Wednesday, 31 March 2010
Dáil Éireann Debate
The Taoiseach: I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels last Thursday and Friday, 25 and 26 March. The Council’s formal agenda indicated that discussion would centre on the new European strategy for growth and jobs, and climate change. In the event, and as is often the case with European Councils, the build-up was dominated by a topic not formally envisaged on the agenda. This time, as in February, it was the situation in regard to Greece. On this occasion, the topic was discussed at two levels — first by the Heads of State and Government of the euro area, and then more broadly by the European Council. I propose to brief the House on the discussions first.
The House will recall that on 11 February at an informal meeting of the European Council, we decided that euro area member states were willing to take determined and co-ordinated action, if needed, to safeguard the financial stability in the euro area as a whole. A statement to that effect was adopted. In the days prior to the Spring European Council, there was clearly an expectation that this commitment and preparedness would be fleshed out to some degree. What is at issue is the question and nature of support for Greece, should the need for such support arise.
Members of the House will be aware of the differences of emphasis among some of our partners on matters such as how that support might be organised, the circumstances under which it might be made available, and the role the International Monetary Fund might best play. There were contacts between governments in the build up to last week’s meeting, and on Thursday evening, the Heads of State and Government of the euro area met separately to discuss the situation and try to reach agreement. I am very pleased that it was possible to reach agreement. I have already strongly welcomed the outcome on behalf of Ireland.
The mechanism agreed is first and foremost about safeguarding financial stability in the euro area. That is essential for Europe, for euro area member states, and for Ireland. There are a number of important elements to the agreement. First, we reasserted the necessity that all member states live up to their responsibilities, domestically and to each other, for the economic and financial stability in the area, and that this requires us all to conduct sound national policies in line with agreed rules. In this regard, we made clear too our support for the Greek Government’s actions, including the additional measures it has announced to ensure it meets the 2010 budgetary targets.
We emphasised that what we were agreeing was a contingency arrangement — a last resort measure — to be used only if necessary. The mechanism, if needed, would involve a combination of IMF finance and eurozone finance, with the eurozone contribution being more than 50%. Eurozone support to Greece would take the form of bilateral loans. Any decision to disburse the loans would be taken by the euro area member states unanimously, based on an assessment by the Commission and the ECB. All euro area member states are expected to participate in this collective effort. In that context, I signalled this country’s willingness to play its proper part in this collective effort to protect our currency, should the need arise.
Much of the detailed implementation arrangements remain to be worked out. One important point to note is that the interest rates to be charged would be “non concessional”, that is to say each participating country’s costs will be fully covered. In addition, the euro area Heads of State and Government agreed that we need to strengthen and complement the existing framework for economic co-ordination, and to enhance the area’s capacity to act in a time of crisis. There is now a widely held view that we need to co-ordinate our economic policies more closely so that they are more effective. This is particularly so in times of crisis.
At the same time, a balance must be struck to ensure we do not adversely constrain member states’ room for action as we face varying challenges in what are sometimes quite different circumstances. Bearing that in mind, euro area leaders agreed, in wording that was subsequently adopted by the European Council, to invite the President of the European Council to establish, with the Commission, a task force that would report to the Council on measures to this end before the end of the year.
Before concluding on this item, I would like to stress two important points. First, Greece has not asked for funding. In this regard, I note the positive developments in recent days in terms of the successful Greek bond issuance. However, if it should prove necessary to provide support, the mechanism by which it would be provided is now clear. Second, the agreement balances the solidarity that exists among member states and which lies at the core of the Union, with the requirement that Greece, as with any member state, must meet its obligations and deliver on its commitments.
Turning now to the scheduled business of the European Council itself, much of our discussion focused on the issue of competitiveness, both as a topic in its own right and in the context of the proposed new European strategy for jobs and growth, often referred to as Europe 2020, or EU 2020.
At our informal meeting in February, the President of the European Commission laid out in very persuasive terms the nature of the challenge facing us in coming decades. There are mounting challenges from the developing world, demographic challenges within Europe, considerable budgetary challenges arising from the recent exceptional measures, and the challenge of funding pension and social security systems. We need to begin acting on many of these. In our case, a number of important measures were flagged at the time of the last budget.
My view, which I know is shared by many of my colleagues on the European Council, is that we will have to address a number of these challenges in tandem, either because co-ordination is essential to achieving reform or because it is helpful in the context of partners confronting similar challenges in similar ways, thus avoiding the creation of distortions.
We had a good discussion on the proposed strategy, much of which focused on the five headline targets. These flowed from a proposal by the European Commission in the weeks before the Council meeting. Appropriately, the first target deals with labour force participation rates. The aim is to increase our participation rate to 75% of those aged from 20 to 64 years by 2020. The current rate of participation in Europe is approximately 69%.
We agreed to maintain the target of 3% of GDP being invested annually in research and development. This is consistent with our national target. The 3% figure is a combined figure for public and private investment and compares to an existing figure of just below 2%.
We recommitted ourselves to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% against 1990 levels, increasing the share of renewables in energy consumption to 20% and improving energy efficiency by 20%. These are essential in terms of environmental sustainability, energy security and broader economic development, having regard to Europe’s dependence on external supply of energy. Setting these 20% targets as part of our economic strategy in no way reflects any change in our readiness to move to a 30% reduction in greenhouse gases if others make commensurate commitments.
