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

2:00 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I remind members and those in the Visitors' Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment.

The first item on the agenda is a discussion on Ireland's Presidency of the Council of the European Union from 1 January to 30 June 2013. On behalf of the joint committee, I warmly welcome the Minister of State with special responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, to brief members on planning for Ireland's Presidency of the Council during the first six months of next year. It will be the seventh time we will have held the Presidency in the 40 years we have been a member of the European Union. The Minister of State will brief us on the main priorities, the preparations made and the overall approach being taken by the Government. Ireland's Presidency will be cost effective and efficient and provide us with a unique opportunity to contribute significantly to the European Union's agenda on growth and job creation and to further enhance Ireland's reputation. We look forward to the Minister of State's presentation.

Photo of Lucinda CreightonLucinda Creighton (Dublin South East, Fine Gael)
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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.

2:10 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for her remarks. She summarised the priorities extremely well. I will focus on one area - the need to restore stability. This relates to two areas, in particular, banking union and the European semester. On banking union and the make-up of the supervisory board, we would like each country to have the same voice. The proposal by some countries that membership of the board be based on population flies in the face of the concept of European solidarity and is something that would concern many of us.

With regard to the European semester, the Minister of State mentioned that she envisaged a role for national parliaments and the European Parliament. We had a meeting earlier today with members of the Party of European Socialists, PES, group in the European Parliament and we spoke about this issue and the need to have an input from both national parliaments and the European Parliament, particularly at three stages in the European semester and beyond - the annual growth survey, the formulation of country specific recommendations and the preparation of and debate on draft national budgets. National parliaments require a role in all of these, as does the European Parliament. It is not good enough to just leave it to the Commission and the Council. Will the Minister of State tell us what the Irish Presidency intends to do to ensure national parliaments and the European Parliament have a real input which will not just be noted but also taken on board, as part of the European semester? The Cypriots have prepared a paper on how we can improve the European semester process. That is something on which we must work as part of our Presidency, but perhaps the Minister of State might elaborate a little on how she envisages the role and involvement of national parliaments and the European Parliament in the European semester.

I wish to raise a small point to which the Minister of State might not be able to respond today. It is a proposal that is being considered in Europe for a tobacco products directive. It would impose mandatory plain packaging for every packet of cigarettes, as happens in Australia. Will that directive be part of the Presidency agenda and does the Irish Presidency have views on it?

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and her officials. I am heartened and not surprised by her statement that we will have a Presidency of substance rather than bells, whistles, pomp and ridiculous ceremony.

My first question relates to whether we should give greater priority to Bosnian accession to the European Union. Should this be part of our priorities list for the Presidency? The Minister of State and colleagues on the committee will be aware that when Lord Paddy Ashdown appeared before the committee, he was concerned that sufficient attention was not being given to Bosnia, both to encourage its democratic evolution and development and to deal with extremism within that state. It would be a mechanism to do this. He considered it preferable to have Bosnia within the tent. What is the Minister of State's reaction to that thesis and the fact that Bosnia is very low down the list of priorities?

I was disappointed to hear talk in recent days about reducing the amount in the budget for the Common Agricultural Policy. I wish to make a couple of points on this issue. It is a pity that people see the Common Agricultural Policy as a support for farmers. It is far from this.

With an increasing population in Europe and expanding demographic - all projections show the European population is growing rapidly - providing sufficient food to feed the population must be a priority. Strategies must be put in place to ensure there is sufficient food. The food must reach minimal health standards. The food needs to be produced so that it can be sold at a price which the bulk of consumers can afford, as is currently the case. We cannot create a situation where food will become so expensive that it would not be accessible to many consumers. That has frightening implications beyond contemplation. If one takes into account the question of food supply, the provision of healthy food and the issue of the cost of food to the consumer, there is an unanswerable case for the maintenance of the Common Agricultural Policy at its current level. That is quite apart from the merit of maintaining the traditional family farm homestead and all that goes with it, and the maintenance of jobs.

