Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Wednesday, 07 January 2009
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Ms Jane Morrice ) European Economic and Social Committee
Mr Michael Smyth )
The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):
I welcome Jane Morrice and Michael Smyth from the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). For the purposes of our review and report into EU issues, this session is being recorded by Hansard. After your opening remarks, we hope that you will be able to take questions.
Ms Jane Morrice (European Economic and Social Committee):
Thank you very much, Chairperson. I wish you all a happy new year. We are delighted to be here and to see quite a few familiar faces. As members of the European Economic and Social Committee, we welcome the opportunity to give our views on how the Assembly can better engage with the European Union.
I have always had an interest in European affairs. That interest was never dented during my time as a journalist in Brussels and Belfast, as head of the European Commission Office in Belfast, and even in politics here. I suppose that aids me in my role on the European Economic and Social Committee. At the start, we thought that it will be useful to explain how the EESC works. In simple terms, it is made up of 340 members from 27 countries. We work in 23 different languages, so it is quite an onerous task.
The Treaty of Rome obliges the European Commission to consult the EESC in advance on approximately 80% of legislation that goes through the EU, and to advise us about the remaining 20%. However, it is not obliged to take our views on board. That being said, because of the wide range of interests and experiences of EESC members — and because of the high quality of opinions that come from it — the European Commission usually takes our views on board.
The EESC is divided into three groups: Group I is Employers; Group II is Workers; and Group III is Other Interests. Mike and I are members of Group III. The EESC is also divided into sections. I am on the Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society Unit (TEN), and the Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship Unit (SOC). Mike is on the Single Market, Production and Consumption Unit (INT), and the Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion Unit (ECO). We are well divided among the issues. I was also on the communications group of the EESC, which promotes awareness of EU affairs.
We are appointed by the UK Minister of State for Europe, who was Geoff Hoon at the time, and our appointments are approved by the Council of Ministers. We act as independent experts who scrutinise the legislation and we are appointed for an initial four-year term. Ultimately, we are accountable to the Minister of State for Europe, and our mandate is to promote the best interests of Northern Ireland in Europe.
Members of the Committee have my detailed written submission, so I will not go into too much detail; I will simply highlight a number of important points that I believe should be priorities. The Assembly must find a way to exert more influence on European Union affairs so that Northern Ireland is able to gain greater benefit from EU policies, by which I mean beyond the structural funds, because we know what is happening in that regard. It is just as important to allow the European Union to benefit from the experience of Northern Ireland. That is something that we should promote. Key to that is for Assembly Members, civil servants and civic society in general to get better acquainted with how the European Union works. That is vital.
Contacts and networks should be built up in Brussels and other regions throughout the EU. A strategic approach should be adopted that uses the resources that are already available, which are the Executive Office in Brussels, the European Commission Office in Belfast, the MEPs, the Committee of the Regions and the members of the EESC.
My submission argues that the focal point should be a committee for European affairs. That would help to build up the body of expertise, which is vital. That committee should deal with its counterparts in the UK and Ireland, and other regions of the European Union — particularly Spain, Mediterranean islands such as Malta and Cyprus, Scandinavian countries and Eastern Europe — to build up a body of contacts. The committee should also make use of valuable local resources that are available in the social partners — in business, trade unions and the voluntary sector here, which have incredibly valuable experiences of dealing with EU policies and programmes. Those resources should be exploited — in the best meaning of the word — to the full.
Most important of all is the political will to engage with the European Union. As my submission states, engagement with the EU need not compromise party political positions on Europe. Last year, at a conference organised by the EESC in Belfast, the then First Minister, Ian Paisley, and deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, proved that to be the case when they spoke so highly of the European Union’s role in the peace process.
I want to put on my record my thanks for the incredible support that we received from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, the European Commission Office in Belfast and from social partners here for that highly successful conference. I gave the Committee the report of the conference, which was approved by the EESC at a plenary session. I am happy to answer questions on task force issues, and so forth.
Mr Michael Smyth (European Economic and Social Committee):
I offer the compliments of the season to you all.
I was conscious not to go over the same ground as Jane. For members who do not know me, I have had an interest in Europe for most of my adult life — from the time that I studied in Dublin for a degree in French and political economy. For the first two years, my tutor was Garret Fitzgerald — so you can blame him for my interest — and he was an expert on Europe before he became a Minister.
We already blame him for other things. [Laughter.]
