2018 State of the Union Address and Related Matters: European Commission Representation in Ireland

I remind members to put mobile phones on silent or airplane mode.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Gerry Kiely, head of representation of the European Commission Representation in Ireland, and Mr. Andy Klom to our meeting to discuss the 2018 state of the Union address and all that flows from it. As members will be aware, President Juncker's address is the first in an annual legislative and policy process so it is much more important than just a speech. It is the European Commission's plan for the year ahead, and it is likely to be a very busy and important year. It will be a European Parliament election year and President Juncker's last year as President of the Commission.

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.

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. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. They are well aware of their responsibilities in this regard.

I ask Mr. Kiely to make his opening remarks before I open the floor to questions and comments from our colleagues.

Mr. Gerry Kiely

I thank the Vice Chairman, Deputies and Senators for the opportunity to present on the 2018 state of the Union address. I will also touch on the 2019 work programme.

President Juncker delivered his 2018 state of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in September. He presented his priorities for the year ahead and outlined his vision for how the European Union can continue to build a "more united, stronger and more democratic Union". In his speech he indicated that while, economically speaking, things are going well, much remains to be done. Europe's economy has grown for 21 consecutive quarters; 12 million new jobs have been created since 2014; more people are working in the EU today than ever before, which is also true in Ireland; and the European Fund for Strategic Investments, also known as the "Juncker fund", has triggered €336 billion worth of public and private investment. In fact, at this stage that figure is up to €400 billion. The EU has trade agreements with 70 countries around the world, covering 40% of the world's GDP. These agreements help us to export not alone our goods and services, but also Europe's high standards for food safety, workers' rights, the environment and consumer rights. The European Union accounts for one fifth of the world's economy. With regard to trade agreements, the European Commission yesterday presented a study showing that EU trade with third countries accounts for approximately 36 million jobs, 690,000 of which are in Ireland. It is more surprising that the 690,000 jobs in Ireland create another 390,000 jobs in other member states.

They are jobs created thanks to trade with third countries.

In his speech President Juncker stated, "United, as a Union, Europe is a force to be reckoned with." However, against the backdrop of an ever more uncertain world, while emphasising that he wanted to champion multilateralism, he also stressed the need for it to become more sovereign so as to be able to play a role in shaping global affairs. He said:

The geopolitical situation makes this Europe's hour: the time for European sovereignty has come. It is time Europe took its destiny into its own hands.

This belief that "united we stand taller" is the very essence of what it means to be part of the European Union. Sharing sovereignty – when and where needed – makes each of our nation states stronger.

Regarding our proposals, President Juncker's speech was accompanied by the adoption of 18 concrete initiatives by the European Commission on migration and borders, security, free and secure elections, the European Union's partnership with Africa and the Union as a global actor.

On security, we proposed new rules to get terrorist content off the web; measures to secure free and fair European elections; a reinforced European public prosecutor's office to fight cross-border terrorism; and initiatives to invest in cybersecurity.

On migration and border reform, we proposed a reinforced European Union agency for asylum; a fully equipped European border and coast guard service; stronger rules for the return of illegal entrants; and a route towards legal migration.

Regarding Africa, we proposed a new Africa-Europe alliance for sustainable investment and jobs, with a focus on investment and business partnerships, rather than on aid, as would have been the case in the past.

Regarding Common Foreign and Security Policy, we proposed improving the efficiency of the decision-making process. The European Commission considers that it is no longer acceptable that we need unanimity merely to issue a statement on some foreign issues.

We also proposed putting an end to seasonal clock changes, basically taking away the decision and giving it back to member states.

We proposed stronger anti-money laundering supervision for a stable banking and financial sector.

These proposals are intended to help to deliver positive results for citizens by the time of the European Council's summit in Sibiu on 9 May 2019 and ahead of the 2019 European elections. Based on this, the European Commission will continue to work hard for the remainder for 2018 and throughout 2019. There are three goals on which we must focus: delivering what we have promised to deliver; overcoming the challenges that are holding us back; and giving the European Union a perspective for the future.

The European Commission has delivered all of the legislative proposals it committed to making in the ten priorities set out by President Juncker in 2014. Together with the European Parliament and the Council, it has found agreement on 50% of the proposals, while a further 20% are well advanced in the legislative process. However, 30% need a lot more work. It is essential that we deliver on our joint commitments by the time of the European elections in 2019. To ensure the European Parliament and the Council can focus fully on what is on the table, the Commission is only making a very limited number of new proposals.

