Tá áthas orm labhairt os comhair na Dála inniu faoi chruinniú Chomhairle an Aontais Eorpaigh a bhí ar siúl sa Bhruiséal an 14 Nollaig agus an 15 Nollaig. Bhuail an Chomhairle le chéile i gceithre bhfoirm difriúla le linn an dá lá. Bhí an phríomhchruinniú ar siúl Déardaoin, 14 Nollaig, agus dhírigh sé ar chomhoibriú sóisialta, oideachais agus cultúrtha, chomh maith le cúrsaí slándála agus cosanta. Níos déanaí an tráthnóna sin, bhuaileamar le chéile mar chuid de chlár oibre na gceannairí ar thodhchaí na hEorpa. Bhí béim ar an imirce, ach phléamar cúrsaí eile freisin, ina measc caidrimh sheachtrach agus trádáil. Maidin Dé hAoine, 15 Nollaig, bhí cruinniú mullaigh an euro i bhfoirm leathan leis an 27 ballstát chun an aontas eacnamaíoch agus airgeadaíochta a phlé. Ina dhiaidh sin, bhuaileamar le chéile i bhfoirm Airteagal 50, gan an Bhreatain, le dul chun cinn maidir le Brexit a phlé.
The Thursday afternoon meeting opened with a short exchange of views with President Tajani of the European Parliament. I look forward to meeting President Tajani again tomorrow in Strasbourg where I will be the first EU Head of Government to address the European Parliament as part of its debate series on the future of Europe.
The European Council then moved on to review security and defence. As on previous occasions, the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, attended the meeting and in his remarks underlined the importance of complementarity between his organisation and the European Union and the need for strong European defence. A Europe worth building is a Europe worth defending and Europe should not rely on the United States and the United Kingdom to do it for it. Within the European Union work has moved forward with the launch of the permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, arrangement. I am happy that Ireland is among the 25 member states to participate from the beginning. We are a founder member of PESCO, just as we were of the euro and the Single Market. PESCO provides a mechanism through which crisis management capabilities can be developed by member states in support of common security and defence operations. As I have said previously, participation in PESCO in no way changes our policy of military neutrality. We will continue to make our distinctive contribution based on our own traditions and strengths. However, we should also recognise that there are new challenges that confront all countries, including Ireland, such as terrorism, uncontrolled mass migration, cybercrime and drug and human trafficking and that it makes sense to work together to respond to them. No nation state can do so on its own. I look forward to Ireland participating in projects that are suited to our particular capabilities and position. I restate my view that our military neutrality and non-membership of NATO are a foreign policy strength and enhance our position as an honest broker and as UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and other parts of the world.
The next item for discussion was social, educational and cultural co-operation, following on from the successful social summit in Gothenberg in November. While member states remain primarily responsible for these areas, much can be achieved by working together. A number of interesting points were raised such as including the social agenda as part of the European Semester, although a decision on this was not taken at the European Council. The concept of European universities was also raised and we are very enthusiastic about exploring it further. The Commission will report back in the coming months on how some of these ideas might be brought forward. I see real opportunities in this for one or more Irish universities in becoming part of a European university. We also had a short discussion on climate change and the One Planet summit held in Paris last month.
In our evening session we had an extensive discussion on migration. While there were no formal conclusions, there was a clear recognition that much had been accomplished on the external dimension, with a sense around the table that the European Union needed to take further action externally to tackle the root causes of mass migration. On the internal dimension, different positions were aired and it was agreed that we would return to the discussion later in the year. Europe needs an effective and sustainable policy which will respect the responsibility and solidarity of member states. We also discussed a range of external relations items, including Russia and Ukraine and Jerusalem. The Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, will provide more detail on some of these issues and the social dimension in her remarks.
On Mercosur, we heard a presentation by the Iberian countries on the advantages of a trade deal for Europe. As the House is aware, while Ireland recognises the potential for a deal to be of great benefit to Irish industry and the economy, we have some concerns about the beef industry, in particular. France shares this position and both President Macron and I intervened to give our strong views on what should and should not be included in such a deal.
The Friday morning euro summit which met in its extended format took place in the presence of outgoing President of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem and the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, whom I welcomed to Dublin late last year. Both noted that the economic situation across Europe was much improved, how the single currency was in better shape and, in contrast to previous years, that there was greater convergence among eurozone economies. However, both called for this period of relative calm to be used to make European Monetary Union more resilient. I supported this call in my remarks, pointing out that the European Council did not predict the last financial crisis and that there could be no room for complacency about the future. We agreed that the banking union should be completed, although the timing and sequencing, particularly of risk reduction, was still being worked out. I expressed strong support for completing the capital markets union.
There was some discussion about institutional change, including the possibility of establishing a European monetary fund to replace the troika and a possible Finance Minister for the eurozone. Ireland has an open mind on these proposals and would welcome more detail before making a decision. It was also agreed that Finance Ministers should advance their work on these issues, with the European Council retaining oversight. President Tusk has announced that he will convene another eurozone summit in March, at which we will consider these matters further. The European Council met in Article 50 format, without Prime Minister May, and formally took the decision that sufficient progress had been made in phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations to allow us to move on to phase 2. As the House is aware, Ireland was able to rely on the strong support and solidarity of our partners in ensuring what was agreed represented an acceptable outcome on issues related to Ireland and Northern Ireland. I expressed our thanks to my colleagues around the table and they, in turn, assured me that we could continue to rely on their support as the negotiations continued.
As we move into phase 2, when transitional arrangements and the framework for the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union will be considered, it will be important to remain vigilant to ensure the commitments entered into in December are delivered in full. There can be no back-sliding. I am pleased that we agreed to negotiate a transition period and prioritise discussion of it in the first part of phase 2. Such an arrangement is essential if we are to provide certainty for businesses and citizens and enable them to plan for permanent changes that may occur as a result of Brexit.
In addition, internal preparatory discussions among the EU 27 on further guidelines at the European Council in March on the framework for the future relationship will begin. In parallel, the European Council called on the EU and UK negotiators to complete their work on withdrawal issues and start drafting the relevant parts of the legally binding withdrawal agreement. Later this month the General Affairs Council which will be attended by the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, will adopt additional negotiating directives on transitional arrangements and discussions with the United Kingdom on agreeing these transitional arrangements will then begin. This could be a status quo agreement, with the aim of avoiding gaps or cliff edge effects between the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the entry into force of the future relationship agreement.
In parallel to the negotiations and related work in Brussels, the Government’s detailed planning to prepare for the United Kingdom’s exit, including contingency planning for all possible scenarios, will continue at home. We have already taken some important steps to prepare the domestic economy, including the Action Plan for Jobs and the trade and investment strategy. Several dedicated measures were announced in budget 2018, including a loan scheme for business and additional supports for capital investment in the food industry. The House can be assured that, as we have done up to now in the negotiations, the Government will continue to advance and defend Ireland’s interests and seek to mitigate the negative effects of Brexit for the country and exploit opportunities. I look forward to hearing Deputies’ views.