Wednesday, 14 June 2006
European Communities (Amendment) Bill 2006: Second Stage.
Is cúis áthais dom bheith ar ais arís chun freastal ar an Teach iontach seo. This Bill amends the European Communities Act 1972, to allow certain parts of the treaty providing for the accession of the Republic of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union become part of the domestic law of the State as soon as Ireland ratifies the treaty. The Bill is in line with earlier amendments of the European Communities Act 1972, through which previous EU treaties were given domestic legal effect.
The Bill enables Ireland to welcome Bulgaria and Romania into the EU family. Their entry will complete the fifth enlargement of the EU, which is the largest and most far-reaching yet. It began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the popular overthrow of unrepresentative communist regimes in central and eastern Europe. The long and complex process these countries underwent in order to join the EU had none of the drama associated with their impressive transformation from totalitarianism to democracy. Nonetheless, EU membership is proving to be central to the success of the democracies of central and eastern Europe, whose economies are already benefiting from the opportunities of membership. They have pinned their national aspirations firmly to the EU mast.
Ireland has promoted this enlargement from the outset. In April 1990, the Irish Presidency, under the leadership of the then Taoiseach, the late Charles Haughey — go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam uasal dilís — hosted a special meeting of the European Council in Dublin to consider the peaceful revolutions in central and eastern Europe. Mr. Haughey was a staunch advocate of Ireland's participation in the European project. His successful running of the Presidency in 1990 earned him the admiration of his EU colleagues, in particular that of the then President of the EU Commission, Mr. Jacques Delors.
Under Mr. Haughey's chairmanship, the meeting in April 1990 agreed the first step towards EU membership for the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe. Almost a decade and a half later, on 1 May 2004, the Irish Presidency oversaw the final step and welcomed ten of those countries into the EU. The same Irish Presidency also made significant progress on the accession negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania. These negotiations ended in success shortly afterwards and on 25 April 2005, the accession treaty for Bulgaria and Romania was signed by the acceding countries and the EU member states, including Ireland.
To enter into force, the treaty must be ratified by all signatories by 31 December 2006. Bulgaria and Romania have already ratified the treaty, as have 17 member states. All other member states have confirmed that they will ratify it before the deadline. It is important that Ireland should also live up to its obligations towards the EU and its two incoming member states. The Bill before the Seanad today represents one of two necessary steps towards Ireland's ratification of the treaty. The other step was successfully completed on 24 May 2006, when the Dáil passed a motion approving the terms of the treaty. Once all the signatories have ratified the treaty, the path will be clear for Bulgaria and Romania to join the EU on 1 January 2007.
However, under the accession treaty, the European Union has the power to postpone the accession of one or both countries for a further year. This would happen should the Council, on the advice of the Commission, decide that either country is unable to fulfil the requirements of membership in 2007. The final decision on the date of accession will be made in the autumn, after the Commission updates the Council on the remaining issues affecting the accession of Romania and Bulgaria.
The Commission issued comprehensive monitoring reports on both countries on 16 May 2006. The reports commended Bulgaria and Romania on the transformation of their political and economic systems in line with EU membership requirements. On the downside, however, the reports also identified problem areas in both countries. There is still time for both countries to resolve these inadequacies. Provided this is done, the Commission has stated that both Bulgaria and Romania would be able to join the EU on 1 January 2007. Furthermore, the accession treaty provides for action to be taken in sensitive areas, even after accession, in order to protect the proper functioning of the EU.
I welcome the Commission's conclusion that the date of 1 January 2007 remains feasible. I am sure that both Bulgaria and Romania will do everything they can to meet the criteria for accession on that date. While we await final confirmation of the actual date, we should remember that the substantive issue of accession by both countries is not at stake. Ireland and all the other member states have already agreed to accept Romania and Bulgaria into the European Union. Since last year, both countries have been participating in almost all EU activities and making a valued contribution.
We should not underestimate the effort required by both countries to meet the criteria for EU membership. In its May report, the Commission explicitly acknowledged their considerable achievements so far. Both countries have significantly reduced the number of areas that need to be addressed before accession. Bulgaria has reduced the number of "red flag" issues from 16 to six while Romania has reduced the number from 14 to four.
Some problem areas are common to both countries, especially putting in place the necessary arrangements for the disbursement of EU funds. In the agricultural area, both countries need to set up a proper, integrated administration and control system. There is a need to build up rendering, collection and treatment facilities. While both countries need to sustain their efforts in reforming the judiciary and fighting corruption, Bulgaria has been singled out as needing to devote urgent attention to this area. According to the Commission, Bulgaria needs to show tangible results in investigating and prosecuting organised crime networks, in the more efficient and systematic implementation of laws for the fight against fraud and corruption, and in intensified enforcement of anti-money laundering provisions. Both countries also need to step up their efforts to combat human trafficking.
While our focus at this stage is necessarily on what remains to be done, we should not forget the remarkable progress Bulgaria and Romania have already achieved. Within a matter of years they have wiped out decades of economic stagnation and totalitarian oppression and created functioning democracies and market economies. They took on the challenge of meeting the exacting membership requirements of the EU and made the best use of available resources to implement the necessary reforms. The speed and the depth of their progress towards EU membership is a credit to the determination and perseverance of the peoples of Romania and Bulgaria.
Ireland will continue to support both Romania and Bulgaria with their preparations for EU membership. In an EU context, we were involved in approving an increase in the amount of EU financial assistance to Bulgaria by an average of 30% in the period 2004-06. During that time, Bulgaria received around €500 million per year, representing close to 2% of its GDP. The total volume of pre-accession assistance available to Romania is substantial and increasing, totalling around €952 million in 2005. This represents a very important financial resource for Romania, comprising around 1.4% of its GDP. Approximately €1.2 billion will be allocated to Romania in 2006.
It is more than 30 years since we joined the EU and we have sought to share with our future EU partners the reservoir of knowledge and experience built up over the course of those years in this country. To this end, Irish officials have advised their counterparts in the acceding countries on the optimum use of Structural and Cohesion Funds. Ireland's bilateral assistance programme to the accession countries, now in its fifth year, has allocated €1.49 million this year for training and assistance, some of which has been to the benefit of Bulgaria and Romania. This support was timely and of real benefit to those countries. This investment, however, has also been to Ireland's gain. It is important in nurturing new contacts within those countries, which will help deepen our engagement with them as we work together in future as full members of the enlarged European Union.
