Annual Address by Minister Cowen to the I.E.A. Part 1
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is always a pleasure to come to the Institute of European Affairs, and to speak to such a committed and well-informed audience about Ireland and the Union. Before I speak about the eventful year just past, and about the exciting challenges which lie ahead, I should note that it has been a time of change for the Institute too.
I want to pay tribute to Joe Brosnan for the career of outstanding public service, in Dublin and Brussels, which so aptly led him here. His contribution to the Institute and to debate on Europe has been characteristic of the man: understated in style, deeply effective in substance. I would also welcome his successor, who needs no introduction from me. Over the years Alan Dukes has been both a worthy adversary in domestic politics and a valuable ally on European issues, and I am delighted that his great gifts and experience will be put to such excellent use here.
2002 was a dramatic year, with two particular highlights. The emphatic decision of the people to ratify the Treaty of Nice, after a gruelling, but deeply valuable, national debate, was vitally important, both for Ireland and for Europe. And it helped to pave the way for the historic agreement on enlargement at Copenhagen last month.
Europe - Boldness and Ambition
Since its foundation, the Union has been prepared to take brave steps into uncharted territory. Every enlargement, every new initiative, every change in emphasis or new departure in the Union's history has required a measure of boldness and ambition.
It took vision and imagination to look at the wreckage of Europe after the Second World War and, in place of a continent brought low, see a future of peace and partnership together.
It has taken generosity and confidence to recognise that each wave of enlargement would not dilute the benefits of membership, but bring greater prosperity and stability to ever increasing numbers of Europeans.
With every step we have embraced challenge and opportunity together. Through a willingness to adapt to meet new circumstances, we have enabled ourselves to build success upon success.
The same convictions and principles should guide us forward now.
Ireland has benefited in a profound way from our membership of the Union. As the Union has changed and grown, so too has Ireland.
We have always kept the bigger picture in firm view when defending our interests in Europe. In engaging with the myriad tasks to which membership gives rise, we have always been able to recall the fundamental truth - what is good for Europe has also been good for Ireland. In the second Nice referendum, the people responded very positively to that message.
Europe - Meeting the Challenges
Together, we are about to embark on a new journey of change.
The historic import of enlargement cannot be overstated. Decades of division in Europe will be at an end. For the first time in their history, the peoples of Europe, from our Atlantic islands to the borders of Russia, will have decided to come together in a Union built on foundations of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
But while we are doing our best to prepare, in truth nobody can predict with absolute certainty what all the effects will be. A Union of 25 Member States - and later 27 and more - will be very different from a Union of 15. Past experience suggests that this change should be overwhelmingly for the better. The coupling of the enthusiasm of the new members with the experience of the old will rejuvenate the Union and bring a new momentum to our work.
It will also test the strength of institutions which were created in very different circumstances. We must ensure that they are ready for what lies ahead.
In addressing the future, we must also acknowledge that the world beyond our borders is changing too.
A new international landscape is emerging at the beginning of the 21st century. The United States is now the sole superpower, with a self-confidence commensurate with that status. Russia is refashioning itself and redefining its global role; China's integration with the international economy is a powerful catalyst for change.
These changes are taking place against a backdrop of increased uncertainty in the world. Globalism is creating new winners and losers; terrorism is creating new vulnerabilities. Never has the interdependence of peoples and countries been more obvious. There is greater understanding that if one of us is not secure, none of us is secure. There is a fuller acceptance of the absolute need to advance peace, development and democracy throughout the world.
As these profound shifts occur, it is essential that Europe re-assess its role. Economically, at the European Council in Lisbon in Spring 2000 the EU set itself the goal of becoming by 2010 the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. Securing the balance between competitiveness and quality of life is what people want and expect from the Union. The scale of the challenge has been made powerfully clear in the annual Commission report on the Lisbon process. We are working to meet this target against a background of increased globalisation and ever keener competition for trade and investment. Politically, the Union should be a driving force for conflict resolution, third world development and human rights.
In the world of the early twenty-first century, it is clear that just as Ireland must not stand alone, Europe cannot stand alone either.
Change in Europe. Challenge in the wider world. This is the backdrop against which the European Convention is meeting.
At the European Council meeting at Laeken in December 2001, EU leaders recognised that Europe was at a crossroads. It established a Convention to look at the important questions we face - how the EU should organise itself to be effective; what should its role in the world be; how can it better connect with its citizens. These are the right questions to ask. Our own national Forum has identified four broadly similar clusters of issues as being of key concern: the balances between Member States; governance; legitimacy, accountability and transparency; and concerns over sovereignty and sensitive policy areas.
The Convention is a new but extremely important way of doing business in Europe. It is more open, more fluid. In ways it is more unpredictable. The Treaties require that final decisions be taken in an Intergovernmental Conference, but it is clear that the Convention is aiming to reach a consensus, to bring forward a solid set of proposals for consideration by the IGC. It will be highly influential. That is why we are working to ensure that Ireland's essential values and interests are reflected in the Convention's outcome.
Since it began meeting a little under a year ago, Ireland has been an energetic and active participant, all the more so as the pace of the Convention itself has quickened. Initially, Ray MacSharry and now Minister of State for Europe Dick Roche, TD, John Bruton, TD, Proinsias de Rossa, MEP, and their alternates, Pat Carey, TD, John Gormley, TD, and Bobby Mc Donagh of my own Department, are all playing their parts.
The broad lines of the Government=s approach are clear and simple. We believe that Europe is successful because it has been built on solid foundations:
- a balanced institutional framework in which the interests and equality of all are protected, allowing the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts;
- a recognition that, while the nation state remains the basic building block of the Union, there are many areas where, in pooling sovereignty, we can achieve substantially more together;
- a commitment to the principle of solidarity that has created a tide to lift all boats ; and
- a willingness to match the drive for economic competitiveness with measures to enhance social cohesion
These are principles we need to protect, in a flexible way, as we move forward.
