Ireland's Position on the Future of Europe: Statements

The national statement on the European Union sets out Ireland's priorities for the European Union for the next five years. It will guide the Taoiseach's contribution to an informal debate between EU leaders at Sibiu, Romania, on 9 May on the development of a strategic agenda for the EU for the period from 2019 to 2024. The strategic agenda will be agreed at the June European Council. It will be the successor to the Strategic Agenda for the Union in Times of Change, which was adopted in 2014.

It would be an understatement to say that the Union has seen changes since 2014. Some of the most important, such as the migration crisis and Brexit, were not anticipated. It is facing pressures on its borders, challenges to the multilateral political and economic order, and strident political voices, from inside and outside, that challenge its values. For the first time, a member state of the EU has decided to leave. We must give strong support to the Union of today, with all its imperfections. At the same time, we must redouble our efforts to build a Europe that fulfils more completely the aspirations of its citizens. Although of course they are important, our efforts must go beyond building economic prosperity and growth while noting the great progress made since 2014, above all in Ireland. We must also offer a vision of our values as Europeans, expressed in solidarity with the disadvantaged in Europe and in a generous engagement with the wider world, particularly our neighbourhood. Europe cannot afford to stand still. It needs momentum, and maintaining this momentum is what makes it strong.

The Union is relevant to almost every aspect of people's lives. The Union must lead on the big issues that individual member states simply cannot tackle alone. The national statement is the outcome of the citizens' dialogue process conducted throughout the country last year, ably led and piloted by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. Each Department has responded to the issues raised by our citizens and set out objectives for the future. The comprehensive document that has emerged will underpin Ireland's approach to the negotiation of the strategic agenda.

The national statement deals with many issues but I will focus on a few that are of most importance to Ireland. The Single Market is one of the Union's greatest achievements but it needs to address the changes we face. Most economic growth now comes from services but the internal market in services is seriously incomplete. We also need to make the Single Market fit for a new digital age. The digital transformation will accelerate even further over the next five years. Europe can become a world leader in all things digital if it invests in the necessary research and innovation to make it happen. Greater interconnectedness will empower communities and enhance the quality of our lives. This is one of the reasons the national broadband plan is so important for the country. Artificial intelligence and automation will also change the way we live, and will disrupt the labour market. The new strategic agenda will, therefore, also need to anticipate these developments and protect the most vulnerable.

Climate change is a clear and present danger to our people, especially the weakest and poorest. Climate action must be ambitious, and has to be a collective effort throughout the EU. Member states need to invest in a Union that is a global leader in finding climate-smart solutions. This will pose challenges for all of us, not least Ireland. Time is running out. I believe passionately that we need a more effective political dialogue between the European Union and Africa, and I am glad to see this was reflected in the citizens' dialogue and now in the national statement. The national statement also makes a strong case for the Union playing a central role in advancing the sustainable development goals. These ambitions are in full accord with our recently published White Paper on international development.

The strategic agenda is about how the EU 27 will work together in the future but it cannot ignore the consequences of Brexit. Ireland wants a deep and comprehensive future partnership between EU and the UK. Negotiating this partnership will be a major challenge and a priority for Ireland and the Union. The future EU-UK trade agreement will be, by a long way, the most significant the Union has ever negotiated. I commend our national statement on the European Union to the House. In particular, I thank my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for her role in putting it together.

I note the publication of the national statement on the European Union and suggest this is a very timely debate. The European Council meeting in Romania in May is scheduled to make significant decisions on the future of Europe. The report of the citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe has been published and public consultation on the issue is continuing. Fianna Fáil has always been a strong advocate of the European Union. Under the leadership of Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch the way was paved for Ireland to formally join the then EEC in 1973. It has always been our view that we should remain at the heart of Europe and be to the forefront in advancing its aims and objectives. Membership of the EU has been very good for Ireland. Our country has undergone a dramatic transformation since 1973. Structural Funds have transformed our infrastructure. The Single Market has opened up new countries in which we can trade, study, travel and work. Progressive social policies have been implemented. Consumer rights have been greatly improved. Environmental laws have been brought up to date. In short, we have become a modern outward-looking progressive country as a result of our membership of the EU.