Our bilateral relationship with Romania and Bulgaria has flourished as both countries have advanced towards EU membership. New embassies were opened in Sofia and Bucharest last year and bilateral trade with both has grown impressively. For example, trade between Ireland and Romania increased from less than €5 million in 1992 to more than €175 million last year. Trade between Ireland with Bulgaria has meanwhile multiplied more than eight times since 1994. Last year alone, trade with Romania increased by 75% while that with Bulgaria showed an 11% increase. The number of Irish tourists travelling to Bulgaria doubled in 2005 and that trend is set to continue. It is obvious that as long as our economy continues to grow and the European Union continues to expand, the capacity for Irish trade and economic growth to increase on a consistent annual basis is sustainable and advantageous for us into the future.
The figures clearly show that we have made good strides in developing economic ties with Bulgaria and Romania, but there is scope for further advances in that direction. I fully expect the economic opportunities to increase once these two countries attain full EU membership. I am confident that our trade and business interests in both countries will advance further within an EU framework. There is every reason to believe that Ireland will continue to prosper in a European Union of 27 member states in the same way as we have done with each succeeding EU accession, including the most recent enlargement in May 2004 when ten new countries joined the Union.
Further testimony to the strength and resilience of the Irish economy is the fact that we were one of only three countries that fully opened up our labour market to the EU-10 at the time of their accession. We have welcomed the subsequent decision by four more member states to follow the lead set by Ireland, Sweden and the UK and allow free movement of workers as of 1 May 2006. We hope that other member states will soon feel able to do the same. We believe it is politically and morally responsible for them to do so.
Following our decision to allow the free movement of workers, the number of EU-10 nationals that took up employment in Ireland rose to an estimated 2% of our workforce according to the EUROSTAT labour force survey and to around 3% according to the Central Statistics Office. The variation in these two figures can be accounted for by their use of different methodologies. A rise of such proportions was especially noticeable in a country like Ireland where net immigration is such a recent phenomenon and a total change for this country. However, the overall proportion of foreign nationals in our workforce is in line with that of other EU countries — Ireland has merely achieved the same level in a shorter time. Most important, we should remember that this inward migration has helped to boost employment in our economy. We continue to enjoy historically low levels of unemployment throughout thecountry.
The flow of workers from the EU-10 has helped Ireland sustain our strong growth rates. It has done so by alleviating our shortage of skilled and unskilled labour across a wide range of sectors, among them, information and communications technologies, health care, construction, hospitality and engineering. This is borne out by the European Commission's findings that Ireland, Sweden and the UK all experienced better employment performance than those member states that maintained labour restrictions. The Commission also concluded that workers tend to move to a country because there are job vacancies there and not simply because they do not need a work permit. In other words, migration within the EU is demand driven and workers will not move unless there is an employment opportunity for them and economic wherewithal available to them. It is only then that they will consider moving.
I have made it clear in earlier Oireachtas debates on this legislation that while Ireland decided in favour of the free movement of workers in 2004, this does not prejudge our decision in regard to Bulgarian and Romanian workers after their countries' accession to the European Union. This decision will be made closer to the date of accession. It will take into account all relevant considerations, among them the prevailing labour market trends and the intentions of other member states.
On 31 May the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment brought forward an amendment to the Employment Permits Bill 2005. This is an enabling provision to permit the Minister to exercise one of three options with regard to labour market access for Bulgarian and Romanian workers. These three options are as follows: to grant these nationals access to the labour market without the need to acquire an employment permit; to grant permits without a labour market test on foot of a job offer; or to continue to require nationals of these states to obtain employment permits from the date of accession.
It is easy to fall into the trap of zero-sum thinking when we consider the complexities of economic growth. On a very basic level, it seems logical that if one country gains, another must lose out. However, part of the beauty and success of the European project is that it has shown that economic benefit can be widely and consistently spread on a continuous basis. European integration has not created any losers. It has been a win-win situation for member states and for Europe as a whole, which has enjoyed an unrivalled period of peace and prosperity during the 50 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957.
Ireland could be a textbook case in how enlargement can benefit old and new member states. When we joined the then European Economic Community in 1973 we were the poorest Community country. That is a strong statement and one on which we should all focus. Few would disagree that our membership of the then European Economic Community, later the European Union, was essential to our subsequent transformation into a successful modern European economy. The extent of our economic success is such that we will soon complete the transition from net beneficiary to net contributor to the EU budget. It is our hope and belief that EU membership will act in a like manner for Bulgaria and Romania in their future development.
The Irish example is not unique. Last month, the European Commission presented a paper to the European Council which detailed how all member states have benefited from the last enlargement. The paper shows how the stability provided by accession has helped multiply trade and investment between the EU-15 and the EU-10, creating a win-win situation for all involved. Companies enjoy more investment possibilities, while consumers benefit from more choices and greater opportunities.
The European Commission's paper also addressed the fear commonly held in the EU-15 that companies would choose to relocate to the new member states in search of cheaper labour. The European Commission concluded, however, that this kind of job displacement in the EU-15 was very insignificant. Moreover, in many instances outsourcing part of their business to a new member state helped a company in one of the EU-15 to strengthen its competitive edge and subsequently take on more workers. Overall, the paper shows that the net effect of the most recent enlargement is a stronger and more dynamic European economy. Together, the EU-25 are better equipped to face stiffening global competition, not least from the rapidly growing economies of Asia.
The benefits of enlargement have not been confined to the economic domain. EU enlargement has created a politically secure and united Europe that benefits its entire citizenry. Europe has become a much better place in which to live than it could ever have been during the Cold War when much of the Continent lived under the shadow of communism or military dictatorship. This experience blighted the lives of two European generations. While Europe has recently experienced political upheaval in the Balkans, the EU is now playing a significant role in promoting peace and stability there. In that region we can see how the incentive of EU membership can be a driving force for greater peace and security.
It is easy nowadays to forget the fears and uncertainties we faced when we joined the European Union more than 30 years ago. Success dulls the memory and it can make past decisions seem more simple and straightforward than they actually were. Similarly, we tend to gloss over the difficulties with which the EU has had to contend in past times.
We should not allow a rose-tinted view of past EU achievements to stop us from putting current problems and setbacks into their proper perspective. The EU has been a success and remains essential for Europe's future. No one has any incentive for turning the clock back. We cannot do that and should never try to do so. Nevertheless, the EU's future evolution cannot be taken for granted. There is work to be done in determining the EU's future course.
