Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Italian Presidency of Council of European Union: Italian Ambassador

2:00 pm

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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The committee is in public session. I remind members and those in the gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off, as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment. Apologies have been received from Deputy Joe O'Reilly. The Chairman has asked me to apologise on his behalf to the joint committee, but he will arrive a little later.
I welcome His Excellency the ambassador of Italy to Ireland, Mr. Giovanni Adorni Braccesi Chiassi, to discuss the programme and priorities for the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which started a number of days ago. Italy has assumed the Presidency from Greece and I believe it will aim to continue to build on the economic gains of the past year by promoting economic growth and job creation through innovation coupled with securing financial stability and more co-ordinated economic governance. I understand the Italian Presidency will also focus on enhancing civic and society engagement in the EU through policies and initiatives in response to citizens' everyday problems, concerns and insecurities. We look forward to exploring these issues in more detail with the ambassador.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with today's proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded 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 any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I now invite the ambassador to give his initial comments.

H.E. Mr. Giovanni Adorni Braccesi Chiassi:

I thank the Vice Chairman. Deputies, Senators, Excellencies, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure and honour to make a presentation to the Joint Committee on European Affairs on the programme of the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. A copy of the programme - a document of 76 pages divided into ten sections dealing with topics including foreign affairs, the economy, justice, home affairs, employment, health, agriculture, the environment, competitiveness, education, youth, culture and sport - has been distributed.

I launched the Italian Presidency at the Department of the Taoiseach in the presence of Deputy Dominic Hannigan, the Chairman of this committee.

On that occasion I outlined the priorities of this programme, which focuses on the need for growth in order to give new impetus to European and global economic recovery and bridge the gap between EU institutions and the people of Europe. As the Italian Prime Minister pointed out in his speech to the European Parliament on 2 July, Italy intends to do its utmost to ensure the EU has its own identity, ideals and common values.

As a founder member of the Union and a net contributor to its budget, Italy believes in the European institutions. In the words of the Prime Minister of Italy, it does so with the courage and pride of those who give rather than those who ask. Italy does not attribute to the EU the faults of its current crisis and the crises of other European countries. The results of the last European election are proof of this. However, Italy is committed to achieving the objectives of a smart Europe that is centred on simplification of the institutions and unification of diverse positions.

When I spoke to him the other week, the Chairman of this committee, Deputy Hannigan, pointed to two major concerns for Ireland. First, he referred to the dialogue between national parliaments and the European Parliament. This is a typical political task. It is not in the hands of diplomats; it is in the hands of the elected representatives of national parliaments. Second, he spoke about the role of the UK and the possibility of its exit from the Union. The Italian Prime Minister, Mr. Renzi, was very clear on that concern when he said the EU without the UK would not only be a less rich Europe but also simply a lesser Europe.

In view of the new impetus behind the European project, and in a world that runs at a much faster pace than our world, it is essential to focus on growth. For this reason, the Italian Presidency will place a special focus on certain issues, such as the Europe-Asia meeting that will take place in Milan in the second half of October. It will also preview another major event that will take place in the same city next year - the Milan Expo 2015, in which Ireland has shown a very keen interest. For the same reason, the Italian Presidency will support the prosecution of the negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in order to achieve a balanced and comprehensive agreement based on reciprocity. We think the focus on those objectives will help our general economic situation.

I would like to comment on the macroeconomic framework. The Stability and Growth Pact stands on two pillars. The first pillar is not sufficient to secure the future of Europe without the second pillar. For this reason, I read with pleasure today that the Irish Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, is backing the Italian push for more flexibility in budget rules. I believe this is a major concern in light of the Italian situation. Despite years of budget cuts and increased taxes, public debt in Italy is still growing. The only way to address this, apart from the taking the necessary reform measures, is to increase gross domestic product. Italy maintains that a review of the EU six-pack and two-pack rules may offer an opportunity to press for greater flexibility in the application of the Union's budget rules.

