Order of Business. - Twenty-Fourth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2001: Second Stage.

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.

What is at stake in this debate is the enlargement of the EU and the institutional changes necessary to accommodate the additional members. I make it clear that Fine Gael has always strongly advocated and supported enlargement of the EU. However, that process is at risk as passage of the referendum approving the Nice Treaty which will give effect to the institutional changes cannot be taken for granted. The process is being put at risk by the Government, particularly because the date proposed for the referendum displays a total disregard for the foot and mouth crisis. Traditionally, farmers have been great supporters of the EU, but they have so many problems now I do not think their minds are focused on enlargement. It makes no sense whatever for the referendum to proceed on 31 May as proposed by the Government. Even in the UK, where not much notice has been taken of the foot and mouth crisis, the Prime Minister has decided not to hold elections in May.

It is not only the foot and mouth crisis that makes me call for a postponement of the referendum. The Government is displaying a complete disregard for the democratic process by allowing only eight weeks between publication of the White Paper on 29 March and the proposed referendum on 31 May. This is a further compelling reason for the postponement of the referendum until autumn. We must bear in mind that the requirement is to have ratification procedures completed by the end of next year, and from that point of view it is wrong for the Government to approach the issue with the unseemly haste evident from the current preparations. Apart from the legislative process in the Dáil and Seanad, the Referendum Commission will have to arrange for the preparation of two reports on the treaty, one in favour and one against, and arrange for the circulation of them throughout the country.

Fine Gael believes it is hugely important that we have a reasoned debate on the treaty. The more reasoned the debate the better prospect the referendum will be passed. The more people are aware that the treaty is designed to provide a framework for an EU of perhaps 30 members in the next 15 years the more they can be convinced of the merits of enlargement. However, a reasoned debate requires adequate time for full discussion of all aspects of the treaty.

The issue of time for debating serious issues and referendums was discussed by the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution. Its draft report on the referendum process examined this issue and looked at referendums in an historical context. There is agreement in the draft report that a referendum places people in a position analogous to that of a judge hearing a case. An issue of such major importance as the Nice Treaty requires adequate preparation and presentation so the people can exercise considered judgment. The quality of the judgment will of course depend on the clarity with which the facts underpinning the proposal are placed before the people and the cogency of the arguments made by both sides. All of this takes time, and the all-party committee's draft report suggested three months should elapse from the initiation of a Bill to amend the Constitution and its passing by the Oireachtas. The draft report stated that in an emergency time could be abridged. This gives an indication of the seriousness with which the all-party committee viewed the need for reasoned debate and time so as to ensure constitutional Bills are not rushed.

The all-party committee also examined the bringing home to people of arguments for and against an amendment to the Constitution. It fully recognised the need for indepth debate and recommended that legislation should require that all proposals to amend the Constitution be examined and debated by the all-party committee and that there should subsequently be a further period of 90 days following passage by the Dáil before the referendum takes place. I accept these are only draft proposals in a draft report, but they give an indication of the trend of thinking of members of the committee.

The Nice Treaty is one of the most important issues with which the people will be faced and it is hugely important that people are given every opportunity to have a reasoned debate on it. The biggest danger is that if adequate time is not allowed for the debate and if arrangements are not put in place for it, a substantial number of people may be prepared to vote no on the basis of not understanding it. A survey carried out following the last EU referendum found that a major proportion of the people who voted against the referendum did so because they did not understand it. They felt they were being asked to buy a pig in a poke. The onus is on all of us, but especially the Government, to make the case and to bring clarity where there is confusion. In that situation, time will be needed to discharge that onus. I suggest to the Government that it forgets the date of 31 May. The foot and mouth disease crisis is limiting public meetings at the moment but irrespective of that, there would still not be sufficient time for reasoned debate.

My second point which relates to the referendum is that I believe the Treaty of Nice merits a referendum on its own. Four referenda on disparate matters on the same day displays a level of contempt for the Constitution. Despite the importance of the other issues proposed, they will not affect the daily lives and future of our citizens in the way that a re-ordering of the structures underpinning the Union will. The Constitution has been amended on 19 separate occasions over the past 60 years. Governments should not tinker with the Constitution. This Government should ensure that a crucial amendment such as that relating to the Treaty of Nice is crystal clear and not clouded by other matters. The Treaty of Nice is too important for the future of Ireland and Europe and so it is imperative that the public be fully informed and totally focused when they vote on referendum day. I have in the past been critical of the Government's negotiating strategy and stance leading to the conclusion of the Treaty of Nice. The Government will compound the problem if it foists a referendum on the country in unseemly haste without allowing ample opportunity for informed debate. It is imperative that there be a positive outcome.

The other referenda proposed for 31 May include the referendum on the death penalty, the international criminal court and the proposed judicial council. They could all be taken together on a separate date and the referendum on the Treaty of Nice could be held separately on another day.

The Government should not take chances on this. The record of voting in relation to European matters has shown a decline in support since 1972. The usual suspects will come out with the usual popular rhetoric against this treaty. We should also be aware that this popular rhetoric has garnered more support with each referendum. My concern is that the referendum could be lost if that happens and it would be a disaster for Ireland and for Europe. We are the only country in the European Union to have a referendum on the treaty. Every country must ratify the treaty. Unless there is a positive result in the referendum, Ireland cannot ratify the treaty and therefore there will not be ratification by the European Union.

When we are looking for a reasoned debate on the future of Europe, we must bear in mind recent hot-headed and intemperate megaphone diplomacy by Ministers of this Government. There were interventions from the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera. I wonder did the Ministers concerned bear in mind at the time that this country was in the process of major, serious negotiations with other member states which ultimately led to the Treaty of Nice and which is now required to be approved by the people. The same Ministers who made those intemperate remarks will now have to be prepared to go before the people to convince them of the need to vote for the Treaty of Nice and so allow enlargement of the European Union. The Ministers concerned will be required to give an explanation to the people of the unseemly row with the European Commission, the euro-sceptical articles written, particularly one inThe Financial Times, the declared preference for Boston over Berlin or Brussels.

If there are problems with this referendum, the Government will have many questions to answer. I now put down a marker – these problems are there. There has been a development of euro-scepticism and it has not been caused by the consequences of the old popular rhetoric against the European Union. It has been encouraged and supported by the very rhetoric of this Government. It is an issue which must be confronted and the Government must be prepared to accept its responsibilities in the matter. The Government cannot have it both ways, it cannot cock a snook at Europe while at the same time encourage people to vote in favour of the treaty.

The Treaty of Nice is an indication of work in progress in the European Union. The construction of post-war Europe, and now the post-Cold War Europe, was not ever going to be achieved by one treaty or agreement. This treaty represents the stepping-stone to the historical imperative of European union for the entire Continent, to include the Baltic States, the Balkans, and the islands of Cyprus and Malta. Twelve candidate countries are to be admitted over the next ten years. The Union will grind to a halt if the structures and institutions created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and left largely intact since then, are not replaced by a modern and efficient set of institutions.

