Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions: Engagement with Mr. Juan Menéndez-Valdés
We have received apologies from Deputy Cullinane and Senator Craughwell. I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off. It is important because it causes serious problems for the broadcasting and editorial staff.
Today the committee will engage with Mr. Juan Menéndez-Valdés, director of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, on the work of the foundation. I am delighted to welcome Mr. Menéndez-Valdés and his officials to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. The foundation is the only EU-based agency in Ireland and has been doing essential work for many years in helping us to understand the trends in industries, working conditions, labour markets and what life is like for Europeans and all those living in Europe. This information can be essential for policy-makers like us in order to understand the structures that exist and help us to tailor any changes to improve the lives of our citizens. I met the director six months ago and had a very interesting engagement. I am looking forward to this engagement today. The foundation has been very good in sending the committee copies of its reports and other publications, which I am sure all members found very informative and helpful. We find the reports of great use to us in doing our work. I again welcome Mr. Menéndez-Valdés and his officials. We are delighted to have them at the committee and the members and I look forward to hearing about the work of the foundation.
Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. 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 about to give to the committee. If they are directed to cease giving evidence on a particular subject and they continue to do so, they are only entitled thereafter to qualified privilege in respect of the evidence they give. They are directed that only evidence concerned with today's proceedings is to be given to the committee and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against an entity or a person either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. Menéndez-Valdés to make his presentation. Members will ask questions and make comments afterwards.
Mr. Juan Menéndez-Valdés:
I thank the Chairman. It is a real privilege to be in the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is the third time that I have been given the opportunity to be at the committee. The other occasions were during the previous legislative period. I would like to share with the committee some of the information and findings from our work at Eurofound. The good news for the members is that I will not speak about Brexit as I think they have had enough of that. The bad news is that I will bombard the members with a lot of information that may require us to jump a little from one topic to the next without time to go into all of them in depth.
I hope, however, that we can give more detail on some of them during the question and answer session.
As the Chairman mentioned, ours is the only EU agency based in Ireland and Ireland and Germany were the first two countries to have an EU agency. The agencies were established in 1975. We have since operated in Dublin where we have our headquarters. We have a small office in Brussels where we have a relatively large number of meetings but we have only a few rooms and facilities there. Our budget is €20 million per annum which some think is too small, while others think it is too big. Not counting external contractors, there are approximately 100 staff members contracted directly with Eurofound. One of the peculiarities of our agency is that we use a shamrock to symbolise our tripartite governance structure. The management board consists not only of the European Commission and the Irish Government which is represented by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection but also the two social partners, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, IBEC, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. The same is true for each member state. There is also an independent expert appointed by the European Parliament.
Our mission is to provide knowledge and information to assist policymakers in the development of better social, employment and work-related policies. Our primary target group is the EU institutions: the Commission, the Parliament and the Council, but we also serve national governments or their social partners at different levels. Our strength is to provide comparative information. We carry out research, but we try to help member states to benchmark with each other to see where they perform well or not so well or where there is some room for improvement. A good example is probably the best known research work by Eurofound, the three Europe-wide surveys we conduct. The oldest is the European Working Conditions Survey which started in 1990 and is repeated every five years. It covers different dimensions of job quality, including the physical and social environments, the intensity at work, autonomy, skills, earning, etc. It involves 40,000 face to face interviews with workers in Europe. The second oldest is the European Quality of Life Survey which includes some elements of what we call quality of the societies. For this, we interview citizens, some of whom are working, while some are not. The third is the European Company Survey which is based on interviews with representatives of companies and work practices at company level.
I will give some highlights of the surveys relevant to Ireland. This is an optimistic and satisfied country in terms of quality of life. It has been through a serious crisis, but it is over and the country is scoring better than the EU average at this level. On average, in most dimensions of job quality, Ireland is doing well in respect of autonomy, physical demands and several other dimensions. In some aspects of quality of society Ireland is doing well, for example, the high level of engagement in community activities. There is a relatively low level of tension in society, while there are, more or less, average levels of trust in national institutions and above average levels of trust in European institutions. On the index, on a scale of zero to ten, for happiness and life satisfaction, Ireland scores high, similar to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The average countries are France and Spain, while at the bottom are the candidate countries, some old member states such as Greece and new member states such as Bulgaria. At the top are the usual suspects, the Nordic countries.
