The EU Reform Treaty: in Ireland’s Interest. An address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, T.D. delivered at University College Cork on Wednesday, 12 March 2008.
The EU Reform Treaty: in Ireland’s Interest
An address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, T.D. delivered at University College Cork on Wednesday, 12 March 2008.
I am very grateful for your invitation to speak here today about Ireland, the European Union and the Reform Treaty.
With the Irish people soon to give their view on the Treaty, it is appropriate to be in Cork, for it was a citizen of this city, former Taoiseach Jack Lynch, who signed the Treaty of Accession to the European Communities on behalf of Ireland in 1972.
Indeed, the photo of that occasion is one of the most familiar and evocative in modern Irish political history. Mr. Lynch was convinced that membership was essential for Ireland and that we would gain greatly from closer ties with our European neighbours. He captured that sense very well when he said that not being part of Europe would be like "the choice faced by Robinson Crusoe when the ship came to bring him back into the world again."
Thirty-six years later, our world has changed greatly. However, the European Union remains as vital as ever to Ireland. It gives us a platform to develop our economy and to improve the living standards of our citizens. It gives us a place at the table to put forward our views on the important global issues of the day. It gives us the confidence that goes with membership of a group of countries possessing shared aspirations and values, and operating on the basis of mutual respect and the search for compromise and consensus.
Those who surveyed the European Community back in 1972 as we ventured toward accession would hardly recognise today’s Union. The fears expressed at that time turned out to be unfounded. The expectations of those who favoured membership have, on the other hand, been well and truly exceeded. Those who weighed up the prospects of the EEC in 1972 would surely now approve of the way the Union has developed. Membership now embraces almost 500 million people, many of whom were shackled in the communist bloc when Jack Lynch signed the Accession Treaty on Ireland’s behalf.
At its core, the Union was founded to prevent conflict among its Member States and to establish in its place a Union of peace and prosperity.
Almost 58 years later, Robert Schuman’s European project, which has evolved into the European Union, has succeeded beyond all expectations. That Europe is no longer about preventing war among its Member States is living proof of his success.
The quality of life now enjoyed by EU citizens, and the rights and freedoms that are central to our lives, are testament to the power of Schuman’s idea. Today, in Europe, citizens are free to believe and say what they think, to live and travel where they want.
It is less than 20 years since Europe’s totalitarian, communist regimes collapsed. To paraphrase the poet, Robert Lowell, history seems to age faster than we do. But if anyone had talked about such freedoms in 1988 to people in Warsaw, Vilnius or elsewhere in the communist bloc they would have been greeted with scorn and disbelief.
It is worth recalling, too, that the current President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, reached young adulthood while still living under a military dictatorship in Portugal. Such experiences will, I know, be unimaginable to today’s rising generation, but it was not long ago that a very different Europe, a Europe of dictatorship and division looked as if it was permanent and impregnable.
The Europe we live in today is a patchwork of countries living together in a united peace. Europeans of the past could hardly have imagined this prospect. The very best they could have hoped for was a peace based on a precarious balance of powers and mutual threats. Now, for perhaps the first time in the history of Europe, countries are not in conflict with their neighbours.
Much of the credit for this must go to the European Union and to the sense of solidarity it has so painstakingly built between the peoples of Europe and between their political leaders. Today’s Europe has been built step by step. The Reform Treaty represents the next, necessary step in this European process. It has been a successful process and we have a vested interest in its successful continuation.
It was this spirit of solidarity which saw the Union invest in Ireland’s future, including in our peace process. It was this spirit of solidarity which provided immediate and medium-term support for the people of Central and Eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain finally came down. And it is this spirit of solidarity which will be essential for all Europeans as we seek to meet the challenges of this unfolding century.
It is 35 years since Ireland joined the European Union. Since that time, we have made enormous political, economic and social progress. In so many ways, our country has been transformed during those eventful years.
Our earlier modest ambitions have been replaced by bigger and more daring goals. This is palpable in the growth in entrepreneurship and in the confident optimism of our young people. Our economy has developed to a level unthinkable to even the most optimistic of the earlier generations who worked so hard to lay the foundations for a better Ireland. And our social policies much better reflect the needs and aspirations of a vibrant twenty-first century society.
This progress has not been without its difficulties, of course. Many tough decisions had to be taken and these did not come without a cost. However, we have shown a capacity to deal with new challenges and to turn them to our advantage. Similarly, the Union as a whole has learned to embrace change and to create opportunities that work to everyone’s advantage.
