I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. I feel passionately about this matter and its importance for Ireland, Europe and the world. It is appropriate that the Dáil has chosen to return for this special session to debate the specific issue of the Nice treaty. It would have been good if we had been granted time to discuss other matters, but, quite rightly, the Nice treaty is being given priority.
It is not often that Ireland as a nation is asked, as is the case at present, to make a decision that will impact on the future of the 400 million people who live in western and central Europe. The spotlight will be on Ireland for the next six to eight weeks and our European neighbours will be watching to see how the campaign is run, how the Government performs, where the Opposition parties stand and, of course, what will be the result.
The EU project – formerly the EEC project – has been a huge success. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs stated, it is perhaps the greatest ever international achievement towards building peace and stability and creating a more competitive and attractive economic environment on a Continent where countries chose to come together to do just that. It was created after two divisive and tragic world wars which caused massive loss of life. Since then, the EU project and the European concept as a whole have been phenomenally successful. The Nice treaty provides for the next stage of the overall project, namely, to allow significant enlargement of what to date has been an extremely successful union.
Before discussing the details of the arguments that are considered pro and anti-Nice, I wish to share with the House an experience I underwent which has strengthened my resolve and determination to try to convince and persuade people that the right way to vote in the referendum is "Yes". In June 2001 I visited Gotland, an island off the east coast of Sweden in the middle of the Baltic Sea, to attend an EU conference on renewable energy. To the west of the island is mainland Sweden, which held the EU Presidency at the time, and to the east are Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, four of the applicant states. Delegates from two of these states attended the conference to try to share in the knowledge and expertise available to all EU member states. The first thing the Spanish chairperson in charge of proceedings did was to welcome the Polish and Estonian delegates as future members of the EU. Approximately halfway through the first day of the conference proceedings were stopped in order that the Spanish chairperson could announce the result of the referendum on the Nice treaty in Ireland. When the announcement was made, it was greeted with shock, disbelief, intense disappointment and a total lack of understanding as to how Ireland could vote against the Nice treaty and, as people perceived it, enlargement.
I had an extremely difficult time convincing fellow delegates that many of the people in Ireland who voted against the treaty were not voting against enlargement and that these individuals were concerned about other issues and problems relating to the Union and the EU project in a wider sense. Unfortunately, I do not believe my arguments were overly convincing because the other delegates tended to simplify matters and look upon the Irish approach to the Nice treaty as selfish. Many people here voted against the Nice treaty for what they saw as – and perhaps they were – genuine reasons. However, I must state bluntly and clearly that the perception among our friends and colleagues in the EU and, more importantly, those in the applicant states to the east, was that Ireland voted against enlargement for selfish reasons.
The irony is that Ireland has perhaps gained more from its membership of the EU than any other country, particularly in terms of development and inward investment, which has primarily emanated from central European funding. The smaller applicant states looked forward to using Ireland as a template when they joined the Union. The Estonian delegates spoke to me about the high esteem in which Ireland is held in their country and the fact that they wanted to forge closer links with us as Estonia's membership of the EU draws near. They want to follow our example and build a stable economic trading environment which will allow their relatively small country, which has many similarities to Ireland, to develop wealth creation prospects.
I wish to focus on what is at stake for the applicant countries because many people involved in the debate consider this matter in a purely Irish context in order to persuade voters here. If the applicant states are not allowed to join they will miss out on the opportunity – which was grasped by Ireland when it joined the EEC – to consolidate their recently won or restored democratic systems. Like Deputy Gay Mitchell, I believe Ireland has achieved real independence since it entered the EU. It has grown in confidence and its reliance on the UK for trade and business and in the sphere of economics has lessened to a large degree.
If they are not permitted to join, the applicant states will miss out on Single Market participation for trade and for the movement of people which have led to such stability and prosperity in western Europe. They will also miss out on being part of a law based community of states which ensures law and order, common standards of human rights, common environmental standards, etc. They will further miss out on the opportunity to learn quickly from best practice, from the mistakes the EU has made in the areas of social integration and economic growth and through our parliamentary system's legal reform and administration.
The representatives of applicant states see a positive future for their countries as part of a stable union that has a proven record. The irony is that the vast majority of applicant states are small nations just like Ireland. Ireland has an opportunity to become a leader among small nations in Europe. That opportunity will only become greater with the advent of enlargement. The danger of voting "No" to Nice this time is that the European Union will find another way to enlarge but unfortunately, in the meantime, we will have lost our friends in eastern Europe. They will see us as a country which has let them down when they are desperately attempting to join the EU as soon as possible.
The only circumstances in which we might have a right to consider saying "No" to Nice would be if there were definite and foreseeable negative consequences as a result of doing so, but I do not accept that is the case. The Nice treaty does not contain any elements which will hinder or damage future Irish prospects. It is fundamentally a technical treaty to put a structural framework around the enlargement process. That the other 14 member states do not appear to have a problem with it is evidence it is little more than a technical treaty, although some of those states would be sceptical of further European integration into the future.
