I welcome this opportunity to report to the Dáil on the progress made by the Intergovernmental Conference in finalising the European reform treaty. I am pleased to report that work on the new treaty is now nearing completion. It is hoped the reform treaty can be agreed at the European Council in Lisbon at the end of this week. It would then be formally signed in December and the ratification process would take place during 2008.
Before I report on the detail of what is likely to be agreed, I would like to recall why the European Union undertook these negotiations to begin with. The process of European integration, which was set in train by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, has now been with us for a half century. It is natural, from time to time, that there should be a need to revisit the EU treaties that have guided this unique process so successfully during the past 50 years. This is one of those moments.
The present treaty text is the culmination of a lengthy process of negotiation and reflection. Its content is closely modelled on the constitutional treaty that was negotiated during Ireland's 2004 EU Presidency. That negotiation was, in turn, strongly influenced by the European Convention which met between February 2002 and July 2003, bringing together representatives of EU Governments, national parliaments, the European Parliament and the European Commission. The Convention was an impressively open and transparent process which produced important results that will be reflected in the reform treaty.
The 2005 referendum results in France and the Netherlands meant that the constitutional treaty could not be ratified in its original format. Yet there was no desire to go back to the drawing board and start a fresh negotiation that would quite likely have eventually produced broadly similar results. The solution adopted by the European Council in June was to preserve as much as possible of the substance of the 2004 agreement while moving away from the ambitious notion of creating a constitution for Europe. This is what has been done in the reform treaty. We no longer have a single constitutional text, but a series of amendments to the existing EU treaties. This is why it is called a reform treaty, for it seeks to build upon and improve the existing treaty provisions.
It is clear that the European Union must adapt to the needs of the 21st century. To discharge its ongoing task of promoting peace and prosperity within Europe, it is generally accepted the EU needs to function more efficiently and effectively with its greatly increased membership. Outside of Europe, we need to ensure that the EU can contribute to such global issues as the fight against poverty, injustice and underdevelopment. The reform treaty will provide the EU with the means to meet these challenges. It will allow Europe to do more for our people in the years ahead. Ireland has been a huge beneficiary of EU integration and it continues to be crucial to our future well being. That is why a more effective EU is in Ireland's best interests. It is why the ratification of the reform treaty needs to be a priority for Ireland.
The reform treaty will introduce a range of innovations in the European Union's institutions, most of which will be carried forward, largely unchanged from the draft constitutional treaty. Among these are several provisions designed to bolster the coherence and efficiency of the EU and to give it a stronger voice on the world stage. For example, there is to be a new full-time President of the European Council, elected for a renewable term of two-and-a-half years, who will co-ordinate the work of the European Council.
The Presidency of the Council of Ministers will henceforth be provided by a team of three member states working together, thus increasing the coherence and efficiency of each EU Presidency.
A new post of high representative for foreign affairs and security policy will be created. The high representative will draw together the current functions of the Council's High Representative for Common and Foreign Security Policy and the Commissioner for External Relations, and will chair the Foreign Affairs Council and be Vice President of the Commission. The high representative will be supported by a European external action service. This is not meant to replace national Ministers and foreign services, but to enhance the EU's relations with third countries and its capacity to speak with a concerted voice on international issues. The high representative will act to increase the visibility and influence of the EU in international affairs. This is particularly important for smaller member states such as Ireland, which appreciate that greater progress can be made by the EU when it speaks with a single united voice.
While the Treaty strengthens the ability of the EU to act, it also safeguards the delicate balance between the interests of the larger and the smaller member states. The new system of double-majority voting, for example, will give proportionate weight to overall population while retaining important influence for the small and medium-sized member states. This will be achieved by specifying that a qualified majority would require 55% of the member states and 65% of the European Union's population. This means that only those measures that genuinely command majority support can be adopted at EU level.
We have also succeeded in ensuring that the interests of smaller member states are protected with regard to the composition of the Commission. There will be one Commissioner per member state until 2014. Thereafter, each member state will be represented in two Commissions out of three on the basis of strictly equal rotation. This is a considerable departure from previous arrangements under which the larger member states once had the right to nominate two members of the Commission.
The reform treaty seeks to further develop the democratic governance of the European Union. In particular, the enhanced role for the European Parliament and for national parliaments will strengthen the democratic character of EU legislation. Membership of the European Parliament has been capped at 750. Its role will also be enhanced in areas such as the European Union's budget and through the extension of areas to which co-decision between the Council and European Parliament will apply.
