Alliance Building to Strengthen the European Union: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switch off. This is important as they cause interference for our broadcasting, editorial and sound staff.

Today I am delighted we will have engagement on alliance building to strengthen the European Union with Ms Aingeal O'Donoghue, director general of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Mr. Joe Hackett, Deputy Permanent Representative of Ireland to the EU. I welcome Ambassador Hackett and Ms O'Donoghue here today to discuss alliance building to strengthen the European Union.

The joint committee remains convinced of the importance of ensuring that Ireland plays its full role within the EU at all levels, that we continue to develop our understanding of situations and priorities of other member states and build strong coalitions. We will have a visiting delegation from the Portuguese Parliament later today. Today's engagement is an important part of our consideration of alliances by looking at the Government's overall strategy and approach and what that looks like on the ground in Brussels.

I want to remind everyone of the rules on privilege. 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 or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her or identifiable.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are about to give to the committee. If they are directed to cease giving evidence on a particular subject and they continue to do so, they are only entitled thereafter to qualified privilege in respect of the evidence they give. They are directed that only evidence concerned 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 an entity or a person either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I will first ask the Director General, Ms O'Donoghue, to make her opening statement. She will be followed by the ambassador, Mr. Hackett. I am sure the committee members and I will have questions and comments for both of them and I again welcome them and their delegation. I also welcome everyone in the Gallery.

Ms Aingeal O’Donoghue

I thank the Chairman and committee for the invitation. The question of alliance building and building to strengthen the European Union is crucial. I am joined by the ambassador, Mr. Joe Hackett, Ireland's Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, and by two colleagues from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, namely, Ms Ciara Delaney and Ms Claire Callaghan.

Working closely with a range of EU partners has always been important for Ireland but, as the committee has rightly pointed out, some of the changes occurring this year provide further impetus for this work. These include the European Parliament elections in May, the appointment of a new Commission and European Council President, national elections in a number of member states, the adoption of a new strategic agenda to guide the work of the Union and, of course, Brexit.

We are all well aware of the unprecedented challenge that Brexit poses to the European Union as a whole and Ireland in particular. The solidarity shown by member states has been remarkable, much appreciated and a key strand of our engagement with partners in the period since the Brexit referendum. As a committed and engaged member of the Union, we also want to share perspectives and develop common approaches on the full range of issues on the EU agenda. This is not only a matter of pressing Irish priorities on others but also of listening to friends and partners to hear and understand their concerns and perspectives.

While we have always worked closely with a broad range of member states, the United Kingdom has been an important partner for Ireland on many issues in the European Union. This is true not just for Ireland but for a range of like-minded countries. It has been clear to us that the loss of the UK as an EU partner would be significant and we have undertaken a comprehensive review of our alliances and engagements within the European Union with a view to strategically strengthening and diversifying our relationships. Our approach is multifaceted but it is important to stress that it takes place against a backdrop in which we are intensifying engagement with all member states. As for our priorities and focus, the Nordic-Baltic countries, together with the Netherlands, are a key group with which we share a common approach in areas such as EU trade policy, the Single Market, the further development of the eurozone and the ambition of the digital Single Market.

Another key strand is deepening our relationships with larger member states and the European institutions in order to explain Ireland’s policy positions across key policy areas including sensitive areas such as further developing the economic and monetary union, EMU, taxation, defence and migration. Strengthening contacts with key eastern European member states is also important, particularly with the eastwards shift of the EU centre of gravity. The final strand of our engagement is deeper work with a range of member states on an issue-by-issue basis, whether as part of a group or bilaterally.

Ireland works hard to influence the policy and legislative agenda of the EU, to safeguard our interests and to make a positive contribution towards the future direction of the Union. Let us be in no doubt but that this is challenging and requires sustained effort. We do it through effective engagement with the EU institutions, increased capitals-to-capitals engagement at both political and official level, through our permanent representation in Brussels, which has officials from across all Departments, and through mobilising our network of embassies in every capital across the European Union. These efforts are supported by colleagues working across Government at home and underpinned by deep political engagement, including a sustained increase in the range and intensity of political and official level visits.

Excluding the UK for a moment, in 2018, for example, there were over 50 outward visits to the EU member states involving the President, the Taoiseach, the Ceann Comhairle, Government Ministers or Ministers of State and approximately 30 high-level political visits inwards to Ireland. A key element of those outward programmes often involves engagement with parliamentary committees such as this one. Last month, Ministers visited all 27 EU capitals as part of the Government’s St. Patrick’s Day programme. Such visits not only offer the opportunity to celebrate our national culture and our diaspora, but also to build and deepen relationships at a political level and to raise broader awareness of Ireland’s priorities through engagement with local media, parliamentary committees and think tanks.

The 50 outward engagements I mentioned did not include attendance at EU Council meetings where Ministers also regularly meet their colleagues in the various sectoral formations, whether that is agriculture, trade, competitiveness or foreign affairs. As the Tánaiste has said, taking part in the formal discussions and decisions is essential but these meetings are also an opportunity to build strong relationships with new and established colleagues, both individually and as part of wider groups. Before the March European Council, for example, the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands participated in a Nordic-Baltic group meeting. The Minister for Finance now meets regularly with his Nordic, Baltic and Dutch colleagues before each ECOFIN Council and the Tánaiste has hosted the same grouping of Ministers in advance of the Foreign Affairs Council.

The more Ireland engages with other member states on the key European issues, the more we will enhance our capacity to shape and influence the future. We therefore actively participate with a range of partners through a number of like-minded groups linked to particular issues. Mr. Hackett will speak more about this during his presentation.

Ireland is already, by some way, the smallest country with an embassy in every other member state. This has been an invaluable asset in fostering support for our concerns in the Brexit negotiations and in advancing our interests on key issues on the EU agenda. Since the referendum in the UK, we have added senior officials to our embassy teams in the permanent representation in Berlin, Paris and London. This year we are increasing our diplomatic representation in Madrid, Warsaw and Rome and reinforcing a number of other embassies, notably our single diplomat missions.

