Speech of FF Leader during Dáil Statements on European Council meeting
Published on: 05 March 2020
This is a period of great uncertainty for the European Union and its members. The basic principles upon which this community of free democracies has been built are under attack and there is a desperate need for leadership in overcoming genuinely historic social, economic and environmental challenges.
The debates have been going on for most of the past decade. There is no more time to waste – Ireland and the whole of Europe need real urgency, ambition and leadership.
Unfortunately, this latest summit once again failed to take decisive action. Most radical and progressive options for developing the Union appear to have been shelved. We are yet again stuck in a zero-sum negotiation which looks set to deny the Union the ability to deliver on the mandate it has received.
All the reports from the negotiations suggest that the dispute is focused on an amount of money which is a fraction of the national incomes of any of the principal countries involved. Those who are opposing an increased budget are demanding cuts to existing programmes in order to create the space to address other areas like energy, research and the just transition to a zero carbon Union.
So yet again we see the repeat of a debate which has undermined the Union for much of the last four decades. Every time a major issue arises the member states agree that common action supported by the Union is the only way of tackling the issue.
It is then added to the agenda, but members also insist that the Union’s budget continue to be limited to 1% of combined national incomes.
This is why every time the Budget is being negotiated pressure is placed on the Common Agricultural Policy and it is claimed that somehow it is a waste and should be scaled back.
This pressure is not based on an objective assessment of the fact that the CAP has delivered food security to Europe for the first time in its history – or that it is central to efforts to protect rural life and the countryside.
Countries which are saying that their citizens simply won’t accept any increase in the budget are repeating the same error which government after government in the UK made in the decades before Brexit.
Their rhetoric directly empowers Eurosceptics by promoting the idea of a wasteful Brussels spending “our” money. Instead they should be saying, “if we want greater economic security, if we want clean energy, if we want the innovation upon which our future relies, then a tenth of one percent of national income is really not that much to pay.
While Ireland made very serious errors in the past three years by aligning itself with the opponents of any increase, the reversal of this position in the past six months has been welcome.
We agree with the basic approach that Ireland should be willing to see its contribution increase in return for both protecting existing programmes and expanding support for newer actions, and in particular the European Green Deal proposed by the Commission.
It is, at best, a shame that Ireland refused to engage with the move made by President Macron early in his term to discuss how we could help the Union to be more dynamic and effective.
What is different in the negotiations for this budget period is that there are many other issues being discussed at the time which combine to greatly complicate the ability to reach an outcome.
There has been some suggestion that the Polish and Hungarian governments are seeking to use the negotiations to block actions against them for violations of basic democratic and rule of law principles.
This is a very worrying and regressive development and Ireland should stand with those countries which are refusing to accept this type of behaviour.
In order to break the deadlock, it is likely that something will have to be done in relation to the wider challenge not just of the size of the EU budget but also of reform of broader EU economic policies.
Fianna Fáil believes that many of the proposals of the Commission are reasonable and have the potential to form part of a more flexible outcome to discussions.
There is simply no way that member states will meet essential climate targets without a dramatic increase in the scale and affordability of financing for dedicated climate programmes. A historic challenge requires a breaking of existing constraints.
The European Green Deal proposed by the Commission must be supported.
It is an exceptional action which, in relation to those parts which require direct funding rather than just financing, simply cannot be implemented within current budget constraints.
We very strongly support the flexibility which is proposed by the Commission in the recently published Fiscal Rules Review.
Countries will not be able to rapidly or comprehensively implement plans for clean energy, energy-efficient buildings, expanded public transport and other critical actions if they are forced to operate within existing inflexible fiscal rules.
Allowing extra space to fund climate projects should be agreed well before the current deadline of the end of next year.
Giving national governments this flexibility will take some of the pressure off the EU’s Budget.
We also strongly support the proposal to reform state aid rules by allowing for a “Green Priority”. This would directly enable countries like Ireland to start showing greater dynamism in building a leading-edge industrial base in climate innovation.
In the past we went from a standing start to world-leader in sectors such as medical devices, micro-processing and software – we must aim to do so again in the field of carbon-free innovation. A “Green Priority” in state aid could make a critical difference and deliver major social, economic and environmental benefits.
We also support the proposal to turn the EIB into a dynamic Climate Bank – taking the lead in financing both public and private programmes to permanently reduce carbon emissions. However, this does not replace the need to directly finance programmes – and in particular both Just Transition investments for industries and support for rural communities which will bear the greatest impact of transition measures if they are not helped.
Funding the European Union so that it meets the challenges which we set for it starts with a fair budget agreement but also includes this much wider agenda.
At a minimum Ireland should support all efforts which take climate action out of the realm of a zero-sum debate against existing projects.
Separately, I would again like to reiterate that Fianna Fáil supports the expansion of research and education funding in general. Europe’s critical innovation and social inclusion goals cannot be achieved without more ambitious programmes.
We also believe that funding for the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund is nowhere near the level it needs to be, particularly in relation to the ability to fund proper support programmes for new residents. The reality is that EU funding supports nearly all activity in this field, and it is not enough to meet the needs of Europe post-2015.
The Summit briefly discussed the appalling situation in the Idlib province in Northern Syria. The attacks by the Assad forces and their Russian allies are bringing a new wave of misery to over a million people. Syria continues to be the greatest humanitarian disaster of this century and the brutal conflict inflicted on the Syrian people by the regime remains the core reason for this.
There are many reports about knock-on effects of the renewed attack, including both a return to widespread emigration and the pushing of refugees both towards and away from the Greek border.
This is fundamentally a situation which must be dealt with in accordance with basic humanitarian principles.
We believe that Ireland should work with other countries to first of all get full information about what is happening and secondly to insist that the rights and dignity of people fleeing a brutal conflict are respected.
The issue of the mandate for trade negotiations with the UK was not discussed at the summit but it is something which we should note.
There are deeply worrying signs that the Johnson government is prepared to seek what is effectively a no deal outcome. While we can pass comments about how they are changing their position from the Joint Declaration, it is true that this has no legal force and the UK is entitled to set whatever red lines it wishes. However, two urgent points arise in relation to Ireland.
First of all, commitments in relation to the Border do have legal force and we need immediate clarity as to whether or not the British government intends honouring these commitments and what exactly it is doing in order to honour them.
Secondly it is clear that we need to dramatically ramp up preparations for help companies hit by new barriers to East/West trade. A failure to reach a trade deal threatens Ireland with a permanent loss of over 3% of GNP and tens of thousands of jobs unless mitigating actions are taken.
Brexit is done but it has not yet been decided what its full impact will be. Ireland must continue to see this as a core national priority.