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Tánaiste delivers State of the Union Address, IIEA, 4 July 2011

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

The State of the Union Address

by the Tánaiste to the IIEA, 4 July 2011

Check against delivery

Thank you, Brendan Halligan, for that introduction.  It is a pleasure to be here at the Institute of International and European Affairs to deliver the State of the Union address. 

Before turning to that, let me wish the Institute a happy birthday as it marks twenty years of activity this year.  In those two decades the Institute and its staff have made a large and very valued contribution to informed debate here on international, and particularly European Affairs.  The list of speakers who have passed through the doors on North Great Georges St. is long and impressive; and the Institute’s publications have been incisive, stimulating and – most importantly – have often anticipated the big issues as they are still taking shape. 

A column by David Brooks recently in the New York Times included a wonderful quote from Edmund Burke on what contributes to political excellence: 

“to be habituated to the censorial inspection of the public eye; to look early to public opinion; …to take a large view of the infinitely diversified combination of men and affairs in a large society; to have leisure to read, to reflect, to converse; to be enabled to draw and court the attention of the wise and learned wherever they are to be found.”

Certainly sounds like the IIEA!

As we meet here today, the Union is experiencing serious difficulties.  To the wider world, and to many of its own citizens, the ponderous pace at which the the Union has addressed the sovereign debt crisis is incomprehensible. 

The crisis has appeared to rumble on without sight of a comprehensive solution, and financial markets, in particular, have found this brand of policy making deeply unsettling.

I am conscious in saying so, that Ireland must shoulder its fair share of the blame for creating this problem.  A profound failure of economic management during the boom, and a series of policy errors after the boom came to an end, have placed Ireland in need of external assistance.  We have been the beneficiaries of European solidarity, without which we would have been unable to fund the State.  We are grateful for that assistance, even if, as a result, we have suffered a huge loss of effective sovereignty that will only be restored when Ireland can, once again, pay its way in the world.

Having accepted our share of the blame for creating the problem, it should also be acknowledged that Ireland is now doing its part to contribute to a solution.  The new Government has taken a series of decisive actions in respect of the banking system that have set the banks on course to recovery.  The Irish people have endured a massive fiscal correction to set our public finances on the right course also.  Our EU/IMF programme is on track, and we are demonstrating our willingness to take the necessary actions to restore Ireland’s creditworthiness. Of course, that is something that we want to do for ourselves, but it should be acknowledged that in doing so, we are contributing to solving what is also very much a European problem. 

Ireland is doing its bit.  We are playing our part.  Of course, it is important that other countries in Programmes make similar efforts.  What is needed now, however, is to move the debate forward, and for Europe, as a whole, to find a European solution.

Most recently, France has taken an initiative on private sector participation in the Greek programme, and it appears that others may follow suit.   Whether that approach can be generalized for more than French-held Greek debt, is yet to be tested.  What it demonstrates, however, is that we can, if we try, find innovative ways to deal with indebtedness in Greece, without provoking unintended consequences.  

What is also important is that, in finalising a solution for Greece, there is effective communication of the implications, if any, for other programme countries.  Once again, it is important for us to emphasise that Ireland’s programme is on track, and important for our partners to ensure that, along with a solution for Greece, we produce a clear and stable policy environment for programme countries.  In that context, I particularly welcome the clarity that was brought recently to the issue of preferred creditor status with respect to the ESM. 

Throughout this debate, what has been striking has been a demand for ‘more Europe’ rather than ‘less Europe’.  For more concerted action, not for less.  For more co-operation, not for less, and for more solidarity, not for less.  What we have discovered, once again, that Europe can and will advance, when it grapples with concrete problems.  More so, perhaps, than when we engage in the more abstract discussion of European architecture, as was the case during the various debates on Lisbon.

Lisbon Treaty

The Lisbon Treaty has now been in force for over 18 months.  The European Council has assumed its role of providing the Union with impetus for its development and the definition of its general political directions, at the   level of Heads of State and Government. 

Herman Van Rompuy has been the pioneer in the new position of President of the European Council.  When he spoke on 17 June at an IIEA event in Dublin Castle as part of a productive visit here, he returned to a theme he has emphasised since he took office: in the world that is forming, Europe has to adapt.  Bringing public finances back under control and regaining competitiveness are a part of that.  And this is undertaken not just to get the figures right.  “We do this”, as he said, “to preserve our social model, to guarantee our welfare and jobs for our children and grandchildren”.   

The European Council looks set to meet more frequently, and to cover a wide array of topics.  It is in all our interests to have good preparation of such meetings, well articulated with the work in the various configurations of the Council and channelled through the General Affairs Council.  The same goes for follow-up. 

