I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 13 December and Friday, 14 December. We met in three separate formats over the two days and discussed a wide range of issues. Chancellor Kurz reported on Austria’s work as the holder of the EU Presidency for the past six months. I congratulate the Chancellor and his country on what has been a very efficient and effective Presidency, and extend my best wishes to the incoming Romanian Presidency, which will take over responsibilities at the beginning of January. There was a euro summit on Friday where we discussed progress towards economic and monetary union, and we also met in Article 50 format on Thursday evening to discuss Brexit.
I will focus my remarks today on Brexit and outline our discussions on the multi-annual financial framework, which is the EU's five-year budget, external relations outside of the EU, the Single Market, migration, security and defence as well as developments at the euro summit. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will speak on disinformation and the fight against racism and xenophobia in her wrap-up remarks, as well as the citizens’ consultations on the future of Europe, in which she has played a leading role.
I met bilaterally with Prime Minister May on Thursday morning, when she briefed me on recent political developments in the UK and on the state of play regarding ratification of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement. We discussed whether further clarification of the terms of the withdrawal agreement might be offered, though I stressed to her that the agreement, including the backstop, could not be renegotiated. Prime Minister May made a similar presentation to the EU 27 later on Thursday, before leaders met in Article 50 formation that evening. As Deputies will be aware, the withdrawal agreement took over 20 months of negotiations and represents a finely balanced compromise among 28 countries. It was negotiated around the red lines imposed by the UK on itself.
There was a very strong consensus at our meeting that the withdrawal agreement, which we agreed on 25 November, and which was endorsed by the UK Government, cannot be substantively renegotiated. We agreed that we will go ahead with our own ratification procedures, in which the European Parliament will have a central role. I look forward to hearing the debate in the European Parliament. I know it will be thorough and considered, in keeping with its ongoing involvement in the issue.
The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, including the backstop, is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement. The backstop is necessary to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, something which underpins the Good Friday Agreement, a legally binding international agreement for which the Irish and the UK Government are co-guarantors. The backstop is also necessary to protect the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union. It is an issue of concern for the whole Union and not just for Ireland. We hope and expect it will not need to be invoked but it is there as an insurance policy to be employed, unless and until alternative arrangements are in place.
I am glad that, in the Article 50 conclusions, we were able to offer important clarifications and reassurances to the UK. We reaffirmed our commitment to a close relationship with the UK and to start negotiations on this as soon as possible after the UK’s withdrawal. This is with a view to concluding them by the end of 2020, so that it would not be necessary to extend the transition period or to invoke the backstop. We re-emphasised that if the backstop were to be triggered, we would use our best endeavours to ensure that a new agreement is concluded expeditiously. These assurances are intended to provide clear signals to the UK that the EU will act in good faith to ensure that arrangements for the future relationship are agreed and implemented quickly. The backstop, if needed at all, would apply only for as long as is strictly necessary.
We also agreed on Thursday that preparations for all possible outcomes should be stepped up. Here in Ireland, we are building on the comprehensive preparations already under way and have stepped up planning for a no-deal Brexit. While I hope this will not be the outcome, the persisting uncertainty in London means that these preparations are necessary. The European Commission published its legislative proposals for a no-deal Brexit this morning. These focus on 14 areas where a no-deal scenario would create particular disruption. Tomorrow, the Government will provide an update on our approach. Once the Commission preparedness expert meetings conclude in January, the Government will publish a further update.
Turning to other issues, this was the first time that the European Council held a substantive discussion on the multi-annual financial framework, to cover the period from 2021 to 2027. Leaders had an opportunity to set out our overall positions and priorities. I emphasised that one of Ireland’s priorities is a well-funded Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. I also stressed the need to protect the Structural and Cohesion Funds for countries in central and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Ireland benefited enormously from the investment in our infrastructure that was made possible by these funds.
