Check against delivery
I will attend a meeting of the European Council this Thursday and Friday, 17 and 18 October.
Following my meeting with Prime Minister Johnson last week I am convinced that all parties want an agreement that is in the interests of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union as a whole.
We have a pathway to a possible deal but there are issues still to be fully resolved. First is the issue of consent and democracy, ensuring that any long-term arrangement that applies to Northern Ireland has the democratic assent of the people of Northern Ireland and second is the whole issue of customs, ensuring that there is no customs border between North and South and no tariffs on trade.
This is about securing an agreement that works for the people of Ireland and also the people of Britain and Europe. If it is to work for the people of Ireland, it means avoiding a hard border between North and South. That’s always been the Government’s primary objective, ensuring that the all-island economy can continue to develop and that North-South co-operation as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement can resume, to protect the Single Market, its integrity and our place in it. Those are our objectives, and this has always been about achieving those objectives, and I am confident they can be achieved.
Since my meeting with Prime Minister Johnson last week work has been ongoing between the Commission Task Force and British officials. Michel Barnier provided an update to EU27 Ministers at the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg yesterday.
I do not think it would be helpful today to say too much about the precise state of play of the discussions or the exact timeframe in which an agreement may be possible.
I said last week that I thought that there was a pathway to a possible agreement. That is still my view. However, the question is whether the negotiators will be able to bridge the remaining gaps in advance of tomorrow’s Council. What’s important now is that all focus is kept on achieving a deal that delivers for everyone.
While I continue to work towards a positive outcome on Brexit, the European Council will also have several other issues of considerable importance to discuss.
The President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, will set out her priorities for her term in office.
The incoming Commission, based on nominations received from Member States, strikes a welcome balance in terms of gender, geography and size.
As we know, Ireland’s nominee, Phil Hogan, was offered the position of Trade Commissioner, one of the most significant and influential portfolios in the years ahead, and I know he will make a major contribution.
The European Parliament has held hearings with the proposed new Commissioners. In some cases, these have resulted in the need for revised nominations. This procedure will continue until the Commission as a whole has received the approval of the Parliament and can take up office. Until then the current Commission, under its President, Jean-Claude Juncker, will stay in place.
At our July meeting we agreed that Christine Lagarde should be the next President of the European Central Bank and this week we will adopt a decision appointing her to that role.
Our discussions on Thursday will begin with an exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli. This is the European Council’s first opportunity to meet with him collectively, and we will discuss his priorities and how we will advance the Union’s shared work.
We will then have formal working sessions and a working dinner during which we will discuss several issues including:
- implementation of the Strategic Agenda for the next five years;
- the Multi-Annual Financial Framework, the Union’s budget for the period from 2021-2027;
- Climate Change, following the recent UN Summit;
- enlargement, including the possible opening of accession negotiations in Albania and North Macedonia;
- illegal Turkish drilling activity in Cypriot waters; and
- foreign policy matters, including recent developments in Syria and Turkey.
We will also, of course, meet in Article 50 format to discuss developments in the Brexit negotiations.
In June the European Council welcomed work on the MFF done under the Romanian Presidency, and called on the Finnish President to advance this work so we can discuss it this week with the aim to have an agreement before the end of the year.
The Union needs a budget that enables successful policies, such as CAP, to continue and equips us well to deal with new shared challenges, such as migration, climate change, and the technological transformation underway.
However, with a global economic slowdown likely, and with considerable uncertainty continuing to surround Brexit, it is also important that it should be realistic and fit for purpose.
I do not expect that we will take any decisions this week, but it will be an opportunity to begin to identify a ‘landing zone’ in which agreement might be found.
For my part, I will again strongly make the case for CAP and for the reversal of the cuts proposed in the Commission’s initial draft.
I will also defend the Budget for other long-standing and well-functioning programmes like Horizon, INTERREG and Eramus Plus.
In June, the European Council adopted a Strategic Agenda for the next five years. In our discussions this week we will consider its implementation.
Our four priorities are:
- protecting citizens and freedom;
- developing a strong and vibrant economic base;
- building a climate neutral, green, fair and inclusive future; and
- promoting European interests and values on the global stage.
This week the Prime Minister of Finland Antti Rinne will provide an update on how this agenda has developed.
Our discussions on Climate Change follow the UN Climate Action Summit, which I attended in New York in September.
At the UN Summit we saw that support for concerted and determined climate action is strengthening, driven not least by the voices of young people, who made their presence felt in New York.
We now need to build on that momentum.
Ireland wants a climate neutral EU by 2050. This is good environmental, social and economic policy, and it should encourage other countries to scale up their short and long-term ambition under the Paris Agreement.
I expect to see ambitious climate plans from the incoming Commission.
At our June meeting we discussed Turkey’s illegal drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean. We called on Turkey to cease such activities and to respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus and we will return to the matter this week.
Ireland believes that the recent Turkish statements and actions on Varosha run contrary to the aim of finding a comprehensive and viable settlement in Cyprus. Ireland stands in full solidarity with Cyprus. Together with our EU partners, we will continue to monitor developments closely and respond appropriately.
Minister McEntee in her remarks will comment on enlargement and on some of the other international issues expected to arise this week.
For my part, I look forward to engaging with my EU colleagues, collectively and bilaterally. Until the last minute we will continue to search for a positive outcome on Brexit - for Ireland, for the EU and for the UK.
I will, of course, report back to the House.