Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, T.D., to the Institute of European Affairs, Dublin, 5th February, 2008
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am grateful to the Institute of European Affairs for the invitation to give the State of the Union address for 2008, a year in which EU affairs take on a particular importance for the Irish people.
Today I want to discuss the Reform Treaty – a Treaty which strengthens, empowers and boosts this country.
Because the bottom line is this:
The challenges facing Irish jobs and Ireland’s environment and Ireland’s competitiveness today are global.
Against climate change, rising energy costs, trans-national crime and global economic downturns our capacity to act – to defend our interest - is minimal alone.
Ireland’s sovereignty, our power, our strength, is, after all, that capacity to act for our people:
-To defend Ireland’s prosperity
-To safeguard Ireland’s environment
-To protect the jobs and their livelihoods which Irish families have worked so hard to build.
And that capacity to act – though minimal alone – is enhanced, is
multiplied, is increased extraordinarily through the unique
partnership that is the European Union:
– the free market,
– the practical co-operation
– and the greater clout on the world stage which membership has given us.
The Reform Treaty increases Ireland’s capacity to act even further.
– It cuts bureaucracy.
– It tackles inefficiency.
– It speeds up decision making.
– Delivering a Union more responsive to our citizens.
– And more answerable to our Oireachtas.
The EU empowers us. The Treaty empowers us further.
We have done well out of the EU. And this Treaty lets us do better.
In short -it enables us to deliver even better outcomes for Irish people.
And that is why the Government will campaign strongly for a “yes” vote.
We firmly believe that the Reform Treaty is the best option for the Union and that it represents a very favorable deal for Ireland, one that we played a major role in shaping.
Our opponents - when you peel back the re-branding, remodelling, refinancing - are the same old groups, the same tired old interests re-telling the same old myths.
The extremes of Irish and European political discourse oppose this Treaty as they have opposed all such treaties for reasons of dogma and narrow self-interest.
It’s a case of same arguments - different Treaty.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The debate on the merits of the Reform Treaty is already under way with some vigour. Last Thursday, at the Forum on Europe, the Taoiseach spoke with passion and conviction about why he believes the Irish people should support the Reform Treaty.
Today, I intend to elaborate further on the case for the Reform Treaty and for Ireland to continue shaping the Europe we live in. I will do so by addressing a number of broad themes which are central to the Treaty and to Ireland’s future.
The first point I want to address is Ireland’s domestic agenda. 2008 marks the thirty-fifth year of Irish membership of the European Union. Throughout the years of our membership, and indeed well before that, we have always seen our future in Europe. We have long believed that a small country like ours is better off working together with others in pursuit of our interests.
The European Union has proven to be an ideal environment for Ireland. We and other smaller countries derive particular benefit from the level playing field provided by the Union in which all countries, large and small, have the same rights and responsibilities.
When opponents of the Treaty express an aversion to “Brussels”, they are missing the key point. “Brussels”, which is used as shorthand for the EU’s institutions, is actually a considerable asset to Ireland. We profit from the stable and predictable economic environment created by the Union, something we have helped to create. This has enabled us to develop and prosper to an extraordinary degree in recent times.
The history of our EU membership vindicates this belief many times over. The transformation of our economy, the transformation of the relationship between the people on this island and the transformation of our sense of our place in the wider world have all gathered momentum during the years of our EU membership. What Ireland needs in the years ahead is a Union that continues to provide the conditions we require in order to consolidate and build upon the great gains we have made. The Reform Treaty provides for that kind of Union.
The EU’s input to Ireland is beyond question. Our economic development would not have happened in the way it has without the stimulus provided by our EU membership. Direct financial and technical assistance has helped modernise our infrastructure. The Common Agricultural Policy has ensured that our farmers received fair prices. The Single Market has provided Irish business with access to a large and lucrative European market. This has created employment at home and has made Ireland an attractive place for investment by foreign companies.
