Speech by Minister of State Dick Roche, TD to Dáil debate on the outcome of the European Convention
It was a great honour for me to represent Ireland at the Convention and I would like to begin by joining the Minister in playing warm tribute to the Oireachtas representatives who did such an excellent job and also to my alternate, Mr Bobby McDonagh of the Department of Foreign Affairs. I am sure that they would agree that we operated well together as a team in advancing Ireland's interests. It was a very positive and rewarding experience.
I would also like to thank colleagues in this House for the role that they have played in facilitating the more active and lively debate on European issues that we have enjoyed in recent times. They have brought a great wealth of experience and insight to bear. It is true that much our work with and within the Union is of a routine and not very colourful nature. It is not always of a type likely to capture the public imagination. However, it is also true that in discussing the future of Europe in particular, we are discussing issues that are of great consequence to every citizen in the country. It is important that our debate is as wide and inclusive as possible.
From my attendance at this IGC earlier this week, it is clear that most of what the Convention proposed will stand. There is widespread appreciation that significant progress has been made towards making the Union's fundamental law – what will now be a Constitutional Treaty – more legible and accessible to citizens. It is, of course, a legal document and in such texts there are necessarily tensions between the need to be clear and the need to be certain. This does not always result in the most elegant of prose. However, while not perfect, the Convention text stands head and shoulders above the Treaties it will replace in terms of simplicity and straightforwardness.
Like the Minister, I also greatly welcome the enhanced role that national parliaments will be enabled to play as a result of the Convention's work - I have no doubt that these important proposals will be accepted by the IGC. We know that citizens sometimes feel distant from the European Union. We in this House also have some idea of the extraordinary volume and range of proposals that are discussed in Europe. It is simply unreasonable to imagine that most citizens could begin to keep up. Knowing that their elected representatives in this House will be playing a strengthened role in holding Brussels to account should be reassuring.
The Convention also did valuable work towards ensuring that agreement can be reached on including the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the new Treaty. The Government has always supported the Charter as a clear description of those rights that citizens enjoy in their dealings with the institutions of the Union and with their own Governments when they are implementing EU law.
However, taking a political declaration and giving it legal effect is not an exercise to be undertaken without careful scrutiny and detailed consideration. We took a positive approach to the task. For the Charter to be included, all concerned, citizens, institutions and governments, must be clear and certain as to its scope and application. The impression should not be given either that it did more or less than is actually the case. The Convention did particularly significant work in advancing this aim, making judicious amendments where necessary and ensuring that, in interpreting the Charter, the Courts will have regard to the explanations that accompanied its promulgation. The Convention's recommendations are important and positive and I look forward to them being adopted by the IGC.
Overall, the new document will be a simpler clearer statement of what the Union is and what it does. I have no difficulty with calling it a constitution. All sorts of organisations have constitutions in which their basic rules and purposes are set out. But it should be very clear that the constitution will be established by a Treaty between the Member States, all of whom must agree and all of whom must then ratify the Treaty individually. It is also proposed that the constitution can only be amended in future by the unanimous agreement of the Member States and by their subsequent ratification. In the negotiations, some may try to re-open the amendment procedure, but Ireland – and others – will firmly resist any proposal which would allow for future change without our explicit consent.
It is important that the Union have the right values and objectives. It is also important that it has the right policies and decision-making procedures. But it also needs a set of institutions properly equipped to drive its work forward.
In many ways, the Convention was a dry-run for enlargement. All of the countries waiting to join the Union participated. This brought a new and positive dynamic to our work. However, it also highlighted the difference between having 15 people sitting around a table and 25 or more. Meetings take longer, there are more points of view to be heard. We need to be sure that the Union's institutions are fully prepared for this new reality. The Convention made some very positive and useful headway, and the Government has said that, while some detailed issues remain to be resolved, it is satisfied with the outcome in this area.
