Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on European Union Affairs díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 28 Oct 2020

EU Response to Covid-19: Discussion

We are looking forward to our conversation on the EU response to Covid-19. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Gerry Kiely, head of representation in Ireland for the European Commission, and Ms Noelle O'Connell, CEO of European Movement Ireland. As we know, Ireland is not the only country grappling with Covid-19. As many other member states face challenges in controlling the virus, this engagement seeks to inform us on the measures being taken at an EU level to assist member states in their efforts.

I will read a note on privilege before we begin. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also advise the witnesses, who are giving evidence from locations outside the parliamentary precincts, to note that the constitutional protections afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before committees may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or not or the extent to which the evidence to be given is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Persons giving evidence from another jurisdiction should also be mindful of their domestic statutory regime.

If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, they must respect that direction. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect 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.

I call Mr. Kiely to make an opening statement.

Mr. Gerry Kiely

Many thanks to the members for the invitation to speak before the committee this morning. I am delighted to be here. I will give as much of a summary as I can of the various EU actions that have taken place over the past six to eight months since the Covid crisis emerged. I will be as brief as I can and I know the committee has much to get into the session.

During her state of the Union 2020 speech last month, President Ursula von der Leyen devoted her first words to pay tribute to all the caregivers, nurses, doctors and front-line workers in Europe, who have pulled us through this crisis to date and who continue to be our first line of response to the Covid-19 panic and pandemic. The President said – and I agree - that we are inspired by their empathy, bravery and sense of duty. She also said their stories reveal a lot about the state of our world and the state of our Union. A virus a thousand times smaller than a grain of sand exposed how delicate life can be. It laid bare the strains on our health systems and the limits of a model that values wealth above well-being. People want to move out of this corona world, she said, and out of this fragility, out of uncertainty. She stated they are ready for change and they are ready to move on. She concluded that therefore this is the moment for Europe.

For a long time healthcare in the EU member states has been a national competence, whereas until recently the EU had very limited input. This was also the case when the virus struck us and this also influenced how we could react in the EU. The initial response in EU member states showed that we still have 27 sovereign member states that might share many areas of responsibility within the framework of our Union but which also maintain multiple areas of competence covered by their own decisions, and health is one of them.

When Covid-19 hit us, this became the moment for Europe and one, in my view, where we have risen to the occasion . EU member states’ health systems immediately went into overdrive to counter the contagion and support those affected. However, member states also started closing borders, limiting the flow of essential goods. Some started to compete with each other for the procurement of limited supplies of personal protective equipment, PPE, and medication. In addition, the economic effects of lockdowns had to be met by national social security systems and national financial support to businesses and workers.

In recent months, we have rediscovered the value of what we hold in common. As individuals, we have all sacrificed a piece of our personal liberty for the safety of others and as a Union, we all shared a part of our sovereignty for the common good. We showed what is possible when we trust each other and trust our European institutions. Working within its competences, and sometimes moving beyond into innovative areas, the EU has given a massive response to Covid-19. I have already provided a separate summary overview of that response, which I will not repeat in detail here. However, I would like to highlight a number of important elements.

The first is the response to Covid-19 by the EU with economic measures. These include a massive recovery package of €1.8 trillion that combines the EU budget for 2021 to 2027 and Next Generation EU. Under the agreement, the Commission will be able to borrow up to €750 billion on the markets. A first successful EU bond issue of €17 billion has just been oversubscribed 13 times over.

Additionally, there are economic measures that complement the European Central Bank’s €1.35 trillion pandemic emergency purchase programme, in addition to the €120 billion programme decided earlier. There has been a temporary relaxing of state aid rules so governments can provide liquidity to the economy. We have also seen the triggering of the "escape clause" that allows maximum flexibility to our budgetary rules, which links to the earlier point on state aid, and there has been the Commission’s temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency, SURE, which is designed to help people keep their jobs during the crisis.

There has also been financial support for hard-hit small and medium businesses. The Commission tabled an investment initiative to provide member states with immediate liquidity, and it consists of unspent cohesion policy funds. I do not know if Ireland got any of this because Ireland did not have any unspent cohesion funding. To support farmers and the agriculture sector, the Commission has launched exceptional measures to support and stabilise agricultural markets.

To respond to Covid-19, the EU has set up support for research for treatment, diagnostics and vaccines. The coronavirus global response pledging marathon raised €16 billion in funds for universal access to treatments, tests and vaccines, of which €1.4 billion was from the Commission. The Commission has also mobilised more than €660 million under Horizon 2020 to develop vaccines, new treatments, diagnostic tests and medical systems. The Commission's vaccines strategy was designed to accelerate the development and availability of vaccines. It aims to secure the production of vaccines within the EU, ensure sufficient supplies for its member states through advance purchase agreements with vaccine producers, adapt the EU's regulatory framework to the current emergency and use the flexibility of our rules to speed up the development, authorisation and availability of vaccines. So far, the Commission has concluded agreements on behalf of all EU member states with pharmaceutical companies for hundreds of millions of vaccine doses as soon as a vaccine is approved. Separate from this, the Commission also presented a vaccination strategy to help identify vulnerable groups that should benefit from vaccination. The strategy also deals with vaccination services and infrastructure and vaccines deployment, as well as the availability and affordability of vaccines, and communication to ensure public confidence.

To respond to Covid-19 the EU has also provided support to the public health sector. The Commission has allocated €3 billion from the EU budget, matched by €3 billion from member states, to fund the emergency support instrument and the rescEU's common stockpile of equipment to deal with the pandemic. To aid the production and availability of personal protective equipment, the Commission is working closely with member states to assess the available stock of PPE in the EU, the production capacity and anticipated needs. It is ensuring conformity assessment and market surveillance to increase the supply of PPE without compromising health and safety standards. It is discussing with industry how to convert production lines to supply more PPE and providing manufacturers with guidance to increase production of PPE, hand sanitisers and disinfectants.

To respond to Covid-19 the EU has also addressed the issue of borders and mobility, including guidelines for border management measures to protect health and ensure availability of goods and essential services and creating so-called green lanes to ensure the flow of goods. There have also been temporary restrictions on non-essential travel to the EU and guidance to ensure the free movement of workers, especially in the healthcare and food sectors.

Finally, to respond to Covid-19 the EU has engaged in activities to fight disinformation. The Commission is in close contact with social media platforms regarding measures to promote authoritative content and to take down misleading, illegal and harmful content. Many initiatives are being implemented and many of them are available to Ireland in support of the efforts of the Irish Government and Irish authorities to counter the pandemic but also to deal with its economic impact. The pandemic is not over and a vaccine is not yet available, although there are some hopeful signs. National competences and EU policies continue as they are, but given the range of responses from the EU to date and working closely together with all EU member states, we hope to meet the challenge and protect our citizens.

