Wednesday, 20 January 2010
European Council Meeting: Statements
I call on the Taoiseach to make a statement under Standing Order 43. These statements shall be confined to the Taoiseach and the main spokespersons for Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, who shall be called upon in that order. They may share their time, which shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case.
I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday, 10 December and Friday, 11 December last. While some weeks have passed since the meeting took place, it is worthwhile for me to report to the House on the business of the meeting. It is important that we have this opportunity for statements on the matter. It was the first meeting of the European Council since the Treaty of Lisbon came into force on 1 December 2009. Inevitably, it had something of a transitional feel about it. Nonetheless, it gave us an interesting glimpse into how the European Council will function into the future. Under the Lisbon treaty, meetings of the European Council should be prepared by the General Affairs Council. While that did not happen on this occasion, I understand that the General Affairs Council will meet on two occasions to prepare the spring meeting of the European Council, which is scheduled for 25 and 26 March next and will concentrate on economic issues. The Lisbon treaty also provides that the members of the Council shall be the Heads of State or Government, together with its president and the President of the Commission. Therefore, Foreign Ministers will not automatically attend, as has normally been the case up to now. The December meeting followed this new format, with no Ministers present. Having said that, Ministers may join future meetings depending on the agenda.
The Lisbon treaty created the new post of President of the European Council, to which we unanimously elected Mr. Herman Van Rompuy when we met in November. I have expressed my congratulations and best wishes to Mr. Van Rompuy as he embarks on his new role. Although he did not chair the December meeting as his full range of functions did not take effect until 1 January last, he joined us to outline his initial views on how he sees his role evolving. The meeting was instead chaired by the Swedish Prime Minister, Mr. Fredrik Reinfeldt. As he did throughout the Swedish Presidency, he brought a good mix of common sense and leadership to his role. He again steered the meeting to a successful conclusion. I wish to record my appreciation of Mr. Reinfeldt's stewardship of the Council's business during the course of the Swedish Presidency.
Notwithstanding the changes introduced by the Lisbon treaty, the rotating Presidency of the European Union remains an important element of the Union's architecture. In this regard, I extend my best wishes to the Spanish Prime Minister, Mr. Zapatero, as the incoming Spanish Presidency takes up the reins for the coming period. The new post of President of the European Council logically and inevitably means that Heads of State and Government will no longer chair Council meetings. It is worth taking a moment to reflect on this change, which has attracted relatively little attention to date. Many former taoisigh have fulfilled the role of chair of the European Council with great distinction during past Irish Presidencies of the European Union, often at times of huge importance along Europe's journey to peace and economic success. Their conduct and success as President of the European Council reflect the long and proud tradition of Ireland's membership of and contribution to the Union, since we joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973. They epitomise in many ways the enthusiasm, support and conviction that Ireland has brought to its membership of the Union. I will come back to this issue briefly in a few moments.
A number of important topics were on the agenda at the December meeting of the European Council. I refer, for example, to some implementation issues arising under the Lisbon treaty, the economic and employment situation, climate change, justice and home affairs issues and external relations. Our discussion of Lisbon treaty implementation measures included the format of the European Council itself, issues relating to establishment of the European external action service and the need to address anomalies in European Parliament seat allocations arising from the most recent Parliament elections, which preceded the entry into force of the treaty. I have often stressed the need for Europe to move beyond its long-running preoccupation with institutional issues. It is time for us to put the spotlight firmly on real issues like jobs and climate change. This view was unanimously shared at the December meeting.
While positions varied from country to country during the Council's discussion of economic issues, the general view was that the crisis is stabilising across Europe and we are at the preliminary, if fragile, stages of a recovery. Nonetheless, many colleagues expressed concern about the growth of unemployment and the social effects that accompany it. They emphasised the need to focus on maintaining and creating jobs, now that the scale of some of the macroeconomic threats has moderated to an extent. The Council agreed that trade has an important role to play in stimulating a recovery in jobs and that further work is required to complete the Internal Market and to safeguard against protectionism externally.
As an economy that is enormously dependent on trade and exports, Ireland shares and welcomes these sentiments. We discussed the need for the principles of the Stability and Growth Pact to be respected. During my conversations with my colleagues, there was much interest in the tough but necessary decisions we have taken here, including those announced in last month's budget. My counterparts and the Commission made it clear that we are resolutely committed to implementing a sustainable and credible fiscal consolidation in very challenging times.
With an eye to the longer term, the Council had a preliminary discussion on the nature of the successor to the Lisbon strategy for jobs and growth, which will be known as EU 2020. The President of the Council has called an informal meeting of the European Council for 11 February to discuss economic matters, including an exchange of views on this new and important initiative. The European Commission has been carrying out a parallel consultation process on EU 2020, prior to the new college of Commissioners presenting formal proposals over the coming weeks. The Government has contributed to that consultation process. Discussions and negotiations on this topic will build in the coming months. The aim is that it will be discussed in detail at the spring meeting of the European Council, with a view to formal adoption by the Council in June.
The Council stressed at the December meeting that fiscal exit strategies need to be implemented within the framework of the Stability and Growth Pact. We also agreed that a co-ordinated approach to unwinding financial supports is necessary and must take account of the need for financial stability and the differentiated situations in member states. The key work in this area is being done within ECOFIN. The European Council will receive a further report on fiscal and financial exit strategies in advance of its June meeting. The European Council also welcomed the good work done at ECOFIN during 2009 on new structures for financial supervision in Europe. The structures aim to provide greater protection against future bubbles and crises and to enhance stability across Europe. I share the view that the new regime should become operational this year.
