Remarks by Dermot Ahern TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs, ICA European Awareness Programme, 25 November 2004Part II
A second reason for supporting the European Constitution is how it was prepared. In the past, EU Treaties have been largely negotiated by diplomats behind closed doors. The European Constitution was quite different. The draft text was prepared by a European Convention in which representatives of Governments, national parliaments, the European Parliament and the Commission all played a part.
The Irish team included Dick Roche, John Bruton, Proinsias de Rossa, John Gormley and Pat Carey – it actually had more opposition than Government members, and included a strong opponent of the Nice Treaty. John Bruton was a member of the steering committee which worked with the Convention’s chairman, former French President Giscard.
The Convention met for a year and a half. All its plenary meetings were in public – forty-nine days of them. It held a series of fundamental debates on all key aspects of the Union. All of its working papers, and all contributions from its Members, were published immediately on the web. So were all successive drafts of Constitutional articles and proposed amendments to them. This was a uniquely open and transparent process. And the outcome was widely welcomed. It is ultimately the prerogative of Governments to change the EU Treaties, subject to national ratification. But the Governments were very supportive of the draft prepared by the Convention. 90% of it stood through the Intergovernmental Conference, or IGC, which followed - though some difficult issues remained.
And, of course, it was the Irish Presidency of the EU which brokered final agreement, though many thought it would be impossible in the timeframe. This was an immense achievement for the country and for the Taoiseach personally, which has been internationally recognised and applauded. I do not want to blow the Government’s trumpet. But one point should be made: the key role Ireland played showed just how effectively small countries like ours can contribute to a Union of 450 million people.
A third reason for supporting the European Constitution is that it will help make the European Union more democratic and open in a range of ways. For instance, the role of national parliaments is considerably enhanced. They will now have the power to intervene directly in the legislative process where they believe that the Commission is proposing something which should better be done at the national level. The rights of the directly-elected European Parliament will also be increased in several policy areas. The Council of Ministers will now meet in public when it is considering legislative proposals. And there are arrangements to strengthen and formalise dialogue with the social partners, with civil society and with the Churches.
Clearly, in a unique and complex system such as the European Union, it will never be straightforward to ensure that the link between citizens and its institutions is as direct and as responsive as it should be. But, taken together, changes of the sort I have mentioned are all very welcome indeed.
A fourth reason for supporting the European Constitution is that it strengthens the rights of individual citizens. The Charter of Fundamental Rights is an integral and legally-binding part of the Constitution. It lists all of the rights and principles to be respected and observed, from classical civil and political rights to social and economic rights.
I should be clear. The Charter will apply to the EU institutions, and to the Member States when they are implementing Union law. It is not intended to create new powers for the Union. It does not apply in the purely domestic arena, where the rights set out in national constitutions remain supreme. But it will help ensure that the European Union is held to account and observes the highest standards.
Moreover, the EU as a whole is to become party to the European Convention on Human Rights – the Strasbourg-based European Court will be an external monitor of the Union’s own adherence to human rights, playing the same oversight role as it does for national governments.
A fifth reason for supporting the European Constitution is that it makes a number of changes to the Union’s institutions, which will allow them function more effectively in an enlarged and still growing Union.
We have a strong interest in a dynamic and effective Commission, as the protector of the Union’s common interests. It was already agreed at Nice that to maintain one Commissioner per Member State indefinitely into the future would, with enlargement, make the Commission too large and unwieldy. Now it has been settled that from 2014 two-thirds of the Member States will have Commissioners at any one time. But, crucially, Commissioners are to be nominated on the basis of absolute equality of rotation between the Member States. So Germany, Ireland and Malta will all have Commissioners in two out of every three Commissions.
A new voting system in the Council, based on achieving clear majorities both of the Member States and of the population of the Union, is fairer, clearer, more logical, and more effective than what it replaces. Moreover, it will not require haggling every time a new Member or Members join.
Member States will continue to chair most Councils on the basis of equal rotation. But new posts of President of the European Council and Union Foreign Minister are being created. These will consolidate existing functions and should bring more coherence and continuity to the Union’s business – which is vital both as it gets larger and as its external challenges grow.
My sixth reason for supporting the European Constitution is that it is intended to bring to an end for a considerable time to come the constant renegotiation of the Union’s Treaties. Over the last twenty years, there have been four new Treaties. Very often, the same issues have been kicked from one Conference to the next. But this is different. There are no so-called left-overs.
Key issues were so thoroughly debated in the Convention and IGC that the final outcome is recognised as balanced and reasonable. The Constitution has within it the flexibility needed to adapt to future change. Of course there will be those at one end or other of the spectrum who will look for change. But the Governments which actually negotiated the final deal want this to last. They want the Union to stop its introspection and refocus exclusively on issues like jobs, growth, the environment, and fighting cross-border crime.
There is a great deal more I could add. But I hope I have said enough to persuade you of the strong case for supporting the European Constitution. Ireland’s experience of the EU has been immensely positive. As we move forward, it should remain so, if as a country we have the confidence, the self-belief and the capacity to seize our opportunities and indeed to help shape those opportunities. The European Constitution does not of itself ensure that the Union will continue to thrive and to serve all its people’s interests – any more than our own Constitution determines our success as a nation. But it establishes clear and enduring foundations for a successful future together.
+++ENDS 25th November 2004 Press Office Top