Association Agreements: Motions

We have a quorum. Before proceeding to the business of the meeting, I remind members and those in the public Gallery to switch off their mobile phones completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference with the recording equipment in the committee rooms even in silent mode.

The purpose of today's meeting is to consider the motion referred to the select committee by Dáil Éireann in respect of the association agreements before the EU and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Under the terms of the Dáil motion of 14 January 2015, the committee must consider the matter and having done so, report back to the Dáil not later than 27 January 2015.

I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and his officials. I congratulate the Minister on the recent work he has done in Northern Ireland. We would like to have seen more of him but we know he is entrenched in Northern Ireland with those meetings and spends a lot of time up there. It was important that there was a successful conclusion. I congratulate the Minister and his officials for getting that agreement. Hopefully, we will get to see more of him in the new year. There will be an opening presentation from the Minister and I will then take questions from members. I call on the Minister to give his presentation.

I thank the Chairman for his comments. I am very pleased to be here among Deputies from across parties and those of an Independent hue. I am delighted that we have the opportunity so early in the year to deal with these important matters. I hope we can reach a conclusion today and send a positive message back to the plenary session of Dáil Éireann. I also welcome a number of ambassadors, some of whom are from countries that are the subject matter of our proceedings this afternoon, and wish them all the best for 2015. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the three motions which been proposed and referred to this committee for consideration.

The motions seek Dáil approval of the terms of EU association agreements with Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, respectively. These countries are three of six members of the EU's Eastern Partnership which was launched in 2009. It is a joint initiative within the European neighbourhood policy to provide a coherent framework for EU co-operation with six countries of eastern Europe and the south Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. These three association agreements are a new generation of agreements offered in the framework of the Eastern Partnership. Up to now, relations between the EU and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have been based on partnership and co-operation agreements which entered into force over 15 years ago. The European Commission negotiated the association agreements on behalf of the EU and the member states, including Ireland, were kept fully informed of progress in the negotiations, particularly through the relevant EU Council working groups.

The conclusion of the agreements, which are ambitious in scope, is a milestone in the EU’s relationships with these countries.

The overall aims of the agreements are to accelerate the deepening of political and economic relations with these countries on the basis of common values. The agreements aim to strengthen the framework for enhanced political dialogue and promote peace and stability. They provide the conditions for enhanced economic and trade relations, which will lead towards the gradual economic integration of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine with the EU Internal Market in selected areas.

The agreements will enhance justice, freedom and security co-operation with the aim of reinforcing the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. These countries will benefit under the agreements from financial assistance through the appropriate EU funding mechanisms and instruments.

A key element of each agreement is enhanced co-operation with the EU in some 28 policy sectors focusing on core reforms. The sectors include, for example, energy, transport, management of public finances, agriculture and rural development. Key to the sectoral co-operation chapter is a comprehensive menu of regulatory approximation contained in annexes to the agreements, which set out the EU legislation to be adopted within a specified timeframe.

The three agreements provide for the creation of a deep and comprehensive free trade area. Through this, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine will be gradually integrated into the EU’s Internal Market. The agreements not only offer improved trade and investment opportunities but also assistance with trade-related reforms. This has the aim of contributing to economic recovery and growth, and, for example, an improved and more predictable business environment, including for the small business sector.

The EU estimates that the deep and comprehensive free trade area, DCFTA, will boost substantially the GDP of the three countries and their exports to the EU, provided that reforms are completed.

The EU will provide assistance to the three countries with the implementation of the reform measures, from assistance with the modernisation of the agricultural sector to better regulating financial services. In terms of financial assistance, the EU made available €131 million each to Georgia and Moldova, and €365 million to Ukraine, in 2014 to support a programme of reform and modernisation efforts and the implementation of the DCFTA. The EU will continue to provide assistance in the current and future years. The Eastern Partnership summit in Riga in May will be a good opportunity to assess their progress in this regard.

The conclusion of these agreements responds to the desire of the peoples of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to come closer to the EU on the basis of our shared European values. The agreements will contribute to the promotion of stability and democratic values in the EU’s neighbourhood.

