Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

Brendan Howlin

Question:

1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt. [9684/19]

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Seán Haughey

Question:

2. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the February 2019 EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt. [10274/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt and meetings he attended there. [10517/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Egypt for the EU-League of Arab States summit; the bilaterals he held with other leaders; and the issues that were discussed. [10588/19]

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Joan Burton

Question:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent participation in the summit between the European Union and the League of Arab States. [10603/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent attendance at the EU-League of Arab States summit. [10783/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he spoke to the Prime Minister of Hungary, Mr. Viktor Orban, at the recent EU-League of Arab States meeting or since. [10907/19]

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Eamon Ryan

Question:

8. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent meetings at the EU-League of Arab States summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. [10952/19]

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Oral answers (41 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.

I attended the summit between the European Union and the League of Arab States on 24 and 25 February in Sharm El-Sheikh. The purpose of the summit was to deepen and extend the partnership between the European Union and Arab countries, enabling us to tackle our many shared challenges more effectively. The summit was the first ever meeting between leaders from the two regions and marked an important milestone in our efforts to deepen the partnership. Stronger EU-Arab co-operation is required if we are to find effective and sustainable solutions to regional challenges such as migration, terrorism and radicalisation. It is also essential in countering the many threats to regional peace and security, including conflicts and humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Sudan.

At the summit EU and Arab leaders agreed a joint political declaration which restated our commitment to resolving regional problems through a robust, rules based multilateral system. The declaration also included important commitments on promoting human rights, countering incitement to hatred, xenophobia and intolerance. It restated our shared position on issues including the Middle East peace process and nuclear non-proliferation.

As well as participating in the summit, I had the opportunity to meet several Arab leaders, with whom I discussed bilateral relations and Ireland’s candidacy for the UN Security Council. I met the Egyptian President, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Mr. Saad El-Din Rafik Al-Hariri, the Deputy Prime Minister of Oman, the Foreign Minister of Jordan and the Emir of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. I also had a brief discussion with the Palestinian President, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas. I also took the opportunity to discuss EU matters, including Brexit, with my colleagues from the EU Council. I met the British Prime Minster, Mrs. Theresa May, and also spoke informally to Presidents Tusk and Juncker, as I did again at the European Council on 21 and 22 March in Brussels. I did not have specific meetings with Mr. Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, on either occasion, but I did have the opportunity to speak to him briefly on the margins of the EU-League of Arab States summit and at the European Council last week, as I did with many other heads of State and Government.

In the dialogue with the League of Arab States was there any discussion on the use of Libya in dealing with the migrant crisis? There have been extraordinary revelations of human rights abuses in Libya. The European Union is funding the development and building of the Libyan coastguard to intercept potential migrants crossing the Mediterranean and repatriate or return them to unspeakable conditions in Libya. Was this matter discussed? Will there be EU oversight of the appalling human rights conditions and abuses in some of the holding centres in Libya?

Was the appalling and ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen discussed? Will there be concerted action on the part of the European Union to deal with the situation where Saudi Arabia, backed by a number of other Sunni Muslim governments, including Iran, is supporting militia in Yemen? The humanitarian cost of the conflict is an unspeakable tragedy. Will the European Union be taking any initiative to deal with it?

The United States recently issued a declaration endorsing the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights in Syria. While I welcome the announcement made by the Tánaiste in that regard, will the Taoiseach clarify whether there will be a joint EU initiative on the matter?

Brexit is dominating discussions here and at EU level, for obvious reasons, but it is important that we do not take our eye off the ball in dealing with a number of other issues. At the European Council summit to be held in Romania in May, a strategic agenda will be prepared for the period 2019 to 2024. What will Ireland's position be in that regard? The pre-Council statements to be made at the time will be very important in order that the Dáil will be fully informed of the situation.

