Pre-European Council: Statements

I will attend a series of meetings of the European Council in Brussels this Thursday and Friday, 20 and 21 June. On Thursday afternoon and evening, we will meet in regular format, with all 28 EU Heads of State and Government. The broad-ranging agenda includes significant items such as the EU strategic agenda for 2019-2024, climate action, the European Semester, disinformation, the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, as well as the top jobs in the EU institutions. External relations and enlargement are also likely to be discussed. On Friday, there will be a euro summit and I expect there to be an exchange on Brexit as well.

Today, I will focus my remarks on the strategic agenda, top jobs, climate action, disinformation, the MFF, external relations, as well as the euro summit and Brexit. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will speak about enlargement in her wrap-up remarks.

Following our initial discussions at the informal summit in Sibiu or Hermannstadt on 9 May, we will have a further exchange of views about the next strategic agenda for the Union to cover the period from 2019 to 2024. In preparation for this, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, led a citizens’ dialogue across the country. This included public events, where members of the public and other stakeholders had an opportunity to raise concerns and outline their views about the future of Europe. These views helped shape our national statement, which was published on 17 April and was discussed in the House the next day.

Our national statement outlines Government's European policy, which includes: the completion of the Single Market in all its aspects with a free trade policy that champions opportunity and a level playing field; developing economic and financial policies that are socially responsible; digital transformation; ensuring that the EU plays a lead role in climate action and sustainability; and maintaining peace and security, including by developing stronger security and development partnerships with Africa and other neighbours.

As always, working to achieve a constructive future relationship between the EU and the UK continues to be a priority. These are reflected in the draft EU strategic agenda which we will discuss on Thursday. The paper divides our work into four broad categories: protecting citizens and freedoms; developing our economic base; carbon neutrality and the just transition; and promoting Europe’s interests and values in the world. These provide a framework for the EU to answer these challenges and deliver for our citizens in the years ahead.

Linked to the strategic agenda is the question of the nest institutional cycle. Four high-level positions in the EU institutions will be filled in the coming months - the Presidents of the European Council, the European Commission, the European Parliament as well as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. At our meeting in Brussels on 28 May, we discussed the results of the European Parliament elections and how to proceed with these high level appointments, taking into account what the people said in those elections. We agreed that gender, as well as political balance, must be taken into account and that the appointments should also reflect geography and demography, so that both larger and smaller countries from different parts of the Union are represented in the highest positions in the EU. We also recognised that this would be hard to achieve given the small number of posts available. We agreed that the main posts would have to be negotiated as a package and that the President of the ECB should be handled separately. We mandated President Tusk to consult with EU members and the European Parliament before we return to the matter at our meeting later this week and I will speak to him by telephone today.

An important part of our discussions will be on climate action.

We will discuss this with a view to the United Nations Secretary General’s climate action summit on 23 September. Climate change is a global problem and the EU must reaffirm its role as a global leader. The UN climate summit in September represents an important moment for the international community to reaffirm the objectives of the Paris Agreement. The EU should set itself the objective of reaching climate neutrality by 2050. Our climate action plan, published on Monday, sets out a road map as to how we can achieve this.

Another item for discussion on Thursday will be the 2021-2027 multi-annual financial framework, MFF. Some good progress was made on this during the Romanian Presidency and will continue during the incoming Finnish Presidency. Finland will be represented at this meeting by its new Prime Minister. Our focus at the European Council will be on mapping the path towards agreement on the MFF, which is crucial for the functioning of the EU. From Ireland’s perspective, we believe that the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and other well-functioning programmes like Erasmus+, Horizon and INTERREG must be protected and that cohesion funding is also crucial in empowering less developed member states to unlock their economic potential. With this in mind, we are willing to agree to a modest increase in our contributions to the EU budget provided these well-functioning programmes are protected.

As part of the annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination within the EU, known as the European Semester, the Council is expected to confirm its backing for a horizontal note looking at the current economic situation in Europe and the proposed country-specific recommendations made by the Commission to each EU member state. Our discussions on external relations will focus on Russia and developments in eastern Ukraine. This will include the EU economic sanctions on Russia, which may need to be extended further. Cyprus has also indicated that it will raise concerns about oil and gas exploration by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. We endorse the EU approach as agreed in March 2018. We also agree with the recent statement by the High Representative, which calls on Turkey to cease its actions and respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus to explore and exploit its natural resources in accordance with EU and international law.

