Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings with EU leaders and others when he attended the UN meeting in New York; and if the backstop was discussed. [39633/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the EU leaders he met or with whom he spoke at the UN meeting and since Brexit. [39948/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to EU leaders since 18 September 2019 about Brexit or other issues. [39632/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

4. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to President Macron recently. [41943/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken directly to the German Chancellor recently. [41957/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Swedish Prime Minister. [41981/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Danish Prime Minister. [41982/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

I attended the recent General Assembly of the United Nations in New York between 23 and 25 September, where I had the opportunity to meet many of my EU colleagues, including President Tusk, with whom I took stock of the then state of play on Brexit. While in New York I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Johnson, at which we exchanged views on possible means to break the impasse on Brexit. I have spoken to the Prime Minister on several occasions since. As the House is aware, I met him in Liverpool on 10 October. We spoke most recently by phone yesterday evening.

While in New York I also took the opportunity to speak to many European colleagues, including Council President Charles Michel and the Prime Ministers of Spain, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Malta, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Sweden and the Netherlands and the Presidents of France, Cyprus and Bulgaria. In these conversations I took the opportunity to brief leaders on Ireland's views on the most up-to-date position on Brexit at the time, including the backstop and other relevant matters.

I travelled to Stockholm and Copenhagen on 3 and 4 October where I had bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Lofven and Prime Minister Frederiksen, respectively. In both capitals we discussed Brexit, climate change, the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and bilateral relations. Both Sweden and Denmark reiterated their full support for Ireland in the ongoing Brexit discussions.

I also spoke by phone to both President Tusk and President Juncker about Brexit on 3 October. Of course, I met each of the EU Heads of State and Government and the institution's Presidents again last week when I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. On that occasion we endorsed the revised withdrawal agreement negotiated between the Barnier task force and the UK Government. We also discussed what we would do in the event of a request for an extension from the United Kingdom. We agree that were that to happen, President Tusk would co-ordinate consultation on the response. I spoke to President Tusk by phone this morning. I will be reporting separately to the House and answering other parliamentary questions on the issue shortly

I thank the Taoiseach. As we have a debate coming up later, we will await that report. Has an impact assessment of the new deal been prepared in the week or so since it was published? There are substantially different arrangements within that deal. Is an assessment under way and, if so, when will it be published? When will the Government have a chance to actually measure it? In the context of the conversations with Presidents Tusk and Junker, it is fitting to wish them well as they move on from the stage. I could not help but note the frustration in President Junker's voice yesterday about the amount of time he had had to spend since 2016 on Brexit-related issues, time he could have been spent on other issues, but that is how it arose during his term. Will the Taoiseach give us a brief sense of his conversation with President Tusk this morning? Did he lay out any timetable for when he will come to a decision on the extension?

The three groups of questions overlap in the sense that we are discussing matters the Taoiseach discussed with a variety of EU Ministers. I am going to use the first group to ask about a matter that was debated at the socialist group meeting I attended last week at which I had the pleasure to meet Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, and Zoran Zaev, the Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia. There was an impassioned plea made by the high level representative, Federica Mogherini, about not closing the door on the applications of these countries and allowing them to progress. It is quite clear that their accession to the European Union is not imminent. It is a long way away, but we really need to give people hope and confidence that they are on a journey. It is really important and a very passionate debate took place on the impact it would have on the Balkans. It would be unfortunate if people felt the European Union was closing the door on them, particularly after the enormous strides they have taken. Macedonia has changed its name. Albania has allowed judges to be vetted by independent panels and Frontex to operate. We really need to ensure this is reciprocated by a hand of friendship. I know that there was a very strong rejection by the President of France. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's view on how this is going to progress.

