I thank the Chair for the opportunity to have a discussion with the committee members. I look forward to their questions and comments.
My initial statement will be reasonably lengthy but it will give a good overview of some of the issues with which we have been dealing at the Foreign Affairs Council at the European level as I was asked to do. Obviously, I am in the committee's hands, but I suspect there will be demands for quite a detailed discussion on Brexit, which I am happy to do.
I thank the committee members for the opportunity to address them this afternoon. I am keen to provide an update on the developments at the EU Foreign Affairs Council which most recently met this Monday. In addition, I know the committee is interested in developments related to Brexit, given fast-moving events this week, and I look forward to a discussion on this and other matters.
My Department has provided a detailed information note to the committee on the wide range of issues the Foreign Affairs Council has considered in the past few months. In the interests of maximising the time available for discussion, I propose to address the major themes of the Council discussions in my opening remarks.
As ever, developments in the Middle East featured prominently in discussions at the Council. I supported the addition of Jordan as a discussion item on the agenda in June. This took place just after I visited Jordan myself. My own view is that Jordan plays an essential role as a stabilising influence in a difficult region and I believed it was important for the EU to express, and show in a concrete way, our support. Jordan has long hosted large refugee populations of Palestine refugees, refugees from Iraq after 2003, and now hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. This places a huge strain on the Jordanian economy, and US cuts to funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, have made the situation even more difficult. As Jordan is trying to introduce economic reforms, under pressure from the IMF, I feel it is important that the EU look at the trade access that Jordan has to the EU market and see how that could be improved. I am also pleased that plans are proceeding for Ireland to establish a resident embassy in Jordan early next year.
The gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen simply cannot be underestimated. The UN has warned that the country is on the brink of a major catastrophe. The need for a ceasefire is stark. At the June Council, EU ministers were briefed via video conference by UN special envoy, Mr. Martin Griffiths, on his framework for peace in Yemen.
We agreed conclusions that reiterated that there cannot be any military solution to the conflict and underlined our strong support for the UN special envoy and his efforts to bring about an inclusive political solution. In November, EU ministers reaffirmed our strong support for efforts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. The situation in Yemen is incredibly shocking and distressing, and there has been little good news over the past four and a half years. I was very glad to hear that peace talks restarted in Sweden last week following intensive UN efforts and a number of confidence-building measures. Clearly the problems in Yemen are very complex but it is an important step that both sides have come to the table and I think everybody wishes those efforts well.
The Council has also considered the death of Jamal Khashoggi. On behalf of the EU, the High Representative has called publicly for an independent and credible investigation which Ireland fully supports and insists on. As I have said directly to the ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Dublin, we must get the facts of the case and ensure that those responsible are held to account. Ireland also specifically raised the Khashoggi case during Saudi Arabia's universal periodic review at the UN Human Rights Council in November.
The situation in Libya was discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council in July and October and conclusions were adopted this week reflecting the seriousness of the situation there and the importance it is accorded by the EU. During these meetings, my counterparts and I reiterated our united support for a Libyan-found solution to the political crisis, under the auspices of the UN political process. We also underlined the importance of elections in completing Libya's transition while recognising the need for the right conditions to be in place for free and fair elections, which is challenging.
Libya and Syria also featured in the October Council discussion on the external aspects of migration with the UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, and the director general of the International Organization for Migration, António Vitorino. Ireland wants to find a consensus on migration based on a balance of responsibility and solidarity. We support efforts to tackle root causes and are supportive of the UN global compact on migration which has unfortunately become controversial in some parts of the world, and in our view represents a balanced approach for co-operation between countries and regions with very different perspectives on and experiences of migration.
My colleagues and I discussed the situation in Iran in November and again at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday. We discussed the implications of the re-imposition of US sanctions in November, and reconfirmed our support for the joint comprehensive plan of action, the nuclear agreement. Our objectives are to support the continued implementation of this agreement which has been successful and continues to deliver, and to support EU business in continuing to trade with Iran to the benefit of both sides. However, we also expressed our concerns about Iran's recent ballistic missile tests as well as the destabilising role which Iran plays in many countries across the region. The EU believes that we must face these issues head on and deal with them. However, we believe that keeping faith with the agreement we have already reached on nuclear issues is an important first step in bringing Iran back into the international fold as hopefully, eventually, a responsible and constructive partner. These are challenging issues and I expect we will return to them many times but there is a high degree of unity among member states in what we are trying to do.
On Monday, the Foreign Affairs Council discussed preparations for the upcoming EU–African Union ministerial meeting in January. This will be the first annual Joint Ministerial meeting since the AU-EU summit in Abidjan last November. We agreed that the meeting agenda will be developed around three themes: peace, security and governance; investment, trade and skills; and multilateralism. Ireland remains committed to supporting countries in Africa in meeting the challenges they face, both bilaterally and through our membership of the EU. We must continue to strengthen co-operation between the African Union and the EU, including on trade and development. The proposal for an Africa-Europe alliance for sustainable investment and jobs sets out a comprehensive economic agenda with job creation at its core. The Foreign Affairs Council also discussed developments in Africa more generally, including in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea in June, and in the Central African Republic in October. We will have an opportunity to attend an EU-Africa summit on Tuesday next week, in Vienna.
