The Minister of State can make her contribution now and then we have contributions from group spokespersons for eight minutes and all other Senators have five minutes. The Minister of State must be called to reply by 3.55 p.m. at the latest and statements must conclude by 4 p.m. That is the maximum rather than the target.
Future of Europe: Statements
The Minister of State is very welcome. Is it her first time in our new Chamber?
It is. I wish the Senators well. It is lovely.
I begin by thanking the Cathaoirleach, Senator Neale Richmond and Seanad Members for inviting me to address the House today on the future of Europe. I am a firm believer that the national parliaments contribute actively to the good functioning of the European Union. The Lisbon treaty includes provisions which encourage greater involvement by national parliaments in the activities of the Union and it enhances their ability to express their views on draft legislation emerging from the Union. Commission consultation documents, the Commission's annual legislative programme and draft legislation are sent to national parliaments at the same time as they are sent to the European Parliament and the Council. The treaty allows national parliaments to send reasoned opinions to the presidents of the European Parliament, the European Council and the Commission on whether a draft piece of legislation complies with the principle of subsidiarity.
These are important provisions. They apply in equal measure to Seanad Éireann and Dáil Éireann, and each House is entitled to avail of them in its own right. Representative democracy is at the heart of the European project and these new provisions were brought into domestic legislation in Ireland by the European Union Act 2009. I believe these provisions enhance the right of every citizen to participate in the democratic life of the Union. We often think of Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg when we think of the European Union because those are the cities where the various institutions have their seats but Europe is not at all that remote since we do Europe's business when we do business in this House or in the parliament of any member state across the Union.
That is why the Union’s values of freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human life and rights, are so important. Without them, the lives of millions of Europeans would be greatly diminished. Elsewhere in the world, many people know how it is when only lip service is paid to these values. They understand the cost to the quality of their lives and, increasingly, they look to Europe as a place where European values exist and where that approach is taken to the issue of the day, such as climate change, globalisation and social progress. This makes a real and often enviable difference. When the leaders of the EU 27 met in Bratislava last year, after the referendum in the UK in which it decided to leave the European Union, their immediate focus was on meeting the expectations of citizens and on recommitting to our core values. Citizens and values were at the heart of their preoccupations for the future of Europe. It was stated:
The EU is not perfect but it is the best instrument we have for addressing the new challenges we are facing. We need the EU not only to guarantee peace and democracy but also the security of our people. We need the EU to serve better their needs and wishes to live, study, work, move and prosper freely across our continent and benefit from the rich European cultural heritage.
I very much believe that we need to acknowledge that there was perhaps a reason that the UK decided to leave the European Union and we need to work towards the European Union working and delivering for citizens. There has been broad agreement across member states that, at this stage in its development, the Union needs to focus on outcomes rather than just institutions. Across the member states, the fundamental importance of the European Union in dealing with the issues affecting us is also recognised. When the leaders of the EU 27 met earlier this year in Rome, they said they, "want a Union that is safe and secure, prosperous, competitive, sustainable and socially responsible, and with the will and capacity of playing a key role in the world and of shaping globalisation."
I am particularly pleased that the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs is paying such close attention to this process. I know some Members here are members of that committee, which has launched a consultation process on the future of Europe. I encourage all interested groups and individuals to make their submissions before the closing date on Friday, 20 October. The committee has already heard from the National Youth Council of Ireland, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, Macra Na Feirme, IBEC and the European Movement Ireland and I look forward to reading the committee's completed report soon.
The committee's consultation process and today's debate here in the Seanad are excellent examples of how national parliaments can contribute to the better functioning of the European Union. The emphasis we share on citizens is at the heart of the European Commission's White Paper on the future of Europe and of the five reflection papers the Commission has produced in the meantime. The White Paper sets out five scenarios for the future of Europe ranging from simply carrying on as we are to being more ambitious and doing much more together, and various other scenarios. The reflection papers are wide-ranging and they provide a set of options. They deal with the social dimension, harnessing globalisation, deepening our economic and monetary union, the future of European defence and future arrangements for the EU budget. It is important to note that this list is not exhaustive or exclusive, but it is a base from which to start a discussion.
Our starting point on these issues has to be to focus on the needs and concerns of our citizens. This includes a focus on jobs and growth, opportunities for young people, completion of the Single Market and the key role of the EU in meeting the challenges of today's globalised world, from climate change to combatting international terrorism. As any Member of the House will have noticed, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, gave his state of the Union address to the European Parliament last month and later the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, launched his own initiatives on Europe. While both speeches added a new impetus to the future of Europe process which began at the Bratislava summit in September of last year, it is important to put these speeches in context. Each is a contribution to the debate but there are 27 member states, each with its own voice, perspective and view on what should and could work for the Union as a whole.
The future of Europe was discussed informally by EU Heads of State and Government at a summit in Tallinn at the end of September. The Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, spoke for Ireland and it was agreed that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, would consult bilaterally with member states on substance and process and continue the discussion at the next European Council meeting, which is next week. In Tallinn it was noticeable that many member states, including Ireland, took an approach rooted in the path set out by the Heads of State and Government in Bratislava and Rome, focused on delivering for citizens.
Without pre-empting that debate, I believe our thinking should reflect Ireland’s priorities. I do not want to be exhaustive on this but our priorities should include the completion of the internal market, especially in services and the digital Single Market, an area in which we feel we can lead. They should also include the reduction of administrative burdens and compliance costs on small and medium enterprises.
Combatting youth and long-term unemployment must be a priority for all member states. Investment in infrastructure, research and innovation should be a priority, as should the negotiation of trade and investment agreements with third countries, and we have seen agreements with Canada and China in recent months. The completion of the banking union, promoting access to low-carbon energy and tackling climate change must also be priorities. Finally, we all need to stand together on preventing international crime and terrorism. Above all, we need an honest and fair debate which confronts the myths about the European Union and that is calm, considered and inclusive. This is how we will formulate a contribution that reflects the concerns and expectations of the Irish people.
