Remarks by Minister Cowen, National Forum on Europe, 3 July 2003 Outcome of European Convention (Part 1)
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Chairman, Members of the Forum, Ladies and Gentlemen
I am pleased to have been asked to open this debate on the outcome of the European Convention. Of course, the Convention is not quite over yet. When President Giscard presented its report to the European Council at Thessaloniki, he sought a little more time to finish work on some technical aspects, and this request was granted. But this day next week the Convention will hold its final session. In any case, the overall structure and scope of its work, and the great bulk of the detail, are now plain to see.
It is clear that the Convention has, as a process, been a real success. Its work has been marked by a much greater degree of openness and transparency than has ever before been the case in the preparation of new Treaties. Every meeting – there have been forty-eight days of plenary debate - has been held in public. All discussion papers and all proposed texts – not to mention every member's amendments – have been freely available on the web. There has been much wider political involvement, above all of national parliamentarians, than in any previous debate about the Union's future.
One striking feature was the full involvement of the accession states and other candidate countries. As many of them remarked, it was a sort of dress rehearsal for full Union membership – a learning curve for them and for us. I am glad that Ireland worked very closely with them, underscoring the importance of networking and alliance-building in the enlarged Union.
Of course, great power has inevitably rested with the Convention's President and its Praesidium, as the main drafters and as the arbiters of consensus. In the end they produced a broadly fair and balanced outcome, which reflected the wide range of views expressed in the plenary debates. We in Ireland were truly fortunate that John Bruton was, as a representative of all national parliaments, a member of the Praesidium. While he was of course very much his own man, and took very seriously his duty to work for an overall agreement, he also helped to ensure that Irish concerns, and those of other like-minded countries, were given due weight.
If there has been one disappointment, it has been that such an important and innovative process did not become more widely known. Although the Convention has been very easy to follow for those with a particular interest in the Union, polls suggest that many of the people of Europe appear not to have heard of it – let alone to know what it has been doing. In a busy world, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect any great degree of focus on issues which may seem abstruse and lacking immediacy. But it is vitally important that in this country, and across the Union generally, we continue our efforts to debate and communicate what is happening. We must give the people every chance to feel part of a process which will, ultimately, have a real and lasting impact on the political and economic framework within which we all live. Inevitably interest will quicken as we move towards ratification: but the groundwork must continue in the interim.
In Ireland, of course, the issues have been ventilated as fully and as thoroughly as anywhere. We owe a huge debt to Senator Hayes, to his staff, and to all who have worked in the Forum. It is essential that the Forum continue its excellent work during the period of the Intergovernmental Conference and beyond. The IGC will obviously not be organised in the same way as the Convention: but to the greatest extent possible the issues under discussion should be widely publicised. I undertake that, as far as the Government is concerned, we will continue our dialogue with the Forum, as well of course with the Oireachtas, and keep you as fully informed of developments in the IGC as possible.
At Thessaloniki, I was struck by the genuine warmth with which Heads of State and Government welcomed the Convention's report. Of course, most Member States have signalled some areas of continuing concern to be addressed in the IGC – and I will return to this later. But overall, and in particular given the complexity and political sensitivity of some of the key issues, the fact that the Convention was able to reach a consensus was a real achievement.
As I said, much was due to Giscard and his colleagues in the Praesidium, including John Bruton. But I would also pay tribute to the ordinary full and alternate members of the Convention, including Minister of State Dick Roche (and before him Ray MacSharry) and the other members of the Irish team, Proinsias de Rossa, Pat Carey, John Gormley and Bobby McDonagh. Naturally there were points on which they disagreed - but I know that they kept in close touch and as far as possible promoted the overall Irish interest.
Much energy has been spent debating whether the Convention's output should be seen as a draft Constitution or a draft Treaty. The truth, of course, is that it is both, as is reflected in its official title, a “Draft Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe”. The European Union – and I am glad this now familiar name remains unchanged – has a dual nature. It is both less than a state and more than an international organisation. The report is a draft Constitution in the sense that it seeks to set out clearly the basic values and objectives of the Union, and its fundamental processes and structures. Let us remember that the European Court has in the past stated that the existing Treaties already represent a kind of constitution. But the report is also, clearly, a draft Treaty. It will be concluded between Member States. It will only enter into force when all have ratified. And it can only be amended by unanimous agreement and ratification. For Ireland these are vitally important principles which must be maintained.
The Convention has had to resolve, or accommodate, a number of similar tensions. Tensions between the left and the right, in social and economic matters; between those who want eventually to see a federal Europe and those who emphasise the continuing centrality of the nation state; between big and small, on some institutional issues; between advocates of a much more rapidly integrated and distinct foreign and defence policy, and those who wish to proceed more carefully. A spectrum of views is inevitable in any healthy, open and representative political debate.
