Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Ceisteanna - Questions
European Council Meetings.
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the special European Council meeting on 19 November 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42727/09]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
I attended the informal European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 19 November. The meeting was convened by the Swedish Presidency to discuss the appointment of the President of the European Council and the high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy. As is well known by now, the European Council agreed that Herman Van Rompuy be appointed as President of the European Council and that Catherine Ashton be appointed high representative. I welcome these appointments which provide clarity as we embark upon managing our Union under the altered rules of the Lisbon treaty.
The President of the European Council will be tasked with bringing greater coherence to the European Council's work, while the high representative faces the challenge of building up the new European external action service, which will represent Europe abroad. I wish both Mr. Herman Van Rompuy and Ms Catherine Ashton every success in their new roles and I assure them of the Irish Government's full support as they assume their new responsibilities.
I attended the European Council meeting in Brussels on 10 December and 11 December. This was the first meeting of the European Council since the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty. The Council discussed the various implementation measures, such as the establishment of the European external action service, on which Ms Catherine Ashton is invited to bring forward proposals next year. The Council also invited the European Commission to present a legislative proposal on the citizens' initiative with a view to its adoption in the first half of 2010. Most of the discussion at the Council was taken up with economic, financial and employment matters, and with climate change in light of the Copenhagen conference.
With regard to the economic circumstances, the Council noted there are signs of stabilisation and agreed on the importance of developing credible and co-ordinated strategies, within the framework of the Stability and Growth Pact, for exiting from the broad-based stimulus packages once recovery is fully secured.
The Council agreed a new structure for financial supervision in Europe, including three new supervisory authorities for banks, insurance and securities markets. It will enter into force in 2010. These new supervisory authorities are intended to be able to act effectively in the event of financial emergencies and ensure the consistent application of EU law. The matter now goes to the European Parliament and I look forward to a successful and early outcome, given what I believe is a near universally shared desire to see this new regime in force as soon as possible.
There was a preliminary discussion on the nature of the successor to the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs, which is expected to be known as "EU 2020". However, a broad cross-cutting strategy such as this requires the full input and engagement of the new Commission. Therefore, a fuller discussion is needed at political level. President Van Rompuy signalled this would be among the subjects for discussion at an informal meeting of the European Council in February. For our part, we will be emphasising, among other things, the importance of sustaining and creating employment.
The Council discussed the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen and reconfirmed the position it agreed at the October Council regarding a commitment to step up to 30% emission reductions provided that other nations make comparable commitments. The Council also agreed that the Union and its member states would contribute €2.4 billion annually to fast-start financing for the years 2010 to 2012. Ireland is very supportive of fast-start financing and I have made a commitment on behalf of Ireland for an amount of up to €100 million over three years. This is a very significant contribution at any time, but especially in the budgetary context we face today. It reflects our fair share of the Union's efforts and is consistent with our long-standing commitment to contribute on that basis.
The Council also adopted a new multi-annual programme, known as the Stockholm programme, for the further development of an area of freedom, security and justice for the years 2010 to 2014. We can expect to see improvements in the coming five-year period in mutual recognition and in strengthening co-operation on law enforcement, border management, civil protection and disaster management.
On external relations, the Council adopted conclusions on the Eastern Partnership and the Union for the Mediterranean, in addition to declarations on Iran and Afghanistan.
Some surprise was expressed throughout Europe over the identities of the new President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Was the Taoiseach consulted on the two appointments before the meeting on 19 November? When was he first informed about them? What is the anticipated size of the European external action service, which is to be under the control of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms Catherine Ashton? How will it be composed?
I wish to turn to the fund of €100 million to be provided for climate change measures. Will the Taoiseach assure the House that the Irish contribution to the fund will not come out of the existing development aid budget but be additional moneys?
The December summit discussed measures relating to employment and support for those losing their jobs. What specific measures were discussed?
The Swedish EU Presidency had been involved in a series of discussions in the days previous to the Council meeting. Having listened to all member states, it put forward one nomination for the post of Presidency of the Council of the European Union based on the broadest consensus available. Similarly, it put one nomination for the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. One would have been notified about it informally prior to the meeting beginning. The formal position was then put at the meeting.