With regard to the real economy, the Union must concentrate on information technology, on the fight against climate change, on the move towards an even more sustainable economy and, above all, on the enhancement of human capital. In his speech last week, Mr. Renzi underlined several times the importance of the European civil service in this context. For Italy, Europe must also become a place of the future, not only as an ideal border but also as a physical and geographical Europe. On the one hand, Europe must work to stop the tragedies of victims in the Mediterranean Sea caused by the difficulties in countries of northern Africa, particularly Libya, through the Frontex operation. On the other hand, Europe must overturn its approach and demonstrate that it is an active protagonist in the economic framework and, above all, in the human context.

On another plane, Europe must be worthy of its great responsibility and must listen to the voices in Ukraine and elsewhere in the east of our continent that are asking for freedom and for more European involvement. For this reason, we have to bear in mind that we cannot build Europe against our largest neighbour. For the same reason, we think we have to guarantee young Palestinians the right to grow in a nation. At the same time, we must make a commitment to the right and the duty of Israel to exist. All the other major international crises which affect us directly and indirectly, such as the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, will be followed with great attention by the Italian Presidency.

I will conclude by using the same words used by the Prime Minister when he addressed those who were not yet 18 years of age at the time of the signature of the Maastricht treaty. He said they needed to rediscover themselves as Telemachus, the son of Ulysses, who is well known in Ireland thanks to James Joyce. He said those of this generation should not stand and wait but should instead meditate on what they have inherited from their fathers, and that the fate of young Europeans is to carry on their shoulders our great common traditions in order to ensure their own futures. He said this needed to be done as a duty not only to future generations but also to those who died throughout the ages, so that Europe would be not only a geographical expression but also "an expression of the soul".

2:05 pm

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the ambassador for his very good synopsis of the work programme of the Italian Presidency, which is extremely extensive. The members of the committee, beginning with Deputy Dooley, might have some questions or comments.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the ambassador. I thank him for his presentation and for providing the committee in advance with a detailed copy of Italy's agenda for its Presidency over the next six months. If we as politicians have learned anything from the recent European elections, it is that the citizens of Europe are not content with the way we have been operating the Union for their benefit. That is obvious from the increases in the level of euroscepticism and in the number of eurosceptic MEPs. I suppose this is a challenge for all of us. Unfortunately or fortunately, the challenge will be led by the Italian Presidency. I would like to get a better understanding of how Italy intends to address the issues that arose from the recent election, such as the growth in euroscepticism and the recognition that something is not right from the point of view of citizens. The elected Members who are often referred to as the political elite are frequently accused of not being in touch with the public. If we are to reach out to citizens across Europe, what needs to be done to regain their trust and confidence in the European project? That is my first question. It is not just a challenge for the sake of a challenge. The success or failure of the efforts of Italy and all member states that are pro-European will hinge on how we protect against the gradual break-up of the Union. We do not know whether our nearest neighbour will be successful in its efforts to exit the Union.

It appears the British Prime Minister will facilitate the British people having an opportunity to vote on the question. A UK exit would signal a difficult period ahead as it could start a gradual break-up for the European Union. How does Italy propose to address this significant problem? While other issues such as financial matters and the need to create jobs and growth are very much part of the problem, the bigger issue, one that we have failed to address, is the perception of what the Union is and should be.

2:15 pm

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I welcome the ambassador and thank him for his attendance. He has answered one of the questions I intended to ask. I congratulate Italy on raising the issue of member states' budgetary obligations. As the ambassador noted, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, is positively disposed to agreeing to the concept proposed by Italy.

The ambassador is from a country that attracts significant media coverage owing to the difficulties it is experiencing as a result of an influx of immigrants. We see horrible pictures of Africans climbing over barbed wire fences in Ceuta and overcrowded ships leaving ports in north Africa. We hear of the sums of money that human traffickers are making from this type of exploitation. We also see images of many of these poor unfortunate people dead on arrival or at the point of being rescued. It is worthwhile recording our appreciation of the humanitarian work being done by the Italian Government, especially as Ireland is so far removed from the large influx of human beings Italy is experiencing and the ensuing human tragedy.

