Tuesday, 8 April 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
An Cathaoirleach: I wish on my behalf and that of my fellow Senators to welcome to the House Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament. Today is the second occasion on which this House has been honoured by an address by the President of the European Parliament, the last occasion being October 2002 when the then President, Mr. Pat Cox, addressed Seanad Éireann. Since then, there have been major and significant developments and shifts in national and international affairs. Notwithstanding the impact of such changes, the wisdom underlying the founding principles of the now European Union remains undiminished.
In that context, the political career of our distinguished guest is testament to how a broken and fragmented Europe could be restructured to serve and honour the needs of all its citizens. Even a glance of the titles of some of Mr. Pöttering’s published works indicate the scope of his vision and dedication to furthering the values and objectives of the European Union. On a personal level, Mr. Pöttering continues to pursue his interest in cross-cultural dialogue and I am sure his work in this area will have served to deepen his belief that dialogue is probably the most potent instrument humanity has to confront and resolve the challenges of an always uncertain future.
Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering: A Chathaoirligh agus a Sheanadóirí, is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo inniu libh san áras ársa seo. For your benefit and mine, I will continue in English. It is even more for my benefit that I do so.
On behalf of the European Parliament, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind invitation. Let me at the outset thank Members of Seanad Éireann here today for inviting me to address your Chamber. This is a great honour for me and the European Parliament. As the leader of one democratic institution to Members of another I say, “Thank you.” As President of the European Parliament, I hope to visit every one of the 27 member states of the EU during my two and a half year term of office.
I am delighted to be here in Ireland at a very important time in the context of the future development of the European Union. The last President of the European Parliament to address the Irish Seanad was Mr. Pat Cox, as mentioned by the Cathaoirleach. He was a great ambassador for the European Union during his tenure of office. We worked in an excellent way together on the basis of common ideals and goals. Pat Cox was an extraordinary President of the European Parliament.
Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering: Over the past 29 years I have made many Irish friends in Europe, many of whom have held very high office at European level. I started my work in 1979 in the regional committee which was and is so important for Ireland. The co-ordinator for my group was Mr. Tom O’Donnell who has been always a good friend. I am happy to see here Mary Banotti, with whom I also worked closely in the European Parliament.
Mr. Peter Sutherland was an inspiring member of the European Commission. He revolutionised the European airline industry by opening up the European airline sector to competition in the 1980s. We have all seen the clear success of this policy with cheaper air fares. As an island nation, the Irish people are aware of the benefits of this policy more than most.
Mr. Ray MacSharry as EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development reformed the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy in 1992. The Common Agricultural Policy was the first truly European Community policy and it remains an important EU-wide initiative in terms of the EU budget and in terms of what it says about a community built on solidarity and human concerns. For Ireland, it is worth €2.2 billion in payments from Europe to Irish farmers and to Irish rural communities during the current financing perspective from 2007 to 2013.
The then Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton, and the then Tánaiste, Deputy Dick Spring, ran an impressive Irish Presidency of the European Union in 1996. John, who is a good friend of mine with whom I liaised closely during a crucial time as presidency member of the European Convention, the body which drafted the constitutional treaty, is now a very highly respected and influential EU ambassador to the United States of America.
The internal market Commissioner, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, currently heads up economic policy making at European level and in recent times has been dealing with the EU response to current difficulties on the international financial markets.
In the current legislature, Mr. Brian Crowley, MEP, is chairman of the fourth largest political group. He always has been a good and reliable colleague and friend. Ms Mairead McGuinness, MEP, chaired our committee of inquiry into equitable life insurance. Ms Avril Doyle, MEP, has been just nominated rapporteur on the emission trading scheme and will steer through parliament this key piece of EU climate change legislation.
I have a good working relationship with the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Dick Roche, and with the Leader of the Fine Gael Party, Deputy Enda Kenny, who is from the same pan-European political family as myself. I must be more objective, but I am sure Members will allow me to mention that. Deputy Enda Kenny is now the vice president of the European People’s Party.
Not only is Ireland a long-standing member of the European Union since 1973, it is a leading member of the Union and is playing a key role in policy making at a European level. I recall — if I as a German am allowed to say this in this important Chamber — when we were in the process of German unification following the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the crucial decisions were taken in Dublin during the 1990 Irish Presidency under the Government of the then Taoiseach, Deputy Charles Haughey, and the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Gerry Collins, who is here. They seized the historical momentum and carefully sought the agreement of the European partners. The current secretary general of the European Commission is an Irish woman, Ms Catherine Day. The country has important ladies in office. I have just come from the castle — I do not know if that is the appropriate word to describe it — but it is a beautiful house where I met Madam President, Mary McAleese, a short while ago. The previous secretary general of the European Commission was also one of your countrymen, Mr. David O’Sullivan.
In 2004, when we had an Irish President of the Parliament, an Irish President of the Council and an Irish secretary general of the Commission, I recall thinking the Irish have taken over the place, but they have done so with charm, good humour and remarkable efficiency. I thank the Members for this. They should take over the leadership of the European Union more often; the so-called bigger countries would learn a great deal from the Irish.
Ireland has been a highly respected member of the European Union from day one. Many countries, particularly the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe who acceded to the Union in 2004 during the Irish Presidency of the European Union, look on this country as a role model in Europe. When I travel to countries such as Poland, Lithuania or Slovakia, I hear people talk about the Irish model of making the most out of the opportunities presented by EU membership and turning their countries into economic success stories. Ireland has left its mark on the Union in many ways.
One policy where Irish influence is very strong in Europe is in the area of development aid. Ireland is the sixth largest contributor of development aid per capita in the world. It will contribute €922 million in development aid this year. As a country that was once poor, but which has grown wealthy within Europe, Ireland has not forgotten what it was to be without. Ireland has been a shining example in a Union which itself shows the way to the rest of the world, and it can be proud of this.
