I thank the committee for the opportunity to meet it. It is an honour and a privilege for me to have this opportunity. I thank members for their strong interest in exploring Ireland's alliance building within the EU, especially in a post-Brexit context. Ms O’Donoghue outlined the Government’s strategic approach and the strong leadership provided in this area by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Ministers. I echo that and her remarks on the positive role played by the Oireachtas and this committee in deepening our engagement across the Union. I hope to complement her presentation with some practical perspectives from my role in Brussels.
I have a straightforward message. Ireland's success in Europe will depend on remaining highly connected and engaged both in Brussels and across each of the other 26 remaining member states. In my role as permanent representative at the committee of the permanent representatives of the member states to the European Union, the COREPER 1 committee, my team and I cover a wide range of sectoral issues, including the Single Market and competitiveness, transport, climate, agriculture, fisheries, energy, social and employment, the digital economy, research, health, education, culture and sport. Coherence and effectiveness abroad depends on coherence and joined-up thinking at home. It is a particular privilege for me to have the opportunity to work with colleagues from every Department, whether they are based at the permanent representation in Brussels or at home.
There is considerable legislative activity on the COREPER 1 side and, crucially, almost all legislation that comes to the committee is prepared for the Council of Ministers and agreed through qualified majority voting, QMV. As members know, decisions taken under QMV require the support of at least 55% of the member states, representing 65% of the EU's population and a blocking minority requires more than 35% of the population and at least four member states. Given these maths, Ireland cannot achieve good outcomes in the legislative process without a sustained proactive approach to building both strategic and tactical alliances as files progress. We are not unique in this. Alliance-building is an essential requirement for all member states operating within the EU, especially when operating under QMV. Even well-established geographic alliances such as the Benelux, Visegrad and Nordic-Baltic, can be fluid and often evolve and shift as a particular legislative file progresses. These groups provide important political coherence for their members but the component member states are not obliged to share the same position on legislation and regularly take different positions on different files.
As Ms O’Donoghue has stated, Ireland has consistently engaged in a wide range of issue-based alliances. I believe that this practice has served us well and we are usually satisfied with the outcomes and reassurances achieved in negotiations. We have voted against legislative proposals at final stage on only two occasions since January 2017. However, while it may be relatively rare for most member states to oppose a file at final stage, QMV considerations are always to the forefront of the tactics of the rotating EU Presidency, the Commission and member states. They are always in the background when we are making calculations about how likely it is that amendments will be accepted. Small member states are under constant pressure to demonstrate that they have broad support for their particular concerns. A Presidency is most unlikely to take on board an Irish amendment or proposal unless we secure good backing in the room and, ideally, little opposition. Building and maintaining the support of as many member states as possible is an ongoing core activity for myself and the attachés based at the permanent representation.
There are a number of recent examples which demonstrate the advantage and necessity of issue-based alliances. Ireland has been a leader within a group of like-minded states which support the deepening and strengthening of the Single Market and digital Single Market. There is a strong crossover in both like-minded groups with the Nordic and Baltic states, ourselves the Netherlands and Czech Republic. In 2018, Ireland, along with Finland, the Czech Republic and Denmark, focused attention on the remaining obstacles to completing the Single Market in services through the Copenhagen Economics study, which was commissioned by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and launched by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, in Brussels. This core group of member states was successfully expanded in advance of the March European Council when 17 Heads of State and Government, including the Taoiseach, agreed a joint position on current priorities in this area.
On the Economic and Financial Affairs Council, ECOFIN, side, our main focus has been on the "Nordic-Baltic plus", colloquially known as the new Hanseatic League. This group was established in 2017 and has been meeting almost monthly at finance minister level. The countries include Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland and the Netherlands. From time to time, finance ministers from Germany, France, the Czech Republic or Slovakia have attended and engaged in discussion at ministerial level meetings. The core group has published joint position papers on the future of economic and monetary union, the capital markets union, and strengthening the role of the European Stability Mechanism. As Ms O'Donoghue mentioned. the Nordic-Baltic-Ireland-Netherlands formation has also met twice at Heads of State and Government level.
