I thank the Chairman and committee members for their invitation to this meeting. It is important that we meet every few months because it give us an opportunity to engage on the relevant issues. I join the Chairman in acknowledging the importance of languages. Having spent the past year engaging with students, universities and our European colleagues, I recognise that the development of languages in this country is important in the context of strengthening those relationships.
Before we get into the detail of Brexit, the MFF, the rule of law, migration and many of the other issues on the agenda, I would like to pause to remember a dear friend and colleague, the ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, H.E. Petrus Kok, who unfortunately passed away recently. His death was sudden and it was a shock to many people. He was very much loved and admired. He was someone I got to know in recent months and I found him to be enthusiastic and dedicated to his job and to representing his country. I offer my condolences to his wife and children. Our thoughts are with them at this difficult time.
I will start with the issue that is uppermost in everyone's mind at the moment, namely Brexit. Negotiations resumed on 16 August following a short summer recess and have been going on continuously since then. EU leaders reviewed progress during the informal European Council summit held in Salzburg last week. As President Tusk made clear in his remarks following the summit, all partners were agreed that there would be no withdrawal agreement without a solid, operational and legally binding Irish backstop. Leaders reaffirmed their full support for Mr. Michel Barnier and his efforts on this, including his efforts to de-dramatise the backstop. A legally operable backstop which avoids a hard border and protects the integrity of the Single Market is essential to agreeing the withdrawal agreement so as to provide certainty that no matter what the outcome of the negotiations on the future relationship, there will not be a hard border on the island of Ireland.
It is imperative that the UK in these final stages of the negotiations engages with the issues identified in the protocol to try to achieve progress by the October European Council. The UK has provided a guarantee on avoiding a hard border. It has made this clear commitment a number of times and it has agreed that a backstop must be included in the overall withdrawal agreement. There are now just weeks left to deliver on these commitments and to conclude the overall agreement. We encourage the UK to come forward with those proposals.
Despite what some people might think, the European Council meeting on 18 October remains the target to achieve maximum progress and results in these negotiations. At that meeting, Ireland and its EU partners will then decide if conditions are sufficient to call an extraordinary summit in November to finalise and formalise the deal. Progress on the backstop will be an essential part of that decision. If there is nothing to deal with at the October meeting, it is hard to understand what we would discuss at another summit at a later date.
Time is running short. As the Taoiseach said again last week in Salzburg, we need to redouble our efforts over the coming weeks to ensure we can successfully complete negotiations and agree a deal. In this regard, it is welcome that last Friday, the UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, promised to come forward with proposals on the backstop. These proposals should be tangible and should be tabled urgently so that the negotiating teams can engage constructively on finalising the legal text of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.
In addition to our ongoing and intensive efforts to secure a good outcome for Ireland from the negotiations, the Government has been responsible and measured in its approach to preparing for Brexit. Our work has intensified in recent months and is well advanced. A whole-of-government response is being taken forward through the cross-departmental co-ordination structures chaired by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, at the helm. As well as the work at home, this helps us engage actively with the European Commission’s Article 50 task force and its Brexit preparedness unit on areas where the lead policy role lies with the EU. Last week, the Cabinet approved the latest phase of this preparedness planning relating to staffing. This included the phased recruitment of 450 additional staff, expected in 2019, including additional customs, veterinary and food safety inspectors. This follows from Brexit-preparedness measures, focused on east-west trade only. This was agreed at the last Cabinet meeting in July.
Contingency planning for a no deal outcome, bringing together the detailed work being undertaken by individual Ministers and their Departments, was identified as an early priority and is well advanced. It has focused on the immediate economic, regulatory and operational challenges that would result from such an outcome. It looks at all the possible outcomes ranging from what we hope will be the closest relationship to a possible no deal scenario.
All the efforts I have described have been undertaken in parallel with a nationwide public information and outreach campaign, entitled "Getting Ireland Brexit Ready", which was launched last week by the Tánaiste, together with the Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and Creed. The campaign has two main aims. The first goal is this is a whole-of-government communications effort, using online resources and outreach activities to build public awareness of implications from Brexit in areas such as access to goods and services, travel and other areas, and the practical steps that can be taken to prepare in each case. The second goal is to build further awareness among the public and businesses on the steps being taken by Government, and the various financial and other supports that are available to them to assist them in their Brexit preparedness.