The agreements were signed last year at the March and June European Councils. Each EU member state is a party to these agreements because some aspects of the agreements remain in the competence of member states, such as in relation to justice and home affairs. The agreements can only enter into force after they have been ratified by all member states and the European Parliament has given its consent. In Ireland’s case, the approval of Dáil Éireann is required prior to the ratification of this type of agreement.

Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have already ratified the agreements. Ratification by the 28 member states is proceeding, and has been completed by ten EU states to date. In many other member states the process is at an advanced stage. The European Parliament has given its consent to all three agreements. As it may take some time before ratification procedures are fully complete, some aspects of the agreements, including the deep and comprehensive free trade area, DCFTA, are applied on a provisional basis, pending their formal entry into force at a later date.

However, in relation to Ukraine, following a trilateral meeting between the EU, Ukraine and Russia in September, the European Commission has agreed to suspend the provisional application of the trade part of the agreement, including the establishment of a free trade area, until 1 January 2016. In the meantime, Ukraine will continue to benefit from trade preferences for goods entering the EU. The delay in applying the trade provisions of the agreement with Ukraine was considered necessary as Ukraine feared that its threatened removal from the Russia-CIS free trade regime would have a serious impact on its already struggling economy. For its part, Russia confirmed that the CIS-FTA preferential regime with Ukraine will continue to apply.

The EU’s relationship with Ukraine has, despite the adversity of the ongoing crisis, developed and deepened substantially. The ratification of the EU-Ukraine association agreement not only strengthens the foundation of this relationship, but charts a course for much-needed political and economic reform programme as Ukraine seeks to become a modern, prosperous democracy. Both at Maidan Square and in the recent parliamentary election, the people of Ukraine have made their voices heard on the question of these reforms, and on the desire of the people of Ukraine for this association agreement to secure a firm and productive friendship between Ukraine and the European Union. Through Ireland’s ratification of this association agreement, we will show our own support for this process, and for a brighter future for the people of Ukraine.

It should be noted that Georgia is the only country of the Caucasus region which has concluded an association agreement with the EU and opinion polls show the people of Georgia are strongly supportive of this agreement. Moldova has recently held parliamentary elections, and is currently in the process of forming a new government. Following the elections, High Representative, Ms Federica Mogherini, stressed the EU’s intention to remain a reliable partner supporting the reform programme in Moldova and working towards unleashing the full benefits of the association agreement in the interest of all its citizens. In the course of the recent election, one of the members of the committee, Deputy Eric Byrne, in his capacity as a monitor, represented Ireland. I would be anxious to hear his views on the election and the electoral process in Moldova. The High Representative, Ms Mogherini, recently noted the preliminary findings of the International Election Observation Mission.

I thank the committee for the opportunity to present these three motions which I hope will meet the committee’s approval. The association agreements will broaden and deepen the EU’s relationship with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine on the basis of shared values and interests. Closer economic integration with the EU will be a powerful stimulant for economic growth in these three countries. This, in turn, will open up opportunities for Ireland to forge stronger political and economic relations with these countries. I hope the committee will support the motions which I have proposed, and that Dáil Éireann will approve the terms of these three association agreements so that Ireland will proceed to ratify these agreements in the near future.

I am happy to take questions at this point. I thank the Chairman.

I thank the Minister and without delay, I call Deputy Brendan Smith.

I apologise for being late but I was in the Dáil dealing with a Topical Issue.

I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for his detailed presentation. I welcome and support the association agreements. The Minister clearly outlined the potential of the agreements to deepen and broaden relationships with our neighbours in the European Union. Is there a timeline for the ratification of the association agreements by all 28 member states? Is the coming into force of the provisions of the association agreements dependent on each member state having ratified the association agreements? The Minister stated these agreements "will lead towards the gradual economic integration of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine with the EU Internal Market in selected areas." If one is a participant in the EU Internal Market, how many steps is that away from accession to the European Union? I presume one is well on the way to working one's way through the accession process if one can participate in the Internal Market, which is a cornerstone of the European Union?

We had the opportunity to have a worthwhile discussion with the new High Representative. I mentioned the concern about the working of the Eastern Partnership during the past number of years, which could have been more effective. The Eastern Partnership has not built the relationships that are needed with our neighbouring countries.

