Yes, the Senator's best days are ahead of him, as they are for all the new committee members. I know some members have been here before, such as Deputies Crowe and Durkan and Senator Paul Coghlan, but to anyone taking up a new position here be assured it is a very interesting committee. I certainly value the opportunity to come here and answer questions and, most importantly, to hear points of view. This is my first time to address this committee of which I was previously a member. I will update the committee on discussions of the September General Affairs Council, GAC, and preview the agenda for the upcoming October GAC. I should note, of course, that the September meeting took place immediately after the Bratislava summit of 27 Heads of State and Government and that the General Affairs Council has also been looking at the preparations for the forthcoming European Affairs Council.
I will start with issues pertaining to the United Kingdom. It is obvious that any discussion now at EU level has to take stock of the UK referendum in June 2016 across the Irish Sea. The decision to leave the EU has profound implications for all the European Union member states and for the broader international community. What exactly these implications will be, we will only know over time. We know it is of particular significance for Ireland and, in this regard, the Government has been assiduously highlighting our concerns to the UK Government and our EU partners with regard to Northern Ireland, the Border, the Common Travel Area, citizenship issues and the interconnectedness of our trade. We have been making these points vociferously. The Taoiseach met Prime Minister May in July. The British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, MP, visited Dublin earlier this month and met the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, the Tánaiste and me. I also met my new opposite number, the British Minister of State for Europe, David Jones, MP, in Brussels a couple of weeks ago.
With regard to our broader outreach to our EU partners, since the referendum, the Taoiseach has held meetings with Chancellor Merkel, with President Hollande and with President Tusk. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has spoken individually with his counterparts and I have met a number of European Ministers. On all these occasions, we have explained our concerns in detail and the need for them to be treated sensitively in the upcoming negotiations. We have reiterated Ireland’s strong commitment to European Union membership and our intention, once withdrawal negotiations commence, to play an active and constructive role in the European EU negotiating team, one of 27. It is fair to say that we have found considerable sympathy and understanding from all the partners with whom we have met but it will be necessary to reinforce these points over the coming months and to ensure that they support practical results for us in the negotiations programme. In this context, I welcome Prime Minister May’s comments on Sunday which offered, finally, greater clarity about the triggering of Article 50 and the timeframe for the subsequent negotiations. She also gave some important indications as to the UK's approach, although much remains to be determined. Subsequent to that we need to negotiate.
In the aftermath of the UK referendum, a meeting of the European Council was held in Brussels on 28 June, just three or four days after the vote. This was followed, on 29 June, by a summit involving the 27 remaining Heads of State and Government, obviously without the United Kingdom. This was attended by Presidents Tusk and Juncker. The summit agreed a number of important principles, notably that there can be no negotiations and no pre-negotiations before the UK formally triggers Article 50 and that access to our Single Market requires acceptance of all four freedoms, including the free movement of people.
That remains the broad and agreed EU approach. It is important that we now move forward in the most practical and sensible manner and, in this regard, the Government is continuing to intensify our preparations. I am happy to respond to any points Deputies may wish to make.
The Bratislava Summit took place on 29 June in the 27 leader format. This began a process of reflection on the renewal and future of the European Union. As a first step in that process the 27 EU leaders discussed the key challenges and key priorities for the European Union with a focus on migration, internal security, external security and defence, and, importantly, on economic and social development focusing on young people. In his interventions, the Taoiseach highlighted the priority that Ireland, along with many other EU partners, attaches to economic issues and in particular the Single Market and Digital Single Market, that we continue to create jobs and look at issues pertaining to investment and trade, and he stressed the need for a balanced approach in how we deal with the many challenges we face.
There was no discussion at Bratislava of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, other than a report from European Council President Tusk of his own meeting with Prime Minister May, and a reaffirmation of the principles agreed, which I outlined earlier, that were agreed in June. The Taoiseach took the opportunity to remind his counterparts once again of Ireland's specific concerns in relation to Brexit, particularly regarding Northern Ireland, North-South relations, the Common Travel Area and bilateral trade. A short work programme for the period ahead was agreed at Bratislava. It was decided that the process of reflection should continue in the October meeting of the European Council. Another meeting of the 27 leader format will take place in Malta in early 2017. This coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and the founding document of the European Union. A few days later, on 20 September, the September meeting of the General Affairs Council took place in Brussels. It was a regular meeting and the agenda covered a follow-up to the June European Council, the mid-term review of the Multiannual Financial Framework, MFF, the Commission’s letter of intent for its legislative programme in 2017 and preparations for the forthcoming European Council.