On Thursday, we will also discuss the challenge of disinformation. A report has been prepared by the Presidency, the European External Action Service, EEAS, and the Commission on the lessons learned from the recent European Parliament elections. It is essential that efforts are sustained to strengthen the resilience of EU democracies to disinformation and cyber-security threats. From Ireland’s perspective, we stand in solidarity with EU partners in seeking to counter the disinformation activities and cyber-activities that threaten our shared democracy, and endorse the EU joint action plan on disinformation. At the Euro Summit, we will reflect on developments in economic and monetary union since we last met in this format in December. It is expected that we will examine in particular reform of the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, and the euro area specific programme focused on convergence and competitiveness, which is proposed for the next EU budget. Discussions on both these issues have been taking place in recent months among Finance Ministers.

Finally, turning to Brexit, the European Council has been absolutely consistent that the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation and that any unilateral commitments the UK Government may give must be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal agreement. As I have said before, it would be a serious political miscalculation and a misunderstanding of how the European Union works to think that a change of UK Prime Minister alone would fundamentally change this. We are of course prepared to amend the political declaration on the future relationship, if the UK position evolves. We will, of course, listen to any proposals or ideas the new Prime Minister has. The decision of the European Council in April to extend the Article 50 deadline until 31 October was done to facilitate cross-party talks in the UK, and for a further round of binding indicative votes. Regrettably this failed so a no-deal Brexit cannot be ruled out. I welcome the Commission communication published last week which updates and reinforces the necessary no-deal preparedness steps at EU level. At home, the Government is continuing its intensive preparations for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. I echo the Commission’s message that businesses should make use of the time between now and 31 October to take all necessary steps to prepare. In particular, businesses that trade with the UK including Northern Ireland need to take action now to register with the Revenue Commissioners for an economic operators registration and identification, EORI, number as an essential step.

I look forward to engaging with my EU colleagues at the European Council, collectively and bilaterally. After the meeting, I will visit Luxembourg for a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Bettel and will also visit the European Investment Bank and the European Court of Justice. I will report back to the House on 26 June on the outcome of these meetings.

This week’s summit has a deeply important agenda, but it is not clear that it will actually achieve its objectives. At its core, this is a summit about setting out intentions for the next five years. The leadership of the Union is due to be decided and there will be discussions on a number of fundamental economic, environmental and democratic issues. Brexit is not on the agenda but in reality it is central to every decision that will be taken. Fianna Fáil is extremely concerned about the manner in which limited information has been available since March on efforts either to mitigate the impact of a no-deal Brexit in October, or to move quickly to address the new challenges faced by Ireland should the withdrawal agreement be resurrected in Westminster. We have requested a full debate on Brexit to be held before the Dáil rises and it is our expectation that the Taoiseach himself will participate in the debate rather than just delegate it.

Fianna Fáil has over the past year regularly pointed to the importance of this round of institutional appointments both for Ireland and for the Union as a whole. If member states are serious about addressing clear failings in the institutions, confronting the enormous challenges facing the Union and protecting economic growth, then these appointments are their biggest test. It is beyond absurd that the first consideration for many parties’ countries appears to be about getting positions for their group. The first and only consideration for each of these jobs should be to find people of energy who can provide real leadership. We cannot afford to have any passengers, or to continue with a position where the Commission, for example, has no credible strategy for engaging with the Union’s citizens. Equally it would be an unacceptable risk for Europe to appoint a President of the European Central Bank who would move away from the correct and proportional interventions introduced by Mario Draghi.

The Spitzenkandidat system has no credible legitimacy on many levels. First of all, even if we assume that people were voting for the EU-level parties, no party received more than a quarter of the votes of EU citizens. There is no system where a party on a quarter of the vote or less automatically claims as its right the leadership of the government. It is nonsense and it undermines rather than promotes the cause of democracy. More importantly, the issue must not be whom the President of the Commission is nominated by, but what he or she will do. The crisis of legitimacy and effectiveness of the Union demands a person who has demonstrated the ability both to lead on important issues and to communicate with ordinary citizens. They must have the ability to appeal directly to the people in the face of leaders determined to attack and undermine the Union. The Government’s support for the Spitzenkandidat system is wrong and threatens us all with signing up to a flawed outcome and weak leadership just at the moment when we need to put aside party labels and put the interests of protecting and promoting the Union first.

