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Minister of State Helen McEntee T.D. Statement at Joint Committee on European Union Affairs

Chairman

I am very pleased to be back before the Committee. This is the second time I have had the pleasure of engaging with you since I was appointed Minister for European Affairs in June. I look forward to updating you on some of the key developments within my area of responsibility and answering your questions.

With your agreement, I propose to speak for about 15 minutes covering the Future of Europe, October’s European Council, and a summary of the General Affairs Councils in September and October along with developments in Brexit. I am happy to take questions afterwards.

Chairman,

Next week the Taoiseach and I, together with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, will formally launch the Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin. This will mark the formal start of a process designed to engage the Irish public directly in a debate on the kind of Europe they want to see evolve. Our aim is to raise awareness of the issues involved; to encourage participation in the debate; and to use this engagement process to formulate Ireland’s contribution to the wider European debate.

Before I go any further I would like to acknowledge the leadership role that this Committee has shown in launching its own public consultation process on the Future of Europe. I know that you have heard from a number of interest groups including the National Youth Council of Ireland, Macra na Feirme, IBEC and the European Movement Ireland. I know too that the French Ambassador to Ireland made a presentation. I would be very interested to know in due course what your findings are.

As the debate on Europe’s future post-Brexit gains momentum, it is very important that Ireland’s position is informed and supported by the views and interests of our citizens. For the Government, our starting point is to focus on the needs of our own people. And this includes a focus on jobs and growth, opportunities for our young people, completion of the single market and the key role of the EU in meeting many of the key challenges facing us including climate change and violent extremism. Later this month the Taoiseach will represent Ireland at the EU Social Summit in Sweden. This will be an opportunity to ensure there is a social dimension to the wider Future of Europe debate.

To date, the Debate on the Future of Europe has been informed by inputs from a variety of sources. In March, the European Commission published a White Paper and followed that up with a series of Reflection Papers on important policy areas including Globalisation, EU Finances and Defence. These papers are for the most part cross-cutting in nature and are being examined across a number of Government Departments.

At last month’s European Council President Donald Tusk formally launched his Leaders’ Agenda. What he is proposing is an ambitious work programme for the next two years. His intention is to maintain unity among the 27 by facilitating a more dynamic process – restoring ownership to the European Council and seeking to find pragmatic ways forward. He is proposing that future discussions be around a set of ‘decision papers’ on issues on which there is as yet no agreement. The increased tempo would see discussions at scheduled meetings of the European Council as well as a number of additional informal summits. President Tusk’s approach should ensure an inclusive approach, building on the Bratislava Process and ensuring that the initiative is not left to others to set the agenda.

We strongly support President Tusk’s positive forward-looking agenda, focussed on some of the key challenges facing Europe and its citizens. We are cautious about any agenda which focusses on institutional change (for example a eurozone budget or eurozone Parliament) and would not support reform that required treaty change.

As EU members of 44 years standing we have amassed considerable knowledge and experience and it is only right that we should share our insights and assessments.

October European Council

I would now like to turn to last month’s European Council which I attended along with the Taoiseach. The main agenda items were migration, security and defence; Digital Europe and external relations - with a focus on Turkey. The Taoiseach made a comprehensive statement to the Dáil so I am not proposing to go into great detail now but I will touch on a few key issues:

Migration

EU leaders agreed that their comprehensive migration strategy was bringing results and should be consolidated. At the same time they highlighted the need for vigilance on all migration routes and readiness to react to any new trends or developments.

The Taoiseach raised the distressing human rights reports from Médecins Sans Frontières on the reception facilities in Libya. He also spoke about the question of support for Africa more generally, and what needs to be done to remove the root causes of migration. He confirmed that Ireland would double its commitment to the EU Trust Fund for Africa up to 2020, taking it from €3 million to €6 million.

Digital Europe

Leaders examined how the EU could seize the opportunities and address the challenges posed by digitalisation. They agreed on a series of priorities to build a successful digital Europe including bringing governments and public sectors fully into the digital age and completing the digital single market strategy by the end of 2018

As members will know, completion of the Digital Single Market is a Government priority. The language agreed for the European Council conclusions was substantially proposed by Ireland and a group of like-minded countries. The conclusions include a high level of ambition for completing the digital single market, including the free flow of data and agreeing a future-oriented regulatory framework.

There was a good exchange on the issue of taxation of digital companies. The Taoiseach emphasised that in a globalised world, a solution on tax must be global in nature and this is reflected in the conclusions that were adopted. He insisted that the OECD is the best forum for dealing with this.