After the crisis people in Europe generally became more optimistic about their own future, but in response to the question about the future for their children and grandchildren there is a huge difference. Ireland scores relatively high compared with the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain. There is a greater difference between it and Italy and France which are much more gloomy about their projections for their children's or grandchildren's future. This may, to an extent, reflect a perspective on the evolution of the economy, but other elements are also relevant.
In respect of quality of society, one element we consider important is engagement in community and civic activities. In all of these Ireland rates relatively well, for example, in volunteering. That was visible to me when I came to Ireland eight years ago. The EU average is 17% and Ireland is in the top group for involvement in volunteering and civic activities.
Another important element - it is a negative if it is very high - is tension between different groups in society. We measure tensions between rich and poor, management and labour, men and women, and between people from different racial and ethnic groups. The EU average is 41%, but Ireland scores among the lowest, at 21%, which is remarkable for a country which has one of the highest shares of foreign population living in it. There are some elements that can nuance this a little. We do not count the second generation which is very prominent in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium, where they may be counted as nationals once they obtain their passports. There is also the fact that most immigration here is relatively homogeneous. It is mostly European, with a Christian background from, for example, Poland, the United Kingdom and Lithuania which differs from countries with more Muslim immigration or a higher African population that would be more visible.
Another element that could be relevant is the relatively high number of highly qualified foreigners living in the country and working for high-tech companies such as Google, Facebook, pharmaceutical companies and others. However, this result is a very good sign.
The next slide focuses on trust and shows information sourced from the Eurobarometer surveys. The blue line shows the level of trust in the European Union among Irish citizens. Not surprisingly, trust decreased during the crisis and the period of the bailout . The red line shows that trust in the national Government also decreased. The graph does not show the 2018 figures but in 2018 the majority of Irish people surveyed expressed trust in the EU. The level of trust in and support for the EU in Ireland is among the highest, if not the highest, among the member states. The yellow "X" on the graph represents France and shows the level of trust French people have in the European Union. France has a very pro-European President at the moment but the picture is not so nice when one considers the whole population. The UK voted to leave the European Union so the level of trust in the EU was found to be lower in the UK. The figure for Italy is not much higher than the UK figure, which is not the lowest in the EU. Greece has the lowest level of trust in the EU, perhaps for good reason. The results are relevant to the debate on the future of Europe. Some people say the social contract is broken and we are giving power to an entity that we do not trust, and that is not good news.
Part of the discourse during the period of recovery after the crisis has been that if we want to recover trust, we must make visible that the EU is doing something for the people. This involves doing more in the social area, rather than focusing only on finance, the banking system and the eurozone. As the committee will be fully aware, the European Union came up with the European pillar of social rights, which consists of 20 principles. I do not intend to go through all of them, which fall under three headings, namely, equality opportunities and access to the labour market; fair working conditions; and social protection and inclusion. These were proclaimed by the Heads of Government in Gothenburg. The Taoiseach was present and we also had the privilege of being there. We are now in the phase of implementing these principles. For example, a political agreement was reached recently on a proposal for a directive on work-life balance for parents and carers. This will require some adjustment, albeit not a huge one, in EU legislation to increase opportunities for work-life balance. Much of the implementation of the pillar falls on member states and the social partners. The European Union has certain competencies but it is in the remit of national governments to make most of the changes.
