I am pleased to have this opportunity to meet with the committee today. Although the details are yet to be confirmed, we know that there is a significant event before us this spring. I thank the joint committee for its engagement with me since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs in 2014. When first elected, I had the privilege of being Vice Chairman of this committee. From Ireland’s perspective, this committee fulfils an invaluable role in the scrutiny of EU affairs and I thank members for their balanced and even-handed approach in that regard. Every member of the committee and, in particular, the Chairman, deserves credit for that.
Before I address the EU-UK issue in detail, I am conscious that I have not been before the committee since November and so I would like to take this opportunity to touch upon the December General Affairs Council, the broader items on the agenda of the December European Council and the more recent January General Affairs Council.
There were five main items on the agenda of the December General Affairs Council, which I attended, including preparations for the European Council; political agreement on the inter-institutional agreement on better regulation; approval of the 18 month work programme of the Council; European Semester 2016 and the Commission presentation of its annual growth survey; and enlargement. The inter-institutional agreement on better regulation was negotiated on behalf of the Council by the Luxembourg Presidency, which did an excellent job in shepherding through an accord with both the Commission and the European Parliament. Although it was not perfect, Ireland was happy to support the final text. The Council work programme, essentially the trio Presidency programme, was an uncontentious item. The Commission’s presentation of the annual growth survey was criticised for coming two weeks later than planned but, nevertheless, found broad agreement. The Commission’s publication of its package of enlargement reports was also delayed but in this regard the majority of member states were also able to signal overall support for it, albeit with significant commentary by many of our partners.
On the December European Council, the Taoiseach attended this meeting and, as the committee will be aware, he made a statement in that regard to the Dáil yesterday. To recap briefly, at that meeting EU Heads of State and Government, in addition to migration and the EU-UK question, also reviewed Europe’s actions in the fight against terrorism, building on the decisions taken at its February meeting and in light of the barbaric attacks in Paris and elsewhere. A number of other items were also discussed, including the situations in Syria, Ukraine and, briefly, Libya. Certain economic and financial issues, taking stock of discussions on the Five Presidents’ report on Economic and Monetary Union and developments in the Internal Market were also discussed. Following the successful COP 21 in Paris, energy union and a forward-looking climate policy were also discussed.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, represented Ireland at the January General Affairs Council, which took place in Brussels on Monday afternoon.
The meeting was exceptionally short, following on from a Foreign Affairs Council that took place before it. There were two substantive items on the agenda: the work programme of the Netherlands Presidency and preparation of the next scheduled European Council, which will take place on 18 and 19 February. The General Affairs Council also briefly discussed the language regime relating to EU recruitment following a recent court case. The February European Council will focus on the EU-UK issue, which dovetails nicely with the topic for discussion this afternoon. It will, of course, also deal with migration and the euro area recommendations agreed by ECOFIN on 15 January.
The January General Affairs Council heard from the Netherlands as it began its 12th Presidency of the Council, and as the first member of the current Trio along with Slovakia and Malta. This is a standard presentation of priorities at the first GAC of a Presidency term. We, like others, anticipate that the Netherlands will run a very efficient Presidency given its extensive experience. We are generally happy with the proposed overall programme. The Dutch Presidency’s three key principles are: a Union focused on essentials; innovative growth and jobs; and connecting with citizens. However, a number of immediate priorities are dominating the European Union agenda, including migration, security, the UK-EU question, EMU, and climate change policy.
The Dutch Minister for Foreign and European Affairs wrote to his ministerial colleagues earlier this month setting out the following priorities for the work of the GAC over the coming months: a review of the multi-annual financial framework; work on the rule of law, to include a Presidency seminar on fundamental values, migration and integration to be held in Strasbourg on 2 February; implementation of the inter-institutional agreement on better regulation; consideration of the better regulation package and the Commission’s REFIT programme; consideration of transparency in the way the Union operates; discussions on better governance in the context of the European Semester and country-specific recommendations; and follow-up to the European Council.
