Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 1 April 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
European Semester Process: Committee of the Regions
I remind all members and those attending to switch off their mobile phones completely; it is not enough to leave them in silent mode, as they cause interference with the recording equipment in the committee rooms.
The first item on our agenda is a discussion with Councillor Fiona O'Loughlin, a member of the Irish delegation to the Committee of the Regions. At approximately 2.30 p.m. the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, will attend to discuss the draft national reform programme, a key element of the new European semester process. In advance of that discussion I welcome Councillor O'Loughlin. The Committee of the Regions comprises 344 local and regional representatives from across the European Union. When we met the committee earlier this year, one of the issues that arose concerned the need to promote awareness and provide an opportunity for local government representatives to engage on key EU issues. As a committee, we agreed to have a discussion on the European semester process, and the draft national reform plan would be a good starting point to ensure a flavour of the Committee of the Regions is included in the process of awareness promotion. It is for that reason we have invited Councillor O'Loughlin to attend.
Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite Councillor O'Loughlin to make her opening remarks.
Ms Fiona O'Loughlin:
I thank the joint committee for inviting me to speak on behalf of the Irish delegation to the Committee of the Regions and following up on the commitment it gave when the delegation was last before it on 13 February to discuss the European semester process. We have provided the committee secretariat with a short written contribution on our experience of the European semester process which I hope has been circulated to committee members for their information. The submission deals specifically with the Europe 2020 strategy and the national reform programme which is a fundamental component of the semester process. We do not address the stability and convergence programmes, as they have less direct relevance for local and regional authorities and the work of the Committee of the Regions. The submission very much reflects our experiences to date, both as EU level representatives and members of local and regional authorities.
It might, perhaps, be useful if I were to take a few minutes to summarise the key points. In our experience the Irish approach to the Europe 2020 strategy and developing the national reform programme specifically is that while it presents many positive opportunities, it has four fundamental weaknesses. There is a general lack of awareness of the strategy and Ireland's contribution to achieving its targets; a lack of real engagement and meaningful consultation with stakeholders in the process; a seeming lack of joined-up government in terms of the measures it contains or fails to include; and the absence of a local and regional dimension which makes it impossible to assess if measures are effective in all regions and whether the pursuit of purely national targets leaves some regions further behind.
It seems that the lessons learned from implementation of Europe 2020's predecessor, the Lisbon targets, have not been learned. Despite guidance from the European Commission and a commitment made by member states to foster greater ownership of and responsibility for the strategy and to have a more inclusive partnership approach in reaching the targets set, there has been little or no improvement in the way we in Ireland have approached the development of the national reform programme.
In short, we would like the Government to initiate a process among policy stakeholders which, first, raises the profile of the Europe 2020 strategy to create a greater awareness of it and the Irish response to the targets it sets out. For example, many county managers and local authorities were unaware of the national reform programme, NRP, until we informed them of it and its significance. I suspect many are still unaware of it. Second, we would like the Government to establish a more structured, systematic and meaningful process of consultation on the development of the NRP and the achievement of its targets. In the past our regional assemblies have been given less than a week to make comments and few if any of the comments or suggestions have been acted upon. In addition, no implementation roles are assigned at local or regional levels.
As well as the weakness in the process, we also have particular concerns regarding the structure and content of the NRPs that have been produced to date. First, Ireland’s national reform programme is spatially blind and the concept of balanced regional development is not reflected anywhere in the text as a key policy objective. Second, there is no real recognition of the key regional challenges facing Ireland, and the programme says nothing of the specific competitiveness challenges facing the weaker regions. In this regard there are only national targets; there are no regional targets of any kind.
Third, we would like some regional targets and regional measures for some of the priority actions. In the submission we have included some tables which illustrate clear regional divergence. In our view the one-size-fits-all approach does not necessarily work in all cases.
Fourth, no practical roles have been assigned to regional or local bodies in meeting the national targets despite the range of activities that these authorities currently undertake, and will undertake following the recent local government reforms, to support economic development and job creation.
Fifth, there is little recognition of the planning framework and the contribution of regional planning guidelines to help meet Ireland’s climate change targets. We think there needs to be a more coherent approach to land use and economic development.
