I welcome the Minister of State.
Europe Day 2018: Statements
I thank the House for making time available for statements on the future of Europe. Yesterday we celebrated Europe Day. On 9 May 1950 Robert Schuman, the then French Foreign Minister, issued a declaration in which it was proposed to place French and German production of coal and steel under one common high authority. The post-war policy had been to boost French production of coal and steel at the expense of Germany which had lost control of the mines in Saarland and the Ruhr valley. Putting control of the materials of war in new, safe hands was a radical move. Robert Schuman knew that it would make it much more difficult for either side to return to war. The then German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, recognised immediately that it was a magnanimous offer, as did the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy. The following year the European Coal and Steel Community was created when the Treaty of Paris was signed. While the immediate, ostensible focus of the declaration was on coal and steel production, the real underlying intention was to create common interests that would hasten European integration. Robert Schuman was a French politician who was born in Luxembourg in 1886. His father had fled there from France when part of his native Lorraine was occupied by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War.
We do not have time today to go through every twist and turn of Robert Schuman’s colourful life, but he had every reason to put all of his energy into stopping another war. As an MP between the First and Second World Wars, he worked on the harmonisation of laws in Alsace and Lorraine with French law after that region had become French again. During the Second World War he was arrested for acts of resistance but was spared from being sent to Dachau. He was an advocate of Franco-German reconciliation long before it became fashionable. We can guess that his European spirit had been formed much earlier in his life. He was educated in Luxembourg, Metz, Berlin, Munich, Bonn and Strasbourg. We could say he was the original Erasmus student. Part of his genius was that he understood he could not secure his European vision overnight. In what must be the most oft-quoted lines in the declaration he said:
Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.
Ireland was not a signatory to the Treaty of Paris, nor was it one of the original six that signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, but we are still part of Robert Schuman’s legacy. He was clear that his declaration "may be the leaven from which may grow a wider and deeper community." The wider and deeper community that has emerged is the European Union, of which Ireland is an active member. Membership has given us barrier-free access to the world’s biggest markets. Support for the agriculture sector has kept rural communities alive and given European consumers the assurance of safe, high quality food at affordable prices.
Membership has paved the way for social progress. It has amplified the voice of small countries such as Ireland on the global stage. In short, membership has transformed our country. Membership gives us a say on the issues small countries such as ours cannot tackle alone, for example, Europe is the world's biggest importer of fuel. Collectively, we spend €350 billion every year on fuel imports. The challenge now is to invest heavily in the new technologies that will make us more self sufficient in fuel terms, allow us to cut our energy costs, reduce our carbon footprint and make us more adept at tackling climate change.
Although we have made great strides in gender equality, our EU economies would gain €13 billion per annum if we could eliminate the gender gap completely. Equally, we could add €415 billion to the EU's gross domestic product, GDP, if we could complete the digital single market, and we have no choice but to do so, if we want to take advantage of the second digital revolution. Completing the digital single market and the single market in services would reap huge dividends for Ireland too since more than half our exports are in services and more than half of our labour force works in the services sector. We have a clear and vested interest in bringing to bear our influence on the future of Europe debate.
While we celebrate Schuman's 1950 vision for Europe every year on 9 May it is arguably more significant this year as we face into an uncertain future with only 27 members following the decision of the UK to leave the European Union. Of course these conversations need to be held on the future direction of the EU and how we want it to work for us but they happen in the context of the difficult issues we have faced over recent years, the financial crisis, the migration crisis, the recent terror attacks on EU soil that have tested member states, the growth of Euroscepticism in some member states and furthermore, in the aftermath of Brexit. The upcoming budget cycle as well as political developments in other parts of the EU have underlined the need for these discussions to take place.
Yesterday, we marked Europe Day by hosting a national citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe. It was the culmination of a process launched in November that took us around the country listening to the needs and concerns of our own citizens across the regions and within voluntary and community organisations. At each session we asked participants for their views on our prosperity and competitiveness, our future sustainability, what a socially responsible union should look like, how to tackle globalisation and how to work with our European partners to deliver a safe and secure Union. Our work was complemented by the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs which has held its own hearings on the future of Europe. I was glad that the Chairman of the committee, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, and many other committee members, including Senator Richmond, participated. The debate was a stimulating one and now that we are beginning to pull together the feedback from each session, I have no doubt that Ireland's contribution to the broader European debate will be all the better because of it.
Senators will have seen the results of the EMI-Red C poll published earlier this week showing that support here for membership of the EU is higher than ever at 92%. Among 18 to 24 year olds support for membership is at 97% which is an unbelievable high figure. What struck me most about the poll was the staggering response to the question about public engagement: 92% of respondents said it was important that Irish people have an input into the future of Europe debate. This chimes with, and reflects, the response I got at our regional sessions of our citizens' dialogues. Everywhere I went the feedback was the same. Everyone appreciated that we had come to listen to what they had to say and they felt this process should not just happen once in a blue moon or after a crisis but should be continuous.
The European Union's Committee of the Regions has just published its report on the future of Europe, following a yearlong listening exercise across 81 regions and 114 cities. It found that people are enthusiastic about the EU, but feel disconnected. It wants high levels of transparency and, as we heard ourselves, it wants Europe to be more active in education, the environment, security and tourism. Those areas were mentioned in citizens' dialogues, particularly education and investment in research and innovation if we are to prepare for the changing world ahead of us. The Committee of the Regions says the most significant issue mentioned was a demand for more solidarity. This was echoed at our sessions where the message was one of fairness in the workplace, between communities and inter-generational fairness. People want to be sure that the younger generations are given the opportunities to progress in developing their careers, families and other areas but also that older people are given the opportunity to retire with peace and dignity.
Another message in the report of the Committee of the Regions that we need to attend to was that people trust their local and regional politicians most, in some instances more than they trust national or EU politicians. This puts a tremendous responsibility on us to engage with our citizens on European issues. People will respond when policies, even complex policies, are explained to them or there is engagement on them. If we have learned one thing from the Brexit debacle, it is that we must connect better with our own citizens and bring them and the European Union closer to one another.
