Wednesday, 7 March 2012
European Council Meeting: Statements
Is mór agam an deis chun an Teach a chur ar an eolas faoi na torthaí ar chruinniú Chomhairle an Aontais Eorpaigh sa Bhruiséil Déardaoin agus Dé hAoine seo chaite, 1 agus 2 Márta.
Ar an mbeartas eacnamaíochta a bhíothas ag díriú go príomha ag cruinniú seo an earraigh den Chomhairle. Murab ionann is cuid mhaith dár gcruinnithe sa Bhruiséil le déanaí, áfach, bhí an ceann seo suaimhneach go maith. Ní raibh aon chúlra géarchéime ann, tar éis aontú ar an gcomhaontú nua don Ghréig ag deireadh Eanáir, aontú ar an gconradh nua agus ról gníomhach an Bhainc Cheannais Eorpaigh, agus airgead á chur ar fáil do bhainc aige anois. Mar sin féin, cruinniú an-tábhachtach a bhí ann, don Aontas agus dá chuid ballstát araon.
Bhí an t-am againn le haghaidh plé mionsonraithe ar bheartas eacnamaíochta an Aontais Eorpaigh, go háirithe faoin mbealach le cothromaíocht a chinntiú idir leanúint leis an gcomhdhlúthú agus gníomhú chun treisiú le poist agus le fás; d'atoghamar an tUachtarán Van Rompuy, a leanfaidh ina chathaoirleach ar an gComhairle Eorpach go deireadh na Samhna 2014; bhreathnaimear ar aghaidh ar roinnt cruinnithe mullaigh idirnáisiúnta atá romhainn; agus rinneamar roinnt ceisteanna tábhachtacha idirnáisiúnta a mheas, go háirithe staid na Siria. D'aontaíomar freisin ar stádas iarrthóra a thabhairt don tSeirbia.
Ar imeall na Comhairle, bhí mé i láthair ag an gcruinniú mullaigh sóisialta tríthaobhach agus shínigh me ar son na hÉireann an conradh nua ar chobhsaíocht, ar chomhordú agus ar rialachas san Aontas Eacnamaíoch agus Airgeadaíochta, faoi réir a dhaingnithe ag muintir na hÉireann sa reifreann atá romhainn.
Discussion on economic matters began when we first met on Thursday evening and continued over dinner. The format facilitated a free-flowing exchange among leaders. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that there is now a shared view around the European Council table that to enhance prospects for economic recovery in Europe, we also need to give real momentum to the drive to create jobs and promote growth. These are the issues that matter most to the people of Europe. I have consistently argued in favour of a balanced approach and am pleased that this has now become a real focus for our work. We are also considering how best to step-up implementation in order that all the commitments entered into are delivered upon, and I expect this is something to which we will return at our next meeting.
As I told the House last week, ahead of the meeting together with 11 of my colleagues, I wrote to President Van Rompuy and President Barroso setting out eight priority areas on which action needs to be taken to drive growth in Europe. Our letter, which was subsequently endorsed by several additional member states, formed one of the crucial inputs into our discussions on a balanced economic strategy and to our eventual conclusions on this issue.
President Van Rompuy's issues paper was another important input. Looking across a range of important economic indicators, it highlighted the extent and range of shared challenges which we continue to face in Europe. Setting existing performance out in tabular form, it made it easy to see where each member state is doing well and where further improvement is required. This underscored the fact that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to reform and recovery. We need a targeted and differentiated approach.
At the meeting I highlighted the extent of our adjustment over the past three to four years. I recalled that these have been painful adjustments for the Irish people, but that they have not been in vain and are now beginning to deliver real results, particularly with our return to growth last year, our strong export performance and our continuing ability to attract and retain investment from around the world. I highlighted the importance of our very well-educated workforce, in which we have invested as a people. Our significantly improved competitiveness position - with falls in unit labour costs and property prices - combined with a general pro-enterprise approach places us in a good position to avail of growth in our main markets. However, we are not doing as well as we should be in a number of areas. Apart from the overarching need to get people back to work urgently, we also need to do much more in terms of the availability of venture capital and investment in research, development and innovation. This highlights the importance of speedily resolving the outstanding issues surrounding the European patent of which Ireland is a strong supporter.
The meeting was an important staging post in the European semester process. We endorsed the five priorities for 2012 set out in the Commission's annual growth survey, which include growth friendly consolidation, restoring normal lending, promoting growth and competitiveness, and tackling unemployment. These priorities will be reflected in the national reform programmes to be submitted by member states in April under the Europe 2020 strategy. As we are a programme country, we are not obliged to submit a full national reform programme - meeting our programme targets remains our goal - but we will in any case provide a progress report.
