Wednesday, 21 March 2007
Ceisteanna — Questions
European Council Meetings.
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach if the agenda for the March 2007 meeting of the European Council has been finalised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6751/07]
Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach the bilateral meetings he will hold on the margins of the next European Council meeting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6752/07]
Question 5: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the President of Poland, Mr. Lech Kaczynski; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7809/07]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, together.
I attended the spring European Council on 8 and 9 March in Brussels. 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 main focus of the European Council was climate change and energy policy. Our discussions focused on the strategy for international climate protection and safeguarding Europe's energy supplies. A step-change is needed in our approach to developing renewable sources of energy and it was the view of the Council that this will only happen with binding targets. The Council has now agreed these targets. In particular, we have set a target following the post-Kyoto negotiations of a 30% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases over the 1990 level. We have also agreed that in any event the European Union will achieve at a minimum a 20% reduction. In addition, we agreed a binding 20% target for renewable energy. These targets are ambitious but achievable.
The European Council also discussed the forthcoming Berlin declaration to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, transatlantic trade relations, the Lisbon Agenda and the Union's international relations.
While at the European Council, I met the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, and we discussed the assembly elections in Northern Ireland. We issued a joint statement after the meeting.
On 19 February, I met the President of Poland, who was on an official visit to Ireland. Our meeting was a cordial one during which we discussed a wide range of issues of common interest to both Poland and Ireland. Our discussions focused in particular on the prospects of progress on the constitutional treaty.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. What is the purpose of the so-called "people-friendly" declaration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Union at the forthcoming meeting in Berlin next Sunday? Is it the Taoiseach's intention to attend that meeting? Has the Government signed off on the declaration and is it agreed at this stage?
On the purpose of the declaration, the German Presidency indicated from long before its Presidency that it would work to try to communicate a vision for the future, acknowledging what has happened and the success of moving Europe from the war-torn Europe of the past. The Deputy will appreciate that is a matter close to the heart of Chancellor Merkel. It should also indicate where Europe should go in the future and particularly set a vision and strategy for which the next generation in Europe should strive.
Several meetings have taken place. A contact group has been meeting since late in autumn, involving two officials from each of the offices of all the prime ministers in Europe, drafting this document. The Chancellor's view from the start, which I support, is that it should not be a lengthy Europe-speak document that would not attract the interests of European citizens in the enlarged Europe. It should be a straightforward simple one setting out the advantages of Europe today and into the future. I have not seen the draft but obviously it was discussed at the European Council. It was discussed at the dinner and some contentious issues were raised but not many. Those contentious issues came mainly from the eastern European countries but not from the original 15 countries. Most of the contentious issues relate to the EU neighbourhood policy relationships with Russia, Ukraine and others into the future. I will attend the European Council meeting at which 27 Heads of State will be present. We hope to get the final draft of the declaration from the Chancellor tomorrow.
On the energy dimension, after the summit the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, announced that the Government would take an initiative to either ban or tax the traditional light bulb. Has the Minister decided to turn out the lights or will the Government impose a tax on light bulbs? What contribution will the Government make on the issue? Having watched the Minister for Finance answering questions yesterday it did not strike me that banning the traditional light bulb was going down big in Tullamore.
It is going down big in Europe. The view on this issue is that the proper thing to do in the short term is to move away and effectively ban the traditional light bulb. As in all of these issues there is much scientific knowledge on the effects and people can move into the future with a different form of lighting. The overwhelming evidence is that if we want to save energy — and we can — this is one way of doing it. Certainly the view of the European Council is that we should ban traditional light bulbs. Imposing a tax on light bulbs would not——
I note that the chief executive of Ryanair was speaking about the animals on his farm in Mullingar and the contribution they make to greenhouse gases. On a more serious note, was the issue of the massive smog coating discussed with any airline pilots flying in the Far East and from Indonesia across through China?
Europe, as the Taoiseach is aware, wants to play its part in regard to Kyoto and so on and we can lead by example. Obviously, Europe, as a group of countries interested in this matter, will need to make contact with the Far Eastern countries where there are huge coal fired stations in operation. Was that matter discussed?
