I am pleased to have this opportunity to brief the House ahead of the next meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 8 and 9 December. The meeting will begin on Thursday evening next with a working dinner and will reconvene on Friday morning.
The key issue before us will be the economic and financial crisis facing the European Union, and particularly the rapidly evolving situation within the Euro Area.
We will also address growth-enhancing measures and we will take stock of the implementation of commitments made by the twenty-three participating Member States in the Euro Plus Pact.
We will also return to the issue of energy - including energy efficiency, the internal energy market, energy infrastructure and external energy policy - following up on progress since we set key policy orientations in February of this year. The question of nuclear stress tests will also arise in this context.
We will hold our annual stocktake on progress in relation to enlargement. On Friday morning we will participate in a short ceremony during which the Croatian Accession Treaty will be signed. I very much look forward to this and congratulate again the Croatian Government and people on the work and dedication it has taken to bring us to this point.
The meeting is also expected to consider the question of Romanian and Bulgarian accession to the Schengen area. We will also address the evolving situation in Iran.
The Polish Presidency will also brief us on progress in discussions on the Union’s next Multiannual Financial Framework – the Union’s multi-year budget – covering the period 2014/2020 - and will pass the baton forward to the Danish Presidency that will take office in January.
As the House will appreciate, the economic situation in the euro area is evolving rapidly. Markets remain highly volatile and it is increasingly evident that calm will only be restored if leaders are prepared to take the clear and decisive action the situation demands.
This is a matter of the highest concern and urgency. There is a real and present sense of danger, with many openly suggesting that the very future of the currency as we know it is at stake.
The House will appreciate how damaging this continuing situation is for Ireland. We are engaged in the very difficult task of restoring our economy and returning to growth, and we have been making headway. The current climate of uncertainty puts what we have achieved at risk at a time when we are preparing to make even greater efforts to get back to economic independence, including through the measures in the upcoming budget. Everything we do in working with partners at the European Council next week will be driven by that clear objective. A stable eurozone is a vital national interest for Ireland and its future.
But the question is not just a concern for Ireland. We have seen growth prospects for Europe generally receding, and there is concern in the international community that the crisis in Europe will spread beyond our borders and will contribute to a further slowdown in an already difficult global economic situation.
The truth is we cannot go on like this.
We need to reach decisions, to demonstrate conviction and solidarity, and to find a credible basis on which to move beyond crisis.
We agreed a great deal in October, on banks on the EFSF, on restoring debt sustainability to Greece. But it is clear that it has not been sufficient to restore confidence or to achieve the type of international buy-in we had hoped for.
We now need to examine what kind of deal would enable us to make the breakthrough we need.
There are, effectively, two sides to the equation.
We need to reach agreement on immediate steps to overcome the current crisis. Without this the crisis will continue and risks spiraling beyond our control. In saying this, I fully appreciate the difficulties this presents for some.
It is essential that European leaders make and implement clear decisions quickly to prove our shared determination to protect our currency, to support member states that are working towards economic recovery, and to introduce strong rules to ensure fiscal discipline.
We also need to take the further steps necessary to ensure that economic coordination in the euro area is improved and that the rules underpinning the currency are strengthened and made more enforceable.
Let me be clear – Ireland supports the creation of stronger economic governance throughout Europe, and particularly throughout the Eurozone.
The Irish people are paying the price now for the absence of such rules in the past. I am determined that we will never go back to the practices that drove our economy off a cliff – reckless spending, poor oversight of banks and over-reliance on property-related tax revenues.
Ireland should not fear this process. In fact, we should welcome and embrace it. We are a small open economy and our prospects for recovery are heavily dependent on our ability to export our goods and services, especially to our European partners. For this, we need economic stability and growth in our neighbourhood and beyond.
As this House will be aware, President Van Rompuy is currently preparing an interim report to present to next week’s European Council. This report will identify possible steps to strengthen economic union, focusing on further strengthening economic convergence within the Euro Area, improving fiscal discipline and deepening economic union, including exploring the possibility of limited Treaty changes.
