General Affairs and External Relations Council: Ministerial Presentation.

We have received apologies from Deputy Allen.

The purpose of today's meeting is to engage in a discussion with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Treacy, in advance of the forthcoming General Affairs and External Relations Council. I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I propose that we follow the usual format in that, following the Minister of State's presentation, members may ask questions.

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to meet the joint committee and review the agenda for next Monday's meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council, GAERC, the second such meeting under the Austrian Presidency at which Ireland will be represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern. Invariably, the Council agenda is diverse and far-reaching and this meeting will be no exception.

The first item on the general affairs agenda is the preparations for the spring European Council scheduled for 23 and 24 March. Monday's meeting of Foreign Ministers will briefly examine the first draft agenda for next month's European Council. The draft agenda received earlier this week provides the basic outline of the issues to be put before the Heads of State and Government when they meet in Brussels. The details are to be filled in during the coming weeks and, when the joint committee meets again next month, we will be at the stage of considering the draft European Council conclusions in their more complete form.

Traditionally, the spring European Council concentrates on economic and social issues in the framework of the Lisbon process for jobs and growth. The Government looks forward to a successful meeting next month which will build on the positive momentum generated by the last two meetings of the European Council. The informal meeting at Hampton Court in October was a very worthwhile event, enabling Heads of State and Government to address the range of economic challenges facing the European Union. The December European Council recorded a vital agreement on the Union's budgetary framework for the period 2007-13. The spring meeting offers an opportunity to demonstrate once again the Union's capacity to tackle important issues of common concern across Europe.

Ireland is happy with the approach adopted by the Austrian Presidency. We recognise the importance of the four issues highlighted by the Presidency that will be at the heart of the European Council's discussions next month, namely, research and development and innovation, SMEs, employment and energy. These issues are of central significance to the future health of the European economy and I look forward to concrete actions being agreed in these key areas. Europe needs to nurture its researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs and unleash the creative energies of our peoples. This is the best way to reach our goal of creating a dynamic and successful European economy.

The spring European Council will also provide an opportunity to underline the need for the implementation of member states' national reform programmes which are at the heart of the Lisbon process. Energy is a matter deserving attention at the highest level this year and beyond. The European Council will take place against the background of concerns about security of energy supply. There is a growing acceptance of the need for some sort of common energy framework at a European level. We look forward to the European Commission's forthcoming Green Paper on energy, which will provide a basis for further discussion at EU level. A common European energy framework will need to recognise that decisions on sources of energy must be taken at national level. Given Europe's dependence on imported energy, there is an important external dimension to the whole energy policy issue.

The second item on the general affairs agenda will be a report from the Presidency and the Commission on the ongoing negotiation of the inter-institutional agreement, IIA, between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament on the future financial perspectives for 2007-13. This agreement is designed to give legal effect to the political decision taken at the December European Council on the future financial framework for the enlarged European Union. At these negotiations, the Council is represented by the Austrian Presidency. The negotiations are centred round the Commission's draft agreement which was circulated earlier this month. Monday's meeting provides an opportunity for the Presidency to update member states on the progress of negotiations.

It is hoped that the IIA can be agreed as early as April so that funding for the post-2006 financial framework can be available on time in January 2007. I know from my participation at the Friends of Cohesion Group last year how especially important this deadline is for the new member states.

Ireland's approach to the negotiations on the financial perspectives will be familiar to members of this committee. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern wrote to all Oireachtas Members and Irish MEPs in early January giving details of the agreement and its significance for Ireland. We were very happy with the outcome of the December European Council which preserved Ireland's key interests while equipping the enlarged EU with an appropriate budgetary framework for the challenging years ahead. For this reason, we are most anxious that the delicate balance achieved in December should be maintained in the inter-institutional agreement.

The European Parliament, as the Council's partners in deciding the EU budget, will be very aware of the political realities surrounding the December agreement, which balances the expectations of the cohesion countries, the financing needs of agriculture and other key EU policies and the interests of countries that are net contributors to the EU budget. When the long process of finalising the 2007-13 financial framework draws to a close over the next few months, we will secure an inter-institutional agreement that is in line with the momentous political decisions taken by the European Council in December.

Concerning external relations, and following a French initiative, Council will be asked to approve a draft Council decision increasing the Schengen visa fee from €35 to €60. France has pointed out that the real cost of handling and issuing visas is not covered by the existing fee of €35. The inclusion of biometric data and the installation of new equipment in consulates and border posts will add further costs to the issuing of visas. However, several of the accession states are concerned that a sudden increase in visa fees could create political problems with neighbouring states and would not be in line with the EU's general policy of promoting contacts between citizens. As Ireland does not participate in the Schengen visa system, we will not be taking part in the debate on the adoption of this draft Council decision and we will not be bound by the terms of the decision that may be approved by Council.

The Council will hear a briefing from Commissioner Rehn on the recent visit by him and Commission President Barroso to the western Balkans last week. Their message was one of encouragement to the region and assurances that the EU remains committed to the European perspective of the western Balkans, as well as to enhancing its relationship with the region through mutually beneficial measures. The countries of the region also need to continue their reform processes.

It is expected that Ministers will be updated by Commissioner Rehn on discussions on co-operation between countries of the region and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY. The committee is aware of speculation and media reports in recent days of the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander allegedly responsible for atrocities such as the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war. The situation regarding Mladic's arrest remains unclear. Despite the speculation, both the Serbian authorities and the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY, Carla del Ponte, have denied that Ratko Mladic has either been arrested or located. We will continue to follow the situation closely. Should the arrest take place in the next few days the Council can be expected to welcome such a development. The other major fugitive, Radovan Karadzic, remains at large and we would also hope to see his arrest in the near future.

