Wednesday, 22 October 2003
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Roche): I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to open this afternoon's discussion and update the House on the outcome of the European Convention and the opening of the Intergovernmental Conference. I know many Senators followed the work of the convention with keen interest through the Joint Committee on European Affairs and other fora and I hope they will continue to follow developments at the Intergovernmental Conference with equal interest.
The Government is committed to keeping the Oireachtas and the public fully informed of developments at the Intergovernmental Conference. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and I briefed Dáil Éireann last week on its opening in Rome, and the Minister will brief it tomorrow as part of the report on the outcome of last week's European Council meeting. Members of the Oireachtas will also have received the explanatory guide to the draft constitutional treaty published last week by the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Joint Committee on European Affairs proved extremely useful during the European Convention by allowing for an exchange of views between the Government and the Oireachtas. I hope its good work will continue to play a vital role in informing our deliberations at the Intergovernmental Conference.
The Taoiseach will speak and answer questions at a meeting of the National Forum on Europe at Dublin Castle tomorrow. The forum has also planned a programme of meetings with a view to monitoring developments at the Intergovernmental Conference. The Government is publishing its formal submissions to the Intergovernmental Conference on the Department of Foreign Affairs website, thus maintaining the spirit of openness and transparency that marked the work of the convention. Our aim is to ensure the public, Members of the Oireachtas and all interested parties are as informed as possible on issues relating to the Intergovernmental Conference.
When I last appeared before this House at the beginning of June, the negotiations at the convention were approaching their final stages. On that occasion, I spoke in very positive terms of what had been achieved. Now that the convention has concluded, I am pleased I can repeat a great deal of that praise. The convention method itself helps to explain much of its success. Drawing together governments and national parliaments from both current and future member states, the European Parliament and Commission, as well as observers from employers and trades unions, youth and civil society, it could fairly claim to be representative of the views of all European citizens.
We were almost unique in Ireland in that three of our four Oireachtas representatives came from Opposition parties. The Irish convention team was universally recognised as having been one of the strongest. I pay a particularly warm tribute to Deputy John Bruton, who played a particularly strong role as a member of both the Praesidium and the convention, and Proinsias De Rossa, as well as their alternates, Deputies Carey and Gormley. They comprised a very strong team.
I thank my predecessor Ray MacSharry and my alternate, Bobby McDonagh, of the Department of Foreign Affairs. I also thank the officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs who played an extraordinary role in briefing not just me and the Government representatives but all sides. I refer in particular to Rory Montgomery and Helen Blake, two officials who proved once again, as if we needed proof in this House, that Irish public officials can stand up to competition and are certainly equal to those of any other member state. Our officials did considerable service to the nation in the way they approached their task. All of the Irish members engaged positively in the convention and our contribution is reflected in the final text.
The convention's commitment to openness and transparency meant the thousands of papers, contributions, draft amendments and the views of all participants were publicly available to all. It is almost unimaginable that we could return to the old methods of treaty change and I am very pleased that the convention method is set to become the norm in the future.
There is a great deal in the draft constitutional treaty to recommend. It found consensus where consensus had proven impossible in previous treaty negotiations. The convention managed to find agreement on the following: a single legal personality for the Union; a simplified and comprehensible legislative framework; the clear delineation of the roles of the Union and the member states; the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights into the draft constitutional treaty, without expanding the Union's area of competence; and the consolidation of the existing treaties in a coherent and comprehensible way. The convention also produced a very striking outline of the values on which the Union is based, including human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, and objectives including the promotion of peace, freedom, justice, sustainable development and full employment. These values are espoused by all public representatives and, most importantly, by every citizen in the State.
Navigating the Union's decision-making procedures can often seem like navigating through a very complex maze. The convention recognised this and proposed radical changes. The so-called three-pillar structure has been abolished and the number of different legal instruments has been substantially reduced, from 15 to five. The remaining legal instruments have been renamed to make them more easily understood and to bring them more into line with national practice in the member states.
The convention has also taken a significant step forward in enhancing the role of national parliaments and in monitoring the application of the principle of subsidiarity. Commission proposals will be sent to national parliaments at the same time as they are sent to governments and the European Parliament, and national parliaments will be empowered to object to the proposals if they feel that subsidiarity has not been respected. This innovation will be very welcome to Members of this House. Where one third of parliaments, or more, objects, the Commission will be obliged to reconsider its proposal. At the end of the legislative process, if parliaments feel their concerns still have not been addressed, they can have recourse to the European Court of Justice.
As might have been expected, considerable attention has been paid to the convention outcome regarding the institutions. The Government has welcomed it because the convention proposals in general have respected the balances between the member states and the balances between the institutions. Those balances have been critical to the success of the Union to date.
The Intergovernmental Conference will, however, involve further detailed discussions on these key issues. For example, some small countries were among the early advocates of a long-term President of the European Council. We did not seek the creation of this post, but we believe it is now defined in a way that protects the interests of the Commission and which will ensure its holder is more chairman than chief. We hope it will, as its supporters argue, bring more coherence and a longer-term perspective to the work of the European Council. Likewise, a small number believe that a restricted Commission is more likely to be collegiate and effective than one in which every member state is represented. The countervailing and increasingly supported argument that a Commission drawn from the widest possible range of member states is more likely to be aware of and responsive to concerns on the ground, and thus more legitimate, is also very strong.
The essence of the convention compromise, that all member states will be represented at all times but with a smaller number of voting commissioners appointed on the basis of strictly equal rotation, is broadly acceptable to us. Although it builds on the proposal agreed at Nice, aspects of the arrangement need to be teased out. For example, what precisely would be the roles of the voting and non-voting commissioners? On the other hand, many countries are arguing strongly for one voting commissioner per member state. If this can be achieved on terms which protect the genuine equality of all commissioners and member states, as was agreed at Nice, we would welcome it. At the end of this process, we want a Commission which is effective, embraces genuine equality and serves and reflects the interests of all member states, large and small. Throughout the process, I have repeatedly emphasised that equality is of the essence.
A third key element of the institutional package proposed by the convention relates to the definition of a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers. It is proposed that a qualified majority would consist of a majority of member states representing more than 60% of the population. This is known as the 50-60 formula. While I would have been comfortable retaining the Nice voting weights, I can happily accept the convention text. The new proposals have the considerable advantage of greater simplicity and should also lead to greater efficiency in decision-making. In any case, Ireland's weight at the Council table has never been measured in terms of population. Instead, our success has been determined by our ability to build and maintain alliances and the force of our arguments. This will continue to be the case.
At the meeting in Rome on 4 October to open the Intergovernmental Conference, the Heads of State or Government of the member and observer countries, including the Taoiseach, set out their broad negotiating stances. The Taoiseach made clear that we will respect the outcome of the convention as a good basis for our work. We do not wish to see all its work unravelled, nor do we want the Intergovernmental Conference to be simply a rubber stamp. We have a number of key concerns we wish to see addressed, including decision-making in taxation matters and other matters in the justice and home affairs area.
An ongoing political discussion regarding the institutions will need to conclude before we reach final agreement. While we support the further extension of qualified majority voting, with co-decision by the European Parliament, there remains a small number of areas where unanimity must be maintained. One of these areas, identified by Ireland at the outset, is taxation which is central to the relationship between citizens and their governments. While I am glad the convention draft retains the need for unanimous decisions in almost all areas of taxation, the Government will continue to oppose any departure from this principle and will want to see a watertight final text.
The Convention has made important advances in recommending enhanced European action against cross-border crime. Deputy John Bruton, as chairman of the relevant working group, played a major part in this. It is also important, however, that the new arrangements do not affect the deeply rooted traditions and practices of member states or the constitutional rights of their people. We will seek to ensure that this is guaranteed.
Security and defence issues were discussed informally by Heads of State and Government and Foreign Ministers last week. These important issues will also be discussed in detail next month. The Government's main objective in this area is to achieve an outcome which will enable the Union to play a greater role for good internationally, while respecting the values and traditions of member states. At the Intergovernmental Conference, we will seek to clarify the various proposals contained in the draft treaty and, in doing so, we will argue that any new arrangements in the security and defence area should be transparent, inclusive and accountable to the Union as a whole. It is clear that further work is required in a number of areas, in particular, structured co-operation and defence.
