Seanad debates

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Address by President of the European Parliament


2:00 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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At the outset, I welcome the Polish Ambassador, Mr. Marcin Nawrot, the Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, Mr. Pat the Cope Gallagher, MEP, Mr. Gay Mitchell, MEP, and the former President of the European Parliament, Mr. Pat Cox. On my behalf and that of my fellow Senators, I welcome to the House His Excellency, Mr. Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament. No Member of this House needs reminding that we are at a crucial time in the history of the European Union. Ireland and the EU face many issues and challenges. President Buzek, you are an example of how we can all meet and surmount the challenges we encounter and a measure of how Europe can change for the better.

In 1980, President Buzek joined the Solidarity movement in Poland, was appointed chair of the works committee and became an increasingly important member of that movement. Following Solidarity's triumph in 1989, he became a full-time academic. He once stated his ambition was to become a member of parliament in a free Poland but he achieved more than that. He became Poland's Prime Minister in 1997, undertook ambitious reforms and helped to negotiate Poland's accession to the EU. In 2004, he was elected to the European Parliament with the largest majority in Poland and was elected President of the European Parliament in 2009, having won the largest majority of any President since the first direct elections in 1979. He is the first President of the European Parliament to come from central and eastern Europe on foot of the European Union's enlargement in 2004. Throughout his career, he has shown great passion for and dedication to the democratic ideals we should never take for granted. His journey, both personally and politically, should serve as an inspiration to all who believe that parliamentary democracy can achieve real change for the benefit of ordinary people and is a symbol of unity in a shared Europe. President Buzek's presence here underlines the close relationships between our Parliament and the European Parliament within the framework of European Union interparliamentary co-operation. His visit is also particularly timely, given the enhanced role of national parliaments under the Lisbon treaty. It now gives me great pleasure to invite him to address Seanad Éireann.

Deputy Mr. Jerzy Buzek:

A Chathaoirligh agus a Sheanadóirí, is mór an onóir dom bheith anseo inniu romhaibh. Dear friends, I am delighted to be in your country. This is a great visit for me. I know that I represent 735 of my colleagues in the European Parliament. We may differ from time to time on the very important issues for the European Union. However, from the point of view of representation and visiting all member states, from the point of view of presentation of the idea of unity of the European continent, and from the point of view of common values, tradition, heritage, we may differ from country to country, but all of my colleagues in the European Parliament are of the same mind that we need co-operation and openness if we want to be a continent which will be different from the Europe of the first half of the 20th century. We all worked very hard in the second part of the 20th century to change our attitude to the most important issues for our continent and we must continue to do so. In this point of view the Members of the European Parliament are united. I can, therefore, represent all of its members. This is the direction we should follow. The most important issue is the detail of how to agree the most important political guidelines and how we should organise ourselves.

EU member states are different countries and situated in different parts of the Continent, but we share a similar history of occupation, immigration, poverty and striving for freedom. We also have a history of transformation, economic success and shared European aspirations. For the countries which joined the European Union in 2004 during the Irish Presidency, Ireland's success has been an inspiration for achieving deep reforms, broad modernisation and internal solidarity, as in the solidarity pact. Ireland has used the benefits of the European Union wisely and maximised the impact of Structural Funds to accelerate development and modernisation.

My first visit outside Brussels two years ago as President of the European Parliament was to Ireland. This was just before the referendum. I propose to make a few remarks on the changes I have noted in the past two years, not necessarily in Ireland but generally in the European Union and our institutions.

My first comment is that we are discovering in practice how the new treaty is a treaty of parliaments, both national Parliaments and the European Parliament. The checks introduced with the yellow and orange card procedures are working, with a total of 337 contributions from national Parliaments to the 113 legislative Acts tabled thus far. It is a large number. Each such contribution and remark is carefully examined by the European Parliament and the European Commission. This means that our exchange of information is working rather well, but there can always be improvements in many aspects. I assure the House that the European Parliament is open to more systematic engagement with both ante and post-legislative dialogue. This is very important if European law is to be implemented. We are of the strong view that a network of corresponding committees needs to be created across the European Union. EU affairs are not restricted to foreign affairs. They are very much domestic issues because they deal with jobs, the economy, farming, fisheries, the environment and so on.

