Wednesday, 5 April 2006
European Council: Statements.
Is onóir dom bheith ar ais arís i Seanad Éireann chun freastal ar an ábhar an-tábhachtach seo faoi eachtraí na tíre seo san Aontas Eorpach. Tá mé buíoch go bhfuil deis agam labhairt faoin Chomhairle Eorpach a bhí againn sechtain ó shin.
The Taoiseach represented Ireland at the European Council in Brussels on 23 and 24 March 2006. He was accompanied by the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Finance, Deputies Dermot Ahern and Cowen. The conclusions of the Council have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Lisbon strategy, adopted by the European Council in 2000, was reviewed at its mid-term point by the Heads of State and Government last year. Following the work undertaken by Ireland during its Presidency in 2004, the strategy was refocused, with a greater emphasis on growth and jobs. This was the first opportunity since the mid-term review of the strategy for EU leaders to assess progress on the broad economic and social agenda facing the European Union. In addition, the European Council adopted comprehensive conclusions on a planned new energy policy for Europe. The Ministers for Foreign Affairs collectively discussed the future of Europe and enlargement, and I propose to report also on these discussions.
The meeting took place in an extremely positive atmosphere. It took important decisions, not least as regards energy policy, and provided for a comprehensive review of the state of progress with the Lisbon strategy. Progress has been made on a number of significant issues, including some of particular importance to Ireland. The meeting followed the successful informal meeting of Heads of State and Government at Hampton Court in October last year, and the December European Council at which agreement was reached on the future financial framework for the enlarged European Union for the period from 2007-13.
The European Council has clearly demonstrated once again the capacity of the European Union to function effectively in a manner that delivers tangible benefits in the interests of our citizens. The new energy policy for Europe was the central issue for this European Council and the Taoiseach has reported in detail on the discussions and on the conclusions to the meeting. The three main objectives underpinning the new policy, namely, security of supply, ensuring the continuing competitiveness of Europe's economies and promoting environmental sustainability, are of central importance to Ireland and the future success of our economy.
During the European Council's discussions on energy, the Taoiseach explicitly rejected the nuclear option for Ireland. As the Taoiseach has made clear, the EU's work on energy will not in any way affect our national policy of rejecting nuclear power generation in Ireland. The proposed new energy policy fully recognises that decisions on the primary sources of energy and energy mix remain firmly the responsibility of the member states. The Government is strongly opposed to nuclear power and it is our resolute intention that no facilities for generating nuclear power will be constructed in Ireland. This is already enshrined in our legislation.
A number of EU countries share Ireland's opposition to nuclear power, while others are more favourably disposed towards nuclear generation. Everyone accepts, however, that this choice is one for each Government to make. In the discussions at EU level we will, of course, also continue to push for the highest possible standards for the operation of nuclear plants and the disposal of nuclear waste material.
Ireland has much to gain from the development of a European energy policy. The conclusions reflect our view that the development of regional energy co-operation in the EU should pay particular attention to countries and regions largely isolated from the EU energy market. Ireland, along with the Baltic states, Cyprus and Malta is very much on the periphery of the EU energy market. Our small markets are not necessarily attractive to major energy companies and we therefore have difficulties in mobilising private sector investment for energy. At the European Council, the Taoiseach addressed the importance Ireland attaches to suitable provision for interconnection, including in the context of the European Union's state aid rules.
We are, of course, only at the preliminary stage in the evolution of a new energy policy and Ireland has highlighted a number of important questions for consideration as the debate develops, including the role of a possible European energy regulator and the importance of renewable energy. We are pleased that the EU's ambitious new work programme on energy is very much in line with the Government's approach. The revised arrangements for taking forward the Lisbon strategy provide for the preparation of three-year national reform programmes by member states and for their submission to the European Commission. In Ireland's case, our national reform programme, containing our plans for implementing the Lisbon strategy, and prepared in consultation with the social partners, was placed before the Houses of the Oireachtas in October of last year.
The European Council conclusions deal with the broad range of Lisbon Agenda issues but devote special attention to three particularly important areas, namely, investing in knowledge and innovation; unlocking the business potential of small and medium sized enterprises; and increasing employment opportunities for priority groups such as young people, women, older workers, people with disabilities, legal migrants and minorities.
The European Council agreed to work towards new targets on reducing early school leaving and boosting youth employment. In particular, the European Council agreed that by 2010, every unemployed young person should be offered a job, apprenticeship, additional training or other measure within no more than four months. A target of 85% was set for the completion of upper secondary education by 22 year olds. In the case of Ireland, the latest data show that with an 86.1% record, we already exceed the European Council's target and are well above the EU average which currently stands at 77.3%.
The European Council also adopted a target designed to reduce the time for setting up a business. The idea is that by the end of 2007, it should be possible to do so within one week anywhere in the European Union. At present, it takes only three days to set up a business in Ireland.
In order to contribute to Europe's competitiveness and also to bring Europe closer to our citizens, the Taoiseach suggested that the EU should look at the possibility of reducing or eliminating mobile phone roaming charges for people travelling within the EU. This proposal draws on the progress already made on this issue on a North-South basis and between Ireland and Britain. The Presidency welcomed this suggestion and it is now referred to in the European Council conclusions. Since the European Council, Commissioner Reding, on 28 March last, announced that she planned to introduce a regulation to eliminate all unjustified roaming charges in the EU. We will continue to give priority to the ultimate elimination of these charges.
The conclusions also addressed two other matters of particular importance to us. They reflect our view that the EU's state aid rules should encourage and facilitate a high level of investment in Europe and make Europe attractive for future inward investment. We must ensure that the desire for a level playing field on state aids within Europe, which we fully endorse, does not undermine Europe's capacity to continue to attract high quality investment projects that will help underpin Europe's future competitiveness. The European Council's conclusions recognise this.
The European Council recognised that the internal market for services must be made fully operational while preserving Europe's social model. Ireland continues to endorse the need for a balanced services directive which captures the advantages of a more liberalised market in services while protecting the rights and interests of workers. We are studying closely the amended version of the draft directive which the European Commission presented yesterday. This is likely to be the subject of intensive negotiations within the European Council in the months ahead.
The European Council also adopted a pact for gender equality to encourage action on closing gender gaps in the labour market, promoting a better work-life balance and better monitoring of gender equality actions. The European Council deplored the recent presidential election in Belarus as fatally flawed. We welcome the fact the EU has signalled its determination to impose sanctions against those politically and administratively responsible for violations of international electoral standards in Belarus.
