinary in that it showed the strain on European leaders, as they sought to find consensus on the European response to the request for a further extension by the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. What Europe does best is find compromises in these situations, and the offer of a flexible extension to the end of October provides a plausible middle way between competing demands for nearer or more distant exit dates.

That compromise also shows that patience is wearing thin, and I heard it in Brussels on Wednesday last, as did the Taoiseach. This week, the German foreign Minister, Mr. Heiko Maas, warned that if Britain seeks yet another extension, this will be interpreted as a desire to remain in the Union after all. This is despite the fact the German Chancellor, Dr. Merkel, was among the advocates for a longer extension.

While finding compromise among 27 European countries is no mean task, it is not always the case that the middle road is the best road. I have argued that we should offer the UK a five-year extension - that sounded extreme when I said it. I hold to that position, which I discussed with the meeting of Socialist and Social Democratic Prime Ministers and leaders in advance of the Council last week. A five-year extension would avoid the likely scenario that we could be seeing another request for a further extension in less than 200 days' time. Something that has bedevilled us is this deadline, contrived crisis, hype and then deflation with constant uncertainty.

An October request for more time could be rejected. There is a view - the Taoiseach would know better - that any extension beyond October could be rejected. The six-month extension is the lesser of a number of ones that impact badly for Ireland. Immeasurable harm would have been done if the UK crashed out on Friday last but great harm will also be done if the UK still has not found consensus, or at least a majority in its own Parliament, on its own Brexit strategy by the autumn. Every month of uncertainty damages investment in this economy and there is a real risk that the British Government will be still unable to command majority support for any Brexit policy at any time during the next six months.

That is a real prospect. What then? There is just about time for the UK to hold a general election and for a new Government to be formed but the Fixed-term Parliaments Act makes it very difficult to call a snap election. There is just about enough time for the UK to hold a new public vote but there is not a majority yet in the British Parliament demanding such a vote.

Theresa May is under intense political pressure to call off her talks with the Labour Party in Britain. At any rate, there is no evidence so far that these talks will produce a new Brexit policy that can command a majority in the UK Parliament. Neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn can guarantee the backing of their respective parties for the ongoing negotiations and I believe that is why they have not come to a conclusion.

If the British political system cannot provide the answer, perhaps Europe should offer the United Kingdom more time. It is in Ireland's public interest for the UK to remain fully engaged in the European project. It is also in our interest for the European Union to change some of its core policies on fiscal policy, inflation targets and State investment in the economy. For example, keeping investment to less than 2% has suppressed job growth whereas a more realistic mandate for the European Central Bank would be for a target of between 2% and 3% inflation with an explicit duty to seek lower unemployment. Such changes would boost job growth in the European economy in a way that would deal with some of the root causes of Brexit and the rise of populism.

I regret the tone of President Macron's recent public remarks on Brexit, some of which were doubtlessly aimed at a domestic market. He painted a bleak and false picture of British isolationism. The British media then portrayed him as a new Charles de Gaulle, denying the British entry to the European project, a frankly preposterous notion.

A great many people in Britain and British politicians are pro-European and passionately want to remain part of the future of Europe. An even greater number, certainly a majority, could be persuaded to remain in a reformed European Union. European Council President Tusk has talked of the possibility of the UK thinking again. I do not believe we can be silent on that. We have an opportunity between now and October to present a plan for European reform that is so compelling that it will entice British public opinion strongly to support remaining within the EU.

In his public remarks last week, the Taoiseach hinted that he and perhaps others could be open to offering the UK a seat at the table for future discussions on trade policy if it remained inside the Single Market and customs union but no longer a member of the EU. That would create a messy situation whereby we institutionalise a half-in, half-out membership of European institutions. It would adversely affect the ability of full members to move forward with shared initiatives as nearly every area of policy will overlap in some way with the Single Market and trade and giving the UK a say in these matters when it is outside the Union could be very problematic indeed.

A better course of action would be to make clear that the European Union is open to serious and far-reaching reform. That would mean reform of the European Central Bank to foster growth and focus on employment, reform of the fiscal rules to allow for a greater level of State investment, reducing the role of European institutions where they are not adding value and allowing greater experimentation in trade policy and national economic policies, for example in biotechnology and other technologies in which the UK has felt restricted by the slow approval processes within the current European institutions.