A detailed proposal on the size of the external action service must come from the high representative in early 2010. That will be then considered by the Council for the purposes of developing the service. It will comprise representatives from all member states but it will have to be worked out proportionately.
A commitment was sought by the EU Presidency for Ireland to make a fair, reasonable and proportioned contribution to the amount for the fast-start climate finance package. In discussions with the presidency, it was confirmed that an amount of approximately €100 million over three years would be regarded as fair and reasonable on Ireland's part. The Government will have to decide as to how this will be funded in due course. The figure has been put down as a negotiating position by the EU as it goes into the final week of the Copenhagen summit to indicate the seriousness of the EU governments' intent.
It will involve additional moneys but it may also involve some existing moneys that are yet to be decided when programmes are reoriented in the future. That is a matter for a Government decision. We were asked to make a commitment at the Council meeting and I made that.
The existing European Commission will re-evaluate the existing Lisbon strategy's ten-year economic programme. A-lessons-learned paper will emerge from this process. The incoming Commission will develop proposals to be named EU 2020. At the dinner after last week's meeting, the incoming Council President indicated he believes the Council discussing broad economic strategy will be the most important issue in his term over the next two and a half years.
During 2010 an EU 2020 strategy will be formulated which will feed into the discussions on the budgetary process after 2013, talks on which are to begin in 2011. As the Lisbon strategy will end in 2010, the idea is to begin political discussions now and consider Commission proposals for the development of an EU 2020 strategy. This will form the basis of discussions on the budget the following year.
Do I understand correctly from the Taoiseach's reply that he was not consulted in advance in regard to the identity of the President of the Council or the high representative and that he only first heard about it before the formal meeting on 19 November commenced? Do I also understand correctly that at least part of the money for the climate fund will come from the existing development aid budget?
I would like to pursue employment matters a little more with the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach referred to 2020 but there are more immediate requirements in terms of people who are losing their jobs. The Taoiseach will recall that President Barosso visited Limerick in September shortly before the referendum on the Lisbon treaty at which time an announcement was made of €22 million being made available, mostly from the EU globalisation fund, for the retraining of former workers at Dell and the associated companies which closed as a consequence of its closure. I visited the mid-west last weekend and met with former Dell workers and some of the representatives of its committee. They told me that the fund has not yet been drawn down and that they do not know where to apply for funding in this regard; that the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has not put in place the means by which those funds can be drawn down and made available to former Dell workers who have lost their jobs, some of whom may wish to start new businesses or to return to education and training; and that there is a two-year life on this fund dating from the date on which the application was made for it, leaving only 18 months within which this money can be spent. To date, there is not even a post box number to which former Dell workers can make an application for funding from this fund which was announced with such great fanfare in Limerick. I am sure the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, will recall that announcement. However, nobody knows from where they can obtain this funding.
On the first matter, as I said to the Deputy, I made clear to the Presidency my views regarding our preferences in respect of that position. The Deputy will be aware of this as we have previously discussed this matter at Question Time. Clearly I would not stand in the way of a consensus should one emerge. As one must, I left it with the Presidency to make the assessment in regard to what proposal it would bring forward. What emerged was a proposal that did meet with the full agreement of Council. That was our position and I have no problem with that.
As regards the funding, that matter is being dealt with by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Project management staff are being put in place to deal with the matter.
What targets in respect of emission reductions have been agreed by Government? Will the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, outline while in Copenhagen or in this House when he returns the structure in terms of how such targets are to be achieved?
The Taoiseach announced a €100 million contribution from Ireland over three years to the fast-start climate package. The Government has not made this announcement without knowing what contribution will be made in 2010 and from where that money will come. I do not think the Taoiseach responded to a question from Deputy Gilmore in that regard. Perhaps the Taoiseach will indicate what amount it is expected will be contributed in 2010 and from what source this money will come. If one makes a recommendation in respect of such a contribution one will know from where that money is coming.
