Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Ireland's Presidency of the European Council: Statements
I have gathered my breath. I thank the Members for the invitation to once again have the pleasure and honour of addressing the Chamber on the first two months of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Ireland formally took over the Presidency on 1 January but, in reality, the Government has been in intensive Presidency mode since I last addressed the Seanad in late October. Throughout November, the Government had a busy schedule of visits by committees and by party political groups from the European Parliament culminating with the meeting between the Government and the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament. In December the Cabinet approved the Irish Presidency programme, and the Tánaiste launched the Trio Presidency programme in Brussels with our partners from Lithuania and Greece. The Irish programme, For Stability, Jobs and Growth, which has been laid before the Oireachtas, was formally launched in early January in advance of the visit to Dublin by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. The College of Commissioners also visited Dublin on 10 January for the traditional start-of-Presidency meeting between the European Commission and the Government.
The Government also hosted a visit to Dublin by over 60 members of the Brussels press corps. This provided members of the Government with the opportunity not only to discuss Presidency issues but also to send key messages about Ireland's economic recovery to a wide international audience. It is important to note that those journalists were from the leading publications in every member state and from candidate countries and that this generated a huge amount of features and promotional pieces in a wide variety of those leading publications across the European Union and beyond.
Following the Taoiseach's address in mid-January to the European Parliament plenary on the priorities of the Irish Presidency, Irish Ministers made 27 presentations to European Parliament committees on the Presidency programme. The programme has also been presented to our partners in other member states and I have addressed the Committee of the Regions and the European economic and social committee on our priorities.
In all our engagement with partners we have stressed that we want our Presidency to reflect the best elements of Ireland's six previous Presidencies. It will be citizen-focused, impartial, business-like and results-driven. Similarly the Irish Presidency programme contains ambitious but not unrealistic goals aimed at promoting stability, sustainable economic growth and jobs across Europe, and all of our priorities are centred around delivering a better Europe for our citizens.
The positive reaction to our Presidency priorities from partners in other member states, from the European institutions and from European civil society has been encouraging. I am also grateful for the support that we have received from this House.
One of the core objectives of the programme is to promote stability and confidence in Europe's economy through measures such as the banking union proposals and effectively implementing the EU's enhanced economic governance measures. This is necessary to provide a stable foundation of sustainable economic recovery and employment creation. We are making good progress in this regard.
The Government has also identified a range of proposals designed to stimulate growth and job creation. These include several important Single Market proposals, improved support for research and innovation across the EU, unemployment measures, particularly for young people, and widening access to education and training. We are working intensively across all Council formations to deliver on these priorities. I welcome the news from the European Commission last week that Ireland has topped the latest EU Internal Market scoreboard for transposing EU legislation into domestic law. It is only the second time a member state has got a perfect score and it is a first for Ireland. It shows that we are taking our EU responsibilities seriously and I would like to express my thanks to this House for the role it plays in scrutinising and debating EU related legislation.
Our Presidency objectives clearly reflect national political priorities but they also reflect concerns that are shared by people across the European Union. This is why making progress on these goals over the coming four months is essential for Ireland and for Europe.
We also want to ensure that our efforts leave a strong, positive legacy in the coming years. We all know how important it is for Ireland to maintain excellent relations with our partners and to demonstrate our commitment as a serious and engaged member state. We believe the effective management of the Presidency can challenge the negative perceptions about Ireland that resulted from the crisis and can show that Ireland is a capable and credible international partner.
We have almost reached the one third stage of the Presidency. While we face challenging months ahead and there is no room for complacency, the Government is broadly satisfied with progress made to date.
Let me summarise what we have achieved so far across several Council formations.
On 8 February the European Council reached agreement on the multiannual financial framework, MFF, for 2014 to 2020. It agreed an overall amount of ¤960 billion in commitment appropriations. While the overall size of the MFF has been reduced by 3.5%, importantly, CAP and cohesion spending were largely protected. Negotiations were difficult, but the outcome is a compromise with which member states are broadly satisfied.
Ireland did well. We protected our CAP allocation and secured a special allocation of ¤100 million for rural development. We also secured a special allocation of ¤100 million from cohesion funding for the Border, midlands and western region, which had been due to take a significant drop. I am particularly glad that we were able to secure ¤150 million for the PEACE programme which has supported such valuable projects in Northern Ireland and in our Border counties. There is a new youth employment initiative which will provide funding for regions with youth unemployment rates above 25%. This, unfortunately, includes both Irish regions, and I will return to this later.
Initial estimates are that Ireland will remain a net recipient for the lifetime of the new MFF. We should contribute about ¤10 billion and receive about ¤12 billion.
The European Parliament's assent is needed before the MFF can be adopted. It now falls to Ireland as President to gain this assent and we aim to conclude negotiations in Council on a new MFF regulation, based on the outcome of the European Council. We intend to do that in April and to formally present the regulation to the European Parliament. However, as holders of the Presidency we will need to engage well before that with the Parliament. Obtaining the Parliament's assent will be very challenging. I am confident, however, that with goodwill on all sides we can reach agreement on this before the end of our Presidency. I am pleased to say the Government has already initiated contacts with the European Parliament as part of our preparations for that crucial which will probably take place in April.
Timely implementation of the MFF is critical to underpin recovery across the European Union on programmes ranging from Horizon 2020 to the COSME programme to support our SMEs to cohesion and regional funding. Last week the Presidency helped to broker an agreement with the European Parliament on the so-called "two-pack" economic governance legislation which is designed to improve budgetary and economic co-ordination among euro area members. The adoption of the proposals is a Presidency priority and will contribute to our objective of promoting greater stability and confidence in the euro area through more effective economic and fiscal co-ordination.
The Presidency is also committed to ensuring the effective implementation of the European semester, the European Union's new system of economic and budgetary co-ordination, which we see as the key tool in restoring economic stability in Europe and creating the conditions for sustainable growth. The European Council will conclude and evaluate the first phase of the European semester when it meets in mid-March. It is important that national parliaments play their part in the European semester process. After the March European Council recommendations will come from the European Commission specific to each member state. In terms of accountability and legitimacy it is essential that national parliaments play their role in assessing those countries' specific recommendations and feeding in to the process before the ultimate European Council in June.
Remaining on economic and financial issues, at the first meeting of the ECOFIN Council last month, which was chaired by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, a decision was taken to move forward on an enhanced co-operation basis for a financial transaction tax. Ireland will not be one of the participating countries but we are committed, in our role as Presidency, to act as an honest and impartial broker in the discussions.
The Presidency has seen welcome progress on the trade front. As Members will recall from the programme and our discussions here in late October, promoting the European Union's exports through enhanced trade agreements is an important Presidency priority for Ireland. With 90% of global economic growth taking place outside the European Union, it is essential that we seek to develop trade with key external partners. In our programme, we placed particular emphasis on making progress on a trade agreement with the United States.
