General Affairs Council, Brexit, Future of Europe and Western Balkans: Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they cause serious problems otherwise.

I would like to warmly welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Helen McEntee, and her officials. I thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to attend the meeting. We always appreciate the valuable input that she makes to the committee and the time and consideration that she gives us. We all have a job of work to do. I have tremendous respect for committee members and they are working diligently on all aspects of our work.

One of the overriding issues, which is taking up a great deal of our time and hers, is Brexit. Over the past number of months, officials and representatives of the political and social spheres and tourism and farming sectors have appeared before the committee. It has been a fruitful, worthwhile exercise. Members have engaged in an extremely workpersonlike manner with the witnesses and the witnesses have been co-operative and understanding of the requirements, aims and ambitions each of us has for the future of Europe. Now more than ever, we have to look beyond Brexit to what will be the future of Europe for all our people and our exports and to our hopes and ambitions for future business and investment in the country. I also welcome our guests in the Gallery.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call the Minister to State to make her opening statement, following which members may ask questions.

I thank the Chairman for the invitation to appear before the committee and I thank members for attending. I acknowledge the work the committee is doing, not just on Brexit and the future of Europe, but in engaging with so many different agencies, individuals and members of communities.

It has been said to me in the work that I am doing, and I see how much it is appreciated. I have a lengthy address to deliver, but given the fact that I have not been here since November, there is some ground to cover. The committee will forgive me, and may stop me if I am going on for too long.

I thank the committee for the invitation to the address today's meeting. This is my third appearance before the committee as Minister of State, and I am pleased to say that there is much to report upon since my last appearance in November.

I will begin with the future of Europe debate which is now under way throughout Ireland. I want to mention the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth which took place in Gothenburg in November. I will give a read-out from the European Council in December before updating the committee on preparations for the European Council later this month on 22 and 23 March. Finally, I would like to say a few words on Brexit.

When we met last it was just days before the launch of our citizens’ dialogue on the future of Europe. Since then we have had a series of sessions, both public and private, within our institutions, colleges, universities and schools, and across the board. We began with sessions of the citizens’ dialogue in Galway. Two weeks ago we were in Cork. My French colleague, Ms Nathalie Loiseau, joined me for a lively debate with over 300 staff and students in Maynooth University. Tomorrow I will be in Letterkenny and next month we will be in County Meath and in Dublin for a special session with the non-governmental sector before the process culminates on Europe Day, 9 May. A lot is happening, and the committee's participation and support in that is greatly appreciated.

The Government sees the citizens’ dialogue as a listening exercise. We want to reach out to our own citizens to hear their needs and concerns without being prescriptive. Participants at each session are encouraged to have their say on how the European Union can help us become more competitive, more prosperous, safer and more secure. We want to hear from our citizens on how they envisage a more sustainable Union that is also more socially responsible. Finally, we are keen to get their views on globalisation. In other words, how can we shape it before it shapes us?

I have to say that I am very impressed by the level of participation at each session. There is real engagement on the issues and if there is an overriding message, it is one based on fairness. People want to ensure fairness in an increasingly competitive world. They want the environment to be protected so they can hand it on to future generations in good shape. There is also a demand for inter-generational fairness. People want the young to enjoy the best of opportunities when they are starting their careers and their families and they want older people to be able to enjoy their retirement in dignity and comfort. This is coming across already even though we have only had two of these engagements.

Of course the committee conducted its own future of Europe public outreach initiative last year and heard a good cross-section of public opinion. I look forward to reading the committee's report in due course and I am confident that, together with a synthesis from our citizens’ dialogue process, Ireland will have a rich contribution to make to the wider European debate. That debate is already under way.

I was very pleased that the first session under President Tusk’s leaders’ agenda focussed on education and culture. We owe it to future generations to equip them with the life skills they will need to cope with a quickly changing world. The first discussions in November have already been translated into firm instructions from Heads of State and Government for work to get under way. Examples include instructions to extend the Erasmus+ programme to other forms of mobility, to set up a network of European universities and to promote more co-operation in the recognition of third level and school-leaving qualifications. Education is coming up time and time again in various different questions within the future of Europe dialogue.

Under the leaders’ agenda there have also been discussions on sensitive issues such as migration, the completion of economic and monetary union, institutional issues and the next multi-annual financial framework. Each discussion involves an initial political discussion and it is envisaged that the leaders will have to return to almost all of these issues in the coming months. However, each session has already proven useful in giving a direction to follow-up work which is being undertaken in the meantime. The next leaders’ agenda discussion will take place later this month and it will look at taxation, in particular in the digital economy.

I will now address the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth, which took place in Gothenburg in November. It would be remiss of me not to mention this summit. As the Taoiseach told the European Parliament in January, we need to “put fire back into the engine of our social Europe.” The summit recalled the need to put people first. As a consequence it was agreed at the European Council in December that there would be a new start for social dialogue. The European Council also agreed to tackle the gender pay gap and to deliver on the European skills agenda. As I said just a moment ago, this work will be crucial if future generations are to be equipped to cope with the changes digitisation and automation will bring.

The European Council in December also welcomed the establishment of Permanent Structured Co-Operation, known as PESCO. The EU relies on civilian and military assets provided by the member states to undertake international peace support missions to prevent and resolve conflict in support of the United Nations. PESCO provides a mechanism to meet and to identify need for closer cooperation between partners, to ensure the availability of the military capabilities required for these purposes. Our participation will help ensure that Irish Defence Forces personnel serving on future EU missions will be as well-prepared and well-equipped as they should be. Membership of PESCO is voluntary and does not change in any way the triple lock that remains in place before we deploy any troops abroad. PESCO was established within the framework of the Lisbon Treaty which was approved by the people of Ireland in a referendum in 2009. Ireland joined the PESCO framework with the approval of Dáil Éireann.

