Pre-European Council: Statements

Tá áthas orm labhairt leis an Dáil maidir leis an gcruinniú den Chomhairle Eorpach a bheidh ar siúl Déardaoin agus Dé hAoine an seachtain seo chugainn.

The agenda at the European Council meeting on Thursday, 10 December and Friday, 11 December has yet to be finalised, but is expected to include Covid-19, Brexit, climate change, security and counterterrorism and external relations, particularly with Turkey, the southern neighbourhood and the US. In addition, it seems likely that we will discuss the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and the recovery package. We will also meet at the euro summit on 11 December to discuss banking union and capital markets union.

In my statement I will address Brexit, Covid-19, climate, the MFF and the euro summit. The Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will address counterterrorism and external relations in his remarks.

Next week's meeting will provide another important opportunity for European Union leaders to take stock of key developments in our collective response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has dominated the past nine months. We agreed in October that we should continue to meet regularly to discuss Covid-19 issues and to co-ordinate our efforts. At our video conference meeting on 19 November we had very useful exchanges on vaccines, testing and our approaches to the lifting of restrictive measures.

Regarding vaccines, we discussed encouraging results from recent trials and national plans for their deployment when authorised for public use. As the House will be aware, Ireland is part of the joint European Union procurement initiative being operated by the European Commission on behalf of member states to procure a portfolio of suitable, safe and effective vaccines in sufficient quantities. Here at home, the major logistical, medical and ethical issues involved are being addressed by a cross-public service task force which we have established to oversee a national immunisation programme. I take this opportunity to acknowledge in particular the remarkable work being undertaken by the European Commission on supporting vaccine development and procurement. I pay tribute to President Ursula von der Leyen for her leadership in this regard. Once approved, Europe's citizens can look forward to the mass roll-out of vaccines in 2021, and there is now a light at the end of what has been a long and dark tunnel for us all. While we must continue to keep our guard up, especially over the festive season, we can at least now look ahead to 2021 with greater confidence.

Regarding testing, we discussed developments in the area of rapid antigen tests and welcomed the Commission guidance presented on 18 November. While the polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test remains the diagnostic standard, there may be potential for deploying rapid tests in certain circumstances. We agreed that there should be further work on mutual recognition of tests and their results.

In our video conference discussion a fortnight ago we all reflected on the growing Covid numbers across the European Union and the challenges ahead of the festive period. Circumstances are very different across member states, and key decisions here are a matter to be determined at national level in light of our differing circumstances. There is no room for complacency and we have to remain vigilant as we continue our fight against Covid. Every contact counts. While the agenda for our discussion next week is not yet finalised, it will be informed by the work of health ministers at this afternoon's video conference meeting in which the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is participating.

We will have the opportunity at next week's European Council to reinforce Europe's leadership role on climate. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, I strongly support enhanced ambition at European Union level and an increase in the European Union 2030 target to at least 55% emissions reduction. I support this being delivered collectively by the European Union in the most cost-effective manner possible, taking into account national circumstances and considerations of fairness and solidarity. When we met on 15 and 16 October, European Union leaders reviewed progress towards the Union's objective of climate neutrality by 2050, informed by the Commission's communication, Stepping up Europe's 2030 Climate Ambition. This includes the proposed emissions reduction target of at least 55% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels and the actions required to achieve that ambition. This approach at European level is consistent with Ireland's domestic approach, as the recently published climate action Bill illustrates. At our meeting next week I will again convey Ireland's support for increased ambition at European Union level while asserting the importance of fair sharing of the effort across member states. The target of at least 55% is certainly ambitious compared with our previous target of 40% by 2030. However, the Commission has studied the matter carefully and believes that it both can be achieved and is to our collective advantage. I hope it will be possible to reach consensus at our meeting that the new target should now be submitted to the United Nations as the European Union's commitment under the Paris process.

I expect that next week's meeting will also take stock of progress on delivering on the new €1.8 trillion multi-annual financial framework and recovery package agreed in July. Our agreement in July, which was reached by consensus, included measures to protect the Union's financial interests. These were among the most difficult to negotiate, with some member states seeking looser arrangements and others seeking more binding measures. The next step was to reach agreement with the European Parliament on the budget package, and the German Presidency has done a great job in finding a basis on which the Parliament can give its consent. This has now come back for approval in the Council. At present a small number of member states are not prepared to give the deal with the Parliament their support as they believe it does not align with what was agreed in July. Chancellor Merkel briefed us by video conference on 19 November and said the Presidency will continue its efforts to bring everybody on board. She continues to have my full support in this regard. It is important we get the recovery funding in place as quickly as we can while continuing to hold member states to account in upholding the Union's values in line with the treaties.

On Friday, 11 December, there will be a meeting of the Euro Summit in inclusive format, that is, involving all member states, not just those whose currency is the euro. This meeting usually takes place each December. We expect to take stock of the developments on banking union and capital markets union. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, in his capacity as President of the Eurogroup, chaired the preparatory meeting of the Eurogroup on Monday, 30 November, and will update next week's meeting on key developments. There were important breakthroughs at this week's Eurogroup meeting on finalising reform of the European Stability Mechanism and earlier entry into force from the beginning of 2022 of the common backstop to the Single Resolution Fund. These are important steps towards completing banking union and strengthening the resilience and crisis resolution capabilities of the euro area. Both are very welcome from an Irish perspective. Leaders will also hear from President Christine Lagarde on the European Central Bank's latest assessment of the economic outlook against the backdrop of unprecedented pandemic-related uncertainly. The clear emphasis that President Lagarde has established on ensuring the right mix of monetary, fiscal and structural policies for the period ahead is very welcome and I look forward to constructive exchanges with leaders to this end.

As Deputies will be aware, negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union continue this week. We are in the final, critical phase. I spoke by phone to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last Friday. She confirmed that at that point differences remained on key issues. As of now, those gaps have not yet been bridged. I have every confidence that our chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will use every best endeavour and every opportunity this week to try to deliver a deal in the interests of all European Union citizens, businesses and employment. I believe this is strongly in the interest of the United Kingdom also, a point I made to Prime Minister Johnson when we spoke last Friday. This will mean reaching agreement on level playing field issues, fisheries and much more.

While European Union-United Kingdom contacts continue, one month out from the end of transition we have now reached a point in time when prudence demands that we must proceed with preparations for European Union contingency measures in case of no deal. I expect to see contingency measures discussed in Brussels over the coming week and in advance of the December European Council. Next week, when I attend the meeting of the European Council, it will be an opportunity to reflect with other European Union leaders on the outcome of the negotiations and to chart our critical next steps, deal or no deal. Our fervent wish, of course, is that the negotiators arrive at a deal, a sensible free trade agreement, that would be to the benefit of all whom we represent in terms of jobs, employment and our respective economies.

Next week's meeting of the European Council has a heavy and very busy agenda. It reflects the range of pressing issues currently at the top of the European Union agenda: Covid-19, climate action and Brexit as well as a number of external relations issues of pivotal importance, including the European Union's deep but complicated relations with Turkey, our relations with all the countries of the southern and eastern Mediterranean and consideration of the prospects to refresh and refocus our transatlantic relations following the recent United States elections. I look forward to engaging with my European Union colleagues collectively and bilaterally at next week's meeting of the European Council on all these issues and will report back to the House in due course.

I am sharing time with Deputy Brady. There is less than a month to go to the end of the Brexit transition period. We heard the news from Europe this morning that Tory intransigence, particularly with regard to its dangerous Internal Market Bill, has brought negotiations to a cliff edge. Serious difficulties remain and the window to have any agreement ratified before the end of the year is now closing fast. The key areas of divergence, namely, fisheries, a level playing field and governance, are extremely important to ensuring that Ireland's interests are protected.

The British negotiating team insists that all fish in British waters are British fish, regardless of species, spawning grounds, migratory patterns and historical access. It also wants annual negotiations on quotas. The EU has accepted that there will be a big change from British membership of the Common Fisheries Policy. However, it is rightly looking for a sustainable, longer-term agreement that protects EU fisheries.

