Thursday, 10 May 2012
EU Presidency: Statements, Questions and Answers
I welcome this opportunity to address the House as part of the programme of events to mark Europe week. I am also glad to update the House on our approach to the EU Presidency, now less than eight months away. As it happens, Ireland will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its accession to the EEC as it takes over the Presidency. I feel this anniversary provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our membership and how our country has grown and developed over the past four decades.
The direct and tangible benefits of membership are well-known, perhaps some now even take them for granted, but many here will recall how the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, helped transform Irish agriculture and rural life. Ireland has benefited enormously from access to the Single Market which has fuelled our export sector and helped make Ireland an important centre for international investment. Our national infrastructure has been transformed through cohesion funding. Membership has benefited individual citizens in a range of ways, whether through improved legal and social protection or, for example, through opening up educational or employment opportunities across the EU. The peace process in Northern Ireland has received and continues to receive significant EU support.
As well as a time to reflect on the benefits we have derived from the EU, the Presidency offers the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment as an active and constructive member state and to assess what role Ireland can play in the future development of Europe. This Government continues to work to rebuild our economy and to build economic growth and prosperity. Stability and economic growth go hand in hand. We will only succeed in our objective of economic recovery if we work from a solid platform of stability in Ireland and in Europe. Fighting the ongoing financial crisis will remain a priority for Ireland during its term of the Presidency. Ireland will work to ensure the implementation of the EU's new economic governance rules and procedures that will lay the ground for greater economic and fiscal stability.
While we need to restore stability to Europe's markets and economies, the time has come to focus to a much stronger extent on the challenge of getting the EU's economy growing again, as well as creating the conditions for sustainable employment and growth. We look forward to working at European level closely with partners for a stronger and more co-ordinated approach to reducing unemployment. Reflecting the national priority that we attached to this issue in Ireland, Ministers are working across Government to identify measures in every European policy sector aimed at creating the conditions necessary for long-term sustainable economic growth and job creation.
In its Presidency, Ireland will work to ensure key decisions are taken on the EU budget for 2014 to 2020. Decisions on this budget will have implications for the CAP and the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, which are clearly of critical national importance. There are other measures vital for our future economic development including funding for Horizon 2020, the EU's framework programme for research and innovation. In keeping with our plans to place jobs and growth at the centre of our Presidency programme, we are focusing on areas including the Single Market Act, the digital agenda, programmes that support research, development and innovation, and ways of reducing bureaucracy so that small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, can focus more on developing their business and creating jobs. We will need to ensure we remain impartial and fair in handling the EU's agenda but many of these priorities in fact mirror our national objectives.
Ireland will seek to promote the external trade agenda during the Presidency. The decision to hold an informal meeting of trade Ministers in Ireland during the Presidency, which is intended to focus on EU-US trade and to organise related business-focused events, signals the priority that we give to this. Several large conferences and events focussing on research and innovation are being planned for Dublin during the Presidency by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. These issues will also figure prominently on the agendas for ministerial meetings in areas such as health and energy.
We are working to promote responsible social policies across the EU. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, will invite her colleagues from across the EU to a conference in Dublin in 2013 aimed at addressing issues including co-ordinated ways of fighting poverty and promoting social inclusion. In Ireland we attach great importance to the value of education and during the Presidency we will seek to build ways of extending greater access to education and training to all Europeans and to strengthening standards to boost the EU's global economic competitiveness.
The reform of the CAP and CFP will be of major importance in 2013, and Ireland will seek to use its Presidency to support and promote innovation in agriculture, environmental sustainability and food security. It will seek to support and foster a more responsible and sustainable future for the EU economy by placing an emphasis on measures aimed at boosting the green economy, an emerging area in which the EU can become a world leader. Energy efficiency has been identified as a priority area during the Presidency with a focus on how new technologies can be employed to make more efficient use of the EU's energy resources. We will work to support policy that will take a responsible approach to protecting Europe's environment for future generations.
These are just some of the main emerging priorities of our Presidency programme. Between now and the end of the year, the Government will work closely with our European partners, the EU institutions and civil society as we continue to develop and define our agenda. The emerging priorities of the Irish Presidency programme reflect national concerns but we believe that they also reflect the concerns of millions of people across the EU. The Presidency is an investment in Ireland's economic recovery and an investment in a better future for Europe.
