I thank the Chair. I am accompanied by Mr. Philip Kelly, assistant secretary, EU and trade division, Mr. Thomas Murray, principal officer, EU affairs unit, Ms Imelda Hardiman, assistant principal officer, intellectual property unit, Ms Florence Kelly, higher executive officer, intellectual property unit, Mr. Aidan Hodson, principal officer, science and technology unit, and Mr. Pat Kelly, assistant principal officer, science and technology unit.
The forthcoming EU Council of Ministers' meeting on competitiveness will take place over two days, 5 and 6 December, which coincides with budget day. On the first day, Ireland will be represented by the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, and on the second day, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Ireland to the EU, Ambassador Tom Hanney, will attend on behalf of the Government.
The most significant item on the agenda on the first day is the reform of the patent system which will allow a much cheaper way for companies to get patent protection across 25 EU member states - two have declined to participate. It will simplify the procedure for language translations and will be a more satisfactory arrangement, a reform the Government supports. To make the proposals work, there will have to be an EU system of enforcing patent rights which will be in the form of a common court between the member states involved. They will have an international agreement on this and finance the court. This innovation will require a referendum in Ireland some time in the future. In the past, there have been successful referenda in this area so the principle is already there.
The European Commission has proposed a directive on interconnecting registers of companies in EU member states, arising from the need for national registers to communicate with each other with regard to cross-border mergers and branch activity. Again, the Government supports this proposal.
Another item on the agenda relates to a Single Market forum held under the Polish EU Presidency. It made a declaration recommending speedy passage of the proposed Single Market initiatives. The Council has agreed 12 priorities to be progressed under this initiative by the end of 2012. Many of these are in areas of interest for Ireland such as tackling red tape, enhancing opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises and electronic commerce. These are supported by the Government.
One interesting initiative is the proposed establishment of a business and competitiveness programme for small and medium-sized enterprises. It will be new under the multi-annual framework from 2014 to 2020 with up to €2.4 billion from the EU dedicated to it. The negotiations for the programme's development will intensify under the Danish EU Presidency. Ireland has an interest in the shaping of this programme and the opportunities it will throw up.
The second day will be dominated by the debate on the future of the Horizon 2020 EU research programme which will operate from 2014 to 2020. It will replace the Seventh Framework Programme, FP 7. The new programme, which will be under the Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, will be 30% larger than its predecessor with funding of up to €80 billion. There will be significant changes such as putting a greater emphasis on problem-solving in society as opposed to basic research, greater industry involvement in the shaping of research priorities, more emphasis on downstream activities such as pilot-testing and obstacles to commercialisation, all of which will be of interest to Ireland. Just as the Department is doing its own research prioritisation under Jim O'Hara, hopefully we will be able to exploit the more commercial and problem-solving orientated aspects of the new programme. All Europe faces the same dilemma of seeking to get more value out of this important platform which has been created in Europe. Compared with the US and others, Ireland would not be sweating off scientific assets as effectively in terms of patents and disclosures.
There will be a discussion on the EU Space Council. Many may ask if this is relevant to Ireland. It is in the sense that the systems involved can be used for the support and protection of fisheries, flood protection, volcanic ash cloud monitoring as well as emergency and disaster responses. This would also be of clear commercial relevance because several Irish companies have successfully developed business opportunities out of the Council's programmes. It is not only of relevance in terms of global significance but it has been of commercial value to Irish business. That gives members a bird's-eye view of the Council's agenda.