When this Dáil first met four and a half years ago there was cross-party agreement that we would put European issues at the heart of our discussions. We all agreed that pan-EU matters had become too important for Ireland to be left as an afterthought.
Unfortunately the reality is that things have actually got worse. There has, on occasion been more time scheduled for speeches, but the level of serious engagement with European issues has actually got worse. Unfortunately our government or parliament has not engaged properly in the major issues facing Europe today.
As the government enters its final days it has no stated policy on the reform of the Union. It is content with banal generalities in relation to the UK’s position. It has accepted policies on banking union and fiscal controls which leave untouched key causes of the recession.
It has been playing catch-up on the refugee crisis – only starting to engage once the scale of public outrage became clear. Deputies have lost count of the number of times the Taoiseach has come in here to say that everything is in hand and the crisis is being addressed.
Yet Europe continues to stumble from crisis to crisis. The failure of the Taoiseach and his colleagues to act before a situation reaches boiling point continues to define their behaviour.
Today’s debate is actually the first time in four months that we have been allowed to discuss Europe. The Taoiseach refused to report to the Dáil on two previous meetings of leaders even though we requested that time be scheduled. In his contribution the Taoiseach has again spoken at length and said little of substance.
The one thing which Ireland and Europe desperately need is to end the lack of ambition and energy which characterises how the Taoiseach and other leaders approach every issue.
For the last two years I and my colleague Deputy Brendan Smith have repeatedly raised the humanitarian disaster which has emerged in Syria.
The mass movement of refugees to Europe is not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to what is one of the largest refugee crises for over fifty years.
At the root of the crisis is a dictatorship which chose to wage war on its own people rather than concede democratic rights.
The early support which the Assad regime received from some other countries and the Hezbollah movement was decisive in stopping its collapse and leading to a dramatic radicalisation. The conflict has developed into a many-fronted civil war, with the IS grouping representing a barbaric new element.
Over 12 million people have been displaced and they are overwhelmingly to be found in neighbouring countries. The up to one million people who have risked their lives in an effort to reach Europe are not refugees by choice.
They are fleeing intolerable conditions. They are denied even the most basic right of being able to live safely and to look after their families.
Massive camps with only basic facilities, no schools, no work and no hope are the reality for millions who have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
There comes a point where endurance can go no further and that is why we have seen the pressures of recent months.
They do not want to be refugees, they want to live peacefully in their own land – and because this is not possible we have a moral obligation to help them.
The failure by the international community to respond to the refugee crisis quickly and comprehensively is why so many have now come to Europe.
In the summits of June and September as well as in the agenda for next week’s summit there continues to be a strategy of trying to find a way of doing as little as possible to muddle-through.
The frankly xenophobic comments of certain leaders were a disgrace. This is no time to pander to the extremists who want to spread fear.
It is a time to assert the primacy of the values which we should share as Europeans.
I welcome the fact that there has been a broad humanitarian consensus in Irish society and we must all work to protect this.
I welcome the government’s eventual agreement to a significant resettlement plan and for the principle that all countries should accept a share of the task.
What has yet to happen is for a plan to be outlined which is proportionate to the challenge. There is no comprehensive plan and there is no real commitment to helping countries which face disproportionate pressures.
This is an unprecedented emergency. The EU and its member states cannot address it if every proposal has to be dealt with through existing resources. Yet so far every initiative is to be funded through the reallocation of existing funds – which mostly involves diverting money from other urgent humanitarian tasks.
This zero-sum approach can’t continue.
A dramatic increase in funding is required for three actions.
First, and most important, is to give hope to the millions living in camps. They need decent facilities and access to education and some work. Their main desire is to return home, and until this is possible they need our help.
Second we must recognise the particular needs of member states which are facing the greatest pressures. All of the evidence is that their capacities are stretched to or beyond breaking point. Basic solidarity requires that they be helped.
Finally each member state needs to genuinely welcome those who have fled a conflict which has been relentless and bloody.
Our Defence Forces have continued to play an honourable and effective role in the Mediterranean. We should be proud of them and the great tradition of Oglaigh na hÉireann in serving this state and humanitarian causes throughout the world.
Next week leaders will discuss the programme for the special regional summit in Valetta. As currently drafted there is no indication of genuine urgency or ambition.
