Partnership Agreement Between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and the Republic of Armenia: Motion

Before we proceed with the business of the meeting, I remind Deputies and the people in the Gallery that their mobile phones should be switched off completely for the duration of the meeting because they can cause interference with the recording equipment in the committee rooms, even when they are in silent mode. The purpose of today's meeting is to consider the motion referred to the select committee by Dáil Éireann relating to the approval of the terms of the comprehensive and enhanced partnership agreement between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and their member states, of the one part, and the Republic of Armenia, of the other part. Under the terms of the Dáil motion of 12 November last, this committee must consider the matter and, having done so, report back to the Dáil not later than 26 November next. On behalf of the select committee, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and his officials to today's meeting. After we have heard the Minister of State's opening statement, we will take questions from Deputies.

I thank the Chairman and the select committee for giving me an opportunity to discuss this motion, which has been referred to the committee for consideration. The motion that Dáil Éireann has been asked to approve reads:

That Dáil Éireann approves the terms of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and their Member States, of the one part, and the Republic of Armenia, of the other part, signed in Brussels on 24th November, 2017, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 11th November, 2019.

This modern, comprehensive and ambitious agreement, which was signed in the margins of the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels in 2017, provides a framework for Armenia and the EU to work together for the benefit of the citizens of Armenia to strengthen democracy and human rights and to create more jobs and business opportunities, fairer rules, more safety and security, a cleaner environment, better educational opportunities and more opportunities for research. The scope of the new agreement, which has been concluded within the context of the Eastern Partnership initiative, is comprehensive. It covers issues of EU competence and interest and reflects the existing wide range of co-operation in economic, trade and political areas and on sectoral policies. It develops these areas further, thereby providing a long-term basis for the further strengthening of EU-Armenia relations. In addition to facilitating stronger economic relations, the agreement aims to enhance political dialogue and to promote peace and stability. By intensifying this dialogue and improving co-operation across a broad range of areas, the agreement lays the foundations for more effective engagement with Armenia. At its core is a commitment to strengthen the promotion, protection and implementation of fundamental freedoms, human rights, the respect for democratic principles, the rule of law and good governance.

Armenia is undergoing a period of rapid and positive political change. In what was termed the Velvet Revolution, the spring 2018 protests against the then Prime Minister, Serzh Sargsyan, eventually forced his resignation and led to the elevation of Nikol Pashinyan to the office of Prime Minister.

Along with our EU partners, Ireland watched the events of spring 2018 in Armenia with great interest. The revolution resulted in a remarkably peaceful transition of political power in the country. Ireland, together with the EU, continues to encourage and support Armenia’s reform efforts, with a number of positive steps having already been taken, including Armenia's new five-year government programme, containing a series of political, economic, judicial and governance reforms, which focuses on enhancing rule of law, fighting corruption and improving protection of human rights.

Ireland’s bilateral trade with Armenia is not hugely significant. However, this comprehensive and enhanced partnership agreement will allow for more access into the region and will help to develop greater opportunities for trade and investment, including in the areas of education, research and innovation.

While Armenia is not seeking EU membership, relations have gone from strength to strength in recent years due to the EU’s Eastern Partnership mechanism. The most visible illustration of this is the 2017 comprehensive and enhanced partnership agreement. The EU is the largest provider of financial support to and a key reform partner in Armenia. The EU stands ready to continue engaging in Armenia and to provide support through political dialogue and financial and technical assistance in order to support the Armenian Government's ambitious reforms for the benefit of the citizens of Armenia and EU-Armenia co-operation. This support is critical to ensuring a sustained approach to ongoing reform efforts in Armenia aimed at enhancing democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, with the ultimate aim of increasing security, prosperity and socio-economic resilience.

The EU contributes €40 million annually to Armenia in grants at present, with the focus on supporting the reform agenda of the new Government, private sector development, education and the development of focal regions, including the promotion of e-governance. In addition, more than €1 billion in the form of blended loans and grants has been invested in the energy, agriculture and transport sectors since 2014.

I wish to acknowledge the ongoing concerns over the so-called frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian Prime Minister recently affirmed Armenia’s commitment to the peaceful settlement of the conflict, which Ireland and the rest of the EU have welcomed. I understand that there has been some progress in talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the EU welcoming the current decrease in tension on the ground and the constructive and calm attitude shown by both leaderships. Ireland’s position, like that of the EU as a whole, has been supportive of the Minsk process of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, with the aim of moving towards the peaceful resolution of the conflict on the basis of mutual compromises.

I thank the committee for the opportunity to present this motion. The agreement will not only broaden and deepen the EU’s relationship with Armenia and provide for closer economic and political ties, but will also provide the framework for further constructive dialogue on human rights, fundamental freedoms, rule of law and governance. I must emphasise that, by ratifying this agreement, we will be in a position to add our voice to the EU and 27 other member states in encouraging Armenia on its path to reform, rather than sitting on the sidelines as others engage. I hope that the committee will support the motion and that Dáil Éireann may approve the terms of this agreement in order that Ireland might proceed to ratification before the end of 2019. I am happy to take committee members' questions.

I am happy to support the motion as the Minister of State has presented it but will he flesh out the political landscape a little more? How well functioning is Armenia's democracy? The Minister of State also mentioned the issue of human rights. Will he provide more detail on Armenia's human rights record? It is a country of approximately 3 million people, which is not a large distance from our own population's size.

I thank Deputy Collins for his question. Armenia is undergoing a period of rapid political change. Following the Velvet Revolution of spring 2018, Nikol Pashinyan inherited a country facing serious corruption and human rights problems. Ireland watched the spring 2018 events with great interest. The revolution presented a remarkably peaceful transition of political power and was followed by a five-year government programme, which contained a series of political, economic and judicial reforms while also focusing on governance, enhancing the rule of law, fighting corruption and improving the protection of human rights. The purpose of the agreement is to provide a framework for further strengthening the bilateral relationship between the EU and Armenia in order that this work can continue. The EU's commitment is based on a commitment to promoting respect for democratic principles and enhancing fundamental human rights. The agreement also covers co-operation across a number of sectoral areas, including people-to-people relations and strengthening civil society and co-operation in education, culture, research and innovation.

Armenia is probably in a place that Ireland was many years ago, in that it is beginning a journey of transition. The more that we engage at all levels with Armenia, the greater the influence that we can have to encourage reform. By ratifying the agreement, we can influence Armenia from within the fold of the EU, which is exactly from where we should be doing it. Should we choose not to ratify the agreement, we can only observe from the sidelines while others continue to engage effectively and press for the kinds of reform that need to happen. Ireland engages with human rights in Armenia through the EU, the Council of Europe and the OSCE by ensuring that focused attention remains on human rights issues. As such, it is critical that Ireland ratify this agreement and play a central role in ensuring that reforms take place.

No mention was made of elections. Have elections been held? Are elections forecasted? If elections have been held recently, what was the report? Did independent monitoring take place? The Minister of State might inform us.

Elections were held in December 2018. The EU had a monitoring presence there as part of its role in promoting reform.

I thank the Minister of State.

We welcome the Minister of State's remarks. He talked about rapid and welcome progress. The other reforms, including around the protection of human rights, are important. Through a partnership agreement, those issues can be monitored in a more practical way and support can be given. From that point of view, the agreement is welcome. I thank the Minister of State for engaging with the committee and presenting to it.