Statement by the Taoiseach on the Meeting of the European Council
Brussels, 26 – 27 June 2014
Dáil Éireann, 25 June 2014
I am pleased to have the opportunity, as usual, to outline my expectations to this chamber ahead of the European Council taking place tomorrow and Friday.
However, this will not be a “business as usual” Council. Not only because of what we will discuss - and we have a number of very important items on the agenda. But because of what we will remember. Prior to our opening session, my colleagues and I will gather in Ypres for a solemn ceremony at the Menin Gate to mark 100 years since the start of the First World War. It will be a moment to remember all those who were lost in that terrible war- including approximately 35,000 Irish men.
It will also be a moment to remember all that the European Union has achieved on our once bitterly divided continent. I will be honoured to represent Ireland at the ceremony and to reflect on both the past and the future with the twenty seven other Heads of State and Government in our Union. As we grapple with the challenges of the future, we must not forget the dangers of the past.
The first session of the European Council will take place following the ceremony tomorrow evening. President van Rompuy has made clear that he wants leaders to focus at that session on agreeing a strategic agenda for the EU for the coming five years. This will be a key focus for me at this Council.
The following day, and having considered our substantive priorities, I expect that we will nominate a candidate to be the next European Commission President. As I have already publicly made clear, I expect the nominee to be the candidate of the European People’s Party, Jean Claude Juncker.
But the agenda for this exceptionally full meeting does not stop there. On Friday we will also:
· Sign Association Agreements with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova and approve the granting of candidate status to Albania;
· Adopt new strategic guidelines on justice and home affairs;
· Complete the European Semester 2014 by endorsing the Country-Specific Recommendations;
· Review progress in relation to the Climate and Energy Framework to 2030;
· Endorse the adoption by Lithuania of the euro from 1 January 2015;
· And endorse documents on the Maritime Security Strategy and Overseas Development Assistance.
Nomination of new Commission President
I appreciate, of course, that there is an understandably high level of interest in the process of nominating a new Commission President and that this has attracted considerable international media coverage.
At our Informal Summit on 27 May, my colleagues and I gave President van Rompuy a mandate to undertake consultations on the nomination. These have been ongoing and the President will report back at this meeting. As I have stated, my firm expectation then is that Jean Claude Juncker will be confirmed as that nominee and will go on to be endorsed as President of the new European Commission by the European Parliament.
I am, of course, acutely aware of the reservations that some Member States, most notably our partners in the UK, have expressed regarding the nomination process. We must all display an understanding of, and interest in the sensitivities and relations that some countries find themselves in for a variety of reasons.
However, I am confident that Mr. Juncker has both the qualities and experience required for the job. I believe that he is committed to delivering on our strategic priorities, to strengthening economic recovery and working to boost employment across the Union. I endorsed his election as EPP lead candidate in Dublin in March and I will continue to support his nomination at the European Council.
EU Strategic Priorities
There is a danger that at this time of change the Union could get caught up in institutional processes and personnel questions. This must be avoided. The challenge is to focus on the real substance – the issues which matter for the people of Europe and to set a clear strategic agenda for the period ahead. This will be my priority at the European Council. Quite frankly we have to respond to the political message sent by voters across the continent in the European elections – to take the initiative and show clear leadership.
There is no mystery about what our headline messages must and will be. Jobs and growth remain vital for the future the Union. We need to drive forward those areas which can make a real difference in sustaining the recovery. In doing so, we must also strive to combat poverty and social exclusion. In fighting unemployment in all parts of the Union, we have to ensure that we get education and training right, and that young people are given the skills they need for the modern and digital economy.
Completing the single market, especially the digital single market, remains a core priority for me. Ensuring that our businesses, and in particular the SME sector, can access financing and operate in a supportive environment with the right conditions is essential. The opportunities offered by growth in trade are understood by all, and we must continue to progress key trade negotiations, in particular with the US. Energy security is another vital area which is essential for growth and which the Ukraine crisis has thrown into the spotlight.
We live in a complex and globalised world. The EU has a unique role to play as a global actor in an often unstable environment. In focusing on economic growth, we must also ensure that we are not inward facing. The EU must enhance its efforts to shape our external environment in a direction conducive to spreading international peace, security and prosperity.
JHA Strategic Guidelines
Let me turn now to the new strategic guidelines on justice and home affairs, which are to be considered by leaders on Friday.
The process of developing the strategic guidelines started when Justice and Home Affairs Ministers discussed the future of JHA at the Informal Council in Vilnius a year ago. Since then the issue has been the subject of intensive work. In March of this year, Vice President Reding and Commissioner Malmstrom issued their respective communications setting out what they believed should be contained in the new guidelines.
Broadly speaking, there has been little disagreement among Member States. Most have emphasised that, following the development of an extensive legal framework over the past 15 years, the priority now should be a period of evaluation and consolidation. As such the new Guidelines should focus primarily on ensuring optimal implementation of the existing legal architecture. At the same time, Ireland and others have stressed that the Guidelines should be flexible enough to allow for further legislative measures where there is clear and objective evidence that these are necessary and that any additional costs are justifiable.