In relation to the conflict in, and increasingly around, Syria there have been very disturbing developments in recent months.
The Kurdish forces have played a positive role in confronting the IS. The decision of the Turkish government to hinder Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces and to relaunch a full-scale conflict with the PKK is serving no-one’s interests.
There is an urgent need for an intervention to try and end this escalation. The imminent Turkish election may well be playing a role – but we need to do everything possible to support a return to the peace process once it is over.
The decision of Russia to put troops into Syria and to begin daily bombings has been directed at the sole aim of protecting the Assad regime. The majority of attacks appear to have been against the more moderate opposition including Kurdish forces – and have been well away from the areas dominated by IS.
There is no scenario in which Assad will be able to bring peace to his country. The conflict began because of his efforts to crush moderate opposition and it escalated because of his brutality, including using chemical weapons against his own people. From the very beginning, and at a point where the conflict was solely and internal Syrian affair, Russia has blocked any international effort to support a transition in the country.
Separately, there have been indications that Russia is de-escalating the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. This is to be welcomed. What it does not yet show is a willingness of Russia to end its occupation and partition of Ukraine.
Its imperialist agenda against a former subject state remains in place. So too does its efforts to find and use what Lenin once called “useful idiots” in Europe who will defend Russia no matter what it does – particularly through deploying false comparisons and demands to remove any consequences for Russia of its actions.
Parties on the extreme right and extreme left remain active advocates for lifting sanctions against Putin’s government. There have been signs in recent days of a push by some major businesses to get back into the Russian market. Our government should join with those who are demanding that there be no restoration of normal relations as long as Russia continues its policy of occupation and partition.
The summit is due to have a further discussion concerning reforms to Economic and Monetary Union. There are, in fact, no genuine reforms being proposed. None of the already identified causes of the recession are to be tackled.
The banking union covers only a fraction of the industry at the core of the meltdown. There is no shared deposit guarantee system and moves are already in place to limit the oversight of banks which pose systemic risks.
There are not even proposals for a fiscal union which would allow for regions under the most pressure to receive help at times of greatest need.
All that we have is a set of controls relating to deficits and debt. While the specific targets set in these controls may be reasonable, and they are appropriate for Ireland, they are entirely inappropriate in many situations.
They preclude stimulus spending in cases where this can be afforded.
They also preclude the type of policies which helped other countries to more quickly and robustly exit the recession.
The threat of deflation is again present and the only thing standing in the way of a new recession is an ECB programme which has been opposed by Germany and which has been referred to the Court of Justice.
The Taoiseach’s refusal to even argue for a set of real reforms to EMU is representative of a policy which has emphasised photo-opportunities and pats on the head over genuine substance.
The summit is also due to hear further details about British proposals for the renegotiation of parts of its membership of the Union.
The rhetoric at this week’s Tory party conference has been far beyond anything which Ireland should be willing to accept.
The absence of the moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats from the Cameron administration is clearly having an impact.
Most strikingly ministers have begun deploying arguments which were directly refuted by the independent review of EU policies carried out in the last few years.
The basic drift of their demands is to seek a protection of all of the benefits of membership in relation to markets but to undermine all social elements of membership.
The UK being a member of the Union is something which Ireland has a major interest in – but this must not mean that we will pay any price to make it happen.
It’s long since passed the time when our government should put on the record our basic response to the Tory demands. This should be an issue in our election whenever the cycle of spin runs out and the Taoiseach decides to end the permanent campaign which has defined his approach to government.
The basic model of the European Union which we signed up to is one which sees economic and social progress and inseparable objectives. We did not just sign up for a free market – we signed up for a free market which gave a guarantee of fair competition based on decent working conditions and protections.
The British have not been able to demonstrate the negative impact of laws against discrimination, bad working conditions and exploitative contracts. These form the core of what a modern decent society should have in place. We must reject any push to enable a new rush to the bottom.
Equally we should oppose any proposals concerning restrictions of social supports. This has the potential to undermine the position of hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens and, at a minimum; we should demand a legal commitment from Britain that the rights of the Irish people will not be changed.
This has particular implications for mobility on this island and the reduction of current rights from their current iron-clad basis is something we will absolutely oppose.