6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Guy Verhofstadt and the issues raised. (Question 41718/17 asked on 04 Oct 2017)
The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
Ongoing political engagement with our EU and international partners is crucial, especially as negotiations on Brexit proceed. I will continue to use every opportunity to ensure that other member states and EU institutions fully understand our particular concerns arising from Brexit in order to enable the best possible outcome for this country. Other Ministers, in particular the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, who has special responsibility for Brexit, are also meeting their EU counterparts on a regular basis.
I attended my first meeting of the European Council in June. I took the opportunity to arrange bilateral meetings there with the President Tusk, President Juncker, who was joined by Michel Barnier, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. I also spoke informally in the margins of the European Council with a number of other European counterparts.
Last week I attended the digital summit in Tallinn, where I also had a bilateral meeting with the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and invited him to visit Dublin before the end of the year. I spoke informally in Tallinn with a number of other EU Heads of State and Government, including French President Emmanuel Macron, with whom I will have a full bilateral meeting in Paris later this month. I also congratulated Angela Merkel on her re-election to her fourth term as Chancellor, and said I looked forward to continuing to work closely with her to solve the issues that shape the future of our shared union. I have also had a number of other important bilateral meetings since taking office as Taoiseach, including with Prime Minister May, most recently in London last week, the President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, and the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau.
I met Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead Brexit co-ordinator, in Dublin on 21 September, having met him in June when I was a Minister. We discussed all acts aspects of the Brexit negotiations, with a particular focus on Irish-specific issues, namely, the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process, the Border and the common travel area. Mr. Verhofstadt was on a two-day visit to the island of Ireland and met community and business groups and political parties in Northern Ireland. I thanked him for his personal engagement on the issues and his very supportive statements towards Ireland. We also exchanged views about the future direction of Europe and I updated on our plans for public engagement on this important matter.
Preparing for and dealing with Brexit in a way that delivers the best possible outcome for the country remains a top priority for the Government. The particular issues affecting the island of Ireland are being given priority and considerable attention by our EU partners and the EU task force led by Mr. Barnier. They fully share our concerns and approach, and are working to ensure progress is made on Irish issues in the negotiations with the UK.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I thank the Taoiseach for his response. Yesterday, he said he was not asking for any special status for Northern Ireland because he was holding out for the UK remaining in the Single Market and customs union or for there to be a full free trade zone covering the UK and EU. I would argue that this is quite a peculiar position given the fact that the UK and EU have established as co-redlines demands which make this outcome literally impossible.
The UK wants free trade but no budgetary contributions and no role for EU law or courts. The 27 EU member states, including Ireland, say that these are fundamental requirements. The risk is that the failure to even table solutions specific to Ireland runs the risk of us being left with an agenda solely involving how to manage a customs border. Will the Taoiseach continue to refuse to raise any special measures in these discussions?
As well as using the Government jet to film a party political video, the Taoiseach did the same at the Irish Embassy when he met the Dutch Prime Minister. Yesterday, he used the dismissive tone that is sometimes his trademark during Leaders’ Questions and implied that anyone questioning him was calling for a return to typewriters and fax machines. As the Taoiseach knows, for years every party has posted social media videos. However, the Taoiseach is the first to see no distinction between his official role and his party political role. To him, everything seems to be part of the campaign for Leo.
Can the Taoiseach confirm it is still his position that Government employees and facilities used during European Union summits can be used for creating and posting Fine Gael Party videos? How does he square that behaviour with past practice and ethics legislation? It is a very fundamental point. It is not about the mere utilisation of videos. Rather, as I have said, it is about the utilisation of Government employees and facilities for party political purposes.
Deputy Seán Haughey: I welcome the fact the Taoiseach is having a bilateral meeting with President Emmanuel Macron. Yesterday he informed the House he had read his recent speech in which he set out a vision for Europe. He called for a more sovereign, unified and democratic EU and for the re-foundation of Europe. We can all agree with that. There were things in his speech with which we in this country would agree and other things about which we would have concerns.
He mentioned tax harmonisation and saluted the Competition and Finance Commissioners. They have started pushing certain actors and countries. He said we must grow further and cannot allow structural funds to finance lower corporate tax rates - that is Europe backwards.
The Taoiseach will be aware that the European Commission has decided to refer Ireland to the European Court of Justice for failing to recover €13 billion in illegal state aid from Apple. We need to concentrate on the things we agree on in member states. When the Taoiseach has his bilateral meeting with the French President, can he discuss the issues of concern to Ireland and point out to him the important role small nation states can play in shaping the future of Europe?
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: The situation in Catalonia, about which the Taoiseach was asked yesterday, continues to escalate. What conversations has he had, and what does he intend to have, with other European leaders about the escalating crisis?
There was a narrative yesterday, partly echoed by the Taoiseach, involving the condemnation of violence in general and the need for dialogue. Judging from the unprecedented intervention of the Spanish King, it is absolutely clear that the Spanish state is totally intransigent. It is not interested in dialogue or mediation. The belief in Catalonia is that if the Catalonian people try to declare independence based on a 90% “Yes” vote in the referendum, there will be serious repression, more than we have seen to date.
