Post EU Council Statement by Brendan Howlin
25 October 2017
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland
Post EU Council Statement by Brendan Howlin in Dáil Éireann, 25th October 2017.
The EU Council last week came to number of important conclusions on Migration, Digital Europe, Security & Defence, External Relations and of course Brexit.
Since we last spoke on this issue, a number of significant developments have progressed.
In his remarks before the Council here last week, the Taoiseach spoke on Digital Europe and the importance of delivering practical benefits for our citizens.
For the vast majority of EU citizens the agenda of these meetings do not speak to the day-to-day issues they face in their lives.
That is why the agreement of a text on the European Pillar of Social Rights at the EPSCO meeting on Monday is a key event in the history and development of Europe.
The European Pillar of Social Rights was first published by the Commission in March 2016.
It seeks to enhance the rights of EU citizens across the categories of equal opportunities and access to the labour market; fair working conditions; and social protection and inclusion.
In an uncertain age, it is difficult to disagree with the assessment of President Juncker that agreement on the social pillar is necessary to “avoid social fragmentation and social dumping in Europe”.
If we are to meet 21st century challenges it must be with the rights of our people in our minds.
The text will now be signed by the Taoiseach at the Social Summit in Gothenburg in November.
I had raised concerns with both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, about Ireland’s negotiating stance on the inter-institutional proclamation.
It had aligned us with countries such as Hungary who have outspoken objections to any developments which underpin the development of social rights.
I am glad to see that those objections have been dropped.
The principles and rights set by the European Pillar of Social Rights should be implemented at both Union level and Member State level within their respective competences and in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.
It also clearly stated that it did not entail an extension of the Unions powers.
The three broad categories and the 20 specific policy areas highlight the work that Ireland and Europe still has to do.
On fair working conditions –
For example secure and adaptable employment is a central challenge for our people.
Many find that though in work they cannot plan adequately for the future with technological disruption and the gig economy damaging and delaying family formation, house purchase and pension planning.
On equal opportunities and access to the labour market –
Education, training and lifelong learning are areas where Ireland must examine how prepared we are to ensure all our citizens can fully participate in our economy and society.
Despite being on track to full employment there is a need to ensure that all our citizens, not just those on jobseekers are encouraged to upskill and seek work.
On social protection and inclusion –
Childcare and support to children is an area where Ireland needs to do more.
The Budget had token measures but nothing significant to reduce the high costs faced by Irish parents.
If we are to put Europe at the heart of people’s lives and experiences, the Pillar of Social Rights is a lot more tangible than digital Europe or defence co-operation.
I welcome the reports that the Taoiseach expressed serious concern at the conditions faced by refugees in prison camps in Libya, and the doubling of Ireland’s commitment to the EU Trust Fund for Africa to €6 million.
I hope these sentiments will be backed by enhanced efforts to ensure Ireland meets its commitments on accepting refugees.
In its conclusions on Digital Europe the Council declared that it ‘is ready to do what it takes for Europe to go digital.’
One can honestly ask if there has there ever been a more meaningless statement.
The Taoiseach met with President Macron yesterday and détente seems to have been declared on the French proposal for an EU wide tax on digital companies by the insertion of references to a global playing field.
However the Commission has been tasked with bringing forward proposals in 2018.
It will be interesting to see how that will fare and the proposed structure for such a digital tax.
Security & Defence
Once again, the moves towards Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on security and defence was an item on the Council’s agenda.
During his meeting with the French President yesterday, I would like to know if the Taoiseach raised Macron’s proposals for an EU army and shared defence budget.
As I said last week, once you create a military intervention force you are on the path to a very different EU to the one Ireland signed up to.
The Taoiseach is reported to have said that ‘Ireland would be keen to take part in Pesco but had not yet made a formal expression of interest because it needed to wait until its full remit was clarified.’
Principally it would appear this position is due to neutrality concerns.
I’m sure the Taoiseach’s position is news to many Deputies here and I repeat again that it is time for a full debate in this Chamber on EU moves towards Defence cooperation as our military neutrality is slowly chipped away.
On External Relations, a debate was held on relations with Turkey.
There is only a short reference on it in the communiqué but I understand it lasted 3 hours and took up most of the time of the working dinner.
There are now plans being drawn up to cut aid to Turkey.
It would appear that the long-term objective of eventual Turkish membership of the EU may be close to being abandoned.
The Taoiseach might elaborate further on his own views on this.
It was reported that he said Turkey is ‘no longer on a European path’.
I do welcome the reaffirming of EU support for the Iran nuclear deal and the strong statement on North Korea.
Finally, turning to Brexit,
After another summit we are no closer to agreement and if anything, closer to a Hard Exit by the UK.
Initial reports were positive, but the leaking and spinning of Prime Minister May’s dinner with Commission President Juncker confirms the lack of trust and emerging recriminations in both camps.
The Taoiseach has said that the 3 key issues of phase one do not have to be resolved, but rather that sufficient progress must have been made by December to allow talks open on trade.
A Bloomberg report last week suggested that Ireland was considering seeking guarantees that no border will be re-imposed on our island as the price for allowing Brexit talks to advance?
Taoiseach, you might advise us whether this is now the Irish position and if you have made that clear to the British Government?
The Council’s Article 50 conclusion focusses on “convergences on principles and objectives regarding protection of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Unfortunately principles and objectives are not sufficient at this point and more concrete proposals are needed.
It is my belief that the suggestions emanating from the EU Council that discussions with the United Kingdom may be in a position by December to move onto trade pose a fundamental challenge for Ireland
The overall focus on the UK exit bill, while important, is not as significant to Ireland as the border question, and the position of the Good Friday Agreement.
Ireland will have to take a long hard look at this question in advance of the December Council meeting.
We have been told that progress has been made in relation to common travel, but that is only one aspect of the broader challenge facing this country.
I do not believe that Ireland can rely entirely on either the UK or the EU 26 to ensure our interests are protected.
The train is coming at us rather quickly and the British Government approach remains woefully incoherent.
Focusing more on the individual components within it could soften the political sensitivity over the exit bill.
I have yet to hear proposals from either the EU or the UK over how structural and PEACE funding for Northern Ireland will be dealt with.
Identifying sums for specific issues – whether scientific research, education or as I said designated funds for the Peace Process would help break down barriers to progress.
It is my belief now that the Taoiseach’s sole job is to keep Ireland’s concerns centre stage as forcefully as possible.
It would be great to think sufficient progress will be made to allow the discussions move onto a new stage but we cannot and should not take that for granted.
All the evidence so far indicates the opposite will happen.
If that is the case, come December Ireland must be prepared to say, insufficient progress has been made on Irish issues.
And that Phase 2 cannot begin until such progress has been made.