Ireland and the Lisbon Treaty, Remarks by Minister Martin,European Policy Centre "60 minutes briefing"
Thank you very much Jacki [Davis, Communications Director of the EPC] for that kind introduction. I am a great admirer of the EPC's work—it is invariably thoughtful, multi-disciplinary and always very relevant—so it is a real pleasure for me that we were able to dovetail this meeting with today's meeting of EU Foreign Ministers.
Today has been very busy, as you can imagine. It sets in train what will be an extremely important week for all of us. As you will appreciate, we are still in the midst of an intensive set of negotiations with partners about possible ways of addressing Irish people's concerns regarding the Lisbon Treaty in a way which respects the result of our referendum and also respects the widespread desire across Europe to see the Treaty come into effect.
As these discussions are still underway, I am necessarily circumscribed in what I can say today.
However, I am eager to use this opportunity to set out for you some of the context against which current work is taking place, especially the domestic backdrop in Ireland. I hope that this will provide a good foundation for your understanding of any elements of a solution that may flow from this week's European Council.
What I propose to do this evening, therefore, is to devote much of my time to describing developments in Ireland in relation to the Lisbon debate, and then to touch on some of the issues that we've faced in reaching agreement on the eventual shape of a package for the European Council.
I would like to underline at the outset how very supportive the French Presidency has been. Against the backdrop of unprecedented global economic turmoil, they have devoted time, energy and determination, at the very highest level, to dealing with this issue. If we can agree on the shape of a package on Friday, it will be a tribute to the spirit of solidarity and collegiality that invariably characterises our Union.
Of course, we look forward to continuing this close and constructive collaboration with the Czech Presidency in the New Year.
The Irish people's "No" vote in June has made an impact right across Europe. I'd like to go over some of the elements of that vote, however, with which you may not be familiar.
First of all, a sizeable vote was cast against the Treaty.
The margin of the result was clear: 53.4% to 46.6%. The turnout was relatively high, at 53%: higher than either of the Nice referendums.
I need to emphasise that all of the research carried out since the vote shows that this was not a vote against Europe. If you take only one message away from this evening, I would want it to be that the people of Ireland remain among the most positive in Europe about the European Union.
However, it is clear that there exists a substantial disconnect that needs to be bridged, between this generally positive attitude and the concerns that found expression in the size of the No vote last June.
Our first step was to seek to understand the concerns underlying the vote, "to engage in serious and careful analysis of the outcome of the referendum and its implications" as the Taoiseach explained to his European Council colleagues in June.
We have taken a twin-track approach to this matter, commissioning independent research into the reasons behind the vote, and, through a Sub-Committee of our Parliamentary Committee on European Affairs, working with the other political parties represented in the Dáil to consider the question of Ireland's future in Europe.
At the European Council in June, it was agreed that more time was needed to analyse the situation with a view to providing the October meeting of the European Council with a progress report.
Following the referendum, the Government commissioned a major research project. The survey was carried out by independent experts in the research and analysis field. The results were made publicly available, including online, in keeping with the Government's policy of transparency in this matter.
I will not attempt a point-by-point summary here, but there are a four aspects I think it worth highlighting.
First, the results show the people want Ireland to continue to be fully involved in the Union. 70 per cent of respondents agree that membership is a good thing while a mere eight per cent disagree. The divisive referendum campaign has not shaken Ireland's belief in the Union. Indeed, I have a sense that the financial turbulence of the last few months has encouraged the Irish people to appreciate even more fully the huge importance of being in the mainstream of a strong and effective Union.
Second, lack of information was a significant problem for the electorate. 42 per cent of No voters cited "lack of knowledge or information" as their reason for voting No. This represents a major challenge for all who value the work of the EU. The Union can only continue to flourish if it is built upon firm foundations of public knowledge and trust. This will be an ongoing priority for us even after the current difficulties surrounding ratification of the Lisbon Treaty have become a thing of the past.