Climate change was also a major topic at the meeting, not least because we were meeting a week before the culmination of the Copenhagen climate change summit. During our discussions, which have been somewhat overtaken by the relatively disappointing outcome of the Copenhagen summit, we reached clear agreement within the Union on the global importance of the climate change challenge and the need for the Union to continue to play a leadership role. We had committed to a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020 and were prepared to increase this to 30% if other key regions made comparable commitments. At the time of the December Council meeting, there continued to be a slim hope that other key players would commit to comparable targets at Copenhagen. With the benefit of hindsight, we may have been too optimistic in our assessment of what others might be willing to do. For our own part, by committing unilaterally to a 20% cut, we went much further than many other key players were and are ready to contemplate.
We also agreed that the Union was prepared to contribute fast-start finance for developing nations amounting to €2.4 billion annually for the years 2010 to 2012. We saw this as a way for the Union to show good faith and to try to inject a positive dynamic into the negotiations in Copenhagen which, as we were meeting, were beginning to show signs of strain. Fast-start financing can be a crucial element of a global approach to climate change by helping developing countries to cope with the consequences of climate change and reduce their own emissions from greenhouse gases. For our part, I agreed that we would contribute up to €100 million over the three year period as our fair share of the Union's efforts. This represents a major contribution from Ireland, especially in the context of the current budgetary difficulties and the nature of the sacrifices that our people are being asked to make. The Council also took important steps in a number of other areas, including the Union's sustainable development strategy and inviting the Commission to advance work on the Union's future financial framework.
In the justice and home affairs area, we adopted the Stockholm programme, which is a new framework for the years 2010 to 2014. This is an area of increasing importance to our citizens, who are deeply concerned about cross-border crime, including the trafficking of people and drugs. The next step is for the Commission to present a work programme to turn this framework into action and this will also be a priority for the Spanish Presidency.
On the external relations front, we adopted conclusions on the Eastern Partnership and the Union for the Mediterranean, as well as on Iran and Afghanistan. These texts were negotiated under the direction of Foreign Ministers and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, can elaborate on them if necessary.
The December meeting marks the beginning of a new phase in the working of the European Council which will continue to evolve over coming months, not least as the role of the President of the Council comes into full effect. The Lisbon treaty aims to make our Union more efficient and effective. Given the challenges we face, we need Europe to deliver on those aims and the European Council has a key role to play. As we adjust to new procedures, it is important that we strike the right balance between consultation and action; small and large member states; the European Council, the Council of Ministers, the Parliament and the Commission; and action at European and national, regional or local level.
Here in Ireland, we must now put the Lisbon treaty referendums behind us and demonstrate that we are enthusiastic and committed players. A small country does not wield influence by being perceived as half-hearted. On the contrary, as we have learned and shown in the past, our influence is directly related to our level of commitment and engagement. It is only by dispelling any residual doubts others might hold about our commitment that we can maximise our influence. To do this, we must show form. Often this simply means bringing our own blend of pragmatism and a collaborative approach to bear on EU negotiations. At other times it means accepting that compromise is the life blood of co-operation between member states and institutions. Above all, it means maximising our engagement at all levels. The new Lisbon treaty arrangements require us to step up a gear. Together with the Minister, Deputy Martin, I am leading work within the Government on improving our overall engagement with the European Union.
Lisbon also brings important changes to national parliaments, in which regard I welcome the work of the Oireachtas, and particularly the determination of the Joint Committees on European Affairs and European Scrutiny to examine how the Oireachtas can improve how it deals with EU business.
Improving engagement is necessary for our medium to long-term interests, whether that relates to our economic or financial situation, negotiations on the future budget or the priorities of the Union, such as the Common Agriculture Policy. However, it is also important as we seek understanding of our current situation and the decisions and actions we have to take in the more immediate future. This goes beyond Government because we all have a role to play. We need to deepen our engagement with European institutions, strengthen bilateral relations with fellow member states and attach priority to negotiations within the EU not just when laws are being developed, but also in regard to their transposition and enforcement domestically. Finally, we must ensure that the Irish people have a better understanding and awareness of the European Union, how it operates and how we benefit from it.
As we embark on a further stage of the Union's development, the Government is determined to renew our engagement within Europe. We can only succeed if Europe succeeds and we are determined to play our full part to ensure that it does.
I believe Herman Van Rompuy will do a good job as President of the European Council. He strikes me as a person with common sense and a practical politics which will pay dividends in his new role. I wish Baroness Catherine Ashton the best of luck as High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs. She had a difficult time during the hearings but her appointment has now been approved. The withdrawal of the Bulgarian candidate for Commissioner, Rumiana Jeleva, will probably cause a delay for the spring Council and the European Parliament will have a role play in finalising the Commission.
I wish Mrs. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn the best of luck as Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. Her €50 billion budget for research and innovation will be of particular importance for this country. While Commissioners do not strictly act in national interests, a real opportunity exists for our small country to achieve world leadership in a number of niches. We will see immense changes globally over the next ten years as the internet, robotics and biotechnology impact on the way we do business. We will have to ride that wave before it hits our shores.
I am sure the Minister for Foreign Affairs is relieved that he no longer has to attend every Council meeting. Mr. Van Rompuy sees the economy as the big issue for his Presidency and wants to double the EU's growth rate from 1% to 2%. He also regards climate change and energy as priorities. Irrespective of our political differences, we clearly see opportunities for this country. Things are becoming ropy in the United States and Mr. Cameron's intention to be the next UK Prime Minister will mean a change of emphasis in that country.
We must concentrate our efforts on reducing competitive costs and increasing exports by availing of new market opportunities.
In preparing for the 2020 strategy, we should consider what structure the Joint Committee on European Affairs should take. The Government also needs to address the problem that faces the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny in regard to the lack of storage space for material coming from Europe. When legislation comes from the EU, we will be notified nine weeks in advance and we will need to get our act together if we are to be able to call officials before they go to Brussels and assess what they are going to say. This will be important given the consequences directives have on various sectors of Irish society. A river of European legislation has flowed here without proper scrutiny because we have lacked capacity, despite the fact that officials have to give their consent in Brussels before directives are passed. I am aware the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs with responsibility for European affairs has an interest in addressing this issue.
