Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It is an honour for me to move the second reading of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2001, which was published on 29 March. The purpose of the Bill is to seek the agreement of the people to the constitutional changes necessary to allow the State to ratify the Treaty of Nice, which was signed by the 15 Foreign Ministers of the European Union on 26 February. The content of the Bill reflects the detailed legal advice provided to the Government on the nature of the changes which were required for this purpose.
The decision to have a referendum is based on the clear legal advice that ratification of the Treaty by the State requires constitutional change. This primarily reflects the fact that having carefully identified in the Amsterdam amendment those options or discretions which may be exercised by the State, subject to Oireachtas approval, it is now necessary to make specific provision to permit the exercise of the options or discretions included in the Treaty of Nice. This involves the up-dating and consolidation of the rules governing enhanced co-operation, and the introduction on a limited basis of enhanced co-operation in the area of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. In addition, it was also necessary to take account of the extension of the scope of qualified majority voting. Overall, it was clearly desirable that any risk of legal uncertainty on matters of such importance to the State as the treaties establishing the Community and the Union should be avoided.
The Bill proposes to add two additional subsections to Article 29.4 of the Constitution as well as some consequential renumbering of other sections. First, it provides for a new subsection 7º, which provides that the State may ratify the Treaty of Nice. This is similar to the current references in the Constitution to ratifying earlier EU treaties, including the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty of Amsterdam. It also provides in the new subsection 8º that the State may exercise certain identified options or discretions included in the Treaty of Nice, all of which relate to various aspects of enhanced co-operation. The approach followed in this regard, in particular the explicit citing of the articles under which the options or discretions arise, is identical to that followed in the case of the analogous provision, subsection 6, included in the Constitution following the referendum on the Treaty of Amsterdam. In addition and, again, in line with the cross-party agreement reached in respect of the Amsterdam referendum, it is also provided that the exercise of any such options or discretions shall be subject to the prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Bill, as drafted, therefore, is entirely consistent with the approach taken at Amsterdam and follows the pattern of the current wording of Article 29. The provision for parliamentary scrutiny retains an important safeguard agreed in the context of the Amsterdam referendum and one which was a significant element in the all-party consensus achieved at the time.
The purpose of the Treaty of Nice was to bring to a conclusion the process of institutional reform that began with the Treaty of Amsterdam and which was intended to prepare the Union for the admission of a significant number of new member states. The European Council in Cologne in June 1999 decided to convene an intergovernmental conference to settle the issues left unresolved at Amsterdam. These included the size and composition of the Commission, the weighting of votes in the Council, the extension of qualified majority voting and changes in other EU institutions necessitated by enlargement. The European Council in June 2000 subsequently added enhanced co-operation to the agenda.
The Intergovernmental Conference began in February 2000 and concluded at the Nice European Council last December. The outcome is a package of measures that will equip the Union to function effectively with a significant increase in membership and at the same time provide the required protection for our essential interests. The treaty will only come into effect if ratified by all 15 member states. Current indications are that this will be done by means of parliamentary approval in the other member states: Ireland is likely to be the only country where a referendum is required to complete the process of ratification. It is, perhaps, interesting to note in this regard that Denmark which, like us, has frequently had recourse to referendums is not doing so on this occasion because the treaty does not involve any transfer of competence from the member states to the Union.
The treaty is intended to prepare the way for a significant enlargement of the Union. With the negotiations in the intergovernmental conference now successfully concluded and subject to the ratification of the treaty by each member state, the Union will be in a position to welcome the new member states that are ready as and from the end of 2002. From that point onwards, the pace of accession will be determined solely by the ability of the candidate countries to demonstrate that they are in a position to assume the obligations of membership.
It is no exaggeration to say that the issues at stake are of historic importance. The divisions on the continent of Europe in the past century had led to global conflict on two occasions bringing in its wake slaughter and mass suffering of unimaginable proportions. This was followed by ideological confrontation and massive denial of human rights and fundamental freedom for close to half of our fellow Europeans. Against that background, the success of the European Union in reconciling former enemies and providing in the last four decades a basis for co-operation among a growing number of western European countries has been a phenomenal achievement.
With the end of the Cold War and the historic changes in central and eastern Europe it is hardly coincidental that so many countries in the region having newly regained their individual voice in international affairs have made plain their determination to move forward within the framework of an enlarged European Union. They recognise, with perhaps greater clarity than some inside the Union, that broadening the Union to embrace the applicant states can serve to consolidate newly won democratic freedoms and lay the basis for a new era of stability and prosperity for the Continent as a whole.