We agreed to set a target for educational attainment although we have not yet specified a numerical target. Education is a national competence and in some countries it is also a regional competence. More discussion is required before all member states can sign up to any target in this regard.
The fifth and final headline target relates to the reduction of poverty. There is a direct link between jobs and growth and the alleviation of poverty. However, there are diverging views across the Union on how poverty is best measured or benchmarked. We agreed that further work would need to be done, probably at both expert and sectoral Council levels, before we return to this in June.
It remains the intention that the European Council will adopt the new strategy at its next scheduled meeting in June. Before then, member states will be considering national targets and taking account of national contexts and circumstances. This will be done in dialogue with the Commission and will, in turn, feed into discussions at sectoral Councils. These will have a crucial role to play in elaborating and filling in the detail of the strategy.
Member states will then draw up national reform programmes setting out how they are to implement their respective strategies. Our approach will take account of consultation with the social partners, in keeping with the importance of consistency of approach across the economy and society in pursuing shared objectives.
As should be clear, Ireland is very supportive of the overall thrust of the strategy, which echoes our own approach domestically, particularly in terms of the smart economy and the emphasis on innovation. One area that was of particular concern to us in the build-up to last week’s meeting was the need to ensure that sufficient recognition would be accorded in the strategy to the important role agriculture and the food industry should play in Europe’s future growth and job creation. In the documentation circulated in advance, agriculture and the food industry were conspicuous by their absence. In view of this, I, along with a number of other Council members, pressed strongly at the meeting to have this imbalance redressed. We were not seeking any special status for food and agriculture but simply to have its essential role recognised. Agriculture is a primary industry in respect of which Europe has real advantages over its competitors in terms of quality and safety standards. It underpins the food and drinks sector, Ireland’s largest manufacturing sector. We are all aware that global demand for food will grow in the coming years, and it is important that Europe, including Ireland, positions itself to secure a share of that growth and the jobs it will bring.
I am pleased to report to the House that my views were accepted, and the conclusions adopted by the Council on Friday reflect well the role a competitive, productive and sustainable agriculture sector can play in Ireland’s future economic strategy, in addition to the importance of the Common Agricultural Policy.
We also discussed climate change, the aftermath of the Copenhagen conference and the prospects of advancing the international negotiations meaningfully. Europe is implementing a 20% cut unilaterally, and we remain prepared to make that 30% if others are prepared to make comparable efforts. Regrettably, there is little evidence that others are in fact prepared to sign up to the more ambitious arrangements that Europe would like to see. That poses something of a tactical dilemma for Europe in that some of our partners are wondering whether we should drop our level of ambition or continue to press for very ambitious and binding targets. At last week’s meeting, we agreed to press ahead with the provision of fast-start financing within the Copenhagen accord framework, alongside contributions by other key players.
This should be seen in the context of our continued determination to press on towards an effective global solution to climate change. We agreed we needed to strengthen our engagement with others and to make use of all fora, including the G20, to put climate change back on top of the international policy agenda.
All in all, it was a very satisfactory Council meeting from an Irish perspective. We took the necessary decisions to safeguard the euro area’s financial stability and we advanced work towards developing a coherent economic strategy for Europe for the coming decade. Of particular note from an Irish perspective on that front is that we can expect greater priority will be attached to the agriculture and food industries within our overall economic strategy as a result of the discussions we had last week.
Deputy Enda Kenny: The meeting of the European Council on 25 March and 26 March was dominated by the circumstances in Greece. Greece has to borrow €53 billion this year and this debt is expected to rise to €290 billion over time. The Greek Government announced austerity measures and plans for structural reforms on 3 March. Prime Minister Papandreou believes this shows his country’s determination to keep the euro strong and stable. He also stated high borrowing costs would make it difficult for Greece to meet its budgetary goals.
I welcome the statement of solidarity by the European Council on this matter in that, as part of the package involving substantial IMF funding and European financing, which comprises a majority, euro area member states are ready to contribute to the co-ordinated bilateral loans. We discussed this with the Taoiseach during Question Time.
The failure of any eurozone member to meet its obligations would be severely damaging to the single currency. Any financial support given to Greece, if it arises, must be part of a pathway back to financial stability. Therefore, any assistance provided must have a clear plan attached that sets out specific steps to ensure recovery.
I attended the European People’s Party, EPP, summit in Brussels before the European Council meeting. It was attended by several of the Prime Ministers who attended the latter. Very strong support was expressed for Greece. Earlier this month, I accepted responsibility from within the EPP for the area of employment and job protection. The EPP is the largest political group in the European Union and it is determined to take the lead in tackling the jobs crisis. The ministerial group I now chair will enable us to do so in a coherent and co-ordinated way.
I would like to see job creation and protection placed at the top of the agenda. For too long the European Union has been talking about institutions and the need to reform them. It is now time for the politicians to step up to the mark and prove the EU treaty formally adopted and given authority by the Irish electorate works. If the European Union is to be seen to work by its citizens, there must be support for job protection and creation initiatives. When one speaks to various Ministers from the European Union, one notes their problems are very different. Germany does not have enough people to work in health, education or renewables while other countries have different problems. In three months’ time the European Council will formally adopt the main elements of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Member states will set national targets, taking into account their relative starting positions and individual national circumstances. Each member state will draw up its own national reform programme and I look forward to the publication of the Irish document by the Government.