Fianna Fáil believes that Donald Tusk has been an excellent President of the Council. He has maintained an independence of leaders, ensured that everyone has had a voice and has provided moral clarity at critical moments. There have been times when he has been well ahead of everyone in demanding the Union stand by democratic values and human rights. He has done this in spite of the appalling harassment and libels of his own government. Donald Tusk deserves our thanks and he must be replaced by a similarly strong character. It must be a person who knows when to demand action and to stop the efforts of some to equivocate in the defence of Europe and its member states.

The choice of a High Representative is more complicated as it is not yet clear what the best approach is to the job. This said, in spite of fears at the time of her nomination, Federica Mogherini has been a good holder of that office. In particular she helped bed-down the EU's new diplomatic network and has kept doggedly working on vital but less prominent issues in the area of bilateral disputes and non-proliferation. Of all of the appointments, the next President of the European Central Bank may actually be the most important. While it has nominally been separated from the others for the time being, in reality all reports suggest that it is part of the haggling between countries. The single most important decision in Ireland’s dramatically improved fiscal position was the appointment by the Council of Mario Draghi. He ended policies which had driven countries like Ireland into bailouts, agreed to vital debt interest relief, stretched the boundaries of the ECB’s mandate and fought deflation as hard as his predecessor had fought the phantom of inflation in previous years.

It would be disastrous for Ireland and Europe if, at a moment when the European economy is on the edge, there was any shift away from the Draghi strategy. There can be no compromise on this. We cannot support a person who opposed the Draghi interventions or any person who tries to secure the office by giving a nod and a wink to Bundesbank fundamentalists. They have hobbled discussions about expanding the Union’s fiscal capacity. They have rejected any interventions to address the impact of imbalances within the eurozone economy. They have blocked a genuine banking union. They cannot be allowed to return the ECB to the failed policies of the past or the orthodoxies which saw a few go to extreme legal lengths to try and hobble Mario Draghi’s work just as it was saving the eurozone.

There are as yet no signs that this summit will reach a final agreement on the positions. In the past there has frequently been the need to call additional summits. What we need from this meeting is first and foremost an end to the idea of parties dividing up jobs and a commitment to finding the best people for these critical jobs. The summit is due to have a discussion of budgetary and economic matters in general. Leaders cannot ignore the looming threat of another recession and deflationary pressures.

In consideration of the country-specific and cross-country recommendations it should be put on the record that the continued failure to address structural imbalances in parts of the eurozone makes it very difficult to address the current threats.

Next week the Government will, no doubt after many more days filled with media briefings and no genuine consultation, publish a statement which will, apparently, contain two scenarios for the budget. This reinforces the need for the Union to agree Brexit mitigation measures now rather than wait for the damage to occur before acting.

Climate change is due to be discussed briefly. Rather than more discussions about aspirations it is time for all countries to be required to be up-front and honest. Climate action proposals should be subject to the same level of rigorous review as fiscal proposals. Only then can we avoid the repeated launch of plans where the aspirations are not matched to specific costings and timetabled impacts.

The summit will also hear a report on the continued spread of disinformation by forces outside of the European Union with the intention of undermining elections. As the report shows, yet again the Russian Federation has worked to bolster extreme parties and to promote false stories. These were particularly designed to promote anti-migrant sentiment and conspiracy theories about the European Union. Fanatical anti-European Union parties of the far right continue to be supported and this includes the coverage of Moscow-owned media. There can and should be no move to normalising relations until this activity stops.

Finally the summit should discuss the situation in the Persian Gulf. We are not in a position to say what is going on or who is responsible for the bombing of the tankers. What we can and should do is express our concern at the announcement by the President of Iran that his country intends soon to exceed the limits on enriched uranium, as agreed in the nuclear agreement. There is no credible innocent explanation for this enrichment. There is nothing in Iran’s disputes with other countries that justifies the development of nuclear weapons. It has an incredibly strong army, which is strong enough to be used to fight in Syria and possibly elsewhere. It does not need these weapons and pursuing them will do great damage to its standing in the world at a time when most countries remain committed to finding a constructive way forward.

I will be sharing time with Deputy Cullinane.

Táim buíoch as an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo um thráthnóna.

I understand why the focus might fall on the personalities and the contest as to who might get what top job for the next session of the European Parliament and Commission, but what matters more than that is the nature of the reflection and whether or not there is a real understanding of the need for fundamental root and branch change at a European level. Watching the runners and riders for each of the respective positions, I believe quite frankly that the citizens of the European Union can expect more of the same.

