I attended a series of European Council meetings in Brussels on Wednesday, 17 October and Thursday, 18 October. On Wednesday evening, we met in Article 50 format to discuss the Brexit negotiations. The meeting of the European Council proper on Thursday morning focused on migration, internal security and external relations. This was followed by a European summit, where we exchanged views on deepening economic and monetary union ahead of the December European Council. I also had bilateral meetings with the UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani.
I will focus my remarks today on Brexit, and will also outline the discussions on migration and economic issues. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will speak about internal security in her statement, as well as the external relations issues that arose.
From Ireland’s perspective, the priority was, of course, the Article 50 meeting on Brexit. In advance of the meeting, the UK Prime Minister outlined the UK perspective to the other EU leaders. Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, then gave us a detailed and candid update on the state of play with regard to those negotiations with the UK. He confirmed that, despite intensified negotiations over the past few weeks, the decisive progress we so urgently need has not yet been made. This is a matter of serious concern to us all.
Collectively, we reaffirmed our full confidence in Mr. Barnier and urged him to continue his efforts to reach an agreement in accordance with the guidelines previously agreed by the European Council, which we decided not to change.
President Tusk said that, for now, he would not convene a special summit in November but he would do so if and when Mr. Barnier reports that decisive progress has been achieved, thereby warranting a special summit.
As Deputies will be aware, a focus of the negotiations has been on the backstop or protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. I reminded colleagues of how much is at stake and how important it is that we get this right. We have always said that we want the negotiations to succeed. This will only be possible with agreement on a legally robust backstop, which must apply in the circumstances set out in the withdrawal agreement. The UK specifically committed to this in the joint EU-UK report last December. The UK Prime Minister reiterated these commitments in March and again in September.
The EU presented its detailed proposal for the backstop when it published a draft version of the withdrawal agreement in March. The UK has brought other ideas to the table in the course of the negotiations, although it has not published a formal, written alternative text.
In considering any proposals, we will continue to apply the tests outlined by Michel Barnier earlier this year as follows. Is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union? Is it an all-weather backstop that applies unless and until an alternative solution supersedes it?
The EU’s proposal sets out practical and technical solutions to protect the gains of the peace process, and to keep the border open and invisible as it is today. It does not in any way represent a threat to the constitutional integrity of the UK, nor have we any interest in doing so. I support Mr. Barnier’s efforts to de-dramatise the protocol and to focus on agreeing the workable solution that it offers at its core. Colleagues agreed that this is not just an Irish issue; it is a matter of European solidarity. We have been consistent in saying that the UK must honour these commitments and that the legally operable backstop must be included in the withdrawal agreement, or there will be no agreement and no period of transition.
I very much hope and expect that the future relationship will be close, comprehensive and ambitious. However, that cannot be guaranteed until it is negotiated in detail and in due course ratified by the UK Parliament and the parliaments of all 27 member states. There are plenty of points along the way where this could go wrong, which is why we need the certainty of the backstop.
As I said in Brussels, although we all recognise that the backstop cannot have an expiry date, it will enter into force only if there is no agreement to supersede it; I hope it will never need to be invoked. It would cease to be in force only when there is an agreement to supersede it and, therefore, I expect it would be temporary. While it is intended to be temporary, it cannot be time-limited in the sense of having an expiry date. I explained this to Mrs. May at our bilateral meeting on Wednesday and she acknowledged this.
Our unique concerns are fully understood and I am pleased that EU solidarity has been unwavering. I took the opportunity on Wednesday evening to thank partners for this, and also to thank Mr. Barnier and his team for their dedication and perseverance in the negotiations.
In my meeting with President Tajani, we discussed the role of the European Parliament in ratifying the withdrawal agreement. He emphasised the parliament’s commitment to ensuring that the backstop is included in the withdrawal agreement and he offered to visit Ireland to confirm the parliament’s support.
