Is cúis áthais dom bheith ar ais arís chun freastal ar an Teach iontach seo. This Bill amends the European Communities Act 1972, to allow certain parts of the treaty providing for the accession of the Republic of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union become part of the domestic law of the State as soon as Ireland ratifies the treaty. The Bill is in line with earlier amendments of the European Communities Act 1972, through which previous EU treaties were given domestic legal effect.
The Bill enables Ireland to welcome Bulgaria and Romania into the EU family. Their entry will complete the fifth enlargement of the EU, which is the largest and most far-reaching yet. It began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the popular overthrow of unrepresentative communist regimes in central and eastern Europe. The long and complex process these countries underwent in order to join the EU had none of the drama associated with their impressive transformation from totalitarianism to democracy. Nonetheless, EU membership is proving to be central to the success of the democracies of central and eastern Europe, whose economies are already benefiting from the opportunities of membership. They have pinned their national aspirations firmly to the EU mast.
Ireland has promoted this enlargement from the outset. In April 1990, the Irish Presidency, under the leadership of the then Taoiseach, the late Charles Haughey — go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam uasal dilís — hosted a special meeting of the European Council in Dublin to consider the peaceful revolutions in central and eastern Europe. Mr. Haughey was a staunch advocate of Ireland's participation in the European project. His successful running of the Presidency in 1990 earned him the admiration of his EU colleagues, in particular that of the then President of the EU Commission, Mr. Jacques Delors.
Under Mr. Haughey's chairmanship, the meeting in April 1990 agreed the first step towards EU membership for the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe. Almost a decade and a half later, on 1 May 2004, the Irish Presidency oversaw the final step and welcomed ten of those countries into the EU. The same Irish Presidency also made significant progress on the accession negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania. These negotiations ended in success shortly afterwards and on 25 April 2005, the accession treaty for Bulgaria and Romania was signed by the acceding countries and the EU member states, including Ireland.
To enter into force, the treaty must be ratified by all signatories by 31 December 2006. Bulgaria and Romania have already ratified the treaty, as have 17 member states. All other member states have confirmed that they will ratify it before the deadline. It is important that Ireland should also live up to its obligations towards the EU and its two incoming member states. The Bill before the Seanad today represents one of two necessary steps towards Ireland's ratification of the treaty. The other step was successfully completed on 24 May 2006, when the Dáil passed a motion approving the terms of the treaty. Once all the signatories have ratified the treaty, the path will be clear for Bulgaria and Romania to join the EU on 1 January 2007.
However, under the accession treaty, the European Union has the power to postpone the accession of one or both countries for a further year. This would happen should the Council, on the advice of the Commission, decide that either country is unable to fulfil the requirements of membership in 2007. The final decision on the date of accession will be made in the autumn, after the Commission updates the Council on the remaining issues affecting the accession of Romania and Bulgaria.
The Commission issued comprehensive monitoring reports on both countries on 16 May 2006. The reports commended Bulgaria and Romania on the transformation of their political and economic systems in line with EU membership requirements. On the downside, however, the reports also identified problem areas in both countries. There is still time for both countries to resolve these inadequacies. Provided this is done, the Commission has stated that both Bulgaria and Romania would be able to join the EU on 1 January 2007. Furthermore, the accession treaty provides for action to be taken in sensitive areas, even after accession, in order to protect the proper functioning of the EU.
I welcome the Commission's conclusion that the date of 1 January 2007 remains feasible. I am sure that both Bulgaria and Romania will do everything they can to meet the criteria for accession on that date. While we await final confirmation of the actual date, we should remember that the substantive issue of accession by both countries is not at stake. Ireland and all the other member states have already agreed to accept Romania and Bulgaria into the European Union. Since last year, both countries have been participating in almost all EU activities and making a valued contribution.
