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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Jul 2022

Vol. 1025 No. 4

Post-European Council Meeting: Statements

I attended a meeting of the European Council on Thursday, 23 June, and Friday, 24 June, in Brussels. The meeting was preceded by a meeting of European Union and western Balkans leaders, in which I also participated, and was followed by a meeting of the Euro summit, at which leaders were joined by the President of the ECB and the President of the Eurogroup. It was the fifth meeting of the European Council since Russia began its full-scale war on Ukraine on 24 February. We discussed a number of dimensions of the war - military, humanitarian and economic - and their impacts in Ukraine, across Europe and in the wider world. We took the historic decision to grant European Union candidate status to Ukraine and to the Republic of Moldova, based on a thorough analysis and the positive recommendation of the European Commission. As I said, we have received correspondence from President Zelenskyy thanking us for the proactive role Ireland played in that respect. We agreed that we are ready to grant the status of candidate country to Georgia, once the priorities specified in the Commission's opinion have been addressed.

We expressed our full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union perspective of the western Balkans and called for acceleration of the accession process. We held a strategic discussion on the European Union's relations with its partners and neighbours in wider Europe and had an exchange of views on a proposal to launch what is called a European political community. At the Euro summit we discussed economic issues, including rising energy prices and inflationary pressures and how we can work together to increase the resilience of our economies. We took note of the proposals set out in the report on the outcome of the Conference of the Future of Europe submitted to the three co-presidents. We also had a session on external relations issues focused on relations with Belarus and, separately, with Turkey. In his contribution, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will address the Conference on the Future of Europe and will provide further detail on the meeting of the Euro summit. I will address all other issues.

Before turning to the meetings in Brussels, at which the situation in Ukraine was top of our agenda, I wish to update the House on my recent visit to Ukraine on 6 July.

I visited at the invitation of President Zelenskyy and I was honoured to be the first Taoiseach to pay an official visit to the country. I was also glad to be able to visit in the wake of the decision of the European Council to grant Ukraine candidate status. While in Ukraine, I visited the towns of Borodianka, Bucha and Irpin, which are in the northern part of the Kyiv region and which were occupied by Russian forces in March. It was very clear to me that these are residential towns with no military or strategic significance in which civilians were attacked and killed. Missiles were launched against what were clearly residential buildings, without any regard for human life. I heard harrowing accounts from people who were there at the time and saw for myself the devastation caused to the built environment by Russia's bombardment. It is plain to me, and to any reasonable person, that these are war crimes.

I visited an exhibition of artefacts and artworks of the war. I laid a soft toy at a memorial in remembrance of the children killed in the war since February. I also had the opportunity to visit an exhibition on the role played by rail workers in the evacuation of the people fleeing the war, largely women and children. Throughout my visit, I was struck by the exceptional trauma that the war is visiting on the children of Ukraine. Many have been killed or maimed. Many have experienced the terror of bombings or have spent nights in dark, underground bunkers. Many have had their loved ones killed, their families separated and their education disrupted, including those being welcomed into our schools.

I visited the national memorial to the Holodomor, Ukraine's catastrophic man-made famine in the 1930s, which has resonances with our own history of famine. It was particularly poignant given Putin's despicable weaponisation of food in the current context.

I had the opportunity to have a meeting and working lunch with President Zelenskyy, and I heard directly from him about the critical security, humanitarian and economic challenges facing his country. I expressed to him the full support and solidarity of the Irish people.

At its meeting on 23 June and 24 June, the European Council took the historic decision to grant the status of candidate country to Ukraine. Every sovereign country has a right to determine its own future, free from external pressure and duress. The people of Ukraine have chosen a future in the European Union and they deserve our full support. I have long advocated this outcome. The decision has provided a great boost to the people and government of Ukraine, who have stood firm in defence of democratic values in the face of the most appalling war being waged by Russia. I told President Zelenskyy that Ireland will walk every step of the journey towards membership with Ukraine, providing whatever support and encouragement we can along the way.

As I have said previously, we know from our own experience that membership of the EU is transformative, and we are determined that others should be able to benefit from opportunities we have enjoyed. On 23 and 24 June, we also agreed to support Ukraine via exceptional macro-financial assistance of up to €9 billion to meet its immediate humanitarian and liquidity needs. The funding mechanism for a €1 billion tranche was subsequently agreed this month. It is essential that we make the full funding available without delay.

At the meeting of the Council, leaders discussed a proposal for a European political community, open to EU members and also like-minded European countries currently outside the Union. Importantly, we agreed that any European political community would not be intended as an alternative to either the enlargement process or ambitions of those seeking to join. Our discussion was an initial exchange and I look forward to further discussions when we revert to this issue in the autumn. We will next meet in Prague on 6 and 7 October.

Resolving the current slow rate of progress associated with the enlargement process in the Western Balkans, and the resulting disillusionment, is a priority for Ireland and a majority of member states. At our meeting with Western Balkans leaders on 23 June, a number of them made clear their frustration at the slow pace of progress on their paths to EU accession. Acknowledging this frustration, EU leaders expressed our full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans and called for the acceleration of the accession process.

The Council expressed deep concern over recent actions and statements by Turkey. We are clear that Turkey must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all member states. I encourage Turkey to take positive steps in this regard.

The Council underlined the democratic right of the Belarusian people to have new, free and fair elections. We called on the Belarusian authorities to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law, end repression and release political prisoners. It is wholly unacceptable that the Lukashenko regime is abetting Russia's further invasion of Ukraine. Ireland will continue to keep the issue of Belarus on the international agenda and support civil society and the opposition movement where we can.

We also discussed a range of economic issues and met in Euro Summit format, whereby we were briefed by the President of the European Central Bank, Ms Christine Lagarde, and the President of the Eurogroup, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, on the economic situation and outlook. Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine is causing significant economic disruption and inflationary pressures that are being felt right across the Union. Leaders at the meeting were very focused on the uncertain prospects for the autumn and winter ahead, not least on the possibility that Russia will restrict or even cease gas delivery. All were agreed that the best approach to these challenges is a joint one, with member states continuing to work closely and co-operatively together, as we did on the pandemic.

While economic prospects remain uncertain, with global growth slowing, inflationary pressures and continuing disruption to supply chains, leaders also acknowledged that the European economy remains strong. EU leaders remain united in our determination to further strengthen the resilience of our economies and will continue co-ordinate our response to this crisis.

The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will further address economic issues, the Euro Summit and the Conference on the Future of Europe later in his wrap-up remarks. I will continue to report to the House on discussions at the Council.

I welcome the decision by the EU to grant candidate country status to Ukraine and Moldova. The scenes of joy with which this was greeted by Ukrainans who gathered in Brussels in their hundreds tell a vivid tale of what it means to the people of the country. I condemn the indiscriminate attacks on civilians taking place throughout Ukraine. These attacks are acts of appalling aggression. They are war crimes and they need to be fully investigated, with those responsible brought to justice. I welcome the work being done by the International Criminal Court in this regard.

The conflict is turning into an artillery and bombing war as Russia reverts to the tried and tested methods it has employed in other conflicts, such as Chechnya, Georgia and Syria. Every effort must be made by the international community at every available forum to end the targeting of civilians. It is right and proper that all democratic states and institutions, including the EU, apply the necessary sanctions to help bring the conflict to an end at soon as possible and, if necessary, to build on existing sanctions to stop the Russian aggression.

What reviews have been undertaken at EU level on the effectiveness of the sanctions? What efforts are being taken to ensure public support for sanctions is maintained? What measures is the Government taking to alleviate the financial impact of sanctions on the Irish people and to educate and inform our citizens of the purpose and impact of the sanctions? This will become particularly important given it is generally accepted that Russia will attempt to leverage gas and fuel shortages and price increases over the coming winter to weaken the resolve of European nations. It is important the Government uses its position as a member of the UN Security Council, and as a military non-aligned nation, to work with like-minded nations in an unsparing attempt to seek a peaceful resolution to this bloody and illegal conflict.

Having given a commitment to take in 500 Ukrainian refugees who are in Moldova as far back as March of this year, at a time when Moldova was attempting to deal with the initial influx of hundreds of thousands fleeing the war zone, to date, the Government has taken in only a mere 19. This is simply not good enough. It fails Ireland's commitment to alleviate some of the pressure on the Moldovan authorities as they attempt to address a crisis unprecedented in its history. The failure of the Government from the outset to co-ordinate its decision to accept refugees from Moldova or to lay out any clear timeline of its plan to do so speaks to a worrying level of "ad hocery" at the heart of the Government.

