Pre-European Council Meeting on 15 and 16 October: Statements

I will attend a meeting of the European Council next Thursday and Friday, 15 and 16 October. It is expected that the agenda, which has yet to be finalised, will include Brexit, Covid-19, climate change and EU-Africa relations. Depending on developments, further items may be added in due course.

Before addressing the upcoming meeting, it might be helpful for the House for me to report briefly on the special meeting of the European Council that took place in Brussels last week on 1 and 2 October.

As Deputies will be aware, that meeting was postponed from 24 and 25 September. Last week's meeting discussed a number of pressing external relations issues, including EU relations with Turkey and the importance of a stable and secure environment in the eastern Mediterranean; the situation in Belarus, in response to which we agreed targeted sanctions; the recent outbreak of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh; and the shocking recent assassination attempt on Alexei Navalny in Russia. These issues are a stark reminder of the many challenges that continue to exist on the Union's doorstep. They are also a reminder of the stability that the Union has brought to our part of Europe and the obligation on us to act as a reliable and principled partner in supporting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in all of our neighbourhood.

We also discussed the health and economic impacts of Covid-19 and agreed the need to strengthen our co-ordination, especially as regards the development and distribution of a vaccine at EU level. We agreed to hold regular discussions on this issue. The response to Covid-19 also formed part of our consideration of our agenda item on the Single Market industrial and digital policy. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the Single Market to our economic well-being. While we have come to take its existence for granted, Covid-19 has also demonstrated how quickly it can be disrupted, including when member states do not act in a coherent and co-ordinated way. As leaders, we agreed that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on European and global economies, highlighting both our assets and dependencies. The Single Market will be a strong driver of our economic recovery with what we described as the "twin pillars" of the green and digital transformations helping us to foster new forms of growth, cohesion and convergence, strengthening the EU's resilience.

In our discussion of Covid-19, it was clear that most member states are experiencing an increase in case numbers, with more younger people affected than was the case earlier in the pandemic. Our meeting was a useful opportunity to share experience and ensure greater co-ordination in the future, particularly as regards travel, quarantine frameworks and the distribution of vaccines, which I fully support.

We also discussed relations between the EU and China. In his contribution to the debate, the Minister of State with responsibility for European Union affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will provide a report of that discussion, as well as further detail on the other external relations issues.

On the second day of our meeting, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, provided an update on the negotiations of a future relationship agreement with the United Kingdom. Her intervention followed the conclusion of the ninth round of negotiations that day. It also followed a bilateral meeting I had with President von der Leyen on Thursday at which we shared an assessment on the state of play in the negotiations and agreed that the UK needs to engage seriously if we are to bridge differences on important outstanding issues, including fisheries, state aid and governance. We also discussed progress on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and, in particular, the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

As the House will be aware, on Thursday morning, the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against the UK as a result of its failure to withdraw elements of its internal market Bill that are in breach of commitments in the withdrawal agreement. Over the coming weeks, the Commission will follow up in line with its procedures and the UK has the opportunity to respond. For any deal on the future relationship to be possible, the UK will have to work to restore the trust of all member states by implementing the withdrawal agreement fully and in good faith.

At Friday's meeting of the European Council, I shared my assessment of the current state of play, the remaining prospects for a free trade deal to be agreed in the period ahead and on the importance of sustained and positive progress on implementing the protocol. Deal or no deal, the protocol will enter into force on 1 January 2021 and its terms must be honoured in full.

Last week's meeting discussed a number of vitally important issues on the EU agenda and that will also be the case when we meet again next week. We will return to the issue of Brexit. President von der Leyen spoke to Prime Minister Johnson on Sunday, following which, in a joint statement, they asked negotiators on both sides to work intensively to try to bridge remaining gaps and agreed the importance of finding an agreement, if at all possible, as a strong basis for a strategic EU-UK relationship in the future. It remains my firm view that the best outcome for all is a future relationship agreement between the UK and the EU based on free, fair and sustainable trade and which protects job standards and our respective economies. I hope that when we meet on 15 October, real progress will have been made. I wish the EU's negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his team every success in the important work ahead. However, to guard against all eventualities, the European Council will also discuss work on preparedness for all scenarios after 1 January 2021.

The European Council will also discuss Covid-19, climate change and EU-Africa relations. The Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will provide details on what is envisaged for the discussion on EU-Africa relations in his concluding remarks. We will discuss Covid-19 and take stock of developments since we last met in terms of EU co-ordination.

On climate, the European Council will review progress towards the Union's objective of climate neutrality by 2050. Since leaders most recently discussed this issue in December 2019, the Commission has proposed a 2030 climate target plan including a European climate law and a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. At next week's meting, it is planned to hold an orientation debate on climate with a view to returning to the matter at our meeting in December. Our commitments on climate are essential to protecting the well-being of this and future generations and that of the planet. The green transition is also an essential pillar of our economic recovery. The development of a European climate law is consistent with Ireland's domestic approach. The climate action Bill under preparation and to be published later today will enshrine a national 2050 emissions reduction target into law. I will discuss with fellow leaders Ireland's support for increased ambition at European Union level while asserting the importance of cost effective and fair sharing of the effort across member states.

I will also have an opportunity to discuss these matters with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, whom I look forward to welcoming to Dublin tomorrow. In our meeting, we will discuss the important programme of work for the European Council for the period ahead, including matters on the agenda for next week's meeting. I look forward to engaging with my EU colleagues, collectively and bilaterally, at next week's meeting of the European Council and will report back to the House in due course.

I am sharing time with Deputy Brady. The European Council meets next week as the deadline for a Brexit deal between the EU and Britain fast approaches. The British Government continues to pursue an aggressive and destructive approach to negotiations, at the centre of which is Prime Minister Johnson's dangerous and reckless internal market Bill. The Bill cleared its final parliamentary hurdle in the House of Commons on 28 September and, as the Taoiseach knows, the provisions of this Bill contravene international law and are a blatant attempt by the British Government to renege on the protections for Ireland as set out in the Ireland and Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement. This cynical attempt by the British Prime Minister to use the future of this island as a bargaining chip is central to the looming prospect of a no-deal outcome and this has been rightly called out by the EU. I welcome the fact that the Union has issued infringement proceedings against the British Government in light of the internal market Bill, especially given the very real threat it poses to the Good Friday Agreement and a prospect of the hardening of the British Border on our island. The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called it correctly when she said that the Bill is, by its very nature, a breach of the obligation of good faith laid down in the withdrawal agreement. Moreover, if adopted as is, it will be in full contradiction of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The economic, political and social ramifications attached to any unravelling of these protections would be seismic. It would represent a profound double shock as we struggle with the impact of the pandemic. It is right that the Machiavellian behaviour on the part of the British Government and Prime Minster Johnson's persistent pandering to the Tory Brexiteers is to be checked and challenged in the courts. It is long past time that the British Government was relieved of the notion that it can simply walk away from binding agreements and treat Ireland and its people with such disrespect in the process. That is what we are dealing with here. We must remember that the Tories pursued their referendum in 2016 with zero regard for Ireland, engaged in a negotiating strategy with zero regard for Ireland and are dragging the people of the North out of the European Union against their vote to remain.

