Proposals to introduce so-called partnerships for growth, jobs and competitiveness were also discussed at the European Council. These were previously known as "contractual arrangements". It was my view that it would be premature to take any decisions on these proposals until they had been considered and teased out in much more detail. Most of my colleagues shared this view. As a result it was agreed that work should be taken forward and the proposals revisited in October next.
Competitiveness, of course, remains an important issue and Ireland will support efforts to improve competitiveness in any way we can. Some member states see the proposed partnerships in this light. We need to be sure, however, that we adopt the best approach.
Building on the commitments made by the European Council in June, under the Irish Presidency, to strengthen the social dimension of the EMU, the European Council also reaffirmed the importance of employment and social developments within the European Semester. In this context, I welcome the new scoreboard of employment and social indicators which will complement and build on existing tools within the European Semester without entailing automatic consequences or triggering binding sanctions. Ireland has consistently supported the development of such a scoreboard as an analytical tool to detect emerging divergences and negative developments that are relevant to EMU and that require urgent collective attention and action.
For the first time in five years the European Council also discussed the Common Security and Defence Policy known as CSDP. The first working session of our meeting was devoted to this topic. In reflecting on this, it is important to remember that during that period, the global context has changed significantly. The European Union and its member states are being called on to assume greater responsibilities for the maintenance of international peace and security, especially in support of the United Nations which has the primary role in that regard, and this is against the background of tightening budgets.
Ireland believes that the CSDP needs to be reinvigorated and improved to enhance the European Union's capacity to act in support of the United Nations. While we look to protect the social and economic well-being of our own citizens, we cannot be immune to the threats faced by vulnerable men, women and children in fragile states and in conflict zones and those suffering from natural and man-made disasters across the globe. The European Union and its member states can bring a comprehensive approach to the promotion of international peace and stability through a unique combination of civilian, diplomatic, economic, development, justice, security and defence instruments.
Currently, the European Union is conducting 17 missions across three continents. Thirteen of these are civilian missions and four are UN-approved military missions. Ireland contributes to three of the military operations and is proud that an Irishman holds the post of mission commander of one of them.
Discussions at the European Council addressed three areas: increasing the effectiveness of the CSDP, the development and provision of capabilities to support CSDP, and improving the ability of EU industry to provide these capabilities. The conclusions which we agreed represent a strong political commitment by Heads of State and Government to strengthen CSDP. In order to achieve this objective, we endorsed a number of practical improvements to the CSDP aimed at speeding up the deployment of civilian missions and our capacity for peacekeeping and crisis management in conflict situations, including in battlegroups.
New security challenges also need to be addressed and, in that context, we agreed to focus on developing strategies in the area of cyber security and maritime security during 2014. These are two key Irish priorities. We agreed that work should also continue on developing synergies between CSDP and freedom, security and justice, and in the area of border security and energy security.
For the European Union to continue to play an effective and credible role as a security provider in its neighbourhood and in the wider world, it must ensure that it has the necessary capabilities to undertake these tasks. Troops on operations, including our own Defence Forces engaged on UN mandated operations, require effective force protection and defensive equipment. To that end, the European Council emphasised the central role of member states and the European Defence Agency in developing capabilities in areas such as air-to-air refuelling, remotely piloted air systems, satellite communications and cyber defence.
The European Council also acknowledged the ongoing role of European industry in the provision of capabilities in support of CSDP and endorsed proposals to increase efficiencies in the delivery of capabilities by European industry. A roadmap aimed at implementing the commitments contained in the European Council conclusions will be produced this year.
The Council conclusions also re-emphasise the European Union's commitment to working in close collaboration with its global, transatlantic and regional partners, such as the United Nations, NATO and the African Union. Co-operation with the United Nations is a point which I emphasised in the meeting and which I am glad to see reflected in the conclusions. On this point, let me emphasise that I believe the work undertaken at the European Council is entirely consistent with Ireland's policy of military neutrality and does not threaten the guarantees given under the Lisbon protocols. The conclusions are set in the context of the development of the Common Security and Defence Policy and, indeed, the Lisbon treaty provisions are referenced in the conclusions.