Some naysayers took great delight in writing off the European Union last year. First, there was the rejection of the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands and then the June European Council failed to agree on the European Union's budget for 2007-13. The fifth enlargement of the EU, it was argued, had been misguided, and it was now bringing down the whole of the EU. However, one year later we can see that such dire predictions were premature. Last December, the European Council agreed a budgetary package amounting to over €860 billion over a seven-year period, showing that the enlarged Union has the budgetary resources to support its key policies.
There are testing times ahead for the European Union. The challenges include many that are not confined to Europe, such as the threat of terrorism, the energy crisis and the growing economic power of China and India. It would be wrong to make a casual link between these issues and EU enlargement. They are separate issues with which we must contend, irrespective of the direction in which our enlargement policy takes us.
It is inevitable that we will turn our attention to outstanding commitments as we near completion of the fifth enlargement, the merits of which some Europeans understandably question. The fifth enlargement has been a considerable undertaking and we are seeing it through to its successful completion.
A key factor in the overall success of the EU-10 accession was the meticulous preparation made before the accession date. Similarly, any future decisions on EU enlargement will require a comprehensive understanding of all the implications. The public must be persuaded that any future expansion of membership will bring with it the promise of a further strengthening of the European Union and its capacity to deliver real benefits to all the citizens of Europe.
The EU treaty states that any European country that respects the values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law may apply for EU membership. This does not mean that all European countries will apply or that their applications will be automatically accepted if they do so. We have started accession negotiations with Croatia. The other countries of the western Balkans have the perspective of eventual EU membership although this is still a long way off. Negotiations are also under way with Turkey, although it may take a decade or more for it to meet all the criteria for EU membership. The decision to offer a membership perspective to any other European country must be taken unanimously by all member states.
Another factor bearing on the Union's enlargement strategy is the institutional capability of the Union to handle further expansion. The European Union started out with six members. A Union with more than four times the original membership would need to undergo structural change to continue to function effectively. To achieve this the governments of the member states agreed the EU constitution after comprehensive negotiations. The Government's position is that the provisions of the EU constitution remain the best option for the Union as it addresses the challenges of the future including further enlargement. From a pragmatic point of view, we see no alternative structure that would command greater support from the EU member states.
For now our priority is to complete the fifth enlargement of the Union and to welcome Bulgaria and Romania into it. We have a responsibility to ratify the accession treaty by the end of this year. This deadline applies regardless of whether the date of accession is 1 January 2007 or a year later. The Bill before the House today enables Ireland to ratify the treaty and will help pave the way for a Union of 27 members. Bulgaria and Romania have made remarkable progress towards full EU membership. Ireland looks forward to welcoming them as full partners in the Union. We are confident that both countries will benefit from membership and will contribute to the Union as Ireland has done over the past 33 years.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House, and the Bill he brings for our approval. In summary, the Minister of State said that the greatest evidence for this Bill is that to date the enlargement of the European Union has been a win-win situation, for the countries joining the Union and for those such as Ireland which are already members. The move to allow Bulgaria and Romania in is a positive step forward which will benefit every citizen of Europe.
The Minister of State said that we tend to forget what Ireland and Europe were like in 1973 when Ireland joined the then European Economic Community. When I joined this House in 1987, Europe was very different from what it is now. Bulgaria and Romania were tightly sealed satellite states of the old Soviet Union. Bulgaria was one of the more cold and frightening members of the Soviet bloc, which we associated with KGB espionage, double agents and infiltration of Western countries. Romania was a somewhat freer country within the old Soviet bloc but had no democratic structures and was beholden to Moscow. It appeared to have very little future to offer its citizens. That changed in the autumn and winter of 1989. One of the great television images of that time was the upheaval in Romania, the overthrow of the Communist Party dictatorship there, and the brutal and swift end meted out to those leaders.
We must look to the future. Every citizen of Bulgaria and Romania is eagerly looking forward to joining the larger European family because the European Union is the biggest political success story of the past 100 years. Only the integration of the United States can match the European Union's economic and political success. I look forward to these two extra countries joining the club and benefiting from the European project as we will benefit from their membership.
The Minister outlined certain issues that the Bulgarian and Romanian administrations need to address before being allowed to join the Union. There must be strict rules and guidelines for accession. No matter how strongly we wish them to join, the internal politics and economics in those countries must reach a certain standard before they can join. Their governments need to assure us that they will tackle the problems with certain criminal elements there domestically, and in conjunction with their future European partners. We need further evidence that democratic institutions have bedded down locally and nationally in those two countries which come from a tradition of centralised dictatorship where democracy cannot flower overnight. After 15 or 16 years of democratic progress in the old Soviet central and eastern Europe we must try to see that democratic structures are well established there.
We also need further reassurance that all impediments to market economies in Bulgaria and Romania are dealt with and that fully fledged market economies are in place. The market economy structure has been the linchpin of the political, economic and social development of the European Union of families. We must also ensure that the two countries will show the ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union. No doubt they will aspire to and meet those criteria; the sooner the better.
The Minister of State is aware we have had numerous debates in this House over the past two or three years on the future enlargement policy of the European Union. A significant minority of people are concerned about the pace of enlargement and wonder where it will end. They wonder how far east we can go in building the EU. I hope we will continue to be ambitious and reach out to try to spread the politics of democracy, social inclusion and economic freedom that the Union is all about. I agree with the Minister of State that as the Union expands we must ensure the structures are in place to allow it to operate fully.
I acknowledge disappointment that the European constitution has not proceeded as we would have wished. Much work was done in the House and by the Government internationally to try and put the constitution in place. However, the referendum results in a number of countries appear to have put the "slow" sign on the project. We must recognise, however, that the European constitution has been ratified in a number of countries. In the majority of countries where a decision needed to be taken, a decision was taken in favour of it. I hope we continue to push forward the European project.
Are we still going through the famous period of reflection whereby we are supposed to reflect on where we are going and on how and when we will get there? It has been in place for some time and we need to mark progress and examine the current state of play. Too much has been invested in the concept of the new constitution for Europe to allow the issue stay on the backburner. If the two new countries are to join and there is to be further expansion, we need a newer type of political and administrative structure to run the show. The European constitution was charting the way forward in that regard and it is, therefore, important that we keep that issue at the core of our debate.
There was almost unanimous agreement in the House and broad political agreement in the country in favour of a European constitution. That support needs to be reiterated and we need to declare our ongoing desire for progress on the issue. The enlargement of the Union from 15 to 25 countries is not the end of the road as far as project Europe is concerned and nor should the enlargement from 25 to 27 be the end. The future of a number of other countries will be best secured through membership of the European Union.