The Council will review developments in the Kosovo status process including the election earlier this month of Dr. Fatmir Sejdiu as President of Kosovo, replacing the late President Rugova. Direct talks between Serbia and Kosovo Albanian representatives, facilitated by UN special envoy and former Finnish President, Mr. Martti Ahtisaari opened in Vienna on 20 February under the able guidance of Mr. Ahtisaari's deputy, Albert Rohan. We welcome the opening of the talks. The participation of both sides is a positive indication of their commitment to engage in the status process and we hope this momentum can continue. We have every confidence in Special Envoy Ahtisaari's skills and ability in facilitating the status process and will continue to support this important work in what will inevitably be a difficult period ahead.

The Council is also expected to review developments in the Montenegro referendumnegotiations. Montenegro is scheduled to hold a referendum on possible independence from Serbia in the early part of this year. The EU wishes to ensure that the referendum is carried out in line with accepted international standards. As yet there is no agreement between the government and opposition parties on a number of key issues including, for example, the text of the referendum question. Negotiations between the parties are currently being facilitated by the EU, through Secretary General Solana's representative, Ambassador Lajcak of Slovakia. We fully support Ambassador Lajcak in this work and urge the parties to continue working towards mutually acceptable solutions to the outstanding issues.

The Council will consider developments in Iraq, in light of the ongoing consultations on the formation of a new, fully sovereign government following the elections in December. The terrible violence of recent days underlines the importance of early agreement between the parties on a truly representative and inclusive government, which can command the broadest possible support in the parliament and among Iraq's different communities.

Yesterday's attack on one of the holiest shrines of Shia Islam in the city of Samarra was clearly yet another attempt to spark inter-communal fighting and destroy the political process. Some retaliation has already taken place, but it is important that the situation be brought under control as soon as possible. The principal Shia religious leader, Ayatollah Sistani, has appealed to his people to remain calm, and we support that appeal.

The Iraqi people demonstrated their commitment to the political process in huge numbers last December, and that remains the only way forward. It remains particularly important that the Sunni community be encouraged to participate fully in the new democratic political structures, and that their concerns be given weight in the upcoming review of the new constitution, which was approved by referendum last October.

The EU remains firmly committed to working with the Iraqi people in support of the difficult reconstruction process. The Union strongly supports the work of the Arab League in preparing for a national reconciliation conference, to be held in Iraq in the coming months.

Ministers will also have the opportunity to consider the difficult situation following the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. In reaction to the controversy, the Government has emphasised the fundamental principle of free speech in a democratic society. However, freedom imposes responsibilities on all of us. The Government deplores the publication of any material which is aimed at offending or provoking any religious, national or ethnic group. We appreciate the strength of feeling among the Islamic community worldwide, and the responsible manner in which the vast majority have expressed their views. It is unacceptable, however, that any party should exploit this situation to exacerbate tensions in the Middle East, or between Muslim and other communities in Europe or elsewhere. The violent attacks on Danish and other European citizens and diplomatic missions have been condemned by all responsible leaders.

I expect that Ministers will agree on the need to work now to calm the situation and to reduce tensions, in co-operation with our partners in the Islamic world. We must find ways to strengthen the ties between Europe and the Islamic world, and to ensure that our relations are at all times based on a spirit of respect for each other's deeply held values, religious beliefs, cultures and traditions.

The Council will review developments in the Middle East peace process since its last meeting, which was held in the immediate aftermath of the Palestinian elections. The new Palestinian Legislative Council held its first meeting on 18 February and consultations on the formation of a government are now under way. The process is expected to take some weeks.

Following the victory of Hamas in the elections, the international community has adopted a united approach, by emphasising the basic principles which must be respected by all parties to the Middle East peace process. On 30 January, the Council issued a clear message that violence and terror are incompatible with the democratic process. It urged Hamas and other factions to renounce violence, to recognise Israel's right to exist, and to disarm. The Council, and subsequently the international quartet, urged the legislative council to support the formation of a government which is committed to a peaceful and negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on existing agreements and on the roadmap.

The Government and our EU partners will continue to work closely in support of President Mahmoud Abbas. It is important that we should not prejudge the outcome of the discussions taking place on the formation of a government. We need to examine carefully, in co-operation with our international partners, how best to encourage Hamas to take the vital steps so clearly set out by the international community, while adhering to our fundamental principles.

The approach of the European Union in the coming weeks and months will be determined by our conviction that a lasting and peaceful settlement can only be found through a negotiated, mutually-acceptable two-state solution. The principles and steps set out in the Quartet roadmap continue to provide the only available framework for such a settlement. In the context of the current uncertainties in the process, it is all the more important that no party should take any unilateral action which would undermine the prospects for a two-state solution, involving the creation of a democratic and viable Palestinian state, living in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours.

The discussion on Iran will review the situation following the meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, on 2 to 4 February which adopted a resolution reporting Iran to the United Nations Security Council. This action by the board of governors follows Iran's decision in January to recommence research on its nuclear programme. The EU E3 will brief the council and Ministers will discuss developments in the light of the forthcoming meeting of the board of governors on 6 March in Vienna.

In preparation for this meeting the IAEA director general will prepare a further report which will thereafter be forwarded to the Security Council. Ireland's position is that Iran should immediately cease all research and conversion activities and fully and proactively co-operate with the IAEA in order to resolve all questions relating to its nuclear programme in a spirit of transparency. Resolution of these issues would help to restore international confidence in Iran's declared wish to have a nuclear programme for peaceful purposes only.

Presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, are now scheduled for June 2006. At Belgium's request, the Council will have a general discussion and adopt conclusions on the current state of electoral preparations and the scope for further European Union support. Belgium is likely to emphasise the need for increased humanitarian support to the DRC, following the launch of a $681 million humanitarian action plan for that country on 13 February.

