Pre-European Council: Statements

I will attend a meeting of the European Council this Thursday and Friday, 17 and 18 October. Following my meeting with Prime Minister Johnson last week, I am convinced that all parties want an agreement and that such is in the interest of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union as a whole. We have a pathway to a possible deal, but there are issues still to be fully resolved. First is the issue of consent and democracy, ensuring that any long-term arrangement that applies to Northern Ireland has the democratic assent of the people of Northern Ireland, and second is the issue of customs, ensuring that there is no customs border between North and South and no tariffs on trade.

This is about securing an agreement that works for the people of Ireland and the people of Britain and Europe. If it is to work for the people of Ireland, it means avoiding a hard border between North and South. That has always been the Government's primary objective, ensuring that the all-island economy can continue to develop, that North-South co-operation as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement can resume and, just as important, that the Single Market, its integrity and our place in it are protected. Those are our objectives. This has always been about achieving those objectives, and I am confident they can be achieved.

Since my meeting with Prime Minister Johnson last week, work has been ongoing between the Commission task force and British officials. Michel Barnier provided an update to the EU 27 Ministers at the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg yesterday. I do not think it would be helpful today to say too much about the precise state of play of the discussions or the exact timeframe in which an agreement may be possible. I stated last week that I thought there was a pathway to a possible agreement, and that is still my view. However, the question is whether the negotiators will be able to bridge the remaining gaps in advance of tomorrow's Council meeting. What is important now is that all focus is kept on achieving a deal that delivers for everyone.

While I continue to work towards a positive outcome on Brexit, the European Council will have several other issues of considerable importance to discuss. The President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, will set out her priorities for her term in office. The incoming Commission, based on nominations received from member states, strikes a welcome balance in terms of gender, geography and size. As we know, Ireland's nominee, Phil Hogan, was offered the position of trade Commissioner, one of the most significant and influential portfolios in the years ahead, and I know he will make a major contribution to the new Commission. The European Parliament has held hearings with the proposed new Commissioners. In some cases, these have resulted in the need for revised or new nominations. This procedure will continue until the Commission as a whole has received the approval of the Parliament and can take up office. Until then, the current Commission, under Jean-Claude Juncker, will stay in place. It is anticipated that it will remain in place until early December at a minimum. At our July meeting we agreed that Christine Lagarde should be the next President of the European Central Bank, and this week we will adopt a decision appointing her to that role.

Our discussions on Thursday will begin with an exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli. This is the European Council's first opportunity to meet him collectively and we will discuss his priorities and how we will advance the European Union's shared work. We will then have formal working sessions and a working dinner during which we will discuss various issues, including the implementation of the strategic agenda for the next five years; the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which is the European Union's budget for the period from 2021 to 2027; climate action, following the recent UN summit; enlargement, including the possible opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia; Turkish drilling activity in Cypriot waters; and foreign policy matters, including recent developments in Syria and Turkey. We will also, of course, meet in Article 50 format to discuss developments in the Brexit negotiations.

In June the European Council welcomed work carried out on the MFF under the Romanian Presidency and called on the Finnish President to advance this work in order that we can discuss it this week with the aim of having an agreement before the end of the year. The European Union needs a budget that enables successful policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, to continue and equips us well to deal with new shared challenges such as migration, climate change, and the technological transformation under way. However, with a global economic slowdown likely and considerable uncertainty continuing to surround Brexit, it is also important that it should be realistic and fit for purpose. I do not expect that we will take any decisions this week, but it will be an opportunity to begin to identify a landing zone in which agreement on the MFF might be found. For my part, I will again strongly make the case for CAP and for the reversal of the cuts proposed in the Commission's initial draft. I will also defend the budget for other long standing and well-functioning programmes such as Horizon 2020, INTERREG and Erasmus+.

In June, the European Council adopted a strategic agenda for the next five years. In our discussions this week, we will consider its implementation. Our priorities are protecting citizens and freedoms; developing a strong and vibrant economic base; building a climate-neutral, green, fair and inclusive future; and promoting European interests and values on the global stage. This week, the Prime Minister of Finland, Antti Rinne, will provide an update on how this agenda has developed. Our discussions on climate change will follow the UN climate action summit, which I attended in New York in September. At the UN summit we saw that support for concerted and determined climate action is strengthening, driven not least by the voices of young people, who made their presence felt in New York. We need to build on that momentum. Ireland wants a climate-neutral EU by 2050. This is good environmental, social and economic policy, and it should encourage other countries to scale up their short and long-term ambitions under the Paris Agreement. I expect to see ambitious climate plans from the incoming Commission.

At our June meeting we discussed Turkey's illegal drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean. We called on Turkey to cease such activities and to respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus. We will return to the matter this week. Ireland believes that the recent Turkish statements and actions on Varosha run contrary to the aim of finding a comprehensive and viable settlement in Cyprus. Ireland stands in full solidarity with Cyprus. Together with our EU partners, we will continue to monitor developments closely and respond appropriately. I am pleased the President is currently in Cyprus to help strengthen our relationships with that country.

The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will comment on enlargement and some of the other international issues expected to arise this week.

For my part, I look forward to engaging with my EU colleagues collectively and bilaterally. Until the last minute we will continue to search for a positive outcome to Brexit for Ireland, Europe and the UK. I will, of course, report back to the House next week, if not before.

This session is taking place at a moment when we do not have a final text and most of us do not have full knowledge of what specifics will be discussed at this week's summit. As such, we are holding this debate in a relative vacuum and are reliant on the incomplete briefings the Government has provided to the media.

One thing which has become very clear in the last three years is that it is important to step back from the frenzy of commentary during and immediately after negotiations. We need to look at the overall picture and understand its implications for Ireland and Europe. The position of this new Tory Government has become very clear in regard to the long-term relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. It has essentially embraced the idea of a hard Brexit. The biggest changes in recent weeks, some relating to the political declaration, have all been to copper-fasten the UK's exit from the customs union and Single Market. In fact, the Johnson position is to move away from a commitment that future trading relations would respect the need for a fair level playing field. This is because the UK has explicitly moved to a position of Brexit being about cutting regulations, including worker protections, in order to obtain a competitive advantage.

As far back as July and August 2017, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, as well as various Fine Gael representatives, criticised Fianna Fáil and other parties for making proposals in regard to Brexit which were specific to Northern Ireland. The avoidance of a chaotic Brexit is very important, particularly as many urgent preparations are not yet complete and the Government has only just hired consultants to check vital contingencies. However, let us try to avoid the narrow focus which has got in the way of a clear assessment of critical stages of this process.

