Friday, January 11, 2013

Launching of the European Year of Citizens 2013, in Dublin City Hall.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the accession of Ireland in the European Communities and it is also the 7th time that the country holds the rotating Presidency of the EU Council. The beginning of 2013 has kick-started the first months of Ireland's reigns of the EU and also the launching of the European Year of Citizens 2013.

It was an idea developed in the European Parliament, that called on the European Commission to make 2013 the European Year of Citizenship. MEPs wanted to boost the debate on EU citizenship and inform EU citizens of their rights.

Today it was its official launching in the Dublin City Hall. The speakers included Ireland's Taoiseach Mr Enda Kenny TD, An Tanaiste Mr Eamon Gilmore TD, EU Commission President Mr Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Commission Vice President Mrs Viviane Reding and Ireland's Minister for European Affairs Mrs Lucinda Creighton TD.

The event was kick-started by its moderator, Mr Pat Kenny with a brief introduction. Soon after that Taoiseach Enda Kenny, President Barroso and Mr Eamon Gilmore TD opened the debate with their speeches and answering few of the audience's questions.

Mr Kenny stressed in his speech that we need to create a new Europe of peoples. We take for granted what we have achieved but in years such these we need to remind ourselves about our achievements. This year should be a year to consider what Europe means to us and that it is important for all of us to deepen our cooperation and relations.

Mr Gilmore stated that the economic crisis lowered the public trust in EU and that we must restore it. It is an Irish tradition to submit great change in the EU through the country's referendums on further agendas. And this year we need specific changes of the EU Treaties. Restore the financial and economic trust, promote stability, create new jobs and solve the crisis. "It is up to us to decide our future, it is in our hands," he stressed. The EU should become a union of rights guaranteed by law and we should encourage citizens to exercise these rights.

President Barroso talked about the need for further integration, stability, a banking union and how all European countries are dependent on each other. "Even countries with high standards are finding hard to solve problems alone," he mentioned. He underlined the need for new rule in banking so that "it should be not up to the public who shall pay again for the banks in the future."

He also made positive comments on Ireland's efforts to battle the crisis and he explained how the country has now a unique opportunity during its 6 month presidency to help other members get back to sustainable growth. He also added that while it is important to get the economy growing again, "we can not do this without the support of the citizens. Europe needs to gain their trust again and engage them."

President Barroso closed his speech by vowing that young people under 25 will be receiving a quality offer in a job within 4 months of leaving higher education in the future. He also added that constructive criticism of the EU does not pose a threat, but a constant negative outlook does.

The three speakers then answered a few questions by the public and the debate focused on the issues raised by them. The discussions focused on if the EU is doing enough to tackle the crisis and how Ireland is dealing with it. Sorting out the country's finances and recapitalizing the banks is very crucial, while cooperating with the EU Commission and the ECB to achieve that.

The efforts should focus on international, pan-European level but on national as well and so far Europe is doing well on structural reforms, reducing deficits and dealing with the crisis.The future of the euro is not in question anymore.

On a question of what will Ireland gain out of its EU Presidency this time, Mr Kenny mentioned that "we can demonstrate that as a small country we can emerge as an example to other countries on what can be achieved." Mr Gilmore stated that "Ireland's agenda is Europe's agenda" for the next 6 months: growth, employment, banking union, expanding trade with other countries that will increase employment. "Our priorities as a country are aligned with the European agenda."

President Barroso agreed and added that "what is good for Europe is good for Ireland, and what is good for Ireland is good for Europe." The discussion then focused on future plans to promote trade with other blocks dealing with large powers like China and investing in "Blue Growth", meaning the exploitation of maritime energy, the wind and the currents of the seas around Ireland and Europe. During the Irish Presidency there will be a number of conferences organized, debating on climate change and the environment.

The conference then welcomed Mrs Reding and Mrs Creighton on the platform and moved on to the second part of the open public debate. Three videos were shown on screen, focusing on three different subjects: the current economic crisis, rights of European citizens and the future of the European Union.