The Convention proposals contain much that is welcome. Commitments to human rights, sustainable development, conflict prevention and the UN Charter are clearly stated in the principles and objectives of EU external action, to which Ireland contributed in the convention. The appointment of a European Union Minister for Foreign Affairs will increase the coherence and visibility of the Union's external action. The ESDP is central to the Union's efforts to develop a role in support of shared values such as peace, democracy and human rights. This year, the European Union has undertaken three missions in the Balkans and central Africa, which is fully consistent with our approach.
If the European Union is to make a contribution internationally, we need to further develop its civilian and military capabilities for conflict prevention and crisis management under the ESDP. The draft treaty states that enhancement of member states' military capabilities is in the context of the Petersberg Tasks. As a responsible member state committed to playing a part in peacekeeping and conflict prevention, we need to ensure that our capabilities, both civilian and military, are at a level that will enable us to continue to make a contribution to the maintenance of international peace and security.
Developing the Union's capacity in crisis management is fully consistent with our commitment to the United Nations. Kofi Annan has welcomed the role the European Union is playing in this area. Last month in New York, the European Union signed a declaration with the United Nations on co-operation in crisis management. It makes clear that the European Union and the United Nations are committed to working together in this area, a development which all Senators will welcome.
Ireland's commitment to the United Nations is undiminished. The Government will shortly seek the agreement of the Dáil for the deployment of a substantial Irish contingent to the recently established UN peacekeeping operation in Liberia. We will continue to play our part in support of the United Nations nationally and, together with our partners, through the ESDP. Equally, we will continue to make sovereign decisions, on a case by case basis, on whether to participate in future crisis management operations. As I stated clearly in the past, this means a Government decision, Dáil approval and United Nations authorisation – the triple lock mechanism.
We will also take our own decisions in regard to proposals for an EU common defence. While the current treaties already provide for the possibility of common defence, no agreement has been reached thus far to move in this direction. As I have made clear in the House previously, the proposals drawn up by the convention do not change the current position as regards common defence, on which Ireland's position is clear. While we have stated we would not stand in the way of others, we cannot participate in European Union common defence without the prior consent of the people in a referendum.
The proposals on security and defence need to be properly discussed by all member states and clarified. This discussion is just beginning and Prime Ministers had a useful debate on this issue last week. The Government is working to seek the clarification needed on these and other issues to secure an outcome that is good for the Union and acceptable to the people. We are working hard in the Intergovernmental Conference to ensure that our core concerns are addressed.
There is a group of other issues where we feel that improvements could be made to the text without fundamentally changing the balance and coherence of the convention outcome. For instance, ECOFIN Ministers, including the Minister for Finance, have been working to develop a consensus on changes to some of the budgetary and economic governance articles. The Government will also support a reference to God or Europe's Christian heritage in the preamble of the constitutional treaty should an agreed wording prove possible.
The Intergovernmental Conference has held four meetings to date, including two at prime ministerial level. The Italian Presidency is seeking to conclude the negotiations by the end of the year and the Government has expressed its strong support for its efforts to manage the agenda and conclude the Intergovernmental Conference before Christmas. Should it not prove possible to find agreement, we will be fully prepared to take on the work and conclude the new constitutional treaty in time for the European Parliament elections next June.
Discussions will be intensive and concentrated over the next two months. I hope and, on the evidence of the meetings to date, believe that the negotiations at the Intergovernmental Conference will be characterised by the same constructive spirit that ensured the successful outcome of the convention. Although some difficult details were dealt with in the past two weeks at the level of Foreign Ministers and Heads of Government, the relationship between all participating parties was cordial and positive. At the same time, each country must be able to see its concerns have been reflected in the final outcome. We are designing a constitutional treaty for the future that must work as well as the existing treaties have worked in the past. We are designing a treaty that, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, said in the Dáil last week, must serve to “unite the member states and the citizens across the European Union”. The Government will approach the Intergovernmental Conference in the same way that it did the convention and all previous treaty negotiations. We will be positive and will engage with all of our partners. Europe has served us well in the past. We have nothing to fear and much to gain from the new constitutional treaty in the future.
Mr. Bradford: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, to the House. He has addressed us on a number of occasions concerning matters on European policy. It adds greatly to the debate in the House and I thank him for his contribution.
All of us have received copies of the proposed draft constitution for Europe. When it is finalised in the near future, hopefully with minimal change and some clarification, it will be a magnificent document. The guarantee of the future economic and social progress of the European Union will be within the pages of the treaty. It will be the greatest guarantee of peace and stability across a huge part of the world. We can only reflect on how different the world would have been if there was such thinking, political progress and unanimity a century ago. Literally, hundreds of millions of lives would have been saved if the type of politics which we are now agreed on had been agreed then. A century might sound like a long time but in the context of world history it is a short time. In that short time we have come a long way. This proposed constitution for Europe will be the final guarantee necessary that the Continent of Europe will continue to be a beacon of civilisation, progress and peace.
Our current debate on the proposed constitution and the Intergovernmental Conference is tremendous because it has been so open and transparent. Some of my colleagues, including Senator Ryan, were at the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body meeting during the week and while there we discussed the Convention and the future of Europe. One of the constant themes coming from our British colleagues was their view that more transparency is required. I am not sure how widespread the debate on Europe has been within the United Kingdom. Certainly, our debate has been very transparent, be it within the Houses of the Oireachtas, or that led by the Forum on Europe, chaired by our colleague, Senator Maurice Hayes, or the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs. We have done an excellent job in keeping the public as informed as they wished.
I made the point at our British-Irish Interparliamentary Body meeting that regardless of how far we as politicians try to take the debate, it is not always possible to get the public to engage with these matters. We live in a relatively apolitical time when people, despite their access to a huge amount of information, are generally fairly “switched-off” as far as political discourse is concerned. It is only at a time of crisis, or in the run-up to a referendum, that people tune in at a deeper level. To try to engage the public is the problem we face. In fairness to the Government and the Oireachtas, every effort has been made to ensure the people know exactly what is going on in relation to our plans for the future of Europe. When it comes to putting the final agreed treaty before the people, once we approach it on the basis that we approached the second Nice referendum, in an open and transparent fashion, I am confident the people will give it their strong approval.
I am interested in what the Minister of State said about the values of Europe. It is something which we need to concentrate on in attempting to push the debate forward. The values of Europe, as described by the Minister of State Deputy Roche, include human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights while the objectives of Europe include the promotion of peace, freedom, justice, sustainable development and full employment. These are magnificent aspirations. Our job, and that of the Minister of State and the Government, is to ensure these aspirations become real through the treaty. If the debate and the proposed treaty is about putting those aspirations into practical effect then it needs our full support. My party is supportive of everything the Minister of State has been trying to do.
I agree with what the Minister of State said about taxation because one of the issues that will return to play a central role in any future referendum is the right of national governments to ensure taxation measures are laid down at home and not in Brussels. The contract between the people and their government whereby taxation provisions are applied nationally rather than from Brussels must be sacrosanct. This is something which I know the Minister of State Deputy Roche hopes to achieve. It would be a bridge too far for all of us if powers to raise and make taxes were in any way moved from the Houses of the Oireachtas without our wish.
I wish to turn to the defence argument. The Minister for State made the point that Ireland's position on a common defence is very clear and that we have said that while we would not stand in the way of others, we cannot participate in EU common defence without the prior consent of the people in a referendum. That is a valid argument. I echo the comments made by my party colleague, Deputy Mitchell, in the Dáil last week, when he said we must be to the fore of this debate. We can decide to remain covered under the traditional, ever more irrelevant sacred cow of neutrality, or we can try to take part in, and lead, the debate. We have values in this country about defence and neutrality. In the new Europe and the changed world we have a role to play and an ethos to put forward. We should lead the debate on common defence, rather than in five, ten or 20 years time simply signing up to rules agreed by somebody else. I do not think any political party in this House should be ashamed to enter into a debate on traditional neutrality and on common defence. A Europe worth building is surely a Europe worth defending. If we are to play a role in this, that role should come about as a result of decisions taken by the Irish Government after a protracted debate with the Irish people. The Minister of State is aware that the Fine Gael view favours an open and strong national debate on our future on this matter. The sooner that debate takes place the better. Let us not join the game when the rules have already been written.
