Junior Minister's Speech- Official Opening Of The European Commission Offices 5th October 2010

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Thank you Maurice.  And good morning everyone.  It is a real pleasure to be invited to speak at the opening of this beautiful new office.

The European Commission has been and continues to be a key partner to Northern Ireland.  A long-term partner – as witnessed by a presence here that stretches back some 30 years.  The Commission’s first office opened in 1980 under the leadership of Geoffrey Martin – followed by Dennis Kennedy, Jane Morrice, Jim Dougal, and Eddie McVeigh.  Six heads of office, including Maurice – all of whom have had distinguished careers and some of whom are here today.  And not to forget Jeanette Thornton, who has worked with them all from the very beginning.

The Commission has stayed with us through thick and thin, providing valuable support over the years.  In May 2007, with the new devolved administration about to come into power, President Barroso was the first leader to visit and offer us assistance through his Northern Ireland Task Force – led by Danuta Hübner and chaired by Ronnie Hall – a first in the European Union. 

President Barroso stressed that he viewed the relationship between Brussels and the incoming devolved administration as a ‘marathon, not a sprint’.  His intention was to underpin change by helping us to become more firmly embedded in European networks.  And we are indebted to him for seconding Colette Fitzgerald to work in OFMDFM to facilitate such capacity building. 

Since February of this year, a new College of Commissioners has been taking forward an extensive programme of work, against the backdrop of the global financial and economic crisis.  With strong political support across the European political spectrum, the new Barroso Commission has chosen to interpret its mandate boldly.  There is renewed emphasis on policy after a decade-long focus on constitutional change and eastwards expansion.

But a recent poll indicates that citizens are sceptical about the value of the European Union.  Support for membership of the Union has fallen to 49%, which is close to the lowest levels reached over the last decade.  The same Eurobarometer poll shows that trust in the European Union has also dropped to 42%, but is still higher than with national parliaments.  And disaffection with Europe is similar in both Western and Eastern Member States.

Two countries where public opinion on Europe is more favourable are Hungary and Poland – which is fortuitous since the Union’s rotating presidency falls to them in 2011.  Both presidencies will present an opportunity for Central Europe to do well on the European stage.  They are likely to promote actions strengthening cohesion and co-operation in Central Europe in pursuit of a strong Union, rather than a two-speed Europe.

We need to tune in to citizens, listen to what they want the European Union to do – and then act on it.  The new provision in the Lisbon Treaty for a Citizens’ Initiative could go some way towards reversing these negative trends.

Good policies at the right time are also important.  Europe 2020, the new Commission’s flagship 10-year strategy to revive the European economy, has got off to a good start.  Stimulating growth to create more and better jobs, while making the economy greener and more innovative, has been broadly endorsed.  Around three-quarters of Europeans want labour markets modernised to enhance employment – at the same time as the poor and excluded are helped to play an active part in society.  A greener economy also ranks high on this list of priorities.

Big ticket issues such as Europe 2020, economic governance, the Single Market Act, Cohesion Policy, Common Agricultural Policy, EU Research Programmes, climate change, energy and the EU Budget Review will continue to dominate the headlines.

We look forward to continued work with Commission colleagues in Belfast and Brussels.  Especially on important policies that impact substantially on citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland.

Maurice, I wish you and your team well for the future.