That is still their mindset as they attempt to engage the EU in a dangerous game of chicken, using Ireland as a bargaining chip in order to secure a favourable trade agreement. That is unacceptable. The people of Ireland cannot and will not be treated as collateral damage in a Tory Brexit.

Like the Taoiseach, I met Mr. Mick Mulvaney, the representative of the American Administration. Last week, I had a call with the US Congressional Friends of Ireland caucus. In both encounters I reiterated the very real need to stand up for Ireland and to ensure that the international community is aware and mobilised against the unacceptable threats from Britain. I am happy to say that across the Atlantic, they are resolute in their previously stated position, that is, that there will be no trade deal between the United States and Britain if there is any hardening of the British Border on the island of Ireland or any damage incurred to the Good Friday Agreement. It is vitally important that every diplomatic means possible is engaged to show a unity of purpose and to ensure the Good Friday Agreement and our peace process are protected. Through its use of the Internal Market Bill, the British Government has undermined trust in its capacity to stick to any agreement that it makes. That in turn erodes the prospect of reaching a deal.

Therefore, the Government must be energetic and determined in standing up to London when Ireland's interests are on the line. That means the Taoiseach lifting the phone with urgency when Prime Minister Johnson does anything that endangers the agreed protections for Ireland. It cannot be left to ambassadors, as effective as they are, to carry these messages. It has to come from the Head of Government.

I hope that is the spirit and way in which he will approach this meeting of the European Council. It is not too late for the British Government to pull back from the brink and do the right thing, respect international law and honour its agreements. The Taoiseach must be to the fore in forcefully putting this position to Prime Minister Johnson.

The meeting of the European Council next week comes quite quickly after the special meeting of the Council on 1 and 2 October. The Council afforded the Taoiseach the opportunity to address the floor on the issue of the impact and implications of Brexit on this country. Brexit represents the critical issue on the European stage for Ireland at this juncture.

In the midst of the deteriorating situation across the country, with the growing number of cases of Covid-19 and the reaction to the Tánaiste's crass commentary on NPHET and the Chief Medical Officer, the fact that we have to address the potentially cataclysmic implications of Brexit compounds the sense of emergency at this time.

While the Council will have its own agenda to pursue, there is no more important political issue on this island than Brexit. On 1 January, Brexit will come into force. We do not know for certain whether that will be in the form of a no-deal Brexit, although it is looking increasingly likely that this may, unfortunately, be the case. The reality for this island is that a no-deal Brexit, particularly against the backdrop of Tory obtuseness and blatant disregard for international law, holds an alarming prospect for Ireland North and South. It is particularly alarming when we look at the potential impact of Brexit on the Irish economy, which is finely balanced at present, as we absorb the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Against all expectations, the Exchequer returns for the Irish economy are much higher than anticipated, a fact which belies the devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers and their families who are suffering, in particular those in the domestic services economy that has been devastated by Covid-19. This has been compounded by the decision of the Government to cut the pandemic unemployment payment.

The resilience of the Irish economy is down to the performance of the export economy. As recently as yesterday, the Central Bank argued that the recovery of the Irish economy will remain uneven but that a no-deal Brexit will seriously hamper any potential for growth that exists in the economy for next year. We face into the coming months with our domestic economy devastated by the pandemic and our national finances and ability to navigate a recovery through the current political and health emergency being largely reliant on the expert economy. We are faced with an equally potentially devastating crisis, namely, the phenomenon of Boris Johnson's Tory Government. It is a Government which has single-handedly succeeded in manufacturing this mess through a litany of arrogance, dishonesty and abject disregard for the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland and the North of Ireland.

The land bridge across Britain is effectively an artery which, in normal times, represents an important conduit for the Irish export economy to Britain and the European continent. During the pandemic it has transformed into one of several critical arteries working to keep the body of the Irish economy alive. Unless the Government, with time running out, possibilities lessening and confidence in its performance leave evaporating at an alarming rate, can live up to its responsibilities of leadership and deliver for the Irish economy, we are heading for serious difficulties.

It is not difficult to visualise an Irish Dunkirk, where, rather than the beaches of France, a sizeable section of the Irish export transport fleet will be left to perish on the parking lots and in the traffic jams of southern England. The Government must act now to protect the national interest. It is simply not sufficient to offer platitudes that suggest that the market will sort out the issue of new transport routes to Europe. This is one area where the Government must break with its performance to date and get the job done right.

I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words about the upcoming European Council summit on 15 and 16 October. The first thing listed in the published agenda highlights is EU-UK relations. Apparently, the Council is going to take stock of the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and review the state of negotiations. Other issues on the agenda include climate change and external relations, including EU-Africa relations.

It is probably no surprise that most of us here will concentrate, in the few minutes we have, on the issue of EU-UK relations. In truth, the Vice-President of the Commission, Maros Sefcovic , in a pessimistic presentation to the European Parliament, said that time is short to reach a deal. He described the Internal Market Bill as a heavy blow to a British signature and to Britain's reliability.

Any deal will obviously require ratification in the European Parliament, across member states and within the UK Parliament. That will take time. We understand there are three outstanding issues, namely, fisheries, the so-called level playing field and oversight. We are very grateful that the Minister for Foreign Affairs provided a very good overview on these matters today to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. I had thought progress had been made on some of these issues but it seems that is not the case. The Minister said in respect of fisheries that the positions were hardening. I understood that there was almost an acceptance that there is no such thing as territorial waters and that what we are talking about is shared quotas but that is apparently now not the case.

On the level playing field issue, there is an absolute commitment in the agreed declaration on these matters.

Apparently, however, these will be resiled from. All of us want to be optimistic that, notwithstanding our experiences to date, there will be in agreement at the end of the day but simultaneously we must be prepared for no-deal. An enormous amount of work has been done in the past three years in preparation for a no-deal scenario. We have been on the cusp of that on three occasions now. This is the final hurdle. Brexit will happen on 1 January 2021. There seems to be within the Irish Government a fundamental dependence that we have legal certainty, an all-weather agreement that is enshrined in international law. If we reach a situation where we have no deal, the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocols are there to protect us so there cannot be a hard border. The problem is that not only has the British Government signalled its intention to resile from that but it has published legislation and threatened further legislation by way of amendments to its finance Bill which will fundamentally breach those international agreements. I will be interested in hearing later on from whomever is replying to this debate whether we are absolutely confident in this.

Our experience shows that we have great solidarity from our partners in Europe. When push comes to shove, if Britain enacts this legislation, resiles from the agreement and breaks international law, what can we do other than take the UK to a court? In that case, what would be the court? Britain will not recognise the European Court of Justice at that stage. Will we worsen our collective European Union position with the United Kingdom in defence of Ireland? All the indications to date are that we have received enormous solidarity and there is dismay across Europe at the publication in Britain of the Internal Market Bill. We have to ensure that if the worst happens, we have that solidarity that will see down any attempt by Britain to resile from its international agreements and solemn word on this.