I look forward to hearing Senators' ideas and comments today. I thank them again for the opportunity to engage with them on this matter of significant national importance.
I warmly welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for European Union affairs, Deputy McEntee, to the new Seanad Chamber. I want to take this opportunity to wish her every happiness in her marriage to my neighbour and very good friend, Paul Hickey, in Castlecoote. We look forward to seeing the Minister of State back in our area again in the very near future. I know she has a very busy schedule now and we may not be able to see her as much as we did.
There are many fine hostelries in the area.
I want to express my thanks to her for coming to join us on many occasions. We always loved her company and look forward to seeing her again in the village of Castlecoote as the year goes on. I also wish her well in her Ministry. I think she is doing a splendid job. She is a very good spokesperson and Minister of State and she has created a very good image in the European Union. I know she has visited many capitals and countries and is now familiar with the work.
It is a very busy Ministry because of Brexit and it is very important we maintain very strong relationships with the other 27 countries that will remain in the European Union.
Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 and Fianna Fáil played a very proud role in our membership, going back to Seán Lemass and Éamon de Valera, who was President of the League of Nations. We have all seen our role in Europe and have been very strong and consistent on it. When we campaigned for European membership my recollection is that one party, Sinn Féin, opposed it. Perhaps the Sinn Féin Senator will confirm that, and the grounds for doing so.
I was in short trousers at the time.
He may have been but his party seems to have relented on the subject now. The EU has been good to Ireland and Ireland has been good to Europe. The biggest effect has been on the fishing industry and the lobby at that time was not as strong as it should have been compared with other interests. That was then, however, and now we have to maximise quotas and catches under the Common Fisheries Policy and to ensure we get our product to the market after Brexit.
I find the debate on the development of Europe somewhat unreal because the main focus is Brexit. From March 2019, the United Kingdom will no longer be a member of the European Union. There will be a transitional period of two or three years, which is acceptable, but I was in Brussels recently and met British MEPs who will be gone, along with all the influence they currently have in Brussels. People should have some consideration for the dedicated civil servants who worked very well with Irish diplomats and civil servants in Europe. I was given responsibility by the then Minister, Des O'Malley, to be the main negotiator for Ireland and I got tremendous support from the civil servants and ambassadors in that role. I met John Redwood, a pro-Brexiteer, and others around 1990 or 1991. Since that time, everything the United Kingdom wanted from Europe it got, such as derogations on issues it could not deal with at that time. The Single European Act was an important provision for the European Union and has brought great progress to the region. We should recognise the contribution of the United Kingdom to the development and strength of the European Union. We are losing a genuine ally because our interests were totally parallel and always coincided.
I am in favour of development in the EU but I am not at all in favour of a federal Europe. We fought too long for our independence and we want to ensure a united Ireland in time, but not in a federal Europe. The President of France is moving too far, too fast towards a two-speed Europe, with some in and others out, and I think that would be damaging. I regard the prospect of further treaties with scepticism as we have enough to work on at this stage. We need a Union that is more responsive and there have been changes to the role of parliaments. As the Minister of State said, the Dáil and Seanad are two separate Houses of Parliament in the Republic of Ireland and we have the right to put forward amendments to legislation or to yellow card proposals. It is for the Leader of the House, the Cathaoirleach and his staff to devote a bit more time to European affairs in the Seanad. We should have time set aside to review legislation coming from the Commission and to ensure there is an Irish input. We will fight for and retain the 12.5% corporation tax as we have to. This attractive package is imperative, now more than ever, for our development given the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union.
The Union should not be paralysed in its expansion and I prepared a report for the Council of Europe in respect of Montenegro. I recommended that it join the EU, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they should be encouraged to continue with their negotiations. I hope the negotiations are not put on hold but I accept that Turkey will never become a member of the EU as the policies it is pursuing at the moment make it ineligible.
This is a worthwhile debate and I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak on it. I hope we can come back to discuss these issues regularly though, as members of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, Senator Neale Richmond and I will have the opportunity to meet the Minister for briefings. This is about Ireland Inc. and we need to work together as a team. It is not a party political issue but a united Irish approach to the future of the European Union.
Chomh maith leis an Seanadóir Leyden, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire Stáit. I join Senator Leyden in congratulating the Minister and wishing her and her husband the best. There are many issues we could raise in a debate on Europe. We have engaged critically with the EU over a number of years and we are concerned over the push to more centralisation. I could raise the Common Fisheries Policy and the impact of the fiscal compact etc., but I want to go on a specific route, which is Catalan self-determination, a very pertinent and serious issue. The Minister of State said representative democracy was at the heart of the European project and that the provisions enhance the right of every citizen to participate in the democratic life of the Union. She added that the Union's values, namely, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, are very important. She went on to say that, elsewhere in the world, many people know what it is like when only lip service is paid to these values.
I contend that millions of people in Catalunya would say the EU was paying lip service to these values at the moment. I was an international observer in Catalunya for the referendum and there are huge concerns about the way things have turned out there. Many international commentators put forward the fact that this was not a legitimate referendum. A report carried out by a commission of international legal experts, "Catalonia's legitimate right to decide", states:
From an international law perspective it appears clearly that there is no international legal prohibition barring a sub-state entity from deciding its political destiny by assessing the will of its people. Both case law and state practice support this conclusion.
It also states that EU member states have recognised many former sub-state entities that assessed their people's political will and decided to pursue independence.