There are widespread concerns about relations between Ukraine, the EU and Russia. Is the issue of trade sanctions and EU-Russia relations included in each meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council? We are aware of the knock-on effects on sectors in our own country, particularly agriculture, of the sanctions imposed on European exports to Russia. This is an issue we need to address at the earliest opportunity.

I welcome the Minister and his colleagues, and compliment them on the work they are doing in various areas, including Northern Ireland in particular. To what extent does the Minister envisage eastern partnership countries accessing the same market relationship with the European Union as, for example, Switzerland or Norway? Is it likely that the relationship will grow and, if so, to what extent?

In regard to the impasse that led to sanctions against Russia, to what extent have negotiations been renewed or are ongoing with a view to achieving better relations between the EU, Ukraine and Russia? Considerable economic and political benefits could accrue to all sides and it is in the interest of all parties to renew negotiations at the earliest opportunity.

I compliment the High Representative, Ms Mogherini, on her efforts to deal with a multiplicity of issues over the Christmas period. Is it expected that the principles of freedom, justice and openness - dare I mention perestroika - will prevail as a result of the motion we are currently considering? Is the European Union conscious of the need to build on the progress made not only with the countries mentioned here but also with the other countries in the region the Minister mentioned? In regard to security in the European Union and its neighbours, particularly in the eastern partnership and eastern neighbourhood, to what extent has the need for observation of good security practice been accepted by all concerned, especially given the current situation?

I have always believed it is necessary to have respect for each other in any negotiations where there may be clashes of culture, history, religion or whatever. The first condition should be to establish the necessity to respect each other's position. That means we must do so in every sense of the word. It may mean different things to different people, but it is absolutely necessary, if we are to achieve a better working relationship, the kind of security that is required globally, and between either side in any dispute, whether in Northern Ireland, eastern Europe or across Europe, or between Christian and Muslim countries or whatever, that we start from the basis of trying to ensure we respect each other's position. The Minister knows I have raised that through parliamentary questions. It is fundamental to where we are going.

I am in a minority in the committee on this issue. I will be opposing the Minister's proposal, and I will expand on the reasons for that if I get the chance. It is not that I or my party, Sinn Féin, are opposed to the attempts to expand the EU. Association agreements are supposedly aimed at bringing countries closer to the EU politically and economically. However, moving closer to the EU in these ways requires the countries concerned to move away from other models. That is part of the difficulty. Deputy Smith spoke about the timing of this. I think the timing is all wrong and particularly bad if one looks at what is happening in that part of the world and the difficulties that have arisen there. One could ask when would be a good time. Would the Minister accept that the agreement will force countries to make economic changes based on privatisation and market liberalisation? It is not simply a trade agreement aimed at mutually reducing tariffs or increasing trade. It will lock countries into an economic paradigm on the chance that they will get a shot at gaining EU membership. Does the Minister accept that there is EU fatigue across Europe when it comes to enlargement? We are selling this proposal down the line but it is unlikely that enlargement will be the result.

It is obvious why people are looking towards the EU because they see it as progress. They are caught between the EU and Russia and the latter reminds them in many cases of a negative past. The break-up of the Soviet Union was economically crippling for many of these countries and the EU presents itself as a modern partner with unlimited opportunities. If we look more closely at what is happening in Europe, however, youth unemployment is 53% in Spain, 43% in Italy, 44% in Portugal and 22% in Ireland, as well as there being emigration.

It is not a case of being opposed to any new trade agreements, once they are based on simple mutual benefit and do not force countries into so-called economic reforms aimed at selling the countries' resources and state services to the highest bidder. That is what I have a difficulty with in relation to this agreement. Would the Minister not accept that, unfortunately, these type of association agreements force these countries to throw their lot in with the EU or else put up with Russia's heavy-handed response? That is the difficulty I have. The offer of EU membership is always hinted at but never explicitly promised, so they are caught economically and tied to the EU while outside the bloc. Is there any explicit promise of or a framework for future EU membership in these agreements? It is important that we be truthful and honest with people in this regard.

There was a lot of criticism of the speed at which the EU was enlarged to include Bulgaria and Romania. I know there are talks with other countries and they are hopeful that will happen. I am not opposed to the accession of new countries but I have serious concerns about and objections to EU federalism, the EU democratic deficit and the loss of member state sovereignty. That is the debate that is taking place in many countries across Europe. I strongly welcome that these issues are being debated strongly here and that the committee has the opportunity to do so, although I would probably like to have a lot more time for the debate.

