A Cheann Comhairle,
I am pleased to address the House ahead of tomorrow's meeting of the European Council in Brussels.
Before addressing the agenda of tomorrow's meeting, I would like to recall the informal meeting of the European Council which took place in Malta on 3 February. This dealt with the external aspects of migration, with a particular focus on the central Mediterranean route and the related situation in Libya. We adopted the Malta Declaration, which set out some concrete actions to be taken at EU level to improve conditions in countries of origin and transit in the first instance, and to stop people risking their lives in trying to cross the sea.
Following this, the 27 Member States met without Prime Minister May to exchange views on the future direction of Europe, and preparations for the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome on 25 March. I am pleased to report that there was broad agreement that the EU should focus on unity, the importance of our core values, and delivering for our citizens. Our planning on this will be further progressed at another meeting this Friday.
Brexit was not on the agenda at Malta, although it arose in discussions in the margins of the meetings. I took the opportunity, as I do at all meetings, to engage with my EU counterparts and to explain our particular concerns arising from Brexit. I also discussed these issues in detail in a separate bilateral meeting the following day with the Maltese Prime Minister, who currently holds the rotating EU Presidency. And since then, I have travelled twice to Brussels for a series of meetings with the Presidents of the European Council; the European Commission; and the European Parliament; as well as the Commission's Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier.
I also met with the Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, during one of those visits, and we had a very useful exchange of views on Brexit.
A Cheann Comhairle,
The European Council will start tomorrow with the first exchange of views with the new President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani. The Parliament will play a significant role in the Brexit negotiations, not least in considering and approving the final agreement; and it is important that it is fully involved in the process. I met with President Tajani in Brussels last week, and also separately with a number of key MEPs, to discuss these issues. There was an understanding of Ireland’s concerns, particularly around the border and the CTA: however we will need to continue to engage with the Parliament to ensure that our particular issues are addressed throughout the negotiations.
After the exchange with President Tajani, a decision will be taken, under the Maltese Presidency, regarding the election of the President of the European Council.
The Presidency will then deliver a presentation on follow-up to European Council decisions, which will lead into the item on migration. Coming so soon after the Malta Summit, I do not expect a lengthy exchange on migration: however, the High Representative will provide updates including on the current situation along the migratory routes; the EU Turkey Statement; and the Migration Compacts. Ireland continues to play an active role in the context of the EU response, and also at our own initiative. Over six hundred people have arrived from outside the EU since the start of 2016 on resettlement. In relation to relocation, from within the EU, over three hundred people have arrived; and we are expecting to receive up to one thousand one hundred by next September.
The next agenda item - Jobs, Growth and Competitiveness - incorporates a number of issues, including the Annual Growth Survey; National Reform Programmes; the economic policy of the Euro Area; growth; unemployment; the European Fund for Strategic Investment; Single Market strategies; trade policy, including agreements with Canada and Japan; Banking Union; and the Social Summit which will take place in Sweden later this year. President Draghi will join the meeting for these discussions. These are all extremely important issues but I would underline in particular the Single Market and free trade as having been fundamental to Ireland’s development over recent years. Deputies will recall that I led an initiative in December to push for greater ambition on the Digital Single Market, which will be crucial to our economic prosperity in the future. Free trade has also brought enormous benefits within the EU and externally, and we will continue to support this in the future.
I have asked the Minister to address some of the items under this important heading in greater detail in his wrap-up remarks.
The evening session will begin with an exchange on security and defence. The December European Council outlined proposals for further cooperation in this area; and Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers adopted conclusions last Monday on the implementation of security and defence aspects of the Global Strategy. These conclusions will form the basis of the High Representative’s input at tomorrow's meeting.
The EU Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, is designed to advance the role of the EU in crisis management and peacekeeping in support of international peace and security, within the EU neighbourhood and beyond. Ireland’s approach to CSDP is constructive and realistic. We are strong supporters of initiatives which improve the capacity of the EU to contribute to international peace and security, particularly in support of the UN and to delivering the necessary capabilities, civil and military in this regard.
