Wednesday, 12 June 2013
European Union (Accession of the Republic of Croatia) (Access to the Labour Market) Bill 2013: Second Stage
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Bill in this House and I look forward to our discussions here today. The Bill makes provision for the Government's decision on 30 April 2013 to permit access to the Irish labour market for nationals of Croatia upon its accession to the EU from 1 July 2013.
I propose first to summarise the background and context for the Bill. I will then discuss the primary objectives of the Bill and conclude by briefly outlining the sections.
On 9 December 2011, Croatia signed the Treaty of Accession to become the European Union's 28th member state. Ireland signed the Instrument of Ratification for the Croatian Accession Treaty on 21 September 2012. The ratification process, by the parliaments of all 27 EU member states, is expected to be concluded by the end of June 2013. Therefore, entry into force and accession of Croatia to the EU is expected to take place on 1 July 2013.
At its meeting on 30 April 2013, the Government considered the EU accession of Croatia. Based on the Forfás analysis and other information available to my Department, the Government agreed to permit access to the Irish labour market for nationals of Croatia upon its accession to the EU from 1 July 2013. The decision reflects the low likelihood that Croatia's entry to the EU could have a distorting impact on the Irish labour market. The Government agreed, therefore, that transitional arrangements should not be applied in the case of Croatian nationals seeking to work in Ireland following Croatia's accession to the EU.
The Government took a number of factors into account when making its decision. For example, it is highly unlikely that significant numbers of Croatians wish to migrate to Irelandgiven that Ireland's current economic status presents a very weak pull factor for Croatians. International studies also shows that migration is heavily influenced by existing migrant populations
and established social networks in the destination country. There is not a sufficient population of Croatians in Ireland at present to create an attracting factor. Of Croatians living abroad in European Union countries, Ireland constitutes just 0.2% of all Croatians living outside of Croatia. There is a very low propensity for Croatians to emigrate. When they do, they tend to emigrate to neighbouring European countries or North America. The size of Croatia's labour force is relatively smallwith a total labour force of 1.78 million and some 350,000 people in the 25-34 age group, which is generally the most mobile demographic of a country's population. Ireland's labour market, in line with EU obligations, is already open to an EU workforce of 229 million.
The Government's decision pertains only to employment. Croatians would, in any event, enjoy certain rights afforded to all EU citizens from 1 July and would, therefore, be able to reside in Ireland subject to the residence directive. Such nationals will be able to study, work as self-employed persons or establish businesses here. Applying restrictions to employment when it is possible work as a self-employed person can increase the potential for undeclared work.
Experience suggests that opening access to the Irish labour market may not have a significant impact on the State's services. The experience in respect of Bulgaria, a country with a labour market twice the size of Croatia and to which Ireland gave full access to its labour market in 2012, suggests that only a modest increase arose in respect of personal public service, PPS, number registrations. That could not be described as having a distorting impact on the Irish labour market.
The rate of employment permit grants to nationals of Croatia has been approximately 12 per year. At a practical level, were
Ireland to restrict access to the labour market for nationals of Croatia, a separate employment permit regime would have to be maintained to manage approximately 12 employment grants. That would be difficult to justify.
It was also noted that Ireland has an excellent relationship with Croatia. It is important that the relationship is developed further to the benefit of both countries. Bearing in mind that Croatia applied for membership of the EU under Ireland's last Presidency of the EU, it is timely that Croatia will join the EU just after the conclusion of Ireland's Presidency of the Council of the EU. By providing full access, Ireland is continuing its policy of openness to new member states and highlights the need for continued EU solidarity.
Under section 2 of the Employment Permits Acts 2003 to 2006, a foreign national is not required to have an employment permit where he or she is entitled to be in employment in the State, pursuant to rights from the treaties governing the European Communities. Section 1 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 2012 provides that the definition of "treaties governing the European Communities" includes the treaties as amended by the Treaty of Accession of the Republic of Croatia. However, under paragraph 2 of Annex V of that accession treaty, the entitlement of Croatian nationals to employment for the first two years post-accession must be provided either by way of national measures or measures resulting from bilateral agreements. Hence, the reason for this legislation. Therefore, a legislative amendment to the Employment Permits Act 2003 is required to exempt Croatian nationals from the requirement for an employment permit while not conferring any greater rights than those included in the treaty.