Our membership of the EU was also central to the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. The EU has brought lasting peace to the continent of Europe and has also played a role in bringing about peace, prosperity and progress on this island. The White Paper on the Future of Europe was published in March 2017. It listed five scenarios as to how the Union could evolve. There are three schools of thought on how the EU should proceed. Some member states advocate retrenchment and seek to take back powers from the EU. Others are happy to have matters remain as they stand and to consolidate the existing position but also to positively consider incremental changes. There are also member states that wish to speed up European integration and to pool sovereignty in a number of areas.

Ireland, as a small nation state, has always taken a pragmatic view in respect of future developments in the EU.

Any new proposals can be looked at on a case-by-case basis. We should always be at the heart of the debate and play a constructive role. Any new moves towards deepening integration must be thoroughly debated at home and the reasons clearly explained and justified to the electorate. There is no doubt that the EU faces many challenges at this time. Brexit was a wake-up call and highlighted the need for the EU institutions to be more responsive to the concerns of citizens. While Brexit has dominated the discussion, we need to be conscious of the many other problems confronting the EU at this time. Just this month, the EU Commission published a document entitled, Global Threats to 2030: Challenges and Choices for the EU. These challenges include climate change and pollution, an ageing population, migration, problems associated with increased urbanisation including crime and violence, energy issues, and international terrorism, to name just a few.

The forthcoming European Parliament elections are important. We need to elect candidates who will ensure Ireland's interests are kept to the fore. All of us should work to ensure that the centre does, in fact, hold in these elections. European liberal democratic values are under threat throughout the EU. The situations in Hungary and Poland spring to mind. Threats to EU democratic freedoms and values need to be confronted and challenged. In this regard, I refer to the independence of the Judiciary, freedom of the press and so on. Another significant issue is migration and the refugee crisis. It is a major challenge but it is imperative that all countries take a fair and proportionate share of refugees. In addition, the Dublin regulation system should be reformed and a legal pathway for migration should be put in place. We need to address the root causes of economic migration and support for the African countries in particular would be central in that regard, as the Tánaiste has just stated. We need to promote policies of integration and inclusion both here and in the European Union as a whole. We must resist the exploitation of the migrant crisis for political ends.

I reiterate that Ireland must insist that tax rules and rates are matters for individual member states. Setting Ireland's corporate and income tax rates is the sole prerogative of Dáil Éireann and we will oppose any measures by member states, the Commission or the European Parliament in this regard.

I was sad to see the fire which has partially destroyed the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It is one of the most iconic and beautiful buildings in Europe. I send my solidarity to the people of Paris and France as they rebuild this important monument. It is important that we say this on the day that is in it.

What Sinn Féin wants to see is a fairer and more democratic European Union; a Union that works for the people of Europe, not for the handful of EU insiders or corporate interests. It is not, and should not be, seen as a question of being in the EU or out of the EU. This is about the credibility of the EU and we need to see radical change. Change is about defending national sovereignty and returning more power to member states. Decisions are being taken away from those who are most affected by them. Increasingly, democracy is being undermined and there is alienation of ordinary people in Europe. An end to the militarisation agenda and the drive towards an EU army is necessary. Social protections need to be strengthened, and there needs to be more transparency and accountability, along with a reduction in red tape and bureaucracy.

Our four Sinn Féin MEPs have made their voices heard, have been strong in their approach and, crucially, have made a difference and stood up for Ireland and articulated a different type of Europe. In respect of Brexit, it was our logical and correct position to maintain special status for the North that led to the position where we are now, namely that it has been adopted by the European Parliament and EU negotiators. We will also continue to fight for the rights of all Irish citizens be protected and upheld.