I want to turn now to the more self-centred arguments for voting "Yes" to Nice this time around. Ireland will miss out dramatically on various opportunities if we vote "No". While there are also some dangers in voting "Yes" to enlargement, the opportunities far outweigh the dangers.
I have already referred to the area of politics where opportunities lie should Europe enlarge, although the case has been made that we may lose influence in the European institutions, but as a leader of a bloc of small nations in an enlarged Europe we would increase our influence, perhaps significantly, when it comes to voting through legislation and other changes in a European context.
I want to deal now with two sectors in particular which rely heavily on the decision making process in Europe. I understand many farmers plan to vote "No" in the referendum, which is a great shame because a "Yes" vote would offer more opportunities for farming. Unfortunately, farming is going through a difficult period. We have had a particularly difficult harvest, prices are down, the weather has been poor and yields are also down. Dairy, arable and vegetable farmers are feeling the pinch. Farmers are angry and they blame Europe for forcing restrictions and introducing quotas, work standards in health and safety, chemical restrictions and so on.
Farmers who have concerns about Europe should note that we are members of the European Union and farmers have benefited significantly from that membership over a considerable period of time. The support systems and structures in place to keep rural Ireland intact are a safeguard for farmers in the future. Another safeguard is the fact that Ireland punches above its weight when agricultural policy is being debated and devised in Europe, at least we have done so in the past. If we vote "No" to Nice on this occasion we will not have the same influence or power to build alliances with other countries when the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, goes to Europe seeking an aid package or a concession for Irish farmers in the event of another bad harvest because we will be seen as a self-centred country which has not opened up to the overall enlargement process. We will find it much more difficult to forge the kind of friendships on which we have heavily relied in the past to get Irish farmers a good deal in Europe.
To a certain extent we can make the same arguments in regard to those fishermen who plan to vote "No" to Nice, although fishermen can feel more aggrieved about the deal we got from Europe since we joined the EU. The only negative aspects for Ireland of EU membership is the fact that we have given over the availability of huge fish stocks to other EU nations. Irish fishermen catch less than 10% of fish in Irish waters as a result of our EU membership but we need to be realistic. The futures of Irish fishermen rely heavily on the debate that will revolve around the Common Fisheries Policy in the next six months. If we have not forged alliances in Europe and built consensus among other EU countries in terms of getting a good deal for Irish fishermen, our fishing industry will be under serious threat. It will be much more difficult for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Ahern, to get a good deal for Irish fishermen in the Common Fisheries Policy negotiations if we vote "No" to Nice, just as it will be difficult for the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, to get a good deal for Irish farmers this year when the CAP is under review. In voting "No" to Nice we will isolate ourselves from potential allies in a European context.
On the question of general economics, Ireland exports more goodsper capita than any other country in Europe. We export 50% to 60% of all goods produced here, and in an agricultural context the figure is 70% or 80%. If we vote “Yes” to Nice and allow enlargement, as an exporting nation we will have 100 million extra consumers to target. Enlargement offers exciting opportunities for our businesses, entrepreneurs, farmers and technical experts. That is the reason groups, like the Cork Chamber of Commerce, are taking out full page advertisements in newspapers asking people to vote “Yes” to Nice. It is not because they support the Government or Fine Gael but because it is good for business and for families with children in school or college who will want to obtain employment in four or five years' time.
The Irish knowledge based industries have gone through a difficult period in the past 18 months, particularly in the IT sector, but there is considerable evidence to show that sector may be on the upturn again, albeit at a much slower pace. The knowledge based economy that has developed successfully here will benefit from the opportunities presented by a new and exciting consumer base in central Europe should it become part of our open market.
In terms of our overall competitiveness, we are the most open economy in Europe and we are heavily reliant on foreign investment, particularly from the United States. Many US companies see Ireland as a gateway to European markets but if we are seen as a country that is anti-enlargement and against the overall EU concept, we will be less attractive to foreign investment companies.
I was going to go through the "No" campaign arguments, but these have been covered well by previous speakers advocating a "Yes" vote. They include the issue of neutrality that has been dealt with and also the supposed influx of refugees, which I think is nonsense.
However, there is one item in particular I wish to mention and that is the issue of a two-tier Europe. This term is being used repeatedly by people who advocate a "No" vote. A two-tier Europe – in the wider context and not just in the EU – exists at the moment because there is a bloc of countries looking over the fence at a stable, prosperous, peaceful Europe of which they wish to be part, but are being kept out. It is up to the Irish people as to whether they are kept out for a longer period than necessary. If we vote "No" to Nice this time, at a minimum we will delay enlargement and keep out these countries which are desperate to be involved and which have made significant sacrifices to meet the strict criteria we have set out. We will be delaying their opportunity for peace, prosperity, stability and the benefits that a common market brings.
There is a great responsibility on the Government and the Taoiseach personally to make this campaign an open one that explains the consequences to people. I appeal to the Taoiseach not to tell people how to vote but to explain to them why they should be voting "Yes". We will be supporting him with every resource Fine Gael has to achieve that outcome.