Europe would benefit, and Ireland certainly would, from the continued membership of the UK. The British people would undoubtedly be better off in a reformed Europe. We would not simply do this unless we are able to put concrete proposals on the table. We should seize this opportunity to forge a common position across the EU 27 to drive an ambitious reform agenda for a fairer, better Europe that will win the support of the majority of British people in any people's vote that might be held before October or afterwards.

The European elections provide the ideal opportunity to set out our reform agenda and to seek agreement in principle with this goal across the main political groupings.

Deputy Boyd Barrett is not coming.

Deputies Clare Daly and Wallace will be taking his ten minutes.

I wish Deputy Wallace bon chance.

I hope Deputy Howlin will not miss me in Wexford if I am lucky enough to get elected to Europe.

I will miss Deputy Wallace terribly.

It will not be the same without me.

There are many challenges facing Europe, many of which are connected. Two of those are the manner in which so many aspects of terrorism are carried out and global warming. There are many terrible things happening in the world in pursuit of oil. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to work out that the trouble in the Middle East has, from the beginning, been strongly linked to the pursuit of oil and the control of the price of it.

There have been terrible atrocities in Yemen, especially since 2015 although trouble began when, in 2011, the Yemeni people said no to their leadership because they did not like the neoliberal policies that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was trying to implement on behalf of the Saudis and the US. Sadly, former President Obama, the Saudis and the UN engaged in an effort at regime change by putting the unelected President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in power in place of Saleh, whom the Yemeni had rejected. The Yemeni went on to reject Hadi and that led to the war which began in March 2015.

We are told by independent sources that there are now over 13 million people at risk of starvation which is a huge indictment not just on the countries involved in the conflict, which include France and the UK, but also of the European Union. Its failure to challenge seriously what has gone on in Yemen is nothing short of a total disgrace.

There is a chase for the resources of Yemen and that is what it is all about in the same way much terrorism around the world has been linked to oil. In 2016 alone, the EU gave licence to the export of €28 billion worth of arms to the Middle East area. France alone got licence to export almost €4 billion worth of arms to that area.

Terrible things have happened in Libya lately. Those troubles began not with Gaddafi but with his overthrow in 2011 and the NATO bombing which destroyed the country. France has played a poor role of late. It was bad enough that France, the UK and the US led the bombing in 2011, caused untold destruction, ended up killing approximately 40,000 people and have done much more damage since but, of late, France has been active in its support of Khalifa Haftar, who is a brutal, military thug. Sadly, he was protected by the US and he moved to and lived in Virginia, not far from CIA headquarters. He went back to Libya when the bombs started falling and took control of Benghazi in 2017 thanks to French support. It is terrible that the European Union does not have the wherewithal to prevent France behaving like this.

It would be great if we could call France to account. It would be very difficult for a small country like Ireland to stop France from behaving as it does. However, the least we should do is challenge its behaviour and call it out because Libya is descending into further chaos and France has played a poor role in that regard. I asked the Tánaiste yesterday about his views on the role France has played but he refused to answer my question. I would like an answer of some sort from the Government regarding what it thinks of the role France is playing in Libya.

The pursuit of oil is also directly linked to what is happening in Venezuela. While I did not like to upset the party here today for Nancy Pelosi, I was very tempted to come in carrying a Venezuelan flag and wearing a Julian Assange t-shirt. Given that it was not an official Dáil sitting, out of respect to the Ceann Comhairle, I decided to give it a miss. The recognition of Juan Guaidó as the interim President of Venezuela is a total breach of international law just as the US economic sanctions, which are designed to impoverish and cripple Venezuela, are also unlawful but nobody seems to give a damn about international law any more. The pursuit of oil in Venezuela is paramount in the US approach. I was really saddened that European countries, including Ireland, decided to recognise Juan Guaidó, a far-right thug from a very well-off background who does not have 5% of the support of the people of Venezuela. Recognising him was a terrible insult to international law and any form of democracy. John Bolton was arrogant enough to go on television and state that he could not wait for Venezuelan oil to be under the control of US companies. In fairness to him, he was hiding it anyway. Like Cuba did for so long, we have watched Venezuela fight the indomitable economic and military might of the US in order to try to survive. Any interest the US has in Venezuela has nothing to do with the interests of the people of that country. I wish Europe would wake up to that, start to work for mediation between the Venezuelan Government and the opposition and cut the US out of the equation. Let us come up with something that makes sense.

