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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 22 Sep 2021

Vol. 278 No. 6

Address to Seanad Éireann by Members of the European Parliament

I welcome Senators and our MEP colleagues for the constituency of Midlands-North-West to the Chamber. I extend a warm welcome to Mr. Colm Markey, MEP, and Ms Maria Walsh, MEP. Unfortunately, Mr. Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, MEP, and Mr. Chris MacManus, MEP, could not be here today. My apologies to Mr. MacManus for the late notification, which was entirely my fault. He is unable to attend as a result.

The working group on the implementation of Seanad reform and its report, written in 2015 by former Senator Maurice Manning, noted that our MEPs find themselves without a formal connection to our political structures. The working group envisaged that MEPs could debate and engage with us on European developments through an audience in the House. The 2018 report, which was prepared under the chairmanship of Senator Michael McDowell, picked up themes and suggested the link with Europe could be done through Seanad Éireann.

As Senators are aware, the Conference on the Future of Europe was formally inaugurated on Europe Day this year. This conference is a unique opportunity for citizens, parliaments, local authorities and especially young people to engage with playing a part in shaping the future of Europe. The conference organisers are doing that through a hybrid format, online and in person, such as this, and in panels and discussions around Europe. I am delighted that it is one of the themes that will be discussed today by our MEPs. I welcome them to the Chamber as they outline their work.

As we know, Colm Markey replaced the current Commissioner Mairéad McGuinness as an MEP. He was first elected in 2019 to Louth County Council and was its cathaoirleach from 2017 to 2018. He is on the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development and is a member of the Delegation for Northern Cooperation and for Relations with Switzerland and Norway. He is also a member of the EU-Iceland Joint Parliamentary Committee and the EEA Joint Parliamentary Committee. He is a substitute member of the Committee on Transport and Tourism, the Committee on Fisheries, and the Committee of Inquiry on the Protection of Animals during Transport. Mr. Markey is a businessman and a farmer so Europe is of huge importance to him. He brings great experience in terms of the UK and EU, especially given his knowledge of the practicalities of Border issues.

Maria Walsh is known to us all since her election in 2019. She is a proud Mayo woman, supporting Mayo through what I will term, "thin and thin". Ms Walsh was born in Boston and raised in Shrule, County Mayo. Her parents are from Connemara and Roundfort. She is an MEP serving on the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, and the Committee on Culture and Education. She is a delegate to the United States of America, which is appropriate, and also substitutes on the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and is a delegate to the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly. Since her election Ms Walsh continues her work on equality with a particular focus on young people. She is a member of the Parliament's LGBTI inter-group and is a co-chair of the MEP alliance for mental health.

I thank Senators for coming to the Chamber today. This is a unique format that we will test. It is the first of the interactions between our MEPs and Senators, or Ireland and our European Parliament colleagues. The MEPs will outline their work and what they are doing in Europe on behalf of their constituencies, their constituents, Ireland and Europe. There will then be opening statements from the leaders of the Seanad groups and their spokespersons followed by a question and answer session. Members will have to bear with us as the question and answer session is a European format - the Leas-Chathaoirleach will take over and police it - in that it comprises a question for a minute and an answer for two minutes. The clock will be on, which will allow for better engagement and direct answers. We will work through this format and, as with everything, we have decided on who speaks first alphabetically. I again thank Mr. Markey for being with us today. He has eight minutes.

Mr. Colm Markey

A Chathaoirligh, Senators, fellow MEP and ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be here at this time to begin this conversation. In the context of Covid, it is great to be here on the ground and to be physically in contact with people. For the first seven or eight months of my term as an MEP it was all virtual, so the idea that we can sit down, meet and converse together is very important. It is also very important and timely that this initiative and level of engagement have been taken between the European Parliament and the Oireachtas. It is a very important time in the European context, post Covid on one level but also because there is something of a crisis of identity in terms of where Europe is at this stage. That is part of the genesis on why we are having the Conference on the Future of Europe at European level now. It is very important.

As MEPs, we are struggling somewhat with getting people to engage with this whole process. At one level, there is a conversation within the EU circle on matters such as defence policy, vetoes and tax harmonisation. These are all issues that are very important but one thing Europe is struggling with at the moment is the idea of how it connects with the ordinary citizen and the ordinary person on the ground for whom these issues are often very disconnected. It is very important that through the Conference on the Future of Europe initiative which started in Europe this year, which will run for the next year or year and a half, we get meaningful engagement from ordinary people on the ground and that we make citizens the centre of that conference.

There is apathy out there we need to deal with and address. We have to look at what issues are relevant to the ordinary European person. If one looks at Ursula von der Leyen's State of the Union speech last week, she focused a lot on some very key issues we have to focus on. Certainly, the likes of the initiative around young people, the Year of European Youth 2022, is very important. Equally, one line of the agenda is around the environment, particularly, and around all the challenges Europe faces in terms of international policy and a whole range of areas that are very important.

We have to try to find ways to bring this back to issues faced by ordinary people. If one looks at the Covid situation over the past 12 or 18 months, one will see that Europe, in terms of digital certificates and vaccines, became very relevant to ordinary people. If we can make Europe relevant in that sort of way, it will be very important. Europe has done a lot of work in recent times around matters such as cancer care and preventive medicines, which is where we can look at vaccines in other areas. Things like this make a difference to ordinary people, along with issues such as the whole obesity epidemic and positive mental health. These are all areas that are relevant to ordinary people on the ground. That is where we have to start. We have to look at matters for young people in terms of the element of general disengagement with politics and the body politic they have. Sometimes, politics at both European and national levels becomes about party politics and we have to bring it back to the issues. That is what we can, hopefully, do at the Conference on the Future of Europe.

The environment agenda is key. If we are talking about a dialogue between the Seanad and Europe we have to look at issues of common interest to both. The challenges we face in terms of our environment include the Fit for 55% package, where we hope to reduce our emissions by 55% by 2030 and to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

They are enormous challenges to meet, yet if we approach them in the right way, we can get there. Obviously, in areas like transport, alternative fuels and renewable energy, there are massive challenges to meet, but equally, they are areas in which there are great opportunities. For example, from a wind energy perspective, we are probably best placed across Europe to take advantage of that. If you build into that the idea of alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, these are things that we in Ireland can be a leader on into the future. Offshore wind, particularly off the west coast, is something that could represent an opportunity for us to get an economic multiplier into our local economy. We need to ensure that we embrace the challenges and take the opportunities that they provide going forward, particularly in the rural Ireland context. We were always challenged in terms of the economic opportunities that exist in rural Ireland. If we get the technologies right, renewable energy will provide opportunities.

As the Cathaoirleach said, I am a substitute on the Committee onTransport and Tourism. One of the big challenges we face is finding alternative fuels for HGVs and aviation. If we can be a leader in the research in that area and, equally, in the transition from renewable energy to alternative fuels in this area, it is something that will be very relevant for Ireland and a massive driver in terms of regenerating our economy.

A key interest of mine is the area of agriculture in which in many ways we are a market leader. There is also a concern out there among the people in this sector in rural Ireland that in some ways agriculture is being targeted or faces major challenges in terms of meeting our climate goals. However, I think there is an opportunity there if we focus, in particular, on the concept of sustainability. Irish agriculture, certainly in the dairy sector, is recognised as the most sustainable worldwide. In beef and tillage we are not far behind either. If we can focus on sustainability, it will be the Irish farmers' friend. If we are leaders in the area of sustainability; we can be best placed to take advantage of the opportunities that will provide in agriculture going forward. It is a position that we need to focus on in particular.

There are other areas to discuss. We were here earlier in the year discussing Brexit and a number of other issues that I would like to touch on that are particularly relevant to the constituents of Midlands-North-West. However, I would like to bring it back to the Conference on the Future of Europe. There is a challenge there to address an apathy and concern about where politics as a whole is going. If we can create a vision and a strong link between this Seanad and the European Parliament, it will be a strength going forward. I look forward to hearing the Members' questions later.

I thank Mr. Markey for his considered thoughts. I call on Ms Maria Walsh, MEP for Midlands-North-West.

Ms Maria Walsh

I am delighted to be here. As the Cathaoirleach went through the committees of which I am a member, I want to touch briefly on the work I do on behalf of citizens across Midlands-North-West but, in particular, I want to feed into some of the key topics that I believe should be fundamentally involved in the Conference on the Future of Europe.

As many of the Members may know, the 2019 election was my first involvement in politics. Prior to that, I was involved in a lot of advocacy work speaking on issues such as marriage equality, women's rights and mental health of young people in particular. I very much attempt to carry that into my work within the European Parliament, talking about equality, diversity and inclusion in each file and amendment that I and my team put in.

Currently, I am working on two pieces of policy which I consider to be of the utmost importance for citizens, particularly for minority groups and women right across the Midlands-North-West constituency and the island. Last week in Strasbourg, I was a shadow rapporteur for the European People's Party on a piece of legislation which called on the Commission to establish gender-based violence as a European crime. This, in effect, would make gender-based crimes illegal in all EU countries.

Gender-based violence is a breach of human rights and it is happening in Ireland and across Europe. We need to legislate and take non-legislative actions that address these issues at a European level and across the EU, not just at home. With some of the EU countries unfortunately refusing to implement the likes of the Istanbul Convention and some activity regressing on the protection of human rights in other countries, we need to continue to call on the Commission to take action. Failing to do so and having an unco-ordinated approach on gender-based violence puts European women and girls at risk. We certainly cannot allow time to pass. I say that simply because if our young women and girls are travelling across Europe, their rights should also travel with them. This is true particularly for our younger men and women who travel as part of the Erasmus+ scheme.