We should not underestimate the effort required by both countries to meet the criteria for EU membership. In its May report, the Commission explicitly acknowledged their considerable achievements so far. Both countries have significantly reduced the number of areas that need to be addressed before accession. Bulgaria has reduced the number of "red flag" issues from 16 to six while Romania has reduced the number from 14 to four.
Some problem areas are common to both countries, especially putting in place the necessary arrangements for the disbursement of EU funds. In the agricultural area, both countries need to set up a proper, integrated administration and control system. There is a need to build up rendering, collection and treatment facilities. While both countries need to sustain their efforts in reforming the judiciary and fighting corruption, Bulgaria has been singled out as needing to devote urgent attention to this area. According to the Commission, Bulgaria needs to show tangible results in investigating and prosecuting organised crime networks, in the more efficient and systematic implementation of laws for the fight against fraud and corruption, and in intensified enforcement of anti-money laundering provisions. Both countries also need to step up their efforts to combat human trafficking.
While our focus at this stage is necessarily on what remains to be done, we should not forget the remarkable progress Bulgaria and Romania have already achieved. Within a matter of years they have wiped out decades of economic stagnation and totalitarian oppression and created functioning democracies and market economies. They took on the challenge of meeting the exacting membership requirements of the EU and made the best use of available resources to implement the necessary reforms. The speed and the depth of their progress towards EU membership is a credit to the determination and perseverance of the peoples of Romania and Bulgaria.
Ireland will continue to support both Romania and Bulgaria with their preparations for EU membership. In an EU context, we were involved in approving an increase in the amount of EU financial assistance to Bulgaria by an average of 30% in the period 2004-06. During that time, Bulgaria received around €500 million per year, representing close to 2% of its GDP. The total volume of pre-accession assistance available to Romania is substantial and increasing, totalling around €952 million in 2005. This represents a very important financial resource for Romania, comprising around 1.4% of its GDP. Approximately €1.2 billion will be allocated to Romania in 2006.
It is more than 30 years since we joined the EU and we have sought to share with our future EU partners the reservoir of knowledge and experience built up over the course of those years in this country. To this end, Irish officials have advised their counterparts in the acceding countries on the optimum use of Structural and Cohesion Funds. Ireland's bilateral assistance programme to the accession countries, now in its fifth year, has allocated €1.49 million this year for training and assistance, some of which has been to the benefit of Bulgaria and Romania. This support was timely and of real benefit to those countries. This investment, however, has also been to Ireland's gain. It is important in nurturing new contacts within those countries, which will help deepen our engagement with them as we work together in future as full members of the enlarged European Union.
Our bilateral relationship with Romania and Bulgaria has flourished as both countries have advanced towards EU membership. New embassies were opened in Sofia and Bucharest last year and bilateral trade with both has grown impressively. For example, trade between Ireland and Romania increased from less than €5 million in 1992 to more than €175 million last year. Trade between Ireland with Bulgaria has meanwhile multiplied more than eight times since 1994. Last year alone, trade with Romania increased by 75% while that with Bulgaria showed an 11% increase. The number of Irish tourists travelling to Bulgaria doubled in 2005 and that trend is set to continue. It is obvious that as long as our economy continues to grow and the European Union continues to expand, the capacity for Irish trade and economic growth to increase on a consistent annual basis is sustainable and advantageous for us into the future.
The figures clearly show that we have made good strides in developing economic ties with Bulgaria and Romania, but there is scope for further advances in that direction. I fully expect the economic opportunities to increase once these two countries attain full EU membership. I am confident that our trade and business interests in both countries will advance further within an EU framework. There is every reason to believe that Ireland will continue to prosper in a European Union of 27 member states in the same way as we have done with each succeeding EU accession, including the most recent enlargement in May 2004 when ten new countries joined the Union.
Further testimony to the strength and resilience of the Irish economy is the fact that we were one of only three countries that fully opened up our labour market to the EU-10 at the time of their accession. We have welcomed the subsequent decision by four more member states to follow the lead set by Ireland, Sweden and the UK and allow free movement of workers as of 1 May 2006. We hope that other member states will soon feel able to do the same. We believe it is politically and morally responsible for them to do so.
