European Council Meeting: Statements

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.

Is maith an rud é go bhfuilimid ag caint faoin Eoraip inniu agus is léir go raibh an-chuid nithe faoi chaibidil ag an gcomhairle an tseachtain seo chaite. Ní féidir liom caint faoi gach aon cheann. Beidh mise ag díriú ar trí cinn de na hábhair is tábhachtaí a bhí faoi chaibidil ag an gcomhairle.

I want to use the limited time available to address the three core issues of the Brexit withdrawal treaty, Russia and the economic reform agenda. With exactly a year to go until we reach Brexit day, there has been a significant edging towards some clarity on how the UK will exit and the likely long-term relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. An enormous amount of time has been wasted waiting for the United Kingdom to accept that it is in no position to dictate the terms of a departure for which it alone is responsible.

Overall, Michel Barnier and his team have remained true to the basic principles that the European Union's legal order will not be compromised and that access to the benefits of the Single Market and customs union comes with full financial and legal responsibilities. Equally, they have been correct in insisting that the transitionary period must come to an end before the next multiannual financial framework becomes operative. If the United Kingdom discovers at some point soon that it will not be ready, even at the end of 2020, then Norway terms should be available, though it is difficult to see how this can possibly be reconciled with the positions of both the Tory party and, unfortunately, the UK Labour party leadership.

We welcome the large amount of text in the draft treaty which is coloured green and is, as such, agreed. We emphatically do not welcome the failure to progress any substantive matter concerning Ireland to a stage beyond the general and, in parts, contradictory agreements of last December. Even the most basic look at the record shows that our Government has, for the past year, been briefing that its core strategy has been to ensure that Ireland is not caught up in final stage negotiations where the pressure for compromises will be greatest. When the negotiating guidelines were first announced we were told that Ireland must be decided before other items were decided. This will not now be the case and the Taoiseach has refused to even acknowledge the change of strategy, let alone justify it. Let no one be in any doubt - no backstop has been agreed. The European Union has prepared a text which the United Kingdom has said is unacceptable, including this week in the House of Commons. They have agreed the principle of there being some sort of backstop if there is no agreement on a final status but they have repeatedly said, including in the letter from the Prime Minister, Theresa May, referred to by the Taoiseach, that they will not agree a measure that makes Northern Ireland subject to a different legal and customs regime. This is no small difference and the Taoiseach's decision to have it long-fingered to a later stage in the process is, potentially, a huge error.

It is an unfortunate reality that the Taoiseach's approach to this issue means whenever a legitimate challenge is made his first reaction is to go on the political attack. He arrived back from Berlin last week and informed the Dáil that he did not believe anyone was fit to replace him - an incredible statement from someone in the job for less than a year. Instead of explaining why his agreement to proceed without progressing the Irish text was consistent with past policy, the Taoiseach chose to launch an absurd attack on Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly and Fianna Fáil. He could have risen to the occasion and argued in good faith but he did not. Instead, we got the recitation of a ridiculous Sinn Féin attack and a false claim that we are inconsistent. That he would align himself with Ireland's most consistently anti-European Union party for the sake of making a political attack on this matter reveals a lot.

The Tánaiste said that, if we do not have this done by June, we will have to raise some serious questions as to whether it is possible to finalise a withdrawal at all. How does this reconcile with the Taoiseach's casual acceptance of waiting until October? I know the Taoiseach has had difficulty in the past week or so with statements from the Tánaiste but this one needs to be squared. It is regrettable that parts of the media appear to be wholly reliant on the Government's briefings and narrative in covering Brexit and, therefore, have not examined a significant change in Government strategy. In comparison, the international coverage has emphasised how little progress has been made on Ireland, how an agreed backstop is further away than ever and how other countries were now pushing their own national agendas for October. We remain absolutely of the belief that it is an error to pretend that Ireland can be addressed through the overall UK-EU relationship. A form of special status which respects the constitution and settlement agreed by the people in 1998 remains the only viable route, something which has been made more difficult by the megaphone diplomacy of the past six months which has raised entirely unreasonable fears.

It appears now that the Government will declare whatever emerges from the overall negotiations as a great success and will hail itself for accepting the technologically managed Border suggested by the United Kingdom, for which there is no international model. If the Taoiseach and Tánaiste wish to have the support of the pro-European Union majority in this House during the remainder of the negotiations, it would be well advised to consult more and step back from its attacks when others disagree with it on how to get the best outcome for Ireland and the European Union as a whole.

As we stated last night, Fianna Fáil supports the Council's decision to condemn Russian aggression and the actions which have followed. It is unfortunate that the Government appears to have made no preparations in advance of last Friday and that it took no steps to brief the constructive parts of the Opposition about serious Irish-related security issues. We have been raising Russian aggression during these sessions for the past four years and pointing out how the direct threat to Europe and the wider world was escalating all the time. Let us put aside the nonsense that Russia's denials should be taken seriously. We heard the same aggressive denials when it invaded and partitioned Ukraine, when it shot down a Dutch passenger plane, when it blocked any international action after the grotesque repressions and slaughter of the Assad regime, when it supplied funding to extremist anti-democratic and racist parties in Austria, France, Hungary and other countries, when it interfered in referendums in Britain and the Netherlands and elections in the Netherlands, France and elsewhere, when it launched the largest ever cyber attacks on European Union states and the Baltic states, and when it systematically undermined any real actions on human rights by the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. Does anyone here forget that the very people today denying responsibility for Salisbury denied they had troops in the Crimea? Subsequently, the Russian state not only admitted it had lied, it issued medals to the troops and erected a statue to them.

Last night, we heard the nonsense argument that we are somehow following a Cold War mentality or losing our neutrality by saying that enough is enough. Russia must know that the democratic world will not just roll over and let it be undermined and we believe Ireland must stand with the democratic world. It never ceases to amaze me how people and parties who spend their time lecturing us about rights are nearly always silent on Russia and are even apologists for Russia. With the exception of Deputy Boyd Barrett, whose commitment to the Kurdish cause means he regularly and quite correctly attacks the behaviour of Russia in that region, others go through incredible contortions to blame anyone but Russia. The displays of whataboutery are frankly pathetic. Our self-declared crusaders on neutrality were even silent when Russia sent nuclear armed bombers to Irish-controlled airspace with their transponders turned off - thereby endangering civilian aviation.

What about our trade?

Sinn Féin's behaviour is notable. It goes to the United States and pretends to be a friend of that country when raising money, yet it goes to incredible lengths to avoid giving offence to Vladimir Putin. When he invaded and partitioned a European country, the sum total of Sinn Féin's criticism was that the Crimean referendum could have been run a bit better. Perhaps the party's new leadership will take the opportunity to break with this lamentable record. Every single person here knows that Russia is responsible for Salisbury as it fits into a pattern of nearly a decade where real and perceived enemies of Putin are killed. It is now incumbent on the Government to follow up this action. It should immediately work with Deputy James Lawless to get his legislation through and to make whatever amendments are required and I welcome what the Taoiseach said yesterday on this. It should take other steps if fears about commercial espionage and sabotage are proven to be correct.

The digital taxation proposal was a superficial proposal, lacking a basic impact assessment.

