Dáil debates

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

EU Bodies

11:15 pm

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, all the best in his new brief and congratulate him on his appointment to the role. I am sure he will continue the excellent work done previously by his constituency colleague, Deputy McEntee. The Minister of State and I have discussed matters pertaining to Europe and, indeed, Brexit, many times in recent years in the media and various other forums. As he well knows and has seen in recent months, Ireland holds a great deal of influence around the world, particularly in the EU. In recent years, two Irish people have held the vital role of Secretary General of the European Commission. Ms Emily O'Reilly is the current European Ombudsman, while Ms Emer Cooke is head of the European Medicines Agency.

However, all is not well. These achievements do not hide the fact that officials expect a significant reduction in the number of Irish officials working in the EU institutions in the coming years as many high-ranking officials are nearing retirement age. There was a surge of talented Irish people taking up roles in the European institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, but our representation there has not been consistently replenished. Like our colleagues in Denmark, we are well below the replacement level, which will reduce Ireland's influence. Ireland has an incredibly strong diplomatic presence around the world. We must not allow that to fall by the wayside within the EU which is so close to home. Since 2015, only five Irish citizens have entered the EU Concours programme, while 150 have completed a blue book traineeship.

The programme for Government commits to developing a strategy to increase Ireland's presence in the senior ranks of the EU institutions. The best way to do that is to encourage and facilitate young Irish people who apply for internships or entry-level positions. It is vital that a plan be published to support and promote this strategy as soon as possible. Another way of maintaining our influence would be to second civil servants to EU institutions where needed and appropriate. On average, 24 secondments take place annually to the EU. The scheme is vital in building up expertise in the Civil Service and should be expanded.

There is much more that can be done. To put it bluntly, Ireland struggles in the context of foreign languages. While most of the measures that would address this problem are outside the remit of the Minister of State, I hope he will put pressure on the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to roll out an increased focus on European languages at primary level.

Beyond that, we need to be more creative. On the day of his funeral, perhaps we could take a page out of Jack Charlton's book. How many Irish citizens are living in Brussels, may have grown up there and are keen to pursue a career in the EU institutions? Ireland is far more cosmopolitan now than it was when we joined the EEC. Many young Irish graduates are multilingual as their parents grew up outside Ireland.

Unfortunately, there is an issue that relates to our native language. Dozens of positions for Irish lawyer linguists are not being filled. There are extremely lucrative careers for Gaeilgeoirs in the EU which could provide Ireland with great influence. How can we make the most of that opportunity?

Moving beyond the issue of language, the Concours is an unwieldy and difficult examination process that requires dedicated supports to be provided to candidates by the State. In addition to the extremely important third level recruitment campaigns in which the Minister of State will doubtless take part - I have taken part in them in a private capacity - there is far more that needs to be done at the stage after traineeships. Irish candidates for the Concours need real support in the process. We need to encourage Irish people who are already living in Brussels to apply for these positions. It may be possible to engage with Irish people who have recently retired from the EU institutions with a view to them providing a mentoring service.

In the context of Brexit, we have seen European solidarity in its finest form. The solidarity with Ireland shown by our European partners and the EU institutions during the Brexit process is the result of many years of strong Irish influence on and within the EU. It is, therefore, vital that we address this glaring problem. We need a revamp and an imaginative strategy to address this issue because, simply, time will not wait for us.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he is aware, dealing with this issue is a key commitment of the programme for Government and, in fact, a key personal commitment of mine. It is an issue I identified early on as one I wish to champion in my role. I am glad that the Deputy is singing from the same hymn sheet, as I knew he would.

Ireland's membership of the EU brings with it a range of employment possibilities for Irish citizens in the EU institutions. We have punched above our weight at EU level for many decades, with the most notable current examples of that being Ms Emily O'Reilly, the European Ombudsman, as well as a number of very senior officials in the European Commission. Of course, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, was recently elected president of the Eurogroup. As Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I was in contact with colleagues regarding that election. A former Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, serves as EU special representative for human rights. A former Deputy from my county, John Bruton, has served as the EU's ambassador to the US. It is noteworthy that an Irish official, Ms Emer Cooke, was recently selected as the incoming executive director of the European Medicines Agency. She will be the first woman to lead that regulatory agency since it was formed 25 years ago.

Ireland has benefitted greatly from its citizens having key roles in the institutions. Mr. David O'Sullivan and Ms Catherine Day are two of the most recent Secretaries General of the European Commission. Irish officials working in the EU institutions know our culture, system and priorities and can provide a crucial understanding of the Irish context during the process of policy formulation and implementation at EU level. However, as the Deputy stated, it has become clear in recent years that we are heading for a demographic cliff in the context of our representation within the EU. Approximately 29% of Irish officials there are over 58 years of age and will retire within the next decade. The level of Irish representation will fall dramatically in light of projected retirements. As the Deputy stated, we are far below the replacement rate at our current rates of recruitment and that poses a serious challenge for us.

