BaileNuachtAithisc an Taoisigh

Statement by the Taoiseach following the December 2016 meeting of the European Council, Dáil Éireann, 25 January 2017


Check against delivery

A Cheann Comhairle,

I welcome this opportunity to address the House on the outcome of the December European Council.

The agenda included the current migration situation; security and defence; a range of economic and social development issues, including on youth; and, finally, external relations, specifically the situation in Syria, and the Dutch ratification of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. We discussed a number of additional topics including Russia, Cyprus, Energy Union, the single market, and the Digital Single Market; and also had an exchange with Mario Draghi about the European economy. The Digital Single Market is a priority for Ireland and, in advance of the European Council, I wrote a letter to President Tusk, which was co-signed by 15 other EU Leaders, calling for greater ambition in the period ahead.

I have asked Minister Murphy to address Russia, the Ukraine ratification point and the economic issues in his closing remarks.
EU 27 Meeting
Following the December European Council, there was a short meeting of the 27 EU Heads of State and Government, focussing on how the Brexit negotiations will be managed from the EU perspective. We agreed that the European Council will conclude guidelines for the negotiations, once Article 50 is triggered. The Commission, with Michel Barnier as its Chief Negotiator, will lead the technical negotiations. The General Affairs Council, the European Parliament, the Committee of Permanent Representatives and official level working groups will also play important roles in the process. As set out in our statement after the meeting, the 27 EU Heads of State and Government will remain permanently seized of the negotiations and will update the guidelines as necessary.

At our meeting, we also re-confirmed the principles that there can be no negotiation without notification; that the Single Market and the four freedoms are indivisible; and that, until the withdrawal negotiations are concluded, the UK remains a full member of the EU. There was no detailed discussion about the future of Europe. This will be the focus of a separate summit in Malta on 3 February before that process concludes in March coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

I used the opportunity to engage with my EU counterparts at both meetings to emphasise again Ireland’s particular concerns around Brexit, including in relation to Northern Ireland, the Peace Process and border issues, the Common Travel Area, and our deeply entwined economic and trade links.
Northern Ireland
I am aware of Deputy Adam's remarks over the weekend on the dangers of Brexit for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. I welcome the British Government's restatement of their commitment to implementation of the agreements and their determination that there will be no return to the 'borders of the past'.
These are matters on which the Prime Minister and I are agreed.

As far back as my address to the British Irish Association in Oxford last September, I set out our concerns and approach, including in respect of Northern Ireland.

We want to maintain the common travel area, avoid any return to a hard border, sustain EU support for the Peace Process and continue to facilitate North-South business and trade, both in its own right and in the context of maintaining trade more generally across these islands.

I have emphasised these points in all of my meetings with EU leaders as part of a broader Government programme of engagement with all Member States and with the EU institutions in which we are constantly emphasising our specific Brexit-related concerns and issues. That programme is now being intensified as we move towards the triggering of Article 50. For my own part, I travelled to Spain for discussions with Prime Minister Rajoy earlier this month and I will be continuing to engage with other EU leaders in the weeks ahead.

In my statement to this House last week, I assured you of our ongoing deep commitment to the Good Friday Agreement. As co-guarantor of that agreement, the Irish Government has worked assiduously, together with the British Government and with the political parties, to advance political stability, reconciliation and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland.

The scale and complexity of the challenges presented by Brexit, underline the importance of the existing institutions as mechanisms for working together.

It is deeply regrettable that the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Executive leaves the people of Northern Ireland without political leadership at this key moment.

My Government has made clear that Northern Ireland and the peace process are amongst our top priorities for the coming negotiations. The last thing we want to see is further instability.

As the UK's date for triggering Article 50 moves closer, the greater the need for us to work together on issues of major concern, particularly where they have a North-South dimension.

That is why we sought to use the North South Ministerial Council to forge a common approach to Brexit related issues. Given the current political uncertainty, it remains to be seen whether the progress made so far via the North South Ministerial Council can be sustained.

Brexit Preparations
I welcome the greater clarity provided in Prime Minister May’s speech last week on the proposed approach of the British Government to the negotiations.

While the speech has been interpreted by many as a “hard exit,” the analysis across this Government has covered all possible models for the future UK relationship with the EU.

