When these pre-summit debates were introduced in 2011 the government stated that it intended to make sure that the Dáil had a real input into Ireland’s policy at the most important level of the European Union.  This is the 19th session we have had since then and there has been more than enough time to draw conclusions about their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, this is yet another area where the government has pretended to implement Dáil reform but has done nothing of the sort.

There has been an increase in the amount of time given to European debate – but no one can credibly claim that the Dáil has been allowed to make any input whatsoever into the positions taken by government at these summits.

The standard procedure, followed again today, is that the Taoiseach comes in and reads out a statement devoid of any real information.  Unless something has been agreed in advance he never gives us any detail on what Ireland’s specific negotiating objectives are – something which allows him to always return from summits and announce that he has achieved his objectives.

These are supposed to be informed and constructive debates, but how can they be given that the government has never circulated so much as a single piece of paper giving information about the summits and Ireland’s proposals.

The Dáil is informed of the general topics for discussion.  In order to be able to make any contribution to these debates the Opposition has to seek even basic information directly from Europe.

When I have asked for details of material circulated by Ireland, or specific proposals put to Ireland, the Taoiseach has refused to provide the information in the House and has used a specific exemption from Freedom of Information legislation to block its release to me through that route.

We have actually been in the situation where the Taoiseach has come to these debates and praised himself for rejecting a proposal but has blocked us from seeing the content of the proposal he rejected.

As we have seen yet again in the last week, this government is more obsessed with public relations than any in our history.  In relation to European policy the government works in the hope that journalists won’t look beyond the briefings and is, therefore, even more prone to systematic self-congratulation and exaggeration.

The reality is that there are an unprecedented range of major issues currently under discussion in the European Council.  These touch on the fundamental architecture of the European Union as well as every major economic and social policy.  A number of member states have even initiated reviews of all existing Union competencies and are preparing proposals to roll back long-established actions.

In spite of this our government has yet to make a significant public statement setting out its position on any of these matters.  The President of the Council has held consultations on what formal changes to the EU treaties should be sought to deal fully with the flaws in monetary Union.  He consulted our government, but we have no idea what our government said.  He published a proposal called “Towards a Genuine Economic & Monetary Union” in June of last year – but our government has yet to say what its response is.

Worst of all our neighbouring state and largest trading partner, whose jurisdiction extends to an important part of this island, has announced that it will potentially leave the European Union in four years’ time – yet our government is silent beyond uttering banal generalities.

It is long past time for the government to start being open on what, if any, its objectives are in European matters.  To set out in specific terms exactly where it feels the best interests of Ireland and Europe lie.  Only then will we actually start having meaningful debates here.

The current approach is marginalising both the Oireachtas and the wider public and it should stop.


Assistance for Ireland

Minister Noonan yesterday announced a new phase in the public relations strategy, where he announced that he was negotiating exit from the bailout with the ECB.  It is clearly intended that between now and December we will be treated to another round of breathless reports from “government insiders” about their heroic efforts.

This brings to mind the very insightful media commentary last month about how Minister Noonan has become a master of misdirection.

The fact is that there is no exit to be negotiated.  The programme agreed in late 2010 will come to an end.  Even though it voted against 70% of the measures required to meet the targets in the programme, the government has rolled-out its strategy of praising itself as the saviour of the nation.  This is fooling no one who pays attention.

What is more serious is that the government is clearly putting self-promotion ahead of measures which Ireland needs and deserves.

Ireland has not yet received equal treatment with other countries.  Most importantly, the ECB is keeping as profit interest it earns on its holdings of Irish bonds.  These profits are returned to Greece, but we will this year lose €1/2 billion in these payments.

This has not been mentioned publicly by any member of government, so given their tendency to leak anything at all that might make them look good we have to assume that this issue hasn’t been put on the agenda.

As the Taoiseach will remember it took him nearly a year and a half before he was willing to, albeit for a very brief period and only once in public, the fact that Ireland required a bailout and was forced to carry an excessive debt.  It’s worth repeating here again: “Ireland was the first and only country which had a European position imposed upon it in the sense that there wasn’t the opportunity, if the government so wished, to do it their way by burning bondholders”.

The larger the explicit the backstop for Irish borrowing the more secure and affordable will be market access for us in the post-troika funding period.  What is Ireland seeking?  Are we asking for the security of a backstop or not?  What is our estimate for how much it might be worth in reduced interest?

