Published: Thu, 16 May 2013
Please see below the full text of my address to Seanad Éireann
A Chathaoirleach, a Cheannaire agus a Sheanadóirí,
I would like to begin by thanking the Leader Senator Maurice Cummins for the opportunity to address the house today. I would like to commend him and his office for this excellent outreach initiative improving communications and dialogue between the Oireachtas and the European Parliament. I am very grateful for the opportunity and hope this series is the beginning of a continued, frequent and productive line of communication between our two Parliaments.
I must say that to be afford 15 – 20 minutes speaking time is a novelty for me which I barely know what to do with being so accustomed to the European Parliament’s practice of two minutes of speaking time.
In the midst of Europe’s current difficulties and given our current holding of the Rotating Presidency of the Council of Ministers coinciding with the Fortieth Anniversary of Ireland joining the European Union, it is now an appropriate time to reflect on our participation in the EU and consider how we wish to see it develop over the next forty years. I wish to congratulate the Seanad in being to the fore in our national discourse on this issue.
Ireland’s membership of the EU has empowered and enriched us. When we joined in 1973 our GDP per capita was 64.2% of the then European average. Today, despite recent economic turmoil, we continue boast one of the highest GDP per capita rates in the Union. Living standards have risen to such an extent that modern Ireland looks and feels like a different country to the Ireland of 40 years ago such are the improvements and the developments our participation in Europe has gained for us.
To my mind the clearest embodiment of our membership of the Union, after the Euro, is the Common Agricultural Policy. Up to 2008 Ireland has benefited from almost €44 billion from the CAP.
I am cognisant of the fact that my colleagues have already addressed you in relation to the issue of CAP Reform as well as Common Fisheries Reform and I will therefore avoid discussing these issues today despite them being an substantial portion of my workload.
The EU has experienced many difficult phases since its foundation, from accusations of inactivity, to incompetence, to overreaching, to failure. I don’t think anyone here would deny that the current difficulty facing Europe, whilst not an existentialist crisis, is its most challenging to date. As this House has debated many of the issues both itself and with my colleagues, I do not wish to bore the House with repetition.
However I will say that the situation on the European level is unrecognisable from only a year ago. Europe has managed to pull itself back from the brink.
While the situation has calmed, as of March, unemployment nationally still stood at 14%, while across the EU it has reached a figure of 10.9% which are two depressingly high figures. Worse again is the figure for youth unemployment across Europe, 23.5%, nearly a quarter of all young people in Europe are unemployed. Unemployment is a scourge which is continuing to wreak havoc across the continent not least in Ireland. While we are in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in living memory, unemployment can only be fundamentally solved through a return to economic growth. Growth and job creation go hand in hand, albeit with a lag between the return to sustainable growth and significant job creation. This is an issue which this House has focussed on relentlessly and I hope that the Senators will continue to do so.
Europe works slowly in a somewhat Byzantine manner while markets and media and most importantly citizens expect rapid speedy action. This has resulted in, several times throughout the crisis, expectations of Europe being too high particularly in relation to timeframes. That said, it can also be reasonably stated that Europe has failed to achieve reasonable expectations at other times.
The mantra of “more Europe” is a common, catch-all, silver bullet solution touted by many in the European Parliament and the European Commission without a clear outline of what that it would comprise of. This failure to communicate is worsened by the sense of disconnect between European Institutions and Citizens and has led to legitimate questions in relation to credibility. The need to re-engage with the peoples of Europe has never been more urgent. This is why I am of the firm belief that next year’s European elections, are of such crucial importance. They offer the citizens of Europe the first pan-continental opportunity to not only cast judgment on how the challenges Europe has faced since 2009 have been faced but also to back set out how they wish to craft the future narrative of Europe.
This is a critical time for Ireland and Europe, and it is imperative that charting the way forward, building a shared vision for the future of Europe is a bottom-up process, where events such as this provide the forum for expressing views and crafting that shared future. National Parliaments have an integral role to play in this.
While Europe is currently engaged in what can only be described as a mass fire-fighting exercise, we are now at the point where we can and must begin to envisage a future for Europe.
The era of fire-fighters is coming to an end, we are about to witness the dawn of a new era of architects.
Designing a shared vision of the future and charting the path to achieving this, will be a long, arduous process yet it is incredibly exciting and exhilarating that for the first time in a generation, Europe is being remoulded and reformed before our eyes and with our participation.
My paper today revolves around the theme of “Beyond the Crisis”, informed by my work on the several European Parliament Committees on which I serve.
The construction of our future, demands of policy makers to be architects, to be visionaries, capable of brave decisions, based on sound evidence: to think long term, to focus on the sustainability of economic decisions, to strive to ensure that both citizens and businesses reap the full benefits of long-term continuing investment in education, to anticipate the infrastructural demands of society and the economy, twenty, thirty, and forty years down the line.
