Address by the Tánaiste to UCC Law Students, 7 February 1997
Address by the Tánaiste to UCC Law Students, 7 February 1997
Reflections on Ireland's EU Presidency
1 July 1996 - 31 December 1996
On assuming the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July, I commented that ‘a daunting task' lay ahead. On reflection this was a gross understatement! Over the course of the Presidency Ireland's responsibilities included inter alia chairing over 1500 meetings in Brussels, hosting over one hundred meetings and seminars in Ireland, including seven Ministerial-level Council meetings, a special meeting of the European Council in October and most importantly a formal meeting of the European Council in December last. In addition, Irish Ministers and officials represented the European Union in international fora worldwide.
However, these are merely some of the facts and the figures - the "nuts and bolts" as it were, of running a Presidency. The ultimate task for any Presidency is not to hold a record number of meetings - by itself that would be of no inherent merit. No, the challenge which faced us was rather to use the opportunity afforded to us by the Presidency to significantly advance the Union's agenda in an effective, efficient and impartial way.
Being a smaller Member State "ups the ante" because the glare of scrutiny is all the more intense. My own, personal, priority as we set out on this enterprise was to show our EU partners - and the world at large - that Ireland could do it. Was it Virgil who said nemo judex in causa sua - "no one is a just judge of his own cause". All the same, the case can reasonably be advanced that Ireland's Presidency went very well.
At the outset we published our Presidency Programme in a document which was widely disseminated both in Ireland and throughout the EU. I believe that we achieved the vast bulk of our aims, surpassed them in some areas, and helped to determine the paths which the Union will follow over the coming years. The Conclusions of the Dublin European Council detail many of these achievements - incidentally, these Conclusions have been published on the Internet.
I should now like to focus on a number of issues that were particularly important for us.
The duty of any Presidency, as far as Economic and Monetary Union is concerned, is to make sure that the Union takes whatever steps are required during the six months to ensure continued smooth progress towards the Third Stage of EMU and the Single Currency. In our case that meant three particular issues had to be settled.
First of all, agreement had to be reached on how to treat participants which departed from the strict fiscal criteria which are required to maintain convergence in EMU. This was very important particularly for Germany. There are understandable concerns among the German people at the prospect of giving up the Deutschmark, and their government needs to be able to point to stringent rules which would ensure that the euro would be a strong currency like the Deutschmark and that the value of their savings will be maintained in the new currency. Other member States considered the German approach unnecessarily restrictive.
A compromise was eventually reached following an all-night session by Finance Ministers in Dublin Castle, chaired by Ruairí Quinn. Finance Ministers are not used to all-night sessions, unlike Agriculture and Fisheries Ministers. I am not sure if this factor contributed to the agreement! In any event, one was reached which the Heads of Government were able to endorse on the spot.
Also, agreement was reached during the Irish Presidency on arrangements to govern the relationship between the euro and the "pre-ins". The arrangement will be "hub-and-spokes" rather than a grid, as at present. In other words, the waiting currencies will have a rate against the euro only, and not against each other.
Another very important achievement was agreement on the terms of legislation for the introduction of the euro. This is also vital for confidence because it affects such practical matters as continuity of contracts, and rounding. We were also very pleased to be able to show the winning designs for the new banknotes to the public. Even though they will not be in circulation for another five years or so, they made the Single Currency much more of a reality for people.
It is important to remember that the financial markets are now betting on EMU taking place on time. Failure to reach agreement on any of these issues would have created doubt and would have been punished severely by the markets. Also, failure would redound on the Presidency, even though it might not necessarily be the Presidency's fault. We were therefore continually conscious of the size of the stakes involved.
Unemployment is a grave concern in most Member States. In the EU as a whole, 18 million people are unemployed, or 10.9% of the workforce. I make no apology whatever for ensuring that during our Presidency the question of employment remained at the top of the EU agenda and led to the adoption at the European Council of the Dublin Declaration on Employment.
There were two broad aspects to the aproach to unemployment, reflected in the Declaration. One was to rededicate the EU and its member States to creating the conditions which will lead to job creation: completing the internal market, a pro-active approach to the labour market, fiscal discipline, which will keep interest rates low and encourage investment, and other measures to ensure competitiveness and a job-friendly environment. The other aspect was a commitment to special efforts to assist groups especially hard-hit by unemployment: school-leavers, especially those leaving without qualifications, unemployed women, and the long-term unemployed. It is easy to get left behind, as we know in this country, by rapid economic development and change. It is not in anybody's interest to have large groups of people become confirmed in the despair and demoralisation of long-term unemployment. Active measures to bring people into the work force are necessary.
If the European Union's commitment to economic and social cohesion means anything, it is essential to keep pressure on as regards unemployment, and the Irish Presidency was determined to do this.
Preparation for the future enlargement of the Union to include Cyprus and the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe was an important priority of our Presidency. The Dublin European Council in December confirmed the timetable for the opening of accession negotiations, six months after the conclusion of the IGC, taking its results into account. The Commission will ensure that its Opinions on the membership applications as well as the other reports on enlargement requested of it at Madrid, will be available immediately after the conclusion of the IGC.
