Wednesday, 9 April 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Taoiseach: I attended the spring meeting of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, 13 and 14 March, accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern. This year’s spring European Council meeting marked a critical juncture in the evolution of the European Union. Our agenda clearly showed the need for the Union to be able to act effectively on the international stage. I am pleased to report that our discussions demonstrated the Union’s commitment to lead on global issues.
The Union has a major leadership role to play on the major global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, and to ensure that we do so for the betterment of our citizens and the wider world. Managing economic growth and creating jobs, tackling climate change, ensuring food and energy security and maintaining stable financial markets are complex and interwoven issues. To respond successfully to these challenges requires the Union to act in a cohesive, efficient and effective way.
The importance of these issues to Europe and to the world shows exactly why we have, and why we need, the European Union. A more effective Europe is good for Ireland, for Europe and for the world. This is why the Lisbon reform treaty is so important.
Our discussions at the spring Council meeting began with an address by the President of the European Parliament, Professor Hans-Gert Pöttering, and a valuable exchange of views with him on the key items on the Council’s agenda. He also emphasised the importance of the Lisbon treaty. I am delighted that President Pöttering was able to visit us here this week, demonstrating once again that links with the European Parliament are both important and real. I met with him on Monday last and I also very much appreciated his address to the Seanad yesterday morning.
The first working session of the European Council was devoted to the Lisbon strategy for jobs and growth and with a particular focus on energy and climate change. At the outset of our discussion, President Barroso of the European Commission outlined his views on the new three-year cycle of the Lisbon strategy and on the Commission’s package of proposals on climate change and energy security. The Lisbon strategy’s new three-year cycle will build on the progress already made over the period 2005-08. I welcome the fact that there is continuity, with the integrated guidelines agreed in 2005 being maintained. Furthermore, the new cycle reaffirms the key priority areas agreed in 2006. These include investing in people and modernising labour markets; unlocking business potential, especially within SMEs; investing in knowledge and innovation; and energy and climate change. All of these are fully in line with our own priorities and objectives set out in the programme for government and Towards 2016. They are also consistent with the institutional and investment frameworks that we have put in place, including the national development plan.
The Council fully recognises that challenges remain. We cannot afford to be complacent, particularly in the current global economic climate. Our ability to meet these challenges depends on maintaining the modernisation and reform momentum that the Lisbon strategy is providing and will continue to provide over the next three years.
The Council also discussed the recent turmoil in the financial markets. Europe has not been impacted to the same degree as financial institutions in the United States. Nonetheless, we agreed that there is no room for complacency. The Council’s conclusions reflect a shared view on the need for the Union’s financial stability framework to be more robust, more transparent, with better valuation standards, and improved levels of communication and co-operation between regulators.
While the WTO was not a formal item on our agenda, I took the opportunity to emphasise to my colleagues that we had to avoid signing up to an unbalanced deal that unnecessarily damaged EU-wide food production. In the main, our discussions were dominated by energy and climate change. Secretary General and High Representative Javier Solana presented a report on the security implications of climate change that he had prepared jointly with the European Commission. He highlighted the potential security issues, but also the humanitarian implications and the very real threats to already vulnerable and conflict prone states.
The overall message of his report is clear: the impact of climate change on international security is not a future concern, it is a reality today. The EU has a vital international leadership role to play but it cannot succeed on its own. All global players must participate, both developed countries and some of the more advanced developing countries. The issues are complex and interlinked and have implications for the EU and its relations with the rest of the world.
At the 2007 spring Council, we agreed ambitious but achievable targets on energy and climate change. Ireland supported the goals and principles, including commitment to a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020, and support for a 30% target, as part of a comprehensive international agreement. Given the importance and context of the Bali roadmap agreed last December, we proposed that the negotiations on the Commission’s recent package should be advanced during 2008 in order that the Union maintains its global leadership on this issue.