Despite the Taoiseach's assertion to the contrary in his paper where he talks about the ambition and the prospect of reaching climate neutrality by 2050, I believe the Taoiseach is over egging things there. It is not a realistic prospect and, in any event, I do not believe the Taoiseach or his Government are on the right track from a policy perspective to achieve climate justice by 2050, or on any other timeframe.

With regard to the European Union impulse on international policy and defence and the impulse around the ongoing trumping of the social economy and social Europe by brute market forces, I do not see any indication that any of this has changed fundamentally at a European Union level or in Ireland. Let us remember that the shape, nature and dynamic of the European project will largely be shaped by the dynamic of domestic politics. Despite the Taoiseach's assertion to the contrary I have no sense that there has been a strategic review of Ireland within the European project, despite Brexit, despite an avowed concern about the rise of the right and reactionary forces right across the Continent, and despite the fact that the lessons of disenfranchisement and the lessons of being left behind are writ large in the Brexit experience across the water. This is a dynamic that threatens in the most profound way the well-being economically, socially and politically of all of us who live on this island. Despite all of that the Government carries on and wilfully disregards all of the lessons that really ought to be learned. Brexit is a disaster. There is no good Brexit. I say this as someone who remains deeply critical of the direction of the European project. I believe it needs to change but Brexit was never the answer. Brexit is not the answer but it serves to provide lessons for us. I have no sense across the political establishment in the State that any of those lessons have been learned. I do not believe there is any appetite to learn those lessons. This is incredibly dangerous.

We now have a host of Tory leadership contenders who beat their chests and try to out-Brexiteer each other. At this stage each of them seems to have disregarded the withdrawal agreement and the backstop. All of them need to understand very clearly that the withdrawal agreement is the bottom line, that the Irish protocol is the bottom line and that they are even more delusional than we had first imagined if they think there will be a shift from that position. It is very important that our partners in the European Union also understand that very blunt and simple reality. I hope the Taoiseach will, as he has committed to doing, carry that very clear message to the European Union. The Government must now stand firm and the European Union must remain true to its word that without an agreed and legally enforceable Backstop there will be no agreement. This is the simple, blunt message in the here and now which the Taoiseach must bring with him to Brussels.

It appears once again that we could be heading for a cliff edge with Brexit. All of this is depressingly familiar when we all look at the leadership contest within the Tory Party in Britain with, as Deputy McDonald referred to, all of the runners and riders setting out their stalls.

There are huge contradictions in what all the contenders are saying, including the front runner, Mr. Boris Johnson. We have all been here before. Two years ago we heard similar messages from Teresa May, trying to please those on all sides in her party, trying to be all things to all people and maybe taking the view that Europe or the Irish Government would blink when it came to the Border and the interests of the Irish people. That did not happen and we remained steadfast. While there has been a critical engagement between Opposition and Government on many aspects of Brexit, we have all pretty much remained on the same page regarding the need to protect the Border and the backstop and to ensure that Irish interests are fully protected. We cannot afford two more years of what has preceded this, namely, bickering within the Tory Party, politicians in Westminster not being able to sort out what they need to sort out, and all types of fantastical solutions that will not work for Ireland made by people who have no interest in or understanding of Ireland or the Border from an economic or political point of view. The Border was a deeply political issue previously but it was depoliticised to an extent as a consequence of the Good Friday Agreement and the other peace agreements.

There is real concern as we watch what is happening at Westminster. There is always the potential for a new Prime Minister to make a different request. The Taoiseach stated that he is prepared to listen to whatever requests are made. That is legitimate. We should always listen to any reasonable proposals. Equally, we have to make very clear to politicians in Westminster and to the new Prime Minister, whoever that is, that there can be no resiling from the fundamentals of the withdrawal agreement. Those details were worked out very carefully and very intelligently over a long period. There was a series of compromises on all sides to reach an agreement. For Ireland it was the bare minimum. We would have wanted the withdrawal agreement and the protocol to have gone much further in the areas of rights and a range of other areas too. It was the bare minimum that was necessary to secure the future of our people and the economies, North and South, by avoiding any Border checks and physical infrastructure or inspections. We cannot resile from that. There can be no going back on it. Tory leadership contenders talk about buying out, as if they can somehow purchase a solution in respect of the Irish Border. It beggars belief that after two years of painful negotiations there are still people in the Tory Party operating on the basis of that mindset. I hope that at the European Council meeting it will be made very clear that, as Mr. Barnier stated earlier today, there can be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement. Clarifications, more and further clarifications have been given to the British Government but finally the British Labour Party, the Tory Party and those who hold a majority in Westminster and do not want a hard crash have to come with a solution. Boris Johnson or whoever is the leader of the Tory Party, will meet all the same challenges that Teresa May met in the past two years. We have to remain steadfast, protect our interests and ensure that there is no resiling from the positions that have been agreed. I hope the Taoiseach will bring that message to this important meeting of the European Council meeting and that it will be the view of the other members of the Council.

