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.