The Bill is short and technical in nature and must be enacted by 1 July 2013. I will briefly outline the content and purpose of its provisions, section by section.
Section 2(1)(a)gives Croatian nationals employment rights equivalent to other EU nationals for the first two years post-accession. Section 2(1)(b)ensures Croatian nationals have the same employment rights as other EU nationals after the first two post-accession years. Section 2(2)ensures the family members of Croatian workers have the same entitlements as the family members of other EU workers. Section 3amends the Employment Permits Act 2003 so that Croatian nationals who have equivalent EU employment rights do not need an employment permit.
I would be happy to expand on any of the provisions during the course of the debate if Senators wish to raise any particular issues. We will have an opportunity during Committee Stage to examine the Bill in detail. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Senators during the debate. I hope the House will support the passage of the Bill and assist in securing its early enactment. I commend the Bill to the House.
As Senator White is getting her notes ready, she has given way to Senator Clune, which is very ladylike. It is a lovely to see such a civilised approach in the Seanad. Such co-operation is welcome. I call Senator Clune.
I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. As the Minister has said, this is a short technical Bill but a very important one. He has outlined the reasons for the Government's decision to allow Croatian nationals to come here after 1 July to take up employment. I have read the results of the Forfás study. I am sure everyone will understand that there is unlikely to be a flood of Croatian nationals seeking to take up employment here. I wish we could give a broad and more magnanimous welcome to Croatia. We must consider the bigger picture, the Single Market, and realise we are all now one united family. We should acknowledge the fact that Croatia is the 28th member state to join. Croatia is important politically and for many other reasons due to its location in the Mediterranean, Balkan and eastern European areas.
Forfás examined the potential impact on the Irish labour market. Allowing a person to be self-employed and not an employee would increase the chance of people falling outside of the tax net. It is important that people would be allowed to work here because they have been allowed to set up a business or be self-employed, and therefore this decision would be important in an effort to avoid them falling outside of the tax net.
The Government's decision and the legislation are important. Under the treaty of accession, a number of options are open to the Government. For a two-year period, member states can choose to restrict the rights of Croatians to work in particular sectors. They can review those arrangements after two years or to have a transitional arrangement that will end after five years. It may be extended for a further two years in those member states where an arrangement is being ended. The Government has decided to allow Croatians to seek employment immediately. As the Minister has outlined, we can expect very few individuals to come here.
Croatia is the second former member of the Republic of Yugoslavia to join the EU. That is important when one considers the principles that surrounded the original reason to establish the EU, which was peace for all of the people in the European Union.
Croatia is an important location and will play an important role in the EU. Croatia has stated its goal is to have all of its neighbours join the EU. I know that Croatia is eager to engage with its neighbours to promote membership.
Croatia is located on the Mediterranean and in the central European and Balkan region. Croatia has two very important deep sea ports, particularly for countries such as Hungary and Slovakia which do not have access to the sea. Croatia has a strategic location, and its engagement with its neighbours will be very important.
Croatia reminds us of our history and position before we joined the EU. Croatia did well up until 2008 but, like Ireland, it has suffered from the economic downturn.
Its population is very similar to that of Ireland, its unemployment rate is 18% and its youth unemployment rate is particularly difficult, given that one in two of the under 25s is unemployed there and the financial crisis has hit Croatia. Approximately 66% of the people in Croatia wanted to join the European Union and while that is a particularly low figure, it nevertheless is a positive majority.
I have visited Croatia and was particularly interested to read that approximately one third of Croatia is part of Natura 2000, the European Union standards to protect biodiversity that were established under the birds and habitats directives. This will be important, as the European Union tries to protect its special areas of conservation. When one thinks of the raised bogs and the debate on that issue, Ireland has a lot of experience in this regard and people here know well the value of special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas, as well as the value of support we received from the European Union in establishing such areas and ensuring they are protected. In daily debate, one forgets the benefits of joining the European Union and what it brings to our country but the fact that one third of the landmass of Croatia will now be under Natura 2000 is highly positive.