To ordinary people, Europe and the EU can seem remote at times, and, for elected representatives, they can be inaccessible. Jane has done her best to explain the role of the European Economic and Social Committee, which is a complex organisation. If it helps the Committee, I have brought with me a copy of the book and CD celebrating our fiftieth anniversary. The CD is particularly good, and I will leave it with you in case you ever need to dip into it to find out exactly what we do.
Is there any 1960s music on it?
There is good music on it, yes, such as ‘Ode to Joy’.
That is not the song that I was thinking about.
I have three or four points to put to the Committee by way of introduction and general comment. There is increasing recognition, particularly in Europe, of the role that it has played in Northern Ireland’s development since the early 1970s, whether through the community support frameworks and structural funds or the Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (SSPPR). I note that Mr Molloy is present today; under sub-programme 6 of the SSPPR, he took part in what was probably one of the best local strategy partnerships. Peace II and Peace III funding in all their incarnations, and latterly INTERREG, have also played a role. The cumulative effect is that Europe has left a positive mark on Northern Ireland, not least on its infrastructure.
In considering the wider politics, there seems to be a constant tension in Europe between the so-called Anglo-Saxon model and the European social model. As part of the UK delegation, we are constantly getting ribbed, or jibed at, because of the Anglo-Saxon model. The current credit crunch means that the Anglo-Saxon model is held in pretty low esteem around Europe. In Northern Ireland, we embrace both models: we are part of the UK and, therefore, part of the Anglo-Saxon model by default, but we have several fine examples of the European social model in practice, not least the local strategy partnerships, which have survived a difficult birth and a difficult period of operation. Northern Ireland has LEADER+ groups and INTERREG groups, and the Special EU Programmes body (SEUPB) itself is constituted along the lines of the European social model, which has also influenced the equality institutions in Northern Ireland. Therefore, we have the best of both worlds. We can look to Europe and embrace many aspects of Europe. We can also look west and say to the United States that we are part of the Anglo-Saxon world, that we are part of Europe, that we speak English, and so on. To date, that has not been leveraged enough into our development.
Northern Ireland ’s engagement with Europe has been passive hitherto. I do not know whether the Committee agrees with that, but we will soon find out. Since the early 1970s, we have been like a gosling in the nest with our mouths open. Europe has funnelled money to us through central Government, and we have not had to seek funding and partnership in Europe.
We need to become much more active in our engagement with Europe — if that is what we want to do. Indeed, that has long been the case. That engagement could involve seeking funding and partnerships. There are enormous opportunities for Northern Ireland to secure funding from Europe. Engagement with Europe could also involve benefiting from, and contributing to, good practice. Most social and economic problems in Northern Ireland are not unique to Northern Ireland. Solutions to those problems exist in other parts of Europe, and we need to learn from those.
The Barroso task force report is unique in that it sets out a checklist for all public-policy organisations here. The report sets out: what we do; what the Programme for Government does; the nine public-policy areas; all the devolved policy areas; Europe’s position on all of those; and what we need to do if we want to prosper and benefit from European engagement. Therefore, the report is a checklist that we can use to measure the progress of our engagement with Europe, if that is what we choose to do.
I think that Jane and I agree that there has never been a better time for Northern Ireland to engage in Europe — our stock and capital in Europe has never been higher. People in Brussels see us as a success story, and they want to continue to help us.
I thank you both very much for your concise presentations. Will the fact that we now have devolution redefine your role as members of the European Economic and Social Committee? How do you envisage working in conjunction with the devolved Administration here?
Devolution will undoubtedly change our role. We now have access to the Assembly, and you have access to us and the information that we receive about European legislation. We can provide the Assembly with information that will enable Members to increase their knowledge of European affairs.
My written submission indicates that we have been slightly frustrated by the lack of any mechanism for us to have input to the Assembly. We would welcome such a mechanism. Yesterday, at a meeting of the INT section, a paper was produced that contained an opinion on the new Small Business Act for Europe. That Act will affect 98% of businesses in Northern Ireland. The opinion was that the Act will certainly lead to a more business-friendly final communication from Brussels. The Commission was present at the meeting yesterday.
It would be very useful if we could communicate those kinds of impending developments. It will be a few months before those start to feed into our machinery, but we could give advanced notice of major policy changes that affect the economy or civil society.