I welcome the Minister of State's indication that he hopes, if possible and with agreement, to have some treaty reference to the religious ethos of Europe and to God in the preamble or wherever is the appropriate part of the treaty. This has been the subject of a surprising amount of debate. It has been the subject of strong criticism by people who would describe themselves as liberals with a capital “L”. Surely the sign of a liberal is a person who is willing to take on board difference and to listen to another point of view. There is a very deep, profound, strong Christian heritage in Europe. It is something which we should, if at all possible, attempt to have reflected in the preamble or by some other mechanism in the treaty. I am pleased the Government is apparently moving in that direction. The Intergovernmental Conference is continuing its work and we will have a chance before its conclusion to debate the final draft again.
The work done to date and the draft treaty are as good as it gets. The treaty sets out a route for Europe which will build on our history and heritage and ensure a bright future for the millions of citizens of Europe, particularly the citizens of applicant countries. Consider the Europe which existed 15 years ago. A wall of concrete, steel and wire divided the Continent and its people. We have come a long way since then. We are proud of the role we have played in the development of the Union but the people who are probably most looking forward to enlargement and the passing of this treaty are those who, through one form of dictatorship or another, spent hundreds of years in some type of servitude. We are drafting a route map to give those people freedom, justice and economic prosperity. The quicker we can finish the job, the better. I wish the Minister and his colleagues well in their continued work in that regard.
Ms Ormonde: I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Roche. His brief is to take the lead in the debate on the future of Europe. At every stage of the debate he has taken a prominent role and has clearly articulated the position not only to the Houses, but also to the public. The core issue we are discussing today is how to make the new treaty readable, understandable and accessible to the public.
This process started with the referendum on the Nice treaty when the public felt it was isolated. The Government, under the stewardship of the Minister of State, decided to deal with this and that is the reason we are having this debate today. The Minister of State has always made himself available when this issue has come up for debate in this Chamber, in the Oireachtas committee and in the Forum for Europe, under the chairmanship of Senator Maurice Hayes. He has been available to answer questions, listen to debate and to find out where the problems might lie. It is only by listening that one can arrive at the ideal answer for the future of Europe.
The background to the draft treaty was the Convention on Europe which discussed the issues and arrived at a set of recommendations for a new integrated treaty that will be closer to citizens and understandable by all. The Convention covered three main areas: the need to have a clear, simplified treaty, the need for the new Union to play a positive role on the international stage and the need to bring the institutions of Europe into line and make them more effective and efficient in handling their administrative responsibilities. The Convention did its work well. I pay tribute to the Irish members of the Convention, Deputy John Bruton, Proinsias De Rossa, MEP, Deputy Carey and Deputy Gormley. Each time one read a paper on the future of Europe and about how the discussions were progressing, those four names regularly appeared. It was clear that they did a good job on our behalf. They did it splendidly and I appreciate it.
I attended the meeting of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body in London over the weekend and a good deal of time was given to this debate. We expressed our views and concerns. A number of speakers mentioned the importance of transparency, connecting with the citizen, clarity and making the language as understandable as possible. Many felt that we were right to put the treaty to a referendum. That means we must get it right and simplify it. Other members wondered if they should put it to a referendum as well. It was a worthwhile discussion and I was pleased to participate in it.
The draft constitution covers four areas. The first part deals with the values and objectives of the treaty and how best to relate them to the public. The one I like is the principle of subsidiarity. It is the area in which I believe we can make great progress to ensure that member states make the decisions which should be confined to them. In other words, if decisions can be made at national or local level, they should not be handed over to Brussels. That principle is reflected in the draft treaty and I welcome that. It always works. In the debate earlier today we discussed another aspect of local democracy. It is most important that we never lose the concept of involvement at local and national level before moving an issue to the European scene.
Another lovely concept, which we have heard much about in GAA circles, is the yellow card. It means that if Brussels produces legislation with which we are unhappy, a member state can reflect this view and if Brussels does not adhere to it, the state can produce a yellow card. The public will love the yellow card procedure because people are already tuned in to the warning signal it implies. I am delighted that it is incorporated in the debate. There is also the scrutiny procedure. If we are unhappy with proposals from Brussels, we can ask that they be reviewed and that different proposals be brought forward.
With regard to the common foreign and security policy, I welcome the aspects dealing with how we contribute to peace and how the Union will operate on the international stage in relation to foreign policy, development co-operation, highlighting the importance of human rights, the role of the United Nations and the Union's role in conflict prevention and post-conflict situations. We will incorporate the amendment which was incorporated in the second referendum on the Nice treaty to provide that Ireland cannot enter into an EU common defence arranged without the consent of the people in a referendum. The core fear was that our position would be diluted in future referenda so I am glad the Government has reiterated its stand in that regard.
The key issue is the future of the Union's institutions. A number of changes will take place in how they work. There is ongoing discussion of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, its membership and representation and whether it should last for a year. I am anxious to hear the Minister's view on whether decisions should be taken by qualified majority voting or unanimously. I am a little woolly on that. There is ongoing debate about it so perhaps the Minister would comment on it. I am sure how one could become a voting or non-voting commissioner and how that could work would become a discussion point if one had to go to a public meeting. We would not like to think our commissioner was playing a passive role based on our small population. These are areas the public may wish to discuss. Our population is becoming very educated. It came out very strongly in the last referendum that they really wanted us to discuss those issues and say in simple terms where the changes would take place.
I am happy that, in taxation matters, our Parliament will retain control. That is very important. On justice and home affairs, I welcome the fact we will participate in cross-border co-operation on crime. Again, there is a reservation on that. I take it those are areas on which there are ongoing discussions. As the Minister has reassured me in his own presentation, the discussion seems to be going quite well to reach a consensus agreement so that no one will feel his or her position has been undermined in any way.
I am glad to be here as part of today's discussion and glad that most of the recommendations that came through from the convention will be adhered to. Ultimately, we are here to talk about simplification. I want to ensure that Mr. Citizen will know what I am talking about if I discuss the future of Europe and Ireland's role in it. We will not lose our identity or our national front in any way. We will be able to say we have to be part of Europe, but we are individuals. We hold our individuality dear. In the end we will have an integrated treaty that will be accepted. We will be part of Europe, but Ireland stands alone as it always did. I would like reassurance on that from the Minister. I know he has said it, but it cannot be said enough. It must be said many times to get the message across that we will have a whole new approach to Europe that we can sell at ease to the public the next time we go to them.
I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Roche, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Taoiseach and the Government for steering matters in this direction and giving everyone an opportunity to get involved. That is how democracy works for us.
Mr. Ryan: I welcome the Minister. He and I have had many a debate, both public and private, about many issues, and his appointment was welcome. The best man for the job was without a doubt appointed by the Taoiseach. His enthusiasm for this whole project and other qualifications and skills have been put to good effect. We were well served in this country by those who worked on our behalf at the Convention. One should include the role of the current President of the European Parliament, who I believe has made a considerable contribution to the development of an understanding.
I wish to be awkward at the start and then be a little more positive. This treaty contains a very valuable set of principles about European freedoms. I invite people to consider whether it is possible for a country to meet those standards if its Prime Minister owns and controls, either personally or politically, the best part of 90% of all television output in the state. That is the position in Italy. I do not wish to make a huge issue out of it, but the question has been raised by such journals as The Economist, which would not necessarily be identified with the constitution. I encourage anyone to read The Economist, which is fine and challenging, but it is not very keen on the new constitution, as the Minister probably knows better than I.