The agrifood sector offers enormous potential for job creation in all European countries. They are not incompatible objectives. That is disserving. Too many people view the Common Agricultural Policy as a support for farmers in some sense. It is a support for food security and quality food, which the average consumer can obtain. The CAP should be viewed in those terms rather than an actual support for farmers. It allows farmers to supply the necessary markets.

It merits repeating that 30% of young people in this country are unemployed and that the figure in Spain is as high at 50%. Unemployment is the greatest scandal of our age. While I accept that the market conditions, the banking union and macro-economic issues are critical to dealing with unemployment, I am well aware that creating the economic context in which jobs can be created is the ultimate objective. That must be done in parallel with a Europe-wide initiative, a stimulus that will involve a level of European and state intervention, country by country. How does the Minister of State view the Irish Presidency putting that process in place?

2:20 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, and her officials to the joint committee. I also welcome the ambassadors and embassy staff. There is only standing room today, which is a good indication of the level of interest in the Irish Presidency. The next time Ireland will host the Presidency will be in 2027-2030 at the earliest. That is a long time away. This is a very important period to host the European Presidency and it is important for us in all the circumstances. I wish Deputy Creighton every success during the Irish Presidency.

I welcome the fact that the budget will be considered during the term of the Irish Presidency. My colleague, Deputy O'Reilly, raised issues on the Common Agricultural Policy but I think the CAP budget has a better chance of succeeding under the Irish Presidency than at present.

The European Union is a major contributor in terms of aid to the Gaza region, but the EU was sidelined in relation to the resolution between Palestine and Israel. Egypt and America, but not Europe, were involved. Ireland did not play a significant role, if any, in the settlement. I believe we should be more active in that regard. This is part of the portfolio of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. There are renegotiations in the World Trade Organisation during the year. These should present exciting opportunities during our Presidency.

Youth unemployment has been raised. We could establish a European volunteer corps under the appropriate armies for peace. We could create a situation in which one would utilise the skills of young people, tradesmen, carpenters, electricians and so on. We should try to eliminate the shanty towns in the likes of Nairobi, South Africa and Haiti. There is such demand to try to eliminate world poverty and create better living conditions. We have the capability and capacity at this point for a five-year programme which would really make a difference. Instead of sending only aid, which was misappropriated in one particularly country, we could look at providing a European peace corps, in which young unemployed people would be paid by the Irish State and then sent to be gainfully employed on providing services such as water, sewerage facilities and housing in Third World countries. We could do something that would mark the Irish Presidency. No other country has a finer tradition of giving to world aid. Irish missionaries went to the Third World. I would like to bring this idea to another level and intend to promote the idea of a European volunteer corps.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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Some more members are offering. I ask the Minister of State to limit her response at this stage to five minutes and I will alert her when the five minutes are up.

Photo of Lucinda CreightonLucinda Creighton (Dublin South East, Fine Gael)
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I will be concise and to the point. The Chairman raised the question of the banking union. I agree with him on how the supervisory mechanism should be constructed. It is important there is equality between member states. It is also important that we take into account the concerns of non-eurozone countries in this context. That will be tricky and difficult to work out but the most important thing is that we have a clear mandate from the European Council and a clear agenda to which all member states have agreed. We must find a way to move forward and to overcome the legal obstacles and political difficulties that exist. I have no doubt but that we will do that. I hope the European summit in December will give the added impetus that is needed to ensure that by the start of the Irish Presidency we will have a legal framework with which to move forward. The single supervisory mechanism is only the beginning. I would be emphatic in saying that the Europe-wide bank resolution scheme and the deposit guarantee scheme are equally important. We need a comprehensive banking union, as a single supervisory mechanism on its own is not adequate. We will be driving that agenda forward during the Presidency.