EU leaders have endorsed the UN 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Goal No. 8 commits to promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. In addition to the economic uncertainties attached to Brexit, there are wider global challenges at play which impact on member states' economies. For instance, the German economy has contracted for the third quarter this year. Its central bank has warned that early indicators provide few signs of a sustainable recovery of exports and stabilisation of industry. Here at home we have discussed the significant job losses in Cork and Shannon. Political leaders' previous responses to economic contraction and recession were to pause, undermine or roll back fundamental rights and entitlements of workers. We saw this most recently in the Taoiseach's decision to withhold a much needed increase in the national minimum wage in the recent budget. The European Trade Union Confederation, ETUC, has called for a new social contract between governments, business and workers and is engaging with political leaders across the EU institutions. The ETUC's Time For 8 campaign recognises the challenges facing European and global economies by advocating for inclusive and sustainable economic growth, as well as employment and decent work for all. The right to collective bargaining which still eludes workers here is also woven into the campaign, as well as the economic and social need for the introduction of a living wage. What, if any, engagement has the Taoiseach had with the ETUC or his counterparts on the aims and objectives of the Time For 8 campaign?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. We have not made a new impact assessment of the withdrawal agreement agreed to last week, but there have been quite a number of impact assessments made of different hypothetical scenarios. It may be possible to look at the data and apply them to the revised withdrawal agreement. We will do so. What is fair to say is that if the withdrawal agreement is ratified, there will be no significant impact on the economy, at least until the end of the transition phase and implementation period because it is a stand still period during which the United Kingdom as a whole will effectively remain in the customs union and the Single Market. It will run until the end of 2020, but I think most people are of the view that concluding a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom and having it ratified by nearly 30 parliaments, including some regional parliaments, would be quite a challenge such that we may see the transition or implementation phase extended, as it can be under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, to the end of 2022. It is very unlikely to have any impact of significance on the economy before then. Afterwards, what will matter is the nature of the future trading and economic relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. That has to be determined.

If we get through this phase of Brexit, that is, withdrawal, the next phase will be negotiating the economic partnership, the security partnership and the free trade deal with the United Kingdom. In the joint political declaration the United Kingdom states it wants to have tariff-free, quota-free access to the European Union. We want to have tariff-free, quota-free access for our farmers and business people and agri-food sector to the United Kingdom. The European Unions responds that if that is to be the case, we must have agreed minimum standards and a level playing field when it comes to environmental protection, health and safety, workers' rights and all of those things. That has still to be determined. Brexit will go on for a very long time. When we get through the withdrawal phase, the next phase will be the future relationship, which will be just as important to Ireland ,in many ways. We will have resolved the issues in avoiding a hard border, but we will not have resolved the issues related to east-west trade. That will be the next phase of negotiations, assuming we get through this phase in the next couple of weeks or even months.

Regarding a decision on an extension, the United Kingdom has formally applied for an extension until the end of January, although the Prime Minister has indicated that he is keen to leave the European Union by the end of October. Essentially, President Tusk is ringing the various Heads of Government to ask for their views.

If there is consensus, we can do this by written procedure without having to have another meeting of the European Council. If there is not a consensus, then we will have to convene another meeting of the European Council, possibly next Monday, maybe even on Friday, to discuss whether to grant an extension to the UK, for how long and under what conditions. The Irish Government has always said that we want to avoid the risk of no-deal happening either by consequence or accident and that is the approach that will be taken to this.

Deputies will recall that the extension that was granted to Prime Minister May was what was called a flexible extension. Even though the extension was granted to October, it was possible for the UK to leave at any time before that, provided that its Parliament was able to ratify a deal. That was not done during that period. I hope that Parliament will now proceed with reasonable speed in concluding this withdrawal agreement.