As Robert Schuman said, we build this solidarity through concrete achievements. This work is never complete but far from futile. On the contrary, it makes debates like the one we are having here today indispensable and I thank the Cathaoirleach for making time available today for these statements. I look forward to hearing the Members' contributions.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and reflecting on the future of the European Union. Fianna Fáil has long been an advocate of the European Union since its leadership in the accession process of 1973. Membership of the European Union has led to a social and economic transformation of this country that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago. It would not be possible for Ireland to negotiate on its own but because of the wisdom and guidance of T.K. Whitaker and the Department of Finance in 1958 in the paper on economic development and the programme that Whitaker put in place coupled with has the ability to trade with Europe and beyond under trade agreements that Europe has put in place on our behalf.
Like any institution the EU has its faults. The White Paper produced in March 2017 by the European Commission sets out the possible paths for the European Union. There are five options including: to carry on as we are; to have nothing but the Single Market; that those who want more do more, a kind of multi-track process, elements of which have been put in place by some doing less more effectively and efficiently; and doing much more together, all of which have their own challenges considering that the daily management of the EU is its own huge challenge. Brexit is a particular challenge. It is of little concern the further one goes from Ireland. One of my Fianna Fáil colleagues met a Cypriot MP who believed that Ireland was leaving as well as Britain which shows how little understanding there is on the periphery of Europe, especially in eastern Europe.
I know the Minister of State is daily involved in getting across the message of the effects of Brexit and the importance of supports from the European Union by relaxing state aid rules. The Minister of State outlined the public support for Europe in the recent opinion poll. I have been here for ten years and still find it unbelievable that we do not know how many EU directives we have to put into place. They are all done at the last minute as we saw recently with the debate on the Data Protection Bill 2018 which went on until midnight, with a deadline. I was involved in the organ donation legislation, following an EU directive, which was the first ever Act on organ donation passed by the Oireachtas. That was done by the Minister for Health in the past month without a debate at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health or in either House.
Some 95% of laws that are enacted in Ireland every year are either statutory instruments or EU directives transposed by Ministers and Departments without ever being debated in this House. Only 5% of the legislation, which is 50 Bills each year, are debated in this House. There are more than 500 EU regulations and directives each year. Many directives are very good, but the Spanish said that the EU directive on organ donation was the worst transposition of an EU directive they had seen anywhere in Europe. There is a lack of systems in place.
Another issue is that when countries have concerns about EU proposals, there is an imbalance between the larger countries and the smaller countries, such as Ireland. We have to gather more support than Germany or France, for example, to stop or delay a particular proposal. Given that there is a European country at any given time coming into an election or coming out of an election and forming a government, if one added it all up one would nearly have to get all the countries that are in the middle of their democratic cycle to come on board in order to get an EU directive stopped. It is a perfect bureaucratic system of keeping the system moving forward and democracy cannot get enough countries behind a particular proposal to stop it if it is of concern to them because the country has only eight weeks to do so. It is a system that needs to be looked at. It must be a Europe of equals not a case of the big countries being able to stop the process quite easily and the smaller countries having to come together to try to stop something. We have only managed to put one concern forward in respect of corporation tax in the entire five years that the system has been in place. That will tell people how little engagement we have in stopping things that would become a problem for us down the line. That is a systems failure in the Oireachtas.
Senator Richmond was in Westminster and spoke to Members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons about Brexit and the effect it will have on Ireland. What does victory look like for a Brexiteer? I asked a Member of the House of Lords how anyone in Britain will be better off as a result of Brexit. All the economic data is that the majority of the people in Britain will be worse off. His response was that some people would feel better. That is the upside of Brexit for Britain. While they might feel better, they certain will be worse off. The concerns that people have about Europe is that when Brexit happened, instead of Europe taking a moment and saying that we need to reflect on the concerns of people in Britain, and there are concerns which are shared across Europe about too much bureaucracy, the decision makers are largely unelected and that national governments are not able to keep up with all the legislation that is coming through, which must be scrutinised and transposed properly. As a result there is disaffection, which is exploited by those who are against the idea of a closer co-operation.
If one asked people in Ireland whether they favour a federal Europe, and I know my colleague, Senator Richmond, would be against this statement, but on this side of the House we believe in a Europe of equals and a federal Europe means less power for the citizens because it will be centralised. Worryingly what we saw in the European defence proposals is that billions of euro will be spent by the armaments industry lobbying for a defence policy, and this was passed before Christmas. This is a concern and must be of concern. They did not do that because they wanted a safer Europe, they did that because they wanted to sell more guns and equipment to European countries and to put budgetary requirements on European countries to spend money on military hardware. I do not think that is a Europe that the Irish citizens want to see.
As we know it is far better project than any alternative that has not worked in Europe for millennia where nations kept fighting with each other. It is like the northern peace process, but Europe is the largest peace process and the most successful one we have seen. I hope it will continue for the benefit of all its member states and all its citizens.
Senator Neale Richmond has eight minutes.
I warmly welcome the Minister of State to the House and most importantly wish her a happy Europe Day, albeit belatedly. I commend her on the work she has done since becoming Minister of State in this vitally important role, a role that is becoming more important due to the mess that is Brexit. It has always been important and perhaps it has been undervalued by many in the political and chattering class. There is an amount of unseen work both in terms of sheer preparation, travel, engagements, acknowledging every single directive coming through, attending the 17 General Affairs Council meetings as a start in addition to everything else. The Minister of State has taken to her role with gusto, to give credit where it is due.
I will speak about Europe Day in the round. It is very important that we remember why we have what is now the European Union. Essentially for 61 years the European Union has been the greatest peace project in the history of mankind.
We can talk above EU directives and straight bananas and blue passports and all this other stuff, and pick at it. To come back to the simple fact, that a European member state has not waged war against another member state since the start of this project. That is remarkable. Anyone who was alive 61 years ago or anyone who has a knowledge of that history would probably not believe it, however, my fear is that my generation, our generation simply do not see that as a risk.
When we talk about violence and talk about peace, it is very important to note that the greatest threat to peace on this island now, unequivocally is Brexit. It is the possibility of a hard border frustrating and driving a wedge down communities across this island; the infrastructure of a hard border giving licence to dissident paramilitaries to return to a career of sheer bloody violence and madness that no one wants to see. When we hear the rhetoric from our good friends across the water that this is playing politics or this is strategy or tactics, it absolutely disgusts and appals me.