It also states:
As regard European law, in the absence of specific Treaty provision on the right of Self-determination for a European people without a State on the territory of the EU, EU law...does not forbid the exercise of its Right to Decide for a European people within the EU. There are even numerous Treaty provisions that indicate that if such Right was to be exercised, EU and it’s member States would react positively to a new European State candidacy to join the EU. Further, recent and consistent practice clearly points that way. Finally, both as a collectively exercised human right and as a fundamental norm of international Law, EU recognizes the Right to decide.
I do not think the case put forward by people that this is an internal issue for the Spanish Government to decide with the Catalan Government holds water in that regard. It is an international issue and it is becoming a much more serious international issue.
One of the final conclusions is:
The experts recommend the exploration of an earned sovereignty negotiating process within the framework of the EU. This would imply involvement by EU institutions; we consider it possible in the perspective of a negotiation within the EU, fully associating Spain in seeking for Catalonia a constrained sovereignty solution, as an EU full member.
There is certainly a case, whether people want to agree or disagree, that under international law Catalunya had the right to decide for itself. The people of Catalunya had hoped the referendum would be a celebration of democracy, and it turned out to be far from that as the Spanish national police launched a widespread crackdown on Catalunya's self-determination referendum, as we know. I saw at first hand the violence of the Guardia Civil. I saw the peaceful and dignified way the people of Catalunya held themselves. The international parliamentary delegation issued a statement on the night of the referendum, and I will give the House the opening remarks from the statement. There were approximately 35 of us, all parliamentarians, and a number of other people. The opening remarks were:
We were impressed and reassured by the patient, determined and non-violent behaviour of the huge number of people who came out to vote across Catalunya.
As a Parliamentary Delegation we wish to express abhorrence at:
(a) The violence of the Spanish State that brought about more than 800 individuals being injured.
(b) The electronic sabotage deployed against the democratic vote.
(c) The removal of ballot boxes by Spanish State Forces.
We would like to express our admiration for scrupulous and professional work of polling staff across Catalunya in the face of real and significant problems and pressures.
That statement was unanimously agreed by people from all types of different political backgrounds. We also stated that we considered it "regrettable that the European Union, the Council of Europe and other international organisations have not acted to mediate with the purpose to facilitate an agreed solution, acceptable for both parties". We think this is key. I note there have been quite a lot of statements from international spokespersons. The Elders is a group of international public figures, including elder statesman, peace activists and human rights advocates. It was founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, and the group is chaired by Ghanaian diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Kofi Annan. Our own Mary Robinson is member of the group. Kofi Annan, chair of The Elders, said:
The constitutional crisis that is unfolding in Spain calls for consultation and not confrontation. I urge the Spanish government and the regional government of Catalonia to renew their commitment to a resolution through dialogue. They must find a peaceful path out of this crisis.
Carles Puigdemont, the President of the Catalan Parliament, has said the international community, and especially the European Union, has to be involved. Following the Spanish police violence to stop the 1 October referendum throughout the country, he said the Spanish Government should accept international mediation after the events on Sunday. He also said the European Union probably cannot play this role, but it should sponsor it to make sure Spain takes part.
I note Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland is calling on the Spanish Government to respect the overwhelming "Sí" vote won in the Catalan referendum as an expression of the democratic will of the people of Catalunya and urges the UN, EU and Council of Europe to mediate. There have also been such calls in the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, and our leader Gerry Adams has called for this.
The Minister of State has a very important role in the EU. I ask her to implore other members to look at what really happened in Catalunya and at the international legal framework, and call for international mediation sponsored by the EU. It is not right that we say to the people of Catalunya that it is an internal situation. We can see from what has happened that this will need international support to try to resolve the issues that have come forward. It comes back to the basic tenets of what we stand for, and credibility has been lost by the EU in what has happened in the past week in Catalunya. Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and others, including Jean-Claude Juncker, were quick to jump and side with the Spanish Government's position on the issue. Ireland has always been seen as an honest broker and peacemaker. We need to stand on our own two feet. I would like this Parliament to make a statement to call for international mediation, and I would be delighted if the Minister of State would do this and bring the message back to her EU colleagues, and ask the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to do the same and stand up and be counted as a democrat in this situation.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and thank her very much for taking this very important debate, which I see as complementary to the ongoing work of the European affairs committee, chaired by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, of which myself and Senator Leyden are members.
I will try my best not to mention the B word and try to avoid saying Brexit too much-----
The Senator can try to avoid it.
I will try, but I cannot guarantee. We are having this discussion on foot of a decision by the people of the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union just over a year ago. Even if the people of the UK had decided to remain, or if a referendum had never been held, we would have had to have had this discussion because Europe needs reform and change. This has been said by many people many times over. Therefore, I welcome the position paper printed by the European Commission laying out the five clear options for the future of Europe. There are many varied options, all of which deserve attention, but one which I feel is not viable is the option of simply doing nothing. That does not get us anywhere or bring about reform of the European Union to bring it closer to the people and reimagine what the European ideals should all be about. A cursory glance suggests a combination of elements of options four and five may probably be the best approach for Ireland, doing more but doing more better in a smaller area and focusing in. The EU really needs to ram home exactly what it means to people and how it can benefit people.
I also welcome the lengthy speech, mentioned by the Minister of State and Senator Leyden, by the French President, Emmanuel Macron. I welcome it because I do not know the last time an EU Head of State got up for almost two hours and spoke about Europe. It was a really strong weighty speech that looked at some serious issues. I consider myself as pro-European as it comes, but there are key aspects of the speech with which I simply do not agree and which I believe are strongly against the best interests of Ireland. The vision of European federalism put out by Emmanuel Macron is very much a French vision of European federalism, and we must be very careful that we can respect those opinions but disagree. That vision perhaps suits the French and some type of Franco-German alliance, but we have to see the reimagining of Europe to make sure it meets the needs of all 27 member states post-Brexit.
