At the outset, I congratulate Deputy Haughey on his recent promotion.
Post-European Council Meetings: Statements
Not as leader of Fianna Fáil.
Deputy Haughey should make sure to vote in the right seat.
I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 17 October, and Friday, 18 October. We began on Thursday by meeting the new President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, and we heard about his priorities for his term. We then discussed Brexit, first with Prime Minister Johnson, and then in Article 50 format, that is to say, as 27 member states. Over dinner, we discussed EU enlargement, illegal drilling by Turkey in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone and the recent unilateral military actions taken by Turkey in Syria. We continued on Friday morning with discussions on the implementation of the EU's strategic agenda, the MFF, which is the EU's six-year budget and climate change. We also adopted a decision to formally appoint Christine Lagarde as President of the European Central Bank. Finally, we adopted conclusions reiterating our full support for the efforts to establish truth, justice and accountability for the victims of the downing of MH17 and their next of kin. We called on all states to co-operate fully with the ongoing investigation.
Immediately before the meeting of the European Council, I attended a meeting of the Nordic-Baltic group, where I briefed my counterparts on the new Brexit agreement, agreed that day. In her wrap-up remarks, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will focus on enlargement, following a lengthy discussion at the European Council. She will also report on foreign policy issues, including Turkey's unilateral military action in north-east Syria, which the European Council has condemned for the unacceptable human suffering it is causing.
On Thursday, 17 October, agreement was reached between EU and UK negotiators on the terms of a proposed revised withdrawal agreement. The European Council, when it met later that day, heard from Prime Minister Johnson. He spoke in favour of the agreement and expressed his determination to win approval for it in the British Parliament. We then considered the proposed agreement in a meeting in Article 50 format. The revised withdrawal agreement fulfils the Government's and the EU's negotiating objectives. It protects the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU and it includes a fair financial settlement. Importantly, it ensures that there will be no hard border on this island. The all-island economy will continue to develop and North-South co-operation, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement, can continue. The agreement secures the integrity of the Single Market and our place in it. The common travel area between the UK and Ireland will stay in place, alongside all the reciprocal rights and entitlements. For these reasons, I was able to recommend endorsement of the revised withdrawal agreement to my European Council colleagues, and the Council did so, unanimously. The agreement now needs to be ratified by the UK Parliament and by the European Parliament before entering into force.
The European Council also approved the political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Ireland wants the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK, especially on trade, in order to minimise the impact on jobs and the economy. At the same time, it is vital to our economic interests that the EU's Single Market is fully protected. The actual agreement on a future relationship between the EU and UK will only be finalised and concluded once the UK has become a third country, that is after it leaves the EU. Michel Barnier deserves our thanks for his achievement in getting the withdrawal agreement and political declaration over the line, indeed on doing it a second time, as does the task force for its exceptional work in recent years. I also thank President Juncker and the Commission, President Tusk and the Council, and the 26 EU leaders for their unswerving solidarity with Ireland over this period, and for understanding our particular concerns and needs.
As I said in Brussels last week, the last few years have demonstrated that the European Union is a union of nations and of peoples, in which small states, like Ireland, rather than being swallowed up, are respected and protected. This agreement is also evidence of the strength of European unity, of how much we can achieve when the 27 member states think, work and act together in pursuit of a common objective. Our meeting also looked to the future. The President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen attended throughout the meeting.
On Friday morning, she presented her priorities for the incoming European Commission. We had a positive exchange on a wide range of issues of strategic focus for the EU and member states. These include data, the digital economy, trade, climate change and the EU's geopolitical visibility and voice. I look forward to working closely with President-elect von der Leyen and her team in the coming years. Due to the delay in appointing some Commissioners, it is anticipated that she will not take up office until 1 December.
We exchanged views on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, the EU's six-year budget, beginning with a presentation by the Finnish Presidency. Among the issues discussed were what the overall level of the budget should be and the breakdown across the main policy headings, as well as financing, including revenues and incentives. The meeting was a good opportunity to discuss with other leaders our shared priorities for the years ahead and to begin to identify where a landing zone might lie. As I have said many times, it is essential that the Union has a budget that continues to provide for existing successful policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and Cohesion and Structural Funds. It should help us to focus on new priorities, including security, migration and climate change. In no way are these mutually incompatible goals but they are competing priorities. Ireland is supportive of an increased EU budget, provided it delivers additional value to European citizens and once our core interests are secured. I argued strongly for maintaining CAP funding as a highly successful policy that contributes to rural development and regional development, ensures Europe has food security and high standards in production, and transfers money from wealthier parts of the European Union to poorer parts. Many colleagues share my view of a modernised greener CAP that can help us achieve our climate, sustainability and biodiversity objectives. I will continue to advocate strongly for the CAP and for other long-standing and well-functioning programmes such as Horizon, INTERREG and Erasmus+. We agreed to ask the Presidency to submit a proposal with figures ahead of the European Council in December.
We discussed the UN climate action summit and the planning for the next UN climate change conference, which will take place in Santiago de Chile in December. We need to build on the momentum of the UN summit and to finalise a long-term plan that will help us to achieve our 2030 target and our 2050 target of climate neutrality. We will return to this issue at the December European Council.
This was the final scheduled meeting for President Tusk, President Juncker and High Representative Mogherini, so I took the opportunity to thank them on behalf of Ireland for their work over the past five years. I especially thanked them for the remarkable solidarity for Ireland, which we have enjoyed from all EU institutions throughout the Brexit negotiations. I had a chance to thank former European Parliament President Antonio Tajani for the same at the European Parliament meeting earlier in the day. I welcomed Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece, President Gitanas Nausda of Lithuania and UK Prime Minister Johnson. All three were attending their first European Council meeting. It was a significant meeting for Ireland as the European Council endorsed the revised withdrawal agreement and political declaration.
When Europe acts as one, we can be a truly powerful force for good in the world. The unity we have seen in the past few years on Brexit provides a guide, a template, and an example of how we can work together as Europe to achieve other noble goals.
The main outcome of last week's Council is welcome but it is certainly not something which we should celebrate because it brings closer the finality of the Brexit project. Brexit is one of the most profoundly regressive and damaging projects for many decades. It is based on an approach to national sovereignty, rules-based co-operation and the protection of the environment, workers and consumers, which seeks to return Europe to a model of competition that brought nothing but destruction in the past. We need to be very clear that the principal changes negotiated with the Johnson government in recent weeks are a step backwards, though probably unavoidable given the behaviour of London. This involves a decisive move towards a long-term hard Brexit and the adoption of a final status for Northern Ireland that is welcome but that has serious uncertainty built into it. As we see in the crisis that has overtaken the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, uncertainty can have a very negative impact in the long run.
As the Taoiseach accepted during Oral Questions a fortnight ago, the proposed deal sets out a framework for the UK to leave both the customs union and the Single Market without any legally enforceable rules on fair competition. When we first discussed this matter in the House in 2016, this was accepted as the definition of a hard Brexit and it was the worst-case outcome for the overall relationship between the EU and Britain. In acknowledgement of this, both the Taoiseach and Tånaiste repeatedly stated in mid-2017 that the east-west relationship was of paramount importance to them because of the scale of Irish trade involved. They went so far as to directly criticise those of us who were then talking about special arrangements for Northern Ireland. The political situation in Westminster remains as fevered as ever and we have no guidance on what might change with this final status discussion. The votes yesterday and the overall direction of events suggest that this deal is probably as good as the final status will get.