The Treaty of Nice represents a decisive step in fashioning a new Europe. When we hear the popular rhetoric about the treaty, we should remember that this treaty neither sets up a European army, nor does it introduce any common scale of moral values to the European Union. Its sole aim is to reform the institutions and structures of the Union and make them flexible and adaptable in a Union comprised of 25 or 30 member states. Ireland's success in recent years is due in no small part to our membership of the club and with it access to the European markets. Many of the applicant states are as poor if not poorer than Ireland was in 1972. Many have only won freedom within the last decade. Their membership of the Union is essential for their own secure development. The representatives of those countries make it quite clear that their first priority in foreign policy is to secure membership of the European Union. While our days as net beneficiaries of EU funding are ending, the benefits of EU membership are not to be gauged merely in financial flows. As an exporting country, the prospect of a European Union with a population of more than 500 million must be considered attractive.

The question is how best to convince the people of the merits of this treaty. This aspect was not helped by the negotiating stance of the Government. The Taoiseach repeatedly stated up to December 2000, that retaining a member of the European Commission was an article of faith. The outcome is that Ireland will lose its automatic right to nominate a Commissioner.

The people should have been brought more into the confidence of this Government on the negotiating position. I accept that the larger member states will lose their second Commissioner. I also accept that the larger member states will share in the rotating commissionerships with Ireland and the other smaller member states when the number of members exceeds 27 and reductions have to be made. However, to not inform the public about that possibility before the treaty was concluded was the wrong negotiating strategy. To say it was an article of faith on the part of the Taoiseach and the Irish negotiating team that under no circumstances would we lose a Commissioner was misinforming the public.

Similarly, I felt the Government took its eye off the ball in the fuss it created over retaining a veto on tax matters. It was never an issue.

It was not an issue, the Deputy must be joking.

The British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, made it clear it was not acceptable to him under any circumstances.

It may have been an issue but it was never a runner.

Indeed. My concern is that the Government took its eye off the ball and focused on what were not serious negotiating issues, and did not achieve what could have been achieved. Where criticism is merited it should be given. I will not say to the public that the Nice Treaty is perfect. I would prefer if the article of faith, as enunciated by the Taoiseach before Nice, was retained. I would also prefer if there was not the transfer of power in the Council of Ministers to the larger member states. I accept the larger states gave up their second Commissioner and that there had to be a certainquid pro quo. However, as one who has attended the Council of Ministers over a period of five years, and has seen its huge relevance to the decision-making process, I would have preferred a better deal there.

I see these as legitimate criticisms but at the same time it is necessary to see the wood for the trees. We must accept that the fundamental thrust of the treaty was to reach agreement. That agreement could have been better from an Irish point of view but it cannot now be re-negotiated just because we disagree with some aspects. In the overall interests of both Ireland and Europe it is necessary to back the treaty. It is necessary to put the treaty to the people, ask for their support and encourage them to support it.

The House can be assured of the full support of Fine Gael in seeking a positive outcome when the matter goes before the people, but I strongly put the view to the Government that the referendum should not take place on 31 May 2001 and should be dealt with as a single issue on a separate day.

Endorsement of the Nice Treaty by Fine Gael does not mean my party endorses Government policy on Europe and its institutions. We look forward to the next intergovernmental conference, which will get under way soon, and which may culminate at a time when Ireland will next hold the EU Presidency in 2004. It is important that we have more debate, in this House and outside, on what Ireland should seek at that conference. Effectively, this Government adopted a defensive mode of negotiation on the last treaty and gave the impression that Ireland had not much of significance to offer. I feel Ministers and Prime Ministers of other Governments have already given an indication of the kind of Europe they want shaped. We need that kind of debate in Ireland. We need to indicate the vision that we want.

The more immediate job is to deal with the Nice Treaty. Fine Gael strongly endorses the enlargement of the European Union. We have had reservations on the Government's approach during and since the treaty negotiations but we believe, in the overall interests of the country and Europe, that the Nice Treaty should be ratified. On that basis we will support the treaty and will actively campaign for the approval of the treaty by the people. I hope the proposals I have made on postponing the vote until the autumn and on putting the treaty before the people as a single issue will be adopted by this Government.

The sight of NATO bombers over Yugoslavia over two years ago excited strong emotions among many Irish people. The rights and wrongs of the NATO action split families and divided political parties on all sides of the House. It is not surprising that people in Ireland felt so strongly about the NATO campaign. It is fair to say that Ireland was spared a great deal in Europe's century of genocide that began with the First World War, but many of our citizens have immediate and personal reasons for recalling the slaughter that both world wars let loose. Many of us, particularly on this side of the Border, have taken for granted the last 50 years of relative peace. Others know how important it has been. I say "relative peace" because that is what it has been. The establishment of the Iron Curtain at the end of the Second World War as the Red army won the race to Berlin was perhaps inevitable. But for the people of eastern Europe it had horrible and disastrous consequences, even if the death of Stalin spared them the horrors meted out to the Soviet people themselves in the previous decade. The people who suffered enormously at the hands of barbaric Nazism were to be subject to Soviet backed authoritarianism for a further 50 years. Their emergence into relative daylight after the collapse of the Soviet Union, thankfully peacefully due to the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev, has not been without tension and difficulties. The disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, ironically one of the most independent states of the Soviet Union, has been particularly painful.

This is the historical background to the Treaty of Nice. Those countries fortunate enough to escape the Red army set about, through the nascent institutions of the European Union, rebuilding their continent. By any standards they have been spectacularly successful. Western Europe, despite the ravages of war, has enjoyed its longest period of peace time prosperity in living memory. Centuries of political tensions between states such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany have given way to benign and tolerant co-operation. That is not to say that everything has been perfect, but it cannot be denied that, as an experiment in peace building and its maintenance between former bitter enemies, the European Union has been successful.

Ireland was a late entry to the Union, partly because of the veto exercised by General de Gaulle until the late 1960s. We joined, with Denmark and the United Kingdom, in 1973. In that period our society and economy have been transformed. We have become a more open and outward looking society and, with the direct assistance in part of our European colleagues, transformed our economy. On a number of fronts, membership of the European Union has been good for Ireland.

The question facing the people when the refer endum on the Nice Treaty is held is whether we are prepared to extend the benefits of our experience to countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. There is, simply, no way that we could refuse. In essence, that is what the Treaty of Nice is about and, for that reason, my party will be supporting it. That is not to say that, because we are supporting the treaty, my party cannot and will not be critical of the Government's policy in Europe and on Europe. I make no apologies for being so critical because the Government's approach to Europe has been hamfisted and short sighted. In so doing it has given comfort to those who seek to oppose the treaty. From day one, when the Taoiseach sought and failed to appoint the Minister for Defence as a kind of Minister for European Affairs, the Government's approach to European issues has not developed in line with our changing position within Europe.

