I fully respect the outcome of the referendum on the Nice treaty. Before I address the outcome in detail, I wish to state that the Government, the vast majority of the Members of this House and the vast majority of the Irish people are committed to Ireland's full and active membership of the European Union and to the Union's enlargement. Of those who urged a "No" vote, only a small number opposed enlargement.
I am deeply disappointed by the result of the referendum. I am also disappointed that we on the "Yes" side, the Government, the main political parties and the social partners, were not able to persuade a high number of voters to participate in making such an important decision. The result has also disappointed our partners and the applicant countries, whom we will meet in Gothenburg at the end of this week. Clearly the outcome poses difficulties for all involved. While it is too early to say what approach should now be taken, the Government has launched an urgent review of the factors which may have led to this result. In doing so, we will talk to other parties and organisations involved and listen very carefully. The reasons almost two-thirds of the electorate failed to vote on this occasion will be included in that review.
Our review needs to extend beyond the Nice treaty. The manner in which the Oireachtas monitors and evaluates ongoing EU business will form a core part of our work. It will be conducted in full consultation with our EU partners, all of whom remain committed to the ratification of the Nice treaty. Yesterday in Luxembourg our partners expressed their readiness to contribute in every possible way to helping the Government find a way forward, taking into account the concerns reflected by the referendum result. They have excluded reopening the text of the Nice treaty and this is one of the factors we have to take into account. The treaty is about enlarging and extending the European Union and giving to others a chance to develop similar to the one given to us 30 years ago. Ever since the collapse of communism, entry to the EU has been a primary objective of the countries of central and eastern Europe. They see EU membership as creating a framework to secure peace and prosperity and achieve the economic and social benefits of participation in the Union's programmes and policies. That is the view of the treaty held throughout Europe and it is a view I share. It is also a view shared by the vast majority of people here, however, many issues were raised in the campaign which were not directly relevant to the treaty and we on the "Yes" side might have done more to address those issues.
The treaty is totally in line with the Government's policy of neutrality and non-participation in military alliances. However, we are equally strongly committed to active engagement in both regional and international peacekeeping efforts and humanitarian tasks, provided they have a UN mandate. The treaty is not about a European army and there will not be a mutual defence pact. Any future participation in any given initiative involving the Rapid Reaction Force will be dependent on the safeguards we have set out. Those are, Irish support for the initiative, Dáil approval on a case by case basis and a UN mandate. While I am certain the vast majority of the Irish people remain strongly committed to the European Union and enlargement it is clear there are genuine anxieties and concerns about the future, including continuing democratic accountability in each member state, which go well beyond the terms of the treaty. We will have to reflect deeply on how those can be best addressed. In particular, people have questions about where the European Union is going in the long-term.
Fundamental issues have been raised in major speeches by several of my European colleagues and it has been agreed that in 2004 there will be a further intergovernmental conference on the future of the Union. Preparations for this conference are at a very early stage. It has been agreed there should be an extensive preparatory debate across Europe involving, not just governments and parliaments but the social partners and wider civic society. This will take place over the next couple of years. I have already made it clear there will be a full debate here which will help prepare our input into the European discussions.
To ensure this debate is both comprehensive and inclusive the Government has decided, in principle, at its meeting today to establish a national forum on Europe. This forum will represent the political parties and the social partners and will be broadly modelled on other fora such as the forum for peace and reconciliation and the national economic and social forum. It will be given all the necessary resources. The Government will be in touch with the main opposition parties shortly to discuss the forum's establishment and terms of reference. While it is still early days, a number of things can be said about the debate on the future of Europe. The core questions will relate to democratic legitimacy, transparency and effectiveness. How can the EU be made more meaningful to the people? How can the people better understand and control what happens in Europe? What is best done at European level and what is best done nationally? It is clear that, contrary to what some may fear, there is by no means a single vision of Europe among our partners. There are many different views about what Europe should do and how it should do it. There is no question of a uniform blueprint which will be imposed. The debate will be genuine and comprehensive and decisions will have to be based on consensus. The result therefore will reflect the will of each member state. We must have confidence in our ability to play a distinctive and positive part in this crucial exercise on Europe's future, rather than try to opt out because it is too complicated or we are not confident of our ability to hold our ownvis-à-vis the larger states. It would be wrong to pre-empt the national debate. The issues which arise will be extremely complex but we have plenty of time in which to consider them fully without rushing to judgment.