On the issue of enlargement raised by Deputy Howlin, we had a very long discussion at the European Council over dinner on whether to open talks with Albania and North Macedonia on their joining the European Union. Sadly, there was not consensus, which is how we operate. A few countries took the view that they did not want - or thought it was too soon - to open talks with North Macedonia and Albania. We agreed to revisit the issue before May of next year. From Ireland's point of view, I expressed our support for opening accession talks with both Albania and North Macedonia. I believe both countries, as Deputy Howlin said, have made a lot of progress in recent years and have brought about some very significant reforms. They were given a legitimate expectation that if they did certain things, talks would begin. North Macedonia, in particular, was given a legitimate expectation that if it changed its name and settled its dispute with Greece, talks would then open. While NATO has honoured that commitment, the European Union has not. I think that is a shame and a mistake. It will potentially cause reforms to slow down. It may cause young people who are very much in favour of joining the European Union in Albania and Macedonia to lose hope. It may cause some political forces in those countries to look elsewhere, perhaps to Turkey or Iran. That is a major concern. The European Council was wrong, in my view, not to open those negotiations. It is not ruled out, and we will come back to it again before May.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the conversations he has had with the UK Prime Minister since 8 October 2019; and if he subsequently met him, the issues that were discussed. [41956/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone conversation with the UK Prime Minister. [41977/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the UK Prime Minister in the week of 7 October 2019. [42161/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the proposed veto was discussed when he met with the UK Prime Minister in Liverpool; and the rationale for same. [42309/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if a timeline on the backstop was discussed when he met the UK Prime Minister; and the response that he gave. [42310/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the UK Prime Minister since the EU Council meeting on 17 and 18 October 2019; and if so, the matters that were discussed regarding Brexit and the Northern Assembly. [43222/19]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

14. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the engagements he has had with the UK Prime Minister. [43229/19]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

15. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his conversations with the UK Prime Minister since 8 October 2019. [43264/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagement with the UK Prime Minister. [43409/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

17. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the status of the withdrawal treaty; and if he has spoken with the UK Prime Minister since the October 2019 European Council meeting. [43597/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 17, inclusive, together

I spoke by phone with Prime Minister Johnson on Saturday, 19 October after the day's events in Westminster following which the UK requested an extension to the Article 50 process. I did not have any scheduled bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Johnson at the European Council meeting on 19 October but, of course, I did see him along with other EU Heads of State and Government at the Council.

I welcome the draft withdrawal agreement reached between the EU and the British Government. It is a good agreement allowing the UK to leave the European Union in an orderly fashion with a transition period running to the end of 2020, and perhaps as long as 2022, which is very important tor businesses and citizens across the EU and UK. It also creates a unique solution for Northern Ireland recognising the unique history and geography of Northern Ireland. It ensures that there is no hard border between North and South, that the all-island economy can continue to develop and it protects the Single Market and our place in it. There will not be any further changes to the withdrawal agreement agreed between the EU and the UK last week and on both sides, we wish to see the process move forward.

While I would consider the risk of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October to be relatively remote, we nonetheless must continue to prepare for it.

Before the Council meeting, I spoke by phone with Prime Minister Johnson the previous day, 16 October, when we discussed the position at that time. Previously, I met with Prime Minister Johnson in Cheshire on 10 October. We had detailed and constructive discussions on the situation at that time, which concentrated on the challenges of customs and consent. We also discussed the potential to strengthen bilateral relations, including on Northern Ireland. We agreed to reflect further on our discussions and that officials would continue to engage intensively on them. Following our discussions, I consulted with the EU task force and the UK Brexit Secretary and I met Michel Barnier the following morning. I am pleased to state that on foot of those engagements, negotiations got under way between the UK and the EU task force led by Mr. Barnier, which ultimately resulted in the agreement being reached by the EU 27 member states on Thursday, 17 October.

Given the number of questioners, I must insist that Members stick to the allocated time. I call Deputy Calleary.

I wish to acknowledge the huge work that went in on Ireland's part, including that of the Taoiseach, to get to that agreement. In the context of the Taoiseach's most recent discussions with the Prime Minister, what was his assessment of the events yesterday? Has the Taoiseach tabled or had conversations around the institutions at Stormont and their relevance and role in this new agreement?

I too acknowledge the work done by our own officials, as well as the Barnier task force. I expressed that directly to Michel Barnier last week. It showed great solidarity with a small member state and its particular needs.

