I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:
"supports the Government in its efforts to secure an agreement at this week's meeting of the European Council that fully protects Irish interests and that contributes to the restoration of stability in the Euro area."
I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Government to the motion which has been tabled by eleven Members of the Technical Group concerning Ireland's position at the meeting of the European Council which will begin in Brussels tonight and which will continue tomorrow.
At the outset, I want to recall that this House had a lengthy and energetic debate on issues arising at today's meeting of the European Council on Wednesday of last week. As we undertook to do in the programme for Government, prior to each European Council meeting, the Taoiseach has briefed this House on what was to happen at the forthcoming EU meeting. This structured debate in this House prior to European Council meetings never happened during previous Dáil sessions. This is one element of the Government's ongoing efforts to improve the way we do our business and most of all to strengthen the role which the Houses of the Oireachtas play in engaging with EU business, which is of critical importance not alone to the European Union but also to this country.
It is in that context that I welcome the opportunity for further discussion of the December European Council here today. I must, however, inform the House that the Government does not accept the motion tabled by the Members from the Technical Group. It displays a fundamental misunderstanding or at any rate a misrepresentation of the European Union and how decisions are reached by the Union, including at the highest level in the European Council. Let me be perfectly clear, Ireland will not be forced into anything at a European Council. The EU works by compromise and accommodation. Decisions are taken at the European Council on the basis of consensus, where every Head of State or Government has the opportunity, and indeed the responsibility, to raise, advocate and defend their vital national interests. That is, of course, exactly what the Taoiseach will be doing in Brussels tonight and tomorrow.
Similarly, the Taoiseach is not in the business of handing over our economic sovereignty — quite the contrary. This Government intends to be the one that retrieves our economic sovereignty, which has been severely diluted by dint of being dependent on funding provided by our EU-IMF programme since the agreement reached by the last Government a year ago. Anything that this Government does will be in the interests of Ireland and the Irish people. On that this House can rest assured.
In view of the inappropriateness of the premise on which the Technical Group's motion is based, the Government will propose an alternative motion to the House, as follows:
That Dail Eireann supports the Government in its efforts to secure an agreement at this week's meeting of the European Council that fully protects Irish interests and that contributes to the restoration of stability in the euro area.
I believe that the Government's motion sends a far more positive and constructive message from this House as the Taoiseach heads into tonight's crucial European Council meeting. It is unfortunate that some in this House are more fixated on what they are against than on what they are for.
The Government amendment addresses that deficit and I ask the Members opposite to agree to the amendment so that the Taoiseach can go into that meeting tonight with the unanimous support of our national Parliament. Members opposite have talked about wearing the green jersey — we all need to wear the green jersey here. Let us not divide the House and let us agree to support the Government's amendment that this House supports the Government and supports the Taoiseach in what he will attempt to do tonight, tomorrow and at the European Council.
Tonight the Taoiseach will join the other EU Heads of State and Government for an informal dinner discussion of the latest developments, in both financial markets and the economic and financial crisis. Leaders will take stock of the very extensive range of measures which have been already agreed at the European level, including the creation of the European Financial Stability Facility, EFSF; agreement on a future permanent mechanism, the European Stability Mechanism, ESM; the decisions concerning budgetary surveillance and co-ordination of economic policies, in addition to an even more extended governance structure for the euro area which were taken by the euro summit on 26 October; and the package of six legislative measures on European economic governance — the so-called "six-pack" -adopted last month.
We should not underestimate what has been already agreed. Similarly, we must now ensure the commitments and undertakings made by each member state are implemented in full and without delay. An important element of our credibility, with the financial markets and with the public, depends on wholehearted implementation. It is on these very considerable foundations that leaders will be agreeing to build a stronger economic union.
As the House will recall, euro area leaders asked President Van Rompuy to prepare an interim report for consideration by the December European Council on possible steps to strengthen economic union, with a particular focus on strengthening economic convergence within the euro area, improving fiscal discipline and deepening economic union, including exploring the possibility of limited treaty changes. Tonight's discussion will be based on that interim report from President Van Rompuy and on draft conclusions prepared on foot of it. The Government has been impressed with the approach taken by President Van Rompuy to this challenging and highly time-constrained task. From the outset, he has approached this, firstly to see what needs to be done and only then how that can best be done, an approach I wholeheartedly support.
Similarly, with respect to tonight's discussion at the European Council, President Van Rompuy has placed a strong and clear emphasis on the strengthening of the short-term crisis-management tools available to Europe and particularly the euro area, as well as acknowledging the need to adopt, over the medium term, measures which will also fortify economic union. As far as we are concerned this is the right way to go.