On 5 March, Eurochambers published its economic analysis which stated that the US had reached European GDP levels 30 years ago and that we are lagging way behind in terms of the competitiveness of our economy. The theory behind the Lisbon Agenda was that by 2010 the European Union would be the most competitive economy. The Taoiseach and I know we have not measured up in that regard. If one includes Bulgaria and Romania in the figures the gap is much wider. At the round table discussions with the Heads of State was there agreement to revise the Lisbon Agenda or a realisation that we are not as competitive as the US economy? Despite the fact that a sizeable number of jobs were created throughout Europe we are still not where we were supposed to be when the Heads of Government signed off on this in 2000? Did any realistic discussion take place in terms of revising the Lisbon Agenda to bring us to a stage where we can measure up to targets we can actually achieve?
On the first question, the view of the European Council is that while the targets agreed are ambitious and would not be achieved across each individual country the collective figures for Europe can be achieved. When one looks at all the reports and the evidence, the emissions from Ireland and England are 1.5% of the total and even for Europe that is small. If everyone took the view that because one is small one can do nothing, nobody would get anywhere.
The view is that every country from the smallest to the largest has to play its part. To make an impact in the years ahead China, India, America and Asia have to be pulled into it in one form or another and that will take a huge international drive and effort. In the meantime we have set out our indicators in Green Papers within the climate change strategy.
On the second issue, given that Germany is doing far better now and has reversed the tide, employment is increasing and the economic performance of a number of countries is improving but, for most, economic growth would be under 2%. A number of countries are seeing a reversal of the unemployment slump of the past few years but competitiveness continues to be the issue. Competitiveness into the future against the US and other parts of the world is based very much on research and development. This is where products will be researched and invented. That will be the big challenge and the reason the US is doing well but it has other difficulties of its own on the jobs front and its own economy. Similar difficulties are being experienced in other parts of the world. The Chinese, in particular, do not pay the same attention to environmental issues although there are indications that they are beginning to look at these issues in a more serious manner and have put out indicators showing where they are investing in the future. I think that global message is getting through.
In a number of areas the 2010 targets of the Lisbon Agenda will not be reached. However, they will be reached in some areas, particularly in graduate numbers, the number of PhDs and increasing the money in research and development. In Europe we are still light years ahead of other parts of the world in regard to the proportion of budgets put into research and development. Last week I looked at data in the US on the amount of money it is putting into energy for the future and it amounts to billions of dollars. Given that so many universities are linked in with the multinationals it is almost inevitable it will find alternative energy products and ways of dealing with issues when it is putting that amount of effort into research. That will help it to drive other economies into the decades ahead.
I listened to the Taoiseach say there were not many contentious issues. One would have to agree that the climate change debate in the EU is as contentious as they come, unless one adopts a "hear no emissions, see no emissions, speak no emissions" type of approach. Is the Taoiseach finding that the previous béal bocht approach with our European neighbours will not work this time when it comes to setting a target which in EU terms has been set conservatively at 20%? The European Commission wanted 30%. Even with 20% below 1990 levels, is it the case that we will not be in a position to argue for a special dispensation in Ireland as with Kyoto? This was to have been an 8% reduction below 1990 levels, but we got away with a 13% increase and are now 23% above 1990 levels. Following the European Council meeting, will the Taoiseach tell the people that not just the EU, but Ireland, will have a target of at least 20%? Given that we are a wealthy country in comparison with other European countries, as the Taoiseach keeps telling us, perhaps even more needs to be done to pull our weight. Following the European Council meeting, will the Taoiseach give an Irish target? Will this target be the 20% target agreed in the EU or will it be greater than that, possibly the 30% target the Commission wishes to see?
Deputy Sargent misunderstood my reply to Deputy Rabbitte in respect of contentious issues. I was only talking about the drafting of the EU declaration. I stated that there were no contentious issues around that.
We are regarded as very forward in respect of all these issues. We are not taking a "béal bocht" approach. Ireland's record and achievements in this area are considered to be outstanding.
