Opening Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen TD to Dáil Debate on IGC (Part I)
A Cheann Comhairle
I am pleased, in the unavoidable absence of the Taoiseach, to have the opportunity to open what is a timely and important debate. At the conclusion of the Convention we undertook to make time available for this purpose.
The IGC began in Rome on 4 October. We are, therefore, at a very early stage in the proceedings. This Government is committed to keeping this House, the relevant Oireachtas committees and the public fully informed of developments. Following the IGC and European Council meeting this week the Taoiseach will be reporting to the Dáil on the outcome. In addition, the National Forum on Europe will hold a Plenary Session on 23 October on the outcome of the Convention which he will address.
Of course, over the past two years there has been a major improvement in the intensity and the quality of our national debate on Europe, inside and outside the House. I would like to congratulate Deputy Mitchell and his colleagues on the Joint Committee on European Affairs. They are vigorously using the new scrutiny procedures to examine the Government's approach to issues on the European agenda. I would also pay tribute to the outstanding work of the Forum.
The Forum has already produced a valuable account of the Convention text. The short explanatory guide which my own Department has circulated to all Members of the House is also intended to serve as a reference point. It is intended to be clear and succinct, though not fully comprehensive. I hope it is useful.
The more thoroughly we discuss things nationally, the better prepared we are to take part in debate at Union level. However, the greatest challenge we face is to widen the discussion beyond the initiated, to ensure that the general public understand and can support what is happening in their name. Indeed, the Taoiseach made the point at Rome that the IGC as a whole needed a proper communications strategy.
This time last year we were on the eve of the second Nice referendum. A highly positive aspect of the whole process was that it did kindle a real national debate about Europe. And I believe that in the referendum the people broadly endorsed, not just the Nice Treaty and enlargement, but Ireland's place in the European Union, thirty years on. The verdict then clearly was the European Union has been instrumental in creating a peaceful and prosperous Europe, which has been good for Ireland and in which Ireland has played its own distinctive part.
In the thirty years since we joined the Union, it has expanded and changed immensely. Ireland too has changed and developed, in some ways almost out of all recognition. But the fundamental points remain. Europe is and remains vital to our prosperity as a small, outward-looking economy. It has encouraged the modernisation of our society. Its values of tolerance and respect for human rights and the rule of law are our values. They are relevant both in Europe and throughout the world. The Irish people are not naïve or starry-eyed about Europe. They recognise its shortcomings. But they have a basic sense of its enduring promise and of its practical benefits.
That is the context in which the proposed Constitutional Treaty should be analysed. It is highly significant. But -as is inevitable in a negotiation - it is possible to get too close to the detail. Standing back, the Convention draft does not fundamentally alter the nature of the Union as a unique experiment in the voluntary sharing of sovereignty by independent states. It does not fundamentally alter the Union's powers or its relationship with the Member States. It does not fundamentally alter the mix of policies which has worked so effectively for Ireland. It does not fundamentally alter the balances between the institutions and among the Member States. If the Irish people support the Union and our membership of it – and I am sure that they do- then they can be broadly happy with the Convention outcome.
The Convention itself was an innovative approach to Treaty change. Rather than having the preparatory work carried out by anonymous officials behind closed doors, we established a body representative of the peoples, the states and the institutions of Europe. All of the member and applicant states were represented at both Government and Parliamentary level. The European Parliament and the Commission were also there. All had their say. Thousands of pages of draft texts and amendments were considered and finally a single text was produced. The Convention approach has, rightly, won widespread approval. I am pleased that the draft Constitutional Treaty recommends that it continue to be used in the future. I don't believe there can be any return to the old ways.
Of course, the IGC has its own role to play. It cannot be a rubber stamp. But the great bulk of the Convention's work should stand.
The Taoiseach has already in this House thanked Ireland's team at the Convention for their work. I think it is fair to say that Ireland was most ably represented and our representatives - from the Government and from the opposition benches - made a positive contribution to the debate in the European Convention and to the Convention's outcome. Minister Dick Roche, preceded by Ray MacSharry, and Bobby McDonagh for the Government, and Deputies Bruton, Carey and Gormley for the Oireachtas together with Proinsias De Rossa MEP, were all active and positive. This positive engagement enabled Ireland to bring to the table its values and interests and to have these values and interests reflected in the text.
The Convention allowed a broad consensus to emerge on a range of hitherto difficult issues. That consensus covered the legal personality of the Union; a simplified and comprehensible legislative framework; the clear delineation of the roles of the Union and the member states; the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights into the draft Constitutional Treaty, without expanding the European Union's area of competence; and the consolidation of the existing Treaties in a coherent and comprehensible way.
For the first time, it will be possible for the concerned citizen to see in one place, in the opening parts of the draft, a clear description of the Union's values, objectives, powers and institutions. This is a very important and welcome step forward. For instance, Article 2 of the draft Treaty states that the Union is founded on human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Article 3 confirms that the Union's aim is to promote peace, freedom, justice, sustainable development and full employment.
I am also pleased that the Convention has taken a serious look at the important position that national parliaments occupy in the democratic life of the Union and has proposed a range of measures to enhance the role they play.
The most significant of these involves oversight of the principle of subsidiarity –ensuring that things are done at the most appropriate level and only at Union level when that is the best approach. The Convention recommendations would enhance our own national scrutiny arrangements. When, in the future, the Commission is thinking of bringing forward proposals, it will do so in the knowledge that it will be open to national parliaments to challenge those proposals for failing to respect subsidiarity. If one third of parliaments challenge them, they will have to think again. I hope that the brake will not have to be applied too frequently. However, its existence alone should help to ensure that proper thought is given before proposals are made.
At our meeting in Rome on 4 October to open the IGC, the Heads of State or Government of the member and observer countries, including the Taoiseach, set out their broad negotiating stances. The Taoiseach made clear that we will respect the outcome of the Convention as a good basis for our work. We do not wish to see all that work unravelled. But we have a number of key concerns. These include decision-making in taxation matters and in the Justice and Home Affairs area. Clearly, there is on-going political discussion regarding the institutions themselves before we reach final agreement.