On January 1, Ireland will begin its seventh Presidency of the European Union. With so many pressing problems at home, this is a challenging moment for Ireland to take on the Presidency.
The challenges, however, are greatly outweighed by the opportunities, which we can and will seize.
This is a moment when Ireland can shape the European agenda in a way that is both positive for us and for Europe.
We are taking over at a time when Europe is still coping with the aftershocks of the economic crisis. The EU is still working through the difficult questions thrown up for the single currency, and the European economy is struggling to provide jobs and good standards of living. Too many young Europeans in particular do not have a job – a problem to which Europe simply must find a response.
As an EU/IMF programme country, Ireland continues to negotiate with the troika to improve the conditions of our bailout, and, in particular, to reach agreement on the problem of our banking debt – which must be resolved before March. But as a country whose greatest challenge is still to create employment, it is vital for all of us that Europe as a whole responds to the crisis with an agenda for stability, jobs and growth. Important steps have already been taken in that direction, but we need to do more, which is why jobs and growth will be core themes of the Irish Presidency.
There are several strands to that agenda. A key priority, for example, will be the pursuit of a mandate for a comprehensive EU-US trade agreement – something I discussed with Hillary Clinton during her recent visit to Dublin. Once in place, it is anticipated that trade agreements with strategic partners including the US, Canada, Singapore and Japan could add some 2 per cent to Europe's GDP. And, as one of the most open economies in the world, this would be even more advantageous to Ireland.
At the same time, we will be working to expand trade within Europe by further developing the Single Market. We have prioritised work on several measures, including an updated Professional Qualifications Directive, ensuring Irish professionals’ qualifications will be better recognised by employers right across the Union, and the Posted Workers Directive.
The potential for growth in the digital economy is also immense, and the Irish Presidency will focus on key measures to ensure that the EU – the world’s largest consumer market – is equipped to support and stimulate such growth. Finalising legislation on intellectual property rights, cyber security, e-signatures and data protection is top of the digital agenda.
To support small and medium-sized enterprises (which currently employ 87 million people across Europe) the Irish Presidency will also be working on a range of legislative measures to support them, including better access to public procurement opportunities and increased access to EU research funding.
At the same time, we will continue to advance measures to enhance Europe’s financial stability, pushing ahead with the talks on banking union – which is vital for Ireland. The development of the banking union structure provides a basis for Ireland to secure investment by the European Stability Mechanism in Ireland's banks.
It is also important because, as an open economy that needs a strong banking sector and which has significant employment in the financial services sector, banking union will provide for better regulation of the European banking system, and greater solidarity within the euro zone. Ultimately, that is all part of breaking the link between bank debt and sovereign debt.
Holding the Presidency means that Irish Ministers and officials will chair meetings, lead negotiations and try to conclude deals across these and other areas. This is a moment when we can influence the direction that Europe is taking, but we will also remain true to our traditional values of promoting human rights internationally, and encouraging Europe's role in the fight against climate change, global poverty and hunger.
The Presidency will also bring a fresh focus onto Ireland, bringing some 15,000 people to Ireland – among them, hundreds of foreign journalists – and providing us with an exceptional opportunity to promote Ireland as an investment and export partner, as well as a food and tourism destination.
Our strategy for the Presidency is based on a clearly-defined set of goals. It is also based on a strategic view that our national interest lies in having an effective European Union that can rise to the challenges it faces, and respond to the needs of Europe's citizens.
We firmly believe that the Irish Presidency will rise to that challenge.