Given the gravity of the migration situation and notwithstanding the desire to discuss the EU-UK issue, it would be remiss not to say a few words on the migration and refugee crisis. We are all aware this is a complex and emotive issue. From Ireland’s perspective, we continue to emphasise the importance of addressing the root causes as well as the humanitarian dimension of this crisis. This has been our consistent approach both in Europe and in terms of our own national response.
Migration remains the highest priority issue on the European Union agenda, although we have struggled as a Union to tackle successfully the challenges posed by the crisis. There have been important agreements at EU level over recent months on various elements of a multifaceted, comprehensive response to the crisis. These include agreements on so-called hotspots, registration, control of external borders, relocation and returns, as well as very important agreements on how we can improve our co-operation with Turkey.
However, delivering on many of these commitments has been far too slow. As our Heads of State and Government stated at the European Council last month, implementation of agreed measures must be speeded up. In our own case, for example, and despite our opt-out under Protocol 21, members will be aware of the Government offer to take 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers into Ireland through a combination of resettlement and relocation programmes. The resettlement aspect of this is advancing albeit slowly, with 176 people having already arrived in the State so far and with more expected over the coming months. However, on relocation and in spite of our best efforts to implement our agreed approach and our early engagement with the relevant authorities, progress has been very slow. This is due mainly to administrative difficulties with the establishment of the hotspots and setting up the relocation programmes in Italy and Greece.
Ireland has deployed two experts to the Greek island of Lesbos to support the European Asylum Support Office and we have also nominated liaison officers to both Italy and Greece to support the work of the hotspots. We await an update this week on progress regarding the first grouping of asylum applications under this framework.
Delivering on relocation and on other measures, some of which were agreed in very difficult political circumstances, is important for the Union's credibility, and it is in all our interests to maintain that focus in 2016. In February, the European Council will return to the migration issue with an assessment of how progress is advancing on implementation. Between now and then, it is incumbent on all involved to fulfil their obligations.
I now come to the main agenda item for us this afternoon, the issue of the United Kingdom and its relationship with the European Union. It is, of course, of very important strategic interest to Ireland. As committee members know, it will remain a priority throughout the negotiation process and into the subsequent referendum. Our two countries are bound by uniquely close economic, social and political ties. Furthermore, from an EU perspective, we share many common positions and issues of common concern with the UK. These are close ties and there is a very strong belief that the European Union as a whole benefits and will continue to benefit from UK membership.
From a political perspective, we have been involved in frequent discussions on this issue, including at the highest level in the Taoiseach’s exchanges with the British Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron. Ministers have also discussed it regularly with their UK counterparts - the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, with the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Philip Hammond, and I with the Minister of State at the British Foreign Office, Mr. David Lidington. This committee has, of course, engaged in some excellent work, including travelling to the United Kingdom. The Department of the Taoiseach has been engaging closely with other Departments as well as with our permanent representation in Brussels, our embassy in London, and our embassies across the European Union, to ensure a comprehensive, whole-of-Government response to the key questions.
Where are we in terms of the negotiations? Following initial discussions at the June and October European Councils, the end of last year saw a significant increase in activity on all fronts. The British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, issued a letter to President Tusk on 10 November which kicked off discussions in earnest by outlining the British concerns in broad terms under four headings or baskets, as they are referred to. This was followed by a series of consultations between senior officials from all EU member states, including Ireland, and the EU institutions, on foot of which President Tusk sent a letter to EU Heads of State and Government on 7 December, presenting an initial reaction to the British reform agenda and confirming that there would be a two-stage approach at EU level: a political discussion of the issue at the December European Council and, one hopes, a final decision at the February European Council on 18 and 19 February.
The December European Council provided the first opportunity for a collective discussion of the issue among all 28 EU Heads of State and Government and the Presidents of the European Union institutions. The British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, outlined the four broad areas where he is seeking change and also spoke about the complex domestic politics which surround the issue in the United Kingdom.