I must put on record my absolute disappointment in the wake of the Brexit referendum that the six original member states of the European Coal and Steel Community saw fit to meet among themselves in Rome, leaving out the other 21 member states. This cannot happen any more. The idea that some people are more European or committed to the project than others is quite backwards. In this vacuum I see a vital role for Ireland. Ireland can easily take this opportunity to be the lead nation among small and medium member states and lead the majority 21 member states that were not in the original European Coal and Steel Community to lay out exactly what sort of future Europe we want and what Europe we want to see in 2025 and beyond. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State in the strongest way possible to bring this message back to An Taoiseach, our friend whom we know well and for whom we voted very recently in a different election. I ask her to lay down the challenge to the Taoiseach to assume that leadership role in Europe and allow Ireland become the counterbalance to France and the bigger nations and put himself in the driving seat alongside Emmanuel Macron, and state we do believe in a strong Europe and Ireland is committed to Europe, but that we can assert Ireland's role in Europe and on the global stage by taking a proactive leading role in designing a Europe that is not just suited to the large member states and is reflective of smaller member states and allows them to protect their interests, such as maintaining a competitive corporation tax rate, as mentioned by Senator Leyden.
When people talk about Ireland being at the heart of Europe it cannot be just a slogan. Taking such a stance and laying out such a vision is a crucial way of making sure that Ireland remains at the heart of Europe. The EU is absolutely wonderful but the reason for its coming into being and its positive impact on our daily life is I fear being taken for granted, particularly by the generation I share with the Minister of State.
The EU is the greatest peace project known to man after what was probably the worst conflict in the history of mankind. People were able to come together. This is what the EU is about, pooling steel and coal and making sure the tools of war could not be brought out again. That is simple and that is what it goes back to but it has become so much more. It means we go to Spain on our holidays and not have to fret about converting pesetas to punts every time we go into a shop. It means we can go to France, Bulgaria or Poland without having to get a visa and to The Netherlands or Scandinavia without having to get a work permit, if we have an opportunity with one of the large multinationals such as Microsoft, which has bases in my area, Sandyford, and in Copenhagen. We need to reimagine what that Europe means and lay out clearly what the future of Europe will be and how it will benefit people. We cannot just say this is what Europe has done and people should be grateful because the more we do that and forget exactly what it can do for people, the more people become sceptical about it, the more the laziness creeps in.
We as politicians have a responsibility to portray Europe in the fairest light and not to take the politically opportune moment to blame Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg for something we do not like when it is probably our responsibility, or take credit and say, "Look what we have delivered", when it came through Structural Funds or negotiation at EU level. We criticise it when it merits criticism and we praise it when it merits praise. Simply using it as a punch bag when it suits us will lead to the rise of Eurosceptic movements of petty nationalism, which brought the UK out of the EU and which are on the rise in countries such as Germany with the electoral gains of a what is essentially a Nazi party so many years after the Second World War.
I am very enthusiastic about the upcoming week's debate that the Minister of State is going to lead. I wish her well with her partners in the Commission, the Parliament offices, the Institute of International and European Affairs, IIEA, and the European Movement Ireland. This is one of the most important matters that we will deal with as an entity of 450 million people. It needs to be taken seriously and engaged with at every level of society because if the people take ownership of the European project it will last for many more years. It has been around for only 60 years. It is great that it has lasted this long but it is now facing its greatest threat and its greatest opportunity.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to participate in this afternoon's proceedings and I have had the opportunity of considering the Minister of State's statement. I am very pleased by its content and tone.
The debate on Europe in Ireland has been polarised into a very unreal one between those who have always been opposed to Ireland's membership of the EU and have always sought to get a "No" vote in every referendum on the one hand, and those who, on the other hand, are deeply enthusiastic for the federalist project in Europe. Between those two polar extremes there is a very different and enthusiastic vision for Europe which rarely gets articulated in any Irish debate. There are institutions such as the IIEA in North Great George's Street, which does a great job from one point of view in bringing European speakers here and getting Irish people to think about European topics. I do not want to decry it unfairly but it is very much a Brussels-oriented institution and that may have something to do with how it is financed and the like. There are Jean Monnet professors in many of our universities who are sponsored by the European Union. There are many European movements and funded organisations which are opinion shapers.
The real question, however, is whether it is possible to construct a united states of Europe, the kind of thing the Prime Minister of Italy claimed he was about to bring about, the kind of structure proposed by the Spinelli Group which includes Guy Verhofstadt and various other strong federalists, namely, a unified European super state. Do we in Ireland want the development of such a body? In my view the great majority of Irish people do not want it. When the British were trying to negotiate a pre-Brexit agreement under the Prime Ministership of David Cameron, The Irish Times conducted an opinion poll on issues such as attitudes to further integration and the like there was a 2:1 or 3:1 majority in favour of a more intergovernmental Europe over a strongly federalist one. Those opinion polls are not published very often. Perhaps The Irish Times, editorially, is not very keen on examining what kind of Europe the Irish people really want. We do not have a deep analysis of what would be involved in the establishment of a federal united states of Europe and whether the Irish people have any interest in being involved in such a project.
Guy Verhofstadt, who came here recently to address various committees in the Dáil Chamber, wrote a book with Daniel Cohn-Bendit called For Europe!, three or four years ago. In it he wrote about the necessity to build up Europe as an empire. He said it would be a good empire. More recently, he published a book called Europe's Last Chance and the thesis of that book is that we need a strong single state of Europe with a single government to play its part internationally. The present arrangement in Europe, a partnership of sovereign member states which pool aspects of their sovereignty and conduct a lot of their relationship on an intergovernmental level, suits countries of our size and outlook. It may not be very attractive to some people in Europe but it suits us and it suits most of the member states of the EU that this aspect of Europe should be preserved. Therefore, strong leaps towards integration or an idea of a political defence and security union, etc., need to be challenged because we have to ask whether the ultimate aim of that project is credible.