The Johnson model for future relations between the UK as a whole and the European Union will hardwire in 80% of the damage to Ireland of a hard Brexit. It will not be a successful conclusion to the negotiations as a whole if this is the final outcome. We need to be aware of that. On this point, we need immediate clarity from our Government about the assumptions it will make relating to the impact of this deal. In a response to a question during Leaders' Questions, the Taoiseach confirmed it would be a harder Brexit with more dealignment than the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May. While conflicting positions are being adopted by the British Prime Minister, that seems to be a fact emerging from the current discussions.

Based on various independent reports and last week's budget documents, the economic impact of this hard Brexit will be less severe in the coming months but will be nearly as damaging in the medium and long term as a no-deal scenario. Ireland will get another year to prepare for the new customs and regulatory barriers, but the worst-case scenario would then kick in. It appears that the bulk of the Brexit reserve funding will be required to help those already badly affected by Brexit and those who need to more urgently diversify markets and products.

In regard to Northern Ireland the news is changing regularly. For the obvious reasons outlined by the Taoiseach, we have again not received a substantive briefing from the Government on the specifics. The idea that Northern Ireland would be treated as a special customs zone is one which has been around for three years and would address core concerns relating to the operation of the Border. Given that it was basically dismissed as an idea early in 2018, there has been relatively little work done on how it might operate. It appears to be something that would be unique in terms of administration and there are complexities in regard to the origins of components of finished products, something about which many questions have been raised and no answers offered, at least in public. It is not clear how the VAT regime will work, something which is obviously extremely important to cross-Border trade, or the treatment of different types of economic activities such as services. However, in regard to the issues of Border infrastructure and access to both markets, it appears to be a balanced and reasonable idea which has the potential to be a permanent solution rather than simply a route to further negotiations.

In terms of democratic consent, this is an issue which only arises because the pro-Remain majority in the Assembly has been silenced for nearly three years because Sinn Féin decided Northern Ireland did not need a democratic assembly at this critical moment when it collapsed the Assembly.

Whatever is proposed on consent cannot become a source for keeping alive permanently the tensions we have seen in the past two years. We need to get beyond Brexit and back to focusing on restoring people's faith in the idea that democratic institutions can work. As I and my colleagues have said on many occasions in the past, most of the democratic parties in Dáil Éireann are not in any way using this issue to undermine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. That is an important point. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland is underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement and what is transpiring now does not in any way seek to undermine that.

A special economic status will be of benefit to all communities in Northern Ireland. If handled correctly and given the right type of long-term support, it could provide a new economic future for Northern Ireland. I once again call on the DUP to see just how much Northern Ireland has to gain and to realise that the UK now involves a significant amount of devolution. The standard of every part of the UK being treated the same is not relevant and is not a sustainable constitutional argument.

We need to see the hard details before we can assess if this proposal is indeed an all-weather solution which provides a stable future for relations on this island. However, the basic fact is that the majority in Northern Ireland wants a positive outcome and to be relieved of the ongoing Brexit saga. At some point when the current fog of commentary has risen, we should take the time to look at ways of never repeating the collapse of North-South and east-west relations which caused so much trouble in the past number of years.

A major mistake in the past two years has been to focus on parts of the process rather than its completion. The premature celebrations in Government Buildings of last year's withdrawal agreement are a case in point. We have no idea yet if what is being discussed can be negotiated to a conclusion, ratified in the House of Commons and workable in the long-term.

The Johnson Government's priority today remains the winning of a general election. After three months of talking up no deal, the emphasis for the past week has been to get a deal which involves a hard Brexit for Britain with a special status on customs and regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland. Who knows what his priority will be next week or how long it will take to reach an outcome. What we need here is full transparency from the Government about the implications of the final proposal for Ireland and an understanding that the proposed hard Brexit involves an almost worst-case scenario.

I will briefly mention two other matters which are due to be discussed at the summit. The EU should categorically condemn the actions of Turkey, Syria and Russia in the Kurdish region of north Syria. This was prompted by President Trump's appalling decision to withdraw troops who had helped to stabilise the region and were holding ISIS linked prisoners. The abandonment of the Kurdish people is shameful in the extreme. The Kurdish forces and parties in northern Syria have been by far the most moderate and democratic of all of the many groups fighting in Syria and were central to tackling the savage ISIS group. For them to be attacked by Turkey and forced to accept the support of countries which were until recently attacking them must be condemned in the clearest possible terms. We must also note the human rights emergency which has been involved in the systematic attack on Kurdish organisations in Turkey in recent years. It is striking that Brexit-obsessed Britain lifted its boycott of the Foreign Affairs Council in order to try to water down action against Turkey.

Separately, it has been reported that Ireland was one of the main countries seeking to dramatically water down President Macron's proposal for a new budget instrument to tackle recessions in the eurozone. What has emerged is a tiny intervention incapable of delivering the core objective of helping countries when they need it most. This, and the proposal to limit the overall EU budget to 1% of member states' total combined GDP, shows that some countries and our Government simply have not learned the key lessons from the recession. Ireland should be supporting a significant increase in the EU budget, not standing in the way of important reforms. Yet again, the Government has shown that it is not forward-looking or progressive in terms of the future role and abilities of the EU.

I wish to share time with Deputy Crowe.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The meeting of the European Council on Thursday is critical for all of our futures. Britain's decision to leave the EU has shaped and influenced politics on this island for the past three years and it will shape our history into the future. We are making these statements at a time when the prospect of a deal has greatly increased. From the very start, Sinn Féin's focus has been on ensuring that the impact of Brexit on Ireland is minimised. We have always asserted that there is no good Brexit. There can be no happy-ever-after ending to this story. We have argued from the start that special bespoke arrangements are needed for the North of Ireland. It was on that basis that we devised and presented as a solution the concept of designated special status for the North. We presented this solution at a time when the Taoiseach and his party told us it could not be done. Our MEPs, among others, worked hard to ensure that this position formed the basis of the EU's negotiating mandate. The components of the designated special status evolved into what would become the backstop.

Despite those days of Government rhetoric and naysaying, today all of us are defending the backstop to the hilt. The solution we proposed, involving special arrangements for the North, formed the nucleus around which a unified front on Brexit could be built among parties across the Dáil. If a deal is struck in the near future, the unified front in this House will have been of significant assistance in its delivery. I am very glad we are back in that unified space today. I was more than a little alarmed when the Taoiseach began thinking out loud about where customs posts might be located on our island. That would have been an entirely unacceptable situation. It would be extremely damaging to Ireland. I am very glad the Taoiseach has returned to first principles. Sinn Féin has always been of the view that a strong and firmly articulated position is needed in order to get Britain to take the Irish national interest seriously. This view is based on our long-standing experience of dealing with successive British Administrations. I believe that if a deal which protects Ireland's interests transpires - I hope it does - our analysis and our position will have been fully vindicated.