We have argued for a different approach from Europe on climate change and we opposed carbon tax; Dublin MEP, Lynn Boylan, only yesterday launched a report on the same issue. Our MEPs were instrumental in ensuring that Ireland's ability to opt out of domestic water charges was utilised and will continue to fight for it if their mandate is renewed. The fight against vulture funds being led by Deputy Pearse Doherty in this House is matched by Matt Carthy, MEP, at EU level where he and others have prevented the passage of a Bill that would allow vulture funds to be entirely unregulated. On Irish neutrality, we have been arguing for a specific protocol attached to EU treaties that respects and takes cognisance of Irish neutrality, similar to that secured by Denmark. Sinn Féin has opposed EU budgets being used for the arms industry. We have opposed cuts to the EU budget for important strategic sectors such as agriculture, regional development and investment in jobs and growth.

We have argued that it is time for a new direction in Ireland and in the EU institutions. It is time to stand up for Ireland and the interests of all of the people who share this island. It is time to end the Brussels power grab, to rein in the Commission and return powers to member states. Ireland's place is in the European Union, but the Union needs to change. The EU is far from perfect but the only way to address that and change it is from within. Our policy towards the EU remains one of critical engagement. Many aspects of our society ranging from community groups to business to education to agriculture have been able to expand as a result of the support they have received from the EU. We acknowledge the role that the Union played in the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and we want the EU to continue in that role post Brexit. We will support what is right and good for Ireland while challenging shortcomings wherever we find them. In doing so, we can build a better Europe. The future of Europe must mean more democracy, not more federalism; more social investment, not more privatisation; and fiscal policies that aid and do not destroy social cohesion.

As we approach European Parliament elections, in just five weeks, the future of Europe is not simply a theoretical debate. Ireland’s position on the future of Europe will be decided by the people through the ballot box. My hope is that they will make a clear choice, because they have one, between two radically different directions for Europe. The choice is not between populists versus parties committed to Europe. The real choice is between the vision of a social Europe put forward by the Party of European Socialists, against more of the same in the agenda set out by the European People’s Party, EPP. One of these two parties will be the largest in the European Parliament and will be decisive in choosing the next President of the European Commission.

Last night, French television hosted a debate in the English language between the two lead candidates contesting Jean-Claude Juncker's job. Labour’s candidate, from the Party of European Socialists, is Frans Timmermans, and the EPP’s candidate is Manfred Weber. The contrast between these two candidates could not be starker. It defines the real battle for Europe’s future. Manfred Weber of the EPP has no ministerial experience. His greatest claim to fame is allowing Hungary's Viktor Orbán to remain inside the EPP until recent times, when Orbán became so controversial he caused the EPP to suspend the Hungarian party's membership. Weber insisted in last night's debate on "strict and strong border control" and resettlement of illegal migrants. Weber is playing on fears of migration, even though Europe has experienced lower rates of migration in recent years, as the migration crisis seems to be more controlled.

Timmermans, on the other hand, is an experienced politician, a former Foreign Minister and the current Vice-President of the European Commission. Timmermans talked about Europe's silent majorities, who want Europe to take action to redistribute wealth, to ensure fair taxation systems and to bring in a minimum wage in every member state. He talked about children in poverty, youth unemployment and the working poor as the real issues that Europe needs to address.

We need to show that solidarity at EU level can allow us to solve problems that nation states cannot solve on their own. I refer to issues like climate change.

Manfred Weber talked about economic growth as the solution to all these issues but he refused to entertain any European role in health care, pensions or taxation. Frans Timmermans spoke about the ambition we need at European level to be part of the solution, for example a European programme to support social housing as an example of the decisions we can take in the European Parliament. Europe has appropriate investment funds that can be made available for the purpose of supporting major public housing programmes, along the lines set out by Frans Timmermans. He has also suggested more action to close the pay gap between women and men. These are measurable, real issues to make Europe more understandable to the peoples of Europe.