In the past six months, our health systems and workers have produced miracles. Every country has worked to do its best for its citizens and Europe has done more together than ever before, and we achieved this without having full competences but rather through co-ordination and co-operation. As President von der Leyen has said, it is crystal clear we need to build a stronger European health union. The Commission wants to strengthen our crisis preparedness and management of cross-border health threats. The Commission will propose to reinforce and empower the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The Commission also wants to establish a European agency for biomedical advanced research and development. We need strategic stockpiling to address supply chain dependencies, notably for pharmaceutical products. In conclusion, it is clearer than ever before that we must discuss the question of health competences for the EU, a matter that saw strong support in the Eurobarometer published last week.

The Commission believes this is a suitable subject for the conference on the future of Europe, which we hope will kick off next month or in the near future.

Thank you, Mr. Kiely. I call on Ms Noelle O'Connell, European Movement Ireland, to make her opening statement.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

I thank the Chairman and the committee for this invitation. I wish him and all committee members every success, particularly at this crucial juncture of Ireland’s EU relationship. The committee can be assured, as ever, of the ongoing engagement and support of its work by me and all of my colleagues in European Movement Ireland.

We are delighted to have this opportunity to meet the committee this morning on the critical topic of the EU’s response to Covid-19. We would be in a far worse condition if it were not for the Trojan and Herculean efforts of health workers across the EU. I pay tribute to those working across the front line in this regard.

What would be the EU’s report card to date? As we know, this virus respects no borders. Traditionally, the EU tended to fit crises into its entirely bureaucratic processes and treaty-based rules. In other words, it tried to adapt crises to its way of working, rather than adapting to the crisis at hand. Brussels and its related EU agencies have never been known for speed. They tend to be more a marathon runner than a sprinter. After a slow start, however, team EU got into a stronger stride after late March with regular policy initiatives to cope with the crisis, ranging from the repatriation of EU citizens abroad to protecting national health services from cyberattacks, mass procurement of protective medical equipment and directing EU funding towards vaccine research.

This coronavirus pandemic is not a normal crisis. We are now seeing the EU and member states attempt to co-ordinate their responses collectively against the backdrop more broadly of this committee meeting taking place as Europe experiences a deadly second wave of the virus. Curfews, restrictions and other measures are being implemented across member states to help control the spread of Covid-19.

This public health crisis requires a shared sense of purpose and, equally, a willingness by the EU, its institutions and member states to do new things. Just this past weekend, the EU has delivered ventilators and other medical supplies from its rescEU reserve to Czechia, after that country requested help through the EU’s civil protection mechanism, amid its rising number of coronavirus cases. It is a practical example of how the EU has played a vital, yet often under-recognised, central role as the provider and co-ordinator of help to member states in how we respond to Covid-19.

It is largely member state governments which led the way with health policy remaining primarily a national competency by constituent member state national governments. Several EU measures provide a flavour of some of the co-ordinated initiatives taken by various EU institutions in their attempts to alleviate the impacts of this pandemic on EU citizens. In the early days of the pandemic, the European Commission invited all member states, as well as the UK, to lift customs duties and VAT on imports of necessary medical equipment during the crisis. This covered protective equipment, testing kits and medical devices, such as ventilators, in order to help make it easier financially for member states to obtain this important equipment. This measure has now been extended to the end of October 2020.

On vaccinations, AstraZeneca is to provide 300 million doses with an option for a further 100 million. The European Commission is leading this charge on behalf of member states to secure safe and effective Covid-19 vaccinations. AstraZeneca is better known for developing the Oxford vaccine, as has been widely reported in the media, with further welcome developments emerging last weekend about its potential results.

On research, Dublin-based firm Pintail is leading on the PORSAV project, along with Palliare, UCD and other partners in France and Poland. Its purpose is to develop technology to control viral aerosols in Covid-19 and other diseases. Another example, Cork-based company, BioPixS, is part of a consortium of six other partners across Spain, Italy and the Netherlands that are developing a portable platform for the assessment of microvascular health.

On Tuesday, 20 October, for the first time in its history, the EU borrowed from the international monetary markets and made history by attracting the highest ever demand recorded for a bond sale. Investors placed bids for more than €233 billion, which far exceeded the original €17 billion worth of bonds on offer. This sale is the first under the EU’s SURE, Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency, programme and is available for member states which need to mobilise significant financial means to fight the negative economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Elsewhere, EU finance ministers had agreed on 20 March to suspend the Stability and Growth Pact, demonstrating an early flexibility and determination to grapple with the economic challenges presented by the pandemic. The ECB decided in June to increase the pandemic emergency purchase programme from €600 billion to €1.35 trillion. By doing so, the ECB, stated this “will further ease the general monetary policy stance, supporting funding conditions in the real economy, especially for businesses and households’’. This purchasing programme will continue until June 2021 in its current format. In May, the European Investment Bank launched a €25 billion European guarantee fund.

To further help member states respond to the pandemic, in March, the European Commission allowed for a temporary relaxation of state aid rules, which facilitated Ireland being able to designate €15 million in financial assistance for five strategic maritime roll-on, roll-off routes for a period of up to three months. These routes included those operated by Irish Ferries from Dublin to Cherbourg and Rosslare-Europort to Pembroke; by Stena Line from Rosslare-Europort to Cherbourg and Fishguard; and by Brittany Ferries from Rosslare-Europort to Bilbao. These will be crucial as the Brexit clock continues to count down. This is without even mentioning the €750 billion Next Generation EU agreement.

The EU has repatriated over 82,000 EU citizens on flights from all over the world, including over 600 Irish people from the likes of India, Japan to Peru. It has co-ordinated with Netflix, which temporarily lowered video quality across Europe to reduce strain on Internet service providers. It has worked with member states to keep trade moving across borders by introducing green lanes at border crossings. The EU has been that all-important co-ordinator between and for member states as they attempted to grapple with this pandemic.

Air travel is an example of this. As an island nation, air travel is a key priority for Ireland to mitigate its peripherality to the EU. However, Covid-19 has brought challenges. Earlier this month, agreement was reached in the EU to adopt a common traffic light system for flights in terms of the impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector in Ireland. The system aims to end a confusing patchwork of country by country restrictions with regions across the EU designated green, orange or red, based on the degree to which the virus is under control. While individual EU member states are free to determine their own measures, the European Commission has encouraged all member states to be consistent.

While the traffic light system is an example that the EU can get things right, the European response to Covid-19 has also faltered at times. The lack of solidarity shown to Italy, widely publicised in March, subsequently impacted people’s opinion of the EU, as borne out in many polls. Polling by Kantar, on behalf of the European Parliament in April and June, showed 39% of those surveyed were satisfied that EU member states had shown enough solidarity between them in fighting Covid-19. Ireland actually had the highest levels of satisfaction with 64% with Luxemburg at the lowest, 19%.

From a European Movement Ireland's perspective, we posed a similar question in our annual Ireland in the EU poll by RED C, a poll published since 2013 in which people in Ireland are asked their opinions on various EU issues. This year the fieldwork was carried out in mid to late March just as lockdowns were commencing across Europe. On the statement that the EU has responded well to the coronavirus pandemic, respondents were equally split with 47% agreeing it had, 46% disagreeing while 7% did not know.

