Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It is illustrative to note that only four Members did not want us to discuss this Bill, which I am delighted to introduce on behalf of the Government, despite the efforts of Sinn Féin to prevent us from doing so. It is designed to pave the way for the ratification by Ireland of the EU reform treaty. The discussion of the Bill by the Oireachtas represents an important phase in our national debate on the treaty, which will be put to a referendum in June. The reform treaty is important for Ireland and Europe and it is a logical step for the European Union in a world of increasing globalisation. Ratification of this treaty is a logical step for Irish men and women who want to express their faith in a political project that has, in the past 35 years, changed our nation for the better.
Through the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, the Government is seeking the people's approval of the reform treaty. In the period between now and the day of the referendum, the Government will highlight the many positive reasons we ought to vote "Yes". We will not browbeat anyone or engage in scare tactics, nor will we make outlandish claims about the treaty.
I sincerely believe it would be a profound mistake for us to vote "No". Such an outcome would cause great uncertainty within the Union. It would damage the Union and cast doubt on our collective ability to face up to the new challenges confronting our Continent. It would be seen as a victory for those across Europe who have never liked the EU way of doing business through the painstaking pursuit of agreement that can serve our shared interests as Europeans. Failure to ratify the treaty would be especially damaging to smaller countries like Ireland, which derive particular benefit from the level playing field provided by agreed EU arrangements. Most crucially, a "No" vote would be damaging to Ireland. It would damage our standing as a committed participant in the evolution of the Union.
Contrary to what is being suggested by opponents, the treaty does not contain any threat to our vital national interests. The outcome of the negotiations saw us safeguard those interests. In areas such as corporate taxation, security and defence, and equality of member states, we fully secured our national priorities.
All sectors of society are directly affected by our membership of the European Union and will be affected by the result of the upcoming referendum. This is not a trivial decision to be taken lightly, but a defining moment in our European involvement. It is therefore vital that this debate extend far and wide. It should not be confined to the Oireachtas, nor should it be restricted to newspaper columns and television studios. It should traverse the country and engage pensioners, students and all those in between. In this regard, I welcome the public meetings being organised by the National Forum on Europe, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs and other organisations. I also welcome the establishment of the Referendum Commission, which has its own independent role to play.
The Government is also playing its part. We have published balanced, factual information and a comprehensive White Paper was published today. An objective information guide is to be sent to every household in the country in the coming weeks. All this information, as well as the text of the treaty, in both Irish and English, is already available on a dedicated website. Copies of the reform treaty and a consolidated version of the EU treaties as amended by the reform treaty are available in every library in the country.
The reform treaty is not a radical document. It does not herald major change but, when implemented, it will represent solid progress. It represents a carefully constructed set of amendments to the existing EU treaties, which have served Ireland and Europe so well for so many years. Previous treaties have heralded much greater change. Our accession treaty in 1972 paved the way for us to join the Union after decades of isolation and underdevelopment. The Single European Act gave us the Single Market, enabling Irish business to grow and create employment. The Maastricht treaty provided for common foreign and security policy and economic and monetary union. The latter resulted in the launch of the euro, which has brought real benefit to Irish people. The Amsterdam treaty increased EU co-operation in the area of freedom, justice and security, which is crucial to the fight against the growing threat of cross-border crime. The Nice treaty afforded us the historic chance to end the division of Europe and the chance for our European neighbours to put behind them the totalitarian nightmare they had endured since 1945.
All these developments were good for Ireland and Europe. Ratification of the reform treaty will allow for continued engagement by Ireland at the centre of European affairs as part of a Union in which the rule of law and the rights of individuals are central values.
I could set out today to take on one by one the numerous misconceptions and misrepresentations that opponents of the treaty have been circulating but I will not do so. The Government and those who support the treaty have been challenging these misrepresentations and will continue to do so as the referendum campaign develops. I could also set out today to explain why the judgment of those who opposed every treaty to date should again not be trusted. I could also take time to tackle the confused, imported arguments of the eurosceptical right wing, which views our referendum as a battleground upon which to advance its negative assessment of European integration, but instead I will explain to the House why the reform treaty is worthy of support and why the Government remains completely committed to the European Union. I will also explain why the Government is advocating that the people of Ireland, of all parties and none, maintain their trust in a project that has delivered peace and prosperity to Europe, including Ireland.
Ireland has been a success in the Union. It can be argued that we have benefited more dramatically than any other country from EU membership. Our membership has been a force for progress, jobs and national development. It has given us a forum within which to make our voice heard on issues of international peace and security. Vitally, it has allowed us to build a home for today's and future generations, which is surely a most basic measure of our national sovereignty.