Nevertheless, fine statements about democratic principles are of course good, and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights is a good thing, though one of the things that came up a few times at the British-Irish conference which we all attended was that we now have a European Convention on Human Rights and a European Charter, along with some domestic legislation. The question arose of potential conflicts and confusions. I appreciate the documents have different jurisdictions, one covering the EU and the other the Council of Europe. Nevertheless, several parliamentarians from both Britain and Ireland mentioned that we may be creating a wonderful gold mine for lawyers and might need to clarify matters in language if not in values, which are presumably the same in them all.
One of our negotiators at the Convention made the point – once someone has said something one thinks it is obvious – that since the beginning of the last century there have been only three countries on the entire Continent of Europe with a longer period of continuous democracy than this State, namely the United Kingdom, Sweden and Switzerland. Some of us have our doubts about the first because of its peculiar constitutional arrangements, but we will give it the benefit of the doubt. We are the other one. All the other countries of Europe had their democracy interrupted in the last century, either by internal activities or by invasion.
Democracy is a thing one should never take for granted. I have always believed that, if the powers of 200 or 300 years ago across Europe ever dreamt that the democratic idea would take off, they would have worked very much harder to suppress it, because it is the most profound revolution that has happened in the way in which people are governed. Let us take the evidence of our own Continent, which is one of the great centres of world civilisation, and think how quickly a country such as Germany can collapse from being a cultural model into the sort of tyranny that enveloped it. It is always worth reminding ourselves about that and about the need always to sustain democracy and be very wary of attacks on it.
The second thing that needs to be said is that, while we will argue, I hope, at length and in detail over the next few years, both about the draft treaty and whatever eventually comes out of the Intergovernmental Conference, this whole project is an enormous improvement. Anyone who has ever tried to read the combined treaties of the last 30 or 40 years – perhaps the Minister has read them all, though I am not saying that he should have—
Mr. Ryan: —will know that it had become entirely impossible, and the choice was between this and stasis. There was no way another major revision of the European treaties could ever have been envisaged by way of further amendment. Even trying to read the Nice treaty led one back to the Amsterdam treaty and so on. They came one after another, and it became utterly impossible. One would actually need a shelf to encompass them all. It was impossible, and the project was therefore a good thing, and overall the outcome is good. The reservations I might have are currently shared by the Government, and I hope it manages to clarify them. Of course, we are at an early step in the process. There is an Intergovernmental Conference, and I believe I heard the Taoiseach say that on this occasion he thought the country should have a long and detailed debate before we had the referendum. Not being too confrontational, I hope that the mistake of having an early referendum in the case of the Nice treaty will not be repeated, because I believe that only good can come of a thorough, long and vigorous debate, which one hopes will be reasonably well funded, on both sides of the argument.
This is one of the areas in respect of which we should look at imaginative ways of using resources. I would be as wary as the Minister of State about some of the cranks and crackpots who might be able to gain access to significant amounts of public money and use it in dodgy ways. However, we ought to try to ensure there is a well resourced debate and people should be able to feel they have access to sufficient funds to be able to make their presence known. That is a difficult matter, but it could be of benefit to both sides to have access to resources because we need an intelligent debate on the issue.
Another point I wish to make has already been raised by a number of colleagues and by the Government and refers to the area of crime. I do not intend to criticise the Government, but its explanatory guide to the draft treaty states that the adoption of minimum rules on the mutual admissibility of evidence shall not prevent member states from maintaining or introducing a higher level of protection for the rights of individuals in criminal procedures. I am in favour of that, but I am wary of future circumstances in which an Irish citizen arrested in Germany or Poland might have fewer rights in one part of the EU than they would have in another in terms of mounting a criminal defence. I understand the complexities involved, but, if anything, that represents a retreat and is part of the reflection of the fact that we are involved in two entirely different legal systems. This is a dodgy area and it is one in respect of which I would counsel the Government to be careful, as I think it will be.
At the meeting of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, I was struck by the reaction of Members of the British Parliament who I would have known as Euro enthusiasts. There were certain people present who made statements that were entirely predictable and I could have written their scripts for them because I am aware of their positions. However, one of those I would have regarded as quite positive about European developments – I do not believe it would be appropriate to name him – who resigned from the British Tory Party because of his disagreement with it on European matters, is quite wary of the entire project. In that context, there is a great deal of explaining to do. People from the British side informed us about a recent meeting they had with Dutch parliamentarians at which, instead of being lectured about their Euro scepticism, their counterparts from the Netherlands showed signs of wariness about where the process is going. There is an enormous job of persuasion to be done if countries such as the Netherlands, which have been involved in the European project since the outset, are beginning to experience, even in passing, wariness about these matters.
Another point worth mentioning about the British delegation is the number of its members who noted the degree to which Europe had been of benefit to this country. They were not referring to the usual cash benefits, but were instead talking about the degree of independence and leverage Ireland enjoys. One could pick up a slight tone of envy from some of our colleagues from Wales and Scotland about their slightly dependent position in terms of these negotiations.
An enormous amount of teasing out must be done in respect of the issue of defence. Let me explore a hypothetical situation. If Russia invaded Denmark, as a European democrat I have no difficulty in stating that, regardless of whether we had a treaty obligation, a country such as Ireland could not stand by and watch a colleague country being threatened with the destruction of its democracy. I would be wary of having to be told in advance that this would have to be done.
I would counsel caution on the taxation veto. I do so not because I want to put the country at risk but on foot of the fact that the absence of a common European policy on taxation means that some of the countries in eastern Europe are going to compete from the bottom with us in terms of their corporation taxation rates. If our rate, at 12.5%, is extremely attractive, then rates of 0% will be hugely attractive if the difference is that decisive. If it does not prove to be that decisive, we should perhaps consider a common baseline. If it is going to be that decisive, we are going to encounter difficulties. I am an enthusiast for expansion but we would need to be somewhat more nuanced in terms of our views on taxation.
Dr. M. Hayes: I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on the work he has been doing. I join in the congratulations extended to the members of the Irish group working in the convention. Deputy John Bruton, who held a pre-eminent position, made an enormous contribution as a member of the Praesidium, as did Proinsias De Rossa, MEP, Deputies Carey and Gormley and the Minister of State's alternate, Mr. Bobby McDonagh. In my opinion, these individuals operated in the best traditions of Irish parliamentarianism in that, despite the different views they might hold, they represented the interests of the country in Brussels and tried to relate them to the broader interests of Europe. My colleagues at the Forum on Europe, of which I am chairman, would want me to express our deep appreciation of the willingness of the Irish delegates to address the forum, convey what was happening in the convention, listen to what its members had to say and use that to inform their contributions in Brussels. I hope this process proved helpful. From now on I will, in a sense, be on my own in terms of expressing my views.
The report of the Convention is a great achievement, not only in terms of its substance but also in terms of the manner in which it came about. As the Minister pointed out, the Convention was a new way of doing business and was more open and transparent. Its purpose was to produce ways to tidy up arrangements and put forward a system of administration and governance which would be sufficiently robust to deal with changing circumstances, particularly enlargement. However, it was also clearly stated that it was an attempt to re-engage the ordinary citizen of Europe with the process. In my opinion, the latter remains important. I am glad, therefore, that the Intergovernmental Conference is being conducted with rather more openness and transparency than in the past. That is evidenced by the willingness of the Minister of State to come before the House and to appear at other venues to tell people what is happening and keep them abreast of developments.
Sooner or later, there will be completion. Like Senator Ryan, I urge that this should not be the end of the debate. There should be an engagement with members of the public and people should be able to state their views. As we approach the holding of a referendum, there will be views for and against different aspects of the treaty. Both sets of views are entitled to be expressed. We should take the lesson from past experience that it does not help to spring a referendum on people without having first provided a context. It is important that such a context should be provided.
With regard to the content of the report and what is happening in the Intergovernmental Conference, it is important that, as a smaller country, Ireland should try as best it can to maintain the balance of forces that exists. The Commission is an important part of that as far as a small country is concerned in terms of protecting the existing ethos and ensuring a balance is maintained. There are differing views as to whether the strongest Commission will necessarily be the largest. In that context, there will be difficult waters to navigate. I am sure the Minister of State will be able to manage in that regard.