Security and Defence

Given the challenges that the EU faces both from external threats and home-grow terrorism, there is an increasing focus within the EU on security and defence issues. Most of our partners want to press ahead with permanent structured co-operation, known as PESCO, and this is provided for in the treaties. Ireland has been taking a realistic and constructive approach to the discussions on PESCO and we hope that we will be able to participate in it in a way that respects our long-standing policy of neutrality and constitutional guarantees as reflected in the Lisbon Treaty Protocol.

As you know, Ireland is neutral but not neutral when it comes to issues such as human trafficking, terrorism or cybercrime. We are very much in favour of co-operating with EU partners on a range of security issues. The Government will approach PESCO and the other issues on the agenda in that spirit. The European Council agreed to have a fuller discussion and a progress assessment of PESCO and other security and defence issues in December.

On the External Relations item the Council held a wide-ranging debate on Turkey. Given the negative trends in Turkey on human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy, it is clear that it cannot be business as usual with Turkey. However, our position is that we need to keep the lines of communication open, including through the accession process and that we must be open and frank in our engagement.  

The European Council called on the DPRK – often referred to as North Korea - to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, stressing that lasting peace and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula must be achieved through peaceful means.

The European Council also reaffirmed its full commitment to the Iran nuclear deal and endorsed the statement by the Foreign Affairs Council of 16 October 2017.

Brexit

Chairman

I would now like to brief the Committee on Brexit developments.

Both the General Affairs Council and the European Council met in their “Article 50” formation during the month of October. I attended both these meetings, which represented an important opportunity for the EU27 Member States to take stock of the progress made in the Article 50 negotiations to date.

 

At the European Council, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, briefed Heads of State and Government on the five negotiation rounds that had taken place from June to October. Taking account of his assessment, the European Council welcomed progress to date but agreed that further work is needed before it can agree that sufficient progress has be made on all three exit issues – citizens’ rights, the financial settlements and the Irish specific issues.

The conclusions of the European Council also called for the negotiations to continue and that it will reassess progress at its next meeting in December. In this regard I welcome that a sixth round of negotiations has got underway in Brussels today.

Furthermore, the European Council asked Michel Barnier and the Council to start preparations within the EU27 for phase 2 and that if sufficient progress is made by the UK on the three exit issues, additional guidelines will be agreed on the framework for the future relationship and on possible transitional arrangements.

Overall, I believe the conclusions were fair and balanced. They were clear on what the EU expects from the UK in phase one but also recognised the positive momentum created by Prime Minister May’s Florence speech and the EU’s willingness to begin discussions on transitional arrangements and future relationship issues once there has been sufficient progress in the first phase.

The strong language on Ireland was also welcome. While acknowledging that progress is being made, the conclusions made clear that more work is needed and that the UK must present and commit to flexible and imaginative solutions called for by the unique situation of Ireland.

More broadly, the support we enjoy from our EU partners on these issues also remains clear. This is a message that I and my Government colleagues consistently receive through our continuing extensive engagement with our EU counterparts. The visit of Guy Verhofstadt to Ireland in September was also very welcome in this regard.

In the immediate term I am hopeful that progress can be made in the negotiations in the coming weeks so that by the end of the year a decision can be taken by the European Council that discussions with the UK can begin on future relationship issues, including on trade and sectoral concerns.

Of course our overall objectives for the negotiations remain clear –

-         to protect the gains of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts;

-         to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, to maintain the Common Travel Area;

-         to put in place an effective transitional arrangement leading to the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK and;

-         to work for the future of the European Union with Ireland at its heart. 

Finally let me say a brief word about the September and October General Affairs Councils I attended. As is the norm, preparation of the European Council is the main work of the GAC. Since I have already spoken about the European Council, I will deal here only with items addressed by the GAC other than Brexit, migration, Digital Europe, Security and Defence and external relations.

At the September meeting all Member States intervened in the discussion on the rule of law situation in Poland. Interventions were broadly supportive of the importance of the rule of law and urged the resumption of a dialogue to try and find a solution.

Over lunch, ministers discussed issues related to the composition of the European Parliament post 2019. While there was broad agreement that at least some of the seats being lost by the UK must be eliminated there is no agreement yet on how to go about any possible redistribution of some of them. 

The October GAC dealt with the Annual Rule of Law Dialogue. The dialogue has formed part of the GAC agenda since 2014. The topic - ‘Media Pluralism in a Digital Age’ - was strongly influenced by the murder the previous day of a prominent journalist in Malta. The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was an unspeakable attack on freedom of expression and we extend our condolences to her family and the bereaved. The two main themes of interventions in the dialogue from Member States were (i) that more needs to be done to educate the public on matters of digital literacy so they can better identify fake news and (ii) that more needs to be done to involve the online platforms that host both fake news and illegal content in the efforts to tackle them.

Mr. Chairman

My apologies for speaking for so long but there was a lot of material to cover. I look forward to your questions.

 

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