We are part of this wonderful peace project that has grown into something so much more over the 61 years and we are very lucky to be part of it because if the UK had not originally sought to join the European Community, we would not even have been considered. We were the island behind an island that had to rely on a British application and the veto for the original British application being removed when President Pompidou replaced President de Gaulle and we were able to get a foot in the club. Since we have joined the club we have thrived. We helped to lead the club and we have helped to direct it. Being a small island nation on the periphery of Europe, we have thrown ourselves at the heart of Europe, regardless of what party was in government.
We do have a great ability to always think of the European project and the European Union and focus on the small bit - the negative, the frustration, the bureaucracy the conspiracy theories, the fear of the large member states and what they are trying to do to little old Ireland and say that Europe is foisting something on us, without acknowledging that we are Europe. It is Irish people working in the Berlaymont, Ms Catherine Day from Dublin who was the Secretary General in the Commission, it is Irish Ministers, such as the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, and the Taoiseach going into Council meetings and driving the agenda and providing for all the 510 million citizens across the European Union. It is extremely powerful. Instead of knocking it, it is about time we acknowledged the benefits.
Our dear friends in Great Britain realised one cannot spend 45 years criticising a project and then in six weeks convince people they better stay in it. If we relentlessly focus on the small negatives and forget about the obvious benefits, the right to travel, the right to work in another European country, the right to receive healthcare, Erasmus+, Horizon 2020, the euro in all its forms, the fact that if we want to go to Spain, we do not need to spend two hours in a line up getting a visa and then transfer all our money into pesetas and then struggle along our way with no rights or responsibilities or anything. It is so much better now than it was when Irish people used to go there in the 1970s. We need to reflect on the benefits. We need to be aware of them.
The Minister of State mention the European Movement Ireland Red C poll from yesterday which found that 97% of young people want to remain in the European Union. That is the generation that does not remember what life was before the euro, what life was when there were borders or when we did not have safe food or clean air to the standards we have today. We can use that generation and remind them every day that we are lucky to be in this club but also to say to them that we have to take responsibility. Every time we seek to criticise Brussels for domestic legislation or something else, we first must acknowledge the benefits.
For too long politicians across the divide, including some in my party, have knocked Brussels when it suits them but claimed all its benefits too. I welcome other political parties' recent conversion to Europeanisation. I hope it continues in the spirit of the social and economic benefits which will provide for all the remaining 27 member states. Hopefully, the EU will grow further, be it into the western Balkans or, most importantly, after March 2019, we will see the campaign for the United Kingdom to re-join the European Union. Ireland will be at the front of European Union member states welcoming the UK back in due course.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to the House. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on statements to mark Europe Day.
The latest research from the European Movement Ireland confirms that Irish people are positively disposed to the European Union and are enthusiastic Europeans. Up to 92% of those polled agree that Ireland should remain a part of the EU and that it is important that Irish people input into the debate on the future development of the EU. Up to 87% agree that, taking everything into consideration, Ireland has on balance benefitted from being an EU member. While we overwhelmingly wish to remain in the EU and acknowledge Ireland has, on balance, benefitted from being a member of the EU, that does not mean the EU does not need to put its house in order in certain critical areas.
I take issue with the EU's 2015 agenda for migration, a blueprint for managing migration. According to Oxfam Ireland's excellent report, Beyond Fortress Europe, three years on, it is clear the EU's migration policies have sacrificed people's safety and well-being in order to stop irregular migration at all costs. A more principled, humane and balanced approach is needed that will promote the benefits associated with migration for European host countries. I was an immigrant myself in Britain and never considered myself a burden. Instead, I considered myself a net contributor. Why can we not see that those who seek to live among us would not bring the same positive contribution? The current European approach is pushing people to take longer and more dangerous routes. We have all seen the horror of flimsy boats sinking and people's lives lost. We know too of the increasing risks that people on the move face as they flee from armed conflict, with women and children at particular risk of violence and trafficking.
The EU must also act in places of particular pressure or hotspots. There is severe overcrowding on Greek islands with over 15,700 asylum seekers trapped on these islands for indefinite and prolonged periods in conditions well below minimum EU standards. There are also concerns arising out of the implementation by the local authorities in Lesbos of the new medical template to assess the vulnerability of asylum seekers developed by the European Commission and EU agencies. When we are speaking about a vulnerable person, we are speaking about victims of torture, sexual and gender-based violence survivors and people with a disability that is not immediately visible like autism or dementia. Legal and humanitarian actors present in Lesbos have witnessed how this medical template is currently used in a way that drastically minimises the available safeguards for vulnerable asylum seekers under Greek and EU laws.
As well as ensuring that people seeking asylum in the EU are provided with adequate shelter and services, the EU has to help Greece, one of its member states, by ensuring an equal and fair distribution of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the Greek and EU territories. Ireland must play its part in welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. I understand we are still falling well short of meeting our commitment to welcome 4,000 refugees. We must also use our influence in the EU to ensure that European law and national legislation meet, at a minimum, international and human rights standards, as well as protecting the rights of migrants and refugees. Will the Minister of State offer reassurances that Ireland is doing its bit in this regard and making that case?
As well as being an enthusiastic and active member of the EU and its institutions, Ireland is also a member of other useful Europe-wide bodies including the Council of Europe. This is wider than the EU with 47 members and has been a force for good. For example, in 2011 the Council of Europe opened for signature the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention. Member states which ratify it are legally bound by the convention which also includes independent monitoring. Ratification means better protections for women, children and others. So far 30 countries, although not Ireland, have ratified. The signing into law this week by the President of the Domestic Violence Act brings us a step closer to ratification.
Since January, I have been a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe, PACE. Indeed, our own Senator O'Reilly is its Vice President. PACE is the deliberative organ of the Council of Europe dealing with matters falling within the council's activities. In general, these activities can be viewed as discussions and actions in the field of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. In December, the Council of Europe published a periodic review of Ireland. It is a really useful report, a human rights to-do list, but one that got little attention in the Oireachtas, in the media or even among civil society organisations. At the last PACE session in April, there were important discussions on a wide range of issues, including one in which I spoke about the humanitarian needs and rights of internally displaced people in Europe, some 4 million people including 1.7 million people in Ukraine because of conflict and political upheaval and 270,000 in Cyprus, people displaced for almost 40 years from their homes and communities. Coming up next time in June are important issues including the election of judges to the European Count of Human Rights, protection of human rights defenders in Council of Europe member states, political transition in Egypt and child protection.
