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.