The intransigence of the British Government has left the Irish fishing industry facing an incredible level of uncertainty. Some 34% of the annual catch of the Irish fishing fleet is taken from what are British waters under the Common Fisheries Policy. That is the scale of the threat to the industry from these negotiations. It is an industry worth hundreds of millions of euro and one that employs more than 16,000 people. Ideally, Irish fishers should retain the access to British waters that they enjoyed even before both countries joined the EU. However, any loss to that catch will require a renegotiation of how the Common Fisheries Policy is applied to Irish waters. This is an opportunity for the EU to look at the lack of fairness that exists for fishers, particularly here in Ireland.

Equally, the issue of the level playing field demonstrates just how important it is that we defend our hard-won protections under the Irish protocol. The protocol places the North under EU law regarding state aid and protects against slippage from EU trading standards. The attempt to undermine these protections through the Internal Market Bill shows that the focus of the Tory Government is a low-wage, low-tax, deregulated economy. Its failure to ensure sufficient oversight and scrutiny of labour standards, public health, environment, animal welfare and consumer protection is a major problem. In particular, divergence in food standards between Britain and the EU will put a strain on the functioning of the Irish protocol. The race to the bottom by the Tory Government will mean that the EU is much less likely to accept goods coming from Britain into Ireland, North or South, without rigorous checks. This, in turn, will create difficulties for industry and commerce across the island, but especially for the North. The Tories want a cheap competitive advantage at the expense of ordinary workers. I do not believe we can tolerate the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement by the Tories or their attempt to run roughshod over workers' rights and labour standards.

Regardless of the outcome of these negotiations, it is essential that the Irish protocol is honoured and implemented because it is our insurance policy against a land border. It protects the Good Friday Agreement, the all-Ireland economy and co-operation between North and South. As pressure now increases, there can be no blinking on the part of the EU negotiating team or by the Irish Government when it comes to the Irish protocol. A deal is absolutely better than a no-deal Brexit for Ireland, but we must remember that any deal, let alone a hard Brexit free-trade agreement, will be hazardous for Ireland. We must continue to ensure that a final agreement defends the interest of all the people of Ireland.

Ultimately, it is the reunification of Ireland that is the best solution to the Border and to the Brexit question. It is also the very best idea for the future of our island. As I have said before, the time is now to begin planning to realise the benefits of reunification. Much more is required beyond the ambitions of the Taoiseach's shared island unit. We now need an agreed forum, a citizens' assembly, to ensure that the practical discussion and preparation for reunification can begin. There is no excuse for anyone, much less political leaders, to stick their heads in the sand. The conversation on unity is for everybody and it is now time to progress that conversation.

It is quite obvious that the glaring issue from an Irish perspective in the coming meeting of the European Council is that of Brexit. The illegal, irresponsible and intemperate approach taken by the Johnson Government from the very outset has placed obstacle after obstacle in the way of an agreement. It has set out to dupe its own workers to support its machinations under a chorus of nationalistic jingoism. The domestic success of the Tories in morphing the issue of the level playing field into one of sovereignty has been such that they have been able to lead their own citizens down a pathway that leads to nothing but the erosion of their rights as workers, the unregulated destruction of the environment and the removal of safeguards designed to protect the health and well-being of citizens. That is shameful enough, but they have given themselves licence to erect the architecture of their exploitation around Scotland and a sizeable section of our country to enforce the Tory writ against the democratic wishes of the people who reside there.

Having set in place the means to erode the social contract across the span of their reach, they are seeking to hold the shared fishing stock of these two islands to ransom, a ransom the price of which will mean a serious and potentially disastrous blow to the fishing industry in Ireland or, alternatively, unfair, unfettered and unaccountable trading access to Europe's markets for Britain. Reports that the EU Brexit negotiation team has offered to hand back between 15% and 18% of the value of fish caught by EU-registered vessels in British waters to the British must be met with alarm. There is no amount of money from Europe that could compensate for the loss of an industry that is a staple of communities along the whole coastline of our island nation. Ireland needs access to fisheries to be maintained as it currently stands, full stop. More than 60% of mackerel caught by the Irish fleet is taken in British waters. The EU must force home the point to the British that the disputed fishing stock is, in effect, a stock that is shared between Ireland and Britain. The fish spawn in Irish waters and then head north into British waters to be trawled by the fishing fleets of Europe and Britain. Ireland simply cannot allow such a valuable natural resource of this island to be taken from us by the grasping hand of English nationalism.

Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, there is little doubt that Ireland will face unprecedented challenges in the aftermath of Brexit. The EU has previously recognised this and put in place the Brexit adjustment reserve fund to help those states most impacted by Brexit, with the general acknowledgement that Ireland would be the worst-affected of all EU states. I am, therefore, very concerned at reports that the French President, Emmanuel Macron, is intent on securing the lion's share of this fund, apparently to compensate French fisherman but, more realistically, to fund a re-election bid. Ireland's post-Brexit challenges are compounded by the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic. The €1.8 trillion recovery fund proposed by the EU to address the impact of Covid will see Ireland become a net contributor to the fund. The Government cannot and must not allow Ireland to be forced to relinquish its right to the majority share of the Brexit fund to satisfy the internal political considerations of any individual EU member state.

This morning, Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, told EU ambassadors that if the UK finance Bill which is expected next week, breaches the Irish protocol, that is, international law, then Brexit talks will be in crisis and there will be a breakdown in trust.

I should say there will be a further breakdown in trust. I do not trust the British Government at the best of times and least of all on this issue of the finance Bill it is bringing forward. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the recovery fund will be crucial in helping Ireland to withstand the economic and social impact that will come from Brexit.

In the short time available to me, I will concentrate my remarks on Brexit, although the Council meeting will cover a very wide agenda. This morning's briefings from Michel Barnier are not such as to give us great heart. Speaking yesterday to members of the European affairs committees of national parliaments, President von der Leyen reiterated the EU position that the continued access to the Single Market without quotas and tariffs demanded by Britain must be on the basis of accepting common standards and rules that are capable of being enforced. That is the simple position and it has been for months, but we seem not to be able to get beyond it. It is really now down to Boris Johnson, his true intention and his political judgment. Does he really want a deal? If the answer to that question is "yes", will he invest the political capital to achieve it?

Meanwhile, we must prepare for what is to come. I have raised the issue of connectivity on this island many times. I have been told repeatedly by the Department of Transport and the Irish Maritime Development Office that we have capacity. I was very glad to hear the announcement last Friday by one of the largest ferry companies in Europe, DFDS, that it will be providing a service from Rosslare to Dunkirk. I have been working with the Danish-based company for some time to establish this service, which will run six days per week. I understand it is heavily booked already, which belies the claim that there was adequate connectivity. Thank God there are companies willing to invest their own money to provide these services and we are not dependent on the planning being done by the authorities. I will have more to say on that elsewhere.

I read today that a House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts report on Brexit is scathing in its analysis of the UK's preparedness for Brexit. It identifies the risk of serious disruptions and delays at Channel ports which could potentially be catastrophic. In a most scathing attack on Boris Johnson's efforts in regard to preparing for Brexit, the chairman of the committee said, "A year after the oven-ready deal, we have more of a cold turkey..." Tony Connelly, RTÉ's excellent Europe editor, wrote an article this week on the implications of food chain supply issues between Ireland and the UK and between the UK and continental Europe. There are an immeasurable number of complicated issues still to address. We are as prepared as we can be but there will be lots of further issues that will emerge. We hope there will be a deal but, without one, we face real and substantial disruption. In that scenario, we will be very dependent on direct ferry routes off the island for a number of months from January. As I said, I am very glad there will now be 13 weekly direct continental sailings from Rosslare Europort to a variety of continental ports. I hope that will take significant pressure off the UK land bridge route should the potential chaos envisaged by the UK Committee of Public Accounts come to pass.

