European Movement Ireland Address to Joint Oireachtas Committee on EU Affairs

European Movement Ireland Address to Joint Oireachtas Committee on EU Affairs

As the newly appointed Executive Director of EM Ireland, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to present here today before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs.  For the purposes of today’s presentation,  I intend to provide you with an outline of European Movement Ireland’s work programme for the next 12 – 18 months, an overview of the principal findings of our Accountability Report for 2010 and briefly discuss the on-going work for our Accountability Report for the 2011 period.

When I assumed this position in April, I noticed that our tag line included the phrase:  “EM Ireland campaigns for Europe to be discussed in Ireland every day and not just on referendum days. “  I think it’s fair to say that there has never been more coverage of the EU matters in Ireland than there has been recently.  Our current tag line now concentrates more on our goal to campaign for Europe to be discussed in Ireland in a fair, reasoned and robust manner, which is something we try to do quite actively through our varied communications work.  Given the importance of the role that EM Ireland has played since its foundation in 1954 as the Irish Council for European Movement, particularly our work around Ireland’s accession to membership of the EEC in 1973 and more recently our work on the Nice and Lisbon Referenda campaigns, our organisation has evolved and continues to evolve, mirroring as it does perhaps, Ireland’s evolving relationship with the EU itself.

Current EU- Irish Relationship
Nobody can deny that the EU-Irish relationship has undergone significant changes and challenges over the last number of years in particular.  And I think it’s no exaggeration to say that significant challenges remain ahead.  However, I’m reminded of what Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD said in the Oireachtas on Europe Day last May; “there’s more that unites us than divides us.”   European Movement Ireland has a long and respected legacy of being an independent, non-governmental voice seeking to increase engagement with the EU in Ireland.   I passionately believe that this voice needs to be heard now more than ever.  The recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll demonstrated that Irish voters prefer by a majority of almost three to one to be part of the EU in the current crisis and over 41% of Irish voters are confident that the Irish Government will improve the economy. However, Irish voters have little confidence in our European Union leaders.  Essentially, the findings of this poll show that the majority of Irish people continue to see Ireland having a place at the European table whilst conversely feeling that our current European leaders are not doing enough to tackle the economic crisis.

Following a meeting at the weekend with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeated her belief that further proposals to strengthen the Eurozone will require changes in the EU treaties. This obviously has significant implications for Ireland, as any treaty change transferring more powers to the European Union would require a referendum in this country.  Memories of the double referenda of Nice and Lisbon are still quite fresh, and should a referendum be required, it would be crucial that this debate be robust, reasoned and fair and, most importantly, based on the facts.

Irish Presidency of the European Council 2013
The re-engagement with our European Partners that this government has prioritised will assume even greater importance in 2012 as we begin to prepare for the Irish EU presidency in the first half of 2013.  I know that work has already commenced on this project within the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of the Taoiseach and other government departments.  From our own perspective, EM Ireland has been approached by many different NGOs and civil society organisations that are also starting to plan their activities for the 2013 Irish EU Presidency.  These organisations are seeking guidelines as to what the priorities for the Irish Presidency will be so that they can leverage them in terms of their own work plans and campaigns.  This level of interest on the ground is certainly a very positive development.  It proves that Ireland’s re-engagement with the EU and our European partners is something that is resonating across all levels of Irish society and indeed, is something that we in EM Ireland look forward to further developing in collaboration with our stakeholders over the coming 12 – 15 months.  In fact, I was reminded that, from today, it is 447 days to when Ireland assumes the 2013 EU Presidency.

EM Ireland 2011 Work Programme
In relation to our work programme since the start of 2011, we were very pleased that An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD accepted our invitation to act as Honorary President of European Movement Ireland, as is the longstanding tradition.  Unfortunately, we had the passing of two of our founding members, Declan Costello and Dr Garret FitzGerald over the summer.  Their contribution to the work of European Movement Ireland and the Irish Council of the European Movement was immense and their passing is deeply regretted.

On the Communications front, we have been very active in disseminating our bi-annual Presidency Calendar and eNewsletters, and we have significantly increased our activity and engagement on our social media fora such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  Our new eBulletin forms part of our improved member communications services and includes summaries of all the EU-related Oireachtas Committees that took place in the preceding month, as well as information on European funding opportunities, relevant Commission Consultations and current calls for tenders.  Our recently-launched ‘In the News’ media service features leading stories related to EU matters uploaded to our website on a daily basis and disseminated widely.   In addition, we continue to engage on a regular basis with local and national press and broadcast media in relation to Irish and European matters.

