“The European Convention: Real Problems, Real Solutions”: Speech by Minister Cowen, Part 1
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As we all know, the past few weeks have been turbulent – including for the European Union. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that the future of the Union itself could be a casualty of war in Iraq – or, less melodramatically, that the work of the Convention has become much more difficult.
I am not pessimistic. Of course the Iraq crisis raises major questions, above all about the Common Foreign and Security Policy. But, frankly, these questions are not new, even if they have been put more sharply into focus. Nor should anyone have been in any doubt about the magnitude of the task facing the Convention. The issues it is considering have long been the subject of intense debate and dispute.
So, it was never going to be easy. Indeed, it is timely to be reminded that the debate on the future of the Union is not relevant merely to those in the loop, in Brussels or in capitals. The Union is immensely significant in the real lives of its citizens, and in the world beyond. Its success is founded on its unique legal and institutional architecture. But it also crucially depends on the will and commitment of the Member States and of the people of Europe.
We in Ireland have had recent experience – painful at first, but ultimately very positive – of how vital it is to maintain the connection between the Union and its citizens. Various lessons can be drawn from our two Nice referendums. Even in Ireland, where the Eurobarometer surveys repeatedly demonstrate high levels of general support for the Union, there is widespread public uncertainty. People say they want the Union to do more in some areas – but they are also cautious. They accept that change is inevitable and often desirable: but they want it justified, explained, argued about, honestly and clearly. They are not willing to take anyone's word for it.
Since Nice, we have been continuing, through our National Forum on Europe and our enhanced parliamentary scrutiny arrangements, to encourage public debate on Europe and on the Convention. We are mindful of the eventual necessity of a referendum on a new Constitutional Treaty. But we also believe that our contribution at the Convention itself is stronger, the more firmly it is rooted in an appreciation of the real concerns and priorities of our people.
One of the overriding objectives of the Future of Europe process is – as the Nice Declaration which established it made clear – to bring the Union and its institutions closer to its citizens. This remains critically important, if the final outcome is to be regarded as a success. So far, the Convention has broken new ground. While a definitive verdict will have to await its final report, on a number of key questions it has done more to ventilate issues, and advance consensus, than ever proved possible before.
But even the Convention's greatest supporters could not claim that it has had more than some limited success in generating real debate outside the usual circles. We all hope that its report will form a realistic basis for a Constitutional Treaty agreed by the subsequent IGC. But if it is to do so, it must genuinely reflect the concerns of the peoples of the Member States, current and future, which will be the participants in the IGC – and which will have the task of seeking ratification. I hope that within the Convention a real consensus on all the fundamental points emerges. But if it does not, this should be frankly acknowledged and left for further consideration.
We recognise that the enlargement of the Union, and the changing world beyond, pose real challenges for the Union and its institutions. How successfully the Convention meets these challenges will help to determine the Union's internal effectiveness and external credibility. But the Union's enormous successes, and great strengths, should not be lightly discounted, or regarded as irrelevant to its future.
The Union is complex: sometimes excessively so, but sometimes necessarily. It is not a State, and will not become one: nor is it a classic international organisation. The parallels with the Philadelphia Convention are intriguing but, frankly, much less striking than the contrasts. The world outside is messy and in flux: the Member States are economically, socially, historically, culturally diverse. It is within the Union, and through its unique institutions and processes, that we find collective solutions which resolve differences and respect our diversity. It is in that spirit that we must look for coherent and practical answers to the questions we now face.
Already the Convention has agreed on steps forward which will make a significant contribution towards greater simplicity and clarity. As you know, there is consensus on the creation of a single Constitutional Treaty; on the abolition of the three-pillar structure; on granting the Union legal personality; and on a radical reduction in the number of legal instruments used by the Union. I know that to the public much of this may seem somewhat esoteric: but it should, taken together, help to pave the way to a Union which is genuinely more intelligible and coherent. And we should not forget that debate on each of these issues had, before the Convention, been for many years bogged down in stalemate.
Another important contribution to bringing the Union closer to its citizens would be to say in clearcut terms who does what and at what level. As debate on the draft Articles on competences has shown, this is by no means straightforward. But I continue to believe that it will be possible to produce a text which balances the competing requirements of clarity and legal certainty.
I am glad that it looks increasingly as if it will be possible to incorporate the Charter of Fundamental Rights into the Constitutional Treaty in a manner which does not risk inadvertently creating new competences, or affecting national constitutional and legal arrangements, but which will make clear that all of the Union's activities must be measured against demanding human rights standards.
There is also a broad consensus, which Ireland welcomes, that the standard means of legislating should be co-decision by Parliament and Council, with the Council taking decisions by qualified majority. In most areas, QMV has worked strongly in Ireland's interests by making the Union more efficient and effective. At Nice, we were prepared in a number of areas to move further than could then be agreed.
But there is a very small number of sensitive areas in which we think unanimity remains necessary to protect fundamental interests and to ensure that the Union's decisions are recognised as fully legitimate by our citizens.
As you know, for us and a number of other States taxation policy is one such area. We believe that, on a matter so fundamental to the relationship of the citizen and the State, it would not be acceptable for a Member State to be obliged to implement taxation measures to which both its Government and its people were firmly opposed. Of course, the Union, rightly, already has the capacity, acting unanimously, to harmonise indirect taxes affecting the functioning of the internal market. We do not believe that any convincing case has been made that the harmonisation of direct taxes is economically necessary, or that it would address a real problem. Indeed, in an era of globalisation, an element of tax competition within the Union is important in making it more competitive in the international marketplace. We should not make the mistake of thinking that we have the luxury of engaging in some kind of zero-sum game played out entirely within the boundaries of the Union. This would be detrimental to the entire Union.