This response in Ireland is relatively high compared to other polling across the EU. A March opinion poll for POLITICO found that 24% of respondents in Italy, 31% of respondents in France and 43% of respondents in Spain felt that the EU was helping them at that time, while that figure was just 8% in Greece in an April opinion poll. Interestingly, as well, in Germany, a FORSA-AKTUELL poll in May asked respondents in whom they had confidence in crisis management, and only 37% of Germans replied that they had confidence in the EU. The Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy found in June that 40% of Romanians considered that the EU reacted weaker at first, but the response then got better during the crisis. This summarises the perception of the EU’s response to Covid-19; uncertain at the start, perhaps, but once it found its footing and pace, the EU was able to react more effectively on a range of issues.

At the same time, while people may have been somewhat negative regarding the EU’s response to Covid-19, the Kantar polling highlighted that people were highly aware of what the EU has done. In June, an average of 76% of people had heard, seen, or read about measures or actions initiated by the EU to respond to Covid-19, with Ireland ranked eighth at 79% awareness. Interestingly, an SWG poll in May found that 69% of Italians had a positive opinion of the next generation EU plan from the European Commission, while in the Netherlands in June it was found that just 30% were in favour of it.

What, then, do people want from the EU in respect of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic? As I have highlighted, polling has underlined a key trend throughout the year of a desire among citizens across EU member states for greater collective action by the EU, its leaders and its institutions. In that Kantar polling on behalf of the European Parliament, 68% of respondents agreed with the statement that the EU should have more competences to deal with crises, such as Covid-19. The response to that statement in Ireland was 79% in favour, the sixth highest, with Portugal topping that poll at 87% in favour. The Kantar poll for the European Parliament in October found that an absolute majority of Europeans continued to call for a larger EU budget to fight Covid-19, with more than half the respondents, 54%, saying that public health should be a spending priority for the EU budget, followed by 42% saying economic recovery and new opportunities for businesses, 37% saying climate change and environmental protection and 35% saying employment and social affairs.

Citizens continue to see the EU as part of the solution in this crisis, with 66% of respondents agreeing that the EU should have more competences to deal with it. These findings remain consistent with the results from previous polling. Indeed, as Mr. Kiely mentioned, the EU gaining competences in the area of health was an issue the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, mentioned in her September state of the Union address to the European Parliament. This comes at a critical point, as the EU prepares to launch the conference on the future of Europe, which will provide an important forum of discussion with the public about crucial issues of importance for the EU’s medium and long-term development, in areas such as economic and social system, sustainability, climate protection, innovation, digital transformation and the EU’s core values. It will also explore the lessons that Europe can learn from the pandemic and, judging by the recent polling data I have presented, there is a strong and urgent demand from EU citizens for that to happen. This is something we in European Movement Ireland will be keenly monitoring and engaging with, and it is an issue which I look forward to engaging on with this committee later in the year.

As the EU and Ireland begin to focus our attention on where we want Europe to go in the decades ahead, I will finish by saying we cannot have that kind of pan-European conversation without being conscious of the challenges posed by the forces of populism, extremism and disinformation. A loss of trust and the impact of these forces would have a profound and deeply negative impact on our communities, societies and politics, and for the whole European project.

I have outlined a brief overview of the EU’s current report card in its efforts to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Some say the EU has evolved and developed based on responses to various crises, be that the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, as a response to food shortages after the Second World War or the Single Market and the euro coming after the economic shocks of the 1970s. It is tempting to debate if there will be more Europe or less and more nationalism or globalism after the coronavirus crisis is over. As we encounter the second wave of the virus across Europe, no one knows how it will continue to evolve, nor, therefore, how the EU may change because of it. Just as we witnessed a Brexit bounce in support for the EU, this Covid-19 crisis has revealed that EU citizens have high expectations and demands of the EU. Some of these are fair, but some, however, are arguably outside the EU’s existing core competencies and capacities.

What we have seen, however, is that when Europe delivers, people recognise that and respond positively. The challenge for the EU now, as member states grapple with a second wave of Covid-19, is to keep on delivering. It will not be easy. Recent weeks have shown us that the journey ahead remains difficult and uncertain. We can be confident, however, that people across the EU want a better and stronger Europe that can respond to crises more effectively and, importantly, give us hope for a better future.

I thank Mr. Kiely and Ms O'Connell for their contributions. I will call members in order now, and I will take two at a time. Deputies Howlin and Richmond have indicated. I ask them to be specific regarding to whom they are directing questions. I call Deputy Richmond.

I thank our witnesses for their enlightening presentations. There is quite a bit of detail to go through. I have two or three questions for Mr. Kiely, two for Ms O'Connell and then one question for both witnesses. I will try to keep the questions as concise as possible.

Will Mr. Kiely give us some detail regarding how much PPE is in stock, or has been stockpiled? Regarding cross-border co-operation, have the EU and the European commission played any specific role in that context? We have seen reports of Germany taking in patients from other countries and Romanian medical staff going to Italy in the early part of the crisis. I ask that question because cross-Border co-operation poses a very specific challenge on this island, where Northern Ireland is starting to run out of spaces for ICU patients. Even though Northern Ireland is part of the UK, which has technically left the EU, we obviously have a moral obligation to provide support where we can and if possible. What role is the EU playing in that area, if any? My last question for Mr. Kiely concerns the €750 billion European recovery fund. Has any consideration been given at a European level for the non-Covid-19 aspects? I refer to what impact Brexit might have on Ireland, for example, and how that might impinge on Ireland's ability to draw down other funds.

Turning to Ms O'Connell, she went into some detail on the traffic light system. There has been much talk on that subject, but drawing on her engagement with and analysis of the situation across the EU, does Ms O'Connell think there has been real engagement by the member states in this traffic light system? Has there been buy-in into that system, or is it just a conceptual idea at this stage? My next question for Ms O'Connell leads into a question for both witnesses concerning citizens' demands. I refer to the less than favourable impression of the EU's initial response to the pandemic, and how that has changed and progressed in recent months. That leads us to the question of to what extent do health competences need to change. Mr. Kiely finished his presentation very pertinently on this aspect and Ms O'Connell also referred to this matter.

This topic feeds not just into this discussion about the pandemic, but also into the future work and discussions of this committee regarding the future of Europe and the conference on the future of Europe. What capacity do the witnesses think there is for changing competences across the EU, bearing in mind the changes that might require a new treaty or treaty changes, and especially given our country's history with treaty changes in various referendums. I have no great appetite to go out campaigning in a referendum any time soon. I have no great appetite to go campaigning for anything at the moment, and that also presents its own difficulties. That is something, however, we need to bear in mind more broadly, beyond the pandemic, when we talk about the future of our union. The UK has left, but there are many changes and challenges about which we must question whether the treaties of the Union and the Union itself are up to scratch in dealing with.

I will begin where Deputy Richmond ended, on the topic of health competencies. That was the reason, I was going to say excuse, given for the slow initial response at EU level to the crisis.