The need to ensure effective follow-up to European Council decisions has featured in discussions at many levels in the EU for some time now. Building on the work of the previous Dutch Presidency, the current Slovak Presidency led a discussion at the Council on the basis of two papers produced by the General Secretariat of the Council, which highlighted some advances as well as some areas where more work is needed. Member states' interventions focused on making more progress on the measures that have already been agreed on migration and in particular the EU-Turkey deal, the completion of the banking union and advancing the Digital Single Market. For my part, I welcomed the Commission’s emphasis on the development of the Single Market and the Digital Single Market. I also stressed the importance of implementing the services directive was crucial to ensuring growth, particularly for the potential of the SME sectors of our economy which we know are vital for the Irish economy and right across the European Union. We need to see barriers to doing business digitally and across borders as barriers to the very creation of growth, jobs and investment. I recalled that the Capital Markets Union is also essential to support a rich diversity of financing options for businesses, that further measures around investment are welcome and that banking union must also be fully completed.
The European Union’s Multiannual Financial Framework spans a seven-year period and is subject to a mid-term review. The review was published on 14 September and presented at the September General Affairs Council meeting. The Commission noted the challenges which had been faced in recent years and the need for the EU budget to be able to react swiftly to unforeseen events. Very limited additional financing is now proposed under the jobs and growth, migration, external relations and security headings. However, the key point to note is that existing spending ceilings will not be changed. I intervened to highlight the added value of the EU budget, pointing to the importance of EU support for areas where we had comparative advantages, in particular the agrifood sector. The review will now be discussed at working group level but will return to the General Affairs Council agenda regularly in the coming period. The Commission is aiming to have the review package completed before the end of the year. Any change made under the review will also impact on how the next multiannual financial framework is prepared. The proposal for the framework is due by 1 January 2018.
The Commission also made a presentation on its general priorities in 2017. There is continued emphasis on being “big on the big things” and concrete delivery of initiatives around President Juncker’s ten strategic priorities. Some of the elements on which the Commission intends to focus include the following: expanding the European Fund for Strategic Investments, complemented by an external investment plan aimed at addressing the root causes of migration; completing the Digital Single Market; producing a white paper on Economic and Monetary Union in early 2017; and strengthening trade defence instruments, with particular reference to the steel industry.
As I said at the General Affairs Council, Ireland believes that, rather than focusing on great leaps towards further integration, the focus should be on delivering concrete outcomes in areas which have already been agreed and which directly affect Irish and other EU citizens, particularly in the Single Market and the Digital Single Market. The Commission is due to present a more detailed actual work programme in the coming weeks, taking into account the views of the Council and the Parliament.
The September General Affairs Council also looked at preparations for the October European Council of Heads of State and Government. I will return to that issue shortly, but I would first like to refer to items which will be on the agenda for the General Affairs Council on 18 October. The October General Affairs Council will look further at the review of the Multiannual Financial Framework and hear about the state of play at that point. We will also consider implementation of the inter-institutional agreement on better law-making, an agreement which was finally concluded in 2015 after very long negotiations. It sets out how the three institutions - the Council, the Commission and the Parliament - will act together to legislate collectively at EU level.
The next General Affairs Council will be the final preparatory meeting before the October European Council. There are three items listed on the agenda: migration, trade and external relations, with specific reference to Russia. The draft conclusions for the European Council will have been circulated by that time and our discussion will be based around the text of the conclusions.
We are all aware of how the issue of migration continues to dominate debate at EU level. It has been on the agenda for every European Council since last year and continues to be a central feature of discussions at every level, including European ministerial level. The September Council heard an update from the Commission on developments and I expect our discussions in October to also start that way. In the past year Heads of State and Government have set out a comprehensive EU approach to dealing with migration which has been gradually taking effect.
This has been continuously reviewed, with both short-term and long-term measures introduced as and when deemed necessary. A recent short-term measure, for example, was introduced at the Bratislava summit on 16 September, when member states offered immediate assistance to strengthen the Bulgarian border with Turkey. Long-term measures include the establishment of a European border and coast guard.
The discussion at the October European Council will again take stock of progress. Along with reviewing the EU-Turkey deal agreed last March, it is expected to cover the plans for co-operation with third countries, known as partnership frameworks or migration compacts. We look forward to hearing how work is progressing.
