Conference on the Future of Europe: Discussion (Resumed)

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Dr. Stephen Coutts, Professor Brigid Laffan and Ms Noelle O’Connell as we resume our engagement on this very important topic.

Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I wish to advise witnesses giving evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts to note that the constitutional protections afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before committees may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on the extent to which evidence given is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Persons giving evidence from another jurisdiction should also be mindful of their domestic statutory regime. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, they must respect that direction.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call on Professor Laffan to make her opening statement.

Professor Brigid Laffan

I thank the committee for the opportunity to engage with it today. I will make two contextual points and three core points about the conference itself. As to context, the idea of a conference on the future of Europe was one of President Macron’s grands projets for Europe but it really only became a possibility when Ursula von der Leyen, the new Commission President, proposed it in her engagement with the European Parliament before she was voted on. The reason she needed to do it was that she had not come through the Spitzenkandidaten process, like former President Juncker had, and, therefore, in order to get the support of the Parliament, she needed to offer something that the Parliament wanted. Therefore, the Parliament is very interested in the Conference on the Future of Europe.

It also linked to her three core political priorities - the green deal, digital and Europe's role in the world. Of course, the whole context of the conference has been dramatically altered by Covid-19 and its impact on our societies and economies. The focus of all governments and parliaments across Europe now will be on the recovery from Covid. The question is how much bandwidth politics and public policy will have in Europe over the next two years to engage with the future of Europe. There is cause for concern that the timing is bad or, in other words, that it will look as if this is very disconnected from the everyday experiences of the people of Europe.

Nonetheless, it is going to happen, I think, and, therefore, it is very important that it concentrates on Europe's big challenges. Of course, it has not got off the ground yet. There is still a discussion on its scope, on its organisation and on who should chair. The German Presidency has worked on it but has not managed to secure agreement on the modus operandi of the conference.

I will move to my three substantive points. First, as I said, this conference should concentrate on substance. It should concentrate on how we address climate, on the digital transition and on Europe's new political economy, given Covid has accelerated and accentuated important trends in our economy, on public health and on Europe's role in the world. These are the imperative, compelling issues. I would not want a conference on the future of Europe at this stage to really engage on the nitty-gritty of institutional roles and inter-institutional bargaining. This is not a time for battles about how Europe does its business; it is really about what Europe should do.

Second, it is very important that the process is as participative and deliberative as possible. This should not be a Brussels insider process. There is a very important responsibility and opportunity for national parliaments to play their full role. National parliaments have two important roles, first, to engage actively in the conference over its duration but, second, and this in some ways is almost more vital, to educate the public, to interrogate the positions of governments and to ensure the public knows about this. In terms of engaging with the public, to use dialogues, forums and all of the techniques we now have - which, of course, are mostly digital given the times we are in – to engage both organised civil society and the broader society will be extremely important. I would also add that there should be a European perspective, not just an accumulation of national perspectives. We need both; we need the national but also the European.

It is far too early to assess the outcome and the scope, but it could well be that the conference will end up with recommendations and then, subsequently, treaty change that will require a referendum in Ireland. Therefore, from now, from the beginning of this conference, it is extremely important that the Irish electorate is informed about what is going on. Why? It is because we know, as the data and the research has told us, that one of the most fundamental reasons in Ireland for voting against treaty change has always been a lack of knowledge. In other words, “Vote 'No' if you don't know” is a very compelling argument. Therefore, there is a particular issue, given we are a referendum country, for us to be attentive to the educational role from the beginning.

I will leave it at that. I look forward to our discussion.

Dr. Stephen Coutts

I thank the committee for inviting me to contribute to this important and perhaps somewhat neglected debate in that the conference on Europe has not got the attention that it has perhaps deserved.

As requested by the clerk, I will restrict my comments to the final question on treaty change. I am more than happy to take questions on the broader issues that were included in the invitation afterwards.

I would like to frame my remarks around two questions: first, whether what is proposed in the conference would require treaty change; and, second, whether treaty change is desirable. Based on what is proposed in the documents issued by the institutions, I do not think treaty change is necessarily required. I break this into two elements, namely, institutional and policy-based. On the institutional dimension, two proposals are mentioned - the Spitzenkandidat system and transnational lists. The Spitzenkandidat system can operate as a political practice as we saw in 2014. Whether this is a good idea is a different discussion. The question of transnational lists might require treaty change. The treaty is somewhat ambiguous about this. This can happen with the European Commission's communication which refers to how it would require a decision of the European Council at least. I am happy to go into that in some more detail. That is probably a bit premature at this stage, but if members wish me to cover that, I am more than happy to do so.

Regarding policy areas, there is some competence for the EU at the moment in most policy fields that are mentioned. Of course, the conference might propose to increase the competences, particularly in fiscal areas covering health in light of Covid, but that would require a more detailed assessment. If the conference decides to increase the competences of the Union, I outline in my written remarks a couple of different options. More than likely, it would require use of the ordinary revision procedure, which is the standard full-blown treaty revision procedure.

On the second question as to whether treaty change is desirable, I make a number of remarks rather than point in any particular direction. As I said, it will probably require the ordinary revision procedure which might involve a convention and an intergovernmental conference, and it might be difficult to keep that restricted to discrete reforms.

In recent decades, different actors have become involved in treaty negotiations and in particular adoption. It is not just referendums, but also constitutional courts and parliaments. Sometimes the parliaments require super-majorities. There are a number of different veto points and a number of points at which any treaty could fail. There is, of course, a risk of failure of any major treaty reform with political damage to the Union.

This is not to say that treaty change should never be considered. However, we should be mindful that any treaty change must navigate various obstacles of a political and legal nature throughout the 27 member states.

This is an era of populism, although that is changing. The European Union, as a transnational organisation, might be a particular target. While treaty reform may provide a symbolic constitutional moment for the Union, generating political mobilisation and commitment, it also raises the possibility of the Union being the target of contestation and repudiation in national parliaments and electorates.

I would not rule out treaty reform a priori. This is because of the citizen-led nature of the Conference on the Future of Europe. The process of involving EU citizens and the process of the Conference on the Future of Europe may be as important as any particular outcome. I see an intrinsic value for the legitimacy of the Union in that process of citizen deliberation. Ruling out any particular outcome in advance would risk undermining the bottom-up deliberative nature of the conference. A major treaty reform may not be necessary, given the existing competences and there are risks involved in this route. However, citizens should have the option of proposing treaty change if that is what decided after careful deliberation. This is based on the process itself and the need to keep options open for citizens. I look forward to any questions members may have.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to address the committee. I will keep my remarks short to allow time to engage with committee members. I have provided a more comprehensive briefing document for members of the committee which I hope will act as a useful reference point for today's session.

For over 65 years, debating and engaging people in Ireland on our relationship with Europe has been the overarching mission and core objective of European Movement Ireland. To that end, we are passionately determined to ensure the success of the Conference on the Future of Europe in its delivery and outcome. It is a crucial part of our work and outreach.