Vital elements of the plan include job creation, improved education levels and reducing poverty. Obviously, Ireland has a poor record in aspects of all three. I look forward to the Government’s publication of employment targets and job creation policies for the future. Just yesterday the Minister for Finance stated that unemployment rates had stabilised, yet the live register figures published by the CSO today reveal that unemployment continues to rise and now stands at 13.4%, the second highest in the eurozone.
The most worrying feature of today’s figures is the evidence that more and more people are moving from short-term job seeker’s benefit to long-term job seeker’s allowance, as their credits run out. Put simply, 88,000 people have moved from the short-term unemployment category into long-term unemployment, which is a severe restriction on them. The social consequences of long-term unemployment are as serious as the economic consequence currently paralysing the country. They lead to loss of hope, destroy communities, cause poverty and serious personal problems for so many.
On the issue of poverty, the 2020 strategy includes a commitment to promote social inclusion, in particular through the reduction of poverty. In the last year, however, the Government abolished the Combat Poverty Agency and 100,000 people now live in consistent poverty. A major commitment in the national action plan on social inclusion aims to reduce the numbers of those experiencing consistent poverty to between 2% and 4% by 2012. However, the EU survey on income and living conditions, released in December 2008, which applied to 2007, indicated that the rate of consistent poverty within the population that year was 5.1%.
The 2020 strategy commits to improving educational levels in particular, by aiming to improve school drop-out levels, and by increasing the share of the population that will complete third level or its equivalent. Taking into account the Commission’s proposals, the European Council will set the numerical rates for these targets in June 2010.
Ireland’s drop-out rates are very high. In 2007 the ESRI said that 14% of students do not complete the leaving certificate while the TUI suggests that as many as one in five drop out before the leaving certificate, which increases to one in three in some parts of Dublin. This is not good enough.
I welcome the inclusion, at the Taoiseach’s request, of agriculture and the future of CAP reform in the Council’s conclusions. This is something we should discuss here in a serious manner and it will provide a great opportunity, if exploited properly.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I want to take up a few points raised by Deputy Kenny, in particular his final point as regards the agriculture and food industry. This is where we have a competitive advantage. We can provide a unique product and during the Celtic tiger years agriculture was often seen to be backstage. However, it is something we need to work on. Ireland has a unique environment for the production of food and drink. Perhaps we need to re-examine how we can market the industry to a greater extent. I always quote the fact that we have just one member of Bord Bia in the United States promoting Irish food and drink.
Allied to that is the commitment at the Council for 3% of GDP to be spent on research and development. Again, because we have few natural resources in Ireland, this is an area that might give us a competitive advantage. We should seek to increase the percentage of GDP that is spent on research and development.
During times of great difficulty one of the most important qualities is pragmatism. I realise that the former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment was berated for promoting the concept of Irish people going abroad armed with a degree or whatever, but Deputy Kenny has mentioned the fact that in Germany there are job opportunities in health, education and the renewables. We have always extolled the virtues of Europe, free movement and how Ireland is European. I believe that in times of difficulty when people are unemployed here, and there are job opportunities in Germany or elsewhere, we have got to put a mechanism or an information centre in place to assist Irish people to get jobs abroad. They are better off being employed in Germany, teaching, than on the dole queues here in Ireland. Hopefully, when the economy turns, as it will although perhaps not as quickly as we would like, these people will have an opportunity to return home.
Allied to that is the difficulty of freedom of movement. This has been emphasised by the difficulties we have seen in the passport office. This is pertinent to the three Ministers in the Chamber at present, namely, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We have to look at the whole are of freedom of movement and signing up to the Schengen Agreement.
These Ministers must work out a formula with their British counterparts as regards how we can have freedom of movement across Europe. It should be one of the great advantages of EU membership, yet we cannot avail of this facility. If we had this facility many people would not have been held to ransom in the manner they were in recent days. We have virtually the same currency, there are no border controls and yet when we go into Europe in the first instance we must provide a passport. The time has come, several years after free movement was introduced in Europe, for Ireland to integrate itself into this. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, must work with his British colleague, the Foreign Secretary, Mr. David Miliband, MP, to try to bring about the political will to remove this barrier to free movement across Europe. It is essential and I cannot overemphasise the importance of having a pragmatic and progressive approach towards Irish people getting jobs in Europe. We were happy to have people here from abroad during the years of the Celtic tiger to help build the economy. Equally, we should be prepared, when there is a downturn, to assist Irish people in setting up elsewhere.
It is very important that the main item on the Council’s agenda was safeguarding financial stability within the eurozone. Ireland’s irresponsible economic policies did not greatly assist such stability over the last ten years. One might say, there but for the grace of Greece go us. We may use Greece as a fall guy, but in its own way Ireland is equally to blame.
The Taoiseach mentioned a task force. Notwithstanding the fact that Greece has not looked for financial assistance but if nonetheless assistance has to be given to a eurozone country in the future, what mechanism will be used to do this from the viewpoint of the member states and the IMF? This is the type of issue that should be discussed here in this House before it is agreed at the General Council meeting.
