Thank you for inviting me back to address the Committee today.
As usual there is much to report upon since my last visit. Last week, I attended the General Affairs Council where we focused on the MFF and preparations for the June European Council. The agenda for the upcoming European Council includes the next Strategic Agenda for the Union, high-level appointments, the MFF and climate change.
With your permission, Chairman, I propose to focus on three headline issues. These are -
In 2014, the European Council adopted a Strategic Agenda for the Union in Times of Change, setting out five overarching priorities to guide the work of the EU. Change is a constant and it is right that we look again at our priorities to ensure that we focus on meeting the needs and expectations of our citizens and preparing for the challenges of the future.
Ireland began preparing our contribution to the new Strategic Agenda in 2017, when I joined the Taoiseach and Tánaiste at the launch of the Citizens’ Dialogues on the future of Europe. These were designed to help us learn about what mattered most to our citizens in the debate on the future of Europe.
As you will recall, Mr. Chairman, this Committee also held hearings on the future of Europe and you yourself spoke at our national event in Dublin in May last year.
In April, the cabinet approved the publication of a National Statement on the European Union. This is a whole-of-Government response to the issues raised during the Citizens’ Dialogues and is Ireland’s contribution to the next Strategic Agenda. It was laid before the Oireachtas and was the subject of statements in Dáil Éireann just before the Easter recess.
The Europe of the future must meet the ambitions of our citizens. It must deliver on the unfulfilled potential of the Single Market – one fit for the Digital Age. It must be ready for the opportunities and the challenges of the digital transformation, protecting the most vulnerable. It must be a global leader in finding solutions to climate change. It must play a central role in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals. It must stay true to its values.
Heads of State and Government began their discussions on the Strategic Agenda in Sibiu, with a view to adopting it at the European Council in June.
In the meantime, we will work with the other Member States to ensure that our priorities, defined in the National Statement, are reflected in the new Strategic Agenda.
Mr. Chairman, I will now turn to other issues discussed at the General Affairs Council meeting last week.
During the MFF debate, Ministers discussed the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument, also called NDICI. The new proposed instrument will see a major restructuring of the EU’s fund for external action. The proposal is to integrate the European Neighbourhood Instrument and the European Development Fund, which used to be managed separately, into the EU budget. This is intended to reflect the EU’s strategic priorities, notably the Neighbourhood and Africa.
In my intervention, I supported integrating the European Development Fund within the NDICI. We believe that integration will allow for greater coherence, more efficiencies and simplified procedures. I also indicated that Ireland supports the proposal to integrate the European Neighbourhood Instrument into NDICI. We feel that the current level of proposed ring-fencing for the Neighbourhood Instrument should allay any concerns about the importance and priority that the EU attaches to relations with our nearest neighbours.
At the GAC, it was clear that there is no clear majority in favour of either option and it is likely that these two issues will have to be discussed again during the negotiations.
This was the last thematic MFF discussion under the Romanian Presidency. At the June European Council, Leaders will assess whether we are on track to reach an over-all agreement in the autumn or whether more time will be needed. I want to commend the Romanian Presidency for their dedication to these important negotiations. I am sure that the in-coming Finnish Presidency will do its utmost to guide us towards agreement by the end of the year.
The other item on the GAC agenda was preparations for the European Council meeting in June. As you know, the European elections signal the start of the next institutional cycle in our Union. As part of that cycle, the new Strategic Agenda will be adopted by Leaders at the Council next month.
There will also be a series of personnel changes at the top of the EU’s main institutions. A new Commission President and College of Commissioners will be appointed. The European Parliament and European Council will also elect new Presidents. Mario Draghi will be replaced this year as President of the European Central Bank.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach attended an informal European Council to start consideration of these high-level appointments ahead of the European Council next month. These appointments should reflect geographical balance and demography in order to ensure that large and smaller countries are represented in the highest positions in the EU. Gender and political balance should also be taken into account.
The EU has implemented measures aimed at combatting disinformation in election campaigns. The European Council will consider a Presidency report on lessons learned from the European parliamentary elections. Ireland fully supports EU efforts to combat the manipulation of our democratic systems. Domestically, our Interdepartmental Group on Security of the Electoral Process and Disinformation has been working to identify best practice to secure our electoral processes. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has also established a media literacy campaign entitled ‘Be Media Smart’.
