Ceisteanna–Questions. Priority Questions. - Intergovernmental Conference.

Proinsias De Rossa

Ceist:

2 Proinsias De Rossa asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the Government's priorities for the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference to resolve the institutional matters not dealt with by the Amsterdam Treaty and which have to be settled before enlargement of the Union; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the European Parliament is seeking a broadening of that agenda; the Government's views on the Parliament's proposals; if he will make arrangements to keep Dáil Éireann informed on the progress of discussions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8468/00]

As the House will be aware, it was decided at the Cologne European Council in June 1999 to convene an Intergovernmental Con ference with a mandate to examine institutional changes necessary for enlargement. It was agreed that the conference would deal, in particular, with issues left unresolved at Amsterdam, including the size and composition of the Commission, the weighting of votes in the Council and the possible extension of qualified majority voting in the Council, as well as other necessary amendments to the treaties, consequential on enlargement.

At the European Council in Helsinki last December it was agreed that the Intergovernmental Conference would convene in February 2000 and would aim to conclude by December 2000. As regards the agenda, it endorsed the focus on the issues remaining from Amsterdam, as well as other necessary amendments arising in the context of enlargement and the implementation of the Amsterdam Treaty. It was also agreed that the Presidency would report to the European Council in June on progress made in the conference and on any proposals for additions to the conference agenda. It is also intended that there will be a brief progress report to the meeting of the European Council this week in Lisbon but, given the focus on employment issues, a substantive discussion is not envisaged on this occasion.

As the Minister with overall responsibility for these negotiations, the Minister for Foreign Affairs attends the ministerial sessions of the Intergovernmental Conference, including that held in Brussels on 20 March. It is envisaged that the Intergovernmental Conference will continue to meet monthly at ministerial level, to coincide with meetings of the General Affairs Council and to take forward the work of the preparatory group. The Irish member of the Preparatory Group is Mr. Noel Dorr, former Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs. In view of the importance of these negotiations, arrangements have been put in place for wide ranging interdepartmental consultations, chaired by my Department, covering all aspects of the Intergovernmental Conference agenda. This, in turn, feeds into the work of the Cabinet Committee on European Affairs. We will, of course, be happy to keep the House advised of progress in the work of the conference.

At a time of major change both within the Union and in the wider international arena, Ireland's priority objectives for the Intergovernmental Conference will be to ensure that the Union is equipped to function effectively in the context of enlargement and to make certain that the delicate institutional balance which lies at the heart of the Union is maintained in any new arrangements.

Additional Information.

As a smaller member state, Ireland has a particular interest in ensuring that these balances, including those between large and small member states, which contribute to the unique character of the Union are maintained for the future. In this regard, we have made clear that the proper functioning of the Union requires that each member state retains the right to nominate a commissioner. We believe this is desirable not only from a national perspective but because it serves to reinforce the authority and credibility of the Commission across the Union. The Minister for Foreign Affairs made our position in this regard very clear at the ministerial meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference in Brussels earlier this week.

As regards a review of the weighting of votes in the Council, we note that this has been linked to the suggestion that larger member states would be willing to forgo their second commissioner. We will carefully consider any specific proposals which might be put forward under this heading to ensure that they indeed contribute to the effective functioning of the Union while maintaining the necessary institutional balance. However, any change would have to be conditional on the willingness of the larger member states to give up their second commissioner and by assurances regarding the right of each member state to nominate a commissioner.

With regard to qualified majority voting, it is, of course, the case that QMV already applies to a very significant part of the Council's work. Our experience to date has been that the operation of qualified majority voting has been generally helpful to Irish interests, for example, in the context of the Common Agricultural Policy and the completion of the Single Market, and has facilitated the adoption of measures which were beneficial from an Irish perspective. It will also be recalled that at Amsterdam, Ireland, together with a significant majority of member states, was prepared to consider extending QMV to some additional areas but, in the end, agreement did not prove possible. Our approach to proposals to extend the scope of QMV will be to examine each area on a case-by-case basis with a view to assessing whether a move to QMV would serve our interests and those of the Union. Bearing in mind that in a number of sensitive areas the case for retaining the present unanimity provisions remains overwhelming, we will also, of course, be conscious that on occasions unanimity can serve to prevent adoption of decisions to which we attach importance.

