Wednesday, 10 May 2006
Europe Day: Closing Statement.
Today, the focus of our national Parliament has been entirely on the European Union and its tremendous importance to us in this country. This was a unique day for the Oireachtas and a credit to all of those involved in its organisation. I want to pay special tribute to Commissioner Fischer Boel, whose presence earlier was a first in Irish parliamentary history, bringing Brussels closer to Dublin and to the Irish people as a whole.
In particular, public engagement of the type we have had today is exactly what Europe needs at this time. Quite a number of important questions from the public have been received by the joint committee, all of which deserve attention and individual responses. I pledge the Government's support and assistance in dealing with those responses through the committee. Many of the questions have been addressed in the discussions which we have had on specific topics in the House today. The Government has taken careful note of all the opinions and ideas expressed during the debates, as well as the points made by Deputies Quinn and Deasy in their concluding statements.
In summing up, I would like to keep the emphasis on the future. As to what lies ahead, two upcoming events are worthy of mention, the informal Foreign Ministers' meeting in Austria this month and the European Council Meeting in June. Both have the future of Europe as their overarching theme. The phrase, "future of Europe", has often been seen as exclusively referring to the Union's structures and rules. The Union's structures are extremely important in underpinning the continuing effectiveness of the enlarged Union. The European constitution in terms of the period of reflection was carefully framed with that in mind.
However, as the topics for today's debates have proved, the future of Europe involves much more than the Union's structures. It is vital that the June European Council should seek to set a broad agenda for Europe's future, even if that future cannot be mapped out with full precision at this stage. We need to envision the future in terms not only of structures and rules but of real policy decisions, which will add value to our citizens' daily lives.
This brings me to the question from the public, namely, whether EU legislation is relevant to ordinary citizens. That question struck a chord with me. This is a seemingly straightforward but important question. The short answer is: it is relevant. The problem is that citizens may not perceive the same connection with EU legislation as they do with national laws. If the European Union fails to communicate the reality of EU legislation and its democratic provenance, there is a real risk of public rejection of European integration.
Communication on EU issues needs to be greatly improved. For this reason, I warmly welcome the Austrian Presidency's current emphasis on two simple mottoes, "Europe listens" and "Europe at work". We must listen to our people, as we have today, and we must then work hard on their behalf. To answer that question further about relevance, many concrete actions can be identified across policy fields such as the environment, transport, agriculture, food safety, research support, equality and development. Our citizens already benefit from tangible measures in place ranging from the euro to smaller-scale projects such as the European health insurance card.
The House will recall that the Taoiseach proposed another such concrete action at the March European Council, that of reducing or removing mobile phone roaming charges across the EU. I was happy to read yesterday of significant roaming price reductions already having been proposed by some major operators. Let us hope this is only the start of another EU inspired achievement with immediate benefits for our citizens.
I strongly believe the key to reconnecting Europe with its citizens lies in proving its value to them through real and relevant measures. I have a strong sense that this requirement is fully appreciated across the Union and I expect EU leaders to continue to stress the need for effective delivery of real benefits in the months ahead.
In our enhanced engagement with European issues through Europe Day, we have noted that the future of Europe and Ireland's place in Europe necessarily covers considerable ground. This includes the Union's structures; how and where decisions are made, a matter on which there was a serious debate during which many good questions were asked — some of which were not answered; the Union's size and membership; the movements of its citizens between member states; and EU external policies, including those on trade, development and humanitarian aid.
It is apt that Europe Day has taken place in this House at this time of the year. On 10 May 1940 the war on the Continent's mainland intensified dramatically, as the fighting extended as far as its Atlantic borders. Three years after the end of the war the Hague Congress met from 7 to 11 May 1948 and brought together 1,000 delegates from 20 European countries to consider new forms of co-operation in Europe. That led to the setting up of another valuable body in which Ireland is proud to play its part, namely, the Council of Europe.