The EU Global Strategy commits to promoting peace, democracy and the rule of law. It has a positive focus on disarmament, the UN, the Middle East Peace Process, and multilateralism. It also recognises the need to further invest in conflict resolution, tackling the root causes of instability, including socio-economic development, and supporting international peace and security through the EU comprehensive approach.
Tomorrow’s session is expected to provide direction for concrete measures to be assessed at the European Council in June. Discussions will cover a decision to establish a new Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) for training and capacity building missions, designed to deliver greater synergies and increased co-ordination with civilian missions as part of the EU comprehensive approach; modalities for the development of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO); the establishment of the initial parameters for an EU-wide Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD); and the development of civilian capabilities. Formal proposals from the High Representative in these areas are currently being discussed in Council fora.
Ireland acknowledges that the development of a Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC), appropriately configured and supported through an effective joint coordination cell, could potentially deliver more effective CSDP operations. The key objective here is to better plan and organise civil and military missions so as to maximise efficiencies, delivering a holistic and comprehensive approach in EU conflict management operations in accordance with UN mandates. Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, provides a mechanism whereby military crisis management capabilities could be developed by Member States in support of CSDP operations.
Ireland can support the development of an inclusive PESCO which delivers essential capabilities for CSDP operations in the area of international crisis management. Participation in PESCO is entirely voluntary, as provided in the Lisbon Treaty protocols and, in the case of Ireland, subject to the approval of Dáil Éireann in accordance with the provisions of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006.
The Coordinated Annual Review on Defence will focus on capability development and the potential to address shortfalls. Participation in the process is voluntary. Defence policy, including spending plans and investment, is a national competence.
We will continue to consider proposals and developments in these areas carefully to ensure that all decisions add value to EU international peace support efforts, and are grounded in the EU Treaties and related protocols.
The last item for the European Council will be External Relations and specifically the Western Balkans, where High Representative Mogherini has just visited. It is important to acknowledge the European perspective of the countries of the Western Balkans and the transformative effect of enlargement in this region. Foreign Ministers adopted conclusions on this last Monday which outlined EU support for reforms in these countries, as well as the challenges they face, not least by Russian efforts to increase its influence.
Ireland believes that the EU must remain firmly committed to realising the European perspective of the Western Balkans, and that the future of the region lies in its relationship with the EU.
Lastly, the European Council will adopt conclusions on the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. No discussion is anticipated on this item. I would note that, under Protocol 21, Ireland will not be participating in this arrangement.
A Cheann Comhairle,
On Friday, the Heads of State and Government of the 27 EU Member States will meet to discuss the future direction of the Union, and the Summit planned for late March to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
A declaration will be adopted in Rome which will outline the many achievements of the European project – which should never be taken for granted; the challenges we face; and the approach we should take to respond to these.
This work will build on our discussions in Bratislava last September and in Valletta last month, and will take account of the European Commission’s White Paper published last week, which outlines a number of possible scenarios for the EU by 2025. These range from taking no new action, to making major leaps forward in terms of cooperation. Ireland has been clear in this debate that our core European values are central to our future peace and prosperity; and that we need to remain united. Rather than getting side-tracked in debates where there is no chance of agreement, we should focus on where we can work together and add value. I have stressed the need to press ahead in these areas, especially in relation to jobs, growth and investment. As I said earlier, Ireland attaches particular priority to progressing work on the Single Market and the Digital Single Market, and we will continue to push for ambitious approaches in these areas.
Brexit will not feature on the agenda of these meetings until Prime Minister May has formally triggered Article 50. Once this has happened - expected to be later this month - the 27 Member States will meet again to discuss and agree guidelines for the negotiations ahead.
I look forward to reporting back to the House on the outcome of tomorrow's European Council. As I mentioned earlier, the Minister will focus in more detail on some of the economic issues in his wrap-up remarks.