US sanctions against Iran constitute more madness. An investigation by Seymour Hersh has revealed that terrorist groups in Iran have been funded by the US and Israel. It also revealed that the Bush Administration had been funding covert operations in Iran that were designed to destabilise the country's leadership since 2005. In the interim, a number of leaders of terrorist organisations have revealed their links to US and Israeli finance, weapons and training. The US recently designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation and nobody batted an eyelid. It is frightening.

Regarding the link between terrorism and climate change, we are staring at climate breakdown head on. The majority of governments pay lip service to taking action to tackle the crisis. The EU says nothing while the most powerful countries in the world lie, invade, fight and kill over the fossil fuels that should stay in the ground. If we are to have any chance in hell of stopping the worst of climate breakdown, this must stop.

I will conclude on the madness that is Julian Assange's arrest. I think people need to understands that the arrest of Julian Assange is a threat to good journalists the world over. In fairness, the Swedish prosecutor went to the Ecuadorian Embassy, interviewed Assange and dropped the charges a few months later. The Department of Justice in the US never sent representatives to interview Assange but now even Pelosi's crowd, the Democrats, have joined forces with the most reactionary of Trump's crowd in demonising him. This is nonsense. Great Britain has keeled over and bowed down to the US desire to have Assange arrested and possibly extradited to face so-called US justice. If he ends up before the US federal justice system, he might never be seen again. Great Britain once had an empire so large that it boasted that the sun never set on it. Where is Great Britain now? It is a pawn of the US - how sad.

As Deputy Wallace stated, the violation of international law and the erosion of human rights on a global scale are truly frightening. Last Thursday, the day after the European Council met for yet another interminable debate on Brexit, Julian Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and taken into custody. The reason for this is, obviously, a change of government in Ecuador and an IMF bailout. Mr. Assange was basically given up by those who granted asylum in the first instance. As he had warned, an extradition request from the US rapidly followed.

Almost simultaneously, at the behest of the US, Moreno's Government took the extraordinary step of arresting Swedish programmer and digital privacy activist Ola Bini on the ridiculous and fabricated charge of attempting to destabilise it by collaborating with Julian Assange and Wikileaks. This is the stuff of fascism. We should be very scared and bothered about where this is going. Ola Bini is a globally respected figure in the free software community and a renowned activist for the digital right to privacy. In 2010, Computer World named him Sweden's sixth best developer. He is a member of various European and international networks for free software and privacy and participates in projects at the highest level, some of which were sponsored by the European Commission. He has never expressed any views that would be in any way a threat to the Ecuadorian Embassy and yet, without notice and with no evidence and no bail hearing, he was detained for 17 hours without food or legal advice. He was arrested for collaborating with Julian Assange. He has had no connection to Wikileaks but obviously had, like Deputy Wallace and me, visited Julian Assange on a number of occasions

Julian Assange's arrest last week treated us to the bizarre spectacle of left and liberal journalists cheering and jeering when, in reality, a fellow journalist and publisher was dragged into a police van and served with a warrant for extradition to the US to face punishment for his work. This is a frightening stance. This is the individual who exposed the most serious crimes by the US in what The Guardian called one of the greatest journalistic scoops for the past 30 years. The fact that people would mock him as if he was being evicted from an episode of "Big Brother" in circumstances where he potentially faces a lifetime a super-max prison in the US is gut-wrenching. I find it utterly sickening. The reality is that he is being mocked for telling stories that the world and the US establishment did not want heard. Let us be clear about this. We attempted to raise this case on many occasions in the House and nobody really wanted to know. The reason we did so was because Mr. Assange was arbitrarily detained. The UN stated that this was an arbitrary detention. For the past seven years, his crime was upsetting the US. That is what it was. For all of the smears, jibes and personal rubbish spoken about him, at the heart of this is a serious violation of human rights. It is sad that he was painted over the years as a paranoid fugitive who was only making up this stuff about the US but what he warned about has come to pass. A case was being prepared for him. Chelsea Manning is tied up with that. She has been rearrested. Again, this is an appalling vista.

He was arrested for doing incredibly good investigative journalism, and there is a chilling effect from this by the United States Government, which does not want its secrets exposed. It wants to prove to everyone who undermines its authority that its security state has a global reach and that anyone who upsets the United States can be seized. That is the message being sent to us all. It is about crushing dissent rather than enforcing the law. It is about dissuading future Julian Assanges or Ola Binis from sticking their heads above the parapet and challenging power. It is incredibly dangerous, and I would like to know what the Government is doing about it. Ola Bini, for example, is the subject of a 90-day pre-trial detention in Ecuador, despite having committed no crime whatsoever, something the UN special rapporteur has condemned. I would like to know whether our Government will do anything about this and the dangerous precedents it sets for journalists.