We are making these contributions at a juncture when a deal is still speculative. If a deal is announced, it will have to be scrutinised and examined. It is important to outline the key aspects of an agreement that would protect Ireland. When I spoke to the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on Sunday, I told him that any deal which is agreed must have legal and enduring guarantees for this country. Protections cannot be time-limited. There certainly cannot be any bartering away of the guarantees contained in the backstop. I told him there can be no question of reimposing a hard border on Ireland. Our livelihoods, our economy and our peace must be protected. This means the Good Friday Agreement must be protected and championed to the very last letter. In my conversation with the British Prime Minister, I sought confirmation from him that no veto on protections for Ireland would be gifted to DUP Brexiteers. Such a position would be absolutely intolerable. It would be outrageous to place Irish livelihoods, our economy and our peace in the hands of a party that has acted in defiance of Ireland's interests and those of its own constituents. Such an outcome would be absolutely unthinkable. I reminded Mr. Johnson that there is no consent to Brexit in Ireland. It is important to restate that here today. People in the North voted to remain. That democratic fact and imperative cannot be ignored or reduced. I should remind the leader of Fianna Fáil that the assembly came down not least because of acts of corruption in the case of the renewable heat incentive scheme. I accept that he has a more permissive view of corruption than many of the rest of us in this House.

Has the Deputy been watching the "Spotlight" programme?

Therefore, he struggles to compute or understand that fact.

If she had been watching it, she might be less pass-remarkable.

Regardless of the deal that emerges, the Tory Brexit has been rejected by people on this island, not least those represented by my party, Sinn Féin, which is an all-Ireland party. Clearly, we are in the negotiation endgame. It is important to recall that there is no good Brexit for Ireland. There will be significant challenges for our island in any post-deal environment. The threat posed by the British Government's attempt to undermine the Good Friday Agreement will be ongoing and will have to be challenged. East-west trade will have to be provided for. Irish fishermen need clarification on what any deal might mean. Ireland's interests will have to be fought for when the future trading relationship is being negotiated. There is no doubt that the ramifications of Brexit will be felt indefinitely. The big solution to all of this will be found when partition on this island is eventually ended. Reunification, and the ending of the involvement of the British Government in our affairs, is the future. The constitutional arrangements for the North are codified in the Good Friday Agreement, as are the mechanisms for the emergence of new constitutional arrangements for Irish unity. Brexit has shown us once again why Irish unity is not simply an aspiration. Irish unity is now an absolute necessity.

We are not sure whether another Brexit deal will be debated at tomorrow's European Council meeting. It has been another long week of speculation and uncertainty as we rapidly approach the 31 October deadline. According to the latest news reports, the DUP is holding up the process again. Throughout this process, the DUP has acted against the social and economic interests of people of the North, most of whom voted to remain in the EU. The entire Brexit process has strained the Good Friday Agreement. The British Government has abandoned all pretence of acting with the impartiality required by the Good Friday Agreement.

We know the Brexit process will not end on 31 October next. It will continue for many years, and perhaps for a decade. It is of fundamental importance that the Irish Government stands up for the Agreement and for Irish interests. The Taoiseach once stated that Irish citizens in the North would never again be left behind by the Government. I suppose that assertion rings hollow following the outcome of the DeSouza case, which has significant ramifications for the rights of Irish citizens.

As Brexit approaches, there are concerns that the British Government is continuing to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. It is not acceptable that it is failing to live up to new and existing commitments. There can be no hardening of the Border and no weakening of the Good Friday Agreement in any Brexit deal. Partition has failed the vast majority of people on the island of Ireland. Most people are opposed to the artificial divisions that exist in our country. It does not matter whether these barriers are visible or invisible. An increasing number of people on this island believe Irish unity is the democratic alternative to the unwanted Brexit that is being foisted on citizens here.

As we speak, Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile is hosting a briefing in the audiovisual room with Irish academics who have produced an independent legal and academic report on the need for the EU to plan and prepare for constitutional change in Ireland. I believe this timely report is the first of its kind. It elaborates on the positive and proactive role the EU can play in the transition towards a united Ireland. It highlights the assistance the EU provided in the case of the reunification of Germany. It refers to the crucial importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the implications of Brexit for Ireland's membership of the EU. I urge the Taoiseach to get a copy of the report. If he likes, I can give him a copy after the debate. Maybe he will read it on the way to the European Council meeting and bring some of its ideas to the attention of his counterparts at that meeting.

Brexit is not the only issue that will be discussed at the European Council meeting. I would particularly like the Taoiseach to raise the case of nine Catalan political and civic society leaders who have been sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison for their alleged role in organising a democratic vote on self-determination. I attended the trial in question, which was somewhat farcical given that the president of the court is against the constitution. His supposed role in the court was to uphold the Spanish constitution. The court's decision is a crude attempt to criminalise the Catalan independence movement, which is a legitimate political movement. I urge the Taoiseach to call for dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan authorities rather than more repression.

Other Deputies have referred to the invasion of Syria by Turkey after the US military abandoned the Kurds in the region. I urge the Government to stand in solidarity with the Kurdish people. The Taoiseach should look for something positive from his meeting with our European colleagues. Sanctions could be considered.

Clearly, we need to ban weapons exports to Turkey but we also need to isolate the Turkish regime over its actions against the Kurdish people and others in Syria.

The forthcoming Council meeting is clearly one of the most important to take place in recent times. We are acutely aware of the significant amount of speculation surrounding the Brexit negotiations. We are also acutely aware of the impact of Brexit and are now debating the outcome of same in a vacuum, as deliberations appear to be heading towards a deal or arrangement, the details of which are emerging as we speak and to which we are clearly not privy. Substantive briefings and developments have been absent to date.

Brexit has already cost every family in Ireland hundreds of euro. This is money the Government has had to spend to prepare for the threat of a no-deal Brexit and we all subscribe to that. It is money lost from the economy because business in some sectors has already slowed down. The fact that Brexit is taking place at all is not good news for the Irish and UK economies or the wider European economy. Uncertainty about the future trading relationship has caused some businesses to hold back on investment or new contracts. Trade union officials have spoken to the Labour Party about manufacturing companies that have let temporary staff go and stopped all overtime. Brexit is already doing significant harm and I am sure all Members agree that it is damaging for Ireland as well as for the UK.

For over three years, Brexit has caused an unprecedented level of uncertainty. It has caused anxiety for people living on either side of the Border. It has caused endless headaches for businesses, especially small businesses, in terms of new paperwork being created if the UK leaves the European Single Market and customs union. Even the outline of the deal that is emerging indicates that paperwork will figure significantly in areas such as how VAT is dealt with and other issues relating to customs. It is somewhat ironic that British Brexiteers talk of EU red tape ad nauseam but by leaving the EU, it is the UK that will reintroduce a load of red tape and bureaucracy around trade that the EU spent years eliminating.