Ireland is deeply involved in the preparations for the summit. The Taoiseach set out the approach he will take in a letter to President Van Rompuy. In this he highlighted the urgent need for leaders to make — and more importantly to implement — clear decisions to protect the currency and to restore stability to the euro area. This is profoundly in Ireland's interests. He also highlighted our support for stronger rules and more effective governance. Ireland has a strong national interest in a stable currency.
While approaching the meeting with a constructive and open mind, the Taoiseach cautioned against allowing pressure for treaty change to distract us from correcting the immediate situation. In this he suggested that the task before the meeting tonight and tomorrow is twofold — putting in place measures to address the immediate situation and strengthening governance structures within the existing framework to the extent possible. The Taoiseach will be reminding colleagues of the efforts the Irish people are making to ensure our economic recovery and will highlight the particular burden we are shouldering in regard to banking. He will explain why we are looking for the support of our partners in ensuring our debt is sustainable.
Senior Irish officials are also involved in intensive consultations with partners in Brussels on the basis of President Van Rompuy's interim report, a draft of which was made available to the Government on Tuesday. Similarly, we received a copy of the promised Franco-German proposals just yesterday. Both these documents are now being digested. We have had to assess, in great detail, the possible economic, legal and political implications for Ireland and for the Union of the various options, proposals and ideas. That intensive work of analysis is continuing today. In parallel, work is ongoing in Brussels among member states in identifying elements that might form part of the conclusions the European Council will adopt on Friday.
Members are well aware that the situation in the euro area remains of serious concern, while financial markets remain highly volatile. It is critical that, when EU Heads of State and Government meet in Brussels tonight, they make and implement clear decisions quickly, to demonstrate our collective rock solid determination to protect our currency; to support member states that are working towards economic recovery; and to introduce strong rules to ensure fiscal discipline.
Ireland has consistently argued, and will continue to argue, that the top priority must go to answering the immediate crisis in the euro area. Firm and decisive action will provide us with the breathing room required to put in place new strengthened structures which put our economic union on a similarly solid footing to our monetary union. EMU, Economic and Monetary Union, was never intended to be just about a shared currency. It was always also about ensuring that shared currency was appropriately underpinned by economic and monetary policies. We have seen, to our cost in the euro area that the Stability and Growth Pact, which was intended to ensure a shared policy approach across all member states using the currency, lacked the teeth to get the job done. We must now learn from that experience.
The stability of our common currency, the euro, is of critical importance to Ireland and to our people. We are not disinterested bystanders when it comes to the future of our currency. This is a case where Ireland has a vital national interest which we will pursue and defend. Our priority in this instance is to find a credible and durable solution to the immediate crisis. Central to this will be to demonstrate clearly that we have the financial firepower necessary to stabilise the situation. This could come from the ECB playing a stronger role; however other possibilities and mechanisms are feasible. It is the ends rather than the means which are critical at this stage.
It is worth repeating that the defence of the euro is in Ireland's vital national interest. It is the vital national interest of every man, woman and child in this State. The euro is a strong currency that is respected and accepted around the world. Without the euro, the economic and financial challenges we face would be considerably greater than they are already. The inescapable reality is that Ireland's prospects are inextricably linked to those of the euro and we need to support whatever measures are necessary to sustain it.
When Ireland joined the process of Economic and Monetary Union which led to the creation of the euro, most of us hoped we had seen the end of the boom and bust cycles which were a feature of Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. We expected, and were entitled to expect, that the treaty obligations which came with the euro would lead to prudent economic management and a stable economy. Instead, unregulated access to the cheap money and the mistaken incentives introduced by the previous Government created a property bubble of such magnitude that, when it burst, propelled our nation into the hands of the receivers. The Government is determined to regain fullest possible Irish sovereignty over our economic governance, consistent with membership of the eurozone, and to ensure that the kind of economic mismanagement which forfeited our economic independence, can never again be revisited on the Irish people.
There is a gathering consensus among eurozone governments, markets and commentators that confidence in the euro can be restored only by measures to ensure that in the future, members of the eurozone meet their obligations on economic management and budgetary discipline. The Government shares this view and is ready to take on such responsibilities. Such measures should be welcome to every citizen of this State who is today trying to come to terms with the service cuts and tax rises which the Government has been obliged to introduce to pay for past failures of management and supervision in this country.
Ireland has nothing to fear from strengthened economic governance — in fact, we are now paying the price for the absence of such rules and their implementation in the past. The current crisis has made it abundantly clear to all reasonable observers that there is great scope for spill-over effects, particularly between countries that share a common currency. This is not a hypothetical threat, it is the reality in the euro area now. The Government already intends to put new rules on responsible budgeting into domestic legislation in the first quarter of next year. These rules will go beyond many of those being envisaged at European level.
I want to address head-on the possibility of treaty change. As part of President Van Rompuy's mandate in bringing forward an interim report to this meeting, he was asked to examine the possibility of limited treaty changes. That issue is on the table. We, however, have consistently argued that the first step is to stretch the existing treaties to the limit and to do as much as we possibly can within the strictures of the rule book already in place. We have maintained that position for good reason. To launch a process of treaty change risks a lengthy and uncertain process.