This equally applies to education. The Taoiseach said it was a question of national competence. Yesterday I met a young fellow from Germany, Nicholas, who said that everyone from his school could speak perfect English. We have to look at developing languages in our schools, including German, French and Spanish. Again, the issue of education competence and agreement on the attainment of a certain level across Europe should be teased out either here in the House or before the Joint Committee on Education and Science to determine what we should be looking for.
Deputy Lucinda Creighton: I welcome the fact that the Heads of Government in the eurozone countries are meeting formally after European Council meetings. This has been necessitated by the economic crisis but hopefully it will become a permanent arrangement, as is envisaged by the Lisbon treaty.
I am aware the Council has initiated excessive deficit procedures against virtually every member state. In 2009 the only two member states to keep their deficits below 3% were Luxembourg and, I believe, Denmark. The sad reality for Ireland is that most of the EU member states will, over the next 12 months, start to position themselves to begin balancing their budgets, and we will not be in a position to do that.
As regards the 2020 strategy, it is right and correct that there is an emphasis on the smart economy, on innovation and the futuristic economic priorities. However, it is important, too, to acknowledge that from a domestic viewpoint — this is replicated in many other member states — a great many of the unemployed have lost jobs in manufacturing. This is due to companies relocating to more competitive environments in Eurasia and elsewhere and to the collapse of the construction industry in Ireland, the UK and in other member states. I am not convinced the 2020 strategy addresses that. There is an immediate employment crisis within the eurozone and the European Union but much of the 2020 strategy is long term and does not address the short-term economic needs of member states. I hope the Taoiseach will take that on board. I welcome the focus he has given to the agri-food sector, which is a step forward, but given that the strategy is to be finalised in June, I hope the immediate needs of low skilled workers will be taken into account and built into the strategy.
I welcome the proposals for the draft regulation on the European citizens’ initiative which were published today. That is an important step. It is important that the European Union is seen to deliver on commitments made to the people, particularly in Ireland given that we held a referendum. Those commitments must be tangible and delivered. The target date for implementation of the regulation is 1 December and I hope the Government will pursue that actively and ensure it moves forward in a speedy fashion.
The European external action service appears to be a bone of contention. There appears to be a failure to agree on certain high level appointments and the structural procedures that must be put in place. Perhaps the Taoiseach or the Minister would address that in the course of this debate. There was a decision of the European Council six years ago that the appointment of the European ambassador to the United States would be a political appointment. Obviously, that appointment was important from our point of view because an Irish man was ultimately appointed. However, it is unacceptable that the Commission proceeded to appoint a successor who is not a political appointment. It is in complete contravention of a political decision taken at the European Council six years ago. Carl Bildt, along with other Foreign Ministers, raised this on a formal basis in the past couple of months and I hope the Irish Government will add its voice to that criticism. It is unacceptable. There is much cynicism and scepticism about how the European Commission operates and this action should not be allowed to pass without comment by the Government.
Deputy Joe Costello: The Council meeting last week was essentially about saving Greece and protecting the euro. While that was not on the agenda, it dominated the meeting. For that reason it was probably a more important summit than we might think. Important principles were involved in the decisions taken, which I believe were the right decisions. Certainly the spectre hanging over the talks from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, with regard to abandoning the euro or requiring some member states of the euro to leave and the International Monetary Fund to be the means of dealing with the financial problem, was not acceptable in terms of solidarity. I was delighted the end result was that all 16 member states of the euro stuck with their member state colleagues and an arrangement was hammered out that will maintain both that collegiality and the integrity of the euro. It was the right decision. Perhaps it should not have come to that but the result was right and fitting.
I raised this matter with the Taoiseach in the Dáil last week. Once this country is engaged in a matter of making financial commitments either at home or abroad, it should be discussed in the House in plenary session. The Taoiseach did make a financial commitment of €248 million in terms of underpinning a loan, if that was required, for the Greek bailout. That is something that is appropriate and pertinent to discussion in the House. When we know there are serious issues on which decisions must be made when the Taoiseach goes to Brussels, they should come up for debate in this House beforehand in order that the Opposition has an opportunity to express its view and that we are made aware whether a financial contribution might be elicited with regard to those forthcoming decisions. Perhaps the Taoiseach will take that on board.
We are happy with the manner in which the Minister for Foreign Affairs appears before the Joint Committee on European Affairs prior to a Council meeting. When he attends the following meeting he reports on what transpired. That is welcome but the real decisions are made by the Taoiseach and where there are substantial matters involving finance, we should be able to examine them. Perhaps something could be done——
There was something a little surreal about the Taoiseach pledging funds to Greece, a case of the Irish bearing gifts to the Greeks, on the one hand and, on the other, discovering the following week the hole that existed in our own financial system. The Celtic tiger had certainly turned into a tragedy; one might call it a Greek tragedy. Anyway, that was an important issue and I hope the first step we have taken is a step in the right direction, although we are not yet out of the woods in this respect.
The 2020 new European strategy for jobs and growth was the other major issue discussed. I have already expressed my disappointment that it is quite a modest strategy. The targets are modest. It is really just an extension of the 2000 strategy, the Lisbon agenda, which was not successfully implemented. I cannot see much new thinking or new strategies to improve on the ten years up to now, during which the European Union was to become the most competitive, dynamic entity in the world. There is no sign of that. If anything, it is struggling. The 3% for research and development was also in place ten years ago. We have not reached it ourselves yet; we are only at 2% and have a long way to go, although we started more slowly. The 2020 targets relating to energy and climate change are what we have already expressed. There is talk about innovation and employment but there are no strategies in that regard at present.
