European Communities and Swiss Confederation Bill, 2001 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage.

Thursday, 29 November 2001

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 545 No. 3

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Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation (Mr. E. Ryan): Information on Eoin Ryan  Zoom on Eoin Ryan  I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

The European Communities and Swiss Confederation Bill, 2001, is a short, technical Bill, the main purpose of which is to give the force of law in the State, once they are ratified, to seven sectoral agreements which have been signed between the European Union and Switzerland. The Bill was published on 15 November last. It was introduced in the Seanad by the Minister for Foreign Affairs on 21 November 2001, and it passed all stages in the other House on the same day.

The seven agreements deal with the following areas: free movement of persons; air transport; rail and road transport; trade in agricultural products; mutual recognition in relation to conformity assessment; government procurement and scientific and technological co-operation.

These agreements were all signed in Luxembourg on 21 June 1999 and they will enter into force when they are formally ratified or approved by all the parties to them. Switzerland ratified the seven agreements on 16 October 2000, following their approval in May of that year by the Swiss people in a popular referendum. At this stage, my understanding is that all of the EU member states, with the exception of Ireland and Belgium, have completed ratification procedures. I trust that with the approval of this House, Ireland will be able to ratify in the coming days.

While the seven agreements are separate and distinct, they are linked together in the sense that [598] they can only come into force together and they will all come to an end if any one of them is terminated. This was at the insistence of the EU, which felt that the seven agreements satisfied the interests of both sides only when taken and considered together as a complete package.

The Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons differs in a significant way from the other six agreements in that it requires ratification by the fifteen member states of the EU as well as by the European Community and Switzerland. The reason for this is that it deals with matters which fall within the competence of individual member states. The other six agreements require formal ratification only on behalf of the European Community and Switzerland. However, as these include references to various EU directives and regulations which need to be adapted to take account of their application to Switzerland, the European Communities and Swiss Confederation Bill, 2001, will, when enacted, ensure that all the necessary adaptations required to give effect to them are made. The Bill is modelled on the European Communities (Amendment) Act, 1993, which provided for the ratification of the European Economic Area Agreement.

Because of Switzerland's strategic location in Europe, surrounded as it is on all sides by member states of the European Union it is both appropriate and necessary that relations between the EU and Switzerland should be close and harmonious and conducted on a sound legal footing. Such is the express wish and intention of the European Union, its member states and Switzerland. Switzerland is also very close to the European Union in cultural and economic terms. A multilingual country, three of the European Union's official languages are spoken within its borders.

In international relations, Switzerland is a strong supporter of the key role of multilateral organisations, in particular through its participation in the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Like Ireland, Switzerland attaches importance to deepening international co-operation for peacekeeping, conflict prevention and crisis management, and joined the Partnership for Peace even before Ireland did.

Next spring the Swiss people will again vote in a referendum on joining the United Nations. As an active observer in the United Nations and contributor to UN peacekeeping, and indeed as the host to the UN Geneva offices, the Swiss have made a long and honourable contribution to its work. As we in Ireland have shown, small states which have remained outside military alliances have an important contribution to make at all levels of the UN's work. We wish the Swiss people well in their consideration of these issues.

In terms of trade, Switzerland is second only to the US as a market for EU exports. Swiss direct investment in the EU is also both valuable and important, second only to the US, while Switzerland is a major recipient of EU direct investment. Given its geographic location, its economic [599] strength and its cultural affinity with the countries of the EU, I would say that this is only to be expected.

Switzerland is the country in Europe with the highest number of non-national EU residents with a population of over one million and it receives 95% of EU cross-border workers with 150,000 EU citizens crossing the Swiss border to work every morning. Therefore, as the EU's most important European partner, there is an obvious and mutual interest in promoting closer and more formal relations between the EU and Switzerland, for example, through the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons.