Failure by the international community to address the international food crisis will lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. The war in Ukraine has compounded the crippling impacts of climate change, regional conflict and the failure of the international community to fund initiatives such as the World Food Programme, the funding for which was decimated prior to the war in Ukraine. President Michael D. Higgins has described the situation in the Horn of Africa as potentially the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Throughout parts of Africa and the Middle East there is huge dependency on Russia and Ukraine for grain and other food stuffs. The continuing Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports has led to the weaponisation of food. I welcome the response of the EU, which is establishing solidarity lanes to allow attempts to ship grain and other food supplies from Ukraine by road, rail and barge as alternatives to traditional shipping routes. With the best will in the world these efforts will not come anywhere close to achieving the result required to transport the up to 25 million tonnes of grain locked in Ukraine. These are badly needed to stave off disaster and it is critical that efforts continue to get the Black Sea ports open again.

With regard to the future of the Irish protocol and rebuilding relationships between Britain and the EU, few fair-minded individuals committed to a prosperous future for peoples throughout Europe will lament the political demise of Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, it has precipitated a race to the right among the majority of candidates now looking to replace him. It is deeply concerning that whatever the origins of the political outlook of senior Tories, advancement in the party is predicated on approval from the keepers of the flame of Brexit in the European Research Group. To all intents and purposes, we are now being forced to deal with what is fast becoming nothing more than an English nationalist party. The best outcome we can hope for is the victory of the least worst candidate. With growing Brexit fatigue among our colleagues in the EU, it is important that the Government works to keep the issue and importance of the Irish protocol and the peace process to the forefront of the minds of all EU leaders.

I was not present for the beginning of the debate because the transport committee had the news that Aer Lingus was refusing to come before it next week to deal with the issues we are all hearing about left, right and centre regarding cancelled flights. We know they are issues throughout Europe and the world. We need to know the particular issues that relate to Aer Lingus as they impact on family holidays and on business. People to whom I have spoken recently are trying to get whatever flights they can that are not operated by Aer Lingus. It is an absolute disgrace on its part. There is a wider issue and a necessity that governments throughout Europe engage to ensure we can get beyond this point. Connectivity is an absolute must and a need for an island.

There will be much talk today on food security and the absolute necessity that we protect lives. We all know that we need to ensure food security throughout Europe. Beyond this there are possible humanitarian catastrophes about to happen in the Horn of Africa and parts of the Middle East. We cannot allow this to happen. The Russians have weaponised food and energy. We need to get some detail on what conversations are happening regarding block buying fuels, mitigation or facilitating renewables. We need to know.

The biggest danger to democracy is the fact there have been failures throughout Europe to look after working people and those on the periphery. We have to do what is necessary. There has to be engagement from the Government with the European Commission and others throughout Europe from the point of view of what can be done to mitigate the huge costs of fuel and electricity.

While I accept that we cannot do everything, there definitely is more that can be done.

I was very glad to see continued solidarity with Ukraine at a recent COSAC meeting in Prague. While there was great support for accession for Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and the western Balkans, it was also accepted that the European Union has to be about rule of law. There will be a need for all of these countries to ensure that they can step up to the mark, with regard to rule of law and democracy. That is something that we absolutely need.

I have heard considerable interest in Ireland and the particular issues in the North and continued solidarity on the Irish protocol, but it was realised that the conversation in Ireland has changed and that we are moving towards Irish unity. There is a need for those preparations to happen here. We need the Government to step up to the mark and we will need the European Union to do its preparatory work.

We have a very broad agenda from the European Council to discuss and I can only deal with a few issues. First, I wish to hear a little bit more about what exactly is understood by the European political community. A preliminary discussion was had about it. In the Council conclusions, such a community was described as an aim to "foster political dialogue and cooperation to address issues of common interest so as to strengthen the security, stability and prosperity of the European continent". It is a sort of response to the initial French view that there should be some sort of second tier of European Union, where people would not sign up to the acquis communautaire or be subject to the institutions of Europe but would, somehow, be tied in to a broader concept of Europe. It is a very nebulous thought right now and some of our fears of a two-tier Europe are still a cause for concern. I ask the Minister of State to flesh out what he understands the political community to be and what his and Ireland's attitude is to how it might develop.

Second, our ongoing solidarity and the very strong solidarity of the European Union with the people of Ukraine are very important indeed and the preparation of a seventh package of sanctions is to be welcomed. We have to understand, however, that it has consequences for us and those need to be spelled out and prepared for. The issue of food security and the impact of the land-locking of Ukraine and its very significant world production of wheat, maize and sunflower seeds were discussed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs this morning, with the representatives of the European Commission. It is quite clear that alternative paths are being looked at to export those products from Ukraine, but the capacity will be, at best, a fraction of what it is when the Black Sea ports are used. I would be interested to hear exactly how the Minister of State thinks progress is being made with regard to opening the Black Sea ports.

I know the conclusions said that we were supporting the initiatives of the UN and Turkey in that regard, but unless we open channels of export from the Black Sea, barges or trains will not be able to replace anything approaching the production capacity of food from Ukraine. Although we are assured that it will have no food impact on the Continent of Europe, it certainly will have an impact on east Africa, in particular, and on the Middle East. We need to ensure that while we protect ourselves in terms of food security, it is not done to impact on world wheat or grain markets in a way that would impoverish or bring famine to other parts of the globe.

Third, I will raise the enlargement of the European Union. Obviously, I warmly welcome the decision to give candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. We visited Moldova. There is an understanding that this is not an instant process. It is a slow process, but these countries wish to feel embraced and on track to be part of the European family and that they would be supported in developing their own systems to ensure that they measure up, if you like, to the standards we would expect of all EU member states, on a reasonable timeline. Obviously, Georgia has its own set of problems but it too has to be embraced and not allowed, if you like, to drift away from the European family and be embraced by others.

The final point I will make is on the Western Balkans. We cannot leave those countries, which have a real expectation of membership, leap-frogged or out of focus. I hope that the Minister of State would give us a very clear timeline of his expectations for the Western Balkan countries to join the EU on a horizon that is within reach.

The Czech Presidency of the EU has listed five priority themes to be advanced over the coming six months; managing the refugee crisis and Ukraine's post-war recovery, energy security; strengthening Europe's defence capabilities and cyberspace security; strategic resilience of the European economy and resilience of democratic institutions. As we know, Europe faces many challenges at this time. Other global challenges include food security and the fact that millions of people, worldwide, are experiencing hunger and famine, as we speak. Linked to this is the ongoing challenge of climate change. If that was not enough, there is the prospect of a global recession caused by energy insecurity and inflation.

Where to start in all of that? I will begin on an issue closer to home, mainly that of the Northern Ireland protocol and the fact that there will be a new British Prime Minister by September, at the latest. As we know, the legislation to set aside parts of the Northern Ireland protocol is still winding its way through the House of Commons. The legislation, if enacted, will break international law. It is also strongly supported by the outgoing Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, as well as members of the European Research Group within the Tory party. The clear aims and objectives of the protocol are to avoid the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland and, more generally, to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process. This legislation is a worry.

The Taoiseach has suggested that the election of a new British Prime Minister is a chance to reset the relationship between Ireland and Britain. He is, of course, being very diplomatic in his choice of words. I intend to be equally diplomatic in my choice of words with regard to the fall of Boris Johnson. Needless to say, the election of a new leader of the Tory party is entirely a matter for the membership of that party and we should certainly not try to influence its decision in any way, even if we could. However, I hope, in earnest, that the next British Prime Minister will adopt a sensible and open approach to future negotiations within the EU, that he or she will commit to implementing the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and will restore trust, generally, and respect for international law.

I will also draw attention to the remarkable solidarity shown to Ireland by fellow EU member states on the protocol issue. Most recently, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and the German foreign minister articulated strong support for the Irish position, which is greatly appreciated. I am sure our EU colleagues have much on their minds and wish that the problem would go away, but they have stuck with us on it, for which we are grateful.

I also wish to say a few words on the Conference on the Future of Europe. This was a major exercise, which was brought to a conclusion on 9 May under the French Presidency. Of the 320 recommendations it produced, most can be implemented over time by the various institutions but there are three areas where treaty change would be required. These are making health a shared competence, switching from unanimity to qualified majority voting and increasing the powers of the European Parliament. It is unlikely anything involving treaty change arising from the conference will be followed up on. I do not believe we in Ireland are ready for a referendum on these matters just now, although I note the Taoiseach's point that we should have an open mind on treaty change as part of this process and have regard to making health a shared competence, for example.

On unanimity versus qualified majority voting, it would be better for the EU to try to reach consensus on the various issues and alleviate any concerns member states may have. Compromise will always be required in politics and democracy must be respected. I understand there will be a detailed assessment of all the recommendations the conference made and this will involve all relevant Departments and will be overseen by the Department of Foreign Affairs. I hope the Minister of State will keep the House briefed on this assessment and fully briefed on that process generally.