I am also working as a shadow rapporteur to strengthen the application of the principle of equal pay for equal work and work of equal value between men and women through pay transparency and the enforcement mechanisms. One of the major obstacles to enforcing equal pay is the lack of pay transparency. As many, if not all, can agree, the gender pay gap is unjustified, unfair, and unfortunately will most likely grow, not shrink, due to Covid, with many more women than men taking time out to care for their families. I am sure that as an MEP for Midlands-North-West I am not the only representative who has heard that. No doubt, many of the Members are also hearing that in their constituencies. Across the EU, on average women get paid 14.1% less per hour than men. This translates into women having to work an additional 51 days to earn the same wage as their male colleagues. Fortunately, equal pay has been enshrined in Irish law for decades, but the reality is that the implementation can be very different, as it is across the EU. The recent Irish legislation on the gender pay gap is something that I will very much be using as a baseline, but also hoping to expand on it at EU level for this directive. As an example of the everyday changes that a small increase in transparency can make, it will potentially offer clear criteria for workers to ask their employer for information on their individual pay level and average pay levels broken down by sex for categories for workers performing the same work or work of equal value. I share that because I think it will be a key point in terms of fundamental rights coming into the Conference on the Future of Europe.

I also want to add a quick point on vocational education training. It is something I worked on before the summer. It is fundamentally important to Irish citizens and is an essential tool for young people and adults to find jobs after this pandemic that we have lived through. With many of Europe's employees and employers unable to find the right skills to fill vacancies, vocational skills have become one of the best ways to mould one's career. I certainly hope that if asked from the Floor, we can get into it a bit further.

I wish to add a note about the culture and education committee. It was music to my ears hearing the proposal announced by Ursula von der Leyen, during her state of the union address last week, that 2022 will be dedicated as a European year for youth. We all know that younger people face the greatest challenges coming out this pandemic, be it through continuing their education, entering the labour market and maintaining their social lives. Many students have lost their part-time jobs and fear greatly for their future. I certainly lived through such fear during the 2007 to 2008 financial crash. A European year is an opportunity to bring the needs and fears of young people to the forefront. I hope this feeds into the Conference on the Future of Europe coming from younger citizens not just from my constituency, but across the country.

Just before I conclude, as I am standing in front of the Members, I wish to flag that as the Cathaoirleach mentioned, I am co-chair of the two Parliament interest groups dedicated to mental health. I am very proud to be a rapporteur on a file entitled Mental Health in the Digital World of Work. This work will be done across the Parliament through all committees, ensuring that there is a cross-sectional approach to mental health in the digital world of work. Of course, I hope any feedback that Members may have feeds into it.

Recently, we in the MEP Alliance for Mental Health wrote to national parliaments seeking support for the campaign to designate an EU year for good mental health. I acknowledge Senator Black, who kindly agreed to come on board as a champion for that.

As my colleague, Mr. Markey, concluded by expressing his sentiments on the Conference on the Future of Europe, I will do the same. During my election campaign in 2019, I was often asked what MEPs do and what the purpose of the European Parliament is. Over the course of the subsequent two and a half years, my knowledge has grown from connecting with people, particularly younger people. Nevertheless, we still have fundamental work to do, not just in Fine Gael or the EPP but throughout this House and next door. For many citizens, what they know about the EU comes in the form of Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, grants, funding for roads or the general data protection regulation, GDPR. In Ireland, we have become aware over recent years of the importance of EU solidarity due to Brexit. This conference is a unique and timely opportunity for citizens to engage with and examine the challenges and interests they have within the Union. Be it rural, urban, north, south, east or west, this is a perfect time for us to discuss as a country where we want to move forward in the Union. Given that I cover fundamental rights and social issues, which constitute the fabric of our society, I hope that moving forward there will be a stronger sense of them for younger people.

I thank both Ms Walsh and Mr. Markey for their contributions. Before I call Senator Chambers to lead questions from the group spokespersons, I leave the House in the capable hands of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Senator O'Reilly, who has vast experience in Europe. We discussed this event at a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and I asked him to chair our sessions. We will work together on them because he has been a member of the Irish delegation to the Council of Europe since 2009 and has led the delegation since 2019. He also served a term as a vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from 2013 to 2015.

I will return but I again thank our MEPs for their contributions. I hope we will have a good engagement, and the question-and-answer format will allow for good engagement across the range of issues, including Brexit and everything else that faces us as we move forward within the European Union.

Sula dtosaíonn an chéad chainteoir, gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht a fhocal deasa níos luaithe. Is cúis áthais dom é a bheith leis na Seanadóirí inniu agus beirt bhall de Pharlaimint na hEorpa in éineacht linn, Mr. Colm Markey agus Ms Maria Walsh. Is aoibhinn liom iad a bheith anseo. Is tionscnamh tábhachtach dearfach don todhchaí é seo. Táim an-bhródúil as an tionscnamh seo. Sílim go bhfuil sé fiúntach.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his remarks. It is a great pleasure to have two MEPs with us. It is an important facet of Seanad reform that we have this strong link between the European Parliament and this Chamber. That is what was intended and it has to be the case, not least in the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Both Ms Walsh and Mr. Markey are prominent and active MEPs and their high-quality addresses have substantiated that.

The next stage of proceedings concerns contributions from spokespersons. I call the Deputy Leader and Chairman of the Brexit committee, Senator Chambers.

I welcome our MEPs, Ms Walsh and Mr. Markey, to the Chamber. This is an exciting day for us as a House as well because it marks the beginning of a new initiative by the Cathaoirleach to foster a greater connection with the European Parliament. It is our first opportunity to have MEPs in the Chamber. They represent my constituency of Midlands-North-West, so it is great to have them both here. I look forward to greater engagement over the period ahead.

Both our guests touched on some interesting aspects. I agree with them that the Conference on the Future of Europe is an opportunity for us as citizens of Europe to reflect on the Union, the 45 years we have been a member and where we are going, particularly as we emerge from not just the pandemic but also the Brexit process. We are still dealing with the latter but we are on the other side of it, if I can put it that way. Both those events have rocked the European Union, but we are still standing and I think they will make us stronger and more unified.

It was a clever and insightful remark when Mr. Markey stated vaccines had made Europe relevant to Irish citizens over the past year and a half. I fully agree. It was one issue where we looked to Europe. We would not have procured the same volume of vaccines if we had not banded together with other member states and negotiated collectively to get them for our citizens. It was the great success story for the EU, despite a rocky start, which Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the Commission, acknowledged in her state of the Union address.

The Commission did a very good job on vaccines but that was not the case at the outset. Ms von der Leyen came under significant scrutiny at the beginning, suggesting there was too much negotiation and red tape and we were a bit slow off the mark. It came good, however, and it has worked out very well for Ireland. We are now in the really good position whereby we can send vaccines to third world countries and start meeting our global responsibilities to ensure that the most vulnerable are vaccinated, which is the next task of the Union.

Of the topics that get Irish citizens excited about Europe or talking about Europe, there are three I identify as the most important, namely, agriculture, tax and defence. They are the three that are most provocative at times. They are sometimes controversial and we do not always agree on where we should go in our policy in those areas, but they are areas worth focusing on.

I might touch on the comments of the President of the Commission in her state of the Union address. She focused on many issues but she made a very good job of the speech. It was an important point for her to reflect on where the Union was going and to come out fighting, and she did that. She addressed all the key issues, including domestic violence, which was fantastic because she has been a leader and an inspiration to female representatives and women across the board. She referred to the issue as a shadow pandemic. She addressed events in Afghanistan and the ongoing human rights atrocities there, but again she focused on women, children and female judges, who are now running from those they had imprisoned for their offences. She cleverly worked in many issues that perhaps are not debated as often as they should be, and she is using her position very well in that regard.

The European year of youth 2022 was mentioned, which is brilliant, and Ms von der Leyen acknowledged the great sacrifice our young people have made this past year and a half. They have lost more than anyone, including missing out on life milestones. The president touched on two issues that are key for us to debate in the House and I would welcome our guests' comments and thoughts on this. The first related to defence, the European defence union and the summit that she and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, will convene to discuss European defence policy. That has always been a hot topic in Ireland and it has always provoked the most robust debate in the context of the treaty debates. We do not have a unified approach to the matter. Ms von der Leyen cleverly focused on cybersecurity and the new grounds where the threats are coming from. She spoke about the ability to take down a country's health service from a laptop or smartphone and we know all about that here because we are still dealing with the fallout from the cyberattack on our health service and the impact on the victims of that, namely, patients who need those services. I would welcome our guests' thoughts on what conversations are happening in the European Parliament on foot of those comments. What are MEPs saying and what role do our guests expect to play in that conversation?

The second issue to highlight in Ms von der Leyen's comments related to a minimum rate of corporation tax, another topic that is very much live in Ireland. While the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform are very much pushing Ireland’s agenda on that - we make no apology for that - Ms von der Leyen was clear in her calls for a minimum rate of corporation tax, and we know that would mean Ireland increasing its rate.

We have to acknowledge that we are moving in a particular direction, which is fine, but I would welcome our guests' thoughts on her comments around that and where the European Union is going in getting buy-in from member states, given that we have a veto on that issue and how they might see that playing out for Ireland in the years ahead?

I thank Senator Chambers for those remarks. We will wait for all the statements of Members to be made before the MEPs can incorporate their responses to that later into subsequent remarks. I acknowledge yet again the excellent work that Senator Chambers has done for this country and Parliament as Chair of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU. It is also a very important job in the context of today's meeting.

It is my great pleasure to call on my comhghleacaí anseo, an Seanadóir Seán Kyne, lena thoil.

