I thank the Chairman and committee members for the opportunity to be here. I look forward to the questions and discussion that will follow when I outline the Government's position on a range of issues. I also welcome the ambassadors and the other members of the diplomatic corps who have taken the time to be here today.
I thank the joint committee for the invitation to address it on developments at the EU Foreign Affairs Council. I had been due to appear on 1 March but the meeting was cancelled due to adverse weather. I am glad to say the weather is not a problem this week. I am pleased to have an opportunity to discuss developments at the Council, which met most recently met on Monday last. My Department has provided a detailed information note to the committee on the wide range of issues the Foreign Affairs Council has considered in recent few months. In the interests of maximising the time available for discussion, I propose to address only the major themes of the Council's discussions in my opening remarks.
I will first discuss Middle East issues. I thank Deputy Niall Collins for writing a comprehensive letter to me in recent days setting out his concerns on the situation in Gaza and the broader Middle East process. My Department and I will supply him with a detailed written reply.
Naturally, in what has been a period of upheaval and tragedy, the Middle East peace process has been one of the most frequent topics on the Foreign Affairs Council's agenda and was discussed in September 2017, and again at the meetings of the Council in December 2017 and January and February of this year. The December meeting was held just after the US announcement on moving its embassy to Jerusalem and we discussed the unambiguous negative impact this would have, as we made clear at the time. There was also an informal breakfast with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, which allowed for a useful and frank conversation. The level of EU unity in support of a two-state solution was notable. I used the opportunity to speak about the damage that the continued construction of settlements on Palestinian land is doing to prospects for peace and a new peace initiative.
At the January Council meeting, we discussed how best we could support the Palestinian leadership in its efforts to keep the hopes of the population focused on a political track. We restated our support for the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. I highlighted the need to support the Palestinian leadership and expressed deep concerns about the untenable situation in Gaza. On numerous occasions, I have appealed to the United States to review its decision on UNRWA funding. We had an informal lunch with President Abbas at which we reiterated the European Union's strong support for a two-state solution in a constructive discussion. We had a further discussion on the Middle East peace process at the February Council meeting. We also had an exchange with some of the key Arab foreign ministers on this issue, focusing on the prospects for a US peace initiative.
I requested that Gaza be added to the agenda for the Foreign Affairs Council meeting last Monday, following the shocking events there in recent weeks. Even before recent events in Gaza, this has been a difficult and dispiriting period, with ongoing settlement construction, demolitions and restrictions on economic development making the path forward ever more difficult. Decisions such as the announcement last week of further settlement construction and a court judgment on the Bedouin community of Khan al-Amar are extremely worrying and threaten to directly erode the physical space that is needed to establish a Palestinian state in the future.
I have also strongly condemned rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, which undermine the Palestinian cause and are counterproductive in terms of alleviating humanitarian suffering in Gaza. That situation is worsening and efforts to restore Palestinian Authority governance in Gaza seem to have stalled for now. The US announcement on moving its embassy to Jerusalem was a disappointing and premature development and has, undoubtedly, complicated US efforts to bring forward a successful peace initiative. Ireland has been to the fore in pressing for constructive EU action on this issue and we have kept it high on our agenda. I have visited the region twice to meet all of the key players and I will visit again next week, something which has informed my contributions to EU discussions.
The situation in Libya was on the agenda for the Council meeting in July 2017 and, again, in January 2018 when the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Libya, Mr. Ghassan Salamé, joined our discussions. Ministers share a deep concern about the appalling abuses that have been reported against migrants in Libya. They agreed on the importance of supporting the work done by UN agencies to improve conditions for migrants, and of working with countries of origin to address migration generally. I am glad some progress has been made in that area. The restoration of stable government in Libya, where the rule of law can be implemented across the territory of the country, is essential to bringing a permanent end to these abuses. It was useful for us to discuss with the UN special representative his plans to bring the parties together and prepare for elections.
The influence of Iran on the region is worrying and negative, especially the support the country has provided to the regime of President Assad. Nevertheless, Ireland believes the Iran nuclear deal shows how multilateral political action can help to de-escalate some of the world's worst security challenges. Ireland firmly supports non-proliferation and we believe the entire Middle East should be a zone that is free of weapons of mass destruction. The situation in Iran was discussed at the Council meetings of October 2017, March and April 2018 and earlier this week. The EU has been united in its support for the Iran nuclear agreement and we were deeply disappointed that the US has decided to withdrawn from the agreement. The EU continues to be committed to the deal as long as Iran fulfils its obligations under the agreement. I call on the other parties, likewise, to remain committed to an agreement to which we all signed up.