Another tool that is relevant to the EU process, and one with which members will be familiar, is the European semester. The country report for Ireland is very positive because the position here comparatively is very positive. Nevertheless, the report makes a number of country specific recommendations, three of which are referred to in the next slide. I have highlighted the one that is linked with the area in which Eurofound is working. This is a recommendation from the European Union to Ireland to ensure timely and effective implementation of the national development plan, including elements related to housing and affordable quality childcare. Has this recommendation come out of the blue or is it related to facts and objective figures? The next slide shows the findings of the European quality of life survey in respect of quality of public services. The graph shows a selection of public services, namely, the education system; childcare; healthcare; long-term care; the State pension; public transport; and social housing. The blue square represents the average satisfaction experienced by Europeans and the green column represents the satisfaction rate in Ireland. Where the blue square is displayed within the green column, it means the result in Ireland was better than the EU average. The graph shows that Irish citizens have a higher rate of satisfaction with education and the State pension system than the average European. In all other areas, the blue square is displayed above the green columns which means Irish citizens have a lower rate of satisfaction. The areas in which the gap between Ireland and the EU average was highest were public transport followed by the health services. In that regard, I know there have been some issues with nurses and doctors recently. These are followed by childcare, an area in which some recent reforms move in the right direction, and social housing. None of this will be a surprise to members because these are the issues Parliament is discussing.
The next slide, on the use and quality of social housing, shows the percentage of people renting social, municipal or non-profit housing. Rental is only one social housing model but it is among the most prominent. The graph shows that Ireland is not bad compared with the average, but the 8% figure for Ireland is much lower than for its neighbour, the UK, where the percentage is 20%. The figure in the Netherlands, at 26%, is even higher. The correlation between the percentage of social houses available for rent and perceived quality is shown. While it is not a perfect correlation, in countries that have a larger amount of social housing available to rent, people tend to rate the quality higher. In Ireland, the percentage is not especially high and the quality is considered good. The position in Ireland is not much different from the position in the UK. While there is a big difference in the number of social houses available for rent, the difference between the two countries in terms of quality is not significant.
While there is a problem with homelessness in Ireland, how does the country fare with regard to global insecurity in housing? We asked people how likely or unlikely it was that they would need to leave their accommodation within the next six months because they could no longer afford it. If we exclude the very unlikely, which means the people who feel pretty secure, we have an index showing some level of insecurity. However, Ireland, at 22, is ranked slightly lower than the European average of 24. If we consider different scenarios, insecurity is very low among people who own a house without a mortgage and a little higher among those who own a house with a mortgage. It is higher again for those renting municipal or social housing. Insecurity is highly concentrated in the cohort of people renting houses or apartments in the private market. Again, I am sure these findings will come as no surprise to members. Ireland has taken some measures that may not yet be reflected in this survey. However, it is important to bear in mind that the problem is concentrated in certain segments.
Childcare affordability is another area where Ireland scores below the EU average. The graph compares Ireland, which is the green column, and the European Union, which is the blue column. The first category shows those who find childcare costs very difficult. The percentage here is 11% and while it is not a high number, it is almost double the EU average of 6%. The next category is those who find childcare costs a little difficult and is again almost double the EU average. The opposite is the case in regard to those who find meeting the costs of childcare not difficult at all, where Ireland scores 35% against an EU average of 61%. Again, I am aware that some recent measures have been taken so maybe the position is moving in the right direction.
I want to add something which is not so much in the indices to which we normally pay attention but is relevant to the situation of Ireland, which is the mental health of young people. The light blue bar on the slide shows the risk to mental well-being, according to our survey. Ireland would be, more or less, average at 13%. The dark blue bar shows the actual reported chronic depression. One can see that Ireland is the highest in the EU according to the EUROSTAT health interview survey. If we dig a bit deeper and look in the same survey at the proportion of young people with severe or moderate depressive symptoms, we see it is mainly young women between 15 and 24, again shown by the blue bar. Women rate higher than men in all countries, as shown in the grey column, with Ireland again the highest. The committee is in a position to understand the reasons for this but we thought it was one of the indicators that was relevant.