We also need to face up to several important outstanding challenges with which we need to deal collectively and decisively. The challenges are in the field of migration, reinforcing EMU, tensions in the global trading system, the rule of law in some member states and, last but not least, finding agreement with the United Kingdom to ensure its orderly withdrawal from the European Union. Regarding the latter, President Juncker repeated the message that the European Commission, the European Parliament and all 26 member states would always show loyalty to, and solidarity with, Ireland when it came to the issue of the Irish Border. This message has been reiterated many times since, not least in the withdrawal agreement endorsed by the European Council on Sunday last. President Juncker also noted that the United Kingdom would always be a very close neighbour and partner and never an ordinary third country.

We want to give a perspective for the future and, therefore, need to prepare for the Sibiu summit in May 2019. The summit will take place six weeks after Brexit and two weeks before the European elections. It will be a crucial moment for EU leaders to provide renewed confidence in the future of the Union of 27. The summit in Sibiu will be the moment when we will have to offer all Europeans a strong perspective for the future.

We have tabled a proposal for the Multi-annual Financial Framework for the period 2021 to 2027, but we also have proposals for strengthening the international role of the euro and the decision-making tools for Common Foreign and Security Policy. President Juncker has called on the European Parliament and the Council to adopt the proposals presented by the European Commission in the past four years in the light of the European elections that will be taking place in six months' time, but he has also said we are all responsible for the Europe of today and, therefore, must all take responsibility for the Europe of tomorrow. He has stressed that Europe must be an active player and an architect of tomorrow's world.

In line with the direction set out in the state of the Union speech of September and the letter of intent sent to the European Parliament and the Council, the European Commission adopted its work programme for 2019 on 23 October. As the committee will be aware, every year the Commission adopts a work programme in which it sets out the list of actions it will take in the year ahead. The work programme informs the public and co-legislators of the Commission's political commitments to present new initiatives, withdraw pending proposals and review existing EU legislation. In its work programme for 2019 the Commission follows the three main priorities to which I have alluded. They are: reaching swift agreement on the legislative proposals presented; adopting a limited number of new initiatives to address outstanding challenges; and presenting several initiatives with a future perspective for a Union of 27. The 2019 work programme focuses on only 15 new initiatives and an additional ten new REFIT evaluations to review existing legislation and ensure it is still fit for purpose. To ensure a focus on delivery, the Commission's work programme also lists 45 pending priority proposals for adoption by the Parliament and the Council before the European elections. The Commission also suggests withdrawing or repealing 17 pending proposals or existing laws.

Our priority in the year ahead will be to get the green light on as many outstanding proposals as possible. Most of them are of importance to Ireland such as those in the field of trade. For instance, we want to ratify the EU-Japan partnership agreement. We want to conclude the agreements with Singapore and Vietnam and modernise the agreement with Mexico. We want to make rapid progress in negotiations with New Zealand and Australia and champion the multilateral trading system. Others which, equally, are of great importance to Ireland are more in the field of completing the digital Single Market which is considered to be of importance here, adopting the circular economy package or addressing the social dimension of the European Union and even adopting the proposals on fair taxation in the digital economy.

On the next steps to be taken, the European Commission's work programme was adopted in October. It will be our agenda for the next 12 months. The December European Council should discuss the Commission's proposals for the Multi-annual Financial Framework. The March 2019 European Council should discuss EMU issues and trade. I always use the word "should" because foreseen agendas tend to be hijacked by events, but this is the plan. The European Parliament and the Council should decide on as many legislative proposals as possible before the Parliament's term comes to an end in advance of the European elections in May 2019. This should be followed by the informal European Council on 9 May in Sibiu in Romania where the EU Heads of State and Government will gather for the first time after the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union and also for the last time before the European elections of 2019. As said, it will be the moment to offer all Europeans a strong perspective for the future. The European Parliament elections will take place from 23 to 26 May. Following the elections, at the June European Council, the 27 member states should adopt a new strategic agenda for the period 2019 to 2024 which will guide the work of the European Union for the next five years. The June European Council should also decide on a number of high level appointments following the European Parliament elections, including the next European Commission President, the next European Council President and the next High Representative and Vice President for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Clearly, 2019 will be a year of change. However, it will also be the year when the Juncker Commission will come to the end of its five-year mandate and hopes to show that it has focused consistently on the challenges which can only be addressed by collective European action.

Our 2019 work programme contains no surprises. We have made all the proposals needed but now they must be agreed by the co-legislators and their benefits implemented in practice by the member states. We will look to the future with initiatives to ensure that tomorrow's Union of 27 has an optimistic vision for a fair and sustainable future for all Europeans.