The provisions, principles and values of the European Treaties which have facilitated our political, economic and social development are left in place by the Reform Treaty. The broad institutional balance, which has served Ireland so well, also remains in place. This balance has always allowed us – and other small countries - to have our voice heard and to defend our interests. No one who looks at Ireland’s record as an EU Member State can have any doubt about the value to us of EU membership. In providing for Europe’s further evolution along the path that has been followed for the past 50 years, the Reform Treaty passes a vital Irish test.
Some opponents of the Treaty here in Ireland have argued that a vote against the Treaty will somehow enable us to send out a message that we want the Treaty re-made to our perfect satisfaction. There are two difficulties with this idea.
First, the outcome reached at Lisbon reflects a balance of interests among the 27 Member States. No country got everything it wanted.
Second, and more important from a purely self-interested point of
view, the Treaty represents a very good outcome for Ireland. On
issues of major sensitivity – such as unanimity in the taxation and
defence areas, and the general principle of equality among Member
States – we are fully satisfied with the outcome.
No Irish interest would be served by creating a political crisis in Europe, by turning our backs on a Treaty that was to a considerable extent “made in Ireland” and that responds to our needs and aspirations.
As we face current and future challenges on our domestic front – such as the need to safeguard the livelihoods and quality of life of our citizens – Ireland’s membership of the EU is as vital as ever. Imagine for a second, if we had to face the current uncertainty in the global economy on our own, outside of the European Monetary System?
The second point I want to address is what I will call the democratic agenda. The EU has at times been criticized for being undemocratic and inaccessible. This has always been an unfair accusation as the Union is controlled jointly by its democratically elected governments and by the European Parliament. It is true that the unique intergovernmental character of the Union means that it can sometimes seem removed from its citizens. Its structures are undoubtedly complex, but this is unavoidable as it is required to serve the needs of 27 very different countries.
In the negotiations that led to the Reform Treaty, discussions on how to bring the Union closer to its citizens were to the fore. This is as it should have been, given that the European Council in 2001 listed “more democracy” as one of the core issues to be addressed in negotiating a future Treaty.
The Reform Treaty offers some real gains in this regard. A key section of the Treaty is devoted to setting out the values and democratic principles on which the Union is based. It specifies that the Union is founded on “representative democracy” and makes it clear that “every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union.”
The Treaty contains concrete measures that will enhance democracy within the Union. It strengthens the role of national parliaments by giving them a direct input into European legislation. The provision whereby a sufficient number of national parliaments can object to a particular proposal is a genuine step forward. It will enable national parliaments to ensure that the Union does not exceed its authority.
The Treaty also gives national parliaments a right to veto any
proposal to move issues from unanimity in the European Council or
Council of Ministers to qualified majority voting.
These new powers will enable national parliaments to contribute more fully to the democratic life of the Union. Given that most European citizens still feel most connected to their national parliament, these measures should also help the Union connect more with its citizens.
These steps will serve to encourage better coordination between national parliaments and the EU institutions. They should also provide a stimulus to better coordination between national parliaments on EU issues.
The Treaty will also strengthen democracy at the European level by increasing the number of areas in which the European Parliament will share law-making with the Council of Ministers and also by strengthening the Parliament’s budgetary role.
The citizens’ initiative is a welcome innovation, which promises to give citizens of the Union a more direct say on European matters. This measure has the potential to breathe new life into the democratic functioning of the Union. It will draw EU citizens from different Member States together in pursuit of shared goals.
A central feature of European democracy is the protection of individual rights and freedoms. The Reform Treaty raises the protection of the rights of Europe’s citizens to a new level. It will do so by making the Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding on the Union’s institutions and on the Member States when they are implementing EU law. It will also allow the Union to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights which, together with the European Court of Human Rights, is the foundation stone of human rights protection in Europe.
When I spoke here last year I remarked that, amidst all the institutional arguments about “more Europe” or “less Europe”, what we really need is a “do more” Europe.