We are struggling, and, until now, the most that we have been able to do is to write newspaper articles and speak at the few conferences that have been organised. Therefore, if this Committee could give us some sort of opening or platform that would allow us to feed into scrutiny or policymaking, we would be happy to do so.
Are all 340 members of your committee unelected?
So, is there separation between social and economic partners and elected representatives?
Yes, the elected representatives are in the European Parliament and on the Committee of the Regions, which includes councillors. The European Economic and Social Committee is a different animal, because its members are not elected. They are experts from various areas, employer and employee representatives and other interest representatives, such as those from the voluntary sector.
Is there a history of tension between the two bodies?
Yes, but I would call them healthy tensions; not least when they are budgetary tensions. The Parliament considers itself to be the senior service; we are junior to it, and there is no point denying that.
The European Economic and Social Committee complements the European Parliament, and that is a valuable relationship. The Treaty of Rome envisaged the EESC giving advice and consultation — civic-society representation outside politics.
It is nice to see you again. Thank you for coming along and for your presentation. The thrust of what Jane said at the beginning and what Mike said later is about how to make the system more effective and how we should respond quicker to the impending legislative changes for small businesses.
Should each Department have a European champion in order to strengthen European liaison? In addition, how could you develop your relationship with the three MEPs in order to keep the Assembly abreast of legislative changes that might greatly affect businesses in the Province? Would appointing European champions be a satisfactory way for each Department to proceed, and how do you envisage such people working through the office in Europe? Should they, or civil servants, be based in that office? Furthermore, are you satisfied with how the Barroso task force has developed and with its relationship with the Executive?
It would be prudent for each Department to appoint someone to liaise with Europe. When the Small Business Act for Europe comes into force, responsibility will pass to the relevant Departments to develop the legislation required to enact it here. Being forewarned that that is coming and that there will be significant innovations and changes to policy can only help implementation by the Assembly and the Civil Service. Does each Department not have EU liaison officer anyway?
I am not sure whether they all do. If they do, how effective are they, and, if they are not effective, how can we make them more so? Any Department that does not have an EU liaison officer should have one.
If I may digress for a moment, there is a sad history in that the whole issue of financial additionality has clouded our relationship with Brussels since the early 1970s. The Civil Service — and I know that there are some representatives here — had to do a lot of work to produce a plan to use the structural funds that were given to us as a region with Objective 1 status. However, we never got any additional money for that. Civil servants were doing twice the amount of work for no additional money and — from where I am sitting — that coloured their views on Europe for more than a generation. I think that people still take the view that, as regards bureaucracy, Europe is more trouble that it is worth. If that has not changed, it needs to change. We now have a different dispensation — the days of financial additionality are past and we no longer have Objective 1 status, which reinforces the point that I was making about the need to engage positively and proactively on our own behalf.
If there are any European liaison officers in Departments, their work needs to be beefed up. If there are no such officers, we should have much more joined-up thinking on Europe and how it will affect legislation here.
Jane Morrice and I have fairly infrequent contact with MEPs, partly because of scheduling. The MEPs are in Brussels when we are not and visa versa. There are issues that we could examine jointly, although too few of them. We would welcome greater contact with our MEPs.
I suggested in my written submission that a debate in the Assembly on the Northern Ireland task force report would be useful. That document encapsulates everything that we are currently doing and what Europe is doing, and what we need to do to get more traction with Europe. It is an important document, not least at the beginning, where it benchmarks us against the rest of Europe and shows us where we are deficient.
The Committee is waiting for the Executive’s response to the Barroso task force report. It will then consider it, and issues may well flow as to how it is dealt with and how we respond to the Executive’s response.
Thank you very much for the presentations. I was interested when the role of the EESC was described. It appears to be a real model of participatory democracy. Although 340 members may appear to be quite a lot, it is complementary to representative democracy.
Michael talked about the need to become more active, and Jane talked about accepting more pressure. Will you give your opinions on the benefits and opportunities for greater all-Ireland co-operation on European issues? I have in mind the farming community and how it is affected by farming decisions taken at Westminster. Farmers in the Twenty-six Counties appear to be much better off as a result of the South’s relationship with Europe.
Would you advocate the establishment of an all-Ireland consultative civic forum in your structure so that you could have the same kind of stakeholder arrangements? If 340 members are able to work in a committee, why not have an all-Ireland committee that could examine issues such as co-operation on farming.
