Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 29 January 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Work Programme 2015: European Commission Representation in Ireland
We are being broadcast live on UPC and on the Sky channels. It is important that people in the Visitors Gallery and around this table, including myself and the witnesses, turn off their mobile telephones now. It is not sufficient to have them on silent because they can interfere with the equipment. Today we have two sessions on the European Commission work programme. Initially we are going to engage with Commission officials and then we will be having a discussion with a number of Irish MEPs.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Barbara Nolan, head of the European Commission Representation in Ireland, who is joined by her colleague, Mr. Jonathan Claridge. They have both appeared before the committee in the past and are both very welcome. I thank them for meeting with us today.
The work programme sets out the proposed to-do list of work over the next 12 months. It contains 23 new initiatives on the basis that these will make a difference. It focuses on aspects such as jobs, growth and investment. We look forward to exploring all those areas with Ms Nolan and Mr. Claridge today.
Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members 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 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 the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite Ms Nolan to make her contribution.
Ms Barbara Nolan:
I thank the Chairman and members for inviting the Commission to address them on the subject of the Commission's work programme for 2015. I am pleased to be back and am also pleased Members of the European Parliament are here to give us their reaction to the Commission's work programme.
The work programme is the European Commission's plan of action for the next 12 months. From our perspective, we have a big year ahead. President Juncker has underscored that we are making a new start. He has also made it clear that he is determined that the Commission should work better, decide better and be more open and democratic. We are into a new situation and President Juncker has tried to mark a break with the past.
President Juncker first flagged this new approach at the European Parliament in July 2014 before he took office but, of course, after we knew the results of the European Parliament elections. He outlined the ten specific political priorities on which the new Commission's mandate to 2019 would be based. I will not go through them because I hope members have received the green table which lists the specific ten priorities and the different actions contained in each one. I hope it is legible because the type is quite small. Mr. Juncker reiterated these priorities at the European Parliament in October, which was immediately prior to him taking office formally on 1 November.
President Juncker has made it clear that the Commission will only commit to launching initiatives on which it can deliver. In other words, he does not want a whole list of promises that will not be fulfilled. He wants to list things that we will actually do in 2015. As members will see in the hand-outs, the work programme sets out 23 new initiatives, which is fewer than in all the preceding five years. This is our 12-month to-do list. Just to be clear, these are the new initiatives for 2015. Obviously, business continues on actions agreed over the past number of years and actions under negotiation with the European Parliament and Council. We will leave those aside for the moment but these are the new initiatives.
I appeared before the committee at the end of last year to discuss the European investment plan. President Juncker set the ball rolling at the end of his first month in office to deliver on that ambitious agenda for jobs and growth. The €315 billion investment package was launched in close co-operation with the European Investment Bank. Implementing this plan is the first priority for 2015. Vice-President Katainen is doing a sort of roadshow in every member state and will be in Ireland in May to try to engage with bankers and others who can contribute to getting viable projects off the ground and contribute to triggering the additional funds we hope to see coming on stream once we get these projects up and running. It would be very welcome if members were interested in coming to one of the various events we will plan for that visit.
Another priority is an ambitious digital single market package. This is about creating the conditions for a vibrant digital economy and society by complementing the telecommunications regulatory environment, modernising copyright rules, simplifying rules for consumers making online and digital purchases, enhancing cyber-security and mainstreaming digitalisation. That is another package which would be of much interest in Ireland once launched.
The work programme also emphasises European energy union and the need to stake steps to ensure energy supply security, further integrate national energy markets, reduce European energy demand and decarbonise the energy mix. That package is in preparation at the moment.
A fairer approach to taxation is also a priority. There will be an action plan on efforts to combat tax evasion and tax fraud, including measures at EU level in order to move to a system on the basis of which the country where profits are generated is also the country of taxation. This will include automatic exchange of information on tax rulings and stabilising corporate tax bases.
We will also have a European agenda on migration. This is about developing a new approach on legal migration to make the EU an attractive destination for talent and skills and improving the management of migration into the EU through greater co-operation with third countries, solidarity among the member states and fighting human trafficking which has become a scourge in some member states.
Finally, I would like to flag steps to deepen economic and monetary union. This work is about continuing efforts to promote economic stability and attract investors to Europe. Banking union is necessary because of interdependence of banking systems in euro area countries.
I would like to underline that President Juncker has repeatedly said that the EU needs to be bigger and more ambitious on big things but it must recognise where the member states are best placed to act and in those cases, it must be smaller and more modest. It shows the Commission has been listening carefully to the message it is getting back from the member states to sort of butt out of the nooks and crannies of daily life and to try to focus on the bigger picture issues that can only be solved by collective action. This is not new in that the principle of subsidiarity has been around for some time but there is a big renewal in the commitment to actually apply the principle, which I would like to stress.
Cutting red tape and improving existing legislation will also form an important part of the Commission's work during its mandate. In another break with tradition, the 2015 work programme includes a significant clearing of the decks. We have reviewed around 450 proposals, which remained on the books after the hand-over from one Commission to another and have identified 80 which do not match with the ten overall priorities, which need to be reworked in light of changing objectives and contexts or which are simply taking too long to work their way through the institutions.
The bottom line is that the Commission does not want to waste time on proposals that have no chance of being accepted, that will not deliver the results we want to see on the ground, or which can be achieved in a more effective and less bureaucratic way. In many cases, the Commission remains strongly committed to the objectives we sought to achieve with those proposals but proposals are of no use if they are simply sitting dormant on a negotiating table or are so watered down in negotiations that they can no longer achieve their original purposes. I have a few examples which members will see in the red hand-out that was circulated. The anti-counterfeiting trade agreement, or ACTA, proposal is still on the pending proposal list despite being rejected by the European Parliament. The Commission wishes now to withdraw it officially. On the so-called "circular economy", which focuses among other things on boosting recycling, the Commission plans to present a new proposal with a broader approach to meet the ambitions in a more effective way. The Commission proposes to withdraw the energy tax directive because the Council has watered it down so much that it no longer meets the environmental objectives of taxing fuel in a way that reflects real energy content and CO2 emissions. I pick those three examples to provide the committee with the reasons we propose to withdraw the proposals.