We now have a credible framework for those negotiations. The Council agreed that, over the coming months, we will work out the detail of how we will do this in a way that is clear and demonstrably fair and allows sufficient flexibility. I underlined Ireland’s commitment to playing its full part in Europe’s response to climate change. The Commission’s package will be very challenging for Ireland and implementing the level of emission reductions required has serious economic and social implications, but there will be opportunities for us as well and we must be prepared to seek these out.
The Council is very aware of that, in setting a course towards a low-carbon economy, one of the key challenges is to do so in a way that is consistent with other EU priority policies, in particular, sustainable development, food security and economic and social cohesion. In addition, account must be taken of particular concerns such as carbon leakage in various sectors, including agriculture. I am satisfied that the conclusions take account of these issues.
We also discussed the issue of energy, including external energy security. Clearly, it is in the Union’s interests to create a stable, secure and predictable environment for investors in energy production and transmission. An effective, interconnected internal energy market will help with security of supply, improve competition which will impact on electricity prices and facilitate an increased contribution by renewables. In my intervention, I emphasised the need to support coherent research and development and innovation policies. The Union needs to accelerate the development and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficient technologies. I underlined the potential opportunities that the renewable sector can provide in creating jobs and growth, not least in rural areas.
At the dinner of the Heads of State and Government, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel presented their outline for a union of the Mediterranean, which was approved. We agreed that the European Commission should bring forward more detailed proposals in due course.
To conclude, this year’s spring meeting of the European Council was successful with significant outcomes. We agreed that we should build on the progress made to date on the Lisbon strategy and continue to focus on jobs and growth, including in the social dimensions. The Council recognised fully that, in transforming to a low carbon economy, we must ensure coherence between interlinked policy objectives, including sustainability, food and energy security and economic and social cohesion. We are fully committed to the European Union leading globally on climate change and to working towards an international agreement on a shared global response. Having set ambitious climate change targets last year, we have now agreed a credible basis for working out how they are to be achieved in a way that is demonstrably fair, efficient, clear and sufficiently flexible.
The European Council was also a success in that it demonstrated that member states can work together constructively to share the challenge and opportunities ahead for the betterment of all our citizens. I believe strongly that the European institutions should be closer to the citizen. The Council shows the relevance of the European Union and underlines the importance to all of us that we have a union that is better connected to its citizens and better able to lead on the broader international stage.
I would like to conclude by mentioning that, during the summit, Chancellor Merkel and President Barroso told me that they were looking forward to their visits here next week. Chancellor Merkel will make a bilateral visit on Monday next when she and I will have discussions on the EU agenda. The Chancellor will also address the National Forum on Europe. President Barroso will visit Ireland on 17 and 18 April. His extensive programme will cover Dublin and Cork. In addition to bilateral meetings, he will have a number of speaking engagements, including the National Forum on Europe and University College Cork. I should mention that President Ilves of Estonia will also make a state visit to Ireland. I very much welcome this and am looking forward to his visit.
The number and stature of our European visitors this and next week is testament to our sharing in Europe and our standing as a country in Europe. It is an honour for me to welcome to our shores the presidents of both the Commission and the European Parliament and leading representatives of member states, new and old, large and small. These visits illustrate the growing interconnections between all of our countries so neatly evidenced by the discussions at the spring European Council, on which I have just reported. In conclusion, it is a good time to be Irish and it is a great time to be an Irish European.
Deputy Enda Kenny: As we are discussing what has turned out to be the Taoiseach’s last European Council meeting, I wish to pay him tribute for his work at such meetings over the years, particularly during the Irish Presidency, a significant achievement. I will discuss this later.
I welcome that the Government has determined the date for the Lisbon EU reform treaty referendum, one of the most crucial decisions faced by the people in a long time given its ramifications for Europe. At meetings across the country, I have made the point that, in explaining the treaty and in giving people as much information as possible so that they have full understanding when they vote, it is a privilege and responsibility for them to do so in the knowledge that their decisions will have an impact on the future direction and flexibility of the institutions of Europe, which deals with a population of 500 million as distinct from 250 million when there were just 15 member states.
