1 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his attendance at the first United Nations world summit on the information society in Geneva on 11 December 2003. [31309/03]
1 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his attendance at the first United Nations world summit on the information society in Geneva on 11 December 2003. [31309/03]
2 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent UNworld summit on the information society; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1038/04]
3 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the UN world summit on the information society; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2961/04]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The first ever United Nations world summit on the information society was held in Geneva from Wednesday, 10 December to Friday, 12 December 2003. I led the delegation from Ireland to this summit and I was accompanied by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Minister of State at my Department with special responsibility for the information society, Deputy Hanafin. I addressed the plenary session of this summit on Thursday, 11 December, and a copy of my address has been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
This summit adopted a common vision and understanding of the information society as well as a strategic plan of action for concerted development towards realising this vision. It obtained political commitment, at the highest levels globally, to shape the future of the global information society and to bridge the digital and knowledge divides.
While at the summit, I met with representatives of the companies responsible for the Skoool.ie project. This project won a world summit award and was honoured and showcased at the summit. I also met with the chairman of the world summit awards board, Professor Peter Bruck.
May I draw Deputies' attention to the fact that there are three questions in this group. There is then a large group of questions tabled regarding Europe. It is a matter for Deputies as to how they wish to divide time on those questions.
Does the Taoiseach agree that at the end of the day, the issue of the information society boils down to the ubiquitous absence of easy broadband access in this country? Does he further agree that in the OECD survey we were 27th out of 30 countries, and that our attempt at deregulation and privatisation of Eircom has been little short of disastrous, measured against almost any criterion? We have ended up with a situation in which, instead of a monopoly, we have a duopoly which is not functioning. The roll-out of broadband is completely inadequate and is indicted by the Government's own report on the information society.
Obviously we are behind on broadband provision. I have stated many times that while the loop around the country is perfect, the service within the State is not. We are catching up. There is a considerable investment, but we have not got private sector investment to the extent we would have liked. I have given the figures previously to the House. We have finished the 19 areas designated last year. Work is continuing and approximately 90 areas will be dealt with in the course of this year and next year. We need to improve on the loop in the country. That work is under way and the sooner the work is completed the better. We have the capacity to go up the list, if we finish the designated work. The State cannot provide all the resources to do that although it is providing a substantial proportion of them.
Is not the tragedy of all this that we failed to separate the consumer services from the network, as we did in the case of the ESB, when the privatisation and deregulation of Telecom Éireann took place, and that we are now paying the price?
I think it was the right thing to do at the time. We got a huge price for it. It was at the height of the dot.com revolution so from the State's point of view we did well and the company is now operating in the private sector. The difficulty is that, during that period, many private sector companies lost so much on the 3G licences that they did not have the capacity to put in the additional resources we would have wanted. Five years ago the companies' view was that if they were allowed access to broadband they could do this but they were not in a financial position to do so.
We have designated 123 areas in the country where broadband access is required and we have to get on with providing it. The State is now being forced to put in a higher contribution than it would have wished. However, as far as the money we got into the pension fund is concerned, I think it was a good deal at the time.
The Government has got it all wrong. The issue at stake is about the copper wire into the facility at the end of the line. Is it not a fact that what is happening is a policy of appeasement to Eircom until the IPO takes place at the end of March? What meetings have taken place between the Government and Eircom? Do we have any guarantee that after the IPO takes place and people have walked away with their money, the Government's objective of having the highest quality level of broadband e-service will actually be fulfilled? If an American pension trust buys this, is there any guarantee that it will want to put broadband into Donegal or west Kerry?
I do not know whether the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has informed the Taoiseach that what is called dark fibre is being put in instead of lit fibre. It is a very low level, unambitious programme, which does little service to the Government's fine words about putting us at the top of the ladder internationally. The Taoiseach has a chance, before the IPO is signed, to rectify the matter. He should examine seriously what has happened in the telecommunications sector and how we have arrived at the current position.
I will allow general questions to the Taoiseach, but detailed questions would be more appropriate to the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
My questions are about the IPO, which is a big issue.
