Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, T.D., to the IIEA
I would like to thank the Institute of International and European Affairs for their invitation to deliver this State of the Union address today.
Every year it has become the practice for the holder of this office to address you on the State of the Union. I hope you will forgive me if this year I speak more about Ireland’s relationship with the Union, than the state of the EU as a whole.
This time last year, Dermot Ahern made a passionate argument in favour of the Lisbon Treaty. A treaty we believed, and continue to believe, represents a good deal for Ireland and for Europe as a whole.
In June last year, of course, the people voted against the Treaty by a margin of 53.4% to 46.6%.
I will not be speaking today about the seven stages of grief. The months since June have not been about denial or depression. From the beginning, our position was one of full acceptance of the decision of the people. We set about understanding the concerns people had.
Our unbending goal was to chart a way forward that would respect the will of the people. This did not mean turning our backs on Europe or hiding behind the meaningless mantra that ‘No means No’.
While the outcome of the referendum was simple - that is the nature of a yes/no question – the factors underpinning it were both complex and worthy of detailed examination and reflection.
To simply leave matters there, as some claim we should have done, would, in fact, have been deeply undemocratic. In voting, the people were communicating both with us, as the Government, and with the European Union. It was very important that their voice be fully heard. For that to happen, it had to be clearly understood.
That is why we resolved not to ignore but to engage with the people’s concerns as reflected in the result. We were determined to see if they could be responded to in a manner acceptable to Ireland and to all 26 other Member States. We worked on the basis that the EU is a place where consensus needs to be fostered. That is the only way in which a 27 member Union can function. Different views need to be respected and reconciled and the Union has a long and proud record of overcoming difficulties and building agreement that respect our diversity and the reality of our shared interests.
All available evidence confirms that there is a strong desire for Ireland to remain a central player in the European Union, and continue a tradition of punching above its weight. It is my firm assessment that this cannot be fully ensured if we are unable to come to terms with our European partners on the future functioning of the Union. This means that we must strive to resolve our difficulties concerning the Lisbon Treaty and facilitate its ratification.
In June, the people were asked to amend the constitution and they replied that they were not ready to do so at that time. We have since worked hard to understand why that was, and to meet the concerns articulated during the referendum campaign. We listened to the views we heard on the doorsteps, in our constituency offices and on the airwaves.
The democratic representatives of the people have been fully involved in this important work. The all-party Oireachtas Sub-Committee heard and debated submissions from the full range of stakeholders, and produced a very impressive report.
I would like to take this opportunity of thanking the Institute and its members, as well as others present here today, who have contributed to the debate that has taken place during the past six months. The Institute’s study of the referendum was a model of clarity in its thorough analysis of the options available to Ireland.
We also commissioned detailed research into people’s attitudes in the wake of the vote.
We now know, as fully as it is possible to know, the set of concerns that people had when they took their decision in June. We have communicated those concerns to our partners in Europe. For their part, our European partners have worked closely with us in a spirit of cooperation and openness that is characteristic of the Union.
And last month, the members of the European Council committed themselves to meeting our concerns to our full satisfaction. I do not know what more we could have asked of our fellow EU members or wanted from them.
Centrally, we have secured agreement to the retention of a Commissioner nominated by every member state on a permanent basis. This is a marked departure from the deal made in the Lisbon Treaty. Other Member States see real value in having a smaller Commission, but they were willing to concede this point to us when we indicated to them just how important this issue had been during our referendum. This move is a direct response to the concerns of the Irish people.
We believed that that the original deal on the Commission was a good one for Ireland. It secured us a level playing field with other member states, including the largest. But, as a result of the referendum, we recognise how important it is for many of our people to have a Commissioner from Ireland at all times. If we ratify the Lisbon Treaty, Irish membership of the Commission will be safeguarded for the future. This represents a significant change to the Lisbon package we voted on in June.
We have also received the commitment that our positions in relation to tax, the Common Security and Defence Policy as well as family and ethical issues will be the subject of firm and unambiguous legal guarantees.
These were issues that caused worries for many people. Those who had such doubts can now be reassured. Our ability to shape our own tax policy remains unchanged. Our policy of military neutrality will be safeguarded. Likewise, the provisions of the Irish Constitution on the right to life, education and the family. These are important reassurances which represent meaningful responses to the concerns expressed by our people about the Lisbon Treaty.
We have also secured a re-commitment by the EU to the principles of workers’ rights, social progress and public services. This will be made concrete, if the Treaty is ratified, by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which contains important support for workers’ rights.
We argued for the Treaty because we were convinced that it safeguarded our key interests. We were convinced of this because Ireland was instrumental in shaping much of the text during our 2004 Presidency. To a large extent, this Treaty was Irish made.