At the June Council, Leaders will also discuss climate change, in light of the UN Climate Action Summit this September and the development of a long-term EU climate Strategy. At home, an All-of-Government Plan will be completed shortly to deliver on the Governments ambition to make make Ireland a leader in responding to climate change.
The General Affairs Council next month is expected to discuss enlargement in advance of the next European Council, at which a decision is envisaged on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Ireland believes that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union. I visited Skopje and Tirana in February and was impressed by the progress made on key reforms. The Commission published its opinion this morning and based on its positive recommendations, we would like the Council to take the decision to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in June.
Lastly, the Commission updated Ministers on their recent Communication on strengthening the Rule of Law within the Union. The Communication is the start of a reflection process on rule of law issues. According to the Commission, there is a need for better promotion of the rule of law, early prevention of risks or breaches and more effective responses. This matter is of serious concern to Ireland as rule of law is a fundamental principle for all EU Member States. We look forward to the specific proposals from the Commission next month.
I will now turn to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The April European Council decision to extend the Article 50 process reduced the risk of a no deal scenario in the immediate term. However, the political impasse in the UK, and the failure of the UK Parliament to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, means that the threat of a no deal Brexit in October remains.
The process of replacing Prime Minister May will begin in the week starting 10 June.
It would not be appropriate to comment on this internal matter for British politics, other than to say that I wish Prime Minister May well. Her efforts to find a path forward in a very difficult situation demonstrated a commendable commitment and sense of duty.
We look forward to working constructively with the next British Prime Minister. However, a change of Prime Minister will not change the facts of Brexit. The European Council has made it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, cannot be opened or renegotiated. However, the European Council has also said that should the UK’s position evolve vis-à-vis the future relationship between the EU and the UK, the EU is prepared to reconsider the Political Declaration on the future relationship.
The responsibility for avoiding a no deal outcome lies firmly with the UK.
Our position has remained the same for some time. The best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and fully protect the Good Friday Agreement is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. It is vital therefore that the UK, regardless of whoever the next Prime Minister is, makes good use of the period up to 31 October to find a suitable way forward.
Last week, the Cabinet indicated its approval for Government to continue Brexit planning and preparedness work for all possible outcomes, including no deal. This work will continue both at home and at EU level.
Since December 2018, we have focused on putting the necessary contingency measures in place to mitigate the potential impacts of a no deal UK withdrawal. Much of this work, as outlined in the Government's December 2018 Brexit Contingency Action Plan and subsequent updates, will continue to be relevant in any scenario.
The Government is determined to make good use of the period afforded by the extension to further deepen our no deal responses. This will include adding to or refining already completed measures to maximise our readiness.
We have recruited additional staff as part of our work to prepare our ports and airports for all Brexit scenarios. While Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the HSE had recruited staff in time for a no deal Brexit last March, they would still be needed in a range of Brexit scenarios. Additional training for these officers will take place over the summer months.
Many of the preparatory measures undertaken by businesses, and outlined in the Government’s ‘Getting Ireland Brexit Ready’ public information campaign, are good business practice and will benefit stakeholders, whatever the outcome of the UK withdrawal. We will continue work to encourage businesses to prepare, including by taking practical steps such as registering for EORI numbers.
In addition, the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019 was signed by the President on 17 March and its provisions remain ready to be deployed if and when required.
We are preparing for Brexit with the full support of the European Commission and our EU27 partners. Many of the actions aimed at mitigating the effects of a no deal outcome will be taken at the EU level, as they involve sectors regulated by EU law.
Earlier this month, I welcomed the European Commission announcement of an exceptional aid fund for the beef sector in the context of Brexit. The Government had sought such provision for Irish beef farmers, both at meetings of the EU Council of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and in direct consultation with the Commission. We are grateful to the European Commission, in particular Commissioner Hogan, for their assistance. It is another example of the importance of EU solidarity in the context of the economic challenges caused by Brexit.
It is clear that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will have a significant impact on Ireland, whatever its outcome. Government, businesses and citizens must make the necessary preparations to minimise its impact on our trade and our economy. We are determined to be as ready as we can be, whatever the outcome of the Brexit process.
I would like to thank you again for the invitation to address the Committee and for your attention this afternoon. I am happy, Chairman, to take any questions the Committee may have.