To ensure overall coherence, we have a new position in the Commission of First Vice-President. That job is with Vice-President Frans Timmermans who is taking on the role of co-ordinator in implementing the work programme and who also has the task of scrutinising very carefully the different proposals that come from the various departments and Commissioners to ensure that subsidiarity and better regulation become a reality. A major snipping job was carried out by Vice-President Timmermans before the work programme saw the light of day. Commissioners had to defend - in some cases successfully but not in others - the various proposals they wanted to put forward from their departments. It is an extra layer of scrutiny and a job that was previously done by the Secretary General. Now, we have the First Vice-President doing it, which shows the importance we place on the issue of subsidiarity. Mr Timmermans has also been tasked with fighting excessive bureaucracy. He has the authority to stop proposals coming from individual Commissioners which do not match the overall policy coherence of the Commission's work.
There is a tough programme of work ahead of us and I have not even mentioned some very important ongoing issues, like TTIP. It will be vital that the institutions work together to implement the work programme. On foot of the way the Parliament was instrumental in selecting the President of the Commission on this occasion, there is much improved interaction, engagement, relations and co-operation between the institutions in recent months. This bodes well for the years ahead. Finally, I emphasise the role of national parliaments in the process. The new Commission has been clear on the need to deepen the existing political dialogue with national parliaments and I look forward to continuing to work with this committee in that context and to bringing as many Commissioners as possible before it when they visit Ireland. The committee has undertaken a great deal of valuable work across a range of European affairs and I look forward to building on our close co-operation.
I thank Ms Nolan and note in respect of her last remarks that we had a bi-lateral with Vice-President Timmermans last month when we outlined our views on how to improve the role of national parliaments. Next week, we will be in Riga for the Latvian COSAC chairs' meeting. I understand Vice-President Timmermans will be there and I have no doubt that we will be talking further about how national parliaments can improve their role through, for instance, the yellow card.
I thank Ms Nolan for her presentation and note that I am delighted to see that there has been a rationalisation of the new initiatives. Five years ago, the Commission was looking at more than 300 new initiatives every year, three years ago it was down to 150 and now we are down to 23. The main thing is to ensure that the project management that is put in place and the monitoring of the 23 initiatives are good enough to ensure that we get outcomes from them. I will focus on two in particular, the first being the €315 billion investment package. One of the things that has been discussed around Europe is whether the investment will be considered to be outside the limits of the fiscal compact treaty. Some countries, including ours, are keen to see any investment treated as being outside the limits, but there are others, particularly in northern Europe, that are less keen on that idea. It will require agreement from across the European capitals. Can Ms Nolan tell us how those negotiations are going across Europe and can we expect in her view to see the investment treated as being outside the fiscal compact limits?
The second issue I raise is the Commission's initiative on the aviation package and aviation policy. How does Ms Nolan see the issue of connectivity feeding into that package, particularly for peripheral countries such as ours? Does she see connectivity as having a vital part to play to ensure that small countries at the edge of Europe are totally connected, not just to other European capitals but to the world at large? Many of us here share concerns about the proposed sale of Aer Lingus and the impact it might have not just on the ability of Irish people to travel to other European countries but also on our ability to attract foreign direct investment. We are also concerned about the impact it might have on jobs. Ms Nolan's ideas on what that package will involve and the consideration that will be given to peripheral countries are sought.
I welcome our guests from the European Parliament, from each of whom we will be hearing in turn in the next stage of the meeting. For the moment, I will take quick questions from Dáil or Seanad Members.
I acknowledge that we are under pressure. It would be no harm to explain that we have taken a decision on dealing with TTIP. Although I had extensive notes on it, we have agreed that the committee will meet to deal with that.
We wish the project of job creation every success. I raise two areas in job creation, which are labour mobility and youth unemployment. There is a section set on promoting integration and employability in the labour market and it argues that there should be a follow-on policy on the youth employment initiative that has already commenced to integrate the long-term unemployed into the mainstream of work and, thereafter, into the status of full citizenship of any nation. Can Ms Nolan set out the plans that will be implemented? There is a package of measures envisaged to target that. Can Ms Nolan explain the labour mobility package? Is it about labour mobility within the EU or from outside the Union into it? We have debated our work programme in private session and, touching on euroscepticism, have discussed engaging with matters that might contribute to that including the free flow of labour. There have been allegations that certain nations are robbing our jobs and we have seen the rise of UKIP around non-British labour. The dimension of cultural diversity is becoming more and more of an issue in Europe given the events in France and so on.
The Chairman has mentioned the key issue of the aviation package and Ms Nolan will answer him on that. I seek replies on the labour mobility package and the promotion of integration and employability in the labour market.
I welcome the representatives. The Chairman has asked us to be fairly sharp in our questioning. We were told the Commission would be more political. As evidence of that, it has been described as the last chance Commission for bringing European Union citizens closer to Europe or we will fail, according to President Jean-Claude Juncker. Recently there was interference in the Greek elections from President Juncker. I met the High Commissioner and formally complained about the interference of the President. That is a view that would be shared within this House also. People felt it was ill-timed, but I do not think it had a negative effect on the Greek elections. President Barroso was also involved in the Scottish referendum. Is that part of the new political way forward by the European Commission? I have spoken to some Commission members and I do not think there is agreement right across the board. Some felt it was ill-timed and that they should not have been involved. That is a concern in respect of the direction of the new Commission. We were told it would be something new and different but we have not seen that. Even its make-up and gender appear to be coming from the old boys club itself. Perhaps the representatives cannot comment but do they think that the idea of the Commission involving itself in domestic elections is helpful for its image, bearing in mind that people are sceptical about the European Union and so on?
