Ireland must debate future EU Co-operation on Defence

28 June 2017

Speech by Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin on Post-EU Council Statements.

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I hope you enjoyed your first EU Council meeting. It appears from reports that you kept yourself busy while in Brussels.

Deputy Martin raised with you last week his frustration with the level of debate and engagement on EU issues.

There is a lack of appropriate briefing material being circulated to us in advance of the Council and afterwards.

We rely on the EU council website for agenda items. Your press releases are summaries of what will be, and what was discussed.

I think it would be worthwhile if your office and Department would circulate in advance of these statements, the agenda and the positions being taken by Ireland, and afterwards a note on what has been achieved.

There has been little coverage or debate in Ireland on the major agreement coming out of the Council on defence co-operation.

Nor has it been reported or debated widely as to what Ireland’s position is on this matter, and whether we are in favour of the EU proposals.

Paddy Smyth in the Irish Times reported that “On Thursday, Ireland was saying to fellow member states that it is enthusiastic about the project, wants it to be “ambitious”, but we are not necessarily committed to participating in each and every iteration.”

Your pre Council statements focused on security with no mention of defence. You said: ‘I will offer Ireland’s continuing solidarity and our strong commitment to working closely with our partners in combating this growing threat. The meeting will send out a strong message that Europe stands united and firm against terrorism, hatred and violent extremism.

You said to reporters that ‘We believe that by being a country that is neutral but not being part of any military alliance, that it actually makes us stronger in the world,’

Yet we still don’t know what Ireland’s position is.

The EU will now use a provision of the Lisbon Treaty, known as PESCO or permanent structured co-operation. This enhance co-operation requires the agreement of all 28 countries.

Speaking after the summit the French President Macron described the move as historic: ‘For years and years there has not been any progress on defence, there has been one today”

Those views were also shared by Chancellor Merkel who said:

‘In the next few weeks and months we will look at possible projects’

The Commission is proposing to add €500 million of EU funds in 2019 and 2020 to finance EU defence research and new military development.

And after 2020, the figure will increase to €1.5 billion every year for research and development of new military technology.

Slowly we are seeing the militarisation of the EU.

Ireland has a long history of military neutrality. I am not sure of what your own position is, but I doubt I would be wrong in thinking there is ambivalence towards it in your own party.

The Council has taken steps to intensity co-operation on defence, and there is now a plan to expand the range of common military activities.

This is designed to complement NATO structures.

Ireland as you know is not a member of NATO.

What position is Ireland taking on these steps, driven by France and Germany towards enhanced military integration and embraced wholeheartedly by the Commission?

This approach is now gathering pace due to the exit of the UK which had opposed it – seeing it as a duplication of NATO activities.

Are we slowly losing our military neutrality by the back door?

What role will Ireland play in these joint military plans that will be launched within the next 3 months?

Will you sign up Ireland to a pan-EU defence scheme?

Do you agree with €500 million of EU money being ploughed into defence research? That is critical funding that would be better applied to dealing with the fallout of Brexit, investing in regions and ensuring young people have jobs in their own countries.

Will you agree to provide a comprehensive briefing to us on what Ireland’s approach? This House should have a full debate on the implications for Ireland of enhanced EU co-operation on defence.


Moving on to Brexit, I have a number of observations:

Did the Taoiseach discuss with his European colleagues the sequencing of the negotiations with the UK?

I raised this with you last week, and can you inform us whether you raised this Mr Barnier, or President Tusk and Juncker

I am concerned that Irish aspects of the negotiations may be delayed towards the end of the next 12 months, which means it will be difficult to find the imaginative solutions needed for a frictionless border.

Have you had any engagements with EU heads of State and officials on the Common Travel Area?

Again there has been little analysis here of Prime Minister May’s offer on EU citizens.

There is almost an attitude that sure it will be alright for Irish citizens in the UK.

On climate change, you said in your pre Council statement ‘I am determined that the Government should show a new ambition when it comes to tackling climate change, and this will be the subject of a full-day strategic meeting of the Cabinet.’

You also spoke to President Trump yesterday, I assume you raised their withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and it was a major issue at the Council.

The National Mitigation Plan still has not been published. Ireland will not meet it’s 2020 targets by a long way. What are your new ambitions on climate change?

What plans has the EU now to ensure this era defining issue is tackled?

What action will we take to limit global warming to well below 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels


Most of the discussions at the Council on Friday focused on jobs, growth and competitiveness including the European Fund for Strategic Investments.

This has particular relevance for the economic fallout Ireland will experience from Brexit. I have raised this multiple times with your predecessor and now with you. Have you flagged the impact Brexit will have on jobs and growth in Ireland?

There is much the EU can do for Ireland when the UK exits the single market and customs union.

To date on Brexit, Government has focused on high level issues covering Northern Ireland, the border and the peace process, trade, citizenship and EU institutional matters, with little discussion on the policies that can be pursued to ensure our society and economy are protected.

In particular there are 3 core policy areas that require attention – investment in infrastructure, state aid rules, and making the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund fit for purpose.

Our port, rail and road infrastructure will require investment to aid exports to the EU and build better links on this island. In the event of a hard border with custom checks, Donegal will be all but cut off

There is an urgent need to advance plans to upgrade the N4 and also other roads to the border, but critically ensure that there is a customs free route to our most northern county.

Rosslare will be a critical link to the continent, and again, investment should be focused on upgrading the connecting road to dual carriageway. Regional growth can be rebalanced.

We have proposed that the proceeds of the AIB sale should be used for capital investment. Whether for healthcare or Brexit proofing – there is an urgent need. You yourself support higher capital investment. We don’t have the time to delay it, We need action now.

Have you discussed with our European colleagues how the fiscal rules can be adapted? Ireland has a specific claim now with Brexit for once off measures.

Have you discussed relaxing state aid rules for those small companies across Ireland who will be impacted by Brexit? How Ireland must be ready to help them through a transition phase when trade relationships will be fundamentally altered.

Have you discussed how existing instruments like the Adjustment Fund can be adapted to help workers who will lose their livelihoods?

This will be the biggest challenge you face, and it should be an agenda item at every Council.

There will be an economic fallout from Brexit, and Europe must be ready to help.

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