Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 5 February 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Forthcoming General Affairs Council: Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
I ask people to switch off their mobile telephones and iPads. It is not sufficient to put them in silent mode, they need to be switched off. We have received apologies from Senator Kathryn Reilly. The first item on the agenda is a discussion on the forthcoming meeting of the General Affairs Council. We are pleased to be joined again by the Minister of State with special responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, who will attend the meeting in question in Brussels next Tuesday. The General Affairs Council is expected to discuss the Greek Presidency programme and the preparations for the European Council meeting in March.
I thank the Chairman. It is always a pleasure to address the joint committee. I greatly appreciate the committee's decision to change the time of this meeting to facilitate my appearance here. I asked for the meeting to be rescheduled because I am travelling to Berlin tomorrow afternoon for a number of engagements. While I am in Berlin, I will have an opportunity to meet my new ministerial counterpart, Michael Roth, before we start to work with each other formally at next week's meeting of the General Affairs Council. The committee will be aware that I believe it is important to invest time in continuing to develop bilateral relations with colleagues in all EU member states. I appreciate the rearranging of this meeting to allow me to do that. I will travel to Warsaw later this month for the same reason.
The Chairman and Deputy Eric Byrne have raised the specific question of Bosnia with me on a number of occasions, including at this forum in December. I have just returned from that country and I will provide a short update on my meetings there later in this statement. As there was no General Affairs Council meeting in January, it is some time since I have met the committee in this way. I was with the Taoiseach in mid-January when he made his post-European Council statement to the House. I answered a number of questions on the European Council meeting that occasion. I do not propose to go through all of that again. Instead, I will speak about next week's General Affairs Council, which will start the preparatory process for the March European Council meeting, deal with the Greek Presidency programme and consider a proposal on genetically modified maize.
As members are aware, Greece took over the Presidency of the Council at the beginning of this year. This is Greece’s fifth Presidency. It is the final Presidency in the trio of Presidencies that started with Ireland in January 2013. As members will know from their meeting with the Greek Ambassador to Ireland on 16 January last, a busy and challenging period lies ahead. There will be considerable change within the European institutions as a result of the European elections in May and as preparations are made for the new college of Commissioners in the autumn. The election of a new European Parliament and the appointment of new Commissioners will of course have an impact. I understand the Presidency has taken this on board. It intends to prioritise the completion of first readings in the European Parliament before April, before focusing primarily on the Council during the latter part of its term.
Under a banner of "Europe: Our common quest", the Greek Presidency will continue to work on existing files while drawing on its own strengths to bring a Mediterranean and maritime flavour to its six months of the Presidency. Four thematic areas of work have been identified by our Greek colleagues. They are growth-jobs-cohesion, further integration of EU-eurozone, migration-borders-mobility and maritime policies. We are supportive of all four of these important areas of work. We will press in particular for progress on the first two areas. It is vital that Europe continues to support the work of member states in ensuring economic recovery; in improving the employment opportunities for the unemployed, particularly the young; in maintaining financial stability; and in making sure that recovery is sustainable. The focus on migration and maritime policies is welcome as both are areas where we believe that Greece can add an element of leadership that is particularly useful to the Union.
The Presidency has a substantive body of work planned but I might just refer to some of the files we believe will be of particular importance to Ireland. In the economic and financial sphere, the most significant result would be to reach agreement with the European Parliament on the single resolution mechanism under the banking union. The Presidency will manage the Council's input into the interim evaluation of the Europe 2020 strategy and its targets and will oversee the European semester process. This is, of course, of significant national interest. The European Commission recently published a communication on a 2030 framework for energy and climate policies. This is an important document that I believe will lead to a lot of discussion in most member states. Ireland has a particular interest in ensuring that appropriate account is taken of agriculture and food security. I will come back on this point and on the European semester later under the European Council agenda item.
We will support the Greek Presidency in progressing outstanding Single Market issues. I am also pleased to see that the Presidency will be keeping trade as a clear priority and we hope strong progress will be made on the negotiations with the US under the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, process. Alongside that, I look forward to continuing work on the negotiations with other countries. On enlargement, Greece will build on recent work by previous Presidencies, including Ireland. Having formally opened accession negotiations with Serbia on 21 January, the Greek Presidency will be aiming to advance those talks over the coming months. It also wants to continue discussions with Montenegro. The Greeks have clearly identified maritime policy as a cross-cutting priority and will look at several initiatives to develop a more integrated approach. Ireland's own Presidency had a strong maritime focus and we are pleased to see this issue receive continued focus. There is clearly a lot to do and I look forward to working with the Greek Presidency and in particular with my Greek counterpart, Mr. Dimitris Kourkoulas, to ensure that maximum progress is achieved.
The second item on the agenda next Tuesday is, of course, the preparation of the next European Council. This is a crucial function of the General Affairs Council, bringing political-level influence into the European Council preparations. This is the very start of the preparatory process so we will not be getting into a lot of detail at this stage. The reason for this is because the next European Council meeting will be in March so there will be another General Affairs Council meeting before then. In consequence, this session is very much in the early stages of preparation. We will, however, consider the draft annotated agenda which includes the European semester, industrial competitiveness, climate and energy and external relations. I will say a few words on each of these items.
