Minister Murphy meets with Oireachtas EU Affairs Committee
13 April 2017
The Minister of State for European Affairs, Dara Murphy TD, yesterday appeared before a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, where he engaged with Committee members on the latest developments with respect to Brexit, on the future of Europe debate, and the recent 60th Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
At the meeting, the Minister also updated the Committee on the work of the General Affairs Council and reported to members on the European Semester process this year, with a focus on Ireland’s 2017 draft National Reform Programme - one of the two national inputs to the EU’s annual cycle of economy policy guidance and surveillance.
On Brexit, the Minister stated:
“I think we can be happy the extensive political, diplomatic and official campaign of recent months has been effective in ensuring understanding and recognition of our unique circumstances and specific issues. But this is the beginning of a long process and our work continues.
“We – the Taoiseach, Minister Flanagan, myself and other Ministers - will continue our strategic engagement with EU partners, both in discussions at EU27 and bilaterally, to ensure that the complexities of the Irish issues are understood.
On the future of Europe debate, the Minister welcomed the recent publication by the European Commission of its White Paper on the Future of Europe. He commented:
“The White Paper has been presented as the beginning of the process, not the end, with the intention of starting a wide-ranging debate between the Governments and peoples of Europe on where our common future lies and what degree of ambition we hold. We very much welcome its publication. The real value of this Europe-wide debate will be if it succeeds in engaging citizens in all 27 member states.
On the European Semester for 2017, the Minister spoke about the focus of Ireland’s draft National Reform Programme (NRP) and how and how it fits in the wider EU-level process of economic governance, saying:
“Issues addressed in the National Reform Programme include: the decision of the UK to leave the EU; public finances and investment; labour market activation policies and childcare; sustainable resolution of non-performing loans; housing supply and spatial planning; and cost-effectiveness of the healthcare system. The NRP is prepared on a whole-of-Government basis, and provides an overview of structural reforms and policy actions that are underway. It sets out the policies being advanced in response to the issues raised by the European Commission in its Country Report on Ireland, and it responds to the Country Specific Recommendations addressed to Ireland as part of last year’s Semester process.”
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Speech by Mr. Dara Murphy T.D. Minister of State for European Affairs, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection
at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs on 12 April 2017
Mr. Chairman, colleagues,
I welcome this opportunity to meet with you again today. There are a number of important issues I would like to discuss with you today, not least to give you an update on Brexit. With your agreement, I might start with Brexit, and then, make a few brief remarks about the 60th Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and the discussion on the Future of Europe, which I believe is an important area of work for this committee going forward. Lastly, I will make some brief remarks about the last GAC which took place in March and one of the topics, the European Semester, which featured at the last GAC, but which, as you are aware, is an ongoing process.
There has been a lot of activity on the Brexit front since I last had the opportunity to engage with the Committee.
In the intervening period, I know that you have been particularly active:
- engaging with Government Departments
- meeting with key interlocutors in Brussels and
- hearing from important stakeholders in Dublin - including the British Ambassador who I understand you met with last week.
I would like to commend you, Chair, and your members for the work that you have been undertaking.
Your continued engagement on this issue of national significance is most welcome and extremely important.
Today provides a chance to provide a brief update on the latest developments, not least the two recent important milestones in the Brexit process.
The first was the triggering of the Article 50 process on Wednesday, 29 March, when British Prime Minister Theresa May formally notified the European Council of the UK's intention to leave the EU.
The second milestone was the circulation of draft EU negotiating guidelines by European Council President Donald Tusk to the 27 Member States on Friday 31 March.
These draft guidelines will provide the political framework for the forthcoming negotiations and will be discussed by the EU27 over the coming weeks with a view to their adoption by the 27 Heads of State and Government on 29 April.
I believe that both Prime Minister May’s letter of notification and the EU’s draft negotiating guidelines represent a constructive starting point for the negotiations to come.
From an Irish perspective, we welcome the reaffirmation in the letter of the British Government’s commitment to maintaining the Common Travel Area and its objective of avoiding a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.
We are similarly pleased that the EU’s draft guidelines include a very strong acknowledgement of Ireland's unique circumstances, the need to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and our intention to maintain bilateral arrangements with the UK like the Common Travel Area.
There was similarly helpful language on Ireland included in a comprehensive resolution approved by the European Parliament last week (5 April).
More broadly, we are happy that both PM May’s letter and the draft EU guidelines are, overall, very constructive in tone, and show a pragmatic acceptance of key points such as the need for transitional measures, which will go a long way to providing certainty for citizens and businesses alike.
It is also very welcome that both the UK and the EU share the objective of having the closest possible future relationship and that discussions on this future relationship could begin in parallel with the exit negotiations.
However, for this to happen, sufficient progress should first be made on citizens’ rights, the UK’s financial commitments and issues specific to the island of Ireland.
We, of course, will continue to study the draft guidelines carefully in terms of the overall approach to the negotiations and the many issues that arise, beyond those unique to Ireland.
In terms of next steps, as I mentioned, these draft guidelines will now be discussed among the EU27 throughout the month of April, with a view to their adoption by the European Council on 29 April.
On the basis of the guidelines adopted, negotiating directives will subsequently be prepared for the adoption by the General Affairs Council in May.
The negotiating directives will provide a formal mandate for the European Commission negotiating team, led by Michel Barnier, and authorise the opening of negotiations with the UK, most likely in early June.
So on balance, I think we can be happy the extensive political, diplomatic and official campaign of recent months has been effective in ensuring understanding and recognition of our unique circumstances and specific issues.
But this is the beginning of a long process and our work continues.