The Minister of State spoke about a win-win situation. From the economic and political perspective, the bigger the club, the better we all succeed. The statistics on employment levels in the Minister of State's contribution knock on the head the argument made by some small-minded people that the flow of immigrant workers into Ireland is bad for the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. These people are part of the new Ireland. They are helping to build our economy and they contribute in various sectors and industries. Without them our economic growth would not be as strong.
The more we enlarge the European Union and the European economic club, the better for all of us and that is the reason I welcome this legislation. I hope that at the earliest possible date, Bulgaria and Romania will be deemed to have matched the necessary criteria. The criteria may be difficult, but that is as it should be. The two countries are moving in the right direction and offer a beacon of hope to other countries considering accession to the Union. I welcome the legislation and look forward to seeing Bulgaria and Romania as part of the Union. It is tremendous that countries that were under the cosh of the Soviet empire for so long and whose people could see no future for themselves can now move forward with us. They are moving towards a more open, democratic and fair society. I look forward to the day they join the Union. Their accession will be good for Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria and all of Europe.
I welcome the Minister of State, a committed European, who comes, like myself, from a part of the country that has benefited greatly from European subsidies and which now lives under a new dispensation. It would be no harm to put in a little plug for the BMW region here. The Government is vigorously defending its record against naysayers who suggest the region is losing out, but those of us who come from the area will continue to monitor progress and ensure we get our fair share.
To present a scenario, I feel a little like a client in his dealings with a representative of the oldest profession in the world in that the substantive issue has already been agreed and the only haggle is over the price. In terms of this legislation we have essentially been presented with a fait accompli. The Government has taken a decision in line with several other member states that it will support the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, the Dáil has already approved this legislation and it is now our turn. However, this is also an opportunity for Members of this House to express their opinion.
I do not totally share the rosy picture presented, although it was tempered with realism by the Minister of State. Listening to my friend and colleague, Senator Bradford, I was beginning to think enlargement of the European Union is the greatest thing since the sliced pan, but it raises serious issues and problems that must be addressed.
The Minister of State gave a number of reasons as to why we should support the legislation. He said, "The public will have to be persuaded that any future expansion of membership will bring with it the promise of a further strengthening of the EU and of its capacity to deliver real benefits to European citizens". This statement sums up the situation because it describes exactly the deliberations taking place whenever the people of Europe discuss its future. This situation was articulated and reflected not only in the results of the Dutch and French referenda on the constitutional treaty but in the fact that member states — to respond in a limited degree to Senator Bradford's query about the period of reflection — cannot get together on the issue.
They know there is a real problem with regard to the treaty. The most recent statement to emerge from the Council of Ministers is to the effect that they want to ditch the term "constitutional treaty". It would be right to ditch it because it sold a particular perception of Europe that scared people. It scared them into thinking some Big Brother was operating in Brussels and Strasbourg who would make their decisions for them. Despite the best efforts of the political elite in Europe — Commissioners, Members of the European Parliament, national governments and Members of Parliaments in member states — the general public does not seem to be convinced the route the EU has taken and the manner in which it has done so, especially with enlargement, will bring real benefits. I will not question in any way the European Commission's statistics, which have been cited by the Minister of State. The only response I have to the statistics is "Well they would say that, wouldn't they?"
It seems to me that those who want to expand the EU for ever and a day are engaging in a big sell. That is fine from an economic perspective, as it is absolutely clear that this country is benefitting. However, it is salutary to reflect on the Taoiseach's reminder, which was reiterated by the Minister of State in this House today, that the Government has not yet taken a decision on whether it will give the same carte blanche to workers from Bulgaria and Romania, which are about to accede to the EU, as it has already given to workers from the ten countries which were involved in the 2004 enlargement.
The average percentage of the population of this country that comprises citizens of the enlargement states is higher than in any other country. Approximately 9% of the working population of Ireland is from those countries, which is an extraordinarily high figure. It is quite possible that the extent of such immigration will start to level off, like waves lapping against the coastline as the tide changes. The level of such arrivals will recede as soon as other EU member states start to change their labour policies, which is something that the Minister has strenuously and robustly demanded at meetings of the Council of Ministers. The Government's stated policy is to try to get other countries on board in this regard. I strongly supported the Government's original decision to give workers from the accession states unfettered access to our labour markets. The benefits of that decision, which was also taken by the Governments in the UK and Sweden, are there for all to see.
We are talking about an economy and about economic issues, but a social issue that is presenting real challenges has not yet been addressed. The challenges in question have to be faced by Irish society, which is changing so dramatically that we are finding it hard to take a breath and to keep pace, and also across Europe. I have not heard anything from the Commission or any other part of the EU concept that helps to address these issues. This matter does not just relate to the demographic changes which are taking place in Ireland, or to the large number of foreign nationals who are working here. It also relates to social upheaval in France, for example, which is a serious issue, and to issues which are affecting the EU, such as immigration and the threat of terrorism.
I compliment the Minister of State on his speech, which pushed all the buttons. I do not think anything was left out of his presentation, although it seemed to me that he glossed over some of the challenges and difficulties we face. He accentuated some of the more positive aspects of this matter, although it is in our nature as politicians to do so. I would like to think we could have an ongoing debate about some other issues. It is not just a question of "the economy, stupid" — it is also a question of the type of society that the people of this country want. We continue to have a sovereign right to make decisions of that nature, although it is being eroded on a daily basis.
If other EU member states rapidly adopt the labour policies which have been adopted by Ireland, the UK and Sweden, we might be able to have a better period of adjustment. Polish people living in Warsaw, Krakow or Poznan will not want to travel halfway across Europe to Ireland if they can get jobs on their doorstep in Germany. The Germans understand that, which is why they have closed their borders for seven years. There may be a levelling out in the future.
I accept that the arrival of workers from the accession states has been good for this country. The most recent report on the alleged displacement of Irish workers, to which the Minister of State referred, claimed that the level of such displacement has been minimal. However, my anecdotal experience, which is shared by many people from other parts of the country, is that some displacement of Irish workers has taken place. I know of qualified Irish professionals in the various crafts who have left this country to go to work in England. While there is anecdotal evidence of that nature, the statistics indicate that everything is hunky-dory, everything is fine, the country is booming and there are no problems with our rate of economic growth.
I do not want to sound like a prophet of doom. I reiterate my earlier comment that I recognise and acknowledge the immense benefits which were brought to this country by the most recent enlargement of the EU. However, I am seriously concerned about Bulgaria and Romania. This matter has been discussed by the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, and Senator Bradford. I am sure other speakers will do the same. There is a growing gap between the opinions of the ruling EU elite — the European Commission and the European Parliament — and everybody else in this regard. Those who are in favour of further enlargement argue that everything is fine and everything will be wonderful. There is concern across Europe about the accelerated rate of EU enlargement.