On the issue of connectivity, I represent the constituency that includes Rosslare Europort. I have said this on many occasions that we need more direct services. We need to invest in that. We have a connectivity fund which we have not deployed. We have invested in our ports but not our ferries. We need to ensure we do this because the first test of our preparation for Brexit will be whether we can continue to get all our exports off the island of Ireland after 1 January next.

Next week, the Taoiseach will attend a European Council meeting which is, arguably, taking place in potentially one of the most pivotal periods for the future of our country for some time. Many have alluded to the fact that Brexit will loom large. Who knows but maybe between now and then, we will have seen some indication from the British Government that the theatrics will be put to one side and we can get down to negotiating a fair settlement. The omens are not good. The fact that the British Government has already in a very blatant way acknowledged that it has breached international law in respect of the withdrawal agreement does not give much succour or cause for hope.

One of the concerns that is coming from my constituency, which is right on the Border, is the premise being adopted, it appears, by Government speakers and other speakers we have heard today that in the event of a no-deal Brexit scenario, we would at least have the withdrawal agreement. The actions of the British Government must raise concerns that in the event of a no-deal scenario, we could very much end up in a situation where the British Government attempts to renege even on that agreement. We have to be cognisant of and prepared for that. We have asked the Taoiseach and Tánaiste numerous times to prepare for that eventuality. One of the outworkings of such an outcome would almost certainly be that the people of the North would be given an opportunity to decide whether they wanted to be under the jurisdiction of a British Government that would act in such a way or whether they would want to take the legal, democratic route afforded to them in the Good Friday Agreement to return to the European Union via Irish unity. We should be preparing for that eventuality, putting plans in place and ensuring that when people go to vote in such a scenario they know what they are voting for and that those who are advocating for the scenario of Irish unity, which I hope would include all parties in this House, will be united in saying what that would mean economically, constitutionally, socially and politically. We do not want to make the same mistake the Brexiteers made by striving for a political outcome and having no idea how to implement that outcome the day after the referendum.

Brexit will be a focal point for the Taoiseach at the European Council meeting next week. In addition, there are other major issues that need to be addressed at European level. The multi-annual financial framework still needs to be addressed, particularly how it pertains to the Common Agricultural Policy. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine yesterday, the Minister was not able to confirm what the position would be in January with regard to important Pillar 2 schemes, such as the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, other environmental schemes, the sheep welfare scheme and the beef payment scheme. Recipients of payments from those schemes do not know what will be the position regarding their participation in these schemes, which are crucial not only to farmers’ incomes but for the rural economies that depend upon them. When we are dealing with the post Covid-19 economic scenario, these are crucial issues that need to be addressed.

I appeal to the Taoiseach to speak to his Spanish counterpart at the European Council meeting and tell him to engage with the people of Catalonia. Spain's actions in imprisoning political representatives are unacceptable and it is shameful that Ireland has not been stronger in standing up for democratic rights and self-determination for the people of Catalonia. I hope the Taoiseach will take the opportunity, if it is afforded to him next week, to make those points on behalf of the Irish people.

As I have said previously, the Achilles heel of the Northern Ireland protocol is that it relies on the UK to implement it. I said that before the UK effectively broke international law. There is a serious risk that we will have a Brexit without a trade deal. That will potentially mean the loss of some 700,000 jobs across the European Union. It is predicted that in the event of there being no trade deal, approximately 35,000 of those job losses will be in Ireland. This is very serious and we are very exposed in the event of this happening. Some 43% of Irish food exports are to the UK. We are looking at potentially €1.5 billion in tariffs being placed on Irish goods exported to the UK. In the worst-case scenario businesses exporting to the UK would be hit by tariffs under WTO rules and those exporting to continental Europe through the UK land bridge would be hit by delays in transporting goods. They could also be hit by the devaluation of sterling which would further wipe out demand for Irish goods in UK markets. They could be further hit by an undercutting in consumer standards in the UK and changes to workers' rights and climate change protections, which would further undercut Irish goods in the UK market. They could also be hit by the undercutting of Irish goods through state aid to UK competitors. We have all of these factors. For Irish businesses exporting to the UK to survive, we need to have a very hands-on approach from the Government and a major support from the European Union.

I will add to the comments made by previous speakers on the situation in Lesbos and the need to take more than 50 people from the Moria refugee camp, where a fire took place recently.

I welcome the Taoiseach's commitment to look at that.

On the situation in Poland and rule of law, the European Commission has published a report citing interference with judicial independence in Poland. The Commission has also cited the increased Government influence over the media in Hungary and a weakening of safeguards against corruption, including a systematic lack of determined action to investigate and prosecute corruption cases involving high level officials or their immediate circle. We have seen political protection of the Orbán Government from some of the members of the European People's Party including, regrettably, Fine Gael, which is utterly unacceptable. It is very important that we defend human rights, democracy and the rights of minorities, including the LBGTQI community around the world but especially within the EU. The existence of so-called LBGTQI free zones in Poland is utterly unacceptable and an affront to our values as Europeans. It is crucial, therefore, that before the €750 billion is distributed as part of the recovery fund the Irish Government insists, at European Council level, that mechanisms to enforce rule of law are put in place and that the veto is withdrawn.

Will the Leas-Cheann Comhairle indicate who is the representative of the Minister?

The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, is in the Chamber.

I am sorry; I cannot see from up here.

I cannot see him at all but I presume he is in the back row.

Is féidir a dheimhniú go bhfuil sé anseo.

Go raibh maith agat. I ask that the Minister of State would raise that. I know he has been very vocal on this issue, for which I thank him, but we cannot put Irish taxpayers' money into this fund that is going into member states where the basic rule of law and protections for democracy and human rights are not being observed. I ask that he would make that case strongly and ask the Taoiseach to make it strongly at the European Council. The European Commission is pushing it strongly but I have had no indication so far that the Irish Government is supporting those measures that they are putting forward.

I want to raise an issue that happened at the weekend, namely, the demolition of Khirbet a-Rakeez, a small village in the south Hebron hills. B'Tselem, the Israeli anti-occupation human rights NGO, provided video footage of the Israeli military bulldozing a series of houses that had been funded by the international protection consortium, the EU and Irish Aid. This is not the first time we have seen demolition of EU-funded structures as part of the ongoing occupation of Palestine.

The south Hebron hills is a particularly sensitive area. There is a network of approximately 30 villages that are under constant threat. They have seen a near complete ban on construction and the repeated demolition of roads, houses, water cisterns and other buildings. Breaking the Silence, another Israeli NGO, published a series of testimonies from Israeli soldiers detailing the brutality of the military occupation of this area. At the same time we have seen an explosion in the number of settlements, illegal outposts and wildcat settlements in the area that are putting significant pressure on what many commentators are calling a slow motion population transfer of Palestinians out of that area and Israelis into it. Both the demolitions and the population transfer are grave breaches of international law obligations under the Geneva Convention.