As part of our approach to the Nice Treaty and to prepare for the important intergovernmental conference in 2004, the Labour Party will be proposing the establishment of a forum on Europe to provide a proper basis on which the precise nature of Ireland's evolving relationship with our European partners and the shape Europe should take in coming decades can be debated by all sides. I argued for a number of years that it was time to decommission the begging bowl and adopt a more mature and forceful position within the European Union, but the impression that we only look to the Union to see what we can get out of it has strengthened rather than diminished under the Government. Recent statements from the Tánaiste and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in conjunction with the Minister for Finance's phoney and ridiculous war with his European colleagues have all helped to bolster this impression.

If the Labour Party has been critical of the Government's policy towards Europe, it has been from a pro-European rather than an anti-European perspective. We want Ireland to play a greater role in Europe, to work constructively to influence European Union thinking in line with Irish positions and aspirations. For example, in the foreign affairs field, we have always thought that the values that led to the foundation of the European Union are far more appropriate to the problems of conflict resolution and security than those of either of the Cold War adversaries. Despite the fears generated by those opposed to an EU foreign policy, Irish participation has not given rise to the doomsday scenarios predicted by some and nothing in the Nice Treaty will change this.

The Labour Party wants to see Ireland become more European. We see little point in our country enjoying the massive levels of economic growth we have recently enjoyed unless we can achieve the degree of social supports and quality of life commonly experienced by our European counterparts. Labour is not a Euro-sceptic party and on this point we are united. Unfortunately, the Irish people have not been encouraged to think on these lines. We have been encouraged by the same Irish Ministers who have criticised President Bush this week for his dangerous environmental policies to aspire to his socio-economic system. All this despite the fact that it is precisely his economic philosophy and its disregard for the importance of environmental and social regulations that have led to his rejection of the Kyoto accord. The danger for the Government in how it has approached this issue is that it has encouraged people to think of the European issue in that limited self-interested fashion. That is the basis on which the campaign against the treaty will be based. Its opponents will argue that Ireland is losing out.

I, for one, was not pleased that the principle of one Commissioner per country was not enshrined in the conclusions at Nice. The Commission acts as guarantor for small nations that their voice will be heard. There have been umpteen occasions when the existence of an Irish Commissioner has been instrumental in assisting Irish delegations at difficult moments. There have been worrying signs in recent years of a creeping intergovernmentalism within the European Union. It, certainly, seems to be an approach favoured in London and one to which, ironically, this Nationalist Government has been in thrall. It is a mistaken approach. I have argued in recent years that, as a small country, we should have been cementing alliances and building relationships with the aspirant countries which would naturally look to Ireland as an example of how a small country could do well in the Union. My entreaties have been ignored by the Government.

The Government is now in its fourth year with unprecedented wealth. Yet, we still do not have resident embassies in all the applicant countries. We do not have embassies in Cyprus, Estonia or Slovenia, countries which are likely to be in the first run of applicant countries. We could have been developing programmes of bilateral solidarity and promoting tangible alliances with those countries, but we have not been doing so. The Minister and the Taoiseach may argue that he is the first Taoiseach, systematically, to visit most of these countries. That is true. However, a flying visit, no matter how welcome, is merely a door opening exercise and must be followed up by consolidated programmes of action. I encourage the Minister for Foreign Affairs, whose influence within the Cabinet is well understood, to look again at speeding up the programme of diplomatic representation in the applicant countries on the basis of those likely to be among the first to join the European Union.

I was annoyed, too, by the duplicitous nature of Government spinning over the weekend of the Treaty negotiations. The public is tired of posturing by politicians and the news feed over the weekend of the Nice Treaty that the Taoiseach was holding out bravely against attacks on our tax regime was too much to stomach. Our tax regime, no more than that of the British, the Austrians or the Swedes, was under attack that weekend. Attacks were articulated and the French, in particular, were very strident in their criticism, but it was obvious that Ireland, with Austria, Luxembourg, Sweden and Britain, was clear in its opposition to changes in relation to taxation.

I do not agree with the French argument that there should be tax harmonisation, for two reasons. First, with the advent of the euro we will have a common currency shared among a number of sovereign states, but we do not know how the currency will perform over the full business cycle and we do not have a clear picture of how this brave experiment will work in difficult times. For that reason, having given away two instruments of macro-economic management, the exchange rate and interest rates, it is essential that member states retain a key degree of sovereignty in relation to taxation, for the time being. In the future there may be compelling arguments for tax harmonisation, but we have a long way to go before we begin to harmonise rates of tax. We could, for example, harmonise the basis on which corporation tax is applied. If the exemptions and concessions granted by Holland or Germany to many of their companies were removed, their effective corporate tax rates would be much lower than their nominal rates. In other countries there is the phenomenon of designer taxes whereby individual companies can negotiate separate tax deals for themselves, something which would be unthinkable in this country.

The other reason I think the whole issue of tax harmonisation is a phoney argument, and one that could have been made in the context of the debate in Nice and, perhaps, it was, is that the United States, which is a much more integrated federal union than the European Union might ever become, does not have tax harmonisation. Tax competition is a positive instrument of policy and economic development between states in the Union. One has only to think of tax competition across the River Hudson between New York state and New Jersey in respect of how the various states of the union use tax independence and tax sovereignty to promote their own economic interests for the needs of the union. For those reasons the Government was right to argue for retaining the whole question of independence and sovereignty in relation to tax. I never believed, notwithstanding what was shouted out loud, it was under serious threat. The Irish Government was in a position where all its armaments of defence were drawn into fighting that battle and the question of the principle of one Commissioner was lost in the process. Those negotiations were not easy. A deal had to be done after four days and it is now history.

The reality is that the accession of the eastern European countries to the Union will open up more opportunities for Irish business, a matter to which the Minister for Foreign Affairs referred. If the last decade has taught us anything it should be that as an open trading nation we are among the best. Free trade, such as that within the European Union, should not threaten us as long as we continue to concentrate sufficiently on improving domestic productivity and competitiveness, but these will not be points made by the Treaty's opponents. Those who argued that Maastricht would herald doom and gloom were wrong. They were wrong about Amsterdam also and any such predictions on a similar basis about Nice will be inaccurate.

I note that some opponents of the Treaty have sought to make use of my comments in the Dáil upon the negotiation of the Treaty. They seek to portray me as an anti-European of some kind. I fail to see, however, how people like Mr. Coughlan, an anti-European, can take any comfort from the frustrations of a passionate pro-European that the Nice Treaty is not as good as it might be. If I have stood against one thing consistently in all my time in politics, it is against the narrow-minded definitions of national self interest espoused by him and others. It is people like him who have argued in favour of a purer form of intergovernmentalism than that contemplated at Nice and I said in my pre-Christmas statement the most dramatic monument to European intergovernmentalism is the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Europeans have had three centuries of so-called intergovernmentalism which has led us into numerous wars and conflicts and the oppression of small nations by large nations. The European Union is the alternative to intergovernmentalism.