Government agencies and Departments have been running events throughout the country for some time. Next week on 5 October, the first of a series of governmental information and outreach events will be held in Cork. We are keen to work with the committee on these outreach events and the Tánaiste is in the process of writing to all committee members and others to ask for their assistance in sharing details of these events with constituents more broadly. We want as many people as possible to attend and be aware of the supports and information that is available. The Chairman's help with that would be greatly appreciated.
This work will continue and intensify in the coming months. The Brexit negotiations are still ongoing, which means there are many uncertainties. However, irrespective of the outcome, change is coming, and through our communication and support efforts, we are making every effort, online and otherwise, to ensure that the citizens and businesses are as prepared as they can be for when it happens.
Last week the GAC, which I attended, debated the MFF for the period 2021 to 2027. As the committee knows, the Commission tabled its proposal for the next MFF in May and the individual legislative proposals for CAP, Cohesion, Erasmus and Horizon Europe followed in the subsequent weeks. The Commission's proposal is for a modern, simplified and more flexible budget of the order of €1.135 trillion, equivalent to 1.11% of the EU 27's GNI.
The scale and complexity of the EU's budget mean that the negotiations will take time and effort. The Austrian Presidency has set a challenging pace. Sectoral councils and working groups have begun examining the individual proposals that make up the substance of the budget. A specific working group is looking at the structure of the budget and how it will be financed. A Presidency questionnaire was circulated to member states in July for completion by September and those responses formed the basis of a Presidency report that was presented last week. The focus at the GAC was on the two questions of whether the MFF proposal reflects EU policy priorities and European added value, and whether those priorities are reflected in the proposed allocations of EU funds.
As expected, such broad questions drew a broad range of responses, reflecting a variety of views around the table. In my intervention, I welcomed the work to date and encouraged the quick pace and agreement in 2019. I said that I believed our policy priorities are reflected in the budget but that they need to be adequately funded. In saying that, I was minded of course of the CAP, where we do not feel the right balance has been reached yet. Expenditure on agriculture helps support 44 million jobs throughout the EU, representing just under 20% of overall jobs. It contributes to rural sustainability, food security, animal welfare and environmental standards, all of which are clearly in the interests of the EU and provide European added value. We know that every penny invested in rural communities has a ripple effect, nearly tenfold in many communities.
The CAP post-2020 is presented with new and upcoming challenges particularly in the areas of the environment, climate change, biodiversity and health. The new CAP proposals make it clear that European agriculture needs to bring a stronger focus to the protection of the environment. Supporting farm incomes will be central to achieving this objective. There is growing support for the proposal to make provision for the restoration of the CAP budget for the 2021 to 2027 period to current levels. Up to 20 member states have joined this alliance and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, is pressing that case in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council.
At the GAC, I also welcomed investment in research and innovation to help the EU economy to keep moving with the fast-paced challenges in the global economy. I welcomed the focus on young people with a greatly expanded Erasmus programme and particularly the suggestion to double spending on young people. Finally, I reminded Ministers that the budget needs to be flexible to deal with potential negative impacts of Brexit. We do not know what the consequences will be, but it is important that that is part of the overall psyche of the budget.
As I have said previously at this committee, the MFF negotiations will be particularly challenging for Ireland. This is the first time we will negotiate an EU budget without a British contribution. It is also the first time Ireland will be a net contributor from the outset. As our economy recovers and grows, while it is positive, it means that our contribution to the EU will also grow in tandem with that. In recognition of the broader value of our EU membership, the Government has stated that Ireland is open to considering an increased MFF contribution, but we can only do so provided that our core interests are met and European added value is ensured. The GAC is likely to return to this every month when we meet. We will have much more to discuss in the coming months around this committee as well.