Until the government starts providing even basic answers to these questions people will be justified in believing that all that is underway is another public relations campaign leading up to a lot of backslapping in December.

Of course this backslapping has a tendency to cover up how little was asked for or given.  There are many examples of this, including Minister Noonan’s announcement in Washington, now long forgotten by the government that burning of bondholders was on the way.

The best, however, remains the press conference in June of last year when Ministers Noonan and Howlin were giddy in their outlining of how they had just achieved a breakthrough on financing banks.

The agreement of the European Council to potentially directly recapitalise banks with EU funding – something Ireland had neither put on the agenda nor lobbied for – was, they claimed, a great victory for Ireland worth potentially up to €60 billion.

Minister Noonan, in his typical way of taking credit without actually delivering, replied when asked what he was looking for said “It’s clear you’ve never been to the fair of Glynn or sold a Calf. Sure, if I told them the minimum, that’s what they would give me.”

So far it has been worth exactly nothing to Ireland and it appears unlikely to be worth anything in the future outside of another financial crisis.

I have said many times that a core priority for Ireland should be to seek an amended mandate for the European Central Bank.  Adding employment and growth to the targeting of inflation is essential if we are to have an ECB which is a foundation for security rather than uncertainty.

Mario Draghi has made an extremely positive impact and it is almost frightening to imagine what would have happened last year if he had not faced down opponents in order to replace the failed orthodoxies and rigid policies of his predecessor.

There is a new emerging problem in that the Bundesbank has this week begun blaming the low ECB interest rate for an emerging house price boom in larger German cities.  This is clearly a prelude to a push for higher rates.

Ireland should join other countries in demanding that rates be set only in the interests of the Eurozone as a whole.  With crisis levels of unemployment, universal fiscal austerity and weak growth, the very last thing Europe needs is rising interest rates.

This, the fifth summit of the year, is yet another where the agenda is highly complacent.  It does not display either the urgency or ambition which Europe needs.  Important social and economic issues will be discussed, but all within the context of existing agreements and policies.

In relation to the opening topic of the digital economy and innovation, Ireland should strongly support the proposals to strengthen the single market.  We have many dynamic companies and a wide skills base build up over a decade and a half which is well poised to benefit from a more successful European single market.

In this respect, the government should re-evaluate last week’s Budget and its potential impact on an area which is of growing economic and fiscal importance to us.

In the past we successfully reoriented much of the enterprise work of the Department of Jobs, Innovation and Enterprise to this area.  An integrated policy included everything from supporting frontiers basic research through to targeted IDA activity.  In fact it has been so successful that Ministers Bruton and Sherlock have decided to whitewash this history from their speeches and publications.

Because so much has been deliberately covered up in the Budget documentation it is not yet clear where many of the cuts will fall, but it is known that €15 million is to be cut from the enterprise agencies.  Given that innovation is all that this money is spent on, it is a damaging decision which directly contradicts the Taoiseach’s statement to be a supporter of expanded support for research and innovation.

I congratulate the officials of the Department for their successful clearing during the Presidency of the first hurdle for enacting the Horizon 2020 research programme.  The last minute cut to the programme made by leaders was foolish, but the sooner it is up and running the better.

Over dinner on Thursday night leaders are due to talk with Mario Draghi about a broad range of economic issues, including the balance sheet assessment of banks.  The time allocated doesn’t suggest that any significant developments are likely.

Ireland should use this opportunity to speak up on the flawed banking union proposals which are progressing slowly and being watered-down at every stage.

Without common regulation, and especially some sort of common pool for deposit insurance, the banking union will fail and threaten us with another financial meltdown.  More importantly is will prevent a restoration of the confidence which is essential for the financial system to be able to return to proper levels of lending to SMEs and families.

In relation to the Eastern Partnership, it is clearly necessary for the Union to again assert the fact that we see the respect for human rights as a core requirement for deepening our relationships.  The release of Julia Tymoshenko is welcome, but it in no way addresses the much deeper issues which should give us all cause for concern in relation to Ukraine and its direction.

In replying to this debate, I call on the government to break the habit it has developed during the 18 previous such sessions we have held – and to actually start outlining some specific details about what policies Ireland is promoting and supporting.

If it continues the policy of bland generalities mixed with regular self-praise then it will again confirm that when it comes to being open and accountable it will talk but never deliver.