The target set by the Union of a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020, to be increased to 30% if other nations agreed, will not now be met. This still leaves us with a unique opportunity. If somebody told the Taoiseach that an oil well with vast potential was discovered in County Offaly, he would want it to be exploited for the benefit of the economy and our people. However, we have not adequately tapped into the equally vast potential that blows along our north and west coasts on a daily basis.
We have not addressed the issue of European funds available in the context of Community support for major projects. In order to deal with the grid system, for example, we must have Community approval for the high tension lines that will be required in many areas. Otherwise, no matter how much we talk about it, it will not work if we cannot plug it in. That is a significant problem which we are all concerned to tackle. The December meeting was important and the Spring Council will be equally important. We will be pleased to support the Minister in any way we can at European level, through our involvement in the European People's Party, to ensure those structures are in place for the future.
I understand the issue of development aid has been deferred to next June's Council meeting, but events in Haiti overshadowed the meeting of Development Ministers that took place last week. Will the Minister discuss with his European colleagues the possibility of sending a European Union battle group to Haiti in the context of the United Nations Secretary General's request for additional assistance? In the run up to the second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, the emphasis in discussions on the battle groups was in the context of Iraq or another military offensive. The reality is that these groups have an important humanitarian role to play. A force of 1,500, available to move within 15 days, self-sustaining for 30 days and which can be resupplied for 120 days is an important resource. I understand Ireland is not on standby again until the first half of 2011. The battle groups have preordained command and control structures in place and are able to operate independently.
The Minister and his colleagues must examine the degree of effectiveness of co-ordination efforts in the aftermath of national and international disasters. Such operations always seems to be very slow to get up and running. I appreciate that in disaster situations such as that in Haiti communications may be down and infrastructure damaged, making efforts to assist more difficult. However, we must be sure to learn from previous mistakes so that co-ordination and relief efforts can become more streamlined.
At December's Council meeting the Stockholm programme 2010-2014 was discussed, with its laudable objective of an open and secure Europe. However, as we saw from the incident in the United States on Christmas Day, we cannot afford to neglect the importance of security. The Minister must liaise with the Minister for Transport to ensure that whatever mechanisms are necessary are in place in our airports, including body scanners and so on, so that we do not become an easy means of passage for terrorist attacks on United States aircraft in particular.
In regard to external relations, the Taoiseach did not refer to it in his speech but I understand there was a Swedish initiative to examine a proposal to ordain east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. Will the Minister comment on the Government's position on this issue and why the initiative ran into the sand?
Submissions must be made in the coming weeks regarding the citizens' initiative. This process must be made as flexible as possible, requiring perhaps one quarter of member states and in the region of 0.2% of the population, as recommended by the Joint Committee on European Affairs. This would mean that some 9,000 signatures would be required in Ireland. Petitioners should have up to one year to gather the necessary information after which the Commission would have to act on it within six months. I note the difference of opinion between the Parliament and the Commission as to how this should be done. What is most important is that it should be as flexible as possible. With regard to the mechanism that should be in place to facilitate the process, it is more difficult to come up with a proposal to achieve that.
The European Union's 2020 strategy concentrates on economic matters, including sustainable public finances. There is also a commitment to a 20% reduction in 1990 emission levels by 2020. The possibility of achieving a 30% reduction should be pursued in the future, difficult as it may be.
Also in the context of the 2020 strategy, I raised with the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, the importance of ensuring a standard approach across member states when it comes to measuring numeracy and literacy. The Minister, Deputy Martin, as a former Minister for Education and Science should be aware that, regrettably and despite claims to the contrary, we do not have the best education system in the world. There are many shortcomings at primary level in particular. We pride ourselves on our position as a gateway to Europe, as an English language-speaking country which is able to attract investment from United States companies. However, global economics have moved on. We must consider introducing Chinese language tuition in schools, in addition to French and German. Being the only English-speaking member state in the eurozone is no longer adequate because many people throughout the Continent can speak English. It is no longer a competitive advantage. Chinese language tuition should be introduced in schools, and that proposal should be included in our submission on the 2020 strategy.
I echo the point made by Deputy Timmins regarding the deployment of a European Union battle group in Haiti. The Deputy always talks sense and this is an excellent and logical suggestion which the Government and the Commission should put forward via the Council. We must ensure we have the maximum impact in terms of saving lives and reducing the humanitarian disaster occurring in that country.
Will the Minister clarify an issue I raised with him before Christmas in regard to Ireland's commitment to assist developing countries in tackling climate change? The Taoiseach referred in his speech to the €100 million that has been committed for this purpose. Will the Minister clarify whether this sum will come from the Ireland Aid budget? Aid agencies deserve clarity in terms of their budgeting efforts for the year ahead.
Another important initiative that is clearly highlighted in the Council conclusions is the European external action service. This offers an important opportunity for the European Union to represent itself across the globe but also for Ireland to promote our diplomatic corps and its skills. I hope efforts are under way within Iveagh House and within Government to seek ways to encourage young Irish people to join the Department of Foreign Affairs. However, while it is important that we are well integrated into the new European external action service, it should not in any way supplant the Irish foreign service and the excellent work done by our embassy staff and diplomatic corps on behalf of the country.