The Council will mark the next key phase of the European semester. As the committee is aware, this fourth European semester cycle is the first in which Ireland will be a full participant. Again, the reason for that is because having exited the external aid programme, we move into the semester process which already contains other members of the eurozone. It is also the first European semester cycle to take place under the further enhancements to the Stability and Growth Pact introduced by the Two Pack regulations. These regulations are the proposals in place in respect of the preparation of national budgets and their impact on the national finances of member states. The European Council will provide clear orientations to member states for preparation and submission in mid-April of their stability programme updates under the Stability and Growth Pact and national reform programmes under the Europe 2020 Strategy. The European Council in December had already agreed that member states and the European Union will continue to take determined action to promote sustainable growth, jobs and competitiveness. This, of course, is an emphasis that is already reflected strongly in the clear direction we have set at national level, including through the interlocking Action Plan for Jobs and Pathways to Work strategies.
The Spring European Council will also focus on industrial competitiveness, including innovation and skills. I expect that exchanges here will be informed by the deliberations of the Competitiveness Council on 20 February and on the recent Commission Communication, For a European Industrial Renaissance. This includes a particular emphasis on the economic significance of the manufacturing sector, which accounts for over 3.8 million of the roughly six million jobs lost across Europe since 2008. Creating the right conditions to underpin internationally competitive manufacturing firms, including linkages with bundled services will be an important feature of a successful and durable European recovery. The Spring European Council will also take note of the first evaluation of the Europe 2020 strategy, which falls for review this year. A communication in this regard is expected from the Commission over the coming weeks. The Spring European Council is likely to be followed by a full public consultation, the outcome of which will then be taken forward by the new Commission. I also understand that when the Commission's Secretary General, Catherine Day, met the committee on 23 January, she emphasised the importance of strong stakeholder engagement with this review, including, of course, that of national parliaments.
The European Council will also consider the Commission’s January package, the key element of which was a communication setting out its ambition for a 2030 climate and energy framework. It also included a communication on energy prices and costs in Europe; a legislative proposal on emissions trading; a communication on industrial policy, which I have already mentioned; and a recommendation on unconventional oil and gas. In terms of EU policy development, the proposed framework addresses the next critical milestone in the high-level EU objective on transition to a competitive, low-carbon economy in 2050. In addition, the climate pillars of the proposed framework are central to EU engagement and leadership in the international climate process under the UN framework convention on climate change. The proposed framework comprises a package of policy proposals, including greenhouse gas emission and renewable energy targets for 2030, a set of new indicators to ensure a competitive and secure energy system and a totally new governance structure based on member state plans for competitive, secure and sustainable energy.
These individual pillars and the framework as a whole will require careful consideration in terms of the challenges for Ireland and the opportunity to strengthen national competitiveness in the emerging global green economy. By way of initial response, Ireland has acknowledged the communication as a good basis for the policy debate on a 2030 framework and stressed the need for cost-effectiveness. While the proposals will now need to be examined in detail, we welcome the recognition that renewable energy has an important contribution to make to the 2030 goals.
Further clarity is, however, needed on the binding nature of the renewable energy target and the governance framework proposed. This includes further information from the Commission regarding the assumptions behind its modelling of the proposed renewables target which will not be binding on individual member states but on the EU as a whole. We look forward to working with member states and the Commission to ensure the cost-effective implementation of the renewable energy element without placing a disproportionate burden on EU energy consumers.
The proposal in the communication to examine and pursue the most appropriate climate policy approach to agriculture and land use is a major and very welcome development from the Irish perspective. Since current EU climate and energy policy for the period to 2020 was finalised in 2008, Ireland has pursued, and continues to pursue, a case for a more holistic policy approach to greenhouse gas emissions and removals from agriculture and land use, including forestry. A coherent and cost-effective approach to the parallel priorities of food security and climate change is fundamental to a realistic way forward at national, EU and wider international level under the UN convention. We will be prioritising and engaging intensively in the discussions on the agriculture and land use element of the framework.
The General Affairs Council discussion on the climate and energy package will be followed by further preparatory discussions in the coming weeks at the relevant sectoral councils dealing with competitiveness, environment and energy, culminating in the European Council meeting on 20 and 21 March. This will be a period of intense work in order to digest and analyse the Commission’s proposals.
The third substantive item on the General Affairs Council agenda is a proposal concerning a genetically modified maize crop. This proposal relates to an authorisation under consideration to allow a maize seed product to be placed on the market for cultivation across the European Union. The European Commission has been obliged to expedite consideration of this issue following a successful action in the European Court of Justice by the Pioneer company which owns the seed. The maize in question has been modified to withstand the European corn borer worm which affects crops in warm climates. Growing the modified maize would reduce the need for application of certain pesticides. However, the crop in question is not relevant in an Irish context as the pest is not an issue for Irish agriculture.
The deliberate release of GMOs is primarily a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. The Minister, Deputy Hogan has consulted with ministerial colleagues as well the national competent authority for GMO matters, the Environmental Protection Agency. The European Food Safety Authority and the EPA agree that the product will not pose a threat to human health or the environment. Nevertheless, we note that GM cultivation continues to be a divisive issue across the member states. Given that the product is not directly relevant to Irish agriculture, Ireland will abstain in the upcoming vote. The Government has endorsed the voting position proposed by the Minister, Deputy Hogan.
