Political Dialogue and Co-operation Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Cuba: Motion

The purpose of today's meeting is consider the motion referred to the select committee by Dáil Éireann on the proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the terms of the political dialogue and co-operation agreement between the European Union and its member states, of the one part, and the Republic of Cuba, of the other part. Under the terms of the Dáil motion of 11 June 2019, the committee must consider the matter and having done so report back to the Dáil not later than 25 June 2019.

On behalf of the select committee, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee and her official to today's meeting. The format of the meeting is that we will hear the Minister of State and then take questions from the members. I call the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to make her opening address.

I thank the Chairman and the members of the select committee for this opportunity to discuss the motion referred to the select committee for consideration:

That Dáil Éireann approves the terms of the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and its Member States, of the one part, and the Republic of Cuba, of the other part, signed at Brussels, Belgium, on 12 December 2016, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 31 May 2019.

This agreement is the first bilateral agreement between the EU and Cuba and signals an important step in developing EU-Cuba relations and, in turn, Ireland-Cuba relations. Cuba’s relations with the EU have improved significantly in recent years, forming part of a general pattern of increased openness on the part of Cuba to re-engage with international partners.

This agreement is robust and comprehensive, consisting of three main pillars, namely political dialogue, co-operation and sectoral policy dialogue, and trade and trade co-operation. The core aim of the political dialogue and co-operation agreement, PDCA, is to open channels of dialogue and co-operation between the EU and Cuba in order to assist the modernisation of the Cuban economy and society, strengthen human rights and democracy, and work together to achieve the sustainable development goals. The agreement provides for a comprehensive dialogue between the EU and Cuba on a range of policy areas, including human rights; small arms and light weapons; disarmament and non-proliferation; sustainable development; terrorism; serious crimes of international concern; unilateral coercive measures; combating illicit drugs; and combating racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The agreement also provides for the development of co-operation, including on political and legal issues such as democracy, human rights, good governance, justice, citizens’ security and migration, as well as on social, environmental, economic and developmental issues. Most of the agreement has been provisionally applied since 1 November 2017. However, its full application requires ratification by all the EU member states once they have completed their own internal legal procedures.

Since establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1999, Ireland’s relationship with Cuba has grown significantly. The visit of President Higgins to the island in 2017 was a high point in our relations and facilitated the further strengthening of ties between our two countries. This visit also highlighted the interesting shared history between the two countries, with Irish emigrants having contributed to the economic, cultural and political evolution of Cuba over the years, and Cuban leaders having been influenced by the leaders of the Irish revolutionary and independence movements.

Cuba opened an embassy in Dublin in 2001 and Ireland’s ambassador to Mexico is accredited to Cuba. I welcome the ambassador here today. The recent opening of two new missions in Latin America, in Colombia and Chile, has significantly increased our footprint in the region and has allowed our embassy in Mexico to dedicate greater resources to developing our relationship with Cuba. The year 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of relations between the two countries and is being celebrated with a series of cultural events organised by our respective ambassadors.

Ireland and Cuba are like-minded on a number of multilateral issues such as disarmament, non-proliferation, gender equality and climate change. We signed a memorandum of understanding on political dialogue with Cuba in 2015, and have since engaged in three rounds of bilateral political consultations, where such issues of mutual concern were discussed.

It is also important to acknowledge concerns about the challenging human rights situation in Cuba. Ireland is keenly aware of the difficult situation that exists for human rights defenders and civil society actors in Cuba. Ireland, together with the EU and our fellow member states, continues to encourage reform within Cuba, particularly in the areas of freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly, the protection of open civil society space and a free, fair and open judicial system. The EU and Cuba have an annual dialogue in the area of human rights and this agreement provides for further engagement in this extremely important area. Encouraging steps have been taken by Cuba, including in the reform of the constitution, approved by referendum after a process of public consultation. Among other reforms, the new constitution establishes the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings and the right to habeas corpus, and extends a ban on discrimination, including on the basis of sexuality. The PDCA recognises the potential contribution of civil society and specifically provides for further co-operation between the EU and Cuba in this area and encourages the active participation of civil society in the formulation and execution of development co-operation policies.

I thank the select committee for the opportunity to present this motion. My assessment and that of the Department is that the PDCA provides a solid framework and welcome opportunity to strengthen both EU-Cuba and Ireland-Cuba relations, providing for closer economic and political ties, and it also helps to provide the framework for further constructive dialogue on the many human rights issues.

