I am very pleased to be here this afternoon. I thank the committee for its invitation and congratulate it on the vital work it does on European Union issues, which were for too long neglected by all national parliaments. I note that if the Lisbon treaty is ratified, as I believe it will be, the Oireachtas will have even more responsibilities and powers to vet EU laws.
My colleagues and I in the Green Party have been asking people to vote "Yes" on Friday for a number of very positive reasons. I firmly believe a better organised Europe, which can tackle climate change and protect our rights and the environment, is worth supporting and I am convinced the Lisbon treaty promotes and advances those aims. I am also asking voters to say "Yes" on Friday because I believe our concerns have been dealt with in a declaration signed by 27 EU Heads of Government.
I have worked all of my adult life on things which protect the environment. The Lisbon treaty gives the EU new roles in the fields of climate change and energy which will have the potential to make a major impact on our lives. Many people of this generation do not really think these issues are too important right now. However, in 30 years' time, and perhaps far less, people will have realised that these are the defining issues of this generation.
I also believe the Lisbon treaty will consolidate workers' rights and build on the great advances which helped the EU deliver on women's rights in Ireland. It was the EU which delivered equal pay for women, a move initially opposed by the Dublin Government. The Lisbon treaty, specifically through Article 23 of the Charter for Fundamental Rights, builds on all the advances towards gender equality by preventing workplace discrimination.
More important, the treaty also allows the EU to take tougher action against criminals involved in the abominable business of people trafficking under Article 83 (1) of the Treaty on European Union. The Lisbon treaty will also improve democracy within the European Union. The Oireachtas, in common with other national parliaments, will have more say in shaping EU laws under Article 12 of the Treaty on European Union. Deputies and Senators can combine with members of other national parliaments to show a yellow card to draft EU laws which are opposed by more than a third of parliaments.
I am particularly pleased to see Article 11(4) of the Treaty on European Union catering for the provision of the citizens' initiative. It creates the possibility of 1 million citizens coming together and requesting the European Commission to take action on a particular issue. This was something I proposed while working on the Convention on the Future of Europe which cleared the way for the forerunner of the Lisbon treaty, the EU constitution.
The Lisbon treaty also gives more power to the European Parliament, which is leading the way in producing good progressive laws. Over the past few years it has taken the lead in working to phase out dangerous chemicals, to reduce emissions from cars. It has played an important role in stopping big companies from taking our patents on software, which would hamper innovation and could result in monopolies and price rises for software users. Thus, under Lisbon, our Deputies, Senators and MEPs have more powers and the people electing the Deputies and MEPs will have more powers as a result.
Since I came to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government over two years ago, much of my work has involved ensuring that Ireland joins with other countries in taking strong action to tackle the effects of climate change. It makes perfect sense that Ireland acts with the European Union on this issue. In Copenhagen in December, the EU will represent Ireland at talks to agree targets and actions for tackling climate change. These talks are aimed at producing a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
We know with a very good degree of certainty that rising sea levels and flooding will be one consequence of climate change. Here in Ireland, and in western Europe generally, we might be smug enough to think we can cope with what is coming but I believe that to be a dangerous assumption. As so many Irish aid organisations have eloquently and graphically argued, there are tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world, especially in Africa, India and along the equator, who simply do not have the money or the expertise to prepare for the enormous and catastrophic consequences of what climate change will do to them. Droughts, desertification, floods, monsoons, storms and tsunamis will be more and more common. Crops will fail and clean drinking water will become even more scarce than it is now. It will be a living nightmare. There are many things we can do at a personal level and as a country, to tackle climate change but to really make a difference we can work together in the European Union. By combining their strength the 27 countries of the EU, nearly 500 million people, can commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ask the rest of the world to match that effort.
Article 191 of the Treaty for the Functioning of the European Union, provides for the promotion of measures to combat climate change as part of the Union's environmental competence. I am proud to say this reference was included at the request of the Irish Government. Article 191 of the Treaty for the Functioning of the European Union, will give the Union a specific basis for promoting international action against climate change. This is an important provision. It has been cynically derided by advocates of a "No" vote because it is a brief reference. History, however, teaches that some of the briefest references can prove to be most significant. It is important here because it gives the European Union the legal basis for joint action. It is just a beginning. In future disputes between environmentalists and big business, the European Court of Justice will be able to act. If the Lisbon treaty is passed the EU can justifiably push all the harder for an ambitious deal at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen this December.
Ireland is at the tail-end of a supply line of expensive and dirty oil and gas much of which comes from politically unstable regions and supplies are running out. The Lisbon treaty gives the European Union new competences in the field of energy under Article 195 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It is up to the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Government now and in the future to ensure this blossoms, as it can, into policies which continue to promote the creation of interlinked EU-wide energy grids based mainly on renewable energy sources. There is no reason wind and wave power from Ireland, hydropower from Scandinavia and solar power from Spain cannot power our industries and homes in the future. This can best be advanced by the European Union and the Lisbon treaty points the way.
The Government's own research has shown that one of the people's key concerns around the Lisbon treaty has been about the erosion of Ireland's traditional neutrality. Since its foundation the Green Party has been to the forefront in articulating concerns about the importance of Irish neutrality. I am satisfied that if Irish voters endorse the EU Lisbon treaty on Friday, decisions on defence and foreign policy will continue to be made unanimously. We have secured a guarantee from the EU leaders' summit that Ireland's military neutrality will be respected. Irish neutrality will not in any respect be affected or prejudiced by the treaty.
I insist that these guarantees are binding. All 27 EU governments have endorsed them. There is no precedent in the European Union's 52 year history where such guarantees were not respected. Such guarantees have always been respected and at all events we have received assurances that these guarantees will be given full legal status in a forthcoming EU treaty to remove any ambiguity.
The European Defence Agency has also been a matter of concern. Members of the committee know that this agency was established in 2004 to help EU member states to develop defence capabilities. There were concerns that Irish participation in the agency might undermine Irish neutrality. I am glad to say we worked very hard with our Government partners to address this very issue. Earlier this month the European Defence Agency Bill 2009 was cleared by the Cabinet and published. This legislation means that both Cabinet and Dáil approval will be required for participation in EDA projects or programmes. The Green Party insisted upon this to ensure the right amount of transparency and oversight. We insisted upon the removal of any shadow over the issue of neutrality. Separate legislation will also be worked on to restrict all State agencies from promoting an armaments industry in Ireland, while work will continue on a new White Paper on defence for the period 2011 to 2020, as agreed in the programme for Government.
There are many positive reasons for the people to say "Yes" to the Lisbon treaty on Friday. I thank the committee for its attention and would welcome questions.