It is a matter for the history books that while Switzerland had participated in the negotiations on the European Economic Area Agreement, the Swiss people subsequently voted in a referendum – as was their right – against participation in that agreement. As a consequence, the European Economic Area, with the accession of Sweden, Finland and Austria to the European Union in 1995, now consists of the 15 member states of the Union, together with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Another consequence of the referendum in Switzerland rejecting the European Economic Area Agreement was that, in addition to Switzerland not being able to participate in the EEA, its request for accession to the EU, which had been advanced in May 1992, had to be frozen. It remains so to this day, although the Swiss Government retains future EU membership as “a strategic objective” of Government policy.

Bilateral relations between the EU and Switzerland are for now based on a number of existing agreements, including the 1972 Free Trade Agreement, a framework agreement on scientific and technical co-operation and a transit agreement. However, as both the EU and Switzerland recognised the need for a closer formal relationship, in their mutual interests, they proceeded to negotiate the seven additional sectoral agreements signed on 21 June 1999.

When these agreements were being signed, both the EU and Switzerland made joint declarations indicating an interest in negotiating agreements in a number other important areas. Negotiations are now under way on co-operation against fraud, on the environment, co-operation on statistics and on an agreement for the liberalisation of trade in processed agricultural products. Further negotiations in areas, such as trade in services, participation in Community programmes on training, youth and media, on savings taxation and on co-operation in the area of justice and home affairs and on Swiss participation in areas covered by the Schengen Agreement are currently under consideration.

I propose to deal briefly with the seven agreements which are the subject of this Bill, starting with the Agreement on Free Movement of Persons. This agreement will provide broadly for the free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland. It aims for the granting on a recipro[600] cal basis of the same living, employment and working conditions as those enjoyed by the respective citizens. It covers rights of entry, residence, access to employment, the right of establishment on a self-employed basis, access to education and the right to benefit from reciprocal social security arrangements. It provides for the mutual recognition of educational qualifications and the co-ordination of social security systems. All these rights are based on the principles of non-discrimination by nationality and equality of treatment. The agreement affords Switzerland a transition period to facilitate the liberalisation of its labour market. This agreement is being concluded initially for a period of seven years and will be renewed indefinitely unless it is repudiated by either party.

As far as the social security aspects of this agreement are concerned, Ireland already has a bilateral Social Security Agreement with Switzerland which came into force on 1 July 1999, after the signature of the Free Movement Agreement. The majority of persons covered by the Free Movement Agreement are already covered by the bilateral agreement although the benefits of the EU agreement will be more beneficial as short-term benefits and family benefits are included. The provisions relating to old age benefits are also more beneficial. However, having regard to the level of migration between Ireland and Switzerland, it is considered that the additional costs arising from the social security provisions of the Free Movement Agreement will be minimal. Irish citizens resident in Switzerland will benefit from similar arrangements.

The Agreement on Air Transport provides essentially for the reciprocal liberalisation of aviation, on the basis of previous Community agreements. It covers air traffic rights for journeys between any point in the Community and any point in Switzerland for carriers registered in either party. Two years after the entry into force of the agreement Swiss air carriers will be granted traffic rights between points in different Community countries. Monitoring of compliance with this agreement, especially as regards the implementation of competition law, will be under the responsibility of the Commission and the European Court of Justice. In return, Switzerland will have observer status in the committees assisting the Commission to define the evolution of European air transportation policy. This agreement therefore creates a unified legal regime for air transportation based on strict reciprocity between rights and obligations conferred within the EU and Switzerland.

We welcome this further liberalisation of air transport within Europe with Irish carriers benefiting by being granted greater access to operate air services between Switzerland and the EU. Swiss carriers will be granted reciprocal rights two years later.

While dealing with matters concerning air transport, I should like to take the opportunity of expressing to the Swiss Government and to the [601] Swiss people the deep sympathy of the House following the accident involving a Crossair plane which was just about to land at Zurich Airport, which involved a number of fatalities last Saturday night.