The only reasonable way to proceed is on the basis of a wider international approach and proper evaluation of different options. We remain concerned at the emerging push for a conservative approach to fiscal policy and economic reforms. An approach which puts restraint and regulation as the core policy will not deliver the growth and progress Europe needs. There should be more ambition on the banking union, on fiscal contributions and on the financial backstop. We again call on the Taoiseach to state clearly what policies he is signing Ireland up for. The only way to protect and build upon the constructive consensus on Europe which has defined the majority position in Irish politics is to return to the tradition of genuine consultations.

I am sharing time with Deputy Cullinane. We will take five minutes each.

I am very glad to hear the leader of Fianna Fáil reiterate the necessity for special status for the North of Ireland and to protect the peace agreements, to ensure no hard border and to keep the North inside the customs union and the Single Market. There are women in the Gallery from Ligoniel in north Belfast. The Taoiseach might wave to them. This is of specific concern to these fine women because they live in that part of Ireland. They are from a cross-community group and we have hosted them before. This is north Belfast at its finest and the women are very welcome.

I will not waste any of my time answering the histrionic nonsense. By all means, be tough on Russia and on Putin. The Government should please do that, and it may be tough on any other regime or government that threatens international stability and violates international law. I might include the state of Israel in that. Above all, the Taoiseach's duty is to protect people here. The position from which we exert most authority and influence is our long-standing position of military neutrality. Despite what Deputy Micheál Martin and Deputy Stephen Donnelly, who seems to be extraordinarily thin-skinned if we are to believe his leader, stated, I think that is the case.

It is clear that the British Government maintains a very dismissive and arrogant attitude towards Ireland when it comes to Brexit. This has been the case from the beginning. Its attitude threatens the island, North to South, and might in fact imperil relationships - not least commercial and trading relationships - east to west between Ireland and Britain. The hard Tory Brexiteers just want Brexit at any cost and they are becoming increasingly irresponsible in their rhetoric in that regard.

We know a backstop was negotiated in December. The Taoiseach called it cast-iron, bulletproof and so on. The Tories moved to dismiss that and to say they were opposed to it. They have not put an alternative backstop on the table. We know from speaking to the European authorities and from interactions with the Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, that the backstop is the bottom line. The British cannot come forward with something less than that and imagine it will fly. Also here, the Taoiseach's message is that the preference is for a wider trade arrangement. We hear all of that. It is absolutely imperative that by June, the British have shown us the colour of their money. If they do not like the backstop as proposed and written out in legal text by the European authorities, they need to come up with their own one. We need to know it meets the requisite standard. There is a real danger, if this drifts any further, that we could become the victims and collateral damage of the pressure politics that will undoubtedly unfold as Europe as a whole and individual member states move to protect what they regard as their individual interests. My colleague, Deputy Cullinane, will elaborate on some of these ideas.

I raise again the issue of Catalonia. I condemn the arrest of Carles Puigdemont and his colleagues. It is absolutely reprehensible and counter-productive. The actions of the Spanish Government have served only to deepen the crisis. The dispute between the peoples of Catalonia and the Spanish state over independence will not be resolved by incarceration or repression. The people voted for independence and the European Union at this stage has a duty to come off the sidelines.

It is not good enough for an Irish Government to hide behind the lie that this is an internal matter for the Spanish Government. This is a matter of democracy. It is a matter of national self-determination, and we in this country should know all about that. I am asking the Taoiseach to show leadership in calling on the Spanish Government to release democratically elected representatives, commit to dialogue and mediation, and to respect the vote of the people of Catalonia. I ask the Taoiseach to pick up the telephone to Mr. Rajoy and other EU leaders, and to convey a message in the strongest possible terms that in disputes such as these - we know this to our cost, and the women from north Belfast in the Gallery could tell the Taoiseach this - that repression and incarceration do not work; dialogue does. That is the great lesson from Ireland and the Taoiseach should be an ambassador for it.

As the Taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fáil will know, Sinn Féin has given the Irish Government and the European negotiators a qualified support on Brexit. We do so not because we support the Government or the European negotiators, but because we support what we see as an Irish approach and an Irish solution to Brexit. Every single political party on the island of Ireland should be behind a special solution for the North, which involves keeping the North in the customs union and Single Market, protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and ensuring the rights of citizens are also protected. That should be the position of everybody on the island and we certainly want that as the final outcome.

While we give the Government qualified support, we are also concerned about responses to many of the agreements which have been reached by the British Government. The Taoiseach would surely have to agree that there are contradictions between what was agreed last December and what was in the most recent joint report, as well as the actual statements from the British Prime Minister and others in Britain in respect of all of these issues. We were told last December that what we had was a cast-iron, bulletproof guarantee, yet we are still involved in negotiations. This morning, I challenged the Tánaiste on the backstop arrangement and the fact that the British Government has dismissed out of hand the legal text that has been put forward by the European Commission. The Tánaiste said I had to understand that we are still involved in a negotiation. Why are we involved in negotiations on a cast-iron guarantee? Our difficulty is that while we have a political agreement in principle, in practical terms the British Government has not signed up to any legal text which would give expression to that political agreement. The Taoiseach would surely understand that this will cause concern to people in Ireland. As Teachta McDonald said, we cannot sit around waiting for months more to see the colour of the money from the British Government. We have to see the legal text to which they will agree.

The most recent joint agreement between Britain and the European Union was colour coded in yellow, green and white. There were some elements in yellow, which we were told meant agreement in principle. There were very few Irish issues in green, meaning there was agreement, and they were on the common travel area and a few other issues. On the crucial issue of trade there was no agreement whatsoever. On the crucial issue of the Border there was no agreement whatsoever. It is still outstanding. That is the issue.

Let us be very clear that the backstop agreement does not mean the North of Ireland staying in the customs union and Single Market. We all hope there will be an agreement between Britain and the European Union on trade and a customs type partnership that will make it a lot easier. Let us hope we do get to that position. If we do not and the backstop agreement is the baseline and is implemented, all we are doing is aligning the North and the South in terms of trade in areas to do with North-South co-operation and the Good Friday Agreement.

It does not cover all services or all goods. How those goods and services are to be monitored and checked must be outlined. That will have to be done via checks, either at the Border or at the premises of companies or factories, which will put the responsibility back on businesses. These are real questions and real concerns that people living on either side of the Border have. There is a responsibility on the Government to ensure that we move away from the rhetoric, the words, the fine promises and the political agreements and towards a legal agreement we can all see which will protect the Good Friday Agreement, the interests of Ireland and the rights of citizens and will protect against any hardening of the Border.

It is often said by Brexit commentators that they do not wish to see a hard border in Ireland. We do not want to see any hardening of the Border in Ireland at all. That should be the position of the Government. It should not merely seek to avoid a hard border. No hardening of the Border can be accepted by any Irish Government, and that must be the Government's position as the negotiations continue.

In the run-up to the EU Council meeting last week the overwhelming focus was on Brexit and the proposals leaders were to discuss on digital taxation. However, as the UK prepares to leaves the Union, we were provided with a symbolic and poignant demonstration on the benefits and power of membership. Prime Minister May addressed the assembled leaders of 27 other member states on the chemical weapon attack in Salisbury. She asked for the EU to stand shoulder to shoulder with the UK on their response to Russia. EU leaders strongly condemned the attack and the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances. They expressed deepest sympathies to all whose lives had been threatened or affected by the attack, lent their support to the ongoing investigation and stressed the Union's unqualified solidarity with the UK. Following that decision, the EU withdrew its ambassador to the Russian Federation for a period of four weeks. That was a strong and clear signal to Russia, and a clear manifestation of European solidarity.

