A Cheann Comhairle, tá áthas orm labhairt libh inniu roimh Chomhairle na hEorpa an Deireadh Fómhair, a thionólfar sa Bhruiséil ar an Déardaoin agus ar an Aoine seo chugainn. Is é seo an dara uair a fhreastalóidh mé ar chruinniú foirmiúil de Chomhairle na hÉorpa ó cheapadh i mo Thaoiseach mé. Áirítear an Eoraip digiteach; cúrsaí slándála agus cosanta; an imirce; agus caidreamh eachtracha i gclár foirmiúil de chruinniú an Déardaoin. Ar an Aoine, pléifimid an Eoraip amach romhainn le linn an bhricfeasta roimh ár gcruinniú i bhformáid Alt 50 chun dul chun cinn idirbheartaíocht Bhrexit a phlé. Sula thosaím ag caint go mion ar na hábhair sin, ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá faoin mhullach digiteach ar a d’fhreastail mé i dTaillinn ar an 29 Meán Fómhair seo caite.
Ireland is a strong supporter of prioritising digital issues because of the significant opportunities for innovation, growth, jobs and global competitiveness. The digital summit - an initiative of the Estonian Presidency - examined some of these centrally important issues and our discussions have informed the work which the European Council will engage in tomorrow. We also had a useful exchange of views, over dinner in Tallinn, about the future of Europe. I spoke with several of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meetings and had a formal bilateral meeting with the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, whom I invited to visit Dublin later this year.
The European Council will begin tomorrow with the usual exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament. The Estonian Presidency will then provide a short update on work done since our last meeting in June.
The first working session on migration will include an update from the Commission on developments over the past few months. It is worth saying that there has been a decrease in migration along the central Mediterranean route and in the number of deaths at sea.
There is likely to be some discussion of further support for the Trust Fund for Africa, to which Ireland is contributing €3 million, and the common European asylum system, where progress on reform has been slow.
Although Ireland is less directly affected by migration than other EU states, we have sought to play a constructive role. We voluntarily opted in to EU programmes on resettlement and relocation; we have provided humanitarian assistance, including over €93 million to those affected by the Syrian crisis since 2012; and we have provided a series of Naval vessels in the Mediterranean since May 2015. In addition to supporting front-line member states, we also want to build strong co-operation with countries of origin, transit and departure and deal with the root causes which force people to migrate.
One of the most important items on Thursday’s agenda from Ireland’s perspective is digital Europe. The House will recall that, together with a number of EU partners, I wrote to President Tusk in June calling for a high level of ambition in developing the digital Single Market. Much progress has been made, with the European Commission delivering in excess of 20 proposals, but the pace must be maintained, and this is why the European Council is again considering digital Europe. Ultimately, our success will be determined by delivering practical benefits for our citizens and businesses and ensuring our global competitiveness. The digital era of course brings challenges as well as opportunities, and we welcome and support the Commission’s cyber-security package and the strong and co-ordinated EU response which it reflects.
Once again, Ireland has been to the fore with a group of like-minded member states, pushing for ambitious language in the conclusions for this European Council on areas such as the free flow of data and a future-oriented regulatory framework. Some member states are keen to look at taxation in the context of the increasing digitalisation of business. Ireland is very clear that the work on taxation of digital companies must be global in nature, and we support the work being done at the OECD as the best way to advance this. We do not support any change within the EU to national sovereignty on tax issues. It is our policy that national budgets should be funded by national taxes.