I want to comment briefly on fisheries. From the very beginning, this was never meant to be the final issue to be resolved. We discussed it at the stakeholders' forum from the start and the view was that it needed to be settled before we got into the final deal because it was the one issue on which the UK had a stronger hand than the EU rather than the other way around. I understand Ministers have been very clear in underscoring to the negotiating team that it is not to be left as the final stand-alone issue, in which scenario we could come off very badly. My understanding from a report in The Guardian today is that there is a revised presentation from the UK side offering 60% of catch demand, down from its previous offer of 80%. However, this remains very far off an acceptable mark.

Together with a resolution of the fisheries issue, the issue of agreeing common standards and rules that are capable of being enforced independently, as I have outlined, remains to be addressed. It is like Groundhog Day because we all have been saying that for a number of months. I believe in my heart that Boris Johnson is not so destructive of his own nation that he will want to inflict at least 2% additional harm on the growth potential of its economy over and above the Covid catastrophe. However, who knows? We need to be prepared for the very harmful consequences of that decision if it comes about.

We are reaching the endgame on Brexit. A landing zone is in sight and we hope the UK and the EU will land on it either by the end of this week or by next week. For some time now, we have been told that the contentious issues are fisheries, level playing field competition issues and governance. I hope a deal can be agreed. It is in the interests of Ireland and the EU and it certainly is in the interests of the UK, whether the British Prime Minister knows it or not.

I want to raise a number of issues in connection with Brexit. There are reports of concerns about traffic delays occurring as a result of congestion at Dublin Port after 1 January. Delays in carrying out border checks could result in a backup of trucks in the Dublin Port Tunnel which could cause traffic jams on the M50 and the surrounding road network in Dublin. That must not be allowed to happen. Irish Ferries and Stena Line should be asked to stagger ferries arriving from Holyhead and Liverpool into Dublin Port. It is my understanding that Transport Infrastructure Ireland has also raised these concerns. An overflow parking facilities for lorries has been earmarked for Dublin Airport. The Department of Transport, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, the Dublin local authorities, the Garda, the Dublin Port Company and the Revenue Commissioners must all work together to try to resolve this issue. There is nothing surer than if the traffic in Dublin starts to snarl up, it will be one of the most immediate effects of Brexit that our citizens will experience. We need to prevent that.

As regards the UK land bridge issue, I welcome, like the previous speaker, the announcement by the Danish shipping company DFDS that it will provide a direct service between Rosslare Europort and Dunkirk six days per week. We already have services from Dublin and Rosslare to Cherbourg. Businesses must now be encouraged to trial these services and avoid the UK land bridge. The question arises as to whether there is enough capacity on these routes. The Irish Maritime Development Office says there is but the Irish Road Haulage Association is not so sure. I am not the first speaker to raise that question and we need clarification on it.

The European Council still has big decisions to make regarding the conference on the future of Europe. The Taoiseach did not say whether that would be on the agenda next week. We need clarification, for example, on who will chair it and when it will be launched. The issue of treaty change will no doubt come up for discussion when the conference is in place. The Covid-19 pandemic brought about a co-ordination of policies in respect of public health which was most welcome. However, on the question of whether health should become a competence of the EU, I am not so sure. I think the Minister of State will agree with me that there is plenty of scope within the existing treaties, especially the Lisbon treaty, to make progress. That existing scope should be utilised further to bring about the necessary improvements in the quality of life of EU citizens.

We must also consult widely in Ireland on the conference, with stakeholders and various State and semi-State bodies, as well as citizens. We must actively engage with citizens on the future of Europe and this conference. I hope that suitable mechanisms can be put in place to facilitate that.

I wish to raise the stand-off that has developed on the multiannual financial framework, MFF, and the European Recovery Fund. The proposed MFF is for €1.8 trillion and the associated recovery fund is for €750 billion. Hungary and Poland want to veto agreement due to the linking of the budget to rule of law issues. This must not be allowed to happen. The EU must stand up for European values and insist that the rule of law is not compromised. It is up to the German Presidency to resolve this impasse, and I hope it can be done without compromising on the fundamental principles of the EU.

In that context, I refer to remarks by the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa. Portugal takes over the EU Presidency next month and he raised the possibility of a multi-speed Europe whereby like-minded EU states can press ahead in certain areas such as fundamental values, immigration, fiscal rectitude and so forth. Poland and Hungary are the problem children at present. Ireland was a problem child at one stage. I, and undoubtedly Ireland, would be opposed to any suggestion of a two-speed or multi-speed Europe. We are all in this together and we must resolve these problems together.

I wish to raise some further major issues, but I only have a small amount of time left. One is the digital services tax. Where do we stand in this regard? France is becoming particularly impatient. The OECD is dealing with this issue globally and the EU supports that. Presumably, the OECD will report in due course and the EU will consider the report. Ireland will have to give careful consideration to that. This has the potential to affect our corporate tax revenues and our economic model. It is something the Dáil should be conscious of and debate as the situation unfolds.

With regard to financial services and the City of London, perhaps we could get a report at some stage on how Ireland is doing in attracting financial institutions to Dublin arising from Brexit and banks leaving the UK and City of London. Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Dublin are all possibilities for the relocation of such services and Ireland should be proactive in this regard. I would welcome a report on that matter in due course.

I wish to emphasise the report published today by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission on consumers engaging in online shopping. They should be very careful when dealing with purchases from the UK. The advice is that they should check where the business is based, buy from reputable retailers, check the cancellation and returns policy, check for additional taxes or charges, pay by card and check that the website is secure. These are important practical issues for consumers in this country as we engage in the Christmas shopping spree. It is important to get that message to the public loud and clear.

I have four seconds left, so I will not bother discussing the new migration and asylum pact. However, we must get agreement on it as soon as possible. Undoubtedly, it will come up for discussion at future European Council meetings.

I raised the threats to our fishing sector from Brexit with the Minister of State in previous debates. There is growing concern and alarm in our fishing communities at the news that Michel Barnier is offering 15% to 18% of a reduction in value in terms of access to what are deemed to be British waters. Under the Common Fisheries Policy our territorial waters and British territorial waters outside the 12-mile limit are divided for all member states of the European Union, based on a total allowable catch quota system. That offer was rejected, and there was serious concern about the offer.

It is time for us to state clearly to our European Union counterparts that what is emerging here, whether it is Britain accepting the 18% offer or much worse, requires a renegotiation of the Common Fisheries Policy. There is major concern. Approximately 400 European vessels that fish in British territorial waters are affected by this. They need a home to go to. An important statistic is that 34% of the entire catch taken by the Irish fleet is caught in what the UK terms British territorial waters. That is the serious level of threat we face. It is existential for a number of ports and long-standing fishing communities.

We must be straight with our European Union counterparts that this will require an urgent renegotiation of the Common Fisheries Policy. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine yesterday and gave a presentation. His senior officials would have assisted with drafting it. The presentation was clear that the annual negotiations that take place in December on the total allowable catch and sustainable fisheries are up in the air due to Brexit, so we must be ready to renegotiate the Common Fisheries Policy. We must urgently protect the national interest and the interests of our fishing communities. There is massive anger already that we have given away so much of the immense resource in our waters. That has been sacrificed and we cannot allow any more to be given.

There can be no further erosion of our waters and we must regain what we will have lost in these negotiations through increased quotas in our waters. The message I wish to convey urgently to the Minister of State and the Government before these negotiations is that they must defend the national interest and our fishing communities and make it absolutely clear that we are not pawns in this game or pieces to be offered up in negotiations. We must not come out of this by destroying our fishing communities.

My comments will be on Brexit but, first, I wish to say with respect to the rule of law that I am disappointed with the comments from the Taoiseach. He talked about continuing to hold member states to account in upholding the Union's values. I do not see evidence of continuing work to uphold the European Union values with regard to member states.

Is it the view of the Taoiseach and the Government that the continued discrimination against LGBTI people and minorities by some member states and the creation of so-called LGBTI-free zones constitute upholding European Union values? Do interference with the independence of the judiciary, the suppression of free media and the silencing of civil society organisations in parts of the European Union by member states constitute upholding European Union values? They do not. It is important that we stand with the LGBTI community, the judiciary, a free media and civil society. We cannot pretend to ourselves that we are continuing to uphold European Union values here, because we are not.

