Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Ceisteanna (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of times Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, has met to date in 2018; when it plans to meet next; and the persons attending. [21022/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of times Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, has met since June 2017. [19992/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number of times Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, has met since June 2017. [20956/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if Cabinet committee C, European Union including Brexit, is meeting before the summer economic statement. [21059/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met. [21061/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

15. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the number of meetings held in 2018 by Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit. [21116/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 15, inclusive, together.

The Government approved the establishment of Cabinet committee C on 5 July 2017. This Cabinet committee covers issues relating to the European Union and assists the Government in its ongoing consideration of Brexit. It also supports my participation as a member of the European Council.

Cabinet committee C first met on 11 September 2017 and again on 13 February this year. The next meeting is expected to take place before the June European Council. In addition to me in my role as Taoiseach, the membership of Cabinet committee C includes the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, with special responsibility for Brexit; the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform; the Minister for Justice and Equality; the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation; the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment; the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine; the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport; the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection; the Minister for Education and Skills; the Minister for Health; the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs; the Minister of State with responsibility for trade, employment, business, the EU digital single market and data protection; the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, and the Attorney General.

Given their significance, matters relating to Brexit and other EU issues are more frequently discussed in full Cabinet format, as they were this morning, particularly with regard to the multi-annual financial framework. I meet regularly with relevant Ministers to focus on particular issues, including those relating to the European Union and Brexit. Preparation for Brexit at official level, both in regard to the negotiations and in preparing for the potential consequences of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, is intensive, with a range of interdepartmental and senior official groups meeting very regularly.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Yesterday, Michel Barnier told Ministers that little progress has been made on the issue of Ireland since the March announcement. Time is getting very tight. We understand the British Cabinet is today meeting in the two structured committees, one looking at the so-called customs partnership and the other the so-called maximum facilitation. Neither is likely to address the fundamental issues of concern on the Border of Ireland. Michel Barnier said the proposals are not realistic, although I saw the Minister, Deputy Coveney, said yesterday that customs partnership has some merit. There is real pessimism now. Will the Taoiseach give us an up-to-date view on whether he believes either of the two proposals being looked at by the British Cabinet will meet the requirements of Ireland?

It is fair to say that over the past week there has been a mounting lack of clarity on Brexit talks and what we are looking for. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, in very different unscripted ways, have now said the customs partnership model proposed by the United Kingdom may provide the basis for a deal. This is 100% contradictory to previous briefings and public statements. Will the Taoiseach clarify what he means by this? As things stand, the European Union negotiators have said any customs partnership is a non-runner for technical and policy reasons and that it does not address the impact of the United Kingdom being outside the Single Market. Instead of giving us his commentary on the internal issues and the mess within the British Government, will the Taoiseach tell us what he sees in the customs partnership that provides a basis for reaching a final agreement?

Over the past two weeks, in here and outside, I have asked the Taoiseach repeatedly if he will explain whether his statement that letting key decisions run until October is of no great concern is still his policy. How does he reconcile this with more recent statements, which suggest he sees talks stalling if major progress is not agreed in June? Of course, this raises the ultimate question, which I have asked before. Will the Taoiseach explain to us what minimum progress there has to be in June for talks to proceed? Can we define what we mean by minimum progress? The east-west relationship is extremely important economically, and we need far more flesh on the bone and far greater clarity about our objectives than we have had to date.

As we know, we are just six weeks away from the June meeting of the European Council and we are none the wiser on the British approach to the Irish issue in terms of Brexit. We learned from an article that the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, penned in the British edition of The Sunday Times at the weekend that she does not have a plan. Indeed, that article could have been penned in any week over the past two years because it seems nothing has changed in her regard. Wish lists are not a negotiating position. We have heard from Michel Barnier that there has been little progress on this issue since the last update in March. This is hugely concerning. While the British Tories may play games with this issue and may have internal politics at play, this is people's lives and people's rights. It is defending the Good Friday Agreement. We need clarity and solutions. In the middle of all this, we have the DUP with its playground rhetoric and Sammy Wilson adding to it with his bizarre comments at the weekend. This shows again that it continues to put the interests of all the people of the North at risk, not only nationalists but unionists. I am concerned about, and I seek some clarity on, the succour that has been given on the customs partnership scenario, which has already been dismissed by the European negotiators.

I also want to raise the Common Agricultural Policy and the multi-annual framework that is in draft form at this time. The proposal is to cut the CAP by 5%, or €3 billion, annually, which would have a devastating impact on Irish farmers and agriculture. At the same time as the cut to the CAP we see an increase of approximately of €20 billion in the area of defence. As a cut to the CAP is taking place, which supports 130,000 farmers in Ireland and supports 100,000 people working across the agrifood sector in Ireland, what Europe is proposing is an increase in defence spending. Have the Taoiseach or the Minister, Deputy Creed, raised this issue with their European counterparts? What is the position of the Irish Government on proposals that would see farmers and the CAP budget sacrificed at the table of increased spending on defence?

Does the Taoiseach agree that the recent comments by Mr. Barnier have been very sobering, to say the least, as the witching hour, in terms of June and October, comes ever closer? I want to ask the Taoiseach specifically about the so-called max fac, which is about maximum facilitation-----

It sounds cosmetic.