Last year, the Tánaiste published a comprehensive review of Ireland’s relationship with Germany. It included 23 recommendations for widening and deepening our footprint in Germany. We are working on implementing these, including the opening of a new consulate in Frankfurt later this year. The Tánaiste has similarly requested a review of our relations with France with which we already share vibrant links and we are also doing a piece of work on our relationship with the Nordic countries.

Building our relations with the European institutions to ensure that Irish positions are understood and taken into account is critical. As the committee is aware, the Taoiseach was the first speaker in the European Parliament’s series of debates with Heads of State or Government on the future of Europe. In a multilingual address, he set out Ireland’s positive vision for the future of the European Union. Engagement with the European Commission takes place at every level. Ministers engage with Commissioners and officials, from either the representation or the full range of Departments, meet their counterparts in different EU Directorates General.

We have also developed a programme of ministerial engagement at plenary sessions of the Parliament. Irish officials, working at all levels within the EU's institutions, have also made invaluable contributions and are an important link between the institutions and Ireland. However, in recent years, the number of Irish staff working in the institutions has been declining, largely due to retirements. The Government has made it a priority to address this demographic cliff including through the EU jobs campaign. Over the past month, for example, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, addressed students in Trinity College Dublin, the National University of Ireland, Galway, Maynooth University and University College Dublin to encourage them to consider a career in the EU which would help to put us at the forefront of shaping developments that affect the daily lives of citizens across the Union.

Our high-level objectives are to increase the number of Irish candidates applying for and being successful in these competitions. We work across Government to ensure that a range of officials are seconded into EU institutions from Departments.

Deepening our alliances to further strengthen the European Union is exciting work but it is also challenging for a small member state such as Ireland. It requires a whole-of-Government approach with all Ministers and officials across Departments actively engaging with their counterparts around Europe. The Oireachtas too has a crucial part to play in building this network. I compliment the Chairman and this committee on their openness in engaging with ambassadors from all the EU member states based in Dublin, and for hosting meetings with visiting parliamentary committees. This is a critical part of how we build these alliances. Visits and meetings by the Ceann Comhairle, by the interparliamentary friendship groups and, in particular, by this committee, all play a role in deepening and strengthening our engagement with other member states. I would be interested in hearing the committee's reflections on how this can be developed further. I thank the Chairman for the time. I will hand over to Mr. Hackett to share his Brussels perspective.

Mr. Joe Hackett

I thank the committee for the opportunity to meet it. It is an honour and a privilege for me to have this opportunity. I thank members for their strong interest in exploring Ireland's alliance building within the EU, especially in a post-Brexit context. Ms O’Donoghue outlined the Government’s strategic approach and the strong leadership provided in this area by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Ministers. I echo that and her remarks on the positive role played by the Oireachtas and this committee in deepening our engagement across the Union. I hope to complement her presentation with some practical perspectives from my role in Brussels.

I have a straightforward message. Ireland's success in Europe will depend on remaining highly connected and engaged both in Brussels and across each of the other 26 remaining member states. In my role as permanent representative at the committee of the permanent representatives of the member states to the European Union, the COREPER 1 committee, my team and I cover a wide range of sectoral issues, including the Single Market and competitiveness, transport, climate, agriculture, fisheries, energy, social and employment, the digital economy, research, health, education, culture and sport. Coherence and effectiveness abroad depends on coherence and joined-up thinking at home. It is a particular privilege for me to have the opportunity to work with colleagues from every Department, whether they are based at the permanent representation in Brussels or at home.

There is considerable legislative activity on the COREPER 1 side and, crucially, almost all legislation that comes to the committee is prepared for the Council of Ministers and agreed through qualified majority voting, QMV. As members know, decisions taken under QMV require the support of at least 55% of the member states, representing 65% of the EU's population and a blocking minority requires more than 35% of the population and at least four member states. Given these maths, Ireland cannot achieve good outcomes in the legislative process without a sustained proactive approach to building both strategic and tactical alliances as files progress. We are not unique in this. Alliance-building is an essential requirement for all member states operating within the EU, especially when operating under QMV. Even well-established geographic alliances such as the Benelux, Visegrad and Nordic-Baltic, can be fluid and often evolve and shift as a particular legislative file progresses. These groups provide important political coherence for their members but the component member states are not obliged to share the same position on legislation and regularly take different positions on different files.

As Ms O’Donoghue has stated, Ireland has consistently engaged in a wide range of issue-based alliances. I believe that this practice has served us well and we are usually satisfied with the outcomes and reassurances achieved in negotiations. We have voted against legislative proposals at final stage on only two occasions since January 2017. However, while it may be relatively rare for most member states to oppose a file at final stage, QMV considerations are always to the forefront of the tactics of the rotating EU Presidency, the Commission and member states. They are always in the background when we are making calculations about how likely it is that amendments will be accepted. Small member states are under constant pressure to demonstrate that they have broad support for their particular concerns. A Presidency is most unlikely to take on board an Irish amendment or proposal unless we secure good backing in the room and, ideally, little opposition. Building and maintaining the support of as many member states as possible is an ongoing core activity for myself and the attachés based at the permanent representation.

There are a number of recent examples which demonstrate the advantage and necessity of issue-based alliances. Ireland has been a leader within a group of like-minded states which support the deepening and strengthening of the Single Market and digital Single Market. There is a strong crossover in both like-minded groups with the Nordic and Baltic states, ourselves the Netherlands and Czech Republic. In 2018, Ireland, along with Finland, the Czech Republic and Denmark, focused attention on the remaining obstacles to completing the Single Market in services through the Copenhagen Economics study, which was commissioned by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and launched by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, in Brussels. This core group of member states was successfully expanded in advance of the March European Council when 17 Heads of State and Government, including the Taoiseach, agreed a joint position on current priorities in this area.