It goes without saying that Ireland, no less than our partners, has a vital interest in these developments. A peaceful and stable Europe is, clearly, in Ireland's interest. Small countries, in particular, benefit from a settled international order. However, for an open economy like ours it is, in addition, a vital underpinning of our domestic economic well-being.
We, in Ireland, are in an excellent position to take advantage of the opportunities offered by enlargement. Irish business currently has access to a market of 370 million. With the completion of the current enlargement process this would expand to some 550 million. Irish exporters are already well placed in these markets. Irish exports to the central and eastern European applicant countries rose by 337% to £586 million in the five years to 1999. These countries also provide excellent investment opportunities for Irish companies. For example, in Poland Irish investment is already in excess of US$1 billion.
Given that some critics of the treaty have suggested that they are reflecting the concerns of the applicant countries, it should be noted that reac tion to it has been very positive in the candidate states. For example, the Polish Foreign Minister said, "The Treaty of Nice is a sound and good starting point for European states on the threshold of the Third Millennium". The Romanian Foreign Minister described the outcome as "very encouraging" while his Cypriot counterpart said that he was "very satisfied with the outcome of Nice".
Given the importance these countries attach to gaining entry to the Union, their reaction is scarcely surprising. Moreover, many of them have already made considerable progress in effecting the changes necessary for membership. I am confident that the Irish people, for whom the memory of the challenges we faced in making a similar transition some 30 years ago is not so distant, wish these countries well and are ready to extend the hand of friendship, co-operation and solidarity, just as we were helped at the equivalent stage in our development.
That is the background from which the new treaty has emerged and against which it should be judged. The ultimate responsibility in this regard will fall on the people when they cast their votes in the referendum. Can anyone seriously suggest that it is in Ireland's interests to vote down the treaty since it constitutes the vehicle for accession of the new democracies in Europe? Apart from the inherent benefits attaching to enlargement, Ireland has a strategy for increasing direct representation in these countries. Were we to vote down the Treaty of Nice, how could it be argued that was in the interests of our bilateral relations? On the contrary, a negative vote could be construed as giving succour to reactionary forces eager to exploit any difficulties to the detriment of democratic forces aiming to restructure the economies of emerging countries. Is there a serious body of political opinion in Ireland which would promote a policy so injurious to the interests of our trading partners? In view of the importance with which all Europeans view the enlargement project, I am confident the Irish people will adopt an outward-looking approach and enable those in the new Europe to have a chance to gain their full potential by joining the European Union.
From a political and historical perspective, it is vital that Ireland seizes the opportunity to affirm support for the European project. It is equally important that a young nation should confirm the people's overwhelming support for the prospect of Poles, Hungarians and Czechs among others – parents and children – making a reality of the hopes we had when we voted in such large numbers for accession in 1972. If the public approves the treaty, this will greatly enhance Ireland's standing internationally. By reason of our constitutional position, it falls uniquely to the people of Ireland – as distinct from Parliaments in other member states – to say "yes" to the emerging democracies, to vote on behalf of the people in these new democracies as well as on our own behalf for enlargement.
To assist in maximising public awareness, the Government has published a White Paper to outline and explain the changes that will be made by the treaty. The White Paper provides a factual, comprehensive and readable account of what the treaty contains and is available free of charge on request from my Department. Because of the importance of encouraging citizens to familiarise themselves with the treaty provisions, a summary of the White Paper has also been prepared and, in a new development, will be distributed to every household in the State. Provision has also been made to make copies of the summary available in Braille and on audio tape for persons with a sight disability. It is hoped these arrangements, which are more comprehensive than in any recent EU referendum, will facilitate the kind of informed debate issues of this importance clearly merit.
I am confident that those who fairly consider the issues will conclude that the treaty is right for Europe and right for Ireland in Europe. It is, clearly, in Ireland's interest that an enlarged Union can continue to function properly and take decisions for which the treaty provides while maintaining in place necessary safeguards in sensitive areas and the fundamental balances that are the hallmark of the Union. That is borne out by a closer examination of what was decided under the various headings. It was agreed, for example, that qualified majority voting should be extended to some 30 additional areas. This reflects the fact that it, simply, does not make sense in a Union of 27 to allow a single member state to block a proposal on which a significant majority of states might otherwise be agreed. A case in point is the decision to extend QMV to international agreements in the field of services and intellectual property subject to certain safeguards. As a trading nation, it is very much in our interest that the Community should be in a position to negotiate effectively in world trade fora. Switching to QMV makes this more likely and thereby contributes to employment and prosperity at home. While ready to facilitate QMV in many additional areas, we insisted on the retention of unanimity for all aspects of taxation. We emphasised that this was an area vital to our economic transformation and must remain subject to agreement by all member states. The conclusion reached was entirely satisfactory and fully protects our position.
