Tuesday, 19 November 2019

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

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent communication with the President of the European Council. [45284/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with other EU leaders since the last European Council meeting on 17 and 18 October 2019. [45497/19]

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Joan Burton

Question:

3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent conversations with the President of the European Council. [46442/19]

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Brendan Howlin

Question:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussion with the President of the European Council. [46454/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to European leaders since the last European Council meeting on 17 and 18 October 2019. [46659/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to European leaders since the last European Council meetings on 17 and 18 October 2019. [47381/19]

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Oral answers (22 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

As the House is aware, I attended a meeting of the European Council on 17 and 18 October at which I engaged with the leaders of other member states and of the EU institutions. We were briefed by the new President of the European Parliament, Mr. David Sassoli, and the incoming President of the European Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, on their respective priorities.

On 23 October, I spoke to the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, regarding the United Kingdom's request for an extension of the period under Article 50 to 31 January 2020. I confirmed the Government's support for his proposal to grant the extension.

I welcomed President-elect of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel, to Government Buildings last Friday. Our meeting was an opportunity for the President-elect to set out his approach to his new role. I gave him a sense of Ireland's EU priorities, including on Brexit and the future EU-UK partnership. Among the issues we discussed were the agenda for the European Council meeting in December, including the multi-annual financial framework, the EU's seven-year budget and climate change. We also exchanged views on how to ensure the most effective operation of the European Council.

I was last in touch with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, on 27 October, after the withdrawal agreement Bill had passed Second Stage in the House of Commons but the programme motion for the further passage of the Bill had been defeated. I also spoke to him on 19 October about the state of play regarding Brexit legislation in Westminster at that time. We also exchanged messages on Friday.

Later today, I will travel to Croatia where I will meet the Prime Minister, Mr. Plenkovi, and the President, Ms Grabar-Kitarovi. I expect that our discussions will focus on issues to be discussed at next month's meeting of the European Council, as well as priorities for Croatia's Presidency of the Council of Ministers in the first half of 2020.

I acknowledge Donald Tusk's support for Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations. It has been vital and one of the shining lights in Europe in this respect.

His efforts to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and protect the all-island economy have been constant. No doubt the past three years will be helpful to Mr. Tusk in his new role as president of the European People's Party, EPP, not least in deciding the fate of the Fidesz party's membership of the EPP. It is our hope that Fine Gael MEPs will continue to push for its expulsion. That would be an important signal at an opportune time that there is no place for Fidesz's far-right and fascist views.

The Taoiseach noted during his joint press conference last Friday with the incoming European Council President that Ireland's contribution to the EU's budget might increase by 60% in 2021. Has the Government provided for this expected increase in its own multi-annual budgets? Also during the Taoiseach's meeting with Mr. Charles Michel, they discussed the latter's views on the EU's foreign policy direction. Like the Commission President-in-waiting, Mr. Michel appears to be advocating for enhanced defence spending and capacity. We have great fears in that regard. Mr. Michel wants the EU to be more self-confident and to avoid becoming "collateral damage" in the US and China's fight for international influence. Is the Taoiseach concerned with this language and does it indicate a renewed drive by European leaders towards a more hawkish policy and increased spending on defence initiatives?

It is important to put on the record our appreciation for Mr. Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. When Fianna Fáil was in government, we found him to be a strong partner for Ireland during his time as Prime Minister of Poland. As Deputy Enda Kenny will confirm, we spoke in favour of the proposal that the previous Government support his appointment as President of the Council. He has been highly effective. Most importantly, he has spoken up in favour of common values in the face of governments either undermining them or being silent. On Brexit, he welcomed contact from all sides in Ireland and never ceased to make the central point that Brexit was bad for everyone. We wish his successor, Mr. Michel, well, but it is important to say that the agenda that he has set out so far is unclear in terms of where the urgency is and how he sees his role as the guardian of certain core values.

One of the most urgent tasks is undoubtedly to address core weaknesses in the monetary union. It was reported last week that Germany was considering dropping its objections to a eurozone deposit insurance scheme. The absence of such a scheme has been identified by every study of the financial crisis, and the great recession it caused, as a critical weakness within the eurozone. Is Ireland supporting renewed efforts to create a eurozone deposit insurance scheme?

