Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Ceisteanna (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussion at the informal EU Council meeting on building a greener, fairer and more inclusive future; and if he contributed to same. [20555/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if digital taxation was discussed at the informal EU Council meeting. [20557/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussions at the informal EU Council meeting in May 2019 on developing the EU economic base, in particular regarding fair and effective taxation, protecting the Single Market, deepening economic and monetary union and ensuring connectivity in addition to developing artificial intelligence; and if he contributed to these discussions. [20559/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he attended bilaterals when he attended the informal EU Council meeting on 9 May 2019; and if so, the issues that were discussed. [20560/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

12. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the informal European Council meeting in Sibiu, Romania; and the decisions taken on the future of Europe. [21513/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

13. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent informal meeting of the European Council. [21571/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

14. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the informal European Council meeting in Sibiu, Romania on 9 May 2019. [21852/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (22 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 14, inclusive, together.

I attended an informal meeting of EU Heads of State and Government in Sibiu, or Hermannstadt, in Romania on 9 May. I will answer questions on yesterday's meeting separately. President Tusk convened the meeting on 9 May, with a view to an initial informal discussion of our strategic priorities for the years ahead. Our first session focussed on the EU's place in the world, while our second session was focused on internal challenges. Obviously the two are closely linked. Our discussions were based on four broad themes. These were protecting citizens and freedoms, developing our economic base, jobs and living standards, building a greener, fairer and more inclusive future, and promoting Europe's interests and values in the world. We adopted the Sibiu declaration, setting out ten basic commitments to guide us in our discussions on our new strategic agenda for the period from 2019 to 2024. The European Council is expected to discuss further and adopt this agenda at our meeting in June. My remarks at the summit were based on our national statement on the European Union, which was published on 17 April and discussed in the Dáil the following day.

This outlines our priorities, which include achieving a prosperous and competitive Union that is equipped for the future, including the completion of the Single Market in all its aspects; preparing for the social and economic challenges of the digital transformation; sustainability and leadership in climate action, including through a well designed and adequately funded Common Agricultural Policy, CAP; maintaining peace and security; and achieving a more effective partnership with Africa. I stressed that working to ensure a close, comprehensive and ambitious future partnership with the UK must be a priority for the Union. While I had no formal bilateral meetings in Sibiu, I engaged with most of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meeting, using the opportunity, as I always do, to promote Ireland's interests and to explain our case. I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands the previous day, 8 May, where we discussed current EU issues and the excellent bilateral relations that exist between Ireland and the Netherlands.

Nobody really knows what will happen in London in the coming months. It seems reasonable to assume that the risk of failing to agree a full withdrawal treaty with the new Tory leader is very high. I think the Taoiseach will agree that anybody who has dealt with Boris Johnson knows that his understanding of and engagement with Irish matters is superficial at best. None of the other candidates appears to understand what is required to protect the progress seen on this island in recent decades. Obviously, it is right that we have to be ready for a no-deal scenario in October. The issue is whether we will be ready this time. Previous to 31 March, the original Brexit date, the Government constantly said it was stepping up and intensifying no-deal preparations. However, when 31 March arrived it was clear we were nowhere near ready. We had new custom booths in our ports but we did not have the staff to man them and 50% of companies who trade with the United Kingdom had not completed even the most basic registration in order to be able to continue that trade.

This week, it has emerged that the Department of Finance is only now finishing work on the fiscal implications of a no-deal Brexit. The Taoiseach will remember that in March he said that the fiscal impact of a no-deal Brexit was not large enough to require it being announced then. In contrast, yesterday, The Irish Times was briefed by Government that a serious adjustment may be required and that this will be outlined in the delayed economic statement next week. No one has been briefed on this matter, even where the Government has an obligation to provide such briefings. Has the Taoiseach received any report on why Ireland was not Brexit ready on 31 March? What extra steps does he propose to take to ensure that we are ready on 31 October?

It is interesting to note that in the recent elections to the European Parliament there was no surge to the far right, as expected, and that support for liberals and greens increased. It is good that a new diverse centre is taking shape in the European Union.

