Lucinda Creighton: With Ireland's EU presidency comes a chance for real change
IRELAND takes over the presidency of the European Council on January 1. Every member state of the EU has an opportunity to chair the council for six months, in rotation. Ireland will not hold the presidency again until 2028, so we intend to make the most of it.
It will be our seventh presidency and will also mark 40 years of Ireland's membership of the European Union. We will bring this vast experience to bear, for the good of Ireland and Europe.
We will chair around 1,600 meetings during the six months, 180 of which will take place in Ireland. We will welcome 15,000 delegates for official presidency-related conferences and meetings. It is estimated that a further 15,000 will visit for the many associated events taking place, being organised by NGOs, companies and all sorts of diverse organisations.
We intend to use this opportunity to promote Ireland as an attractive destination for tourism, for investment, for business. Since January 2012 I have been working with the various state agencies to develop promotional opportunities for all of the visitors who will come to our shores for the presidency.
Similarly, I have worked closely with our embassy network across Europe. Each has developed a plan for the six months, beginning with a launch event in January. They will use the presidency as a platform to generate interest in Ireland and to promote cultural, trade and investment links with other countries. This work is not confined to Ireland's EU missions. Our major embassies all over the world will seek to capitalise on the renewed interest in our country, arising from our EU presidency.
Of course, the substance of our presidency will hone in on the economic difficulties we have experienced in Ireland and in Europe over the past five years.
Ireland will be tasked with progressing concrete steps to help us stabilise our currency, the euro, and to inject growth into the Irish and the European economy. This is no mean task, but it is one to relish.
European leaders have talked a lot about the measures needed to grow our economy, and create jobs, but the implementation has been too slow. There are high expectations among our partners that Ireland will move this agenda forward, fast.
The Taoiseach and Government have been determined that our priorities should be ones that can best deliver stability, jobs and growth. There are measures to combat unemployment, particularly among our young people, through providing new skills and training and making it easier to work in other countries.
There are a series of proposals to free up and develop the single market, the consumer market of 500 million people. Ireland, as an export-led economy has already benefited so much from the single market but we see the potential to do much more.
We will make the case for improving Europe's trade relations, particularly with the US, opening up markets across the world.
One of the areas that most interests me is the digital economy. We will use our presidency to advance the digital agenda for Europe, aiming to make online cross-border trade easier and, in turn, opening up possibilities for small and medium-sized businesses.
This is an area where the EU is playing catch-up. Compare us with the US, which enjoys a huge domestic market with very few barriers. It is normal for someone in New Jersey to go online and buy a crate of wine from California.
But national barriers to e-commerce mean that we could not do the same when it comes to Spain or France. Nearly one in two European consumers is not interested in making a cross-border transaction because of worries about speed, cost and safety of delivery.
The EU could gain 4pc GDP by stimulating the fast development of a digital single market by 2020, corresponding to a gain of about €500bn or more than €1,000 for every citizen.
The build-up to our presidency has lasted nearly two years, with detailed planning and preparation. Since my appointment to the European Affairs portfolio 21 months ago, these preparations have dominated my agenda.
We have a small but dedicated team of people responsible for coordinating our policy programme across all government departments. I have chaired meetings of our senior government officials in order to pull the agenda, based on stability, growth and jobs, together. I have visited 24 member states of the EU to set out our priorities and build support for the Irish presidency agenda.
In addition, I have invested my time heavily with the other EU institutions – the Commission and particularly the European Parliament, which I have visited many times in Brussels and in Strasbourg.
All of this work has been vital in order to generate goodwill for Ireland, so that we can take our priorities forward and turn aspirations into action during our six months.
We take over the presidency at a difficult time for Europe. We are living through a period of great turmoil and rapid change. It is vital to include the people of Europe in this change. Next year has been designated the European Year of Citizens with a specific focus on promoting the rights we enjoy as EU citizens.
It is intended that the Year will spark a real public debate across Europe about our rights as citizens of the EU and what it means to be a European citizen. At home we will run events to engage and listen to people's views on the European project and our place within it.
The policies, the meetings, the decisions are about making the future better than the present. If our presidency can make a meaningful contribution to that goal we will have done a good job. That is the target this Government is aiming for.
Lucinda Creighton is Minister of State for European Affairs