Dáil debates

Tuesday, 20 January 2004

European Presidency: Statements.


3:00 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)

It is appropriate that the Dáil should reconvene after the Christmas recess to a discussion of the Irish Presidency, an event which successive Governments have taken pride in dealing with well. I had the privilege of being President of two Councils of Ministers when Ireland last held the Presidency and I have no doubt that the Government and excellent public service back-up will again do the job competently and well. Towards that objective, I wish the Taoiseach well.

However, it cannot go unnoticed that the organisation of this week's Dáil business is without precedent in that all normal opportunities to question or challenge the Government are removed. The Government has deliberately contrived to sanitise the business that might be transacted, further undermining the relevance of Parliament in the process. It is a tactic deployed by the Government since it introduced this type of sitting on Fridays in the last session in response to Opposition demands for real Dáil reform and now we will have a week of Fridays. It is difficult to speak with credibility about transparency in how the EU does its business when this is the example the Government imposes at home.

This is Ireland's sixth Presidency since becoming a member of the Community. Assuming the Presidency does not simply mean taking on a general administrative role for six months, nor is it an exercise in neutral chairmanship where we set out to please everybody. It involves exercising genuine political leadership on complex and important issues — for example, in respect of the issue of the constitution, or regarding the serious dispute between the Council and the Commission over the Stability and Growth another critical if not immediately pressing issue, the future funding of the Union — the Pact, or, "financial perspectives" to use the Euro-jargon.

The agenda the Government is charged with managing and progressing is more complex than it might have hoped for a couple of months ago. In particular it has been dealt a dossier that it might have wished would not have passed to it, namely, the treaty on a constitution for Europe.This is no longer an exercise in overseeing the formal ratification process and basking in its reflected glory, much as the Government apparently proposes to do in respect of the formal enlargement to take place on 1 May.

The Taoiseach has outlined the priority objectives of the Presidency, namely, the successful enlargement of the EU; working together for economic growth — the so-called Lisbon agenda — to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world; a safer Union, by developing the EU as an area of freedom, security and justice; and global engagement with the outside world with the promotion of a fairer, peaceful and more secure world.

This is a less ambitious agenda than it might appear and contains no explicit reference to the principal issue confronting the Union, the successful conclusion of the IGC and ratification of a new constitution, nor does it explicitly purport to address the impasse concerning the Stability and Growth Pact.

The Union has already been successfully enlarged, as Deputy Kenny said, all that remains is the ceremony associated with 1 May formalities, in respect of which the Taoiseach has promised much officially sponsored revelry in the streets in the summer in which we will all join, if invited.

The Lisbon agenda is plagued with difficulties and competitiveness is primarily a national concern. To quote the Tánaiste in her launch of her Presidency programme, "Most progress on the fundamental issues of competitiveness and innovation can be made at national government level." This Government pays lip-service to the Lisbon agenda and to competitiveness yet, through stealth taxes and the chaos that characterises its infrastructural investment programme, has contributed in no small way to a serious deterioration in our national competitiveness during the past two years.

Talk of a safer Union, justice and so on is all very comforting for citizens but will have real meaning only if more tangible measures can be agreed than we have managed to implement domestically where crime, policing and related matters are such a significant preoccupation of our own people.

Europe's global engagement with the outside world is largely talk in the absence of a resolution to the foreign policy dispute and the resumption and successful conclusion of the IGC to agree on a draft for a European constitution. There is nothing in the official agenda about the European constitution and the collapse of the IGC, or how the Irish Presidency proposes to exercise political leadership in respect of this problem. The Taoiseach spoke on the topic in his address some days ago to the European Parliament. His pledge to the Parliament, which I welcome, was "The Irish Presidency will spare no effort to make progress and to facilitate consensus during our term in office." He told Parliament that he is consulting widely, will listen and will report to the European Council in March. Elsewhere he has taken the opportunity along with several of his Ministers to take out an insurance policy, by talking about the need for a period of reflection and warning that we should not expect too much during the Irish Presidency.

There is, in principle, a strong case for a European constitution. The existing treaties and the acquis as represented by the various decisions of Council, the body of directives and regulations and the decisions of the Court of Justice, are unwieldy, often impenetrable, and sometimes confusing and incoherent. It all demands simplification and consolidation and a need to restate simply a visionary agenda in the spirit of Europe's founding fathers and the Delors Presidencies. We have today a far from vigorous Union in a state of some disarray, not dissimilar to the situation immediately prior to the Delors Presidency of the Commission.

