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Statement by the Taoiseach in advance of the December meeting of the European Council, Dáil Éireann, 14 December 2016

 
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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; security; a range of economic and social development issues including in relation to youth; and, finally, external relations, specifically the Dutch ratification of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, and the situation in Syria.  Russia is also likely to be discussed.  I have asked Minister of State Breen to address the foreign policy issues in his closing remarks.  

EU 27 Meeting

The December European Council will be followed by a separate meeting of the 27 Heads of State and Government i.e. without Prime Minister May.  This will be the first opportunity since June for a substantial discussion in this format about Brexit and our plans for what lies ahead.  Ireland, as we all well know, stands to be most affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the issue is of course discussed regularly in this House.  The meeting in Brussels on Thursday evening is likely to focus on the mechanics and timing of the negotiations from the EU perspective.  

The 27 Heads of State and Government agreed in June that the European Council will provide overall political guidance for the negotiations and that the Commission will lead on the technical discussions. As Deputies will recall from previous discussions in the House, Mr. Barnier, the Head of the Commission Task Force on Brexit, visited Ireland in November: he and his team are very aware of our particular concerns arising from Brexit, including in relation to Northern Ireland, the Peace Process, the Common Travel Area and our deeply entwined economic and trade links with the UK, and there has been good ongoing engagement on these issues at official level.

I expect tomorrow night’s discussion to touch upon the process whereby the European Council’s guidelines for the negotiations will be agreed once the UK Government has triggered Article 50.  This will allow for an orderly commencement of the negotiations.  Our discussions tomorrow are also likely to restate the principles we agreed in June, namely: that there can be no negotiation without notification; that the UK remains a member of the EU with all the responsibilities that implies; and that the Single Market and four fundamental freedoms are indivisible.  

At this point, I do not anticipate a detailed discussion about the future of Europe, otherwise known as the Bratislava Process.  This however will be the focus of discussions at a separate meeting of the 27 in Malta in February, before the process concludes in March to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.  

European Council

The European Council itself will begin earlier than usual at 12:30pm with a meeting with President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz.  There will then be a short update from Slovakia’s Prime Minister Fico on the implementation of decisions of the European Council.  The President of Cyprus is also expected to provide an update on developments in his country’s ongoing reunification talks.  

Migration

A Cheann Comhairle

Turning to the agenda, Heads of State and Government will begin by returning to the migration and refugee situation which is still very much a priority issue for the Union.  The Commission is expected to update on progress on a range of EU measures, including on relocation and resettlement, on the EU-Turkey Statement, and on the Partnership Frameworks or ‘Migration Compacts’ with third countries.  A discussion is also expected on reform of the Common European Asylum System.  

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.  Figures from the International Organisation for Migration estimate there were over 865,000 arrivals during the eight months before the EU-Turkey Statement and a little over 22,800 arrivals during the eight months thereafter.  However, other routes remain extremely dangerous and far too many people are still risking their lives in attempting to travel to Europe.  

The Migration Compacts aim at ensuring coherence between EU migration policy, and its external and development policies. These were discussed at the October European Council and progress is once again being reviewed.  Overall, we welcome the development of the Migration Compacts and their focus on working even more closely with countries of origin and transit, as well as with countries hosting large numbers of displaced people.  We support efforts to build on existing progress and policies.  The first countries the compacts are being developed with are in Africa, and Ireland is supportive of 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 far less exposed to the full force of the migration and refugee crisis, both because of our geographical location and our non-participation in certain Justice and Home Affairs measures, we continue to contribute to the EU response.  

The Government decided, voluntarily, to opt-in to measures and to take up to 4,000 persons in need of international protection, under the EU’s separate resettlement and relocation decisions.  There has been good progress on resettlement – that is, taking people from outside the Union.  To date, 507 people have arrived in Ireland, mostly from Lebanon, and we are on course to almost 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.  However, there have been more positive developments recently, and 109 people have now come to Ireland from Greece.  The Tánaiste and Minister Zappone visited Greece this week.  Arrangements are being made for more people to start coming here and it is expected that there will be a further intake before the end of 2016.  Thereafter the plan is to increase the pace and receive up to 1,100 people by September of next year.  

In terms of humanitarian assistance, Ireland has provided over €42 million in response to the Syria crisis since 2011, and we have pledged to bring this to €62 million by the end of 2016.  

Over the course of 2015 and 2016, Irish Naval vessels have rescued 15,621 migrants in the Mediterranean.  L.É. Samuel Beckett concluded operations on 5 December and I want, on behalf of the entire House and the people of Ireland, to commend their exemplary service and thank them for their courage and professionalism.  Consideration of a further deployment in 2017 will take into account a number of factors, including the ongoing situation in the Mediterranean, the overall EU response, the demands on the Defence Forces, overseas commitments and available resources.