We need to do much more to promote knowledge and understanding of the workings of the Council of Europe, to be accountable and establish an ongoing feedback and two-way dialogue between the Irish PACE delegation and the Oireachtas, as well as with civil society organisations. Another important debate occurred at the last PACE meeting in April which centred around the conduct of PACE itself, where the ugly face of corruption had reared its head. Former Irish member, Michael McNamara, played his part in providing information on these concerns and allegations. No current or former Irish PACE members were involved. The allegations were independently and thoroughly investigated by imminent former judges from the UK, Sweden and France. There is a welcome and unequivocal statement from PACE to a zero tolerance of corruption. In the statement, PACE invited the national parliaments and their national delegations to the assembly, as well as national governments, to take the necessary measures in the cases mentioned in the report and to report back to the assembly by the end of 2018.
Fortunately, while no specific action is required by the Irish Government or delegation, it is important for the Minister of State to be aware of this important report in order we can continue to be proud and upstanding members of PACE, proud members of the Council Europe and the good work it does, proud members of the EU and proud Europeans celebrating Europe Day.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to the House.
Europe Day commemorates the Schuman declaration of 1950, a statement by the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, in which he proposed to place the French and German production of coal and steel under one common higher authority. This led to the first prototype of the European Community, known as the European Coal and Steel Community, established in 1952. The EU's choice of this date, rather than the official founding date of the European Coal and Steel Community is significant, as Schuman's speech was concerned with economic growth and cementing peace between France and Germany.
Nearly 70 years on from that speech, it cannot be denied that the lasting peace in western Europe has indeed been a more than significant achievement. The development of agreed standards with regard to human and civil rights in much of Europe must be recognised. This is the much vaunted social Europe that was much in evidence in the later decades of the last century but, alas, seldom seen these days.
There was also significant progress with regard to economic growth and prosperity. However, that growth came to a crashing halt in 2008. Today, the European Union is facing unprecedented challenges, many of which are as a direct result of the failures of long-standing EU policy and the thoroughly undemocratic nature of the EU bureaucracy itself. The past decade in particular has seen the EU tie itself to a neoliberal vision which has had devastating consequences both for the peoples of Europe and the wider political landscape. We have had a decade of harsh austerity measures, aimed at dismantling of public services and driving down wages and living standards. In many of our countries, welfare and social security have been hit by the full force of that austerity agenda, targeting the very poorest in our society.
At the same time large-scale and vital public investment across Europe has been all but abandoned as this neoliberal dogma has allowed many valuable public assets to be sold cheaply for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. We have seen an ideological war waged by the European Union and an unelected Commission, in particular, with an ever increasing determination to privatise and commodify public assets and public services. The rightwards trajectory in European politics has led to many of the so-called social democratic parties slide to the right, aligning themselves with the old Thatcherite mantra that there is no alternative, thus creating the space for the rise of the far right across eastern and much of western Europe.
Beyond Europe’s borders we have seen war and climate change drive the mass displacement of people. Forced migration and a refugee crisis on a scale not seen since the Second World War are tearing communities and families apart. That, in turn, is being exploited by some of the ugliest elements in politics - people who are determined to promote fear and division within societies. The rise of the far right is directly connected to the neoliberal agenda of the European Union. Our world is slipping back towards the threat of global conflict spurred on by national chauvinism and neo-imperial ambition. The human and democratic rights to which I referred, including freedom of speech, are increasingly coming under pressure on the fringes and even within the borders of the European Union. Just look at what is happening in Catalonia today. The Prime Minister of a democratically elected government has been forced into exile and his parliamentary colleagues have been imprisoned simply for fulfilling the democratic will of the Catalonian people. We have seen the use of brutal violence to suppress civil rights. The authoritarian mask of the Spanish state has certainly slipped, but the situation in Catalonia has also exposed the European Union’s lack of empathy or desire to truly uphold human rights when it matters.
We must also consider the disgraceful EU deal with Turkey, whereby, in return for cash, Turkey will accept the role of jailor for tens of thousands of refugees deported from the European Union and held in indefinite detention. Amnesty International has described the conditions in the refugee camps as squalid and we already know about the notorious human rights record of the Turkish Government. Where are the European Union’s much vaunted human rights values in this disgraceful barbarity?
I must also mention Libya and the actions of EU member states, including our own, in helping to turn back fleeing migrants and hand them over to the authorities in Libya where, according to Amnesty International, they are left to reside in "hell". Torture, rape and the selling of migrants into slavery are commonplace and it is a source of huge regret that we are complicit. An excellent motion was passed two weeks ago at the Council of Europe calling on member states to call the Libyan authorities to account for their actions and to insist on proper standards of human rights in return for co-operation with the Libyan coastguard. I pay tribute to the Irish team at the Council of Europe and our vice president, Senator Joe O'Reilly. Alas, however, I fear that the particular resolution will be ignored by those same member states, including Ireland.
We are witnessing a blatant move by France and Germany to create an EU army through PESCO, a move which will make the strategic aims of the European Union inseparable from those of NATO. It will commit EU member states to providing troops to intervene in conflicts, as well as increasing contributions to defence budgets. It is worth remembering that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voted in favour of this blatant breach of our neutrality. Article 29.4.9o of the Constitution specifically states the State will not adopt a common EU defence policy where such a policy would include the participation of the State. The Government's decision to join PESCO runs totally contrary to that article.
The European Union is at a defining crossroads. If it continues down the path it is on, turning its back on the ideals of Robert Schuman in the context of economic growth and human rights values in pursuit of a fortress Europe and persisting with its rigid adherence to neoliberal values, coupled with ever increasing militarisation, ultimately, the entire European project will unravel. It is time for the voices who believe in the vision of a social Europe, a democratic Europe and a Europe that respects national sovereignty, rather than in the ever increasing centralisation of power, to be heard.
I warmly welcome my close neighbour, friend and colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, to the Chamber and congratulate her on the outstanding job she has been doing in her ministry, to the great credit of Ireland. Her extraordinarily strong performances in the British media, in particular, is very important for our image abroad.