Ireland developed a reputation during its six previous Presidencies for handling the business of the European Union in a fair, impartial and effective manner. It is no mean achievement for a small member state and it is our ambition to do the same in 2013. We see it as an integral part of the Government's strategy to rebuild our international reputation. At the same time, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we will seek to run a cost-effective Presidency by reducing the number of venues for meetings and taking a close look at expenditure in every other area of planning. Based on current estimates, the Presidency is likely to be well under the budget for Ireland's last Presidency in 2004. We are also planning for beyond the Presidency. A successful Presidency can strengthen our relations with our partners and help to promote our national interests at EU level. The Government has also established a working group representing the main State agencies and other key stakeholders to consider the central messages we want to convey about Ireland during the Presidency and to identify the opportunities that it will offer to promote Irish goods and services.
The Presidency has always posed challenges for a smaller member state like Ireland. Running the Union's busy and complex agenda for six months is a challenging task. Ireland has demonstrated its abilities in the past and I am confident that we will do so again in 2013.
Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Creighton, who is responsible for European affairs. Having been a Minister of State responsible for trade and marketing during the 1990 Presidency I realise how important and significant the Presidency is for this country and it is a single honour for us to host it. We have been most efficient and effective in all of our Presidencies and I have no doubt that this one will be as successful. As spokesperson for European affairs in the Seanad, I wish the Minister of State well and offer her my full co-operation and assistance for when the delegations come to Ireland. It is important that the Opposition is involved as much as possible. The Government and the main Opposition party here have adopted a united approach to the role of Europe, its significance and extend a welcome to our European colleagues that will come to Dublin for meetings of the Council during the Presidency period. As she said, next year will be the 40th anniversary of our accession to the European Union and it is significant that we mark the occasion. It is a significant event and the deal was signed by the late Jack Lynch, a former Taoiseach and the late Paddy Hillery, a former Minister for External Affairs, now known as foreign affairs, and President. We must bear it in mind during the Presidency.
Croatia will also join the family of members in January 2013 or during the period.
We will work with them because, as far as I can recall, members of the Croatian Government will attend meetings.
During the Minister of State's period as a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs she effectively and successfully chaired a sub-committee on the Lisbon treaty. On that occasion she spoke about the role of the Oireachtas and did a very good job of it. Like myself she must be disappointed that the Seanad has not been significantly involved with European legislation. In the Seanad she gave a commitment, in conjunction with the Leader of the House, that she would consider it. I hope that we would devote one day a month to discuss legislation of general interest to Members, as opposed to particular sectoral interests. I hope that she will examine it again in her role as Minister with responsibility for European affairs and during the period of the Presidency.
Earlier the Minister of State outlined some of the issues and events that will take place during the Presidency. I note the meeting of the trade ministers of Ireland that will focus on trade between the European Union and the US. We hosted such a meeting in Dromoland Castle but I do not think she will have the same opportunity to host meetings at such venues.
As the Minister of State is originally from County Mayo and the Taoiseach hails from there, I hope that the EU leaders are given the opportunity to visit the west of Ireland during the Presidency. It would be an important visit, irrespective of the extra cost involved. They could visit some key locations in Mayo, Galway or the region. I hope that such a visit will be arranged and my party would support it. I would also support a showcase of the west to the leaders of the other 27 countries.
I note the comments made on jobs, enterprise and scientific developments. I know that Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn would be supportive as far as her availability is concerned.
The Presidency of the Council is an influential position and Ireland, under previous Fianna Fáil Governments, made a real impact. The forthcoming Presidency is strategically important as Ireland will be the most experienced member state to hold such a position while overseeing the 18-month work programme shared between Cyprus, Ireland and Lithuania. The key issues to be tackled during our Presidency will be the European growth agenda, the European budget, the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and the European crisis. It is vital for Europe's future to make significant progress in these areas.
