I attended the European Council in Brussels on 16 and 17 December 2004. I was accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Treacy.
The Presidency's conclusions of the European Council have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The future enlargement of the European Union was the principal matter on the agenda at the Council. The Council also met Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN.
At the December European Council, several important decisions were taken on the future enlargement of the Union. At the Council, Ireland adopted a very positive and open approach to the EU vocation of Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Turkey. The future success of the enlarged EU of 25 member states, and its capacity to enlarge further, is inextricably linked to the ratification and entry into force of the European constitution. It is simply not possible for the Union of 25, and a potential Union of 30 or more states, to function effectively on the basis of treaty provisions agreed for the original community of six. The European constitution is fundamental to the capacity of the enlarged European Union to continue to take decisions promoting the economic development, security and prosperity of its 470 million citizens.
The European Council in December welcomed the successful conclusion of the accession negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania. It agreed that the accession treaty with those two countries should be signed in April 2005, provided that the European Parliament has given its assent. The European Council looks forward to welcoming Bulgaria and Romania as full EU members in January 2007. Ireland has been providing technical assistance, training and support to Romania and Bulgaria, as we have to most of the new member states in their preparations for EU membership. In view of the importance of strong bilateral relations with all EU partners, the Government has decided to complete its network of resident EU embassies in the 25 member states and open embassies in those countries that will accede in 2007. We will, therefore, open embassies in Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Bulgaria and Romania. Those new embassies will play an important role in developing political, economic, social and cultural relations with our new EU partners.
The European Council also agreed to open accession negotiations with Croatia on 17 March 2005, provided that there is full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Croatia has made good progress in working with the tribunal, but there is one outstanding issue, the arrest of an indicted former army general. Ireland and other friends of Croatia have strongly encouraged the Croatian Government to resolve any remaining difficulties with the tribunal and ensure that they do not become a hindrance to Croatia's objective of EU membership. Much of the discussion at the December European Council was on the decision to open accession negotiations with Turkey. The Council was greatly facilitated by a detailed Commission recommendation on Turkey in a Commission document setting out the issues arising from Turkey's membership perspective. Our national approach to discussions over Turkey was guided by those important documents and by our own warm relations with Turkey. The report on Turkey of the Joint Committee on European Affairs agreed on 15 December also provided very useful input into our work.
Turkey's EU vocation has been expressed for many years. In 1999, the European Council took the key decision to recognise Turkey as a candidate country that was destined to join the Union on the basis of the same criteria that applied to other candidate states. Successive European Councils since have confirmed that if the 2004 December European Council decided that Turkey met the Copenhagen criteria for membership, accession negotiations should open without delay. Prime Minister Erdogan's Government has made considerable progress in adopting wide-ranging political and administrative reforms to a point where the European Commission was able to recommend that Turkey now sufficiently meets the political criteria for EU membership. The European Council asked that a framework for accession negotiations with Turkey be agreed with a view to opening negotiation on 3 October 2005.
The Commission also identified several important areas in which further progress is necessary. In its recommendation in October, it pointed to the zero tolerance policy regarding torture and ill treatment, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women's rights, ILO standards, including trade union rights, and minority rights. Reforms in those areas will need to be fully consolidated and developed. In some cases, further legislation will be required. Turkey is also committed to bringing into force in the coming months six specific reform Acts already adopted by the Turkish Parliament. The Commission will continue to monitor all those closely and provide regular reports to the Council.
I have been strongly supportive of Turkey's application to join the Union. At European level, the perspective of full EU membership for Turkey places the Union's relations with a country of immense strategic and political importance in a well-defined framework for many years to come. The Union has shown itself open to the membership aspirations of a country that is making a strong and determined effort to demonstrate its commitment to the shared values of the Union.
From a national perspective, Turkey is an increasingly important economic partner for Ireland. Trade has been expanding rapidly. The combined total trade flows exceeded €550 million in 2003. Turkish companies are active in the Irish market, notably in the construction sector, where they compete actively and successfully for contracts. We believe that there are important future business opportunities for Irish companies in Turkey, where the economy has been growing rapidly following a successful economic reform programme.