Over the summer I read a book on the Austro-Hungarian empire, I know that is a terrible confession to make. It was a fascinating read because the empire came crashing down in 1918. It was a multicultural, multilingual, multinational empire but the only thing that kept it together was coercion. In the end it was an unnatural thing, which was doomed to disintegrate because there was not a single population or demos underlying any effort to make it democratic. There was not a single people who would be in a position to understand each other if there were, for instance, a debate for a president of Europe. For example, if there were an elected president of Europe, in the same sense that the Americans have one, how would a Bulgarian person watching the TV debate know what was happening if it was an Irish candidate, or vice versa?
There is not a degree of cohesion in Europe to justify the creation of a federated state. Not merely is it an impossibility but it is a dangerous project to pursue because it is improbable. One only has to look to the United States of America to see what huge federal parties did. The Democrats in America became the most reactionary and pro-segregationist party for a long time. At the same time, liberal democrats in New England were an entirely different breed. America was a sort of coalition of people but at least they spoke the same language and could understand the points the other was making.
We now need a debate in which not just short contributions of the kind that are possible here but well worked out positions on the degree of integration this country really supports, and in what areas, are spelt out clearly. Looking at the final points that the Minister of State referred to on the last page of her statement, those are the tasks which I believe deserve our attention. We should say to the federalists that this is the agenda, nothing else, and tell them to get on with it, to stop making noises that frighten everyone, to stop trying to dream up Europe as a single united superpower that can make war on people and the like, and to abandon that concept and stick to what is working at the moment.
The next speaker is Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, who has eight minutes.
Will the Chairman let me know when I have three minutes left?
I welcome the opportunity to have this debate. As Senator Richmond said, it is an opportunity to highlight that it is not a polarised debate which we often see, of being for or against Europe. There are many of us who are passionate about Europe. I worked for many years with the European Women's Lobby, the European Anti-Poverty Network, and with others in civil society across Europe. Now I am very lucky to be able to represent this Chamber in the Council of Europe.
Inter-European co-operation is crucial but we must be free to approach it in a critical way and we must give Europe the respect of putting forward critical and challenging positions. I am concerned about the scenarios that have been outlined so far in this debate on the future of Europe. These include the scenarios put forward by the Commission and by Mr. Juncker and Mr. Macron which force on heavily the speed of integration. We would have a two-speed Europe, which is something I deeply oppose. There is little discussion or nuance on the far more important question for Europe today, which is the question of direction. For example, we need to look at not only what we are doing but how we might do it differently and how we might do it better. Is it not the case that greater co-operation should not automatically mean greater centralised decision making? That seems to be the assumption underpinning so many of the scenarios that were laid out here today.
On the muscles of the Commission, how do we make the Commission more accountable to citizens? How do we ensure that the European Parliament is more robust in its legislative role and able to genuinely put proposals on the agenda for discussion? Can we ensure that we have greater transparency and engagement around the Council of Europe? The European Semester process is meant to be a conversation between governments and European institutions. I have had the opportunity to sit in on those conversations and they can be narrowly focused on fiscal targets with complete neglect of the other common European pledges in areas such as the Europe 2020 commitment to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Can we not challenge all of those muscles that are already there? Can we not challenge how they are working and make sure that they work differently and in a more accountable way?
As Europeans we face three serious challenges and Ireland needs to find its voice and speak up on them. First is the question of peace building as opposed to securitisation. Securitisation is not the same as peace building. Europe has been neglecting the work of peace building. Referring even to the Minister of State's list of priorities, I note with some regret that we talk about the prevention of international crime and terrorism but we do not talk about peace building. If there is a country that should be championing that voice in Europe, it is Ireland. We see that Europe's diplomatic and peace building skills have been neglected. That is particularly evident in the past week or two in respect of Catalonia when there has been an absolute failure to step into the space of peace building and diplomacy and a retreat into an extremely narrow interpretation of rule of law and implementation of law.
Implementation of law takes places in the political context that is set by all of us as political representatives, legislators and representatives of citizens and their concerns. There is a real need for Europe to find its voice on peace. We have benefited from it in Ireland and we need to step up in that regard. In Ireland, we have the extraordinary history of Frank Aiken, an Irish Minister who in 1958 initiated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I had the opportunity to be present when Ireland sealed the negotiations on a global ban on cluster munitions in Croke Park in Dublin. We have seen Eamon Gilmore, a former representative of these Houses, play a key role in the peace negotiations in Colombia. Ireland has an extraordinary record in peace building and as a peace broker. We have played a global and a European role and we are an asset to Europe as well as the world in that respect. That is why I share many of the concerns expressed about Mr. Macron's proposals, which seem to be pushing us towards a militarised Europe and a narrow response. Ireland must take a stand on this and it must defend its unique contribution as a neutral nation and peace builder.
The Senator has three minutes remaining.
I am glad the Acting Chairman rang the bell. Lastly, I note that Europe's credibility is also being damaged internationally. When Europe is seen to have a militarised and securitised response, for example, to the migration crisis, it diminishes our capacity to step in with regard to the huge global movements of people in crisis, for example, in Myanmar or, in the past, in places such as India and Pakistan. We need to hold that role. I would love if the Minister of State could address that matter.
Another part of peace building is social investment. We know that from Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. It is about giving people opportunities and hope. The fact is that in Europe the austerity measures of recent years have not just had an immediate impact but have also undermined the social fabric. There needs to be a willingness to admit and acknowledge that some of the economic policies put forward and the austerity measures imposed have weakened our social fabric. They have done the opposite of what we do when we want to build peace, which is invest. In many cases they have prohibited and blocked governments from investing in the areas which they identify as necessary for social cohesion and well-being. That needs to be addressed. While the social pillar produced by Mr. Juncker is a small step in the right direction, it is extremely unfortunate that he attached the language of the markets - calling on people to seek a AAA rating for society - given that it is those markets that have decimated society.