In November and December, the Council discussed Ukraine. On Monday, Ministers expressed deep concern about tensions in the Sea of Azov. The EU expects Russia to ensure unhindered and free passage through the Kerch Strait to and from the Sea of Azov in accordance with international law. Ministers met with the Ukrainian foreign minister and reaffirmed the EU's unwavering support for Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. In November, ministers condemned the so-called elections in the separatist Donbass region of Ukraine on 11 November as running contrary to the letter and spirit of the Minsk agreements. Ministers also welcomed progress on reforms in Ukraine while noting that much more still needs to be done.
The Council discussed developments in the western Balkans, Eastern Partnership and Central Asia. Ministerial meetings with the Eastern Partnership and Central Asian countries took place in October and November. On Monday the Council had a wide-ranging discussion on the western Balkans, touching on progress in 2018 and expectations for 2019.
A very difficult situation is unfolding in Venezuela. In October and again on Monday, ministers discussed the situation in Venezuela, which appears to be worsening. There is an acute humanitarian crisis with the potential for regional instability due to the strain being put on neighbouring countries by mass migration. Ministers agreed to explore the idea of establishing an international contact group to bring together the EU and other actors with influence on both sides in Venezuela to facilitate negotiation. It is expected a decision on this will be made at the January Foreign Affairs Council. Ministers also discussed the EU reaction to the upcoming inauguration of President Maduro on 10 January following elections that were neither free, fair, nor credible.
With regard to the EU global strategy implementation, the Council has been discussing how the EU can promote a rules-based international order with multilateralism as its key principle and the United Nations at its heart. This is very much in line with Ireland's vision which I articulated at the UN General Assembly in September. The EU global strategy commits the Union to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The Council continued to monitor progress on the implementation of the strategy. 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 developing an integrated approach to conflicts and crises. Unfortunately there are far too many in our neighbourhood.
The Council discussed security and defence issues in the context of the EU global strategy in November. Ministers adopted a new civilian common security and defence policy, CSDP, a compact that will make civilian CSDP more capable, flexible and responsive, and will strengthen the EU's external engagement in the rule of law, policing and civil administration. It will also enhance the capacity of the EU to respond to new and emerging challenges in our neighbourhood. Ireland was a leading promoter of the compact.
Ireland supports ongoing cooperation between the EU and the UN on peacekeeping operations and crisis management. We were pleased that the EU endorsed the updated shared priorities of the UN-EU Partnership on Peace Operations and Crisis Management in September. The Council also welcomed an Irish paper, introduced by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, on how EU member states can better co-operate under the auspices of the EU in support of UN peacekeeping operations.
I do not propose to read out a dissertation on Brexit.
Essentially, our approach to Brexit is to prepare for all eventualities but to continue to try to influence what we can where we can to maximise the chances of the deal, which was negotiated over a nearly two-year period, holding and taking effect. We now have a withdrawal agreement that is a compromise on both sides. The EU and the UK have had to compromise. The core Irish interests and vulnerabilities have been responded to in the withdrawal agreement in as effective a way as could have happened. The Good Friday Agreement and the common travel area are protected. The guarantees that were given politically this time last year have been followed through on and delivered in a legal text to ensure people do not have to worry about future border infrastructure re-emerging between our two jurisdictions.
Other issues in the withdrawal agreement are citizens' rights more generally. The approximately 3.5 million EU citizens living in the UK and the approximately 1.5 million UK citizens living around the EU will have certainty. The financial settlement issue in terms of the UK's contribution to the EU's budgets up until the end of 2020 is largely settled. Perhaps most importantly for businesses, there is the facilitation in the legal text of a transition period for an initial 21 months until the end of 2020 and then the option for the UK, if it wants to take it, of extending the transition for a further one or two years if it is necessary to finalise the detail of the future relationship agreement between the UK and the EU.
On the issues that have caused so much political controversy and debate in Westminster, in particular with regard to the backstop, it is important to say that the factual position, rather than the case being made by some, is the backstop does not represent a threat to anybody. It is about preventing the threat to the normality, stability and peaceful relations that have built up over the past two decades on the island of Ireland and ensuring we do not have the corrosive impact in the future of enforced border infrastructure between the two jurisdictions. Some people in this room will know only too well why we have been so firm and clear, across all political parties, on this request and on the insistence it is accommodated in a withdrawal agreement.
