Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern TD at the Launch of the Nice Treaty Referendum Campaign
Today, the ninth of May, is Europe day and it is very appropriate that on it we are beginning this important referendum campaign. Today, across the European Union, people remember its founding fathers, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet. We salute their simple, yet profound, vision of achieving peace, justice and prosperity in Europe through partnership. Schuman and Monnet rightly saw that by working together we, the peoples of Europe, could ensure that never again would our continent be ravaged by war. I share this vision, and it enjoys the strong support of the Irish people. Working together in the European Union has transformed the countries of Western Europe from rivals and enemies to partners and friends.
On Thursday 7 June we in Ireland will have a unique chance to endorse the Treaty of Nice, and to make it clear that we stand ready to welcome up to twelve new members. Ireland is the only Member State of the European Union in which a referendum is needed to ratify the Treaty, and I am proud that the Irish people will enjoy the democratic opportunity to have their say. I am confident that they will say "Yes" to the Treaty of Nice, just as they have said "Yes" to Europe on four previous occasions.
Ireland today enjoys a level of development unknown to previous generations. So many of the positive changes and new opportunities we now see can be traced to our decision to join the EEC back in 1973. It was a turning point in our history. Since then we have become an outward-looking, self-confident country and a proud and committed member of the EU. We hold our own, and we play our part in Europe and in the wider world, as never before.
The transformation of our economy owes a great deal to the opportunities created by the Single Market and to our intelligent use of the funds received from the Union. Our agricultural sector has been sustained and supported by the Common Agricultural Policy. The European Union has promoted equality and protected the rights of working men and women. It has supported the achievement of peace and reconciliation in Ireland.
The Treaty of Nice is about enlarging and extending the European Union, and about giving to others the same chance to develop fully that was given to us thirty years ago. Ever since the collapse of communism, entry to the EU has been a primary objective of the countries of central and Eastern Europe. They see EU membership as creating a framework to secure peace and prosperity, and to achieve the economic and social benefits of participation in the Union's programmes and policies. The representatives of those countries here today know this far better than any of the rest of us. That is why their Governments have welcomed the Nice Treaty and are pressing for its early ratification.
And let me say how pleased I am that we have with us some citizens of the applicant countries. On June 7th many Irish people who go to vote will be people, like me, who grew up all too aware of the shadow of the Iron curtain and of the reality of a divided Europe. Great European cities like Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest seemed remote from us, almost part of another world. In the past decade, we have been rediscovering old links and creating new ones. Now on June 7th, we in Ireland have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to demonstrate how much we value the new friendship and co-operation which are replacing the divisions and the ignorance which separated us for too long.
Enlargement will serve us all. It will be good for Europe. It will be good for Ireland. And it will be good for the applicant countries who will benefit as democracy, stability and prosperity spread right across the continent.
An enlarged EU will open up for Ireland a huge and free market of over 500 million people. This is one of the largest and wealthiest markets in the world. This will happen at a time when Irish business is better placed than ever before to invest and trade overseas. Already, for example, Irish investment in Poland exceeds one billion euro and this overseas investment is good both for jobs here at home as well as for jobs in the countries where the investments are made.
Clearly, though, moving from fifteen to a possible twenty-seven member states requires the European Union to make some changes in the way it is organised. I believe that the Nice Treaty puts the EU's house in order for the entry of more members, without altering in any way the Union's basic character or undermining Ireland's place within it. The balances between the member states, large and small, and within and among the institutions - the Council, the Commission, the Parliament and the Court - will be substantially the same in the future as in the past.
Ireland will continue to be represented in the institutions at a level considerably greater than our population alone would imply. We will continue to be able to determine our own policies on key issues such as tax. We will continue, as part of the European Union, to have far more influence over our destiny in the world than we would on our own.
I welcome the lively debate on Nice which has already begun, though quite a number of the things that have been said about it bear little or no relationship to reality.
The Irish people will be well able to see what this Treaty involves, despite the allegations that it is in some way "beyond" ordinary people. They know well that it means that we are opening the door to EU membership for the countries of Eastern Europe. Despite what they hear, they will see that the Treaty of Nice will not create a two-tier Europe. It will not create a European army. It will not create a federal European super-state. It has nothing to do with our policies on moral or family issues.
On the contrary, people will recognise that this Treaty is about offering a hand of friendship and opportunity to some of the oldest and greatest European nations and about Ireland using her influence to the good in a changing Europe. I believe that the people will not be swayed by unfounded fears or reckless claims - many of which have been made before by the long-standing opponents of Irish membership of the EU and have time and again been proved to be false.
If you believe, like I do, and as do the great majority of the Irish people - 75% according to a recent Eurobarometer poll - that the European Union has been good for Ireland up to now, then there is nothing in Nice which should change your mind.
There will be many opportunities over the coming month to discuss the detail of this or that point. But I very much hope that the referendum campaign will be marked by generosity, honesty, and confidence.
I believe that we will be generous in recognising the legitimate ambitions of our future EU partners to take their places alongside us.
I believe that that Irish people will recognise that in all honesty the Nice Treaty represents the best and fairest deal which could be achieved between the fifteen countries which negotiated it.
I believe that the Irish people will remain confident in our demonstrated ability, as a mature sovereign state, to thrive in Europe.
In conclusion, and before handing over to my colleague, Minister of State Liz O'Donnell, I want to say once again that I look forward to the referendum, and that I have every confidence that the people will, on the basis of an informed debate, see that it is right to vote yes to Nice, in the interests of Ireland and of Europe.