It has been a long year for both Ireland and its European partners. The current economic crisis has hit every member state of the Union. Many regions within Europe have been particularly badly affected by the Crisis. For us, in Ireland, the fiscal security of the Celtic tiger appears to be a distant memory. People in Ireland and Europe have suddenly found themselves living on a day to day basis in situations that do not enable them to plan for the future. Job security is of primary importance and many, well qualified people, are unable at present to obtain that.
The failure of the first Lisbon Referendum and the success of the second have taught us that the two most important issues on the Irish agenda are employment and the economic situation. Ratification of the Treaty will now enable the EU to continue to deliver this to its citizens. The European Union is now better equipped than ever to ensure that policy on key economic areas such as
Cohesion Policy, diminishing the gaps between regions
The Lisbon Strategy, towards a green economy
Barcelona Objectives, strengthening research, technological development and innovation
With the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, these policies can now be negotiated, agreed, funded and implemented by a more streamlined Union with closer than ever links to national and local government and of course its citizens.
In October of this year, Ireland voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty. It was a great result for us and a great result for Ireland. But for the Representation here it also showed us something more significant.
In June 2008, 53% of the electorate voted no to the Lisbon Treaty.
According to the Post Referendum Survey we commissioned, the majority of respondents said that they voted No due to a lack of knowledge:
- 52% had not fully understood the referendums issues
- 37% felt that they were not informed about the Lisbon Treaty's content
Many felt that the Referendum was not important enough to them:
- 45% were too busy to vote
- 38% had something more important to do than vote in the Referendum
More worryingly 68% felt that the No side was more convincing.
We identified that the two core areas of the electorate who felt the most disenfranchised from the European Union were:
- Young People
Based on the research we commissioned, coupled with that of the Department of Foreign Affairs and other sources, it was clear that the Communication Challenges facing the Commission in Ireland urgently needed to be addressed.
The principle reason why the first referendum on Lisbon failed was due to lack of information about the issues at hand. So therefore we need to learn how to communicate Europe better. How did we do this?
Memorandum of Understanding:
The Memorandum of Understanding between the European Commission Representation in Ireland, the European Parliament office in Ireland and the Government. It created a communication 'troika' whereby all three bodies agreed where possible to share resources in creating a greater efficiency in communicating the European Union to Ireland.
The Representation's own communications programme which continues until mid 2010. This is a national strategy which aims 'to bring the EU' to each major town across the country. This is our chance to engage with and listen to the electorate.
The results of the second referendum showed clearly that Ireland believes the best way out of the crisis is in partnership with the European Union and to remain at the heart of Europe and its future.
- 32% said it was in the best interests of Ireland
- 23% said it would help the economy
- 18% said Ireland gets a lot of benefit from the EU
However though there is a general perception that Ireland has benefited from EU membership, respondents were unclear as to the extent. Part of the challenge we face is communicating those benefits; what they are and how the Irish citizen can avail of them.
You are, I am sure, all well aware of the funding that the EU has and will be continuing to contribute to the region under EU Cohesion Funding from 2007-2013. Ireland will receive just under €1 billion and the total allocation to the South East is €293 million.
The funding is aimed at improving infrastructure, kick starting growth and creating employment in the following areas:
Sustainable Urban Development
Environment and risk protection
Accessibility to transport services and ICT
Innovation and knowledge economy
As we draw to the end of the European Year of creativity and knowledge economy, it is becoming ever more apparent to all members states that an economy survives based on the investment it makes in its future. There is real opportunity for Ireland, given its educated work force, and its level of investment by technology companies here, to position itself as a European leader in scientific research and excellence as we emerge out of the global crisis.
The Seventh Framework Programme (FP7 2007-2013), the EU programme for Research and Technological Development, is aimed at investing in Europe's future. Its remit is to fund four core research and development headings:
Irish researchers have secured more than €150 million worth of funding to date but as calls for proposals are ongoing, the final figure is expected to greatly exceed this.
As most funding is disseminated nationally, what makes the Seventh Framework Programme unique is that this is an example of direct EU to citizen funding, creating employment, sustaining development and securing Ireland's role at the centre of the European scientific arena.
Our challenge, based on the research I mentioned earlier, is how to communicate not only what we have achieved together but what we can still do, together, to work our way out of this crisis.
Both Ireland and the EU have realised the need to communicate together in partnership. In September of this year the New Government Programme was published, in it is stated that the Irish Government will:
Propose further measures to improve the quality of communications between the Union and its citizens
As members of local and regional government, I am here before you to offer our help in communicating Europe to the South East Region. We would like to hear from you as to how we can assist you to achieve this goal.
The European Commission would like to extend the Memorandum of Understanding to include all levels of Government. We would like to work in partnership with the Southern & Eastern Regional Assembly to develop channels of communication between the EU and the electorate.
We are planning a series of initiatives in 2010 to enable us to broaden our outreach; our aim is to include all areas of the country in our communications programme for next year. To continue to build on the foundations we laid during the course of the referenda. I am here to ask to for your voice on how you think we can best engage your communities in the EU.
I will finish by saying Europe wants to hear the voice of its citizens. Yesterday Margot Wallstrom, Vice President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Communication and Inter-institutional Affairs launched a public consultation on the European Citizens' Initiative. Its aim is to enable one million EU citizens to directly request that the Commission brings forward an initiative of public interest in an area of EU competency. This initiative, mandated by the Lisbon Treaty, is a crucial element to the participatory democracy of the Union. The potential of this initiative is huge.
The past year has shown us that Ireland's commitment to the European Union is stronger than ever. However the post referendum surveys have also shown that Ireland is clear about the concerns it wants the EU to address. Those concerns are jobs and economic recovery. Both of these issues are of major concern to the electorate and the EU is assisting Ireland in addressing these concerns both through disseminated funding, through direct funding to citizens and SME's and through direct communication with the citizens themselves.
It is our job to communicate that message together, and I look forward to hearing your contribution as to how we can do this as we enter a new decade.