The treaty provides for a strengthened "yellow card" for national parliaments with regard to draft legislation. It extends the period during which national parliaments can respond to a Commission proposal to eight weeks and puts a greater onus on the Commission to take on board the views of national parliaments. This is designed to strengthen the role of national parliaments in the EU, but without distorting its institutional balance which has served us so well over the years. Special provision has also been made for the role of national parliaments and the European Parliament in the sensitive area of freedom, justice and security. For example, they are to be involved in the evaluation of the activities of Eurojust and Europol.
The reform treaty will also pay attention to the wider purposes of the European Union. It will highlight the values and objectives of the EU, such as equality, democracy and respect for human rights. It strikes a balance between the social and the economic goals of the European Union. It aims at full employment, social progress and combating social exclusion and discrimination. It also stresses the need to ensure balanced growth and competitiveness. A new horizontal social article will require the European Union in its work to promote a high level of employment, adequate social protection, and a high level of education, training and protection of human health. The reform treaty will also give special recognition to services of general economic interest, which include services with a public good.
The reform treaty will confer legal status on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which deals with citizens' rights and freedoms, and will set out the scope of its application. Following the European Council meeting in June, we had to decide if Ireland would in some way associate with a British protocol on the Charter of Fundamental Rights. We will not do this. I made our position clear when I addressed my ministerial colleagues at a Council meeting in Luxembourg yesterday. We see the charter as an important statement of the European Union's values and a key feature of this new treaty.
In the area of justice and home affairs, majority voting will become the norm, although there are important safeguards designed to ensure respect for the different legal systems. There are certain significant differences between the constitutional treaty and the reform treaty in the JHA area. At the June 2007 European Council meeting, the British Government secured an opt-in/opt-out arrangement on judicial co-operation in criminal matters and police co-operation. Provision was made for Ireland to seek a similar arrangement during the course of the IGC.
We have no inhibitions about greater EU co-operation in the justice area. On the contrary, I see the development of the European Union's area of freedom, justice and security as an important advance for Europe. However, the British decision to press for such an opt-out changed the situation for Ireland. Our legal system is similar to that of Britain and quite different from those of our European partners. Under the proposed European constitution, the combined weight of Ireland and Britain would have been quite effective in shaping EU measures to take account of the specific character of our legal system. The British opt-out under the reform treaty, however, meant that future EU measures in the criminal law could create problems for us. As a small common law country involved in EU negotiations, we could have found ourselves at a disadvantage and unable to shape proposals in a direction palatable to us.
Faced with this situation and after carefully weighing up all of the arguments, the Government decided, albeit reluctantly, to avail of this JHA opt-out. At the same time, we resolved to make a strong declaration outlining our firm intention to join our European partners whenever possible. We intend to opt into future police co-operation measures. This declaration will serve to underline our determination to work with our European partners in this vital area, which is of growing importance in today's Europe. It is our intention to be part of EU co-operation in this general area except where this could cause legal complications for us.
Furthermore, as the field of justice and home affairs constitutes a relatively new area of EU activity, the Government has decided to review these arrangements after three years. This will give it a chance to see how EU policy in this area evolves and to make a fuller assessment of the potential risks to Ireland's common law system. At that time, the Government can decide to abandon, modify or retain this opt-out arrangement. I am satisfied it has made the right decision in this regard. However, the Government intends to keep this matter under active review to ensure it continues to best serve Ireland's overall interests.
The reform treaty makes little overall change in the European Union's competences in policy areas. The balance of responsibility between the European Union and the member states remains more or less unchanged in most areas. However, the treaty clarifies the scope of the European Union's powers. For example, it lays out basic principles such as conferral, which means the European Union only possesses those powers that have been explicitly conferred on it.
It also gives renewed emphasis to the principle of subsidiarity, which specifies that the European Union shall only act in pursuit of aims that cannot be achieved by action at local, regional or national level. The reform treaty distinguishes between exclusive EU competence, for example, competition rules; shared competence, for example, agriculture; and areas in which the European Union simply supports the actions of member states, such as education. Such provisions will help to bring greater transparency and clarity to the work of the European Union.
