Partnership and Cooperation Agreement Between the European Union and the Republic of Singapore: Motion

Before proceeding to the business of the meeting I remind members and those in the Gallery to switch off their mobile phones for the duration of the meeting as even if they are on silent they may cause interference with the recording equipment. The purpose of our meeting is to consider the motion referred to the committee by Dáil Éireann on approving the terms of the partnership and co-operation agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Singapore. Under the terms of the Dáil motion of 15 September 2021, we must consider the matter and having done so report back to the Dáil no later than 31 October 2021.

On behalf of the committee I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and his officials to our meeting and I thank the officials for the briefing we have received beforehand. As it is the Minister of State's first meeting with this committee I offer him a special welcome. We will not be overly detained by the content of the meeting, having regard to the hour and his busy schedule. We will hear the his opening statement and then we will take questions from members.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus le baill an choiste atá sa seomra coiste agus ar líne freisin. I have the pleasure to introduce this motion, which has been referred by the Dáil to this committee, on the approval of the EU-Singapore Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. Deepening our engagement and our presence in the Asia Pacific region is a key strategic goal for the Government. Our dedicated Asia Pacific strategy to 2025 sets the framework for growing our economic and people-to-people relationships in the region. Agreements between the EU and Asian partners, such as this partnership and co-operation agreement with Singapore, are an important part of that ambition.

Recognising the increasing political and economic importance of south-east Asia, Ireland has opened three new embassies in the region in recent years in Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila. In this broader context, Singapore is an influential voice within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, region and an important partner to Ireland and the EU. Like Ireland, Singapore is a small and exceptionally open economy, which relies on the rules-based global trading system. It has successfully positioned itself as the gateway to south-east Asia and as an attractive location for foreign direct investment in the region. It is an important base for Irish companies and our State agencies operating in this dynamic and opportunity-filled region.

The EU-Singapore Partnership and Cooperation Agreement is an important framework agreement to further strengthen co-operation and dialogue across a broad range of bilateral, regional and multilateral issues. This includes many priorities for Ireland in the region, such as health, climate change, energy, education, science and technology and transport. The EU has also has recently upgraded its relationship with the ASEAN region to a strategic partnership. In economic terms, Singapore is a major centre for finance in the region and is also a major trading partner and priority market for Ireland and Irish businesses in the Asia Pacific region. Trade in goods and services with Ireland in the region in 2019 was more than €10 billion.

Despite disruptions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, trade in goods between Ireland and Singapore rose by a quarter during 2020, highlighting the benefits of the existing free trade agreement, which creates jobs here. The partnership and co-operation agreement before the committee will facilitate further opportunities for Irish companies in areas such as energy, aviation and education. In Singapore, our embassy and officials operate alongside Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland, and IDA Ireland. With this strong team Ireland presence, I am optimistic we will see continued growth in our relationship in the coming period. Freagróidh mé aon cheisteanna atá ag na baill.

I apologise to Deputies Brady and Clarke for starting the meeting prior to their arrival. I thought they may have been on the line from their offices rather than attending in person. In the normal course of events I would go to Deputy Brady but Deputy Berry indicated that he would like to put a question.

I do not have a question. I just want to welcome the Minister of State and support of the agreement between the EU and Singapore. I have a twin brother living in Singapore so I have a vested interest from that perspective. I have visited there a number of times; it is a lovely location and I approve of the programme and agreement.

I thank the Minister of State for attending. While strengthening relationships with anywhere in the world has to be welcomed and I commend that, I have a few concerns and I am looking for clarity on the partnership and co-operation agreement. Given the concerns there were around the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, I note that the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, which is different from this agreement, was agreed and entered into force in November 2019. Given the similarities in the investor court system, ICS, I will ask a specific question on that. What are the procedures around the ICS and are they implicated in the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement or is what we have heard today specific to this co-operation agreement? Has the agreement been ratified by Ireland? Are we talking about any of the elements of the ICS today?

I will take Deputy Stanton before going back to the Minister of State.

I welcome the Minister of State on his first visit to the committee and I thank him for being here and for his introduction. I want to raise a few issues on human rights in Singapore and whether they are taken into account when drawing up agreements such as this. I understand there is an internal security Act and they have issues with the suppression of media, freedom of expression and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, LGBTI, rights. The Minister of State might comment on that if he can. In a recent election, one party took 83 out of 93 seats. I also understand the death penalty is still in place in Singapore and that it has high execution rates. Singapore also has caning, public flogging and so on. I am concerned about whether some of these issues are taken into account and discussed when the EU enters into agreements with other countries.