The conference has emerged as a priority of the present European Commission and importantly is supported by both the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. It is vital that the conference is meaningful and an effective forum for European citizens at its very core. It also needs to engage with the challenges and opportunities facing the European Union. Earlier this year, in our annual RED-C poll on Ireland and the EU, when asked if respondents felt their voice was heard in the EU, 48% disagreed and only 33% agreed, with a very high proportion, 19%, saying they did not know. The conference represents a chance to change this finding and it must do so.

The coronavirus pandemic understandably delayed the launch date, which was due on 9 May, Europe Day, earlier this year, coinciding as it would have then with the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration. The German Presidency of the Council of the EU has prioritised its getting off the ground during its term, which may be ambitious. However, consensus seems to have settled on the conference being a three-way undertaking, involving the Parliament, the Commission and the Council overseen by an independent chair. Unfortunately, political machinations on who should assume the chair position has delayed things further.

When I had the honour to present to this committee in October, I pointed out that the polling of EU citizens on how the EU was dealing with the Covid-19 crisis demonstrated that when the European Union acts in a co-ordinated and effective way, citizens respond positively as seen by greater levels of support. That is also the case regarding the conference, which needs to start urgently. Further delay has the potential to undermine the process before it has begun. In the poll on Ireland in the EU earlier in the year, just 20% of the respondents had heard of the conference. European Movement Ireland believes the conference should deal with the substantive issues facing the European Union and it should be citizen led. We are broadly supportive of the themes that have already been identified and outlined.

Current proposals envisage that as well as those policy issues, the conference should also address institutional matters. While we believe this is appropriate, institutional change or reform should be considered as a means to deliver results on the policy issues and not an end in itself. In an Irish context, institutional reform gives rise to the question of treaty change. We believe it would be counterproductive to set narrow terms of reference that preclude treaty change as an option. However, it is our preference that the deliberations focus on the real and substantive issues that affect the lives of people across the European Union, rather than a very academic debate on inter-institutional relations. That being said, treaty change may be necessary in the future for the EU to deliver on the substantive issues we have outlined. We should not shy away from that.

European Movement Ireland has a very proud record of engaging citizens and stakeholders on European issues. That informs our view that the position of citizens must be core and underpin the Conference on the Future of Europe. In 2017, we were delighted to work with the then Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to deliver an ongoing national citizens engagement programme on the future of Europe in Ireland and where we saw Ireland's place in the EU post-Brexit. How did we do that? It involved travelling the length and breadth of Ireland and engaging with people through concrete town hall debates on Ireland's place in Europe. Done outside the traditional political sphere, it provided platforms for debate on people's feelings and our relationship with Europe, but crucially was supported and engaged broadly at a cross-party consensus level. Thousands engaged digitally and more than 800 people attended the various physical events in the world before Covid. The programme was launched in the Science Gallery in late 2017.

From there, in 2018 we travelled to Galway, Cork, Letterkenny, Navan, Kilkenny and Cavan, culminating in a national citizens' dialogue in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham on Europe Day. Who did we engage with? Different communities. There was an open call for people to come along: people who had lived abroad; EU citizens living in Ireland, a tribute and testimony to the multicultural and multiethnic communities we have in our country; young activists; trade unions; student groups; civil society organisations; senior citizens; elected representatives. All together they created a dynamic and evolving conversation about how we as a country and a people might develop Ireland's place within the EU.

Complementing this very tangible on-the-ground series of town hall dialogues was an active social media campaign. Over 400 million impressions were generated across social media channels, amplified through various stakeholder channels, and we featured the town hall debates through the means of local and regional media outlets, which was crucial. The events took place in a guided round-table format, with each table having a moderator. A rapporteur reported on all the citizens' dialogues, ensuring consistency, and we used Slido technology throughout the dialogues, which was really useful in terms of questions and answers and engaging the audience. That engagement shaped and turned Ireland's submission to the 2019 European Council Sibiu report, where the EU's strategic agenda for 2019 to 2024 was agreed and the subsequent Sibiu declaration published. Further information is in committee members' briefing packs.

Ireland's approach is seen as best practice from a participatory democracy perspective and we have been delighted to share our expertise and insights as to how we have engaged people in this country on the future of Europe and the ongoing debate and dialogue. The work of the Government, as well as the European Commission and the European Parliament in this country have been crucial to supporting and maintaining this ongoing conversation. It is crucial that the dialogue does not cease. Of course, Members of the Oireachtas and this committee in particular have a crucial role to play and we look forward to working with and supporting Members and this committee in anything that can be done to further increase awareness and engagement on the conference of the future of Europe in Ireland.

One of the important elements of this conference and its goals is that it increases the effectiveness and awareness of the EU from an Irish perspective and how important it is for us to input our views in that regard.

I trust that is a good overview and I look forward to engaging with the committee and answering any questions they may have

I thank all the presenters for their insightful overviews. I will call on two members at a time and the first to indicate is Deputy Calleary, to be followed by Deputy Richmond.

I thank the Chairman. I also thank our three speakers and welcome them. I was struck by a line from Dr. Coutts' presentation when we briefly touched on the idea that we live in an era of populism, which targets international and transnational organisations and politics and that we should propose simplified forms of nationalism. In this context, the EU may be particularly vulnerable. It might be nice to get that printed on a t-shirt and send it as a going-away present to a certain former prime ministerial adviser. It feeds into the debate we are all having.

Professor Laffan touched on the point that the convention should be about what Europe should do rather than how it does it. Are not the two inextricably linked? We have it shown up this week when one sees an emergency Covid-relief budget, which is something the EU can do well if it is unified, being targeted because the values of the Union are being undermined by two of its member states. They can use the method according to which the Union works to block something the Union should be doing. Unless we look at all of the issues, will we undermine the convention? I believe we need to focus on what Europe should be doing but until we look at how it does it, I believe we will be operating with our hands behind our back. I would like Professor Laffan's thoughts on that.

Second, the model Ms O'Connell used was interesting but I was struck by a point that Professor Laffan made that only 20% of Irish people - who are incredibly supportive of the EU and its aims, if we look at the figures - knew about this convention. To an extent, have we failed already in terms of engaging people? Does it show Professor Laffan the work we have to do, in the event of treaty change, to get them on the journey now?

Finally, I ask the three witnesses, who have a lot of experience in this area, how confident and hopeful are they of a successful outcome to this process?

I thank all three witnesses for their wonderful presentations. Deputy Calleary has asked a couple of the questions I had in mind so I will pivot on my feet.

I will touch on one of Dr. Coutts's remarks. He mentioned that we might not require treaty change, but rather treaty amendment. Digging into the legalities of that, would an amendment to the Lisbon treaty, as opposed to a brand new treaty, require a referendum in Ireland, in Dr. Coutts's opinion? It ties into the point Deputy Calleary made about how confident we can be of getting a treaty passed. I would put it another way: should we fear treaty change? After what we have gone through in the past five years, looking at our nearest neighbour, the argument that a lot of people muddied when it came to the European project in previous referendums is perhaps more simplified because we have an alternative. We know what the alternative to European integration is now. Communism has long collapsed but the alternative is clear, namely, that nascent populist nationalism we see quite close to home and not so close to home.

