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Statement by the Taoiseach following the European Council

Tá áthas orm labhairt os comhair an Dáil inniú faoi chruinniú Chomhairle an Aontais Eorpaigh a bhí ar siúl sa Bhruiséal Déardaoin agus Dé hAoine.

I attended the European Council in Brussels on Thursday 28 June, and Friday 29 June. On Thursday, we met in regular format to discuss migration, security and defence, the European economy and trade, and relations with Russia, as well some economic issues. On Friday morning, we met in Article 50 format to discuss the Brexit negotiations. And later on Friday, we met as the Euro Summit, to exchange views on economic and monetary union.
While Brexit is of course the priority for Ireland, migration is of concern to many partners and that was the main focus of the meeting.

In addition to the European Council itself, I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday 28 June, to discuss Brexit and the situation in Northern Ireland. I welcome that we finally agreed that the British Irish Inter Governmental Conference should be re-convened: this institution, established under the Good Friday Agreement, will now meet on 25 July.

I also met informally with other EU counterparts over the course of the two days, including the new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

European Council

The European Council began on Thursday with a short exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and an update from Prime Minister Borisov of Bulgaria. I would like to congratulate the Prime Minister and Bulgaria on the conclusion of its first and very successful EU Presidency: Bulgaria has now passed the baton to Austria, which will hold the Presidency for the next six months.

At the main meeting, we exchanged views on security and defence, reviewing progress on a number of fronts including PESCO - which provides a mechanism through which crisis management capabilities can be developed by Member States in support of Common Security and Defence Policy operations - as well as military mobility, and funding for capability development. Ireland is a founder member of PESCO and is participating in two projects.

We also heard a presentation from the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, who emphasised the importance of complimentarity between the EU and NATO and the need for strong European defence cooperation. Ireland is one of six EU Member States which are not members of NATO and this, along with our military neutrality, is a foreign policy strength. Of course, however, we are in favour of cooperation with NATO: such cooperation is set out in the EU Global Strategy.

Turning to jobs, growth and competitiveness, our discussions included the Country Specific Recommendations, trade and taxation.

I am pleased that our views on taxation were taken on board and that the European Council conclusions recognise the long-term importance of the OECD work on this, while also instructing Finance Ministers to work on the Commission proposals.

On trade, there was strong support for the Commission’s proportionate response to the unjustified US tariffs on steel and aluminium, and agreement on the need to maintain a rules-based multilateral approach. President Tusk confirmed that he will visit the US on 21 and 22 July. Like others, I believe it is important to keep advancing a positive trade agenda, and we restated our commitment to negotiating trade deals with third parties, like Mexico, Japan, Mercosur and Australia/New Zealand.

Under the heading of digital and innovation - a priority area for Ireland - we gave direction to EU efforts to encourage and reward disruptive innovation and help to boost Europe’s success in commercialising its world class research.

Our discussions on Thursday evening included an exchange on Russia and Ukraine. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron updated us on the Normandy Format meetings and, in light of Russia’s failure to implement the Minsk Accords, we agreed to extend the EU sanctions for another six months.

I am very pleased that we also endorsed the conclusions on enlargement and the stabilisation and association process, which had been agreed at the General Affairs Council on Tuesday, 26 June; as well as the agreement on the post-Brexit redistribution of European Parliament seats. Ireland will gain two additional seats.

Most of our time that evening however was taken up with illegal migration. This has been a divisive issue and our discussions were difficult and lengthy.

In my view, this reflects a political crisis more than a migration crisis. The numbers of people travelling to Europe illegally are well down compared to 2015, which proves that the actions which the EU has already taken are working. However many Europeans clearly fear a return to those previous levels of immigration and the political reality is that some populist and anti-immigration politicians have been elected because of that.

In our discussions, we reached agreement on several new steps –

  • · including the need to increase funding for the Africa Trust Fund and the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, 
  • · to establish dedicated funding for migration through the EU budget, 
  • · to explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms, and 
  • · the voluntary establishment of control centres within EU Member States.

This reinforces the importance of what I have described as our three-pronged approach:

  • · securing our external borders; 
  • · strengthening cooperation with countries of transit and origin; and 
  • · dealing with management of migrants within the EU - where a balance of solidarity and responsibility is needed.