The role of Irish NGOs in overseeing and participating in many EU development aid programmes at all times deserves the highest of praise. Many of these volunteers from civil and religious society work in extremely difficult environments. The European Union seeks to promote democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law around the world. The European Union project is a force for peace. The EU has brought peace to the continent of Europe after two very destructive world wars in the 20th century. As a German, born in September 1945 and growing up in the aftermath of the evil destruction of the Second World War and the Holocaust, my personal commitment to the European project was shaped by the determination of visionaries such as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Aldice de Gasperi and others, that never again should there be war between the peoples of Europe. Schuman’s dream that war should not only be morally repugnant but also made materially impossible, has been made a reality. This is unique, not only in European history, but in world history also, and is the basis of our European engagement.
I support the European Union participating in peacekeeping operations around the world, with the backing of the United Nations. EU peacekeeping missions have successfully served in ATSI, Indonesia, Palestine, Bosnia and Kosovo. Having brought peace to our continent, I am proud that we are helping to build a global peace. The 4,500-strong EU peacekeeping mission is now being deployed in Chad. This mission will help to address many of the humanitarian problems at present being faced by the 300,000 refugees in the camps in eastern Chad. The men, women and children in these camps have fled from the barbarity of the genocide that is taking place in Sudan. The international community must continue to do more to stop militia attacks against the people of Darfur. This EU peacekeeping operation, with United Nations support, is under the strong leadership of an Irishman, Lt. General Patrick Nash, and will help to bring stability and peace to Chad and the volatile central African region.
The European Union aims to help build a world where peace and understanding triumph over hostility and despair. On the 50th anniversary of Ireland first taking part in United Nations peacekeeping, I should like to pay tribute to all the Irish Army personnel who have served — and continue to serve — on some 75 UN missions to date. The Irish flag has flown together with the United Nations banner in many parts of the world, and I am sure it will continue to do so for many years to come.
By good fortune, my first visit to Ireland as President of the European Parliament is within a few days of the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This is a useful occasion to reflect on the role that the European Union has played in bringing peace and reconciliation to the island of Ireland. Irish and British membership of the European Union undoubtedly provided the common space that helped to build the close relations between political leaders. These close relations, in turn, helped create the conditions in which peace could flourish.
Since 1995, the European Union has also contributed more than €1.65 billion in financial support to promote economic and social regeneration within the Border counties and in Northern Ireland. This support has been given through a variety of funds, including the INTERREG cross-border programme, the EU PEACE fund, mainstream Structural Funds and the International Fund for Ireland. The European Parliament has always overwhelmingly supported strong EU financial aid programmes for Northern Ireland and the Border counties. The peace process in Ireland can and must be used as a model to help resolve other conflicts in Europe and around the world. Ireland has shown that it can achieve peace but that it takes real courage, determination, leadership, understanding and forgiveness.
As a Catholic, I am impressed that the Seanad starts its meetings with a prayer. I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber for it. Personalities who do this can forgive and this is part of our beliefs and values. I congratulate the Members on having the courage to pray in their Chamber. This is a very personal remark and I thank the Members for giving this example.
Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering: John Hume, who together with David Trimble won the Nobel Peace Prize, was a great Member of the European Parliament. We worked together from 1979 in the regional committee. He described the European Union itself as the greatest peace process in history. MEPs from Ireland and Northern Ireland have worked and have continued to work together within the European Parliament on issues of common concern, including on EU regional, social and agricultural policy, consumer protection initiatives and cross-border co-operation.
The Single Market has been a great success for the European Union, including Ireland. It has been vital for Ireland as an exporting country with a very open economy. With the elimination of transaction costs, the single European currency, the euro, has brought clear benefits to consumers and businesses alike. We should ask ourselves where Europe would be at this time of economic difficulty, and with trouble on the international financial markets, if the euro did not exist. People are not thinking of the great advantage afforded by the European currency. If our common currency were not an operating currency in 15 different member states, we would be in the same situation we were in 1992 when international currency speculators played one EU currency off against the other.
Let me make some remarks on the reform treaty. When the treaty was signed in Lisbon on 13 December, I spoke about the remarkable growth in democracy in the European Union in the short period since the first European election in 1979. Democracy is a big winner in this treaty. The treaty helps to promote the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. From its starting point as an appointed and consultative Assembly in 1958, the now directly-elected European Parliament has become the true voice of almost 500 million European citizens. It is now an equal player with a Council of Ministers on a range of policy issues. The Lisbon reform treaty will boost our so-called co-decision powers to almost 100% of European policy areas. The treaty also extends the role of national parliaments and gives them, including this House, the guardianship of subsidiarity. Members of the Seanad and their fellow parliamentarians will protect the balance between the Union and the member states.
I would like to dispel the myth that the European Union is all powerful. Under the doctrine of conferral, the European Union has only the powers the different EU treaties drawn up by the member states give it. For example, the EU does not set our tax rates, regardless of what one reads in the newspapers. It does not run our health, education and social services, nor does it decide our citizenship laws. The Union does only those things that the member states have decided to do together since they can achieve better results by acting in common than by acting alone on a national level. The essential secret of the EU’s success is that it is a unique union of member states which respects the interests and rights of all of them, whether they are great or small. I wish that the so-called great countries would appreciate more the work of the smaller countries, from whose behaviour — especially Ireland — they could learn a great deal.
This reform treaty is about ensuring the European Union can become even more democratic, more efficient and more effective in how it will carry out its business into the future. Strong European institutions are the best guarantee for the implementation of solidarity and ensuring the concerns of all member states, large, medium and small alike, are taken into consideration.
The European Union must face up to new challenges such as ensuring climate change targets are met on time, energy supplies are protected, greater co-operation at an EU level to tackle cross-border drug smuggling, confronting organised crime and defeating international terrorism. These challenges are clearly too large for any one country to meet and therefore we must meet them the European way by pooling our resources and working together.