Then there is the issue of enlargement of the EU, which Members have spoken about already. Ireland supports enlargement of the EU as a general principle. Our membership of the EU has been transformative over the past 50 years. Future enlargement will bring about further peace and stability in the various regions. The decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova is greatly welcomed, having regard to the new geopolitical realities following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but we should all support the other states waiting at the door, especially the western Balkan countries of North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, as well as Georgia, which was not given candidate status with Ukraine and Moldova. Instead, it was granted potential candidate status and asked to deal with 12 key priority areas of reform, including addressing political polarisation and implementing commitments on "de-oligarchisation", which is a new word. On a recent visit to Georgia as part of a delegation from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, I found there was disappointment with the decision of the Commission and Council. Equally, there was a determination to press ahead with the necessary reforms, provided they can be clarified and quantified in a practical way. On the 12 recommendations, there was a little confusion about how some of these can be clarified and quantified. I refer, for example, to addressing political polarisation. We have seen polarisation in this House. We have certainly seen polarisation on Capitol Hill. Perhaps polarisation will be part and parcel of politics in future. In any event, I wish Georgia well in its endeavours and hope it will not have too long to wait for its final accession the EU.

The House will be aware there is currently a severe famine in east Africa, specifically in the Horn of Africa. It is mainly affecting three countries, namely, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya where more than 23 million people are experiencing extreme hunger. These countries have now had their fourth successive dry rainy season. The UN has stated €4.2 billion is needed to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the region. Dóchas has made a number of recommendations in this regard in its 2023 pre-budget submission, including the need to increase Irish aid, but it is clear a global response is now needed. These countries experienced a similar humanitarian disaster in 2011 and the world promised at that time it would not happen again. It is happening again and the world must act. I hope Ireland will be to the forefront, through its membership of the EU and the UN Security Council, in awakening the global community to this catastrophe and calling for appropriate action to be taken before it is too late. Again, Russia is also contributing to that problem through its blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. The UN must be encouraged to try to get the wheat, maize and sunflower oil out and exported so these countries do not suffer the humanitarian crisis we all fear.

The European Council again discussed ways to curb energy prices. Gas is now five times the price it was a year ago, which is a threat to households and the wider economy. The impact on small businesses is also ferocious. One of our local shops has been landed with a €4,200 electricity bill. This is despite its operators doing everything possible to reduce it, for example, switching off fridges and lights and taking every measure they can just to stay in business. The nearest shop to that one is 15 miles away. Another supermarket has seen its bills increase from €3,000 to €9,000. I raise this matter because a recently-produced national energy security framework estimates that electricity costs will have increased by between 45% and 60% above 2021 levels later this year. That would mean a €700 increase per household.

The Government is not doing enough to address the crisis. We are sleepwalking towards a winter where people will really struggle. We have no gas storage in this State, which is hard to believe. We have underinvested in our electricity grid and we have an electricity pricing system that allows gas to set the price of all electricity, despite the fact that almost half the electricity generated here comes from wind. The price of gas has increased fivefold, as I said, but why are we paying more for wind-generated electricity? In the past year, I have raised the need to examine the EU-prescribed system for pricing electricity with the Minister of State, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Taoiseach. We need to reform the system as we enter an era of even higher prices. Even the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the market system no longer works and we must reform and adapt it to the new realities. Spain and Portugal have already introduced a price cap on gas for power generation to try to address this problem.

If we are to have gas prices at five times the 2021 level for a sustained period, we need to look seriously at how we price renewable electricity. We need to urgently examine all options for reducing the price of electricity for households and small businesses. I keep raising this subject because we need a more robust response in Europe. There is more we can do to address the structures there. There is no reason whatever that gas should set electricity prices when so much electricity us produced from renewables. It does not make sense when it is the small businesses I mentioned and households that are really suffering.

I ask the Minister of State to also address the issue of those who have provided services and accommodation to the local authorities for our Ukrainian refugees. There seems to be a block in the system as payments are not being made. Small businesses in particular cannot sustain the credit facility they have provided. There is a block somewhere and I would appreciate it if the Minister of State examined the matter to free up the blockage so the local authorities can get this money and distribute it to the providers.

Some of the points I intended raising have already been made so I will stick to those that have not been raised. On the issue of accession to the EU, we welcome the decision to grant candidacy status to both Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, as discussed at the most recent European Council meeting. However, it would be remiss of me not to speak about Georgia in great detail, as many other Deputies have done. One point that has not been made is that Georgia has paid a massive price already for its aspiration to become part of the EU.

The country was partially invaded by Russia in 2008 and is still occupied by Russia. The West turned its back. There were protests on the streets of Georgia in June by citizens who simply want to be part of the EU. I appreciate that there are steps to be taken to become a member of the European family but I do not think we can simply ask countries to implement 12 recommendations, particularly when some of them are extraordinarily difficult to measure. We cannot ask them to wait outside until such time as we deem them suitable to join.

Ireland has a role to play in this regard. Georgia is a small country of just over 4 million people. It is similar in size to Ireland. A couple of thousand Georgians live in Ireland, some of whom are constituents of mine. I have Georgian friends. We have a part to play in helping Georgia into the European family. It also shares a land border with Russia and is partially occupied by Russia. Thousands of Georgians have been murdered and tortured by Russia. We cannot simply say we will bring Moldova into the European Union and accept Ukraine as a member, and rightly so, but we are not yet ready to admit Georgia. Leaving Georgia isolated presents dangers and has implications. It could potentially diminish that aspiration to join the European family. We need to be more engaged with Georgia.

I will move on to consider inflation, energy and security costs. We all know the war has far-reaching consequences. Ireland now finds itself facing the highest levels of inflation in almost 40 years. It was forecast that inflation would peak at 8.5% this year but EUROSTAT estimates a figure nearer the 10% mark. It is clear that inflation will continue to rise in the short to medium term and the cost-of-living crisis will worsen. Sanctions have rightfully been placed on Russia. The European Union needs to intervene to ensure those sanctions are not felt in the stomachs of people all over Europe and Ireland, and that people do not experience cold.

The point I want to make is on migration policy. The unified approach taken across the European Union and the willingness to provide safety and support to all those fleeing Ukraine have been nothing short of extraordinary. This is the largest movement of people since the Second World War, with some 14 million people being forced to leave to date. The EU acted quickly to implement the temporary protection directive, which has granted temporary protection status to almost 3.4 million people so far. This provides access to the EU labour market, accommodation, social welfare assistance and medical care, as well as education. It is right to do that. However, this could not be any more different from the approach that has been taken in respect of other countries, such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Myanmar, whose people were forced to flee atrocities that no human should ever have to witness.

In 2015, approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees fled to Europe as a result of an horrific civil war. By 2021, more than 2 million Afghani refugees had fled to neighbouring countries. Once the West pulled out of Afghanistan, at least 500,000 more people fled the country in just a few months. Climate change is also beginning to bite in terms of migration patterns. Climate change is contributing to desertification, extreme weather events and rising sea levels. Deputies will agree that a perfect storm is now upon us. I could give many more examples but I am conscious of time.

In June, the Committee of Permanent Representatives adopted a number of first stage texts under the pact on migration and asylum. These will seek to commit EU countries to a "voluntary, simple and predictable solidarity mechanism". Oxfam is just one organisation that has been clear in its opposition to this. It has stated:

It allows EU countries to continue to shirk their responsibility towards refugees and leave countries at the EU’s borders to manage Europe’s refugee response [or the lack thereof]. As past years have shown, the result will be overwhelmed reception and asylum systems, overcrowded camps filled with people left in limbo and more pushbacks at Europe’s borders. Apart from being temporary and voluntary, the proposal allows EU countries to cherry-pick their asylum seekers. It also allows them to turn away asylum-seekers and, instead, pay for a Fortress Europe by footing the bill for border surveillance and detention centers.

What is the Irish position in respect of this policy? Are we one of the 21 member states that have adopted the declaration of solidarity? Are we in favour of warmly welcoming refugees, as we should, while agreeing to turn back others? I am sure there is no rational justification for the difference in treatment of African and Arab refugees and asylum seekers compared with those fleeing from wars close to our borders. How does the EU continue to justify this approach? I hope we can challenge that and assume a leadership role in that regard.

I thank the Taoiseach for his comprehensive update on what was discussed at the European Council. None of us is surprised that the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the resulting outcomes dominated much of the meeting. It is striking to hear the language used and reiterated by the Taoiseach in describing some of the Russian actions as war crimes. That is not a term to be used lightly but it is an assessment with which I fully agree. It is good that international organisations are being tasked with getting to the bottom of that.

