Pre-European Council Meeting: Statements

I will participate in a meeting of the members of the European Council which will take place by videoconference tomorrow, Thursday, 25 March and, if necessary, on Friday, 26 March. It had been planned to hold this meeting in person in Brussels. However, due to the continued high, and in some cases growing, prevalence of Covid-19 in a number of member states, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, took the decision earlier this week to hold the meeting by videoconference.

The items on the agenda include Covid-19; the Single Market, industrial policy, digital and the economy; relations with Russia; and relations with Turkey. Other current external relations issues may also be discussed. We will also participate in a euro summit in inclusive format to discuss the international role of the euro.

I welcome that President Biden will join us on Thursday evening for a discussion on the transatlantic relationship. I discussed the EU-US relationship with President Biden and with Vice President Harris last week when I met with each of them on St. Patrick's Day. On that occasion, I assured the President and Vice President that, if the US is looking to strengthen the transatlantic relationship, there is equally interest and enthusiasm on the European Union side to renew and reinvigorate that relationship. I believe further that Ireland has a distinctive role to play in furthering the transatlantic relationship.

In my contribution this afternoon I will address Covid-19; the Single Market, industrial policy, digital and the economy; and the euro summit. The Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will address relations with Russia and with Turkey in his closing remarks.

Last week, on 18 March, I participated in a videoconference with Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, and with the Prime Ministers of Finland, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Malta.

President Michel has held a number of such videoconferences in recent months in order to hold more informal discussions with smaller groups of leaders in advance of meetings of the European Council. We had a good exchange that focused, in the main, on Covid-19 and digital policy issues. All leaders were agreed on the need to significantly increase the production and delivery of vaccines using all tools available to us. As the House will be aware, supply has become a real constraint in rolling out vaccines not only here in Ireland, but across the European Union, in large part as a consequence of AstraZeneca's failure to deliver on its European Union contract. We also agreed on the important role that the digital agenda will play in underpinning the European Union's economic recovery once we overcome the current pandemic and we looked forward to discussing the various dimensions of the issue when the European Council meets.

I also took the opportunity to brief colleagues on my US engagements on St. Patrick's Day, including my meetings with President Biden, Vice President Harris and Speaker Pelosi. The new US Administration is strongly supportive of international co-operation and I told colleagues that there is now a significant opportunity to strengthen the transatlantic relationship in areas of mutual concern, including Covid-19, trade and climate action.

Covid-19 has been a standing item on the agenda of the European Council in recent months and we will again take stock of the epidemiological situation across Europe when we meet tomorrow. The incidence of the disease is increasing in many member states and additional restrictive measures have been introduced across the European Union in recent days. This can be linked directly with the increased dominance of more virulent strains of the virus, as we experienced ourselves in the early weeks of the year. While we now have one of the lowest incidences of the disease in the European Union, we, of course, remain vigilant. Tomorrow we will discuss efforts to increase the production, delivery and deployment of vaccines and European Union co-ordination in response to the pandemic, including on new variants of concern.

In the face of challenges with the supply of vaccines, we should not lose sight of the scale of what has been achieved. In less than a year, a number of highly effective vaccines have been developed, tested and made available to vaccinate against a virus that was completely unknown. It is a remarkable tribute to science and international co-operation. It is also important to recall that the decision that the European Union should come together as one to order and distribute vaccines has been a good one and very much in Ireland's interests. While there have been frustrations, the cause is the limited supply at global level as manufacturers ramp up their production capacity to meet unprecedented global demand. It does not bear thinking about how Ireland, as a small country, would have fared in a context where we were out on our own as the world's biggest countries competed and outbid each other for access to limited supplies. The European Union has given us access to a portfolio of more than 2.6 billion doses. Deliveries of vaccines will continue to increase as production ramps up and vaccination programmes will continue to gather pace in the coming months right across the European Union and beyond. For our part, we have been administering vaccines as quickly as we can and will continue to do so. In that context, it is vital that vaccine supply chains remain open. I will make it clear at our meeting this week that I do not support actions that would disrupt vital supply chains and undermine vaccine production when the situation remains so fragile.

Of course, the European Union must continue to hold to account those companies with which it has entered into contracts. There must also be transparency as to the numbers and destinations of vaccines that are produced. However, the pandemic is a global challenge and we must work together to overcome it. Equally, the production of vaccines which rely on a range of inputs, from the elements of which they are constituted to the vials in which they are bottled, is a global activity, relaying on complicated and easily disrupted relationships. Any interruption carries real risk to supply. The world as a whole needs us to work together to increase production. As the WHO reminds us, until all of us are safe, none of us is safe. That is why we will continue our discussions on global solidarity tomorrow. We need to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines across the globe. Irish Aid recently announced a planned contribution of €4 million to COVAX to finance procurement of vaccines for developing countries. Ireland will also contribute €1 million to the World Health Organization to support its oversight of the COVAX mechanism, ensuring fairness and transparency. This is part of at least €50 million allocated to global health by Ireland in 2021. Ireland's direct support to COVAX complements a broader team Europe response. The European Union has doubled its funding for the initiative from €500 million to €1 billion, to which Ireland makes a pro rata contribution. When taken with the commitments of individual member states, this brings the entire European Union pledge to COVAX to €2.2 billion.

During the videoconference, we will also discuss a co-ordinated approach to safe reopening of our economies and societies. It will take some time before this becomes possible, but we have an opportunity to begin to plan for this together. In the meantime, we must to ensure that the Single Market is protected and that the unhindered flow of goods and services continues, including through the use of green lanes for goods.

As the House will be aware, the Government continues to advise against all non-essential international travel. Restrictions on non-essential travel remain necessary and are reinforced by legal measures to protect public health and to mitigate the risk of new variants of Covid-19 entering the country. For essential inbound travel, all arriving passengers, with very limited exemptions, must have a negative pre-departure polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test result, complete the passenger locator form and observe post-arrival quarantine. At tomorrow's meeting, I will update my European Union colleagues on the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine this week in Ireland. The position on international travel will be kept under review over the coming months in light of epidemiological developments and the progress of vaccination.

On St. Patrick's Day, the European Commission published a legislative proposal for digital green certificates. Our discussions tomorrow will touch on this issue as we look for the technical work to be progressed over the coming weeks. While there is clearly value in having vaccination certificates for medical purposes, their use for travel purposes requires further consideration.

This week's meeting will also return to Single Market, industrial and digital policy issues, setting important political orientations for the ambitious legislative agenda being advanced by the Commission in this area. We touched on these issues at the meeting of the European Council last October and adopted conclusions. The need for a more competitive and resilient European Union is more evident than ever. To achieve this, we need to set the right strategic direction for the digital transformation, unlock the Single Market's full potential, especially in the field of services, and ensure that the European Union remains a champion of open, rules-based multilateralism. We will only achieve this by developing our own economic strengths, dynamism and competitiveness. It cannot be about excluding others or taking a protectionist approach. We need to work together to support research and innovation, develop technological capabilities and skills, and facilitate the development of a green and digital economy. An open, well-functioning, competitive and innovative digital economy is essential for the European Union's future economic strength.

I welcome the digital compass proposals presented by the Commission on 9 March, setting the course for a digitally empowered Europe by 2030. These include clear ambitions for digital skills, data and connectivity infrastructure, and for increasing the digital intensity of business and public services. I also welcome the emphasis on addressing global challenges through strong international partnerships, including in particular the proposed renewal of the transatlantic relationship through a new EU-US trade and technology council. The Commission's digital compass proposals are consistent with the emphasis placed by Ireland and like-minded member states on setting a strategic direction for Europe that is open, competitive and innovation-friendly.

On the question of taxation in the new digital economy, Ireland remains fully supportive of EU efforts to advance agreement by the middle of this year within the framework of OECD and G20 co-operation. At our meeting, leaders will also express our support for the policy priority areas of the annual sustainable growth strategy published by the European Commission. These will be reflected in national recovery and resilience plans being prepared by member states, including Ireland, ahead of the deadline at the end of April. The recovery and resilience facility is the centrepiece of the next generation EU package agreed by the European Council last July and will be one of the main European Union tools supporting the economic recovery across the Union.

The economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are serious, and employment levels are now well below where we want them to be. The impact has also been highly uneven and presents particular challenges for young people and those employed in contact-intensive sectors. It is important that we retain a clear focus on job creation and having the necessary supports in place to help these cohorts return to employment as quickly as possible. Advancing the green and digital transitions will also underpin a growth path that is sustainable at both the domestic and European Union levels, supported by the right mix of monetary, fiscal and structural policies.