I will make some remarks on climate change. The European Union has promised to lead the world towards a global post-Kyoto agreement with binding targets. The eyes of the world will be on us throughout 2008 and 2009 until Copenhagen. We must fulfil these expectations. I recently visited the United Nations and the Secretary General and all other people I met there asked us — and they support us — to take a real leadership. To take leadership in a question of preserving the environment or, as I would prefer to say, preserving the creation is a wonderful, peaceful leadership we have the responsibility to accept.
With the energy package, the European Union now has a sound and credible policy framework for achieving the goals it has set itself. Putting the European Union on the path to a low-carbon future certainly demands a considerable commitment, but it also brings real opportunities for growth and increased competitiveness. If the European Union manages to take the lead in environmental-friendly technologies such as carbon capture and storage, this would give it a decisive competitive edge on the global market.
To fulfil its role as European co-legislator and to be able to make well-informed choices, in April last year the European Parliament established the Temporary Committee on Climate Change. This committee will play a critical role in achieving a deal on the energy package. We want to achieve a result before the European elections in June 2009 and thus in time for the United Nations conference which will take place in Copenhagen the following December. If we do not succeed in this, the Europeans will not have a position and this conference might fail. Therefore, the work in the European Parliament is important and I ask all of the Senators to support us.
Adopting the energy package as soon as possible is also a matter of credibility, as the European Union’s role as leader in the fight against climate change is not just about setting targets. If we want to be able to convince our partners world wide to participate in a global and binding framework, we will have to deliver.
The European Parliament has overwhelmingly endorsed the Lisbon reform treaty. I wish to state clearly that I fully support this treaty, as indeed I backed the earlier constitutional treaty which was agreed under the skilful negotiations of the 2004 Irish Presidency. However, I also wish to make it clear that the method of ratification in each of the 27 member states is a matter for that country alone. Ratification through national parliaments is as equally valid and legitimate as the referendum due to be held in Ireland by virtue of its Constitution.
I firmly believe that it is in the future economic and political interest of the European Union as a whole that this treaty be ratified. This House will understand that I will be hoping for a “Yes” vote by the Irish electorate on referendum day. However, this is, of course, a decision that only the Irish voters can make and it is not up to me or any other person to tell them how to vote.
I trust in the wisdom of the Irish electorate which is perhaps the best-informed electorate in the EU about European matters. This is in no small way due to its excellent National Forum on Europe under the very fair and able chairmanship of a former Member of this House, Maurice Hayes. I pay tribute to him and the work of his excellent body.
Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering: This is yet another area where Ireland has shown leadership. Many European countries have followed by creating such mechanisms to involve citizens and civil society in EU policymaking.
If the House allows it, I urge that a balanced and reasoned debate during this referendum campaign takes place in Ireland over the coming weeks. All interested parties need to be given space to air their views. I hope that scare tactics and falsehoods are avoided. I hear from colleagues from the European Parliament who mislead the Irish people. We should reject this.
I am a believer in the defence of human life. If somebody says that this is affected by European law and this reform treaty, it is not true. The matter of how Ireland protects life is a matter for Irish policy. I say this as a Catholic. I defend Ireland’s position. Ireland should not believe these people and should look into their backgrounds, from where they received their education and what they want to tell today. I am very outspoken because I am annoyed by what I sometimes read and hear, particularly from one colleague from the European Parliament.
As Members of the Upper House of the Irish Parliament, I am sure that Members will all take a particular interest in the provisions of the Lisbon treaty that, for the first time, give a legally guaranteed role to national parliaments in the EU legislative process. The European Parliament greatly welcomes this development as we see the national parliaments as our partners in ensuring strong parliamentarianism, which is key to democratic control over the executive branch of government. It is on this basis that we organise regular joint parliamentary meetings of the European Parliament and national parliaments so that we can co-operate on such issues of concern to our electorates as climate change, the cultural dialogue and the Lisbon strategy.
While economic integration is an ongoing process at an EU level, the European Union has always been conscious of the need to ensure that cultural, linguistic and national diversities are fully protected and promoted within a European context. Unity in diversity is our ambition. On 1 January 2007, the Irish language — Gaelic — became an official language of the European Union following a proposal by the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and supported by all 27 EU governments. This is another example of how the EU respects and promotes diversity.
In conclusion, where injustice rears its ugly head around the world and where there are breaches of human rights, Europe must speak out, regardless of whether these take place in Israel, Palestine, Tibet, Zimbabwe, Guantanamo Bay or Belarus, which is the last Stalinist dictatorship in Europe. Let us never forget that the eastern part of our continent lived in a situation in which Belarus is still living and it is our duty to defend the people in their peaceful fight for democracy and legal order. Let us not forget the people of Belarus.
Speaking with one voice, representing 500 million people and 27 different countries, the EU can and should play a more influential role on the international stage. The European Union can be a strong voice and a force for peace, freedom, justice and democracy. Europe is a force for good, but we must keep communicating to the people of Europe so that they can fully understand what work is being carried out at a political level in the European Union. We can look on the achievements of those who founded the European Union with a great sense of pride. From an initial six member states in 1957 there are now 27 members with many other European countries seeking membership of the Union. This is a serious sign that Europe is heading in the right direction. The people in Ireland can look on their achievements in Europe with a great sense of pride. They have brought common sense, innovation and commitment to the European decision-making table, and in the name of the European Parliament I thank Ireland and its people for the great Irish contribution to European unity.
