Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Ceisteanna — Questions.
European Council Meetings.
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent European Council meeting in Brussels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11566/06]
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the bilateral meetings he held on the margins of the recent European Council meeting in Brussels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11567/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
I attended the European Council in Brussels on 23 and 24 March. I was accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Finance. As I will make a statement on the Council later today, I will at this stage merely give a summary account of its proceedings.
The Council was addressed by the President of the European Central Bank and the presidents of the European employers and trades union confederations.
Perhaps the most important decision taken at the European Council was that an energy policy for Europe should be developed as a matter of urgency. This policy will be developed over the coming years on the basis of proposals from the European Commission.
In the run-up to the Council, the Commission published a Green Paper on energy and this Green Paper will provide a good starting point for work in this area. Ireland will of course participate fully in drawing up such an energy policy. The Council's conclusions fully recognise that decisions on energy mix remain firmly with the member states. Ireland will continue to rule out the use of nuclear power.
The conclusions also reflect our view that the European Union should pay particular attention to countries and regions largely isolated from the EU energy market. At the Council meeting I stressed the need to be flexible in the application of state aid rules when the market does not deliver important infrastructure investment, such as for interconnection and for the development of renewable energy resources.
A wide range of conclusions were adopted on the Lisbon Agenda. I suggested that the EU should look at the possibility of eliminating or reducing mobile phone roaming charges for travellers within the EU. This would help bring Europe closer to the people and would help our competitiveness. As a result of my intervention, the European Council agreed that the European Union should seek to reduce roaming charges. My personal aim would be, in due course, to see roaming charges eliminated entirely.
The conclusions of the European Council also reflect my long-standing view that any review of EU state aids policy should take into account the external aspect of competitiveness and encourage a high level of investment in Europe. At the European Council, I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Blair, at which we discussed the Northern Ireland peace process and our plans for the future. I also met Prime Minister Zapatero of Spain and congratulated him on ETA's announcement of its ceasefire. In this context, I invited Prime Minister Zapatero to Dublin for a discussion of issues of mutual concern.
Does the Taoiseach have a view on the difficulties being experienced by the French in terms of protectionism? Is the Taoiseach happy with the situation that applies to mergers, in particular given the possibility of the take-over by Enel of the Suez energy company and the difficulties being experienced by France and Italy in this regard?
At the European People's Party, EPP, meeting prior to the Heads of Government meeting, there was discussion of the ceasefire statement issued by ETA. From Ireland's perspective, I was able to give the members of the EPP group an analysis of what the Government had been doing with regard to General de Chastelain, the international monitoring commission and the decommissioning process here. Was there a discussion at the Heads of Government meeting in this regard? In view of the comments made by the Spanish Government that such announcements had been made previously by ETA, was any conclusion reached?
A document circulated to the EPP group indicated that severe restrictions were placed on the human rights and freedom of the people of Belarus. A motion was passed by the EPP group that every effort should be made to deal with the outcome of what appears to be a fixed election. Was this discussed and was a conclusion reached at the Heads of Government meeting?
To deal with the second issue raised, I have had discussions over a number of years with Foreign Minister Maratinos of Spain as I know him from his past involvement as an envoy, and in the past two years I have had discussions with Prime Minister Zapatero. The idea is that they will discuss those issues with us, as well as issues of mutual interest. That meeting will take place shortly.
The question of economic nationalism in Europe was not discussed at the Council but there was strong media focus on the issue in advance of the meeting and there was obviously some discussion on the margins. Ireland is a strong and consistent supporter of the need for open markets because our economy is highly dependent on the free-flow of goods and capital. We strongly believe that in taking national economic measures member states must abide by the rules of the Internal Market. While the issue did not arise at this meeting, I have made that point previously and on the margins of this meeting told a number of colleagues that we should not try to invent new ways of frustrating cross-border economic activity in the EU when we face serious competitive challenges from countries outside the EU's borders, such as India and China.
As I told Deputy Kenny previously, many of our colleagues seem to miss the point. Even as countries in eastern Europe change, they take the view that protectionism helps in some way and do not realise from where the competition is coming. Increasingly, even since last Christmas, in any of the cases with which I have been involved with IDA Ireland — thankfully, the number of such cases is sizeable — the competition is coming from outside the EU. I had experience of this when I visited Silicon Valley with some of our larger companies recently. For some aspects of industry the competition comes from Switzerland while for others it comes from Puerto Rico, Bangalore and its surrounding state of Karnataka or certain regions in south-west China. The competition is not within Europe.
