The Irish Presidency of the European Council from January to June 2013
I would like to thank the Chairman and the members of the Committee for scheduling this discussion on the priorities of the Irish Presidency and the progress we are making in preparing for it. While I spoke to the Seanad during Europe Week in May, this is the first opportunity I have had to come before the JCEUA to discuss the matter and I am very pleased to be here.
Ireland will take over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union from Cyprus on 1st January. Ireland has effectively and successfully managed the Presidency on six previous occasions, most recently in 2004, but the Presidency in 2013 will be one of the most challenging that we have faced. The Union now operates in a more complex environment with 27 Member States, soon to be 28, and with new institutional structures introduced under the Lisbon Treaty which are still being bedded down. This is set against a difficult domestic and international economic background. Ensuring the success of the Presidency will require a very considerable national effort.
The Presidency comes at a critical time for Ireland and the EU after the difficulties that we have faced over the last few years. The crisis has demonstrated how interdependent the relationship between the EU and Member States has become. The challenges that Ireland currently faces are shared by many other Governments and citizens across the EU and the investment of time and resources that we make in our Presidency can contribute to our own economic recovery and to that of our partners.
The Presidency provides us with an opportunity to advance policies that will benefit the lives of millions of citizens across the EU. This is why our main overriding Presidency priority will be on ways of stimulating sustainable economic growth and creating jobs. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have stressed to Ministers and officials working on the Presidency that the jobs and growth agenda should be prioritised in their approach to the Presidency programme and events.
Since entering office the Government has worked with energy and determination to rebuild our international reputation, strengthen relations with our European partners and develop our engagement with the European institutions. The Presidency presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to present Ireland in a positive light and one that will not come around again for many years. Running an effectively-managed Presidency can contribute to challenging negative perceptions and demonstrating Ireland’s strengths and capabilities.
Over the longer-term the relations forged at political and official level during the Presidency will ensure that Ireland remains at the heart of the decision-making process in Europe. This is where we need to be if we are to defend our interests in the future.
Our Presidency coincides with the 40th anniversary of Ireland’s accession to the European Union in 1973, and 2013 has been designated as the European Year of Citizens. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the first decades of our membership. As I mentioned in my remarks to the Seanad last May, it is too easy to lose sight of the very positive changes that EU membership has delivered to Ireland and Irish society. I also believe very strongly that the Presidency presents the opportunity to promote greater discussion and engagement across Ireland on Ireland’s future in Europe and how citizens envisage Ireland’s role in the future development of the European Union.
The details of our Presidency programme will continue to evolve between now and the end of the year in response to internal and external developments but some major issues are already clear.
I have stressed the priority that the Government is attaching to promoting sustainable economic growth and creating jobs. This is not only a national priority for Ireland but it is also an issue of concern across the Union. The jobs and growth agenda will be reflected across the Presidency programme.
We will continue to support and promote the Europe 2020 process which provides a blueprint for growth across the EU by focussing on areas such as employment, innovation, education and social cohesion.
We will support new proposals under the Single Market Act including through the rapidly evolving Digital Single Market, to enhance Europe’s competitiveness and to create the jobs of the future.
Through our responsible management of the European Semester, the new system of economic and the budgetary coordination, we will help to create the conditions for stability, competitiveness and growth. We will also seek to ensure the effective implementation of the range of other economic governance measures that the EU has put in place in response to the crisis.
Here in Ireland we are planning a series of conferences and events focussed on strengthening the EU’s research and innovation capabilities – for example, in areas such as green technologies, Key Enabling Technologies (KETS) and medical science.
Ireland is also committed to boosting the EU’s exports by deepening trade links with third countries and next year we will organise in Dublin a meeting at ministerial level dedicated to the key EU-US trade relationship. We will also support proposals to make it easier for SMEs to access EU funding. Most of the ministerial meetings planned during the Presidency, ranging from agriculture to health to energy, will have a jobs and growth dimension.
As you know, discussions are ongoing on the EU’s budget for the period 2014-2020. The outcome of negotiations on the future financing of the Union through the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will be critical for Europe’s future economic development and competitiveness as well as for vital national interests in areas such as the reform of the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies.
Cyprus, the current holder of the Presidency, is committed to reaching agreement on the MFF between now and December. Ireland will build on their work and carry forward under our Presidency the large body of implementing legislation necessary to ensure that the MFF is in place to support Europe’s economic recovery.