A former Member of this House, Michael Yeats, was a member of the pre-1979 European Parliament. His father, Ireland’s great national poet, W. B. Yeats, of course also served his country as a Member of Seanad Éireann and I would like to conclude by quoting some lines of one of his most beautiful poems. For me these lines bring to mind the delicate nature of what we have constructed together in Europe, inspired by the dreams and visions of that great post-war generation:
Senator Donie Cassidy: While not the format we had originally intended, we will just ask questions now. If anyone was in any way inconvenienced, I wish to apologise. However, it will not take away from this wonderful occasion. The President of the European Parliament, Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering MEP, is very welcome to Seanad Éireann. We are honoured by his presence today. We welcome him as someone who has shown unreserved commitment to co-operation and reconciliation among European peoples and states. We salute him as one of a very select group of Members of the European Parliament who have served since the first direct elections to the parliament in 1979. Like the president, I also am a September 1945 person, which gives us something in common.
The development of the European Union has seen a continent turn its back on an old nationalist way and through economic and political co-operation, consigned to history disastrous individualism. At its heart has been the determination of member states to act in unity for the benefit of all members. Ireland has been a member of the European Union for the past 32 years and the Union is now part and parcel of everyday life for this country. Ireland’s membership of the Union has been a key factor in the transformation of the Irish economy over the past decade. In particular, our access to the vast EU internal market, the richest and most sophisticated in the world, has been vital to securing investment and jobs in Ireland.
The two questions I wish to ask the President are questions which currently exercise the minds of many Irish people. Some people claim that the Lisbon treaty will mean an end to Irish neutrality and force Ireland to join a European army. The President of the European Parliament has long experience dealing with foreign and security policy. Will he offer his reaction to that claim? Second, according to today’s The Irish Times, the French plan to re-introduce the Commission’s plan for a common corporate tax base. This is a very serious issue for Ireland, given the disadvantages it has as an island state. Can the President assure us that the Lisbon treaty will not remove member states’ powers to decide their national tax rates?
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It gives me great pleasure personally and on behalf of the Fine Gael Party to welcome President Pöttering to Seanad Éireann. I welcome the tone and content of his remarks today; people will be very reassured by them. I thank him for the warm tribute he paid to the Irish men and women who have contributed to the development of the European ideal and for his tribute to Irish peacemakers and the Irish Army. We share the pride he mentioned in their contribution to peacekeeping over the decades.
President Pöttering has led with distinction the European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael is affiliated, and is also a leading member of our sister party, the German CDU. In addition to welcoming him here today, I congratulate him on his recent appointment as president of the important Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly. It is an honour to have the President of the European Parliament in the Oireachtas at any time but it is particularly appropriate at this time given that Ireland is currently having a national conversation about the EU, its future and our role in it. This is taking place, of course, in the context of the Lisbon treaty. Fine Gael will tirelessly advocate a “Yes” vote and has already begun that process.
At a public meeting I held recently in my constituency, I noticed that many of the issues raised had nothing to do with the treaty. However, this happens all the time. Issues that are not covered by the treaty continue to be attributed to it. I agree with President Pöttering that we can never forget the fundamental importance of the European Union being a union of people, ideas and freedom. The project is aimed at bringing people together, maximising opportunities for citizens and harnessing the benefits everybody can derive from co-operation. The European Union has been very good for Ireland, not just for financial reasons but also for social and economic reasons. It has been very good for progressing the social agenda,——
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: ——promoting equality, tackling discrimination and promoting openness and tolerance. As a female parliamentarian I must acknowledge that it is the European Parliament that has championed many of the important gender and social issues which confront European policymakers and legislators today. When educated Irish women were emigrating and experiencing systematic discrimination in our laws, the European Union enfranchised us in our country. I know this well as a former chairman of the National Women’s Council of Ireland. We have reason to be grateful. When Ireland sought derogation, the European Union supported us in our efforts for full equality.
I would like to raise a number of issues and ask President Pöttering questions on them. One of these is climate change. The Lisbon treaty, for the first time, affirms legally the possibility of working on climate change at a European level. Europe is facing up to this serious issue and trying to lead the world in it. I would like the President to spell out the implications of the initiatives he hopes to take in the coming years and how well he thinks citizens will be able to cope with the demands inherent in that. It is critical that the interests of Irish and European agriculture are protected in world trade talks. President Pöttering might comment on that area.
The challenge for Europe is convincing people of the importance of a social Europe. The benefits of membership are not economic alone. We must ensure Europe’s social agenda is not forced through an economic sieve, depriving it of its real meaning. This is critical. I would like President Pöttering to address that area. Many Irish citizens have concerns about a social Europe and how it will develop.
A number of palpable untruths have been spread about the treaty, its content and implications. It is important the decision made by the Irish people is not based on those myths. Although President Pöttering has addressed some of them, I will reiterate them, as the Leader has done, and ask him to comment on them. There is a front page story in today’s edition of The Irish Times on the question of tax. The myth is that the treaty will raise taxes. Does the treaty bring tax policy within the powers of the EU? Although President Pöttering has made the answer to that clear, perhaps he would address it once again. As this is a self-amending treaty, the “no” side continues to insist this will be the last time the Irish people will have a say in any major changes on the EU. I ask the President to address that. It has been said on abortion and stem cell research that health policy does not remain a matter for the Irish people.
The major issue is militarisation and the perception that Ireland will have to join a European Army. I would like President Pöttering to address that issue because it is a cause of concern for many people. We have had a very proud record of peacekeeping and enhancement, which President Pöttering has addressed, but that is capable of being misinterpreted given the provisions of the Lisbon treaty. President Pöttering might comment on that.
I thank the President for attending today and assure him of my party’s continued support for the European project and our intention to canvass with vigour for a “yes” vote in the forthcoming referendum in Ireland. I ask him to keep in mind the continued need to ensure the EU is kept accessible and relevant to its citizens throughout its member states.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I see his presence in the Seanad today as reinforcing that and as testament to the European Parliament’s efforts to enhance co-operation and relationships between the Parliament and the member state. The European Union is first, last and always about people and their welfare. That must be at the core of Europe and its institutions. I thank President Pöttering for coming to speak to us today. It is a great honour for us to have him here.