The Agreement on the Carriage of Goods and Passengers by Rail and Road deals, in particular, with the maintenance of the freedom of transit for road vehicles across Switzerland, at reasonable charges. The 28 tonne limit for trucks circulating in Switzerland will be progressively raised to 40 tonnes, the European standard. It provides for the avoidance of traffic diversion from Switzerland into neighbouring countries, the reciprocal liberalisation of bilateral and transit road transport operations, the adoption by Switzerland of legislation equivalent to specified elements of the road and rail transport aquis communitaire, with a timetable for the progressive adoption of Community rules on vehicle weights and dimensions, and compliance by Switzerland with Community rules on state aids to road transport. Liberalisation of transport of both persons and goods, as provided for in this agreement between the European Union and Switzerland is welcome.

The Agreement on Trade in Agricultural Products is expected to improve significantly access for agricultural products to the EU and Swiss markets, respectively, while abolishing tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade according to the principle of reciprocity. A large number of tariff concessions have been granted for plants and flowers, fresh or prepared fruit and vegetables, cheeses and milk products, meat products and wine. The agreement also seeks to facilitate trade through mutual recognition of legislation on plant protection, animal feedstuffs, seeds and organic farming. It includes veterinary rules designed to facilitate trade in live animals and animal products. In the case of live animals the two sides' legislation is deemed to be equivalent and for animal products trade will be based on Community legislation. The agreement also provides that Switzerland will apply the same rules as the Community to imports from third countries.

The proposed agreement will provide increased export opportunities for Ireland over a range of products. The section on trade in wines and sprits which provides for mutual protection of protected names, will afford protection for Irish denominations such as Irish Cream and Irish Whiskey.

The purpose of the Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Conformity Assessment is to establish mutual recognition of the results of tests of conformity to standards for most industrial products. Both parties will thus recognise reports, certificates, authorisations and labels of certification delivered according to their respective procedures. The effect is that products can be certified by recognised conformity assessment bodies in the European Union and placed on the Swiss market without having to undergo any further approval procedures, and vice versa. This will result in reduced costs and increased efficiency for obtaining product approvals and will facilitate [602] market access. The agreement lists the various sectors to be covered, including machinery, toys, medical devices, telecommunications terminal equipment and a range of others.

The National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, has been notified under EU procedures as a conformity assessment body, CAB, for many of the sectors mentioned in the agreement and NSAI supports agreements such as this which lead to better mutual recognition of certificates of conformity.

The Agreement on Certain Aspects of Government Procurement aims at ensuring harmony between the public procurement regimes of the European Union and Switzerland and to provide for greater reciprocal access to the public procurement markets. The agreement focuses only on certain aspects of public procurement as account has been taken of the already existing agreements in the framework of the WTO government procurement agreement. Overall, an almost complete reciprocal opening of the respective public procurement markets will be achieved.

The agreement on scientific and technological co-operation will associate Switzerland with the EU's Fifth Framework Programme for Research, Technology and Development and the corresponding Fifth Framework Programme of EURATOM. Until now, research bodies established in Switzerland have only been able to participate in these research programmes on a project by project basis and without the possibility of launching a research project of their own. Under this agreement they will be allowed to take part on an equal footing with their EU partners. In addition, research bodies in the EU will in future be able to participate in research programmes and projects in Switzerland. The financial contribution by Switzerland to the budget of the research programme will be based on the ratio of Switzerland's GDP to that of the member states of the European Union. The agreement will allow scientists and researchers in Ireland increased opportunities to co-operate with their Swiss colleagues, opportunities which I sincerely hope they will avail of to the fullest extent. The number of EU research projects with Irish and Swiss involvement stands at about 60 projects.

All seven agreements will be supervised by joint committees, at which decisions will be taken by unanimity. The joint committees will only have decision-making powers if this is expressly stated in a particular agreement. Each party is responsible for the application of the agreement in its own territory.