On where we go from here, I understand that the Taoiseach has agreed with President Tusk today to an extension to 31 January 2020, in what the Taoiseach has described as a flexible extension. What, if any, are the conditions attached to that or are there no conditions attached to that? Is it simply when Britain passes the legal framework for the agreement that is now on the table? Is it contingent on a referendum or on a general election in Britain? There seems to be no timeline to the conclusion of the discussions on the enactment of legislation in the British Parliament. We do not know when, if ever, that is going to come to an end. If there are amendments to it, which we understand to be highly likely and one of which may be to require all of the UK to stay within the common customs territory of the European Union, will that be acceptable? The Taoiseach states that there will be no change to the agreement. If there was an agreement that was to be beneficial to the European Union, like, for example, an amendment that said it will stay within the common customs territory, would that be acceptable? What is the basis upon which the matter is going to be progressed now?

How can the Taoiseach describe the agreement as a good one? Does he not agree that this is worse than the agreement with Theresa May, which was bad enough? This is an agreement which paves the way and points towards a bargain-basement, race-to-the-bottom Brexit after the end of the transition period that is evidenced by the changes, for example, in the political declaration between the May agreement and this agreement, as well as the removal of the reference to alignment with EU regulations.

Second, on the North, does the Taoiseach not see that the arrangements are extremely dangerous in respect of the sectarian tensions they are likely to increase? In the first instance, there will be a real substantial hardening of the border east-west, which means border and customs infrastructure etc. in the ports of Belfast and Larne, which can become the focal point of protest. Furthermore, the Taoiseach states that there is no hardening of the North-South Border, which is not true. It ensures no hardening of the Border between North and South for a period of four years, after which one could have a vote at Stormont and could have a very hard border appear very quickly between North and South. Finally, and most importantly, the mechanism of consent sets up a recurring time bomb of a sectarian conflict around this vote, every four or eight years, depending on whether it is a simple majority, or it has the majority of both designated nationalists and unionists, according to how he has set this vote up. Does the Taoiseach not see how destabilising and increasing in tensions that process is?

Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to flesh out the references to the level playing field in particular, in the second part of the agreement? People, including the Taoiseach and particularly all of the officials, have worked very hard to get to the point we have got to now. The level playing field is not part of the agreement which will be incorporated into the treaty, as it includes areas like workers' rights and wages. There is a real fear is that it will, in fact, result in wage, living and employment standards in the UK being reduced to a bargain-basement-type arrangement. This is of particular concern for Northern Ireland and Scotland.

I am open to correction but I do not believe there is any reference to the devolved parliaments and assemblies. It is a pity we do not have a Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive currently. Has the Taoiseach, in his conversations with Mr. Johnson, ever discussed what will happen with labour standards and environmental standards, for example, in the context of the North remaining in the customs union? What will happen countries such as Scotland and Wales, which engage in a vast amount of trade with Ireland and which have, in certain respects and in particular in relation to agriculture, many comparisons with Ireland?

By definition, the Tory Brexit was always a ruse for social dumping. That not should come as a surprise to anybody, including those who, like me, listened for five years in the European Parliament to various shades of Tories and UKIP personalities giving out about straight bananas and not ever dealing with the real, deep structural problems within the European Parliament. Surprise, surprise, they want social dumping.

It is good that there is an agreement. I commend An Taoiseach and all those involved in our system, and Mr. Michel Barnier, on arriving at an agreement. It is good that we have an agreement but it is not a good agreement. But then there was never a good agreement available, particularly in respect of Ireland.

There is no ticking sectarian timebomb over Brexit. Opinion right across the North is very settled, in business, agriculture and quintessentially unionist pillars of Northern society. They want in to the European customs union and Single Market. Nobody but nobody wanted a hardening of the Border. All of that is good. I would not have favoured the rolling consent mechanism personally. It needs to be de-dramatised away from the kind of language used by Deputy Paul Murphy. The major concern is that when we talk about consent, we do not mix our metaphors or get confused. Brexit is not a devolved matter. There is no requirement for cross-community consent. The type of consent envisaged and needed is a simple majority. I am very confident that will be forthcoming now, in four years and until the time Ireland is reunified.