There has been an erosion of them for years now while European Union funding continues to flow into these countries. We need to make a stand and not kid ourselves that work has been ongoing on this and that we can continue to do it. What has been happening to date is not acceptable.

We can all see clearly now that the lies on which Brexit was based are unravelling and are being exposed. We have seen the comments from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility in the UK. It has forecast that Brexit will cost the UK economy 4% of GDP in the event of a deal and that is more damage than Covid has done to its economy. In the event of no deal, the UK will be looking at a cost of 6% of GDP to the economy. The National Audit Office in the UK has assessed its preparations for Brexit and it has painted a very bleak picture of widespread disruption as a result of the failure of its government to prepare adequately for new border controls. It also stated that it believes that new regulatory controls for goods crossing to Northern Ireland from the UK will not be ready for 1 January.

One of the main tenets that the proponents of Brexit in the UK talked about is that they could get great trade deals around the world to increase UK trade outside of the European Union. We know that 50% of UK trade is with the European Union and we also know that in key markets outside the EU, including America, China, South Korea and India, that the UK is losing market share and the value of its exports is in decline.

We also know that the UK seems intent on continuing to break international law. It has not withdrawn the Internal Markets Bill. More recently, the UK Government seems intent on bringing forward the new taxation Bill with clauses which will undermine sections of the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, correctly commented today that if this goes ahead it will put the negotiations into crisis. I would have welcomed a direct comment from the Taoiseach on that. It is an omission that he has not.

I wish to make two points on the threat of no deal on fisheries and what that could do in terms of the thousands of Irish jobs that are reliant on continued access to UK waters. First, we need to be very conscious of the amount of jobs that are potentially at stake. We are looking at approximately 16,000 jobs in the industry that could be lost. We could also be looking at conflict at sea. The operational capacity of the Naval Service is not what it should be, which is quite concerning in terms of Brexit. We also need to be mindful that the UK has netted more than €1 billion worth of additional fish in the past ten years because of its access to the EU fisheries policy. We also know that its fleet does not have sufficient capacity to catch all the fish in UK waters. The UK is very reliant on exports. Some 80% of scallops, squid, sole and ray caught by UK vessels are exported to the European Union. The UK does not hold all the cards in these talks. It is very important that Ireland and the European Union hold fast in the negotiations and that we agree a common approach on fisheries and on measures to conserve fish stocks in the future.

I wish to share time with Deputy Neale Richmond.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Next week’s European Council meeting will deal with the European budget and the recovery fund, but Irish eyes will certainly be focused very much on Brexit. It was such a political gamble in Britain and it is finally coming to the endgame. Following what was stated earlier today by Michel Barnier, the next 36 hours are the most crucial of all, as Britain continues to dig its heels in on a number of issues, but most strikingly on that of fishing. The Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, has taken a very simplistic, one-dimensional view of fishing and fishing waters around his country and ours because most of the stocks, in particular of mackerel, are spawned in Irish waters before migrating in an easterly direction where they are caught at their most valuable stage of development in British waters. It is crucial that fishing rights are held as a red line issue by the Irish Government as these crucial talks enter their final stages.

I note as well that it has been reported in today’s newspapers that Michel Barnier has suggested that a transitional arrangement for fishing rights could be explored with the idea of a renegotiation at the end of the period, which would be linked at that stage to the overall economic agreement of both Brussels and London. It sounds rather watery to me, if Members will pardon the pun, and we need far more certainty for fishermen who are following this afternoon’s debate that their livelihoods will be protected at next week’s meeting and by the European Union overall.

If we look at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, farmers have very defined boundaries and livestock that one can see. Occasionally, they break out of a field but, by and large, one ends up with the same count of cattle year-on-year and one’s farming practice is very quantifiable. It is far more uncertain for fishermen. For them, there are no boundaries apart from international waters and they have to follow the fish wherever they are at a given time. Everything needs to be done to protect our very valuable fishing industry.

I will move on to the positive announcement we heard a week ago about the new six-times a week ferry service between Rosslare and Dunkirk. It is a fantastic development which offers connectivity to continental Europe. However, I have two small concerns. I went on the website and looked at the journey time between Rosslare and Dunkirk. From when one leaves Rosslare, it takes 24 hours to berth in Dunkirk Port. That is a considerable length of time. It is five or six hours longer than the current journey to Cherbourg. It makes what is already a long route for truckers even longer. One haulier suggested to me that this could in time result in sea cargo being charged per kilogram because of the amount of time taken in transit. I hope that can be looked at.

I am not expert on shipping but on the surface it looks like the fleets that operate between Ireland, Britain and further afield to continental Europe are rather aged and it may be that new ships are required. Potentially, with Brexit looming there may be Government support in that regard.

An airbridge for cargo should also be considered for Shannon Airport. I highlighted in this Chamber recently that Boston Scientific makes very expensive, high quality scientific products and they sit on the apron of the runway at Shannon Airport right beside aircraft but they are trucked overnight from there all the way to Rosslare. From there, they go to Heathrow and they are flown back to the United States. That is illogical. We are doing everything to protect sea cargo and we must also look at air cargo and how that is supported.

Fisheries must be the red line issue that Ireland does not budge on as we approach next week’s European Council meeting.

I appreciate the opportunity to make a few remarks on the, once again, crucial European Council meeting. I will limit my remarks to just two aspects of the upcoming Council meeting because there are so many other aspects such as the rule of law in certain parts of central and eastern Europe or in our near neighbourhood that merit discussion but eight minutes is quite limited.

The first issue is topical. It got quite a bit of attention earlier today during Leaders’ Questions. That is the expected roll-out of a Covid-19 vaccine. To be honest, I welcome the news that the United Kingdom and, in particular, our cousins up North are soon to be rolling out a vaccine. One thing is quite clear: if it was not for Ireland’s continued membership of the European Union, we would not have the chance of getting access to the millions of vaccines that have been bought by the European Commission for all 27 member states. This is going to be a crucial part of the upcoming Council meeting. My question to the Minister and to the Taoiseach, in his absence, is how this is going to be co-ordinated. How will the Government incorporate the overall European plan to ensure that the vast majority of Irish people get the vaccine in a speedy and safe manner? I give credit to the researchers in the various companies who have produced the vaccines and the absolute wonder of science that the vaccines have been developed in such a period. It is a testament to the great amount of work being done. Some of the companies involved are located on this island as well. Throughout this horrendous Covid-19 pandemic, Professor Luke O’Neill of Trinity College Dublin has always referred to the fact that the cavalry is coming. The cavalry is on the brow of the hill. It is about to come.

Let us hope 2021 will be a far better year than 2020 in so many regards but particularly when it comes to public health.

I have a concern relating to some of the fake news, to be honest, that we have seen recently. There has been fake news about vaccines for years and many people have questioned them incorrectly, by spreading conspiracy theories around the Internet, WhatsApp groups and elsewhere. This is a wholly irresponsible act and we must ensure every single Oireachtas Member steps up to the plate to embrace the vaccine and encourage public take-up.

This also extends to our friends in the UK, leading me to further Brexit matters. Over recent months many of us were taken by the decision made by some social media companies, particularly Twitter, to label posts that may be misleading or irresponsible. Perhaps we have seen that today with the vast number of MPs and Cabinet ministers in the United Kingdom claiming they are able to roll out a vaccine there due to Brexit. It is absolute nonsense that must be called out and corrected. We know the UK has not left the European Union yet and the European Medicines Agency is ensuring the vaccine can be rolled out in the UK. It is something that must also be brought into the debate about Brexit and the discussions as they will follow in the coming days.

I sincerely hope that following the Minister of State's General Affairs Council meeting this week and leading into the European Council meeting, we will be discussing a deal. As Deputy Crowe and others so eloquently put it, we have no doubt this will be an extremely narrow deal. Many of the issues will be a major concern in all our constituencies, and Deputy Mac Lochlainn mentioned the very real concern to fishing communities not just in Donegal but across our island, so there is a need to ensure fishing access is maintained.