I was glad to speak yesterday to the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, who made a substantial contribution to the Seanad. It will be followed by next weekend’s visit by as many of the European People’s Party’s leaders as are available. Chancellor Merkel will meet the EPP and the Taoiseach on Monday. It is important for people to understand that these visits by President Pöttering, Chancellor Merkel, President Barroso and others are not a matter of campaigning on the EU reform treaty. Rather, their visits comprise a statement of Europe’s interest in this country and of how important Ireland is in that context.
The issues discussed at the last Council meeting are of importance, namely, immigration, the changing demographic figures of Europe — falling birth rates compared to elsewhere — and the implications for pensions, jobs and employment opportunities in the years ahead. The Council decided and commented on matters such as food and energy security and recognised that, by 2020, there will be millions of “environmental migrants” due to the impact of climate change. I agree with the Council’s decision on the targets for climate change, about which Ireland must become serious. We will not reach the targets by changing light bulbs. Rather, we will need a real drive in terms of public authorities, the State and the Government showing leadership before the average person will decide to play his or her part.
We must return to the issue of the difficulties emanating from the Middle East peace process, which is the root cause behind there being so much support for terrorism spreading out from the Middle East. I respect the right of Israel to self-defence, but clarity of statement from the European Council — that there be full negotiation and restraint in such areas — is necessary. One cannot have uncontrolled terrorist activity irrespective of from which quarter it comes. Our country is an example of having concluded agreement after 30 years of terrorist activity from a number of quarters. The European Council needs to revert to this issue on a regular basis.
I am not sure that I agree with the concept of a union of the Mediterranean tabled by President Sarkozy. If too much emphasis is placed on it, people could ask for a union of the Baltic countries, for example. Given the scale of the challenge facing the EU, we must be able to demonstrate that what worked as an initial concept at the Treaty of Rome onwards will apply in the new eastern member states. Given that the economic growth rates of the Czech Republic and Poland equal those of the Far East, one can understand that there is phenomenal potential within the Union’s borders for all types of economic development and, consequently, social and personal job development.
Europe must be vigilant about the effect of the credit crunch in America, which is by no means over. Some commentators in the United States claim that the recession could continue for two years or three years and that there are unknown serious threats coming down the line. While Europe has not been directly affected by events in the US, the issue concerns us all, including the Government.
The comments of the Council and the decisions taken address Europe’s main issues of the day, namely, climate change, security of energy and food, economics and future job prospects. In this context, the Taoiseach has represented Ireland ably and well and I commend him for his work over the years at European Council meetings.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I join my party leader in congratulating the Taoiseach on his excellent work overseas on Ireland’s behalf and on the standing he has achieved in Europe, which has been to this country’s benefit in recent years. I also congratulate him on raising the issue pertaining to the WTO. He realises the Irish beef industry considers itself to be under threat and it is important to outline the possible implications were the trade agreements to go down the line that Mr. Mandelson has been seeking to pursue.
I wish to take up some issues that were mentioned in the Taoiseach’s speech. On the issue of climate change, I note there is a commitment to a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020. While this sounds admirable, one should consider how this is to be done and what might be the possible economic implications. I believe that Ireland often signs up to such grandiose concepts that have failed in the past at EU level. While it is politically popular to do so, are they achievable and, if so, what costs must Ireland pay? In addition to making such statements, one should consider their possible implications. I make this point in the context of the importance of the European Union being able to act as a global entity. As China consumes half the world’s cement, where, as Deputy Kenny mentioned, does turning off a single light bulb in Ireland fit into the overall scheme of things? The entire world, not simply various sections of it, must buy into this concept.
As for China, which I am aware is the responsibility of the Minster for Foreign Affairs rather than the Taoiseach, I agree with his policy thus far of not boycotting the Olympics. I do not believe that sport and politics should mix. An argument can be made that perhaps politicians should stay away from the opening ceremony. However, I am unsure as that might be a meaningless exercise. Diplomatic mechanisms are available and at some point the Minister should outline the response he has received from the Chinese in respect of his representations to the Chinese Embassy expressing his concern about the treatment of Tibetans and the riots that took place in Lhasa. I note that in 2006, Ireland exported approximately €876 million worth of items to China while in 2007 this had increased to €1.27 billion, mainly in the area of chemicals and computers. In 2006, Ireland imported from China €4.4 billion worth of produce, which increased in 2007 to €4.7 billion and consisted in the main of machinery and transport.