We also discussed preliminary findings and best practices relating to the 2011 country-specific recommendations under the semester process and commitments under the Euro Plus Pact. We agreed that, while important measures have been taken by all member states, reforms in certain areas are lagging behind and implementation is uneven. Furthermore, we noted that the Commission's recently published alert mechanism report points to certain challenges and potential risks of macroeconomic imbalances, and we urged the Council, the Commission and member states to act to address these issues swiftly.
We also acknowledged that resolute action is required on unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. We called on member states to increase efforts to make it easier and more attractive for employers to hire people, to remove barriers to the creation of new jobs, and to implement active labour market policies, particularly to strengthen the participation of young people, women and older workers in the labour market.
The Commission will shortly publish an employment package which will focus on strengthening growth through mobilising Europe's workforce, promoting job creation in key sectors, and improving management of skills needs. Removing barriers to professional mobility will be a welcome focus. This is another example of how the vital work we are doing at national level in Ireland through the jobs action plan can be complemented and reinforced through action at European level. Again, this is the type of focus we need.
Through its meetings at the end of January and last week, the European Council has now mapped out an extensive programme of work for the period ahead, completing the Single Market, including in the digital area, and supporting our SMEs in order that more jobs can be created. We have identified our priorities - those areas with the greatest potential to contribute to growth - many of which will be right at the top of the agenda during Ireland's Presidency in the first half of next year. We look forward to making progress on issues that are of great concern to our businesses and our people, whether it be reducing the costs of high-speed broadband infrastructure or making it easier for people with professional qualifications to move and work across Europe. We will seek to make life easier for businesses, including cutting the red-tape burden and advancing measures to support micro-enterprises.
There is now a better fit between this renewed emphasis on the growth agenda at EU level and our own national emphasis through the programme for Government. Later today, the Tánaiste and I will publish a progress report on the implementation of the programme for Government. What we now need is to ensure implementation both at national and European level. The House can be assured that I will be keeping the pressure up on this.
I therefore welcome agreement at the meeting that we can do more to ensure ownership and responsibility at the level of the European Council for driving this work forward. More effective peer pressure has a role to play. We have therefore asked the Commission to provide scoreboards of how we are all performing, and we have asked President Van Rompuy to ensure that progress on Single Market issues is regularly monitored by the European Council.
Meetings of the European Council should be productive, producing real outcomes and real results. The Deputy opposite would be surprised from where that proposal came. One of the leading countries said: "We have a lot to do ourselves."
The European Council also set the European Union's priorities for the forthcoming G20 meeting on 18 and 19 June, with a particular emphasis on growth enhancing measures and reforms. We were also informed about preparations for the G8 Summit on 19 and 20 May.
The European Council underlined its strong support for an ambitious outcome at the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development which will take place in Brazil from 20 to 22 June. We stressed the need for strong participation by the private sector and civil society at the conference and set out some key principles to guide the EU preparations. These include advancing the global transition towards a green economy, contributing to a strengthened global institutional framework for sustainable development, and advancing the work on global and coherent post-2015 goals for sustainable development.
The European Council considered a number of foreign policy issues, including developments in the southern neighbourhood. We made a clear statement of support for the ongoing democratic transformation which is sweeping across the European Union's southern boundaries, across North Africa and the Middle East and Gulf region.
We also took stock of international developments, particularly the situation in Syria. While there was not time for an in-depth discussion, the European Council agreed strong conclusions which demand that the Syrian authorities immediately stop the massive violence and human rights abuses being inflicted on the civilian population. These actions against the people of Syria are outrageous and reprehensible. We asked the Foreign Affairs Council to prepare further targeted sanctions against the regime in order to increase pressure on it and stated our determination to ensure those responsible for the atrocities are held accountable. I fully support the conclusions, including the call for President Assad to step aside and the insistence that international humanitarian agencies be given access. The European Union has mobilised humanitarian funding and stands ready to step it up as soon as conditions on the ground allow. For its part, the Government announced on Monday that it would make up to €500,000 available to Irish Aid's partner humanitarian agencies working on the ground. The funds will be made available to the Red Cross and UN agencies operating in Syria, as well as in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The European Council will continue to support international efforts to end the violence and meet the considerable humanitarian needs in Syria, including by the Arab League, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who is the joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, and the Friends of the Syrian People Group which held its first meeting on 24 February in Tunis, at which Ireland was represented by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The European Council noted with concern the deteriorating situation of human rights in Belarus. We welcomed the decision in January by the Foreign Affairs Council to extend the list of those subject to ED sanctions, including a visa ban and asset freeze, not only to those responsible for the repression of civil society and the democratic opposition but also to those supporting or benefiting from their association with the Lukashenko regime. The European Council invited the Foreign Affairs Council to proceed with its work on further measures and underlined its support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus.