Any deal achieved should be fair and equitable because as I have said a million times at this stage, there is no such thing as a good Brexit, whether it is for Ireland, the UK or the European Union. That is why whatever deal can be salvaged at this point should be fair. We must ensure the bare bones of that thin deal protects Irish and European interests.

My concern goes beyond this into whether we are likely to get a deal. Like other speakers, I am extremely concerned today by the utterances from the British Prime Minister's spokespersons that the British Internal Market Bill will be returned to Westminster with amendments next week and a new finance and taxation Bill is to come before the House of Commons which will include measures similar to the fifth section of the Internal Market Bill that, quite simply, ran contrary to the withdrawal agreement. As Mr. Michel Barnier said today, any actions by the British Government through the Internal Market Bill, despite amendments based on the very sensible decisions of the House of Lords in recent weeks, or through the finance Bill that runs a cart and horses through the withdrawal agreement would not be acceptable.

There is no way an international agreement can be concluded with a body that a year afterwards would absolutely rip apart an existing international agreement. What does it say about the British Government when it makes claims about China's responsibility to Hong Kong or to the incoming American President?

I will conclude on this point. The Minister of State and the Taoiseach have my very best wishes for the upcoming Council. I have no doubt every Member of this Oireachtas will continue to work steadily to ensure this country is looked after as well as possible in what will be an extremely difficult period.

I must agree with much of what has been said today. If we base our thoughts on statements made in the past while, we seem to be looking at the crux of Brexit. We hope Mr. Barnier can deliver a deal. The National Audit Office in Britain has basically stated that there has been insufficient preparation, with insufficient systems put in place, and with nothing on the cards but chaos.

We will have our own issues here. Earlier today we saw representatives from a number of port companies appear before the transport committee and it seems one of the traffic management systems for Dublin Port may be using the port tunnel as a car park in which nobody will park. Drivers will continue to drive around in circles. We will have many such issues. Like many others, I did not realise that to get a burger or fish and chips, we need many imports from Britain. We need a long-term solution involving the farmers of Ireland and the Irish Farmers Association. The Government must take a hand in this and we must deal with these problems. Last week we spoke about a solution in this House relating to a number of drivers who had done certificate of professional competence training in the North. There will be no small number of issues.

We are being told this is coming down to governance, a level playing field and fishing rights. It looks like this is a game being played by a British Government seeking fishing rights on which it does not seem to have the capacity to follow through. We cannot be the fall guy in this. We welcome the solidarity that has been shown, particularly on the Irish Border. That must be maintained. We must ensure this does not have an impact on a significant number of livelihoods in Ireland.

Whether we are talking about the withdrawal agreement or the possibility of a free trade agreement, this is about mitigating the worst aspects of Brexit. Some of that will be within our control but not all of it will be. There is a belief that this British Government is almost literally playing games because approximately 45% of exports from Britain go to the European Union. It requires a deal as much as anybody else. I could not say I could ever trust the British Government, and one could not trust this British Government in particular. We must ensure we can maintain the level of European solidarity and that there is no blinking whatever.

This week German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have made positive statements about a deal but indicated it will not come at any expense. We have heard what Mr. Barnier said, along with the comments of French President Macron. If we are talking about Brexit adjustment funds, we must go to the European Council with the argument that nowhere will see a bigger impact than Ireland. It is a necessity that this be followed through.

I repeat to the Minister of State that as we go to the European Council, the question of ensuring a safe and effective vaccine is available to everybody in the world is critical to the effectiveness of the vaccine anywhere in the world, including in this country. People, including European leaders, need to get that into their heads. We do not need a repeat of the disgraceful position with retroviral AIDS drugs, when poorer countries were pleading to have access to the technology to produce generic and cheap versions for distribution but big pharmaceutical companies did not want to do it because it would cut into profits.

That must not happen and I repeat my earlier call to the Taoiseach. We need the waiving of intellectual property and patent rights on vaccines so they can be available to everybody. All data must be published if we want to get over some of the misplaced scepticism, although there may be some understandable suspicion of some of the pharmaceutical companies rather than vaccines. There must be honesty, openness and transparency, as it is the best way to encourage people to take the vaccine. I will be first in the queue. There could be a very strong public health campaign to overcome scepticism, explaining how smallpox, polio and so on were eliminated because of vaccines. I underline this point in the strongest terms.

I will raise some particular matters for the attention of the European Council. We often hear the narrative that democratic reform is coming in Saudi Arabia and there was much trumpeting of how the country decided to allow women to apply for driving licences. What is said less is that the women who campaigned for women's rights in Saudi Arabia were subsequently imprisoned, almost certainly tortured and denied access to their families. In the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, she was moved to the terrorist court in Saudi Arabia on 25 November. This is a court that Amnesty International has indicated is essentially a tool for suppression of political dissent and where people are tried for crimes such as "disobeying the ruler", with heavy prison sentences and, in some cases, a death sentence.

That is what is going on. Along with Loujain al-Hathloul we have Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz and Nassima al-Sadah. When Loujain al-Hathloul was brought into the court she was weak, shaking uncontrollably and her voice was faint and shaky. She was imprisoned for 21 to 22 years but has now been moved to this terrorist court. In October, eight youths, five of them minors, were brought to court and the Saudi prosecutor is seeking the death sentence for them for participating in demonstrations. This is despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is saying publicly that it is no longer going to seek the death sentence for young people. Seeking the death sentence for anybody is obscene, but especially for youths participating in demonstrations. We must remember, whatever the Saudis say, that this is the regime that murdered Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey. This stuff is still going on. When is the European Union going to speak about this, instead of mouthing nonsense narratives that Saudi Arabia is embracing democratic reform? This is what is going on as we speak and something needs to be done about it.

I also wish to raise a matter that might be of interest to Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae. A woman from Kerry wrote to my office about her husband, who is from Ethiopia. He was trying to get Teaching Council accreditation but he did not have the right papers so he returned to Tigray in Ethiopia to get same. He is now trapped there because at the beginning of November, the Ethiopian Government began a vicious bombing campaign against Tigray. The region is completely blocked off and its inhabitants are subject to indiscriminate bombing. This has the potential to turn into an absolute humanitarian disaster. The bombing campaign is being headed up by the Ethiopian Prime Minister who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Deputies should think about that. The European Union and the Irish Government needs to call this out immediately. It must demand a stop to the bombing campaign and the safe return of people like Kathleen's husband to Kerry and more generally, the safety of all of the innocent people who are being subjected to this vicious campaign. I call on the Minister and all of those attending the European Council to raise these issues as a priority.

Almost one year has elapsed since President von der Leyen presented the European Green Deal setting out an ambitious pathway towards making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The agenda of the upcoming European Council includes the aim of agreeing a new EU emissions reduction target for 2030. These discussions do not often arise so I ask the Taoiseach to use the opportunity to the fullest to strengthen our commitment to proposed measures to tackle the climate crisis. I draw the Minister of State's attention to a letter that my colleague, Deputy Brian Leddin, in his capacity as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action, sent to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The committee urged the Minister to support the European Parliament's newly-agreed position that emissions should be reduced by 60% over 1990 levels by 2030. The Taoiseach has been active in recent European Council meetings in working with other countries to support increased climate ambition at a European level. While Ireland has been described as a laggard in terms of climate action, we do have a proud record of constructive multilateralism on the international stage. With the Taoiseach's support, this new Government's increased ambition on emissions targets can be transposed onto the European stage to effect meaningful change across the Continent.

I wish to express my support for the Oireachtas committee's call for increased ambition, while also acknowledging the challenges this will pose for the community of European nations. I am under no illusions that a 60% emissions reduction target will be challenging in the extreme. Each additional percentage point of our ambition will be more difficult than the last. It is vital in this process that we bring communities with us and protect the most vulnerable in our society. Indeed, Ireland faces one of the biggest challenges in responding to calls for greater climate action. Between 1990 and 2018, emissions across the EU 27 decreased by 21% but in Ireland they increased by 9%. Each European country faces its own challenge in reducing emissions. For some, it is the widespread use of coal for electricity generation and heating or the presence of industry. Our twin challenges are reducing emissions from agriculture and transport, which together make up over half of our non-traded emissions.