Croatia will benefit from Structural Funds and is due to gain approximately €8 billion between now and the year 2020. Members can recall and can see all around them the value and benefits of Structural Funds, in terms of investment in road, sewage and communications infrastructure. All Members are familiar with them and it is interesting to consider Croatia joining on 1 July in the knowledge that its future will be positive. It already has benefited from much inward investment, particularly from Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands, and undoubtedly will continue to so do. However, the country has weaknesses, which European Union membership will help it to overcome. It has a poor climate for private investment, too big a government and a public services sector that is too large, as well as much red tape. These issues are all familiar to a small country such as Ireland with a similar population. It does not have sufficient investment in research and development or in innovation. It must modernise its labour market and has an ageing population, as well as a shrinking labour market and low rates of female participation. If one considers a brief on the Croatian economy, these are the headlines. While Ireland also has had such headlines, Members are aware of the support of the European Union, not necessarily simply in terms of financial support but with regard to mentoring, driving and ensuring the directives that are initiated across the European Union will be implemented in Europe.
This is a positive development and while Ireland's Presidency will finish just as Croatia is joining, it is important because the last time Ireland held the Presidency was when Croatia applied to join the European Union. Consequently, there has been a strong relationship between the two countries. I reiterate the make-up of the two states is very similar and I am sure the passage of this legislation will mark the beginning of a fruitful relationship with the 28th country to join the European Union.
I thank the Minister. I remember well the strong support given by the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to Croatia's accession to the European Union during his term as EU President. This was a critical time in the process of Croatia's accession to membership of the European Union and there was fierce opposition to its accession. Despite this, however, the Fianna Fáil Government strongly supported Croatia through the process. As Members are aware, citizens of each member state of the European Union have the right to get a job within the Union itself. The 2011 treaty of accession, in line with previous accession treaties, permits the labour market restriction whereby for a two-year period, European Union member states can choose to restrict the right of Croatians to work in that member state or in particular sectors therein. If we are to permit Croatian nationals access to our labour market, what is the purpose of this two-year transition period?
Our esteemed President Michael D. Higgins, spoke in Zagreb on 6 June last. While welcoming Croatia's accession, he reminded us all that "the EU is both, of course, a political union and an economic union". He also reminded us: "It is a Union that is not without its problems." There have been serious issues, such as the euro crisis, where the whole thing nearly crumbled. Personally, however, I believe the euro is back on track and we have overcome the problems we had. The President noted some of the aforementioned problems were "created within the Union, others from outside, from the international consequences of deregulation in ever more speculative markets". There is no doubt about that. He went on to note the major issue facing what now will be the 28 member states is that of unemployment, "particularly youth unemployment which is at alarming levels in some member states". He stated it "is the greatest challenge and carries a danger of delegitimising democratic institutions".
My husband and I have travelled through Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, and Croatia's physical beauty must be seen to be believed. It is an absolutely idyllic country. We travelled there by car last year and the economic development that is taking place is fascinating. As a motorway runs right across the country, it is very easy to gain access further into eastern Europe. This new road in Croatia has had a dramatic effect on its connectivity with other European countries in both eastern and western Europe.
As for Ireland's accession to the EU in 1973, I note that until then, married women were not allowed to work. Once they got married, they were obliged to give up their jobs. It is very hard for young people, such as the young Senators who are present, to believe that women were not allowed to work but were obliged to give up their jobs when they got married. Accession transformed Ireland when we joined the European Union in 1973. We leapt over Britain and never looked back. We became Europeans rather than being just a small state that simply looked to Britain.
It is very welcome that Croatia is entering the European Union. I refer to the terrible Bosnian war and the murders, killings and savagery. Throughout those Balkan countries, there are cemeteries with white crosses marking the ethnic cleansing that took place. Consequently, Croatia's accession is welcome. It is a highly ambitious country with talented young people and we welcome them very much.
I welcome the Minister to the House and am delighted to have the opportunity to speak for the Labour Party on this Bill, which I greatly welcome. In particular, I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill in this House. It always is welcome to see Ministers so do, where there often tends to be a more conducive atmosphere for the introduction of amendments and for having a wide-ranging debate. It is not that I anticipate there will be much amendment or opposition to this Bill. Certainly, as Senator White has welcomed the Bill, I believe there is absolute support for it across parties and across the House. Senator White spoke of the immense benefit to Ireland, particularly from the point of view of gender equality, that EEC membership brought.