A number of such issues have been highlighted including trafficking in human beings, people smuggling, cybercrime, radicalisation and foreign fighters. These are challenges which the Union cannot address alone. The guidelines reflect this, calling for improved links between the EU’s internal and external policies.
It is also worth noting that the guidelines to be adopted are less prescriptive than earlier programmes. This should allow the Commission and the Justice and Home Affairs Council more flexibility over the next five years.
Finally on this topic it is also expected that there will also be some discussion on horizontal issues such as data protection and free movement. We are actively participating in the data protection reform package which remains under negotiation at the moment. The European Council is likely to highlight the importance of these discussions. I expect that Heads of State and Government will also affirm free movement as one of the fundamental freedoms of the Union, while also noting that possible abuse should be sensibly tackled.
The European Semester
Let me move on now to the European Semester. The 2014 process will be concluded on Friday when the European Council endorses the Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) to the Member States. Ireland is of course a full participant in this year’s arrangements. Deputies will be well aware of the process from the good engagement which has taken place at Committee level.
The European Semester process brings together the different strands of the EU’s stronger post-crisis economic governance arrangements. The key focus is on development and implementation of jointly agreed measures to support growth and jobs. We agree priorities at EU level, and we apply them at national level.
The Commission presented its CSR package on 2 June. These were informed by Member State submission and by the 17 in-depth reviews (IDRs) already produced in March under the Macroeconomic Imbalances Procedure: one for each of the 16 Member States identified in the Alert Mechanism Report as being at risk for such imbalances; and one for Ireland following our exit in December from the EU/IMF programme.
Following presentation by the Commission, the CSRs are settled within the Council on a ‘comply or explain’ basis.
This means the Commission’s proposal stands unless a qualified majority of Member States support an amendment. The Commission can also of course agree sensible changes to its own proposals.
Last week’s meeting of Employment Ministers on 19 June settled the CSRs relating to employment and social policies. Finance Ministers on 20 June settled the CSRs on budgetary and economic policies. The General Affairs Council yesterday then approved an integrated set of final CSRs for endorsement by Heads of State and Government at this week’s European Council. These will in turn be reflected in a final Council Recommendation adopted by Finance Ministers in early July.
There are seven CSRs for Ireland. These address further measures in the following areas:
· restoring balance to the public finances, including through the adjustment to be agreed in October that will bring the headline budget deficit below 3% of GDP in 2015;
· improving the cost-effectiveness of healthcare spending in line with the ‘Future Health’ reform programme adopted in 2012;
· strengthening our Active Labour Market Policies consistent with the work being taken forward by INTREO and SOLAS under Pathways to Work;
· developing in this context a more robust response to the particular challenges associated with inter-generational transmission of poverty through what are described as ‘low work intensity’ households;
· streamlining our supports for SMEs and entrepreneurship, with a particular focus on access to finance, in line with the direction set under the Action Plan for Jobs;
· completing the work underway to deal with the post-crisis legacy of non-performing loans in the financial sector; and
· pressing ahead on legal services reform, including through the Legal Services Regulation Bill that we are committed to enacting this year.
It is clear that the overall emphasis here sits well with policy orientations we have already firmly established at national level, particularly through the Medium Term Economic Strategy (MTES), the Action Plan for Jobs, and Pathways to Work.
There were some minor technical and drafting issues we raised with the Commission. They were in turn happy to agree suitable amendments through the work of the Committees that prepared last week’s meetings of Employment and Finance Ministers.
That is why we see these CSRs as broadly sensible policy orientations. They point in the same direction we have set for ourselves. That is also what we should expect from the European Semester process: shared analysis supporting shared conclusions.
As part of its consideration of the European Semester, the June European Council will also agree further steps in the area of Regulatory Fitness (REFIT). Essentially this means striking a better balance between the legitimate goals of EU regulation on the one hand, and the administrative burdens it can impose on the other, particularly for the SMEs that will create most new employment. President Barroso spoke about this in last year’s State of the Union address when he spoke about the EU needing to be ‘big on big things and small on smaller things’.
Discussion on Friday will be informed by a new Communication from the Commission on REFIT. This sets out welcome progress in the three key areas of withdrawing unnecessary proposals, simplifying what’s already in place, and repealing what’s out of date. The Commission has also produced an important scoreboard that will bring transparency to ongoing monitoring of progress.
I will continue to support a high level of ambition for the REFIT programme, consistent with a stronger overall emphasis on improving the business environment for the job creating sectors.
Climate and Energy
The European Council will also take stock of the progress being made towards the final decisions to be made in October on the new climate and energy framework for 2030. A lot of work still needs to be done to address the issues which have been raised by Member States in the discussions to date. Ireland faces a most serious challenge in meeting targets for 2020. The challenge will be more serious for 2030. This matter will be the focus of serious discussion and negotiations in order to make it possible for future governments to be able to reach realistic targets by 2030.
Ireland is working closely with the Commission to reach a common understanding of the issues facing us in the transition to a low-carbon economy, including the issue of emissions due to our specific agricultural profile. This has already been acknowledged to be of particular importance to Ireland at the last European Council.
The focus of this Council’s discussions in this area, however, will be on energy security. I have asked Minister Donohoe to say a few words on this and on the external relations focus of the European Council in his statement.
Let me conclude at this point. I will, of course, report to the House as usual after the European Council.