Security

A Cheann Comhairle.
Turning to the security item on the agenda, the European Council will consider the implementation of the EU Global Strategy, the Commission’s Communication on a European Defence Action Plan, and EU-NATO cooperation.  

These issues are of keen interest to the Irish people.  We have a proud tradition, upheld by Governments from all sides of this House over many years, of military neutrality and non-participation in military alliances.  This is subject to Constitutional provisions and is protected in the Treaties of the European Union.  It is something which all of us intend to preserve.  

Tomorrow, the EU Heads of State and Government will hear from the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, before considering the matter of EU-NATO Cooperation. This follows the statement on cooperation that was agreed in June, which took on board Ireland’s specific concerns.  

Similarly, the EU Global Strategy reflects some of Ireland’s key concerns.  It commits the EU to promoting peace, prosperity, democracy and the rule of law.  It has a positive focus on the Middle East Peace Process, disarmament, gender, the UN and the importance of multilateralism more generally.  The Strategy recognises the need to invest more in conflict resolution and tackle the root causes of instability.

This involves using a mix of EU policies coherently to support international peace and economic development, and to help build state and societal capacity on governance, rule of law and human rights.

The European Commission’s Communication on a Defence Action Plan was published at the end of November on its own initiative.  It looks at how European industry can provide the capabilities required for the EU’s peace-keeping and crisis management activities and ensure more effective and responsive CSDP missions.  We will consider these proposals carefully.  

The EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) is an integral part of the Union’s common foreign and security policy.  It provides the Union with an operational capacity to undertake missions outside the EU for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter.

Ireland’s approach to the discussions on security and defence is constructive and realistic.  We are a strong supporter of initiatives, through the CSDP, which improve the capacity of the Union to contribute to international peace and security, particularly in support of the UN.  We support cooperation with international partners where this adds value and contributes to the achievement of these objectives.  


The follow-up to the EU-NATO Joint Declaration made in Warsaw, the implementation of the EU Global Strategy, and the proposals in the European Defence Action Plan have no implications for Ireland’s neutrality.


Economic and Social Development, Youth

A Cheann Comhairle,
The European Council will look at a number of issues under the heading of Economic and Social Development and Youth including:

The European Fund for Strategic Investment;
Energy Union;
The Youth Guarantee, Youth Employment Initiative and European Solidarity Corps; and, most importantly -
The Single Market and Digital Single Market

The European Council will welcome last week’s agreement by Finance Ministers to strengthen and extend the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI); and hopefully negotiations with the European Parliament can now be concluded quickly.  

While the impact of EFSI in Ireland remains modest at this point, we support strongly the further development of what is a key building block of the Investment Plan for Europe.  The new Dublin office of the European Investment Bank (EIB) that I opened last Friday should also provide further complementary support for project development in Ireland, building from the experience gained in tackling investment bottlenecks across Europe.  

The role of an enhanced EFSI in mobilising a stronger pipeline of SME finance will be particularly significant for Ireland, including in the context of the unique challenges we face on foot of the UK decision to leave the EU.  

More generally, we are not yet in Ireland at the vanguard in deploying EIB financial instruments to tackle investment bottlenecks.  I want to see us making better use of the enhanced lending volumes and risk capacity now available to the EIB, including through next year’s Mid-Term Review of the Capital Plan.

We also have a keen interest in fighting youth unemployment and are supportive of the proposals here.  On Energy Union, we welcome the renewed commitment to actively promoting energy efficiency as the most important means of achieving our shared climate and energy goals.  

There will also be a consideration of Single Market and Digital Single Market issues.  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.  Ireland has been active in generating support for an ambitious approach by the Commission. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation co-signed a letter last month highlighting the need for decisive action on Services.  

'On the Digital Single Market (DSM), I am leading an initiative in advance of this week’s meeting and will be joined by 15 Member States in my letter to President Tusk reaffirming the importance of maintaining strong political momentum here. This builds on work that Minister Dara Murphy has been coordinating with a core group of digitally advanced countries. We have specific concerns about the risk of delay in presenting the legislative proposal to prevent unjustified data localisation requirements under the 'free flow of data' initiative, as highlighted at the Telecoms Council on 2 December, and more general concern that meeting the 2018 deadline for full DSM implementation set by the June European Council will require further stepping up of engagement with key dossiers in both Council and Parliament.'

As I have noted, Minister Breen will address the external relations points in his wrap-up remarks.  I will of course make a statement following the European Council at the next available time in the House.  

I look forward now to hearing statements by Deputies.

Thank you

ENDS