It is important to remember this as we now face important new challenges. The prospect of change can be intimidating, even to the point of stopping us from taking the necessary decisions that will enable us to thrive and prosper. Indeed, had we given in to such fears and doubts on the occasion of previous EU Treaties, we would not now enjoy the benefits of the major achievements of European integration. These include the Single Market introduced by the Single European Act of 1986, which gave Irish businesses an unrivalled opportunity to grow and create new jobs. Had we listened to the doubters in the mid 1980s, we could easily have missed out on much of the economic advancement we have experienced this past two decades.
Similarly, the story of our economic success of recent years cannot be told without reference to the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 which provided for economic and monetary union and launched the euro. And the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, which increased the EU’s responsibility in the area of justice and home affairs, has been crucial to the fight against the growing threat of cross-border crime. Each of these Treaties has brought about change that has been in Ireland’s best interests
This latest Treaty, which I believe will settle the debate about the internal workings of the Union for the foreseeable future, will also serve our national interests.
The Reform Treaty is a further step in developing Europe’s dynamism and its ability to thrive under changing circumstances. The Irish Government’s support for the Reform Treaty is not an act of “going with the flow”, as some would have us believe. It is a judgment call by all those Irish political parties which have supported those past Treaties as being good for Ireland. We hold the firm belief that the Reform Treaty will maintain Europe’s progress and, therefore, serve our interests.
Any fair cost-benefit analysis would overwhelmingly show that the past judgment of these parties has proved right every time and that the doubters have been wrong by a long way. I firmly believe they are wrong this time too.
The Government’s support for the Reform Treaty is an act of commitment. A commitment to preserve the gains Ireland has made in the past three decades. It represents a commitment to secure Ireland’s future development.
The Treaty will give the Union the flexibility and capability to face the major challenges ahead. And there can be no doubt that there is a need for reform, to take account of the much larger Union and of the challenging internal and external policy issues that face us.
This twenty-first century is still young, but it is already posing profound and often interlinked questions. The sheer scale of the challenges – climate change, migration, the eradication of poverty and globalisation – means that no single country can contemplate addressing them alone. The century ahead will see us all increasingly dependent on multilateral and regional organisations. The EU is the most effective such organisation in the world by a long way. It has an important role in helping shape a better future and has a real responsibility to play that role effectively.
The Reform Treaty recognises this. In creating a President of the European Council and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy the Treaty aims to give the Union a clearer and more coherent voice in international affairs. This voice will reflect the shared interests and values of European people – a voice that will have democracy and human rights at its core. It will be a consensus voice that will speak on behalf of all of the EU Member States.
Some argue that this represents a loss of national sovereignty, but that is not the case. Indeed, by combining with others who share our values, we actually strengthen our hand and support our interests. The Europe made possible by the Reform Treaty will allow for the values held by the Irish people regarding international peace and security to be more strongly and consistently articulated and advanced.
Some maintain that we should speak for ourselves only. I think, however, that in a world where solutions can only be found at global and regional level we have to ask ourselves how, as a small country, we can maximise our effectiveness.
Put plainly, we have an interest in preventing and resolving regional and global conflicts and in creating a fairer international order. We have an interest in bringing our influence and principles to bear. The best way for us to do this is through active engagement within the Union.
This is not to say that our national voice or interests will be drowned out in situations where we have a different view. The Reform Treaty explicitly recognises this in areas with military or defence implications where decisions will continue to be taken unanimously.
Under the Reform Treaty I believe that we should view the Union as an opportunity for Ireland to do more good in the world and not as something that restricts our sovereignty or stifles our voice. We should view the Union as something of which we are full members and not as a bilateral relationship. We should view the Treaty as an effort to improve the lives of people everywhere and not as an administrative adjustment aimed at increasing the power of the Union or of the larger Member States.
It is for these reasons that it is so important that the real world meaning of the seemingly abstract wording of the Reform Treaty be brought home to the Irish people. It has as one of its central objectives the goal of strengthening the influence of European and Irish values on the conduct of international affairs.
Closer to home, the Treaty also provides for real improvements in
the democratic life of the Union.
The EU has at times been criticised for being undemocratic and inaccessible. This is unfair given that the Union is jointly controlled by its democratically-elected governments and by the directly elected European Parliament. It is true that the multi-faceted character of the Union means that it can on occasion seem somewhat removed from its citizens. Its structures may also in some areas appear complex, but this is understandable given the requirement to knit together a consensus among twenty-seven proudly-independent countries with their sometimes different interests and needs.