Getting into the process at hand, I was struck by Professor Laffan's reference to expanding the role of national parliaments. Professor Gavin Barrett went into this in quite a bit of detail last week in this committee and it is something I am passionate about. I will talk about the citizen-led aspect in a second, but when we talk about everything to do with Europe, many people allow it to be solely a Brussels-focused discussion, that only MEPs and only the institutions can talk about European issues. There is something lacking, given that national parliamentarians do not take it upon themselves to talk about Europe, except when they have to, when there is a crisis, a referendum or a difficulty. The last few months have shown us how much we rely on the EU, when we look at the announcements in relation to potential vaccinations and the block orders the EU has made that Ireland as a small member state would not have been able to have done if we were not in the EU.

I raise the role of national parliamentarians beyond discussing this and having conversations like we are having this morning, which are useful, in crafting the conference, formulating what the outcome might be, be it treaty change or not. We do not automatically assume we will go there. I asked Professor Barrett last week what role might the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliament of the European Union, COSAC, play in this. How do we get that co-ordination? The witnesses rightly talk about the large issues. As one goes from member state to member state, the big issues change slightly. Brexit is a massive issue for Ireland; it is less of an issue for Bulgaria. Migration and the refugee crisis is a massive issue for Greece; it is less of an issue for Ireland. What are the big issues where we may need to reform and renew Europe? Health competence is topical at the moment.

Professor Laffan talked rightly about the importance of dialogue and making it citizen-led and Ms O'Connor talked about how European Movement Ireland has been to the forefront of that citizens' dialogue and pushing through that engagement, even though we still have the result that only 20% are aware of this conference. Is that number similar in France?

I will put two questions to Ms O'Connor. What sort of international comparison does she have through the European Movement International network of what other member states are doing and what stage they are at in discussions? What are the big issues that are uniform across the 27 member states?

We talk about how everything has to be done virtually at the moment and this meeting is an example of that. We probably would not have Professor Laffan's presence if we were not doing this virtually so I will talk about the benefits. Are there potential opportunities within dialogues of being able to use technology we are all now so accustomed to in order to reach out further?

It is not all about coming into one central location, be it Dublin, Brussels or Rome, but everyone being able to do it from the comfort of their own home or workplace. The flipside of that, as Deputy Calleary noted previously, is the question of whether we are losing a certain cohort, be it geographic or generational, who might not be as engaged with the online process, and how we maximise the opportunities while not neglecting those who might not have the same level of access.

Professor Brigid Laffan

I thank Deputies Calleary and Richmond for their questions. I must say thanks to digital technology. It really is lovely to see everyone. I am sitting here in Florence so it is very nice to hear Irish voices and engage on Irish topics. The questions are all really important. I do not want to be misunderstood when I say that the EU needs to focus on substantive issues. What I worry about is that whenever there are conferences on the future of Europe, intergovernmental conferences or conventions of one kind or another, those who know a lot about the EU are privileged and EU nerds tend to talk to each other about the niceties of this or that article or this or that method of election and, frankly, people do not care. People want the EU to succeed in terms of substantive issues.

In respect of what Deputy Calleary said about eastern and central Europe, it is profoundly damaging to the EU that there are two countries that are authoritarian, do not adhere to the rule of law and have become a cancer within the EU. The fact that both Warsaw and Budapest are vetoing the recovery fund as we speak is a Rubicon. They must change their minds or pay a high price. If in a pandemic, Budapest and Warsaw, which have received billions of euro from the taxpayers of Europe, engage in this kind of political posturing, they do not deserve to be EU member states. I would put it that strongly.

We should not be surprised that only 20% know about the Conference on the Future of Europe because why would the public know about it, particularly given the pandemic? In addition, the conference has not happened and we do not know what the structure is. It does not surprise me at all. If the Irish electorate is to be informed of this, there may or may not be a referendum and I will leave that aside, and knowledge and information matter, we must find hooks. We should ask why it is important to talk about the future of Europe rather than this grandiose abstract thing called the future of Europe. It is also important for us to be cognisant of the fact that the future of Europe will also be worked out on how the Biden presidency works and how relations between Europe, the US and China work, etc. Am I hopeful of a successful outcome? There must be sufficient ambition to do something substantial but not so ambitious as to be in the realm of fantasy. It is that judgment between serious things but not trying to remake Europe because one will not remake Europe. One will change Europe but not remake it. Transformational power is not available.

Regarding the role of national parliaments, it is hugely important, which is why this committee is so important so that nodes of knowledge and interest in these issues are within all national parliaments. It is not enough for governments; it must also involve parliaments. I stress two roles. One is the committee's role as a participant in this conference through representation and co-operation across COSAC but also the educational role it has - the fact that it is talking about and interrogating it. One of the issues with which this conference will deal will be public health. Citizens across Europe now understand that public health matters, as do co-ordination and European capacity. Europe will deliver the vaccine so that is also very important.

Regarding how to harness the digital, one of the upsides of Covid, of which there are very few, is the proactive nature and capacity of our public institutions, including our parliaments, to leverage the digital. That can certainly be accentuated and deepened but, of course, and I say this having held stakeholder forums for one of my research projects with Warsaw, Budapest and The Hague in the past month, we also need to return to a face-to-face world because of the nature of deliberation online. Digital is important. We have learned it will never go away and will play a larger role in our lives but I also look forward to a time when I am not Zooming all day.

I agree with that point.

Dr. Stephen Coutts

I will take the questions in the order in which they arrived and more specifically, the ones directed at me. The question of broader institutional change is a very good point to make. Clearly there are problems with the Union, the amount of vetoes and the different points at which vetoes can be used by particular states. I echo Professor Laffan's points about the serious damage to the Union caused by the behaviour of Poland and Hungary. Regarding my confidence in whether they will be successful, that depends. We are at the beginning of this process. It depends on the outcome but, more importantly, it depends on what one's criteria for success are. As I said, there are several issues here. One is the process itself as a means of legitimacy of the Union by increasing the role of citizens in the overall governance of it. That in and of itself might be important, particularly if it leads to a lasting citizens' assembly that will be on a standing basis to allow participatory democracy to feed into the Union. In terms of the outcome, if it can be proved that the Union is responsive to citizens and can come up with a deliverable plan that can make a meaningful difference, that would probably be successful. It is very early to say at this point.

Regarding the questions around treaty change, I apologise if I gave the impression that I see a distinction between treaty change and treaty amendment. I am not that much of a lawyer. I would see the use of those terms as being more or less synonymous so my apologies if that impression was given somewhere. Regarding whether or not a referendum in Ireland would be required, there are two ways of approaching this - one is legally and the second is politically. Legally speaking according to the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, not every amendment of the European treaty requires a referendum and amendment of the Irish Constitution. This is only the case when the new treaty delegates or gives up further sovereignty or law-making power to the Union or any international institution. It depends on whether the scope of the Union's activities, for example, competences, is being increased. That would require an assessment of the particular amendment that is being proposed. Legally speaking, it is not automatic that a treaty amendment will lead to a referendum in Ireland. We saw it with the use of the simplified revision procedure to amend Article 136 to establish the European Stability Mechanism. This took place without a referendum, which was completely appropriate in that case.