On the subject of arbitrary pre-trial detention, we also have the appalling vista of the Catalans who are going through what is basically a show trial. I highlight, in particular, the cases of Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, leaders of civil and cultural organisations who did nothing other than facilitate or call for the idea that people should have a democratic right to a referendum on Catalan independence. They did not express any view on independence. They did not say they were pro-independence or anything like that, just that people might have a say, and for this they have been in prison for more than a year, are currently going through a show trial and could face 17 years' detention for sedition. This is happening on mainland Europe and no one is batting an eyelid or giving out about what the Spanish Government is doing. It is an incredible threat to democracy. The same people who sit in the middle ground are getting all upset now about the rise of the far right in Europe. We should be upset about, and afraid of, this, but the reason the far right has gained ground is that the centre has not held, has given way to that type of view and has let down ordinary people the length and breadth of Europe, and we will pay a heavy price for that.

The last point I will make is about our continuing sitting on the fence regarding Venezuela and the appalling situation there, particularly the recent attempts by the European Parliament to involve Cuba in this regard. I note the statement put out by the Cuban ambassador this afternoon condemning the stance of the European Parliament, which has escalated the situation in Venezuela with its recent statement alleging the presence of Cuban security forces in Venezuela and attempting to undermine Cuba as well as Venezuela. The European Parliament pointed out that there are 20,000 Cubans in Venezuela. There are, and they are there in healthcare, education and social care. They will continue to work with their neighbours in South America and Latin America in a spirit of co-operation and adherence to international law and in support of the democratically and legitimately elected government of Venezuela. The Venezuelan people demand the right to elect their own government without foreign interference. What is going on in Venezuela is completely unacceptable.

I refer to attempts to make the economy scream, as was done previously, and to turn people against the government by imposing vicious austerity through sanctions, manipulation of the electricity grid and so on. This cannot be a solution. The only way out for Venezuela is through dialogue. As we did last week, I urge our Government, as a neutral state at the heart of Europe, to demand that our European colleagues demand that all sides in Venezuela sit around the table and engage in dialogue because only through dialogue will we resolve this. However, there cannot be dialogue if people are being starved into submission. In order to allow the Venezuelan people access to medicine and the economic resources they need, the government must be allowed to trade and do business, and we need a loosening of the sanctions in this regard. I would like to know what the Government is doing about this and why we continue to back this puppet who does not have the support of anyone and is just there as part of a United States coup attempt. Specifically, the Government should speak out against the efforts of the US to bring in Cuba and Nicaragua as part of this. It is having an undermining effect and making the situation unacceptable for those states as well.

I thank the Acting Chairman for facilitating us. It is very sad that we have to raise these cases and it is even sadder that every week we come here we talk about more cases of people being arbitrarily detained. If people think this does not affect us, I say this: first they came for Julian Assange, now it is Ola Bini; who will it be next? That is the direction in which we are heading and we would want to do something about it before there is no one left.

The next slot is the Rural Independent Group's. I see Deputy Mattie McGrath-----

And Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.

-----and one of the Healy-Raes.

Is Deputy Danny Healy-Rae togging out for Deputy Michael Healy-Rae as well? It is the one slot.

Yes. We are dividing the time in two.

Following the Rural Independent Group's slot, there will be an opportunity for anyone else who has not already spoken to come in. There will be some time left.

Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall to fill Deputy Michael Healy-Rae's shoes. He is chairing a very important Committee on European Union Affairs meeting with the Portuguese ambassador and other people at present. We also have an invitation to the embassy tonight, which we hope to take up. The committee meeting is very important business. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae sends his apologies that he cannot be here to speak this evening.

I am happy to speak briefly on this matter. I do not mean any offence to the Aire Stáit, the Minister of State, but I am disappointed the Taoiseach is no longer here. I have noticed a pattern in this regard when we have these statements. I understand his not being here when he is out of the country or whatever, but he was here until the Independents behind me, Deputies Daly and Wallace, started to speak and then he fled like the snow off a ditch. It is bad manners. I and other Independents are also here and we represent people as well. We represent rural people who are badly affected by this. If the Taoiseach could sit in for the Fianna Fáil speech-----

If Deputy McGrath were here when we started and when the Taoiseach spoke, it might have helped.