I am not in a position to speak to the ICS but I will get Deputy Brady an answer on the trade agreement. That trade agreement is in force and I have not heard of any difficulties with it or of any corporations being able to change Irish laws because of that. It has unquestionably been good that we have had increased free trade with Singapore. Maybe when we are discussing the possibilities in agreements that are not yet ratified we should look at what has happened in previous agreements but that is a separate issue and I will get the Deputy an exact answer on that.

Deputy Stanton is correct to raise the human rights issues and they are of concern to us. He also mentioned Singapore's Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which is a concern. Human rights issues are taken into account and this particular partnership agreement gives us a platform to engage with and influence Singapore on these issues. We could decide to have no relationship or trade whatsoever with Singapore and we would begin to lose influence on human rights issues. What is happening on the ground is that concerns have been raised by member states about their work and about the work of civil society in Singapore.

We constantly engage with civil society in Singapore and seek t

We constantly engage with civil society in Singapore and seek assurances from the Ministry of Home Affairs about academics, and their work, but concerns remain.

The specific Act that Deputy Stanton mentioned is not yet in force. The Irish embassy, in co-operation with EU colleagues, will continue to monitor developments and the manner of implementation, if it comes into force. It give us a platform on which to engage and influence issues such as the death penalty and the issues that have been raised. Many countries have abolished the death penalty. This year, France celebrated the 40th anniversary of abolishing the death penalty and it is approximately 20 years since Ireland officially abolished the death penalty but there are many countries with whom we trade that have a death penalty, and there are some famous examples. I am certain that this particular agreement gives us a better platform on which to engage with the Singaporean authorities on this and other issues.

Similar agreements have been referred to Select Committee on European Union Affairs so why has this agreement come to this committee?

The Minister of State has mentioned that the agreement gives us a platform to engage on human rights and he specifically mentioned the death penalty. How and why can we not do so without the agreement?

Let me give the example of the partnership co-operation agreement with the Philippines with which we have some human rights concerns. There is a sub-committee on human rights there that we can deal with. There is also a joint committee, although it is not identical to the UK-EU joint committee, but there is a similar arrangement there between both sides where all of these issues can be discussed. There is a formal process within which both sides can discuss these issues. I know that it does not influence the laws of Singapore as such but it gives us a direct platform so we can sit around the table and discuss these issues with Singapore.

The question that we have is: does we simply ignore these issues or try through trade agreements to improve the situation? Trade agreements have a benefit in terms of employment and have a practical influence on the ground. However, if we stopped trading with every country that we have human rights concerns about, trade would reduce dramatically. The EU tries to apply its values-based trade approach to the global world. We must try spread our influence in terms of the values that we hold dear, such as democracy, human rights, etc. through trade and, in many cases, that can be tied into agreements. In this case, we feel that our influence will be stronger because of this agreement. It does not give us a direct role in how Singapore produces its laws or whatever but the agreement gives us a direct voice into Singapore through trade. There are some other agreements.

Why has the agreement come to this committee as opposed to the Select Committee on European Union Affairs?

That is a matter for the Dáil.

In terms of the work of this committee, prior to this there was an EU affairs subcommittee of this committee. I know that there is a stand-alone Joint Committee on European Union Affairs but there is ample precedent for us to deal with this issue, which would be external to the EU in any event as Singapore is a third country.

Is there merit in the agreement being discussed here as opposed to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs?

My understanding is that there is precedent for this committee to deal with such an agreement. Perhaps internal EU affairs issues would more properly be dealt with by the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. We are discussing an agreement between the EU and a third country, namely, Singapore, and this type of arrangement has been dealt with by this committee in the past. Therefore, it was deemed appropriate by the House to refer it here. I am not sure if the Minister of State can add further to this matter but that would be, from a committee point of view, a matter for the House rather than a matter for his office.

In general, referring items to committee, and the clerk to the committee can correct me, is just for the convenience of the Dáil that will, ultimately, decide this. Technically, the Dáil could have a debate on this matter but there would not be enough time. The Dáil refers these matters to a committee and I am happy to talk at any committee.

Issues such as Singapore and human rights or whatever at a European level would certainly be dealt with by the EU Foreign Affairs Council, which would be related to this committee, rather than the EU General Affairs Council, which would be the equivalent of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. Perhaps that is the reason in this case.

