Presentation by Minister Cowen to the press of the Programme of the Irish Presidency, Thursday 18 December, Brussels (1)
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Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a great pleasure to be here this afternoon to speak to you about the programme for the Ireland's forthcoming Presidency of the European Union.
This will be Ireland's sixth time to hold the Presidency and we are very conscious that it comes at a complex and challenging time for the Union. It is also a time filled with opportunities for the future, if we have the courage and imagination to seize them.
The first of these challenges will be to take forward the work of the Intergovernmental Conference. Unfortunately it did not prove possible to conclude the Intergovernmental Conference last weekend. We had all hoped that agreement could be reached, but, in the end, I believe the Italian Presidency made the right decision in concluding that the time was not ripe. While this was a setback for the Union - I will not pretend otherwise - it should not be seen as an insuperable crisis.
The responsibility for moving the process forward will now pass to Ireland. The Taoiseach and I are reflecting on how to proceed. We will be consulting with partners, with a view to preparing a report for the Spring European Council. I hope at that stage we will have a clearer sense of when and how progress can be made towards final agreement.
While negotiations have not concluded – and while there are obstacles to overcome – we need a sense of proportion. The European Convention produced a draft Constitutional Treaty which includes many important and positive improvements which nobody is contesting. Under the Italian Presidency, whose efforts and achievements should be recognised, progress was made in addressing issues that the Convention had perhaps not sufficient time to deal with, and in resolving particular concerns of Member States. The Italian Presidency's excellent work is the clear basis for the final stages of the IGC.
Ireland will place the highest priority on its IGC responsibilities. We will be constructive, open and even-handed, acting in the interests of the Union as a whole. On the key question of voting weights, we have made clear throughout that, nationally, Ireland would be happy with any reasonable outcome. As Presidency, our partners can be confident that our sole objective in this regard is to facilitate consensus. Any agreement ultimately depends on the political circumstances and on the atmosphere at the time.
I have no doubt that there will be an agreement. The main question is when. If, arising from our consultations with partners, it appears that faster progress towards full agreement is possible, we will do everything in our power to achieve that.
In reflecting on how to build consensus we will not forget why we are committed to success. I believe that the Constitutional Treaty will enable the Union to become more effective in meeting its internal and external challenges, and in meeting the expectations of its citizens.
The theme of our Presidency is Europeans Working Together: we will work better together if we give ourselves the best possible constitutional and institutional framework in which to do so.
While we are considering the way forward in relation to EU institutions we must also focus on what really matters to people – helping to deliver economic growth, employment, prosperity and greater security at home and in the wider world.
The Irish Presidency will have the great honour on 1 May 2004 of leading the celebrations to formally welcome ten new Member States into the Union. This expansion of the European Union from fifteen to twenty five Member States represents a major achievement for the European Union and for the accession countries themselves. We will mark this great event with a “Day of Welcomes” in Dublin to which the Heads of State and Government of the twenty five member and accession countries as well as Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have been invited. Making a success of enlargement and seizing the opportunities which it offers will be a key priority for our Presidency.
We are also determined to advance the Union's aim of concluding negotiations in 2004 with Bulgaria and Romania, with the hope that they will be ready to join the Union in January 2007. We will also support Turkey's efforts to fulfil the necessary criteria with a view to the decision to be taken at the European Council in December 2004 on the opening of accession negotiations.
Our Presidency comes at a time when our sense of Europe is changing. I have already mentioned the importance we attach to making a success of enlargement.
But we need to extend the conditions of security, stability and prosperity that underpin the European Union beyond our borders. From 1 May, there will be 385 million people living in the countries on the external land and sea borders of the Union. Through the Wider Europe/New Neighbours initiative, we will seek to enhance relations with our neighbours to the east and south on the basis of the values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.
The Union has also reached a juncture where our shared understanding with the countries of the Western Balkans is that their future lies within the EU. As Presidency we will work hard over the next six months to implement the joint commitments made last year in the EU-Western Balkans Thessaloniki Agenda. It is the responsibility of the countries in the region to do likewise.
