Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Ceisteanna (4, 5, 6)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement at the University of Leuven in Belgium on 26 April 2018. [18947/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Leuven, Belgium. [20060/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to the University of Leuven. [20128/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (11 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.

I delivered an address on the future of Europe at the Catholic University of Leuven as part of its Wilfried Martens series of lectures. This is an annual event, with previous speakers including Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, and former German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble.

The event was live-streamed and the text of my speech is available online. My speech covered the many achievements of the European Union, the benefits for Ireland of EU membership and my thoughts about the future direction of the Union, including the importance of completing the Single Market and digital Single Market and working together to deliver concrete benefits for our citizens.

I also spoke about developments in the negotiations on Brexit. In my address, I emphasised the need for an ambitious and positive approach to our discussions about the future of Europe, and the importance of maintaining our core EU values and principles, such as respect for human dignity, personal and economic freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights. I noted that many of the challenges we face - climate change, cyber security, illegal migration, international trade and the regulation of major corporations - cannot be resolved by 28 states coming up with 20 different solutions, and that we need to work together to respond to these challenges effectively. I also emphasised the importance of our relations with the rest of the world, including Africa and the western Balkans, and noted my intention to participate in the western Balkans summit in Sofia next week.

I stressed the importance of communicating and engaging with our citizens on key issues relating to the future of Europe. From Ireland's perspective, I outlined our citizens' dialogue, which I launched last November and is being led by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and explained that the intention of this has been to facilitate an open and wide-ranging debate with our citizens, which will help to inform our approach into the future.

On Brexit, I noted the particular issues arising for Ireland and the need to preserve the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including power sharing in Northern Ireland and North-South co-operation. I noted the commitment to translate into the legal text of the withdrawal agreement the principles and commitments agreed between the EU and the UK last December, including in respect of the Border, and stressed the need to make real and solid progress on this before the June European Council.

After the speech, I attended a reception in the university where I had the opportunity to meet a range of academics and students, including Irish students studying there.

I noted a section of the Taoiseach's speech at Leuven. He said:

The Europe of the future must do four things:

1. Continue to do well what it currently does well.

2. Focus on the big new challenges facing Europe and its citizens.

3. Consider its competencies - not everything has to be done at European level; where appropriate, some things should be left to member states, regions and municipalities.

4. Engage citizens more.

Whereas we have a very different analysis of many aspects of the European Union, I believe approaching EU reform and the debate on that reform and change on those four grounds is a sound approach.

As currently framed, however, the debate does not focus on many of the main issues of contention for citizens. In this time of political flux following Brexit and the other issues of concern with the outlooks of certain states, there is a danger that a very simplistic narrative might be peddled by some that a federal Europe can ameliorate the ills of the European Union. The first flaw in this argument is that so many recent studies show a consistent majority of citizens in Europe who support not the transfer of further powers to Brussels but, rather, the contrary. For our part, Sinn Féin wants to see an EU that is guided by democratic principles and based on the premise that it is by states working together as equals on matters of mutual interest that we can best serve all citizens of the EU. As witnessed by our extensive efforts on Brexit, we believe that Ireland's place is at the heart of Europe. However, this does not mean we will ignore failures of the European institutions as they relate to Ireland. What is required going forward, in line with the sentiment of the Taoiseach's third point, which I read out, is for powers to be left with member states, but not only that: we should interrogate whether some powers might be transferred back to member states. The European Union needs to begin listening to citizens in a genuine way and to uphold their interests. We need to move away from a very bureaucratic, centralised model which benefits the few towards a social Europe which reflects the interests of ordinary workers and families. This is the only way we will address the imbalance of power and the democratic deficit at the heart of the European project.

In the spirit of the four principles he enunciated, what does the Taoiseach have to say, for example, on the issue of protecting Ireland's position of military neutrality and an independent, progressive foreign policy? What does he have to say, or what is his starting point, on advancing a debate in respect of social solidarity and equality? What is his big idea - or the big idea of the Government - in a Brexit scenario and then a post-Brexit scenario, of bridging that very deep democratic deficit that some might argue - and convincingly - was a major trigger and contributing factor to the success of the Tory Brexit campaign?