The immediate problem may be one for Italy but, as a member of the European Union, how does Italy believe Europe should be equipped to address the issue? Does the ambassador agree that people will always seek to flee areas of crisis and that they have the right to do so? One must be rather cynical about what is taking place in north Africa in the sense that vast sums of money can be collected and boats can be loaded in certain ports and the national authorities appear to be happy to facilitate the movement of human cargo, with its great potential for loss of life.

Given its importance, size and the strength of its military and navy, what role does the ambassador envisage for Italy in the European Union's maritime security strategy? We hear about various European bodies which are ostensibly trying to protect the Union's borders. Greece is known to be an entry point for illegal immigrants and an EU body, known as FRONTEX, has been given the role of controlling migration and tackling human trafficking. What relationship does Italy have with the countries from which the large cargoes of human misery originate? What should be the European Union's position on fortress Europe, a concept with which I do not argue? Ireland is a small island which has experienced significant immigration, much of it illegal, and claims rights for 60,000 emigrants who live illegally in the United States. The Irish Immigrant Council, among other organisations, argues that we are hypocrites because the issue of immigration to this country needs to be addressed.

Immigration is a significant issue that is also tied into the issue of international security. We see the vicious struggles in Iraq and Syria and we are constantly reminded that many of the young, impressionable Muslims from Europe who are travelling to the region to fight in these wars may return as subversives. The current turmoil in the world, including Europe, is being exacerbated by the terrible practice of human trafficking. Will the European Union, under the Italian Presidency, address the issue in a manner that will reverse the trend?

Baroness Ashton may not like the words "battle group" but it appears in the communiqué, which refers to rapid reaction capability issues and the usability of battle groups. As an Italian diplomat and representative of his country, does the ambassador applaud the unilateral decision of France to deploy troops to Mali to prevent the overthrow of its Government by Muslim fundamentalists? Is it acceptable that Europe must react to crises by having France and other powers act unilaterally, rather than the European Union taking action through battle groups?

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I am not sure the ambassador is in a position to answer the Deputy's final question, which may be a matter for France. I welcome a number of members of the diplomatic corps, specifically the ambassadors of Cyprus, Spain and Argentina, all of whom are very interested in Italy's plans for its Presidency.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I, too, welcome the ambassador to the joint committee and congratulate Italy on the programme it has set out for its Presidency. We expect Italy to understand the economic circumstances throughout Europe better than most other European Union member states. We have been trying to explain the position to other member states in recent years, with some degree of success.

I note the points the ambassador makes on Europe having an identity and agree that Europe must have an identity. This must be a result of dialogue between European institutions and national institutions where there appears to have been a breakdown in communications in recent times. This has caused the growth in euroscepticism, a trend to which my colleagues alluded. Unfortunately, if one studies the history of Europe, one will readily recognise that, over the centuries, the Continent has reached a similar juncture on more than one occasion. When Europe becomes dissatisfied with itself and what it has, it always looks elsewhere for greener pastures. This striving for a better place has not always succeeded and I have no doubt that if the current trajectory is maintained, Europe may well find itself in a more difficult place, particularly in the political sense.

I echo the words of my colleagues, Deputies Timmy Dooley and Eric Byrne, in the sense that if Europe decides to depart from the centre and individual member states seek to follow their own path, politically, socially and economically, they should first be asked to consider the history of Europe because history has shown that this is not the correct way to go. We do not seem to want to talk or walk in the same direction or at the same time. That, unfortunately, has been the tragedy of Europe. The people of Europe paid a high price when the European ideal was disregarded in the past. Various meetings of COSAC and other bodies have called for the ideals of the founding fathers to be borne in mind to a much greater extent than they are at present.