As for making a stand on the issue of human rights, I believe we must voice our concern, but if we are to so do, we should make a hard political decision and should not use athletes or the Olympic Games. Sport always has been a unifying force and should not be used as a force that will cause division. Many means are available to us to make known our displeasure.
The leader of Fine Gael mentioned the issue of the Middle East. It is important to put on the record once again Fine Gael’s policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict. This issue causes as much division in Ireland as it does in the Middle East and, like many arguments, the extremes on both sides are those which come to light. Fine Gael’s policy is based on four clear pillars. First, there should be a two-state solution. Second, there should be a return to pre-1967 borders unless amended by agreement between the two parties. Third, there must be an agreed solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees who fled or left their homes in 1948 or 1967. Fourth, Israel should cease settlement activities and should dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001.
To achieve this, all Palestinians must cease all acts of violence and commit to peace. Fine Gael also recognises Israel’s right to protect its citizens from attack but in so doing it should act within international law. Fine Gael believes the EU should establish a special trade agreement with Israel and Palestine to assist in the economic development of the area. I am aware of the Hamas tactic of using children as shields and that it often considers the propaganda benefit of the death of children to be of greater importance than their safety. However, punishing an entire population is not the solution. The Middle East question always will present strong and emotive responses. There is a responsibility on the conflicting parties to put in place the conditions to allow a final solution. Often when Fine Gael issues statements of this nature, it does not approach matters in a balanced manner but on the basis of whether something is right or wrong.
It is important to use this opportunity to mention Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe is talking of a recount or a run-off of the election although the election results are not yet known. I note that yesterday approximately 60 farmers, both white and black, were evicted from their farms in Zimbabwe. It is important that the Minister uses every diplomatic channel open to him, including through the Southern African Development Community and by making contact with the Irish ambassador in Pretoria, to get a message to President Mbeki of South Africa that what is taking place is completely unacceptable.
One element of the Lisbon treaty that I welcome is the proposed High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This will facilitate an approach with one voice because there often is a disjointed view. While I acknowledge that agreeing foreign policy among 27 nations can be difficult, it is important for the European Union to be able to speak with one voice on such issues. Events in Zimbabwe are disgraceful.
While making this point, I am conscious it is a case of Pakistan yesterday, Kenya tomorrow and Zimbabwe the day after, and one can become weary of ritual condemnation. Nevertheless, one must continue to persevere and I believe that diplomacy is the way forward. Neither telling an athlete to throw off his or her jersey nor throwing petrol or water on a torch constitute the way forward. I am given to understand that the Dalai Lama will visit London in May. Perhaps the Minister will consider issuing an invitation to him to visit Ireland, if possible. While I am unaware of the mechanisms involved and the Minister’s view in this regard, such a measure often has a more positive impact than would the adoption of a negative approach.
I will revert to the Taoiseach’s speech. He mentioned key priorities regarding the three-year Lisbon Agenda cycle and spoke of investing in people and modernising labour markets. At the outset of the Celtic tiger period, people always spoke of our educated workforce, our access to Europe and our ability to speak English. However, many countries, particularly China and India, have replicated this. I ask the Taoiseach, his successor and the Minister for Education and Science, to examine Ireland’s language deficit. The primary education curriculum must be examined with a view to placing an emphasis on language at an early learning stage when children are most amenable to learning foreign languages.
Deputy Joe Costello: I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the European Union’s summit meeting on 13 and 14 March 2008. In common with Deputies Kenny and Timmins, I compliment the Taoiseach, as it almost certainly was his last European Union summit meeting, at least in his capacity of Taoiseach, on his good work over the years. He has been quite involved in the European Union, as shown by his work on the constitutional treaty in the lead-up to 2004 when Ireland held the Presidency, as well as to the enlargement at that time arising from the accession of eastern European countries in particular, which was a smooth transition considering many of the difficulties that lay therein. I compliment him on his good work in that respect and wish him well in the future.