That is why the programme for Government commits to the development of a new strategy to increase the presence of Irish people in the senior ranks and generally in the EU institutions. We will also aim to increase the number of young Irish people applying for internships and we will work with Irish officials and universities on outreach.

The strategy, which I have already started to work on, will build on and bring together the significant work already being done by the Government and by my predecessor in this role, the current Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy McEntee. I echo the compliments Deputy Richmond expressed about her. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade runs the EU jobs campaign, which promotes careers in the EU. As part of the EU jobs campaign, my predecessor as well as Department officials attended careers events in a range of universities in 2019 and 2020. I will also participate in those as part of the strategy, virtually or in-person, as public health guidance permits. The EU jobs campaign also provides support to Irish candidates and provides direct assistance to Irish citizens who have applied for permanent jobs in the EU institutions, providing information and advice for the duration of the recruitment competition. Only tonight, a constituent contacted me for guidance on those processes and procedures because they are very difficult.

My Department also works closely with the European Personnel Selection Office, the key body responsible for the recruitment of staff to the institutions, on the EU career ambassadors programme. This programme works in collaboration with Irish universities to select around a dozen students each year to promote career opportunities in the EU to their fellow students. We work with a range of other stakeholders, including the Public Appointments Service and European Movement Ireland, in this regard as well. The recruitment of Irish graduates to the European Commission through AD5 competitions has been at the rate of one to two successful candidates a year. While this might not seem very impressive, it is proportionate to our population. However, this will not be sufficient to match the numbers of those expected to retire in the coming years and we will be reinforcing our efforts very significantly in the coming weeks and months.

11:25 pm

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply and am heartened by the enthusiasm he and I share for this process. It is a very difficult process that lies ahead of everyone, not just the Minister of State. It behoves everyone in this House and throughout society to see more Irish people working within the EU. One of my biggest criticisms of the European project - I do occasionally criticise it - is its inability to sell itself. The European Commission is brilliant at informing people as to how they can criticise the Commission and its work but it does not sell the brilliant achievements it has made over the last 60 or so years. Equally, the Irish Government is not selling Europe. Regardless of what party is in power and what party holds the Minister of State's brief, we are not selling Europe. We are not convincing young Irish graduates that a career in the European institutions should be an attractive one. I will declare an interest. I lived on the Continent for two years and did not pursue that career for personal reasons. We need to make sure that people realise employment in the European institutions is lucrative and well paid and offers great opportunities for travel and to build experience. Many people have countered this saying it may be because of the economic boom in Ireland but that is not a fair comparison. I encourage the Minister of State to look at some of the more imaginative suggestions I have made on attracting talent. I very much welcome his commitment to engage with stakeholders. Vital among them is European Movement Ireland. I also urge the Minister of State to engage with the College of Europe. Every year, Irish individuals go to the College of Europe on scholarship but how many of them, having been trained to work in the European institutions, go on to work in the Commission, Parliament or Council? How many of them instead work in the private sector? While the latter is a fine choice, it does not always benefit Ireland Inc. and our importance of imagination.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting my Topical Issue matter and thank the Minister of State for his engagement.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Since taking up office as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I have met my officials on this issue. It is a priority to address the decreased number of Irish people working in the institutions. With that in mind, I have had extensive meetings on this to continue to develop the strategy that is already under way thanks to my predecessor. I have arranged a number of meetings with stakeholders for the coming weeks. The Deputy raises the very important point that it is not simply about the application procedure and encouraging people. We have deficiencies in this country in terms of languages. Certainly in the programme for Government negotiations I was very keen to have the modern languages initiative reinstated at primary school. That is in the programme for Government and I will working on that with my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills. We have a national hang-up about languages and it is about time we got over it. I do not know what the reason is but we are bad at learning languages and that includes our national language. I was very pleased to speak Irish last week at the General Affairs Council. There is not much point in fighting for its status and then not using the language when we have that status.

The programme for Government makes a very clear commitment to the development of a new strategy to increase the presence of Irish people in the senior ranks of institutions and in respect of the number of young people. This is a critical issue for this country. I join the Deputy in saying that it is so important for us to constantly talk about the benefits of European Union membership. I have endeavoured to do so even over the last two days. The very fact of an agreement at European level this weekend, that give and take, those negotiations, those tough talks will undoubtedly bring immense benefits to all of the European Union. We have seen that over the decades and will continue to benefit from it. We have peace and stability in Europe and thank God for it.

I would be more than happy to engage with all colleagues in the House and with Deputy Richmond on this issue. It is a challenge that, working together, we can address. I fully intend to continue to build upon the work of my predecessors on this issue and to bring real improvements to the numbers of Irish people working in the institutions. I also wish to pay tribute to those who are working in this country in the various offices and agencies of the institutions, including at Grange in my constituency.