From Ireland’s perspective, I stressed the need to develop a close partnership with Africa. We have to build up institutions, improve security and provide economic opportunity in Africa so that people can enjoy better prospects in their home countries. Because of that, Ireland agreed this week to increase our commitment to the EU Trust Fund for Africa to15 million euro.

This is the third highest contribution per capita.

We should never forget why people risk their lives, the savings of their entire families to make the journey to Europe. It’s because they come from countries that lack freedom, security and economic opportunity. This is the real cause and until we fix it, this issue will not be resolved.

The concept of regional disembarkation platforms is at a very early stage and we will take careful note of how it develops.

As I said at the meeting, any such platforms would have to be managed in close cooperation with the UNHCR, the IOM and relevant third countries, and with full respect for international law and human rights standards.

As Deputies are aware, Ireland is less directly affected by migration than many other Member States: however, in a spirit of solidarity, we have played a constructive role by opting into the 2015 EU relocation and resettlement measures, and sending our navy to help with humanitarian efforts in the Mediterranean, and significantly increasing our financial contributions.
Last week, at the request of the partners, we agreed to take in some migrants from aboard the MV Lifeline. And as I mentioned, we have now also offered to further substantially increase our contribution to the EU Africa Trust Fund.

I intend that we will continue to play an active and constructive role in relation to migration.

A Cheann Comhairle,

Our meeting of the Euro Summit on Friday took place in an inclusive format - that is with all 27 Member States - along with Eurogroup President Mario Centeno and ECB President Mario Draghi.
We agreed that the European Stability Mechanism should provide the common backstop to the Single Resolution Fund; and that preparations should begin for negotiations on a European Deposit Insurance Scheme, thus guaranteeing bank deposits across the EU rather than each individual member state doing it for themselves. Finance Ministers will bring this work forward, and will also examine other proposals, before we review progress at the Euro Summit in December.

From Ireland’s perspective, we support the completion of Banking Union as soon as possible, with both risk reduction and risk sharing.

Article 50 – Brexit

On Friday over breakfast, the European Council met in Article 50 format - without Prime Minister May - to discuss Brexit.

The Prime Minister had outlined her thoughts to us the previous evening, at the regular European Council, stressing her commitment to deal with the Irish-specific issues, and also to publish a White Paper in July on Britain’s vision for a new long term relationship with the EU.

At the Article 50 Meeting, we heard an assessment from Michel Barnier on progress in the negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement.

He said that serious divergences remain on the Irish issues, including the backstop. We all agreed that the lack of progress has been very disappointing and that intensified negotiations are now needed urgently.

The UK gave commitments and guarantees in December and again in March, and we need to see detailed, workable proposals from them to deliver on these commitments.

The EU27 agreed that, if we don’t get agreement on a backstop or on the other outstanding elements, it won’t be possible to finalise the Withdrawal Agreement as a whole, including the transition period.

I am grateful to our EU partners for their ongoing support and solidarity on this issue. Ireland’s concerns are at the very heart of the negotiations. The collective view of the EU side is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

I have always said that I hope the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be as close and comprehensive as possible, and that it will remove any need for a hard border.

But it will not, in any way, remove the need for a legally robust backstop to apply unless and until better arrangements enter into force, ensuring that there will never be a hard border on this island, whatever circumstances prevail.

I reiterated these points to Prime Minister May at our bilateral meeting, and expressed my view that there is not much time left if we are to conclude a Withdrawal Agreement and have it ratified by the time the UK leaves.

I also told her that I look forward to the publication of her government’s White Paper, and that I hoped this could be a basis for negotiations on the future relationship.

The Article 50 General Affairs Council will meet on 20 July and this will provide an opportunity for the EU27 to discuss the UK White Paper which should be published by then.

While I am hopeful that we will achieve a very close, comprehensive and ambitious future relationship with the UK, the government is of course continuing to plan for the full range of scenarios. Our work is well advanced and we will be in a position to take the necessary decisions if and when required.

Along with other EU leaders on Friday, we agreed that we should all step up our work on this.

I want to assure Deputies that the Government will continue to defend and promote Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations, and across the EU agenda.

Minister for European Affairs, Helen McEntee, will speak about some of the other issues that were discussed at the European Council.

Thank you.