Meeting of the National Forum on Europe: Comments by Minister Cowen: Part 1
Members of the Forum, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure for me to be here with you this morning to discuss the reports of the Convention Working Groups on External Action and on Defence. The Government remains committed to a broad-based national debate on all aspects of Ireland's relationship with the European Union, including the Convention on the Future of Europe, and the National Forum on Europe has a key role to play in this regard.
There is a growing level of public awareness and interest in the issues under discussion at the Convention, and the questions of external relations and defence are no exception. Today's session on these two important aspects of the Convention's work is a timely and constructive contribution to the ongoing debate in Ireland on our place in Europe, and I welcome the opportunity it affords me to hear your views this morning.
We are meeting today against the backdrop of the current situation in Iraq. Tomorrow the UN weapons inspectors will deliver a further report to the Security Council in New York. It will be for the Security Council to determine on the basis of this report what further steps are necessary. The differences within the EU on Iraq have exposed weaknesses in the Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy, making clear the need to find ways to strengthen the EU's efforts on the world stage. This is one of the reasons why the Convention is examining the Union's external relations, including security and defence issues. A number of proposals have been made, and I will address some of them in my remarks this morning. However, let me first say that the key ingredient necessary for an effective external policy for the Union is political will – political will to reach agreed positions on international issues, and political will to implement them.
The EU is uniquely placed, as a community of values and common interests, to play a significant role for international peace, stability and progress. It has a unique range of instruments at its disposal, from trade to aid, to political and diplomatic relations across the globe, through to developing conflict prevention and crisis management tools through its European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).
We need to find better ways to use this range of tools more effectively so that the Union can deliver a clearer message on the world stage. We also need to find the political will necessary to achieve the Union's undoubted potential in this respect. These are the twin challenges that we must address in the Convention and elsewhere when considering the Union's external relations.
As members are aware, the Convention reports on External Action and on Defence have been formally submitted to the Convention. The Praesidium of the Convention has begun to draft Treaty clauses based on these and other Working Group reports. The Plenary has already considered the first set of draft Treaty clauses, and will meet again in two weeks time to consider a further tranche. I understand that the issues of external action and defence will come up for consideration towards the end of next month and into May.
The External Action Working Group was asked to examine ways to bring greater coherence, effectiveness and visibility to the EU's external relations, including its development cooperation programme, trade policy and the CFSP. The Government was represented on the Group and, along with other members, played an active role in its deliberations. I am particularly glad to see John Cushnahan here today who was also a member of the External Action Group and who will share his views with us in a few minutes.
The report represents, in my view, a good basis on which to take forward discussion in the Convention on the external relations of the European Union. It proposes a text of suggested Principles and Objectives for the EU's external action that would set out the fundamental bases for the Union's external relations for both the citizens of the Member States as well as the wider international community. Drawing on existing Treaty provisions, the text reflects clear commitments to conflict prevention, the promotion of democracy and rule of law, development cooperation, sustainable development, environmental protection and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Ireland took a lead with others in successfully promoting a high priority in particular for the UN Charter, human rights, development cooperation and conflict prevention in this text.
If we are to translate these commitments into action, we need to ensure our institutions are up to the challenges facing us. Our key concerns must be to bring about greater coherence between the different areas of the Union's action and to raise its profile and influence on the world stage by enabling it to deliver a clear message, where possible, through a single spokesperson.
There are good arguments for combining, or ‘double-hatting', in one person the positions of High Representative for the CFSP and the External Relations Commissioner, currently held by Javier Solana and Chris Patten respectively. I believe that, while maintaining the appropriate lines of accountability in respect of both aspects of the post, this proposal has the potential to bring greater coherence and effectiveness to the Union's external relations.
A number of our Partners also support this proposal, although the detail of how it might work has yet to be clarified. For example, I would be hesitant about suggestions that the double-hat wearer should chair the External Relations Council on the grounds that this could represent too great a concentration of responsibility in one person. We have argued that the democratic accountability of the High Representative's actions is best guaranteed by the Member States continuing to chair the Council.
We have also suggested a substantial increase in the resources and support available to the High Representative and the creation of ‘Deputy or Alternate Representative' posts with responsibility for particular regions and for the ESDP on the grounds that the double-hat proposal would create a significant burden of responsibility for one person. I am pleased that these ideas have received widespread endorsement in the Convention and elsewhere.
Other proposals for change include the establishment of a separate External Relations Council and the restoration of a stand-alone post of Secretary General of the Council, a position currently held by Javier Solana. These proposals aim to enhance the way the Council functions and, I believe, they can be welcomed.
Of course, some of these proposals have a bearing on the wider institutional structure of the Union and cannot be considered in isolation. In this connection, a number of Member States, including France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Italy and the UK, support the establishment of a new position of permanent President of the European Council. A number of questions remain to be clarified. How would it affect the rotating Presidency? What would be the relationship with the proposed Double-Hatted High Representative? The Government remains to be convinced by this proposal and, along with other Member States, will continue to seek answers to these important questions.
The recommendation to confer a single legal personality on the Union should simplify the way the Union negotiates and concludes international agreements, subject to continuing control by the Council of Ministers.
The Working Group also looked at the question of decision making in the CFSP. Some have argued that, in an enlarged Union of 25, more decisions should be taken by QMV. Certainly, there is a need to consider very carefully how to improve the workings of the Union at 25. While it is important that the Union is able to take the necessary decisions to enable it to respond effectively to the challenges facing us in the years ahead, we should also bear in mind the strength which the CFSP derives from representing the views of all the Member States. This is an issue that needs further consideration. We will also need to consider carefully proposals to extend the use of QMV in the trade policy area.
In addition to these other issues, the Working Group also considered development cooperation. The Convention's handling of development issues is a matter of considerable importance in my view. The European Union is a major player in the development sphere. It is the source of more than half of the public aid efforts worldwide and is the main trading partner for many developing countries. It also has long-term relations and close political and historic ties with many developing countries. Brought together, the EU has tremendous potential for being a strong force for good in the world.