I note that each country has been asked to produce a national reform programme. Who will front the national reform programme Ireland is preparing? What Minister will be in charge? What will be the focus of that programme? Will it be jobs and employment? If it is employment, will that be for the Minister, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation or the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív, at the new Department of Social Protection?
Deputy Joe Costello: Who will be the lead Minister in regard to the national reform programme the European Council has now tasked each member state to adopt? The framework that was discussed at the last Council meeting will be adopted in June, as I understand it. Once that is done, each country must produce its own national reform programme. What will Ireland do in this regard? Will we put the new Minister with responsibility for innovation and enterprise in charge and will his be the lead ministry?
What ministry is in charge of employment? Will employment be the lead area in the 2020 strategy? These are the important issues we need to discuss. It is an area that should be part and parcel of a broader discussion rather than simply being left to a Minister, with something being drawn up by the Civil Service and the Department. We need a broad discussion in the House on this matter, and I would certainly like to see that happen.
With regard to climate change, unfortunately, we made little or no progress at Copenhagen. As the Taoiseach said, it was a great disappointment. There seems to be very little sign of progress at present. Who is the lead person in the EU in this regard? Is it the President of the European Council, who will convene a meeting in September to consider the global issues of climate, or is it the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy? Where is the dividing line? Will they both be involved? Much international negotiation is required if we are to get a global deal. We made a commitment under the Lisbon treaty that climate change would be an area in which the EU would be the world leader. I want to know where we stand in Europe. Who will actually lead in Europe on climate change and what will the direction be?
The European external action service proposals that were made by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have all, as I understand it, been shot down by the Parliament. What was the position of the Council and was this discussed at the Council meeting and at the Commission? Are the Commission and Council ad idem with the Parliament on this matter? There seem to be many perceived flaws in the proposals that were put forward on the external action service. What is Ireland’s position on these matters?
Deputy Michael D. Higgins: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Taoiseach in his contribution stated: “At the same time, of course, there is a balance to be struck to ensure that we do not adversely constrain member states’ room for action as we face varying challenges in sometimes quite different circumstances.” I agree with this comment in response to the position in which Greece found itself. It is very interesting to note how the newspaper comment on the position in Greece ignored the transition in government that took place and, with it, the transition in economic policies in regard to Greece. Prime Minister Papandreou is being advised by Joseph Stiglitz in a particular form of reconstruction of the Greek economy.
Does the Taoiseach agree it is time to introduce to the Council a consideration of transaction taxes at global level? This is in fact the restatement of the case for the Tobin tax. There is no doubt that what was deeply disappointing in the run-in to the Council on which the Taoiseach is reporting was the nearly irresponsible attitude of the German Chancellor, who ignored the significance of the speculative cloud hanging over the Greek currency. In addition, let me place on record the inglorious and disgraceful activity by international institutional forces, such as Goldman Sachs, in facilitating this threat to the Greek currency. These matters are not abstract ones invented by me; they are real. I would welcome the Government taking a strong position of advocacy in regard to a transaction tax.
With regard to the balance between monetary and fiscal policy, it is a matter of first order that, while we have economic and monetary union, we have a set of mechanisms to achieve stability. At the same time, we must bear in mind a breakaway is taking place from all forms of economy internationally, and this is being reflected in different ways in individual economies. This is not just a matter for the G8 and G20, whose thinking sometimes interferes with solidarity thinking within the EU itself. In that sense, there is rightly a huge difference between fiscal policy and monetary policy. While the German Chancellor may favour a treaty amendment that would extend monetary policy to encroach on what is fiscal policy and, therefore, a national responsibility, this would be very dangerous. The reality, of course, is that she may well be swept away and we will be dealing with an entirely new paradigm that will prevail in Europe.
For the first time in the history of the State, we have a Minister with the title of “social protection”. It was one of our not so glorious achievements that during the time of speculative levels of growth sustained by among other things, the property bubble, we had low levels of social protection. We can leave the argument about how that is measured for another day. Nonetheless, however it is measured, the level of social protection was low. Therefore, in regard to the other agendas to which the Taoiseach referred, an issue arises as to how we will achieve social inclusion at a time when 80 million people are unemployed in the European Union.
One of the most important points is to return to the debate about European citizenship, in that European citizenship must not be confined by the experience of unemployment. Member states differ in this regard. If one is unemployed, one should be able to participate fully as a citizen in regard to the public space, public institutions and so on. It also provides the best opportunity of not moving from being a cyclically unemployed person to being a long-term unemployed person.
With regard to the matters raised by Deputy Costello in regard to climate change, while of course Copenhagen was a disappointment, as we prepare for the conference in Mexico, it is important that Ireland takes a lead in building alliances with, for example, the bloc of developing countries in regard to their capacity and the transfer of resources and technology. We must also ensure that the preparations for a European Union position in Mexico will not be confined to the rather dubious relationships of the strong but will include a genuine set of relationships and alliances. In other words, Ireland can be responsible as a member of the common European Union position but it is also uniquely placed to have a very positive constructive position on matters that will affect those most vulnerable to climate change through its development model.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Deputy has raised this issue at various stages. To be frank, the existing position has prevailed for some time and it may be opportune to have a review. I will discuss having a review of the situation with my colleagues in Government, without any commitment either way. Ireland is not a party to Schengen. As it develops with regard to visa arrangements with other countries, particularly with those in the western Balkans, I would be open to writing a review of the options and I will revert to the Deputy.