It is hard to see how legally enforceable measures come into place that move away from an free trade agreement hard Brexit or indeed a World Trade Organization, WTO, Brexit either at the end of next year or a couple of years later. The Brexit fanatics who appear to set the limits for how far the Prime Minister is willing to go have decided that ending all legal and financial connections with the EU after 2020 is their absolute red line so it is hard to see how he will move away from that position. This being so, we need our Government to publish an updated economic assessment of this new deal and a revised list of actions for helping businesses to cope with the reality of what is on the way. The belated no-deal preparations of recent months come nowhere near to the systematic long-term action we need to cope with the structural problems, which will now impact businesses trading with Britain, with the permanent increase in costs and loss of competitiveness that will come from increased regulatory compliance and sterling volatility. The situation is more serious again in the services sector, where existing WTO rules and established models of free trade deals offer little or no comfort for many Irish businesses in respect of market access and charges. We know now that the British Government does not seek the deep relationship with the EU that can only come from agreeing common rules and external trade policies. We need to move beyond the short term and address the scale of the challenge that is now evident.
On Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach said last week that the deal replaces the iron-clad, all-weather, bulletproof nature of the previous text with something that includes more risks. It appears likely that this was the most any Tory Government would agree to but we cannot just ignore the reality of these risks. It has been reported that the withdrawal agreement bill published on Monday night does not address in any detail how the provisions relating to Northern Ireland are to be implemented.
The consent mechanism is the most contentious part and carries with it a major problem, which is that if this is not dealt with now we run the risk of losing much leverage with the British Government. Northern Irish businesses in the services sector are deeply concerned about what they face in the future. Their trade with the EU is worth hundreds of millions and is disproportionately focused on areas which are high value and significant employers. Rather than leave this to some later date to be sorted out or for the British Government to be allowed to use it as a negotiating point in the trade negotiations, this needs to be sorted out now. As my party has been saying since 2016, we strongly support a special status for Northern Ireland and we reject the idea that this threatens anyone's constitutional protections. It offers the best of both worlds and a potential to develop a new economic model to break the long-term cycle of underdevelopment and disadvantage in Northern Ireland. It is a good deal for Northern Ireland and it should be supported.
In early 2015, my party first addressed the issue of Brexit and we have been consistent in our position since then. We have been clear in supporting a euro-positive agenda and seeking ways of reducing rising tensions particularly with the debate about Northern Ireland. As the Taoiseach will be aware, at key stages, we also directly contacted EU leaders to emphasise the core national unity with regard to Brexit. This included on occasion having to reassure them that the Government's claim that it might have to have an election to have a mandate on Brexit was simply partisan posturing by the main Government party.
It has been one of the most consistent features of the past two years that every time there has been positive Brexit news, Fine Gael starts talking about holding a snap election. I am sure the Taoiseach would like to acknowledge the role of non-Government parties in ensuring a clear message on Brexit, something which is unique in Europe. I am sure he would like to join us in acknowledging the work done on the negotiating guidelines early in 2017. It is a wonderful example of European solidarity that at no stage has there been any question of Europe stepping away from the commitments made early in the process. I would like to acknowledge the support for Ireland provided by governments from the Renew Europe group. I also thank Michel Barnier for his remarkable openness to opposition politicians since his appointment in 2016. A delegation from the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs made a visit to Brussels early in the process and had a constructive meeting with Michel Barnier, whereby the Parliament set out the aims and objectives we were pursuing in tandem with the Government. At different times it was striking how we were easily able to get information in Brussels that our own Government did not make available to us.
Brexit is nowhere near over. Even if some way of ratifying the deal is manufactured in the next few weeks, the withdrawal agreement just opens up a new phase of Brexit. Years more of negotiations will follow. On Northern Ireland, we need to find a way of stabilising a situation where politics is failing, and we face into a series of votes that could mean that Brexit never leaves the agenda. We must also stop being one of the countries that resists key EU reforms, especially in the realm of fiscal policy. We need to reverse the policy evident in recent weeks of being one of the leaders in opposing critical new funding to stabilise the eurozone and help countries when they face the most pressure.
I welcome the fact that leaders expressed their opposition to the actions of Turkey in Syria, and in particular the mass displacement and attacks that are ongoing in the Kurdish areas. The Taoiseach dealt with that matter in his contribution. It is a genuinely shameful situation where a minority is squeezed between Turkey, Syria and Russia. The Kurds are among the greatest victims of the dissolution of empires in the 20th century. Denied basic cultural and human rights in the four new countries they are spread across, they have developed a basic approach, which is inherently more moderate and respectful of rights than that of any other group in the region. I do not see what we can realistically do for them that will make a major difference at this point, but, at the very least, we must stand with those who speak out against the repression to which they are being subject and to show the countries involved that consequences will flow from their actions.
I look forward to addressing a few more questions to the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, at the conclusion of this debate.
I am sharing time with Deputy Crowe.
I welcome the fact that agreement has been reached between the European institutions and Britain. I will reserve the well-deserved and effusive praise for Michel Barnier and others until the agreement is completely over the line and we have some certainty, but I commend Members on their efforts, including the Taoiseach, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, An Tánaiste and others for an exhausting and long journey.
I am satisfied the agreement will ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. I am satisfied there will be no veto given in respect of the Irish Brexit protections. It is important to say however, that there is no such thing as a good Brexit. No part of Ireland has consented to Brexit. It is being foisted on the North of Ireland against the express democratic wishes of the people. When we hear some, at the eleventh hour, reaching for the consent argument, it simply does not float. Those who have a concern about consent would have ensured at every stage that the rights and entitlements of everybody on the island were articulated and protected. There is no consent as the position of the people is to remain. What unionism, or at least a section of political unionism, now seeks is a veto. We have to manage and mediate our political affairs in a way that is civil, democratic and peaceful and in a way that yields protections for all of our people. That is our priority. We have to recognise that the unionist veto, or "the orange card" as it was called, has been played for generations but the veto days are over. That ship has sailed.
Let us be clear about one thing. The principle of consent, as hardwired into the Good Friday Agreement, is primarily concerned with the constitutional question - the issue of Irish unity. That question, to be put by way of referenda, will be answered and consented to by simple majority. The cross-community consents and provisions for petitions of concern relate to devolved matters only. The intention of these protections is to protect minority rights. Brexit is not a devolved matter. The Brexit protections will be codified in an international treaty. The Brexit protections are necessary to mitigate the worst of Brexit for the whole of Ireland and not just for the North. Those who claim this agreement breaches the Good Friday Agreement by refusing the DUP a veto on Brexit protections are simply wrong. They are dangerously wrong and I invite them to study the agreement again and to reassess their positions.
As a party, Sinn Féin has worked to defend Irish interests from the worst impacts of Brexit. Sinn Féin first made the case for a designated special status for the North within the European Union. The Oireachtas backed that position by way of a motion in February 2017. Any deal can only reduce the worst effects of Brexit. It can only every be a least worst option. The antics across the water in recent weeks and months have done little to allay people's fears around Brexit. It echoes the chaos we have witnessed for years. Westminster is undoubtedly a house of dysfunction and farce. It is clear that Irish interests will never been taken seriously there. Those who care about our economy, our peace and our future should be under no illusion about that. Those who argue for any self-respecting Irish democrat to insert themselves into that mayhem are stretching the boundaries of political sense and reality. None of us here in this country should underestimate for a second the level of division within parties, between parties and across British society, English society in particular, on the issue of Brexit. It is sad and alarming to see, but only they can fix that. We cannot fix that for them but we need a decision from them.