The euro summit will set important orientations for finance ministers on ongoing work on the international role of the euro. In December, we agreed that this international role should be commensurate with the global economic and financial weight of the Union. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will participate in his capacity as president of the Eurogroup, and I expect that we will also hear from President Lagarde of the ECB on monetary policy developments. In his letter to President Michel on last week's preparations at the Eurogroup, key elements identified by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, include: a strong economic recovery, integrated financial markets and payments systems, and delivering on green and digital finance. The international role of the euro in the coming decade will clearly depend in the first instance on how our economies recover from the impact of Covid-19. A strong European recovery, which addresses divergences and prepares for the transition to a digital and green future, will help us achieve these broader, strategic goals. If there is a common thread running through the issues we will discuss this week, it is our interconnectedness, whether that is in terms of delivering vaccines at scale and at pace, developing a green and digital economy, or advancing relations with external partners. We will only secure our future health and prosperity by working together. This is true of our actions within the European Union and of our engagement across the world.

In his concluding remarks, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will update Members on the discussions planned on the European Union's relations with two of our most important neighbours, Russia and Turkey. Our consideration of these relationships will build on discussions we have had at a number of recent European Council meetings. In this too, it is vital that the European Union engages in unity. I look forward to engaging with my European Union colleagues at tomorrow's meeting of the European Council on all of these issues and will report back to the House in due course.

The European Council meets this week at a time when the twin crises of the pandemic and Brexit call for a refocusing on what is required to meet these seismic challenges and to deliver solutions based on what has worked successfully in the recent past, that is, partnership, co-operation and solidarity.

There is massive frustration and disappointment in Ireland and across the European Union at how the European Commission has handled the procurement and supply of Covid-19 vaccines. The reality is that the EU has little experience of procurement. It is not an EU competency and procurement is not carried out through the EU for other vaccines. The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has acknowledged mistakes around the speed of procurement, which arguably member states might not have made if left to their own devices. These mistakes have had consequences, in particular for smaller member states such as Ireland where supplies are nowhere near where they need to be, and where the initial stages of the vaccine roll-out are dangerously slow.

In summary, there has been a failure thus far to deliver vaccines at scale or at pace. The European Union must acknowledge and take responsibility for its mistakes, but it is the Government that is ultimately responsible for protecting the health of the Irish people. The roll-out here has been marked by many problems. For example, we still do not have detail on staffing for mass vaccination centres and there is no plan for preventing further delays to healthcare from redeployments that might be necessary for these centres. We still have problems with deliveries of vaccine to GPs. Missed deliveries and late deliveries with no warning are persistent and some GPs have received few or no vaccines. Some have received double deliveries while others have received a box of leaflets instead of vaccines. Vulnerable groups such as family carers, to mention one, are still left behind in the order of priority. I raised that already this morning. None of this is good enough.

The Government needs to look seriously at avenues outside of the EU system to maximise supply, accelerate the stuttering roll-out and give health teams and professionals the very best chance at getting the job done. Solidarity across EU member states is important, but we should remember that other states such as Germany and Denmark are now doing their own side deals and Ireland needs to seek out every opportunity. The importance of having a certain supply of vaccines is even further underscored when one considers that further delays can be caused by unforeseen circumstances such as we saw with the recent suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The people of the EU and Ireland need certainty and regularity of supply. I note that the European Medicines Agency, EMA, is reviewing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine with the hope of approving it for use in the European Union. That is very important work. It is important that the EU continues to build a portfolio of safe vaccines from a wide range of sources in a way that enhances supplies in a fair way across member states.

Procurement issues have slowed us down, so the focus now must be on maximising production and the EU must take leadership in the global vaccination effort. We remember the mantra that nobody is safe until we are all safe. It is not enough for the Government to sit back and point a finger at the EU, it is essential that we play an energetic role in positively contributing to the improvement of the EU strategy. Unless our vaccination programme is improved dramatically then the virus will stay ahead of us and the reopening of society, the economy and people's lives will remain on hold indefinitely. That is unacceptable given the hard road people have travelled since the beginning of the pandemic.

Although Brexit is not on the clár for the upcoming Council meeting, I have no doubt the recent developments may be discussed informally by EU leaders. Five years after Britain's vote to leave the EU - a decision resoundingly rejected by the people of the North of Ireland - the economic and political dangers have converged to present us with the true scale of what Brexit really means for Ireland. The continuing campaign to undermine the Irish protocol is ill-conceived to say the very least and dangerous. Attacks on the protocol, including the DUP's legal challenge, have been damaging and disruptive to the all-island effort to minimise the impact of Brexit. These attacks are not in the best interests of workers, families and businesses. They are dangerous ploys designed to divide and distract from the calamity of Brexit. The decisions taken by the British Government at the start of March were also unhelpful. At February's meeting of the joint committee, Michael Gove and Maroš Šefčovič reaffirmed support for the Irish protocol and the need to work together to deal with the issues that arise. Incredibly, one week later the British Government went on a solo run, taking unilateral action in departing from the rules of the protocol and measures agreed by both sides. This was completely unnecessary and undermined the work and the role of the joint committee. Putting the joint committee on a collision course with the EU is short-sighted and counterproductive. The joint committee was put in place for a reason and it needs to work.

In the immediate aftermath of these events, I met dozens of members of the diplomatic corps in Dublin and London regarding the challenges Ireland now faces arising from Brexit and the fact we are now picking up the pieces of a Tory Brexit that is bad for Ireland. It is clear to me that EU member states are watching events closely, that they understand why the Irish protocol is necessary and, most importantly, that they are resolute in supporting its implementation. The protocol is vital for us. It protects our all-island economy, it defends the Good Friday Agreement and it prevents the reintroduction of a hard border on our island. It is right there has been near universal condemnation of attempts to undermine that protocol and that those voices of condemnation have been heard at home and internationally. I welcome the statement issued jointly by US President Joe Biden and the Irish Government on St. Patrick's Day, which called for the good faith implementation of international agreements designed to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland and which sought to underscore the importance of preserving the hard-won gains of the peace process.

Instead of attacking the protocol, those who championed the Tory Brexit should own their decisions, turn away from narrow ideological attacks and join the good faith effort of making the protocol work for the benefit of everyone. We must remember that these attempts to undermine the protocol are happening at a time of immense challenge for business and trade across the island, challenges brought on mainly by the disruptive approach taken by the British Government in putting in place its new customs regime.

To face these challenges, the Government must be proactive and strategic in its response. It must respond to the repeated calls from traders to update systems throughout the trading channel to avoid adding to the disruption. It must also invest in key infrastructure to take advantage of the opportunities for the all-island economy that are becoming all the more apparent in the chaos of Brexit. This is something recognised by IBEC in its submission to the national development plan and by EU Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič when he pointed to the potential of building capacity at Rosslare Europort as an alternative to the British land bridge for Irish companies trading to the Continent.

Trade with Britain will remain crucially important, but there is now a need to enhance the strategy for Irish companies to diversify into new international markets to offset the disruption. If Ireland is to respond successfully to the challenge of Brexit, there can be no question of a reduction in our allocation of the EU Brexit adjustment fund. That is something the Government must impress on our EU partners at the Council meeting.

I always make the comment that five minutes is very short to make any meaningful contribution on European Council meetings. I have noticed the European Commission has, most unusually for that institution, been belligerent and noisy in advance of this week's Council meeting. The reason for that is obvious. A new wave of Covid infections has erupted and the roll-out of vaccines remains painfully slow across the European Union.

Here, we look at our nearest neighbour where more vaccines were administered each day last week than we have managed to administer in three months. It is delivering 720,000 vaccines a day. Proportionately, that would equate to 60,000 vaccines per day here. The truth is we are nowhere near reaching that level of delivery.

The Commission put its hands up in the early part of the pandemic. There was no health competence within the European Union, as we know. Things were slow to be organised in the face of the pandemic. Co-operation in the initial months was not as it should have been. All of that was gradually understood and acknowledged. We were promised that lessons were learned and vast improvements would be delivered upon. This has not happened. Vaccine procurement, the Commission's single most important task, has been unacceptably poor. Our purchase agreements and contractual arrangements have proven to be significantly inferior to those negotiated by the United Kingdom and the United States.

Most amazingly of all, the EU has somehow managed to put itself, in the past week or so, in the position of being seen as the aggressor, threatening to stop the export of vaccines, when in truth since February more than 40 million vaccines have left the European Union to 33 other nations in total, including 10 million vaccines which were exported from the European Union to the United Kingdom. That was one-way traffic, since the AstraZeneca vaccine cannot leave Britain because of its UK-first contract clause.