As I mentioned at the outset, Foreign Ministers discussed the future of Europe and enlargement. These are two issues that generate intense political interest and the Presidency's aim was to initiate a broad debate. This discussion marked the beginning of a process that will continue for the remaining months of the Austrian Presidency as EU Foreign Ministers prepare a review of the current period of reflection which is to be put before the Heads of State and Government when they next meet in June.
Inevitably, member states hold divergent views on these issues. A number, for example, consider that the European constitution cannot be implemented now. Even among this group, however, there are those which want to see some or all of its contents implemented on a piecemeal basis. Others, particularly the 14 countries which have already ratified the European constitution, consider that it represents the optimum framework for creating a more efficient and effective Union. We subscribe strongly to this latter view. We recognise that progress with the ratification of the European constitution is not possible for the time being but we hope that circumstances will change during 2007 and that we may then be able to resume the ratification process in Ireland.
Our view that more time is required before we can revisit the issues impeding the ratification of the European constitution was reinforced by the Foreign Ministers' discussions at the European Council. We are not saying, however, that nothing can be done before 2007. The period of reflection which has been under way since June 2005 has been a valuable opportunity for Europeans to reflect on the kind of Union they want for the future.
In Ireland, the work of our National Forum on Europe has played a key role in helping refine our thinking on the future of Europe. I pay tribute to Senator Maurice Hayes and his management team for the outstanding work done. I also pay tribute to members of the forum for their individual and collective contributions to its work. On the day when the European Council convened in Brussels, the European forum here was hearing submissions from individuals and organisations throughout Ireland. If we are to succeed in engaging Europeans more actively in EU affairs, this is exactly the type of initiative which needs to be pursued across the European Union on an ongoing basis.
As we see it, this is a time for Europe to focus on tangible achievements instead of agonising over institutional complexities which are of little interest to most people. In his intervention, the Minister for Foreign Affairs stressed the need to build on the EU's genuine successes. These range from the creation of the euro at one end of the scale to the work now being undertaken on roaming charges or on the development of a harmonised driving licence. These are some of the areas where the EU can prove its worth and win increased levels of public approval.
As regards enlargement, the accession of Bulgaria and Romania will mark the completion of the fifth round of enlargement, increasing the membership of the European Union from 15 to 27 countries. Negotiations have begun with Croatia and Turkey and the European Union has also renewed its commitment to the Thessalonika Agenda, which foresees a European perspective for the countries of the western Balkans. Ireland has always been supportive of enlargement, not least perhaps because we were among its first beneficiaries when we joined back in 1973. There can be no doubt that the prospect of membership exerts a strong and stabilising force on potential members.
The recent accession of the countries of central and eastern Europe was a momentous achievement and it would be unfair and unwise to close the door to other European nations which aspire to membership of the EU. It is in all our interests to continue a carefully managed enlargement process that extends peace, prosperity and enhanced human rights across our Continent.
It is clear the European Union has work to do to prepare itself for any future enlargement. It is also evident that the public has considerable concerns about future enlargement and that these need to be responded to by governments. For now, however, the priority must be to make a success of the enlarged European Union.
At the recent ministerial discussion, the Minister for Foreign Affairs made the point that we need to offer EU citizens a clear strategy for future enlargement which is based on objective conditions and realistic commitments. We will continue to take a constructive and pragmatic approach to enlargement while giving due weight to the need for future candidate countries to be able to meet the obligations of membership. We must also attend to the European Union's absorption capacity.
This discussion was a useful first step for Foreign Ministers in an area of work which will have a high priority during the next three months. The Presidency has now proposed an additional meeting of Foreign Ministers likely to be held in late May. This will result in a report to the June European Council reviewing the period of reflection and determining what further steps are required to facilitate the completion of the ratification process for the EU constitution.
During the Foreign Minister's dinner, the Minister for Foreign Affairs also raised the recent ETA ceasefire and complimented the Spanish Government on this breakthrough. He was one of a number of Ministers who exhorted the Presidency to issue a statement expressing the EU's concerns about the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay and urging its closure.
The spring European Council was a constructive meeting that focused on the real needs of our citizens. As reflected in the meeting's conclusions, Heads of State and Government have advanced the Lisbon Agenda for growth and jobs. New ground has been broken in the critically important area of energy policy. Discussion among Foreign Ministers will help prepare the way for important decisions both on the European constitution and the future of Europe.
Overall, this was a very satisfactory European Council which dealt constructively with a range of key economic issues vital to the future well-being of Ireland and of the European Union as a whole. The Austrian Presidency is to be commended on the success of the spring European Council. I trust that this puts the conclusions of the recent European Council in context for the Members of this House.
I thank the Minister of State for his statement, which sets out the main content of the European Council meeting. As I stated in another forum, it is very important that there be debate in plenary form in both Houses when a Council meeting occurs. It does not always follow that we have an opportunity to contribute to such debate.
My abiding memory of the most recent Council meeting was the walk-out by President Chirac when one of the Commissioners decided to speak in English rather than French. I regarded this as a rather petulant response by the leader of one of the biggest and most influential countries in the European Union. I often wonder whether someone such as François Mitterrand would have responded in such a way.
The Minister of State's assessment was upbeat but I do not share his optimism. I will explain why this is the case. There is currently profound instability in the European Union and it lacks the moral and political leadership to steer us through this very difficult time. That there is a period of reflection, which started in 2005 and will not end until at least 2007, demonstrates the dilemma at the heart of the European project. This emanates from the rejection of the constitution in both France and Holland.
Europe is being blamed for every ill that befalls nation states. Last weekend, on 1 April, an alleged joke on the part of the national broadcaster indicated that the Minister for Transport had just signed automatically a new law such that all drivers would have to drive on the right hand side of the road. This is an example of the narrow-minded way in which Europe is constantly blamed for all the ills that befall this society. When things go right for the Government, it is regarded as the achievement of the Government and when things go wrong, Brussels is blamed.
The lack of political and moral leadership in the European project must be addressed. I say this in the knowledge that the Government wants to move forward with the ratification of the constitution. It ensured that a great amount of political capital was invested in the convention and the final text of the constitution, of which we had a part in negotiating so successfully. However, while we must recognise the difficulties that exist at the heart of the European project, we should not over-exaggerate them.
There is currently a two-speed Europe — a western Europe and an eastern Europe and they are both very different. Last year a constituent of mine employed seven people in the area of web design in his communications business but all these jobs are now outsourced to Latvia and Poland. They were lost in Ireland because the constituent can run his business at a tenth of the cost by employing people from those countries. This is an example of the two-speed Europe.
The Stability and Growth Pact serves as another example in that one law applies to the big countries and another to Ireland and other small countries. We have seen too many examples of the Maastricht guidelines being broken routinely by the Italians, French and Germans while small countries such as Ireland were rapped across the knuckles for adhering to the guidelines and the Stability and Growth Pact. This contradiction must be addressed sooner rather than later. Totally different sets of standards apply in this area of key policy, to which we have all signed up as a result of our support for and implementation of the euro.