I believe that the economic issues that confront us are only temporary. They will disappear in time provided we act upon them but they will not disappear overnight. There never was a situation in Europe, the US or worldwide where such economic issues would disappear overnight, so it will not happen that way.

How Europe evolves from here on will be the legacy that the present generation will give to future generations if it is a worthwhile legacy. If Europe decides to co-operate, to converge to a certain extent with the agreement of the various member states but not necessarily held by any one in particular, while at the same time having due regard for each other's position, it can evolve in a concise and cohesive manner which would be of benefit to the future generations of European people. For example, as there is much agitation about immigration in certain European countries, we need to address that important issue. Is it a code for something else? Is it something that we understand or do not understand? If there is a need to address an issue in that context, it should be addressed at European level with the full support of all EU countries, not just the Italians who have to address the issue of refugees at the front line. Each EU country has an input and it is not sufficient for some countries to resile from responsibilities or an issue. In that regard it will have huge consequences at some stage in the future.

Youth employment is hugely important in terms of stabilising the economy and the social fabric of European society. The degree to which the Italian Presidency is successful in dealing with this issue will have a huge impact in the short term as well as in the medium and long term. If in the course of its term the Italian Presidency can achieve reasonable progress in that area, that will stabilise the European Union Presidency.

2:25 pm

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I apologise for my late arrival which is due to a number of votes in the Seanad. I welcome the ambassador and wish the Italian Presidency every success in the next six months.

The issue I wish to raise is mentioned in the ambassador's submission, that is, health care and health research. He referred to the Dublin declaration of ten years ago on the issue of a joint approach in dealing with HIV and AIDS. I wish to touch on medical research. As a group, the 28 member states of the European Union have not worked as well as we could in the whole area of medical research. It is an important area on which we need to focus given that 70% of people outside the EU who are interested in research end up working in the US and do not come into Europe. As this is an area in which we all have a part to play, perhaps we could do more work together with member states, particularly since this has been highlighted as part of the programme of the Presidency.

There should be much more co-operation between member states in the area of health. We have a problem in Ireland where we are trying to get people in from developing countries to work in our health service. For example, we have 4,900 junior doctors in Irish hospitals, 54% of whom are not Irish graduates. A medical friend of mine who attended a conference in Sweden met some Italian doctors, following which I am advised that there are a huge number of junior doctors in Italy who are suitably qualified and cannot get employment. From our point of view this would be an ideal opportunity to try to build links with Italian universities who are producing medical graduates and medical training programmes by bringing in people from Italy to work here rather than seeking them outside the EU. Is that an area in which there could be much more co-operation? I am talking not only about co-operation between Italy and Ireland but co-operation between all member states in the area of health care professionals.

A Harvard study published last week indicated that health care professionals are the most difficult to recruit due to a world demand and a world shortage. That group has been identified as the group where one is least likely to be successful in recruiting. Given that junior doctors in Italy find it difficult to get employment, as conveyed back to me from the conference in Sweden six or eight weeks ago, can some work be done, as part of the programme, on more co-operation on health care and health research across the 28 member states?

The EU directive on cross-border health care passed in February 2011, which is being implemented in each member state, provides that people may travel from one member state to another member state if they cannot get it in their own member state. Perhaps the ambassador would refer to this in his reply as health care is an extremely important issue for every member state.

Deputy Dominic Hannigan took the Chair.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I welcome the ambassador. It is good to see him so soon after our most recent event last week at the European Movement.

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted the Chairman is present so I can take my place and ask my questions. I will be brief as the ambassador has many questions to answer. He mentioned the simplification of institutions, something he might tease out. This committee is seeking submissions on the Europe 2020 strategy, an issue to which the programme has given considerable space, and will focus on it after the recess. Perhaps the ambassador can give an indication of what the Italian Presidency will do in respect to the 2020 strategy.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I call the ambassador to respond.