I was alone among the Opposition to support the Government’s stance in Brussels last Friday of standing in solidarity with the UK. It is simply not credible that Ireland would stand alone of the 28 EU member states on this issue, which includes both neutral countries like Sweden, but also those like Greece and Cyprus that have close friendships with Russia. It is a collective tragedy for the UK and the EU that such a shared action will not occur after March 2019. If this happened in a year’s time, Prime Minister May would not have been at the Council and would have to rely on bilateral discussions with countries like Germany, France or others to make the case. It was a clear demonstration that by pooling our sovereignty in the EU, we have actually strengthened our position as individual countries. This has most recently been shown with European support for Ireland on the status of the Border in Brexit negotiations. It is reassuring for Ireland to know that should an attack like this happen here, or a natural disaster ever impact on us, that we can automatically rely on the friendship and solidarity of member states.

There was an expectation that the proposals for a digital tax would dominate the outcome of the Council. It is interesting, as others have commented, that the conclusions of the Council do not include any mention of the proposal. The policy design of the tax, which would allow companies to use the amount paid as a credit against corporation tax, shows that it would be a transfer of revenue from smaller to larger countries. This is a difficult issue for Ireland but large digital corporations should be required to pay more tax on the profits they make. However, in the race and ambition to do that, the position and national competencies of member states should not and cannot be undermined. We have been very clear about our support for the OECD base erosion profit shifting, BEPS, process, which has shown concrete results and will continue to do so if all countries remain committed to it.

Ireland was expected to take a position at the Council arguing that moves to impose such a tax would be viewed negatively in the United States and potentially escalate into a trade war. However, that issue was removed from the table on Thursday when the US announced it would temporarily exempt the EU from President Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminium. As the Taoiseach has told us in reply to questions earlier, this is a temporary measure that will apply until May. Despite this concession we can expect that the Trump Administration will continue to press its case. The EU Council has said that these measures cannot be justified on the grounds of national security, which is the pretext used for moving away from an agreed international tariffs regime. However, it has been reported that Germany wants tariffs reduced on car imports from the US into the EU from 10% to possibly match the US rate of 2.5%. That signals to me that the strong-arm unilateral tactics being deployed by the Trump Administration are having an impact.

On trade in general, as the US retreats from open trading arrangements across the globe, it falls to the EU now to lead. The Council reaffirmed its commitment to an open and rules-based trading system with the World Trade Organization, WTO, at its core, and is working to progress talks with Mexico and Mercosur. The trade agreements with Japan and Singapore also need to be concluded. However, it is important that in any trade talks, the people of the EU can retain confidence in what is being negotiated, that their concerns are heard and that the EU and other member states listen and take on board the legitimate concerns of people in all our countries, including trade unionists and civil society.

The Council was to focus on jobs, growth and competitiveness. Social issues are a part of that and delivering on the European social pillar is a shared commitment of the EU and all our member states. The Council has now been invited to consider the Commission proposals under the social fairness package. This includes the proposal on a European labour authority. This new agency would provide support for mobile workers and ensure that their rights are fought for and maintained across borders. There are 17 million cross-border workers in the EU, and many of them live in Ireland. I asked last week what were the views of the Government on this proposal and I hope this can be outlined in the response of the Minister of State at the end of this debate. It would be welcome if the Government would outline an implementation plan for the European pillar of social rights. Social issues cannot just be seen as a tagged on to general trade discussions or as a general part of trade and competitiveness talks, or as something of a sop or an afterthought. They are at the core of what people who are enthusiastic about the European project want to see achieved. It must be at the heart of what we seek from Europe, to address the genuine concerns of people on issues such as job security, terms and conditions of work, education, health and child care.

On the Paris Agreement, the Council asked the Commission to present by next year a long-term EU strategy to reduce emissions that takes into account national plans. Ireland has singularly failed to show ambition on tackling climate change, and the Government, having published its Project Ireland 2040 plan, must now ensure we meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets.

The Council condemned Turkey’s actions in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea over the rights of Cyprus and Greece to offshore oil and gas exploration. I am also concerned at the continued actions of Turkish forces in northern Syria, and the city of Afrin in particular, which I raised earlier today, and the impact that incursion is having on civilians and in particular on Kurds who are under attack.

I ask the Taoiseach to raise this matter again at the EU Council and to ensure that it becomes a permanent focus at EU Council meetings until this matter is resolved. There was an EU-Turkey summit on Monday and relations between the EU and Turkey remain tense. Turkey was once on track actually to become a member state. That is now increasingly unlikely. Future enlargement of the Union has now turned to the western Balkans. There are six possible future members, namely Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. While the EU efforts appear most focused on Serbia, it is important that the others are not neglected and I do not believe they will be.

Last week the Albanian Prime Minister urged the start of talks and visited Brussels in advance of the summit to press his case. If the Government has a view on future enlargement, I again invite the Minister of State to set it out.

Finally, under Article 50 the EU agreed to open talks on the future trade relationship with the United Kingdom and the outline of a transition deal was agreed. We have discussed this at length and I know we will continue to discuss it, but I want to reiterate that I am concerned about the ongoing fudge on the Irish Border. It must be resolved and hopefully can be resolved well before the October deadline that the Taoiseach referenced.

Last Sunday, the former President of Catalonia, Mr. Carles Puigdemont, was arrested in Germany on foot of a European arrest warrant. He had been in exile since October and Catalonia's declaration of independence and he faced charges from the Spanish state, including the charge of rebellion. He was arrested when his car pulled into a petrol station in northern Germany, following a spy operation carried out by 12 agents of the Spanish state who had a tracking device on his car and used geolocation on his friend's mobile telephone.

Last week, on 21 March, the day before the EU Council summit commenced, a Spanish Supreme Court judge brought similar charges against leading Catalan politicians, bringing the number of such politicians facing these grave charges to 25. On Friday, 23 March, while the EU Council met, five of these leading politicians were jailed and another was forced into exile, bringing the number in pre-trial detention without bail to nine. These are political prisoners. The number of such politicians forced into exile has climbed to seven.

The charge of rebellion in the Spanish legal code makes reference to public and violent uprising. There was no public and violent uprising. I myself was in Catalonia on 1 October, the day of the independence referendum. I witnessed a huge number of people coming out peacefully queueing outside polling stations to cast their votes. There was violence on the day; it was exclusively at the hands of Spanish state police who used batons, rubber bullets, plastic bullets and so on. This violence has been repeated in recent days. The protests in Barcelona during the past several days and in other Catalan towns and cities were attacked by Spanish state police. Some 89 were injured. That was the figure I saw, which has probably risen since then. Police fired live ammunition into the air. The ghost of General Franco lives on. In the upper echelons of the Spanish state there are strong echoes of the type of Francoist repression and attitudes that prevailed 40 years ago.