In the negotiations that led to the Reform Treaty, a central part
of the discussions focussed on how to bring the Union closer to its
citizens and to bring about even more democracy in the Union.
The Treaty provides some real advances in this regard. It strengthens the role of national parliaments by giving them a direct input into European legislation. It enables 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 change voting rules from unanimity to qualified majority voting in the European Council or Council of Ministers.
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 will serve to advance the cause of democratic accountability within the Union in a practical and meaningful manner.
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.
Some opponents of the Treaty have dismissed the increase in the Parliament’s role as insignificant. I do not think this argument stands up. I know of no other international organisation where the work of Member State governments is subjected to daily parliamentary scrutiny. The Reform Treaty strengthens this power and, in doing so, surely narrows any democratic deficit.
The citizens’ initiative will also give citizens of the Union a more direct say on European matters. In this era of rapid technological change individual citizens have more information and, by extension, more power in their hands – something my colleague David Miliband recently described as a “civilian surge”. The citizens’ initiative has the potential to breathe new life into the democratic functioning of the Union. For the first time, under the Reform Treaty, a petition with at least one million signatures obtained from a number of Member States can request the European Commission to propose EU legislation. I have little doubt that people right across the Union will embrace the citizens’ initiative and will raise interesting questions for us to address.
Taken together, this package of democratic reforms can have a real impact on making the Union more democratic, more transparent and, by extension, more effective. We have an interest in promoting democratic principles in Europe and in the wider world. Without doubt the Reform Treaty serves this interest – in new and imaginative ways.
It is also in our interests to have a regional and international environment which allows us to consolidate and build upon the great economic gains we have made in recent years. The Treaty will enable Ireland and the Union to continue to prosper. It is important to remember that the creation and maintenance of the EU Single Market allows Ireland, a country of 4 million people, access to a market of 500 million people. The Treaty will enable Ireland to continue to create a business-friendly environment, one which has seen the level of employment here grow from 1 million when we joined the Union in 1973 to 2 million today.
The Treaty will not challenge either Ireland’s foreign direct investment policy or broader national enterprise policy. All Member States will remain free to determine their own policies in these areas subject to state aid, competition rules and other areas of EU competence. The Reform Treaty does not change this position.
In the Reform Treaty, Qualified Majority Voting is the standard decision making mechanism in the Common Commercial Policy. However, there are some important qualifications. The Council is to act unanimously in the areas of trade in services, intellectual property and foreign direct investment where the negotiations cover issues for which unanimity is required internally. An important example of this would be the area of taxation. Under the Reform Treaty, Ireland continues to have the right to determine how our fiscal policy is developed and applied. For us, this is a key aspect of enterprise policy for both indigenous and foreign direct investment sectors.
The Treaty will, therefore, allow Ireland to continue to be attractive to foreign investors. In 1972, just before we joined the Union, foreign direct investment was just €16 million. Today it is measured in billions. The most recent IDA annual report indicated that, in 2006 alone, there was new capital investment of €2.6 billion; €470 million invested in new research, development and innovation projects. Multinational companies employed more than 135,000 people with an annual payroll of €15 billion euros and paid an estimated €2.8 billion in corporation tax. It should also be borne in mind that hundreds of thousands other Irish people are employed indirectly as a result - often in the small and medium-sized sector.
The period since Jack Lynch signed our Accession Treaty has shown that our membership of and engagement with the European Union has justified itself many times over. We have the great fortune of living in the most stable and prosperous region in the world with values which many in the world are striving to emulate.
New generations of Irish people can now build a future on this island. Today’s University graduates will not be obliged to leave Ireland in search of opportunity and good employment. These things are now available at home. These new generations can also play their part in addressing the major twenty-first century challenges we all face. They are part of a country which has been transformed from a peripheral nation to one that maximises our effective sovereignty by combining with others in pursuit of agreed objectives. In terms of effectiveness, the European Union is clearly greater than the sum of its parts.
The people of Europe and of the wider world are looking to the EU to provide the leadership which only it can on these matters. The Reform Treaty will equip the Union to address these challenges more effectively. The interests and aspirations of the Irish people on all these vital matters can be better promoted within the EU. The Reform Treaty will allow us to do this. It is for these reasons that I will be working to promote a Yes vote in the referendum.