Deputy Brady referred to the artillery war that is being waged in Ukraine but, of course, it is much more and much broader than that. We are seeing the weaponisation of human misery. We are seeing that directly expressed in Ukraine with the indiscriminate targeting of civilian populations, as the Taoiseach said, and places that had absolutely no military or strategic outcome whatsoever. That approach saw sickening expression in the forced relocation of Ukrainian children across the border into Russia. The Taoiseach spoke more widely about the impact of that on the childhood of a generation of children. We see it in our own country but the most egregious possible example is forced relocation.

In Europe, we are seeing human relocation and displacement being weaponised. We are also seeing the weaponisation of energy and its costs. Putin knows that is going to create energy poverty in communities. It is going to foment dissent and create dissatisfaction. It is all aimed at undermining the solidarity of the European effort. Deputy Brady asked what the Government was doing to communicate the impact of the energy crisis. It is not the Government alone that bears that responsibility.

That was not the question I asked.

I heard an informed and nuanced contribution from Deputy Conway-Walsh. I do not always hear that nuance or honesty in some communications. As Deputy Gannon said, of course we must do everything we can to insulate people from rising energy costs. However, it is disingenuous to say that across Europe, it would be possible to do this in a way that does not translate in some way to difficulties. The supply of gas to the Nord Stream pipeline was reduced to 40% and it is now in maintenance mode, which means there is zero supply through it at the moment. People across Europe are concerned that the pipeline will remain switched off. We must be honest that there will be implications for the European economy and people across Europe if this weaponisation of energy plays out in that way. We must be honest about that.

There will not be implications for the oil companies.

We are also seeing the weaponisation of food.

That is not the case for the food companies.

We are seeing that in particular in the Horn of Africa. Deputy Boyd Barrett's glib commentary in the face of what is unfolding in the Horn of Africa is misplaced. We are seeing human misery unfolding at an unprecedented level. I am being told by people who are experts in the area, including representatives of Oxfam and Dóchas, that this is dwarfing the unthinkable situation that occurred in 2011. We said we would not allow that to happen ever again, yet 11 years later the situation is worse. We know that is also the result of climate change and the absence of rain for four years. We also know it is the result of deliberate policy. I do not think this is incidental; it is intentional. The Taoiseach referenced the Holodomor, which was a human-created famine in Ukraine. We are seeing another human-created famine now as a result of the implications of climate change and the blockading of the ports. The latter has meant that many people who are reliant on Russia and Ukraine will not be able to avail of food exported from those countries. That issue has been outlined by other Deputies, including by Deputy Haughey in some detail. Some 23 million people in just three countries, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, are being exposed to crisis levels of hunger.

It is an unthinkable level of hunger. We are seeing livestock, which are people’s entire way of life, being wiped out and decimated. Looking at the reasoning behind it, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, delved into this a little when he stated:

Many people are already starving or food insecure and are increasingly on the move in search of food and pastures... I am deeply concerned about the impact this will have not only on health but on overall national and regional security.

As I said, I do not think this is incidental. I think it is intentional and aimed at creating instability within Europe through energy costs and instability worldwide through food costs. It is the weaponisation of human misery. It poses a challenge to us, as a small country, with respect to what we can do about that in an international context. First, we have to support in every way we can the development of those solidarity lanes, notwithstanding Deputy Howlin's point that this can only provide a fraction of the capacity that sea transportation can. I very much support the ongoing UN initiative with Turkey to leave no stone unturned in seeking to reopen the sea routes because nothing else will provide the export capacity we need.

In the longer term, we need to look at energy and food security within Europe and domestically. Deputy Conway-Walsh mentioned that our renewables are increasingly coming on stream. We know generation is intermittent and we need to build baseline capacity so that we integrate renewables into our system in a more coherent way that will allow us to move further away from fossil fuel sources.

We also need to think about root-and-branch restructuring of our agricultural systems. Is it right for us to import fodder when we know people across the world are dying as a result of a lack of grain? In that context, do we need to review our agricultural systems? We need to continuously push on the development of a loss and damage facility. Ireland is at the forefront on that. Some headway was made at COP26 but the issue needs to be revisited in COP27, which will be held in an African country. I hope that will bring more focus to bear on a loss and damage facility.

The Taoiseach gave firm commitments on climate financing but we need to build capacity within our own system to deliver on that expansion in capacity he promised.

I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words on the latest European Council meeting. It is welcome to see the continuation of support for Ukraine in light of the despicable war brought about by the aggression of Russia. We have done much in this country to play our part in offering safety to the many Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their country. As a neutral country, nothing less could be countenanced. We must remember that given the influence the Russian war of aggression is having in the discussion at European level. Granted, we are in a new world, one that is much different from our world before the illegal invasion of Ukraine. Security, both in domestic EU terms and global terms, is to the forefront of our minds. The European Union now has a war on its doorstep that threatens its borders and integrity.

The war has led to much talked about military spending. We must ensure our traditional stance as a neutral country is not diluted by this focus on military spending or used as a means to interfere by those in this House who would wish to see neutrality scrapped. Throughout this, we must remember who we are and what we stand for. We stand with Ukraine and the EU and we also stand for neutrality.

Another weapon of war, one which was mentioned at the Council meeting, is food. The actions of Russia have had profound impacts on global food security and these will be further concentrated as time goes on. This is where the EU should come into its own and back up its words with actions. I am referring to giving assistance to countries to manage their food supply chains and develop sustainable food production in countries that are least prepared or able to adjust as quickly as may be necessary.

We have seen the impact the war has had in this country. Our farmers see it as they face increased fertiliser, grain and fuel costs. This is having an impact on the sector and farmers will struggle to keep their heads above water. They must be assisted. However, for developing countries, the challenge is more acute. This must be recognised in more than words; it must be acknowledged through actions.

Consumers must also be assisted, especially those in most need. Sinn Féin has called for an emergency budget, and while our calls were ignored, the challenges facing the old, infirm have not become less, nor are they confined to our own backyard.

Traditionally, there are those who capitalise on misfortune. These can be warlords who create man-made famines by restricting emergency food supplies or countries that are ready to capitalise on the desperation of others. We must be mindful of all these factors and act accordingly. This must also be borne in mind when considering proposals for the restructuring of Ukraine. I ask the Minister to ensure we do not allow this war to become an opportunity to further influence and we must not enable others to do so either.

When I refer to murderous military aggression, illegal occupation, destruction of homes and key infrastructure, crimes against humanity and war crimes, what country am I talking about? Is it Palestine or Ukraine? Of course, the answer is that it is both. This Government is more than willing to do something to condemn and take actions to deal with illegal occupation, murderous unjustified military violence, destruction of infrastructure and homes and the killing of civilians when it comes to one of those places, but is willing to do absolutely nothing when it comes to them being done in another one of those places, namely, Palestine.

I find that, frankly, nauseating. The latest example of it is a letter from a constituent I got. I will not identify the person. Her son was born in Ireland and is an Irish citizen, while his father is Palestinian. The child’s father cannot leave Palestine and be with the child’s mother and his son. The son has an Irish passport and was born in Ireland but also has Palestinian identity. When he goes to Israel, his Irish passport is not accepted. That is apartheid. He is an Irish EU citizen but Israel does not care. It held him and his mother, a mother of an Irish child with a Palestinian passport, for hours, subjecting both to humiliating interrogation and so on. Israel does not recognise the Irish passport of the child. When he reaches the age of 16, he will never be allowed to Jerusalem, where his family lives, and will not be allowed into Ben Gurion Airport or to travel anywhere outside specified areas in the West Bank.

That child’s cousin who lives in Jerusalem was recently picked up by the Israelis on Israeli nationalist flag day on Jaffa Street, where and a dozen other children were just gathering on the street and doing nothing. He was arrested and taken to the police station where he was blindfolded and his hands and feet bound tightly with metal cuffs. He was then brought to an area of the station with no cameras and beaten all over his body by six heavily armed soldiers. They beat him with their fists and M16 rifles on his hand and back in an area where there were no cameras, knowing that he could not defend himself. After that, he was put in a windowless cell for six days, where he was not allowed to contact his parents or a lawyer. His mother had no idea where he was. He asked for a blanket because he was so cold but he was denied it. Another child prisoner from Nablus lent him one to keep him warm. On the last day, he was due to attend court and the television was turned on in his cell. On it were videos and images of other Palestinian detainees screaming and being tortured. This was a deliberate psychological tactic to traumatise the young men. He was then taken to court. When he looked at his parents who were in the court he was beaten again for doing so. I could go on but I do not have time.

The father of the Irish-born EU citizen is also Palestinian.

This is what happened to him when he was arrested and interrogated by the police when he was 16 years old:

The interrogation was one of the most difficult times in my life. The Israeli interrogators tortured me and it affected my education because it affected my mind and my psychological state. It was a really bad time. I was tied to a small chair. I fainted ... they put their fingers on my neck as if to strangle me. I think they studied [the art of] how to hurt someone until they [thought they] are almost going to die. They hit me in my private area with their legs and batons. They did it slowly and then finished with a big kick. [...] They put pencils between my fingers and squeezed them tight. They threatened to rape my Mom and sister.