In keeping with the commitment to work closely with the institutions, it was agreed at Helsinki that the European Parliament would be invited to designate two of its members to participate in the preparatory group and that each meeting at ministerial level would be preceded by an exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament. These arrangements, which go beyond those in place for previous Intergovernmental Conferences, are working well. The meetings with the President of the Parliament, Madame Fontaine, and her colleagues, have helped to ensure that both Ministers and the Parliament are aware of the others' views. In this context, while careful attention will be paid to the position of the Parliament on the substantive issues, it is fair to say that we would not share the Parliament's view that the Intergovernmental Conference agenda should be considerably expanded beyond that agreed by the Helsinki European Council.

Ireland is determined to contribute constructively to the work of the Intergovernmental Conference. We have a vital interest in its success and in ensuring that an enlarged Union, in which due account is taken of the necessary balances, is in a position to play its part in the rapidly changing global environment.

It is unfortunate that the Minister did not have an opportunity to continue as we were just about to get to the meat of the reply. Perhaps, when replying to my supplementary question, she might conclude her reply. Will she indicate what arrangements she intends to make to keep the Dáil advised of the issues as they evolve and to allow it, either in the House or in committee, to debate those issues in order that the Government would be informed of Members' views?

I understand the Minister is very willing to keep the House advised of progress in the work of the Intergovernmental Conference. It is important that I outline the key issues with which we are concerned in the context of completing the Intergovernmental Conference agenda. As I stated earlier, our main objective will be to ensure that the Union is equipped to function effectively in the context of enlargement and to make certain that the delicate institutional balance which lies at the heart of the Union is maintained in any new arrangements. As a smaller member state, Ireland has a particular interest in ensuring that these balances, including between large and small member states, which contribute to the unique character of the Union are maintained for the future.

We have made clear that the proper functioning of the Union requires that each member state retains the right to nominate a Commissioner. We believe this is desirable not only from a national perspective, but because it serves to reinforce the authority and credibility of the Commission across the Union. Our position in this regard has been made clear.

As regards the weighting of votes in the Council, this has been linked with the suggestion that larger member states would be willing to forego their second Commissioner. We will carefully consider any specific proposals which might be put forward under this heading to ensure that they contribute to the effective functioning of the Union while maintaining the necessary institutional balance. Any change would have to be conditional on the willingness of the larger member states to give up their second Commissioner and by assurances regarding the right of each member state to nominate a Commissioner.

It is, of course, the case that QMV already applies to a very significant part of the Council's work. Our experience to date has been that the operation of QMV has been generally helpful to Irish interests, for example, in the context of the CAP and the completion of the Single Market, and has facilitated the adoption of measures which were beneficial from an Irish perspective. It will also be recalled that in Amsterdam, Ireland, along with a significant majority of member states, was prepared to consider extending QMV to some additional areas, but agreement did not prove possible in the end. Our approach to proposals to extend QMV will be to examine each area on a case by case basis with a view to assessing whether a move to QMV would serve our interests and those of the Union. Bearing in mind that, in a number of sensitive areas, the case for retaining the present unanimity provisions remains overwhelming, we are conscious that, on occasions, unanimity can serve to prevent adoption of decisions to which we attach importance. These issues are of major interest to the Irish Parliament and it is important that we continue to report progress in respect of them.

In keeping with the commitment to work closely with the institutions, it was agreed at Helsinki that the European Parliament would be invited to designate two of its members to participate in the preparatory group and that each meeting at ministerial level would be preceded by an exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament. These arrangements, which go beyond those in place for previous intergovernmental conferences, are working well. The meetings with the President of the Parliament, Madame Fontaine, and her colleagues have helped ensure that both Ministers and the Parliament are aware of the others views. In this context, while careful attention will be paid to the position of the Parliament on the substantive issues, we would not share the Parliament's view that the Intergovernmental Conference agenda should be considerably expanded.

The six minutes for this question have concluded.

On a point of order, may I suggest that we might consider the way replies are structured. Perhaps the Departments should be circulated with copies of the rules which apply in relation to the restrictions on time for replies.

The Chair has no control over that matter but I accept the Deputy's point. There are two minutes for the initial ministerial reply.