From the data and polling Ms O'Connell presented, health competency has impacted to varying degrees but uniformly negatively on people's image of the union. Even where there is no formal health competence, and as a former Minister for Health, I know there is no health council as such, there must be a provision for common action to face a common emergency. We need to address that.

These questions are mainly for Mr. Kiely. We are now in the second wave of this pandemic. Last night places such as Liege have been presented as the new epicentre. Germany has said it will take some patients if the acute hospital system in Belgium is overwhelmed. Who is co-ordinating these things now or is it ad hoc? Is it for individual member states to act as good neighbours or is there now some sort of pan-European co-ordination on these matters?

Ms O'Connell also mentioned the stability and growth pact relaxation or suspension. As someone who had to grapple with the stability and growth pact in the last crisis, that is a welcome development, but how long will that last? I am interested in Mr. Kiely's perspective. We need to rebuild even after the virus is defeated. That will mean economic supports and the capacity to do that might be outside the scope of the very narrow stability and growth pact we entered into.

One of the big issues around providing adequate health resources now and the future is staffing. Ireland's issue is less the provision of ventilators but the staffing of ventilators. The common practice is that every European country acts as an independent entity in the recruitment of health staff. Is this something that must be examined from a European perspective? We seem to cannibalise each other. For example, the last time we went on a massive recruitment campaign for nurses, we looked at South Africa. South Africa, being depleted of nurses, looked to Kenya which then looked to its neighbours. It was always one wealthier country cannibalising the next down in the tier. Do we need to have a pan-European staffing response? Is there any scope in that?

I was interested in Mr. Kiely's comment on the establishment of new European agencies in the health sphere and biosciences. What is the status of that?

Ms O'Connell referred to the relaxation of state aid rules in terms of domestic routes in advance of Brexit. The relaxation of state aid rules are of little benefit if the domestic government does not take them on. It is a discussion for a different forum. We have gross incapacity in terms of direct links to continental Europe and being reassured by those who are already providing it is cold comfort for me.

Mr. Gerry Kiely

I will try to answer to the extent I can. I do not have a figure for the stockpile of PPE, and I am not sure anyone does. It is a combination of things from the Commission's perspective, including the provision of money and the setting of standards. Through the mechanism rescEU there is some EU stockpiles organised through member states. Through the Commission, there are framework contracts through which member states can purchase equipment. It is a combination of different actions to ensure an adequate supply of the appropriate equipment. I am not sure a figure exists for any stockpile, and to the extent that there is one around member states, it would be changing. I will look into it and if there is a figure I can come back with, I will do so.

Deputy Howlin mentioned cross-border co-operation. Taking patients from hospital in one country to a hospital in another happened at the peak and is beginning to happen again. That is primarily bilaterally. It is also covered through rescEU. There is also a co-ordination committee involving the institutions in all the member states who probably meet or are in contact daily on co-operation and co-ordination between the institutions and the member states. It is a fluid situation. As people have noted, the EU does not have competence so it is co-operation and co-ordination operation at the moment, which is working very well but it is not ideal.

On the rescEU €750 billion, there are also other funds. This was put in place to help the economies in the context of Covid. It is up to member states what actions they put forward and up to the institutions as to what they would accept would be covered, but there are many other funds. The structural funds have not gone away, nor has the Common Agricultural Policy fund. We are looking down the road in the next month or two to the conclusion of Brexit. Depending on the agreement, or absence thereof, there is a fund of €5 billion. Everyone recognises that if there is an impact from Brexit, Ireland is likely to be impacted more than others. Ireland can tap into that. The €750 billion is additional to all the other funds. If one adds up everything that has been done at EU and member state level in relation to Covid between state aid, monetary easing, funds, the EU budget etc., there is firepower in the order of €3.5 trillion or €4 trillion to deal with Covid and its economic and medical fallout. The GDP is something like €15 trillion. Approximately 20% to 25% of EU's GDP has been put on the table for firepower. Most of that is still a promise, it has not yet gone into the system but it will in the future and will inevitably have a big impact.

Both Deputies mentioned health competence. The Commission does not want to go down that road at the moment. What we must deal with now is the crisis. There is a general acceptance that while co-operation and co-ordination is working very well, the EU needs to have more competence in health. We will have a conference on the future of Europe, hopefully in the next month or two, as soon as there is agreement between the institutions, and inevitably changing competence not only in health but in other areas will be a question for that conference. Treaty change was raised. Ireland is very concerned that there might be treaty change, and it is not alone in that. Plenty can be done without any treaty change. Take decisions on foreign affairs where many thought any decision to move away from unanimity would have to be done by treaty change when it is clear it does not have to be. If there is unanimous agreement it can be done by qualified majority. Treaty change is not inevitable but that is a question for the conference on the future of Europe.

On who is co-ordinating action, that is the Commission but it is doing so in co-operation with the member states. There is a committee and a council. The Deputy spoke of recruitment and staffing. It is not only about staffing but also about the provision of facilities, infrastructure etc., and getting ready for the application of vaccines if and when we have one.

The Commission put forward a health strategy fairly recently that covered many areas, which member states will have to implement. As I stated, €3 billion was put on the table to help the health systems in the member states.

On the establishment of new agencies, the Commission has announced its intention to move forward on that but we are at the very beginning. This month, we will also make proposals with regard to the European Medicines Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to update and adapt them further, although I cannot say what will be in the proposals.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

Deputy Richmond asked about the traffic light system and whether there has been any real engagement. It is fair to say, as both Mr. Kiely and I noted, that in the early days, with no guidance or co-ordinated response, member states acted in an ad hoc and disparate manner. Various travel restrictions were introduced on an individual basis and there was a lack of co-ordination. Now, however, with the guidance we hope the co-ordination will engender, the traffic light system will be welcomed by all member states once it proves practical and workable. It is very difficult to talk about it against the backdrop of the second wave. The challenges that many EU member state public health systems currently face are incredible. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that the traffic light system has been agreed to at Council level, so it has been agreed to by member state governments and leaders. There is buy-in, therefore, and hopefully, once we navigate our way through this second wave, the practical impacts of this co-ordination at member state level will prove beneficial to all EU citizens. That is the fervent hope and wish of us all.

We need to examine whether health competences need to change and whether that will lead to another EU referendum. Deputy Howlin mentioned the fiscal stability treaty and the stability and growth pact. Change needs to happen and we need to consider it but, as Mr. Kiely outlined, the EU can do a great deal more. We may not necessarily need to go straight to a treaty change, although that is probably inevitable at some stage. Judging by all the polling, including our European Movement Ireland-Red C polling, there is demand for greater co-ordinated and concerted activity and consistent engagement by the EU to mitigate the worst impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on our citizens. When I was preparing for my presentation, I was struck by the relatively consistent level of support throughout member states for the EU to do more. We have to consider this against the backdrop of the Conference on the Future of Europe. This topic will, one hopes, be addressed there because we need to examine the medium and long-term future of the EU and the institutions, making it a more efficient, fairer and sustainable European Union that works for all its citizens.

