I am very pleased to brief the House on the outcome of last month’s meeting of the European Council which took place in Brussels on Thursday and Friday of last week, 27-28 June, the last two working days of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
As I indicated to the House in advance of last week’s Summit, the strong focus of the meeting was on the closely inter-related issues of youth employment and access to finance for the real economy, particularly the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) sector.
I am very happy that this meeting of European leaders agreed on a comprehensive approach to combating the major problem of youth unemployment, with agreement being reached on a series of concrete measures, including the front-loading of funding under the Youth Employment Initiative during 2014-2015; the speeding up of implementation of the Youth Guarantee; improved mobility for young workers; and the promotion of high quality apprenticeships and other work-based learning for younger people.
As a complement to those measures, the European Council also launched a new Investment Plan for Europe which will build on the combined strengths of the EU’s next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), and the increased resources and funding available through the European Investment Bank (EIB). This will help boost the financing of the real economy. It will also support the SME sector, which continues to form the backbone of the European economy.
Last week’s meeting also saw the conclusion of the European Semester process for 2013, with the endorsement of a series of Country Specific Recommendations.
Leaders also took stock of implementation of the Compact for Growth and Jobs, twelve months after its adoption.
I am very pleased that my European Council colleagues also reaffirmed the imperative need to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns, making it clear that completing banking union remains the key priority in this regard in the short run.
Thanks to the efforts of the Minister for Finance and his team, significant progress was made during Ireland’s term as Presidency on banking union, as was recognised by colleagues last week. I firmly hope that this will be built on in the period ahead.
President Van Rompuy reported to the meeting on his work concerning the further strengthening of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), which as Presidency we had facilitated within the Council. There was broad agreement on the need to return to these issues again later in the year.
We also took important decisions concerning EU enlargement, particularly concerning Serbia and Kosovo, which Minister of State Creighton will elaborate upon in her intervention later this afternoon.
We had the pleasure of warmly welcoming Croatia as the 28th Member of the EU, as of yesterday and we congratulated Latvia on being the 18th Member State to adopt the euro as it currency from the beginning of 2014.
We also expressed our solidarity with those affected by the major flooding across Eastern Europe last month.
I also took the opportunity of last week’s meeting to up-date my colleagues on the significant range of achievements secured during our Presidency. I am happy to say that partners were highly complementary both of the substance of our work as well as the efficiency and professionalism with which it was carried out.
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those across our system who played their part in what was an enormous team effort, one that reflects well on the country and which helps to consolidate our reputation as a serious, committed and engaged European partner.
The important decisions we made on youth employment are underpinned by our agreement with the European Parliament on the new MFF. This includes frontloading the new €6 billion Youth Employment Initiative so that spending will be concentrated in the first two years. We also expect that this resource will be reinforced by a further €2 billion from what we have agreed with the European Parliament on MFF flexibility.
We agreed to develop a stronger EURES job search facility that will help to fill job vacancies more quickly, including by removing unnecessary barriers to cross-border mobility. This will be supported by the important progress made by the Irish Presidency on professional qualifications, supplementary pension rights, and the expanded Erasmus+ programme under the new MFF.
The context for these steps was provided by the agreement reached by the Irish Presidency in February on the key principles of Youth Guarantee schemes. I want to acknowledge the important contribution of Minister Burton in this regard.
We must now all press ahead with adapting our education and training systems to the new economic realities of the 21st century. This means supporting employability, including through new partnerships with the workplace.
Work is underway towards developing our own national Youth Guarantee implementation plan. Progress will build from the range of initiatives already underway through our interlocking Action Plan for Jobs and Pathways to Work strategies.
This work will also be supported by the OECD, building from the Youth Action Plan agreed at the OECD Ministerial Committee Meeting in Paris at the end of May, which the Tánaiste attended. I expect that our implementation plan will be finalised before the end of this year.
Access to Finance
The key to bringing down unemployment across Europe will be recovery in the real economy: companies growing their businesses and creating new jobs.
That is why I attach particular importance to the Investment Plan agreed last week.
It provides for important new synergies between the EU’s budget and the enhanced lending capacity of the European Investment Bank. We heard from EIB President Hoyer that the bank has already indentified new lending opportunities of more than €150 billion in our agreed priority areas: innovation and skills; SME access to finance; resource efficiency; and strategic infrastructures.
The Plan will now combine funds from the new MFF with the EIB’s enhanced lending capacity to support a significantly expanded volume of new SME loans across the Union.
The Commission-EIB report presented before our meeting set out a number of options for new joint-risk sharing financial instruments to this end. We have asked Finance Ministers to finalise the design of these instruments without delay, in consultation with the Commission and the EIB, so that they will become operational in parallel with the new MFF from the beginning of 2014.
Multiannual Financial Framework
As the House will be aware, finalising the negotiations between the Parliament and Council on the MFF was a major priority of the Irish Presidency.
Last Thursday in Brussels, just before the European Council convened, the Tánaiste and I met with Presidents Schulz and Barroso in a final effort to broker an agreement.
I am happy to say that we found a compromise which we were happy to recommend to our respective Institutions. The European Council on Thursday night confirmed the political agreement of the Member States, and the Parliament will vote tomorrow at its plenary session in Strasbourg. While I cannot prejudge the result, the Parliament’s leadership and its negotiators have endorsed the deal, and I am hopeful that this vote will confirm the agreement we brokered.