There is political instability in Bulgaria, whether we like it or not. Not only have there been inconclusive election results, but the Government that is currently in place could fall at any time. That instability has allowed criminal elements to influence the commercial and political life of Bulgaria. Irish investors who are buying property in Bulgaria off the plans should take note of my comments in this regard.
Much greater progress has been made in Romania. I have been one of the most bitter critics of Romania, which I have had the pleasure of visiting on four or five occasions as a member of the Council of Europe. I have observed the quite traumatic changes which have taken place there. Senator Bradford rightly said that Romania was a totalitarian and authoritarian dictatorship that was ruled with an iron fist by Ceaucescu. When he was done away with by his own political elite in 1989, clones of him ran the country for the next ten or 12 years. There was very little fundamental change.
My experience of Romania in the early part of this century was that nothing had changed in rural areas, whatever about Bucharest. A new President has taken power in recent years, following a change of Government and political dynamic, which has focused the minds of the Romanian political elite, especially in its relationship with the EU and the enlargement commission. Romania is going a long way towards addressing many of the fundamental issues. It has yet to deal with the fundamental question of how it intends to put in place structures to distribute agricultural subsidies. Those of us who know about the importance of such subsidies to the Irish economy over many decades consider that the fact that the great bulk of the Romanian economy continues to be based on agriculture is a fundamental problem that has not been satisfactorily addressed.
I spoke earlier about society. I do not want to give the impression that I am somehow being parochial in my views. People who say that nationalism is "the last refuge of a scoundrel" should try telling that to those attending the World Cup who are flying their flags and supporting their countries. If football fans are allowed to demonstrate a sense of patriotism and nationalism and be proud of who they are, I do not see why we should apologise for doing likewise. Of course we should embrace our multicultural society, but I would not like this country's Irishness to be somehow diluted in a mad rush towards the Holy Grail of economic success. Everything should not be about money.
I understand why we are scared that we will go back to what we were less than a generation ago. We want to ensure that what we have, we hold, and that we progress further, but there is a price to be paid. I would like the Government to consider the manner in which we manage our economy and our society as a whole in light of the new environment in which we find ourselves. It is not just an issue for the Government — society in general should see it as a challenge rather than as a disadvantage. We are still trying to grapple with the dramatic changes which have taken place over the last seven or eight years.
I will conclude by speaking about my recent visit to the Hague. A Dutch historian told me that in the 16th century, when approximately 175,000 people were living in Amsterdam, over 300 artists with patrons were flourishing there. Holland, which is one of the regions of the present-day Netherlands, was one of the most affluent parts of Europe at the time. It had a developed infrastructure, including a water and sewerage scheme and a built environment, more than 300 years ago. We are trying to achieve within ten years what it has taken the Netherlands 300 years to achieve. That puts the challenge faced by society, as it tries to come to terms with all these realities, into perspective for me.
I do not suggest that we should not continue the enlargement process by embracing and welcoming countries which want to gain membership of the European Union. I am totally supportive of that process, in principle, but I do not want us to lose sight of the fact that society is changing rapidly. It is not just about increasing growth rates and keeping unemployment levels down. It is about the wider question of what kind of society we want within the European Union family.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, to the House and I also welcome the European Communities (Amendment) Bill 2006. I am glad the Minister of State mentioned the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who died yesterday. It is right that he acknowledged the late Mr. Haughey's contribution to the European project and his enthusiasm for it because Mr. Haughey put a huge effort into the meeting of the Council of Europe that took place in 1990.
We are all enthusiastic about the European project. While Senator Mooney is quite right to warn about the difficulties we face, I still believe that people in Ireland want to go forward. In the past 15 years, one of the best things to have happened to Ireland has been the enormous decrease in unemployment. The steps taken by the Government, in common with the Swedish and British Governments to allow the free movement of workers on the accession of the ten countries from the Baltic and eastern Europe, has not caused any further trouble with regard to employment. The unemployment rate has remained virtually the same, and those workers have been of great benefit to the economy.
I am glad the Minister of State also noted that the benefits of being within Europe have not simply been economic. When one thinks of Europe this time 70 years ago and recalls what was happening in Germany, it is incredibly important that it is, as the Minister of State noted, politically secure and united. The European Union has been enormously beneficial for Ireland, in terms of the establishment of a social and psychological framework of such dimensions that I cannot envisage it going backwards.
Moreover, the social problems which have arisen in some other member states of the European Union have not been due to migration of workers within the Union. In general, such problems appear to have arisen in respect of non-EU workers and immigrants in some specific regions, particularly if such people have been ghettoised. However, there are non-EU workers in some parts of Ireland. Some, such as the Brazilian meat workers in Gort, are concentrated in particular locations. They have successfully integrated and Members will have taken pride in listening to them talk about the Brazilian team in a recent radio broadcast. Hence, Irish people should be as optimistic as possible because if one asserts that a particular matter will become a problem, it will do so rapidly.
To date, the instincts of all Governments with regard to the European Union have been correct. On the arrival of Romanian and Bulgarian workers, Ireland should continue in the manner in which it has treated workers heretofore. While I realise this issue must be examined closer to the date of accession, I hope the Irish economy will be performing just as well then as it is at present.
However, I ask the Minister of State to reconsider the exclusion of such workers from social welfare entitlements for two years. Apparently, some problems are being encountered and a small number have ended up homeless. Members will not wish to see such a development. They may recall an appalling situation involving a young Ukrainian woman in Northern Ireland last winter who, while sleeping out of doors, contracted such severe frostbite that she lost her feet. I would be grateful if the Minister of State were to ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to re-examine the situation regarding social welfare entitlements.
Most people who have come to Ireland from the Baltic states and eastern Europe are at work. One cannot enter a shop in Dublin without encountering Poles, Latvians or Lithuanians, all of whom make a contribution to society. I feel rather sorry for the Baltic states in particular with regard to the brain drain from those countries. Earlier this year, I visited Latvia where there is some dismay that it is losing people in their 20s in particular, many of whom are well qualified. They are just the sort of people who would come here, form relationships with Irish people and settle here. I was told that some villages and towns in Latvia have lost a considerable number of people to Ireland in particular, as well as to Sweden. This has caused them the kind of distress which used to be found here when so many of our young people went to the United States and the United Kingdom.