TTIP was mentioned. Again it is about the involvement of people right across Europe. I am informed that the Commission was asking the views of people on TTIP and that there were 150,000 responses, including a large response from Ireland. One issue that arose was the investor state dispute settlement, ISDS. There is huge concern in respect of that issue. Do the representatives believe the Commission should drop the ISDS mechanism given the overwhelming public opposition to it? I understand there is much opposition to it in France and Germany. Of those canvassed, some 97%, 145,000, indicated their opposition or a concern about TTIP in general. One of the concerns, an issue which has been touched on at this committee, was the secrecy around the TTIP and that people are not getting feedback on what is happening. There are panels being tentatively agreed or moved to different panels. We have been told that the US authorities have a different approach. How can this issue be opened? There is huge concern across Europe in respect of its impact. Everyone wants more trade but it will impact on economies. Farmers have started to speak about the impact in Ireland and trade unionists are talking about the impact on jobs. While there may be positive elements to it, there are also negatives elements but we are not getting to debate them. Thankfully this committee has already looked at them and will do so again.
There is also the regulatory harmonisation and co-operation body, particularly in respect of Irish food. Are we going to regulate up or down in this area? In regard to the stimulus plan for jobs, the Juncker investment plan, and the €315 billion additional funding, will the representatives give the committee a sense of where that funding is coming from? There is a concern that some of it may be coming from recycled money, that it will be taken from different programmes and that we may be told it is some private investment. That is the big debate in the European Union where there seems to be two camps, one which believes there is a need not only for quantitative easing but also a stimulus package to kick start many economies that are floundering right across Europe. If we are robbing Peter to pay Paul from existing programmes, it will not work.
I thank our guests for appearing before the committee. I appreciate the setting out of the work programme and the month-by-month review. It is this review on which I wish to concentrate. To what extent is it expected that review will be monitored on a monthly basis with specific objectives to be achieved throughout the course of the year, bearing in mind that one month of the year is a holiday month and another month is almost gone for breaks and individual member states holidays, etc.? That will have the effect of crushing the review into ten months as opposed to 12 months. Arising from that my question is obvious. My criticism in the past has been that we have great aspirations but achievement of objectives is a critical factor. If this is to be done on a monthly basis, will it be marked off and the achievements recorded for all and sundry? That is in line with the semester.
In regard to the €315 billion investment programme, the self same criteria must apply. It must show advances on a month-by-month basis and on a year-to-year basis. There is no sense in having a grand objective that looks well and is good and is necessary unless it achieves its specific targets within a specified time and if it does not we need to know why. The question is whether it will achieve its targets and how soon we can expect to see the manifestation of that investment programme throughout all the countries of the European Union, including in those countries that are island nations and, effectively, cut off from the mainland of Europe, recognising the fact that they have special requirements.
The digital Single Market is an issue that is very important. What is the shortest possible time within which we can expect to see the achievement of the various objectives in that particular area?
The next issue I wish to raise is European wide taxation. I think we have concerns about that. I agree in principle that the country that generates the profit for a particular company, regardless of where that company comes from, for example foreign direct investment, is where the taxation should take place. Unfortunately, we have been maligned to a certain extent by people who had practices that were not exactly pristine. As a nation we were blamed repeatedly for benefitting from a special tax haven status that we did not have.
The European agenda on migration has already been mentioned. There is something we need to do in this area also. At European Union level we need a general policy on migration which should be evenly spread across the European Union without exception. That is a difficult thing to do, particularly when there is an influx of refugees from some corners at present.
The banking union has been referred to. The presumption is - it has gone abroad and has got considerable legs at this stage - that there is no need to repay borrowings on one basis or another. That has become acceptable in general conversation. There are institutions within member states called central banks which govern lending policy in individual member states. Departments of finance do similarly. Is it expected that banking policy, as pursued under the aegis and guidance of individual member states' lending and borrowing policy, absolves the country from liability thereafter in the event of severe consequences which we had in this country also?
This is hugely important in the context of the direction Europe is taking at this time. I have more questions and may come back to this again.
Ms Barbara Nolan:
I will start with the questions on the investment package. It is correct that the Commission has proposed that when it comes to assess countries' public finances under the Stability and Growth Pact, contributions that have been made to the investment package will be assessed favourably. This means they will not be taken into account for countries in either the preventative or corrective arm of the pact. However, there has been adverse discussion in the ECOFIN Council about this proposal, but as we are talking about guidance on the existing framework - that is how to apply the rules rather than changing the rules - it was agreed that the Council does not necessarily need to approve these steps by the Commission. Following the ECOFIN Council, the Presidency said it would seek consensus on this issue, rather than a formal adoption of it.
This is the way we propose to do it. Ultimately, this package is a relatively modest amount of funds that will trigger much more funding. It aims to get member states to crowd in with funding and also to raise private sector funding. We want to make the conditions as favourable as possible and to ensure the most viable projects to trigger that. That is how matters stand currently. The Chairman is right when he says there is disagreement. Some countries have a positive view on this, while others do not. For the moment, it stands as it is and the plan is to approach it in the way described.
Deputy Crowe has doubts about where the funding will come from. We must wait and see. We are involved in a marketing operation currently to try to crowd in the funding which will, hopefully, make this proposal work. This is being operated not just by the Commission, but in close co-operation with the European Investment Bank, and they believe it has a strong chance of working. The multiplier used was based on other operations of a similar nature. We must give it a chance and see what happens. Vice-President of the European Commission, Jyrki Katainen, is trying to travel around the member states to sell this idea and we hope it gets the reaction we want. So far, the reaction has been relatively positive. When Vice-President Katainen speaks to bankers and people who understand the concept and how it works and the importance of having seed capital on the table, this encourages others to come in with funding. We hope it will work and everybody wants it to work.
I do not have any detail on the aviation package as it has not yet been presented to us, but it is important we keep the issue of connectivity in mind. It should be acknowledged that the Single Market has already produced a revolution in the aviation sector, mostly to the benefit of consumers who now pay lower prices for travel between other European member states. We have yet to see what will be in the package, but if the committee has strong views on connectivity, perhaps it would be a good idea to communicate those views to the Commission while it is still working on the proposals. It is important to get in on this as early as possible, before the proposal is finalised. If the committee has particular concerns, I am sure they would be a useful contribution to the work going on in the Commission.
