Dáil Éireann - Volume 500 - 17 February, 1999

Priority Questions. - EU Funding.

9. Proinsias De Rossa asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the role his Department will play in relation to the negotiations with the EU on the next round of EU Structural Funds; the plans, if any, he has for these negotiations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4535/99]

Mr. Andrews: Responsibility for matters related to EU Structural Funds lies in the first instance with the Minister for Finance.

The General Affairs Council is responsible for co-ordination of the Agenda 2000 negotiations as a whole and for the preparation of an overall package to be presented for consideration by Heads of State or Government. In this context, the Department of Foreign Affairs performs a co-ordinating function, including through the work of the permanent representative to the European Union in Brussels.

The European Council in Vienna in December reiterated its firm commitment to reach overall agreement on Agenda 2000 at the European Council on 24 and 25 March of this year. A tight work programme has been agreed with a view to meeting that deadline. Foreign Ministers will meet in conclave to discuss Agenda 2000 on 21 February and again on 21 March. An informal meeting of Heads of State or Government will take place on 26 February in Bonn. The informal meeting of Foreign Ministers on 13/14 March is also likely to discuss Agenda 2000. The Agriculture Council and the ECOFIN Council will continue to discuss the relevant aspects of the package. Detailed discussions at official level will continue throughout this period.

In addition to its co-ordinating function in respect of many of these meetings, the Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to co-ordinate the preparation for various bilateral meetings at official and political level.

[1072] The Government will continue in the Agenda 2000 negotiations to press the case for a balanced and equitable outcome which takes full account of Ireland's concerns. As regards the Structural Funds, one aspect of central concern for us remains the need for adequate transitional arrangements for regions moving out of Objective One status.

Proinsias De Rossa: Will the Minister's Department facilitate bilateral meetings only between his and other Departments or will meetings between Ministers and Secretaries General to examine Agenda 2000 be held on a collective basis? Can the Minister identify the critical issues of concern to Ireland in Agenda 2000 apart from the question of the Common Agricultural Policy?

Mr. Andrews: As the Deputy is aware, there is a Ministers and Secretaries General committee which meets on a very regular basis. That is a combination of the leadership of the Taoiseach and the various Ministers involved in the negotiations together with the Secretaries General and officials of the various Departments. It has been meeting regularly with the view to a positive outcome to the negotiations. The negotiations are serious and the outcome appears less than generous from Ireland's point of view. I refer particularly to the Common Agricultural Policy proposals – CAP II – and Cohesion and Structural Funds. We are bound to tell the House that we are seized of the necessity to present a strong case on all three fronts to the various ministerial councils involved.

The Minister for Agriculture and Food will begin an open-ended meeting on Monday next which, hopefully, will conclude on Thursday, with his ministerial agricultural colleagues on the whole question of the Common Agricultural Policy. I am in close touch with the Minister for Agriculture and Food, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, in my co-ordinating role. We take these negotiations seriously. Given that I was involved in the previous negotiations with the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and the then Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds, in Edinburgh in 1992, I am aware of the need to keep in close contact with all the relevant Departments that have an input into the negotiations.

On the Deputy's question as to what other than CAP are the main issues so far as Structural Funds are concerned, the problem is the suggestion that stability is the principle, in other words there will be no increase in the funds available as between 1992 and the present. In the context of the overall funding there is a considerable threat to Ireland's position. The problem as I, the Taoiseach, other Ministers and the civil servants involved see it, is that the Celtic tiger gives a false picture. In addition to many other problems the infrastructural development has been left far behind. We have to continue to emphasise we are an island off the mainland of Europe and that the [1073] needs in terms of Cohesion and Structural Funds are still very real. They have to take account of the lack of infrastructural development, environmental need and other issues which are extremely important.

The interdepartmental group on Agenda 2000 chaired by the Department of Foreign Affairs was established in July 1997 to consider Ireland's overall strategy in relation to the Agenda 2000 negotiations and report to the Ministers and Secretaries General group on EU policy chaired by the Taoiseach. The interdepartmental group met regularly for that purpose until the Vienna-European Council on 11-12 December 1998. With a view to co-ordinating Ireland's approach in the decisive final phase of the negotiations, the Government decided in December 1998 to establish a Cabinet sub-committee on Agenda 2000 as well as an expert technical group to support that sub-committee, both of which are chaired by the Taoiseach. Informal co-ordination takes place on a day to day basis between the relevant Departments.