There has been an increasing focus on security and defence issues within the EU, since the publication of the EU global strategy. The European Council will review some of this work. Initiatives under way include: EU capability development; capacity-building in fragile states; crisis management operations; greater support for the European defence and industrial and technological base; an EU-level co-ordinated annual review of defence; and permanent structured co-operation, or PESCO. The overall objective is to enhance EU capacity to support efforts to combat identified international security challenges, particularly those identified by the UN. The European Council will have a particular focus on permanent structured co-operation, or PESCO. The governance of PESCO has been discussed, and there is an intention to launch its first projects by December. The European defence and industrial development programme, the European defence fund, and the co-ordinated annual review on defence will also be noted, ahead of a fuller discussion and progress assessment in December. In the discussions, Ireland has maintained our full commitment to the EU common security and defence policy, which recognises the specific defence policies of individual member states. Ireland has taken a realistic and constructive approach to these discussions, while ensuring that current proposals pose no threat to our policy of military neutrality. We are, of course, not neutral on issues such as cyber-crime and terrorism. To that end, we have backed a number of initiatives under PESCO, which support UN-mandated peacekeeping operations.
External relations items will be discussed on Thursday evening. A wide-ranging exchange on Turkey is envisaged, while developments in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere may also be raised. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will speak about these in more detail in her remarks.
As I mentioned, President Tusk will lead a discussion on Friday morning about the future of Europe. Considerable momentum has been generated on this since the UK decision to leave the EU last June, including a series of informal summits in Bratislava, Valletta, Rome and, most recently, Tallinn. President Juncker and President Macron have also made useful contributions to the debate. I spoke with President Tusk last week, and outlined my views. I said that the EU should focus on improving citizens' lives in real and tangible ways, by properly implementing what has already been agreed. This means for example completing the Single Market, the digital Single Market and the banking union, all of which were highlighted by President Juncker in his state of the Union address. As I have said before, I believe that our relationship with Europe should be defined in a positive way, outlining what we favour and what we support in terms of greater integration and harmonisation, rather than the things we are going to oppose. This will be my approach to our discussion on Friday.
Turning to the Article 50 format meeting on Brexit, Michel Barnier will report on the fifth round of EU-UK negotiations, which concluded last week. While there have been some positive developments, particularly since Prime Minister May’s speech in Florence, it is evident that much more work still needs to be done on the issues in focus in this phase: EU citizens’ rights; the UK financial settlement; and issues relating to Ireland. I want to welcome the work which has advanced on some of these issues relating to the island of Ireland, including joint principles on the continuation of the common travel area and everything that flows from that. It has also been agreed that, based on the six guiding principles put forward by the EU, work will start on a common understanding of possible commitments and undertakings necessary to effectively protect the Good Friday Agreement, all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including avoiding any new barriers to trade or movement on our island. However, it seems very likely that we will not be in a position to decide that sufficient progress has been made in phase one, unless something changes dramatically today or tomorrow. I spoke with Prime Minister May for 40 minutes by phone on Monday and stated our concerns on Irish-specific issues, particularly trade between Britain and Ireland and the Border. It is still possible that the overall outcome of the negotiations is a trade and customs relationship so close to the status quo that a Border problem can be avoided, although that depends very much on the attitude and positions taken by the UK Government in the coming months. Should that not be possible, however, it will be necessary for the UK to commit to arrangements for Northern Ireland that reflect its unique circumstances and avoid reintroducing a customs border, North and South. I will be actively engaged at the European Council, particularly in stressing to leaders the importance of the issues at stake for our country.
I am interested to explore with others how we can ensure that the necessary progress is made ahead of the December European Council. As Ireland has consistently advocated, once sufficient progress is achieved, the EU should be ready to begin discussions on the future relationship and transitional arrangements with Britain. This will be important for an orderly withdrawal and providing certainty for our people and businesses. As Deputies are aware, Ireland has worked very closely with Michel Barnier and the Commission task force and will continue to do so. Maintaining absolute unity among the 27 is absolutely vital to our national interests, and due to the extensive work by the Government and our officials, there remains strong support for Ireland and the particular challenges we face. Ongoing political engagement with our EU partners is crucial, especially as negotiations on Brexit proceed. I continue to use every opportunity to ensure that member states and the EU institutions fully understand our particular concerns arising from Brexit, to enable the best possible outcome for this country.
The European Council provides a framework for meeting our shared challenges at EU level. I look forward to engaging with other Heads of State and Government always keeping in mind the best interests of this country and Europe. I look forward to reporting back to the House next week on the outcome of the European Council.