I attended a series of meetings of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 20 June, and Friday, 21 June. On Thursday, we met all 28 European Union, EU, Heads of State or Government, to discuss a wide range of issues. We adopted the new EU strategic agenda for 2019 to 2024, and had a substantial exchange on climate action, as well as the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, the European Semester, and cybersecurity. We also had a constructive exchange about the high-level appointments to the EU institutions, which are to be made in the coming months.
Under external relations, we discussed developments in Russia and eastern Ukraine, and Turkish activities in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone. We also discussed the downing of flight MH17, the eastern partnership, developments in Moldova and relations with Morocco and more generally with Africa. We endorsed the conclusions on enlargement and the stabilisation and association process, which the General Affairs Council had adopted earlier in the week. On Friday, we met in eurozone summit formation, to discuss economic developments across the eurozone and the strengthening of economic and monetary union, EMU. We also had a brief discussion on Friday, in Article 50 format, about Brexit. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will focus on external relations and enlargement in her remarks. I will outline our discussions on other issues.
The European Council began on Thursday afternoon with the customary exchange of views with President Tajani of the European Parliament. President Iohannis then reported on Romania’s work as the holder of the EU Presidency since the beginning of the year. This was the first time Romania has fulfilled the role of holding the EU Presidency since it joined the Union. I offer my sincere congratulations to the President and the Romanian Government for their efforts and achievements over the past six months.
As I have said previously, it is important for the EU to show leadership on climate action, so that we can credibly ask others to follow suit. This is something that affects different member states in different ways. We all face different challenges so our discussions on Thursday were long. They were largely focused on preparations for the UN summit in September, which I look forward to attending. We all agreed to continue to work towards achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement and a carbon-neutral EU. I believe we should not view climate action purely as meeting targets to avoid paying financial penalties. Climate action is good environmental, social and economic policy as well. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will help to stabilise the climate and will give us cleaner air, warmer homes and a better quality of life. We should, therefore, look to seize the opportunities and this is what our climate action plan, published on 17 June, does. It sets out an ambitious vision for the country including carbon neutrality by 2050, and a road map as to how we can get there.
I am happy to report that on Thursday most member states were able to commit to aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050. However, we have more work to do at EU level over the coming months to prepare the ground for this transition. We also invited the European Investment Bank, EIB, to invest more and lend more to projects that will help us to achieve these ambitions. I had an opportunity to discuss this further with the President of the EIB, Werner Hoyer, during my visit to Luxembourg on Friday and Saturday, directly after the European Council. We had a useful exchange on the MFF – the seven-year budget for the EU - and agreed to continue our discussions at the next scheduled meeting of the European Council in October with a view to reaching agreement by the end of the year.
Under the important item of disinformation and hybrid threats following the European Parliament elections, we heard a report prepared by the Romanian Presidency, with contributions from the Commission and the High Representative. This set out lessons learned from EU activities to counter disinformation campaigns targeting elections. We agreed that sustained efforts are required to strengthen the resilience of our democracies when faced with disinformation. We also agreed to continue working together to protect the EU and its member states from hybrid and cyberattacks. We discussed our objectives and priorities for the next five years and reached a formal agreement on the EU strategic agenda for 2019 to 2024.
I am pleased that the paper reflects Ireland’s priorities, as outlined in our national statement, discussed in this House on 18 April. This in turn took into account the views expressed during our citizens’ dialogue led by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. Our priorities are 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, working to prepare for the social and economic challenges of the digital transformation, ensuring that the EU plays a lead role in climate action and sustainability and, finally, maintaining peace and security, including by developing stronger relationships with Africa and other partners. The EU strategic agenda provides us with a strong framework to seize the opportunities and meet the challenges that face us and to deliver for our citizens in the years ahead.
On Thursday evening, we had a long and constructive discussion on the high-level appointments to EU institutions to be made in the coming months. The President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council, the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Central Bank, ECB, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy must all be replaced, in accordance with the treaties. Different rules apply to the appointments to the various roles. The European Parliament will elect its own President, and we have agreed that, given its specific non-political mandate, the appointment of the President of the ECB should be handled separately and not be part of a package. A candidate for President of the European Commission, however, must have a super majority in the European Council and then an absolute majority in the European Parliament. No majority was apparent for any candidate on Thursday evening and we agreed to meet again next Sunday evening to resume our discussions.
We agreed that compromises will be needed to achieve the necessary gender, political, geographic and demographic balance. From Ireland's perspective, it is also important that suitable and qualified people fill these posts, who have an understanding of Ireland’s particular issues and concerns, especially when it comes to Brexit. It is essential that we come up with a compromise package that reflects the diversity of the EU and that can gain adequate support in the European Council and the European Parliament but also reflects the outcome of the European elections.
The current President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, attended his final meeting of the eurozone summit on Friday and I took the opportunity to thank him on behalf of Ireland for his excellent work over the past eight years. We agreed that finance ministers should continue their work on strengthening EMU, including the budgetary instrument for convergence and competitiveness, BICC. The new budgetary instrument is a step towards a eurozone budget and will be designed to promote convergence and competitiveness within the eurozone. I would also like more progress towards a European deposit insurance scheme but I acknowledge that some countries have reservations about this.
We are working to ensure that the European economy continues to bring increased employment and greater prosperity to our citizens. Before the European Council ended on Friday, the EU 27 leaders had a brief discussion on Brexit. We re-affirmed that, irrespective of who will be the next British Prime Minister, our position is unchanged. The withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, is not for renegotiation, and any unilateral commitments by the UK Government must be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal agreement. We are, of course, prepared to amend the political declaration on the future relationship, if the UK position evolves, and 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 taken to facilitate the cross-party talks in the UK and for a further round of binding indicative votes.
Regrettably these failed, so a no-deal Brexit cannot be ruled out. We are, therefore, continuing our intensive preparations at domestic and EU level for the possibility of no-deal.
I had a good bilateral meeting with Mr. Michel Barnier before the European Council on Thursday morning at which we also discussed Brexit. We noted the strong and consistent
EU position and agreed to stay in touch over the months ahead. In addition to participating in the formal discussions over the two days, I also engaged informally with many of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meetings, using the opportunity, as I always do, to promote Irish interests. I was pleased to welcome the new Finnish Prime Minister and the new acting Chancellor of Austria.
I look forward to hearing statements from Members.