Ceann Comhairle, Deputies
I am pleased to update the House on what was a very significant meeting of the European Council last week. The main outcomes of the Summit were the nomination of Jean Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, agreement on a strategic agenda for the EU for the coming period and the adoption of strong conclusions on Ukraine. Leaders also agreed Council Conclusions on justice and home affairs, the European Semester, Regulatory Reform, Climate Change and Energy. In addition, Association Agreements were signed with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine and leaders endorsed candidate status for Albania, the EU’s Maritime Security Strategy and the annual report on EU official development assistance.
Before going into more detail on these discussions, however, it is also worth recalling that last Saturday marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event which quickly led to war on a unprecedented scale.
In the words of President Van Rompuy, “a spiral of self-destruction engulfing this continent of civilised nations”. I was proud to represent Ireland at the commemorative ceremony in Ypres which preceded the European Council meeting. It was a solemn occasion and a moment to remember some 35,000 Irishmen who perished in that awful war.
Nomination of Jean Claude Juncker
But as we remember the past, we must also look to the future. This is a critical time of institutional change and renewal for our Union. Just a few weeks ago, we voted to elect 751 members to the European Parliament; 371 of these are first-time MEPs. The new Parliament convened for the first time yesterday, and on 16 July it will vote on the nomination by the European Council of Jean Claude Juncker to be the next President of the European Commission.
I have supported Mr. Juncker since his election as EPP lead candidate in Dublin last March and am delighted that agreement was reached on his nomination. He is a highly experienced and capable politician. He understands that the European Union must remain resolutely focused on growth and jobs, on delivering for our citizens and I am looking forward to working with him.
Of course, I am also acutely conscious of British reservations and I respect their position. Prime Minister Cameron made his position very clear and he, along with Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, voted against the nomination. However, I am aware that Prime Minister Cameron and Mr Juncker have since been in touch to clear the air and that they are both committed to working constructively with one another.
Prime Minister Cameron has also made very clear that he wants the UK to remain within the EU and that his position on this has not changed. The general debate on the EU within the UK is, of course, a issue of significant importance for Ireland. As I have said on many occasions I believe that EU membership is good for the UK, good for the EU and good for Ireland.
Ireland and Britain have a shared agenda in the EU. We have similar core interests in the single market, free trade, financial regulation and justice and home affairs issues. We don’t want to lose a key ally in the Union. We want to keep working together on all of these issues.
Common membership of the EU has also been a force for reconciliation and a framework for cooperation on this island. Working together as partners in the EU has had a very positive effect on Northern Ireland and on Ireland’s relations with the UK, which are now in better shape than at any time in our history. This was evident during President Higgins recent State Visit to the UK.
Even in the context of the positive state of North South and East West relations and irrespective of mitigation strategies a British exit from the EU could have extremely serious consequences.
Our trading relationship today rests on the single market – removing or even shaking this foundation could be very damaging to our economic cooperation. Just consider some of the statistics:
- Our bilateral trading relationship with the UK is worth approximately €60 billion a year. We trade over €1 billion in goods and services every single week.
- Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest trading partner and the UK is the third largest investor in Ireland.
- The UK accounts for 17% of all Irish exports and approximately 19% of all imports.
- Almost 40% of all exports from the agri-food sector in 2013 were destined for the UK.
My Government is acutely aware of the importance of this issue. While ultimately the decision is one for the British people, we will be continuing to press home the benefits of EU membership in Britain as well as in Northern Ireland.
I think it’s fair to say that all of my colleagues are aware of British concerns and sensitivities and this is recognised in the Council Conclusions from last week. This is an area where we will be remaining highly engaged. It is worth noting that the European Council also agreed that it consider again the process for the appointment of the President of the European Commission in the future.
As I mentioned at the outset, Mr. Juncker’s appointment is now scheduled to be confirmed by a vote in the European Parliament on 16 July. He and I have already agreed that, once his election has been confirmed, we will discuss the membership of his new Commission and the portfolio to which Ireland’s Commissioner may be assigned.
As the Members of this House are aware, a number of other key appointments remain to be made this year, including the President of the European Council and the High Representative. President Van Rompuy has invited the European Council to meet again on 16 July to consider these appointments.
Deputies – it would, I believe, send the wrong message to citizens if the European Council had focussed solely on personnel questions. For me the priority last week was not who will get what job, but what needs to be done. What needs to be delivered for European citizens.
With this in mind, Heads of State and Government agreed on five overarching priorities for the period ahead. These cover growth, jobs and competitiveness; empowering and protecting citizens, energy, justice and Home Affairs and the Union as a strong global actor.
These five priorities will guide the work of the Union over the next five years.
First and foremost, our Strategic Agenda reflects an unambiguous commitment to strengthening the economic recovery. There is clearly more that can and must be done to respond to unacceptably high levels of unemployment. This will mean restoring normal lending conditions through a fit-for-purpose financial sector; maintaining strong momentum on the Single Market and external trade agendas; creating a climate of entrepreneurship and addressing investment bottlenecks more generally, including in the crucial areas of transport, energy and telecom infrastructure. We have to prepare our economies for the future.