From the Labour Party's perspective, with two weeks left until a potential no-deal Brexit, our first concern is protecting jobs. The Minister for Finance has announced a so-called package of €1.2 billion to respond to Brexit, excluding EU funding. Peculiarly, he has only made approximately €200 million available for next year. Notwithstanding what is emerging, it appears that significant sums must be made available to cushion or lessen the possible impact of Brexit. As some of my colleagues have said, Brexit by its very nature is not good for this island. I hope the Taoiseach or the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will return with a clear indication of what level of EU funding will be available for Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit in just 17 days' time - a prospect that, hopefully, has now passed - or if a deal is reached. The money allocated by the Minister of Finance will cover staffing, IT and infrastructure at our ports and airports. While this is welcome, it is hardly sufficient. The Labour Party has raised repeatedly the need for cash subsidies to employers to protect jobs, possibly a grant to enable employers to introduce short-time working schemes with workers on shorter hours having their pay topped up by the State. In Germany, this approach saved large numbers of jobs and the workers involved were given in-house training, which helped prepare them for the future. This is real preparation for Brexit but there is no sign that the Government has thought this through. While the emerging situation brings some rays of hope, the Government must continue on the path of ensuring that companies are assisted through the early and medium stages of Brexit. The Taoiseach would do well to talk to his German counterparts this week to learn more about what Germany did to save jobs. ICTU and IBEC have proposed schemes similar to the scheme the Labour Party has proposed. They have asked that much larger sums of money be made available to support jobs and businesses. We must continue to focus on that area. The trade unions are the voices of experience from the real economy and the Government would do well to heed them.

At this stage, we are none the wiser about the nature of the deal that will emerge or what it might include. Details of the emerging proposals must be made available as soon as possible. As time is running out, it is important they are made available so that we can scrutinise and assess them in the overall context of Brexit.

We have been discussing Brexit for three and a half years but for many members of the public, the prospect of Brexit is only becoming real now as the threat to their daily lives has moved closer. Any observer would be forgiven for thinking that the Heads of Government will do nothing but discuss Brexit at the European Council later this week. In fact, Brexit is not even mentioned on the formal agenda, notwithstanding that it will be a central part of the meeting. The first item on the agenda is the new multi-annual financial framework. The second item is the strategic agenda being set out for the next six years, while the third focuses on foreign policy issues. The ordinary business of the European Union is continuing. It is highly unfortunate that Brexit has become central and taken up so much of our time and energy.

The Labour Party has serious doubts about the direction of the new financial framework and strategic agenda. They lack the necessary ambition to deal with the climate crisis and they lack any vision for Europe that people across the Continent can rally around. Europe needs to be more than just a trading club, particularly if Brexit goes ahead. People want political leadership on the social, economic and environmental challenges they face and a progressive vision of Europe is needed to address people's concerns and give them hope for the future.

Before I conclude, I will mention a few foreign affairs issues which have been referred to by some colleagues. The leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Howlin, has called on the Taoiseach to condemn the Turkish attacks on the Kurds in Syria. I hope the Taoiseach will take a strong message to the European Council that the EU needs to impose immediate trade sanctions on Turkey until it stops its military aggression, which has already claimed the lives of dozens of people, including civilians. Recently, we saw the results of the Israeli election, where both leading parties have taken a hardline position regarding Palestine and illegal settlements. I hope the Taoiseach will take a strong message to the European Council that we cannot allow whatever new government emerges in Israel to dilute in any way the rights of Palestinians or Israeli Arabs or to damage the prospects for a peaceful, two-state solution to the conflict.

Seventy nine years ago, the Nazis extradited Lluís Companys i Jover, the Catalan President, to Spain where he was executed by the fascist Franco regime for rebellion against the Spanish state. In the past few days, the Spanish Prime Minister has suggested that this action by the Franco regime was legitimate as he commented on the Spanish Government's right to imprison leaders of the Catalan independence movement, elected politicians and officials. One could not get a more stark, alarming and sinister reminder of the brutal and repressive nature of what the Spanish state is doing to elected representatives of Catalonia and millions of Catalans, who have done nothing more than exercise their legitimate aspiration through democratic means by way of a referendum for national self-determination and independence. The Spanish Prime Minister quotes favourably the decision of a fascist regime to execute a Catalan President for doing the same thing. Our Government and the EU sit idly by and remain deathly silent. As we speak, five demonstrations in five Catalan cities are taking place, each of which is 100 km long, involving hundreds of thousands of Catalans who are horrified by the decision of the Spanish courts to impose 100 years of imprisonment on the Deputy Prime Minister of Catalonia and other leading figures in the region.

Their crime was not declaring independence but, rather, organising a democratic referendum.

Police violence is occurring in Catalonia as we speak. I have just watched disturbing footage of Spanish police throwing pensioners and old people to the ground and beating them ruthlessly for attending peaceful demonstrations in Catalonia and exercising their key international human right to self-determination. Nothing has been said about this. I appeal to the Government to speak out clearly and condemn the Spanish Government for jailing people who have done nothing more than exercise their legitimate rights under international law to fight for self-determination. They did so through democratic means by holding a referendum. The Government must condemn the Spanish state's violence against this peaceful movement for self-determination. I hope the Minister of State will do so and that she will also raise the issue with her European Union colleagues, otherwise the EU's claim to be an upholder of human, civil and democratic rights is nothing but hollow talk.

The EU has been put forward as the force that will safeguard the interests of people on this island during Brexit. Yet it has played a role in the Spanish state's horrendous actions in Catalonia, not only during the referendum but also in the draconian imprisonment of its people. Seven pro-independence leaders have been sentenced to between ten and 12 years in prison by an EU country. The response of workers and youth in Catalonia has been both swift and angry. I do not have much faith in this Government because it has maintained a dumb silence throughout the whole fiasco. Will the Government condemn the Spanish state for its repressive actions? A general strike looks likely in Catalonia, which I would support. The Catalan people also need solidarity from the rest of Spain, as well as Europe and beyond. What the Spanish state is doing is not very different from what is happening in Hong Kong. All political prisoners in Catalonia should be freed and granted the right to self-determination. That self-determination must allow for real change in people's lives, which would lead to a socialist republic in Catalonia.

I refer to Brexit. We keep hearing that a deal is imminent but we do not know whether it will happen or what it might contain, so I will make some general points. We know who attended the negotiations, namely, the Tory Government headed up by Boris Johnson, who is a hard-right leader, the European Union and Fine Gael. These people, who will ultimately write the agreement, do not represent the interests of working-class people, Protestant or Catholic, North or South, rather, they represent the interests of big business. Neoliberalism has been written into these agreements from the outset, particularly in the context of their complete opposition to State intervention, State ownership, public home building, etc. The bargain-basement Brexit that Boris Johnson and the Tories would like is on the cards. I emphasise that there can be absolutely no hardening of borders, North, South, east or west, which would lead to a further increase in sectarian tensions in the North.