It sounds like the favourite brand of cosmetics some time ago. The point is that the language in the debate is becoming increasingly obscure, particularly for people not involved in politics and not involved in economics. At the same time, all along both sides of the Border, people, particularly small traders, are really concerned about what will happen. In this context there was a reference to a favoured trader or a favoured business type status. Has any progress of any kind been made or a discussion had on this? Have the Revenue Commissioners here continued to draw up plans on potential Border facilities? Does the Taoiseach believe in the possibility of max fac or is it, to be honest, more magical thinking? When did the Taoiseach last discuss these issues with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May? Clearly, she is having a pretty torrid time at present in terms of the two factions in her Cabinet, namely, those in favour of a soft Brexit and a very large number of Eurosceptics who seem to be strongly in favour of just walking out and seeing what happens next. That would be very difficult for the whole of the island of Ireland.

A brief question each from Deputies Boyd Barrett and Haughey.

What scale of atrocity does Israel have to commit to trigger EU sanctions against it? I ask this in all seriousness. Israel has favoured trade status from the European Union with the EU-Israel Association Agreement. Effectively, we treat it as an associate member of the European Union, yet it massacred 58 people yesterday. It killed another 45 or 46 over the past six weeks. Six weeks ago, before the protests even began, I said to the Taoiseach that Israel is deploying snipers and will shoot unarmed protesters. The Taoiseach said he hoped that would not happen. It happened, and it has happened every week, and I have raised it with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste every single week, but nothing happens. There are no sanctions and no action, just words of regret and concern. At what point do we actually do something?

Israel is acting in flagrant violation of international law, with human rights abuses and the collective punishment of Gaza through the siege. You name the law and it has broken it but still we say, "No problem. We regret it. We will have a chat with them and convey our concerns." There is, however, no action, no sanctions, nothing. It is pathetic.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that he is attending the EU-western Balkans summit in Sofia later this week? What are his aims and objectives in attending the conference? What is on the agenda? What is the Taoiseach's attitude to enlargement? Presumably, Ireland is supportive of the applicant countries where negotiations have commenced. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's thinking on these issues in advance of him attending the conference.

I will attend the informal Council at the EU-western Balkan summit in Sofia in the next two days. I will have two objectives. First, I will take the opportunity to engage with other Heads of State and Government on EU issues, from Brexit to initial conversations on the next EU budget. I will also be expressing the Government's support for further enlargement into the western Balkans. We are strongly of the view that enlargement into central and eastern Europe is the right thing to do. It has helped to establish democracy across the Continent and bring relative prosperity to the countries of central and eastern Europe. We believe the countries of the western Balkans should be part of that European path. The countries in question do have to live up to standards and the Copenhagen criteria still apply. Provided the countries in the western Balkans - Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania - can meet these standards, we believe they should be able to join the European Union. We are very supportive in that regard. This is the position I have articulated in the past and I will certainly do so again in Sofia in the next two days in welcoming these countries into the European family in the way Ireland was welcomed in the past and Croatia has been welcomed most recently.

I am sure the European Union's response to Israel will be discussed. It will be a topic for the working dinner tomorrow night. The way the common security policy works in the European Union is by consensus or unanimity, not by qualified majority vote, QMV, or a simple majority vote. The European Union can only act when there is consensus. A number of member states are very close to Israel, much closer than Ireland. Unless we move more towards QMV on foreign policy matters, to which I imagine Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett would be opposed, it is difficult for the European Union to act in that regard. Member states acted together in reaffirming their views that the embassy of the United States of America should remain in Tel Aviv and not move to Jerusalem. We were able to reach consensus on that issue some months ago, but on other matters I believe it will be very difficult to do so in reality. That is just the way it works in the absence of deeper integration on foreign and security policy.

Little progress has been made in the Brexit negotiations in recent weeks. For some weeks we have been awaiting more detailed proposals from the United Kingdom on a customs union or an alternative wording of a backstop plan, about which it has also spoken. In the absence of proposals from it on a customs union or an alternative wording of backstop plan, it is difficult to make progress. We stand by the backstop plan and the text of the Northern Ireland protocol as it is. We must insist on it being included in the withdrawal agreement unless there is a better alternative. That is the position of the task force and the EU27. October is and always has been the deadline for the withdrawal agreement and ratification thereafter by the European Parliament and the UK Parliament. In June we want to see real and meaningful progress. If we do not see it in June, we will have to ask serious questions about whether a withdrawal agreement will be possible in October at all. At this stage, I cannot say what progress looks like. It is too far away and there are too many moving parts. It may, however, become more apparent as we move into June. The customs partnership proposed by the United Kingdom last June would not be workable. That is very much the view of the task force and the EU27 and it has been rejected. I believe the customs partnership is closer to being made workable than the maximum facilitation proposal or max-fac which, as Deputy Joan Burton pointed out, I had thought was some form of make-up or deodorant. I have certainly not seen to date any detail that indicates that such a solution would be as functional as make-up or a deodorant. We are not drawing up any plan for a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, full stop. There is not going to be one. I have made it very clear to my counterpart in the United Kingdom and the other EU Prime Ministers that under no circumstances will there be a border.