I indicated the need to continue to fund INTERREG and PEACE, which are particularly important for Northern Ireland and the Border. It is essential that we continue to fund other projects that work well such as Erasmus+, which is especially valuable to young people, and Horizon for investment in research and development to create the jobs and wealth in the future. Each member state has its own priorities and it will be necessary to find resources if we are to be able to fund them. It also will not be possible to fund everything.
From Ireland’s perspective, we are willing to consider an increase in our contribution to the EU budget over and above that which would happen for the next multi-annual financial framework, MFF, but only if the new programmes add European value and only if existing programmes like CAP and the Cohesion Fund continue to be funded at current levels. Additional funding should then be committed to new priorities.
Our discussions on external relations on Thursday evening included preparations for the EU–League of Arab States summit, scheduled to take place in Egypt in February. Given that Saudi Arabia is the current chair of the Arab League, we agreed that we would use the summit to raise our concerns about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the situation in Yemen.
We had an exchange on relations between Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the post-election situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I share the Croatian Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkoviæ’s, concern about the disenfranchisement of Croats living in the federation.
We also discussed recent developments regarding Russia and Ukraine, including the escalation at the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. We expressed grave concern at these and agreed to continue the sanctions on Russia. I expressed our support for Ukraine and its Government, independence, and territorial integrity.
I believe strongly the Single Market is central to Europe’s prosperity and competitiveness on the world stage. Deepening it is Irish policy. The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, launched a major report last month, along with her Finnish, Danish and Czech counterparts, which highlighted the importance of unlocking the untapped potential in the Single Market, as well as the need to ensure its fitness for new trends in the trade of goods and services. I am pleased to report that we called for increased efforts in this regard. It was agreed to hold an in-depth discussion on the future development of the Single Market and European digital policy at the March European Council.
In our discussions on migration, we reviewed progress in implementing our comprehensive approach agreed in June. From Ireland’s perspective, we support the three-pronged approach co-operating with countries of origin and transit, strengthening external border security and dealing with the management of migrants within the EU. Intensified efforts to co-operate with countries of origin and transit, to control our external borders through Frontex and naval operations in the Mediterranean, as well as combatting smugglers are showing some positive results. The number of detected illegal border crossings is significantly down and is back to pre-crisis levels. Work on solidarity and burden-sharing, however, as well as efforts to reform the European asylum system, including the Dublin Convention, are still difficult. There has been no real progress in this area.
On security and defence, we welcomed the significant progress made on implementation. I am particularly pleased that we endorsed the civilian Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, compact, which provides a new EU framework for civilian crisis management and CSDP missions.
On climate change, we heard a presentation on the European Commission’s communication, A Clean Planet for All. Taking into account the outcome of the COP24 in Katowice, we invited further work to be carried out. This will enable the Union to submit a long-term strategy by 2020 in line with the Paris Agreement.
The euro summit on Friday focused on deepening and strengthening economic and monetary union. We endorsed the agreement reached by finance Ministers earlier this month on reform of the European Stability Mechanism, which will have an enhanced role in the areas of crisis prevention and resolution in the eurozone. I expressed Ireland’s backing for deepening and strengthening the eurozone, including for banking union, a European deposit insurance scheme and capital markets union. These will serve to strengthen the resilience of our banking system and the overall stability of the eurozone, along with increasing competition, lower interest rates for borrowers and strengthening guarantees for depositors.
I also expressed our backing in principle for a eurozone budget as a subdivision of the MFF. This should focus on additional measures to help eurozone economies become more competitive and more productive. We agreed eurozone reform should be discussed in inclusive format, particularly to enable countries which are in line to join the euro to participate, including Croatia and Bulgaria, along with those closely aligned to the euro like Denmark.
In addition to my bilateral meeting with the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, I met the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, on Friday morning. As well as bilateral relations and EU issues, we discussed international political developments, including in Brazil.
On Brexit, the Portuguese Prime Minister confirmed his backing for the EU approach and his hope that the UK would now take the necessary steps to ratify the withdrawal agreement in order that negotiations on the future relationship can start immediately. I also engaged informally with my other EU counterparts in the margins of the European Council, using the opportunity, as I always do, to defend Ireland’s concerns and to promote our interests.