We – the Taoiseach, Minister Flanagan, myself and other Ministers - will continue our strategic engagement with EU partners, both in discussions at EU27 and bilaterally, to ensure that the complexities of the Irish issues are understood.
As part of this programme of engagement I visited Lithuania just last week for useful discussions. This follows on from recent similar engagements since the beginning of the year with Malta, Italy, Spain, Norway, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Greece and Romania.
During these visits I have used the opportunity to engage with ministerial colleagues and parliamentary committees such as this one.
I think this is a vitally important part of our outreach work. Not only does it allow me present Irish issues to a wide audience – but it allows us to learn about the perspectives and concerns of our EU partners ahead of the upcoming negotiations.
We know the challenges we face in those negotiations: this Government has never shied away from that fact.
But we have a lot of work completed – work that began over two years ago – and we are ready for this next phase.
60th Anniversary/Future of Europe
As you know, EU leaders – among them an Taoiseach - met in Rome on Saturday 25th March to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. They adopted a Declaration highlighting the achievements of the past six decades and setting out the main focus of the EU’s agenda for the future. They committed to working towards four key aims: a safe and secure Europe; a prosperous and sustainable Europe; a social Europe; and a stronger Europe. The Rome Declaration is timely and welcome. It is a clear endorsement of the value and achievements of the EU since its creation and a statement of determined unity of purpose that our future peace and prosperity is best preserved and promoted through the European Union.
As part of its contribution to the 60th Anniversary, the Commission, on 1 March, presented a White Paper on the Future of Europe. In addition to setting out the main achievements of the European Union, it addresses the challenges that Europe is facing and presents five scenarios for how the Union could evolve by 2025, depending on how it chooses to respond.
The main thrust of the Paper is an attempt to look at some of the options or different paths that the EU could take over the next decade. The scenarios in the White Paper cover a range of possibilities. They are not exhaustive and neither are they mutually exclusive. The Commission will further contribute to the debate in the months to come with a series of reflection papers on the following topics:
- developing the social dimension of Europe;
- deepening the Economic and Monetary Union, on the basis of the Five Presidents' Report of June 2015;
- harnessing globalisation;
- the future of Europe's defence ;
- the future of EU finances.
Current indications are that these further papers will be released by the summer.
The White Paper has been presented as the beginning of the process, not the end, with the intention of starting a wide-ranging debate between the Governments and peoples of Europe on where our common future lies and what degree of ambition we hold.
We very much welcome its publication. It contains much valuable food for thought both about the international context as it is now and may develop over the coming decade, as well as setting out a number of scenarios for how the EU might evolve and develop in the period ahead. It takes an open and non-prescriptive approach and is presented as an initial contribution to a
Europe-wide discussion and debate. This approach is welcome and is in keeping with the need to renew the EU's contract with its citizens.
The real value of this Europe wide debate will be if it succeeds in engaging citizens in all 27 member states. There is a very important role for national parliaments in this discussion and I would suggest that this Joint Committee could make a valuable contribution in considering the White Paper.
GAC, and Ireland and the European Semester process 2017
Finally, the last GAC was on March 7th. The main topic was preparation for the European Council which took place on March 9th and 10th, on which the Taoiseach has already reported in the Dáil. In the time available I want to report briefly on the European Semester, which was also on the agenda. As you all know, the European Semester is the EU’s annual cycle of economic policy guidance and surveillance.
Each year the European Commission analyses the fiscal and structural reform policies of every Member State, provides recommendations and monitors their implementation.
The aim is to create the conditions for more competitive economies and sustainable economic and social policies right across the European Union.
This guidance from the Commission assists Member States in coordinating their economic policies in such a way as to benefit from a shared EU economic agenda, whilst tailoring policy according to the needs and circumstances of their own specific national situations.
Each Semester is set in train by the publication in November by the Commission of the Annual Growth Survey which identifies economic and social priorities for Member States for the period ahead.
It concludes with the issuing of Country Specific Recommendations to each Member State in the Summer.
These recommendations are concrete, targeted and measurable.
As part of the process, the Commission publishes Country Reports in February which analyse each Member State’s economic and social policies.
Each April, Ireland - like other Member States - submits its National Reform Programme to the European Commission, in conjunction with a Stability Programme Update.
The National Reform Programme
I understand that a copy of the draft National Reform Programme (NRP) was circulated to the Committee last week.
The NRP is prepared on a whole-of-Government basis, and provides an overview of structural reforms and policy actions that are underway.
It sets out the policies being advanced in response to the issues raised by the European Commission in its Country Report on Ireland, and it responds to the Country Specific Recommendations addressed to Ireland as part of last year’s Semester process.
As such, issues addressed in the NRP include:
- the decision of the UK to leave the EU;
- public finances and investment;
- labour market activation policies and childcare;
- sustainable resolution of non-performing loans;
- housing supply and spatial planning; and
- cost-effectiveness of the healthcare system
The NRP also reports on progress towards our national targets under the Europe 2020 Strategy, covering employment; Research and Development; climate change and energy; education; and poverty reduction.
Stakeholder engagement is considered to be an important part of the process. Input and views are welcomed from a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives of civil society and regional representatives.
Country Specific Recommendations for 2017
Together with the Stability Programme Update, the NRP helps to inform the Commission’s approach to drafting Country Specific Recommendations for Ireland for the coming year.
The Commission is expected to present its draft proposals for Country Specific Recommendations in May.
These policy recommendations are then discussed in the relevant Council formations and are subsequently endorsed by the European Council in June.
I would be happy to brief the Committee further as the Semester progresses.
Mr Chairman, sorry that took a bit longer than usual but there was a lot of substantive issues to cover. I am happy to take questions or comments and look forward to our discussion.