Critically, from our perspective, we need an agreement that delivers for Ireland. Whatever transpires, there will be significant and ongoing challenges for us. It should be obvious to everybody in this House that will see an increased and sustained move to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. That is under way. The example of the DeSouza judgment demonstrates that. This cannot be tolerated. The Government must be proactive and staunch in defending our peace agreements. Ireland's interests in any future trading relationship will have to promoted and protected. We must strategise for east-west trade and relationships to ensure we get the best economic and political outcomes for our island and for our next door neighbour. Ultimately, we need to start planning for Irish unity. I invite those who have their heads stuck in the sand to remove their heads without delay.
I want to address briefly the jailing of Catalan leaders for their alleged roles in the 1 October 2017 Catalan independence referendum.
The European Union cannot turn its face away from the brutal repression of the Catalan people by the Spanish state. It is not good enough to say it is an internal matter; it is far from it. It is a matter that tests the democratic bona fides of the European Union in the most profound and important ways. The Taoiseach and the Government must be to the forefront in insisting that the jailings be ended and that the European Union use all of its clout and influence to ensure dialogue, not prison, is the solution.
I attended the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly at the weekend and Brexit's long shadow had an impact in the sense that many MPs had to leave early on the first day for a vote that in the end did not happen. That is an indication of how Brexit is impacting on the relationship between the two islands. The result of last night's vote in the House of Commons means that the uncertainty will continue. It is welcome that the Taoiseach has informed Donald Tusk that he believes there should be an extension of the Brexit deadline. A no-deal Brexit would be devastating and must be avoided at all costs.
It is welcome that the conclusions of the European Council meeting state the European Union condemned Turkey's unilateral military action in north-east Syria, which is causing unacceptable human suffering and undermining the fight against Da'esh. The European Union also called on Turkey to end its military action, withdraw its forces and respect international humanitarian law. We know that Turkey's aim is to occupy the Kurdish majority area and attack the Kurdish-led Syrian democratic forces. The Turkish Government wants to ethnically cleanse the region. We have already seen the human rights violations the Turkish army has committed against Kurds in south-east Turkey. It is clear that its brutal tactics will be replicated in northern Syria with the help of its jihadist proxies. Videos on social media prove these proxies are involved in summary executions, torture, sexual violence and war crimes.
The Government could do more. Medical centres and hospitals have been attacked and destroyed by Turkey. Kurdish civil defence and medical organisations are in desperate need of medical supplies and life-saving equipment. The Taoiseach should ensure Ireland will respond urgently in a positive way to this plea for assistance and other efforts to tackle the humanitarian crisis caused by Turkish intervention in Syria.
I am disappointed that there is no mention of the imprisonment of nine Catalan political and civic society leaders in the conclusions of the European Council meeting. I attended the trial and saw at first hand the lack of evidence produced against those convicted. The jailing of these political prisoners is an affront to democratic values and should be a source of huge concern to democrats and all those who believe in freedom. We have to talk. We are supportive of the way forward being through dialogue. What, therefore, will the Government do to kick-start that dialogue?
I welcome the European Council's strong statement condemning Turkey's illegal drilling activities in the Cyprus exclusive economic zone and reaffirming its solidarity with Cyprus. I extend Sinn Féin's solidarity to Cyprus in the matter.
There are dark clouds on the horizon, some of which I mentioned this morning. The United States has placed €6.8 billion worth of tariffs on European trade that will directly affect our exports. The United States is also engaged in a trade war with China that affects the global supply of components for manufacturing, with knock-on effects for manufacturing in Ireland. Most countries, including Ireland, are not doing enough to combat climate change. As we have heard, Turkey is taking aggressive military action in Syria, while Russian interference continues in several eastern European countries. These are very difficult and challenging issues.
As we all know, Brexit has cast a shadow over Ireland for more than three years and it will continue if the United Kingdom does leave the European Union as the issue of the future trading relationship will continue for years to come. Europe faces a range of other serious geopolitical problems. I was glad to see the European Council condemn Turkey's aggression in Syria and urge Turkey to end its military action. I also welcomed the ending of arms sales licensing to Turkey by all member states.
As I indicated during Taoiseach's Questions, I deeply regret that the European Council failed to give the positive sign required to Albania and North Macedonia on their future membership of the European Union. As I said, I met Prime Ministers Edi Rama of Albania and Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia in advance of the European Council. They are passionate about moving their countries towards EU membership and know that it could take decades. In one interaction one of the Prime Ministers said to an objecting Prime Minister that that person would have left politics by the time his country became an EU member state and asked them to just let them move on in that journey. Introducing reforms to embed democracy and the rule of law is a difficult journey for them and they should be given every encouragement. They have made great strides to strengthen the independence of their courts. North Macedonia even changed its name. These are major issues for them. Therefore, I very much regret the stand taken by France, in particular, but also by the Netherlands and Denmark to block their hopes of beginning the journey towards EU membership. Beginning the process would have been a sign of strength and confidence. Instead, countries in the Balkans are turning to Russia and China for assistance, something which will create long-term weaknesses for the European Union. We should not miss these opportunities. We cannot take for granted that these populations will remain positively disposed to the European Union forever. After decades of delay we saw how politics in Turkey moved towards much more hostile nationalism, which manifested recently in the unilateral military action taken against Europe's allies in the Syrian conflict.
The European Council also discussed the multi-annual financial framework. There is very little detail in the published conclusions of the meeting and I know that we are at an early stage, but I understand the figures will be discussed at the December Council. I am seriously concerned about rumours that the European Union will effectively cut its budget following Brexit by limiting it to 1% of economic output. That would be a mistake. Europe has serious problems with low growth in economic output, with low growth in job creation in many European countries as a result. What it needs above anything else is a stimulus. There is a limit to how long savers can cope with very low or even negative interest rates. Europe needs major investment in its infrastructure, even in developed economies such as Germany. According to expert opinion, we have only ten years to make real progress on climate change according. That requires significant investment.
Brexiteers argue that the United Kingdom would save money by leaving the European Union because it is what they classify as a net contributor. This gave rise to the infamous myth that the NHS would gain €350 million one week after Brexit. In fact, the idea of being a net contributor is a myth. No member state of the European Union is a net contributor. On a short-term accounting basis, some countries gain more or less in direct EU spending than they contribute to the EU budget, but every member state gains far more from membership owing to economic growth and trading opportunities than they would if they were outside the block. This realisation has dawned belatedly on some in the United Kingdom. The British Government's own estimate is that the British economy may grow more slowly, meaning €2 billion per week less in economic growth than would have occurred if the United Kingdom had remained in the European Union. The loss of potential economic growth far outstrips the cost of any net contribution it was making to the European Union. The taxes it would raise from €2 billion worth of economic activity per week would easily surpass the so-called £350 million payment to the EU budget. Unfortunately, Brexit thinking has not just affected the United Kingdom. Some other EU member states are also complaining that they, too, are net contributors to the EU budget using the same spurious bookkeeping analysis.
I am glad that the Taoiseach confirmed this morning that our Government is not one of those arguing for a smaller EU budget into the future. The size of the EU budget should depend on what we want to achieve and what is most economically efficient in achieving our objectives. If more spending at EU level raised economic growth and created more jobs, we should be open to a larger budget.
In particular, we do not have the time to hesitate when it comes to investing in climate. My socialist colleague, Frans Timmermans, has been nominated as Vice-President of the European Commission for a green industrial revolution. If we are serious about transforming our societies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we must make major investments now. Some of those investments are best made through the European institutions such as the EIB, environmental changes to CAP, as the Taoiseach outlined, and some regional funding streams such as LEADER. I call on the Government to discuss the plans of Frans Timmermans for a green industrial revolution and to take seriously the call for additional funding to achieve real and meaningful action on climate change.
