The Treaty of Nice: A Clear Choice for Ireland. Remarks by An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, T.D.
With nine days to go until the referendum on the Treaty of Nice, the main arguments on both sides have now been set out. It's vital that the people make up their minds on the basis of the facts, and not on the basis of the misconceptions which, intentionally or unintentionally, are out there. I am aware that there are many members of the public who still have questions they want answered. For that reason, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and I want today to try specifically to answer some of the claims made about Nice made by those calling for a NO vote.
First, I want to repeat once again, the case for the Nice Treaty is very simple and very compelling. It is fundamentally about enlargement. It is intended to prepare the European Union for the admission of twelve new members. It is about giving to others the opportunities that we have made such good use of for thirty years. It is about extending prosperity and strengthening democracy, freedom and the rule of law across Europe. Peace and stability are clearly good for Europe and good for Ireland, both politically and economically.
The Nice Treaty itself makes clear that its purpose is "to complete the process started by the Treaty of Amsterdam of preparing the institutions of the European Union to function in an enlarged Union". All through the negotiations that was what we were doing.
That's how we see Nice. And it's certainly how our EU partners and the accession countries see it. For example, President Havel of the Czech Republic made clear in his Irish Times interview yesterday that he wants to see the Treaty ratified as soon as possible to allow for enlargement. Trade unions and their members in Central and eastern Europe have told the ICTU they want us to vote yes for that reason.
It is simply untrue to say that Nice is not about enlargement, or realistic to say that you're for enlargement but against Nice. In fact the Treaty of Amsterdam contained a protocol explicitly recognising the need for further change in regard to the Commission and the weighting of votes before any enlargement could take place and
requiring more comprehensive reform as soon as more than five new members came in: we now have twelve applicants, many of whom may well come in together, which wasn't envisaged back in 1997.
The ratification of Nice by all the current member states is a necessary step towards enlargement. Let's be clear: if we vote against Nice we will be blocking the enlargement process, and will be seen by everyone to have done so.
Another point made against Nice is that there will be a radical shift in the balance of power between big and smaller member states. That is simply not true. Naturally, as any institution gets bigger – whether it's a GAA club or a residents' association – you need to look at the rules. And of course as you welcome new members your own relative position is slightly lessened. But the changes made in the Nice Treaty are genuinely quite minor.
Of course, big states like France and Germany will continue to play a leading role. But even their relative weight is declining. Together, they have 23% of the total votes in the Council now. That will drop to 17% in an enlarged EU. Our share of the total votes will fall from 3% to 2%, but Ireland will continue to have over twice as many votes in the Council as our population warrants. For the first time, it will be a Treaty requirement that a decision must be supported by a majority of all states, whether big or small. Again, once the EU reaches 27 members not every state will have a
Commissioner all the time. But for the first time Ireland and other small states will in nominating Commissioners be exactly on the same footing as the big countries.
On the so-called loss of the veto, we want and need a Europe which can take decisions. On many issues, it is better to allow decisions by qualified majority voting than to allow one country to block something everyone else wants. The evidence supports this. The decisions necessary to complete the Single Market, which has been so important in our economic growth, would not have been taken if the system of qualified majority voting had not been used. We have been outvoted just seven times in the past five years, while Germany has been outvoted more than fifty times. This shows we are well able to fight our corner and protect our interests against the bigger states. But on certain key issues, like taxation and foreign policy, we will continue to have a veto as a result of our success in protecting our interests during the negotiations at Nice.
Enhanced co-operations, whereby some states can decide to move forward together on certain issues, is subject to ten separate safeguards which ensure it can be used only in limited areas. These exclude the Single Market, and Security and Defence – and it can only be used as a last resort. In any case, it will be open to any state to join in or not as it chooses at any time. There may be cases when we want to, and other times when it suits us not to.
Another argument which has been put forward is that the EU has progressed too far and that it's time to call a halt. This just doesn't make sense. I don't think there's anyone who would argue that the EU as it is now has been bad for Ireland. As I've said, there is nothing in Nice which will cause major changes. So, deciding to protest
against something which is working well for us would simply be irrational. It's true that there will be a further major conference on the future of Europe in 2004. Quite a number of leading politicians, most recently French Prime Minister Jospin, have offered their broad visions of the future. I may not agree with all his views but I certainly endorse his insistence on the continuation of the integrity and independence of the nation states. I'd make a number of points about this evolving debate. First,
everyone has a right to contribute to it. I've already expressed some views of my own. It's noticeable just how different the opinions which have been expressed are and it's far from clear what will eventually be agreed. Secondly, if Nice were really a major turning point, why would it be necessary to hold another Conference so soon? Thirdly, the Minister and I have made clear that we think there should be a major national debate on the future of Europe before the 2004 Conference. We're already working on specific ideas which we hope to discuss in due course with others, but this is quite separate from Nice. And fourthly I expect that there will need to be a further referendum after the 2004 Conference.
The case for the Treaty of Nice IS the case for enlargement and for the further development of the European Union. Those who oppose it are in many cases fundamentally opposed to the EU itself. They lack the self-confidence and the openness which are hallmarks of the modern Ireland and which have evolved and developed during our membership of the EU. In urging a No vote, they are prepared, for the flimsiest of reasons, to derail the enlargement process – a betrayal of our historic duty which others would not accept or understand.
But I have no doubt that the people will see the right way forward and will vote strongly in favour of Nice on June 7th.