The Minister of State, Deputy Roche, outlined the key elements of the 2010 strategy at a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs. There was a strong view among committee members that this strategy presents an excellent opportunity to develop a ten-year plan for the future of the European economy. From an Irish point of view, it is desirable that emphasis be put on job protection and creation. An important element of that, as pointed out by many committee members, was to place some focus on manufacturing. As we have become almost obsessed with the concept of a smart economy, we have to some extent turned away from and neglected the manufacturing industry. The strategy represents a major opportunity for investment in infrastructure. In Ireland broadband is the key area in which that investment is required, and the 2020 strategy is an important part of that.
The citizens' initiative is being taken very seriously by the Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs under the chairmanship of Deputy Durkan. The matter will be discussed at next Friday's meeting of the committee, which will be attended by MEPs, and we intend to open up that discussion to the public. It is an extremely important opportunity for the European Union to show, prove and demonstrate that it is trying hard to connect with its citizens and to open up the European Union for them. The initiative was almost dismissed during the campaign on the Lisbon treaty referendum by many on the "No" side who said that it was just a tokenistic gesture. I am pleased that it is being advanced so quickly by the Government and by the European Council. I hope we can ensure that it works by putting in place a clearly functioning system.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the most recent European Council meeting on 10 and 11 December 2009. It was the first Council meeting since the Lisbon treaty came into force and it began the process of putting in place the nuts and bolts that were required under the treaty, initially with the two somewhat unknown incumbents, Herman Van Rompuy, who filled the new office of President of the European Council, and the equally unknown but rather distinguished sounding Baroness Ashton, who filled the position of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
A report appears in today's newspaper indicating that the baroness decided not to go to Haiti to see for herself the effects of the earthquake there. That was the wrong decision. This is the first time we have had a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. We see on the television and hear on the airwaves every night about the President of the United States and the previous President of the United States who is in Haiti currently, and see how the United States is claiming for itself a huge profile in the response to the Haiti disaster. At the same time, we are the largest donors of aid globally. It seems to me that we are adopting the same position that we have adopted towards the Middle East in the context of the European Union, that we are providing most of the resources and aid, as we are doing in the Middle East, but we are not in any way claiming the kudos, so to speak.
The European Union is not projecting itself forward in the way that it should. In terms of perception, it should be seen as being central to dealing with the problems created by the earthquake and the huge human disaster that exists rather than allowing the United States to continue to present itself as the only serious, caring political entity in regard to Haiti. Nevertheless, I wish both of those new appointees well. I hope they will distinguish themselves in their new appointments.
The next item to which the Council referred was the European external action service. It has signalled its intention to adopt the proposals relating to the organisation and functioning of the European external action service by April of this year and that member states would get involved in that process. We have precious little information on how that work is progressing. What input is coming from this country on the matter? What bodies are involved in developing the European external action service in terms of its organisation and future functioning, personnel, resources and locations? What impact will that have on our diplomatic service in terms of its location, personnel, careers and the parameters of the service? It would be worthwhile if we could have a discussion in this House or if the Minister could present some paper to us on the nuts and bolts of what has happened to date and what input might be made by a broader consultation process than seems to be the case at present. This House would benefit from a full briefing on the European external action service and its organisation before the deadline of April 2010.
I was disappointed that the Taoiseach did not mention the European citizens' initiative in his contribution even though he referred to the fact that together with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, he is leading work within Government to improve our overall engagement with the European Union. He also stated that it is necessary to improve engagement right across the board. One of the great problems with the European Union is engagement with it. That is one of the great complaints one hears around the country and in other members states, namely, that is difficult to see how ordinary people can engage with the European Union. The citizens' initiative is tailored precisely to allow power to the people, and to enable the ordinary citizen to put an item of concern directly on the agenda of the Commission, to bypass the normal bureaucratic processes, institutional bureaucracy, red tape and to be able to use a new mechanism to get an issue straight onto the agenda of the Commission and for it to be dealt with in a serious fashion.
That is our first test. How did we respond to it? I have not seen the Government respond to it by going out to the highways and byways and consulting widely with the citizenry. I have not seen the Government availing of all the communications mechanisms, including electronic methods, newspapers, advertising, television and radio to inform the citizen. Scarcely a citizen in the country is aware of the new rights that are being conferred on him or her. Where is the sense in talking about awareness, consultation and engagement unless we do it when we can do it and when we have something beneficial to sell to or tell the citizen such as the fact that a mechanism exists that would allow him or her to be directly involved in the decision making of the European Union? We have not done that.
As Deputy Lucinda Creighton said, the only thing that has been done to date has been done by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs which is carrying out a minimal amount of advertising in newspapers in order to reach the public at large. There is no sense in us having a plethora of meetings about collective stakeholders, holding a few conferences here and there and talking to each other about it; we should be engaging in a direct awareness and consultation mechanism. Although time will be limited in terms of getting that together, given that our proposals have to be in by the end of the month and the new structure is to be in place by June., I would like to see work done in that regard. It is something that we could usefully discuss in the House and communicate to a wider audience if that could be managed.
The fiscal exit strategy is a work of fiction. I cannot imagine what the intention was in the context of this country when the matter was being discussed. That is one of the most important aspects of the meeting in the context of the economy. Reference was made to exiting from the broad-based stimulus policies. We, in this country, have nothing to exit from. We have no broad-based stimulus policies. We have no stimulus policies at all. We have not been part of the European recovery plan. It was stated that member states "should begin to unwind financial support schemes". It was also stated that there should be "adequate incentives for financial institutions to cease to depend on public financial support". It was indicated that the phasing out of support should start with government guarantees. Those quotations are from the final report of the European Commission. In the context of government guarantees, the Taoiseach must have thought he was on another planet when that was being debated. I cannot see how he could have agreed to something of that nature when we are in the process of putting a package together. We have State guarantees, recapitalisation, NAMA and further recapitalisation will be required. We are way out of kilter with what is happening in the vast majority of members of the EU. When the review of that fiscal exit strategy takes place in June, we will be seen to have moved further and further away from the position to which the other member states have moved because they have moved on to growth and jobs and the banking systems in those countries will have become independent and able to stand on their own two feet.
