Pre-European Council Meeting: Statements (Resumed)

As part of the strategic agenda, there is a statement about protecting citizens and freedoms. We should examine how Europe protects migrants and their freedoms. The Tánaiste was emphatic yesterday that it is not EU policy to return migrants to Libya and its detention centres, yet that is where some migrants end up. As well as being sent to the detention centres in Libya with their appalling human rights abuses, they are being sent to a war zone.

On the multi-annual financial framework, we have heard the term "tax harmonisation". A better principle to consider, however, is tax justice. I question the motives of the large European powers which spent their histories, in the age of colonialism and imperialism, plundering African countries of all their natural resources, a practice that continues today with multinationals. There must be a commitment to tax justice. We could do with more transparency in respect of our 12.5% corporation taxation rate and must bear in mind the danger of relying on it solely to fund services.

Brexit is unbelievable. Reading the views of the contenders for the position of British Prime Minister, what comes across is their ignorance and utter lack of interest in Irish history, the Good Friday Agreement, what it meant and how it was achieved.

I have previously raised the issue of the increasing securitisation agenda in Europe and the so-called European peace facility, EPF. I say "so-called" because it is obvious it is anything but a peace facility. It was proposed by the former Vice President of the European Commission, Ms Federica Mogherini, to support our partners in dealing with our shared security challenge but it means the EU will be allowed to provide, train, equip and support the armed forces of third countries affected by conflict. What types of equipment will be financed through the EPF? I refer to lethal and non-lethal weapons, and equipment that could be used for torture and human rights violations. It marks a shift in EU policy, which had excluded the direct provision of lethal equipment to foreign government partners. The question is how the facility contributes to peace, justice and development outcomes. It seems to suggest there will be an over-reliance on the use of force. We have heard many examples of wars that were supposed to be short when they started but that continue, such as those in Libya and Syria.

The Government's position on the matter is not clear, even though I received a reply from the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to a parliamentary question I tabled in which he stated it had been discussed at ministerial level but that there was limited support for aspects of the proposal. We need much stronger attitudes and statements on the matter from the Government.

That brings me to another topic I have discussed previously, namely, the arms industry, because it is in the same context as the EPF. In 2017, the world spent an estimated $1.74 trillion on weapons and military, while the EU states spent €260 billion on arms. That is appalling and frightening, yet we are speaking about the EU and its peace facility. It is totally at odds with what we are saying and very much so with Ireland's neutrality. As I have stated, EU Ministers and so on speak about peace, development and human rights issues, but the same EU countries make millions or billions of euro from the arms industry.

If we continue with that European peace facility and do not voice concerns about it and if we are not a stronger voice against this arms spending, it will completely undermine our new development policy, A Better World.

We cannot make statements without discussing Brexit and the implications it could have for us. I am not going to add much on that because it has already been referred to by others. However, it is vital to ensure that the European Union sticks by the backstop, regardless of whoever is Prime Minister of the UK after the current process. Unlike Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, I am not surprised that the English do not have a clue about what this means for the North because that has always been the crux of the problem. We should not expect anything more from them. We should ensure that we protect and look after our own interests in terms of the backstop and the future arrangements that will be put in place.

I want to discuss migration. It would be remiss of me not to take note of the fact that the Heads of State will meet in Brussels to decide about EU leadership and the strategic direction of the Union on World Refugee Day. This serves as a welcome reminder of the failure of Europe to deal with the crisis. Three years after peak numbers of refugees crossed into Europe, EU leaders have failed to put in place an effective response to deal with the most vulnerable people, which is now leading to a vacuum which populist and far right parties are filling with anti-migrant rhetoric.

According to UNHCR figures, 2018 will be another year of record displacement. Some 1.4 million people are in need of resettlement, with increasing numbers spending years in limbo without any hope in sight. The new European Parliament and Commission, as well as the upcoming framework under the Global Compact on Refugees, will provide a vital opportunity to change the EU's direction and commit it to its own share of responsibility. Resettlement and integration need to be cornerstones of EU policy as we enter a new term. This will be important if the EU intends to be a key player in the area of peace and stability, particularly when it comes to north Africa, which I will touch on later and which is very much related to the migrant crisis that continues today. These should also remain central to the new Commission President and the EU parliamentary coalition’s agenda. More urgently, however, the Commission's call on member states to provide 50,000 resettlement places will expire in October and because the resettlement framework will not be adopted in time, member states and the Commission should urgently convene to discuss an interim scheme to bridge the gap. We are well short of meeting our targets in this regard.