Deputy Byrne raised the issues of youth and long-term unemployment. These are not new issues for the Commission. For decades, we have spent considerable funding, through the European Social Fund, to try to cater for these two particular problems of the labour market and we will continue to do so. We will continue to keep a significant focus on young people in particular and on the long-term unemployed. Jobs and growth remain central to everything we are doing and there is no exception to that when looking at social and employment policy.
There are a number of elements in the labour mobility package, which concerns labour mobility between the member states rather than outside of the European Union. We have millions of vacancies in the Union and significant numbers of unemployed people, particularly young people. The issue is whether there is a way of making the market work more effectively. If we compare the European Union with the United States, labour mobility is very low. We have a link-up between the public employment services of the member states, and members may know about the EURES network, which tries to link people looking for employment with jobs in other member states. We want this to work better. We also want to ensure the social security dimension concerned with when people move to work better. We will look at all of these issues as part of a package of measures for the labour market.
Deputy Durkan asked several questions, but I will not be able to deal with all of them. In regard to the banking union, if I understand his question correctly, he was asking whether this would absolve national central banks of their duties. I do not think so. What it will do is gear up for integration of the market where there are overlaps or where something needs to be regulated at European level. We are not trying to take away from what national central banks should be doing. Therefore, I do not believe the proposals will absolve national central banks in the event of a crisis.
Can I get clarification on that, because that is not what I was getting at? What I was saying concerned a central bank in a member state, which oversees lending and borrowing in that state, but whose policy proves to be badly founded and grounded and sets the economy on a downward tangent. Is that country or state absolved? I do not believe it is absolved. If that state has complied with the regulations applicable in the state at the particular time, the state is responsible.
Ms Barbara Nolan:
We have had a situation where the banks in the different member states have been stress tested and we now have a clear baseline or picture of what is going on across the Union. The European Central Bank can now use this baseline and start its work as a single supervisor. This is a supervisory mechanism. It is there as an added "protection" in terms of things going wrong in the future, but it is not there to replace what should be in place already. It is there to ensure the provisions actually happen. What I am saying may not be crystal clear, but that is the way I see the interaction between the super national and the national.
To return to the question raised by Deputy Crowe on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, there was a huge response to the TTIP consultation, with 150,000 replies.
Ms Barbara Nolan:
Yes, indeed. My understanding is that approximately 80% or more of the replies received were almost identical. They were cut and paste replies, indicating an organised campaign. Obviously people feel very strongly about this and particularly about the investor state dispute settlement, ISDS, issue.
There is a need for an open and frank discussion about investment protection and the ISDS in the TTIP with EU governments, the European Parliament and civil society before policy recommendations are launched in this area. Recently there has been a huge move forward by the Commission in publishing the negotiating texts and mandates in a number of areas and we will see more of this. We are listening and trying to engage on people's concerns about issues such as transparency and the ISDS. We can move forward in a constructive way.
The problem is that before the delegates came in, we had a private meeting to discuss our work programme. An issue on which we will be doing a little more work is the TTIP. We will focus on the issues Ms Nolan has raised and expect to do so between now and the summer. We will ensure she is aware of it and may even see her come before us during the discussions.
Ms Barbara Nolan:
We are moving forward in a constructive way.
On health and safety issues and issues which touch on standards, if it has been said once, it has been said a million times that there will be no compromise on health and safety standards or standards in general; they are not up for negotiation. The Commissioner has said this, as did her predecessor, while the EU ambassador in the United States has reiterated it. It has, therefore, been said on many occasions. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, but people should have confidence in us that, during the negotiations, we will ensure European standards are not lowered in striking a trade deal.
I thank Ms Nolan for coming before the committee and going through the issue with us. The meeting has been very informative. The committee is very appreciative and no doubt we will see her again, perhaps to speak about the TTIP.
I am delighted to welcome also four of our Members of the European Parliament: Mr. Matt Carthy of Sinn Féin representing Midlands-North-West; Ms Lynn Boylan, also of Sinn Féin representing Dublin; Ms Mairead McGuinness of Fine Gael representing Midlands-North-West; and Mr. Seán Kelly, also of Fine Gael, representing Ireland South. We will allow each of them five minutes in turn. Unless they have a preference, we will begin with Mr. Carthy who will be followed by Ms Boylan, Ms McGuinness and Mr. Kelly in that order.
Mr. Matt Carthy:
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gcathaoirleach as ucht an chomhairle agus as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt anseo inniu. I thank the joint committee for inviting me to appear before it. I hope these engagements will prove to be an important part of our work as MEPs and the work of the committee.
The European Commission's work plan needs to be taken in context. It is fair to say the European Union continues to struggle with the deepest economic and social crisis it has faced since its foundation. Economies throughout the Union are stagnating; there is high unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. There is the looming threat of deflation, as well as threats to social and labour rights. There are rising socioeconomic inequalities. There is also the potential threat that the European Union could face a democratic crisis in its response and that of the component parts of the European institutions to the decision made by the Greek people last Sunday. It is important for the future of the European Union and the democratic credibility of the Union that that decision be respected and that the new Greek Government be supported in implementing the very clear will of the Greek people.
The vision and focus of the work plan are a disappointment. The plan is high on rhetoric, but with regard to specifics for countries such as Ireland, there is only one mention of agriculture and we know how important it is to the country. Much store is given to the Juncker investment package. As Ms Nolan and everybody else has acknowledged at this stage, there are as many unanswered questions as there are answered questions with regard to how the investment package will operate and what it will mean in new money being invested in job creation stimuli in member states. There is a fear that it could prove to be a three-card trick with money being taken from one pot and put into another and given a different name.
This week Mr. Werner Hoyer, head of the European Investment Bank, was before the European Parliament's economic and monetary affairs committee, of which I am a member. I asked him what safeguards would be put in place in administering the package if the funding was put in place to ensure those regions and states which need investment the most, in which I include Ireland as it has suffered as a result of an austerity agenda and economic stagnation, secure the fair share they require. Unfortunately, I do not think the European Investment Bank knows. There are many questions left to be answered.