The Minister of State is still in a negotiating position with other countries. We cannot expect that Ireland will necessarily get all the things it thinks are important and there may have to be trade-offs. We should keep the number of absolute vetoes to the minimum. I encourage the spread of qualified majority voting, except in the small number of cases where there are vital interests to be protected. Of course, our vital interest might not be a vital interest for another country. There is a real danger of getting a long list of vital interests and this may lead to problems. I would not isolate myself down in the ditch on the taxation issue for the reasons Senator Ryan so ably expressed.
I too have great regard for the common law tradition. We must preserve it and also preserve the constitutional rights of our citizens without in any way appearing to inhibit the ability of the authorities in other states to protect their citizens from cross-border and highly organised crime. A means must be found for this to be done.
I now turn to defence. I am quite happy with the circumstances where Ireland invokes the triple lock, particularly the UN approval aspect of it. There is a possibility of a grey area arising, as the UN seems more and more willing to subcontract some of its functions in these areas to Europe. We must make it clear that the expression of UN approval in our legislation does not inhibit us from doing what is clearly approved.
Progress has been reported on the convention and the Intergovernmental Conference. The work that is being done is a great tribute to the Minister of State and his colleagues. That it is being done to such an extent in public is encouraging. I hope we can all contribute to the debate in future.
Mr. Cummins: I welcome this debate on the convention, particularly the way the convention has gone about its work in an open and transparent manner. This contrasts with the technical and bureaucratic approach of previous treaties and texts that usually emanated from Europe. I also welcome the greater effort that has been made here in Ireland, through the Joint Committee on European Affairs, in informing Parliament and the Forum on Europe which informed the public through a number of public meetings. The part played by the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, Deputy John Bruton and all the Irish representatives who contributed to the work of the convention has been significant and I believe the public recognises the positive contribution our representatives and officials made to the whole process.
The EU has changed and expanded immensely in the 30 years since Ireland joined. Ireland has also changed out of all recognition. Europe is vital to our prosperity and it has encouraged the modernisation of our society and the development of a strong economy which has prospered and benefited our people. It has also been instrumental in creating a peaceful Europe, which has also been good for Ireland and in which Ireland has played its own significant part.
The purpose of the Convention was to simplify the European treaties, make Union policy making more effective and, most importantly, to bring it closer to the people. We can only hope to bring political institutions close to the people if they are relevant, effective and responsive to their needs. I expect the new constitutional treaty will be judged by its relevance, effectiveness and responsiveness. The people have shown themselves willing and ready to engage in intelligent and informed debate about European issues. The Treaty of Nice campaigns, in both cases, have taught us we have nothing to fear from open and honest debate. People want politicians to be confident in advancing our interests, strategic in our thinking and realistic in our objectives and goals.
The Convention has allowed us to see a clear description of the EU's objectives, values, powers and institutions. It has made important advances in recommending enhanced European action against serious cross-border crime. Security and defence policy is another priority area and my party believes Ireland should not only be part of the security and defence architecture of Europe, but that we should be one of its architects. If we do not participate in making the rules to meet our concerns and vision for the future of Europe, others will make them. We should be present in this area from the beginning.
During the Nice referendum much was spoken and written about whether Ireland should keep its commissioner. While hoping that we retain our full commissioner, the Nice proposals as modified by the draft constitutional treaty are fair. The role of the Commission is of vital importance. Any diminution of the Commission would be to the detriment of the Union as a whole and its member states, particularly smaller member states such as Ireland. However, the convention has struck a proper balance.
The Convention draft retains the need for unanimous decisions in nearly all areas of taxation and I welcome this. We should continue to oppose any departure from this principle as it is of vital importance to the economic policies and well being of our nation. I accept the valid point raised by Senator Ryan regarding corporation tax and what eastern European nations may or do in this area.
Another area that has commanded media attention is whether there should be a reference to God in the constitution. I honestly believe that it would not offend anybody if a proper wording could be found to make reference to God in a way that meets the concerns of persons with religious beliefs without offending others. While I appreciate other Members may have different views on this matter, I am glad the Minister of State is of the same view as me.
I welcome the references to a social Europe as our membership of the Union has meant great advances for our citizens in this area. It has also forced our country to take more heed of the protection of our environment, an issue of paramount importance. I trust the Government will not use the excuse of the protection of our environment to introduce further stealth taxes.
I wish the Intergovernmental Conference well. Those involved must take account of national interests and common European interests. I wish all involved in the process well. The future of Europe lies in the provisions of this draft treaty. It is an exciting time for citizens of Europe. As a member of the Committee of the Regions for the last six years, I am convinced that our future prosperity and peace lies in a strong, cohesive Europe. I hope an open, honest debate on the contents of the draft constitution for Europe will ensure the Irish people will support its contents and reaffirm our confidence in Europe and the ideals of the founding fathers of the European Union.
Mr. Lydon: I must repeat what other Members said as it happens to be true: we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the people who negotiated this treaty on our behalf. I listened to Proinsias De Rossa, Deputy John Bruton and the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, time and again and found them to be really impressive. As Senator Ryan said, if any man was suited to the job, it was the Minister of State Deputy Roche. That is because he is particularly interested in the subject and has worked assiduously on this project. I read the amendments he tabled on our behalf and they make up an amazing piece of work for which he is to be lauded.
Some people have asked why we need a constitution, saying we are grand as we are with our own Constitution and the various treaties. There are two reasons that we need it. First, we are governed at present by a number of treaties which are incomprehensible to most people, to put it mildly. I have read the Treaty of Nice, the Treaty of Amsterdam and so on, but who knows what terms like variable geometry, subsidiarity, peripherality and pillars mean? Senator Ormonde said this must be simple and the wording of the new constitution is simplified. People can read it, understand it and agree or disagree with it, but at least they will know what it means and that is very important. All these treaties can be incorporated in the new constitution.
The second reason for the constitution and treaties is something that arises every time we speak about Europe and I make no apologies for discussing it. When I was a young man the then German government set up a waste disposal programme with furnaces all over Germany, Austria and Poland which burned waste every day. That was not industrial waste but human waste, the bodies of gypsies, homosexuals and Jews. Recently the Joint Committee on European Affairs visited Clonakilty, where we addressed children from ten or 12 schools as well as some other people. When I mentioned this it began to dawn on them what exactly the European Union was about, why it was so important we bought into this huge project and why the future for them as young people is so exciting. They can look forward to a future in which there will be no war during their lives.
For the last 50 years we have had relative peace in Europe, which is what the European project was about. Unfortunately, there have been trouble spots like the Basque region and in our country, where a sort of war was waged for many years but which is hopefully now over. It is important to remind ourselves of that all the time, which is another reason we need a constitution – to lay down some rules and regulations whereby we can live in peace and harmony together in this wonderful new Union of many different and diverse beliefs. There will no longer be prejudices against people simply because of their religion, sexual orientation or because they have a nomadic lifestyle.
I welcome the Government's support for the reference made by the Minister of State to the fact that the constitution treaty might agree to a wording on Europe's Christian heritage or to a reference to God. I see no harm in that because Europe has a Christian heritage. We do not have to say that everyone has to be Christian, but Christianity has played a large part in Europe. Unfortunately, it has also played a large part in a number of wars, so maybe we should stick to a reference to God. Irrespective of religion—
I got a booklet from the Department of Foreign Affairs which states that the protocols would be considered at the Intergovernmental Conference, one of which protects Article 43.3 of the Constitution. Will the Minister of State clarify whether this will be considered or included? I see a great difficulty with future referenda if this is not included.