By the way, this does not just apply to repression in Catalonia. Recently, we saw the jailing of the Spanish rapper Josep Miquel Arenas Beltran, whose stage name is Valtònyc. He was imprisoned for three and a half years by the Spanish Supreme Court because of his song lyrics, which according to the court included defamation against the crown. He joined another rapper who had been jailed for two years and a rap collective which had been jailed for two years and a day. The extra day is a technicality to extend their sentence.

This was happening while the EU Council met. The arrest of Mr. Puigdemont was on the Sunday after the EU Council summit, but the other events took place the day before and while it met. What did the leaders of Europe say? Nothing. What did the EU Council say? Nothing. What did the Taoiseach say? Nothing at all. The Taoiseach and the other Governments of Europe have everything to say about the possible, perhaps probable, actions of the Russian authorities, but nothing to say about the actual actions of the Spanish authorities. Double standards, by any standards.

Is it any wonder that in Barcelona on Sunday night the crowd marched to the European Commission offices and chanted "This Europe is shameful"? It is far from being a defender of democratic rights or the rights of small nations, as we often hear in this House. Just look at Catalonia. In conclusion, April 15 has been named as a day of protest in Catalonia. Unions and civil society organisations are getting behind that. I hope that turns into a general strike and I think we will see a general strike in Catalonia in April. We send that movement solidarity and greetings. We call for the release of all political prisoners, for a general strike in Catalonia against repression, for an end to capitalism, for a socialist republic of Catalonia with the rights of all minorities guaranteed and for the unity of the working class, for a socialist and voluntary federation of the peoples of the Spanish state.

Deputy Barry has outlined how a state of the European Union is engaged in pretty unacceptable and brutal repression of those protesting against injustice. There is also an ally of the European Union with preferential trade arrangements, Israel, whose actions we should consider as we come to Easter weekend. Easter, of course, commemorates the persecution of the Israelites by the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus Christ. I am not particularly religious, but nonetheless I note that it commemorates the crucifixion of somebody who spoke up for a persecuted minority. Most people in Europe now give allegiance to that religion. As we speak, in the very same land, the modern day Israelites are the Palestinians.

This weekend, on Good Friday, there will be peaceful protests all over the land of Palestine. Members can see for themselves online. I suggest they read about the international co-ordination for the great return march. It is a protest that will involve all civil society groups and families who were dispossessed in 1948. All political parties in Palestine are supporting these protests, although they will not be visibly present because they want it to be a genuine grassroots protest. There is absolute commitment that there will be no violence. There will be totally peaceful sit-downs very close to the Gaza border and to the security line between the West Bank and Israel. This protest will run from Land Day, which is this Friday, until 15 May. The protestors are going to occupy the area of the security zone, and at some point they will peacefully approach the barriers, citing a United Nations resolution which gives refugees who have been dispossessed the right to return to their own country. They expect to be met with pretty brutal violence by the Israelis, who are already gearing up to attack the protests.

If that happens I think it is terribly important that we, the Taoiseach and the European Union speak up for the Palestinian people, who are simply seeking to assert their right under international law, the right to return.

The United Nations has just produced several reports detailing the continuing illegal expansion into east Jerusalem, Hebron and the Golan Heights. It has called for an end to this. There have been demolitions of houses and hundreds of young people have been jailed. Ahed Tamimi, a child, has spent eight months in prison. She joined hundreds of other children in administrative detention on having been arrested by the Israelis. Twelve elected representatives of the Palestinian Legislative Council are in prison on administrative detention, most without any charge. We have to speak out. This is the weekend to do it if we care about rights, opposing oppression and persecution and preventing the violence from which these peaceful protesters are very likely to suffer. I invite all those who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause to a short Solidarity gathering outside the Dáil at 2.30 p.m. tomorrow in solidarity with the international march. I hope people will join that.

Today the Central Bank is likely to recommend the closing down of the Sandyford printing press where we print euro notes. If its recommendation is implemented, Ireland will no longer have independent capacity to print currency. I do not know what will happen to the euro. It will probably last, and might last a long time, but we know from the most recent crisis that not being able to print our own currency in the event of a serious problem with the euro is very retrograde. The representatives of the workers at the press pointed out an extraordinary fact, namely, that much State printing - security printing - is outsourced but could be done in Sandyford, thereby preventing the closure. Did the Government know Irish stamps are printed in Australia? I did not know. Could this work and some of the other security work be given to the Sandyford printing press rather than having 45 jobs go, robbing this State of the capacity to produce its own currency?

I am sharing time with Deputy Clare Daly.

When speaking last week prior to the European Council meeting, I made the point that it was strange that there are so many humanitarian crises in the world that the Council is not addressing. I had the opportunity a few days ago to meet parliamentarians from Yemen. I listened to them on the effects of the three-year war on their country. They referred to suffering, destruction and devastation in addition to a lack of water and electricity and very poor access to medical services. They referred to the shutdown of the media. There is one newspaper left out of 300 that existed before the war. There are also threats to parliamentarians. The parliamentarians to whom I spoke made the point very strongly that there is a need for the UN Security Council and the European Council to take a much stronger stance.

Let me turn to the sustainable development goals. One hundred and ninety-three countries, in Europe and outside it, have signed up to the goals but not one of them can be achieved in a conflict zone. Therefore, the implementation of the goals means standing up to and confronting the arms industry. Hypocritically, countries that signed up to the goals are selling arms to countries that also signed up to them. Those arms are fuelling and exacerbating conflict in so many countries. It means that the goals cannot be implemented. Some $100 billion is spent on the nuclear arms budget. What could be achieved if this were used to address humanitarian issues?

The European Council meeting was about the Single Market, trade, trade deals and how Europe will pursue a robust trade policy. Last week, the Taoiseach referred to global tax reform in his speech. I looked for a reference in the conclusions and could not find anything on it. Maybe it is there somewhere. Likewise, I looked for a reference to the human rights aspect of business and trade. I attended a seminar at the Irish Centre for Human Rights in NUI Galway on the national action plans on business. The point was being made strongly by the speakers that Europe had been a leader on the national action plans, which are about implementing the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. EU leadership is sadly lacking, however, and it is falling behind. It has become somewhat complacent. That was obvious from the European Council meeting.

Despite all the discussion about trade and the Single Market, there was no discussion on the rights of workers. At the conference, the point was certainly made that there is a need for corporate transparency, corporate liability and access to justice. There is fear that the national action plans on business and human rights are getting lost in the discussion on the sustainable development goals but surely they should be complementary, especially when we are looking at private enterprise being involved in implementing the goals. There is a really serious lack of justice for workers working for European companies outside Europe. It is impossible for them to gain access to justice. We see this particularly in the extractive industries but also in others. There are some victims who have been waiting for 30 or 40 years for justice. That leads to the conclusion that there is a need for mandatory human rights due diligence when it comes to business.

The European Council condemned the use of chemical weapons and it also condemned the attack on Salisbury but it then agreed with the UK Government's assessment to the effect that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible. That is a very dangerous precedent on which to make decisions. It is extremely difficult to understand why Ireland made the decision it made on intelligence from the UK. Is there some reason we believe the UK rather than anybody else? It has not exactly been telling the truth on many other issues. It is like the saying "Dúirt bean liom go ndúirt léi", which is not a constructive basis on which to make decisions. Perhaps Russia was responsible but there is a need for independent evidence in order to reach that conclusion. What is occurring is damaging the respect afforded to us internationally. Our reputation is being damaged, not to mention what our activity is signalling in terms of our neutrality, or so-called neutrality.

