Statement to the Joint Committee on European Affairs by the Minister for European Affairs, Pascal Donohoe T.D., on the General Affairs Council, Brussels, 13 May 2014

6th May, 2014

Chairman, Members,


As ever it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to address this committee.  I am going to start as usual by briefing you on next week’s General Affairs Council in Brussels. 


As agreed I will then, turn, however, to the forthcoming European elections across our Union.  As this is Europe week, I think it is important to take some time to reflect on the bigger questions which can sometimes be drowned out by the demands of our day to day business.


Of course, any wider reflection on Europe must also consider the successful enlargement of our Union.   I was delighted to speak earlier today at a special conference in Dublin Castle marking the historic 2004 enlargement which took place on 1 May ten years ago and reflect on the future political, economic and security challenges of the European Union.   

The Greek Presidency is also arranging a short ceremony to mark the ten year anniversary at next week’s General Affairs Council.  I will be delighted to participate in this.


The 2004 accession reunited Europe after years of artificial division.

As you will recall on 1 May that year, Ireland hosted a Day of Welcomes in the Phoenix Park for the twenty-five Member States and those countries in negotiation to become members.


The late Seamus Heaney was commissioned to write a poem for the occasion entitled Beacons at Bealtaine.  In his poem, Heaney exhorted us to “move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare”.   I hope that we have risen to that call and that we will continue to do so. 


I think that we can be proud of the development of our relations with the countries that enjoyed in 2004 and since.  Our people to people contacts have never been stronger.  Today, we are proud to count many people originally from the countries which joined the EU ten years ago as part of our Irish community.  


Our economic relations have also gone from strength to strength. Ireland’s goods exports to Central and Eastern Europe were worth nearly €2.2 billion in last year, three times what they were in 2004.


Meanwhile, EU enlargement continues to drive transformation and anchor stability in the countries of Southeast Europe that are aspiring to EU membership.

Later this week, I will be attending an EU Ministerial Conference looking at how we can encourage the next wave of candidates and potential candidates from the Western Balkans on their path to EU membership. The pull and influence of the EU is helping aspirant countries implement democratic and economic reforms, improving the role of law and respect for human rights, and helping them overcome the legacy of the past. 


March GAC

The last General Affairs Council was held in Brussels on 18 March.  The Council which was followed by a lunch with the President of the European Council focussed on the preparation of the March European Council Conclusions.  The crisis in Ukraine was unsurprisingly uppermost in people’s minds. 


There was also an extensive exchange of views on the Commission’s communication on the Rule of Law Mechanism with differing degrees of enthusiasm for the proposal among the Member States. It was agreed that the communication warranted a further, more substantial discussion at a future GAC meeting, possibly in June when council conclusions on the Commission’s proposal could be considered.



Apart from the enlargement ceremony, the main item on the agenda next Tuesday is the preparation of the June European Council.  This will be the first Ministerial engagement in advance of the June meeting of Heads of State and Government and we expect to agree on a draft agenda.  Further and more substantive preparatory work will be done at the June General Affairs Council.


At present, I expect that that June European Council will be focussed on the European Semester, climate and energy and the adoption of new strategic guidelines on justice and home affairs as well as relevant foreign policy issues.  It is quite likely that the Heads of State and Government will also discuss the appointment of the next President of the Commission and other appointments.


European Semester

The June European Council will conclude the 2014 European Semester by endorsing Country Specific Recommendations for Member States.  These will then be taken forward through the different national budget and policy cycles.


The Committee will recall that we had a very constructive engagement on the European Semester on 1 April in the context of settling our National Reform Programme.  This was then finalised by the Government and submitted to the Commission in mid-April.  Minister Noonan also had an important exchange with the Finance Committee on 15 April in relation to submission of our Stability Programme Update. 

We currently expect that the Commission will present its draft Country Specific Recommendations on 2 June.  This is an issue to which we will return at our June meeting.


Climate and Energy

Members will also recall that the March European Council held a first policy debate on the framework for climate and energy to 2030.  Heads of State and Government agreed that they would take stock of progress made on these issues in June with a view to taking a final decision on the new policy framework by October 2014.  