I am fortunate that the Committees I serve on in the European Parliament are more focussed on the medium and long term future prospects of Europe. I serve on the Industry, Energy, and Research Committee, the Committee on Culture and Education, the Regional Development Committee and the Delegation for Relations with the United States and the Delegation for Relations with Canada.
If the House will indulge me I will outline the current work of these committees and delegations in the context of their contribution towards fashioning the architecture of Europe beyond the crisis. In the main, the Industry Committee and the Regional Development Committee focus on the foundations for economic growth and development and it is within this sphere I wish to concentrate my remarks today.
I will turn first to Horizon 2020. The potential of Research and Innovation offer Europe the greatest opportunity for future economic growth, from the Eureka moment onwards researchers and entrepreneurs must be supported, encouraged in developing their ideas into tangible concepts, fostering their inquisitive and entrepreneurial spirit from the genesis to the final consumer.
In 2010 European Leaders adopted the Europe 2020 Strategy, this was designed to place the European Economy on a sound sustainable footing. At the core of this Strategy is the recognition that research and innovation are absolutely and fundamentally necessary in fostering and spurring long term sustainable economic growth.
Horizon 2020 is the programme for implementing this goal, it brings all European funding for Research and Innovation under one umbrella. The programme will make it easier to avail of EU research and innovation funding schemes. Increased and more streamlined investment in Research and Innovation can and will, I believe, play a core role in economic recovery, the return to jobs and growth and vitally regaining European competitiveness.
€70 billion is earmarked over the next Seven Years for Horizon 2020, while it is not the original figure of 3% of European GDP, it does represent the greatest commitment ever to Research and Innovation. It is an example of the EU directly investing in the European economy providing researchers and innovators with solid support and real opportunities.
It comprised three mutually reinforcing pillars.
The first pillar, known as the Excellence in the Science Base Pillar, concentrates on basic, fundamental research managed by the European Research Council promoting the gold standard for research.
The second pillar, Creating Industrial Leadership and Competitive Frameworks, revolves around supporting research and innovation by business and entrepreneurs, particularly SMEs in the areas of ICT, nano and bio-technology.
The third pillar, Tackling Societal Challenges, focuses a broad range of the challenges that European society faces now and into the future, issues such as health, demographic change, and energy security.
To quote the Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Máire Geoghan-Quinn:
“Horizon 2020 means simplification…we want our scientists and innovators to spend more time in the lab or workshop, and less time filling in forms, we are slashing red tape to make it easier to access financing.”
Ireland is already at the forefront of research and innovation in Europe, we are amongst the best placed member states to fully exploit the funding opportunities offered by Horizon 2020. Over the next seven years, I am confident that our researchers and innovators will continue to secure a disproportionately large amount of European research funding generating more jobs, higher sustainable real growth.
Investment in research and innovation is a solid sound investment in our future economy and prosperity and Horizon 2020 empowers prepared countries like Ireland to continue as innovation pioneers in the science and technology spheres building a stronger, sounder, sustainable economy.
I will now move to an issue which has dominated my work on the Industry Committee over the last year: Data Protection.
With the increasing use of Big Data, and people living more of their lives online, come big questions regarding privacy issues.
Horizon 2020 calls for a development of a framework to safeguard human rights in the digital society so that users can control how their personal data is used by third parties.
Big Data offers huge potential benefits to society as a whole. It can offer innovative solutions to some of greatest societal challenges, in the field of health research, smart cities, education and the efficient delivery of public services.
It was thus at the heart of my recent week-long conference on EU Science, Global Challenges and Global Collaboration.
We are entering a data-driven era, but what does that mean to citizens? It means many benefits, but also there are many legitimate concerns that citizens’ privacy is at stake. We must remember that the right to privacy is a fundamental right enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
As citizens, we demand that our privacy be protected in the context of rapid technological development and this must be our top priority. Therefore, the Commission came forward in early 2012 with the biggest Data Protection reform in 20 years, with the proposed General Data Protection Regulation. This seeks to update the provisions of the 1995 Directive on Data Protection.
I was appointed on behalf of the Parliament’s powerful Industry, Research and Energy Committee to lead negotiations on this reform, in collaboration with the lead Civil Liberties Committee.
What we are seeking to do is provide a clear framework for innovation in big data, which can deliver enormous benefits to society as a whole, without unnecessarily hampering it with meaningless red tape. Key to this balance is trust, so that we as citizens are aware that our data is being protected.
As a result, there are a number of key innovations in this reform, focusing on robust corporate governance models, anchored in the powerful new mandatory position of the Data Protection Officer. Also, there will be a strong system of administrative sanctions implemented by independent data protection authorities, watchdogs with teeth.
Consent will be made clear and unambiguous for data subjects, and the relationship between controllers and processors will be clarified, something of crucial importance in the burgeoning cloud context.
I have also introduced wording to promote broad consent, which is of key importance in the field of medical research.
At the heart of my report has been the goal of achieving a strong balance between the right to privacy and the obligation to promote innovation to be respected in the ongoing negotiations.
EU Patent Court
An area which is closely related to Research & Innovation and Data Protection is the topic of Patent Protection.