As we celebrate Europe Day, it is important to celebrate the Council of Europe, at which Ireland has played a leading role since its inception in 1949. It involves 47 member states, of which 28 are in the European Union, and includes 800 million citizens. I have the privilege of leading the Irish delegation which includes Senators Maura Hopkins, Paul Gavan, Rónán Mullen and Colette Kelleher, as well as being vice president of same. The Irish delegation makes a huge contribution, takes part and leads from the front on a number of issues and the Members of this House do so in style. It is worth mentioning that no current or past member of any Irish delegation has been implicated in any of the corruption issues that has come to light. Corrupt practices engaged in by a minority of Council delegates have been revealed and such practices must be eliminated. A public commitment to doing just that has been made and processes have been put in place to ensure there will be no recurrence and that those involved cannot be part of the Council of Europe in the future. I spoke strongly about this at all relevant meetings, as did my colleagues. We made it clear that we would not be party to any organisation that tolerated, condoned or turned a blind eye to any level of corruption.
As mentioned, the European Union represents the greatest peace process of our time. However, we now have a generation in Europe that does not remember the horrors of the Second World War and that does not even have a folk memory of that conflict. That makes the European project more challenging. Nonetheless, it is imperative that we maintain the peace process which has been enormous successly in preventing wars in Europe.
There is a 92% approval rating in Ireland for the European Union, something of which we should be very proud. In the short time available I will not be able to refer to every positive element of the European Union, but I reference the Common Agricultural Policy, in particular, the purpose of which is to ensure an adequate supply of quality food for the population of the Union at an affordable price and not, as some might suggest, to subsidise farmers. The aim of the CAP is to ensure consumers can have high quality food at a reasonable price, which is important at so many levels, including the preservation of peace. I hope the Minister of State will assure us that she will be fighting hard for no diminution of the CAP budget in the context of Brexit and that Ireland will try to hold the line in maintaining the current levels of funding. The CAP has been transformative for Irish agriculture and rural communities. It is a vital part of the machinery of the European Union and must be preserved. I hope to hear an assurance from the Minister of State that we will seek to preserve it. It is great to see that Ireland is now a net contributor to the EU budget. Our contribution increased recently and I favour increased contributions across Europe to make up the deficit in the budget when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. In that way, we can preserve the CAP. Connected to it is rural, regional and social funding which has been of critical importance to Ireland. In that context, we must hold the line on having no hard border on the island. Again, I would like to hear a commitment from the Minister of State that Ireland will not flinch on this matter.
The European Union has been at the forefront in promoting the social agenda and ensuring the rights of women, in particular, are upheld in this country.
It is missed sometimes but I was delighted to hear that €13 billion would be realised to the European economy through achieving gender equality. It is an extraordinarily interesting statistic and one we should reiterate.
The implications of bringing about the digital revolution and being up there with the best must be considered. We are working towards it. I am sorry our speaking time does not permit us to go into more detail but I wish to hear the Minister of State speak to us about Brexit and assure us there will be no giving on the issue of the Common Agricultural Policy. We should hold on to the social agenda in Europe. We will hold the 92% figure if we do those things. We have the right team in Europe to do it.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to the House and I welcome the opportunity for these statements since we celebrated Europe Day yesterday. I thank the Minister of State for her speech. It provides us for a good opportunity to reflect on the future of Europe and the context for the many challenges posed by the Brexit vote. Clearly there are massive challenges posed by Brexit. There are practical challenges and conceptual or ideological challenges about how we react to or address the real concerns citizens have about the project of the European Union. Those concerns were manifested in the vote on Brexit and the disconnection the Minister of State spoke about which citizens feel with the institutions. It was reflected in the report of the European Committee of the Regions, which was recently published.
There are less serious challenges too. I have just come back from a Burren Law School session in Ballyvaughan at the weekend where we had a discussion about Brexit. The journalist, Alison O'Connor, spoke about the challenge for those in the media seeking to write about Brexit of making it of interest to people. She spoke very eloquently about the difficulty of making Brexit interesting and enabling people to engage with it as a topic. She said it is just too big and abstract and it is hard to make it tangible and humorous and to make connections when writing about it. She has done a great deal to make the language of it more accessible. We need more of that.
I commend the Minister of State on the national citizens' dialogues. It is part of a process of trying to ensure greater engagement with citizens and to ensure people feel more connected with the European project. Part of the difficulty, from speaking with those engaged in the negotiations on Brexit, is the practical challenges of trying to find out exactly what the British side is seeking in the negotiations or if there is a unified British side we can speak of, given that several members of the Cabinet seem to be actively undermining their own Prime Minister at every step of the negotiations. That is a practical challenge we face in Ireland.
I will refer to the broader conceptual challenges of Brexit and the issues the Brexit vote brought to the fore. All of us here felt a profound bleakness at the result when it was announced in June 2016 because it was such an inward looking vote and was strongly influenced by a xenophobic nationalism and by Britain turning its back on Europe. It was also a demographic issue of the old turning their backs on the young. We all saw the breakdown of voters. It was also particularly distressing because it marked a victory for anti-intellectualism and anti-rational thinking. It was a victory for hate over hope. We saw at the time a rise in hate crimes, the incidence of racist graffiti and of people who were not of British origin feeling more uncomfortable in Britain. There remains very real uncertainty over the status of thousands of EU citizens, including Irish citizens, resident in the UK and of the thousands of British people resident in other EU countries. It should also be seen as a wake-up call to all of us that the citizens of Britain were not satisfied with business as usual. There was a lovely quote by former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at around the same time when he tried to express the disconnection between citizens and European institutions. He said it is important that we emphasise and reprioritise the Europe of kindergartens, music and museums over the Europe of banks and bureaucrats, which had become dominant in the public mind.
Other colleagues have talked about the idea of a social Europe, which is in keeping with the vision of a Europe built on the values of inclusivity, pluralism, diversity and solidarity. That people want to feel more solidarity comes through very strongly in the feedback from citizen engagement. They want to feel solidarity with equality laws and social protection systems that set us apart from other developed countries. That is the vision of Europe we need to assert in the face of the challenge posed by Brexit and the clear hostility to the European project that we saw evidenced in Britain. While we are seeking to assert that conceptual or ideological vision of a social Europe and trying to connect more with citizens through that vision, we also have to be mindful of the practical reality of the difficulty and challenge of negotiating with or against a Government that does not appear to have a vision of its own for what it wants out of the negotiations. We are all mindful of the comments by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier last week at the all-island civic forum in Dundalk about the real risk that no deal may be reached at the impending June summit, even though we all know this deadline is a vital stepping stone to the pressing October deadline. That real risk is most pressing for us in the context of the Border.
