European Council: Statements.

I attended the European Council in Laeken, Belgium on 14 and 15 of December last, accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy.

The Presidency conclusions and declarations adopted by the European Council have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The European Council marked the conclusion of a successful Belgian Presidency of the European Union. The Belgian Presidency in the second half of last year faced some considerable new challenges following 11 September and I pay tribute to the former Presidency. Very real progress was made in advancing the EU's agenda during its term and the effectiveness of the Union was enhanced.

I also note the election of Mr. Pat Cox as President of the European Parliament. His election is a great achievement for Mr. Cox and for Ireland and demonstrates that the smaller member states can and do play a significant role in Europe, building a Union which is in tune with the best of Ireland's aspirations and ideals. I look forward to Pat Cox attending European Council meetings in the future. His election as President of the European Parliament, together with recent appointments of Irish people to the highest level of the European Commission, shows that despite our small size we can punch above our weight through the talent and excellence of our people.

At the European Council in December, we finalised plans for the introduction of the euro notes and coins; we adopted the Laeken Declaration on the Future of Europe; we examined the Union's efforts to restore stability and to bring aid to the people of Afghanistan; we reviewed measures taken or proposed by the European Union to combat international terrorism; we undertook to renew the impetus to strengthen the Union's area of freedom, security and justice; we reviewed progress on enlargement; we adopted a declaration on the operational capability of the European security and defence policy, and we looked at economic and social trends.

My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, will focus on the range of external relations issues which were discussed at the Laeken European Council. I will concentrate for the most part on the internal EU agenda, and I will also mention the Laeken Declaration.

The European Council looked forward to the launch of the euro notes and coins. At Laeken we noted correctly that preparations for the introduction of the euro should facilitate a trouble free transition to the new currency. Even though we were optimistic, no one could have foreseen the scale of the success. Nonetheless, it is a tribute to the great common sense of the Irish people and to the careful preparation for the change that preceded it, that the introduction of the notes and coins went so smoothly and that Ireland was in the first rank of countries in terms of a successful changeover. The introduction of euro notes and coins has brought the European Union tangibly into the homes and pockets of people all over the 12 euro countries. Such a positive and trouble-free introduction of the euro is likely to strengthen internal markets, reassure international markets and assist in the economic recovery of the euro-zone. It will be a challenge to all of us in this House over the coming months and years to ensure the significance of other vital aspects of European integration are made as tangible to our citizens as the euro changeover has been. I acknowledge the work of the Euro Changeover Board, the Central Bank and all those involved in the retail trade and other sectors who made it a success.

At Nice in December 2000 we agreed the arrangements for the conduct of the Future of Europe debate would be decided at Laeken in 2001. The declaration we adopted at Nice called for a deeper and wider debate about the future of the European Union. We recognised that there was a need to improve and monitor the democratic legitimacy and transparency of the Union and its institutions in order to bring them closer to the citizens of the member states. We recognised at Nice that a majority of the citizens of the European Union were not fully engaged with the institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg and did not always see connections between the actions of the Union and their own day to day lives. It was from this recognition at Nice that a number of member states established consultative bodies focused on the Future of Europe. In Ireland we established the National Forum on Europe which provides an additional channel for the national debate on the Future of Europe.

We agreed at Laeken that we must work now to make the Union a true Union of the people of Europe. Engagement by the people with the Union is crucial. A real engagement can only be based on relevant and reliable information. As the Union enlarges and membership grows, it becomes imperative for all of us to explain to our citizens the who, why and how of the EU.

We agreed at the Nice European Council that the following issues would be addressed in the Future of Europe debate: the separation of power between the Union and member states; the status of the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights; simplification of the treaties and the role of national parliaments. The Nice Declaration, having set out some of the issues that needed to be addressed, agreed that a new conference of the representatives of the Governments of the member states would be convened in 2004 to address them. At Laeken we explored these areas in greater detail. The Laeken Declaration sets out a series of questions on a broad range of issues. While we all agree on the questions, there will be a very wide divergence among the member states on the answers.

In order to address these issues and to prepare for the next intergovernmental conference in 2004, the European Council in Laeken decided to establish a convention on the Future of Europe. This convention will be composed of one Government representative and two representatives from the national parliaments of each member state, 16 members of the European Parliament and two Commission representatives. The accession candidate countries will also be fully involved in the convention's proceedings. The Council agreed to the appointment of former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as Chairman of the Convention, and the former Italian and Belgian Prime Ministers, Giuliano Amato and Jean Luc Dehaene as Vice-Chairman.

Detailed consideration is currently being given to who will represent Ireland at the Convention. While the exact rules of procedure of the convention will be established following its inaugural meeting on 28 February, members of the public throughout Europe will have an opportunity to feed into the work of the convention through national debates on the Future of the Union. Organisations representing civil society such as the social partners, the business world and non-governmental organisations will also be able to contribute through a structured network of consultation which will be opened by the convention.