This brings me to my third theme, which I will call the Union’s delivery agenda. Understandably this is a theme that will most interest the citizens of Europe and shape their attitude toward the Union. We should not forget what the Union has already delivered. Who could overlook such immense achievements as the single market and the creation of the euro? These could not have come about without past Treaty changes. The Union now needs the Reform Treaty if it is to continue delivering benefits for us.
This delivery agenda was identified as a crucial issue by government representatives in all Member States after the unsuccessful French and Dutch referenda. To his great credit, the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, accepted with some urgency the need for the EU to produce results and to be seen to do so.
The Reform Treaty will help us to realise that kind of Union. It will do so by streamlining the decision-making process within the Union, but in a way that respects the equality of all Member States.
It will also provide for a smaller Commission, while maintaining the equal right of Member States to nominate Commissioners. Opponents of the Treaty would have us believe that Ireland, alone, will no longer be able to nominate a Commissioner for every term. They conveniently – and perhaps not accidentally – fail to mention that all Member States, big and small, face the same situation. On balance, we believe that a smaller Commission can be a more effective body. A leaner Commission will, we believe, be better able to act in the general European interest. This will be of particular value to the smaller Member States.
The recent past has seen the Union deliver genuine, tangible, practical results for us all.
An obvious example is the way in which the Commission, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers succeeded in getting the mobile phone companies to reduce their roaming charges by significant amounts. I understand that Information Commissioner Reding has plans to push for further cost reductions. I wish her well.
Last week’s launch of the single euro payments area by Internal Market Commissioner McCreevy is another practical step. Companies and consumers will now be able to make and receive cross-border transfers on the same terms as domestic transactions, with savings of more than €120 billion expected over the next six years alone.
Last month’s announcement by Health Commissioner Kyprianou that the Union will underwrite 50 per cent of the cost of an early emergency mass vaccination campaign against blue tongue is a further example. The importance of this vaccination campaign to our livestock sector cannot be overstated. Similarly, the Union’s monitoring of avian flu over the past two years has been an invaluable tool for the Irish agricultural sector.
A common feature of these examples is that they represent solutions to common problems that Ireland could not possibly address alone. In each of these areas, cooperation between Member States and the EU institutions is essential. They exemplify the old Irish truism “Ní neart go cur le chéile” or “There is strength in unity.”
However, if we want a Europe of results, the Union has to possess the means to deliver them. This implies that we must have effective EU institutions. The Reform Treaty will create a more effective Union which can and will deliver the results we need.
My fourth theme is the external agenda of the Union. I believe that the Reform Treaty will develop the capacity of the Union to act on the world stage in a manner that is fully in step with Ireland’s values and objectives.
As in past debates in Ireland on EU Treaties, opponents of the Reform Treaty have again chosen to engage in a large degree of misrepresentation of what is actually intended in this area.
This is an area of the utmost sensitivity for Ireland and for our people. It is, therefore, an area to which the Government paid especially close attention in negotiating the Reform Treaty. No Irish Government of which I am a part would put our traditional policy of military neutrality or our sovereign rights on the line.
The Union’s approach in this area is set out clearly in the Treaty which states:
“The Union shall define and pursue common policies and actions…in order to… consolidate and support democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the principles of international law; preserve peace, prevent conflicts and strengthen international security, in accordance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter”.
These principles and objectives are entirely in line with Ireland’s traditions and values. The allegation being made that this Treaty somehow paves the way for a militarised Europe is, quite frankly, well wide of the mark. It is in keeping with past attempts on the part of opponents of our EU membership to demonise the Union by making false charges about Europe’s aspirations. We ought to bear in mind that the Union has been the most effective peace project the world has known. It is hardly credible to argue that it is about to embrace a militarised vision of its future. The Member States, including Ireland, would not recognise such a future.
The words of the Treaty itself are again instructive: “The Union’s actions on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement … democracy, the rule of law, human rights...and the principles of the United Nations Charter.”