I thank our representative for coming before the committee at this very important time. It is no harm to mark the success of the European Union and its successfully-concluded negotiations with the UK in respect of Brexit. None of us would be supportive of Brexit but it was not in our control. Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and Frans Timmermans displayed great vigour and dedication to the job in hand. They stuck with it and were supported by all the member states and we have a lesson to learn from that. Europe is going to go in the direction in which we, the European people, want it to go. If it should emerge that neonationalism, towards which there is some tendency at present, becomes the order of the day, I would be pessimistic about where we might be heading.

If we want reassurance about this, a good thing to do would be to take out our history books and carefully read about the era from 1929 or 1930 to 1945 or 1946. Recently, I read some of the records of that era and they were appalling. Man's inhumanity to man was just appalling. The European Union, which followed as a result of that, brought member states together in a way that reminded them not to go in that direction again. With the passage of time, a restlessness takes over and people begin to look at the horizon and feel their strength again. They think about the things they can do and start to believe their association with others is holding them back, and that is not a good sign.

Insofar as we can ascertain right now, the structures are in place to continue and the commitment must prevail. We would hope to see the UK back in the Union again because the Union is lesser for being without the UK. I will not quote John Donne, but the EU needs a country the size of the UK, and Europe is weaker for its absence. It may well be that everybody harks back to the good old days but we have to ask which good old days we are talking about. There is great hope for the future, provided the Union prevails and people do not take their eye off the ball and go off in a different direction. In particular, we should encourage each member state to bring to the Union something that is positive and no member state should feel it is outside the Union. We are all Europeans

I thank Mr. Kiely for his clear and factual presentation. It is useful to us to know what is planned in the year ahead. There are reasons to be optimistic over the future of the European Union. Brexit was a shock to the system but many citizens have come to realise the benefits of the European Union, both here in Ireland and in other EU member states. People have become conscious of what the European Union stands for as a result of the shock Brexit vote. However, there are threats and Mr. Kiely mentioned one of them in his presentation, namely, migration. Migration is one of the big issues the European Union must now face. In that regard, I welcome the commitment by the Commission and the European Council in respect of Africa and external investment. A new Africa-Europe alliance for sustainable investment and jobs has been announced along with a more efficient financial architecture for investment outside the EU. It is important to develop relationships with Africa, ultimately for its benefit but also to stem the flow of migration to the European Union. It should aim to ensure that failed nation states become sustainable again and grow and prosper economically. Migration has impacted on the politics of Europe and we have seen the rise of far-right parties, alongside a decline in liberal and democratic values in some states, and we must be conscious of this.

I note the "onwards and upwards" comments of President Juncker and I worry about ongoing talk of further integration. We do not need integration just for the sake of it and there have been soundings from the Franco-German axis in this regard. We need to be very careful about it and any further integration needs to be clearly justified to the citizens and must have practical benefits. Is there talk of treaty change in this context? Can all the reforms and plans be accommodated within the existing treaties? As we know in this country, referendums are a tricky business and any change has to have public support and be clearly justified.

I thank Mr. Kiely for making himself available to us again. The European project has been the greatest success in modern history but also, in some ways, the greatest failure. The success is in the way every aspect of Irish life has developed and changed in the 45 or so years in which we have been members. The benefit to this country has been phenomenal. The failure is that it has become a bureaucratic animal that is somewhat detached from citizens on the ground. The work of Mr. Timmermans on subsidiarity might change that over time and I hope it does because one of the great strengths of the European Union is our diversity. We recognise that no two countries are the same and I hope that continues to be the case. There is no way to make a single culture throughout Europe so we must respect the cultures of all our neighbours and friends in Europe.

I would like to see a Europe that gets closer to the citizens in the post-2019 election era.

There is a greater need for engagement at the lowest possible level, the level of the citizen. That may put a lot of pressure on the delegates' office in the forthcoming elections. That is where Europe wants to go anyhow. While we have enjoyed the benefits of Europe, we have very quickly forgotten where they are coming from. When we are constantly getting goodies from the table and nobody is telling us how they are being paid for or brought about, we need a much better understanding among citizens. Students going through university are very aware of the benefits of being members of the European Union but that does not necessarily mean everyone is. The farming community is aware but I sometimes wonder whether farmers regard themselves as members of the Union where the Common Agricultural Policy is concerned and really do not put a lot of thought into it beyond that context. I do not know the position on that.

I hope we will not see any treaty change in light of Brexit. God forbid that we would bring that down on top of ourselves.

With regard to the point made on security, there is no doubt but that there is a threat to the security of Europe. There is a long-held view in Ireland that this is a neutral country. That, of course, is not true. We are militarily non-aligned, which is vastly different from being neutral. I cannot envisage our status within Europe changing, however, notwithstanding the fact that we have agreed to become part of PESCO. We can take from PESCO the elements we want. I become a little concerned when I hear President Juncker and others talking about the establishment of some form of European defence force. That will not sit well with the Irish.