On speaking to Prime Minister Johnson, he was very pleased that he got Second Stage of the withdrawal agreement Bill through the House of Commons last night by a very clear majority of over 30 votes. That was the first time in quite some time that anyone managed to get the House of Commons to vote for any clear plan on Brexit. It was a huge achievement by Prime Minister Johnson to get it through the House of Commons last night. He was very concerned, however, that he had not won the vote on the programme motion. That did not pass and that means the objective of leaving the EU by 31 October is now very much in jeopardy. As Deputies know, a decision was made yesterday to suspend the Bill. We will have to await developments in London over the coming days.

To clarify a point I made earlier, there is no extension agreed. The EU has not agreed to an extension for the UK as of yet. President Tusk is currently consulting the 27 Heads of State and Government. We spoke this morning. He is recommending that we accept an extension until 31 January 2020 that could be terminated early if the House of Commons and House of Lords ratify an agreement, but that is not yet agreed unanimously by the 27 member states.

Does the Taoiseach agree to that?

I agree to that but it has not yet been agreed by the 27 member states. We may have to have an emergency European Council meeting over the course of the next few days to discuss it if consensus cannot be reached. If there is consensus, it can be done by written procedure. If there is no consensus, it will be necessary to meet. My bags are always packed for Brussels, and packed they are again.

I was asked a hypothetical but very relevant question by Deputy Howlin on what would happen if the withdrawal agreement Bill was amended to allow the UK to enter a customs union with the EU. It is very much an hypothetical question. If it were to happen, it would not be done just by an Act of the British Parliament; the UK would have to try to negotiate a customs union with the EU. It would not, in itself, change the withdrawal agreement concluded last week.

The EU position towards the UK for decades has always been very reasonable, friendly and facilitative. When the UK asked to join the EU, the EU said "Yes". When the UK voted to stay in the EU, the EU said "Yes". When the UK decided it wanted to opt out of the social chapter, the EU said "Yes". When the UK decided it did not want to be part of the single currency, the EU said "Yes". When the UK said it did not want to be part of the Schengen arrangement, we said "Yes". When the UK said it did not want to be part of some elements of the fourth pillar, we said "Yes". When the UK said it wanted to leave, we said we were really sorry but said "Yes". Therefore, despite what might come across in the British press sometimes, the entire history of the relationship between the EU and the UK has involved the EU saying "Yes" and asking whether we could help it, facilitate it and make exceptions for it. That has been the approach. It has been a really friendly approach from the EU towards the UK. We have never tried to force it into anything or to make it stay in the EU. History says that.

The reason I described the agreement we made last week as a good agreement was because it met our objectives: no hard border between the North and South, and I share Deputy McDonald's assessment of the profound unlikelihood of the people of Northern Ireland ever voting for an Assembly that wanted a hard Border; North–South co-operation continuing under the Good Friday agreement; the all-island economy continuing to develop; let us not forget the common travel area between Britain and Ireland, which has now been underpinned and strengthened and is really important for many reasons; citizens' rights have been protected in terms of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU; the financial settlement, which is important; and the guarantee of funding under PEACE II for Northern Ireland and the Border communities. Obviously, a UK decision to remain within the EU would have been better, or a decision by the UK to stay within the Single Market, but these were not on offer. Sometimes, the perfect and the very good are the enemy of the good. This is good; it is not perfect.

On the question of the level playing field, it is absolutely a discussion for the next phase, on the future relationship, when we get to it. It is important to state there is already a lot of flexibility within the EU on issues such as labour standards. In the UK, people get much more holiday leave than in most of the rest of the EU. There are more bank holidays in the UK than in most of the EU. Pay levels in the UK are much higher than in Bulgaria or Romania, for example. Actually, in recent decades, the UK has had higher standards and more rights than are required by the EU as the minimum. Will the UK depart from this? I hope not. I do not believe the British people will ultimately vote to have their holidays cut and their pay reduced. That may be the agenda of some but I do not honestly believe it is what the British people want.