On the Economic and Financial Affairs Council, ECOFIN, side, our main focus has been on the "Nordic-Baltic plus", colloquially known as the new Hanseatic League. This group was established in 2017 and has been meeting almost monthly at finance minister level. The countries include Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland and the Netherlands. From time to time, finance ministers from Germany, France, the Czech Republic or Slovakia have attended and engaged in discussion at ministerial level meetings. The core group has published joint position papers on the future of economic and monetary union, the capital markets union, and strengthening the role of the European Stability Mechanism. As Ms O'Donoghue mentioned. the Nordic-Baltic-Ireland-Netherlands formation has also met twice at Heads of State and Government level.

During the divisive negotiations in the last couple of years on the reform of mobility, posted worker and haulage sector rules, Ireland was aligned with a number of central and eastern member states, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovakia, as well as those member states that faced similar challenges to us on the geographic periphery, such as Finland and Portugal. On the key climate files on carbon dioxide emissions from cars, vans and heavy duty vehicles, Ireland formed an alliance in 2018 with a number of ambitious member states and those, like us, who are technology takers in this important area, such as Luxembourg, Denmark and the Netherlands.

As this committee would be very aware, with regard to agriculture and the ongoing negotiations on the reform of the CAP, we have worked closely with France and those seeking to ensure a fully funded Common Agricultural Policy, such as Portugal, Spain, Greece and Finland. There are many other examples that could be provided, but these help to indicate the considerable number of issue-based alliances where we are active and need to be active, as well as the wide range of member states involved. We have co-operated with every member state over the last period.

The UK has been an important partner in Brussels for us on many issues. Its departure will deprive Ireland and several like-minded groups, including some that I have mentioned, of considerable political and voting strength. This will be particularly true on Single Market and digital economy matters. The numbers make this clear. At present, Ireland's percentage of the EU population for QMV purposes is 0.95%. This will increase to 1.08% after the UK leaves. The total population of the Baltics, Nordics, Ireland and the Netherlands for voting purposes will amount to 11.06%. This is far short of the number required for even a blocking minority. By comparison, France and Germany will see their combined voting strength rise to 33.54% from 29.22%.

This change matters because the Presidency, the Commission and the member states are heavily influenced by the likely voting strengths as files evolve. Becoming strongly linked with a grouping like the Nordic or Baltic states is important in building our political influence. However, given the numbers, this must be augmented by a deep level of engagement with all other member states, particularly the larger member states. Ms O’Donoghue has outlined the steps we are already taking to do so.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this experience. First, I refer to the need to regard engagement as a shared responsibility and opportunity. While the Government has primary responsibility for managing relations with other member states and the EU institutions, the challenge of expanding our connections and level of engagement across Europe should be viewed as a collective one. The Oireachtas, civil society, our business and farming communities and youth, education and cultural sectors all have a vital role to play in a national effort to deepen Irish engagement both in Brussels and across the member states. This includes understanding the issues that are important to each member state, the local political factors at play and the nature of member states' relations with non-EU or third countries. The support we have received from all member states during the Brexit process is a graphic demonstration of the benefits of such sustained engagement.

Second, we can change domestic perceptions about our influence in Brussels. In the past, perhaps due to our size and geographic location, the EU was often regarded as a phenomenon that happened to us rather that an organisation that we could actively lead and shape. However, we bring a pragmatic problem-solving approach to issues that is very much recognised and appreciated by other member states. The Taoiseach outlined an ambitious vision for our role in Europe during his address to the European Parliament. We can and do act as a bridge across some of the ideological and geographic fault lines. Embracing this role will help increase our influence and effectiveness in the post-Brexit European Union. The new strategic agenda and incoming Commission and European Parliament present an ideal opportunity to do so.

Third, we can be clear on our EU legislative priorities and take a lead role in establishing like-minded groups on these files. Given the reality of qualified majority voting, QMV, after Brexit, we must continue our efforts to build support with the larger member states and with the key players in the European Parliament on these priorities.

Fourth, Ms Catherine Day recently advised the committee that our engagement with the Commission, the European Parliament and other EU institutions should be strengthened. This is undoubtedly true. They should not be places we only visit when we have a problem. Instead there must be ongoing engagement to shape and influence policies and legislative proposals before they are published. The programme of ministerial visits to the European Parliament has been an important additional element in this regard. I stress that early anticipation is vital. Again, this is not a task to be left to Government alone.

I thank the committee and look forward to its members' views and questions.

I thank the speakers. For their benefit I must explain that committee members are not leaving. A vote has been called. We have just lost two Senators but they will try to come back. Sometimes there is a double vote. I say this so the witnesses are aware it is not bad manners on the members' part. Sometimes in Leinster House a lot of people are trying to be in two or three places at the same time.

The Senator is on time.

I thank the director general and the ambassador for being so forthcoming with us in outlining our strategy and for giving us very practical assistance on what we should do to help in the national interest. There are statements on the European Council in the Dáil Chamber at 3.45 p.m. and I may have to attend. I mean no disrespect by this.

I thank the witnesses for the work they are doing. Our diplomats serve us well. Ireland punches above its weight as a nation state. We should not take anything for granted and we need to work on all the issues that have been outlined. The UK leaving the EU is a big setback for the EU and for Ireland in particular. We have lost an ally on several issues. That is the challenge we face. We want to be at the heart of Europe and this is the work we must now undertake.

I will ask two questions which I hope are not too political for the witnesses. They can answer them in an academic way if they wish. I see two major fault lines in the European Union. The first of these is the threat to liberal democratic values, especially in Hungary and Poland. Is that a big threat to the European Union? Will it be a fault line, with member states taking sides? That is linked to the issue of migration and the rise of populism. There is some apprehension about how that might manifest itself in the forthcoming European Parliament elections.

Second, there are reports that the French President, Emmanuel Macron, was especially difficult at a meeting called to discuss an extension to Brexit at the recent European Council. He was not in favour of a long extension and he held out on that issue. He has put forward his vision for the European Union, and it is welcome that somebody is putting forward their vision as we formally discuss the future of Europe. He is calling for greater integration, a eurozone budget, closer defence co-operation, tax harmonisation and so forth. Some of these issues would pose challenges for Ireland. Will there be a major fault line between the nation states that want much closer integration, particularly in tax harmonisation, defence and so on, and those that do not? I would be interested in the witnesses' views on both of those potential problems.