The issue of migration is a bigger issue than Brexit. Brexit will come and go, and commerce will survive. The migration issue is a different one. I am interested in hearing the representatives' thoughts on the fact that we have moved migration from the Mediterranean back to Libya. What sort of monitoring is taking place in Libya of the asylum seekers, refugees or economic migrants? What supervision is there of their treatment by Europe? Europe has clearly blocked the road in. We have provided incentives to the north Africans, including those on the coast of north Africa, to find alternatives to people losing their lives in the Mediterranean. If this is locking them into some sort of internship and if they are being treated badly, however, it would be terrible. Have the delegates any information on that?

I am delighted we are talking about investing in jobs in Africa. That is the only way to keep people there. Let us be honest that the migration from central Africa is all economic. Unless we provide incentives for people to stay at home, the migration will continue. Who could blame the migrants?

Mr. Kiely will be well aware that we claim 70 million Irish people worldwide. That is all down to migration from this country. This is an important point. I am interested to know whether we are managing the inward migration.

With respect to Brexit specifically, we had a lot of discussion at COSAC on the expansion of Frontex. Version 2 or version 2.1 of Frontex is on the way. It will see some 10,000 personnel employed in border management. Although some of my colleagues will disagree with me, I have never held the position that there will be an open border in Ireland in a post-Brexit world. There will be free movement, or movement as free as it possibly could be. Do the witnesses envisage Frontex being brought into this country? While we might want to cross the Border with goods and services and while we might want people travelling over and back to work, I wonder how long the Europeans would tolerate migration through the Irish open border. Will there be a Frontex presence here?

That concludes what I have to say. I thank the witnesses once again for attending.

With regard to what Deputy Haughey and Senator Craughwell said, any question of a further referendum would be very dangerous at this stage, bearing in mind that the wisdom of the Irish people was to vote down the Lisbon treaty. That treaty created Article 50. We were a very wise people in the first days. I do not know how Britain could exit had we not voted for the Lisbon treaty the second time round. That is another day's work.

With regard to migration, we must bear in mind our responsibilities. No country has suffered more from emigration than Ireland. We have to be very aware of that. I am not sure the Government is adopting the right approach to providing facilities. We are aware of the circumstances in Moville, County Donegal, in Wicklow town, where there is a lot of opposition, and in Shannon Key West Hotel in Roosky, a small village with roughly 500 residents that is to take 100 more. The facilities in Roosky are not in place. The residents are very much aware of the difficulties facing the Syrians, Iraqis and Libyans and are very supportive but the town needs to be provided with proper facilities for migrants. They are living in bad conditions. They are not allowed to cook their own food. This is not a good model. The Mosney model is better. Mosney was a tourist camp. It was well built and people were housed in separate buildings. The Government should consider a better arrangement, bearing in mind that we have committed to bringing 3,500 migrants into Ireland in the next few years. The circumstances of the migrants in Ballaghaderreen are not the best. There are medical conditions and problems internally. I am not in any way criticising. The Government is doing its best in the circumstances but it should examine the conditions, maybe in conjunction with the public. Smaller villages are really not suitable. There is no outlet for the migrants. They are contained in the facility all day and have nowhere to go and nothing to do. It is not a good model. It is not necessarily Mr. Kiely's responsibility but it is a European issue. I am sure Europe will provide support regarding migration policy throughout the European Union. I hope so. I am sure it is part of the support services in the European Union. We would be in a very good position to provide good facilities for migrants in this country, or better facilities than we are currently providing.

Mr. Gerry Kiely

I thank all the members for their comments. I will make a general comment on all of them. Populism and nationalism are unhealthy. I do not like calling the phenomenon nationalism because we are all nationalistic in some way or another. I refer to a kind of negative nationalism, a nationalism that stands on the back of migrants, foreigners and people who are different. There is no question that there is a problem. It is a problem that is being whipped up by interested parties inside and outside the European Union. There is a lot of evidence of money coming in from outside the Union with a view to weakening it. I do not know the extent to which this trend will continue. For the moment, however, it is growing rather than declining. It is an issue that will have to be dealt with. It is an issue that will certainly come into play in the European Parliament elections. The extent to which anti-European parties will be elected to the Parliament remains to be seen. It could have an influence on how the European Union goes forward. Ultimately, the populist parties or populist propagandists do not need to be tackled on their own ground. Those who are pro-Europe and in favour of the ideas and values of Europe should promote those ideas and values rather than fighting a battle with the populists on their territory.

