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 will take the questions in themes because there was quite an amount of overlap. The question of youth unemployment and unemployment generally was raised by almost everybody. All our efforts during the Presidency will be aimed at targeting that issue.
Whether we are talking about stabilising the banking system, stabilising the currency union underpinning it, moving in the direction of economic and monetary union and all of the building blocks that such a union involves, it is all geared towards trying to tackle the scourge of unemployment. I could not agree with Deputy Halligan more in respect of the challenge that is faced by small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the biggest employers in the European Union. They are being starved of credit because we still have a dysfunctional banking system, particularly in the eurozone. That system has been focused so much on deleveraging and on raising capital levels that it has been starved of the capacity to provide liquidity to the market. That is the biggest challenge we face in terms of enabling SMEs to borrow and have the credit flows necessary for them to grow, expand and employ more people, especially young people. We really must sort out that problem. Much of our focus will be on what can only be described as fairly turgid and boring regulatory mechanisms. My understanding from talking to Members of the European Parliament earlier today is that something like 13 trilogues are planned, where the Council and Parliament will come together to work towards finding agreement on legislation. A wide range of directives and regulations are being worked on at European Parliament level on financial services and banking. We will have to take a lot of those forward during the Irish Presidency. That is a very important part of our work and it is essential in terms of sorting out the underlying problem.
At the same time, we have the agreement on the European Stability Mechanism, which is a key issue for us. We will continue to push that during our Presidency and beyond, focusing in particular on the potential of the ESM to be used to recapitalise banks. That is the agreement that we achieved in June and which was reiterated in October. We must work hard to ensure it is implemented at EU level. It is crucial, if banks are to be normalised at EU level, that we put our money where our mouth is and enable the mechanisms we have agreed and which, thankfully, were given further bolstering today by the European Court of Justice, because they are so desperately needed by this country and every other country in the EU. It is vital that European leaders and the European Council do what they have said they would do, and we will certainly push that agenda during the Irish Presidency.
On specific short-term measures to tackle the crisis in youth unemployment, we are expecting the publication of the youth transitions package by the European Commission shortly, and our key focus during the Presidency will be the youth guarantee. As Deputy Crowe suggested, that draws on best practice from other member states, taking the models that have worked in other countries and attempting to apply them to the EU as a whole. The model has been used most effectively in Austria, a country which previously had very high youth unemployment but which has managed to whittle it down to one of the lowest levels in Europe. That was done by a combination of instruments and measures adopted by the Government, including further education, training, upskilling, internships and a variety of mechanisms, which we have also tried to do here on a smaller scale, but our problem has been a lack of funding. We are so short of resources that we cannot really roll out these kinds of programmes on a large scale. If we can get agreement to do this at a European level, and I believe there is a genuine willingness among member states to do so, then we can roll it out on a much bigger scale. How we will fund it is the big question. There is a drive by some member states to reduce the size of the overall budget, with which I do not agree, but we are where we are. It is a political dynamic within the European Union which requires compromise. We will have a smaller budget than I would like to see, but the budget still has a significant Social Fund, for example, some of which could potentially be used to tackle youth unemployment.
We will see how the discussions on Mr. Van Rompuy's EMU report progress in December. There is a proposal for a so-called fiscal capacity for the eurozone countries, so the potential exists for a youth package for eurozone member states to be funded, perhaps, from that. I am not saying it is a foregone conclusion but is certainly something on which Ireland will be focusing keenly and trying to establish whether it is a workable solution. We have to be creative. Everybody knows that we have less money and every member state wants to give less money to the European Union, so we must be creative. When we have good ideas like the youth guarantee, we have to find ways to fund them. That is one of the tasks of the Irish Presidency which, I assure the committee, will be vigorously pursued because it is in all of our interests. Whether we are on the centre, left or right, we all genuinely share a common concern that we deal with the scourge of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. We all want to give young people hope for the future. If we are to do that, we must work together as Europeans. There is no point in Ireland, Spain or Greece trying to do it on its own. We must do it together in a spirit of solidarity which is why I agree entirely with Deputy Durkan's point about reaffirming the European concept, the sense of European solidarity and our common shared values, because this is what Europe is all about. Next year we will be celebrating 40 years of EU membership, which has been extremely good for Ireland. We must use that platform to promote the concept of solidarity at EU level. I do not underestimate the amount of work we have to do but I believe we can do it.