Fine, but the Taoiseach has a habit of leaving when we Independents rise to speak. Whether he thinks we do not matter I do not know, but he will find that out some day soon. It is disrespectful, and I hope the Minister of State passes on the message to him. I understand he is a busy man, but it always seems to be when the party leaders are finished that he decides to go.

As we know, the European Council has agreed to an extension to allow for the ratification of the withdrawal agreement by the UK. We in the Rural Independent Group have been co-operative and have facilitated, agreed to and gone along with all of the Taoiseach's and the Tánaiste's requests and briefings to date so we are not aliens in this regard or anything. The conclusions of the Council were extremely clear. Such an extension should last only as long as necessary and, in any event, no longer than 31 October 2019. At the very least we would then have the endgame in sight, and I hope we will because, quite frankly, everyone is fatigued with Brexit, I am sure no one more than the Minister of State, although I will not purport to speak for her. For everyone I speak to, especially those in the farming and business communities and in exports and hauliers, down to every village in rural Ireland, there is a huge feeling of uncertainty - that is the best word to use - and of angst to know when we will get an endgame, if we are going to get one, and what the result will be. There is uncertainty. I meet people excellent young business men employing up to 30 or 40 people and exporting a lot to England and indeed elsewhere. Their order books are falling and slipping and they are very concerned. Some of their staff have been let go already and they are doing their best to keep their remaining staff, but there is huge worry and the uncertainty out there is palpable and very real. The Association of Farm & Forestry Contractors in Ireland, FCI, was here today hoping to meet the Minister, Deputy Bruton, but one could have an audience with the Pope now before meeting the Minister. Five Deputies from Tipperary cannot meet him about a post office in Thurles, and neither will he meet this national organisation, which is very worried and has huge concerns. The Minister was in the Chamber and around the House today, so it is a case of the Scarlet Pimpernel: he cannot be found. We seek him here, we seek him there, and then he sends out his colleagues to meet us. It is not good enough. Ministers must be held accountable to the people.

As I said, the endgame is in sight. If the withdrawal agreement is ratified by both parties before 31 October 2019, the withdrawal will take place on the first day of the following month. One would nearly want to carry a calendar now to keep track of all the dates and deadlines. It is worse than any messy divorce. We might need arbitration. What must be deeply concerning for the EU is of course the plain fact that if the UK is still a member of the EU from 23 to 26 May 2019 and has not ratified the withdrawal agreement by 22 May 2019, it must hold elections to the European Parliament in accordance with European Union law. This will have an impact on the number of seats we might or might not have.

In that vein, I would like to wish my colleagues, Deputies Clare Daly and Wallace, the very best with their late entry into the game. Their decision might be last minute but they will be a fair flush when they get out on the road. I am looking forward to meeting and engaging with them. I wish them well, although I will be lonesome here in the House once they both have been elected to Europe. We will miss them in the Chamber.

They might be looking for substitutes.

They might be but it is too late for that, unless the two Deputies submitted my name and did not tell me. They will not need subs anyway because they are able and capable and will be capable members of the European Parliament. I wish all of the candidates running in the elections well but especially those from the Independent benches. People are tired of party politics. It will also have been a huge relief to have heard that the European Council has reiterated that there can be no reopening of the withdrawal agreement. This underlines again that, at least for now, there is a solid enough commitment to the backstop and the rejection of a reintroduction of a hard border. People, farmers and businesses are simply fed up with the massive and destabilising uncertainty to which this process has given rise, particularly with our trade and export markets. We cannot persist in allowing this kind of damaging and frustrating process to be continually drawn out. That is particularly the case since we know that after even a good Brexit trade deals and new arrangements will take years to become bedded down into the new way of doing our business with each other.

I am glad to get the opportunity to say a few words. Deputy Mattie McGrath seems to be sure that the end game is in sight with Brexit. I am not so sure that it is. Kerry is the county furthest away from Europe and the next stop is New York. The people I represent are tired and fed up with all this talk of Brexit. It is Brexit for breakfast, dinner and supper and if people have anything after that it is once again Brexit before they go to bed. A great deal of uncertainty has come about on foot of Brexit. No more than I or anyone else, the Minister of State does not know what is in the mind of the British Government or what the latter will eventually end up doing.