I turn to the provisions of the Bill. Section 1(1) is a standard feature defining “the Act of 1972” as meaning the European Communities Act, 1972. It lists the formal titles of the seven agreements. Section 1(2) is also a standard provision which will enable the 1972 Act to be read as including any amendments that have been made to that Act between 1972 and 2001.

Section 2 amends section 2 of the European Communities Act, 1972, by inserting a new sub[603] section, after section 2(2) of that Act. The new section provides that from the coming into force of the seven agreements between the EU and Switzerland, their provisions and the Acts to be adopted by any institution established by the agreements will be binding on the State and they will have the force of law in the State. The section of the Bill, when enacted, will enable the European Communities Act, 1972, to be used for the future development of the seven agreements and, depending on the precise terms of any development under the agreement on the free movement of persons, for the future development of that agreement.

Section 3 will have the effect of converting all existing instruments, for instance, EU directives and regulations listed in the seven agreements, which currently only apply to EU member states, to apply to Switzerland. Section 4 is a standard feature which gives the short title to the Bill, the collective citation, and provides for a commencement order to be made by the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

When these agreements enter into force, they will constitute an important step in the development of formal relations between the EU and Switzerland and will form the basis for the future development of relations to the mutual benefit of both sides. I hope Ireland will use the provisions of the agreements to promote more bilateral contacts. The agreements will certainly provide opportunities to do so. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to Deputies' contributions.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  My sole criticism of the Bill is that it has taken the Government so long to bring it before the House. I welcome the arrangements that have been made with Switzerland and I am delighted that we are honoured by the presence of the Swiss ambassador, who is keeping an eye on us to ensure we complete the ratification procedures. This debate should have taken place a long time ago given that all the agreements were signed in Luxembourg two and a half years ago. Why is Ireland at the end of the queue in terms of completing its ratification procedures? That sends the wrong signal to the EU and to our friends in Switzerland.

The Minister of State admitted in his contribution that the only other laggards in the proceedings are the Belgians and it must be borne in mind that they have particular difficulties because of their parliamentary structure, which involves regional Parliaments, and the complicated ratification procedures they must undergo. We have no such complaints and we have not done our relationships with the EU or the Swiss any good by being at the end of the queue.

How important is our relationship with Switzerland? As I undertook research in preparation for the debate I was surprised at how extensive is Ireland's relationship with Switzerland. Everybody is aware of the historic relationship between the two countries whereby Irish monks estab[604] lished monasteries in Switzerland long ago but in recent times this relationship has been more remunerative from Ireland's point of view. Ireland's trade with Switzerland is absolutely enormous. Switzerland is our 12th largest trading partner, tenth largest export market and fourth largest non-EU trading partner behind the US, Japan and Singapore. Our trade with Switzerland this year will amount to almost £2 billion, which is an enormous sum.

We should have taken steps much sooner to complete the ratification of these agreements in the context of good relations with such a major trading nation. It must be borne in mind that a referendum was held on them in Switzerland and, subsequently, they were ratified, but this took place more than a year and a half ago. It is of no credit to us in terms of the significant trading relationship Ireland has with Switzerland that the Government has dallied for so long before bringing the legislation before the House. The balance of trade is 5:1 in our favour, which means that Switzerland is a large export market for us but it is not only in terms of trade that we should be more careful about our relationship with the Swiss.

However, the Swiss will hope, as a result of these agreements, to further penetrate our markets, and more luck to them as they are entitled to do so. Almost 30 companies are based in Ireland employing approximately 2,500 people while almost 60,000 Swiss tourists visit Ireland every year. I offer a genuine, sincere céad míle fáilte on behalf of the Opposition to the Swiss Government and its people. I assure them that whatever about the delays on the part of Government, there will be no delay on the part of the Opposition in ensuring the Bill is passed speedily so that Ireland can join with the other EU member states in ratifying the agreements.