The European Union has particular problems associated with unemployment. The demonstrations in France over the past week or so highlight the great problem of youth unemployment, which also exists in Poland. This must be addressed and this is why I refer to a two-speed Europe. One side is doing very well and ensuring high levels of employment and growth while the other is languishing, thus having an effect on the Union.
President Barroso, in the course of his contribution at the meeting of the Council, summed up the matter very well by saying we cannot be open for business with the rest of the world and closed to each other. Commissioner McCreevy also struck the right note when he warned about the futility of building political "Maginot lines" around a member state's economy. We have seen examples of this. The current dispute between Italy and France in respect of the purchasing of an international energy company is an example of the new economic nationalism that has taken hold owing to a lack of political leadership on the part of some EU countries. The dispute between the French and Italians demonstrates the existence of a neonationalist economic identity which must be recognised. Unfortunately, nobody at Council level or at the Commission is sounding out the matter or saying we need to do more to ensure harmonisation.
I very much welcome the fact that, as a result of the Council meeting, we are seeing the start of a new single energy market in the European Union. The countries of the Union, Ireland in particular, are dependent on energy resources from outside the Union. Some 91% of Ireland's energy is imported and it is very dependent on oil and gas. We know these fuels will not be available indefinitely. We recently noted the dispute between the Russian Federation and the Ukraine, as referred to by the Minister of State. It demonstrated our dependence on a supply of oil and gas which, if turned off tomorrow, would greatly dent Irish economic performance. It is therefore right and proper, not just in terms of the North-South interconnector, which we all support, that we have a single energy market in the European Union. I commend the Council on moving in this direction. If we are serious about ensuring future energy supply, we must address the issue of renewable energy and biofuels and move rapidly to become less dependent on oil and gas. I ask the Government to further the agenda of creating a new energy market in the Union because it will be crucial to the continuing growth of our economy.
I welcome the announcement on ETA by the Council. The Spanish Government is to be congratulated on its work in this area. The announcement by ETA of an unconditional, permanent ceasefire was considerably more advantageous than the announcement of the initial ceasefire by the IRA over ten years ago, and it is to be congratulated on this. Any measures the European Union can introduce in the Basque region to support and sustain the ceasefire, and the peace process I hope will flow from it, should be supported.
One of the positive results of the Council meeting concerns roaming charges. I commend the Government on raising this issue. We need to focus on practical measures that the ordinary citizens in Europe can see are being implemented by their politicians. If we can abolish roaming charges, as referred to by the telecommunications Commissioner last week, we will be taking a very practical, consumer-friendly step regarding an issue that many European citizens rightly highlight. I encourage the Government to continue its efforts to achieve this.
These are the kinds of practical issues on which we must concentrate because we do not have any plan B. According to my humble judgment, we do not have political leadership of sufficient weight in the European Union, nor do we have the Mitterrands or Kohls to bring us out of the morass we are in. I wish we did.
l welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tracey, to the House for this debate. This is exactly the kind of discussion the Seanad should be having and as the Seanad develops in the years to come it is important that we are given further opportunity to engage in debate on EU matters. Since I became spokesperson on European affairs, I have been trying to take the lead on having such debates in this House in order to reach out to the citizens and inform them as to what is going on and the potential of the European institutions. These debates will become more important in the future and while the Dáil may not have adequate time to debate such matters, the Seanad can certainly fill that role.
While the recent European Council meeting may not have attracted the same level of headlines that some previous meetings have enjoyed, for the long-term future of Europe it was no less significant. By putting the emphasis on energy policy and the further development of the Lisbon Agenda, the European Council emphasised the importance it puts on the mid-term growth of the EU and having a policy vision that is not just concerned with the here and now.
As we know the Lisbon Agenda was agreed in March 2000, when the EU Heads of State and Government agreed to make the EU "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010". Although some progress was made on innovating Europe's economy, there has been growing concern that the reform process is not going fast enough and that the ambitious targets will not be reached. On 22 and 23 March 2005, the Council discussed the Commission's mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy for economic, social and environmental renewal. More focus on growth and employment, simplification and national ownership via national action plans were the key elements to relaunch the Lisbon reforms agenda.
The most recent meeting has concentrated on addressing the progress made on a broad range of Lisbon Agenda related matters. I welcome that it also agreed to focus on three particular issues, namely, investing in knowledge and innovation, unlocking the business potential of small and medium-sized enterprises and increasing employment opportunities for priority groups. The Taoiseach also referred to three national programmes running in this country, namely, Science Foundation Ireland's centres for science, engineering and technology programme, the Skillnets training networks programme, the one-step-up programme and the wage subsidy scheme.
In particular, the Skillnets programme offers a real template for other EU countries to follow. Skillnets provides knowledge, experience and most importantly funding for organisations and companies to train their staff effectively for the benefit of the staff, the business, the sector and ultimately the domestic economy. Skillnets offers an alternative to off-the-shelf training products by allowing companies to design and implement training programmes that are 100% relevant and match their exact requirements. The approach to training is unique and innovative allowing companies with similar training needs come together to form networks. Obviously, this approach could be repeated throughout the EU and it is to the Government's credit that this programme was developed on our shores.
We all know why it is important to invest in knowledge and innovation. This country's economy is perhaps the best placed of all EU countries to realise this. In this global economic age, the EU will not be able to compete in wage costs with developing economies in other parts of the world. However, we can offer more developed skills that would not be available elsewhere. To achieve this step we must continue to invest in the knowledge-based economy and to ensure that our skill set is at the upper end of the marketplace.
It is also important that we offer greater opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises. While big businesses around the globe move to ever-greater levels of consolidation, these businesses are dependent on smaller enterprises to service them. We should also remember that while the larger companies provide significant levels of employment, the cumulative numbers offered by small and medium-sized businesses are even more impressive and arguably more important. The more businesses of this size any economy has, the less fear it has of the potentially disastrous effects of a company shutting down.
We also need to be able to innovate in our entrepreneurial undertakings. All big businesses originally started off small and grew bigger. If we want such businesses to develop then the climate must encourage them to get started in the first place, create a more favourable environment, simplify administration procedures and have easy to apply EU rules. With these issues in mind I was happy to see the Council agree a target of reducing the time needed to start a business to only one week anywhere in the EU. This target was even more satisfying when one considers that in this country it only takes three days to get a business started.