It is worth remembering the impact of membership of the EU on Irish society as well as the economy when we consider Croatian accession on 1 July this year. It is likely that similar benefits will be felt in Croatia, although a great deal more has been achieved there in terms of equality than would have been the case in this country in the 1970s.
I have personal reasons for welcoming the Bill as I have family connections in Croatia. My grandmother is from Croatia although she described herself as being from Austria-Hungary because, when she was born, there was no Croatia; it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. Her father was a diplomat involved in the service of the empire. There was not a sense of Croatian nationalism then. Senator White also referred to the appalling tragedy of the recent wars in Bosnia and Croatia. There were many causes but one of the causative factors was the poison of an aggressive form of nationalism across Croatia and Serbia. It is interesting to note that at the start of the 20th century that sort of nationalism was less evident. I still have family in Rijecka in Croatia so I am aware how important it is that there is Croatian accession to the EU. Personally, I am sorry accession will not take place under the Irish Presidency. We will just miss out because, as the Minister has outlined, accession will take place on 1 July. He indicated that the accession was negotiated under the previous Irish Presidency so we have a close connection. As the Minister said, we have an excellent relationship with Croatia and long-standing connections. Many Irish people travel to Croatia and there is much tourism interest for Irish people there. That is all of relevance too.
I am delighted we are providing access to Croatian nationals to our labour market. The Minister referred to the likely lack of impact of the measure due to a probable low level of take-up by Croatian nationals of the opportunity to work in Ireland. It might well be that the travel goes the other way and that Irish nationals will travel to Croatia given our current economic situation. I echo the words of Senator Clune, because whether the take-up is low or high, it is a positive development that we are providing access on these open terms. There is immense benefit to be had in society and the economy from having an open attitude to other citizens of the EU coming here to work and to live among us. We have seen some very positive developments in inward migration during the boom years in this country and it is great that so many members of new communities have stayed in this country even since the recession. There is little more to be said. The legislation is welcome and I applaud the policy behind it and the openness of the Government to incorporate access to the Irish labour market for Croatian nationals in the context of Croatian accession to the EU. I very much welcome the fact that Croatia will become a member of the EU on 1 July.
Before I call the next speaker, I would like to welcome St. Ann’s national school in Castlerea to the House. The pupils, teachers and staff are very welcome. It is lovely to have them here. I hope they enjoy their visit to the Seanad and the Dáil.
I add my words of welcome to Castlerea national school. They are very welcome. The Minister is also very welcome. We are adopting the right approach to welcome Croatia immediately into the labour market. I am a member of the Joint Committee on European Affairs and I am quite friendly with the Croatian ambassador to Ireland, Jasna Ognjanovac. She is a very forward-looking woman and she could teach us a great deal about the benefits of the European Union. The clear benefit she pointed out to me is that Croatia has been the site of three wars - its own war ten years ago and the previous two World Wars. Croatia is joining the EU for the peace project.
As Senator Clune and other Senators clearly pointed out, there is not much evidence of Croatian nationals wishing to come to this country. A total of 12 applied for citizenship in 2012 and we have a total of 846 Croatian nationals resident in this country currently. There is much to be gained by both sides. As Senator White said, Croatia is an extremely beautiful country and Irish people holiday there. I have been there on two occasions. On one occasion I had a serious accident and it would have been of great benefit if Croatia had been a member of the European Union because my rights were infringed. I was involved in a boating accident in which I was hit by a boat. A cruise ship was out of control and hit the tourist boat on which we were travelling. It was impossible to find a way to navigate the medical and legal system there without the European Union framework. This works both ways. It is a very beautiful country. Its strong benefit is in tourism. We are always growing in terms of our tourism product. Croatia consistently enjoys beautiful weather compared to this country, even though we cannot complain about the past week. Croatians are a very bright, fair and beautiful people and we could learn much from them.
In recent weeks the ambassador asked me if we could help her to find a wine merchant in this country that would import Croatian wines. I put out the call in the Seanad today. That is another example of how we could do business. Every country brings its own product to the market.