There are elements of the Nice Treaty that could be better. It is true that there are some issues that could be revisited. It is also true that this treaty must be accepted for better or for worse as it is. It cannot be renegotiated. We cannot opt out of the core decision-making process of the Union. It is not a situation comparable to the one in which the Danes found themselves after Maastricht. In that light it would be a travesty for Ireland as a post colonial country to deny the benefits of European Union membership to other post colonial countries in central and eastern Europe.

Last Friday, following an exchange between myself and the Taoiseach on the Order of Business, I wrote to him asking him to think again about the timing of this referendum. I wish to repeat that call here today. I do not believe it is possible to have the debate we need and to get the resounding result that it merits if we proceed to have the referendum on 31 May. It may well be that the realities of the foot and mouth disease throughout the country will make such a date inoperable. Even if there was not the problem of foot and mouth disease we should not have the referendum now. Deputy O'Keeffe has cited the All-Party Committee on the Constitution and its recommendation that amendments to the Constitution should, in future, be preceded by a substantial period before being put to the people.

Debate about this treaty, and the realities Ireland would face, were practically non-existent before the negotiations began. I recall one high profile speech by the Taoiseach at the Institute of European Affairs and before the negotiations commenced in Nice a major speech at the Irish Council for the European Union Movement. Other than that and a few questions across the floor and some dialogue with the Minister for Foreign Affairs there was little or no debate. It is a mistake to think that this issue is exclusively one for the Department of Foreign Affairs or for the Minister and for the relevant spokespersons of the two parties. European issues are central to virtually every Government Department as is reflected in the composition and size of the permanent representation in Brussels, whether it is the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development or any other Department of substance to which the Minister may refer. Much of what they do is defined by what is happening in Europe. No disrespect to the Department or the Minister for Foreign Affairs but to assume it is a debate over there rather than here is a mistake. We did not have the debate over here. There was a class of debate but it was not adequate.

I believe the All-Party Committee on the Constitution has decided that there should be a 90 day gap between the publishing of a Bill to amend the Constitution and the holding of a referendum. I see no reason that all-party recommendation cannot be applied in this instance. It may be forced upon the Government by necessity but, if so, that space should be properly filled. No doubt the committee has picked up upon the clear message sent by the public to this House at the time of the referendum on Cabinet confidentiality. It does not wish to be asked to determine on issues it does not understand fully. In the case of the Nice Treaty, public debate, as opposed to debate within the confines of these walls, is only beginning. It will be circumscribed, probably, by the foot and mouth crisis.

It has been clear for some years now, and evident in support for further European integration in referenda in this State, that the citizens of Europe feel increasingly remote from the European Union and its decision-making structures. Opponents of the European process who to date have remained a minority in this country have long argued that there is a conspiracy at play between political establishments at home and in Europe to deny the people proper control of the process.

If this referendum proceeds on 31 May, it is an argument that I believe will be used again, possibly to powerful effect. That the Treaty will receive support, albeit critical, from the main parties in this House, will encourage those who will seek to present this Treaty as an opportunity to "have a go" at the political establishment. The treaty does not have to be ratified until the end of next year, December 2002. Why not allow the debate to be a reasonably long one? Why not allow the European Parliament, made up of the democratically elected representatives of the Irish people and the other peoples of the European Union, to conclude its adjudication on the treaty? Why should not the public be given the time to inform itself fully about the issues surrounding the decision it will take? Those of us who support this treaty have nothing to fear from a prolonged and informed debate. Why should those who seek to oppose the treaty not be forced to make substantive arguments in favour of their largely isolationist positions and to win the argument on merit rather than charging the majority in this House that we are afraid to debate this issue openly? We should not allow those who oppose this treaty to use general cynicism about the political process at home as part of their argument.

It would be a sad irony that parties in this House who argue in favour of the rights of small nations and in favour of localised decision-making would reject a process, however flawed, that would grant to other small nations member status of the EU that could well be critical to their functioning as democracies, let alone as prospering economies.

This treaty is not perfect. This treaty is flawed but behind it there is an underlying historical logic. Peace and stability on this Continent which has brought war to all four corners of the globe is in all our interest, long-term and short-term. Regardless of whatever reservations we have about this treaty, we should vote for it. We have done well out of the Union and I would argue unashamedly that now is the time to give a little back.

If the Nice Treaty is endorsed by the Irish people – as I hope it will – it will not be the end of the process. We will still be faced with important issues and questions that have yet to be resolved and which were not resolved at Nice. The next intergovernmental conference is likely to be in 2004 and will, in all probability, coincide with the next Irish Presidency which will run from January to June of that year. We must ensure we do not repeat the mistakes made in the run-up to the Nice summit, largely due to the disastrous handling of the negotiations by the French. There must be adequate consultation and discussion in advance.

I referred to the Labour Party's suggestion for an Irish forum on the future of Europe and hope whatever Government is in power in the next few years will adopt this idea. The concept is borrowed from the success of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation established by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds. That forum was established against many people's thinking, but Deputy Reynolds saw it as being necessary. Those of us who participated in the forum will acknowledge that it was critical to the integration of Sinn Féin into the political process. That integration was long overdue, but has still to be completed.

The forum we propose would comprise Members of the Oireachtas and have an indepen dent secretariat and chairperson. It would also comprise representatives of civic society and be able to receive submissions from groups concerned about this issue. The forum could discuss Ireland's interests in Europe, but also the shape Europe should take. It would hear the views of prospective and existing member states in an ongoing debate and help to shape the kind of Europe we require.

The one country-one Commissioner proposal will be triggered when the Union membership exceeds 27 member states. However, what is unclear in every European capital and political family is the constitutional nature and shape of a Europe of 33 or 34 countries. I hope countries such as Serbia and Croatia will, in time, be part of such a Union.

The eastern boundaries of the Union are fairly well defined by the Ukraine, Moldova and Russia. The Union will ultimately have 33 or 34 member states if one includes Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. We need to begin to shape the constitutional debate and open many of the procedures which are clouded in secrecy. Members will recall the nonsense of not opening Council meetings to the media which would result in a more honest reflection of what takes place at such meetings than the spinning by Ministers from different countries who rush out to their own media to put their spin on a particular story. Much of the suspicion at grassroots level is because the operations of the Commission and the Council seem remote and are clouded in a mysticism and jargon which alienate ordinary people.

In voting for the Nice treaty we should prepare for the next intergovernmental conference. That conference should have a positive input from the Irish people, not just Irish political parties. Neither should it be remote as we have, sadly, seen in the conduct of negotiations for the last intergovernmental conference. The way to approach the issue is to structure and resource the debate and take our time.

The new Europe will last for many decades. Ireland has a contribution to make to that process, not just because of our recent economic success which is what most applicant countries come here to see. We were impoverished and endured economic crises for a long time after 1973. We only began to get the economy right from the mid-1980s. That process was painful and difficult and membership of the European Union was no guarantee of economic success.

There are other components to success such as our education system, our civic society and the rule of law. While from time to time we have had difficulties which required the establishment of tribunals to identify and eradicate problems, all these components are as critical to success as mere economic performance. However, economic success is essential to provide the resources to implement many other measures.