Senator Dan Boyle: I welcome President Pöttering. In my role as Deputy Leader of the House and representing the Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, I join in the welcome given to him by previous speakers and welcome several aspects of his speech. Senator Fitzgerald has raised the details of the position on climate change and energy security and I, too, welcome those aspects of the President’s speech. It is an important role that the European Parliament will be playing in years to come. The provision on climate change in the reform treaty was a recent initiative of the Irish Government. It is the main difference between this treaty and the constitutional treaty and accompanied my party’s participation in Government in this country. It is very welcome to see the European Parliament playing a role in advancing that important agenda. Indeed, it is the key agenda as the Union moves forward in years to come.
I wish to ask President Pöttering about ongoing concerns relating to the structures of the European Union. It is fair to say that several of the debates in this country that have accompanied the development and devolution of the Union, through the various referenda campaigns, have focused on concerns regarding a democratic deficit. The European Union is a union of democratic nations and is formed by particular values. The essence of democratic values is to have an ongoing, open and democratic debate. I would be pleased to hear President Pöttering’s views on the importance of such critical engagement about what the Union is and what it is evolving into.
In Ireland, despite the existence of fora such as the Forum on Europe, the fact is very often lost that we need people to put forward arguments regarding whether the right direction is being followed. The upcoming debate in this country must be informed as much by critical voices as by those who are intimately involved in the structures of the European Union.
The essence of the democratic deficit is the involvement of the ordinary EU citizen. Each of the structures of the Union — the Parliament, Council and Commission — must demonstrate how the deficit exists now and how it can be lessened in the future. I am particularly keen to hear the views of the President of the European Parliament on that issue.
The President also mentioned the role Ireland plays as a donor nation and referred to our per capita contribution in terms of development aid. This is an area in which the European Union, collectively, plays an important role. Does the President believe strategies can be devised to prevent that from being undermined by some of the trade policies of the European Union? Is there a need to engage with developing countries in a better way? Senator Frances Fitzgerald has already mentioned that trade matters must be examined critically to determine how they might affect the interests of small and peripheral countries such as Ireland. I am interested in the President’s response in that regard.
I wish to ask President Pöttering about the foreign policy direction of the European Union. We have had two instances in the past ten years where European Union member countries have chosen to take different positions, despite the move towards a common foreign policy. I cite the example of the Iraq war in 2003 where member countries took independent positions and the EU did not adopt a collective position. We are seeing that again now in the recognition of Kosovo as a new country. While Ireland has made such a recognition, several member states are uncomfortable about doing so and, again, there is no common EU position. Does Mr. Pöttering, as President of the Parliament, see this as one of the reasons there probably will never be a fully common European foreign policy acceptable to all members and that there will always be incidents and issues of policy where member states will decide on a national interest basis what their individual foreign policy positions will be?
Senator Feargal Quinn: I have been asked by my Independent colleagues to represent them here today. I am a member of the Independent group on the National Forum for Europe, to which the President referred, and of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs. I am also chairman of EuroCommerce, based in Brussels, which represents retail, wholesale and international trade. I thank my colleagues for asking me to say a few words on their behalf.
All Members of this House come from a generation which is only one or two generations removed from the fight for independence in Ireland. In view of this independence and nationalism were a very strong part of our upbringing. In 1958, after finishing university, I spent a year in Europe and I suddenly found myself torn between this sense of independent nationalism and becoming a European. I returned rather excited about that because that was the time Europe was forming itself into a united entity of some sort. The European Economic Community was founded and it evolved into the European Union. Concerns have been expressed in Ireland about this movement. People are concerned we will lose our identity and nationalism.
The subject of the debate is the Lisbon treaty and when we discussed it in the House a few months ago, I looked up the Laeken Declaration of 2001. I was excited about the declaration because it was like a breath of fresh air. I always have been a fan of Europe but over the years I have become a little depressed by the extent to which European institutions fail to engage successfully with the peoples of Europe. However, I was delighted with the Laeken Declaration because it created the constitutional treaty, which became the reform treaty. I was also delighted with the President’s words. My colleague, Senator Joe O’Toole, said to me, “Did you hear the passion with which that man spoke?” That is what impressed me about what he said.
One can see why I was excited. However, on the basis of returning to first principles, which is important, I would like to pose a question to the President. Does the result we have to consider in the form of the reform treaty live up to these aspirations clearly set out in the declaration or, along the road, have the lawyers and the bureaucrats taken over the process so that instead of a new beginning we are presented with more of the same? I hope the President will consider this to be as important an issue as I do.
We should scrutinise the reform treaty from the point of view of Irish interests but we should also ask whether the benefits to Ireland exceed the undoubted costs of going along with the treaty. We owe the people of Ireland a duty to carry out that scrutiny legally and diligently. The reform treaty takes a decisive step in shaping the Europe of the future and it is incumbent on us to ask ourselves solemnly and carefully if this is the way we want to go and whether the treaty lives up to the Laeken Declaration or undermines the fine principles and aspirations on which it was launched. A reply will be very helpful to those in Ireland who will vote on the treaty shortly. I am aware of the President’s enthusiasm and passion and I would like him to put this into the answers to those questions.
Senator Alex White: I am delighted on behalf of the Labour Party to welcome the President to the House. We are affiliated to the socialist group in the European Parliament, which vies with the President’s group for largest group. We do not have the largest group currently but we hope to before too long. I had the pleasure of meeting the President last night and he said something to me that very much resonated in the context in which we are speaking. The President stated that being in Berlin in 1962 or 1963 and seeing the wall being constructed represented the single biggest motivating factor for his entry into politics. It is interesting that the wall was removed many years later in 1989. All of us, whether left, right, centre, red, green or blue, celebrated the removal of this abomination at the heart of our continent. It was extraordinary to see the division it constituted in the continent of Europe removed so quickly in the end. It was also an enormous moment historically for Europe to see it go. It seems that in the context in which we are discussing the Lisbon treaty and having this debate we should not forget that this was an enormous symbolic occasion for Europe and the importance of a united Europe.