I have another comment related to our relations with citizens. I have great expectations for the citizens' initiative which will come into force in 2013, the year of the Irish Presidency. I wish to comment on how Council Presidencies in general have changed since the Lisbon treaty. From the point of view of the European Parliament, the Presidency is a strong legislative partner because of the new powers given to us by the treaty. There are two equal Chambers for legislation, the Council and the European Parliament. There are now fixed meetings with the Presidency and the European Parliament at all levels. I have meetings with the Prime Minister and there are meetings between Ministers and our committees. This is a positive initiative, as it helps towards better co-ordination of legislation and to sell our common initiatives to citizens, which is very important.

That leads me to my fourth point. One of these common initiatives is the next multi-annual financial framework. The European Union needs a strong, stable and realistic European budget in the next seven year period after 2013. The European Parliament broadly supports the current proposals of the European Commission, as we believe they go in the right direction. It is important to keep traditional policies such as the CAP original policy or the Structural Funds, but we also need to invest much more than before in new policies such as innovation, research and new technologies. I strongly believe these new policies are the key to our future success. The proposal for a 70% increase for education in the multi-annual financial framework is the right kind of investment, in particular when one sees how much could be changed in Ireland. More money could be invested in our research and development clusters. The fragmentation and duplication of efforts in the field of research and development and the substantial costs that need to be reduced are important. We will all gain from a common approach in this field.

I may not be touching on the hottest questions all over Europe which are important for all of us. There is a problem with migration today and neighbourhood policy. We should tackle these problems in the future. The current economic crisis is the most important question for our citizens. My first points mainly concerned co-operation and how we can co-operate as a Parliament to be more efficient for citizens.

To get out of the current economic crisis we need to stimulate growth and investment. It is a simple statement but sometimes it is necessary to repeat it. To do this we will need to close the gaps in the Internal Market, which is not so simple. There are about 150 bottlenecks in our Internal Market and 12 pieces of legislation proposed by the Commission and the European Parliament. We should implement all of the legislation. The most important pieces of legislation will be lying on the table during the Irish Presidency 18 months from now at the beginning of 2013. We should also implement all of it.

We should also think about the 2020 strategy and how to fulfil all the policies to be more competitive. It is connected with my general financial framework. Ireland is well placed to recover, with a business friendly environment and young skilled workforce. I know from my personal experience of being responsible for the Government in my country how hard economic reforms can be, but for reform to be successful there has to be help from Ireland's closest neighbours.

I would like to express the main message which is connected with my visit. It is a message of solidarity and also support from the European Union. Let me ask a very delicate question. I am sure it is possible to put such question between friends. Did the previous Irish Government negotiate a deal with the EU and IMF with Ireland's best interests at heart? I am quite sure it did.

I have a second question. Is the current Government right in seeking to try to improve the terms and conditions of that deal? Of course it is. To answer yes to the first question does not mean it is impossible to answer the second question with a yes. Both questions are valid. I can see it and I can feel it, having been in the European Parliament in the negotiations. If Ireland is to make a full recovery it needs all the help it can get and all instruments at its disposal.

Let me make one thing clear. The EU or its institutions should not put pressure on Ireland to change its corporation tax rate.


Hear, hear.

3:00 am

Mr. Jerzy Buzek:

It has achieved the guarantee according to the additional protocol in the Lisbon treaty that it is a matter of national competency. We should all remember such a solution. There is tremendous good will towards Ireland in the EU institutions and appreciation for the responsible steps it is taking to address its situation. I understand the situation from both sides.

There is big tension in Irish society. I represented trade unions in my country for more than ten years and was involved in national authorities of the trade unions. Later on I also represented the Government and I know very well what it means to be on both sides. I understand both sides. We had to go through very difficult reforms in my time in government. We had to close 22 coal mining in my constituency, making 100,000 people unemployed in one year. Thanks to that we survived with the rest of the coal mines, more than 30 of them, which are still working very efficiently. It is quite clear that without all those reforms, the coal mining industry in my country would have disappeared.