Our mollycoddling of the banks is clearly frowned upon by our EU partners. This is at loggerheads with what the Taoiseach said in the House this morning, namely, that the systems that have been put in place are approved by the EU and the European institutions, which is clearly not the case. They are telling us to get out of it as quickly as possible, to get rid of State financial guarantees as the first step and to unwind state support.
That may well be. However, this is the whole approach to it. The next step the Commission moves on to is the regulation of the financial markets, all of which is an integral part of the same package. We have discussed at the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny the de Larosière report and we have made considerable contributions to that report in terms of its drafting. Again, this is something the scrutiny committee has requested would be put on the floor of the House for debate. The new regulatory mechanisms are very worthwhile - that is an EU initiative - and it is essential that they be put in place to give confidence in, and to regulate and supervise, the marketplace, as well as to restore confidence in the financial institutions and to ensure that the cowboys who were operating in the past and have brought the whole banking system to such a sorry state are reined in once and for all. We would like to see a debate in the House.
The new EU 2020 strategy is probably the most important factor of all in terms of an economic way forward. This is the second half of the Lisbon strategy that began in 2000 with a very ambitious programme of making the EU the most competitive and dynamic economy in the world. Unfortunately, it concentrated on unregulated financial and economic development rather than sustainable growth and economic development which would be tempered by a commitment to a social agenda. As a result, we have found ourselves bogged down for a number of years and not going anywhere. It is important that the situation be reviewed and that more coherent, streamlined and focused structures be put in place.
In that context, I welcome the appointment of Mrs. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn as our new Commissioner and I welcome the portfolio she has received, namely, the area of research and innovation. We should be able to build around that quite a good approach in regard to sustainable growth and employment, particularly in the areas of alternative energy and the smart economy.
Employment and the social agenda must be at the heart of the next ten-year strategy. As Deputy Timmins noted, there is concern at the way we have moved forward in the past. The emphasis has been very much on globalisation and the quantity of production, with the world as the marketplace. There has to be a greater focus on the quality of the marketplace and the quality of the product, including local and regional products and craft products which are more indigenous and are, therefore, likely to have a more long-term base and not just disappear to somewhere else in the world.
The credit squeeze has become endemic in this country. It has prevented the indigenous market from expanding and moving forward, and has made it stagnant over the past couple of years. While this must be dealt with, there is no sign of it being dealt with here, whereas it is being dealt with in Europe. Small companies still have no access to a regular credit flow, which must be a major part of the new 2020 strategy regarding cash flow for companies, which are the lifeblood of the country.
I would have liked to deal with other issues such as the Copenhagen conference and the huge amount of work which remains to be done in regard to the Lisbon treaty, which must be teased out. This country must take serious decisions also. The Taoiseach referred to how we transpose into domestic legislation EU directives and we must address this issue. I have seen very important issues, such as the services directive and the floods directive, being transposed by statutory instrument without Members having considered them in the House and without any of the normal democratic legislative processes being used. We must change this in the interests of democracy.
Is maith an rud é go bhfuil an deis seo againn labhairt ar an cheist seo chomh luath sa bhliain. Agus muid ag dul chun tosaigh sa tír seo, tá sé tábhachtach go mbeimid ag plé na ceisteanna atá ardaithe ag Comhairle na hEorpa. Tá sé tábhachtach freisin nach bhfuil conclúidí nó treoracha Comhairle na hEorpa ag teacht salach ar an méid atá an tír seo ag iarraidh a dhéanamh.
I expected that the first Council meeting following the entry into force of the latest treaty, the Lisbon treaty, would be a brave and decisive step forward for the EU because that is what we were promised. We expected that the meeting would have a lot of energy and enthusiasm but, regretfully, I did not see that enthusiasm. Perhaps it will come in future Council meetings, although I doubt it. Indeed, the Presidency conclusions said as much in the opening line, which read "The new Treaty of Lisbon will allow the Union to fully concentrate on addressing the challenges ahead", and major challenges they are. When I settled down to examine what those conclusions were, I hoped to see some major initiatives regarding how jobs and recovery would be tackled and what was being promised from the EU. To my surprise, however, the priority issues related to the Lisbon treaty were the setting up of the European external action service and the legislation on the citizens initiative.
Members should not get me wrong. These issues need to be discussed. The citizens initiative, in particular, is laudable and, hopefully, it will be rolled out properly and given proper teeth so the Commission will not be able to wriggle out of proposing positive and progressive measures, as it has avoided them to date.
We also need to have a proper discussion in regard to where the European external action service is going and what is the end game in that regard. I have noticed already that some of the European Foreign Ministers are looking for it to go well beyond what was proposed or predicted. They are looking for Europe to be represented by a single member at the UN. As a neutral country, we obviously need to ensure that the European external action service is not subordinated to the political or military imperatives of NATO. It is a duty for those of us in the House, as issues arise in regard to that service, to ensure that it does not go to where it potentially could go, and to where some European member states wish it to go.
We must consider the area of justice and home affairs. This was highlighted at the Council meeting as a key priority. Closer examination reveals that the priority in the field of justice and home affairs is an intention to make full use of Article 222. We should remind ourselves that the article allows the European Union to mobilise all the instruments at its disposal, including military resources made available by member states to prevent terrorist threats in the territory of the member states, to protect democratic institutions and civilian populations from any terrorist attack and to assist the member state in its territory at the request of political authorities in the event of a terrorist attack.
That is quite clear. The problem I have at this stage is that the same priority and mobilisation of instruments is not being used in tackling poverty or inequality in the European Union. I was hoping for some kind of statement at the meeting indicating that the instruments would be used to build for a jobs recovery, which is not prioritised as it should be.