I wish to take this opportunity to speak about my visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina last week, although this is not an issue on the General Affairs Council agenda. Members will have seen that over the course of a very intensive programme I had the opportunity to meet with the Chairman of the Council of Ministers - the Prime Minister - the Foreign Minister and members of the joint committee for European integration of the parliamentary assembly. I met with a range of representatives from the international community, including EU special representative Mr. Sorensen and the Council of Europe head of delegation, Mary Ann Hennessy, both of whom have addressed this committee in the past. I met the head of the OSCE delegation, Mr Fletcher Burton and the EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mr Valentin Inzko, whom members will recall addressed the COSAC meeting in Dublin last June.
I also had the wonderful opportunity to address students at the University of Sarajevo which is something I try to do in all of my visits abroad. When I visit a country I always try to deliver public engagements so that people abroad and at home understand the nature of our work. I met with some of the Irish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the members of the Defence Forces stationed with the EU mission in Camp Butmir. Before travelling to Sarajevo, I met with members of the Bosnian community here in Ireland and they provided me with very valuable perspectives and insights. The Bosnian community in Ireland numbers 2,000 members. Ireland has a strong and proud tradition of helping that country. Throughout my visit I sought to express a number of key messages in both my private and public meetings, the first message being Ireland’s support for Bosnia and Herzegovina. I made clear that this support comes from the Government and the Oireachtas.
The second message is our support for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s path towards membership of the EU. I spoke of Ireland’s experiences of EU membership, setting out the benefits as well as the challenges that Union membership presents. The third message is our encouragement for Bosnia and Herzegovina to advance on its EU path. I specifically highlighted the importance of implementing the European Court of Human Right's ruling in the Sejdic-Finci case ahead of elections later this year and of establishing a co-ordination mechanism on EU issues among state institutions. As members will be aware, the Sejdic-Finci ruling requires that all members of the communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have equal opportunities to participate in public and political life in the country. My interlocutors all expressed their appreciation for the support shown to Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Irish people and successive Governments over the years and for our ongoing support for their EU accession process.
I look forward to returning to further discussions on the issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina in this committee on a future occasion, but given the number of times this issue is dealt with in this committee I wished to record the awareness and appreciation in Bosnia and Herzegovina for Ireland’s support. I take this opportunity to update the committee on the recent visit I made to Albania. I visited Albania because of the strong Irish support for ensuring that the European Union plays a positive and a prominent role in that region supporting the peoples of those countries in their road towards EU membership or towards a better relationship with the European Union. I met the Prime Minister, the foreign minister and a large number of representatives from all political parties, including the speaker of the house of parliament, the local mayor. I also spoke in Tirana to Albanian students, non-governmental organisations and I participated in a public meeting to explain Ireland's position with regard to their country.
I will conclude by emphasising the strong interest shown by the Government and our EU policy in that region and my determination to play a positive role. I hope this presentation has given the committee a reasonable overview of the General Affairs Council discussion topics next week and a brief update on my visits abroad. I am happy to answer questions from members.
I have a question about Bosnia and Herzegovina which this committee visited about 15 months ago. We met with many of the people the Minister of State also met. We met the European integration committee, Mr. Fletcher Burton, Valentin Inzko and we also travelled to see the Irish soldiers at work in Camp Butmir. It was a very interesting and informative visit.
One message we got from our trip was that, since the Dayton peace agreement, there had been little development in the political life of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Will the Minister of State update the committee briefly on how that situation is developing?
Yesterday, the committee met a number of guests, including Dr. John O'Brennan from NUI Maynooth. He specifically mentioned the issues of integration and enlargement. In his opinion, there were unmistakable signs across European capitals that the appetite for enlargement was on the wane. At the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union, COSAC, last week, the representative from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, spoke along those lines and queried why enlargement was a priority for the Greek Presidency during its last Presidency, which was its fourth, but was not its priority this time. Has the issue of enlargement gone off the boil, particularly as regards Turkey and the Balkan states? It is a priority for Ireland. Is there still a desire throughout the Union to continue with the enlargement policy?
I mentioned our meeting yesterday. An RTE journalist, Mr. Tony Connelly, also attended. We discussed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, which the Minister of State mentioned in his address, and the problems involved in moving forward with same. Mr. Connelly made the point that the TTIP was a priority for us during our Presidency and that, due to our historical and strong links with the US, we managed to get TTIP up and running. He questioned whether we should step in and try to push it forward. Would our Government have an enhanced role in progressing the TTIP?
Our third guest yesterday was former MEP and Deputy, Proinsias de Rossa. He referred to how our committee could play a role in the selection of the next Irish Commissioner. He suggested that the nominee should appear before us and take questions on his or her views on Europe and the Commission itself. Would this be a useful exercise for the committee?
The Minister of State will lead a series of discussions in our universities on the Irish working in EU institutions. I commend him on this worthwhile initiative. Will he provide a quick outline of what it will involve?
Before calling members, I will ask a final question about the Commission's communication last week on voting rights for EU citizens. It criticised five nations for not giving their nationals sufficient voting rights, those being, us, the UK, Malta, Cyprus and Denmark. This is a matter in which the committee is interested. We intend to hold meetings to discuss the Commission's guidance and how Ireland can improve voting rights for our diaspora. Does the Minister of State have an opinion on what could be done and how we should progress this issue?