Following our decision to allow the free movement of workers, the number of EU-10 nationals that took up employment in Ireland rose to an estimated 2% of our workforce according to the EUROSTAT labour force survey and to around 3% according to the Central Statistics Office. The variation in these two figures can be accounted for by their use of different methodologies. A rise of such proportions was especially noticeable in a country like Ireland where net immigration is such a recent phenomenon and a total change for this country. However, the overall proportion of foreign nationals in our workforce is in line with that of other EU countries — Ireland has merely achieved the same level in a shorter time. Most important, we should remember that this inward migration has helped to boost employment in our economy. We continue to enjoy historically low levels of unemployment throughout thecountry.
The flow of workers from the EU-10 has helped Ireland sustain our strong growth rates. It has done so by alleviating our shortage of skilled and unskilled labour across a wide range of sectors, among them, information and communications technologies, health care, construction, hospitality and engineering. This is borne out by the European Commission's findings that Ireland, Sweden and the UK all experienced better employment performance than those member states that maintained labour restrictions. The Commission also concluded that workers tend to move to a country because there are job vacancies there and not simply because they do not need a work permit. In other words, migration within the EU is demand driven and workers will not move unless there is an employment opportunity for them and economic wherewithal available to them. It is only then that they will consider moving.
I have made it clear in earlier Oireachtas debates on this legislation that while Ireland decided in favour of the free movement of workers in 2004, this does not prejudge our decision in regard to Bulgarian and Romanian workers after their countries' accession to the European Union. This decision will be made closer to the date of accession. It will take into account all relevant considerations, among them the prevailing labour market trends and the intentions of other member states.
On 31 May the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment brought forward an amendment to the Employment Permits Bill 2005. This is an enabling provision to permit the Minister to exercise one of three options with regard to labour market access for Bulgarian and Romanian workers. These three options are as follows: to grant these nationals access to the labour market without the need to acquire an employment permit; to grant permits without a labour market test on foot of a job offer; or to continue to require nationals of these states to obtain employment permits from the date of accession.
It is easy to fall into the trap of zero-sum thinking when we consider the complexities of economic growth. On a very basic level, it seems logical that if one country gains, another must lose out. However, part of the beauty and success of the European project is that it has shown that economic benefit can be widely and consistently spread on a continuous basis. European integration has not created any losers. It has been a win-win situation for member states and for Europe as a whole, which has enjoyed an unrivalled period of peace and prosperity during the 50 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957.
Ireland could be a textbook case in how enlargement can benefit old and new member states. When we joined the then European Economic Community in 1973 we were the poorest Community country. That is a strong statement and one on which we should all focus. Few would disagree that our membership of the then European Economic Community, later the European Union, was essential to our subsequent transformation into a successful modern European economy. The extent of our economic success is such that we will soon complete the transition from net beneficiary to net contributor to the EU budget. It is our hope and belief that EU membership will act in a like manner for Bulgaria and Romania in their future development.
The Irish example is not unique. Last month, the European Commission presented a paper to the European Council which detailed how all member states have benefited from the last enlargement. The paper shows how the stability provided by accession has helped multiply trade and investment between the EU-15 and the EU-10, creating a win-win situation for all involved. Companies enjoy more investment possibilities, while consumers benefit from more choices and greater opportunities.
The European Commission's paper also addressed the fear commonly held in the EU-15 that companies would choose to relocate to the new member states in search of cheaper labour. The European Commission concluded, however, that this kind of job displacement in the EU-15 was very insignificant. Moreover, in many instances outsourcing part of their business to a new member state helped a company in one of the EU-15 to strengthen its competitive edge and subsequently take on more workers. Overall, the paper shows that the net effect of the most recent enlargement is a stronger and more dynamic European economy. Together, the EU-25 are better equipped to face stiffening global competition, not least from the rapidly growing economies of Asia.