If we want to have public confidence and accountability restored and public faith in democracy, which is now more crucial than market sentiment for the genuine future of Europe, we will have to somewhat accept that quarterly returns and quarterly figures of the market are not the only indication-----
The Senator has one minute.
We need to have public confidence in their ability to influence their future.
This leads me to my final concern, which is trade. Far too often we have the simple narrative that a person is either for or against trade or has an open or a protectionist position. We must listen to citizens who say that they want international trade but that it needs to be done well. Some of the models put forward, for example, CETA and TTIP, have failed the test. It is of note that the Court of Justice of the European Union is currently considering the legality of investor-court systems. I suggest that this is an opportunity for governments to say that, now its legality is being considered, perhaps we need to re-examine the issue to see if it is an appropriate element to include in our international trade agreements.
We should not ratify the trade agreement even though we already have provisional application.
This is also vitally important because people constantly get the signal that the corporate lobby is strongly represented in Europe. Citizens must see that they are represented in Europe. Again, the decision by the European Court of Justice that citizens' initiatives must be listened to is positive in that regard.
In my final sentence I note that like everyone present, I am passionate about Europe but we need to engage and be willing to enter discussions with a critical and open mind. If we get things right in Europe and if we show that diverse nations and peoples can live together and work alongside one other in interparliamentary and intergovernmental structures with social solidarity that crosses borders as well, we will send a positive signal of what it might be to be humans in the world as we all face global challenges together. That is a huge prize we have in Europe and something for which we need to aim.
That was the longest last sentence in history.
The Acting Chairman has the patience of a saint.
No problem. The next contributor is Senator Conway and he has five minutes.
I always enjoy listening to Senator Higgins. I recognise how passionate she is about this particular topic.
As I believe this is her first time here since the Minister of State assumed responsibility for European Union affairs, I will take this opportunity to note the Fine Gael Party is exceptionally proud of her and she has already hit the ground running in her new role. This is an extremely important ministry and is one the most important. I agree with the Taoiseach when he stated we are not a country on the periphery of Europe but one that is at the centre of the world. Ireland is really in the cockpit of Europe in terms of driving European policy.
I was fortunate to be in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday of this week where I attended a meeting of the joint parliamentary scrutiny group on Europol. The group was established through the Lisbon treaty to oversee Europol. The Lisbon treaty was signed a number of years ago and while the group was initiated in 2011, it is only coming to fruition now in terms of putting in place procedures, protocols, standing orders, rules and regulations. I attended the group meeting as a representative of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality and the Minister of State will be pleased to know we tabled a significant number of amendments to the protocols that were discussed and debated. I was the only representative of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality because last Tuesday was budget day and none of my Dáil colleagues were in a position to travel to Brussels. Therefore, I had to move all of the amendments on behalf of the committee and the Irish Parliament. We succeeded in getting all of our amendments over the line except one that wanted all European languages, in that we sought to have the deliberations at the plenary sessions of the joint scrutiny group to be translated in all languages. At the meeting I spoke as Gaeilge but there was nobody in the interpretation centre in Brussels to translate what I said. I made the point more than anything else.
We agreed eventually and reached a compromise that if a country wanted a particular language it would have to pay a contribution to the European Parliament to provide the service. Other than that, we got a significant number of amendments over the line, including one where the representative of the joint parliamentary scrutiny group, JPSG, on the management committee of Europol would be required to report back to the plenary sessions of the JPSG. That had not be specified in the articles and protocols. As the representative had not been obliged to report what happened, the amendment is significant. Our success with these amendments is an example of how Ireland can influence Europe. We can ensure that the terms of references for various committees are influenced for the better and for the betterment of Europe.
People who live in Ireland are fortunate that Ireland is neutral and is seen as neutral. Ireland is seen as a country that promotes and negotiates peace all over the world. We are seen as people of integrity when it comes to international affairs. I refer, for example, to the way we have dealt with and welcomed refugees and how Irish missionaries travelled abroad for many decades to carry out humanitarian work.
As for Ireland's role in Europe, it is up to us as parliamentarians to embrace Europe and support our Minister of State, Government and Parliament by going to Brussels and engaging in debates. The biggest challenge faced by the secretariats of various Oireachtas committees is persuading parliamentarians to travel to Brussels, which is a pity. The JPSG committee consists of six MEPs and four representatives from each of the Parliaments. The more we go to Brussels and participate in the various committees of Europe, the more we can take ownership of the European project and the more we can drive the European project.
Today's debate has been very useful but I would like to have seen more people here. It looks like the debate will conclude in less than an hour yet during the Order of Business, on many occasions, people have discussed, lambasted and complained about Europe instead of attending here today and engaging in this debate, which is a pity. That should not deter us from having the Minister of State here on a regular basis to discuss European affairs and how Ireland can play an active and central role in the future of Europe.
I thank the Senator. Our next speaker is Senator Ivana Bacik and she has eight minutes.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish her the very best. Her role is an important one, particularly at this time post Brexit. I know we are trying not to mention the "B" word but it is inevitable that it will be mentioned and everybody has done so.
I read the Minister of State's speech carefully. I welcome her comments, particularly on support for the core values of the EU which, as she mentioned, include freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and respect for human rights. I am particularly glad that equality was mentioned and I shall speak on it in a minute. She was right to emphasise the role of national parliaments in debating EU initiatives.
