Dáil debates

Tuesday, 20 January 2004

European Presidency: Statements.


2:30 pm

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)

I am delighted we have the opportunity of a special sitting of the Dáil to debate Ireland's sixth Presidency of the European Union. Today's sitting of the Dáil provides us with a valuable opportunity to discuss the issues on the European Council's agenda during our Presidency. A number of these issues will impact on us for many years to come.

One of the challenges facing the Union is the need to bring Europe closer to its citizens. We have to strive to keep people fully informed and engaged on issues and developments that have real and significant impacts on their lives. The Dáil has a critical role to play in this regard. The work done in this House enables the representatives of the people to get to grips with the external forces that shape our world and to strive to understand the challenges we face now and will face in the future. We can work to mediate outcomes so that they benefit our people without disadvantaging anyone else. I would like to praise the Joint Committee on European Affairs in this context. The work of the committee in ensuring adequate scrutiny of EU proposals is highly significant. Understanding, engaging with and influencing the EU legislative process is of fundamental importance in a globalised world, with the EU as our framework. The committee's work goes to the heart of promoting and protecting the interests of the Irish people. It serves to strengthen the Union. The work of the committee and the debates we have in the Dáil are likely to become even more important in an enlarged and more complex EU.

It is an honour and a privilege for Ireland to assume the Presidency of the European Union. We will be in the driving seat for six months, seeking to move agendas forward and looking for the best possible outcomes. Significant efforts have been made recently to ensure that each Presidency acts within a coherent and co-ordinated framework. For the first time, a multiannual strategic programme involving six future Presidencies was agreed at the European Council last December. Ireland drove this process as the first Presidency in office of the six. The process has resulted in a document which sets out the EU's broad framework for action up to the end of 2006. Similarly, Ireland and the Netherlands worked together over the course of 2003 to produce an annual operational programme which sets out in considerable detail the EU's agenda for 2004. It provides an overall focus and direction for the two Presidencies and serves as a context for the individual Presidency programmes. The programmes have been laid before the Dáil and the Presidency programme has been distributed to each Member of the Oireachtas.

Before I outline for Deputies the key features of our Presidency programme and set out our key aims and objectives for the coming months, I would like to review some of the developments so far. Almost three weeks have passed since Ireland assumed its sixth Presidency of the European Union. We have made a good start in that time. We launched the Presidency with a flag-raising ceremony in Dublin Castle on 1 January. The first full meeting of the Presidency took place a number of days later, on 6 January, when my Government colleagues and I met the European Commission. There was a very useful and productive series of meetings, both in plenary session and bilaterally. The meetings offered us an early opportunity to establish a common sense of purpose with our colleagues on the Commission.

I travelled to Strasbourg last Wednesday to address the plenary debate of the European Parliament. I outlined the priorities for our Presidency in my address and I had an exchange of views with the members of the Parliament. I am aware that close and constructive working relationships with the Commission and the Parliament are vital for a successful Presidency. A good working relationship is also essential to progress the collective work of the European Union. I believe that the engagements with the Commission and the Parliament have established firm foundations for a successful partnership over the six months of our Presidency. Partnership, which goes to the heart of our approach to the Presidency, is reflected in its theme — "Europeans — Working Together". Our theme embodies the shared vision of the people of Europe working collectively for common objectives.

Our Presidency has come at an exciting and historic time for the European Union. The addition of ten new member states from 1 May next and the ongoing work aimed at agreeing a new constitutional treaty for Europe are just two of the major challenges that face us. Our Presidency programme is set against this background.

We have pledged to progress the Intergovernmental Conference. The draft constitutional treaty, which was produced by the Convention on the Future of Europe last summer, is written in a simple and clear style. The text allows the ordinary citizen to know what the European Union is, what it stands for and who does what and why. The convention text of the draft constitutional treaty provided a good basis for the Intergovernmental Conference which got under way last October. We had hoped that the negotiations would result in agreement in Brussels last month. To our disappointment, however, this did not prove possible. A new constitution will enable the Union to respond better to the demands and expectations of its citizens into the future. It would make the Union more democratic, more accountable and more transparent. It would put in place structures to enable it to operate more effectively.

We are grateful to the Italian Presidency for the good work it did during its term. The significant progress which was made was due in no small part to the efficiency and determination with which the Italian Presidency approached the negotiations.

It now falls to us to try to make further progress. At the European Council last month, I undertook to consult partners and to make a report to the spring European Council. I assure Deputies that we are determined to do whatever we can to encourage and facilitate the earliest possible agreement.