On Brexit, Manfred Weber expressed his scepticism about the UK's potential role in the next European Parliament if it sends MEPs, but Frans Timmermans spoke about the hope for the UK to remain inside the EU and how welcome it would be if it stayed. One of Frans Timmermans’s main arguments is a core issue for the Party of European Socialists. It is our concern to avoid a situation where we turn a blind eye against other people because of they have a different religion or a different skin colour to ours. In contrast, Manfred Weber launched his campaign with a pledge to cancel negotiations with Turkey. The real threat of the far right and why they are dangerous to the cohesion of the European institutions is they are focused on issues of identity. They seek to reinforce identity divisions between people.

As we approach the European elections on 24 May, this is the choice that is before the people of Ireland. We are voting to choose sides on the future of Europe, to choose what side of the chamber Ireland's MEPs will sit on and how they will vote on the central issues like child poverty, fair taxation and climate change. Most of all, we are voting to choose between an inward looking version of nationalist Europe, surrounded by strict and strong border controls, or an outward looking Europe built on solidarity and co-operation among Europe's people as well as its governments.

It is appropriate that we should discuss the future of Europe as we face into the European elections in a few weeks' time and also because Europe is at an extremely important crossroads. Unless we change track, there might be no future for Europe. The fear of this scenario was highlighted by the Extinction Rebellion protestors in London over the last few days, to whom I pay tribute and who will be on the streets in Dublin tomorrow. I also pay tribute to the students across Europe and the world who struck out against the threat of climate change and the failure of governments across Europe, including Ireland, and across the world to take the type of radical urgent action that is necessary to address the threat of climate change.

Europe talks the talk on climate change. The targets it sets are better than what the Irish Government is achieving in that regard. Ireland will spectacularly fail to meet Europe's targets in terms of addressing this issue. Notwithstanding the rhetorical commitment to address the issue, on a whole series of fronts the Government is moving in the opposite direction in terms of addressing climate change. It continues to expand sectors of the economy, particularly agricultural exports, which contribute to our very poor record in this area. The Government is failing to address the massive deficiencies in public transport, the expense of public transport and the retrofit of homes and so on which need to be urgently addressed if we are to reduce our fossil fuel footprint.

In terms of Europe as a whole, I do not credit it on this issue. Europe spends €200 billion per annum on military expenditure and is planning to ramp up that spend significantly with the new PESCO arrangement which, tragically, we have signed up to, thereby undermining our neutrality. It is shamefully planning to increase military expenditure and to sell more weapons to despotic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Can anybody take seriously Europe's rhetorical commitments to deal with climate change? That money should be invested in developing renewable energy, promoting alternatives to fossil fuel use, subsidising and making public transport free and all of the other radical actions that are necessary to deal with climate change but that is not happening. At every level, Europe is hostage to big, corporate lobbyists, the arms industry, the multinationals and the banks. We know the cost of that in terms of the recession that hit this country and the manner in which Europe insisted that that cost was shoved down the throats of the poor. The poverty and homelessness that resulted from that in this country also features across Europe. An incredible 112 million people in Europe are living on or below the poverty line and that figure is rising. Homelessness is on the increase in every country in the European Union except Finland. Homelessness is rising dramatically. These priorities are not addressed by the European Union.

We are all aware of the utterly shameful fortress Europe policies that seek to keep out desperate migrants fleeing the mess that European powers created in places like Libya, resulting in 35,000 to 40,000 desperate migrants, men, women and children, drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Europe continues to put up barriers and to invest more money in Frontex, frontier security and so on to try to keep those desperate people out. Europe faces a dark future unless we dramatically change tack. The Solidarity-People Before Profit candidates in the European elections, Gillian Brien - Dublin; Cyril Brennan - the North and Adrienne Wallace, will be campaigning on the basis of the need to put people and planet before profit and to build a Europe on that principle, a social Europe, an environmental Europe and a Europe where the wealth is shared fairly and equally and where we start to take the radical action that is necessary to address climate change instead of moving in the direction of militarism and a European army.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan is sharing time with Deputy Pringle.