Enlargement gives renewed impetus to the Union's strategic relationship with Russia. As our security and wellbeing become increasingly intertwined, we need to work more effectively together. The EU-Russia relationship covers a broad spectrum of areas and needs to be based on genuine partnership. The EU-Russia Summit during our Presidency is an opportunity to take forward key issues and to set a course for the future relationship.
Making enlargement work and extending security and prosperity to the countries on the Union's borders is important. It is also important that we make the enlarged Europe work for all its people. A strong, competitive and stable European economy is essential in order to deliver sustainable growth and a good quality of life for Europe's citizens. We intend as Presidency to give renewed impetus to the Lisbon strategy aimed at making the EU the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010. We recognise the challenges that need to be addressed if we are to proceed with the process of deep-rooted structural reform that will be essential if the enlarged Union is to capitalise on the first shoots of economic recovery that are now appearing.
Much has already been achieved through the Lisbon process resulting in concrete benefits for the people of Europe in terms of cheaper and more efficient air travel, safer rail travel, cheaper gas and electricity, better regulation of financial markets and significantly more jobs for Europe's workers. But greater efforts are needed to implement the goals which the Union has set itself.
At the Spring European Council we intend to focus on a limited number of key areas where improvements will result in further benefits for Europe's workers, business people and consumers. Our aim is to enable Heads of State and Government to have a strategic discussion on the critical issues that need to be addressed if we are to meet our ambitious targets by 2010.
Our first priority is to continue promoting growth and structural reform. This will require not only investment by Governments to address infrastructural deficits but also public and private investment in human capital, both in terms of research and development, and training. We need to maximise our support for innovation if we are to foster a recovery in growth and an early transition to a knowledge-based economy.
We also need to foster competitiveness as the key to generating and maintaining growth and employment. Our focus will be on the services sector which has been the motor of growth and job creation in Europe over the past decade. We intend to advance significantly the draft Directive on the Internal Market for Services.
We also plan to put in place a more integrated approach so that new proposals can be assessed in terms of their likely impact on Europe's competitiveness.
Another key priority is that of improving Europe's capacity to deliver more and better jobs. We welcome the recent report of the Employment Taskforce, chaired by Wim Kok. We share the Taskforce' view that if we are to tackle the issue of employment creation in Europe, we need to put in place policies that will encourage greater investment in innovation, education and training, higher rates of labour force participation by the unemployed, older workers and women, and greater flexibility on the part of workers and employers.
Our national experience of the benefits of social partnership has convinced us that social dialogue with employers and trades unions can offer a useful tool for promoting effective adaptation to change by workers and companies. Similarly, we consider that greater flexibility can be promoted by facilitating worker mobility. Consequently, we intend to finalise the reform of Regulation 1408 that will enable workers to access social protection benefits more easily in other EU Member States. We also intend to launch an EU Health Card that will make it easier to access health benefits in other EU countries.
The integrated nature of the Lisbon strategy highlights the importance of achieving a policy balance between economic, social and environmental reform. We intend to develop our approach to growth and sustainable development in an integrated manner by focusing on greater uptake by companies of environmental technologies.
Increased security is also of direct and increasing relevance to our citizens. May 2004 is the deadline set in the Amsterdam Treaty for the achievement of specified aimed at establishing an area of freedom, security and justice. 2004 also marks the end of the more ambitious five year programme agreed by the Tampere European Council. This work programme extends across a range of areas including asylum and immigration, police cooperation and judicial cooperation in criminal and civil matters. Our overriding priorities therefore will be to meet the deadlines set by the Amsterdam Treaty and Tampere programme having regard to the new mandates from more recent European Councils. We will also focus on promoting operational cooperation and place emphasis on the fight against drugs and organised crime and combating illegal immigration.
Working together, we can better tackle major issues such as migration management, border controls, trafficking in people, and asylum determination.
The further development of a common immigration policy reflecting the commitment to a balanced approach between the need to stop illegal migration and the reception and integration of legal migrants will be a key area of work for the Irish Presidency. We will also seek to resolve outstanding issues so as to meet the Amsterdam Treaty deadline for the adoption of legislative measures in the area of asylum.