It would be nice if some of the young people in question came here, improved their potential for careers in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and so forth, and returned. Members must hope there will be good economic progress in those countries in order that such people will not always be obliged to come to Ireland to improve their situation and that they will be able to return to their countries.
Today, the House is addressing the issue of the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria. In recent times, both countries have experienced terrible troubles. I visited Romania when Ceaucescu was in charge and it was utterly appalling. Women suffered dreadfully and all were obliged, if possible, to produce approximately five children. The maternal mortality rate was shocking and, as a hangover from those times, Romania's perinatal mortality rate is still the worst in Europe. As Members know only too well, enormous numbers of children were left in orphanages by married couple who could not afford to bring them up. The parents were obliged to have the children, who ended up in orphanages. It was a most pathetic situation.
However, the former kingdom of Romania was once very prosperous. Romanians are bitter about what they feel was the theft of many of their assets by the Soviet Union. One hopes the situation will improve again. I visited Romania subsequently and, like Senator Mooney, I formed the impression that matters were improving dramatically.
In ancient times, Bulgaria was the seat of the ancient kingdom of Thrace, which rivalled Greece with its culture and wealth. It is important that Members should remember its background. I am sure that by the time Bulgaria enters the Union, it will have made the requisite efforts in respect of organised crime which apparently is still a serious problem there. Recently, I was depressed to hear a Bulgarian archaeologist talking about how the legislation regarding looting from ancient historic sites in Bulgaria is so cumbersome and slow, that looters always get to such sites before the archaeologists. Moreover, the gold of Thrace is coming onto the international market at a most unacceptable rate, given that one is not allowed to export such wonderful items of heritage from the country at present. This is an important issue which must be considered.
People from both countries already work in Ireland, some of whom are professionals. One such person, who is a colleague of mine in the Rotunda Hospital, has given great service to this State in a medical capacity for many years. Members must remember that musicians in orchestras, choirs and so forth have also made an important contribution to this State.
The Minister of State noted that the Government will consider the situation regarding the freedom of movement of workers closer to the date of accession, which seems reasonable. However, it is important that employers who bring people to Ireland with work permits should try to make more of an effort to ensure that such workers learn English. Some people get jobs in which they learn very little English, which keeps them isolated. This should be taken on board by places of employment. Some hospitals have tried to do so in respect of nurses from abroad who are filling in the serious nursing shortage. They try to guarantee that such nurses get English classes, to ensure they do not simply speak English at a basic level but can also address the concerns of patients and their relatives. It is important for them to make progress in this regard.
The situation for older women coming to this country from abroad who do not work outside the home can also be difficult. Decades ago, when I worked in America, I recall encountering Hungarian and Polish women who had been in the country for decades and who still could not speak English. If this happens here, we could also have women in the home who are unable to become part of society.
At the end of his speech, the Minister of State mentioned that there was consternation last year on foot of the refusal of two countries to ratify the proposed European constitution. I was not surprised, as it was so complicated. It was quite difficult to understand, even though much of it was discussed in this House. I will refer to the French vote in particular. One man in Paris told me that taxi drivers had not been allowed an increase in fares in February last year, which was very important. Moreover, while driving across France at the time, I saw a big placard propped up against a bale of hay in a field which read, "Votez non À l'EU de Tony Blair". Can the Minister work that out? I could not. The French have their own reasons for voting no. It is amazing how we weathered it. It was predicted that terrible confusion would strike the EU but everything has gone on smoothly and I am sure we will address these issues, as the Minister said, in the future. I wish him luck with this legislation, which will benefit the Irish, Bulgarians, Romanians and the EU.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome his speech because, while the Bill is straightforward and brief, significant questions are associated with it. To his credit the Minister has this afternoon addressed some of those wider questions on the European project, its achievements and its direction. It is appropriate for us to consider enlargement, the adoption of the constitutional treaty and the entire EU project in the context of this Bill. The Bill is important and I welcome it. Ireland needs to ratify it for treaty purposes. I welcome the prospect of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU. It will be of benefit, as has been the accession of the most recent member states. I and my party, the Progressive Democrats, have always been enthusiasts of the European project, although, in common with many, not uncritical of it. Our country's interests are best served by taking a full and constructive role in the EU and its institutions. In the past it has been too much of a one-way street. In the early days we looked to what the EU could give us without thinking about what we could give back or our responsibilities regarding the assistance we received. That has changed for the better. Ireland's historical orientation since we joined the EU has been to be full and constructive members. The Minister referred to the role of the late former Taoiseach, Mr. Charles Haughey, in 1990. There have been examples where the country, in its Presidency, has played a key role in the enlargement of the Community and progressing accession of the new member states. There have been one or two logjams when, but for the role of Irish Governments and officials involved in the EU Presidencies, the project would not have proceeded with the speed it did. That must be recognised.
My party has always resolved to work to ensure Ireland is an active and enthusiastic contributor to the development of EU policies and democratic structures. The country has played its part with positive benefits both for us and the EU. Non-member states have observed the experience of Ireland and other states and have been keen to join up. Our recent economic success has been an inspiration to newer member states. I was in Estonia recently with members of the Committee on European Affairs and they were enthused and interested, as were the people of the Czech Republic, at how Ireland had benefited so much from the EU. I was in Tallinn, Estonia, on 9 September 2001 and it is extraordinary to see the transformation of that country in the short period since then. It is much more self-confident and open and the fabric of the country has improved in terms of housing and public buildings. It is obvious that money has gone into the country and it has been beneficial.
Apart from some of the benefits the Minister of State mentioned, enlargement benefits Ireland as a trading country and one of the most open economies in the world by providing a bigger market for our products. Enlargement has been about trade, among other matters such as democracy. Ireland has been at the centre of the European project since our accession in 1973, and especially since the fall of communism, which has been referred to. These events have precipitated the scenario where Romania and Bulgaria, 25 years later, are approaching accession to the EU. We have played a significant role in the enlargement process, as I stated earlier when I referred to what took place in 1990.
The recent Irish Presidency accepted ten new member states and we must remain open to enlargement. The benefits, such as trade, have accrued and stability, which has been referred to, has also been important. The EU was built from the ruins of Second World War Europe, from which Ireland was removed. From that catastrophe came the determination embodied in people such as Robert Schumann, Paul-Henri Spaak, Konrad Adenauer and Jean Monet to ensure it could not happen again. It is an extraordinary achievement that after centuries of conflict between European states we have come to the point of such stability.