On the European Council meeting in Sibiu, obviously a number of issues were discussed, including, as mentioned by the Taoiseach, the future of Europe and the rule of law supervision. As regards climate change, I raise with the Taoiseach an issue I raised with him recently. On the initiative by nine member states to make climate change central to the EU five-year strategic agenda, which will be agreed in June, I understand that Ireland did not sign the letter from the nine member states. In this regard, the Taoiseach is quoted as saying that the targets were too onerous. The targets are to be met by 2030, as proposed in the letter from the nine European Union member states. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment will bring forward his plan shortly, following on from the all-party report of the Joint Committee on Climate Action. Will the Taoiseach clarify the remarks he made outside of the meeting in Sibiu to the effect that the targets were too onerous and for that reason Ireland could not be part of the initiative? Will he also update the House on the meeting which took place last night in regard to the appointment of the President of the European Commission, including whether it will be decided upon by the European Parliament or the European Council? Obviously, the European Parliament will have a veto but there is a lot of wheeling and dealing taking place. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's take on the discussions on that issue last night.

I welcome that the discussions with Mr. Tusk and the informal EU Council meeting centred on making Europe greener, fairer and more inclusive for people in future. This is linked with the points made by Deputy Boyd Barrett earlier in regard to the failure of Europe to grasp the fact that neoliberal policies have had a real impact on the lives of people across the European Union and have led to the rise of the far right. Thankfully, that has not happened to the extent that people across the European Union thought it would in the most recent European elections. However, it remains a real danger and a matter we should be concerned about. We need to ensure that green issues are considered and that greater social supports are put in place, but we also need to be mindful of public services and public transport and the role the European Union plays in that regard. This is very much linked to whether this State is Brexit ready. The Taoiseach is right that we need to avoid a hard crash at all costs - I am hopeful that we can to do so - but if, through no fault of our own, we end up in a hard crash, we are in for a very bumpy ride economically. There will be economic turbulence and businesses will need to be supported. We will have to protect our economy and that can only happen through investment in public services, infrastructure and public transport.

There is no point in pretending that we can become more environmentally friendly and reduce our carbon footprint if we do not invest in public transport. In rural Ireland, public transport has been cut. Bus routes have been cut. There are other examples of where we are going backwards rather than doing what is right. The Taoiseach said the discussion was about building a greener, fairer and more inclusive future. What substance will come out of that discussion in terms of environmental issues and making Europe fairer? If we do not make Europe fair and we do not value and invest in public services and so on that impact on people's lives and the environment, these words will be hollow and what we will see, in my view, is a continued rise of the far right.

In the cut and thrust of politics we can have debates but for the Taoiseach to say that the far right is in any way allied to the far left is completely wrong. There is a fascist undertone to the far right that is about racism and divide and conquer. Whatever the Taoiseach's views of the far left in this Chamber and outside of it, they are completely different. I do not include myself in the category of people at whom the Taoiseach was directing his earlier comments. It is disingenuous and wrong of the Taoiseach to make comments like that. It plays into the hands of those people who want to exploit other people's fears on issues like immigration.

I thank Deputy Cullinane for his remarks on the Taoiseach's comments, which were dangerous and dishonest. On climate, is the Taoiseach, in talking the talk on climate change with his European counterparts while at the same time sabotaging efforts to do what is the central demand of the climate movement, namely, to keep fossil fuels in the ground, not guilty of gross climate hypocrisy? Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the central demand of Greta Thunberg, the school students who protested and will protest again, Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth, the Green Party and Sinn Féin. The majority of Members of this House support a Bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground and have democratically voted for that legislation on two occasions. Despite the clear desire to keep fossil fuels in the ground and for emergency measures on climate action, in the last 24 hours there has been another attempt to sabotage a Bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground, with licences having been issued to two of the largest multinational fossil fuel corporations in the world to drill for more fossil fuels. This is shocking hypocrisy. The Minister's justification for this is that it will not make any difference to our targets, as if the destruction of the global climate has frontiers which stop at our borders.

The point about climate destruction and climate change is that neither knows any borders. Does the Taoiseach accept what the intergovernmental panel and all the scientists have stated, namely, that to prevent reaching a 2°C increase in temperatures globally, 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground and that looking for new fossil fuel reserves and facilitating such activity flies directly in the face of what the global climate movement is seeking?