This Government has declared unprecedented ambition in halving our emissions in a decade. It will be extremely hard to meet this target while continuing to protect farm family incomes and maintain connectivity in our communities. The challenge is definitely necessary but it is by no means easy. If the road ahead is difficult, it also brings with it opportunities. We have a huge untapped resource off our south and west coasts. If the last European century was powered by the coal fields of Silesia and Brandenburg, the one ahead may well be powered by Atlantic wind. We are laying the foundations for this in our Marine Planning and Development Management Bill, the necessary step to kick start the off-shore wind revolution. In Waterford, Limerick, Wexford, Wicklow and Cork, we have ports that are connected or adjacent to railway lines. We also have access to the very best of engineering expertise. It may well be that our blessing to Europe going forward is go mbeidh an ghaoth go brách ag do chúl. While our recent record on climate action may be poor, the programme for Government indicates that there will be a sea change in our future ambition. In this context, I urge Ireland to support the European Parliament's call for a more ambitious 60% reduction in emissions. It will be difficult to get all countries on board. Ambitious emissions reduction is hard for Ireland and will be hard for Europe but it is the right thing to do. It is right for Ireland, Europe and the planet, for this generation as well as generations to come.

I thank the Minister of State for being here to discuss the important issues that will be addressed at the European Council meeting next week. I wish to take this opportunity to focus on economic recovery through the implementation of the agreement reached in July last. In terms of the rule of law and funding, it is imperative that these supports are put in place as quickly as possible for the recovery of our economy and society in the post-Covid-19 world. While Hungary may be somewhat preoccupied by internal matters at present it must, along with Poland, recognise that upholding the rule of law framework is fundamental to the proper functioning of the European Union. Any attempt to undermine that framework should not be tolerated. An enormous problem at European level, as the Minister of State is aware, is the disruption being caused by both of these countries. This is not about the simple majority wanting to impose its will on the Hungarian people, as suggested by Prime Minister Orbán, but about upholding EU citizens' rights so that people know that they will always be safe and protected within the EU. This is critical in terms of buy-in from citizens right across the European Continent and within the EU itself. We are no longer living in a world of self-interested nation states but in a networked society where we as a people must uphold the values of democracy and freedom against those who try to take them away.

Funding under the NextGenerationEU programme is hugely important for the recovery of Europe. I hope that a consensus will be reached that maintains our fundamental values while also enabling us to begin our economic recovery, which is critically important. It is interesting to see many different, fantastic and ongoing EU-funded projects around the EU. In east Cork, the area I represent, a major project is underway to connect Ireland's power grid to the Continent of Europe for the first time by way of the interconnector between France and Ireland. That project will terminate in Yougal, the town in which I grew up. Projects between nations such as the interconnector help to build a degree of unity. We all understand how important projects such as the Eurotunnel in the 1990s were to the development of the European Union. We need to go back to that economic investment model which will be so important in ensuring that the strength of the Union is upheld. That is the message I would love to see the Minister of State feeding back to his European colleagues at the next meeting.

In terms of long-term development and state aid, the issue of our airports and European connectivity is so important. We have heard very significant discussions lately on the challenges facing the aviation sector.

There is no question but that Ireland is the home of aviation in the European Union, if not the world, in terms of the organisations based here and the level of financial investment it has brought to our economy compared with worldwide averages. We need to work with our European colleagues to protect that. During Leaders' Questions yesterday, the Taoiseach spoke about another issue which is critical for Deputies, that of investment in antigen testing. We should, perhaps, consider testing on this basis. We know that such testing is not as accurate as polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing, but it is far more convenient. The European Union should continue to lead the world in research on antigen testing. This will be very important if we are to live with Covid over the medium term because the roll-out of vaccinations will take a significant amount of time. We have to be proactive within the European Union in that regard. Of the top ten pharmaceutical companies in the world, nine have their European bases in Ireland. We are, therefore, in a prime position to lead that fight. I regularly speak to ambassadors on the importance of aviation not only to Ireland, but to all of our European neighbours. We should lead on that issue.

In my contribution, I will raise the issue of vaccines and the recent positive news in that regard. I will also refer to Ireland's role on the European stage, and Europe's role on the global stage, in ensuring that, as a point of principle, nobody is denied free access to a vaccine based on location, financial means or any other discriminatory criterion. There have unfortunately been 1.4 million deaths as a result of Covid. There has been positive news on the development of vaccines by Pfizer, BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Janssen Pharmaceutica, also known as Johnson & Johnson, in addition to the Russian vaccine. It is worth noting that these vaccines have been developed through very different development processes. Public moneys have been at the very heart of the development of some. Some of this money has come through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, CEPI, from which Moderna has received funding.

It is fair to say, however, that there have been significant levels of vaccine nationalism. Ireland is in quite a privileged position, as is Europe, but this is a global pandemic and we have a moral and ethical responsibility to lead from the front on that issue. In addition, from a very practical point of view, this is a global pandemic and we want to eradicate the virus globally. Therefore, in addition to our moral and ethical responsibility, it makes absolute sense to ensure that the vaccines are available to everyone who needs them. There are welcome developments at a European level including the COVAX facility and the new citizens' initiative, "Right to Cure". These are all motivated by the same intentions. In Ireland there are groups, including Access to Medicines Ireland, that have been campaigning on these issues for years. The global pandemic of Covid-19 has brought these issues into stark relief.

Yesterday, I attended the Oireachtas briefing on vaccine preparations by Professor Kingston Mills. The Government has a responsibility to do everything it can to ensure that supply lines and schemes are in place in Ireland.

I will make two points on the indemnity scheme. There is work to be done in that regard but those who take the vaccine are as entitled to the State's protection as the vaccine producers. It is very important work. The work that Professor Brian MacCraith and his group are doing needs to be supported in every way.

I welcome the opportunity to make a statement this afternoon prior to the very important meetings that will take place in Brussels on Thursday and Friday of next week. The Taoiseach outlined the very broad agenda that is on the table. I will focus my contribution exclusively on Brexit because it is the most urgent and most important issue from Ireland's point of view. I suggest that next week's summit is the most important EU summit of 2020 from an Irish perspective because it will either be the summit at which any tentative EU-UK trade deal will be signed off on, or the summit at which contingency plans for a crash-out Brexit on 1 January will be prepared. It is really important from our perspective.

I have two quick observations to make at the start. Like other Deputies, I welcome the increased capacity for shipping from the island of Ireland to continental Europe which was announced a few days ago. The two additional routes, which will run from Rosslare to Dunkirk and from Cork to Zeebrugge, will make a big difference. Using these routes will increase the transit time for Irish hauliers travelling from Ireland to continental Europe but will allow the UK land bridge to be circumvented. It is better than spending hours, or even days, sitting in a car park in Kent waiting for a ferry to Dover. It is a positive development. Our truckers will arrive on the Continent relatively well rested from a tachograph point of view. They will then be able to proceed with their onward journeys once they make landfall.

The second observation I would like to make relates to the common travel area. This is again a significant diplomatic success from Ireland's point of view. I commend both the Irish and UK diplomatic teams for almost striking a deal on the common travel area. I understand that there is a draft deal on the table which is ready to be inked. This deal will stand regardless of whether the EU-UK trade deal is agreed or not. That is a very positive development because the common travel area is of great importance to our students, our workers and any families that are split between the UK and Ireland. Those two developments are very positive.

Notwithstanding these positive developments, I have five concerns which I would like to articulate. The first relates to the utterances from London today in respect of whether the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is to be resurrected and returned to the House of Commons next week. I urge the UK Government not to go down that road. I hope this is only a juvenile and clumsy negotiating tactic. Legislation that specifically sets out to breach international law has no place in a democratic society. That draft legislation should be withdrawn.

