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Statement of the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, following the October 2019 European Council

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Ceann Comhairle,

I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday 17th October, and Friday 18th October.

We began on Thursday by meeting the new President of the Parliament, David Sassoli, we heard about his priorities for his term.

We then discussed Brexit, first with Prime Minister Johnson, and then in Article 50 format, that is to say as 27 Member States. 

Over dinner, we discussed EU enlargement, illegal drilling by Turkey in Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the recent unilateral military actions taken by Turkey in Syria.

We continued on Friday morning with discussions on the implementation of the EU’s Strategic Agenda, the Multiannual Financial Framework, which is the EU’s long-term budget and climate change.

We also adopted a decision to formally appoint Christine Lagarde as President of the European Central Bank.

Finally, we adopted Conclusions reiterating our full support for the efforts to establish truth, justice and accountability for the victims of the downing of MH17 and their next of kin.  We called on all States to cooperate fully with the ongoing investigation.

Immediately before the meeting of the European Council, I attended a meeting of the Nordic-Baltic Group, where I briefed my counterparts on the new Brexit agreement, agreed that day.

In her wrap-up remarks, Minister McEntee will focus on enlargement, following a lengthy discussion at the European Council.  She will also report on foreign policy issues, including Turkey’s unilateral military action in North East Syria, which the European Council has condemned for the unacceptable human suffering it is causing.

Ceann Comhairle,

On Thursday, 17 October, agreement was reached between EU and UK negotiators on the terms of a proposed revised Withdrawal Agreement. 

The European Council, when it met later that day, heard from Prime Minister Johnson.  He spoke in favour of the agreement and expressed his determination to win approval for it in the British Parliament.  We then considered the proposed agreement in a meeting in Article 50 formation.

The revised Withdrawal Agreement fulfils the Government’s and the EU’s negotiating objectives.  It protects the rights of EU citizens in the UK, UK citizens in the EU.   It includes a fair financial settlement.

Importantly, it ensures that there will be no hard border on this island.  The all island economy will continue to develop and north-south cooperation as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement can continue.

The Agreement secures the integrity of the Single Market and our place in it.  The Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland will stay in place, alongside all the reciprocal rights and entitlements.

For these reasons, I was able to recommend endorsement of the revised Withdrawal Agreement to my European Council colleagues, and the Council did so, unanimously.

The Agreement now needs to be ratified by the UK Parliament and by the European Parliament allowing it to enter into force. 

The European Council also approved the Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.   Ireland wants the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK, especially on trade, in order to minimise the impact on our trade and economy. At the same time, it is vital to our economic interests that the EU's Single Market is fully protected.    The actual agreement on a future relationship between the EU and UK will only be finalised and concluded once the UK has become a third country, that is after it leaves the EU. 

Ceann Comhairle,

Michel Barnier deserves our thanks for his achievement in getting the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration over the line – indeed doing it a second time - as does the Task Force for their exceptional work over the past few years.   I also thank President Juncker and the Commission, President Tusk and the Council, and the 26 EU leaders for their unwavering solidarity with Ireland over this period, and for understanding our particular concerns and needs.

As I said in Brussels last week, the last few years have demonstrated that the European Union is a union of nations and of peoples, in which small states, like Ireland – rather than being swallowed up - are respected and protected.

This agreement is also evidence of the strength of European Unity, of how much we can achieve when the 27 Member States think, work and act together in pursuit of common objectives.

Ceann Comhairle,

Our meeting also looked to the future. 

The President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen attended throughout the meeting, and on Friday morning she presented her priorities for the incoming European Commission.   We had a positive exchange on a wide range of issues of strategic focus for the EU and Member States.  These included data, the digital economy, trade, climate change and the EU’s geo-political visibility and voice.  I look forward to working closely with President-elect von der Leyen and her team in the coming years. 

We exchanged views on the Multiannual Financial Framework, beginning with a presentation by the Finnish Presidency.

Among the issues discussed were the overall level of the budget and the breakdown across the main policy headings, as well as financing, including revenues and incentives.

The meeting was a good opportunity to discuss with other leaders our shared priorities for the years ahead and to begin to identify where a ‘landing zone’ might lie.

As I have said many times, it is essential that the Union has a budget that continues to provide for existing successful policies like CAP and cohesion and structural funds.  It should also help us to focus on new priorities, including security, migration and climate change.  In no way are these mutually incompatible goals, but they are competing priorities.

Ireland is open to an increased EU budget, provided it delivers extra value to European citizens and once our core interests are secured.

I argued strongly for maintaining CAP funding as a highly successful policy - one that contributes to rural development and regional development, ensures Europe has food security and high standards in production, and transfers money from wealthier parts of the EU to poorer parts.  Many colleagues share my vision for a modernised greener CAP that can help us achieve our climate and sustainability objectives.

I will continue to advocate strongly for the CAP and for other long-standing and well-functioning programmes like Horizon, INTERREG and Erasmus Plus.

We agreed to ask the Presidency to submit a proposal with figures ahead of the European Council in December.

We discussed the UN Climate Action Summit and the planning for the next UN Climate Conference, which will take place in Santiago de Chile in December.   We need to build on the momentum of the UN Summit and to finalise a long-term plan that will help us achieve our 2030 target, and also our 2050 target of climate neutrality.    We will return to this issue at the December European Council.

This was the last scheduled meeting for President Tusk, President Juncker and High Representative Mogherini, so I took the opportunity to thank them for their work over the past 5 years.  I especially thanked them for the remarkable solidarity which Ireland has enjoyed from the European institutions throughout the Brexit negotiations.

I also welcomed Prime Minister Mitsotakis of Greece, President Nausėda of Lithuania and, of course, UK Prime Minister Johnson to their first European Council meeting.

It was a significant meeting for Ireland as we - as the European Council - endorsed the revised Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.

When Europe acts as one, we can be a truly powerful force for good in the world.    The unity we have seen in the last few years on Brexit provides a guide, a template, and an example of how we can work together to achieve other noble goals.

Thank you.