In light of the situation in Ukraine, the Commission was also asked in March to prepare a detailed analysis on Europe’s energy security and to propose a comprehensive plan to reduce energy dependency for consideration in June. Meanwhile, intensive work is continuing at technical and political level, involving also the Environment, Energy and Agriculture Councils.


JHA Strategic Guidelines




A key focus for Heads of State and Government in June will be the adoption of strategic guidelines to direct future work in the area of Justice and Home Affairs over the coming years.  These guidelines will succeed the Stockholm Programme, the current multi-annual JHA work programme which expires at the end of this year. 

Their adoption will be the culmination of a debate which has been ongoing at Ministerial and senior Working Party levels since July 2013 and which has also included the submission of formal written contributions by individual Member States in late 2013. 


The Presidency has indicated that it will present a paper for discussion at the June Justice and Home Affairs Council, after which a document will be sent to the European Council which will take on board the views of JHA Ministers.  It remains to be seen what exact format this document will take or how detailed it will be. 


However, there is wide agreement among Member States that, following the development of an extensive legal architecture in the JHA area over the past 15 years, the next phase should focus primarily on the implementation, evaluation and consolidation of the existing legal framework rather than on a lengthy ‘shopping list’ of new legislative proposals. 


While the Irish Government shares this view, we and other Member States have also recommended that the guidelines should be flexible enough to permit further legislative action where there is clear and objective evidence that this is necessary and that any additional costs are justifiable. 


Ireland’s official written submission on the issue, a copy of which has been supplied to the Committee, identifies a number of areas of co-operation which we believe should be considered for further development. 

The Minister for Justice and Equality has highlighted many of these areas in the course of discussions at Justice and Home Affairs Council and elsewhere. 




The June European Council is also expected to agree further concrete measures in the area of Regulatory Fitness, or REFIT.  This is an important emphasis that has been established over recent months: withdrawing unnecessary proposals; simplifying what’s already in place; and repealing what’s out of date.  It means reducing transaction costs for the businesses that can and will create new jobs.


Colleagues, I hope that this has given you a flavour of next week’s discussions.  Let me turn down to our second agenda item on the European elections.


European Elections

As the Taoiseach has noted, this month’s European elections are the most important for Ireland since we joined the EEC four decades ago. This is because the European Parliament matters like never before. And because in the coming term, its influence in the formation of EU legislation and the direction Europe takes is poised to be greater than ever.




As members of this committee are aware, the Lisbon Treaty has substantially enhanced the role and powers of the Strasbourg Parliament. Co-decision is now the EU’s standard legislative practice, meaning that Parliament has a significant say in the formation of almost all EU legislation.


Consider its output over its current term. A total of 45,000 legislative amendments, of which 16,000 were adopted. 2,091 committee reports, on issues ranging from the Common Fisheries Policy to role of the Troika in EU programme countries. And more than 22,000 votes in plenary session, leading to the adoption of 2583 texts, including 970 legislative acts.


These numbers tell only part of the story. The range of policy areas over which the Parliament exerts influence is just as telling.


To take but a few examples, the Parliament played an essential role in determining the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework. It contributed to the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. And in its final session last month, it voted through legislation enacting the single resolution mechanism, the banking restructuring and resolution directive and provisions on the preferential treatment of depositors, three critical steps in the creation of Banking Union.


The next Parliament will take equally critical decisions on everything from Europe’s environmental and climate change commitments to what we hope will be a historic free trade agreement between the US and the EU.

Appointment of the New Commission

One of the Parliament’s first tasks – and among its most important – will be to consider the European Council’s nominee for the Presidency of the European Commission.


The steps from the elections to this critical vote, and from there to the final appointment of the Commission, are worth considering, given their relevance to all that will follow in this term.


All twenty eight Member States will hold their elections between the 22 and 25 May. Provisional results should be available quickly, with final results to be confirmed in June, in the course of which newly elected MEPs will meet and constitute political groups.


During the same period, the Heads of State and Government will consider their nominee for the President of the European Commission, with a view to reaching a decision at the June European Council. This consideration will take account of the results of the European election.


