I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for making time available to discuss this proposal. The purpose of the motion is to seek Oireachtas approval to exercise Ireland's option under Protocol No. 21, annexed to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, that is, the Lisbon treaty, in respect of a proposed amendment to EU Regulation No. 516/2014. As committee members will be aware, Ireland and the United Kingdom negotiated a protocol, known as Protocol No. 21, which provided that they would not take part in measures in the area of asylum and integration and other policies related to free movement, unless either member state chose to opt in to an individual measure. The effect of the protocol is that Ireland is not automatically bound by EU measures in these areas, unless it notifies the Council that it wishes to participate or opt in. Ireland may opt in by notifying the President of the Council in writing within three months of the publication of a proposal in order to vote on and participate in the measure.
Following recent conversations with the European Parliament and the European Council, the European Commission proposed an amendment to the regulation regarding the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, AMIF. In this case Ireland would have expected the notification period to expire on 15 January 2019. However, it was notified that, in order to allow for the adoption of the amendment before the end of the year, the Council secretariat wished to move the vote in the European Parliament to 10 December. The effect is that if Ireland wishes to opt in to the proposal, the President of the Council of the European Union must be notified of our intention to do so before 10 December. That allows just two months in which to complete the opt-in process which involves a heavy administrative process.
The proposal relates to the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and is essentially procedural in nature. It will allow unclaimed funds, that is, the asylum, migration and integration funds, which would otherwise be lost by the end of the year to be available for future spending. It will do this by allowing an extension of the period in which the funds may be used and member states to make revisions to their national programmes to use their funds for other actions as defined by the regulation. Ireland has €4.14 million in unclaimed AMIF funds allocated in its national programme for the relocation of asylum seekers which will be lost by the end of 2018, unless the regulation is amended. By opting in to the proposed amendment, if the European Parliament votes it in, Ireland is guaranteed that the money can be allocated by way of a revision to our national programme for the AMIF. It will also have two more years to use the remaining funds.
To outline the background to the proposal, by way of a summary of the funds and the Council's decision in question, the European Commission wanted to establish a policy on asylum and immigration based on solidarity between member states which would be fair towards third countries and their nationals. EU Regulation No. 516/2014 established the fund to provide financial resources to support policy developments in the area of asylum and migration. The fund allows member states to carry out actions in the areas of asylum, immigration, the management of migration flows, the fair treatment of third country nationals residing in member states and combating illegal immigration and the trafficking of human beings.
Ireland opted into the regulation and the EU approved its national programme in this area in 2016. The programme identified the specific objectives for which Ireland would use AMIF funding. Ireland's current AMIF allocation is €52.6 million for the period from 2014 to 2020, which represents the lifetime of the programme. In 2015, in response to the migration crisis in Europe, two Council decisions, namely, EU 2015/1523 and EU 2015/1601 were made, which committed an additional €843 million to member states under AMIF to be used by the end of 2018. This additional funding was aimed at enabling the relocation of applicants for international protection from Greece and Italy and the legal admission of persons in need of international protection from Turkey. These additional AMIF funds facilitated the effective relocation across the EU of 34,705 applicants in need of international protection from Greece and Italy and the legal admission of 5,345 people in need of international protection from Turkey.
The timeframe and the applicability of these decisions are now coming to an end. Of the €843 million originally committed throughout the European Union to deal with the crisis, approximately €567 million remains unspent. Unless the proposed amendment to the regulation is passed before the end of this year, the €567 million will be lost from the fund. Under the two Council decisions of 2015, Ireland committed to accepting 2,622 persons into the State, comprising 1,089 from Greece, 623 from Italy and 910 unallocated. To date, 1,022 persons have safely been relocated to Ireland from Greece. In addition, Ireland has also been operating a programme for resettlement, under which 925 persons have been resettled. Many member states, including Ireland, were unable to keep their commitments to relocate asylum seekers from Italy as no agreement could be reached on security assessments to be undertaken by Ireland on Italian soil. As a result, €4.14 million of Ireland's committed funding remains unused.
The proposed amendment to the regulation has a number of provisions. As I explained, the first objective of the proposal is to enable the use of the remaining unspent amounts committed under AMIF to support EU priorities in the area of migration and asylum, including relocation. Failing to opt in will mean that Ireland will lose out on €4.14 million of our AMIF funding. By amending Article 18 of the regulation, the proposal recommits the amounts in question for relocation. It will also give Ireland the option to transfer these funds to other areas defined in the asylum, migration and integration regulation that are based on Ireland's specific needs in these areas. Therefore, Ireland will have a say in how the funds can be used and will have the option to have them channelled to specific objectives as required. The proposal also inserts a provision into Article 18 to revise the decommitment rule set out in Article 50 of Regulation EU 514/2014, which lays down the general provisions, in order that the remaining amounts can be used for an additional period of two years. As a result, by opting in Ireland will have two more years in which to spend the funds. The proposal also extends the deadline for an automatic decommitment of amounts by a period of six months. This will give the Commission time to complete the necessary procedures and allow member states to identify revisions to their national programmes and include new areas where the funds could be allocated.
This is money that has already been budgeted by the European Union. No additional funding from the budget is necessary for the implementation of the proposed amendments to Regulation 516/2014. Therefore, there will be no additional cost to the Exchequer and the decision to opt in will not have implications for Ireland's contribution to the EU budget.
Concerns were raised with regard to setting a precedent. Italy and Finland have raised concerns about the proposal and have indicated they will not support the negotiating mandate to the Presidency. Their concern relates to their view that a number of member states did not abide, or only partially abided, by their obligations to relocate persons in need of protection to their territories. Italy has also expressed the view that the proposal broadens the scope of the initial provisions by encompassing actions that cannot be considered an expression of solidarity, in contrast with the objects as pursued in 2015.
Concerns have also been expressed by member states with regard to the precedent the proposed amendment may set regarding recommitment of funds due to be decommitted, in other words, handed back. The Minister for Finance has also raised this issue. The matter is addressed by a proposal in the amendment stating this only applies on a once-off basis to the AMIF fund.
The proposal is to be welcomed as it ensures money committed to Ireland will not be lost and that additional funds may be claimed for the Exchequer for the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund that would otherwise not be possible. The proposal does not present fundamental policy difficulties for Ireland. I am of the view that Ireland should exercise its opt-in in respect of the proposed regulation. There are clear benefits to opting in and I see no detrimental effects to doing so. We must also bear in mind the declaration by the European Commission that the proposal will not set a precedent for future AMIF funds. I hope the committee will support the exercise of Ireland's opt-in in respect of the proposed regulation. I look forward to any comments members may have and I will do the best I can to answer any questions people might want to put in respect of this particular proposal.