Gabhaim buíochas, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I welcome Ms Walsh and Mr. Markey to the Chamber. As someone involved in representational politics as we all are, and as a former Deputy and county councillor, I do not know how anyone copes with the geographical size of our guests’ constituencies and the challenge of such diverse areas and how to represent them; I know that they are doing exceptional jobs in that regard.

I will pick up on some of the points and I also agree that the perception of the European Union, going back to the EEC, was to ask what we could get out of it by way of direct transfers through Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, money for roads, cohesion funds, and all that was there. That is understandable but it gave very high favourability and support ratings for the European Union, the EEC and the European Community at the time. We still have those high figures but it has changed. It has changed, whether that is the free movement, the Erasmus programme, opportunities that the EU provides, the Single Market, and CAP, which is still of great importance for our rural communities and particularly for the farming community. I will pick up on two areas.

Brexit, despite the atrocity that it is, has been very positive for the European programme and for people’s perception of it in this country because the solidarity that was shown to Ireland, not just within the European Community but across every parliament, Prime Minister or Head of State over that period, was very impressive. This solidarity was brought home to Irish people. Sometimes whether it is Angela Merkel or whoever elses - not everyone can differentiate people sometimes - but people see European leaders standing up for Ireland and they see that solidarity, whether that is in the European Parliament or the European Commission. That has been of great importance. When Prime Ministers were talking about the Good Friday Agreement or the Irish Border, because of the work done by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the then Minister, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, or our teams from the Department of Foreign Affairs or our ambassadors, they brought this message home. The vaccination programme, as covered by Senator Chambers, has also been of great importance.

Both MEPs have mentioned the Conference on the Future of Europe and the possibilities that holds for engagement with our citizens, and in particular, with our young people, in particular as this year is the International Year of Youth which is also of great importance. Collectively as a Parliament and individually, I am sure our guests have plans to harness and promote that.

Energy security is also an issue of great importance whether, as Mr. Markey has mentioned, it is the offshore potential - which is something I spoke about here yesterday - the Celtic interconnector. which is of great importance to France in the provision of energy security into the future, or the gas pipelines that will still provide needed energy for us. It is something that needs to be further developed and explored because it is of such importance. We have this continuing debate about data centres and they are important in respect of everything we do but energy security is also important.

I compliment Ms Walsh on the humanitarian work that she is engaging in and I acknowledge its great importance.

The west and north-west region was downgraded a number of years ago to an area in transition, down from a developed area which is a worrying and retrograde step. What is or can the European Commission or the European Parliament do with supports to bring us back to the level that we desire and need to be in? Innovation and research is happening but is happening perhaps at a faster pace in other areas in other countries. We have potential as to the technological university, which has been supported across all parties in the Houses of the Oireachtas, which may be a driver. Great work is also being done by the Western Development Commission and the Northern and Western Regional Assembly which is important. Partnering with other countries and other regions is also important.

The CAP has been negotiated and I will not say that it has been put to bed because I am sure there is a great deal to do yet in the nitty-gritty of this policy. Convergence is not an easy aspect of this within a constituency or a country, never mind within a county, in getting agreement on what is the best approach.

Finally, I will mention the Trans-European Transport Network, TEN-T, which has been a concern over a number of years in terms of the opportunities there for investment. It is not as clear-cut as some people would make it out to be in matching funds, or the large portion of funds that are required to draw down money under TEN-T, but perhaps our guests might comment on the opportunities there as well, please?

I thank Senator Kyne for his in-depth speech where he has raised a wide range of very important issues which will emerge again in questioning and summations by our guests. I now invite Senator Mullen to make some opening remarks on behalf of the Independent Group.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach agus cuirim fáilte roimh ár n-aíonna inniu. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh siad taitneamh agus tairbhe as an gcomhrá seo inniu agus as an malartú tuairimí agus mar sin de. Tréaslaím leo as a gcuid oibre san Aontas Eorpach agus i bParlaimint na hEorpa ar ár son.

The question I address to our guests today has to do with the protection of human rights in the context of international trade deals. As our guests know very well, the EU has exclusive competence in negotiating international trade agreements for the bloc and the European Parliament, specifically, needs to give its consent for any agreement.

More and more people are concerned by the economic dependence of so many countries in the world today on China and on the implications for the human rights of countless people of this intertwined dependence on China.

I was recently looking for a toaster and went into a well-known supermarket chain and I turned its own brand toaster upside down and saw: “Made in China”. I said to myself that I would like to deal with another country as much as possible, other than China. I have nothing against the Chinese people but I am worried about economic dependence on China and the extent to which we were dependent on China for our personal protective equipment in the context of the battle against Covid-19, and so on. I hope that people will learn the lessons that flowed from that.

In any event, I looked at the next toaster which was a brand associated with an Irish company and I turned it upside down and what did I read but that it also was made in China. People do not realise the extent to which we have become dependent on China, not just as a trading partner for the purchase of our goods - which I say as a son of the land myself as I am very conscious of China and other such markets for our agricultural produce - but when it comes to areas like healthcare, pharmaceuticals and drug-testing, there are many ways in which we have allowed ourselves to become greatly dependent on China.

The danger is that the focus on trade is such that people forget to press hard for change in the area of human rights and the protection of human dignity. The Seanad voted last year in favour of the Government here using all trade and diplomatic channels to put pressure on China to identify persecution of the Uighur people and other minorities. It remains to be seen what the Government does in pursuit of that but there was a unanimous vote in this House on the subject. Where do our guests stand on the EU-China trade and investment deal? As the European Parliament needs to give its consent, what will our guests’ approach to that be? Specifically, I ask our guests whether they would support the inclusion of ethical clauses in any agreements taking place in the context of that deal?

Should we specifically ban the importation of products of Chinese companies that use forced labour, particularly forced labour involving weaker people but also any other kind? Forced labour seems to be a massive problem in China. I would be grateful if this important global issue could be addressed by the MEPs. I am aware it is connected to our economic welfare and trade agenda but the time has come for us to think globally about our security, including the security of the western world in the future. I am thinking in the context of 5G but I am also thinking about whether our economic dependency on China has compromised us, not just in our ability to speak out and act strongly in defence of human rights and human dignity but also in respect of our very security in the longer term. I would be grateful for the thoughts of our MEPs on that.

I now call on the leader of the Green Party in the Seanad, Senator Pauline O'Reilly, whose voice is very important here in the context of some of the remarks that have been made.

Ms Walsh and Mr. Markey are both very welcome. It is fantastic to be surrounded by my colleagues here today. This gives us an opportunity not only to examine what it means to be European but also to work together on a regional basis, which we may not have done in the past. For both of these reasons, I thank the delegates for coming along. The meaning of Europe and the European project is about coming together to act as one in our mutual interest. The same can be said of our parliaments and MEPs when they go out to Europe to speak, almost on our behalf or certainly on behalf of our constituents.

Acting as one has always been key to green thinking but we must be careful to remember that with membership of a large bloc comes great responsibility on the global stage. We talk about what we can get out of Europe but Europe also has an obligation beyond that. I think about us as human rights defenders, which the MEPs have spoken about. Ms Walsh has spoken very well about human rights and her passion for human rights. We have to look close to home. It is correct that domestic violence, which has not gone away and continues to be an epidemic, is part of a problem within Europe. We felt somewhat hamstrung when it came to acting on some matters, such as Afghanistan.

When we are considering changing what it now means to be Europeans and when we are having the conference, we have to go back to our core values all the time. That means that while we must be human rights defenders, our doing so must be based on pacifism, our neutrality and our sense of self as a nation. We must not be pushed into a stream that will ultimately see the destruction of Europe and go against the principle of being the responsible global citizen we are as a member of the EU and as a country.

The environment is the next big challenge. It is the current challenge. There are 73 Green MEPs in Europe. We do not have one in my constituency but both MEPs have spoken about the environment. It is important to have these conversations because the environment is not about one party; it is about all of us now. We all recognise that, not only in respect of the Common Agricultural Policy and all the funding that is available but also the broader issues concerning how we trade, which Senator Mullen touched on.

The real danger with opaque institutions is that there can be unethical practices. Trade deals must be borne in mind in this regard. I must ask a question about Mercosur, in particular. How will the MEPs vote? We face a major environmental danger in this regard, as does the agriculture industry in this country. Many trade deals are made in closed circles and the negotiations are conducted even before the proposals get to the European Parliament. How do the MEPs believe we can manage that? It is our responsibility. If trade is an EU competency, how do we oversee it as a country to make sure that all the deals live up to our values as global citizens?

My time is nearly up so I will ask some specific questions. I am sure there will be some hard-hitting questions but this is a good opportunity. It is the first of its kind. This makes the Seanad relevant and makes the European Parliament more relevant to the people within our constituencies, who are looking to see whether their issues are being brought up. This is a significant step. It is one of several initiatives by the Seanad to give back and to be relevant to our citizens.

The MEPs will have summation time at the end in which they might address the global questions being raised by the leaders. We will have the specific questions before then. They will also raise some of the same subjects. Our next speaker is a very distinguished member of the Seanad who was referred to by Ms Walsh, namely Senator Black. She is speaking on behalf of the Civil Engagement Group.

I am standing in for our leader, Senator Higgins, who could not be with us. On behalf of the Civil Engagement Group, I welcome our colleagues from the European Parliament. It is lovely to see them again. This is about Irish and European parliamentarians. It is both important and timely that we have the opportunity to discuss the role of the EU in addressing challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate and biodiversity crisis, and the humanitarian crisis happening across the globe. It is also an opportunity to discuss more broadly the ideals that underpin our Union and how they intersect with the challenges we face.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, parliamentarians across Europe, including Oireachtas Members, have been calling on the European Commission to play its part in ensuring equitable access to vaccination and medical treatment in the global south. Shamefully, the European Commission has continued to block a waiver under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, on Covid-19 vaccine technology at the WTO. A TRIPS waiver is a key tool in the global public health emergency, and the blockage to waiving intellectual property rights is actively prolonging the pandemic. The delivery of effective vaccines was not driven by the market but by large-scale public investment. Vaccines were developed with public money and, therefore, should be treated as a public good. I commend my European colleagues who have campaigned in favour of a TRIPS waiver. I urge the MEPs present to advocate strongly for a change in the European Commission’s position.

