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

Chairman

 

I am delighted to be back before the committee to update you on the major developments within the EU since I was last here in March. It has been a particularly busy period. Indeed, there have been so many developments that it may be more useful for the committee if I focus my statement on a number of key issues. If that is acceptable to you Chairman I will highlight four headline issues. In the Q&A session following my statement Members are of course free to raise any matters they choose.

 

The four areas key areas I propose to highlight are:

 

  • The current state of play in the Brexit Negotiations;

 

  • The debate on the Future of Europe, including our national Citizens’ Dialogue which concluded last month;

 

  • EU Enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans; and

 

  • The Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for the period 2021-2027. The MFF – or EU budget to use plain English - was tabled by the Commission last month and is now the subject of ongoing exchanges among member states and with the Commission.

I will begin with the MFF since it dominated last month’s General Affairs Council which I attended. At the GAC, we had an initial discussion of the Commission’s recent legislative proposal for the MFF, the EU’s next seven year budget framework. It will also be discussed by the Taoiseach and the other Heads of State and Government at the European Council on the 28th and 29th June. This is the beginning of a negotiation process between the Commission, the Parliament and Member States, which will last into at least the middle of next year.  The current framework runs to the end of 2020, so it is crucial that agreement is reached well ahead of then.

 

I warmly welcome the fact that Ms Jennifer Brown, a senior official from the Commission, travelled from Brussels to Dublin yesterday to address this committee and earlier other interested stakeholders. As a result I am sure you are well versed in the details of the budget and I hope I don’t repeat ground Ms Brown has already covered.

 

As with any organisation, it is fundamental that as EU member states we agree on how much we can spend, how and when we spend it, and how to raise the money. It is a question of adapting to the changing global environment and most importantly, of prioritising among competing and evolving requirements and demands. Since late last year, I have been running a series of citizens’ dialogues nationwide about the EU that citizens want to see, and this consultation on the Future of Europe will feed into our position on how the EU allocates its resources.

 

The initial proposal was published by the Commission just over six weeks ago now, on the 2nd of May. It was highly anticipated, and over recent weeks it has been further elaborated, with each sectoral package in turn being published. These cover every aspect of the EU’s role, touching on agriculture, cohesion funding, Erasmus, Research and Innovation, the EU’s external actions including development aid, and much more. The whole proposal runs to thousands of pages and it is now the subject of intensive analysis by all Member States and the European Parliament.

 

The Oireachtas’s involvement has likewise begun, and I greatly appreciate this Committee’s engagement with the MFF. Given that the budget proposal by the Commission amounts to some €1, 135 billion and covers almost all aspects of our society and economy, it is only appropriate that a number of other Oireachtas Committees should also consider specific aspects of the package as they relate to their areas of responsibility.

 

Across all Government Departments, analysis is now being carried out, closely coordinated by the Department of Finance together with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Our representatives in Brussels will also be closely involved. Similarly at EU level, a wide range of European Parliament Committees and Ministerial Councils will closely debate and negotiate a final framework to ensure that our limited resources are spent in alignment with our agreed priorities. The General Affairs Council will take a horizontal approach to the MFF negotiations, with input from almost all other Council formations. At the next meeting of the GAC, we will have a lunch discussion with Commissioner Oettinger, the first opportunity for Member States to react in the round on the basis of all the sectoral proposals. 

 

The European Council meeting at the end of the month will also have an initial discussion of the MFF, and in particular they will give guidance as to the likely timeframe for the negotiations. There are strong arguments for completing the negotiations before the European Parliament elections next year. Likewise there are strong arguments as to why such difficult and complex negotiations can take time. Either way the Irish government will not be found wanting. The important thing is to get it right.

 

While it is too early to speak today in great detail, what we do know so far is that these negotiations will be particularly challenging for Ireland. This is the first time that we will be negotiating an EU budget without the British contribution, and it is the first time that Ireland will be a net contributor from the outset. As our economy recovers and grows, our contribution to the EU will also grow. In recognition of the broader value of our EU membership, the Government has stated that Ireland is open to considering an increased MFF contribution to address new and emerging EU priorities and challenges. But we can only do so provided that our core interests are met and European Added Value is ensured. Protecting the CAP remains a priority for Ireland. We are also supportive of a range of programmes to support jobs and growth including Cohesion funding, the Research and Innovation budget (Horizon Europe), Digital Europe and the Connecting Europe Facility. I am also very pleased to see the proposal for increased funding to a further expanded Erasmus+ programme.

 

Brexit

 

Chairman

 

I will now turn to the Brexit negotiations.

 

We have now entered a crucial phase of the negotiations.

As members of the Committee are aware, the overall objective is that the full legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, as well as a detailed political declaration on the framework for the future relationship, be concluded by the October meeting of the European Council.

In order to meet this objective, negotiations have been continuing between the EU and the UK teams in recent weeks and will further intensify in advance of the European Council in June. The aim of these discussions is to make significant further progress on the outstanding withdrawal issues, including on the draft Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The fact of the UK’s presentation last week of a paper on a temporary customs arrangement, which it sees as relevant to aspects of the island of Ireland backstop, was a welcome, though incomplete, step forward. After its publication last week, Michel Barnier, while also welcoming this step, raised questions and concerns about the proposal.  It is the Commission which is the Union’s negotiator with the British Government on these issues. 

The Government’s focus remains on the outcome we need to see, of which a key element is ensuring the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. It is welcome that the UK’s commitment to this is reaffirmed in its proposal , and that the commitments and guarantees provided by the UK in the joint progress report of December 2017 and repeated by Prime Minister May in her letter to President Tusk in March have been reiterated. 