It is a very risky profession being a politician, as Senators know very well. Without risk, however, we cannot achieve anything more than going from one election to another and trying to survive. That is not the main goal for politicians. I can understand and feel what Irish politicians are doing with their reforms and how important they are for its citizens. They sometimes feel differently but the responsibility politicians have is great. I congratulate them.

The position of the Opposition is very helpful for the Government, as far as I know. Of course, there is never full support from the Opposition for the coalition; it is quite obvious. Otherwise, it would not be a democracy. We know very well that in the most important issues for our future there could be from time to time a very broad and wide coalition. Such coalitions are sometimes necessary, maybe once for ten years or two decades.

The last time there was such a coalition in Ireland there was an excellent pact of solidarity. I visited Ireland just after the Good Friday Agreement on the invitation of the Taoiseach. I visited the country because I wanted to know something about its solidarity pact. Trade unions engaged in freezing salaries for some time. It is fantastic because thanks to that, Ireland had at least one decade of prosperity.

Ireland is a very important country for the European Union. The last two Secretaries General of the European Commission, Mr. David O'Sullivan and Ms Catherine Day, were from Ireland. One of my predecessors is sitting here, Mr. Pat Cox, whom I thank for coming here. I am very glad. I am always proud to see him because he was an excellent President of the European Parliament.

We also know about the important portfolio of Ireland's Commissioner, Mrs. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. We need to look ahead to create better high technology jobs so that the EU can play a leading role in the competitive global economy. Ireland is well placed to benefit from this new wave, and Ireland's Commissioner is excellently prepared to do such a job.

Let me conclude, although I have probably not kept to the allotted time. In the European Parliament, where I am responsible for debates, my colleagues are usually angry because I stop them after two minutes. I must think about that deeply, colleagues, so maybe I can adopt a softer approach in future.

The European Union will show solidarity and will help Ireland. The faster we can secure our future financial instruments, the faster we can make the investments that will stimulate the long-term recovery and prosperity of Ireland and Europe generally.

Go raibh maith agaibh.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank President Buzek who is very welcome to the House. What scope is there for greater interaction between the national Parliament and the European Parliament? How confident is President Buzek that Europe will plot a satisfactory course through the current eurozone challenges, especially the fiscal ones, that lie ahead?

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh Uachtarán Buzek go dtí Seanad Éireann agus Éireann. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh sé taitneamh as an turas tábhachtach seo.

President Buzek rightly mentioned the issue of co-operation with the European Union. The European Parliament has a very important role to play in that respect. I am asking this question on behalf of this country's mortgage holders, 50,000 of whom are in arrears. There have been two recent increases in the ECB rate and two more are signalled to come down the road. What role does President Buzek think the European Parliament can play to ensure that in countries like Ireland, which are doing their level best to get through the difficulties with the assistance of their European partners, our citizens will not be hit by excessive interest rate increases? Our base rate in the ECB is 1.5%, while the equivalent in the Bank of England is 0.5%.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome President Buzek and thank him for the clear expression of solidarity with us. I have a two-part question. First of all, we welcome the reports that more flexibility is forthcoming from the EU and the IMF concerning the terms of the bailout for Ireland, but what interest rate cut is likely in President Buzek's view? Second, the context for more flexibility seems to be a concern about the growing financial crisis in Italy. What is plan B for saving the euro and the eurozone if the current propping-up arrangements and bailouts for countries such as Greece, Portugal and ourselves, do not work? Is there a plan B?

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I welcome President Buzek to Seanad Éireann. It is an honour for me to speak to somebody who is such a great defender of human rights and European values. I have heard him say that: "There is no 'us' and 'you'. We can say loud and clear that ... Europe belongs to us all". In this time of recession, however, that feeling of "us" is fast diminishing. I am a committed European and believe we need more of Europe to get us out of this crisis. We need to get the Europe 2020 strategy back on track. However, President Buzek raised the multi-annual financial framework which includes a welcome proposal to set up an interparliamentary conference with national parliaments. That is of interest both to the European Parliament and to us in Seanad Éireann. President Buzek also said that Europe needs a strong and stable budget, but do we need to increase the European budget by 5% at this time? What message does that send to people? The multi-annual financial framework includes proposals to increase its own resources through revenue raising measures such as a financial transaction tax and a new VAT resource. In the current climate, is this really the best way to connect citizens and help engender that feeling of "us"?