It is fair to say that international agreements would be more particular to this committee than any other committee of the Houses.

The Minister of State mentioned the agreement with the Philippines. Has progress been made on human rights issues in the Philippines given the agreements that are in place?

There was a partnership and co-operation agreement with Brunei but that was suspended due to the imposition of Sharia law. I give that as one example of where we said "No". In addition, one could not discuss those issues and it was time to go. We hope to have agreements with Malaysia and Thailand as well. The agreement with the Philippines is a good example. The agreement was signed in 2011 and entered into force in 2018. It has allowed for the creation of specialised subcommittees, which are similar to the EU-UK specialised committees and subcommittees. The agreement has allowed for both sides to be represented in terms of the following: development co-operation, trade, investment and economic co-operation, good governance and the rule of law, and human rights. The agreements give the EU an opportunity to influence countries.

We need trade for our own economic prosperity but, quite frankly, we need to ensure less developed countries trade, and I emphasise that Singapore is a well developed country. Agreements help trade to flow and that, in turn, brings wealth to other parts of the world thus greatly benefiting the lives of people. Part of the global migration problem is due to reduced economic benefits. One of the ways to reduce migratory pressures is to help economies to grow in parts of the world that are developing, which is one of the benefits of trade agreements. All of the areas I listed are dealt with in the trade agreement with the Philippines.

As my official, Mr. Boucher, has reminded me, the Philippines has agreed a moratorium on the death penalty in this presidential term. That decision was made in part due to the EU's agreement and influence plus effective diplomacy by countries from around the world. I say that because these are issues that our diplomats and other diplomats, particularly from the EU, talk about all of the time. I have given members a practical example where an agreement has worked to the benefit of people, improved human rights and led to economic development.

I am not going to ask Deputy Stanton if he is happy with the reply given by the Minister of State. Does the Deputy have anything further to add to his earlier contribution and the position outlined by the Minister of State?

I thank the Minister of State for his response and wish him well in his work.

There are reports about the treatment of migrants in Singapore. As we enter a trade agreement with Singapore, where employment is important, I draw the attention of the Minister of State to the conditions experienced by migrants in Singapore. It is not a positive situation. I ask him to add the matter to his list of issues when the agreement is being negotiated.

To date, 12 member states have provided notifications on the completion of procedures. Can the Minister of State update us on which member states have not moved forward on this matter? Is he concerned about the fact that they have not moved forward?

Has analysis been conducted on how human rights fit into our national plan for business and human rights? A UN treaty on business and human rights has been talked about for a long time. The EU and Ireland have dragged their heels on introducing a binding treaty on business and human rights.

The Minister of State might outline where we stand on a UN treaty on business and human rights, whether it is something we are supportive of and, if we are, how this co-operation agreement fits into that. He might give an outline of what analysis has been carried out on all of those critical pieces of work and also our position in regard to a binding UN treaty on business and human rights.

I thank Deputies for their engagement. As I understand it, there is no particular issue about member states ratifying it and this has not arisen as a huge political issue around European capitals. For example, CETA has arisen as a big political issue, I would say, in a minority of EU states and, although there were obviously strong voices in the European Parliament, it has not always been at the same level. Am I correct in saying the Dáil motion on this was over three years ago? I suspect that, just like here, it is a question of parliamentary time, Covid and so on, and it just has not moved on. I do not think there is any particular political issue as such about that.

I thank Deputy Stanton for raising the issue of migrant workers. We will certainly raise that and keep it in mind.

With regard to how this fits into the broader strategy, the Global Ireland: Delivering in the Asia Pacific region to 2025 strategy has been published by the Department. That concerns a wide range of items that Ireland is interested in doing, whether it is strategic relationships, economic partnerships, our diaspora, our culture, our values or our own visibility. That is very important. Deputy Brady will find it is a very comprehensive document. It is a two-way street. It has an economic focus but it also has a values focus because that is what we are interested in.

On the question of a binding UN treaty on human rights and business, I will ask the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to revert to Deputy Brady, if that is okay, as it is under his purview.

That completes the questions. The Minister of State has heard the serious concerns of the committee on the matter of human rights, on labour law and practice and on international business and human rights arrangements. We trust that he will take these concerns in the context of next steps.

We share many of the concerns raised today and they will continue to be raised by our diplomats and the European Union in the context of this agreement but more generally as well.

