With my colleagues, the Ministers for Finance and Foreign Affairs, I attended the Stockholm European Council meeting on Friday and Saturday, 23 and 24 March. The Council was a successful one. It dealt with a wide range of economic and political issues and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and I will deal with the most important of these in our statements to the House. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs will deal in detail with the foreign relations issues dealt with at the Council, I will restrict my comments on these aspects to some brief words on the meeting with the Presidents of Russia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The conclusions of the Council have been laid before both Houses. Before I address the details of the summit, however, I would like to outline briefly the overall progress which is being made in building a European Union which makes a real difference to the day to day lives of the citizens of Europe.
We will shortly have a referendum on the Nice Treaty and, inevitably, the usual litany of myths and distortions will be trotted out by those opposed to the treaty. Were one to believe the wilder assertions made by its opponents, the European Union has been an unmitigated politi cal, economic, social and cultural disaster for the nations and people of Europe.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The European Union has created the framework within which its people have enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. It has also created the framework within which Ireland and its people have managed to reach new levels of economic prosperity, international recognition and cultural confidence.
The business conducted at the Stockholm Council reflected the reality of the European Union. At Stockholm we demonstrated our solidarity in the face of the threat from foot and mouth disease, which threatens the European agricultural sector; agreed to build on the good progress we have made towards achieving the target set as Lisbon and making the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010. As a result, the European Union will be capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion; set out an ambitious programme of measures to underpin the employment and social policy objectives of the members states of the Union; acted as a force for peace in the Balkans by offering timely support to the Macedonian government; and had a full political and economic dialogue with the Russian President.
This is the real Europe. It is a Europe where, working together, the individual member states are building a more prosperous and a more socially inclusive European Union. It is a Europe where, through common action, the political, economic and social achievements of each member state are enhanced. This common action, achieved by forging consensus among the member states, may take time to put in place but, once in place, it will prove all the more effective.
More importantly, it is a Europe where the member states are free to disagree with each other and can defend their national interests. At Stockholm, for example, we failed to agree on target dates for the full liberalisation of the gas and electricity sectors. These were issues with which France, in particular, had real difficulties. The key difference between this type of disagreement and similar disagreements in Europe before the process of European integration began is that now the structures exist for the outstanding issues to be addressed on the basis of co-operation and compromise.
In this instance, we have committed ourselves to further considering the timetable for liberalisation and have asked the Commission to evaluate these sectors further in its report to next year's spring European Council. Ireland has and will continue to play its part in building the European Union. The benefits accruing to our people make this an essential task.
In the run up to the Council, Ireland made a number of important contributions to its preparation. On 19 January, in response to a letter from Prime Minister Persson, I outlined Ireland's priorities for the Council, which included the mainstreaming of the social inclusion agenda, the promotion of lifelong learning and the implementation of the financial services action plan. In addition, Prime Minister Persson visited Dublin on 26 February and we had a full exchange of views on the agenda for the Council.
In early March, Ireland submitted a paper entitled Better Regulation through Partnership, which highlighted the importance of ensuring the right quantity and quality of regulation. It was an appropriate time to focus on regulatory reform as a tool to give the European Union a competitive advantage as a global player. Such reform can also serve to bring the Union closer to its citizens and to protect consumer interests.
In addition, Ireland participated with Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom on a basic skills project as a valuable input to the development of a lifelong learning strategy at European level. Furthermore, following on from our joint contribution to Lisbon last year, Prime Minister Blair and myself submitted a joint paper to Prime Minister Persson on 8 March which highlighted the need for further action in the areas of employment for women, skills and lifelong learning, implementing the European Research Area and agreeing the community patent. All of these contributions played an important role in signalling to our European partners the Irish priorities for the summit.
The core business of the Stockholm European Council was ensuring further progress on the economic and social agenda of the European Union. The meeting produced a number of important results which will, over the coming years, bear fruit in terms of better policies and better economic and social performance at European level. I will give some examples of that.
The European Council addressed the demographic challenge of an ageing population of which people of working age constitute an ever smaller part; discussed how to create more and better jobs, accelerate economic reform, modernise the European social model and harness new technologies; issued strategic guidance for the broad economic policy guidelines to achieve sustained growth and stable macro economic conditions; and agreed to improve procedures so that the European Council's spring meeting will become the focal point for an annual review of economic and social questions.
