Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Ceisteanna (1, 2)

Brendan Howlin


1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the special meeting of the European Council from 30 June to 2 July 2019. [29287/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin


2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the agreed candidates to hold the key EU posts following the European Council meeting held from 30 June to 2 July 2019; and if he has met or spoken to them since then. [29753/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels from Sunday, 30 June, until Tuesday, 2 July. President Tusk convened this extraordinary meeting of the European Council to secure agreement on high-level EU appointments. Our objective, which I believe was achieved, was to propose candidates who reflect the diversity of the EU, including its gender, geographical and political balance; and to ensure that suitable and qualified people are in these posts.

We agreed that the current Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, should be our next President of the European Council. Euro area leaders agreed also to appoint Charles Michel as President of the Euro Summit. He will take office on 1 December and remain in post until 31 May 2022.

We also decided to propose Ursula von der Leyen as candidate for President of the European Commission. I am glad that she was subsequently elected to this position by the European Parliament on 15 July. We agreed that Spanish Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell Fontelles, would be our High Representative for Foreign Policy, subject to the agreement of the President-elect of the Commission; and that Christine Lagarde, until recently the head of the IMF, was the best candidate to be the next President of the European Central Bank. In July, the European Parliament elected David-Maria Sassoli of Italy as its new President.

I met the new Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, on the margins of the European Council. I took the opportunity to congratulate her on her election and I noted the excellent bilateral relations between Ireland and Denmark, including our strong co-operation as EU member states. I updated her on the state of play with regard to Brexit and the Prime Minister confirmed Denmark's ongoing solidarity. I spoke with President Anastasiades of Cyprus by phone on several occasions to update him on the discussions at the European Council and to seek his views, as he was unable to attend the meeting.

I spoke with Prime Minister Michel following the meeting and congratulated him on his election as the next President of the European Council. On 12 July, I spoke with Ursula von der Leyen to congratulate her on her nomination as candidate for President of the European Commission. I said that I looked forward to the opportunity to work together in the future and spoke to her about the composition of the new Commission and our strategic agenda with regard to the future of the European Union and Brexit.

I am speaking on behalf of Deputy Howlin. I thank the Taoiseach. The future of the European Union depends in many ways on the quality of the incoming Commission. For all our sakes, we hope its members do well. Do the Taoiseach and his party, as members of the EPP, accept Dr. von der Leyen's decision to label the Commissioner in charge of migration issues as the vice-president for protecting our European way of life? We are all used to dog-whistle politics whereby words are used to set a certain tone. This has a history in different European countries. Dr. von der Leyen has nominated a Hungarian politician, Mr. Trócsányi, who has been specifically asked to carry out a number of obligations with regard to "Neighbourhood and Enlargement". In Hungary, this man, while minister for justice in Viktor Orbán's Fidesz Government, led attacks against civil society, the independence of the judiciary, and the media. He also made giving assistance to refugees a crime under what has been called the stop George Soros law.

It is important for us in Ireland to be aware of these developments. It is understandable that we are deeply concerned about Brexit at the moment but this use of language and these placements of portfolios are extremely strange. It unfortunately harks back to the language used in the 1930s, and we all know how that ended. As a member of the EPP, does the Taoiseach feel that the language used to describe the portfolios and the appointment of the Hungarian vice-president who has a history of attacking the judiciary are appropriate? Was there an opportunity to discuss this at the meeting of the Council?

Yesterday we discussed a number of questions relating to Oughterard. In fairness, the Taoiseach has made his own view clear on that matter. We discussed how part of the problem in Oughterard was caused by a lack of consultation with local people by the Department of Justice and Equality. I believe we made some progress in that discussion. What is the Taoiseach's understanding of Dr. von der Leyen's choice of title, vice-president for protecting our European way of life? In most of Europe it is seen as inherently anti-refugee and anti-migration.

When defending the controversial Mercosur trade deal, Phil Hogan admitted that Ireland's beef market had been passed up to gain concessions in other areas. The produce of Irish farmers is to be, quite literally, the sacrificial lamb in the much-maligned trade agreement, championed by the former Fine Gael Minister. Astonishingly, Commissioner Hogan told us that the Mercosur deal would protect food and environmental standards. Not even the Government believes that. In a shocking display of naivete, the Commissioner seems to believe that, having identified the problem of deforestation in Brazil, the EU can set out an agenda under the Mercosur deal to "put them right".