The committee will know as well as I do, and probably better, that it has become almost a political norm that there will be a referendum in Ireland on major treaty changes. I cannot really speak to whether that could change or whether it would be possible somehow to circumvent that in appropriate circumstances.

On whether we should fear treaty change, I have sympathy with the perspective that maybe we should not and that we should be more confident in facing the public more broadly in relation to treaty change if that is what is required. I would say that, first of all, one can answer this question in the Irish context. In the Irish context, we have experience with referendums. Of course, sometimes it has failed but, as Professor Laffan pointed out, that has been frequently down to an information deficit rather than any inherit Euroscepticism on behalf of the Irish public. It would depend on the process. It would depend on the information. If it is done in a way which leverages the deliberative nature of the Conference on the Future of Europe and if we look at the lessons that were learnt from other referendums, including the use of a citizens' assembly in the case of the repeal of the eighth amendment, there could be a way of approaching it in a manner which would be productive and constructive and would contribute not only to the adoption of a new treaty amendment, but also to a better discussion about Europe, a greater knowledge about European Union affairs and reflection among the broader electorate.

Of course, the question arises not only in the case of Ireland. As for whether we should fear treaty amendment in the broader European context because, as I said, it can fail in multiple states and in multiple ways, I cannot speak to that in any great detail. There are risks which, I suppose, we are not aware of. There is a risk in a failure of a major treaty amendment. We saw this with the constitutional treaty when it failed. There is a damage that would be done. As I said, it would depend on the process. If we approach it properly, treaty amendment should not be ruled out.

I would like to return to a point I made in the opening remarks. When citizens are given the opportunity to feed into a particular process but are told they cannot have some things they might want - for example, an increase in the competence of the Union in environmental matters - because the specific treaty article does not provide the necessary legal basis, that is frustrating from the point of view of citizens. That is why I would not rule it out straightaway.

The final point in relation to the impact of Brexit on any of this is a good point. It has shown a greater appreciation for the European Union which would shape a debate on any EU matters and any treaty amendment. I would be reluctant to frame it as a debate on whether a member state is going to be in or out of Europe, or to suggest that if it rejects this treaty amendment, the train is leaving and it is not getting on. Even though Brexit is important for the appreciation of what the Union does and the foundations of the Union as a mechanism of transnational co-operation among people - that has certainly cut through to people's consciousness - I would not use Brexit as an example by suggesting that a member state might be out of the Union or something like that. I would be careful about framing any treaty amendment in that way.

I thank Dr. Coutts and invite Ms O'Connell to respond.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

I thank the committee for the questions. I will begin with Deputy Calleary's question about the 20% awareness. He asked how confident and hopeful of success we are and queried whether we have failed before we start. I want to be a glass half-full person. There is a real opportunity, and not only that. If not now, when? Because of the Covid pandemic, what we have seen, as Professor Laffan has mentioned, through digital platforms is a greater availability and opportunity to engage people and increase that knowledge and dialogue. We know from what we have seen and from our experience that Ireland cannot afford to take the foot off the pedal. We have seen across the water that 40 years of negative discourse and diatribe cannot be reversed in a six-week referendum campaign. It proved impossible.

What is vital in terms of the Conference on the Future of Europe is to keep the momentum going and ensure the public in Ireland are informed and engaged. In our Red C poll, 84% of people in Ireland wanted Ireland to remain a member of the EU and only 7% felt that it was not in our interest to remain a part of it. There is an increasing awareness and appreciation of the value and importance of our membership of and relationship with the EU, but we cannot afford to take that support and engagement for granted, and nor can we afford to take it lightly. That is why it is so important to maintain the momentum we built up during the citizens' dialogues. The Government, the Oireachtas and the committee have a unique opportunity to seize that momentum and harness those synergies to ensure that the Conference on the Future of Europe taking place in Ireland is meaningful, that it matters and that we contribute as a country to how we see the EU and how we see our role and place in it.

On Deputy Richmond's question of fearing treaty change, an organisation such as European Movement Ireland has a strong track record of engaging and dealing with the nine EU referendums we have had in this country. We should not necessarily fear it, but nor should it be the optimal solution. The outcomes and the outputs are more important. The whole process of that debate is meaningful and adds value to citizens in Ireland and across the EU. We should not get too hung up on the technicalities. It should not be a top-down initiative. It really has to be led by the citizens at the grassroots. That is what we saw, tangentially and concretely, when we were travelling around the country. People were motivated to come along, take part and have their say. Not everyone who participated was in favour of Ireland remaining a part of the EU but they all wanted to debate, engage and learn more about some of the key policy themes that will form the core part of the Conference on the Future of Europe. People left feeling that they were better informed and, crucially, that their opinion counted and was valued and that they had their say. If we can hang on to those key nuggets, that will make a success of the Conference on the Future of Europe. We say frequently that we have a tendency here to nationalise success and Europeanise failure. We do not want that to happen with the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Deputy Richmond asked where this process is at in other member states. Interestingly, my own umbrella organisation, European Movement International, holds its federal assembly this week. I would normally be in Berlin for the next three days, as it is the German Presidency, but instead we are all coming together digitally. For Professor Laffan's information, it is taking place over Zoom this year.

It is interesting to see where our fellow European movements and national councils are in terms of the whole Conference on the Future of Europe. There is an impatience. Equally, there is a sense of urgency that the conference must start while recognising that the EU institutions, quite honestly, did not have the bandwidth to initiate this Europe-wide debate on the Conference on the Future of Europe against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic. Interestingly, since the time of the Juncker Commission, that is, preceding the term of the current President of the Commission, Dr. von der Leyen, but also including it, the European Commission has been involved in 1,570 citizen dialogues across the different member states. Almost 200,000 citizens across EU member states have taken part in those European Commission-led dialogues.

What we are seeing now is the different countries putting forward their own proposals. It is a little ad hoc at present. Once the conference gets formally started and once the impetus and momentum officially kicks in and is instigated, the buy-in is there and it is officially launched, we hope we will see an increase in our figure of 20% of people in Ireland being aware of it and we will have an opportunity to participate. Equally, and in response to Deputy Calleary's well-made point about respect for the rule of law, we need to get our own house in order to ensure the means and mechanisms are in place institutionally to allow such a conference to take place in a meaningful way across all member states.

What we do not want is buy-in and support from particular member states and for others not to be fully engaged. This is about every one of the more than 450 million citizens of the Union. It is going to affect all citizens of the EU and it is important that they all feel they have a voice in their respective member states and an opportunity to engage meaningfully in the future direction of the Union.

I thank our guests for joining us to discuss this matter. I was struck by Professor Laffan's view that the timing of this convention is bad. We are where we are and we have to make the most of it. Hopefully, it will succeed. Professor Laffan spoke about the need for participation, engagement and education with reference to the citizens. That is absolutely crucial. Given our experience in Ireland, we have, as others stated, reasons to fear a referendum. It is vital that we engage more with the citizens.

That brings me to my question to Ms O'Connell, with whose work I am familiar. She described her involvement in organising the citizen dialogues on the future of Europe. Were any lessons learned from the dialogues about how we might approach this new aspect of the future of Europe? Civil society really engaged with that process. Could we do anything more to engage with citizens and get them on board with the process? How might the consultation process be improved?