While, as I have said, there is very little humour in Brexit or in any discussion of Brexit, I am grateful to Alison O'Connor for directing me - I urge others to look at it too - to the excellent @BorderIrish account on Twitter which has some very amusing observations about the impact of Brexit on the Border. There is one particularly amusing tweet where the Irish Border speaks of itself as taking swimming lessons in case it ends up in the middle of the Irish Sea. Light-hearted moments aside, there is a fundamental contradiction, which has been described as magical thinking on the British side, in the suggestion that Britain will leave the customs union and yet still be able to maintain a frictionless border. The sort of so-called solutions that Theresa May has been proposing are clearly in that realm of magical thinking, such as the notion of a customs arrangement which would be the customs union in all but name or the notion of digital or virtual borders. These are the difficulties in trying to grapple with negotiations when a negotiating party has no coherent vision.
I wanted to make those brief remarks. The return to the idea of the future of Europe and the reassertion of the pro-European sentiment among Irish citizens is very heartening to see. The Minister of State referred to the Red C poll that shows that support for EU membership here is at an all-time high of 92%. We can take heart from that but we need to be mindful of the difficulties with connection and a lack of transparency. There is a perception that there is too much bureaucracy at the heart of the European project and too little real democratic accountability from those involved in making decisions in Brussels and Strasbourg and those of us here in the nation state, as well as in national parliaments. I am delighted we have this opportunity. National parliaments play a vital role. We were all reminded of that this week with the House of Lords voting and making some very significant changes to the way in which the Brexit legislation is travelling through the British Parliament.
Like other Senators, I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and thank her for her time in our discussion on Europe Day. Last Tuesday morning in Ballinasloe we had a wonderful crowd in Ballinasloe library to celebrate, discuss and reflect on how Europe has been of huge benefit to us. Mairead McGuinness, our MEP and Vice President of the European Parliament, was with us. Her competence and ability in terms of negotiating on our behalf should be noted. I am particularly reflecting on her work on unfair trading practices which has particular relevance to the Common Agricultural Policy. It is of huge significance. It was a very fruitful discussion and very reflective of the survey that took place in which 92% of people responded that they are in favour of and support involvement in the European Union.
Before that we visited New Inn national school with Ms Mairead McGuinness MEP and I was struck by the engagement of young people through the Blue Star Programme. Those programmes are of huge importance in trying to break down barriers and to communicate with people of all ages on how Europe is good for us.
I mention a number of matters around our work on the Council of Europe. We are very proud we have an Irish vice president of the Council of Europe at the moment, namely, Senator O'Reilly. He and other colleagues are very committed. It is a job we take seriously. Recently an event was organised, particularly by the UK delegation, to mark 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement and at which Senator O'Reilly spoke. The Good Friday Agreement reflects, in many ways, the whole reason the European Union was set up, that is, peace. The Good Friday Agreement remains the cornerstone of our commitment to peace and stability on the island of Ireland. Nobody wants to return to the Border of the past. Unfortunately, as the Minister of State well knows, Brexit poses a major challenge - the challenge of managing the UK's exit from the European Union and its potentially negative and damaging impact on the Irish Border and on the Irish economy. Our relationship with UK colleagues on the Council of Europe is very good and very close. All of us want to ensure we have a very close relationship with the UK from political, social and trading points of view. That was exemplified at that event to mark 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement.
I want to emphasise what Senator O'Reilly said about the protection of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budget. Coming from a rural area, I know the bottom line is that farmers' incomes must continue to be supported. We very much rely on EU support payments in order to allow farmers to engage in what is a difficult career. The CAP payments are often misunderstood. They support farming and food production, ensure we have high food safety, meet environmental standards and, most importantly, allow a benefit for our rural communities and areas. It is vital for farm viability. I refer to proposals on a reduction in the CAP budget and the figure of 5%, about which we are hearing at the moment. It is difficult enough for farmers to survive and we all know about the difficult winter we have been through. I ask the Minister of State, as Senator O'Reilly did, to comment on the CAP budget because it is crucial for rural areas and farmers.
I welcome the Minister of State. In her statement, she talked about Mr. Robert Schuman and said he was an advocate of Franco-German reconciliation long before it became fashionable. That was an example of leadership. She went on to quote him. Schuman said:
Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.
That has not happened for the 80 million people with disabilities across the EU, 16% of the population. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified by the 28 member states, acknowledges that the promise of a free and democratic union of states has yet to be achieved for 80 million people with disabilities across Europe. Why do I say that? Before I come to that, I refer to states that are not members of the EU, including Albania and Montenegro, which are keen to join, and those in the eastern partnership, including Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and others. I know people from, and organisations in, those countries that deal with people with disabilities and how critical having the comfort of being in a Union like the European Union would be to them.
Let me come back to my core issue. All 28 member states are still struggling to give emancipation and freedom to their citizens with disabilities and to their families, by virtue of the situation with their family member. The EU member states have ratified the convention in the last decade but let us go back to 1948 and the fledgling UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It said that on the basis that one is a human being, one has human rights. It is not because of one's colour, creed, class or where one comes from. However, 58 years on from that, the UN had to bring in a convention that did not give one right to people because they were disabled. It said they already had them for the last six decades. States in Europe and elsewhere, as they sign and ratify that convention, are actually saying they have not done the business for people with disabilities. They have not honoured their dignity and humanity and brought them in. Important things have been done. Senator O'Reilly mentioned gender equality but it is not there for disabled women. We are in a situation where we have to get on with that work.
The EU is in a vulnerable situation, such as it has never been in its history. At the same time, no other regional entity in the world is as strong and has the potential the EU has in terms of its democratic values. It is a precious entity. It is bureaucratic to the hilt. It is the hardest place in the world to love or hug. It is so full of processes and so on but it is valuable and it needs to be fought for.
Some 300,000 disabled people were slaughtered by the Nazis in Germany, Austria and in other states during the last war, not because they were anti-Nazi but because they were disabled. Humanity does not seem to be as strongly appreciated by some people. That is a great challenge that now faces the Union and it will bring Schuman's notion of de facto solidarity to a conclusion in the sense of a huge part of the population.