Unity in Europe cannot be founded only on symbols, important as they are. My party will support the Lisbon treaty enthusiastically and will actively canvass and campaign throughout the country for a “yes” vote. This morning’s discussion is an interesting and useful occasion. However, while it is not so much that storm clouds are gathering, in any debate we must address the serious economic issues we have on a worldwide scale at present. We have seen what happened in the United States and Europe. Will the President comment on the impact the economic downturn is having and is likely to have in the European context?
What serious role can the European Union take to address the concerns of many millions of workers throughout the Union that at a time of economic downturn, the first to suffer are those on low pay and low wages? These are people already affected by the impact of the various inequalities which still have not been removed throughout the continent. We still have a 15% gender gap in pay, despite all we achieved. We still have a gap between rich and poor in all countries of Europe and between the security of employment many of us have and the precarious situation many workers face.
An issue I am especially concerned about is the question of the draft directive on agency workers, which we have debated in this House. I am sorry to state the Government has not seen fit to support it, at least at this stage. Does the President agree with me that it is vital a measure such as this is brought forward quickly? If it is not brought forward during this Presidency, it should be brought forward in the next. People who quite rightly are asked to vote in support of the Lisbon treaty would see they have a stake in it and that it has a real impact on their lives.
Something which often amuses me, and I saw it arise again in recent days, is the notion of red tape. I would like to reflect on this idea. People rail against red tape and no one likes unnecessary bureaucracy. When we criticise red tape we forget that in many cases this so-called “red tape” represents a major achievement. People speak about the burden of regulation. I would like to speak more about the achievements of regulation such as the fixed-term work directive and basic minimum holidays and hours of work which came from European directives. We also have the equality directives, including the new equality framework directive. All of these were initiated in the Commission, debated and passed at European level. I do not regard any of these issues as red tape or a burden. I regard them as real achievements for workers throughout Europe.
It is unfortunate that during the debate in the European Parliament in recent days, it was suggested by some Members that the new framework directive brought forward by the Commission, of which I am sure the President is aware, represents more red tape. If what is needed to combat income, gender and race discrimination is called red tape then I embrace red tape. If this is what it is let us have more of it. Of course, this is not what it is. It is a pejorative way of describing it. It is a real achievement of Europe and if the workers of Ireland are to be asked to support the Lisbon treaty, and we will ask them to do so, they must see that ratifying the treaty will have a real impact on their lives. Perhaps Mr. Pöttering might comment on one of these points. Mr. Pöttering has achieved much in his speech today but, above all, he has managed to persuade the Leader of the House to tell us what age he is.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I thank Mr. Pöttering and it has been a pleasure to listen to him speak, as Senator Quinn mentioned, with such passion. The ratification of the Lisbon treaty is an issue for Ireland and there is a certain level of complacency, which is a challenge we must address. We need good reason to try and sell the treaty to the people. As the treaty is a tidying-up exercise people are not really exercised about it and begin to wonder if they will bother voting. That is what we need to guard against. The presence of Mr. Pöttering here kicks off the campaign. It is important to reiterate what Mr. Pöttering said, which is that he is not here to tell the people how to vote, but merely presenting his own arguments on why it is a good idea to vote “Yes”.
It was also a pleasure to listen to him because he highlighted the importance of Ireland to the EU, as well as the importance of the EU to Ireland. It is always good to listen to praise about ourselves and he has all made us feel good. I did not agree with everything he said but that is to be expected.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: We need to be careful, to echo what Senator Boyle said, as we begin to become more homogenised in terms of the European Union, to protect a certain degree of flexibility. We are very exercised by the report that was in the front page of the newspaper today, stating the French have indicated that they want to consolidate the European tax base. They are entitled to that opinion, but they will be met with significant resistance from Ireland. This is the challenge to which I referred. Within the European Union each member state will place its national interests first. The question I have for Mr. Pöttering relates to this tension between national interests on the one hand and the European ideal and European co-operation on issues such as foreign affairs, on the other. The Senator made an important point that not all countries will look at issues in the same way. I would like to hear some more detail on how Mr. Pöttering imagines that will work. The European Union works best when it works together on such issues as climate change. It is that tension to which I referred.
For pan-European services there is a European market. However, can we look forward to a union where we can have services? For example, if I want my car insured can I go to a German or a French insurer? Is that something Mr. Pöttering sees happening here, and if so how quickly?
It is important for the Irish to remember that it is our duty, on behalf of our country, to vote on the Lisbon treaty. It is unfair of those opposed to the treaty to indicate that it is our responsibility to take on the decision for every European country where the citizens do not get the right to vote. Mr. Pöttering mentioned that each country’s method for ratifying the treaty is part of its sovereignty, which is important We need to be careful about this and we will answer the question on the Lisbon treaty for Ireland alone.
Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering: Thank you. When I was leader of the EPP-ED group in the European Parliament for seven and half years I always had six minutes to make my speeches. I do not know how many minutes are available here. An elderly female colleague from Luxembourg once said to me that I had six minutes and she had only one minute and she asked that I give her two minutes of my time. That would be a little fairer. I have to answer all these intelligent and wise remarks in ten minutes. There is a difference between being intelligent and wise. I am an honorary professor but would say that sometimes it would be good if professors were less intelligent and more wise. I will, however, try to answer in ten minutes.
I refer to Senator Donie Cassidy’s comments and to neutrality, corporate tax and what the Lisbon treaty means. Nobody, no country, no European Parliament, no European Commission or no Council of Ministers can define or change Ireland’s status of neutrality. It is its position and decision and nobody in the world or in Europe can tell the Irish people to change its position. If it wants to keep neutrality, then that is its position.
