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Snippet Contents:

The meeting of the European Council which took place last Thursday and Friday dealt with several issues of importance to the Union. It began on Thursday afternoon with a substantial discussion about the complex issue of migration, which remains, quite rightly, a priority for the Union. The evening session focused predominantly on external relations, specifically the situation in Syria and our strategic relationship with Russia. On Friday, we discussed a number of trade issues, including the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada, commonly called CETA, as well as TTIP, the EU-Japan Free Trade Agreement, trade defence instruments and, more broadly, EU trade policy. A range of other global and economic issues were also agreed, as set out in the European Council conclusions.
In addition to the formal agenda, there were three substantive information points. The first of these was an update from Prime Minister Rutte on developments in the Netherlands since the referendum there on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, DCFTA, with Ukraine as well as developments on the MH17 investigations. The second was a presentation by Prime Minister Fico on follow up to the roadmap agreed at the Bratislava summit in September, which set out a plan for future work on the renewal of Europe. The third was a brief intervention from Prime Minister May on developments on Brexit. I have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Murphy, to touch on elements of the Russia discussion in his wrap-up remarks. I will address the other agenda items.
I will start by updating the House on Prime Minister May’s intervention, as I know the EU-UK relationship is of particular interest to the House. This was her first meeting of the European Council since becoming UK Prime Minister and President Donald Tusk welcomed her to the meeting. In her remarks, the Prime Minister confirmed that the UK decision to leave the EU is irreversible and that it will trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017. She was very clear that until the Article 50 negotiations are conducted the UK intends to remain a full and active member of the European Union and to fulfil all of its obligations and responsibilities as a member state. As envisaged, there was no discussion of the issue at this meeting. However, President Tusk took the opportunity to reiterate the principles agreed by the 27 EU Heads of State and Government in June, that there will be no negotiations until Article 50 is triggered by the UK, and that access to the Single Market is linked to acceptance of the four freedoms.
I had informal exchanges with a number of my EU counterparts, including Prime Minister May, as well as Commission President Juncker, in the margins of the meeting. During these exchanges, I emphasised, as I do at every opportunity, Ireland's very particular concerns arising from Brexit, specifically the impact on the economy, jobs in the Republic and Northern Ireland, the peace process, citizenship issues, the common travel area and Border issues and the interconnectedness of our economies.
Responding to the migration crisis effectively and humanely remains, quite rightly, a top priority for the Union. Clearly, many problems remain, particularly in the central Mediterranean. Significant progress has been made, for example, in managing the inflow of irregular migrants through our relations with third countries. At the meeting on Thursday, the Commission gave a detailed presentation on the latest developments, and progress on the various measures already agreed. Many of these are having a positive impact. Most notable is the significant decrease in the number of people travelling the eastern Mediterranean route, where there has been a 98% drop in arrivals since the EU-Turkey statement was agreed in March. There was a constructive discussion about restoring the Schengen Agreement because of this progress. Although Ireland does not participate in Schengen, we recognise its value to the EU overall and we are supportive of the progress being made.
There was also a presentation by High Representative Mogherini on the migration compacts. These are proposed agreements between the EU and third countries, such as Niger and others in Africa, as part of the Commission's partnership framework. These compacts are born out of the understanding that we have to address the root causes of the migration crisis and not just its effects, and aim at bringing coherence between external policies and development policies. They are being worked on with a number of African countries in the first instance. Ireland is particularly involved in discussions about Ethiopia, which is a key partner of Irish Aid. In this context, Ireland is also a supporter of progress on the external investment plan in order to boost investments and job creation in the partner countries.
Despite our position on the far western edge of Europe, and our non-participation in certain justice and home affairs measures under Protocol 21 of the treaties, we continue to contribute to the EU response to the challenges posed by migration. Since May 2015 Defence Forces and Naval Service personnel have rescued over 14,300 migrants from the Mediterranean. The LE Samuel Beckett began patrols on 2 October and continues to play a vital role in this regard. I commend the members of the Naval Service and Defence Forces for the service they provide. They are a credit to our flag and our nation and we thank them for their service.
We are also playing our part in terms of our humanitarian assistance. We have provided over €42 million in response to the Syria crisis since 2011, and we have pledged a further €20 million in 2016. It is important to recall the Government’s decision to opt in to the EU measures on resettlement and relocation and to take up to 4,000 people in need of international protection. There has been good progress on the resettlement of refugees from outside the Union under the direction of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. To date, 500 have arrived in Ireland and we are on course to meet our 2016 target of 520 by the end of the year. There is no facility for taking refugees directly from within Syria. We are working with the UNHCR-Ied programme, which is currently focused on resettling refugees from the camps in Lebanon, and the programme is moving ahead. The Government has announced we will admit an additional 260 refugees on resettlement from Lebanon next spring, and a further pledge for 2017 is under active consideration.
On relocation, that is taking asylum seekers who have already arrived in Greece and Italy, progress has been very slow. This has been the case for all countries for a variety of reasons outside of our control. However, progress is at last beginning to be made and 69 people have now come to Ireland from Greece. We are building on this progress and it is anticipated that by the end of the year we will have accepted up to 400 people through the relocation pledge. The intention thereafter is to sustain the pace of intake throughout 2017 at the levels required to allow Ireland to meets its commitments within the timeframe envisaged by the programme.
The migration crisis is born out of instability across the north African and Middle East regions and in that regard the horrendous war in Syria remains a central factor. There was a lengthy discussion about the situation there, and the European Council was unanimous in its condemnation of the attacks by Syria and its allies, notably Russia, on Aleppo. It is a war crime to attack a hospital. It is a breach of international law not to protect civilian life and not to allow unimpeded access to humanitarian aid. Atrocities on all three fronts have occurred in Aleppo. We called for an end to these atrocities, for unhindered humanitarian access to be provided, and for the resumption of a credible political process under UN auspices. The European Council was also united in its assertion that accountability for breaches of international humanitarian law must be upheld. All options will be under consideration should the current atrocities continue. That, of course, includes sanctions if necessary, and Ireland fully supports this position.
There was considerable interest in the European Council discussions on trade. Our debate in the House last week heard a number of forceful interventions, in particular on the question of the provisional application of those elements of the CETA agreement which fall within the competence of the European Union. This was also the focus of media coverage last week as intense negotiations continued between the Commission, the Canadian delegation, the Belgian Prime Minister and the Walloon Minister-President. I appreciate there are differing views in the Dáil on matters of political philosophy, and I welcome this spectrum of opinion. However, let me be clear that Ireland, with one of the most open economies in the world, has been a beneficiary of free trade.