I am sharing time with Deputy Wallace, soon to be a Member of the European Parliament. I fully support a very strong Army, Navy and Air Force defending our country and taking part in UN operations, which Óglaigh na hÉireann has done with great distinction over the past number of decades. Like colleagues, I was worried when I read about the Franco-German treaty, which seems to be built on mutual defence and where even the term a “real European army” was used. It was not only President Trump who used that term. All of the other European countries seem to be expected to operate under the mutual defence clause.
There has rarely been a time in history when the Members of one Parliament watched the actions of another assembly – the House of Commons is voting as we speak – with such profound frustration and sadness. Although all communities on the islands of Britain and Ireland, including business, farmers and civic society leaders, plead for some degree of certainty regarding the Brexit decision by the British people in 2016, the tortuous manoeuvres at Westminster and between the UK and the EU just go on and on. Of course, even the Theresa May deal only extends to December 2020 and we hear with dismay that major trade deals, such as that between the EU and the UK, may take up to seven years. This ordeal might continue throughout the 2020s.
When I downloaded the 585 page draft agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU last Wednesday evening in my office, like many others, I turned very quickly to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland on page 302. On first reading, the protocol seemed to satisfy Ireland’s core and essential demand that there could not be a return to a hard border in Ireland. The preface to the protocol acknowledged, among other basic realities, the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, the importance of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement and the rights of Irish and EU citizens in Northern Ireland. The commitment to unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK and the UK being committed to protecting and supporting continued North-South and east-west co-operation also seemed to indicate that Michel Barnier, the EU 27 and the various UK negotiators had produced a reasonable compromise on avoiding a hard border and arranging the exit of the UK from the EU. On a number of occasions during visits to this House, several Deputies stressed to Mr. Barnier how much we depended on EU solidarity with the Irish Government in this whole endeavour.
I am delighted to have a brief opportunity to contribute to the debate. The next meeting of the European Council will take place in Brussels tomorrow and Friday, where there will be discussions on migration, including reform of the Common European Asylum System, CEAS, the economy and multi-annual financial framework, PESCO and co-operation with NATO, and, most important for us, Brexit. On Sunday last, 16 of the 28 EU leaders held a mini-summit hosted by the Commission on the migration crisis. We have noted the fallout between the Council and the Commission regarding the organisation of that summit. It is clear that migration will be one of the most contentious issues on which to find consensus during the summit. A pan-European approach to migration is essential, particularly as we think of people who have died trying to cross into Europe because they wanted to migrate here.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I am delighted on Europe Day to have the opportunity to contribute briefly to this important debate. Clearly the EU is facing major challenges over the next few years, and the decision of the British people to opt for Brexit has offered an existential challenge to its very existence. In virtually every EU country, of course, there have been ongoing and long-standing concerns over the levels of democracy, accountability and transparency in the EU’s quasi-federal structures. These concerns have often been too easily dismissed as populism by commentators who, of course, are devoted to the EU project. The conduct of the bailouts of euro members like Ireland, Greece and Portugal since 2010 has greatly exacerbated these misgivings and reservations among the European electorates. The great Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance Minister, is now forming his own Europe-wide political party, which we may see in Ireland.
I echo the comments made by my colleague, Deputy Wallace, on defence matters. It is heartening to know that in his speech earlier the Taoiseach committed fully to the Paris climate change agreement and said that the 27 member states would stand together very firmly on that. I acknowledge his comments on migration and digital Europe. They are welcome but he needs to indicate clearly whether Ireland is living up to its commitments on migration.
I welcome the opportunity we will have later in the week to hear directly from Mr. Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator of the task force for the preparation and conduct of negotiations with the United Kingdom. Last month, I spoke again of the need for Ireland to have direct representation at Brexit negotiations given the serious impact the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will have on this country, first and foremost the North-South relationship but also the east-west relationship in the areas of trade and business. I have also called throughout for the appointment of a dedicated Brexit Minister. We were assured by the Taoiseach that he was best-placed to act as Brexit Minister because of his role in the European Council. It appears, however, that he will not be Brexit Minister for much longer.
The Taoiseach referred to the EU negotiating guidelines and to how the negotiations would proceed. Ireland needs direct representation at those negotiations because the sad Brexit decision by the UK is so significant for us. The Taoiseach said negotiations will take place under Michel Barnier and his team, who will report back to councils, but they will not necessarily be responsive enough to the minutiae of negotiations. Our vital national interests are at stake. Countries on the other side of Europe, such as Slovakia and Slovenia, have fundamentally different interests from ours. It is on the line for us as this is the most serious thing to have happened to us since the Second World War so it is not enough to be one of 27, as the Taoiseach suggested.
The United Kingdom is a few weeks away from the triggering of Article 50. I asked the Minister about this issue in the past. Obviously, the second largest net contributor to the European Union will be leaving, which will result in some residual costs and contributions. As a result of the 2015 revision of our GDP statistics, we were due to pay perhaps an additional €300 million this year. Has the position on our EU contribution become any clearer?
Today in Dáil Éireann, during Oral Questions with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, Deputy Tommy Broughan called on the Government to take a more proactive role in finding a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict in Syria. The conflict in Syria is now in its sixth year and hundreds of thousands of people have died during the course of the civil war and countless others displaced. Most recently, the eastern part of the ancient city, Aleppo, has been, and is continuing to be, decimated with airstrikes.