Tá áthas orm labhairt os comhair an Dála inniu faoi chruinniú Chomhairle an Aontais Eorpaigh a bhí ar siúl sa Bhruiséil Déardaoin agus Dé hAoine. The European Council met in four different formats over the course of the two days - in regular format to discuss jobs, growth and competitiveness and a number of foreign policy items; in leaders’ agenda format to discuss digital taxation; in euro summit format to discuss economic and monetary union and reform thereof; and in Article 50 format to discuss the Brexit negotiations.
I had two scheduled bilateral meetings in the margins of the European Council - one with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the other with UK Prime Minister Theresa May - and I had the opportunity to speak informally with my other counterparts over the two days. The Netherlands and Ireland are like-minded on many EU issues, and Prime Minister Rutte and I discussed the European Council agenda, particularly Brexit, economic and monetary union and digital taxation. The Prime Minister reiterated his strong support for Ireland’s unique concerns in respect of Brexit. We agreed that we have a shared interest in achieving a comprehensive and ambitious future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
In my meeting with Prime Minister May, I expressed deep concern at the reprehensible nerve gas attack in Salisbury and offered my full support in ensuring an appropriate response at EU and at national level. On Brexit, I welcomed the Prime Minister's explicit commitment to ensuring that the backstop forms part of the withdrawal agreement, as reiterated in her letter to President Tusk of 19 March, and looked forward to progress on this and on the other options before the European Council in June.
The European Council opened on Thursday with a short exchange of views with President Tajani of the European Parliament, an update from Prime Minister Borisov of Bulgaria, which currently holds the EU Presidency, and a brief discussion on migration.
We moved on to review progress on jobs, growth and competitiveness. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi noted the continued strengthening of the European economy, notwithstanding external risks. Our subsequent exchanges covered the Single Market, the digital Single Market, the European semester, trade, social issues, climate change, the banking Union and issues around data and analytics.
Ireland has been very active on the Single Market and in calling for greater ambition for the digital Single Market, and I was very pleased that we strengthened the conclusions on this section. The Single Market is now 25 years old, and this milestone should be celebrated. We need to continue our work to complete it and to make sure it functions fully. We tasked the Commission to report by the end of the year on how best this can be done.
In light of recent revelations, we exchanged views on data and analytics. Prime Minister May confirmed that the UK Information Commissioner is now investigating Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. There was wide agreement on the need to guarantee transparent practices and full protection of citizens’ privacy and personal data in social networks and on digital platforms. We also discussed EU trade policy, although at that point we awaited confirmation from the US about its decision to impose new tariffs on steel and aluminium imports before finalising our discussion on Friday morning. While Ireland is not a steel producer, we account for approximately 30% of all aluminium produced in the EU at Rusal Aughinish. Although very little of this is traded with the US, any tariffs will impact global commodity prices and we were pleased at the White House decision to exempt the EU from the tariffs until May. There was wide support - notwithstanding the current challenges - to continue to pursue a robust and ambitious trade policy based on an open and rules-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organization at its core.
I also took the opportunity to update colleagues on my meeting with President Trump in Washington DC on 15 March. The leaders’ agenda, initiated by President Tusk last year, is a process with the aim of facilitating free-flowing exchanges between EU leaders on the future of Europe. The focus of the exchange last week was on taxation in the digital era. Our discussions were based on a note prepared by President Tusk, which posed a number of fundamental questions. This was a useful exchange with a range of views expressed around the table. I stated our commitment to tax reform, saying that all companies, including large digital platforms, should pay their fair share of tax, when it is due and where it is owed. In the era of the World Wide Web, however, this is a global issue that requires a global solution. We also need to ensure that tax is paid by companies where value is created, not simply where a transaction happens. Unilateral EU action on that basis could damage EU competitiveness, hand an advantage to our competitors and disadvantage smaller member states with smaller markets. We also need solutions that are evidence based and sustainable in the longer term.
Ireland will continue to actively engage in work on the digital economy at both OECD and EU level. Finance Ministers will now have time to consider and critically assess the Commission’s latest proposals, which were published on 21 March, and we will have another discussion on tax matters at the European Council in June. On Thursday evening, we had a lengthy discussion on external relations, including the upcoming western Balkans summit, which I look forward to attending in May, and on our relations with Turkey and with Russia. The solidarity and support expressed among member states on these issues was very striking. In global terms, most of us are small countries but, by acting together, we have a powerful impact. This underlines the inherent value of the European Union, especially for smaller countries such as Ireland. In discussing Turkey, we expressed full solidarity with Cyprus and Greece in condemning the ongoing illegal actions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Aegean Sea, as well as the continued detention of EU citizens in Turkey.
