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Remarks to EU Heads of Mission by An Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen T.D. on the 8 December 2008

 

I would like to thank the French Ambassador for inviting me to join you for lunch and to address you today.  The French Presidency has given steadfast and energetic leadership to the EU in the last six months. And here in Dublin Ambassador d’Albert has carried the flame. I know that you will all join me in commending France on a Presidency very well done indeed.

Not quite done yet though.

I met with President Sarkozy again on Friday.  He has a busy week ahead of him.  I think it’s fair to say that so do I.

In relation to the Council on Thursday and Friday, the key challenge is to demonstrate that the EU is working together in confidence and solidarity to resolve the issues of concern and relevance to ordinary Europeans and their families in these troubled times. I am certain that we will meet that challenge under the guidance of President Sarkozy.

I know that you are eager to hear what I have to say about the Lisbon Treaty, and I will come to that in a few moments.   But there are a number of other important items on which I would like first to comment, which are of direct concern to ordinary Europeans, and which demonstrate why and how co-ordinated action across the EU is so important.

Energy and Climate Change

Resolving the Lisbon dilemma will clear the way for the Union to re-focus its attention on the issues of direct concern to ordinary Europeans. I’m thinking here of course about jobs and economic stability, peace and the need to act to ensure that the EU has energy and environmental policies that are sustainable.

As we all know the EU has been discussing the Union’s energy and climate policies for the past two years.  This is a complex and challenging dossier: I sincerely hope that a balanced and achievable agreement can be reached at the European Council.  Europe needs to continue to give leadership on climate change.

There will be considerable discontent among key economic groups in Ireland over the package: society must accept that if we are to change the way we do things, then all Member States have to bear a share of the burden. Ireland has the very highest target for emissions and faces a major challenge in its renewable energy target. Our experts advise that we will have among the highest emissions abatement costs in the EU.  This is not going to be easy for us.

We face, too, a somewhat unique challenge because of our agriculture sector. There are no practical technological solutions available to reduce the bulk of these emissions, so real cuts in emissions would simply translate to real cuts in food output.  That is not the right solution.  I have worked hard to ensure sufficient flexibility within the effort-sharing sector to enable us to meet our national target. Retaining the existing provisions for flexibility will be a top negotiating priority for us this week.

We will also want to ensure that the step-up from 20% to a 30% target is not, in the event of a global agreement for the 2013-2020 period, an automatic process, because it represents a significant change. It is essential that we have a fresh economic impact assessment in that context.  A new study will be required before the Commission can put a credible set of national targets before Member States.

Finally, we want certainty in the EU legislation that forestry can contribute to emissions reductions in the unlikely event that there is no international agreement in Copenhagen – clearly forestry as with all sectors must play its role.  This is also the case because the scheme we put in place must have public support, and to maintain that, it must be credible.  

Overall, we are prepared to take on our share but we face a major challenge and any further negative shifts in the balance of the package will make our position more difficult in selling the outcome of the European Council domestically.

Economic and Financial situation

Turning to the economic and financial crisis, I would open my comments with the observation that the downturn is becoming more pressing.  I think it is fair to say that we are in a uniquely difficult situation internationally. Ireland, as a small open economy, has found itself particularly exposed to many of the challenging economic developments which are affecting all economies around the globe.

The fiscal outlook in Ireland is particularly bleak. We have seen a significant contraction in a number of sectors, and this has had a far worse impact on Government revenues than our estimates could predict. Government expenditure is in line with budgetary expectations due to the rigorous control of expenditure which we have introduced in response to the fiscal outlook. But revenues are sharply down.

The stimulus package published by the Commission is a welcome initiative and we endorse much of its contents. Our priority will be a sustainable consolidation of the public finances over the medium term.  This must be achieved without depressing investment and consumer demand through increases in the tax burden on labour and business, which would weaken the economic outlook. The Government’s actions to cut gross government debt during the past decade while funding very large public investment from tax revenue means that we are in a better position than any of our predecessors at this point in the economic cycle.

CFSP Issues

In the area of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the French Presidency has proven that Europe is most effective when we act quickly and when we act together. The resolute manner in which President Sarkozy reacted to the crisis in Georgia represented a model of how Europe should react to such crises in the future and provides us with a template against which to judge our actions.

