Speech by Minister Roche at the opening of the European Social Fund Conference
Good morning ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to be here this morning to address your conference on The European Social Fund and its contribution to the European Employment Strategy. This is just one of a series of conferences on the same theme which is taking place through the EU Member States up to the end of the year, to highlight the role of the European Social Fund and the importance of the European Employment Strategy. The conferences take place in the context of the emerging debate on the future of the Structural Funds after 2006. The culmination of the conferences will be a Ministerial meeting in Brussels at the end of January, during Ireland's Presidency of the EU, where issues and ideas on the future of the ESF will be discussed. You will have an opportunity to feed into that Ministerial discussion by participating, here today, in the Questions and Answers session in the afternoon.
The ESF – the hidden Fund
The European Social Fund has played an important part in the development of Ireland's economy, yet in many respects, it is the least known and least visible of the four Structural Funds. We are all very familiar with the EU logo on large signs at the side of the road, highlighting the contribution which the Regional Development Fund has made to the construction of new motorways and by-passes. We hear, quite often, of the supports to farmers and fishermen from the European Agricultural Fund and the Fisheries Fund. However, because the European Social Fund invests in people rather than physical infrastructure, the contribution which it makes is not always directly visible.
One of the objectives of today's conference is to make the ESF more visible and more tangible. Today, you will hear the stories of a number of people who have been direct beneficiaries of ESF support. They come from different backgrounds and have different goals, but for each of them, the investment made by the ESF has helped them, or their companies, to achieve success. They are just a representative sample of the many thousands of people who have benefited from the support of the Social Fund in Ireland down through the years, through their participation in courses delivered by agencies such as FAS, the VECs, Institutes of Technology and CERT.
Contributing to economic success
As well as contributing to individual success, the ESF has contributed in no small way to the economic success of the country as a whole. The availability of a well-educated and highly skilled labour force was one of the key elements in attracting multinational companies to Ireland, creating thousands of jobs and nurturing the Celtic Tiger. A deep pool of confident, dynamic and adaptable young people gave Ireland an advantage over other European countries when it came to making investment decisions. Our fiscal policies and stable industrial relations environment, supported by successive social partnership agreements, were the icing on the cake.
The ESF played a role in creating the opportunities of the Celtic Tiger era. And now, in more difficult global economic circumstances, the Social Fund and the European Employment Strategy are mechanisms to help ensure that we never again return to the days of double-digit unemployment rates.
Since Ireland's accession to the EU in 1973, it is estimated that the ESF has invested over €5 billion in education, training and employment creation in Ireland. Over the period 2000-2006 alone, Ireland will receive approximately €1.1 billion in ESF support. This represents almost one third of Ireland's total Structural Funds budget for that period.
Through various programmes, the ESF has supported the training of:
• unemployed people
• people at work
• people with disabilities
• early school leavers
• travellers, and
• women wishing to return to work.
It has also invested heavily in second and third level vocational education.
One of the most exciting avenues of ESF investment over the years has been in the area of Community Initiatives. Under these programmes, the Social Fund provides opportunities to pilot new ways of integrating marginalized groups into the workforce, or testing innovative ways to upskill those already in employment. The “bottom-up” approach of these pilot projects allows employer groups, business associations, trade unions and community groups to work together to find innovative and locally-based solutions to combating social exclusion, poverty and inequality by providing pathways to employment for those most at risk from being marginalized in the labour market. The Initiatives also give policy makers and training agencies an opportunity to see new ideas in action.
Over the period 2000-2006, the ESF will invest some €34 million in these types of projects in Ireland under the EQUAL Initiative. Given the wealth of ideas and the level of investment which goes into these projects, I think it is incumbent on our policy makers to mainstream the best of these projects. A good example of how mainstreaming can work is seen in the national Supported Employment Programme for People with Disabilities, which is administered by FAS. Supported Employment was a concept which was tested in a small way under earlier Community Initiatives. It is now a major platform to assist people with disabilities to find and maintain employment in the open labour market.
The European Employment Strategy
Although Ireland was experiencing a fall in unemployment from the mid-1990s, the situation throughout the rest of the European Union was very different. Unemployment levels were stubbornly high in many Member States and, at the end of 1997, the EU Heads of State, meeting in Luxembourg, decided that there needed to be a greater emphasis on tackling unemployment across the EU. Out of this process, the European Employment Strategy was born, and a set of common objectives was agreed between Member States to try to address the impact of high unemployment for once and for all.
Earlier this year, the Employment Strategy was reformed, to strengthen the process, and to ensure that its goals and targets were even more coherent and mutually supportive.
The three overarching objectives of the revised Employment Strategy for Europe are aimed at achieving:
• full employment
• quality and productivity at work, and
• social cohesion and an inclusive labour market.
At today's conference, you will hear more on the European Employment Strategy and how it operates in Ireland. You will also see how the European Social Fund supports the Employment Strategy in a practical way, by providing support for training, education, lifelong learning, and measures to prevent the drift into long-term unemployment.
For me, the revision of the Employment Strategy this year was an important development. It demonstrated that the European institutions and the Member States recognised that the fight against unemployment cannot be static. It must change and adapt with changing economic circumstances. When the Employment Strategy was originally introduced, the global economic climate was very different to the climate in which we operate today. In addition, we have a new strategic goal at European level, that is, to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010; an economy which is capable of sustainable economic growth, with more and better jobs and greater cohesion. This objective is often referred to as the Lisbon Agenda, as it was agreed by the EU Heads of State at a meeting in Lisbon in March 2000.
The Lisbon Agenda and the Presidency
Injecting a sense of dynamism into the Lisbon Agenda will be a key objective of the Irish Presidency which begins on 1st January next, less than 40 days' time. The combination of tough economic conditions, the task of achieving institutional reforms, and an enlarged Union, present real challenges to achieving the Lisbon goals. However, Ireland will give a new impetus to meeting those challenges and turning them into opportunities.
Ireland's Presidency will be strongly oriented towards promoting a culture of competitiveness and business expansion in Europe. We will place emphasis on promoting innovation, investing in research and development, and forging a Europe that maximises the potential of its people.
The Taoiseach has written to his counterparts in all EU Member States, indicating that the Irish Presidency will address, full-on, the challenge of delivering more and better jobs, and increasing employment rates throughout Europe. We will work with our fellow Member States, the European Commission and the European Parliament to progress the implementation of the European Employment Guidelines. We will promote adaptation to change by workers and companies, and we will prioritise lifelong learning and gender equality in the workplace.
If we are to achieve the objective of Europe becoming the leading knowledge-based economy in the world, it follows that we must invest in the skills and knowledge of the labour force. Future competitiveness will be dependent on the innovation, knowledge and skills of people. In this regard, the European Social Fund clearly has a role to play by supporting on-going investment in training and education.
The ESF must also help us, as national Governments, to provide access to the workplace for all those who wish to contribute to, and share in, economic growth. There are still many people who are margialised from the labour market because of their gender, age, or skin colour. We must make every effort to ensure that they are no longer excluded from the labour market and that we embrace the contribution they have to offer to the economy.
Today's conference will demonstrate that the ESF has made a difference. And I know it will continue to make a difference for Ireland, and for all of the European Union by supporting the objectives of the European Employment Strategy.