I do not want to end my presentation in a depressing mode by talking about depression. The next slide shows the network of EU agencies. Eurofound is one of these and is, of course, based in Ireland. Ireland almost had another, the banking authority, but it went elsewhere. Some would say there are already too many agencies, with 48 spread all over the EU, and some are talking about mergers or synergies. On the other hand, new agencies are being created, with the latest likely to be approved in this legislative period of the European Parliament, the European labour authority or agency, whatever name is finally approved. The Council will then discuss where to locate that agency. I do not know if Ireland has an interest but I can say there are nice grounds in Loughlinstown that belong to the OPW; they are rented to Eurofound but there is enough room for another building. We talk a lot about synergies and having common and shared services. This will be an agency operating in the social and employment field, so, if Ireland wants, it could make a case for that, knowing that the highest likelihood is that this new agency will end up in a country that has no agency at all, that is, one of the newest member states such as Romania, Croatia or Latvia, for example. Almost all countries have volunteered to host the agency with the exception of the UK.
We have much more information available on our website and the committee can contact us at any time. There is a country page about Ireland with many indicators, not so much to inform Ireland but to inform other countries about the situation in Ireland. Of course, the committee is welcome to let us know its concerns and priorities and we are happy to assist in any way.
I welcome the director and his colleagues. I want to start with reference to the potential location of the European labour agency. I hope the Government is very much aware of that and the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Employment Affairs and Social Protection should be very active in this regard. It seems logical to join with Eurofound here in Ireland, whether in Loughlinstown or elsewhere, given the labour relations aspect. In light of Brexit, I believe we should be given special consideration because of the challenges we face. Eurofound has a budget of some €20 million, which is a big contribution and provides approximately 100 jobs. I was disappointed we lost the medical agency which went from the UK and also the financial services agency. We were outmanoeuvred and out-lobbied in those cases and, quite frankly, we should have got one of those agencies in Ireland, particularly as, in one way or another, we will be the biggest losers as a result of Brexit.
Among the interesting information provided by Mr. Menéndez-Valdés, I was interested with the information on the low level of social housing here compared to other European countries. It is evident that we do not have enough social housing, which is why we have 10,000 people without houses in Dublin and other regions.
The mental health of young people is a serious matter. I presume that all of the information presented by Eurofound is sent directly to the Department of Health, in particular the section that deals with mental health. The situation is very concerning. Mr. Menéndez-Valdés elaborated further in regard to young people with severe or moderate depressive symptoms, where the trends are worrying. Knowledge is power, in a sense. The fact that Eurofound is preparing this information is giving the people involved with policy formation the facts for all of Europe.
I wish Mr. Menéndez-Valdés and his colleagues well in their work in the agency. I am delighted they had a chance to come here today.
I thank the director and his team for attending and for presenting this information to the committee. Their research and findings generally in regard to Ireland are very interesting and while it is very positive for Ireland in many respects, obviously, there is no room for complacency. As policymakers, we know this and know there are alarm bells in regard to public services, including childcare and public transport. I am certainly aware of this as a public representative in the greater Dublin area.
In the context of the two surveys on working conditions and quality of life, there is a view that young people of the upcoming generation are finding things difficult in regard to permanent employment. Has this been picked up in the surveys? Is much of the work young people are engaged in contract work or part-time work, and are there zero-hour contracts and so on? Are their living and working conditions deteriorating and what are the trends in that regard?
In terms of comparing and contrasting with other great states in the world, like Canada or Australia, how does the EU compare with the states many of our people are emigrating to, either on a short-term or long-term basis? What are the international comparisons between the EU and other nation states?
I welcome our guests and thank them for the very interesting report and information. The issue regarding housing is not new to us; we are conscious of it and have been concerned about it for some time. As a personal opinion on the phrase "social housing", for some unknown reason, since we began to use that phrase we have had difficulty meeting the required level of housing. It used to be called "local authority housing" or "public housing". We are aware of the extent to which people are shown to be in fear of losing their housing arising from landlords moving in and so on, and this has been a serious issue in recent years.
