Check against Delivery
I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in today's Conference. The topic "A Growth Vision for Europe" could not be more prescient and mirrors the central theme of the Irish Presidency which I will shortly set out.
The Europe which Denmark and Ireland joined forty years ago has changed beyond recognition. Yet the nature of politics, economics, world markets, finance and banking throw up some of the same basic challenges which have confronted governments over the past several decades. They are jobs, the scourge of unemployment, the necessity for growth, the quest for equality of opportunity, the requirement for open and fair markets and the need for governments to provide for both young and old.
I might start by saying that the Irish Presidency will be one of realism but also one of optimism. For us the glass is half-full and not half-empty. We'll be about substance not show – in short we will be a no nonsense Presidency. Indeed we are spending much less on the Presidency that we did in 2004.
Responding effectively to the financial and economic crisis remains a central concern for the European Union. The attention must now focus on the challenge of getting the European economy back on track by improving the EU's global competitiveness, promoting economic growth and creating jobs.
That is also the central theme of the Irish Presidency and our priority is shared by Governments and citizens across Europe. The Irish Presidency will, therefore, place a strong focus on facilitating economic recovery in Europe through a number of initiatives which are designed to stimulate growth and job creation. Our detailed Presidency Programme was published yesterday and runs to a full 45 pages, and can be accessed on the Presidency website.
Ireland's Presidency motto consists of just three simple but important words – stability, jobs and growth. The detailed programme sets out the real and tangible decisions we will push forward as part of the trio – as we chair negotiations across nine different Council formations from this month until the end of June. It will be a team effort working with our fellow Member States, the EU Institutions and other stakeholders. The Irish Government has even more onus upon us as a "recovery country" driving a resurgence in Europe. Let me digress for a minute to put into context the recovery effort being made by Ireland over the last four years:
- The Irish economy is growing – by 1.4% in 2011 and by 0.9% in 2012. Aggregate tax revenue has increased by over 6% for 2012.
- Exports are in excess of pre-crisis levels, with a 5.1% increase in 2011 and a 3.8% increase in the first half of 2012. Exports in the agri-food sector are up by 25% in just two years. For the first time in a decade, our balance of payments is in surplus.
- Ireland has implemented over 80% of a budgetary adjustment of €30 billion, or about 20% of GDP, which is scheduled to run for the period 2008-2015.
- Ireland's general government deficit forecast for 2012 is 8.2% and for 2013 7.5%. We are on course to meet our 3% deficit target by 2015.
- Ireland returned to the bond markets in July 2012 and we have sold over €7 billion of bonds. The latest auction of three-month treasury bills in November 2012 sold at yields of less than 2%.
- The gap between revenue and expenditure is closing steadily. By 2014, Ireland is forecast to have a primary budget surplus.
Vibrant and competitive economy
- Ireland is ranked as the 2nd most attractive country globally for FDI. We are ranked 1st in the euro zone for ease of doing business, 1st for the availability of skilled labour and in the top 10 in the EU for R & D spend.
- Ireland's competitiveness vis-à-vis our trading partners has improved by over 20% since 2009. We are amongst the top 20 most competitive countries in the world.
- We still have a way to go but we are well on the way to recovery.
The steps Ireland had to take to put our economy back on the road to recovery will hopefully serve us well in advancing our EU Presidency objectives.
We will focus on restoring stability in the euro area and the European economy. The Irish Presidency wholeheartedly endorses the agreement reached in December on the Single Supervisory Mechanism and will build on this momentum toward banking union, working on deposit guarantee schemes and bank resolution and recovery. This will be key to moving to the next phase; allowing the European Stability Mechanism to directly recapitalise banks. It is imperative that we move ahead as quickly as possible with this. This is a priority both for Ireland nationally and as Presidency of the EU.
In the last few years, we have reformed the way member states co-ordinate economic policies across Europe as part of our wider response to the economic crisis for euro and non-euro countries alike. A key challenge for us as Presidency over the next six months will be to manage this European Semester process, making sure it is working effectively.
We also aim to lay the foundation stones for future EU policies, through agreement on the Multi-annual Financial Framework. We look forward to agreement on the overall package in the coming months. We stand ready to assist European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in any way we can to get that agreement.
We will then seek to get the agreement of the European Parliament on this package, following which we will turn out attention to the 67 separate pieces of legislation necessary to ensure we have an EU budget fit for purpose by the end of 2013. That work will cover all areas of EU policy, from the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, to the Erasmus programme.
Our second area of focus will be on jobs. I might highlight one stark statistic to stress the urgency of this issue: 26 million Europeans are unemployed. Everything must be done to foster an environment in which jobs can be created for them.
Specifically, the Irish Presidency will prioritise the issue of youth unemployment. With over 20% of the EU's young people experiencing unemployment, this has to be our priority. We will push for a comprehensive EU approach to tackling this problem, starting with the Youth Employment Package. In particular, we aim to get consensus on the principles of the Youth Guarantee.
Thirdly, we will focus on those sectors in the European economy with the highest growth potential. I'll give you just a few examples, which involve important EU legislation:
- Trade agreements are top of our agenda. There is potential there for up to 2% growth in GDP across the EU. With the benefit of Ireland's close links with the US, we will work to progress the idea of a comprehensive EU-US Free Trade Agreement – amongst others.
- We aim to tap into the further growth potential of the Single Market and I congratulate the Danish Presidency in the first half of 2012 for reinvigorating the priorities of the Single Market. We will prioritise work on a number of measures from the first Single market package. For example, we will be aiming for early agreement on the professional qualifications directive.
- We are prioritising several measures that will help SMEs tap into more public procurement opportunities, and get better access to credit and research funding. Securing agreement on the Programme for the competitiveness of Enterprises and small and medium-sized enterprises (COSME) will be one way of providing this assistance. This is important for small countries that are highly dependent on the SME sector and indeed this area is a particular focus of my own Ministerial remit. The Irish Presidency will host an informal meeting of Competitiveness Ministers in May on the theme of "SMEs as a driver of European growth". Issues to be discussed will include access to finance, promoting entrepreneurship and global opportunities for SME's.
- The digital sector offers real potential for growth and job creation, particularly for young people who are to the fore in this area. We have a significant legislative package on our agenda across many Council formations. For example, Ireland will prioritise work on the overhaul of EU data protection rules to protect privacy, while at the same time allowing on-line companies to develop.
Finally, I would like to emphasise that Europe's recovery cannot happen in isolation and Europe must be an effective partner on the world stage. This will entail prioritising trade and work aimed at opening new markets, creating new opportunities, thus leading to more jobs and growth. Additionally Ireland will work to advance EU enlargement and support states as they prepare for membership. Ireland will also work alongside Catherine Ashton and the European External Action Service in furthering Europe's place in the world.
Thank you for listening and I'm happy to take questions during the open session.