We have an historic obligation and an oppor tunity to help construct the kind of Europe which is required post-Nice. It is time for the Irish body politic and Irish civic society to stop being takers, in every sense of the word, from the European Union and to start to be pro-active in promoting ideas. I am not just talking about taking resources in the form of Structural Funds, but taking policy positions and reacting to them. We should not wait to see what others do, the standard position of successive Governments, some of which I have been a member. We kept our heads down and were quiet, except where our own interests were directly affected. We would, therefore, be seen to be good Europeans and to maximise our draw down of whatever was on the table. That day is over. I have said to the socialist group in the European Parliament that Ireland will be a net contributor to the European budget within a number of years. I look forward to that day because the day we are a net contributor is the day this country will have achieved a level of economic prosperity, measured albeit inadequately on aper capita income base, which seemed a remote possibility ten or 15 years ago.

We should mentally change gear and start to think with the sort of constitutional genius which helped evolve the Good Friday Agreement. We should use the kind of skill for political negotiation and counter-balancing which characterised so many different kinds of Irish activities. We should use a forum like the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and the New Ireland Forum to engage not just a small group of political people who are interested in the subject, but to invite the Irish Sovereignty Movement and other groups opposed to further integration to articulate alternatives and explain how they would function. We should engage people in that way with the resources we have witnessed in Dublin Castle and then send whatever Government is in office to the negotiations which will conclude in 2004 armed with a view which is not just reflective of the corridors of Iveagh House or Leinster House, but which has been informed by public participation at a level without parallel in civic society in the rest of Europe.

If those of us who wish to see this treaty substantially endorsed by the people are honest with ourselves, we will recognise that the Government made a major concession with regard to the Commissioner. This issue has not been adequately explained. Most do not realise that the intergovernmental conference of 2004 will replace the phrase "an ever closer Union" in the Treaty of Rome with the final destination for the nations of Europe. We have to contribute to that debate in a constructive and positive way. I urge the Minister to consider the Labour Party's proposal and ascertain if he can obtain Government support for it.

I am happy to speak in support of the Bill. I congratulate the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the manner in which they negotiated the treaty. They returned from the summit with many important provisions. This is the case with regard to taxation about which many were concerned.

There are questions regarding the Commission, but the proposals are fair considering the future size of the Union. It is quite an achievement that the make-up of the Commission will be on the basis of equality and rotation. Maybe we did not get exactly what everybody might have wanted, but I think we got a fair deal. In any negotiations into which people go, we have to negotiate not only something that is in our best interests in the long-term but something that is fair for the Union at large.

Another area that was well negotiated was the voting weight. Ireland's voting weight is only marginally affected and remains the same as that of Finland and Denmark. It is important to note that most decisions of the Union are taken by consensus and, in practice, issues rarely divide on a big state-small state basis.

The issue most people will discuss and debate is enlargement. As a small nation, we have much to give and to gain from the enlargement of the European Union. There is a great opportunity there for this country in negotiating and trading with small nations. If one looks at the amount of money Irish companies are putting into countries like Poland, and other small former eastern bloc states, one will see that our trade and the friendship that is there will help this country. There is hardly a country in Europe better positioned to take full advantage of enlargement than this one.

As Deputy Quinn said, people from many countries are coming here to look at what we have done and to see how we have developed our economy and this country over the years. We have the know-how on how to turn a small economy into a modern successful economic entity because many aspects of our economy were underdeveloped. We should remember that and that many countries are interested in us. It was brought home very clearly to me when I was asked by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to go to the Organisation of American States when we were canvassing for the seat on the Security Council. I met people from approximately 14 countries when I was there. Once we had asked them for their vote and discussed it with them, the people from every country, without exception, wanted to know how we developed our economy. Everyone of them wanted to come to Ireland to see how it was done. It is an enormous compliment to us that people view us as a small nation that has developed its economy in a very positive way. That is one of the reasons we were elected to the Security Council and why many countries which I hope will be members of an expanded European Union will see us as a positive ally in supporting them, whether at European Union level or in developing their economies.

In support of the Nice Treaty, and the further strengthening of relations with our European neighbours, which the treaty entails, I would like to make a few brief comments on some of the achievements and benefits which have accrued to Ireland as a direct result of our membership of the EU through the provision of EU funding to the tourism and local development sectors.

It is widely accepted that EU Structural and Cohesion Funds have been one of the contributing factors to Ireland's economic growth in recent years and the financial support provided by the funds has contributed enormously to tourism growth, particularly through the operational programme for tourism, and to local development and the empowerment of disadvantaged communities through the operational programme for local, urban and rural development.

The substantial commitment of the EU Commission to tourism development through various programmes in the period 1989-93 alone has supported investment of £450 million to tourist facilities, training and marketing in Ireland. The bulk of this investment, amounting to £380 million, has been supported through the operational programme for tourism where strategic emphasis was placed on developing new and improved product base, including weather independent facilities and expanded and more focused marketing and training. Notwithstanding the success of that operational programme, there are still many product gaps which needed to be filled and further investment required in these and other areas if tourism was to continue to develop successfully. Consequently, the principal objective of the tourism strategy in later years was to maximise Ireland's tourism potential by increasing tourism revenue and creating much needed employment.

The Operational Programme for Tourism 1994-99 involved a total investment of £720 million of which £373 million came from the EU across a number of subprogrammes, including product development, marketing and training. The principal objective of the tourism strategy over the period was to achieve a foreign earnings target of £2.250 million per annum by 1999, the creation of 29,000 full-time tourism related jobs equivalent in the economy, including 17,250 in direct tourism and 11,750 in indirect and induced employment, and concentrated a significant proportion of growth in the shoulder and off peak periods such that by 1999, 75% of all visitors would arrive in Ireland outside the peak period.

Such has been the rate of growth of Irish tourism that the first two or three main targets have been surpassed ahead of programme end. In 1999, foreign exchange earnings reached an estimated £2.5 billion and 135,000 full-time jobs were supported by the tourism industry. A reduction to 27% in the proportion of visitors arriving at peak times was achieved. However, the growth in off peak and shoulder season has increased by almost three times the growth in peak season, representing considerable movement in the right direction.

The substantial commitment of the EU through the various programmes has resulted in much needed investment in infrastructure and facilities enabling the Irish tourism sector to expand and position itself strongly for further growth. Clearly, the benefits of tourism are to be seen everywhere in Ireland. New and improved facilities which have been developed to the highest international standard are enjoyed not only by visitors, but by all our people while revenue spend makes a positive contribution to the quality of life of every community in the country.

Under the operational programme for local, urban and rural development, more than £200 million was allocated by the EU to bring about social, economic and environmental development at a local level with special emphasis on disadvantaged communities. Under the subprogramme for the integrated development of designated, disadvantaged and other areas, there has been a significant investment of £115 million aimed at empowering communities in the most disadvantaged areas of the country to participate fully in tackling the social and economic problems which face them. The programme has supported local development plans through which communities, particularly in disadvantaged areas, have sponsored innovative projects for enterprise creation and development, education and training, environmental and infrastructure improvements and capacity buildings.