In his speech, the Minister of State referred to young people. Increasing employment gives opportunities for priority groups, young people, women, older people, people with disabilities, legal migrants and minority groups. The European Council invites member states to strengthen education and training programmes, our communication and media as well as the creative industry to play an important part in promoting entrepreneurship among young people.
Increasing investment in human capital through better educational training, better organisation at work, better quality of working life and updating working qualifications will also boost labour productivity. The objective is to reach the employment targets by 2010. The European Council calls on member states to upskill and have life-long programmes to help people to find employment, to help those on low pay and on the labour margins, and to intensify efforts to reduce the early school leaver numbers and bring them back into the workforce. The objective of the Council is that the unemployed will be offered a job, apprenticeship or training within four months rather than six months by 2010. However, Ireland is already on course as it exceeds that target and is already above the EU average. To assist older people, the EU underlines active ageing strategies through longer working life, a gradual retirement approach and part-time work.
I was pleased to hear the Taoiseach calling on the EU to investigate mobile phone roaming charges for those travelling abroad.
A theme of the Council was to discuss energy policy for Europe. As was shown during the winter stand-off between Russia and the Ukraine over gas prices and supply, energy will become a bigger issue in the years to come. Obviously, the EU needs to examine the security of supply and the best way to achieve this is through diversification. We need to have multiple sources of supply, both from within the borders of the EU and outside so that if the global political outlook were to change suddenly we would not be danger of losing our energy supply.
The Council also discussed promoting environmental sustainability, which obviously refers to the issue of renewable energy. I could speak further on this matter. I know the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is preparing a Green Paper on energy policy, which I hope will reflect diversification, interconnection and the markets that are available for us to give security of supply. I welcome the discussion on the future of our energy policy leading to protecting our energy supply so that we are not dictated to by what other EU member states do.
I congratulate the Taoiseach and the other members of the European Council for addressing the situation in Belarus during last month's meeting. It is clear that the recent presidential election in Belarus was not fair and democratic. We must do all we can to ensure that the values of democracy continue to flourish throughout the world.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on European Union issues. I compliment the work of the National Forum on Europe in keeping such issues in the minds of Irish citizens. Many submissions are being made at EU level at present, for example in respect of the harmonisation of qualifications and driving licences. The services directive will facilitate the movement of people, provide for liberal markets within member states and assist the establishment of businesses. We should give such issues as much publicity as we can so the citizens of Europe can understand what is happening. It is important that such matters are debated in this House, just as they are in the National Forum on Europe, under the chairmanship of Senator Maurice Hayes, and in the Joint Committee on European Affairs.
The Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, is able to project such issues further for us. We have to reflect the real needs of the citizens in debates like the great debate we are having today. This is the first time I have learned about the work that was done at the recent meeting of the European Council. I did not know anything about it until this debate started, but now I know a great deal about what is going on in Europe. I would like to be able to speak further about such matters, including the issue of how best we can connect with our citizens.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, and thank him for expressing in his speech his interest in all the matters which were covered at the recent meeting of the European Council.
I am in danger of leading people to believe that I have a thing going for the US Secretary of Labor, Ms Elaine Chao, because I have mentioned her twice in recent weeks. When I met her a couple of weeks ago, I was very impressed to hear her saying that as a member of the US Cabinet, it was her duty, task and objective to establish an environment in which private enterprises can create jobs. I agree entirely with Ms Chao's belief, which is particularly interesting in light of the speech that has just been made by Senator Ormonde and in the context of the Lisbon Agenda, that governments are not responsible for creating jobs but for making sure that private enterprises can do so. There is a danger that Europe does not always recognise those roles and, as a consequence, job creation has not always happened. In that context, the outcome of the recent meeting of the European Council, as reported to the House by the Minister of State, is to be welcomed.
I believe that jobs can be created in the competitive marketplace that currently exists, in which other countries are trying to create similar sorts of jobs. If that is to happen, we have to make Ireland more attractive to the relevant companies. As Senator Ormonde has said, small and medium-sized enterprises will create such jobs. I am not sure that I accept Senator Ormonde's assertion that one can open a new company in Ireland in three days. When I spoke recently to a man who employs people throughout the world, he told me there is more red tape involved in starting a company in Ireland than he thought there would be. The authorities in Britain have identified the reduction of red tape as one of their most important tasks.
I understand that the European Union's energy policy was the central issue to be addressed at last month's meeting of the European Council. I have not seen anything in the statements which emerged from the council that equals, in immediacy or urgency, the report that was published by Forfás yesterday. According to the report, A Baseline Assessment of Ireland's Oil Dependence — Key Policy Considerations:
We in Ireland are more dependent on imported oil for our [transport and] energy requirements than almost every other European country and it will take up to 10 years to significantly reduce this dependence. Therefore, it is essential that we now begin to prepare for such a challenge.
The Minister of State mentioned that the question of EU energy policy featured prominently in the debate at the Council meeting. This issue is of great importance in Ireland, not only because we are so dependent on oil but also because it will become more risky to depend on oil as time goes by, given the uncertainty about the continued supply of oil. The report mentions that there is "growing evidence to suggest that the era of a plentiful supply of conventional oil is approaching an end". It was interesting to hear a man from the United States, who has written extensively about this matter, being interviewed on this morning's "Today with Pat Kenny". The Forfás report states:
Various experts ..... have developed projections for when peak oil will occur. While there is a wide variation of estimates about the likely timing, most expert commentators believe that 10-15 years from now, conventional oil supply will no longer be capable of satisfying world demand at current prices.
That is probably the most benign scenario that is available to us. Many other scenarios, which are much scarier, are doing the rounds. This is not just an Irish problem — it is found throughout the world — but Ireland is particularly vulnerable to an oil shock, unfortunately. I remember how ill-prepared the western world was for the oil shock of 1973. I cannot say whether a future shock will be caused by high prices or oil shortages, although an oil shortage may lead to high prices. The report states:
Taking into account the Irish economy's relative dependence on imported oil and the relative share of oil in total Irish energy consumption, Ireland is among the most sensitive to rising oil prices and therefore among the most vulnerable to a peak oil scenario.
The vulnerability of Ireland's position is summed up by two key facts. I did not realise I would have an opportunity to speak about this matter today. The Forfás report states:
Ireland consumed nine million tonnes of oil in 2004, an amount that has doubled since 1990. In 2002, Ireland ranked 3rd highest among the EU-25 countries in terms of oil consumed per capita. Electricity generation and transportation are the two main factors for Ireland's high oil dependence. Ireland has relied considerably more on oil for electricity generation than most other EU countries and, as of 2002, had the 6th most oil dependent electricity generation system of the EU-25 countries. The amount of oil used for transportation in Ireland tripled between 1972 and 2002, leaving Ireland consuming at least 50 per cent more per capita than the average of the EU-25 by the end of the period.