On 12 February, President Obama called for a transatlantic trade and investment partnership. This has been welcomed by the Presidency and all European Union leaders. The Government will do all it can to secure its goal of achieving a formal Council mandate for the start of negotiations on an agreement. Our aim is to do that before the conclusion of our President. If we can do that it will be a hugely significant achievement because it is something that has alluded the European Union and the US not just for years but decades.
The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation will chair a meeting of EU trade Ministers in Dublin in April which will focus on driving this process forward in addition to other trade related issues. The potential benefits of a future partnership agreement are simply too great to ignore. It is estimated, very conservatively, that a successful conclusion could lead to annual benefits of more than ¤150 billion to the European Union and the United States economies. There is a huge raft of academic work which shows that the potential is much greater than that. Therefore, it is an exciting opportunity and one that we, as Presidency, are embracing.
The Presidency will also seek to build on the progress on concluding an EU-Canada free trade negotiation agreement.
Similar negotiations are also under way with several key Asian partners and Japan, Korea and others are very much on our priority list.
Remaining for a moment on international issues, the Government, in preparing the Presidency programme, also placed a strong emphasis on development and humanitarian issues, reflecting Ireland's commitment to fighting global hunger and poverty. At the recent meeting of EU development Ministers chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, agreement was reached on the resumption of ¤250 million in EU funding in 2013 to support democracy and peace in Mali and to provide assistance to displaced Malians to ensure they have access to food and other basic services. This is a very important positive step for the region and for Mali in particular. I am also looking forward to the conference being hosted by the Presidency with the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice to seek solutions to the challenges of hunger, nutrition and climate change which affect the world's poorest regions disproportionately.
The Single Market is a key Presidency priority and I am very pleased to note the signing of the unified patent court agreement last week. The agreement will provide European SMEs and other businesses with a central one-stop shop for registering and protecting patents and with improved and more cost-effective access to patent protection at European level. The EU-US trade agreement I mentioned earlier took decades to achieve, as has the unified patent court agreement. We cannot claim all the credit for it and must acknowledge the work of previous Presidencies to get it to this point. It was an historic day when the Minister, Deputy Bruton, signed it on behalf of the Irish Presidency. It is a very important leap forward for the Single Market protecting and encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship in the European Union. The Presidency is working on other outstanding issues under the Single Market Act I to promote economic competitiveness and growth.
Bringing down barriers which hinder citizen mobility across the EU is also an important Presidency focus during this European Year of Citizens. In addition to advancing a number of legislative proposals we are engaging in dialogue with citizens over the coming months about the rights we enjoy as EU citizens. I hope through this initiative we can spark a broader debate about what it means to be part of the European Union and how we would like the Union to evolve in the coming years. I want this debate to continue well beyond the Presidency and the European Year of Citizens. As many Senators are aware, in January we held the first dialogue in Dublin City Hall with approximately 200 citizens present. I and the Vice President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, were in the hot seat and the event was very successful. More recently, the Tánaiste attended the second citizens' dialogue in Cork. I look forward to the next meeting in Galway, which I will attend on behalf of the Presidency and the Government, and many such meetings will take place in the coming months. I intend to try to engage personally at all of the events, if I can, and to encourage participation by Members of the Oireachtas, the European Parliament and the Commission. It will be a good opportunity for citizens to challenge and question and engage with public representatives and leaders at national and European level.
Not surprisingly, one question raised at these events is what are we doing to tackle unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. As Senators recall from my pre-Presidency meetings in the Seanad, the Government considers youth unemployment levels in Ireland and across Europe far too high and if we do not address them they will have very negative consequences for our families and communities and for society. This is why we have made tackling the issue a key focus for our Presidency. On 7 and 8 February the Ministers, Deputies Burton and Bruton, met their EU colleagues in Dublin to address unemployment issues and to assess ways of addressing youth unemployment more effectively. This was at the informal Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs, EPSCO, Council which took place. One of the main proposals discussed was the youth guarantee, which is aimed at ensuring that young people who are not working or studying receive an offer of employment, continuing education, an apprenticeship or a traineeship.
Based on discussions at discussions at the meeting we are hopeful that agreement will be reached at the EPSCO Council meeting due to take place later this week in Brussels.
As I mentioned earlier, the European Council has also agreed on a ¤6 billion youth employment initiative fund as part of the multi-annual financial framework for 2014-20. The funding is aimed at regions with the highest rates of youth joblessness to help get young people back to work. The Irish Presidency will work intensively to secure the European Parliament's consent to the 2014-20 budget to ensure that these funds can be mobilised without delay. Work has already begun in the European Commission in terms of firming up the proposals.
Food quality and security is of critical importance to Ireland from both a consumer perspective and as one of our major export sectors. All Senators will agree that the recent revelations on the mislabelling of food products are simply unacceptable. Following the initial discovery in January by the Irish Food Safety Authority, the pan-European scale of the problem has become apparent. This is why the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as chair of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, responded swiftly to address the issue and called a meeting of EU agriculture Ministers with the Commission, which agreed on a control and testing system for all member states in order to reassure consumers. The issue was also under consideration at the meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council yesterday.
The issues that I have highlighted are just a sample of the work that the Presidency has led over the past seven weeks in nine Council meetings, five informal Council meetings, many other high level meetings and countless working groups, which are being led and chaired by senior Irish officials in Brussels and some of them in Dublin. All of the meetings that the Presidency chairs now have one thing in common - to make progress and to drive forward the agenda.
On a personal level, I invited my counterparts from other member states to an informal ministerial meeting - obviously European Affairs Ministers - to focus on the question which is the fourth strand of the so-called EMU process. I fear the fourth strand can be overlooked. I am referring to democratic legitimacy and accountability in the European Union. I do not need to remind the House of the importance of the topic as we move towards closer integration at EU level in response to the crisis. Everything that we do must be underpinned by a consciousness and willingness to enhance and support democratic legitimacy and accountability.
I welcome the engagement of the Oireachtas on these issues. I welcome, in particular, the parliamentary dimension of our Presidency which contributes in no small way to the democratic process in the Union. I know that the House has already had the COSAC chairpersons meeting because I attended part of it. Yesterday, the chairs of the finance committees of the EU member states and the European Parliament met in Dublin yesterday. I also took the opportunity provided by the informal meeting of European Affairs ministers to invite to Dublin my counterparts from the EU candidate countries and also from the potential candidates of the western Balkans. Ireland has always made clear its belief in the role of the enlargement process for securing peace, stability and prosperity in Europe. We remain firmly supportive of the enlargement process. As Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, I am pleased to have the honour of dealing with all of the candidate countries and working on the enlargement file which is important. We must remain focussed on it even though we have our internal concerns in the European Union at present.
I continue to meet my counterparts at bilateral level at EU meetings and in other EU capitals. I am the Council's main representative at debates at plenary sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and we have had two very busy sessions in January and February. My practice of coming here and debating in the Seanad has stood me in good stead because at my last session in Strasbourg I had 20 hours of plenary debate which was intensive and stimulating. It was also a great opportunity for Ireland, during its Presidency, to lead the debates.