On Russia, we offered full support to Prime Minister May in condemning the attack in Salisbury and the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances, by anybody anywhere. All 28 member states agreed with the UK Government’s assessment and undertook to co-ordinate on the consequences to be drawn from this, although any specific steps are for individual member states. On Monday, 14 partners confirmed that they would be expelling Russian diplomats. Yesterday, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, confirmed that, in light of the European Council conclusions and following an assessment conducted by the security services and relevant Departments, the accreditation of a member of staff at the Russian Embassy with diplomatic status is to be terminated and the individual required to leave the jurisdiction. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will provide more detail on some of these issues in her remarks later.
The euro summit on Friday morning, with the 19 member states of the eurozone, focused on economic and monetary union. We also had a debate on banking union on Thursday, with all 28 EU member states. This included a presentation from the President of the Eurogroup. Our approach is fivefold. First, we believe we should be inclusive in our work, allowing non-euro member states to opt into any new policies and programmes. Second, we believe the best way to strengthen the euro is through national policies - essentially countries should take action to reform themselves to balance their books, to reduce their debt and to make their economies more competitive. Third, we support developing the European Stability Mechanism into a European monetary fund on an inter-Governmental basis. Fourth, we want the banking union and deposit insurance to be prioritised, hopefully by December. Fifth, we believe the next EU budget - the multi-annual financial framework - should be used to promote growth, with funding provided for research education, Structural Funds and other fields that boost economic growth. The Finance Ministers of Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark. Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania recently published a paper outlining our shared views on this matter. President Tusk will convene another euro summit in June, at which we will continue our discussions on deepening, strengthening and improving economic and monetary union.
On Friday, the European Council met in Article 50 format - without Prime Minister May - to discuss Brexit. Michel Barnier reported on progress in the negotiations between the task force and the UK on the draft withdrawal agreement. Good progress has been achieved on some parts of the text including on citizens' rights, the financial settlement, and transitional arrangements, which are now all in green. These are all important areas where we have pushed for practical solutions. Most importantly for Ireland, the UK has now explicitly confirmed that the backstop option, as agreed in the joint report in December, will form part of the legal text of the final withdrawal agreement and that all the issues identified in the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland will need to be addressed to deliver a legally sound solution to avoid a hard border. Prime Minister May reiterated this in her letter to President Tusk on 19 March. It has always been intended that the backstop will apply unless and until another, better solution is found. I share Prime Minister May’s preference to resolve these issues through a wider agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, and look forward to seeing the UK’s detailed proposals on that and on specific solutions.
Over the coming weeks, in addition to considering these UK proposals our objective will be to continue to close the remaining gaps to agree the protocol. To this end, EU and UK negotiators have agreed on an intensive schedule of meetings on the Irish issues. Those meetings will start this week. The transition period, which will run until the end or 2020, is now conditionally agreed. This is important for Ireland as it gives certainty to public services, businesses, employers, employees and citizens that EU law will continue to apply in the entire UK - as it does now - until the end of 2020.
In light of the progress made, we agreed a set of guidelines to enter into discussions with the UK on the framework for a future relationship. These reflect our ambition for a close partnership with Britain while ensuring a level playing field, fair competition and the integrity of the Single Market. I am pleased that they also leave open the possibility of us revisiting our position and guidelines, should the UK approach evolve and its red line softens. It is very important to emphasise that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that discussions on the future relationship are dependent on progress on the outstanding elements of the withdrawal agreement - including the Border. I am glad that the other leaders agreed with my strong view that we must review all the withdrawal issues including progress on the backstop at our meeting in June.
This is essential if we are to make the progress necessary to have both the withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship wrapped up by October, to allow sufficient time for the ratification procedures to be completed by next March. Urgency on all aspects of the negotiations is now required.
I assure Deputies that the Government will continue to defend Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations, as we have done, and to advance our interests where opportunities arise. I now look forward to hearing Deputies’ views.