Earlier this year in our Red C poll when we asked people in Ireland whether they believe their voices are heard as citizens of the EU, I was really disappointed with the results. Only 33% agreed and felt their voices were heard as citizens of the EU, with the majority of 48% saying they did not. Frankly, that is good enough and we need to work on it to ensure that, as part of the responses to the Covid pandemic, we will work to engage all citizens throughout the EU member states to work collectively and to ensure that people's concerns, views, opinions and perspectives are heard and taken into account in the outcomes and engagements of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

My questions are for both of our guests, whom I thank for their presentations and attendance. The Commission stated yesterday that universal vaccination may not be available until 2022. Why is this? Perhaps Mr. Kiely will explain. Is it that the Commission foresees supply constraints or is it just less optimistic about the speed of development and authorisation, based on safety procedures?

In regard to centralised purchasing capacity for member states, and in particular for smaller member states such as Ireland, are there any difficulties now in respect of personal protective equipment, PPE, drugs such as remdesivir and others, and ventilators and other oxygenation systems? Is the Commission satisfied that any member state can have access to these supplies worldwide and that the EU is putting its collective weight behind making such purchases on behalf of member states when asked to do so?

My final question relates to public sector deficits in eurozone member states. Is there a clear EU view on this? Is somebody, whether the European Central Bank, ECB, or the Commission, keeping an eye on Italy, Ireland or wherever? That applies to all member states and not just Ireland; I am not a masochist on this. Is anybody checking to ensure there is a reasonable uniformity of approach to running deficits, or at least to the criteria justifying major member state deficits within the eurozone?

I thank Mr. Kiely and Ms O'Connell for their presentations. Mr. Kiely spoke about it being a moment for Europe and stated that Europe, and in particular the Commission, had risen to the occasion, while Ms O'Connell spoke about the EU being slow to start, not least in regard to a lack of solidarity shown to Italy. Generally speaking, the EU was slow to start. Initially, it was a case of every state for itself, but we are getting there and Mr. Kiely is probably correct that Europe has risen to the occasion, albeit only after some time.

My first question relates to the multiannual financial framework and the next generation EU. Mr. Kiely might wish to respond. Where are we with regard to agreeing to the next generation EU funds and the process of agreement throughout the EU institutions? Is there a timeline for that?

New, additional funds were mentioned. Has there been any indication as to how Ireland might draw down those potential funds? There was much discussion at a European Council meeting of the breakdown of grants versus loans. Borrowing on the international markets is cheap. Are these potential new funds as good as they sound? Has there been any indication that member states will draw them down? Do they have weaknesses, given that states themselves can borrow them? Mr. Kiely might comment on that and specifically in regard to Ireland.

On the issue of treaty change, many questions have been posed and answered already. Ms O'Connell spoke about the rise of populism, extremism and disinformation. We should be very careful about treaty change. Deputy Richmond spoke about the difficulties in holding a referendum at this time, or at any stage in the future, with this rise in populism, extremism and disinformation. This is just a comment. We should try to work within the treaties to deal with this healthcare issue. There will be a great deal of trouble regarding treaty change, particularly here in Ireland. If we are talking about health, I can see a few issues emerging in such a referendum debate and I would not like to go down that road. I am aware the Conference on the Future of Europe will deal with it but we need to work within the existing treaties.

Most of the questions have been posed and answered but I will comment on the common traffic light system. It seems to me that is academic at the moment given that EU member states are in lockdown. Ms O'Connell spoke about the second lockdown. I believe such a system will be useful but not at the moment. It is largely academic but I guess it will be useful as we come out of the second wave, with the numbers down, and out of lockdowns throughout the member states. Most of that is commentary but I would like the question on the Multiannual Financial Framework and the next generation EU to be answered.

Does Ms O'Connell want to start? Who wants to reply?

Ms Noelle O'Connell

Most of the specific questions are more broadly for Mr. Kiely. I will let him deal with all the difficult technical ones, if that is okay. I thank Deputy Haughey. In terms of some of the questions, the Stability and Growth Pact rules suspended the deals with deficit and the informal September Eurogroup meeting agreed to continue the suspension of the pact. A review of the rules of the pact would obviously resume at the end of the year. These issues continue to be monitored at the various Eurogroup meetings. I trust that answers the question somewhat.

Deputy Haughey outlined succinctly some of the challenges that would arise in terms of any possible EU referendum, treaty change and some of the forces of populism and extremism. We have seen only too well on this side of the Irish Sea the combination of more than 40 years of negative discourse and rhetoric and how that can lead to a certain result in a referendum. There are certainly challenges but I do not see a demand across the EU member states for significant treaty change by the citizens.

In terms of the traffic light system, the Deputy correctly outlined some of the challenges in terms of how we even consider travel between different EU member states. For example, in some barrios in Madrid, if one lives in apartment No. 2 on one side of the street which is in a green zone one can travel freely within that area. However, if one lives across the road in apartment No. 7 and that zone has been deemed red, one cannot travel as freely. It seems very challenging to even consider international travel against the backdrop of the traffic light system, as the Deputy mentioned but let us not forget that one of the core fundamental principles of the EU is that freedom to move and to travel. How we reconcile the challenges of safeguarding, upholding and maintaining public safety, public health, public well-being and the safety and security of all of our citizens against the backdrop of this is the overarching priority, with travel being secondary to that. I will hand over to Mr. Kiely.

Mr. Gerry Kiely

I thank Ms O'Connell and I thank the members for the questions, some of which Ms O'Connell has covered. On the vaccine not being available until 2022, I do not think that was an announcement by the Commission but rather somebody talking about something that was said by somebody from the Commission. Somebody heard someone else talking about something and so on. It is not a question of the Commission knowing the vaccine will be delayed or whatever. It is just the reality that if a vaccine is given the all-clear in the next weeks or whatever, and there are positive signs at the moment, it will take a long time to get up to speed in terms of producing the billions of doses that are needed. As I mentioned earlier, the Commission has already invested hundreds of millions of euro with a number of companies that are showing promise in terms of vaccine developments to ensure the availability of 800 million to 900 million doses. If they were all to come through, 800 million or 900 million doses have been contracted by the Commission for the EU. Also, the Commission has been to the forefront in terms of a global vaccine strategy. If somebody made this comment about 2022 it is purely a statement of fact. I do not believe anyone is disputing the fact that if and when a vaccine is available it will come piecemeal. Member states will have to decide on the priorities. Will it be front-line workers, people with underlying problems, etc.? The Commission has already put forward a paper on that in regard to its strategy on future vaccination. As we speak, some of my lords and masters at the Commission are holding a press conference to talk about the need to move forward in terms of preparing the infrastructure for vaccination etc. because we do not wait until the vaccine is approved to start setting up the system to deliver it.

On centralised purchasing capacity, in March or April the Commission established what we call framework contracts on personal protective equipment, PPE. All member states have access to purchasing the necessary PPE, ventilators or whatever under that. I am not aware of any shortages but we do not have a second wave at the moment. We are getting there but if the system was put under strain in the same way it was put under strain in the earlier months there might be shortages. I do not know. At the moment I am not aware of any shortages but I believe most member states are in a good position with regard to PPE. It may not be the same when it comes to more sophisticated equipment like ventilators, etc. but at the moment the framework contracts and the firepower is there through the European Commission and all member states have access to that.

