I attended a meeting of the European Council in Brussels last Thursday and Friday, 10 and 11 December. I also attended a meeting of the Euro summit. We began as usual on Thursday with an exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli. In his contribution, President Sassoli stressed the urgency of having the recovery plan and multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which were agreed by European Union leaders when we met last July, in place and accessible from the new year. We also paid tribute to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former President of France and a committed supporter of the European Union, who passed away on 2 December.
The agenda for our meeting was particularly full and included a number of complex and far-reaching issues, such as Covid-19, climate action and the European Union's relations with Turkey and the southern Mediterranean. We also needed finally to sign off on the €1.8 billion package that includes the European Union's budget for the next seven years and the recovery fund we agreed at our meeting in July. This is a vital tool to support the EU’s economic recovery and the green and digital transformations. I pay tribute to the German Presidency for brokering that agreement. We also, of course, took stock of the state of play in the Brexit negotiation. In my contribution today, I will address Covid-19, climate action, the multi-annual financial framework and recovery package, and Brexit. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will address security and external relations issues in his concluding remarks this afternoon.
As the House will be very aware, Covid-19 continues to pose a major challenge across Europe. In many member states, cases are continuing to rise and a number of countries have announced further restrictive measures this week. At our meeting, we took the opportunity to share information on the situation in our respective countries. It is fair to say that a number of leaders expressed serious concern as we approach the holiday season. While it is enormously heartening that vaccines are expected to come on stream in the weeks and months ahead, it remains essential, as I said earlier, that people continue to abide by public health recommendations and rules. There can be no letting down of our guard. This is the case across Europe, where winter holidays and other activities remain a cause of concern.
Our discussions also focused on the authorisation and roll-out of vaccines. We were encouraged by European Commission President von der Leyen’s presentation in this regard. We agreed to continue to co-ordinate on vaccines, including on vaccine certificates. The Commission’s work on vaccines is a clear example of the European Union responding to citizens' needs and supporting member states' efforts to combat the pandemic. The European Union will continue its efforts to contribute to the international response to the pandemic, including through the COVAX facility. We must continue to ensure that nobody is left behind. With a view to better managing future pandemics, we agreed that the European Union should promote ways to reinforce international co-operation, including through a possible international treaty on pandemics within the framework of the WHO.
It is clear that even when vaccinations are rolled out and restrictions ease, it will take considerable time for economies to recover across the European Union. The European Union budget and the recovery fund will help to drive this recovery, as well as supporting the green and digital transformations. The agreement we reached in our long meeting in July was historic. For the first time, we agreed to allow joint borrowing, given the scale of the challenge the pandemic presents. Following our agreement, the German Presidency engaged constructively with the European Parliament to secure its consent for what had been agreed.
These discussions reached a positive outcome in November. This was a significant achievement and at our meeting last week we expressed our appreciation to Chancellor Merkel.
Some member states, however, were concerned that the instrument to give effect to rule of law provisions departed from what had been agreed by leaders in July. Most member states, Ireland included, did not believe that this was the case. However, the conclusions that we adopted last week make clearer the circumstances in which the measures might be invoked and on that basis all member states were prepared to give the package, as finalised with the Parliament, their support. Ireland firmly supports the rule of law as a core value of the European Union and will support the objective, proportionate and effective implementation of the conditionality mechanism for the budget.
This agreement now enables the Council and the European Parliament to formally adopt the MFF and recovery package and the 2021 budget for the EU so that it can take effect at the start of next year. As well as ensuring crucial funding for Europe’s recovery from Covid, it also paves the way for the roll-out of important new programmes, such as PEACE PLUS, and the Brexit adjustment reserve.
We had long and difficult discussions on climate action that went through the night. It could have been a record that one meeting went on for 23 hours. However, I am pleased to be able to report that the European Council agreed to endorse a binding EU target of a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 of at least 55%, compared with 1990 levels.
This weekend marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, and I very much welcome the strengthening of the EU's existing 40% reduction target. At the meeting I conveyed Ireland's strong support for stepping up our ambition at EU level. It is a crucial step on our path to a climate-neutral EU by 2050. This enhanced EU target will be submitted to the UN by the end of the year. We also agreed to raise our climate ambition in a manner that will drive sustainable economic growth, create jobs, deliver health and environmental benefits for EU citizens, and contribute to the long-term global competitiveness of the EU economy.