On the Constitution, the Taoiseach told the Parliament, "Stalemate is not an option any of us can contemplate." However, above all we need a good constitution rather than any old constitution at all. What we have at the moment by way of proposals is something of a curate's egg at best, good in parts with many major problems, and not simply for Germany. I have problems with, for example, the foreign policy proposals of men with many hats and with the tinkering that has gone on in respect of the role of the Commission vis-À-vis other institutions. If anything is to emerge to be put to the electorate it must be a good draft, in conformity with the best principles of constitutional design if it is to merit being recommended to the people.

In 2000, the leaders of all 15 member states signed up to what is commonly known as the Lisbon agenda. This agenda adopted the goal of making the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.

The agenda centres on five key projects: creating a knowledge-based economy, modernising the European social model, fighting social exclusion, supporting viable economic policies, and incorporating sustainable development. This is in the context of reversing high unemployment in the Union, the need to increase employment, including female participation in the workforce, tackling thorny issues in respect of intellectual property law, and under the heading of sustainable development, the environment, the Kyoto Protocol and climate change.

Who can object to any of this? It is all highly laudable, yet one wonders if, given the differences in the politics of member states and governments and the complex nature of the Union, especially after enlargement, it is anything other than rhetoric. The real key to competitiveness lies in domestic policies within an EU and global framework, as is clear from the story of Ireland in recent years where the Government oversaw and had its own hand in the unwinding of national competitiveness. Nothing has been done in respect of, for example, the provision of child care facilities which are important not only from the point of view of access to the workplace but also for wider equality of opportunity, the achievement of a fair society and developing the European social model.

There are other issues. The Tánaiste spoke of her commitment to achieving agreement on new rules for intellectual property. The agenda here is highly contentious, not least in respect of proposals, in effect, to extend patent rights to software companies. Companies and software developers are divided on proposals that appear on the face of it to be weighted too much in favour of the marketing arms of some large companies at the expense of innovators and developers. This is the opposite of the expressed aims of the Lisbon agenda.

There is another aspect to the competitiveness agenda, namely, sustainable growth in the context of the adoption by the EU and Ireland of the Kyoto Protocol. While the Tánaiste addresses herself to the competitiveness agenda at EU level, her colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has overseen and done little to avert the serious overshooting by Ireland of its binding obligations under the EU burden-sharing agreement in respect of greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the economy, including industry, agriculture, construction and the transport sectors, is likely to face significant and demanding CO2 emission targets and restrictions from 1 January 2005 to 2012. Business undertakings have yet to be told by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government what the emission caps will be, what the competitive implications may be and how the burden is to be shared nationally between the various sectors.

Since the adoption of the Lisbon competitiveness agenda, an employment task force headed by the former Dutch prime minister, Mr. Wim Kok, has been established. It recently reported, concluding that "the European Union is at risk of failing in its ambitious goal, set at Lisbon in 2000 ... it is looking increasingly unlikely that the overarching goal for 2010, and the employment objectives, will be attainable". Today's Financial Times describes the agenda as "ambitious but, sadly, implausible" .

There is one crucial aspect of EU as opposed to national policy that does impinge on the Lisbon objectives, which is the so-called Stability and Growth Pact. For a considerable period the pact — once famously, correctly and colourfully dismissed by the current Commission President — has been in trouble and has proved to be contentious. Arising from the dispute between the Commission and the Council of Finance Ministers, it is, at the initiative of the Commission, to be arbitrated upon by the Court of Justice. It should not have come to this and says something about the tensions and disarray that have crept into the life of the Union and between its institutions that we have come to such an impasse.

Without the intervention of decisive political leadership, the Commission may have had little choice but to refer the matter to the court. However, the supreme court of the Union is not the place to be deciding economic policy. So far, the Irish Presidency appears to lack the interest to take an initiative or provide political leadership to deal with the turmoil that has led to this situation, or to advance the political agenda of reforming what is certainly an outmoded pact. EU Finance Ministers will, however, get to see Punchestown, a privilege denied to the majority of those who paid for it.


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