Another very sensitive matter within the Convention is, of course, Justice and Home Affairs. Indeed draft Articles are being discussed today. There has been major progress in this area, thanks not least to the important contribution by the Working Group chaired by former Taoiseach John Bruton. There seems to be every likelihood of consensus on extending and streamlining the Union's role in the areas of immigration and asylum, as well as in civil law and the fight against serious cross-border crime. These developments are very positive and I am sure they can win the support of the European public, which recognises this as an area where it makes sense to pool sovereignty and to pool resources. Indeed, in the short period since the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the Union has made major advances, precisely because it is clear that we have a shared and increasing interest in doing so.
While our citizens want to see more achieved, they also recognise that our legal systems and histories are quite distinct, and that the primary responsibility for law and order will rightly remain with national governments. It therefore makes sense for us to move ahead with care, retaining unanimity for a number of fundamentally important aspects of JHA, and ensuring that action at the European level is clearly perceived to be supporting, not cutting across, what is rightly done at national, regional or local level.
While the military conflict in Iraq currently dominates the headlines, much analysis is also devoted to the longer-term implications of the conflict for the future of the United Nations, the transatlantic relationship and the CFSP.
Some commentators see a Europe irretrievably torn asunder. I do not see it that way. I believe that Europe requires a strong and effective United Nations, a close and mutually supportive transatlantic relationship and a coherent and adaptable Common Foreign and Security Policy. These are not mutually exclusive goals but three sides of what should be an unbreakable policy triangle for the Union.
Look at the realities. An international order that lacks universal legitimacy can never be secure. The world needs a United Nations that is capable of maintaining international peace and security. The Iraqi crisis has demonstrated that the Security Council can operate effectively only when the United States and the members of the Union are able and prepared to work together.
The transatlantic relationship is vital to Europe. Each and every country in Europe has its own special relationship with the United States. We share our history and our common values. Our economic relationship is vital, and our shared interests infinitely outweigh any differences.
We must strive to build a transatlantic partnership based on equality and mutual esteem. Such a partnership will be possible only when Europe is capable of speaking with a single voice and acting in a common purpose. We know that in many areas of foreign policy the Union has already been able to define a common position and to act as one.
We do not need enormous institutional change to make the CFSP more effective. We need political will. Let us be honest. That is the key ingredient. The divisions among Union members on Iraq could not have been prevented by different institutions or procedures alone.
There are, nevertheless, practical changes that can be made. Ireland supports the idea of a reinforced and double-hatted High Representative who also has a base in the Commission. The precise nature of the relationships involved has, of course, yet to be worked out. We see the High Representative taking on the principal responsibility for representing the Union in its external contacts.
However, we need to be realistic. One person, however hard working, cannot cover the whole world on his or her own. That is why we have put forward the idea of Alternate or Deputy High Representatives, who would assume day-to-day responsibility for regional areas and for security and defence policy.
For example, I would like to see one of these political level Deputy High Representatives given specific responsibility for the US , operating out of both Washington and Brussels. I am constantly struck, when I meet senior US Congressmen, by their relatively modest awareness of the European Union and its policies. I would like to see a European Union representative who could talk to the Administration and network on Capitol Hill in language that politicians understand.
I am not criticising the efforts of our national Embassies or the Commission's representation, but I believe that we need to establish a political presence in Washington that can foster on the part of the Union as a whole the kind of special relationship with the US that many of us currently enjoy at national level.
We also have to ensure that an enlarged Union can take decisions quickly and effectively. There are possibilities available in the existing Treaties -including constructive abstention, enhanced co-operation, and limited QMV in implementing decisions – which have not been fully utilised up to now. There are those who argue that we should now move to wider use of majority voting. If this is to be contemplated, I think that we will have to look at the safeguards needed. It will also be necessary to respect the special position of security and defence matters.
Finally, on CFSP, we also need to look at how we can ensure greater EU coherence at the United Nations. We must strive to improve still further the degree of coordination and briefing which has been developed over the last couple of years in New York.
I believe that if we take these steps, we can reinforce the key EU policy triangle of the United Nations, the transatlantic relationship and the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The CFSP is a work in progress. It has registered substantial successes in recent years. It can and must continue to develop over time.
The debate on the institutions has not yet been fully joined at the Convention. Papers have been presented and speeches given outlining this or that formula: but there has been no sustained give and take. While it has probably made sense not to tackle these controversial and potentially divisive issues at an early stage in the Convention work, it is essential that they get a full airing in the weeks ahead.
I believe that we should not be alarmed by the variety of opinions which have been expressed. Vigorous and honest debate is positive. It need not and should not lead to polarisation. People are exploring ideas robustly, testing them. I welcome the fact that all contributors to the debate claim to share the same basic objectives and principles, including balance, coherence, and effectiveness. Within the Union, our way of working is to set out our views frankly and to move over time to consensus. We are not engaged in theoretical analysis, but in finding political solutions which balance all our concerns. In that spirit, I believe that the Convention and IGC can succeed in finding answers on the institutions too.
Of course, the IGC would welcome the reassurance that any recommendations from the Convention are genuinely backed by the wider membership rather than reflecting strongly held views within the Praesidium.