Opening statement by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Select Committee on Foreign Affairs: 1
Mr Chairman, I welcome this opportunity to meet the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to consider Vote 38. Before I proceed, however, I would like to make a few brief comments in relation to Vote 39, which Minister Tom Kitt will be dealing with in more detail following the discussion on Vote 38.
Overseas development aid is an integral part of our foreign policy and represents one of the Government's priorities. Ireland has a proud record in the field of development cooperation and down through the years thousands of Irish missionaries and lay people have served overseas in a voluntary capacity and have made an immeasurable contribution to the well-being of the poorest of the poor in some of the world's most disadvantaged countries. Our own history of colonisation, famine and emigration has enabled us to identify with the plight of those most in need. The generosity of the Irish people in contributing to NGOs and to international relief efforts is well renowned.
Against that backdrop, it is appropriate that we should have an advanced and distinctive programme of assistance for developing countries. Our aid programme is now in place for nearly three decades. From modest origins it has grown substantially in recent years and we expect that total ODA will exceed €450 million this year. This constitutes .41% of our GNI and, as such, makes Ireland the seventh largest contributor in the world.
Mr Chairman, the Estimate in 2003 for Vote 38 amounts to €178.825 million, which is an increase of just under 4% on the provision for last year. As in previous years, most of the Estimate is taken up with the administrative budget, which amounts to €146.7 million. This includes additional provisions to cover agreed pay increases as well to progress the development of a new automated passport production system. The Estimate also includes a provision to cover my Department's preparations for the next Irish Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2004.
On the programme budget side, Vote 38 covers mandatory contributions to international organisations such as the UN, in particular for UN peacekeeping duties. Also covered are programmes to support Irish citizens abroad, to fund cross-border peace and reconciliation projects and to provide bilateral assistance to EU candidate countries to assist them in their preparation for EU membership.
With your permission, Mr. Chairman, I propose to commence my review of my Department's activities with some words on the European Union. Ireland will of course, host the Presidency of the European Union in the first half of next year. This particular Presidency presents very significant challenges. On the one hand, we will have the great privilege of presiding, on May 1 next year, over the formal accession of the ten new countries.
While preparing to welcome them and do everything possible to smooth their paths as new Members of the Union, it will also be important for us to ensure that the Union's institutions and structures continue to function as effectively at 25 as with 15 and that the Union's day to day business continues to run smoothly. The challenge which this will present should not be underestimated.
Other important events which will influence our Presidency include the end of term of the European Parliament with elections scheduled for June, 2004. The European Commission will also end its term of office in November of next year.
Enlargement of the European Union has been a political imperative for almost a decade. In 2002, saw the successful conclusion of accession negotiations with ten countries. The Taoiseach and I signed the Treaty of Accession in Athens on 16 April 2003. Ratification by the Member States and the acceding countries is proceeding. All the acceding countries, apart from Cyprus, are holding referenda on the question of accession. To date, referenda have been held and passed in Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic and most recently in Poland on 7-8 June. A Referendum will be held in the Czech Republic on 13-14 June, in Estonia on 14 September and in Latvia on 20 September. The Government intends that Ireland will ratify the Treaties later this year.
Against this challenging background, our preparations for the Presidency are proceeding well. We will be focusing, in the coming months, on the development of the Presidency programme and the very complex calendar of meetings which Ireland will chair during the Presidency. This involves enhanced Ministerial and interdepartmental coordination, contacts with previous and future Presidencies and more intense exchanges at all levels with the EU institutions and with current and new Member States. My Department is also coordinating the logistical aspects of the Presidency, such as the arrangements for meetings in Ireland and liaising with other Departments and relevant authorities such as the Office of Public Works and the Gardai. My Department is also engaged in the design of a special website for the Presidency.
As you will be aware, the European Convention is close to concluding its work. A great deal of positive work has been done. The Government has engaged actively and energetically throughout the process and has put forward many constructive ideas and suggestions that have been taken up in the current draft.
The new Constitutional Treaty will be much clearer and more comprehensible than the existing Treaties. It will set out clearly what the European Union is and what it does. It will simplify decision-making and make it clearer where responsibility lies. It will enhance the role of national parliaments and will strengthen the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. While any Treaty will need a certain level of complexity to ensure its legal standing, I believe that much has been done to ensure that the work of the Union is more comprehensible and legible and that the new Treaty will go a long way towards meeting the goal of bringing the Union closer to its citizens.
Before completion, however, much work still remains to be done. The Convention will meet again this week to try and conclude its final report. This will then be presented to the European Council in Thessalonica next week.
I very much hope that the Convention will succeed in reaching a broad consensus, including in regard to sensitive institutional issues on which Ireland is prepared to be flexible as long as the key principles of equality and balance are respected. It will then be necessary to fully and carefully consider the outcome of the Convention in the IGC. In particular, there are areas, for example in Part III of the Treaty dealing with the Policies of the Union, that the Convention has not been able to look at in sufficient detail that will need to be considered carefully.
The European Council will discuss the final report and will take the decision to convene an Intergovernmental Conference. The IGC is likely to begin its work in the Autumn. The length of time that it will need to complete its work is not yet clear and will obviously be determined in large part by the level of agreement reached at the Convention. It cannot, of course, be ruled out that the natural pace of the IGC will take it into Ireland's EU Presidency. If that is the case, we will be honoured to take the work forward, and if necessary, conclude it.
In the past year, enhanced arrangements for the review of draft legislative proposals emanating from the European Commission were introduced and placed on a statutory footing in the European Union (Scrutiny) Act in October, 2002.