There must be a process of accountability for this unacceptable state of affairs. The promise solemnly given almost a year ago to do better has not been delivered on. Those of us who remain strong supporters of the European Union must require its institutions to be accountable in the full measure of that phrase.

For the past few days the Taoiseach has preached calm, no vaccine nationalism and no vetoing of exports. It should never have reached this point. There has been a failure of procurement, a slowness in authorisation and a communications strategy that has painted the most generous of national blocs as vaccine grabbers. Meanwhile, the UK – and more luck to it – has administered more than 720,000 vaccines per day while European Union citizens patiently wait and watch the number of infections rise.

The European project will succeed when we know we can depend on the competence of those whom we entrust with leadership and on our systems of political oversight to properly address the situation when that leadership and those solemnly given commitments fail.

I have said in the House before that Ireland, as a small country, had no choice but to be part of the EU vaccination process. However, it has to be said the Commission's handling of this matter has been less than sure-footed. Its approach from the start was slow and bureaucratic in terms of concluding pragmatic contracts and getting approvals for vaccines. Maybe this is the necessary modus operandi for an EU comprising 27 states.

However, it is now apparent that the Commission should have been tougher with vaccine manufacturers and not have willingly accepted their commitment with regard to deliveries. It seems the Commission lacked business acumen and did not have sufficient knowledge of the commercial realities of the world. That said, I am not saying it should have engaged in what Boris Johnson called capitalism and greed.

The UK, US and Israel are way ahead of the EU in the administration of vaccines, yet the EU is the world's biggest producer of vaccines. Up to last month, the EU had exported 41 million vaccine doses to 33 countries, including 10 million doses to the UK and 1 million doses to the US.

Sadly, no vaccines were exported to the EU in return. Ursula von der Leyen initially threatened to ban exports of vaccines from the EU to other countries that are producing their own vaccines and not exporting them in return. A blanket ban on exports would be a mistake and would be counterproductive. As vaccines contain many ingredients manufactured in many different countries, the interconnectivity of the global supply chains need to be kept open. I welcome, therefore, the new proposals put forward by the Commission this morning. However, we have a problem. AstraZeneca has failed to live up to its supply commitments and, as a result, Europe has been left short. The EU must now do everything possible to ramp up production in EU plants to ensure that the AstraZeneca company fulfils its commitments. I also hope that the attendance of US President Joe Biden at the council meeting will help to improve the position.

There is a problem in EU-UK relations. The vaccine issue is one problem while the Brexit divorce has been quite nasty. The unilateral declaration by the British Government to the effect that certain checks agreed as part of the Northern Ireland protocol would not be applied until at least October was wrong. The Commission had to act and was right to initiate legal action against the UK. It is in everyone's interest that the trade and co-operation agreement be implemented in full. I believe that Ireland in its traditional role as a peacemaker should do everything possible to try to improve relations between these two blocs.

I also give a cautious welcome for the digital green certificate. It is not a passport, nor is it a magic bullet and it is not foolproof against the importation of this insidious virus but the proposal should be actively explored.

I wish to put on the record my condemnation of the military coup in Myanmar and call on the EU to ramp up its response. I would also like to welcome the imposition of sanctions on China by the EU for human rights abuses and the systematic oppression of the Muslim Uighurs minority. I also note the 10th anniversary of the war in Syria and to request that increased humanitarian aid be given to that region.

I believe the EU must consider imposing further restrictive measures on Belarus given the human rights violations taking place there. Finally, I am worried about the proposal that the recovery and resilience fund for Ireland may be reduced. I ask that the Minister might deal with that in his response.

I am very grateful to the Taoiseach for his opening remarks and to the Minister of State. The videoconference European Council that will take place on Thursday and Friday has a jam-packed agenda once again. It will deal with a plethora of issues but I will raise just two. First, President Joe Biden’s attendance at the Council for the first time is a wonderful opportunity for a reset of EU-US relations. The transatlantic alliance is so important as defined in the 20th and early parts of the 21st century but we cannot deny that the past few years have been extremely difficult given who was in office in the United States. I have no doubt that when the Taoiseach and other Prime Ministers sit down with the President virtually they will raise many issues, many of which will be similar. They will discuss the areas where the EU and US must work closely together in coming years, especially the next four years, including on the climate emergency. The Taoiseach has an opportunity, which should not be missed, to state clearly the continuing need for US engagement and interest in the post-Brexit fallout on this island, dealing with the Northern Ireland protocol and protecting the Good Friday Agreement. The US is the unofficial co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. Its continuing involvement and engagement, particularly under this President and administration is extremely welcome, but there is no point in us using the opportunity to talk about more general issues; rather we must push our case front and centre at every opportunity, as this and the previous Governments have done.

The second issue, which will no doubt dominate the Council meeting and will certainly dominate the media’s reporting, is vaccines and the ongoing stand-off between the EU and certain drugs companies. This is not an EU-UK issue, despite how certain British newspapers or politicians would like to paint it. It is very much an issue about a drugs company supplying the drugs that have been paid for by the European Commission and by Irish taxpayers through a joint procurement process. I welcome the measures announced by the Commission this morning on the options that are available to it from a trading point of view. It is not an export ban and should not be interpreted as such, even though certain people will leap on the opportunity to call it that and use it as yet another stick to wrongly beat the EU with, which they left some months ago. We need the Commission to take a very stern and deliberate approach on two fronts. One is to ensure the contractual obligations of drugs companies in question are met. Only 30 million of a promised 90 million vaccines have arrived. The schedule has been blown out of the water. Two sinister causes for concern became apparent only today. In a factory in Italy, 29 million doses of the vaccine were just stumbled upon. Are they going to other EU member states, the UK, the US or elsewhere? Are they going to an international distribution centre in Liege or are they bound for the European citizens who paid for them? The second equally concerning question is whether the drug companies are selling the vaccines twice. They have taken payment twice but they have not given delivery to all. These are serious issues and we need strong action from the Commission immediately to ramp up production but also in the medium term. What is to happen to drugs companies with lucrative businesses operating throughout the EU that fail to meet their contracts with the EU? What will be the sanction? In two or three years, when everyone is happily vaccinated, will the companies that misled the Commission, broke the terms of their contract and put the lives of so many Europeans on hold be taken to task for their failures and inaction?

If there was ever a time that called upon the nations of the world to look towards their common humanity, rather than individual need, this is it. Unfortunately, it seems factors ranging from inexperience to the pursuit of domestic electoral gain mean the delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine is being seriously hampered. The problems at international level must be dealt with as quickly as possible. We must be careful that Ireland does not become collateral damage, yet again, between the EU and the British Government.

I felt compelled in the past week to call for the Taoiseach to assume direct responsibility for the roll-out of the vaccine in Ireland. It has been evident for some time that the Minister for Health is not up to the job and as the individual responsible for his appointment, it falls on the Taoiseach to step up and sort this out. I do not want to reiterate failures in the roll-out of the vaccine programme in this State; they are clearly evident to all.

If the roll-out of the vaccine programme does not take place with simultaneous application around the world, we run the risk of the development of variants in countries that cannot afford the vaccine. These are variants with the potential to develop immunity to the vaccines in which we have invested so much hope. The EU cannot lose sight of the long-term implications of neglecting a universal roll-out of a vaccine programme. The most effective way to do this is to ensure that the countries in need are given the means to develop the vaccine themselves at a cost they can afford.

The EU must show humane leadership in its approach to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Greece. I call on the Taoiseach, in respect of this meeting, to give a commitment to meet with the Irish medical staff on the ground on Lesbos, listen to what they have to say and take that message to the heart of the EU.

A final area I want to touch on is the situation in Myanmar. Although we are aware that the EU has initiated action this week against named individuals regarding the ongoing oppression of democratic protest against the coup which took place in the country, citizens of Myanmar are being murdered in the streets by their own military forces. Several Irish citizens are also offering humanitarian aid in the country, despite the considerable risk that poses. I stress again that Ireland, as a member of the UN Security Council and a prominent member of the EU, must show leadership on this issue. The reality is people are being shot down on the streets in Myanmar and Irish citizens delivering aid are afraid to speak out and address the issue. Ireland cannot remain silent on this issue. I urge the Taoiseach in his meeting to have this serious issue raised.

First, I challenge the narrative being put forward here by some contributors that what we have here is simply an issue of a lack of technical competence at an EU level when it comes to procurement. I wish that was all that was at stake here. I think, however, we are paying the price for the lack of investment and co-ordination at an EU level in public health over many years. The European Union was very late in negotiating contracts for vaccines and that has resulted from years of neglect in this area. Before the pandemic, how often did ministers for health meet at EU level? They met twice a year. If we look at most other areas, and let us take agriculture as an example, the relevant ministers often meet monthly. Holding meetings twice a year, however, was the level of effort that was put into co-ordination of health at EU level.