As the Taoiseach noted, Chancellor Merkel and President Barroso will honour us with visits next week and they certainly will be welcome. Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering visited Ireland this week and his diplomacy and presentations were impressive. However, we have not had the same benefit of response from Commissioner Kovács or from the French finance Minister in respect of their ill-thought out and ill-timed statements on tax harmonisation and the common consolidated corporation tax base. The Government should make it clear to the Commission in no uncertain terms that some of the remarks of this nature are most unwelcome and inappropriate at this time. I expected France to have more sense, considering its recent experience on the constitutional treaty, than to make a statement of that nature. Every country has a veto on changes to domestic tax regimes. I hope the Minister makes that clear to the appropriate French authorities and President Sarkozy should be remonstrated with.
The summit dealt with three areas in particular. I do not intend to discuss these areas in detail but the new three year cycle of the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs is particularly important, as is the energy and climate package. The stability of financial markets was also discussed. The presentation to the summit looked very bright. Virtually everything leading up to 2008 was positive and the assessment was quite up-beat. Public deficits in the 27 member states have reduced by more than half since 2005, public debt declined by over 60% and economic growth increased by 2.9% in 2007. In the past two years, 6.5 million jobs have been created. Unfortunately, while these are welcome figures, there has been a sharp economic slowdown globally since the end of 2007 fuelled by higher food and energy prices and the turbulence in the US economy and financial markets resulting from the sub-prime collapse. Ireland’s unemployment figures have increased to more than 200,000, the sharpest rise in a decade, and our construction industry has virtually collapsed. All is not well within the European community and while the past looks good, the future is not as bright. I was glad, therefore, that the summit leaders concentrated on the new Lisbon strategy for 2008 to 2010 and emphasised the social dimension and education. I welcome the strong commitment made in the Lisbon treaty on integrating the social clause on full employment and coherence in economic structures. That will be difficult to achieve in the present global environment, especially in Ireland given that our unemployment rate has increased from 4.4% to more than 5% in a very short space of time.
It is important that we pay heed to the message coming from Europe on social cohesion and the integration of the social dimension with the internal market. That will be done in the context of the forthcoming social partnership talks. For a considerable period of time, the EU has had to face the vexed question of balancing workers’ rights and conditions of employment against the free movement of capital and establishment. We now have an opportunity to address that question, which has arisen in respect of Irish Ferries, the Laval case, the Viking case and most recently in the Rüffert case in Germany. It is important that we have the freedoms of the European Union in terms of free movement of labour, capital and services, but we must also ensure that people count most. Where a conflict arises, the rights and conditions of employees should be strongest. While there may be difficulties on occasion in determining this at European level there should be no difficulties at national level. That is why the proposed legislation on compliance in the workplace and an enhanced inspectorate is very welcome. We have waited a long time for it and during the construction industry’s good times it was almost impossible to find an inspector.
We must also go a step further by ensuring temporary, agency and permanent workers from other countries are not manipulated or exploited in ways that force them into a race to the bottom with their Irish counterparts. Governments and employers must not be allowed to use the EU principles of free movement of workers and capital to undercut the wage levels negotiated by the trade union movement and agreed to by the social partnership. The appropriate forum for addressing this issue, which has repeatedly arisen in the context of the debate on the Lisbon reform treaty, is at the national level. In the upcoming talks with the trade union movement, I hope the Government will accept the importance of the principle of equal treatment of all workers in this country. One of the first acts taken by the trade movement after our accession to the EEC was to bring a court action before the European Court of Justice in 1974 to seek equal pay for women. It is time that we are proactive in taking on board the Lisbon strategy proposals made at the March summit on putting in place a social dimension that protects the rights of workers. Rights such as equal pay, working time, minimum wages, health and safety and parental rights have been given to us through Europe but our Government should now stand up to vindicate the rights of workers.