There are policy areas and sectors where painful change has been required but this change would almost inevitably have been required even if we had never joined the Union. The overwhelming balance of evidence tells us that Union membership has been the central dynamic for growth and development in many spheres. Economically our national income per head has grown from less than 60% of the European average to a point today where it is well above the average. Such growth has been underpinned by membership of the Union, which has allowed us to act as a gateway to the European market for multinational companies.
In 1972, as we were joining the Union, foreign direct investment was just €16 million. Today it is measured in billions of euro. Overall, the number of people employed in Ireland has doubled from 1 million in 1973 to 2 million today. No longer is it inevitable that Irish parents see their children depart for foreign shores in search of employment. This represents another basic measure of our increased national sovereignty.
Those who claim that EU membership has curtailed our sovereignty should bear in mind that it has enhanced in a real and meaningful manner our national well-being and our capacity to further the interests of our people.
The direct financial support we have received, and continue to receive, from the Structural and Cohesion Funds has laid the foundations for many of the major infrastructural developments throughout the State. The Common Agricultural Policy has allowed the farming sector and our rural communities to develop and sustain themselves in a manner that previous generations could only have dreamt of. We have also witnessed improved policies and standards in a range of areas such as consumer rights, environmental protection and the promotion of gender equality and workers' rights.
The reform treaty will not change the basic realities of today's Union, which has allowed Ireland to make these giant leaps forward. However, the global context in which the Union operates is changing all the time. The reform treaty will allow Ireland and the Union to adapt more effectively to these changing circumstances.
For the next decade Europe will not have the luxury of focusing mainly on ourselves. We will have to concentrate more on our relations with the world beyond the Union. Climate change, the global economic downturn, immigration, demographic changes and the problems facing the developing world present significant worldwide challenges. We cannot exempt ourselves from these challenges. How these are dealt with will shape our future. It is only right that we should want to be part of the solution. Indeed, it is in our national interest to do so. We can do this best through Europe. We cannot do it alone. No single country can. This is why the continued development of the EU is so vital. In today's world, there is strength in numbers. As part of a grouping with a population of 500 million, the EU can make a difference in world affairs. Through the EU, Ireland can make its own distinctive impact.
Europe is already demonstrating that we can make a difference beyond our borders. On climate change Europe is leading a difficult and challenging global debate. On development assistance we are the world's largest donors to the world's poorest people. On human rights we are working to end the culture of impunity that has existed for far too long. Without Europe's dogged and sometimes unpopular insistence, the International Criminal Court, for example, would not have come about.
Naturally, we have a selfish interest in making commitments beyond our borders. We know that even an entity as big as the EU cannot live apart from those forces shaping the wider world.
We also have a profound interest in creating a fairer and better world. Countries like ours which have been fortunate enough to live in peace for a long time can make an important contribution to peace in the wider world.
We are told that the success of the Union leads to difficulty in creating a compelling narrative for the Union's future evolution. However, more than half of the EU's member states were dictatorships well within living memory. For instance, the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, grew up under a military regime in Portugal, a place we now associate with holidays and skilful footballers. Such regimes are unthinkable in today's Europe. The EU deserves credit for this impressive triumph of democratic values across our Continent. The conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s provide proof that Europe's fraught political past is not so distant after all.
The Bill before the House, which proposes that Article 29.4 of the Constitution be amended, deals with the essence of the reform treaty. It is relatively short legislation. However, for Ireland and Europe, it is vital legislation. It contains a number of important points which merit explaining, particularly in light of some of the misunderstanding and misrepresentation that is being promulgated.
The substance of the proposed amendment is set out in the Schedule, containing what will be subsections 10° to 15° of Article 29.4 of the Constitution. The proposed subsection 10° provides that the State may ratify the reform treaty and be a member of the European Union provided for in the treaty.
The proposed new subsection 11° of the Article has essentially been in place since our accession to the EU 35 years ago. It will ensure legal compatibility between the reform treaty and Bunreacht na hÉireann. It carries forward the concept of constitutional cover for laws, Acts and measures "necessitated" by the obligations of our EU membership.
Some opponents of the treaty have been speaking in alarmist terms about this. It is suggested that, suddenly, EU law will be superior to Irish law. In language similar to that of parties and newspapers across the water that want to put the EU out of business, these opponents are suggesting that this treaty will put the Irish Constitution out of business. They are wrong. This constitutional provision is not new. It is as old as our membership of the Union. The wording reflects the principle of the primacy of European law, well established by the Court of Justice in Luxembourg prior to Ireland's accession to the European Communities.
The EU principle of primacy reflects the general principle of international law, recognised since 1937 by Article 29.3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, that States must comply with international legal obligations freely undertaken by them in the exercise of their sovereignty. The practical effect of the principle of primacy is that it offers certainty and clarity regarding the relationship between the Union's laws and those of member states. It applies only in those areas where the member states have conferred powers on the Union.