It is clear that since the introduction of the Lisbon treaty, one of the key roles of the Presidency is to represent the Council at the European Parliament and to negotiate on its behalf in order to reach compromise on the legislative agenda.
Senators will be aware that since the Lisbon treaty, almost every policy area is now dealt with by way of co-decision. That means that, as important as Ministers may think they are, they are no more important than members of the European Parliament with whom we have a two-track process. It is crucial that the Irish EU Presidency works constructively and fruitfully with the European Parliament in order to progress, otherwise we would meet roadblocks along the way. It is important for us to have that strong working relationship in order to progress our priorities. More often than not, I am fortunate to be in the hot seat in dealing with the European Parliament on behalf of the Presidency.
I would like to outline some of the key tasks and challenges that face the Irish Presidency over the coming months. I have mentioned that securing agreement on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, with the European Parliament will be one of the major challenges facing the Presidency. It is new territory because we have not had this task in the past. It is a real challenge for us and one that we cannot take for granted, yet I am confident of a successful outcome.
In parallel, we will also be focusing on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, Horizon 2020 and the Structural Fund. Most crucially, the Presidency will also push for agreement on banking union proposals to ensure the commitments made last June will be delivered upon. In addition to working to advance the Single Market and digital economy proposals identified to drive growth, the Presidency will also work intensively to secure a Council mandate for EU-US trade negotiations. I referred to these earlier.
We look forward to making good progress on these issues as we face into the remaining four months of our Presidency. I would like to thank this House once again for its support to date. I hope that I will have an opportunity to return here later in the Presidency - maybe at the two thirds stage - with more positive news on our Presidency objectives and the progress we are making. I hope that when I return at the end of our Presidency, all Senators will be able to agree with me that we have had a successful Presidency. It will have helped to elevate Ireland's standing, not just in a European context but also globally. The Irish EU Presidency will genuinely deliver positive steps towards growth and job creation for the whole of the European Union and particularly for our own citizens here in Ireland.
On behalf of those on the Opposition benches, I extend a warm welcome to the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton. I am delighted she got an opportunity to attend this House and I thank her for taking time out from an extremely busy schedule to address the Seanad and provide us with a progress report on the Irish EU Presidency. To date, our Presidency has been successful. We are 57 days into the Presidency and one third of the time has gone. There remain four months which will be extraordinarily busy. The highlight so far has been the fact that the negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework 2014-2020 are on track. The Irish EU Presidency has played an important role in this decision and we have supported this vitally important development. First and foremost, the Irish EU Presidency is about using our leadership role in the pursuit of stability, jobs and growth in Europe. The Government's policy programme for those six months was set out in the details of what exactly we wished to achieve.
President Obama's recent State of the Union speech was very significant. It is certainly something for the Tánaiste to grasp with open arms, given the enormous financial potential of the US and EU economies and the ¤150 billion worth of trade between both blocs. It is particularly significant that Ireland exports 90% of its products and services. I know that the US-EU trade negotiations are not starting until mid-year, but preparations are required and Ireland has to discuss them with its EU partners. I hope the starting point will be on St. Patrick's Day when the Taoiseach meets with President Obama in the White House. It will be an opportunity to bring forward the debate on trade. When the US-EU trade talks are completed they will involve the largest trading bloc in the world.
Moreover, I refer to the uncertainty regarding the future of Britain's membership of the European Union. While ultimately it is to be hoped they will remain within the Union - I believe that to be the wish of the Irish Government and people - the Prime Minister's offer of a referendum in 2017 or thereabouts undoubtedly has created uncertainty at present. Consequently, for multinational companies that are planning ahead for 40 or 50 years, Ireland now is an even more attractive location as, apart from Britain, it is the only English-speaking country of the European Union's 27 member states and this is an opportunity. Moreover, our time location in relation to the United States and Europe is also crucial. The IDA and Enterprise Ireland certainly will be maximising their efforts to attract further investment into the country because their success in attracting overseas industry undoubtedly has been phenomenal. Ireland is such an attractive location because of the quality and education of our workforce. In this context, I note the development regarding PayPal in Dundalk, as well as other such companies which are establishing themselves in Ireland. The great majority of major multinational companies are based here, including their headquarters for Europe, which of course gives us a great status.
A further advantage is Ireland's stability. The current negotiations are ongoing and the workers must decide for themselves what is of greatest benefit for themselves and the country but the existence of such negotiations and our ability to negotiate agreements instead of taking to the streets is a great indication of Ireland's stability. It makes it very attractive for multinational companies which are giving consideration to Europe. They can see what is happening in Greece or in Italy at present, which creates great doubts, while Ireland has a stable democracy. We had a change of government two years ago and, in due course, there will be other changes in the future. However, the point is we still have stability. When I was in the Department of Industry and Commerce with responsibility for trade and marketing, we could go abroad and make the point that Ireland had a tax rate of 12.5%. We could state this had been guaranteed by successive Governments and there would be no change in that policy when that happened.
Finally, on another issue that arose, the Minister of State is aware that I was in Brussels at the end of January and early February. I had not been there for some time and the Ceann Comhairle addressed a meeting, as did Deputies Ciarán Lynch and Hannigan, which was very useful. The issue of youth unemployment is crucial and one aspect that has been considered by the European Union was the establishment of a European Union peace corps for young people. Its purpose would be to use their skills and ability over a period in Europe and to provide some of the current funding for Third World countries through the provision of labour. It would be in the form of intellectual labour, workers, designers, engineers, architects, builders, plasterers and all the trades to maximise and make use of these skills. It has been tried and if she gets an opportunity, the Minister of State might look up the research that has taken place within the European Union. The Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Sean Barrett, highlighted this point when he spoke and I thought it was a very useful contribution. As President in the European Union, I ask the Minister of State to examine the files and perhaps talk to some of the Commissioners on this subject to ascertain whether this possible proposal can be moved further.
I join with my colleague, Senator Leyden, in welcoming the Minister of State to the House and to thank her for a highly comprehensive report on progress being made to date under the Irish Presidency. I compliment her on how well she always represents our country and to marvel at the significant workload she is carrying on behalf of the country. Members are having this discussion today against a backdrop of much instability in recent months throughout Europe. There is concern that the political situation in Italy may cause some instability throughout Europe. In a country in which there is a strong Government and real political stability, the prospects of a hung parliament in Italy or another election do not excite anyone in this Chamber.
One of the most significant achievements, which was overshadowed in particular in this House by the debate we had in early February on the promissory note, was the agreement reached on 8 February on the multi-annual framework for 2014 to 2020. There was much relief that the overall amount of ¤960 billion was agreed and approved. While there is a reduction of 3.5%, most importantly, funding for the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and the Cohesion Fund, which are of particular interest to this country, was largely protected. As the Minister of State said, we did well, protected the CAP allocation and secured a special allocation of ¤100 million from the Cohesion Fund for the Border, midlands and west region. That is of great significance.