I will now address the rule of law. In December, the European Commission launched a procedure under Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union inviting the Council to determine whether there is a clear risk of a serious breach by the Republic of Poland of the values referred to in Article 2 of the same treaty. The Union is founded on its values, including the rule of law. The move by the Commission follows legislation passed in Poland making changes to the country’s constitutional tribunal, the judiciary, the media and the civil service. These changes have raised serious concerns about the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers there. The Commission has invited the Polish authorities to address these issues within three months. I am pleased to say that the Polish Government has begun to engage with the Commission. We want to see results from that engagement as soon as possible.

I am pleased to report that there has been engagement in the meantime with the Commission by the Polish Government and that the Polish Government has said it will publish a white paper by 20 March, the date on which the three-month period expires. There was a lengthy exchange of views on the issue at the General Affairs Council in February. During this exchange, I reiterated the importance Ireland attaches to respect for the rule of law and the values enshrined in the treaties and I emphasised the need for the current engagement to yield results.

Preparations are now under way for the European Council later this month. As the committee members will know, the spring European Council normally addresses the jobs, growth and competitiveness agenda. The European Council will take place at a time when the European economy is growing at a faster pace than any time in the last decade. The European Commission published its country reports today as part of the European semester process and for the first time they incorporate the principles of the new European pillar of social rights. This report has heretofore been solely focused on economic matters. As a follow-up, the European Council will be asked to endorse the euro area recommendation which, as its name suggests, sets out economic policies for the euro area.

At the European Council in December the focus was on completing the banking union. At this European Council, Heads of State and Government will look at progress to date in the creation of a capital markets union, which Ireland also supports. We particularly welcome progress on measures that advance product markets which can help diversify funding to smaller, dynamic companies.

I should also mention that the European Council will benefit from the Trojan work undertaken last year by the Estonian presidency in advancing the digital agenda. Ireland is a firm supporter of the digital Single Market, DSM, and, although there is still work to be done, we are on target to complete the DSM by the end of this year. A DSM 2 package is expected later this year, but it is important that we keep advancing the legislative proposals already on the table.

The European Council is expected to review the energy union where a lot of progress has been made on the “Clean Energy for All Europeans” package. As a peripheral, less-well-connected country, Ireland believes that the energy union has the potential to greatly enable Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon future, just as the Single Market led to an economic transition for us and other member states.

The European Council will adopt procedural conclusions on the European Commission's strategy for a credible enlargement perspective for, and enhanced EU engagement with, the western Balkans. An ambition of the Bulgarian Presidency is to achieve a clear action plan for each of the countries of the western Balkans, without creating unrealistic expectations.

Ireland shares this objective and wants to work with the Bulgarian Presidency to make the EU-Balkans summit in Sofia in May a success. The Taoiseach and I discussed the summit with Prime Minister Borisov in Sofia in January and last month I visited Belgrade, Sarajevo and Montenegro for consultations with the respective governments there. While there is much work to be done, we recognise the importance that prosperity and stability of the region holds for the European Union as a whole and firmly believe that the prospect of accession should be on offer to each applicant country that makes the necessary reforms to adopt the acquis.

The European Council is expected to frame the preparations for the western Balkans summit. Three deliverables from the summit in May are envisaged and they are: a reaffirmation of the European perspective of the region; launching concrete and visible initiatives to improve the physical and human connectivity within the region and with the EU; and addressing how to better engage together in shared security challenges.

Since we last met, the leaders of the EU 27 decided on 15 December that sufficient progress had been made in phase 1 of the Article 50 negotiations. We were very happy that we achieved the goals that we set out to achieve in phase 1. We secured concrete commitments on the maintenance of the common travel area and on the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, in all its parts, and the gains of the peace process, including guarantees on avoiding a hard border and commitments on how this will be achieved. This was a very significant step and we are extremely grateful to our EU partners for the solidarity they have shown throughout the negotiations.

The move to start discussions on the framework for a future relationship between the EU and the UK is hugely significant for Ireland in light of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland and the importance of our economic relationship with the UK. We have been consistent in our position that it is in Ireland’s interests that there is the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK, including on trade. The optimal outcome would be for the UK to remain in the Single Market and the customs union. However,, as the Prime Minister, Theresa May, confirmed in her speech last week, the UK’s current position is that it wishes to leave both. We look, therefore, towards an ambitious and wide-ranging economic partnership between the EU and the UK that includes a free trade agreement which would eliminate tariffs and minimise non-tariff barriers while ensuring a level playing field for our businesses. There must be a continued advantage to Ireland’s membership of the Single Market.

We are working closely with the Commission task force and our EU partners as we prepare for the European Council, at which we expect further guidelines to be agreed in order to enable detailed discussions to begin on the EU's future relationship with the UK, later this month. We hope that progress on agreeing transitional arrangements can also be made in the coming weeks.

Importantly, the European Council has been clear that progress in phase 2 of the negotiations, which includes the future relationship issues and transitional arrangements, depends on progress being made on translating the commitments made by the UK in phase 1 into legal text through the drafting of the withdrawal agreement. In this regard, we welcome the Commission’s draft withdrawal agreement, including a protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which translates that commitments made by the UK in phase 1 into legally binding text. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland necessarily sets out the backstop option for avoiding a hard border and protecting North-South co-operation. However, we have been clear that our preferred option is to solve these issues through the wider EU-UK future relationship agreement and we stand ready to consider proposals from the UK.

We have now entered a critical juncture in the Article 50 negotiations process as we get closer to the European Council meeting, which will take place in two weeks' time, on 22 and 23 March. I assure the committee that, although this is far from a win-win situation, the Government is working hard, making the case that a strong and well-functioning Single Market is essential to economic growth and job creation and to Ireland’s continued economic development. Any free trade agreement with the UK must ensure that the integrity of the Single Market is protected. We will be firm in arguing that any agreement must protect key sectors of the Irish economy, particularly in light of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.