I agree with the statement in the report that Ireland urgently needs "a national strategy" to prepare for the challenges which will arise in this regard. I would like to add my voice to that of Forfás in calling for the development of such a strategy.
The Minister of State has informed the House that the European Council has recognised the importance of energy. We need to identify how urgent a problem it is for Ireland. Any strategy that is developed will have to focus on two key elements, the first of which is the much greater use of renewable sources of energy for electricity generation. Nature has blessed Ireland with ample wind and wave reserves, both of which we seem largely determined to ignore, for some reason. Ireland could become a world leader in the generation of electricity from wind and wave energy, just as it was once a world leader in the generation of electricity from turf and peat. It seems to me that it is utter madness that we are putting ourselves in hock to an expensive and increasingly scarce resource like oil when a cheaper resource is going to waste in the air around us and in the seas around our shores. On a clear day, I can see the seven huge windmills off the coast of County Wicklow from where I live in Howth. I know we have made similar efforts in other parts of the country, but we have a long way to go.
The second key element of any energy strategy should be the development of fuels other than petrol to run our vehicles. As an agricultural country with an agricultural tradition, nature is working in our favour in this respect. We now have a largely unemployed agricultural community, for one reason or another. As Senator Dardis has mentioned on many occasions, the technology exists to fuel cars from crops grown on an agricultural basis. One such crop is the same sugar beet that we have been wringing our hands about to such a great extent lately. I have spoken previously about the need for us to grow our own petrol. There is no reason in the world why we should not do so as long as we develop the technology, give the commitment and show the determination that is needed.
It seems clear to me from the deliberations of the European Council that the EU will not solve this problem for us. It is up to us to come up with the right conclusions and to take the actions which are appropriate for the future of our country. Of the many economic trends which face us in the coming decades, this is definitely one we can do something about with our own efforts. It would be tragic if we were to fail to do so, through a lack of vision or a lack of political will.
I met a Japanese man a couple of years ago and got to know him quite well. I asked him how he had been so successful when so many others had not. He said: "Whether you believe you can, or whether you believe you cannot, you are right." He said if he went into a tennis game and believed he did not have a chance against his opponent, he was right and did not have a chance. However, if he believed he could win, then he was right as well.
Perhaps it is like Leinster and Munster. That is exactly it.
That attitude is what we need here. We need determination, the will to succeed and the confidence that we can do it. We have the waves, the wind, solar energy to a certain extent, and we have the ability in our agricultural community to produce our own energy. Let us show commitment, get our heads down and believe this is something we can achieve.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, to the House. I thank him for the comprehensive synopsis he has given of the EU Council meeting in Brussels. That meeting ranged over quite a number of subjects, and I agree with Senator Ormonde that it is important for the House to debate these matters in plenary session. There is a positive role for the Seanad in that respect; it is good that we review the Council on each occasion it takes place and perhaps even at times anticipate what will take place. I want to acknowledge, too, the occasions when the Minister of State attends meetings of the Joint Committee on European Affairs and gives us the benefit of his wisdom in advance of General Affairs and External Relations Council, GAERC, meetings. I also want to acknowledge the work of the Taoiseach as well as that of Deputy Dermot Ahern, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Deputy Cowen, the Minister for Finance, at the Council meeting. Of course the Austrian Presidency should be congratulated on the success of the event.
It is not much of a surprise that the bulk of the contribution refers to energy policy. This is a policy area that finds itself in an unusually high position on the political agenda at present. I noticed that Senator Quinn spent much of his time speaking about it. Before turning to energy, however, I intend to focus on the other main topics discussed at the March Council meeting — economic and social outcomes; energy; the EU constitution; and youth employment. I was interested to read of the Council's meeting with the President of the European Central Bank, the European Employers and Trade Union Confederations and the President of the EU Parliament. At a time when social partnership is being scrutinised again at national level in Ireland, it is notable that EU umbrella groups agree that a strong growth and jobs partnership is needed to deal with the many varied economic and social challenges that face the Union. I fear, however, that Mr. Trichet's singling out of Ireland and Denmark, as two countries delivering very similar economic and social success stories, might overshadow his other point that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to Europe's economic challenges.
His view that different economic and social models can achieve similar success is crucial. The partnership approach has served this country well, as we all know. Much of the basis of this success has been partnership's ability to adapt flexibly to changing conditions. However, in the same way a one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate for a group of states facing varying challenges, the same partnership approach that served Ireland well in the past might not be the most appropriate model now for other countries. If it were, it would not need to be renegotiated here. We must not pursue social partnership at any cost. For example, the notion of core work, as currently defined, and outsourcing — about which Senator Brian Hayes spoke — could indicate that what went before might not be the right approach in certain sectors now.
Moving to the issue that dominated the Council proceedings, namely, energy policy, it is no surprise that the challenges identified are those addressed in my party's recent policy discussion document. Agreement may exist on the issues of security of supply, ensuring the continuing competitiveness of Europe's economies and promoting environmental sustainability. However, the question is how best to proceed and that is far from being settled. On a general level I welcome the Council's acceptance that the energy issue is of central importance to Ireland and the future success of our economy. Ireland should participate fully in this debate at EU level, and our contribution on the way forward should reflect not just any national Green Paper, but as much innovative thinking and ideas as emerge.
Deputy Fiona O'Malley's discussion paper, published last month, deals with the energy issues discussed in terms of an action plan at EU Council level. The Progressive Democrats propose a seven point action plan designed to develop Ireland's renewable energy supplies; protect the environment — thus fulfilling our obligations under the Kyoto Agreement; and secure our fuel supplies and minimise the overall cost of energy to the economy, thus maintaining Ireland's competitiveness. The plan requires that we promote the development of renewable energy for power generation; the use of renewable energy for space and water heating; the production and utilisation of biofuels for transport; energy conservation; fossil fuel exploration, production and supply security; the creation of new market structures and improved regulation; and research and development into energy technologies of particular importance to Ireland.
I urge everyone to read the paper Deputy Fiona O'Malley has produced and engage in this discussion process. Energy policy tops the international agenda for reasons pertinent to all of us. The analogy has been used that Ireland is the last stop on a very long oil pipeline and that our dependency on imported sources cannot continue as it is. That has been underlined in much of the discussion today. I was in Norway last week and it was quite notable that in a country that has its own supply of oil, serious consideration is being given to how it is to move forward in the knowledge that production has peaked. They are looking to the future, already, in a country that has been in a position to export oil.