Is there a future for Europe? That is my first question. I do not believe there is unless Europe goes back to the founding principles of the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms and respect for human dignity and equality on which it was launched. Brexit and all the talk about it has allowed a space for it to develop and for the EU to take its eye off the ball in terms of the rule of law and fundamental rights in the EU. Some member states of the EU, in particular, Hungary, Poland and Romania, have taken concrete steps that undermine those EU guiding principles. These steps undermine the independence of the Judiciary, freedom of the press and of association. We are witnessing attacks on those who protest, whether on LGBT rights or a wide variety of issues. An extremely narrow right wing movement is starting in those countries. When in Poland recently, we met some activists who were attacked because they were peacefully protesting with banners which said, "No to fascism".

In Hungary, the European Parliament took a historic vote calling for the triggering of Article 7 of the European Treaty. Ireland has since been playing a constructive role in this regard, which obliges member states to challenge the Hungarian Government on those laws, policies and practices that are anti-democracy and anti-fundamental rights, but the Hungarian Government has stated that it will continue to do this. It also has an agenda against NGOs, especially those trying to highlight corruption. If the EU is committed to its founding principles, it will move this procedure on and call for the formal hearings of the Council with the Hungarian authorities for undermining the principles in Article 2.

An open letter from 12 accredited embassies, including Ireland, has been sent to the Romanian authorities in Bucharest, warning that them not to pass emergency laws that would risk weakening the Romanian justice system and their ability to fight corruption. We are witnessing a criminalisation of human rights campaigns in a number of countries, not only those I mentioned, and attacks on groups which are working on migration or academic freedom.

The European Parliament needs to co-ordinate a response to that. This morning, we met a delegation from Oxfam. They spoke to us about the grim situation in Yemen. Their presentation set out the extent of funding from EU countries for arms to fuel the arms trade there. On the other hand, those European countries are sending in aid for humanitarian reasons. It does not make sense.

Maybe it makes sense because they will be able to sell them arms in the years to come. Irish democracy has consistently been eroded to pave the way for a predominantly Franco-German feverish ambition for a future EU army. It has been facilitated by Fine Gael and previous Governments kowtowing before the European establishment. Irish neutrality was manipulated during the Lisbon treaty process. The use of Shannon Airport is entering its second decade. PESCO was rammed through this Parliament without a proper and full debate. These are all examples of Fine Gael facilitating the undermining of parliamentary scrutiny by the EU for the purposes of its own military ambitions. The process leading to PESCO was by no means democratic. A policy group, which mainly included EU arms industrialists, was intent on finding ways for EU Governments to navigate around their own national sovereignty and neutrality clauses to facilitate greater EU military integration. Fine Gael gladly signed up to this.

Formal approval for the establishment of the European defence fund is being sought from MEPs today and will be sought from Ministers at a later date. However, there is disagreement on the fund’s objectives. A particular issue is the direct or indirect management of the fund by EU member states in the context of reduced parliamentary scrutiny of EU member states. A legal opinion carried out by Professor Andreas Fischer-Lescano found that Article 41 of the Lisbon treaty prohibits the financing of defence and military initiatives, and therefore armaments programmes as well. Despite the serious legal uncertainty about the European defence fund, the European Commission is running its usual course of denial in the hope that the foundational work it has carried out to date to diminish democratic accountability and parliamentary oversight in member states will facilitate the swift approval and implementation of the European defence fund en route to a future EU army.