Does the Minister agree that some time should be set aside in the Dáil to debate this issue in greater detail? The committee structure is useful but this issue requires a wider debate not only in the Dáil but in the Seanad.

I will bring the Deputy back in after the Minister replies as the Deputy has posed a number of questions. Deputies Mitchell, Quinn and Eric Byrne also wish to contribute. I will let them all come back in with a response.

I do not have a question but I thank the Minister for his good outline of this motion and record my complete support for this kind of agreement. I recognise the amount of work that goes into producing an agreement such as this one that crosses 28 policy sectors. It cannot but be mutually beneficial both at an economic and a political level. As the Minister said, it will enhance our shared values of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. I recognise that these countries have a geography and a history which are different from ours. I welcome that Russia has recognised the fact, as do we, that these countries do not have to turn their back on their past simply by joining an association agreement with the European Union. That is important and I welcome the fact that the trade agreements can continue with Russia, but nevertheless that should not blind us to the fact that it is beneficial for us in the EU and for these countries to have an agreement like this, and it is to be welcomed and endorsed by the committee.

I welcome the Minister and his colleagues. I have a number of concerns about this. First and foremost, apropros of what Deputy Crowe said or what he read out on behalf of his party, the European Union is a unique institution and it is the only political union in the world that people want to join or with which they want to have an association agreement. There is no queue of nations wanting to join the United States, Canada or any other rich country in that particular manner. We should ask ourselves why that is the case. This is an association agreement based on mutual benefit with regard to trade. I advise Deputy Crowe that this is not compulsory and that they do not have join or apply. As a representative of the Sinn Féin Party, I would have thought he would rather celebrate the idea that a recently independent state, exercising its own democracy and sovereignty, albeit in difficult circumstances, would - taking a meaning from the name of his party - itself decide that it would like to apply and it is old enough, big enough and wise enough, and in many cases probably much smarter than we are, to decide whether the terms and conditions hit the contours of its aspirations for the future of its country.

Another factor is that association agreements are not guarantee of full membership. Ask the Turks about it. They have been a member of NATO since 1952 and a member of an association agreement with the European Union in terms of trade and association, if my memory serves me right, from 1958 or 1959. The path to full membership requires the individual vote of every national parliament, currently 28. That bridge, if we have to cross it, is a long way away and at the time probably 30 bridges will have to be crossed and unanimity on that will be required, not the agreement of a majority of the member states.

I have a concern given the difficulties we have had in the past with our overseas development programme with regard to corruption and misuse of money, some of it accidental, some of it deliberate and some it fraudulent. We saw that with our overseas development programme with Uganda and others. I am sure this is a concern everybody would have. There is an anti-European movement within our own country and within other member states and they will use malfeasance of one kind or another to denounce that this is money being wasted by Brussels. We know the orchestration of histrionics of Nigel Farage and other UKIP-type parties. The Minister might indicate what safeguards and sanctions are provided if bona fide European taxpayers' money is badly spent.

Having regard to the very fraught relationship that exists between the current political leadership in the Commonwealth of Independent States, or what we would call Russia, is there a sense that some of this could be seen as a political provocation? All these three applicant countries, as we well know, notwithstanding their independence and sovereignty on the international stage, have been treated extremely badly by the current occupant of the Kremlin. To what extent will the process of these agreements, which are coming along in a normal manner, have a negative or no impact on the wider Russian-European relationship now that the economic basis upon which the aggressive prosperity of President Putin's aggressions are being undermined by the collapse in oil prices at a level that will cause massive economic hardship in the former Soviet Union?

I thank the Minister for his reference to my experience of the Moldovan elections but we will not go into that. He has a lovely presentation here and I am sure it is all on the record. If he wants to talk to me privately, I will be very happy to give him my personal view of the elections in Moldova, on which I will touch in my contribution.