But the size of the No vote revealed the depth of people’s concern on these specific issues. We were, and are, determined to meet those specific concerns with specific, explicit and unequivocal guarantees.
When these commitments are worked out in the necessary detail, the logical way forward is to put the Treaty to the people once more, in this new context.
This is democracy at work, not a denial of it. The people spoke in June. They had real concerns. When these are satisfactorily accommodated, it makes perfect sense to consult the people again.
Some of those who campaigned for a No vote will inevitably argue for a No vote again. They will do so irrespective of the scope and quality of the assurances we secure. They will argue that there is an attempt to subvert the will of the people.
As should be abundantly clear from their track records, such groups have an entirely negative vision of Ireland’s position in Europe. They see threats where there is opportunity. They see interference where what’s really happening is constructive cooperation. They see an erosion of identity in a Union that in actual fact cherishes diversity.
I am not speaking of all of those who argued for a No vote. There were many who did so out of positions of integrity and what they saw as the best interests of this country. But there were some who set out to put the frighteners on people.
The myth peddled by those elements of the No campaign was that we were encircled, dominated, duped by our partners in Europe.
I do not recognise that story of Europe. I do not recognise that story of Ireland in Europe. It is a cruelly distorted picture of what has been a hugely beneficial journey for this country over a period of 35 years.
Because the truth is that Europe empowers us. Our power does not lie in defiance and veto. It lies in our ability to influence others, to maximise our independence and to build productive partnerships with other countries of like mind.
We were empowered by Europe as we built our economic prosperity, even as we built the very roads on which our trade travelled.
We were empowered by Europe as we brought Ireland to a place where we looked every modern developed nation in the eye with confidence.
We built a peace process as we developed ideas of cross-border cooperation and shared identities that were made more natural in a European context.
Europe empowers us as we guard our interests and contribute to a better future through the Union – in trade, in peacekeeping, in development aid, and in responding in concerted fashion to the crises that affect the world.
But I would say this also - Ireland in Europe is emphatically not about past glories. It is not about past gains for Ireland, though these have been deeply impressive. It is not about past achievements in healing former enmities and reuniting a divided continent. It is about how Ireland is empowered in the world of the 21st century.
It is about our future.
And today, we can be in no doubt about the scale of challenges we face. The global nature of the financial crisis underlines the founding logic of the European Union – that the connections between our countries exist whether we recognise them or not, that the risks to our countries are shared, and that cooperation is not a choice. It is an imperative for success.
We have much recent evidence of the Union’s capacity to make a difference. The Union has played a key role in international efforts to deal with the global financial crisis. It is also giving a lead to the international community in the area of climate change. The current gas supply crisis further underlines the value of an effective Union in dealing with such fundamental issues as energy security. These are issues that cannot be properly handled by individual countries acting alone.
There is a compelling logic for Ireland, as a small country, to be at the heart of a team of nations of common outlook, with the necessary weight to shape global responses. It is how we can best protect our interests and promote our values.
The European Union enables us to project these values on a global scale. Building on our reputation for even-handedness and neutrality, for example, we have a proud record of contribution to peace-keeping. The EU, through its increasing involvement in this area, enables us to continue to make a difference in the world’s troubled areas, including Chad, where the Irish contingent is playing such a crucial role, and Kosovo.
If recent months have taught us anything, it is that the EU does not exist in a vacuum. It is a part of an increasingly interlinked and interdependent world. Whether economic, political or environmental, the challenges we face are global.
The logic of the Lisbon Treaty is that, to meet these challenges with the prospect of success, the Union must be more efficient and effective in its actions and more connected to the people it serves.
We don’t need to sell Europe to the people.
They know that it brought peace and prosperity to a continent over generations, that it was an enormously important part of our own economic growth, and that it was a vital source of support for the peace process on this island. The Irish people are overwhelmingly in favour of our place at the centre of the European Union.
I sometimes feel that it is not the Union in which we lack of faith and confidence, but in our own ability to shape and to influence it. There is simply no reason why this should be so.
Since we joined, Ireland has been a hugely influential Member State. Others have been struck by this and have studied our experience carefully.
The Union is not a distant bureaucracy limiting our freedom. It is a platform and a team through which our ability to act in the world is infinitely increased. It is part of what we are as a modern nation. We are fully part of the EU’s decision-making. We are well represented at all levels in its institutions. Its policies are policies that we help to shape.
In the Union we have far more influence than we could ever hope to hope to wield in isolation.
The Lisbon Treaty reflects our values and supports our interests. A more efficient Union, a more democratic Union, a Union that supports workers’ rights and the pro-competitiveness agenda, effective and well-defined security cooperation and a strengthened role for national parliaments.
