Statement by Minister of State for European Affairs, Dick Roche - Europaisches Forum (Part II)
For the first few months we spoke quietly and listened carefully to everyone, both at official and political levels. We made no proposals on the key questions, but rather sought to gauge whether people had the necessary room for manoeuvre.
By March it was clear to us that, in the right circumstances, everyone was prepared to move. We therefore sought and received a commitment from the European Council to resume formal negotiations with a view to reaching a conclusion no later than its meeting in June.
This was a very important step forward. There is nothing that brings more focus to negotiations than a deadline.
In the period between March and June we engaged in an intensive process of negotiation. We wanted to boil the issues down to the greatest extent possible so that only the most sensitive would remain to be resolved at Head of State or Government level in the endgame.
Officials met and sorted through many of the more technical, less political, issues. Foreign Ministers met on three occasions, doing particularly valuable work on the extent of majority voting in the Council, an issue which has always been difficult and thorny.
In May and early June, our Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, travelled extensively, meeting all of his colleagues on the European Council. This was a hugely demanding undertaking – most people assumed that it would be impossible to do a full tour of capitals in an enlarged Union. But the Taoiseach, a very experienced negotiator, knows better than most the value of personal contact in resolving difficult problems. If someone has a problem, it is important to hear it from them directly. If someone has to move towards a compromise, it is easier to convince and encourage them in a face to face meeting.
We made a lot of progress and, as we approached the summit meeting in June, it was clear that the main issues to be resolved at the end would be institutional questions – especially the composition of the Commission and voting in the Council – and a number of questions relating to economic governance which had arisen later in the day, but on which strong feelings were held by some. We had succeeded in ensuring a limited and tight agenda. A tight agenda with a very limited number of key issues to be resolved was absolutely essential to success. A wide agenda ran the risk of throwing open negotiations on issues that had already been resolved.
We knew that the institutional questions would be particularly difficult to resolve. In many ways, they are about how power is exercised in the Union. As Presidency, we were looking for a balanced outcome that would be fair and acceptable to all.
On the Commission, there was a need to balance the need for efficiency with the need for legitimacy. For many Member States, especially many of the small and medium sized ones, this was a key question. They preferred to continue with a situation where all Member States were represented on the Commission at all times and they absolutely insisted that any move away from this must take place on the basis of strict equality among Member States. Others strongly wished to see a smaller, tighter Commission, believing that this would be more efficient.
The outcome we reached strikes a careful balance. Each Member State will nominate a Commissioner until 2014 and thereafter will nominate a Commissioner to two out of every three Commissions. However, to ensure that there is the flexibility necessary to allow us to learn from experience, we have also provided that the number of Commissioners can be changed by unanimous decision of the European Council. This formula allows us to test whether the large can work effectively, a hypothesis which is challenged by those advocating a smaller Commission.
On voting in the Council, it was agreed that we should move away from the complex system of weighted votes that currently applies and to a simpler system of ‘dual majority’. This is a big step and it was important that all Member States feel comfortable with any new arrangements.
We knew, therefore, that some adjustment would have to be made to the voting thresholds proposed by the European Convention. Some strongly wished to see the population threshold raised. Others took the view that, if that happened, the Member State threshold should be raised by at least a corresponding amount. Others again took the view that any significant increase in the thresholds would undermine the gains in efficiency the new system offered.
We sought and found a balanced outcome.
Most decisions in the Council will now require the support of 55% of the Member States of the Union, comprising at least 15 of them, representing at least 65% of the Union’s population.
Reaching agreement on the Constitution was, without question, a highlight of our Presidency. Looking back, it is difficult to say whether the fact that Ireland is a small Member State made any difference to the negotiations or to their outcome.
What I can say is that it was definitely not a disadvantage. A small Member State could perhaps more easily convince that it had no vested interest, no secret agenda.
Our experience as a small Member State made us particularly sensitive to the needs of others and to the importance of a fully open and inclusive approach. As I said before, fairness was a key principle underpinning our Presidency.
We worked hard to ensure that everyone had a chance to make their case - all views were heard and all perspectives were taken on board. It was also helpful that we are not seen to carry any particular baggage. The extensive tour by the Taoiseach was vital in this regard. I hope and believe that all of our colleagues big & small saw us as an honest broker.
There was one other aspect which I personally felt was particularly important and in this issue being a small member State was an advantage. Small states have more compact administrations than large states. This being the case the ‘distance’ between key players is ‘shorter’ than in a large state with many layers in its administration. A small state with a compact administration is likely to have less problems in resolving tactical & strategic issues than a state with a more complex structure, more layers in the administration and more internal coordination problems. Many years ago a wise Minister told me that ‘because we are so small we have to play a more focused game’.
The result was a balanced Constitution which fully respects and protects the interests of all Member States, big and small. Nobody got everything that they wanted, but everyone got what they needed.
It must now be ratified by all Member States. In Ireland’s case this will require a referendum, others will take a parliamentary approach. I greatly look forward to a full and informed debate throughout the Union.
The new Constitution is an excellent text. It marks an important stage in the Union’s development and is a huge improvement on the Treaties it will replace. It is a document that will, I believe, stand the test of time and serve the Union and its citizens well.
All committed Europeans must now make the task of ensuring its ratification their highest priority.