Workers have only themselves to rely on when jobs are put at risk, which is a potential outcome of Brexit. Harland and Wolff in Belfast and Wrightbus in Ballymena are two brilliant examples of that. Those jobs have been successfully defended by trade unions and militant and determined action which mobilised support from the local communities. New owners are now taking over those companies due to the hard stand taken by those workers. We need working-class action by the trade union movement in order to use workers' strength to defend jobs and living conditions in any Brexit outcome. That is what will have an impact.

Hevrin Khalaf, one of nine civilians tortured and summarily executed by Turkish-based forces on Saturday, was 35 years old. Earlier in the week, the Turkish military bombed a civilian aid convoy in Ras al-Ain, killing more than 20 people. These are only some of the tortures, mass executions and indiscriminate military attacks on civilian targets that make up Turkey's war of terror and genocidal invasion in Rojava. The body count will keep rising as long as the Erdoan regime continues with this war. People across the world are outraged and horrified at this brutality. This regime has pursued a decades-long policy of oppressing national minorities and attacking democratic rights inside its own borders, and it now faces outwards in order to pursue that policy in Syria. Its forces have been on a campaign of terror in Afrin since it was seized in March and the regime has carried out rampant human rights abuses in Turkey by arresting journalists, political activists, anti-war activists and socialists by the thousands. This regime has been using its military against the Turkish population within its own borders for years.

For all the horror and disgust rightly directed at Erdoan, we must not forget who his helpers are. Part of the pretext for Turkey's invasion of Syria is the creation of a zone into which the Erdoan regime could forcibly transfer the millions of refugees currently residing in Turkey. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has claimed that the EU will not pay for this. At the same time, however, the EU is paying €3 billion a year for a rotten, disgusting deal which effectively imprisons refugees and prevents them reaching the bloc's borders. Up until yesterday, EU member states were selling huge amounts of arms to Turkey in violation of their own rules, without any consequences. The EU's tears are crocodile tears, and criticism of the EU by Turkey is hypocritical. The EU has blood on its hands from what is currently happening in Rojava. The same applies to the Irish Government. Not only has it facilitated the US murder machine and the destabilisation of the Middle East by allowing US military use of Shannon Airport, but it also exported millions of euro worth of military and dual-use equipment to Turkey in 2016.

The Kurdish people have a saying, "No friend but the mountains", which is particularly clear in this betrayal by various forces of imperialism. The only way to move forward in Syria is to build a multi-ethnic, democratically organised force, a socialist solution which uses existing resources to meet people's needs and ensures the rights of all national minorities to self-determination and other democratic rights. Such forces must also be appealed to internationally, rather than various forces of imperialism. Working-class people, the anti-war movement, socialists, activists, and so on need to raise their voices and demand an end to the invasion. The Government should expel the Turkish ambassador as long as this invasion continues, in order to express our solidarity with the Kurdish people.

While much of today's debate is dominated by Brexit, the reality is that other issues are not getting the attention they should. The European Council list states that it may address specific foreign policy issues, but these are serious foreign policy issues which must be addressed. Last Thursday, Deputy Gino Kenny and I raised the issue relating to the Kurdish people with the Tánaiste. I stated then that President Trump's rationale that the US should not help the Kurds because the Kurds had not helped the Americans at Normandy or during the Second World War left me speechless. He later claimed that because the Kurds are fighting for their own land, it has nothing to do with the US. He is completely oblivious to the fact that the Kurds were America's allies in the fight against ISIS. The President of the United States has abandoned the Kurds in order to satisfy some of his supporters and he recently brought in sanctions against Turkey to satisfy others. In the middle of this is the horrendous suffering of those who already suffered due to the war in Syria, ISIS atrocities and displacement. Do those who should know better, and from whom we expect better, ever think through a decision before they actually make it?

Do they, not just the US President, Donald Trump, but others, ever think to examine the consequences of that? There is no question that the US President has opened the gates to an ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, the US’s ally for five years. It was the Kurdish Peshmerga forces which defended parts of Iraq against ISIS when those areas were abandoned by the Iraqi army.

The history of the Kurdish people is one of abandonment over many years with the result that they do not have a state of their own and are scattered in several countries. They are treated horrifically in most of those countries, especially in Turkey, where their rights to their language, culture, land and jobs are eroded. The motives of the Turkish President, Tayyip Erdoan, are highly suspect. His popularity and his ego took a bruising in the recent mayoral contest in Istanbul. Turkey and the United States are trading partners. The EU is reliant on Turkey in terms of refugees which has been a lucrative business for it. Turkey is now looking for more money in this regard.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was one of the first to condemn Turkey’s aggression, recognising how it undermines stability in the region, as well as the prospects for a lasting and just peace in Syria. Just as it appeared that rebuilding Syrian society could advance, there is an escalation in the conflict. Again, there is no limit to the indifference of certain political leaders to the suffering of ordinary people.

The Tánaiste referred to the threat of a resurgence of ISIS. We have already seen some of its members escaping from camps. When some Members were in Syria last year, it was made clear to us that we have no idea of what could be coming towards us in terms of ISIS, what it represents and what it could do to areas it takes over.

The Tánaiste was also clear that the ethnic Kurdish population in north-east Syria should be protected and that international humanitarian law is paramount. How can that be when we see political power is totally indifferent to humanitarian law and completely disregards it? Ireland is supporting the work of the UN special envoy who has called for Turkey to cease military operations. We have called on all to engage with the UN led peace process. Those are fine words. However, this is in the face of an increasing authoritarianism and repression in Turkey with a president who does not care about democracy. There was his reaction in 2016 to an attempted coup with tens of thousands of people jailed, many of whom were teachers, from the media and from the judiciary. Any opportunity is taken to put down protests or criticism.

What has happened in north-east Syria did not happen overnight. The EU had to have known something but it must have looked the other way, perhaps because of the refugee crisis. It is ironic that Turkey is the country trusted to look after refugees from the Syrian war. Mr. Demirta, the leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party, was third in the last Turkish presidential election despite being in jail. Any sign of independent thinking leads to sanctions and jail. The EU must be a much stronger voice on this. This is a test for the effectiveness of the EU in upholding its principles.

The so-called safe zone is 32 km into Syrian territory and along the Turkish border. Even if sanctions work, the Turkish President, Tayyip Erdoan, already has an area of Syria that is twice the size of Gaza. Trying to lodge 2 million Syrian, Sunni and Arab refugees from Turkey into this pseudo-safe zone is problematic. President Donald Trump’s almost overnight decision has created havoc and has given Turkey the space to do what it had obviously planned to do for quite some time. That type of military operation does not happen overnight. There had to have been communications and discussions between Turkey and the US. Now we have an alliance between Syria and the SDF, Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by Russia, also suggesting the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, had prior knowledge. In the middle of all that, we have thousands of jihadis and many senior figures of ISIS fleeing. Where are they going?