Is the Taoiseach satisfied that we are doing enough in terms of meeting our targets and potential in respect of renewable energy? We have lost a great deal in terms of investment in pilot schemes in respect of wave and tidal energy. The ongoing rows in regard to foreshore Acts in the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Environment, Heritage and Local Government have resulted in our failing to do what we should be doing. There is much potential in renewables in the west and northwest. Clare County Council has examined the potential of its county in terms of high, medium, low and no potential for wind and is inserting a material contravention of its county development plan to meet that need. If that were to be replicated right across that stretch of countryside up as far as Donegal, significant potential could be identified, but there is no follow through in terms of asking EirGrid how it intends to plug into this potential.
If we are really serious about meeting the targets set out by Government, of which the Ministers, Deputy John Gormley and Deputy Eamon Ryan, speak, then we should be far more energetic and aggressive about putting in place the structures to deal with them. Is the Taoiseach happy he is driving this hard enough so that we can have a realistic chance of measuring up to the targets set by the Government?
Yes. As I stated on the earlier matter, this a negotiating position developed by the European Union at the meeting of the European Council last week, and specifically suggesting a figure as to the amount the European Union would be prepared to provide. In terms of the overall global amount of approximately €7 billion, the indication is that €2.4 billion would be forthcoming from the European Union. That is a significant statement.
In that context, all countries - although there might be some which would have an even more severe difficulty than Ireland - provided, in an act of solidarity, a contribution. As I stated, what was regarded as fair and reasonable in our context was €100 million over three years. That amount could vary annually within the three-year total - we must work that out. However, the commitment has been made and it will be honoured. Obviously, we must discharge our obligations in that regard.
Deputy Kenny raised the issue of developing sustainable energy policy. We are on track to meet the 40% target within the timeframe outlined. As the Deputy will be aware, there has been significant investment in developing sustainable energy capacity in the country in recent years and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has been proactive in that area.
As I stated, there is an ambitious national target to increase the contribution from renewables to 40% by 2020. It is true that ocean energy technologies are still in the research and development phase globally. A major programme of activity, grants and supports here in Ireland to develop ocean energy was announced by the Minister in 2008. It is being overseen and implement by the ocean energy development unit in Sustainable Energy Ireland, working with key players in partnership.
We have set out the smart-metering programme. The Minister has set ambitious targets for vehicles. The Deputy will have seen Science Foundation Ireland bringing forward a third pillar for grant-in-aid on basic energy research and development in the areas of sustainable energy and energy efficient technologies last year and that new role will underpin the supply of more innovation in the sustainable energy sector in the long term.
Commercialisation support is being provided through Enterprise Ireland. There is much work ongoing here. There is no room for complacency, but the Minister, the Department and Sustainable Energy Ireland have increased their mandate, the number of personnel and the range of grants-in-aid that are available, such as the retrofitting programme and the greening of the housing stock. All that has begun. There is a great deal of activity and output going on.
I do not doubt that at all. There is a great deal of talk about this. All of those who come here from the Nordic countries, Denmark, Sweden or Norway, speak of our potential, for example, regarding mean wind speeds, which are the best in the world in many cases. We have not measured up to the talk we are generating.
Even when one looks at the places where approval for wind farms has been given, the waiting time to get into the grid afterwards is lengthy. Those who are already in the system and who have put their money where their mouths are to get approval and planning permission for wind farms find that at the end of that process there is no prospect of them being able to hook into the grid.
I take the point that there is a great deal of discussion about what we should do. I believe that in the case put forward by our party for an economic recovery authority there is genuine potential for job creation in this area. However, there are two major flaws in the triangle to which the Taoiseach refers. There is a great deal of discussion but we have not followed through with any structure or picture of how to connect this infrastructure to EirGrid. This is because there is no structure to deal with the provision of transmission systems throughout the country. The Deputies behind the Taoiseach and all other Deputies are aware of the vast public meetings that take place when announcements are made about provisions for pylons.
EirGrid has lodged its application for the project up through Monaghan. It is now three weeks before Christmas and already groups with an interest in this matter maintain we cannot have a proper analysis of it. Even when the Government sets out the programme for wind farm investment and if the local authorities decide on the locations in their respective counties that are high and medium level and so on, we have no structure for dealing with an overall provision of a proper grid system or a way to plug into that potential. It is a great failing of our national system that one can have millions of euro ready for the provision of turbines but no capacity to plug into that potential or to bring communities with us, other than piecemeal rows about a wind farm in Offaly, Roscommon or the west coast.
