Statements on Europe Day and European Commission Work Programme

It is very important that we mark Europe Day on Saturday. The challenge for all of us will be whether we are willing to discuss Europe with those around us because we all have a responsibility and a role in that discussion. I thank the Leader, Senator Cummins, who has been very good at facilitating and encouraging us to get more involved and active on the issue of the EU and its importance in our lives and those of the people we represent. I thank him also for organising a recent briefing with the European Commission representation in Ireland, with Barbara Nolan and Jonathan Claridge. It was an excellent briefing and it is a pity more Senators did not turn up. I hope next time we can encourage more to come along.

It is good to see sentiment is rising, according to the latest Eurobarometer polls, in November 2014. Trust is rising, which is positive. The EU has taken some very positive measures to deal with youth unemployment. We have seen, across Europe but particularly in Ireland how young people are disproportionately impacted by a recession through losing jobs and having to emigrate. What statistics are available to demonstrate the success or failure of the youth employment initiative? We hail big flagship projects but how do we, as Senators and parliamentarians, demonstrate to the public that it is worth this investment, the initiatives are working and we are able to use the experience? I appreciate what the Commission Vice-President Timmermans is doing in trying to reduce the number of initiatives. It is very positive but part of me wonders what the Parliament will do with all the extra time it will have without the Commission producing initiatives. We may have to move to implementation. That will be very tough for member states because we will have to stop coming up with lots of new ideas and get down to the gritty work of implementing what is happening at an EU level.

In respect of the work that will happen to lighten the regulatory burden it is very important that we hear from small and medium sized enterprises, SMEs, and civil society organisations across the sector. We can all say how important it is to lighten the regulatory burden but how we do it is also important.

Ireland has to play a very active role in respect of the possible UK in-out referendum. I am very encouraged by the fact that the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and all other players in the Government have taken on a role in that referendum. Ireland will not stay silent on an issue of such importance to the EU and to our closest neighbours, the UK. It most definitely will have ramifications for us, mostly negative.

The lack of an EU immigration policy is an issue. We can say what we want about the United States, US, but it has very clear immigration rules and one can apply to go there. The EU cannot get its head around it. In certain member states there is rising sentiment, stimulated by the lack of EU leadership on the issue. We think that if we just put up the borders people will not come. If I have a choice between certain death and probable death I will take probable death. That is why people are getting on boats. We have to wake up. Being part of the EU is part of our values. We sing about the respect for human dignity, liberty, equality or human rights but when it comes to people who are not EU citizens do we, all of a sudden, throw the values into the Mediterranean as well? Member states have to take this issue more seriously. We should not call them migrants, they are individuals just like any of us and if I was in their situation I would get on that boat. We all have to know we would do that if we were facing certain death in the situations they are fleeing. The EU has a responsibility and a role on the world stage.

The digital single market and the fact that we could create up to €340 billion of additional growth in Europe over the next ten years is very exciting. I hope Ireland will maximise its slice of that pie. It is well-placed in respect of that market. I am also very heartened to see that within the development of that policy the EU is considering child protection issues. An issue on which I wrote a report and had great support from Members on all sides of the House is child abuse material. I was heartened to read on the Commission’s website that it is considering having a system of filtering child abuse material in the absence of us not having an effective system to remove child abuse images. It will look at doing that at a European Union level. It is happening in the United Kingdom. In Ireland, UPC and the mobile phone operators have brought in such a system, but it is voluntary rather than us saying these images should be blocked. There are very good reasons we need to do that. Twenty-seven per cent of women in the EU, not in Africa or some other country, have experienced some form of physical violence before the age of 15. We must step up what we are doing on the issue of child protection and children’s rights.

We know that approximately 16% of the victims of trafficking registered by EU member states are children. We know that violence is still relatively hidden and under-reported, with 90% of all abuse undetected, according to the World Health Organisation. That ranges from issues such as child sexual abuse and exploitation to bullying and cyberbullying.

In terms of these statements, I know we look at the area from a business and jobs perspective but we must ensure that we also use the children’s rights lens when we are looking at those issues.

I refer to an excellent reflection paper the EU produced yesterday on the 9th European Forum on the Rights of the Child – co-ordination and co-operation in integrated child protection systems. I am disheartened to see that 25 EU member states are parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Finland, the Netherlands and Ireland are the only three countries in the EU that have not signed up to that convention. It is something we need to examine. I believe the capacity legislation may be the blocking mechanism for us. We always say that Ireland plays our role in that regard but when we look at the implementation issues, we are not as good. We need to focus on that issue and consider how we are implementing and upholding our responsibilities as EU citizens, whether here in Ireland, within the European borders or on the world stage.