Although Ireland is expressly in favour of neutrality, it is engaged in human rights in the world. My country, Germany, is engaged in Afghanistan under the framework of NATO but it is not engaged in Chad. Ireland is engaged in Chad to defend human rights there. This is a responsible position. Nobody can force Ireland to enter NATO. This is Ireland’s position and decision and if somebody says this will change as a result of the Lisbon treaty, it is a lie. We must be frank about it. What one colleague from the European Parliament is saying about abortion is misleading and is a lie. He knows it is a lie. Nothing changes in this context.
I refer to the question of corporate tax. Under the Lisbon treaty, a unanimous vote in respect of tax questions is required. This means that without the agreement of Ireland, nothing can change. If people say there will be a change with the Lisbon treaty, they are not telling the truth. Most of them are lying. Lying means saying something wrong and knowing it is wrong. I have trust in the Irish people that they will realise people from outside this country are not telling the truth.
I would like ministers from countries which regard themselves as great countries to be a little bit more wise and reluctant in making statements. I will do my utmost to make sure these misleading remarks do not continue. I assure Senators that the position in respect of neutrality, taxes and abortion will not change. Decisions in respect of these questions are for the Irish people. I thank Senator Donie Cassidy for his comments.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald kindly referred to what I said about Ireland’s peacekeeping in the world and its defence of human rights. I met Senator Leyden in Athens. The Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly is very important because it brings together representatives of the 27 countries of the European Union, including representatives of the most important chambers, such as the Seanad represented by Senator Leyden, and members of other parliaments of the European Union, the European Parliament and all parliaments from Turkey to Morocco, including Palestine and Israel. On 13 July in Paris a decision will be made about the Barcelona process and the proposals of President Sarkozy. We now have the right framework in that all countries of the European Union will be involved whereas some had been left outside. In the first proposal, Ireland and Germany were not involved. We thought this was wrong so Ireland, Germany and others are now in. I thank the Senator for the encouragement as far as that is concerned.
I refer to social Europe and related questions. We must always defend the dignity of the human being. Each citizen in the European Union and, of course, in the world must create the basis for his or her life. I do not agree with those who want to make everything equal in the European Union. For instance, it is up to the nations to decide on pension systems. This is one of the disputes, that is, whether we want to harmonise things. Some people want to harmonise most things while other speak about the identity of the nations.
We must always try to find the answers to specific questions. One cannot give a general answer to all questions. With my political beliefs, I try to be somewhere in the centre. Sometimes I am a little bit left of the centre and sometimes a little bit right of it but the main road is the centre. I have always appreciated that in the context of Ireland. Wherever it stands politically, it has a good approach — a policy of being in the centre.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald referred to climate change. There is now much discussion about CO2 reductions in the car industry, other industry and so on. We must each ask ourselves how we can reduce our energy consumption. We must work hard to ensure deforestation does not continue. Therefore, we need good co-operation with countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and others. I have spoken about military alliances already.
The accession to citizens was raised in many questions. I am still chairman of my party in my region of the western part of Lower Saxony, not the Free State of Saxony which is in eastern Germany. I am from the north west of Germany, Hanover-Osnabrück. I believe we have three, four or even five political identities. One is at local level where everything starts. For people living in Kilkee, Ireland does not start in Dublin but in Kilkee which is where they start to be an Irish person. As a result of Irish nationality, one gets European citizenship. In my case, it starts at local level and at the regional level of Lower Saxony, and Ireland has its regions as well. It then moves to national and European level. That is four identities. We then have a responsibility to the world. If we see things that way, we can combine the different levels.
I refer to Senator Dan Boyle’s comments. I am a Christian Democrat and I have been criticised by my political friends in the European Parliament for being so engaged in the question of climate change. People might have different reasons. I like to speak about creation but others might have a different approach. If our world is to survive, it is vital to take the necessary measures in the field of climate change. However, time does not allow me to go too much into the details. As far as the democratic deficit is concerned, when I started in the European Parliament in 1979 we had zero legislative competences. The Council of Ministers did not consult us when taking decisions. It was often not the Council of Ministers but officials who took the legal decisions. I have great respect for officials but it is not their job to make decisions. Representatives elected by the people must make the legal decisions. This has been changed.
Under the Lisbon treaty our legislative power as a European Parliament is almost 100%. Taxes are excluded and that is why it is not 100%. We share legislative power with the Council of Ministers. The Commission President is elected by the European Parliament and it must respect the result of the elections in making its proposal. The Commission requires the confidence vote of Parliament.
On foreign policy, I have been always an advocate of a strong Europe in respect of world politics. However, we do not always have to do the same thing. If Ireland does not want to send troops to Iraq or to support the war in Iraq, it has a right to say so. I could not imagine a situation whereby the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament or Commission could decide whether a country should send troops to war in foreign countries. It is for Ireland, with the agreement of the people, to do this and nobody in Brussels or Strasbourg can make that decision. This must be clear. Development will be in the future.
I would as many countries as possible to have the same policy. However, those countries that do not wish to join should not be forced to do so. They should do what they believe is right. This is a good principle in respect of foreign affairs. It is a position that works.
Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned he spent one year in Europe. Ireland is also part of Europe and as such he has spent his whole life in Europe, which I appreciate. I am fascinated by what he had to say. I wish I had the time to spend one year outside my own country, a privilege enjoyed by Senator Quinn. Perhaps Senator Quinn will tell me in what country he spent that year.
Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering: The Senator should go back and speak to the Minister for the Economy, Finance and Employment about what she said and should bring my best regards to her. Christine Lagarde, to my astonishment, speaks fluent English. I met her twice. I do not know why she did what she did but she is a practical thinking person. If the Senator calls her and informs her that what she said is not applicable to the Lisbon treaty, she will quickly understand.
