A Cheann Comhairle,
I welcome this opportunity to address the House in advance of the European Council which begins tomorrow in Brussels.
The agenda includes a discussion of the current migration situation; the European Union’s trade policy and a number of trade agreements; a range of global and economic issues; and, finally, external relations, specifically Russia and Syria. I have asked Minister McHugh to address this point of foreign policy in his closing remarks.
Before I turn to the agenda in more detail, I would like to briefly touch upon the Informal Summit of 27 EU Heads of State and Government, which took place in Bratislava last month. I have already answered questions from Deputies in this House about the Summit, but it is worthwhile recalling that its objective was to hold a broad debate on the renewal and the future of Europe, following the UK vote to leave the EU.
We assessed the key challenges and key priorities for the Union. Our discussions covered migration; internal security; external security and defence; and economic and social development, including youth. I acknowledged the strong concerns that our partners have in relation to migration and security, and assured them that Ireland will continue to contribute to the response to the migration crisis.
I also said that we would engage in the further development of the Common Security and Defence Policy in support of international peace and security, as provided for in the EU Treaties.
I highlighted of course the priority that Ireland – and many other EU partners - attach to economic issues, in particular the Single Market, Digital Single Market, jobs, investment and trade, and said that we need a balanced approach to the debate about the future of Europe.
There was no discussion of the UK’s decision to leave the EU; other than a report from President Tusk of his meeting with Prime Minister May; and a reaffirmation of the agreed principles that there can be no negotiations before the UK triggers Article 50, and that access to the Single Market requires acceptance of all four freedoms.
In my discussions with other leaders, however, I reminded them again of Ireland’s specific concerns arising from Brexit, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland, the peace process, North-South relations, citizenship issues, the Common Travel Area, the border, and bilateral trade. I also had the opportunity to elaborate upon these points to the head of the European Commission’s negotiating team, Michel Barnier, when I met him in Dublin last week.
It was agreed at Bratislava that the process of reflection on the future of Europe should continue at the October and December European Councils. Another meeting of the 27 will take place in Malta in early 2017 before the process concludes in March to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. A Declaration was issued, along with a short work programme or ‘roadmap’ as set out by President Tusk, President Junker and the Slovak Presidency.
The October European Council will hear a short update from Prime Minister Fico on that roadmap.
A Cheann Comhairle
Turning to the agenda of tomorrow’s European Council, Heads of State and Government will begin by once again looking at Europe’s work in responding to the migrant and refugee situation which, quite rightly, remains an issue of the highest priority. The Commission is expected to give an update on progress on a range of EU measures, including on relocation and resettlement, and the European Coast and Border Guard which has now been established.
Many of the EU measures are having a positive impact. The number of people attempting to cross the Aegean Sea has reduced substantially since the EU-Turkey Statement was agreed in March and this is to be welcomed. However, the route from Libya to Italy remains extremely dangerous and far too many people are still risking their lives in travelling.
Overall the European Council will look at protecting external borders, tackling migratory flows along the Central Mediterranean route, and maintaining control of the Eastern Mediterranean route. Within these headings, there will also be a consideration of the EU-Turkey Statement, and the Partnership Frameworks or ‘Migration Compacts’ with third countries. The Migration Compacts aim at ensuring coherence between EU migration policy, and its external and development policies.
Overall, we welcome their development and their focus on working even more closely with countries of origin and transit, as well as countries hosting large numbers of displaced people, and we support the intention to build on existing policies in this area. The first countries the compacts are being developed with are in Africa, and we support the intention to make swift progress on the External Investment Plan in order to boost investments and job creation in the partner countries there.
Although Ireland is, in a sense, at one remove from the full force of the crisis, both because of our geographical location and our non-participation in certain Justice and Home Affairs measures under Protocol 21 of the Treaties, we continue to contribute to the EU response.
The Government decided, voluntarily, to opt-in to EU measures and to take up to 4,000 persons in need of international protection. This commitment is being implemented. There has been good progress on the resettlement of refugees from outside the Union: to date (as of 11 October) 500 have arrived in Ireland, mostly from Lebanon, and we are on course to meet our target of 520 by the end of this year.
On relocation - taking migrants that have already arrived in Greece and Italy - progress has been slow, as it has for all partners, for a variety of reasons outside of our control. Progress is at last beginning to be made and 69 people have now come to Ireland from Greece (as of 11 October). There are arrangements in place for more people to start coming here and it is expected that, by the end of 2016, Ireland will have accepted up to 400 people through the relocation pledge.
In terms of humanitarian assistance, Ireland has provided over €42 million in response to the Syria crisis since 2011, and has pledged a further €20 million in 2016.