The EU’s role in north African countries is becoming increasingly controversial and is directly linked with the migrant crisis in Europe. Europe has continually been lacking in its commitment to stabilising and enhancing peace initiatives in north Africa. It has instead taken on an increasingly militant policy while, at the same time, supporting despots and authoritarian regimes. All of this brings its foreign policy into question. Yesterday, I spoke of the dire situation in Sudan. Not only are people at incredible risk of further attacks, many suggest that a massacre is imminent, with comparisons to Darfur, Myanmar and even Rwanda. The international community, as well as Europe, has been very slow to respond and the silence has been deafening. I understand the EU Foreign Affairs Council supports the call of the African Union for the establishment of a civilian-led authority and supports the leadership role of the African Union and mediation efforts carried out in co-operation with Ethiopia. However, engagement must be promoted not only with protesters, but also with civil society, NGOs and the diaspora, who have worked hard to foster the right to democracy for the Sudanese. Engagement with Sudan should also be seen in terms of how best to prevent widespread violence against its ethnic, religious, political and other populations that are vulnerable to human rights abuses at this time.

The situation in Mali is the exact opposite in that there is now an excessive military presence from member states of the UN Security Council. Ireland has become complicit by agreeing to send a dozen troops to Mali to join a counterterrorism operation widely regarded as the most dangerous United Nations mission in the world. The Government needs to be honest about its motive, which is simple: France. Either it is a way to gain favour with France over key Brexit negotiations or it is as part of Ireland’s intensified campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-2022. It could also be simply to bed us further into the military regime within Europe.

France’s motives are taking over Europe’s motives, as I have always said would happen and which has happened with regard to PESCO and other operations in the past. This is even more obvious given Europe’s role in the crisis in Libya, where Europe, mainly France, is in fact complicit with authoritarian regimes. Haftar's assault on Tripoli, which has already displaced and killed many, could usher in the worst fighting in Libya since 2011. Approximately 3,300 refugees and migrants are under threat as they are held in detention centres in close proximity to military sites. Many of them have been intercepted on the Mediterranean Sea as part of a much-criticised EU deal with Libya to keep migrants away from the European mainland. Let us not forget that France has been supporting and even strengthening Haftar’s militia for years, with the deployment of advisers, undercover operatives and special forces. In particular, the overthrow of Gaddafi was initiated by France and England in pursuit of their oil interests. Haftar has himself admitted his acquisition of arms from French, Egyptian and UAE forces despite the UN embargo. It has been noted that the EU is moving back to its belief in the "stable authoritarianism" which is sweeping across Sudan, Libya and other countries in north Africa while, all the while, the regimes of Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East go unquestioned.

The Treaty on European Union dictates that European action "shall be guided by the principles which have inspired [the EU's] own creation", listing human rights and the respect for human dignity as core to these principles, yet, today, it is a Europe that is so far removed from these principles that it may, in fact, be a threat to them.

I am happy to speak on this issue. There is no doubt that, for us at least, the major concern in the European context continues to be Brexit and the planned exit date for the UK of 31 October. Who the Prime Minister will be at this point is unknown, but it looks likely that Boris Johnson will be the victor of the ongoing Tory Party leadership contest, although we have no hand, act or part in that. Who knows? He may prove to be as bad as anticipated. However, there is broad agreement that he made a great success of his two terms as Mayor of London, one of the most diverse and important financial capitals in the EU and beyond.

From the agenda, I see that the European Council will take the relevant decisions on appointments for the next institutional cycle and adopt the 2019-2024 strategic agenda for the Union. This is very ambitious, given the ongoing degree of uncertainty that continues to exist around the nature and scale of the challenges Europe will continue to face up to 2024 and beyond. What is more important, at least in the immediate term, is the Council's plan to return to the issue of climate change ahead of the United Nations Secretary General's climate action summit on 23 September next.

We have seen the outline of the Government climate strategy, which was announced earlier this week in a blaze of glory but which is an absolute joke. There is no sense that those who proposed or drafted it have been anywhere near a rural town in the past ten years. There are many such towns in the constituency of the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. They are struggling and are on their knees, with businesses closing due to planning laws and the rates system, as well as the proliferation of big supermarkets on their outskirts, something which has had a detrimental effect. These are policies we inherited from the United States and England. We are suffering. I can name the towns - Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel, which used to be the biggest inland town in the country, right up to Tipperary town and on to Thurles and Nenagh, and there are many more. The heart has been taken out of them due to bad planning decisions, combined with the onset of the recession, excessive rates and parking charges.

We hear the Taoiseach talking about nudging people out of their cars. We would not have to nudged out of our cars if broadband was delivered but we have seen the fiasco in that regard. There are to be major and dramatic transport shifts, including limiting access to town centres, and, in the Taoiseach's words, nudging people out of their cars on the fairy tale chance that this Government will be able to roll out anything like an effective electric car network.