As far as the Swiss are concerned the agreements are a step on the road to their strategic objective, which is membership of the EU. I very much look forward to the day the Swiss Confederation becomes a member of the EU. Enlargement of the EU, which involves the accession of 12 new states, will take place in the near future. The accession negotiations have been accelerated and will be agreed, subject to Ireland not holding them up, before the end of next year. At that stage, Switzerland will be completely surrounded by the EU.

I am aware it takes an historic approach of individuality and neutrality dating back to the 16th century. However, the world moves on and there is a gathering lobby in Switzerland to bring the country into the European Union. I would like the message to go from the Dáil to the Swiss people that they will be encouraged in every way to aim towards membership of the European Union. I hope the Government will send a clear signal that Ireland is in favour of enlargement, both immediate enlargement and enlargement down the line to include Switzerland. I appreciate [605] there was a development recently in relation to a referendum on the issue in Switzerland. It was not supported by the main political parties at the time because it was considered to be premature. I hope there will be a referendum in the future which will allow Switzerland join the European Union.

This raises the question as to whether Ireland will welcome that. We on the Opposition benches want to send a signal of welcome to the Swiss by building on these agreements which we are now ratifying. It will encourage the Swiss to develop their pro-European Union approach and help them in their strategic objective of joining the Union. The Government must ensure there is a clear signal from Ireland that we are in favour of enlargement of the European Union. I have no doubt the failure of the Government last June to get the Nice referendum through sent a directly contrary signal.

Mr. E. Ryan: Information on Eoin Ryan  Zoom on Eoin Ryan  And yourselves.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Unfortunately for the country, Fine Gael was not in power at the time nor was it running the referendum campaign. Since the Minister of State raised the issue, Fine Gael was the only political party which actively campaigned in favour of the referendum. There was no evidence of any input of confidence in the constituencies on the part of the Government. That was the main reason the referendum was lost. However, that issue is now over and done with.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  No commitment.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  That result has done tremendous damage to our political credit in Europe. It has sent out the wrong signal not just to the Swiss – I accept that is not an immediate issue – but particularly to the applicant countries who are queuing up to join the European Union. It will be extremely detrimental to Ireland's interest if we follow up that with the current inaction on the part of the Government. We could end up next year being the only country—

Mr. E. Ryan: Information on Eoin Ryan  Zoom on Eoin Ryan  The Deputy's party is the only party not participating.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Fine Gael is the only party which has put forward a proposal on what to do. I am pleased the Minister of State has given me the opportunity to deal with that issue.

We have burnt up our political credit in Europe because of the failure of the Government to get the Nice referendum through. It will be extremely detrimental to our long-term standing in the European Union, particularly throughout Central and Eastern Europe, if we are responsible for delaying the enlargement process or making it more difficult. It now seems likely we will end up in a minority of one next year, being the only member state of the Union that has not ratified the Nice Treaty. That will put us in the most difficult and exposed position ever in the European [606] Union. We will be isolated, out in the margins and exposed. The reason for that is the continuing failure of the Government to do anything about the Nice Treaty.

The Minister of State spoke about participating. Participating in what? Does he mean participating in a circus in Dublin Castle which exists solely as a camouflage to cover the fact that the Government will do, and has done, nothing about its failure to put through the Treaty of Nice?

Mr. E. Ryan: Information on Eoin Ryan  Zoom on Eoin Ryan  That is nonsense.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  I do not want to rehash the arguments in relation to the forum.

Mr. E. Ryan: Information on Eoin Ryan  Zoom on Eoin Ryan  I do not blame the Deputy.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  I will if I am invited to do so.