As colleagues may be aware, the United Nations has asked the European Union whether it could provide support for the UN's own force in the DRC, the MONUC force, during the period around the forthcoming election. The EU is examining the request positively. A fact-finding mission to the DRC has taken place, and there have also been contacts with the United Nations in New York in order to clarify various issues. As consideration of the request remains under way, it is not possible at this stage to say whether the Union will be able to respond positively, or what the nature and tasks of any EU mission will be. However, the Government hopes it will be possible for the European Union to give a favourable response to the United Nations' request in this matter.

That concludes the agenda for next Monday's meeting. I look forward to the contributions and observations of the Chairman and members of the committee, and I am happy to deal with any questions or comments related to the GAERC agenda.

I thank the Minister of State for his comments.

I join the Vice Chairman in thanking the Minister of State and his officials for attending today and I thank him for his comprehensive statement.

I wish to deal with the situation in the Middle East. Yesterday, one of the leaders of Hamas stated that from here on, Iran will play a larger role in the affairs of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian government. If the Palestinian Authority has any shortfall in its funding, it will look to the rest of the Arab world to provide for that shortfall.

We heard the United States of America has withdrawn, or is considering withdrawing, its funding to the Palestinian Authority after the election of Hamas. Perhaps the Minister of State knows more about it. Has the Irish Government considered this policy issue? Will the EU continue its funding for the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Hamas or will it be made a precondition for this funding that Hamas recognises Israel? So far, it has failed to do so.

The European Union is by far the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people. The GAERC stated clearly on 30 January that the European Union will continue to support Palestinian economic development and democratic state building on the basis that a new Palestinian government demonstrates its commitment to a peaceful and negotiated solution to the conflict based on existing agreements and on the road map.

It is important that no decisions should be taken at this stage which might prejudge the outcome of the ongoing consultations on the formation of a Palestinian government. Ireland provided more than €4 million in assistance to the Palestinians in 2005 and last year the Government indicated it expects to maintain and increase this level of commitment.

Most of our assistance goes to UN and non-governmental organisations. We cannot rule out the possibility that aid to the Palestinian Authority could be affected should the new government fail to listen to the strong message from the international community and from President Abbas. However, I want to emphasise that any such decisions, if they became necessary, would not be taken at the expense of our commitment to the welfare of the Palestinian people. As far as I understand, the United States signalled that in certain situations it would consider withdrawing or terminating its contributions. It has not taken that decision but is watching the situation closely, as is the rest of the world, including the European Union and Ireland.

We hope that common sense will prevail, that all sides will have a positive mindset and that progress can be made on a democratic basis, particularly adhering to the road map.

Will the Minister of State let us know if that decision changes at EU level, in order that this committee will be fully informed?

The situation will be kept under review. We do not anticipate any change in that situation or in the attitude at EU level on Monday. If any changes occur, we will certainly inform the committee.

I welcome Ms Bairbre de Bruin, MEP, on her first visit to the committee.

Ms Bairbre de Bruin, MEP

Tá cúpla ceist agam, ceann amháin faoi Chlár na Liospóine agus daoine óga, agus ceann eile faoi threoir Eorpach na seirbhísí. Mr. James Doorley of the National Youth Council of Ireland, speaking at the National Forum on Europe meeting at Dublin Castle this morning, expressed concern regarding what he sees as the lack of Government engagement in the European youth pact, in terms of facilitating access to employment for young people through education and reconciliation of work and family life. The Minister of State stated these matters are traditionally part of the spring European Council. What report on this matter will the Minister of State bring to the discussion on the Lisbon process at the Council meeting? What will the Minister of State's approach be at the meeting?

Ba mhaith liom an cheist eile a chur, le cead an Chathaoirligh. An bhfuil a fhios ag an Aire gur ábhar mór imníé an rún a ritheadh i bParlaimint na hEorpa an tseachtain seo caite maidir le treoir Eorpach na seirbhísí, cearta oibrithe agus cearta ar chaighdeán seirbhísí dá bharr? An síleann an tAire go mbeidh plé air sin sa chruinniú atá ag teacht?

Will the Council have preliminary discussions on the services directive in light of the highly controversial vote on it in the European Parliament and the timeframe set down by the Austrian Presidency? Does the Minister of State share the Commission's view that the services directive, as passed by the European Parliament last week, will be interpreted in accordance with the country of origin principle? Is the Minister of State aware of deep-seated opposition in Ireland and across Europe to the services directive?

If this is brought up for preliminary discussion, will the Minister of State reflect that feeling at the European Council and can he tell us what his approach will be on the matter?

As someone who went as an international observer to the Palestinian elections, I welcome the Minister of State's statement this morning that we should not prejudge the outcome of the discussions taking place on the formation of a government. The overwhelming fact I noted while there was that no matter what people felt about the outcome, they had a deep, burning pride at having had fair, free and well organised elections. We need to send, at both European and Irish level, a very strong signal that we respect that.

Fáiltím go mór roimh an Fheisire Eorpach, Bairbre de Brún, ón taobh Thuaidh dár dtír. Tá comhghairdeas agus buíochas ag dul di as ucht an chomhoibrithe atá ar fáil dár gcomhghleacaithe Eorpacha sa Pharlaimint. Le cuidiú Dé, beimid in ann comhoibriú le chéile ar son leas na tíre agus leas mhuintir an oileáin seo.