This is Irish Aid taxpayers' money that has gone in to try to provide some sort of support to the Palestinians living in the south Hebron hills whose villages are being demolished. We need to use this EU summit, as we do others, to demand that there is compensation for these demolitions. If we are building humanitarian structures, housing and providing solar panels and they are being confiscated or destroyed, we should be looking for compensation for them. We cannot allow the impunity regarding breaches of international law to continue. Until we stand up to them and demand consequences for them, that is exactly what will happen. We are talking now about international law, Brexit, the UK's actions and how international law must be protected and upheld but if we are not willing to uphold it for others and to demand that others adhere to international law, what right do we have to seek the refuge of international law? This is an incredibly important issue, both for the furtherance of international law in general but also with respect to Irish taxpayers' money that has gone to fund aid structures that are now demolished and are simply rubble. This is an ongoing issue in the area and across Palestine and is one on which our Government needs to demand more action from our EU counterparts.

I raise the issue of Brexit and environmental concerns. We have talked a good deal about the level playing field but it is important to stress that one of the key issues is that the vast majority of Britain's environmental legislation comes from EU sources. If that gap is not closed as part of that level playing field, we will see a serious deterioration. That will affect us on this island because as I have said previously in this Chamber, nature does not give a damn about a line on a map or any sort of hard or soft border. We are one island with one biosphere and if we are seeing a degradation and a deterioration in environmental standards North of the Border, we will be in a lot of trouble here in the South also. It will impact on our farmers' ability to compete on a level playing field but it will also have much wider and detrimental impacts on Irish farming in general.

If we are discussing EU-Africa relationships, while I have spoken about an occupation at one end of the Mediterranean Sea, we have an occupation at the other end in terms of Morocco and Western Sahara. My hope is that through our position on the United Nations Security Council we can try to move the process forward. The EU, as a neighbour, through its Euro-Mediterranean agreements and its Africa relations, needs to play a role here. We need to raise the ongoing occupation and the transfer of population in the settlements within Western Sahara as much as we do the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestine.

Many Deputies spoke about the importance of human rights and standing up for democracy. While that is true in the EU, we must also look at ourselves We still need to demand that of our neighbours and of those we trade with, particularly those who claim the name "democracy". I hope the Taoiseach and the Minister of State can raise those very important issue.

I welcome much of what has been said. I believe we should make it our business to have a conversation with the Spanish Government around the disgraceful treatment of the Catalonians and Catalonian politicians.

I welcome what the previous speaker said regarding illegal land grabs and occupations in Western Sahara and in Palestine. At every opportunity we call on the Government to do the utmost on that because some of these situations we are entering into are far worse than we could have ever conceived years ago. Many of these cases are a tragedy.

A major issue for us at this point in time is Brexit. I attended the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs earlier. The focus from a governmental point of view needs to be on delivery and the possibility that the EU and the British Government can come up with some sort of solution, be that a trade deal or absolute clarity around the Irish protocol and the withdrawal agreement.

We may all believe or guess that Mr. Boris Johnson and company are only employing a negotiating gambit but it is incredibly frightening that they are willing to breach international law. It is feared their Internal Markets Bill and possibly their Finance Bill will be used to circumvent an existing agreement. We absolutely welcome the European Commission's legal action against the absolutely illegal action of the British Government. People claim this is shocking but, from a republican perspective, British bad faith is something one gets used to and that has to be dealt with. Lately, we have all seen on television shows, particularly "Unquiet Graves", the reality of what British rule in Ireland has been. The reality is that there have been death squads.

We believed that, with the withdrawal agreement and Irish protocol, we had mitigated the worst aspects of Brexit. Now, however, we have no clarity on that. I accept that, at this point, we seem to have international solidarity. The Tánaiste stated the European Union has stood firm on the Irish protocol, Irish requirements, the reality of what we deal with and our history. His view is that the worst-case scenario is that Britain is not employing a negotiating gambit and is incredibly serious and willing to circumvent the rules and regulations, thus having an impact on the lives of people, particularly in Border locations such as Dundalk. His view is that the European Union will stand firm. We welcome the solidarity shown by the European Union and politicians in America. We need to ensure this is maintained. There is an absolute requirement on the Government to ensure this is delivered upon.

There are two issues I want to speak about. The first is the very good news that emerged from Athens a few hours ago on the conviction of the fascist organisation Golden Dawn. The top leaders of that organisation have been convicted of running a criminal organisation. Its members have been convicted of the murder in 2013 of 34-year-old rapper Pavlos Fyssas, a left-wing activist. Golden Dawn has been convicted of the attempted murder of Egyptian fishermen and a brutal assault on communist trade union activists of the All-Workers Militant Front, PAME. I pay tribute to the anti-fascist lawyers involved and, in particular, the broader anti-fascist movement that drove this process. It was not driven by the capitalist state; it was driven from below by the anti-fascist movement. In fact, the state prosecutor at one stage recommended the acquittal of some of those who have now been convicted. It is a victory for the acquitted and the entire anti-fascist movement. If we consider the brutal violence and horrific stabbing of Pavlos Fyssas by a Golden Dawn activist and read the transcripts of the telephone calls throughout the organisation on the assaults on the communist activists and Egyptian fishermen, we see the threat the far right and fascism pose if they get a foothold in society. It is a warning to all of us in Ireland, where the far right is trying to get a toehold. It poses, even before coming to power, a serious threat in terms of assault and a threat to the lives of migrants, left-wing activists, LGBTQ activists, trade union activists and others. They absolutely have to be stopped. We cannot rely on the State to do so. The infiltration of the police in Greece by Golden Drawn is a striking feature. We must build a mass movement to stop the far right, using the slogan "No paseran", which means “They shall not pass”. We must also build a left-wing political alternative to channel the genuine anger and alienation of people in a correct direction.

My second point is that there is a growing European movement for a Covid tax, a tax on the super-wealthy and the big corporations here and across the rest of Europe. The view is that they must pay the price for the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as opposed to hitting ordinary people with austerity. It is a proposal for four sorts of taxes: the first on the assets of investment funds and holding companies; the second on property transfers; the third on net corporate profits exceeding €5 million; and the fourth on wealth. It is vital that we make the rich pay for this crisis as opposed to ordinary people.

To follow on from that, I wish to add to the point I made to the Taoiseach earlier. The EU fiscal treaty rules have been waived in the context of Covid-19. Unless there is something we do not know, there is nothing whatsoever in those rules preventing the Government from spending the extra money that would be necessary to restore the PUP, the wage subsidy and other supports. As Deputy Paul Murphy just indicated, we could achieve this by imposing a solidarity tax. Considering that savings are growing among certain groups and profits are increasing in certain sectors, such as pharmaceuticals and IT, there is no reason whatsoever we could not impose a solidarity tax on those who are doing very well and use the proceeds to prevent our having to impose austerity, unfairness and hardship on people who have lost jobs and employment through no fault of their own as a result of the pandemic. I urge the Government to do that.