I may be wrong but I got the impression that Dr. Coutts is not too enthusiastic about treaty change or the need for it. Public health is obviously a huge issue for the EU on foot of Covid-19. Can the existing treaties be further utilised to address it? Are any areas of the existing treaties crying out to be utilised more?

Sometimes I wonder how the EU functions at all. It is quite a cumbersome organisation. One wonders how decisions finally get made. Regarding the rule of law, for example, a recent headline announced that Hungary and Poland were blocking the EU's coronavirus package. This arose as a result of a meeting on Monday. Some other speakers have dealt with this. Do we have any reasons to be cheerful about the future of the European Union? Dr. Coutts made a throwaway comment about the rise of populism ceasing. What are the chances of success for this Conference on the Future of Europe?

I thank the witnesses for their engagement. I wish to say that I might have to leave early. It will not necessarily be because I do not like their answers.

It has already been stated that people see the necessity for harmonisation in pandemic supports, and in some cases want to see such harmonisation. Those supports may be followed by a Marshall Plan-type fiscal stimulus. That will go along with the European Commission's involvement in vaccine procurement and other health issues. Dr. Coutts spoke about health and fiscal competencies. How far can European integration be pushed under the Lisbon strategy before treaty change is needed? That is not necessarily where I want to go. There are fears of loss of state sovereignty. There are sometimes fears that Europe is overly interested in privatisation and is against state intervention. This has been turned on its head lately. There are also fears of possible militarisation.

We all welcome further engagement and see the necessity for it, particularly in the context of the matter to which I have already referred. This engagement should also concern Brexit and European solidarity on the issues of the Border and the Good Friday Agreement. People see the necessity of the European Union, but they still have the worries they had ten or more years ago about how Europe dealt with the banking crisis. As a committee, we accept that we need to raise our game where interaction is concerned. We must build our capacity to scrutinise European legislation and see where the drift is. How we can play a part in the further engagement of citizens? I like the idea of the standing citizens' assembly to which Dr. Coutts referred. How would he envisage that working?

Professor Brigid Laffan

Let me deal with the big-ticket items. Deputy Haughey asked if we have any reasons to be cheerful and whether any sovereignty issues are lurking out there. Our world is at one of history's seminal switch points. It happens every couple of hundred years, in long cycles. The fundamental political economy and the balance of power and force is shifting across the world. Digital technology is altering so much about how we live and who we are. In those periods of major shift, it is extremely important for countries, especially small countries, to be rooted in environments that provide them with anchors, shelters and scaffolding. After Brexit the EU will be Ireland's anchor, scaffolding and future. There will always be those who hold an almost fantastical view of sovereignty. We see this belief playing out in the United Kingdom. It is very damaging. In the end, sovereignty is about the ability to make the world better for our citizens. In the world we live in, Europe is one of our major anchors. However, it is an anchor that allows us to open to the rest of the world. I would never advocate restricting Ireland's view solely to Europe. Rather, Europe is Ireland's platform for the future.

On the question of reasons to be cheerful, the EU is a very different institution now to what it was prior to the euro crisis. It has become hardened by crises. It has had to confront one crisis after another. It has managed to deal with all those crises, although it has always done so suboptimally because that is the reality of compromise. Politics is a messy business. I have never seen a utopia or nirvana in my life.

On the fundamental capacity of the EU, the recovery fund, where common borrowing was seen as not possible and then suddenly became possible, is extremely important because apart from everything else, it will allow Europe to have a safe asset and will help build capital markets union and help protect Europe in a world of financialisation.

Have we, as a small state, reasons to fear? The EU is a political system and, like all political systems, it is characterised by power, and small states are just part of a Union of 27. If we ever need to worry about Ireland's capacity to influence or have a voice, all we have to do is to interrogate our own experience of the Brexit negotiations. It should not have been possible for Ireland to put its issue on the agenda, maintain it on the agenda and get outcomes that were preferable to other alternatives, unless small state voice and influence matter in the EU. It is really important how we frame Ireland's relationship with Europe. Europe is not over there; Europe is part of Ireland and we are part of it. I say this really strongly because of the nature of the world we live in today. There is no future for Ireland unless it engages with, influences and participates in that evolving European Union. It is the available scaffolding and anchor. If 19th century Irish nationalists had been told that there was a union in which Ireland could participate, with a seat at the table that was not dominated by the UK, Irish nationalism of the late 19th century would have thought that it was close to utopia. We need to be careful how we frame this and our relationship with Europe.

As to whether or not I am cheerful about the EU, I am an analyst so I am never cheerful but we should not underestimate the resilience and robustness of the EU at this juncture. It is partly because in the world we now live in, one that is dominated by great power competition between China and the US, the EU is Europe's essential arena in which to protect its interests in that world.

Dr. Stephen Coutts

I will take the questions in the order that they were asked. I am a bit ambiguous, and like Professor Laffan, as an analyst and academic, I am always wary of drawing very firm conclusions. That may also have something to do with my personality. To broadly characterise my position, and I think this view is shared by the other witnesses, treaty change for the sake of treaty change is not a good idea and it is a high-risk strategy but, at the same time, I would not preclude it necessarily. In terms of the existing treaties, I am afraid I cannot go into a huge amount of detail because in order to determine exactly what the Union can do, it is not enough to say that the Union has competences in any one policy area, be it fiscal, environment or consumer. One has to look at the very specific policy area and specific legal bases that are provided in the treaties to see exactly what the Union can do. That would require detailed study, which we have not done in particular policy areas. My own narrower area is citizens' rights, and I can certainly speak to that.

Broadly speaking, environment policy is a shared competence, as is consumer policy, but fiscal matters are quite restricted and the competences are very frequently characterised by the unanimity rule. Health is not even characterised as a shared competence but as a co-operative competence on which the Union simply co-ordinates the member states. As I said, I cannot speak exactly to the Union's competence in those specific areas at the moment and whether they are being utilised. Members would have to ask an expert more specifically, for example, somebody working in environmental law.

There seems to be an assumption that in order to achieve some sort of policy outcome that the Union itself has to adopt the legislation. The Union can also play a really important role in co-ordinating member states' competence, so one can use both the member state and the Union competence in any particular area to achieve a desired result. That is also a possibility that is worth emphasising.

There are also other options that would be short of treaty change which might be able to effect some increase in the efficiency of the Union, for example, greater use of the enhanced co-operation mechanism. There are also the passerelle clauses which allow the Union to shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas. There is a general passerelle clause and there are some specific ones in particular areas, for example, in environment and in social matters. The use of those clauses requires unanimity initially, as there must be a unanimous decision in order to make that change in the decision-making process, so that is a possibility that can be used. For particular areas which are frustrated by the operation of unanimity, for example, fiscal matters, the decision-making process could be changed, but that would involve overcoming the hurdle that unanimity is required in the first place to do that.