I welcome the Minister and enthusiastically welcome these association agreements and their ratification. I am blessed in the sense that I am one of the few politicians in this room who has experience of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. I am disappointed Sinn Féin would take a position that somehow or other these people are being coerced into an agreement that they do not want. It is a sad day in many ways in that up in the Phoenix Park the Armenian ambassador to Ireland and England is presenting his papers to the President today. The tragedy about the missing Armenian name to the list is that they were very heavily subjected to pressure by the Russian Federation into pulling back from the association agreement and being forced against their will into the Eurasian Customs Union with the Russian Federation. It will be something for our committee to engage on with the Armenian ambassador at another stage.

Notwithstanding my well-documented concerns about the European relationship with Ukraine in the early days of the association agreement, and it is water under the bridge now, I ask the Minister, who I am sure is acutely aware of the composition of these three countries where there is a Russian influence, be it a Russian border or Russian speaking minorities, to be very conscious of that. He spoke about what became of the elections in Moldova. The biggest party to be returned in the Moldovan elections was the most pro-Putin, pro-Russian Federation Party. That is not to say that the composition of potential coalition partners will not be greater in terms of being pro-European than pro-Russian. The fact that this is a reality for Moldova makes us acutely aware, having noted the mistakes that were made in the early stages of the association agreement with Ukraine, that Russia has threatened and carried out its threats in the past, as the Minister will know with Transnistria being the industrial core of the region, which was and is part of Moldova. Moldova is an agricultural country and society, depending on the exports of its agricultural produce, its wine, fruit and vegetables. The Russians have severed their link with the Moldovan wine industry, notwithstanding the fact that I have seen in the cellars President Putin's allocated portion of very fine Moldovan wines. Also, in the case of Georgia we know about South Ossetia and about the relationship between Georgia and the Russian Federation. These are difficult countries and I would be keen to be assured that this little country of ours, in our negotiations with these partners, is acutely conscious of the historical relationships of the Russians, back to the Second World War and liberation from Nazism, their attachment to their language and the fact that there is a predominant Russian influence in Transnistria.

I wish the three countries well and I welcome them on board. I wish to ask the Minister a question relating to Ukraine. Let us praise the OSCE. It has done a phenomenal job. The Minister is aware the OSCE only acts with the agreement of 57 countries. We have Irish representatives operating there as part of the EU advisory mission, EUAM, for the reform of civilian security. Whose role is it to monitor the Ukrainian military? The fighting force known as the Right Sector is disconnected from the military hierarchy. That is very important because it could potentially be prone to breaking a ceasefire or to provocation of the Russian-speaking people of eastern Ukraine. That is a key area.

I have nothing further to add. The Minister is aware of the sensitivities of the three countries and their relationship with the region. We must applaud the High Representative. When she was before the committee she told us that we are a community of nations. We are all neighbours. The 28 member states have neighbours who are our friends and we want to be friends with the neighbour of our neighbours. Europe will be well represented by the new High Representative in her leadership role.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for his presentation. I support the motion. We have seen how the Common Market has developed and contributed. Nobody would pull back from anything that has taken place since the foundation of the Common Market after the Second World War. We support its ongoing development to ensure peace as well as prosperity, and in some cases to provide an opportunity for prosperity in the context of the agreements with the three states. I thank the Minister for his presentation in that regard.

I support very much the principle of partnership because it implies equality. While we acknowledge the sovereignty of each of the three countries, is there a sense that this is throwing down the gauntlet to Russia because there are disputed areas in each of the three countries? I do not think the principle of self-determination is very much respected by the Russian authorities.

The Minister mentioned trade related reforms. Could he expand on what he means by that? We were to debate the Colombia free trade agreement. In that context, concerns arose about workers' rights and related issues. Is the Minister confident that the issues we examined in the context of Colombia are also significantly addressed in the three trade agreements under discussion?

I have allowed everybody to contribute. If members have further questions, they will have another opportunity to ask them later.

Thank you, Chairman, for the opportunity to engage with the committee. I very much value the advice, commentary, observations and guidance of committee members. I thank them for that. I am sure that in the course of 2015 we will have an opportunity to deepen our engagement. I will endeavour to ensure my schedule facilitates that end. The expertise in the committee is very much underlined by the fact that some of the questions that have been asked earlier have been answered satisfactorily by members of the committee. That is testament to the importance of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Parliament.