I know we can count on the support of the committee members in our approach. I thank them for their attention and I will be happy to take any questions.

I thank the Minister of State for that very comprehensive overview of the current situation. We appreciate the time she has put into it. I invite Senator Craughwell to lead off.

I thank and welcome the Minister of State. I also thank her officials for the work they have been doing across Europe. I have attended a number of COSAC and EU presidential meetings and every delegation I met spoke about the Irish border and the Irish problem regarding Brexit. That can only be down to the work of the Tánaiste and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister of State and their officials. People may not fully appreciate the level of effort that has been put in right across Europe to getting this unique Irish problem recognised and encouraging a cohesive response on the part of the 27 member states. The Minister of State is to be congratulated for that.

I have already said privately and I am now going to say publicly that I am always most impressed when I see the Minister of State, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the Taoiseach. They are always at one. It is the type of cohesiveness we need. I am really proud of the work that has been done across the issue.

Brexit is now the secondary problem in Europe. The key problem is migration and the difficulties it is causing right across Europe. The results in recent elections show the impact it has had. It impacted on the UK referendum. We have to get away from the one-size-fits-all approach. If one happens to be on the Mediterranean, one is a refugee. We must start clearly identifying economic migrants and refugees. No country in the European Union would reject genuine refugees. Economic migration is different and those who find themselves in certain parts of eastern Europe - or in Ireland - do not want to be there, they want to be in countries with larger economies such as Great Britain, Germany and France. In order to save the European project, we have to start dealing with this quickly.

The Erasmus+ project has always interested me as an educator and as a person who came to education late in life. We have concentrated quite a lot of those whom I would deem as members of the privileged class who made it to university. I would love to see something similar in the apprenticeship area to drive apprentice-sharing across Europe. There will be a logistics conference in Dublin on 22 March. This will deal with logistics, driver training for the use of heavy good vehicles, etc. There is no Irish representation in that particular group but a former colleague of mine, an assistant general secretary in the TUI, actually attracted that conference. I hope we will see some co-operation on apprenticeships.

The Minister of State addressed social dialogue and the gender pay gap, which is a disgrace. We have been talking about this since Adam was a boy and we still have not started to treat females in the same way that we treat males. It is absolutely outrageous. This morning, I spoke in the Seanad and tomorrow we celebrate 100 years of female suffrage. Look around the Dáil and Seanad and see how many women there are.

Look at the trade union movement. During my period as the president of my union before I came to the Seanad, I recall women having to resign because we could not have family-friendly meetings. I would like to see some serious action in the context of social dialogue. What the Department is doing with the meetings throughout the country on the future of Europe is a good start. We need to build on that.

Permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, is being misrepresented in every corner of Ireland. I am committed to Ireland's non-military alignment. Ireland is not a neutral country. It never was neutral. Nowhere in the Constitution will one find a reference to neutrality. We are militarily non-aligned and there is a vast difference between the two. We need to get the message out there. Government needs to get the message out there that PESCO will allow us to start seriously challenge threats to cybersecurity and the movement of what I call "soft terrorism" across Europe.

We need greater engagement on security. I would prefer if people, when speaking about PESCO, discussed security rather than defence. Defence in Ireland tends to conjure up the notion of uniforms, boots, guns and soldiers. Security, on the other hand, relates more to policing our country. With PESCO, we can tap into resources a little open economy could not possibly expect to manage otherwise.

Recently, at the Brexit conference in Killarney, the issue of the transitional period was addressed by lawyers from the UK and Ireland. These people are distinguished legal brains. It was their view that the transitional period could not be less than five years and was more likely to be closer to ten. Deputy Donnelly will probably have more to say about that than me. He may agree that they were saying ten years made more sense for a transitional period. That we can turn off the lights on the European Union in March next year and move to the next stage is something they do not envisage.

They were not politicians.

No, they were lawyers. I said that.

I thank Senator Craughwell for that contribution but I point out that we have a lot of speakers and we will have to condense contributions a bit more.

I congratulate the Minister of State on her personal input in the portfolio she has been given. She has done herself and the country proud. I compliment her colleagues - the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and other Ministers - who have engaged in the debate on Brexit. They have done extremely well. On that basis, I note that we are coming to a critical stage in the negotiations and should be careful not to go to the end product. We will take each stage as it comes and maintain our position. We will proceed in the clear knowledge that our colleagues in the UK decided of their own volition to leave the European Union. They did not negotiate with anyone as to what the consequences might be in the event that things went wrong. There will be consequences. For example, if a particular arrangement were to emerge whereby the UK was to have the same benefits outside the EU, the Union would be put at risk and it would be only a short time before other countries wanted to do the same. Against that backdrop, we need to continue to be consistent as consistency is important in the negotiations.

The various negotiators have not put a foot wrong, from an Irish perspective, in the context of the island economy, North and South. The Good Friday Agreement has been dealt with extremely well and sensitively and that commitment remains. If the UK leaves the European Union, as it has indicated it will do, it will make an application to return within five years. I cannot see any other option. The logic of where the whole debate is heading is that the intention was to leave at all costs and regardless of the consequences. There will be consequences and they will not be beneficial to the European Union, to Britain, to Ireland or anywhere else. I congratulate the Minister of State on the stance taken by the Irish negotiators and long may it continue.

The engagement on the future of Europe is a very worthwhile exercise. The Minister of State attended Maynooth University and various other locations nationally on this. This engagement is about taking ownership of the European project and, as such, it is hugely important. Instead of remaining aloof from the European Union and saying what it is doing wrong, this is part and parcel of communities within member states taking ownership.