Your document referred to high corporation tax, the sterling and euro divide, and how that could deter investors. What is your opinion on that, and on the harmonisation of fiscal matters? You acknowledged the EESC’s support for the creation of a centre for conflict resolution. You also referred to the peace process and the role that that could play in international peace building. What is your opinion on that, and on the potential for political tourism?
That is quite a menu. If I miss anything, Mike will pick it up. You referred to greater all-Ireland co-operation through a consultative civic forum, the sterling and euro divide, conflict resolution and political tourism.
In my written submission I stated that, as part of the island of Ireland and part of the UK, and an administrative region itself, Northern Ireland is in a position to get the best of all worlds. There are examples that could be given about the all-Ireland — or the island-of-Ireland — position; the foot-and-mouth crisis is perhaps the best example. It was excellent to see that, in the agricultural sphere, we were able to take advantage of being on an island. That sort of co-operation is important. I am sure that there are examples involving energy and so on, but I will not go into those in detail.
We are in the UK structure, so everything normally goes through London, but there is absolutely no reason why important informal contacts should not be established to take advantage of the useful links that Ireland had in Brussels prior to the Lisbon referendum. I am not saying that those links, which are very important, have worn thinner as a result of the referendum.
The value of getting the best of both worlds is most evident when the UK and Ireland are working together in Northern Ireland — the European Peace and Reconciliation Programme is the best example of that. The co-operation that I outlined should be taken advantage of.
I believe that the Good Friday Agreement proposed the establishment of a parliamentary consultative civic forum. Such overlapping bodies are very valuable. Obviously the Civic Forum in Northern Ireland, as established by the Good Friday Agreement, is also valuable, and I have mentioned that in my submission. I will leave the issue of the sterling and euro divide for Mike to discuss; he is the expert.
Conflict resolution was one of the important issues arising from the task force report. I think that I made the point that it is not just good for Northern Ireland to be able to pass on its experience; it is also very good for Europe. The European Union needs to climb higher as a peacemaker in the world, and a European conflict-resolution centre would be valuable. As far as I am concerned, it makes sense for that to be in Northern Ireland. Political tourism is another issue, which I may leave to Mike to address.
Thank you for that poisoned chalice. Those are very interesting questions. The UK does not have a civil-society organisation, and we keep getting beat around the head by people in Brussels because of that. I think that the Republic may have two or three such bodies, but I am not sure. The notion of organised civil society does not come easy to the UK. I do not know the reason for that, but we can do something about that here.
On the issue of harmonisation, the single European market is the proper framework for harmonisation of all those issues. Whether we like it or not, we want to benefit fully from the single European market. I will not talk about exchange rates, which are a side issue.
The principle of parity — that everyone in the UK is entitled to the same level of public services — will eventually apply to Europe. In theory, education services, health services, the harmonisation of training in vocational and professional standards and the greater mobility of labour are integral parts of completing the single European market. We have probably done more of that on this island than other parts of Europe. The Benelux involves almost total mobility of labour, and the Schengen Agreement gives effect to that. In that system, health care is pooled and there is a voucher system for education services.
A system that delivers public services in a better and more cost-effective manner on a cross-border basis is desirable. If I were to don my economist hat, I would say that that should happen, rather than have two Administrations working separately and less efficiently. It is ludicrous to have two separate sets of standards that affect social work, teaching, accountancy, architecture or any other professions. There should be no fear of harmonising those services, because that should be done as part of the completion of the single European market.
Industrial development was touched upon. The former head of Invest Northern Ireland, for example, has advocated a single industrial development agency on the island of Ireland. I would not go that far. I do not believe that there is a need to combine two sets of bureaucrats. It would be better to bring policies such as corporation tax closer together. That might not be on the agenda at present, and it may not be the right time to discuss it, in the grip of a recession. The Republic of Ireland will always attract more foreign direct investment than Northern Ireland; however, we can build much more effective supply chains with our smaller and more diverse industrial base that will benefit from links with that large, foreign-owned sector in the Republic. Achieving that requires more effective co-ordination of that policy.
Doing that does not run foul of state-aid rules. Europe referees that match, and it would positively encourage such co-operation.
Did someone want to comment on political tourism?
I am very interested in political tourism. It is a very interesting concept. An example of it is that when we had the EESC conference in April 2008, EESC members were brought from Corsica and the Basque country to Belfast for the first time. They were impressed by what they saw and heard at that conference.
It was not political tourism, but they were interested in returning and in seeing and learning more. I am certain that others, for example, from America, have the same degree of interest.
