I thank the Cathaoirleach and the members for the invitation to address the committee. I apologise in advance if my voice starts to go but I have a bit of a cold.
I join the committee in wishing our new MEPs every success. I look forward to working with them, as I know the committee does, in the coming weeks and months.
As usual there is much to report upon since my previous visit. Last week I attended the General Affairs Council where we focused on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and preparations for the June European Council. The agenda for the upcoming European Council includes the next strategic agenda for the Union, high-level appointments, the MFF and climate change.
I propose to focus on three headline issues, which are the EU’s strategic agenda 2019-2024, an update on the other issues discussed during last week’s General Affairs Council and an update on the negotiations for the UK's withdrawal from the EU and our preparedness and contingency plans.
I will first turn to the EU strategic agenda for 2019 to 2024. In 2014, the European Council adopted the "Strategic Agenda for the Union in Times of Change", setting out five key overarching priorities to guide the work of the EU. Change is a constant and it is right that we look again at our priorities to ensure that we focus on meeting the needs and expectations of our citizens and prepare for the challenges of the future. Ireland began preparing its contribution to the new strategic agenda in 2017, when I joined the Taoiseach and Tánaiste at the launch of the Citizens’ Dialogues on the future of Europe. These were designed to help us learn about what mattered most to our citizens in the debate on the future of Europe, which took place throughout member states. The Chairman will recall that this committee also held its own hearings on the future of Europe. The Chairman spoke at our national event in May last year in Dublin, for which I thank him.
In April, the Cabinet approved the publication of a national statement on the European Union. This is a whole-of-Government response to the issues raised during the Citizens’ Dialogues and is Ireland’s contribution to the next strategic agenda. It was laid before the Oireachtas and was the subject of statements in Dáil Éireann just before the Easter recess.
The Europe of the future must meet the ambitions of our citizens. It must deliver on the unfulfilled potential of the Single Market – one fit for the digital age. It must be ready for the opportunities and the challenges of the digital transformation, protecting the most vulnerable in our society. It must be a global leader in finding solutions to climate change. It must play a central role in advancing the sustainable development goals and it must stay true to its values.
Heads of State and Government began their discussions on the strategic agenda a few weeks ago in Sibiu, with a view to adopting it at the next European Council in June. In the meantime, we will work with the other member states to ensure that our priorities, defined in Ireland's national statement, are reflected in the new strategic agenda.
With regard to the other issues discussed at the General Affairs Council last week, I refer to the MFF. During the debate on this occasion we discussed the neighbourhood, development and international co-operation instrument, NDICI. The new proposed instrument will see a major restructuring of the EU’s fund for external action. The proposal is to integrate the European neighbourhood instrument and the European Development Fund, which used to be managed separately, into the EU budget. This is intended to reflect the EU’s strategic priorities, notably the neighbourhood countries and Africa. In my intervention, I supported the integration of the European Development Fund within the NDICI. Integration will allow for greater coherence, more efficiencies and simplified procedures, or to remove duplication where we can. I also indicated that Ireland supports the proposal to integrate the European neighbourhood instrument into the NDICI. We feel that the current level of proposed ring fencing for the neighbourhood instrument should allay any concerns about the importance and priority that the EU attaches to relations with our nearest neighbours. I am aware this was a concern for many of my colleagues, and those concerns were outlined. We feel the ring-fencing of this funding should allay many of the concerns that were raised.
It was clear that there is no clear majority at the Council in favour of either option and it is likely that these two issues will have to be discussed again as the MFF discussions progress. This was the last thematic MFF discussion under the Romanian Presidency. At the June European Council, leaders will assess whether we are on track to reach an overall agreement in the autumn or whether more time will be needed. I commend the Romanian Presidency for its dedication to these important negotiations. I am sure that the incoming Finnish Presidency will do its utmost to guide us towards agreement by the end of the year, which we would very much favour.
The other item on the General Affairs Council agenda was preparations for the European Council meeting in June. The European Union elections signal the start of the next institutional cycle in our Union. As part of that cycle, the new strategic agenda will be adopted by leaders at the Council next month.
There will also be a series of personnel changes at the top of the EU’s main institutions. A new Commission President and College of Commissioners will be appointed. The European Parliament and European Council will also elect new presidents and Mario Draghi will be replaced this year as President of the European Central Bank. Yesterday, the Taoiseach attended an informal European Council to start the consideration of these high-level appointments ahead of the European Council next month. These appointments should reflect geographical balance and demography to ensure large and smaller countries are represented in the highest positions in the EU. We must also ensure we have gender and political balance, which should also be taken into account.
The EU has implemented measures aimed at combatting disinformation in election campaigns. The European Council will consider a Presidency report on lessons learned from the European parliamentary elections. Ireland fully supports EU efforts to combat the manipulation of our democratic systems. Domestically, our interdepartmental group on security of the electoral process and disinformation has been working to identify best practice to secure our electoral processes. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has also helped to establish a media literacy campaign entitled Be Media Smart.