Regarding the common defence policy, under the draft constitutional treaty an armaments research and military capability agency will be set up, which will be open to all members wishing to be part of it. We need to look at ourselves in this regard and get off the fence. I know we have to hold a referendum on this issue, but we should have a debate on defence. We are part of a union of peoples and we agreed to come to each other's defence if we are in trouble. That is not just in the case of war but in the event of terrorist attacks, natural disasters or man-made disasters. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot hope to have people help us when we need it if we are not ready to help them. There are great fears in the country, with people saying they do not want their sons in European armies, but people have no fears about joining our army and a European army will be no different.
I have read the constitution and on the whole it is very good, with some of the provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights being particularly laudable, such as the basis of human dignity and the right to life. There is a clear statement that everyone has a right to life and I am sure that means from conception to death. Maybe others will read it as meaning from birth to death but I read it the other way, as including the unborn. I am not sure whether the Minister of State or other countries would go along with that, but I would not like to see the lawyers debating it, as Senator Ryan fears might happen. I believe in the right to integrity of the person and the other rights enshrined in this charter of fundamental rights are good. We do not have too much to fear from having this constitution but we have much to gain. It will make for simplification of treaties and future rulings. It will help people to understand Europe and, like our own Constitution, it will be readable.
Mr. Quinn: I support Senator Lydon's comments almost entirely about the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Roche on this issue. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with the former French President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, in St. Petersburg – I love name-dropping, by the way. I spoke to him about his work and he was full of admiration for the work done by people like the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, although he did not agree with him on every point. It was clear to me that there is a real task ahead of us in terms of a balance between small and large nations.
If one reads The Irish Times today one is reminded of one aspect of that in the business pages, which state that the French have clearly been in breach of their borrowing requirements – I am not talking about the constitution here but borrowing requirements in Europe – for the third year in a row. They are under some pressure and it looks as if they will not bend too easily. We know the Germans have also been in breach of some of these regulations, yet on the one occasion we were in breach of the regulations we were ticked off very emphatically by the authorities in Europe. A balance is needed between large and small nations.
In drawing up the constitution it is clear that Mr. Giscard d'Estaing had great difficulty achieving the balance, that he was very unhappy at the thought of a Commission with 25 to 27 members sitting around a table, even if only 15 had votes, and that he found this an impossible task. It is a reminder that we must fight and negotiate in a way that protects small nations.
I was happy with most of the wording of the short explanatory guide to the draft treaty establishing a constitution for Europe which the Department of Foreign Affairs issued and to which Senator Lydon referred. It explains what we are seeking but I have a question on taxation. I know we argued very strongly for unanimity in the tax area and that we made it clear it is something on which we have strong views, as have some other countries. Has our determination to achieve that focused our attention so strongly that it weakens the attention we can give to other areas? We have had the benefit of a low corporation tax for the past number of years and our 12.5% rate is the envy of a number of businesses elsewhere in Europe. The accession countries to the European Union will consider using such a tax as a weapon to give them an advantage. Cyprus has recently introduced a 10% corporation tax undercutting ours. It is possible that some of the Eastern European accession countries who will join the Union next year have considered having a zero tax in this area. Rather than our commitment which provides that there should be unanimity, and under no condition should we give way on that, is there a possibility of having some sort of a compromise? I would like to think we could say something which would be in our interest to the effect that there should be a minimum corporation tax of 12.5%, which is our rate. I am sure that would not be acceptable to the larger countries who have rates much higher than that, but such a measure would benefit us by ensuring our rate would not be undercut. In suggesting that, I am not speaking from the perspective of a truly European ethos and culture and saying we are equal, but wearing a commercial hat and saying what is in the best interest of Ireland in this area. Given our commitment over the years, the benefit we have had from having a low tax rate and our determination to maintain unanimity in voting, is there a danger we will lose the opportunity to secure a compromise which might be in our own interest on that basis?
The threat to our public private partnership borrowings is mentioned in one of today's newspapers. That is pertinent to this debate. It seems Europe has an interest in this area. It is not willing to regard our attitude to public private partnership borrowings, particularly in regard to our infrastructure, by including them in our borrowing deficit. Have we taken full account of this matter and are we able to strongly argue our case in this regard?
I have a concern, although I am not sure if it is valid. Certain criticism has been expressed that the Forum on Europe will not get the same support in financial terms from the Government in the future. I would hate to think that will be the case, though it may not be and I am aware this has been denied. When this constitution has to be voted on in Ireland, as was required in the Nice referendum and previous referenda, we do not want to wait until the last minute before we start making our case, if we are in favour of it. We want to make sure we take those steps now. When I said at a meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs that we need to market the benefits of Europe, Senator Ormonde criticised me for the use of the word “market”. We should not lose sight of the fact that there will be a referendum on this issue and if we do not remind the public—
Mr. Quinn: The Forum on Europe has done a world of good. Let us make sure we give it all the support we can. We should remind our citizens of the benefits we have had from Europe, not only of cheques for farmers or those we sometimes think of, but the many other small and large benefits of which we have not reminded our citizens. We must ensure we continue to remind our citizens of those benefits with the full enthusiasm we have shown in the past.
Mr. Mooney: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, and endorse all that has been said about his focused and committed involvement to this process since he was appointed to his current position. I will relay an anecdote to indicate his level of commitment to the convention and to what for Ireland, as a small country, is an important dimension to our Europen adventure – the question of forging alliances and establishing friendships. I was attending a meeting in Brussels last June and, by coincidence, ended up on the same train as the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, which I only discovered on arrival at the other end. I was in his company going to the city when he spent almost the entire period on the telephone establishing contact with his opposite numbers in several like minded states in order to ensure there would be a consensus, or at least an attempt at a consensus, on an agenda and on the various aspects of the agenda prior to a meeting the following day. I do not say that by way of a tale out of school but to indicate how focused he is and to compliment him, not only as has been done here but on bringing together many like minded states at a critical moment in the discussions on the Convention. Many of the like minded states are candidate countries. My limited experience of dealing with representatives of candidate countries was at the discussions on the Charter on Fundamental Rights a few years ago and I noticed that because they were outside the loop they were more intent on being on-side. The Minister of State's initiatives stiffened the resolve and gave them a little spine in that they had a positive contribution to make to ensure the interest of like minded states was protected. It is important to record that is one of the legacies on which the Minister of State can look proudly during this experience.
I wish to point out another interesting dimension to this debate, to which my friend and colleague, Senator Ormonde, will testify. It arises from our being privileged to be present at the last plenary session of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, to which Senator Ryan also referred as he was also present. We had a debate on a European matter and it was interesting to hear the differing views. Coming from a position where we in Ireland would be very strong Europeans and we would take as given the benefits to which Senator Quinn referred, which are there for all to see, it was an interesting experience – I am sure Senator Ormonde would agree – to hear the differing views of regional representatives. The representatives from the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were pro-Europe. They saw the future for their regions of the United Kingdom as being within Europe and there being a possibility of establishing their own identity within a European family. However, our English colleagues were extremely sceptical. This cut across the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat Parties, all of which were represented. It was difficult to get a consensus, but one view that struck me was that expressed by Harry Barnes, a long serving member of the body and of the House of Commons, who was sceptical of the entire European experience because he said there was no accountability or transparency. This goes to the core of the argument on Europe in the United Kingdom because of the sovereignty of parliament. We have managed to get the message across that not only have we ceded some sovereignty but by pooling our sovereignty we have gained enormous benefits. I said to my UK parliamentary colleagues that, as a person who travels within the European family as a parliamentarian, it mystifies me why the UK is not where it should be, having regard to its size, tradition and influence, at the heart of Europe rather than being on the outside. It is vital for us that the United Kingdom, our closest neighbour, whose people share a common language, which is a large trading partner and with which we have so much in common, is more at the heart of Europe. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, would agree with that. In fairness to the Blair Government, Prime Minister Blair has set out his stall in that regard. There are undercurrents within our near neighbour, notwithstanding the wonderful work of the convention. Margaret Ewing, the MLA for Scotland who is well known to us here, said she had to read the Irish newspapers to find out what was going on in Europe because she found no information in the United Kingdom newspapers other than what she would read in the tabloids where there was the “tabloidisation” of the old chestnut of some anonymous bureaucrat in the Commission deciding on the size of the English sausage.