As we begin administering booster jabs in wealthy countries, we must recognise that we are doing so when a large proportion of the global south remains unvaccinated. Irishman Dr. Mike Ryan of the WHO has compared this to giving lifejackets to people who already have them while others are allowed to drown. Human rights principles are not being upheld and profit is being prioritised over human life. This is one of the defining moral issues of this global pandemic. So far, the EU has failed to act in a manner consistent with the principles of protecting public health and human rights.

At the end of the summer term, the Houses of the Oireachtas passed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill. At the time, my colleague, Senator Higgins, said Ireland is starting late and should be starting stronger. The same is true of the Fit for 55 legislative package. It is vital that our colleagues in the European Parliament be given a stronger role in strengthening the European Green Deal agenda. A 55% reduction in emissions by 2030 is welcome, but 55% should be the floor, not the ceiling. We must be prepared and, indeed, planning to exceed that target. It is also important that we should not enter agreements that will actively harm our ability to engage in climate action. The recent ruling from the ECJ demonstrates that the kinds of cases being taken by the fossil fuel companies under the ISDS provisions of the Energy Charter Treaty are not compatible with the achievement of EU climate targets. The European Commission has acknowledged that one of the main reasons EU countries have not left is the 20-year exit clause.

This 20-year exit clause from the Energy Charter Treaty is similar to the exit clause contained in the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, a treaty that contains a rebranded form of investor-state dispute settlements, and which would have the same regulatory chill effect. As parliamentarians we must oppose trade treaties that endanger our ability to tackle the climate emergency.

In respect of trade I must also emphasise to colleagues from this House and the European Parliament the need to ensure our trade does not legitimise violations of international law. The occupied territories Bill I introduced in the Seanad in 2018 must be passed to ensure Ireland does not legitimise international law violations in illegally occupied territories and places such as Palestine and Western Sahara. The Government's suggestion that the legislation would not be compatible with EU law is unfounded, given that in respect of Russia, sanctions relating to occupied Crimea and goods from there were found last year by the Court of Justice of the European Union to be legal within our trade law under the Rosneft ruling. It was found it was a matter of public policy when human rights are being violated. I urge colleagues in the House to support justice in international trade, and legislation that seeks to align public policy with human rights principles.

I finish by thanking the Members of the European Parliament for their attendance today. I look forward to getting further opportunities to engage with them, as well as our colleagues from Dublin and Ireland South. I apologise to Members as I must leave shortly and will not be able to stay for the answers. I would love to have a chat another time.

I thank Senator Black for that provocative and interesting contribution. I now move to questions and ask our MEPs if they might agree to hold back on the global themes until their concluding remarks. Perhaps they might answer the interlinking specific questions now. They will have two minutes to do that. Before inviting questions, I thank our colleagues for their contributions. Our MEPs can see how seriously colleagues take the linkages between this Chamber and the European Parliament by their presence today. This is taking place with many competing committee events and other matters. I thank colleagues for how seriously they are taking this initiative. In that respect they are voting with their feet and indicating in a very serious way to anybody with any degree of willingness to observe and listen that Seanad reform is a top priority here. This is a demonstration of that Seanad reform, which includes new initiatives of this sort in making a link with Europe. That is Seanad reform. It is not some abstract nonsense.

In turning to the questions we will adopt a European model and some of the people here who attend other European bodies will be familiar with it. The European model is that questions are allowed for one minute and the answers may take two minutes. The MEPs are used to that system. We have enough time to invite both MEPs to answer initially but if we see problems with time we can bunch or rotate those questions. We will ensure everybody can get in a question. Members can observe the clock and see how they are going. Senator Blaney of Fianna Fáil - or the ALDE group in a European context - will go first.

I welcome both MEPs. This is a vital move to fight the apathy on this island relating to Europe and how we work with it. I will take up some of the remarks already made, particularly relating to agriculture, Brexit and the Border. I am a Border representative and republican at heart and we all know the difficulties we have seen with Brexit. There are counties affected including that of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, my county and right down to Louth, from which Senator McGreehan hails. The gap where we see these Border counties, not just on our side but on the other, still exists. There was once a Border, midlands and west region but what can be done at a European level now to bridge the gap? The Six Counties no longer has representation so what can we do collectively to try to take up that role in representing the people? I have more questions but we can see if there is time at the end.

Mr. Colm Markey

As a man from a Border county, I know this to be a particularly important matter. There has been mention of agriculture and the product of mixed origin, which is a massive concern in the dairy sector. A product may be collected both sides of the Border and processed centrally. There are issues with free trade agreements. We had extensive engagements with the Commission and asked questions at committee level in the European Parliament in trying to get clarity on the matter. We have got some level of clarity.

Mr. Maroš Šefčovič is doing some work and there is tension building in the North, with the frustration arising from what, ultimately, was agreed by the United Kingdom over the course of Brexit. At the European level I urge that we keep Brexit on the agenda and ensure we give a bit of time to proposals that might address such issues. That is very important. The other key question is about creating structures that include the South and the North in a European context. Europe as a whole does not really allow for engagement with regional parliaments. We are looking at structures within the Good Friday Agreement and joint committee structures of the European Parliament to allow engagement at that level. It is what is required to move things forward. The small details can be resolved and there must be a focus in putting those types of structures in place. It could help in a big way.

Ms Walsh will also have two minutes but she is used to that.

Ms Maria Walsh

As politicians, we are never quite used to fitting things into two minutes, never mind one minute. I welcome the Senator's remarks. As one of four representatives from the midlands and north west, I know it is incredibly important for us to work across parties, and this will be fundamental in ensuring no voice will be left behind. There is great work to be done not just in the funding streams, including the €5 billion reserve fund to be ring-fenced into further peace process work and conversations North and South. It could equally apply to these conversations that include Seanad reform and proceedings in the Dáil and the European Union.

Unfortunately, we do not have representatives from Northern Ireland in Europe and this is a big mistake. Before going down a rabbit hole about why Brexit happened, I should say it fundamentally comes down to a conversation with citizens and ensuring all voices are respected. That is why the broader theme of the Conference on the Future of Europe plays a significant role within the future of all Ireland.

There is a big opportunity for tourism North and South. With the "three sisters" in the South we can look at something similar in the North, bringing in funding and other opportunities in the tourism sector both North and South.

I believe in education and conversation. The fact that the Government moved on Erasmus students both North and South was a major encouragement. As a Government in the South, we are certainly not forgetting our neighbours in the North while others might be. There is much work to do and it fundamentally comes down to a conversation.

I will be brief as I will also wrap up the debate. My question has two parts. What is the biggest issue or threat facing the European Union today? What is the biggest issue facing constituents in the midlands and north west?

Mr. Colm Markey

The Senator is as succinct as ever. There is no one or single matter.

Ursula von der Leyen's speech last week captured some of the main issues relating to the world and the environment, creating a sustainable future for Europe and the world and making sure Europe is not left behind. If we are best in class, despite the leakage that was talked about in terms of human rights and environmental standards in third countries, we will not lose out as Europeans in that debate. The environment is key.

Alongside that, Senator Chambers touched on the debate concerning our military future or our defence future, whatever way you want to put it. We are at a point where the US has stepped back from the world stage. There is a sense among some that there may be a space for Europe to become a military powerhouse. We have to be careful about where we go on that. We have always had a history, as other Senators touched on, and Europe as a whole has had such a history of being a leader in the moderate approach to world affairs. It is about looking at where we can play a role within the UN in bolstering the power that is there and having a global response, rather than creating another superpower. Superpowers have not served the world well and we need a pan-global response to address those issues. The environment, food security and defence are where that debate is going. I am more concerned about where the debate is going than where the issues are.

Ms Maria Walsh

The difficulty of going second is one's colleague steals all the good, biggest issues.

I know Ms Walsh is joking, but we could reverse it next time.

Ms Maria Walsh

No, the Leas-Chathaoirleach is all right because the next hard question would be more difficult.

The conversation on defence from the present Commission is worrisome, considering we are a neutral State. Looking at the way our Defence Forces, the Reserve Defence Forces and peacekeeping work, I would keep a close eye on that. We will discuss it at the EPP group next week. Where the German elections rise and fall will be of interest for that.

One of the biggest issues, and it also affects the constituency, so I will cross-section the two questions, is what it means to be an Irish person and a European person. We look at Europe in terms of our take, concerning the CAP and directives. Some are positive and others are negative. Regarding how we look at and talk about the EU's solidarity and returning to Mr. Markey's and Senator Chambers' point about vaccines, that was probably the first time we talked about and celebrated it in mass solidarity.

On Senator O'Reilly's point, our green initiatives and agendas constitute, from a young perspective, the biggest issue across Midlands-North-West, I believe from speaking with schools and third levels. I also believe that, while it is not an EU competency, the way we talk about and fund mental health at a national level will feed into how discuss it at a European level.

Our next speaker, from the Independent Group again, to ask what will no doubt be a very pertinent question, is Senator Mullen.

I apologise. I did not realise when I came in that I should not pose my question at that point. However, I have posed a question about China and the trade deal.

This is in order.