Acting Chairman (Mr. McGrath): Deputy O'Keeffe, without interruption.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  I will deal with the issue on the basis of the view of the Minister for Foreign Affairs who unfortunately is not here today. As far as I am aware, he is shaking hands with the Pope today and, given the upcoming election, he will want his blessing. I wish he were here. He had to deal last week with the confusion of the circus in Dublin Castle by making a strong statement in the Seanad. He condemned the Nice Treaty confusion which emanated from the castle –The Irish Times of 22 November. He had to go on record in the Seanad to condemn what was happening in the castle in regard to the misinformation being disseminated. He focused in particular on the statement of the Danish MEP, Jens Peter Bonde, who was still seeking to imply that accession of the new members could take place under the Treaty of Amsterdam, that there was no need for the Treaty of Nice. It is ridiculous that a platform is being given to people who are so anti-European that they are prepared to spread misinformation in the circus created by the Government in Dublin Castle.

I am saying to the Government, let us send out a proper signal in regard to enlargement. Let the Government be prepared to show leadership on this issue. Rather than referring it to a talk shop or sub-committee, I demanded from the Taoiseach yesterday – I had hoped to present it to the Minister for Foreign Affairs today, but the Minister of State will no doubt pass on my demand – the Government's plan or programme as to what it will do about the Treaty of Nice. The Taoiseach accepted in the Dáil yesterday that there is no question of the Treaty of Nice being renegotiated. He accepts there must be another referendum. I imagine he accepts, as does Fine Gael, that there cannot be just a replay of the same match. That presupposes that steps will have to be taken and measures put in place before the next referendum. We must bear in mind the timeframe. If these measures are not [607] taken now we will not be in a position to have the referendum on time, and the consequences will be dire. The worst case scenario is that we will be the only member state holding up enlargement. That is the grim scenario which confronts us because of the failure of leadership on the part of the Government and its failure to put forward any coherent set of proposals on this issue.

Acting Chairman:  I am sorry to have to interrupt the Deputy. As he is aware, Second Stage must conclude at 12.30 p.m. I must call on the Minister of State to respond at 12.15 p.m. If the Deputy's colleague wishes to have a few minutes, perhaps Deputy O'Keeffe will allow him to do so.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Certainly, I understood I had a 30 minute slot.

Acting Chairman:  Yes, a 30 minute slot which, in theory, would bring the Deputy to 12.25 p.m. I am obliged to call the Minister of State at 12.15 p.m. unless he wishes to concede a few minutes.

Mr. O'Keeffe:  As I wish to allow time for Deputy Durkan perhaps we will both have to stand aside.

May I just complete the point I am making on this issue of enlargement because it is quite important? I want to get away from party politics. The Fine Gael Party has set out its proposals on its view of the future of Europe and what should be done following the failure of the Government to have the Nice treaty ratified. It is a 40 page document containing a six point programme of action for consultation purposes. I saw criticism of our plan which said it was too prescriptive. Of course we have set out what we think should be done. It may not be the last word but where is the Government's plan? I do not want the Minister of State to say that a forum has been set up. That is the typical example of a gang who do not know what to do and who will refer it to a sub-committee and do nothing. I plead with the Government to avail of the expertise available in the Department, the Institute of European Affairs and the universities – where some excellent papers have been written. They should put together a programme of action which we can debate and begin to implement so that we will be able to return to the people in good time with a new approach on the treaty. I make that plea in the national interest. Do not tell me that the circus in Dublin Castle will produce that. The only people who can produce a programme for the Government is the Government itself. I demand that it be produced without further delay. It has been six months since their failure on the Nice treaty.

Switzerland is welcome as regards these agreements. I am glad we are ratifying them at long last. I hope to welcome Switzerland as a full member of the European Union in the not too distant future. I heartily endorse this Bill.

[608]Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  As with my colleague Deputy O'Keeffe, I welcome this legislation. I am glad to note the presence of our good friend, the Swiss Ambassador, who campaigned strongly to have the legislation brought to this point. I am sorry it took from June 1999 until now to bring this legislation forward. It is far too long for the institutions either within or associated with the EU to react. This being one of them does not bode well for the future.