I could go on. That is how the father of a Palestinian-Irish boy who is an Irish citizen and was born in Ireland was treated. That is how his nephew was treated. All those Israelis can come here without a visa but Palestinian families cannot even meet their own family members and this is what they have to put up with. There are 1,200 children in Israeli prisons but the Government does nothing. How are we honestly expected to believe that the Government or the European Union really care about brutal and unjustified aggression against innocent people when they allow this to happen?

I appreciate the opportunity to comment on the most recent meeting of the European Council. I am grateful to the Taoiseach for his report on the meeting. There is much to cover, as there always is with these Council meetings. I suspect all Members could make different speeches on different topics relating to the meeting. There are three issues on which I will offer my thoughts. The Minister of State may wish to respond on some of my questions.

The first issue relates to the notion of a European political community that was floated at the Council meeting and will be reflected on in more detail in Prague in October. This is a matter on which President Macron, following his re-election in France, has put much focus. It has garnered a certain amount of attention in respect of who it would attract and how it is not an alternative to the accession process for the many countries that aspire to be a member state of the European Union. I note that today is the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community, the body that kicked off what we now know as the European Union. It is understandable that so many countries want to become a member state but I have always believed there has to be something more than applicant status. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to leave countries as applicants for far too long. They are left in limbo. The European political community offers an opportunity for countries that may not know their way or may never be fully in line with the Copenhagen criteria.

Reference is made to countries that are in the neighbourhood. Obviously, the country with which the EU has the closest relationship is the only country that, sadly, has left the EU, namely, the United Kingdom. That brings me to the serious concern in respect of the protocol-busting Brexit-type Bill that is going through Westminster today for its Third Reading. It has been wrapped up in the internal wranglings of a Conservative Party leadership election in which all the candidates, regardless of whether they are for remain or for leave, are threatening to get a better deal to get Brexit done, make it work and unleash a cavalcade of opportunities. It is all nonsense. None of them has said they will uphold their responsibilities to international law, be that to the Brexit withdrawal agreement or to the tenets of the Good Friday Agreement. What reply is the European Council preparing for when a new British Prime Minister forces that legislation through the House of Commons and enacts legislation that will break international law and be in breach of the withdrawal agreement? That has to be met with a realistic response. All present want a negotiated solution to this and we all want good relations but it cannot be one-way traffic.

As regards Ukraine, there has been reference to the importance of the sixth round of sanctions. It is clear that the six rounds have not worked, however. They have not crippled the Russian regime to an extent where it has had to cancel this war and withdraw its troops. When can we expect a seventh round of sanctions? What can we expect that to include? More important, what is the European Union going to do? What will it ask of third-party countries with which it has extremely close relationships but which simply do not view this war in the same way that we in the EU do? These are countries that are more than happy to continue to do business as normal with the brutal regime in Moscow.

The need for reconstruction has previously been discussed in the House but we are still seeing an unadulterated campaign of disinformation and misinformation. That has been evident in the past couple of days, with the Russian ambassador to this country saying the most false and vile things about the visit of the Taoiseach to Kyiv but also, more generally, about Russia's vicious war. Will the Government please look once again at not just expelling the current Russian ambassador but also closing down the Russian Embassy? It is located on Orwell Road, in my constituency of Dublin Rathdown. This is increasingly becoming a practical issue at constituency level. Residents and constituents in the area are extremely concerned at what is going on in their near neighbourhood as well as the attention it is attracting. The simple solution to this is expulsion. It is long past time for that to be done. We have seen what happened in Lithuania and Bulgaria. There is precedent across the European Union for such measures.

The final issue I wish to address did not receive massive attention at the European Council and probably will not receive much attention in this debate. It relates to the Conference on the Future of Europe. The Minister of State was a delegate to the conference as part of the European Council, while I was a delegate on behalf of the Oireachtas, along with Deputies Ó Murchú and Niamh Smyth and Senator Higgins. As the Minister of State may recall, the findings were much celebrated. The conference served a useful purpose as an exercise in engaging European citizens on key issues but, to be honest, it is just a publicity or public relations exercise if the recommendations are not considered seriously and appropriately acted on. There is a recommendation for treaty change. It refers more pertinently to the health aspect and the competency of health within the European Union. Having come through the plenary sessions of the conference, the Minister of State, in his initial briefing to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs, stated the Government would not necessarily be in favour of treaty change. Has that changed? Is the Government open to the prospect of European treaty change? Is it still against that or does it have an open mind? Is it something that it favours? We should not fear treaty change. I appreciate Ireland is the only member state that would be compelled to have a referendum on such a change, but doing so would not be a problem. Let us have the referendum. Let us have a frank and robust discussion. Let us make it about the issues that are up for discussion rather than, as happened in previous referendums, the discussion going off on tangents to areas not specifically relevant to the vote. We should not be fearful of treaty change.

The conference made recommendations that reflected the current situation for the European Union. There were recommendations for the EU to do things it is already doing They were not necessarily recommendations to do them better. Unfortunately, there was a lack of information provided. The European Commission is brilliant at paying people to give out about it. It paid Nigel Farage a salary for a couple of decades. Perhaps it needs to do more to get into communities and show people what the work of the European Union is. The EU can be an easy punching bag on which certain individuals can rely domestically when needs be. The conference showed that, unfortunately, there is an element of disconnect between politics at European and member state levels and, more important, local and regional levels.

One of the things I found disappointing about the conference was that the discussion on the Friday and Saturday and the plenary session was simply a repeat of the discussion that had previously taken place in plenary week of the European Parliament. Unfortunately, that discussion was often removed from the issues at hand. It was caught up in internal EU debates, such as the power struggle between various European institutions or existing European legislation that was stuck at a trilogue stage, rather than discussing the recommendations and reflections of the citizens' panels that were brought together at great inconvenience, given that most of this was done at the height of the pandemic, but also at great cost. Their opinions needed to be heard and debated in good faith. The challenge now is for the European Council to act on that, to have the convention and see what needs to come of it. The conference was a worthwhile exercise and it should be repeated every five or ten years if needs be, but there is no point doing it unless it is followed up.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. Last month, on statements in advance of the European Council meeting, I raised my deep concerns in respect of the recent trip of Ursula von der Leyen to Israel and her praise of the apartheid system that openly operates there. The message the President of the European Commission delivered was clear for all to see. For increased energy co-operation, the EU is willing to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Unfortunately, Ireland is complicit in that policy approach. The Minister has stated in the House that Ireland will not break away from the consensus within the European Union.

The consensus within the European Union seems to be "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil", so Israel can do what it wants, when it wants and there will be no repercussions. We have often spoken here about Ireland's commitment to Palestine over the years. Irish Aid, along with other EU partners, has worked on so many projects that have had a profound impact on the daily lives of thousands of Palestinians. I have worked in Palestine, in the Gaza Strip. It has always been a source of great pride to me to see various villages around the Gaza Strip with signage showing that various projects have been supported by Irish Aid and by the Irish State.

That is why I find it disturbing to see images of what is now happening and what is being allowed to happen in the Masafer Yatta area, to see, the week after Ursula von der Leyen's visit, the Israeli Government announcing plans to demolish more villages such as Khallet ad-Dhabe. These are villages whose infrastructure was supported by Irish Aid and EU humanitarian aid funds. An EU sign in the village reads "Humanitarian Support to Protect Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem From Forced Transfer". The apartheid state of Israel has designated a part of Masafer Yatta, including this village, as a firing zone. Approximately 20% of the West Bank has been designated by the Israelis as a firing zone. This is going to have a devastating impact on more than 5,000 Palestinians from 38 different communities. What is the EU doing to protect these Palestinians, many of whom are living in villages supported by Irish and EU aid? We need to see the European Council, Ireland, and the Minister of State himself standing up to Israel and saying it cannot keep destroying the investments that Ireland has put into Palestinian communities. That is what is happening. When will Ireland stand up and say Israel cannot keep carrying out apartheid, cannot keep destroying investments that Ireland has made in Palestine?