The demographic challenge facing the Union is considerable with substantial increases projected in the number of retired people as a percentage of the working population. To meet this challenge and to ensure all European citizens have the opportunity to meet their full potential, the European Council adopted three new targets for EU wide employment rates. In Lisbon, the Council set targets for 2010 of 70% overall and 60% for women. In Stockholm, to ensure that the achievement of these targets is kept in focus, we set interim targets for 2005 of 67% overall and 57% for women. Member states are to consider setting corresponding targets in their national employ ment plans. In addition, we agreed to set an EU target for increasing the average EU employment rate among women and men aged 55 to 64 to 50% by 2010. These targets are fully in accord with Ireland's own employment policies.
To ensure the employment potential of the European Union is maximised and the increasing number of retired people have the fullest possible opportunity to provide for supplementary pensions, the Commission has been mandated to present to the 2002 spring European Council an action plan on opening up new European labour markets as well as specific proposals for the recognition of qualifications and the portability of supplementary pensions. To ensure the quality as well as the quantity of jobs improve, indicators on the quality of work and the reality of gender equality in the workforce are to be developed by the relevant Councils of Ministers and the Commission. With the introduction of euro notes and coins now only nine months away, the time is ideal for the acceleration of economic reform. The heads of state and Government agreed that well functioning markets are vital for increasing consumer benefits and creating an entrepreneurial environment.
Perhaps the most important achievement of the Council was the agreement to fast track the development of a common approach to the regulation of financial services within the European Union. Ireland has strongly supported for many years the implementation of the financial services action plan. The implementation of this plan has been subject to lengthy delays which have prevented Europe taking full advantage of the benefits of the Single Market. It was a key Irish priority that this aspect of the Union's agenda be given added impetus by the European Council.
The conclusions of the Council were most encouraging in this regard. In particular, the European Council approved the resolution on more effective securities market regulation and considers it constitutes a good platform for effective co-operation between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament in this area. It agreed that the financial services action plan should be fully implemented by 2005, with every effort made by all parties concerned to achieve an integrated securities market by the end of 2003 by giving priority to securities markets legislation provided for in the plan. It also endorsed the objective of a well functioning risk capital market by 2003 through the implementation of the risk capital action plan. While the terminology in this area is technical, the effects of this agreement will be profound. It will be reflected in easier access to capital and in better and more competitive financial services which will, in turn, result in more jobs, better pensions and cheaper financial services for the people and companies of Europe.
Ireland has over the years pressed for the promotion of social inclusion at European level. I welcome, therefore, the fact that the Council recognised that the fight against social exclusion is of the utmost importance for the Union. It was agreed that priority should be given by the member states to implementing national action plans on combating poverty and social exclusion to progress on the basis of the common objectives agreed in Nice. The aim at the European Council is that the proposal for a social inclusion programme be agreed by the end of the year.
I was also pleased that the Council supported the committed and active involvement of social partners in implementing reform, the success of which requires commitment from employers and workers at the grassroots. This commitment to social partnership was made no less pleasing by the fact that the Council endorsed the setting up as soon as possible of the European Observatory for Industrial Change as part of the Dublin Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. This development will reinforce the role of the foundation, which is based in Loughlinstown, in supporting the development of European policy in this area.
There was a full debate on the situation in the agricultural sector at the European Council. The Council welcomed and stressed the importance of effective co-operation among national authorities and endorsed the thorough measures being taken by the Council, the Commission and the member states. The Council expressed its determination, a determination fully shared by the Government and myself, to contain and ultimately eradicate foot and mouth disease and BSE.
The European Council also issued a declaration on climate change which reaffirmed the EU's strong commitment to the Kyoto protocol and urged all negotiating partners to engage constructively in implementing it. I regret the US announcement that it will no longer pursue the implementation of the protocol. Ireland will continue to work with our EU partners and other like minded countries to seek a way towards the full implementation of Kyoto.
The European Council had a meeting and lunch with the Russian President at which we indicated our support for the modernisation of the Russian economy and the building of a genuine partnership between Russia and the EU based on common values. In this context, we expressed our strong concern over the situation in Chechnya and stressed the need for a political solution of the conflict as a matter of urgency. We also had a meeting with President Trajkovski of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at which we reaffirmed our support for a peaceful and negotiated solution to problems in the region.
During the Council I had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Blair where we assessed the current situation in Northern Ireland. I took the opportunity of the meeting to express my support for the United Kingdom's efforts to eradicate foot and mouth disease and asked that the most stringent measures be taken to ensure traffic between our two countries posed no risk of spreading the disease.
The European Council in Stockholm marked an important milestone for the European Union in that it showed that Europe is committed at the highest level to the achievement of the objective set at Lisbon. It proved once again, if further proof were required, that the European Union works and that it does so for the benefit of all its members.