I hope the select committee will support the motion, and that Dáil Éireann may approve the terms of this agreement so that Ireland may proceed to ratify it in the near future. I am happy to take any questions members may have at this point.

I thank the Minister of State and call Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.

This is a significant date in Ireland-Cuba relations. It has been a long time coming. I acknowledge the presence of the ambassador today and also the work of his predecessors, Teresita de Caridad Trujillo Hernández and Hermes Herrera Hernández, who worked on this for many years. It is the culmination of all of that work that we are at this particular step today. This is an important agreement, as is establishment of Ireland-Cuba relations for 20 years and the celebrations there will be to mark that. The agreement is quite comprehensive in respect of the three pillars on which it will work.

I have been lucky to be able to visit Cuba a number of times and I have seen first hand what life is like there.

We can learn much from Cuba in particular areas. One of those areas is sustainable development and its use of eco-villages and eco-towns as well as in the areas of education and the accessibility of the health system regardless of people's means.

This ratification is needed for full application. We now need to see the concrete steps as to exactly what this will mean for both Ireland and Cuba. There is great potential for further engagement between Ireland and Cuba, particularly on trade and I know some small groups are working on that. However, the elephant in the room is the United States. I am not sure how much progress can be made while that is not being addressed. I have asked the Tánaiste many questions on the matter. I will quote from his reply to the most recent one: "Ireland believes that the embargo serves no constructive purpose and that the lifting of the embargo would facilitate an opening of the island’s economy to the benefit of its people."

For this agreement to really bring about progress and more positive effects for both Ireland and particularly Cuba, that needs to be addressed. How can we trade with a country if there is an embargo and if there are also banking issues? How can we apply pressure to get that blockade lifted? We know it was lifted for a short time under President Obama and it has now come back again. It is causing so many difficulties for people in Cuba. How successful can this agreement be while the blockade is in place? That is not to take from the significance of the agreement.

I agree with the Deputy and I reiterate the Tánaiste's points that we believe this economic embargo serves no constructive purpose. The embargo seriously hampers our own economic activity as well as that of the European Union and any progress that Cuba itself can make. We have consistently supported the annual resolution put forward by Cuba, most recently for the 27th consecutive time. One might argue that obviously has not changed things. However, as a united European Union, we all need to continue to reiterate and consistently support that position at the UN General Assembly and wherever we have an opportunity to raise this concern. Obviously there were conversations most recently with the President of the United States of America. We need to use those channels, our strong relationship with the US, to raise these concerns at every stage we can.

As the Deputy has said, if the embargo is not lifted, there is only so much this overall agreement can do. I think it still allows us to do a considerable amount and creates opportunities for continued dialogue at every level of the Government in terms of human rights and in terms of their own economic activity. We need to use the measures we can. I know the Tánaiste has done so particularly at the foreign affairs committee which he attends regularly.

I know the focus of trade missions is the Asia-Pacific region, but if there is a trade mission going in the other direction across the Atlantic, Cuba should be considered. If we had a trade mission, including Cuba, would it be able to make progress because of the embargo? We know of firms that have been fined because they have had engagement with Cuba. I love the agreement which has been a long time coming, but we need to get onto the next step now.

I absolutely agree. We are trying to increase our engagement in that region in general. I was in the Caribbean recently for a meeting of foreign affairs Ministers. Obviously our focus on opening new embassies and consulates spreads across the globe. The Tánaiste is keen to focus on that region in opening a new consulate or embassy. The more engagement we have, the more people we have on the ground, then obviously the more connectivity and communication giving greater opportunity to raise it in terms of the US challenges and in particular the Helms-Burton Act.

I welcome the Minister of State to our meeting. This is an important issue for a small country like Ireland that as an independent country we show willingness to help a country like Cuba to develop properly. Irrespective of the past, we are in the present. These are people who deserve support and help in developing their economy. Little is known about Cuba in this country. There was a time when Cuba was mentioned that people would say we do not have anything to do with that part of the world.

This is a relatively small independent country that is developing and going its own way. As can be seen from the figures, it has a small number of unemployed compared with Ireland. It has a population about three times ours, but its GDP per capita is only one ninth of ours. For countries like Cuba coming from where it came from in a relatively short period, a country like ours, which is totally independent, should use whatever influence we have to bring and help them along and to support their development. The average person living in Cuba went through periods of living under a very strict regime. It is at times like this when it is developing that it needs friends and support. It is important for an independent country like Ireland with no hard views one way or the other to support it.