I thank President Buzek for his solidarity.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Uachtarán Buzek go hÉirinn. President Buzek mentioned that the Lisbon treaty was a treaty of parliaments. In particular, he referred to the enhanced role of national parliaments in scrutinising legislation, which is a step in the direction of subsidiarity. He also heard the welcome in this House for his support for Ireland's right to determine its own tax rates, specifically our corporation tax rate. These two issues are united around the question of subsidiarity and the guarantees given in advance of the second Lisbon treaty referendum. As President Buzek said, his last visit to Ireland was prior to that referendum. He will recall that the people had particular concerns around military neutrality, tax rates and fundamental human rights - specifically the role of the Constitution as the absolute guarantor of the protection of the right to life, the rights of the family and the right to an education. He will also recall that there was a political agreement at the European Council in June 2009 on these guarantees, to which legal effect was to be given at the time of the Croatian accession treaty. As that time is upon us, as the European Parliament will have a particular role in that regard, will it fully respect the political agreement made in June 2009? Will it endorse fully and integrally Irish constitutional supremacy, specifically in protecting the right to life, the rights of the family and the right to an education?

Mr. Jerzy Buzek:

There were so many questions that I will answer each of them with one or two sentences because it would not be possible to do more.

On the fiscal challenges facing us, we have a few steps to take, the first of which is recovery. There is some financial instability, but it is not a crisis in the eurozone. If we compare the GDP growth rate for the whole European zone with the sum of national debt in the eurozone, it is much better than in the United States. The problems in the US economy and those in the eurozone are somewhat different. The problem for us is instability in some member states. We are aware that such instability could influence the real economy. A few months after the Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy, there was a recession in the real US economy. We are aware the same could be case with a Greek bankruptcy.

From the point of view of the real EU economy, the position is not too bad. Plus 1.5% or 2% of GDP is not too bad and is generally not seen as a recession. We know that recovery is necessary and that we should avoid stagnation. We need an exit strategy, which is not necessarily the same as a recovery. It means GDP growth rates of 3%, 4% or 5% are needed to create jobs, because a rate of 1.5% is not leading to the creation jobs. As mentioned, we need the 20/20 strategy and other important initiatives to create jobs. We must take all of these steps. Structural reforms such as a change to the retirement age are most important because ours is an ageing society in the European Union. Reform of the labour market by achieving agreement with the trade unions is also important. Many things should be done and we are doing them in the European Parliament and European Commission all the time - we are very active on this issue.

There was a question about the interest rate. The interest rate for Ireland's loans from the IMF and EU at 5.8% is slightly too high if we wish to have growth in coming years. It is not only austerity measures and structural reform that are important; we also need growth and we should do everything to achieve growth. Competitiveness is not a bad starting point for Ireland, because generally speaking it has a very modest economy based on high technology. Ireland's young and skilled workforce is very promising for its economy. However, the interest needs to be approximately 1 percentage point lower. It is not a decision of the European Parliament; it depends on the member states, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, European Commission and eurozone leader, Mr. Juncker. Many international organisations and member states should discuss the problem. I would like to say there is great support and we can achieve it. It has the support of the majority of my colleagues in the European Parliament - it is quite obvious. We will see how much we can achieve, but 5.8% is probably slightly too much.

We talk about flexibility. We know it is very important for the International Monetary Fund and for the European Union to get money back. We know that if the international institutions want their money back it may be better to reduce the interest rate, because it would be easier for the country to pay all the money back. We must think about that in such a way. I underline again that the European Parliament is not responsible for that. We can create the atmosphere to help Ireland and we are trying to do so. With the euro bonds problem, we are just supportive. Generally I can speak for 60%, 80% or maybe sometimes 85% of my colleagues from the European Parliament, which means the majority, but it does not mean that all of my colleagues think in the same way. It is important to note that the European Parliament is a fully democratic Assembly in which we argue and have different points of view.