In reply to the Deputy's question, we should take a forward view. Everyone must play his part. In reply to Deputy Kenny, I said that we should try to achieve the maximum possible target. The 20% target is the target we have set ourselves. In particular, I very much admire the Danes, who have taken a really aggressive stance on this matter. I know it is not possible for us to deal with some of these issues. The Danes have their own way of dealing with things. For example, in the area of wind farms, the Danes simply decided that they will go there and that is that.
We should take an aggressive stance on the matter. It might not matter two tossers for the next ten years, but, ultimately, it will be a terrible mistake not to. If everybody does not make a contribution, it will affect another generation possibly two generations ahead. I do not think anyone should sit on their hands. The scientific evidence is overwhelming. It does not create difficulty in the foreseeable future, but in 30 or 40 years time it will. It is far easier to take the decisions now rather than wait until we get to that position. I strongly support this stance.
I expect the Taoiseach recalls that the Lisbon strategy was supposed to make what it stated was a "decisive impact" on the eradication of poverty by 2010. Does he recall how I referred yesterday to the fact that SIPTU drew attention to the exploitation of building workers in certain areas, particularly in the midlands and the west? Does he not agree that the Lisbon strategy is not working domestically or internationally in terms of the member states and that measures both here and collectively through the European Council must be employed to address the major deficiencies and failures in ensuring that the goals of the Lisbon strategy are realised?
Insufficient attention is paid to the exploitation of workers, many of whom are being forced into low-wage return for their labour. This is happening right under our noses in constituencies across the country which the Taoiseach has visited and will visit over the course of the coming weeks.
What is the Taoiseach prepared to do at home and in respect of the European Council as a vehicle for wider redress of the failures of the Lisbon strategy to really make a difference where low wages and poverty are at stake?
The Lisbon strategy has worked extremely well in many areas. It was about education, tackling disadvantage, putting more money into research, trying to generate sustainable employment and competitiveness across Europe. Domestically, we have far surpassed anything in Europe in this regard and are at the top of the European table in most, though not all, areas. There will be challenges for the future at Europe and domestic level. We have seen the implementation of the national poverty strategy, tens of thousands of young people taken out of poverty and huge improvements in welfare to tackle inequalities. It never stops. We will always continue to put money into communities at risk, such as the Traveller community or communities with drug-related problems. Our domestic figures compared to our European partners are excellent. Our figures in respect of generating employment are second to none.
The Deputy is aware that a range of legislation exists to deal with migrant workers in the economy. The legislation before the House will strengthen some of the procedures and stop individuals who are trying to abuse employment laws and to cut labour rates. We have the highest minimum wage and laws and procedures that we must enforce. We have a range of measures to protect migrant workers.
Abuses are not wide-ranging. I spoke recently with trade unions about complaints. A substantial number of complaints, some of which are serious, have been made, but, in fairness, there is not an enormous number of rogue employers or self-employed people involved in this. These abuses can be rooted out, but this will require some tough action. We have the highest minimum wage, which is untaxed, and a good return. We have opened up to other EU countries, with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania. We must ensure that people of other nationalities do not commit abuses and are not abused by employers. Obviously, in the future, we must keep a keen eye on this through the enforcement of new legislation. It is a new problem for us. A large number of inspectors are being recruited to undertake this task.
In respect of the conclusions of the meeting, I noticed an omission under international affairs. It referred to the Palestine-Israel issue, but there appeared to be a serious omission in respect of the ongoing problem with Iran. Did any discussion take place about the ongoing nuclear issue in respect of Iran?
What is the Taoiseach's opinion on the role played by Germany, France and the UK, who are acting as our agents in discussions with Iran? How appropriate is it for these countries, two of which are nuclear nations, to be part of these discussions? Does the Taoiseach see any role for Ireland, which was one of the architects of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT, in those discussions? Does he agree that it is time that the impasse relating to the review of the NPT is dealt with once and for all in view of a recent report which stated that ongoing proliferation will spiral out of control unless a major reform of the NPT takes place? One can see what happened with the proposed agreement between the US and India. What are the Taoiseach's views on this front?
In respect of the conclusion under the heading of external affairs relating to energy supplies, it states that a joint or co-ordinated approach should be taken by EU countries in respect of external countries. How does this square with the bilateral deal concluded by Germany with Russia? How is that hindering a joint approach by the European Union on energy supplies?