The process has also created a unique forum where the different interests of the local community, the State sector, employers and trade unions are combined to address the priority needs of an area. ADM has provided extensive support for the partnership and community groups over the course of the programme. Through the use of seminars and workshops, ADM has gone a long way to disseminating the best practice and work methods for the development of communities all over the country. In fact, it is being looked at by other countries as a good model in which to deliver at local level.

The process has contributed enormously to strengthening the local community infrastructure in the areas of greatest need. Specifically, the programme has achieved the following. More than 5,000 previously unemployed people were placed in employment in 1999 alone bringing the total number of direct job placements by partnerships and community groups to over 19,000 to date. Some 4,260 long-term unemployed people set up their own businesses with partnership and community groups' assistance in 1999.

Is the Minister of State sharing his time with Deputy Pat Carey?

Acting Chairman:

The Minister of State has nine minutes left.

We had 20 minutes in total.

Acting Chairman:

Yes.

I will conclude. A total of 17,000 business start-ups have been supported in the subprogramme.

Another EU funded programme which falls under my remit is URBAN. The URBAN programme, initiated by the European Union, is being implemented in more than 80 European cities. The aim of the programme is to act as a catalyst, providing community assistance to support integrated action plans covering economic development, social integration and environmental measures designed to improve living conditions.

Our full and active participation at the heart of Europe has been essentially in accessing financial support from the European Commission for innovative programmes such as URBAN and the local development operational programme. The modernisation of our tourism industry has been largely brought about through the success of the EU-funded operational programme for tourism.

It is important that the treaty is supported. Ireland has a great deal to offer and to gain from an enlarged Europe. People will vote "Yes" when they consider the benefits that have accrued to Ireland and will accrue when the treaty is in place. When they examine the future of Europe they will believe the EU will bring us more success than it has in the past. Ireland can bring a great deal to the EU as it has over the past number of years.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I have been a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs for the past number of years. I thank the officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs for their support and the Minister for his ready availability. I thank Noel Dorr for his clear and concise presentations to the committee when he was working as part of the intergovernmental conference.

I remind the House that the committee will commence public hearings on the treaty tomorrow and submissions for and against it have been invited. I look forward to the beginning of a robust debate on European issues. I compliment the Minister on the publication of the White Paper and I welcome the initiative to send an easy to read copy of it to every home in Ireland. We ought to have a worthwhile debate before the referendum. I am particularly looking forward to hearing the views of Deputies Gormley and Ó Caoláin and possibly Bill Cash of the British Conservative Party on one platform as Euro-sceptics.

What about some of Fianna Fáil's funny friends in the European Parliament?

A sensitive point for the Deputy.

The Nice Treaty marks another step in the evolution of European integration and the pursuit of the core objective of the original Treaty of Rome, which was ever closer union among the peoples of Europe. In spite of the right's much exaggerated commentary marking the Nice Treaty as a reassertion of the rights of the nation state, it should not be forgotten that the core objective of the Treaty of Rome has not changed.

The Nice Treaty is much more than the Amsterdam Treaty for different reasons. EU institutional instruments that have been on the table since the fall of the Berlin Wall have been resolved to the relative satisfaction of all countries and the significance of that achievement should not be underestimated.

EU applicant and pre-applicant countries are satisfied with the outcome of the Nice Treaty. I have met representatives of most applicant countries in Ireland or on their own territory. They are looking forward to becoming full members of the EU. Earlier Deputies Durkan, Hogan and I met the Hungarian Foreign Minister and his delegation. Last week we met representatives of the Czech Republic and Estonia and we also recently met officials from Slovenia. Tomorrow Polish officials will be in Dublin. We should not underestimate the efforts of these countries to comply with the acquis communautaire. The demands have been rigorous and not without pain. These countries also have Euro-sceptics but nonetheless on balance they believe their future lies in an enlarged Union.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs stated that we should ensure the two global conflicts of the 20th century and the ensuing ideological confrontation are not repeated. There is no doubt, as the Minister of State said, there will be major trade opportunities for Ireland, but the treaty has three main advantages which are to enhance peace, ensure greater stability and provide greater opportunities through an increased market.

The common foreign and security policy will be raised by those in opposition to the Nice Treaty, particularly the development of the rapid reaction force. Under the provisions of the Amsterdam Treaty, participation in any Petersberg mission remains a sovereign decision to be taken by national Governments. Each Government will decide on a case by case basis whether, when and how to commit troops or resources. The development of the rapid reaction force must be seen against the background of the situation in Europe, which has altered greatly over the past ten years since the end of the Cold War.

New patterns of security co-operation involving former adversaries and European states have emerged and are continuing to evolve. The rapid reaction force will be in a position to act as the regional arm of the UN peacekeeping service and, therefore, Ireland's involvement in these circumstances will constitute continuation in the European region of our existing EU peacekeeping duties.

The issue of whether participation in the rapid reaction force will affect our long-standing neu trality will be raised. I believe it will not affect our neutrality. Ireland undertook an even greater commitment when joining the UN. Ireland has contributed to UN peacekeeping missions since 1959 and is proud of its participation in these endeavours. Irish participation in the rapid reaction force emphasises co-operation, not confrontation, a value at the heart of foreign policy since the foundation of the State.

Participation by the Defence Forces in the rapid reaction force will arise only in clearly defined circumstances, namely, when UN authorisation is in place and when the terms of the relevant domestic legislation have been met. Ireland's commitment to the rapid reaction force is, therefore, fully in keeping with its approach to peacekeeping and is consistent with its foreign policy traditions. Both the UN and EU emphasise the importance of enhancing capabilities and response times in crisis management of UN operations and the development of effective command structures. Both recognise the increased complexity of such operations and are trying to ensure peacekeeping tasks can be carried out more effectively.

The UN has increased its reliance on regional security organisations to support and carry out missions on its behalf. There is a growing emphasis on the responsibility of regional organisations for peacekeeping in partnership with the UN. The EU with its rapid reaction force will meet this need and is identifying capabilities in many respects similar to what has been happening at another level at the UN through its standby arrangements system in which Ireland already participates. For instance, in Kosovo and East Timor, contributing countries to similar arrangements have been able to act under the mandate of the UN. The EU, with its broad membership and close relationships with neighbouring countries, is developing its crisis management role in this context.

I will strongly support a "Yes" vote in the referendum and I am hopeful the public will recognise the value of Ireland's interest in being part of a larger, peaceful and stable Europe and having access to a larger market.

The Green Party will urge a "No" vote in the Nice Treaty referendum. We regard the treaty as a further attack on democracy, which moves decision making further away from the Irish people into the hands of bureaucrats, Ministers and lobbyists.

We now have less democracy and accountability. Ireland has lost its veto in over 30 new areas, its right to a Commissioner, its voting strength in the crucial Council of Ministers and three of its 15 MEPs. This is not, as the Government is trying to sell it, a treaty about enlargement. Enlargement is a small part of it, a part which has been badly handled. Nice is more about deepening the EU, not widening it.

