Ireland's View of a new Europe: Speech by Minister Roche, Prague: Part 1
Ireland's view of a new Europe: “ Our desire is to build a better Europe, a more peaceful and prosperous place, a place where democratic principles are espoused and applied, where the rule of law and a respect for fundamental rights is the common norm, a true union of States & Peoples. It is not our aim or our wish to strive for some sort of superpower status for the Union. That status is not and should never be part of Europe's ambition”
I am honoured to have been invited to this most important and valuable meeting. It is a timely occasion, with the Accession of ten new Member States to the European Union approaching fast.
The enlargement of the Union, for many years an aspiration, is about to become a reality.
We in Ireland see this enlargement as one of the most significant changes to the Union since the foundation of the EEC in 1957. It underpins the essential role of the EU in the creation of a greatly extended area of stability, peace, democracy and prosperity in Europe.
In a moment I will set out in broad terms the Irish Government's views on the new Europe, on the policies which an enlarged Union should pursue and on the general ‘shape' of the Union post enlargement.
First, however, I would not like to let this moment pass without making clear to you how much my Government, and the Irish people, look forward to welcoming the Czech Republic into the Union on 1 May 2004 - during our forthcoming EU Presidency.
I had the honour and the privilege of helping to lead the Government's 2002 campaign in favour of the ratification of the Treaty of Nice. It was not a simple task. The Irish people had voted NO to Nice in the Referendum of 2001 and they required a considerable amount of persuading to revise that decision. Happily they did revise that decision and in voting YES last October they allowed the ratification of the Nice Treaty to take place with the result that way was opened for next year's enlargement.
Many factors contributed to changing public opinion. I do not intend to explore these factors here.
There were two aspects of Ireland's relationship with the EU which are of particular interest in the context of this meeting and which were central to the decision which the Irish people took last October.
First, the simple fact that European Union membership has been good for Ireland for thirty years, and will continue to be vital to our prosperity and well-being as a people was re-emphasised.
Second, in our Referendum campaign we were able to demonstrate to the people that there was a clear and necessary connection between Nice and enlargement.
Once the people were convinced of the connection they responded positively and generously. There is a clear national consensus in Ireland in favour of enlargement, and a strong feeling of empathy with the accession countries.
While the people favoured enlargement, are clear as to the benefits of being part of the EU there are questions as to the type of Union we face into the future.
Ireland an example of the positive role of the EU
One of the points made to me in my visits to the EU accession states is the sense that Ireland is seen as an example of the positive role that the EU can play.
Thirty years ago, as Ireland joined the Union, we saw membership as helping to create the conditions for economic growth and social development. We also saw it as being, politically and psychologically, a means of consolidating our freedom, of becoming more confident and more outward-looking.
In pooling some elements of our hard-won national sovereignty with others, we believed that we would in reality have more control over our destiny than we would by standing alone and on the margins. Each of those expectations has been fully realised.
The EU has been a powerful engine of economic and social progress in Ireland. Without Europe, and access to European markets, our phenomenal economic progress would have been unattainable, even unimaginable.
An Ireland outside the EU would be the old Ireland of unemployment and emigration — an Ireland which we have left behind. Instead, more and more of our people are staying or returning to an Ireland renewed and strengthened with the infrastructure and investment which have come about from our membership of the European Union.
European Union membership has been overwhelmingly positive for Ireland, and has played a vital part in raising our standards of living and our quality of life. Since joining the EU, we have been able to attract unprecedented levels of foreign investment. We have been able to create jobs and build prosperity in large part because we have served as a gateway to Europe.
The Structural and Cohesion Funds have been a major force in our development through investments in roads, environmental services, public transport, education, training and the promotion of new industry.
However, our membership of the European Union has been more than an economic project. It has brought about social progress as well. Equal pay and equal opportunity in Ireland owe much to our membership of the European Union. Better conditions of employment, better health and safety regulation, maximum working hours and protection of young workers, equal treatment for men and women in social security payments, maternity leave, and parental leave have all been achieved in collaboration with our European partners. In these many areas the Union accelerated our transition into the modern Ireland we see today.
Socially and politically, our horizons have broadened. In particular, the once troubled relationship between Ireland and Britain has developed through our common membership of the European Union. A new set of links has been created by this common membership and has made an important contribution to the quest for peace on our island.
The Irish people are strongly conscious of all these gains. And given the importance of the Union in our own development, we have been particularly open to the argument that others deserve to be given the same opportunities that we ourselves received a generation earlier.
In addition to enlargement providing access to the opportunities that we have enjoyed when the Irish people went to the polls last year we were conscious that membership of the Union will help strengthen still young democracies, underpinning peace and stability. More states and citizens in the EU, means a bigger market of consumers, greater competition, higher standards of living and new levels of prosperity. Enlargement also extends the area of peace and stability in our continent.
Greater cross-border cooperation helps us to face together much more effectively the enemies we are all vulnerable to individually whether it is international terrorism, drug-trafficking, or cyber crime. The transnational nature of these challenges is best tackled by an integrated transnational approach. The Union provides an ideal context for such an approach.
WHAT SORT OF UNION?
The fundamental issue is, what sort of Union will it be?
For the Irish Government, a basic starting point is that the Union has been, and continues to be, a success story without parallel.
Without question, there is a need for change, to take account of the growth of the Union and of the new internal and external policy challenges we face.
• We need to reform our institutions.
• We need to renew our economic and social policies to make our economies more competitive and dynamic.
• We need to enhance our capacity to develop a genuine area of freedom, security and justice, and
• We need to promote and project the Union's interests and values in the wider world.
But I speak of renewal, not of revolution.
It is timely for the Union to take stock of what it does and whether it is meeting its citizens' expectations.
The Union's progress has not always been matched by improvement in the openness and transparency hallmarks of any modern democratic undertaking.
There is disturbing evidence of a growing gulf between the Community and the citizens of the union. Opinion poll series, notably the Eurobarometer series, show disturbing evidence of that gulf.
That there is a degree of disenchantment should come as no surprise. As we have moved forward, we have added to and amended the founding Treaties signed in Rome in 1957 to the extent that, frankly, they have become an impenetrable thicket for all but the most skilled and expert of readers.
The language of the Treaties and of the legal instruments of the Union often reflects hard won compromise achieved in negotiations, but nuance and balance have not always contributed to comprehensibility. We have developed ways of working that are not the most immediately clear or easily understood. There isn't, for example, a single text that a citizen can consult to understand who does what and at what level.
The result has been the opening of a damaging gap between the Union and its people – a so-called democratic deficit.
This is not an acceptable basis on which to proceed. With any political project, particularly one as unique and ambitious as the European Union, we cannot afford to take our citizens for granted or to leave our people behind.
The Union has sometimes been very poor at articulating its message. The Union's intermediaries have fallen short on occasion.
History has shown a temptation to preach to the converted rather than to convert the unbelievers. The result has been that the political, economic and social benefits of the European Union project have often gone under-reported and under-appreciated.