Annual Address by Minister Cowen to the I.E.A. Part 2
Preparing Europe's Institutions
When the Convention meets next week it will begin to discuss in detail how best to ensure that the institutions are fully ready to meet the challenges ahead. We need to re-examine them in a forward-thinking manner.
It is very much in Ireland's interests that the Union continues to be efficient in its operation, effective in its decision making and balanced in its approach.
We want to see a strengthening and underpinning of each side of the institutional triangle - the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament. We will be imaginative and creative, and will work to build the greatest possible consensus in this area. And we will be open to all reasonable suggestions from others as to how this can be achieved.
Inevitably, there will need to be a degree of compromise if we are to reach an outcome that everyone can endorse.
Already, a number of significant proposals have been brought forward. Before Christmas, the Benelux countries and the Commission submitted substantial papers. We are exploring how we can now build on this work. Next week, the French and German Governments are expected to publish a paper setting out their joint thinking in this area. We will likewise, of course, give this paper most careful study.
On the Commission, we believe strongly that its effectiveness is central to the success of the Union.
We have always supported a strong role for the Commission as the representative of the common interest and as the motor driving the Union's agenda forward. The Commission has also been essential in maintaining equality and fairness.
Within the Convention, there are various proposals being advanced on its size and composition. Some wish to see a new guarantee of one Commissioner per Member State into the long-term future even if this meant accepting a hierarchical arrangement of functions among Commissioners. Others believe that the time has come to reduce radically the number of Commissioners in the interests of efficiency.
I personally do not believe that reduced size and increased efficiency necessarily go hand in hand. I am therefore happy to endorse and support the Benelux paper=s call for a strong Commission Ain accordance with the Nice decisions@. As the Nice Treaty provides, the Commission will, eventually, be reduced in size. However, crucially, Athe equality of all Member States in both its operation and its composition based on the principle of equal rotation@, in the words of the Benelux paper, would be guaranteed in that event. This emphasis on equality - a touchstone for Ireland in relation to the Commission - is particularly important.
The question of how the President of the Commission should be appointed is also a live issue. Some have suggested that allowing the European Parliament elect the President would create greater democratic legitimacy. I see merit in the argument. However, it would be absolutely crucial that the independence of the Commission from partisan political control is properly protected in any such arrangement.
Others, notably Deputy John Bruton, have suggested that a direct election might be held, allowing all EU citizens to play a part. Again, while I can see merit in the suggestion, I do not believe that the necessary European 'body politic' exists to make this a credible democratic exercise at the moment. It may well be that this is an idea ahead of its time.
The Government has put forward an alternative model for consideration. Yesterday, the Government representative to the Convention, Dick Roche,submitted a discussion paper on how the President of the Commission might be chosen by an electoral college, comprising representatives of national parliaments and of the European Parliament. This approach would ensure that democratic legitimacy was derived in a balanced way from both the European and the national levels, and would protect the independence of the office. While this concept has already attracted some favourable interest, it remains to be seen whether we can build the necessary coalition in support of the idea. Our objective is above all to stimulate full debate on all the options.
The proposal that a President of the European Council be appointed has gained some currency, particularly, it is fair to say, among the larger Member States.
It reflects a concern on their part that, on the international stage, the Union is not punching its full weight. Some believe that current arrangements - the rotating Presidency, the fact that different aspects of foreign policy are represented by different figures - tend to diminish the strength and coherence of Europe's voice.
There is also a concern that the internal organisation of the Council is not all that it could be and will be particularly tested with the advent of enlargement.
Those who propose the creation of a post of 'President of the European Council' suggest that it can address both questions. I remain to be convinced.
It is not clear that a lack of coherence on the global stage results from the absence of a single figure head. There is perhaps a confusion between medium and message: if we can agree on what to say, then who says it is an important but secondary issue. The problem is probably more a consequence of the fact that, for most Member States, foreign policy is an area which remains intimately associated with questions of sovereignty and which most citizens wish to see remain at national level. While we cooperate together to the fullest extent possible, it is hard to imagine, for example, those Member States with a permanent seat on the Security Council ceding it to a single representative of the European Union.
Similarly, I am not convinced that internal arrangements will necessarily be improved by the creation of what would, in effect, be a new institution. Indeed, like many others, I would be wary of upsetting the existing careful balance between the Council and the Commission.
There may be better and more appropriate ways through which existing deficiencies can be addressed, and I am happy to explore these.
In the area of CFSP, I am attracted to and am happy to support the proposal that the same person hold both the post of the Council's High Representative - a job currently held by Javier Solana - and the post of External Relations Commissioner - currently held by Chris Patten. While maintaining the appropriate lines of accountability in respect of both aspects of the post, this Adouble-hatting@ should contribute to a greater overall coherence in the projection of the Union's external policy. Recognising that this would create a significant burden of responsibility for one person, Ireland has suggested a substantial increase in the resources and support available to the High Representative and the creation of >Deputy Representative= posts with responsibility for particular regions. We are pleased that this has won wide endorsement. But for reasons of accountability and to avoid too great an accumulation of responsibilities, I would be hesitant about this reinforced High Representative also chairing the External Relations Council.
I believe that greater internal coherence within the Union can also be achieved through a re-examination of how the Presidency of the Council is conducted.
Many take it for granted that in an enlarged Union it will not be possible to maintain largely unchanged the system under which the Presidency is rotated equally among Member States every six months. In saying this - and I do not necessarily dissent from the view - we should not lose sight of the many benefits the current arrangement brings. It is a strong and highly visible expression of equality. It creates a special bond between the European Union and the citizens of the Member State holding the Presidency - it can be a source of national pride. It ensures that new energy is brought to the Union's tasks at regular intervals.
But, at the same time, we must be realistic. We are, therefore, very open to alternative approaches which would protect these valuable attributes, while also ensuring the effective direction of the Union's work. The idea of 'team Presidencies', in which several Member States would share responsibility over a fixed period, clearly has attractions, particularly given the increased work load to which enlargement will give rise.
Other variations are also being proposed at the Convention. Both Benelux and the Commission, for example, though they differ on the detail, have suggested that the Presidencies of certain Councils would continue to be rotated, while the chairs of other Councils would be filled through election or appointment. Again, I see considerable merit in taking these ideas further.
National Parliaments also have a critical role to play. This is most importantly done at home, through holding national governments to account. In the past, our own arrangements in this area fell short, as the Forum and others made clear. We have in the past year moved to fill the gap, by putting in place and on a statutory basis Oireachtas scrutiny arrangements with the capacity to place us at the forefront of European practice. There is now real scope for members of Oireachtas, and through them interest groups and members of the public, to analyse EU legislative proposals and to raise concerns with the Government before the Council of Ministers meets. The scrutiny work being done by Deputy Gay Mitchell and his colleagues in the Joint Committee on European Affairs is already having a significant impact.
But national parliaments can also do more at European level. I strongly support the recommendations made by the relevant Working Groups. I especially welcome and strongly support the proposal that they operate as a watchdog over how the principle of subsidiarity is applied. They could also, as I have said, be involved in selecting the Commission President.