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EU Meetings

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 13 December 2017

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the matters he intends to raise at the next meeting of the European Council. [51688/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

2. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the forthcoming European Council meeting. [51727/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk; and the issues that were discussed. [51993/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with European leaders in advance of the next European Council meeting in December 2017. [51999/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the European Council President, Mr. Donald Tusk. [52882/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent telephone conversations with the European Commission President, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker on Brexit. [52883/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the agenda for the upcoming European Council meeting; and if, in future, his Department will provide a briefing to Opposition leaders in advance of such meetings. [52885/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Mark Rutte and the issues that were discussed. [52909/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. [52947/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

10. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his contact with Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. [52948/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Dutch Prime Minister. [53133/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the German Chancellor, Ms Angela Merkel, recently. [53228/17]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (18 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 12, inclusive, together.

I will attend a series of European Council meetings in a range of formats in Brussels tomorrow and Friday.

I will, of course, report back to the House as usual after the European Council.

The draft agenda for the main meeting consists of security and defence issues, including permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, and social, educational and cultural matters, where we expect a report on the recent Gothenburg social summit and the proclamation of the European pillar of social rights. Foreign policy issues may also be raised.

The President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, will also chair further discussions on the future of Europe as part of his leaders' agenda, which will include discussion on migration and economic and monetary union, EMU. We will also discuss the future of EMU at a euro summit on 15 December, in an inclusive format involving all 27 remaining member states.

Ireland is very supportive of President Tusk's task force and its efforts to drive forward the debate on the future of Europe and I look forward to a very constructive exchange of views.

The European Council will also meet in Article 50 format on Friday to consider the Brexit negotiations. Following long and intensive negotiations over the past weeks we have reached a satisfactory conclusion on the issues relating to Ireland in phase one. We have achieved all we set out to achieve in phase one of the negotiations: to maintain the common travel area, to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process and to avoid a hard border. We have the assurances and guarantees we need from the United Kingdom and support for them from the European Union. The parameters have been set and they are agreeable.

Irish issues were one of three critical areas that needed to be dealt with in these talks, before the EU and the UK could proceed to phase 2 issues on the shape of the future relationship and possible transitional arrangements. Given the view of the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, that sufficient progress has been achieved, the European Council is expected to decide on moving to the second phase. I meet and speak regularly with my EU counterparts, including Chancellor Merkel, bilaterally and at formal and informal meetings of the European Council and I use every opportunity to advance Ireland's interests. The support of all our EU partners has been strong, consistent and essential in ensuring that the unique challenges we face on the island of Ireland as a result of the UK's withdrawal from the EU are dealt with. I emphasised the need for firm commitments from the UK that a hard border will be avoided under whatever new arrangements are arrived at, recognising the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland, its history and its geography.

As he made clear in his public remarks after our recent meeting, President Tusk is unequivocal in his support for Ireland and the need to ensure that there will be no hard border. I took the opportunity at the meeting to thank President Tusk for his strong and unwavering solidarity since the very beginning of the process. I also spoke by phone to Commission President Juncker in relation to the EU-UK negotiations on Brexit, in particular the outline of an EU-UK agreement which would allow us to move to the second phase of negotiations. President Juncker was also fully supportive for Ireland's position in this context. I spoke with Prime Minister May a number of times during the week beginning Monday, 4 December. I underlined that the UK’s exit from the EU must not in any way undermine the peace process or give rise to the reintroduction of a border on the island of Ireland. I met Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands in Dublin on 6 December. I expressed my gratitude for his continued solidarity on the Irish-specific issues in relation to Brexit. We also discussed the future of Europe, the strong bilateral relationship between our two countries and the strengthening of our alliances within the EU. As two countries that neighbour the United Kingdom we spoke about the shape and format of a new EU-UK agreement.

The British Government's presence at this meeting on Thursday provides an opportunity for the Taoiseach to secure greater clarity from the British Prime Minister about her interpretation of and her response to elements of last week's communique. The Government has made it clear that it believes the communique commits the British state to maintain a regulatory alignment between the North and the South on all matters, even in the event of no deal. EU ministers are reported to have agreed that Friday's communique will be David Davis proofed and they warn that Brexit discussions could be suspended. Does the Taoiseach agree with that?