I have raised my second concern with the Minister of State before. It relates to the ratification process. We are only 29 days out from a potential hard exit and we still do not have a lot of clarity on the ratification process. My concern is that there is not enough time left to ratify this deal from the perspective of the EU, of the UK or even of Ireland. Are we in Dublin going to debate a motion on any potential trade deal? Does it require further legislation? In any event, we are very tight for time. It may already be too late.

My third concern is quite similar to my second. I still believe we should be looking for an extension to the transition period, a grace period or a technical extension. Regardless of the formula of words used, this is something we should be looking for. I fully understand that the UK's stated position is that it does not want an extension in any shape or form, but we should bear in mind that 12 months ago it was the UK's stated position that it did not want any extension and that it was going to leave the EU on 31 December come hell or high water. I believe there is an opportunity to agree a grace period of a few weeks, perhaps to the end of January, to allow us to test our systems, to rehearse procedures at ports and airports and to make some final tweaks to our infrastructure and customs documentation. If that opportunity presents itself, we should seize it with both hands.

My fourth concern relates to the EU Brexit reserve fund - the €5 billion fund. In recent days we have heard that France seems to be keen to get its hand on as much as possible of the €5 billion fund. Ireland needs to be strong next week when we go to Brussels. No country in the European Union is more severely affected by Brexit than Ireland. The €5 billion fund is set aside to assist countries and sectors that are disproportionately affected. Ireland has a strong case and we should certainly be looking for the lion's share of the €5 billion to be assigned to the country and the sectors most impacted here.

We should always be mindful that there will be a future relationship beyond 1 January in whatever form it takes. Ireland should be open, diplomatically and from a trade perspective, to any developments in a year or two down the track. If we get a bare bones agreement in the coming days or weeks, we should still be prepared to revisit this and look at a more comprehensive agreement in a year or two from January 2021.

I wish Mr. Michel Barnier and the EU task force the best in the last days of the negotiations. To be clear, I very much look forward to engaging with my UK counterparts in whatever capacity that new relationship will become manifest post 1 January.

This is only one example of an oversight. I was horrified but not surprised to see that on 24 November 2020 we had discovered, by chance, it seems, that there was a major export food problem with sausages and mince going to the UK. The current health certificate was only for frozen produce and had to be amended for fresh produce. I wish to remind the Minister of State that the UK is leaving on 1 January. Bord Bia dismissed this by saying the body had a plan. Have we got a plan?

Last week I spoke to the hauliers about their difficulty at the ports. Again, it was said that we have a plan. Thanks to the ferry companies, we have seen that Irish products are for a worldwide stage. They see the importance of having Ireland on these stages with the extra ferries being supplied.

Yet, it is still not enough. In 2019, UK exports to Ireland were worth £38.3 billion. Imports from Ireland were worth £24.4 billion. Some 37% of our food exports go to the UK. In total, €4.5 billion is the value of our food and drink exports to the UK and €4.5 billion goes to Europe on the land bridge.

Today, I call on the Taoiseach and the Minister of State to engage with the agencies like Bord Bia to make them accountable. We are only hearing about these restrictions at a late stage. Farming lobby groups like the IFA, Macra na Feirme and the ICMSA have come to me on many occasions expressing fear for their livelihoods and the future of their families in rural Ireland. There are 137,500 farms in Ireland and 75% of produce is mainly meat product. What exactly is going on in Ireland? A statement about the need to change export licences to be able to export to the UK sounds like last-minute talk. Are we ready for Brexit? I do not think so.

I am glad to get the opportunity to mention some important things. The first thing relates to fisheries. I appeal to the Minister of State not to leave our fishermen short. Their job is onerous and dangerous at the best of times. There are many in the Dingle Peninsula, Cahersiveen, Castletown Berehaven and all along the Kenmare Estuary. They depend a great deal on fishing. It is the one product that goes up through our village day and night. I am proud to see each load that passes up and glad to see it happening.

As Deputy O'Donoghue said, there is a problem and it has been highlighted. It is about meat-based products, including mincemeat and sausages. That must be sorted out. We must have adequate capacity for live exports and shipping. The Government seems to be saying that it is making progress, but I anticipate there will be queues and problems. These need to be sorted out.

There is supposed to be a problem with spuds and getting spuds from the UK. Let them keep their spuds if they do not want to sell them to us. We can plant our own spuds. Let them stuff Boris with the spuds they have and we will manage fine without their spuds. We are at the right time of the year. The Government should get out now and advertise this. It should tell farmers there is an opening for planting spuds. We are at the right time of the year. Perhaps the Government could assist them by providing seed potatoes or whatever. Now is the time to do it.

I have raised the most important thing in the House before, as has Deputy Michael Collins. We are asking for a bilateral arrangement to allow patients to seek cataract removal in the North of Ireland, where we have been doing this for more than three years. I call on the Government to go into deep discussions to ensure the bilateral arrangement will continue after 31 December. The Government must ensure we will be able to see after people and ensure they will not go blind in the early months of next year. There is only a short timeline between needing the cataract removed urgently and going blind. I appeal to the Minister of State because that is the most important thing in all the talks that needs to be sorted out.

I wish to focus mainly on two issues with regard to the upcoming European Council meeting: Brexit and Covid-19. Like many people have said, we are approaching make-or-break time on Brexit. Deadline after deadline has passed but a final deadline is looming. Mr. Barnier has been urged by many EU leaders not to rush into an unsatisfactory trade deal with the UK simply because the final deadline is looming. He has been warned not to fall into the Brexit negotiation trap laid by the UK. This trap is where agreement on other issues is reached and then fisheries is dealt with. The French European affairs minister has said that those in Downing Street were misguided if they believe running down the clock will work to the advantage of the UK. He was clear when he said there can be no agreement unless there is an agreement that gives sustainable and wide-ranging access to British waters. He said our terms are known and they are not new.

We also need to play hardball when it comes to protecting our fisheries. The UK is well aware that the vast majority of its fish is exported to the EU. This includes something like 90% of cod, 93% of herring, 85% of mackerel, 80% of shellfish and over 50% of salmon. They are all exported to the EU. Landing fish is one thing but selling it is what delivers a profit. In that context, even though it may not reach the headlines, the EU has a strong hand.

The UK Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, has got his Covid-19 regulations over the line. Perhaps this will give greater impetus towards finding an agreement on Brexit. I am keen to hear the Minister of State comment on that. Vast divergences still remain and it may be too much to bridge that gap. What is the view of the Minister of State on the prospect that if any deal is struck, it will be a narrow deal on goods only? What are the implications of that for Ireland?

Other speakers have spoken about the €5 billion fund. I know the Minister of State will do this but I wish to reiterate the point.

We need to make the strongest possible case for Ireland to get its fair share of the cake because we will be the country most effected by Brexit. Earlier, the Taoiseach spoke about the need for contingency measures to be discussed because next week is critical. One of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit would be that trading between the UK and the EU would continue on WTO terms, which means tariffs on goods. What preparations are in place in respect of the agrifood sector? The food supply chain is a major issue for the whole country, but especially for the region which I represent, the north west, and also for the Border region. Indeed, the 2020 report from the European Commission, which underpins the country-specific recommendations, for Ireland specifically states that regional imbalance between the north and west region and other regions in Ireland is a serious problem and will impede overall national development. That is the situation now. Post-Brexit, however, that imbalance is very likely to be exacerbated and any Brexit strategy must take account of that specific issue.

Turning to Covid-19, I just listened to the 3 p.m. news headlines and Robin Swann spoke of vaccinations starting next week in Northern Ireland. What information does the Minister of State have regarding when we can expect to see vaccination rolled out across the country? Is he satisfied that we have the logistics, staff and capability sorted, so that when the vaccine comes on stream we will be able to immediately start an accessible and effective vaccination policy?

Tá a lán ceisteanna ansin don Aire Stáit.

Táim sásta ceisteanna a fhreagairt ach tá ráiteas agam. Tá mé sásta aon cheist a fhreagairt. Gabhaim buíochas as na ceisteanna a fuair mé ó na Teachtaí. Tá siad an-tábhachtach agus níl aon dabht ach go bhfuil an Bhreatimeacht, an coróinvíreas agus an rialú reachtach in ard na n-aigní anseo i Seomra na Dála.

