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

I attended a meeting of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday last, 15 and 16 October. We discussed a wide range of pressing and strategic issues over the course of two days. Our meeting opened on Thursday with a presentation by the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli. He set out the Parliament’s thinking on the European Union's seven-year budget and the next generation European Union recovery package, which was agreed to by the Council on 1 July. I hope it will be possible to secure early agreement in the ongoing trilateral discussions involving the Parliament, the Council and the Commission so that these vital funds can begin to flow on schedule. We then discussed Brexit, climate action and Covid-19.

On Friday morning, we discussed external relations issues, with the main focus on the European Union's strategic relationship with Africa. We also considered Turkish maritime activity in the eastern Mediterranean, the situation in Belarus and the shooting-down of flight MH17. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will provide further detail on our discussions on external relations, while I will focus the remainder of my remarks on our discussions on Brexit, Covid-19 and climate action.

Following President Sassoli's intervention, the European Council discussed the state of play in negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom. As the House will be aware, we are entering the final and critical phase. The European Union's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, shared his assessment of where matters stand, outlining where progress has been made during the talks and where more progress is needed. He gave a comprehensive, succinct analysis of the circumstances pertaining to Brexit and outlined his overall desire, ultimately, to see an agreement between Britain and Europe. He instanced peace in Ireland as one of his strong motivations in respect of the need for a constructive and sustainable future relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe and a good free trade agreement, noting that geopolitical circumstances in the world, as we move into the future, demand such an agreement.

The period of transition will end on 31 December. The European Council noted the progress on the key issues of interest to the Union and that it still was not sufficient for agreement to be achieved. It was clear the European Council's determination remains to have as close as possible a partnership with the United Kingdom, as set out in our negotiating mandate and our previous guidelines, statements and declarations. The key remaining issues in the negotiations include the level playing field, governance and fisheries. I was joined by a number of other leaders in insisting on the importance of a fair and balanced outcome in respect of fisheries for our fishing enterprises and coastal communities. I pointed out the degree to which quite a number of our coastal communities are very dependent on the fishing industry and the jobs that flow from it.

There was agreement that fair competition, or a level playing field as it has become known, is essential for the protection of the Single Market and for jobs and industry throughout Europe. We also agreed that any new agreement will need a robust, speedy and effective governance mechanism to resolve any disputes that may arise in the future. The European Council invited Michel Barnier to continue negotiations in the coming weeks. We also called on the United Kingdom to make the necessary moves to make agreement possible.

Trust is an essential part of any negotiation, and there is no doubt that trust has been damaged by the UK Government's tabling of its Internal Market Bill, elements of which contravene the commitments the UK entered into as part of the withdrawal agreement. The European Council recalled that the withdrawal agreement and its protocols must be implemented in a full and timely way, a point I made strongly in my intervention. Given that not much time remains if agreement is to be secured, the European Council also called on member states, the Union's institutions and all stakeholders to step up their work on preparedness and readiness for all outcomes, including no deal.

In particular, we asked the Commission to give timely consideration to unilateral and time-limited contingency measures that are in the EU’s interest. This is an important message that is of great relevance in Ireland.

As the Government has said many times, Brexit means change in all scenarios. I appreciate this has been a most difficult year for all businesses, especially SMEs. Budget 2021 was designed to ensure that we are ready for all outcomes and I continue to urge all business people who operate in, with or through the United Kingdom to take the steps they need to ensure they are ready for 1 January 2020. In that context, the Cabinet today approved omnibus legislation which covers all the various Departmental and sectoral interests for consideration by this House shortly so we will be ready for Brexit on 1 January.

The European Council said it would continue to take a close interest in the negotiations in the period ahead. As the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, said following our discussion, we will continue to do our utmost to make an agreement with the United Kingdom possible. Our desired outcome is a constructive and effective partnership with the United Kingdom and we will continue to work in unity and solidarity towards that goal.

The European Council had an orientation debate on climate action which we hope to return to in more detail in December. In September, the European Commission adopted a communication on 2030 climate ambition and proposed an increased European Union economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990. Our discussions revealed a good deal of agreement on the main issues. I joined with leaders from ten other member states, namely, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, in support of increased EU ambition, including a target of at least 55% for 2030. This would put us on a path towards a climate-neutral EU by 2050. While not all member states currently support a 55% reduction target, there was agreement that for the EU to meet the objective of the climate-neutral EU by 2050 in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, the EU needs to increase its ambition for the coming decade and update its climate and energy policy framework.