The fastest increase in broadband roll-out is in this country but, as I told Deputy Rabbitte, I accept that it is being done from a low base. The Minister has had several meetings, including one the week before last, with Eircom about the roll-out and the company is doing quite an amount of work on it, as are some other companies also. We have rolled it out, according to the demands programme, to areas such as Gweedore in County Donegal. We will have to keep doing that.
Many companies across the private sector lost a substantial amount of money on the 3G licences but if they had been in a better financial position we probably could have got through much of this more quickly. Instead, the State has had to pick it up to the extent we thought the private sector would do so five years ago. We must keep driving on, however. While our base is low, we can catch up very quickly and can change our position dramatically. The more we can get broadband rolled out around the country into a new series of areas, the better. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has already mentioned many of them. The next roll out will help in this respect because almost 90 areas will be involved. It is a priority. We have no difficulty in getting broadband rolled out around the country because it is on the loop.
There is no competition because Eircom has a monopoly. That explains the cost, because Eircom has got a total grip.
Eircom has a significant part of it but, as we have seen recently, the ESB has also launched a significant aspect. The more we can use both the private sector and State agencies to do this, the better. It is not a long-term process. Last year's work on the 19 areas was done very quickly. We must continue to do that work, however.
If Deputy Kenny puts down a question to me, I will give him all the information.
Many speakers at the UN world summit on the information society called for the creation of a digital solidarity fund to help bridge the digital divide between developing countries and wealthier nations. Does the Taoiseach support this call and would he use the current Irish Presidency of the European Union as a platform on which to promote such a proposition? Does the Taoiseach agree that the information and communications technology industry, which has among its number some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, should be making a contribution in this regard? As such companies have little accountability and show scant concern for Third World development, would it not be appropriate to take such an initiative? In echoing the UN summit's call, would the Taoiseach be prepared to make that issue one of his key proposals in the course of our current EU Presidency?
Many Irish companies were involved in the UN world summit, in the spirit Deputy Ó Caoláin mentioned. We are prepared to help and the best way we can contribute is through our technical expertise. We should use our communications technology to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries. We can play a serious role in that respect because we have many companies and individuals who can make a huge contribution. It is not just a question of finance; it is also a matter of using our technical expertise and our people. The answer to the Deputy's question is that we are prepared to help in every way we can.
Ireland has been to the fore in trying topromote the development of Internet technology in schools in developing areas. We have good experience in and knowledge of those areas because Irish companies have been very much involved. The fact that the school project onfree access to education won one of the main awards at the UN world summit highlights an area in which we can directly do what the Deputy has asked — getting involved in the exchangeof technical information. We are prepared to do so.
What about the creation of a digital solidarity fund?
That concept has to be progressed but the fund could comprise person power and technical knowledge. That is probably the best way to do it because we can make a huge contribution in that regard.