A Senator asked about plan B - I do not believe we should even think about plan B. It is most important for the European citizens - not only the member states from the eurozone and outside - to support countries such as Greece and Ireland because we are supporting ourselves. Any bankruptcy of Greece, for example, would influence the situation of some big banks in the European Union, but it does not mean that we help banks helping Greece because after any collapse or bankruptcy of banks it will be recession in the real economy. Only one financial institution, Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt in 2008. There is deep recession in many countries throughout the world so it could be the same result now. We should prevent such a situation and we try to do that. In helping Greece, Ireland or Portugal, we are helping ourselves and our citizens.

Two weeks ago I went to Germany for a lecture in Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, just to express this point of view. Germans are asking why they should support, which is a reasonable question. We must understand all the sides of the discussion. The reasonable true answer is that we would like to help ourselves, as otherwise it would be deep recession. We need responsibility on the other side and I can see responsibility and great honour for all people in Ireland. The Irish people ask for the solidarity in a responsible way. It is very important: we need solidarity and responsibility. We would like to work on such a way in the future.

There was a question about human rights and values, which is a most important point. In this case 100% of Members of the European Parliament agree. I am quite sure we have full agreement about the human rights issue. On some resolutions somebody will vote against, not because we do not agree on the fundamental values, but we have some small paragraphs which somebody might oppose. However, we agree absolutely; it is absolutely important to have values and be united.

European scepticism in Ireland and some other member states is typical in a time of crisis. Last Friday I was in Austria and faced the same question. Austria is in the eurozone and is doing rather well, and should also help. Austrians question why they should help. It is very important that at a time of crisis people express scepticism. They would prefer protectionism to showing solidarity with others. It is a natural answer from the point of view of our citizens. We know the experience in our continent. This is the deepest crisis since the 1930s. Our response to the crisis 80 years ago was to close our borders, be protectionist and divide ourselves. The result was not very interesting for all of us. Based on that experience of ours, we should be open, show solidarity and responsibility on all sides, and do it together. We need to be more united. We need more Europe and not less Europe. We had less Europe in the 1930s for each country in our continent.

Do we need an EU budget? Introducing new ideas like a 2020 strategy is just for creating jobs and nothing else. What do we need if we want to create jobs? We must be competitive, which will allow us to win in the global market. How can we achieve competitiveness? We need to be more innovative, have new technologies, and finance research and development. We can be more competitive by doing things through the Single Market. We should have a single market in energy, with cross-border connections. With a single market for energy we can be much more efficient and secure from the point of view of energy. Everything is grounded on the energy prices because we must use energy for everything we are doing. Let us create a single market for energy with cross-border connections with research on the climate issue and everything else. By financing initiatives such as roads, railways and airports from the EU level we achieve much better results - it is European added value. If we want to create cross-border connections Ireland should use its wind energy. Ireland needs the best possible connections with Britain or France to exchange energy. We know that wind energy does not last 24 hours at a time, that the wind blows for 12 hours or eight hours and then more energy is needed and it must be bought. Ireland, therefore, needs connections in each member state. We must create that and organise the European external action service for our common foreign and security policy, which is also necessary. We need money so 5% growth is not too much. I am sure that is absolutely necessary.

The last question relates to the right to life and family issues. The European Parliament respects these. While we can have resolutions on different topics, European Union law has certain meanings. In the treaties everything is clearly written - the responsibilities of individual member states and national governments, and what is decided at EU level. From this point of view, the division is clear. All the guarantees in our treaties will be kept, and I am sure the European Parliament will stick to this position.

I thank Senators and apologise that I spoke for longer than expected. It was interesting for me to be here for this discussion and for me to hear questions from Senators because sometimes the questions are much more important than the answers.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the House, I express our deep and sincere appreciation to Mr. Buzek for his presence today and his address to the House. That address touched on and illuminated many important issues that confront us. We thank him for sharing his knowledge and for his comprehensive, unscripted replies to the questions asked. In leaving us today, he can be assured he carries with him our profound gratitude and best wishes.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 3.45 p.m.