The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council said the deficit we could be facing at the end of the year is between €10 billion and €18 billion. This is not an insignificant figure but, considering that €64 billion was poured into the banks the last time we had a crash, it is a small price for ensuring solidarity and fairness for the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost incomes and employment as a result of Covid.

I am thankful for the opportunity to speak during statements on the pre-Council meetings on 15 and 16 October 2020. Three key issues are to be discussed, namely EU–UK relations, climate change and external relations with Africa. I will take the opportunity to talk about the current status of the EU–UK relationship and various scenarios that will arise after January 2021.

Thinking beyond the United Kingdom, I spoke last week in this House about how I believe our strategy for being Brexit-ready in the dairy sector has too great an emphasis on maintaining the status quo relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding my appreciation for the need to maintain a strong North–South relationship and that any approach we take must be embedded in an all-Ireland approach, Ireland should be openly talking to its EU colleagues about its position within the European Union when the United Kingdom leaves on January 2021. This is not to say I do not highly commend the work the European Union has done in standing up for Irish interests in the negotiations with the United Kingdom; I am simply highlighting that it may happen that it will be more efficient for us to explore alternative areas of growth within the European Union than try to maintain a potentially unworkable relationship with the United Kingdom. The level-headedness of the President of the European Council when he stated last week that we are united and very calm was quite welcome but a conversation now needs to begin on making adequate supports available to help countries, particularly Ireland, to realign themselves within the Single Market when the United Kingdom leaves.

There is an important conversation on the rule of law in Europe at present. There are calls for the Covid-19 recovery fund to be linked to adherence to the rule of law. I very much support and agree with this. While I recognise the need to uphold European values outlined in Articles 2 and 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which refer to "respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities", we must always ask ourselves what the impact of such measures will be on upholding these values.

Will they make for stronger values by making the position of those who disregard them untenable and the people within the country call for change or will the EU be made a scapegoat by national governments, solidifying their power among their people even further, which is a major concern?

A large part of the reason for Brexit was that large parts of the UK felt they had been left behind. This anger was taken by parties in the UK, turning the EU into a scapegoat and ultimately leading the people famously to want to take back control. The EU should recognise the role that it must play in impacting the level of inequality across and within member states. To uphold the integrity of the Union going forward this must be an issue that we take more seriously. We must learn from the lessons of the reasons, perceived or otherwise, that caused the UK to leave the European Union. Ireland experiencing first-hand the chaos that is caused by a fellow neighbour leaving the EU should be at the forefront of advocating for the EU to address seriously the issues that caused Britain to leave the EU. If the EU is truly united on the issue of Brexit, it should be equally united in engaging on a level of self-reflection.

I understand that there is much that has to be done in the current negotiations and that altering some of the EU positions now may in some way weaken the EU negotiating hand vis-à-vis the United Kingdom. However, I think such a move would show the EU to be a more mature player in the negotiations and could potentially strengthen the ability of the EU to achieve the least disruptive form of Brexit, which would be incredibly important for people working in the agricultural sector, thousands of whom are living and based in my constituency. It is of great importance to me to ensure that would happen. This is not to say that the EU should lower itself to some of the, frankly, xenophobic tactics that have been used by some in the Brexit campaign. It should reclaim the narrative of the benefits of the EU, while also working on the social reforms I outlined.

The United Kingdom Government has done a lot to make joining the EU the worst foreign policy decision the UK has ever implemented. The EU should not only be strong in upholding the integrity of the Single Market, it should be firm on the benefits of it, of which there are many. The balancing act of the reforms that are needed to prevent another Brexit, while also being more confident in asserting the positions of the EU are two points which I hope An Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, can express at the upcoming Council meeting.

The threat of a no-deal Brexit cannot be overstated. The Central Bank has stated that a no-deal Brexit could cost Ireland over 100,000 jobs. Under a no-deal Brexit, the cost of food and other products in Ireland could jump massively. The executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association stated that 60% of flour exports from two mills in Belfast could be subject to €172 per tonne. Fisheries would lose up to 5,000 jobs. In a no-deal Brexit, the €5 billion of Irish agrifood exports to Britain would be in serious jeopardy. The list goes on, the aforementioned being the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond the economic cost, there is the major cost to the Six Counties of the North of Ireland. I listened to the speech from Deputy Cian O'Callaghan a couple of minutes ago in which he spoke about the Achilles heel of Ireland in the Brexit situation. The truth of the matter is the Achilles heel of Ireland's national interest is the fact that the Tory Government in London still has a radical influence over the direction of this country. The Tories in London still determine whether or not we can trade North-South, whether we can move people North-South and whether we can act as an economic unit. The Tories do not get a vote on the island of Ireland. They have no interests in Ireland and they know nothing about it yet they determine our future and our self-interest. As long as this continues, there is a weakness and an exposure with regard to Irish policy.

One of the issues that has frustrated members of Aontú over the last while is the fact that the Government has been weak in its approach to Britain. There is no doubt in my mind that Ireland's diplomatic approach, which is softly, softly and very quiet, may work with other European countries but it certainly does not work with Britain because Britain is an outlier. Britain does not fulfil its word. It has admitted that it has broken international law and yet it is the European Union that has done the running with regard to standing up for Ireland. I have stated that it is a welcome decision of the European Union to take the British to a European court for its breaking of international law. That was a positive and strong thing for the European Union to do. However, I cannot understand why the Irish Government is so reticent to play hardball with the British because in fairness it is dealing with a country that is playing hardball with Europe. It is a negotiation policy of the British to hold a gun to the head of the European Union with regard to the internal market Bill. As a result, the Irish Government needs to step up to the plate with regard to its response.

One of the most important documents ever written on the island of Ireland is the Good Friday Agreement. It brought about a peace that many of my generation at that time did not think was possible. It is central to the development of the country, especially to the unitary state that I would like to see some sunny day. The truth of the matter is it is being radically abused by the British Government. Until very recently there was very little response from the Irish Government in that regard. The last time I spoke on this matter I urged the Tánaiste to go to the United States and ask the special envoy to Ireland to visit the international capitals and impress upon them the necessity for them to stand up for international law and to renege on any prospect of a trade agreement with Britain until it fulfils its international obligations. I am glad to see some of that has happened in recent times, but there is far more that could be done by the Irish Government in that regard.

What is the Good Friday Agreement worth to us as a country? How important is it? Is it important enough for Ireland to threaten diplomatic relations between Ireland and Britain? My instinct is that an international agreement of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement is so valuable that it would be a natural response from any government around the world in such a situation literally to threaten the aggressive behaviour of the other country, in this case Britain, with all of the tools available to it. I would have liked to have seen Ireland take a legal case, if it were possible, against Britain for the steps it has taken. I would have liked to have seen the Irish Government demand British diplomats attend Government Buildings and told in no uncertain terms that if Britain proceeds along this route of breaking international law, damaging the Good Friday Agreement, damaging peace and of potentially creating a hard border on the island of Ireland, diplomatic relations will be strained radically as a result. I would threaten that if Britain proceeds down that route Ireland would break diplomatic relations with it. Some people might say that is an extreme step to take but if the Good Friday Agreement is as important as all of that to us then there comes a time when Government has to take strong measures. Thus far, we have remained behind the apron of the European Union. The European Union has taken the strong measures. I know from talking to people within the British political establishment that the legal case brought against Britain by the European Union has woken up many of the backbenchers, in particular in the Tory party, to just how severely the British have overstepped the mark on this. Often times change in the Tory party is generated by backbenchers standing up against the Front Bench.

