Opening Statement by Minister Martin to Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union
Thank you Mr Chairman, and thank you members of the Sub-Committee, for your invitation to appear here this afternoon. I’d like to begin, if I may, by making a short statement, and then to go on to take your questions.
The subject matter of this sub-Committee – Ireland’s future in the European Union - could not be of greater importance. That we should remain at the heart of Europe is absolutely vital to the country’s future wellbeing and economic prosperity.
It is important to see the work of this Committee in its wider context. Ireland has been an active and successful member of the European Union for more than three decades. We have achieved a lot and we have contributed a lot.
But as the Union continues to change and grow, it is right that we take the time to consider what EU membership means for Ireland and to reflect on the lessons to be learned from our referendum. We need to ensure that we are correctly positioned to promote and defend the interests of our people into the future.
We want to continue deriving maximum benefit from our European involvement and to continue making a distinctive contribution to the evolution of the Union.
It is also clear that we need to communicate more effectively with the Irish people about the work the EU does on their behalf and the very real benefits this confers.
The decision in June was a complex one, and it was right that we took time to study its meaning and implications.
We commissioned independent research in order to fully understand the concerns that motivated people in casting their votes and to help us to shape a proper response to our people’s genuinely-held concerns.
We have also begun a process of consultation with European partners in order to understand their perspectives. This valuable process will continue in the weeks and months ahead.
Meanwhile, it is fair to say, the context around us has changed significantly.
The global economy has experienced a severe shock, the repercussions of which are still unfolding. In August, Russia’s invasion of Georgia reminded us that the peace and security we enjoy in Europe is neither inevitable nor to be taken for granted.
For our partners, these events have served to deepen their desire to see the Treaty of Lisbon enter into force. Clearly, as the Treaty states, this cannot happen without the agreement of all Member States.
That presents the Union, collectively, with a serious challenge. We all have a clear interest in seeing the Union able to function to its fullest potential.
The Taoiseach and I, in our various discussions with other Member States, have been shown the greatest respect and understanding. There is an appreciation that the result of the referendum reflected serious and genuinely-held concerns, and that it has consequences not just for Ireland, but for the EU as a whole.
There is no question of anybody seeking to pressurise us. However, it is very clear that, with the process of ratification now well advanced, there is also no question of being able to renegotiate the Treaty. To do so, would be to oblige all of those who have already ratified to go back to square one. After the many long years of negotiation, there is simply no appetite for this.
We are examining closely what can be done at national and European level.
The important work that you are doing here in the Sub-Committee will make a real contribution to the Government’s efforts to find the best way forward for Ireland in Europe.
The Committee has already heard from a number of contributors about the impact of the decision for Ireland’s reputation and standing in Europe. There is no question but that our position has been made considerably more difficult and challenging.
We have been the beneficiaries of great goodwill and support, but it would be unreasonable to expect that this will continue in an open-ended way. As a country, we have to accept that there are 26 other Member States, and their needs have to be respected too.
We firmly hope that we will be able to arrive at a solution that will safeguard for future generations the benefits that have flown from our place at the heart of the Union for more than 35 years. It is very clear that the vast majority of people want us to remain there.
One of the most reassuring messages to emerge from our research is that the Irish people remain positive about, and strongly committed to, our future in the European Union.
Nearly three-quarters of us regard our membership of the Union as a good thing, including almost two-thirds of those who voted No. 68% believe that Ireland’s interests are best pursued by remaining fully involved within the EU. They are right.
The Union has been an extraordinary force for good throughout all areas of Irish life. Many other Member States, particularly the newer ones, regard Ireland as the success story of the Union. Successive Governments have used their influence to advance and defend the interests of the Irish people within the Union.
And the traffic has not just been one way.
In being right at the heart of things, Irish Ministers and civil servants have been able to shape EU policy in significant ways. The current Secretary General of the Commission, Catherine Day, is Irish as was her predecessor, David O’Sullivan. Three members of the European Commission have Irish people as their principal advisers and many senior officials within the European institutions are Irish.
As President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox was rightly held in very high regard. Our Commissioners have served with great distinction, including Peter Sutherland who went on to serve as Director General of what is now the WTO. This level of influence is a remarkable feat for a country of our size.
Our influence has been felt across the full range of issues - from economic, to social, to foreign policy – and in a manner totally in keeping with our own values and traditions.
Our contribution has been widely regarded as constructive and positive. We have been seen as highly effective networkers and influencers.
I don’t believe that in casting a No vote the Irish people intended to send a message to the wider world that we wanted to step back from this level of engagement. But that is just how our referendum result has been perceived in some quarters.
Such a misapprehension is fundamentally damaging to our interests. It weakens our ability to influence discussions within the Union. It makes our EU partners doubt our commitment, and it risks making us a less attractive location for investors looking for a place to do business in Europe.
Within weeks of the referendum, our officials were in contact with a potential US investor, who was seeking reassurance about Ireland’s future position within the Union.
We need to avail of every opportunity to set the record straight.
There are important debates coming up within the Union that will have real consequences for vital national interests.
Early discussions are already underway on the shape of the Union’s budget for the post-2013 period. We have national positions that we will need to advance and defend. We want a budget that reflects our commitment to the knowledge-based economy; that renews and secures the CAP for the future.
