I welcome the many ambassadors attending the meeting. It is good to have such interest in our committee discussions and deliberations. I am conscious that on the previous occasion I came before the committee we were very tight on time and I am glad to be back; I hope to be able to address any questions members might have. I thank the committee for the invitation to come before it this afternoon. I am keen to update members on developments at the EU Foreign Affairs Council, which most recently met on 15 July, and to discuss other foreign policy issues. There was also a meeting in New York of the EU Ministers who were there, which was the vast majority of them.
The Department has provided an information note to the committee on the range of issues the Foreign Affairs Council has considered in the nine months since we last met. In order to maximise the time available for discussion, I will address the major themes of the Council’s discussions in my opening remarks and we can have a broader discussion afterwards on whatever committee members would like.
As committee members know, the Foreign Affairs Council frequently discusses Middle East issues. As part of our commitment to work more closely with the region, a meeting of EU Ministers with responsibility for foreign affairs and the League of Arab States took place in February. It prepared the first ever EU-League of Arab States summit later that month. I made strong statements on Syria and Yemen, stressing that any refugee returns to Syria should be voluntary.
In February, Ministers discussed the worsening humanitarian and security situation in Syria. We were clear that any refugee returns must be voluntary, and should only take place when conditions are right and safe. We expressed support for the UN special envoy, Mr. Geir Pedersen, and also discussed preparations for the Syria conference in March, where Ireland pledged €25 million, bringing the total amount of our humanitarian assistance to Syria since 2012 to more than €143 million. I am encouraged that in recent days there has been agreement to establish a constitutional committee for Syria. I hope this is a first step towards an inclusive political settlement, for which so many people yearn.
Also in February, we adopted Council conclusions on Yemen, reiterating our support for the implementation of the Stockholm agreement and urging agreement with the UN-led process. In March, we discussed ways to support the UN special envoy and to maintain the EU's commitment in delivering humanitarian aid. Progress since then on the implementation of the Stockholm agreement has been disappointing. I hope that recent indications that the Houthis may consider a ceasefire can be built on. We will continue to support UN efforts to reach a political solution. There has been more than enough tragedy in Yemen to date.
I know the situation in Libya is of concern to many committee members, particularly Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan who has raised it with me a number of times in the Dáil. At the May Foreign Affairs Council, we discussed recent developments in Libya, including the fighting around Tripoli, with the UN Special Representative for Libya, Mr. Ghassan Salamé. I am very clear that there is no military solution to this crisis. We urged all parties to re-commit to the UN-facilitated political dialogue, and called for an immediate ceasefire and the protection of civilians, including migrants and refugees.
At the March Foreign Affairs Council, I called for a continuation of the full mandate of Operation Sophia to allow time for the outstanding issues around disembarkation to be addressed without disruption to the critical humanitarian work of the mission in which the Naval Service has been very involved. Unfortunately, it was not possible to get full agreement on this issue, in which I have personally invested a great deal of time and effort, but we did ensure the operation will continue and that its mandate will remain under review so as to be able to respond to any changing circumstances. Ireland will continue to work towards a resolution of outstanding issues to allow for a resumption of deployment of naval assets in the Mediterranean.
We must act together to find European-wide solutions to address the issues of migration. Member states must play their part in burden-sharing and helping to relieve pressure on front-line member states. We need to find a consensus based on solidarity, responsibility and international law. Addressing the migration crisis requires deeper political, economic and development relationships between the EU and our partners, particularly in Africa.
The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, attended the June Foreign Affairs Council, where Ministers had a working lunch with the Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ayman Safadi. The discussion focused on regional issues, including Iran's negative influence in the region, the Middle East peace process and hosting Syrian refugees.
At the July Foreign Affairs Council, we discussed Iran again. I am deeply concerned about Iran's steps away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, nuclear agreement and the recent escalation of tensions in the region following an attack on Saudi Arabia on 14 September. The EU remains committed to maintaining the JCPOA and we urge Iran to return to full compliance without delay. Last week, I raised this directly with Iran at a meeting with its President and Minister with responsibility for foreign affairs in New York. The EU has worked very hard politically to try to protect the JCPOA. The US Administration takes a very different view on the agreement. It makes it much more difficult for the EU to maintain that political position if Iran deliberately moves away from the conditions and obligations under that agreement.
It is important to say that because we are trying to protect and maintain an agreement. From a compliance perspective, if Iran moves away from what it has committed to, the EU position will become more difficult. It is important to be direct and honest about that.
In July, we also discussed the situation in Iraq. We adopted Council conclusions on the EU’s Iraq strategy and stressed our support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and for economic, political and security sector reform.
In April, Council conclusions were adopted on Afghanistan. Ireland supports an Afghan led and owned peace process, with a constructive role played by international actors and the meaningful participation of women in particular. Along with our EU partners, we are also working to ensure that the humanitarian situation in the country is not neglected. We encourage all parties to the conflict to come together and negotiate for a sustainable peace.
In January 2019, the first EU-African Union ministerial level meeting took place. Ministers focused on implementing the memorandum of understanding on peace, security and governance and on President Juncker’s initiative, the alliance for sustainable investments and jobs, which seeks to boost private sector engagement, increase trade and enhance job creation. The Council conclusions adopted underlined the importance of the EU’s strategic partnership with Africa. This is something in which I am really interested. It may be an interesting issue for the committee to explore in the context of both the next money market fund policy and EU neighbourhood policy.
