On behalf of the delegation, I thank the committee for the invitation to address it today. I am accompanied by my fellow Irish members of the delegation, including Ms Freehill, Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Murray, Ms Forde and Mr. Lundy. We have apologies from Mr. Hughie McGrath, Mr. Enda Stenson and Ms Kate Feeney, who could not be with us today. I acknowledge the presence of Mr. Jim Conway, director of the eastern and midlands assembly; Ms Sarah Holden, the national co-ordinator for the delegation; and Dr. Michael Brennan, our EU affairs officer. Without their support we could not work effectively as a unit.
I will share the opening statement with two of my colleagues. I will provide an overview of the current mandate of the Committee of the Regions, the work that has been undertaken by the Irish delegation and the priority issues for our regions. My colleagues, Mr. McCarthy and Ms Freehill, will then speak about two of the current priorities for the Committee of the Regions and their relevance for Ireland, the future of regional policy and funding in the post-2020 period and the findings of the Report of the Task Force on Subsidiarity, Proportionality and "Doing Less More Efficiently".
At the outset of its current mandate the Committee of the Regions identified five political priorities to guide its work. These priorities include recovery following the financial crisis and ensuring that growth is spread evenly across regions and developing trust in the EU at the local level and in supporting a dialogue between the European institutions, citizens and local and regional authorities. Events of the past four years, including the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, the rise of populism, and the continuing concern regarding the lag in public investment illustrate that these priorities remain very relevant today. Irish regions share the same concerns as our European neighbours, whether it is access to broadband, support for new businesses and small and medium enterprises or the question of how regions can retain young people and develop sustainable communities, whether in busy urban areas or in rural and peripheral regions. However, with these challenges come opportunities to develop new responses and better ways of working. In seeking to engage local communicates in the debate around the future of Europe, the Committee of the Regions has organised more than 180 citizens' debates at the local and regional level. The delegation was proud to support one of the first of these debates in Cork in 2016 and members of the delegation have since taken part in similar local discussions with Committee of the Regions colleagues in France, Lithuania and Germany. I am due in Germany again before the end of this month. One common message that has emerged repeatedly is the need to improve our communication about the work and the opportunities of the EU but also how the EU and member states can better include the local and regional level in the policymaking process. Ms Freehill will touch on that also in her intervention.
Currently, the Committee of the Regions agenda is focused on the proposals for the multi-annual financial framework and in articulating the needs of regions for the next financial period of 2021 to 2027. The Committee of the Regions is working with regions from across Europe, including our own regional assemblies, in demanding that Cohesion Fund policy, including the European Regional Development Fund, is stronger, visible and available to every region in the EU in the next funding period. I recently had the pleasure to serve on the jury for the European broadband awards, which will be presented later this month. In assessing the applications, it was clear that in many cases EU regional funding and support was a key driver in increasing access to broadband in rural and peripheral regions and it is important that this support remains available. In Ireland, we now have a unique opportunity to consider how this support at the European level can also be aligned with the development of the regional, spatial and economic strategies.
All this future planning must be seen against the background of UK decision to leave the EU and its possible impact. Within the Committee of the Regions, the Irish delegation has been vocal on the challenges this poses for our local communities and the need to ensure that adequate planning and support measures are in place. As the committee saw itself with the visit of the Committee of the Regions conference of presidents, it is recognised that our regions will face the biggest impact outside of the UK. The delegation continues to work with other Irish representatives in Brussels to present a co-ordinated position and to emphasise the difficulties that Brexit poses at the local level and the need to ensure that co-operation with Northern Ireland and UK regions continues in the future.
As members may be aware, the Committee of the Regions mainly presents its views as detailed written opinions in response to legislative and other proposals from the European Commission or from requests from the Council and Parliament. To date, Irish delegation members have completed seven opinions, with an eighth by my colleague, Ms Forde, scheduled for adoption in December.
In line with the priorities outlined above, our members have focused on issues of interest for Ireland’s regional development and our local communities. Councillor Enda Stenson’s work on the smart villages initiative promotes the opportunities for creating sustainable and digitally connected rural communities. Councillor Jerry Lundy’s opinion on the action plan for a maritime strategy in the Atlantic area focuses on how we can best support our maritime communities to maximise the opportunities of the blue economy. Councillor McCarthy has concentrated on the potential of both the digital agenda and the urban agenda to support the development of our towns and cities, while Councillor Forde’s opinion on the proposed single market programme considers how the EU can best support our SMEs in the future. My own opinion has considered the impact of the EU’s competition policy on our regions. Of course, I cannot forget our first opinion of this mandate on trade policy, which was completed by Senator Richmond, the then-head of the Irish delegation. My delegation colleagues will be happy to speak on any of these topics in more detail as part of our general discussion.