What was the conclusion on jobs and recovery? It was stated that the economic position is starting to show signs of stabilisation and confidence is increasing, which we have heard before. We heard it last October when the Council stated that the sharp decline in the European economy was coming to a halt with a stabilisation of financial markets and improvement in confidence. That has not been seen. When we come back in March or April there will be a similar statement with the idea that if it is repeated three times, it must be true despite the devastation being visited on jobs, income and services in this country and across many EU member states.
The conclusion also stated that uncertainties and frailties remain and the employment and social situation is expected to deteriorate in 2010. There is a slight contradiction in the statement in saying that there is stabilisation in the financial market with an end to its decline as further on it deals with deterioration. The economy is stabilising but the jobs position is not. It has been indicated that there will be further job losses and the social elements will deteriorate again this year.
What kind of recovery will this be if the employment and social issues deteriorate again? The Government has shown in its recent budget that it has all the required skills to bring about further deterioration in the employment and social spheres. The October Council meeting also expected a deterioration in employment and it was more proactive in trying to ensure that action would be taken to increase employment, as well as promoting active social inclusion and protection policies. There are different emphases and nuances in the December meeting, which did not have the same positive outlook.
The conclusions also stated that policies in support of the economy should remain in place and only be withdrawn when recovery is fully secured. Will the Minister indicate which policies are being referred to? Are they policies dealing with weak regulation, the liberalisation of public services, the race to the bottom for workers' pay and conditions or the attack on social welfare payments? Which policy should remain?
Some of the details are still emerging of the SR Technics issue. Do we want to promote such a model, or such as we saw with Dell, in the European Union? SR Technics, a profitable company in Dublin, employed approximately 1,200 or 1,300 workers. However, an EU member state invested in hangars to successfully draw those jobs away from Ireland. This company still has not fully paid its part of the pension fund of those workers, where there is a deficit of €26 million. Is that the sort of Europe we want to promote with regard to employment policies?
The Maltese have suggested that €1.6 billion in revenue streams will be created by attracting SR Technics away from Ireland. The loss to the Irish economy is not only in jobs, but also in revenue streams. We must not concentrate just on the Maltese as the Polish did the exact same with Dell. There is nothing to protect Ireland from losing further jobs to countries where the governments have interfered in the market. I asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she would nationalise the company or give additional supports to try to hold SR Technics here, but she said she would not interfere with the market because it is against EU rules. The Maltese and Polish have done so and Ireland must suffer the consequences. Perhaps that is because we are on the periphery or such a small country, although Malta is much smaller. We could not ensure that SR Technics would remain in the country. Perhaps that is the type of building and support for the economy that the European Union speaks about.
There are some positives in the conclusions, which the Government, in particular, can learn from. It can recognise the weaknesses of the current regulatory framework and the supervisory arrangements for financial institutions, which were mentioned in the conclusions. It was stated that remuneration policies within the financial sector must promote sound and effective risk management and should contribute to the prevention of further crises in the economy. The importance of renewing the economic and social contract between financial institutions, along with the society they serve, was emphasised. Is the council suggesting that we move towards state banks in indicating that the importance of renewing the economic and social contract between financial institutions and the society they serve? One way to do this is to ensure that financial institutions serve society rather than lining the pockets of their directors and shareholders.
The new EU 2020 strategy has the potential to bring about a new vision to replace the tired and failed Lisbon strategy and that opportunity must be grasped. This relates to my earlier point about job losses in Dell and SR Technics. The undermining of employment in a member state by a company, which undermines, interferes, break the rules and causes job losses in another member state, cannot be allowed to happen.
A recognition of the benefits of having a greener economy is important. Energy efficiency can help businesses lower costs, it can help less well off families out of fuel poverty and can help combat climate change. A shift to an energy efficient economy can help economic growth but this needs to be supported, promoted and encouraged much more, perhaps through grant aiding companies. However, the positive nature of this and other points will depend on the detail of how the Commission proposes to take them forward. It is welcome that one of the key positions in the Commission is held by an Irish woman, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. Hopefully, she will be able to encourage the Government to invest in research and in education in particular. If one does not invest in education, one cannot build an economy based on research and innovation or build a knowledge-based economy. That is one of the key lessons the Government, based on its recent budget, has not learned.
It is important that the EU does not repeat the mistake of the Lisbon strategy. If we are to genuinely develop a new vision and direction for EU policy, as the Commission states in its consultation document, the EU 2020 strategy, there will be a need to focus on a green economy, empowering communities and on unleashing the social and economic potential of vulnerable groups in our society.
That is useful. I thank Members for their wide-ranging contributions. In terms of the comments made by Deputy Timmins on Haiti and by other the colleagues in the House, we will discuss this situation in greater detail tomorrow. However, I take this opportunity to express our deepest sympathies and extend our heartfelt condolences to the people of Haiti and to all those affected by the earthquake and the aftermath of it.
Members raised the issue of co-ordination and the need for a swift response. The response from the international community has been swift but it has been hampered by logistics on the ground, infrastructural deficiencies and so forth. At the emergency meeting of EU Foreign Affairs Council this week, which was attended by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, the EU pledged €122 million for immediate humanitarian effort and a further €300 million will be directed from EU instruments to finance the longer term response of recovery and reconstruction. The European Union has called for an international conference on the reconstruction of Haiti. Ireland has pledged €2 million in funding for the relief operation. That is in addition to the €20 million we have already allocated to the United Nations emergency relief fund. We are one of the largest contributors to that fund. The idea of establishing that fund was to have money in place in anticipation of a catastrophe of this kind. We, along with other members states of the UN pushed for that following the tsunami that occurred a few years ago.