As to immigration, Irish people were economic migrants for many years and we should never turn a blind eye to the fact that we were in this situation ourselves. There is a humanitarian issue and an economic one. There are options of course. We can all decide to rely on investment from south-east Asia, Australia, Canada and other places and send our youth there for jobs in the future or we can encourage investment job creation within this country and the European Union which will, naturally, bring with it people who are pursuing those jobs. We have the option of either going abroad to get our employment or having the jobs here and encouraging people who want to work in various industries to come on board.

On low carbon, it is getting to the point where we need to be able to say to the European Union, environmentalists and ourselves that we can take certain steps which will have a substantial and positive impact on emissions. If we do not do that, it will go on for ever and there will be talk of culling the beef herd and the other nonsense that goes on. There are realistic things we can do, including the electrification of cars and reducing reliance on them. Emission reductions will be achieved in that way without damaging our economy. Let us do the things we can do without too much economic destruction first and after that we can look at the next important issue.

I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy McEntee, and her senior officials. I also welcome the ambassadors and staff from embassies in Ireland who attend regularly. I commend the Chairman on his work meeting ambassadors on a regular basis. He has taken a particular interest in meeting all of the ambassadors, especially those from the European countries but also those from beyond the Union.

The Erasmus+ programme was raised earlier. I agree with Senator Craughwell that there is a need to extend it for practical skills and apprenticeships. There is no reason not to do so. Certainly, I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Erasmus. While I was not on it myself, family members have taken part. It has been one of the best practical policies of the European Union. After the UK leaves in March 2019, I understand it intends to remain within the Erasmus programme and to contribute to it. I hope that is the case.

As to PESCO, it is clear the triple lock remains, which is very important, before we can deploy troops abroad. We are in the United Nations also and people should be happy with that. Ireland is a neutral country. I do not agree with Senator Craughwell in that regard. Neutrality has served us extremely well in the past and many families would not be here today only for our stand. Éamon de Valera, his Government and the united parties at that time took a very brave and correct decision. We should remember that.

I commend what is happening in the negotiations. We have faith in Mr. Barnier and his team. As the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said, we cannot enter into bilateral negotiations with the United Kingdom regardless of whether it likes that stance. It is not in our interests to do so. We are negotiating as part of the 27. This committee has had regular meetings with our counterparts in the United Kingdom and we are going there at the end of March also. It is a very useful exercise to maintain strong dialogue with our United Kingdom colleagues. The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly was deferred last weekend due to weather conditions.

I wish the Minister of State, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Taoiseach and the Government well in the continuing negotiations. In the circumstances, we are all united in this regard and speak with one voice through the Government as to where we stand in this country as far as Brexit is concerned.

I thank the Minister of State and her officials for attending. My singular focus in the Oireachtas is on people with disabilities. In Europe, there are 80 million people with disabilities. The EU, in a very novel act as a non-state party, signed and ratified the UN convention in 2010 or thereabouts. Within its own competencies, it is signed up to delivering on the convention.

I hope and trust that later today the Dáil will be supporting the Government in ratifying the convention. We are the last country in Europe to ratify it and I am very confident that we can stride ahead quite strongly at this stage.

In terms of the future of Europe, it is important to remember that the European Union grew out of the awfulness of the Second World War, beginning with the European Coal and Steel Community and so forth. The same is true of the United Nations. The EU and the UN are two of the good things that came out of that awfulness. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 promised human rights to everybody on the basis that they are human beings. Almost 60 years later, the UN had to announce the need for a convention to make this happen for people with disabilities. That says to us that we did not really get it under our skin that people with disabilities were equally to be honoured in their humanity as other people have been. I know from my work in different states and my involvement with the European Disability Forum, the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities and others that there are legacy issues across Europe. We cannot take it for granted that people with disabilities are going to be properly and well dealt in to the future of Europe and every state within it. Therefore, we have to take very specific measures both at home and across the EU. Poverty, exclusion and loss of hope are the three hallmarks of disability in Europe and elsewhere, regardless of whether one is talking about a well-off or a very poor state. There may be variations in that but these still persist. The multi-annual funding framework, the EU semester and the future of Europe debate are key instruments but how can we make sure that they are used to assist and focus on people with disabilities and their families?

I am concerned about a range of issues relating to Brexit. As things move on, I am seeking reassurance and verifiable evidence that people with disabilities and their interests are being addressed regarding issues of serious concern such as cross-border movement, changes in regulations for items such as assistive technologies, pharmaceuticals and other medical products, service level agreements across borders, the loss of economies of scale in research into and treatment of rare diseases and so on. These concerns must be attended to within the context of the bigger project. On the issue of social cohesion and security, there is an old fashioned way of thinking about security and threats, namely, that they come from outside one's territory. It is a spatial notion, that one could be invaded in some way. However, we have enough evidence now that some threats come from how we treat people in our own states. Often the revolution starts internally. In terms of social cohesion, overtly dealing with people with disabilities and people from different socio-economic backgrounds can help to give a good foundation to a society and make it one that people will want to defend and promote. We must see security as something we can control by having good public interest programmes and the inclusion of people. We must ensure that people are not left on the edges and marginalised and this applies beyond people with disabilities.

I thank the Minister of State for attending today.

I join other speakers in congratulating the Minister of State on all the work being done on the Citizens' Dialogue on the Future of Europe and generally on the Brexit negotiations. The President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, made an important speech today in Luxembourg outlining the EU draft guidelines for negotiations on post-Brexit ties. Is the Minister of State in a position to update us on that and on Ireland's view of the EU's view as outlined by Mr. Tusk? There is cause for concern generally. Mr. Tusk spoke about negative economic consequences in respect of trade and also made reference to the fact that if the UK leaves the customs union and the Single Market, there will be friction in the context of trade. It is becoming clear that Ireland will have to rely on the backstop option which has been put forward if we are to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's views in that regard.