The European Council has appointed Christine Lagarde as President of the ECB, and I welcome her public commitment to take an evidence-based approach to focus on gender, climate and inequality. Europe and the eurozone need an economic stimulus and the ECB needs to play a role in facilitating and providing the mechanisms for that. Recent reports highlight the fact that quantitative easing done under Mario Draghi has reached near maximum capacity in buying bonds issued by member states. Current rules forbid the ECB to hold more than one third of any member country's bonds. Ms Lagarde has made a useful suggestion for EU governments to co-operate in a stimulus programme by creating an EU-wide market for investment in climate technology. I call on the Government to examine those proposals and advance them, if possible.
The Council also discussed the draft strategic agenda of President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. I want to make it clear that the Labour Party does not support the proposal in the President-elect's programme based on what was called the European way of life. When I met Prime Ministers and party leaders from the European socialist parties, they made it clear that socialist members of the Council and the European Parliament will not vote in favour unless that position and terminology changes.
I have purposefully made very little comment about Brexit in this contribution because God knows we have made long contributions at other opportunities. I stress that this was a critical Council meeting for the Brexit discussions. When I met Michel Barnier last Tuesday, I thanked him personally for the solidarity his team and the EU 27 have shown Ireland. I also expressed my thanks for that solidarity when I met the European socialist leaders. The solidarity of the European Union has been critically important during the Brexit negotiations but how we go forward is not yet clear. Contrary to spin from the Conservative Party, the British Parliament has not approved the deal; it has simply allowed legislation to be debated. It has just got past the first hurdle. On the basis of saying the British Parliament has passed the deal, we could say that this Parliament has passed 200 Bills that are now in limbo.
That is a good point.
It is a different issue. The British Parliament has allowed the legislation to be debated and it is quite clear that some Members of Parliament did so with the intention of making fundamental amendments to the agreement. What will happen if the Brexit legislation is seriously challenged?
We should urge the EU to continue to avoid a hard Brexit by giving sufficient time, whatever time the UK requires, to come to a conclusion upon which we can all agree.
I am sharing time with Deputy Boyd Barrett and possibly someone else.
The Government, and other parties in this House, are guilty of prettifying the Brexit deal and presenting it as a good deal. The Taoiseach earlier called it "a good agreement". That is not the truth. The Government is supporting the deal to facilitate Prime Minister Boris Johnson pass what is a bad, neoliberal, race-to-the-bottom Brexit deal. The Taoiseach even went some way along the path of helping Prime Minister Johnson to present it as a choice between no deal and this deal by suggesting that it might be difficult to have an extension of the process that now seems to be coming.
The deal has even more neoliberal content than the one negotiated by former Prime Minister, Theresa May. It contains the same sorts of provisions as the May deal in its robust and comprehensive framework for competition and state aid control that prevent undue distortion of trade and competition, effectively seeking to ban left-wing policies such as public investment and nationalisation, but it also goes a step further than the May deal, and is worse for it, in the direction that it points for what follows the transition period. It is true that what follows is not inevitable and that is open for political debate and, hopefully, a future, Corbyn-led Labour Government could point in a different direction. The direction in which this deal points is very clear. It points towards a clear race to the bottom and a free trade agreement to be negotiated for the end of the transition period. As Mr. Corbyn said, "The deal fails to enshrine the principle that we keep pace with the EU on environmental standards and protections, putting at risk our current rules, from air pollution standards to chemical safety – all at a time when we face a climate emergency."
I have heard Members say that, in the narrow interests of Ireland, this is a good deal. I will deal with the impact on the North in a minute but even from the point of view of economics, encouraging this deal is accepting this logic of a race to the bottom which will not stop at the shores of Britain but will expand across the EU and exert downward pressure on consumer rights, labour rights and environmental standards across the EU if we go in this direction. Let us take the example of a US-UK free trade agreement, which is something that Johnson is obviously promoting. It is clear that a big ask of the US in such trade negotiations, just as it was in Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, negotiations, will be a significant undermining and lowering of food standards. There will be access for chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-fed beef and ractopamine-fed pork. If Britain signs up to such an agreement and there are other declining standards of regulation, the refrain that will be heard in Ireland and across the EU will be that we cannot possibly compete with the low standards in Britain and there will be a similar downward pressure on rights and regulations within Ireland and across the EU.
It is particularly on the issue of the North that a much more serious look must be taken at this deal and why I think it is such a bad one. The argument of the Government is that this deal avoids a hardening of the North-South Border. It does, and guarantees that temporarily, but that is all. It ensures a significant hardening of the east-west border that will not be some metaphysical border in the Irish Sea but will comprise border infrastructure at ports in Belfast and Larne. That infrastructure can become the focal point of protest. The deal also contains the possibility of a dramatic hardening of the North-South Border in future, come a vote in Stormont in four years, or four years or eight years after that again.
In the very consent mechanism that it sets up, the deal sets up a recurring sectarian time bomb whereby the question will be deeply sectarianised and will be posed in bluntly sectarian terms by unionist and nationalist parties, asking if citizens would rather have a hard border on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea. It has the potential to have a deeply destabilising and sectarianising effect on the politics of the North and it is for that reason that the only good deal that comes out of this is one that avoids any hardening of borders and does not set in train such a recurring and potentially sectarianised vote.
The one redeeming feature of the deal is that for now, temporarily, it prevents the worst of all possible outcomes, namely a no-deal Brexit and a hard North-South Border. We all genuinely agree that would be a disaster. That is a redeeming feature of the deal but it is only a temporary guarantee of that because of the consent mechanism.
As Deputy Paul Murphy rightly noted, and as socialists have argued since the inception of the Northern agreement, which is similar to the one in Lebanon that led to decades of sectarian conflict, is that it institutionalises sectarianism. The consent mechanism, therefore, is tied up with a form of institutionalised sectarianism, which means the sectarian poison continues to bubble and every issue is seen through the prism of sectarianism. That is a problem and it means the guarantee there will not be a hardening of the Border is only temporary. It will also, potentially, be an administrative and bureaucratic nightmare to administer.
On this tragic day, it might be worth shifting perspective to one of the other consequences of the sort of Brexit that it may facilitate from the point of view of Boris Johnson but which, to some extent, is already being facilitated by the policies of the European Union. One of Johnson's major drives in his version of Brexit is racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant, to prevent the free movement of people and to target and stigmatise immigrants and refugees. We have observed today the horrific, obscene, human and tragic consequences of fortress Europe policies and of the even worse, more racist and more xenophobic policies of Boris Johnson, which he hopes and believes the deal will facilitate. It is awful to think that Ireland may have played a role in 39 people suffocating in a lorry that almost certainly travelled through this country. One has to ask what it is about European immigration policy, or fortress Europe policy, that leads people to take such desperate measures. It is because the policy is racist.
The policy feeds into matters such as what is happening in Turkey, where Europe does deals and pays money to a regime such as that of Turkey to keep the immigrants out, and then that regime does what it does to the Kurds and invades northern Syria to drive the Kurds back further. They are the self-same Kurds who fought an heroic battle against ISIS in Kobanî and other parts of the border area, sacrificed on the large chessboard of imperial intrigue, manipulation and so-called pragmatic politics. That is what Boris Johnson sees this deal as facilitating. It is a race to the bottom in respect of racist immigration policy, attacking labour and environmental standards and so on, which the deal effectively facilitates.