Although I have heard of and know a bit about cultural tourism, I have never heard of the term “political tourism”.
Mrs D Kelly:
I was about to ask the Chairperson what “political tourism” was.
One must be careful about what flavour of “political tourism” is designated important, in case one side is pitched against the other.
Cultural tourism is gaining attraction.
I live in the heart of the Bogside, which is full of murals that depict the history of what happened in that area. It is a living history. It is about people telling the real-life stories of their experiences. Tour guides take people around the Fountain estate as part of the Walled City signature project. Therefore, it is not confined to any geographical space or event.
I have been on that tour, and it is more aligned to republicanism than unionism. I complained to Derry City Council about that very issue.
You are pointing your finger at me.
Order. I remind everyone to switch off their mobile phones; never mind cultural or political tourism. [Laughter.] Thank you.
Thank you for your presentations. The witnesses mentioned the early stages of Peace I and Peace II. The bureaucracy of Europe seemed to get in the way of what started as a hands-on approach. We are now very much distant from what happened then. In part, that is down to the Northern Ireland Office, which installed stand-ins in order to minimise local control.
How can the issues around Europe and the great opportunities offered there be opened up? The witnesses mentioned their roles, but how can the Assembly best deal with those European issues? Jane talked about a standing committee; however, how would those issues be brought directly to the Assembly?
Do you see any benefits for the Assembly? How can it better use the European institutions? Could there be an Assembly office in Europe, not just an Executive office? There could also be more secondments and exchanges. I do not know whether Departments here arrange such exchanges, but the South of Ireland seems to be very effective in securing secondments in Europe and enabling people to gain experience of working in Europe. Perhaps you could give the Committee some indication of how that could be achieved.
At the launch of the task force report, the Commissioner for Regional Policy, Commissioner Hübner, announced that she had created a post in her office for someone from Northern Ireland. In fact, I have just been told that someone is in post already. President Barroso made a similar offer for his office in Brussels. Those are unprecedented opportunities.
Secondments are a great idea, but one has to want to take part in Europe. The situation is a bit like the one with the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS) programme, if the Committee is familiar with it. To me, it is a barometer of our engagement in Europe. Thousands of European kids come to our universities every year, but only a handful of kids from Northern Ireland go to Europe. We can ask why, and there are lots of reasons. I am afraid to say that language teaching here is not up to the mark, but, even if it was, are kids here willing to live and study for a period in other places? The same applies to bureaucrats. The issue is cultural. There is not much that we can do about the past, but, for the future, we can certainly encourage more people from Northern Ireland to work and study in Europe.
Mr Molloy mentioned opportunities for input to the Assembly. The simplest way to provide that input is through briefings. The UK Permanent Representation to Europe (UKRep) gives us briefings all the time on every issue that one could dream of that is likely to crop up in the European Parliament or the European Commission. The UKRep sends us the current Government thinking and attitude on the particular issue. One may not agree with the briefing, but it is very useful. We also get briefings from the House of Commons and the House of Lords on matters that are germane to them, and we can choose whether to take them on board or not. We could easily send the Committee succinct briefings on important matters with which we have been dealing at least six months before they hit the ground here. I am very happy to do that.
Mike talked about input that we in the European Economic Social Committee can provide, but there is also the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland, of which I am the former head. We had a very valuable briefing from Maurice Maxwell, its new head, on the European Commission’s 2009 legislative programme. That briefing was for journalists, but Assembly Members could get exactly the same sort of briefing from the Mr Maxwell.
I brought the legislative programme along today, as it may be of interest to members. It is so simple. This small document outlines all the work that the Commission will be involved in over the next year. I have picked out a few pieces of work; the accountancy burdens for small businesses is one item of business, and there is the Green Paper on the reform of the common fisheries policy. The Departments will obviously be aware of those pieces of work, but it is very useful to have an overarching understanding of where the input is needed. There are to be directives on late payments in commercial transactions; cross-border mobility of young people; non-legislative action on financing of low-carbon technologies. That work lies ahead, and there is also work on health and education, and it is all detailed in this paper. You can read it, pick out what you want and run with it.
Secondments to EU institutions were mentioned, and they are hugely important. There is the odd secondment here. There are secondments from the Civil Service to the European Commission, but why could there not be secondments from the voluntary sector to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to our Committee, the Committee of the Regions or the Parliament? It is quite important that the secondments are offered to all sorts of people, not just civil servants. What about secondments to the Executive office, too? You talked about the Executive office. Secondments to that office should be arranged, or the number of jobs in that office could be increased in order to accommodate the needs of the Assembly.