The changes in voting strengths and the loss of MEPs will take place from 2005, regardless of enlargement. The reason the people are being given a chance to vote in a referendum is the significance of these changes. Losing the veto in a number of areas, particularly the new provisions on enhanced co-operation which is the vehicle for producing a two tier Europe and an EU of unequal states rather than the partnership of equals Ireland originally joined, represents a profound shift in our relationship with the European Union.

The other area I wish to address is Irish neutrality, a neutrality that this Government, like no other, has managed to dismantle with incredible deception and thoroughness through the Amsterdam Treaty, NATO's Partnership for Peace, the rapid reaction force and the Nice Treaty. It is incredible that the Ministers, Deputies Cowen and Michael Smith, and the Taoiseach can even speak the words "Irish neutrality" with a straight face.

First, I will discuss the issue of democracy. It is amazing how the Members of this House can so blithely vote away their powers in EU treaty after treaty with hardly a murmur. The big parties sing in unison on this issue. The House will soon have the powers of a county council, as I pointed out recently to the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and we know from the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey's, latest waste regulations the type of weak powers county councils will soon have.

Why are the Labour Party and Fine Gael supporting this treaty? Both strenuously attacked the treaty last December in this House. The then Fine Gael Leader, Deputy Bruton, said Nice was one of the weakest negotiating outcomes achieved by an Irish Government. He attacked the loss of our Commissioner and the shift of voting strength to the large states. Deputy O'Keeffe said Nice had been achieved at considerable cost to this country. Deputy Quinn is not a Euro-sceptic – his idea for a European forum is excellent – but he said in December that Nice was a disaster and a travesty. He said the rainbow coalition would never have accepted it and that when the history of the Nice Treaty is written it would be seen as "the point at which the spirit of the founding fathers was neutered". I could not agree more with the latter sentiment. The same parties now come to the Dáil to advocate a "Yes" vote. This is astonishing. Will they accept anything that is thrown at them?

Not only must we be vigilant about lack of democracy in terms of the EU but also about democracy in this Chamber. It is most undemocratic that we are debating the Nice Treaty today when a copy of the treaty, a complex document, was available to Deputies only at the end of last week. The Nice Treaty does not have to be ratified until the end of 2002 yet the Government is rushing, in the midst of a foot and mouth crisis, to hold a referendum by the end of May, with three unrelated referenda attached. Why the unseemly haste? Will the Referendum Com mission be ready? Will it produce a booklet, as it did on the last occasion, or will we simply have what the Department refers to as a neutral document, a condensed White Paper? The White Paper, on close reading, is about as neutral as this country. The Government must be confident of the numbers in the Supreme Court if it is willing to push the White Paper because, as far as I am concerned, it is extremely dodgy in light of the McKenna judgment.

I will now discuss the specific provisions of the Nice Treaty and its assault on democracy. Due to the removal of the veto in over 30 new areas, nearly 90% of EU laws – these laws are made behind closed doors – can now be passed by majority vote with no veto available to Ireland if it disagrees. In many cases there is also no input from the European Parliament. The shift in voting strengths in the Council of Ministers was a numerical shift in favour of the big states over the small. From 2005, regardless of whether there are new EU states, two large and one medium state can block EU decisions. In an enlarged EU of 27 states, three large states can block decisions if one of the states is Germany. The shift from veto to qualified majority voting has left a blocking veto in the hands of a few large states.

The shift to qualified majority voting also means Ireland's strength in the Commission is weakened. Not only do we lose our Commissioner to a rotating system when the EU has 27 members but from 2005, under Article 214, the President of the Commission is to be chosen by qualified majority voting, as are all the Commissioners. This means the Irish Government's preferred choice need not be accepted. It also gives the President of the Commission more powers and sows the seeds for an office of European prime minister and a European Government assisted by a cabinet.

Provisions on enhanced co-operation are another example of the push towards a European state, further integration and a weakening of Irish democracy. Further integration is an issue about which even prominent members of the Government have raised concerns. The EU's response to the budget introduced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, was a forewarning of things to come. Already, democratic control over Ireland's economic policy is seriously constrained by European economic guidelines and our commitments in the euro zone. Enhanced co-operation is one of the reasons the Attorney General judged that a referendum was required on the Nice Treaty.

There were enhanced co-operation provisions in the Amsterdam Treaty but they could be operated only by unanimity. The Nice Treaty extends enhanced co-operation across all three pillars and allows it to operate under qualified majority voting. Nice should be called the treaty of enhanced co-operation, not the treaty of enlargement. This is a dangerous and fundamental departure from an EU of equals to one of first and second class membership, of elites and common members. Former Commission President, Jacques Delors, stated last June that it would be necessary to create anavant-garde. He said there could be a union of the enlarged Europe and a federation for the avant-garde. Last May, the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, called for a European federation.

Eight countries can decide to become anavant-garde and push ahead on further integration, leaving the rest behind. Even in an EU of 27 states, eight states can proceed. Schengen and the euro zone, although not technically enhanced co-operation, are similar but were formed under unanimity arrangements. Everybody had to agree. With qualified majority voting joint arrangements can be rammed through and the Nice Treaty provides detailed provisions for how this will work.

Enhanced co-operation is also a peculiar gift to present to the applicant states and a funny way to welcome them to the enlarged EU. Once they manage to get the rules right, at great sacrifice, for entry to the club, they will get to the front door only to discover there is yet another very important club within the club. Qualified majority voting has also been extended to create problems for democratic accountability, with Ireland's veto removed in such areas as Structural and Cohesion Funds, some areas of common foreign and security policy, some justice issues, the selection of key posts, such as the high representative position currently held by Javier Solana, and aspects of international trade agreements.

Removing the veto and shifting to qualified majority voting in EU international trade provisions under Article 133 will strengthen the hand of lobbyists of transnational corporations and the EU Trade Commissioner to push through the agenda for a new trade round and more deregulation. It will enable negotiations to be fast tracked with no troublesome democrats overseeing them. Negotiations and agreements on trade in services and the commercial aspects of intellectual property are, in the Nice Treaty, subject to qualified majority voting. Does this mean, for example, the French veto on the damaging multilateral agreement on investment, MAI, could no longer happen?

More trade decisions will pass out of national and democratic control. The Dáil has the power to ratify international trade agreements. I believe this will be removed and I ask the Minister to confirm this view. Such provisions are not only an attack on democracy but also a spur to the headlong rush towards globalisation.

One must wade through a great deal of this so called enlargement treaty before one reaches the protocol on enlargement. It addresses new voting allocations in the Parliament and the Council of Ministers and new arrangements in the Commission. However, it addresses little else. It does not address the real problems of enlargement. The new voting strengths come into operation in 2005 regardless of enlargement. The switch to increased qualified majority voting means even more legislation and rules for the applicant countries to take on board and comply with, on top of the 26,000 EU documents with which they are already struggling. A new approach is needed to ease the way for new applicants rather than put additional obstacles in their way. Can the EU not develop an alternative path for membership which puts people, not the market, centre stage?