I am afraid to mention Brexit because no sooner has one reacted to one aspect of it, another appears. Deputy Crowe hosted a meeting in the Leinster House audiovisual room last week with members of some of the Border communities to discuss the implications for them. It is good to meet ordinary people, rather than the political groupings, who are just talking about the reality in their lives. Apart from their concerns about agriculture, fisheries, business, education or freedom of movement, they were also concerned about a space opening up in which paramilitaries could take advantage. We know there are positive signs. While they may be positive for the EU and British negotiators, there is still a long way to go before the British Parliament will agree to a deal. Regardless of what kind of deal is achieved – be it no deal, a soft deal or a hard deal - it is only after that lead-in period that we will see the real consequences, intended or otherwise.

On the recent sentences handed out to Catalan leaders, officialdom will say this is an internal matter and refer to the independence of the Spanish courts, the legal system, etc. Spain is a member of the EU, however. The sentences were extremely excessive. There had been no violence on the part of the 12 Catalan political and civil society figures in question. They were not planning to assassinate the Spanish King or overthrow Spain’s central government. This was about a referendum on self-determination for Catalonia. The extent of the sentences - 13 years, 12 years, 11 and a half years, ten and a half years and nine years with fines for three others - is excessive. This was about freedom of speech, peaceful protest, rights which we take for granted here, as is the right to self-determination. I can only conclude that the sentences were acts of vengeance rather than justice. Spain has endorsed international treaties which grant territories the right to self-determination. It has chosen a penal route, however, for those wanting Catalan independence.

How does jailing these Catalan leaders resolve the issue? The Spanish criminal code does not say that holding a referendum is a crime. However, that is how the courts interpreted it. The sentences are disproportionate. They will deepen tensions and make a bad situation worse. We have seen reports on television and heard on radio about the increasing violence there which had not occurred before. What has happened to discussion, dialogue and reasoned debate to find a resolution to an issue? Calm heads and common sense are needed now. The EU must step up to its role in this regard.

There seems to be a majority in Catalonia who want independence. There are also plenty of people in the region who do not want independence. All that any of the pro-independence Catalan people I have met want is a referendum. They are clear that they will accept the result of such a referendum, even if it is against independence for Catalonia. Again, there has to be a peaceful way to do this. It was a sad day for democracy when those prison sentences were announced. If the EU cannot condemn what is happening, at least it should show some concern.

This summit will set priorities. We cannot forget about the sustainable development goals. These are a major issue and the clock is running down on them. The EU budget is going to be a significant issue. We know how much groups in the North depend on EU funding, whether it is INTERREG or Erasmus, and the work that funding has enabled those programmes to do. On enlargement, I just came from meeting with a delegation from Montenegro. They very much want to be part of the EU and its respect for values. On the other hand, these values are being allowed to be completely undermined. These are difficult days. However, the big issue is to stop the violence and suffering that has been caused by Turkey and the United States.

All of us are waiting to see whether the hopes of this week’s developments in Brexit will bear fruit and if a deal will emerge. We have all supported the Government in its efforts on this. The middle of October used to be harvest time for apple farmers in Tipperary. Hopefully, the harvest will be rich and we will get a deal. The kind of deal is the question, however. Cén sórt? We are waiting with bated breath.

At the end of the EU meeting on 21 June 2019, the EU 27 leaders briefly addressed the issue of Brexit. Members were informed of the state of play of planning for a no-deal scenario. We passed some legislation last night and recently with the Brexit omnibus Bill to prepare for this scenario. The Gospel tells us to have our oil lamps filled. We are not even half ready, however. It is rushed and that is the Government’s fault. There is uncertainty but we should be ready. We should have had a dual strategy from the start.

From reports today, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has told European Commissioners that he is optimistic of a deal and that the Brexit withdrawal agreement can be done today. Tá súil agam. We all wait and hope. Hopefully, it will be done because there will be no such thing as a good Brexit. An agreed Brexit strategy, however, is far preferable to a crash-out.

If the deal happens today, that will represent a massive leap forward in negotiations that it is to be hoped can be welcomed by everyone. What I want to see, of course, is the retention of Ireland's key and non-negotiable demands. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. It is always in the small print that one finds what the issues really are. We must see a retention of Ireland's key and non-negotiable demands. We have to see the backstop. It caused a lot of trouble but we must have it. We cannot have a border. I have said this here every time I have spoken on this.

I questioned Mr. Michel Barnier when he was in this Chamber about what would be different with the Border with Northern Ireland at Aughnacloy, at Caledon, or at Belleek in County Fermanagh and a border like that between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a massive border checkpoint was built in the past eight or ten years. I have witnessed it, having been held up at it for hours. On the one hand, they were saying there would be no border with Northern Ireland and then they had this massive border at the other extreme of Europe, at Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We cannot have a two-tier EU. That is quite obvious to me but Mr. Barnier did not answer the question. I said we would not have it. I hope we will avoid it.

Whatever emerges, we must have protection for the Good Friday Agreement. Above anything else, we must have protection for our fishermen and women and those within the agrifood sector who are being thrown to the wolves. I heard a debate on fisheries last week on radio. I heard Mr. Dermot Ahern talking about when he was the Minister dealing with the fisheries, and we lost a lot of fisheries. We had to have a token area, a so-called box, in which EU fishermen and others could not come to fish. We must protect our fishermen. We have to protect our farmers. Above all, we have to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

I always refer to the Good Friday Agreement because it was hard won by former taoisigh, the late Albert Reynolds and Mr. Bertie Ahern, people from Tipperary such as the late Fr. Alec Reid, who was a wonderful man, the former Aire Stáit, Dr. Martin Mansergh, and many others. The late Mr. Martin McGuinness and many others worked so hard for this. We got the agreement but I think we took our eye off the ball as regards the horrible events that we are seeing in the Border area. It happened recently with former Quinn executives, and others. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, must know more than me as she is closer to the Border than I am, although I go up there occasionally. We all know that racketeering and all kinds of extortion are going on there. It has mushroomed. They got a carte blanche free-for-all up there. They should not have because now we see it culminating in horrific violence being perpetrated on those officials. There was the closure of Garda stations and RUC stations. There was nothing. We did not want to see massive checkpoints in Forkhill in south Armagh, in Caledon and every place else, but we needed a police presence and a Garda presence and we did not have it, and those people have been left to the mercy of the waves. Whatever emerges, we must protect the Good Friday Agreement.