I have one or two questions for the Minister. Two different sections in the Bill give Croatian people rights for the first two years and then post-two years. Could the Minister clarify why there are two separate sections dealing with rights? When Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union, they were blocked from accessing the labour market initially by this country. I am delighted that we are welcoming Croatia to the labour market but could the Minister explain why there is different treatment for different countries?
On the whole, the situation is positive. I spoke with the Croatian ambassador this morning and she said Croatia is very happy with the decision by the Government not to impose restrictions on Croatian nationals. Such a step enhances bilateral relations. There is no expectation of a significant influx of people. Could the Minister elaborate on relations between the two countries and how we can grow them? We see the accession of Croatia as being of mutual benefit. I refer to Croatia’s understanding of the value of the EU in terms of advancing peace. That was a core value in the founding of the EU. We would do well to remember that. This country, thankfully, has never been the site of war, other than our own Civil War. Sometimes, we do not realise what it is like to be occupied in that way. We have a lot to learn in that regard. Our problems are more economic but if we did not have peace or security for people our priorities would change. I would be delighted if the Minister could address my two questions. I thank him. Ar aghaidh leis an Aire leis an obair.
I also welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for taking the time to discuss the Bill with us today, and indeed for initiating the legislation in the Seanad, which we welcome.
I welcome Croatia to the European Union. As other speakers have indicated, it has a great deal to offer. Like this country, Croatia is a remarkable country with a great landscape, heritage and culture. It is no surprise to read that trade between this country and Croatia is already worth approximately €50 million a year, with many Irish people travelling there as tourists. I hope Croatia’s accession to the Union will tempt more Croatians to consider this country for a visit. Croatia’s entry to the Union also highlights the enduring strength of the appeal of the European Union. It is far better to be in the EU than not and even with recent turbulence there is a queue of nations who aspire to be part of the Union, which itself says a great deal.
It is important to point out, as the Minister indicated, that the Bill is technical in nature and is created in order to allow Croatians to access the Irish labour market while not conferring any rights above and beyond the Treaty of Accession to the Republic of Croatia. Any fear that Croatians having access to the Irish labour would lead to a wave of people entering this country is unfounded. There are a number of factors which ensure that it is highly unlikely that anything approaching large numbers of Croatians will migrate to this country. First, Croatians do not tend to migrate and do not have a history of migration. Although there are high unemployment levels, Croatia has a relatively healthy economy with solid inward investment.
The main provisions of the Bill include giving Croatian nationals employment rights equivalent to other EU nationals for the first two years following accession. The Bill ensures the family members of Croatian nationals have the same entitlements as family members of other EU nationals and amends the Employment Permits Act 2003 so that Croatian nationals with equivalent EU rights do not need an employment permit. It is worth noting that only 12 employment permits were issued in 2012 to Croatian nationals, which perhaps gives an indication of the level of inward migration we can expect from Croatia.
I look forward to Croatia's accession on 1 July as the 28th member state of the European Union. Croatia had originally aimed to join the EU in 2007 and, as we all know, the world and the European Union is a different place now from when that process started but the country's appetite has not diminished and its commitment has not wavered. I commend the Bill to the House
I welcome the Minister to the House. This is a great Bill to bring into the House and shows the work we can do in this regard. Ireland has a close relationship with Croatia in that it will never forget that discussions started on it acceding during the last Irish Presidency of the EU and that it is at the end of the current Irish Presidency that the country will become a full member state.
There are benefits for both sides. Irish citizens will now have the full right to work in Croatia, just as Croatians will have the right to work here. That could be of benefit because there are many skills we have here that might have not been developed to the same level in Croatia. I have been to Zagreb and other parts of Croatia and I agree with Senator White that it is extraordinarily beautiful country, as is Ireland. As a former trade Minister, I know we have the opportunity to promote Irish trade in Croatia. We have a relationship with them, and these things matter a lot because Ireland has proved to be a friend of Croatia. The skills that were built up here during the years of the property bubble for architects, engineers, builders, site workers and specialists who would add to the workforce in Croatia, will help it develop dramatically.