I refer to Senator McDowell's comments about the Austro-Hungarian empire and note my family background lies very much in the heart of Europe. My grandfather was Czech and my father was born in the Czech Republic before his family travelled here. My grandmother's family had been in the service of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Indeed, her father, who is my great grandfather, was a diplomat who was in the car behind the car that carried the Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in 1914. My family has a long history of public service within that empire which, as the Senator has pointed out, met its end as a result of the First World War. My family history is very caught up in the history of the European Continent. Therefore, I have always felt a close personal connection to the post-Second World War institutions and the need for Ireland to play a strong part in those European institutions. It is important to emphasise in any debate on the future of Europe the immense significance of the past of the European Union. This year we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. I note the achievements of the EU, its institutions and its people in coming together to ensure there has been no further war on this Continent in the decades since.
Clearly, this is a difficult time for the entity that is the EU. As a member of the Labour Party and, indeed, as part of the Party of European Socialists, PES, I would share a vision of social Europe. I mean one that is built on the sort of strong values that have been mentioned but with an emphasis placed on the values of equality, solidarity and co-operation.
While I welcome the initiative to have public engagements the Minister of State described in her speech, an additional priority should be added. We must ensure that we focus on having a social Europe and I know she agrees with such an initiative. All too often we talk about the economic side of the EU. Perhaps the emphasis for citizens is often seen to be on the economy rather than on the great social progress for which the EU is responsible. In an Irish context we should be very conscious of the huge gains that women in Ireland have made as a result of Ireland joining what was then called the EEC in the 1970s. As a result of Ireland joining, there have been great moves forward on gender equality such as maternity benefit, maternity leave, parental benefit, parental leave and so on. These are the sort of gains that have a real resonance with people and individuals across the EU and in this country too. We need to emphasise the gains.
Clearly, this post-Brexit time is a turning point for the EU. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. Like the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, my committee has held hearings. We have had a number of very important meetings on Brexit-related issues with Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, Mr. Frans Timmermans and so on, as well as with Professor Gavin Barrett and other Irish academics to explore the potential threats and challenges that we face in Ireland as a result of Brexit.
It also gives us an opportunity to take stock of our place within the European Union and while pro-EU sentiment remains very high in Ireland, which I welcome, and everybody here has been positive about the future of Europe and Ireland's future within Europe, nonetheless, we need to take the opportunity to look at how best we can reform the EU structures and institutions to make them more relevant to ordinary citizens across the EU. That is why I say it is important that we focus on social progress in Europe.
I am heartened by the initiative that has been taken by the Commission on the European Pillar of Social Rights, and indeed the Youth Guarantee. Those are two key initiatives we should be emphasising. In her role as Minister of State, it would be worth emphasising them in any public engagements on the future of Europe because we can see those are initiatives that may have a real impact for individuals.
To speak briefly about both, as colleagues will be well aware, the Youth Guarantee is the commitment by member states to ensure young people under 25 will receive a good quality offer of employment, continued education, apprenticeship or traineeship within a period of four months of becoming unemployed or leaving formal education. When it was announced I thought that was an exciting initiative to tackle the huge issue, happily not so much in Ireland but in other member states, of high levels of youth unemployment. That is a big challenge. It was disappointing that we did not see more on apprenticeships and traineeships in the budget this week. That is an area where we are still lagging behind some other European countries.
On the European Pillar of Social Rights, the Party of European Socialists, PES, has given its strong support for this pillar. I am aware it is due to be discussed on 17 November in Gothenburg, in Sweden, at the social summit for fair jobs and growth. The three main categories the pillar comprises are hugely important and speak to the sense of disengagement we have seen expressed by EU citizens in popular votes around Brexit, for example, and in the rise of the far right in France which, happily, was not successful in the last election. Nonetheless, we are seeing that level of disengagement with the EU, a sense of detachment and a sense that the EU is about big business and corporate interests. Senator Higgins referred to that. Initiatives like the pillar can change that perception and ensure that people see the EU as being much more about delivering social justice and delivering on the values of equality.
The three categories on which the pillar is to be built are very important. They are, first, equal opportunities and access to the labour market; second, fair working conditions; and, third, social protection and inclusion. I am very heartened that we are seeing, for example, a great deal of work at Commission level on fair and predictable employment contracts. That is an issue on which the Labour Party, my colleague, Senator Ged Nash, and I have been working hard to ensure greater predictability of employment contracts to try to challenge the growth of the precarious working we are seeing. We are also seeing great initiatives coming from the EU in terms of transparency in pay rates to tackle the ongoing gender pay gap, which in Ireland is at 14%.
I very much hope that the Government will see fit to support my Bill on the gender pay gap, which will come back to the House for Committee Stage on 25 October. The Bill will provide for mandatory reporting of very large companies in terms of gender pay discrepancy. IBEC is supporting that issue in principle.
I look forward also to strong public engagement from the Government, and from all of us, on the future of Europe and in particular on emphasising the huge gains we in Ireland have made as a result of the social rights and social progress that has been made within the EU, alongside the economic progress. We should never lose sight of that agenda of equality and human rights, which is so important.
All the Senators have contributed, so I call the Minister of State to conclude the debate.
I thank the House again for providing the time to allow these statements to take place today. It is clear there is great knowledge, but also a great passion, among Senators about this issue. It is clear also that, for the most part, we share the same focus on outcomes, meeting citizens' expectations and recommitting to the values that have allowed the European Union to prosper and move forward as it has in both good and bad times. We need to acknowledge that.
Before I respond to some of the points made I want to thank all those Senators who contributed to the debate and assure them that their contributions are being listened to and that they will form part of the wider debate that will proceed in the coming weeks and months, and into the next year. I will meet with my opposition counterparts in Luxembourg early next week and I will accompany the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to the European Council later on where the future of Europe debate will continue. I wait with interest to see where that takes us also.