I was very pleased that High Representative Mogherini included in her programme an opportunity to engage, however briefly, with the committee. She told me prior to Christmas that, when coming to Dublin, she was most anxious to respect the input of parliamentarians and that her visit would not be complete without an opportunity to engage with committee members. I accept that Monday is often not the most appropriate day for either the Chairman or committee members. On behalf of the committee I will again convey to the High Commissioner the gratitude of members for the opportunity to engage with her.

A number of issues were raised. Deputy Smith and others raised the matter of the timeframe. The timeframe for completion is 1 January 2016 but it is hoped that matters will be completed in advance of that with particular reference to the partnership summit in Riga in May. Already ten states have satisfactorily ratified the agreements. I hope this country will do so at an early opportunity, notwithstanding the opposition of Deputy Crowe and his party. By May, it is expected that states will have ratified the agreements. I would be happy to keep the committee informed of developments in that regard.

The issue of sanctions against Russia was raised by Deputies Smith, Durkan and others. This issue has a priority position on the agenda of each and every meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, the most recent of which was on Monday last. Again, it was an issue that attracted widespread debate involving active oral contributions from most of the 28 member state representatives around the table. It is an issue where the Union has maintained an element of flexibility. Sanctions will be intensified and weakened or reduced in accordance with the de-escalation or otherwise of the position in eastern Ukraine.

Ireland’s position is such that we support the sanctions and we will continue to do so. We are monitoring the situation, not only in respect of the adverse economic impact on Russia, which is having some effect in terms of consequential issues, but also the impact on this country of the retaliatory impositions on the part of Russia. It is clear that the current sanctions imposed by the European Union are having an impact, and they will continue to be a main element of the European Union approach to the current crisis in Ukraine. We have always said that there is an element of flexibility and that the restrictive measures are scalable. They can be eased and strengthened depending on developments.

To date, the impact of the sanctions against Russia, however evident they might be in terms of trade, have been relatively modest. The impact of the retaliatory measures as far as our economy is concerned are being closely monitored and they have not had the effect or consequences that were initially flagged in some quarters. We will continue to keep a very close eye on the situation, not only at Foreign Affairs Council level but perhaps more particularly at European Council level where the issue will again be discussed shortly.

Deputy Durkan and others spoke of a possible EU membership accession and the fact that the current agreements will put the party states firmly along the path of EU membership.

EU membership is dealt with on a strictly case-by-case basis in the context of individual applications. The actual participation of states in these agreements or in the Eastern Partnership does not offer candidate status. However, it is quite clear that the comprehensive agreement leaves the way open for future developments in that regard. The European Union has offered the Eastern Partnership countries closer ties and deeper integration with its structures through these agreements. I must inform Deputy Crowe that any offer of EU membership would require a certain unanimity among EU member states. It is fair to say that there is not any real prospect of achieving that level of agreement. Even if such a prospect were evident - I do not believe it is - it is doubtful whether any of the Eastern Partnership countries would be in a position to assume the obligations of membership in any event. It is not really appropriate to suggest, therefore, that membership will follow.

Deputy Durkan and others referred to the position of neighbouring countries such as Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus. As the committee will be aware, the Union has continued to seek progress in the context of relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Like Deputy Eric Byrne, I welcome the new ambassador who is presenting his credentials at Áras an Uachtaráin this afternoon. I look forward to having an early opportunity to engage with him. Members will be aware that although Armenia decided not to complete the association agreement which it had successfully negotiated with the European Union, it continues to express an interest in concluding a new agreement. Both sides will continue with the discussions on the extent of future agreement.

Deputy Crowe expressed his opposition in respect of this matter, which he is entitled to do, and sought further debate at Dáil level. I presume the Deputy's opposition will be included in the committee's report. I do not believe Deputy Crowe is well guided in his thesis. There is no evidence to show that any of the states which are the subject of the agreements we are discussing have been pushed by the European Union into concluding such agreements. Each of the agreements is the result of negotiations into which the three countries involved entered freely. I do not believe there is any evidence to suggest otherwise. In each individual case, the negotiations were lengthy and detailed. This was always going to be the case. The negotiations were conducted by the European Commission on behalf of the Union. The outcome responded clearly to the will of the three countries in question to move closer to the European Union. The specific terms of the three agreements reflect that as far as the three countries are concerned. The parliaments of these three countries have again, on behalf of their people, ratified the agreements. There is no promise of EU membership and there are no side deals involved. The agreements do not contain anything which was not concluded openly or which is not reflective of the principles of democracy. The fact that two other Eastern Partnership countries chose not to conclude such agreements is clear evidence that decisions relating to these agreements are made on the basis of sovereignty. Far from exerting pressure on countries which choose not to sign, the Union has made continued efforts to seek progress in respect of the matter of relations between it and those countries. I do not believe there is any evidence of the type of influence, duress or any undue pressure to which the Deputy refers.