While we will continue to insist that a legally operative backstop is an indispensable part of a withdrawal agreement, it should be seen as an insurance policy; it is not our preferred solution. I believe that a positive outcome to the negotiations is still possible and that it can deliver a close and deep future relationship between the EU and the UK. However, if we are to have the withdrawal agreement secured, approved and operational by the time the UK leaves, we need to make decisive progress now. In the meantime, we are all stepping up our preparedness arrangements, including our contingency planning for a no-deal scenario. President Juncker updated us on the Commission's work in this regard at the meeting on Wednesday. It is important to realise, however, that irrespective of the outcome of the negotiations, things will be different.
The 2019 budget includes a package for Brexit readiness to insulate Ireland from the negative economic impact of Brexit. Various programmes to help businesses are in place, including a €300 million Brexit loan scheme for business and substantial investment in the agrifood sector. The Government has also launched a new "Getting Ireland Brexit Ready" public awareness campaign, which provides information on what help is available. Outreach events have taken place in Cork, Galway and Monaghan at which attendances exceeded expectations. I will participate in an event in Dublin tomorrow.
On other issues, migration continues to be a concern for the EU. Having had extensive discussions on this at the June European Council and again in Salzburg last month, our meeting on Thursday focused on the external aspects, particularly strengthening our co-operation with source and transit countries in Africa and the Middle East.
We welcomed the decision to convene a summit with our African partners in December. It will be helpful in developing a closer partnership with the continent. We also agreed to hold a summit with the Arab League early next year. Any long-term and sustainable solution needs to deal with the reasons people decide to migrate. We need to ensure they have better prospects at home when it comes to peace, democracy, security and economic opportunity.
On Thursday, we also discussed the Commission proposals on enhancing the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, as well as our ongoing efforts to reform the common European asylum system and the Dublin convention. The discussions on this issue are difficult, and member states have not yet agreed on the best way forward.
As Deputies will be aware, Ireland is less directly affected by large migration inflows and illegal immigration than many other countries due to our geographic position, our position under Protocol No. 21, and our non-participation in certain aspects of the Schengen Agreement. I believe, however, that the challenges need a collective response. We need to respond to migration in a comprehensive, fair and pragmatic way. This includes opting in, as we have done, to the EU relocation and resettlement measures; taking in additional migrants over the summer months from ships in the Mediterranean, which we did; contributing naval vessels to help with humanitarian efforts in the Mediterranean; helping to train the Libyan coastguard and disrupt the activities of human traffickers and people smugglers; and increasing our financial assistance. As I told my EU counterparts last week, Ireland intends to continue to play an active and constructive role.
A euro summit meeting took place in inclusive format – that is, with 27 member states, including members of the eurozone and those that may join – along with the Eurogroup President, Mr. Mário Centeno, and the ECB President, Mr. Mario Draghi. Discussions were focused on the further reform and deepening of the eurozone and the need to complete economic and monetary union, including a banking union and capital markets union. Mr. Centeno provided an update on the progress on implementing decisions reached at the previous euro summit in June, in particular on the further development of the European Stability Mechanism, ESM. Work continues on this at the level of finance Ministers.
I spoke about Ireland's commitment to the further development of European economic and monetary union, including completion of the banking union as soon as practicable, and the use of the ESM as the backstop to the Single Resolution Fund. I also took the opportunity to inform the Council that Ireland has now collected in full the alleged state aid from Apple. This will be held in an escrow fund pending the outcome of the appeal process before the European courts.
I also gave an overview of Ireland's 2019 budget, which will effectively see us having no deficit for the first time in ten years. It will allow us to continue to reduce our national debt as a proportion of GDP. I underlined our commitment to continuing to tackle the issue of aggressive tax planning and tax avoidance by some multinational companies, including through the introduction of an exit tax in budget 2019. All of these actions were very warmly welcomed by other Prime Ministers and Presidents.
We can work together as 27 member states, building close relationships with third countries, to manage the challenges we face, including Brexit, migration and security. From Ireland's perspective, we are building new strategic alliances and strengthening existing ones. Our active participation in the debate about the future of Europe, and the citizens' dialogue that the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy McEntee, has been leading at home, have been really valuable here. I fully intend to have Ireland continue to play a constructive role and a leadership role in shaping the future of the European Union which we help to build.