I ask Members and the Minister of State in her work to consider this. I have engaged with three Commissioners at different committees and, to put it mildly, their appreciation or understanding of their remit in terms of people with disabilities has been very "shy". There is cultural and attitudinal work to be done.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am very glad to be able to join with others in marking and celebrating Europe Day. Europe, as a concept, came out of moments of tragedy and of vision. It is an extraordinary idea that we can try to work together in these ways. It is one I wholeheartedly support and I am very passionate about being a citizen of Europe. There have been moments when Europe at its best has been extraordinarily positive in pressing forward rights for groups in different countries and in allowing countries to challenge each other to do better in terms of rights.
Women's equality in Ireland, for example, owes quite a lot to the pressure from the European Union. Minority groups such as the Roma and Travellers, although minorities from different countries, have managed to find solidarity by connecting, finding common patterns and causes, and by being able to build a better challenge to governments across Europe.
Europe's precautionary principle has been an important new way of approaching the environment by comparison with the approach taken elsewhere in the world. Again, by recognising different national interests, we have been able to press each other to do better in meeting climate change and environmental targets. That is appropriate.
The general data protection regulation is an extraordinary triumph, an example of how, when we work on something together, we can create better rights and connections. Also to be considered is the telephone licence for citizens across Europe.
We need to acknowledge that Europe is coming out of a recent period in which it has been very much moving away from democratic engagement. There has been a diminishment in that regard in recent years. During the poor period of recession and austerity it seemed at many times that the European institutions put market sentiment far above public confidence or public engagement. Quarterly returns, our fiscal targets, took high precedence over long-term solidarity and engagement in the crafting of a shared future. For example, the future set out in Europe 2020 which outlines a sustainable and inclusive vision fell by the wayside when the fiscal targets were prioritised. That has come at a cost which has now been recognised. There is a renewed commitment to the social pillar. People need to see this thinking being followed through with real resources for the social pillar in Europe in order that it is not just a decorative flourish. There should be a proper pillar that is a load-bearing part of what it means to be European and why it is good to be.
Regarding the budgetary debate taking place in Europe, agricultural and other issues will be discussed. I would like to hear from the Minister of State that Ireland will bring gender and equality proofing to the European discussion on the budget and finance. That is important. People have seen that the areas that affect them are being curtailed. We cannot be complacent about the European Union, but the response to complacency must never be cynicism. It needs to be creative and there needs to be challenge. The European Union needs to welcome challenge. It needs to welcome the challenge on trade policy, in respect of which people have said they want trade to be conducted in a way that engages them as citizens and ensures they keep their democratic space for engagement. That signal has come through loud and clear and it needs to be said. We cannot say there are huge areas of policy in which we will not listen to or engage with people. The connection to decision-making is vital, as are the facts that people are being heard and that decisions can be changed. There has been concern about corporate capture within Europe. It does not serve us in our collective project if we allow that to be seen. Citizens need to be heard equally.
I want to finish with two vital points on the future of Europe and our collective work in that regard. There is a real danger that the European Union will erode its human rights credibility. In the treatment of migrants and the immigration control agreements mentioned we face a danger not just of affecting thousands of lives in a bad way but also eroding our international credibility as peace builders, peace brokers and human rights champions, of which we have heard that we are all very proud.
On peace building, the PESCO notification mentioned does not contain the words "peace", "peace building" or "peacekeeping" at any point. That is a real concern. I was very disappointed to see the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, at yesterday's assembly on the future of Europe again blurring the lines on neutrality and talking about security in an abstract way. He was putting out the red herring of cybersecurity in the hope we would all believe it was too complicated and believe that somehow we had to sign up to very deep militarisation at a time when the Iran deal was falling through and we were seeing a hawkish push towards militarisation worldwide because of cybersecurity. Let us be clear: the way to deal with cybersecurity is through civil and engineering mechanisms and electricity services. Bearing in mind social protection, it is of serious concern when most data protection experts have identified the single customer view database as a honeypot. If we are serious about cybersecurity, we must deal with it in the way I advocate, not in some abstract, militarised way.
The wonder of the European Union is its multilateralism and that it involves multiple parts coming together. We really need to push back. There is a push-back towards big power politics on the global stage and even within Europe, considering that we hear the idea of a two-speed European Union or a European Union that is about the big powers and their friends, or coalitions of the willing. Let us be multilateralists. Let Ireland be the champion of peace building, multilateralism and bringing different perspectives together. When we can achieve that in the European Union, we be an example to the world. That is what we need to champion, but I worry that we are slipping. I ask the Minister of State to assure me that we are not.
I thank all Senators for their contributions and work on the European stage. I congratulate Senator Joe O'Reilly on his appointment as vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I wish him and all Senators well in their work.
I will first touch on Brexit because it has been raised by so many. I did not address it in my opening contribution.
Senator Ivana Bacik should note that I am aware of the Twitter account, which is sometimes amusing and, unfortunately, the only amusing thing about Brexit. We all agree from an Irish perspective. The Government's position has always been and will continue to be that, after Brexit, we want to have the closest possible relationship with the United Kingdom. We want it to have the closest possible relationship with the European Union as a whole. We are very clear also that the Irish concerns must be addressed. I refer to the specific Irish concerns about the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process and the avoidance of a border on the island of Ireland. Negotiations and discussions are very much focused on translating the concerns associated with what was agreed to before Christmas. The UK Government has since confirmed that they are to be translated into a legally binding document to ensure that, where there is a close relationship with the United Kingdom, there would be a protocol in place that would avoid a border and ensure the peace process would be protected. That is our goal and priority. I acknowledge and thank our European counterparts for the supports and solidarity they have shown in that regard.
While Brexit will play a significant part in considering the future of Europe, the future of Europe is not Brexit. It is, unfortunately, one without the United Kingdom. When the EU leaders met at a summit in Bratislava, they met, one could say, in crisis mode to establish what had had happened and what had gone wrong. The most important result of that meeting was that they emerged in solidarity and reaffirmed their commitment to the European Union and planning a shared future together. While it was acknowledged that the European Union was not perfect and never would be, it is certainly the best mechanism by which to address some of the significant challenges we are facing and will face. Many Senators have raised this issue. Included are the issues of climate change and making sure we leave the environment and our world in a fit state for the next generation. Also included are tackling terrorism and the serious security threats we are facing on our borders and even further afield. Both aspects are playing a major part in contributing to the serious challenge posed by migration, the mass movement of people.