We discussed the Commission's proposal and the actions required to achieve that ambition. There was agreement that the updated target will need to be delivered collectively by the European Union in the most cost-effective manner possible. All member states will participate in the effort, taking into account national circumstances and considerations of fairness and solidarity. In the coming months, the Commission will consult member states to assess their specific situation and the expected impact at member state level. Achieving at least a 55% reduction by 2030 will be challenging but it is right that the EU should lead on this issue and encourage collective action. It is right for the planet now and for the safety and prosperity of future generations. We will again discuss climate action at our meeting in December. I hope we will reach agreement at that time on this more ambitious climate target for the EU and submit an updated nationally determined contribution on behalf of the EU to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, NFCCC.

At our previous meeting on 1 and 2 October, we agreed that we should hold regular discussions on Covid-19. At our meeting last week, discussions reflected the fact that most member states, like Ireland, have seen their case numbers increase significantly in recent weeks. We agreed that the current epidemiological situation is unprecedented and gives rise to very serious concern. As I said, on the stringency index, Ireland had at that stage the most severe national restrictions of any European member state. The meeting was a sombre affair with Prime Minister after Prime Minister articulating the increasing numbers in their respective countries. We welcomed the progress that has been achieved so far on the overall co-ordination at European level on Covid-19, including the recommendation on a co-ordinated approach to the restriction of free movement. We called on the Council, the Commission and member states to continue the overall co-ordination effort based on the best available science, notably regarding quarantine regulations, the quarantine framework for travel, cross-border contact tracing and testing strategies. There has been some debate in the House on antigen testing and various other forms of testing. Our view is that we should get stronger co-ordination among public health authorities in different member states on the efficacy and clinical validation of different testing regimes in different states. We also called for continued co-ordination regarding joint assessment of testing methods, mutual recognition of tests and the temporary restriction of non-essential travel.

The European Council also welcomed work at EU level on the development and distribution of vaccines. We reiterated the need for a robust authorisation and monitoring process, the building of vaccination capacity in the EU and fair and affordable access to vaccines. We also called for further co-operation on this at global level.

At the European Council, I also engaged informally with many of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meetings, using the opportunity to promote Irish interests. On Thursday, I had a bilateral meeting with President Macron of France. Our discussions focused on negotiations with the UK, in particular our shared determination to secure a fair and balanced outcome on fish. We also compared notes on the Covid-19 situation in France and Ireland.

Last week's meeting of the European Council considered a number of serious and important issues. What was very apparent was that, as we face into each of these challenges, we need to continue to work closely and co-operatively together, as the EU 27, to ensure we have the solutions and supports we need to get through. Whether on Brexit, Covid-19 or climate action, we need to work together, maintain unity and stand together. As we have seen on Brexit, the strength and solidarity that comes with EU membership is of enormous value in confronting the challenges we face. I look forward to our debate, after which the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will report on our discussions on external relations.

I am sharing time. We are now well and truly at crunch time in respect of the Brexit negotiations. What happens in the next days and weeks will have a profound impact on the island of Ireland economically, socially and politically.

On Thursday and Friday of last week, the European Council met to discuss, among other things, the status of the talks with the British Government as we fast approach the deadline for a workable, fair and, as the Taoiseach says, balanced deal. While we know there is no good Brexit for the island of Ireland, we are also acutely aware that a crash or no-deal Brexit would be the worst-case scenario. Unfortunately, the game-playing on the part of the Tory Government and Boris Johnson over the last number of weeks has disrupted talks and undermined the prospect of that deal. Central to this game-playing has been the British Government's use of Ireland’s future as a bargaining chip with EU negotiators in an attempt to get a favourable trade agreement. The Tories' use of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which, by their own proclamation, breaks international law, is a clear attack on the vital protections afforded to Ireland and, let it be remembered, agreed to by Mr. Johnson's Government as part of the withdrawal agreement which came into force on 1 February of this year.

The approach and behaviour of the British Government have understandably eroded trust and confidence in its willingness to stick to its words and honour its agreements. This causes an obvious problem in progressing talks in a constructive manner. It is the main reason we have arrived at what increasingly feels like a crisis point. It is right that EU leaders have placed the onus on the British Government to unblock negotiations and make moves that will re-establish good faith. Mr. Johnson, as we saw, responded with more game-playing and grandstanding by taking to the megaphone once again and declaring that Britain would prepare for a crash outcome. I think he described it as the Australian deal. This coincided with Britain’s chief negotiator, David Frost, withdrawing the invitation to Michel Barnier for further negotiations in London on Monday.