Deputy Joe Costello: What is the position with regard to the external action service? Will the Minister give the House an indication of both Ireland’s and the European Union’s position on this issue? I asked a question about climate change. Has Ireland determined the line of authority between the new President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy? There seems to be quite an amount of disagreement as to where the line is drawn in terms of functions.
I put my third question to the Taoiseach but the Minister indicated he wished to reply. I asked if there could be a discussion in the House prior to the summit on matters flagged by the Minister as being on the summit agenda which may be of considerable national consequence.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The European Council did not consider the matter of the European External Action Service, EEAS. Substantial work has been carried out in recent weeks on the EEAS. In my view, it is potentially one of the most important innovations of the Lisbon treaty and supports the work of the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton. We had discussions at the informal meeting at Córdoba and at the foreign affairs meeting last Monday week. On 25 March, the High Representative presented her proposals for a Council decision on the organisation and functioning of the EEAS, together with related proposals on budgetary and staff matters. Those proposals followed intensive consultations with the stakeholders, including the member states. The Council will make its decision after consulting the European Parliament and obtaining the consent of the European Commission. The Parliament will have the power of co-decision in regard to the associated budgetary and staffing legislation.
The proposals are complex and will require careful scrutiny and debate in the coming weeks. I look forward to discussing them with my colleagues at the Council meeting on 26 April. This will be a very important decision for the Council with very long-term consequences. I have made the point many times to other Foreign Ministers and colleagues that we are all birds of passage. Whatever one’s personal views, we have to create an edifice that endures and will represent a constructive added value to the European institutional framework. That is our positive approach.
The decision will deal with links between the EEAS and other EU institutions, particularly the Commission, of which the high representative is also vice president, and the European Parliament, which will be consulted regularly by the high representative on the main aspects and basic choices of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The guidelines for the EEAS, endorsed by the European Council, remain a valid basis for considering the high representative’s proposals. These proposals include provision for the staff recruitment process and consequential amendments to the European Union staff regulations. The proposals provide it will comprise officials from relevant departments of the Commission and the Council secretariat, as well as staff seconded from national diplomatic services of member states. Irish candidates will be permitted to compete for positions within the EEAS on an equal footing with those from other member states. We have sought a general expression of interest in working for the EEAS from Irish diplomats. We have been pressing for an open and transparent approach. I can take other questions if the Deputy wishes.
Deputy Micheál Martin: No, there is further work to be done on them. At the meeting, the President of the European Parliament voiced certain reservations about some of the proposals. It is a work in progress. There will be engagement with the Parliament.
Deputy Micheál Martin: This is a different situation, post Lisbon. The Parliament is in a much stronger position because of the Lisbon treaty. I intend to meet with the Members of the European Parliament from Ireland and I suggest the Joint Committee on European Affairs should also do so. We should adopt a national position with regard to how we want the service structured, the size of the service and the nature of its work.
Deputy Joe Costello: I asked who will lead on this issue, considering the number of international discussions that will be needed in order to make progress Will it be the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy or the new President of the European Council? This was discussed in some detail at the Council meeting last week.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Council ultimately decides for Europe with regard to the international relationship. The President of the Council and the President of the Commission are working together on our case with the strategic partners to achieve progress. The high representative is also a member of the Commission as vice president and will be involved in these consultations. The Commissioner for Climate Action made a presentation to the Foreign Affairs Council meeting some weeks’ ago. Discussions were held on the format from Cancun and whether the format agreed in Copenhagen is the best way of endeavouring to achieve international agreement on these issues. After Copenhagen, the Taoiseach was of the view that the modality was not the optimum, to say the least. In our discussions with President Obama there seems to be a general consensus that it would be very difficult to achieve agreement at a large plenary meeting and to deal with the nuts and bolts of negotiations. Cancun will be a platform to advance what was agreed in Copenhagen.
People are looking to the year 2011 for the prospect of an agreement. However, in our view, a smaller group of leaders might be preferable. From the perspective of the European Union, we need the President of the Council, along with President Barroso and the Commission, to represent Europe at these talks. It is preferable to have just enough numbers in the other blocs — not the G20 — but enough numbers to sit around a table to hammer out an agreement. This will not work with 150 to 200 people in a big plenary assembly.
Deputy Costello’s third question was about discussion prior to the summit meeting. I am all in favour of such discussions. This is what happens at the Joint Committee on European Affairs and we do it well there. We are great for saying we should have discussions but I remind Members what happened this morning on the Order of Business. I do not wish to be disparaging in my remarks but the Order of Business is an awful waste of time for about ten, 15 or 20 minutes. Members ask the same old questions and they we give out about Parliament not giving enough time to discussions on Europe. We need to be serious about our business.