During the divisive negotiations in the last couple of years on the reform of mobility, posted worker and haulage sector rules, Ireland was aligned with a number of central and eastern member states, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovakia, as well as those member states that faced similar challenges to us on the geographic periphery, such as Finland and Portugal. On the key climate files on carbon dioxide emissions from cars, vans and heavy duty vehicles, Ireland formed an alliance in 2018 with a number of ambitious member states and those, like us, who are technology takers in this important area, such as Luxembourg, Denmark and the Netherlands.
As this committee would be very aware, with regard to agriculture and the ongoing negotiations on the reform of the CAP, we have worked closely with France and those seeking to ensure a fully funded Common Agricultural Policy, such as Portugal, Spain, Greece and Finland. There are many other examples that could be provided, but these help to indicate the considerable number of issue-based alliances where we are active and need to be active, as well as the wide range of member states involved. We have co-operated with every member state over the last period.
The UK has been an important partner in Brussels for us on many issues. Its departure will deprive Ireland and several like-minded groups, including some that I have mentioned, of considerable political and voting strength. This will be particularly true on Single Market and digital economy matters. The numbers make this clear. At present, Ireland's percentage of the EU population for QMV purposes is 0.95%. This will increase to 1.08% after the UK leaves. The total population of the Baltics, Nordics, Ireland and the Netherlands for voting purposes will amount to 11.06%. This is far short of the number required for even a blocking minority. By comparison, France and Germany will see their combined voting strength rise to 33.54% from 29.22%.
This change matters because the Presidency, the Commission and the member states are heavily influenced by the likely voting strengths as files evolve. Becoming strongly linked with a grouping like the Nordic or Baltic states is important in building our political influence. However, given the numbers, this must be augmented by a deep level of engagement with all other member states, particularly the larger member states. Ms O’Donoghue has outlined the steps we are already taking to do so.
Several conclusions can be drawn from this experience. First, I refer to the need to regard engagement as a shared responsibility and opportunity. While the Government has primary responsibility for managing relations with other member states and the EU institutions, the challenge of expanding our connections and level of engagement across Europe should be viewed as a collective one. The Oireachtas, civil society, our business and farming communities and youth, education and cultural sectors all have a vital role to play in a national effort to deepen Irish engagement both in Brussels and across the member states. This includes understanding the issues that are important to each member state, the local political factors at play and the nature of member states' relations with non-EU or third countries. The support we have received from all member states during the Brexit process is a graphic demonstration of the benefits of such sustained engagement.
Second, we can change domestic perceptions about our influence in Brussels. In the past, perhaps due to our size and geographic location, the EU was often regarded as a phenomenon that happened to us rather that an organisation that we could actively lead and shape. However, we bring a pragmatic problem-solving approach to issues that is very much recognised and appreciated by other member states. The Taoiseach outlined an ambitious vision for our role in Europe during his address to the European Parliament. We can and do act as a bridge across some of the ideological and geographic fault lines. Embracing this role will help increase our influence and effectiveness in the post-Brexit European Union. The new strategic agenda and incoming Commission and European Parliament present an ideal opportunity to do so.
Third, we can be clear on our EU legislative priorities and take a lead role in establishing like-minded groups on these files. Given the reality of qualified majority voting, QMV, after Brexit, we must continue our efforts to build support with the larger member states and with the key players in the European Parliament on these priorities.
Fourth, Ms Catherine Day recently advised the committee that our engagement with the Commission, the European Parliament and other EU institutions should be strengthened. This is undoubtedly true. They should not be places we only visit when we have a problem. Instead there must be ongoing engagement to shape and influence policies and legislative proposals before they are published. The programme of ministerial visits to the European Parliament has been an important additional element in this regard. I stress that early anticipation is vital. Again, this is not a task to be left to Government alone.
I thank the committee and look forward to its members' views and questions.