Tuesday, 20 January 2004
European Presidency: Statements.
Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
I wish the Government well during its Presidency of the European Union. The Taoiseach and the Ministers will play a significant role in shaping Ireland's Presidency. I have read the Government's comprehensive programme for the Irish Presidency of the European Union. I would like to raise a number of issues but will concentrate on two. The first is the issue of development, poverty reduction and the combating of HIV-AIDS, which was one of the priorities of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs, and the second is the enlargement process.
According to the programme set out by the Government, the Irish Presidency will give developing countries' concerns the highest priority and will pursue with determination the fulfilment of the millennium development goals. These goals focus on achieving specific measurable improvements in people's lives. Many poor countries such as Cameroon and Zambia are heavily in debt and unable to make progress in the eradication of crippling poverty while trying to service their debts to the First World.
The Government has come out in full support of 100% debt cancellation. While some progress has been made in this regard, countries like Honduras have well over one third of their population with no access to health care and in Zambia the average life expectancy is 40.5 years. The Government now has an opportunity to try to influence the European Union to implement 100% debt cancellation. Recent research indicated that if we cancelled the debt of 52 of the poorest countries it would cost each of us in the wealthy nations about $4 per year over 20 years.
I have discussed this issue with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Kitt, at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs. While I recognise his position when he says that debt cancellation is not one of the issues on which Ireland can get common ground in the European Union, he can further this issue, particularly under the umbrella of combating HIV-AIDS.
The Government will host an international conference on HIV-AIDS in February. I suggest to the Minister that there is a direct link between HIV-AIDS and debt cancellation. Debt reduction can be used as a vehicle to help in the fight against HIV-AIDS. It was agreed at Cancún that certain drugs would be provided to poorer countries. Even when these drugs are available, they cannot be properly distributed. There is a very poor health service in these countries and the logistics of distribution are a nightmare.
Zambia has a population of 8.8 million, of whom one million have HIV-AIDS. It spends approximately €150 million on health care. Ireland has half that population yet spends in excess of 50 times that amount. Zambia must spend almost one third of revenue on debt repayment, more than it spends on education and health. It has no chance of dealing with the AIDS epidemic unless its debt is cancelled. I ask the Minister to link the two issues and put debt cancellation on the table at the conference in February.
The Government programme states that in the context of enlargement and the changing global scene, the Union needs to become more effective and better able to respond to the expectations of its citizens and that the Irish Presidency will work to foster a closer relationship between the institutions of the European Union and its citizens. That sounds great but what concrete steps can we take to ensure these ideals become a reality?
The first item mentioned in the Government programme is the day of welcome. Presumably this is on 1 May when the ten new member states join the Union. Celebrations will be organised in Dublin and throughout the country on that day. Hungary, for example, has been twinned with Sligo and that will be an opportunity for us to get to know our new neighbours and to experience some connection with the people of Europe. I ask the Government to make this a day to celebrate the people of Europe. We should not just welcome the Presidents and the politicians but the people who are joining.
I acknowledge the Taoiseach's comments about the arts and cultural events that will take place, but this is a day when schools, local, voluntary and community groups and organisations, and individuals should play a central role in celebrating and welcoming. Apart from the formal ceremonies, this should be a day when MEPs, Deputies and Ministers do not take centre stage. We should concentrate on people rather than politics, PR or protocol. This might in some way counter some of the euroscepticism which is creeping into the country. If the EU Presidency is about cavalcades in Dublin and other towns, and banquets for dignitaries, it will alienate people.
We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to engage the people, and the day of welcome should be used to achieve this aim and to allow the people of Europe take centre stage.