One of the conclusions from the Council meeting refers to closer co-operation between EU member states and with NATO. It is not enough to be making speeches about our neutrality that are not matched with actions regarding neutrality. We need only look at the figures we are getting from Shannonwatch regarding the use of Shannon Airport by the US military. We are being pushed, cajoled or lured - or whatever word one wants to use - into the military arena. Ireland will pay a very high price. We will pay a high price, particularly in the context of our reputation for humanitarian activity and securing human rights.

I am disgusted to the pit of my being by the stance taken by the Government on the expulsion of a Russian diplomat and our sycophantic fawning behind the British authorities and the European Union regarding the matters in Salisbury. Unfortunately, I could not be here last night but I wish to put on the record, in the strongest possible terms, my abhorrence of the stance being taken by the Government on these matters. I do not believe it reflects the view of the Irish people. I, for one, want no part of it. It is wrong on so many counts that we do not have the time to deal with the relevant matters here.

The hypocrisy is beyond belief. We are supposed to be a sovereign, independent and neutral country. That we would take a position based not at all on evidence but on the suspicions of a friendly power is absolutely reprehensible. I do not believe for one moment that An Garda Síochána had any evidence against the individual who was expelled from Ireland. If it had, why did it not act upon it before now? This is an absolutely shameful stance to take. What has gone on will put into the tuppenny-ha'penny place the lies about weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the Iraq war. Similar circumstances are unravelling here.

Last night, the Tánaiste said that if we had not rowed in behind the lads, we would be in a very difficult place. The Minister for Finance said we must act in solidarity with our ally. That is just not good enough in a modern climate. The idea that the Russian people, or Russian authorities, could be ganged up on on the basis of a decision to stand behind our friends is exactly the type of ideology we try to warn our children about. We try to teach them that one does not go on with the big boys or gang up on the basis of tittle-tattle and gossip because it is the prevailing thing to do. If something is wrong and one does not have evidence, one should investigate it. One should take a step back and not move along with the pack. As an independent country, we had an opportunity to do something different. I feel utterly embarrassed by the stance taken by the Government. The double standards alone are sickening. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Russian authorities were involved in this matter.

One contrasts what we have done here with the direct evidence where our own citizens were targeted by a foreign power and had their identities stolen. I refer, of course, to the incidents in Dubai in January 2010 when Mossad agents used forged Irish passports to carry out an assassination. It was an absolute violation of diplomacy. What did the Irish authorities do then? Did we swing into action? The head of the Dubai police at the time said he was 99% sure Mossad was responsible. Did we expel any Israelis? No, we did not. We waited for an investigation to be carried out before we took that stand. That was when one of our own citizen's identity was violated. I contrast that with the suspicion, which has been mooted by the British authorities, and the way in which we have shamefully fallen into line in that regard.

Mr. Craig Murray, the British diplomat and human rights activist, has written a striking précis on this and made comparisons between what has gone on here and the pressure in relation to furthering the subsequently discredited lie on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He has said it is a scientific impossibility that the UK's chemical investigations unit could have tested for Russian Novichok because it never possessed a Russian sample for the purposes of comparison. The point is made that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, has had full access to all Russian chemical weapons facilities for more than a decade. In fact, last year its officials completed the destruction of the last Russian chemical weapons. I contrast that with the American chemical weapons stockpile, which has five years left to run before it will be eliminated. Israel has a chemical weapons stockpile but it will not even sign up to the OPCW. It has been said that Novichok and the new nerve gas are of a type developed in Russia but no evidence has been provided that it was made there. In fact, the evidence as to whether they existed at all could have been manufactured by anybody else.

It is shameful that we have gone down this road. It is part of a Russophobia I want no part of and it is about worthy and unworthy victims and worthy and unworthy powers. If we are talking about extrajudicial killings taking place in other territories, which is reprehensible, let us look at what the American authorities, the Israelis and the Saudis are doing in Yemen. If we want to expel people, why not expel them all given that those crimes are verified and backed up by evidence?

I am happy to make some comments on the post-EU Council statements. At the European Council, the Taoiseach aligned himself clearly with the position adopted by France's President Macron with respect to the expulsion of Russian diplomatic personnel in what was supposed to be a show of European solidarity. They have not shown us much solidarity in recent times. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, is well aware of that having been over there. It is a pity the Taoiseach has left the Chamber but we need to get some solidarity from them also. It works both ways.

As I said last night on statements on the Salisbury attack, it was a case of Leo the lion attacking the Russian bear. As I also said, it may be Leo the lamb at the end of the situation in which we find ourselves on this Easter week. We normally have lamb at this time. It might be Leo the lamb because he was too quick to rush into it. As Deputy Clare Daly said, we try to teach our youngsters not to go with the mob in cases of bullying and intimidation or to jump in when there is a suspicion of something but nothing has been proven. I have always believed in the premise of "innocent until proven guilty". It looks here as if the Government has found the Russians guilty and hanged them before any specific evidence has been produced or any charges have been brought. I condemn totally the reprehensible attack on that family and the use of that gas but we should get the full facts first. As I said to Deputy Micheál Martin when he was speaking, what about the trade links we have with Russia? Are we going to simply follow the pack? Is that what Leo the lion is doing? Is it the lion hunting the rabbits? That is a bad move for our Taoiseach but this is what he likes to use to distract people from the messes he and his Tánaiste have created at home.

I note from the Taoiseach's earlier remarks that he was to meet Chancellor Merkel and discuss and adopt conclusions on jobs, growth and competitiveness, including the Single Market, the European semester, social issues and trade. He was also due to discuss external relations, including those with Turkey and the western Balkans. I understand further from the Taoiseach's remarks that leaders' agenda discussions are intended to facilitate an open and free-flowing exchange of views on the future of Europe and that in his words, "these meetings are not supposed to produce conclusions but rather to unlock some of the more contentious aspects of issues on the EU agenda and to allow each of us to understand the others' positions a bit better". We have had a lot of them in that case and it has all been one-way traffic. I do not see where our views were allowed to be expressed or were listened to. We know that from where we are with Brexit. We know what attitude the European leaders took to the sovereign British people when they voted in a certain manner. They took that attitude to us also when we had the Lisbon and other referendums. Where then was all the free speech and free-flowing engagement to which the Taoiseach referred? We are stuck with our Border up the road with no indication of any flinching or engagement or free-flowing exchanges of views. The Taoiseach came back in December with a bullet-proof deal on the Border but where is it now? It is like the snow we got on Paddy's Day; tá sé imithe. It is gone off the mountain with the first bit of sun. The deal he had was not very solid. If that is what he calls bullet-proof, he is some lion. I would rather call him a mouse.

