Speech by Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil

Statements on European Council Meeting

Dáil Éireann, Wednesday 21st June 2017

Before dealing with the Summit agenda in more detail I would like to make a few comments about how statements on EU meetings have been handled in recent years.

It has been Fianna Fáil’s policy during these sessions to constructively engage with the agenda of the upcoming summit.  In contrast it has been government policy to maximise the generalities and minimise the detail – and as we know from yesterday the new Taoiseach believes that preventing questions being asked in the Dáil can be a priority for him.

We have been obliged to seek information in Brussels and elsewhere in order to make a substantive contribution and this seems likely to continue.  I know that many others share our frustration at the superficial and dismissive approach by government to real discussions of European policy.

Because this is the Taoiseach’s first statement on Europe, he should be aware that patience has been exhausted on this matter.

The reality is that the government has seen European issues as simply another forum for domestic politics.  The defining approach to negotiations has been to say as little as possible in public so that whatever emerges can be presented as a great national victory.  In some cases we have even discovered that Ireland hadn’t actually tabled any proposals but the victory was claimed anyway.

Over the past six years, each year Fianna Fáil has outlined a detailed and radical approach to the development and reform of the Union.  From a point two years before the Brexit referendum we have been addressing the specific issue of Brexit.

And yet, in response, the level of engagement and information from government to the pro-EU opposition has been lower than at any point in decades.

It is long since passed time for a comprehensive statement to be published on Ireland’s future European policy.  The debate is well underway elsewhere – and some reports suggest that the negotiations may even have started on the shape of Europe in five and ten years’ time.  Ireland must join this debate and it must develop a strategy for influencing it.

There has been a poor beginning to this revised government’s commitment to dealing with the opposition in good faith.  In the normal course of events this is serious – when it comes to issues such as Europe and Northern Ireland it can cause real damage and undermine the non-partisan legitimacy which our government’s policy has always drawn strength from.

Taoiseach, this is your choice, but if the partisan positioning and press-briefing obsessed strategy continues on Europe it will do you no good and it will cause real damage for our country.
Donald Tusk has been a good President of the Council and we supported his reappointment.  President Tusk has shown a keen interest in Ireland from his first days as Polish Prime Minister and he has continued this.

In the next 2 years he will lead the Council through some extremely important discussions about the future of the Union.

The 10 minute bilateral which you Taoiseach are scheduled to hold with him on Thursday clearly will not allow for any detailed discussions.  It will be more like a formal introduction.  We would strongly support an invitation to him to address the Oireachtas.

Brexit is not a significant item on the Summit’s agenda for the obvious reason that the negotiations only started this week.

As we have said repeatedly, we believe that the government’s failure or indeed refusal to propose specific arrangements for mitigating the impact of Brexit has been an error.  Winning the acceptance that Ireland is a special case is not even 10% of the battle.  Securing support of a light-touch border crossing will help only marginally.  Some form of special status for the North and the Border counties must be sought.

Special status threatens no one, but it could protect many from the worst impact of this narrow-minded decision foisted on Northern Ireland by an English majority.

Equally, there is no realistic way of helping the worst affected industries within existing EU state aid regulations.  If we are to secure concessions in time we need to be pushing now and not after the worst of the damage is underway.

We will be requesting a full Brexit debate in the House in the coming weeks during which we expect the Taoiseach to go beyond the vague generalities we’ve heard so far.

The House should know that yesterday was World Refugee Day.

The Summit is due to discuss the ongoing migration crisis.  On behalf of the Fianna Fáil party I would like to again extend our thanks to the men and women of our defence forces who are working tirelessly to save thousands of people in the Mediterranean.

In particular I would like to note the extraordinary professionalism and humanitarian commitment which was shown by the crew of the LE Eithne in recent days when they rescued nearly 800 people and delivered a baby girl on board.

What is very striking about this story is that it is a near exact replica of a similar situation which happened this very week two years ago.  In July 2015 it was the crew of the LE Niamh delivered a child while rescuing people desperate to get to Europe.  The progress since then has been limited at best.

The reason why the migration crisis is still happening is that the factors causing people to flee their homelands remain.

We support the effort of the Council to achieve greater solidarity amongst members in helping migrants seeking asylum.  However we also believe that not even a fraction of the required funding is being provided to help people in their home countries or close to them.

The overwhelming majority of migrants do not want to leave their homes, or would be willing to wait nearby until they can return.  They are undertaking such desperately dangerous journeys because they have lost hope that they can provide for themselves and their families.

What we need from the Council is not just a greater solidarity in helping those who reach Europe but also a step-change in the direct aid for people and communities in North Africa and the Middle East.

The decision of the Russian government to support the Assad regime is the only reason why the conflict in Syria escalated, fractured and displaced millions.  Yet both Russia and Syria are making exactly zero contribution to genuine humanitarian aid.

As well as calling on the Russian and Syrian governments to stop targeting civilians, the Council should also commence a process for increasing humanitarian aid so that by Autumn we do not enter the spiral of heightened misery which has always followed the turn towards winter.

The scheduled discussion on security and defence has not been preceded by any details of what’s involved.  Our assumption is that it is simply a review of already agreed actions and will involve no new policy.

As part of this discussion we believe leaders should begin a more detailed approach to dealing with the exponentially-rising threat of cyber warfare.

Some European states, such as Estonia and Sweden have already been the subjects of aggressive cyber-attacks.  In other cases the use of cyber-warfare methods to interfere in democratic elections has been proven, including both service disruption attacks and the spreading of disinformation.  All of this activity has had one source.

The last two national risk assessments carried out by all parts of the public and security services have identified cyber disruption as the most potentially damaging risk for Ireland.  There has been little done to respond to this.

I have no doubt that a coordinated European response is the only way in which we can develop credible defences against this type of activity.

I hope Taoiseach you will raise this matter and remind other leaders that this is a security threat which every country, including the EU’s neutral members, can work together on.

The summit will also formally sign off on the latest European Semester.

This may well be the worst-named of the many badly-named European procedures.

This is simply the end of the latest cycle of economic and budgetary reviews.  The tone of the draft conclusions implies that the process has been successful.  In truth these reviews have been helpful in only a limited number of cases.  More generally they are either banal or they ignore profound issues.

The reviews are primarily about controlling budgets but are largely superficial when it comes to measures other than structural reforms.  More importantly they consistently ignore the need for new approaches to issues such as imbalances between countries.

In addition, the reviews do not grapple with the need for significant debt relief for Greece or provide a credible growth agenda for many other countries.

One thing which has become absolutely obvious in recent months is that the current model for discussions within the Eurogroup is unsustainable.

The ad-hoc negotiations, devoid of agreed procedure, dominated by side discussions and led by a Minister for Finance with no fixed term are not a credible way to address the issues of the Eurozone.

As a start, we believe a more permanent arrangement for a Eurogroup Chairperson should be agreed now that the incumbent will soon depart.

It may be that a non-agenda point concerning respect for fundamental rights within the Union will be raised.  This relates in particular to a severe anti-NGO law recently passed in Hungary and some equally concerning laws in other countries.

Every country which joins the EU gives a commitment to respect basic rights.  At this grave moment when extremists threaten the basic tenets of liberal democracy we can’t sit quietly and say nothing.

No doubt the Taoiseach will travel to this Summit with the lines already prepared about how successful his trip has been.  What actually matters is whether or not he is willing to do the much harder work of making concrete proposals about the future of the European Union, protecting Ireland against the impact of Brexit and ending the policy where Ireland has been little more than a bystander when fundamental issues have been discussed.