The issue of flexicurity has to be written into our national reform programme before the end of the year, so I presume it will be addressed by the social partners. The same principles apply because the last thing we need is all flexibility and no security. If the proper balance is achieved, it will be desirable for employees to have both security and flexibility.
The other area that was emphasised strongly in the Lisbon strategy for the next three years is that of education and research, where we are seriously behind. There is a 3% increase in research and development investment targets for the European Union but Ireland is nowhere near that figure at approximately 1.3%. We are way out of kilter. The United States, China and India and other major global economies are sprinting ahead whereas Ireland has been very lax in this area. However, Ireland will have little choice but to show to the European Union how it will meet those targets and in its national reform programme it must set out its method of achieving them. I welcome this requirement because we have been totally lax in making any progress in this area.
Third level institutions are crying out for more funding. They cannot undertake the research and development they would wish, yet the Minister constantly refuses to provide funding, leaving them to complain they are the worst funded third level institutions virtually anywhere in the world. The roll-out of broadband has been ridiculously slow. At the teachers conference, the Minister for Education and Science claimed she did not have funds to provide computers in schools, yet one of the targets at this summit was that all schools should have computers by 2010, which is a commitment entered into by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach. There is not a chance we will have useful computers. Some deadweight, non-functioning computers were provided over the years but many schools do not have any modern computers. We are supposed to have good quality, high speed Internet activity in all our schools but we are way behind in this regard also.
The summit raised some desirable issues which we must address in terms of the economy, employment and the way forward for the Lisbon strategy. I hope the Government will meet its targets for 2008 to 2010. An area I did not address is that of climate change, on which I also hope the Government will meet its targets.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I wish to reiterate some of the issues raised during Question Time. With regard to the Olympic Games in China, I am sure the Minister is coming under pressure from some sources and I hope he will hold the line as he has done. We should issue an invitation to the Dalai Lama to visit Ireland. When he visits London in May, I understand he will meet the British Prime Minister. Is a visit here an option?
Have we taken measures unilaterally or through the European Union with respect to the situation in Zimbabwe? If the Minister has not done so, will he instruct his ambassador and his channels in the EU to express grave concern at what is happening in Zimbabwe?
Minister for Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dermot Ahern): I thank the Deputies for their remarks. I take this opportunity to say a few words about the Taoiseach and his involvement at European Council meetings for the past 11 years. I have been with him on each occasion for the past four years. Suffice to say he was held in great affection and gave great support to all his colleagues. It was often a private joke between us that he was, in effect, the elder statesman of the European Council. I saw for myself the benefit of person-to-person contacts, and no better person than he in this regard. If there was ever a crisis or a big issue, he was always the one they looked to to try to assist in negotiating out of an issue. While Ireland may not have been specifically involved in the issue or did not have an interest, the Taoiseach was always heavily involved in the discussions.
I want to put on record my personal thoughts in this regard. Quite apart from all of his constituency work and national work, the incredible amount of work the Taoiseach did on the European stage is often not understood by the wider public. The European Council will be a different place for his going.
With regard to Deputy Timmins’ question on the Olympics, the situation in Tibet is very difficult. Two years ago when the Darfur issue was very much on the agenda, I indicated to my colleagues that the closer we got the Olympics, the more difficult an issue participation in the games would become, and that we needed to discuss the issue in order to adopt an attitude on a bilateral basis with China but also with regard to an EU-China position. It is fair to say that people recognise that if it is not Darfur, it is something else, whether Burma or Tibet. We did not realise at the time that the Tibetan issue would come to the fore as much as it has.
I thank Deputy Timmins for the view he takes on my personal stand. I was asked for my personal opinion of a boycott. I have always been a strong believer that one should keep politics out of sport. No more than anyone else of my age who has lived through Olympic Games and other major sporting events, I have seen how politics has intervened to a certain extent. At the end of the day, however, it does not further the situation other than by making a protest. When the games are long over, we will have to sit down with these people in a much more concentrated and long-term way.
