Tuesday, 20 January 2004
European Presidency: Statements.
Peter Kelly (Longford-Roscommon, Fianna Fail)
The Irish Presidency will see the historic enlargement of the European Union to include ten new member states on 1 May 2004. This event marks an historic ending of the post-war division of Europe. It is important that this opportunity is taken to bring all Europeans together to build a better Europe for us all. The Irish Presidency programme has been drawn up in the context of the multi-annual strategic programme for 2004 to 2006 and the operational programme for the Council for 2004, which was drawn up by the Irish and Dutch Presidencies.
The Irish Presidency programme identifies four priority objectives. The first is a successful enlargement of the EU to include ten new member states. The second is to ensure that all member states work together for economic growth, with emphasis on pursuing the Lisbon strategy to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world. The third is the creation of a safer Union by developing it as an area of freedom, security and justice. The fourth is global engagement with the world and ensuring the EU will work towards the promotion of a fairer, peaceful and more secure world.
There is a public perception that the principal benefit of EU membership for Ireland has been the transfer of structural funds and agricultural subsidies. These have undoubtedly made a substantial contribution to the improvement of the Irish economy. However, there are many other important ways in which the EU has contributed, and continues to contribute, to the improvement of the quality of life and opportunity in Ireland.
Since becoming a member state in 1973, in terms of gross domestic product per head of population, Ireland has advanced from being the poorest member state on entry to having the second highest GDP per head of population in the EU. We have advanced politically towards taking our place among the nations of the world in terms of equality of esteem, successful Presidency terms and partnership within the EU.
Driven by EU initiatives, Ireland has made enormous strides in social, equality and environmental policies, legislation and rights, infrastructural development and the development of workforce skills. Irish culture, in terms of national pride, music, dance and social ambience, has become the envy of people throughout Europe and the wider world.
Our annual Common Agricultural Policy receipts amount to more than €1 billion. We have seen improved relations with neighbouring countries and a reduction in economic dependence on the UK.
The positive trade benefits and increased opportunities arising from EU expansion into eastern Europe should outweigh the effects of the inevitable increased competition from the accession states. The main threat to Irish exporters comes from mainland Europe, especially our third largest export market, Germany. The applicant countries will enjoy better access than Irish exporters to these markets, especially as many of the countries have strong traditional links with Germany and Austria. However, over the years as the accession countries develop, their disposable incomes will increase and provide good markets for Irish goods and services.
The balance of trading opportunities should move our way, with opportunities for hi-tech and consultancy proving attractive to Irish businesses. Irish banking, software, telecoms, food ingredients and engineering services companies have already been trading successfully in the accession countries. The estimated €90 billion expenditure forecast over the next ten years in the accession countries will provide extensive expansion opportunities for these and other Irish companies that commence tackling these markets early. There is no doubt that other investments will move from western EU countries, including Ireland, to the accession states, particularly from companies under pressure to rationalise. US companies, however, our main overseas investors, may be slower to move to central and eastern Europe as, unlike companies such as Phillips, many do not have existing operations there.
Our main trading partners among the applicant countries are Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Four hundred indigenous small and medium-sized companies are working in these markets and 60 of those companies have already established local operations. Irish companies are active in a diverse range of economic activities ranging from financial services and construction to commercial radio and public relations consultancy.
I was also delighted to see the recent Irish results of Eurobarometer which polls opinion on European issues. In general, Ireland showed a high level of awareness, particularly on enlargement. Ireland was the most well informed member state with regard to enlargement and very supportive of a larger EU, although it believed the traditional economy may suffer as a result.
Confidence in the European institutions increased. The Parliament was up to 61% from 52% at the time of the last Eurobarometer in October 2002. The Commission was at 57% from 48% and the Council of Ministers gained 14 points to stand at 50%. There was not much understanding, however, of what the Council of Ministers does in the decision-making process.
The Irish public was more confident about expressing opinion on European issues after being supplied with more information, although general knowledge had not necessarily improved. People knew more about other institutions of the EU, like the Court of Auditors, the Court of Justice and the Convention on the Future of the EU.
The Irish Presidency has begun in a Union of 15 member states and will end in a Union of 25. It is a particular privilege to hold the Presidency at a time when history is being made. We greatly look forward to welcoming the new members of the family at an official ceremony in Dublin on 1 May.