Turning to health competences and public health at EU level, those aspects are very weak. If we want collective structures to work, we must put in effort and resources to ensure that happens. We must strengthen European health agencies, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, the European Medicines Agency, EMA, and European co-operation on health and technology assessment. We must also ensure we have much better co-ordination and a much better European health response mechanism for emergencies. We must also have a European health insurance fund in place for rare diseases, because no one country can address these issues on its own. In addition, we should have minimum healthcare standards across EU member states as well as EU competence in respect of transnational pandemics. Those areas must be strengthened. Regarding the EU budget for healthcare, last May €9.4 billion was proposed for a new EU health fund. It was cut to €1.7 billion in July. What is the position of our Government on that issue? What size of budget are we supporting for EU healthcare funds?

There is no question that popular support for the European Union is completely reliant on the big issues which affect people's lives. The roll-out of the vaccines and how that process is being handled is going to affect for many years to come how people perceive the European Union and what level of popular support there will be for it. At this stage, we are only a few steps away from a potential vaccine trade war, where exports of vaccines from the European Union would be suspended and supplies of vaccine ingredients into the EU could be blocked. The result would be a lose-lose situation, and it is the last thing that we need in the fight against Covid-19. We need an approach which will combat the vaccine nationalism that has already been very damaging.

The Taoiseach has been outspoken in saying that no barriers should be put in place which could hamper the production of vaccines. I agree with the Taoiseach on this, but let us be clear about the position of the Irish Government regarding barriers to vaccine production and roll-out globally and the EU's position in that regard. I state that because the position of the European Union and the Irish Government on this matter is that the Irish Government is not supporting a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights which would enable a speedier roll-out of vaccine production globally. The Taoiseach is right to quote the WHO and state that none of us are safe until all of us are safe.

However, we need that commitment to be extended to waiving intellectual property rights temporarily so that vaccine production and roll-out can be maximised globally. We should not have the current situation where production is not at the level it could be if those intellectual property rights were waived. We are in the midst of a global pandemic. It is unbelievable that the reality of this situation has not hit home and that not everyone has grasped that the best way to fight a global pandemic is through maximising the global response to the virus. If we are serious about doing that, it means waiving the intellectual property rights in this regard. There is no excuse for this situation.

Concerning our own narrow self-interest, I do not believe this approach of not waiving intellectual property rights will work out well because the biggest threat to us after we get our population vaccinated will be from variants which will still be spreading around the globe as a result of insufficient levels of vaccination. Therefore, I urge the Irish Government to change its position on this issue and to take a leadership role in this area tomorrow at the European Council meeting.

I welcome the chance to speak ahead of this important European Council meeting this weekend. I also welcome the Taoiseach's determination not to support an export ban on vaccines. Such a ban would be short term and irrational. It seems to be an attempt to deflect from proper scrutiny of what is really going on here. The weakness of the EU response to the issue of vaccination since this time last year is what we must scrutinise and learn from. It is from those lessons we should bring about changes for the future.

Regarding the difficulties being experienced in the roll-out of vaccinations, AstraZeneca has undoubtedly played a disgraceful role in this regard. The company has become the poster child for corporate arrogance in its approach to this situation and that is impacting citizens' lives. However, we should not do something which will potentially result in further difficulties down the line in respect of an export ban and how that might impact on the vaccination roll-out and vaccine production. Such an export ban could also impact on production more generally, not just in the European Union but in this country as one of the most open economies in the world. Let us instead focus on how we can resolve the specific issue and ensure that, if we are hit by another pandemic, and we may well be, or by any other major challenge, the EU will respond more effectively, urgently and clearly than it has in this case.

Some difficult decisions and discussion will arise regarding national competences and those borders and barriers we put in the way of sharing national competences. However, that can be done as a consequence of what has been learned from this pandemic and it should be done. I state that because this pandemic has shown the shortcomings of a country-by-country response. On this island, we have seen the shortcomings of a response to pandemic management which has been based on two jurisdictions. It is extraordinary that, 20 years ago this week, we were able to have an all-island approach to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, but two decades later we have been unable to do so during this Covid-19 pandemic. Let us look back, therefore, at what was learned in 2001 and apply that approach to the rest of the 21st century.

I wish the Taoiseach well. It is important he holds his and Ireland's ground regarding an export ban. It will not resolve the situation. It is important we call out AstraZeneca on its appalling and arrogant behaviour. It is also important, however, that there is self-reflection within the European Commission regarding its response, not just concerning the roll-out of vaccinations but also the pandemic generally. The Commission should not seek to deflect attention away from that aspect of the situation.

This is a great opportunity. Many people have spoken about vaccine nationalism. My Green Party colleagues and I had a positive meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, regarding the issue of vaccinations for Palestinians.

This is a particularly vulnerable group, given the cruel and repressive occupation they are under, and we have seen the impact of vaccine nationalism there. I urge the Minister to use the opportunity to raise this issue and to drive action on it with our EU colleagues.

Recently, Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, wrote a letter to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy that was signed by a total of 466 members of parliament from throughout the member states. I was one of many Deputies who signed this letter calling to use the change of administration in the United States as an opportunity to re-engage in the issue of peace and ending the occupation of Palestine. We cannot go on with business as usual. There was a 185% increase in the number of demolitions in the start of this year compared with the start of last year. Two Israeli NGOs, Ir Amim and Bimkom, have warned that significant demolitions are coming in al-Walaja, a precarious village with a long history I will not get into now.

We need to find new ways of doing things. One simple matter I ask the Minister to raise relates to the EU business advisory on potential legal, financial or ethical consequences for doing business in the Israeli settlements. Ireland has published this business warning on the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and several other member states have done something similar, but the EU's external action service has not done this. This is a very simple ask. There is generally good consensus among member states on this at least, if not on other actions. I ask the Minister to raise the issue.

I ask the Government to use the opportunity of the Council meeting to stand up for democracy and human rights. In 2017, the elected representatives of the Catalan people, in line with the pre-election mandate they had received, facilitated a referendum on independence. That referendum, which was held on 1 October 2017, was met with a violent response from Spanish state forces. Voters were physically attacked as they made their way to vote, in what were unprecedented scenes in modern western European history. Despite this, more than 2 million Catalans voted for independence and the reaction of the Spanish state was excessive and destructive.

The Catalan Parliament was dissolved and political leaders imprisoned - jailed, let us remind ourselves - for that heinous crime of organising a democratic vote. Community leaders, political activists, even musicians have since also been jailed for participating in peaceful political activities. The Spanish Government is even attempting to remove democratically elected Catalan representatives from their positions as Members of the European Parliament. The actions of the Spanish Government have been disappointing, if not all that surprising, but it has been the inaction of the European institutions that has been most disconcerting. If the events I have just described occurred in certain parts of South America or Asia, the outcry from EU leaders would be deafening.

We in Ireland know about the consequences of powerful governments denying the right to self-determination. More than 100 years ago, the people voted for independence and the British Government refused to accept that mandate, instead opting for violence, oppression and, eventually and ultimately, the partition of our country. Its failure to accept the right to self-determination continues to have consequences, as the EU has learned following and as a result of Brexit.

It is tragic that the Spanish Government has not learned from the mistakes of its British counterpart a century ago, but it is utterly shameful that the Union has allowed the Catalan crisis to fester. It is shameful that not one EU leader has stood up for democracy, for human rights and for justice on behalf of people within the Union. They cannot credibly lecture others on these matters while this situation continues within European borders. In the absence of a semblance of leadership emerging from the figureheads of the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament, it is incumbent on Ireland to provide that leadership. In acknowledgement of our history and experience of democracy denied and of peacebuilding and reconciliation, we are perfectly placed to stand up for the rights of our fellow Europeans in Catalonia.

I urge the Taoiseach to use the opportunity of this week's European Council meeting to make that stand on behalf of the people, democracy and self-determination. It is the very least our fellow Europeans should expect from this proud fellow nation.

I am sharing time with Deputy Barry.

We are now one quarter of the way through 2021 and this country has fully vaccinated less than 4% of the population. It is a similar picture in most countries in the EU because the issue we face at this stage is primarily one of supply. The immediate cause of this is the problems with AstraZeneca, which certainly seems to have sold its supply twice, to the EU and the UK, and then chosen to fulfil the ones it makes more money from, through its contract with the UK. The Taoiseach's response to that today was to urge the pharmaceutical companies to fulfil their contracts. It is the equivalent of saying to AstraZeneca: "You have signed this contract; pretty please, fulfil it."

