Address by Minister Roche to the Irish Members of the Committee of the Regions - 1
I very much welcome the opportunity to talk to you today on the subject of
the European Convention. The Committee of the Regions has a vital role to
play in trying to ensure that the European Union is as close to its
citizens as possible, and that role is recognized in its observer status at
I know that you are closely monitoring developments at the Convention, and
the paper you recently submitted to the Convention together with the
Association of Irish Regions was a substantial and thoughtful input that
raised many interesting questions.
However, while I'm sure that, through your Committee representatives at the
Convention, you are being kept in touch with developments, I feel it would
be very useful if I went through developments at the Convention and gave
you a flavour of the Government's approach.
I would like first to make clear that the Convention is a matter of the
highest priority for the Government. There is very active involvement at
all levels. The Convention is a standard item for discussion on the agenda
of the Cabinet Committee on Europe. Recently, a substantial portion of a
full day's special Cabinet meeting was given over to a discussion of the
I myself chair a Convention Oversight Group that meets weekly and draws
together senior officials from key Government Departments while the
Government's Alternate Representative, Mr Bobby McDonagh, Director General
of the EU Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs, chairs an
Interdepartmental Group that ensures that all Government Departments are
kept fully informed of all developments at the Convention.
The Government also tries to work as closely as possible with the
Oireachtas members of the Convention. John Bruton, Proinsias de Rossa,
John Gormley and Pat Carey have all played very active roles to date.
Deputy Bruton of course plays a key role as a member of the Convention's
As I said to the European Affairs Committee recently, we all have a shared
interest in putting forward Ireland's case, and to that end, it is in all
of our interests to work together as closely as possible. We seek to meet
as a Group before every Convention session, and my officials in the
Department of Foreign Affairs are available to provide written or oral
briefing if and when requested.
The opportunity to speak with you today is not just welcome; it is also
When the Convention began, its President, Giscard d'Estaing, suggested that
there would be three phases of work ? listening, analysis and drafting. As
the year comes to an end, the Convention is also coming to the end of its
second phase of work. That first listening phase comprised the period from
up to the summer recess. The analysis phase effectively concludes with
next week's session. When the Convention returns in the New Year, it will
move into the drafting phase.
The analysis phase has focussed principally on the ten Working Groups
established after the summer. Eight of these have now formally reported to
the Convention and the remaining two will do so at the final plenary
session of the year next week. I will say a little more about the outcome
of the Working Groups shortly.
I should mention of course that one more Working Group, on the issue of
Social Europe, has also been established following a request from a number
of Convention members. I have been appointed to that Working Group, as
have Deputy Bruton and Proinsias de Rossa MEP. This Group is expected to
conclude its work at the end of January.
A draft of a new Constitutional Treaty has also been produced. The
Convention will start its detailed debate of this early in the New Year.
In just the last fortnight, the Commission has produced an extensive paper
on the future shape of the European Union. Belgium, the Netherlands and
Luxembourg have also put forward a joint paper.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs has issued a statement welcoming the
publication of the Commission and Benelux papers as significant and
important contributions to the work of the Convention.
We have endorsed the Commission's role as set out in the paper as "an
independent institution working for equal treatment between the Member
States and embodying the principles of coherence and concern for the
general interest" and he agreed that any proposed changes should reinforce
the institutional balances, as they exist. We have also expressed a broad
welcome for the Benelux paper and envisaged that there were a number of
areas that the Irish Government could support.
Of course there were some areas in the Commission paper, such as the
suggestion that unanimity could apply for example, only to the most
sensitive areas of defence, where we could not agree. There are issues of
great national importance to all Member States that should remain within
the realm of unanimity. For us taxation is one of those issues.
Notwithstanding this, however, there was much to commend both the Benelux
and Commission papers and we will be studying both very carefully.
The Convention in many ways is an unusual creature. With 105 members and
102 alternates, along with a substantial number of observers, including the
Committee of the Regions, it is a sizeable body. The size of the
Convention means that interventions in plenary are necessarily short. At
the same time, despite the fact that it is large, and unwieldy, it is
engaged in much important work.
The Working Groups are further prime examples of how unusual a body the
Convention is. They were established to help to progress work and to
examine specific issues in greater detail. Selected on the basis of the
personal interests of members of the Convention, they do not necessarily
represent a balance of the Convention membership as a whole. Nonetheless,
much progress was made, and I would like to take the opportunity to set out
some of the results of the Groups.
The Working Group on Subsidiarity examined how this important principle can
be more effectively monitored and applied. It recommended that national
parliaments be given the right to send an "early warning" to the Commission
that a particular proposal did not comply with subsidiarity requirements.
If more than one third of parliaments did so, the Commission would be
obliged to reconsider. The Group also proposed that parliaments have the
right to appeal to the European Court of Justice if they feel their
concerns have not been addressed during the legislative process. We have
been supportive of these proposals that have overlapped to a considerable
extent with the recommendations from another Working Group on National
Enhancing the role of national parliaments in EU affairs is an area in
which the Government has taken a keen interest. The Working Group stressed
the role national parliaments have to play in effective scrutiny of EU
business. In this regard, I believe that the arrangements we in Ireland now
put in place are amongst the best in Europe. The Group on national
parliaments also brought forward the simple yet useful proposal that there
should be an EU week during which parliaments across the EU would
simultaneously debate European issues. This is a suggestion that could, in
a meaningful way, bring Europe closer to its people.
The Working Group on the sensitive question of the Charter of Fundamental
Rights, of which Bobby McDonagh was a member, did important and productive
work in proposing amendments to the Charter's so-called "horizontal"
provisions that would delimit its scope and application with greater
certainty. There are complex and delicate issues involved which merit the
closest and most careful consideration. If the Charter is to be made
legally binding, as many at the Convention propose, it is vital that we
have teased out fully all of the possible Constitutional implications
involved before any decisions are taken.
The group on Legal Personality examined one of those legally technical and
apparently dry issues the Convention is looking at. The question of whether
the European Union should have a legal personality and, if so, whether that
personality should be merged with those of the Communities is not likely to
seize the imagination of the public. However, the Working Group's
recommendations - which favoured a single personality - open the door to
developments that should help to make the Union more intelligible to its
citizens. It would allow the removal of the distinction between the "
Communities" and the "Union", paving the way for a single, comprehensive
Treaty. This is the basis on which the Praesidium sketched out its
preliminary draft at the end of October.
There are, of course, a great many other possible consequences of such a
decision - including issues such as the external representation of the
Union and, with the likely removal of the so-called "pillar" structure, the
need to maintain distinctive procedures in the different policy areas.
These need to be looked at carefully. However, broadly speaking, anything
that makes the Union more accessible should be welcome.
Another working group examined the question of complementary competences
(which, I am pleased to report, it suggested be renamed "supporting
measures"). In my view, the title 'supporting measures' more accurately
captures what is involved. Complementary competence exists in areas where
the Union does not have competence, but can only act in support of the
Member States. It covers areas including education, culture and public
health, which are properly matters for Member States. The Group proposed
greater definition of the various types of competence that exist in the