I understand that copies of my speech are on the way so that Deputies who want it will get copies.
Following the Taoiseach's update on the most recent European Council meeting, I will focus on the following issues: the Syrian crisis; migration; the multi-annual financial framework, MFF; Brexit; and the new European Commission's work programme. That is a lot to deal with in ten minutes, but I will try to do as much as I can.
The European Council issued a declaration on Idlib calling on all actors to cease hostilities immediately and to guarantee the protection of civilians. It also called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, which I believe to be particularly important.
In following up on this, last week I signed an op-ed with 13 other EU foreign ministers calling on the Syrian regime and its supporters to end this offensive and resume the ceasefire established in 2018. In the past three months, nearly 1 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Government's military offensive. The humanitarian situation is nothing short of a human disaster.
The EU is urgently responding to this crisis and exerting whatever political pressure it can bring to bear to try to deliver a de-escalation of violence. The Commission is working to release €60 million in humanitarian aid for north-west Syria. Ireland contributed over €25 million to the Syrian crisis in 2019 and already this year funding has been authorised specifically to address needs in north-west Syria. I will attend an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council in Zagreb that has been called for tomorrow to discuss this situation and the associated migration crisis.
I am deeply concerned with the migration situation developing at the external EU borders with Turkey. The Syrian crisis has not just had a serious impact on Syria's neighbours, which host over 5 million refugees between them, but also has the potential to impact on the EU. Since the start of the crisis in 2015, I have consistently called on all EU member states to play their part in burden sharing and helping to relieve the pressure on front-line states, such as Greece, Italy and others. We also need to ensure that people are treated in a way that is consistent with international humanitarian standards and law. I express Ireland's solidarity with Greece and Bulgaria as they face the enormous task of dealing with the thousands of new arrivals at their borders. I also urge both countries to ensure people's personal well-being and to ensure their protection is guaranteed, which clearly has not been happening.
We continue to support the European Council position that a comprehensive approach is essential for a properly functioning EU migration policy. We cannot simply allow some EU countries, which happen to be geographically close to crisis areas, to carry an unfair share of the burden which is what has been happening. While the social, economic and political stresses are considerable, it is essential that humanitarian and legal obligations continue to be met.
I, on behalf of Ireland, have consistently been critical of the EU in the context of the ending of the humanitarian element of the rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea. I was the Minister for Defence who decided to send Irish Naval Service ships to the Mediterranean Sea in the first place. We had six such missions. I believe Irish ships managed to rescue about 16,000 people from the water. I would certainly be open to committing to do that again in the future if we can have a collective EU position to ensure that is done properly. That is not the position at the moment. It is not possible to get political agreement across the EU on virtually anything relating to a collective approach to migration. This is the core of the problem. I understand the frustrations that many in this House have expressed today.
The MFF is related in many ways. Under heading 6 relating to neighbourhood and the world, the new MFF will align EU actions more closely to our international commitments under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the EU global strategy. Importantly, this will also give the EU the means to reinvigorate its relationship with Africa, which is an important priority for Ireland and which tallies with the new strategy for Africa which the Government published a number of months ago. We are also very supportive of continuing support to the Caribbean and the Pacific, as well as to small island developing states, with which we have forged close relationships in recent years.
Such investments make sense. On issues such as climate change, migration, peace and security, and counterterrorism, the external and internal aspects are intimately interlinked and the new EU budget needs to respond accordingly. We need an external action budget which is more flexible, responsive and coherent, enabling the EU to engage more strategically with its partners across the globe, pursuing our values and protecting our interests. Far too often, external debates within the European Union in the context of our relationship with Africa, north Africa in particular, are dominated by the one issue of migration and it needs to be far broader than that.
While the political focus in Ireland in the context of the MFF will continue to be on Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budgets for our farmers, it is also important to refer to the important external actions that will need to be funded in the future.
In answer to Deputy Connolly's question on the Irish refugee protection programme, out of the 4,000 that we have committed to accommodate in Ireland, as of December 2019 we had accommodated 3,151, of whom 1,022 were under the EU relocation mechanism. We will certainly follow through in full on that commitment for 4,000 people. I am glad to put that on the record.
The General Affairs Council on 25 February authorised the opening of negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK and agreed the EU's negotiating mandate. Along with the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, I met the EU Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, last week in Brussels in advance of the General Affairs Council.
The EU mandate sets out the EU's clear position, based on the political declaration agreed between the EU and the UK on 17 October 2019, as well as European Council guidelines and conclusions. It provides a generous and fair foundation on which a new EU-UK relationship can be built.
There has been extensive co-ordination across Government to ensure that Ireland's priorities are reflected in the EU mandate, which affirms the EU's ambition for a close and deep partnership with the United Kingdom. Of course, the level of ambition on the UK side will also influence what is possible to achieve.
We welcome the continuing focus in the EU mandate on protecting the Good Friday Agreement and on ensuring that issues arising from Ireland's unique geographic situation are addressed, as well as the protection of the common travel area. Protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process in all circumstances continues to be a key priority for Ireland and this priority is shared by our EU partners.
The UK Government published its approach to the negotiations on 27 February, in advance of the start of negotiations between the EU and the UK on Monday, 2 March. Negotiations will be conducted on behalf of the 27 member states by the task force for relations with the United Kingdom, under Michel Barnier, and the Commission.
Given the UK position that the transition period will not be extended beyond the end of 2020, it may not be possible to reach agreement on all issues being discussed as part of the negotiations in the available time. We will continue to work closely and assess progress with our EU partners as the talks progress. I look forward to updating the House as often as I can while I hold the position that I do.
The work of the period ahead will be to achieve an ambitious and fair partnership that works for the benefit of all and provides a new and strong foundation for the EU-UK relationship, which is certainly in Ireland's interest. At the same time, it is important to see the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. The link between implementation and future relationship negotiations is also reflected in the mandate, and so it must be. The ratification of the withdrawal agreement means that, regardless of the outcome of the EU-UK future relationship negotiations, the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland will be in place. The protocol includes measures to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, to maintain the common travel area and the single electricity market, and to protect continuing North-South co-operation into the future.
Ireland welcomes the Commission's work programme for 2020 and broadly supports its proposals. The strong focus on implementing the priorities contained in the strategic agenda adopted by the European Council last June is particularly welcome. Addressing the biggest concerns of our citizens must remain the EU's overriding objective.
We welcome the clear roadmap outlined in the EU's green new deal and its transformative agenda. We look forward to working with all member states and the EU institutions to translate the ambition of the green deal into real and lasting change here and across the European Union.
We welcome the recognition in the Commission's programme of the ongoing work at the OECD on international tax reform. We remain ready to engage constructively to address any tax challenges that arise from the digitisation of the economy across the EU.
We welcome the review of the EU forest strategy. It is important that natural and plantation forests continue to be recognised for the important role they play in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies as applied in Ireland and across the European Union.