Croatia has a very close relationship with Germany. Many Germans have holiday homes in Croatia and both countries have relations that go back quite some time. The relationship we have with Germany is extremely productive. When I was Minister, we were always welcome in Germany, as we will be in future in Croatia.
The one regrettable point is that when we voted for the Lisbon treaty, people did not realise we would lose an MEP because Croatia has become a member state. It is not Croatia's fault; it is a result of the arrangement of the European Union that the limit is 751 MEPs. If another country becomes a member state, such as Turkey, we will end up with six MEPs, the same as Malta or Luxembourg. That is a very difficult situation for the country. We need good MEPs in Europe and more of them, but we will get fewer.
The restructuring of constituencies is yet to be decided. I note the Government did not veto the reduction, at least at this point. Perhaps there have been discussions at Cabinet level we do not know about. The veto could still potentially be used although there is still a limit to the number of MEPs. If Germany lost one or two MEPs, it would not matter too much, they are closer to the centre of power. On the periphery of Europe, Ireland needs extra MEPs and we should negotiate for that. It is a fact that we are the most isolated country in Europe, with all the others being on the European mainland.
From tourism and industrial points of view we are on a winner and the Government is to be commended for being courageous enough to offer full free access to our labour market, even though we are under pressure. Equally, Croatia is under pressure and, on balance, it is of benefit to this State to have free access to this member state, as it will be beneficial to Croatia to have access to the Republic of Ireland.
I welcome the Minister to the House. We do not see him as often as we would wish but hopefully in years to come we will remedy that.
I welcome the Bill. We have dealt with Croatian accession on previous occasions in a more substantive way, with a welcome from all Members for that development. The bringing together of Europe continues apace. It was 20 years ago last week when I attended the famous Eurovision Song Contest in Millstreet in County Cork. Dublin was very excited at the time at the concept of such an event being held in a rural town without a hotel but it was an extraordinary success. That night was the first occasion when the new countries that had emerged from behind the Iron Curtain appeared on the international stage. There was huge excitement and emotion at the arrival of Croatia and Bosnia and other countries that had previously been suppressed. We have travelled significantly since then and bringing those countries into the European Union and its development is something we must all welcome.
The legislation relates to labour law and employment rights. Of course at a time when there is such significant unemployment in the country, people's reaction is that we must ensure there are jobs for Irish people and we must protect those jobs. We must also have vision. The tradition of Irish people working abroad was beneficial not just for those working abroad but to their families at home and we must be as generous as we can when allowing EU citizens to work in this country and therefore I support the Bill.
Senator Leyden spoke about the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament. Decisions have not yet been finalised but it looks like Ireland will lose a seat. The Senator made a valid point about Irish representation in the European Parliament, which is now down to 11 seats out of a Parliament of 751. I attended the Garrett FitzGerald memorial lecture given by Brendan Halligan, who served with distinction in the Oireachtas and who is now very much a scholar of European politics. He made a pertinent point about the importance of Irish representation in the European Parliament, stressing the fact that when we now have only 12 Members out of 751 Members so the quality of those representatives and their work is of huge significance to the country. He posed the question of what sort of electoral system should be in place to elect the 12 Members to represent Ireland on a stage that has 751 Members. He reminded us that when we acceded to the EEC in 1973, the Government suggested that unlike our electoral formula for Dáil elections, there should be a different electoral formula for the European Parliament. The proposal, however, was dropped and we ended up with a multi-seat PR system. As the Government will put in place the commission to redraw the European constituencies, there is no constitutional provision underpinning of the electoral system to the European Parliament and we should consider this.
We need to put forward a premier league team, rather than people who will be lost in the big debates taking place in Europe. I ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, and others to consider this in view of the importance of having people of significant and weighty political ability on the European stage. For this reason, we must reflect on the electoral system and constituencies for electing Members of the European Parliament. As early as 40 years ago, Governments were wondering what was the best system for electing people to the European Parliament. Now, 40 years later, we should reflect again on the issue.
I apologise for wandering from the substance of the Bill. I support this legislation, which is about being generous. Our country has benefited from the generosity of other countries. Unfortunately, men and women from this country had to emigrate to find work found but they benefited from the generosity of other countries on many occasions. We, too, must be generous.