4 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his bilateral meetings on the margins of the recent European Council meeting in Brussels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30706/03]
5 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council meeting in Brussels on 12 and 13 December 2003; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30707/03]
6 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the outcome of the recent European Summit on 12 and 13 December 2003. [30743/03]
7 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his participation in the European Council meeting in Brussels. [31082/03]
8 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach the foreign visits he plans undertaking during 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1027/04]
9 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach when he will next meet with the President of the European Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1028/04]
10 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council meeting in Brussels on 12/13 December 2003; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1033/04]
11 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the bi-lateral meetings he held on the margins of the recent European Council meeting in Brussels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1034/04]
12 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw, in Dublin on 16 December 2003; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1035/04]
13 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach the official visits abroad he plans to make in the first six months of 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1189/04]
14 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach the matters discussed and conclusions reached at his meeting with the President of the EU Commission, Romano Prodi, in Dublin on 6 January 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1193/04]
15 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach his priorities for the Irish Presidency of the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1194/04]
16 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach the principal meetings he will be chairing during the Irish Presidency of the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1195/04]
17 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach the steps he expects to take during the Irish Presidency to seek agreement on a new EU constitution; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1196/04]
18 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the outcome of the December 2003 EU Summit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1266/04]
19 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his January 2004 meeting in Dublin with the President of the EU Commission, Mr. Romano Prodi; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1267/04]
20 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach his plans to satisfactorily conclude negotiations on a new EU constitution under the Irish Presidency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1268/04]
21 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach the agenda for the March 2004 EU summit; and ifhe will make a statement on the matter. [1269/04]
22 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach the Government's priorities for the Irish EU Presidency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1270/04]
23 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if, at his meeting on 6 January 2004, he raised with the President of the EU Commission, Mr. Prodi, his comments about a two speed EU; the response he received; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1294/04]
24 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the outcome of his meeting with the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. GuyVerhofstadt, in Dublin on 8 January 2004. [1295/04]
25 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the President of the European Commission in Dublin on 6 January 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1650/04]
26 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting in Dublin with the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1651/04]
27 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting in Dublin with the European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Mr. Javier Solana; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1652/04]
28 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his recent address to the European Parliament. [1697/04]
29 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the National Forum on Europe in Dublin Castle on 8 January 2004. [1822/04]
30 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach the matters discussed and any conclusions reached at his meeting with Mr. Romano Prodi, President of the EU Commission, in Dublin on 6 January 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1824/04]
31 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach the matters discussed and any conclusions reached at his recent meeting with the Prime Minister of Belgium, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, in Dublin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1825/04]
32 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his priorities for his upcoming meeting with the Polish Prime Minister, Mr. Leszek Miller, on 29 January 2004. [1827/04]
33 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach the Government's priorities for Ireland's Presidency of the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1833/04]
34 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach the meetings he proposes to hold with EU leaders over the coming months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1836/04]
35 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach the matters discussed and any conclusions reached at his meeting with his counterparts from Turkey, Romania, Croatia and Montenegro in Berlin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1841/04]
36 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his recent attendance at the debate on the Irish Presidency of the EU in the European Parliament. [1846/04]
37 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach the Government's priorities for its EU Presidency term and, in particular, its proposed programme for negotiations relating to the draft EU constitutional treaty. [2962/04]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 37, inclusive, together.
I attended the European Council and the Intergovernmental Conference in Brussels on 12 and 13 December. I was accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Roche. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, attended the European Council meeting.
The conclusions of the European Council have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and, as Deputies are aware, on Tuesday, 16 December, at the earliest opportunity following the meeting, I made a comprehensive statement on the outcome of the Council. I do not,therefore, propose to go into too much detail here.
In brief, the European Council allowed the Heads of State or Government of the European Union to endorse the European action for growth initiative; reach agreement on a range of sites for certain European Union agencies; note progress in the justice and home affairs area, including on the management of migratory flows, progress on establishing a European border management agency and agreement on a number of measures in the fight against drugs; and note a range of foreign policy issues, including the European security strategy and the declaration on transatlantic relations.
The European Council was a success, although it was clearly disappointing that we did not reach agreement in the Intergovernmental Conference which followed. We are grateful to the outgoing Italian Presidency for the good groundwork laid by them, which will enable us to advance further the agenda of the European Union during our term of office.
During bilateral contacts on the margins of the European Council, I met Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey on 11 December. I took the opportunity to convey to him the European Union's preference for a reunited Cyprus to join the European Union on 1 May 2004.
Ireland's sixth Presidency of the European Union commenced on 1 January and we marked the occasion with a flag-flying ceremony in Dublin Castle. As Deputies are aware, on 22 January I made a comprehensive statement to the House concerning Ireland's Presidency programme. Our key priorities are to make as much progress as possible in the Intergovernmental Conference; to ensure a successful transition from a Union of 15 to one of 25, including the effective and efficient conduct of the business of the enlarged Union, and to carry forward the enlargement process more generally; to give additional impetus at the spring European Council, to the ten-year reform goal set out at Lisbon in March 2000; to take forward commitments in the justice and home affairs area by focusing on the delivery of agreed commitments under the Amsterdam treaty and the broader Tampere programme; and in the external relations arena, to continue the search for mutual solutions to the many difficult issues confronting us on the world stage today.