This is effectively a treaty of the Union with a country that is surrounded by the EU and where it is deemed by both sides to be impossible to exist without each other. There is a lesson for Ireland in that too. In recent years we have seen marches against the global economy all around the world. They suggested that smaller countries would be swamped by the global economy and could not exist. In reality the opposite is the case. The smaller the country in a tariff ridden market the more vulnerable it is. A small country with a small economy, surrounded by larger neighbours, cannot exist in a tariff protected market. It is the reverse of what has been suggested by those involved in the protest marches. I have never heard anyone propose a reasonable suggestion to the contrary. It always follows that if a country is dealing with a powerful neighbour which has access to and reliance on tariffs to protect their trade, they will win out. I cannot understand how this argument has been regurgitated in recent years. It is extremely important for all small countries with small economies to recognise that the existence of tariffs and barriers to free trade is the biggest obstacle that they face. It is lethal as far as small countries are concerned.

I am glad we are having this kind of debate in the House. The Committee on European Affairs has done its best to generate debate on European issues and we meet on a weekly basis. Unfortunately this House does not involve itself sufficiently in debates that involve European trade, politics, cohesion or anything else. That has been remiss of us and we have paid the price for it.

Notwithstanding the Minister's reservation about what Deputy Jim O'Keeffe has said, I do not know if it is fully understood the serious position Ireland finds itself in vis-à-vis Nice and our involvement with the EU. Switzerland is surrounded by the EU but Ireland is on the periphery and anything we do or say that causes further isolation is a serious matter and will have serious consequences for the country, its people and its economy. We can be as aloof as we like and stand apart from the European Union and criticise it but as long as we distance ourselves from it we are creating circumstances that could very well come back to haunt us. I hope the tiger economy we have experienced does not become the instrument whereby we become arrogant to the extent where we think we can exist without the Union. We cannot and we had better realise that. The European institutions need to realise one or two things as well. The Union comprises a group of nations with different traditions, backgrounds [609] and histories. The institutions must keep that it mind whenever negotiations of this nature take place. Failure to do so will result in a repeat of the debacle we had on the referendum on the Treaty of Nice. Any repeat of that will have serious long-term consequences for Ireland.

There is no doubt that work to date has done nothing to address the issues that were raised. I know the Minister will point to the forum and say that debate exists there. Several representatives of the applicant countries, and some from Union member states, have attended the forum and are deeply concerned at what they have seen and heard. The fundamental issues that should have been debated in the run up to the referendum are not taking place now. The issues are not being addressed. If we fudge the issues, avoid them or move away from them, we would be running away from our responsibilities. Responsibility rests in the first instance, not with the Opposition who are doing their best, but with the Government. Unfortunately that is the way it is.

The nearer we get to the final date for ratification of the Treaty of Nice the more serious it becomes from Ireland's point of view. Time is fast running out. By the middle of next year a general election will have taken place and there will be no further progress on the debate on the treaty between now and then. The time for debate between then and the end of the year – which is the deadline for ratification – will be extremely limited. I do not think it can happen. We are now seen by other member states as holding up progress towards integration and that is a serious matter. We await the debate at Laeken but that will not resolve our problems because I do not think it will be sufficiently wide ranging to give some kind of assistance to pro Europeans.

Where we have failed is in the institutions in this country. It is all very well saying that 90% of the political system was in favour of the Treaty of Nice and was pro-European. That is not enough. It gives them too much latitude and a cause célèbre with which to exploit the argument from the opposite side.

One of the issues that has hamstrung the Irish position is the over-reliance on the issue of neutrality, which was the least important issue. The real critical issues were the three or four other main ones raised during the debate on the Treaty of Nice. These will have a much more significant impact on our way of life and the future evolution of Europe and Ireland's participation in it.

I hope that the Government and everybody in this country recognises that participation in Europe is not an opt in or opt out situation. It is not a case of cherry-picking where we can pick the good parts and walk away from our responsibilities. It is something we all have a commitment to contribute to. If we do not do so as readily as expected, the institution will fall. I support the proposal and I welcome a similar response in relation to our addressing the issue of the Treaty of Nice.