The deeper cause is what the head of UNAIDS, Ms Winnie Byanyima, described to an Oireachtas committee. Big pharma is protecting its monopolies, technology and intellectual property and thus restricting the production of Covid vaccines. It is vaccine nationalism, vaccine imperialism and, fundamentally, vaccine capitalism, and the EU is allowing this to happen. The EU at the World Trade Organization, with the support, scandalously, of the Government, did not support the proposal to suspend the intellectual property on Covid vaccines in order that there could be generic production, and that AstraZeneca and all the other companies that have received more than €5 billion in public funding for research could no longer restrict access to, and production of, these vaccines. That is the way to deal with this crisis but it is a route the EU refuses to take. Rather than dancing to their tune, it is time we stood up to these profiteers.

Turning to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill, it is really a success of spin over substance. The Government is patting itself on the back for setting so-called ambitious targets but the elephant is the room is that these targets are mere political spin because of how far out the implementation dates are. It talks about a 50% reduction by 2030, relative to a 2018 baseline, without saying what it will do this year, next year and in the lifetime of the Government. It is making promises for a future Government that are inadequate in and of themselves. They are even less ambitious than EU climate law. The EU measures the reduction against 1990 and is heading for targets by 2030 of 55% or 60%, significantly more than the targets of the Government, but neither of those targets follows the science. We need binding reductions of 10% a year to get to zero carbon by 2030. That is what the science demands and it is what the environmental movement must demand too.

"We are not scared. We are not afraid. We shall not obey." These were the cries that rang out on the streets of Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir at the weekend. There were demonstrations of women and girls holding pictures of women who had died as a result of male violence and protesting against the withdrawal of the Turkish Government from the Istanbul Convention, which directs prosecution for domestic violence, marital rape and female genital mutilation.

These women and girls and the men who support them were protesting in a country where femicide is a daily reality. The number of femicides in Turkey has tripled since 2010. There were 474 in 2019 alone. Of course, it is a scandal that Turkey has withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention, but it should also be a signal to people campaigning for women's rights throughout Europe to step up the fight. Doing so includes putting pressure on the likes of this Government, which continues to say the right things while starving organisations campaigning to combat domestic violence of the funding they need.

There is another important meeting of the European Council this week and, quite understandably, the focus of this meeting will be on Covid, and on vaccination in particular. Listening to news reports these days, one will know that incidence of the virus is still at a very dangerous level throughout Europe. At this summit, questions have to be raised about this whole area and an emphasis must be laid on the production, manufacture and distribution of vaccines. Health systems across all of Europe need predictability in supply. They cannot plan for vaccination programmes if there is doubt with regard to supply. The citizens of the EU need a clear outline of the preparations being made to ensure an adequate vaccine programme is rolled out.

The European Commission has questions to answer at the highest level. When did it commence its purchasing and procurement programme and what is its strategy? Why were agreements to deliver to the EU first not made with pharmaceutical companies? Some of these companies have shown very bad faith in the way in which they have dealt with Europe so far. Another question which needs to be answered or addressed is whether the EU has facilitated or, more importantly, ensured increased manufacturing capacity for these pharmaceutical products? Everything points to the world facing different variants of this virus for some time to come. We need short-term and medium-term planning to deal with Covid-19.

The EU cannot be accused of vaccine nationalism while it has allowed massive exports of vaccines to outside countries. Indeed, it is preferable and essential to ensure the EU gets at least its fair share of vaccines. I fully appreciate that, as the Taoiseach has said, supply chains have to be protected. I do not believe in trade disruption. Nobody benefits from it and the most vulnerable suffer the most. However, I also believe that we, as EU citizens, need to get the best possible protection from this deadly virus. We therefore need our leaders at EU level to ensure an adequate supply of vaccine and that the vaccine programme is given impetus and is rolled out more quickly. All of us have spoken to constituents who have had the vaccine administered to them. We have seen how much it has changed their lives and outlooks.

I will mention one further issue. I am sure that, in the discussions with President Biden on EU-US relationships, Brexit will come up. It is absolutely essential the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is implemented in a practical manner and there is partnership with Britain to ensure the difficulties that exist are ironed out in a practical manner. Trade disruption in Northern Ireland means trade disruption throughout all of the island. We need to protect the all-Ireland economy. It is essential the Northern Ireland protocol is dealt with in a practical way and those problems are eliminated.

I implore the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, when engaging with his colleagues in Europe, to really drive on the message that the digital green certificate is the way forward to allow international air travel to return. Aviation is at its lowest point of all time. It is very hard to see a recovery over the next 12 to 18 months. Some people say it could even take three years for the sector to recover fully. In recent days, we have seen the UK Government already start planning what its summer and its summer of international travel may look like. We need a Europe-wide plan. It took many months last year for European nations to devise and agree upon the traffic light system for international travel. We now need to move at a far greater pace with the digital green certificate.

There are three types of certificate involved. The Minister of State has been forthright and good in advancing the Irish cause. There is the vaccination certificate, the test certificate and the certification of Covid recovery. This is the only way in which people will have confidence to board planes again as they will know the passengers in front of, behind and beside them are Covid free, that it is safe to travel and that they will not be bringing Covid from one country to another.

People will say we are at peak Covid or just a shade below it. Some will even say we are about to head into a fourth wave of Covid. Some of that may be true. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, will advise us on that but the fact remains we need to strategise now for what the coming months will look like. We may be at a very high level of Covid and may not be able to move outside 5 km of our homes, but people need to be able to dream and to plan and hope for a future this summer that involves being able to go beyond our shores and people being able to come in from other countries. I ask the Minister of State and the Government to advance this issue in discussions in Europe. Now is the time to deliver this agreement. Now may not be the time to implement it, but perhaps the time will be right in a few weeks, so we need to get it in place.

A lot of the people who work in the aviation sector have to remain in current training. This includes pilots and cabin crew. They need a lead-in period. They need governments to show them a plan to which they can sign up to.

Finally, when he is in Europe, I ask the Minister of State to raise the idea of European governments buying stakes in the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing Covid vaccines. We have seen how the Norwegian Government has, time and again, taken stakes of up to 5% in private companies. EU states need to look at this to gain some collateral in the large companies manufacturing the vaccines.

I am very happy to have the opportunity to discuss some upcoming events within the European Union and matters relating to the Minister of State's Department. One of the most important things in the post-Covid world will be the financial response of the European Union and the eurozone to this crisis. After the 2008 international financial meltdown, we pursued a policy of extreme austerity for ordinary citizens across the Continent of Europe. This really hit home here in Ireland. We cannot afford to do that to another generation of young Irish people and young Europeans. It would be grossly unfair to a generation of individuals facing circumstances unlike any faced by any generation before them. I stress that message. I have a lot of faith in the Minister of State. I believe he is very clever and has exceptional skills from his time working and studying. I have every confidence he could relay that message to his European colleagues. We cannot afford for European policies in respect of the financial response to Covid-19 to force another generation of young Irish people to the departure gates. It would be an enormous failure on the part of this State and the part of the 27 member states of the European Union.

We have to remember the damage done to governments across the European Union when we pursued these policies. They caused a significant rise in very unstable political circumstances in what are normally very stable democracies. We saw the rise of the far right and the far left, which is obviously of extreme concern. Our financial response to the implications of Covid-19 is one of the single largest challenges the European bloc will face in the near future.

I agree with many who have spoken here today. We are all worried about any chance of legal action with regard to the supply of vaccines or vaccine ingredients. We all recognise that, as Dr. Ursula von der Leyen has stated, mistakes were made with regard to vaccine procurement. There is an issue. We are all aware that 41 million doses have made their way out of the European Union, including 10 million doses for Britain and 1 million for the US, while nothing has come back into the European Union. We know there is a specific difficulty in respect of AstraZeneca. It is fair to say the company has engaged in fly-boy capitalism and needs to be called out and brought to account.

I accept that everything has to be on the table when it comes to a set of tools for the European Commission to do that. However, the fact is we need a solution to this issue and we do not need a legal trade war with unintended consequences.

I welcome the fact that there will be an opportunity to engage with the European Commission and possibly with US President Biden on the wider issue of vaccine supply. A conversation is needed with the European Commission to the effect that the Government has a part to play in a wider conversation with the pharmaceutical industry to see what capacity there is on a worldwide basis to up the production of vaccines. Everything has to be on the table, including intellectual property rights.

