Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Presidency of the Council of the European Union: Discussion with Minister of State
I thank the joint committee for the invitation to update members on preparations for Ireland's Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
The formal start of the Presidency is 1 January 2013, which is exactly five weeks away but in many regards it has already started for us in terms of the levels of engagement we have had, particularly in recent weeks with partners. Work on the Irish Presidency programme is now entering its final phase. Much of the programme has been drafted but there are several councils taking place over the coming weeks, as well as the European Council in the week before Christmas. Decisions taken at these meetings will also shape the programme and drafting will continue in late December before the formal launch in January.
The content of the Irish programme has been shaped by the views and advice of a range of stakeholders from non-governmental organisations and civil society to MEPs, and from our partners in Europe to our public representatives here in the Oireachtas. This engagement has strongly informed our programme and decisions on the main priorities of our Presidency. Most important, our programme centres on the issues that we hear from citizens, both from Ireland and across the EU, every day. This is why the central Presidency objective will be on restoring economic stability, creating the conditions for growth and, above all, prioritising job creation, particularly for our young people.
The Presidency presents many challenges to a small Administration like Ireland's but it also has the potential to deliver very considerable benefits. Our Presidency will be defined not merely by the challenges that we face but by the opportunity that these challenges present to change Europe for the better and to deliver benefits to our citizens. The Government is committed to advancing policy and legislation that can have a positive benefit on all of our futures in areas ranging from education to the environment, and from enlargement to e-commerce.
The Presidency will cost money at a time when resources are scarce but this is an investment that has the potential to deliver returns for Ireland that will last beyond the end of our Presidency in July 2013. These include the critical importance of the Presidency in terms of redefining our image abroad. The Government is working to ensure that we deliver a Presidency that will reflect positively on Ireland and that will shift the narrative away from the bad economic news stories of recent years. We will use the Presidency to demonstrate that in spite of our size and our economic challenges, we are a country that can deliver results.
The Government will use the opportunity that the Presidency presents to show this country's spirit and determination and the skills and talents of our people. Never in our six previous Presidencies has the Presidency programme so closely reflected our main national political and economic priorities. The major focus of Ireland's Presidency will be on pushing to reach decisions on a range of policy and legislation which is aimed at stimulating economic recovery and job creation in Ireland and across Europe. We will also work intensively to implement measures to restore stability and confidence to member state economies and banking systems to avoid any recurrence of past mistakes that would hit our economies and our citizens again.
Our work on the EU budget will have implications for policies and programmes across the EU agenda, including issues of national importance such as the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy and our progress in this area can determine the strategic orientation of the EU for the coming years. The outcome of last Friday's European Council will not make the budget issue any easier but we are determined to work intensively to deliver results during our Presidency. Our jobs and growth priorities provide us with an opportunity to make real progress across a very broad range of areas to get Europe's economy working and to get Europeans back to work.
The Irish Presidency approach will be two-fold; we will work to better equip the Single Market to meet the demands of a changing and increasingly digital market but we will also look beyond the Internal Market to seek new trade and export opportunities for EU exporters. Our focus on the Single Market will be in working to reach agreement on proposals that can provide a firm foundation for growth in the digital economy, such as intellectual property rights, cyber-security, e-identification, data protection and high-speed broadband rollout. Fighting unemployment, and in particular youth joblessness, will be another major priority.
The Presidency will work to reach agreement on a youth guarantee and other measures aimed at strengthening training and skills. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, has made youth unemployment the major focus of a ministerial meeting she is chairing in Dublin in February. The Presidency will also work to promote more labour mobility by reducing remaining obstacles in areas such as pensions and social security contributions that can make life more difficult for citizens who are planning to live and work in other member states where there may be a demand for specific skilled workers.
We also hope to secure agreement on recognition of professional qualifications across Europe, another way of making it easier for our citizens to take up jobs where they are needed. Ireland will also seek to make progress in strengthening and broadening the EU's research and innovation capabilities to sharpen its global competitiveness, including through completion of the European research area, reaching agreement on the Horizon 2020 funding programme and other related initiatives. We will also work to ensure that the small and medium enterprise sector - the backbone of the European economy - gets greater and easier access to Commission supports through initiatives such as the COSME programme so that they can grow business and deliver jobs.
We in Ireland value the opportunities that the Single Market has provided to Irish exporters and we recognise the potential for further growth in European markets but we also know that global trade patterns are changing, with new emerging markets demonstrating rapid growth. This is why we are placing a strong emphasis on the external trade agenda and advancing trade negotiations. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, will invite his colleagues to Dublin next April and will work throughout the Presidency on trying to move forward the EU-US trade agenda. This will be a long process - and progress is likely to be slow - but our aim will be to advance a mandate for EU-US trade negotiations.
Our efforts to support a return to economic growth and job creation will only have a limited effect unless we restore the confidence of investors, consumers and business to revive the EU economy; we need to do this by promoting stability. The tools are there, including the Compact for Jobs and Growth, proposed legislation to reinforce the Stability and Growth Pact and the fiscal treaty that was endorsed earlier this year by the Irish people in a referendum.