In terms of deficits, that is under constant review and supervision through the Eurogroup and by the European Commission. We have what we call the semester reports under which the Commission produces a very detailed report on policies and developments in the member states every six months. It is under surveillance.

On the Multiannual Financial Framework, MFF, next generation EU and where we are on the negotiations, it is advanced but it is currently at the stage of trialogue. It always involves the Commission but the negotiations are primarily now between the Council and the Parliament with a view to reaching an agreement. Parliament is asking for some changes to the agreement which was done at the Heads of State level. The Heads of State are saying this is it. There is also the question of how to interpret the rule of law and how it will play. There is a certain degree of optimism in terms of a deadline, which is yesterday or as soon as possible. We need it in place both for the next generation and for the budget because programmes have to be drawn up. Theoretically, it should be implemented next year but it takes a long time for member states to draw up these programmes. We need it approved as soon as possible but there is a certain degree of optimism.

On the breakdown between grants and loans, on the next generation it is more or less 50-50. I believe the grants were €320 billion. Out of that, Ireland gets a little more than €1 billion.

That is down to the fact that the criteria, the key used in distributing the grants, were based on GDP over recent years, unemployment and population. Fortunately, Ireland has done very well on unemployment and GDP over recent years but, unfortunately, the result is that it does not get perhaps as big a share of these grants as would be hoped for.

On the loans side, it is the Commission that is borrowing with the backing of the EU. That is a lot of firepower, so I think the Commission will always get a better interest rate than Ireland, even though Ireland can get a very good rate at present. I think the last bond from the EU was subject to a negative interest rate. Perhaps Ireland will want to go its own way - I do not know - but it certainly will be somewhat attractive to Ireland and attractive to some other member states to borrow through Next Generation EU.

The traffic light system is not academic. It is very important to have such criteria to define regions as high-risk, low-risk, etc., but it is only one step in the whole process. As I said, some of the Commissioners are, I think, giving a press conference at the moment. Certainly, we are publishing material today from the European Commission on moving forward on a common approach on quarantine, more testing, faster testing, etc. The traffic light system fits into this mosaic and is a very important part of it but on its own does not solve anything. It is just one part of the process.

I thank Ms O'Connell and Mr. Kiely for their presentations. My questions are directed towards Mr. Kiely. Senator McDowell has covered my first one somewhat. When the vaccines become available, how does Mr. Kiely anticipate their being fairly distributed among member states over the next 18 to 24 months?

Can Mr. Kiely speak to the measures the EU is taking in conjunction with the online platforms to ensure that Covid fact-checking reaches wider audiences? This is in reference to misinformation on Covid-19 being put into the public discourse.

I thank both witnesses for their presentations and for coming before the committee. I wish to touch on just three issues. The first is the relaxation of state aid rules, which has been a topic of conversation here over many years in the context of the restrictions state aid places on the Government in supporting industry. For how long do the witnesses see this relaxation being in place, and to what extent does it free up the Government to assist industry? I ask this question with Ireland West Airport Knock in mind. Support for the airport has been challenging to get because of the way in which it is constituted and because of state aid rules. It is in such dire straits financially at the moment and is of such strategic importance to the north west. It is based in County Mayo but services the entire north-west region. If we were ever to lose that connectivity, that link and the airport itself, I think it would be devastating for the region.

My next question concerns Next Generation EU and the €750 billion in additional funds that will be there to assist member states to cope with Covid-19 in addition to the new MFF. It states on the Commission's website that this will be targeted at member states and sectors most affected by Covid-19. Can the witnesses shed some light as to what the criteria will be or how it will be decided how these funds will be allocated and what Ireland as a member state can expect to receive from the fund?

Finally, I have a question about the issue of youth unemployment. Our youth unemployment is currently at over 35% for those under the age of 25. This is partially due to the fact that many young people are employed in those sectors worst hit by Covid-19: hospitality, tourism and retail. Many of these younger people are working on zero-hour contracts, while others are in precarious employment, doing shift work or part-time work or working hours that change week on week, depending on the demands of business. My concern and my fear, which I am sure is replicated in lots of other member states, is that many of those jobs will not return, certainly in the short term. From a European Union perspective, what is happening at that level to address the issue of massive youth unemployment?

Mr. Gerry Kiely

I thank the Members for their questions. On vaccine distribution, the Commission has already put forward a paper to member states prompting discussion. It remains to be seen, but as far as availability through a central body is concerned, whether a commission or some other body, it will be a function of population, front-line workers and priority needs. We are not yet at the stage of saying X country will get Y number of vaccines, but there is a discussion taking place. I suppose it will come down to some function of population, front-line workers, people in need, demographics, etc., at the beginning, until vaccine production ramps up.

The issue of fake news is not new. The Commission and the European External Action Service, EEAS, have in place monitoring to address the question of fake news in general and have beefed up this in the context of Covid.

I do not know how long more the relaxation of state aid rules will stand. Neither the Commission nor the member states have given any indication in that regard other than to say it is not a permanent arrangement. Of course, before there was ever a relaxation due to Covid, member states were allowed to grant state aid under specific rules.

As for the Next Generation funds, the key for their allocation has been already agreed. As I mentioned, this was done on the basis of population, GDP and unemployment over recent years for 70% of the grant part of Next Generation. The grant part amounts to €315 billion, 70% of which has been distributed to the member states. Ireland got, I think, €1.27 billion. The 30% will be decided in 2022 or 2023, I think, on the basis of the impact of Covid. As for the drawing down of that money, it is up to each member state to put forward its programme or plan. Some member states have submitted draft plans already. We have been asking for them since November. The deadline for the plans is, I believe, next April. The drawing down and spending of the money on each sector will be subject to discussion between the member state authorities and the Commission. Subsequently, I believe those plans will have to be approved by the member states in a Council body.

Youth unemployment is a problem not just because of Covid; it has been a problem for decades and was a particular problem post the economic crash. Many EU schemes focusing on youth unemployment are already in place. In the future MFF, it was already foreseen that there would be a very strong emphasis on funding to deal with youth unemployment, whether through education, training, apprenticeships, etc. As for the drawing down of the Next Generation EU funds, it is for the member states to determine where they will focus the spending of that money. Certainly, youth unemployment is worse due to Covid. There is no question about that, and I agree totally with Senator Chambers's comments. It is not, however, a new development and the Commission has not just discovered it. The focus has been there and, as I said, was very much reinforced in the MFF for the future.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

I thank Mr. Kiely, Deputy Duffy and Senator Chambers. I will not repeat Mr. Kiely's comments - he has dealt with many of the questions - but I will respond to Senator Chambers on the youth unemployment figures and the very stark reminder of the risk this coronavirus pandemic will potentially create a lockdown generation, as it has been called, with young people being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

What we have seen with the youth guarantee and a reinforced youth employment support package, which the European Parliament has supported, is an agreement to bring in measures to reinforce that youth guarantee and look at improving vocational education and training, a renewed impetus across member states for apprenticeships and additional measures to combat youth unemployment. As we saw only last week, Eurofound, the EU agency in Loughlinstown, held a very timely conference following on from its cross-EU survey in terms of looking at the impact of Covid on young people, mental health and employment and education opportunities. The EU is very much minded to introduce and implement measures to ensure the impact on young people is lessened.