The outcome on the composition of the Commission by now is well known. It was agreed that from 2005, the date of appointment of the next Commission, the five large states will forego their right to nominate a second member of the Commission. From that date the Commission will comprise one nominee from each member state. That arrangement, obviously, has the effect – ignored by critics of the treaty – of reducing by 50% large state representation on the Commission. That will continue to apply until the Union reaches 27 member states, an outcome which is, clearly, some years away. At that point the Commission will decide, by unanimity, on a size for the Commission less than 27. A key element of the agreement reached at Nice was that the rotation of seats on the Commission will take place on the basis of strict equality between member states, irrespective of size or population.
The practical result is that for the next decade each member state, including the newly admitted members, will be entitled to nominate a member of the Commission. When eventually the Union reaches 27, a decision on size will be taken by unanimity, with the full participation of the new members. Any arrangement must be on the basis of the strict equality of member states. I believed at Nice, as I do now, that with the other small and medium sized states, both members and applicants, that this represents a good deal, and constitutes a reasonable basis for agreement as part of a satisfactory overall package.
As regards the weighting of votes, it was, of course, recognised at Amsterdam that the large states would be compensated for giving up their second Commissioner by an increase in their weighted vote. The outcome at Nice is consistent with that understanding. However, it also contains important safeguards for smaller countries. In Ireland's case we will have 2.03% of the total vote, compared to 2.2% on a simple extrapolation of the existing weights in an enlarged Union. Put another way, with 0.8% of the population in a Union of 27, we will have a voting weight more than two and half times our population equivalent. We will also have the same voting weight as Finland and Denmark, two countries with populations larger than ours.
Concern has been expressed that decision-making will be made difficult by the requirement that decisions have the support of at least 62% of the Union's population. While this represents a small increase on the rate which currently applies, claims of a radical transformation in the balance of power are unconvincing when it is recalled that, until 1995, the equivalent rate was 63%, and was over 70% at earlier stages of the Union's development. In addition, as a further safeguard, it was agreed at Nice, in response to a proposal from the smaller countries, that for the first time an explicit provision be made in the Treaty that no decision can be taken without the support of at least a majority of member states.
Quite apart from these inevitably complex statistical provisions, we should not lose sight of the fact that in reality influence in the Council is based on forging alliances with like-minded states, and that issues rarely divide on the basis of size. Ireland, under successive Governments, has shown itself adept at protecting its interests. There is no reason to doubt that we will be any less effective in an enlarged Union. The outcome at Nice with regard to the other European institutions can also be regarded as satisfactory. In the case of the European Parliament, we will continue to have representation more than double that to which we would be entitled on a population basis. In fact, with the exception of Luxem bourg which is a special case, we will have the best seat to population ratio of any member state.
Among those areas of the Treaty to which perhaps insufficient attention has been paid is the significant set of reforms agreed with regard to the Court of Justice. This will equip the court to deal with an already growing case load, a situation which will inevitably accelerate further with enlargement. Among the reforms is an expanded role for the Court of First Instance. This will relieve the Court of Justice of some of the burden which it now carries and allow it to deal only with important cases. The treaties will also stipulate, for the first time, that the Court of Justice is to comprise one judge from each member state. There is a similar strengthening of the entitlement of each member state to representation on the Court of Auditors. It was also possible to ensure that Ireland's representation on the economic and social committee and the committee of the regions will remain unchanged after enlargement.
The treaty also provides for some adjustments in the rules on enhanced co-operation, including ending the right of a single member state to veto the establishment of a group, except in the second pillar area where the veto will continue to apply. I want immediately to rebut suggestions that this will lead to the creation of an inner core, from which we will be excluded, or to the emergence of a two-speed Europe. I have on previous occasions outlined the various safeguards which will ensure that this does not happen; the fact that it will not apply to any aspect of the Single Market which consists of more than 80% of the activities of the Union; the fact that under CFSP it will be limited to implementation of decisions taken under normal procedures, and is specifically excluded from the security and defence area; the guarantee that every new group will be open to participation by any member state; and the increased role for the Commission in monitoring its operation to ensure the overall coherence of the Union.