Bhí mé ag an chruinniú san Fhóram ar maidin freisin, agus bhí mé ag éisteacht leis an díospóireacht sin. I was very surprised at Mr. Doorley and what he said because I felt we were working in close co-operation with the youth organisations. I can assure the committee that the European Movement, Ireland, the Institute of European Affairs, the European unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs, headed by Mr. Mulhall, the European unit in the Department of the Taoiseach, headed by Mr. O'Leary, and all of their respective colleagues, as well as myself and my colleagues, consistently work with all the youth organisations. We consistently motivate and engage with them and create an environment for them to participate in shaping the policies that we believe are critically important for the constant evolution of the European Union, vis-à-vis their future leaders and their future and maturing citizens, taking into account the various levels of entry they have into activity and engagement with the political and official systems.

On unemployment, our national position is very strong but we would support anything which would encourage and stimulate employment at all ages across the European Union as a whole. I am aware that the Commission has mentioned this issue in terms of an ageing population while the Presidency of the European Union has also focused on youth employment. We will wait to see what the debate yields in the coming weeks. With regard to supporting low-skilled workers, we agree that attention should focus on policies to improve the availability of lifelong learning, vocational training and strategies to encourage skills development. Ireland is one of a number of member states that have significantly increased expenditure on education, with a view to increasing productivity and employability in the labour force.

D'ardaigh Bairbre de Brún treoir Eorpach na seirbhísí. Bhí díospóireacht an-mhaith sa Pharlaimint agus díospóireacht iontach ar maidin leis an Choimisinéir le freagracht as an mhargadh inmheánach agus seirbhísí, an tUas. McCreevy. Tá treoir Eorpach na seirbhísí ann, agus tá an scéim seirbhísí againn le 50 bliain, rud atá an-tábhachtach. Braitheann geilleagar na tíre seo 70% ar ardú, leasú agus leathnú seirbhísí. Dá bhrí sin, tá sé an-tábhachtach go mbeadh treoir Eorpach na seirbhísí an-láidir agus cothrom ar fud na mór-roinne — don tír seo agus dár gcomhghleacaithe uilig.

We have discussed the services directive and were very impressed by the serious engagement which took place in the European Parliament on the directive last week. We compliment our Members of the European Parliament on the very strong position they took and the role they played in co-operating with the European Commission and making the democratic position of the Parliament much stronger and more relevant to the electorate of Europe. We salute the Parliament in that because as fellow democrats and parliamentarians, we very much value its work.

Ireland welcomes the recent vote in the European Parliament on the services directive. Services account for up to 70% of GNP and employment here. They also account for the majority of new jobs created in recent years and are likely to continue to do so in the years ahead. Ireland had a 2.2% share of world service exports in 2004, which is out of all proportion to its share of world economic output. That is an unbelievable figure for a small island with a small, open economy. Our economy is growing and provides a model for our colleagues in Europe, particularly the newer states of the European Union.

Despite their impressive performance, many Irish service companies have not been able to take full advantage of the potential of the Single Market because of the barriers that the services directive aims to remove. The directive contains important provisions in consumer protection, including a substantial amount of information that service providers would have to make available to their customers. The Government is strongly supportive of efforts to create a genuine internal market for services but will insist that any new proposal must eliminate any risk of social dumping, protect public services and safeguard workers' rights and consumers' interests.

As the Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, Mr. McCreevy, said this morning, the services directive or instrument, as an instrument of economic activity, has been in existence since the Treaty of Rome, since the beginning of the formation of the internal market. Since the establishment of the European Single Market 20 years ago, there has been a major parallel growth in the Irish economy in general and in services in particular. The services directive is very important to this country. A debate is now taking place through the democratic process within the European Parliament. The Commissioner, who felt there would be serious difficulty in passing the original document, is revisiting the directive and will do his utmost to have a new document ready for the European Council meeting scheduled for 30 June 2006, containing a revised statement and legislative proposals. There are many actors involved and much collaboration will be required to achieve that. It will not be simple but the Commissioner is working towards the goal of bringing the directive forward and having it ready by the end of this year. That is an enormous challenge, but he is a very powerful, committed and engaging man and I am confident that, if there is reasonable flexibility, a consensus will be reached and we can make the kind of progress that is critical to the Lisbon Agenda in Europe and continued growth in this country.

I believe that the meeting of the European Council in March will be too soon after the European Parliament's adoption of its first reading of the directive for agreement to be reached. The European Commission will reflect on the Parliament's vote and come forward with proposals that will be examined by the Council in detail between March and the summer. The completion of the internal market for services through a services directive that contains the necessary social safeguards remains a priority for Ireland.

The Minister of State mentioned the EU budget agreement reached before Christmas and the fact that Ireland was satisfied with that agreement. I received documentation from the Department of the Taoiseach on the matter and certainly there are some positive aspects to the agreement from an Irish perspective. However, in the context of the budget as a whole, we are looking at a cut of €100 billion and the European Parliament is not happy with that. In fact, it is very unhappy. All the Members of the European Parliament to whom I have spoken are threatening not to co-operate with the institutions in passing this budget. The Parliament has a vote on the budget and a right to decide on the matter.

The Minister of State spoke about achieving the objectives of the Lisbon Agenda but insufficient funds will be available for research and development and innovation. If Europe is ever to achieve the objectives of the Lisbon Agenda, rather than simply talking about doing so, it must invest resources in research, development and innovation. Otherwise, there is no possibility of achieving those objectives. Most reasonable people would agree with that point. Is the Irish Government as happy with the budget agreement as it claims? Does the Minister of State believe that the levels of funding available for research and development will be sufficient to achieve the objectives of the Lisbon Agenda? I ask because MEPs I have spoken to would take the opposite view.

Irish is due to become an official working language of the European Union in January 2007. A number of MEPs had a meeting with officials approximately two months ago and learnt that there is still some way to go with the preparations. Is the Government satisfied and happy with the progress made to date in that regard?

It was reported today that a member of the European Commission spoke recently about the issue of non-national drivers. Does the Minister of State know to what I am referring?

I do. The Deputy is moving fast but I am staying with her.