While I welcome the idea of free-flowing discussions, it is a very novel approach from the EU leadership. I do not know if Leo - I should call him "Taoiseach" - is at these meetings at all or if he dreams about them. We have had decades now of leadership from the top with little or no regard for the implications of what European policy means for the ordinary people of Europe. We have seen this quite recently when Donald Tusk and the rest of them bemoaned and attacked the British people for daring to vote out of kilter with their plan, project and vision. We now have free-flowing dialogue, if it happened, as the Taoiseach says it did, whereby issues are sorted out around the table with a chat and a pat on the back. We saw recently in the Italian elections that people at the heart of Europe are almost completely alienated from the European project. What more evidence do we need? All this talk of partnership and alliances rings utterly hollow for many within the European Union, including our own people here as we saw with the banking fiasco. The EU banks were allowed to shovel money in here but when the you-know-what hit the fan, they were gone. They were then our great supporters and gave us a so-called "bailout", which I voted against. I would have voted against it ten times if I could. It was a clean-out. They charged us 6% interest when we got it from the USA and others at 3% and less. They were our friends all right.

People have witnessed time and time again an agenda driven solely by the interests of the bigger members, in particular Germany and France. We now have our Taoiseach lining up with President Macron in France. Perhaps the Taoiseach might inform us what conclusions were reached in his discussions on educational and cultural co-operation and, in particular, on migration, institutional reform and the multi-annual financial framework. Tá sé imithe anois. It is a case, as Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan said, of dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi. Dúirt bean leis an Taoiseach ach níl a fhios aige cad a bhí an bhean sin ag caint faoi. These are some of the key concerns many feel are not being addressed adequately. It is obvious to us also but we do not want to listen. Before he left for the summit, the Taoiseach remarked that 19 eurozone members were to meet for a euro summit and that the President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, and the Eurogroup would be present. He said the focus will be on economic and monetary union, EMU, and proposals for a European monetary fund with a banking unit and fiscal policy considerations among others.

This, as well we all know, is a source of the most profound disagreement. In particular, the concept of banking union is riddled with dangers for ordinary people, given how disastrously things could go wrong, and such is the flowing language in which the Taoiseach talks about it. Our own banking system has been a shining example of how not to manage banking affairs. Why would we have any confidence whatsoever that a European banking union would perform any better? I have serious concerns - I only became aware of it when Deputy Boyd Barrett said it - that we no longer have a printing facility if our so-called friends decide to stand on us, choke us or whatever. They abandoned us in our hour of need. It is ironic that this is Holy Week, with Good Friday approaching. We will not have any access to printing money and we are blindly and stupidly adoring to these big shots in Europe and forgetting our own people, especially the little people.

While I have mentioned it is Holy Week, Deputies O'Keeffe and Grealish and I had a Topical Issue debate here on Holy Thursday last about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Genocide is taking place there. Of course, we went there as well and bombed the hell out of them - we supported it as well. We were told there were weapons of mass destruction and there was nothing of the kind. It was all fiction just to suit an agenda. Those people are being persecuted and abandoned by us, both here in Europe and in the European project, where we seal borders to stop them fleeing from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. It is a crying shame what has gone on there and how we, in modern democracies around the world, can turn a blind eye to what the Syrians and others are doing. When we had Saddam, bad and all as he was, and Gaddafi and other leaders, at least all denominations were allowed freedom of religion and to practice with impunity. Since this dastardly bombardment took place, the Christians are being persecuted, as are minority Muslim sects, Kurds and others. It is genocide. There is no other word for it. We cannot get any discussion at European level. We tried so hard. It was never raised here in this Parliament, only thanks to the Ceann Comhairle, who gave us the Topical debate last year. Many of us had met the Holy Father, and I welcome the fact that he is coming to Ireland in August. The Holy Father asked us at an international conference - he nearly implored the international delegation of parliamentarians - to go back to our parliaments and raise these issues of the persecution of Christians and minority Muslims and other sects. Was there any debate on it here? Not at all, that might upset our friends in Europe. That might upset Macron, our German friends and everybody else. We all go with the flow here. Where is our sovereignty? Where is our neutrality? Where is our respect for nations all over the world to have their own vision, to have their own autonomy and to be free of outside interference? We just turn a blind eye to that. We are in the European project and it is greater than anything else and we must abandon them. It is time that we paid some heed to the obliteration and genocide being carried out against Christians and minority Muslims in the Middle East and raise that in Europe as well. It might not be a free-flowing discussion for Leo the lion. As I said, he would be Leo an lamb óg ar Dhomhnach Cásca.

Politics sometimes boils down to yes-no questions and how one would vote on something. We are not voting on this issue of the expelling of Russian diplomats but, in effect, by setting out one's position, one has to answer in a sense here a yes-no question as to whether we support a particular measure or not. Sometimes one would seek a preferendum where one could have a variety of options but sometimes one cannot afford answering the yes-no question and that is not a bad thing. It brings one to clarity, maybe, on a particular issue.

I listened with interest to the comments of Members here and through the past two days in the wider public debate about this issue of the potential expulsion of Russian diplomats and much of what is said strikes home to me as true. First, all sorts of espionage goes on in our world at present and the question is how can one pick out one particular instance or find one particular example of it and take that as one's test case. Particularly in our country one of the biggest issues is that we are constantly under surveillance in all our electronic communications in that all digital material leaving this island via fibre-optic cables is spliced into and is accessed by GCHQ which has the ability to read and see what we are communicating. That is an issue that we, as a country, have never fought strongly enough against and raised the alarm about.

There are many examples of international incidents. Deputy Clare Daly cited numerous examples one could pick but there is a range of developments in the world today that we should possibly be looking to raise diplomatic concern about. For me, personally, one of the most significant developments has been the development of drone warfare, the development of unmanned far-distant use of military weapons to assassinate people, effectively, outside of any legal order. One could look at others. Commentators are rightly concerned about the issue of cybercrime and the influence of the Internet on our own democratic security, as much as anything else, with the Cambridge Analytica revelations last week. One of the worst such cases was the deployment of Stuxnet malware in a power station by western agencies. There are numerous examples one could pick. Indeed, if one was looking at the Russian examples, we could look at what has been happening in Syria in recent years in terms of the bombing of civilian areas as a clear breach of proper international order. All those arguments make sense in terms of us not living in a fair and right world and there are so many matters on which we must take a particular stand.

I am considering my own view on this issue and what the specific approach of the Government should be. I am drawn to what my colleagues in the European Green movement across Europe have been saying. Green MEP Ms Rebecca Harms, the co-chair of the European Green Party, has come out clearly in saying that we are shocked by the offensive use of the military grade nerve agents in this case, that it appears - if it proves otherwise then we will revise - clear it is a nerve agent that has been developed by Russia and that such nerve agents have not been used for over 70 years on European soil and we cannot ignore that fact. As a party, we come rooted in anti-materialisation, CND, anti-nuclear armament and anti-chemical weapons development. There is a convention and a protocol of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and we would support the fact that organisation has being called to carry out an investigation into the attack. We stand up against the use of nerve agents and chemical weapons. That is not in breach of our neutrality. Taking out the international politics of it, are we or are we not concerned about the development and deployment of such weapons? I, for one, am.

I also note the concern raised by my colleague, Dr. Caroline Lucas, MP, the co-leader of the English and Welsh Green Party. I understand Dr. Lucas accepts the expulsion of diplomats from the UK. Indeed, she is calling for us to go further, looking for the seizure of some property assets held in London - there are considerable oligarchical profits being funnelled into London - as a signal that that whole system in place at present in the Russian Administration must be confronted. It is that we should not just sit back and accept. Indeed, other colleagues, including Ms Rebecca Harms, MEP, are calling for a boycott of the World Cup as one of the signals and others are calling for us to start addressing our use of Russian oil and gas as the most effective means.