There should be a substantial parallel investment in an understanding of what we are about if we are serious about exporting energy within several years. There is the question of the provision of a grid system and the ability to explain to communities that it is in Ireland's economic interests to develop renewables on a scale compatible with the environment and people's livelihood. The question and all the discussion about renewables raises two fundamental and serious facts, namely, the inadequacy of the grid and the inability to plug into the potential with extra lines. The pace at which we are moving leaves us at a serious disadvantage. At the rate we are moving it will be some time beyond 2020 or 2030 before the infrastructure is built to tap into all that potential.
That begs the question of the importance of public representatives not supporting those who would seek to delay the necessary infrastructure from being put in place. This takes place up and down the country in communities. Public representatives look at the parochial picture and see an opportunity to give succour to the argument that we should not have overhead pylons throughout the country to provide the necessary grid infrastructure or the capacity to provide the economic and social development that people need. At the same time the Deputy tries to make the case from a strategic point of view as to why it is imperative that investment should proceed. We must see consistency at all levels in the political system such that the wider common good will prevail.
In fairness to people many years ago when there was very little in the country and rural electrification came, everyone got up and decided it was progress and that they had to get on with it. People saw the benefit in terms of employment and the future potential of their area. We have a situation now where there are parts of the country which seem to indicate they are not prepared to look at the wider common good and the imperative of providing for the modernisation of our transmission system, but that must happen. We see it in the north west and various parts of the country where it is vital that investment takes place such that there is sufficient capacity to attract investment. The disadvantage under which people operate at the moment is precisely because in many cases political support is being offered to those who wish to not only modify but stop the prospect of the development of this transmission system. We must all stand up and be counted in this respect. There is more than talk taking place. Investments are being made and we are on track to reach renewable energy targets. I recall that ten or 15 years ago if a country were to say it would have more than 5% or 6% of renewable energy in its system by 2020 that would be regarded as very ambitious. We are talking now about 40%. There are new guaranteed support prices for offshore, wind, ocean energy and biomass-combined heating power arrangements.
I take the point that it can be a matter of great frustration to try to promote investment strategies when the process in this country can be quite time consuming. People have rights to vindicate, fair enough, but that takes a great deal of time and lengthy processes are involved. The concept of judicial review is used in this country to a far greater extent than in most other common-law countries, let alone what happens on the Continent. We may be coming to a stage where the Oireachtas will have to consider whether there are sufficient powers in place for finality to be arrived at in these issues. I do not mind matters being discussed and everybody's point of view being taken into account but ultimately a process must have finality, conclusions must be reached, decisions taken and action implemented. One sees a continuous level of agitation and discourse and a matter is deferred, or people organise to ensure it is deferred or not proceeded with by putting in place every impediment they can think of or comprehend. These are issues on which we must all reflect.
My point was a general one in that irrespective of the mechanics of how it is achieved, we must display a far greater urgency about the actual grid and the potential to plug into new areas where new wind turbine investments will take place. There should not be a long delay of seven, ten or 15 years in between.
The all-party Oireachtas Commitee on Climate Change and Energy Security made a specific recommendation and drafted a Bill to deal with the matter of foreshore licences, proposing the Marine Institute as the handling agency. We still have not seen that Bill on the books of this House. It is not for me to suggest this to the Taoiseach but I believe having the imprimatur of an all-party Oireachtas committee means that this should be driven through. We should not have business people who are prepared to invest serious money in potential energy production systems finding themselves strangled by the process.
As the Taoiseach said, finality must come to these matters and even under the critical infrastructure system the courts and the European courts will always beckon. International information is available now at the drop of a hat and if one goes to any kind of meetings there are people producing evidence from all over the world, as Ministers will know. I share the view about finality, taking into account people's rights and having in place the highest level of safety conditions.
While I am on my feet I have another question. A number of months ago I visited the Gaza Strip. I do not know if the issue of Gaza was discussed at the European Council meeting. We stood in the ruins of a businessman's factory which had been blown to bits in the Israeli offensive at the end of last year.
