On behalf of the Government I extend a very warm welcome to President Schulz, president of the European Parliament, who is joining us on the occasion of his visit to Ireland.
It is an honour and a pleasure to receive you here in Dáil Eireann.
As all in this House are well aware, next year Ireland will be taking up the role of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union - for the 7th time - and we will also celebrate the 40th anniversary of Ireland’s joining what was then the European Economic Community. As Presidency, we will do our utmost to advance the work of the Council.
This visit and today's address to this House by President Schulz, represent essential preparatory steps in forging the relationships which will be essential to Ireland delivering a successful Presidency. In the same vein, I travelled yesterday with the Tánaiste and a number of Government colleagues to Brussels to meet with President Barroso and the College of Commissioners, and we discussed our preparations for the Presidency at some length as well as the current issues facing Europe. In the afternoon, I met with President Van Rompuy and held discussions ahead of what will be a very busy period for the European Council with three meetings coming in the next eleven weeks.
Developments since 2004 Presidency
Since the last Irish presidency in 2004 there has been huge change within our Union. During our Presidency that year, ten new Member States joined the union. Their accession represented, in many ways, the reunification of a Europe divided since the Second World War, and enriched our Union enormously. Since then two more have joined, and now we are about to become a circle of 28, with the Union soon to embrace Croatia.
The Lisbon Treaty has been signed, ratified and came into force 3 years ago. This has strengthened several aspects of European integration and has greatly extended the co-legislator role of the European Parliament, making it an indispensible partner for Council, and therefore for all Presidencies. One of our most important preparatory tasks for the Presidency and one which we have prioritised, is to establish good working relations with the European Parliament. Minister Creighton will elaborate on this aspect later.
After a decade of European growth and prosperity, from which Ireland had particularly benefited, the economic crisis hit in 2008 and 2009. Mistakes were made in this economy, and in the wider European and global systems. Tackling its enduring effects is of major importance on the national and European level as well. The Government has no greater priority than driving the economic recovery needed to provide the growth and jobs that our people – and people across Europe - need.
The crisis has revealed the depth of interdependence between Member States and the weaknesses in our shared economic governance. A series of decisions have been put on the agenda to improve economic governance on a European level. Some we have taken and implemented and more will follow. We need to work hard and work together to get the EU and all Member States back on track.
As I have said many times, Ireland will do everything it can to secure its economic recovery, but we cannot do it on our own.
We are an integral part of the euro area. We are an export driven economy. We need a strong and stable currency, and neighbours with growing economies and money to spend.
For us to recover, Europe needs to move beyond crisis. We are, I believe, getting there.
In June the European Council took another substantial step towards getting to grips with Europe’s problems. It adopted a ‘Compact for Growth and Jobs’ with an ambitious programme of work to be driven forward at national and European level. It includes measures with the potential to make a difference in the immediate future, boosting the European Investment Bank’s capacity to lend. It also contains steps that will support growth and job creation in the medium to long term, including deepening the single market, especially in the digital area. Making real headway on this will be a priority for us as Presidency next year.
We adopted a Euro Summit Statement which committed us to severing the toxic link between banking and sovereign debt. I had long argued to colleagues that this was an indispensible step. We now need to see it implemented urgently. A first priority is putting the arrangements in place to allow the European Stability Mechanism to have the capacity to recapitalise banks directly, taking the strain off sovereigns. For this to happen, we need to see a Single Supervisory Mechanism for banks put in place.
The Commission made a legislative proposal in this regard some weeks ago, and it is very important that we meet the target we have set ourselves of seeing it established by the end of this year, although clearly this is a ambitious timetable.
Of course, the June agreement also contained a commitment to Ireland to work with us to make our banking-related debt more sustainable. We are in intensive discussions with our European partners and with the Troika to ensure that this commitment is delivered upon, and that we can secure the best possible deal.
Finally, in June we set a process in train that will lead to a deeper and more stable Economic and Monetary Union. The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, is currently consulting colleagues on the steps that need to be taken and will report back to us when we meet later this month before finalising his work by the end of the year.
The recent announcement by the ECB that, in the right conditions, it will step in to buy the bonds of Member States that are in difficulties in the markets has had a positive impact, lowering yields and providing some breathing space.