If anything, the particular aggressive nature of the British in the negotiations that have happened needs to be matched by the Irish Government. The British need to be told in no uncertain terms that we will not accept in any way any damage to the Good Friday Agreement or any damage to the unitary development of our State.

I had prepared some notes and I will discuss them momentarily, but I must take exception to some of comments made by Deputy Tóibín. There appears to be a misconception that Ireland and the EU are somehow separate. Ireland is the EU. We are discussing our European Council meeting next week. We are talking about an action taken in the Irish Government's name by the European Union, of which Ireland is an equal member. The Irish Government has played a proactive role throughout the Brexit process. Talk of cutting off diplomatic ties with the UK feeds into the extreme narrative of the very people Deputy Tóibín castigated on the Conservative Party's backbenches. We are better than that, quite frankly. We want a resolution of this. Regardless of what happens on 1 January next, the UK will still be our nearest neighbour. It will still be a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement which the Deputy mentioned. We must act as the mature adult in the room and not separate the Irish effort from the collective European Union effort. Michel Barnier is as much our negotiator as he is the European Commission's, Belgium's, Bulgaria's or any other member state's negotiator. We have to state that and be very careful in our language.

We are having statements before the European Council meeting. We have not really had an opportunity to have post-European Council meeting statements, although the Minister of State attended for the first time last week. It was great to see both him and the Taoiseach able to attend in person. It is very important. The issue I wish to raise regarding the previous Council meeting is that while I welcome the sanctions imposed by the European Union on the regime in Belarus, and I realise how difficult it was to get the agreement of all 27 member states on that, I am disappointed that the President of Belarus is not on the list, unlike in the actions taken by the UK, the US and other countries. We must continue to look forward to that. The sanctions against the Belarusian regime must include President Lukashenko and every key actor in his government. The events we see in the streets of Minsk and across Belarus are galling, with people being taken from their families in the dead of night, beatings, intimidation and everything else.

Turning to the forthcoming European Council meeting, I expect the Council to ratify Mairead McGuinness as the new European Commissioner. She came through the European Parliament's process today with a massive result. It is a great testament to her 16 years as an MEP and the high regard in which she is held across the EU. With regard to climate change, a challenge has been put down by the European Parliament to the European Council and each member state to raise their ambition. Crucially, however, as regards Africa and the EU's co-ordinated approach to Africa, I believe this is something in which Ireland must play a more proactive role. We must embrace the new embassies going to Ghana and across the continent. Ireland has a proud history in Africa, be it through missionary work, its NGOs and, most importantly, its peacekeepers. It behoves Ireland, as a small country that knows what colonialism and its legacy are, to play a proactive role in the European Union. It is something on which we can lead.

The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs had a very worthwhile meeting this morning. We discussed the update on Brexit negotiations with the Minister, Deputy Coveney. It was a lengthy meeting and we covered a number of key areas. I will not repeat them, but I wish to refer to the issues that pertain to next week's European Council meeting. We must be wary of, and not feed into, the ongoing theatrics in London and the internal discussions within certain political parties or parliamentary chambers. Once again, there is talk of artificial deadlines coming from British Government sources today. That is inappropriate and we should not engage with, or feed into, it. Of course, along with our European colleagues, we are aghast at the conditions contained in the Internal Market Bill and how they run a cart and horses through the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, which is so vital not just to this island but also to the European Union and what it stands for when it comes to the rule of law, upholding peace treaties and being the most successful peace process in the world, as the European project is.

More worrying, we look to what is coming down the track in the Finance Bill in the United Kingdom. If measures that have been discussed are put into that Bill, at that stage we will know that the British Government simply is not serious about a deal. However, it should never be the European Union which forces that. The European Union has the absolute responsibility to debate to the last second and to ensure that we can try as much as possible to secure a future relationship between the EU and the UK. That is why we look at the areas that provide the greatest difficulty and what the European response should be. The European position and the mandate given to Michel Barnier by the Council and validated by the European Parliament is very important when it comes to the level playing field and making sure that the standards of the Single Market will always be maintained through any agreement with a third party. That is what the UK is becoming. It is a special third party, the only one that has ever left the EU, and is very close to the Union both geographically and economically. However, in this member state we are aware of the importance of the level playing field for maintaining standards, be it in agrifood production or our approach to the environment. Equally, there is the importance of state aid in that level playing field in the post-pandemic era, and ensuring that state aid is agreed and cannot be used to undermine the Single Market and its values.

Moving parallel with the ongoing negotiations between Lord Frost and Michel Barnier, there is the joint implementation committee on the protocol. I was heartened by the comments of European Commissioner Sefcovic yesterday in the European Parliament in which he made it clear that the joint implementation committee is not a negotiation. The committee is about the implementation of the protocol. It has been agreed. The responsibilities of both the British Government and the European Union, and therefore the Irish Government, are quite clear in black and white. We have seen great progress in places such as Dublin Port as we prepare for what will happen in the future, but that must be replicated in places such as Belfast Harbour, Belfast International Airport, Derry airport and Warrenpoint.

The final point I wish to make is one we should discuss more. It is not necessarily the negotiation between the UK and the EU, but the internal negotiation within the European Union. I have been speaking to colleagues from other member states, either from our European People's Party, EPP, political family or contacts I have built up, and it is quite clear that the mood and opinion on Brexit are dimming ever so slightly among other member states. It impacts on us and is important to us, but when speaking to colleagues the issue is making sure that we can keep it relevant. Also, we must make sure that the impact of Brexit on Ireland, in an era when we are dealing with a global pandemic, is also reflected in the European Recovery Fund. This is the major challenge specifically for the Minister of State, more so possibly than for the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach. It is to make sure that we can deliver and that the Irish voice is heard on how acutely impacted we will be, regardless of what happens in the negotiation. There is no such thing as a good Brexit for Ireland or Europe and certainly not for the United Kingdom.

With Brexit, I have seen today at first hand what happens if we do not get the ports right. I drove home last night and drove up again this morning. Coming into Dublin I met a 5 km tailback of vehicles leaving. Some 50% or 60% of them were trucks trying to leave Dublin with materials. Three lanes were backed up for 5 km. What will happen to our hauliers if there is a hard Brexit? All hauliers have under eight hours' driving time. With the restrictions introduced at midnight, hauliers have been held up on the motorway today for an hour. We could have simplified it and they could have left today on a truck lane to get the commercial vehicles out. If the same thing happens with our ports, all the hauliers and all the produce leaving Ireland will be in big trouble.