I am a firm believer that economic and social policy cannot be implemented in a vacuum. We must respond to and respect the deep-rooted concerns about the pace of reform, liberalisation and social costs and the balance between economic efficiency and social equity, and we must do so by working closely together at European level. For countries to go their own way is not the way to achieve this.
The issue of Belarus was discussed, mainly by the Foreign Ministers, in terms of conclusions. The Council declaration on Belarus announced the decision to take restrictive measures against those responsible for the violations of international electoral standards, including President Lukashenko. At the same time, it reiterated a commitment of the European Union to engage with Belarussian society by strengthening support for civil society and democratisation, and by intensifying contacts and access to independent sources of information. Work is under way with a view to translating those elements into concrete decisions. This is to begin with a meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 10 April.
The Taoiseach will appreciate that the services directive has been a major concern of my party and sister parties across the Union. A number of amendments were framed and agreed in the European Parliament. As I understand it, some countries have sought to resile from that position. Will the Taoiseach tell the House his assessment of the standing of the services directive? I am aware, for example, that the Netherlands sought to effectively reverse some of the changes made in the European Parliament. I am not sure what is meant by one version which stated that the debate at the end of the day managed to push through a late change to the written conclusions. Will the Taoiseach tell the House what was that late change and what difficulties now lie in the way of a redraft by the Commission? Does he believe it will be consistent with what was agreed in the European Parliament or will certain member states at the Council block the directive if it is not restored to something like its original form?
Deputy Rabbitte is correct. There was a long debate on the issue in which the Netherlands tried to move away substantially from the agreed text that had been prepared, and it was very persistent on this point. The good news is that it received little support. An amendment was made, with which the Commission was satisfied, that in the context of its overall position, the Commission wants to achieve a balanced directive and wants very much to work on the basis of the European Parliament compromise. It will take into account all the issues in this regard, particularly those that were also raised by the Competitiveness Council and which inform that balance. The efforts to try to row back as if we had not made the progress that was made in the European Parliament in January was resisted by a clear majority. It was a useful debate in terms of seeing where the clear majority lies. The President of the Commission took a strong position on this matter. If there had been a rowing back, he made it clear he would not be bringing forward anything. He said it would be impossible to do this. He was very strong and forthright on this. That persuaded others not to join in or try to seek further amendments. The President of the Commission was happy at the end of the day. He will be able to go forward and present what he considers to be a balanced position. I make the point to Deputy Rabbitte that I honestly do not believe this will be the end of the matter. There were those who did not show their hand. The Netherlands has a parliamentary position on this. As I understand it, it is not alone its government but its parliamentary position to try to row back on this position. I am sure the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, perhaps with some others, will return to this matter again. It was useful that the United Kingdom and a number of other countries which I though might have been trying to change the position were not trying to do so. They were very happy with the wording that was used. I believe that will allow the Commission go ahead with its work.
The Taoiseach will recall that in December the British Presidency of the EU proposed the allocation of some €200 million for the peace programme in the Six Counties and the Border counties for the period 2007-13. Sinn Féin very much welcomes this. We encouraged this at meetings with the Taoiseach and with Prime Minister Blair and with the EU Commission. What progress can the Taoiseach report on that proposal since December and was it a matter that he discussed with the British Prime Minister either at the Brussels Council meeting or at an opportunity presented on the fringes of it? Can the Taoiseach give a commitment to the House that he will ensure this further tranche of funding will be complementary and additional to existing supports from both Governments in this regard?
Will he outline the agreement he announced with Prime Minister Blair on mobile phone roaming charges in Ireland and Britain, something for which we have long campaigned? Can he share with us the detail of what agreement he has now reached with the British Prime Minister in this regard?
Did the Taoiseach, in the course of the opportunities afforded by the Brussels Summit, further address with Prime Minister Blair the issue of the reinstitution of the Assembly in the North and emphasise the importance of the Assembly not being returned in shadow form, that is, an Assembly whose life can be extended in the absence of an executive being in place? What we want, and I ask the Taoiseach to affirm, that the Assembly will be recalled and the executive established as soon thereafter as possible.