While our preference is still for an overall EU-UK relationship which would resolve all issues, it remains essential that a backstop is agreed which provides certainty that in any circumstances, and no matter what the outcome of the negotiations on the EU-UK future relationship, a hard border will be avoided. We must have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments made on Ireland and Northern Ireland.  This certainty requires agreement on the Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement.

I therefore very much hope that there will now be intense engagement between the British Government and the Commission over the next two weeks before the European Council on 28/29 June.  As we have repeatedly stated, substantial progress is required by then.

 

 

 

Future of Europe

 

Chairman, the debate on the Future of Europe - which was energised by the UK’s decision to leave the Union - is continuing across Europe. This committee held its own very successful public outreach initiative and I look forward to learning about its findings when they are available.

Last November, the Taoiseach, accompanied by the Tánaiste and I launched Ireland’s national Citizens’ Dialogue which culminated in a major event at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham on 9 May marking Europe Day. And in this context I want to say a special word of thanks to you Chairman for accepting my invitation to participate in the event, including as a panellist for one of the sessions. This was very much appreciated not only by me but by all concerned.

Between November and May I travelled the country, covering 2,000 kilometres getting to and from Galway, Cork, Limerick, Maynooth, Letterkenny and Navan.  Hundreds of people turned out to our regional sessions and the level of engagement at each of them was impressive.  From the outset we were adamant that this would be essentially a listening exercise. To give some shape and continuity to the various dialogues, participants were encouraged to focus on the five questions posed to citizens deriving from the Bratislava Declaration, agreed by EU HOSGs in 2016. These centred on Jobs, competitiveness and consumer rights; Peace and Security; better management of our natural and built Environment; Equality and fairness and lastly Education and Training in order to maintain the EU’s competitiveness.  

If there was a theme which emerged I would say it was fairness.  People wanted to ensure fairness in an increasingly competitive world.  They want the environment to be protected so we can hand it on to future generations in good shape.  There is also a demand for inter-generational fairness.  People want young people to enjoy the best of opportunities when they are starting their careers and their families and they want older people to be able to enjoy their retirement in dignity and comfort.

 

We are now compiling a report which I hope will feed into the wider consultations that are still taking place in Europe. On 9 May next year, at a summit in Romania, EU leaders are expected to mark the culmination of this process with a renewed commitment to an EU that delivers on the issues that really matter to people. We will be well placed to actively input into that summit based on the experiences of our national consultations.

Enlargement

Chairman, let me turn now to EU Enlargement and brief you on the latest developments.

Ireland is a supporter of the European perspective of the Western Balkans, and I was pleased that the renewed focus on the region provided by the Bulgarian Presidency was reflected in the successful EU-Western Balkans Summit on 17th May last. At this Summit, the Taoiseach and I were pleased to engage with our EU and Western Balkan counterparts across a range of issues. In the Summit Declaration, the EU pledged unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans, and the associated Priority Agenda set out six flagship initiatives to drive progress in the areas of rule of law, security and migration, socio-economic development, connectivity, the Digital Agenda, and good neighbourly relations in the Western Balkans. It is our hope that implementation of these initiatives will lead to deeper continued engagement with the Western Balkans.

 

We believe that the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries must be a credible prospect in order to advance the stability and security of the region, and are clear that candidate countries must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights the utmost priority in terms of reform. We need to encourage the Western Balkans to continue to vigorously pursue these reforms, and we, as the EU, need to give practical assistance and ensure sure that our message is communicated effectively across the region.

 

The next discussions on enlargement will take place at the General Affairs Council on 26th June, which will review the European Commission Country Reports published in April and make recommendations for the coming period. Four countries in the Western Balkans currently have EU Candidate status: Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania. Of these, both Serbia and Montenegro are well advanced in their accession negotiations, while Albania and Macedonia have not yet opened negotiations. Ireland will support opening negotiations with Macedonia and Albania in line with the Commission’s recent recommendation; though significant work remains to be done in both countries, we feel that they have made sufficient progress to warrant opening. Opening would also serve as a signal of EU commitment and provide motivation to the region. The Albanian Foreign Minister, Ditmir Bushati, visited Ireland last month.

Mr Chairman

Before I conclude I will briefly outline one further important issue that has been preoccupying the General Affairs Council, namely the issue of the Rule of Law and Poland which was discussed at the May GAC, for the sixth time. Commission Vice President Franz Timmermans provided an update. As the committee will know, the central issue here is the rule of law and its application in Poland. Ours is a Union based on shared values, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is essential that these commitments are reflected clearly in the internal arrangements in all Member States.

 

At last month’s Council, the Commission informed Member States that, while Poland had amended some of the changes recently introduced to the operation of the judicial system, these amendments did not address the primary concerns that have been identified.

At the May Council, I welcomed the fact that dialogue had taken place and stressed that the dialogue should lead to an early outcome that addresses the very real concerns that have been identified. This, I said, is something which is clearly in all of our interests. 

The Commission has now called for a hearing on the rule of law in Poland at the GAC later this month. It would be important that, in the time available, concrete proposals to address the outstanding concerns can be agreed by the Polish authorities and the Commission.

I understand you will discuss the issue further with the Polish Ambassador who is appearing before the Committee later this afternoon.

As I said in my introduction, there are other issues I could also have spoken about. However, I will stop here to leave time for questions.

 

Thank you

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