On the question of the standing citizens' assembly, this was just a remark that I made and I mentioned it somewhere without having personally thought it through in any great detail. What I would say is that much more careful consideration would have to be given to something like this. Some of the issues that would have to be considered would be the formation of any such assembly; its representative nature; how the agenda would be controlled; that it is properly resourced, which is very important in any of these arrangements; and what the outcome would be - whether it would be legislative proposals or something else. It would also have to be placed within the institutional structure of the Union and care would have to be taken about how it would fit within the broader institutional structure of the Union because the institutions are balanced in a very careful and delicate way. Careful consideration needs to be given when introducing new elements into it. I am thinking in particular about the operation of the European citizens' initiative, ECI, and how that fits within the broader law-making process of the Union.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

I thank Deputies Haughey and Ó Murchú for their questions. I will first answer Deputy Haughey's question on what lessons we learned from our own perspective. It is fair to say that throughout the citizen dialogue in the future of Europe process, which we completed on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs, best practice for us was ensuring that the outcomes were in a citizen-led, inclusive, accessible, transparent and impartial format. This follow-up was most important, as was that the issues were engaged with, and that people did not just turn up at 6 p.m. on a Thursday evening, participate really actively for two hours and that was the end of the matter. We were very clear that their views were part of the overall report and structure that fed into the Government's submission in Sibiu. We were able to concretely demonstrate that at the national event, inviting all the participants in the regional seminars to take part in the event in Kilmainham. That element of trust and confidence people had that the conference and their participation would yield positive change and lead to something happening was really important and it was crucial for us to ensure that was imparted throughout the process.

We think the citizen dialogues worked in that they were grassroots driven and reflected public policy. We did not judge. Rather, we were there to listen. If people had specific questions and answers, they were able to have their say, and the audience was very enthusiastic and constructive. It was important to have well-informed facilitators so that at every table, each with about ten people where we ensured gender and demographic balance and mix, the conversation was able to flow without influencing any outcomes.

The importance of the supporting buy-in from stakeholders was a big lesson for us. We saw it at each of the dialogues. If Members of the Oireachtas, county councillors or Members of the European Parliament came, it added value in terms of the practical, tangible engagement for the citizens. It also enabled those parliamentarians to explain the work that they were doing. That was important.

Another lesson that we will take away was about the disparity in knowledge, if I can put it that way, regarding the role of the EU and what was a local competence, what was a national competence and what was a European competence. That certainly was a challenge in some of the locations. The table facilitators, overall rapporteur and moderators were quite supportive and constructive in bringing the conversation back to the issues at hand and explaining the differences in competencies. That can probably act as a reminder of the importance of educating, informing and having an informed conversation on European issues and matters among the wider public in Ireland. We cannot just speak about it in abstract terms. We wanted to ensure that we were reflecting people's views, rather than judging them. That is particularly timely as we, as a country, approach the symbolic milestone of the 50th anniversary of our accession to the European Economic Community - notwithstanding that we are going to be losing a classmate that joined at the same time.

There are forces of populism in our increasingly geopolitically multipolar world. Speaking to Professor Laffan's point, Ireland has a role to play. We are at the heart of Europe. There are going to be challenges on that next year and into the future. We have to be on the offensive. We must engage constructively in terms of how we see our place, our role, and how we engage the people in this country on that debate. That is why it is so important that the ongoing conversation takes place but also that ongoing ownership of the conversation takes place and people feel their views are listened to, heard, valued and understood.

I will speak to what Dr. Coutts and Professor Laffan said. As committee members might be aware, European Movement Ireland has hosted approximately 16 webinars since the pandemic began. We have engaged with the European Commission and the European Parliament. We did an event with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, on the German Presidency last week. We engaged with the European Ombudsman. We did a Brussels connection event with the Minister of State with responsibility for EU affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, who spoke to Irish people newly arriving to Brussels as interns in the EU institutions. We have had close to 10,000 online views and engagements with more than 1,500 people logging in. Instead of having 80 people in the offices of the permanent representation of Ireland to the European Union, we had 200 taking part in an online forum. There are pros and cons, but our obvious preference would be to get back to a hybrid version that maximises the advantages of the digital world. That is a lesson we can take away from the citizen dialogues. We also need face-to-face engagement because that is really where the connection and creativity comes in.

I thank Ms O'Connell, Dr. Coutts and Professor Laffan for their presentations. The idea of a conference on the future of Europe is very good. I like the idea that we would be engaging more directly with citizens to get their views on how they want their Europe to work and what should take place. The Brexit situation has had a twofold impact on Ireland. It has, in some ways, made us appreciate more the European Union and being a part of the bigger bloc because of the support we have received. I think Professor Laffan spoke about a small country getting its issue to the fore and keeping it there. Citizens in Ireland have heard a lot more about the European Union in the past three years than they would have done previously because it has been in the national media consistently, almost every week, because Brexit has dominated. Before Covid-19, Brexit was the key issue and it is still teetering away. That has made citizens here more aware of the EU. They appreciate the fact that we are a part of a bigger family and the supports that come from that.

It has also made us look at some of the shortcomings of Europe. I am sure other member states feel the same. Ultimately, a very large member state has left and many of its people voted to leave. They did so for varying reasons but they obviously felt that their interests were not being properly served by the European Union and did not want to be a part of it anymore. There is a question for every member state. We must ask why that happened and what we need to address. We must have an introspective look at the European Union and what we need to do better. This conference is, therefore, very timely.

It is good for Ireland that we are more connected to Europe because of the Brexit process. My concern is that trying to engage with citizens in every member state across the board is a mammoth task. How will that be done? How is the information that is collected then collated and distilled? Ms O'Connell spoke about her future of Europe project and pointed out the difficulty of ensuring it is not just a two-hour engagement but has an outcome and product at the end of it. I am concerned about the practicalities of running this conference in a meaningful way. How will it even be run? What will it look like in Ireland? It cannot be just any one thing. It is not just going to be a series of Zoom calls or town hall meetings because if we want to reach out to everybody, we are going to have to use several mechanisms to do so. After that engagement, how do we collate the information and send it up the line at an EU level to ensure that Ireland's views are represented in the overall outcome of this? I would welcome our guests' practical ideas as to how this conference might look in Ireland. What shape will it take? There is a risk that the conference might be a little too high level. I do not mean that in a disparaging way.

I thank Ms O'Connell for her document because I love how she has set out, in bullet points, the priority areas for each of the three institutions. I have a page on which I have written what I think citizens in Ireland associate with the European Union. The first is the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budget because farmers are very interested in CAP. I think that even those citizens who are not involved in farming associate the EU with farming and agriculture. It has become synonymous with how we do our business here in terms of funding the production of food and the agricultural sector.

Citizens will also think of defence policy, and maybe not in a very positive way, but it comes to mind. Dr. Coutts outlined why treaty change, while we do not want to rule it out, can be difficult because something like defence policy tends to pop up and no matter what is being discussed, it is interpreted as referring to an EU army. Citizens associate European treaties with discussions on defence. The other topic is migration. The committee has recently been discussing the new pact on migration. Citizens here would think of that issue at a European level.

Citizens here also look at climate and environmental policy as coming generally through directives from EU level. Those are the big issues that Irish citizens would associate with the European Union. Perhaps they also associate taxation with the Union, to a lesser extent. We have been hearing a little bit about that, perhaps as a result of the Apple tax case and a push at EU level for us to change how we organise our tax system. Those are the topics that will likely occur to Irish citizens.