We will have many more debates with the Minister on the Government's agenda for job creation, which must be the primary purpose of government. It is great that the European project continues apace and a Continent once divided by an iron curtain and threatened by nuclear holocaust is now peaceful and prosperous. I hope this will continue to be the case in future.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Sinn Féin supports the Bill and has consistently supported Croatia's accession to the European Union and EU enlargement generally. As the Minister will be aware, however, my party has difficulties with the political, social and economic direction Europe has taken in the past 20 years and the democratic deficit in the Union. Notwithstanding these reservations, we fully respect the decision of the people of Croatia to join the European Union and we do not have any objection to ratifying Croatian membership of the EU. Having met the criteria laid down in law, we welcome the country's membership of the European Union.
As Sinn Féin has argued previously, Croatian workers should not be discriminated against in the European Union. They should be allowed to travel where they wish, as other EU citizens do. The purpose of the legislation is to allow Croatian nationals to access the Irish labour market, while not conferring any greater rights than those included in Croatia's treaty of accession signed on 9 December 2011. Croatia will become the European Union's 28th member state. Ireland signed the instrument of ratification for the Croatian accession treaty on 21 September 2012. The ratification process by the parliaments of all 27 member states is expected to conclude by the end of June 2013. For this reason, the legislation must be enacted by 1 July 2013 to ensure the full accession of Croatia to the European Union. Sinn Féin will not seek to delay the Bill.
The main provisions of the Bill are to give Croatian nationals employment rights equivalent to other EU nationals for the first two years after accession, ensure family members of Croatian nationals have the same entitlements as family members of other EU nationals and provide that Croatian nationals who have equivalent EU employment rights do not need an employment permit. These measures make sense and are supported by Sinn Féin. I welcome the legislation on the basis that Croatian nationals should be afforded the same opportunities as other EU citizens to access employment in Ireland.
I propose to make some general comments on the accession of Croatia. As I indicated, Croatian citizens voted for accession and given that the country met the standards set for it, there can be no argument about its entitlement to join the European Union. However, the Union is far from a bed of roses as it has been experiencing an economic crisis for many years and unemployment in the EU currently stands at record levels. A neoliberal agenda lies at the heart of the European project. Many people have genuine concerns about the political aspect of the project as the European Union is moving from a Union in which independent states protected their sovereignty and respectively sought to find ways to co-operate to one in which the larger members states, specifically France and Germany, are coming to dominate. A wider debate is needed about the direction the European Union is taking.
Sinn Féin's approach to Europe has always been one of critical engagement. While we are enthusiastic supporters of the concept of Europe and the European project and Community, we have difficulties with the willingness of the State to cede sovereignty in many areas in recent decades. We need to have a conversation about a social Europe. Many social democratic and socialist parties believe in a social Europe and want the EU to play a clear role and do much work on women's rights, poverty, human and environmental rights. While many good European directives have been implemented in all of these areas, we appear to be moving from a social Europe towards a different type of Europe. This is a cause of concern for many citizens, as the Irish people have shown in rejecting several treaties, even if we passed them when pressure was exerted a second time. The rejection of treaties by Irish people was a clear manifestation of the general concern among the public about the direction in which Europe is moving. This concern needs to be factored into discussions as we seek to expand the European Union in the process of enlargement which Sinn Féin supports.
Senators referred to the loss of an MEP for Ireland. Despite political differences, the 15 MEPs from this island have worked together and, to borrow a phrase, pulled on the green jersey and worked on behalf of the country, North and South. This has been highly beneficial and the loss of one MEP would be regrettable. It is unfortunate that the Government did not proactively engage on this issue and failed to mount any significant opposition to the loss of an MEP. It is only fair that candidates for the next European Parliament elections know what are the new constituency boundaries. Some of those who contested the most recent local elections were unsure of the boundaries of the new local authority constituencies, although this issue has since been addressed by the Boundary Commission. It is important that candidates for the European Parliament are made aware of the exact boundaries of their constituency and given an opportunity to properly canvass and plan for the forthcoming European Parliament elections. I ask that this matter be addressed.
Sinn Féin supports the Bill and does not propose to delay its enactment. I welcome Croatia to the European Union. I also hope we will continue to have a constructive debate on the future of the European project and the direction in which the European Union is moving.