Our permanent representative has been consulting with the Cypriot Presidency, the Commission, the Parliament and other stakeholders at European level on the proposals in respect of semesters. Everybody knows the semester system is only in its infancy. We have lessons to learn from last year's experience. I hope that we can bring positive changes to the system during the Irish Presidency. The role for parliaments is a sensitive issue. The Presidency does not instruct Parliament on its role. Every national parliament is different, they have different procedures, and ways of handling things, but I discussed this with the committee this morning. Perhaps there could be a role for the Oireachtas to lead off on this process of debating the semester system, particularly country-specific recommendations. The CSRs are most pertinent to member states. They are specific to each individual member state. It is highly appropriate that national parliaments would debate the country-specific recommendations. It also holds governments to account. It is important that parliaments see this role. It is not a question of the Commission beating members states with a stick but that member states would take ownership of the recommendations and parliaments holding their own governments to account. I am very supportive of that. Perhaps we could give more consideration to how the Oireachtas might be able to lead the process and encourage other parliaments to do the same.

The European Parliament plans a structured engagement with national parliaments which will take place towards the end of January and again before the summit in June at which the European Council will adopt conclusions on the European semester. This process presents an opportunity to engage with the European Parliament. The President of the Parliament, Mr. Martin Schulz, the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee and others in the European Parliament are switched on to this process. I recommend that the joint committee discuss this issue because the link between the European Parliament and national parliaments is important.

On the tobacco products directive, I had an opportunity to discuss this matter with my colleague, the former Maltese Minister for Foreign Affairs and new Commissioner for Health, Mr. Tonio Borg, just before his appointment. During our brief discussion, Mr. Borg indicated his clear intention to launch the directive as his first priority. While we must wait for the Commission to produce its proposals, I expect the directive to be introduced quickly. Members should watch this space. I will revert to the joint committee on the directive.

Deputy Joe O'Reilly asked about Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is not the case that Bosnia-Herzegovina is being ignored or pushed down the list of priorities. I have visited the country and intend to visit again during the Presidency. Bosnia-Herzegovina and all the Balkan states are important for Europe, which has a commitment to the region. A European perspective has been provided for all the Balkan countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, progress has been slow. Shortly after my visit to Bosnia last summer, the country's leaders attended a high-level meeting in Brussels where they agreed a roadmap with a list of reforms. The blunt facts are that deadlines are being missed, the roadmap is not being adhered to in many instances and significant work remains to be done. The ball is in the court of the Bosnian authorities and leadership.

The European Union has standards and must demand basic protections for minorities and human rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law and so forth. We must insist on these matters and the quid pro quois that countries which meet the targets and adhere to the commitments to which they signed up will be rewarded by the European Union. We have not yet ratified the stabilisation and association agreement with Bosnia-Herzegovina, although this is an objective of the Irish Presidency and one on which we will, if possible, make progress. However, progress and reform are required on the Bosnian side. I am personally committed to this issue and intend to visit the region, including Bosnia, when I have an opportunity to do so during the Presidency.

On the Common Agricultural Policy, I am encouraged and enthused by the progress we made during meetings in Brussels last Thursday and Friday. As Deputies will be aware, the proposals tabled in advance of the summit by the President of the European Council, Mr. Herman Van Rompuy, envisaged significant cuts to the CAP budget. However, the revised version of the negotiating box we received on Friday morning contained a significant increase to the budget. The discussion is moving in the right direction and I believe it will continue to do so.

It goes without saying that I am convinced of the arguments made on food security, quality and costs for consumers. The other means of creating opportunities for the agrifood sector in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe is the use of bilateral trade agreements with other countries and regions of the world. The east coast of the United States is an area of significant potential for Irish farmers. For this reason, securing a free trade agreement between the European Union and United States is a priority for the Government and Irish Presidency. Such an agreement would have a positive impact on the farming community in Ireland and other agriculturally focused economies in the European Union.

2:30 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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Bearing in mind the time constraints imposed on this meeting, I ask speakers to limit their contributions to approximately three minutes.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Unfortunately, I must leave the meeting.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for a comprehensive overview of the programme in which we will engage for the next six months. On the problem of youth unemployment, which Deputy O'Reilly raised and to which I referred at a meeting this morning, what action does the Minister of State anticipate on this issue in the next six months? While the unemployment rate, especially for those aged under 25 years, is bad here, it is much worse in some other European countries. In Spain, for example, youth unemployment is in excess of 50%. Will European Union funding be made available to national governments to address this issue in the next six months? While I am aware that some progress and proposals have been made on the issue, will a comprehensive proposal emerge in the next six months to address this difficult issue? We must ensure young people are able to enter the workforce and do not become alienated from the system. I welcome members of the recently established Europa Society from University College Cork.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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They will join us at 3 p.m., assuming the meeting has concluded by that stage.