In June, over 40 per cent of our voters made up their minds in the last seven days of the campaign. This is a clear indicator of the extent of the concerns and uncertainty that existed. There are lessons in this for all of us involved in the campaign.
Third, a combination of issues undermined support for the Treaty. These included the composition of the Commission, corporate tax, workers' rights, neutrality and ethical issues such as abortion.
These issues were mentioned by the Taoiseach at the European Council in June before our research was commissioned. The research also revealed the importance of issues that had not been evident in the course of the general debate on the Treaty, or on the doorsteps during the campaign. The indications from the research that one-third of voters believed that the Treaty would have introduced conscription to a European army, was quite unexpected.
Fourth, the research indicates that there are marked differences in voter behaviour between different demographic groups. Young voters were strongly opposed to the Treaty. For instance, almost sixty per cent of 25-34 year-olds voted No. There were also differences between socio-economic groups. These are trends which have been identified among voters in other EU countries and lessons now need to be drawn from them– and not only in Ireland.
The study provided much food for thought. It does not suggest that there is any magic formula for charting Ireland's future in the Union. It offered us, instead, the raw material for a vital national debate; it gave an empirical basis to the Taoiseach's progress report to the October European Council; it formed an important part of a wider process, feeding into the Government's understanding of the people's concerns, in order that a solution could be formulated.
October European Council
In keeping with his undertaking at the June Council, the Taoiseach used the October Council to give a progress report on our efforts to address the post-Lisbon situation.
He began by remarking on the extraordinary developments since the European Council last met, highlighting in particular the global economic downturn, the crisis at the foundations of the international financial system and the conflict between Russia and Georgia.
These events underlined the critical value of our membership of the Union and the Eurozone, and the access we enjoy to the support of the European Central Bank. He acknowledged that we best advance our interests by acting in concert with like-minded partners on problems, challenges and opportunities that can only be responded to effectively by working across national boundaries.
The Taoiseach reminded the October Council that an event such as our referendum vote requires time to be understood, for its significance to be absorbed, and for the basis for moving forward to emerge. He told the Council that, although it was still too early to be prescriptive about outcomes, a number of domestic processes were underway.
He highlighted the importance of the knowledge deficit in determining the outcome, a problem which applies not only to the Lisbon Treaty but more generally to the EU and how it functions.
Redressing this lack of knowledge is something of a personal project of mine. One of our former Ministers for European Affairs once described the European Union as "one of the world's best kept secrets". This is something we need to change. We are currently working intensively to identify ways in which we can improve on how European issues are communicated. This is an issue on which we will benefit from a Europe-wide approach, and I have been working closely with the European Commission and the European Parliament to see what can be done in this important area.
Related to this communications gap, the Taoiseach referred to people's sense of disconnect from, and perceived loss of influence in, the EU; again, an issue that concerns all of us, and not just Ireland. A Union where too many citizens feel detached or disconnected is one which lowers its sights to a small fraction of its potential. The Union as a whole must respond to this need.
The Taoiseach then went on to list a number of concerns highlighted by the research, and, more recently, raised again by our parliamentary Sub-Committee when it reported at the end of last month. These included:
i. the future composition of the Commission;
ii. issues related to defence and our tradition of neutrality;
iii. social/ethical matters; and
The Taoiseach stressed then, and I reiterate it now, that each of these concerns will need to be adequately addressed if we are to find an acceptable way forward.
I am pleased to say that this point is recognised by our partners too. They know that the concerns of the Irish voters need to be addressed. As the Taoiseach said in October, and it remains true now, it is strongly in our interests, especially in the current global economic and financial flux, to find an agreed way forward.
We are fully conscious, moreover, of the important milestones we face in the course of 2009 relating to the Parliament and Commission. We have been working closely with partners—and continue to do so—to ensure that uncertainty is kept to a minimum in these areas.
Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union
The establishment by our Parliament of an all-party Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union, was an important part of our collective effort to consider in a different forum, wider than merely-governmental, the issues that played a role in the referendum result.