We cannot afford to let this opportunity pass. European leaders have made commitments – they have said what they are going to do. There is a legitimate expectation – among our people and in the markets – that we will now deliver. I will continue to press the case for urgency whenever I meet colleagues, whether one-to-one or in more formal meetings.
Ireland wants a prosperous and secure Union and a strong and stable currency. That is in Ireland’s interests. It is in Europe’s interests. The Government and I will be working hard to contribute as much as we can towards achieving those ends when we assume the Presidency in January.
Multiannual Financial Framework
One of the Union’s strengths should of course be its ability to take a longer-term view, without the day-to-day developments of the economic crisis distracting us from the importance of the Union’s long-term planning. Member States are now negotiating the Multiannual Financial Framework (the MFF) for the EU’s Budget from 2014 to 2020, setting the parameters of the Union’s spending to the end of this decade.
President Van Rompuy intends that we should reach an agreement at a special meeting of the European Council on 22-23 November. Negotiations are complex, as befits the importance of the issue, but I am confident that we can reach agreement in November. We will strive for a budget with the right mix of priorities and a fair allocation of resources.
The European Parliament of course has an absolutely key role. Firstly, the assent of the Parliament is needed to the overall deal. The Parliament has also fed in their views to the discussions within the Council and between the institutions, and has been keenly involved as the process develops.
Secondly, there is a large package of sectoral legislation underpinning the MFF. This will need to be agreed with the Parliament under co-decision. Much of the management of the this legislation as far as the Council is concerned, will fall to the Irish Presidency in the first half of 2013, so we look forward to working closely and in a spirit of cooperation with the Parliament on this.
Europe 2020 and European Semester
The agreement on the European budget is a crucial factor in delivering the targets set in the Europe 2020 Strategy: in the areas of employment, R&D, energy and climate change, education, and social inclusion.
The Strategy contains the goals that the EU and Member States should reach by the end of this decade. In 2010 the European Semester process was launched to help governments overview the immediate tasks ahead and evaluate the results of our policies aimed at reaching the Europe 2020 goals.
As the Union’s annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy coordination, the Semester is clearly growing in importance. Our key focus is on the development and implementation of jointly agreed priorities. Effective management of the third European Semester will be an important element of next year’s Irish Presidency. We look forward to working closely with the Cypriot Presidency on settling the roadmap for the third Semester cycle.
The economic crisis presented however not only an economic and financial challenge but also a political one, the so-called democratic deficit of the European integration process. As a consequence of the economic crisis, governments have changed in several Member States. Anti-European voices
and parties have also gained strength. Too often, the language in which Europe is spoken of every day centres on words like ‘troika’, ‘bailout’, or ‘crisis’. Our Union, a coming together of countries to pursue shared goals on behalf of our citizens, risks being seen as an external entity imposing harsh measures. We have a duty to work to ensure that this does not come to pass. I wish to acknowledge and to salute the tremendous and consistent work of President Schulz in that effort.
Fortunately, we can count some positive examples, too, which showcase the understanding of the benefits and added value of European cooperation especially in times of crisis. The recent referendum on the Stability Treaty here in Ireland illustrated that people can engage in the complexities of EU business and are able to come to balanced views on proposals, none of which can ever be entirely in line with the wishes of one or other Member State.
I believe that the Lisbon Treaty made an important contribution to strengthening the democratic accountability of the European institutions through the strengthening of the European Parliament. But allowing for those positives, we are all aware of the risk that too many of the public feel remote from the decisions and decision makers which affect their lives.
2013 will mark the European Year of Citizens and the Irish Presidency will use that opportunity to try to engage in wider discussion on the democratic accountability of the EU and how to bring the EU closer to its citizens. I know that very many Members of the European Parliament are engaged in similar efforts.
I have listed several tasks that lie ahead and will need the cooperation of the Irish Presidency and the European Parliament. I will have the honour of addressing the European Parliament in January when I will set out the Presidency programme to the Members.
President Schulz, I look forward to our cooperation next year. You have my assurance of the Irish Government’s determination to work closely and collaboratively with the Parliament.