Thursday, 16th May 2013
I, too, join in welcoming Mr. Higgins to the House. He has history in this House and the Dáil. He recalled a fateful phone call, similar to one I received two years ago this Monday when I was in China. It was a great story. I will never forget the pride I felt when I got that phone call.
I acknowledge the roles which have not been highlighted and in which he played a significant part, namely, the EU suicide prevention and mental health treatment strategies, EU funding for the care of the elderly and the increased access to cross-border health care. He was also involved in children and youth issues, such as childhood obesity and child literacy. These issues are often not played out in Ireland, but are important in terms of the development of EU strategies which filter down to Ireland. His role as quaestor is also very important.
I note his role in introducing a cultural programme. I happened to be present in January when Mr. Higgins met Mr. John Banville. It was an excellent initiative.
As Mr. Higgins said, Ireland’s Presidency is very important and set a number of milestones. I would like to join the recognition of the roles played by Irish Ministers. We all have a sense of pride when we hear about the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on the news, delivering a deal people said would not be possible within this Presidency. We should not underestimate the deal which has been struck, and the officials who support that work
I want to raise the role of citizens in Europe. I have a concern that Europe has steered off its path slightly. We should return to its original path, where all voices, no matter how small, were heard equally, and where the understanding and promotion of diversity of culture and ideas were to the fore. Last week I had the opportunity while in Vienna to speak in the Austrian Chancellery on the Future of Europe Group report on striking a balance between unity and diversity. It has not received much publicity in Ireland, but 11 foreign Ministers from EU member states, not including Ireland, came together and wrote a paper on what they believe is the future of Europe. My difficulty with the report is that it progresses a very top-down approach. If one really reads into the report, one will find it looks at the common security policy and similar areas on which we could co-operate, rather than issues which directly affect citizens.
We need to be careful with our engagement on EU issues. I would welcome a debate in the House on the future of Europe. The report to which I referred is interesting. It comprises only seven pages but there is a lot of content. It is very interesting that although the foreign Ministers have all put their names to it, it is on only one official website, that of the German Foreign Minister, Mr. Westerwelle, for debate.
There is often a perception that popular sentiment towards the EU has turned sour because power has moved to the centre of Europe between France and Germany. It should be noted that the European Movement Ireland committee commissioned a RedC poll earlier this year which found 85% of respondents believed that Ireland should remain part of the EU and 83% of Irish adults believe that, on balance, Ireland has benefited from its membership of the EU. We should not underestimate those figures. We can have a serious and engaging debate with the citizens of Ireland. They see the benefits of the EU and we should examine how we can develop that further.
I would be interested to hear the opinions of Mr. Higgins on how, post the Irish Presidency which will be over soon enough, we can ensure the EU agenda focuses on the issues that most affect our citizens and how we can best generate engagement with and support for the EU with people. I refer to the “critical friend” approach, whereby a really good friend will tell one what he or she likes or does not like.
I have concerns about the multiannual financial framework. It is close to completion. We have a deal which will have to be discussed and rebalanced every year because we will not grasp the nettle. We will propose a budget but each year the Parliament will have to grapple with it. I would welcome Mr. Higgins’s thoughts on that.
I echo his congratulations to the Minister, Deputy Coveney for his role in common fisheries and CAP. I am not from an agricultural background, although having spent 12 years on the economic and social committee with farmers’ representatives I learned more about farming than I ever needed or wanted to know. It is tremendous that Ireland has played a role in bringing people together.