On the first issue, there has been no change on the progress and the agreements we got at Christmas. As the Deputy will recall we got those written into the conclusions. The resources we secured for the peace fund — the amount of which I cannot remember off the top of my head — were included in the conclusions and agreed. I do not believe there is any danger in that regard and I have had no further discussions on it. The only difficulty is that the European Parliament has not agreed the financial perspectives and discussions are currently taking place. The Council and Presidency are working with the European Parliament and the Commission on what is called the insterinstitutional agreement to give legal effect to the future of the financial perspectives, and that has to be agreed. It is a co-decision between the Parliament and the Council. The European Parliament, as the Council's partner in deciding the EU budget, will be aware of the political reality surrounding agreement on the various balances. The Parliament is seeking additional money. That has to be worked around by the Presidency. As in all such cases, I hope they do not come back and start to try to take the additional money that Parliament is seeking out of some of the measures we negotiated. I have no reason to think that will affect the peace fund but I always worry about these issues because people will say they will not give any more money and will start to try to cut back on measures on which we agreed. As of now I do not see a need for concern or fear in regard to this issue.
On the issue of roaming charges, it is four years since I raised this issue at a Dublin Chamber of Commerce function. We have been engaged with the companies since then in trying to progress this matter. We had to get agreement in this regard from the British Government because we did not only want to remove roaming charges — as Deputy Ó Caoláin will be aware in his region he does not even have to cross the Border before being hit for roaming charges — for the island but also for the UK for which we needed the British Government on side. It was an issue we pressed. Having outlined and given our case history on this issue last week, I am glad the Commission yesterday — it was not totally in support of my position last Friday but when we outlined and explained the issue, Vodafone and O2 having thankfully explained to me how it operated — when it realised the point quickly supported our position and announced it as a Commission decision. I am very glad that an Irish issue which we took up and fought for was taken on by the Commission. I would have loved the Commission to mention that the issue was raised by Ireland but I suppose that would be too much. I was delighted to hear——
——but since he is a good friend I am glad to see that. He is a good person. The reality of this issue which I pointed out at the meeting is that the network stipulates the costs for which we are all paying. Travelling around does not incur an additional cost for the network. The imposing of such charges represents additional profiteering by the companies. Therefore, there is no need for roaming charges . It is an excessive way of getting more profits. The companies do not have a leg to stand on. In fairness to Vodafone and O2 they have moved on this issue here. I hope the other companies in this area will also move and a similar move will be made across Europe.
Regarding Deputy Ó Caoláin's last point, I discussed this issue at length with Prime Minister Blair. On this issue the Deputy and I agree that we are not in favour of an interim shadow Assembly or any kind of an Assembly that has a life of its own and can continue indefinitely. I hope the Deputy can agree with me that achieving this might take a little longer than it would have taken based on the Good Friday Agreement originally, whereby it would be for only six weeks and then the d'Hondt mechanism would be triggered, but if we were to fail to get an executive the whole process would collapse again. It is our view, shared by the British Government and I hope by others, even if not totally enthusiastically which I fully understand, that it will take a little longer than that. The Deputy has my assurance that I will not get into an open-ended position that it can be extended beyond the period that we fix. The British Prime Minister and I will fix a date, which will be longer than the six weeks provided, and that will require legislation in the British House of Parliament, but it will not be a device simply to keep this rolling on as neither Deputy Ó Caoláin, his party nor I want that. It will be longer than six weeks but I will not get into the position that it would simply roll on indefinitely. I know others would like that, but I will not go down that road and I give the Deputy my assurance on that.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach a question following his attendance at the summit. I can understand that sometimes when the Taoiseach, like one of the rest of us, makes a statement it does not get covered in the newspapers and the climate change question yesterday is such an example, apart from the sketch writer in The Irish Times.
Did the Taoiseach raise the issue of Guantanamo Bay? The report in the newspaper stated that the Austrian Presidency certainly backs closure of the camp but reports state that only the Netherlands and Belgium——
That is a question. While only the Netherlands and Belgium raised any concerns, I understood the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, was concerned and I thought the Taoiseach might be as well.
On the question of nuclear power, I was also surprised to read in the newspapers that following the majority of EU leaders backing nuclear power, only Germany and Austria explicitly rejected the nuclear option. Does the Taoiseach have anything to say on that, given his statements here in the House domestically, whatever about internationally?
Will the Taoiseach clarify the statement on energy consumption? It is not clear whether the statement refers to an average or to each member state, but it says that the summit endorsed the notion of an EU plan to reduce energy consumption by 20% by 2020 along with a target of raising the current 6% of primary energy use provided by renewables to 20% by the same date. Given that Denmark is aiming for 50% of energy from wind, for example, does the statement refer to an average for the EU or is each member state undertaking a separate commitment on that basis? If it is an average, it gets Ireland off the hook whereas there are significant opportunities in Ireland. Will the Taoiseach harness those opportunities or will Ireland, as in the case of Kyoto, be the bad boy in Europe and use the average to get over the finishing line?