I am grateful for the Taoiseach's update on his recent trip to Ukraine. It was important that visit went ahead. He got to see how bad things are out there and how much assistance will be required by Ukraine, in particular during the reconstruction phase. I also welcome the opportunity to comment on the outcome of the recent European Council summit on 23 and 24 June in Brussels. I agree with most of the recommendations and minutes, especially in regard to welcoming Ukraine and Moldova and granting them status as accession countries to the European Union. That is a good thing. I also welcome the fact it has been extended to Georgia as well once certain conditions have been met. That is a positive development. I note the Irish embassy in Ukraine is back up and running - that is my understanding - but I do not believe we have anyone in Moldova. We only have a consulate that is run from Romania. If we are genuinely interested in guiding Moldova through the accession process, this might be worth considering into the future. I would certainly be in favour of that. The current caretaker Prime Minister of the UK would be of the view that the EU is the devil incarnate, but obviously the EU is doing something right if so many countries, particularly in eastern Europe and the Balkans, are keen to join.

It is only right the Russian war in Ukraine was mentioned a good deal at the conference. That is appropriate. I agree with the EU's call for a cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of Russian troops. There is little chance of that happening. I note with concern its view on the multiple reports of abduction and forced relocation of children from Ukraine. That is very concerning. I also agree with the condemnation of the deliberate targeting by Russia of civilian infrastructure and civilians. This is totally unacceptable. I welcome the sixth package of sanctions. I look forward to the seventh package but there needs to be more focus on the implementation aspect. I welcome the call for more military, humanitarian, economic and financial support for Ukraine. It has an inherent right to self-defence in this scenario. It is obvious who the aggressor is. We certainly should offer any support we can. The extra €9 billion will make a difference. That is certainly something to which we should contribute.

The food security issue, especially in the port of Odessa has been mentioned other Deputies already, in particular Deputy Howlin. We have a great tradition in this House of commenting on matters that have already occurred. I hope that over the summer there will be some international operation, negotiated in advance, and I believe the UN Secretary General is working on this at the moment involving Russia, Ukraine and perhaps Turkey, to get as much grain as possible out of Odessa through the Black Sea. Mines will have to be moved, merchant shipping made available and perhaps Russian or Turkish naval assets might be used to secure a corridor. I agree with the proposal to move as much grain as possible over land via rail and road, but as Deputy Howlin said, there is not the capacity to move everything, so we have to look at a freighter option from a maritime perspective as well.

In regard to the energy crisis, I do not need to tell anyone here how bad the energy crisis is, even in Ireland, but there was mention in the minutes of how the EU could explore options with its international partners to curb prices. I would be in favour of that. Specific mention was made of a temporary import price cap. I agree with the principle and it sounds right, but I am not sure how that would play out or what it would look like. If the Minister of State could elaborate on that in his closing remarks, that would be very much appreciated.

In summary, I welcome the outcome of the summit and look forward to the next one in October in Prague.

I too am glad to speak on this. I am quite alarmed about a number of things. At Taoiseach's questions I asked about the recent visits to conferences and whether neutrality was ever mentioned. The Taoiseach practically ignored me, but then I asked him a second time he said no, neutrality was never mentioned. Our neutrality is being undermined daily and sidelined, with warships coming into the Port of Cork. There were two recently: one British and one Canadian.

I am also intrigued and concerned about another issue. Farmers are harvesting now, the weather is great, thankfully, and they have a fine, promising crop. Almost a thousand tonnes of corn was imported from Russia in recent weeks - from Russia - when we have sanctions against it. What kind of games are being played with the people? It will drive down the price for the co-operatives when buying the farmers' produce. There are games going on here. We are being told there are sanctions and we cannot import, yet this came in. It was actually 2 tonnes short of a thousand tonnes in shiploads of grain. Who is fooling who? There is awful suffering going on in Ukraine - we know that - and it is an awful, horrendous and horrific war -do not let me be accused of anything unfair in that regard - but we are ignoring plight, war and persecution in many parts of the world. I spoke in the House last week about what is going on in Africa and other areas. We are obsessed, and the Taoiseach is definitely obsessed, with going out with his European masters and looking after other places rather than our home turf.

Governments throughout Europe are taking emergency steps to shield their citizens from the worsening energy crisis. Even the Green Party coalition in Germany is preparing to reopen coal plants while other governments have moved to cut energy taxes. In Ireland, our Government has remained the outlier, doing either nothing or much too little. Even Frans Timmermans, the second most senior official in the EU, as Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, has now issued a stark warning to EU governments that helping citizens with the record energy and food costs in each member state must take precedence over the climate crisis. It certainly will not in Ireland. That comes first and foremost. Let Paddy and Mary starve on the side of the road or rob them with carbon tax penalties and VAT on fuel but do not help them in any way, shape or form. This warning comes as the European Commission Executive Vice-President stated that the threat of unrest this winter due to the cost-of-living crisis must be taken seriously by governments. Therefore it appears that everyone, even unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, is recommending that governments like the Irish one act as such.

When will the Government wake up and some long-overdue action be taken? The EU Commission is warning that Europe is in danger of highly damaging strong conflict and strife this winter over high energy prices and that member state Governments should make a short-term return to fossil fuels to head off the threat of civil unrest. We, the Rural Independent group, presented a motion to reopen the Barryroe oil field off the Cork coast a few weeks ago and the Government balked at the idea and voted against such a proposal on the basis that it conflicted with the Green Party's climate change framework.

First, I would like to raise the energy cost crisis going into the winter time. If we will have an over reliance on England and France for gas at a time when a bag of coal here could be easily facing into €40, €45 and going on to €50 at Christmas time, people will go cold in their homes this winter because they will not be able to afford to keep themselves warm. There is none more urgent crisis than that and that is certainly something that needs to concentrate the minds of all of us.

Another issue of great importance is the fact that we here in Ireland are rightly doing everything we can to help the good people from Ukraine who are in crisis and who need shelter, who need security and who need to be in a safe place. Something I touched on earlier is that, while we are doing everything we can, it is a considerable cost and the richer countries should be looking at a way of helping us at this time and trying to assist us in the significant burden that this will put on taxpayers here. Everybody is more than willing to play their part but there are countries that are richer and have far greater resources than we have. That is something that should be looked at going into the future.

Next is an Independent Group slot. Deputy Harkin is sharing with Deputy Pringle.

I suppose there was a time when many Irish people would consider a European Council meeting as being largely irrelevant to their lives but in the past five years, with Brexit and now the war in Ukraine, people recognise that decisions taken at a European Council impact significantly on their lives. Up until then, most Irish people were benignly supportive of the EU and thinking in terms of CAP, European funds etc. In the past five years, there is greater recognition of the role of the EU in global affairs, whether it is the war in Ukraine, reining in the tech companies, tax justice, energy or food security, because those issues are now top priority for everybody. In that context, we are maturing as a country in our relationship with the EU. That is good because we can then look at the realities, the benefits and the challenges of EU membership. It also helps to prevent misinformation spreading about EU policy. On too many occasions, I have heard politicians take a specific issue and twist it into something unrecognisable just for their own narrow political purposes.

The EU makes many mistakes. It gets stuff wrong, but there is a greater sense that this is now our community and it will help us to navigate a number of global threats.

Speaking of global threats, obviously, food and energy security top the list. As Deputy Howlin said, we had a good discussion today on food security at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. A number of the Council proposals I agree with, but it was pointed out that land-based transport not only will perhaps deliver 50% of what we need but there will obviously be greater costs there. The significant increase in the cost of the importation of fertilisers was raised and that certainly is a matter that needs action from Government.

Everybody is worried about energy security and the cost of energy. I echo the words of many of my colleagues here today. People need to see some certainty about that for the next few months. Crucially, businesses need to see certainty about the cost of business and the cost of energy to do business.

I am grateful for this opportunity to say a few words on the recent European Council meeting. No doubt the European Council has a considerable impact on our lives. It will be interesting to see how that impact will increase over the years to come. I wish I had Deputy Harkin's confidence in what Europe will do in terms of Ireland and that we should be looking out for and happy with what they will do. Unfortunately, I do not believe that we should. Even when it comes to Brexit, for instance, in terms of the fishing community, we saw that Europe looked after the French fishing communities but shafted ours in the negotiations. That was partly our own fault because the Minister did not bother even talking to the European negotiators in relation to it in the run-up to Brexit taking place. From October through to the end of the year, there was no contact from the Government at all in relation to fishing with the EU negotiators. There is probably an element of us being a little responsible for that as well but there is no doubt that in Europe might is right, they look after themselves first and then if anybody else benefits from it, that is well and good.

In relation to the Council meeting that took place, we should give a cautious welcome to the fact that Ukraine and Moldova have been given candidate status for joining the EU. That is cautiously welcome because the EU, in a report on Ukraine only last October, stated that Ukraine was the most corrupt country in Europe that it had worked in. What has changed in relation to that? Ukraine has had the difficulty of an invasion and what the Russians are doing there is completely wrong, but Ukraine will still be a corrupt country at the end of it. That process has to be resolved and has to be dealt with. While Ukraine joins the European Union, that corruption will have to be sorted out and dealt with. Zelenskyy presided over that corruption before the war with Russia and that has to be dealt with.