Personally, I have good relations with staff in the Russian embassy. We met the officials there and they have come to events we have held. It is no disrespect to the Russian people. Earlier I was having a good cut at the American Administration and what President Trump stands for and it would not be right for us to confront that form of economic nationalism and not also confront the economic nationalism at play in the Russian Administration.

I do not trust Boris Johnson, who received £150,000 to play tennis with some Russian oligarch. His evidence would not convince me to make my decision. My decision is based on how it seems that this is a case where nerve agents were deployed and that represents a historic step in the wrong direction. Based on the idea that we support international co-operation rather than economic nationalism and oppose those types of tactics by any country, my personal conclusion is that, on balance, we are better off supporting it and sending a signal. No one is saying that we have uncovered some great area of espionage. As Deputy Boyd Barrett said earlier, all sorts of espionage goes on, but this decision can be based simply on Ireland standing up as a country against the deployment of nerve agents. Even if the case is not proved to the nth degree, the urgency and the size of the issue means that we should be willing to take a stand along with 15 other European countries in order to say that there is a line we will not cross. We will not tolerate the use of such nerve agents in any circumstances.

That should spill over to our wider approach in respect of the European Council. This is something I put to the Taoiseach earlier. One cannot take a position against economic nationalism and in favour of international co-operation and simultaneously align oneself with Donald Trump, which is something the Taoiseach did explicitly. He said that Ireland is lining up with the US in terms of low corporate tax and with Donald Trump's approach to tax. We are making a historic mistake at the Council by being seen as one of the states trying to block attempts by the European Union to put a stop to €1 trillion - according to figures arrived at by my colleagues in the European Parliament who have undertaken much analysis in this area - being lost as a result of corporate tax avoidance measures. The consistent position of this Government is that Ireland is on the side of corporate tax breaks and it is being seen as not trying to address this critical and urgent issue. That does real damage to this country and places it in the wrong position. The world is changing from the idea whereby trade is everything, free trade rules, there is free capital movement, the market knows best, the greed-is-good approach of the movie character Gordon Gekko, wear the braces, do whatever trade deals we can and play the system and get as much as we can out of it. That is a form of economic nationalism from which we could move on because it is not in tune with the direction in which the global economy needs to go, namely, an environment where global co-operation takes place.

At the same time that we have expelled a Russian diplomat, we should do as I have outlined in order to send a signal about our concerns about the use of Novichok. It would be the same if it applied anywhere. This is an issue which is global in import. If we start allowing the use of such agents to become commonplace, we will step into a future which is too scary to contemplate. On that basis alone, we should, as a country, stand against the deployment of such weapons and material. We should back that up by giving a better example in how we co-operate internationally by not always siding with corporate tax breaks or by lining up with Donald Trump, as the Taoiseach has done, and congratulating him on adopting the same policies as Ireland and then trying to defend those policies at the European Council. We should also change that as we take a stand against Russia.

I call Deputy Seán Haughey.

How long do we have for questions?

Most of the Members asked questions when they spoke. Deputy Haughey had not spoken yet so I am allowing him to do so. I will then invite the Minister of State to answer the questions after Deputy Haughey has contributed.

If the Acting Chairman wishes to add more time, that is okay with me.

If Deputy Boyd Barrett wishes to ask another question of the Minister of State, I am sure she will accommodate him.

There has been much discussion, both yesterday and today, about this European Council meeting. All the issues have been raised. I want to put place on record my position on the backstop. I am concerned that the formulation of a legal text in the context of the protocol seems to have been put back until October at the latest. I hope we can make substantial progress on it by the June summit and it is important that we do so. The tricky issues are always left to the very end. There is a danger, if it is left to the very end, that compromises will be brought forward at late-night meetings in smoke-filled rooms - although perhaps they are not smoke-filled any longer - and that, in the midst of the wheeling and dealing, the outcome on the Irish question might not be as favourable as we would wish.

The digital tax was a big matter at the European Council meeting. It threatens our corporate tax base and ability to attract foreign direct investment. I ask that it be dealt with at a global level, through the OECD, and that it would not undermine EU competitiveness in any way.

Article 7 has been invoked in respect of Poland. Article 2 of the establishing treaty of the European Union outlines European values regarding human rights, democracy, freedom of speech and so forth, as well as the independence of the judiciary. It seems that the independence of the judiciary in Poland is under threat. I appreciate the separation of powers but it is reasonable to refer to the decision by a High Court judge to refuse an extradition request from Poland pending a review by the European Court of Justice. That is a major case to be dealt with. It does not come within the remit of parliamentarians here; it is a legal matter that was raised by Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly and it must be put in the context of the invocation of Article 7. Can the Minister of State indicate if there is concern about the situation in Poland, the rise of illiberal tendencies in some EU states and how that might threaten the future of the EU?

I will hand over to the Minister of State who may take as long as she wishes to respond. Does she wish to answer all the questions?

There are only two questions so we might as well.

There are only two questions and we have a while so we will give plenty of time to the Minister of State to reply.

I want to press the Minister of State on the question of the nerve agent and the evidence on which the decision to expel a Russian diplomat was based. It was done on the word of British intelligence services, or perhaps it was that of the British Government alone, and then European leaders. There have been many references to the nerve agent. We all abhor the use of such agents. They are horrendous and the people responsible for their use should be brought to justice and prosecuted to the nth degree. However, what has not become clear - and I am asking the Minister of State if she can clarify the position in this regard - is the actual evidence that has been provided. I attended the Tánaiste's briefing yesterday. He said, frankly, that there is no smoking gun. He actually used the phrase, "There is no smoking gun". That worries me because two and two have been added together and we have got five. We are being told that a nerve agent was used - and we all agree that is unacceptable - and we think it was used by Russia. However, there is no evidence directly connecting Russia to what happened. Can the Minister of State shine any light on this? "Most plausible" or "highly likely" are not thresholds for making decisions that are really very serious for us. Can the Minister of State respond on that point?

The other explanation was that it was the only plausible explanation. There are, however, other plausible explanations. This material was produced from the 1970s, often in states that are now not under Russian control. We know that it is very likely that in some areas which broke away from the Soviet Union, central government lost control over materials like that. I am not saying that the Russians did not do it, but to say there is no alternative plausible explanation in the absence of a smoking gun does not add up.

On the issue of double standards, specifically in respect of Palestine, if our line as an ethical foreign policy is that we are not going to put up with states that engage in behaviour which we consider to be beyond the Pale and that we are going to expel people, will that extend to what Israel is doing in flouting international law in its treatment of the Palestinians? Even when the United Nations is saying and producing reports in the past few weeks to the effect that Israel is doing things that are absolutely in direct violation of UN resolutions and international law, there are no expulsions or talk of sanctions. There is nothing. Is that going to change? Can we at least have some consistency in our foreign policy stances?

I thank all the Deputies for their questions and also for their patience in the Chamber for the afternoon. I will provide further details about some of the external relations issues that were discussed at the European Council in Brussels last week, particularly in respect of Russia and Turkey, and then I will address the questions that have been asked.

