Annual Address by Minister Cowen to the I.E.A. Part 3
Delivering for our Citizens
With the tasks of building the Single Market and establishing a single currency largely complete, it is timely for the Union to take stock of what it does and whether it is meeting its citizens' expectations.
One thing at the Convention is very striking. There is no serious push to alter the balance and allocation of competence as between the Member States and the Union.
The Convention is, however, looking at the Union=s approach in existing areas to ensure that our policy making is as effective as possible. Inevitably, this discussion has led us to an examination of some sensitive and difficult issues.
In the Amsterdam Treaty, the Union was given some competence in the area of Justice and Home Affairs. The Convention is examining how our action in this area can be made more effective.
The Minister for Justice, including in his speech at Trier in November, has made a valuable contribution to the debate, setting out our thinking on many of the issues involved.
It is clear that the Union, as an open economy and an area of free movement, is subject to new threats and challenges. The battles against trafficking in people and drugs, against fraud and money laundering, against child pornography and terrorism cannot be fought by Member States acting alone. Crime does not recognise borders. We are already working together to better coordinate and reinforce our efforts. It is not a question of whether Europe should have a role, but of how that role can be most effective.
Europol and Eurojust are now operating, the latter in its very early stages. They need to develop to demonstrate their effectiveness and worth. We should allow them to do so before considering some of the more radical proposals being brought forward, including the creation of a European Public Prosecutor.
Some are also proposing a greater harmonisation in the area of criminal law as a way of improving our performance in tackling cross-border crime. However, I am not convinced that harmonisation is necessarily the key to increasing effectiveness. We already have a great many tools at our disposal. To achieve results, we need to maximise the use we make of them. Likewise, there are strong reasons for caution in moving now towards QMV in this area. But we also need to be open to carefully-defined Treaty change where this can be shown to be both strictly necessary and clearly beneficial.
We likewise need to take a more coordinated approach to asylum and immigration matters, based firmly on the principles of the Geneva Convention. In an area of free movement, it makes obvious good sense. The Minister for Justice has already stated his support for a move to decision-making by QMV and I fully support the recommendations of the Convention's Working Group in that regard.
The Convention is also looking at how the Union can best play a role in protecting the safety of its citizens at home and in contributing to the creation of a more stable global environment beyond its borders.
While I do not believe that the time is right to communitise Foreign Policy, I do believe that we can make the present arrangements significantly more practically effective. As I have said earlier, the idea of 'double-hatting' the High Representative and External Relations Commissioner should be pursued. The Irish proposal for a number of deputy Representatives with specific regional or thematic responsibilities, which is attracting significant support, is intended to ensure that the EU relationship with the other regions of the world becomes more intense, more focussed, and more consistent. It is in large part through developing coherent and long-term relationships -with Africa, say, or with Latin America -that the values and objectives the new Treaty will enshrine can, in concrete terms, be given greater and more meaningful practical effect.
Other ideas in the foreign policy area, such as greater cooperation and pooling of resources between diplomatic services, also make good sense.
As you would expect, discussion on defence matters has fully reflected the various policy positions of the different Member States. These are divided into three broad categories: those who want to see the Union develop its own defence capability; those who see their defence interests primarily served by membership of NATO; and those, like Ireland, who are neutral or non-aligned. All of us, however, share an interest in seeing Europe playing an active and principled role on the global stage. Ireland has a distinctive foreign policy approach in many areas, which at the same time does not prevent us from having a fundamental identity of interests with our European partners.
The Convention's Defence Working Group has tried, I believe with some success, to bridge the gap between the diverse positions of the Member States. As the Working Group=s report put it, the aim should be Anot to transform the Union into a military alliance but to provide it with the instruments it needs to defend its objectives and its values and to contribute to peace and stability in the world in conformity with the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law@. The Union should work this common ground.
There are a number of points that I would wish to make at this stage in response to the ideas floated by the Convention's Defence Working Group.
We should update the Petersberg tasks, as recommended by the Group, to meet the challenges of today. The inclusion of such areas as conflict prevention, joint disarmament operations and post-conflict stabilisation is fully consistent with Ireland's approach and traditions.
We should also look positively at the possible inclusion of a 'solidarity' clause in the Treaty. There is no doubt that Europe, like other parts of the world, is having to cope with new threats from terrorist and non-State agencies directed against civilian populations and democratic institutions. The idea therefore that in the event of an emergency the Union would be in a position to mobilise all its assets, and to call on those of its member States, both civilian and military, in order to avert threats to civilian populations, is one that is entirely in keeping with our own traditions. As a people, we have always been generous in terms of money and personnel in assisting civilian populations in need. I recall too, for example, that during the Second World War we sent our fire brigade north of the border to assist in dealing with the impact of bombing raids. In addition to the Defence Working Group, my Swedish and Finnish colleagues have also proposed an initiative along these lines.