Turning to more substantive issues, there has been a shift in the Irish position, which is important. The Minister of State, Deputy Roche, might elaborate if he is replying. He referred obliquely to two areas in which there has been a shift in the Irish position. One relates to the acceptance of the charter of fundamental rights. The official Irish position during those debates was not to enthusiastically embrace the charter, mainly because there was a view in Ireland that there were constitutional issues to be decided on and perhaps that a future Irish civilisation might have to bear a financial burden in areas such as social policy and education. I am very pleased that the Irish position now fully supports the charter.
Will the Minister of State clarify what implications there are for the existing European Convention on Human Rights which embraces all 44 member states of the Council of Europe vis-à-vis the enshrinement in the new constitution of the charter of fundamental rights as a legal instrument which also protects human rights, in the context of citizens having the right to apply to ensure that their rights are protected under the new treaty? They already have that right under the current European Convention on Human Rights. Any citizen may apply to the court in Strasbourg. What will the relationship be between the charter of fundamental human rights under the new EU treaty and the existing European Convention on Human Rights?
We have definitely shifted our position on the question of the EU commissioner. I do not want to sound critical, but going back again to the debate on the Nice treaty, and the debates prior to and during Nice, there was no doubt in my mind that the Irish position prior to Nice and the negotiations was that we would protect and defend the right of Ireland to nominate a commissioner. We slightly blurred that area. The perception was that we did it as a quid pro quo, in the very best European practices of accommodation and compromise, to protect the right of this country to decide its own taxation policy. That taxation policy is now back on the agenda and the Minister for State, Deputy Roche, has been very passionate in ensuring that the country does not accept any fudging of the issue. It is clear that Ireland will maintain its position of having an independent taxation policy.
Am I now to take it as unequivocal and unambiguous that Ireland asserts the right to its own commissioner? The Minister of State referred to the arguments for and against, but he did not state unequivocally that Ireland wishes to pursue this issue. This may be an opening gambit. There may yet be much more to play for because I understand that the Poles and the Spanish are playing – as Jack Charlton said in another context –“silly buggers” with the Nice treaty. I understand that Ireland may be keeping something in reserve on this issue. The view would seem to be that the smaller countries want the Commission. I fervently support the view that we should retain our commissioner and I do not see why it should be impossible to have an effective Commission among the enlarged states even when extended to 27 or 28. I know that this is one of the matters that has been left to an Intergovernmental Conference. I hope we strongly maintain the position of having the right to our own commissioner.
Dr. Mansergh: I am very glad to contribute to this debate. This is an excellent document and has the merit of being readable, comprehensible and simple in a way that the old treaties never were. A major step has been taken along the path of making the EU more accessible for people, without creating the impression that one needs to be a bureaucrat. Having been a bureaucrat, I know that bureaucrats find many of the EU treaties incomprehensible as they stand.
From Ireland's point of view the outcome is very satisfactory. That is the message we need to keep sending to people. On the assumption that the negotiation does not drift too far away from where it is now, I do not see why we should have any difficulty endorsing it. Voting “No” to this in particular, but to any European treaty, is what one might call a nuclear bomb option, disastrous in its impact and effect and totally disproportionate to any particular cause of dissatisfaction that we might have. It is very satisfactory on the main issues. As for the precise voting mechanism, we are more than proportionally represented in the Council in terms of votes. That is not the issue. It is not how we exercise influence most of the time. The precise way that is done, whether through Nice or the revised way in the Convention, does not greatly matter from our point of view.
On the question of the commissioner, I take a slightly different view from Senator Mooney. The Government has adopted a pragmatic attitude. Equality is what is important. If one has a very large body of perhaps 27 or 30 people, in practice what happens is that all the work is done in committees. The more people one has, the more diluted it becomes. We are old hands in Brussels at this stage, 30 years down the line, and like other countries we will have no difficulty finding ways and channels, exercising our influence, getting early warning of what is in the pipeline and taking the necessary remedial action. It is a very reassuring thought that in the 30 years we have been in Europe, it is very hard to think of an example where no account has been taken of a vital national interest of ours, or where we have been over-ridden or trampled on in the manner portrayed by some of the Eurosceptics, who seem to have visions of France and Germany trampling all over us. It has not happened. On the contrary we have had very productive and constructive relationships, not least with those two countries.
I am glad that the Green Party is canvassing its members to see if they want to stick to the rather negative positions they have taken, which are pretty much out of kilter with most of the Green parties in Europe. The German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, is at the opposite end of the spectrum on this.
We have managed to protect our tax position, which is certainly important. Its relative importance, which particularly in the past ten years or so has been great, may not be as great in the future with the enlargement of the EU and other factors coming into play.
Regarding defence, we have to take into account the fact that the people are deeply attached to the tradition of military neutrality and do no want to simply dump or abandon it. They want what we do in Europe to be an evolution and continuation, a development of where we have come from. In many ways Europe has converged in our direction just as we have in the European direction. There is nothing in the Petersberg Tasks which would cause any problem to neutral countries in that regard.
It is a pity there is no reference in the preamble to the Christian heritage of Europe. It would be an acknowledgment of historical reality. One could have a little too much of a French Third Republic, Jules Ferry type ideology. That is the type of ideological thing that will inevitably cause difficulty for some people. I do not regard it as an issue that would even remotely influence me in a “No” direction, but it is nonetheless something that would be nice to see included. It would be a generous acknowledgment, even in today's fairly secular world, of the Christian heritage. I do not wish to exclude other religious heritages and the phraseology used could also encompass them. That is one change I would like to see in the convention when concluded.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Roche): I thank Senators for their extraordinary generosity in terms of personal comments. This has been an interesting and extremely challenging debate.
Senator Bradford spoke of the important role played by the Convention and, in particular, of the significance and importance of evolving a treaty that will touch citizens' lives and will be widely accepted by them. He and many other Senators made the point that the convention needs to be communicated to the people. Shortly before I came to the House I was speaking about an initiative which I hope will be part of the Irish Presidency, the process of communicating Europe at European level with European citizens. I intend to push that issue during the Presidency.
Senator Quinn referred to marketing. I do not have a problem with marketing which is an honourable profession. What is needed in this case is cause marketing which should point out how extraordinarily positive Europe has been in the lives of millions of people. Senator Ryan mentioned how different things would have been if political leaders at the beginning of the last century had the foresight to take that leap into the dark taken by those courageous politicians in the early 1950s when establishing the European Coal and Steel Community and ultimately the European Common Market. The idea was to make war not just unthinkable in the future but materially impossible. John Hume said it all when he suggested the European Union was the most extraordinarily successful peace process ever seen in Europe. He is correct. We have enjoyed the longest period in Europe's modern history of peace and prosperity. This treaty makes provision for the future. I agree with all Senators in that regard.
Senators Bradford, Quinn and Ryan also mentioned taxation as did virtually every other speaker. The Irish position on taxation is very clear. It is not taken from the position of what is to our advantage, but from the position of what will be in Europe's interest. Competition in many areas is part and parcel of the life of the Community. Competition in tax is also important. Senator Quinn is correct in saying Cyprus has taken the decision to move to 10% taxation. Estonia has already moved to 0%. We have nothing to fear in that regard. The tax mix is only part of the overall set of advantages which we have to offer, particularly in the area of foreign direct investment. We have to compete. It is important and positive from a European point of view that we have competition in tax. First and foremost it is important because, going back to Senator Bradford's point, tax speaks to sovereignty. I agree with the Senator on that.
The nature of the relationship between citizens and taxation and those who impose tax is very specific. I would not like to see it in any way violated because there is an important relationship between the politicians we elect and the taxes we pay. I would not like to see tax harmonisation moving to Brussels. More importantly from Europe's point of view is that the setting of artificial thresholds or ceilings on tax would interfere with the right of individual nations to determine indigenous policies. Let us look at this issue from two diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum.