On the rule of law, since taking office in November 2015, the Polish Government has passed legislation making changes to the country's judiciary. These changes, in particular those to the composition and functioning of Poland's Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court, have prompted considerable protest and criticism. Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union sets out the values upon which the Union is founded. These include the rule of law. Article 7 of the same treaty sets out a mechanism for determining whether there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a member state of the values referred to in Article 2.
The most recent developments are as follows. In July, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure regarding the law on the Supreme Court, which changed the retirement age of judges. The Commission maintains that this law undermines the principle of judicial independence and is therefore incompatible with EU law. Separately, on 6 August, the Polish Supreme Court applied to the Court of Justice of the European Union, ECJ, for guidance on five provisions in Poland’s new supreme court law. A preliminary ruling from the ECJ on these elements is expected in October.
In August, the European Commission sent a reasoned opinion to Poland, the next step in its infringement procedure on the supreme court law. Poland issued a communiqué on 14 September stating it has comprehensively addressed the Commission’s concerns regarding compliance of the supreme court law with EU law, which it considers groundless. The first judicial appointments under the supreme court law have been made by the Polish President, with ten judges appointed to join the newly created disciplinary chamber of the supreme court. On 24 September, the Commission decided to refer Poland to the ECJ due to the violations of the principle of judicial independence created by the new supreme court law. The Commission also asked the ECJ to order interim measures, restoring Poland's Supreme Court to its situation before the new laws were adopted. An expedited procedure was requested in order to obtain a final judgment as soon as possible.
Ireland has consistently supported the Commission on this and we have emphasised that dialogue between Poland and the Commission needs to result in substantive outcomes that address the concerns that have been identified. We know dialogue has continued between the Commission and the Polish Government at various levels and the issue has been discussed by Ministers at the GAC at successive meetings this year, including two detailed hearings on the issue at the Council in June and again last week, when the Commission provided useful updates. We had meaningful engagement between Poland and other member states. The Council may return to the issue for a "state of play" at its meeting next month in Luxembourg. Earlier this month, the European Parliament adopted a reasoned proposal, inviting the GAC to determine whether there is a clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the EU is founded. This is likely to feature on the agenda for the next meeting of the GAC as an information point from the Austrian Presidency.
As members may know, migration dominated the discussions at the European Council in June and there was another lengthy session on the issue at the informal summit in Salzburg last week. The Austrian Presidency has highlighted this as a key priority and been holding bilateral meetings with member states. It will present a progress report on the issues discussed in June at the European Council next month. These include regional disembarkation platforms, "controlled centres" and reform of the common European asylum system, especially the Dublin regulation under which asylum applications are assessed in the member state where the migrant first enters the EU. Ireland is keen to find a consensus based on a balance of responsibility and solidarity and, with respect to the proposed platforms and centres, one which respects international law and the standards of the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration.
Ireland has played a constructive role by opting into relocation and resettlement measures, by contributing naval vessels and by increasing our humanitarian contributions. We have shown solidarity over the summer months by pledging to take migrants from three vessels which docked in Mediterranean ports and where there was a struggle to find locations for the migrants. We welcome the renewed focus on relations with Africa as it will be crucial in the long term to address the root causes of migration. In that regard, we made an initial pledge of €3 million, then €6 million and now €15 million to that fund. The Austrian Presidency will co-host an Africa summit in Vienna in December and preparations are under way for an EU-Arab League summit in early 2019.
Before I conclude, I will comment on the referendum next Sunday in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Skopje and Athens have shown courage and leadership in reaching a deal on a new name for the state, the Republic of North Macedonia. I do not want to underestimate how emotional and challenging this issue has been for the people for many years but this is an historic opportunity, which will strengthen the case for opening EU accession talks over the coming years for the relevant countries. Turnout will be key on Sunday if the necessary threshold is to be achieved. I urge the entire electorate to exercise their democratic right and civic duty by seizing this opportunity and endorsing the deal on the name.
I thank the committee and the Chairman, in particular, for the support demonstrated for our citizens' dialogues. I do not have time to give an exhaustive account of this initiative but I hope the date will be Friday, 12 October for the launch of our narrative report, the next milestone in the process before we submit our overall agenda to the Romanian summit next May, when the EU is expected to prepare a new strategic agenda on this.