Following on from consideration by the Foreign Affairs Council and the General Affairs Council earlier in the week, the European Council agreed to grant the status of candidate country to Serbia. I very much welcome this step as recognition of the work done. In December we set three conditions which focused on moving forward the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue which attempts to normalise relations between the two parties. I am pleased to report that sufficient progress was made to satisfy member states of the bona fides of the Serbian Government and its engagement with Kosovo. Candidate status is, of course, just the first step on the road to EU membership. A further decision by the European Council will be required to open accession negotiations. With parliamentary elections due in Serbia in May, I do not expect much more movement on this issue until after the summer. Nevertheless, this decision is concrete assurance for the Serb people of their future within the European Union. After a decade of conflict followed by a decade of recovery and stalemate, we are seeing a serious commitment on the part of Serbia to a future in the Union. Ireland will continue to support Serbia's European perspective, as we do for all the countries of the western Balkans.
I was delighted to join my colleagues in re-electing Herman Van Rompuy to serve as President of the European Council for a further two and a half years. We have been very fortunate to have President Van Rompuy at the helm during the very difficult past two years and his continued leadership is to be warmly welcomed. Those of us in the euro area also agreed that he should be the first President of the euro summit.
While in Brussels, I also attended the tripartite social summit held on Thursday morning last, ahead of the European Council. The attendance included representatives of both the ICTU and IBEC. I was accompanied at this meeting by the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. This was an important opportunity to engage with EU social partners and our discussions focussed on social dialogue as a key instrument for restoring growth and jobs. This was Ireland's first formal obligation as Presidency in waiting of the Council in 2013.
As I announced in the Dáil, I also took part in the ceremony last Friday morning in which the new stability treaty was signed. Of course, signature is a separate matter from ratification which will, as the Government announced last week, require the consent of the people in a referendum. I took the opportunity during the meeting last Thursday night to inform my European Council colleagues of the Government's decision. They appreciated my briefing but were very clear that, while they wished to see Ireland ratify the tratify, this was a matter for Ireland and its people. I look forward to the campaign ahead and putting the strong case for ratification to the people. I signed the treaty last Friday because I fundamentally believe it is in Ireland's national interest to do so, as it will represent another important step on the road towards recovery. It will also build on the steady progress the country has made in the past year. This progress has seen international and investor confidence in Ireland rising, leading to many new investments that will create new jobs for the people. I want this flow of investment to continue and expand.
Within a currency union such as the eurozone it is manifestly in the interests of all that each member pursues responsible budgetary policies. The crisis has brought home to all that the action, or inaction, of one member can have highly significant and detrimental consequences for the rest of the currency union. The Government is deeply committed to getting Ireland's finances back on track and reducing our debt to more sustainable levels. This is work we would be doing in the interests of the people with or without the new treaty. It is the only responsible way forward.
We are determined to restore our economic sovereignty and return to borrowing on the open markets. We do not want to be subject to a programme for a second longer than is necessary. Having a stable and secure environment is the best way to achieve this and the treaty will make an important contribution in that regard. Not least, it will ensure those who choose to ratify will have access to the ESM. It is my intention to lead Ireland out of our programme. Having an insurance policy in place - ensuring continuing access to a stream of funding - will increase the confidence of investors and lenders in doing business with Ireland. This can only contribute to our recovery.
I look forward to making the strong case for ratification to the people and ensuring that this time they will be provided with adequate information in order that they will be abe to make an informed decision when they vote. This is an opportunity for Ireland to send a strong message about where it is going and where it wants to be, that it is strong and confident, and backed by a stable and secure currency. Ratifying the treaty will be another important step forward in that regard.
There will be ample time in the period ahead to argue the merits of the treaty. However, I can point to one key distinction that marks it out as being different from the EU treaties we have ratified. On this occasion only 12 ratifications are required for the treaty to enter into force. That means, in very simple terms, our decision is for ourselves alone. A decision to participate will, without question, be welcomed by our partners, but if we decide not to do so, they will move ahead without us. The choice is ours and ours alone. It will have significant implications for our future position and role at the heart of Europe.
I very much welcome the focus and outcome of last week's meeting of the European Council. Our conclusions represent important progress across a broad range of issues from job creation and growth and the conclusion of the first phase of this year's European semester to preparations for a range of forthcoming international summits and pressing foreign policy concerns. We have set out an ambitious programme of work, and delivery and implementation are key. After recent meetings, I am more confident that we now have the right focus and direction.