Finally, I wish to make a more specific point on the implementation of the European Regional Development Fund programme at regional level. The regional assemblies, in drafting the operational programmes, are required to demonstrate the strategic alignment of planned investment priorities at regional level with the NRP and country-specific recommendations which do not have any regional dimension. There is a little more detail on this in the submission, as it is a requirement of the regulations, but despite submissions on it to the Department nothing has been done to date to resolve the incoherence.
In our submission we also refer to two very recent documents which support the points we are making. I am sure members have already seen the stocktaking report on the Europe 2020 strategy from the European Commission, published on 5 March. That gives an assessment of progress in meeting the strategy’s targets but also makes some relevant observations on the growing gaps between member states and within member states. In addition, it underlines that experience has shown that the active engagement and participation of local and regional authorities is key in the delivery of the Europe 2020 objectives. Those are two issues that we suggest the Government needs to carefully consider, especially in the context of the Europe 2020 mid-term review over the next 12 months.
The other document is a declaration adopted by the Committee of the Regions on 7 March which is based on a survey of more than 1,000 local and regional authorities across the EU. It calls for a renewed Europe 2020 strategy based on stronger partnership and ownership by all levels of Government, the introduction of a territorial dimension, more transparency and accountability and multi-level governance, to include national parliaments. The declaration makes a number of other points which I recommend to the committee as they are most relevant in the Irish context.
We consider that with the process of ongoing reform of the local government sector there is now a real opportunity to actively work towards the possibility of all regions in Ireland building on their potential and to achieve smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The next national reform programmes and the European semester process could help facilitate that. There is room for a more innovative, ambitious and tailored approach to our future economic well-being, and I hope we have made this case coherently in the submission.
We have also included a set of questions which reflect some of our concerns and we hope the committee will raise some of them with the Minister. I again thank the committee for the invitation and the attention of members. I am happy to respond to comments or questions members might have. I look forward to ongoing consultation between the committee and the Committee of the Regions.
I thank Councillor O'Loughlin very much for her comprehensive report. We will make sure the Minister is aware of the concerns and suggestions raised. I will personally raise with him this afternoon balanced regional development and the lack of regional targets.
Thank you, Chairman. I cannot stay very long as, unfortunately, I have business in the House. I welcome the delegation and congratulate Ms O’Loughlin on her presentation. The submission is an extremely well-focused document which touches on all the points that have been of concern to many of us for a number of years, and it is no harm to discuss them now.
The fact that the submission from the witnesses is circulating now is useful. As the Chairman has just said, the matters raised will be referred to in the course of other discussions. We spoke previously about ownership of the European project, which is hugely important from the point of view of the person in the regions, whether he or she is in business, public administration or social Ireland. At whatever level people interact with the European institutions, it is hugely important that we recognise each other's existence and that the submissions made from each area of the country are taken seriously by European and national institutions. For too long we have seen intermittent development. For example, Table 1 on page 34 of the submission shows Ireland and the regions, including the BMW region and the Southern and Eastern region. Until such time as we achieve a balance in all areas of development we will not function in the way that was intended.
Whenever I hear the term “land use” I wonder what is meant by it. I would have thought that regional development should take account of the ability within a region to develop in accordance with the national strategy and the European strategy in such a way as to be able to avail of assistance and support from the European Union, not to the detriment of any other part but in its own right. Last night on television we saw pictures of flooding that has taken place in recent years in certain regions. We must also ask questions about climate change or global warming, what it means to us and how we can address it. I prefer to refer to climate change.
We must also address the question of energy, alternative energy and emissions and the extent to which we have a cohesive policy that will encompass what is best for our own regional and national development at any given time. The document goes a fair distance towards identifying the issues that exist. It refers to strengthening research, technological development and innovation. One does not have to be based at Dublin Airport to do that; one could do it in any part of the country. How one does it is by utilising as best one can the facilities available. One should not regard any part of the country as an outback or region that is not part of the central thrust of what we are about.
ICT infrastructure is hugely important. It brings with it the ability to develop and to attract industry and investment, both indigenous and foreign.