I am sure the Taoiseach raised the matter, if not at the last meeting, at the one before. All material replacements are now being brought in at enormous cost through tunnels from Egypt. Taking into account the tinderbox that is the Gaza Strip and the plight of the Palestinian people, have European leaders discussed commissioning an up to date report on the seriousness of the situation? Has there been any reference to getting a first-hand report from former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who was the envoy despatched to have a look at the situation on the ground? That matter not being settled is the root cause of much of the difficulty across the Middle East and is a magnet for activities by other countries that are a serious impediment both to peace in the Middle East and world peace, with major consequences for human life and cost. Was there any discussion about that or does the Taoiseach agree there should be a serious European perspective on arriving at a conclusion to this matter in terms of a two-party state where people can get on with their lives?
I agree we need to deal speedily with all of the various issues around putting major infrastructure in place in this country. As the Deputy is aware, we have the strategic infrastructure legislation but, as I said, the planning issues are under existing planning arrangements and we are where we are. However, we must examine all of this area and try to pull it together to a far greater extent than previously in terms of different consents being sought from various agencies or parties which are substantively the same and, if granted once, should be granted all the time rather than the delay in consequential consideration that comes into play with all these issues. That point is well made and we must try to resolve it. I will take up the matter with the relevant Ministers.
The Deputy raised an interesting point regarding common foreign and security policy issues. This was the first European Council held under the Lisbon treaty arrangements and the Swedish Presidency was anxious that the meeting would be held as per the new arrangements, that is, Heads of State and Government only. Foreign affairs Ministers were not in attendance. That led to a very good interaction. The size of the table and the physical aspect of it allowed for far better interaction but an issue arose as to how this would work in the future and the Presidency in office is to consider various views that were expressed on this matter by Heads of State and Government.
One of the ideas was that at least once a year the Heads of Government might have specific foreign policy issues on the agenda and would be accompanied by foreign Ministers in an outer circle, so to speak, while Heads of Government were at the European Council table. What is clearly emerging from the discussions and what I welcome is the idea that the Council would be more political in terms of its discussions rather than being the final layer of bureaucracy with all the various papers coming to the table from environment Ministers, finance Ministers and other Ministers. He makes the point that if we are to make the Lisbon treaty more relevant to the people, we must devise an economic strategy for Europe because all the social policy issues and everything else flow from the ability to have a well-resourced budget that can only come from an effective economy being in place, consistent with the principles outlined in the Lisbon treaty on the sort of economy it should be. That is a good idea.
On the question of conflicts in the world or major political issues about enlargement, Iran, Afghanistan or whatever, another idea was that on one occasion during the course of the year there might be a discussion on these issues, either informally or formally, at Council by Heads of Government in terms of developing policy rather than simply recounting the latest EU stated position in the conclusions. I welcome that idea because it indicates to me that the Council could well be an interesting place to be in the years ahead.
The European Council meeting of 10 and 11 December formally welcomed the coming into force of the Lisbon treaty on 1 December. As the Taoiseach will recall, one of the key slogans of the Lisbon treaty campaign was "Vote Yes for Irish Jobs".
This was an absolute and common position for the various forces that pressed for a "Yes" position. Since then, unemployment has soared and emigration again has become a reality for many thousands of Irish families. In the course of the Council meetings the Taoiseach has attended, have employment retention or creation initiatives been discussed, given that the conclusions contain no initiative either to retain or create jobs across the European Union? This is despite the Council's conclusions also stating, according to my notes, that the employment and social situation is expected to deteriorate further in 2010.
While this was stated in the conclusions, there is no content referencing initiatives to retain or create jobs. Given this is the case, were employment retention and creation initiatives discussed? For example, were the impending further massive cuts to Ireland's fishing quotas addressed as a matter of interest to that sector of the economy?
