The European Council meeting later this week is the first since the end of Ireland's successful Presidency of the EU Council. It will consider the digital economy, innovation and services, social and economic issues and ongoing work on the economic and monetary union. I have three equally important priorities at this summit: to contribute to a productive discussion on the digital economy, innovation and services as vital sources of future growth for Ireland and Europe; to push for action on developing digital skills in order to combat youth unemployment and to urge partners to reach agreement on the final elements of banking union, which is the outstanding political and economic priority which Heads of State and Government must address. This will also be the final summit before Ireland's planned exit from the EU-IMF bailout programme in December. I believe this will be an important achievement for Ireland and Europe, demonstrating that solidarity between European partners, allied to strong implementation, can actually be successful.
It is essential that Ireland's return to the markets is sustained and durable. As the House will be aware, the Minister for Finance is currently engaged in discussions with the troika partners on how best this can be achieved. I have also written to each member of the European Council in advance of the summit and I look forward to the opportunity of updating my colleagues on this issue tomorrow. I expect that Government will during the next few weeks weigh up all of the information received in regard to Ireland's exit from the bailout and its consequences prior to making its decision. Overall, I am pleased that the focus on jobs and growth which was the defining feature of Ireland's Presidency is being continued. Jobs and growth are priority issues for citizens in Ireland and across the continent. I will work to ensure that Europe does not lose sight of this. The Council must show that it can deliver where it matters.
It is fitting that the digital economy and innovation should be considered by Heads of State and Government on this occasion. The digital economy is a huge source of growth and we must maximise its contribution. Ireland is particularly well placed to contribute to this debate. I am also convinced that the development of digital skills can make a tangible contribution to efforts to combat the dreadful blight of youth unemployment. I will be pushing for action on this at the Council meeting. Work on the stabilisation of the euro area is continuing. As we know all too well in Ireland, the relative calm of recent months does not mean that the task is finished. In Brussels, I will again push strongly for the completion of banking union. Good progress has been made but now we need to get the job done.
The Council agenda is extensive and in the course of our two day meeting we will also look at helping SMEs obtain financing - a further priority for my Government - and at the question of European regulatory fitness as well as the single market in services. In addition, on Friday morning, the Council is expected to deal with foreign policy issues. We will receive a briefing from the Lithuanian Presidency on preparations for the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius at the end of November.
We will also discuss the recent deeply sad events which saw hundreds of migrants drown near the Italian island of Lampedusa. We were all shocked by the television pictures showing the extent of the tragedy.
Before getting into more detail on the different items, I would like to make a more general comment. I am struck that the agenda for the European Council tomorrow is almost exactly the same as the provisional agenda announced by President von Rompuy some time ago. This underlines the fact that while there is still much to be done, Europe has moved out of immediate crisis mode. European Councils are no longer being completely overtaken by the events of the day. We have the time now to consider seriously economic and social challenges and to take long-term decisions. This is a positive development for all of us. This is what the European Council should do.
Discussion tomorrow afternoon will open with a political debate on the digital economy, innovation and services. I greatly welcome this as a contribution to ongoing work on the jobs and growth agenda. The discussion also aligns with our own strengthening domestic policy focus on entrepreneurship and skills development, including through the Action Plan for Jobs and the Pathways to Work strategy. Entrepreneurship will be fostered further by measures announced in last week's budget, namely, the start your own business scheme and capital gains tax relief for entrepreneurs who reinvest the proceeds from the disposal of assets into new investment in productive enterprise.
As a major centre for both home-grown and foreign digital sector companies, Ireland is perfectly positioned to contribute to this debate on the digital sector, as we did when we hosted the successful digital assembly in June. The outcome from this summit, which I was very pleased to attend, has fed into the preparation of tomorrow's Council. It is also noteworthy that the Council is meeting just ahead of the Dublin web summit next week. The web summit has grown into a global gathering of more than 10,000 of the world's brightest minds in technology, representing not just technology companies and start ups, but all types of business being affected by new technologies. That Dublin plays host to such a significant event underlines the extent to which Ireland has established itself as a digital hub.
With Europe facing unacceptably high levels of unemployment, the reality is that most new jobs are created by fast-growing young firms which is generally taken to mean firms that are less than five years old. The key implication is that looking ahead five years, most of the new jobs created between now and then will be in firms that do not even exist today. Europe must ensure that it is creating the right conditions to support new growth areas. We need to recognise the role of coherent market rules in supporting trust and confidence in digital growth areas. We must also be careful to avoid new administrative requirements that would impose disproportionate burdens of red tape on the job-creating engine of the economy.
A central prerequisite for growth will be to ensure that our education and training systems are in line with the needs of the digital sector. The European Commission has estimated that by 2015 there could be up to 900,000 unfulfilled vacancies in the ICT sector. This skills mismatch is not only detrimental to our economies, but at a time of mass youth unemployment it is frankly unacceptable. I hope that the European Council will agree to concrete steps to address the skills shortage, including using part of the European Structural and investments funds for ICT education, support for retraining and vocational training in ICT. This would build on the work being done under the Commission's grand coalition for digital jobs, launched during Ireland's EU Presidency. Importantly, it would also be a concrete step towards combating unemployment and providing new prospects and new hope for young Europeans.