It is not difficult for Europe to pose as a relatively progressive bulwark when the antagonist is Boris Johnson, who is obnoxious, right wing and racist, playing to the lowest common denominator. As Deputy Paul Murphy noted, much of what Europe is doing in respect of immigration policy can result in tragedy, as can trade deals with Bolsonaro, when we know the guy is slaughtering the rainforests, which produce oxygen for the world and allow us to breathe. Whether it is trade or German manufacturing because Germany wants to sell cars - whatever it is - it overrides the environmental and climate imperatives, and Europe does rotten deals with Bolsonaro or, more recently, with Trump.
Of course, no deal and a hard border is the worst-case scenario but let us not dress up the deal, what Johnson represents or Europe's own culpability for many of the horrors throughout Europe and the world.
There has been much debate and discussion about Brexit in the House since the start of the process. We have said our bit about the most recent deal and there is much point in going back over it, except to say, as we all know, that it will have a severe impact on us whatever way it is decided to be done. We will have to work our way through it at some stage in the future.
I will address a couple of other items that were covered at the European Council, namely, climate change, the migrant crisis and the EU's defence policy. I understand that the European Council welcomed the outcome of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019 on ambition, action and solidarity and is determined that the EU will “continue to lead the way in a socially fair and just green transition in the implementation of the Paris Agreement”. There are some contradictions, however, between its proposals and its actions, which seems to be common in politics. There is often a big difference between what is said and what is done. The European Investment Bank, EIB, for example, has turned on its commitment to divest EU investments in fossil fuel companies, particularly gas companies, due to intense last-minute lobbying.
According to the non-governmental organisation, Oil Change International, this delay tactic is a direct result of Germany and the European Commission pushing to add more fossil fuels, particularly gas, back into energy policy and is a worrying trend that flows in opposition to the sense of urgency for which millions of climate strikers are calling in response to climate change. What does it say about EU’s commitments to climate action if it caves in to the interests of the oil and gas industry? It sounds familiar. We must tackle the EU-wide notion that gas is a transitional fuel and its central role in energy policy. We need to be more ambitious if we are to tackle climate change.
There are widespread divisions on how to go about tackling climate change. While Germany wants gas to have a central role in the transition, Poland and Hungary are among a handful of countries that oppose the setting of an EU-wide zero-carbon target by 2050. I am interested to know to what representations Ireland has made in respect of the EU’s energy policy in the context of climate change, considering Ireland’s own recent divestment from fossil fuel companies, as part of my Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, and the fact that the EIB is owned by EU member states. We are a co-owner of the bank and it would be interesting to see what role or input we had in the decisions, if we bothered to have any. Unfortunately, however, I suspect we may not have had any say in the matter.
The EU stated at the Council meeting that it “remains engaged in its efforts towards effectively addressing the serious humanitarian and refugee crisis in the light of evolving needs, including by supporting those Member States that are facing the most serious challenges in terms of migratory flows in the Eastern Mediterranean.” The EU is failing, however, to resolve diplomatically the humanitarian crisis that has become so inhumane that on the Greek islands, a total of 28,000 refugees are being held in island camps intended for a maximum of 10,000, while 12,000 people reside in the Moria camp on Lesbos, designed for only 3,000 people. While migrant arrivals in Europe have declined, so too has co-operation and responsibility sharing within the EU. The migrant crisis issue is directly related to that of climate change, given that many of the migrants are climate migrants moving from areas of severe climate impact to seek refuge and resources. Our inaction on the climate will feed into the refugee crisis and we have to accept that now if we are to have any chance of tackling it. Ireland has to step up to the mark, lead the charge at a European level and tell European leaders that it is what we have to do.
EU member states have drastically reduced their dedication to search and rescue operations and seem to take on informal, ad hoc initiatives to deal with migration that have little transparency, as seen in its disembarkation arrangements and the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which involves the sending back of migrants to north Africa where many end up in camps, tortured or imprisoned. Meanwhile, EU foreign policy insists on reform in North Africa yet remains fickle in its own international commitments and obligations and even engages in counterproductive migration practices. We need to normalise the idea of migration to Europe, and to promote inclusion through policies throughout member states and with third countries such as Turkey and those in north Africa. Only then will we address migration in a humane and sustainable way while also addressing the tide of right-wing, xenophobic narratives sweeping through EU states. Part of that is our climate action commitment, which is the only way we can deal with the issue properly. I had intended to talk about EU militarisation but as I have only a few seconds remaining, I will leave that to my colleague.
The militarisation agenda could take up considerable time. I am very concerned about the Government's role in that. I believe it will go down the road of supporting a European army, which is very worrying.
My colleague used the word "normalise". If we are seriously interested in bringing peace to the world, the best way to ensure we do not have war would be for the Council to put on its agenda the 17 sustainable developments goals, including, zero hunger, no poverty, quality education, affordable and clean energy, water, and others. I do not have the time to read them. If that was on any Council agenda, I would rejoice and say we were beginning to make progress and we were seriously interested in a Europe that is humane and not interested in building up its own borders. However, what we are getting is fortress Europe, as the Minister of State and I know. Language is just being used to confuse and hide that.
On a day 39 people, including one child, were found dead in a container, it is time to reflect on our policy as part of Europe. I will refer to the number of deaths per year. In 2014, a total of 3,162 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea simply looking for a better life. In 2015 it was 3,522. In 2016 it was 3,780. In 2017, a total of 2,843 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Last year 1,971 people drowned and so far this year 1,078 people have died. The only positive is that the numbers have reduced.
However, it must be remembered that while we are going off to the Mediterranean to take in the sun, people are drowning in that supposedly blue sea. The numbers have reduced because of the policies we have pursued by paying Turkey €5 billion or €6 billion to take in refugees, while at the same time the Council meeting the Taoiseach attended condemned Turkey's unilateral military action in north east Syria. It also condemned Turkey's illegal drilling activities in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone. Although the EU condemns Turkey, it continues to do business with it. We have allowed Turkey a free hand with the Kurds, as my colleagues said.
What does language mean at the end of the day? As a female politician and a human being, I want to focus on the people who are losing their lives directly because to the policies being implemented in our name. My colleague mentioned militarisation. Without doubt the militarisation of Europe is going fully ahead in the guise of beautiful language: protecting our borders and protecting our way of life as if our way of life was in any way more important than the way of life of those people who have been driven from their homes by wars in which we are complicit. An airport in this country is being used in those wars in which people are condemned to death or forced to leave their countries and drown on route. Those are the policies being pursued in our name. When the Taoiseach comes back and we have an opportunity to look at this, we have a duty to stand up and say, "Please do not do this in our name. Please begin to look at what is happening."
The EU has become a champion of the military industry. We are committed to increasing substantially our defence budgets. Our neutral country of approximately 5 million people is going to increase its military and defence budget at a time 10,500 people are homeless and all the other problems Deputies outline repeatedly in the House. Just 10% of global military spending would be enough to provide free equitable quality education as per the fourth sustainable development goal. Eradicating poverty, the second sustainable goal, and the third could be accomplished with just another 10% of the military budget. All of the sustainable development goals could be met with just under half of the world's military budget.
This neutral country does not look at these figures and say that it should not happen in our name. Instead, we go across to a Council meeting and we are happy with a page like the one I am holding, which makes a nonsense of the English language, turns it on its head and makes us immune to the deaths in the Mediterranean Sea. As the number of deaths in the sea thankfully decreases, clearly the numbers are increasing in containers Greece or in the other places where there are camps, yet we are paying €5 billion or €6 billion to other people to deal with the problems our policy has created. The Minister of State and the Taoiseach are not doing it in my name.