I also noticed that the conclusions referred to broad-based stimulus policies in member states. There certainly are examples of member states within the European Union which have initiated what have proven to be effective stimulus packages within their respective jurisdictions. I refer specifically to the Belgian experience as but one in which one already can discern the results of strategic spending and in which the budget deficit now is lower as a percentage of GDP than is the case in this State. However, such recognition of stimulus packages by the Council meeting of 10 and 11 December can hardly apply in Ireland, given the mean and meagre efforts to address stimulus that were contained in the recent budgetary proposals put forward in this House only last week.
On foot of the last question, the Taoiseach referred to international aspects of the Council meeting. For example, what efforts were made to address the situation in the Middle East? There was a declaration on Iran with which I concur and which was quite correct. However, was there a proposal or discussion-----
I want to make that clear. Specifically in respect of the Council declarations on Iran, was there discussion regarding a declaration on Israel? Did the Taoiseach raise with his counterparts at the Council meeting the recent refusal of the Israeli Government to allow the Minister for Foreign Affairs to visit Gaza? Was the matter raised wherein the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, was directly refused access to the Palestinian people of Gaza by the Israeli Government? Was a proposition put forward on, or consideration given to, removing the special arrangements with the European Union in respect of preferential trade agreements between the European Union states and Israel in the context both of their treatment of our Minister for Foreign Affairs and, much more importantly, of the Palestinian people themselves?
On the first matter raised by the Deputy regarding the question of employment, it is true that unemployment has risen within the European Union to a rate of 10%. Unfortunately, we expect to see unemployment peak, hopefully, during the course of the coming year as we seek to emerge from recession. We are seeing a fragile recovery at present and the stimulus packages remain in place, both at European and national level, until such time as recovery has been assured.
On the question of our stimulus package, I refer to my speech on the budget last week which outlined the considerable stimulus which is being provided by the Government in the current circumstances, rightly so given the impact the recession has had on the construction sector and other areas of the economy. If one considers that we have a current deficit of 11.75% for next year, some 5% of GNP or almost half the deficit is made up of the capital investment programme, which is the largest capital investment programme of any European government, including Belgium.
On the current side, expenditure includes investment in education and research and development. The State is spending some €600 million on science, technology and innovation which is leveraging a further €15 hundred million or €16 hundred million in private sector investment in research and development. This is reflected in the fact that 40% of IDA Ireland investment last year was in the area of research and development, which is an indication that Ireland is promoting itself and obtaining projects which will develop the knowledge economy and the new economy which we are all trying to achieve.
Across a range of domestic policies there is a stimulatory effect in what we are doing, in terms of capital investment or investment in education or research. Our commitment to enterprise support is evident in the fact that over €900 million was allocated to IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland. There will be an increase of up to 180,000 places in training, education and activation. All of these measures constitute major investments by the Government at a difficult time for the economy. The stimulus effect of the domestic policy framework which the Government is implementing is commensurate with and, in many cases, well advanced beyond what other countries have been able to provide.
The Deputy also referred to unemployment. The strategic issues which face the European Union, in terms of trying to promote employment, investment and recovery, refer back to the fact it has an ageing population and its productive base is less than other parts of the world. If one looks at the expected growth rates in the world economy, which aggregate at some 20%, it is estimated only 6% will be in the European Union. The need to evaluate the success or failures of the Lisbon strategy thus far, in terms of growth in jobs during the 1999 to 2009, will inform the wider economic strategic debate which will take place in Europe in 2010 as we prepare for the budgetary discussions which will start in 2011 in respect of 2013, when the next financial perspectives are to be agreed.
There are serious challenges and there is no sense of complacency amongst any heads of state of governments regarding the impact the current financial and economic crisis has had on employment. Before the recession, prior to 2008, there was a very record of job creation in the European Union. Much of the debate on the future budget allocations from Europe will involve deciding on the strategic areas in which Europe needs to invest. I am glad to say we have nominated, subject to parliamentary approval, Ms Maire Geoghegan-Quinn to the Commission. She will play an important role in the new Commission in a top priority area which has already been identified by President Barroso as one in which he will have a personal interest.
On the question of Gaza, the issue did not arise at the Council meeting to which the Deputy referred. It is a matter of constant discussion at the General Affairs Council of foreign ministers. The Minister, Deputy Martin, will take parliamentary questions later today and will address the issue in more detail.