EEAS
The Foreign Affairs Council, in which I have been participating, is now getting into its stride under the Lisbon Treaty arrangements.  The High Representative, Catherine Ashton, has a very demanding mandate under the Treaty, as Chair of the FAC, and as Vice President of the Commission responsible for External Relations. 

Getting the External Action Service, the EEAS, up and running has been vital in providing support for the High Representative in her role.  That was not straightforward and involved complicated transactions with the European Parliament – of which more, later – on the terms of the decision.  And then the three components of staffing – the Commission, the Member States and the Council Secretariat – had to be brought together.  I know that the Chief Operating Officer, David O’Sullivan, spoke to the IIEA about the complexity of the process. 

With the instruments and personnel in place, what is important now is to get the arrangements to work optimally, for the Union in the form of an enhanced and more coherent presence in the world, and for a small Member State like Ireland by helping us to extend our reach and sources of information.  This is of particular significance at the UN and in other multilateral bodies, where the EU Delegations have also assumed responsibility for the coordination of positions and the external representation of EU policy.  The adoption last May of a General Assembly Resolution on the EU’s enhanced status at the UN was an important step which should enable the EU to project itself more effectively and coherently in UN deliberations.

Foreign Ministers recently had a thorough discussion of these issues and this is now being followed up with a meeting later this week which David O’Sullivan will chair.  It will address improving working relations between the EEAS and the Member States, information flows and the sharing of reports, cooperation in third countries between our Embassies and the EU Delegations, as well as recruitment and rotation questions. 

European Parliament
The European Parliament is generally seen as having considerably increased its influence under the Lisbon Treaty.  I think that the experience over the past 18 months has substantiated that, with new areas coming under the co-decision and consent procedures.  The Council-Parliament relationship in this new institutional landscape is still evolving and there have been hiccups.   

I am confident however that the shared legislative responsibility, and greater familiarity between the key personnel, will assist cooperation.  So too does the development of the political groups at European Level, with the parties in this Government, as it happens, affiliated with the largest of these, the EPP and the PES.  I look forward to a productive discussion on these topics with President Buzek when he visits Dublin later this month.

We have played our part in bedding down these new arrangements so that they can respond to the aims of more effectiveness and coherence which were at the root of the Treaty changes.  The role of rotating Presidency of the Council of Ministers has of course been affected.  It no longer chairs the European Council or the FAC but retains all responsibilities as before in the other diverse formations of the Council and in COREPER.  The increased power of the European Parliament has meant a significantly bigger amount of activity by the rotating Presidency in representing the Council in co-decision procedures.  Also, the High Representative is exploring with Council how the Presidency can assist in acting on occasion on her behalf.   

Presidency
All of this carries some extra interest for Ireland as we plan for our turn – our seventh – in the exercise of the Presidency in 2013.  We have learned a good deal from the experience of the Trio which has just concluded with the Hungarian Presidency.  I expect that to continue under the forthcoming Trio of Poland, Denmark and Cyprus.  We are increasing our contacts with them as well as of course with our own Trio partners, Lithuania and Greece.

Euro area issues – European Council              
President van Rompuy said in Dublin Castle that the big lesson of the crisis of 2010 could be summarised in the one word - interdependence.  He also pointed out that monetary and financial integration had proceeded much faster than the integration of economic policies.

While the debt crisis gas yet to be resolved, it is important to note the progress that has been made in enhancing the architecture of economic Governance.  A broad package of measures has been agreed which enhances economic governance in the Union and especially between those members sharing a currency. These include a suite of legislation that strengthens surveillance and allows for sanctions at an earlier stage.  The European Council was also able to note the first implementation of the European Semester procedure.

Ireland’s EU/IMF Programme
The European Council stated very clearly that our reform programme “is well on track”.  This is welcome recognition of the huge efforts being made by the Irish people.  We are determined to keep the programme on track.  Our aim is to return to the markets as soon as possible.

The solidarity which we have been shown by partners and the institutions is much appreciated, a point I made to the EU ambassadors here last week.

Good communication is of course vital, and there is a continuing job to be done.  The recent Eurobarometer report shows that the European Union’s image has deteriorated the most in those countries most affected by the public debt crisis. 

The same Eurobarometer report shows that the Irish are strong advocates of European decision-making, tackling public debt and the reform of the financial system.  They see the Union as part of the solution.  This is a message that I consistently convey to my European colleagues.  And that a “win” in the case of the Irish support programme would be a very welcome “win” too for the EU.

Recent years have been a trying time for the Union.  But the Union is not obsessed with its own problems or inward-looking – far from it.  It has developed new instruments, such as the EEAS, with which to deal with the world beyond its borders.  For the world beyond our borders is strongly concerned with us.  And we are strongly committed to dealing with that world.

Enlargement
Despite our troubles, there is no doubt that membership of the Union is still a very attractive prospect for the countries on our borders.