The reform treaty introduces a small number of new areas of EU competence. These include tourism, energy, civil protection, humanitarian assistance, intellectual property rights, space policy, administrative co-operation and sport. These constitute welcome, albeit fairly modest, additions to the EU treaties. I also welcome the inclusion of a new provision that will provide a basis for dealing with the threat posed by climate change. This is the first time this issue will be covered in an EU treaty and it was included at Ireland's behest.
While the use of majority voting and co-decision has been extended in some areas, the Government is satisfied that no attempt was made to press for changes in areas of special sensitivity to Ireland such as defence and taxation. Unanimity is preserved for all decisions in such areas.
The reform treaty's arrangements in the area of security and defence do not involve significant innovations. Moreover, as in previous treaties, it continues to be made explicit that they will fully respect the different traditions of member states in this regard, including Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality. In addition, all decisions regarding security and defence will continue to be made by unanimity, which was an important Government objective in the negotiations. Moreover, there can be no action in the name of the European Union without the consent of all.
The European Security and Defence Policy, ESDP, has evolved gradually and in full accordance with the provisions of successive treaties, all of which have been endorsed by the Irish people. Under the reform treaty, the ESDP's objectives and operations will continue to be fully in line with Ireland's commitment to UN-mandated peace support. The positive direction of the ESDP is demonstrated by the forthcoming mission to Chad and the Central African Republic.
I should add that the prohibition on Irish participation in a common defence, as inserted in the Constitution by the 2002 Nice treaty amendment, will be carried forward in a further amendment allowing for ratification of the reform treaty.
I wish to mention a few other provisions. During the negotiations, some member states sought to include a stronger reference to Europe's Christian heritage. While Ireland could have supported such a reference, it did not prove possible to arrive at an agreed wording. However, a new treaty article recognises the specific contribution of the churches and for the first time provides for an open, transparent and regular dialogue with them. This has been widely welcomed by the churches and faith organisations.
The reform treaty introduces new provisions with regard to enlargement to ensure that accession takes place only when a candidate country is fully ready to meet the demands of membership. The European Parliament and national parliaments are to be notified of applications for membership. The Commission is to be consulted and, as the treaty puts it, "[T]he conditions of eligibility agreed upon by the European Council shall be taken into account."
I also wish to mention the related question of the future composition of the European Parliament. While not strictly part of the Intergovernmental Conference negotiations, the European Council meeting held in June asked the European Parliament to come up with a proposal on the share-out of parliamentary seats. The Parliament recently came up with its suggestions, in which Ireland's allocation for the period 2009 to 2014 would be 12 seats. This is the same number as provided for under the Nice treaty. The Government's main concern on this occasion was to ensure the retention of Ireland's 12 seats and it appears this will be achieved.
A case has been made for a 13th Irish seat based on projections of future population growth. At present, however, Ireland's population is at least 1 million less than those countries to which 13 seats have been allocated. However, Ireland's lobbying effort has established that its demographic situation is changing and that the case for an additional seat is becoming stronger as the gap continues to narrow between our population and, for example, that of Finland. A further reallocation of seats will be required on the occasion of any future enlargement of the EU. At that time, seat allocations to member states must be reduced to remain under the overall ceiling of 750 European Parliament seats specified by the reform treaty. Therefore, it is important to lay down firm markers that will prevent any future threat to Ireland's 12 seats, which has been done.
The European project has been one of the outstanding political achievements of our time. It has played a vital role in rescuing Europe from its past failings, which brought our continent to the precipice during the first half of the 20th century. In the past 50 years, thanks in part to the existence of the European Union, Europe has enjoyed the gift of peace in a manner unprecedented in its history.
In addition, membership of the European Union has acted as an important catalyst for change in Ireland. Access to the Single Market, coupled with support from European Structural and Cohesion Funds and the impact of the Common Agricultural Policy, played a significant role in Ireland's economic success story. Ireland has been able to contribute to Europe's evolution while drawing inspiration from its own values, traditions and historical experience.
Neither Ireland nor Europe can afford to rest on their laurels. Many challenges lie ahead and they must be able to deal with them in a concerted fashion. I believe the new reform treaty will enable Europe to rise to these challenges and remain on a progressive economic and political path. I hope the Government's view of the European Union as the orbit of continued opportunity for Ireland will be shared by all parties and that a wide political consensus may be achieved in favour of this treaty and its ratification by Ireland.