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Statement by the Tánaiste to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs

European Union, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Europe, 2011

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee

Thank you for the invitation to meet the Committee to discuss my priorities for European Union affairs for the years ahead.  I regret that I was unable to meet you last Thursday in advance of the GAC, but I look forward to working with you over the coming years. 

First of all, let me congratulate you on the establishment of this committee and welcome your appointment as Chairman.  I know that you will play a valuable role in the examination of the Government’s conduct of EU business and through the inputs you make to consideration of wider developments within the European Union.  The European Union is central to our economic recovery and, more broadly, to Ireland’s advancing of its interests in the world. 

I am delighted to have this opportunity to outline my approach to European affairs and to highlight some of the priorities on our agenda. 

Role of Oireachtas

The Programme for Government signalled a number of initiatives, designed to broaden and deepen the Oireachtas’ engagement with and scrutiny of EU affairs.  I am pleased that many of these have already been introduced or are in the process of being implemented.

As is stated in the Programme for Government, we believe that the Oireachtas must be in a position to adequately scrutinise proposed EU legislation, to consider how such legislation should be transposed and generally to ensure that Oireachtas views are taken into account in preparation for Council meetings.  This is in the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty which as you know has specific provision for the strengthening of the role of national parliaments.  This was one of the elements in the Treaty to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the Union.

The new Committee arrangements introduced by the Government should ensure an earlier and better engagement by the Oireachtas in EU affairs generally.  I know that most of my Ministerial colleagues have already met with their respective sectoral committees to outline the priority issues in their policy areas.

Delivering on the commitment given in the Programme for Government, the Taoiseach now briefs the House before, as well as after, European Council meetings.  As is spelled out in the Programme for Government, Ministers will appear before their respective Committees or before this Committee in the run-up to meetings of the Council where decisions are made.

Since I have referred to the Lisbon Treaty, I might recall here that it was agreed in 2009 that at the time of the conclusion of the next Accession Treaty a Protocol on the concerns of the Irish people on the Lisbon Treaty would be attached to the Treaties.  Now that the accession negotiations with Croatia have been formally concluded, the Government is taking the necessary procedural and legal steps to move this process forward.  This is with a view to the signature and entry into force of the Protocol taking place at the same time as the signature and entry into force of the Croatian accession treaty.

My Department does not process any large amount of EU legislation but we do have some work ahead of us in preparing a Bill to amend the European Communities Act.  The purpose of this is to permit Ireland to approve the treaty change allowing for the creation of the European Stability Mechanism.  This Committee obviously has an interest in this matter and I will welcome in due course your contribution to the process.

Diplomatic initiative

As you know, the Government is explicitly committed to restoring Ireland’s standing as a respected and influential member of the European Union.  We are making full use of all Council meetings to build up contacts. I n addition , I am continuing a schedule of bilateral meetings with counterparts from Member States and EU institutions, as is my colleague Minister of State Creighton.  Since taking office I have visited London and Paris, for example, and this month, I have visited Vilnius and Berlin for consultations with my Lithuanian and German colleagues.  These contacts will be complemented by regular engagement at senior level with the European institutions.  I was particularly glad to have the opportunity to have discussions with the President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, during his visit to Ireland last week.  I know that he also met this Committee while he was here.  The Lisbon Treaty has clearly enhanced Parliament’s standing in the institutional landscape and as a member state, and a future Presidency, we want a cooperative and productive relationship. 

EU Coordination

The government is also committed to stronger coordination and strategic direction of Ireland’s engagement with the EU across the whole of Government.  For that reason, we announced last week our decision to create a unified EU Division in the Department of the Taoiseach including personnel from the EU Affairs Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  This will be headed by a newly appointed Secretary General; Geraldine Byrne-Nason, currently our Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU in Brussels.  In addition to her responsibilities for the Economic Management Council and the Tánaiste’s Office, she will have responsibility for the management of an integrated EU coordination function, engaging with other Departments as appropriate, reporting to the Taoiseach and myself in respect of our responsibilities at European level.  This move responds to the evolution of EU institutional arrangements and practices following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, in particular the increased role of the European Council.  It should streamline activity on the EU and strengthen the effectiveness of strategic direction.

Euro area crisis

Since coming into office, the European agenda has been dominated by the continuing economic and financial crisis in the euro area.

Members of this Committee will be aware that the Taoiseach is in Brussels today for an extraordinary meeting of the heads of State and Government of the euro area.  It is at last becoming clear to all that - as the IMF deputy director said in Dublin last week “what’s lacking so far is a European solution … to a shared European problem.”  Today our heads of state and government are trying to reach that European solution. 

Of course, work has been going on for some time to craft a credible programme, including for Greece, one that avoids contagion and spill-over risks and puts the atmosphere of crisis behind us.  The proposals put forward at last week’s Eurogroup meeting were particularly welcome.  These included enhancing the flexibility and the scope of the EFSF, lengthening the maturities of the loans, and lowering the interest rates on them.  These proposals were – and are as we speak – being analysed, elaborated and negotiated and will feed into the summit meeting in Brussels later today. 

Presidents Merkel and Sarkozy met in Berlin last night, and senior officials of all the euro area countries are meeting right now in Brussels.  Private sector involvement – burden sharing - for the second Greek assistance package is one focus, enhancing the flexibility of the EFSF loans is another.  All of these are being considered in terms of the effect on the entire euro area, not just on Greece or the others in assistance programmes.

And it is clear that the kind of Europe-wide solutions being discussed would have a particular benefit to Ireland, in terms of interest rates, maturities and other flexibilities in the EFSF which would facilitate our return to the accessing normal financing on the international bond markets.