Earlier this month a vision for Europe was outlined by the French President, Mr. Macron, in an opinion piece published in the 28 EU member states. In it he seemed to be suggesting sovereignty should be pooled in new areas and that we should proceed with closer integration. What is Ireland's position on the vision set out by President Macron? While I accept that a more detailed answer is merited than time will permit, I ask the Taoiseach to give some indication of the Government's views.

On migration, the Taoiseach has mentioned that the aim of the summit was to improve the partnership between the European Union and the League of Arab States. Some nation states are struggling to promote democracy and economic development and climate change is a big issue for many of these states. It is right that the European Union support them. It is in its interest to do so from the point of view of dealing with migration, the root causes of which we must address. More than 1.5 million refugees came to the European Union from Syria in 2015 and other humanitarian crises have been unfolding since, as mentioned during the course of this discussion. Does the Taoiseach agree that it is important that Ireland play a role in resolving these issues at a humanitarian level?

This time last year, just prior to Land Day, I warned the Taoiseach that the Israelis were preparing to attack the Great March of Return protests planned in Gaza. I do not think he even responded when I raised the issue. In advance of the protests I said it was likely that hundreds of Palestinians would be killed and that turned out to be the case. It is estimated that more than 200 Palestinians were killed and that a further 18,000 were injured. The conflict continued for months. Land Day is coming up at the end of this week and further protests are planned by the people of Gaza to vindicate their right under international law to return to the homes and villages from which they were expelled in 1948. Israel is already giving signs that it is going to do the same as it did last year. More innocent Palestinian blood will be shed as the Israelis seek to deny the Palestinians their rights under international law. At the same time, the US President, Mr. Donald Trump, in defiance of international law, has legitimised the illegal annexation by Israel of the Golan Heights which is sovereign Syrian territory. Was there a discussion at the EU-Arab League summit on the likelihood of the conflict escalating into violence again because of the justified and legitimate protests by the people of Gaza to vindicate their rights? Was there a discussion on the behaviour of President Trump in legitimising the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and his systematic denial of Palestinian rights? Are the Irish Government and the European Union going to do anything more than they did last year about the likely killing of innocent Palestinians?

As Deputy Haughey said, Brexit is raised in a later question and will also be discussed during statements later. Therefore, I will focus my attention on a number of other matters.

The Syrian conflict has had an impact on the Middle East which will last for many years and has directly led to the largest humanitarian emergency of our time. The Assad regime's brutal suppression of dissent and the added ferocity of attacks since Russia began to take a leading role have resulted in displacement which is causing immense hardship for the people involved and exerting real pressure on neighbouring countries. Was there any discussion on providing assistance for countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that host the largest refugee camps in the world and currently see no prospect of helping people to return home, given the attitude of the Syrian regime to its opponents.

On the issue of the Mediterranean Sea, the Taoiseach will be aware of reports that the number of migrants attempting a crossing on both of the main routes are down on the historic highs, but they are rising again. There are obvious and dramatic failings in the response, particularly in relation to Libya, as Deputy Howlin has alluded to. Did the Taoiseach make any statement about how people are being treated by authorities in some European countries and by European Union funded agencies in North Africa in particular?

The move to a security alone approach, which is being pushed by some Governments under the influence of the hard right, is very dangerous. It remains the case that security and enforcement takes up 70% of all European Union funding relating to migration and immigration. This means organisations that take the lead in supporting integration are left scrambling for funding and are less able to undertake the type of work that would reduce tensions and help migrants and their host countries. The future regulation and funding of this sector is currently being discussed at European Union level. Will the Taoiseach advocate for a greater emphasis on integration work?

Since the Taoiseach's visit to the United States of America for St. Patrick's Day I think that President Trump has probably made one of the most profound and historic statements of his presidency so far in a very eye-catching period for his presidency when he made his statement on America's future approach to the Golan Heights. I assume that when the Taoiseach was in Egypt for the EU-Arab League summit, relationships between the EU and Israel must have been discussed at length, and also the relationship of the EU and the Palestinian people. I would like to know the Taoiseach's reaction, speaking on behalf of the Irish Government, to the statement by President Trump. It is certainly an extraordinarily historic move by the Americans and is an area into which they have not previously gone. The statement has come days before an Israeli election. Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to discuss this with his EU counterparts? More importantly, what is the Government's view and what is the Taoiseach's view of what President Trump has done?

