Address by Minister Cowen to the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland National Conference - 2
But advancing the Lisbon strategy is not a programme for Government alone. If we are to compete with major international economies, we have to maximise the added value that can be wrought from investment in training, research and development. The Government are using EU funding and Exchequer resources in the National Development Plan to invest strongly in building our human capital. We are resourcing training and employment supports, such as childcare, so that unemployment can be reduced and the participation rate of women and older people can increase in line with our employment targets. There is a corresponding need for companies to support their workers in engaging more substantially in lifelong learning, so that they can develop and update the skills essential in an ever-evolving knowledge economy. We are all going to have to work together, both Government and business, to meet the 3% of GDP investment target in R&D by 2010. Technological innovation will be critical to our success as a knowledge-based economy.
Social dialogue has an important role in achieving the Lisbon objectives. The co-operation of social partners such as the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland has demonstrated the contribution social partnership can make to economic growth and expansion. The annual tripartite social summit with the European social partners will be held before the Taoiseach presides over next year's Spring European Council at which the Lisbon strategy will be the central focus. This will provide an opportunity to deepen the engagement of the social partners with the Lisbon strategy. We plan to hold preparatory discussions with the social partners over the coming months regarding the themes and priorities for our Presidency.
This drive for change is not restricted to the Union's economic and social sectors. Change will be necessary in other areas to respond to the challenges of a Union of twenty-five. In December 2001, the Laeken European Council established the European Convention - consisting of representatives of Governments, National Parliaments, the European Parliament, and the European Commission - to consider the crucial questions we face in this context of a much larger membership, and of a changing world. The Convention, which is in the very final stages of its work, is addressing three fundamental questions
- How should the Union organise itself to be effective in the new circumstances?
- What should its role in the world be? and,
- How can it better connect with its citizens?
Since the Convention began meeting more than a year ago, Ireland has engaged very actively in its work. The Convention is scheduled to complete its report next week and to submit it to the European Council which meets in Thessalonika in Greece on the 21st and 22nd of June.
It is the task of the Convention to address the key issues thoroughly. It will then be the job of the Intergovernmental Conference that will follow to agree a new Constitutional Treaty. While intense debate continues on the detail of the Convention, we believe that the final outcome must be based on a number of core principles. These include
-- a balanced institutional framework in which the interests and equality of all countries - large and small - are protected;
-- a recognition that, while the nation state will always be the keystone of the Union, there are certain areas where we can achieve more for our citizens when we pool elements of our sovereignty ; and
-- a commitment to mutual support and solidarity, balancing increased economic competitiveness and continued social cohesion.
The Convention has made very significant progress. The new Constitutional Treaty will be clearer and more comprehensible to citizens. The values and objectives of the Union - what the Union is and what the Union does - will be set out clearly. Decision-making will be simplified. The attribution of competence between the Union and the Member States will be clearer. National Parliaments will be more closely integrated into the life of the Union and, in particular, will have a greater role in monitoring respect for the principle of subsidiarity. These are all very important and positive changes that will help bring the Union closer to its citizens.
I am very pleased that in the last few days the Convention has also made important progress on institutional issues which are so important for the effective functioning of the enlarged Union. Ireland has been arguing forcefully that it is important, not just for Ireland but for the Union as a whole, that the key principles of equality and balance be confirmed. While some of the detail remains to be worked out, a clear consensus has emerged in recent days after difficult negotiations that these principles, and in particular the guaranteed equality of Member States as regards the composition of the Commission, must be respected. This is a significant negotiating achievement for the Government and its representative at the Convention, Minister of State Dick Roche, and indeed for the whole Irish team including Deputy John Bruton.
Much work remains in the final week of the Convention if a broad consensus is to be achieved, including on a number of sensitive issues. These include taxation, where Ireland will continue to reject, vigorously and forcefully, any moves away from unanimity on tax matters.
The final report of the Convention will need to be carefully considered by the Intergovernmental Conference that follows. And it may well be that the responsibility to preside over the final stages of the negotiations will fall to our Presidency. If that is the case we will be honoured to do so.
Throughout the critical period ahead, the Government will continue to try to meet the challenge of providing more and better information about the EU and how it affects Ireland. This is not always easy. Complex outcomes are sometimes unavoidable - the result of a carefully negotiated balance between competing interests.
This information process needs to be a rolling one. And not one that shows its face only when the electorate's votes are being asked for. If the electorate is to make informed choices about Europe, then it is critical that accessible information is available to it. The Chambers of Commerce can again play a central role here. I want to see you maintain your active involvement in the debate on Europe. You have a serious and constructive contribution to make, and it needs to be heard loud and clear.
Finally, and from my perspective as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I want to say something about the specific work my Department is doing to help meet the our economic objectives.
As part of the effort to maintain competitiveness, the Government is committed to assisting business identify sources of competitive sub-supply globally, including in Central and Eastern Europe. While in the past, Government agencies were charged exclusively with promoting exports, we now have a more holistic view of the competitiveness of business. Efficient outsourcing and supply chain management is crucial.
My Department is working closely with Enterprise Ireland in advancing this competitiveness agenda. Through our network of diplomatic missions and consulates, the Department actively seeks to identify sources of competitive supply.
Embassies - in particular our Embassy in Madrid - are also proactively assisting with the identification of potential partners for future infrastructural projects in Ireland. The metro system for Dublin is an obvious example. A leading Spanish international expert will shortly make a presentation to the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure on cost efficient options for a metro system. These efforts are designed to ensure that the Government is fully informed of international best practice, and gets the best possible value for money.
These activities are of course in addition to the ongoing work of my Department in assisting Government agencies, particularly Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia, in the promotion of Irish exports. We can perhaps be of particular assistance to businesses wishing to trade in countries where Enterprise Ireland is not represented. Embassies can also provide more general assistance with regulatory issues in markets that are often unfamiliar to Irish companies. I would encourage you to remember that our Embassies and Consulates are a resource - with the door wide open and welcoming - to be used by your members.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Enlargement of Europe is a project unique in scope and in promise. It is my intention that, in this new Union of 25, Ireland will work for a Europe where peace and prosperity continue to be brought about through force of argument, rather than through force of arms. For a Europe where innovation and endeavour will be rewarded with commercial success. And for a Europe where your members, assisted by the Government and the public sector, will experience unparalleled opportunity. In such circumstances, I am fully confident that the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland's ninth decade will be your most successful yet.