Thank you for your presentations. I made a note of a couple of phrases that you used in your presentation, Mike. You said that we needed to seek funding, and that there was a need to be much more active. You also said that there are currently many opportunities in Europe for funding. I suppose that begs a question about what is being done at present, and why you said what you did, given that we have been tapping into Peace funding. This issue has come up in other briefings that we have received, particularly when we visited the Northern Ireland office in Europe. During that visit, several people suggested to us that opportunities were available. How do we avail ourselves of those opportunities?
I like a good, simple question, and there is a simple answer. It goes back to what I said about our 35-year membership of the EU. During that time, we have not had to do what you are asking about, because the funding was just given to us, and all we had to do was manage it. We did not have to compete for INTERREG or LEADER+ funding; those were European horizontal programmes.
The discretionary programmes, such as the framework programmes, which are the major source of European research funding, amount to a couple of billion euros every three years. Our uptake of that funding has been very patchy, the reason being that our universities, which are the main focus for research opportunities, have been focused on other national research competitions.
Other programmes, such as ERASMUS, are not competitive in nature. That is a programme that we should get involved in so that we can encourage more of our kids to go abroad, learn foreign languages and study in other countries. That is a matter for the Department of Education to co-ordinate.
Partenariats take place in Strasbourg and Brussels a couple of times a year. Francie, you may have taken part in one, I am not sure. They are a bit like cattle markets, because you go there to find a partner from another member state in order to do something jointly. You have to make the effort to go and do that, but we could establish a programme that would encourage people to take that opportunity.
Are you looking for another partner, Francie? [Laughter.]
I remind members that the meeting is being recorded by Hansard.
If memory serves me, there were outreach programmes to the former front-line states of the collapsed Soviet system, which we took part in, and those are ongoing.
The answer to the question is that we must regularly communicate to local authorities, to the Assembly and to the public service in Northern Ireland the opportunities and programmes that are available. Those all have a lead time, and require administration, which, as Mr Molloy said, becomes more onerous year after year. There is nothing that can be done about that, however. If you want to take part, you have to be ready and prepared. It is a matter of making people aware of the opportunities that exist, and encouraging them to take part.
It has been done for us in the report published by the EC task force. I listed a few opportunities in my submission, such as the peer-learning clusters, which help to create better understanding of educational reform, and the creation of quality food programmes. I do not know where everyone is from, but we have Comber potatoes, Armagh apples —
Portavogie prawns — perfect. I love alliteration as well. The creation of quality-food programmes will form part of the Commission’s legislative programme for this year, and if we want to influence it, we must start work now. The EC task force report points to that as being a valuable measure to take.
Big money is also available through the European Investment Bank (EIB). It is talking about investment in eco-technologies, and the opportunity for green technologies is huge in Northern Ireland. The European Investment Bank is ready to lend money for that purpose. Are we not taking advantage of that?
Not many banks are currently doing that.
The European Investment Bank is prepared to lend money.
The EIB has set aside €30 billion over the next three years for finance to small and medium-sized enterprises. Gordon Brown has already announced that the UK’s share of that will be £4 billion. Northern Ireland’s share of that will be £120 million.
The European Investment Bank does not lend money directly; it operates as a syndicate through existing banks. Chairman, you are right, and I know of only one bank that has actively contacted me to seek more information, which I passed on.
Thank you for your presentation and for your answers to the questions. Those have answered a couple of the questions that I had noted down at the beginning of the meeting.
Mike mentioned the lack of a formally organised civic sector in the UK. How much more difficult does that make your role in representing a Northern Ireland position when you are on the EESC or giving a view? How reflective can your views be if there is not an organised civic forum or another sounding board?
To take a slight tangent, I rarely fail to mention Northern Ireland during debates in the programme. One must refer to one’s own experience and to the effect that that will have. The UK is very fragmented; many of our colleagues are members of employers’ organisations and of trade unions. A coterie of us in group III from the UK comprises one Welshman, one Scot and two people from Northern Ireland. Some of the people from group I are from Scotland, and some of the people from group I or group II are from Wales. That reflects the rather shambolic attitude in the UK to organised civil society. Our Civic Forum was an attempt to address that more systematically.