There has not been enough focus on the context of the backstop. The only reason a conversation around the backstop began at all was that people wanted to protect the peace process and ensure the trade and movement of goods, services, people and capital on the island of Ireland, which has reinforced good relations, can sustain into the future. It is also important to say the backstop is a fall-back, last resort, insurance mechanism. Nobody wants to have to use it. Last December, the UK and EU negotiating team agreed we would try to solve the Border concerns on the island of Ireland through a future relationship agreement that would be comprehensive enough to do it. If it was not possible, the second option would be that the UK would offer bespoke solutions recognising the unique challenges the Border presented on the island of Ireland. Let us not forget it is not just a border between two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland but will become a border between the United Kingdom and the EU. It is the EU's external border. If it is not possible to get agreement on bespoke solutions, the default, fall-back position was the UK would maintain full alignment with the rules of the customs union and Single Market in the areas necessary to protect North-South co-operation and an all-island economy and to protect the peace process. Many people seem to talk about the backstop as if it is the basis of the future relationship, which it is not. We are all committed to ensuring the backstop never takes effect. Should it take effect, we are committed to trying to ensure it is only temporary so it can be replaced with something more permanent. For the moment there is not another credible fall-back solution that can take the place of the backstop. That is why EU leaders and the British Prime Minister have been so clear that there is a need for the backstop even though we want to avoid using it and if it ever takes effect we want to make sure it is temporary and short-lived. The temporary commitment has to be qualified. It is qualified by the language in the withdrawal agreement, which says it is there unless and until it is replaced by something else that can do the same job. We all want to replace it. I have said many times I do not believe anybody on the island should feel threatened by the backstop. This is a worst-case, fall-back position. Even in that case, Northern Ireland is effectively being offered free, uninhibited, seamless trade access to the EU Single Market and customs union and to the rest of the United Kingdom's single market too. It is a British red line that has resulted in the element of the backstop that is now referred to as the single customs territory because Theresa May made it very clear she would not accept any deal that put Northern Ireland into a different customs union from the rest of the United Kingdom. The response to the EU from some in Westminster, that the EU was looking to trap the UK into its customs union with the backstop misunderstands where it has come from. It was a British request. The initial proposal from the EU side was we would have a Northern Ireland-specific backstop that would not involve the rest of the United Kingdom . It was a British request to make the backstop UK-wide on customs to which the EU initially said "No" and then facilitated after a lot of very difficult negotiation. It is now a point of criticism by some in Westminster, which is an irony that needs to be exposed.
I commend the British Prime Minister on following through on the political commitments that were made last December and on understanding the fragility and complexity of politics on the island and the need for an insurance mechanism that can address and allay the fears many people have of seeing physical border infrastructure re-emerging on our island. She has addressed it with the backstop. She now needs to get some accommodation from us in the context of the reassurance and clarification for which she is asking. She is not asking to change the withdrawal agreement. She is asking for reassurance and clarification from the EU side that everything possible will be done to avoid the backstop ever being used and, therefore, a focus on both sides to get a future relationship that is comprehensive enough to deal with the issue. She also wants reassurances that if the backstop is ever triggered, in other words if there is a time at the end of a transition period but before a future relationship has been signed off on when there is a need to use a backstop we will all work to ensure it is only on a temporary basis and that it gets replaced with something that can do the same job but is more permanent.
There are other issues related to Brexit, which I can go into. The final thing I will mention on Brexit is contingency. We will continue to negotiate politically to try to get acceptance and agreement to ratify the withdrawal agreement, which we believe is the most sensible way to manage Brexit now. We also believe the agreement on the political declaration on the future relationship is balanced.
We do not know if the Parliament in Westminster will ratify the deal. We hope it will but as we do not know whether it will, we have to plan for all eventualities as to how, as a country, we respond to a no-deal Brexit. We have spent many months planning for Brexit. Our public commentary on contingency planning has been primarily around what we describe as the central case scenario, which we still regard as the most likely outcome, whereby there is a deal, a withdrawal agreement and a two-year transition period at the end of which we would have to be prepared for the new realities of a new trading environment. It may involve a free trade agreement between the EU and the UK that in all likelihood would require some customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks by inspectors from the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Health and so on. In the event of a no-deal Brexit that kicks in after 29 March, a lot of these preparations will need to be fast-tracked and work in that regard is under way. We made a Government decision on Tuesday that essentially is an instruction to senior civil servants, essentially the Secretaries General, to build on the plans already in place to ensure we can be ready by 29 March. There also is an increase in the intensification of preparations at EU level, collectively, for contingency plans too. In many areas, EU competence will determine how contingency works, be that in aviation, fishing, data protection, security, recognition of certification and standards, citizens' rights and movement and so on. As I said earlier in the Dáil, the Commission has been holding sectoral seminars with the 27 member states to discuss contingency planning in all these areas and on how the European institutions would likely respond and how they would expect countries to respond in a way that is consistent with that. The last of those sectoral seminars will take place on 10 January.
Next week, we will publish an update paper on contingency. We have a Brexit stakeholders group which meets every five to six weeks. It is comprised of a broad cross-section of people, including political parties, who are following Brexit closely. We will bring that update contingency paper to that group and we will publish afterwards so that people will have a clearer picture in terms of the areas where Ireland will be planning domestically, in partnership with other EU countries and with the EU institutions to put in place contingency plans. To be clear, contingency planning is not about maintaining the status quo after the UK leaves the European Union. Contingency planning will involve a lot of negativity in the context of a no-deal Brexit and a much more difficult trading environment in which we will be obliged to mitigate against the worst impacts. A no-deal Brexit will be difficult for everybody. It will be particularly difficult for the UK but it will be difficult for us too and we should not pretend otherwise. This is why getting this deal across the line in January, to which 28 countries including the UK have signed up, is so important.