European Affairs – Statements

22nd June 2011

I am pleased the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs is present for this discussion on enterprise, innovation and job creation. She referred to reputation. Colleagues in other member states have told me how impressed they are with our new Minister of State following her visits to the Continent. I am delighted she is helping to rebuild our reputation.

I echo the Minister of State’s words about Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn who has taken an active role since taking up her job. The Commissioner’s portfolio is critical for Ireland. It is good for us to be seen in this light.

As Senators will be aware, I have been a member of the European Economic and Social Committee for 12 years and vice chair of the European Movement Ireland. Clearly, therefore, issues of a European nature are crucially important to me. Part of our success will be working together with our European counterparts and other member states. However, if I may make a slightly negative point, in working on European semesters we have a missed opportunity to target smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. All too often, the focus has been fiscal consolidation and labour market and pension reforms without consideration being given to how we can achieve inclusive growth or putting in place growth drivers to enable the fiscal consolidation to take place. I am concerned, therefore, by certain elements of the course we are pursuing.

I propose to focus on two of the flagship initiatives under the 2020 strategy, namely, the new agenda for skills and jobs and the Youth on the Move initiative. The latter tackles the high levels of youth unemployment across the European Union. When one considers the variation in youth unemployment rates – in the Netherlands, my husband’s home country, it stands at 4.3% whereas in Spain it is currently 20.5% – one sees the challenge facing us. While each member state faces individual challenges, the European Union must meet collective challenges in countering youth unemployment. As a flagship initiative, I am pleased Youth on the Move has been given its own space. All too often, when the subject of youth is discussed, it is done purely in the employment sphere and associated matters such as entrepreneurship, training and education are overlooked. Youth on the Move claims it will unleash the potential of all young people. To achieve this objective we must give young people a solid basis in life.

The Minister of State referred to sanctions. All too often member states are willing to agree to lofty ideals but unwilling to set clear and measurable targets. As I indicated, unemployment rates vary considerably across member states although many of the challenges facing them are the same. We could set clear and measurable targets and indicators for each of the member states. If they were not met, some form of sanctions should be imposed. The rewards would clearly speak for themselves. With regard to young people, I have concerns that in dealing with our economic crisis focusing on reducing sovereign debt, we are reducing public investment in education and training, the very areas we will need to develop in the future. The teaching of languages is very important as are what are often called the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need to focus on attracting more young people to take up those subjects. The early study and career guidance looking at the labour market needs and the skills of young people and providing entrepreneurship at all levels of education are also important. The Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme was launched a few years ago and we could encourage more young Irish people to get involved. This Erasmus programme will give a young person the opportunity to go to another member state and look at opportunities of entrepreneurship there and bring them back. The Minister referred to the growth in the German market and we need to be thinking in this way.

I was in China recently with the Chinese economic and social committee. We were looking at areas such as inclusive regional development and the green economy. We often talk about our young people leaving Ireland and we see them as being gone forever. I was impressed that China is encouraging its young people to leave, but come back after a year or two and bring that knowledge back. That is a message we should be giving to our young people. While the jobs are not here, that will not necessarily be the case for life. We should be looking at training opportunities and upskilling. We should be exposing them to innovative and creative markets, and entrepreneurship. I recognise the Every Job Counts: Youth Solutions initiative to encourage entrepreneurship launched recently by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

We can learn from some of our counterparts in other states about additional training opportunities for early school leavers and low-skilled workers. We have an issue of access to apprenticeships. We are often told that the best way a young boy can get an apprenticeship is to join the Army, which offers some of the best apprenticeships in the State. We should draw on some of that knowledge that it does so well and create apprenticeships to develop those skills.

The validation and certification of skills across educational settings is very important. This is true not just of the formal education setting but also in the informal education setting – looking at us buying into European skills passports, etc., so that when our young people go to other countries they are able to transfer that accreditation and qualification.

The big questions are on the spending programmes of the Europe 2020 strategy, such as research and development, and education. I am very conscious that we are lining up in Europe for a battle royale. They are likely to be reducing funding across all our multi-funding spending lines. I know that next week Commissioner Barroso will announce the financial framework beyond 2012 and I know the battle lines are being drawn up on this debate. It is a crucial time for the future of Europe and for Ireland. This is funding that has benefited Ireland greatly but how do we ensure we can maximise it? I am concerned as to how we, as Senators and others, can support Ireland’s role in tackling the funding crisis that will potentially loom as the funding reduces at a time when we should be investing more.

I am organising an event in September with representatives from several member states. I will contact the Minister of State in that regard. We are trying to bring experiences from different countries to try to use that knowledge and hopefully come up with some creative solutions and ideas that can be used in several member states.