I notice a difference in the cohesiveness and the energy levels among member states that have civic forums. Those states tend to get on well together and work together, but the UK is always slightly on the sidelines. We have more on which to collaborate with our colleagues in the Republic. There is no lack of willingness on our part, but it would help to have a representative body.
In my submission, I mentioned that the consultation on the civic forum for here should consider the model of the European Economic and Social Committee. That would be invaluable when considering a civic forum here, for which there is allowance. In UK terms, it would be interesting to have a civic forum here that would help us to channel information.
I also wish to mention the right to put forward own initiative opinions. Last year, Mike and I, alongside the Irish representatives and other EESC members, worked on a report on the European Union’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process. I was the rapporteur on that, and your Committee has the document that was approved. That was an own-initiative opinion. The EESC had asked what we needed to look at that was important, and, because of what happened with devolution, we put our hand up to suggest that we consider the role of the EU in the Northern Ireland peace process.
It was interesting that the EESC did not know in which section to put the report, whether that should be the Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship (SOC), the Section for External Relations (REX), and whether to approve it. It was a bit worried about approving that report, but it did so and was impressed by the work of the EESC and by the report. In October 2008, the report was approved almost unanimously, except for two votes. That was an own-initiative option. We can pick up on something that is of import to Northern Ireland and present it to the EESC, which is a valuable way to work.
You have led into my other question, which is about where you feel your interventions have influenced direction and made changes to the context of, and the implications for, Northern Ireland. You mentioned raising issues that are of import in the context of Northern Ireland, but how do you discern what those are? Is that done through meetings with elected representatives, the community and voluntary sectors and business organisations? Would it be useful for you to have a forum that is designed as a sounding board to help you to make decisions about issues that you can pursue collectively?
I can speak only for myself. If a particular issue is being, or is about to be, debated in the EESC, and I need to speak to someone about it, I will find out who in Northern Ireland knows most about that issue and find out what their position is. Invariably, that will be a senior civil servant, someone in the business community or someone involved in the community and voluntary sectors. I will go to see that person, but it would absolutely help to have such a forum. I take Jane’s point that — less than perfect though it may be — the EESC model works. It involves 340 people but it works, by jove. It is quite efficient.
Will the witnesses detail their experience of the Executive office in Brussels — that is, its strengths and weaknesses, as they see it? Will Jane expand on her thinking on the civic-forum model, based on her participation on the EESC?
I am afraid to say that I have nothing but good to say about the Executive office, because of the support we received for the conference and for my report. The support that I got from OFMDFM and the Executive office was nothing short of superb. That is not the full extent of their support. We are on their invitation list and attend their events when we can, to make contact with groups that are working in Brussels or that may be visiting from Northern Ireland. The offices are very useful in that respect, and are also useful for briefings.
In response to a previous question, I was going to mention that I was on a study group for harmonisation of road safety infrastructure throughout the European Union. That group was discussing, for example, an accident black spot in Portugal where 10 people were killed and an accident black spot in Britain where two people were killed. I do not know how to define it, but they were trying to define the concept of an accident black spot. I was able to have input to that group — its work was valuable and measures have been taken as a result of it. I can go into more detail on that but there is no time now. The Executive office helped me with that and briefed me on the issue, so its support was very useful.
By the way, if I were to suggest any change to be made to the Executive office, it is that it should be given more resources and more work to do; I believe that its resources are limited.
Obviously, given my background, I am very aware of the civic forum idea and the fact that it could be modelled on a social partnership, such as the EESC model, which involves having three groups. Therefore, it is possible to get the opinions of employers and business, employees and trade unions, as well as other interests such as the voluntary sector, farmers’ representatives, churches, young people, women, and so on.
The interesting aspect about the way that we work in the EESC is that there is compromise. Each committee has a representative from each group and must reach a compromise between the three positions, and that is the opinion that comes out at the end of the process. That sort of valuable work could be done in a civic forum here — an opinion could be agreed by the civic forum and then go to the Assembly for Members to take note of and value from.
On a reflective point about anything I have done on the EESC — I have to confess to total selfishness, as I sit on the INT and the ECO sections. I take part in all debates. Wonderful research facilities and a library are available. We have access to all the European buildings and to people on the Commission. Therefore, if I need information, I find out who is responsible, phone or email that person, and arrange a meeting with him or her. I have been doing that and have taken part in debates on Europe-wide matters and on completion of the single market, about which I can profess to know something.