Let me say a word about economic and social policy. The December Council concluded the preliminary phase of European Semester 2014 by welcoming the Annual Growth Survey and the Alert Mechanism Report presented by the Commission on 13 November. The main message is that the biggest challenge facing Europe's economy lies in sustaining a fragile recovery.
This is the fourth European Semester cycle, the third under the enhanced governance arrangements introduced by the six-pack, and the first under the further enhancements introduced by the two-pack. Ireland will fully participate in the European Semester this year following the successful completion of our EU-IMF programme.
The December Council set direction for further work. The Spring Council will offer guidance to member states on the preparation and submission in mid-April of their national reform platforms. As I stated previously, I support strongly the continued emphasis on the five main priorities set by the Annual Growth Survey.
These are pursuing differentiated, growth-friendly fiscal consolidation; restoring lending to the economy; promoting growth and competitiveness for today and tomorrow; tackling unemployment and the social consequences of the crisis; and modernising public administration. It is an emphasis that is reflected strongly in the clear direction we have set at national level, including through the interlocking Action Plan for Jobs and Pathways to Work strategies. It is an emphasis we must ensure remains strong at European level, continuing to build from the successful Irish Presidency programme in the first half of last year.
It is in this context that the December European Council also took stock of progress under the Compact for Growth and Jobs agreed in June 2012. This included reviewing preparations for the youth employment initiative fully operational from the beginning of 2014. Ireland, as one of the countries hardest hit by the crisis, will benefit from this new fund. The first phase of our own Youth Guarantee implementation plan, developed in conjunction with the OECD, was finalised by the Government in December. The broad outline has been submitted to the Commission.
The Council also took stock of progress in mobilising the enhanced lending capacity of the European Investment Bank on foot of the €10 billion increase in its capital base. This has already supported a 38% increase in its 2013 lending volumes, to €62 billion. As I said before the December meeting, there were almost €1.2 billion worth of EIB project signatures and loan approvals in Ireland in 2013 last year. This represents an increase of just over one fifth on 2012 levels, which were in turn up more than four fifths on the previous year. We continue to see room for stronger EIB support, including in the area of SME access finance, and this will remain a top priority for us in the time ahead.
The European Council also had a short discussion on taxation, which is important for Ireland. Leaders reiterated their support for the OECD's project on base erosion and profit shifting or BEPS as it has become known. Ireland supports the BEPS project as these issues cannot be tackled by countries acting on their own.
We also support the automatic exchange of information between tax authorities and we welcome the reference to early agreement on the directive on administrative co-operation in the conclusions as important. Additionally, the European Council noted the Lithuanian Presidency "end of term" report on tax issues and welcomed the Commission's initiative to establish an expert group on taxation of the digital economy. We will be continuing to participate actively in the ongoing work here.
As I noted, the European Council had a very large agenda. In addition to the discussions I outlined, we also looked at enlargement and some foreign policy issues , and the Minister of State, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, will touch on these later.
I wish to say a few words on migration and energy. Following on from previous discussions at the European Council and the Justice and Home Affairs Council in the wake of the major tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa - where more than 300 migrants lost their life after their vessel sank - the Council considered a Commission communication on the work of the Task Force for the Mediterranean. The task force was established in October in response to the Lampedusa disaster. The Council welcomed the Commission communication outlining a series of operational actions aimed at addressing the problem. It is now a question of implementation, and in this regard there is general recognition of the need to prioritise EU co-operation with countries of origin and transit with the aim of averting hazardous sea voyages to the EU's Mediterranean borders. Ireland participated in the task force.
The European Council also took stock of progress made by the TTE (Energy) Council in regard to guidelines agreed at the May 2013 European Council on energy matters. These guidelines identified the importance of completing the internal energy market by 2014 and of the external dimension of EU energy policy. Tomorrow, 22 January, the Commission will adopt a package of measures, including the communication on 2030 framework, a communication on energy prices, a legislative proposal on ETS structural measures, a communication on industrial policy, and the communication on unconventional oil and gas. We will examine these measures closely in the run up to the March Council, which will focus, in particular, on the climate and energy framework.
This has provided the House with a good sense of the discussions and the range of them at the December European Council. The next Council will take place on 20 and 21 March. It will focus on energy and climate change as well as industrial policy and the European Semester. I will of course brief the House in advance of the meeting.