We must certainly protect our agriculture. What is going on in agriculture, in the beef sector, is nothing short of a scandal. Today, I said to the Taoiseach it cannot be business as usual in the agri-industry because they have hoovered up all reasonable respecting farmers and pulverised them. As I said, they spent eight weeks protesting. The Taoiseach was not interested in them. The Taoiseach was more interested in marching in a gay pride march in Belfast than visiting the farmers on the picket line. The Minister, Deputy Creed, has a situation now where agreement was reached in Kildare. The bulwark of that agreement was that the injunctions were to be taken off the farmers and now we find out they are still not because the moguls, the beef barons, whom the Government is afraid of and kow-tows to, would not listen. They made an agreement that they would, and it was signed by all there.

The chairman of the so-called task force is an insider. I mean no disrespect to the man. He is a good man but he is a former Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. He has his fingerprints over every rule that we have been trying to get amended and every restriction that has been imposed on farmers. How will he be fair and partial? He cannot be. We needed someone who would be fair and impartial and bring Meat Industry Ireland, MII, to book, to heel, and to respect the producers and farmers, but they will not. Independent Farmers of Ireland, which was at those talks in Kildare and agreed that document subject to consulting its members, met a week ago in Athlone. They were 600 strong. Its three representatives are not allowed into the talks at all. Who is the Government codding?

It cannot be business as usual. The Irish Farmers Association, IFA, Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, Bord Bia, Bord Bainne, Teagasc - the usual suspects - fill up the room, pass the newspaper around, talk about it, break for lunch, and go on and get an agreement after several weeks that will be toothless, useless and fruitless. That is what has gone on for the past 40 years when the barons have been allowed to suffocate and strangle the beef industry. That has to change because the farmers know now that many of the farmer organisations have not represented them. They know that retired presidents of the IFA are now some of the biggest beef producer lots for the factories. They know who has been in bed with whom. They know what has been going on. They must have respect now that a new situation has dawned and the game is up for them.

We met people recently about the poultry industry and the shenanigans and skulduggery that has gone on there. The Minister of State is aware of it, so is the Taoiseach, so is the Tánaiste and so is the Vice President of the European Parliament, Ms Mairead McGuinness MEP. I refer to the corruption and blackguarding that has gone on there, and the same is going on in the beef sector. It cannot be business as usual. It has to be dealt with.

When added to that are the harmful measures adopted by the Government in terms of carbon tax, fuel price increases for hauliers, agri-contractors and farmers, and the rise in the cost of living here, life will be difficult for ordinary citizens here in Ireland. The Government remains as a threat to the rural economy, and I do not say that lightly. I and my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group negotiated for six weeks with Fine Gael and we insisted, and had it in many sections of the programme for Government, that every bit of legislation would be rural-proofed for the impact it would have on rural dwellers. The Government has not rural-proofed a sentence of any legislation. Bill after Bill has thrown those in rural Ireland to the wolves. The Government did that at its peril because rural Ireland has always been a strong supporter of the Fine Gael Party. It is a two-way street where Fine Gael supports the people and they will support the party, but Fine Gael has not. Fine Gael has abandoned them in their hour of need.

I have not even got to talk about the horrible issues that are going on in Syria at present with the Kurds. I have tried on a number of occasions in the House - the Government has not - to deal with the persecution of Christians and minority Muslim sects in Syria and elsewhere. What is going on now is a war crime. It is savage. The European nations stand idly by and assist in this by their absence. President Trump must be questioned to as to why he removed soldiers. I think there were only 50 soldiers but it obviously gave the green light to Turkey. We all know about the Johnny Turks and how they are armed, but the official consensus is that we could have this going on not too far from our own borders. I have gone to Lebanon and met the Syrian refugees. It is unthinkable that this can start again and that people who stood with the American soldiers and took down ISIS now can be wiped out like that.

It is funny. In politics, one learns the lesson that a lot of time is spent trying to jump over one hurdle only to realise that, once that has been achieved, there is another hurdle ahead. I hope a deal is agreed between the negotiators today in Europe and that it gets over the hurdle of being agreed at the European Council on Thursday and Friday. I presume it then has to get over the hurdle of getting through the UK Parliament on Saturday. Even then, there are hurdles ahead. They are probably a bit more like Becher's Brook. It is a grand national we are jumping here, not a hurdle race, because the scale of the implications and change that is coming if Brexit goes ahead, as seems possible today, will bring such challenges.

The first thing is to note is what an incredible loss it will be, particularly for this country but also for the European Union, not to have the UK in the EU, if that is the outcome of the negotiations this week. It has completely transformed our relationship with the UK that we have been fellow members of the European Union. It has allowed us to get over an obsession with our relationship by jumping over the UK into the Continent, as it were. It has given us great confidence as a country and the ability to progress our development in a way that has not been overshadowed by the history with our neighbouring island.

We should focus on the challenges that will arise. People are asking what the difference is between this putative deal today and that which had been agreed with the former British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. One of the main fundamental differences is that the United Kingdom Government at Westminster - not so much Whitehall but the political system, the Conservative Party - seems to be hell-bent on following a form of Brexit that will allow it deregulate, reregulate or change regulations in a variety of industries to free it from European regulatory systems as a way, I can only presume, of gaining competitive advantage in international trade.

That is its right. The UK Government is going to loosen its approach. If it does so and proceeds in a way that is fundamentally different in the context of standards, then it will find it increasingly difficult to trade with the European Union. Regardless of how much it trades with the Union, it will be the net loser.

I heard David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, saying that Europe is stagnant and that the growing markets are in the Far East and developing countries elsewhere. However, he forgets the lesson of geography. I cannot recall the exact equation but it is that as distance increases, the volume of trade falls. We and the European Council need to start thinking about how we manage that. I want to give the Minister of State a few examples. First, in the area of digital policy, there are real challenges. Anyone involved in digital policy in the past ten to 20 years will attest that the UK Government has been the most progressive, engaged and advanced in its thinking when it comes to European digital policies. We will miss the UK in that regard. This country, which has large digital social networks and other industries, has to be very careful that we try to maintain some common standards in terms of digital services, particularly in order to ensure that a divide does not open up and gives rise to chaos and inefficiency.

On 7 November, this House will host the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News, which will be attended by parliamentarians from a variety of countries, including, I am glad to say, the UK. The key question we will be asking is how to get collaboration in international governance of the Internet because if we fragment on that, we will not be able to protect our citizens, get the benefits of those systems and advance our economic well-being. That is not a minor issue. We have to avoid a situation where we go ahead with the e-commerce directive, the UK goes ahead with its White Paper on harmful content and the US goes ahead with amending section 230 of its communications Act. This country has an interest in trying to avoid the breakdown of collaboration in that area. I put it to the Taoiseach that we should include that within the strategic agenda of the upcoming Council and Commission for the next five years.