As I said earlier, we have been firmly focused on ensuring that we find solutions now to the very serious situation which faces our currency. The existing treaties provide us with scope to go further. We should, before setting about a longer term exercise of seeking to amend the treaties, avail of that possibility. These efforts should go hand in hand with those intended to put in place the kind of structures that will serve us over the medium to longer term. It should be well understood in this House that the Government is open to looking at all reasonable proposals to reinforce economic governance and, in the process, protect and defend the stability of our currency. If it is in Ireland's interest, we will consider any serious proposal. The Taoiseach will engage positively on behalf of Ireland in these debates at the European Council tonight and tomorrow.
One of the major issues to be debated by Heads of State and Government in Brussels will be precisely how best to ensure that the obligations assumed by eurozone members are fully implemented and rigorously overseen. There are those who believe that if the arrangements are to be sufficiently robust then treaty change will be required. It is safe to say that no one around the European Council table wants treaty change for the sake of it, but I expect a determination that whatever it takes to sustain the euro will be done. It may be that whatever measures are to be introduced will be done on a phased basis.
The simplest and most immediate response would be to exploit the full potential of the existing treaties. President Van Rompuy, who was asked to bring forward an interim report to the European Council, has set out a number of possibilities of doing just that. He has also identified other options which would involve amending the treaty. Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy have expressed a clear preference for treaty change. Heads of State and Government will have to arrive at a conclusion that is guaranteed to restore confidence in the euro, domestically and internationally, not least in financial markets. They cannot afford to fall short of expectations and they must be prepared to do whatever it takes, regardless of the inconvenience. In certain circumstances, that may involve treaty change. If, despite the concerns of many in Irish politics we nevertheless find ourselves obliged to have another referendum in this country on the EU treaties, then so be it. If that is what we have to do to save our currency, to restore our economy, to be able as a sovereign nation to borrow again on the financial markets and to ensure that no future government can ever again bring us to such a sorry state, then let us not be afraid to put that choice to the Irish people.
There are no easy alternatives, regardless of what the Opposition and some political commentators might suggest. Yes we want to be ourselves again, to regain control of our own affairs and we will if this Government has anything to do with it. To be alone in our current circumstances would be a very cold, lonely and penurious place to be. It is clear also that treaty change cannot be achieved overnight. There are processes set out in the treaties that have to be followed, for good reasons. Of real importance to Ireland also is to ensure that the integrity of the European Union, at the level of 27 member states, is maintained. This view is not born out of some starry-eyed sense of Europe or the European Union. One of the cornerstones of the EU — I would argue one of its most significant achievements — the Single Market of 500 million people, which is by far the biggest market for our traded goods and services, must not be allowed to be compromised or undermined. Our strength as a Union comes from our unity and solidarity among all 27 member states.
Similarly, Ireland remains a steadfast supporter of the Community method and a leading role for the European Commission. As a smaller member state, it is undoubtedly in our interest to have an active and strong Commission as guardian of the treaties to ensure with impartiality that the rules are followed by all member states at all times, regardless of whether big or small or from north or south. The answers which the European Council finds to the very real threats posed to our currency and to the type of Union which we will continue to have must ensure that the fundamental principles of political accountability and democratic legitimacy are cherished and respected.
As well as addressing the various issues surrounding the euro area, the December European Council will also return to the question of growth enhancing measures which it previously considered in October. It is expected to endorse an initiative to fast track a range of measures aimed at boosting growth and job creation. This is very welcome and the Taoiseach will be strongly supporting these moves. Progress in meeting the commitments entered into by the 23 member states, including Ireland, taking part in the euro plus pact will be considered by leaders at this meeting.
Enlargement of the Union will be discussed by Heads of State and Government tomorrow and it is expected an extensive set of conclusions will be endorsed. On the margins of this European Council, the Taoiseach, with other EU leaders, will tomorrow morning sign Croatia's Accession Treaty to the EU. I warmly congratulate Croatia on this achievement and look forward to them joining the EU as a full member on 1 July 2013. The question of Bulgarian and Romanian accession to the Schengen Area is also expected to arise, as will international issues, including Iran. Leaders will finally adopt a brief set of conclusions which will take stock of progress concerning negotiations on the next multi-annual financial framework.
As the Taoiseach told this House last week, the Government is committed to working for an outcome from this week's European Council that fully protects Irish interests and that can restore stability to the euro area. That was the case then and it remains the case as the Taoiseach travels to Brussels for tonight's meeting. I wish him every success in this important endeavour and ask that the House, by agreeing the counter motion proposed by Government, support him in working for Ireland's national interest and for stability in the eurozone.