It is always fascinating to read the Taoiseach's or anyone else's views. Having had the chance to look at his speech in Leuven on the future of Europe, I believe there are many questions one could ask. In general terms - we have had references to this previously during Taoiseach's questions - all of us need the opportunity to talk about the future of Europe. There is an ongoing debate on the future of Europe. The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, is involved in dialogue throughout the country regarding the matter but we do not have any real discussion on it in this House. The number of significant issues the Taoiseach has tabled merit detailed responses and interactions that would be very useful, including to our own people. Quite often, we have internal debate on matters of very fundamental importance to people and then end up with a treaty that the people know nothing about. We ask them to come up to speed in a matter of weeks on issues that may have been discussed over many months and, in some cases, years. We need that debate.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach specifically about one aspect of his speech on which I would be interested in hearing his views. He said:

I support calls for the establishment of a common asylum policy and system, to replace the current one which is clearly not working. A small number of countries are shouldering the responsibility of providing refugees with a fresh start in Europe.

All of us can and must do more.

Ireland, along with the UK, opted out of the reception conditions directive, as the Taoiseach knows, and we are semi-detached members of the common European asylum system in many ways. We are signed up to the Dublin regulations and Eurodac, but out, as I said, of the reception conditions directive. What role does the Taoiseach see Ireland playing in the new common European asylum system to which he referred?

The Leuven speech was interesting in that its advance billing to the media as setting out some sort of vision about the future of the European Union was classic hype. It was a standard recitation of broad generalities and it is disappointing that the Taoiseach did not go into specifics about the major structural discussions currently under way within the Union. For example, it is disappointing that he failed to endorse President Macron's very specific call for an expanded European Union budget, which has the resources it needs to tackle the issues in respect of which countries are seeking leadership. A budget of roughly 1% of overall income will remain economically marginal and the importance to reduce important schemes to allow new activity will continue to rise. The Common Agricultural Policy is under threat because of both the British exit and the pressures on other areas, which will increase. One of the most effective ways of ensuring the retention of the Common Agricultural Policy funds at current levels is to support an increase in the overall EU contribution. Given the current concerns about future growth and incomplete euro area reform, countries should speak up for more comprehensive measures.

Tomorrow is Europe Day. It was the policy of the previous Government that this would be an opportunity for a substantive debate on Europe every year. I think it is scheduled for 8 p.m. tomorrow.

That might be described as the graveyard shift. It is hardly an opportunity for substantive debate.

Ten-minute speeches.

There needs to be proper engagement on these structural reforms, which are serious and deep and which, we have argued for quite some time, are necessary for the future of Europe and in order that Ireland have a clear position on some of these issues. I know we have been asked to pass our ideas on to the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, but some structure should be established within the Oireachtas between the parties and the leaders of parties to perhaps toss these ideas around and discuss them in more depth. More substantive briefings on major EU matters for pro-EU parties might be warranted, as was the case before. Does the Taoiseach have a position on the multi-annual financial framework proposals issued last week? Is Ireland in favour of expanding the European budget or is it part of the opposition led by the Dutch and Austrian Governments?

I have not had an opportunity to take a look at it in detail yet but I understand that there is a survey out today which indicates that support for the European Union among Irish citizens remains very high. Something of the order of 90% of people support Irish membership of the European Union and see its benefits for citizens. That is very encouraging. One of the silver linings to Brexit has been that more and more Europeans across member states seeing the reality of what leaving the European Union entails perhaps have a better understanding of the benefits of European Union membership, which is to be welcomed.

I never like to think about these issues in terms of a simple transfer of powers from national capitals to Brussels. That is a very binary analysis. Talk about national powers and Brussels is the kind of Eurosceptic language one tends to hear from anti-European British Conservatives and so on. I do not really think this describes the world in which we live any more. The truth is that there are many problems and challenges that are beyond any nation state to manage, whether mass migration, climate change or security threats such as cyberattacks. It is not as if member states could manage these problems effectively on their own. The only sensible option is for us to do things on a multilateral level, whether through the European Union or, in some cases, through the United Nations. I never like to see things as a transfer from the nation state to the Union; I see it rather as a question of how we can best solve and manage these problems. That is how one decides where the competence should lie. I put the idea in the speech, which is largely my own work - not all speeches are, but many are - and I very much like the idea of competencies being repatriated from member states back to regions and municipalities. I often remark that one sees in the United States that cities and counties can sometimes do things that member states of the European Union cannot do.