Could the Minister of State outline the Government's view on that issue? As far as we are concerned, most of them drive on the wrong side of the road. Has the Government any views on the matter?

We have to be fair and objective by admitting that we are happy with the budget. I was part of the cohesion group of countries which met regularly to try to reach final agreement on the budget. We were never a member of the 1% club but fought that tooth and nail. We predicted that the budget would have to be in excess of 1.03% and the final outcome was 1.045%. At the end of the day, the agreement to spend €120 billion each year over seven years is a credit to the political leadership of the European Union. The Prime Ministers and their teams deserve credit for grasping the nettle and reaching a conclusion which provides certainty for the next seven years.

The European framework programmes on research and innovation are critical to the Lisbon Agenda but they are supplementary to national budgets. Each member state has committed to increasing research budgets and we will continue to increase ours as GDP grows. Support from Europe gives member states the confidence to prioritise this area.

Progress has been maintained on the status of Irish agus táimid lán-sásta leis an socrú cruinn beacht a bhí againn i ndeireadh na dála. We are confident that the first 30 people will be able to take up their positions on 1 January and the programme has been fully supported by all Departments and Government agencies. It is encouraging that the European Personnel Selection Office has already commenced the initial recruitment process with advertisements and we are grateful to it and the other member states for their positive and flexible approach to the issue. The permanent representation in Brussels and the Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to work with EU institutions to ensure a smooth transition to the new linguistic regime.

In his profile of the spring Council meeting, the Minister of State touched on the issue of security of energy supply. Member states currently have individual broad policy positions but he made reference to the prospect of a Green Paper on the Community's response to the issue. From a national point of view, we have an uneasy relationship with our neighbour because of the proximity of Sellafield and the prospect of further investment by the UK in nuclear energy. There will be safety implications for Ireland from those policies.

Is the Minister of State prepared to speculate on the possibility of providing a wider resource base for the development of alternative energy sources? While some movement has been made in this area, progress remains to be achieved. The capital requirements are significant but an incentivised grant scheme could be established to develop alternative sources in Ireland and other member states. Will we have to await the Green Paper for answers to this?

I refer to the current state of the economy north of the Border. A recent economic paper given at the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body made it clear that, once public spending is subtracted, the Northern Irish economy is in a dire state. While I am sure the British Government will claim responsibility, a Community initiative could stimulate inward investment in Northern Ireland and help to create a normal and conventional political ambience there. It would be beneficial both for the island of Ireland and the European Union if the Commission took a proactive role in stimulating investment by means of special grants or other aid.

Deputy Kirk raised an important topic because energy is critical to the future sustainability of supplies in Ireland and the European Union and it is appropriate that such issues are raised at this level. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is currently engaged in detailed work on this issue in the context of the forthcoming European Commission Green Paper on energy, which we expect to be published within the next two months.

Our approach will be positive and proactive, while sensitive to the issues of national competences, energy mix and wider foreign policy questions with third countries. We hope that the European Council will recognise the central strategic importance of energy to Europe's long-term economic agenda and expect vision and leadership in terms of the prioritisation of EU energy issues and a co-ordinated response on energy and related issues across the various Council formations, particularly in terms of synergies between energy and environment.

The Green Paper will address the need for a single coherent vision for the future, with a road map for the development of shared goals for a common European energy framework which will focus on security of supply. We accept that a common framework can be developed without ignoring the need for national flexibility in policy responses. This common policy will have to be broad enough to meet the needs of all, including the peripherality of certain markets and the geographical isolation of some member states.

Deputy Kirk referred to the United Kingdom. The electricity interconnector between our two countries is important, as is co-operation on the area of energy.

We received €200 million for the peace programme in Northern Ireland and it is a tribute to the Taoiseach and his team that we were able to increase that amount from an original proposal of €30 million. In addition, the EU's contribution to the International Fund for Ireland is in the region of €60 million. I do not doubt that members from all parties will warmly welcome this continued commitment to the peace process. Northern Ireland also benefits from EU structural funding and the Single Market, as well as linking to our dynamic economy.

An all-island approach to these issues is vital if we are to ensure continuity of energy supply and the growth of the economies of the North and South. A common European policy on security of energy supply would provide the support we need for certainty in the future. We share a common opportunity to introduce cultural changes to our wasteful habits. By taking advantage of combined heat and power production opportunities, we could reduce the level of imports currently required to meet our energy needs. We are committed to the alternative energy requirement programme. When I was Minister of State with responsibility for energy we worked on that assiduously and had four consecutive programmes which worked well. There is a possibility of bringing this into a micro focus to which everybody would be able to contribute. Policies that would assist in that could be developed.

I support Deputy Kirk's comments. The British-Irish Interparliamentary Body's report on the Northern Irish economy is worrying if one disregards the public sector.

The Schengen convention has not been raised. I understand that we are not in Schengen because of the common travel area with Britain. Unless Britain goes in we must stay out. Have there been any discussions, bilateral or within the European context, on our future attitude to Schengen and the possibility of getting Britain to join? It is inconvenient for travellers in the EU. For example, if one transits through Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris to Cyprus, one must go through a rigmarole to enter the Union and then leave it. That would be an easier process if one did it through Schengen. The Minister is fortunate that Deputy Gay Mitchell is not here to discuss this in greater detail because he has strong views on it.

What is our attitude on progress towards EU membership for Serbia and Montenegro in the event that Radovan Karadzic is brought to justice? I presume that is a precondition of any progress of its accession. The Montenegro representatives at the Crans Montana conference before Christmas were determined to be treated separately from Serbia. I note what the Minister said about the forthcoming referendum and I suspect the outcome will be that Montenegro will want to be regarded as a separate country. Have we any view on how Montenegro might be treated if it is not lumped in with Serbia? It seems to be a genuine difficulty for Montenegro's progress.