On the other hand, on the question of a 'common defence', Ireland's position is crystal clear. Under the Constitution, we cannot enter into an EU common defence arrangement without the consent of the people in a referendum.
Ireland and Europe
No Irish Government could but be aware that at the end of this lengthy process - when the Convention has reported and the IGC has taken its decisions - we will, almost certainly, require the people's approval in a referendum before we can ratify any new Treaty that emerges.
I welcome the 'reality check' this imposes. It obliges the Government to measure proposals against the wishes and aspirations of our people.
I know that the Irish people will continue to play their full part in making their voices heard. Europe is, and always will be, a shared endeavour. It is too important to be left to elites - whether official, academic or political.
The quality of debate on European matters we have had in Ireland in recent years - particularly, it must be acknowledged, since the outcome of the first referendum on Nice - has been substantially higher than before. I pay tribute to the role of this Institute, and particularly to the work of the Forum under Senator Maurice Hayes. I urge all of us in the Oireachtas to redouble our efforts to incorporate EU policy issues into our own national debates.
The Convention is proving to be a valuable marketplace of ideas - some of which are ambitious, others of which are cautious, nearly all of which are at least worthy of serious debate.
The methodology by which the Convention finalises its work will clearly be important. While consensus is obviously difficult to achieve amid so many competing views, a genuine consensus is nevertheless critical to the legitimacy of the outcome.
After the Convention reports to the European Council in June, there should be a period of reflection. The substance of the Convention's outcome will to a considerable extent determine the timing of the IGC's conclusion. If it turns out that this falls in our Presidency, we will be ready to take on the challenge, and I would be delighted were Ireland to have the honour of guiding a new Treaty to completion.
I want to repeat that, over the testing times ahead, the Government will be confident and forward-looking in its approach to the continuing debate, at home and in Europe. Ireland has a lot to contribute and much to gain.
There are some in this country who will, sadly and as in the past, resist any change. But there are many other people of goodwill who are nervous and unsure about the pace of change. I understand their caution. But we should not talk ourselves into an unnecessary negativism.
I believe we have nothing to fear and everything to gain from a renewed Europe. Our partners do not harbour dreams of a 'federal superstate'. Our basic interests and values are widely shared and are not threatened. All of us in the Union should accept that we have a common interest in creating the most democratic, the most efficient, the most effective Union together. Yes, that means substantial change. But, far from fearing change, we should welcome it.
Ireland will not be selfish or negative. We are team-players. We get involved. We have always been able to build alliances necessary to protect both our fundamental interests and those of the Union. Those alliances shift, depending on the issues. For example, on security and defence matters, we have a natural affinity with countries such as Sweden and Finland. Our views on the Commission coincide with those of the Benelux countries. We co-operate with the UK on taxation issues, with France on agriculture. We need to be nimble and flexible in working with others to advance shared interests.
We will not win on all fronts. Nobody will. But if we are positive and constructive - without sacrificing our position on the very small number of bottom line issues for us- we will shape an outcome which both meets our needs and the challenges of the future.
I want to reiterate that Government will continue to keep its eyes on the big picture. Europe is good for Ireland and Ireland is good for Europe. Membership of the Union has transformed our country over thirty years and in the future it will remain essential to our prosperity and to the wellbeing of our people. By sharing sovereignty with others, we have increased our real influence over the trends which shape our world. Of course it is the Irish people's interests and needs which come first with us. But we are stronger, not weaker, if we accept that others too have their legitimate ambitions and requirements.
But if the Union is to remain effective in a changing world, it has to change. It has to become more democratic, more effective and more responsive to its citizens' needs. It has to continue to deliver, for the people of Ireland and the people of Europe. It has to play a greater role in building a new world based on the principles and values we in Europe share.
That is what the current debate is about. There is a mass of detail which will be the subject of intensive negotiation over the months ahead. But we should not lose sight of the wood for the trees. So long as basic principles are respected, so long as the fundamental character of the Union remains intact, we can be, we should be, and we will be open, imaginative and flexible.
In driving forward the agenda for change, and in preparing the EU for the new challenges of this century, the Irish Government will be there, playing a positive, engaged and active part in shaping our shared future together. The Irish people deserve and expect no less.