I recommend that a small delegation of maybe a couple of Members of this Parliament should visit these countries at this stage of their development and report back so that we can find out at first hand what is happening. Nothing but good can come out of this. An independent country like Ireland can play a significant part in helping the development of Cuba along the lines I would like to see.

I am delighted to be here to encourage that we take it seriously. Along with other countries Cuba is coming from a background that was very foreign to us. Very few of us knew about Cuba up to recently. We need to show support and encourage it to develop like a true democracy. We should give any help or advice we can at this stage in its development.

Dr. David Hickey helped to raise the profile of Cuba one day in Croke Park, when the GAA was honouring one of the Dublin teams of the 1970s.

Our relationship is very warm. Based on trade between the two countries, Ireland is Cuba's 24th most important trading partner. While we are not very high in the list, Europe is very high. We can do much more in increasing that figure. People-to-people relationships and contacts have increased considerably in recent years with the President visiting in 2017. The Cuban vice-Minister for foreign affairs visited Dublin last October. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, visited Cuba for St. Patrick's Day. It is extremely important to continue those visits be it on a trade mission or political engagement. Obviously the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Cuba this year gives us an opportunity through the embassy and the ambassador to highlight the connection we have and build on it. This enables us to create greater dialogue between our two countries. We can also build on the relationship we already have. They are very warm relations and we want them to continue that way.

We should try to establish a formal friendship group with Cuba.

The Deputy might work with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan on that. We have a friendship group.

I have not come across it. My apologies.

Deputy Pringle is the convenor of that group. We have met. I will include Deputy Barrett on the list.

I am delighted. That is grand. I am delighted with that sort of development and ask colleagues to pardon my ignorance. Nothing but good can come out of that.

I welcome the Minister of State. Like others, I fully support the motion on Ireland's ratification of the EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement. Unfortunately, the process seems to have taken longer than anticipated and we are one of the last EU countries to ratify the agreement. The Minister of State might explain the background there. It is welcome that we are discussing it today and hopefully it will receive broad if not unanimous support in this committee and in the Dáil.

When people talk about the history of Cuba, I think about what was there before the independent Cuban state that exists now. I think of the Batista regime when it was a playground for the rich. The Mafia was involved, people were downtrodden and poor. Literacy was extremely low in the local population. That has all been transformed. For many of us it is a shining beacon in that part of the world to see how a small country, despite all the pressure from a near neighbour, has developed. Its education and health systems are examples for all of us around the world, no matter how developed our countries are. The extraordinary thing for Cuba is that for all the tragedies around the world, it has sent its people in, for example in respect of the apartheid regime, and the invasion of Angola, when the Cubans stood with the South African people. The recent peace process in Colombia probably would not have happened without the facilitation of the Cuban Government. We have a lot that we can learn. I refer to hurricanes and so on and to the doctors who are sent into the shanty towns and the poor areas. There is enormous positivity. Anyone who travels to Cuba meets the people. It is friendly and safe. It ticks all the boxes for a holiday. Society is free and open and people feel comfortable. Anyone I know who has travelled to Cuba wants to go back. That is a great message to be sending out.

There have been long connections between Ireland and Cuba and I hope they continue. The EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement is the first bilateral agreement between Cuba and the EU. The EU is Cuba's second most important trading partner, its biggest external investor and the source of one third of the 3.5 million tourists visiting the island every year. It is important that we have this agreement to build on and improve these ties. However, to date, Ireland's trading relationship with Cuba is relatively poor. This morning we have an opportunity to vastly improve this. I urge the Government to investigate possible avenues where we can improve our trading ties with Cuba. As the agreement will soon be ratified by all EU member states and will come into force, does the Minister of State know of any plans to send an Irish trade delegation to Cuba?