Like the previous speaker I thank our guests for coming before us and for their very interesting presentations. I compliment them on their success in recent years, especially regarding Brexit and the degree to which they have deployed themselves throughout all the member states of the European Union. They have successfully managed to transmit a message of the importance of Brexit, the threat it presents to us and the threat it presents to the European Union. They have done a tremendous job and we owe each and every member of our diplomatic service a debt of gratitude. They deserve to take a bow.

Brexit presents a huge challenge but it also presents opportunities. I am aware that our diplomatic service is availing of every opportunity to identify and establish the grounds on which we as a smaller nation can continue to prosper in the European Union, not alone but alongside similar and like-minded countries. This is a new phenomenon. We always recognised that within the European Union each of the member states had the opportunity to align themselves with others, not for destructive purposes but for the purposes of promoting the EU project and maximising the benefit for each of the member states. That continues. It is a good thing. Our diplomatic service has done exceptional work in that area and it is to be congratulated.

The question of tax harmonisation raises its ugly head fairly regularly. We need to set out a couple of parameters in respect of that. The suggestion that we have somehow achieved a preferential position within the European Union, to the exclusion of all others, is incorrect and should be rebutted at every possible opportunity. Of course there will be people who will seek to promote the suggestion that this is so. The fact of the matter is that our 12.5% tax on corporation profits applies to every cent earned in this jurisdiction. There is a serious difficulty if it is expected that we should become tax collectors for other countries within or outside of the European Union. I would like to hear the opinions of experts in that area. I cannot see other European or non-European countries wishing to become tax collectors in respect of profits earned in each other's territory, nor should that be the case.

We have enough obstacles to circumnavigate at present without taking issues upon ourselves that have a possible destructive element.

There is something else we need to learn. We are not at the centre of the European wheel, as it were, at the moment, and because we are not at the centre, the emerging situation presents us with a number of challenges, and possibly a number of opportunities, although that remains to be seen. The fact of the matter is that, on the mainland of Europe, it is possible to drive around the Continent. It is possible to deliver goods around the Continent of Europe, and to receive goods from all four corners of the EU. It is possible to trade within the Single Market without ever having to get out of a truck or aircraft. It is possible to travel around, and that is a huge benefit in terms of exporting countries. It is a great benefit to those of us within the EU who depend on trade with our neighbours and other non-EU countries. I hope that is going to be borne in mind in the course of any discussions that take place. I have no difficulty in having discussions about potential levelling of the playing field where that is required. However, it should not be done on the basis of false information, nor should it be done on the basis that we have in some way been negligent in the past in enforcing the rules insofar as they apply. We have already dealt with the double Irish issue and the various other issues that have arisen in recent years. We have also had to deal with a very serious economic challenge following the economic crash, and we did so with the help of our colleagues within the EU, but with no thanks at all to those who would seek to exploit the situation for their various benefits. We should keep that in mind in the future.

We are part of the Single Market, and that Single Market should apply in Dublin, Kildare, Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Monaghan and every part of this country, the same as it applies right at the centre of Europe. The concept of that is accepted. However, it may not be as commonly known that in the area of medicines in this country, for instance, we have never really got the benefit of the Single Market because we seem to pay a premium. Why that should be, I do not know, but the fact is we are still within the EU and the Single Market. We distribute goods to this country, and while that does not come free, we are entitled to the same price benefits as other European countries, large and small, throughout the EU, in respect of all of the goods and services we receive, and all the goods and services we deliver. Despite what some people might think, this is not all one-way traffic. We sell and trade well above and beyond our size and weight compared with most other countries. We are the UK's fifth-largest trader, trading to a greater extent with the UK than it trades with India and China combined. We have shown in the past that we are at the head of the posse when it comes to taking risks and taking on challenges, and while there are suggestions in some quarters that we are recalcitrant in some way, we are not.

There are many challenges in the modern Europe, some of them discordant, and there are some who seek to exploit the benefits of swings to the hard right or hard left. The history of Europe should remind us, and we can revisit that at any time because it is readily available, that the cost is huge. Those who suggest these things will never happen again are wrong. They have happened before, more than once or twice, and in fact many times. That they have happened repeatedly shows the inability of current generations to recognise the mistakes made by previous generations and, more particularly, to recognise the cost to their own nation and people.

There is an issue that we need to look at carefully in modern Europe. The Balkan wars happened in the past 20 years, when we saw thousands of people fleeing from whatever it was they were fleeing from. It was not from wealth, health or happiness they fled. Thankfully, nobody put up barriers to stop them or impede them. Nobody suggested they should stay at home. Nobody built walls, and God knows we have had enough experience in Europe with wall-building. Nobody put up razor wire to impede them. The reason was that we understood they had a reason for going the way they went. It is no good challenging people and saying to them that they are a threat to us. Everybody is a threat to everybody if that is the case. It is important, however, that we recognise that there is more to be gained from cohesiveness and a united approach. While I am not suggesting for a moment that we should have an open door in respect of immigration, we do have responsibilities. The civilised world has responsibilities, and if the civilised world does not accept and recognise those responsibilities, then civilisation will pay a high cost.

I am sorry for going on so long. This is my favourite subject, I am afraid to say. I thank our guests once again and wish them well in the work they have undertaken and still have to undertake. I compliment those who are engaged in supporting that work, and our colleagues throughout the EU, the 27 member states, who have stood solidly together with us in the course of the past two years when it was not always popular to do so.

I thank the Deputy. The joint committee's last engagement was with Ms Catherine Day, who spoke very well on the issue of Ireland's alliance building and who gave the joint committee a lot of food for thought. She suggested that Ireland needs to do more to understand the positions of other member states and to offer more support to them on issues that are not necessarily important to us. Are there policy issues with which either Ireland or the Oireachtas have not traditionally engaged or on which we should do more?

The joint committee is interested in how alliances can be built, not just at ministerial and governmental level but also at a parliamentary and civic society level. The Houses have been active in this area. Are there areas where additional parliamentary input could be beneficial?