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent)
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The Minister of State spoke of economic stability and conditions for growth throughout Europe. The greatest destabilisation factor across Europe is the high rate of unemployment. The current position, in which many millions of people are without a job, is unsustainable. Many billions of euro are being spent, as is appropriate, on sustaining people who are unemployed when this money could be invested in job creation. Having examined statistics and factors across Europe, I note that unemployment, rather than stabilising, is becoming worse in some countries and has increased throughout the Continent in the five years since catastrophe struck. The problem has the potential to destabilise Europe.

The Minister of State referred to small and medium sized businesses. The large number of job losses from such enterprises is often understated. I estimate that we lost 1,800 small and medium enterprises in two years. Many of the former owners of businesses that closed will tell one that, having made staff redundant and cut their costs, they were forced to close their business because the banks would not lend. The absence of bank credit continues to be a major problem. One hears the same argument made in debates in Greece, Italy and Spain, namely, that the banking system in Europe is not lending to small businesses.

If a large industry closes with the loss of 300 or 400 jobs, we consider it a disaster while forgetting that small and medium enterprises with perhaps five, ten or 15 employees, are closing daily. The European Union has not taken any initiatives to address the problem, although individual governments have introduced minor initiatives to address it such as the business enterprise schemes here. In the coming weeks, statistics will be published showing the catastrophic effect on European economies of the large number of closures in the small and medium enterprise sector. Does the Government have any definitive proposals for the sector which would assist the economy and the economies of other EU member states?

My second point relates to the ongoing critical conflict in the Middle East, specifically Gaza.

The conflict which is under-estimated has the potential to destabilise economies across Europe and the world, particularly if other countries become involved and if the recent conflict had gone to an all-out war between Israel and Hamas. Even those who support Israel, I am not one of them, acknowledge that the way forward is the acceptance of a Palestinian independent state which is crucial to any solution in Israel. The people in Gaza are living in an open prison camp which has been acknowledged by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, when in opposition. He has a good deal of time for the Palestinians because of the way they are treated. We underestimate the conflict because it has the capacity to flare up. A conflict in the Middle East that would involve other countries over a period of even a short to medium time would set back the European economy. We should use all influence possible and perhaps step up to the plate on this occasion and advocate the argument put forward by some of the military groups in Gaza - to which I do not subscribe - which is based on the fact that there is no acceptance of a Palestinian state. Maybe that would be one gigantic step forward that we could propose.

2:40 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I apologise if the Minister of State has only five minutes in which to answer all these questions. I have a list the length of my arm but I will not go into them. The Minister of State mentioned the priorities, namely, banking union, youth unemployment and the European semester - many of which fall into the Commission timetable. What is being done differently in Ireland in regard to youth unemployment? Are there any particular initiatives that will be approached in a different way by the Irish Presidency? Youth unemployment figures have been mentioned: Spain, 52%; Greece, 54%; Germany, 8%. What is being done differently in Germany in the area of training and skills? Those are the types of issues that have to be dealt with. How are we going to grab certain issues by the scruff of the neck and say we will do things in a different way and put our stamp on them during the Irish Presidency, rather than follow the actual timetable? Rather than take up issues already in progress I suggest we put a stamp on the Presidency.

Can the Minister of State provide the committee with an update on the all-Ireland angle and how it will be portrayed? Are we going to promote all-Ireland food, the all-Ireland economy, all-Ireland tourism and so on? Is that part of the image that will be portrayed? Are we going to sell the island of Ireland?

The Minister of State referred to the Bosnian position. She mentioned the reform on the Bosnian side, and probably knows more about the region than me, but part of the difficulty is that the European Union has not encouraged Bosnia's neighbours to adopt policies that support its functionality. There are still territorial difficulties, property issues outstanding, access to ports and so on. One of the difficulties for Bosnia is that Croatia will impose a ban on products from Bosnia, such as milk, vegetable products, honey and so on, from January 2013, as they do not meet European Union standards. If that issue is not dealt with properly, it will create instability in the region. As this is a region coming out of conflict it is important that, while encouraging integration, we do not destabilise the economy. Perhaps that is not a matter for today's discussion but it is an issue to which I would like to return.