The European Council meeting on Thursday will bring together the Heads of Government from across Europe to agree a shared vision for what is a crucial period in the history of post-war Europe. It is no exaggeration to say that national leaders are facing major threats to our economic prosperity and our way of life. In 2014, the Council agreed five priorities for the period 2014-2019, and a lot was achieved. The EU has experienced five years of uninterrupted economic growth, with wages increasing and youth unemployment falling by a third. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 22% compared with 1990. The European Commission has already published its contribution to the discussion of the next five years, as well as a list of unfinished business. Labour welcomes the focus on the European pillar of social rights, including a fair and modern tax policy, on sustainability and climate change, as well as on maintaining a rules-based global order and developing stronger relations with our closest neighbours. Under the heading of the European pillar of social rights, the Commission names "access to quality, energy-efficient affordable housing for all in Europe". This was the focus of Frans Timmermans, the second most senior Commissioner after Jean-Claude Juncker in the outgoing Commission. He is still a contender to become the next Commission President. Timmermans will doubtless play an influential role in the next Commission. I hope that his initiatives to open up European funding for public housing projects will be embraced by the Commission and by national governments.

From Labour's perspective, the European Commission's proposals represent a skewed and incomplete agenda. Their focus on the Single Market does not include sufficient emphasis on protecting workers in precarious jobs and does not address the problem of income and wealth inequality in Europe. The next five years must include decisive action to improve workers' rights and the security of jobs.

Europe needs a more positive agenda on inter-culturalism and integration rather than just managing migration. Insufficient attention is paid by the Commission to the still-existing deficiencies in the eurozone institutions and our lack of instruments to help us deal with the next economic crisis is already manifest. There will inevitably be another economic crisis. There is also insufficient mention of the core periphery structure of the Single Market. This will be crucial for Ireland if the UK does leave the Single Market because our peripheral location will be even more pronounced, with greater costs likely to affect the import and export of goods. Ireland and other countries need a set of rules that are designed to counterbalance the economic advantages enjoyed by countries at the centre of the Single Market. With the increased push towards tax harmonisation - of value-added tax, VAT, as well as corporation tax - Ireland will need a new strategy to ensure its future economic prosperity.

In addition to its strategic agenda for the next five years, the meeting of the European Council will also involve the Heads of Government considering the union's multi-annual financial framework for 2021-2027. This will undoubtedly be planned on the basis of the UK having left the union, which means all remaining countries, including Ireland, will be paying that bit more to keep European programmes operating. One myth that is frequently circulated here is that of the net contributor. This concept is misleading. Technically, the UK is a net contributor to the European Union. In cash terms, the UK pays more to the EU than it receives in direct payments such as CAP, LEADER funds and so on. As part of the Brexit narrative, it was claimed that this is British money being lost into a Brussels black hole. That narrow, transactional view of the EU is not only deeply tainted by Euroscepticism and hostility towards supporting poorer countries, it is also a serious misrepresentation of how modern economies work. Access to the Single Market and customs union removes tonnes of red tape, because countries agree to share common standards and rules, not only for goods like foodstuffs, but also for services. Easy access to a market of 500 million people provides each European country with massive economic benefits. The whole is literally greater than the sum of the parts.

What we are paying for is easy access to a large market, which is also governed by decent social and environment protections. We are paying for a well functioning Single Market and customs union for the very simple reason that we benefit enormously from membership of the Union in terms of cheaper imports and greatly expanded markets for our goods. In this way, every member state is a net beneficiary. We need to learn lessons from the Brexit debacle and to avoid reinforcing misunderstandings, such as the idea that what we pay into Europe is somehow less than the total economic benefit we derive from EU membership.