The key meetings I will chair during our Presidency are the two European Council meetings, in March and June. I will also co-chair a tripartite social summit in Brussels prior to the spring European Council in March.
In my statement to the House on 22 January, I outlined to Deputies in detail the approach we are taking to the Intergovernmental Conference. Without going over the same ground, I will just say briefly that this is an issue of the highest priority for our Presidency. At the European Council in December, I undertook to consult with partners and to make a report to the spring European Council. These consultations are ongoing. My soundings to date suggest a willingness to support our efforts to progress the IGC during our Presidency.
There are still a number of key issues to be resolved before agreement can be reached on the constitutional treaty. There is broad agreement, nonetheless, on many important elements. We are attempting to encourage a spirit of compromise and commitment and to build the consensus necessary for agreement. If it appears at any time that agreement is achievable, we will move immediately to seize that opportunity.
On 6 January, as one of the first engagements in our Presidency, I and my Government colleagues met with the European Commission in Dublin Castle. I had a very productive and useful meeting with the President of the European Commission, Mr. Romano Prodi, which focused on the Intergovernmental Conference and preparations for the two European Council meetings during our Presidency, in March and June. Both Commission President Prodi and I agreed that the best way forward is for the Union as a whole to agree the new constitutional treaty. My Government colleagues also met bilaterally with their counterparts in the European Commission to discuss priorities for Ireland's Presidency in each of the Council formations.
On 14 January, I presented the Irish Presidency programme to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. I emphasised that Ireland, as holder of the Presidency, is totally committed to working intensively with the Parliament at all levels so that our interaction is as constructive and productive as it can be. Following my address, we had a lively and informed debate on the priorities for Ireland's Presidency and I was impressed by the support and good wishes I received.
I met with the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in Dublin on 16 December. Our discussions focused on events at the European Council the week before, including the Intergovernmental Conference and also the priorities for Ireland's Presidency.
On 8 January, I attended the National Forum on Europe to hear an address by the EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Solana prior to his address. We discussed the priorities for Ireland's Presidency, including the implementation of the European security strategy and a range of international issues, including Iran and the Middle East.
Later that day, I met with the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, in Government Buildings. We had a productive meeting which focused on the Intergovernmental Conference and Ireland's Presidency programme. I travelled to Berlin on 9 January where I addressed the Bertelsmann Foundation. Before my address, I had a series of bilateral meetings with the Prime Ministers of Montenegro, Romania and Croatia.
I also met briefly with Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey following the address. My discussions with him focused on Cyprus. I thanked him for Turkey's recent efforts aimed at making progress and said the Irish Presidency would be as helpful as possible in the search for a solution through the peace process based on the Annan plan.
At my meeting with Romanian Prime Minister, Adrian Nastase, I made clear that the Irish Presidency intends to implement the timetable agreed in the December European Council conclusions on negotiations for Romania's membership of the EU.
In my meetings with both Prime Minister Sanader of Croatia and Prime Minister Djukanovic of Montenegro, I stressed that the western Balkans would remain an important EU priority during the Irish Presidency, building on the progress made in 2003. I also discussed with Mr. Sanader the likely progress of Croatia's application for membership of the Union during our Presidency.
On 26 January, I travelled to Madrid for discussions with Prime Minister Aznar and last Thursday I met with Prime Minister Miller of Poland in Dublin. The focus of both of these meetings was the Intergovernmental Conference.
I will meet a number of EU counterparts in the coming weeks in the context of ongoing consultations on the Intergovernmental Conference, including Prime Minister Barroso of Portugal, whom I will meet later today, Prime Minister Berlusconi, Prime Minister Parts of Estonia and Chancellor Schröder.
My next scheduled meeting with the President of the European Commission will be at the tripartite social council which will precede the spring European Council.