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has also prioritised trade and business links in its Global Ireland strategy, proposing expansion of our agencies abroad such as Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, and Bord Bia, all of which do great work. Are there any other existing networks we can utilise to build bilateral relations?

When in Brussels or travelling with Ministers, are there things about Ireland that the witnesses feel are not always understood and that we should try to explain better? Should we be showcasing or selling ourselves and highlighting all the positive attributes of Ireland and our society, such as our business acumen, our exports, and the intelligent young workforce that we have to offer? In my humble opinion, we are way better than anybody else around the rest of the world or the rest of Europe, but in selling that and selling all the positive aspects of Ireland, are we doing enough? Do the witnesses find in their roles that there are ways we fall down? The only way we can get better is by raising the bar at all times and trying to push ourselves further, be that as parliamentarians or at ministerial or governmental level. While we can have all the political debates we want here, I am of the belief, and people of all political parties and none would know this about me, that while all of the Brexit negotiations are ongoing, every single person in the Houses of the Oireachtas should be working together. It is not that we all have to be blindly supportive of what the Government is saying on the issue, but I really believe it is not a time for us to be critical of ourselves or of the work that is being done. It is a time to row in and say that we are all in this together, that we are all working to achieve the best deal we can for Ireland, and to ensure that the peace process, our trade, and our international reputation will come out of this as best they can.

Politically, as serious and sensible politicians, we have to row in. I have always complimented the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and all of the officials involved, and I will continue to do so. We must remember that in many cases the politicians are at the forefront and they are the people who are seen on the nine o'clock news and on the world stage, but there is excellent work being done by permanent representatives in the different Departments who are trying to get us prepared for whatever eventuality we have to face.

Looking at us in a critically positive way, are there things the witnesses believe we should be doing that we are not doing? If there are, I would like to hear about them, and I am sure my colleagues would also like to hear them. I will hand the floor back to representatives and they can treat this response in whatever casual way they prefer, by answering informally or in whatever way suits them.

Ms Aingeal O’Donoghue

I thank the Chairman. Between us we will address the various points that were made. I will certainly be delighted to pass on the committee's positive words about the work of the diplomatic service, especially on Brexit but not just on Brexit. It genuinely is a huge whole-of-Government effort and across all parties. I will certainly pass on those words. As one of the officials involved in the Brexit omnibus Bill, I again express our appreciation for the huge cross-party effort by the Oireachtas to get that Bill through in a very short time. As the Tánaiste has said, it is to be hoped it can continue to sit on the shelf.

I will turn first to the questions. I put it to Deputy Haughey that they were a little political but I will try to respond. Deputies Haughey and Durkan spoke on the rise of populism in the form of the hard right and the hard left. The Tánaiste has spoken about this issue, so I will very much draw from him. Obviously it is a concern for all member states to different degrees. We see it in all member states. We should not be too pessimistic, however, because there are also some positive trends. I was struck by the recent election of the first woman President in Slovakia from a very strong, open and liberal agenda. It moves in those directions, but because the EU is often a target for some of this populism, part of what we have to do at EU level is to be very close to our citizens in terms of explaining what the EU is and what it does and delivers. The citizens' dialogue led by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, last year was very important in this regard, but so too is the Oireachtas and this committee in particular. Voices articulating clearly what it is the EU can and does achieve are very important in this. The EU is complicated, and one of the challenges around populism is this tack to very simple messages. It is harder to talk about the complicated things but we need to do that. We need to give strong support to the EU in that sense, and all voices need to be around that. It is important for us. Some of the issues arise from mistaken or misunderstood perceptions. Some have validity, for example, around the differing impacts of globalisation on different parts of the community and on different economic sectors, and these need to be addressed at EU and national levels.

Deputy Haughey referred to particular countries, namely, Hungary and Poland. The Deputy will be aware that they are involved in what we call the Article 7 procedure, which is a rule of law procedure at EU level with Commission and Parliament-led views on issues relating to the rule of law in both of those countries. There have been extensive discussions at the General Affairs Council on those issues, in which the Department and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, have participated actively, stressing very much the importance of the rule of law and the centre it gives us in managing our affairs domestically and at EU level. That process will continue. There are also efforts around finding other pathways to address the issue. For example, the Belgian and German governments have proposed a different and more informal peer review process. The important thing is to continue to engage, which we are doing, including formally at the General Affairs Council.

Reference was made to the tensions around more or less integration. The pace at which it moves and how we move forward together has always been part of what the EU is about. It is always critically important that the direction of travel be a shared one. President Macron was mentioned, and from our perspective some of his vision would go further than we would currently be. In our case, it comes back to the ambassador, Mr. Hackett's comments that we are a pragmatic member state. Where it makes sense to work together at EU level, we will want to do that, while protecting certain core national interests and national responsibility such as taxation, as mentioned by Deputy Durkan.

The Chairman had some very clear questions, some of which we may need to go away to think about a bit more. Catherine Day's point about not just engaging on our issues but to do so more broadly is very important. It goes back to Mr. Hackett's comment on not going to the Commission just when Ireland has a problem and to be part of the positive agendas. Ireland does quite a bit of this already in areas such as the Single Market and the digital Single Market, where we very much take part in the creation of the positive agenda. It is the case that this is not just about finding like-minded groups and working with them. This is also about deepening our understanding of the perspectives of other member states. This is why the issue-based work that goes on in Brussels is very important with regard to the legislative proposals. From accompanying the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, on visits around Europe, we can see that the engagement in another country by a Minister gives us a depth of understanding that, as a country, we might not otherwise get. It is very important. We are also trying to do that at official level with a lot more EU dialogue with key countries.

With regard to what the Oireachtas and Parliament might do, I am sure the committee members have far better insights on that than I do. Clearly, however, the parliamentary strand is very important because it brings us beyond Government into the range of political opinion in any given country, which is very important, and it ties back into the first point. Parliamentary visits, both outward and inward, are very important around key agendas, especially when one considers that some of the Parliaments have very strong roles vis-à-vis EU issues. They are also important in terms of our strategic interests and the priorities we have outlined, for example, with some of the Nordic and Baltic countries. To map a parliamentary engagement complementary to a government-to-government engagement is very valuable. I can pass over the Mr. Hackett if there is anything else.

