I should like to thank all the participants in today’s Europe Day Dáil sitting. The involvement of so many members of the Oireachtas shows their commitment to Europe, and the participation of Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn and the Irish MEPs is a reminder of the contribution that Irish people make to the European Union every day.
This commitment and contribution is of course not for just one day a year. Our engagement with Europe is a constant one. But the need for engagement is now greater than ever.
This morning the Taoiseach expressed his concern that the recent course of events has taken the "shine" off Europe for the Irish people. Very often, in seeking to address this issue, we say that we must "communicate more" with our citizens on EU issues. I would be the first to agree.
However, we should consider carefully the nature and quality of this communication. It should not simply be a provision of information on EU policies, although that is important. It should also keep sight of what Europe is and what it stands for.
Too often, it seems to me, we forget why the European Union was created, and why we joined it.
The Union of today has evolved and adapted to contemporary circumstances, but the Coal and Steel Community, and then the EEC, were created to ensure that never again would Europe be destroyed by war.
This was simple message of Robert Schuman in the declaration made 61 years ago that we recall and celebrate today.
This year too marks the fiftieth anniversary of the submission by Ireland of its application to join what was then the European Economic Community. In 1961 Seán Lemass clearly expressed that Ireland’s application to join was driven by vision, rather than materialism. He wrote: “My Government fully share the ideals which inspired the parties to the Treaty and accept the aims of the Community as set out therein, as well as the action proposed to achieve those aims”.
Even prior to this some far sighted politicians attempted to act on their interests in the European project. In 1957 John A Costello proposed a fact-finding committee to educate TDs and senators on the difference between the EEC and the European Free Trade area and the benefits for Ireland of joining the EEC
Today, our Europe is built on strong foundations of shared values and common purpose, rooted in freedom and democracy.
We have every right to celebrate the power of these ideas. The Berlin Wall could not withstand their force and they provided the basis on which our divided continent was reunited willingly and peacefully. Who here can forget the 1st May 2004 when we welcomed our new partners from Central and Eastern Europe into the Union?
Today, the European Union continues to offer hope of a better future to the millions of our fellow Europeans and, through the enlargement process, strengthens the stability of our continent and advances its prosperity.
We in Ireland since our accession in 1973 have experienced the transformative power of the European Union which not only brought us from poverty to relative wealth – yes, even today in the midst of crisis we remain among the richest nations on this planet - but also helped to radically alter the historically difficult relationship between Ireland and our closest neighbour. That step-change in the Anglo-Irish relationship was a major contribution to the negotiating environment which culminated in the Good Friday agreement. I am glad to recall on Europe Day the part that the Union and its ideals played in the process of delivering peace on this island, and the very practical support for the agreement that the PEACE programmes of the EU have given.
Role of Oireachtas
Our communication of Europe also needs to involve a meaningful and open examination on why EU policies are being proposed and how they are implemented. These policies after all affect the daily lives of each and every one of us, from switching on a light bulb to buying food in the supermarket that is safe to eat. As representatives of the Irish people, the members of the Dáil and Seanad and our national MEPs have a pivotal part to play in this.
That is why the Government has laid great emphasis on ensuring that the voice of the Oireachtas is heard in the scrutiny of EU business.
The Programme for Government sets out specific commitments about the role of Oireachtas Committees, including a greater role for sectoral committees in examining proposals that are relevant to them.
We have also already delivered on our commitment that the Taoiseach should brief the Oireachtas before each European Council to enable proper debate on EU issues of national significance.
I remind you that we are now empowered by the EU Treaties in this regard. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the Oireachtas is now entitled to receive all draft legislative acts at the same time as the EU institutions and the Irish Government. Furthermore, the Lisbon Treaty has accorded new powers to national parliaments in order to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the Union.
At EU level, it is a fact that the voices of our MEPs have never been stronger. The extension of the European Parliament’s legislative role to a wider range of EU policies has ensured that the Parliament has significantly more muscle in representing the views of EU citizens.
We introduced these measures in the Lisbon Treaty to ensure that decisions at EU level are taken as closely as possible to the citizens of the Union. The elected representatives of the people - Deputies, Senators and MEPs - are the closest point of contact between the EU and Irish citizens. This gives each and every one of us here today the opportunity - and indeed the responsibility - to engage to the greatest degree possible with EU policies and legislation. We can and must ensure that the views and concerns of our constituents are given voice.