I sincerely hope the EU and the UK arrive at an amicable and respectful agreement, one that does not bring about major disruption in the Irish agriculture sector. I am aware the Council agenda will not deal comprehensively or specifically with agriculture, but I wish to reiterate my concerns, which are shared by the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and other farming organisations.

Among the key Brexit priorities must be the retention of tariff-free access to, and maintenance of the value of, the EU-UK market. The potential disruption to trade flows between Ireland and the North of Ireland must be minimised. In addition, an increase in low-cost food imports which undermine the value of the UK market would have a devastating effect on the Irish agrifood sector.

The value of EU agrifood exports cannot be undermined by an increase in low-cost food imports into the UK market. The IFA believes that the EU must set as a strategic objective in the Brexit negotiations the maximisation of the future value of the EU farming and food sector. If this outcome is not possible the EU must seek to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement between the EU and the UK which would include the following specific elements for agriculture and food: tariff-free trade for agricultural products and food; maintenance of equivalent standards on food safety, animal health, welfare and the environment; and an application of the common external tariff for imports to both the EU and the UK.

In the short time I have, I want to highlight and make sure that our agriculture industry will not be compromised in any way following the break-up of the UK and the European Union. As we are an island nation and there may be tariffs to go through England, we must ensure that we have direct access from Ireland to mainland France by ferry or whatever to ensure that we have ample ways of getting our produce into the rest of Europe. That is very important. Cattle are fairly good at the present time. I have not been able to say that for the last four years while I have been up here in this House. We do not want anything to happen that would be to the detriment of farm produce, whether it is the live export trade, the beef trade or any produce from Irish farms. We must make sure. Our Government has to insist that it gets the financial support to develop this new ferry service from Ireland to France and there must be no doubt about it that we are looking for that. We must ensure that Irish produce is able to get out of this country.

Also we must do everything possible to maintain the markets we have with the UK and that we have had traditionally. They are our nearest neighbours and a lot of buyers come down from the North of Ireland. We must ensure that nothing jeopardises that. They have been good buyers and we welcome them to places like Cahersiveen, Kenmare and Castleisland. They always have a positive influence on the cattle trade.

I am sharing time with Deputy Harkin. The Brexit talks are rapidly coming to a head and we see from reports this week that there are only really two items holding up agreement. One of those happens to be fishing. We in the north west and in all coastal communities around the country are waiting to see what will happen. Perhaps the British are using it to push for concessions on other matters from the EU. If that is the case, what would be the quid pro quo? If the deal comes, the question as to whether it will be of benefit to Ireland is vitally important too.

I am not so sure we should be confident that the EU is going to look after our fishing interests. It has not done so in the past. We are well down the EU pecking order in respect of fishing and it would not be beyond the EU to do a deal that looks after France, Spain and the Netherlands and leaves us behind. Would that be the trade-off in respect of the Border? Those are the things we need to know. The fishing communities know full well that the EU has never had our best interests at heart. Nor has our Government but that is another matter entirely.

The EU Council is pushing for more and more militarisation. What is our role going to be in that? We have troops already in Mali, Libya is very prominent in the EU's sights now and Mozambique appears to be next in line for EU troops. The Portuguese Foreign Minister, Augusto Santos Silva, said there was a terrorist and jihadist insurgency there and that he was confident that the EU will respond positively to the Mozambican request for military help. Maybe the EU could work towards the elimination of some of the root causes of terrorism instead such as insecurity, poverty, exclusion, unemployment, environmental degradation, corruption and the misuse of public funds, thereby contributing to the eradication of the terrorist organisations. Such measures would respond to the needs of the Mozambican people, preventing them from being vulnerable targets of radicalisation through creating jobs and opportunities for young people. It is important that the local population benefits from the exploitation of the natural resources which Mozambique possesses in abundance. From the 1990s, the Mozambican elite was told the free market would end poverty and that by becoming rich they were helping the poor because wealth would trickle down to the poorest. How long before there is an Irish contingent on a EU mission helping to prop up a corrupt elite and defending the interests of transnational mining and petrochemical corporations in Mozambique? That is a question that should be asked at the next Council.

The next European Council meeting will concentrate on EU climate and digital goals and of course on Brexit. On climate goals, the EU has committed to an emissions reduction target of 55% by 2030 in order to be carbon neutral by 2050. Does the new climate Bill to be launched today fully integrate those targets into its actions? There will be a €600 billion fund in the next EU budget for climate and green investment including a just transition. Are we preparing in a coherent way across Departments to take full advantage of the opportunities that will be presented by this fund? What role will the regional assemblies play to ensure a balance of investment across the regions? It is essential that the regions do not lose out in all of this and crucial that it is not a top-down process. Similarly, the digital transition will have a profound impact on society and the economy. We must ensure strong regional participation and impact. Otherwise, all the talk of balanced regional development in the programme for Government is meaningless.

It is my understanding that Brexit was just a brief information point at the end of the last European Council, which wrapped up on Friday. I believe the mood was souring and I am informed that many EU leaders are coming to the view that just maybe a no-deal can be "less worse" than a bad deal. Since then, Chancellor Merkel has met with Mr. Barnier, we have had the phone call between Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson and it is more positive. However, I believe we are on a knife edge. Unlike some people in this Chamber, I believe our strength in these negotiations comes from the legal basis of the withdrawal agreement with the EU foursquare behind us. Commissioner Sefcovic speaking in the European Parliament last week described the Good Friday Agreement as crucial while the US Congress sees itself as a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. We do not need to behave like the British. We should not play their game. We should play the game that we can win, the game with our partners.

Gabhaim buíochas le gach Teachta a bhí ag labhairt agus ag cur isteach sa díospóireacht. Bhí pointí an-tábhachtacha déanta maidir leis an Eorap agus maidir leis an tír seo. Táim buíoch do na Teachtaí a rinne cur síos ar roinnt de na ceisteanna tábhachtacha a bhaineann le caidreamh seachtrach na hEorpa, ceist a pléadh ag an gcruinniú speisialta de Chomhairle na hEorpa sa Bhruiséil an tseachtain seo caite nó a bheidh ar an gclár ag an gcruinniú de Chomhairle na hEorpa an tseachtain seo chugainn. As the Taoiseach indicated last week, the European Council held a number of discussions.

He has asked me to outline the situation on EU-China relations, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and on the attempted assassination of Mr. Alexei Navalny. I will briefly report on these matters and also discuss the issues of the EU and the African Union. If I have time, I will go through some of the issues that were raised by Members.

A planned EU-China summit in September was postponed in view of the Covid-19 situation. At last week's European Council, leaders were briefed on a meeting held by video conference in place of the planned summit on 14 September between President Michel, President von der Leyen and Chancellor Merkel on the EU side, with Chancellor Merkel there on behalf of the German Presidency, and President Xi Jinping on the Chinese side.

In the discussion that followed, EU leaders emphasised the need to rebalance the economic relationship between the EU and China. They also emphasised the goal of finalising negotiations on an ambitious EU-China comprehensive investment agreement by the end this year to address outstanding market access and level playing field issues that exist on various trading fronts.