The benefits of enlargement have not been confined to the economic domain. EU enlargement has created a politically secure and united Europe that benefits its entire citizenry. Europe has become a much better place in which to live than it could ever have been during the Cold War when much of the Continent lived under the shadow of communism or military dictatorship. This experience blighted the lives of two European generations. While Europe has recently experienced political upheaval in the Balkans, the EU is now playing a significant role in promoting peace and stability there. In that region we can see how the incentive of EU membership can be a driving force for greater peace and security.
It is easy nowadays to forget the fears and uncertainties we faced when we joined the European Union more than 30 years ago. Success dulls the memory and it can make past decisions seem more simple and straightforward than they actually were. Similarly, we tend to gloss over the difficulties with which the EU has had to contend in past times.
We should not allow a rose-tinted view of past EU achievements to stop us from putting current problems and setbacks into their proper perspective. The EU has been a success and remains essential for Europe's future. No one has any incentive for turning the clock back. We cannot do that and should never try to do so. Nevertheless, the EU's future evolution cannot be taken for granted. There is work to be done in determining the EU's future course.
Some naysayers took great delight in writing off the European Union last year. First, there was the rejection of the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands and then the June European Council failed to agree on the European Union's budget for 2007-13. The fifth enlargement of the EU, it was argued, had been misguided, and it was now bringing down the whole of the EU. However, one year later we can see that such dire predictions were premature. Last December, the European Council agreed a budgetary package amounting to over €860 billion over a seven-year period, showing that the enlarged Union has the budgetary resources to support its key policies.
There are testing times ahead for the European Union. The challenges include many that are not confined to Europe, such as the threat of terrorism, the energy crisis and the growing economic power of China and India. It would be wrong to make a casual link between these issues and EU enlargement. They are separate issues with which we must contend, irrespective of the direction in which our enlargement policy takes us.
It is inevitable that we will turn our attention to outstanding commitments as we near completion of the fifth enlargement, the merits of which some Europeans understandably question. The fifth enlargement has been a considerable undertaking and we are seeing it through to its successful completion.
A key factor in the overall success of the EU-10 accession was the meticulous preparation made before the accession date. Similarly, any future decisions on EU enlargement will require a comprehensive understanding of all the implications. The public must be persuaded that any future expansion of membership will bring with it the promise of a further strengthening of the European Union and its capacity to deliver real benefits to all the citizens of Europe.
The EU treaty states that any European country that respects the values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law may apply for EU membership. This does not mean that all European countries will apply or that their applications will be automatically accepted if they do so. We have started accession negotiations with Croatia. The other countries of the western Balkans have the perspective of eventual EU membership although this is still a long way off. Negotiations are also under way with Turkey, although it may take a decade or more for it to meet all the criteria for EU membership. The decision to offer a membership perspective to any other European country must be taken unanimously by all member states.
Another factor bearing on the Union's enlargement strategy is the institutional capability of the Union to handle further expansion. The European Union started out with six members. A Union with more than four times the original membership would need to undergo structural change to continue to function effectively. To achieve this the governments of the member states agreed the EU constitution after comprehensive negotiations. The Government's position is that the provisions of the EU constitution remain the best option for the Union as it addresses the challenges of the future including further enlargement. From a pragmatic point of view, we see no alternative structure that would command greater support from the EU member states.
For now our priority is to complete the fifth enlargement of the Union and to welcome Bulgaria and Romania into it. We have a responsibility to ratify the accession treaty by the end of this year. This deadline applies regardless of whether the date of accession is 1 January 2007 or a year later. The Bill before the House today enables Ireland to ratify the treaty and will help pave the way for a Union of 27 members. Bulgaria and Romania have made remarkable progress towards full EU membership. Ireland looks forward to welcoming them as full partners in the Union. We are confident that both countries will benefit from membership and will contribute to the Union as Ireland has done over the past 33 years.