There seem to be predefined topics for the conference. The Commission, the Council and the Parliament have identified their priority areas but have done so in isolation from citizens. We are coming to citizens with predefined topics that they want to discuss. One can see straight away that the Parliament is more connected to the grass roots and citizens because it has mentioned taxation, the environment and security. It has identified those as topics likely to pop up in member states. The bullet points that Ms O'Connell has prepared for the Council and the Commission's priorities include things such as an economy that works for people. What does that even mean? It means different things to different people. It is very high level. If we start a conference on these hifalutin, broad, sweeping topics, people will zone out. They will not know what something means or how to input into a conversation about it.

If we have a clear engagement at an EU level on climate policy, the EU CAP budget or how we fund our food production - something more defined - then we might find the engagement to be more meaningful. It may reach beyond what Professor Laffan referred to as the EU nerds who talk about the different treaties and articles. That would have a value for the ordinary citizen. I agree they do not care because it does not affect them in their daily lives.

I apologise if I have rambled on. I am discussing a number of issues. In a practical way, how do we run this conference in Ireland? What does it look like? How do we ensure people believe their input will be passed up the line and become part of the overall output of this conference? How do we identify topics that will interest people? How do we ensure this is not a high-level broad academic discussion on Europe's place in the world and that kind of thing? We need to bring it back down to how the EU affects people and decide the topics we are going to discuss. We should be happy to discuss difficult topics rather than avoiding them.

I apologise; I missed the beginning. I will make one or two comments to follow on from what Senator Chambers said. I spent 15 years in the European Parliament meeting, canvassing and talking to people as well as taking part in various events and functions, etc. Senator Chambers put her finger on it when she said that people are genuinely interested in what interests them. For farmers it will be the CAP. For carers it will be work-life balance. People who are interested in the environment will look to the Green New Deal and the biodiversity strategy. Young people might be more interested in Erasmus.

Then there are cross-cutting issues. People are interested in consumer policy and rights. Some people are interested in data protection. We have the cross-cutting issue of climate change. Healthcare and taxation were mentioned. Someone mentioned a specific topic: the economy and how it works for each of us. People will be interested in specific rights that workers have and, for example, how they relate to redundancy or the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund. All these issues mean something to people on a practical level. My experience in trying to get people interested involved finding a hook. When we find a hook, people will be interested in listening, talking and engaging.

I have a general question. I know we are not discussing the row at the moment around the budget and the fact that two member states are not accepting the conditionality that is being attached to it. I know it is out of scope, but I am interested in the views of the panellists on that and where we go from here.

Professor Brigid Laffan

These are crucial questions. There is no easy way of democratising political space across a continent with 450 million people plus. Yet, that is the political system that our system is involved with. It is necessary, therefore, to engage.

We were asked how it should be run. I believe there will be two dimensions. The first is the national dimension. Member states will be asked to organise discussions, debates, dialogues and forums within their territory. I know from the people who are thinking about it in the Commission that there will be pan-European citizens' assemblies of some kind. We have to think nationally and pan-nationally in both a national and a European sense. We will have two levels. All of that, of course, only relates to the part to do with citizens. Parliaments and governments will be involved as well. It is not simply going to be a free-floating engagement only with citizens. I image COSAC will be involved, etc.

How to collate what comes out of this? That will be driven by substantive issues. Not everything in the EU will be debated because, as we know, the EU has considerable policy competence. Most of it will remain the same and will not be discussed. One issue that will be on the table is public health. The pandemic has driven public health up the agenda. How can Europe and the member states be ready for a future pandemic? How can they have the PPE and the capacities, etc? Climate change is the greatest challenge facing the world. Of course it affects everything and it is cross-cutting. It affects how we all live and breathe and how our cities and countryside will work, etc. Climate will be important on the agenda. Migration will be important on the agenda because Europe finds itself in an unstable neighbourhood. I have learned from living in Italy during the past eight years that the pressing Mediterranean problems are far away from us in Ireland, but they are highly pressing in the Mediterranean coastal states. Interestingly, CAP will be seen through environment and security because the CAP budget is effectively decided now to 2027. What about security and defence? I believe we will get far more European emphasis on cybersecurity through PESCO and defence but NATO will continue to be the dominant defence organisation in Europe. Of course, this will require a shift of European NATO member states because the US under Mr. Biden, and not only under Mr. Trump, will expect the Europeans to do more.

We know the substantive issues. What we do not yet know is how the conference will be used to engage on these issues or what the purpose of all of it is. Taxation and political economy will be on the agenda as well.

Deputy Harkin made a point about the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and the Hungarians and Poles. I said something on this earlier, but I believe it is now time for the governments of the other member states to put maximum pressure on Poland and Hungary. This is the Rubicon. They cannot be allowed to get away with it. They cannot be allowed to stymie the recovery fund. We must remember that both these countries have received billions of European taxpayers' money during the past cycle. They, therefore, have to be stopped. It is difficult legally to do this and it is difficult to do it via Article 7, but I believe maximum political pressure has to be brought to bear in making the point that the quality of their membership will be damaged - I would put it that strongly - if they persist in undermining the continent at this precise moment of pandemic.

Dr. Stephen Coutts

Professor Laffan has touched on some of the points I wanted to make so my comments will be brief. I wrote down that it will be a two-level process. Individual member states will draw on their democratic experiences and mechanisms and do things their own particular way. There will be a pan-European or transnational dimension as well. Why I believe that is important is precisely because of the issues listed by Senator Chambers.

There are all these different issues and member states will have different opinions, and not just the Governments of the member states but also the populations of the member states. Consider taxation, for example. Ireland is almost totemic in that we have to maintain our sovereignty regarding corporate taxation in particular. The completely opposite point of view is present in a lot of other member states and among their populations. It is important to have at European level a pan-European transnational citizens' assembly so that citizens can come together and recognise that compromise will probably be necessary in particular policy areas, and that national interests will have to be reconciled. This is why there are benefits at a national level, precisely because that is where democracy takes place and it is where debate typically takes place. Member states have their own mechanisms and histories in how they involve citizens in decision making. The pan-European dimension will also be really important precisely to bring out the fact that in policy areas reconciliation will have to take place. That is the purpose of deliberative democracy: that people can hear the point of view of other people, can be informed about it in a reflective and proper way, and can come to more considered opinions having taken into account the views of others. If that takes place at a European level it can be really beneficial as well.

On the agenda and who controls it, I believe this is a key point that needs to be worked out. Obviously, a certain amount of issues need to be put on the table but I would hope there is some scope for citizens to bring other things to the table that are important to them, and that nothing is really excluded that is a priority. In a context where citizens are made aware of where the powers are to do particular things and how it would take place, Noelle made an interesting point about having to explain the competencies of the Union. I will come back to the example of the ECI. A number of these have failed simply because they proposed things that the Union does not have competence to do. That is very frustrating for the people who have signed up to these initiatives. It seems as though their ideas are being rejected on a technical issue but it is actually very important. It is important that there is some agenda control on the part of the citizens' initiatives but how that happens has to be very transparent. What the outcome will be must also be considered and I note there are some differences between the different institutions on precisely how they foresee the outcomes of these deliberations. Again, I would not say they should lead to directly binding legal proposals in any way. That would not fit within the Union's legislative structure. There should, however, be some commitment to a proper consideration of the outcomes and a response to them, absolutely.