As a new Member of the European Parliament, I have been struck by the ongoing references from people across the political spectrum to financial sovereignty, particularly taxation sovereignty. At every opportunity certain interests in all of the political groupings speak about the need for tax harmonisation and to develop European own resources, addressing an agenda to undermine the fiscal sovereignty of member states. We in Ireland can all agree politically on how precious is our financial and taxation sovereignty. Of course, there needs to be transparency throughout member states on how taxes are collected, but we cannot allow our fiscal sovereignty to be threatened. I ask the committee to be particularly vigilant of measures from the European Union in this regard.
The TTIP has been my research priority since I became a Member of the European Parliament. I am glad to see that committee members are taking an active interest in it because until recently I feared not enough interest, including political interest, was being shown in the issue. The level of interest required is high, as it is a very complicated issue. Ireland is one of the few countries which have never had an investor state dispute settlement, ISDS, mechanism in bilateral trade agreements. Many countries in the European Union include it and Germany is the best example, as it has been included in many of its bilateral trade agreements since the Second World War. Throughout the European Union fears are being expressed by governments of countries which have operated ISDS mechanisms, including the German and French Governments, about it being included in the TTIP.
What is unusual for a country that has not used ISDS is the fact that our Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, has signed a letter, along with 13 of his counterparts, more or less endorsing ISDS as a mechanism to be included in the TTIP talks. To my knowledge, he did that without recourse to the Oireachtas. That is a very worrying development. If we are talking about European institutions undermining parliaments, there is a need to ensure the Minister engages with this Parliament as well as with the Irish public in terms of TTIP moving forward.
There are a number of ways one can approach TTIP. Some in the European Parliament are opposed to TTIP no matter what, on ideological grounds. Others are entirely supportive and want the process to be moved as speedily as possible, no matter what the costs. There are two other areas. One is the section within the Parliament and within the political discourse who say, "Let's wait and see what the final negotiations are before we make a judgement on it." That is a legitimate enough case. My view is that as a country we should engage with TTIP to the highest level possible, to ensure that Ireland's interests are protected during the negotiations. In particular, the interests of sectors that are important to us, such as agriculture, should be protected. People will say that standards are of crucial importance, but when one is dealing with trade negotiations, two things usually come into play. The first is tariffs. Between the EU and the US, tariffs are relatively low across the board. The next thing is standards. If we want to ensure that the likes of our agriculture and food sectors are protected, we need to be engaged at this level. I encourage the committee's vigilance and ongoing support and I look forward to an opportunity in the future to come back to discuss this matter further.
I thank Mr. Carthy for being so concise. We will be having a series of meetings on TTIP. We can schedule some of them for Thursdays, which are probably the best days for the MEPs, as most of them can get back. We can do them at this time on a Thursday if that would suit. It would be useful to have their insights, because as Mr. Carthy said, the committee he is on in Europe looks at this, so it would probably be of benefit to the committee if we did it at times that were amenable to some level of attendance from the MEPs.
Mr. Seán Kelly:
Gabhaim míle buíochas as ucht an cuireadh agus comhghairdeas as ucht an díospóireacht a eagrú. I will confine myself to the committees in which I am involved. We each have two committees. I am the only Irish member of the ITRE committee, which is on technology, research and energy, and INTA, which is on trade.
Ms Nolan outlined the stimulus package by Mr. Juncker. On behalf of the ITRE committee, I have recently been appointed as rapporteur to produce a report for our committee on the stimulus package, which is a big role. It is a serious role and would give Ireland an important input into it. That should also help Ireland's cause. It has been pointed out that this is not really about investing public money, it is about leveraging private money. The evidence shows that Europe is awash with money and many people do not know where to invest it because the interest rates are so low. If this can work, and based on other situations they are confident that it will, it will make a significant difference. We will hopefully benefit as much as other countries in Europe.
I have been involved with the digital Single Market over the last few years because I was rapporteur for the data protection regulation. We made our report and it was passed less than a year ago. We are now waiting for the Council to finalise its arrangements. When that is done, we will go into trilogue. We hope to have that done by the end of this year, which will help in the area of certainty, legally in particular, in relation to the Single Market. There are great opportunities there. The benefit of Europe is a Single Market and now the emphasis is being put on the digital Single Market, which is of major importance, especially in trying to grow businesses and the development of trade online, etc. There is a great deal there which will hopefully be completed.
The new Commission is taking a practical approach in two ways. First is the way the President of the Commission has constructed his Commissioners. It would not be beneficial to have 28 doing their own thing, breaking them up into little silos, with a vice-president in charge. Bringing forward less legislation also seems to be eminently practical, giving credence to the oft-quoted necessity of recognising the principle of subsidiarity, only to do in Europe what must be done in Europe. That is why we will probably see less but more effective legislation over the next few years. The banking union has been a great success. Not enough credit has been given for it. As was pointed out, the stress tests have been done and most banks are now operating under particular rules, so the chances of them going bust are greatly reduced and the taxpayer will not have to pick up the bill at the end of the day. That should be beneficial as we move forward.
The other area in the ITRE committee is energy. That is a big area. The Russian situation has focused minds in Europe on the need to diversify supply and to get security of supply. Many things will happen in that regard over the next few years. That is very important for Ireland. I have a great deal to do with it, both in terms of looking at how it can be done and creating connectivity. If we had the money, we would have interconnectors both for energy and for electricity right across Europe. It will happen some day. Part of that investment programme that President Juncker is talking about would be great, particularly for an island nation like ours.