I am also very concerned with the Taoiseach's response to me yesterday. After refusing to answer this question on a number of occasions in the last weeks yesterday he accepted that citizens in the North will not have access to the European Court of Justice when the British Government removes the jurisdiction of that court from the North after eight years. This would be a direct breach of the Good Friday Agreement. If the Taoiseach has signed up to this then it has dire consequences around the issue of rights. The issue of rights is at the core of the difficulties in the Assembly at this time. I shall return to this issue later when we have a better chance to deal with the pre-Council statements.

Earlier this week and last week, the Taoiseach seemed very eager to attend the summit with a very clear commitment to Ireland joining the EU permanent structured co-operation defence group, PESCO, notwithstanding the context where there was very little time to hold any kind of detailed discussion in Ireland. While almost everybody is in favour of our Army joining international peacekeeping missions such as those in Chad or our Naval Service in the Mediterranean Sea, Fine Gael obviously has rather ambivalent feelings about neutrality. Unlike many other countries that have positions of neutrality, in the run-up to this meeting the Taoiseach seemed awfully anxious actually to sign up in full rather than express in detail the reservations that people in Ireland are entitled to discuss and consider as they come to know more about it. Does the Taoiseach see it as a particular advantage in respect of his communication and presentation of himself as Taoiseach, which is obviously very important to him, that he should go to tomorrow's meeting having rushed through in the last days before Christmas and without adequate discussion the arrangements and commitment to PESCO by the Taoiseach and his Government?

With regard to the statement made by Michel Barnier that Ireland will be subject to a special negotiating path in the Brexit negotiations, will the Taoiseach outline what this implies strategically? Recently the Taoiseach said that Irish negotiators and advisers would be in the room next door to the Barnier team. I and others have commented that as Ireland gets down to the nitty gritty of very detailed provisions, regulations and laws in some wide areas, it will be necessary to have very experienced trade lawyers, for example, and people with particular skills in these types of negotiations. Has the Taoiseach planned for this so Ireland has the kinds of skill-sets we need to negotiate the best deal for Ireland?

There are four questioners. If we are going to have very long questions, we will not have any answers.

I have a number of questions on this section.

Pre-European Council statements are scheduled for today. As we have only ten minutes each to speak, I will concentrate on those questions on the non-Brexit items to be dealt with at the Eurogroup meeting and the full summit. I point out to the Taoiseach that the practice is continuing whereby more information about our Government's position and agenda items is available to us in Brussels than is available here.

At the euro area summit President Tusk proposed that agreement would be reached on a specific timeline for decisions on a range of issues. For example, it was proposed that a formal decision on digital taxation would be taken in March and other eurozone changes would be addressed in quick succession. I have repeatedly raised the issue that Ireland should insist that no decisions be reached without detailed impact studies on proposals. It is simply unacceptable that major proposals concerning tax rules should be considered in the absence of an expert review of the likely impact on individual member states and on the Union as a whole.

Fianna Fáil has a far more developed European Union and eurozone reform policy than the Government. We welcome many of the points articulated by President Macron and others. We can never support, however, the idea that changes presented as fundamental could be pushed through and pushed to a vote without basic work being done on the impact. It has already been said that the parallel OECD process is the one Fianna Fáil believes should be prioritised. The March deadline, to be agreed on Thursday, is actually before the OECD proposals are due to be presented at the G20. The announcement by Facebook yesterday seems reasonable but it does not in any way justify the push to a conclusion on a proposal where the most basic impact studies have not been carried out.

Does the Taoiseach propose to agree to the March deadline or will Ireland insist that impact studies be presented before any proposals are voted on?

On the wider issue of the Macron reforms, the Taoiseach's only response thus far has been a general welcome and the rebranding of public consultations. The question remains as to what Ireland's policy is towards change in the eurozone and to the Union as a whole. Is it intended to maintain the policy of simply responding to the proposals of others or will Ireland seek to become a more active participant in the future of Europe discussions?

I have five questions in this group of 12.

Deputy Martin is correct. We are garnering more information about Ireland's position from leaks coming from Brussels than we are being given directly. This is a moving platform and things are happening in real time. I have asked many times in recent months for us to be informed as we go along. I will shortly have an opportunity for ten minutes to make a statement about the European Council but I will raise two issues now.