On nuclear power generation, I am satisfied that the Council's conclusions make it clear that work on energy at EU level will not affect our national policy to reject this solution in this country. I am encouraged by what the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, had to say about Ireland's position on this matter. Notwithstanding the advice of Forfás yesterday, the Progressive Democrats do not believe that nuclear generation is the correct option for Ireland, and that is the Government's position as well. I am less satisfied with the linking of EU energy policy recognition that decisions on sources of energy remain firmly with the member states and on the required standards for the operation of nuclear plants and the disposal of nuclear waste material. Those two aspects appear to be somewhat in conflict. Some policy decisions should and will remain at national level. However, where the implications of those policies can seriously affect the well-being of another country, exceptions must be made. We have had some concrete examples of that in the recent past, regarding Russia and its neighbours. Sellafield generates waste and radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea. The proposed sale of the British Nuclear Fuels Group, including Sellafield, does not change the fact that the UK Government is both responsible and accountable for the safe operation of that facility. Neither the proposed privatisation nor a new EU energy plan should alter this fact.
The problematic areas in all of the discussions at the Council focused on the constitution, enlargement and the Lisbon Agenda. I was interested in the Council's view that since the French and Dutch referendums on the European constitution, there has been a particular focus on showing citizens that Europe works on their behalf. We have mentioned the work of the National Forum on Europe under the chairmanship of Senator Maurice Hayes, and that is very valuable. However, we are going to have to be even more proactive. This is essential as regards important issues such as the roaming charges. In other words if citizens can appreciate that the Union is putting money in their pockets rather than taking it out, a different attitude towards Europe will rapidly emerge, and it will also bring the EU much closer to them than anything we might do by way of political campaigning or explanation. Deputy Roche, when he was Minister of State with responsibility for European matters, did a good deal of work in this respect in terms of trying to bring citizens closer to Europe and vice versa. I do not want to denigrate that work. It is important, and I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, is an advocate of it as well. However, there is more to it than that, in terms of trying to convince a sceptical electorate of the need for a constitution and for Europe to go forward as it must.
In addition to the relaunching of the Lisbon Agenda, and a renewed emphasis on jobs and growth, I wonder what specific moves are under way in Ireland to demonstrate that EU action is indeed rooted in the national, civil and social partnership process. The Lisbon Agenda has been characterised by a great deal of talk both here and at European level. I am not aware of any tangible outcomes to which one can point at this stage to confirm that it has been a success and that the Lisbon Agenda is working.
Finally, I want to talk about the Council's discussion of youth unemployment. All will, of course, welcome the Council's agreement to work to meet new targets on reducing early school leaving, efforts to ensure that unemployed young people are brought back into the labour force as quickly as possible, and the agreement that by 2010 every unemployed young person should be offered a job within no more than four rather than six months.
The issue of youth employment brings me back to my first point, that the one-size-fits-all solution does not apply in the context of the Union's social and economic challenges. The House will be aware that in France there have been huge demonstrations — some violent — against a new labour law for the under-26s which will make it easier for businesses to hire and fire young people. The legislation was introduced to get more people in France into work in the face of high unemployment rates and a stagnant labour market. I read an article in the International Herald Tribune last week about a French entrepreneur who had located in Ireland because of the ease of establishing a company where there was far less restrictive regulation and red tape than elsewhere. We talked about the three-day rule which is good to hear about. He is very pleased he came to Ireland, as a result of which people in his home country have lost out in terms of jobs and we have gained.
The low tax and pro-enterprise model espoused by my party and the Government has helped see employment rise from 1.1 million in 1991 to over 1.9 million in 2005. It is predicted that 2 million people will be employed here by the end of this year. While France faces the challenge of addressing why more than 20% of its 18 to 25 year olds are unemployed, we in Ireland are currently creating more jobs than we can fill. We must ensure that our policy process allows us to stay competitive and foster innovation. As Ireland's economy becomes increasingly knowledge-driven, we must be open to new ideas, new people and new agreements.
I conclude by congratulating all involved in the March European Council. Citizens in member states need these meetings to exemplify how Europe is working for them. While the Council does seem focused on the issues that are of real concern to people, I would encourage it to work even harder to ensure that all the institutions and facets of the Union that interface with the public are similarly focused.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his contribution. In the few minutes available to me I wish to make a number of points concerning last week's meeting and refer to some broader issues relating to the European project and how we can ensure the public's full participation in that.
The Minister of State has come to this House and has attended the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs on many occasions to discuss the central issues of European policy development and its relevance to Ireland and its economy. One of the political difficulties we all face is that of trying to engage the public to the level we would wish. It is disappointing, notwithstanding the important role which the politics of Europe and the European Community plays in our country and its impact on our lives, that we do not have the level of engagement, interest and knowledge we would wish to have.
The Minister of State may be aware of a proposal, currently being considered, to have a Europe day in the Oireachtas. In the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs we are discussing 10 May as a possible date. I expect the Seanad will play a very full role in it and that we will put a mechanism in place in the Chamber to ensure we will grab the attention of the public. I hope we will use the day well and that it will become an annual event by which we try to impress on the Irish people the importance of the European project to our well-being from a social and economic point of view. I hope the Minister of State's Government colleagues try to ensure that it will be a day where the work of Europe and its impact in Ireland and vice versa will be showcased to the maximum degree. On that day we will focus on the issues which, in effect, stem from the recent Council meeting.
It is opportune that the energy debate took centre stage at the European Council. All politicians are aware of the importance of energy and the politics of energy supply. Senator Dardis and others have outlined the facts and the figures. It is no exaggeration to state we face an energy crisis in the years to come but solutions are possible if we put on our thinking caps. Obviously the European Union will play an important role. The Government and policymakers must drive the question of energy to a greater degree than at present. We made a small start in the budget by way of minor tax relief but we need to do much more in that regard. Last week the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, announced some new energy grants through Sustainable Energy Ireland. We must look at conservation as well as alternative energy.
I was interested in what Senator Dardis said about his party's policy document. This is to be welcomed. All parties must play a role in bringing forward new ideas, although the thinking about alternative energy is not new. These technologies are in place. They are not rocket science. We need a combination of grant aid and political encouragement. Europe has a role to play in this regard. It is a frightening thought that from an energy point of view Europe is so dependent on external factors. This is not a new problem. We are now arriving at the same situation in regard to the food supply in Europe because of the policies we have adopted in the past ten or 12 years. We are facing a future in which Europe is not even guaranteed its own food supply within the continent. We will have to reflect on this matter as we debate agriculture and its role, not just in Ireland but in Europe. That is an aside but it is something we should not forget.
