Official Report (Hansard)
Date: 12 November 2008
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Mr Maurice Maxwell ) European Commission
The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):
I now welcome Maurice Maxwell, and I congratulate him on his recent appointment to the EU office in Belfast. I apologise because I must leave; I will hand over to the Deputy Chairperson for a brief period. I hope to rejoin the meeting as quickly as possible. No discourtesy is intended.
(The Deputy Chairperson [Mrs Long] in the Chair)
Mr Maurice Maxwell (European Commission):
None is taken. I thank the Chairman and the Committee for the chance to speak to you. It is a pleasure and privilege to be back home. I have been out of here for 30 years, but I have always referred to Northern Ireland as home. It is also a great pleasure and privilege to represent the European Commission here. I have not been in my position long — I took it up on 1 September — so I ask you to bear with me.
I have provided the Committee with a paper outlining what my office does. Rather than repeating the contents of that paper, I will try to give you a flavour of what we do daily and monthly. I will then address some of the issues that are raised by the Barroso report. I will not go into the report’s conclusions, but I will talk about how people in Brussels feel about the report and the feelings that I have noticed in my short time in Belfast.
Our office is the official voice of the European Commission in Northern Ireland. We think of ourselves as the first point of contact for citizens, Departments and Members of the Assembly who want information and background on the European Commission in particular and the European Union in general. Our office also has a reporting role to Brussels. We are not only here to give out information; we are here to glean information on the social, economic and political situation in Northern Ireland. We report that back to Brussels so that my colleagues in the Commission understand the background to some of the issues that appear on their desks.
The office provides an information point, which is open to the public. Anyone can walk in and ask for information on any subject. There are a limited number of staff, who help with the answers to those questions. If anyone wants further research undertaken, we try to carry that out for them. We hope to move to new offices next February, and we will try to expand the information point and make it more user-friendly by bringing in more modern communication techniques and increased access to databases.
Each year, we organise several events. I will not go into detail on all of those. One recent event, Opportunity Europe, was held over two days at the end of October and was attended by around 3,000 students. We try to focus our event activity on young people, because that is where the future lies. Newspapers are constantly negative about Europe. They seem to have one complaint after another. If it is not agriculture policy, it is demands for the return of money. That gives a bad image of what the Commission is trying to do, so we try to offset that to a certain extent and give young people a better feeling of what Europe is about.
During Opportunity Europe, we tried to give the students a feeling for the diversity in Europe. Europe’s motto — although it is an unofficial motto because the constitutional treaty was never passed — is “Unity and Diversity”. We try to convey the message that the European Commission and the European Union are not trying to homogenise everyone’s views and make everyone conform to one image. In fact, the opposite is the case. We try to rejoice in our differences — the different languages, for example — and we value the different cultures that exist in Europe. We see that as a strength rather than a drawback.
Recently, we held a mock European Council in Parliament Buildings. That involved students from different schools pretending to be the European Council. The students played a role representing a member state and were given matters to discuss, which they had to research to get a deeper knowledge of the issues under discussion. The students then had to take the floor and try to present each member state’s view, having studied what the representatives of that member state may think about a certain issue. At the end of the day, we tried to reach some form of agreement on the issues.
Again, the message there is that it is not the European Commission that imposes its will on the citizens of Europe, but rather the citizens of Europe — through their representatives in the European Council and the European Parliament — who ultimately take those decisions.
The role of the representation offices is developing in Europe. In May 2006, the Commission took a decision on co-operation between the Commission and national Parliaments. The Commission decided to transmit directly to national Parliaments all new proposals and consultation papers, within the remit of the current treaties. The Commission will invite reaction to those, in order to improve the process of policy formulation.
Therefore, before legislation is adopted and becomes a fait accompli, there is an ongoing process of consultation whereby the Commission — with the agreement of the European Council — invites national Parliaments to comment and contribute to the debates on legislation and other matters that may emanate from the European Commission. The Commission tries its best to take those comments into account.
The Commission deals directly with the national Parliaments but, given the devolved nature of the Administration in Northern Ireland, there is a need for co-operation between the devolved Administration and the national Parliament in Westminster to ensure that the Assembly and the Executive are sufficiently informed of the consultations that are taking place, so that you can take your proper place in those discussions on a timely basis and not be faced with a fait accompli.
In my office in Belfast, we try to co-ordinate our actions with those of the Brussels office. I believe that we do that very successfully; we have a good relationship with Ms Cummins and her colleagues. We meet regularly here and in Brussels, and I also have a close relationship with Dr Geddis, which enhances the process. We try to complement each other’s actions and avoid duplicating what the other party is doing.
Before coming to the Committee, I tried to do some homework. As you know, I am a new boy, so I need to do a bit of background study. In researching the work of the Assembly as it was in 2002, I found a very substantial document that contains masses of information and remains relevant to the work of the Assembly. I will not go into the details of that, but it contained many recommendations on how to engage with the European Union. I suspect that most of those recommendations are still relevant to some degree. I am sure that the Committee has a copy of that document and that members will have time to study it.
Tellingly, the study noted that EU policies affected 80% of the Programme for Government, as it was then. That puts the discussion into context, because I doubt that that figure has decreased much in the meantime. The report also echoed some of the questions that have been asked today. It asked to what degree a small region such as Northern Ireland, with limited resources, can influence and shape EU policies and legislation. It also asked questions about the extent to which a devolved Administration can ensure that it is part of the decision-making and consultation process earlier, rather than being faced with a fait accompli. Things have moved on since 2002, and the Commission has taken the initiative to consult national Parliaments. Therefore, that problem may already have been addressed.