In my view, that move was aggressive, unnecessary and unhelpful, to say the least. It seems that Mr. Johnson sticks to the mantra that it will either be his way or no way at all. That is not the attitude of a Prime Minister who is serious about reaching a trade agreement that is fair, sensible and balanced, not only for Ireland and the EU but also for the British economy. A crash Brexit and the imposition of World Trade Organization rules would not be a good outcome for anyone. I was therefore interested to hear the Taoiseach say that the Commission has been asked to prepare unilateral responses in the context of a no-deal scenario. He said that is of particular interest to Ireland and I wonder if he will elaborate on that and set out what these unilateral actions are and how they might be favourable to Ireland.

I hope that the discussions that took place by phone yesterday between British and EU negotiators might act as a catalyst for a more considered approach. Hopefully, we will see the resumption of full negotiations later this week and, as I said previously, there is still time for the British Government to pull back from the brink, engage in good faith at this crucial time and respect international law and agreements into which it has entered. The primary responsibility of the Irish Government at this juncture is to make it clear to Mr. Johnson that continuing to play a game of chicken using Ireland's protections and Irish interests is absolutely unacceptable. It is, to my mind, abhorrent to dangle our all-island economy, the Good Friday Agreement, our peace and our peace process over a cliff edge in the hope that the EU will blink. That approach will not work. The days of British Governments bullying Ireland or anyone else into accepting their terms and demands are over, gone and are not coming back. What needs to be reiterated at every opportunity by the Irish Government is that, regardless of the outcome of trade talks, it is absolutely essential that the withdrawal agreement is honoured and implemented. While the agreement is far from perfect and does not solve all of our problems, the measures contained in the Ireland and Northern Ireland protocol are the bare minimum required to protect Ireland. They are our safety net and insurance policy against a hardened land border. They provide protections for the Good Friday Agreement, our all-island economy and co-operation, North to South. They cannot be compromised, diluted or bartered away because there is far too much at stake.

We are aware that the spectre of Brexit casts its shadow over all aspects of EU activity at the moment. Regardless of whether or not an agreement is reached, the implications for Ireland are immense. The potential immensity of the impact of Brexit is compounded by the fact that we may well be in the midst of the Donald Rumsfeld arena of unknown unknowns. The scenario is exacerbated by Tory intent of deregulation across the marketplace.

Just last week, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland warned of a disruption to the food supply chain, not just for Ireland, but for the wider European Continent, as a consequence of regulatory divergence following the introduction of Brexit. This has enormous implications for food safety and businesses on this island. The Tories are vehemently opposed to the introduction or application of regulatory food safety standards. Attempts to date by farmers and campaigners in Britain to ensure that EU regulatory standards are replaced with a British equivalent have been defeated by Johnson's followers. Ireland, along with other EU member states, must ensure that substandard food produce will not be allowed to enter the Single Market.

The British regard EU food and animal health regulations as non-tariff barriers to trade and are seeking to have them removed. This would allow substandard food produce, for example chlorinated chicken from the US, to enter the food supply chain of the Single Market through Britain. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. We need focused support for food-based industries in Ireland. We also need to see focused engagement with food industry groups to help businesses understand and prepare for the real challenges ahead. We need to prevent attempts by the Tories to remove non-tariff trade barriers which have been introduced over decades in order to protect our health and animal welfare.

Another worrying instance of British deregulation is in the area of nuclear energy. The decision by Britain to leave the European Atomic Energy Community as part of its Brexit strategy, despite concerns over its readiness to do so from its own nuclear regulatory body, is worrying. There are real concerns regarding skill shortages in the areas necessary to establish a British regulatory system for both controlling nuclear material and meeting its international obligations. The fact that the Tories cannot come up with the means to control the flow of traffic to Dover post Brexit raises real concerns over its ability to develop the necessary IT systems to track its nuclear material. Previously, the British would have come under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice where it could be held accountable for failure to adhere to recognised standards of safety, but not anymore. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, claims that the impact of a nuclear incident in Britain could cost Ireland as much as €160 billion. Even if there is no radioactive contamination in Ireland after such an incident, the lost revenue accrued as a result of reputational damage alone could run to as much as €4 billion. It is incumbent upon the Government to demand that the British Government introduces the strictest possible regulatory measures and that EU negotiators impress this upon the British in the strongest possible terms.

I will briefly turn to the issue of the Moria camp on Lesbos. In response to much criticism of Government, some action was taken. The Minister with responsibility for children, equality, disability, integration and youth, Deputy O'Gorman, received additional funding in the budget to bring over more unaccompanied minors. I am surprised that was not a topic of conversation at the European Council meeting. Despite numerous requests to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister with responsibility for children, equality, disability, integration and youth, Deputy O'Gorman, we have no details as to how that money will be spent and how many additional minors will be brought over. The Taoiseach might touch on that matter in his concluding remarks.