I mentioned disinformation waves in my address. As Mr. Kiely noted, we saw the joint communication from the Commission and the high representative following on from the March Council summit about how EU institutions will work to target the disinformation waves that have hit Europe during the coronavirus pandemic while ensuring that, as democratic societies, we deal with that challenge. In particular, the external action service has an "EU vs Disinformation" website, we have a rapid alert system that the European Parliament, the Council and other EU institutions and member states have set up in terms of using those established channels and looking at an EU integrated political crisis response to dealing with this in addition to partnering with international partners such as the World Health Organisation and the G7 rapid response mechanism because it is not simply a challenge facing the EU and its member states and institutions. It is a global challenge and one on which the EU must continue to partner and collaborate with international institutions and fight back against this. The EU has stepped up to the plate and has become more active and engaged on this issue, which we certainly welcome.

I have a question regarding the national recovery and resilience plans member states are being asked to submit as part of their national reform plan, which is part of the semester. Is that contingent on member states implementing the country-specific recommendations, CSRs, from last year or the previous year? Is there a stick here as well as a carrot?

Ms O'Connell said that some member states were talking about increasing the budget. Were they states that are mainly net contributors or were they those that were getting more from the budget? It has always been the case that in general, citizens of member states that are net contributors do not see an increase in the EU budget as a positive measure.

Ms O'Connell spoke about polls showing a majority of people being in favour of more competences to deal with crises. This is largely because of the experience of Covid where people can see the value of co-ordinated action, be it around PPE, vaccines or research. When it comes to expanding or increasing competences, a number of colleagues have already spoken about their aversion to treaty change and I must say that I agree. In the area of health, however, there are real possibilities for what one might call competence creep, for example, the cross-border healthcare directive. That came about because of the free movement of people and services. The EU qualifications directive is, again, an important piece of legislation upon which we could build. Horizon 2020 and the European reference frameworks for rare diseases and orphan drugs are other examples. There is quite a lot on which we can build. We can use certain treaty articles, particularly around free movement, that would allow us to expand our competences in this area. After the last crisis, which was the financial crisis, we got banking union so after this crisis, we will probably find ways to expand EU competences. In one of her first speeches, President von der Leyen spoke about the cancer strategy she wanted to implement. Has there been any further talk about that or has Covid overtaken it?

A more immediate and pressing spotlight is on the flu vaccine. Admittedly there is an increase but the HSE underestimated the uptake of it. In this EU state, we always suffer from overcrowding, particularly at the peak of winter. I know it is a competence for member states but are the witnesses aware of the extent of this shortage and crisis and GPs' concern about their patients in other member states regarding the lack of forward planning to ensure there are sufficient quantities of flu vaccine to roll out? It is not as bad with children but in the case of adults, the HSE has held its hands up in a few written circulars and said there is a shortage. Is there anything the witnesses can do in their supportive co-ordinating role?

As the second wave rages in the EU - I am thinking of Belgium and many other countries - it leads me to think that it is the little things in life that create difficulties and divisions. We are at one on the big things in life. What is the extent of practical co-operation and consultation with the UK going forward into next year because this disease will be around for a while even when we get the vaccine? I am talking about information, expert data sharing and tapping into practical teaming up with the UK as our nearest neighbour. What is the extent of the formalised structures in place in a reciprocal arrangement with the UK as it is about to say farewell to the EU? The pandemic is a bit like climate change. It knows no borders and recognises no membership of unions.

Mr. Gerry Kiely

In response to Deputy Harkin, I am not sure why we might need a stick in terms of having countries present their national recovery and resilience plans. The carrot is there for all countries. Without a plan, a country gets no money and all countries are going to get money. In Ireland's case, on the grants side, the figure is €1.2 billion or €1.3 billion. I do not think we will have any difficulty getting the plans.

We may have some long, difficult discussions on their content but this is normal with all programmes. Covid will have an impact for some time so we are not just talking about the €750 billion. The plans for future access to EU funding under the multi-annual financial framework, be they related to the Common Agricultural Policy, structural funds, cohesion funding or Horizon 2021-2027, will be influenced by Covid. I do not believe the plans for accessing EU funds that will be put forward now will be totally different from those of the future so I do not see any difficulty.

On the cancer strategy, I will have to revert to the Deputy. Covid is dominating everything for the moment, just as it is at member state level. That does not mean all work has stopped in the Commission in other areas. It is going on but it has not crossed my desk. I am not aware of it but I will certainly be happy to check what is happening and revert to the Deputy.

Given that health is a member state competence, although it has almost become an EU competence because of Covid, but only in the area of Covid, it has not crossed my radar that a shortage of flu vaccine has been a problem in other member states. If there is a shortage of the flu vaccine here, I am sure the problem will arise in other member states.

On co-operation with the UK, we are still in a transition phase. The UK is participating at the EU committees as an observer. There is full co-operation. What form that co-operation will take in the future depends on what happens in the negotiations taking place this week and the kind of agreement we will have in the end. Certainly, in the context of the pandemic, everyone would want co-operation to continue.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

I thank Deputy Harkin and Senator Martin. I concur with Deputy Harkin's comments. May I turn to the carrot and stick and that old chestnut of the budget? The Deputy referred to contributions by member states to the bigger EU budget. The bigger question concerns whether we need to have a bigger budget. From a European perspective, this is interesting. The recent Eurobarometer survey considered whether the EU should have a bigger budget to overcome the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Interestingly, across the EU an average of 54% were in favour of greater contributions by member states to ensure the EU would have a larger budget. It comes back to the question of solidarity and how enhanced solidarity can be effective in the EU in combating the effects of the coronavirus. As Deputy Harkin will be well aware, there are different ends of the spectrum in terms of which countries favour larger contributions and which do not. Ireland needs to be mindful of this. In our annual poll, we asked whether EU countries, including Ireland, should contribute more to the EU budget. This year, 41% disagreed and 35% agreed. Interestingly, 24% said they did not know. I am sure this will form part of a topic for the Conference on the Future of Europe. I fully concur on the benefits of Horizon 2020 and I concur that cross-border health directives and the European Qualifications Framework are very much reflective of the positive benefits of an EU acting in solidarity and partnership.

On Senator Martin's questions on the winter flu vaccines of other member states, there is anecdotal evidence that some member states may have a tradition of citizens taking the flu jab regularly. For example, more than 65% of UK senior citizens regularly get the flu jab whereas the figure for Poland is significantly lower. It is probably a challenge to ensure an adequate supply. As Mr. Kiely has outlined, that there are five or seven companies from which the European Commission has contractually considered taking hundreds of millions of potential vaccine doses comprises a welcome step in this regard.