Over the past eleven months Ministers have submitted explanatory Information Notes on over 220 legislative proposals for review by the Oireachtas. The Oireachtas European scrutiny sub-Committee has in turn referred over 60 of these proposals to other Committees for more detailed review. As part of the enhanced Scrutiny arrangements, Ministers also brief Committees in advance of Council meetings.
The new scrutiny arrangements provide members of the Oireachtas with an opportunity to express their views to the Government on EU legislation as negotiations on these proposals proceed in Brussels, increasing the transparency and accountability of the EU legislative process for the Oireachtas and the wider public.
In reviewing the budget for my Department for the year 2003, it is important to consider the proposed expenditure in the context of the Government's economic agenda. We have a small, open economy with a high dependency on foreign trade and inward investment. As advancing Ireland's economic and commercial interests is among my top priorities, I set up a new Bilateral Economic Relations Division in my Department in late 2001 with the aim of improving the contribution which the Department and its Missions overseas make to our economic growth. The Division has responsibility for coordinating cooperation between the Department, its diplomatic missions, and other Departments, semi-State agencies and the business community.
Ireland now has sixty-six Missions, most of which are bilateral. This network is more extensive than the network of overseas offices either of Enterprise Ireland or the IDA and we have to use it to the full. In addition to their normal diplomatic and consular responsibilities, our Missions are measured on the contribution they make to advancing Ireland's economic and commercial interests. This is particularly true of Missions in countries where the semi-State Agencies are not represented. In my experience, the business community is very appreciative of the assistance provided by our Missions, which are very well placed to make contacts and open doors for them as well as idntifying new business opportunities.
The Government welcomes the adoption of the new Security Council Resolution on the issues which need to be addressed in post-war Iraq. The achievement of consensus in the Security Council goes a long way to restoring its unity. We also welcome the fact that the Secretary-General's Special Representative has been given a clearer mandate. The effective implementation of this mandate will be important in winning international acceptance of the legitimacy of Iraq's future political structures. We also welcome the fact that the Resolution lays emphasis on the processes required to bring representative government to Iraq as quickly as possible.
Ireland=s membership of the United Nations has always been a defining element of our foreign policy. This has been evident in our continuous participation since 1958 in UN peacekeeping operations and in our high profile in disarmament, development and human rights issues.
Recently our role at the UN has been enhanced by our term on the Security Council, which concluded at the end of last year.
As a member of the Security Council, Ireland worked hard to achieve practical outcomes on the wide range of issues on the Council=s agenda. The framework for our contribution was our abiding belief in the primary role of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security. Ireland asserted this belief throughout our term and put it into practical effect. Across the range of issues, Ireland gave primacy to addressing humanitarian concerns, such as in mitigating the adverse effects of sanctions regimes on civilian populations. We also stressed the need to respect human rights and frequently and publicly asserted that they must not be undermined or diminished in the global struggle against terrorism.
Our experience of service on the Council has been of great value in preparing for our conduct of the EU Presidency next year. The European Union, with the acceding and associated states, now forms a large and cohesive bloc in the UN General Assembly, and its positions influence many more member states. During our Presidency we will act as the focal point of this bloc. Ireland will also be the voice of the Union on issues of international peace and security discussed in the open sessions of the Security Council.
Disarmament and Non-Proliferation:
Ireland has always been active in disarmament and non-proliferation efforts in particular with regard to Weapons of Mass Destruction. I therefore welcomed the initiative of the Swedish Foreign Minister in March to raise the profile of the issue in the EU context and I participated in the discussion on the matter at the April Council. The conclusions of that meeting instructed the High Representative to continue work on this issue, with a view to making concrete proposals for submission to the European Council in June. Ireland continues to be engaged in the elaboration of such proposals.
The transatlantic relationship is of the most fundamental mutual importance to the EU and the US, both economically and politically. Recent events, and in particular the Iraq crisis, have revealed deep fault lines in the transatlantic relationship and within the EU itself on how the relationship should be developed in the future. It is important that we begin to repair the current divisions, as it is clear that a strong EU-US partnership is an important element in bringing about solutions to many of the challenges facing the international community today. The success in bringing peace and stability to the Balkans is a clear example of the benefits of this partnership and it must be maintained and strengthened if we are to deal effectively with the threat of international terrorism as well as help to bring peace to the Middle East through the Quartet Road Map.
For these reasons, EU-US relations will be of high priority during our EU Presidency in the first half of 2004 when there is likely to be an EU-US Summit, possibly in Ireland.
Ireland continues to play a positive and constructive role in the evolution of European Security and Defence Policy.
Ireland has also worked to highlight the primary role of the United Nations Security Council for the maintenance of peace and security. We have sought a balanced development between the military and non-military aspects of crisis management. This will also be the case as the Union enters a more operational phase, taking on responsibility for crisis management operations.
Progress is also being made in the Union's civilian crisis management capabilities which are being developed across the four priority areas addressed at the 2000 Feira European Council – policing, rule of law, civilian administration and civil protection. In the policing area, a number of Garda Síochána, drawn from the pool of personnel available for international police missions abroad, are currently serving with the EU Police Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Conflict prevention is also at the core of the Union's approach. Ireland has worked to ensure that this centrally important dimension to European Security and Defence Policy is given prominence.
Overall, Ireland and our EU Partners must address the challenge of ensuring that the Union makes an effective contribution for a stable Europe and a more secure and just world. I look forward to seeing further progress being made, including during Ireland's Presidency of the EU in first six months of next year.