Deputy Quinn raised a number of important concerns and made particular reference to the issue of a possible future misappropriation or mishandling of funds in a way which would not be in accordance with proper procedures. Article 392 of the agreements deals with measures to prevent and fight corruption, fraud and any other illegal activities in connection with the implementation of EU funds inter alia by means of mutual administrative assistance or mutual legal assistance in the fields covered by the agreement. The power exists to suspend one of the association agreements or expel the state involved in the event of conclusive evidence of the nature described by the Deputy having been identified. Deputy Quinn is quite right to stress the importance of respecting the independence and freedom of the Eastern Partnership countries to decide on their own external relations. As stated earlier, at no stage did the EU pressurise any of the countries involved to make a choice between it and Russia. That is evidenced in the context of the different activities undertaken in the countries with reference to Georgia, on one hand, and Armenia, on the other.

The EU trade offer was compatible with agreements that already existed with Russia. I note Deputy Quinn's comment regarding the current crisis and the perception that perhaps competitive interests may well be at stake between the European Union and Russia. However, I am of the view that the agreements stand on their own merits. The decisions relating to them were taken in the aftermath of the sovereign decisions taken by the parliaments involved while exercising their own free choice. It would be a misrepresentation if that which I describe were to be regarded in Moscow as any form of provocation.

The EU Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform Ukraine was established by the European Council in July of last year in order to support the authorities in Ukraine in reforming its security sector. The aim of the mission is to help Ukraine develop an effective and accountable security service that contributes to strengthening the rule of law. I remind Deputy Eric Byrne that Ireland has two members on that mission and they keep the Government fully informed of developments in Ukraine.

I acknowledge the comments made by Deputy Mitchell and I must inform Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan that we are very mindful of the issue of trade with Colombia. The latter is in no way reflective of any form of parallel with the current agreement.

I thank the Minister. Does Deputy Crowe wish to make a further brief contribution?

On the timing of the agreement itself, with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the minorities in different countries that are part of this, does the Minister accept that rather than de-escalate tension, it will actually increase problems in the area?

There are issues with the language used in the association agreements. The one relating to Georgia refers to the "deep and comprehensive" free-trade agreement as "one of the most ambitious free trade agreements that the EU has ever negotiated with a third country". There are plenty of references to Russia, perhaps not all unfair but some certainly unhelpful. It congratulates Georgia on redirecting exports to new markets, which I presume means away from Russia and to the EU. It also asserts, "there is strong national and cross-party consensus in Georgia in favour of integration with the West". When I met the chargé d'affaires yesterday, he stressed that. However, it also refers to the EU and NATO, which is not language that we, as a neutral country, would support.

My big problem is with the timing. People can argue over whether there is ever a good time in that regard. My view is that it was a zero-sum game. People were given the ultimatum that they either agree or not. The Minister has said that is not his view of it. There is a view across many countries and parties within Europe that, given all the tension, the timing of the agreement with Ukraine was bad.

There was mention of the High Representative's statement that it was necessary to move away from slogans and start to take practical steps to approach the difficulties in the region. I accept that parliaments and governments in those countries want to move this forward, but as we know, other parliaments, if we are to be part of this, have gone the opposite way. There is the view that it was a zero-sum game and there was not much of a choice. We have already seen sanctions. The Russians have placed sanctions on Moldova and the EU confirmed that it would open up its markets in that regard. This again represents an escalation. Many of these countries are seen as a buffer zone between Europe and Russia. That does not justify any of the actions of the Russians. There are huge concerns there. The timing is bad. The message people in those countries are getting is that things will improve regarding their economies and so on, but it might not necessarily happen that way.