I have a question on PESCO but I appreciate that the Minister of State may not be in a position to answer it now. I understand that the Minister of State at the Department of Defence was in Brussels yesterday where he talked about signing up to two of the projects on the menu, as it were, in respect of PESCO. Does the Minister of State have any further information on that? If not, perhaps she would be able to forward an update on it to us. This is something about which the Dáil should be kept informed.

We had the Irish MEPs in here recently and they are very concerned about the multi-annual financial framework and the deficit in the EU budget post 2020, with the UK leaving the EU. Would it be fair to say that our position on the budget is that we are in favour of retaining CAP and the Cohesion funding, are against a common consolidated corporate tax base and are willing to increase our contribution to the Union? Having listened to the Taoiseach, I believe that is a fair summary of our position but perhaps the Minister of State could confirm that.

In terms of institutional issues, the Irish MEPs, for obvious reasons, were very interested in the position of MEPs post-Brexit and, in particular, in the elections for the European Parliament in 2019. I understand that there is a proposal to redistribute 27 of the 73 European Parliament seats left over following the departure of the UK and that Ireland may get two of those seats. I would welcome any update on that issue from the Minister of State. I note that a suggestion has been made regarding transnational lists for European Parliament elections. I think that has been ruled out in respect of the elections in 2019 but that is something about which we should be concerned. Transnational lists would remove MEPs from the people and would mean that MEPs would become more elitist. That is an issue of which we should be very conscious.

I thank the Minister of State for her address and for her sterling work in recent months on the domestic front and on the European stage. She covered seven issues in her address and within that there are probably around 1 million sub-issues. In that context, I will focus on just one pressing matter but before doing so, I wish to commend the efforts the Department has been making in terms of the debate on the future of Europe. I wish the Minister of State the best of luck in Donegal tomorrow night and urge her to drive safely.

I will focus on Brexit and a number of key questions and issues that have arisen in the last fortnight. In terms of the negotiation guidelines that will come out of the European Council meeting later this month, as Deputy Haughey outlined, Mr. Tusk has referred to the first stage of the free trade area negotiations. The initial guidelines run to six pages but the final text of CETA runs to 1,598 pages. When does the Minister of State think we might see a little bit more meat on the bones? Do we have a concrete timetable for the trade negotiations?

In terms of the most recent suggestions regarding a customs border, avoiding a border on the island of Ireland but also within the United Kingdom as a whole is a joint priority of both the UK and the EU.

We should consider the legal manifestation of the political agreement reached in December, the option C backstop, which I absolutely do not believe will ever be needed. I never want to see it being used. In this regard, I would be much more optimistic than Deputy Haughey. However, the draft text to be agreed at the European Council meeting was very much the representation of the European side. I refer to the European interpretation as it related to paragraph 49 of the political agreement. Do we, or will we, expect a British alternative as it relates to paragraph 50, maintaining there is no border within the United Kingdom as a whole? If so, when do we expect that? We expect a lot from the British side but we have not got much from it so far. This frustration is shared across this State and in the remaining member states. Do we expect a timeline for real suggestions for option B, the supposed imaginative solutions? I do not believe there are any.

The suggestion by Prime Minister May that the US–Canada border might be a solution is downright laughable. I visited that border on a number of occasions, and the Taoiseach visited it in August, and I noted it is absolutely not an acceptable proposal. We need to be very firm with the British side that we will take its suggestions very seriously, but that those suggestions, in turn, must be serious in themselves. That response has to come from the European side. A number of people, particularly on the British side, have suggested it is time that Dublin started to negotiate directly, be it with Belfast or London. That would be the most detrimental approach the Irish Government could take. Our strength is our solidarity. We are remaining within the European Union and the European family. That is probably one of the wisest decisions we will make. We must continue to negotiate as Europe. A direct London–Dublin negotiation is not in our interest. Our best option is option A, a deep and meaningful customs and trading relationship. That can be achieved only on an EU–UK basis.

The Minister of State and her officials are very welcome. As my colleagues have said, she is doing an excellent job in what she is trying to achieve for Ireland in the current difficult discussions. Depending on the week, we either feel we have something positive to work with regarding how Ireland will fare with the fast-approaching Brexit or we note that a different view seems to be presented regarding the island of Ireland and its trade with and through the United Kingdom.

I want to focus on one area, namely, trade in the SME sector. No matter what area one talks about in that sector, there are serious concerns, whether a business is in a Border county, entrenched in the South or in the North. I refer to trade directly with the United Kingdom and our exports via the United Kingdom. Brexit is fast approaching and looks like it will happen although many people in the United Kingdom, Ireland and many other countries hoped it would be reconsidered and put to the people again in a referendum, this time with them having true knowledge rather than being misled. It appears that, in some cases, people were definitely given information that has not turned out to be factual. What solid discussions are being had to deal with trade? A significant volume of our trade to the United Kingdom relates to the food business. There are many food companies in the constituency I represent, and many of them export to the United Kingdom. They are already affected because the current Brexit circumstances are affecting the currency. The cost cannot be passed on to the customers. The businesses are already being impacted negatively. They cannot go back to the customer to get an increase to cover the currency change that has occurred as a result of the current circumstances. The businesses are worried what will happen when Brexit arrangements are confirmed and put in place. They are also worried about exports that go through the United Kingdom. What discussions have been had on this with our European colleagues and the United Kingdom? How can certainty and consistency be achieved so there will not be a negative impact on our export business, including in the agriculture and food sectors, on which we rely so much?