What is the attitude of the Taoiseach towards that? What attitude, if any, has he garnered from other European leaders about what appears to be an intransigent and brutal effort by the Spanish state to suppress people without any willingness to discuss a democratic move towards self-determination by the people of Catalonia? Do European leaders recognise how serious the situation is? It is the most serious political and constitutional crisis Western Europe has faced in some decades. Do the Taoiseach and other European leaders have a sense of urgency about the situation? What stance are the Taoiseach and other European leaders going to take on this situation?
Deputy Gerry Adams: The Taoiseach’s reply refers to a lot of contact, which is appropriate given the urgency of the situation and the centrality of the Brexit issue. It is difficult to know what the outcome will be because it is hard to figure out the Government’s position on some of these issues. I refer in particular to the decision by the European Court of Justice. The European Commission confirmed today that it is taking the State to the European Court of Justice for the failure to recover up to €13 billion of tax due from Apple. The Taoiseach will remember that last August the Commission ordered Apple to pay unpaid taxes as it ruled the firm had received illegal state aid in a sweetheart deal. Apple is appealing this, which is fair enough, but that is not good enough for the Government. Not only does it not want to get the money back for taxpayers, it is also appealing the decision. I am sure we will be told by the Minister for Finance next week that there is very little money available and that the priority must be to balance the books, whatever that means. Households cannot balance their books, but I am sure we will be told resources are limited, yet there has been no effort made to recover the money and now we must pay huge amounts in dealing with the court cases, the appeal and the Commission’s decision to take us to the European Court of Justice. Will the Government drop its appeal which has already cost €3.6 million? When I raised the issue of the use of Translarna earlier, the Taoiseach said there was a cost factor. We could collect the taxes owed by Apple. It would go a long way towards dealing with these difficulties within the health service and the housing emergency and also save the taxpayer the millions we will now have to pay out in dealing with two court cases.
The Taoiseach: The Government notes the announcement made by Commissioner Vestager this morning. It is a decision with which we disagree. We believe it is wholly unnecessary and very much unwarranted at this time. We profoundly disagree with the European Commission’s interpretation of state aid rules. It is our view that tax is a matter of national competence. It is a matter for this Parliament, not the European Commission. It is already on appeal to the European Court of Justice. Even so, in the meantime, we are making arrangements to collect the €13 billion from Apple. The NTMA is managing this process and has tendered for fund managers to set up an escrow account and someone to manage the money until the European Court of Justice decides to whom it belongs. I am aware that the budget will be announced next week and it is very important to say this is not money that could be spent this year or next year to solve any of our problems or do anything. It is money that must be held in a ring-fenced escrow account until the European Court of Justice decides to whom it rightfully belongs - Apple, Ireland or other countries.
On the ongoing Brexit negotiations, it is our preference and negotiating position that we maintain free trade in merchandise and services between Great Britain and Ireland. I know that the issues of Northern Ireland and the Border are extremely important, but from the point of view of Irish business and agriculture, the level of trade between Ireland and Great Britain is much greater than that between Ireland and Northern Ireland. As this is particularly the case for the agrifood sector, we are determined to secure a customs union partnership and a free trade agreement or area between Great Britain and Ireland in the post-Brexit scenario. We do not want to sacrifice or give up our free trade with Great Britain. That is very much our position. Of course, we will have fall-back positions if things do not work out. I do not think it would be in the interests of Ireland or the people for us to outline our fall-back or negotiating positions in a Chamber such as this for the obvious reason that they would all be transmitted to the people with whom we are negotiating. That would not be in our interests. There is a facility for party leaders to be briefed directly by my Department on the negotiations. We certainly do not rule out seeking special arrangements for Ireland and Northern Ireland, but that is not by any means our negotiating position or preference.
On the two videos referred by Deputy Micheál Martin, one from Baldonnel and the other from the Irish Embassy in Tallinn, I checked both yesterday and neither of them contains any political content. The content is entirely about the business and work of the day - my work as Taoiseach. There is nothing party political in them whatsoever, but in order to allay the Deputy’s concerns, in the future I will post them on merrionstreet.ie before they are posted on any other account. I am not sure that will make any difference in practice, but if it will help to allay the Deputy’s concerns, I am happy to make the change.
In response to Deputy Séan Haughey, I will speak to President Macron about the role of nation states and the important role of small nation states. It is important that we have a European Union in which small members states will be respected and included and in which their full contribution to European Union integration will be harnessed. I do not like to see the big member states - France, Germany, Italy and Spain - meeting together to the exclusion of small member states. I will certainly have no difficulty in making that statement.
On the situation in Catalonia, I have not had any direct contact with other European leaders about the issue. There has, of course, been contact at official level in the past couple of days. My main business has been conducting business in this House and dealing with domestic matters. However, I am sure the issue will be discussed at the European Council the week after next. It is important to point out that while Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett is correct that 90% voted for independence in the referendum, only 42% of the people participated. This was, in part, due to the fact that the referendum was not lawful and was boycotted by millions of Catalans who wanted devolution, not separation. The contrast is with the referendum held in Quebec which happened under Canadian law and in which there was a massive turnout and the referendum held in Scotland which happened under UK law and in which there was a massive turnout. The fact that most people did not turn out to vote in a referendum on whether the country in which they lived should be a state really strikes at the legitimacy of the referendum. We must bear that in mind.