As the committee members will have learned from the Taoiseach’s statement to the House yesterday, the subsequent exchanges were, overall, positive and constructive. The Taoiseach intervened to present the Irish perspective in strong and forthright terms. In doing so, he addressed the importance of the issue to Ireland but also emphasised the significance of the UK's membership to the EU as a whole. He struck a positive and supportive note, underlining the need for partners to work together to find a solution that is mutually acceptable and that will enable the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to recommend and campaign for a vote to remain in the European Union. In addressing the House of Commons after the European Council, Prime Minister Cameron singled out the Taoiseach’s address as having been particularly helpful.
In terms of the substantive issues, the committee will be familiar with Ireland’s positioning across the four headings. Under the competitiveness heading, we share the UK’s enthusiasm for sustained effort to do more. These issues are the drivers of long-term prosperity for all EU citizens, and we support measures that would give further impetus to growth, competitiveness and employment, including through strengthening the Single Market, building a real digital Single Market and expanding the EU’s network of relationships and trade agreements across the globe.
On economic governance, we believe the principles set out by the UK provide a good basis for discussion. The euro area must have the capacity to do what is necessary to ensure financial stability and economic growth. It must, however, also act in full respect of the Single Market and of the integrity of the EU as a whole, without prejudice to the interests of all member states. We appreciate the concerns of the UK and other non-euro member states in this area and we are committed to examining carefully and constructively the detail of what is proposed. We must keep in mind the importance of our financial sector and the need to ensure it is not disadvantaged in any way. This view is shared by many member states regarding their own sectors.
Issues under the sovereignty heading relate to strengthening the role of national parliaments in the EU as well as addressing the concept of ever closer Union as it applies to the UK. Ireland has a constructive approach to practical proposals and we firmly believe that workable solutions can be found. Although the details remain to be clarified, and we must always apply the caveat that the devil is in the detail, it is felt that broad lines are emerging in these areas that will address the key issues.
The fourth heading, welfare and immigration, is more difficult. An element of consensus is emerging. For example, agreement is moving well on finding solutions to addressing fraud and abuse, and there is good progress on changing the way child benefit is paid abroad. The idea of limiting access to in-work benefits is tricky, and there was widespread opposition to the proposition as it was originally put forward. Nonetheless, work is progressing on it and I am hopeful that, with willingness and determination, a workable solution can be found in this area.
It was the overriding sense of a willingness and determination to chart a way forward that struck me most from the Taoiseach’s report of the December European Council yesterday. While it is a challenging and sensitive issue, it is very encouraging that the exchanges at the December European Council were substantively rich and constructive in tone, which led to a very positive atmosphere.
EU leaders have agreed to work very closely in the very short period ahead with a view to reaching agreement on a package of measures at the February European Council, a few weeks from now. President Tusk is expected to present a paper in very early February, perhaps on 5 February. This will contain - finally, some might say - concrete proposals under the four headings and will be the subject of two meetings in early February at senior official level before the matter comes to the European Council via the General Affairs Council on 16 February.
While the legal form and implications of the final package remain to be teased out, it is to be welcomed that the UK is not pressing for early treaty change. The overriding sense is that, for the large majority of issues, broad lines of agreement are already emerging. Even on the more difficult issues, we can be optimistic that a solution will be found which addresses the legitimate concerns of all partners, and which will meet Prime Minister Cameron’s political objectives.
From the Government’s perspective, we move into the next and critical phase, with a significant amount of work already completed at both political and official levels. This leaves us well-placed to continue our positive and constructive engagement with the negotiations at EU level in the weeks ahead. We know Ireland's strategic priorities, we understand the British requests and our own views on them, and we have a sound understanding of the perspectives of the other 26 member states.
As things stand, we have good grounds to hope an agreement can be reached in February which is acceptable to Ireland and other partners, and which will allow Prime Minister Cameron to recommend, and campaign vigorously for, a vote to remain in the European Union. It has been a three-step process. First, there was the decision to hold a referendum in Britain, now the negotiation period is, it is hoped, reaching a conclusion, and the third phase will be the referendum campaign in the UK. A referendum may take place in June.
I look forward to any questions the committee members may have. Although the exact detail of the text that is coming on 5 February has not emerged yet, I hope to be as helpful as possible to the committee. I thank the members for their engagement over the past year and a half and wish them all the best of luck over the next two months.