The Senator is correct, we must be near to the people. However, politicians alone cannot do this. We need the support of the media and, in particular, television. In Germany, television programmes while not nationalised are home country orientated. I share the Senator’s conviction that television should be used more to provide information about the European Union and world politics.
Senator Alex White of the Labour Party spoke about Berlin. I am happy he remembers what I said in respect of Berlin; it is the truth. As somebody from the western part of Lower Saxony I first visited west Berlin in 1962. The wall was built on 13 August 1961. It is against nature to erect a wall and to block people from going from one area to another. For example, in 1976, 15 years after the wall had been built, some 50 buses carrying a youth organisation from my party visited Berlin. Only two buses were permitted to cross the Communist border to eastern Germany. The bus on which I was travelling as Chairman of the youth organisation from my region was permitted to cross the border. I will tell Members why. I know of Ireland’s history with the British. I say this because we must always tell the truth. On the bus on which I was travelling was a young boy from the United States of America and a young girl from the United Kingdom. The Communists did not dare to send our bus away because the Americans and British had a special status in Berlin. I realised how important it was that Germany always had the support of the Americans, the British, the French and Ireland. I thank Dick Roche and Gerard Collins whom I mentioned earlier, for their contributions.
While national boundaries are important, they are not the most important. Self determination of the people is what is most important. Self determination of the people means the people have the right to make decisions in respect of liberty and their own way of living and we must defend this at all times.
The issue of red tape was mentioned. In Germany, the European Commission is regarded as bureaucratic. It is sometimes right to criticise the Commission. President Barroso who does an excellent job will visit Ireland next week. If I am welcome, I will come back next week to meet our political friends in Fine Gael.
Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering: I may have to shorten a visit to some Arab countries but it is important to show solidarity. On red tape bureaucracy, we must find middle ground. If we introduce too much regulation then parts of the political spectrum will not want anything to do with Brussels. Those who prefer regulation will, if left alone, do too much. We must take all people with us on the European project. This is why I favour a policy oriented in the centre. I hope I have answered all Senator Alex White’s questions.
Senator Fiona O’Malley of the Progressive Democrats also asked some questions. In the European Parliament the Progressive Democrats would be in the liberal democratic group, ALDE. We have many difficult abbreviations in the European Parliament. The alliance of the liberal and democratic parties is now chaired by Mr. Graham Watson and was previously chaired by Mr. Pat Cox prior to his election as President of the European Parliament. We worked closely together when I was leader of our party.
Senator O’Malley spoke about flexibility, which I like. I was astonished at what I learned last night. Following dinner I always like to walk rather than to travel by car. The driver told me this morning that if I lived here I would be popular with the drivers because as I prefer to walk they could go home. I walked around and saw all the nice pubs outside which there were many people smoking. As a non-smoker I often feel sorry for smokers who must leave restaurants to smoke. I learned yesterday that Ireland was the first country to implement regulation in this field. It was Ireland’s choice and it had a right to do this.
I will tell the Members a nice little story about Europe. I told it first at the Catholic faculty of an institution in south Germany — and am daring to also tell it here again — when a friend, the former Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg, was given an honorary doctorate. At the end of the story all the theological professors there smiled and laughed. I will give Members an example of our European psychology.
When I was chairman of the EEP-ED Group we had a bureau meeting in a nice hotel in Bordeaux, although it was not as nice as the one in which I had the honour and pleasure to stay last night. I wish I had some more hours in that beautiful hotel. We had a meeting in a good hotel in Bordeaux. I chaired the meeting which continued for some four or five hours, after which I paid a visit to the toilet. Before explaining this little story I must tell Members that the constitutional treaty was partly rejected in France because the French feared the threat posed to other workers by the “Polish plumber” under the provisions of the services directive. The first proposal of the then Commissioner Bolkestein was to make the market totally free. Thus the French were afraid of the threat to French workers posed by the Polish plumber.
Now I can continue with the story. At the end of the meeting as I was on my way to the toilet I met a Swedish colleague who, having been there, told me they need “the Polish plumber”. I will not explain to my colleagues the conditions he described which I subsequently saw, but I can only say they needed “the Polish plumber”.
Some weeks later, and this is the truth, I was in Paris and was invited by a German diplomatic couple to their apartment for coffee. As always, there was only ten minutes for coffee but it was enough time for me to speak about the experience I have had in my life, as I do here. They had a beautiful apartment and they told me that they had waited for a year for a plumber to repair their heating.
This is a nice story but what does it illustrate? It shows that the thinking of the people is totally different from their needs. The French in this case, and others as well, need Polish plumbers, but the French thought that in this special historic situation the Polish plumber would be a threat to them but this was wrong. They voted “No”. The Irish people are intelligent and wise and I will not make a recommendation, but the Members know my beliefs.
Money may be important. Is there any person who does not like money? All people like it. Organisations and institutions are important, but what is unique in the European Union, of which we can be proud, is that we share the same values. We should speak about these values, namely, the dignity of the human being, human rights, democracy, legal order and the principle of solidarity. The European Union is not without mistakes. However, if one takes note of what is happening elsewhere in the world, one will note that the European Continent, made up of Ireland, Germany and the other member states, is based on these values. We have a duty to defend our values. I hope that everybody in Ireland when they vote in the referendum, which will probably be held on 12 June, will make a decision having regard to our being united in the European Union on the basis of the values we share. I thank the Members for the good time they have shown me in this Chamber.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: On a recent visit to Brussels I was amazed to observe how open the European Commission is about what it is doing and how it is performing its duties. I was also amazed to note the workings of the European Parliament and its extra powers. I was further amazed that nobody appears to know about the workings of the Parliament and the Commission and the powers they have.
On behalf of the Members of the House, I thank the President most kindly for accepting the invitation to come here and address Seanad Éireann. I wish him well in the challenges that lie ahead for him. I thank him again for his address to the House today.
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