EU matters debated with President

The President of the European Parliament, Mr. Hans-Gert Pottering addressed the Seanad this morning on his trip to Dublin. During his speech, Mr. Pottering praised the valuable work of Irishmen and Irishwomen in Europe, their contribution to the workings of the Union and the value of the Lisbon Reform Treaty.

“I trust in the wisdom of the Irish electorate, which perhaps is the best-informed electorate in the EU about European matters,” he said.

I got a chance to to say a few words following Mr. Pottering’s address. He are some extracts from that speech:

I am delighted on behalf of the Labour Party to welcome the President to the House. We are affiliated to the socialist group in the European Parliament, which vies with the President’s group for largest group.We do not have the largest group currently but we hope to before too long. I had the pleasure of meeting the President last night and he said something to me that very much resonated in the context in which we are speaking.

The President stated that being in Berlin in 1962 or 1963 and seeing the wall being constructed represented the single biggest motivating factor for his entry into politics. All of us, whether left, right, centre, red, green or blue, celebrated the removal of this abomination at the heart of our continent. It was extraordinary to see the division it constituted in the continent of Europe removed so quickly in the end. It was also an enormous moment historically for Europe to see it go. It seems that in the context in which we are discussing the Lisbon treaty and having this debate we should not forget that this was an enormous symbolic occasion for Europe and the importance of a united Europe.

Unity in Europe cannot be founded only on symbols, important as they are. My party will support the Lisbon treaty enthusiastically and will actively canvass and campaign throughout the country for a “yes” vote. This morning’s discussion is an interesting and useful occasion. However, while it is not so much that storm clouds are gathering, in any debate we must address the serious economic issues we have on a worldwide scale at present. We have seen what happened in the United States and Europe.

What serious role can the European Union take to address the concerns of many millions of workers throughout the Union that at a time of economic downturn, the first to suffer are those on low pay and low wages? These are people already affected by the impact of the various inequalities which still have not been removed throughout the continent. We still have a 15% gender gap in pay, despite all we achieved. We still have a gap between rich and poor in all countries of Europe and between the security of employment many of us have and the precarious situation many workers face.

An issue I am especially concerned about is the question of the draft directive on agency workers, which we have debated in this House. I am sorry to state the Government has not seen fit to support it, at least at this stage. Does the President agree with me that it is vital a measure such as this is brought forward quickly? If it is not brought forward during this Presidency, it should be brought forward in the next. People who quite rightly are asked to vote in support of the Lisbon treaty would see they have a stake in it and that it has a real impact on their lives.

Something which often amuses me, and I saw it arise again in recent days, is the notion of red tape. I would like to reflect on this idea. People rail against red tape and no one likes unnecessary bureaucracy. When we criticise red tape we forget that in many cases this so-called “red tape” represents a major achievement. People speak about the burden of regulation. I would like to speak more about the achievements of regulation such as the fixed-term work directive and basic minimum holidays and hours of work which came from European directives. We also have the equality directives, including the new equality framework directive. All of these were initiated in the Commission, debated and passed at European level. I do not regard any of these issues as red tape or a burden. I regard them as real achievements for workers throughout Europe.

It is unfortunate that during the debate in the European Parliament in recent days, it was suggested by some Members that the new framework directive brought forward by the Commission, of which I am sure the President is aware, represents more red tape. If what is needed to combat income, gender and race discrimination is called red tape then I embrace red tape. If this is what it is let us have more of it. Of course, this is not what it is. It is a pejorative way of describing it.

It is a real achievement of Europe and if the workers of Ireland are to be asked to support the Lisbon treaty, and we will ask them to do so, they must see that ratifying the treaty will have a real impact on their lives.

In response to my concerns, Mr. Pottering stated that the EU needed to find a “middle ground” in relation to red tape.

“If we introduce too much regulation, then parts of the political spectrum will not want anything to do with Brussels,” he said. “Those who prefer regulation will, if left alone, do too much. We must take all people along with us on the European project.”