Another identified weakness in the eurozone is the absence of a credible fiscal capacity. Unfortunately, Ireland has publicly aligned itself with the hardline stance of trying to prevent the creation of a eurozone fund large enough to make a difference in the early stages of recessions. Why is Ireland working against something that is so manifestly in the interests of the eurozone?

The immediate focus will be on the likely change in the EU's relationship with the United Kingdom. It is now inevitable that, one way or another, there will be a significant change in that relationship. While Mr. Michel was anxious to state that the EU was ready to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK, it also wants to promote a level playing field. Has the Taoiseach a sense of how long such a free trade agreement would take to negotiate? There are many suggestions going around that much of this agreement could be done in a year, but international experience suggests that it will take a long time to negotiate, given that there are so many detailed chapters.

Does the Taoiseach know whether Mr. Michel is minded to support a common approach to social insurance throughout Europe? Many workers are on the move across borders and there are small protections in certain areas, for example, pensions. Should someone fall ill or become unemployed, however, there is little cross-EU social insurance protection. Various Commissioners have mentioned this as an objective. Fine Gael's EPP is dominant. Does it agree with the common protection of standards for workers throughout the EU who become unemployed, disabled or ill?

I wish to put on the record of the House my own and my party's appreciation for the understanding and solidarity we have received as a nation from the outgoing European Council President, Mr. Donald Tusk. The clarity of his utterances, sometimes regarded as less than absolutely diplomatic, were helpful during a period when issues of fundamental importance for this country were at play. He was opposed in his reappointment some time ago by his native Poland because of the clarity of his stance on the diminution of European standards. He has always been one who seeks to maintain the highest level of standards within the EU and our understanding of what it is to have European values.

My question relates to the Taoiseach's discussions with Mr. Michel, Mr. Tusk's successor, who will take up office on 1 December. The Taoiseach had discussions with him in Ireland and, presumably, Brussels. Does President-elect Michel have the same nuanced understanding of Ireland's Brexit concerns as his predecessor? Has the Taoiseach conveyed to him the complexity and importance of our position? Is the Taoiseach as confident of the same level of support and solidarity as we got from President Tusk?

Regarding concerns about the new policy of the UK to move further away from common standards in the EU, will it have an impact on the attitude towards completing a trade agreement in the timeframe as set out?

What action, if any, does the Taoiseach believe the EU should take in the face of the latest assault by the US-Israeli axis on the rights and lands of the Palestinian people? The decade-long assault on the Palestinian people by Israel has taken a worse turn since the coming to office of President Donald Trump, be it the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel through moving the US Embassy or the support for the obnoxious nation state law, which grants only Jewish people the right to self-determination and denies it to Palestinians. The latest nasty twist is the statement by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that the illegal settlements on Palestinian land by Israeli settlers are not really illegal at all, which backs up the Netanyahu plan for what is effectively the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land, which is land designated under international law for a Palestinian state, and the extension of the apartheid policies whereby once that land is annexed by settlers, walls and fences are built around it to deny it to Palestinians forever. At what point will the EU stand up, do something about this and take meaningful action to vindicate the rights of the long-suffering Palestinians?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. Regarding the EU budget, which was the first item I was asked about, our contributions are going to increase over the next couple of years. They are linked to GNI, the size of our economy.

That is not what I asked.

I might get into it if Deputy Micheál Martin gives me more than ten or 20 seconds. I am sure somebody asked me about that. It is very difficult to write down the questions as quickly as they are asked, so my apologies if I picked up anyone's questions wrong. I was not able to write them all down, so I beg Deputies' forgiveness and forbearance for that. I was asked if it was factored in.

I do not even think the question was from Deputy Martin. I think somebody else asked it.

Deputy Martin did not even ask the question. I am actually responding to Deputy Kenny, so perhaps we could have a little less irritability from him on this one. Deputy Kenny asked me about the EU budget and he is correct to say that the contributions will increase as our GNI increases over the next couple of years. That is factored into our multi-annual projections and is referenced in our summer economic statement, where we set out our rough projections as to where the budget will land, as it were, over the next couple of years.

On EU defence, Ireland is neutral and is not going to be joining any military alliances. We do not support the establishment of an EU army but we do recognise that many other countries do support that. Most EU countries are members of NATO and are integrated into that organisation. That is the realpolitik of the situation.

