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Statements by the Tánaiste to mark Europe Week


I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the House this Europe Week, in what is, undoubtedly, an important year for the European Union.

It is a time of transition in Europe. And, as we put the crisis behind us, we need to look ahead at the challenges that remain.

As the Taoiseach and, indeed, many commentators have noted, we find ourselves again at a time of institutional change. A new European Parliament will be elected this month, to be followed by the appointment of a new President of the European Commission and a new college of Commissioners. There will also be a new President of the European Council, and a successor to Catherine Ashton as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. These changes have growing significance for us all, because of the enhanced roles of the European institutions and our ever-increasing interdependence within the Union and the Euro area.

While much of the focus of recent years, since the advent of the recession, has been internal, recent events on Europe’s borders have served as a stark reminder of the necessity, in a fast-changing, multi-polar and often-unpredictable world, for the Union to act in unison and speak with one voice.

The European Union strongly supports the international rules-based system founded on the principles of human rights, justice and respect for international law. This rules-based order is our best guarantee of stability, security and prosperity. What happens beyond our borders can, and does, directly affect us in Europe. The crisis in Ukraine clearly demonstrates this.

The Taoiseach has already spoken of the importance of seeking a negotiated political settlement to the crisis in Ukraine.  To that end, the Government strongly supports High Representative Ashton’s call on all parties to the Joint Geneva Statement of 17 April to ensure that its terms are fully implemented, including by using their leverage on illegal armed groups to stop violence and provocation and to make them hand in their arms.

The EU will continue to be actively engaged in international efforts to facilitate a peaceful and negotiated solution to the crisis, supporting initiatives involving the UN, the OSCE and others to that end.

At its meeting on 14 April, the Foreign Affairs Council expressed strong support for the holding of free and fair presidential elections on 25 May. Ireland is sending a team of observers to Ukraine to help achieve that objective, one which will allow the Ukrainian people to determine their own future and help build trust and confidence across the country.

It is in the interest of the entire region that a sovereign, prosperous, stable, democratic and inclusive Ukraine emerges from the current crisis.

Events in Ukraine remind us of the core achievement of the European Union in creating a stable, democratic and prosperous Europe. We have achieved this by working together in a spirit of mutual cooperation and solidarity, putting ancient enmities behind us.

Throughout the crisis, Member States – and the shared institutions we have created – worked together to restore stability. It was not easy, and many critics predicted failure, but I believe the European Union has come through stronger and better-equipped to meet the challenges of the future.

This includes real progress towards Banking Union, reflecting agreement on what is necessary for both restoring normal flows of lending to the real economy and ensuring there will be no repeat of the current crisis. The Single Supervisory Mechanism will take effect from the beginning of November, followed by the Single Resolution Mechanism from the beginning of 2015.

The European Semester will also play a crucial role in strengthening coordination of national economic and budgetary policies towards the overarching objective of supporting growth and jobs.

It is clear that economic conditions across Europe are now improving.  Last year saw GDP in both the EU and euro area back in positive territory for the first time since late 2011.   Many Member States, including Ireland, have returned to net job creation.  And this year will see a return to net employment growth for the EU as a whole.

But unemployment remains unacceptably high – around 11% for the EU and 12% for the euro area – and this is at the heart of the growth in support for those parties which reject Europe without plausibly explaining how Member States confronting recession, climate change, the need to trade freely within each other’s markets, and with the wider world on a fair basis, could do better acting alone.

But that is not to deny the challenge: that there is more we can and must do to support a stronger, EU-wide recovery over the period ahead. This means unlocking a new wave of investment for jobs and for growth.

The recent Spring European Council took stock of the Europe 2020 Strategy. Europe 2020 is the EU strategy to support growth that is smart, sustainable and inclusive. It is focussed on five targets for employment, innovation, climate & energy, education and social inclusion. These are translated into specific goals for each Member State and progress is monitored annually.

It is clear that Europe’s performance against these objectives is mixed, and has been overshadowed by our need to respond to the crisis. Now is the right time to develop a strong re-engagement with Europe’s post-crisis growth strategy. A full public consultation on this will happen over the coming months.

When Commission Secretary General Catherine Day met the EU Affairs Committee in January, she emphasised the importance of strong stakeholder engagement with this renewal of the Europe 2020 Strategy, including of course from national parliaments.

Work in this area will be supported by pressing forward on the single market and external trade agendas; by restoring normal lending conditions through a fit-for-purpose financial sector; by creating stronger business networks around our Research & Development investments; and by ensuring the supply of skills is aligned with what the market needs.

At the same time, we have to ensure that the European Union is both doing things right, and doing the right things. That is why new steps in the area of Regulatory Fitness are so important: withdrawing unnecessary proposals; simplifying what’s already in place; and repealing what’s out of date. This is an issue to which the European Council will return in June.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) will play a key role in supporting the new wave of investments needed to deepen the economic recovery that is now underway. This €10 billion increase in its capital base – agreed as part of the Compact for Growth and Jobs – will support a 40 percent increase in its lending capacity over the period 2013-2015, bringing annual EIB lending volumes to between €65 and €70 billion.

There were almost €1.2 billion worth of European Investment Bank (EIB) project signatures and loan approvals in Ireland in 2013 – double what was approved two years ago.

I see room for continued – and strengthened – EIB support, including in the area of access to finance for SMEs. This will remain a top priority for us over the coming months – including the establishment of a dedicated initiative to assist with the provision of finance for exporting SMEs, as provided for in Budget 2014.

While creating the right conditions for new job creation across Europe, we must also equip our young people with the skills needed to fill them. It is clear that there is a shared challenge across developed economies in adapting our education and training systems to the 21st century reality.

That is why getting agreement on the key principles of Youth Guarantee schemes ranks among the most important achievements of last year’s Irish Presidency.

We finalized our own initial Youth Guarantee implementation plan in December, and published it at the end of January. This will be a phased roll-out, initially targeting those at greatest risk of long-term unemployment. When fully rolled out, all young people will receive a good-quality offer of employment, continued education, apprenticeship or a traineeship within a period of four months of becoming unemployed or leaving formal education.

We have also set a clear path for returning the economy to full employment through the Medium Term Economic Strategy produced in December.

Over 60 years ago, Robert Schuman recognised that,( and I quote) “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. Rather it will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” The events of the past six years – as much as of the past six decades – surely prove his wisdom and prescience. His early insight remains no less relevant today, and can continue to guide our shared efforts over the months and years ahead.