PESCO is the first item on the agenda. Two countries, Denmark and Malta, have refused to sign up. In Malta's case, it is because it has a particular constitutional clause enshrining its neutrality which it believes will be compromised by PESCO. We needed more time to tease these matter out for ourselves. I made that crystal clear last week. We need to bring the public with us in any changes we make in our participation in either security or defence matters. Our record in respect of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and our peacekeeping role over decades are matters of great pride and have carved out for this State a hard-won position. It is something to which we will return.

I have specific questions to the Taoiseach regarding the Brexit negotiations. The Taoiseach rightly says that the Council will meet in Article 50 format. Today's edition of the Financial Times reports that - as we all know - in what is characterised as the new toughened EU position, future EU-UK relationship will not begin formal discussions until March. It notes that President Tusk has issued a new letter to all EU leaders prior to the summit underlining the importance of solidarity among the remaining 27. However, it foresees that rather than focusing on scoping out the preliminaries of a trade deal, the talks between the UK between January and March next year will concentrate instead on the conditions which the EU will set for the transition period. That is quite a shift. Before we make our own statements and because there will be no opportunity to do so at the conclusion of the statements, will the Taoiseach tell us what exactly has been the shift in position since the formal declaration was made after the sign-off by the United Kingdom and the EU 27 on the phase 1 issues? Is it now the case that no formal talks on trade are to begin before March and that, as the Financial Times reports of President Tusk's letter, the period between January and March will focus instead on the conditions that will apply in the transition period? I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's views on the duration of the transition period.

Our time here is tight and while I also wish to deal with the issue of taxation, the points have been raised already. I am interested in specifics as these matters are very important to this country.

Do Members agree to give an additional ten minutes to this group of questions?

Will it bring in more people?

Yes. And it will leave us 20 minutes for the next group.

Last week during Leaders' Questions and on other occasions in this House, I vociferously protested the Government's cynical decision to sign us up to the PESCO European defence pact and the manner in which the Government did so, namely, by withholding that it planned to do this from the Business Committee for several weeks. It was a calculated effort to prevent public debate on the matter. There are many reasons to oppose our involvement in EU militarisation but I will raise one of them today.

In the past week, Amnesty International has condemned the complicity of European governments in what it describes as the horrific abuse of refugees and migrants and how the EU naval operation in the Mediterranean is colluding with the ministry of the interior, the Libyan coastguard, and the Libyan directorate for combatting illegal migration in "torture and abuse of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants detained by [the] Libyan immigration authorities in appalling conditions in Libya." It goes on to say that European governments are "actively supporting a sophisticated system of abuse and exploitation of refugees and migrants by the Libyan Coast Guard, detention authorities and smugglers in order to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean". It refers to overcrowded detention centres where refugees and migrants are subject to systematic abuse. It contends, and I agree, that European governments have not only been aware of these abuses but in actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these abuses.

We are running out of time, Deputy.

What is the Government going to do about this? It is a damning indictment of what European governments are doing to thousands of people in Libya.

In looking at where we see the future of Europe and what we seek to represent, I want to ask about the area of climate ambition and energy integration. The Commission has put together a legislative programme, the clean energy package, which affects governance, market rules, shared ambition in renewables and so on. In every area the Irish Government is taking an active position to halt ambition and stop an integrated European approach. For instance, only last week we received further information of the Irish Government position on assessing resource adequacy and whether it is necessary to pay capacity payments. I apologise if this is somewhat technical. The Irish Government position is that a state should not assess resource adequacy including its neighbour's ability to share energy with it. We are taking an active role in stopping other countries' ambitions to start working together on a collaborative basis in energy integration. That is one example. We are also taking a similar aggressive attitude in stopping the setting of high renewable targets, or ambition in high climate targets. That is the reality of what we are negotiating this month in Brussels on key directives which are in the middle of a trilogue process.

Is that in tune with what the Taoiseach will say regarding our vision for European integration when he attends the Council? Are we just going to integrate in military matters or will we try to restore our reputation somewhat by being progressive in environmental legislation? What the Government is doing this week and in recent weeks is seen in Europe as not only showing a lack of ambition for ourselves but also restricting the ambitions for other countries which wish to act collectively. Will the Taoiseach investigate this issue and report back? Will he set an environmental goal in his vision for the future of Europe?