Five-minute speaking slots for parties is not good enough for a Council meeting. It runs counter to the agreement after the Lisbon treaty when we had a lot of debate about why people had lost faith in it and we wanted proper debate and scrutiny of European Council meetings. I am all in favour of other Deputies being able to participate but it should not be achieved by trying to deal with a variety of important issues in five minutes. Unfortunately, I will not be able to deal with anything other than the one issue that I want to focus on, which is Brexit, and that is a pity.

During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sent two letters to President Kennedy. The second letter countermanded the first. The Americans decided, as a matter of strategy, simply to ignore the second letter, pretend it never arrived and proceed on the basis of the offer that was set out in the first letter. The antics of the British Government seem to require the same response from Ireland and the European Union. We should be determined to plough on with negotiations and ignore the background noise, however aggravating it might be. The stakes for all of us are too high to do otherwise.

The members of the House of Lords EU committee, with whom our Joint Committee on European Union Affairs will have an opportunity to speak tomorrow morning, prepared a report on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. These are British parliamentarians who stated in their report that not only does the Bill contravene international law, but also "strikes at the heart" of the Ireland and Northern Ireland protocol and the withdrawal agreement. That is certainly provocation. Not unlike the appropriate response to the shocking antics that we are witnessing now in the final stages of the US presidential election, we must try to remain calm and focus on the prize of a decent trade deal with our nearest neighbour.

We must continue to hope that behind the bluster is some recognition of the economic harm that a no deal or, to use the phrase Boris Johnson likes to use now, an Australian deal would mean for the Irish people, the British people and the people of the European Union.

In truth, both sides know that two strong economic entities living side by side must, at some point, agree a mutually acceptable basis to trade. The penny must have dropped that if that deal is not cut now, people will have to come around the table again in a few months or years, and the same issues will have to be addressed and resolved. It seems to me that the so-called level playing field state aid issue, fisheries and oversight can all be dealt with.

There seems to be a resistance in the United Kingdom to restrict state aid, but there is a state aid agreement in the UK-Japan trade agreement negotiated post-Brexit. The UK is asking for level playing field provisions to be included in any future US-UK trade deal. I do not understand the position. Obviously, all trade deals require dealing with issues like that.

I thought we had made progress on the issue of fisheries. The Minister for Foreign Affairs indicated that there now seems to be a totemic linking of fisheries as somehow an emblem of national sovereignty. Surely we can come to some terms. As I heard the Vice-President of the European Parliament say to a British audience, one can catch all of those fish but does one intend to eat them all oneself or sell them somewhere?

The issue of oversight must become even more important to us now if Britain says it can unilaterally tear up an international agreement. We have to have some basis to ensure that, whatever is agreed, there is a process by which we can ensure that it is delivered upon.

All of these matters are deliverable, in my judgment. Maybe I am an optimist after all of my years in this House but at the end of the day, Boris Johnson may well do a Trump, accept the terms that are available and declare victory at the end. Let him engage in that play-acting if that is the case. As I said, the stakes for us are very high.

The European Council meeting held last week dealt with a number of issues, including Covid-19, EU-UK relations and Brexit, climate change and external relations with Africa, as well as the southern neighbourhood, Belarus, Turkey and the downing of flight MH17. Obviously of major concern to Ireland is the Brexit issue and the state of EU-UK negotiations on a possible trade agreement.

The time, energy and resources given to dealing with the outcome of the fateful vote on Brexit way back on 23 June 2016 have been substantial. Public administrations in every EU member state, including Ireland, as well as the European Commission, have grappled with this issue ever since. This is such a shame. Instead of dealing with the many other challenges facing the EU at this time, governments have spent endless hours trying to resolve the many problems arising from the UK vote.

The European Council meeting last week was dominated by the Brexit question and it looks like it will be the same again for the next European Council meeting scheduled for 15 November. Where are we now as regards the negotiations? The UK wants to exchange legal texts and enter the so-called tunnel. The Commission is obviously opposed to that, and rightly so.

The UK Prime Minister has said he is now preparing to finally leave the EU without a trade deal. I wonder about that. There is no doubt that the UK Government is under pressure with regard to its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic at home. One gets the impression that Prime Minister Johnson is hyping up anti-EU rhetoric for domestic political reasons to divert attention from the Covid-19 crisis, or perhaps it is simply a negotiating tactic. Let us hope so.

In any event, it is clear that a trade agreement is in the best interests of the EU, including Ireland, and the UK. Irish agriculture, in particular the beef sector, will take a big hit should there be no free trade agreement. Nevertheless, despite all of the rhetoric there are some signs that both sides are moving closer, if I am to listen to what the Taoiseach and others have said.