Leaders agreed at Laeken that the convention will consider the various issues that arise and draw up a final document. This document may consist of options or recommendations. Where options are listed there will be an indication of the degree of support which they received. If there is consensus then a recommendation may issue.

This report, together with the outcome of national debates on the future of the Union, will provide a starting point for discussions at the next intergovernmental conference. It will be at the Intergovernmental Conference where the ultimate decisions will be taken by the 15 member states as has been the case with every other European treaty and as we have agreed in the Laeken Declaration. Nevertheless, the convention will play a significant role and I am determined that Ireland will take a positive and active approach.

The situation in Afghanistan was discussed at length and the Minister for Foreign Affairs will address this issue in more detail later. The European Council restated its commitment to restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan and encouraged the deployment of a UN mandated international security force. The member states are examining what contributions might be made to such a force. The Minister for Defence has since indicated that Irish forces may become involved in a peace-keeping mission in Afghanistan at some time in the future. As I have already indicated, any Irish participation in this or any future peace-keeping or EU-led crisis management operation will continue to be subject to a UN mandate, a specific Government decision and the approval of Dáil Éireann.

Humanitarian aid is a priority in terms of the situation in Afghanistan and the Union has pledged 352 million to this cause. Last week the Minister for Foreign Affairs announced that Ireland would make a contribution of 12 million over three years. While on this topic, I should mention that the European Council also noted that each member state would examine the means and the time frame to achieve the UN official development aid target of 0.7% of GNP to official development assistance. I am happy to say that as Ireland is on course to reach this target by 2007, we are now in the front rank of EU member states on this issue. We are only behind the small group of countries that has already reached the target. All but one of these are members of the EU.

The Council also discussed ongoing developments in the Justice and Home Affairs area as a result of the events of 11 September. As the House will be aware, the proposal for the establishment of a European arrest warrant was accelerated at the extraordinary Council meeting on 21 September, with a view to finalising the proposal at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 6-7 December. Ireland accepted the need to review current systems while ensuring the basic safeguards to protect the individual's rights and liberties were adequately protected. We were also concerned to ensure that our existing bilateral arrangements with the UK could continue to apply under the new procedures.

Following intensive negotiations in Brussels and interventions by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to secure important concessions for Ireland, we accepted the proposal. By the time of our meeting in Laeken all outstanding objections by other member states were withdrawn and the European Council was in a position to welcome agreement on the proposal. Since 11 September the EU has adopted a range of measures designed to combat terrorism, including measures to provide for the freezing of financial assets and or other financial resources of terrorist groups and their supporters, and additional measures on money laundering.

The European Council invited the Commission and the Council to push forward the programme on improving co-operation between member states on the threats of biological and chemical weapons.

As the House will recall, the Laeken European Council took place in the week immediately following the tragic discovery of the bodies of eight asylum seekers in a container in Wexford. We agreed that the European Union would adopt as soon as possible a common asylum and immigration policy. We agreed also that this policy would maintain the necessary balance between protection of refugees in accordance with the Geneva Convention and the reception capabilities of the Union and member states. In addition, we recognised that there was a need to improve external border controls to assist in the fight against terrorism, illegal immigration and trafficking in human beings.

On the issue of enlargement, the Council noted the excellent progress in the accession negotiations with a number of the candidate countries. Up to ten candidates are all on course and at the current pace should have successfully concluded negotiations by the end of this year. These countries would then be in a position to take part in the European Parliament elections in 2004. We are also encouraged by the efforts being made by the other candidates. The recent meetings between the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities were welcomed and the Council encouraged both parties to continue discussions with a view to resolving the situation in accordance with the resolutions of the UN Security Council. Turkey has made progress towards satisfying the political criteria for membership and has brought forward the prospect of opening accession negotiations. The Council encouraged Turkey to continue its efforts both in terms of the economic and political criteria, particularly in respect of human rights.

The European Council at Laeken also discussed the European Security and Defence Policy and adopted a declaration on operational capa bility. Following the events of 11 September, the extraordinary EU Council meeting in Brussels on 21 September last year reaffirmed the objectives of developing the common foreign and security policy and making the European security and defence policy operational at the earliest opportunity. Through the ongoing development of the ESDP, the strengthening of its capabilities and the creation of appropriate EU structures, the EU is now capable of carrying out some crisis management tasks. As the assets and capabilities at the disposal of the EU continue to develop, the Union will progressively be in a position to take on its full humanitarian and crisis management tasks. The declaration emphatically states that decisions on whether and when to make use of these capabilities will be taken in light of the circumstances of each situation.