This principle of conferral is an important element which is helpfully highlighted and clarified in the reform treaty. It makes it clear that the Union does not have powers of its own. Its powers derive from sovereign decisions by the member states to give the Union certain powers. These powers are carefully set out in the EU treaties.
Bunreacht na hÉireann will continue to be the basic legal document of the State and will continue to determine, in the final instance, the precise relationship between Irish and EU law. The ultimate locus of sovereignty will continue to reside with the member states rather than the Union.
The new subsection 12° reflects similar subsections introduced to facilitate ratification of the Amsterdam and Nice treaties. It allows the State to avail of certain options and discretions provided for in the EU treaties, most notably to allow us to utilise the special arrangements Ireland has negotiated with respect to justice and home affairs issues, which the reform treaty refers to as the "Area of Freedom, Security and Justice". The Government may exercise these options and discretions having obtained the prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The new subsection 13° makes specific provision for the possibility of withdrawing, in whole or in part, from the opt-out provided for in the Ireland-UK Protocol on the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice. The subsection states that prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas would be a condition for such a withdrawal. One of the most substantive areas of change between the constitutional treaty, agreed in 2004, and the reform treaty was the amendment of the protocol, which has existed since 1997. It extends our existing arrangement with regard to visas, asylum, immigration and judicial co-operation in civil matters to judicial co-operation in criminal matters and to police co-operation. This decision was taken because of the sensitive nature of co-operation in this area and particularly the fact that Ireland, like the UK, has a distinctive common law system of criminal justice which is different from the legal systems in place in the majority of our EU partners. For this reason, Ireland decided to avail of an extension of these flexible arrangements first agreed in 1997.
These arrangements mean that we will be able to choose, on a case-by-case basis, which criminal justice or police co-operation measures we will participate in. We have clearly indicated in a declaration made during the intergovernmental conference that we will study how EU policy evolves in this area and review these arrangements within a period of three years.
We have consistently and strongly supported practical EU anti-terrorism measures and concerted action against organised crime, and we will continue along those lines. In that regard, Ireland has made a declaration, which is annexed to the final act adopting the reform treaty, stating our clear intention to participate to the maximum extent possible in relevant JHA proposals and particularly in police co-operation proposals.
In the new subsection 14°, the proposed legislation supplements the provisions of the treaty. In doing so, it provides for an enhanced role for the Houses of the Oireachtas. It states that prior approval by the Houses would be a condition for action under a small number of treaty provisions, such as the so-called generalpasserelle clause. Under this clause, the European Council can decide on a unanimous basis to extend the scope of qualified majority voting in the Council or co-decision between the Council and the European Parliament.
The requirement to seek the positive endorsement of the Houses of the Oireachtas goes beyond what is required in the relevant treaty provisions themselves, which allow for a negative veto by any national parliament. In other words, the legislation before us provides that in each of the cases specified in subsection 14°, the Houses of the Oireachtas will have to give positive approval before action is taken. Silence or inaction will not be enough.
The new subsection 15° carries forward the prohibition on Irish participation in an EU common defence. The House will know that this was originally inserted in the Constitution by the people at the second referendum on the Treaty of Nice. To avoid any possible doubt about the constitutional prohibition on Irish participation in an EU common defence, this subsection of the Bill refers to the relevant provision from the Nice and the reform treaties.
There is currently no proposal for a common EU defence. In any case, a change in Ireland's position can only come about if the Irish people decide so in a referendum. This is stated in black and white for all to see. Repeated suggestions to the contrary are totally misleading and should be dismissed. There is no reference to taxation in the Bill because the treaty leaves policy in this area entirely unaffected. Taxation remains a member state competence.
One of the changes introduced by the reform treaty is of particular relevance to Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas and, by extension, to the Irish electorate. The treaty strengthens the role of national parliaments by giving them a direct input into EU legislation. The provision whereby a sufficient number of national parliaments can object to a particular proposal is a genuine step forward. It will enable national parliaments to ensure that the Union does not exceed its authority. Under the treaty, national parliaments will also have the right to veto any proposal to change voting rules from unanimity to qualified majority voting in the European Council or Council of Ministers or to extend co-decision between the Council and the European Parliament.
These new powers will promote democratic accountability within the Union. They also have the potential to strengthen co-operation between parliaments, political parties and electorates across the Union. In addition to strengthening the role of national parliaments, the treaty enhances the role of the directly elected European Parliament. The European Parliament will see an increase in the number of areas in which it shares law making powers with the Council of Ministers. When the Parliament was first directly elected in 1979 it had no legislative power. The reform treaty increases co-decision to almost 100%. The President of the Parliament, Mr. Pottering, will be able to attest to this when he addresses the Seanad next Tuesday.
