Statement by the Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, T.D., On the Seville European Council, Dáil Éireann
I attended the European Council in Seville on Friday 21st and Saturday 22nd June. In the period prior to the Council, I had bilateral meetings with Prime Ministers Aznar, Berlusconi, Blair, Lipponen, Persson and Schussel. All of these meetings were of great value in preparing for the European Council. The Minister for Foreign Affairs also had an extensive round of bilateral contacts with his counterparts in the lead?up to Seville.
The European Council was a very substantial success for Ireland and for the European Union. It marked major progress on enlargement and on Justice and Home Affairs issues. It took significant decisions to reform the way the European Council and the Council of Ministers do their business. Greater transparency has been incorporated into the work of the Council of Ministers and the number of Council formations has been reduced. A specific proposal by Ireland to create a Competitiveness Council was also agreed.
In addition, the European Council adopted the Seville Declarations which confirm that the Treaty of Nice poses no threat to our traditional policy of military neutrality. These Declarations bring timely clarity in an area which has frequently been the subject of considerable misunderstanding and misinformation.
The Conclusions of the European Council have been laid before the House. As there is to be a questions and answers session following this statement, I propose to concentrate on the National and European Council Declarations adopted in Seville.
The National Declaration and the Declaration of the European Council have been laid before the House. The Government sought these Declarations in order to make it clear, beyond any doubt, that the Treaty of Nice poses no threat to our traditional policy of military neutrality. The Declarations confirm that this understanding is fully shared by all fifteen member States. The National Declaration reaffirms Irelands continued attachment to its traditional policy of military neutrality and confirms:
that Ireland is not party to any mutual defence commitment;
that we are not party to any plans to develop a European army;
and that we will take our own sovereign decision on whether Irish troops should participate in humanitarian or crisis management tasks mounted by the European Union based on the triple lock of UN endorsement, Government decision and Dáil approval.
The Declaration also makes clear that Ireland will not adopt any decision taken by the European Council to move to a common defence, or ratify any future Treaty which would involve a departure from our traditional policy of military neutrality, unless it has first been approved by the Irish people in a referendum.
The Declaration of the European Council confirms that Irelands policy of military neutrality is in full conformity with the Treaties, including the Treaty of Nice, and that there is no obligation on us arising from the Treaties which would oblige us to depart from that policy.
The Second Report of the National Forum on Europe underlined the importance of the neutrality issue and the desirability for the Government to provide the assurances now contained in the National Declaration. The Forum suggested that confirmation by our EU partners that Irelands neutral status would be fully respected would also be a measure of reassurance. I am very pleased that through the Seville Declarations we have been able to achieve an outcome which fully addresses the issues and concerns highlighted in the Forum Report.
Both of these Declarations have formal status and authority. Should the people decide in a future referendum that the State may ratify the Treaty of Nice, our National Declaration will be associated with Irelands instrument of ratification and it will also be registered at the United Nations.
The Governments priority going to Seville was to secure agreement of partners to the Declarations. Our success on this issue at Seville opened the way to the Government today deciding to hold a second referendum on the Treaty of Nice in the autumn of this year. In consultation with the party Whips, we have agreed to reconvene the Dáil for the first two weeks in September to enable passage of the Referendum Bill and provide for full debate on all of the issues.
The introduction of the Referendum Bill will enable the independent Referendum Commission to be established. There have been complaints in the past that the Referendum Commission has had insufficient time to prepare its information campaigns. The early establishment of the Referendum Commission should ensure that there are no such complaints on this occasion.
The decision to hold another referendum on the Treaty of Nice was not taken lightly. We recognise that there are those who strongly and genuinely believe that the outcome of last years referendum should be accepted as representing the definitive view of the people on the Treaty of Nice. However, for many reasons we do not believe that any responsible Government could let the matter rest there. We made this clear in our Party manifestos before the General Election. And we made this clear in our Agreed Programme for Government. Simply put, the Government cannot take risks about Irelands future.
On assuming office three weeks ago, and in the light of the mandate given to us by the people, the Government made the European Union its number one priority. Since the Government was formed I have begun an intensive series of meetings with my colleagues on the European Council and in the accession countries. These meetings will underpin the Governments commitment to vigorously pursue Irelands interests in the European Union. They will also form part of the preparations for Irelands Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2004.
All of our partners have shown a genuine willingness to help address our concerns and all appreciate the efforts that we are making to try and ensure that the enlargement process is kept on track. To do so we must, of course, ratify the Treaty of Nice. Almost all other member States have now completed their ratification of the Treaty and ratification by all by the end of the year remains our common goal. Without the Treaty of Nice the accession countries will not be able to join the European Union on schedule.
The Treaty of Nice is about the enlargement of the EU. It is important to our partners and it is clearly important to the accession states. But as the debate in this country gathers pace, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from the vital fact that ratification of the Treaty of Nice is also a matter of vital national interest to Ireland. The well?being of our people is inextricably bound up with the continuing success and development of the European Union, and in Ireland remaining at the heart of the Union.
For Ireland to block the Treaty would be damaging to our own interests. It would also be a very serious blow to inflict on countries which have invested years of effort and sacrifice to make themselves ready to take on membership of the Union.
We have helped to build the EU of today. And we want to play no less a part in building the EU of the future.
We are at a defining moment in our relations with the EU. I said at Seville that the forthcoming referendum will be the most important vote that the Irish people have been asked to make since they decided to become part of Europe 30 years ago. In considering how they should vote next Autumn, I am asking people to reflect on all the vital dimensions of our membership of the EU. There will inevitably be points of irritation with the Union, areas where we feel the Union should be doing more, areas where we feel the Union should be doing less. But the Irish people need to weigh up the totality of our relations with the EU and decide where the balance lies.