I endorse the Minister's comments on the Quartet road map being the template for progress in Palestine and the Middle East.

I thank the Senator. The Schengen situation has not arisen in any recent discussions between the UK and Ireland within the Union apart from what is proposed in the monetary changes being made for the agenda on Monday. As we are not party to it we will not be involved in that debate. We keep an eye on the situation because mobility of people is part of the EU's policy and we have benefitted from that both from a tourism and business travel perspective. We have had that important common travel area agreement with the UK and Northern Ireland for a long time. Change could only occur if both countries moved together. The European constitution refers to this area and in that context we will have to address it. We keep a close eye on it and if an opportunity presents itself it may be discussed in the medium term.

Ireland's position on Serbia and Montenegro has been consistent since we joined the EU. We are committed to ensuring that no sovereign state is denied the right of access to the EU provided it meets the criteria and chapters required. We take each case on its merits and are guided by the Union's criteria. No country should be allowed through unless it meets all the criteria and chapters in totality. The personal representative of the EU High Representative, Mr. Miroslav Lajcák of Slovakia, continues to chair EU sponsored dialogue between the government and opposition of Montenegro on the proposed referendum. Working groups have been established to discuss technical issues and while agreement has been reached on several aspects of the referendum, including administration and financing, a number of issues remain unresolved. These include a date for the referendum, currently expected in April or May, the majority voting requirements and the text of the question to be put to the electorate. Mr. Lajcák continues to work with the government and opposition to resolve these issues and we salute him and wish him well in this difficult work.

We support the right of the people of Montenegro to hold a referendum on independence as provided for in the Constitutional Charter of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. We welcome the EU's work on supporting the referendum process to ensure it takes place in accordance with internationally recognised democratic standards. The result of the referendum will be decided by the voters and we will support the outcome.

At Thessaloníki in 2003 a medium-term perspective for EU membership for all the western Balkan countries was discussed and it will depend on their progress on economic and political reform and on the EU's capacity to absorb them. It returns to the point raised by Deputy Harkin. Resources are critical. One cannot continue to roll out a greater Union without the resources to support it. It is important that the capacity of the EU at different locations is taken into account. It cannot continue to evolve and enlarge without sufficient resources. At this time of reflection on the European constitution we must address questions such as where we are going, how we get there, what is needed, how far we should go and who should be involved. There are important questions for the future and we must all focus on them and make our contribution to achieving a consensus as to how, in a planned and phased way, we can grow the EU economy and allow interested sovereign states to join this great operation.

The European vision is vital in encouraging stability. Peace, stability, progress and prosperity are critical for the future. The EU has played and will continue to play a major role and has the mechanisms to do so both within the Union and close to its borders and has done so with great distinction over the years. These are areas for which we must always make resources available with a positive attitude. We must be measured on how we achieve progress.

The Minister of State has touched on the points on the Lisbon Agenda which Deputy Harkin initially raised. I was glad to see the resources so necessary to fulfil the objectives laid down in the Lisbon Agenda. The Minister refers to the importance of the four issues highlighted during the Austrian Presidency which are to be debated in the spring European Council. These are research and development, employment, energy and the small and medium businesses. While we might fulfil our objectives in these areas, to what extent can other member states tackle those areas if we are to complete the concept of jobs and growth through the process of the Lisbon Agenda? The Minister may not have enough knowledge and his comments after the spring Council might be more important.

There is a lovely, rosy passage here from the Minister which states:

I look forward to some concrete actions being agreed in these key areas. Europe needs to nurture its researchers, its inventors, its entrepreneurs and unleash the creative energies of our people.

I would love to know what the Minister means. Perhaps now is not the time to comment on it but we will, at some stage, have to discuss the future of Europe.

I am pleased the Senator has identified the rosy language. It means we can compare the evolution of the Irish economy with the evolution of the European Union. For centuries, in particular the last, we exported our brightest and best. Brilliant academics could not find a suitable job. They had huge intellectual capacity and educational achievements but we did not have the economy to absorb their talent. The EU needs to take a range of concrete actions to ensure the talent within Europe can be harnessed for the benefit of the people of Europe and that opportunities are created, initiatives are taken and measures and resources put in place in order that great inventors, intellectuals, academics, researchers and innovators can make a contribution to their own and the wider European economy. There must also be flexibility to ensure they can fulfil their potential, individually and collectively.

In its annual progress report on the Lisbon strategy for jobs and growth the Commission indicated that the national reform programmes were a good basis for driving the reform agenda forward. It emphasised that member states should now focus on implementing these programmes on the basis of partnership and national consensus. The Commission proposed that the programmes be strengthened in order that reform covers key policy areas in all member states. Four key areas, already referred to by the members of the joint committee in different ways, are research and development, promoting the development of SMEs, creating more and sustainable employment and securing affordable energy supplies.

It is important that the EU and the European Commission have a clear policy and focus, agreed by the Council, endorsed by the Parliament and supported by the EU in totality to ensure that each member state with its peculiarities, its strengths, its abilities and its resources, human and otherwise, is supported in different ways to drive the agenda for economic growth under the overall umbrella of instruments, measures and support mechanisms from the EU itself. We cannot continue on an ad hoc basis without certainty but must have goals and road maps to achieve success.

I am standing in for my colleague, Deputy Allen. I welcome the emphasis on research and development, with particular reference to energy policy. As my party spokesman on energy the first things I had to address were continuity or security of supply and research and development, the aim being to ensure that adequate funding was put in place to achieve results in a short space of time. I ask the Minister to bear in mind that this country has particular energy needs that many others do not. The Scandinavian countries have made good strides in renewable energy but they have a number of alternatives which we lack.