With regard to Brexit, our President and everyone have made it very clear that there are no winners. It is only a question of minimising the damage. One of the commissioners or the President commented last weekend on how much effort has been put into a damage-limitation negotiation. In any negotiations we engage in, we aim for a win-win outcome. Brexit involves a lose-lose scenario. It is only a question of how much.

Linking back to the comments on populism, migration is still a big political issue but when one looks at the figures, although I do not want to say that migration has been solved, in the past 12 months the number of migrants coming into Europe was something of the order of 55,000 or 60,000. It would be a big crowd in Croke Park but against the EU's current population of 500 million people it is not unmanageable. It is nothing in comparison with the 1 million who came in in 2015. Management of the migration issue is improving all of the time. The members talked about money for dealing with it. There has been a huge increase in the amount of funding from the EU to deal with migration on every front, both internal and external. Monitoring is taking place in Libya. I am not sure of the extent to which the EU's representatives are involved in that monitoring, but we are certainly in there with other international bodies.

On the question about treaty change, there is nothing on the table at the moment. Nothing that the Commission has proposed would necessitate treaty change. For example, there are a number of proposals on the table which require unanimity. It could be done by qualified majority voting, but a vote and unanimous agreement of the member states would be required to move towards qualified majority voting.

There is a lot of talk about a European army. Who knows what is going to happen way down the road? For the moment, the Commission's proposals and the discussions are about more co-ordination. For example, the combined defence expenditure of individual member states equates to something like 40% of what the US spends on its defence yet we have only 10% of its capability purely because everybody is working to their own standards. There is no compatibility between the systems in the different member states. A lot of what is happening at the moment is aimed at research on a defence capability which would be more suitable to Europe's needs than what is available. It is also aimed at having compatibility between the defence systems of different member states so that they can work together.

There is an awful lot said about European bureaucracy but I am not totally convinced about it. An awful lot of the bureaucracy happens between Brussels, the member state, and the citizen. The Commission has often had to intervene to deal with bureaucracy, particularly on the Common Agricultural Policy although I am sure it happens elsewhere. Some member states tend to be overzealous in their application of the rules. I agree 100% that we must get closer to the citizen but there are 500 million citizens. That is not going to be done by the Commission, the Parliament or the Council; it has to be done at local level.

No one mentioned a democratic deficit but it keeps coming up all of the time. There is no democratic deficit in the Council because a weighted qualified majority is required and a straight majority does not deliver anything. There is also the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, and many structures involving non-governmental organisations. There is a great amount of tapping into citizens' concerns and interests at that level, but getting closer to citizens has to be done at national and local level by people, primarily politicians. As President Juncker has said many times, Europe is you and me; it is not the people in Brussels.

I mentioned treaty change and referenda. There is nothing on the table which would necessitate that, but that does not mean that some of the ideas floating around from different individuals, including presidents etc., might not necessitate a treaty change. We are a long way away from that however. I will leave it there.

I thank Mr. Kiely very much. I thank him for his work on behalf of the European Union. I am sorry, I did not notice Deputy Haughey.

Will Mr. Kiely clarify his point on unanimity versus qualified majority voting in respect of the big issues on the table?

Mr. Gerry Kiely

I mentioned that we would like to take more foreign policy decisions by qualified majority for example. At the moment unanimity is required. If the European Council, the Commission, or Federica Mogherini wishes to put out a statement, unanimity is required. If one country says "no", we cannot put out a statement. It is a crazy situation. There could be a move to qualified majority voting in respect of decisions in that area, but agreement of the 28 would be required to allow that to apply.

It is probably a similar case with taxation.

Mr. Gerry Kiely

It is the same thing. Two decisions are needed. First, a decision needs to be made to allow decisions on taxation to be taken by qualified majority. Essentially, when unanimity applies a government still has a veto as it has to give its approval. It could involve deciding to move on individual issues rather than the whole sector.

I thank Deputy Haughey for asking that question. It is vital to maintain the situation regarding taxation. Under no circumstances can we allow for qualified majority voting to change taxation rules. It is very important from our point of view. It has certainly given us the boost in the economy we are experiencing at the moment. I thank Mr. Kiely for his support and his work on behalf of the Commission and the European Union in Ireland. He has long experience. I also thank his colleague, Mr. Klom, who is head of political affairs. I thank them both for coming. I wish them well in the year ahead. It is going to be a challenging year for their work here in Ireland. I hope they will spread the message of the positive side of Europe for years to come.

The joint committee suspended at 2.47 p.m., resumed in private session at 2.49 p.m. and adjourned at 3.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 5 December 2018.