In accordance with procedures laid down at the Seville European Council in June 2002 for the preparation, conduct and conclusions of the meetings of the European Council, European Council meetings are prepared by the General Affairs and External Relations Council, which co-ordinates all the preparatory work and draws up the agenda at least four weeks before the Council meeting. Work has already commenced at official level on the draft agenda.
The spring Council each year is devoted to economic and social issues, namely the Lisbon agenda. It is my intention that the spring European Council this year will focus on a number of key aspects — sustainable growth, competitiveness and employment. In addition to the Lisbon agenda, I will also report to my colleagues on the European Council on progress made on the European constitution.
I will undertake a series of Presidency related engagements outside Ireland over the coming months. As part of my ongoing consultations with partners on the IGC, I will travel to Rome for discussions with Prime Minister Berlusconi. In March, I will attend the tripartite council and the European Council in Brussels. In May and June, I will undertake a pre-European Council tour of European capitals in the lead up to the European Council in Brussels on 17 and 18 June.
I will also attend a number of external summits outside Ireland over the coming months. It is expected that these will include the EU-Canada summit in Ottawa, the EU-Russia summit in Russia, EU-Latin American summit in Mexico, the G8 summit in the United States, the EU-Japan summit in Tokyo and the EU-NATO summit in Istanbul.
In March and July, I will travel to Strasbourg to present progress reports on the Irish Presidency to the European Parliament.
The Taoiseach has a busy schedule. He may not be able to canvass in Ringsend or Coolock as often as he would like.
It does not look like it. I will leave that to the Deputy.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply.The Irish Times reports that the Taoiseach has identified 20 issues which seriously impede a conclusion on the issue of the constitution. Will he outline the priority issues?
The issue of weighted voting and the difficulties Spain and Poland have in this area are critical to the business of getting agreement. Last week the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Pat Cox, called on Prime Minister Miller of Poland to arrive at a compromise. Has the Taoiseach spoken to Prime Minister Miller or to the Polish Minister for Europe, Professor Danuta Hubner, about this matter or has there been any progress following a meeting with Prime Minister Aznar some time ago?
Having spoken to most of the leaders and Heads of Government, the Taoiseach has set out his consensus platform. Now at the beginning of February is it his opinion that he will be able to achieve conclusion during the Irish Presidency? That would be welcomed by everybody and would make it a very successful Presidency. I offer the Taoiseach whatever assistance we can give from this side of the House.
I am sure other Members have the same questions as Deputy Kenny. Taking the work of January as a block, what I tried to do during that month was to consult the 27 members of the IGC — the present 15 EU countries, the ten new accession countries, Romania and Bulgaria, and I also consulted Turkey. I consulted them to try to establish the opening position on the three legs of the stool, the European Convention of last summer, the Naples document of early December 2003, and the conclusion of the unsuccessful meeting under the Italian Presidency of Silvio Berlusconi. I tried to establish their beliefs and the precise understandings they had with the Italian Presidency in order to have the full picture. It is from that analysis and its conclusions that I have come up with the 20 outstanding matters.
Deputy Kenny may recall that at the end of the meetings the popular decision in the media was that there were only two issues of major difficulty. The media did not say much about many other issues but nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
The list of outstanding issues stands at about 20. The Deputy is right that some are major and he has asked me to mention those. The major issue is the voting in the Council and that is the one that receives much attention. The composition of the Commission is another major issue. This revolves around the matter of one commissioner per member state or the Nice formula. The scope of QMV, qualified majority voting, is another major issue. Member states want to know what issues are fully included in QMV and which are not. There is a lot of difficulty around these.
There are also issues concerned with thejustice and home affairs area, commonly known in the newspapers as the "clutch" or the "brake". This unusual terminology is a good description of how far to go. Everybody is now using these terms.
I went through the full range. The Deputy will appreciate that getting to the 27, the parliamentary committees, the Commission and the Council secretariat amounts to over 34 or 35 groups. What we must now try to do is to narrow the list because whoever, whether I or someone else, had to have an IGC with over 20 issues on the agenda would never get agreement. I must attempt to arrive at understandings and narrow the list. I must pay special attention to the three or four most significant items.
