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Snippet Contents:

My party leader has already comprehensively addressed the key Brexit issues in advance of the upcoming EU Council meeting. However, as Brexit spokesperson for my party, I will take the opportunity to make a few key points before I address other issues coming before the Council.
The forthcoming EU Council meeting was touted by the Government as a key milestone in the Brexit negotiations. More particularly, the Tánaiste had set it as a serious deadline to deliver what he deemed to be significant progress on the backstop and the Irish issues, or else. However, we were never quite sure what action the Tánaiste was going to take. We now know that no action will be taken and that the UK will succeed in progressing to October's Council meeting having failed to deliver any real, workable solutions to the Irish issues.
It is a fact, not an opinion, that the EU Council agenda has other major issues to deal with and that we are not the only show in town. It has been known for quite some time that the migration crisis will dominate discussions, despite what citizens may have been led to believe by the Government. In reply to parliamentary questions earlier, the Tánaiste said that to seek to stall the talks at this juncture would not be helpful. I agree. However, the only one suggesting that we might do so was the Tánaiste himself, two months ago. That was before it became clear to everyone that the June deadline had all but evaporated and that we were not going to see any real progress on the Irish issues. With just four months remaining for negotiations, I think it is fair to say, in the context of negotiations of this nature, that we are already in the 11th hour.
It is far from ideal that the backstop, which we were told was cast-iron, bulletproof and rock-solid by the Taoiseach last December, remains unresolved and without a legally binding text in place. Watching the chaos within the Tory Party and the lack of alternatives from the Labour Party, it is difficult to see how Westminster will ever put a proposal on the table that will satisfy hardline Brexiteers and solve the Irish issues. With this reality in mind, we are past the time when the Government must dispense with its wait-and-see approach and start putting solutions on the table because we simply cannot rely on the UK to do so.
Domestic preparedness remains far below the level that we would expect. At this late stage, it is truly concerning to see the low level of take-up of the various Brexit grants and supports available to the business community. This is in the context of a warning from EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week when he addressed a joint sitting of the Dáil and Seanad. He stated, "As the clock ticks down to Brexit, we must prepare for every eventuality, including no deal. This is neither a desired nor a likely outcome, but it is not an impossible one". I assume that this is what finally prompted the Taoiseach over the weekend to accept that a hard Brexit is possible, even if unlikely. Only now has Government started to prepare for the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU next March. Preparations should have begun 18 months ago. We will now have to pursue these preparations with extra vigour in order to make up for the time lost due to Government inaction.
Despite many Government briefings and shiny policy papers - no one is suggesting that we have not had briefings from the Tánaiste and his Department - key questions remain unanswered. Every time I ask the tough questions at these briefings and about the papers, they are touted as providing all of the answers but they provide very little information. I can say without hesitation that when I emerge from said briefings, I am none the wiser as to what will happen to our country in the event of a hard Brexit or the position regarding the backstop, the withdrawal treaty and the transition period if the UK crashes out. This approach on the part of the Government provides very few real answers or assurances and acts only as a smoke screen, which is fast fading.
In the context of Brexit, it is clear that we have hoped and worked towards achieving considerable progress and a fully binding backstop by the June Council meeting. We will not have that now. Heading towards the October meeting, which is, in effect, the absolute deadline, we are supposed to have a withdrawal treaty in place, ready to go to the Council and the European Parliament for ratification by October. We still have many issues that remain outstanding. Heading into negotiations between June and October with that deadline looming puts us in a very vulnerable and precarious position as a member state.
Other member states also have concerns. They are concerned about future trade. The UK clearly wants to discuss future trade in conjunction with the backstop. We say we do not want that, but that is what we are heading towards. It is less than desirable that we have come to a situation where the rhetoric, spin and commentary from the Government from last December to June, up until the weekend just gone, was that we were seeking significant progress. Now we seem to accept that we will not have that. We do not know what we are going to get, and we do not have the assurances and certainty that we have rightly requested and demanded.
I now want to discuss the big issue which will dominate this month's Council meeting and which is undoubtedly a major concern for all member states. I refer to the migration crisis. The Taoiseach needs to bring this message loud and clear and enact it across Government. We need a pan-European approach to this issue. We cannot expect a few member states to shoulder the entire burden. Greece, Italy and Spain have dealt with a vast influx of people fleeing from their home countries. It is unfair and wrong that every member state is not doing its fair share. Doing one's fair share is what it means to be part of a community. We are not doing enough in Ireland to show solidarity with other member states, particularly those dealing with the largest numbers. We have taken in fewer than 2,000 migrants and we said yesterday that we would take a whopping 25 more people in. Really, that is just gesture politics; it does not put a dent in the overall numbers. We have to do a great deal more to show that we are serious about playing our part in dealing with this crisis.
On a basic level, as fellow human beings we have to show compassion for these poor people, who are fleeing the most horrific and unimaginable situations, with many of their friends and family dying in their attempts to make that perilous journey. I commend Chancellor Merkel on the leadership she showed two years ago when Germany opened its doors to vulnerable migrants who needed help and when other member states did not do so. She faced huge difficulties in keeping her country onside and united. She now faces huge difficulties in keeping her coalition Government together due to the migrant crisis. Without genuine and sincere backing from other member states and a commitment that we will all do our bit and share the burden, we could end up regressing and seeing the situation worsen for migrants coming into the EU.
What is happening in Libya is nothing short of the torture of migrants. They are being stripped of their basic human rights, with every last penny extorted from them and their families. Sums of thousands are often demanded for the promise of making that perilous crossing to Europe. The United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands of migrants remain detained in Libya. Those who make it to Italy tell of being extorted, beaten, tortured, raped, starved and forced to work for no pay. We have to question the provision of EU supports to Libyan authorities in the context of what we now know is happening. Our policies should never make a situation worse, and if we have evidence that this is the case, we must adapt. There is something very wrong in the world when a boat carrying 234 migrants - people - is stranded in international waters with nowhere to dock. I refer to the MV Lifeline. Is it not easy to make a decision to block these poor people from seeking refuge when those making the decisions do so, no doubt, from a place of comfort, privilege and safety? We must all check our privileges and count ourselves lucky that, despite the many social challenges we face, for the most part we live in a safe and wealthy country in which people have great opportunities. When we remember our country's history and that fact that, due to famine, our people had to leave to seek better lives elsewhere, we have to do all we can to help those less fortunate. The EU and all its member states, Ireland included, must play a strong role in responding to what is a terrible humanitarian crisis.
At this juncture, I want to single out our Defence Forces and our Naval Service for the amazing work they have done in helping to deal with this humanitarian crisis and limit the loss of life in the Mediterranean. They have worked closely with the Italian Armed Forces and saved so many lives in the process. The men and women of the Defence Forces once again responded to the call of duty and stepped up to the mark. We are also incredibly proud of the work they have done. This was done despite the huge challenges the Defence Forces face, such as those relating to low pay, poor working conditions and major issues in respect of recruitment and retention that have yet to be addressed despite many calls from the Defence Forces community and from Members of this House, including me.
Missions such as that in the Mediterranean remind us that persons serving in our Defence Forces are not public servants in the ordinary meaning. Their job is specialised, dangerous and seriously demanding. In addition, it limits their rights as workers.