H.E. Mr. Giovanni Adorni Braccesi Chiassi:

I thank the Chairman. It is not easy to answer all those questions which have many common links. The first issue related to the challenges to achieve more growth and especially youth employment and the gap between politics and public opinion. The Italian Presidency is facing many challenges. Prime Minister Renzi's programme is very ambitious but he is a very ambitious man. He has proved that being ambitious can sometimes be very effective. The results of the Italian European election are proof of that. His political campaign was focused on European and international issues and he got an incredible result as the party he leads got 41% of the votes. He is in a strong political position.

This will enable him to have a better Presidency and will help him achieve the major reforms required in Italy. We have a serious unemployment problem in Italy, more serious than that in Ireland, with approximately 18% of the population and 40% of our youth unemployed. In the southern part of Italy in particular, the unemployment level touches dramatic figures. Therefore, there is much to be done.

In Italy, we must achieve reforms which have already been achieved in other countries, such as in Germany and Spain. This reform will not be easy, but it must be achieved to deregulate the system and help those without jobs to get jobs. An important meeting was scheduled to discuss growth and youth unemployment. This meeting was scheduled to take place in Turin in the next few days, but it has been postponed for security reasons and will probably take place in November.

I read a very funny article written by a French economist on how the 3% was decided 30 years ago and how we must stick to it now. While it is an important figure, I believe the solution to the issues is to consider what we can exclude from this 3%, such as infrastructure investments which would help the creation of jobs and so on. I see that as one of the major battles of our Presidency with our European partners. I hope we can achieve something, because otherwise the gap I mentioned previously, between public opinion and the European institutions, will not be bridged. The view of the Italian Foreign Ministry is that there is no future apart from Europe.

This year, we are celebrating two important anniversaries, of the First and Second World Wars, and many books have been written recently on both. Every country, including Ireland, paid highly with the blood of their citizens during these two wars. We must avoid a recurrence of these events because of the problems facing our young people. I have met some of these young people, including one from my own town in Italy. It is true we face major problems in Europe. These problems seem more difficult to resolve because we face a period of low growth and other important international issues, such as immigration. It is hard for me to believe that in Europe, where the young generation travels from one country to another with just an identity document, where we have a common currency for most countries and where young people can spend a year of their university course in another country, we will return to a situation like that we had 30 years ago, when the European project already existed, but not in the current state. It is a long process.

We are, perhaps, paying for success which saw a fast enlargement of the European Union. We moved slowly from six to nine countries and then 15 and then moved quickly to 28 and could get even bigger. We must now go through a "digestive" process to bring together our common values. At the same time, we must maintain a Europe where each country retains its differences and specialties, but where we all become more European. The borders of Europe go back centuries, but despite borders there has been a large contribution by Ireland. Irish monks built monasteries all around Europe and these seem of more influence than the Roman influence which created the idea of Europe.

We need to make a major achievement on growth and I expect to see negotiation on this between the political actors. Italy, through its Presidency, is working on that direction and we were pleased to see the Irish Minister for Finance supports our way of thinking. I believe change is on the way. The other day, I read an interesting article which suggested the European Central Bank will use the European Investment Bank to accelerate investment. I was not aware of it, but apparently the European Investment Bank can take money from the European Central Bank. Of course, being part of the European institutions, it is easier to get money and to spend it or give it to companies and not only other banks. Therefore, we have a way to achieve better things, but through the hands of specialists.

We may not solve other major issues, such as immigration, an issue to which I will return. As the Senator pointed out, many Italians are leaving Italy to go to other European countries. This is not easy to do. If someone was trained to be a nurse in Italy and decides to go to Scandinavia or Germany, he or she must learn another language, although we are European and it is easier now to make a move like this. More and more people are leaving their own country to go to another European country. This movement is good. Many young Italian people who came to Ireland were able to find jobs. If we look back, the origin of the Italian presence in Ireland goes back to the 1920s. It is surprising that some Italians came here just before Ireland became independent and they were able to create something that did not exist here, fish and chip shops, and also create new jobs for Irish people. This helped them to integrate well into Irish society. We must learn from them and be optimistic.