I have no doubt the MEPs will answer it. I will also ask a question about demographics. Politicians tend to take a short-term view; that is one of the weaknesses in politics. The long-term future of Europe, it is said by many and seems to be borne out by the figures, is that we face a demographic winter with a massive decline in population. Who will look after us in our old age? Who will pay the taxes to fund the public services we will need? What has the EU got to say? What is its area of competence? What role can it play or is it playing a role in addressing that question? How do we reflect on the migration crisis of 2015 in the light of that question? For many people, the decision of Frau Merkel to open the borders was about saying we need to fill the demographic hole through migration. There is a solidarity argument for doing all that in the context of migration but is that the main answer or does the answer involve policies that encourage people to have children? Is that a legitimate and important question for the EU? Countries such as Hungary, which have been criticised for their attitudes to migration, have enlightened policies in assisting families to have children, giving them tax benefits and so on. Is that part of the future? Is it something the EU is paying attention to?

We will for the next few questions reverse the order. I call Ms Walsh.

Ms Maria Walsh

I thank the Senator and I believe we will be given time to answer the China question he raised.

When we discuss taxes outside the corporate tax debate that is ongoing, it often falls to member states and how they will play. In the next five years, not in the current mandate but the next, I believe we will see a more cohesive approach in member state competencies blending with European competencies around the family unit. We have mild discussions about it, particularly around LGBTQI, but, as a non-parent, I feel it would be unjust if I offered a note on the future of what Hungary is doing, particularly around tax breaks.

On the shortfalls in migration, unfortunately, we will see post-pandemic shortfalls in minimum wage roles. There is a huge opportunity for new members in the Union supporting that and answering the question around who pays for it when we retire. There is an overall European approach to that. Legal, safe pathways help. Not playing into current politics and keeping to the point of looking at the longer term, the way Germany and France look in the next year or two after their elections will play into how the Union will play in terms of tax. I wish I had a clearer answer to that but I do not. I will come back to the Senator when I do.

Mr. Colm Markey

I think the response will be at two levels. We have to look at Europe's place on the world stage and whether it be migration or dealing with economic circumstances of people in other parts of the world, Europe has to play a bigger part on that stage in supporting and giving people opportunity elsewhere. That is part of what we have to do. Whether that involves an element of migration or not will have to be looked at.

There is another fundamental issue about supporting families, which the Senator talked about. We have to support people's choice of lifestyles and facilitate such choice. The pandemic has taught us a lot about people valuing other priorities that may not be just economic, such as time and family life. We have to do more to support people in their family lives. That allows people the opportunity if they choose to have family and makes it easier for them to do so.

There is no doubt we are facing a demographic cliff and the economic challenges of that. We have to ask why we are facing it and why people are choosing not to have bigger families or whatever. As part of that, we have to look at supporting how we work, including remote working, which we all talk about in this day and age. Childcare, for instance, is extortionate in this country. I have two children. One is four and a half and the other is two and a half. I am well aware that across Europe these issues are there. It is about a broader picture of how we support people in the lifestyles they have and the choices they make. If they want to have bigger families, we have to support them in terms of childcare. We have to support women in their role in the workplace and the space created to allow all parents, in particular women, to be facilitated if they choose to go down a family route.

We are not doing enough to support that and it would make a difference.

I thank Mr. Markey for that. As I return to my list we are being scrupulously fair with this today. As per the list, I call our next speaker, Senator McGreehan, who is from another Border county too.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. There is great representation from County Louth here today, including my two previous colleagues on Louth County Council. It is very good to see Mr. Markey here today.

My question, which was touched on by Senator Blaney a little while ago, relates to how we directly fix the democratic deficit that we have in Northern Ireland at the minute. Do we put forward proposals for representation on the European Committee of the Regions, or appoint a special rapporteur or person who will be a representative of Northern Ireland at European level? There is a very significant problem there. The protocol may be fixed, for want a better description, because of that.

Returning to what Mr. Markey has said on vaccines and orphan drugs, we are talking about the economies of scale on orphan drugs. Ireland is small and it is very hard to get very specific drugs into this market. We have heard of terrible business cases from the HSE and we are not giving these drugs to our children. How can the European Parliament help at European level to get orphan drugs into every single country in the European Union?

It struck me as Senator McGreehan asked her question that we have an excellent attendance of colleagues and a real engagement by our two MEPs. I wonder if this will get the level of media attention that would be upon us were it to be otherwise. Let us hope that it will. We will start again with Ms Walsh.

Ms Maria Walsh

I thank the Senator again and it is lovely to put a name to a face and vice versa. On the Senator’s point in respect of the deficit that we have North and South, to refer to Senator Blaney’s question earlier, it was a great oversight to lose representation at a European front, even while Brexit was ongoing. We are nowhere near ending that. I notice that the Senator is nodding in agreement. This will continue through our remaining mandate, if not beyond that.

I take, like and agree with the Senator’s point around a special rapporteur using the European Committee of the Regions. This can ensure a cross-Border conversation is continuously happening. Looking at the north-west regions and how they identify will be very beneficial to us all because it means that all voices are included and that when and if a Border poll happens, we will have all voices at the table and nobody will feel left behind.

On the point on orphan drugs, not to be simplistic on this issue but we now have a blueprint because of the way we purchase as a bloc, referring to the point made by Senator Chambers earlier on the vaccines. There are certainly bumps along the road. Like all things, we learned as we went, but it is a brilliant way to ensure EU solidarity continues on into other forms.

I also want to flag that we are having a rise in HIV and AIDS, not just in Ireland but across the European Union and further afield. When we talk about vaccines or orphan drugs in any shape or form, we also have to look at what is emerging to ensure we play our part in EU solidarity. I thank the Members for the questions.

I thank Ms Walsh and call Mr. Markey.

Mr. Colm Markey

I thank Senator McGreehan. As she says, it is good to have the County Louth connections.

On the Northern Ireland situation, it is very important that we look at where the current scenario allows for engagement between states at European level, but equally between Ireland and the UK. As the Senator has rightly pointed out, Northern Ireland is perhaps not getting a fair and full voice in that situation. There are structures, such as the joint committee and other structures within the protocol and the Good Friday Agreement, that can ultimately give Northern Ireland a greater voice. I do not think these structures are being invested in enough. They have not received the recognition they deserve. People on the ground there are not engaging to the degree or as proactively as they might.

The other side of all of this is that there is an enormous opportunity for Northern Ireland here. The unique status that Northern Ireland now has economically, by being part of the EU with access to the EU through the free trade agreement and access to the UK in the same way, is being fundamentally lost. There needs to be a project group on that area alone which could focus on a type of regeneration of Northern Ireland and that is an opportunity. One can talk about ambassadors or suchlike, but over two thirds of all businesses have identified this opportunity yet politics is lagging behind that opportunity. It is politics that is out of sync here. We need to find a way to encourage people to ensure they represent their grassroots and the interests that people have in progressing this situation.

In the few seconds I have left, on the vaccines, I am strongly convinced with regard to the whole area of preventative medicines. At European level we cannot do anything about accident and emergency units or emergency responses in the medical area but we can do a great deal in the area of preventative medicines and vaccines are a very significant part of that. That is something we need to look at as we go forward.

I thank Mr. Markey for that. I call Senator Ward.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. I welcome this initiative and it is great to have our MEPs here. As a former member of the European Committee of the Regions, I recognise how difficult it can sometimes be to achieve that connectivity between operations at a European level and at a national level. I acknowledge how difficult it must have been for Mr. Markey to take over when he did when everything was virtual.

My question is about Lithuania. Our guests will be aware that in August of this year there was a breakdown in relations between Lithuania and China over what would appear to us to have been the slightest of things, which was a change in the name of what was then the Taipei representative office in Vilnius to the Taiwan representative office. This was considered by China to be a slight. The response from China has been grossly disproportionate. It essentially ejected the Lithuanian ambassador and recalled its own ambassador from Vilnius to Beijing. It has now begun a sustained campaign against Lithuania online and in other ways. What kind of solidarity can Lithuania expect from its European colleagues? What do our guests think we can do to ensure China does not bully a small country, a country not very different from us in size, because we could be at the other end of this kind of bullying and aggression in the future?

We will go in reverse now and I call on Mr. Markey to speak.

Mr. Colm Markey

I thank Senator Ward for the question. We all referred earlier to the solidarity that Ireland received in the whole Brexit debate. That is something we can certainly reflect upon as to the importance of smaller countries. During the Conference on the Future of Europe debate, it is vital that the smaller countries still have a very recognised voice and are supported because they are the vulnerable ones.

That brings me back to my point about the global response. If one responds by allowing superpowers to dominate, vulnerable smaller countries are left behind, are exposed and frankly get rolled over. We need to get away from the world of superpowers and China is now a superpower. If we can get a global response and invest in institutions like the UN, as opposed to putting power blocs in place which undermine one’s position, that is very important. It is vital that we invest in a global response on issues as opposed to looking at having a vested interest in a superpower. It is very important that we talk about this superpower scenario at a time when America is taking a step back and Europe is looking at where to go. The Senator’s question is very relevant. In respect of China, which can be very different in how it approaches these things compared to how we would understand them in Europe, a response at European level needs to show, similar to Brexit, that we care for and put our arms around smaller nations. Second, we need to do something on a global basis that gives the status of smaller countries a meaningful place in the world and does not allow what essentially could be four or five superpowers to dominate the global future.

Ms Maria Walsh

I thank the Senator. It is refreshing to hear how his education and his involvement in the European Committee of the Regions is coming forth in all of his work, particularly around Lithuania.