We have already clearly demonstrated our intent. I have been undertaking an initial round of consultations with my counterparts. Further contacts and visits with partners are planned over the coming weeks. My soundings to date suggest a willingness to support our efforts to progress the IGC during our Presidency. Our approach is supported and all have indicated a willingness to help us find a way forward. I will continue to explore with my counterparts how and when progress in the IGC can be achieved.

A number of key issues have still to be resolved before agreement can be reached on the constitutional treaty. There is broad agreement, nonetheless, on many important elements. We are attempting to encourage a spirit of compromise and commitment and to build the consensus necessary for agreement. If it appears at any time that agreement is achievable, Deputies may be assured that we will seize that opportunity. This is an issue of the highest priority for our Presidency and we will spare no effort and leave no stone unturned to make progress during our term.

Welcoming the ten new members to the Union on 1 May will be an immense honour and key highlight of our Presidency. It will be a momentous time in the history of Europe, as old divisions are at last overcome and east and west are united with the common purpose of ensuring lasting peace, democracy, stability and prosperity.

We have been working for some time now planning a "day of welcomes" for 1 May. This will consist of a major event here in Dublin to welcome our new partners into the European Union. This event will be complemented by a series of community arts and cultural events in locations around Ireland, including concerts in Dublin and Belfast, broadcast live throughout Europe. These cultural events will aim to share and celebrate the great diversity of Europe's cultural heritage.

Enlargement on this scale is also unprecedented in the Union's history. While it presents clear opportunities it also presents challenges. A key priority for us will be to respond effectively to one of these challenges: ensuring that the Union's business is conducted effectively and efficiently in a new enlarged context. We will work to ensure a smooth transition from a Union of 15 to one of 25, integrating the new member states fully and effectively into the structures of the Union.

We also have an important role to play in terms of progressing the Union's agenda for future enlargement. In regard to Romania and Bulgaria we will advance the Union's aim of concluding negotiations in 2004, with a view to their accession in January 2007, if they are ready. We will also work to support Turkey's efforts to fulfil the necessary criteria with a view to a decision being made at the European Council in December 2004 on the opening of accession negotiations.

The enlarged European Union must work effectively for all its people and it can best do this by promoting sustainable growth and employment. Four years ago, at the Lisbon European Council, we agreed on the goal of making the European Union the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. The programme of economic and social reform that has been undertaken to achieve this ambitious goal is known as the Lisbon Agenda.

The enlargement of the Union also offers a new dynamic framework for implementing and driving forward the Lisbon Agenda. We will work throughout our Presidency to support the new member states in making real progress towards achieving the Lisbon goal. During our Presidency, I am committed to ensuring that the goal of a truly competitive European economy, capable of delivering sustainable growth, more and better quality employment and social progress to its people, is progressed in a meaningful way.

Next year, we will be half way towards the 2010 target date set at the Lisbon European Council in March 2000 and we have already achieved a great deal. We have seen advances in the areas of research and development, financial services, liberalisation of energy markets, environmental protection and regulatory reform. It is now much easier for workers and students to move around the European Union to access jobs and education. It is easier to set up and run a small business. Consumers are starting to see the benefits of cheaper heating bills. Significant strides have been made in terms of equality and social protection. The European Union's commitment to the environment means a cleaner and safer world for our children and grandchildren.

Despite these achievements, it is increasingly clear that unless we increase momentum we will not meet the overall Lisbon target of making Europe the most competitive economy in the world by 2010. I am very aware of the urgency of the situation and of the need to speed up reforms. We are fortunate at present that positive signs of economic progress are emerging, both in Europe and internationally. It is imperative that we make the most of the current positive economic outlook. We intend to use this year's spring European Council to give renewed focus and impetus to the Lisbon Agenda. Achieving the overall goal and targets will require substantial commitment from European institutions, political leaders, and also from social organisations at European and national level. We must increase our efforts at individual member state level to implement those reforms and legislative changes already agreed if we are to reap the full social, sustainable and economic benefits. An example of this is the Internal Market. Although we have an agreed European Union framework for this, it can only achieve its full potential if legislation agreed at European level is effectively implemented and applied by all member states.

In Ireland we have been playing our part over the past year in clearing a backlog of EU legislation awaiting transposition into Irish law. I am delighted to report that figures published by the European Commission last week show that we have exceeded the Union's 1.5% deficit target in transposition of Internal Market directives. We are now ranked joint third among the five member states who have exceeded the target. Transposition is only one part of the equation. We must continue to press ahead with implementing further reforms. Maintaining the status quo will not improve Europe's economic standing, competitiveness or employment rates.