We also know all too well from our own experience that there is a job to be done if the citizens of Europe are to feel greater ownership of what is being done in their name. This is a democratic imperative.
But increasing a sense of identification with Europe is also critical to the ongoing success of the Union. Building the EU has required the positive commitment of its people. Sustaining it will require their continuing support.
People in Ireland have all benefited directly from our membership, yet too often the stories we hear about Europe are negative ones. People have a lot going on in their lives. The European Union is very complex. It is difficult to find time to get to grips with how it works and what it does. All of us need to find better ways of making it more legible and accessible. We need to make it easier for individuals to connect.
These are the challenges the Convention must tackle.
In setting out our detailed view on the issues it is considering, I would like to begin with the question of what the basic elements of a new Constitutional Treaty should be. I will then move on to how the institutions should be prepared for the challenges ahead and, finally, to questions of what the Union does and what it ought to be doing.
Simplification - Making Europe more Accessible and Effective
Any organisation must operate by a set of rules. While legal text sometimes has to be complex, these rules should be set out as simply as possible. The European Union - or rather the Union and the Communities - currently operates under a complex and often arcane series of Treaties, amended and altered over time.
Therefore, I very much welcome the proposal brought forward by the Convention's Praesidium for the creation of a single legal personality for the Union, paving the way for a single Treaty with a clear structure.
As to how it should be described, I personally think that it would be foolish to become too dogmatic. It will be a new 'Treaty' to replace existing ones. As it will set out the basic values, objectives and procedures of the Union, the Praesidium's description of it as a 'Constitutional Treaty' is reasonable. If some choose to call it a 'Constitution', then so be it. This should not become a subject of great concern or controversy. Whatever it is called, it will not alter the nature of the Union as a partnership of sovereign Member States who, by agreement, have pooled some of their powers in specific areas. Nor will it affect the status within Ireland of our own Constitution.
I also support proposals to bring greater clarity to the question of competence. People need to see in broad terms who does what, and at what level.
Flowing from the simplification of the Treaties, it makes perfect sense to examine the range of instruments and procedures and to see where these, too, can be simplified. I therefore warmly welcome the proposals from the Simplification Working Group that the number of legal instruments be sharply reduced. Of course, I could not support the removal of necessary distinctions solely in the name of simplification.
Likewise, the procedure whereby Council of Ministers decisions are taken by Qualified Majority Vote is and will continue to be the norm in most areas of the Union=s work. Over successive negotiations, we have supported its extension to policy areas where it can help to increase the effectiveness of decision-making. This will be of increasing importance in an enlarged Union.
As the Taoiseach indicated at Nice, we were prepared to move to QMV in substantially more than the thirty areas which were finally agreed there. Any perception of Ireland as inflexible in these matters is simply not borne out by the facts. That said, we are firmly of the view that there is a limited number of areas of such particular sensitivity to Member States that, if decisions of the Union are to have legitimacy with its citizens, unanimity must continue to apply. This is the case with taxation policy. I do not intend to repeat today what has been said so clearly and forcefully by the Taoiseach and other colleagues on many occasions. But I reiterate that our position is well-founded and that it remains firm. No convincing economic case has been made for the necessity of tax harmonisation, and indeed there are strong reasons for saying that the global competitiveness of the Union benefits from a healthy internal diversity in national economic policies.
The continuing need for unanimity also applies to some aspects of Justice and Home Affairs, and to some decisions that fall to be taken in the area of foreign policy. The Irish people also have particular concerns in relation to the retention of national control over our participation in the ESDP area.
Ratification and Duration of new Treaty
When it comes to ratification of any new Treaty, I believe it should be undertaken by all Member States together. The success of the Union is, in no small part, a reflection of its ability to achieve a sense of common purpose and commitment among all of its Member States. In moving forward, we should continue to do so together.
I also very much share President Giscard's view that a new Treaty should be capable of standing the test of time, lasting a generation or more. Constant revisiting and amendment of the Treaties has had an unsettling effect. Taking further treaty change off the table for decades to come will allow us to focus on what really matters, working within the structures of the Union to maximise opportunities and benefits for our people.
Charter of Fundamental Rights
The Government fully supported the promulgation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights as a political declaration in Nice in 2000. The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is entirely appropriate that these values and their implications be set out in a clear, comprehensive and comprehensible way.
The question being asked at the Convention is whether we should now incorporate the Charter in the new Treaty - the fundamental law of the Union. It is clear that there is very strong support for this.
In reaching a view, we should be clear about what the Charter is, and what it is not, intended to be. The Charter is addressed to the institutions of the Union, and to the Member States only when they are implementing Union law. It is not intended as a vehicle to extend Union competence into areas where it currently does not have the authority to act.
The Charter includes so-called >horizontal= clauses which delimit its scope and application. At the Convention, Ireland and the UK have worked hard together to bring greater clarity to these clauses to make them as legally water tight as possible. We are now examining carefully the implications of incorporation in light of the significant progress made.
Like the UK, we would not support incorporation in a manner which would increase EU competence over national legislation or over socio-economic decisions which are for Governments to make. It is also important that, where Irish citizens currently enjoy a higher standard of protection under our Constitution, this would continue to apply.
However, in reaching a final decision, we will be pragmatic, reasonable and anxious to achieve consensus. We will also carefully bear in mind the expectation citizens now rightly have that institutions - whether it be their own Government or the European Union - should be held to account for how they protect and vindicate fundamental rights. The highest standards should explicitly apply to both the EU and its Member States.