I am also conscious of the fact that, throughout Europe, there is a greater history of families living in rented accommodation than applies in this country. In Ireland, 150 years ago, there was a war called the land war. The purpose of the exercise was to establish the right of the individual to own his or her own land or home. This is very much intrinsic in the Irish psyche to this day and will remain that way.
It is seen by people in this country as the foundation on which they build their families and lives. If they do not have that, it tends to engender in their thinking a level of insecurity that does not apply to their counterparts in the rest of Europe where there is a greater tradition of reliance on public housing. I accept, however, that this does not apply in all cases. The interesting part of the study is that which relates to interracial tension. The degree of such tension in Ireland is shown to be low. As a race, we have lived in most countries. Some would say that there are Irish emigrants across the globe as a result of which Irish people have become more accustomed to working with and living in the same areas as other nationalities and they do not see the same level of need to differentiate between one nationality and another. That is a positive.
The findings relating to mental health are alarming. Mental health is an issue about which we are aware, particularly as it affects young women. We are conscious of this issue and have spoken about it in the Houses of the Oireachtas many times. We are aware of the increased incidence of depression, serious depression and self-harm and are monitoring the position. There are a variety of things which we believe to be the cause of these increases, including insecurity, lack of confidence, lack of self-esteem and the use of the Internet by young people who find themselves overwhelmed by what goes on in that regard. There have been numerous incidences of young people engaging in unsuitable dialogue with individuals who are much older than them. This is an area we need to examine further because we must protect our young generation. We must control the technology to which they have access. Such access is increasingly to their detriment. We all engage with our constituents on a daily and weekly basis at our advice clinics and we come across these situations all the time. The incidence of Internet bullying is particularly common among young schoolgirls. Often, a young schoolgirl will find herself the victim of a concerted campaign by girls from within her school, sometimes outside of the school, but most always outside of school time. It is in this regard that technology needs to be controlled. There must be a means found to ensure that young people are not abused in a fashion that undermines their self-confidence and self-esteem to the obvious detriment of themselves and society.
In most other cases, we have scored fairly well. That is reassuring. I agree that the issue relating to childcare costs is serious. Another serious issue is the cost of housing. There is a theory among people globally that one feels better if one lives in a very expensive house. I do not agree. A house is a house is a house. It provides security for children and so on. The theory that if one does not live in a really expensive house one has not made it needs to be addressed, not only in Ireland but throughout Europe. When residential property becomes expensive child care becomes the victim. We have reached a situation where the cost of child care for, say, two, or three, children, even with Government supports, is similar to the cost of a mortgage. This is not sustainable and it puts a huge burden on the family. We need to lower housing costs because mortgage costs are forcing both partners in a household out to work in the early stages of the lives of their children. The cost of a house remains with the family from the day it is purchased it until almost retirement age and this has an overbearing influence on their lives.
On access to health services, Ireland ranks fourth among the OECD countries in terms of its level of expenditure on health services but we do not have the same level of access as our European colleagues. It is impossible to determine the cause in this regard. We have been at odds with ourselves and others in an effort to identify the cause but we think it arises from a multiplicity of factors. If we cannot improve access on the basis of current expenditure as compared with other European countries it raises the question what are we doing wrong. We need to do more about this issue because we should not have to pay more than most other European countries for lesser access.
We hear constantly in European circles about the need to bring Europe closer to the people. For me, this needs to be reversed. People need to move closer to Europe. In moving from the geographical locations across the Continent, we, the people of Europe, will come to realise that we are part of a community and that we have something to contribute to and we can contribute in a meaningful way. We should not resile from that objective and wait for Europe to come to us, which it already does in terms of construction, social cohesion, etc.. In my view, the countries that are waiting for Europe to come to them need to look at the extent to which they can move towards it in order to achieve the European ideal in the way that was originally envisaged.
