Opening Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen TD to Dáil Debate on IGC (Part II)
In general, Ireland supports the further extension of QMV and of co-decision by the European Parliament. As the Union becomes larger, the risk of deadlock becomes correspondingly great. We have already benefited from efficient QMV decision-making in areas such as the internal market and agriculture. Likewise, the greater involvement of MEPs, as directly elected public representatives, is also appropriate.
But, as is well known, there is a very small number of areas where we believe that unanimity should remain. One of these is taxation, which is particularly central to the relationship between citizens and their own governments. I am glad that the Convention draft retains the need for unanimous decisions in nearly all areas of taxation. But the Government will continue to oppose any departure from this principle, and will want to see a watertight final text.
The Convention has made important advances in recommending enhanced European action against serious cross-border crime. Deputy John Bruton, as chairman of the relevant working group, played a major part in this. However, it is also important that the new arrangements do not affect the deeply rooted traditions and practices of the member States, or the constitutional rights of their people. We will be seeking to ensure that this is guaranteed.
Another priority is security and defence policy. The Government wishes to see the Union play a greater role for good on the international stage in a way that fully respects the values of the Member States. There is much in the Convention proposals that we can welcome. The appointment of a Union Minister for Foreign Affairs will bring greater coherence and visibility to the EU's external action. The objectives that will shape the Union's external action include, at our suggestion, support for human rights, conflict prevention, sustainable development and the UN Charter.
Increasingly, the EU is making a contribution in support of international peace and security. This year alone, the EU has undertaken missions under the ESDP in the Western Balkans and in central Africa. This growing capability for conflict prevention and crisis management is fully consistent with support for the UN, as Kofi Annan has himself acknowledged.
The Convention made a number of proposals in the security and defence area. Our view is that these proposals, in particular structured cooperation and common defence, require further consideration by the IGC. The Government's approach is that any new arrangements in this area should be inclusive and accountable to all Member States.
What is clear, however, is that we will retain our right to make our own decisions on whether to participate in EU crisis management operations. As I have made clear to the House, this means a Government decision, Dáil approval and a UN authorisation. Equally, the proposals drawn up by the Convention do not change the present situation as regards common defence. Our position is clear – while we will not stand in the way of others, Ireland could only participate in an EU common defence with the prior consent of the people in a referendum.
In the IGC, we are working to ensure that these core concerns are reflected in the final text of the Constitutional Treaty. There is also a range of other issues on which we think that improvements can be made without radically changing the draft. We will take the opportunities which arise to support such improvements, without losing sight of the overall balance and coherence of the text. As one example, ECOFIN Ministers, including the Minister for Finance, have been developing a consensus on changes to certain economic and budgetary articles.
The Government will also support a reference to God or Europe's Christian heritage in the preamble of the Constitutional Treaty, should an agreed wording be possible.
At the IGC, a great deal of time will be devoted to institutional issues. Our view is that the overall balance achieved on institutional issues at the end of the Convention was a reasonable one. The text was greatly improved from the earliest drafts. Obviously it is important that the individual interests of the Member States, particularly the smaller Member States, be protected. That is a priority. And it is true that the current arrangements, in terms of the Commission and the Council, have suited us. But equally, it is legitimate to question whether a system originally designed for an economic Community of six is fully adequate for a much wider Union of twenty-five or more.
In all of this, it makes no sense to be dogmatic. Nor does it make sense to be confrontational. There are different, and quite valid, perspectives, which need to be reconciled.
Media coverage has tended to present the issues as a question of big against small. I do not deny that on the institutions the small countries as a class tend to have certain interests and objectives in common – as do the large. But this is to ignore the reality that the great majority of issues do not break down in this way. And there are significant differences among the smaller countries themselves, as there are among the large.
For example, some small countries were among the early advocates of a long-term President of the European Council. We did not seek the creation of this post, but we think that it is now defined in a way which protects the interests of the Commission and which will ensure that its holder is more chairman than chief. We hope it will, as its supporters argue, bring more coherence and a longer-term perspective to the work of the European Council.
Likewise, a small number believe that a restricted Commission is more likely to be collegiate and effective than one in which every Member State is represented. The countervailing and increasingly supported argument – that a Commission drawn from the widest possible range of Member States is more likely to be aware of and responsive to concerns on the ground, and thus more legitimate – is also very strong.
The essence of the Convention compromise – all Member States represented at all times, but with a smaller number of voting Commissioners appointed on the basis of strictly equal rotation – is broadly acceptable to us. It builds on what was agreed at Nice. But there are aspects of the arrangement that need to be teased out. To take one example - what precisely would the roles of the voting and non-voting Commissioners be?
On the other hand, there are many countries arguing strongly for one voting Commissioner per Member State. If this can be achieved on terms which protect the genuine equality of all Commissioners and of all Member States, as was agreed at Nice, we would very much welcome it. At the end of this process, we want a Commission which is effective, which embraces genuine equality and which serves and reflects the interests of all Member States, big and small.
At the IGC, the question of how a qualified majority is defined is shaping up to be crucial. We recognise that the proposed new dual majority system would be simpler to understand and more efficient in terms of decision-making. We would be quite happy to stick with the more complex Nice formula, but are prepared to accept the Convention's proposal. In reality our influence will always depend more on our capacity to network and on the effectiveness of our arguments than on any arithmetical formula. And in practice votes are rare.
Our overall approach, therefore, is pragmatic and reasonable. We do not want the Convention text to be dismantled. Nor is it holy writ. Improvements and clarifications are possible. If alternative wordings attract more support, that can be welcomed. But what is most needed is a sense of proportion. Each of us needs to rise from the table having secured key national interests. But each of us also needs to recall that the common European interest is also significant. We have a shared stake, not just in a successful outcome, but in an outcome achieved in the right spirit. We do not need prolonged stand-offs and unnecessary acrimony – and so far the mood of the IGC has been positive in that regard.
The discussion in the IGC will be intense and concentrated over the next two months. It is the ambition of the Italian Presidency to complete the IGC in December. We fully support them in this. We believe that if the IGC focuses on the main concerns of the member states the negotiations can be completed within the proposed timeframe. If, however, the Conference runs into our Presidency, we are fully prepared to take on the task.
Each participant must be able to see its concerns reflected in the outcome. This will be important for the member states when they come to ratify the Constitutional Treaty that is likely to emerge. A significant number of states have indicated that they may hold referendums. Whatever the system of ratification, it is important that the Constitutional Treaty that emerges serves to unite the member states and the citizens across the European Union.
What matters most is that the final outcome is a Constitutional Treaty which equips the Union to be as successful and effective in the future as it has been for almost fifty years. I think we are on the right track. We are approaching this IGC in the same way that we approach all our interaction with the European Union: positively and with a view to finding solutions. Our experience of the past will inform our practice for the future.