I am concerned lest the common energy policy drift into involvement in nuclear energy. At some stage in the future, owing to the interconnectors, we might find ourselves having to accept nuclear generated energy because we would have no control over it. However, we must not agree to nuclear energy being incorporated into the policy being framed at present. I also ask the Minister to bear in mind the capacity of the interconnectors because it is of critical importance. If they are not adequate they will not give us continuity or security of supply.

We live in a sensitive time and I am sure Monday's meeting will reflect that. There are ongoing issues in the Middle East and the fallout from the publication of certain cartoons that offended a particular religion. The EU has a meaningful role in this issue, to ensure that care is taken not to offend anybody or to be offended in the future. It should be remembered that religion-fuelled strife is not new to this planet but has happened many occasions. It would be foolish not to concentrate on the issues when the opportunity arises, without offending anybody. Attacks on people or buildings, however, should not follow. Instead of retaliation there should be negotiation around the issues which caused the offence.

I agree with the Deputy on many topics. Energy is very important and the common energy policy is of critical importance. Interconnectors are vital and have been an important factor in giving us continuity of supply. Alternative energy is also important. We will insist that, in any common energy policy, each member state has the right to decide its own system of energy creation. The role of energy regulators is to ensure the effective operation of competitive markets. It is suggested that energy policy focuses on the need for regulatory consistency and closer interaction among energy regulators. This is particularly important for fostering cross-border trade.

Research and development needs to be prioritised and we need a more harmonised EU approach in this area, rather than individual member states pursuing their own policies. This is of particular interest in the areas of low carbon fuels and energy efficiency.

I agree that the religious tensions to which the Deputy referred were created by the cartoons that were published. It is time for common sense to prevail and for people to recognise the sensitivities of different cultures and the rights of each. Everybody has the right to their religious views and they must be respected. We all have a duty to respect diversity and difference. Ireland fully respects the principle of free speech, which is a core value of our society.

The Government deplores the publication of any material aimed at offending or provoking any religious, national or ethnic group. We appreciate the strength of feeling on the issue among Muslims worldwide. It is wholly legitimate for Muslims and for governments in the Islamic world to express their views clearly on the publication of the cartoons but there is an obligation on all sides to express themselves in a reasonable manner, showing respect for others and for their views and beliefs. This applies both to those newspapers which have unnecessarily and unwisely republished the cartoons and to those within the Muslim world who have deliberately sought to foment anti-Danish and anti-European feeling.

However, it is completely unacceptable that anybody should exploit this unfortunate situation to exacerbate tensions in the Middle East or between Muslim and other communities in Europe or elsewhere. It is clear that much of what has happened, especially in Tehran and Damascus, has been orchestrated. Governments have a duty to protect diplomatic missions and I echo Deputy Durkan's hope that, in the aftermath of the controversy, people will respect each other, will respect each other's property and will respect other countries' consulates, embassies and staff. I hope we can look to respect diversity and work together in the interests of harmony, peace and mutual respect. This is critical in the future. On Monday there will be an opportunity to review all of this. I am confident the Council will be positive in the review and signals it will give.

I will be as brief as possible as we are aware of the time. I gather we will take three questions together and allow the Minister of State to reply. Is that the suggestion?

Yes, if Senators McDowell and Lydon agree.

I agree with the statement of Deputy Harkin, MEP, with regard to the budget. If the text of the Minister of State's paper is dissected, there is a certain presumption that the big players, having decided and struggled over the budget, will leave the European Parliament to realise to do the right thing at the right time. Following the Dutch and French referenda, this would be a major miscalculation. There are two MEPs here who would be better informed than me. The implications of what will now be reduced in the draft budget produced by the Commission are now available for people to see. I would urge caution and not to take the European Parliament for granted. A co-decision is just that, not a ratification.

I wish to turn to energy. I suggest that this joint committee might look at the implications for Ireland regarding a common energy policy. I have a growing sense that for the next decade of our political life, energy will be the dominant European issue in the same manner that the common currency was for the last decade of the previous century. We are critically dependent on certain fuels, and what occurred in Ukraine before Christmas is a clear indication of this. We are now net importers of gas, as is the UK, from a point where we were significantly suppliers.

I hope that when the Green Paper is published we are a contributor to the formation of policy rather than a taker. We cannot do this if only one Department is used. In order to get an integrated energy policy, we need the participation of the Departments of Agriculture and Food; Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Finance; Foreign Affairs; and Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I will briefly explain why.

Instead of concentrating on what compensation package we are seeking for sugar beet growers, in this country and the rest of the European Union, we should be looking at turning this expertise in growing cereals. These cereals would provide the basis for biomass. Instead of considering how we will find alternative employment for sugar workers in the Carlow plant, we should be looking at how to convert the plant into a biodiesel refinery. Similarly, instead of savouring the possibility of the privatisation of the land mass of Bord na Móna when the peat is fully extracted, as Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats are doing, we should be looking at using this land mass. The drained land mass in public ownership of the estate of Bord na Móna is the size of County Louth. It could be converted in a place for the growing of biomass or other materials for energy.

Perhaps the joint committee would informally consider, with other committees, how we could bring representatives from a group of Departments before us to discuss how Ireland will respond to the energy Green Paper and how we will look at the application of a common European energy policy. There is no doubt that a common policy is critically necessary, brought about through the needs of Europe. A whole generation of European farmers are being told they are redundant when they should be considered in terms of what can be grown to maintain our Kyoto Protocol obligations to reduce carbon emissions. The issue is not about compensating redundant farmers but empowering them to give us a solution to part of our energy needs. If necessary the rules should be changed to make the practice possible.

I thank Deputy Quinn for the suggestion. The committees are involved in the immigration issue and what will happen in future. The Deputy is probably accurate with his statement on the energy issue being a major concern in years to come, in terms of finding a replacement industry as well as a growth industry. We should be able to come to that matter in due course.

