“The European Convention: Real Problems, Real Solutions”: Speech by Minister Cowen, Part 2
Before going into specifics, I want to indicate the fundamental criteria by which Ireland will judge whatever proposals emerge at the Convention. They are effectiveness and equality.
The two criteria are interrelated. It may be possible – although this is certainly debatable – to have efficiency without equality, but it is certainly not possible to have effectiveness. The success of the Union is based on the knowledge that it has developed over time as a synthesis of the common interest and the specific national interests of the Member States. The most effective institutions are those that are seen to operate openly and fairly, that command trust and loyalty, and that serve the interests of all the stake-holders.
What does effectiveness mean in practice? In my view, it requires an equilibrium between the three institutions, with each operating to their strengths. If we approach this as a zero-sum game between the institutions, we are condemned to endless sterile debate. I want a strong Commission, a strong Council and a strong Parliament. If each is strengthened to roughly the same degree, then the inter-institutional balance will be preserved. Conversely, if the power of one institution is strengthened to the detriment of another, the fragile balance will be upset and the machinery is likely to malfunction.
Ireland has never been among those who see Union business through the prism of large state/small state relations. We have solid friendships with partners across the board, and we belong to different coalitions on different issues.
However, population size is clearly a factor which cannot be ignored. It is reflected in the make up of the European Parliament; it was recognised in the arrangement of two Commissioners per large member state which was “traded-in” at Nice for a rebalancing of Council votes. But the success of the whole EU experiment, with all its novel and unique characteristics, rests on genuine respect for our fundamental equality as independent Member States. It is on that basis that our citizens have had the confidence to pool sovereignty. Any settlement which was felt to erode this fundamental fairness and equity would not have a chance of acceptance.
Is it realistic to think of each of the three institutions being strengthened? I think it is. I want to focus in particular this morning on the Commission and the Council. Because the strengthening of the European Parliament is not in doubt. We have seen the progressive enhancement of its role through successive Treaties. Aside from any additional powers it may acquire in the new Treaty, Parliament's likely role in the appointment of the President of the European Commission will buttress its position in the institutional architecture.
As to the Commission, how do we see it being strengthened? As a traditional supporter of the Commission, Ireland will strongly defend it against any encroachment on its existing powers. The election of the Commission President will also in our view enhance the authority and democratic legitimacy of the office holder, and thereby reinforce the status of the Commission overall.
At the Convention, we have proposed an electoral college involving both national Parliaments and the European Parliament. We are also open to election by the European Parliament, provided that safeguards are in place to guarantee broad acceptability to the member states.
The Irish public has a strong sense of the importance of the Commission as a guarantor of fair play and of the common interest. In the two referendums on Nice, many voters were concerned about a future in which not every Commission would contain an Irish nominee. It is not that Commissioners act as national representatives, but that there is around the table a fair appreciation of the concerns of individual Member States. However, people were reassured by the provision in Nice for guaranteed equality between Member States in regard to future Commission membership. It ensures equality of access to and ownership of the Commission. Guaranteed equality into the future, in relation both to the membership and operation of the Commission, is extremely important for Ireland, and I believe for most other Member States, present and future. In the same sense, I do not believe that selection of the Commission – which is, after all, a college, and not akin to a national government – should rest solely with its President.
There is an ongoing discussion about the optimum size of the Commission. The fact that this issue was discussed in-depth in the lead-up to Nice, and that a settlement was reached there as part of a wider compromise, has not deterred those who would wish to reopen the issue.
I would question the thesis that the effectiveness of the Commission is necessarily in inverse ratio to its size. It is certainly not a logic that is applied in all of the national governments of the member states. Given the breadth and complexity of the Commission's responsibilities, the argument that there are substantive portfolios only for a very reduced number of Commissioners is surely not proven.
A larger and more representative Commission brings more breadth of experience and more expertise around the table. This can help to reinforce the trust of the member states in it.
In debating the size of the Commission – and we are ready to listen as well as to make our own arguments – I would repeat that the test of equality is one on which we will insist. Any other approach would renege on one of the essential bargains struck at Nice and would undermine the trust and confidence on which the effectiveness of the Commission so crucially depends.