The theme of the Presidency is stability, jobs and growth. The most pressing priority for this country is the creation of employment. We lost approximately 250,000 jobs in the private sector in the three years prior to the Government taking office. We have made some progress in the past year and a half in rebuilding our reputation abroad and convincing multinationals that this country is a good place to do business. We are starting to get our public finances in order and meeting the targets set by the troika. We are reducing the cost of public services, including the cost of Government and politics. That is a key plank of our recovery.
Our Action Plan for Jobs 2013, announced in recent days, must be the platform on which our economic recovery is built. The action plan follows on from the 2012 plan, which has been pretty successful, and it is hoped it will improve supports to business, help reduce costs further, improve finance to business and support research and innovation. During 2013, a total of 333 actions will be addressed across 16 Departments and 46 agencies. The plan has significant elements such as the JobsPlus scheme, which commits the State to provide ¤4 to an employer for every euro spent on job creation for the long-term unemployed. In terms of ICT skills, we will provide an additional 2,000 graduate level professionals in 2013, and by 2018 we will lead Europe in terms of ICT graduates as a percentage of all third level graduates.
Many significant measures are outlined in the plan. Another point of interest is the investment of ¤300 million in seven world-class research centres, which was announced in recent days by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State at the same Department, Deputy Sherlock. It is the most significant announcement of its kind ever made in this country. It involves ¤200 million of new Exchequer funds for seven world-class research centres over the next six years, three of them based in NUI Galway, and a ¤100 million co-investment fund generated by 150 industry partners. Such funding will address the considerable unemployment issues we face in this country. I very much welcome the Minister?s announcement that ¤6 billion will be made available to tackle youth unemployment in countries where it is in excess of 25%.
I wish to raise one or two issues that the Minister of State might address. I accept that this country has set enlargement as a key priority and has committed to advancing the process for all candidate and prospective countries.
Ireland will oversee the final monitoring report on Croatia. Will Croatia join in July? Significant progress will be made with Serbia and Montenegro and perhaps we could get an update on the progress being made with the Turkish discussions. There is grave concern among the Bosnian community in Ireland that Bosnia is not on the Government priority list for the Presidency. Keeping Bosnia Herzegovina on the priority list is crucial to prevent further conflict and division that would impact negatively on the wider Balkan region.
I welcome the efforts being made to introduce an EU-wide card that would simplify the process of having qualifications recognised for all EU citizens working in other member states.
Both Senator Leyden and I are wearing the EU Presidency colours and I want to put on record my thanks for this beautiful scarf. The Minister of State outlined great progress and I thank her for the deep respect she shows for this House. It is much appreciated. I was particularly thrilled to hear about the deal she is working on with President Obama. Should the Minister of State need any extra help on the negotiating team, I have a really good American accent and I know how Americans do deals?
I want to focus on the commitment that the Presidency will be citizenship orientated. The Minister of State launched the European Year of the Citizen and spoke at the Brussels conference to note the 20th anniversary of the introduction of EU citizenship. I have heard the Minister of State express the hope that people reach a better understanding of the rights and opportunities they enjoy as citizens of the Union and find out how to overcome the obstacles to using those rights.
Again, like Senator Leyden, I was recently in Brussels but I was chairing the European Parliament's legal affairs committee workshop which explored the question of whether EU citizens enjoyed free movement, and we examined a particular area that is an obstacle to the free movement of citizens: the recognition of civil status documents and the effects of such documents in other member states. As the Minister of State is aware, civil status registration is the way in which countries keep records of births, deaths and marital status of their people. Changes in the form of cross-border living and working have developed quickly since the start of the European project, but change at a legislative level to respond to this new way of living and working has been slow. EU citizens and their families face a patchwork of civil status rules across the EU. It is worth noting that more than 12 million people study, work or live in a member state of which they are not nationals. When the recognition of civil status is hindered or unduly cumbersome, citizens of the EU are unable to avail fully of their right to freedom of movement.
An estimated 350,000 cross-border marriages take place in the EU every year. That estimate demonstrates that this issue affects significant numbers. Many Irish people travel to Rome to get married. The Italian authorities, however, require that a couple get a letter of freedom from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirming they are not already married. This letter is sent to the Irish embassy in Rome which then sends it on to the Italian civil authorities. If an Irish person living in Italy wished to marry a person from another member state, the process is even more complicated. An Irish citizen marrying a Belgian national living in Italy would face problems because Belgium does not issue letters of freedom so the couple would have to go to court in Italy to get married in the country where they live.
I know from a personal perspective that lesbian and gay people are particularly affected by these barriers. If a same-sex couple are civilly married in Spain, have a family and move to Ireland, the marriage is recognised as a civil partnership but they lose parental rights to the children. In Spain, the children have two parents but in Ireland they only have one parent.
As community law stands at present, regulation of civil status remains within the competence of the member states. Despite this, they must comply with EU law, particularly treaty provisions on a citizen's freedom to move and reside in the territory of member states.
The European Union's priorities for developing an area of justice, freedom and security for the five years are set out in the Stockholm programme. The European Commission has announced proposals for European legislation in this area in 2013. The first proposal relates to the free movement of documents by eliminating legalisation formalities between member states. This may cover cases similar to the examples I cited. The second relates to recognising the effects of certain civil status records in order that the legal status granted in one member state can be recognised and have the same legal consequences in another member state. The European Parliament has expressed support for the Commission's plan by way of resolution.
Many of the problems posed by cross-border living can be addressed through legislation. I understand the Minister of State will consider this issue in some of the Strasbourg debates. However, the practical problems posed by such circumstances require a more innovative approach. The International Commission on Civil Status, ICCS, which made a presentation at the conference I chaired, seeks to address problems concerning the personal status of people involved in cross-border situations. It has developed and is piloting an information technology platform for the international communication of civil status data by electronic means. The ICCS data exchange platform would make it easier for citizens to prove their personal and family status and make international requests for civil status data simpler to carry out. It would also help to combat fraud, which is a key concern. This is a new frontier in EU living.
I have with me a briefing document from the president of the ICCS, Mr. Duncan Macniven, which I would like to share with the Minister of State and her officials. Mr. Macniven pointed out to me that as a result of advances in this technology, practical measures have become available to support freedom of movement. What is needed, however, is the political will to apply these measures more widely than is currently the case. For this reason, I ask the Minister of State to investigate these issues as part of the priorities of the Irish Presidency.
Perhaps I will take some style tips from Senator Zappone.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is welcome to have her address the Seanad, especially given her experience in dealing with issues of national and European importance in her role as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. She is a great ambassador and Irish people can be proud to have her representing our interests in Europe. Her visit to the Seanad is also timely given that Ireland currently holds the Presidency of the European Union. Many Ministers and officials have visited and many more will visit Ireland in the next four months.
This is the seventh time Ireland has held the responsibility of Presidency and it is undoubtedly a major honour for the country. The 2013 Presidency comes as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of our accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 and is rooted in the commitment to the European project we have shown since we joined the EEC. As we mark the 40th year of membership, we should reflect on the remarkable changes that have taken place as a consequence of our membership. I speak in terms of infrastructure, as well as culturally, politically and economically.
