Given the ongoing manoeuvring between Fine Gael and Labour about the election date it is not yet clear that this is the final discussion on Europe of this Dáil. No doubt this will once again be played out in a string of anonymous media briefings where leaders will retain the right to publicly deny what they have been saying privately.
I hope that we will be in a position to discuss the outcome of this summit because it is an extremely important one concerning the future direction of Europe. It will mark an important moment when Europe decides to stand by its fundamental values or if it allows the agenda to be set by extremists.
We should also understand that the summit to be held in February may well be held in the middle of our General Election. It is due to formally decide on a fundamental issue for Ireland – the terms on which Britain will hold its referendum on continued membership. Of course the Taoiseach and his team will employ their usual spin and hyperbole. They may even pretend that he is leading the negotiations, or invent another story such as the infamous and comprehensively debunked claim that he fought off an ambush in 2011. No doubt Chancellor Merkel will once again be asked to help Fine Gael’s campaign.
If there’s one this this country doesn’t need it’s more of this nonsense. For five years we’ve had a government which has put spin first in everything. And when it comes to vital European issues it has adopted a consistent policy of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for things to turn up which it might claim credit for.
This is a moment when issues which will shape the economic, social and democratic future of Ireland and the whole Europe are being decided. Yet our government ends its time in office never having produced a statement of its policies. In relation to every significant negotiation of the past 5 years the Taoiseach has refused to say in advance what his policy was – only to come out afterwards claiming to have shaped what he always praises as wonderful conclusions.
On banking union, ECB powers, debt relief, fiscal controls, migrant policy, Russian aggression, British renegotiation and many other issues there is no example of our government setting out clear policy objectives or undertaking any campaign to influence other members. Instead we have had the growing influence of domestic party political manoeuvring in policy. This is why, for example, the Taoiseach refuses to state internationally that Ireland’s growth is based on the fundamental strengths of the economy developed by the people of this country. He also refused, with one lone exception where he went off script in Paris three years ago; to state that Ireland was treated unfairly and deserves justice relating to debts accumulated due to failed and abandoned EU policies.
He prefers to talk about his heroic ascent to office – missing the fact that he voted against the majority of measures he now claims credit for and that he waited most a year before introducing a budget.
Standing on the sidelines waiting to run on to the pitch to claim the victory has meant that Ireland has played and continues to play no significant role in shaping vital policies. In fact, the government is so determined to avoid there being any debate that we constantly have to turn to Brussels to get basic information on Ireland’s position.
Many of the vital foundations of the European Union are under threat. Equally core policies have clearly failed and need to be reformed. Progress is impossible as long as countries like Ireland stand on the sidelines and refuse to even state what their proposals are.
Europe’s enemies on the right and left, as well as those in countries which want to undermine it, are willing to use any tactic and any argument to damage it. A gradualist, business as usual approach is not working and will not work in the future.
Perhaps most fundamentally we have been clear about the values which Europe must stand for. Without setting this as a foundation which we will always defend anything could happen.
At the core of cooperation between European states must always be an absolute commitment to democracy and the respect of human rights. Europe and its states are not and never have been perfect – but this region has a right to point to over seven decades during which it has shown a commitment to democracy and human rights which far outstrips that shown in any other region in the world.
Those who like to constantly attack Europe, particularly the extreme right and left, like nothing more than coming up with false comparisons and nonsense such as “how can you criticise when your record isn’t perfect”.
Europe must not allow the pressure of undoubted crises to move it away from its values.
The strength of these values is most eloquently seen in the fact that so many people see it as a haven from conflict and repression.
Chancellor Merkel has played a progressive and humane role in this crisis so far. I hope that her speech this weekend does not mark a significant change in her policies. She is entirely wrong when she accepts the idea that multi-culturalism is somehow a myth or a threat.
One of the most important developments we have had as a society is understanding the need to embrace cultural diversity. The positive parts of Europe’s history have all been based on the mixing of cultures to develop new ones. The idea of fixed historical cultures has no basis in reality and it has caused immense destruction in the past.
Our response to the current pressures of migration will play a major part in defining whether we are true to our values or if we allow the extremes to distort them.
Clearly there is not an unlimited capacity to provide for any person who wants to come to Europe. However we have an undoubted duty to provide humanitarian refuge. Whether you base this on Christian or other religious beliefs, or on a humanistic approach, this is a litmus test.
The grotesque campaigns seen in France, Hungary and other countries to scapegoat people from minority or new groups must be resisted in every way possible. And they cannot be resisted by adopting their logic.