At the same time, every Deputy and Senator has the responsibility to engage with the people of Ireland to ensure that they have a clear understanding of the Union and its role in the people’s lives.
Europe 2020 Strategy
This Government is beginning a 5-year mandate. The current Commission and European Parliament have a similar term. But some of the trends and changes in the world today- in demography or in the major shifts in global trade and investment patterns, for example- take place over a longer time span. To address the implications of these changes, for Ireland and for the EU, requires longer-range planning than that of the political cycle.
In today’s debate in this House we have been looking ahead to where Europe will be in 2020. EU Heads of State and Government undertook a not dissimilar task during the course of last year, and agreed in June 2010 on the new Europe 2020 Strategy, which we have discussed in the course of this debate. That Strategy is forward-looking and based on a thorough analysis of what the EU and its member States need to do to ensure over time a Europe that is stronger, both internally and at the international level. That would be a Europe that, having weathered the world economic and financial crisis, could turn to medium to longer-term reforms that promote growth and employment.
One of the key features of the Europe 2020 Strategy is its sharp focus on just five EU headline areas - employment; research and development, including innovation; climate change and energy; education; and social inclusion, in particular poverty.
Ten days ago, Ireland, along with each other Member States, submitted our National Reform Programmes under this Strategy. Our Programme identifies ambitious national targets in each of the five headline areas and sets out the measures necessary to achieve these targets.
The Government is committed to structural reforms to increase competitiveness, to support enterprise, to remove barriers and disincentives to employment and to generate sustainable economic growth across all regions. As part of this, the Minister of Finance will set out the Government’s jobs initiative later this week.
But commitments are not enough. What matters now is implementation and action. We have the building blocks in place. We must now follow through, so as to improve further our competitiveness, to foster employment, to contribute to the sustainability of our finances and to reinforce our financial stability. It is crucial that we meet our demanding national targets under the Europe 2020 Strategy over the decade ahead, as part of our return to sustainable jobs and growth.
Ireland’s ambition is to become a leader in innovation. Our goal is to develop an innovation-driven economy that maintains competitive advantage and increases productivity. We have seen during this recession that those companies which invested in research, development and innovation have held or increased market share and employment.
It is clear that innovation is also a key issue for the future prosperity of the entire European Union. As we seek to continually improve the effectiveness of our research and innovation systems, we should learn from each other.
That is why it is so appropriate and welcome that Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science joined us today. Her Directorate-General is tasked with the achievement of the European Research Area and the creation of a genuine single market for knowledge, research and innovation.
The Government attaches great importance to the completion of the European Research Area by 2014 and the creation of a genuine single market for knowledge, research and innovation, which is an integral part of the Innovation Union Flagship Initiative of the Europe 2020 Strategy.
I would like to thank Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn for the enthusiasm and drive she has brought to her wide and crucial portfolio. I am sure that our collaboration with her and her Directorate-General will intensify and be even more productive. The EU Framework Programmes have long been the main element in the internationalisation of Irish research and technological development. We have in recent years had a stronger base for our participation in these Programmes, through the increased national investment in research, both publicly and in the private sector.
While there is a broad public awareness of funding from the EU for agriculture or, till recently, for roads and infrastructure, there is less consciousness of the extent to which Ireland already benefits from EU research and development funding, or the extent of our participation in the current seventh Framework Programme which has a budget of over €50 billion covering the 2007-2013 period. So far Ireland has secured €269 million of which €17 million has been awarded to the SME sector. This funding is helping to put Ireland at the forefront of international scientific endeavour in areas such as clinical trials to develop drugs to assist kidney transplant patients, to give just one example. Irish researchers are actively contributing their ideas to the design of the next strategic framework programme and a national submission will be made later this month. I cannot stress enough how important this is for the development of our economy and our future prosperity. The potential of some of the resources available to us was highlighted in the Commissioner’s interesting speech at the Marine Institute in Galway a year ago. She pointed then to the significant additional land mass this country has when one counts the extension out on to the Continental Shelf. Issues around wind and tidal energy, biodiversity and marine sensors and information, all come together in a sector ripe for intensified research attention at EU and national level.