I refer to the issue Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan raised. I have talked to some companies that wanted to invest in Cuba and increase those ties but there has been a monetary difficulty. Has the EU discussed this? How are they going to get around the US embargo? It is the biggest difficulty for trade with Cuba. There is difficulty for ships travelling with goods and so on. I commend the Irish Government on consistently supporting the Cuban motion at the UN condemning this illegal blockade. As the Minister of State said, it is the 27th time. That is something we can be proud of as a country. We have close ties with the US but, at crucial times, it is important that we stand up and speak up for another small nation. Under the Obama Administration, some moves were made to loosen the blockade but the measures did not go far enough. They probably came too late in the term of the Administration as well. Progress was made towards a broad change, however. There was a message that change was coming. The famous handshake at the funeral of Nelson Mandela was the right message, not only in the context of the funeral but also more generally between the US Administration and the Cuban Government.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has tightened the blockade to levels never seen before. This includes unilaterally imposed measures. The US national security adviser, John Bolton, was speaking in Miami on the 58th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Miami is an important swing state and it is part of the difficulty of US Administrations that they are in thrall to this state, particularly to those who left Cuba. Mr. Bolton confirmed that the US would fully implement Title 3 of the Helms-Burton Act, which allows Cuban-Americans to sue foreign companies if they trade with Cuba. That is one of the difficult barriers that we will have to overcome. It completely contravenes the commonly accepted rules of international law. The US Government must not be allowed to impose extraterritorial measures and should immediately lift its illegal blockade. That is what we are publicly saying and putting into law by passing this trade agreement. Has the Minister of State discussed these extraterritorial measures with her European counterparts and is she working with other European governments to challenge the US Administration on these measures? This is the next challenge that is going to face us. Most important, trade involves finance. On measures that penalise or make it more difficult to trade with Cuba, we need to signpost what they are and try to overcome them collectively. I welcome the fact that it is being discussed. I am a bit concerned that we were such a long time coming to it and would appreciate if the Minister of State can give us the background on that. There is strong support in Ireland for this agreement. Anyone who has travelled to the area is impressed by the quality of life of Cuban people.

We would all agree that we can learn something from each other. We can certainly learn from Cuba and they can learn from us. That is why it is important not just for Irish-Cuban relations but for EU-Cuban relations as well. On the timelines, it is true that 20 other member states have ratified this already. There are still some that have not, so we are not exactly last. One of the biggest challenges has been Brexit. There is no point in saying otherwise. There has been a delay in terms of administration and staff in being able to process this. At the same time, that has not prevented the actual application of this agreement, which has been in place for some time now. A number of informal dialogues have been taking place since as far back as 2015 in anticipation of this agreement, particularly in the area of human rights. The most recent one took place in 2018, in October I think, with the anticipation of this being agreed by all member states. We have moved it along as quickly as we can. There were other challenges in front of us; there was no other reason.

There are no plans that I am aware of at the moment but this is something we can raise with Enterprise Ireland. The Global Ireland 2025 strategy is focusing on doubling our global footprint across the globe. This region is of particular significance for us as well so if there are particular companies that have an interest, Enterprise Ireland would be very interested and happy to engage in that regard. I believe a number of small Irish companies are actively pursuing opportunities in the Cuban market but as mentioned by many Deputies there are many challenges in terms of the embargo and also the Helms-Burton Act. That is an issue we have raised, and particularly the Tánaiste, at the foreign affairs committee. The High Representative, Federica Mogherini, has raised that also in our discussions at the United Nations. We have been asking for the US to reinstate the waiver that had previously been in place for six months at a time. It was then reduced to 45 days and it is no longer in place now. That is hindering matters and, as far as we are concerned, is contrary to international European law. We are continually raising that issue to see if the waiver can be reinstated as quickly as possible.

Overall, relations between the EU, Ireland and Cuba have improved significantly in recent years. This agreement shows a willingness and an openness for Cuba to re-engage on specific issues and areas of concern. This gives us the platform to do that. Also, the 20-year anniversary gives us a particular emphasis this year and an opportunity at home and in Cuba to see how we can strengthen that, not just in terms of trade or economically but culturally and otherwise.

I thank the Deputies for their support. I look forward to the motion being passed by the Dáil with full agreement and support from all political parties and none.

I thank the Minister of State and the members for their constructive contributions to this important discussion. It is an important agreement and as the Minister of State said in her introductory remarks, it provides for comprehensive dialogue and co-operation between the European Union and Cuba. I am glad it was signed on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between both our countries in 1999. That development enabled a significant strengthening of relations between both countries and the raising of issues of common concern.

I endorse the comments of my fellow committee members on the potential for trade. Hopefully, Cuba can be included on trade missions as soon as possible.

The select committee is now adjourned.