The Lisbon Treaty remains a very necessary adjustment of the Union’s rules so as to allow a larger Union to act in an effective and accountable manner.
In other words, Europe has grown and we need Lisbon to keep it working properly.
However, I do think it is important that I also acknowledge another, probably deeper, reason that the people voted no to the Treaty last June – and that is the feeling of disconnect between ordinary voters and the institutions of the European Union. That is a real problem - and not just an Irish problem.
Our rejection of the Treaty had the potential to cause confusion and misunderstanding among our partners and more widely. This is something which the Government has worked very hard to counter. Fears have been expressed to the effect that the referendum result could encourage foreign investors to look less favourably on Ireland. If the idea of Ireland as a semi-detached European were to take root, this would be very damaging to our economic prospects.
We have been assiduous in stressing Ireland’s commitment to the Union. We have made plain our determination to find a solution that would accommodate Irish concerns about the Treaty and enable us to move forward with our European partners in implementing the very necessary reforms provided for in Lisbon.
But we also articulated clearly that sense of disconnect from the Union that so many people evidently feel. There is a recognition that this is a common, Europe-wide problem.
We are committed to working strongly with our partners to improve the efforts of the Union in engaging with people across Europe. I also look forward to the European Parliament elections this year which will reaffirm that central democratic link between the Union and the people.
The vote last June was an opportunity as well as a challenge for us. It asserted our interest, our concern and engagement, our worry about the Union’s distance from ordinary people.
The referendum result said that our support for the Union, though overwhelming, is not a blank cheque. It shows that people recognise that their concrete interests are at stake in Europe. And that’s a good thing.
If the commitments given last month are delivered satisfactorily and we decide to endorse the Lisbon Treaty, in Ireland’s case with the important concessions we have won, this will show that we are willing not just to say we are pro-Europe, but to act on that statement.
Having secured these important guarantees, a decision not to ratify Lisbon would have very serious consequences. It would be remiss of us as a Government not to make this clear. We have to recognise that our partners in Europe would not know what more they could have done to meet our concerns. They might well come to the conclusion that there was nothing they could do. This would introduce a fundamental shadow of doubt over our commitment to the Union. That is not what I want. That is not what I believe the Irish people want.
If the guarantees I have described are forthcoming as we fully expect they will be; if our European partners meet every specific concern we were able to identify, and if we then decide to place ourselves at odds with our European partners, we will be facing our present and future challenges in the world with one arm tied behind our back.
We don’t need to look very hard for examples of small countries who, outside an active community of mutual support and action, find their destinies shaped for them by forces beyond their control.
In the coming year, this is how we show we wish to be a decisive player in Europe. This is how we ensure strong foundations for Ireland in the world. This is how we do it. This is how we act.
I am reminded of what an American writer once said – that “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”.
Within the European Union and through the European Union, Ireland can and does act in the world at the level we want for ourselves.
The European Union and the Lisbon Treaty reflect our identity, our interests and our future.
Charting a positive course this year would be both to exercise that power as a people, and to enhance it.
There is much work to be done in the months ahead.
We need to flesh out the legal guarantees we have been promised. We need to renew a dialogue with the Irish people about our EU membership and what it means to today’s Ireland.
I genuinely believe that we have reached a crossroads in Ireland’s European story. In spite of the economic difficulties we currently face, Ireland remains a European success story. The newer Member States look to us as a model of the transforming effects of membership.
It is probable that we have benefited more from the European Union than any other Member State. No other EU country has made the kind of economic advances we have made since the early 1990s.
The European single market has been a realm of enormous opportunity for Ireland. It has made us into a magnet for foreign direct investment. It has allowed us to develop and diversify our trade in a hitherto unimaginable manner.
It is time, however, that we had a serious national debate about Ireland’s place in Europe. This cannot just be about the details of the Lisbon Treaty or the important concessions we secured last month. We must look again at the woods as well as the trees.
We need to think about the big picture of Ireland’s future in Europe alongside the details of Lisbon Treaty. There is a need to decide where we stand. Do we want to continue working with others on an agreed European agenda or do we want to stand alone and take our chances in an economically turbulent world? Do we wish to combine with our fellow Europeans in protecting vulnerable people in Chad and in serving the cause of peace in the Balkans? My answer is yes. This is the kind of future that I want for Ireland.
Assuming that we get the legal guarantees we want, I look forward with confidence, and with trust in the people, to another European referendum this year. I do not want a repeat of last year’s morass of misinformation and eurosceptic phobias, but a mature debate focused on the bigger picture. This will provide an important opportunity for us to think carefully about the kind of Ireland we want for the future and about the role we want Ireland to play in Europe and in the wider world.
Thank you for your attention.Top