I have written to my colleagues in the European Council setting out my proposed approach and the key elements of the Lisbon agenda on which I intend to focus at the spring European Council. Our primary focus is clear. Sustainable growth and high quality employment are our twin priorities. I intend that the spring European Council will have a real debate on the most pressing economic and social challenges facing Europe. Investment in physical and human capital to support higher rates of growth across the EU economy while maintaining macroeconomic stability is one such challenge. Such additional investment is necessary to support growth recovery and to further Europe's transition towards a knowledge-based economy. To this end, we will encourage investment in physical capital and human capital as well as research and development.

Competitiveness is the key to European growth. While the Internal Market has been one of the Union's most important achievements, we see the further development of the services sector as the remaining motor of growth and job creation. The remaining obstacles to trade in goods and services must be removed if the full benefits of the Internal Market are to be seen by business and consumers alike. In this context, the Commission's recently published proposal for a directive on services is welcome. We will work towards advancing this dossier during our Presidency. We must also press ahead with regulatory impact assessments to ensure that the impact of new proposals on competitiveness is properly assessed.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Europe at present, however, is the need to create more and better employment. We welcome the focus and practical country-specific messages in the report of the employment task force, chaired by Mr. Wim Kok. We will work with our European colleagues, the Parliament and the Commission to implement its recommendations alongside the employment guidelines. Among the issues we must address are promoting greater adaptability by workers and companies; supporting higher rates of labour force participation, especially participation by women; and eliminating barriers to people moving from welfare to work. I also look forward, during our Presidency, to promoting opportunities for social dialogue at European Union level. We will work with the European social partners through the tripartite social summit to boost their involvement in achieving the overall Lisbon goal. By using all these channels we will involve the representatives of European citizens.

Before moving on from the Lisbon agenda I must point out that next year, 2005, will offer a unique opportunity for a mid-point review of the overall process. Staying on course to realise the Lisbon goal in the new climate represents a considerable challenge. The Irish Presidency will contribute to the process of establishing a meaningful evaluation of the agenda in co-operation with our partners, including the incoming Presidency.

One of the areas highlighted for action in the annual operating programme for 2004 is the Union's agenda for creating an area of freedom, security and justice. There is no doubt that enlargement and the growth of the Internal Market have provided enormous benefits for our people. Moving forward as a Union of 25, we must ensure that the benefits of the Internal Market and the freedoms we enjoy do not leave us exposed to exploitation by criminal elements for illegal gains. We must equally provide a safe and secure environment for our citizens. The Union's agenda in this area is wide-ranging, encompassing such issues as asylum, immigration, civil law co-operation and police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters.

During our Presidency we will work to advance this ambitious agenda by focusing on the delivery of the outstanding requirements under the Amsterdam treaty and the broader Tampere programme. We will also initiate the process leading to the development of the post-Tampere agenda in the area of justice and home affairs.

As Deputies are aware, the fight against terrorism continues to be a priority. The Irish Presidency will focus on operational co-operation between police, customs and security services to combat organised crime, drugs and terrorism and other forms of crime that pose a threat to the security of our people.

The European Union's external commitments are intensive and the Presidency programme details the main issues on the agenda. I do not propose to go through the full list of external engagements. However, I do want to underline some of the principles that will inform our approach.

The Irish Presidency will promote EU-UN co-operation in crisis management, fight the spread of weapons of mass destruction, promote human rights and strive for UN reform and effective multilateralism. We will work with our partners in all regions of the world to achieve our shared goals. Our approach will be based on the common values of the European Union and contributing to peace, security and sustainable development. We will work for free and fair trade, the ending of poverty and we will support democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. The Minister for Foreign Affairs will be heavily engaged with the external commitments of the European Union over the coming months. Last week he visited the Middle East and, today, he is in the European Parliament.

I have outlined the broad issues that will inform our Presidency and the approach we will take. There are many other important areas of the Union's work that we will be addressing during our term, including the future financial perspectives, on which the Commission will shortly issue its communication. Our overriding aim is to manage the business of the Union in an efficient, effective and even-handed manner. The role of the Presidency is to drive forward the agenda of the European Union.

Ireland has a strong record of conducting good terms of the EU Presidency. I pay tribute to the members of the Opposition who were in the driving seat during the 1996 term. It is fair to say that we have prepared well for this, our sixth Presidency. It is possibly the last Presidency of its type we will have the honour to conduct. The Presidency of the European Union provides Ireland with a unique opportunity to make a positive contribution to the lives of ordinary people, both here and across Europe. We will seek to build on the successes of previous Presidencies and to manage our responsibilities in the best interests of Europe and all Europeans. We rely on all Members of this House to support us in this task.


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