Thinking I had more than six minutes to speak I brought with me a report from the Taoiseach's Department on the national reform programme. It dates from last October, which is the most recent one available. I am disappointed we have not made more progress on the Lisbon Agenda. It is what Europe should be about — improving the economic growth of the Continent as well as the economic and social opportunities of the people of Europe. We should be selling the message that Europe works well, not just politically but economically. The success story of Europe is not just about bringing peace to a previously war-torn Continent, it has been about developing economies and opportunities and opening up the Union to new people and new countries. The Lisbon Agenda is at the very core of that. We must try to keep it very much at the top of our political agenda.
Most of our constituents have little knowledge of the Lisbon Agenda. I do not think it is a question of them having little interest, it is more a case of little knowledge. We all have a political task in hand to try to sell that message and keep the Lisbon Agenda to the forefront of policy. In the recent Council meeting the Taoiseach and his colleagues discussed the knowledge economy, the development of small and medium-sized businesses and opportunities for young people, which are so important.
Senator Dardis and others referred to the problems in France last week. The irony is that in other countries where perhaps there has been a greater willingness to be flexible, look at different economic models and put in place greater incentives, jobs have been created to a greater degree. All of that debate must come to the fore.
I look forward to more of these debates. I hope that our Europe day gives us the opportunity to sell this message and take the debate to the widest possible number of people.
I endorse the comments of my colleagues from all sides of the House in extending a hearty céad míle fáilte to our distinguished Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. I also put on record my congratulations to him in another context; for having crossed one electoral hurdle on his way to the next election at his recent convention.
I appreciate that and thank the Cathaoirleach. The Taoiseach in reporting on the activities of the European Council, highlighted the Lisbon project and also the energy issue which increasingly is beginning to dominate the lives of European citizens. It is a timely contribution from the Irish Government, especially in light of the recent statistics showing that Ireland is probably the most vulnerable of EU member states regarding security of future fuel and oil supplies. In that context I hope that following on the Taoiseach's statement and on Ireland's commitment to improved energy efficiency, there will be a detailed rolling out over the coming months of alternative fuel sources and the financial support they will require.
I am sure Members on all sides of the House are impressed by the commitment of the Swedish Government in predicting that it will have an oil-free economy by the year 2020. Some cynics have laughed at this proposal but the Swedes have a very efficient economy. I have no doubt that if they have made that commitment they will strive vary hard to achieve it. Ireland should not lag too far behind in that regard.
It is interesting and instructive to recall that when the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, committed Ireland to adhere to the Kyoto Agreement on the reduction of environmental pollution by fuel and industry, it seemed to be a more innocent era. In the past ten years, the car population has almost doubled as has the working population and housing infrastructure has hit the stratosphere. The country's population is estimated to be between 4 million and 4.2 million. The environment is under enormous strain as is the Government's capacity to provide the necessary engine to continue to fuel the economic growth being enjoyed.
I am a firm supporter of alternative energy sources and this is a time for innovative ideas in this regard. I hope the Government will address the very real challenge facing the country and future generations if economic growth is to be sustained. This is necessary to provide a successful economy but also a society that is acceptable and without doing harm to our quality of life.
A recent Forfás report suggested that in the long term, we may be forced to consider the nuclear option for providing energy. The Taoiseach ruled this out completely in his report to the Dáil on the European Council. I have always believed that politicians should never say "never" because it usually comes back to bite one in the hand. While I am not suggesting that nuclear power should be introduced into this country, if there was not a problem regarding the disposal of the waste, nuclear power would be the most efficient form of energy. I appreciate that we may not have achieved sufficient critical mass to justify a nuclear power station. I hope the Forfás report would not be buried and that the debate on Ireland's future energy needs and the need to become more self-sufficient will be continued.
The Taoiseach also referred to other areas of importance such as youth unemployment and state aid. The question of aid to industry is critical to our continuing economic success. I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach deplored the recent presidential election in Belarus. As a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs I regard it as important that Ireland's policy is that President Lukashenko's activities are unacceptable in any civilised society.
The Taoiseach also referred in his report to the outcome of the referenda in France and Holland. He is of the view that this country should continue to support the European constitution. While it is not for me as a mere Seanad backbencher to question the Government's high policy, as a result of my experiences in Europe, I am aware there is a vibrant, energetic debate about the future of Europe being carried on in Europe. Senator Bradford is a member of the Council of Europe and may concur with me. I do believe that an unequivocal or unambiguous acceptance of the European constitution in its present form, as has been discredited by the electorate in France and Holland, is necessarily in the best interests of this country. There is a need for a debate on how the Europe of the future is to be shaped.
I thank the Minister of State for his references to the forum and to me personally, for which I am very grateful.
The youth forum held in Dublin and Cork was very successful and it will be held shortly in Galway. A very successful schools competition was held for transition year students and it was attended by the Minister for Education and Science last Monday. On the previous Monday the forum heard submissions.
The forum does not claim any monopoly on this discussion as the more widespread the discussion is and the more bodies involved, the better and this is acknowledged by the Minister of State.
What I say in the rest of my contribution has nothing to do with the forum and it will not take any responsibility for it. In my opinion we should not be so categorical and dismissive of nuclear energy forever and a day. It could well be less environmentally destructive than the continued use of fossil fuels, particularly with regard to global warming. Countries like France seem to manage quite well by having a sizeable amount of nuclear production. We should be pressing for cleaner nuclear energy. Whether or not we dismiss nuclear energy, but in particular if we do, we need to invest far more effort into the provision of alternatives such as wind and wave energy and biomass. There is now the possibility of producing diesel oil from rapeseed and a whole series of crops. With regard to the potential of producing energy from wind and wave, a good North-South project would be to harness the tidal race in Strangford Lough, near to my home, which produces a tide of four to eight knots, twice a day. This has been crying out for years to be harnessed as an energy source.
I commend the Taoiseach on raising the matter of roaming charges for cell phones. Senator McHugh and I are the people in this House who are most affected. Every time I leave Newry it costs me a fortune. It is very difficult for people who must cross the Border.
I look forward to the amended services directorate. It has established the role of the Parliament in a way that was envisaged in the constitution, which is positive. Commissioner McCreevy has told the forum to have an opt-out as a sort of workable document. I hope that can be a template for the future.
I wish the Minister of State well in his discussions with the states due for accession under the next round of enlargement. I congratulate him, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach on the effort that has been put into this issue and the general competence with which they represent Ireland's interests, and their concern for a wider European vision.
The Council adopted comprehensive conclusions on a new energy policy for Europe. The Taoiseach stated that the president of the European Central Bank, Mr. Jean-Claude Trichet, had pointed out that differing economic and social models are capable of achieving similar results. The Council's conclusions on energy policy focused on three main objectives, namely, security of supply, ensuring continuing competitiveness and promoting economic sustainability. The Government will publish a Green Paper on energy in the coming months and the spring Council next year will prioritise an action plan on the objectives of the energy policy. One of the results of the Council meeting is an improved EU-Russia dialogue to make energy policy more effective in the context of developing an interconnection action plan.