The Sub-Committee was mandated to carry out work under four headings:
o to analyse the challenges facing Ireland in the European Union following the Lisbon Treaty Referendum result;
- to consider Ireland's future in the EU including in relation to economic and financial matters, social policy, defence and foreign policy and our influence within the European Institutions;
-to make recommendations to enhance the role of the Houses of our Parliament in EU affairs; and
-to consider measures to improve public understanding of the EU and its fundamental importance for Ireland's future;
It was designed from the outset to be inclusive: all of the political parties in our Parliament were represented, including those who had campaigned against the Treaty, to ensure that as broad a range of voices as possible was heard.
In all, over the course of its seven weeks of work, the Sub-Committee met more than 110 witnesses from more than 40 different organisations from both inside Ireland and from abroad. The Sub-Committee worked extremely hard to produce a report in this space of time, which was published just over a week ago.
The Sub-Committee was not mandated to recommend a solution to the post-referendum situation, nor did it do so, but its work has provided some extremely valuable inputs for the Government in preparing for this week's European Council meeting. The report confirms that Ireland's place is at the heart of the European Union, contributing positively and deploying our influence carefully to promote our national interests.
It was reassuring, also, to see that the trends identified empirically through the research project came out again and again at the Sub-Committee: this suggests that we are on the right track in our search for a solution. Many of its suggestions relate to domestic practices and procedures in relation to the way we do EU business in Ireland. In particular, it recommends that our Parliament engages more in the business of the EU. This is an important finding by parliamentarians, for parliamentarians; it will, I think, set in train some key changes for the better in the way that we interact with the Union in Ireland.
With the publication of the Sub-Committee's report, our Parliament has completed its most sustained exploration of the issues surrounding our membership of the EU since we first joined 35 years ago. This in itself is an extremely healthy undertaking. That this exchange took place against the backdrop of such unprecedented global events served only to underline, I think, the importance of the questions under examination by the Sub-Committee.
The Sub-Committee's report is available for download from the parliament's website, www.oireachtas.ie. For those of you who find the Irish spelling difficult, it is also available on www.parliament.ie. At fewer than 80 pages, it is relatively short as EU-related reports go and, I have to say in tribute to the sub-Committee, it is a well-written and easily read document. So for those of you who are interested, I would not hesitate to recommend it.
I have spent some time setting out the context because, as we seek to chart a way forward, it is vitally important to have an understanding of what brought us to this point. It has been said, and I think with some credibility, that had other Member States gone through the referendum process, similar concerns and difficulties would have arisen.
While it is very welcome that Irish people continue to see the Union as a good thing for Ireland and for the other Member States, we have to recognise that, in the absence of a good foundation of knowledge and understanding, this is something of a leap of faith on their behalf.
The Taoiseach, the Minister for European Affairs and I have been engaged in intensive consultations with fellow Member States and the institutions, especially during recent weeks. In these discussions, we have sought a way through which the concerns of the Irish people can be responded to, without causing difficulties for others.
As you will understand, I am not in a position this evening to go into the detail of what might be agreed later this week or where a solution might lie. If the Treaty of Lisbon is to enter into force, it requires the agreement of all Member States. If that is to be secured, the concerns of the Irish people will have to be addressed in a clear and convincing manner by means of legally binding assurances.
We need to be able to reassure our people that their genuinely held concerns have been taken on board by the other Member States. In the coming days, we will be insisting on respect for the wishes of our people, but we also understand the need to reconcile these with the wishes of the other Member States who have completed their ratification procedures. The current situation represents a test of the Union's capacity to accommodate our respective needs. It is a test that I believe the Union can handle with success.
I have been encouraged by the strength of commitment that others, especially the Presidency, have shown in working with us to find a way forward. There is, I believe, a genuine wish on all sides to reach a solution. We are very grateful for this patience and understanding and hope it can, in due course, bring about a positive result.
Europe has always shown itself to be constructive and creative in finding solutions to problems when they have arisen. I am convinced that, with the right approach and the strong sense of solidarity that exists between Member States, it will prove possible to find a way forward on this occasion also.
8th December 2008