Education & Advocacy
Our education and advocacy work has continued to grow and expand in 2011.  We have compiled a report of all third level courses on offer in Ireland in relation to European matters titled: “Studying Europe: An Audit of European Union Related Qualifications in the Third-Level Education Sector”.  We are very grateful for the support of the European Commission Representation for their assistance in the publication and distribution of this Report.  Copies have been sent to all second levels schools; career guidance counsellors; college and university faculties and third-level career offices throughout the island of Ireland.  We have some extra copies of the Audit here with us if any committee members would like an extra copy.

We are looking forward to partnering again with our key stakeholders in the European Commission Representation, European Parliament Office, Michael Sweetman Trust, European Consumer Centre, CRIS and European Studies in the North for the third version of the My Vision for Europe schools competition, for which we are currently accepting entries from secondary schools across Ireland.  This all-Island video competition asks secondary school students aged 15-17 to present in video format their vision of Europe, with the winning schools from North and South travelling to Strasbourg to take part in the Euroscola programme.

Our Grad Jobs Campaign and Green Book publication continue afoot and follow on from our very successful Europe Day event marking the European Year of Volunteering. In relation to Europe Day, we were also very pleased to be invited by the Oireachtas communications unit to take part in what was the first ever public Tweet Up from the Dáil public gallery on May 9th.  I am delighted that Minister Lucinda Creighton has confirmed her attendance to launch Volume 5 of “The Green Book: A Guide to be an Irish Stagiaire,” at our Brussels Connection event next Monday 17 October.  We have had a number of very productive meetings with the Minister for European Affairs and we certainly look forward to supporting her in the new thoughts and initiatives she has as part of her objectives for her Department.

At the end of June, I had the opportunity to attend the European Economic Social Committee conference on the European Citizens’ Initiative in Brussels which was extremely informative.  This is an area in which EM Ireland intends to be very active in once the legislation comes into force in early 2012.  In fact, EM Ireland has already begun work on hosting a Citizens’ Initiative Briefing Session in November for interested stakeholders.   EM Ireland is uniquely placed to be the central conduit for information, advice and assistance for Irish citizens and organisations interested in setting up their own Citizens’ Initiative given our European wide contacts through our network of different European Movement Councils.  There is a real appetite for citizen engagement in politics in Ireland at the moment as can been seen from initiatives such as Claiming our Future and We the Citizens. EM Ireland believes that it is crucial that this new European Citizens’ Initiative democratic tool is given all the support required to give it credibility and maximum exposure in Ireland.

I would also like to take this opportunity to commend the new Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs for its work since the new Dáil.  It has been extremely encouraging to see the commitment and determination for an ambitious work programme on the part of this Oireachtas Committee.  Since the start of the 31st Dáil, EM Ireland has been attending the Oireachtas Committee meetings as part of our on-going research for the Accountability Report which I will now go through in greater detail.

EM Ireland Accountability Report 2010

You will be aware that earlier this year, EM Ireland published the Accountability Campaign Report 2010.   I’m very proud of the incredible hard work that went into the inaugural 2010 Report and indeed, we look forward to further developing the campaign in advance of the 2011 Accountability Report, to be launched early next year.   Our 2010 Report was successful in achieving good national coverage despite the fact that its launch on 21st July happened to coincide with another very important event that was taking place in Brussels that day.

The publication of the Report served to highlight Irish engagement with the EU throughout the 2010 period by tracking a series of key 12 measureable indicators and outlining where improvements could be made.  The findings indicate real opportunities for enhanced engagement between Ireland and the EU at many levels.  We are pleased to note that the current Programme for Government outlines clear goals in how it plans to engage with the EU, and European Movement Ireland looks forward to tracking these developments for our 2011 Accountability Report.

We all know that there is often a tendency in Ireland to hold ‘Brussels’ responsible for everything EU related. Public institutions obviously play a large role in what goes on at an EU level but our Irish representatives also have a big part to play in EU processes.   While there are obviously reforms needed at an EU level, we believe that there is a lot of work that can be done to improve our own domestic processes dealing with European affairs.

One focus of the Accountability Campaign was to highlight who is responsible for decision-making in the EU and to encourage greater ownership of each player’s role in EU affairs.   We did this by breaking down in simple terms where the decisions that affect Ireland are made, and who they are made by and by tracking key indicators in each stage of the legislative process as follows:

Pre-Legislative Influence
1.       Percentage of Irish submissions to key European Consultations

Parliament Influence
2.       MEP positions (i.e. Committee Chair, Rapporteur etc.)
3.       Votes taken
4.       MEP Attendance

Final Voting and Decision Making
5.       Percentage Irish ministerial attendance

6.       Number of Consensus decisions
7.       Number of Double majority decisions
8.       Ireland’s voting record

National Scrutiny and Implementation
9.       Percentage of draft legislation further scrutinised
10.       Percentage attendance at Oireachtas  Committees
11.       Issues discussed
12.       Number of occasions Oireachtas invokes SI scrutiny

The key findings of the Accountability Report 2010 are as follows:

Irish MEPs
Average Irish MEP attendance at plenary sessions stood at 86% for 2010.  Overall, Irish MEPs raised nearly 1,000 parliamentary questions throughout 2010.  Eleven out of 12 Irish MEPs ranked amongst the top 100 for most parliamentary questions raised.  This is an impressive figure taking into account the fact that there are 736 MEPs in the European Parliament in total.