On the point made by the Senator, it is a small country just like ours and it is built very similarly to ours. Europe is home to many Lithuanians, not just those living in the country itself but also those who live here and have contacted me regarding what the Senator just shared. I could not add any more to the remarks of Mr. Markey. It comes down to ensuring the buzzword "solidarity" is not just a buzzword. It is that the Commission and, in particular, the Council, are calling out these issue, that politics gets left at the door, and we are examining the issues, engaging with fundamental activists in human rights and ensuring communities are safe as a whole.

On the point made by Senator Mullen, there is a bigger conversation at play. The European People's Party, of which I am a member, is discussing and formulating a paper on our future relationship with China, which I will relay to Senators because it will be the blueprint for how we support further countries such as Lithuania and Ireland. I agree it is not just happening in one place; it is happening in many. Lithuania just happens to be the most recent example of it. From a committee base, we will discuss and debate it. We have done so at the Parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, LIBE, and I will work to see if we can get some sort of independent report based on that and feed it in to the Seanad. That is what I can personally promise, as well as speaking to Commissioners and making sure that communication is felt and seen.

If the Leas-Chathaoirleach does not mind me going off topic, I offer Senator Ward comhghairdeas on his recent engagement. I am delighted he is keeping it in the Fine Gael family. I offer my congratulations.

We are all delighted to be associated with those comments. I was going to mention it at the outset.

Senator Dolan is next but, in deference to party rotation, Senator O'Loughlin, who indicated earlier and was on the list, has arrived into the Chamber so I will take her question now, to be fair. I know Senator Dolan would want it that way.

My apologies. We had organised a meeting with the Alzheimer Society of Ireland that I had to leave the Chamber to attend.

This is a very good innovation in Seanad business. It is very good to have the opportunity to liaise with our MEPs. It is unfortunate we only have a 50% turnout of the MEPs the people have elected.

I listened to the start of the debate with interest. There was reference to corporate tax, but where do our guests see the debate going on that issue?

In the context of the view in Europe regarding Article 7 proceedings against Poland and Hungary, should Europe be taking a more hard-line approach? That is certainly my view.

Research on healthcare and dementia care are things with which we all have to grapple in Europe in light of the ageing population. Could there be greater synergy in terms of sharing research between countries or undertaking it collaboratively?

Mr. Colm Markey

As regards corporation tax, all present know the Irish position on it. We very much have to hold our position until such time as there is a universal consensus regarding where that is going. There is another fundamental point in this regard. There are other ways in which corporations have been supported by other countries. One such way I was studying over the weekend is in personal taxes. A corporation can pay its top executives who can then avail of tax breaks in some countries that allow them to avail of 2% personal taxation based on a classification such as a lack of IT skills in the country or whatever. That creates an imbalance. It is not appropriate to deal with corporation tax in isolation. You have to consider the grant aid that is provided to countries and the way in which corporations can be supported indirectly by virtue of their employees getting a particular tax break. There needs to be a broader response than just dealing with corporation tax on its own.

On the point regarding Poland and Hungary, I agree that Europe needs to take a stronger line. There are fundamental principles we in Europe believe in. If countries are not complying with those principles, we need to take full or stronger action.

The point regarding dementia is similar to the point I made regarding cancer care. At European level, we have the resources to invest in certain key areas, of which cancer is one and dementia is another, such that we can advance research much more effectively than individual countries can on their own. There is certainly a role for Europe, yet again in the preventative medicine space, to develop responses in these specific areas, particularly in respect of quality of life as well as everything else.

Ms Maria Walsh

I appreciate the Senator's questions. Mr. Markey could not have covered corporate tax better so, if the Senator does not mind, I will focus on the Article 7 proceedings against Hungary and Poland. I speak quite a lot about both as I am a member of the bureau of the Parliament intergroup responsible for LGBTQI issues. It is the largest intergroup, with more than 150 MEPs, which is very promising. A large proportion of them come from centre-right or centre-left groups, including the EPP and the Renew Europe Group. I believe it has taken too long to address this issue. Article 7 proceedings should have happened in the previous mandate. The fact we are allowing activists and community members on the ground to feel the impact again and again is testament, as a previous point made out, that society moves a lot faster than the political system, and that is a fundamental problem. I know with both there is back and forth in terms of legal proceedings and written reports. We are certainly keeping pressure on the Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, and the President of the Commission to ensure that is not dragged on any further and we will see a real move on the issue this side of Christmas.

Many of the questions in recent weeks and months regarding Article 7 have revolved around whether there will be another Brexit, but with Hungary and Poland leaving the EU. I believe that will not be the case but what I flag with regard to Article 7 is that if we reduce funding, while that slap on the wrist will hurt the purse strings, I fundamentally believe it will also hurt the people we need to protect the most. As such, some other sort of mechanism is needed, particularly in the context of women and girls as well as LGBTQI and other minority groups that are feeling the force of both the extremist Governments in question.

On the point regarding healthcare and dementia, I know our colleague, Frances Fitzgerald MEP, is working quite closely on the care package in respect of the people who support those with dementia. To go back to Mr. Markey's point, we have a body of opportunity based on what we went through and that blueprint from Covid to ensure we are working together - technologies, universities and research units across the EU - and creating that solidarity pack to protect people with and from dementia.

For Roscommon-Galway, there has been great engagement with the MEPs here today. It is wonderful to see it. I thank Ms Walsh, especially for her work on gender-based violence and LGBTQI rights and particularly in the context of mental health. I know Mr. Markey will be attending a launch event of the Europe Direct library in Ballinasloe next Monday. It is very important. There are eight Europe Direct libraries that drive confidence in the future of Europe and engagement with the EU. European funding is crucial. I refer to 25 local community groups, including the Roscommon LEADER Partnership and Galway Rural Development as well as those relating to enterprise, broadband, tourism, biodiversity and renewable energies. It is quite important. It is about ways to incentivise people to live and work in the west, and that is all about broadband and remote working.

As spokesperson on further and higher education, I will ask Ms Walsh about apprenticeship programmes. How will Europe help us to increase young people and others to get skilled up? Many people are changing careers. What skills will be required for future work?

I ask Mr. Markey to focus on the role of young people and Macra na Feirme, specifically in regional areas. I know he has significant background in and experience of that issue.

Ms Maria Walsh

I thank the Senator for her kind words and all the work she is doing, particularly in respect of vocational education training. We spoke at length previously regarding the impact that would result from removing the stigma that Erasmus+ or apprenticeships have for some but not for all.

It is about breaking down that barrier of communication and really looking beyond what a highbrow academic career can give a person, but also that work on the ground. I also acknowledge the Senator's point around the European Direct Information Centre. It is a phenomenal network and certainly something we need to promote and continue to engage with.

In terms of vocational education and training, in vocational education as a whole, I put forward an idea through the employment committee, which got political support right across the House, for a portal for others to feed into opportunities, both in apprenticeships and full-time roles for all ages, removing the restriction. Lifelong learning has to become a part of our everyday work and study environment so that we are not just finishing secondary school or third level and then removing ourselves from the education stream. That portal would ensure that it covers all 27 member states. Someone from the Senator's constituency of Midlands–North-West could, therefore, travel anywhere across the EU and engage with and talk about the benefits of the European Union but also get skills he or she might not receive here in Ireland. That is, therefore, something on which we are working.

I acknowledge that in her State of the Union speech last week, Ursula von der Leyen mentioned ALMA, a new programme for younger people, again, around vocational educational training to feed into opportunities, which is similar to the portal I just mentioned. I will, therefore, make sure to relay that information.

With 13 seconds remaining, I want to feed a little bit into agriculture. To address the Senator's point, we speak with women farmers a lot. Macra na Feirme has a large female representation. I certainly look forward to working with the Senator and Mr. Markey in making sure women are very much a part of the upcoming CAP.

Mr. Colm Markey

I thank the Senator very much for the questions, which I think were very appropriate. For one thing, she made reference to the LEADER programme and development work in that area. As a former chair of a LEADER company for four years, I fully appreciate the role that LEADER companies play in both economic and community development in rural areas. I would, therefore, be very supportive of any investment in that whole space.

I will pick up on the apprenticeship piece, on which I know Ms Walsh is very strong as well. As someone who did not have the benefit of a third level university education, I place enormous value in the vocational educational system and on apprenticeships in terms of what they do for people who are not necessarily academic but are no less intelligent. The system as we have it is very judgmental and disparaging towards people who do not go to third level education. It is something we need to address.

One thing that I always point out, which is very central to this issue, is that we should look at the amount of people in society today who started with an apprenticeship and run their own businesses. They are some of the best entrepreneurs we have the length and breadth of the country, from the one-man van to the people who have more. I deal with a couple of guys, one of whom is an electrician with 80 vans on the road. That fellow started with an apprenticeship. We have absolutely no respect for that type of education and where people can go from there. We need to change that fundamentally.

The Senator mentioned Macra na Feirme and rural Ireland. To carry on the same theme, there are so many people in rural Ireland who do not necessarily go to third level university education. I have always looked on organisations like Macra na Feirme as the clubs and societies of universities for people in rural areas. In terms of the potential to sustain, support and give opportunities to young people in rural areas, organisations like Macra na Feirme are vital.

I thank Mr. Markey very much for that response and Senator Dolan for the initial question.

Three people are offering to finish us off before we have the summation and Senator McGahon's final words. I propose to maintain a party rotational situation. We will, therefore, take Senators Martin, Currie and Pauline O'Reilly in that order. The answers will come in between; we have enough time to achieve that. I call Senator Martin.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. Like other Members of the Upper House, I thank our guests for their generosity of time and making themselves available in what is an innovative exercise, which I believe will be here to stay.

Do they believe the EU's voice is being heard and that it is doing sufficiently enough in the area of world peace? It was a triggering cornerstone for the very foundation of the Union. It should be a force for good. It is a peace project and at its heart should be humanitarian support.