Given the scale of the issues to be addressed, accession negotiations with Turkey are likely to take a decade or more. The European Council conclusions make clear that the financial implications of Turkey's accession will not be addressed during current EU negotiations on the financial perspectives for 2007 to 2013. The conclusions also indicate that in areas such as agriculture, structural funding and the free movement of persons the Council can, if necessary, consider long transition periods, derogations and permanent safeguard clauses in the framework for the negotiations with Turkey.
The outcome of the negotiations with Turkey, as in any other negotiation, cannot be determined in advance. It is important, however, that both sides work together with determination and partnership towards the shared objective of Turkey's membership of the Union. Turkey's continued commitment to the implementation of reforms, particularly in areas such as the use of torture, religious freedom and women's rights, will be central to the outcome of the accession negotiations.
In 2004, during Ireland's EU Presidency, Turkey made an important and constructive contribution to the search for a comprehensive settlement to the Cyprus problem based on the proposals of the United Nations Secretary General. The search for a resolution of the Cyprus problem will remain a UN-led process.
In the meantime, however, progress is needed on the issue of the recognition of Cyprus by Turkey. Cyprus is a full member state of the Union that Turkey has applied to join, yet Turkey still does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus. Clearly, a meaningful gesture by Turkey on the start of a process of normalisation of its relations with Cyprus is necessary.
The conclusions of the European Council welcomed the statement by Prime Minister Erdogan that Turkey was ready to sign, before 3 October of this year, the protocol to the Ankara Agreement extending the EU-Turkey Customs Union to the ten new member states, including Cyprus.
While this does not constitute formal recognition by Turkey of Cyprus, it is an important confidence-building gesture that must be delivered on. Turkey's inability to resolve this issue fully at the European Council was unfortunate. It resulted in a difficult dialogue with Turkey at the European Council and injected a note of acrimony into an occasion of optimism and shared hope for the future.
On the financial perspectives for the years 2007 to 2013, the Dutch EU Presidency made progress in clarifying the issues that had to be resolved on the basis of the Commission's proposals. The issue now passes to the new Luxembourg Presidency, which I know will work hard to achieve agreement by the deadline of June of this year. Our aim in these negotiations is to ensure on the one hand that the Union is adequately equipped to meet the challenges ahead and, on the other, that the citizen gets value for money.
The Common Agricultural Policy is a priority for Ireland. We have strongly emphasised that the agreement reached in October 2002 on future agricultural funding is fundamental and is not affected by the negotiations on the future financial perspectives.
We also wish to see adequate Cohesion Funding for the new member states. Where Cohesion Funding applies to richer member states, we have highlighted the continuing development needs of the Border, midlands and western region.
On the external relations side, the December Council had an important meeting with Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN. This was an opportunity for the European Union to show its support for the ambitious programme of reform of the United Nations that the Secretary General has driven forward. The Secretary General briefed the Council on key elements of the Report on the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. The European Union's contribution to the work of the panel was prepared and submitted during Ireland's EU Presidency.
The Council's conclusions saluted the work of the Secretary General and affirmed the Union's determination to play a major role with the UN as we prepare for next September's UN summit.
The December European Council took place shortly before the re-run of the second round of the presidential elections in Ukraine. The Council adopted a declaration on the Ukraine commending the leaders and people for having found a successful outcome to the political crisis. It stressed the strategic importance of Ukraine as a key neighbour and partner. The European Union will now aim for an enhanced and distinctive relationship with Ukraine, making full use of the possibilities offered by the European neighbourhood policy.
The Council endorsed an action plan with Ukraine. Following the successful completion of the free and fair presidential elections, the EU-Ukraine Co-operation Council is expected to launch the action plan this month. This will provide the basis for more intensive co-operation between the European Union and a neighbour of great political and economic importance.
Overall, this was a successful Council with a fitting conclusion to a hard-working and effective Dutch Presidency of the Union. The decision on Turkey is particularly important. For our part, we look forward to the further strengthening of Ireland's relations with Turkey and the opening of a new and decisive phase of the Union's relations with one of its most important partners. This year we will work with Turkey and Croatia to ensure that all the elements are in place for the successful opening of their accession negotiations and the opening of a new chapter in the history of the Union.