The Taoiseach outlined the agenda of the European Council next week, which is a wide-ranging one, including discussions on Brexit, Covid-19, climate change and the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and recovery package. Those have been the main issues raised by Deputies here, and I am happy to speak about them briefly. I also want to speak about other issues as well because it is important to have them on the record. I refer to the southern neighbourhood, relations with Turkey and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, in particular.

I will address some of the issues which the Deputies raised, just to be absolutely clear. On Brexit, what is happening is that the EU negotiators are negotiating for the entirety of the Union. We have every confidence in those negotiators and we are in regular contact with the negotiating team. They know our priorities and the issue of fish is one of our top priorities. Deputies are right to say that. The problem here is not the Government and-or the negotiating team; the problem is Brexit. As Deputy Richmond said, there is no such thing as a good Brexit. The consequences of a no-deal Brexit for fishing would be utterly disastrous and worse than any agreement. In addition, the consequences of a no-deal Brexit for Britain in the context of fishing would be disastrous too, because it would not be able to fish its waters and its exports would be partially cut off. Britain's general trade would also be subject to major tariffs, which would have a devastating effect on all that country's industries, notably the sheep industry. It accounts for double the value of the fish industry, and 95% of production is exported to the EU.

I will contradict one thing Deputy O'Donoghue said. He seems to think that we found out on 24 November about an issue with processed beef. No, The Daily Mail found out about that issue on 24 November and published an article about it, which is perhaps when Deputy O'Donoghue found out. This is, however, an issue which has been widely flagged and one on which we are trying to seek resolution. It is an issue caused by Brexit, however. It is not the case that we want to ban sausages, but the EU has high standards of consumer protection and we want to ensure that our consumers are protected. That is why we have the rule regarding not allowing sausages or other prepared meats in from third countries. This is a difficulty. Any trade in either direction being removed is bad for business, as Deputy Cahill has often said to me. There is no doubt about that.

Brexit is bad for business but it is happening and our negotiators are working hard to ensure we get the best possible outcome to these negotiations. It is not fair if I do a running commentary on it, and I am not going to do that except to say that, by and large, I agree with almost everything said by colleagues regarding Brexit. All of us in this Dáil are on the one page and it is very welcome. All of us in the European Union are also on the one page and that gives us, in Ireland and the European Union, a strength and a resolve that is very welcome and to our benefit.

The issue of the rule of law was mentioned. This is an issue for the Ceann Comhairle. The Council of Ministers and the European Commission have suggested that national parliaments have discussions on the rule of law. I suggested to the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad this morning that we would do that. It is for the Dáil and the Business Committee to decide how business here is ordered, and not for me, but I would certainly welcome a discussion on the rule of law within the European Union. It is happening at European level, and Deputy Cian O'Callaghan and others have been very vocal about it. We need to be vocal as a country and I welcome that. We must be very tough in respect of the rule of law, because it is essential we stick to the values we profess.

On vaccines, I agreed with almost everything Deputy Boyd Barrett said. He hit out at the companies, unnecessarily, I think, but he is on the same page as I am on regarding the equity of access. Deputy O'Rourke mentioned that as well. We are part of the COVAX arrangement. When I was speaking to the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, summit yesterday, I stated that this is Ireland's policy. It is no good, as I saw stated in a newspaper article, if a 20-year old healthy person gets the vaccine here but a nurse in Africa does not get it. There is no doubt that the Government is of that view. The Government obviously has responsibilities here and it will be carrying them out. Deputy Harkin asked when will the vaccine be distributed, but that is a matter for the Department of Health.

The European Medicines Agency, EMA, is still checking the scientific research and the clinical trials with a view to having these various vaccines approved before the end of the year, I hope. It is not going to rush into that immediately, however, and I think that people will be happy that full and proper testing of the vaccines is taking place. No doubt the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health will be giving ongoing updates. We are, however, working hard at European Union level, including yesterday at the General Affairs Council, GAC, on the issue of Covid-19 co-ordination. It is another example of the European Union coming together and being of benefit and of greater value to the citizens of the Union. We would have been in a much different place were it not for the fact that the European Union is working together on Covid-19.

Turning to the issue of security and counterterrorism, at their videoconference on 19 November, EU leaders expressed solidarity with France and Austria, as did I, in light of the shocking terrorist attacks which took place recently in those countries. They agreed that a discussion on terrorism, and on measures to counter terrorism, should be on the agenda of the next week's European Council. Work on this issue is also taking place in other Council configurations, including the Justice and Home Affairs, JHA, Council. Today, EU justice ministers are focusing on hate crime. The European Commission is expected to publish proposals for an EU agenda on counterterrorism on 9 December.

Ireland supports a comprehensive response to international terrorism, grounded in full compliance with international law and human rights. We have been broadly supportive of the counterterrorism measures discussed to date. Ensuring respect for human rights and for the rule of law in the development of any counterterrorism policy will continue to inform our approach ahead of the discussion at the meeting of the European Council next week.

We will also be discussing the issue of our southern neighbourhood. The EU and its southern neighbourhood are deeply connected by economic, cultural and people-to-people ties. The region currently faces some significant challenges, including conflict in Libya and Syria. What results from those conflicts affects us all. There is also a severe economic crisis in Lebanon. These events have a direct impact on the EU. As with the rest of the world, of course, the EU’s southern neighbourhood is also suffering the health and economic consequences of Covid-19. We are committed, therefore, to assisting the southern neighbourhood through our neighbourhood policy, which will be bolstered by the launch of the new neighbourhood, development and international co-operation instrument, NDICI, under the new MFF. The aim of the NDICI is to bring greater coherence to EU co-operation.

Moving on to the issues of Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, at the European Council in December, leaders, including the Taoiseach, will return to discuss EU relations with Turkey and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, as agreed in October. Since then, statements made by President Erdogan of Turkey during his visit to Northern Cyprus last month, advocating the permanent division of the island, have only added to the tensions in the region.

The only viable solution for Cyprus remains reunification based on a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation with political equality, on the basis of relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Similarly, maritime disputes in the eastern Mediterranean Sea must be addressed through dialogue and negotiation.

It is disappointing that Turkey has not taken advantage of the European Council’s offer of a positive EU-Turkey political agenda. I note the humanitarian help that some EU member states gave to Turkey during recent difficulties.

We continue to hope that these issues can be resolved through dialogue. If Turkish behaviour does not change, however, the European Council will have to consider further restrictive measures. We in Ireland show our full solidarity with Cyprus and Greece, and we thank them for their extraordinary solidarity, as also shown by all members states, during the Brexit process.

At the meeting next week, leaders may also discuss other current external relations issues. Preparations for the meeting are ongoing and will be finalised by the General Affairs Council on 8 December, which I will attend virtually. Yesterday, I participated in an informal meeting of European affairs ministers, also by videoconference. This meeting included a discussion on our response to Covid. These discussions are very useful to see the work the European Commission is doing to co-ordinate our efforts and to see what other member states are doing in their Covid response. This is all new to governments and administrations all over the European Union. Ireland is doing quite well, and while we are learning lessons from other countries, they too are following some of the approaches we have taken.

It was very important that yesterday's meeting also included a discussion with young leaders from across Europe on the Conference on the Future of Europe, which Deputy Haughey mentioned. We also discussed climate action, EU democracy and digital issues.

The Taoiseach will report to the House in the week following the European Council. We sincerely hope and expect that there will be an agreement on Brexit by then in everybody's interests: in Ireland's interests, in Britain's interests and in the European interests. If it does not happen by 31 December, to answer Deputy Berry's point, there is no mechanism currently for either side to extend the process. This is it. I strongly urge people to look at the gov.ie website where there is an extraordinary range of information on Brexit, including points that have been there for a long time, which Deputy O'Donoghue has incorrectly said were discovered on 24 November. The information is there and we all have a responsibility to play our part: Government to impart the information, which we have done, and businesses and those affected to absorb the information and use it. Brexit means change, whether there is a deal or no deal. This is the message we need to hammer home.