TTIP has been mentioned. I am in favour of TTIP until I see the final package. It is a huge opportunity and we should not stop that opportunity from being explored. People have been talking about transparency, and rightly so, but there is more transparency in TTIP than in any other trade discussion we have had, and we will continue to be more transparent. It is a bit like CAP in the last legislature. It was CAP, CAP, CAP, CAP, CAP. Now it is all about TTIP. The chances of anything getting under the radar unscrutinised are very little. Huge movements have been made on the ISDS. That is a good thing. I am the rapporteur for the free trade agreement with Singapore. That is almost finalised. It will be a great opportunity for Ireland because it will lead to other free trade agreements with the other ASEAN countries, which have about 500 million people between them.
Ms Lynn Boylan:
I will focus on the committees I am on, namely, the employment and social affairs committee and the environment and public health committee. Before I get into the details of Mr. Juncker's work plan and its relevance to those committees, one of the things that particularly worries me about the work plan is the lobby register. We were promised by Jean-Claude Juncker and Mr. Timmermans that we would have a mandatory lobbying register. What we have got in this work plan falls far short of that. It does not address the main issues of concern, namely, mandatory disclosure and the implementation of binding sanctions if a company that is lobbying does not disclose properly. For example, Goldman Sachs, the largest world investment bank, declared in 2013 that it spent €50,000 on lobbying in the European Union. This is the largest world investment bank. The same bank in America, where they have very strict disclosure methods, claimed it spent $3.6 million on lobbying activities. There is clearly a discrepancy and what Jean-Claude Juncker has done with this lobby register goes nowhere near addressing that issue. We need to deal with that because there is a lack of trust among people across Europe in how the European Union does its business, particularly around the Commission and around transparency.
It was a real opportunity which, unfortunately, has been missed.
Another issue of concern about the work plan is the sunset clause in the maternity directive. It was a proposal which sought to extend maternity leave to 20 weeks, something any woman of child-rearing age would welcome. I do not understand why it has stalled at the Council. It was openly stated that if something could not be agreed within six months at the Council, it would be taken off the table. A member state opposed to legislation would then oppose and delay it for six months in order that it would be withdrawn. I do not understand the logic behind this.
With regard to environmental protection, from the very beginning of Jean-Claude Juncker's term we have seen that he has no regard for environmental regulation. For example, no Commissioner has been given responsibility for the issue of sustainable development and in the merging of energy and climate change issues in one portfolio it has certainly been watered down. I refer to the fact that the Commissioner appointed to this role and his family have very public links with oil companies. I do not think this bodes well in dealing with climate change and energy matters.
The circular economy package which deals with recycling and the reuse of raw materials is being dropped. It was estimated that it would lead to the creation of thousands of jobs - up to 180,000 across the European Union - and that it would also save the European Union billions of euro, but it has now been dropped. This contradicts Jean-Claude Juncker's stated priorities to boost job creation and growth in Europe. It is a case of short-term business interests being unwilling to adapt and being put before the long-term public interest. I am deeply disappointed that this package has been removed from the work plan.
With regard to employment and social affairs, I am pleased that Deputy Byrne has raised the issue of youth unemployment. When Jean-Claude Juncker addressed the European Parliament, he spoke about channelling a significant proportion of the investment plan into projects to get the younger generation back to work. This will be welcomed, particularly in Ireland and other countries in bailout programmes where young people have borne the brunt of a crisis that was not of their making. I draw the attention of the committee to the youth guarantee. It is no secret that I was very vocal about it when it was introduced because I thought it was under-funded. That remains my view. There are glaring omissions such as how it will deal the lack of facilities for people with disabilities and lone parents. It is interesting to note that since the pilot programme was begun in Ballymun, a report has been undertaken by the European trade union syndicate on the roll-out of the youth guarantee across Europe. There are concerns in member states about its roll-out. I draw the attention of members to some of the aspects of the Irish model highlighted. I encourage the Government to reflect on and address these criticisms and make an effort to adapt the youth guarantee.
One of the issues highlighted was raising the participation age to 30 years for those who wished to access the youth guarantee programme. Jean-Claude Juncker has said he is open to this idea, which is welcome. I, therefore, encourage the Government to extend the participation age to 30 years. I flag that the Government stated it did not consider precarious work to be a serious issue. It is.
I refer to Ireland's record on the issue of low-paid jobs. The report by the European trade union syndicate flagged that the work contracts being offered to young people were bad and that interns were displacing jobs. If the Government proposes to roll out the youth guarantee on a national basis, I suggest it takes on board these concerns. The report also flagged the rapid decline in the number of apprenticeships. I ask the Government to take this finding on board for the sake of young people.
Ms Mairead McGuinness:
I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation to attend. I also thank Ms Barbara Nolan for her presentation.
I am a member of the agriculture and the environment committees and a vice chair of the European Parliament, in which role I deal with the issue of communications, or at least I try to. It is something that, at some stage, might be a subject for discussion between the two parliaments - how we communicate as parliamentarians. It is an issue about how we explain the work we do. It has been said to me that people do not know what we do. I often say people do not know what happens in the county council chamber. How we communicate is an issue for politics. This is an open invitation to committee members to have a discussion on communications.
I agree with the approach taken in the work programme in that less is more. I am now a lifer in the European Parliament, in that I have served two terms, with the second mandate being about fire-fighting and writing more legislation than was humanely possible. We have had our fill of legislation. We need effective implementation; we also need feedback on where regulations and legislation are ineffective or excessive and then get rid of them. I agree with the Commission's general approach.
On the investment programme, I get the impression from the conversation not just here but also elsewhere that it is included in the Commission's plan. There is a great responsibility on member states to suggest projects that can receive funding. This is an invitation to the 28 countries to come up with good ideas and funding will be made available. That is the challenge for Ireland and all other member states. The projects and programmes will succeed or fail, depending on what the member states can devise.
The third point is that there is no magic money available. In discussions around Europe the question that is most frequently asked of our colleagues - members will echo this - is whether funding is available for projects. I was present for the last budget discussions, but the tragedy is that there is little or no willingness among the member states - we get more than we give - to increase their contributions; there are net contributors that state: "Thus far and no more". Many countries want to pull back in their funding for the European Union. I suggest the committee discuss at a future meeting the review of the overall budget, how money is collected, who contributes and how we might put it on a sounder footing. The subject of own resources is part of that discussion and should not be ignored, as we need to look at all options. Having a strong centrally funded European budget is very important to ensure solidarity between member states. I hope greater solidarity might emerge out of the crisis, as well as a strengthening of the budget.