The Convention has recommended the creation of a new post of President of the European Council. Some were wary of the idea, others wished to give this person an ambitious and wide-reaching remit. What has emerged from the Convention strikes the right balance. The President of the European Council will be of assistance to Prime Ministers in chairing their meetings and driving forward their work. He or she will help to prepare meetings and will facilitate coherence and consensus. Where appropriate, the President will represent the Union internationally. In this work, they will not be in competition with the President of the Commission. Neither will they be directing the work of the Council in its different formations. As long as the Convention balance is maintained by the IGC, I regard the creation of this new post as a positive and helpful development.
Similarly, we would all wish to see the Union operating to its fullest potential as a force for good in the world. At present, the Union has two external representatives, one for the Commission's area of competence – currently Chris Patten – and one for the Council's area of responsibility – currently Javier Solana. While both are widely acknowledged to be doing an excellent job, not unreasonably it was felt by many that drawing the two roles together would lead to greater consistency in our approach and to better projection of the Union's voice on the world stage. The Convention has, therefore, proposed creating a Union Foreign Minister. Naturally, there are detailed issues to be considered and they are being pursued at the IGC, but the Government has welcomed the creation of a Foreign Minister.
On the Commission, the Treaty of Nice represented a particularly good deal for small and medium sized Member States. For the first time, the full equality of all Member States as regards membership was established. The Government went to the Convention determined to protect that vital principle. Working hard with other like-minded partners – and against strong opposition from some - we succeeded.
The Convention proposes that there be fifteen voting Commissioners, including the President and the Foreign Minister, with guaranteed equality among Member States as regards rotation into and out of these fifteen slots. There would be non-voting Commissioners from those countries without a voting Commissioner for any given period. This arrangement builds upon the Nice provisions in that every Member State is guaranteed a continuous presence in Brussels.
Other proposals are being made at the IGC. A considerable number of Member States, including most of the accession countries, wish to reopen the deal and are seeking one voting Commissioner per Member State in perpetuity. The Commission has brought forward a suggestion of how this might work. While we are broadly happy with the Convention arrangement, subject to some elaboration of the text, we would of course see very real attractions in having one full Commissioner per Member State, if it can be achieved on the basis of equality. It would, for example, give people in the countries now joining a strong sense of identification with one of the Union's most important institutions, and we would very much share their thinking in this regard.
Similarly, if the Convention arrangements are to stand, there are aspects that need to be teased out. We have always said that there is room for some improvement to the text. We, like almost all partners, do not support the idea that each country would put forward three candidates leaving the President of the Commission to make the choice. The present arrangements work well and are best suited towards attracting the calibre of candidate the Commission needs. Likewise, the appointment procedure for both voting and non-voting Commissioners should be the same. This is also a view widely shared by partners. We need greater clarity on the roles of the voting and non-voting Commissioners be. The Government strongly wishes to see the non-voting Commissioners having the greatest possible role. It is clear that most partners support them having distinct and substantive areas of work.
The Italian Presidency has made no secret of its strong wish to see the IGC conclude its work in December. The Government fully supports that approach. This is not an IGC like previous ones. On this occasion much of the spade work has already been done.
At the start of the debate, the Minister set out the Government's priorities and the broad approach it is taking. We will our interests and our priorities with conviction. Similarly, other Member States are pursuing their particular concerns with equal vigour.
We all must, however, guard against treating the IGC as what some have described as a football match. In football, there can only be winners and losers. If one team succeeds, another must have failed. That is not how things work in the European Union. Yes, we all pursue our particular issues of concern. But, and particularly with 25 around the table, we must also be mindful of the need to find an outcome with which everyone can live. That takes compromise. Everyone must get up from the table satisfied.
If we are to get our work completed as quickly as possible, as we undertook to do at Thessaloniki, we will all need to take a community minded approach. As committed members of the European Union, we have a strong and shared interest in a Union which is effective and efficient and which continues to deliver real benefit to citizens' lives.
Throughout and since the Convention, I have greatly valued the discussion and debate I have enjoyed with colleagues, particularly in the Joint Committee which has taken such a close and informed interest in the process. I greatly look forward to this continuing as the work of the IGC proceeds.