I want to go back to a point raised by Deputy Clarke. That piece of work was referred back from the Dáil to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs so it puzzles me how it has ended up before this committee, given the fact a trade agreement between the EU and Canada landed with the Committee on European Union Affairs. I sit on that committee and I am not sure if many of its other members are aware of this piece of work. There is an onus on us to notify the Chair of the Committee on European Union Affairs. It warrants further scrutiny by that committee but also, on foot of this meeting with the Minister of State, rather than this just being ratified by the Dáil, I think it warrants further debate in the Dáil.

I have a valid concern in this regard. While I accept the answers the Minister of State has given and I understand his position, I am not comfortable that the work of this committee meets the full amount of scrutiny that needs to be carried out. We can look at human rights and look at it from a foreign affairs perspective, but I very much suspect there are other committees that might be interested in looking at it in the context of their own priority lists. We will be doing a massive disservice to ourselves and to those other committees if they are not also given the opportunity to have an input or express an opinion on this.

I will make three points in response. First, the Dáil in plenary session on 15 September referred this issue to this committee. Second, I understand there is ample precedent for this committee dealing with such arrangements. Third, given what Deputy Brady has said, I will contact the Chair of the Committee on European Union Affairs. My understanding is that in terms of the CETA arrangement, the Committee on European Union Affairs made a strong pitch that it would be the committee dealing with that and, because of that, it was referred by the plenary session of the Dáil to that committee rather than to us. I suggest that we seek approval and ask the Minister of State to, or that we ourselves would, make mention of the concerns that have been raised here. I am not sure how much further we can take this in terms of other committees dealing with it. I do not want to pre-empt what the Committee on European Union Affairs might do but I imagine it will be mindful of the fact we have given consideration to this in accordance with the mandate that was given to us directly from the Dáil on 15 September. I will flag the issue in terms of Deputy Brady and Deputy Clarke being satisfied that the process here was in accordance with good practice and the business of committees.

We are referring this back to the Dáil. If the Dáil has further issues with that, it is a matter for general Standing Orders and it will then be a matter for the Ceann Comhairle. I suggest that we complete our business in accordance with the mandate given to us on 15 September. If the Dáil wishes to take matters further, that would be a matter for the Dáil. I am sure the Minister of State is, as he has said, in the hands of the Dáil.

It is incumbent on this committee to make its view known and, maybe in tandem with referring it back to the Dáil, that we make a recommendation that time be provided in the Dáil to debate this issue further before it is ratified.

I imagine it would be a matter for the Dáil to take up that issue once our consideration has been given. I understand from the clerk that we should give appropriate consideration but for us to make further recommendations would not necessarily be within our remit. However, as a Member of the House, if Deputy Brady wanted to propose that at that stage, I am sure the Ceann Comhairle would be open to making a ruling. I do not want to pre-empt what the Dáil might or might not do. This committee has expressed some concerns to the Minister of State and he is aware of these concerns. In fact, he has indicated that, from a Government perspective, he does not have an issue with any of the concerns that Deputies Stanton, Clarke or Brady have raised. What I ask is that we now, on completion, indicate to the Dáil that we have given this matter our consideration. What happens beyond that will be a matter for the Dáil.

That is fair enough and I take on board what has been said in terms of the committee not being allowed to make recommendations. I also hear what the Minister of State said and, from that, I take it he would be open to time being provided in the Dáil to discuss this.

I do not think we should put words in the Minister of State's mouth.

That is what I took from what the Minister said. Perhaps I am wrong.

It is a matter for the Dáil.

I said I am in the hands of the Dáil. The motion is passed in the Dáil and we just come to do whatever we are asked to do.

There is precedent for this matter being taken further but I am not sure that we are in a position to cite that. It will be a matter for further consideration once the plenary session of the Dáil has it. In the meantime, I believe it is incumbent on us to inform the Dáil that we have given the matter consideration and that is why, in accordance with Standing Orders 90 and 89(2), it is my belief we should send the following message to the Dáil, namely, that we have given the matter consideration, that we have completed consideration of the motion and that Dáil Éireann approves the terms of the partnership and co-operation agreement between the European Union, on the one hand, and the Republic of Singapore, on the other. If the Dáil wishes to take matters further, we can produce the transcript of this committee.

Alternatively, if members wish to alert the Dáil to their belief that this matter should be further considered, that is entirely in order. Is Deputy Clarke happy with that? She might not be happy with it, but she can understand the process.

I can live with it.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, for his attendance.