There is not a great deal said about agriculture because there should be no need to do so. What there should be is a CAP reform implementation plan, as well as the roll-out of the rural development programme which, from an Irish perspective, is of huge importance and eagerly awaited. We are happy that we will receive a letter of comfort from Commissioner Hogan, in particular, on the roll-out of the agri-environment scheme. There is a problem in rural areas generally of underinvestment. While there is recovery in Dublin, it needs to filter into rural communities. The rural development programme is part of this, but so too is the roll-out of broadband and other measures that have been mentioned. These are very important aspects which should be kept in mind.
I do not share the concern about secrecy and transparency with regard to the TTIP. If I may be forgiven for saying so, it is overdiscussed. Perhaps people do not read enough of what is available on the web on which there is a wide range of material available. My approach to negotiations is that Ireland is a trading nation; we export more goods and services than we can consume. The Commission will be leading the negotiations. I would like our negotiators to look for opportunities for the European Union and be aware of the threats posed. In the agriculture sector there are opportunities and threats. On the dairy side, we are seeking benefits, while the beef sector has concerns. It is a question of what is in the detail of any potential deal on which my colleagues and I in the European Parliament will have a say. We must be mindful of the concerns expressed. It is welcome that the committee will discuss the issue.
This year in the European Union the focus is on development. In this regard it will focus on the issues of labour and migration. We should mention this for two reasons. There is the horror where people leave their home countries in Africa and risk life and limb and even give birth in the waters of the Mediterranean as they flee conflict or desperate circumstances or because of a lack of hope. However, the European Union is not coping particularly well in dealing with this problem.
It is in our interests as a Union to ensure we develop their economies and give them some hope.
I welcome and thank our MEPs for coming before us and compliment them on their presentation. I will refer to two or three parts relating to energy policy, which is very important for Europe and each member state individually. What is the extent to which the witnesses believe, as MEPs, that Europe is progressing towards self-sufficiency with regard to energy needs, that it is energy secure, and how that is likely to happen? For example, how would it proceed with renewables and with an eye to less of a dependency on fossil fuels? What about the extent to which modern industrial and domestic requirements can be met by those alternatives? For example, there is a debate about nuclear energy, with countries in Europe going in opposite directions, so I would like to know what the witnesses think about that. I am not a great supporter of nuclear energy.
I like to mention it occasionally. Very often, more is taken from what people do not say than from what they say.
Another point relates to carbon reduction, which is a critical issue that must be faced by Europe and each individual member state. To what extent do the witnesses see in both European and member state policy the move towards carbon reduction without dramatically affecting the economic output of the country? In some countries this relates to agricultural output, and some more urbanised nations may find it easy to suggest making sacrifices in the agricultural and food-producing sectors. National economies would be dramatically affected. What is the favourite policy throughout Europe, as that will affect us all? We will find consequences flowing from that which will affect us. If carbon reductions are not achieved, fines will follow and there will be a need to purchase carbon credits to meet guidelines that have already been laid down or even more stringent guidelines that may well be laid down by the international community. This involves not only the European Union but the international community.
I refer to Ms Nolan's contribution and we have the full work programme here. I will address an element with the MEPs relating to Europe as a stronger global actor. I welcome this great opportunity to engage with Ms Nolan and our MEPs. Mr. Matt Carthy, MEP, mentioned Greece. Given that this week we ratified partnership agreements with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, what is the collective attitude of the witnesses to eastern or southern partnerships or the notion that Europe has on its periphery countries that are seeking to have a relationship with Europe? The stronger global actor element reads that there is a communication in European Labour Court policy coming up and the results of the European neighbourhood policy review will be presented.
In recognising what Mr. Carthy has said in recognising the will of the Greek people to return the type of government that it has, do any of the witnesses have any reservation about the fact that, for the first time I can remember, Greece has opted out of the condemnation of the aggression by the Russian Federation, which just recently murdered and slaughtered 30 innocents in Mariupol? The witness mentioned Greece, so I ask directly about the Greek position of opting out of the joint foreign affairs condemnation of the Russian Federation. Do the witnesses agree that Europe is healthier in having good relations with all of its neighbours, as well as the neighbours of our immediate neighbours? There was a division in the Dáil which tremendously upset people, and the Ukrainians in particular could not believe 19 Deputies voted against their association agreements.
I can do so if the Deputy wishes. We have had difficulties before with this herd mentality and people all thought the same about issues. There was criticism of that following the banking crisis, for example.
Ms McGuinness, MEP, is in an important role relating to communications and it would be useful to have that conversation at some stage within this committee. In private session we spoke about the work plan and I mentioned the importance of development on our committee agenda. There was some discussion about issues being European or foreign affairs; it flows from one to the other. We are a big investor and there are major changes across the world. Anybody who has gone on the trips organised by Irish Aid would be really impressed by the work being done. There is always criticism of multilateral aid and there may not be the same scrutiny of where that money is being spent. It is important for this or any committee to discuss that issue as people are disconnected and worried about where money is being spent. People have heard about corruption and so on, which means they want their MEPs and parliamentarians to ask the right questions, particularly if they are suffering. Anywhere we go, we must point out the sacrifices being made by Irish people in trying to invest in other countries. Many of these countries have major resources and potential. That potential can go to a small elite or be used to develop the country for the better.
There was a discussion about migration and we discussed it with High Commissioner Mogherini. There is the idea of the impact of north and south and I do not agree that we have a sense in our country of the impact of immigration. The MEPs might pick that up more in Europe. It is not unusual for boats to have 4,000 or 5,000 on them, and they may sink off coasts, with hundreds of people dying. There is a desperate desire of people to go to Europe to work legally. We do not have a common approach. I was recently in the Canaries and I saw a story on the front page of the newspaper detailing how a boat had come from Africa but the poor people on it had been kept on the beach for nine hours after the boat was set on fire. There were tourists on the beach watching this. It is only an example. In Fuerteventura one can see clothes on the beach. I am thankful that we have not had that problem in Ireland of people dying on our shores, but other countries in the EU or on the edge have it. There is a lack of solidarity and there is no joined-up thinking.