I wanted to talk about food security, but also about how Germany wants to reduce the criteria on decision making. I will get to that on another occasion.

That concludes the statements. We now have 20 minutes of question time. We will take it in the usual order. I ask everybody who wishes to ask a question to be concise and respectful so that everybody gets in.

There is no set time. Bearing that in mind, and that there are five groups here, if everybody wishes to ask a question I will have to take all the parties first and come back for seconds if need be. I ask Deputy Brady to be concise.

I will try to be concise.

On 15 June, the EU, Egypt and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding on co-operation related to trade, transport and export of gas to the EU. The memorandum of understanding, MOU, negotiated and signed by the EU does not contain a territorial clause explicitly excluding the Palestine Territories occupied by Israel. This omission appears to be in complete contradiction with the long-standing EU decision that all agreements between the EU and Israel explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967 and UN Security Council resolution 2334. I want to ask whether this serious omission has been raised by Ireland with the European Commission and why was that omission not dealt with. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, is it appropriate that we would replace gas being provided by one brutal occupying force with gas provided by another brutal occupying force which is in breach of international law, a serial perpetrator of gross human rights violations and in breach of so many UN resolutions.

That is easily answered. First, there are no sanctions as of yet generally on Russian gas and yet Deputy Brady seems to have called for them to be against Israel. For the EU, as the Deputy rightly said, to deal with this issue, to try and get gas into the European Union, and to try and get the prices down that his party complains about is a little more complex than shouting in the Dáil.

I am not shouting.

A deal has been done with Israel and Egypt on co-operation which may lead to more natural gas coming into the European Union.

To be very clear, as the Deputy outlined, the practice has always been that these agreements do not apply to the occupied territories. The European Commission has included a unilateral statement in an annexe to this agreement that clearly and publicly underlines the inapplicability of the memorandum of understanding to territories occupied by Israel since 1967, but, no, we are not proposing to put sanctions on Israel in the way the Deputy has described. He has singled out Israel as usual and he has not called for sanctions against Russia.

I call out all violators of international law. I am not a hypocrite.

The European Commission has clearly set out that this does not apply to the occupied territories, full stop.

The Minister of State thinks it is appropriate that we punish one but not the other.

Deputy Brady can come back in if he gives everyone else a chance. I call Deputy Howlin.

In my initial commentary, I asked the Minister of State to give a fuller explanation to the House on what is exactly meant by “the European political community”. We know the French have this notion, which we were fearing, of a second tier of European membership. It seems to have morphed into this European political community. I would like to know, first, what the Minister of State understands by it and, second, what the Irish position is regarding it.

My second question was again raised during my comments. We have rightly been focused on the newer applicant countries, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, but there is a real issue now in advancing the status of the western Balkan applicants. Can the Minister of State go through specifically the position with North Macedonia and Albania and the status of Bosnia-Herzegovina right now?

With regard to the European political community, Ireland does not want a second-tier system so that will not be happening.

The details are scant as yet. It is an idea that President Macron put forward. It was up for discussion at the European Council and the conclusions are there from the Council as to what it would be. These are not quite as detailed as the French proposal that was put before the leaders, which I think was published. It is generally an idea to offer a platform for political co-ordination in countries across the Continent. We have been very clear and the European Council has been very clear that it does not replace the EU and does not replace enlargement. We in Ireland are not fully part of every aspect of European policy; we are not part of Schengen and we have a slightly different position on justice and home affairs and the Common Foreign and Security Policy in terms of what our entitlements are as a nation. We are not interested in two-tier. However, there is an opportunity to bring countries together to discuss wider issues and the leaders will further discuss it at the informal summit in Prague. To be fair, it is at an early stage of development.

I was in both North Macedonia and Albania last week. Today and tomorrow are important days for them. On the basis of a French proposal, Bulgaria has effectively lifted its veto on North Macedonia proceeding to accession negotiations. The French proposal is now being considered by the parliament of North Macedonia and they will vote on it tomorrow . If they vote to support it, then North Macedonia and Albania will be invited to start negotiations with the EU on accession immediately. If the North Macedonian Parliament goes for this tomorrow - I think it is tomorrow and the debate is happening as we speak - there will be an intergovernmental conference, possibly next week, to unlock the door to let the negotiations start. There is a lot of work to do before they actually join but there is a huge commitment from the European side to do this.

The people of North Macedonia have genuine concerns about their language, their culture and the identity of Macedonian speakers.

I ask the Minister of State to be concise.

It is very important. They have heard strong messages from Ireland and it is information that the House is receiving. I have told them that Ireland, the Irish language and Irish culture and identity have thrived in the EU, and that they will be able to do so as well. What the French have proposed is a difficult agreement for them to accept but it is necessary to reach unanimity which, unfortunately, in this case, needs to be on the table.

I should mention Bosnia as it is very important. There was discussion at the Council and it is going to be reviewed again in the autumn. There are 14 long-standing conditions to meet and the European Commission is reviewing them at the moment. We are fully supportive and we want to keep that country as stable as possible.

My questions follow on from what I said earlier. How is it acceptable that people with Irish passports, who are Irish citizens and who seek to enter Palestine or Israel, do not have those passports recognised by the Israeli authorities because they also have Palestinian family connections? That is apartheid. Let us be clear: it is racism that is informing that policy. It is a clear apartheid, racist policy, not just directed against Palestinians within occupied Palestine, but directed now against Irish citizens. They get privileged access and a waiver, and they do not require a visa coming into this country, and we allow that to happen. How can that happen when they treat Irish citizens like that going into Palestine?

Second, are war crimes and crimes against humanity somehow less requiring of accountability if they happen in Europe rather than in Palestine or Yemen? That would seem to be the inevitable conclusion one draws from the Minister of State's attitude.

We will leave it at the question.

Crimes against humanity committed against Israel are war crimes documented over long periods, with no accountability and no sanctions, yet there are immediate demands from the Government and Europe for accountability and sanctions when it comes to Russia's horrible crimes against humanity.

Ireland has been to the fore in seeking justice and peace in the Middle East, particularly between Israel and Palestine. We were the first country to put forward the two-state solution.

A direct question was asked.

I can give a direct answer, which was that it was not discussed at the European Council.

The Minister of State should direct the answer to the Deputy.

I do not want to give him that answer because it would not be fair, but it was not discussed at the European Council. I am happy to refer to the Minister for Foreign Affairs because it comes up at the Foreign Affairs Council on a regular basis, where Ireland is extremely vocal on all of the issues the Deputy raises about Israel and Palestine, and, indeed, at the UN Security Council. As a matter of fact, it was not discussed at the European Council. It is regularly discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council and the Minister is only too happy to raise with the Israeli authorities the issues the Deputy has raised. The difference on this side of the House is that we think there should be two states there and that is a solution. I am not sure the Deputy fully agrees with that.

I do not. It should be one state.

We will work to have peace and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. We have always been seen as an honest broker there and we will continue to do that work, but it is done by the Minister, generally speaking, at the UN Security Council and at the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU.

In an earlier contribution, I asked about the warships that were at the quay in Cork. As a neutral country, why do we not assert on all occasions the fact we are a neutral country? We should be proud of it. The Taoiseach told me it was not mentioned at the World Economic Forum, good, bad or indifferent.

On another point, if there are strict and robust sanctions, how is it that we can import such an amount of corn that it drives down the price of corn here for farmers who have suffered due to the cost of fertiliser, seed and everything else? Those are my two questions.

The Deputy has hit on an important point about corn. Russia is going around the world, blaming the EU for food prices, but there are no sanctions on food from Russia. There are no sanctions on corn and Russia is still free to export it because we do not want to interfere with the food supply. At the same time, Russia is trying to stop the food supply coming out of Ukraine, which is very important. I can give a detailed answer on that if the Deputy wants because many Members raised it. Russia is responsible for the shock to global food security. The blockading and destruction of Ukrainian ports has affected the least-developed countries and the most fragile countries, and it has also affected prices here, as consumers are seeing.

What are we doing? As I said, we can talk about it in the Dáil but there is also action happening. The EU is doing a huge amount of work to help Ukraine to produce and export agrifood products through different land routes and EU ports. Further efforts will be made through the rapid implementation of what is called the solidarity lanes action plan to bring Ukrainian grain back onto global markets.

As well as our efforts at EU level, we are also working on the issues at the UN. Ireland has signed up to the UN's roadmap for a global food security call to action, which includes immediate, medium- and long-term responses. There is a huge amount of work going on, as the Taoiseach outlined, between the UN Secretary General and the Turkish Government to facilitate the safe shipping of grain from Ukraine's ports. We want that effort to continue because the current situation is affecting everybody. We can complain in the Dáil about the price of food, as is our right as democratic representatives, but this is how we get the prices down. It is very hard to connect the supermarket shelf to a port that is destroyed in Ukraine but there is a direct link between them at this time. To clarify, there are no sanctions on Russian food products.