I have discussed the matter with Mr. Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister, and with Prime Minister Miller. I have a very sound understanding of their perspectives which is important if we are to make any progress. I did that last week. I have provided balanced information of the views of some of the larger and smaller countries. I will have to continue to engage with them at official level and directly probably until St. Patrick's Day before I can make a full report. I hope at least to be able to narrow the list.
This issue will not be resolved in the short term though I will do my best to achieve that during the Irish Presidency. Before I report to a full Council meeting, I wish to reach a clear understanding over the next five or six weeks that we are not only talking about a few issues which we must try to resolve, but that we must narrow down the formulas relevant to the issues of difference. The formulas for resolving these issues are ten a penny at the moment and they will not work. I will keep the House informed as I proceed.
I agree with Deputy Kenny that the Taoiseach's schedule is absolutely punishing. I wish him well with it. I was pleased to see him in Parnell Park on Sunday and that he managed to fit the match in, given all he has to do.
That is for sanity.
The Taoiseach is welcome to come to Castlebar next Sunday.
Is the Taoiseach to travel to the United States of America to meet President Bush?
Yes. The normal St. Patrick's Day arrangement will apply on 17 March. There is another question on the programme to be answered concerning this. The arrangement does not always apply on 17 March, but that is the case this year. After my meeting with President Bush, I will go straight to Ottawa for the Canadian summit.
Does the Taoiseach intend to raise with President Bush the fact that he has now confessed publicly that he was wrong on the Iraq war? While the Taoiseach has changed his position since, when he was supporting the war he said that the speech by the Secretary of State, Mr. Colin Powell, to the United Nations provided the world with the clearest evidence to date that Iraq had secretly produced weapons of mass destruction. The report is strong and clear. Will the Taoisech raise with President Bush the fact that the latter misled him as well as the rest of the world on this issue? Will the Taoiseach tell the President that we might be more sceptical in future about automatically accepting the information of American and British intelligence sources and facilitating the transport of military personnel through our airports?
I will raise these issues because I recall well what President Bush told me last year on 15 March during the St. Patrick's Day visit. I remember in particular what I was told by Vice-President Cheney who provided me with a great many specifics of the USA's knowledge during our meeting on Capitol Hill.
What exactly was the Taoiseach told? He should tell us more.
Deputy Higgins will have the opportunity to put a supplementary question shortly. We will have order in the House.
The Taoiseach and his colleagues have repeatedly attempted to rubbish claims that the Government is co-operating in the militarisation of the European Union. What is his reaction to the establishment of the EU armaments agency, known otherwise as the European Defence Capabilities Agency? What is the Taoiseach's reaction to the appointment as head of that agency of Mr. Nick Whitney, the director general of international security policy at the British Ministry of Defence? Does the Taoiseach not see that there is some reason for concern here?
As has been said, this is happening in a week in which the Bush Administration and the Blair Government are being forced to concede inquiries — I had better be careful here — on the web of untruths which were used to justify their war in Iraq. Does it not speak volumes that a British international securocrat has been appointed to head up this new EU military body?
The Deputy is straying well outside the content of the 34 questions which have been submitted to the Taoiseach.
Not at all. I am totally in line with Questions Nos. 7 and 37, which I have posed. Does the Taoiseach reflect personally what the EU draft constitution refers to as "active and unreserved support" for this aspect of the so-called security policy of the European Union?
Work on common defence issues and the agreements made in the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties will continue. I have no great difficulty with those matters. The issue of concern for Ireland is the mutual defence proposal. Although no formal agreement was reached last December, it was broadly accepted by member states that a consensus had been reached on mutual defence, the issue of particular importance and relevance for us. This proposal states clearly that the mutual defence obligation set out in Article 47 shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policies of certain member states. This was the attachment we called for concerning the issue we wished to see resolved. It means Ireland will not be bound by the mutual defence obligation. We retain the right to take our own sovereign decision on whether or not to come to a member state's assistance in the event of armed attack. This is in keeping with the Government's position on non-participation in mutual defence commitments. That covers the other issues. This is our position and in this regard we are well protected constitutionally.