What was agreed last week was an increase in ambition at EU level. The specific implications of this for each member state will be worked through next year, taking account of considerations of fairness and solidarity, and member states' specific national circumstances. Over the first half of 2021, the Commission will be bringing forward a suite of proposals in its "fit for 55" package. Some member states wished to see greater detail in last week's conclusions. Most, however, preferred to leave greater detail until the Commission has completed its work on impact assessment in particular. Our discussion was long and detailed, but I am pleased that it was possible to bring everyone on board and the EU will now notify this new target to the UN by the end of the year.
The European Commission has now been asked to assess how all economic sectors can best contribute to the achievement of this new level of ambition. By the middle of next year, the Commission will publish its package of proposals, which will be accompanied by an in-depth examination of the environmental, economic and social impact at member state level. Leaders will return again to this issue and adopt additional guidance in advance of the Commission bringing forward its proposals.
The summit began on the day following a dinner in Brussels between President von der Leyen and the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. On Friday morning President von der Leyen provided an update on the then state of play. At that point, the two sides remained far apart on the remaining open issues of level playing field, fisheries and dispute resolution, and had agreed that the negotiation teams should immediately reconvene to try to resolve these essential issues.
While the prospects for a deal were not strong, I recalled to other leaders the extent of what was at stake for Ireland, for the EU, as well as for the UK. I took the opportunity also to welcome the agreement in principle reached between the Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefcovic, and the UK Secretary of State, Michael Gove, on all issues related to the protocol. The two weeks which led up to that agreement illustrate what can be done when negotiating teams knuckle down with a commitment and a political will to get agreement. It is to their credit that they managed to iron out some of the genuinely difficult issues around the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol emanating from the withdrawal agreement.
I welcome that this week both negotiating teams continue to make every effort to bridge the remaining gaps, with a view to reaching a deal that will ensure fair competition and workable arrangements on fisheries. I hope that, with creativity and political will, it will be possible to get a deal across the line.
President von der Leyen confirmed that the Commission was proposing a set of targeted contingency measures which will ensure basic air and road connectivity in the event of no deal, as well as allowing for the possibility of reciprocal fishing access by EU and UK vessels to each other’s waters during 2021. This is a reminder yet again of the need for us all to prepare for the changes that 1 January will bring, even in the case of a deal. It is particularly important that this message of preparedness gets home to many of the small to medium-sized enterprises across the country, whether there is a deal or no deal. No deal would be much more severe on our economy but a deal on the future relations between the UK and the EU would still mean significant change and a significant burden of documentation, form-filling and customs declarations. Revenue has said we will go from 1.5 million to 20 million customs declarations per annum. This will have significant implications, including an impact on hauliers and on the need for capacity. Significant work has to be undertaken by all State agencies - there must be very good co-ordination across the agencies and there must be a team-based approach between Revenue and all the Departments, including those with responsibility for health and agriculture - to prepare for Brexit and its aftermath, particularly in the first week of January. It will be challenging and difficult. Every company that trades with or through Britain must be sure to double-check its compliance regime. Those involved must be sure that their customers and those they engage with, on both sides, are fully aware of the implications of Brexit generally. Preparation is absolutely essential.
On Friday, there was a meeting of the Eurosummit in inclusive format, that is to say, including all 27 EU leaders. We were briefed on economic developments by the president of the ECB, Christine Lagarde, and by our Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, in his capacity of president of the Eurogroup.
We welcomed the agreement reached in the Eurogroup on the reform of the European Stability Mechanism. This includes the backstop to the Single Resolution Fund which will now be introduced by the beginning of 2022. This is an important step towards strengthening economic and monetary union and banking union. I wish to pay warm tribute to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, for navigating and facilitating what is a very important agreement for banking stability into the future, from a Europe-wide perspective. The Eurogroup will now work to prepare a more detailed work plan on all outstanding elements needed to complete banking union. The president of the ECB outlined the Central Bank's approach to the continuing impact of Covid-19 on economies across Europe and the likely position going into 2021, and gave guidance to member states on our respective economic policies and frameworks.
Our discussions last week were not always easy. EU leaders expressed strong views, in particular on the MFF, on the recovery fund and on climate, but we kept talking and we found agreement. The negotiations on climate were particularly difficult. Differences of these kinds between EU partners are not a sign of weakness. Our strength lies in our ability to hold discussions, even when they are difficult, and to reach common ground from which we can move forward together. As a challenging year nears its close, I draw real encouragement from the progress we made last week. We have laid a solid foundation for strong co-operation in 2021.
I pay tribute to the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the President of the Council, Charles Michel, on their very constructive engagement with the Government and with this country and for being mindful of the issues we have across all the matters under discussion, particularly the Brexit situation, where they have shown very commendable interest and continued commitment. I look forward to the debate, after which the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will report on our discussions on security and external relations issues.