Is there an avenue for additional funding to support the various Departments in seeking trade and other business in other European countries to compensate in the event of a loss of business with the United Kingdom as a result of Brexit? We do not want a loss of business; we want more business. If there were additional resources made available to find additional markets in Europe and if business between Ireland and the United Kingdom were sustained, it would only be positive from a trade perspective. Compensatory business options must be considered, however, in the event of Brexit having a negative impact, which it could well have.

As colleagues have said, there is serious concern over trade and business. We are so dependent on the export trade. I include our food business in this regard. The matter is serious. While there is a lot of talk, there is no real focus on solutions and outcomes. What is the Minister of State's position on that?

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, and her officials. We are glad she is here with us today because everything she is dealing with is very important, nothing more so than the whole question of Brexit. We salute the Minister of State on everything she achieved in phase one in December but now we are in the crucial phase, as my colleagues have just said. We have so much trade with Britain and through Britain to the Continent that it is vital. We know the United Kingdom is not going to remain in the Single Market or customs union but we have to have the closest possible relationship, as the Minister of State appreciates, and there has to be a customs union, in effect. Whatever it is to be called, be it an economic customs union, a partnership or otherwise, it will be vital to the European Union as much as the United Kingdom. I am sure the United Kingdom does not want to abandon the 500 million people in the European Union, so whatever has to happen must happen.

Anything is possible with politicians in negotiations. There will be a lot of bluster but we must not pay attention to that. It is a matter of what will happen behind closed doors in working out a solution. That is vital. I am sure the Minister of State appreciates fully that this is what we have to achieve. It is important for them but it is vital for us. I do not want to add any more at this stage.

I have just three questions I would like to ask on Brexit. The first concerns the transition period. The proposal seems to be that there will be a 21-month period, which is a lot less than we had been hoping for. I understand the Government's position, and certainly that of Fianna Fáil, was that there should be a five-year transition period. Did the Government, through the Minister of State, Minister, Taoiseach or officials, formally request a five-year period? If so, what were the reasons for having a period that is considerably shorter, amounting to less than two years?

My second question is on the Border. The Minister of State said Ireland has achieved guarantees on avoiding a hard border. My fear is that this might be overstating the case. The United Kingdom has reasserted its commitment to no hard border. There is cross-party unity in the Republic regarding the view that there must be no hard border, and no border of any kind with Northern Ireland, yet we see what I believe is a concerted move from British politicians to begin to normalise border controls. They are talking about the US–Canada border in what I believe is a disgraceful normalisation of that type of border. The UK Foreign Secretary has talked about some checks. A leaked letter from him to the Prime Minister refers to 5% border checks. Many believe it was leaked by him or his officials. I have debated with Brexiteer MPs who have recently started talking about the US border.

I have debated with Brexiteer MPs who have started talking recently about the United States border. I believe that is a concerted move. I do not believe the British Government is as committed to not having Border controls as we are in the Republic. I believe some Brexiteers, including some very influential Brexiteers, would sacrifice Border controls around the Six Counties for the type of free market liberal freedom they seem to want. Unfortunately, stating that we have a guarantee that there will not be a hard border is probably overstating it. I very much hope I am wrong on that.

Will the Irish Government be insisting that the backstop, that is, full, ongoing, legally implemented alignment economically across the entire economy North-South, will be the default legal position come the last day of the transition period? Obviously, we would love the United Kingdom to stay in the customs union and the Single Market, which is option A in the December agreement. They said they are not doing that. We are open to them coming forward with a new suite of technologies that no one in the world has ever implemented or invented yet to solve the problem technologically but they have not come forward with that.

Having agreed to this backstop, the Prime Minister stated recently that it threatens the constitutional integrity of the UK. There is expert legal opinion to the effect that it does not and that it should be possible, but will it be the Irish Government's firm position that on the first day after the transition period, if options A and B are not in place, which are technological solutions or ongoing UK alignment to the European Union, there will be legal mechanisms in place and active on the ground that essentially will fully align Northern Ireland to the EU in terms of customs, regulation and standards across the entire economy?

In terms of our own preparations, President Tusk's comments should be very worrying for Ireland. He referenced a free trade agreement, and specifically Canada. He made it very clear that there would be Border checks and that there would not be a frictionless Border. For our companies that means higher costs, reduced competitiveness and the Government's recent report from Copenhagen Economics referencing the threats to many thousands of jobs across the country.

With regard to relaxations to state aid and EU funding for adaptation, in terms of our businesses in agriculture, textiles and manufacturing across the board, we have to figure out how to get higher market penetration into the EU 26 and beyond. Has the Government formally requested that state aid and new EU adaptation funding, or other supports for Irish business in response to Brexit, be added to the agenda? Have they appeared on any of the agendas for meetings the Minister of State has attended at the European Council or any of the other relevant EU committees or are they due to appear on the agenda and be discussed in the coming weeks or months?

The Minister of State certainly has a great deal of food for thought from those questions. I ask her to compile her responses to the questions in the best way possible. We would appreciate her help in that regard.

Absolutely, and to avoid any crossover I will just acknowledge the Deputy or Senator who may have asked the question a second time.

I thank everybody for their comments and questions. Senator Craughwell spoke about migration. Our prerogative in that regard is being committed to addressing the root causes and in all of the work we are doing that has been our sole focus. We have committed to doubling the Africa Fund in the coming years. We are investing more funding and support in Syria than any other project and focusing our dialogue with other larger member states on trying to reach a solution when it comes to the hundreds of thousands of people currently moving throughout central Europe. The biggest debate currently is on the number of people but also the amount of funding individual countries are willing to contribute to these various sources, but that is something that has not been finalised yet. It is a debate that is ongoing.