Yesterday was Schuman Day, now known across the Union as Europe Day. Deputies Quinn, Carey, Costello and myself participated in some wonderful events on the streets of Dublin yesterday, most memorably perhaps at the Café d'Europe event at Bewley's on Grafton Street. Europe Day marks what many consider to be the birthday of the European Union when Robert Schuman made his historic speech on 9 May 1950 outlining his and Jean Monnet's vision for co-operation between European states.
More recently in our history on 3 May 1998 the European Council approved the entry of Ireland and other member states into the single currency. Perhaps most significantly 1 May 2004 was that historic day when, here in Ireland, Europe's leaders gathered to formally mark the Union's biggest ever enlargement of ten new member states.
I sincerely congratulate Deputies Deasy, Quinn, Allen and all their colleagues on the Joint Committee on European Affairs. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his vision and co-operation, the Government Chief Whip and everybody who co-operated to make this a truly important, relevant, unique and special parliamentary day for our citizens with the attendance of the European Commissioner and everybody involved. I also thank Members for their contributions.
Thankfully, the past 60 years have shown that the month of May when we celebrate Europe Day has become a time for bringing Europeans closer together. Without doubt, the challenge now is to bring the Union closer to its people. Today's sessions, involving those of us privileged to be Ireland's elected representatives, have been a most valuable step in that direction.
Le cúnamh Dé, beidh laethanta eile mar seo againn sna téarmaí agus blianta le teacht.
I am responding to the Deputy's question. It is not necessary to have a specific Department dealing with this issue. A Minister of State should be responsible for a unit in a particular Department where all these areas could be co-ordinated. That is important. Joined up thinking is required. There is a good deal of co-ordination, although perhaps there could be more.
In the Department of Foreign Affairs there is the Irish Abroad unit which was set up in recent years. That unit has worked exceedingly well. It co-ordinates all the activities pertaining to our emigrants across the world. It does excellent work, is focused and responds to the Minister on issues. There is no reason a similar unit could not be set up in another Department to deal with immigration issues. That would be important and it would assist matters.
When we ask officials from Departments attending meetings of the committee if they can tell us which Department deals with a particular area of immigrant affairs, many of them are not able to tell us.
I wish to comment on the collection of data, on which I wish to ask the Minister of State a question.
The system does not know exactly who is doing what. I have a random question for the Minister of State on the collection of data. If I asked him how many Romanians are here and, of those, how many are legally here and how many are illegally here, would he be able to tell me? He is the Minister with responsibility for European affairs. I ask the civil servants not to prompt him. Irrespective of whom one speaks to in Government, whether that person is at the top or at the bottom, invariably the person does not have a clue as to the number of immigrants here.
Does the Minister of State consider it would be useful during the time available to discuss with him upcoming events in Europe at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and for him to report on the decisions reached? Today there was some toing and froing on the issue of Palestine, but surely there should be a system whereby a Minister reports on decisions reached and the position adopted by the relevant Minister.
However, I expect the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment will know the exact number of work permits issued. When he examines those in detail, the additional number in terms of migrants' wives, spouses and children can be added and we should be able to calculate the figure in that respect. On the criminality aspect and law enforcement in respect of people who have come here who should not be here, that is a matter for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Department of Foreign Affairs has a serious policy position on this area. These requirements in this area are laid down in constitutional positions and in Acts of Parliament. We cannot change that. To manage this area we need a to appoint a Minister at Minister of State level to assist in dealing with migration matters in a co-ordinated way.
To respond to Deputy Allen's question, Ministers should answer on questions raised. If questions are raised at a meeting of a committee, Ministers have a responsibility to respond to that committee. If Ministers do not respond to such questions, Members have an opportunity of tabling an oral or written parliamentary question, to which Ministers are obliged under the Constitution to respond.
Together we have a collective responsibility to make sure all the information is available to Members of Parliament and our citizens. We have that duty.