Mrs Creighton stressed that we need to go through this painful process to meet our targets, as we are laying the foundations for future growth. The discussion focused on youth unemployment and how to deal with it, but also how to deal with the fact that Europeans will have to work longer. Will that postpone young people in entering the job market? We must ensure that we pay our way and not force older people out of work to benefit the young. But in the same time it is the young who have been hit the hardest by this crisis.

"If we want young people to continue to have faith in democracy, the economy and the EU we need to gain their trust and give them opportunities for jobs," stressed Mrs Creighton. Mrs Reding added that "Europe is not about institutions only, it is about people. We need to start thinking out of the box. We must not break the solidarity mechanism in our societies. We must not overstretch the age of retirement and in the same time we need to develop the capacity of training."

The speakers continued discussing how we ended up in this situation, when in the past it was decided that the EU Commission should not be given the full power to handle EU money, but this power was given to the national governments. Now we see that this does not work anymore, we need to learn from this situation and adapt, ensure the same mistakes won't happen again and break the cosy relationship of national banks with their national supervisors.

Mrs Reding also made a comparison between Ireland and Greece and described the current situation in the Balkan country. She noted that we must help build up the taxation system in the country that was not working for years. "Greece as a state did not function," but we have to keep with the very difficult work of building new structures to get out of this situation. The EU gives its members the freedom to take initiatives to deal with the situation, but we must close the gaps that were left out by the Maastricht Treaty and restore the damage.

She then introduced Mrs Antogoni Papadopoulou, a Cypriot MEP who was a rapporteur when the creation of the European Year of Citizens was debated and decided in the European Parliament. Mrs Papadopoulou wished all the best for the Irish Presidency and reminded us that to solve the common problems we are facing we need the synergies to find common solutions. "We are here to hear your voice, we can make a miracle," she stressed.

The conversation continued to social issues like the gender pay gap. It was stated that so many years of legislation exist to deal with this issue but we still fail to implement them. We need to create "more responsibilities for fathers, more opportunities for mothers," Mrs Reding noted. Ireland's situation on women's equality was also mentioned after 40 years of EU membership and the huge leaps the country achieved on this issue.

Solidarity and the discrimination of the small EU states was the next topic of discussion, with Mrs Reding dismissing such claims. She brought as an argument her own native country, Luxembourg and how it benefited from EU and got protection from the big powers it is surrounded by. "The EU gives a chance to small states to survive," she claimed. If it wasn't for the protection of Europe, Luxembourg would not exist.

The future of Ireland and the EU was the last topic discussed. Ireland needs to change the culture that exists in Ireland on having property. For Europe's future the environment, the Chart of the European Citizens of Fundamental Rights, reforming the CAP, the EU expansion and more dialogue with the citizens became the hot topics.

We also need to change the way we are doing politics. That we have to push for the respect of the human rights in all EU members before any new country's accession and that we, as citizens must know our rights. "65% of EU citizens believe that their voice is not heard or count in Europe. That is not true," Mrs Reding claimed.

The two speakers concluded the debate with the plans and next programs of the European Year of Citizens. Today is only the beginning of the process. We must appreciate what we have and improve it and have politicians that are listening. This project is a new adventure: it starts with the citizens and we should ask them what they want to happen in the future in Europe. The citizens have a part to play.

We have to improve accountability and democracy to the citizens. The evolution of Europe is in process, we are in the middle of a journey. Concluding, Mrs Creighton promised that 2013 will be an interesting year for Europe.

I personally would love to see all that was mentioned above to be implemented as soon as possible. They must not remain on paper. If we indeed manage to achieve the proposed plans in a short period of time, then yes 2013 will be the start not only of an interesting year,but of a very interesting future for the EU, Europe and us citizens. If only we grasp the opportunity our politicians are giving us, become more active and have a positive outlook and hope.


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