Other Questions. - EU Treaties.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

6 Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his views on the section of the draft EU constitutional treaty dealing with creating an area of freedom, security and justice; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17164/03]

The Government welcomes the consensus reached at the Convention on the Future of Europe in relation to the proposed constitutional treaty. It regards the result of the deliberations as a substantial starting point for the work of the Intergovernmental Conference later this year. Deputy Ó Snodaigh was present at the Forum on Europe this morning and heard me elaborate at considerable length on the Government's attitude. The convention has managed to produce a draft constitutional treaty which is written in a clearer and more legible style and is a considerable improvement on the existing type of texts with which we are confronted. It is necessary to outline briefly the decision-making system in the area of justice and home affairs, in order to place the proposed changes in context.

I ask Deputies who are interested in my contribution at this morning's meeting of the Forum on Europe to access the record of that institution. A number of outstanding justice and home affairs issues need to be addressed. The State has consistently been opposed to the proposed European public prosecutor. Another issue worthy of consideration is the proposal to introduce qualified majority voting in respect of criminal procedure. A third issue that should be examined is the scope of the right to impose definitions of certain forms of offences and minimum punishments, at EU level, by qualified majority voting. The subjects I have mentioned are the three major areas of concern relating to justice and home affairs.

As I said to the Forum on Europe this morning, I am content with the outcome in many other areas, such as the collapsing of the three-pillar legal framework system into a one-pillar structure, the introduction of uniform legislative instruments for the European Union and the extension of QMV to asylum, immigration and other issues. I have outlined my attitude to the state of play in relation to justice and home affairs matters arising from the report of the convention.

The pace at which the EU has developed its competence in criminal law in the last decade has been staggering. The draft constitution dramatically increases the competence of the EU in the field of criminal law. This is demonstrated by the final report of the convention's working group on freedom, security and justice, which stated that "there are a number of areas such as cross-border crime, asylum policy or control of the Union's external borders which cannot be dealt with effectively by States acting on their own, nor is defence against the new terrorism threats compatible with autonomous action at national level". The report also stated that "policy should be rooted in a shared commitment to freedom based on human rights, democratic institutions and rule of law." The practical reality of the proposals for integration and harmonisation is that we will most likely see a shift in the balance of rights from individuals and accused persons to prosecution authorities.

Does the Minister think that the EU constitutional provisions in the area of justice and home affairs will lead to a levelling up of rights, as some people hope, or will it lead to a levelling down of rights, as many people fear? Will the new EU constitution lead to an erosion of the rights enjoyed by Irish citizens under the Constitution? Will the rules regarding admissibility of evidence, for example, be affected? Will the European Court of Justice be effective in enforcing the rights of Irish citizens in the field of criminal law against EU institutions? Is the Minister concerned by the executive's dominance in this area, especially in view of the democratic deficit identified in the Laeken declaration and the overriding need for democratic legitimacy in the field of criminal law?

Having attended this morning's meeting of the Forum on Europe, the Deputy will appreciate that I have addressed at length the concerns he has raised. Time does not permit me to repeat a tiny fraction of what I said this morning.

I take the Deputy's point that if QMV is extended to all aspects of criminal law procedure, if the definition of the area of EU competence to harmonise laws by QMV is put in place and if the EU public prosecutor is left in place, it could be argued that the EU is becoming the origin of considerable competence in criminal law. This is a concern of the Government. As I said at this morning's meeting of the Forum on Europe, we have to ask ourselves what protective mechanisms would exist in such circumstances to guarantee the rights of citizens.

The Government has tabled amendments to the Convention report. The Convention process is coming to an end and, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen said, the question of justice and home affairs is something which will be finally looked at and finally resolved, we hope, in the context of the intergovernmental Council meeting in the autumn which may also stretch into our Presidency. In that context the Deputy can remain assured that the Government, and my Department in particular, will remain vigilant to ensure that the constitutional rights of Irish citizens will not be endangered by any developments with which we are unhappy.

Acting Chairman

Although we have exceed the time on this question, I will allow Deputy Mitchell to ask a brief supplementary.

In regard to the area of freedom, would the Minister agree that there is now a golden opportunity to bring in a travel document, perhaps even an adapted driving licence, to allow Irish citizens travel throughout the European Union without a passport? Does he not agree that it is unsatisfactory for Norwegians and others to have access to the European Union on a lesser document while we still have to produce a passport?

Will the Minister consult his colleagues, particularly the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and the Minister for Transport, to see if some lesser document than a passport could be devised which would not be an identity card for internal use but could be used for travel within the European Union?

I heard Deputy Mitchell make a similar proposal today at the Forum for Europe. I will confer with my Cabinet colleagues who have competence in this area and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who is the lead Minister in respect of passport policy, in regard to whether it is possible for Irish citizens to be given more user-friendly travel documentation which would suffice within the context of the European Union. This is not a matter free from all complication, however, because, as the Deputy is aware, this is an aspect of the Schengen acquis to which Ireland and the United Kingdom have not yet acceded. I do not know whether our fellow members states of the EU would be happy to see us dine furtherá la carte at that table and give ourselves additional privileges in respect of travel documentation without undertaking some of the other more onerous aspects of Schengen. This is clearly a matter on which we would have to consult with the United Kingdom as it would have implications for the common travel area which, in Border regions in particular, is a matter of acute sensitivity here.