Ireland and Sweden share a view on taxation. Why is that so? We have the lowest tax regime in Europe and Sweden has the highest in terms of personal taxes. The Swedes have made the choice that the type of society in which they live determines that certain policies be put in place and paid for. They have also taken the view that the people who determine what should be put in place and what should be paid are those directly elected to do so. We have taken a somewhat different view but have come to the same conclusion. It is important we do not lose sight of tax harmonisation or its significance in terms of national sovereignty. Equally, the importance of differentiated tax rates throughout Europe should not be lost sight of from the point of view of creating competition. If some group in Brussels, removed from the realities of day-to-day politics in individual member states, were to determine the tax rates, we would inevitably have a situation where taxes would move in the same direction and there would be no internal competition in Europe to control taxes and Europe, as a whole, would lose in terms of competitiveness.
I understand the point made by Senator Ryan in this regard. The same point has been made by the social group in Europe. I do not think it is an argument we would support if we were to sit down and deconstruct the elements of it. A move towards homogeneity of tax rates across the Union would be dangerous to the Community. Competition in taxes is important as is the sovereign relationship between those taxed and the taxation system.
Senators Bradford, Mansergh and others spoke of the lack of reference to God and the Christian tradition in the preamble. Let us put this in context. This debate arose because a preamble was written to the European constitutional treaty. That preamble, in a rather bizarre way, made reference to the contributions made by Greek and Roman civilisation and to humanism. It sought to ignore the historic reality of Christianity and the Christian tradition. I make no apologies for the stance we have taken on this. If it is possible to posit these two extremes as being part of the European experience, it is certainly possible to acknowledge the role played by the Christian tradition. It has been, as Senator Lydon said, a sometimes troubled contribution but it has also been a positive one. We are what we are. If we try to deny history, we try to deny from where we have come and will lose sight of where it is we wish to go.
It should be possible to include an appropriate reference to God, which should in many ways be the least controversial reference, and-or to the Christian tradition. I agree with Senator Bradford that there is absolutely nothing as illiberal as some of the liberals in the convention who stood up to debate this issue. I believe in putting forward arguments forcibly, not hysterically. Some of the arguments against the preamble including such a reference were difficult to take. The debate arose because of the lacuna in the draft preamble. I hope suitable words, which will recognise that the Judaeo-Christian traditions made a huge contribution to Europe, will be found. Europe is now multicultural and multi-ethnic made up of people with different views. Some people believe in religion, others do not.
I thank Senator Ormonde for her comments. She is correct; we must listen to the people if we are to produce answers that satisfy them. A referendum is a challenge but it is important because it keeps politicians and political leaders in touch with the people. I, unlike many politicians in the convention, do not take the view that a referendum is a chore. The only sovereign authority in this State is the people and that should never be forgotten. The people will have to be consulted in a referendum. We must learn from the mistakes of the past and convince the people by logical arguments. We will have to deal with the hysteria, distortions and mistruths that will be put forward but, above all, we must enter into a full debate that is respectful of the diversity of opinion, as Senator Maurice Hayes stated.
Senator Ryan suggested there might be significant differences between us occasionally but that is not the case. Both he and Senator Mooney referred, in particular, to the charter of human rights in the constitutional treaty. Senator Mooney is correct that there has been a shift but this is because of the manner in which the charter is included. In particular, the final three articles are very much references to the nature of the inclusion of the charter. They were part and parcel of Ireland's contribution to the negotiations. We were anxious that the charter should be seen for what it is in that it applies to the institutions of the Union and the member states in so far as they apply European institutional policy. The charter must not be mixed with the charter under the Council of Europe. It is important the public should be fully aware of the nature and subtlety of the changes introduced at our insistence. The charter has been clarified. There is no point in including it and persuading the people that it means more or less than it means. We have always sought to be objective in presenting the charter for what is it.
One or two people are critical of the charter and I am absolutely amazed. It is one of the finest references to the fundamental rights and principles that we all should espouse – such as human dignity, the right to life, the right to the integrity of the person, the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment and the prohibition of slavery and forced labour. A total of 27 million men and women are slaves. Freedoms are listed which elevate the spirit. A number of people who are well meaning refer to the charter as a threat but they should read it because it is a fine presentation. It is also the first charter that makes references to the prohibition of human reproductive cloning. I do not understand a number of the objections that have been put forward in this regard.
Senator Ryan is absolutely correct that it is important to ensure the charter is not overstated because it is equally important to make sure it is not understated. This represents a fundamental change for Europe. The Senator's comments about the process adopted in the convention and the Intergovernmental Conference are also correct. The process is open and is fundamentally different to its predecessors. It is impossible to think that we would ever go back to the way the Nice treaty was handled.
Senator Maurice Hayes referred to engaging the people. However, we should give ourselves credit for what Ireland has done. Between the first and second referenda on the Nice treaty, the manner in which the debate was conducted changed fundamentally. The debate was conducted in an intelligent way on the second occasion. The people have an extraordinary capacity to deal with complex issues if they are presented to them and they are not taken for granted. We should learn from the mistakes of the first referendum and communicate better with the people in an open and honest fashion by dealing with the balances and checks that have been inserted in the convention. Senator Hayes expressed doubts on the taxation issue, which I addressed earlier.
Senator Lydon asked about the armaments agency. It is no more than a practical realisation that the taxes of the citizens of Europe are invested in many armaments. Whether we like it or not, even a neutral must make the odd purchase in that regard. It is important that there should be efficiency.
Senator Quinn touched on the small versus large state issue. He is absolutely correct that President Giscard d'Estaing and I had long and interesting debates about equality and the notion of small versus large. Ireland should never contribute to a debate that differentiates between small and large because the essential secret of Europe's success is that member states have been treated equally and are seen as equals, which is something that officials from larger states find difficult to understand. All member states bring something to the table. This is an issue on which the President and I disagree fundamentally.
Senator Quinn also mentioned the EUROSTAT debate, though it does not relate directly to the constitutional treaty. It relates to the bizarre definition of capital investment and how it is treated by EUROSTAT. As a businessman, the Senator will be fully aware that if he decides to build a new superstore in my area, he will not write off all the cost in one year, particularly if it takes two or three years to construct. This is a fundamental issue and the Minister for Finance has made the point well.
Senator Mooney referred to the friends of the Community method, which was an extraordinary benefit of the Convention. Ireland gained incredibly because from the outset it insisted that new member states would be treated as equals because there was no point in Ireland seeking equality if it was not prepared to accept it for others. That strategic position was adopted from the beginning and it will pay large dividends.
There has not been a shift in the Commission. Ireland accepted equality in the Nice treaty. Equality was bought and paid for by the smaller member states when a different form of QMV was accepted in the treaty. The Government pointed out to the people that under this arrangement it would mean every member state would not have a commissioner at some point in the future and there would have to be rotation of membership of the Commission, as a result of which Ireland would not have a commissioner on occasion. We were absolutely forthright, honest and open with the people on that. We accepted that provision on condition it applied to Germany, France and every other member state so that there would be one commissioner per member state until such time as the Community reached a certain size.
The Convention put forward “Nice plus” in regard to the Commission so that when a member state did not have a full commissioner, another form of commissioner would be created. Equality has always been our sine qua non. We pointed out there would be difficulties if there was a differentiation between commissioners in terms of voting and non-voting and, for example, if commissioners were in the college of commissioners while others were not. That would create a difficulty for the Commission. If equality can be achieved in a Commission based on one commissioner per member state, Ireland will go along with that but Ireland does not want a scenario where the decision made on equality under the Nice treaty is violated or diminished.
I agree with Senator Mansergh's comments on Christian heritage and tax. I thank Members for a provocative, thoughtful and interesting debate. We are playing our role in the Houses of the Oireachtas in so far as we are trying to communicate the ideas of Europe and the Convention and all they mean to the Irish people. It is up to the media, particularly the electronic media, to pick up on these efforts. These issues are well covered in the print media, which is a model for the rest of Europe. I am more than disappointed by the amount of coverage given to the thoughtful debates in the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Seanad.
|Last Updated: 10/09/2010 05:59:47||Page of 14|