The major issues to be resolved now centre on fisheries and access to UK waters by other EU states, historical access rights and quota shares, a level playing field, including environmental protection, labour rights and state aid standards, governance and how disputes will be resolved and whether the European Court of Justice will still have a role to play after 1 January 2021. The reality is that the European Court of Justice will still have a role of some sort to play in respect of the various matters. Disputes will arise, necessitating arbitration, but ultimately the European Court of Justice must interpret European Union law. Compromise will be necessary.

I welcome the news this week that some progress has been made on the implementation of the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol. Needless to say, there was a lot of unhappiness here and throughout the EU about the publication of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. As it happens, members of the House of Lords' European Union select committee are meeting the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs to discuss the Bill tomorrow. The Bill gives the UK Government the power to break the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement. Its publication highlights the lack of trust between the EU and the UK. It raises the question of whether a trade deal, if agreed, would be adhered to, but that is a question for another day. The Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol must be implemented to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process generally.

If there is no deal in place by 1 January 2021, World Trade Organization rules will apply. A no-deal Brexit would represent a monumental failure of statecraft on the part of the UK and the EU. Tariffs will be imposed and there is no doubt that disruptive transport delays will occur almost immediately, especially at the Port of Dover. The UK economy will take a hit. What will happen then?

To take up the point made by Deputy Howlin, the reality is that all of these issues will still have to be dealt with if there is no trade agreement. It seems that matters arising from Brexit will still have to be resolved in the short, medium and long-term no matter what happens. Brexit is not going away, and that is something we can all look forward to.

Another issue discussed at the European Council summit meeting was Covid-19, as the Taoiseach outlined. I welcome the conclusions of the meeting with regard to Covid-19. It is generally accepted that the EU was initially very slow to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a case of every member state for itself. Then came a move towards agreement on the multi-annual financial framework and the associated recovery fund. That is an unprecedented measure by the European Union whereby the Commission will, for the first time, borrow money. I hope agreement can be reached with the relevant parties in respect of that recovery fund.

I also welcome the progress made on vaccines.

The Taoiseach informed the House earlier that the Government signed an agreement with the EU in respect of vaccines. That is the way to go. An EU approach to vaccines and what happens in respect of them is the right approach.

I also welcome the fact that the summit dealt substantially with relations between the EU and Africa. The communiqué states that the EU attaches high priority to strengthening its strategic relations with Africa and its partnership with the African Union, which remain based on mutual interest and shared responsibility. The communiqué goes on to talk about the issues of migration in the context of the African continent. The continent is on our doorstep. We in Europe are a developed continent and we have responsibilities towards our African neighbours. The communiqué states that the EU wishes to engage African partners in addressing mobility and all aspects of migration, including legal migration, combating illegal migration, readmission and the fight against militant smuggling networks both within and between the two continents. All of us would welcome that. The EU welcomes it as do the African countries themselves. Migration is a major issue to be confronted at an EU level as well as a major global issue. If we can stop migrants coming here in the first place on the basis of the economic development of Africa, then we will have done a good day’s work.

All in all, the summit went well. Brexit is the big issue and it is an ongoing saga. We await to see what happens in that regard.

It is hard to believe that we are edging towards the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit and yet it is not the main talking point in either this House or the wider community. Previously Members will recall that when a no-deal Brexit was arguably a vague concept, the previous Government had hosted information roadshows as part of an extensive PR exercise that also included engagement with businesses, communities and other affected sectors such as farmers. Yet now, here we are with a no-deal scenario as a live prospect, which could be just weeks away, but it seems that we are more ill-prepared than ever. There are no roadshows or extensive engagements and that, of course, is understandable considering that the Covid-19 pandemic has deflected attention. We are rightly concentrated on tackling the virus and the challenges it has brought.

Nobody should be under any illusions as to the dangers that we are now perilously close to with the absolute worst-case scenario right before our eyes. It is in that context that we need clarity. We need clarity on the Government's plans for all eventualities and on the EU supports that will be put in place. Those plans and supports need to be set out very clearly at this stage on a sector by sector and region by region basis. I come from the region that could be the most affected. We know that for the agrifood sector and for other export-dominated sectors, particularly those that have a strong and dominant relationship with Britain, a no-deal Brexit could spell absolute disaster. It is crucially important that the Government sets out its plans.