Before I call the ambassador I will ask some of our other members to contribute.

Ms Aingeal O’Donoghue

Of course.

I thank the Chairman and I apologise again for leaving the meeting for votes. I have some queries and I apologise in advance if colleagues have touched on these.

My first question is for the director general, Ms O'Donoghue, and relates to the interparliamentary aspect of building new alliances. Can we do more? Before the abolition of the dual mandate, and even further back before the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament, one of the EU's great strengths was that domestic parliamentarians were engaging with other domestic parliamentarians on a European level about European issues. The main outlet for this debate currently is though the regular Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs, COSAC, meetings that some of us attend and the COSAC chairpersons' meeting. Is there a way to increase that engagement across the sectoral basis so that it is not just a biannual COSAC meeting and it reflects, for example, agricultural issues prior to the Agriculture Council meetings to nail it down? I appreciate that this would require a level of commitment and investment from member state national parliaments.

MEPs are great but they have a distinct role in the European Parliament and, to some extent, they leave their domestic constituencies behind. Member state parliamentarians engaging with others on issues at a European level would increase awareness of the debate and the importance of that debate at a domestic level.

I did not disagree with anything that was said on the EU jobs aspect but I want to pick up on two issues, one of which I raised with Catherine Day at our last meeting but to which she was not too receptive. We have our derogation for Irish and that is being rolled out to an extent but when the UK leaves the EU, Ireland and Malta will be the only English speaking countries, although neither of us uses English as our first language at EU level. We accept that English has been the working language of the EU since 2004 but how can we ensure that English is given that level of importance and how can Ireland maximise that?

The EU jobs campaign in third level institutions here, the work of the Council of Europe and the work the Kings Inns does with lawyer-linguists is brilliant. Mr. Hackett might have a more contemporary view on this but there is a population of Irish people in Brussels working in the private sector, trade associations, not-for-profit organisations or in political roles who are turning down work in the Commission or the other institutions because they are intimidated by the application procedure, not because of money, circumstances or interest in the work. How can we identify and work with people who have committed to life in Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg or wherever it may be and say to them that now that they have been working half a dozen years for, say, a trade association in the private sector it would be much more rewarding on many levels for them to be in the Commission, the Council, the Parliament or the secretariat? How do we target that audience? I stand corrected but I believe many people are in that space. When I went over to do my stagiaire very few of the people who stayed on are in the Commission, the Council or the parliament. They are in non-institutional roles but they are still in Brussels. They may have married people from other member states and have committed to spending their lives there but how do we get them to buy in?

I refer to the role of a permanent representative in particular. It was a great shame that, post Presidency in 2013, we de-scaled to an extent the permanent representation. I hope we learned the lesson that we should not do that again and that we should maintain not just the size of but the commitment to the permanent representation post Brexit regardless of what happens. We have seen the benefit of having a very strong presence in Brussels from the institutional focus.

Mr. Hackett went through the presentation in so much detail I put a strike through many of the questions I had intended to ask. I refer to many of the policy areas that are vitally important when we talk about new alliances but one area in particular brings that together, that is, the overall approach to the budget and the MFF. I am concerned that due to ongoing delays with the Brexit negotiations and everything else we are behind the curve when it comes to the MFF negotiations, we are coming at it late and we are leaving too short a period for the negotiation, be it at parliamentary level, in the European Parliament, or at Commission or Council level. I fear we may be trying to pass a European budget in such a truncated time that easy and quick decisions will be made. How do we work with allies to make sure that we do not simply get tired at the end and that a process that we might have given 18 months to but, due to circumstances, we will only be able to give 12 months to will still be as thorough and as detailed in the atmosphere of competing interests and certain member states wanting to cut the budget and move from investment to the CAP perhaps to further security and defence? How can we ensure our alliances protect that?

Moving from the wider EU perspective but staying with the European context, I am delighted about the further opening of a consulate in Frankfurt but we need to go beyond Frankfurt and look at a second French city, be it Lyon or Nice or Marseille, in the south. We should be looking also at Barcelona in Spain and Milan in Italy, among others. We should be looking at the commercial centres as well as the administrative centres. That is where there is an opportunity. It is difficult at times for politicians to justify spending on diplomacy and on our reach abroad. Much great work has been shown in terms of the value of having a strong diplomatic corps, particularly in the past two or three years, but we should ask about the return on investment. We are investing in consuls and in Ireland houses. We are bringing in Enterprise Ireland and the other State agencies, including Bord Bia and IDA Ireland. These are not just serving the Irish population abroad or handling intergovernmental queries. They are bringing serious investment to Ireland and to Irish people. When we look at the commercial centres around Europe, that is as important as everything else.

That brings me to my final point regarding the United Kingdom. I very much welcome the reopening of the consulate in Cardiff but in terms of the aim to open another consulate in the UK, is it easy to identify that that should be in the northern powerhouse region of Manchester or, moving away from the economic aspect, is there a diaspora consular approach to the midlands, be it Birmingham or Coventry? I would appreciate Mr. Hackett's opinions on that.

I will be brief. I am involved in legislation before the Seanad so I will not take up much of Mr. Hackett's time but I wanted to take the opportunity while he was here to thank him for his service and for what he has done for this country in Brussels and abroad. The volume of work put in by our people on the ground throughout Europe and the effort that has been made to keep Ireland’s needs out in front has not gone unnoticed. It is amazing how a small little country like ours can have such an impact. The staff working at all levels need to be assured of our gratitude for the work that is being done.