One of the most challenging tasks of our Presidency was the chairing of the Intergovernmental Conference. An Intergovernmental Conference, or IGC, is a Conference of the Member States convened specifically for the purpose of amending the Treaties establishing the European Union. It is not, of course, a Conference in the usual meaning of the word, but is rather a series of meetings dealing with an evolving agenda over a period of time. The fifteen Member States and the Commission participate in the Conference and any Member State or the Commission may bring forward proposals for Treaty changes which must be agreed unanimously. When the present IGC started in March 1996 under the Italian Presidency it was decided that it should conclude under the Dutch Presidency in June of this year.
On 1 July, Ireland assumed, with its Presidency of the European Union, the task of overseeing these delicate and complex negotiations. The Italian Presidency had helped to lay the foundations for the IGC, by identifying the key issues to be addressed and allowing for an initial exchange of views. The handover from the Italian Presidency to the Irish Presidency marked the appropriate time for the Conference to move from the initial exploratory phase to the phase of substantive negotiation. Meeting in Florence in June 1996 just before the Irish Presidency, the European Council had indicated that it expected at its meeting in Dublin in December to mark decisive progress towards completing the Intergovernmental Conference by the middle of 1997. To that end it requested the Presidency to prepare a "general outline for a draft revision of the Treaties".
We organised the work of the Conference with a view to fulfilling this mandate. From the outset of our Presidency, work concentrated very largely on draft treaty amendments tabled by the Irish Presidency on the issues under consideration. The challenge was to translate general statements of principle into precise treaty language and to move gradually towards agreement by untangling the web of issues under consideration at the Conference. By negotiating on the basis of specific texts, we were able, by a process of "successive approximations" to refine many of the initial drafts into what we called suggested approaches on most of the main areas of work. These suggested approaches were further developed and the final result was "the general outline for a draft revision of the Treaties", which was submitted initially to Foreign Ministers on 6 December and then to the Dublin European Council on 13/14 December. The Irish Presidency's document was accepted by the European Council as a good basis for the final phase of the IGC and should enable it to conclude as planned at Amsterdam in June.
The draft outline Treaty presented by the Presidency could be said to address five main areas:
first, the development of a Union in which people's fundamental rights are fully respected and in which they can live without fear of threats to their personal security. In this regard we have proposed very significantly strengthening the means at the disposal of the Union in the fight against international crime including terrorism, drug-trafficking and offences against children. We have also proposed strengthened provisions in the areas of free movement, asylum and immigration and have suggested an overall target date of 1 January 2001 to complete the establishment of an area of freedom, security and justice in which the free movement of persons would be ensured. As regards respect for fundamental rights we have proposed texts which would reaffirm that the Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. We have made proposals which would allow the Council to take appropriate action to prohibit discrimination on various grounds including sex, race, age and disability. We have also proposed to strengthen the Treaty significantly with a view to ensuring respect for the principle of equality between men and women:
secondly, significantly strengthened Treaty provisions on a number of other issues which affect citizens in their daily lives and how they perceive the Union and its institutions including: employment, environment, consumer protection, transparency and subsidiarity;
thirdly, the development of a coherent, consistent and effective external policy for the Union in all its aspects: the common foreign and security policy including its security and defence dimension, and strengthening the Union's ability to act in external economic relations;
fourthly, ensuring efficient and effective institutions which are visibly democratic and firmly rooted in public acceptance. We have proposed, for example, streamlining of the codecision procedure and that the Parliament should be placed on an equal footing in that procedure.
and fifthly, consideration of how the Treaty should be amended to allow for the development of what has come to be called "flexibility" or "enhanced co-operation" which is certainly one of the most important issues at the Conference.
In almost all cases our proposals were in the form of draft Treaty texts, the exceptions being those areas where we accepted the general view that it would be preferable not to put forward Treaty texts at this stage - notably flexibility and certain sensitive institutional questions such as membership of the Commission, voting weights in the Council and the extension of qualified majority voting. In such cases we have emphasised the importance of the issues and have dealt with them in detail including setting out options with a view to the further work of the Conference.
As Presidency, we attached particular importance to ensuring that the outline draft Treaty is clear and comprehensible to the public. We believe that the outline draft Treaty can play an important role in explaining to people throughout the Union what is at stake.
The outline draft Treaty is, of course, just that - a draft. Member States were not expected to sign up to it in all its details. There are many differences of approach which remain to be resolved. However, the draft outline Treaty was welcomed as a coherent basis for the further negotiations which succeeds in maintaining the level of ambition of the Conference. Negotiations are continuing on the basis of the draft outline Treaty, under the guidance of the Netherlands Presidency. I look forward to agreement at Amsterdam on a Treaty which will equip the Union to address the challenges ahead and to respond to the aspirations of its citizens.
In conclusion, I should like to say that the people of Ireland can justly take pride in the way this country rose to the challenge presented by the EU Presidency. While we had already established a good reputation from having held the Presidency on four previous occasions, we were now dealing with an expanded European Union of fifteen Member States. The range and complexity of issues has greatly expanded and the agenda facing us was heavier than ever before. I should like to avail of this opportunity of thanking all of those involved in the Presidency effort.Top