Effectively, it is all systems go as far as Agenda 2000 negotiations are concerned. The Germans wish to bring the negotiations to a conclusion at the final Council meeting on 24-25 March. While that is what they are aiming for, it is not cast in stone. We are not seeking any special consideration apart from our entitlement as a member of the EU and we are not engaging in a process of pretence, with the begging bowl or the upturned hat, quite the contrary. We are there as an equal member of the European Union and we seek only equity and justice in the negotiations.

The Presidency, under my colleague, Mr. Joscha Fischer, who is an understanding individual, seeks to advise countries such as Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece that their net contribution over the years has to be reduced. That is his negotiating position. Our negotiating position is otherwise.

Proinsias De Rossa: I asked the Minister what he believes are the critical issues for Ireland, apart from the Common Agricultural Policy, not the critical issues relating to Structural Funds. It is clear from his reply that the Government sees this process as a means of extracting the greatest amount of money from the European Union. Does the Minister believe much damage has been done to Ireland's position in Europe as a result of the artificial manner in which two regions were created, which bear no relationship to real regions in Ireland, stretching from County Louth to south Kerry? It is seen simply as a grab for what will probably amount to less than £100 million over six or seven years in additional moneys. This has damaged Ireland's reputation as a member of the European Union. Will he indicate what other objectives the Government has in these negotiations, other than maximising the amount of money from the European Union? Does it have any objectives regarding the enlargement [1074] issue and the assistance which might be offered—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Will the Deputy conclude. We are making very poor headway on questions.

Proinsias De Rossa: Are we making a case for adequate funding to be made available to those countries in Europe which have applied to join and whose economies are far worse than ours? Is it not in our long-term interest to ensure their economies are developed?

Mr. Andrews: The Deputy is the principal spokesman of an important democratic party and the sort of guff he has articulated and his attitude are less than helpful to our position in the run up to the Agenda 2000 negotiations. So far as our application to EUROSTAT for Objective One status for the 15 counties in the Border and western part of the country is concerned, it is an utterly important part of the negotiations. It is appropriate and I see nothing wrong with it, good, bad or indifferent.

One of the purposes of ensuring Ireland is advantaged in the CAP negotiations is to maximise the benefits. The Deputy should ask the farmers who, I understand, are outside the House in their thousands, road users and those who drink water on a daily basis if they want all those services improved. The only way those services can be improved is through balanced detailed negotiations. At the end of the day it is all based on consensus and a positive outcome for all countries. That is legitimate and I see nothing wrong with that position.

Given that we are coming to a critical phase in the negotiations, the interventions by Deputy De Rossa and the manner in which he made them are less than helpful. On the question of enlargement, Ireland wants to see the so-called central and eastern European countries come into the larger Union. It wants to see the five plus one countries, the so-called “in” countries, involved in the European Union in the year 2003-04. Account has been taken of that fact. We strongly support enlargement and the sharing of European finance that has been divvied out to the original members of the European club. We have no problem with further enlargement down the road; that is, the ins and the pre-ins, the ten plus one, plus possibly Turkey. We see that as part of a positive and peaceful future for the European continent. We have no problem with that.

Mr. G. Mitchell: This is not a Second Stage debate.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: We now move onto Question No. 10. I point out to Deputies that one hour is allocated for ministerial questions. We have now concluded the third question and the hour is almost completed.

[1075] Proinsias De Rossa: It would not take as long if we got succinct answers.

Mr. Andrews: The Deputy has admitted that I have given him some answers, but some of them are not satisfactory. I find it very difficult to please the Deputy but all I can do is my best.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I ask Deputies not to interrupt the Minister.

Proinsias De Rossa: We have a role in this House.

Mr. Andrews: I respect that role 100 per cent.

Proinsias De Rossa: Then the Minister should not complain about it

Mr. Andrews: I am not complaining about it – all I am saying is that the Deputy is saying I am not giving enough information.

Mr. G. Mitchell: I am complaining now – I am playing the game and I am not getting any answers.

Proinsias De Rossa: We are getting long winded answers.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy De Rossa must allow the Minister to answer.