I have a brief question and I will not be present to hear the answer but I will follow up on it. As we lose the UK, alliances will become important but they will be mixed. In the agriculture sector, for example, we might look towards France. In the financial services sector, we might look towards Germany. Have we assessed each member state to see where the strengths or the commonality exist? Have we got a checkerboard, so to speak, now whereby if an issues comes up we can say we need to talk to A, B, C, D and E on that particular issue and move across the alliances as we need them? I am sure the work is being done but I would like to hear Mr. Hackett's perspective on it. Sadly, I will have to read the reply. I thank the witnesses for their attendance and please forgive the way we bob in and out of the meeting. I know it was discussed in the media recently that people pop in, ask a question and leave but the nature of the job requires us to do that.

Before we continue, I welcome the Portuguese delegation. I hope they are having a very enjoyable stay. I know they have had a busy itinerary so far but they are very welcome and I thank them for taking time to be here.

As it happens, we just prevented the guillotining of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill in the Seanad, so that work is done. They can proceed now at a casual pace with the rest of the Bill.

I welcome the director general, Ms O'Donoghue, and her colleague, Ambassador Joe Hackett. I welcome also the Portuguese delegation to the committee and all the representatives of embassies in Dublin. It is a great turnout for our meeting because there is great solidarity among all of us in regard to the work in Europe.

I share the compliments expressed about the work of our permanent representatives in Brussels. Some time ago, I was the designated Minister in respect of the Single European Act. I would get an enormous brief on a Sunday night and we would deal with every issue at the time. I had a great ally in John Redwood, who I believe has defected to the Brexiteers, and we worked very closely together. It is very important that the UK knows we are not happy that they are leaving the EU. We have no choice in the matter. It is a matter for them but at least they know we are friends and we will continue that friendship in Brussels where the UK will have a permanent presence.

I very much welcome the expansion plans of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade up to 2025. I am delighted that it is called the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. When I was Minister of State with responsibility for trade, there was a lack of appreciation, particularly among some longer serving ambassadors, that trade issues were part of their portfolio. They felt that they were answerable to the President and that there role was mainly diplomatic but trade is essential. I am very much in favour of the expansion plans. While sometimes costs can be prohibitive, at other times they can be quite keen. When we have ambassadors located in a country, we then have the ear of the government and of Ministers. We have access to trade ministers and to businesses. When an ambassador invites people to the embassy or residence, there is always a tremendous response and respect for such an invitation. The State agencies, including IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia, are also important. Embassies are a gateway. It is lovely to be invited to an embassy. Indeed, I am looking forward to going to the Portuguese embassy this evening. One respects such an invitation and that has always been my experience. I have been in Japan, the Islamic Republic of Iran and elsewhere and had the same experience in every country I worked with as Minister of State.

In terms of alliances, I am anxious that we promote the expansion of Europe rather than its contraction. I prepared a report for the Council of Europe on Montenegro, which is available online. In that report, I recommended that negotiations on membership of the EU should move forward. We published a post-monitoring report, which represents a step forward. When I was in Montenegro as a representative of the Council of Europe, I explained that it was not necessary to join NATO in order to join the European Union. I stated that Ireland is a member of the Union but is not a member of NATO. We must build relationships with countries such as Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. We must work with them through the diplomatic service so that they know that they have a friend in Ireland. We will also have friends in them, of course.

I visited our embassy in the Islamic Republic of Iran where there are currently plans for expansion. I would not be deterred by the views of other countries on the Islamic Republic of Iran. The country has enormous respect for Ireland. We have a good relationship with that country. I am anxious that diplomatic contacts be re-established as quickly as possible. I thank the witnesses for their attendance, for their excellent contributions and for the great work they are doing abroad.

I thank the Senator and invite Mr. Hackett to make a final response.

Mr. Joe Hackett

I will try to cover as many of the comments and questions as possible. Ms O'Donoghue has covered some of Deputy Haughey's questions on the rule of law and I fully agree with that. The simple rule of thumb is that the EU positions itself as a world leader for the promotion of the rule of law, democracy and multilateralism abroad, outside the Union's borders. That objective is inevitably undermined unless we uphold those values within the European Union itself. That is why we have adopted the position as set out by the Tánaiste.

Deputy Haughey mentioned French leadership and ambitious programmes. The EU and Ireland need an ambitious France. We need a President of France who has a clear vision for Europe. As the Taoiseach said when he visited Paris recently, we agree with many of President Macron's ambitions, including on climate, agriculture and the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. Of course, there are things on which we have a different approach. Tomorrow the Dáil will debate the strategic agenda of the EU for the next five years. France will come to the European Council with its vision for the strategic agenda and Ireland will do likewise. Member states will then agree a way forward. That is the way we do business and it is something that should be welcomed.

Deputy Durkan raised a number of issues, the first of which was taxation. I fully agree with the views he set out. I agree with his reasoning and that our long-standing position on corporate tax in particular has been good for this country. This has been recognised by parties across the Oireachtas and by our people. Ireland's position on corporate taxation is well known among member states and in Brussels. It is recognised that it is one of our strong interests. Every member state has a strong interest in different issues and they advocate those as strongly as possible. Successive Governments have done so and we continue to do so in Brussels. It is an area that is covered by unanimity but it is also an area on which we are not alone. In fact, it is a good example of how new alliances have worked well. The so-called Hanseatic League of Nordic and Baltic countries and the Netherlands has worked quite well among finance ministers. There was important political support for the position taken by our Minister for Finance at a recent Council on digital taxation, for example. That is an example of alliances working well. That said, Deputy Durkan is correct that we must continue to be vigilant in this area.

I fully agree with the points made regarding the Single Market, which is arguably the greatest economic achievement of the European Union. However, it is not complete. Ireland is one of the member states that continuously advocates for the completion of the Single Market. That is why we have taken a leading role on services. As Deputy Durkan said, because of our geographic position, we face mobility challenges but we have reflected those and formed alliances to try to tackle some of them. I strongly agree with the Deputy on the issue of the EU being, at its core, a peace project and a place of welcome for those who are fleeing persecution or deprivation. We must always remind people, particularly younger generations, that the EU is, at its core, a peace project and I welcome the fact that the Deputy highlighted that point. I will not stray into the migration issue other than to say that a large number of members of the Defence Forces have spent recent years as part of Operation Sophia. The particular remit of our contingent was search and rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and Ireland can be proud of the role it has played.