I believe the mix of experiences will help Europe to grow. I was pleased to see in Trinity College, where there is important emphasis on physics, the department of nanotechnology is directed by an Italian physicist and has 400 people working in it. It is achieving incredible results and receiving aid not only from the Irish Government but also from private companies, American ones in particular. This means American money is being invested here in Europe. I welcome everything to do with the Erasmus programme and would encourage further investment in it.

The exchange of experiences will help Europe to recover and to create new job opportunities. That goes back to immigration problems. It is a tragedy and we will not stop it with boats. There was a major concern when last summer the number of casualties started to rise in such a dramatic way that Italy decided to set up an operation called Mare Nostrum in order to prevent people who are trying to come to Europe dying between the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

There are several major concerns. That wave of emigrants comes from all around the world, not just from Africa or northern Africa, but from Asia, including from China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are up to 50 different nationalities on those boats. That creates two kinds of problem. The first is that our public opinion is not prepared to receive such numbers and the variety of cultures is very difficult to handle.

Italy was one of the biggest exporters of people for decades. There are the same number of people of Italian origin abroad as there are in Italy. The majority of Italians who went to America, north and south, Australia and around the world achieved incredible success. It is true that it is not easy to handle but we do not have to take only a negative view of those people, partly because there are jobs Italians do not want to do any more. There is, on the other hand, a decrease in population which will be a major problem in the next 15 or 20 years in Italy as the population gets older with no young people to look after it.

The situation in Ireland is rather different but we have things in common because young people are leaving the country. Ireland is recovering well compared with other European countries but there are still young people who are not happy. It is easier for them because they speak English which is the most international language. What can we do to help those people? First, there must be more unity among European countries. We are carrying a heavy burden because these people come first to Italy. People forget that we have a small island, Lampedusa, which is much closer to the shore of north Africa than to Malta. Many people pay a high price to come to Europe and there are an increasing number of criminals exploiting that. Last week, our navy stopped a boat on which there were more than 50 dead people. They had paid just to die.

A proposal was made to ask the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, to open offices in Libya to set up human rights controls. A few days ago there was a big conference in Morocco. The northern African countries face the same problems because not everyone will cross the Mediterranean Sea. They will stay there and the governments must deal with those problems every day. I was in Morocco for three years at the beginning of this century. It was dramatic because people will try to go from Morocco to Spain in extreme conditions and at that time Spain could not be left alone. One can see Spain across the sea from Tangiers. It is only 15 km away. That is not the easiest route. They will go through the Canary Islands to go to Spain because apparently that is much easier. There were casualties every day in the Strait of Gibraltar.

We have to help the countries that receive this large number of refugees. It is not easy. The numbers are in the millions. Information moves faster and faster in modern society. Television channels can be picked up in the middle of the African desert. One has only to connect a television set with a battery. When I was in Central America, everyone had a mobile phone and knew what was going on.

We have to be realistic. We have to be united which would be the beginning of a solution. Many of these people are well educated. There are engineers, doctors and so on coming from Syria. They are leaving their country because they know their lives are at risk. They do not want to stay in Italy because they know people in Germany or in France or have relatives there. We cannot stop them going to those other countries. It is a very complex situation we face because we are on the front line. We are asking our European partners for help and slowly the message is getting through. We hope during this semester there will be more focus on this very important issue.

The economic situation is severe. I am glad to see that certain countries are recovering faster than others. I read some optimistic figures for Ireland. Today, there is a very important summit in Venice about the digital economy. I read that in Ireland alone the digital economy could in the next ten years create approximately 100,000 new jobs. That is a very specialised area and I do not know what the outcome will be but it is being discussed in Venice. I do not want to live in a dream world but we do not have to be negative about the future of Europe. Let us see the good things and what we can achieve together.