The first issue was discussed by the Foreign Ministers in a separate session of the Council, so I was not part of those discussions. The EU 3 are competent and capable and they are answering to the General Affairs and External Affairs Council, GAERC, all of the time on these issues. The view of the European Council is this issue should be resolved by diplomatic means and that we should continue to apply pressure. Obviously, there is dissatisfaction at the insufficient progress in the talks. The first round of sanctions will be strengthened again and we will see further sanctions. That was indicated last week both in the UN when I met the Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, and the President. The efforts will be diplomatic. I do not foresee any other approach.
Traditionally, we have been totally committed to nuclear non-proliferation and that continues to be the case. The Deputy is correct that if there is not further progress, one runs the risk of undermining many of the successes of the traditional policy on nuclear non-proliferation. I am concerned by the new-found hope among the nuclear countries based around the view that the definition of clean energy is nuclear energy. I fundamentally oppose that view and that is the Irish position. It would be more in their line if they were to put their efforts in cleaning up some of the existing nuclear plants. Our commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty remains firm. We have highlighted that at every opportunity.
What was the second issue raised by Deputy Allen?
A number of countries have bilateral agreements with Russia. This is one of the difficulties. As Deputy Allen is aware, the EU-Russia agreement runs out at the end of November. Because of the Polish difficulties, which I understand, it was not possible to conclude those negotiations and form a new EU-Russia agreement prior to the last EU-Russia Summit. Having spoken to the President of Poland on his visit to this country, I believe there is some movement but I am not sure it will be possible to conclude a new agreement in the coming months. There is provision in the agreement for a roll-over of the existing agreement after November 2007.
Most members of the European Union take the view that if we do not have an EU-Russia agreement, we will have a proliferation of individual bilateral agreements which would be mad. Having been asked by a number of colleagues to lobby on this issue, I urged the President of Poland on his visit to this country to move and make an agreement. That will be reiterated to him again on Sunday. It would be preferable to avoid everyone paddling their own canoes in this regard and, ultimately, it would be going against what we have just done, to have a comprehensive energy policy. To do that, we need a strong EU-Russia agreement. It is important that is done before the end of November.
Speaking of the President of Poland, while he was here at the National Forum on Europe, he made some remarks that were regarded as very offensive by the gay and lesbian community. Did the Taoiseach register any view with the President when he met him on this issue?
As I understand, it is part of the package that it would be legally binding to make renewable energy account for 20% of the energy mix by 2020. Did the Government support that target being legally binding? Does the Taoiseach believe that target is achievable by 2020? Will he outline a few specific examples he thinks we will have to take in order to meet that target?
Regarding the President's remarks, unfortunately my two meetings with him were concluded before I was made aware of the remarks. As I stated at the time, I would not in any way agree with those remarks. In fairness to him, I subsequently read the full text of what he said and in spite of some of the things he said, he said he did understand the rights of the gay community. He said both things on that particular occasion. I do not agree with the comments he made.
What happened in the Council is that there would not have been agreement on the package if it was to be legally binding across each individual country. We would support that but the agreement was that it would be legally binding on the community as a whole to collectively achieve that figure. This was based on the understanding that a number of countries — at least six and it may be more — stated they would not achieve that target under any circumstances and, therefore, would not agree that it should be collectively and individually binding. They said it was just not possible for them to do that.
I believe the target is achievable. Based on the evidence in this country, wind and wave power are very good technologies. Some good commercial companies are involved in wave power, some of which are based off the Scottish coast, but some companies based here are in a position to develop the technology after 20 years of effort in this area and that can significantly improve the renewables industry. Many other initiatives are spelled out in the Green Paper on Energy and in our climate strategy which will be published shortly.
