Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Association of European Journalists
Micheál Martin T. D., Minister for Foreign Affairs
Association of European Journalists,
5 May 2010
Thank you for the invitation to address the Association and to respond to some of your questions here today. It is timely- next Sunday, May the ninth, is Europe Day, commemorating Robert Schuman’s post WWII proposal for a European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of today’s EU.
As journalists and media professionals you have a particular role to play in illuminating and deepening the discussion on Europe in Ireland. As professional communicators you are positioned to reach viewers, readers and listeners on EU-related issues. Connecting the broad policy debate and the decisions at the Council of Ministers or the European Council, to the level of individual citizens is a continuously needed service.
I say all that because I think we should not let the Lisbon Treaty ratification experience pass without internalising some of the necessary lessons from it about how we “communicate Europe.
The process that led us to the second referendum last October was long and complicated. It involved first and foremost of course understanding what concerns and motives lay behind the No vote in 2008.
What was also needed was open and informed debate and, inevitably, not just about the Lisbon Treaty but more widely about Ireland and the EU. I feel we had that debate and I believe all concerned can take considerable credit for it:
- The Oireachtas, and especially the Sub Committee on Ireland’s future in the EU
- All the political parties –except Sinn Fein
- The civil society and non-governmental sectors, where the mobilisation was impressive, and
- The media, including the AEJ which I know hosted a number of stimulating debates.
It helped to bring out clearly the benefits that EU membership has brought and continues to bring to the country:
- financial, certainly, whether in terms of support for agriculture or transfers under the structural and cohesion funds
- the Single Market of almost 500m people, with its ease of movement for goods, services, people and capital
- the euro of course, with its reduction of transaction costs and, now, the stability and shelter it provides at a time of global economic upheaval
- and the everyday but important achievements like the European Health Insurance Card or reduced mobile phone roaming charges or the “pet passport”
- but also the opportunity to make a contribution, whether through policies, personnel or Presidencies, something I think Ireland has done over the 37 years of membership.
The 2:1 margin in the result last October was a most gratifying outcome for all involved. At European level there was appreciation of the challenge it had been to approve the Lisbon Treaty by referendum- the only member Stare to go that route- and at a time when economic turmoil was beginning to manifest itself worldwide.
The result delivered a clear reaffirmation of Ireland’s commitment to the EU and its development.
That commitment is well-founded, on a consistently positive sentiment which shows up in eurobarometer and other polling, among Irish people towards European integration. It needs however education, information and background to function well. And this has to be permanent, not simply, as I’ve said before, a crash course in Europe on the occasion of major developments or treaties.
Together with my government colleagues we have elaborated a strategy to encompass the various dimensions of our participation in the EU. The key word is engagement.
The EU influences a great deal of our legislation and much of everyday life. From the level of Cabinet to its Committees and across Government Departments a thorough and coherent engagement with this agenda is necessary. And to be effective it cannot be simply reactive but should anticipate and act upstream on major developments- the elaboration of a new Financial Framework for the EU post-2014 and Ireland’s likely transition to being a net contributor, to take an example.
- My own Department administers the Communicating Europe Initiative, which provides financial support for civil society groups who are interested in raising awareness about the EU in their community and you will be seeing much of the fruits of their labour over the coming days as we approach the celebration of Europe Day. Up to 240,000 Euro is being allocated to over 40 groups around Ireland this week .
- National parliaments have been specifically cited in the Lisbon Treaty for the contribution they can make to the Union’s good functioning. Much useful interchange is already taking place -in my own case for example, before meetings of the Foreign Affairs and General Affairs Councils.
- I am aware that a Sub Committee of the European Affairs and Scrutiny Committees is currently working on a report on how the Oireachtas can most effectively deal with EU business and indeed I look forward to a discussion with the Sub Committee in coming weeks.
- We are also stepping up -at all levels, political and administrative- our engagement with our EU partners and with the EU institutions. These bilateral contacts are an essential adjunct to the deliberations at the level of the 27, identifying areas of common interest and concern and developing the personal relationships that help lubricate the sometimes dry details of transacting EU business. For my own part in the past few months I have had productive encounters in this framework with Foreign Secretary Miliband in London and with Minister Bernard Kouchner in Paris. A meeting with my Lithuanian colleague, Minister Azubalis, has been part of the lead-in to the work our two countries will collaborate on in the context of sequential turns presiding the OSCE and of the Trio Presidency which Ireland and Lithuania will operate, with Greece, in the EU context in 2013-14.