Ireland, to some extent, is at one remove from the full force of the migration crisis due to our geographical location, our position regarding justice and home affairs measures under the EU treaties and our non-participation in the free travel Schengen area. However, we do, of course, recognise the priority of the migration issue for the EU and its sensitivity for many EU partners, many of which are under significant domestic pressure. We have sought to be constructive and to support and take part in a comprehensive approach, where possible. In this spirit, we have made a number of commitments on a voluntary basis.
The main elements of our response are as follows. First, there is our voluntary opt-in to EU programmes, whereby we have offered to take 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers between relocation and resettlement programmes. To date, 486 people have been admitted from Lebanon for resettlement. With regard to relocation, just 69 people have arrived from Greece so far. However, a further 40 people have been assessed and cleared for arrival, and arrangements for their travel to the State are currently being made. Second, Irish naval vessels have been deployed on search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, where they have rescued over 12,500 individuals, including, I am happy to say, 382 today alone. The work by Naval Service and its men and women in representing our country has been done in very difficult circumstances and is saving real lives. LE James Joyce just returned to Ireland last Friday and LE Samuel Beckett has now taken her place. I know all of us here in the Oireachtas salute the achievements of the Naval Service and thank its members for their exemplary service. Third, we have also provided significant assistance to key organisations. Between 2012 and 2015, Irish Aid provided more than €42 million in support of those affected by the Syrian crisis, the largest response ever to a single crisis. Fourth, on 19 September, Ireland, along with Jordan, co-facilitated a major UN summit of world leaders on migration and refugees in New York. The summit agreed a new set of global policy principles - the first of this kind - on migration and refugees. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, represented Ireland at this event.
On trade, the October European Council is due to have a comprehensive discussion on trade matters. This will include the arrangements for concluding CETA, the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which are due to be settled at an extraordinary meeting of Trade Ministers on 18 October. CETA is a broad and deep agreement based on the reality of today’s trade patterns. It will remove over 99% of tariffs between the EU and Canada and create sizeable new market access opportunities. This includes ending limitations in access to public contracts, opening up services markets and offering predictable conditions for investors. As I said, these trade agreements are of particular significance for SMEs, which benefit from the recognition of product standards and certification, thus saving on "double testing" on both sides of the Atlantic. There are exciting opportunities, particularly for a small, open economy such as Ireland's and across the European Union, as well as in Canada.
The Commission presented in July its proposals for the signature, conclusion and provisional application of CETA. We support the principle that CETA should proceed as a mixed agreement. This essentially means that the agreement includes matters of national competence and will require participation by national parliaments, obviously including our own, in the ratification process. However, it is also possible for those parts of the agreement that are within the EU's competence to be advanced through provisional application.
CETA is due to be signed at the EU-Canada summit on 27 October and we support its provisional application at the earliest opportunity, following expected approval by the European Parliament later this year. At a time of growing opposition in many developed economies to free trade and new trade agreements, concluding CETA will send a positive signal that the EU remains supportive of the major role of trade in contributing to economic growth.
I hope that the October European Council will continue to give its support to the TTIP negotiations, consistent with the negotiating mandate settled under the Irish Presidency in 2013. A successful TTIP agreement would boost growth and consumer welfare on both sides of the Atlantic, allow the world's two largest trading blocs to show new leadership on international regulatory standards and underpin high levels of environmental, consumer and social protection. This is why our trade Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, joined 11 other trade Ministers in a recent letter to Commissioner Malmström highlighting the need for a strong and positive voice in the ongoing trade discussions. While it seems clear that any final agreement will now have to await a new US Administration, we continue to support pressing ahead to make as much progress as possible this year towards an ambitious, comprehensive and mutually beneficial agreement.
External relations will be discussed, in particular pertaining to Russia. These will touch upon the situation in Ukraine which, because of Russian actions, has led to the imposition of EU sanctions. Sanctions are linked to the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements where there has been a lack of progress in implementing security and political provisions. After a tense August with heavy exchanges between the two sides, a local ceasefire took effect on 1 September and seems to be holding. It is too early to say if the question of easing the sanctions will be on the table at the European Council. Ireland supports the long-term view that a strong and stable relationship between the EU and Russia is desirable as a strategic goal. However, we must take account of the current situation in Ukraine, which would make progress in this direction welcome.
That concludes my statement. I acknowledge that it was long and I thank members for their patience. Given the summer timelines and the number of meetings, several issues had to be covered. I look forward to continuing a high quality of engagement with the committee in the months ahead on all matters pertaining to the EU. I thank members for their attention.