I welcome the Minister of State. I have two questions about matters touched on by the Chairman. The Minister of State's comments on enlargement were interesting. If there is to be enlargement, what will be the further reduction in the number of MEPs? I should probably know the answer, but I do not.
Yesterday, we held a discussion with three guests. The disconnect between Irish citizens and the EU in all its guises seemed to be to the fore in people's minds. Does the Minister of State have ideas for improving this situation? I have done some work in this regard recently. Forums could be held on, for example, a quarterly basis affording MEPs an opportunity to explain what they were doing in Europe. The broadcaster also has a part to play. Showing the European Parliament on television once per month in the middle of the night is not ideal. MEPs should be drawn on by RTE for comment. The EU rarely gets credit for the work it does, particularly on consumer issues, etc. I would be interested in the Minister of State's reply.
I thank the Minister of State and offer him belated congratulations on his appointment. I have not had a chance to do so officially yet. He is doing a good job.
I have visited Bosnia Herzegovina. What is the Minister of State's opinion? It is a decentralised country with three ethnic groups, ten federations and a large degree of political, economic and religious segregation. I found the politics uncomfortable, as do many of those living there. Is the Minister of State satisfied with the EU's efforts to pull Bosnia Herzegovina into line? We might as well be blunt - the country itself acknowledges that there is a great deal of corruption there, even within the political system. The minority group politicians that the Chairman, others and I met acknowledged this.
There seems to be a mad rush to bring Bosnia Herzegovina into the EU. I do not have a problem with that, as the more people who join the EU, the better. However, we do not seem to have put much effort into dealing with a country that is so decentralised. According to people I know who live there, the situation appears to be worsening. I am not trying to put the Minister of State on the spot, but is he satisfied with the EU's efforts or could much more be done before Bosnia Herzegovina could even be considered for membership? There is also a mad rush for it to join NATO. That this will probably happen before it joins the EU is appalling.
I thank members for their questions. The Chairman asked about Bosnia Herzegovina and whether there was fatigue regarding enlargement and a more prominent role for the EU in the Balkans. That is not the case. Consider the EU's strong role in the breakthrough in the Serbia-Kosovo relationship. The High Representative, Baroness Catherine Ashton, played a pivotal role in that regard. Serbia is making progress in developing its relationship with the EU. It goes without saying that we are holding this discussion in the aftermath of our friends in Croatia having successfully joined the EU. The EU's recent track record in the region shows one new member state and the Union playing a significant role in seeking to advance stability and good relations between the region's countries.
We must acknowledge that the nature of the accession process has changed significantly for many of the countries currently involved in it. This is because the Union itself has changed.
The level of integration within the European Union has evolved considerably for existing member states.
The process Ireland went through to join the European Union is incomparable to the process gone through by countries that recently joined or those seeking to join. Given that the Union has changed and the integration within it has deepened, the accession process has changed in parallel to that. Having been in Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina and talking to people in other countries in the region, I understand the difficulties that can create for them but this is all about trying to put in place a process that is right for countries seeking to join the Union and for the Union itself.
The Chairman is correct is saying that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, negotiations is of huge importance to Ireland and I am aware it is becoming the source of increased public comment in America where much discussion is currently taking place. We believe that negotiations in this regard are continuing to progress in a satisfactory manner. We are very much aware of the role our country played in this regard during our Presidency when we got much of this process up and running, and we have a clear stake in ensuring that continues. When the Taoiseach and other members of Government visit America in the near future it would provide a great opportunity to emphasise this point and make clear the scale of the mutual prize open to America and the European Union.
On the Chairman's point about the role of this committee in the selection of the next Irish Commissioner, he will be aware that I am a firm supporter of the clear delineation between the role of the Oireachtas and the role of the Executive. It is entirely up to this committee to decide what it wants to do and how it wants to structure its engagement with that candidate or any other candidate. I would note, however, that when the candidates go forward they will face a thorough scrutiny process within the European Parliament, but I will leave that matter to the Chairman.
Regarding the series of discussions in the universities, the background to this, which I will briefly explain to the committee, is that we find ourselves in a position where a very large number of our citizens are represented in the European institutions, such as the Commission, at senior and middle management levels. As those people move on to other endeavours, we will find ourselves in a position where the kind of representation we have had in the past will decline. We are currently putting in place a proactive campaign on two different levels. The first is to encourage Irish graduates - people already working - to consider careers within the European institutions. The second is to examine what we can do to ensure that Irish people currently working within our civil and public services have the opportunity to work within these institutions as part of their careers.
With regard to what I am doing to support each of those elements, particularly the college element noted by the Chairman noted, I am travelling to all the colleges to launch the campaign. We have done two of those. We started off last Monday in University College Dublin, UCD, we then moved on to Trinity College, and we will work our way around the country to do the same. I was struck by the number of people who turned up at each of these events. More than 150 people attended the event held in UCD. It was standing room only; the room was packed. The Trinity College event was over-subscribed by a multiple of three. We ended up with an attendance of between 130 and 140 people and we could probably have filled a room twice the size of the one in which we held the event. Such attendance would be driven by different reasons, with which members would be very familiar, but I was encouraged that a very large number of very capable young Irish men and women showed an interest in working in our public services and our European public services. Were that to develop, that would be to our collective benefit, to the benefit of Ireland and Europe. As candidates become apparent who want to apply and who are credible in terms of being successful at the other end of the process, we will help them in that process because we want to support people through it and give them every support we can.