- Last week I met my German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, in Berlin. We had an excellent exchange on topics from eurozone stability to the external action service and nuclear non-proliferation. And the atmosphere was extremely positive as we recalled the part that Ireland played as EU Presidency in 1990 when it brokered the agreement at Dublin Castle for German reunification to take place under an EU roof.
- The job of rotating Presidency is evolving now under the new Treaty. What remains clear however is the benefit and credit to be gained from a professional and impartial approach to exercising that office, as we strove to do on the 6 previous occasions.
The Lisbon Treaty has given the EU a new framework and instruments for tackling its tasks. New arrangements take time to settle but good progress has been made in just five months since entry into force. The European Council under the shrewd and active chairmanship of Herman Van Rompuy is assuming its Treaty obligation of giving the Union strategic direction and impetus. High Representative Catherine Ashton has been chairing the Foreign Affairs Council. Her range of commitments is vast and it is important- as the Irish Times editorialised yesterday- to put in place as soon as possible the support structure that the Treaty envisages, namely the External Action Service.
The Council reached last week a broad political agreement on this; progress with the European Parliament, in a realistic way and in line with the Treaty, is now urgently required.
Working to bring this considerable innovation, the External Action Service, into being is one of the items that will recur on the agenda over the coming months. It embodies a key objective of the Treaty, to make the EU more visible and effective in its external relations. It should have top class staff- a number of very good Irish candidates have put their applications in- and in the end its composition should be representative of our Union as a whole.
Our most pressing challenge is that of the present economic and financial crisis. The inter-dependence and inter-linkage of our economies, notably in the Euro zone, have become very clear.
Innovative thinking has been necessary, not least to cope with situations which few could have envisaged when monetary union was being introduced. There is a willingness to revisit some of the texts and procedures, to see if they need adaptation in light of experience. But the situation has also shown just how resilient the EU can be, and how it can be a source of leadership, even in the face of crisis.
The situation in Greece has been met with a decisive and swift response from eurozone countries. At the Spring European Council the Heads of Government of the eurozone agreed to provide financial support to Greece if it became necessary as a last resort, “ultima ratio”. On 23 April, Greece requested this financial support. Finance Ministers met last Sunday and agreed to provide bilateral loans, centrally pooled by the Commission. The Taoiseach will attend a meeting of Heads of Government of the eurozone on Friday to ratify the process.
Steps are now being taken in each of the member States to give effect to this agreement. In our own case, as the Minister for Finance has indicated, the Government is preparing legislation to allow Ireland play its part in the arrangement.
Ireland's share over the three year programme, which totals €110 billion and includes €80 billion from euro area countries, would be loans of up to €1.3 billion. Strong conditionality is a feature of the programme and the Greek Council of Ministers has now approved the three year programme which has been negotiated with the EU Commission and the IMF in liaison with the ECB.
The goal is to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area. The support which euro area member states are prepared to give to Greece will be to the benefit of everyone who uses the euro.
Greece faces tough decisions. But with the EU’s support, I am confident that the determined efforts of the Greek authorities will allow Greece to meet its fiscal and structural challenges.
We ourselves have had to introduce measures to broaden the tax base, reduce public sector salaries and social welfare payments and curtail expenditure across all Government Departments. But our efforts at controlling our finances have paid dividends in terms of a less onerous cost of borrowing and have been commended by observers.
Our agenda in the months to come will also include the EU 2020 strategy, intended to replace the Lisbon Strategy. This is fundamentally about growth and jobs and about what we have to do nationally and at EU level to produce that. The world beyond Europe is advancing apace. To position ourselves to benefit from recovery and to compete in advanced products and services, innovation will be key. A tightly focussed jobs and growth strategy, with good monitoring and governance arrangements in relation to targets, will contribute to that.
There is much in the EU 2020 strategy that is consistent with the approach we are adopting nationally in our Smart Economy framework. We also ensured that one of the areas where we- both Ireland and the EU- have the potential to play to strength, namely the agri-food area, has been appropriately highlighted. All in all, this is a framework that sits well with our national economic policy focus.
I could elaborate on further current agenda items but I think perhaps it’s better that I leave time for your questions that will no doubt delve into many more areas of interest to journalists covering Europe. I thank you for your attention and for your ongoing work. I hope I have illustrated the vital part that news and commentary on EU matters have to play in Ireland’s interaction with the Union. Ar aghaidh leis an obair!Top