The United Kingdom has decided that its future lies in diverging from the EU to strike a lone path and to leave a club rather than trying to fix the difficulties it has from within. However, how much divergence is the UK looking for and how quickly does it want to introduce that divergence? Ireland, on the other hand, has decided that its future lies in converging with the EU and becoming a more integral part of the EU. We all know we have differences over how EU laws are applied and interpreted, but Ireland has decided that its future is much more secure in converging with the EU and trying to sort those problems out internally.
What type of Brexit does the UK want? It is now realising it is difficult to untangle itself from an agreement it entered into 50 years ago. Unfortunately, the debate at the time of the Brexit referendum never addressed the core issues that are now the subject of debate. The Brexit referendum debate took place in very simplistic terms, but we now realise that some very complex issues need to be resolved.
On the length of any extension that the EU might offer, the UK missed two deadlines in March and October. We should offer the UK a prolonged extension for at least nine months, which would allow it to sort out its domestic political issues. It would allow it to debate the withdrawal agreement in a reasonable manner and not have it rushed through. It would allow it to hold an election, which will most likely be held in the next three months. It would allow it to hold a referendum if necessary. It should be given time and space and not just a short extension; it should be given a long extension.
Brexit is a process and not an end in itself. Comparing it to the Grand National, which has 30 fences, I think we are at the third fence. We have not reached Becher's Brook for the first time yet. We have not even started to look at the future relationship that the UK will have with the EU. It is a very long process and we need to give the UK the opportunity to have time to do it properly.
Brexit fatigue is setting in and leading to uncertainty over investment, economic activity and employment in Ireland. This fatigue is very dangerous. The EU is now having difficulty progressing its own issues; it is being distracted substantially by Brexit. An EU-US trade war is developing and Brexit is distracting Europe from dealing with such issues. We also need to examine how a common security policy will be developed should the UK leave the EU. When fatigue sets in, logical argument becomes much more difficult to make.
In County Clare, Molex has announced up to 500 job losses in the next 16 months and job losses have also been announced in Novartis in Cork. While I do not believe Brexit was responsible for those job losses, it will make it much more difficult to find replacement industries. That demonstrates the uncertainty over employment and investment.
We also have to consider the fragile peace on this island. None of this was considered in the debate held prior to the Brexit referendum. There has been an attempt to prevent a gradient across the Border concerning trade, tariffs, regulation, standards and citizens' rights. A gradient across the Border in these areas would put substantial pressure on peace and it is very substantial. All of these things feed into the discussion. We are concentrating a lot on trade and tariffs, but huge divergence is developing in the area of standards and regulation. This will affect the recognition of qualifications and standards throughout industry. There will also be increased political divergence. The gradient across the political divide will increase, with the result depending on what kind of Brexit occurs. It is extremely important that people in the United Kingdom who are now realising the difficulties presented by Brexit and seeing problems that they never explored before see that these difficulties and problems have to be dealt with in a very logical and calm manner. An extension of three months will be too short. We need to give the United Kingdom a prolonged extension to allow it to work through these difficulties and problems.
I thank the Minister of State for facilitating these statements. I start by commending all Ministers and civil servants who have been involved in what has been a herculean task, not just in recent months but in the past two or three years. During that time Brexit has dominated European discourse and also discourse here. I would never underestimate the amount of time, energy and goodwill that has been expended in that regard. I also express my concern that so many domestic issues have been sidelined, if not neglected, because of the time, attention and energy devoted to Brexit. I do not believe for one moment that Brexit should be regarded as cover for the Government's failures in so many domestic areas. Having said that, I recognise all of the work done and the really strong commitment of everyone involved to getting the best deal for the country.
I have to express some concerns. The Tánaiste has been very good at providing briefings for Opposition leaders and spokespersons in recent times. It was unfortunate when news of the deal broke last week that I received a brief phone call but no briefing. I am sure others were in the same position. My assumption was that there would be a substantive briefing on the issue the following day. Unfortunately, that was not the case; therefore, we did not have any opportunity to tease out some of the aspects of the draft deal. That puts many of us at a disadvantage and I will raise some concerns about it today.
Several big questions were raised in the past few weeks. There was massive concentration on whether a draft deal would get through the House of Commons and what the numbers there were. Will the deal be passed and become law and can this be done within a reasonable period of time? The other big question was what would the DUP's reaction be. These two questions have dominated everything. The question that has not been asked in the last week is whether this is a good deal for Ireland. There has been cross-party agreement on it and we have all fully supported the Government in its efforts in that regard. However, whether the deal on the table is actually in Ireland's interests is not clear. That is not to underestimate for one moment the importance of reaching a deal and recognising the best deal we can achieve. Having said that, there are serious questions marks over the deal before us, not least of which is the fact that although everybody has been talking for the last two years about the importance of the backstop as an insurance policy to safeguard this country's interests, it was dropped last week, to which very little attention has been paid. The arrangement that will apparently replace the backstop is very unusual and could be described as convoluted. I have not yet seen anybody from the Government or at EU level explain how this convoluted arrangement will work.
We have been told that the North will still be part of the United Kingdom's customs regime. We have also been told that it will be aligned with the Single Market. These two statements seem to be contradictory and nobody has spelled out what it actually means. These words and descriptions are being trotted out without explanation of how they will work. I find it hard to understand. Perhaps somebody else can explain how it will work. There are other situations where there is a soft border between two authorities. It can work reasonably well where there is an understanding between them. However, what is proposed is a border in the Irish Sea, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where the two authorities are both UK authorities. Where are the checks and balances? Who will oversee the operation of that border in the Irish Sea? As I find it very hard to understand, I ask the Minister to explain it to us. Who will oversee what is being termed as "alignment" with the rules of the Single Market? We are talking about a third party that will potentially oversee or police these arrangements. Who will that third party be? The agreement includes talk about a working group. How will it work? How can an EU authority have a policing role between two regions of the United Kingdom?
This is an especially important question from Ireland's point of view. Until very recently we were being told that protecting the integrity of the Single Market was absolutely paramount. It is paramount to the European Union, but it is also paramount to Ireland's interests because our exports depend on the confidence of other EU member states. We want them to buy our exports with the assurance that the rules of the Single Market apply. One of the issues on the table leading up to this agreement was the importance of protecting the integrity of the Single Market for our own welfare in order that we would not have a situation where potentially inferior goods could travel from the North to the South and affect confidence in Irish goods. Given that there is to be no hard border and that the backstop is gone, how do we protect against this happening?
Given that there is to be no hard border and given that the backstop is now gone, how do we protect against that? The example of the proverbial chlorinated chicken is especially relevant in the context of a UK which is clearly intent on a race to the bottom in terms of quality standards. If a load of chlorinated chicken comes into the UK from the US, what will be the mechanism for ensuring that does not travel to Northern Ireland and come to the South? Confidence in our exports is very much dependent on what happens in the Irish Sea. There is little or no detail available on that. That concerns me. I would like to hear the Minister of State tease that out. How will the policing of that arrangement work out, who will do it and how can we be assured that inferior goods will not get onto the island of Ireland and make their way into the South? Other EU states gave warnings during the negotiations that they needed an absolute assurance that Irish goods will have the full protection and will be subject to the full rigour of the Single Market. My concern is that rigour and protection may be watered down. Can the Minister of State please assure me that is not the case?