The Parliament holds its first plenary or constitutive session between 1 and 3 July. This will be dedicated to the formal constitution of the Parliament, with the new MEPs set to elect the President of the Parliament, 14 Vice-Presidents and six Quaestors, as well as the chairs and vice chairs of the Committees.     


Assuming the Heads of State and Government select a nominee at the June Council, the Parliament would be expected to vote on the proposal at its second plenary session, scheduled for 14 – 17 July.

When the Commission President has been elected, the Council, in agreement with the President, will adopt the list of commissioners designates. Commissioners-designates will then be called to appear in public before the relevant European parliamentary committees.


After this screening process is complete, the President will present the full College of Commissioners and its programme at a plenary session of Parliament, which will then vote its consent to the Commission’s appointment.


If all goes to schedule, the new Commission should take office on the 1st of November.


EP Election Results – Countering Euroscepticism

While this timing is provisional and somewhat uncertain, it is absolutely clear that the upcoming elections will substantially alter the Strasbourg landscape.


What shape will the new Parliament take? Current polls suggest that the two main political groups – the EPP and S&D – are closely matched. They also point to a significant increase in the representation of the far-right, far-left and eurosceptic parties. Indeed, indications are that anti-EU parties might secure as much as a quarter of all seats and top national polls in several Member States.




All of this could mean a more volatile, fragmented and polarized European Parliament emerges. However, as several commentators have noted, it is also possible that the result means those parties in support of the EU end up working more closely together than before.


Whatever is the case, the growth of euroscepticism is a worrying trend which, if left unchecked, could threaten the legitimacy of the European project. The fact that anti-EU voices have gained support through the economic crisis is perhaps unsurprising.


 In times of uncertainty, and especially in times of high unemployment, such as Europe has experienced these past five years, the attraction of the simplistic solutions eurosceptics offer – however misguided – should not be underestimated. While, the promise that the challenges of a globalised world can be overcome by nation states retreating into protectionism can provide comfort, it is simply untrue.


The reality is much more complex. Globalisation has changed the game for nations. It requires that we work together. And this, I believe, is the contemporary rationale for the EU – that by working together we can achieve more than we can on our own.


If the arguments of euro-scepticism are to be debunked, and the legitimacy of the EU enhanced, it’s essential that this truth be demonstrated to voters.


This is best achieved, I think, though our response to the crisis, by restoring stability and delivering jobs and growth across the continent.

Engagement with the European Parliament

I will conclude with some thoughts on Ireland’s role in the European Parliament.


More than most, perhaps, we have special cause to recognize the importance of this rapidly evolving institution.


Our ministers and officials worked closely with the Parliament in preparing for and delivering our EU Presidency. In the eighteen months prior to the Presidency, there were more than thirty five visits by Irish Ministers to the EP in Brussels and Strasbourg.


 During the Presidency, Ministers participated in more than seventy debates in EP committees and plenary, while at official level we held almost 350 trilogues with MEPs. This engagement left us with a clear impression of the Parliament’s significance, a valuable insight into its workings and a strong network of influential contacts.


Since the Presidency, we have looked to continue this positive engagement. A Government Minister has travelled to Strasbourg for most plenary sessions. I myself have already attended twice and will do so again in the coming months, as will other Ministerial colleagues.


This engagement in the early sessions of the new Parliament will be critical in reinforcing our existing connections in Strasbourg and developing new ones. This is all the more vital by the fact that the turnover of MEPs is set to be especially pronounced.

Just 336 current MEPs are seeking re-election, meaning that more than half of the 751 member Parliament will be new. Many important figures are retiring, including group leaders Hannes Swoboda and Joseph Daul and influential Committee Chairs Sharon Bowles, Malcolm Harbour and Klaus Lehne.


The scale of change and the growing powers of the parliament make it essential that the eleven MEPs the Irish people elect this month, whatever their political background, are active and engaged from the outset.


While our share of the Parliament is relatively small, the influence of our MEPs in advancing and protecting our national interests at EU level can be significant.


As Minister, I look forward to engaging closely with our new MEPs, as I have with our current representatives, to this end.