Through the Cabinet Committee on Brexit which I chair, the Government has ensured that we have a clear and comprehensive Brexit plan in place.
The plan covers deep analysis of all of the issues across government, extensive consultation and engagement, and pursuit of our key priorities in our consultations with our EU partners and the EU institutions including the Barnier Task Force. The plan also covers identification of risks and potential measures to address them, as well as pursuit of the opportunities arising from the UK decision. All of this work is being driven by a complex coordination process, beginning with the Cabinet Committee which I chair, including an extensive range of official working groups, and mobilising Ministers, diplomats and officials right across our system.
These extensive preparations will stand to us as we move closer to the triggering of Article 50 and the commencement of negotiations.

A key part of this is the Government’s initiative on the All-Island Civic Dialogue which began on 2 November.

Minister Flanagan and I will host the second Plenary session of the Civic Dialogue in Dublin Castle on Friday, 17 February, by which time 14 civic dialogue sectoral events will also have taken place. This will be a further important element of our engagement and consultation on the challenges of Brexit.

Nobody should be under any doubt that Brexit is the top priority across Government and a competent and comprehensive plan is in place and being executed.
As the Government Statement of last Tuesday made clear:
· The critical negotiation priorities have been identified.
· The programme of dialogue with stakeholders will continue.
· Vigilance and engagement on economic risks and challenges will be maintained.
· Economic opportunities for Ireland will be pursued.
· Engagement with other Member States and EU institutions will intensify.
· Ireland will negotiate as one of the 27 Member States firmly in, and committed to, the European Union.
· And Ireland will participate fully in the discussions on the future direction of the EU.
European Council
Returning to the December European Council meeting itself, this began with the outgoing President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, attending for his last time in that role. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Fico made a presentation on the implementation of European Council decisions and the President of Cyprus provided an update on developments in the ongoing reunification talks.
The European Council heard a moving presentation from the President of the local council of eastern Aleppo who set out some of the appalling atrocities which have been visited upon the citizens of that city. The excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of military force by the regime, supported by its allies, constitutes a clear violation of international law. The European Council was unequivocal in its conclusions, noting that those responsible for breaches of international law, some of which may amount to war crimes, must be held accountable for their actions.
The European Council then turned to the migration and refugee situation. The Commission gave an update on progress on relocation and resettlement, and on the EU-Turkey Statement. A particular emphasis was placed on Member States fulfilling their commitments to relocation and to the European Asylum Support Office. We had a discussion around the proposals for reforming the Common European Asylum System. It is hoped that consensus on how to reform EU asylum policy can be reached during the Maltese Presidency although this will be dependent on changes in Member States’ positions.
The Commission briefed on the ‘Migration Compacts’ which are being developed with third countries. These aim to ensure coherence between migration, external and development policies. Ireland welcomes the development of the Migration Compacts, as well as making swift progress on the European Fund for Sustainable Development, and on the EIB External Lending Mandate.
Ireland is working to fulfil our pledge to take up to 4,000 people in need of international protection. In 2016, 519 people were taken in under the Government’s resettlement commitment. On relocation - taking migrants from Greece and Italy - progress has been slower, but 241 people came to Ireland from Greece last year. The plan is to receive up to 1,100 people by September 2017.
Ireland has provided over €67 million in response to the Syria crisis since 2012 and our Naval vessels have also rescued 15,621 migrants in the Mediterranean in the past two years.
Under Security, the discussion dealt with the Commission Communication on a European Defence Action Plan (EDAP); implementation of the EU Global Strategy; and follow up to the July EU-NATO Joint Declaration.

It is important to emphasise that the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and cooperation with other organisations in this area, is grounded within the EU Treaties and the Lisbon Protocol. These protect Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality. Our approach to security and defence is constructive and realistic. We are strong supporters of initiatives, through CSDP, which improve the capacity of the EU to contribute to international peace and security, particularly in support of the UN.
EU-NATO cooperation is framed by the Joint Declaration agreed last July. This stipulates that cooperation will not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of any country, including Ireland, and will fully respect the decision-making autonomy of both organisations. Let me assure the House that cooperation between the two organisations is fully consistent with Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality.

We also considered the implementation of the EU Global Strategy in the area of security and defence. The Global Strategy commits to promoting peace, democracy and the rule of law. It has a positive focus on disarmament, the UN, the Middle East Peace Process, and multilateralism. It also recognises the need to further invest in conflict resolution, tackle the root causes of instability, and support international peace and economic development.

Finally, under this heading, the European Commission Communication on a European Defence Action Plan (EDAP) looks at the capabilities required for EU peace-keeping and crisis management activities. The European Council stressed the importance of fully involving Member States in the proposals that will be brought forward: Ireland will consider these carefully.

As I have noted, the Minister will address the other external relations and economic points in his wrap-up remarks.

I look forward to Deputies’ statements.

Thank you.