As well as consulting with the Presidents of the Commission and Eurogroup, President Van Rompuy’s office are this week conducting an intensive round of bilateral consultations at official level with Member States. Senior Irish officials are actively participating in this process.
President Van Rompuy will also meet with Ministers at next Monday’s General Affairs Council, at which Ireland will be represented by Minister of State Creighton, before finalising the report he will bring to the European Council.
I have been impressed by the manner in which President Van Rompuy has approached his task - he has been determined to identify first what needs to be done and only then what we need to do to achieve it.
It is quite likely that some of the measures he recommends will require Treaty change to put into effect. We will listen carefully to what he has to say and we will engage positively in the process ahead.
However, I have to say that while we need to ensure that we have the legislative framework we need for the future, we must also acknowledge that Treaty change is not something that can be achieved overnight.
Quite properly, the Treaties set out a process, involving all the relevant institutions and national parliaments, that ensures that all proposals for change are given the level of detailed scrutiny they deserve.
It cannot realistically be expected to offer a full solution to the immediate and critical problems we face.
To tackle immediate crisis, the first priority must be to use the existing instruments and decisions to their full potential so that the markets can be convinced that European leaders are fully committed to defending and protecting their currency.
That demands immediate action and a demonstration to the markets that we have the financial firepower necessary to stabilise the situation.
I have said that this could come from allowing the ECB to play a stronger role. There are other possibilities we could envisage, including some form of eurobonds. It is the ends and not the means that are critical here.
We should also agree to take steps towards strengthened coordination and discipline that are possible within the existing Treaties. The Commission has recently published some important proposals in that regard that merit serious consideration.
Next week’s meeting is an important one. What we agree at the European Council must be credible and convincing in the eyes of the financial markets and credible in the eyes of the public.
In my approach to the meeting I will be reminding colleagues that, economically, Ireland remains vulnerable.
Recent times have shown that the risk of spill-over from one Member State to another is very real. While we have returned to modest growth this year, after three years in decline, Ireland's recovery is fragile.
We will continue to need the support and solidarity of our EU and international partners for some time to come.
For its part, the Government has stressed that delivering on our EU/IMF Programme , while continuing to invest in job creation remain its top priorities– in full and on time. That is what we have done so far and that is what we will continue to do. It is the only path to rebuilding confidence in Ireland. A stable currency is indispensible to our success.
Economic Policy – Other Issues
The meeting will also look at the broader question of the growth enhancing measures we considered at our meeting in October. I expect that we will agree to fast track a range of measures intended to boost sustainable growth and job creation, and will invite the Council and the European Parliament to facilitate and progress these efforts.
In this regard, the proposals identified in the Commission’s recently published Annual Growth Survey are highlighted as offering significant potential.
This is important work. While we need to address the crisis, it is vital that we do not become so consumed by it that we neglect what needs to be done to restore growth and to generate jobs. I will be stressing the importance of this to my colleagues.
The publication of the Growth Survey launches the next European Semester - the second we have undertaken, and the first to take place under the strengthened rules provided for in the recently adopted legislative six-pack.
The European Council will also track progress on implementation of commitments under the Euro Plus Pact by the twenty-three participating countries, including Ireland.
Discussion of employment policies, including those needed to mobilize labour for growth, will be informed by the deliberations of the EPSCO - Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs - Council at the end of this week.
In February, the European Council offered orientations on energy policy. Next week we will return to the matter to see what progress has been made. We will focus on completing the internal energy market, energy efficiency, developing energy infrastructure and external energy policy. We will also consider the initial findings of nuclear stress tests, based on a Commission report, and the progress report on the security of nuclear power plants.
The European Council will also address the issue of Enlargement of the Union – arguably the EU’s most successful policy to date. We will endorse a set of conclusions to be finalised at next Monday’s General Affairs Council meeting. These draft conclusions are expected to reflect the progress made by a number of countries as part of an Enlargement package.
Finally, as I have said, I look forward to signing the Croatian Accession Treaty on behalf of Ireland - welcoming Croatia as an “Acceding State", entitled to interim privileges until accession makes it a full Member State. Ireland has long supported Croatia in its efforts to join the Union and we look forward to welcoming it as the newest Member State in July 2013.