European Council Meetings

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

18. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Mr. Donald Tusk recently. [41939/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

19. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the President of the European Council. [42160/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

20. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the President of the European Council. [41980/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

21. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the agenda for the EU Council on 17 October 2019 and if he contributed on the discussion in regard to the multi-annual framework and EU reform items. [41958/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

22. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council on 17 and 18 October 2019. [43182/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

23. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he had bilateral meetings while attending the EU Council on 17 and 18 October 2019; and if so, the issues that were discussed. [43221/19]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

24. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent contacts with the President of the European Council and President of the European Commission. [43230/19]

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

25. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings at the European Council on 17 and 18 October 2019. [43262/19]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

26. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the President of the European Council. [43263/19]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

27. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the EU Council meeting on 17 and 18 October 2019. [43265/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

28. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the President of the European Council. [43408/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

29. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if Turkey and Syria were discussed at the October 2019 EU Council meeting; and if so, the conclusions that were drawn. [43555/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

30. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the areas of EU reform that were discussed at the October 2019 EU Council meeting. [43556/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

31. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the European Council meeting in October 2019. [43600/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

32. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he held bilateral meetings at the October 2019 European Council meetings. [43601/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 18 to 32, inclusive, together.

I attended the European Council meeting in Brussels on Thursday, 17 October and Friday, 18 October. On Thursday, agreement was reached between the EU and UK negotiators on the terms of a proposed revised withdrawal agreement. The European Council, when it met, heard from Prime Minister Johnson. It considered the proposed agreement in a meeting in Article 50 formation, that is, as 27 member states. It agreed to endorse the revised withdrawal agreement, which allows the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion. The European Council also approved the political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and UK.

The withdrawal agreement fulfils the Government's negotiating objectives. I hope it will be approved by the UK Parliament and European Parliament, allowing it to enter into force. We had a substantial exchange on enlargement in which we considered opening accession negotiations with both North Macedonia and Albania. Many leaders acknowledged the significant steps both countries have taken but there was not unanimity on the matter so we agreed to consider it again in advance of the EU Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb in May.

We discussed the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which is the Union's budget for the period 2021-28. Following presentations by the Finnish Presidency on its consultations with member states, we exchanged views on some of the main challenges for the EU budget. I stressed the Government's view that we need to maintain funding for long-standing and well-functioning programmes like CAP, but also including Horizon 2020, INTERREG and Erasmus+. I also expressed my support for continuing structural funds and cohesion. We agreed that the Presidency should produce a negotiating box with figures before our meeting in December. We also held a discussion with the incoming Commission President, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, who set out her priorities for the next five years. We formally appointed Ms Christine Lagarde as the new President of the European Central Bank.

On climate change, we welcomed the outcome of the UN climate action summit. We also recalled that we would finalise guidance on our long-term strategy on climate change at our meeting in December. It was agreed that, at this meeting, we set out a long-term European plan to achieve 2030 targets and meet our 2050 carbon-neutral target.

We discussed the situation in Syria and adopted conclusions condemning the actions of Turkey and noting that member states had decided to halt arms export licensing to Turkey. We expressed our full solidarity with Cyprus in respect of the illegal Turkish drilling in Cypriot waters. We stated our full support for all efforts to establish truth, justice and accountability for the victims of the downing of MH17 and their next of kin.

This was the final scheduled European Council for President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, the Commission President, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, and High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Ms Federica Mogherini. It was an opportunity to thank them for their outstanding work over the past five years.

Before the first working session on Thursday, I attended a meeting of the Nordic-Baltic group, where I updated my colleagues on Brexit. Earlier in the day, I had a bilateral meeting with the newly elected Greek Prime Minister, Mr. Kyriakos Mitsotakis. In addition to participating in the formal discussions over the course of two days, I engaged informally with many of my EU counterparts and with Presidents Tusk and Juncker on the margins of the meetings, using the opportunity, as I always do, to promote Irish interests.