The EU has contributed €41 billion in CAP payments to Irish farmers since 1973 and now contributes almost €2 billion each year. It is vital that we keep ourselves in a position to argue strongly for continued EU support for our farming community.
We also attach considerable value to the Union’s growing role in peace-keeping across the world and we want to continue influencing the evolution of EU policy in this area in keeping with our national traditions.
Right across the board, it is clear that our national interests demand that we be right at the heart of things.
Our membership of the Union also gives us infinitely greater clout on the international stage than we could ever have on our own. Last week’s meeting of EU leaders illustrates this reality.
As an EU member, we are fully part of vital discussions aimed at stabilising the world’s turbulent financial markets. Countries of our size that do not belong to the Union do not enjoy this advantage.
But if we are not regarded as central to the debate, it will be difficult for us to shape the Union’s positions, whether on the international financial architecture or on world trade.
My fear would be that we would face an increasingly uphill struggle.
The European Union is fundamentally a human and social construction – bringing together 500 million people in shared endeavour and common purpose.
Even if it hasn’t always been effective at communicating and explaining its work – and that is a deficit we urgently need to address - it has done a great deal to advance the cause of human rights and social justice.
This aspect of the Union deserves greater recognition.
Lisbon would advance this work further. It sets out more clearly that the Union is a community of values, values that Irish people share. It pledges the Union to combat social exclusion and to promote social justice and protection. It incorporates the Charter of Fundamental Rights for the first time. These are important developments.
The Union has made a real difference – at national level, in bringing peace and prosperity to today’s Europe, and in its positive contribution to the handling of wider international issues.
I know that a number of ethical concerns have been explored here at the Committee and I would just like to make a few short points about these.
The Treaties may be complex documents – after all, they are the legal foundations underpinning an elaborate, rules-based set of arrangements - but they contain some very simple principles.
One of the most important is that the Union only exercises power - and the European Court of Justice only has jurisdiction - in the areas in which the Member States have expressly conferred competence on it.
In all other areas national laws and national courts remain sovereign.
Furthermore, where we have particular national sensitivities, our partners have always made considerable efforts to meet our concerns – including in attaching a Protocol to the Treaties making our national position on abortion absolutely water-tight.
That Protocol is attached again to the Treaty of Lisbon. Should the Treaty enter into force, we will remain absolutely in control of policy in this area at all times. It is disappointing therefore that 34% of those voting in June thought that Lisbon would end our control over abortion.
Similarly, decisions in the area of family law – another area that I know concerns many people – can only be taken with the consent of all Member States acting unanimously under the terms of the Treaty. The key point is that we remain firmly in control of our own destiny.
I’d like to focus in my remaining time on the importance for the people of Ireland of our continued full European engagement.
Membership of the Union has shaped our country in many positive ways, reinforcing and building upon our distinctive national identity. We now need to decide how we want Ireland to engage with the Union in the years ahead. It is instructive to reflect on how far we have come since 1972 and on how big a role the Union has played in our national advancement.
I don’t want to go back to the Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s. Nobody does.
We would do well to remember how difficult it was for a small country, heavily dependant on a single large neighbour, to make its way in the world. The past three decades have seen rural Ireland transformed. Our trade has expanded and diversified. Foreign investment has boomed. European funds have strengthened our infrastructure and helped us to upgrade the skills of our people. Over the years, huge numbers of students have attended our Institutes of Technology which were supported by European funds.
In an unpredictable world, Ireland needs the strength and protection that comes from being part of a wider entity if we are to be able to navigate choppy global seas. We would have had severe difficulties weathering the current economic turbulence had we not been part of the eurozone.
How, for example would an independent Irish currency have coped in recent months? Last month, for example, the ECB made unlimited liquidity available to banks within the eurozone in order to reduce volatility in the markets and to help ease the pressures faced by banks.
How would Ireland have fared had we found ourselves outside of such an arrangement?As an open trading nation, we need the order of a rules-based system of trade. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like for Ireland alone to negotiate trade agreements with the emerging giants of the world in China and India.
In a world in which crime is becoming increasingly international, we benefit hugely from European cooperation. I cannot see how the remarkable interception of cocaine off our coast last week would have been possible in the absence of this cooperation.
There are those who will argue that these benefits can continue to flow even if we fail to ratify Lisbon. My concern is that we will jeopardise our standing within the Union – and the myriad advantages that flow from this - if we fail to work actively with others in devising a solution that all 27 Member States can endorse.
We should not allow a situation to arise where we find ourselves on the wrong side of a 26:1 split from our partners on the fundamental matter of the future shape of the Union. That would be profoundly damaging to our national prosperity and well-being.
When the Taoiseach meets his colleagues in the European Council in December he hopes to be able to identify elements of a possible solution. It is too early to say what these will be, but the report of this Committee will be an important resource in that regard.
In October, the Taoiseach identified some of the issues that will need to be looked at and we are pursuing these with our European partners.
Irish people have thrived within the European Union. We have found our feet as a nation and made our voice heard. Our involvement in the EU has become a central and productive part of our national life.
We owe it to future generations to secure that vital relationship with our European partners. This provides an anchor for us in difficult times and a powerful motor for our continued national development.
I firmly believe that we must do everything in our power to keep Ireland at the heart of the EU. There is much that will be lost if we permit ourselves to drift into an isolated, peripheral relationship with our fellow members of the European Union with whom we have so much in common and with whom our interests are so strongly intertwined. .