The other major issue to be formally discussed by the Heads of Government at this week's European Council meeting is climate change. I know the Taoiseach will be keen to show off the Government’s new climate action plan to his European colleagues to reassure them that Ireland intends to rise from its current inadequate position at the bottom of the European league table on climate action and to do better. I caution against too much praise, however. There are good measures in the plan but there is also a lack of ambition at the heart of it. The Government appears to have abandoned the fundamental core ambition to get our annual carbon emissions down to 33 million tonnes by 2030. We cannot rely on our European or international partners to do this for us and I hope the Government will reflect on how its plan, which was published this week and will be debated in this House, can be reinforced to achieve that target.

Brexit will inevitably loom large in the informal discussions around the European Council meeting. Theresa May is now formally a caretaker Prime Minister until her successor is picked. We are closing in on the next deadline, by which time the United Kingdom is expected to leave the European Union, and Theresa May’s successor may only have a matter of weeks to have any impact on the current situation. We have held off holding a general election in this State precisely because the risk of instability in our Government at this crucial moment when the UK leaves the European Union needs to be avoided. However, the changing of the guard at EU level creates its own instability at a particularly difficult moment for us. On 1 November, the new Presidents of the European Commission and the European Central Bank will take office, along with the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. One month later, the new President of the European Council will take office to replace Donald Tusk. This is important because if the UK crashes out of the European Union on 31 October, the new President of the European Commission could begin his or her first day in the job facing a disorderly British exit from the Union and a crisis in Ireland with respect to the Border and the all-island economy. The Government must use all of its influence to ensure that the next senior officeholders of the Union are not only well briefed on Ireland’s concerns but have a track record of supporting and understanding Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations.

I am sure we will receive solidarity and support from our European partners in the worst case scenario. We have received that solidarity to date. It would, however, be preferable to avoid any further cliff edge negotiations, never mind an actual fall into the abyss. For this reason, I hope the Government will convey Ireland’s support for unconditionally giving the new UK Prime Minister a further extension to the UK’s exit date from the EU beyond 31 October, if the UK requires it. We can and should prolong the UK’s departure, not least because it is likely that a majority of British people now favour remaining within the European Union. However, the UK needs to go through a democratic process in order to resolve some of the tensions and divisions that have arisen and fundamentally caused rifts within British society. It would be in the interests of this country and the European Union for the UK to remain a member and we should afford that possibility every opportunity to become the end result in this torturous process.

I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. Following on from the points I made earlier, if we are to prevent the alarming rise of the far right across Europe and a return to the dark days of the 1930s and 1940s, we have to look at the underlying problems, and not only in Europe, of poverty, deprivation, inequality and gross disparities between the very wealthy and the majority in society. With the exception of Finland, homelessness is on the rise in every country in Europe and it has risen dramatically. As I indicated earlier, 112 million people or 22% of the European population are at risk of poverty. Even after social transfers, 75 million people in Europe are at risk of poverty. Inequality in the distribution of wealth and income has worsened substantially in Europe over the past 20 years. The richest 10% of the European population earn seven times more than the bottom 50% and obviously the disparity is even greater when we consider those at the very bottom. The position in this regard has worsened.

In response to some of these points, the Taoiseach referred to economic growth and improved levels of employment. That is true, although it is worth saying that there is economic growth pretty much across the western world at the moment and that picture is replicated just about everywhere. However, we also know that at some point we will hit the wall and there will be a downturn. By failing to eliminate those levels of poverty, inequality and deprivation, even at the height of an economic boom, we are storing up big problems for ourselves unless we address inequality. Even the World Economic Forum, which the Taoiseach attended, pointed out that economic growth is not being accompanied by measures to deal with inequalities in wealth, which are growing. Inequalities in income and wealth are growing. The major beneficiaries, by a long margin, of the economic growth we have seen in recent years have been the richest 10%. The lion's share of the economic growth has accrued to them and that is true in Europe, including Ireland where the richest 10% have 54% of all the wealth. All the indicators show that the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing. It is seen most acutely in the housing crisis across Europe where even those who are working, as I pointed out to the Taoiseach, cannot afford to put a roof over their heads. That is a political and a social accident waiting to happen unless we address it, yet it is never talked about. Even in the United States, people are starting to have this discussion about inequalities in wealth. It is rather surprising that figures such as Warren Buffett have talked about the need for wealth taxes but we never have that discussion. The Government runs a mile whenever we mention taxing wealth, redistributing wealth or maybe beginning to tax the corporations a bit more and redistributing that wealth to areas such as subsidised low-cost housing, public transport and so on.