The draft Constitutional Treaty is a compromise which tries to balance this range of competing and conflicting demands. On the whole, I think it does so successfully, and in ways which preserve Ireland's key interests. And our own key interests are themselves dual in nature.
Yes, we have a number of specific points where we are determined to protect legitimate national concerns. But we also have an overall interest in a dynamic and effective Union. We want a prosperous, just and competitive Europe. We want a strong and stable currency. We want a Europe which can pursue its interests and promote its values in the world. We want a Europe in which our common institutions can function efficiently and can implement ambitious projects. We want a Europe in which those who traffic in drugs or in human beings are deterred and brought to justice. Moreover, we know that the long-term health of the Union, all the more so as it grows, depends on the capacity of all members to take a wider view, and to balance their own particular preoccupations against the need for general harmony.
As I have said before, there is no conflict between Ireland's interests and the wider European interest: on the contrary, it is within Europe that we have grown and developed, and it is within Europe that we will continue to progress. This does not mean meekly following the lead of others, or not standing up for ourselves. But it does mean that any assessment of the Convention, or of the Union generally, conducted through a narrowly national prism will be fatally incomplete.
All that said, I believe that there is much in the Constitutional Treaty for Ireland to welcome, and little to dispute. Part I – covering broad constitutional and institutional issues – is radically simpler and more readable than the complex of existing Treaty texts it will replace. The Union's values and objectives are described in a balanced and attractive way – and I am particularly pleased with the language on the Union's international objectives, which closely reflects an Irish draft. The creation of a single Union with a single legal personality, the abolition of the old pillar structure, the reduction in the number of legal instruments from fifteen to six – all of these changes will make the Union more intelligible both to itself and to the wider world.
One of the key challenges facing the Convention was to define and describe the allocation of powers as between the Union and the Member States. I believe major progress was made. It is made crystal clear that the Union's powers are derived from the Member States: and that those powers not explicitly conferred upon it remain with them. It is also made clear that the Union must respect the national identities of the Member States, including their fundamental constitutional and political structures and their essential State functions. The Union's powers must be exercised with due regard to the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity. For the first time there is a mechanism, involving national parliaments, to monitor and enforce the application of the subsidiarity principle. This is a significant development, both intrinsically and in the closer connection it establishes between the Union and national parliaments.
The Constitutional Treaty summarises the policy competences of the Union and tries to categorise them. This is far from a simple task. Most powers are shared between the Union and the Member States – for example, in the areas of transport or the environment. The exact boundaries are set out in the detailed policy Articles and in the Union's legislation. A headline list alone may seem to suggest that the Union has more – or less – power in a given area than it actually has. But on the whole I think that the current draft does a good job in setting out in an accessible way who does what.
In general, and this is a highly important point, the draft does not propose any significant change in the overall balance of competence between the Union and the Member States. No major new areas of work for the Union are being created. Nor are matters being renationalised, as some proposed in regard to the CAP. The existing policy mix is broadly speaking going to remain intact.
There has been a substantial rewriting of the Justice and Home Affairs articles, and an effort to align legislative procedures and legal instruments in this area with those in other areas, but even here the basic scope and substance of the Union's activity will not be radically altered. We believe it is right for the Union, with its single market and internal freedom of movement, to develop a common policy in regard to asylum, migration and relevant aspects of civil law. We also believe that more can be done to promote common action against cross-border crime. However, it is of course essential for us that the specific character of our legal system – which combines the common law with a written Constitution offering a high level of human rights protection – be respected and this is one matter where we would like to see more done at the IGC.
Given the need for the effective functioning of a Union of 25 plus members, we strongly support substantial further movement to qualified majority voting in a range of areas, while retaining unanimity in a number of especially sensitive matters. We have a number of continuing concerns in this regard, but on the whole, as was the case during negotiation of the Nice Treaty, we favour the extension of QMV as the general rule. As the Union enlarges, it makes sense to minimise the number of areas in which the veto can apply to those which are absolutely fundamental. Ireland has benefited, and continues to benefit, from an efficient Union, and the number of cases where core national interests might be affected by the move from unanimity is small.
The Convention has recommended giving legal effect to the Charter of Fundamental Rights. As I made clear in my speech to the IEA in January, Ireland worked hard to make a consensus possible in this area. We have always seen the great value of the Charter as a clear and comprehensible statement of fundamental rights, freedoms and principles, and potentially as a means of vindicating the citizen's rights vis a vis the Union's institutions. But we wanted to be sure that its incorporation would not lead to the unintended extension of the Union's powers over matters which are for decision at the national level. We are very pleased by how matters have turned out. Indeed, the Convention saw a very lively and focussed debate which was very valuable in teasing out the complexities of the issues. The final text includes improved general Articles on the scope and application of the Charter, and there is now a clear recognition of the interpretative value of a detailed commentary on the legal sources of the various rights, which will be important in future litigation. Ireland was very active in crafting these important improvements.