The Irish Presidency will seek to ensure effective implementation of the measures we have adopted. We will have a particular role in managing the European semester process, which is aimed at more effective oversight of progress being made by member states in reaching their targets of smart and sustainable economic growth and ensuring responsible fiscal and budgetary policy. There is a particular role for both the European Parliament and national parliaments in that process, and I hope the Oireachtas will lead the way in that respect.
As I have also stated, a stable banking system is an absolute requirement for a healthy economy. We also need to reassure citizens and international markets that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated and that there are safeguards to contain future problems spreading sector-wide. Business needs access to credit and savers need to know that their investments are safe. This is why we are attaching such a strong priority to the banking union proposals and other financial legislation to promote stability and confidence in the European economy.
I had an interesting meeting with members of the Economic and Monetary Affairs committee at the European Parliament, when we went through many of the directives and proposals on the table at this time. There is much negotiation already under way at the European Parliament and we must take that forward from 1 January.
A meeting of the European Council took place last week to try to reach agreement on the multiannual financial framework, MFF. Unfortunately, the meeting ended without the member states reaching agreement but it took place in a good atmosphere, and the gaps between member states' positions narrowed. Importantly, no member state was isolated and the European Council agreed a statement, which gave President Van Rompuy and President Barroso a mandate to continue work on the MFF, with a view to reaching agreement at the beginning of 2013.
It is expected that President Van Rompuy will convene a meeting of the European Council early next year to try to finalise the MFF. The delay in reaching an overall agreement until next year will have an impact on our Presidency, even though responsibility for finalising an agreement will remain with President Van Rompuy. The Irish Presidency will, in any case, have responsibility for chairing discussions on numerous sectoral regulations, notably CAP reform and fisheries, underpinning the various elements of the proposal and negotiating their passage through the Parliament. The committee can be assured that we will do everything in our power to make progress on the budget, given its potential for underpinning a return to job creation and growth in Europe.
Unfortunately, I do not have time today to go through all of the priorities in sectors such as agriculture, the environment, transport and other policy areas. I expect that Ministers who will chair Councils during the Irish Presidency will wish to brief the relevant Oireachtas committees on their work programmes and objectives in greater detail. However, I wish to highlight our intention to secure agreement on the action plan for an Atlantic strategy which offers great potential for Ireland's coastal regions in a range of areas, including renewable energy, marine tourism and sustainable exploitation of the Atlantic's rich resources. I personally look forward to making good progress on the European Union's enlargement agenda during the Presidency.
Next year will also mark the 40th anniversary of Ireland's accession to the European Union and has been designated as the European Year of Citizens. To mark these events, I am planning a series of public debates across Ireland on what we have achieved as a member state of the European Union in the past four decades and the sort of Union in which we want our children to grow up. I have also worked closely with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to develop a series of cultural events at home to celebrate our European heritage and the wide range of dynamic connections we have with other communities across Europe.
Since I last spoke to the committee we have made much progress on the Presidency calendar which includes 170 events in Ireland. We estimate that Presidency events will attract at least 15,000 visitors to the core events and we will continue to work with State agencies to maximise the promotional and economic opportunities presented by the Presidency. The calendar includes the series of COSAC meetings planned next year by the Oireachtas and I look forward to engagement between the Presidency and elected representatives both from national parliaments and the European Parliament.
The Government has had a busy November with a series of visits from committees and political groups in the European Parliament to discuss the Presidency. Members will recall that President Martin Schulz visited Dublin in early October and addressed the Dáil. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, group was here at the start of the month and this week we have visits by both the Socialists and Democrats, S&D, group and the European People's Party, EPP, with a number of European Parliament committees. This will culminate with the visit of the European Parliament's Conference of Presidents later this week. The high level of engagement by the Government with representatives of the European Parliament reflects the role they now play in the EU legislative process and the importance of their goodwill and support if we are to realise our Presidency goals.
The Government has worked intensively to prepare for this Presidency in order that we can seize the opportunities it presents to us to deliver tangible results for Europe's citizens across a broad range of fields but particularly in the core areas of job creation, growth and economic stability. We want to have a focused and workmanlike Presidency, driven not by pomp and expense but by the results we achieve and the effective way in which we are planning to manage the dossiers to keep the EU machinery moving forward. We also look forward to using the Presidency on the 40th anniversary of our accession to demonstrate our continuing commitment to the European Union and the principles of freedom, equality and justice on which the Union stands.
We also recognise the continuing benefits EU membership delivers to the people of Ireland, be it through regional supports, ERASMUS programmes, the Common Agricultural Policy, high standards of social protection or access to the Single Market for our exporters. We wish to demonstrate through our Presidency that Ireland is a serious, capable and competent partner. The Presidency can act as a strong foundation on which to rebuild our international reputation and create our links with partners in the coming decade. We have worked hard to get to this point and deliver on objectives that are ambitious but not unrealistic. Working with partners, including this committee, we look forward to tackling the challenges and seizing the opportunities the Presidency presents to deliver results both for Ireland and Europe.