The Minister has stated that the accession of neither country is in doubt and the question is when rather than if. He mentioned some of the red-flag issues, and it is encouraging to see that they are reducing. There is a perception that accession is a casual process and that membership is automatic but nothing could be further from the truth. Countries must overcome many hurdles before becoming members. There are criteria on democratic structures, respect for human rights and rule of law among others. There is also the question of the acquis communautaire, a large body of work to which the applicant countries must accede before they can become members. It is not a casual decision made by the leader of a country with the agreement of the people. The European Council will decide, based on the recommendation from the European Commission, which in turn will base its findings on the comprehensive monitoring reports of Bulgaria and Romania, whether the countries are ready for accession and when it should take place.
The question of workers has been raised and no decision has been made on Bulgarian and Romanian workers having access to this country on accession. There was a positive response in Estonia, the Czech Republic and elsewhere when Ireland decided to take workers from day one. Selfish interests were involved. The Irish economy needed workers. Senator Mooney was incorrect to indicate that we have been overrun by immigrants. The numbers are modest by European standards in proportionate terms. The speed with which it has happened has caused some difficulties. It would be ironic and wrong if, given our experience of building some of the great countries such as the US, we could not understand that when we are successful, people want to come here and contribute to our success. They should be embraced and their culture, religion and ethnicity should be accepted and accommodated in the country. That is the lesson from France. The problem was not that the workers came, but that there was no attempt to integrate them into the country and the ghettos were allowed to develop to the north of Paris and elsewhere.
I am glad Romania and Bulgaria are continuing their democratic and economic transformation and we have been alerted to the intention to focus on some important areas where further reform is required. That cannot be stressed enough. The EU has to deal comprehensively with citizens' concerns. That is the lesson from the constitutional treaty and enlargement and in that respect I agree with Senator Mooney, that in the past there has not been enough regard for the concerns of the citizens.
There are serious concerns regarding crime and contract killings in Bulgaria. There have been media reports of corruption among the judiciary, failure to sentence convicted criminals and alleged bribery at high levels. These are serious allegations. Then there is the question of the rights of people with disabilities. Senator Henry has spoken here about children in orphanages and I have a friend who has first-hand experience of these matters and I know it is an appalling situation. Irish agencies are doing their best to improve matters but improvements must be made in standards before accession can take place seamlessly and flawlessly. It is easy to list these issues and embed them in the minds of citizens but they cannot be disregarded.
The Commission has called on Bulgaria to take urgent action to obtain tangible results in investigating and prosecuting organised crime networks and has also called for a more efficient and systematic interpretation of laws in the fight against fraud and corruption. If Bulgaria fails to do these things the Commission may delay accepting Bulgaria as a full member which would send a very unfortunate message to people in that country.
The Government of Romania has had some positive results in fighting high level corruption and reforming the judiciary, though some problems remain regarding a computerised tax collection system, food safety and setting up agencies to pay and monitor EU farm subsidies, something that will resonate with us. Overall, commentators have said that institutional reform standards are comparable in Bulgaria and Romania but that the committed attitude of the Romanian Government is what makes the difference. From that point of view Romania has an advantage.
Both countries have some way to go. Along with the Soviet Union, Albania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland they were blighted because of post-war divisions, the Cold War and the flaws of communism. Membership of the EU has signalled the final throwing-off of the shackles of the past for other former eastern bloc states and the accession of Bulgaria will make complete the enlargement of the EU since the fall of the Iron Curtain. It is noticeable that Estonia has many young people at senior levels of the civil service and public administration which has transformed the country and brought great energy to the institutions of state which were moribund under the communist regime.
The Minister of State made reference to the relocation of labour and the perception that there will be a move eastwards to the lower labour-cost economies. The key to stopping this is productivity. This may not apply to traditional manufacturing industries which are difficult to stop from relocating. In high-tech industry we can offer high productivity. I met a senior executive from Intel a few years ago, by chance, while on holidays and I asked him why the company had not relocated to China or elsewhere. He said it was because the cost per unit is lower in Ireland than it would be in an economy with low-cost labour because productivity is so high here. This relates to competitiveness and is something on which the Government must focus.
In progressing from six member states to 25, the EU has shown itself capable of dealing with institutional pressures. I therefore hope we will soon welcome Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union and that they will contribute as much as I hope we have over the past 30 years.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I also welcome this legislation on which we are all in agreement. Membership of the EU has been of great benefit to Ireland at every level. We have reflected on the career of the former Taoiseach Charles Haughey over the past few days and considered, in that light, how life in Ireland has changed since the 1960s and in a similar way one can review how Ireland has changed since we joined the EU.
The support we received from our friends and colleagues in the EU has been a major factor in Ireland's economic and social transformation. Ireland is a very good example of a small country that joined the EU poor and disadvantaged in many ways, but took advantage of what investment was available, especially investment in education, infrastructure and agriculture and used it to its advantage. We should be grateful to those who invented the concept of the EU initially and were so generous in extending the hand of support and friendship to us. There is something to be repaid and there is an onus on us to be generous to new entrants to the EU and ensure countries that meet the entry requirements are given full support by the existing member states. This cannot be seen as an elite club.
Following the fall of communism the EU has opened up to and embraced former eastern European states and this has advanced the cause of peace and prosperity, and the world, to a great degree. This has been a great opportunity and I believe it will show itself to have been a success. From Ireland's perspective this means the arrival of migrant workers from eastern Europe. This is a positive development, but one which has happened with considerable speed causing concern in some quarters.
In Roscrea, approximately 20% of the town's population is from eastern Europe, which creates an extraordinary situation. We are all used to meeting such workers on a regular basis, particularly from Poland, but also Latvia, Lithuania and other countries, in shops, on farms, in factories and some people have them come work in their homes. I did a small survey in Nenagh to establish where eastern European workers were working, for the most part. I discovered that what was occurring was not displacement, but rather replacement. Most workers were based in factories which, in some cases, attract an unskilled workforce. In other cases workers with specific skills are needed, such as butchers and glass cutters, though these workers were coming here before the expansion of the EU.
Since 2004 those sectors of the economy that have experienced a labour shortage due to Irish workers moving on have often recruited eastern European workers. Irish workers may move to the computer sector, like Dell in Limerick which draws workers from north Tipperary and Limerick, leaving vacancies in the less skilled and lower paid areas. As a result there are clusters of eastern European workers in the lower paid sectors, which is a cause for concern. Only time will tell how they integrate or whether they do as many Irish did and spend a short period of time abroad to build resources or send resources home. They may come as young workers and then go back when they get married and have children. Otherwise, they may stay and integrate fully. Only time will tell if that will happen. It is an issue which is here to stay as long as our economic prosperity continues. We should recognise that these people are contributing to and are part of our continuing economic prosperity.
