Having recently taken the new portfolio of Seanad spokesperson on European Affairs, I have spent the last few months sitting on the European Affairs Committee, representing Ireland at COSAC and raising European issues in the Seanad on a regular basis.
As we are now truly in a post-European presidency stage, I am glad to see that the Government is still displaying such a healthy commitment to fostering strong, working relationships throughout Europe. The creation of the portfolio of Seanad spokesperson on European Affairs is one indicator, as is the appointment of Paschal Donohoe as our Junior Minister on European Affairs, which I would like to congratulate him on once again. Minister Donohoe has hit the ground running in this portfolio. He has kept us regularly updated in the Committee on how things are proceeding with his work, and he has been to the fore recently speaking about how political leaders need to work together to advance Bosnia-Herzegovina’s prospects for EU membership.
There are two things I want to talk about primarily today: the upcoming European elections and how they can play a role in cementing a positive, constructive relationship with the European Parliament and how we see things developing in a post-bailout Europe. As we know, Greece started their fifth Presidency of the Council of the European Union on the first of January.
It is focussed on four priorities – chiefly “Growth-Jobs-Cohesion”, “Further Integration of EU-Eurozone”, “Migration-Borders-Mobility” and “Maritime Policies”, all of which Ireland supports. As we discussed earlier in the European Union Affairs Committee, the Greek Presidency is under pressure to deliver on a wide range of outstanding legislation before the elections in May.
The EU is facing a great many challenges on a number of fronts: politically, economically and perhaps socially. the accession of Croatia has passed successfully, yet the work remains to be done with Bosnia, while on the Eastern border the strife in Ukraine poses many dilemmas. The UK “in-out” referendum poses a significant challenge also, and I do believe that we need to be very clear with our own people that – should the UK opt out of the EU – it would put Ireland in a difficult position. Economically, we ourselves have moved out of a bailout, and Portugal definitively seem to be moving in the same direction, which puts a focus on a post-bailout future but also other dilemmas such as energy policy come to the fore too. These are some of the many challenges the EU face, but I am confident that – like the challenges before – they can be faced, and faced in a way which benefits the member nations.
As many people now know, in March we will be hosting the Congress of the European People’s Party – an honour which will see several heads of state, as well as members of parliament from right across Europe, coming to Dublin to meet, to debate and to work on a number of issues which face the parties which make up the EPP on a national level, but also the issues that we all face on a European level. This will, I believe, be the backdrop for a ten week national conversation on Europe, Ireland and our relationship. People often ask what Europe does for them, people often feel disconnected from Europe and its decision making, and yet Irish people – for the most part – remain in favour of Europe, as long as Ireland is empowered within that structure and has a real, constructive role to play.
As Minister Donohoe said recently: ““Ireland is an integrated and committed member of the EU. And, with the consent of our people, will remain so. With all of its imperfections, difficulties and frustrations, however, it still offers the best platform for our country to represent and advance what is in our national interest.”. I couldn’t agree more. While people can be frustrasted with EU decisionmaking and its perceived remoteness, Irish people are also very conscious of the great benefits that it has offered to our economy.
I note that last week Google passed, for the first time, the 2,000 employee mark in Dublin, and you can rest assured that that number would barely be 10% of that, were we not part of the European Union. However, sometimes I feel that perhaps the biggest failing of the EU institutions is one of communication – in particular the ability to communicate just what the EU institutions have done which will impact on the lives of regular people.
In the months ahead, we are to see the phased abolition of mobile phone roaming rates thanks to some great work from Neelie Kroes and the Commission, yet without adequate communication of this, people are just going to see it as one of those things that happened. The same can be said of a great many advances and changes around consumer standards and employment law that the EU has brought about for the better, and yet many people don’t realise it.
I believe that our MEPs have a somewhat greater role to play in communicating the day-to-day work of the EU to our citizens. The communications chasm can be bridged through things such as regular cross-party quarterly forums, or putting pressure on RTE to change their EU coverage to a shorter, snappier production at a more appropriate hour – instead of the graveyard slot one Sunday near midnight every month.
Communicating better will help us work towards the next challenge, how we see things developing in a post-bailout Europe. It now seems as though another periphery nation, Portugal, are moving towards the exit door in a serious way – following our lead, where we paved the way and showed that it could be done. But now the discussion needs to shift a little, and we need to begin to work towards policies that will help the reconstruction of periphery nations in a post-bailout Europe: the youth guarantee has a role to play in ensuring that young people get employment or training in the months and years ahead, thereby ensuring we don’t have a ‘lost generation’ of youths. However, in many of these peripheral nations – including our own – a lot of progress has been put “on hold” while we seek to right our current expenditure. The EU 2030 policy framework for climate and energy, papers relating to which were published on the 22nd January, presents some potential opportunities here.
However, we now need to begin planning the next steps from here. As Minister Donohoe says himself: “By working together, and within the structures of the EU, we can minimise the destructive forces we wish to avoid, such as instability or the excesses of a globalised economy, while, at the same time, promoting things, such as shared prosperity and security, that have an positive and beneficial impact on our lives.”. It’s time now to begin focussing on the shared prosperity aspect, and to begin building on the vision that we want to see beyond 2020. The European Parliament election is a serious block in this, as these elections will bring us right up until 2019 and you have to ask yourself – which eleven people would you have representing Ireland?
Who will get things done? Who will be best placed to work and lobby for Irish interests, best able to identify opportunities to get smart legislation passed in Ireland’s favour? This is the conversation that we need to have: these elections are too important to ignore it.