There are a number of complex and interlinked conflicts in the Middle East region. It was useful, therefore, to have a broader discussion in December on recent developments across the Middle East. This discussion allowed us to touch on the linkages between the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, Lebanon and the Gulf crisis. Our discussions stressed the primacy of the UN's Geneva process on Syria and the need for accountability; the need for unity and dialogue in Iraq; support for stability and the upcoming elections in Lebanon; and the need for continued support in Jordan. On Iran, there was agreement that the EU should continue to engage on and through the nuclear deal, but also that we address Iran's regional activities and ballistic missiles programme, which is worrying. My intervention focused on Syria and Yemen. I called for the EU to make a political contribution in support of a negotiated solution in Yemen and to intensify our efforts to make progress in that regard. I also raised, in a focused way, the need to get humanitarian access and assistance to civilians in Yemen in the context of a war-torn country.
There was a more detailed discussion on Syria at the February, March and April meetings of the Council. The position is Syria is increasingly desperate and there have been appalling attacks on civilians, as we will all have seen regularly on media broadcasts. Outside involvement is fuelling and sustaining this conflict. Ministers agreed on the need for a strong push to restart the UN's Geneva process. There is also a concern that the reignition of fighting in a number of areas may take the pressure off ISIS, which had lost most of its territory in the past year but has not disappeared.
The Council meeting of April discussed the western Balkans in preparation for the summit that took place last week on 17 May. Ireland is a firm supporter of the European perspective of the western Balkans. I was pleased the support Ministers expressed for the current focus on the region was reflected in a successful summit in Sofia, Bulgaria. We agree on the need to encourage the western Balkans to continue to vigorously pursue reforms and that the European Union needs to give practical assistance. The stability of the region is important to the security of the EU and we need to be sure our message is communicated effectively.
The March Foreign Affairs Council had a discussion on Ukraine which covered progress on implementation of the national reform programme and the ongoing conflict in the east of the country. The High Representative updated Ministers on her visit to Ukraine a few days earlier, where she reaffirmed the EU’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ministers agreed that significant progress had been made on the reforms, while noting that much more still needed to be done.
On Russia, in March the UK updated Ministers on the Salisbury nerve agent attack and the Council expressed its full solidarity and support for the UK. At the April Foreign Affairs Council, member states stressed the need for EU unity on Russia and upheld the validity of the five guiding principles for the relationship, which have served the EU well. Several states urged greater support for civil society in Russia. On sanctions, there was broad agreement that the lack of progress on implementation of the Minsk agreement and Russia’s unwillingness to engage constructively in the trilateral contact group negotiations made it inevitable that the restrictive sanctions measures would remain in place.
In March Ministers discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula with the South Korean Foreign Minister, who gave a generally optimistic assessment of developments with the DPRK. High-level talks held between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK since then, and the prospect of direct talks with the US, are an encouraging signal which can be conducive to fostering trust and de-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula as a whole. This is positive news. Nevertheless, along with our EU partners, we remain conscious that similar initiatives in the past have not worked out, despite significant political and financial investment. We are also conscious of the DPRK’s serial breaching of UN Security Council resolutions on missile testing and nuclear detonations as well as its appalling human rights record.
Ireland continues therefore to support the EU’s policy of critical engagement with the DPRK, which was reaffirmed during our discussion in March. This combines pressure with sanctions and other measures while keeping communication and dialogue channels open. The EU is also maintaining dialogue with third countries such as China in order to ensure that restrictive measures are being implemented in an effective way. Ireland continues to provide some humanitarian assistance in the DPRK via the World Food Programme and through international NGOs operating in North Korea.
The Foreign Affairs Council has considered the follow-up to the EU-African Union summit held in Abidjan last November. If the relationship between the African Union and the EU is to be productive and constructive, we must meet more frequently and at the highest political levels, over the months and years ahead.