I am not certain that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet on the low-carbon economy. In general, Ireland is in line with the overall European objectives in this regard. However, a report could easily lead to a change in emphasis on the European Union’s part, resulting in Ireland requiring a greater input in the use of non-fossil fuels. We are particularly vulnerable in this regard, as our European colleagues have far more alternatives on which to draw such as nuclear power, oil, gas and fracking. These are all energy sources which we cannot use, although I have no particular wish to opt for nuclear power, for example.
There are scores of houses and housing developments which are boarded up and have been shut down in various regions. In the eastern region the opposite is the case where there are upward pressures on prices, as well as demand pressures on local authority housing, with a significant number of applicants for units on every housing estate that becomes available. There are no surplus houses in the region, which is the reverse of the national position. Development - the rising tide - is supposed to lift all boats, but it is not doing so in the way it should. If regional policies are adopted along the lines suggested, as well as the right investment and proper infrastructure, the regions will develop in tandem with the most developed parts of the country.
The presentation highlights the lack of joined-up government and a local–regional dimension. This has been a problem for years and the semester process is taking the local dimension further away from the European Union. Are there measures that could make a significant difference to communication and get to those more at the coalface of local development and issues that this committee could support? There are many ideas about EU scrutiny and further engagement. What ideas at local level would the Committee of the Regions suggest to have more effective communication with European institutions?
Ms Fiona O'Loughlin:
I thank Deputy Bernard J. Durkan and Senator Catherine Noone for their positive remarks on the presentation from the Committee of the Regions. I also thank my colleagues, Mr. Conway and Mr. Crowley, for their work on it. I agree with Deputy Bernard J. Durkan on the need to balance the issues and challenges we face. Being public representatives in County Kildare, we know well about the long housing lists which run to almost 10,000 people and the difficulties with housing and renting.
Senator Catherine Noone asked about the need to ensure better engagement with European institutions. This meeting is the first step. The Chairman, when he spoke at one our meetings last year, gave a commitment that our delegation could meet the committee. This was useful and helpful. It is a significant commitment from the committee to engage with us on an ongoing basis.
With next year’s review of the economic and spatial strategy, there will be an opportunity to realign several processes to ensure a balance in regional development and growth. In meetings with some local authority managers we noted that there was a lack of engagement at that level too. Measures need to be taken to ensure local authority managers are included in the process. There is meant to be a European officer in every local authority, but we have found that is not the case.
Ms Fiona O'Loughlin:
I think it might be even lower at 40%, but I am not entirely sure of the exact figure. Donegal County Council, for example, has excellent European representation. The Committee of the Regions can organise for county managers and delegations to come to Brussels for meetings. Mr. Robert Collins in our office is always very helpful in this regard, having recently brought over a delegation from the local authorities in counties Meath, Wicklow and Kildare.
I agree with Ms O’Loughlin on the lack of awareness of European institutions and regional development. She made the point that the European Commission Representation in Ireland should be doing more in creating such an awareness. Will she expand on this?
Ms Fiona O'Loughlin:
It has an office on Molesworth Street beside the office of the European Parliament. There is much scope for promoting awareness at regional level and, I dare say, outside Dublin. It is important that we sell Ireland as a region in which it is good to do business. Within Ireland we need to develop the other parts that are not getting the benefits Dublin has received. With the greater infrastructural improvements we have achieved in the past few years, it is important to sell other regions.
Ms Fiona O'Loughlin:
Yes. The new regional assembly will also be set up and it should be an opportunity for the Commission's representation to engage more at that level. That would mean engagement with every local authority, not just the local authority members who happen to be members of the Committee of the Regions.
I made reference to flooding as it is a serious regional issue, and also a national issue at present. I exhort everybody who has any influence on the European institutions to consider what is required. There is no sense in complaining about climate change. We can avert some of its effects by adopting a proper drainage policy all over the country. That must happen or we will cede large areas of the countryside unnecessarily. Some people with a climate change agenda will say that is a good idea and something we should have more of, but I disagree.
I thank Councillor O'Loughlin and her colleagues, Mr. Crowley and Mr. Conway, for coming here today and answering our questions. We have an immediate opportunity to raise those matters with the Minister of State as he is just outside the room. I propose that we suspend the meeting for a number of minutes to give our guests time to change around.