Caithfidh mé, ar dtús, fáilte a chur roimh Ms de Bruin, MEP, ar sise an blas, agus sílim go bhfuil gaeilge ceart aici.

The Minister of State has stated: "The Government deplores the publication of any material which is aimed at offending or provoking any religious, national or ethnic group". I trust he will give an assurance on the part of the Government that the next time a blasphemous book or advertisement is published insulting my Saviour, there will be immediate condemnation. If this is taken to extremes, it will clearly be untenable. It would mean we cannot sing Amhrán na bhFiann because the "Saxon foe" is mentioned in it. We should be able to publish most things.

Over the past year or so I have attended a number of conferences dealing with the EuroMed area, with Senator Dardis. Ireland does not appear to be represented, although northern countries such as Germany, France, Sweden, Norway and UK are, looking for investment possibilities in emerging countries such as Albania, Macedonia, Algeria, etc. Is there a policy on this? It might not be the brief of the Minister of State. We are lacking in that area, however, in terms of investment and participation. The security of the EuroMed area involves the security of the whole of Europe.

I wish to pursue the line of questioning that Senator Dardis began with regard to Serbia. It would be important that the joint committee comment on the potential arrest of General Ratko Mladic in Serbia. The Minister of State attended the tenth anniversary commemoration last year of the events in Srebrenica, which were some of the most horrific crimes committed in Europe since World War II. Without presuming this man's guilt, it would be a good day's work to apprehend him and forward him to The Hague, where he can stand trial and answer for his deeds, or lack thereof, in Srebrenica.

With regard to Serbia, Senator Dardis asked specifically if it was a precondition that General Mladic and Radovan Karadzic would be apprehended and delivered to The Hague before entertaining the candidacy of the country to join the EU. I would like a specific answer on that. Is it also the case that we regard a successful completion of the Kosovo talks as a precondition to progressing the candidacy of Serbia?

A number of issues have been raised. I agree completely with my colleague, Deputy Quinn, that the European Parliament is critical and has a key role in co-decision. It is important that we have full democratic involvement in order to get a validation for the final agreement made last December. We respect and value the role of the European Parliament in this inter-institutional agreement. An elaborate negotiation is under way which includes the European Council, Parliament and Commission.

We must remember that the December decision represents a balance between the interests of 25 democratic governments representing the taxpayers in the European Union. While the European Parliament would be anxious to have the budget increased — it has made its position on this clear — much negotiation was carried out to reach the final agreement. I am confident there will be give and take with the European Parliament and we will ultimately get a decision which is in the best interest of Europe. It is important we have the joint effort to reach a final conclusion.

I agree with Deputy Quinn that there is much potential in the energy field. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is looking at the creation of a Green Paper on the matter, and it is vital that all the different aspects are involved, along with different Departments. The Minister for Agriculture and Food, in the context of the post-sugar regime debate, is looking at available options for how the expertise, talent and resources in the sugar industry can be utilised to ensure we create other options for producer farmers and the excellent workers which have been in the industry for many years. My own constituency suffered severely with a previous closure of a plant in Tuam and Thurles after that. It is an ongoing matter and it is critical that we harness resources to create the best possible opportunities. I agree on the importance of the relevant Departments being involved in the matter.

Bord na Móna is of great interest to me as someone who lives within a mile of one of the biggest turbary resources in the country. When I was a little boy, 550 people used to go on their bikes every day to work there. Bord na Móna extracted itself from that area and we formed a co-op that has become a major success story. We have a massive amount of cut-away bog that has since been taken over by Coillte and we grow a great deal of fine timber that has a huge contribution to make to the future. I am not aware of any Government document or pronouncement aiming to create a situation whereby we would get rid of this vast land mass that has such huge potential. I am sure Bord na Móna will make proposals to which the Government, Parliament and all concerned will want to respond to ensure that we utilise those resources to maximise the economic and energy opportunities. Those resources will be important in the future.

I can inform Senator Lydon that we have participated in many EuroMed conferences. As recently as last November, the Taoiseach and I attended the EuroMed conference in Barcelona. We organised a EuroMed conference in Dundalk in 2004. Having attended at least three EuroMed conferences on Ireland's behalf, I know we are represented at political or official level at all EuroMed conferences. We have a huge interest in EuroMed and we continually collaborate in this area.

I am glad to hear that.

We will continue to do that.

The Acting Chairman raised a number of issues about the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal had some success towards the end of last year with the arrest of Ante Gotovina, who was transferred to The Hague. The focus is now on the former Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, and the war-time Bosnian Serb political leader, Radovan Karadzic. Both are still in hiding but yet to be confirmed reports suggest that Mladic may have been arrested in Belgrade on 21 February. The EU has made it clear that the pace and conclusion of negotiations on stabilisation and on association agreements with the countries concerned in the region, including Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro, will depend inter alia on their co-operating with the tribunal. Ireland stands, as it should, fully behind that position.

As the Acting Chairman mentioned, I visited Srebenica on the tenth anniversary of the events there. I never want anyone to have to go through that again. I have never seen anything like it. We saw man's inhumanity to man but the world, including the European Union, stood idly by. We failed the democratic process and we failed to protect the rights of individual people in a troubled part of Europe. I hope we have learned the lesson that this must never happen again. I hope the European Union and the United Nations will together ensure that such a situation will never again prevail. I never saw anything so sad. I can only hope that justice prevails.

That concludes the public part of our meeting. I thank the Minister of State and his officials for attending today. I ask committee members to stay on for five or ten minutes so that we can deal with a number of issues in private.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.55 p.m. and adjourned at 5 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Wednesday, 1 March 2006.