In regard to PEACE IV funding, the hope is that it will be signed off on during the Presidency. That would be great news for Border counties, particularly people in the North. Some of us visited the North in recent days where we met with various groups and witnessed the positive work that had been carried out under that programme. Will the Irish side push for a PEACE IV funding, as a unique programme, which is not top sliced? Is the British side similarly committed to the PEACE IV programme and has it been supportive during the discussions?

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Minister of State on her update and the themes the country has adopted to pursue in the course of the Irish Presidency. They are laudable themes which, I hope, will bring the desired results. For example, promoting sustainable economic growth and restoring trust, confidence and stability are hugely important in the present climate and supporting growth and reform of the EU budget is excellent. However, I am not sure what the European Year of Citizens will mean to people. We have talked about that issue on a regular basis for as long as I have been a member of the committee, which is a long time. I wonder what it means to people.

I wish to add a few issues that need to be adopted and used effectively in the course of the Presidency. The first is the reaffirmation of the European concept, incorporated within which is the concept of cohesion, solidarity and enlargement in order to bring on board all the strands that have kept the European Union afloat for all these years that seem to have diminished and subsided into the distance. I would also add human rights issues, apropos of the point made by other speakers. It is not a question of whether we are on one side or the other in the Middle East conflict, we have to be on the side of fairness and adherence to the concept of human rights, wherever there is an abuse of human rights. It is not a question of coming down on one side or the other but to try to do our best to be a positive influence for the benefit of all the people who live in that area.

I support the point in regard to the diminution of the importance of the food industry or the budget, either of which is not in the interests of Europe. It is utterly unbelievable that anybody would diminish the food industry or the budget at a time when there is starvation all over the world and people are asking questions. A short-term gain might solve somebody's immediate problem but would create many other problems.

The question of national parliaments is an important issue, particularly in regard to the European semester. We need the semester because we need to note progress or lack of progress as the case may be. The difference between the current regime and what happened in the Lisbon agenda was that nothing was done to review the progress of the agenda for a period until somebody discovered it did not work. The problem is that not all parliamentarians in national parliaments are equally disposed towards the European concept, they do not have the same vision of Europe. They have the vision of division and isolation and of not being part of it, but acting as if they were bystanders. That is not the case with this country I hasten to add, but it is with some countries. That is obviously for domestic political purposes and it is obviously beneficial to some people but we cannot go down the road indefinitely of nurturing Euroscepticism and hope we can have a successful Europe. It does not work that way. I strongly urge that the Irish Presidency adopt the rigorous pursuit of the reaffirmation of the European concept at this time.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I invite the Minister of State to answer as many questions as she can.

Photo of Lucinda CreightonLucinda Creighton (Dublin South East, Fine Gael)
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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.

2:50 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I have one final question. Senator Leyden has just left but he asked a specific question about the European peace corps. Does the Minister of State have any thoughts on that?

Photo of Lucinda CreightonLucinda Creighton (Dublin South East, Fine Gael)
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The USA has a peace corps with which I have had some interaction in different parts of Africa, and it is a really good model that has worked very well. I think it was originally an initiative of the late President John F. Kennedy and is something of which young Americans are very proud. I would not agree with Senator Leyden that it could be a substitute for overseas development aid, and many people in the non-governmental organisation sector and in the Houses of the Oireachtas would probably have something to say about that too. Nevertheless, it could be complementary to aid programmes and is something I would be happy to discuss with the Tánaiste.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming here and presenting us with the priorities for the Presidency. We all look forward to our forthcoming Presidency and wish the Minister of State and her colleagues the very best.

Photo of Lucinda CreightonLucinda Creighton (Dublin South East, Fine Gael)
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Thank you.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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We will now go into private session.

The joint committee went into private session at 3.08 p.m. and adjourned at 4 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 December 2012.