The European Council called on China to assume greater responsibility in dealing with global challenges, notably by taking more ambitious action on climate change, on supporting a multilateral response to Covid-19 and on debt relief with a particular focus on Africa. Leaders also expressed their serious concerns about the human rights situation in China, which was also raised by the EU side at the meeting on 14 September. Leaders at the European Council reaffirmed the EU's policy towards China and look forward to a meeting of all 27 leaders with President Xi next year.

The European Council discussed the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan had escalated in the days before the meeting. Leaders called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for both Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage in substantial discussions without precondition.

The European Council condemned the assassination attempt on Mr. Alexei Navalny with a chemical nerve agent from the novichok group. They called on the Russian authorities to co-operate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, investigating this case. The European Council will return to this matter next week following the release an OPCW report. The matter is likely to form part of a wider discussion at the meeting on relations between the EU and Russia.

Next week, the European Council will hold a strategic discussion on relations between the EU and the African Union. This is crucially important. This discussion was originally planned for the European Council in June of this year ahead of a summit between all 27 EU leaders and the African Union leaders at the end of October. This summit has also been postponed but it is welcome that leaders will take the opportunity next week to discuss the EU's approach to Africa and the importance of strengthening relations between the EU and Africa. The key strategic objective of the Government's new Africa strategy is to actively promote and contribute to a more effective EU-Africa partnership.

The European Council may also discuss other topical external relations issues at the meeting next week. Preparations for next week's meeting are ongoing and will be finalised at the General Affairs Council which I will attend in Luxembourg next week and the Taoiseach and I will report to the House following the European Council.

I will deal with some of the issues raised by Members. I thank Deputy Cian O'Callaghan for his comments on the multi-annual financial framework and the strong rule-of-law mechanism that is needed. That is important. The issue of Poland and Hungary is obviously important but there are other issues in Poland. I assure Deputy O'Callaghan and the House that I had a bilateral meeting with my Polish counterpart and subsequently wrote to him specifically on rule-of-law issues. Poland should be and is a long-standing friend of Ireland. We are a country with warm relations with Poland. As friends, we can say that we look at what is happening at the moment in Poland with confusion. People simply cannot understand this is happening in the European Union and I urge Poland to look at what is happening. I do so as a friend and do that to Poland as a country that has given us huge support and solidarity in the Brexit process. I was glad to express our thanks to Poland for that at the General Affairs Council.

The issue of Belarus has been mentioned and I am aware the Taoiseach discussed that.

Deputy Carthy from Sinn Féin somehow blamed the Government with regard to the uncertainty on the European budget. Through the Taoiseach in the summer, however, the Government agreed the budget for the European Union, including the agricultural budget, for the next seven years. However, that must be approved democratically by the Parliament. Negotiations are continuing with the European Parliament and it is looking for a much stronger recognition of rule-of-law issues. As I understand it, the Sinn Féin Member of the European Parliament has signed up to a common position of the European Parliament on this issue. Those negotiations obviously take time. We hope they will conclude and I have no doubt we will be ready for what will be a massive financial package, not just to Irish farmers but to the broader EU, which then benefits us a small trading open economy. If we have a strong Europe economically, our businesses and jobs will benefit.

I thank Deputy O'Connor for his thoughtful at contribution. He will be glad to know the issue of the conference on the future of Europe is very much on the agenda and I will take on board his points when we come to discuss that matter. When that conference is set up, Deputy O'Connor and his constituents will have a huge opportunity to partake in that. I certainly will encourage people to do that when it happens.

The issue of ferries was brought up. I visited Dublin Port this morning and we want to make sure we are ready. The issue with shipping is that it is flexible. It is not like a train line which goes from point to point and cannot be easily moved. Routes are changing all the time and new routes have been added, allowing Ireland to trade directly with the continent. That is happening already and I have no doubt more will happen. I am not certain that a public service obligation, PSO, subsidy is needed. I believe the market will react but, obviously, the Government keeps these things under review at all times.

This morning, for example, I was able to visit a roll-on roll-off ferry that travels between Ireland and Portugal providing options that were not there before and it seems to suit quite a number of companies. It was interesting to see the trading goods coming off that ferry this morning in Dublin Port. I thank all our ports around the country for the work they are doing supported, obviously, by the Office of Public Works, OPW, the Revenue Commissioners and, particularly, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

As for Deputy Tóibín's comments, I believe Deputy Richmond summed it up quite well. Deputy Tóibín criticised Ireland for this mad proposal that we did not break off diplomatic relations on the one hand and he praised the European Commission for its tough approach to Britain on the other. The European Commission acts on behalf of every member state of the European Union. It is acting on our behalf. That is what the agreement is with. By publishing the Internal Market Bill and progressing it through the House of Commons, the United Kingdom is breaking an agreement with the European Union, which is all 27 members. Therefore, the European Commission takes legal action on our behalf and it is doing so. In praising the European Union for its action and in criticising the Irish Government for its alleged inaction, as outlined by Deputy Tóibín, the Deputy shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the European Union works. I have no difficulty in asking officials to discuss these issues in future with the Deputy if he needs to, because it is important we all have a good understanding of it.

The idea, however, that we would break off diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom at this particular moment or at any moment is completely mad, to put it mildly. It is absolutely essential for us to maintain the Good Friday Agreement to which Britain, of course, is a party and that we maintain diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom and use our relations to influence them, to talk to them, speak honestly to them and be angry with them from time to time. When one breaks off diplomatic relations, however, one does not have that connection or those relationships. I am not even sure of the status of international agreements, when one breaks off diplomatic relations, such as the Good Friday Agreement. Therefore, it is for the sake of the Good Friday Agreement. I have said before that the agreement seeks to keep and maintain good relations between the communities in the North, to maintain good relations North and South and to maintain good relations between Britain and Ireland. Deputy Tóibín's position of seeking to break off diplomatic relations with Britain would, effectively, nullify the intention and purpose of the Good Friday Agreement. Those three sets of relationships are key to maintaining peace on this island and key also to maintaining the allowance of the people of Northern Ireland to control their own destinies. That is important.

I wish to thank our diplomats for the work they do. We have read histories of what our diplomats have done over the years and history is repeating itself in terms of the good work they are doing in building up relations with key people, particularly, in the United Kingdom at this time. We will probably read the history of that in years to come. However, that work is ongoing. We do not need to do as Deputy Tóibín proposes and I am not sure anybody else in this House will take that proposal seriously.

Make no mistake a Cheann Comhairle, the action taken by the European Commission on our behalf against the United Kingdom is absolutely necessary because what the United Kingdom did was completely wrong with regard to the Internal Market Bill. That process will continue but we can take that hard line. We can be angry with Britain and express it clearly, as the Taoiseach did to Boris Johnson while maintaining diplomatic relations, which are essential for all our futures on these two islands.

Sitting suspended at 3.50 p.m. and resumed at 4.50 p.m.