This is a very local issue in terms of environmental regulations. Two weeks ago, I asked the Tánaiste the likely arrangements we will get in any putative deal in terms of the habitats, water framework, birds and nitrates directives. It is very important that that regulatory alignment is nailed down because we cannot manage this island as we proceed to address climate change if we have divergent systems. As we try to protect and restore nature and avoid cross-border pollution, we have to have common alignment in those areas. I would argue that we have to have alignment with the UK, even if it is looking to ship in chlorinated chicken and beef that is "steroided" up to its eyeballs. That has implications for us also. If there is a deal, the beef industry will not wake up tomorrow morning and say, “That crisis is avoided” if our biggest market and nearest neighbour is using a Canada-minus or Canada-plus model to undermine the standards we have all agreed across these islands and across Europe in recent years. That is an important issue that we will have to focus on in any future trade talks. In other words, we do not stop meeting challenges. While the negotiating task will not be as much in the public eye, it will still be there.

In that regard, it is very important that the Government engages on the CAP negotiations in a strong way. It is ironic that the UK is leaving the European Union at a time when it states that it does not want top-down regulation. The European Commission appears to be saying, in terms of the CAP and the national energy climate plan, that it is putting it back to each state as to how they see themselves fulfilling the broad objectives of CAP reform or the climate plan on which we agree. Last Friday, we sent our submission on THE CAP reform proposals but I hear nothing from Fine Gael that recognises the scale of change we need to make in the CAP system.

The issue is not just about the size of the European budget, it is about changing the entire budget and payment system. We need a larger budget in order that we might pay young people to go into farming. We need to think 20, 30 or 40 years ahead as to how the environmental services we want our young farmers to provide will be looked after. That is a challenge about which I do not have any sense of ambition or long-term vision from the Government.

Similarly, on the national energy and climate plan, we will have to work with the UK, not just North-South but also east-west. It will be impossible for us to meet our 70% renewables target if we remain isolated as an energy system from the UK. It will be impossible for us to ensure our gas security if we do not have a long-term, deep energy relationship. Whatever else happens on trade with Singapore, India and so on, we have to make sure, in the next hurdle of negotiations, that energy collaboration works because it will work for everyone. It is one of those issues where, by sharing, we strengthen every country's position.

In terms of our grouping in the EU Parliament, I am very glad we now have two Green MEPs in what is a significantly enlarged Greens-European Free Alliance group, which now has 75 members. I get the sense from a distance, however, that we have been frozen out from the appointment of the Commission and the other high offices in the Union. It speaks to me of an EU that is clinging to an old conservative way of doing things and that the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, perhaps with the help of the liberals, will sort everything out. If Europe is clinging on to that old model because it believes it has worked for the past 50 years, it is missing this opportunity and important moment for change.

I hope our parliamentary group within the European Parliament will start to exert a much more significant influence on the European position. It should start with what is happening in Syria and Turkey at the present time, recognising that the fundamental source of the problem dates back more than 100 years to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the divvying up of land and the big game of global politics where colonial and imperial powers, the likes of the British and the French, and now the Americans and the Russians, are using the Middle East almost as a chess board within which their power games are drawn out. The Green Party does not come with that perspective as to the way Europe protects its borders, manages its security or should be involved in European foreign policy. It would serve the Taoiseach well if he adopted that approach because Ireland, as a country, suffered from rather than took part directly in that imperial gain. We have everything to benefit from being a voice in Europe for a different approach to how we deal with our neighbours.

Before calling the Minister of State to make a statement in reply, I wish, on my own behalf and on that of the Members of Dáil Éireann, to offer a céad míle fáilte, a most sincere welcome, to a delegation of the Legislative Committee of the Parliament of Montenegro, led by its Chairperson, Marta Šepanovi. Montenegro is a candidate country for EU membership and the delegation is in Leinster House to study the processes here regarding legislation and scrutiny of EU affairs. They are most welcome to Leinster House and I hope they find their visit useful and to our mutual benefit.

I also welcome the delegation and our visitors.

This week's meeting of the European Council comes at an important time for many reasons. The institutions are renewing themselves and now leaders have an opportunity this week to set the direction of the EU for the years ahead. The Taoiseach has already outlined his expectations for the discussions on the implementation of the strategic agenda, the MFF, climate action and Brexit. I will focus on foreign policy issues and enlargement.

As the Taoiseach stated earlier, as the Tánaiste stated on Monday and as I stated yesterday, Ireland stands in full solidarity with Cyprus in light of illegal Turkish drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean and recent Turkish statements and actions on Varosha. We deeply regret that Turkey has failed to refrain from its illegal activities in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone.

On Monday of this week, the Foreign Affairs Council agreed that a framework regime of restrictive measures targeting persons involved in illegal drilling activity be put in place.

The Foreign Affairs Council and the Tánaiste also unanimously condemned Turkey's military action in north eastern Syria and agreed to halt arms exports to Turkey. Turkey's actions in Syria undermine the stability of the region. This will result in more civilians suffering and will make prospects for the UN-led peace process in Syria much more difficult. It also undermines progress made in the international fight against ISIS. Ireland stands united with our EU partners in urging Turkey to cease unilateral military action and withdraw its forces from Syria. Respect for international humanitarian law and unhindered humanitarian access are also vital. Leaders will hold further discussions on Turkish activities at their meeting this week, where the Taoiseach will reiterate these points.

In terms of enlargement, as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I attended yesterday's meeting of the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg where we discussed enlargement and stabilisation in the region. The focus of our discussions was whether to open accession negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania. Last May, the European Commission published its annual enlargement package and recommended opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. We discussed this matter at the meeting of the General Affairs Council in June but in light of the limited time available to examine the country reports, and the importance of the matter, it was decided to delay this decision until no later than October. Unfortunately, our discussions at the General Affairs Council were inconclusive and this means leaders will take up the matter at the European Council. I am extremely disappointed with the outcome. Ireland's view has not changed since we discussed this in June. As I reported to the House following that debate which took place on 20 to 21 June, Ireland welcomes the Commission's findings, including the recommendations to open accession negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania. We believe the reforms they have made and which we asked them to make should be recognised. In North Macedonia they have not only made significant reforms but those combined with the signing and ratification of what was an historic Prespa Agreement need to be recognised.

While the situation in Albania is much more complex, despite the polarised political situation, it has made progress across all chapter areas. In particular, it has made comprehensive justice reforms, again, a significant achievement which deserves to be acknowledged. I believe opening negotiations would be the right thing to do. We have concerns that if a decision is not taken to open these negotiations, it could have far-reaching and long-lasting negative political effects within the region. Currently, it places an onus on us to fulfil the commitments we have made. There is the potential to undermine our credibility, not only within the EU but further afield.

Looking towards tomorrow's European Council meeting, it is important leaders give a very clear, strong and substantive signal but make a decision on the next stage of the process as promised in the June conclusions. I sincerely hope we can send positive signals to both member states.

I thank Deputies for their attention and look forward to following on these discussions and answering questions further to the European Council meeting, which will take place tomorrow and Friday.

Sitting suspended at 3.13 p.m. and resumed at 4.13 p.m.