One of the concerns I have regarding the information we have received from the Government is an implicit belief that the British Government will adhere to the withdrawal agreement even in the event of an no-deal Brexit. I do not share that confidence. The withdrawal agreement was reluctantly agreed to by the British Government to secure a pathway towards a trade deal. If the British Government is to leave the EU without that trade deal and final settlement, I have no confidence, and history tells us that we should have no confidence, that it will adhere to its international obligations. It is in that context that the plans need to be set out to involve and resolve all scenarios. The plans must include the potential that we will need to have big constitutional discussions sooner than perhaps anybody would have believed was likely. We cannot face the prospect that this small island on the edge of Europe is dealt a situation where we have two economies operating not only back to back but in conflict with each other in two very different economic and trade scenarios. That would spell disaster for us and for our communities but also, in particular, for our peace process. It is in that context that we need to be big enough, brave enough and bold enough to allow people to have their say as to what the constitutional future of this island should be.

I agree with the comment of a number of other Deputies that if a deal is not concluded now, from January there will be a need for one to be concluded. That aspect of this will not go away. There is no question that in the long run we will fail to have a trade agreement in place, with the economic damage that this would cause to the UK, EU and Ireland. There is no question but that it would be much better if a deal was put in place now.

It is welcome that a discussion of legal treaty texts is to begin and there are reports that the talks will intensify. It is also welcome that more than 70 British business groups have issued a statement effectively calling on their government to ensure that a deal is concluded and it is good to see that pressure coming from the UK. If we look at what is happening in the US, there is some cause for hope that the presidential election may well show that the tide is going out on the brinksmanship, bluster and buffoonery that have been the hallmarks of the UK Government’s approach to Brexit so far. The path to a deal is emerging.

If a no-trade-deal Brexit was to go ahead, exports of Irish food products to the UK could decline by approximately one third, according to the London School of Economics. Dairy exports from the EU to the UK could collapse by a staggering 94%. There is a significant amount at stake, therefore, for Ireland and beyond. It is essential that we support the sectors most affected, including our agrifood and dairy sectors. It is also essential that in the event of a no-trade-deal that we support people affected in Ireland in low-income households who would be least able to deal with a sharp increase in imported food prices. It is very important that that should be factored in. It is estimated that the average cost of living in the event of a no-trade-deal Brexit could increase by as much as €1,360 a year, which would impact significantly on low-income households.

On climate action, it is very welcome that the Government is supporting the ambitious EU target for a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030. It does not make any sense for us to do that at EU level if proper climate action targets are not tied into the trade deals that we agrees. That applies to Brexit with regard to the level playing field but also applies to the EU Mercosur trade deal. There are no sanctionable clauses within the EU-Mercosur trade deal treaty with regard to climate or environmental protections either for the Union or the South American countries. Given the destruction that is taking place on an ongoing basis in the Amazon rainforests, in particular, and given that the trade deal could in fact accelerate that destruction if there are not environmental and climate change protections, it is essential, especially at the European Council meeting in December when the climate action provisions will be discussed, that Ireland takes a strong stance on that to ensure that there are strong climate sanctionable clauses and environmental protections in that trade deal and, indeed, in respect of Brexit.

I acknowledge the work done by the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, in standing up against the so-called LGBTI exclusion zones in Poland, and the work done by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, also. In terms of the budget and the recovery fund, it is key that at a European Union level that there are changes to the rule of law. We need to move away from the veto and move towards qualified majority voting, which is what the European Parliament has been pushing for. I ask the Minister of State and the Government to indicate if Ireland will support reforms on rule of law. The stance they have taken on the so-called LGBTI exclusion zones is very welcome but for that to be meaningful we have to have changes in the way rule of law is dealt with at a European Union level, particularly in respect of the way funding is used. I ask the Minister to address that issue when concluding.

I begin by agreeing with Deputy O'Callaghan on the vital point of rule of law.

The last time we spoke about the European Council we discussed the position regarding sanctions against Belarus. It is extremely welcome that the Council has taken the decision not just to extend sanctions but, crucially, to include President Lukashenko in that sanctions regime.

Some of the key areas touched upon by the Taoiseach, such as climate change but also the Union's response to Covid-19, are extremely important. While it is an issue more relevant to the Minister for Health, what level of engagement is going on at General Affairs Council meetings among the 27 member states in terms of their approach to tackling this pandemic? We are aware of what the European Union can and cannot do when it comes to health issues. Many of the resources provided are extremely welcome. We saw that yesterday with regard to the bond yields and also with regard to procurement and stockpiling but are there other lessons to be learned? How do we compare to other countries? What are the approaches being taken and what co-ordination can we expect in the coming months?