The political and institutional structures between the EU and the African Union are hopelessly inadequate. The African continent will have an additional 1 billion people on it within the next 25 years. Many of the partner countries with which we work in respect of development face what are, quite frankly, impossible challenges. To simply stand still in respect of unemployment statistics, Ethiopia will need to create 2 million jobs each year. Across the border in Kenya, 1 million jobs will need to be created each year. It will simply not be possible to do this in a sustainable or manageable manner if we are not working in partnership and helping the continent of Africa, which is very close to us geographically, to cope with the enormous changes it is facing. It is a massive challenge from the perspectives of climate change, food and water security, conflict and governance, and migration. These are all issues in which the EU needs to be central in finding solutions. Otherwise, we will be central to the challenges and problems that flow from the failure to find a solution. That point is not lost on President Juncker, who has highlighted this issue as a priority for the EU in the years ahead. Ireland can certainly contribute a great deal to that debate.
At the February meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, on the Horn of Africa, I emphasised that we must act in a co-ordinated manner to strengthen democratic governance and inclusive economic growth in that region. I welcomed the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and EU support to both sides to institutionalise and consolidate that new relationship.
At the June meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, Ireland strongly supported the EU’s statement on Sudan and the robust leadership shown by the African Union and Ethiopia in their joint efforts to resolve the crisis there. I am very encouraged by the civilian-led transition agreed in September, which we hope will pave the way for peace, security and economic growth in Sudan.
The Sahel was discussed at the May meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council. This meeting included discussions with the G5 Sahel countries. The EU has prioritised security, humanitarian and development issues across the region. France has been a real leader in these efforts. We need to focus on tackling the root causes of conflict, migration and poverty, while maintaining focus on governance and human rights. A more holistic response to issues affecting the region is required. The High Representative co-chaired the fifth EU-G5 Sahel ministerial meeting in July.
This year marked the tenth anniversary of the eastern partnership. At the April meeting of the Council, we discussed implementation of its reform programme, 20 Deliverables for 2020, and the future of the partnership post-2020. At the ministerial meeting in May, my EU colleagues and I sent a strong signal of our continuing commitment to the eastern partnership and to the principles of inclusivity and differentiation.
At the March meeting, discussions on Moldova focused on the February parliamentary elections there. The High Representative described the elections as competitive, with fundamental rights respected, but with some shortcomings. While coalition talks were unsuccessful for several months, a coalition government was formed on 8 June between the pro-EU ACUM party bloc and the pro-Russia Party of Socialists of President Igor Dodon. The EU is ready to work with the Government of the Republic of Moldova on the basis of a mutual commitment to reforms and the principles enshrined in our association agreement.
At the February meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, we expressed our continued solidarity with Ukraine on the fifth anniversary of the Maidan. In addition to providing humanitarian assistance and supporting conflict resolution efforts, we will continue to support Ukraine’s reform agenda and to increase EU support for the Azov Sea region which, as members will know, has been a source of great tension in recent months.
In January, Ministers discussed the EU’s relationship with the ten member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN. Following the Council meeting, I attended the 22nd EU-ASEAN ministerial meeting where we discussed ways to enhance co-operation, particularly on fair trade, human rights, sustainable development and climate change.
At the April meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, we discussed EU-China relations. We agreed on the need to balance an open and constructive relationship with remaining firm in pursuit of EU values and interests. The EU-China summit which took place following the meeting of the Council demonstrated the success of this approach. We must engage China in supporting the existing rules-based international order and multilateral institutions, while remaining clear on the need for universal standards and agreed rules and practices to be respected. Consensus among EU partners is essential in delivering this approach. As ever, the EU is much stronger when it speaks with one voice.
The current crisis in Venezuela has been discussed at successive meetings of the Council this year and we received regular updates on the progress of the international contact group, ICG. At the May meeting, I voiced support for the ICG, stressed the need for continued engagement, and welcomed progress made on the humanitarian track of the ICG. In July, we reiterated our support for the Oslo talks process between the Maduro Administration and the opposition. While these talks, which are being held in Barbados but run by Norway, are now stalled, Ireland will continue to encourage both sides to engage in good faith in an inclusive, serious and results orientated way. We also support EU efforts to achieve a peaceful electoral path as a way out of the current crisis. Obviously, there are no military solutions to that particular conflict.
The Council continues to monitor the implementation of the EU’s global strategy, which commits us to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In June, High Representative Mogherini presented a report assessing three years of the global strategy, which outlines achievements across all five strands: security and defence; resilience; the integrated approach to conflicts and crises; regional co-operative orders; and global governance. Addressing the challenges outlined in the strategy requires united, consistent and effective action by the EU. At the Council meeting in June, Ministers held a further discussion about ways to improve the effectiveness of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. We exchanged views on how to enhance our unity, cohesion and co-ordination.
The Foreign Affairs Council also addressed implementation of the EU joint action plan on disinformation, adopted last December, which aims to improve the detection and analysis of disinformation, strengthen co-operation, raise awareness and increase resilience. The EU has established a rapid alert system for national points of contact which facilitates information-sharing.
A mapping exercise has also been conducted to assess the institutional capacity of member states. A network of fact-checkers and media monitors is being developed. We are trying to tighten our systems because, whether it is hybrid warfare or deliberate disinformation for other political reasons, every open economy and society is vulnerable. The EU is taking a much more collective approach where that information is shared in a much more co-ordinated and structured way.
An important cross-cutting aspect of the work of the Council is the centrality of the multilateral system in addressing global challenges. Ireland is a candidate for the UN Security Council for 2021-22. I spent much of last week at the UN General Assembly promoting Ireland’s candidature and highlighting our global contributions to peace and security, human rights and development. That statement is addressed to the ambassadors in the Gallery whose support I hope we will have.
There is a range of other issues to which I have not referred. Obviously, if members wish to ask me anything on the big issue of the day, Brexit, I will certainly not duck the issue. This is such a broad brief that we could speak about any country in the world at this meeting. Whatever direction the committee wants to take in questioning, I will try to be as open and responsive as I can be.