Is the Taoiseach concerned about that?

However, we do support the permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, to which we have signed up. This House voted by a very clear majority in favour of Ireland joining PESCO. That involves security co-operation and there is lots of scope for greater EU security co-operation. Operation Sophia, under which our navy participates in operations in the Mediterranean is one example, as is the EU Training Mission, EUTM, Mali. We see the possibility of our Defence Forces drawing down funds from any EU defence instrument, recognising that we are already involved in EU operations in places like the Mediterranean and Mali.

Deputy Martin's question was about the European deposit insurance scheme. He asked if we support it, which we do. We think it would be of benefit to savers and could make financial services more portable, available and affordable. However, we need to make sure that the proposal is right and is properly de-risked. We have concerns that there are banks and banking sectors in other parts of Europe that may not be as robust as ours, and we want to make sure that if we sign up to a European deposit insurance scheme, the banks covered are well regulated and stable. We do not want to find our taxpayers on the hook.

We have not ruled out supporting a eurozone fiscal instrument. We have reserved our position on it but again, the devil is in the detail. Ireland is a wealthy country and we have a budget surplus. If a eurozone fiscal instrument is established, we will be net contributors and are unlikely to have to use it. When we were in the position of relying on European aid, it was in the form of loans which we had to pay back with interest. It was not in the form of a fiscal instrument that is not repayable. It is all about the detail and we are open to considering proposals.

It is really about the principle of monetary union.

On the question of how long it will take to negotiate a future trade agreement between the EU and the UK, it is hard to know. Nobody can know for sure how long it would take to negotiate such an agreement. Of course, there is a difference between negotiating a future trade agreement and actually ratifying it. We may well be able to negotiate it in a short period of time, but it would have to be ratified by member state parliaments and possibly even some regional parliaments, which could take some time. If the new future trade agreement is very close to the status quo, it could be negotiated very quickly, but the more the UK chooses to diverge from the acquis and from the status quo, the longer it is going to take to negotiate an agreement. The negotiation is going to be all about the difference, so it is impossible to predict. It would be ambitious to have it done in 2020, but that is what we are going to try to do.

In terms of whether we are supportive of common protection for workers and people with disabilities across the EU, as a Government we have not seen any proposals on that from the Commission but we would have to have regard to what a common proposal would actually mean. During the discussions around the Gothenburg Declaration, I noted that the countries that were most suspicious of any common EU protection systems for workers, disabled people or the unemployed were the Nordic countries because they were concerned that it could result in a diminution of their welfare states. A common policy could mean some countries moving up while other countries move down. As a country with one of the highest weekly social welfare payment rates, one of the most generous carer's benefits means tests and one of the highest minimum wages in the European Union, we would want to ensure that any common European system for welfare or the minimum wage would not result in us reducing our rates or lowering our standards. There would have to be a minimum floor and that would be our approach to it.

What about the Palestinians?

Does the Taoiseach have anything to say in response to Deputy Boyd Barrett?

I have two more questions to answer and am happy to do so.

Is it agreed that we will take time from later slots? Agreed.

On the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Golan, the Government's position is, as it always has been, that we consider them to be illegal. We do not recognise Israel's attempt to annex any of the territories occupied in 1967 or thereafter. According to the current treaties, however, the EU can only act on foreign policy matters by unanimity. There is not a unanimous position in Europe on this but if we were to move towards qualified majority voting for foreign policy, that would enable the EU to act in way that it does not do at present.

The incoming President of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel, has a very good understanding of Brexit. We have a very good personal relationship and have been working together closely for more than two years. He probably does not have as detailed an understanding of Brexit as Mr. Donald Tusk would have, because it has not been his main work, but he will be up to speed on it very quickly. Mr. Michel, apart from being like-minded on many issues, is Belgian and so understands the impact that Brexit can have on the economy. Belgium is next door to the UK just as we are and Mr. Michel has a good understanding of that. Being Belgian, he also has some interesting insights about Northern Ireland. Coming from a country that is a bi-national state with two languages and many devolved legislatures, he is very interested in, and has a good understanding of, some of the challenges that arise in that scenario.