I want to touch on the position relating to the EU-Africa discussions, which are vitally important to the future of the European Union. It is an issue in which Ireland can and must play a leading role within the Union, not just because of our position in the world and the strategy of the Department of Foreign Affairs, DFA, to extend our diplomatic presence across the continent of Africa but also in terms of our strong history of mission work, NGO work, peacekeeping and so much more on that continent that will become increasingly important.

Like other Deputies here I want to address the key issue dominating some conversations, although as Deputy Carthy rightly pointed out, it is no longer the biggest issue. I refer to Brexit. It is remarkable that over a two-day Council summit this issue, which is seen as the biggest issue whenever people think about the EU and the UK, but also here in Ireland, took up only about two and a half hours of the debate. That is a signal to many that the European Union is ready to move on from Brexit and that Brexit is the mid-life crisis the United Kingdom is facing. It is not of the EU's making and it is certainly not an issue that will hold back the EU or create division within the Union, despite what some people say.

I welcome again the consistency in the repeated mandate from the European Council for Michel Barnier to make sure that a level playing field is at the heart of any agreement. The standards of the European Single Market are vitally important and we cannot let a bargain basement trade deal undermine the standards of food, environmental protection and so much else across what is our Single Market. It is not Ireland and the EU. We are the EU and maintaining that integrity is vital. We have to be aware of the political game-playing and rhetoric on display, which is tailored to a domestic audience enwrapped by ongoing crises when it comes to Covid-19. We saw the scenes in Manchester today and how that will play out in Westminster. I have no doubt there will be more chest beating, angry tweets and who knows what else. It is shocking to see repeated references, including last Sunday morning and again yesterday afternoon, from British Ministers that they are prepared to leave with an Australian style free trade deal. There is no such thing as an Australian style free trade deal. The EU does not have an Australian style free trade deal. It may as well be a Somali, Afghani or Islamic Republic of Mauritania deal. It is important that the EU puts that aside and calls a no-deal what it is. When people speak with such a level of entitlement to a Canada style deal that they say they are offered we should be frank and say that a Canada style deal was never sought by the UK. A Canada style deal like the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, CETA, which I know caused some division in this House and when I was a Member of the Seanad, would have required an extension of the transition to allow a line-by-line tariff schedule take place. CETA took nine years of negotiations. We are trying to do in 11 months what the UK is now pretending they had always asked for and to which they were entitled. Let us not forget that the Canada style deal comes with quotas and tariffs. To the best of my knowledge there are no ro-ro ferries operating between Nova Scotia and Rosslare.

I reject the issue Deputy Carthy raised in respect of preparation. The in-person road shows are not taking place but the Minister addressed the exporters council this morning. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, addressed the issue yesterday. I will be speaking to the august members of the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Chamber of Commerce next week about the importance of Brexit preparation in terms of industry. It is not just a question of talking about it but seeing that the Government has backed this up with a €3.4 billion Brexit support fund.

The challenge for the Minister, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, is how we can best access any other EU supports that may be coming to Ireland or across the Union. I mentioned the importance of yesterday's bond sales, particularly to the economies of Spain and Italy. Moving on from the economic and public health impacts of Covid-19, we have to realise that the economical impacts of Brexit could be as bad as anything we have seen from Covid-19. It is vitally important, therefore, that when Ireland seeks access to any European supports, Brexit is included as part of that.

We also see that much more work needs to go on. We see reports in England about the tailbacks in Dover. Worryingly, we see the report from the Welsh Assembly last week on the issues that are likely to arise on 1 January 2021 in Holyhead, Pembroke and Fishguard, regardless of whether there is a deal. There will be a requirement for customs checks. That is the reason I welcome the announcement from the Tánaiste of the €9,000 customs grants to each business.

This is excellent work. It is important work but I fear, and it is an issue I raised with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs last week, that all of the work being done in Ireland may not be replicated in the UK. In particular, I raised concerns relating to the work of Northern Ireland. It is very welcome that Commissioner Sefcovic and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, had a warm meeting but much more needs to happen. Tomorrow morning, the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs will meet with the House of Lords European Union Committee. We see the Internal Market Bill stuck in that parliament. We saw a massive defeat for the British Government but we need to be given comprehensive, legally binding assurances that the Internal Market Bill will be heavily amended, if not withdrawn, and that the finance Bill due before the Houses of Parliament in the UK will not contain any measures that are detrimental to the agreed Irish protocol, which is an international agreement with responsibilities to international law. We have heard the outcry from five living former British Prime Ministers and many more across the political spectrum in the UK, Brexiteer and remainer alike. It is vitally important that it is upheld. I underline the importance of the Government working with our European partners to make sure that those responsibilities are met.

