I support the Nice Treaty and, in doing so, recognise we have come a long way since 1 January 1972, the day we joined the then European Economic Community, now the European Union. In a relatively short period Europeans have become more united and cohesive. That is recognisable no matter which country one visits in the European Union.
Europe was at war not too long ago. Unbelievable atrocities were delivered on Europeans by Europeans. That was the culmination of millennia upon millennia of wars in Europe. I do not think we could imagine members states declaring war on each other today. Europe is moving and expanding rapidly, much to the benefit of all those involved in the EU, particularly ourselves.
It is also worth recognising there is a large queue waiting to join and become part of this great and unified Europe. We must ask ourselves why that is the case. Ireland has become the shining star of the European Union. It has benefited most and I dare say has contributed most over the years, even prior to our joining the EEC.
The cynics might say that other countries wish to join just to get their hands on large amounts of loot from richer member states, among which Ireland is now included. Could we ever have dreamed some years ago that Ireland would have the highest growth rate within the Union, one of the lowest rates of unemployment, net migration to the State and increasing birth rates and all of that while we are well into progressing our £40 billion national development plan, which we are largely financing. That point is worth underlining, although we are doing so on the basis of the support we got since we joined the EEC.
It is not a cliché to suggest we are now the envy and pride of Europe. We are presented as a shining example of how effective joining and, more importantly, participating fully in the European Union has become.
As a nation, we have shown that richer states funding poorer states can bring about economic prosperity and those states can, in turn, fund poorer states and provide them with expertise. We have shown by example how they can grow and prosper. That is what the Nice Treaty is about. It is about the wealthier stronger states in the EU helping those less fortunate to become fully fledged and full participants in economic recovery throughout the European structure.
It is also worth recognising it has not all been plain sailing over those years. Joining the EU has brought undoubted benefits to our country, but it has also brought some difficulties and some of our greatest difficulties have been the introduction of new taxes, such as VAT, and the introduction of unbelievable regulations ranging from the standardisation of excise duties to awarding blue flags for clean beaches. While Europe gave, it also expected much in return. It expects high standards and uniformity. In every area of public endeavour, at Dáil Éireann level, local authority level or parish meetings, the issue of those standards have created some difficulty. Nevertheless, the EU sought to bring about major changes in governance and government.
Agriculture has been a major beneficiary by way of EU subsidies, but farmers have also been losers. Farming, as we all so readily accept, has sadly not been viable for small holders. Thousands of farmers leave the land each year. We have all expressed a fear that the current foot and mouth crisis might give rise to even more farmers leaving the land. While we recognise that the level of investment here over the years has been major and beneficial, there has been a downturn, particularly in the agricultural sector.
Joining the common market also meant we had to share our vast fishing resources with a host of other states, some of whom would appear to have been intent, at times, on plundering our fish stocks. We have come to recognise the need for strong negotiation in this regard. I am pleased the fishermen now recognise that the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Fahey, is a negotiator who will ensure the survival and expansion of the fishing industry. I note that some fishermen in County Galway whom he met last week, were pleased that this Minister has a good grasp of the issues. I wish him well in his present brief.
While there have been many problems along the route to European union, we can confidently say that Ireland has benefited from membership. More importantly, Europe has also benefited from Irish membership and this is an aspect which we should emphasise. The scenario which will continue and improve for many years to come. Poland and other incoming states can also learn from Ireland's experience of using structural and cohesion funds, not as a form of begging or being under a compliment to the giver, although it has sometimes been portrayed as such, but rather as a basis of economic development. The structural and cohesion funds will go towards ensuring that incoming states, many of whom have suffered from a lack of human rights and economic under development under communist rule, can grow, prosper and thereby underpin democratic rule.
Poland, like Ireland, knows the problem of occupation and the difficulty of gaining and maintaining independence. The rise of Solidarity in the 1980s was the beginning for that country in finding its way forward. Apart from the stifling and oppressive influence of Russian rule, human and cultural rights were suppressed and democracy was denied under communism. Today, Poland is emerging as a potentially major contributor to an enhanced European Union. Just over a decade ago, Poland saw the EU edge closer, when Germany was re-united. Within a few years, Poland will find itself on the frontier of the new European Union. Already, Irish companies are playing a major role in the expansion of the Polish economy. It is now a major profit centre for AIB and I understand it is also an important part of the growth plans of CRH. Many smaller Irish companies are making their way to Poland.
An acquaintance from Poland who has lived in Ireland for the past 20 years, commented that his country is now ready for the challenge of EU membership and looks to Ireland's experience as an example. Preparation for membership has been good and the Polish people look forward to it as a continuing guarantee of democracy, underpinned by industrial investment and infrastructural support. That is an aspect of the Nice Treaty which should be recognised.