We have seen a change in the political dynamic throughout Europe in recent years and this is possibly feeding into that. It is an issue we need to address and one that has been on the agenda, certainly since I became Minister of State, but we are committed as much as we can be to taking in as many citizens as possible, supporting them financially however we can do that and, importantly, using our own set of skills to try to focus on the peace process missions for which we are renowned and recognised and contribute where we can to addressing the root cause in these areas.

With regard to the Erasmus+ programme, that has already been agreed to. Ireland has probably used Erasmus more than most European countries and we see the benefit of it. We see it now in primary schools, which are engaging with schools in other European countries. Students are spending a certain amount of time in other countries also. That is starting from a much younger age. Outside of the school scenario we have apprenticeships now, and other social communities and organisations are now becoming part of it. It is becoming much more widespread and it is very much a priority on Ireland's agenda but also that of other European countries.

With regard to the gender pay gap, that is an issue that was tackled by the Treaty of Rome. It was raised again under the Amsterdam treaty, which set out obligations for the EU and individual member states to set out plans. Our Department of Justice and Equality has its own section specifically dealing with equality and gender equality. While I believe we have made significant progress in many areas, and not just in gender pay, I am conscious of a piece in a newspaper last week which showed that there is a further 3% gap. That is something we have to acknowledge and try to tackle.

With regard to Permanent Structured Cooperation, PESCO, the two missions we are talking about are concerned with maritime surveillance but specifically training missions. There are discussions on a third one specifically focusing on cybersecurity and cyberthreats but the main two we have signed up to involve maritime surveillance and training missions.

On the transitional period, which was raised by other members and to which I might return later and deal with in more detail, Deputy Durkan raised the requirement not to go to the end product. He is right in saying that. We need to focus on the particular issues we are dealing with now. It was important to agree the backstop position before Christmas. However, that must always be the last case scenario. We need to focus on options A and B and ensuring that we get the best possible outcome.

On the issue of immigration again, I agree with Deputy Durkan that 70 million people throughout the world claim Irish heritage. As a country our citizens have travelled abroad but to go back to my initial comments, it is important that we invest in examining the root causes of immigration and support people at home to deal with their own economic, health and other issues affecting them.

Regarding climate, there are various areas on which we are focused. New investment and innovation is important, particularly when we talk about renewable energy. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is developing a new plan on renewable energy, particularly focusing on wind, solar, offshore, onshore and other renewable energy sources.

Senator Leyden spoke about the Erasmus+ programme. The programme is being extended and is very much supported.

Senator Dolan raised the issue of disabilities and stated that 80 million people in Europe have a disability. I very much welcome the fact that the Dáil will ratify the EU convention. That is an issue I worked on when I was in the Department of Health because it crosses the areas of mental health, disabilities and justice. There was a huge amount of work to do on it but I very much welcome that this is happening today. There is a renewed focus on the social element that may not have been the case previously.

The social summit in Gothenburg was the start of that. The new semester report, which has been published today, will include a social element for the first time. In particular around the future of Europe debate, we are keen to ensure that the debate focuses on inclusion, dignity and a fairer society. We will co-host a specific event with The Wheel organisation, which represents over 1,000 community organisations and many of which represent people across the board, including people with disabilities, young people and those who feel they have not been represented as well as possible. We have a new Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsible for disability issues, which is an extremely important role and the budget has been increased.

In terms of Brexit and the areas of North-South co-operation, we have identified 142 areas. Health is one element and it is important that the common travel area continues as it allows the movement of people North and South. What will be crucial is the continuation of similar regulations and standards, which we are working towards and forms part of the larger picture and the future framework but it is very much on the agenda. On security, when we talk about addressing the root cause that does not necessarily just apply abroad, it also applies at home. When we talk about supporting and increasing finances we need to ensure that we consider what happens at home. Many of the challenges that arise abroad and in other countries stem from the inequalities that exist those countries' societies. We must consider what happens here and not only abroad in the regard.

Deputy Haughey spoke about the EU draft guidelines and future trade arrangements. Let me check my notes. The EU draft guidelines have been published today. They very much focus on the free trade arrangement and not the Single Market and the customs union. President Tusk merely pointed out that if a country is not in the Single Market and customs union, then it cannot avail of the supports and benefits available. That is why we have consistently stated that in order to achieve all of the things that we want to achieve, and that the UK has clearly said that it wants to achieve, then the best way to do so is to remain in the Single Market and customs union. It is important that we study the new guidelines and they will move on to the next phase. They will have to be agreed at the Council meeting in March. We would like to see more detail from the UK which would influence our draft negotiating guidelines in March. By the time we reach the April meeting of the European Council we will have further details and thus know the exact guidelines that we are negotiating. As of now, we are negotiating on the basis that the Single Market and the customs union are off the table and, therefore, we only have the free trade agreement. We do not know how we can fulfil all of the commitments that have been given by the UK in the absence of further detail from the UK. We have to work with the UK on that matter.

In terms of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, obviously there will be a hole in the budget. A number of countries have clearly indicated they are willing to pay more, of which Ireland is one. We would like to see that our key priorities are taken into consideration. We want the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, completely upheld.

As for cohesion, Ireland will no longer be in receipt of the Cohesion Fund bar the INTERREG and PEACE funding. As a small country, however, we know how beneficial the fund has been and believe other member states should have an opportunity to avail of such funding. In terms of research and development, the continuation of Horizon 2020 is important to Ireland and to other member states. A recent report between Ireland and Germany showed that 10% of the funding provided by Horizon 2020 was given to companies that engaged directly with Irish companies. The scheme has a direct and an indirect impact on Ireland. These are key areas that we want continued. We are very aware that member states have other priorities such as migration, security and defence and climate change and, therefore, this debate is ongoing. We are very clear that CAP, the Cohesion Fund, research and innovation are our top priorities. We are willing to pay more but there needs to be a European added value to everything that is done and in everything that we do.

