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Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Helen McEntee)

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Snippet Contents:

As the Taoiseach indicated, I will address the other issues on the agenda of the European Council this week, including the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, innovation and digital, and the external relations items. We are making statements today, but next week Deputies will have the opportunity to ask questions on many of these issues.
The European Commission has now published detailed proposals for all headings under the next multi-annual financial framework. These were discussed at a lunch with Commissioner Oettinger at the General Affairs Council yesterday in Luxembourg, which I attended. At the meeting I set out clearly the importance we attach to maintaining support for well-functioning programmes, including the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and outlined that this is an absolute priority for us as a country. I also emphasised the importance of cohesion funding, especially for less developed member states, in the context of knowing how important it was to Ireland, as an earlier member of the European Union, and how important it is to the development of newer members.
The Government welcomes the continued emphasis on other policies which function well, such as ERASMUS+, the framework programme for research and innovation, the PEACE and INTERREG programmes, which we know are integral to many community groups and organisations in the North, and the EU's global instruments. New programmes, such as the proposed digital Europe programme, will be examined positively.
As the House will recognise, these proposals come at a time of great change for the EU. In the face of a range of new priorities, including climate change, migration, and security, and the departure of the UK - an issue which has been raised several times today - it is important that the EU budget remains relevant for us all. As the Taoiseach has said, we are open to a larger budget where there is demonstrable added value.
On Thursday, the European Council will consider whether agreement can be found on the MFF as a whole before the European Parliament rises in May 2019. This is an ambitious timetable, but we are open to engaging with it. We are prepared to work constructively for agreement and we can agree to do this at an accelerated pace if necessary, and if that is the decision that is taken.
Discussions on innovation and digital issues at the European Council this week will build on the exchanges at the leaders’ agenda meeting which happened in Sofia last month. Completing the digital Single Market, DSM, strategy is an absolute priority for Ireland. We have worked closely with the European Commission, the European Parliament and other member states to deliver outcomes which are pro-trade, pro-enterprise and pro-innovation. A fully developed DSM that removes unnecessary barriers to doing business digitally and across borders will present significant opportunities for Irish consumers, particularly Irish SMEs. I believe it will add over €300 million to the EU GDP overall, and so will provide significant advantages across the board. Up to the end of April, the Commission had put forward 28 legislative proposals. Of the 28 proposals 11 have already been completed and 17 are still being negotiated by the Council and are with the European Parliament and the Council for approval. We want to see as much progress as possible across all these files.
While the EU is rightly regarded as a global scientific powerhouse, it lags behind its global competitors, such as the USA, Japan and South Korea, when it is required to turn that knowledge into innovation. That is something we are trying to address and have to address going forward. The intention for the European Council this week is to give direction to EU efforts to encourage and reward disruptive innovation and to help boost the success of Europe in commercialising its world class research. This will deliver new jobs and new business opportunities, will enhance economic growth and will help to tackle societal issues across the EU. Leaders are expected to propose a European innovation council, which is something we supported in its current pilot phase and which we continue to believe is a good idea. The European Council is also likely to call for swift examination of the latest data package and to invite the Commission to work with member states on a co-ordinated plan on artificial intelligence, AI, building on its recent communication. A national AI strategy for Ireland is currently in development, in line with that. However, we welcome the recent communication on AI, which should contribute towards a comprehensive and integrated European policy and help to guide national policies on this important disruptive technology. Ireland is committed to engaging in the European AI Alliance and we are delighted that Professor Barry O’Sullivan from University College Cork, UCC, has been chosen to represent Ireland in the alliance expert group.
The European Council is also expected to discuss EU relations with Russia. It is no secret that these are under some considerable strain. We anticipate that leaders will approve the extension of economic sanctions for a further six months to 31 January 2019. These sanctions have been in place since 2014, in response to the undermining by Russia of the sovereignty of Ukraine, and direct involvement of Moscow in the conflict in eastern Ukraine which has claimed over 10,000 lives to date. While the duration of the economic restrictions is linked to the full implementation of the Minsk peace agreements, the EU has made it very clear on numerous occasions that they can be adjusted to take account of developments on the ground. Ireland firmly supports the continued imposition of sanctions, which aim to encourage Russia to support the implementation of the Minsk agreements and to ensure that the separatists respect the ceasefire commitments in place. The EU has remained united on this point.
The lack of progress in relation to the conflict in Ukraine, the recent Salisbury nerve agent poisoning, and the use of chemical weapons in Syria, as well as evidence of involvement in widespread misinformation and other hybrid activities, are all matters of grave concern. A further recent development relates to the downing of flight MH17 in 2014, in which 298 passengers and crew died, including one Irish national. In May, a joint investigation board found that the missile system involved in the downing belonged to Russia. UN Security Council Resolution 2166 calls on those responsible to be held accountable. From Ireland’s perspective, we support the European Council should it call on Russia to accept its responsibility.
I should emphasise that, along with our EU partners, we support selective engagement with Russia where it is clearly in our interests. We favour ongoing engagement with civil society and greater people-to-people contacts. However, against the backdrop of recent actions, we see no basis for easing the current restrictive measures or offering concessions to Russia.
As the Taoiseach said in his statement, migration remains a priority issue for the European Union and is likely to be a major focus at the European Council. It is worthwhile therefore to provide some further detail on the current situation and what we are expecting from the discussions later this week. The EU has adopted a broad range of measures over the past few years as part of its comprehensive response to mass migration. These have included greater engagement with countries of origin and transit to address the root causes of migration, including through the migration partnership framework; the emergency trust fund for Africa, to which Ireland has agreed to double its contribution this year, from €3 million to €6 million; agreeing a plan to relocate migrants from Italy and Greece across the Union; launching Operation Sophia to disrupt people smuggling in the Mediterranean; and providing continuous financial assistance to countries hosting large numbers of migrants.
Of course, mass migration is a very complex matter. I do not need to remind anyone in this House of that fact. It has been somewhat divisive within the Union. Some member states have already taken in large numbers of migrants, while others continue to resist accepting any. In these circumstances, consensus has not yet been reached on how best to reform the common European asylum system, and how to respond to situations such as that which arose with the Aquarius earlier this month. Much credit is due to the Bulgarian Presidency for its efforts to agree a compromise between member states that would strike a balance between responsibility and solidarity. If there is to be a breakthrough on this particular issue this week, there will have to be a compromise. However, it appears, based on conversations we had at the General Affairs Council yesterday and at separate meetings, that we are unfortunately not yet at that point.
Ireland is removed from the full effects of mass migration inflows because of our geographic location and because of Protocol 21, which means that we are not automatically party to many of the response measures which fall under Title V of the treaties. However, we have played an active and constructive role, including by opting into to the 2015 EU measures on relocation and resettlement. We admitted the full cohort of 1,022 people under the EU relocation programme which ended last September, and we have taken in 820 people under our resettlement commitments, with a further 220 expected to arrive in the coming months.
As part of the EU and UNHCR pledging exercise for 2018 and 2019, a total of 600 programme refugees will be resettled from Lebanon this year and in 2019. Deputies are aware that we also volunteered yesterday, after extensive discussions with the Maltese Government, to take in some of the migrants on board the MV Lifeline that is currently stranded off the coast of Malta.