It is one of the real triumphs of the Irish Presidency and Minister Richard Bruton in particular, that agreement has been found whereby 24 countries have agreed to what is known as the Unified Patent Court Agreement.
The importance of patent protection cannot be understated. European businesses invest billions every year on research and innovation, nurturing an idea from the Eureka moment guiding it all the way to the marketplace. Recognising and vindicating the rights of businesses and innovators, to the ownership of their ideas, is crucial to empowering European business and researchers to continue and increase their investment in research and innovation confident that their endeavours will be respected. The Patents Package provides the framework for this recognition, reducing costs for business and providing a simplified structure for recognition of patents across Europe with access to a robust judicial remedy in cases of conflict.
It is a crucial step in reducing the burden of red tape on enterprises across Europe through providing innovative European businesses with a one-stop shop for registering and protecting patents within the EU. The Patents Package has the potential to unleash economic growth across Europe. It is estimated that the it could potentially save European business between €150-290m annually, this is only the initial saving of a simplified system. The true opportunity which Patent reform affords European business, is in unleashing the potential within European business and research sectors.
Moving towards recent developments in the European Parliament’s Regional Development Committee. The Regional Development Committee focuses on fundamental physical infrastructures required for economic development to occur in Europe’s peripheral regions. Ireland has benefited incredibly from Regional Development Funds, over the course of the past forty years investing in vital economic structures transport mobility and connectivity ensuring that the necessary economic infrastructure was in place to empower regions such as Ireland to fulfil their economic potential. The work of the regional development has now moved towards those regions which need it most in Eastern Europe and Southern Europe. However that does not mean that the issues and economic potential of the peripheral regions of Western Europe are forgotten about. However the focus in relation to Western Peripheral Regions is less concerned with roads and railways and more concerned with realising long term economic potential of our regions.
I wish to briefly present to this House, if the Senators will indulge me, a summary of a report I authored for the committee which was overwhelmingly accepted last week, on the topic of Blue Growth.
The fact that Ireland is an island nation places it it in an enviable position to fully benefit from the EU’s new Blue Growth Strategy.
The Blue Growth Strategy is fundamentally aimed at utilising our marine resources in a sustainable manner to generate growth and foster job creation. It is being formulated to identify and tackle long term challenges, highlight synergies within the sector to unleash growth. In concrete terms it is examining ways of removing the administrative barriers that hamper growth, foster investment in research and innovation, and promote skills through education and training. It focuses on aquaculture industry as well short-sea shipping, coastal tourism, and offshore wind energy sectors which all present incredible opportunities for Ireland.
The role of aquaculture in promoting regional development in coastal areas across Europe is central; 90 % of aquaculture businesses in the EU are SMEs, providing 80 000 jobs. There is a need for the sector to be supported but more importantly to be significantly expanded through adopting innovative methods and schemes funded through the European Marine and Fisheries Fund, in promoting the development of aquaculture in deep water alongside offshore wind farms
My opinion focussed on developing maritime clusters and exploiting the resulting synergies across the sector. The opportunities for growth and resulting job creation both normal and innovative are evident throughout this strategy. This strategy once completed and implemented fully has the potential to generate thousands of long term sustainable jobs directly and indirectly across Ireland and with proper implementation and ambition millions throughout Europe.
Having touched on what I believe are the major issues which I have worked on in the European Parliament over the past year or so, I now wish to turn to discuss a topic which may be of more direct interest to the Senators.
The Lisbon Treaty conferred considerable extra powers on the European Parliament transforming us as an institution into a full legislative chamber, an equal partner with the European Council, a fact we are not tired of reminding ourselves nor any poor commissioner whose legislative proposals are less than to some of my colleagues liking.
The same treaty conferred a new, more substantial role on National Parliaments as watchdogs for the Principle of Subsidiarity as part of a wider role to contribute to the good functioning of the Union and Right to Information. National parliaments are now expected to scrutinize freedom, justice and security issues combined with their traditional role in treaty change and enlargement.
As you are all well aware, the European Commission sends copies of its legislative proposals and the Oireachtas, along with every other parliament across Europe, has eight weeks to respond. Given the sheer quantity of Commission legislative proposals, I wonder how National Parliaments currently manage their responsibilities and I genuinely wonder how their role can be strengthened and reinforced within the context of the development of EU institutions into the future.
While the future of Seanad Éireann will be decided by the people, in the exercise of their sovereign right this autumn, I hope that the responsibility of European Legislative Scrutiny will be given due consideration in whatever new configuration of the Oireachtas that develops after the referendum.
I note that many members of this house been very much to fore in calling for the Seanad to take these European responsibilities in a structured and comprehensive manner as part of an overall Seanad Éireann reform. This is certainly a development I would welcome if the Seanad was to be retained.
It has been an honour and a privilege for me to speak to Seanad Éireann this afternoon. I would once again like to express my gratitude to the Leader for the opportunity and to the House for its attention. I look forward to your listening to your contributions.