A number of basic starting points can be identified. There is an overriding need for the EU to continue to deliver practical benefits to people on the ground and to achieve results in its ongoing business. The emphasis in this debate must be more on the substance of what the EU should do and how it should do it, rather than on abstract institutional questions. From an Irish perspective, and from that of other smaller states, the traditional balance between the institutions has worked well and does not need radical alteration. The reality remains that, while people see themselves as Europeans, the great majority identify primarily with their own countries. The nation state remains the basic building block of the European Union and this will continue to be the case. That does not mean Ireland should take a narrow or isolationist view and I reject simplistic attempts to play on fears of the possible loss of sovereignty or independence. In March I said the true sovereignty of the people is not a theoretical concept, but a measure of how successfully we protect and promote our basic national interests and our social and economic well-being. Our consistent policy towards the EU over the past 30 years has done far more to enhance our real sovereignty than standing aside would have done. All countries, especially small ones, operate within very considerable constraints. Just as it was 30 years ago, the question is whether we would be better off co-operating and pooling resources and sovereignty with similar like-minded EU states than we would be on our own. All of the evidence, surely, is that we would be better off.
It has been argued that enlargement should wait until these longer-term questions are resolved. However, it is the firm view of all member states, and of the applicants, that enlargement can and should proceed on the basis already agreed. To create an unnecessary and unjustified link between it and the future of Europe debate would delay accession to the EU for several more years. It is the consensus view among other member states and the accession candidates that the changes made in the Nice treaty are all that is required for enlargement to proceed. This was again made clear by the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg yesterday. I reiterate that the Irish people want to see enlargement take place on schedule. I do not agree with any analysis that the people in voting on Thursday acted out of any selfish or narrow interest, though there is a danger that it might be misinterpreted as such. We know well that the Union, while it must bring practical benefits to its people, is also about a broader ideal.
From day to day countries are keenly aware of their own interests as they see them and rightly so. The reality is that EU membership has been overwhelmingly and directly to our benefit. Our net receipts from the CAP have amounted to close to £20 billion. Intelligent use of the Structural Funds has helped to develop our economy and has been a substantial factor in our recent social and economic transformation. Membership of the Single European Market has been crucial in positioning Ireland as a key player in transatlantic trade and investment. Our membership of EMU has brought interest rates down to what are, in terms of recent history, remarkably low levels.
While the EU has been good for Ireland in direct material ways, the Irish people have always been fully aware of its wider dimensions. I remember in 1972 a strong feeling that joining the EEC, as it was then, was a decisive step in our movement towards a more positive and outward-looking approach to the world. We realised we were opening ourselves up as a society as well as an economy and once again the balance sheet has been overwhelmingly positive in this area too.
EU membership has allowed us to play a role in the wider world which would have been impossible otherwise. It has modernised our approach to issues such as gender equality and environmental protection. It has meant that Ministers and other Members of the Oireachtas, public servants, business people, trade unionists and many others have widened their horizons. Moreover, EU membership, by changing the context in which we relate to Britain and by helping us to break out of a pattern of excessive economic dependence, has greatly enhanced the British-Irish relationship. We have moved to seeing one another as partners with many shared interests and objectives. The strong relationship between the two Governments has been the bedrock on which the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement have been built and the EU has very generously supported us in building reconciliation and in stimulating North-South links.
I am convinced the Irish people are fully aware of those benefits. Whatever reasons prompted them to vote against the ratification of the treaty, or to abstain, for most people our EU membership and the historic necessity for an enlarged European Union were not at issue.
As I indicated last Friday, the difficulties we face will not be easy to resolve. We need to take our time to consider and consult. The Government, therefore, will not come to any hasty conclusions about the next steps. I ask all of those who favour Ireland's continued full and active participation in the European Union to adopt a similar measured approach.