26th Amendment of the Constitution Bill: Second Stage Speech by Minister Cowen, Part 1
A Cheann Comhairle
The Treaty of Nice matters. It matters to Ireland. It matters to our partners in the European Union. It matters to the candidate countries.
There are many positive reasons why we should vote Yes. That is why we are seeking, through this Bill, to ask the people to return to the issue.
The Treaty of Nice may be relatively limited in its scope and dry and technical in its details. But it is hugely ambitious in its purpose. If ratified, it will help transform Europe's economic and political landscape, to the advantage of all of us. The Irish people are being asked in this referendum if we wish to assist in this process, or to stand in its way.
Ireland has been a success in the Union. Our membership has been a force for progress, jobs and development. Does it make sense to change tack at this important stage of our national development, and put that at risk? Do we wish Ireland to remain at the heart of the Union, as a fully-engaged and active member, or do we wish to move ourselves to the margins? This is the broad political context in which we must consider the Treaty.
The decision we will make is, therefore, very serious and very real. It will have real consequences for people in Ireland and for people across Europe. Voting Yes to Nice is the right thing to do from a broad European perspective. But it is also the right thing to do from our own national perspective. We are not being asked to choose between our own interests and those of others.
Of course we have a right to make our own choice. But I sincerely believe it would be a major mistake to think that if we vote No things will simply go on as before. Every single person in this country is directly affected by our membership of the European Union, whether as a worker, an employer, a farmer, a trade unionist, a parent, or a consumer. Every part of Ireland is affected. Therefore everyone has a stake in the outcome of the referendum.
I am glad to see that farming representatives, trade unionists, business people such as those at yesterday's Chambers of Commerce meeting in Dublin - are speaking up and making clear that the decision we make on the Treaty of Nice will have a real impact in the real world.
For that reason, the debate must engage not just members of the Oireachtas or the media, but all our citizens. I am glad that public meetings are now being organised throughout the country, by the National Forum on Europe and by other organisations. But I hope discussion will not just be confined to formal settings. It should take place in homes, in shops, in workplaces, in colleges and universities across Ireland.
I hope that it will also be an honest and fair debate, that the facts are laid clearly before the people. The Government has tried to assist this process by preparing an objective and factual White Paper and a short Information Guide which is now being sent to every household. The Referendum Commission will also play its part.
However, we as political leaders bear a particular responsibility. If we are honest, we failed collectively last time to energise and enthuse the public, with a turnout of barely more than a third. Analysis after the event revealed that there were many complaints of confusion and lack of knowledge. Whatever outcome we want to see this time, let us together resolve to do a far better job this time in explaining what is involved and just why it is so important to vote.
Apathy is not just misplaced, it is dangerous. We must strive to ensure that every individual voter sees the referendum as being personally important.
There is an overwhelming national understanding that, over thirty years, our membership of the Union has been good. It has been an essential dynamic by which we have been enabled to grow and to develop.
European Union membership has been a vital factor in our economic success. We have moved from a situation where our national income per head was about 60% of the European average to today, when it comfortably exceeds that average. We have expanded and diversified our trade; we have attracted high levels of foreign direct investment; we have come close to doubling the number of people working in this country. All this has happened in less than half a lifetime.
The direct financial support we have received, and continue to receive, from the Structural and Cohesion Funds has for example been a key factor in building roads, opening factories, and training our workers. The Common Agricultural Policy has developed our farming sector and sustained rural communities in a way which would otherwise have been simply unimaginable. We have seen higher standards across the board in such areas as environmental protection, workplace health and safety, and the protection and promotion of women's equality and workers' rights.
Politically and psychologically, our horizons have broadened, helping us to place our own country's historic issues in a new and wider context. Thirty years ago, we were still deeply marked by the legacy of our long colonial experience. We were politically free, but still economically over- dependent. We had a restricted economy and restricted markets. Europe has changed all that. And the European Union has been a steadfast, and a generous, supporter of the search for peace and reconciliation in Ireland.
The broad picture is clear beyond all doubt. Even most of those opposed to the Treaty of Nice - even those who have opposed every previous Treaty, right back to the time of our first referendum in 1972 - now say that they do not contest our membership of the Union, or its benefits. Indeed they now claim to be so attached to the Union as it is that they reject any change.
There are cynics who would say that our approach to the European Union has been fundamentally about what we can get out of it financially. There are others who say, or who imply, that while we may have done well out of Europe up to now, that is no reason for continued enthusiasm into the future.
I reject such assessments as deeply flawed and shortsighted. Of course, in joining the Union and since, a major theme has been our concern to develop and sustain our own material well-being, and we have done this well.
But back in 1972, and ever since, our membership of the Union has also had a less tangible, but equally important, dimension of idealism. We have been proud to be part of a unique and unprecedentedly successful venture, which has helped to bring peace and stability to a continent which was in history a byword for bloody conflict.
Membership of the European Union has given Ireland a more direct say in the future of our continent, and has offered us new scope to promote our traditional values of international solidarity, justice and peace. It is good for Ireland, for our economy and for our people, that the wider international environment be as stable and as peaceful as possible. It is through the European Union that we have an influence on that environment.