Nobody believes that. I salute the people who have moved to electric vehicles. I admired one such vehicle recently. I met the owners in Ballyporeen and they allowed me to have a look at it. It was a 191 registered car and they were excited about it but they said it was not possible to travel long distances in it. Apparently, if one uses the cigarette lighter or the fan, it eats into the battery power, thus the mileage one can travel is reduced and one might not be able to find a charging point. The Government needs to get real. It cannot even roll out broadband so how in God's name does it propose to roll out electric vehicles? As I said, the Government needs to get real. It needs to come into the real world and to talk sense instead of trying to hijack the Green Party's agenda because of its result in the local and European elections. That is all it is doing as far as I can see. This is a distraction from the real issues that are facing people every day of the week.

The national broadband plan, from a climate perspective in the sense that greater connectivity allows for reduced car use and increased remote working and working from home, has been an unmitigated failure. It is estimated it will cost five or six times the original cost. Since I was first elected to this House 12 years ago, there have been promises of roll-out after roll-out. The churn-rolling competition held in Tipperary town is not going ahead this year, which is a pity. There was more rolling done there than will ever be done in terms of broadband roll-out. It is impossible. The Government is playing games with the people. People in rural Ireland are sick and tired of the promises.

Dublin city is congested beyond belief. We heard stories last night during Private Members' time of low-paid workers in restaurants and so on not being given their tips. The people are being ripped off left, right and centre. The Government is complicit in that through its lack of engagement in rural Ireland and its lack of delivery of services. Twelve years on, we still are no closer to having nationwide roll-out of broadband. It is a matter of running cables along our electricity lines. We passed legislation to allow and enable the ESB to do that. The ESB has connectivity to every house. This is not rocket science in this day and age. I visit Bosnia and Herzegovina once a year. It is one of the poorest countries in the world but it has top-class broadband and top-quality water, which we do not have in this country.

I want to comment briefly on the climate strategy plans around carbon tax increases. This will be raised at Council level too. People know about this already. When reviewing some parliamentary questions I came across information from Revenue showing that since 2010, the State has taken in at least €2.8 billion in carbon taxes. This is not a new fandango or new issue that we have to deal with. The Government is not codding anybody. The people are aware of it because they feel it in their pockets. For impoverished people and those on low incomes, carbon tax increases will be crippling and cruel. Earlier today, I raised with the Taoiseach the issues arising for the freight and logistics sector, which is of huge importance to us in terms of connectivity with our European colleagues and all over the world. The industry has not been consulted on this new plan, invited to any discussions or offered any incentives to encourage reductions in its carbon generation activity. The Taoiseach's reply was that these companies can use smaller lorries. Who is he codding? On what planet is he living? This will result in more lorries on the roads. As I said earlier, batteries do not have sufficient power to operate trucks, tractors or combine harvesters. The Taoiseach needs to get real. Somebody needs to give him a pinch, although I am not suggesting the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, should do it. He needs to wake up and come into the real world. He needs to understand what happens outside of the Pale, which is choked up, overpopulated and bursting at the seams. The Government needs to develop policies to support rural Ireland.

On my way into the Chamber I met the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. I support his proposals for the reactivation of the western corridor. We have to think outside of Dublin. The problem with this Government is that the top five Ministers, including the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy-----

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, is from Cork.

Yes, thankfully. I am speaking about the top five who we are told are whizz-kids and continually appear on television to tell us how good we are doing. They continue to spend on projects they should have given up on two years ago. The people know that what they are saying is not true. The spin doctors who are all from Dublin do not appear to know anything about what goes on past the Red Cow roundabout or about rural Ireland. That is a sad fact. The Government got its result in the local elections.

Go easy on Dublin.

I am always easy on Dublin. If Dublin left rural Ireland alone, we would leave it alone. We are happy to visit, work and be educated in Dublin but not at a cost to rural Ireland. Every person in Ireland who puts petrol-----

The Deputy may continue provided the content of his remarks falls within the confines of the pre-European Council statements.

This is all about the pre-European Council statements. The Government will not fool people in Europe in the same way as it is trying to fool people here. People in Europe are a bit smarter. They have been around for a while and they have copped on to us a long time ago.

Every person in Ireland who puts petrol in his or her car or lights his or her cooker is in some measure already paying through the nose to offset the damage done by carbon to the tune of €400 million per annum. Let us be fair, have a level playing field and be understanding. The impression I get is that the Government wants us to forget about this and to start seeing the climate carbon tax as something new when in reality we have been paying for carbon use for almost a decade.

I welcome to the Visitors Gallery Mr. Nicholas Ryan-Purcell, the producer of the documentary, "This is Nicholas - Living with Autism". He lives in the small town of Cloughjordan which has done huge work with its eco village and is showing the way as a community group. Many people are doing similar work but they are not being supported.

In regard to the ESB, I have been contacted by many farmers who cannot get meaningful engagement with the ESB regarding connectivity to the grid.