I reiterate the Taoiseach's remarks about Presidents Tusk and Juncker and the High Representative, Ms Mogherini, and thank them for their work.

I wish to raise a couple of points about the budget discussions. Ireland was reported as blocking the development of an EU rainy day fund for countries in crisis. Were there discussions about such a fund and what is the Irish position on it? Should such a fund not be made available?

As we prepare for the budget, everyone supports the Government's objectives to maintain CAP, Horizon 2020 and cohesion funding. Will the shape of the new programmes be linked to the December meeting and the Union's climate change priorities? Should the priorities decided in the 2030 strategy feed into the shape of the programmes with a view to meeting the targets in a meaningful way while also bringing communities with us and ensuring they are funded towards a just transition under the programmes?

I agree with the Taoiseach concerning the agreement that was reached last week, in that the best is often the enemy of the good. Most of us would acknowledge that the agreed deal is a poorer one than what was offered in Prime Minister Theresa May's deal. As others have pointed out, the clear signal from Prime Minister Boris Johnson - the Taoiseach might not have picked up on it, but it is self-evident - is that he wants to move Britain into a competitive space where the depression of environmental and work standards forms part of his strategy. That is why they are not included in the binding treaty element of the deal. It is also why the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, TUC, in Britain and all other trade unions in Britain have voiced concerns about the deal. In terms of our narrow Irish focus and ensuring the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement and a frictionless border, though, it is better than no deal. That is the best that can be said of it.

Has the Government had any contact with the DUP since last week? The Tánaiste acknowledged that the relationship had worsened, but it is an important relationship to maintain. It would be interesting to know whether the Government reached out.

The last time the MFF was negotiated, Ireland had to be the advocate for a new PEACE programme. It was PEACE IV at the time. Britain was not going to advocate for it. Following the withdrawal of Britain from the EU, will there be a PEACE V? Has that been discussed and agreed?

Whatever it will be called, I am referring to a new funded PEACE arrangement that will finance activities on both sides of the Border.

Does Deputy Paul Murphy wish to ask a supplementary question?

Has much work been done on evaluating what the lost income from British contributions to the European budget will be in the years to come? How is it proposed to make up the shortfall? Due to Ireland's growth in income and its recovery from the 2008 crash, our contributions are steadily increasing. Has there been a conversation, be it directly with the European Council President or at the Council meeting, of what the implications of the British leaving will be, be that in a couple of years or in four or five years? We all hope that there will be a reversal of the departure, but if it happens, what will be the impact on the budget? The Taoiseach cited countries such as Romania and Bulgaria as being poorer than Britain economically and in terms of, for example, workers' rights. That is true, and it is one of the reasons we regret the UK deciding to leave the EU. Those countries have received large development packages as part of their joining the EU. The loss of funds that might now occur will have to be made up by all member states, including Ireland. It would be helpful if the Taoiseach could provide the House with an approximate evaluation of what those figures are likely to be so that we could have a realistic understanding of part of the economic effects of the UK's withdrawal.

Last week when I raised with the Taoiseach the events in Catalonia, he reiterated his view that the imprisonment of Catalonian leaders was an internal matter for Spain. He went on to say that his Government respected the constitutional integrity of Spain, but that he firmly believed these matters should be dealt with through dialogue. He told me that he had spoken previously to the Spanish Prime Minister, Dr. Pedro Sánchez, about these matters and that he intended to do so again.

Let me restate my position, which I believe is widely held. The suppression of democracy and the internationally recognised right to self-determination by a very aggressive Spanish state is not simply an internal matter. If claims that the EU is a group of institutions based on the rule of law that puts democracy and the democratic rights and entitlements of citizens front and centre are to be in any way credible, the Taoiseach cannot persist in saying that this is an internal matter and not comment on it. Did he use the occasion of the Council meeting to raise the lengthy sentences handed down to the leaders? Did he speak to Dr. Sánchez on these matters? Has the Taoiseach ascertained what role EU leaders intend to take in advancing the dialogue between Madrid and the Catalans?