The Minister of State did not answer the question about the warships.

That issue was not raised at the European Council. The Minister for Defence is the person who might wish to comment on it, but it is common practice for ships to stop at ports along the way. The Canadian ships are not on their way to war.

The Minister of State said in response to Deputy Howlin that, unfortunately, unanimity is required in the decision-making process on these issues.

In that particular case.

The German Chancellor made a statement calling for reform of decision-making within the EU and indicating an intention to make proposals for a shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting on issues such as foreign and fiscal policy. What is Ireland's position in this regard and how does the Minister of State see that we can be protected in such a situation?

We are well able to protect ourselves because we do not support the change to qualified majority voting.

It will need every country to support it, which means it is not likely to happen. Regarding the veto, we are fully aligned in this country with EU foreign policy. There are countries that have unnecessarily held up some important foreign policy statements by way of the veto. We have seen it used in regard to the accession of North Macedonia in a way that is not good for anybody, including the country that is using it. We accept the veto is important but when we see it being used, we see it is not really effective, even for the countries that use it. I do not know when Ireland last exercised its veto. We will discuss the issue at the informal meeting of European affairs ministers. My position, on behalf of the Government, is that we do not support it.

Regarding the Conference on the Future of Europe, there is a huge amount we can do that does not require treaty change, a move to qualified majority voting or anything like that. The Taoiseach has said that Ireland supports treaty change, particularly in respect of health. However, generally, I do not detect a huge appetite around the table for treaty change and, therefore, I do not see this particular issue arising.

In the interest of fairness, I now go back to Deputy Brady. I assure Deputy Harkin she will get a chance to speak presently.

I want to follow up on the point Deputy Howlin made regarding Moldova becoming a candidate-status country for EU accession. Ukraine has been given that status, which is hugely significant. I agree with Deputy Howlin's call to open up a full embassy in Moldova. We have a full embassy in Ukraine, which, unfortunately, is still closed.

Does the Deputy have a question?

We are seeing a lot of European countries moving now to reopen their embassies in Ukraine. It is important, as an act of solidarity, that we do the same. The Irish bar in Kyiv is open to the public and proudly flying the Irish flag. It is incumbent on the Government to reopen our embassy there as a matter of immediate importance.

Reopening the embassy in Ukraine is something we want to do. It was only officially opened less than a year ago and it was a very important step for Ireland to do so. Its reopening is being actively planned at the moment but it requires a significant number of security considerations and consideration for the welfare of staff, how it operates and so on. It is something the Department is keen to do. The ambassador, who has done a tremendous job in difficult circumstances, is keen to go back. We will be fully represented in Kyiv sooner rather than later but we need to let the security people do their job to ensure we do it properly. It is not something to be rushed into and no country has rushed into it. There is an EU mission there that represents all of us.

The Minister of State made a big effort to explain to us that the action plan on solidarity lanes will offer an alternative; in fact, it will not. The Commission explained to us that, at best, it will get half the volume of grain out of Ukraine, that is, 2.5 million tonnes per month as opposed to 5 million tonnes, and at much greater cost. How likely is the opening of the ports by way of the Turkish initiative?

All I can say is there is a huge amount of work going on between the UN Secretary General and Turkey on this issue. That is key. The foundation of the problem is Russia doing what it is doing, including destroying ports. We need to keep reminding people of that. It requires a united response, which we have seen, by and large, in this House as to who is the real cause of all of this, including the price of butter and bread going up to extraordinary levels. We know the cause is the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its destruction and blockading of ports. We wish the government of Turkey well in its efforts, with the UN Secretary General, to open the ports and we hope we see results from that.

Deputy Howlin has stolen my question on food security. My other question relates to Irish food production in that specific context. Does the Minister of State see any actions the Government can take on Irish food production to contribute to alleviating food insecurity? It is a bit of a roundabout question but, nonetheless, if I were to engage with farmers at a meeting tonight, one of the questions I would be asked is why we cannot produce more food to help to alleviate food insecurity.

The current situation is a timely reminder of the Common Agricultural Policy and its purpose. It is there to maintain food security as best we can. It was developed in the aftermath of the Second World War when there was food insecurity of a worse scale than there is now across the Continent. What is happening at the moment is potentially very dangerous.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been engaging with farmers and farm organisations on what planning needs to happen to ensure we are doing our bit. Realistically, however, it is very hard to substitute the volume of grain and oil, in particular, that comes from Ukraine because that country is so massive.

I am confident the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is doing everything in his power in this regard. I know he would be more than happy to answer that question because he is the one doing the work in this area.

I call on the Minister of State to give his closing statement.

I thank Deputies for their statements and questions. I will address the issues the Taoiseach indicated I would address, namely, the economic issues and the Conference on the Future of Europe.

As is usual at this time of year, the June European Council generally endorsed the country-specific recommendations for this year's semester process. We are broadly happy with the four country-specific recommendations agreed for Ireland this year. They are consistent with national policy orientations that we have firmly established. On energy matters, leaders reaffirmed their commitment to ensure close co-ordination of efforts and actions with a view to securing energy supply at affordable prices, taking into account the work being done by the Commission. The Government recognises the cost-of-living pressures stemming from increasing energy prices, as well as broader-based inflation, are a serious issue facing households. As such, a range of measures have been introduced. On a cumulative basis, approximately €2.4 billion has been announced in cost-of-living measures to date. One of the best and most recent examples of this is free school transport next year for everybody who has a Bus Éireann school transport ticket.

The June European Council also welcomed the fulfilment by Croatia of all the convergence criteria set out in the treaty and endorsed the Commission's proposal that Croatia adopt the euro on 1 January 2023. The formal agreement and signing ceremony took place yesterday. I extend our best wishes to the government of Croatia and the Croatian people as they advance their preparations for the changeover from the kuna, which is a currency I got to know in my Interrailing days, in the months ahead. This is very welcome. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 and is now joining the euro. Together with what is happening generally on enlargement, I hope this development will help to bring some of Croatia's former colleagues in the old Yugoslavia into the EU as separate independent countries and proud nations.

Leaders also met in Euro Summit format on the Friday morning of the European Council.

The President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, and the President of the Eurogroup, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, reported on the latest assessment of the economic outlook. Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine is fuelling high global energy, commodity and food prices and increasing uncertainty factors that are dampening growth and exacerbating inflationary pressures globally. The European economy and the Irish economy, however, remain fundamentally strong due to the sizeble policy actions taken at EU, euro area and national levels, in the context of this House. EU leaders remain united in their steadfast determination to further strengthen the resilience of our economies and will continue to be well co-ordinated, determined and agile in their response. Leaders also welcomed the Eurogroup statement on the future of the banking union, which provides that, as an immediate step, work on the banking union should focus on strengthening the common framework for bank crisis management and national deposit guarantee schemes. Leaders also called for stepping up efforts in deepening the capital markets union.

On the Conference on the Future of Europe, leaders noted the proposals set out in the final report, as presented at the closing ceremony in Strasbourg on 9 May. The European Council invited effective follow-up by all three institutions, the Council, the Commission and the Parliament, each within its own sphere of competence and in accordance with the treaties, while ensuring high levels of transparency for Europe's citizens. As Minister of State with special responsibility for European affairs, I engaged widely, virtually and in person, with many individuals and groups as part of Ireland's national deliberations. I was encouraged by the interest shown in the process and by the thoughtful contributions. I will release a report soon enough on this aspect from a national point of view.

It has been an open and inclusive Continent-wide democratic exercise that has offered citizens from across the EU the opportunity to provide their views on the EU's optimal future directions. More than 320 interesting and innovative measures and recommendations were presented during the conference, spanning virtually the entire spectrum of EU activity. The Council and the Commission have prepared assessments on the proposals and have expressed the view that the vast majority of the proposals can be implemented if agreed through existing policies without the need to reopen European treaties. Nationally, a detailed assessment of all the EU-level recommendations will be carried out across all Departments, which will be overseen by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In looking ahead to Europe's future, our guiding principle must be: how can we best prepare our Union to continue to meet the needs of its citizens into the future. This includes the value of subsidiarity, while protecting and strengthening our commitment to our shared values. Ireland is ready for this debate. We will work constructively to shape our future in this new European context and we are open to considering treaty change if it is necessary. We should first, however, do what we can within the existing framework. We are Irish, we are Europeans and we work constructively within the EU. That has benefited the country and our citizens. Equally, Ireland, and every other member state, has brought benefits to the EU and to other European citizens as well.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 3.54 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 4.54 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 3.54 p.m. and resumed at 4.54 p.m.
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