I accept there is a cost factor to this, particularly for the so-called developed world. We are hearing figures from €25 billion to €40 billion to vaccinate the developed world and that this will be a cost that will largely need to be borne by the developed world. That is the cost of doing business. There are other figures out there for what it would cost if not everybody throughout the world was vaccinated. That would allow for strains to arise and to be imported. The difficulty is that we need to ensure we miss nothing in capacity.

I ask that the Minister of State come back to us on what conversations have happened, what information the Government has, what information the European Commission has and what engagements the European Commission has had with the entire pharma industry from the point of view of ensuring we are maximising supply. Everything has to be on the table because we are talking about a cost across the globe of anything from €1 trillion to €9 trillion. That is knockout stuff and it is unacceptable. I ask the Minister of State to give us an update now and to provide a further update following the conversations with the European Commission.

There are a number of issues I would like the Government to raise at the forthcoming European Council meeting. The first and most important one is that of the roll-out of the Covid vaccination. As the Government knows but will not admit, we are way behind in getting vaccinations administered to the public. We need help now from our European colleagues to increase the number of vaccines we are receiving. What we are getting is simply not enough.

I saw a statistic over the weekend that showed that on the previous Sunday we administered just over 300 vaccinations, while the UK broke its record again by administering over 800,000 vaccinations on the same day. This statistic beggars belief. The numbers speak for themselves. More than 27 million people in the UK have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine. That is more than half the population. Yet here in Ireland the latest figures show that just over 490,000 people have received their first dose of the vaccine and only just over 180,000 have received both doses. From our point of view, it gets even worse when we look at the figures from Northern Ireland. As of 18 March 2021, more than 710,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered in the North of Ireland. This has resulted in a transmission rate of just over 58 cases per 100,000, while in the South our rate of infection is currently 148 cases per 100,000.

The Government must realise there is something seriously wrong. I have said consistently that we need to take an all-island approach to this pandemic and it is clear that we are not doing so. The result of this is simple. The North will come out of lockdown much quicker than in the South and this will result in much greater problems down the road. The solution is simple. We need more vaccines now.

I urge the Government to make the strongest possible case at the European Council meeting. There is no point saying after the meeting that additional vaccines are not available. I note that after the Taoiseach spoke with US President Biden recently, he said that there were no spare vaccines available. Yet the following day, the USA signed deals with Mexico and Canada to supply them with their surplus vaccines. We cannot allow this to happen with our European colleagues.

The public are growing tired and weary at this stage. So many people have made great sacrifices and many have paid the ultimate price. We need to support these people. I am disappointed in the lack of clarity in the message the Government is putting out. I am inundated with calls from constituents asking for information about the vaccines and when they will get them. The Government needs to be more transparent and clear in its messages. It can start by demanding more vaccines from Europe as a matter of urgency. I ask that the Government to make the strongest possible case that the requirement for additional vaccines is critical at this stage and that more help is needed from our colleagues in Europe.

On the Single Market, I urge the Government to make a strong case that the effects of Brexit are every bit as bad as we had all feared. We were given assurances that the Northern Ireland protocol would protect not only the North but also the South from the effects of Brexit. Sadly, this is not proving to be the case. We are seeing the rising tensions in the North on the Northern Ireland protocol, particularly from the unionist side. I understand that the Government must support Europe in this regard but it is vital that Europe understands the particular difficulties that we face on the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit. Can the Government get assurances from our European colleagues that the Northern Ireland protocol will continue to be supported and that they will do everything in their power to put as much pressure on the UK Government to honour the agreements made under the Northern Ireland protocol?

On the bigger picture of the EU Single Market, can the Government make the case and outline the importance of the lower corporation tax rate in Ireland and the importance it has to the continued growth of our economy? We constantly hear of other European counties, particularly France and Germany, which see this as an advantage Ireland should not have and they make the point that we in Ireland have an unfair advantage in this regard. Will the Government confirm to the House that it will fully support and defend our right to continue to support companies that choose Ireland as their base? Again we hear many reports that these companies are paying very little in tax yet when we look at the figures this simply does not add up. On top of this, we must not forget the thousands of people who are employed by these companies as well as the contribution they make through their taxes and PRSI contributions.

I once more urge the Government to impress on our European colleagues the urgent need to increase the supply of vaccines to us. We simply cannot be left behind in this process and end up playing catch-up in the reopening of our society and economy. As I have already said, people have grown tired and weary at this stage. The Government must now give the people some ray of hope and it can start by securing additional vaccines from our European colleagues. This process must start immediately and at the forthcoming European Council meeting.

I would like to speak to an item on the European Council agenda dealing with Covid-19 vaccination. I want to pivot away from speaking about this in just the European context and to talk about the moral imperative that rests on us to show solidarity with low and middle-income countries. In the words of Dr. Tedros, the head of the WHO:

I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure - and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world's poorest countries.

Measures of progress on the sustainable development goals estimate that we have seen about a decade of progress on eradicating poverty wiped out by this pandemic. Dr. Mike Ryan said that Covid-19 has served as an amplifier of global inequities and global injustice and has further highlighted how intrinsically linked health and human rights are. Many of the countries I am speaking about have little or no ICU or even bed capacity, leaving their hospital staff with no choice but to turn away people in desperate need of help. The well used phrase, “Nobody is safe until we are all safe”, has never been as true as when we talk about developing and distributing vaccines around the world. This should be a key pillar of any discussion among our leaders about the Covid vaccine at the European Council meeting this weekend.

Ireland is well placed to champion any and all options that maximise the development and distribution of vaccines for those very countries. This is not just about a moral imperative. It is also in our interest to ensure that as many people as possible are safe. We are already seeing the disruptions caused by coronavirus variants. This will only worsen if we enter into vaccine escape. We need to take full advantage of the facilities across the world to develop and deliver vaccines.

A number of international initiatives aim to enact global solidarity against Covid-19. Today marks one year since the WHO launched its ACT-Accelerator, the leading programme to tackle Covid-19 and speed up the global distribution of vaccines.

I am proud that our Government has supported and contributed to such initiatives, including Irish Aid’s €4 million funding for the COVAX facility and through our work in the UN Security Council, which unanimously agreed a resolution to strengthen international co-operation such as the ACT-Accelerator and within that, the COVAX facility. Even these efforts will fall far short of what is needed, and the virus will remain rampant in many parts of the world with a risk of vaccine escape. We are seeing campaigns spring up in reaction to the very practical barriers that are preventing low- and middle-income countries from using their own facilities to develop the vaccine. These barriers mainly relate to knowledge and data, intellectual property and appropriate technology.

One initiative seeking to address these barriers is the Covid technology access pool, C-TAP, launched by the Government of Costa Rica and the WHO, a voluntary programme for sharing knowledge, data and intellectual property. Another initiative from the governments of India and South Africa calls for a temporary waiver through the WTO of the intellectual property protections of the vaccine, an initiative commonly referred to as the trade-related aspects of intellectual property, TRIPS, waiver. This idea is gaining support, with more than 57 countries in the WTO co-sponsoring it. While solutions are rarely as straightforward as they seem, I believe it is fundamental that we continue to look at these options and find ways to empower vulnerable countries to do more for their people.

Internationally this country is good at partnerships. The very essence of partnership is working together, not just making donations and handing out spare vaccines, crumbs from the table. Ireland is well-placed, and the EU can do much more to demonstrate this international solidarity.

In advance of the European Council meeting I want to speak about the Covid-19 vaccine programme and specifically the AstraZeneca vaccine. This morning 29 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were found in a warehouse in Italy. They appear to have come from the AstraZeneca Halix plant in the Netherlands, which is yet to be approved by the EU as a manufacturing facility. Furthermore, it appears they were bound for the UK and not the EU. AstraZeneca must be called out on that. How did that happen? How did they come from a manufacturing facility that was not approved? How did they find their way to Italy? How were these 29 million vaccines destined for the UK, which represents one third of the UK's order from AstraZeneca of 100 million?

I have had an opportunity to look at the two contracts, the EU's contract and the UK's contract with AstraZeneca. They are very different contracts. Ironically, the UK contract appears to have been dated the day after the EU contract was signed - the EU one on the 27th and the UK one on the 28th - and yet they are completely different. The UK contract specifically defines the supply line for the AstraZeneca vaccine. Schedule 2 on page 48 of the UK agreement outlines the UK supply chain. It specifies three manufacturing facilities for the drug substance and two manufacturing facilities for the drug product, which I expect refers to the vials. Furthermore clause 4.1 of the contract states that AstraZeneca shall ensure that its affiliates shall not use any other facilities beyond those listed in schedule 2. However, paragraph 5.4 of the EU agreement just refers to best reasonable efforts to manufacture the vaccine at a manufacturing site located within the EU which, for the purposes of section 5.4 only, shall include the UK. However, it does not mention specific manufacturing sites. That needs to be clarified. On anything relating to making orders, AstraZeneca's should be called out and the UK needs to define where the manufacturing facilities are.