In addition, the Council has been considering the forthcoming negotiations with African, Caribbean and Pacific states on a successor to the current Cotonou partnership agreement which expires in 2020. The Cotonou Agreement is a comprehensive partnership for economic, social and cultural development of the three regions. The EU’s aim is for a new partnership, called post-Cotonou, which re-energises relations and which emphasises regular and high-level political engagement. The Council this week agreed to further work on the negotiating mandate. I would like to get the committee's views on this matter. My view currently is that the political infrastructure currently in place between Europe and Africa is totally unfit for purpose and we need to put an entirely new structure in place for the kind of engagement that will be needed to help the continent of Africa and Europe to deal through partnership with the multiple challenges Africa faces, including climate change, food security, energy security, water security, migration, corruption, regional conflict and so much more besides in the context of an extra 1 billion people on the continent of Africa in the next 25 years. These are massive challenges which I believe should be prioritised in terms of the future of Europe and its impact globally.
Aside from considering day-to-day foreign policy issues, the Foreign Affairs Council has also been discussing how the EU can promote a rules-based international order with multilateralism as its key principle and the UN at its core. The EU global strategy sets out a vision for foreign and security policy. It commits the Union to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The Council has been monitoring progress on the implementation of the strategy. In the area of security and defence this includes strengthening the EU’s peacekeeping capacity in support of the United Nations. We have also made progress on implementing a strategic approach to strengthening the resilience of states and societies in our neighbourhood and in developing an integrated approach to conflicts and crises. Unfortunately there is no shortage of them. A particular priority in the time ahead will be the EU’s role in strengthening multilateralism and global governance.
I know PESCO has had considerable debate in our Parliament. PESCO was formally launched at the Foreign Affairs Council on 11 December. Twenty-five member states are participating. The Irish Government approved participation on 21 November and Dáil Éireann approval was obtained on 7 December in accordance with the provisions of the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. This enabled Ireland to participate in PESCO from the outset.
For us PESCO is a tool for member states to jointly develop the essential capabilities necessary to carry out peacekeeping tasks in missions in Lebanon, Mali and elsewhere. PESCO can only operate in that context, anchored within the global strategy and bound to all the other measures – prevention, mediation, diplomatic, development, economic – that form part of the EU’s integrated approach to situations of conflict and crisis.
Ireland’s participation will enhance the Defence Forces’ capabilities for a wide range of United Nations-mandated missions where they must be able to work with contingents from other countries. It allows the men and women of our Defence Forces to gain access to the latest equipment and training, which enhances their ability to participate safely and effectively in challenging peacekeeping missions. Twenty-five of the 28 member states are participating, including other member states such as Austria, Cyprus, Finland and Sweden which are neutral or not members of any military alliance, which, of course, is also the case for Ireland.
The deployment of the Defence Forces overseas on peacekeeping missions will continue to be governed by the triple lock which requires UN authority and approval by the Government and Dáil Éireann.
Any capabilities developed or equipment procured under PESCO belong to the member states individually and any deployments remain a decision solely for the member state concerned in accordance with its legal and constitutional requirements. In other words, this is voluntary. We buy into the projects and assignments that we want to under the structures of PESCO. Therefore there is no undermining of Irish neutrality or the issues linked to it.
Maximising the potential of the EU’s military and civilian Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, is another priority. Civilian missions have traditionally focused on the need to strengthen the police, rule of law and civilian administration in host countries. New and increasing challenges such as cyber and hybrid threats, organised crime, counterterrorism and irregular migration are now forming part of these missions’ work. These new challenges will mean changes to the way CSDP operates to ensure that it is as responsive and as effective as possible.
Good progress has already been made here. There is strong commitment that more can be done, including on preparing a new civilian capabilities development plan in the first half of this year and a civilian CSDP compact by the end of this year. My Department currently seconds a total of 12 civilian experts in eight of the ten civilian CSDP missions in Europe, the Middle East, and in Libya, Somalia and the Sahel. Eight members of An Garda Síochána are also deployed to the EU’s mission in Kosovo. It is vital that they have the tools they need to operate effectively. That is what the co-operation with other EU countries is all about.
I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to update the committee on what has been a wide-ranging agenda at the Foreign Affairs Council. I look forward to hearing the perspectives members have. If members are interested in something I have not raised, that is not to say that I do not want to comment or answer questions on it.
We picked out the issues that we thought members would be interested in. There is major interest in the Middle East and the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians which, unfortunately, in recent weeks has had tragic consequences.