This uncertainty is having an adverse effect on employers, particularly small employers. Friday evening comes around very quickly for an employer and that is when wages must be ready to be paid to workers in order to keep families going. I know that from my experience as an employer. Money must be ready and there must be a plan to keep employees on board because it is difficult to get good people. We appreciate the employees we have and we want to be able to retain them. It is the same for all employers.

The situation with Brexit has given rise to uncertainty and is adversely affecting many sectors. There is a fear in the tourism sector that the revenue from many English tourists will be lost to the economy if the UK leaves the European Union. Small employers exporting abroad are not employing any extra people and are unsure if they will be able to keep their current workforce.

Regarding the farming community, and this is very important, we are very grateful we have an extra window of opportunity. I do not think, however, that the Government, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or Bord Bia are doing enough to source extra markets for farmers and their produce, whether live exports or processed beef. Much more should be done. This extra time should be used wisely to ensure that farmers are not left stranded because they are already feeling the effects of Brexit. The price of cattle has decreased and costs are not being covered. No suckler or beef farmer is covering his or her costs now and that is the honest, gospel truth. Sourcing more markets would have a dual purpose - it would provide competition for the meat factories as well alternatives if the UK market is lost to us.

The price paid for Irish beef in the UK is already lower than the price paid for beef from UK farmers and other countries. That is not fair and not right and there should be an investigation. I asked for this before, I am asking for it now and I will be asking for it again if it does not happen. There is a better price in the North for the same weight of cattle than there is in the South. Why is that the case? That should not be. I am raising this issue again on behalf of the people I represent. In the same vein, small fishermen are very concerned about how they will be affected if a deal is concluded and the UK leaves the EU. These are just some of the issues we face. I refer again to tourism and the English market. It has been much appreciated by our small hotels, bed and breakfast establishments and all of the facilities we have, especially around the Ring of Kerry and in Killarney. Bord Fáilte needs to source other markets if the English market needs to be replaced.

Does Deputy Haughey have a question?

I gather there is now a period for questions and answers.

Yes, if necessary.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I echo what previous speakers stated and wish those Members contesting elections to the European Parliament every success. The attention of many in this House is now turning to the subsequent bye-elections and how that dynamic will play into the political system. That is another day's work, however, and we will wait until the European elections have been completed. This afternoon we had a presentation at our Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs on how Ireland needs to create new alliances within the European Union to advance our agenda. That work has been well done by our diplomats. We expressed our gratitude to our diplomatic service on the great work being done pressing the Irish case in the context of Brexit.

I have one particular question for the Minister of State. I hope she knows the answer. If not, perhaps she can find out. Regarding elections to the European Parliament, in the event that the UK contests those elections, what is the exact legal position regarding the Irish seats, particularly the two extra ones? The Taoiseach has been reported as stating that votes may need to be counted twice on the day of the count. To take Dublin as an example, the votes might need to be counted on the basis of the constituency being a three-seater and also on the basis of it being a four-seater. There seems to be some confusion. It seems likely that the UK will be contesting these elections but who knows. We need some clarity on this issue. I am sure the candidates require clarity as well.

According to media reports, President Macron of France was particularly difficult at the European Council meeting and held out for a much shorter extension to Article 50. There is talk about the French President asserting his authority because the German Chancellor is due to retire. President Macron will become a senior person within the European Union and he is advancing a very integrationist, federal agenda in the context of co-operation on defence.

He has issues regarding tax harmonisation, a eurozone budget and so on and Ireland must be very conscious of that. We saw a small example of it at the European Council meeting held last week.

The Taoiseach has spoken of his interest in the UK joining a customs union and the Labour Party there is looking at that also. Does the Government have a view on that? Certainly, the Taoiseach has spoken of the advantages of that approach in resolving the Brexit issue and the question of a hard border on the island of Ireland. Are we advancing the proposition of the UK remaining in some form of customs union to anyone who will listen? Would it resolve the issues we face and are we actively advancing the matter?

Julian Assange languishes in Belmarsh high-security prison near London for the minor crime of jumping bail. He is under threat of extradition to the USA where he is very unlikely to receive a fair trial. I wonder if the Government will consider offering him asylum rather than see him end up rotting in prison in America.

When is the next meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council? Will the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, raise at that meeting the need for Europeans to mediate in Venezuela between government and opposition to avoid bloodshed and violence and to bring about a peaceful resolution to the problems facing the country?