I welcome, in particular, the explicit acknowledgement of the important role of the European Investment Bank (EIB) in the strategic agenda. There has already been a significant increase in EIB support to Ireland over the past couple of years, and we see potential for further development of the project pipeline over the period ahead, including in the crucial area of financing the SMEs that will create most new jobs.
I am particularly pleased that, at Ireland’s request, the strategic agenda also highlights the importance of thriving agriculture as a core part of Europe’s future. Our own Harvest 2020 plan is, of course, central to indigenous jobs growth.
Deputies – ultimately our Union is about its people. It is important that the strategic agenda recognises the need to ensure opportunities for all and to challenge poverty and social exclusion. We need to pay particular attention to supporting the development of the skills and capabilities needed to respond to the accelerated pace of change in today’s labour markets.
With a quarter of employers across Europe saying they find it hard to fill vacancies, there is a shared challenge in adapting our education and training systems to 21st century reality. I expect that this work will continue to be informed by the key principles of Youth Guarantee schemes agreed under the Irish Presidency early last year, including through new partnerships with the workplace. It will also of course build from our commitment to a stronger investment outlook.
The need for an energy union, for secure, affordable and green energy is also recognised as a priority as is work on justice and home affairs issues. It is also important that the new agenda not inward looking. This would send wrong message. The EU is important global player. We need to promote stability, prosperity and democracy in our neighbourhood and work with our global partners. The Union has important role in human rights and conflict prevention as well as development and this was a point which we emphasised in the preparation of the document.
On Friday morning in Brussels, Heads of State and Government heard from the Ukrainian President Petroshenko who provided his assessment of the current situation in the east of the country. The European Council expressed its strong support for the 15-point peace
plan which the President had announced the previous week. Leaders regretted that the ceasefire, while it had been respected by the Ukrainian authorities, had not yet led to an end of military hostilities in eastern Ukraine, and called upon all parties to genuinely commit to the implementation of the peace plan.
The Heads of State and Government also urged the Russian Federation to actively use its influence over the illegally armed groups and to stop the flow of weapons and militants across the border, in order to achieve rapid and tangible results in de-escalation. The European Council called for a number of concrete steps to be taken, including agreement on a verification mechanism for the ceasefire, return to the Ukrainian authorities of three border checkpoints, the release of hostages and the launch of substantial negotiations on the implementation of the peace plan.
There has been further contact with the Presidents of Ukraine and Russia over the weekend and we are now engaged with our EU partners in assessing the extent to which there has been progress on these steps. The EU Heads of State and Government are scheduled to meet again on 16 July. The situation in Ukraine will feature on the agenda of that meeting and we will discuss what further decisions might be necessary.
The stabilisation of Ukraine’s economy is of crucial importance. In its Conclusions, the European Council welcomed the two recent significant Commission disbursements totalling €750 million in the framework of the State Building Contract and the Macro Financial Assistance. The EU will continue to support President Poroshenko’s determined actions towards peace and stability in Ukraine that we have seen since his inauguration.
Justice and Home Affairs: New Strategic Guidelines
The European Council finalised and adopted the Strategic Guidelines for legislative and operational cooperation in Justice and Home Affairs in the coming years. The Guidelines, developed over the past year, are far less prescriptive than the previous programmes and this should provide the flexibility to rapidly react to emerging trends.
The overall priority of the new guidelines is to consolidate and implement the legal instruments and policy measures already in place. We fully support this emphasis. It is important that there are periods when you reflect on what has been done already and on what tools are available to you. This allows you to consider if you are using them correctly and to maximum effect.
Of course, along with others, we also stressed that the Guidelines should be flexible enough to allow for further legislative measures when necessary and when additional costs are justifiable.
Overall, the Guidelines represent a balanced approach for the years ahead, which cover all the necessary elements for a Union of Freedom, Security and Justice. This includes the policy areas of asylum, migration, border control, police and judicial cooperation and Criminal and Civil law. The Guidelines also address important horizontal issues such as data protection and free movement.
The European Semester 2014
Finally, I would draw attention to the fact that this European Council concluded the European Semester process for 2014. Heads of State and Government endorsed Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) to the Member States. These will now be taken forward by through the budget and policy cycles across the Union in the coming months. As I indicated to the House last week, we see the CSRs for Ireland as broadly sensible, and consistent with established policy orientations.
Last year marked our return to net employment growth for the first time since 2007. This year will see a return to net employment growth for the EU as a whole. The CSR package agreed last week, underpinned by the strong focus on investment in our Strategic Agenda, will reinforce the momentum for this recovery into 2015 and beyond.
We have also set in this context a high level of ambition for the Commission’s REFIT (Regulatory Fitness) programme: withdrawing unnecessary proposals, improving what’s already in place, and repealing what’s out of date. This is an important political emphasis that also has my full support.
Deputies, I hope that this has given you a good overview of the main focus of leader’s discussions last week.
I have also asked Minister Donohoe to update the House on the Climate and Energy discussion and other aspects of the meeting.