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Snippet Contents:

I hope progress can be made as quickly as possible in order that some certainty can be provided early in the withdrawal process to citizens and their families and friends.
Prime Minister May then left the meeting and we continued as 27, in Article 50 format, discussing issues relating to Brexit in her absence. Monsieur Barnier provided an update on the opening of negotiations with the UK and, in line with the EU guidelines, the Irish-specific concerns of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, avoiding an economic border through imaginative and flexible solutions, and maintaining the common travel area and everything that it means will be prioritised in this first phase of negotiations, before we move on to discussions about the shape of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
It is worth saying that we also adopted and agreed to publish the minutes of the previous Article 50 meeting of the European Council. These confirm that, if the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement on unity by peaceful and democratic means is invoked at some time in the future, EU membership for all of Ireland is assured. These outcomes all indicate that our extensive campaign of strategic outreach at political, diplomatic and official level over the past year has been effective in ensuring our unique circumstances and particular concerns on Brexit are well understood and acknowledged.
We also agreed on procedures for relocating the two EU agencies currently located in the UK, namely, the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Agency. As Deputies will be aware, Ireland has launched bids for both agencies, and I believe that we offer a good location in terms of business continuity, connectivity, facilities and other factors. We will formally submit our bids before the deadline at the end of July and will continue our campaign ahead of the vote by Ministers. In the discussions, the need for continuity, unity and a single voice by the 27 was also emphasised.
Returning to the main part of the European Council, we considered a range of economic issues under the heading of jobs, growth and competitiveness. The President of the European Central Bank, ECB, Mario Draghi, gave a presentation about the EU and the eurozone economies. This was generally upbeat, indicating that growth and a broad-based recovery are now taking hold. Increased confidence is being translated into more investment, more consumption and, most importantly, more employment. I asked Mr. Draghi about the general direction of monetary policy in the Union and interest rates and was reassured by his emphasis on stability and no sudden policy changes, particularly as interest rates affect so many Irish people with mortgages. He provided us with some certainty that interest rates will not rise swiftly or dramatically.
We noted the progress achieved in the European Fund for Strategic Investments, EFSI, and called for its rapid expansion and reinforcement. We also generally endorsed the country-specific recommendations, thereby completing the 2017 European semester. We discussed the Single Market and trade policy. As Deputies will be aware, I support a high level of ambition for the Single Market, especially with regard to cross-border trade in services. Together with a number of my counterparts, I ensured a specific reference to services was included in the Council conclusions. Progress on a genuine Single Market in services has been far too slow in my opinion and that of the Government.
I also joined 16 other Heads of State and Government in writing to President Tusk in advance of the Council, calling for much greater ambition and political prioritisation of the digital Single Market and highlighting the importance of adhering to our deadlines. I strongly supported the priority the incoming Estonian Presidency has attached to Digital Europe.
We had a very dynamic and interesting discussion on trade. I stressed our support for a robust free trade policy, upholding an open and rules-based multilateral trading system. At the same time, we have to recognise that it is becoming ever more the case that Europe is a smaller part of the world economy. There are issues around third countries obtaining control of certain key interests such as public infrastructure and military and aerospace co-operations. While we understand the views of some member states about controlling sensitive or strategic assets, companies can also benefit from foreign cash and expertise, and we should not put unnecessary barriers in the way of inward investment. The Council conclusions provide a reflective, targeted approach and I am pleased with the text which responds to our concerns as a pro-enterprise, pro-trade, anti-protectionist, small country.
The discussions on security and defence covered both the internal and external aspects. I offered Ireland’s continuing solidarity with those who have suffered the terrorist attacks and emphasised our strong commitment to working closely with partners to fight terrorism, hatred and violent extremism. We discussed efforts to combat the spread of radicalism online, and its financing, and called upon industry to play a greater part in detecting and removing content that incites people to violence. The challenges inherent in tackling terrorist communications while at the same time safeguarding privacy were also acknowledged.
On the external dimension, we heard a report from the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, on the implementation of the EU global strategy one year after its adoption. We are strong supporters of this strategy, and I have emphasised the need for the comprehensive implementation of all five of its priorities, which is important if all member states are to contribute and play an active part. Using the Union’s unique mix of diplomatic, civilian and peacekeeping capabilities will help to protect our citizens and contribute to peace and security in our neighbourhood and beyond. The strategy also provides for EU co-operation with NATO, focused on peacekeeping and maintaining international peace and security. This is conducted in full respect for the decision-making autonomy of both organisations and for the security and defence policies of individual member states, including Ireland.
Just as new security threats have evolved, so too has the EU response in terms of what can been done to confront cyber, hybrid and terrorist threats. International peace support requires the availability of suitable military capabilities, and there have been some developments around financing, including a Commission communication on a European defence fund, proposals around the European defence industrial development programme, and an invitation to the European Investment Bank to examine its role in this regard.
Ireland’s neutrality was restated and is, of course, fully respected. We do not participate in any military alliances. However, we favour initiatives to strengthen the EU's capacity to act as an international peace provider, particularly in support of the United Nations and its missions, and to defend itself as a Continent. We also support co-operation within the Union to achieve common objectives in response to the range of new and growing threats.
The discussion on migration included updates on the implementation of the Malta declaration, with its particular focus on the central Mediterranean route, as well as developments relating to the migration partnership framework and the EU-Turkey statement. While there have been positive developments, especially along the eastern Mediterranean route, the situation remains critical in terms of irregular arrivals through the central Mediterranean. We agreed to improve our co-ordination efforts here to provide more support for Italy and to try to end the tragic situation where so many people are risking losing their lives.
Ireland has consistently called for a comprehensive response to the migration crisis that responds both to its effects and the underlying causes. From our perspective, this has included a commitment to take in up to 4,000 asylum seekers and refugees under the EU relocation and resettlement programmes and under our own programme with the UNHCR. We have also committed to provide naval vessels to help with the search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and to supply humanitarian assistance to those affected by the war in Syria. To date, we have provided €76.5 million.
Notwithstanding the serious challenges we face, the European Council revealed a strong sense of unity in working together to find solutions to our shared problems. Ireland’s interests are clearly best served by remaining at the centre of this work. I took the opportunity in engaging with my EU counterparts to reiterate our strong commitment to European membership and integration and our intention to play an active and constructive role in these efforts.
The Minister for European Affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee, will provide further detail in her wrap-up statement about our discussions on external relations.