Has the Taoiseach any concern in this case?
Not on the appointment. When the appointment of Mr. Javier Solana of Spain was made there was a great deal of controversy also. I do not have a problem.
Is the Taoiseach quite happy with the British appointment? Shame on the Taoiseach.
How does the Taoiseach feel about pushing forward the European defence agency issue and an intensification of military research within the EU? Most citizens would consider it an obscene waste that €55 billion is already spent on armaments within the EU. Does the Taoiseach feel guilty about advancing further research, as he has accepted he is obliged to do as President of the EU, to create more technology to incinerate more people more efficiently?
The Taoiseach has said he will visit Washington. Will President Bush meet with the EU outside the United States of America? Is there a standing invitation in this regard and, if so, what is its current status? When meeting Mr. Aznar, Mr. Berlusconi and other avid supporters of the criminal invasion of Iraq, has the Taoiseach discussed the issue? Has he discussed with them the implications of the fact that the entire EU was misled by the President of the United States of America on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? We hope that in meeting these extreme right wing leaders, the Taoiseach does not become even more right wing in his views.
A question, please.
The Taoiseach has undertaken to advance the proposed EU constitution. There are significant disputes on voting rights.
Deputy, you should confine yourself to a question. We are running out of time and there are other Members offering.
I was just about to ask a question on the constitution.
Confine yourself to the question.
Will the Taoiseach insist with regard to Article 1.3.3 of the constitution and the possibility that health and education services will be open to privatisation on a return to unanimity in respect of such provisions?
When the Justice Ministers met recently, the centre of Dublin was turned into a virtual police state at huge inconvenience to small enterprises, workers and the general populace. Can the Taoiseach ensure this does not happen again and that further meetings are conducted where they do not disrupt for days on end the running of the entire city and the ordinary people who keep it going with their taxes?
I will take the last point first. It was for that very reason that we moved most of the European Council meetings and conferences outside the city to 20 venues around the country. The security people must come to their own considerations. All that can I say regarding security arrangements in Ireland is that they are very lax compared with what happens in other countries. We will certainly be endeavouring to ensure that we keep disruption to a minimum. We are very conscious of that. For that reason, Dublin will not be troubled too often during the Presidency.
There is to be an EU-US summit. No date has yet been set, but it is likely to be in May or June. The intention is that there will be a meeting in Europe. Locations and dates have not yet been agreed, though work is proceeding on the agenda. I have obviously raised the war in Iraq, and related issues in the Middle East come up in all my discussions. I have concerns at how the information was portrayed, and there is obviously great interest in the investigations and inquiries that will now take place. People will certainly look to see the basis of the information.
On defence, we have a responsibility under the CFSP to move forward on European security and defence issues. We have no difficulty concerning any of those areas. Our neutral status and sovereign position are well understood. We have no difficulty there. I will consider the Deputy's specific point about education and qualified majority voting.
On the Taoiseach's visit to Washington, will he invite George Bush to Ireland, and specifically, will he ask him to address this House? On the question of the proposed EU constitution, which draft is he working from now? He mentioned concessions he received in early December, but there are reports we are working from the draft concluded in Naples. Which one are we working from? The Irish Presidency has been lobbied by several NGOs and the economist Susan George to pursue the issue of the Tobin tax and put it on the agenda. It was pursued by the Belgian Presidency——
Does the Deputy have a question?
I am asking whether the Taoiseach will pursue that. It is an extremely important international tax on currency speculation. It has been agreed by the Belgian, French and Finnish parliaments. Will the Taoiseach pursue it too?