Very recently we had the shocking development in Afghanistan. Not only was it an abandonment of people, but it was also done in such an abrupt way with no consideration for those on the ground. Is there greater potential for the EU's voice to be heard? I am opposed to militarisation but I am very enthusiastic for the great population and potential power of good that the EU can be, and for it to be centre stage in that regard. Was it properly consulted? The US and UN were involved, and I heard of Britain, but what about the potential for the EU to be front and centre of the humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan? I would love to hear our guests' views on that.

I thank Senator Martin. Ms Walsh is next on the rotation.

Ms Maria Walsh

I thank the Senator very much, first, for his enthusiasm in talking about the peace project that fundamentally built and continues to build our European Union. To address his point, I do not agree we are doing enough. I do not believe we have the answers quite yet. I say that in light of the reaction we had when Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban in recent weeks.

The initial reaction, particularly in groups and at committee level, was about where we house refugees and asylum seekers. It was about how we protect our own versus welcoming a fundamental loss, as the Senator said, into why we built the European Union. There is certainly an opportunity to fix and work on our reception centres and the welcoming that we give when moving people, as promised through the asylum pact, in less than six weeks and finding forever homes within the European Union, working again with VET opportunities in bringing people through education streams, particularly protecting women and minority groups faster and with ease.

While I am not just stepping aside from Afghanistan, I believe we also have much work to do at home in this country as well as across the EU. Hungary and Poland were previously mentioned. Since 2008, the anti-discrimination directive has been blocked by members of the European Council. When we think about it so many years on, that is the cornerstone and fundamental foundation for what the Senator just shared in terms of the peace project, protecting minority groups, anti-discrimination and hate both online and offline. That needs to move and we need to clean up the fact that our refugee and asylum process is simply too slow.

Mr. Colm Markey

I thank the Senator very much for the question, which I believe is critical at this juncture. As I mentioned earlier, with the change in the Afghanistan situation, the tone has been set from America and the like. Europe has always been a considered voice on the world stage; a moderate. It has always had a positive influence, probably borne out of its history. Let us consider that the great wars were all in Europe and we hopefully learned much from them.

I have a worry at this stage that this is changing somewhat and there is a need for us to go back to making sure, particularly from an Irish perspective, that our peacekeeping mentality is where we need to start from. There is a need to set a world agenda, driven by Europe, that is not about a superpower or about militarisation. It is about how we play the part of being that moderate but being proactive in terms of a response in somewhere like Afghanistan, where there are clear human rights issues and needs, and how we do that without just being another boots on the ground - I will not call it violent - military response. We must in some way move away from the superpower model to a global model. Europe is the very influence that can drive that agenda because we have never, as a bloc, gone down the strong military route. One thing that concerned me in Ursula von der Leyen's speech last week was the talk at that level about taking VAT off military investment.

There are voices in Europe who would like to be big players on the world stage and they see that as a superpower with military muscle. That is a retrograde step for the world at large. We, as Irish people, have a fundamental understanding of this and we must voice that strongly in this debate so that that does not happen.

I thank the Senator very much. I appreciate that. I now call my colleague who has waited patiently, but who we know will make a quality interjection, Senator Currie.

Mr. Markey might want to answer this because Ms Walsh might not be talking to me after the all-Ireland final against Tyrone. I thank the MEPs for their words today on the lack of representation for the North and being a voice for it. It is hugely frustrating for people who consider themselves European, whether they have an Irish passport or a British passport. We saw that through the EU-Covid digital certificate and now I hope a portal will be launched whereby they will have access to it, but there are still question marks around what takes precedence, citizenship or residency. Therefore, it must come with information around travel guidance, what airport one leaves, passenger locator forms and the process involved. It raised more confusion about the European health insurance card, which we want people in the North to be able to access again, no matter what passport they have. I learned in the past week that there could be a UK version that is in-between. I would like to hear the MEPs thoughts on that.

Will Northerners get access to ALMA?. That is an important question for us. The MEPs are both working also in the area of remote working, and they are familiar with the trans-border tax relief. That is something that is going to affect their area as well, and making sure that people can work from home. I am pleased to hear what was said about the originating status and the all-Ireland economy with dairy and whisky.

Mr. Colm Markey

I will start by addressing the trans-border tax scenario. We ran a webinar in the early summer on remote working. We worked closely with Grow Remote, which is a wonderful Irish organisation that is in 16 countries at this stage. One of the key issues it identified was that 55,000 jobs across Europe were available remotely. Anyone from anywhere could take up one of those jobs. The question was what was their status in terms of paying tax. Did they pay tax in the country they worked in or in the country where the company was based? Multiple issues arise about tax in a remote working scenario in a European context. That is something we identified, as have some of the organisations we have been dealing with. There is a lot more work needed and we must look into this space in greater detail.

As regards ALMA, Erasmus Plus is available across the Border and although, to be honest, I do not know, my understanding is that it would be available on the same basis. On the digital Covid certificate, at the time it was created, the offer was there at European level that it could be for more than just Europe but others did not take it up. That has led to some of the concerns that exist. It leads to a broader debate. It is not just about Covid certificates. It is about the status people have with Irish citizenship who are not necessarily resident in a country. I have a brother living in Spain who debates this with me every Christmas when he comes home. It is very important that we look at the broader picture. In other ways, it is an island-of-Ireland debate and we must look at how we can build consensus on wherever we are going in terms of an outcome that allows everybody to be part of something without being forced into it, and allows everybody's difference to be recognised as well. That is not being done at the moment in terms of what Senator Currie has suggested, and that is the spirit in which we need to engage with it.

Ms Maria Walsh

It is good to see Senator Currie. From the outset, I acknowledge her work since Covid started in ensuring Northern Ireland voices were discussed both in here and next door, and at a European level. We have spoken before about it.

On the point about ALMA, I cannot say for sure whether it is "Yes" or "No", but I am very confident that the extension will be there given the work done on the Erasmus Plus programme by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. I am more than delighted to work with Senator Currie to make sure it is included, especially in our party and in the EPP.

Mr. Markey is pretty much the biggest champion I know of Grow Remote and Tracy Keogh's work in making sure that the digital footprint is not just seen in bigger cities, but also across the European Union. On that point, the conversation on the future of our tax rate will play into the Senator's last point on pay and where people pay tax. I acknowledge and lean into her experience, and that of others in this House, of Northern Ireland. We have a lot to learn from their rich history and making sure that voices, while they are not included – the point came up several times today - in Europe, but through her as a vessel that we make sure that we keep abreast of the very sensitive nature of the issue. I believe we could have done a little bit better in terms of an all-Ireland approach because a lot of the difficulties our citizens faced, North and South, could have been made easier or their impact reduced if that had been the case.

Time is running out so the responses will be brief, but I want to go back to my original question and thoughts on us as global citizens and our global responsibility. Mr. Markey has spoken very passionately about the comments by Ursula von der Leyen, which were of concern to me personally because of our history of pacifism. That has given me some comfort.

I wish to address the TRIPS waiver. Several others here have signed a letter which was sent to the Taoiseach supporting a TRIPS waiver. What is the stance of the MEPs on that?

The other point I raised in my original contribution concerns Mercosur. I would welcome if the MEPs had some comments on it because it has consequences for the environment and also for agriculture here. What are their thoughts on that?

Ms Maria Walsh

I voted in favour of the TRIPS waiver in the European Parliament. The pandemic has stopped the whole world, therefore we need to show solidarity. We must also look beyond the TRIPS waiver. I mentioned the growing rise of HIV and AIDS in other countries and the fact that if patents are owned in Europe we should look at what immediate effect we can make. I understand the resources in other countries is not the same as it would be in the European Union. That still does not mean we leave anybody behind. The question was asked by Senator Pauline O'Reilly of whether we are here as a building block of solidarity or if we are leaving. I agree with what was said about any work we can do in terms of echoing that in the European Parliament. She should please let me know.

I wholeheartedly agree with her about Mercosur. We cannot ask for perfection in the custodians of the land and ignore the fact that, first, climate disasters are happening in other countries, and fundamental rights are not being protected either. I will be watching closely to make sure that the work we do as Ireland Inc. is also in sync. Mr. Markey sits on the agriculture committee. We make sure that we feed in any suggestions from constituents. I will be going into any debates on Mercosur with a green perspective because green initiatives and mental health are two common threads we need to have on everything and we are not getting it within that package.

I believe in competition and we must figure out other markets that will benefit the European Union and Ireland Inc., but not to the detriment of the environment.

I thank Ms Walsh. I call Mr. Markey.

Mr. Colm Markey

Regarding TRIPS waivers, I preface my comments by contextualising my position on this issue. As far as I am concerned, the only way we can solve the pandemic scenario is to deal with it in the context of a complete global response. In that regard, there is nearly a more fundamental need to address the situation in third countries, or developing countries, than in the First World. I voted against a TRIPS waiver. It passed, but it has achieved nothing. It was a symbolic gesture that allowed people to cleanse their hands and then state that they had done their bit and voted for a TRIPS waiver. I do not believe that the TRIPS waiver provided the capacity to roll out the vaccines. It did provide a patent. However, we saw how difficult it was to deliver vaccines, even for the companies that designed the patents. I think the TRIPS waiver is symbolic rubbish, frankly. It is a fairly strong thing to say, but what we must do is invest in capacity in third countries or developing countries. Europe has indicated that it is prepared to do that. It has put 750 million vaccine doses on the table already, plus another 250 million, and this week it has again committed to providing another 200 million doses. That is a real response. Investing in the capacity to deliver vaccines in third countries and developing countries is what we must do. The TRIPS waiver was a grand thing to vote through, but it delivered nothing. It did not deliver any capacity to roll out vaccines on the ground. My frustration with the TRIPS waiver stemmed from everyone voting for it, washing their hands afterwards and then saying our job was done. Our job was not done. We have much more to do in that area and I felt the TRIPS waiver was a distraction and a deflection from what we need to do in this regard.

