Check Against Delivery
I attended a series of meetings of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday 20th of June, and Friday 21st of June. On Thursday, we met with all 28 EU Heads of State or Government, to discuss a wide range of issues. We adopted the new EU Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024, and had a substantial exchange on climate action, as well as the Multiannual Financial Framework, the European Semester, and cybersecurity. We also had a constructive exchange about the high-level appointments to the EU institutions, which are to be made in the coming months.
Under external relations, we discussed a range of issues including developments in Russia and Eastern Ukraine; and Turkish activities in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone. We also discussed the downing of flight MH17; the Eastern Partnership; developments in Moldova; and relations with Morocco and more generally with Africa. We endorsed the conclusions on enlargement and the Stabilisation and Association Process, which the General Affairs Council had adopted earlier in the week.
On Friday, we met in Euro Summit formation, to discuss economic developments across the Eurozone and the strengthening of Economic and Monetary Union. We also had a brief discussion on Friday, in Article 50 format, about Brexit. Minister McEntee will focus on external relations and enlargement in her wrap-up remarks. I will outline our discussions on the other issues.
A Cheann Comhairle,
The European Council began on Thursday afternoon with the customary exchange of views with European Parliament President Tajani. President Iohannis then reported on Romania’s work as EU Presidency since the beginning of the year. This was the first time that Romania has fulfilled the role of EU Presidency since it joined the Union, and I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to the President and the Romanian Government for its efforts and achievements over the past six months. As I have said before, it is important for the EU to show leadership on climate action, so that we can credibly encourage others to follow suit. This is something that affects different Member States in different ways – we all face challenges – so our discussions on Thursday were long. They were largely focused on preparations for the UN Summit in September, which I look forward to attending. We all agreed to continue to work towards achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement and a carbon-neutral EU.
I believe that we should not view climate action purely as meeting targets, in order to avoid paying financial penalties. Climate action is good environmental, social and economic policy. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will lead to a more stable climate, cleaner air, warmer homes and a better quality of life. We should therefore look to seize the opportunities. And this is what our Climate Action Plan, published on the 17th of June, aims to do. It sets out an ambitious vision for this country including carbon neutrality by 2050, and a road map for how to achieve it. I am happy to report that on Thursday most Member States were able to commit to aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050. However we have more work to do at EU level over the coming months to prepare the ground for this transition.
We also invited the European Investment Bank to invest more and lend more to projects that will help us to achieve these ambitions. I had an opportunity to discuss this further with the President of the EIB, Werner Hoyer, during my visit to Luxembourg on Friday and Saturday, directly after the European Council. We had a useful exchange on the Multiannual Financial Framework – the 7-year budget for the EU - and agreed to continue our discussions at the next scheduled meeting of the European Council in October, with a view to reaching agreement by the end of the year.
Under the important item on disinformation and hybrid threats, following the European Parliament elections, we heard a report prepared by the Romanian Presidency, with contributions from the Commission and the High Representative. This set out lessons learned from EU activities to counter disinformation campaigns targeting elections. We agreed that sustained efforts are required to strengthen the resilience of our democracies to disinformation.
We also agreed to continue working together to protect the EU and its member states from hybrid and cyber threats. We discussed our objectives and priorities for the next five years and reached formal agreement on the EU Strategic Agenda for 2019 - 2024. I am pleased that the paper reflects Ireland’s priorities, as outlined in our National Statement, discussed in this House on the 18th of April. This, in turn, took into account the views expressed during our Citizens’ Dialogue led by Minister McEntee.
Our priorities are:
- the completion of the Single Market in all its aspects, with a free trade policy that champions opportunity and a level playing field;
- developing economic and financial policies that are socially responsible;
- working to prepare for the social and economic challenges of the digital transformation; ensuring that the EU plays a lead role in climate action and sustainability; and, finally,
- maintaining peace and security, including by developing stronger relationships with Africa and other partners.
The EU Strategic Agenda provides us with a strong framework to seize the opportunities and tackle the challenges that face us, and to deliver for our citizens in the years ahead. On Thursday evening, we had a long and constructive discussion on the high-level appointments to EU institutions that are to be made in the coming months. The President of the Commission; President of the Council; President of the European Parliament; President of the European Central Bank; and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy must all be replaced, in accordance with the Treaties. Different rules apply to the appointments to the various roles. The European Parliament will elect its own President, and we have already agreed that, given its specific mandate, the appointment of the President of the ECB should be handled separately.
A candidate for President of the Commission, however, must be proposed by a qualified majority in the European Council and then elected by an absolute majority in the European Parliament. There was no majority for any candidate on Thursday evening, and we agreed to meet again on 30 June to resume our discussions. We agreed that compromises will be needed in order to achieve the necessary gender, political, geographic and demographic balance. From Ireland’s perspective, it is also important that suitable and qualified people fill those posts, who have an understanding of Ireland’s issues and concerns, including in relation to Brexit.
It is essential that we come up with a compromise package that reflects the diversity of the EU and that can gain adequate support in the Council and the Parliament. The current President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, attended his last meeting of the Euro Summit on Friday and I took the opportunity to thank him for his excellent work over the past eight years. We agreed that Finance Ministers should continue their work on strengthening Economic and Monetary Union, including the Budgetary Instrument for Convergence and Competitiveness. The new Budgetary Instrument is a step towards a euro zone budget, and it should promote convergence and competitiveness within the euro zone.
I would also like to see more progress towards a European Deposit Insurance Scheme, but I acknowledge that some partners have reservations about this. We are working to ensure that the European economy continues to bring employment and prosperity to our citizens. Before the European Council ended on Friday, the EU27 leaders had a brief discussion on Brexit. We re-affirmed that, irrespective of who will be the next British Prime Minister, our position is unchanged.
The Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, is not for re-negotiation, and any unilateral commitments the UK Government gives must be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the Withdrawal agreement. We are of course prepared to amend the political declaration on the future relationship, if the UK position evolves. And we will, of course listen to any proposals or ideas the new Prime Minister has. The decision of the European Council in April to extend the Article 50 deadline until 31 October was taken to facilitate the cross-party talks in the UK, and for a further round of binding indicative votes. Regrettably, these failed, so a no-deal Brexit cannot be ruled out. We are therefore continuing our intensive preparations at domestic and at EU level for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
I had a very good bilateral meeting with Michel Barnier, before the European Council on Thursday morning, when we also discussed Brexit. We noted the very strong and consistent EU position, and agreed to stay in touch over the months ahead. In addition to participating in the formal discussions over the course of the two days, I also engaged informally with many of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meetings - using the opportunity, as I always do, to promote Irish interests.
I look forward to hearing statements from members of the House.