Senator Noone raised two points. On her point regarding a reduction in the number of MEPs, I am well aware, as is the Senator, of the change we have had here. We will still have a very significant representation within the European Parliament. Our MEPs are of a very high calibre and I am sure that will be the case following the next European Parliament elections.
On Senator's Noone's point about the perceived disconnect between European institutions and Irish people, I am well aware of that. However, I see some positive signs of where that is changing. I have been struck by a few small changes recently which when put together could have a cumulative effect. In recent weeks RTE in its coverage has given considerable recognition to debates taking place in the European Parliament. That happened yesterday when Mr. Paul Murphy, MEP, and Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP, were quoted in respect of their contributions in a debate on a report that emanated from the Commission. Prior to that there was great deal of focus on proposals from the European Parliament on plain packaging on cigarettes. Following the devastation that has taken place in many of our cities across the country, we can see how quickly and correctly people have identified the role of the Commission in providing emergency funding to deal with this difficulty. On a smaller scale, any person who has the opportunity to holiday abroad this summer will get a message on their mobile phone from the European Union to alert them that their usage has gone over a certain level.
The text message that comes through on the network on my mobile telephone makes reference to the European Union. All these changes with regard to the role of the European Union at consumer level, if nothing else, over time will have an effect on the way people perceive the role of the Union and the work it can do.
On Deputy Halligan's point regarding my impressions of Bosnia-Herzegovina and if I am happy with the structures there, I was struck by the very decentralised structure that he correctly identified. That has been very successful at bringing to an end the terrible violence that afflicted that country for so long. I was struck by two aspects regarding Sarajevo, the city I visited, of which the Deputy may be aware. The first is that it was subjected to the longest seige in recent military history and, second, that the city into which I flew was a no-fly zone 20 years ago. Progress has been made from those times and one must conclude from that, as I did, that the decentralised political structure, to which the Deputy referred, and the two entities within the federation - in other words, Republic of Srpska and the structure for Bosnia Herzegovina - have played a positive role in bringing all that conflict to an end.
However, the big question that the Deputy at least implied is whether the structures are capable of meeting the aspirations of the communities within them with regard to a standard of living and all the other issues about which everybody cares.
This was brought home to me by the approximately 100 young people who attended my public address at the University in Sarajevo and expressed desire for the types of things about which Irish people talk and their concerns in regard to whether they will materialise for them.
On whether the European Union is playing a strong enough role in Bosnia, I believe it is. Mr. Sørensen, in terms of his prominence in public life in that country, is doing an enormous amount of work. I believe we are doing all we can to support that country on the journey it needs to make. However, there are two perspectives in this regard, of which the Deputy will probably be aware from his time there. Any plan or long-term solution for the country must come from the people. We are all aware of the understandable concerns that arose in Ireland, a country 40 years a member of the European Union that has a standard of living and income per head that is significantly ahead of that in Bosnia and Herzegovinia, in relation to the issue of conditionality, the role of the European Union in its domestic affairs and the level of debate that has taken place in that regard. It is important, therefore, for the Union to be extremely careful and sensitive in terms of the role it plays in the affairs of all other countries, particularly those that are not yet members. I am very much aware of how careful the European Union and Mr. Sørensen are in this regard.
A point raised many times during my visit was the Sejdic-Finci ruling and the prominence it plays in relation to the European Union and its policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovinia. I strongly support the role of the European Union in this regard. I am sure we are all agreed that if the European Union is about anything, it is about everybody being equal and working hard to ensure that where inequality is identified, nation states or the Union deal with it. A fundamental consequence of this is that everybody should have equal ability to participate in the public life of their country. The Sejdic-Finci ruling cuts to the heart of this. I believe it is entirely correct that the European Union place such value in progress being made in relation to that ruling and all of its consequences.
In regard to the Minister of State's reference to a Mediterranean and maritime flavour over the next six months, I hope he likes eating fish and drinking quality wine and that if he can get some time off from his busy schedule he will enjoy doing so.
I understand the Minister of State wishes to concentrate today on issues such as security of energy and so on. However, he has caused a drift in the discussion towards Bosnia. I do not propose to say too much other than that I have a particular interest in Bosnia and the Irish-Bosnian community, having experienced a close relationship with the student refugees involved in the Tuzla bombing who were taken in by Ireland and went on to be fine students in our universities, some of whom have chosen to become citizens of Ireland. Having worked with the OSCE in the region, I am very familiar with the people.
During the last COSAC meeting, Mr. Valentin Inzko agreed with me that a lot of time had been wasted and that much had been assumed in regard to the evolutionary process that would take place. Given Croatia's move into Europe, he thought there would be a natural progression by the people of Bosnia and Herzegovinia in that direction. However, that did not happen. It would have been explained in great detail by the ex-pats that Europe was not assisting in the development of proper politics in the region and that it if it imposed more authority on the country things could progress. Mr. Inzko admitted some mistakes had been made.