Based on the contracts and what we hear in reports, it seems that the EU is paying £3 per dose and the EU appears to be paying £1.61, which is approximately half the price. Furthermore, the UK appears to be able to revoke the contract whereas the EU may only withhold payments. How did it arise that the UK contract was signed after the European contract? I would have thought the contracts should have been common. They should be absolutely down the middle. We are trying to deal with a world pandemic. This company was funded by EU taxpayers' money to do research with AstraZeneca.

It is stockpiling and carrying vaccines across borders undercover from a plant in the Netherlands not approved by the EU to a warehouse in Italy destined for the UK effectively without informing the EU of what it is doing. That is not acceptable and must be called out. One really would question the motives of AstraZeneca in this matter. This entire matter needs to be clarified. There needs to be commonality of treatment for European citizens, including Irish citizens, as well as UK citizens regarding the Covid-19 vaccine.

Speaking at the European Committee of the Regions on 18 March, the EU Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, said that vaccine alone would not eradicate the virus. She also stressed the importance of tests and contact tracing. According to the Commissioner, tests are particularly important for member states that start reopening after lockdown. The Commissioner also mentioned that more than 20 million rapid antigen test kits were bought and are to be delivered by April using €100 million from the emergency support instrument, the Commission's financial aid to member states to address the Covid emergency.

Another way to increase testing capacity is by using self-tests. Some countries have started to use them. What has the Government done to seek access to the emergency support instrument so the testing for Covid-19 can be ramped up in the coming weeks? What efforts are being made in Ireland to roll out the self-testing option, which has been advocated by the EU Commission? Why has there been no talk of this procedure here, which could assist certain sectors of the economy to reopen?

Ireland's handling of an application for emergency EU funds has been completely shambolic. Ireland has been in full lockdown for almost 200 days. Ireland's unemployment rate is at 25% and our vaccine roll-out is floundering. The level of support being offered to small and medium-sized companies is the lowest in the EU. The country's childcare, tourism, hospitality, aviation and entertainment sectors are on the verge of complete collapse. This week the Restaurants Association of Ireland warned the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht that 50% of restaurants will never reopen following the impact of the lockdown.

Europe needs to wake up and we need to be strong to let it know that. I see vaccines being manufactured in Europe and given to non-European countries first. Having heard that Europe is considering blocking vaccines going from Europe to the UK, the UK leader, Boris Johnson, for the first time is asking for us all to work together. Why did he not ask that during Brexit? He did not give a damn about us. We see his co-operation, kindness and sweetness to us now all of a sudden when he realises that maybe we have one bit of a power hold over him. It is time for us to step in and ensure that happens. It is time for Europe to get tough. Our country is closed for business and we are laggards in the roll-out of the vaccine.

I add my voice to the concerns. I note what the European Commissioner said. We have been feeble and inept in applying for funding. Our small and medium-sized businesses have suffered more than anybody else. We have received the second lowest level of EU supports; of the 27 member states, only one is behind us. We are getting crumbs from the table.

I am disappointed that the Taoiseach could not stay and listen to all our views this afternoon. We need to take leadership in this debate. We have had no leadership whatsoever. We need to stand up and speak up. We need to lead our people and give them some hope because they have absolutely no hope.

Chancellor Merkel has decided today that the lockdown plan for Easter should be cancelled and she accepted responsibility for it because she said it would not work.

The WHO said lockdowns will not work. We have had lockdown in Ireland for 200 days. It is penal. We all know what has happened with respect to the clergy even though the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, said in the House that there would be no penal summons. It is shameful how we are treating our people. They need to go back to work and school and to be allowed to live. We must take a leaf from Ms Merkel's book. We need to do more testing.

There is a recovery fund of €750 million available. We need to apply for it and to get our fair share of it, not crumbs. We need to insist on more testing and to allow people to work and live with Covid. I sympathise with those who lost their lives, but people are weary, frustrated, angry and beyond boiling point with the ineptitude and messages every night from Dr. De Gascun and Dr. Ronan Glynn, who are household names now. They roll out the messaging through RTÉ. It is media propaganda to frighten the people. It is akin to the "To Hell and or to Connacht" that we had here during Cromwell's time. The way this Government has treated our people is shameful. There is a dearth of democracy. There is no democratic accountability. NPHET is running the country. Since the Taoiseach took office, what NPHET says goes. If it says jump, the Taoiseach says "How high?", and all the members of Government are nodding behind him and backing him up.

Ministers need to go to Europe and get us our fair share of the vaccines and our fair share of what we need from Europe rather than pandering to Europe and being good Europeans. I call for an end to the lockdown. It is terrorising our people. Let the people live. I call for common sense and engagement with the Opposition leaders, who have not met with the Taoiseach since last November. We have been shut out of the process. As I said, there is a democratic deficit. There is a lack of democracy and accountability to this House or, by extension, to the people. It is shameful. It is shambolic and it is time it changed because people will not accept this for much longer.

The next slot is being shared by Deputies Connolly and McNamara.

There are many things I could say about the roll-out of the vaccination programme, the role of AstraZeneca and various Deputies calling on the Government to engage with AstraZeneca rather than looking at the contracts, as outlined by a Fine Gael Deputy. I have only two and a half minutes so I will focus on three topics.

I note the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, is to come back to us on one item on the agenda for the Council meeting, namely, relations with Turkey. Does he propose to raise the unilateral withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention? We are ten years on from signing it, which we struggled to do and had to be prompted to do. It is took us some time to ratify that convention and now Turkey has unilaterally withdrawn from it, with no discussion in Parliament at a time when the figures there on domestic violence and violence generally against women have risen astronomically.

I thank the Taoiseach for his detailed speech but there was an absence of any reference to Myanmar, formerly Burma. Will that issue be raised in Europe? As we speak, the figures are frightening. As of 22 March, 261 people, including children, are confirmed to have been killed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 2,682 people, and rising, have been arrested, and a total of 2,302 are still under detention. Restriction of time prevents me going on. There is a very serious situation in Myanmar, as the Minister of State will know. I profess that I have a conflict in the sense that when I was Mayor of Galway, we gave Aung San Suu Kyi freedom of the city, which has since been taken from her. There is an intimate connection between Myanmar and Ireland. Myanmar secured its freedom in 1948, when we declared a Republic which became operational the following year. I ask the Minister of State to make reference to that in his concluding remarks.

On Cuba, I understand it is developing five vaccines and that one will be ready in July. Has it occurred to the Government to think outside of the box and look to Cuba, an island that has been subjected to what I would regard as an illegal trade embargo for a long time, and yet has managed to keep the death rate from Covid at 0.6% and is developing vaccines? I ask the Minister of State to address those three issues in his speech.

Like previous speakers, I wish to focus on the digital green certificate. I would like to ascertain in advance of the Council meeting, and again following the meeting, what the Government's position is in that regard. It seems to me the Government is, at best, lukewarm if not outright opposed to it.

That is very good news. Currently, Irish people are criminalised for leaving the country. That is not unique in Europe, but I would expect it will be unique in Europe as the summer rolls on and plans are being put in place for people to travel safely. Last year, people in Ireland believed they were prevented from leaving the country by guidelines, but they were not. Social welfare recipients particularly were penalised. There was a restriction to the right of freedom of movement and that restriction was not pursuant to the law as is required by European law, and so it failed at the first hurdle without ever looking at the proportionality of the matter.

Across Europe, rights can be restricted on the basis of public health, but those restrictions have to be proportionate and necessary. In Ireland, churches and all religious denominations are closed. This morning, the Supreme Court in Scotland said it was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights as it was disproportionate to close the churches. If it is disproportionate in Scotland, it is disproportionate in Ireland because we are bound by the same convention. If Ireland is the only country in Europe where churches are closed, if we are the only country in Europe that is stopping people exercising freedom of movement, if we are the only country in Europe with half of our shops closed and the only country in Europe effectively locking people into their homes, then I suggest it is disproportionate.

The Taoiseach of this State said on radio in response to a question that we live in a liberal democracy. Either he does not know what a liberal democracy is or the man is deluded. I suspect it is the latter. He promised that he would govern as a republican when he was elected Taoiseach. There are many republican traditions, one of which is the tradition of Oliver Cromwell. It is in that republican tradition he and the Government are currently governing. Coming from Drogheda, the Minister of State, will be quite well aware of what the republican tradition of Oliver Cromwell is all about.

