Statement by Minister Cowen on Outcome of Informal European Council, 16 April 2003
Together with the Taoiseach, I attended the informal meeting of the European Council in Athens held on 16 April. We were accompanied by the Minister of State for European Affairs, Dick Roche. I would like to pay tribute to the Greek Presidency for its excellent organisation of the Informal European Council, the ceremony for the Signature of the Accession Treaty and the European Conference that followed.
The Declarations adopted by the European Council on 16 April and by the European Conference held on 17 April have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas as has the Presidency Statement on Iraq.
The Greek Presidency set the date of 16 April for the signature of the Treaty of Accession for the ten accession countries. The ceremony, which took place under the Acropolis, marked a true milestone in European history.
Earlier in the day, the informal meeting of the European Council adopted the Athens Declaration, restating the principles on which the European Union is founded. These principles are freedom, democracy and the rule of law, respect for human dignity, liberty and human rights and a Union devoted to the practice of tolerance, justice and solidarity. The Declaration was a useful reminder of what the European Union stands for.
The signing of the Accession Treaty marked the end of a long and bleak chapter in European history. It acknowledged that countries that had been artificially cut off from mainstream Europe had earned the right to membership of the Union based on the principles on which the Union is founded. It reaffirmed, once again, the value and success of the European Union.
Once they have completed their respective ratification procedures, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia are set to become members of the European Union from 1 May next year. These countries attended the informal European Council on 16 April and henceforth, until the date of their accession, they will attend all EU meetings as observers.
The outcomes of the referendums held to date have been very positive. Already three countries, Hungary, Malta and Slovenia, have voted for membership. This represents a strong vote in favour of the European Union by their people.
I very much welcome that our new partners will take their rightful place in the European Union. I am particularly pleased that it will fall to Ireland, as Presidency, to mark their entry as full members next year. This will be an honour and a privilege.
Accession negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania meanwhile continue and I look forward to progressing them during our Presidency. The European Council meeting in December 2004 will consider whether negotiations can open with Turkey.
The informal European Council meeting focussed on the work of the European Convention.
The European Union must be seen by our citizens to work. That is why the work of the Convention, and the Intergovermental Conference that will follow, is so important. It is why the Government is taking the work of the Convention so seriously.
Prior to the European Council meeting, a group of seventeen current and future Member States met. The meeting was hosted by Prime Minister Verhofstadt of Belgium in the absence of the current President of the Benelux, Prime Minister Juncker of Luxembourg. Ireland was represented by Minister for Europe, Dick Roche. The meeting was a follow-on from one which the Taoiseach and I attended in Luxembourg on 1 April.
The seventeen countries agreed a number of fundamental principles which we want to see reflected in the outcome of the Convention. These principles draw largely on the Benelux memorandum of last December and on a paper drawn up over recent months by many like-minded states at the Convention, in the drafting of which Ireland played a major role.
The group of seventeen set out their strong support for a European Union that will work in the future at least as effectively and democratically as in the past.
The principles that we reconfirmed are the need to ensure the equality of Member States and to retain the balance between the institutions, without creating new institutions. At the European Council meeting we set out our views as to how these principles could be preserved and strengthened. While there are some differences among us on points of detail, we shared a wish to see:
The strengthening of the Community method and of the Commission;
A more open and transparent process of election for the Commission President;
The retention of the formula agreed at Nice, especially the requirement for equality as between Member States, for the membership of the Commission; and
A single external relations representative, with Council and Commission membership.
The President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, addressed the members of the European Council at the outset of the meeting. His presentation focussed on the work of the Convention from the point of view of the European Parliament.
An exchange with the President of the European Convention, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing followed.
President Giscard outlined his plans for the European Convention and the drafting of the Constitutional Treaty. He confirmed that he would present the final report of the Convention to the European Council in Thessaloniki, Greece, on 20 June.
The session with President Giscard focused on key institutional issues. Prime Minister Juncker of Luxembourg spoke on behalf of all who attended the breakfast meeting earlier. He set out the principles which we want to see reflected in the outcome of the Convention.
Along with very many others, the Taoiseach underlined Ireland's support for these principles. He said, as did others, that he hoped as much consensus as possible would be reached. But where this was not possible, the Convention should set out options.
Those of us who wish to see a strengthening of the Community method are aware that there are other points of view. These points of view were also put at our meeting in Athens.
It is important that due weight and attention are given to all perspectives by President Giscard and by the Convention's Praesidium, in particular to the strong message conveyed by the group of 17. We will continue our efforts along with others, therefore, to ensure that the fundamental principles on which the Union is founded, and on which the Union's success has been built, are reflected in the text that will be presented to us next month.
As the Convention enters the final and decisive phase in its work, intensive work is continuing across the range of issues it is addressing. Next week's Plenary session will debate the vital issues of the Union's institutional arrangements, foreign policy and defence. The Government's representative at the Convention has submitted extensive proposals in response to texts published by the Praesidium in these areas. We will continue to work extremely closely with like-minded countries – and, of course, our allies vary from issue to issue – to ensure that the outcome of the Convention is a balanced and appropriate one.
On 17 April a meeting of the enlarged European Conference, which took the “New Neighbours” initiative as its theme, was held in Athens. Ireland was represented by the Minister for European Affairs, Dick Roche. That meeting involved all the countries associated with the New Neighbours initiative both from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Member States, the candidate and accession countries and Russia also attended. In all, there were 40 countries at the Conference.
The European Conference recognised that the countries and peoples of Europe have come a long way towards forging a community of values based on democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. It underlined the importance of preventing and combating common security threats, including organised and transnational crime, trafficking in human beings, terrorism and communicable diseases. This is an initiative that Ireland welcomes.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, addressed the European Conference on the subject of Iraq. The Presidency had earlier issued a statement which set out the European Union's views on the responsibilities of the coalition, the opportunities presented to the people of Iraq and the contribution which the international community can make to the process of shaping the future of Iraq. The European Union reaffirmed its commitment to the need for the United Nations to play a central role in that process, and its own commitment to play a significant role in the political and economic reconstruction of that country.
The Taoiseach and I had a bilateral meeting with Kofi Annan on 16th April. During the meeting the Taoiseach underlined the principles on which our policy is based. We agreed that the first concern must be the well-being of the Iraqi people. They have suffered greatly and deserve a better future. The Taoiseach assured the Secretary General of Ireland's readiness to assist.
On 16 April Minister of State Tom Kitt provided the Dáil with a comprehensive statement of our efforts to assist the humanitarian situation in Iraq. There is no need, therefore, to go into detail now. I will say only that as regards the longer term reconstruction and administration of Iraq, the precise nature and timing of UN involvement is a matter which must be considered by the Security Council and other competent UN organs. The Government's concern is that the needs and interests of the Iraqi people must be paramount.
As the European Union undertakes its largest expansion ever and as it prepares for the future we must ensure that the Union will work and that it will work well. The enlarged Union of the future must work at least as effectively and democratically as it has in the past.
This will require give and take by everyone. The European Union has a track record of success. What we will all have to do is enhance our own long-term national interests, as well as the interests of the Union, by crafting compromises and structures that will ensure that the European Union continues to succeed. In this context the outcome of the European Convention and the Intergovernmental Conference will be of the greatest importance for Europe and for Ireland.
I can assure you that the Government will grasp the opportunity of enlargement to deepen our national engagement with the European Union.
Finally, in the margins of the Informal European Council the Taoiseach and I met Prime Minister Blair and Foreign Secretary Straw. We discussed developments in the peace process at that time.