We have about five minutes for the Taoiseach to answer all those questions.

I will do my best. I could not write them down as quickly as they were asked so I expect I will miss many of them. I will do my best.

On the joint report which was agreed last week, many people will put their own interpretations on it - that is the nature of politics - and will do so for their own reasons. All I can offer is elucidation and the best thing to do is to point to what is there in black and white. According to paragraph 43, the United Kingdom "recalls its commitment to the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls". That is the definition. Paragraph 46 states the commitments "are made and must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union".

In respect of full regulatory alignment, that provision only applies in the backstop scenario if there is no option A or B or an agreement between the EU and the UK that provides for unfettered free trade and-----

How does nothing is agreed till everything is agreed fit into that?

-----that does not apply to all things; it applies to regulations that may give rise to a border. I refer to the all-island economy and North-South co-operation. It is not all things and we do not have regulatory alignment on all things with Northern Ireland at present. There is a specific paragraph on rights reaffirming the commitment to ensure there is no diminution of the safeguards, equality of opportunity and other protections that currently exist under European law in Northern Ireland.

The jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, ECJ, can apply only to countries that accept its jurisdiction. If the United Kingdom does not accept its jurisdiction then that cannot apply, although there will be an eight-year period as that changes. I am not sure if that is a breach of the Good Friday Agreement but I will look into that.

Brexit is a dynamic process. It is very hard to be definitive in any answer I give because it changes every day. I imagine it will change tomorrow and probably on Friday as well. That is the nature of what is happening and of these negotiations.

There is no date set or period agreed for the transition phase but people are talking in terms of a transition phase of two years. That is also a matter for negotiation. It is intended to focus in quarter 1 of 2018 on the withdrawal agreement and the transition phase rather than trade because it is accepted that both sides will have to prepare quite a lot for the talks on the new arrangements between the UK and the EU, which involve more than trade. They concern other matters such as security, defence, aviation, EURATOM, you name it. Our objective is to make sure that what was agreed last week in the joint report is fully reflected in the withdrawal agreement, which will be an international agreement and will be legally binding.

I wish to reassure Deputy Burton that she is wrong. The Government is not ambivalent about neutrality and the permanent structured co-operation arrangement, PESCO, is nothing to do with my impression of myself. The Deputy is much more concerned about me than I am but I will leave that for another day. We are talking part in PESCO because it is in Ireland's interest. That is the only reason for signing up to it. We are doing so on an opt-in opt-out basis because we see that it is in Ireland's interest to opt in on certain issues. An obvious one is cybersecurity, with which even large member states with lots of resources have difficulty dealing. The Government firmly believes that as a small country of 4.5 million people that is a digital country with many big digital and information technology, IT, operations we should be part of Europe-wide action on that. Another area is training. As our soldiers take part in international and EU missions in Africa and elsewhere, it makes sense that we train together and are able to work together in those missions. That makes our troops safer.

Denmark has decided for now not to take part in PESCO. It is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO. The other non-NATO members, namely, Sweden, Finland and Austria, however, have decided to take part. We are among four neutral countries that have signed up to PESCO.

In terms of skill sets, as we prepare for phase 2 that is dynamic. We have a lot of expertise in-house but it is acknowledged that we will need outside expertise as well. We will consider that over the next couple of weeks. We have beefed up our permanent representation in Brussels and, for example, the number of staff members from the Office of the Attorney General there has risen from one to five. This is in recognition of the fact that we are going to be the only full common law country – Malta and Cyprus are partial common law countries – left in the EU and we need to take account of that and other matters.

On the reform of the eurozone and the EU's agenda, I outlined my views on this in a speech I made at the launch of the public consultation on the future of Europe with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State at that Department, Deputy McEntee. I made that speech in the Science Gallery some weeks ago. It did not get much attention or notice but I did outline in some detail my views on the future of Europe and how we should reform the eurozone.

The Government's position on tax is, as it always has been, that tax is a matter of national sovereignty, that member states and their parliaments should set national taxes and that those national taxes should fund national budgets. It is also our view that big corporations should pay their taxes when and where they are owed and in full. Ireland is not a tax haven. It has no interest in being a tax haven nor does it want to be seen as a tax haven.

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