Before and after he was elected, President Bolsonaro could not have been clearer about his views on climate change and Brazil's indigenous people. His comments about women are utterly shocking. His intention has always been to deregulate and open up the Amazon for agribusiness, logging and mining. In August, he fired the head of a Brazilian Government agency that had revealed the significant increase in deforestation in the Amazon. The dismissal of Professor Ricardo Magnus Osório Galvão, a well-respected physicist, came after the Brazilian President claimed that Government officials and workers were damaging the country's image abroad by informing the public of the rate at which the rain forest was being destroyed by him.

With all due respect, the Deputy is wandering a little bit from the subject matter of the questions. We are discussing the Taoiseach's attendance at a special meeting of the European Council. I do not know where President Bolsonaro comes into it.

It has to do with Commissioner Hogan and his new role.

He has not joined the European Commission yet.

I will conclude on this. What confidence can we have in Commissioner Hogan in his new role and in this Government to deliver on climate action commitments if they do not set their faces against this deal?

Our focus is entirely on Brexit at the moment, but other major issues will arise in this Commission's lifetime, particularly the discussions around the future of Europe and the future shape of the EU. What input is the Taoiseach making to those discussions and what time are we putting into them, particularly in terms of defending the interests of smaller nations?

Another issue that needs to be discussed at European Council level is the climate change agenda. It will be the major challenge facing the incoming Commission, as approved at the meetings in question. A Commission that comes into office on the back of these meetings cannot profess to be a climate change-friendly Commission while endorsing the Mercosur deal as currently framed. In light of the Brazilian rainforest fires, the Taoiseach has signalled his potential opposition to the deal. Will he clarify his remarks on that?

Due to the passage of time, people have forgotten the political games that were played around the appointment of President-elect von der Leyen. The candidate that the Taoiseach proposed and in whose campaign he was involved during the European elections was Mr. Frans Timmermans. Will the Taoiseach recall for the House the circumstances in which Mr. Timmermans was effectively dropped in favour of the President-elect?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. Regarding President-elect von der Leyen, she was nominated unanimously by the European Council, albeit with one abstention by her own country of Germany. She has now secured the majority support of the European Parliament, and only did so with very strong support from the EPP, to which my party is affiliated, the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, to which the Labour Party is affiliated, and Renew Europe, to which Fianna Fáil is affiliated. I particularly want to thank the social democrats and the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil and Renew Europe for helping to ensure that President-elect von der Leyen will, indeed, be President von der Leyen.

When it comes to individual Commissioners and their portfolios, that is actually not a matter for the European Council of prime ministers and presidents. It is a decision that the President-elect will make herself. However, each individual Commissioner will be subject to parliamentary ratification in the European Parliament, and I have no doubt that many MEPs will want to scrutinise their appointments as individuals but also their portfolios, what exactly their roles will be and what the various titles mean.

Regarding Mercosur, political agreement has been reached between the EU and the Mercosur countries after about 20 years of negotiations. However, it is only a political agreement and it will be at least two years before there is a legal text in front of us. Once there is a legal text, we are going to have to consider it very carefully to see how ratification will proceed. The Government has committed to carrying out an independent, comprehensive economic assessment and, indeed, an environmental assessment to assess the overall implications for Ireland. As I have indicated before, I would not support a free trade agreement that is not in the interests of the Irish economy and Irish jobs as a whole. We have both defensive and offensive interests, as is the case in all trade negotiations. We know that the beef sector could be very exposed. The agreement provides for an additional 99,000 tonnes of tariff-rate quota phased in over five years, which is clearly more than we would have wanted, but it is important to say that this is having no impact on beef prices at the moment, as it does not kick in for many years, if it ever does. Currently, 270,000 tonnes are already imported into the EU from Mercosur countries, so it would mean a 7.5% tariff on just over one third of that.

In terms of our offensive interests, Ireland currently exports roughly €2 billion in goods and services to the Mercosur region, a region with 260 million people now. We believe that trade could double over the next decade, with particular sectors benefitting like the dairy sector, the drinks industry, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, industrial goods and Irish small and medium-sized enterprises. We believe that it is absolutely crucial that we have safeguards in place for labour standards and environmental standards, and it is intended to write into the agreement specifically that Mercosur countries must honour and not depart from the Paris accord. As President Macron and I have indicated, it is our view that Mercosur is off should they do so. We will of course work to protect the interests of Irish beef farmers so that they can compete on a level playing field when it comes to product standards, traceability, the environment and climate action.

Deputy Calleary was absolutely correct in saying that there was a lot more happening on the European stage than Brexit - issues such as climate action and issues such as trade - but it is a reality that Brexit takes up so much Government time that we do not have the time to focus on those issues as much as we would like. We do give them adequate time, though.