These were long and hard negotiations, and I want here to acknowledge the great work done by the Tánaiste and the Minister of State for European Affairs over many months.
This is a real achievement for the Irish Presidency, but more importantly it is an achievement for the European Union, which can now get down to the serious work of planning and programming the spending of these highly significant resources.
As the meeting effectively marked the end of the Irish Presidency, it may be worthwhile for me to recall for the House some of the landmark achievements of our term in office. We set out to make a difference, and we have.
From the outset, we made it clear in three words our priorities were: stability, jobs and growth.
Across every Council formation, we identified the measures that could best deliver and we worked hard to make progress.
The results of our efforts are outlined in detail in the report that has been laid before the Oireachtas.
From the very beginning of January right up to last Friday, the Government worked flat out to secure our objectives.
Michael Noonan in intensive negotiations last week delivered on banking resolution, a key part of the proposals to sort out Europe’s banking system and to make sure we can never experience again what Ireland went through.
Simon Coveney fought hard for, and delivered, reform of the Common Agricultural Policy – vital for Europe’s agrifood industry and for the prosperity of rural communities across the European Union.
As I have already set out, the Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, led the long and tough negotiations with the European Parliament on the MFF that delivered agreement on a budget for the EU of €960bn, a budget that will support jobs, growth and investment across Europe for the next seven years.
And so on, across the Council formations they chaired, Irish Ministers worked to manage the EU’s heavy agenda and to deliver results. I want to pay tribute to the commitment, energy and skill demonstrated by my colleagues in Government over the last six months and to the hard work of the officials who tirelessly supported them.
We achieved agreement on Horizon 2020, the new €70bn programme for research and innovation, paving the way for the jobs of the future.
We hosted last month’s Digital Agenda Assembly in Dublin, one of the largest events of the Presidency, which highlighted the potential of the Digital Agenda to deliver growth and jobs.
We made our contribution to freeing up the Single Market, providing new opportunities for SMEs. The new Accounting Directive will reduce administrative burdens and will introduce a simplified set of accounting rules. The Public Procurement Package will make it easier to tender for public contracts across the EU, which in total are worth some €2 trillion a year.
The €2 billion programme for the competitiveness of Enterprises and SMEs (or COSME) will help business to access finance and to trade more easily across borders.
Of course, the search for growth and jobs doesn’t stop at Europe’s borders – nobody knows this better than a small open economy like Ireland. A lasting achievement of our Presidency will be the mandate for the start of negotiations between the EU and US on an historic Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, secured last month at meetings chaired by Minister Bruton.
In other areas too, Ireland sought and secured agreement on proposals that will underpin jobs and growth in the EU, whether for investment across Minister Rabbitte’s portfolio, including telecommunications and energy networks, or Europe’s transport infrastructure.
Agreement was secured on a range of environmental legislation which will help to ensure that Europe’s future is safe and sustainable.
Sustainability was also at the heart of the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, secured under the Irish Presidency.
The endorsement of the Atlantic Action Plan will help drive sustainable “blue” growth in the coastal regions of the five Atlantic Member States. I was personally delighted to be present with Commissioner Geoghegan Quinn in the Marine Institute in Galway for the launch of the EU, US, Canada Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance in May which will help to transform our knowledge and understanding of the Atlantic.
When this Government came into office we promised to restore Ireland’s standing as a respected and influential member of the European Union. The successful conduct of Ireland’s seventh Presidency of the Council was always key to this process.
I am proud of what Ireland has achieved over the past six months.
We have demonstrated that we are a serious, competent and responsible partner that has acted in the common interest while holding the Presidency.
Of course, Ireland’s engagement with Europe does not end with the Presidency. I am determined that now we should build on the goodwill we have earned, maintaining and developing the contacts we have made so that Ireland continues to be an active part of the decision-making process in order to best protect our long-term interests as a Member State.
Our experience over the past six months shows the determining role now played post-Lisbon by the European Parliament. I know that the Oireachtas too had a busy Presidency agenda and I had the honour to address the COSAC Plenary last week.
I welcome the contribution of the Oireachtas to the consideration of the roles of national parliaments and the European Parliament in ensuring democratic legitimacy and accountability as the Union considers steps toward closer economic and monetary integration.
This Presidency was our first in a Trio that includes Lithuania and Greece. Lithuania has taken up the baton with enthusiasm and determination and I wish both our partners every success in implementing our joint programme with its focus on putting Europe firmly back on the path of growth and prosperity. I can pledge Ireland’s full support for the work that lies ahead of them.
The outcome of last month’s European Council was a welcome one, as it focused us on two pressing issues – youth employment and access to finance. These are not abstract concepts. They are real and I am happy to say that the European Council has responded in concrete terms, to assist in addressing these challenges.
In other areas too, this meeting has placed us on the right track, be it concerning the European Semester, the Compact for Growth and Jobs or our clear focus on concluding banking union.
I was delighted also to have had the opportunity, right at the end of our Presidency, to brief my colleagues on the wide range of substantive achievements which we were able to deliver on our watch.
I will continue to keep the House updated on all relevant developments.