At the June Council, leaders will also discuss climate change, in light of the UN climate action summit this September and the development of a long-term EU climate strategy. Our Deputies and Senators will be aware that an all-of-Government plan will be completed shortly to deliver on the Government's ambition to make Ireland a leader in responding to climate change. This follows from the cross-party and cross-committee report that was published this year.
The General Affairs Council next month is expected to discuss enlargement in advance of the next European Council, at which a decision is envisaged on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Ireland believes that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union. I visited Skopje and Tirana in February and was impressed by the progress made on key reforms. The Commission published its opinion this morning and based on its positive recommendations, we would like the Council to take the decision to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in June.
The Commission updated Ministers on their recent communication on strengthening the rule of law within the Union. I am aware that Deputies have raised this issue on many occasions. The communication is the start of a reflection process on rule of law issues. According to the Commission, there is a need for better promotion of the rule of law, early prevention of risks or breaches and more effective responses. This matter is of serious concern to Ireland as the rule of law is a fundamental principle for all EU member states. We look forward to the specific proposals from the Commission, which will hopefully be published next month.
I will now turn to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union or Brexit. The April European Council decision to extend the Article 50 process reduced the risk of a no-deal scenario in the immediate term. The political impasse in the UK, however, and the failure of the UK Parliament to ratify the withdrawal agreement, means that the threat of a no-deal Brexit in October remains. There are those who would say that it is even more severe than the March deadline. The process of replacing Prime Minister May will begin in the week starting 10 June. It would not be appropriate to comment on this internal matter for British politics, other than to say I wish Prime Minister May well. Her efforts to find a path forward in a very difficult situation demonstrated a commendable commitment and sense of duty. We look forward to working constructively with the next British Prime Minister and his or her team. A change of Prime Minister, however, will not change the facts of Brexit. The European Council has made it clear that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be reopened or renegotiated. The European Council has also said, however, that should the UK’s position evolve vis-à-vis the future relationship between the EU and the UK, the EU is prepared to reconsider the political declaration on the future relationship. The responsibility for avoiding a no-deal outcome lies firmly with the UK. Our position has remained the same for some time. The best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and to fully protect the Good Friday Agreement is to ratify the withdrawal agreement. It is vital, therefore, that the UK, regardless of whoever is the next Prime Minister, makes good use of the period between now and 31 October to try to find a suitable way forward.
Last week, the Cabinet indicated its approval for Government to continue its Brexit planning and preparedness work for all possible outcomes, including no deal. This work will continue both at home and at EU level. Since December 2018, we have focused on putting the necessary contingency measures in place to mitigate the potential impacts of a no-deal UK withdrawal. Much of this work, as outlined in the Government's December 2018 Brexit contingency action plan and subsequent updates, will continue to be relevant in any scenario.
The Government is determined to make good use of the period afforded by the extension to further deepen our no-deal responses. This will include adding to or refining completed measures to maximise our readiness.
We have recruited additional staff as part of our work to prepare our ports and airports for all Brexit scenarios. The Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Health Service Executive recruited staff in time for a no-deal Brexit last March, but they would still be needed in a range of Brexit scenarios. Additional training for these officers will take place over the summer months.
Many of the preparatory measures undertaken by businesses and outlined in the Government’s Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign are good business practice and will benefit stakeholders, whatever the outcome of the UK withdrawal. We will continue work to encourage businesses to prepare, including by taking practical steps such as registering for economic operators' registration and identification, EORI, numbers. Most Deputies and Senators who have been out and about for the past few weeks are aware that there may be a sense that this has gone away and will not happen but we encourage everybody to continue to engage and take practical steps to prepare themselves and their businesses for this event. The Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019 was signed by the President on 17 March and its provisions remain ready to be deployed if and when required. We are preparing for Brexit with the full support of the European Commission and our 27 EU partners. Many of the actions aimed at mitigating the effects of a no-deal outcome will be taken at the EU level, as they involve sectors regulated by EU law.
Earlier this month, I welcomed the European Commission announcement of an exceptional aid fund for the beef sector in the context of Brexit. The Government had sought such provision for Irish beef farmers, both at meetings of the EU Council of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and in direct consultation with the Commission. It is something constantly raised by members, particularly in the context of raising awareness of the need to retain our overall Common Agricultural Policy budget. We are grateful to the European Commission, in particular Commissioner Hogan, for the assistance. It is another example of the importance of EU solidarity in the context of the economic challenges caused by Brexit.
It is clear that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will have a significant impact on Ireland, whatever its outcome. Government, businesses and citizens must make the necessary preparations to minimise its impact, and we are determined to be as ready as we can be, whatever the outcome. I thank members again for the invitation to address the committee and for their attention this afternoon. As always, I am happy to take any questions that the committee may have.