My colleague, Senator Mullins, stated recently that the Republic did not have a motorway when we joined the European Union. We need only look back to 1973 and consider what we have attained as a consequence of EU membership. In 1973, Ireland' wealth level stood at only 60% of the European average, while today, despite the effects of the economic crisis, our level of prosperity is above the EU average. In the early 1970s, more than 50% of our exports went to our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, whereas today we trade services and goods globally, which is a fantastic achievement for such a small country. European Union economies such as Germany have also become important markets for our exports.
For the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on the priorities and aims for the Irish Presidency, which will, I hope, help shape and contribute to European growth and recovery in the years ahead. The Presidency has already made significant strides towards reassessing our debt burden. Within two short months of assuming the Presidency, the Government was able to facilitate an easing of the country's debt burden through a deal on the Anglo Irish Bank promissory note. Commentators and other political parties did not believe such a deal was possible.
This is a matter that other political parties and commentators believed was never possible. It is certainly a very welcome departure. We now need to continue to highlight the importance of Ireland's debt problem and keep pushing for a deal on our sovereign debt. All in all, it is fair to state our priorities during the Presidency can be summed up by the words ?stability, growth and jobs". As a country, we have gone through financially turbulent times, exacerbated only by a world recession. However, we must realise that in great adversity opportunity knocks, and now is the time that the EU can display its strength and stability and show we have the ability to foster growth, even in these much-maligned times. We must show that once we secure steady growth, we can foster any employment opportunities and contribute to our people handsomely.
The best example of Europe's ability to confront such trying and testing issues is that of Ireland. Undoubtedly in the recent past, Ireland has gone through peaks and troughs in terms of growth. In the 15 years or more prior to 2008, we were the envy of Europe with our unprecedented economic growth, fuelled by too many resources being devoted to the property sector. This must now be admitted. Irish banks had continued to adopt a flaithiúlach approach to lending, which culminated in the then Government guaranteeing their borrowings, thus inextricably linking our sovereign debt to our bank debt. The cost has been considerable to the country as a whole. In 2010, as we all know, we were forced to seek a bailout from the European Union and IMF. In fairness to the Union, it was willing to pony up the funds at the time. There is no doubt that Ireland has taken a huge hit as a consequence of what occurred and as part of the effort to save the European economy and its banking sector. That should not be forgotten by European decision-makers.
As a consequence of the decision made by Ireland at the time in question, its citizens have continued to suffer greatly, and that must be acknowledged. We have taken a huge hit and played our part in trying to sort out the economic malaise. Taxes have increased and expenditure has been severely curtailed in the country. We must look at the daylight at the end of the tunnel. This should manifest itself as relieving the burden of our bank-related debt. We have shown that there is a path back from the crisis. We have really taken the hard medicine over recent months and years. It is not an easy path. The Irish are very resilient and will continue to be so. It must be acknowledged that, in the interest of the Union, we can be the poster boy of the continent and show other countries that they can also come through an austerity programme successfully, gain the confidence of international lenders and take back fiscal independence while remaining within the Union.
As a citizen, I yearn for the day that the term "PIIGS", referring to Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain, will become "PIGS". I acknowledge that the Minister of State, the Government and all representatives from our parties in Europe are striving to achieve this goal.
I hope the Minister of State will take into consideration parts of my submission and work towards reaching the goal we all yearn for, namely, a return to fiscal independence in EU matters.
I wish to share my time with Senator Barrett.
The Minister of State is very welcome. I am delighted to have her on board. I usually try to wear colourful ties. The Minister of State's is quite colourful and I was very happy with it. I am ashamed to say I am not wearing a colourful tie today. I should have thought it out.
The Presidency is a great opportunity for us to restore our reputation, which has been damaged. As Senator Higgins said, it has been hit in recent years. I am delighted the Minister of State is on board doing something about it.
I will concentrate on one topic, namely, trade. The EU-US deal on trade is one on which we should concentrate. I noted such a deal could add 2% to European GDP. If so, it is worth concentrating on. However, there are some obstacles, one of which is the CAP. The protection of our farming community will make it very difficult to strike a deal. Under CAP, we have allocated ¤370 billion for the next seven years. That is a trade barrier against the United States to a very large extent. It is to protect EU farmers against trade from the United States.
We differ in a number of areas. Irish consumers differ from American consumers. While Irish consumers do not like GMO products, American consumers have no concerns in that regard. It is unlikely we will be able to get over this issue easily. I do not envy those involved in the negotiations in this area. Similarly, American people do not take issue with hormones in their beef or with rinsing chickens with chlorine but Irish people do. I do not know how this is going to be addressed. I would welcome if the Minister could identify how these types of challenges will be handled. The US banned the import of European beef following the mad cow disease outbreak in 1996. I regularly visit the United States and food outlets there. There is no doubt they are unwilling to handle beef on that basis and do not understand how we can.
On trade, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, stated that he will be seeking to expand humanitarian aid programmes. However, before expanding are we focusing development aid in the right area? It is extremely concerning on the broader level that according to a European parliamentary report only 46% of European aid meant for developing countries actually goes to low income states while Turkey, which is a relatively rich country, is among the five top recipients of European aid. Surely this is not right. Can we change the situation with our European Presidency? Surely, this is a ridiculous situation about which the European Parliament should itself be doing something.
We must during the recession also look at what is happening to aid across the European Union. NGOs argue that so-called good aid such as long-term budgetary support goes first while bad aid, such as trade sweeteners, remain. I believe this is a challenge that is losing Europe its good name. I believe also that we can do something about it and should do so during our Presidency of the European Council.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As stated by other Senators, the manner in which she presents her speeches in this House, the information therein and her attitude towards this House is most welcome. She will always be of interest to us as she updates us about the Presidency.
I agree with other Senators - Senator Zappone has offered to act as an interpreter - that we should use the opportunity presented by our Presidency of the European Council and St. Patrick's Day to, as well as doing the Shamrock and bowl bit, call for free trade access as did the President of the United States in his state of the union address. Let us set the targets in this regard at a reduction of one third in the tariffs now, with the aim of half being abolished in 18 months so that this can happen during the term of office of President Obama. Nobody else has the access to the White House that we do. Other presidents and prime ministers, including in the UK and France, are envious of the access we have to the White House. Let us use it not just for the traditional green element but to promote free trade, which I agree with the Minister of State has immense possibilities not yet calculated.
In the early 1990s I was a member of the Culliton review group on public finances and industrial policy, at which time concern was expressed about some agencies of State speaking of free money from Brussels. We spent a great deal of money on FÁS in a full employment economy, which was financed from Brussels. I have heard criticisms, including from Government benches, about the bureaucratic cost of projects such as Leader. If we are getting ¤10 billion and putting in ¤12 billion of hard earned taxpayers' money-----
We are pretty near the equilibrium. We must ensure that what we get is not dissipated through bureaucracy. There are concerns, including among Government Senators, about projects such as Leader and so on.