Over the course of 2015 and 2016, Irish Naval vessels have rescued almost 13,500 migrants in the Mediterranean. L.É. James Joyce returned to Ireland on 30th September 2016 and has been replaced by L.É. Samuel Beckett which commenced operations on 2nd October 2016. I want to commend the exemplary service which the members of our defence forces are providing, and express the thanks and admiration of this House and the Irish people for their efforts.
A Cheann Comhairle.
The European Council will also have a comprehensive debate on trade policy. The central topics for this debate will be the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement known as CETA; the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership known as TTIP; other trade negotiations; and the EU’s trade defence instruments, which are crucially important in the face of global challenges, such as steel overcapacity.
Ireland’s economy is one of the most open in the world and there can be little doubt that we have been beneficiaries of free trade. For this reason we are strong supporters of the EU’s international trade agenda. I am aware that there are some in the Oireachtas who do not share this view. However, the government is keen to ensure progress in international trade negotiations, so that Ireland may benefit further.
The CETA agreement is of immediate importance. Irish exports to Canada are currently worth about €1.87 billion annually and could increase substantially with the new trade deal.
CETA will create opportunities for Irish companies through the opening up of public procurement markets in the Canadian provinces, providing unlimited tariff free access for most of our important food exports, and allowing the recognition of product standards and certification, thus saving on ‘double testing’ which is of particular importance to SME’s. Ireland also successfully campaigned for a low beef import quota from Canada to the EU, thereby safeguarding our important EU market in this area.
Ireland was among a group of Member States that successfully sought the designation of CETA as a mixed agreement. This means that national parliaments, including this House, will be involved in the ratification process. We also fully support the provisional application of CETA at the earliest opportunity. When it is signed, there will be an accompanying interpretative declaration clarifying that CETA will not affect public services, labour rights or environmental protection.
It is hoped that the agreement will be signed at the EU-Canada Summit on 27 October; and the European Parliament is then expected to give its approval in December.
The prospects for finalising the TTIP agreement with the U.S. are less positive. However, Ireland is still aiming for the European Council to send a solid signal of support. We continue to call for as much progress as possible in the negotiations so as to keep momentum towards an ambitious, comprehensive and mutually beneficial agreement.
There are prospects for other trade deals, in particular between the EU and Japan, which together account for more than a third of the world’s GDP. Free Trade negotiations were launched in 2013 and there is now an ambition, certainly on the part of the Commission, to finalise them before the end of the year.
We support the EU objective of early agreement provided that the substance is right and the level of ambition sufficiently high. Ireland exports substantial levels of goods and services to Japan. In 2014 exports of goods totalled €1.8bn and exports of services totalled €2.7bn, so there is huge potential for further gains if the right deal is struck.
There will also be a discussion of the EU’s trade defence instruments which have come up for consideration due a variety of global trade factors, such as pressure in the steel sector. We recognise that unfair trade practices need to be tackled efficiently and robustly and we have been engaging pragmatically on this item.
Other Global and Economic Issues
A Cheann Comhairle,
There are of course a great many other issues which need to be prioritised at European level. While not everything falls for a decision by Heads of State and Government at this time, there will be a brief discussion on a range of global and economic issues which will include:
· Ratification and entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change,
· Energy Union and the 2030 climate and energy framework,
· The Single Market,
· The Digital Single Market,
· The Capital Markets Union,
· Reform of the EU telecoms and copyright rules,
· The Commission’s new proposal for expanding its European Fund for Strategic Investments, and
· Fighting youth unemployment.
Ireland has a number of priority interests across all these areas. I have spoken many times in this House on the priority we attach to completing the Single Market and on the advantages for all of us in properly establishing the Digital Single Market. Similarly, we have a keen interest in fighting youth unemployment and seeing the expansion of investment instruments towards this goal and towards economic growth. We also attach great importance to confronting the challenges of climate change and energy and we are taking steps towards our own ratification of the Paris Agreement. A wide ranging discussion can be expected here but as I said, no specific decisions are expected to be taken.
I should note that, in addition to the agenda items I have outlined, Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to update the European Council on developments regarding Brexit from the UK perspective. EU leaders will be interested to hear what she has to say, following her recent remarks at the Conservative Party Conference. The Prime Minister is likely to confirm the intention to trigger Article 50 by the end of next March, and to indicate that the decision to leave the EU is irreversible but that, in the meantime, the UK will continue to work constructively within the Union. A substantive exchange is not expected at this meeting. However I will of course continue to use my bilateral contacts with fellow Heads of State and Government to remind them of the nature and scale of our particular concerns in relation to Northern Ireland, the peace process and citizenship issues, the Common Travel Area and border issues, and the inter-connectedness of our economies.
A Cheann Comhairle,
The October European Council will therefore address a number of issues of great importance. I will leave the external relations item to be addressed by Minister McHugh in his closing statement.
I will of course make a statement to the House next week following the European Council. I look forward now to hearing statements by Deputies.