With regard to the summit at Sharm El-Sheikh, did the Taoiseach have an opportunity to discuss climate change? Each Deputy who has spoken here so far has referred to various dreadful conflicts in different parts of the Mediterranean. Many of these conflicts have come about partly due to the severity of climate change affecting much of Africa, including north Africa. In particular, Mozambique and southern African countries are experiencing the aftermaths of a ferocious storm that has caused massive loss of human life. I do not know at this stage if Irish Aid has formally rendered assistance. I am aware that many of the Irish aid agencies have done so and I commend the Irish aid agencies for the help they are giving to southern Africa in the aftermath of this incredible storm. It has been a bigger storm than any recorded previously in that part of Africa. I relate the two because climate change in terms of wars over resources such as water and carbon resources-----

The Deputy is over her time.

-----is a key part of what drives conflict in all of these regions. I would like to know what the Government plans to propose in this regard.

In the context of Italy's relationship with the Mediterranean Sea, which is long and historic, we now see that populism is very seriously on the march in Italy. I note that one of the Taoiseach's fellow European People's Party, EPP leaders, Mr. Orbán, was at that summit.

The Deputy's time is up.

Will the Taoiseach comment on the politics of populism? I understand that Mr. Orbán's membership of the EPP seems to be suspended but he is perfectly happy with that. He is a member but it is not an active membership currently-----

The time for this particular group of questions has elapsed.

He was suspended.

I know, but they will need him after the election. It is cynical.

The time has elapsed for this group of questions and there are still two questioners offering. Do we want to-----

I propose that we take the two questions.

We may take-----

Given that the previous speaker took up our time, I insist.

Is it agreed to take ten minutes from the remaining sets of questions? Agreed. Deputy Cullinane is next. I ask that Deputies to stick to the allocated time. Everyone is as well able to read the clock as I am.

Recently we have seen two unilateral acts by US President Donald Trump in relation to the Middle East, and particularly Israel and Palestine: the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and more recently the statement on the annexation of the Golan Heights. Both of those acts are unnecessary, dangerous and inflammatory. I acknowledge the response by the Tánaiste but I also want to hear the Taoiseach's response. Is there an agreed EU-wide position on the annexation of the Golan Heights statement and acceptance of that by the US President? We know the position of the Government but will the Taoiseach indicate if there is an agreed EU position on this?

Ireland has a special interest in this because I understand that our troops are still in the Golan. It is a particularly difficult mission in a precarious place. It is frustrating that in the ongoing debates on the issue of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, and on the wider issues in the region, we are constantly told that we must stick with the current policy and it will work when clearly these sorts of developments show that EU and Irish policies need to change. I put it to the Taoiseach that we cannot just sit by and watch the US Administration making changes such as recognising Jerusalem through moving the US embassy there and supporting the complete annexation of the Golan Heights. At some point the European Union must respond and Ireland should have a strong voice in promoting such an approach.

Can we take five minutes for a response?

I will do my best. With regard to the EU-Arab summit, migration was of course discussed but it was not the focus of the summit. We were very keen that the relationship between the EU and the countries of the Arab League should not all be about migration. A decision was taken to focus on other issues also.

Land aid was not discussed but there was very strong recognition from Arab states of Ireland's work at the UN and elsewhere in our support for Palestinians, of the role we play in south Lebanon and in other places, and of the funding we provide to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. There is very strong recognition from Arab countries that Ireland has been supportive, among EU countries, of the Palestinian cause.

Yemen was discussed, climate change was discussed and human rights were certainly raised by me and by others: human rights of women, LGBT citizens, individual liberty, democracy and so on.

