Speech by Minister Roche at Second Stage of European Communities (Amendment) Bill 2003 (PartI )
I would like to move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.
This Bill amends the European Communities Act, 1972, and enables certain parts of the Treaty providing for the accession of the Czech Republic, the Republic of Estonia, the Republic of Cyprus, the Republic of Latvia, the Republic of Lithuania, the Republic of Hungary, the Republic of Malta, the Republic of Poland, the Republic of Slovenia and the Slovak Republic to the European Union to become part of the domestic law of the State, once Ireland ratifies the Treaty.
The passage of this Bill, together with the passage of a motion in the Dail approving the Accession Treaty, are the major steps required to enable Ireland to ratify the Treaty of Accession.
As Senators may already be aware, accession negotiations began in 1998 with Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. In February 2000, negotiations opened with Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia. Accession negotiations were completed with ten of these countries (excluding Bulgaria and Romania) at the Copenhagen European Summit on 12 and 13 December 2002.
The Accession Treaty for these ten countries was signed by the Heads of State and Government in Athens on 16 April 2003. Since signature of the Treaty, they have become non-voting participants in most Council and European Parliament meetings. Accession will take place on 1 May 2004, during the Irish Presidency, following ratification by the Member States and by the acceding countries.
All Member States and acceding countries have undertaken to complete ratification procedures by 30 April 2004. To come into effect, the Treaty must be ratified by all of the current Member States. However, should one or more of the acceding countries fail to ratify it, the Treaty provides for adjustment or lapsing of provisions applicable to that country, and the remaining countries can accede. To date, Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Denmark have completed all ratification procedures.
All of the acceding states, excluding Cyprus (which ratified by legislative procedure), have held a referendum on accession. The Government warmly welcome the passage of all of these referenda which were clearly supported by the public in these countries by convincing majorities.
There can be no doubt but that this enlargement constitutes one of the most exciting and positive developments since the foundation of the EEC in 1957. On 1 May next year, it will be Ireland's privilege, during our Presidency of the Union, to welcome the acceding states as old friends but new partners. Each country has made enormous efforts to qualify for membership and they have earned the respect of their European brothers and sisters while taking their rightful place at the Union table.
I welcome this opportunity to debate the Bill today in the Seanad. It comes at an opportune time. Only yesterday the European Commission published their annual reports on the acceding state's readiness for membership. The main message is a positive one: great progress is being maintained, only a limited number of important tasks need to be undertaken before accession. This is being described as the best ever prepared enlargement, a remarkable achievement given the sweeping transformation and preparation needed.
The present process of enlarging the EU could see the European Union growing from a present membership of fifteen and a land area of over 3.2 million sq km, with a population of about 370 million people, to a future membership of 28 Member States with an area of approximately 5 million sq km and an overall population of up to 550 million citizens.
Although it might seem somewhat superfluous to do so, it is worth remembering just why this enlargement is taking place.
The process of taking in these countries has been described rather poetically as the “soul” of the European Union. The EU is righting a past wrong: the artificial division of Europe which lasted for too long after the Second World War. It marks a return to normality. Accession will allow the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to turn their backs on years of the threat of chaos, tyranny and poverty which ended hardly a decade ago. It will underpin their achievement of transforming their societies and economies, and basing them on democratic principles and the rule of law. This will be the cast-iron assurance they are all looking for: that there will be no going back to the dark days.
Since its foundation in 1957 with six original Members, the EU has been taking in new members. Its values, as well as its success, have made it attractive to countries with different backgrounds. Any European State which meets basic political criteria is free to apply for membership.
The steps which the acceding countries took towards joining the EU began shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. A special meeting of the European Council was convened here in Dublin during the Irish Presidency on 28 April 1990. It discussed the unification of Germany and the momentous developments elsewhere. At this European Council, chaired by Ireland, it was decided that discussion should begin on Association Agreements (later to be called “Europe Agreements”) with the emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. These Agreements included trade and economic elements, as well as provision for political dialogue. All ten Europe Agreements were signed by 1996.
At the Maastricht European Council in December 1991, it was agreed that any European State whose system of government is founded on the principle of democracy could apply to become a Member of the Union. In June 1993, the European Council at Copenhagen agreed that the countries with which Association Agreements were negotiated could in principle become members of the Union and that the future relationship with those countries could evolve on that basis. Criteria for membership of the European Union, the so-called ‘Copenhagen criteria', were also established:
“Membership requires that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate's ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.”
Formal applications for membership of the Union were made between 1994 and 1996 by ten Central and Eastern European states: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania. Turkey (1987) and Cyprus and Malta (1990) had already applied for membership. (In 1996 Malta withdrew its application, but reactivated it in 1998).
It was in December 1997, that the Luxembourg European Council decided to begin accession negotiations with the six candidate countries that were deemed by the Commission to be ready at that time. These countries were Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. In addition, the European Council highlighted the work that would have to be done by the Union itself to prepare for enlargement by improving the working of the institutions. Negotiations with this first group of countries began in March 1998.
In December 1999, the Helsinki European Council decided to open negotiations with all the other candidate countries: Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia. Negotiations with these countries began in February 2000.
We should not underestimate the struggle involved in reaching the point of negotiating table and, soon, membership. It has been a long, hard slog for these countries. Preparations for membership will have taken more than ten years for many of them. Their journey to membership has faced more upheavals and being much more challenging than when Ireland joined thirty years ago.
Alongside work to ensure that political oppression was replaced by a strong and certain commitment to democracy and human rights, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have had to prepare their economies for participation in one of the most dynamic free markets in the world. They have had to absorb more than 80,000 pages of legislation but, more importantly, they have had to take difficult and painful decisions.
They have done so because, as we did in 1973, they see EU membership as offering their people the best prospect for a peaceful and prosperous future. All these changes are good for the economies and societies of these countries. They could well have happened without the prospect of EU membership but not in the same timescale. However, they are very painful changes for any country.
EU membership will be the biggest event in their history since they gained, or regained, their independence from the former USSR. (In the case of Cyprus and Malta their independence was gained in the 1960's from the UK). Since independence they have been profoundly transformed. Most of this effort is associated with the prospect of EU membership.
The transformation of the acceding countries is due largely to their own efforts. However, the aim of EU membership has been an invaluable guiding motivation and tangible goal. The criteria set down for membership, agreed in Copenhagen at a Summit in 1993, are the concrete expression of this goal. The efforts undertaken by the countries in the political and economic fields and the ability to be EU members can be looked at in this light.
Politically, the stability achieved has been dramatic. Progress in the areas of democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and the protection of minorities have created stability in a large area of Europe in a short space of time. General elections have seen stable changes in power with free and fair elections. In some countries the judiciary needs to be reinforced, as does the fight against corruption. Discrimination against the Roma still needs tackling in other countries.
The process has also been a helpful context in dealing with difficult historical relations between different countries in the region. Some of these issues have not been fully resolved, but prospective EU membership means that the countries are given the necessary motivation to resolve these problems.
Structural changes in the economies of these countries led to a complete turnaround in their fortunes, leading to rapid growth from new healthy roots. This benefits the Member States too because they can run export surpluses which lead to more jobs etc. But to turnaround their economies they needed to take tough unpopular decisions. People had to pay the price by tightening their belts.
Radical improvements have to be made in the environment and, for example, they have to close down large, unviable industries that employ high number of people because the levels of aid are incompatible with the EU Single Market. Many of the unviable farmers will be forced to change their systems of production to meet EU standards.