I have a couple of questions for the director. On a humorous note, I would love to know what they are doing in Denmark that people there are so happy because it might encourage us to think about moving there. On voluntarism and the statistics provided in that regard, in my humble opinion the biggest and best voluntary organisation in Ireland is the GAA. Was this volunteering aspect taken into account in compiling the statistics? If it was, that is okay but, if not, it challenges the accuracy of the voluntarism statistic.
On the EU-wide impact, there are two or three things the EU could do which would improve everyone's lot. Mr. Menéndez-Valdés, as director, is obviously experienced in compiling statistics. What in his expert view are the two or three things the EU could do to change everybody's lives in a positive way, be that health-wise, work-wise, sports-wise and so on? Is there any one thing that he would suggest if Europe implemented tomorrow would have a positive impact on all of our lives, not only in Ireland but throughout Europe?
Following on from that, when one considers the statistics that were given that were applicable to Ireland, it looks like we are doing well but as with everything in life, competitiveness is great. I like to think that whatever a person is doing, it is not enough and I believe we are all in that category. I believe we should all push ourselves better, further and harder. It looks like we are doing okay but is there something we should do to pull ourselves up a bit and pull up our socks? When I say "we", I refer to us as politicians whether we are Senators, Deputies or Ministers in government. I am aware that Mr. Menéndez-Valdés cannot be politically motivated about it but I turn it around to him: if he was in the position tomorrow morning to make suggestions to us as to what we could do to pull up our socks, what would they be? What would Mr. Menéndez-Valdés like to see us doing as legislators? Perhaps he could give us a comprehensive overview. We would appreciate his answers. We must be concise, however, due to time constraints.
Mr. Juan Menéndez-Valdés:
I thank the members and the Chairman for the very interesting questions, remarks and comments. They are also enriching our own reflection. I shall address some of the queries, but not all of them.
With regard to making the information available to all the different services, we try but we do not necessarily target each department. We usually make it available to the national organisations. We have a member of the Irish Government on our board who also receives all of the information.
Several questions were asked, and could be included as part of the final reflections by the Chairman, about what can be relevant around public services. This is where one sees a relatively positive image of many things for Ireland but not so much in the perception of a number of services. Some of them are better than others. I say this because there is a very high correlation between the citizens' perception of the quality of public services and the trust they have in their national government and national institutions. In countries where there is trust in the national government and in the parliaments and other public institutions, it is highest in Nordic countries where they also have a very high perception of the quality of public services. They pay a lot of taxes but they think that they receive a lot in return.
Members have pointed out clearly, and having lived in Ireland myself for a number of years I have also noticed it, that it is not necessarily an issue of money. The health system is the perfect example. Ireland invests well above the average in the health system but the access, affordability and quality perceived by citizens is lower. I am certainly not in a situation to give specifics but off the record I can tell of some personal experiences or opinions. They would be totally anecdotal and not scientific. In the transport area, it is probably about money; if more transport is wanted then more infrastructure costs money. In health or in education, however, it is not just money. There are countries, for example, which are less generous with child benefit but they have free early years education and care. That is a political choice. I am not saying that one is better than the other but these are elements that can be done within certain limits of the budget that a government will always have. If there is one thing that can be done to increase the trust of the people, it goes in this direction.
Reference was made to the evolution of the labour market, especially with regard to young people, part-time and temporary employment, precarious jobs and so on. Ireland is not that bad when compared with other countries in the EU. The general trend for part-time work is increasing all over Europe. The rest of the market has not so much change. In the UK, there are the zero-hour contracts and some forms of casual work that are being looked at to avoid abuses. Temporary employment is not increasing. We have to look at - and we have a lot of work done on this - the new forms of employment. These are people who are working, for example, for platforms delivery of food by bike or the Uber drivers. This platform economy is a new form of employment and we have to look at how they are evolving. There are positive elements but there are also elements that are not so positive.