The Taoiseach reiterated that Ireland rejects the use of nuclear power, which is in keeping with the wishes of most of our people. He also pointed out that our small market is not necessarily attractive to major energy companies and we have difficulties in mobilising private sector investment for energy. However, we have agreed in principle to build interconnectors between Ireland and Britain, which will open up the route to the European grid, and we have strong support for proposals on renewable energy. Energy policy cuts across environment, climate change, transport, regional, research and development and external relations policies. The relevant Minister has recently promised grants for conservation of energy, particularly with regard to solar power, which is to be commended as a positive step forward.
The Taoiseach in his discussions with the Austrian Presidency referred to several national programmes that are in keeping with the Lisbon Agenda, including Science Foundation Ireland's centre for science, engineering and technology and the Skillnets and One Step Up programmes to equip our labour force. One of the major developments which Ireland has managed to latch onto and which has helped our economy to develop so strongly is investment in education and training. If we continue with this policy, we will be in line with the Lisbon Agenda in this regard.
Senators Ormonde and Quinn referred to the issue of jobs and the issue of being able to set up a company in Ireland within a week. I am sure it can be achieved in three days, although this is disputed by Senator Quinn. The Council agreed that by 2010 all unemployed young persons should be offered a job, apprenticeship, additional training or another measure within no more than four months. We are doing well in this regard as the national practice is to do so within six months, and our achievement of many other targets is ahead of other countries.
The Joint Committee on European Affairs met this morning with an Icelandic delegation. As many delegations have done, they questioned us on issues such as tax harmonisation, immigration and so on. The committee told the delegation that the Government objective was not to limit migration because immigrants were helping the country. It was accepted that there were problems with this policy but that we were coping with them. We also told the delegation that we would not agree to tax harmonisation because we are doing well out of it.
The Council meeting was comprehensive and useful, particularly with regard to energy issues. I wish the Taoiseach and his Ministers well.
I thank the Senators for their diverse and focused contributions on this important aspect of European affairs, particularly the analysis of the Council of Europe meeting. As I indicated in my opening statement, this European Council demonstrated again that the European Union can respond effectively to the needs and aspirations of our citizens. The Heads of State and Government have advanced the Lisbon Agenda for growth and jobs, adopted comprehensive conclusions on a new energy policy for Europe and respected fully the prerogatives of member states as they seek to achieve closer co-operation on the challenges facing us.
The Taoiseach noted that discussions on energy were very much a first step in what promises to be a long and complex process, a fact to which a number of Senators alluded. Given its importance for lreland, we will be participating actively in the EU debate and tabling our own contribution on the way forward. The Government will publish a national Green Paper on energy in the coming months.
At EU level, the future development of the energy policy for Europe will be taken forward through an annual strategic energy review which the Commission will present on an annual basis beginning next year. In addition, the spring European Council next year will aim to adopt a prioritised action plan which will support the achievement of the objectives of the energy policy. In the short term, the EU will pay particular attention to driving forward an action plan on energy efficiency, implementing the biomass action plan, developing an interconnection action plan and making the EU-Russia dialogue more effective. This is important for all of Europe, including Ireland.
The Commission has been asked to submit a priority interconnection plan by the end of 2006. Such a plan is very much in keeping with the importance of interconnection to our national energy supply. There is agreement in principle to the building of a second North-South interconnector and the technical aspects of this are being examined. The Government has agreed in principle to building an interconnector between Ireland and Britain. This would link us to the UK grid and ultimately to the European grid. The Commission on Energy Regulation has submitted its report to the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who will make a recommendation to Government shortly.
In the ongoing discussions on a future energy policy for Europe, lreland has raised questions about how the Commission sees the major investment projects in networks and storage facilities being delivered and funded. We have offered strong support for proposals around renewable energy, energy efficiency and increased funding for research and development. On renewable energies, the European Council agreed to consider in the future some new targets on the share of renewable energies of the overall energy mix and a target on biofuels. These would also contribute to the fight against climate change while also reducing the EU's dependence on energy imports.
Issues such as energy diversification, interconnection, storage, security of supply and greater exploitation of indigenous resources are all of crucial importance to Ireland. Energy policy cuts across environment, climate change, transport, regional, research and development and external relations policies. The future development of our national policy approach will, therefore, be based on strong coherence at the national and EU level between energy and other key policies.
I repeat that there is no basis whatsoever for doubting the strong opposition of the Taoiseach and the Government to nuclear energy, although some of the personal contributions by Senators showed a more liberal attitude to consideration of that energy source. The Taoiseach made this clear at the European Council and subsequently. It is also the case that construction of a nuclear generating facility would require a change in primary legislation, the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, which the Oireachtas would have to approve. Section 18(6) of that Act states that "an order under this section shall not provide for the use of nuclear fission for the generation of electricity". The Government's position on nuclear energy should be clear to everyone.
We are currently considering carefully the Commission's revised text on the services directive. As I indicated, the Government is committed to the need for a balanced services directive which combines the benefits of a more liberalised market in services with respect for the rights and interests of workers. We envisage no race to the bottom.
As regards research and development, the Presidency conclusions record Ireland's target of 2.5% of GNP by 2013. This is realistic and achievable. Ireland has recorded significant growth in research and development expenditure by the public and private sectors in recent years. However, because of the high level of growth by the economy in overall terms, this large increase in expenditure has been reflected in only a modest statistical increase when expressed as a percentage of GNP.
It is entirely appropriate for lreland to express our investment in research and development as a percentage of GNP, rather than GDP, in view of the distorting effect of multinational companies here on our economic statistics. This provides a better basis for comparison with investment in other member states and the European Commission has been advised, and has not objected, to our use of GNP for this purpose. Our investment target and date were set out in the Government's national reform programme for implementing the Lisbon strategy which was placed before the Houses of the Oireachtas in October last year. On this matter, it will be noted that Science Foundation Ireland's centres for science, engineering and technology programme is highlighted by the European Commission as an exemplary national project, a fact to which a number of Senators have referred.
I sincerely thank all the Senators who contributed. It is important to have an opportunity to reflect on the various highest levels of discussions at European level where the Heads of Government and State sit down together and make decisions that will have a major impact on the medium and long-term future of the Union. As Members of Parliament it is important we have an opportunity in this House to discuss those, to ensure our citizens are fully aware of the decisions that have been taken and that we communicate them to the people in a positive manner on a consistent basis. I sincerely thank all the Senators in this respect and look forward to meeting them again soon.