‘Taking Our Place in Europe’ sets out Northern Ireland’s 2006-2010 strategy for engagement with Europe. It identifies priority areas of action and mechanisms and processes that can achieve the desired results. That document is valuable and could be of use to the Committee. I am sure that it will be taken into account.
The Executive’s 2008-2011 Programme for Government states:
“Growing the economy is our top priority. This is vital if we are to provide the wealth and resources required to build the peaceful, prosperous, fair and healthy society we all want to see. We need to meet the challenges of global competition and take advantage of new opportunities to make our economy more competitive, deliver increased prosperity and tackle disadvantage and poverty … We have much goodwill and support both at home and abroad — including from the United States and the European Union — to help us realise the opportunities and address the challenges we face. We will seek to build on this”.
That leads me to President Barroso’s visit last May. He was the first international leader to visit here after the formation of the new Administration and the first to be met by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. The Commission feels that the President made that visit to underline his view that the creation of the new Administration here was historic and that the Commission wanted to help as much as possible. He came here to recognise the importance of the situation and offer the Commission’s help to the people of Northern Ireland in making a success of the steps that have been taken and in moving to a better, more peaceful future. Ultimately, the Commission is a bureaucracy, and that led to the setting up of a task force and a report, which I do not need to explain in any detail because Committee members have copies.
Time elements come into play in all of these issues. President Barroso came to Northern Ireland last May and made the offer amid a certain euphoria surrounding what had happened. The message may be that there is a time to grasp an opportunity. I would not say that that time has passed; however, as with everything in life, people have concentration limits.
Expectations about the results of our work must not be raised too high. It is important to keep our feet on the ground and to identify priorities that will add the most value to Northern Ireland in the context of its dealings with the European Union. That work is not restricted to central Government or Departments. Local government representatives, the business community, academia and civil society must be involved. To that end, a formal process must be created; it is difficult to engage with partners if no common position exists in which those things can be debated. Time limits also come into play in that respect.
My final message is that the Commission came and made a unique offer to the local Administration that has not been repeated anywhere else in Europe. I know that that offer is being worked upon, and that progress has already been made on the ground both here and in Brussels, but I am sure that more can be done. I am glad that the Committee’s work has started; it will help the process.
You talked about bringing academia, civil society and businesspeople into the process; what is your train of thought on how to do that?
I read the report and interpret the spirit behind President Barroso’s initiative as more of an attempt to change a mindset than a series of measures. It is an effort to bring to the fore, among all elements of society, the consciousness that we are as much part of the European Union as anybody else. Sometimes, I get the feeling that people in Northern Ireland believe that the European Union is remote — something in which they are not particularly involved. They may readily accept EU benefits, but when the slightest thing goes wrong — which will always happen — people are not slow to voice criticism. That is not exceptional; it happens everywhere in the European Union.
I must say that that sounds like some people in Fermanagh and Tyrone who say that the Assembly is some way removed from them.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs Long):
Indeed, maybe they should be grateful for that. There are no more questions. Thank you for your attendance and presentation, which are appreciated.
May I just address the important questions raised earlier about money issues?
The Deputy Chairperson:
I am aware about reports in the press about the £42 million and the clawback. The information that I have from Brussels is that there are potential problems with the audit trail, which mainly consists of supporting documentation for action. There is no suggestion of fraud or anything like that; I think that it is just the necessary paperwork being supplied in different contexts. My information is that this is an ongoing process. As yet there have been no final decisions, and there are no final amounts to be taken back. I have been told that those decisions will not be taken before March 2009.
This is an ongoing story that has to be set in the context of the Court of Auditors. The press is very happy to jump on this issue and claim that we are a profligate body which throws European tax money out of the window without proper controls. If there are consequences when our auditors are sent in, then of course, there will always be someone who suffers those consequences. At the moment there is no conclusion or consequence; we have not yet come to the end of the story.
That figure of £680 million, which goes across other regions as well, seems to suggest a serious problem with audit trails. If that goes back to the 1990s, then it throws a question mark over Europe and its audit of situations like that. If that money has already been spent on regeneration programmes, who is going to pay? In the context of Northern Ireland, the figure is £53 million, and I assume that the poor old Northern Ireland taxpayer will have to pick up the tab. There are serious questions to be asked; this is a negative story about Europe, and it should be seen as such.
I do not know whether you want me to comment on that. It is a story that has been ongoing ever since we started spending money. Every organisation that is responsible for spending money is open to accusations concerning a lack of proper controls. Over the years, most of the complaints have been that the Commission has not had proper controls, and we have been trying to improve that situation. Unfortunately, in this case — although, as I said, there has been no conclusion yet — it may be that those proper controls, or the respect for them, have not been there, and that has been picked up by the Commission.
We are not yet at the finger-pointing stage of saying who is to blame. The processes and rules are there and should be respected, and we are looking into whether or not they have been. I am sure that members of this Committee would be the first to jump on the Commission for not doing its job, if we had been giving out taxpayers’ money without the proper supporting evidence for doing so. We are trying to do the job properly, we are trying to see that taxpayers’ money is spent properly; we are in the middle of that story and we do not know what the conclusion will be.
I want to come back on that, Chairperson.
The Deputy Chairperson:
I am conscious of time. There are a couple of items on the agenda and a number of colleagues have to leave shortly, which could leave us inquorate. This is an ongoing discussion, which is going to continue. Can we park it at this point, and move on? I do not want to risk our becoming inquorate while there is still business to complete. Is that OK, Jimmy?
I am happy with that.