Although President Juncker said we are big on big things and small on small things, it has nothing to do with height.
On behalf of the President of the European Commission, I am obviously very pleased to be back here in Leinster House to provide an overview of the European Commission's work programme for 2016. I thank the committee for the invitation to do so and look forward to hearing members’ questions in due course. The new Commission has been in office for one year so this is a good milestone at which to reflect on our work to date. The Commission is committed to making bold, yet pragmatic, proposals to tackle our common challenges and emerge stronger in the spirit of European solidarity and co-operation.
The ten priorities outlined by President Juncker remain the right ones and we intend to deliver on them in a focused and strategic way. Last year, President Juncker said we would do different things and do things differently. We are following through on our pledge to concentrate on the big things, as mentioned by the Chairman. We have set out our vision and outlined the steps required to achieve these goals. I will provide a brief overview of a number of priority policy areas, including the progress made to date. This will not be an exhaustive list, so I will be happy to address any further areas that are not covered.
First and foremost, we are maintaining the drive to create jobs, growth and investment. The investment fund is now up and running and delivering high-quality investments to turbo-charge the European economy, including in research. As members know, this is needed. A €70 million investment in 14 primary care centres in Ireland was among the first tranche of investments in projects under the Juncker plan. Ireland was among the first four member states to draw down finance from the European Investment Bank under the plan. We have also front-loaded €1 billion to speed up the implementation of the youth employment initiative to help up to 650,000 young people find jobs, apprenticeships, traineeships or continued education across Europe.
The Commission will now focus on improving the investment environment and deepening the Single Market so that it delivers better outcomes, removes barriers and creates the right environment for innovation, particularly among SMEs and start-ups. As Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, I repeat the message that the European agrifood sector is a vital driver of job creation and growth. I know I am preaching to the converted when I tell members that the agrifood sector has arguably contributed more than any other sector to Irish economic recovery, with 61,000 new jobs created in agriculture, forestry and fisheries in 2013 alone. With the CAP now reformed and more market oriented, the changing international context provides a wealth of opportunities for forward-thinking farmers and agribusinesses. I would like to be in a position to say ambitious and entrepreneurial Europeans, particularly younger citizens, will be able to view the agrifood sector as an attractive career prospect. The reformed CAP provides many incentives encouraging young and new farmers to enter the sector, while our committed pursuit of new markets will open new opportunities to be grasped. More broadly, the Commission aims to improve the business environment by deepening the Single Market and removing internal barriers to investment and innovation, including a range of proposals to implement the digital single market strategy.
Here in Ireland, we are particularly aware that a thriving digital economy can expand markets and create new sources of employment. In December, the Commission will present its vision for a more modern, European approach on copyright to take account of the digital revolution. Further initiatives on geo-blocking, the free flow of data, the cloud and VAT for electronic commerce will follow in the course of 2016. A good news story for EU citizens and consumers is that we foresee an end to roaming charges by 2017. Energy policy is also front and centre in our thinking. As members know, the European Union is a central player in the upcoming Paris climate talks. To that end, we will deliver three important packages under the energy union.
We aim to deliver a circular economy package to maximise resource efficiency throughout the entire value chain. We will set out a new blueprint to ensure economic, social and environmental sustainability, incorporating the Europe 2020 review and the UN sustainable development goals.
Closely linked to Internal Market reform is our commitment to building a more united, resilient and prosperous economic and monetary union. Members discussed this in September with José Leandro, director of policy strategy at the Commission's economic and financial unit. This week, the Commission presented a European bank deposit scheme to further reduce risk and ensure a level playing field in the banking sector. Enhanced dialogue between the Commission and the European Parliament is a key priority to improving the democratic accountability of our economic governance system. To prepare for the transition from stage 1 to stage 2 of economic and monetary union completion, the Commission intends to launch a wide-ranging debate across EU member states.
The 2016 European semester will put a stronger focus on the economic and fiscal situation in the euro area as a whole, emphasising employment and social performance through the development of a European pillar of social rights. I commend the committee on the work it has done on this important area. I encourage it to continue with this work because such engagement is vital to success. For the European Union and member states to succeed in meeting our jobs and growth targets we need to achieve a broad consensus on the right policy direction and generate strong support for reform efforts.
Earlier today, the European Commission published the so-called annual growth survey, which represents the launch of an annual cycle of economic governance. The focus remains on pursuing policies to boost investment and structural reforms and ensuring a sound fiscal base.
While the economy remains our priority, as members know well, addressing the refugee crisis and managing the migratory pressure on our external borders remains a most pressing priority. The instability, war and poverty in our neighbouring regions mean that this issue will remain at the top of the political agenda in Europe for some years to come. The European Agenda on Migration, which was presented in May 2015, provides a comprehensive approach to migration management based on the principles of solidarity and responsibility. In addition, two emergency schemes to relocate 160,000 people in need of international protection from the member states most affected are already operational. The Commission has welcomed Ireland's commitment to take 4,000 refugees. Every day, the FRONTEX joint operations Poseidon and Triton are rescuing people shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea. I pay tribute to the Irish naval forces on their tremendous service as part of the European humanitarian operations. The EU has already mobilised €4 billion in humanitarian, development, economic and stabilisation assistance for countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. An additional €1.8 billion will be used to set up an emergency trust fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa.
Stronger and deeper co-operation with third countries of origin and transit is key to managing migration better, including through a concerted effort to provide support for the growing number of refugees and internally displaced persons in third countries. I am pleased agriculture was recognised as making a contribution in this regard at the recent summit in Valletta. The crisis has shown that, beyond these immediate steps, we need to rethink fundamentally the way we manage our common external border and our European asylum framework. We will overhaul our common asylum system to correct the gaps and weaknesses exposed in the Dublin system and strengthen the role of the European Asylum Support Office. Today, this means stepping up existing efforts while pressing for an action plan on return to be fully and quickly put into operation, and for agreement on the pending proposals implementing the European agenda on migration. The Taoiseach and other European leaders will be in Brussels on Sunday to discuss issues concerning the European Union and Turkey.
To act effectively abroad, the European Union must live and grow as a union of democratic change at home. On this front, the Commission will work in partnership with the European Parliament and the Council to ensure the negotiations on a new inter-institutional agreement on better regulation can conclude by the end of the year.
This is necessary to strengthen our common commitment to better regulation as a tool to achieve better results, increase transparency about how European decisions are made and equip the three institutions to work together better.
In 2016, we will introduce our proposal for an inter-institutional agreement on a mandatory transparency register for interest representatives seeking to influence policy making in the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. We would like national parliaments to have a strong voice in European policy making, which is why more than 200 visits have been made by Commissioners since the Juncker Commission took office.