Our future can only be a closer Europe. If we were to lose a part of the EU, such as the United Kingdom, which is not a small part, that would be very dramatic, particularly for Ireland.

The United Kingdom will not be able to get European aid to assist with Northern Ireland and the problems will arise again. The Irish people know our British friends better than anyone else so perhaps they can do something on this issue. I am preoccupied by the numbers as I read that over 40% of the British people are unaware of Britain's membership of the European Union. This indicates the British Government has failed in its responsibility to keep British citizens informed and will face major problems with the Scottish referendum.

Our future is in Europe and there is a newly formed European Parliament that will sit for five years. Italian Members of the European Parliament are in touch with the Italian Parliament so there is a constant dialogue. National parliaments must point things out in Strasbourg and there are things we can do to make things less onerous in Europe. For example, during the elections the Prime Minister, Mr. Matteo Renzi, pointed out that there have been discussions in Brussels on the size of fishing hooks used for tuna in the Mediterranean. This may be an important issue but it is relatively small compared to other issues related to the Mediterranean. In Rome, we feel we must return to a more political Europe or there is no future.

The Italian Presidency will last only six months, the new European Parliament will sit for five years and a new European Commission will begin its work shortly. The other week the Commission was in Rome and held major meetings with the Italian Prime Minister and President, who is a keen European. The goals of the Italian Presidency were made clear and we should be ambitious, as Mr. Renzi said.

2:55 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I have a further question for the ambassador that is unrelated to the priorities discussed. This committee is working on voting rights for the Irish diaspora and the ambassador referred to members of the Italian diaspora. Does Italy extend voting rights to Italian citizens abroad?

H.E. Mr. Giovanni Adorni Braccesi Chiassi:

Italian people are allowed to vote in Italian parliamentary elections and those living abroad but resident in Italy can also vote in local elections. This is a difficult job to handle as five Senators and ten Members of Italian Parliament are elected abroad. There are major voting districts involved in this - four Italian Members of Parliament and one or two Senators are elected from south America. Representatives are elected for those regions where the majority of Italians reside and many live in south and north America. The problem is, the Italo-Argentine elected as an MP for Rome will also represent Italians resident in Honduras. The Italian in Honduras will not know who his MP is and it will be very difficult to ask him questions.

It is a difficult process to handle because around 4.5 million people with Italian passports live outside the country. Ballot papers are sent to where we think these people live but often they do not receive them because they changed address or country and did not inform us. Often we only find out a person has changed country when he or she goes to renew his or her passport at a different consulate. Perhaps a person was in Buenos Aires but moved to Sydney - the consulate in Sydney will have to contact its counterpart in Buenos Aires to ensure everything is acceptable.

It costs a fortune to allow these people to vote. We calculated that each vote cast from abroad in the European election prior to the most recent one cost approximately €150. In the sense that I must deal with such problems, I am a technician. Our French colleagues came up with a solution to this whereby, when a European or national election is to take place, those who wish to participate can submit their names to the relevant consulate or embassy. This makes things easier because many people living abroad are not even interested in voting and sending them all the information by post is very expensive. Timing is also a factor because we cannot send the relevant papers too far in advance of an election and often we only have three or four weeks to do the entire job. At such times embassies and consulates must stop the many tasks and projects in which they are involved to focus solely on this work. We have pointed out to Italian politicians that a different approach would be better.

Italians living abroad were granted the right to vote in these elections only 15 years ago. I can send the joint committee a copy of the Italian law covering this so that the members can pick and choose the good and bad elements.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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That would be very helpful. I thank the ambassador for attending this meeting, we wish him the very best for the Italian Presidency and look forward to a successful outcome.

The joint committee went into private session at 3.20 p.m. and adjourned at 3.30 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 17 July 2014.