I have a concern about the political arrangements in the North in respect of consent. I do not believe that a situation that is up for review every four years is in the interests of Northern Ireland. That creates ongoing uncertainty and political advantage for interests which may look to collapse the assembly, if it does get up and running again, but also that kind of uncertainty is not good for business confidence.
There is provision now for questions and answers.
I welcome the discussion at the European Council meeting of the strategic addenda, the next institutional cycle 2021-27 and the emphasis on protecting citizens and freedoms, developing a strong and vibrant economic base, building a climate neutral, green, fair and social Europe and promoting European interests and values on a global stage. That is something Ireland could work positively with.
It is disappointing that we could not reach agreement on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The European Union has brought peace, stability and progress to Europe and if they were members of the EU that would bring great stability to that area. I would welcome the Minister of State's views on that. Presumably we are very supportive of opening up negotiations.
Is it true that the EU leaders spent just 12 minutes discussing climate change? There are reports to that effect. The climate conference will take place in Santiago de Chile in December and the European Council will come back to this issue but that does not send out the right signals. Can the Minister of State assure me that Ireland will insist that much greater consideration is given to climate change at the December summit?
Can the Minister of State outline when we should expect a decision from the European Council regarding a Brexit extension? Will a Council meeting be necessary or can it be decided through a written procedure? Is 31 January 2020 the only date on the table or are alternatives being considered in respect of Brexit?
Can the Minister of State reveal whether the Taoiseach discussed developments in Catalonia with the Spanish Prime Minister? Did he discuss the issue with other Prime Ministers and Presidents? The jailing of the political leaders for between nine and 13 years is an extremely serious and negative development within the EU and needs to be discussed. Before the Council meeting, the Tánaiste mentioned that the way forward in Catalonia was through dialogue with the Spanish authorities. Has there been any discussion or consideration of how we support the idea of that dialogue? Did the Taoiseach discuss creating a robust and urgent response to the humanitarian crisis in northern Syria due to the Turkish invasion and the unleashing of its radical jihadist proxies? Many NGOs have been forced to flee the region and Kurdish civil defence and medical organisations are in desperate need of medical aid and lifesaving equipment. Will Ireland respond positively to these requests?
This awful day, when 39 people were found dead in the back of a container lorry, highlights the desperate lengths people will go to for the opportunity to start a new life. Would the Minister of State agree that it also highlights the need for Europe to move from a fortress Europe stance to establishing legal pathways for people who are fleeing war, drought, including climate change, and extreme poverty? No one would take these journeys lightly. We know what happens along the route when people are travelling from Africa in terms of the attacks, the rapes or people being turned into slaves. No one would take that journey lightly if they had an alternative, if there was the potential for them and their children to have a fulfilling life. What can we do in Ireland and what can Europe do to create a legal path for many of these people?
The deaths of 39 people in the back of a container truck is an horrific and unspeakable tragedy and it should bring shame on us if this country played any part in those deaths. Those people very likely passed through this country. Does the Minister of State accept that the European Union's fortress immigration policies bear some responsibility for that tragedy and for the deaths of probably close to 40,000 people over the past six or seven years in the Mediterranean and that it is time for Europe to look to itself in terms of its responsibility for the deaths of thousands of desperate people fleeing war, famine, hunger or desperate economic circumstances?
Does the Minister of State not think that Europe must now take serious pause for thought about what I believe is an absolutely immoral deal with the Turkish regime, giving it billions of euro to effectively enforce fortress Europe policies to keep desperate immigrants out and that those resources may now well be supporting the Turkish assault on the Kurds? What does the Government think of that and does the Minister of State accept that this really immoral policy should now be examined?
Does the Minister of State accept that the failure of the European Union to condemn the Spanish Government's decision to jail nine people for organising a referendum in Catalonia shows a degree of moral and democratic bankruptcy on the part of Europe, that it is willing to turn a blind eye to a staggering level of political repression of people who did nothing more than organise a referendum?
Will the Government condemn the ferocious, brutal violence of the police and so on in attacking peaceful demonstrators who have been protesting about the imprisonment of nine political leaders and who are trying to express what is a right under international law, namely, the right to peaceful self-determination?
I thank the Deputies for their questions. On Deputy Haughey's question regarding the enlargement discussion, I was very disappointed that not only the European Council but the General Affairs Council had difficulty reaching a unanimous decision to open up accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. I was particularly disappointed because we had this same discussion last June, where we set out parameters for both countries to make adjustments to implement new reforms. I believe they implemented those reforms, in particular in the case of North Macedonia through the implementation of the historic changing of name in the Prespa Agreement. While there are significant political challenges in Albania, it is also implemented changes or a range of reforms such that we should have set out a straightforward pathway for it in terms of this process. The opening up of accession negotiations does not mean they will become members in the next year or two. It took a decade for Ireland to become a member. The road ahead is long. As I said, I was disappointed that we could not open the accession negotiations, which I think reflects badly on us as a Union. We made a commitment and it is up to us to fulfil that commitment. My understanding is that this matter will be brought before the summit in Zagreb next year, which means it would have to be on the agenda of the European Council in December, or at the latest, March next year. I sincerely hope that we can get to that stage. I understand that member states have difficulties and they have their reasons for not allowing this process to open up, but as we gave a commitment last year and we should have lived up to it. I sincerely hope that we can do so in the coming months.
In regard to climate change, I cannot say for how long it was discussed at the European Council but it was addressed. It was also addressed at the General Affairs Council, where I spoke along with my European colleagues. We outlined that we needed to build on the momentum that was created at the UN General Assembly, the climate summit, and that we need to ensure that the new European Commissioners and the President, Ursula von der Leyen, set out a clear directive for a long-term strategy regarding our climate change objectives and goals. My understanding is that the matter will come back to the European Council in December and that there will be a lengthy discussion on it. From a Government point of view, we are very much engaged in reaching our own targets by reducing our overall emissions by 30% by 2030. We are committed to the climate neutrality agenda for 2050, which we are doing by way of implementing the cross-governmental plan that is being put in place, which was worked on by all Members for over a year. We are ambitious, but from a European point of view, it is up to us to set an ambitious agenda in the hope that other larger contributors will follow suit.
On Deputy Crowe's question regarding the timeline for the EU Commission decision, I expect it in the coming days. I cannot give an exact timeline, but I hope that we will have some response before the weekend. Obviously, we need to know what is happening next given that tomorrow week is 31 October. While the threat of a no deal has severely reduced in the past few days, it still remains. From our point of view, we have always been very clear that if an extension was sought by the UK, we would look on it favourably, which has been the case. The Taoiseach spoke with President Tusk this morning and relayed that sentiment to him. The UK has asked for an extension until the end of January. Our view would be that it should be approved but I cannot speak for other member states as I do not know what conversations they have been having with President Tusk.
Is a meeting required?
My understanding is that legally they do not have to meet and that this can be addressed by way of letter but whether other member states might request a meeting or a summit has yet to be determined. There may be a meeting between now and next Thursday.
In regard to Catalonia, I do not know if the Taoiseach raised this issue. I am sure that he has had conversations with his colleague in Spain and with other leaders. We had statements in the House last night on this issue. This is an important matter. We are concerned about what is happening in Spain but we must, and will, always respect the constitutional and territorial integrity of Spain. We need to ensure that anything that happens, be it in Spain or Catalonia, is determined by their own citizens through their own institutions and in keeping with the rule of law. I have no doubt that in any conversations the Taoiseach may have had on the issue, he will have reiterated these sentiments.