I think we should note the courageous and successful effort of Prime Minister Valls to stop the Front National from winning any region last weekend. He and President Hollande put principles ahead of party in a way that, unfortunately, others did not.
At tomorrow’s summit political decisions will be taken about establishing a border force. This has little direct impact on Ireland due to our non-membership of the Schengen Area. The Schengen project is one which its member’s value, but equally they do have collective responsibilities relating to borders. It is difficult to see how a force of 1,500 guards which may move from place to place will address any significant problem.
The true focus should remain on addressing the reasons why people are fleeing their homes in the first place. If we stand by while families are forced to live in refugee camps with few facilities and no future then of course they will continue to flee. Our first and absolute priority must be to help people to return quickly to their homes and to provide them with support before they feel the need to undertake a perilous journey in search of basic prospects for the future.
If this new proposal goes ahead it will shift the funding balance from humanitarian aid to enforcement. This is something we should not support. Ireland should argue for an increase in humanitarian aid without any diversion from other important programmes and with the border proposal being financed new means.
Equally, we should not drop basic requirements of Turkey in order to win its assistance on this issue.
Since he assumed the Council Presidency, Donald Tusk has adopted a very important departure in organising summits. His private and public communications with leaders are defined by a new openness and honesty about difficulties.
I very much welcome his decision to be open about the difficulties being faced in the negotiations with the British government. His pre-Council letter shows that progress has been marginal and on the tricky issues Britain continues to make demands which should be unacceptable.
The proposal to ban welfare supports for EU migrants for four years is tabloid-pandering of the worst type. It answers a problem which they have yet to demonstrate exists. It also has direct threats for Ireland. It is impossible to see how we could continue to current policies of each country being open in welfare payments to our citizens while this was denied to all other countries. Across the border this would have potentially enormous implications – leaving aside the wider point to the regular movement of workers back and forth across the Irish Sea. I hope that this is something that the Taoiseach has reviewed because it is not a point he has yet publicly acknowledged.
Prime Minister Cameron’s demand concerning a veto on Eurozone specific policies is also a huge concern and one which we need to hear more about in terms of specifics.
On the face of it a demand to veto cooperation between other member states is extraordinary. The bigger issue is that many of the reforms required to make the Eurozone more effective could be stopped and we would end up with the worst of all worlds.
There is a brief discussion on Economic and Monetary Union on the agenda. Reconciling the contradictions between this discussion and the demands of the British government is something which must be done and which is not acknowledged in the Taoiseach’s public statements.
No doubt when we get to February the Taoiseach’s staff will roll-out a PR campaign to claim that he is driving negotiations and is having important discussions with the leaders of the largest countries. There’s no reason to believe that a 5-year policy of spin leading everything will disappear between now and February.
As a country we cannot afford an approach which simply stands by and accepts whatever emerges. We have a national interest in seeing Britain remain in the European Union – and we also have a national interest in reforming the European Union to make it work better. We need a Union which shows ambition and urgency in tackling rising problems – not one which has been emasculated and retreats towards simply being a single market.
It would be a gross disservice to the Irish people if we do not have more openness and engagement on this issue.
The Summit is also due to discuss the extension of sanctions against Russia.
The lifting of these sanctions has been predicated on the full implementation of the Minsk Accords. This has not happened.
Russia continues to have troops on sovereign Ukrainian territory. It continues to deny Ukraine the right to control its own borders. It has also begun to escalate economic intimidation of Ukraine – with the unilateral cancellation of gas agreements a serious indication of ore to come.
It seems obvious that Russia’s intervention to save the Assad regime and its aggressive stance concerning Syria is designed in part to force others to ignore Ukraine. Nicholas Sarkozy’s visit to Moscow 2 weeks ago and is statement that we should forget about sanctions against Russia was shameful – and so too are the efforts of others to sacrifice Ukraine in the interest of commercial and political expediency.
The invasion, partition and undermining of a neighbouring state is a practice which can never be rewarded.
I hope our government will stand with Ukraine and insist that these sanctions are maintained. Anything else would be shameful.
Finally the summit is due to discuss the related issue of the Energy Union.
With the breakthrough in the climate negotiations we need an Energy Union which is ambitious enough to ensure that Europe meets and exceeds its emissions goals. This cannot happen if we allow countries to act unilaterally and create infrastructure which undermines solidarity and leaves Europe open to blackmail by increasingly authoritarian countries.