The redistribution of seats in the European Parliament has been formally agreed and it looks like Ireland will receive two additional seats. As Deputy Haughey has pointed out, the issue of transnational lists was raised at the last meeting. Agreement was not reached so the matter will continue to be discussed and debated. Member states have differing views on the matter. It is important that we engage in new proposals. We will probably not see a change, if any, until the next European elections, which will not take place for some time.

Senator Richmond mentioned Brexit and the current position thereon. We need to consider the negotiating guidelines that have just been published. The 27 member states must reach agreement on the negotiating guidelines, which will happen on 22 and 23 March.

On the withdrawal agreement for the customs border, again the 27 member states must agree the draft Bill that was published last week. The UK has already reacted but this draft Bill still has to be agreed by the 27 member states. What we have asked for, and I think what the UK has agreed to do, is to discuss the existing Bill. I do not think the UK will come with its own wording. I think the UK will come with the anticipation that we will hope to reach an agreement based on the text that has been approved. What is extremely important in this regard, and was said during the first five minutes of Prime Minister May's speech last Friday, was that the UK is committed to what was agreed to before Christmas. While there seems to be a differentiation in how that can be translated into a legally binding text, we are at the beginning of that stage. We need to work with the UK, through the European Union, to make sure that we are all very clear about what was agreed and that the language is very clear. Sections 49 and 50 are extremely important in that regard. Another paragraph in the agreement before Christmas also talks about any proposal that would reintroduce barriers, customs or associated checks. To us, that is equally as important as the language used in sections 49 and 50, which was very clearly agreed before Christmas as well.

Deputy O'Rourke and Senator Coghlan asked about trade. Since the referendum took place, one of the very first things the Irish Government did was to ask each Department to identify possible challenges posed by Brexit and how a soft Brexit and hard Brexit might impact on the industries and sectors that Department represented. The Departments are also trying to identify what needs to be done, if anything, in all of those scenarios whether it is introducing new legislation or additional financial and other supports. That work is being compiled and co-ordinated through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and is chaired by the Minister, Deputy Coveney. A number of measures have been put in place. Last year, our budget provided a €300 million Brexit loan scheme fund, which was officially put in place this month. We also have €25 million additional funding, particularly for the agrifood and drinks sector. We have additional funding for State agencies like Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland in order that they can work with companies to ensure they are Brexit-proof and can address all of the possible challenges, that they are looking to diversify, can adapt and change and can adopt the skillsets they may need. We have already seen a slight change as some of the markets have moved from the UK to the rest of Europe. When it comes to food, and the agrifood and drinks sector, we are very conscious about that aspect.

We have an Action Plan for Jobs. It is looking at ways to ensure that all of our proposed plans are as Brexit-proof as possible. Our financial services sector has a plan for the period right up to 2030. We are re-evaluating all of the various proposals and trying to ensure they are Brexit-proofed. Project Ireland 2040 is a national framework plan that proposes to spend €116 billion. Brexit is very much part of that plan. We want to ensure, irrespective of the outcome, that our economy continues to grow. We will also invest in a number of key infrastructural projects that link the North and South.

We are also looking at doubling our global footprint, which means not just opening new embassies but strengthening our embassies within Europe to make sure we can further diversify and work within Europe but also further afield. The challenges we face were clearly highlighted in the Copenhagen report, which was commissioned independently. It considers four different scenarios that we might find ourselves in based on the UK remaining with the EEA, an FTA, a customs union and the WTO, which is the worst-case scenario. It sets out in the different scenarios in terms of what would happen if the Government did nothing. I have outlined a number of actions that have been taken in the absence of knowing what the relationship will be. We are working to ensure that, irrespective of the outcome, our SMEs and large industries are impacted as little as possible.

With regard to Deputy Donnelly’s comments, we have achieved the guarantees in as far as we can. We achieved what we needed to in phase one. We are now ensuring that it is translated into a legally binding text and we are at the beginning of that process given the document was only published last week. While we may hear various different voices, we still have to sit down, through the EU, with the UK and negotiate the guarantees to ensure they go into a legally binding text. We are at the beginning of that but as far as we are concerned, we have achieved the guarantees in so far as we can to date and we will do everything in our power to ensure what was agreed is honestly translated into a withdrawal Bill, including those commitments. When the backstop that will come into play has not been set out yet. It is the last-case scenario for us. There must be a set timelines for it and it must be implemented but it would have to be agreed between the EU and the UK as we work through the withdrawal Bill. That will take time and we are only at the start of that process.

Donald Tusk pointed out the reality in today’s announcement that if the UK is to leave the Single Market and the customs union, there will be implications. However, we have to work on the basis of the UK’s commitment to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland to ensure we protect the peace process. That is what we are focusing on now. I will come back to the Deputy with more detail on the question of the relaxation of state aid.

The reason 31 December 2020 was chosen as the deadline for the transition period is that date is the end of the financial framework and to go beyond that would cause further complications. While we might like an extended period, we agreed that there needed to be a set timeframe and this is the most realistic date. If there is a requirement to extend that, it was said at the Council meeting that the possibility is there. However, we are working towards the timeline of 31 December 2020.

I am sorry we hit the Minister of State with so many questions but we appreciate the engagement. On behalf of the committee members, the secretariat and myself, I thank her and her officials for attending. Even if she is a Minister of State on top of her game, it is not easy to take so many questions in one go but we appreciate the effort she made and the comprehensive answers she gave. Later this month, a number of colleagues and I will visit the House of Commons for a number of important meetings, which we hope will be fruitful. We look forward to future engagement with the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed in private session at 3.30 p.m.
The joint committee adjourned at 3.40 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Wednesday, 28 March 2018.