Of relevance to us also are the developments at EU level around key areas of the digital economy. Our ambition is to create a Digital Single Market by 2015, including the promotion and protection of creativity, the development of e-commerce and the availability of public sector information. The Digital Agenda Scoreboard is expected from the Commission later this month, in preparation of the first Digital Agenda Assembly which will take place on 16-17 June 2011 and will bring together Member States, EU institutions, citizens representatives and industry, and which will assess progress and the emerging challenges of the Information Society.
Addressing negative perceptions of Ireland
We’ve heard a good deal in recent months of a negative perception of Ireland in Europe. The Taoiseach spoke of his sadness that the ‘shine’ had come off Ireland, and indeed it is unsettling to hear that some see the Irish as fair-weather Europeans.
I strongly believe that this is inaccurate. But perceptions matter, and indeed that is a key motivation for this Government in its work on building up contacts with other member states and EU institutions.
It is important to reflect on and learn from past missteps. We have been thorough in Ireland-through the Nyberg, Honohan and Regling/Watson reports for example- in analysing where systems and procedures failed.
But those setbacks should not be our sole focus, and should not blur the longer perspective on nearly 40 years of working with partners and EU institutions to build a more stable, open and prosperous Europe, and a better Ireland as part of that.
We are still the Ireland that welcomed ten new Member States in 2004. We are still the Ireland whose six Presidencies are remembered for their sound stewardship of the Union. We are still the Ireland whose people have one of the most positive views of our membership of the EU.
The purpose of this event, this Europe Day celebration, is to look to the future, not only to where Europe will be in 2020, but to where Ireland will be in Europe in 2020. This Government is committed to restoring Ireland’s standing as constructive and respected member of the EU.
As part of our early efforts to strengthen our relationships with partners and to re-engage constructively with the European agenda, members of the Government have been availing of opportunities to meet their EU colleagues and with representatives of the European institutions. As part of the diplomatic initiative announced last month the Tánaiste and I have met with the Ambassadors of all EU Member States and underlined the desire of the Government to engage meaningfully and more widely on the range of issues on the European agenda.
The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, and other Ministers have held bilateral meetings with many of our European counterparts. Indeed the Tánaiste is today in London, and tomorrow I will leave for Paris and Berlin for meetings there. More is planned. Through these efforts and through our solid, sustained and constructive engagement at Councils and discussions in Brussels, we are working to restore our reputation in Europe.
Already we are preparing for our Presidency in 2013. This is a whole-of-Government exercise, requiring acquaintance with the entire agenda so that we are ready to undertake our role in ensuring the smooth conduct of business in the Council’s formations. It is a substantial task but we are equipped for it by experience, and can benefit from the focus that it provides to our efforts in EU business. In the past, we have shown that by the competent and disinterested handling of the business of the Union, we can make a constructive contribution to Europe. I believe we will do so again.
This Dáil Europe Day sitting is the first in a series. When we meet again this day next year, we will be able to review the progress that we have made on our ambitious agenda to reverse our fortunes in Europe.
And when we meet again this day in 2013, it will be during our Presidency. A Presidency where I am confident that Ireland will again have shown that we do not just take from Europe, but that we give and even, at times, show the way forward.
Speaking in this House in March 1972 the then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave reflected on the events of the preceding years: “It is a salutary exercise to reflect on the kind of Europe—even the kind of world—we would have today if the European statesmen in the seats of power at the beginning of this century had been endowed with the same vision, the same dedication to peace and the same sense of Community as were Schuman, Spaak, Adenauer and de Gaspari. It is conceivable that Europe and the world would have been spared two devastating wars, that we would not have had the division of Europe into two blocs and that we would be nearer to a solution of the problems of the developing world.”
The former Taoiseach continued: “Today we stand at a most important crossroads in our history. The road we take will determine not only the future of our country for generations to come, but also the contribution we make to the creation of a Europe that will measure up to the high ideals of the founders of the Community. I am confident that the decision we take will reflect our people's faith in their capacity to help fashion for themselves and for future generations of Irish men and women a better Ireland in a better Europe.”
We have fashioned a better future for ourselves in Europe, through Europe. It is our responsibility to continue to strive for peace and prosperity on this island and on the continent of Europe for the generations that will follow.