I have to check up on Deputy Calleary's question regarding an EU rainy day fund. There has not been any discussion of that at European Council level yet. It might be something that is being discussed at ECOFIN, so I would have to double-check with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, about that. Lots of different instruments, which we will all be aware of from our period in the bailout, exist, for example, the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, and the European system of financial supervision, ESFS, I think it is called.

Yes, the funds that Klaus Regling runs are the ones that the Fianna Fáil spokesperson was inquiring about They talked about a very significant potential fund for Ireland.

Joan should be Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach should be allowed to speak without interruption.

I am sorry, but I was at a conference recently where he spoke about it.

Deputy Burton is probably correct. In fact, I am sure she is correct. I thank her.

Regarding the Common Agricultural Policy, my assessment is that it is possible to ensure that it is fully funded for the next period. The Commission is proposing a 5% cut. Our objective is to get that cut reversed. I am not sure we can achieve that but that is going to be our negotiating objective for the next couple of years as we negotiate the next six-year budget for the EU. Our best chance of getting CAP fully funded is to reform it, because ultimately this is taxpayers' money. It is voters' money and it is consumers' money. I think what they would like to see is farmers, rural development and the regions supported but they would also like to see it connected in some way towards a more green Common Agricultural Policy, one that incentivises farmers and the food industry to reduce emissions, do the right things in terms of biodiversity and other such changes. I think they are up for it if they are properly remunerated. The best way of protecting the budget is not to ask for the same amount of money for the same policy but to ask for the same amount, or perhaps even more, for a reformed policy that is greener and more climate-friendly.

In terms of the UK, off the top of my head I think the loss of the budget is about €12 billion a year, which is significant, but that will be somewhat offset by the financial settlement which is €30-something billion paid in over a long period. Ireland will see a considerable increase in our contributions. It is linked to GNI and because our economy has grown so much our contributions will grow by a lot, by about 45% in fact, between 2021 and 2027. That is a big increase in our contributions between 2021 and 2027. We are going from a country that was a so-called net beneficiary a few years ago to probably the third biggest net contributor per capita by the end of that period. We will start to see that politics seep into Irish debate about how much we are sending to the EU every week. I hope none of us engage in that nonsense because that never takes account of the benefits of being a member of the EU, which are enormous; having access to a market of 450 million people and so many other things.

One thing we will have to consider in putting together the new multi-annual financial framework, MFF, the new six-year budget for the EU, is the issue of the rebate. That is something the UK demanded and got back in the 1980s.

That was due to Mrs. Thatcher's handbag.

It was. She was successful in getting a rebate but she got it for other countries too. Now that the UK is gone the question is if the rebate should continue. Then there is the whole issue around own resources; 80% of customs duties go straight to the EU budget. There are suggestions about a plastic tax or perhaps some other EU-wide taxes that could fill the hole in the budget, which we need to consider but be careful about as well.

In terms of the difference between the revised withdrawal agreement and the revised political declaration, it is worth pointing out that the revised withdrawal agreement is legally binding. It is an international agreement. The revised political declaration is a statement of intent, which is not legally binding.

That is the point I was making.

Deputy Howlin is correct; that did change, but it is not part of the withdrawal agreement, and it can change again depending on the composition of the UK Government. That was always the case. The Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, is taking a different approach to the future relationship to the previous Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and a future Government may take a different approach to the relationship again. That is not our business. We just have to deal with whatever the UK Government decides.

On Catalonia, I met briefly with Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Casado, the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, respectively. I did not have the chance to raise Catalonia on this occasion but I will again. Most likely, we will see them again after their elections. I have not had any direct contact with the DUP in the past week or so. It has been keen to engage with the UK Government rather than with us on these matters but my people are in touch with their people and the door is always open.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.