It was stated by one of the witnesses at yesterday's meeting that Bosnia and Herzegovinia represented a most reluctant country embracing nationhood. I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive engagement on the issue of Bosnia, including with students at the universities and with ex-pats here. I wish him continued success in that regard. The Minister of State might elaborate on the Irish role in the European institutions, which was also referred to at yesterday's meeting. The Minister mentioned that in this regard we are in a transitionary stage. I do not know why that would be the case. I am not surprised to hear that 1,500 students attended the address in TCD and UCD. Perhaps it was in the context of job prospects that they attended. Is the Minister of State suggesting in the context of the forthcoming European elections in May that many of the people in the institutions will lose their jobs? I thought they were ingrained in those institutions.
It is a fascinating experience for us to engage with Irish people engaged in Europe. For example, the committee met yesterday with a team of OECD representatives who monitor the Irish Aid programme, including our project in Malawi, which work is being compared with that of a similar Portuguese agency working in that area. One of the key OECD members is an Irish woman. There are many talented Irish people working in this area. We should not be too surprised by this given the fantastic statistic released this week that 90% of our student cohort go on to complete the leaving certificate. I congratulate the Minister of State on his engagement with the university sector although I am not sure of the reason for his encouraging third level students to take up jobs in the European Commission structures. I would have thought it to be a natural progression for them. Interestingly, during the review by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade of Irish foreign policy, one of the first out of the hatches was an Irish academic based in Copenhagen University who made a phenomenal contribution to the debate about Ireland's new role in the world. Bright intellectual Irish people keep popping up everywhere.
I have a few specific questions for the Minister of State. Notwithstanding what we heard yesterday, I would like to think that the Minister of State will continue to recognise the role Albania has to play. I would like at this point to pay compliment to one of the contributors to yesterday's meeting, namely, Mr. Tony Connelly, RTE's Europe Editor, who plays an enormously important role in educating Irish people about what is happening in Europe. He does a phenomenal job.
One of the Minister of State's key areas for debate is that of migration. It was suggested at yesterday's meeting that in this regard we have it all wrong. I refer members to the hysteria among the British to the free movement of labour from Bulgaria and Romania, in particular the British media in terms of its obscene presence at the airport to report on the influx of migrant workers into the country. It was suggested at yesterday's meeting that Europe is an ageing region. For example, we know that Germany has an ageing population and that the populations of Latvia, Lithuania and other countries are declining. Perhaps the Minister of State will say whether in his view the manner in which Europe is dealing with the migration issue is wrong and needs urgent review.
I welcome the Minister of State. I compliment Mr. Tony Connelly, with whom I shared a platform last year at the Centre for European Studies. There is talk about how the European institutions could be publicised better. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the institutions, the personnel and the infrastructure.
The European Parliament elections take place this year - the last ones were in 2009 and the previous ones in 2004. Coincidentally, those are the three years that Cork city has been hit by catastrophic flooding. The Minister of State mentioned an increased role for the Commission in this regard. County Cork has a population of almost 500,000 and the greater Cork city area has a population of 250,000 to 300,000. For the second morning in a row-----
-----we might not even be here this morning if Grafton Street had been flooded, given the chaos that would ensue in the capital city. To be fair to RTE, its entire programme this morning was broadcast from Cork. It is something that needs to be addressed urgently. If the Minister of State comes to Cork, we can show him how we need to progress this. Even though I took up two minutes of the committee's time to discuss a major flooding event in the second city of the Republic of Ireland-----
I have already done it, as I said. We have given up more time in this discussion as to whether I am on or off. Clearly, I am on and discussing matters relevant to the Minister of State. I appreciate that the Minister of State has a role in this regard and it could well be raised at the General Affairs Council.
Two weeks ago the Secretary General of the European Commission appeared before the committee. It is very heartening that the issue of the Irish working in the Commission is being addressed urgently, as we discussed last week. I was not aware that the Minister of State was so on top of the issue.
I recently went to our university - I should say one of the universities in Ireland since mention of Cork seems to upset the Chairman. The issue of languages was addressed. One of the professors there mentioned the languages that students are taking concurrent with their degree courses. I studied French in UCC and we read works by Albert Camus and the impressionists. However, there is not a course in French targeted at, for example, people studying for engineering, medicine, science or technology degrees. Rather than trying to come with a one-size-fits-all university language degree, they should be more tailored to the courses people are doing so that when they leave universities they have a language basis that complements the course they studied.
The Minister of State mentioned the European semester is also on the agenda for the General Affairs Council. Two weeks ago, the Chairman and I attended the European Parliamentary Week. Ireland's budgetary cycle now appears to be out of sync. We are moving to a budgetary process of country-specific recommendations, draft budgets and so on, with the final point being the budget. Are there discussions about reaching a similar budgetary process in every country? Do we need to get our committee structure in front of the budgetary process as is done in Sweden and many other European countries?
I apologise for my late arrival; I had questions being taken in the House and it is difficult to be in the two places at the same time. I wish to pursue a few items the Minister of State mentioned. I ask him to outline the possible implications of GMO maize on this country. To what extent have the various stakeholders been consulted on the matter? To what degree is the cereal industry likely to be affected? To what extent have our European colleagues examined that impact? To what extent will future developments in the area of world trading in cereals apply?