I had the opportunity to meet Boris Johnson once. We both spoke to the crowd in Trafalgar Square on St. Patrick's Day in 2012 or 2013. He seemed to have a good understanding of St. Patrick's Day but we did not have a chance to engage much on Irish affairs. That was the only time I met him but the Tánaiste has met him on a number of occasions. As I have stated on many occasions, Brexit has not affected budget 2019 and nor will it. There was no need for a mini-budget in the past year, notwithstanding the risks and uncertainty that have arisen as a result Brexit. What we will be doing in the context of the summer economic statement - we will be happy to arrange a briefing for Opposition parties on this - is recognising that there are two potential scenarios. The budget will be introduced in October. We do not know where matters will stand at that point. We could be facing a hard Brexit within weeks, a further extension, no Brexit at all or a deal. We think it is prudent to set out two different scenarios in the summer economic statement in respect of growth, employment, revenue and the deficit. The budgetary decisions will have to be framed by that. If we are going to have less growth, fewer jobs and lower revenues-----

The Taoiseach did not say that a month ago.

-----we will not be able to have the same budget as we would otherwise. I am of the view that this is the right thing to do. It is transparent.

The Taoiseach pretended otherwise for the past couple of months.

The Deputy is not being fair. What I stated previously was that the 2019 budget would stand. He asked me on many occasions whether this would be the case. A mini-budget was not introduced and nor was there a need for one. What we are doing for next year is slightly different because we recognise that a different scenario will apply.

I did not suggest that the far right and far left are the same. I stated that, on some issues, they represent two sides of the same coin. I gave an example of that, which is opposition to the European Union, European integration and support for Brexit. I acknowledge that there is a big problem here and, in the context of racism, that there is a real dark element on the far. There is also an issue with anti-Semitism on the far left and, in my view, that is also a form of racism.

It is not. Plenty of examples can be offered.

It is nonsense; it is outrageous.

I am not saying that Deputy Boyd Barrett is anti-Semitic.

There are plenty of examples of people on the far left who are anti-Semitic.

Is Orbán staying in?

Is Orbán anti-Semitic?

Is the Taoiseach going to bring him back in?

As I explained earlier, the climate change letter was signed by nine out of 28 countries. It calls for carbon neutrality by 2050 and we support that. However, it also calls for much more onerous targets for greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 which we do not believe are achievable. We believe that we can achieve what we have committed to do by 2030 but we do not want to commit to targets which are more onerous, to which most other countries do not want to commit and which we do not think are achievable. This Government believes in and is taking climate action. We want serious climate action that works but also sensible climate action. It should be climate action that reduces greenhouse gas emissions but not climate action that makes us poorer, costs jobs or threatens our security. There are two examples of sensible climate action taken by this Government in the past week. Irish Rail began commissioning 600 new hybrid-battery locomotives-----

That should have happened years ago.

-----that it can use on our train lines as part of electrification and extending the DART to Drogheda, Maynooth and Hazelhatch. That is sensible climate action being taken by Irish Rail, a Government-owned company. Yesterday, I signed a joint letter with President Macron, the purpose of which is to seek EU funding for a Celtic interconnector in order that we can link the electricity grids of Ireland and France, so when the wind is blowing in Ireland and not France, we can send our electricity there and vice versa. Those are two examples of sensible climate action taken by this Government just this week that will make a difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

On oil and gas exploration, the Government is adopting a sensible climate action approach. Approximately 30% of our electricity is produced using renewables. We believe that we can get to 70% by the end of the next decade. However, that still means that we will need to use gas. Gas powers many of our homes and businesses. We will still need gas to power some of our electricity plants for the foreseeable future, well into the third decade of the century, possibly even the fourth. It is a transition fuel which is much cleaner than other fuels and which we will need to use for foreseeable future, certainly the next couple of decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledges that it is a transition fuel, as do most climate scientists. If we know and accept that we have to use natural gas for the foreseeable future, certainly until 2045 or 2050 when we reach carbon neutrality, the question is whether we use our own natural gas or import it from Russia, Saudi Arabia or Qatar or whether we import shale gas from North America. If we have to use it for the foreseeable future, it makes more sense to use our own gas. It makes sense in the context of cost, energy security and, because of the reduced risk as a result of transporting less gas, environmentally. That is the approach that the Government is taking. We can agree to a moratorium on exploration but it must kick in at a time that makes sense, not immediately.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 1.55 p.m. and resumed at 2.55 p.m.