The nearest that I have got to constructive action on Northern Ireland was to collaborate with Jane on her opinion on the role of the European Union in Northern Ireland’s peace process, which was her initiative. That was a wonderful experience.
To return to the point about the Executive office in Brussels, its strengths are its broad base and the good people who work there. I am aware of its programme of events; I have managed to attend a few, which have been useful. To return to the theme that I have tried to put across, although it is not a weakness, the office needs to be challenged and to be overwhelmed by people going to Brussels to engage with it — not just MLAs, but local authorities, community and voluntary groups and organisations, and so on. The office exists to facilitate that. Its predecessor used to do so. Colm McClements was there, for example. It used to arrange such visits. I am not sure whether the title of Office of the Northern Ireland Executive now makes that more difficult. The office should be challenged — indeed, overwhelmed — with requests for engagement. Only then, can a view be taken on whether it is effective.
Mrs D Kelly:
I apologise for my late arrival, Chairperson. I welcome Mr the witnesses to the meeting. Forgive me if I ask questions that have already been asked.
How are you appointed to the EESC and to whom do you report? Does the EESC have the power or opportunity to amend legislation and policy or to formulate it? In that regard, have you tabled or do you intend to table any issues that relate to gender equality and conflict resolution, particularly given the recent accession of Eastern European states and lessons that have been learnt? Northern Ireland is still a long way from community reconciliation.
On the appointment process, the phrase “black box” comes to mind. There was a competition, to which I applied. After a while, I was appointed. Subsequently, we found out roughly what happened. Since then, there has been a mid-term review with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. There is an intention to make the process for re-appointment more transparent. Therefore, there will be another competition. That is made difficult by the fact that it must be approved by the Council of Ministers. That is a stumbling block.
In my introduction, I explained that we were appointed by the UK Minister for Europe, who, at the time, was Geoff Hoon. All appointments must be ratified by the Council of Ministers.
Mrs D Kelly:
Do you have the opportunity to amend policy?
No, we scrutinise and, I would argue, we tighten up and improve legislation that comes through to us. The EESC has operated for over 50 years. Since we have been in post, it has instigated a formal process by which the rapporteur, who chairs the scrutiny of a piece of legislation, is then obliged to monitor how, when and if it is implemented. That is a close as we get to it.
As regards gender equality, I sit on the committee’s SOC section, which deals with equality. We are in the process of scrutinising anti-discrimination legislation and equality legislation. Obviously, we will enter into the debate on a single equality Act and such issues.
The issue of gender equality is particularly interesting. We still go to great lengths to promote the role of women — even within the EESC itself. Although I do not know the numbers, it is interesting that Eastern European countries have a much higher quota of women and young women. We are trying to reach that level.
I want to discuss the gender equality issue, because Peace III seemed to ignore the women’s sector. The EESC focuses on gender equality. How do its discussions tie in with the introduction of a programme that will have an impact here, the result of which is that women’s groups are airbrushed?
We could flag the matter up by inserting it into debate on the equality legislation, or we could try an own-initiative opinion, although I am unsure whether the EESC will specifically discuss Northern Ireland so soon after the previous opinion. However, the issue of problems that face the women’s sector could be flagged up through the Executive office and the MEPs, who could raise it in the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions. We must lobby Europe to reinstate those issues, and the EESC knows how that process operates.
What was the consultation process that led up to Peace III? Was there any meaningful dialogue with the community and voluntary sectors?
I can speak only for the north-west, particularly the Derry area. Through consultations that took place during the developmental stage of Peace III, it was difficult for groups that were struggling to cope with Peace II to understand the implications of Peace III, which seemed a long way in the future. People felt the impact of Peace III only when it was too late to invoke any European intervention.
Some attempts were made; the MEP visited the city and different parts of the North. However, it was difficult for groups to engage with that process because they were still working with and benefiting from Peace II and had not recognised the future impact of Peace III. Many groups are now complaining that it is too late to make interventions. A group of women from the city visited Europe, where the processes and timescales for making interventions were explained. There was talk of a mid-term review of Peace III, at which point interventions could be made whereby the impact of the programme on groups and organisations could be reviewed.
It is the role of MLAs to shout loud and make such changes.
Thank you for your attendance and presentation. I have extended the discussion because it was useful. You might want to send the additional information to the Committee or we might seek further clarification in writing.