Ireland’s Presidency programme will contain other detailed priorities across a range of policy areas, although most link in some way to the broad areas I have already outlined, whether the jobs and growth agenda, economic governance or the Multiannual Financial Framework. I can discuss some of the specific issues this morning but I know that my colleagues in Government will brief their sectoral Committees on policy-specific issues. The Government will continue to work on the Presidency programme over the coming five months to reflect developments before it is formally published in December.
It should go without saying that the Government is determined to run a businesslike and cost-effective Presidency. We estimate that the Presidency will cost in the region of €63m. This is lower than the costs of Ireland’s last Presidency in 2004 and we are continuing to seek ways of further limiting expenditure across all areas by carefully assessing the necessity to hold meetings, concentrating most events in a few state-owned venues in Dublin, and centralising procurement to generate savings in services such as catering. A Government Decision was taken earlier this year limiting the number of Ministerial meetings to be held in Ireland during the Presidency and to ensure that they have a clear rationale in terms of advancing our priorities, as these tend to be the more expensive type of event to organise.
We have to be clear, however, that an effective Presidency will require a sufficient investment of resources and personnel. I have already outlined the longer-term benefits for Ireland in reputational terms and in developing stronger links with our partners that will last well beyond 2013 but it is also the case that Presidency will deliver short-term benefits to service providers in Ireland. We have also been working closely with the State agencies since last year on using every opportunity that the Presidency affords to promote Ireland and Irish goods and services, whether in the field of tourism, trade or investment. I am also working with the Minister of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to develop a programme that will showcase Irish culture to our European partners during the Presidency and to celebrate our European cultural connections in Ireland.
The Presidency calendar of events in Brussels and Luxembourg was closed last month and circulated to partners. The calendar contains information on Council meetings across the Council formations that will be chaired by Irish Ministers during 2013. Their work will be supported by Council Working Groups which will be chaired by Irish officials during the Presidency and their performance will determine the successful management of the complex Presidency agenda. Training of those officials for the challenges of managing these meetings is now underway.
In addition, we currently estimate that approximately 175 events will be held in Ireland, including, for example, meetings organised by the Oireachtas such as COSAC.
Work has been underway on the Presidency website for some time which will go live in November. The website will serve as the central information portal for the Presidency in 2013, and will also make a wide range of information about Ireland available to an international audience, as part of our wider promotional efforts.
I have just returned from a visit over the past week to the Balkan states and Turkey and am happy to answer any questions you may have on this. Since entering office I have met almost all of my counterparts from other EU Member States. Given the key legislative role it now plays since the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty, I have visited the European Parliament regularly in order to strengthen our relations in the run-up to the Presidency. Last week the Tánaiste met the President of the Parliament, Martin Schulz, and other key figures in Strasbourg.
We have also worked with our Lithuanian counterparts and look forward to working with our new Greek colleagues who are part of the same “Trio” or formal grouping of three Presidencies introduced under the Lisbon Treaty. Work is now concluding on the submission of inputs by the three States for the Trio Presidency programme which will be published by the Council Secretariat at the end of the year and will reflect to the extent possible the issues that will feature on the EU agenda over the 18-month period.
We have also been concerned to ensure a close working relationship with our Cypriot colleagues from whom we take over the Presidency at the end of the year. I have had regular discussions with the Deputy Minister for European Affairs, Andreas Mavroyiannis, in the margins of the General Affairs Council and I visited Nicosia last November. Obviously it is very much in our interest to ensure continuity and a smooth transition between our Presidencies.
The forthcoming Presidency will be the seventh time that Ireland has managed the EU agenda since 1973. Each Presidency has been different and has presented its own unique challenges, but Ireland has consistently shown that a small Member State can manage the agenda of the Union in an efficient, impartial and effective manner. Our reputation among our partners was enhanced by the way in which we fulfilled our Presidency obligations. We now need to use the Presidency to rebuild the trust and respect of our partners.
During the six months of the Presidency, Ireland will be in the European spotlight for a short time. How do we wish Ireland and its people to be portrayed? I know that all members of this Committee will share my view that we should seek to use the Presidency to demonstrate Ireland’s strengths and abilities. I look forward to working closely with you to ensure a successful outcome.
Before concluding I would like to thank all members for the role that they play in informing debate on the EU in Ireland. I look forward to the contributions that its members will make both as a Committee and as representatives of the Oireachtas in ensuring a successful Presidency for Ireland and wish you well in your own meetings being planned during the Presidency.
I would very much like to maintain strong working relations with this Committee and if you are agreeable, return to brief you in the autumn when the Presidency programme is at a more advanced stage.