I share Senator Quinn's concern about the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. It might have made sense a long time ago. If we have the same climate and environment as New Zealand why do we not engage in the same type of agriculture? World food prices are rising. Let us work towards free trade and participate in the development of the Union.
The fear is that subsidies capitalise in higher land prices, which make it difficult for young farmers to get into agriculture. When the subsidies were removed in New Zealand, land prices fell and young people did get into agriculture in that country. If the Seanad exists to make points that might not be made in the Dáil, it may be beneficial. I may be the only Member of the Oireachtas who believes the CAP deserves a good looking at. I wish the Minister of State all the best with her projects.
With regard to the Cohesion Funds, we did build some motorways with EU money. There is a capacity of 55,000 whereas the volume of traffic is about one tenth of that. Professor Patrick Honohan pointed out that one must move to project appraisal at some stage, and not just macro-economic modelling of the result of EU funds. We are short of finance for so many projects. Let us achieve the best value for the funds we receive from the Union.
I wish the Minister of State every success in Washington on St. Patrick's Day. I hope that, on that day, the President of the Council of the European Union, namely, the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, and the President of the United States, Mr. Barack Obama, will announce the free trade area agreement. We should not wait until June until some other meetings. Europe takes too long to make these decisions. We should make the decisions for it.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I apologise for my not having been here during her speech but I was listening to it. She touched on the development of EU?US trade. It is important that we continue to develop that. An interesting motion by Mr. William Keating, to come before the US Congress, supports the goals and objectives of Ireland's Presidency. It is a long motion so I will not read it all. It states:
It is interesting that this motion is to appear before the US Congress. Now that we hold the Presidency, this is an ideal time to use our connection with the United States and develop trade between that country and Europe. The Minister stated the potential financial benefit for both economies would be in the order of ¤150 billion. It is important for the creation of jobs and generating growth that we grow businesses in which jobs can be created.
Now, therefore, be itResolved, That the House of Representatives?(1) supports the goals and objectives of Ireland's Presidency of the Council of the European Union;
(2) encourages the launch of United States-European Union trade and investment negotiations that will benefit both United States and European workers alike;
(3) promotes increased transatlantic exchanges and dialogue to further benefit from existing cultural ties and research and development partnerships [?];
(4) affirms the deep roots of common heritage between the United States and Ireland; and
(5) acknowledges the lasting contributions of Irish-Americans to the United States.
The Minister of State referred to funding to deal with youth unemployment, with particular emphasis on training and ensuring potential employees are upskilled so they can take up jobs. It was outlined in a number of debates over the past six to 12 months that companies coming to Ireland find it difficult in some cases to get all the staff they require to take on available jobs. This is because of the skills shortage. We are now responding to that and will continue to do so.
This is an important time for Ireland in terms of influencing how the Union develops. We play a very active part in this regard. Already, we have a major role in developing the Common Agricultural Policy over the coming six to seven years. It is important now that we influence policy designed to develop the economy in each of the 27 member states, soon to become 28 member states. In doing so, we must help to grow trade between the United States and the European Union so jobs will continue to be created and Irish citizens will not have to leave to find employment, not only in other parts of Europe but also farther afield.
Cuirim céad mile fáilte roimh an Aire. Is díospóireacht an-shuimiúil ar fad í seo. Ar shlí, is díospóireacht stairiúil í chomh maith mar cruthaíonn sé an stádas atá bainnte amach ag ár dtír san Eoraip. Tá sé sin thar a bheith tábhachtach mar tugann sé sin cumhacht dúinn chomh maith.
I welcome the Minister of State and compliment her on the very fine role she is playing in Europe. She is doing an exceptionally effective job for us and I wish her well. Any Irish person who has any sense of pride in us as a people must feel pride when we hold the Presidency. Each time we have held the Presidency, we have delivered on our obligations very effectively and with great panache.
On that point, and without elaborating on the bigger European policies, I believe the Presidency presents an exceptionally good PR opportunity, considering all the various representatives coming from Europe in respect of all the various aspects of European activity. It is beneficial for them to see this good, developed country. We have had an opportunity to lay claim to being one of the most civilised countries, in terms of antiquity, in Europe. Some may regard this as a small country on the periphery of Europe but historically we have always been a part of Europe. This is not lost, not only on academics but also on those who take an interest in where we have come from. Therefore, there is a PR opportunity. We are availing of it exceptionally well. All the foreign representatives, on leaving Ireland, will see that we are a country that is playing a role.
Europe has been good for Ireland but Ireland has also been good for Europe, particularly during the recent turbulence and in the face of the challenges we are encountering. In time to come, many people, not only economists, will say the manner in which we have responded to the required austerity measures will have helped stabilise the euro. That can only help us.
In times of recession, the human condition does not always respond negatively as it often responds positively. When we talk about the transatlantic trade and investment partnership, we do so in light of the difficulties faced by America, in addition to those faced by Europe. In times such as these, one pools one's resources, potential and vision. This is vital.
The main message that will have to come not only from the European Presidency but also from the Union as a whole will concern how the individual is being helped. There are two aspects of the Minister of State's address of which I took particular cognisance. Her address was a very fine all-embracing one and it was exceptionally well crafted. We have always been well represented in Europe, both by political leaders and officials. The two areas on which we need to focus, which are not really the major issues but important nevertheless, are youth unemployment and world hunger. If we do not succeed in helping young people, they will become an adult generation instilled with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. This will have an impact on their countries.
Consider the subject of world hunger. During the time of the Great Famine in Ireland, an Indian tribe called the Choctaw decided to send money to help. One can imagine how deprived it was at the time. When we were commemorating the famine, representatives of that tribe visited Mayo. The tribe's compassion and help are remembered to this day. If Europe helps those who are deprived in the world at present in the same way, which is difficult, it will be remembered. It is not just a question of thinking about Europe's challenges. Very often, one can offset terrorism and violence by showing future leaders and relevant countries that we are civilised, want to help them and want to be in partnership with them. I hope the Minister of State can make progress in those two areas.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The theme of the Irish Presidency is stability, jobs and growth. I would like first to focus on the European Commission economic winter forecast and the statement therein that the eurozone is expected to remain in recession, with a 0.3% contraction in 2013, which is disheartening. Words such as "sluggish, weak, vulnerable, modest and fragile" are frequently mentioned throughout the 140 pages of charts and analysis of the forecast. It also makes reference to a headline rate of 11% unemployment across the eurozone and a sharp increase in long-term joblessness, which is of concern across the EU, with some 45% of people in the EU, and one in two people in eight countries, now unemployed for more than one year.
In the foreword to the winter forecast Marco Buti, head of the Commission's economics department, acknowledged the grave social consequences resulting from the unemployment crisis. It is, however, more dangerous than that. The Commission paper concedes that long-term unemployment is associated with lower employability of jobseekers and lower sensitivity of the labour market to economic upturns. I acknowledge the emphasis being placed on the youth guarantee by the Irish Presidency and the proposed discussions around that issue later this week.