Leaving aside the fact that our own athletes would not thank us for using the Olympics to make a political point, I do not believe a boycott of the games would be appropriate because, when they are over, we will have to sit down again with the Chinese on a bilateral basis, in an EU-China context and in the UN arena. We will have to deal with them not just on this issue, but on a myriad of issues that affect the world, including the issue of climate change, about which the EU obviously has something to say, namely, that China must get its act together on this issue. Quite apart from the issue of human rights and the difficulties in certain parts of China, it is very important we engage with the Chinese on a constant basis.
People make the point that this has something to do with economics. That is not the case. We have been very forceful in this regard but we must also accept that China has come a long way. We used to raise all sorts of issues with regard to the one-child policy in China. It was easy for us to do that in the context of populations that are on a downward trend, particularly in the rest of the Western world, whereas in China there is a very significant increase in population. Aside from the issue of sport and looking at matters from a sporting perspective, it would not be good to use the Olympics to make a political point.
There is also the issue of whether Ireland should participate in the opening ceremony. First, we have not been invited by the Chinese to participate. I understand that the Prime Ministers of some other countries have been directly invited because their Prime Minister, President or whoever has been in China or the Chinese have been there. These ad hoc invitations to certain Prime Ministers were personal invitations to a certain extent. We have not received a direct invitation.
The only member of Government to receive an invitation is the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Brennan, and his invitation is from the Olympic Council of Ireland. Obviously it is up to him to decide whether he will go. I understand he will make a decision based on the advice he will receive from my Department and, if necessary, from Government in regard to a boycott of the ceremony. A number of our EU colleagues have indicated whether they are going; some are going but others are not while others still are undecided. To a certain extent it may be very much a pyrrhic move in that later on we will have to meet on a bilateral basis with the Chinese. No decision has been taken in that respect.
It is not a significant issue but there is no doubt that we have to very strongly condemn what has happened. Anyone who read the recent statement by the Dalai Lama could not disagree with a word he said. He is asking for an autonomous, not independent, Tibet. He is clearly not asking for a boycott of the Olympic Games. It was wrong of the President of China to recently suggest that the Dalai Lama was in some way exhorting violence. From everything we have picked up, that is not the case.
It is not appropriate for the Government to invite the Dalai Lama because he is not a Head of State, he is a religious leader. Similarly, the Government cannot invite the Pope to Ireland; this invitation must come from the bishops and the clergy. It has never been the case that Governments have invited religious leaders to Ireland. Obviously, if the Dalai Lama came to Ireland he would receive the normal courtesies and, if necessary, meetings that would be given to any religious leader coming here. The Dalai Lama was on the island of Ireland — in our country as it were — a number of months ago. I was due to go to Derry to meet him but, unfortunately, on the occasion I was out of the country so the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, met him.
We are very worried about Zimbabwe. There is no doubt that the situation is going from bad to worse. The fact that we are not getting full information regarding the election very much raises the question of whether the count was free and fair. Going on the facts we have, it is clear that the democratic will of the people of Zimbabwe is not being adhered to. I was personally disappointed, as were most of my colleagues in Europe, that we were not allowed to send EU observers to these elections. Many Deputies in this House, particularly Deputy Barry Andrews, exhorted me to send observers there. Unfortunately, if one does not have an invitation from the host government, it is impractical to send in observers because, in effect, one is sending them into a situation where they could be very much in danger and where they would not get access.
We worked with our colleagues in SADEC and other countries that might have some influence with the Zimbabweans to ensure that there was some monitoring of the vote. That happened to a certain extent and observers were reasonably happy that people were allowed to vote reasonably freely. The question arises in regard to the counting of votes. We instructed our ambassador to South Africa, who is also accredited to Zimbabwe, to be present there during the election period. He sent us constant reports on what was happening on the ground. That was part of an effort by the EU to have at least some presence on the ground to which the Zimbabwean Government could not object. We are examining this issue closely and putting as much pressure, separately and collectively, on the Zimbabwean Government and, through the Government, on the electoral commission to issue the results as quickly as possible.