Is there anything the witnesses believe that Europe could be doing better on detention? In Ireland, there are difficulties in dealing with people who come here, including provision centres which have been criticised. We can learn a lot from each other.
Human trafficking was also mentioned. The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am a member, has done some work on it. I am aware that similar work has also been undertaken by other parliaments across Europe. Have the MEPs come across anything in their own work concerning human trafficking and could we be dealing with it better? Some of it seems to come down not only to a lack of co-operation between police services, but also to sharing information between countries.
Mr. Matt Carthy:
Go raibh maith agat arís, a Chathaoirligh. I think Lynn Boylan, MEP, would be in a better position to answer Deputy Durkan's questions, if she does not mind me saying so.
Deputy Eric Byrnes's questions have raised good points. As regards my remarks on Greece, I was not suggesting for a second that we have to agree with every decision the Greek Government makes. The best, and ultimate, judges of those decisions are the Greek people. That is the point I was making.
As regards Europe's role as a strong global actor, our position is well documented. We believe that countries like Ireland should have an independent foreign policy. We have a place in the world and our international image is a credit to successive Governments. That includes having a positive role to play in ending international conflicts, as well as promoting international development. However, that role has been undermined in recent years as a result of Europe's role as a strong global actor. Probably the greatest example of that was the Government's scandalous, shameful and embarrassing decision to abstain from voting on a UN Human Rights Council resolution concerning the attack on Gaza last summer. We rowed in behind the European policy of sitting on our hands on a motion that simply called for an investigation into the Israeli actions in Gaza during what was a terrible siege for the people there.
There are times when Europe needs to speak as a single voice, such as in response to the recent atrocities in Paris. However, there are other times when it is in our interests to play a fruitful role in international relations as a sovereign power with an independent foreign policy.
Ms Mairead McGuinness, MEP, and I may disagree on plenty of things, but I could not agree more with her remarks about development, our role as Europeans and our international assistance, particularly to African countries. In fairness to her, she raises this issue regularly. She was one of those who, when the Ebola crisis was at its height, categorically stated that we needed to respond to it but that we also had a responsibility concerning the Congo.
As an MEP, I recognise that Ireland is too small to have two voices on issues at that level. I would encourage members of the committee to ensure that where and when possible, Ireland - as a nation, North and South - is speaking with one voice on European policies. When we can do so, we will be in a stronger position to see our own objectives being delivered.
Ms Lynn Boylan:
I think Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP, is probably the best person to address these matters, as he is on the European Parliament's committee for energy. It is not my area of expertise but there are a number of concerns. It makes sense to deal with climate change at a European level and I would encourage the EU to be progressive and ambitious about this. It should go into the negotiations in Paris with a strong position and not be prepared to back down. We can lead the way in terms of renewables and the green economy.
The European Investment Bank is currently having a public consultation on green jobs. There are huge opportunities for addressing energy needs, including renewables. I would encourage Ireland to play a strong role in that regard. Denmark, for example, is coming close to being carbon neutral so maybe we can learn some lessons from them on how they have managed to do that.
Biofuels is an area of real concern for EU energy policy. Mass deforestation is taking place in developing countries to provide biofuels for the European market, so I have serious concerns about having any reliance on biofuels. We need to examine the alternatives. I also have concerns about the carbon emission trading scheme because the price picked has been shown to be false. This is encouraging polluters to pollute, instead of getting them to change their practices, which we need to do.
In dealing with climate change, rather than trying to react and meeting businesses that are resistant to change, we should be leading the way with research and development innovation. We should not adopt a conservative approach in trying to offset emissions.
Ms Mairead McGuinness:
I will start at the end and pick up a point that my colleague, Mr. Matt Carthy MEP, mentioned about the all-Ireland approach. I compliment the Government because every month we have a Minister present and all the MEPs on the island of Ireland are invited for an effective working lunch.
I also wish to mention my role as a children's rights mediator whereby we try to settle cross-border disputes involving children. Forced adoptions in EU member states - some close to us - constitute an issue that has only come to my attention recently. The committee should watch out for this significant issue which I am currently working on.
Let me be clear for Deputy Durkan in that we are neither energy efficient nor self-sufficient. Efficiency is an area on which we must work. I would like to see a calmer debate on energy in Ireland, which is more focused on the future. Tragically, the energy debate rests on infrastructure, pylons, wind farms and upsetting rural communities. It is not about the big project which is an interconnected grid. Some Oireachtas committee should start to lead that debate which needs to take place.
The Deputy's concerns for carbon reduction in agriculture are well made. They have been met by the statement which the Taoiseach stitched into the Council's proceedings whereby the food security issue is being taken into account.
With regard to Europe being a strong global player, I disagree with Mr. Matt Carthy, MEP, in so far as sometimes we have to pick and choose. However, it is too big an area in which to say: "We're grand on our own, but at other times we can be with you." Of course, we need to be conscious of Irish concerns but Europe has a strong role to play as the European Union. It can be much more effective if it works as a union.
I am concerned about what happened when Greece withdrew its name on the Russian issue that Deputy Eric Byrne raised. In addition, the Greek election was mentioned. As with every member state that holds an election, we welcome the new government to the table. The new Greek Government has made commitments to its electorate and it will be that government's responsibility to see how they are delivered upon. Europe works on the basis of consensus and discussion.
I welcome Deputy Crowe's comments on communications and development. I hope we can do that. He said that these tragedies are not on our shores, but I regard the EU's shores as ours. We do not talk about it enough here, although I am glad it has happened at this forum.
Sometimes we dread having to make the time to come to these meetings, because we are busy. When we are here, though, they are very important. I thank the committee for inviting us and for giving us the opportunity.