This is already happening before our eyes at UN level. A Franco-German masterplan is unfolding under the radar. Germany recently called on France to give up its UN Security Council seat to the EU to enable the bloc to speak with one voice on the global stage. We all know what that voice intends to say. In parallel, France and Germany plan to co-chair the UN Security Council in an effort to emphasise further the EU's military and defence agenda. Perhaps that explains why our Government is so keen to get Ireland onto the UN Security Council. If we can sit with France and Germany on the Security Council, we will be able to close down the triple lock completely. The triple lock now includes Fine Gael in government and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in this Parliament, and it is likely that the UN Security Council representative will be a Fine Gael appointee. This means Fine Gael will have total control over what the triple lock will mean for Ireland in the future. We cannot close our eyes to Fine Gael's sly politics anymore. As long as Fine Gael and its Fianna Fáil partners remain in government, Ireland's neutrality and democracy will continue to be eroded to facilitate private sector interests who profit from the means of death and destruction.

I thank Deputies for their contributions to this debate. As always, I have listened with interest to everything they have had to say today and throughout the entire process which has taken place over the past 18 months. I acknowledge the contributions of both Houses to the wider debate on the future of Europe, not only at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs but also through the engagement of Members of the Oireachtas with the citizens' dialogue process which has helped to shape the national statement, which was published yesterday. According to the famous Schuman declaration of 1950, "Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan". Those words have proven true throughout the history of the Union. We have come a long way since the early imaginings of a European Coal and Steel Community, and we are by far the better for it.

Europe has always worked hard to anticipate and adapt to changing circumstances and to meet new demands as needed. Today is no different. We are facing into a year of change. Many Deputies have spoken about the upcoming European Parliament elections. A new European Commission and a new President of the European Council will be appointed later in the year. A new strategic agenda will be adopted to guide the work of the institutions for the next five years. As the Tánaiste has outlined, the complex issue of Brexit is still ongoing. We are all well aware of the challenges and uncertainties we face and the opportunities and protections which EU membership affords us, particularly in light of Brexit. The preparation of the new strategic agenda offers us a welcome opportunity to embrace the spirit of the Schuman declaration while ensuring our plans are fit for these times and can meet the needs and expectations of our citizens. If we are to know what our citizens want, we have to listen to them. As Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I have had the privilege of travelling around the country to listen to people's concerns and, most importantly, their ambitions during positive discussions. I am pleased that we have been able to address many of these issues in the national statement, which reflects what we have heard from people about the importance of preserving what we have achieved, upholding our values and forging a way forward that ensures fairness and opportunity while delivering on the full potential of EU membership. I have been struck by the enthusiasm and passion that which many of our citizens, particularly our young people, have for Ireland's membership of the EU.

I encourage anyone who has doubts about the value of our membership of the Union to look at any one of the countries that are working hard to meet the criteria for accession. Since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I have had the opportunity to visit several countries in the western Balkans. Their enthusiasm for membership is palpable and inspiring and often acts as a powerful motivator to undertake the necessary and often difficult reforms to prepare for the responsibilities of EU membership. As the national statement sets out, it is vital that a credible enlargement process for the region remains a key component of the EU's foreign policy. Like people in many of the countries to which I refer, Irish people can remember what it is like to endure a long wait for EU membership. In 1972, the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, led the Dáil debate on the terms of our accession to the European Economic Community. When he addressed the critics of membership, he explained that "the issue is one of confidence in the capacity of our people to make a success of membership". I think his words ring true now as they did then. More than 45 years later, we can look with pride on what we have achieved. In this year of great change for the EU, we can acknowledge that there is much more to do while remaining confident in our capacity to make a collective success of our membership.

The national statement clearly sets out our priorities for the next five years. I commend it to the House. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for making time available for this debate. I thank all the Deputies for their contributions. I wish everybody a happy Easter.

I wish the Minister of State and her team in the Department a happy Easter as well. Given that very little time that is remaining before we are due to move on to Topical Issues, perhaps it would be unwise to recommence the statements on youth homelessness. Therefore, with the agreement of the House, I suggest that we should move on to Topical Issues now.

Will the statements on youth homelessness come back?

Most definitely. We will return to them at another time. That is why it would be futile to resume the statements now for a couple of minutes.