I have only 11 seconds left. Regarding Mercosur, an agenda exists that is, essentially, transplanting the rainforests from South America to Europe and food production from Europe to South America. If we do not support industries producing food sustainably, we will allow our food to be produced in places where it is less sustainable. Therefore, we must protect sustainable food production and the knowledge and research base that underlies that undertaking in Europe. Mercosur does not allow us to do that.

We will reverse the initial order for the two four-minute summations. We must be strict with the time limits in this regard. Senator McGahon, who is the master of content and brevity at the same time, will then speak for two minutes. I call Ms Maria Walsh, MEP. She has four minutes for her summation and response, however she wishes to use the time. I thank her for her excellent engagement.

Ms Maria Walsh

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. This has been a refreshing conversation. While I may not have given direct answers or feedback initially, I am honoured and excited by this engagement and the prospect of the next steps within the context of the building blocks we have laid down today. I am not just excited for us in Midlands-North-West, but for all the other constituencies as well. Ireland Inc. must be moving in solidarity in the European Union, right across the political spectrum.

I will run through some of the points raised and start with those from Senator Chambers. I agree with the Senator's comments concerning the committee report on Brexit. I commend her on the ongoing work and conversations she has had in that regard and on ensuring MEPs were included in that process. I refer to the blueprint to address the Covid-19 pandemic and solidarity concerning how to move forward in that regard. The Senator made the point that citizens got excited about the EU and began to listen and learn a little more about the organisation in that context. I flag my concern, however, regarding last week's state of the Union speech in respect of the line that Ursula von der Leyen took on defence. We are a country of great accord. Senator Chambers and I have experience in the Reserve Defence Force and Ireland has long experience with peacekeeping missions. Peace in the European Union and throughout the world should never be forgotten and, therefore, we will be watching that aspect with bated breath. I am looking forward to the conversation we will have in the European People's Party group next week and to seeing some more of the detail regarding the building blocks that Ms von der Leyen laid down in her state of the Union speech.

I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Kyne's point about the perception of the EU and EEC. There are many benefits. Regarding Senator Chambers's point in this regard as well, there is much greatness coming out of the European Union, but there is a question concerning how we talk about the organisation except in the contexts of CAP and Erasmus. How are we linking these elements? Energy security was mentioned as well and I completely agree with those comments. Energy security is especially important in our neck of the woods and warrants further exploration. Working together with our councillors on the ground and in the context of different programmes, the Northern and Western Regional Assembly is applying for as many opportunities as possible in that context to help to bring the regions together and, essentially, to be as ambitious as we can for our Midlands-North-West constituency. We are a region in transition, but that should mean we will have the scope to excel in the context of other funding opportunities. I refer also to working with other EU member states to ensure we are drawing down as much as we can, while equally giving back as much as we can.

Ms Walsh has one minute left.

Ms Maria Walsh

That is fine. Senator Mullen mentioned China and we could talk about that subject until the cows come home. Regarding the Senator's relevant, pointed and timely question in this regard, I agree with him. We have relied on superpowers a great deal. I do not know how that will play out. I am keeping an eye on developing countries. The infrastructure being provided by a superpower like China in that regard and our reliance on sourcing personal protective equipment gear in that context certainly put me into that space as well and caused me to have a similar outlook in this regard. We will also discuss this issue as a group next week in respect of a paper on the future of China. We will be keeping a closer eye on this subject as it feeds through our committee and plenary sessions. Returning to the point made by the Senator, it is an ever-emerging issue and, with the rise of conversations about defence, it is a topic to be watched.

Senator Currie is not in the room, but I am very upset that Mayo lost the all-Ireland.

She never fails to bring it up.

Ms Maria Walsh

I am glad that she has stepped away as I shared my upset. I thank the Members again.

I thank Ms Walsh. I call Mr. Markey, MEP. I thank him as well for his excellent engagement and he also has four minutes to make some reflective remarks. Before Mr. Markey begins, I must state that Senator Currie misses no opportunity to mention the all-Ireland.

Mr. Colm Markey

I will use my time to touch on some of the areas mentioned regarding the opening remarks. Senator Chambers referred to some of the matters we have covered in detail, including a minimum tax rate, defence issues and aspects of the pandemic. The importance of agriculture did not come up much, nor indeed its importance as a multiplier in the local economy. Where agriculture must transition to during the current CAP is something that we could have spent a little more time talking about, but I will be happy to talk about it any time.

Turning to Senator Kyne's remarks, one aspect that I would like to pick up on, because it did not come up, is the Trans-European Transport Network, TEN-T, structure at European level in the context of transport in our region. We benefit very little from that programme. One thing which came to my attention in the transport committee, and which was initially brought to my attention by representatives of some of the ports in our region, is that the status of port traffic across Europe is measured by tonnage and passenger transport numbers. However, ports have become much more diversified or will do so in future. That will especially be the case if we develop offshore wind energy facilities off the coast of Ireland. Ports will have to facilitate significant construction and service requirements in that context. The method by which the status of TEN-T ports and similar scenarios in the wider transport network are gauged is not fit for purpose for our region in this respect. We must focus on that matter.

Regarding transition, the TEN-T scenario is one of the elements in that context. Investment in the agricultural sector, obviously, and the renewable energy sector has enormous capacity to regenerate a rural Ireland that would help to move our region out of its status as one in transition. Those undertakings would be in addition to the European Green Deal agenda, which has the potential to bring about a great deal of investment in our town centres, in the context of energy conservation of buildings, for example.

Remote working offers us shorter transport commutes. It also offers us the opportunity to reinvigorate small towns and villages in the region of the Midlands-North-West. This is something very important that we could focus on.

In regard to Senator Mullen's remarks about protection of human rights and trade agreements, if we do not ensure human rights feature in all our trade agreements, apart from anything else, it is going to leave us at a competitive disadvantage, because if the standards we demand from our competitors are not equal to the standards demanded by the EU, then we are undermining the businesses which deliver the higher standards.

I can translate that argument across to environmental legislation and the economy. If we do not demand from our competitors the same standards that apply in Europe for the food and the produce we produce, we are undermining our own industries which are doing things to the best standards. It is critical in any trade agreement or policy going forward that we demand similar standards from developing countries and third countries, although primarily third countries because there are different considerations in developing countries. We need to look at how that impacts on us at home.

Other points were made that I would like to pick up on, but time will not allow. I will finish by saying that this engagement is very important. It allows us to put on the issues on the agenda at a European level and it allows Members to put the issues on the ground onto the European stage. I would like such engagement to continue into the future, if possible.

Thank you, Mr. Markey. I call on Senator McGahon to respond.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. It is a privilege for me to be able to respond on behalf of the House to Mr. Colm Markey and Ms Maria Walsh. This is the Seanad at its best. This is exactly what the Seanad should be used for, and this is what we should try to do more often in the future, especially to counter the challenge that this House is not fit for purpose. This is exactly what Seanad Éireann is intended to do and I would welcome our doing this more in the future.

What is incredible about Mr. Markey and Ms Walsh is that Mr. Markey is only a year in the job, and Ms Walsh is only two years in the job. I do not say that because they are in my own party, but listening to the two of them, you would think they were veterans of European politics. That is a testament to their ability and their characters as politicians, and it shows us how well represented we are in the Midlands-North-West constituency. They were able to come in here and speak on a wide range of issues, from Lithuania to energy security to trade deals to China, and they were able to do so flawlessly, without pondering and without a stutter. It came so naturally to both of them. This shows the huge level of ability it must take to become an MEP and to be able to speak so fluidly on such a wide range of topics. It shows what a challenging job it must be.

We, in the Seanad, want to thank them. Obviously they have such busy schedules but we thank them sincerely for coming in today and for giving up their time. Members of the Seanad, and I think I can speak for all my colleagues, are very thankful for that.

We have enjoyed this engagement and hope this will become an annual fixture because it is very important. It is important for them, as Members of the European Parliament, to be able to have that greater connection to the Oireachtas, to both the Seanad and the Dáil, and it should be considered in the Dáil as well.

To wrap up, I again want to thank them. Today has been wonderful. For me, it has been one of the most enjoyable debates in the Seanad over the past year, and I look forward to it happening again soon.

I thank Senator McGahon. He has captured the views and thoughts of everyone. I could see from this vantage point how engaged everyone was. This has been a success beyond the wildest dreams or imaginings of myself and the Cathaoirleach, and we discussed this for some weeks. It was an unqualified success. To achieve that success, I thank the Members who attended. Some had to leave to attend other committees but spent time here. There was a huge attendance right throughout. Not only did Members attend, but they asked quality, reflective, competent questions, which I appreciate.

I want to thank our two MEPs for the way they engaged, with absolute sincerity, and for extraordinary competence demonstrated in their responses. Senator McGahon captured that. It is great that in such an important forum as the European Parliament we have people of such quality, depth and capacity. It is a serious forum. Studies have been done on this, but the impact of the decisions of the European Parliament in terms of the directives and the regulations on our lives in Ireland is phenomenal. For that reason, it is important to have competent people there, which has been displayed today.

I thank the MEPs for being here today, because there was a physical effort involved in that given the nature of their job. I thank them for their presence and I thank my colleagues. As Senator McGahon said, this has been a red letter day in the history of the Seanad. It will encourage us and we will continue with this initiative in the various areas.

Sitting suspended at 4.47 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.