On the last question, we should harness as much as we possibly can. Deputy Sargent and I have always agreed on that and we will continue to pursue that. As I stated in my reply, we also ruled out the use of nuclear power.
I do not. If one wanted to do that, one could get killed in the rush getting out from the meetings.
Guantanamo Bay was not discussed at the meeting. I read the reports in the newspaper of the statements made by some countries at the meeting, but they did not make any of those statements. Although I read that they did, I assure Deputy Sargent that they did not because it was not discussed. I am sure if it had been discussed they would have made those statements.
We hold the view that those detained in Guantanamo Bay must be treated in accordance with the requirements of international human rights and humanitarian law and this position is shared by the European Union. Guantanamo Bay remains a source of serious concern because nobody should be in a legal vacuum and human rights and the humanitarian standards must be maintained while combating terrorism. I agree with the UN Secretary General's view that those in Guantanamo Bay should either be charged or released and that the US should ultimately close this facility. That is precisely what I said to the President as well. If it had been discussed, I would have looked forward to saying that. In any event, it was not.
On climate change, the report raises many issues for member states. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, will publish a review of the national climate change strategy which will take stock of the developments since its publication in 2000 and propose additional measures for Ireland to meet its target in a cost effective way. Existing new measures to reduce emissions will be addressed in the review process as well. As I stated yesterday, air quality in this country is excellent and the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that we complied with the standards enforced for all pollutants. The report will be published shortly.
A large part of the night discussion was on energy needs. There is now an attempt — we discussed it in the House previously — that there will be far greater coherence of energy requirements and sustainability within the European Union. From now on, it will become part of the annual spring council where they will report on the co-operation that has taken place in the year. The Chancellor of Germany feels strongly that this is what should happen and that there should be co-operation.
Obviously there is a significant difference in the mix. Everyone will make their own decisions on what is their mix but in terms of trying to bring it together, it certainly will be done at EU level. I can see this being a new departure which will clearly build over the next number of years. That is being driven because it is quite clear that Europe is short of energy. Even if they do all the items that are on the short-term agenda, Russia is now a powerful player and it will make more sense for the European Union to be able to negotiate coherently, try to make deals as a coherent unit and do business with Russia or some of the other countries in the region which have enormous resources. Otherwise, Russia will be in a position where it can pick people off and charge excessively, as it does. This will be an important part of the future. Energy policy will definitely become much more EU orientated in the years ahead, although it will not happen overnight.
While it is all very well getting the rip-off by the mobile telephone companies onto the agenda of the European leaders and the Commission, would the Taoiseach agree that the key point is to get speedy action? The international mobile telephone companies mercilessly rip-off Irish people travelling in Europe with so-called roaming charges. Even the term roaming would suggest that one should feel guilty or feel one is somewhere one should not be.
They have been allowed free rein. In that regard, the fact that the word profiteering would pass the Taoiseach's lips suggests that it must be fairly severe because I have never succeeded in getting the same terminology out of him on those such as home-grown land speculators to whom he has given free rein as well.
What is the timescale in reining in the charges of these massive companies? Given that big business interests usually have the ready ear of the Commission and are now beginning to launch a considerable rearguard action against controlling their profiteering, what assurance can the Taoiseach give to the tens of thousands of ordinary working people who go to Europe for a short and well deserved holiday that they will not be ripped-off, for example, from this summer?
The point I made — at least sometimes Deputy Higgins and I agree — was that we have implementation in this country in that we have succeeded in forcing the companies on this issue. Obviously we had to get their co-operation as well. We have done that with the two large companies, O2 and Vodafone. We have already achieved that in this country.
I also made the point that it could happen right across Europe. Obviously the Commission must take that up. I hope that it can do it quickly. It requires the Commission to put pressure on the companies and it is in a strong position to do so. I outlined to the meeting what we had successfully done in this country, not by legislation, regulation or law, but by the powers of persuasion. I also outlined the Border region, where people must travel as part an all-island economy, as a good example of where people will be able to travel to do business without any roaming charges. I urged the Commission to follow our example.
Its announcement yesterday suggests that when it reflected on the Irish experience and the support I received at the Council, the Commission has now adopted that as policy and will try to implement it. I do not have control over what will happen in terms of the timescale but if they put their weight behind this, as I agree they should, then we will see improvements for the hard working Irish people who own properties all over Europe and who spend large parts of their summers abroad.