On the migrants issue, I find this quite upsetting. Where anybody dies in such a manner, it is a failure of all of us. It is an extremely frustrating conversation that I have been having with my colleagues over the past two years when it arises at the General Affairs Council. We do, and want to, support any mechanisms that are put in place. As a country, we are not to the forefront like Greece, Spain and Italy but we have a role to play. We have a duty to ensure that our voices are heard such that where there are unfair practices, such that people are dying in this manner, we speak up and condemn it as a failure on all of our parts. It is important that as a Union we work together to ensure that those who are geographically at the forefront of this are supported. As a country, we have tried to do this through Operation Sophia and by opting-in to taking 4,000 migrants although we are not at that number yet. We will continue, where we can, to take in as many as we can.
On the particular issue, my understanding is that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and his officials are engaging with officials in the UK to determine what happened. My understanding is that the migrants travelled through Ireland but that has not been confirmed. We need to understand how this happened, how it was allowed to happen and how we can ensure it does not happen again. As I said, for anybody to die in that way is unacceptable.
I only learned of this horrific incident in the Chamber this afternoon, having been in committee all morning.
Following on from Deputy Crowe's question, does the Government have a view on the length of the extension? I understand the UK has requested an extension to 31 January. Does the Government consider this extension sufficient or another deadline that might not be met?
What is the difference between the original withdrawal backstop and the new arrangement put in place last week, which has been described as a frontstop rather than a backstop? There has been a substantial change such that what is now provided for appears to be closer to a promise than a legally binding backstop. The words, "unless and until alternative arrangements can be reached", are set out in the original text. The new arrangement provides that consent is to be invested in the Stormont Assembly, to be renewed every four years, which does not provide the guarantee that the original backstop intended.
I reiterate the question I raised earlier. Up to now there has been significant emphasis on the importance of protecting the integrity of the Single Market. In the past week, circumstances have changed and we have not heard too much about that. Will the Minister of State talk us through how in the absence of the backstop the integrity of the Single Market will be protected within Ireland given that there will be free movement between North and South? In regard to the unusual arrangement that is being proposed of a border on the Irish Sea, who will police that border and how can we be assured that the integrity of the Single Market will be protected? We have a vested interest in ensuring that is the case from the point of view of ensuring confidence is maintained in Irish exports.
I cannot understand how that would work. The Minister of State might explain it to us.
I thank both Deputies. On views on the length of an extension, my understanding is they have sought an extension for the next three months and that is what we are responding to. From our point of view, no counter-proposals or conditions were expressed in the Taoiseach's conversation with Donald Tusk but again, I can only speak for us. I cannot speak for other member states or the conversations they may have been having throughout the morning and today. On the references to a front stop and a backstop; it is on the basis that the backstop was always going to be there. It was the essential third element of the three proposals, the first and foremost being a future trading relationship that meant it would never come into force, the second being an alternative mechanism and the third being the backstop. It was always only a last resort, there "unless and until". This is why the question arises as to why have we now changed the backstop and allowed it move into something different. We have always said that if the number two position, the alternative mechanism, is there, we would be willing to accept that instead of the backstop. The backstop as it is currently being proposed in terms of this new deal is something that would come into play immediately after the transition period. It would not be something that would be there "unless and until". That may be why it is being referred to now as the front stop.
On protecting the integrity of the Single Market and Deputy Shortall's previous questions as to how this will work, obviously Northern Ireland will remain fully aligned in terms of the Single Market with goods, not just live animals or plants but in all manufacturing goods, which means they will remain aligned in upholding the rules, regulations and standards. This will be overseen by the various bodies and by the European Court of Justice, ECJ. In terms of the customs union, the Deputy is right. They will leave the EU customs union and they will remain part of the UK's customs union. There will, however, be a special arrangement specifically for Northern Ireland. What separates this and where it is important is that when determining goods moving from Northern Ireland into the rest of the UK, obviously there is no difference there, that is, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. However, for goods moving from mainland UK into Northern Ireland, there will have to be a determination as to whether they are destined solely for Northern Ireland or are destined beyond that into Ireland or the Single Market.
Who will police that?
At the moment what we have is a minimal amount of checks in the ports and airports in Northern Ireland. There will be further checks, obviously kept at a minimum, to the level required by the Commission and those who are upholding the letter of the law and the Single Market. There will be a certain level of checks, again that will be kept to a minimum, to ensure that any goods that are coming in are determined solely for Northern Ireland. There will have to be a system put in place to determine whether this is the case.
Who will do those checks?
They will be done at the ports and airports and there will be-----
I think some of that has to be still worked out at this stage but there will be officials at the ports in Northern Ireland, so they would be Northern Ireland officials. As to it being overseen, as I have said in terms of the Single Market and alignment, there is talk of various bodies but also the ECJ, if it gets to that point. It is important to say that from our point of view and, importantly, from the Commission's point of view, neither the Commission nor other member states will agree to any new negotiation or deal that would in any way reduce the integrity of the Single Market or jeopardise us. Any mechanism that is put in place will have to ensure that it is protected. That is extremely important from our point of view but also for the other EU 26 member states. There will also be something of a rebate scheme, again depending on whether a good is destined for Northern Ireland or further afield. That would be collected by the UK authorities working within their own customs union. I think a level of detail has been worked out now that has satisfied the Commission, Ireland and the EU 26 that it can be upheld.
Can we see that detail? It is very hard to understand.
The detail has been published, in that we have the new drafts of how this protocol will work, but there is further detail still to be worked out.
We do not know who will police it.
The Commission accepts that what is being proposed can be followed through and worked through and that we can protect the integrity of our Single Market but also that Northern Ireland will remain part of the territorial integrity of the rest of the UK, which has been extremely important throughout all of this.
On the cross-community element, what is different here is that now we are saying to people in Northern Ireland that they essentially will have a say as to whether they want to see divergence in Northern Ireland. While there is an opportunity for an extension of four years at the end of the transition period, within that there is an opportunity to extend it to eight years. While the initial vote is a simple majority, which will not require cross-community support, if there is cross-community support of over 40% within each community within that vote itself, it can then be extended to eight years, which provides a much longer period and greater clarity for communities in the North. This addresses any suggestion that the backstop or any new deal of its kind is undemocratic, that people in Northern Ireland would be kept in or removed from any setting, either in the Single Market or the customs union, against their own will. This clearly deals with that issue and very much brings this back to people in Northern Ireland and to their representatives. Obviously the assembly has not been up and running for some time now, which begs the question as to where this would be determined if the assembly is not sitting. It can be addressed through a gathering of the elected representatives. It does not have to be the assembly. There is a mechanism in place which would prevent a stifling or a blocking of this vote from taking place. Again that is very clearly set out in the documents that were published last week.
Finally to touch on Deputy Boyd Barrett's questions about overall policy, the EU global strategy and our foreign and security policy very clearly commit to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy, and the rule of law. They also very clearly stress the importance of promoting and protecting human rights and that is exactly what we have been trying to do, particularly in terms of Syria. I think the question was asked about funding. We currently do provide support, assistance and aid to those in Syria. However, we very clearly said that any areas or any individuals that were involved in the horrendous attacks that have been taking place in recent weeks will not be receiving that support. We also have made sure that sanctions have been imposed on Turkey. This was first put in place in terms of their drilling in Cypriot waters but this obviously has not prevented them from continuing what they have been doing. We have unanimously condemned what has happened in Syria, in particular in respect of the Kurds, who have been left in a very difficult and unacceptable situation. We would call on those to cease fire and to ensure that there is an end to the fighting that is happening at the moment and to the deaths that should not be taking place.