It would be rash to speculate just now on the outcome in any detail.  There is no doubt that today’s meeting in Brussels comes at a crucial time.  President Barroso said yesterday that it was time for all the leaders of the Union to show European responsibility.

Ireland is playing its part in finding a solution to our shared difficulties; others will play their part also.

I would add that we should not underestimate the long-term impact of the other economic and financial measures that have already been put in place by the Union over the past year.  We have devised a comprehensive package of measures to coordinate economic and fiscal policy and to strengthen our systems of economic governance.  These represent a major step forward and will help to underpin the stability of the euro and provide the conditions for sustainable growth for future generations.

Multiannual Financial Framework

The Union’s work continues in other areas.  Preeminent among the items to be deliberated on in the coming year or more is the set of Commission proposals for the Multi-annual Financial Framework for 2014-2020.  This will have major implications for the future of EU policy in many areas.  The scale of these proposals – some €1,025 billion – and their impact on national and EU interests are significant.  Negotiations will be long, complex and difficult.  While we fully accept the need for budgetary prudence in these difficult times, we need a budget that is fit for purpose and allows the Union to deliver – whether on the crucial issue of agriculture and food security for European consumers, or in the increasingly important area of research and innovation.  The General Affairs Council will have a coordinating role on this important dossier.

Enlargement and Eastern Partnership

The enlargement portfolio remains a dynamic one.  Following on from the official conclusion of negotiations with Croatia at the end of June, work is continuing on the Draft Treaty of Accession. I would expect to see this ready for signature by the Heads of State and Government at the European Council in December. 

Croatia’s success has given a boost to the prospects of the other Western Balkans countries. Serbia and Montenegro in particular are making good progress and it is possible that these two countries will be in accession negotiations by the time Ireland takes over the rotating Presidency. 

Iceland’s negotiations are moving forward rapidly, given that it already complies with much of the acquis.  The difficult chapters on agriculture and fisheries are yet to be addressed, but we would expect to see them opened in October.  Iceland has set a target of finalising negotiations by the end of 2012. This is a very ambitious goal and it is more likely that it will fall to our Presidency to conclude the negotiations.  Of course the interest of the Icelandic people in accession remains to be tested, in a referendum once the terms of membership have been spelt out.

Turkey remains in the slow lane.  Perhaps, with the elections there behind it, there is an opportunity now to generate new momentum.  An initiative on Cyprus, for example, could help to break the log-jam in the accession negotiations.

I should also like to mention the Eastern Partnership Summit taking place in Warsaw in September, which will be the showcase event of the Polish Presidency.  The summit aims to provide a roadmap for the future direction of the EU’s relationship with our six neighbours to the East, including the development of a free trade area.  This is a major priority of the Polish Presidency - understandably given their own impressive evolution over the last decade.

2013 Presidency

Speaking of the Presidency, I should now like to turn to the area where Ireland can make its most significant impact in the EU arena.

In just under 18 months’ time, on 1st January 2013, Ireland assumes for the seventh time the Presidency of the European Union.  The date coincides with the fortieth anniversary of Ireland’s accession to the EU and is a reminder of the economic and social transformation of Ireland brought about by our membership of the Union over the past four decades.  While the Presidency in 2013 will differ in some ways to previous Presidencies following changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, the importance of the Presidency to Ireland and the potential that it has to shape perceptions about Ireland’s place in the Union and about the State itself have not changed. 

Preparations for 2013 started last year with the establishment of two inter-departmental groups to coordinate planning for the Presidency.  In June I brought a Memorandum to Government on Ireland’s EU Presidency which underlined the importance of the Presidency for engaging constructively with the EU agenda and rebuilding Ireland’s reputation internationally.  The number of meetings and contacts at political level between members of the Cabinet and key contacts and counterparts are increasing as preparations intensify.  Last week, when I met Mr. Buzek, we discussed the greater role now played by the European Parliament in the EU legislative process since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty.  Ireland enjoys good relations with the European Parliament and we will maintain a close and constructive working relationship with the Parliament both in advance of, and during the Presidency to facilitate the progress of legislation in 2013. 

At this stage, it is likely that issues including the financial, economic and employment-creation themes currently dominating the EU and euro area agenda, and economic competitiveness, will continue to be prominent in 2013.  Other major issues that are expected to figure on the Irish Presidency agenda include the next Multiannual Financial Framework, the Common Agriculture Policy and Common Fisheries Policy.  These are all policy areas of broad importance to Ireland, the EU and member states and we look forward to working closely with partners to progress these issues. 

The formal grouping of three Presidencies over an 18th month period with an agreed joint programme is also new and Ireland is a member of a Trio that includes Lithuania and Greece.  I met recently my Lithuanian counterpart and the Lithuanian Prime Minister and I look forward to meeting my recently-appointed Greek colleague to discuss our Presidency programme. 

Ireland’s future lies in its membership of the EU and we are determined to ensure that we remain an engaged participant in the EU decision-making process.  This Government views the Presidency 2013 as an opportunity for us to demonstrate our commitment to playing an active role in the affairs of the Union.  The Presidency will also make it possible for Ireland to promote policies that affect the lives of all our citizens and to uphold and advance the values on which the European Union is founded and which we share. 

Since entering the EU in 1973, Ireland has developed a reputation among partners for running impartial and effective Presidencies.  We have demonstrated that smaller Member States can run the EU’s agenda efficiently.  Successfully managing previous Presidencies enhanced perceptions about Ireland and its capabilities, and helped to strengthen our image abroad.  A well-run and effectively managed Presidency in 2013 can, again, contribute to strengthening Ireland’s reputation as a credible partner in Europe. 

Mr Chairman,

Thank you again for having invited me to speak to the Committee.  I will be very happy to respond to any questions members may have.