One of the questions asked was whether there were areas to which we were not attentive in the past. Collectively, we need to be more aware of, and engaged on, issues of importance to other member states. It is understandable that every member state is focused on the areas of most importance to it. However, I am often struck in Brussels by issues on which other member states are very focused such as the eastern partnership agenda and energy. Inevitably, Ireland has a different perspective on such issues based on our geographic position but it is important that we know the position of other member states and that we understand why these issues are important. The reform of something called the posted workers directive and laws governing the haulage sector are in the top three issues for countries such as Bulgaria and Romania because they are politically sensitive for them. We just need to know that so that when we go to those countries, we can engage with them on their position. It is not a criticism that we have not been able to do that up to now. It is just something of which we need to be aware.

I agree with the points made about the narrative we need to sell about Ireland. Across member states and in Brussels, more needs to heard about the importance of our indigenous SME sector and about the innovations taking place in the farming and agriculture sectors. More needs to be said about the smart and creative things that rural communities are doing. We can be a role model for other member states in that regard. It is not always just about taxation, foreign direct investment and multinationals. Our economic story is much more rich and complex than that.

Ms O'Donoghue touched on some of the more practical things that the Oireachtas can do, as referred to by Senator Richmond. The more that one can meet and connect with people, the better. It is a simple rule of thumb and we are good at that in Ireland; Irish people are good at it. I know that committee members have busy schedules but the more they can travel to member states and meet their counterparts, the better.

There is a role for us in making sure that all of the committees, wherever they go, focus on their area and also make sure that we can add value to that by having shared messages on priorities for Ireland and for the member states that members visit. Being more systematic and joined up in our engagement as a country is something that we are getting better at but we have to continue with that.

Senators Leyden and Richmond touched on our strategic engagement and placements and those questions are more appropriate for the Department so Ms O'Donoghue will take them.

Ms Aingeal O’Donoghue

I will be brief because I am conscious that the Portuguese delegation is present. Senator Richmond made an interesting point on the target groups for potential success in EU competitions. Those who have experience of the EU in other ways are a rich target group. One of the ways to complement the general awareness raising opportunities in the EU is to look more clearly at what are key target groups are because, as the Senator said, the competition process is elaborate, lengthy and challenging. We have done some work on supporting people through that and giving them advice, both with sessions in the permanent representative's office and in Dublin but there is probably scope to do more. We recognise that we need to constantly refocus on how we are getting as many people as possible into the institutions. I was interested in that thought.

The critical point about the permanent representative's office is the number of staff and it has representatives from almost every Department. It is quite unlike any other Irish embassy or mission. It is by far the largest but it is also a whole-of-Government office. We are constantly recalibrating in the Departments precisely what the range of people they need there is in terms of the key matters on the legislative agenda. For a Presidency, that is clearly ramped up in a different way but what we have seen, thankfully in the context of Brexit, is more of an engagement and a ramping up both in Brussels and in our other missions.

The other point Senator Richmond made related to a concern that Brexit was occupying the agenda so much that we did not have the capacity to focus as much as we needed to on other key issues, notably the MFF. Going back to the point about when people travel to other capitals, Brexit is not at the top of the agenda in many other capitals and so they are very much focused on the MFF and other key issues. In that sense, the EU is collectively focused on it. It has taken its own rhythm. Initially there were urgings from the Commission that we would agree the MFF quickly and in advance of the European Parliament elections. As member states, we collectively felt that was too rushed and so it is moving forward at a pace. Within our system, we have tried to preserve clear policy and capacity. That includes my colleague in the Department, Ms Delaney, but it is led by a core group from the Departments of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Finance, which is focused on the MFF.

Senator Richmond also asked about opening consulates in other cities so I will happily take that lovely list of cities that he mentioned back to the Department. We always need to look at the overall Irish footprint. It is not just the embassy or the consulate; it is also the agencies and we need to look at what the right mix is. For example, a number of the agencies are based in Milan and Enterprise Ireland has announced the opening of an office in Lyon so when we talk about Ireland's global footprint it is the full global footprint.

I would like to pick up on the point made by a number of members on what role parliamentary engagement can play and how that might be augmented. It is encouraging to hear the openness and the positivity from members on what role they can play at the parliamentary level. It is critical and we will be happy to continue that dialogue with them, either directly or via their clerks. The role of national parliaments is greatly important for the democratic legitimacy of the EU. It is both about building alliances and engaging with other parliamentarians and members' national role in terms of the democratic legitimacy of the EU. It is a critical complement to the role of the European Parliament. I very much welcome the positive signals here today and I am happy to follow up with members.

Ms O'Donoghue did not refer to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Ms Aingeal O’Donoghue

No, I did not because it would probably be better to get one of my colleagues who focuses on the Middle East to come back to the Senator on that.

What is the Department's involvement in working with the former eastern countries such as Montenegro?

Ms Aingeal O’Donoghue

We are among those member states which have a positive agenda on the enlargement of the European Union. On the discussions that take place in Brussels, including at the General Affairs Council, we are one of the positive voices around the table in support of enlargement, recognising the value that EU membership has brought to us and to other member states and wanting to ensure, providing that the necessary conditions are met, that the opportunity is there for other member states. In her time as Minister of State at the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Taoiseach with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy McEntee has travelled to the region twice, including most recently in a joint visit with her Finnish colleague, which is an interesting example of both alliances and the enlargement agenda so it is very much part of our thinking.

I thank Mr. Hackett and Ms O'Donoghue and I also thank Ms Ciara Delaney and Ms Claire Callaghan for attending. We appreciate their time very much and again I apologise. They will understand that members come and go. At these meetings and engagements, even though sometimes members are not present, they always get to see and hear all of the questions and answers and the total engagement so it always comes up for discussion afterwards. The witnesses' time is very much appreciated and I thank them very much for being here today and for taking time out to be here.

Sitting suspended at 4.27 p.m. and resumed in private session at 4.32 p.m.
The joint committee adjourned at 5.21 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 15 May 2019.