As members well know, the challenges Brexit will pose on this island are significant but I hope collaboration and co-operation will still continue, but perhaps in a different format when the transition period ends at the end of this year. I hope, however, that the new format will not lessen the impact of the strong bilateral relationships that exist between our two islands, particularly in terms of co-operation and collaboration. Mr. Paul Reid of the HSE mentioned that the UK's National Health Service had sought assistance from Ireland to help with its testing. That is really welcome and it is important that it continue.

I thank both witnesses for their presentations. I do not wish to repeat any of the questions asked by my colleagues. It is very welcome to see the EU, in all its force, kicking in and supporting its member states in response to the pandemic.

There is an adage about never letting a crisis go to waste and using it as an opportunity. Commissioner Margrethe Vestager announced some weeks ago that she has major reforms planned for December on making platforms responsible for the content individuals such as you and me post on them. It is a question of ensuring very large technology companies do not take advantage of their size so their business models will perform better than those of competitors.

The report issued yesterday, Technology and Democracy, which is the understanding the influence of online activity on democracies across Europe and the rest of the world, indicates Facebook knows more about me than my husband of 25 years, which is a bit mad. Are Ms Vestager's ambitions brave enough? Will the member states support her? Will her proposals be realised sooner rather than later? Normally across the EU and its institutions, it takes ten years for a really good idea to be implemented. I am really keen to see us use the opportunity arising from this crisis to get something positive out of it.

I thank both witnesses for their presentations. They both used phrases such as "air travel", "ports", "border", "mobility", "movement of goods and essential services", "green lanes" and "EU traffic light systems." In a surreal way, therefore, we could be listening to a presentation on Brexit. At this 11th hour, as the perfect storm of a deadly second wave of Covid intensifies and as the Brexit deadline of 1 January 2021 looms, can we separate the discussions on Covid-19 and Brexit? Do they have to be considered in a more joined-up manner? Ms O'Connell made a point about whether we can separate extremism, disinformation and populism from discussions on the pandemic. That is the first question.

My second question is in a similar vein to that of Senator Doherty. It concerns the opportunities that arise. When we reflect on this crisis in 20 or 30 years, questions will be asked as to whether we responded quickly enough and whether interventions were made at an early juncture. The sum of €750 billion has been flagged for a considerable period. Covid has been with us since March so we are four months from our first anniversary. When will member states see some of the money? I am aware that Mr. Kiely has answered that question already. A more pertinent question is whether we could be more deliberate, efficient and reactive in spending the money.

In light of the work that Noelle and her team at European Movement Ireland, EMI, have done on research with regard to our citizens feeling their voices are not being heard, the longer we talk about money being available and not being drawn down or spent, it creates a weakness.

Mr. Kiely referred to a figure of €5 billion flagged for Brexit. With Ireland being the EU member state most exposed, is €5 billion enough? What assurances can the EU Commission give to ensure there can be a quicker turnaround in advancing payment to EU member states?

Ms Noelle O'Connell

I thank the Chairman and Senator Doherty. Never waste a good crisis is certainly one expression we have heard. I could not possibly comment on Facebook knowing more about Senator Doherty than her husband.

We have seen the importance of the role played by communication and social media platforms in the Covid crisis. While they have misinformation and disinformation present, they equally provide sources of information, facts, engagement and dialogue. The Vestager report is interesting on how these platforms are used. I am aware it is one aspect the Commission will be looking at. We will have to continue to engage with the social media platforms to have this important and timely conversation.

I shall now turn to the Chairman's questions. As the Chairman has correctly said, it is impossible to divorce or dissociate the effects of the Covid pandemic from Brexit. It is difficult to silo them and attempt to resolve them in isolation. We have seen that Brexit has probably taken somewhat of a back seat as the Coronavirus pandemic focus has, understandably, driven efforts, conversations and attention. There is a risk with that, as this committee is well aware. The challenges facing Ireland are significant as we approach the end of the transition period. Hopefully that radio silence is positive and welcome in terms of the possibility of some form of a deal being reached. That will be welcome.

With regard to hindsight and looking back, the question arose as to whether the EU responded quickly enough. I alluded to this in my remarks. The EU is a little bit like a tanker. It takes a lot of Croke Park football fields to turn it around to change course and direction. It is probably more of a marathon runner than a sprinter. In something as challenging as this Covid pandemic, the effects of which, sadly, will be with us for a while to come, it is encouraging and welcome to see that the EU has adapted and has gotten into its stride more effectively. The member states have also begun to collaborate and co-ordinate more efficiently, thereby leading and lending to the greater effectiveness and efficacy of the European Union as a hugely important actor in combatting the worst effects of this pandemic for all of its citizens.

Mr. Gerry Kiely

On dealing with the social media platforms, I do not believe the Commission can ever be criticised for what the Commission has always wanted to do. I certainly would not go so far as to say that one of my Commissioners will not be brave enough. Ms Vestager has shown great bravery in dealing with these multinationals and no doubt she will continue to do so. It remains to be seen whether member states will follow. The Commission does not always get the support from member states that we feel we should get.

Senator Martin referred to the matter of disinformation. In the text of my full submission I mentioned that the EU has dealt with more than 300 disinformation narratives on Covid and we are very active in that area. We will continue to put pressure on social media platforms in all areas, and not just as far as Covid is concerned.

The Chairman asked if €5 billion is enough for Brexit. I am sure if it were €10 billion people would say it is not enough. It is what the heads of State have agreed; it is all there is available. It is a lot of money. The issue will be the share out, if and when. Whether it will be necessary will depend, to a large extent, on the outcome of the negotiations. In reality, whether it is enough or not, it is all that is available. It remains to be seen, but I would expect that given Ireland is more exposed by Brexit than any other member state, Ireland will get fairly favourable treatment under that fund.

On when the money will be available, it will not be available from the Multiannual Financial Framework, MFF, before January next year irrespective of when there is an agreement, but from the Next Generation it can be available as soon as there is an agreement. Money is already available, and I believe that Ireland has already tapped into it, although not from the Next Generation fund. There is a €100 billion fund called EU SURE, to deal with unemployment caused by Covid. That can be tapped into and I believe Ireland has already tapped into it. In the past six months the Commission has already emptied the drawers of all funds that were available and they were made available to all member states. Anything that could be done in funding was done. We cannot tap into anything until we have an agreement, which is why the Council and the Parliament need to get on with it and get an agreement as soon as possible. Once that agreement is there, things will move very fast because there is recognition that the money needs to get out there to help the economy and to help the people who are impacted.

Gabhaim buíochas as na cuir i láthair agus gabhaim buíochas le mo chomhghleacaithe ar an gcoiste as an díospóireacht agus a gceisteanna tábhachtacha freisin. Táimid ag dúil go mór le comhoibriú agus díospóireacht ar Covid-19 agus ar an mBreatimeacht amach anseo.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.58 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 November 2020.