Ceisteanna — Questions. - Ministers and Secretaries Group.

John Bruton

Ceist:

6 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach the number of meetings held to date in 1998 of the Ministers and Secretaries Group; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14423/98]

The Ministers and Secretaries General Group on EU Policy has met three times since the beginning of the year. As part of its general supervisory role in relation to EU policy the group is responsible for co-ordinating the Irish approach to the key European issues including enlargement, institutional reform and the Agenda 2000 negotiations. Interdepartmental structures including the senior officials group chaired by my Department and groups on Agenda 2000 and on enlargement chaired by the Department of Foreign Affairs, report to it.

What is the position in regard to Agenda 2000? Will any particular institutional arrangement be put in place to prepare the Government's negotiating position?

The interdepartmental group on Agenda 2000 meets monthly. The role of that group, which is chaired by the Department of Foreign Affairs, is to consider the overall strategy to the Agenda 2000 negotiations and to report to the Ministers and Secretaries Group. It takes account of all developments at any Council meetings that take place during the month. The key Departments with responsibility for Agenda 2000, which include my Department, are represented on that group. Much of the co-ordination between the Departments concerned takes place on a day to day informal basis but as we get into the detailed discussions towards the latter half of September, the importance of this group will grow. Most of the studies and the examinations for the various negotiating positions have been finalised by the different Departments.

Does the Taoiseach believe that the target date of March for the conclusion of the Agenda 2000 negotiations is realistic? Does he consider it is politically judicious to aim to conclude negotiations of this sensitivity within two months of the European elections, given that the Parliament has to sign off on any deal and is probably less likely to be in a statement-like mood within two months of the European elections than at any other time in its life?

It is questionable whether the negotiations can be concluded by that time. The European Council is determined that it be completed. Chancellor Kohl has laid out a programme in conjunction with the Commission and in co-operation with Chancellor Klima that will ensure the negotiations are concluded by the March deadline. Certainly that is the intention. It is hoped that between September and the Vienna Council, which will take place in early December, they will have moved to the stage of taking final decisions on Agenda 2000. Most of the homework and the analysis will be done. In the first three months of the German Presidency it is intended that it will be all wrapped up. That is Chancellor Kohl's intention at this stage. It depends on what happens later in the year. As Deputy Bruton is aware, when the Commission works to a time-table it normally meets it or thereabouts. The European Council, the Commission and the Parliament are anxious that this Parliament conclude on these matters and that they are not left over. The view is that if they cannot complete it in 1999, it will drift into 2000. Since we are talking about the financial perspective that starts on 1 January 2000 they should not bring proposals into a Parliament for 2000. That makes sense and that is the programme we are working to at this stage.

December would be more realistic than March.

In view of the absolute necessity to complete this work before the termination of office of this Parliament and of the Commission, the March deadline has a certain degree of political logic attached to it, although there are the risks to which Deputy Bruton has referred. From the point of view of maximising Ireland's national interest and the fact that the Taoiseach said in his reply that this group will be finalising its negotiating position in the second half of September, will the Taoiseach bring forward the proposals, in whatever is considered an appropriate form for discussion in this House, in order that the Oireachtas can have a clear voice and input into the negotiating position of the Government between October and March of next year?

I will certainly listen to what is been said in the House and I have no difficulty about a debate in the House. So far as laying down for others our negotiating hand, I do not think that should be done. If we have a debate in the autumn parties and individuals could express their views. I know from speaking with colleagues in the European Council that everybody is operating on negotiating positions. Clearly they are working out other strategies and formulas and will not show those in public or to the Commission or the Presidency until the negotiations get into the final period. I recall the last two rounds — Edinburgh in 1992 and the earlier discussions in Brussels in 1989, in which I was involved, one of which finished at 4 a.m. and the other at 3 a.m. Unfortunately that is how these matters go. People show their final hand in the final hours. We have to be clever as well.

I am not asking the Taoiseach to weaken the hand of the Government by showing it too extensively. What I am offering is the contrary. Will the Taoiseach agree that, if there were a comprehensive debate in the House on Agenda 2000, especially on the sensitive area of agriculture and the reform of CAP, and if all the participating social partners affected by the consequences of Agenda 2000 were allowed to contribute to it in a democratic and open way, it would strengthen the hand of Irish negotiators?

I have no difficulty with having a debate in the House on the issue. Agenda 2000, like previous rounds, is very important and the Common Agricultural Policy will be dramatically affected, although no one knows what that will entail. I readily agree to a debate on it in the House as it would be of benefit.

Have the Ministers and Secretaries Group considered the Schengen agreement given the Cardiff Summit statement that progress is being made for Norwegian and Icelandic citizens, who are not citizens of the European Union, to have greater ease of access to the European Union than Irish citizens when the Schengen agreement is incorporated in the treaty? While this is not a problem of the Taoiseach's making, I point out the necessity for him to try to find some way to allow Irish citizens to travel within the European Union without having to show a passport. There would be great resentment among Irish citizens that people from Iceland and Norway, who are outside the Union, will not have to show a passport while they will. I urge the Taoiseach to have the Ministers and Secretaries Group continue to examine this. It may be possible to obtain a concession allowing Irish citizens to travel by showing, for example, a driving licence or a similar identity document. It is something about which we should be concerned.

This issue has been discussed and the difficulties outlined by Deputy Mitchell are correct. I note what he said.

Could the Taoiseach have a word with the British Prime Minister about it?

The Deputy knows the difficulties with that from his time in Government.

There is a different Prime Minister now.