In his speech yesterday the Tánaiste mentioned Africa and how European leaders met once every four years. That is not enough. It is not enough to tackle the issues with which we need to deal and prevent the inevitable displacement of millions of people in the future. These are really serious concerns that we need to address. I am confident that doing so is a priority. The reform of the refugee and asylum system is certainly a priority for Mr. Donald Tusk in his agenda, but there is a lot of work we need to do in that regard.
Many Senators referred to the fact that the whole purpose of the European Union and the reason for its establishment is that, first and foremost, it is a peace project. I had the opportunity earlier this year, on a visit to Sarajevo during a trip to the western Balkans, to stand on the Latin Bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, an event that lead to the outbreak of the First World War. That was not the last war we had in Europe but we should remind ourselves of it. We in Ireland have to continue to remind ourselves how important Europe's role in the establishment of peace on this island has been and we must ensure that peace is protected at all costs. We have come a long way since Robert Schuman's vision was first set out. We have a long way to go, and we have to continue to reaffirm the European Union's relevance to the daily lives of its citizens. In order to do that, we have to get back to some of the social issues I have heard raised in recent weeks in the context of our citizens' dialogue. We have to return to the core values of the European Union, namely, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Unfortunately, some of those have been lost along the way.
We must focus on education and ensure that we develop further the equality we have managed to achieve. That said, a recent study showed that pay equality still does not exist between men and women in Ireland. This is one of the issues we must continue to highlight and address. It is important to highlight that this is becoming a more prominent item on the agenda. The fact that we had a social summit in Gothenburg last year which specifically focused on education, workers' rights and various other matters shows that we are now starting to get back to the issues with which people want us to deal. We still have much more work to do in that regard.
Other issues raised by Senators include our neutrality and the fact that we have signed up to PESCO. Ireland was one of the last countries to join PESCO because the Government wanted to ensure that our neutrality would not be impacted upon in any way. We also wanted to ensure that the reason for joining and our ability to work in co-operation with other member states would support our core values. We are a country with a proud tradition of peacekeeping, and we believe we must continue that tradition. The projects we will be involved in include those focusing on cybersecurity and crimes and threats in that regard and also those that focus on peacekeeping and the missions we have always undertaken and that we will continue to undertake. The debates I have had with citizens throughout the country overwhelmingly suggest that Irish people want us to co-operate more with our European counterparts in order to ensure that we can support peace and security throughout Europe and further afield. While there are different views as to how that can be achieved, joining PESCO has not impacted upon our neutrality. We are very clear that the projects in which we will be involved will not impact upon it in any way.
The issue of legislation and red tape has been raised in recent months. It must be made easier for people to access funds throughout Europe in order to ensure fairness for large and small businesses. Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker is taking charge of a refit programme at the moment. This involves looking at European legislation in the context of what is working or is not working, what can be changed and where can it be improved. To reassure Senators, the European Commission is obliged to notify the Seanad and the Dáil of any legislation that is being brought forward at the same time at the European Parliament. While there is a great deal going on, at the same time we have an opportunity to raise concerns before anything is done and before it is too late.
The issue of the multi-annual financial framework was raised. In terms of the future of Europe, this will be one of the biggest discussions I have during council meetings in the coming months. From an Irish point of view, we acknowledge that there will be a gaping hole in the budget due to the UK leaving. That will have some financial implications and will dictate whether we continue with certain projects, depending on the future relationship with the UK. Nonetheless, there will still be a gaping hole. We see merit in increasing our budget if it means that we can continue to avail of the supports we have been getting, but also where we see European added value. We very much believe in the traditional streams of funding, particularly CAP and the significant role it has played for farming in our rural communities. We will work against any changes to CAP and try to achieve the best possible outcome in the context of the budget relating to it. We also acknowledge the importance of other areas, such as cohesion funding. As a small island nation, we acknowledge the significance that this funding has had for our own development, for our infrastructure, our roads and our networks. We believe it is important that other member states, including those which recently joined, should be able to avail of that same support as they embark on the same journey we took perhaps 20 years ago.
In areas such as research and innovation, we see European added value whereby there is a knock-on effect and a benefit for us. We feel this is of huge benefit in the overall discussions. We also have to acknowledge that there are newer priorities which perhaps do not come to the fore of our discussions, such as migration and security and defence. Those issues do not impact on us in the same way as other member states which are closer to the European border. We need to support those countries which are impacted most and acknowledge that this issue is a key priority for them. We have to strike a balance, acknowledging that we have priorities and other member states have priorities. I want to reassure Senator O'Reilly that CAP funding is an absolute priority for us, and that we want to ensure that there will be as small an impact as possible in respect of the budget.
How do we promote the Council of Europe? Is that something with which the Minister of State can help us?
As I mentioned in my opening statement, we need to bring Europe closer to the people. That means continuing to communicate and giving public representatives a platform to communicate with the people they represent and also with those they do not. We can only do that by reaching out, by having public engagements and civic dialogues and by encouraging other organisations that have the capability and ability to do that. I was pleased, a couple of days ago, to announce €100,000 in funding for voluntary community and other organisations to help engage with people on Europe in various different communities. An example of this type of project is the special Blindboy Boatclub podcast at the MindField arena at Electric Picnic, which might find an audience that does not necessarily engage regularly. We are running a young innovators for Europe project, which is to be undertaken as part of the Young Social Innovators programme. There is also the launch of My Big Friendly Guide to the European Union. The latter will complement the EU's Blue Star programme, which Senator Hopkins mentioned. It is a fantastic project, one of a kind in Europe, and it will ensure that, from a very young age, our primary school students will learn about other traditions and cultures, about tolerance and about how to communicate and engage with other people. They will also learn to understand their schoolmates who have come from other countries. It is about communication, education and engagement with every platform and format we can, including the Council of Europe and the various different committees, including health, finance and education committees.
Could the Minister of State talk about gender inequality-proofing in the European budget discussion and, perhaps, trade?
While the European Commission has put forward its initial proposals, as with anything this is subject to debate, discussion and challenge. If we can ensure gender balance it will make €13 billion in additional revenue available. Despite the fact that we should have gender balance anyway, the extra money is also an incentive. We should ensure that it is applied across the board. I will take the issue into account and will raise it, given the year we are in and given the particular focus on the issue. It is certainly an area of focus for me and it is something for which we should be pushing.
The Minister of State has been most generous in responding to questions from the floor on the fly. I thank her for that. When is it proposed to meet again?
On Tuesday next, 15 May, at 2.30 p.m.