I support these association agreements. Political and economic integration is extremely important. Obviously, enhanced co-operation in the areas of security, freedom and justice is extremely important, given the times we have at the moment. The association agreements enhance these, and co-operation in these areas is important. There are also the other opportunities in trade and investment. I believe it can only be good for our relationships with these three countries.

I acknowledge the presence today of members of the diplomatic corps, particularly the chargé d'affaires and ambassador of Ukraine and Georgia. They have kept in touch with members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and briefed us on their desire to get these association agreements passed. I acknowledge the work they have done on behalf of their countries.

I also acknowledge the presence of the Latvian ambassador. I wish his country well in its Presidency during the first six months of the year. We look forward to having him before the committee to deal with foreign affairs issues in the near future.

Does the Minister wish to say anything else before we wrap up?

There were two issues that I did not address. Deputy Smith asked about the provisional application or otherwise of the agreements. The agreements provide for provisional application of certain aspects that fall under EU competence until such time as each member state has concluded ratification when they come into force. I say this particularly in the matter of economic and sectoral co-operation. I again stress that the target date is that it be completed by the time of the Riga summit in May. Already some aspects of the matter of Georgia and Moldova have been provided on a provisional basis since last year. The target date is 1 January 2016 for Ukraine.

I again acknowledge the contribution of Deputy Eric Byrne with regard to the region. I would be happy at any stage to hear from him by way of report, engagement or otherwise. It is a very important contribution and I laud him in that regard.

The second issue that I may not have adequately addressed was raised by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, who stressed the relationship between the agreements and reform in the area of human rights. I refer to Article 2 of the agreement, which specifically states that the principle of the rule of law shall form the basis of domestic and external policies of the parties. The essential elements of the agreement will involve issues such as respect for sovereignty, respect for territorial integrity and respect for human rights. These are issues that can be the subject matter of a suspension if deemed appropriate or necessary.

We have heard opposition from Deputy Crowe. I assume the Chairman will now put the question.

No. The matter is just for consideration by the select committee. We just send a message back to Dáil Éireann regarding what we have been asked to do. If members of the committee are anxious that we write to the Whips to take note of Deputy Crowe's consideration, we can do that with a view to looking for a debate in Dáil Éireann.

In anticipation of the committee's message, and not wishing in any way to pre-empt matters, I acknowledge the contributions of Deputies Durkan, Eric Byrne, Mitchell and Smith. I acknowledge the contribution of Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan and the comments of Deputy Quinn. I very much welcome the contributions. These agreements are important for the European Union and for Ireland. It is in the best interest of European Union, our neighbours and the Irish people that we continue to foster closer links with people in the region. We need to encourage economic development and a greater level of social integration. It is very much in the best interests of the countries on the basis of their own application that we proceed to ratify at the earliest opportunity.

Does Deputy Mitchell wish to say something?

I wish to raise a crisis issue of which the Minister is probably aware. This morning, Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan and I met the Dublin representative of Concern to discuss the flooding in coastal Mozambique and southern Malawi, which are both programme countries, as the Minister knows. Approximately 200,000 people are now completely homeless and have lost everything. GOAL and Concern are both working on the ground there. They had a specific request that, if at all possible, we release some of our non-food supplies from Accra or Dubai. I do not expect him to reply now. However, I am raising it because it is a crisis, and perhaps he could come back to us. I do not expect him to respond now.

I cannot ask the Minister to reply.

No. I do not expect it.

We can get back directly to Deputy Mitchell.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I was aware of this morning's meeting, although I have not received a full report thereof.

I certainly would be happy to pursue the issue further. It has been put to me as being a matter of urgency and I am anxious to assist in whatever way possible.

There might be an opportunity for Deputy Mitchell to look for funding next week when we discuss the Estimates.

I thank the Chairman for that.

Perhaps I should not have said that, particularly with the Minister present but there might be an opportunity for Deputies Mitchell and O'Sullivan to raise the issue at that stage.

I thank everybody for their attendance, particularly the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, who will be with us again next week. I also acknowledge the presence of Mr. Barrie Robinson, political director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and his colleagues from the Department, Mr. Charles Sheehan, Mr. Adrian McDaid and Ms Deirdre Bourke.