I grit my teeth when I hear the Taoiseach talking about climate change and all the pious aspirations we have. He described climate change as a global problem and he is absolutely right. However, when the global climate change movement and scientists say we need to leave 80% of the fossil fuels in the ground, the Taoiseach says the position is different in Ireland. His Government will block a People Before Profit Bill that seeks to leave 80% of the fossil fuels in the ground because, he says, it will not make any difference. At a global level, it makes a big difference. If everybody in Europe and the world took the same attitude to fossil fuels as the Taoiseach, everyone would continue to explore for fossil fuels. The point about banning further fossil fuel extraction here is that it would send a signal, which we hope would be repeated across the world, as is the case, that this industry has to end. However, if we keep making exceptions for ourselves and sabotaging efforts to keep fossil fuels in the ground, as the Government is doing, it will give the green light to others across the world to keep rolling with the fossil fuel industry, which will continue to look for fossil fuels and pump them into the environment. That is climate hypocrisy.

I raise developments in Hong Kong, which I presume will be included on the agenda of foreign affairs at the European Council meeting. If anyone still believes that protest does not work, he or she should look at what has happened in Hong Kong. Last Sunday, there was probably one of the largest protests in history, with 2 million people on the streets shaking the entire region and showing the power of a mass movement. It was against an unelected Hong Kong Government, backed up by and interconnected with one of the most brutal dictatorial regimes in the world, namely, that of the Chinese Government. The protest of 2 million people came after the suspension of the proposed extradition law, which is what caused the movement. It shows that the unelected government in Hong Kong and the Beijing regime are in retreat but that the movement is on its front foot. The extradition law was part of Beijing's attempt to tighten its control over Hong Kong in restricting democratic rights. It was an initiative of the Chief Executive, Ms Carrie Lam, but it is clear there was at least the tacit agreement of the Beijing regime. The oppression faced by the movement was and is incredible. More tear gas was used in one day - 12 June - than in the entire 79 days of the so-called umbrella revolution five years ago. Rubber bullets were used against peaceful protesters, while tens of young people were arrested on spurious charges of riot and so on. The retreat of the regime and the unelected Government in Hong Kong has caused a serious crisis for the Chinese dictatorship, with the mass movement posing a powerful challenge to its attempts to tighten its control over the territory. The New York Times correctly stated it was the largest single retreat by China since Xi Jinping came to power six years ago. The dictatorship fears that the example of mass resistance in Hong Kong can spread over the border and inspire workers, farmers, young people and national minorities in China to resist.

The movement continues to go forward. It is clear it will not accept the concession of a suspension of the extradition law. Instead, the demands on which the movement are rallying are clear, namely, the full cancellation of the extradition law; the resignation of the so-called gang of four, including Ms Lam, the Chief Executive, her justice and security ministers and the chief secretary; and an independent public investigation of the police violence on 12 June and of the classification of the protest as a riot, which allows young people to be arrested, of whom there have been 24 thus far, and face up to ten years in jail if found guilty.

I pay tribute to the actions of socialists in Hong Kong and other socialist activists involved in the movement. They were to the fore in raising the demand for a political general strike against the oppression, a strike which is now very popular and is instrumental in trying to achieve the demands I outlined. The movement has been to the fore in the struggle for democratic rights, which is intimately connected to a challenge to capitalist rule in Hong Kong. Capitalists and big business within Hong Kong, as is the case in mainland China, are intimately connected with the regime, benefit from the so-called stability that results from the oppression and are fully integrated. The struggle for socialist change is intertwined with the struggle for democratic change and poses the need for a revolutionary democratic constituent assembly, as well as struggling for a workers' government which can spread throughout the country and interconnect with the emerging workers' movement in mainland China, despite the oppression.

On the response of the EU and the Government, the former issued a statement that was classic in its approach of turning a blind eye and blaming all sides. It stated restraint should be exercised by all sides. Millions of protesters are faced with brutal oppression through tear gas, rubber bullets and arrests. There is no equivalence between the two sides. The position of the Government has been deafening in its silence and lack of official statements, which I suspect is because of the wish to have business connections with Hong Kong and mainland China rather than disrupt them. If any members of the unelected Hong Kong Government visit Ireland or Europe, they should and will be met by substantial protests and solidarity with the ongoing movements in Hong Kong.