Over the past five years we have spent an enormous amount of time on statements such as these. In addition to post-Council statements which have been held for decades we have had the extra opportunity to talk for 10 minutes each before summits. However, if you look back over the record you will find that they have been defined by the government’s refusal to share any information not already in the public domain and its failure to set out any coherent account of what Ireland’s policy is towards the reform and development of the European Union.
In order to find out what our government is saying on our behalf we have had to rely on media reports and connections in other governments.
Why this matters is that the Union continues to be faced with the most serious crisis in its history and direct threats to its core principles are stronger than ever. Yet our government is a bystander which waits to find out what will happen before trying to claim some level of credit for it.
The issue of control on national budgets is a major issue and when a new treaty was being discussed the one and only request of our government, according to the then President of the Council, was that whatever emerged should not have to be referred to the people. There was no proposal about fixing serious flaws in Economic and Monetary Union. No proposal about helping regions in trouble. Absolutely no suggestion that aid be given to countries carrying debt linked to failed-European policies.
On issue after issue in the last five years this policy of saying as little as possible has been seen.
The only proactive policy in relation to Europe has been a public relations strategy at home designed to reinforce the government fairy-tale about its own actions. An enormous amount of effort has gone into distorting the reality of how many decisions have been taken and to make patently false claims about how decisions have been reached.
Using the quite strong European freedom of information regulations we have sought details of how or when our government set out demands for any relief from bank-related debt or attempted to implement any of the major changes in policy which Fine Gael and Labour promised in 2011. There was nothing there.
While the Dáil was told that the Taoiseach bravely stood up to the leaders of France and Germany, who may or may not have had two pints in their hands at the time, the record shows nothing of the sort.
While Fine Gael and Labour are already claimed to have ‘won’ major interest concessions, the record shows that concessions negotiated by others were automatically extended to Ireland without any negotiation. In fact, the major decrease in debt services costs was four times what the Taoiseach had requested.
And the Taoiseach will remember when he and his Ministers showered praise on themselves for a supposed ‘game change’ on bank related debt. Ministers Noonan and Howlin said we might get up to €30 billion. In the end we have received exactly nothing – which is the same amount that we asked for.
The bluster and rhetoric which we have had to put up with has failed to cover up a serious policy failure. At a time of great danger to the European Union, standing on the side-lines and focusing on national politics makes us part of the problem. A timid Union, scared to stand up to its opponents, unwilling to show the urgency or ambition which its citizens so badly want to see.
In this the government has abandoned forty years of precedent. This is the first government to end its term having failed to express a concrete opinion on reform of the Union. Governments of all parties have, in the past, set out their visions for the Union and how it might develop.
In discussing possible changes to the EU treaties every previous government set out a public negotiating position, lobbied for it and, when it was agreed, published a detailed statement of how Ireland’s interests were impacted by the proposed changes.
It is undeniably true that the Taoiseach has had meetings with Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Merkel. He appears to get on well with both. Equally there is no evidence of any concrete outcome for Ireland from these meetings – again unlike many past Taoisigh who built strong relations and showed important progress for Ireland’s interests.
Ireland was always a country which prided itself on not being afraid to speak up on important issues. We must return to this tradition because it is the single most important reason why we have succeeded in shaping so many policies.
It is why even in the midst of our economic crisis in 2009 other states invited us to chair the OSCE and why they have supported us in many international efforts such as our initiatives on non-proliferation and banning cluster bombs.
The most recent summit addressed a list of vital questions and delivered little progress. It was a dispiriting outcome.
The item which took the most time dealt with migration. Incredibly this focused purely on border control as a means of controlling migration to Europe. This fundamentally ignores the reality of why so many have tried to come to Europe at this moment and from where they have come.
It is wrong for people to dismiss the idea that this scale of migration of people with no resources of links to European countries is not a problem. The countries who are hosting the greatest numbers are feeling undeniable pressures which must be recognised.
However let us never forget that this is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis which has become a migration crisis.
People are making these treacherous and often fatal journeys because they feel they have no alternative. They were first driven out of their homes by a combination of a regime determined to prevent democracy and a fundamentalist army determined to impose medieval barbarity.
In refugee camps they have found places offering no future and worsening conditions. While Europe has increased its humanitarian assistance it has been a fraction of what is going into proposals on border controls and aiding people after they have felt the need to flee the camps. In addition, the budget of the UN and other relief agencies has been squeezed.
Food is inadequate, shelter poor, education for children rare and employment opportunities impossible.
The first priority must be humanitarian aid – and the Taoiseach and his colleagues appeared to have done nothing but note past decisions at the end of their meeting.
Many of the migration proposals agreed are reasonable, and so too are the proposals for combatting terrorism. However it is the duty of leaders not to succumb to the nasty populism of those who seek to spread fear and to label innocent people with the deeds of a tiny minority lacking any legitimacy to speak on their behalf.