We do some global comparisons but not a lot. Our main mandate is to produce reports that are similar to those the committee has seen - a comparison of 28 member states. Sometimes, in the counting of countries we go outside the EU in a few projects and we compare globally. We are about to publish, with the International Labour Organization, a report on the publication of working conditions across the world. We will not include the countries the members mentioned such as Canada or Australia because we do not have the data on them, but we will have information from the US, South Korea and other regions. In a globalised world, this is important because we do not want the world to be competing on the basis of lowering conditions.
A point was made on ownership of houses. I come from a country where traditionally the majority of people also like to own their apartments - not so much houses because we live mainly in apartments in cities. I was told by a colleague, who is an expert, that the ownership of houses and apartments in Ireland has declined significantly in recent years. I do not know if this is linked with affordability or if it is due to foreign populations coming to Ireland who do not want to buy because they may not intend to stay permanently.
Reference was made to migration, tensions and the history of Ireland. This may play a role. I come from a region with a long history of migration to America first and then to more developed countries in Europe. It is not, however, giving the full picture. Italy was an immigration country and the tensions there are very high at the moment. It is probably a combination of factors but it is certainly good here, and even if it is observed, it is good to observe why it is so good in Ireland and what can we do to keep it that way.
With regard to volunteering, I believe that we have to separate the requests among the sports. We talk here about volunteering but I am not 100% sure we can give a reply or if the GAA activities would be included
Mr. Juan Menéndez-Valdés:
The people who organise are volunteering. The players would be the participants and would come under the other question. This is where Ireland rates higher than average, so it is a sports country.
On the three things the EU could do, that is a difficult question. At European level, if we have to build on success, some of the members' comments remind me of the successful programmes. ERASMUS, for example, has been a great experience. It is being expanded now and its direction is about bringing the citizens to Europe, and if a person is more exposed to other cultures, this will also enrich one's own culture. It will give a broader sense of belonging to the same continent. We have done some research on convergence and divergence in Europe. The history of Europe, of my country and of Ireland are good examples of countries that have been catching up - and surpassing in the case of Ireland - many of the best performers in many areas. It is good to be a member of the club because we are going to grow together and prove to have social progress together. Let us consider the experience of Greece recently. Ireland went through a bailout but is in a very good position now; Greece is not. This is explained in some of the results there. The Greeks see, rightly or wrongly, that the European Union has given poverty to them. I am not saying that everything Greece has done is wonderful, but that is the situation.
EU policies provide this convergence such that no one is left behind and people catch up. There are very good examples of this. Poland is a great example. It did not have a crisis at all. It has been growing constantly since it joined the European Union.
As for not being complacent, I will mix some of the evidence and some of my own perceptions as a foreigner living in Ireland. The health system is certainly an issue to look at. I will make a comment that is not in the presentation. Again, perhaps it is a totally stupid comment. It is a general, broader perception. This country is doing very well but is relying a lot on the huge foreign investment of a number of big companies, which for a small country is making a huge difference. I think any other country in the EU would envy Ireland for doing this, but it can also create some undesired effects, such as higher prices for the whole population and, perhaps, higher salaries. The underlying competitiveness of the traditionally Irish business and so on can be affected by this. Sometimes we talk a lot about wages. I am again getting more into personal opinion here, but I think the problem in Ireland is not wages, which I do not know much about, but prices. I am taking this from the cost of some pills in a pharmacy rather than any other example, such as having a coffee, with the exception of goods that are the same price all over the world, such as a car or a computer. Again, this is not scientifically sound, so I probably should not have said it.
I thank Mr. Menéndez-Valdés and his officials for taking the time to be here with us. I really believe that, from our daily work perspective, having all this information easily available and following on from the presentation will be really helpful to us in our work. I have no doubt but that we will have interaction again in the future. I believe the work Eurofound is doing is very important as it allows us to use that well-informed work to help us formulate opinions and policies on all aspects of life. Again, we will really have to study the Denmark model and see what they are doing there.
At this stage I will suspend the meeting for a minute to let the director and his staff leave. I thank them most sincerely again. Then we will go into private session for the remainder of the meeting.