We are not at the races. We should not be going out to Europe saying go ndúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi go raibh fear i dTiobraid Árainn a bhfuil póca ina léine aige. We tell the truth. We man up and say we still have to deal with this issue. We are not going to fool our friends in Europe, but we need them to support us.

I thank Deputies for their comments. In response to Deputy Mattie McGrath's contribution, we are investing millions in the Project Ireland 2040 plan which, in the main, is focused outside Dublin. We are investing billions of euro in the roll-out of broadband to rural Ireland.

The most recent Action Plan for Jobs is a regional action plan which is producing and creating jobs outside Dublin, Cork, Galway and other major towns and cities. We are investing substantially in rural Ireland. I will refrain from commenting further and confine my remarks to statements on the pre-European Council meetings which I have just attended and the meeting which the Taoiseach will attend tomorrow.

As the Taoiseach indicated in his opening statement, the agenda for the European Council later this week is long and broad-ranging. From Ireland’s perspective, it includes a number of important items such as the next EU strategic agenda, climate change, the multi-annual financial framework, cybersecurity and economic and monetary union. Brexit, which was mentioned by many Deputies, remains a top priority for the Government and the 27 EU leaders are expected to discuss it on Friday.

As Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, I attended the General Affairs Council and the Foreign Affairs Committee this week. Having engaged with our colleagues across the European Union, support for the withdrawal agreement, the Irish backstop and citizens' rights and monetary settlement within it are still very much their priority and objective on the route towards an orderly Brexit.

As the Taoiseach outlined many of the main issues in his statement, I will focus my remarks on enlargement and the other items under external relations. As I said, as Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, I attended the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg yesterday where we had a lengthy discussion on the enlargement and stabilisation association process concerning Serbia, Montenegro, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo. The focus of our discussions was on whether to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The European Commission published its annual enlargement package on 29 May. The report noted that North Macedonia has made significant progress on key reform areas. Elections in April and May 2019 were conducted in a transparent manner, and the historic Prespes agreement with Greece put an end to a long-standing dispute. Together with the friendship treaty with Bulgaria, the agreements are examples of reconciliation for the region. In light of the significant progress achieved and the fulfilment of the conditions set by the Council in June 2018, the Commission recommended that the Council open accession negotiations with North Macedonia.

The report also noted that Albania has continued to make good progress, particularly in the implementation of significant reforms to the justice sector. It recommended that accession negotiations should also be opened with Albania. From Ireland’s perspective, we welcome the Commission reports and agree with their conclusions and recommendations. The progress of reform in North Macedonia and that country's ratification of the Prespes agreement with Greece, wherein both countries set an example in the area of conflict resolution, deserve to be recognised. While the situation is more complex in Albania, opening negotiations will firmly anchor the country in the reform process and is the right thing to do.

A number of reforms were successfully advanced over the past year despite the current political polarisation. We welcome Albania’s 100% alignment with the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, CFSP, and the Commission's confirmation that progress was made across all chapters. The EU identified measures last year that North Macedonia and Albania should take. We agreed this at a Council meeting in June and, having done that and with both sides having fulfilled their commitments, we should follow through on our commitments because if not it would be damaging for our own reputation, to the commitments that we made, to the stability in the region and many other issues that were raised yesterday. We should reward the candidate countries for the reforms they have put into place and set out a clear path for them to join in order to maintain our credibility in the region. Unfortunately, at the General Affairs Council yesterday, while I strongly supported the opening of negotiations, there will be a delay for procedural reasons. I urged yesterday that any delay be kept as short as possible. I think that October is the most likely deadline now. There should be a clear timetable and decision-making process for both countries.

As part of the discussion on external relations, EU leaders are expected to underline the importance of the EU’s strategic partnership with Africa. We are committed to working closely with Africa to address global challenges and opportunities and we welcome this strong signal on the part of the Union. EU leaders are also likely to emphasise the importance of the eastern partnership which is marking its tenth anniversary and to ask the Commission and the High Representative to bring forward further long-term policy objectives. Last week I hosted an event to mark the tenth anniversary of the eastern partnership in Government Buildings. At that, I reiterated Ireland’s support for this programme, which has matured in a challenging geopolitical environment, which will help to promote security and prosperity in the region. There have been notable achievements in trade, the economy, youth, mobility, people-to-people contacts and education. However, more work needs to be done around the rule of law, judicial reform and anti-corruption, with a sustained push from all sides required to ensure lasting reform in these key areas.

It is expected that EU leaders will note the fifth anniversary of the downing of flight MH17, which many members of the Council raised yesterday. Along with our EU partners, we fully support the ongoing efforts to establish truth and accountability for the victims and their loved ones and family members in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2166. I thank Deputies for their attention and look forward to discussing these issues further next week and answering questions following the Council.