I thank the Deputies for their statements and questions. I join them in wishing all of our European Parliament election candidates every success in the next few weeks. On the basis of clarification received from the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, I understand the elections will be held on the basis that there will be 13 seats and that there will not be two counts. Candidates will run on that basis. If there is no conclusion by 22 May on the withdrawal agreement and the UK decides to run the election, that number will reduce to 11. In other member states which were due to see an increase in seats, that will reduce also. What is not clear is whether that will be the case. Depending on a possible timeline or when there might, hopefully, be a conclusion to this where we move to phase 2 and the future relationship, that will affect European elections. A discussion is taking place within the EU Parliament on the legal question of what the next steps will be and what will happen with regard to candidates who would have been elected and, depending on the timeline, might be in a position to take up seats in a couple of months. Matters remain a little unclear but when we get further clarity from the EU and the Parliament, we will let the House know.

There was a lengthy discussion last week. It is very rare to have a meeting of the Council of the European Union at which different views and opinions are not expressed, whether on Brexit, migration, jobs, growth or competitiveness. It was clear from the moment President Macron responded to journalists as he entered the Council that we are united and need to remain united as a European Union. That had not changed by the end of the meeting. Of course, there were differing views as to whether the timeline should be long or short. From our point of view, it is not so much a question of the length of time as to ensure that whatever time is given is enough to allow the UK to do what it needs to, namely, agree with the withdrawal agreement, if that is what it chooses to do. The Taoiseach outlined clearly what the UK's three options now are. It can agree the withdrawal agreement and move forward, revoke Article 50 or look at something else, whether an election or a second referendum. We await the outcome there while continuing to make preparations at home. If the UK does not agree the withdrawal agreement by 22 May and fails to run European elections, the end date will move forward immediately to 1 June, most likely without an agreement. We hope it does not come to that.

We have always said that if the UK were to change its red lines on leaving the Single Market or customs union, we would very much welcome that. A great deal of what we have been doing, in particular on the backstop, has aimed to accommodate and work around those red lines. If the UK were to remain within the customs union, that would resolve many, albeit not all, of the concerns. If the UK were not to remain within the customs union but to continue in some form of shared customs space, what would that look like? The Taoiseach's comments were an attempt to be helpful on a possible solution, in particular given the negotiations ongoing between the Conservative and Labour Parties. In saying all this, we can only respond to a request from the UK and the Prime Minister but, as of yet, they have not requested the customs union or an alternative customs arrangement. We will of course respond to any request as positively as we can.

Julian Assange's case is a judicial and police matter. The Government can wait to see what the outcome is and then take matters from there. It is a judicial and police matter now and there is very little we can do at the moment.

Deputy Wallace also spoke about Libya and asked a question about France. We are all concerned about Libya and in particular about the situation in Tripoli which is especially unstable. We must ensure political dialogue resumes as quickly as possible. A declaration was agreed on Thursday last week by all member states calling for all military operations to cease in Tripoli and that all forces would withdraw, including those of General Haftar. France was also a signatory of that declaration and, as such, there is complete unity on the matter.

I was asked about Yemen and I do not disagree that the humanitarian crisis there is one of if not the worst of the world's crises at the moment. That is why Ireland has pledged a further €5 million this year to bring the total since 2012 to €23 million. While the EU as a whole has pledged €700 million, it is obviously not good enough to continue simply to pledge support. What we want to see is the implementation of the agreement reached in Stockholm in December 2018. The quicker that happens the better. Until then, we will continue to provide support and advocate for a peaceful solution.

I was asked about the overall situation in Venezuela, which Deputy Wallace has raised before. We support the EU's international contact group and are engaging with it. The group is engaging with all sides in Venezuela. It is engaging with Mr. Juan Guaido but also with Maduro, opposition parties, civil society groups, the church and UN organisations and it believes it has found a way to move forward via free and fair elections. The reason we are supporting Mr. Guaido as an interim president is that he can call for and provide for those free and fair elections. The EU group is engaging with all sides, however. I note also that the first tranche of humanitarian aid has made its way through, which we obviously support. We agree absolutely with Deputy Wallace that dialogue is the only way forward, not force. We will continue to work on the matter. While I do not know the date of the next Foreign Affairs Council, I will certainly raise the Deputy's question with the Tánaiste who I know will be discussing the matter with the Council again.

I thank all Members, including the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, who partook in that important debate.