There are no additional resources provided in the Action Plan for Jobs 2013 and only scant reference therein to youth unemployment. How does the Irish Government propose to match EU funding to address the issues of youth unemployment and employment? The Minister of State mentioned in her speech that the Irish Presidency had brokered an agreement with the European Parliament on the two-pack. Under the compromise by the Irish Presidency, the Commission will set up an expert group to examine the creation of a redemption fund, as well as a system of euro bills to replace short-term sovereign debt. The purpose of the redemption fund, which is the brainchild of the German Council of Economic Experts, is to pool all sovereign debt from eurozone countries above the 60% threshold in the Stability and Growth Pact. I would welcome if the Minister of State could provide further details of that proposal, the Irish position on the redemption fund and details of the expert group which is to be established.
As regards what is going on in the European Parliament, the EU executive is supposedly drawing up legislation for the end of 2013 aimed at loosening the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact to allow governments to invest in public infrastructure projects. Perhaps the Minister of State can advise how it is proposed the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact are to be loosened. On Structural and Cohesion Funds - I have raised this issue previously with the Minister of State in committee - can the Minister of State advise if macroeconomic conditionality is still on the table in respect of Cohesion and Structural Funds, what position Ireland is taking in this regard and if it is opposing attachment of such conditionality to European funding, in particular for countries experiencing severe recession and already subject to many cutbacks? I understand this issue is currently under discussion in the European Parliament. However, I would welcome if the Minister of State could provide more detail on macroeconomic conditionality.
Like other speakers I, too, welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend her on the impressive start to our Presidency of the European Council. There is not much point in my repeating what has been already said. Obviously, the central theme of our Presidency is cohesion, job creation and so on, which are themes that percolate throughout the European Union in terms of importance.
As already stated, youth unemployment is a significant problem not only in Ireland, but in many of our European counterparts. Significant percentages of youth unemployment exist. Ireland is a small country, a drop in the vast oceans of a diverse Europe. However, that drop can have a ripple effect, in terms of influence, throughout Europe. I am always proud of how influential this small nation is in the European Union. Ireland punches way above its weight in terms of achievement within Europe.
I would like to focus on setting best practice. For too long, people have been quoting international best practice and saying that Ireland should emulate what is being done by other countries. I believe that as a society we have the capability, track record and creativity to set best practice, including international best practice. We have already demonstrated this through initiatives such as the smoking ban in workplaces. Ireland was the first European country to introduce such a smoking ban. A similar ban is now in place in the vast majority of European countries. That is one example. Another is the current controversy we are currently experiencing in terms of horsemeat and the labelling of food products. In this regard, I point our European colleagues to the fact that what is now a European crisis was identified by Ireland, through its advanced inspection and labelling systems. In my view, when it comes to food labelling we already operate to best practice. Under the stewardship of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, our systems will be fine-tuned to ensure best practice prevails throughout Europe. Ireland will be the fore in this regard. They are two examples of where Ireland has made significant advancement in best practice.
I would like consideration to be given to our setting best practice on a much wider scale. Ireland's reputation and confidence has been battered as a result of a tremendous recession, probably the worst we have experienced in a long time. We need to use this experience to set best practice in the financial services industry, in terms of our tourism product, clean environment, quality housing, corporate governance and the elimination of corruption throughout business and in the public sphere. There is much work to be done. It is hoped the Ireland's Presidency of the European Council will be the beginning of a new chapter in which Ireland will become, through the use of talent, experience, ability, energy and its proven track record, one of the outstanding nations of the world.
I welcome this debate. We have already had a number of debates on Ireland's Presidency of the European Council, one third of which has almost passed. We look forward to progress being made.
This is the year of the European citizen. What will be the response of Irish and European citizens when the Irish Presidency ends? Irish Presidencies, since the first headed up by former Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave in 1975, have been successful from a management perspective and the delivery of the tasks set. However, Presidencies come and go and people quickly forget about them. The answer to the question, "What will Irish and European citizens remember about this Presidency in six months' time?", will be definitive in terms of our workload and progress. All politics is full of jargon. The language of politics, in particular European politics, is generally full of jargon. Our former colleague and political director extraordinaire, Eoghan Harris, described it as the jungle of jargon. How can we ensure this language impacts on the people?
The phrase "jobs, growth and stability" is often mentioned. It is a slogan that must become a reality. From what we have heard today, and since the commencement of the Presidency, much is being done in this regard. However, a project that must receive maximum attention and must be at the core of the Presidency's work is, as mentioned by Senator Quinn and others, the development of EU-US trade. The freeing up an economic space wherein trillions of dollars of economic activity can be created will lead to growth, jobs and stability.
That is the yardstick by which we judge the progress we are making. While the European Council meetings, ministerial meetings and draft papers are all very important, the results can only be judged in terms of growth, stability and jobs. In a sense, it is quite amazing that it is only in recent years that we are giving sufficient attention to this US-EU free trade arrangement. It should have happened decades ago. In the context of two massive world trading blocs, both with very solid political and economic systems , it is quite unbelievable that such barriers have been allowed to exist. That has to be the main task of this Government and the Presidency.
I was very taken by the comments of one of my colleagues regarding the Taoiseach being in the United States on St. Patrick's Day, which illustrated the fresh, innovative thinking which often comes from the Seanad rather than the Dáil. On that day in the White House, the Taoiseach should not just be Enda Kenny, Prime Minister of Ireland but also Enda Kenny, President of Europe, speaking not just for Ireland but also for Europe. He should talk about the hundreds of thousands of jobs that can be created across the European continent and particularly in this country. Of course, for every dollar of US investment in Europe, a very significant proportion will inevitably come here. We must try to free up trade between the US and Europe, which is a big task. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's comments on this matter but we can always have a bilateral meeting about it later if needs be.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. As part of the drive for stability, jobs and growth, the Irish Presidency will prioritise bilateral trade agreements with key partners, including the United States of America. Is any such thing happening with Canada? Such agreements should deliver positive benefits for all involved and provide newer and greater opportunities. God knows, opportunities for our young people, many of whom have been out of work for a considerable time, would be most welcome. The Presidency will also work with renewed purpose on further enlargement of the European Union and will encourage the development of democratic and peaceful societies in the Union's eastern and south-eastern neighbourhoods. I ask the Minister of State to let us know what progress has been made on future EU enlargement.
I am always on the clock when I am in the Seanad Chamber. I will try to respond to all of the points made. There was a lot of overlap in the contributions, with almost everyone highlighting the potential of the free trade negotiations, particularly those involving the United States. I am really enthused and encouraged by the energy and optimism that exists in this Chamber about the potential for that agreement. I also welcome Senator Zappone's offer of support for those negotiations and we may come calling on her if we need a friendly American accent to assist us. The potential is indeed great and many speakers have mentioned it. However, I do not underestimate the challenge, which is not just confined to agriculture.