The Union’s external role embraces trade, development and diplomatic activities. The European Security and Defence Policy is a further element in fulfilling these objectives. It provides the Union with the capacity to respond to crisis situations such as those that engulfed the Balkans in the 1990s. In the five years since the first ESDP mission was launched in 2003, the Union has conducted over 20 such missions, the great majority being civilian rule of law missions, such as the on-going police mission in Bosnia. Members of the Garda Síochána as well as members of Defence Forces have played a distinguished role in the Union’s missions.
For Ireland, the key point is that participation by Irish soldiers in any peace-keeping mission – whether led by the UN, the EU or others –has always been and will always be a sovereign decision of this State. And the legal requirements of the “triple-lock” of Government decision, Dáil approval and UN authorisation must be respected. Nothing in the Reform Treaty changes this in any way. Nor is there any change in the rule that any one Member State can veto a proposed mission by the EU if it disagrees with it.
Two other key guarantees continue to protect our long-standing policy approach in the security area. First, the Treaty continues to make clear that the policy of the Union in this area “shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States” – in Ireland’s case, our traditional policy of military neutrality, which excludes us from participation in a military alliance. This position was specifically and formally recognised by all Member States in the Seville Declarations of 2002.
Second, the referendum to ratify the Nice Treaty in 2002 inserted a clause into our Constitution – Bunreacht na hÉireann - which prohibits the State from joining any European common defence, even should the European Council agree to do so at some future point. Any change in our position – and nobody is proposing one – could only come about if the Irish people decide so in a referendum. Repeated suggestions to the contrary by the opponents of the Reform Treaty are totally misleading and the Government will challenge them at every opportunity.
Finally, I believe that it is in the Irish electorate’s interests to ratify the Reform Treaty because the Treaty fulfils Ireland’s European agenda - how we wish to see the EU develop.
More than 50 years ago the EU emerged as a guarantor of peace and democracy across the western part of our continent. Forty years after that it gave the same promise to the people who lived under communism. Today, a new set of challenges has emerged across our continent and beyond - arising essentially from the impact of globalisation. Climate change, global market competition, and poverty and disease in the developing world are massive challenges which none of us can hope to deal with alone.
With fifty years of European integration behind us, and with peace and prosperity consolidated among the Member States, it is sometimes a struggle in a world of headline news and media sound bites to find a simple narrative for the continuing development of the EU. I believe these new global challenges give new meaning and a new rationale to the EU.
For Ireland, the EU is our best hope for devising solutions to the daunting transnational challenges posed by globalisation.
It is our best hope to contribute to the establishment of decent global governance standards which can ensure a safe and prosperous world for our children.
It is also our best hope – as a small country – to have our interests taken into account as the international community seeks to find answers to some truly complex questions.
In the coming years, the Union will continue to provide the context for our national progress and development on many fronts. EU countries will continue to take up a huge share of our exports. As in the past, our access to EU markets will continue to act as a powerful driver for investment in the Irish economy. And the EU will continue to give us the opportunity to bring our distinctive outlook on peace and security issues to an important international table. We could scarcely hope to match this international impact if we were not part of the Union.
The Reform Treaty is the next logical step for the EU. It gives the Union the capacity to move forward and to serve the interests of its members in the way that it has done so successfully for more than five decades now.
So many of the issues on our national agenda have major European and global dimensions. The EU can help us to address them. It is, therefore, in our interests to support the Union in this endeavour. It would not make sense for us to turn our backs on Europe by blocking sensible changes to the functioning of the EU.
What possible interest could we have in depriving Europe of the capacity to deal with the economic and political challenges of the coming decades? The answer is none. Our priority must be to nurture and develop the unique contribution that can be made by the European Union. That is why the effective exercise of Irish interests will be best served by the Irish people’s support for the Reform Treaty in the forthcoming referendum.
Thank you for your attention.Top