The European Commission estimates that the digital economy is growing at seven times the rate of the rest of the economy, but its potential is currently held back by a patchy pan-European policy framework. This was why we placed such a strong emphasis on this area during our Presidency. I am proud that we were able to make important progress on dossiers such as collective rights management, e-identification, data protection, cybersecurity and web accessibility, as well as on completing the European Network and Information Security Agency and public sector information legislation. These were all important aspects of the Irish Presidency, and we are very happy to see them completed.
Discussions at this week's Council should be seen against the backdrop of the compact for growth and jobs. Its goal is to achieve a well functioning digital single market by 2015. There is much to be done to fulfil this objective, including in the copyright and data protection areas, which are very complex indeed. A further focus here will be the connected Continent proposals for a single telecommunications market. This was presented by the Commission last month as the most ambitious telecommunications market reform in 26 years. Ireland has conveyed its broad support for this important and ambitious project, while also highlighting some particular sensitivities for smaller and peripheral member states, including in the spectrum management area.
Innovation will also be the focus of a political discussion at the Council. The most recent competitiveness Council on 26 and 27 September highlighted a number of serious concerns. These include the fact that European business research and development continues to lag behind its main competitors and that the European Research Area is still too fragmented. It is worrying that innovation and research performance across member states is not converging and that new European companies are growing more slowly than in US and failing to join the ranks of the world's largest firms. These are matters of concern. Against this background, the Commission has proposed a new innovation indicator that seeks to capture innovation outputs. Discussions are still at a relatively early stage, but it is hoped that it will balance the existing emphasis on research and development intensity under the Europe 2020 strategy.
I expect this week's European Council meeting to provide political guidance for this work, which is of particular interest to Ireland. We secured political agreement on the new Horizon 2020 package, which is now one of the world's largest public research programmes, under our Presidency in June. Our shared challenge now is to maximise its impact.
There is an impressive level of research currently being carried out in Ireland. I was reminded of this last week when I launched a €52 million science and engineering initiative at the University of Limerick. Known as the Bernal project and named after J.D. Bernal from Nenagh, this will make a significant contribution to our national research efforts in strategic areas such as pharmaceuticals, biomedical science and energy. That is a great project and there are five other world-class professors to be added to it, and I think it will lead to very significant results in the future. While great strides have been made, there is absolutely no room for complacency at national or European level and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue with my European colleagues.
The European Council will also discuss the single market in services, particularly in terms of improving implementation of the services directive. The Commission has recently completed the first phase of a peer review process that points to evidence of wide variations in professional regulation, legal form and shareholding practices across member states. It also adopted a communication at the beginning of this month, announcing the start of an evaluation of national regulations on access to professions. I support the work of the Commission here and will be pressing for a high level of ambition in our agreement on next steps.
Turning to social and economic issues, the European Council will review progress implementing the investment plan agreed in June and towards having the youth employment initiative fully operational from the beginning of 2014. Significant progress was made in this area under the Irish Presidency. As mentioned earlier, I will also be pushing for recognition of the concrete role which the development of digital skills can play in combating youth unemployment.
I am glad that the issue of SME financing is on the Council agenda again. This is a key national issue for Ireland and indeed for all our economies. There is an undeniable need for early and tangible progress and Ireland has taken a very proactive role in this discussion at European level. It is clear that the European Investment Bank, EIB, has a crucial role to play, particularly in supporting recovery in economies hit hardest by the crisis. Looking beyond the role of the EIB, it is clear that the whole area of non-bank financing for SMEs requires further attention. Ireland is now actively involved in the work being taken forward by finance Ministers on foot of the Commission's Green Paper on long-term financing of the European economy. I look forward to early, concrete proposals here.
There will also be initial political reactions to the Commission's regulatory fitness proposals, as presented at the beginning of this month. I believe we should view our digital and smart regulation agendas as entirely interdependent. The increasing complexity of the digital era places a new premium on making things as simple as possible, removing unnecessary barriers, and minimising transaction costs for the job-creating sectors. We will press for clear objectives and timelines for specific measures on simplifying existing rules, withdrawing proposals that are not needed, and repealing legislation that is out of date.
This includes building on the Commission's earlier communication in March that has already identified the top-ten most burdensome pieces of EU legislation for SMEs.
The discussion on economic and monetary union is expected to take place tomorrow evening. My clear priority in this discussion will be to press for the swift completion of banking union. The issues involved are complex and sensitive but it is time now to move forward and finish the job. We need to make good on the agreement to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns. As I have consistently said, it is vital to the Union's credibility that decisions taken by leaders are implemented in full.
Like other EU partners, Ireland relies on the stability of our Union, and of the euro area, to copperfasten our fragile recovery. The recent stabilisation of sovereign borrowing rates in the Union is a product of hard-earned trust and confidence - trust that the banking union will be completed on time, and confidence that momentum will be maintained on our shared jobs and growth agenda. These political commitments must be implemented. No time can be lost in building on the decisions reached in 2012 and earlier this year on banking union legislation. I hope this Council will point the way forward on this.
Turning to the foreign policy elements of the agenda, I expect briefing by the Lithuanian Presidency on the state of play of preparations for the Eastern Partnership Summit, to take place in Vilnius on 28 and 29 November. The main business will be the initialling of association agreements with Moldova and Georgia and potentially the signing of the association agreement with Ukraine. I am also expecting a discussion on the issues that arose following the tragedies near Lamepdusa.
I hope this provides an overview of the agenda to be discussed and I look forward to hearing Members' contributions.