It is easy to criticise the Union's democratic structures, but they stand up well by any international standard. Under the reform treaty they will get even better. Practically all the legislation which is passed by the Council of Ministers, a body comprising representatives of 27 democratically elected governments, must also be passed by a democratically elected parliament. Many people throughout the world would envy such accountability.
In addition to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, the European Commission also makes a crucial contribution to the effective functioning of the Union. Ireland has always been a supporter of a Commission that is strong and independent. The Commission must maintain a broad perspective over which no member state has disproportionate influence. In the Nice treaty in 2000, member states already agreed in principle to reduce the size of the Commission once the Union reached 27 countries. This was done in the interests of efficiency. It represented a recognition that there would be insufficient portfolios to go around and that the number of Commissioners could go on increasing. The case is increasingly made that a large college of Commissioners is less likely to be effective and coherent. An unwieldy, inefficient Commission would not be in Ireland's interests.
The reform treaty reduces the size of the Commission in line with the agreement reached in Nice and endorsed by the people in the 2002 referendum. Crucially, it guarantees complete equality of treatment among all member states, large and small. Thus each member state will forego the right to nominate a Commissioner for one Commission out of three. Ireland will do this, as will Britain, Germany and all other states. We are all being treated equally. The House will recall that until 2004, the larger member states each had two Commissioners.
The European Union has been carefully constructed to accommodate the different interests of its member states. It is not a zero-sum game where a member state gets everything it wants. If it was, it would cease to exist. Despite the natural differences between member states, there is an underlying common interest not to repeat the past. Instead, there is a shared determination to move forward together. In negotiating the reform treaty, all 27 governments will have had this in mind. Our accepted need for common European institutions comes from Europe's brutal history. The establishment of these institutions required innovation and generosity, from which Ireland in particular has benefited. Europe has over the decades shown a great capacity to reform these institutions as circumstances required.
To listen to some of the criticism of the treaty, one might be led to believe that member states, particularly the smaller ones, abandoned their good sense and their national interests during the negotiations. We did not. We negotiated an outcome that we sincerely believe will serve Ireland's interests in the period ahead. To listen to some of the criticism of the treaty one might be led to believe that the largest member states are throwing their weight about and are determined to run the Union for their own selfish purposes. They are not and they will not.
The same principles that applied when Ireland joined the Union in 1973 apply today. It suits every country to live in a neighbourhood that is prosperous and at peace. It suits every country to live in a neighbourhood where borders are not disputed and where people feel secure. It suits every country to work toward a common decent standard of living for everybody in our European neighbourhood. It is these principles that have contributed to the achievement of previously unknown levels of prosperity in Ireland and to the emergence of peace between the people of this island. It is these principles which have allowed Ireland to work in close co-operation with Britain after centuries of difficulties. These principles are not something written on paper which gets dusted down for occasions such as today's debate. They have a real meaning in practice.
For instance, anyone who attended the 2005 European Council will be aware that it was flexibility and generosity on the part of Chancellor Merkel which allowed agreement to be reached on the 2007-13 EU budget. I dare say that Chancellor Merkel will elaborate on the meaning and importance of the Union to its largest member state when she makes a welcome visit here later this month.
In deciding how to vote in the referendum, the Irish people should vote rationally and with their own interests at heart. The choice we face is straightforward. The changes brought about in the reform treaty, like the changes brought about in previous treaties, will make the Union operate more effectively. The changes brought about in the reform treaty, like previous changes, reflect the changing circumstances in which the Union finds itself.
The reform treaty will also settle the debate about the internal workings of the Union for the foreseeable future. We will then be able to focus on the great issues of our time, economic management, climate change and peace and stability around the globe. Despite suggestions to the contrary, for us to say "No" to the reform treaty would damage Europe's and our own interests. To suggest that abandoning our positive attitude to the EU would win us negotiating space at tables in Brussels is unrealistic. It remains for opponents of the treaty to explain how the balance of our national interest could possibly be served by a "No" vote. I do not believe they can do so.
It is for the Irish electorate to identify where our nation's interests lie. I believe they will not allow rigid dogma, whether from the new right or the hard left, to prevail over common sense. Instead, they should see the reform treaty as the next step on what has been an exceptionally positive national journey. Voting "Yes" in the referendum will generate political goodwill, a precious resource on which Ireland can draw in the future. Voting "Yes" in the referendum will confirm that we maintain our faith in an international order based on solidarity, international co-operation and equality between member states. Voting "yes" in the referendum will confirm in the eyes of the international political and economic community that we continue to keep both our feet firmly in Europe, with our eyes fixed squarely on continued economic prosperity and social progress. That is why the Government believes the reform treaty should be ratified.