Europe was also able to move quickly to tackle the security vacuum created by the absence of the rule of law in the seas around Somalia by establishing the EU naval mission ATALANTA. This is further proof of the value of a security and defence policy, firmly anchored in the CFSP and with the UN at the apex of the international system.

We have been working particularly closely with France as part of EUFOR Chad, under the command of Lieutenant General Pat Nash in maintaining a vital humanitarian space in this troubled region. Many challenges remain in Africa and continued EU engagement will be necessary in the Great Lakes, Zimbabwe and the Horn of Africa.

Lisbon Treaty

These last six months have been a remarkably challenging time for Europe and indeed for the wider world.  The Russia/Georgia conflict I just mentioned reminds us that, unfortunately, there is nothing inevitable about the peace and prosperity which has been the hallmark of the European Union since its establishment. Over the last months also, Europe and the world beyond, has been buffeted by a financial and economic crisis the likes of which have not been seen in our lifetimes.  These issues have, if anything, strengthened Member States’ desire to see the reforms in the Lisbon Treaty in force.

Since our referendum, the Government’s strategy has been clear. Firstly, we took the time to consider and analyse the factors that contributed to the result. And then, on the basis of that analysis, we have been working to chart a way forward acceptable to both Ireland and our EU partners.

You are familiar with the comprehensive research we undertook, the results of which have been an important input to our thinking.

In my assessment at the October European Council meeting, I highlighted key concerns emerging from the research which included: 

(i)      the future composition of the Commission;

(ii)      issues related to defence and our tradition of neutrality;

(iii)     social/ethical matters, and

(iv)     taxation.

The Government has worked with the other parties to establish an all-party Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union, a very necessary part of the post referendum process.  It worked with impressive speed and diligence, delivering its report, on schedule, at the end of November.

Since the report was published, the Government has been studying its contents carefully. It is informing our approach to an agreed way forward that can command maximum political support and that can be accepted by our EU partners.

The Oireachtas report unambiguously confirms that Ireland’s place is at the heart of the European Union. This position reflects the strong and clear view which has consistently emerged form the research into Irish people’s attitudes to the Union.   And it sits also with my own view that our future and Europe’s are bound inexorably.

Since June, and more intensively since the October European Council, we have been working extremely closely and energetically with the Presidency, the EU institutions, as well as with other Member States.

As you know, I have visited a number of my colleagues over the last couple of weeks. At the same time, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for European Affairs have had the opportunity to meet a great number of their counterparts.  These contacts have been very valuable in advancing our discussions and will continue in the days ahead when I hope to speak with several more Prime Ministers.

You will understand that at this sensitive and delicate moment in our discussions, I am somewhat constrained from going into too much detail.

But I will say the following.  We are aiming for a political agreement at the Council that the concerns raised by the Irish public will be satisfactorily addressed, both in substance and in a legally robust manner.  

For my part, I can assure you that if a satisfactory response to the Irish people’s concerns is forthcoming, then I will not be found wanting.  We are fully prepared to meet our responsibilities to our partners across the European Union.  Europe is a 27 way street: we all have responsibilities to each other.

Progress of this kind requires leadership and flexibility.  I believe that we have sufficient quantities of both in relation to the Lisbon issue to have a successful resolution. 

A key strength of the Union has been its ability and willingness to work on the basis of accommodating the interests of all Member States. There has been great readiness on the part of other Member States to work with us in the search for solutions. We appreciate greatly the constructive and cooperative spirit which all partners have approached the seeking of collective solutions. We are counting on your continued understanding.  My contacts to date have been very supportive and encouraging in that regard.

Conclusion

As I said at the outset, we have a very busy agenda this week at the most challenging times for the EU and the Member States economically and politically. Our interdependence has never been so clear and the need for collective solutions to our common problems has rarely been so urgent.

Urgency, vision and innovation have been the hallmarks of the French Presidency and Europe has been all the better for that. I’m confident that these strengths will define the outcomes of our meeting next Thursday and Friday in Brussels also. Ireland is determined to play our part in reaching agreements that will stand the test of time and meet public approval here at home.

Ambassador Roe d’Albert, I thank you again for your hospitality today and I take this opportunity once again to congratulate France on an excellent and remarkable Presidency.  Finally, I wish all of you, as representatives of our friends and partners, a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.  

Ends