The root of Ireland's economic success can be attributed, to a large extent, to our education and training systems. Instead of our "young Europeans" leaving the country, our best and brightest are now returning to invest finance, energy and vitality into our economy and society. A few years ago, FÁS schemes had a high level of participation by graduates who were desperate to find an outlet for their knowledge and skills. Now, FÁS projects are being cut back for a number of reasons. Classroom assistants are now being employed directly by the Department of Education and Science. Local authorities are more involved in village and urban renewal and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands funds the Arts Council to enable regional arts centres to operate.
European funding made FÁS schemes possible, giving thousands of participants invaluable experience and training, which is now being employed in the mainstream economy. Many fine local and national initiatives received a boost from FÁS European funding and that body is now running recruitment fairs overseas, to meet the varied job demands in Ireland. This provides a model of good practice for countries like Poland and Hungary, who have huge levels of unemployment and social needs, which can help them on the way to becoming good Europeans. Among the thriving and prospering economies, Ireland will be at the forefront in providing the necessary expertise. That, in itself, is a welcome change in our position compared to some years ago.
We now have a common market and a common currency. As we live in "euroland," the very jingle of coins in our pockets will have a similar echo throughout the EU and travel within that area will no longer require a change of currency. Despite its shaky start, the euro will bring stability to the economies of the member states. Its success can be gauged from the fact that, although Britain huffs and puffs about joining, it is clearly a matter of "when" rather than "if" it will join.
Many people ask why we need yet another EU-related referendum. When we voted in favour of the Treaty of Amsterdam, one of its key provisions was the retention of the important safeguard of parliamentary scrutiny. People sought assurances and safeguards and this is precisely what they are now getting, through this debate and the forthcoming referendum, which I hope they will support.
The Treaty of Nice also addresses issues which were left unresolved by the Amsterdam Treaty, including the size and composition of the Commission, the extension of qualified majority voting and changes in the other EU institutions necessitated by enlargement. It is noteworthy that Denmark, a country not given to acquiescing too readily to the wishes of the wider EU, is not putting the Nice Treaty to a referendum, as it does not involve any transfer of competence from member states to the Union.
A decision in principle has been made to enlarge the EU. This treaty will ensure that accession will be determined by the ability of the candidate countries to demonstrate that they are in a position to assume the obligations of membership.
Irish business has currently access to a market of 330 million people. Not too long ago, many of these European countries were at war with each other and now they are in a position to mutually support each other's development. The EU has brought peace and stability to Europe. Expansion will further underpin this peace and stability.
There is a small pocket of opposition to this treaty here. If this referendum is not passed then the real losers will be the countries who wish to join the EU and to follow Ireland's successful membership. Voting for this treaty is voting to make a reality of the hopes and aspirations of the Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs among others in the same way that we had aspirations in 1972.
Our Government has negotiated important safeguards to protect Irish interests. One such issue is taxation. Our favourable tax rates played a major role in transforming our economy into the dynamic force it is today. Some people are concerned about supporting the Nice Treaty because of the issue of retaining an Irish member of the EU Commission. Large member states will have a 50% reduction in the number of commissioners. We will continue to maintain our Commissioner until membership of the EU reaches 27, the point at which Commissioners will rotate. Membership will rotate regardless of the size of the country and that should be noted. We must have confidence as a nation that we can protect our interests even if we do not have a Commissioner at the table.
Peace and security is something we must value. We must recognise the importance of stability and peace by supporting each other as nations. The EU will continue to play a major role in this area in Europe. Ireland has, for many years, played a major role in UN peacekeeping and now with a seat on the Security Council we will play our part in contributing towards world peace rather than just European peace. We will be asked to contribute to EU peace missions but we will only participate if these operations are authorised by the United Nations and approved by the Dáil. Let us hope that our position on the Security Council will ensure that rapid and effective responses are made to situations such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia and that EU peace missions do not involve European troops watching as those they are supposed to protect are slaughtered. Ireland's role in peacekeeping is a noble and vital one and cannot be overstated. In an enlarged EU we will maintain and expand our role while new and existing members will learn from our vast experience.
Our infrastructure and prosperity has benefited enormously from EU membership. Individual citizens have access to our own and European courts. Human rights have been upheld and legislated for as a result of European court decisions. Consumers have had their rights upheld across the EU. Our education and training programmes have been enhanced by European learning and funding and this is a tremendous benefit. The fact that education and training programmes have been brought to every town and village has benefited our people.
The Treaty of Nice, some might say, is about payback time. As a nation we can go forward into a bigger union where we can ensure other nations prosper as we have. The EU is about rising tides lifting all boats. Never has a phrase been put to better use in this regard. I commend this Bill and hope people will vote for progress and prosperity throughout Europe. On 7 June we should recognise the huge changes that have occurred across Europe. The diversity of the people of the EU, the huge changes in living standards and the aspirations of democratic processes throughout the EU becoming a reality should urge us to support the treaty. The diversity of Europe is its strength and the enlargement to the east will increase that diversity.