Among the more notable achievements of the Hungarian Presidency has been the conclusion of negotiations with Croatia with accession scheduled for July, 2013. 

The enlargement perspective is a useful adjunct to the Union’s diplomacy in the Balkans and our commitment to enhancing stability there.  The EU will remain engaged in assisting the countries in the region to undertake the reforms necessary to move forward in their path to the EU.

Iceland already meets many of the criteria for membership, and work on the likely terms of an accession will now accelerate, eventually of courser to be put to the Icelandic people.  Work continues on Turkey but at a very slow pace.  Perhaps, with the elections there behind it, the new government of Turkey will be more inclined to take an initiative on Cyprus which would break the log-jam of accession negotiations.

European Neighbourhood Policy
The European Neighbourhood Policy’s fundamental premise is support for the modernisation of neighbouring countries through reforms in return for concessions from the EU, above all in the fields of trade and freedom of travel, with the stated aim of achieving long-term stability and prosperity in the neighbourhood.  

Ireland seeks to emphasise the importance of differentiation between our partners, of helping when asked, but also of being careful not to impose our own precepts.  We also seek to reward greater engagement and reform efforts with greater funding and support. 

The Union’s External Relations
I have dwelt up to now on developments within the Union and in its neighbourhood.  It is understandable if there is an impression that for the past year the EU has focussed its attention almost exclusively on its economic and financial challenges.  But the Union of course plays a larger role in the world, aided by new instruments such as the EEAS.

With 500 million citizens and 22% of global GDP, the EU can assert itself as a global power.  We can now engage with our strategic partners as Europe, not just as 27 individual countries; one message, twenty seven voices. 

In a speech to the European College in Bruges last year, President Van Rompuy underlined the central role the European Council plays in setting foreign policy priorities.  His decision to convene a special European Council last September to focus on the EU’s external relations marked a significant step in the direction of developing what he termed a “common strategic vision of the world”.

In our globalised world the relationships we build with strategic partners will determine our prosperity.  A new approach to these partners, described by HR Ashton as “fewer priorities, greater coherence, and more results”, is being put in place.  The success of recent summits with the US, India and Russia, is a promising sign that a focus on careful preparations, including the identification of key desired outcomes for the EU, is paying off. 

Development Aid
The European Union provides over 50% of global development assistance.  This enables it to have an impact and an influence that no one member state acting alone could achieve.  Because of the strength of our own development programme, Ireland has been influential in the shaping of EU development policy.  We have been particularly influential in drawing attention to the need for a strong focus on food security and agriculture, and in focussing attention on the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Partnership is at the centre of our approach to development.  On my recent visit to Tanzania I saw for myself how we can improve the lives of poor communities by working in cooperation with all partners, including the European Union.

The eradication of extreme poverty and hunger in the developing world lies at the heart of Ireland’s development programme.  As well as working with our EU partners, we have worked closely with the US Administration on the global hunger crisis and the issue of undernutrition among mothers and babies in the developing world. 

In the Programme for Government, we have reiterated our strong commitment to development cooperation.  We are committed to the 0.7% GNP target, and will seek to achieve it by 2015.  This is a challenge, but one that we can meet if we can restore sustainable growth to the Irish economy.  Whatever the statistics, we want to be clear that Ireland will continue to meet its obligations to the poor people and communities of the developing world, and that this will remain a central element of our foreign policy.

Conclusion
I want to conclude, by repeating what has been, and will continue to be, the key message of this Government in respect of Ireland’s relationship with the European Union.  We are determined to re-build our relationships, and restore our standing within the European Union.  We are determined to play the fullest possible role within the Union, and to contribute fully to its work.  Since coming into office, this Government has engaged positively and energetically with that task, and we intend to continue doing so.  For, we are clear, that Ireland’s future, and the future wellbeing of the Union and its citizens, are inextricably linked.

Since coming to office four months ago, this Government has re-intensified Ireland’s engagement with Europe.  Of necessity, that re-engagement has concentrated initially on the pressing and immediate domestic economic issues which have dominated our relationship with the European institutions and other member states in recent times.   But increasingly we are re-engaging on the wider European agenda.  That embraces the Union’s own diverse internal policies and, now, its future financing- how it raises funds and how and on what it spends them; it includes a continuing enlargement agenda where the attractions of what we have achieved together so far- and let us not lose sight of or minimise them- serve as an instrument in extending EU norms, and peace and prosperity, to our neighbourhood, notably the Balkans; and it means an EU that, building on its values and on its economic weight in the world, projects a voice and a presence that are commensurate with that.  What you might term the “normal business” of the Union. We have made significant inputs here in the past and these are the areas where as we overcome –both at EU and national level the current difficulties- Ireland is determined to contribute to a better and more vibrant Union.

Thank You.