On Monday we dispatched 83 metric tonnes of essential humanitarian supplies to Haiti. Irish Aid is working closely with Concern, GOAL and the other NGOs to get emergency materials on the ground. Two members of Irish Aid's rapid response corps have been deployed to assist the World Food Programme. A third member will travel within the next week to assist GOAL in its response and others remain on stand-by. That response corps comprises people with specific skills. We are waiting for the UN and others to indicate that they need a particular expert or a person in a particular discipline in an area where there are gaps. That is the context within which people would come forward. It is expected that experts in logistics, telecommunications, child protection are likely to be called upon by the UN and other humanitarian organisations over the coming days and weeks. An Irish Aid technical team has left for Haiti to assess the short and medium needs and how Ireland can contribute to the relief operation. The Irish people have demonstrated their generosity in supporting appeals from a range of NGOs.
On the battle group question, Council conclusion 5 states that: "The EU and its Member States stand ready to provide additional assistance on the basis of the ongoing needs assessment, including military and civil assets, as appropriate, responding to the UN request." A key point - this also relates to the context of what we are doing here - is that the more we can channel via one source, the more we can create a coherent, concerted, focused effort. I have some concern with the plethora of agencies and people who have come forward. Approximately seven organisations with different account numbers were shown on a news broadcast the other night. My view is that we need to concentrate our efforts and make sure everybody works. That is happening so far and Irish Aid is co-ordinating the humanitarian relief effort among our NGOs and focusing on people with experience on the ground. We had three partners, in particular, in Haiti prior to the disaster, namely, Concern, Christian Aid and Médecins Sans Frontières. The situation there is appalling and we will do whatever we can to support the people there.
I sense that the logistical human resource issue is the key one. I would not necessarily accept what Deputy Costello said about the high representative, Catherine Ashton. I accept her bona fides in the sense that the key issue is the nature of the response. If every significant figure wanted to fly into Haiti, that would clog up the airport. It is not about being to seen to be doing something. In a humanitarian crisis, we just do the work. I am not interested in earning kudos nor should the Deputy be. That is not the key issue.
In terms of the Stockholm Programme, different perspectives were outlined by Deputy Timmins and Deputy Ó Snodaigh. I accept Deputy Timmins's view that we have to be ready and make sure that we are up to speed in terms of having body scanners and all the various instruments we need. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has key responsibilities in that area and is keen to ensure those are in place. Deputy Ó Snodaigh raised various issues concerning military and security matters in the event of a terrorist attack here. We have protocols in that regard and we can opt in and opt out, but the bottomline is that if a major terrorist attack occurred here, I would welcome assistance as I believe the country would. We need to examine these issues and take account of the big picture, particularly humanitarian or other civil support a country would offer, in the way we offer humanitarian and civil support to other countries that have been the subject of attack. After all, we are members of the European Union. We talk about the situation in Haiti and about other horrific events that have happened across the world and we always stand ready to support countries in such circumstances.
The citizens' initiative was raised. The Minister of State, Deputy Roche attended a meeting in Spain last week, at which this issue was significantly dealt with this issue. We would be broadly in line with what members have said on this issue. It was suggested that about a quarter of member states be the figure and not a third. We would share Deputy Timmins's view on that. It is suggested that the threshold in each member state would be 0.2%, as the Dáil committee suggested. Ireland has put forward a view that petitioners should be on the voting register to facilitate checking for fraud, to make sure that the petitioners are genuine and that the signatories are valid. If petitions are made on-line, which they probably will be, precautions need to be taken in terms of fundraising; the initiative should not be used as fundraising mechanism. During the Lisbon treaty debate, this was one of the points we trumpeted as a key advantage for people to vote "Yes" for the treaty. We would be interested in working through that with Members of the House to make sure that our citizens are fully aware of the opportunities the citizens' initiative creates for them.
The template that will emerge to facilitate the citizen's initiative is the ideal one to disseminate across the country and of which to make people aware. We are anxious to do that. We have already had some good experience in our work in this area with eumatters.ie and other websites we used during the Lisbon campaign. The eumatters.ie contained information on Europe. The communicating Europe initiative showed that on-line facilities can be useful in terms of imparting information to the public.
The European External Action Service was mentioned. It is early days yet but we are anxious, in line with what Members said, that there be Irish participation, that the service reflects the broad range of interests and perspectives that is the European Union and that small states have adequate representation on the staff, including the secondment of some of our diplomats. We are interested in this because we want to ensure, as the Taoiseach said earlier, that our influence is strong and positive. There is work to be done in this regard.
The job creation strategy is key, and the 2020 strategy - the successor to the Lisbon strategy - is also important. The Irish position is to try to maintain the central focus on job creation and growth. There will always be a danger that such strategies, when applied to a 27-country bloc, can become spread out, with a range of different strands and issues being dealt with and diluting the central focus of the strategy. For Ireland and across Europe, the focus must be jobs and growth.
I am cautious about Deputy Ó Snodaigh's final remarks. You win some and you lose some, but we have always argued for a more liberal State aid regime in Ireland; in fact, it was the hallmark of our policy for 20 or 30 years and we succeeded in attracting many multinational investors. One of the fundamental reasons we have preserved our autonomy on taxation is that our policy of corporate taxation has been key to attracting inward investment. We may lose some to other emerging countries, but we must be careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water and undermine a key feature of our industrialisation policy for more than 20 years.
I have not covered all of the issues mentioned as Members may want to ask further questions. Deputy Timmins mentioned the Middle East and the possibility of a two-state solution. We are happy with the conclusions that emerged from the Foreign Affairs Council and the European Council itself, which called for an urgent resumption of negotiations that will lead, within an agreed timeline, to a two-state solution with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable state of Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security. Paragraph 2 of the Foreign Affairs Council's conclusions states: "The European Union will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties." This is an important aspect of the conclusions decided upon at the meeting.