I thank Senators for their contributions and welcome the broad consensus on the legislation. To paraphrase Senator Leyden, one of the first lessons one learns in economics is that trade and economic interaction deliver mutual gains. This lesson remains very much at the heart of the European Union. Great benefits are realised from trading across borders and the free movement of goods and people and this has been a pillar of the European Union.
As Senator Bacik noted, there is a deeper significance to this legislation. Croatia has been in the cauldron of many of the great divisions that have afflicted the western world. The country is located on the boundary between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the Orthodox and Catholic religions and Islam and Christianity. Virtually every divide in Europe has criss-crossed the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia. Croatia now follows Slovenia into the European Union.
Acceptance of the acquisand the opportunity of a peace dividend, which will repair the wounds of a continent and in particular a country riven over many years of conflict, is an important context within which to see this.
As stated by Senator Mary White, the acquisis not only about labour rights but about political union. The visit by the President, Michael D. Higgins, to Croatia last week showed the connections there that need to be built upon. In terms of this provision, in European terms Croatia is a small labour market. It has not had close connections of any great scale with the Irish labour market. In terms of the argument about floods of people coming here, it is clear from the analysis that this will not happen.
As stated by Senator Bradford, it is important that as a small country for whom migration has been an opportunity and lifeline, and which has in part made up this country over many years, we show generosity towards new members. The goodwill which we are seeking to show towards another small country wishing to join the European Union is an important statement in terms of our political and diplomatic relations. Some 13 member states of the 18 who have declared thus far have signalled that they will be giving full rights. As such, most other member states are taking a similar line to Ireland.
I will try to address the specific points raised. Senator Healy Eames asked why we took a different position in respect of Romania and Bulgaria. That decision was taken more than five years ago and not by the current Government. I presume in weighing up its decision the then Government took account of the relative size of those countries. The combined population of Romania and Bulgaria represented a labour market of 13.5 million as compared to a labour market of 1.8 million in Croatia. As such, there may have been more arguments around the potential for disruption and so on. Last year, we removed the remaining restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria such that they now have full access to the Irish labour market at this point.
Senators Healy Eames and Mary White also asked about the significance of the two year period. The manner in which the new treaty has been structured provides for different phases of entitlement. In the first two years, there is a right of restriction and in the following years different provisions prevail. Having different sections for two years and for a specified period thereafter is reflective of provisions within the original treaty of accession. It is treated differently in different sections of the Bill to reflect the different provisions in the parent accession treaty. We can deal with that further on Committee Stage.
I thank Senators Clune, Mary White, Bacik, Healy Eames, Noone, Leyden, Bradford and Cullinane for their contributions, which have been very useful and reflect the goodwill most people would show towards Croatia's decision to accede to membership of the European Union. Senator Cullinane raised issues that went beyond discussions on this particular treaty. The European Union is not a perfect body. No one would say it is. However, the concept behind it, of 27 member states - soon to be 28 - being willing to share sovereignty to achieve things together that they cannot achieve on their own is an important bulwark against the type of divisions and wars witnessed in the past. It has the potential for good. One can criticise the manner in which the Union has handled this crisis but on reflection of the crisis during the past three years it is evident that Europe has evolved. Things that seemed to be impossible at the start of the crisis are now being freely done. It is bolstering people's opportunities. I do not pretend it is a perfect model. It never will be. A model based on unanimity among 28 member states will in terms of make-up always be part camel rather than horse. It has been a great help to Ireland. It is hoped it will be a similar help to Croatia as it moves to join.
A number of Senators raised the issue of the impact on representation in the European Parliament. I have taken note of the points made and will pass them on to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, within whose remit this issue comes, although the boundaries will be set by the Commission. Senator Bradford asked whether we should be moving away from PR for the selection of MEPs. The UK, which is the bastion of the first past the post system, opted to go for PR for the selection of its European candidates in order to ensure it achieved a more balanced representation. There are others who believe ours is a good system of selection for the European Parliament. Nonetheless, I take the Senator's point.
I again thank Senators for their courtesy and interest in this issue and for their unanimous support for it, which of itself is not something that happens every day.