The Minister of State may recall that in the previous Oireachtas the producer organisations and the inshore fishing representatives presented to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Their presentations were stark but one of the game-changers was the map I am holding, which clearly defines the exclusive economic zones. Essentially, what is marked in red on the map are British fishing waters or British territory as they would see it which, like our own exclusive economic zone, are subject to the Common Fisheries Policy.

The warning signs were clear when Britain withdrew from the London Fisheries Convention a number of years ago on the grounds that its waters were to be used as a negotiating tactic in the trade negotiations. The convention was signed in 1964. After 1973, when the UK joined the EU, it secured a 26% increase in the allocation under what is called "relative stability" to reflect the development of the exclusive economic zones in 1976. It was an increase of 26% above that of, and taken from, everybody else. The Hague Preferences must also be considered in this regard. There have been a number of initiatives to deal with UK concerns over the years under the Common Fisheries Policy.

There is great concern. No sector is more threatened by the negotiations than fisheries. It is important that our Government works closely with other European governments. There are encouraging signs that this is happening. Access to British territorial fishing waters is built into the trade negotiations and is seen to be necessary if the desired goal is to be achieved but the Government should be cognisant of the serious concerns of the producer organisations and aware of the European Fisheries Alliance that represents 18,000 fishermen and 3,500 vessels from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden. The annual turnover of the sector is €20.7 billion. Its representatives have come together to collectively ask the governments to hold their ground and defend the interests of our fishing communities.

If the British do not negotiate a fair deal, we will need to re-examine the Common Fisheries Policy. A total of 38% of the catch of the Irish fleet is taken from British waters. If this is lost, we will need to revisit the policy. I hope it will not come to that. I appeal to our Government to do everything it can to hold the line for our fishing communities.

The resignation in April of the President of the European Research Council, Professor Mauro Ferrari, over what he deemed to be the really desperate failure of the EU, of which he was a big fan before taking the job, to respond effectively to Covid-19 was a pretty damning move that should raise questions. I have not heard a lot in the Taoiseach's contribution or more generally about the EU's response to Covid-19. If we consider a variety of countries around the world with a variety of regimes, including Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, China, South Korea and Iceland, we realise the failure of the Union to act both collectively and as individual member states in any sort of cohesive, focused, effective way regarding Covid-19 is quite telling. Professor Ferrari hoped the European Research Council would set up a body specifically to address Covid-19 and research all sorts of areas, including strategy, the development of a vaccine and therapies, but this was essentially shot down. It is quite telling. After the budget announcement, I mentioned an extraordinary point that may have been lost, which is that the health research budget for 2021 is not a single cent greater than that for 2020. It is an extraordinary fact but it bears out Professor Ferrari's point on the complete lack of a strategy. We have argued for a zero-Covid strategy. Although the Government disagrees with that, should these matters not be debated in a serious way and should scientists not be given the resources to develop their understanding, data and information so we can make informed choices about how to deal with this pandemic? That does not seem to be happening, which is quite a damning indictment of the failure of the EU.

The European Council made it a high priority to strengthen relations with Africa. Historically, the relationship between Europe and Africa has been characterised by the exploitation of Africa and her peoples by the ruling classes of Europe. Let us consider the wealth in Amsterdam, Paris, London and Lisbon that was extracted through the profits from the slave trade. Today, in the main, there is no direct military rule but there is still a relationship of exploitation by economics.

Associate Professor Lorenzo Kamel, an historian at the University of Bologna, states "the natural resources (fuel, gold, gas etc) of most, if not all, African countries […] are still being syphoned off through offshore companies that, to a large extent, are linked to European and American companies and businessmen." According to a UN report, over a period of 50 years, the African Continent has lost $1 trillion in illicit financial flows that are operated by western corporations.

This month is Black History Month. Information such as that I have just outlined should be taught in our schools. It should also be taught that Ireland has a relationship with all of this. For example, David La Touche, a founder of Bank of Ireland and a slave owner from a family of slave owners, was paid £7,000, the equivalent of more than €1 million today, for his 385 slaves in Jamaica. Frederick Douglass, a former slave and leader of the abolitionist movement in America, was exiled to Ireland and England in the period 1845-47. He had huge crowds at meetings he organised. For example, working class women attended his meetings in Cork. He stated:

I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. […] Instead of the bright blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man.

That is the way he explained the welcome he got from ordinary people in this country.

Earlier this year, we saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a new generation of people of colour who will not accept discrimination or second-class citizenship any longer. They are demanding change. One of the changes that needs to be made is that black history needs to be taught in our schools, not just in the month of October but throughout the year in a genuine, deep and serious way.