Certainly, legitimate issues are raised on the Order of Business but it drags on. Today, we began the European Council agenda at 12.15 p.m. This is a substantive debate about our relationship with Europe. Half the issues raised on the Order of Business are questions yet again on whether the firearms Bill is being published, for instance. We could tighten up the timeframe. We keep on calling for the opportunity to debate but it seems at times a lot of trivia gets in the way of substantial debate. Members may wish to join the Joint Committee on European Affairs in advance of its discussion on the General Affairs Council. It is emerging that the General Affairs Council will be the preparatory forum for the European Council. I am attending that Council and will give it the serious attention it deserves. Not all foreign ministers attend because of the differing structures of their offices but we have been asked and, to be fair, Mr. Van Rompuy is attending the dinners with the General Affairs Council with a view to having an impact on the agenda for the Council. I will consult the Taoiseach on the matter but our current preference is to utilise the Joint Committee on European Affairs in a real way.
Deputy Michael D. Higgins: I ask the Minister whether he has had an opportunity to reflect on the renewed debate on an international transaction tax, also known as the Tobin tax. This issue arose during the preparations for the Council and in the discussion on the response to the Greek issue.
The construction of the phrase “as a final resort” in the communique on the Greek issue is somewhat ambiguous to my mind. It is linked to my first question because the character of the statement emerging from the Council would have a direct effect on the speculative threat posed to the Greek economy and, therefore, the phrase was interpreted as a statement of solidarity from the European Union with German reservations. I will leave aside the role of the International Monetary Fund because our time is limited but the Minister may wish to clarify the issue. The Greek Prime Minister, Mr. Papandreou, wanted a strong formula which would drive off what he regarded as a highly organised speculative threat but discussion then moved towards the possible involvement of the IMF. To put the question as bluntly as a Greek politician would, does the phrase mean that we will not be let fall altogether once the speculative flows have had their whack at the Greek economy or is it a textual use intended to drive off this speculative threat?
I have already asked about such alliances as we may make to prepare for Mexico. In other words, I hope our development experience will not be quenched through the common position. While we should sign up to the common position, we also have the benefit of other alliances in the context of a United Nations led role in establishing a legally binding text.
Will recruitment to the external action service be confined to the diplomatic corps and will it be a house of mandarins? I have great respect for diplomacy and its long list of achievements since the time of Talleyrand but this agency will be responsible for foreign policy rather than diplomacy, which is the application of the foreign policies decided by elected parliaments, and its recruitment process should be both wide and public.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Tobin, or transaction, tax is a proposal we will have to review because it will be on the table for discussion, although whether it ever gets adopted is another question. We have always had reservations on it.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I know from trying to persuade North American companies to invest in Ireland that they hold certain views of the European Union which often determine their decisions. To be fair, however, they prefer consistency in some respects. Prior to becoming President of the European Council, Mr. Van Rompuy expressed to us his view as Belgian Prime Minister of the proposal. The fact that the proposal is likely to arise for discussion means that we have to give it our considered examination before taking a stance on it.
In terms of the Council’s communique on Greece, we should note that country’s success in its recent bond issue, even if the price was quite high. The Council wanted to show its solidarity but, as Deputies will be aware, the difficulties in this respect were well flagged. The Germans in particular had grave concerns about rushing in with a support mechanism. What has been achieved is not only a statement of solidarity, but also a commitment that a loan facility will be available if required. However, the Greek Government has not yet requested any assistance. It is a significant statement in itself that Europe will come to the rescue.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I am not sure of that. Other factors motivated the response in terms of public opinion and electoral issues within Germany. As a politician himself, the Deputy will be cognisant of the various factors that can weigh on the mind of a Government leader when taking a stance on these issues.
Deputy Micheál Martin: To be fair to Germany, it has been a strong supporter of the European Union and it has to lay down markers on the protection or rescue packages it is prepared to put together. There is merit to both sides of the argument and the solution that has been devised is the best that can be achieved in the context of 27 members states with differing perspectives. We supported that solution.
On the climate change issue, we maintain our development perspective that any agreement reached should be strongly weighted in favour of supporting developing countries. We believe the mechanics of the UN negotiated framework need to be investigated. Most participants felt that Copenhagen involved too much plenary articulation and less hard negotiation. Europe has led on this and there is a growing sense of irritation among member states, which I would share to an extent, that the EU has pushed and pushed. I recently met the director general of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, in Geneva. From my observation of trade talks, Europe tends to put its best foot forward and its proposals are pocketed. One wonders are others coming to the table with serious proposals that could result in an international agreement. This applies to trade as much as it does to climate change. Unfortunately, the world cannot wait for climate change in terms of its impact, especially in Africa and other developing nations. Recently in Haiti we saw a natural disaster. That was not related to climate change but nonetheless it took place in a country not effectively developed and if one does not have defences in place and so on, the impact can be horrendous. This is also the case with climate change. The impact is altogether shocking where there is very poor infrastructure and defences. We cannot afford to wait too long.
I refer to another point worth remembering about Copenhagen. Progress was made there and we should not dismiss it too much. In Mexico, the key step will be to consolidate that and move it forward significantly such that the prospects for an agreement in 2011 are real and possible.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I seek a comment from the Minister on four brief issues. I welcome the fact that he is committed to considering the travel arrangement. That is a welcome development and although I do not know how it will work out in the end, it is important. I urge the Minister to consider the issue I raised earlier about the job opportunities in Germany and to which Deputy Kenny referred. I realise there is a concern that the Minister might appear to be exporting our unemployed or those who cannot obtain employment at the moment, but it would be useful to examine the concept of setting up a channel or mechanism to assist Irish people to get jobs in Europe or to explore where there may be opportunities for them. This would represent a very pragmatic approach and one from which we should not shy away.