The nature of the event was that there was a lot of discussion and views but very little interaction. It was the first time such a summit has been done. There were roughly 50 heads of state and government present and it was one of those events where people were giving their views and statements but not so much interaction - there were no working groups, for example. It was an opportunity to do this. It was the first time it had been done and we will do it again with the EU and the Arab League. It was also a good opportunity for some bilateral meetings, as these events often are.

Ireland does not recognise Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights and it never has. We disagree with the US Administration's decision to do so. I understand that there is no joint EU position on the matter, but that may follow. This would happen at the Foreign Affairs Council or at the European Council. Because it falls under the Common Foreign and Security Policy provisions one would have to have unanimity or near unanimity to do so. One of the flaws in the Common Foreign and Security Policy is that it is not done by qualified majority voting and where there is no unanimity or consensus the European Union cannot take a decision.

Moving to qualified majority voting, however, may mean that on occasion we could end up on the wrong side of a decision, which is something we will have to consider into the future. If we want a strong European Union which can take foreign policy decisions, a consequence is that we may on occasion find ourselves being outvoted on some of those decisions. We cannot keep calling for Europe to act together more on foreign policy issues if we do not enable it to do so.

Deputy Haughey asked a very pertinent question on the Government's view on the future of Europe and the debate in that regard. We must prepare a policy statement on that. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, has led a public consultation on the matter, and post Brexit, or post this phase of it, we should provide that statement and debate it in the Dáil. Our working position is that we support further enlargement, the capital markets union for the deepening of the Single Market, the digital Single Market and banking union, and we want to see the delivery of the social Europe agenda based on the Gothenburg declaration. However, we do not support a European army or, at least, would not participate in one nor do we support tax harmonisation. However, that is far too simplistic and probably deserves a more detailed policy statement once we get through our current difficulties on European policy.

I was asked to comment on populism but I am not sure I can do it in a minute and a half. However, I can say that I do not like it. Populism has three essential elements. These are the idea that there is a division between the elites and the people and that only populists can represent the people; the proposal of easy solutions, which do not work, to complex and difficult problems, and the demonisation of opponents. In Ireland, we see left-wing populism to the fore rather than the right-wing populism one tends to see in other countries. I see the elements of populism mentioned much more frequently on the far left in Ireland. They claim it is the elites versus the people and that only they can represent the people. There is demonisation of opponents and simple solutions that do not work are proposed. That is very much a feature of far-left politics in Ireland whereas we do not really have far-right politics here. I hope we never do.

I was asked about Prime Minister Orbán and Fidesz. Obviously, that is a party matter but Fidesz has now been suspended from the EPP. That may result in expulsion down the line or in them rejoining. It will depend on whether the party satisfies the criteria set down and whether the three wise men who have been appointed to analyse whether it has are satisfied. The EPP is an umbrella group and every group includes parties that need further scrutiny. We have now acted. The Party of European Socialists must now consider the situation in Romania where a government led by social democrats has serious corruption issues which are under examination by the European Commission. The Party of European Socialists must also consider the situation in Britain and the increasingly Eurosceptic-led Labour Party which has serious issues around anti-Semitism to the extent that Jewish Members of Parliament are resigning.

It is extraordinary to link the British Labour Party with Fidesz.

It is always good to clean one's own house as well as someone else's.

It is extraordinary.

The Taoiseach is defending his colleague, Mr. Orbán.

I thank the Taoiseach. We move to the next questions.

I am not condoning anti-Semitism or turning a blind eye to it.

Can we deal with Questions Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive, within seven minutes?

We will have a go.

Have we dealt with Question No. 7?

We have dealt with Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, and are now moving to Questions Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive.

How did Mr. Orbán get in with the Arab League summit?

I was asked about it.

He was at the summit.

Those were the terms of the question.

It was a specific question on Hungary and Mr. Orbán.

I was specifically asked by Deputy Micheál Martin whether I met him at the Arab League summit.

The Taoiseach did not reply.

We did not have a meeting but I did meet him.

Is it agreed to take Questions Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive within seven minutes? Agreed.