The Taoiseach has noted that discussions on Russia took up most of the time over dinner. In that regard, I should highlight the unqualified solidarity which EU leaders expressed for the UK. As the conclusions rightly state, the nerve agent attack in Salisbury on 4 March was a very grave challenge to our shared security. Any use of toxic chemicals as a weapon is a security threat to us all. The expulsion of Russian diplomats from several member states is a strong testament to the solidarity across the European Union on this issue. It is also a clear reminder to small countries such as Ireland of the value of EU membership.

Once again Ireland utterly condemns this reckless attack. The Taoiseach fully supported the strengthening of the European Council conclusions to explicitly agree with the UK's assessment that Russia was very likely to have been responsible for this heinous crime and that there is no alternative plausible explanation. As the Taoiseach has noted, the Tánaiste has announced that, following an assessment by security services and relevant Departments of the activities of the Russian Embassy, one member of staff with diplomatic status will be ordered to leave the country. Ireland has been very consistent in calling for Russia and the EU to have a constructive and predictable relationship however there is now a very clear onus on Russia to address all questions related to the attack in Salisbury, including providing full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW.

The European Council also discussed issues relating to Turkey and specifically to its actions in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. There was no opposition to the high-level EU-Turkey summit going ahead in Varna on 26 March, although the European Council strongly condemned Turkey's illegal action in the region. These relate to military exercises in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone which have blocked legitimate natural resources exploration and to the continued detention of two Greek soldiers who accidentally crossed into Turkish territory in adverse weather conditions. Ireland recognises that Turkey's relationship with the EU remains under strain. We support continued dialogue with a view to resolving our differences amicably but there is an obligation under respected international law on good neighbourly reactions and it is therefore appropriate that the European Council should remain seized of these matters. While Ireland recognises Turkey's concerns in the wake of the attempted coup in 2016, we have voiced our own concerns about negative developments in respect of human rights, freedom of expression, democracy and the rule of law, and will continue to do so.

I note that the European Council also discussed the EU-western Balkans summit which the Taoiseach plans to attend in Sofia on 17 May. We support the European perspective on the western Balkans region as is very clear from our support for the EU strategy for the region which was published just last month. It outlines a framework for those aspiring to join the Union in the foreseeable future. This is a priority for the Bulgarian presidency and we will be working very closely with it to ensure the meeting in May is a success.

As I mentioned last week, I had the opportunity to visit the region in January to meet with my counterparts, colleagues, members of parliament and the Irish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro. I have encouraged them to seize the momentum provided by renewed focus on the western Balkans and have assured them of Ireland's support as they carry out the reforms necessary to meet the high standards expected by the European Union. President Tusk is also expected to use the occasion of the summit to hold a meeting under the Leader's Agenda format.

I thank all Deputies for their statements and assure them that the Taoiseach will continue to report to the House in advance of and following meetings of the European Council. I will now speak on some of the specific issues which were raised. First, the social issue was raised during one of the events on the first day, last Thursday. The social fairness package which was launched by the Commission on 13 March sets out a number of different proposals. One deals with social protection for workers and self-employed workers which would ensure sufficient social protection coverage. Another proposal, which Deputy Howlin mentioned, was the European labour authority which would support member states in matters relating to cross-border labour mobility. This would include free movement of workers, posting of workers and the co-ordination of social security systems. A third proposal is a proposed initiative regarding a European social security number. This particular proposal has been delayed until a future date. The package also included a communication on monitoring the implementation of the European pillar of social rights.

Following on from the Council meeting last week, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation are looking at these issues before arriving at any detailed national position. I know that Deputy Howlin also raised the issue of the labour authority. We are studying the Commission's proposal on this issue. We have some concerns, as do other member states, as we want to ensure that any kind of new authority does not duplicate or replicate existing structures and will actually make a genuine difference to workers' welfare within the EU.

A question was asked on the enlargement process and the western Balkans. I would restate that we agree with the Commission's paper and proposal and the fact that it includes a proposal for all six possible new member states and sets out timelines. I hope to attend the summit with the Taoiseach in September. Today, we have heard from our Croatian colleagues that when they host the Presidency in 2020, they hope to host a second summit, which we will support, in order to keep this issue very firmly on the agenda and to work with our possible new colleagues and member states.

On digital tax, there were a number of questions as to why there were no conclusions on this issue. There were never meant to be any conclusions on this specifically. It was always to be an informal discussion. While it was a part of the main body of the meeting on Thursday, it was purely because there had not been any update on the US position, which was due to be discussed at that time. Obviously the issue of digital tax and tax in general is something on which we have been very strong and very clear. We very much believe that the reason Ireland is seen as a good place for business is our transparent and reliable tax system. Indeed Ireland has implemented quite a number of the OECD report recommendations on base erosion and profit shifting, BEPS, and we have been held as one of the most transparent countries in this regard for some time now. Of course, when it comes to digital tax we agree with the Deputy and believe this needs to be dealt with on a global basis. Companies, corporations and digital companies need to pay their fair share of tax, but it needs to be paid where value is created, not necessarily where transactions take place. Therefore we believe this needs to be dealt with through the OECD process. We had the support of many member states throughout the discussion in which the Taoiseach took part last week.

With regard to the backstop position, intensive negotiations have started again this week which are specifically looking at the Irish backstop position. We welcomed the fact that last week Donald Tusk, after the European Council meeting, reiterated and stressed that we needed to see sufficient progress on the Irish protocol by June. We believe that we need to see that sufficient progress in order for us to be able to complete this by October. As we have said many times, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. We have that support and commitment from all 27 member states when it comes to the Irish issue and, indeed, other issues within the withdrawal agreement which have not been finalised or concluded yet.

On the concerns in respect of Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union, particularly in respect of Poland, while this issue was not addressed at the European Council meeting it was raised at the meeting of the General Affairs Council which I attended. As the Deputy has said, the Article 7 process has been implemented. The Polish Government published its response on Tuesday, the day of the meeting of the General Affairs Council, so we did not have full time to respond to it. It had to be translated. Ireland's position is that we have welcomed the re-engagement of the Polish Government with the Commission since Christmas. We feel that the best way to resolve these issues is through negotiations, dialogue and engagement. Of course, we hold the very firm position that we now need to start seeing actions on this issue because any member state that in any way contravenes our key values, including the rule of law, needs to be held accountable. Obviously we are encouraging further engagement and dialogue and the fact that Poland has published its response is very welcome.

Specifically with regard to Russia, we are talking about the first time a chemical attack of this kind has happened on European soil since the Second World War. I was not in the room when Theresa May outlined why the UK believes Russia was specifically responsible for this attack. The Taoiseach was, as were other member states including some of the larger states, such as France and Germany, which would have significant intelligence in these areas. It was the view of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, following recommendations, that we would act in solidarity with the UK. If this had happened on Irish soil, would we be standing back and asking member states to support us and work with us or would we be saying that we would go it alone and that we would be able to deal with it ourselves? I do not think we would do the latter. The unity of the European Union in this regard is absolutely paramount.

I thank the Minister of State and all the Deputies who have contributed to the debate.

Sitting suspended at 3.40 p.m. and resumed at 4.40 p.m.