Interestingly, in the last couple of months I have had some very positive discussions with the Irish Farmers Association, IFA. Ireland is the biggest per capita beef exporter in the world, and at the moment we cannot export our beef to what should be a huge market for us, namely, the United States, in particular its east coast. The IFA is very enthusiastic about the opportunity. Of course, that is not to say that it will not enter into discussions with some degree of caution, as one would expect any sectoral representative organisation to do, but it certainly sees the opportunity and potential that exists. I am really enthused by that. I do not know that the IFA can speak for all of the farmers of Europe but the potential is certainly great and Ireland is really well positioned to take advantage of that.
There are many potential obstacles, however, as with all aspects of regulation. Potential pitfalls lie in the digital agenda and in the realm of data protection. These are issues we are trying to progress within the Single Market at the moment. In a sense, we must sort out our own house first and we are making significant progress on the digital agenda. In terms of the EU's internal negotiations, there are a lot of US firms based here which have their own concerns which they are actively bringing to the table in all of the institutions and, indeed, among the member states through lobbying, which is the norm in EU policymaking. It is interesting because now we must also deal with these issues with potential trade negotiations with the United States in mind. It is a massive undertaking.
It is very ambitious to think that we will agree a mandate at EU level by the end of the Presidency but this is our opportunity. Ireland is a country with a particular relationship with the US and a particular interest in attracting investment from there. We also appreciate the potential from opening up these markets, unlike other larger countries in Europe which do not have economies as open as ours and which are not as open-minded as we are about trade. In that context, it is up to us to really push this agenda. If we miss this opportunity, the whole process might be slowed down again, which would be unfortunate. Once we get to the point where we have a mandate, we can then get into the negotiations. Of course, that will also take time. I was speaking at an event last night alongside a representative from IBEC. We were discussing how long this process might take. Normally a free trade agreement, FTA takes a minimum of 18 months to negotiate and I would expect that a US FTA would take slightly longer, because of the scale and complexity. We really need to inject impetus into this process now so that we can reap the rewards in two or three years time, which must be our goal.
To answer Senator Brennan, FTA negotiations are under way with Canada. There are some complications and, needless to say, agriculture is part of those complications, but I am optimistic that we will reach an agreement that will deliver results for Europe and Canada. Our relationship with Canada is strengthening all of the time. There are an awful lot of young Irish people in Canada at the moment, as we are all very well aware, and we can harness some of the opportunities that exist there as well.
Senator Zappone asked about free movement, which is so complex. We have taken our eye of the ball somewhat in terms of some of the priorities we have been pursuing for the last decade, particularly with regard to the Stockholm programme. With the financial, banking and economic crises, some of these issues have slid down the agenda. The Irish Presidency will be prioritising the Schengen package and the asylum package, which are two massive areas where we are trying to make progress. We must deal with the question of Romania and Bulgaria entering into Schengen. We are not part of the Schengen area but others are very anxious to get into it. That is really where the focus is for us at the moment.
The point Senator Zappone made is excellent in respect of the recognition of documents and the recognition of civil status. These are issues we have all come across in our dealings with constituents. We all know of European citizens living in Ireland or Irish citizens who have moved to other countries and the issues they face can be hugely complex. There is no doubt that we must simplify that process and the idea of a data exchange platform is the future and is the way to do it. It is also the way to do it with safeguards and protections for data and also for citizens' rights. I take on board what Senator Zappone has said and will communicate her views to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who leads on these matters for us. His agenda is extremely full as it is but I recognise and share the concerns of Senator Zappone that if we are to deliver on genuine free movement of people in Europe, we really must tackle this.
Connected to that, of course, is one of our Single Market priority files concerning the recognition of professional qualifications, on which we have made great progress already in our Presidency. We hope we can bring that to a conclusion by the end of the Irish Presidency, which will mean that young professionals from Ireland and all other member states will have their qualifications recognised much more easily in other jurisdictions. It is incredible that Europe, which has free movement of people, has the lowest mobility rate of any region in the world.
Some of this has to do with language barriers and so on, but much could be done to free up the system and realise our shared goal of the free movement of people. The issue is on our radar.
A number of Senators raised the question of enlargement. As I am leading the Government side on this matter during our Presidency, I am engaged with it. We are happy that some files are progressing quickly, but others have unfortunately slowed down. Often, a slowing is due to domestic situations in member states. It is not always in the control of the Presidency.
At my informal meeting with European affairs Ministers in Dublin in January, I mentioned that I had invited all of the candidate and aspiring candidate countries to send their European integration Ministers and-or chief negotiators. They are usually the same people. The aspiring candidates of the western Balkans are Albania and Bosnia, the latter of which was mentioned in this debate and has been raised with me in this House and at the European affairs committee. I am conscious that the Oireachtas is engaged on the question of Bosnia. I visited the country last summer. Everything is happening. There has been a high-level dialogue and engagement with Bosnia-Herzegovina has occurred at all levels to try to keep it focused on a path towards the EU. This is not easy, as there are many internal difficulties, but we are giving every support that we can, as is the European Commission.
Likewise, we had hoped for a Commission progress report on Albania in April, but Commissioner Füle has announced that he will not issue a progress report because of the proximity of the Albanian elections. This is the right decision, as there have never been free and fair elections in Albania. Before we can consider granting candidate status, we need it to demonstrate that there can be such elections. Unofficially, the decision has been to postpone the report.
On the other hand, I am optimistic about Serbia and Kosovo. Prime Minister Da?i? was in Dublin last week. I met him in Belgrade last autumn. We have engaged intensively. The Taoiseach has personally encouraged the Prime Minister and his Administration to engage fully in the high-level dialogue with Kosovo. The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is being chaired by Baroness Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. There have been strides. It is exciting. The region is delicate and there are many sensitivities, including in terms of the issues between Kosovo and Serbia. The leaders of both have engaged fully in the process and significant steps have been taken. I am optimistic that, when the Commission issues its report in April, it will recommend opening negotiations with Serbia and launching negotiations for a stabilisation and association agreement with Kosovo. It will be an historic decision and I am confident that it will be taken under the Irish Presidency. It will probably be taken at the June European Council meeting. We are working hard to ensure that we deliver on it.
Turkish accession negotiations have been stalled for a number of years and there has been no progress. The Irish Presidency has achieved a breakthrough, as we have managed to get agreement from France, which had blocked a range of chapters, to unblock chapter 24 on regional policy. We have begun taking steps towards unfreezing negotiations with Turkey. The country is an important strategic partner for Europe, including in geopolitical security terms, and is seeing economic growth. It is an important country. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations will be, we must strive to bring Turkey closer to Europe and vice versa. I am pleased to report that the Irish Presidency is making progress on this front.
Although the idea is neither on the EU's radar nor a current proposal, it has a great deal of merit. The Senator raised it with me previously. I confess that I have been so consumed by Presidency issues since the start of January that I have not had an opportunity to consider it. I will discuss the idea with the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, who-----