I will attend a series of meetings of the European Council in Brussels this Thursday and Friday, 20 and 21 June. On Thursday afternoon and evening, we will meet in regular format, with all 28 EU Heads of State and Government. The broad-ranging agenda includes significant items such as the EU strategic agenda for 2019-2024, climate action, the European Semester, disinformation, the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, as well as the top jobs in the EU institutions. External relations and enlargement are also likely to be discussed. On Friday, there will be a euro summit and I expect there to be an exchange on Brexit as well.
Today, I will focus my remarks on the strategic agenda, top jobs, climate action, disinformation, the MFF, external relations, as well as the euro summit and Brexit. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will speak about enlargement in her wrap-up remarks.
Following our initial discussions at the informal summit in Sibiu or Hermannstadt on 9 May, we will have a further exchange of views about the next strategic agenda for the Union to cover the period from 2019 to 2024. In preparation for this, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, led a citizens’ dialogue across the country. This included public events, where members of the public and other stakeholders had an opportunity to raise concerns and outline their views about the future of Europe. These views helped shape our national statement, which was published on 17 April and was discussed in the House the next day.
Our national statement outlines Government's European policy, which includes: the completion of the Single Market in all its aspects with a free trade policy that champions opportunity and a level playing field; developing economic and financial policies that are socially responsible; digital transformation; ensuring that the EU plays a lead role in climate action and sustainability; and maintaining peace and security, including by developing stronger security and development partnerships with Africa and other neighbours.
As always, working to achieve a constructive future relationship between the EU and the UK continues to be a priority. These are reflected in the draft EU strategic agenda which we will discuss on Thursday. The paper divides our work into four broad categories: protecting citizens and freedoms; developing our economic base; carbon neutrality and the just transition; and promoting Europe’s interests and values in the world. These provide a framework for the EU to answer these challenges and deliver for our citizens in the years ahead.
Linked to the strategic agenda is the question of the nest institutional cycle. Four high-level positions in the EU institutions will be filled in the coming months - the Presidents of the European Council, the European Commission, the European Parliament as well as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. At our meeting in Brussels on 28 May, we discussed the results of the European Parliament elections and how to proceed with these high level appointments, taking into account what the people said in those elections. We agreed that gender, as well as political balance, must be taken into account and that the appointments should also reflect geography and demography, so that both larger and smaller countries from different parts of the Union are represented in the highest positions in the EU. We also recognised that this would be hard to achieve given the small number of posts available. We agreed that the main posts would have to be negotiated as a package and that the President of the ECB should be handled separately. We mandated President Tusk to consult with EU members and the European Parliament before we return to the matter at our meeting later this week and I will speak to him by telephone today.
An important part of our discussions will be on climate action.
We will discuss this with a view to the United Nations Secretary General’s climate action summit on 23 September. Climate change is a global problem and the EU must reaffirm its role as a global leader. The UN climate summit in September represents an important moment for the international community to reaffirm the objectives of the Paris Agreement. The EU should set itself the objective of reaching climate neutrality by 2050. Our climate action plan, published on Monday, sets out a road map as to how we can achieve this.
Another item for discussion on Thursday will be the 2021-2027 multi-annual financial framework, MFF. Some good progress was made on this during the Romanian Presidency and will continue during the incoming Finnish Presidency. Finland will be represented at this meeting by its new Prime Minister. Our focus at the European Council will be on mapping the path towards agreement on the MFF, which is crucial for the functioning of the EU. From Ireland’s perspective, we believe that the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and other well-functioning programmes like Erasmus+, Horizon and INTERREG must be protected and that cohesion funding is also crucial in empowering less developed member states to unlock their economic potential. With this in mind, we are willing to agree to a modest increase in our contributions to the EU budget provided these well-functioning programmes are protected.
As part of the annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination within the EU, known as the European Semester, the Council is expected to confirm its backing for a horizontal note looking at the current economic situation in Europe and the proposed country-specific recommendations made by the Commission to each EU member state. Our discussions on external relations will focus on Russia and developments in eastern Ukraine. This will include the EU economic sanctions on Russia, which may need to be extended further. Cyprus has also indicated that it will raise concerns about oil and gas exploration by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. We endorse the EU approach as agreed in March 2018. We also agree with the recent statement by the High Representative, which calls on Turkey to cease its actions and respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus to explore and exploit its natural resources in accordance with EU and international law.
On Thursday, we will also discuss the challenge of disinformation. A report has been prepared by the Presidency, the European External Action Service, EEAS, and the Commission on the lessons learned from the recent European Parliament elections. It is essential that efforts are sustained to strengthen the resilience of EU democracies to disinformation and cyber-security threats. From Ireland’s perspective, we stand in solidarity with EU partners in seeking to counter the disinformation activities and cyber-activities that threaten our shared democracy, and endorse the EU joint action plan on disinformation. At the Euro Summit, we will reflect on developments in economic and monetary union since we last met in this format in December. It is expected that we will examine in particular reform of the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, and the euro area specific programme focused on convergence and competitiveness, which is proposed for the next EU budget. Discussions on both these issues have been taking place in recent months among Finance Ministers.
Finally, turning to Brexit, the European Council has been absolutely consistent that the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation and that any unilateral commitments the UK Government may give must be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal agreement. As I have said before, it would be a serious political miscalculation and a misunderstanding of how the European Union works to think that a change of UK Prime Minister alone would fundamentally change this. We are of course prepared to amend the political declaration on the future relationship, if the UK position evolves. We will, of course, listen to any proposals or ideas the new Prime Minister has. The decision of the European Council in April to extend the Article 50 deadline until 31 October was done to facilitate cross-party talks in the UK, and for a further round of binding indicative votes. Regrettably this failed so a no-deal Brexit cannot be ruled out. I welcome the Commission communication published last week which updates and reinforces the necessary no-deal preparedness steps at EU level. At home, the Government is continuing its intensive preparations for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. I echo the Commission’s message that businesses should make use of the time between now and 31 October to take all necessary steps to prepare. In particular, businesses that trade with the UK including Northern Ireland need to take action now to register with the Revenue Commissioners for an economic operators registration and identification, EORI, number as an essential step.
I look forward to engaging with my EU colleagues at the European Council, collectively and bilaterally. After the meeting, I will visit Luxembourg for a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Bettel and will also visit the European Investment Bank and the European Court of Justice. I will report back to the House on 26 June on the outcome of these meetings.