I thank the Minister for his response and wish to take him up on one issue - namely, the advertisements from different agencies seeking money for Haiti. Aid agencies might dispute this as a simplistic approach, but would the Minister agree that there may be merit in aid agencies' concentrating on individual geographical areas rather than different subjects or concepts? If we had one aid agency dealing with each country, it would be so much easier to manage. Perhaps that is impossible to achieve. Even here we have a plethora of organisations, including three of four farming organisations. However, such a system would be easier to administer and allow for the development of greater expertise and for economies of scale. Whenever something happens there are seven or eight different aid agencies trying to help. Perhaps this is a utopian ideal that is not possible to achieve, but I would like to hear the Minister's view on whether we should aspire to a situation in which aid agencies concentrate on certain programme countries rather than having smaller operations in many different countries.
I mentioned that certain countries sought kudos in the context of the disaster in Haiti. Others seek kudos and many international organisations are using the opportunity to promote themselves. I agree entirely with what Deputy Timmins said. We are in contact with two agencies, Christian Aid and Concern, yet neither of those was the first to come looking for funds for Haiti or to present themselves as knowing all about the situation there. We need to consider that side of things.
The European Union is the largest global donor in the world, sending around €400 million - close to half a billion euro - in aid to Haiti. Nevertheless, the perception among the public is that the EU is doing scarcely anything and that everything is being done by the United States and by the NGOs. Because of its self-effacement and modesty, the EU is not playing the necessary role as a leader of the humanitarian work that needs to be done after this terrible tragedy. That was the point I was making: not that the European Union should seek kudos per se, but that it is allowing others to do so. The EU should be out in front showing leadership.
I agree with Deputy Timmins. In fact, I have already suggested such a system to Irish Aid. It is difficult because it is a free world and any agency can say it wants to provide assistance. However, in a major catastrophe such as this there should be one fund - in this case, one Haiti trust fund - to which people can contribute, perhaps with Irish Aid deciding how the money is deployed by various agencies that have track records and expertise to offer. The key issue in emergency relief is that everyone wants to offer help. There is a genuine outpouring which we do not want to suppress. However, we need targeted, high-quality intervention that makes a difference. That is something we need to work on.
After a disaster of the type that occurred in Haiti, which was on an appalling scale, the public needs to know there is one fund to which they can contribute in addition to what the Government may contribute through Irish Aid, and everybody must co-ordinate resources. It should be possible to do this; perhaps, as a policy initiative from the Oireachtas, we should put that view forward. We need to make sure there is less duplication and overlap and that people pull together.
Yes. I take the Deputy's point. There is one airport in Haiti which, as we know, is severely limited in use. There is a genuine effort all around and everyone, including President Obama, the US Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton, and the European Union, has come together to deal with the disaster as quickly and effectively as possible. What is important is to deal with the immediate circumstances and then to ensure effort is sustained over a longer period. If anything is to come out of this there must be a prolonged international effort to ensure we do something lasting and sustainable for Haiti and its people. Haiti's poverty levels, poor infrastructure and governance issues are all contributing factors to the number of deaths and horrific injuries. That is what we need to concentrate on at the moment.
I will mention some items not covered by the Taoiseach in his opening speech, namely the conclusions on Iran and Afghanistan, which I will share with Members.
Following prior agreement at the Foreign Affairs Council on 8 December, the European Council approved a declaration on Iran which called for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question, set out the European Union's grave concerns regarding Iran's persistent failure to meet its international obligations and urged Iran to co-operate with the IAEA. The declaration also addressed the human rights situation in the country as well as the position of the British Embassy staff and that of Ms Clotilde Reiss, a French national who has been detained. The situation in Iran remains tense in the wake of the regime's hardline response to the Ashura protests of 27 December, which has led to at least eight deaths - although unofficially the figure is judged to be significantly higher - and hundreds if not thousands of people being detained, which is overwhelming the already crowded prisons.
The regime has again blamed outside interference for the protests and has intensified its campaign against what it represents as foreign enemies. The United States has described as absurd Iran's claim that it was behind a car bomb that killed an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran last week. The tension has been heightened by calls in the Iranian Parliament for the swift execution of all those guilty of what was claimed to be opposition to the regime. The response to the Ashura protests and its aftermath, which was roundly condemned by President Obama in the E3, regrettably reduces the potential for the outreach by the United States to Iran. The E3+3 Geneva dialogue, which had held out some promise, now effectively is stalled and attention has turned to the second track, namely, the possibility of securing a resolution providing for increased sanctions against Iran at the Security Council.
While the Heads of State or Government did not discuss Afghanistan at the European Council, it was thought to be the right time to issue a declaration in response to the major policy statement made on Afghanistan by President Obama on 1 December. In its declaration, the Council reiterated the strong commitment of the European Union to promoting stability and development in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Council also welcomed President Obama's policy statement. The priority needs for the country include the Afghanisation of security, policing and reconstruction operations. This will require concerted efforts to strengthen Afghan capacity. The Council also is clear that corruption must be tackled and governance improved. The European Union is firmly committed to raising human rights standards and, in particular, to improving the role of women in Afghan society. The option of trying to attract Taliban members who are prepared to renounce violence back into the political and social mainstream also is worth pursuing. An international conference on Afghanistan will be held in London on 20 January at which I will represent the Government. It will set out the steps that must be taken by the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners to turn around the situation in that country.
On the Oireachtas response to the Lisbon treaty's clauses relating to parliamentary scrutiny, decisions on the best type of instrument and mechanism to be developed in Ireland must come from the Oireachtas because this matter primarily and specifically relates to the Oireachtas. However, Members on this side of the House stand ready to help in any way they can.