I believe that looked at and weighed up carefully, there can only be one answer. We stay with the Union all the way. We do what makes most sense. We do what ensures that our national interests are protected. In short, we manage our concerns and issues from a position of full strength and commitment at the heart of the Union. It would indeed be bizarre if we were to decide that there was a better way of managing our economic, social and political interests.
When the next generation look back thirty years from now I hope they will say that our generation saw where the national interest lay and took the right path on Europe.
There have always been negative voices in this country and in other countries about the whole concept of the European Union. Those voices were there before our people decided to join Europe in 1972. Many of the same voices can still be heard today. They have changed tack but their underlying aversion to the EU is still there.
I have no doubt whatsoever that most Irish people support the EU and I hope that they will express this support in the Autumn referendum. If we were complacent or presumptuous the last time out, we must not make the same mistake this time or ever again. There is too much at stake. We must bring the Irish people with us.
There continue to be those who demand that the text of the Treaty be re?opened for further negotiation. This is simply not realistic. To have sought the amendment of a Treaty which was the product of long and difficult negotiations, in which all Member State Governments participated in good faith and in which Ireland's concerns were fully respected, would have been fruitless, counter?productive and disproportionately harmful to our wider interests. There is in any event no certainty that a reopening of the Treaty would work to Ireland's advantage. Would, for instance, the bigger member states feel bound by their agreement to accept equality of representation of all member states on the Commission in any new negotiations?
At the same time, we accept that the outcome of last years referendum revealed significant public concerns about the functioning of the European Union, about Ireland's role within it, and about its future direction. I regret that we have not done a better job in communicating Europe to the Irish people. I believe that we have not facilitated and stimulated sufficient debate on our relations with the Union. All this must now change. All of us on all sides of this House who believe in the fundamental importance of Europe to Ireland must engage on the issues at all levels.
The National Forum on Europe, which I am glad to say has been joined by Fine Gael, has provided a framework for an unprecedented level of debate on European issues. The Government is listening. Both within the Forum and outside it, nationally and within the Union, we are making determined efforts to address the concerns which have been expressed. Indeed the format of our debate here today reflects those efforts. This is the first in a series of measures we are taking to ensure greater Oireachtas scrutiny of European Union issues. From 1 July, an enhanced system of Oireachtas scrutiny will be put in place which will have significant implications for the way we do our European Union business.
Since Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, the positive impact of membership on our national life has been immense. I have no doubt that as we go forward the EU will remain a powerful plus for Ireland. As an active and committed member of the Union, Ireland has played its part in contributing to the consolidation of peace and the development of prosperity in Europe. Membership of the Union has been crucial to the modernisation and transformation of our economy. Hundreds of thousands of Irish jobs depend on it.
As a country which depends on being able to compete internationally, our participation in the Single Market has created a level playing field for Irish companies and has been a key factor in attracting overseas investment. The euro has made it easier to trade and travel throughout Europe, and has kept interest rates at historic lows. The EU structural funds have been vital to the development of our infrastructure and the training of our workforce. The Common Agricultural Policy has helped to modernise agriculture and sustain living standards throughout rural Ireland.
Those opponents of the Treaty, who make much of the power of the large states in the European Union, should cast their minds back to the period before our accession to the European Union. We were over?dependent on the UK economy. We lived and traded in a world where the rules were made by others. We had no place at the table where tariffs were set by our trading partners; we had no voice when decisions affecting our key agricultural and industrial interests were being laid down.
Participation in the EU has been enormously empowering for us as a nation. But it is a power we must use wisely. Using it carelessly or recklessly will lead to its dissipation.
The European Union has also raised social standards in Ireland, for instance through insisting on equality between men and women at work and through its health and safety regulations. The Unions laws, policies and programmes make it simpler and more straightforward for Irish people to live, work or study in the other fourteen member states.
The European Union has also been immensely supportive of the peace process, being far and away the most generous financial contributor to programmes aimed at fostering peace, reconciliation and links between North and South.
The Union is not some remote entity unconnected to Ireland, but a unique collective enterprise in which Ireland is an engaged and valued participant. Irish Ministers and members of the European Parliament work alongside the representatives of the other Member States in deciding upon the laws, policies and programmes of the Union.
Working with our partners, we address issues which are critically important to our people, to our societies and economies, and which can most effectively be tackled together: issues such as international trade policy, climate change and cross?border pollution, terrorism and organised crime, migration and asylum. The Union is also, through its developing Common Foreign and Security Policy, working to promote peace, stability, and human rights throughout the world.
But, while we co?operate and share our sovereignty where it makes sense to do so, each Member State retains essential control over those matters which are fundamentally for decision at national level, such as taxation, education, citizenship, health, culture, policing and justice. The nation state is and will remain the key building block of Europe for the foreseeable future, a fact recognised by all shades of opinion throughout Europe.
We are now at the start of a campaign that will determine Irelands future in Europe for a generation to come. I believe that as the Irish people come to appreciate the enormous significance of their voice in the forthcoming referendum they will wish to emphasise our credentials as a leading and positive voice in Europe and open the road to an expanded EU that offers enormous opportunities to this country.
To conclude, the Seville European Council was a very successful meeting from Irelands point of view and from the point of view of the European Union. Now that it is clear that the Treaty of Nice poses no threat to our traditional policy of military neutrality we can begin to debate the real implications of the Treaty of Nice and our need to ratify it, in order to promote and protect the interests of the Irish people.