Adjustments to a market economy and the slashing of public expenditure are causing great hardship in these countries. Caroline Lucas, the British Green Party MEP, has written a report, One Year after Seattle, on this process. She gives the example of Slovakia, where public transport has been sacrificed for more road building and forest conservation has been compromised for timber exports. In Poland, two million farmers, most of them organic, will have to adjust to the CAP, cheap food exports and intensive farming practices. Privatisation has allowed global car giants to take over domestic car production in central and eastern Europe, often involving huge tax breaks at the expense of the wider economy. As Caroline Lucas puts it so well:

The choice is clear. Either we have an EU which sees itself as nothing more than a giant supermarket of potentially 500 million consumers or we adopt a bolder, more ambitious vision of a Europe of genuine stability and co-operation based on the rebuilding of sustainable local economies, both east and west and throughout the world.

These are the sorts of issues with which a real treaty of enlargement should be concerned and not merely readjustments in voting strengths, which in any case go ahead independently of accession by any State. Perhaps the next treaty, envisaged in 2004, will be truly about enlargement. The Nice Treaty is not and it is total salesmanship by the Government to sell it as such. There should be a consumer warning in relation to it.

The main area the Government will be keen to downplay will be defence-military implications and neutrality. I am the first to admit that the Amsterdam Treaty had more changes in the defence field than the Nice Treaty and the Green Party argued strenuously against those significant changes in the last referendum. The Government argued at the time that nothing really significant in Amsterdam was happening but that was totally misleading as the new 60,000-strong rapid reaction force shows us. However, significant changes occur in the Nice Treaty also.

It is time the Government put its cards on the table regarding Irish neutrality. As I said, while it repeats the mantra of preserving Ireland's long-standing neutrality, it has overseen a thorough dismantling of that neutrality. We have been given a bum deal by the Government. How can it claim we are neutral? The other so-called EU neutrals are being told otherwise by their Governments. Perhaps the Minister can explain why Finland no longer says it is neutral but that it is non-aligned. Why does Sweden say it is no longer neutral but is non-aligned? When I met members of an Austrian delegation recently they said the only reason they are saying they are neutral is their 1955 agreement with the Soviet Union. Why does NATO refer to these countries as the former neutrals? I would like the Minister to explain that.

Does it refer to us as a former neutral?

Yes. It is calling us former neutrals.

Maastricht recognised the nuclear military alliance, the Western European Union, as being integral to the development of the EU's common foreign and security policy. Article J4 of the Amsterdam Treaty stated that the Western European Union would provide the EU with access to an operational capability and that it supports the Union in framing the defence aspects of the common foreign and security policy. Now the Western European Union has all but disappeared in the Nice Treaty. Why? Because virtually all its functions, that of the military alliance, have been taken in by the European Union.

Article 1.2 of the Nice Treaty sweeps away references to the Western European Union and thereby directly integrates defence into the European Union. The Western European Union has become redundant. The exception is the Western European Union's mutual defence clause, which is the last straw the Government is clinging to to prove Ireland is neutral. That is all the Government is doing – clutching at straws. Article 1.5 of the Nice Treaty establishes a new EU institution, the political and security committee, which will exercise the political control and strategic direction of crisis management operations. It will in effect direct military interventions during a crisis, including the waging of war. Deputy John Bruton has stated during Taoiseach's Question Time that the Petersberg Tasks are about waging war.

How many Deputies have seen a copy of the annexes of the Presidency report, which I have here? It is referred to in the first declaration attached to the Nice Treaty but I doubt if many Members have seen it, given how difficult it was to get copies of the treaty in the first place. How many Members realise this runs to 33 pages, with seven annexes detailing the new EU military capabilities, the working of the political and security committee, the EU military committee, the EU military staff organisation and, in annex 7, detailed standing arrangements for consultation and co-operation between the EU and NATO? How many Members realise this includes the possibility of the command of an EU operation being put into the hands of NATO?

If the Nice Treaty is passed, all this, the political and security committee, the military structures and policies, will become part of the Irish Consti tution. That is an appalling development. We have been continuously misled. Nobody who voted for the Amsterdam Treaty thought they were voting for a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force. The Government now says this force was foreseen in the Amsterdam Treaty but it is funny how we did not hear anything about it at the time. Any time the "no" campaign mentioned such a prospect we were dismissed as alarmist but these developments should alarm us. When is the Government going to come clean on this issue? It has sold out big time on neutrality.

We now have a rapid reaction force and the Government refuses to call it an army, though we are familiar with the famous Romano Prodi quote, that if one does not want to call it a European army one can call it what one likes – one can call it Mary Ann or Margaret but of course it is still an army as far as he is concerned. Ireland has committed troops and military equipment to a 60,000-strong EU force capable of intervening 4,000 km from Brussels, which brings in parts of Russia, the Middle East and Africa. That force will have the full range of military options up to and including war. There is a unified command, permanent military structures, interoperability and joint training. That sounds like an army to me but perhaps not to the Minister.

Why did the Government not insert a protocol in the treaty similar to the Danish protocol which exempts the Danes from EU policies with military and defence implications? Why has the Government not been up front about the fact that the new rapid reaction force does not see itself as requiring a UN mandate? The Government may assure the House that it has made it clear to the EU that Ireland will participate only under a UN mandate but why did we agree to participate and co-operate in a military force which is willing to undermine the UN and flaunt the UN mandate? This is completely contrary to the long-standing policy of this country, a policy strongly supported by the people. Our troops should serve the UN only under strict UN mandates. Why did the Government not insert that position in a protocol to the Nice Treaty?

The Ministers for Defence and Foreign Affairs will no doubt reiterate that there is Irish legislation stating that Irish troops may go abroad only under a UN mandate. However, the Minister for Foreign Affairs will know that there has been a debate about the legal interpretation of that legislation. The Defence (Amendment) Act, 1960, states that Irish troops can serve abroad only "with a force or body established by the UN Security Council or General Assembly". A rapid reaction force has been established by the EU, not the UN, a point made also by Deputy Michael Higgins. In terms of Irish law, this rapid reaction force project is probably illegal but EU law supersedes Irish law, which is the fundamental point.

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that if the EU rapid reaction force decided to head for Macedonia and Russia objected in the Security Council that we would go back to our European colleagues and say we could not go? This was raised in the Joint Committee on European Affairs by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe and the Minister's answer was inadequate. The Defence Estimates for this year are already 20% above last year's, mainly because of capital expenditure on new weapons programmes. We are now committed to hundreds of millions of pounds in the next decade thanks to our new EU defence role.

This is a tragic waste though one with which arms manufacturers will be delighted. I am not sure whether the Irish electorate will be too delighted. The Green Party and I believe this money should be spent on health, education, housing and the environment. It is obscene to spend money this way and that is why this treaty will be rejected.

Debate adjourned.