Deputy Joe Costello: I will be very quick. I have three questions. The first question relates to the issue I raised at the start of my contribution. Given that the Lisbon treaty was on the agenda I would have thought it would have been made clear to the other Heads of State the manner in which Ireland was conducting its business in terms of ratification, considering that we are the only country that is engaged in a referendum. That is why I am particularly surprised that we had the inappropriate remarks from the French Minister for Finance and from the Commissioner for Competition in recent days. Tax harmonisation and a consolidated tax base are a red herring because they are not matters for those individuals to deal with in the manner in which they claim to be doing. However, it gives an injection of credibility to the eurosceptic side because people in that camp have said that something of this nature might be going on.  The Minister expressed concern in this regard in yesterday’s newspaper. What steps does he propose to take to ensure that our concern and disappointment in this regard are brought to the appropriate authorities and to ensure that there will not be a recurrence of this for the next two months?
My second question relates to climate change. We will experience the highest reduction targets of all of the 27 European Union countries because of the manner of calculation employed. I understand that the Taoiseach raised with the Commission and with the other leaders questions about the assessment of Ireland’s targets. Will the Minister indicate whether the Taoiseach has had any success in that matter? What is the attitude of the Government in terms of whether it now proposes to continue buying carbon credits or whether it intends to put the emphasis in a more proactive fashion on research and development, sustainable energy, bio-fuels, wave and wind energy etc.?
My last question relates to research and development. We are very far behind in terms of investment in research and development. By the end of this year we are supposed to clearly lay out how we are to reach the 3% target set for the European Union. What will the Government do about this? Nothing whatsoever has been done so far, even though it has been flagged on numerous occasions by the Commission that Ireland is hugely in arrears in regard to its investment in this respect.
Deputy Dermot Ahern: The referendum was not on the agenda of the meeting because the ratification process is ongoing. A number of countries — I believe the figure is six — have ratified the treaty and a further ten will ratify it by the end of May. There were some discussions on the margins of the meeting and, to the best of my recollection, the Taoiseach intervened in an off-the-cuff manner to inform colleagues around the table how the referendum was proceeding.
On the question of the type of statements and comments which will be made over the next two months, we must be careful in this regard because people are entitled to make statements. We cannot muzzle anyone, nor would it be appropriate to suggest that people should be careful in making comments. Nevertheless, statements should be factual and the statement by the French Minister for Finance was off the wall. She was speaking from a position of some ignorance in that changes to taxation are catered for in the reform treaty. Our veto regarding taxation, alongside defence and the prohibition on participation in a common defence policy or military alliance, one of our red lines, will continue. As the Taoiseach noted on the Order of Business, the French Minister for Finance can pursue this issue for many a decade but she will not get anywhere because Ireland will use its veto. If the French wish to do something else with like-minded countries, that is their business but Ireland and a number of other member states on the same wavelength as us will not participate.
It is important to state the position in blunt terms. I do not envisage that the proposal made by the French Minister for Finance will run. The Commission and most member states are under no illusion about the Irish position regarding the referendum process. Issuing statements that are factually incorrect or making proposals that are clearly not a runner reflects more on the person who makes them than on anything else.
On climate change, the Government has established a group to advise the Cabinet committee on climate change and energy security. Discussions are ongoing at EU level on the details of proposals to tackle climate change. At this point, it is not possible to assess the costs which will be associated with the measures. However, it is not the case, as some have argued, that the impact of the proposed changes will be purely negative. The measures will encourage a rapid increase in renewable energy production and research. I have observed both in my constituency and in terms of cross-Border activity an incredible amount of commercial activity building up in the area of renewable energy. We should not view this issue from a purely negative perspective or argue that the burden is too onerous. While there will be difficulties in meeting the tough criteria and conditions, major advantages and opportunities will spring up for new business. We should see this as an opportunity.
On the Lisbon target for research and development, Ireland increased its investment in this area from 1.32% of GNP in 2000 to 1.56% of GNP in 2006 and we estimate the figure will increase to 1.9% by 2010. We are well on our way to achieving our target of investing 2.5% of GNP in research and development by 2013. While we started from a relatively low base, the Government has placed great emphasis on and heavily invested in research and development.
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