The Taoiseach referred to Europe and the real advantage Ireland has over our competitors in terms of quality and safety standards in food and drink production. It is very important to return to this area. Is the Minister of the view that his European colleagues are satisfied with regard to the safety and quality of Irish food? I refer to the traditional issue of BSE disease and the pork scare. For example, my understanding is that our market share of beef in Germany was reduced dramatically at the time of the BSE scare and has never recovered. Will the Minister discuss the matter with his colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with a view to renewing our efforts to get back a certain market share of beef in Germany.
The Taoiseach referred to the direct link between jobs, growth and the alleviation of poverty. I refer to a submission by Fr. Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland at the Joint Committee on European Affairs meeting last week. The 2020 document had no overt reference to social exclusion. Will the Minister re-examine the submission made by Social Justice Ireland to try to secure commitments to the alleviation of poverty in that document? I realise the Taoiseach made reference to it and perhaps it has been somewhat amended at this stage. Fr. Healy made a worthwhile contribution at the committee.
The area of education to which I alluded briefly is a national competence. I gather the term used in the speech is the “target for educational attainment”. As a former Minister for Education and Science, the Minister will probably have strong views on this matter and I wish to hear them. I realise every time a politician is here, he or she will say such and such should be on the curriculum. By the same token, I maintain the curriculum is too expansive at this stage to the extent that the basics of literacy and numeracy skills have suffered because there is not sufficient time to place an emphasis on them. These are the most important aspects of early education and they are formed at the most suitable period for the development of language skills for children. This should be examined but at exclusion of what I do not know. However, perhaps with the new agreement between the public sector unions and the Government for longer working hours, this could be fitted in. Does the Minister have a view on this matter?
During Question Time yesterday I raised the matter of the use of Irish passports in Dubai. I do not wish to return to this because it is like the draining of the Shannon, but did it come up at the Council meeting?
Deputy Micheál Martin: In respect of the last question, the answer is “No”. In terms of jobs opportunities Irish people work a great deal throughout Europe. There are many Irish people working in the United Kingdom, Germany, France and all European countries. On this day last week, I was in Paris for a long day at a session involving Irish engineering companies. I refer to one particular company involved in project management which is doing a project with Sanofi Aventis. It is the main design team and there are 50 people employed in Ireland on that project, based in Cork and a further 20 employees on site. Enterprise Ireland works with Irish companies to penetrate markets. It is clear to me that we must pay more attention to Europe which has very strong markets for us. France is the largest market for Irish seafood. Beef has recovered significantly and Europe is now our main market. It is a premium product and commands a high price. Many of the markets we have since broken into and to which we have made representations are not really in a position to buy Irish beef given the price at the moment.
Bord Bia has been working very hard in the European market. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food led a significant trade mission in Italy during St. Patrick’s week. This was directed and organised by the board. There is a very strong focus on the European market because it is a good market. I do not have a specific figure for the German market but I can get the details for the Deputy and send them on. This is the reason we were keen at the European Council to ensure there was a strong reference in the conclusions to agriculture and in particular to food because innovation applies to food as it does to any other sector of the economy in terms of the sustainability of an innovative food industry for the future. We succeeded in securing the reference along with the French and other interested parties. Although I do not wish to overlap with another bureaucracy, as part of a post-Farmleigh initiative I am working on the idea of an overseas graduate programme.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Yes, and that is what we are endeavouring to do as one initiative on that front. FÁS has a link with its European equivalents in terms of job opportunities in other markets in the same way as when we were booming many of those agencies accessed our websites to establish what job opportunities were in Ireland in the various sectors.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I agree 100% with the Deputy. The modern world is different. Some 50 or 60 years ago, emigration was a one way ticket but today it is a two-way ticket. Some 10% of the start-up companies from Enterprise Ireland involve people who have returned from abroad. Travel makes it a smaller world. We are an international global people and we must continue to be. We cannot make enough money in this market. Our companies must go overseas and establish a presence there to penetrate those markets and we must provide solutions to the global world, global business and global industry. This is in such areas as software, the life sciences, project management skills and so on. Many companies under the Enterprise Ireland umbrella are everywhere. We also need an influence overseas. The global Irish network is interesting because one begins to see where Irish people are located and the positions in which they find themselves, the influence they can wield and the advice and guidance they can provide to this and subsequent Governments. I recall the FÁS overseas graduate programme during the 1980s. It is remarkable to see how many of those people progressed in life and how they have helped the country as well as developing their own careers.
I refer to the question on numeracy and literacy education. We are very strong in the area of literacy at primary level. We place third in the OECD analysis of attainment in literacy. We do not place as high in numeracy or maths which is where we must focus more of our efforts, especially at second level in terms of how we structure our approach to maths in particular. However, there are a number of issues in Europe. The German education system is a regional one and the regions are baulking at the idea of a European objective, even though in this Council conclusion it would be a general sort of attainment objective as opposed to any governance issues or anything like that.
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