The Minister of State rightly indicated that the European Commission has recently announced some modification to its energy policy with particular reference to reviewing alternative energy requirements. It needs to be borne in mind that we are in a somewhat more difficult situation than some of our European colleagues in that we do not have oil and have a limited amount of gas. The gas that we have is taking a long time to come on stream. We certainly are dependent on either imports or alternative energy. I ask the Minister of State to impress on his European colleagues the importance of recognising the provisions we need to make in order to keep within the emissions requirements and the degree to which we can economically provide alternative energy in this jurisdiction without reliance on our colleagues.
The Minister of State referred to the economic and financial sphere, which will bear ongoing perusal and monitoring. Over the past ten or 15 years, that particular stream could have borne considerably more attention than it got. Obviously if certain indicators had been identified in reasonable time, the full extent of the economic situation, in which we now find ourselves would not have been as bad.
I do not want to go over topics mentioned by other speakers. Enlargement was discussed at yesterday's meeting and I do not want to go through the whole thing again. It should be brought to the attention of all our colleagues in Europe that we are in a state of flux to a certain extent. One major country is considering exiting the European Union, which could have a huge impact on the entire continent of Europe, the European Union and the eurozone, internally and externally. That is an issue that needs to be kept to the fore and its consequences for the rest of the European Union examined on a daily basis because to quote John Donne, "No man is an island". There is a tendency in the European Union, including in this island, to presume that we are all islands. We cannot exist that way; we coexist and depend on each other. The extent of that interdependence should be borne in mind and will emerge as having greater importance as time goes by.
I welcome the Minister of State. I apologise if the points I make were covered earlier. The Minister of State referred to the four priorities of Greece's Presidency which are growth, jobs and cohesion; further integration of the EU and eurozone; migration, borders and mobility; and maritime policies. I do not believe anyone would have any difficulty with any of those priorities. We previously mentioned the disconnect people have with the European Union and the entire European project to a certain extent. Among those countries, including Ireland, which have had difficulties in recent years there is a certain solidarity and a realisation that the EU as a body needs to roll up its sleeves and give more support to such countries.
Given that the Greeks hold the Presidency, one would like to believe there will be a greater urgency with many of the issues that need to be addressed.
The Minister of State referred to jobs. Anyone following this debate will be asking what it means for them in simple terms. Will it mean more jobs and, if so, what type of jobs? We are talking about growth, but what type of growth? If it does not mean jobs or that the inequalities which exist are addressed or that the difficulties people have in their lives will improve, what does it mean? I suppose it is rather like the case of those who were left behind during the Celtic tiger era. They did not get the bounce. People are wondering whether this will be the same. We hear all the time about green shoots and Europe turning a corner and so on. Last night, Ms Christine Lagarde made a speech about how positive things were and the great things the IMF did. The reality in many areas is that people are not seeing growth or jobs or anything new on the horizon. They do not see the task force on jobs and so on. Many of us take the view that the only way we are really going to stimulate growth is through a package of measures that will include spending and creating jobs.
I imagine the Greeks have similar views about the write-down. The Minister of State referred to institutional churn and transition. He said that if there is to be major movement, it would be at the start of the year. How does the Minister of State see that developing in respect of jobs?
Migration was mentioned. Some of us were at a meeting on Friday attended by people from many countries, including Libya, Egypt and Tunisia as well as bordering countries. They commented on the difficulties they have with people coming from conflict zones, who arrive in Europe in countries such as Greece and Bulgaria and other countries that have been mentioned. There is a lack of solidarity between the south and the north in respect of the difficulties these people have. Some of these people are having serious difficulties in trying to get growth and jobs, and vast numbers of people are fleeing conflict. Will that be a priority? What sense does the Minister of State have in this regard? Does it make a difference that the Greeks have the Presidency? People are disillusioned about the lack of solidarity in the economic sphere and certainly this applies to the area of migration as well. Certain states are carrying the burden. Others, like ourselves, are on the periphery of Europe. There is an issue in terms of population and the number of people coming to Ireland. Many people have a major difficulty with that. The Minister of State will be aware from his constituency, as am I from mine, that people do not understand and it is characterised as a case of more people coming in and taking from the same pot. Certain countries within Europe are carrying the burden of people fleeing conflict. People are looking for a new economic future for their own children and so on. What sense does the Minister of State have of the issues in respect of the Greek Presidency?
I will begin with an issue I accidentally omitted in my first round of answers relating to the question of voting rights. The first point is that this is an area of national competence in terms of how it is organised and provided to the citizens of each country. I am aware of the report mentioned. I am also aware of the fact that the Constitutional Convention is doing work in this area and that it has made recommendations on how we could change or improve our situation. That will be the subject of debate.
Deputy Dara Murphy raised several issues. I represent a constituency that was flooded in 2010 and I have first-hand experience of the devastation that people are going through as well as the extraordinary stress on people when this happens. I know it is an extremely difficult time for the people in Deputy Murphy's constituency and for all the others who have endured the devastation inflicted upon them. In my contribution earlier, I referred to the fact that I have heard a discussion taking place publicly regarding whether an application would go in from the Government in respect of supporting work that needs to be done. Certainly, if I can give any help to that cause I will do so because I have first-hand experience of the stress people are feeling at the moment and the havoc that has been wreaked upon their homes and lives.