For anybody to come into the House and accuse anyone, particularly someone born and reared in Drogheda, of being comparable to Cromwell is outrageous.

The man is revered across Britain.

He is revered in Britain. He is certainly not revered in Drogheda and east Meath.

He is also not revered in Clare.

The Minister of State to reply without interruption.

My line of Byrnes were moved from Wicklow to Mayo because of Cromwell. What the Deputy said is outrageous.

But true. It hurts sometimes.

The Minister of State, without interruption.

My role here is not necessarily to answer questions, but I am happy to do that. The Taoiseach has asked me to speak on certain points. It is traditional that after the European Council meeting I come here to answer questions, but I am happy to clarify some issues.

We spoke on a number of issues at the General Affairs Council this week, including, for example, the digital green certificate. It is not correct for Members to say the Government is opposed to it when the Taoiseach said here today that the Government is working on it and it supports the proposal. That is what the Taoiseach said. It is wrong of Members to come into the Chamber an hour later and misinterpret what he said.

We spoke in favour of the digital green certificate at the General Affairs Council this week. The Taoiseach will do so tomorrow. On Monday, I met European Commissioner Didier Reynders, who is in charge of this area, to discuss how it is proposed to advance this proposal. It is an important proposal. The Taoiseach wants to make sure we can do all of the work that is necessary on the technical side to ensure its availability, initially for medical purposes, but let us see where that goes.

But it is about freedom of movement.

Hold on, Minister. People should be allowed to speak without interruption. Deputy McNamara was allowed to speak without interruption. Kindly give the Minister of State the same courtesy.

Of course it is about freedom of movement, but that is the position as we currently stand. We are not encouraging any international travel at the moment. Like the Deputy, I represent an airport constituency. I want to see my aviation constituents back in work. I want to see people being able to travel again when it is safe and to have that freedom of movement. I care, and the Government cares, just as deeply as Deputy McNamara. At this time, the priority is to get the vaccines rolled out as quickly as possible and to keep people safe and healthy. That is the priority. The Deputy should not pretend he has a monopoly on aviation; he does not.

The Deputy also does not have a monopoly on the freedoms we all desire. That clears up that issue.

On the Istanbul Convention, which was helpfully raised by the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and Deputy Barry, again, we have issued a strong statement on that matter through the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. Also, at the General Affairs Council this week it was raised under any other business where everybody agreed to condemn the disgraceful decision by the Turkish Government to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. It is outrageous.

Not only is the Istanbul Convention associated with Turkey in respect of its place of signing but Turkey was a party to it. For that country to take such a retrograde step on the convention is absolutely outrageous. That is the clear position of the Government and I share the concerns of Deputies Barry and Connolly in this regard.

In regard to vaccinations, Deputy Connolly referred to Cuba and Deputy McDonald to Russia. It might be helpful for me to talk about the contracts that have been agreed by the EU. At the moment, there are four vaccines approved for use in the EU, namely, Pfizer, which is doing a fantastic job in getting supply out, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. I understand that CureVac and Sanofi are at the closest stage to approval and there are other vaccines, such as Novavax, in respect of which contract discussions are under way. In addition, the European Medicines Agency is looking at the Sputnik V vaccine. Everybody wants to find easy solutions to the issue of vaccines but there are no easy solutions. Based on what Professor Brian MacCraith and the European Commission have said, particularly Commissioner Thierry Breton, who is a businessman and is currently going around Europe to answer the question Deputy Ó Murchú put by looking at everything and making sure every last facility is used to produce vaccines, we can safely say that vaccine supply is going to ramp up massively in quarter 2, which begins next week. Professor MacCraith is on the public record as saying that a huge delivery will come in next Wednesday.

In regard to what AstraZeneca is doing, we believe it has acted disgracefully in its dealings with the European Commission. I do not know the exact position with the vaccines in Italy. The situation is certainly disputed very strongly between the Commission and AstraZeneca. When we talk about those vaccines going to Britain, we should not forget that they are also pumping up the Northern Ireland vaccine strategy. For these and other obvious trade reasons, we have not advocated a ban on exports, as the Taoiseach very eloquently and sensibly outlined. There is too much at stake in the interaction between member states and trade.

The Taoiseach has gone through the issues that will be raised at the Council meeting and I have tried to outline some of those issues in a very general way. EU leaders will take the opportunity at the meeting to discuss a number of external relations issues. The focus this week will be on the EU's relations with Russia and Turkey. In regard to Russia, because the meeting is being conducted by videoconference, that discussion will be taken as an information point only. It is not expected on this occasion that there will be a detailed discussion on Russia. Since 2016, the EU's engagement with Russia has been guided by five principles. Implementation of the Minsk agreements in regard to the conflict in Ukraine is the key condition of any substantial change in the EU's stance towards Russia. The other principles are closer ties with our former Soviet neighbours, strengthening EU resilience to Russian threats, selective engagement with Russia where this is in the EU's interest and increased support for people-to-people contacts and Russian civil society as a whole.

We fully support the approach taken by the Union towards Russia. EU relations with that country have been the subject of regular discussions at the Council in recent years. When they met on 1 and 2 September last year, EU leaders condemned the assassination attempt on Alexei Navalny. I urge some on the left in Irish political life to join in that condemnation. Since then, things have worsened. Mr. Navalny's imprisonment and the harsh treatment of protesters following his return to Russia, as well as developments such as the foreign agents law, have given rise to even greater concerns about the human rights situation and shrinking civil society space in Russia. It is important, therefore, that our strategic relationship with Russia remains on the European Council agenda. There will be an opportunity for detailed discussion among leaders when they meet in person in due course.

The EU's foreign affairs Ministers, including the Minister, Deputy Coveney, discussed relations with Russia when they met in February and again when they met earlier this week. Ireland's position then, as now, is that there can be no substantial improvement in EU-Russia relations until we see the implementation of the Minsk peace agreements in regard to the conflict in Ukraine. EU sanctions against Russia in respect of Ukraine continue to be applied. In December, leaders endorsed a new EU global human rights sanctions regime and Ireland supports the use of this regime against Russia in light of the serious violations of human rights that have taken place there. At the same time, of course, we need to engage selectively on issues of shared importance and responsibility such as climate change, the Arctic and global health challenges. We need to enhance people-to-people contacts and, more broadly, strengthen our engagement with eastern partnership countries as part of our overall strategic focus and in line with the five principles approach.

In regard to the Sputnik V vaccine, the Government has been very clear that if the vaccine is approved by the EMA and can be manufactured, we have no difficulty with it. However, we certainly are not going to provide a vaccine that has not been approved. Members should also note that the roll-out of the vaccine in Russia has been incredibly slow and is way behind what we have achieved in this country. In addition, in many countries in eastern Europe, it has caused political consternation when the vaccine has been introduced, particularly because it has not yet been authorised by the EMA.

EU relations with Turkey and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean have been a recurring item on the European Council agenda in recent years and leaders will return to those issues this week. It was agreed in December to consider this item in light of a report to be prepared by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles. The report was published on 20 March and was considered by EU foreign Ministers when they met on Monday. In December, EU leaders made clear that a positive political EU-Turkey agenda was on offer provided Turkey adopted a more constructive approach towards Greece and Cyprus. From Ireland's perspective, it seems that Turkey has taken a more constructive approach in recent months, particularly in regard to the withdrawal of research vessels to port from disputed waters near Greece and from the Cypriot exclusive economic zone. In these circumstances, it could be appropriate for the EU to send a positive signal to Turkey on the steps that can be expected if its constructive approach continues.

However, the issue with the Istanbul Convention, on which I have commented, certainly is a difficulty. The Taoiseach will be keen to hear the views of Greece and Cyrus on recent developments. Our solidarity is always with them as the EU countries most directly affected by Turkey's actions. We have always shown solidarity with them, as they have done with us, including, for example, throughout the Brexit process.

I welcome the stated intention of the Commission to prepare options rapidly for continued funding for refugees and host communities in Turkey. Ten years on from the start of the war in Syria, we cannot forget the people driven from their homes by that terrible conflict.

It is appropriate that what is proposed now in respect of Turkey is an incremental approach. All options should be kept on the table. There are grounds to hope that this week can mark the beginning of more positive and co-operative relations between the EU and Turkey. It will not happen overnight. It might happen in time and, with good will, it will bring benefits to both.

I thank Members for their engagement in this debate. The Taoiseach will report to the House following the European Council meeting. As Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I will endeavour to answer Deputies' questions arising out of that meeting.

Sitting suspended at 3.58 p.m. and resumed at 4.20 p.m.