As for the Council, how will its role be strengthened? Further extension of QMV – which, as I said, we favour with a small number of exceptions in key areas – will help efficiency of decision making. The debate, however, has very largely centred on how the Presidency of the Council is to operate, and whether changes in this area might strengthen the Council role.
I accept that the current system of rotation will require some adaptation. The concern about discontinuity in a Union of twenty five or more is a legitimate one. But let us start from realities, not caricatures. Rotation is not a kind of accidental leftover from a smaller and simpler Union. It is not a “feel-good factor” for member states whose national confidence needs a boost. The rotating Presidency has endured for 50 years, through successive enlargements, because of what it has brought in terms of ownership, vitality, renewal and solid achievement. And there is the added benefit that its automaticity avoids a diversion of energies into campaigning for office.
Second, let us not forget that there have been serious efforts in recent times to bring greater continuity and coherence, including through longer-term multi-Presidency planning and co-operation between Presidencies, and the systematic preparation of Councils. This would be further reinforced by establishing a full-time Secretary-General post, which will be a consequence of double-hatting the High Representative. The Secretary-General would be important as a source of expert and authoritative guidance and assistance to the Presidency.
Accepting, however, the need for some change, we should look for ways in which the essence of rotation would be retained, but in which continuity was enhanced and burdens shared. One option which has been floated is the team Presidency concept. While this idea has attractions, and I remain interested in it, we would need to be sure that in its operation it would not lead to practical difficulties in coordination and clarity of focus. In addition to team Presidencies, therefore, I think we also need to explore other possible adaptations of the current system.
A further argument which is sometimes made against the rotating Presidency is the concern about fractured external identity. I think we can exaggerate the problems of finding a phone number for Washington or Moscow to call. I accept that there is an issue about building personal relationships between principals. But the key capitals are already familiar with how the Union functions. Ensuring a hearing for the Presidency is largely in our own hands – the degree to which we respect the Presidency role internally will define the degree of respect it is accorded externally.
An alternative and more radical design has an appointed President of the European Council at the apex. I recognise that this model has important support, particularly but not exclusively among the large member states. But there is also a great deal of opposition.
As a practising politician, I have to say I wonder if, for example, a former Prime Minister were to be appointed to the post, he or she would have the political weight and standing necessary to lead serving Heads of State or Government. Under the current system, the President of the European Council has an equal standing among his or her peers.
The job description for such a post also seems to me to be very unclear. How the President would relate to the President of the Commission, or indeed to the High Representative, is potentially problematic. Moreover, there is a genuine concern among most smaller Member States that the President of the European Council would focus disproportionately on maintaining his or her relationships with the leaders of the larger countries.
Perhaps the most fundamental question relates to the rationale for such a post in the present state of development of the CFSP. If, for example, there was a permanent EU seat on the UN Security Council, then one could more readily see the role for an appointed President of the European Council as interlocutor for key capitals. But does anyone have any illusions that we are close to this point today?
So, while recognising that some see attractions in the creation of such a post, I am not at all sure whether these would actually materialise. Those who advocate this major departure from a system which on the whole has worked very well have not to date convinced the majority of members of the Convention or of governments.
My essential point remains that we if we are to find real solutions, we must first be rigorous and searching in our analysis of where the real problems lie. The Convention must avoid the temptation to pursue novelty for its own sake. The Union has weaknesses: but some of these are exaggerated, and some are the flipside of its strengths.
Over the next three months, the Convention has an onerous task ahead of it. I greatly look forward to its production of a balanced text, capable of sustaining real consensus. We will all need some time to consider it, and to present it to our parliaments and people. But the more it reflects agreement among participants in the Convention, the more likely it is to be endorsed without major change by the IGC. It will be a privilege for Ireland to preside over concluding the work of the IGC if its runs into our Presidency next year; but what matters is the substance of the outcome. A new Constitution for a renewed Europe must look to the future without losing sight of the achievements of the past, and it must belong to all of the Union's citizens and of its Member States, in a way which makes sense and is meaningful to its people.