Far from constituting a single inner core, the composition of each group will vary from issue to issue, with members free to join those groups in which they wish to participate. In reality, the tightly drawn rules for enhanced co-operation are likely to limit the scope for its application, and it will continue, as the Treaty explicitly provides, to be used as a mechanism of last resort. However, having secured the necessary safeguards, I put it to the House that to have kept in place an arrangement which allowed a single member state in a Union of 27 to block a proposal on which other member states were agreed would have been contrary to the interests of the Union. Here, as elsewhere, the decisions taken at Nice put in place sensible arrangements, properly ring-fenced, to ensure that an enlarged Union can continue to function and to take the decisions it needs. This is what enhanced co-operation is about, no more and no less.
Against the background of the historic process of enlargement in which the EU is engaged, the European Union is continuing to seek ways of playing a greater role for peace, stability and security in Europe. Ireland has a strong interest in maintaining a stable, inclusive security environment. I believe it is essential for Ireland to be centrally involved in shaping future changes in the direction that we would wish to see them take. Ireland pursues this objective not only through the common foreign policy of the European Union but also through the primary role of the United Nations, and other international organisations.
The development of the common foreign and security policy, under the provisions of the Amsterdam Treaty, has led to an enhancement of the capacity of the EU to carry out humanitarian and crisis management tasks, known as the Petersberg tasks. Existing security arrangements and procedures have been adapted to carry out these tasks and Ireland is actively and constructively participating in improving European responses to challenges which can arise. Important steps have been taken in developing an EU capability to undertake crisis management tasks. Decisions to this effect, elaborating the European security and defence policy, have been taken by the European Council at successive meetings at Cologne, Helsinki, Feira and, most recently, at Nice.
Any participation by Ireland in a Petersberg task would be a sovereign decision by the Government and approached on a case by case basis. Also, in line with the Government's policy of military neutrality, the Government has made clear that Ireland would participate only in operations authorised by the United Nations, in accordance with the appropriate legislation and subject to Dáil approval. The existing treaty provisions were intended to make the common foreign and security policy of the EU more coherent, more visible and more effective. The Treaty of Nice has made only limited changes in this area. References to the Western European Union have been deleted. Also, a treaty basis is provided for the political and security committee, which meets in Brussels. I will briefly outline the background to these limited changes.
At the time of the Amsterdam Treaty, it was envisaged that the Western European Union would play a key role, acting on behalf of the EU, in the area of crisis management and conflict prevention. However, given the development of the Union's capabilities in this area, the role of the Western European Union has diminished. The deletion of the clauses concerning the Western European Union can therefore be seen in the light of the evolution of the European security and defence policy and of a desire to update the treaty.
The Treaty of Nice also provides for the replacement of the existing political committee, which comprised representatives from capitals, by a political and security committee, based in Brussels, operating on instructions from the respective Governments. The new committee will assume functions relating to the conduct of the common foreign and security policy. As part of its responsibilities, the political and security committee may exercise, under the authority of the Council of Foreign Ministers, the political control and strategic direction of crisis management operations.
The Treaty of Nice is concerned with preparing for enlargement, but it is, of course, also about the continuing development of the Union, of which we have been a full and committed member for almost three decades. During that period the Irish people have enjoyed substantial economic benefits, reflected in unprecedented levels of employment, growth and prosperity. Our network of roads and services have benefited substantially from Structural Funds assistance, averaging more than 2% of GNP during the 1990s. Similarly, our education and training programmes have benefited greatly under the European Social Fund down through the years. We have gained from and contributed to important advances in areas like the environment, social programmes, equal rights for men and women and consumer protection, all matters of direct concern to every citizen in the country. Nobody seriously believes that these advances would have been achieved to anything like the same extent if we were outside the Union.
However, support for our full participation in the Union is not based on economic calculation alone. Being at the heart of Europe has given Ireland the opportunity to bring its distinctive voice to a wider audience. In return we have opened ourselves to new currents and influences which have both broadened our experience and enriched our national life. Nobody realises this more than our present generation of young people. They know, many of them through practical experience, that whether in Paris, Prague, Dublin or Warsaw, we are part of a common enterprise, facing the same issues of worthwhile jobs, strengthening our communities and building a decent society in which all can participate. These are the real challenges facing the Union in the years ahead. That is why I am confident the Irish people will say "Yes" to enlargement and "Yes" to a mature, confident and internationally responsible Ireland remaining at the forefront of the European Union.