Ministerial Attendance at Council
Eighty-Two European Councils took place during 2010.  Seventy-three of these Councils occurred without any pre-Council briefing taking place with members of the Oireachtas. The Department of Foreign Affairs was the only Department which provided pre-Council briefings.  I note that this is something that the recent Programme for Government hopes to improve upon as it states that for the first time, Minsters will be obliged to appear before Oireachtas Committees prior to making decisions at EU Council meetings, as will the Taoiseach in the Dáil which is very much welcomed by EM Ireland.  Overall, Irish Ministerial attendance at Council for 2010 stood at 77%, with either a lead Minister or Junior Minister attending 63 out of a total of 82 meetings held in 2010.  The European Council had the best record in terms of Irish attendance with a rate of 100%, while the Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council, had a Ministerial attendance rate of just 33%.

Attendance at European related Oireachtas Committees in 2010
The attendance for both European Affairs and European Scrutiny Committees in 2010 was 58% and 55% respectively while the average level of attendance at Oireachtas Committees for 2010 was 62% thereby indicating that in comparison to other Committees, European Affairs and EU Scrutiny were below average in their attendance rates.

Topics discussed- European Affairs Committee
Out of a total of 36 meetings during 2010, the European Affairs Oireachtas Committee discussed issues related to Irish and European finances and the IMF on five occasions in 2010.  Separately, foreign affairs related issues were discussed a total of nine times. Within these nine foreign affairs discussions, the Middle East and Israel was the focus of attention on a total of six occasions.

Commission Consultations
Last year, more than 100 consultation processes on different topics were initiated by more than 20 Directorate Generals of the European Commission.  Of these, 27 were deemed relevant to Ireland, and for the purposes of this report, we analysed 20 of them. Between 0% and 5% of the total submissions made, originated in Ireland, (142 that can be ascertained) with the EU average at 1.6%.  Relative to our population, Ireland is performing well in this regard.  However, in terms of engagement with, and influence over the shaping of EU policy, the figures outline potential for enhanced Irish engagement.  Irish submissions were much more likely to come from organisations or individuals than the state or public authorities and also, submissions are even less likely to come from private companies.

Accountability Report 2011
As 2010 was the first year of our Accountability Report, we welcome any feedback you may have as we work to improve and expand the Report for 2011.  We have already received some comments and suggestions but we welcome any further feedback committee members may like to contribute.   We have several copies of the Accountability Report here with us and the report is available for download from our website should any of you wish to review this report further.  With respect to the 2011 version of the report, work has already begun and we are in the midst of compiling preliminary statistics and indicators for 2011. However it is too early yet to draw any premature analysis.  I can say however, that one new development that we look forward to including in the 2011 Report  will be a comparison of Ministerial attendance at Council meetings for all 27 countries in order to further expand and develop the report through useful comparisons with our fellow EU member states.  One challenge for us in the compilation of the 2011 Report will be the different structures in place under the 30th and 31st Dáil particularly in relation to the Oireachtas Committees dealing with Europe.

We are delighted that this Committee has taken such a keen interest in EM Ireland’s Accountability Campaign and we would be happy to reappear in front of this Committee to present our 2011 Report at a date in 2012 following its launch and publication.

Given the importance of the run-up to the Irish Presidency of the European Council in early 2013, the next 447 days are absolutely critical in terms of the Irish EU relationship.  With a strong programme of activities in the area of communications, education, advocacy and research, EM Ireland is committed to ensuring that we continue to engage the connection between Irish people and the EU.  I would like to perhaps conclude with the words of one of the former Directors of the Irish Council of European Movement, the late Michael Sweetman whose life was commemorated at a book launch last night:  Speaking in relation to Irish membership of what was then the European Economic Community, Mr Sweetman summarised: “There are compelling economic reasons for Ireland to seek full membership of the Community…… The EEC concept seems to offer a small country like Ireland new opportunities for political initiative and participation in decision-making at European Level.”   I believe his words which were originally commissioned by The Irish Times in July 1971 for a Special Report still have significant resonance for today’s Ireland of 2011.

I am grateful for the opportunity to present before the Oireachtas Committee today and I welcome any comments you may have on European Movement Ireland’s Accountability Report and our work overall.

Thank you very much.

Noelle O Connell
13 October 2011

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