[610]Mr. E. Ryan: Information on Eoin Ryan  Zoom on Eoin Ryan  I join other Members in welcoming Ambassador Pfister to the House. He has been anxious that this legislation should go through the House, as was his predecessor, Ambassador Hold, who raised the issue with many of us during his term of office.

I thank the Deputies who have contributed to this Second Stage debate on the European Communities and Swiss Confederation Bill, 2001. I am grateful for the support expressed from all sides, which reflects the desire on all our parts to take the steps necessary to ensure the further development of close and harmonious relationships between the European Union and Switzerland.

It will remain a matter for the Swiss people to decide how they wish to conduct their future relations with the European Union. Because of its geographical location at the heart of the EU, its cultural affinity with the member states and its status as a highly developed market economy, we in the EU should take all steps necessary to ensure that at every level they progress both efficiently and effectively. The seven sectoral agreements covered by this Bill will significantly contribute to this aim when they come into force next year.

Negotiations between the EU and Switzerland on future agreements in other sectors such as co-operation against fraud, on the environment, statistics, liberalisation of trade and on processed agricultural products are already under way. In addition, consideration has been given to negotiations in different areas such as trade and services, Swiss participation in Community programmes on training, issues concerning youth and media, savings and taxation and on the important area of justice and home affairs. I trust that negotiations in all areas will yield fruitful results, of benefit to both sides.

Had Switzerland decided to participate in the European Economic Area together with the European Union, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, almost all the contents of the seven agreements discussed and the likely content of future agreements would have already applied to Switzerland. The democratic decision of the Swiss people was not to participate in the EEA. Therefore, rather than regretting what might have been, we should work together to achieve the best results for everyone in the EU and in Switzerland.

The Government hopes that the new agreements will lead to further strengthening of bilateral relations between Ireland and Switzerland. Very few, if any, problems exist between us in any event. I see greater opportunities for trade – where Ireland already enjoys a favourable balance – for the development of tourism and for promoting contacts between universities and research institutes as a consequence of these agreements. I am confident that the Swiss Government and people share that view.

In answer to the question about the delay in bringing this Bill forward, it was originally intended to bring forward the necessary legislat[611] ive provisions to enable Ireland to ratify the agreement on the free movement of persons in the context of the Immigration Carriers Liability Bill which has been proposed by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The expectation was that this would be published in mid-2001 and that it would progress through the Oireachtas in good time to allow Ireland to ratify the agreement along with the other EU states before the end of this year. However, given the expected timetable for that legislation, it became clear that it was unlikely to be passed in time to allow Ireland meet the target date for ratification. We decided, in consultation with the Attorney General's office and other Government Departments, that the best course was to prepare a separate Bill modelled on the European Communities (Amendment) Act, 1993, which provided for the ratification of the European Economic Area agreement ensuring that necessary adaptation required to give effect to the agreement would be made.

We are not the last country to ratify this. The Netherlands and Germany have done so only in recent weeks and France and Belgium have yet to do so. We are still reflecting on the results of the Treaty of Nice referendum. The reasons for its defeat are many and varied. Most of them had little to do with the treaty itself but reflected wider concerns. Through the forum on Europe, we have launched a national debate on Europe.

It was abundantly clear from the low turnout in the referendum and from the Commission survey that there is a need for a mature and wide-ranging debate. We welcome Fine Gael's proposals. I believe they are concrete and I believe the party is committed to the whole idea of Europe and its enlargement as well as the way we move forward, as is Fianna Fáil. I hope and believe it will emerge that it is in our national interest to be active and committed members of the EU. This is true for our economy, society and our interests as a small country in a globalising and uncertain world.

It has already emerged in the forum that there is continuing support for enlargement which is in our economic and political interests and is the right thing to do. If enlargement is to proceed on schedule, the Treaty of Nice will have to be ratified by the end of 2002. We are determined to find a way forward that will make this possible.

Question put and agreed to.

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