I acknowledge the Deputy's point on languages, although it is not one I have considered before. I am aware of a similar issue in a different area, that is, the practice of law. One of the areas of speciality for which there is a significant demand is that of lawyer linguists, people who have the ability to draft law, which by its nature is technical, in different languages. I acknowledge the point that perhaps we should consider the same approach in respect of engineering and science.
A point was made about the compatibility of national budgetary systems and processes with the European semester. My understanding is that due to the changes made to bring our budget back to October, we are fitting in to the budgetary architecture which the European semester, the two pack and all the other measures require of us. Perhaps at the tail end of the meeting I will get some more observations from the Deputy in respect of how we might be out of sync. My understanding is that the changes we have made bring us into the framework where we need to be.
A point was made regarding the role of committees. I would actively encourage this committee and other committees to consider the work that will take place on the drafting of the national reform plan, which will be discussed during March, April and May. What role can committees play? I believe this committee can and should play a constructive role and I encourage the members to think about it. My recollection is that this is something the committee was examining but I believe it is worthy of bringing to a conclusion in the coming weeks.
Deputy Durkan made several points. He touched on the question of genetically modified organisms and asked a specific question on the role of stakeholders. I assure Deputy Durkan that the Environmental Protection Agency, our key stakeholder in this area, has been intimately involved in our evaluation of these crops and the associated issues. The agency has played a direct role in informing the national position on the issue. We are very much aware of the sensitivities on the matter at home and in other countries. The committee will be aware that, with the exception of one test that is taking place at the moment, we are not growing genetically modified crops in the country. However, many of the foodstuffs being used within our agricultural communities contain GM products. The Environmental Protection Agency has been directly involved in stakeholder consultation.
A point was raised about energy. The simple answer to that question is "Yes". All the points the Deputy asked to be raised will be actively considered and raised by us. I offer one example of this work, that is, the increased recognition evident in the European Commission proposals on the role of agriculture in emissions and the associated impacts.
We all worked hard on that issue to ensure that greater recognition would be given, and that has happened. We will continue to pursue other matters to which the Deputy referred in that vein. The Deputy also made a point about economic and financial spheres and policy areas. We will continue to raise issues that are very important to our country, such as the agreement on banking union and the role the EU can play on job creation, to which Deputy Crowe alluded.
The UK position on enlargement is related to who could be forming the next government there and what might happen in the next parliament. The Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party have articulated views in that respect. We are very aware of that. It is a matter of significant interest for Ireland, due to the consequences it could have for us, and it is something that I have now addressed in a number of public contributions in other countries, as well as here at home. I want our principles to be very clear on this issue, which I believe they are. The Government's view is that our future is firmly within the European Union, and there is no ambiguity about that. As long as the Irish people give their consent to that, either through general elections or through the ballot box in whatever way, that is the position of this Government and hopefully of future governments as well.
Deputy Crowe raised a number of different issues. We need to be very clear that for all the discussion we hear about things like the digital economy and pharmaceuticals and so on, we need to have diversified sources of job growth. Out of the six million jobs lost in Europe during the crisis, under 4 million of them have been within manufacturing. If we want to get those 4 million people back to work, they have to be in jobs which they are skilled to do or can be retrained to do. A clear example of that is in respect of the role of the European Investment Bank in Ireland at the moment. The amount of investment that bank has put into our country has quadrupled in recent years, and we can see the fruits of that with people working on the Grangegorman DIT campus and on the new Luas line across Dublin.
Deputy Crowe made about a point about institutional churn. The change we are talking about is not happening as a result of what might happen in the European Parliament elections, or what might happen following the appointment of new Commissioners. We are talking about the career cycle and the life cycle of people who are in those institutions at the moment and who are either retiring or going on to do different things. It is not related to the political cycle that we were discussing earlier on. That is why we are putting effort into that at the moment. The Greek Presidency is focusing heavily on the type of growth that can occur, because unfortunately they have a very deep understanding of the difficulty that the economic crisis has caused. Through our action plan on jobs, we will continue to do the same. We need to have diversified sources of job creation to reflect the fact that not everybody will want to work in Google or be able to work in Google, or in any company like that. We need to reflect that in the training that we have within our economy.
Migration and fleeing from conflicts are issues that have received increased prominence due to the terrible difficulties in other countries to which Deputy Crowe referred. They were the subject of significant discussion at the last European Council meeting. The European Council agreed a number of measures on the increased role of bodies like Frontex, which is a co-ordinating cross-national body that examines how different countries police their borders. There is a task force in place on this, and it will produce some recommendations to look at the issues to which the Deputy referred. The European Council and the Justice and Home Affairs Council of Ministers will then have a discussion on how we can deal with this. There are many countries that are currently bearing a very heavy burden due to their location and they want to initiate a discussion on how this can be dealt with in the future. We will participate in such a discussion. We are all aware of some of the sensitivities on this issue, but Ireland has shown itself to be capable of responding to humanitarian crises across Europe and elsewhere. Deputy Byrne spoke about the role we played in the conflict in Bosnia Herzegovina and the break up of the former Yugoslavia. We will certainly participate constructively in any discussions on that.
I missed the start of the Minister of State's speech, but I noticed that the General Affairs Council meeting will discuss the climate and energy proposals from the Commission for 2030, so climate is on the agenda. Any climate policy will have to take into account how the peripheral nations and islands are being affected by climate change. It is on the agenda so I ask the Minister of State to bring it up at the meeting.