We Irish must never forget that others refused to blame and label us for the murderous and sectarian brutality of the Provisional movement. We must stand with the Muslim community against the rising intolerance and overt racism of many extremists in Europe.
European values face a far bigger threat from the far-right and Russian-inspired autocracy than they do from any other source.
The summit’s communique is disturbingly silent on the issue of Russia’s invasion and partition of a sovereign European country and its continued attempts to destabilise it. Ukrainian democracy remains fragile. It will be difficult to survive if it cannot show that it can marshal continued support for its sovereignty.
I hope that in the coming weeks the media will take a break from discussing the political process and allow us to have a debate about issues such as this where the gaps between parties are becoming wider – and the support which some of our representatives in the European Parliament are giving to the invasion and partition of Ukraine is something which deserves to be exposed.
The basic structure of the EMU remains unsteady. The need for reform is undeniable. Therefore the bland discussion which the Summit held is worthless. New proposals may emerge in June. How they might help remains a mystery. Nobody has so far produced any justification for the claim that strengthened fiscal controls will assist growth and create employment.
The discussion on the single market was somewhat more substantive. My party remains a supporter of the principle of freer, fairer trade. Ireland simply could not achieve decent standards of living without the security which access to international markets provides. What we don’t support is the idea that this should include measures which allow unfair competition against critical industries and the agri-food sector in particular.
We also believe that the Commission is in danger of wasting enormous time and resources in picking fights for the sake of being tough rather than delivering meaningful competition improvements.
If you look back at the Microsoft action, the Commission rejected arguments which turned out to be true concerning the transitory nature of technological dominance.
The increased competition in browsers did not come from the litigation, it was part of the inherently disruptive nature of modern technology. In fact, if you look back at the past 50 years you see a constant and natural process of companies winning and losing dominance in different markets.
In relation to Google, Apple and other major companies, they are always one significant development away from losing their edge and it would be a foolish person who said that they cannot be challenged.
I respect Commissioner Verstager, who is a valued colleague of ours in the ALDE group. Her aggressive agenda of seeking to open fair competition for all should be supported.
However I hope that time and money will not be wasted on the pursuit of cases which may attract major attention but will be of marginal benefit to European business.
The summit noted the recent Paris Agreement on climate. As a fitting end to five years of moving away from ambitious action on climate change, the Taoiseach’s speech in Paris has been rightly criticised by a wide range of experts and NGOs.
There are communities throughout our country who are experiencing first hand at the moment the impact of the more frequent extreme weather which climate change is linked to.
I hope that after next month we will again have a government which shows a genuine commitment to addressing a problem which requires a global solution but has a very clear and growing national impact.
The decision to postpone serious discussion of Britain’s demand for changes in the EU resulted from the fact that progress in the negotiations is more talked about than real.
The failure to have a national debate here about what terms we would be willing to support in order to retain Britain is inexcusable.
It is clearly in our national interest for Britain to remain in the European Union. It is also in Europe’s interest. However there has to be some limit. There has to be a point beyond which what is being asked simply goes too far.
There is nothing short of reducing the EU to a hollowed-out and toothless free trade area which would satisfy the English Eurosceptics. They even oppose the idea that a country be subject to sanctions for breaking agreed rules.
Given what Prime Minister Cameron has said, he will need at least agreement for some measures to be included in a future treaty – just as concessions to Ireland were included in subsidiary treaties rather than the main text of the Lisbon Treaty.
Whatever is agreed on the 18th and 19th of February will fall to the next government to implement and the next Dáil to agree.
That is, of course, in the event that there is no referendum required – and if there is a change to freedom of movement and the respective powers of institutions then a referendum may be required.
The Taoiseach needs to know that he has no blank cheque. He must defend Ireland’s interest in an EU which is capable of addressing core problems and a Eurozone which can manage its own interests.
The Taoiseach should also be aware that any attempt by his staff to repeat for this summit the type of media manipulation they spend so much time on will damage him and damage public support for whatever emerges.
If the UK referendum happens in June it is Fianna Fáil’s intention to lay out the case in Northern Ireland for Northern Ireland to remain as part of the European Union.
For the other jurisdictions who will be voting it is up to them to assess their best interests, but the case for Northern Ireland remaining in the EU is overwhelming and we should not and will not be silent in this campaign and this position will apply even if we are in the new government our country so badly needs.
Having opposed EU membership both North and South, and having opposed every single EU proposal in the South, Sinn Fein has chosen to join the SDLP in calling for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU. This is welcome. Hopefully its hard Eurosceptic rhetoric of the last four decades will not have done too much damage.
On the long list of items which the next government will have to address urgently is an EU where there is no credible reform agenda which can deliver the social and economic progress our citizens so urgently crave.
The case for shared rules which prevent the race to the bottom, the exploitation of employees and unfair competition for business is stronger now than ever.
Its enemies on the right and left continue to attack it and undermine it. It needs those who believe in the idea of a shared progress to speak up and show urgency and ambition.
Ireland must stop standing on the side-lines.