I spoke at the outset about the important role the national parliaments in the functioning of the European Union and the work they do to bring institutions close to the citizens. After today's debate I am convinced that that is very much the case.
I will deal with some of the Senators' comments. I would very much agree with Senator Leyden. In the 45 years Ireland has been a member, first of the European Economic Community and now the European Union, we have benefited hugely from that membership. We have gone from being a small, inward looking country that had less contact with European countries and the outside world to one which, for the fourth year in a row, will be the fastest growing economy in Europe. We have access to a population of 500 million people, and we are thriving as a result of our membership of the European Union.
I will touch on Brexit briefly because I did not mention it earlier. It is the elephant in the room. We can lament the loss of friends and allies with the United Kingdom leaving the EU. However, we have to be realistic and accept that it is leaving the EU and we are not. The conversation on the future of Europe has already started and we must ensure that we are very much part of that conversation. We cannot allow it to pass us by. Brexit is a priority but if we look at some of the other European countries, the further east we go the less of a priority it becomes. In fact, issues such as security and defence, migration and the financial issues are more of a priority and we need to make sure we are at the front and centre of that.
Concern was expressed by many Members that in terms of the speeches of President Macron and President Juncker, and other members states, they are getting carried away or that there are areas on which we would not agree. I welcome any Head of State who wants to spend an hour and 40 minutes talking about the future of Europe. That is very positive. However, there are areas on which I agree and others on which I do not agree. That forms a strong basis for a debate where we can engage. There are also areas on which Ireland can lead.
On the issue of looking at countries to join, that is an area we will not see slow down. After the Brexit decision there was a fear that it would encourage other countries to consider leaving the European Union or to move further away from it. In fact, it has had the opposite impact. Countries are looking to move towards Europe and be part of the European Union. We are talking with the Western Balkans and we are looking at Serbia and Montenegro. That conversation is continuing, and I hope to visit the Balkans if not this year then early next year to continue that conversation.
With regard to Catalonia, we must look to the values on which we have built the European Union, namely, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In that regard, upholding the constitution and the rule of law in all its aspects is key to underpinning modern democracies. Ireland respects the constitutional and territorial unity of Spain. It has had referendums in the past but on those occasions they happened in accordance with the law of the State. That was not the case with the recent referendum in Catalonia.
That is a disputed point.
Any decision on a question as important as independence requires legitimacy, both in the broadest possible political terms and in terms of the legal framework. While I take the Senator's point that thousands of people believe there should be independence, there are thousands of people who would have a different view on that. It is extremely important that we allow this debate to happen within their own legal framework and this Government will not and cannot accept the unilateral declaration that took place.
That legal perspective has been challenged internationally. I am asking the Minister of State to look at the evidence of that.
I think it was the legal perspective more than the recognition.
I can touch on that as well.
With regard to peace building, Ireland has always been to the fore on peace building. We have always championed that voice and we will continue to do so, both on the European stage and on the global. That will not change.
We talk about EU co-operation being crucial. Different scenarios are being put forward on integration and the direction in which we should go, but I reiterate that these are not exclusive or exhaustive scenarios. They are proposals being put forward. The White Paper set out five scenarios. A sixth scenario has now been put into the mix, and a number of other declarations have been made.
Again, we must use the debate here as a sounding board to bring forward our own views on Europe. In that regard, many Senators have touched on the requirement and need to have an all-island civic dialogue and to have engagement by absolutely everybody in this process. We need to crystalise our thinking of what kind of a Union we want, how we want to be part of it and how we want the European Union to work for our citizens. We need obviously to advance Ireland's interests while at the same time reiterating that we are one of 27 countries and will remain one of the 27. In the coming weeks, I hope at the beginning of November, I will launch a future of Europe civic dialogue and it will stem from engaging with young people. That means engaging with the children in our primary and secondary schools and engaging with our students in our colleges. It will involve engaging with our institutions and various different industries. Most important, it will involve engaging with our citizens throughout the island of Ireland.
The first thing we must do is consider the many issues that Senators have raised. Financial issues were raised but that is not the only area we must consider. We must consider the completion of the Single Market. The digital Single Market is an area that we can lead on. Any barrier to the development of trade or jobs needs to be challenged, and we need to make sure that we are at the forefront of that. We also need to consider security and defence. Migration does not necessarily have the same impact as other issues but we must have a voice when it comes to that. In terms of security and defence, Ireland is a neutral country but we must decide where we stand when it comes to terrorism, cybersecurity threats, etc. Again, these are questions that we need to put to the citizens of this country. We must ensure that our citizens have a voice at the table when decisions are being made.
A civil dialogue is also an opportunity for us to reiterate the positive things that have happened in the past 45 years and how, as a country, we have benefited hugely from being members of the European Union. The European Union is not perfect, but at the same time, it has shown the way for peace in so many parts of the European Union, particularly in Ireland, and how we can build on that. Today's discussion is obviously a basis on which to move forward. I hope that all Senators, Deputies and our MEPs will take part in the wider debate when it kicks off in the next few weeks. I will check my list to see if I have missed anybody's comments.
What about trade?
We must discuss trade in the wider conversation. In terms of transparency and how the European Parliament and Commission works, these are things that have been transformed in recent years. We are very proud to have Emily O'Reilly, a former Ombudsman and Information Commissioner for Ireland but now the European Ombudsman, working on our behalf and ensuring that there is transparency throughout the institutions as well.
Senator Bacik has clearly shown that we all have, in some way, certain links to our European colleagues and friends, whether it is close familial link like the Senator or whatever. However, we need to show solidarity and co-operation moving forward. That is a very clear sense that I got from all of the Senators. I look forward to continuing this debate. I thank all of the Senators for their contributions.
I thank the Minister of State. That concludes statements on the future of Europe. When it is proposed to sit again?
At 2.30 p.m. next Tuesday.