It was interesting to hear the Taoiseach's reply, given that Sustainable Energy Ireland, SEI, has referred to our increasing demand for electricity which will, unfortunately, offset what he referred to unless we get that under control. The SEI predicted an increase of 30% in demand.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach about a reply he gave me. I am still waiting for an exact answer. He gave me a reply stating we support 20% of a reduction below 1990 levels in the EU, which is the overall EU target. I appreciate his support for this target but my question related to Ireland's specific contribution towards that, and whether it will be 20% of Ireland's emissions——
——to play its part. I am simply asking the Taoiseach to articulate what part this country will play in meeting that target. That is all. I wanted to ask the Taoiseach about that because he made a worrying comment to the effect that it did not matter two tossers for the next ten years. Does he understand about the increase in heavy rainfall which, for example, has doubled since the 1960s? That heavy rainfall has resulted in flash flooding, which the Taoiseach will know all about in Drumcondra. Dust storms have trebled in China since the 1960s and glaciers in South America will be gone within 25 years.
According to the World Health Organisation, 150,000 people are dying per year from climate change related problems. This is happening now. Al Gore says we have ten years to deal with the problem, not to start to do so. I want to know whether we are going to come down from 23% over 1990 levels and then go further below 1990 levels by 20% or 30%. I want to hear about Ireland's involvement, not the European involvement.
I am sorry if I did not make that clear. I believe that Ireland can achieve a 20% reduction in emissions through clean technologies, cutting back agricultural emissions, and the use of biofuels and new home technologies, which have been an enormous success. I know there have been difficulties for the past ten years, but I have read and studied the entire Stern report, a very substantial document.
I said as much in my initial reply; it is the only way to proceed. A range of things is happening, and people are very committed. This affects forestry, agriculture and biofuels policy, and some countries, particularly the United States, are investing literally billions in research to find alternative products. I do not think that those products will be invented in Ireland, although it would be nice if they were. However, other countries are investing billions in research, with hundreds of scientists working on projects. I know that the Deputy peruses the data, and I believe that it is inevitable they will produce new technologies that will help. However, rather than wait for them, we have committed ourselves to a range of known actions, which can only be a good thing.
I want to ask a question, but I do not know how many minutes remain. With regard to what happened yesterday, it is not fair to embark on a new batch of questions when there is no opportunity to answer. How can the Taoiseach be so confident that Ireland will meet the targets when we have officially budgeted €300 million to purchase carbon credits in the next few years? What is the basis for our confidence that we can meet the EU target?
Perhaps I might also ask regarding the draft EU constitution. Did the issue arise at the meeting or on its margins? What is the Taoiseach's current view of the possibility of the draft constitution surviving in its present form, and does the Government have a settled view on when the Irish people might be given the opportunity to vote on it?
It is not a question of being confident but of being committed. We have substantially decoupled Irish economic growth from emissions, something evident when one considers the figures for the past 16 years. An enormous range of issues have been considered only in the last few years, including the climate change strategy and the Green Paper on Energy.
The credits are part of the system, and everywhere else they are considered as such rather than a disadvantage or a means of circumventing commitments. They must be taken into account as part of the Kyoto Protocol. There is nothing wrong with them if the issue is simply how one saves carbon emissions. Reducing them in any country helps the global position. It is a question of having either a global position or global crisis, and if reductions are achieved in one place rather than another as part of a system, I see nothing wrong with that. However, we should try to maximise our role, which is clearly that to which we have committed ourselves.
Chancellor Merkel decided not to deal with the constitution before the declaration on the future of Europe had been completed. However, the Presidency has continued since the start of this year, building on preliminary work last summer, to talk to countries and explore what people would accept, particularly French and Dutch politicians, including all candidates for the former country's presidency. The Presidency has been conducting similar surveys in all the other countries, and Chancellor Merkel will discuss the issue at lunch on Sunday. She has made a commitment to state a position for the June European Council meeting if she can secure agreement.
My view is that in the short period after the French election in June, the time available to the Presidency to deal with the issue will be very tight. A few weeks separate the French election and the June European Council meeting. Mr. Sarkozy has been most positive on the issue, stating that, if elected, he would move very quickly; I have not heard the same from the Dutch.
There is a view, which I find difficult, that we should try to change the format of the constitution rather than the document itself, moving many of its parts into various annexes, afterwards trying to secure parliamentary ratification in several countries. I detect growing support for such a strategy in the European Council. However, that would leave Ireland with its own issues to address. Several countries might take that option in June if there is success, but I suspect that it will take longer.