As I said, the date and location of the EU-American summit have not yet been resolved, so no invitation has been issued to the President to address this House. Those issues have not yet been dealt with. The Deputy has expressed his position on a speculation tax. This is not the first occasion the matter has arisen. I remember that it famously came up when the ERM collapsed in the early 1990s. I know the Belgians pursued it. I am not sure how one could make it work, but I certainly have an open mind considering the issue, since I was responsible for finance during that international speculation crisis. I became quite knowledgeable on what it can do. It is certainly an area that I would examine.
I wish to outline the position on the proposed EU constitution. There are now three areas on which we are working: the Convention text of last summer; what was more or less agreed but not finalised at the Naples meeting; and the failed summit which we did not conclude but after which Silvio Berlusconi gave his outline of issues he had discussed and his understanding as holder of the Presidency on where he had got. Obviously, that third group is not agreed, since it was never discussed. Those were purely issues he had discussed with individuals. He was giving his account of what he would have been reporting if we had been moving to a conclusion. We must take them, since they are still outstanding issues for the countries.
What are those issues?
There are many issues, including qualified majority voting and what areas are listed for it, justice and home affairs, and many smaller issues important to individual countries. One important issue is that of the number of MEPs accorded to the smaller countries. As the Deputy knows, that was not resolved. There is unity of purpose on the part of all the small countries about the minimum number of MEPs, which is quite a lively issue for them. It does not affect this year's election, but it will affect future ones. Most of the other questions were based on individual countries' issues which had been raised by them with the Presidency. They were trying to resolve issues for themselves; the issues were not necessarily collective.
I will take two brief questions from Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte, and then a final reply from the Taoiseach.
I recall the former US President, Ronald Reagan, going to the Berlin Wall and asking Mr. Gorbachev to tear it down. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, has been in Israel recently, where he met Prime Minister Sharon. The construction of a 24 ft. wall by the Israeli Government in occupied Palestinian areas on the West Bank is a cause of very serious concern internationally. Has the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, reported to the Taoiseach, both in his role as Taoiseach and as holder of the Presidency of the Council? What is the European Union's attitude towards its construction? Is it not clear that it is divisive and will lead to further trouble? Will the Taoiseach, in his capacity as holder of the Presidency, make it a priority to see that he has discussions with Prime Minister Sharon and Mr. Arafat to see that the construction is removed?
Is any initiative likely to be taken during the Irish Presidency on the Stability and Growth Pact? Does the Taoiseach agree that a legal wrangle between the Commission and the Council of Ministers is not exactly good for the image of European cohesion?
The wall has been the focus of an enormous amount of time, dialogue and effort during the Presidency. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and I are involved. Deputy Cowen has met all those on the Israeli side and forcefully put the position. No one believes that constructing a wall effectively on Palestinian territory is helping the process to move forward. There is no unanimity regarding views on the issue either. For better or worse, it is going to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but that could take some considerable time. In the meantime, the wall is being constructed. I have discussed the matter with President Arafat, with whom I had a lengthy conversation some days ago. I have also discussed it with the Palestinian Foreign Minister, and their Prime Minister is coming here shortly. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, is keeping in touch with the Israeli side. It is certainly unhelpful to the entire region.
We are strongly supportive of the Stability and Growth Pact, though there were differences at the 25 November meeting. There was not much difference in substance between the two issues, but ECOFIN and the Commission want to go about things in different ways. The substance is not much different. However, Mr. Solbes felt that he was the guarantor of the treaty, and he is right. He must get a legal judgment on the matter, and he is proceeding to do so. As the Deputy knows, that has created some tension and annoyance, but doing so is his responsibility and right. The Commission is to introduce what it sees as a new document on the governance of the Stability and Growth Pact. It will be for us to start that discussion. Generally, it is felt by ECOFIN ministers that they will not move quickly to reach conclusions on this. I hope that in the presentationof the document, they will look at some of the issues on which we have made points — other countries are supportive of that too. As the Presidency, we will play our role in bringing it forward, but as Taoiseach I hope the issues about flexibility, particularly for countries with low debt, are dealt with in that governance document. I have made that point directly to Romano Prodi and to Commissioner Solbes.