My final point is on the budget and the current issues around the MFF. I would echo absolutely everything Professor Laffan has said. I believe this has gone on for far too long. This is a long problem now and there have been problems in dealing with it due to the political system in the EU. From a lawyer's perspective, the European Court of Justice has taken a number of actions against Poland in particular, and the Commission has taken the infringement actions, but that route is very limited. It is limited in the legitimacy it has in the affected member states and they are also very discrete actions. While it is very important that the European Court of Justice underlined why this is very damaging from a constitutional perspective and to the Union's legal order, it is limited in what it can do. There absolutely needs to be a political response. The article 7 procedure is fatally undermined by the requirement for unanimity where there are two states willing to support each other.

The financial conditionality is a really important tool. As has been pointed out, these states are huge beneficiaries of the EU budget. Of the parties concerned, EuropeFides is a huge beneficiary also of the EU budget. That is the lever the EU has. The EU does not need a police force and it does not need an armed force. It dispenses huge amounts of money and that is a huge opportunity for leverage. It is precisely the kind of tool that is necessary to address this matter. It is long overdue that a way be found to push forward with this . As was pointed out, it is a cancer and it needs to be dealt with head on.

I thank Dr. Coutts. Lastly, I invite Ms Noelle O'Connell. I just want Ms O'Connell to know we are a wee bit strapped for time.

Ms Noelle O'Connell

That is no problem. They were great questions from Senator Lisa Chambers and Deputy Marian Harkin. Conscious of time, I will be brief.

I absolutely agree with Senator Chambers on the practicalities. Fundamentally, it has to be framed within a context of communicating the issues in a way that resonates with people. We also need to be very clear on the parameters with regard to expectation management. Similar to the comments made by Brigid and Stephen, it is not just going to be a national dialogue here in Ireland, there also has to be that pan-European element. How we input the Irish dimension into that is going to be very important to ensure it is considered and taken into account. I was asked to present the Irish viewpoint to the French National Assembly's EU affairs committee, and also in Lithuania. It was really interesting to share that experience. It is very important that it is pan-European and is fully reflective of the diversity of the different member states.

On a practical level in Ireland, do we look at it as a form of citizens' assembly light? It might not be an all-day event, as is the current Citizens' Assembly. We did it previously in two hours. We ensured that people were engaged, that there were ample refreshments, and that it was very accessible. On the point made about the hook, that is exactly it. I was moderating all of the dialogues. On the point made about the economy, we drilled that down to jobs and what that means for families, communities and regions. Deputy Harkin spoke about education. We covered young people, job opportunities, Erasmus, languages, and living, studying and working abroad. No one size fits all so we have to allow in best European practice a degree of subsidiarity, as Brigid alluded to, and that the issues of primary concern in Mediterranean countries are perhaps somewhat different from some of the concerns and focus here. That flexibility has to be unbuilt.

On Deputy Harkin and Senator Chambers's point, we were talking about the environment, climate change and CAP. Those are key fundamentals that direct and focus on how we all live and the food we consume. Keeping it very simple and at a tangible and practical level was how we ensured the buy-in and the engagement on the ground. It was not too highfalutin and it was very practical.

Security and defence was probably the most interesting takeaway for me, if I can be really honest. Whether we were in Cork or Letterkenny, Kilkenny or Galway, it was interesting to see the evolving views and perspectives on security and defence. I heard words during discussions on cybersecurity and cyberterrorism. Interestingly, the most recent Eurobarometer in October shows that 63% of us in Ireland favour a common defence and security policy. The EU average is 77%. We are not too far off that EU average. At 63% that Eurobarometer finding is a significant increase from our own poll back in April and March of this year that saw 49%. It is interesting to see that level of debate and engagement.

We also have the flexibility of having an open-mic session and a little bit of wriggle room opportunity for people to raise questions that may not necessarily be aligned to the five core themes, as I outlined in our briefing note. That flexibility is important but it is also important that it is fed up the chain very concretely, and is seen to deliver at a European level and pan-European level the Irish input. That will be really important. We see it as marrying the best of the bottom-up grassroots initiatives and ensuring we continue to offensively engage and have our say, not rest on our laurels or take a step back, and proactively input into this wider debate. It is vital that we do that. We have a real opportunity now. Given the uncertainty of the future we face and the uncertainty of the Covid pandemic, the onus and responsibility is on us to proactively seize this moment to make it a better and more effective Union for all of our citizens across all member states.

I thank the witnesses and members for joining the debate this morning from Dublin, Cork and Florence, Italy. It was a really engaging debate and it is worth pointing out that the responsibility and the challenge set out, in particular by Professor Brigid Laffan in relation to our education role and the importance of our parliamentary function through this committee, have not been lost on us. While the witnesses were making those suggestions and setting out that stall and challenge, I contacted a school to see whether it would be interested in joining in online and it was. I thank the principal of St. Mary's Holy Faith Secondary School in Killester, Ms Evelyn McLoughlin, whose third year CSPE class joined in with their teacher, Ms Crowley. This shows how quickly and instantaneously we can reach out and bring people in. We had the third year class join in and listen to the witnesses' and members' contributions. I decided to be very non-parochial. I was tempted to contact a school in Donegal but I decided to stick with the capital here. Deputy Seán Haughey gives a big shout out to his constituents in Killester.

The debate sometimes revolves around where we get started and how we get started, but this debate has already started. Sometimes we spend a lot of time looking under the EU bonnet to check the engine. The engine is going well in many respects and recent Brexit discussions and conversations centred on solidarity in Europe and Ireland's continued participation. The witnesses' job has been very well crafted today in analysing the situation. They reflect very well that there are fears and trepidations around what the answer might be if one put a treaty change question to the people. Parliaments in Europe have to change tack and, as parliamentarians, we must focus on the opportunities and the exciting challenges that lie ahead. If there are third year students in Killester listening in this morning, then they need to hear about the opportunities in Brussels and Strasbourg, and the important participatory role we will have in the future. We can reach out and engage. We have the platforms, the technology and the communications and we have to realise what is on our doorstep, whether it is at a local authority level or community engagement level.

Everybody is doing very well but the big thing to take from today is that it is no longer a question of when we will start the conversation on the Conference on the Future of Europe. It has already started and the committee is grateful for the witnesses' contributions today. We have been at this for a number of weeks. We are going to compile a report on this and I think the starter's gun has gone off. What is needed, post Covid-19, is talk about hope. The opposite of hope is despair and we have nothing but hope to talk about within the European project. In order for us to mould a new future, we must reach out to the younger generation, the older generation and people who have felt excluded from the conversation up to now.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gcoiste agus leis na finnéithe as an díospóireacht. Níl an dualgas atá orainn mar choiste amháin chun spás a dhéanamh don díospóireacht ach tá dualgas orainn i dtaobh ról oideachtais fosta, agus tá sé sin iontach tábhachtach.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.04 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 November 2020.