It would be a feather in the cap of the Government and the State if the fiscal treaty is passed successfully on 31 May. We would be one of the first 12 signatories to ratify the agreement. There is some misunderstanding of Germany's postponement of its ratification process, the situation in France with its new President and the position in Greece. The treaty still stands. The agreement still stands and the first 12 signatories will kick it into place. We should not lose sight of the fact that the 17 members of the eurozone will retain their position. We will approach the Presidency with a strong hand having been one of the early signatories of the treaty and because it will be in place. Irish people have a particular role to play in this regard. They should not be side-tracked by issues in the other 26 members of the European Union and how they react to the fiscal treaty. It is about how we react to the treaty. It is about the people of Ireland having a real democratic say. They should consider the issues before them and not be swayed by propaganda emanating from Germany's slight postponement of the date it brings the legislation to its Parliament and the position in Greece and France. As far as Ireland is concerned, France's position is positive. It is in our best interests that we are a signatory of the fiscal treaty.
We have had enormously successful Irish Presidencies. The reunification of Germany took place during our Presidency in the 1990s and it was a massive event in Dublin. As far as the fiscal treaty is concerned, the "No" side is all ifs, buts and maybes. It is "maybe" we will get money from the International Monetary Fund and "maybe" we will get money from another source but we are guaranteed money from the stability fund. If we reject the opportunity of tapping into €700 billion why would the IMF decide to support Ireland? We would have to go back to the IMF with our cap in our hands if we needed additional support and were not back in the bond markets. I cannot understand the logic behind such a stance. I understand that we will have another opportunity to debate the issue next week. I have had little opportunity to appear on radio or television or use any other media and must use the Seanad to convey my point of view.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, to the House. I compliment her on the wonderful work she is doing and the image of our country she is projecting. She is doing a wonderful job to help to restore this country's reputation in Europe and internationally. I agree with Senator Leyden that as we campaign in advance of this vital referendum, we need to be conscious of the importance of this country's membership of the EU for our ongoing economic recovery. At no stage during Ireland's 40 years as a member state has it been more important for us to play a central role in the action in Europe. Those campaigning for a "No" vote need to take that on board.
This will be the seventh time Ireland has held the Presidency of the EU and the first time since 2004. It will be a challenging and exciting opportunity for Ireland. Over the years, this country has built a reputation for having an effective Presidency. I do not doubt we will do an excellent job again on this occasion, despite the limited resources mentioned by the Minister of State. It is a more challenging task on this occasion because the EU now has 27 member states.
The Minister of State must feel like someone who is getting ready to receive an important visitor in a few months. A great deal of groundwork has to be done and many plans have to be put in place. We will have a huge opportunity to showcase Ireland and to convey to Europe important messages about our own economic recovery and our future potential. We should use the huge media interest in Ireland's Presidency of the EU to our best advantage, for example, by promoting tourism, the Irish agrifood industry, our successful multinational sector, our educational facilities and many other successful aspects of our economy. We want to transmit the message that Ireland is truly open for business. We must let the world know that.
Our Presidency of the EU will allow us to set the agenda for the first half of 2013. We all want to focus on the issues of greatest concern to the Irish people and the people of Europe as a whole. I do not doubt the ongoing financial crisis in Europe, the stability of the euro and the need to ease our debt burden will be on the agenda, and a great deal of time will be devoted to them. Job creation and economic growth in Ireland and across Europe have to be priorities for us. It is unacceptable that approximately 440,000 people are unemployed. We must continue to improve our competitiveness.
During the recent French presidential election, there was a great deal of discussion on the importance of growth for European economic recovery. This has been promoted by our Government in the past year. I hope all member states will work closely to develop growth initiatives during our Presidency, which will have a key role in driving the EU's ambitious employment, innovation, education, social inclusion, climate change and energy objectives, which have to be achieved by 2020.
The Minister of State mentioned our vital national interest in the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. We hope significant progress will be made in those respects during Ireland's Presidency of the EU. The agrifood area is of great importance to our economic recovery. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, who has been in this House on two occasions recently, is doing a wonderful job to promote innovation in agriculture. The agrifood sector has the potential to be a real driver of growth for the future. The Minister has spoken about Ireland's plans to produce enough food to feed between 50 million and 60 million people by 2020.
We must keep the interests of small and medium sized enterprises on the agenda during our Presidency of the EU. We have to find ways of making it easier for such businesses to access research, development and innovation programmes.
We need to prioritise the provision of help for the poorest people in the world. The Seanad debated the review of the White Paper on Irish Aid yesterday. As a nation, we have always been proud of the help we have given to the most vulnerable people in society. We should pursue this area with vigour.
I wish the Minister of State and the Government well during Ireland's Presidency of the EU. I know they will do the country proud.