The outcome of all this is that we now have a greater influence over our own destiny than ever before. Working in partnership with others in the Union has helped us fulfil our goals as a nation. We are better able to employ and educate our own people, and to offer them a dignified old age. For me, that is the truest measure of sovereignty. By pooling sovereignty we have enhanced it, not lost it.
The European Economic Community we joined in 1973 has changed a great deal over the years. It has now more Members, and a dozen others in negotiation to join. Its responsibilities and its role in the world are much wider. Throughout this process of change, we have had the self-confidence and the self-belief repeatedly to say Yes to successive Treaties. There have been prophets of doom - many of them are once again on the No side. But time and again they have been proven wrong. The positive and optimistic instincts of the Irish people have been proven right. Expansion, development and change bring opportunities and the prospect of further progress and prosperity.
It would be quite wrong to think that the European Union will become less significant for us in future. On the contrary. Membership of the Single Market will remain crucial in offering opportunities to our own Irish companies, and in attracting foreign investment. Hundreds of thousands of people at work today depend directly or indirectly on that investment, and will continue to do so into the future . EU membership has been a key strategic element in this, as those responsible for industrial promotion have made clear. There are very many areas - from environmental protection, to the fight against cross-border crime, to the management of immigration issues - where the capacity of any one country on its own will become even more limited, and where it is vital that we take collective action as a Union.
Since Europe will be as important for Ireland in the years ahead as it has been up to now, it is crucial that we play a fully-engaged role in every area of Union policy and activity, protecting our interests and trying to shape developments in a positive direction. The chances of our doing so successfully are self-evidently better if we vote Yes rather than No in this referendum. If we are to exercise influence, if we are to maximise our impact, we need to be, and to be seen to be, credible and committed partners: not reluctant or negative, but active and positive.
The next great phase in the European Union's development is enlargement. It is a challenge, and an opportunity, of historic proportions. Since the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s, the democracies of Central and Eastern Europe have placed the highest priority on their accession to the European Union. They see membership as a means of developing their economies and societies, and of ensuring stable, democratic government and respect for human rights. Membership also beckons for Malta and Cyprus.
The positive economic and political effects of enlargement will not just be confined to the new members. On the contrary: an expansion in the zone of prosperity, security and stability across Europe is in all our interests.
It is clear that Ireland in particular has a great deal to gain. We prosper or falter according to the quality and extent of our trade. In relative terms, we trade more than any other EU Member State. More than anybody else, we need stable and prosperous markets for our goods. That is why we have gained from every enlargement in the past. Looking back, there has been a huge development of our trading relationships with Spain and Portugal, and with Austria, Finland and Sweden since their accessions. For instance, our total trade with Spain - at about 3 billion annually - is ten times what it was before Spanish accession less than twenty years ago.
As a developed, competitive, high-tech economy we are better placed than ever before to gain from the next wave of enlargement too. Assured and free access to new markets of over 100 million people will bring substantial opportunities for trade and investment, as numerous Irish companies have already discovered. Only about 3% of our exports currently go to the candidates: there is great potential for improvement.
The greatest fallacy in the whole argument about enlargement is that Ireland loses out as the Union grows larger. Every enlargement has been to our advantage, as the Spanish example shows. Limited markets mean limited opportunities: expanded markets mean expanded opportunities. It is not a question of more meaning less. It is not a zero-sum game. The applicants will win, and Ireland will win too.
I am glad that the National Forum on Europe has confirmed the continuation of a strong national consensus on enlargement, across the political spectrum. I believe that this is shared by the great majority of our people. I do not propose to comment in any detail today on the deeply regrettable attempts which have been made over the summer by some opponents of Nice to whip up fears about the immigration of workers from new Member States. I think the facts, both legal and economic, have been comprehensively and clearly set out, and have put it beyond doubt that such scaremongering is not only distasteful but has no basis in fact. I welcome the fact that others on the No side, including in this House, have distanced themselves from these tactics and I expect that they will be happy to reiterate that in this debate.
It was in June 1993 at Copenhagen that the European Union agreed in principle that it wished to see the countries of Central and Eastern Europe join. Full negotiations have been under way for years. They have been tough and demanding. While the great bulk of the work has been done, some of the hardest issues remain to be settled over the months ahead.
Though there is more to do, the Seville European Council in June of this year confirmed that, if the present rate of progress is maintained, negotiations can be completed with ten countries by the end of this year - at a European Council in Copenhagen, where the journey started nine years ago.
Once the negotiations are completed, it will be for each of the applicant countries to make a final decision on whether to join. If they decide to do so, be in a position to enter the Union during 2004 - probably in the first six months, during our Presidency. By voting yes, by making it possible to stick to this agreed timetable, it is obvious that there will be huge advantages for Ireland's prestige and standing in these countries and in the Union generally.
To have got so far has required enormous effort and sacrifice by the applicants. They now want to see the Union fulfil its side of the bargain. It is not for us to determine the choice which will fall to be made by the people of the applicant countries, but we are in a position to decide whether they will be allowed to make that choice. I know from personal experience how closely and anxiously they are watching.Top