We should not fool ourselves on the future of the great European project. We know the problems which have occurred with the failure to get the necessary level of support for the proposed European constitution. Significant lessons should be learned from this, particularly by people like us, who may at some level take support for the European Union for granted because we clearly see what it is. Other people do not.
Many of our citizens do not see for themselves a benefit, and they may see the project as a disadvantage. This may be linked to factors which are not caused by or even directly associated with actions of the European Union. We are all politicians and we know that when people are voting, many factors come into play. There is clearly much work to be done to ensure that the man and woman in the street — to use a cliché — are constantly fully informed on what the European project is about and the associated benefits for them.
The benefits are not just economic, although we have spoken much about them. Other benefits include legal frameworks. It has often been stated in this House that certain rights have been put into Irish law, particularly relating to women, which would not have come about if it had not been for the EU showing the way. It would have overcome resistance which may have naturally been there. That is also to be applauded.
These legal frameworks, the fundamental basis of equal human rights and the European social charter, are not fully seen as the extraordinarily positive and beneficial documents which they are for all the citizens of Europe. For that to be available to a wider population is an action which should be supported and applauded.
Like others, I would have concerns regarding Romania and Bulgaria. The Romanian population has a dreadful reputation across Europe. I remember going to Germany as a student and people would talk of Romanians as if they were dirt. Some people really hated them. That is dreadful to observe. The Romanian Government will have to overcome many such obstacles.
This is indicative of how we must take a long-term view. Participation in the European Union accelerates the process towards a standard to which I hope the Romanian people would aspire. Through participation in the European Union, these people are supported in raising legal, governmental and environmental standards, for example, just as we have had to do ourselves. The support exists to do this, and participation in the European Union allows countries such as Romania to do it. A carrot and stick approach and a balancing act must be properly executed.
I congratulate the Minister of State on his work in this regard and commend him on his commitment to this project. We have shown we have a significant role to play which includes leadership. As we have risen to our current position in the European Union, we have much more to contribute than we had in the past. That is indicative of the possibilities and potential of the European project.
When the Minister of State began his contribution he referred to the late Mr. Haughey, God rest his soul, who was a staunch advocate of Ireland's participation in the European project. He was a prince among men when it came to the European project. Mr. Haughey was sometimes referred to as Machiavellian. If Mr. Haughey was a prince, he was not a Machiavellian prince, but was almost certainly a Medici.
Many people have referred to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, stressing the negative aspects. I would like to refer to some of the positive aspects. The Minister of State has indicated that the number of red flag issues has reduced from 16 to six. The accession incentive has resulted in a raft of reforms in Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian economy has been completely transformed with market-based principles and is characterised by stability, prudent fiscal policy and growth. The main economic indicators include an average annual GDP growth of between 5% and 6%, low inflation and a fiscal target of 3% GDP surplus in 2006. In line with the strong economic growth, employment grew by 2% in 2005. Trade expanded with an acceleration of volume growth to 18.4% for exports and 26% for imports, due mainly to strong imports of investment goods. The trade deficit is balanced by a surplus in the service balance, mainly in tourism.
With regard to restructuring and liberalisation, 90% of all assets earmarked for privatisation have been privatised. The financial services sector has been completely privatised and further progress has been made in the liberalisation and restructuring of network industries. The railway liberalisation is well advanced and concessions for the operation and upgrading of ports and airports are being granted to private operators. The opening up of gas and electricity markets continues in line with the envisaged timetables. In the telecommunications sector, a third mobile operator started services in November 2005, improving the conditions for effective competition.
In its monitoring report of 16 May 2006, the Commission concluded that Bulgaria is a functioning market economy which has maintained macroeconomic stability and advanced structural reforms. It indicated that the continuation of current reforms should enable it to cope with the competitive pressures and market forces within the European Union and accomplish the target of accession to the European Union on 1 January 2007 by resolving outstanding deficits.
Bulgaria accepted the recommendations and the Bulgarian Government discussed in a constructive manner how to address remaining challenges and consolidate ongoing reforms, particularly in the so-called red flag areas identified in the Commission's report. On 8 June the Bulgarian Government adopted an action plan comprising concrete measures and associated timetables. It intensified efforts to achieve tangible results to fully prepare Bulgaria for accession. The measures include consolidation of the framework for combating corruption and organised crime, further fine-tuning of the system to prevent money laundering and strengthening of financial controls for future use of the Structural and Cohesion Funds.
In the area of transparency, the recent process of full publication of the declaration of interests and assets by members of parliament, Ministers, high-level public servants and magistrates and political parties has begun. It is shortly expected that the current system for public access to the data will be significantly enhanced.
A unit for the fight against corruption and organised crime, directly subordinated to the prosecutor general, was set up with specialised prosecutors to deal with specific cases. The structure of the Ministry of the Interior was significantly improved, avoiding any overlap between various divisions and services.
The intensive work of the prosecutor's office and the Ministry of the Interior has produced concrete results evidenced in the charges the prosecutor's office recently raised against symbolic figures in the criminal fraternity. There is also sustained progress in prosecuting cases of corruption at all levels. The independent criminal assets commission was strengthened and recently brought several cases to the respective courts, thus targeting the economic background of the persons involved in criminal activities.
The co-ordination mechanism for the fight against money laundering has been enhanced. A specialised anti-money laundering unit was set up at the prosecutor's office. Further strengthening of the competent structures is envisaged, aimed at better co-ordination in tackling these challenges.
With regard to the judiciary, following the third major constitutional amendment early in 2006 and the overall enhancement of the legal framework, work is now concentrated on strategic assessment of results and identification of any needs for further fine-tuning of the system. The enhancements included amendments to the penal procedure code and the civil procedure code, as well as the adoption of the new administrative procedure code.
With regard to the functioning of the courts, efforts are aimed at completing the introduction of the system of random distribution of cases in all Bulgarian courts. With regard to financial control, Bulgaria pays particular attention to strengthening the existing structures and enhancing the co-ordination mechanisms. Specialised training for officials at all levels of the competent bodies is under way.
The co-ordination council for protection of the European Community's financial interests was also strengthened. It comprises representatives of the relevant authorities and co-ordinates the work in this area. Integrated administration and control systems in the area of agriculture is another area of concern. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has concentrated its efforts on completion this year of the aerial photography required and on the opening of new rendering plant construction and completion of the border inspection posts.