That is because there is a lot of local democracy in the United States. However, when I try to think of examples of things I would like to see removed from European law and transferred to local authorities or national Government, it is difficult to come up with them. It makes sense that there are things that are now done at European level that do not need to be and that could be done at a national or administrative level, but if I was asked to name three or five of them, for instance, I would struggle to do so. Sometimes things such as labelling are suggested, but the whole point of the Single Market is to have consistency across that market. They are difficult to think of but if Deputies have suggestions for European competencies that could be transferred to member states, I would be interested to hear them.

On Ireland's position on military neutrality, Ireland is a neutral country. We will not join NATO or sign up to a mutual defence pact. The Government fully supports the triple lock so that any military operation in which Ireland takes part will require Government approval, approval of the Dáil and a UN mandate, notwithstanding the restraint that puts on us with China, Russia or perhaps the United States vetoing certain things. However, there are new global security threats including terrorism, mass migration, cyber crime, human trafficking and modern slavery. They cannot be dealt with by member states alone. There must be co-operation, which is one of the reasons we signed up to PESCO. Ireland is a founding member of PESCO, which will allow us to co-operate more on security where we choose to do so. I do not think that Ireland will ever be a military power. We will never buy aircraft carriers or invest taxpayers' money in expensive missile systems. We have very little to offer by way of military prowess and can offer more to European security through other things we do such as peacekeeping, the participation of our Naval Service in the Mediterranean rescuing migrants and co-operation in other areas, such as cyber attacks. That is where we see ourselves, rather than in trying to do what France and Germany do and becoming a military power or replicating them in some way, even if it is 2% or 5% of what they do. We want to do something different and contribute to European security through other mechanisms, some of which I have mentioned.

I am a very strong supporter of a common foreign policy for the European Union. We can be much stronger in the world if the EU acts together. Sometimes it is not possible for us to agree on a common policy. In those circumstances, each country's policy is independent and remains so. It is better if we can agree. We have spent much time discussing this at European Council meetings. We should not forget that in the world in which we live, Europe is increasingly a union of small states. Germany, which is the biggest country in the EU, has a population of about 80 million. I do not think that it is even in the top 20 most populated countries globally and if it is, it is so only barely. It is far behind the populations of countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Vietnam, countries one would not think of which have populations bigger than any country in Europe. Europe's position, whether in population or the size of its economy relative to the rest of the world, is falling. Some suggest that by 2050 Europe might make up less than 10% of the world's population or economy. We should bear in mind that it is a very different world from when these institutions were established in the 1950s and 1960s when the European population and its economies were much greater relative to the rest of the world.

On social solidarity and social Europe, my speech in Leuven referred to the Gothenburg proclamation which the Government was involved in drawing up. I attended Gothenburg with the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, and the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, to sign up to that proclamation. That is about putting fire back into the engine of the idea of a social Europe. Europe has never just been about economics, but also about raising social standards, employment standards, and having a common labour market. Due to the crisis of the past ten years, the fire has gone out of the engine of social Europe. The opportunity exists, now that European economies are strong again, to put fire back into the engine of social Europe, which is something the Government wants to do. The Gothenburg proclamation gives us a good agenda. There are issues we can pursue as Europeans, from auto enrolment to ending the pension apartheid that exists between public and private sector workers to things such as family leave. I wanted to speak about that in Leuven because the social market economy is very much a Christian democratic concept. Wilfried Martens was one of the great Christian democrats of his time. The social market economy has often been a part of the centre-right's agenda and it is very different from socialism, which is about state control of the economy and society. The social market economy, which is a Christian democrat concept, accepts that the market is the best way to produce wealth but that the Government's role must be to contain and manage the market economy so that it delivers social goods -----

We will move to question No. 7.

What about migration? We just got a lecture.