I take this opportunity to reaffirm once again to the House that Ireland's position on the involvement of Irish troops in any overseas operation remains unchanged. Irish troops will only become involved in EU operations where a specific UN mandate exists, where there is a Government decision and with the approval of Dáil Éireann. The declaration emphatically states that decisions on whether, and when, to make use of these capabilities will be taken in the light of the circumstances of each particular situation.

I take this opportunity to reaffirm, once again, to the House that Ireland's position on the involvement of Irish troops in any overseas operation remains unchanged. Irish troops will only become involved in EU operations where there is a specific UN mandate, where there is a Government decision and with the approval of Dáil Éireann.

On economic trends since 11 September, it was noted that a gradual recovery in 2002 is expected. The stability and growth pact and the broad economic policy guidelines should have a positive effect by protecting the European Union from the worst effects of the global economic slowdown and providing confidence for renewed growth. The smooth and successful introduction of euro notes and coins should have a positive effect also.

We also looked forward to our meeting under the Spanish Presidency in Barcelona in March where we will take stock of our progress towards making the European Union, by 2010, the most dynamic, knowledge-based economy in the world, with full employment and increased levels of social cohesion. Preparations for the March European Council in Barcelona are already under way across the relevant Departments. The Government is committed to making a positive contribution to the Barcelona European Council. It is to be hoped considerable progress on a range of issues will be made at Barcelona.

The Laeken Council, unfortunately, did not reach agreement on sites for a number of EU agencies on this occasion. Overall, however, the Laeken European Council was highly successful and considerable progress was made on a range of issues. Once again, the European Union demonstrated that it is working. We should never lose sight of the fact that it exists to protect the rights and interests of our citizens, to maintain freedom, security and justice, to promote prosperity and jobs, and to foster international peace, security and development. That is what we did at Laeken.

I take this opportunity to congratulate especially the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt. He, together with his Administration, in the aftermath of 11 September, successfully managed to steer the European Union through the negotiation and agreement of a number of significant measures which will promote international peace and security, and assist in the worldwide fight against terrorism.

The establishment of the convention on the future of Europe is also particularly significant. I wish Monsieur Giscard d'Estaing and the participants every success in what should be an historic, challenging and important year's work.

The Laeken Summit was important in a number of respects, not least in deciding to convene a convention with Monsieur Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as president, and also a forum to give structure to and broaden the public debate on the future of the European Union. Ireland's role, both in the convention and the forum, will be a particularly sensitive one given that the expansion of the Union hangs, at least to an extent, on how we move forward following the outcome of last year's referendum on the Nice treaty.

I very much regret that the Taoiseach declined the Fine Gael offer last summer to work together in a short-term Irish forum which would have sought to find as much consensus as possible on how we might move forward against the background of the referendum. I am satisfied that sufficient consensus could have been achieved to develop and strengthen our position, particularly to strengthen the hand of the Government, no matter who leads it, as we move into one of the busiest periods since 1973 in relation to the future of the European Union.

We now face into the European convention, the European forum and the intergovernmental conference without any clear national position and with continuing divisions within the Government on the future of Europe. This will certainly do nothing to strengthen the hand of Irish negotiators as we seek to protect our vital national interests.

The Taoiseach has already been forced to concede that in future there will not always be an Irish Commissioner sitting around the table in Brussels. I wonder what he will concede next. Will he hand over decisions on Irish taxation policy to Brussels? Will he further erode Ireland's neutrality by delegating to Brussels decisions on European security and defence policy? As we approach the general election, will he promise the people another referendum on European security and defence policy and then fail to honour the commitment, as he did at the last election?

I wish to make three points. The first is to explain the reason I believe the future of Ireland's relationship with the European Union, and the future of the European Union itself, must be a general election issue. The second is to set out Fine Gael's vision for a much more democratic future for Ireland and the European Union. The third is to invite others, especially the Taoiseach, to set out their vision for the future of Europe in order that we can have a real, public debate on these crucial issues.

The general election campaign will provide an obvious platform for a national debate on European Union issues. After the general election there will be a second referendum on the Nice treaty. The people voiced their concerns quite clearly in the first referendum. While I profoundly wish that the view expressed had been different, the people's view must he respected and listened to carefully. Most important of all, the view expressed must be acted upon. If there is no action to address the people's concerns, the basis for holding a second referendum will be undermined. Without action – a three year talking shop, no matter how often it travels around the country, is no substitute for action – there is a real possibility that the second referendum will be defeated. That would, to put it mildly, be unhelpful for our relationship with our European partners.

Disquiet about the future of Europe is not uniquely Irish. European leaders have also noted the disquiet among many citizens of the Union. That is the reason, at Laeken, they announced the convention to consider the future direction of the European project. The convention will be a preliminary to the next Intergovernmental Conference and begins its work next month. The task of beginning to present an Irish vision of Europe must, therefore, begin without delay. That is the reason Fianna Fáil must now begin to set out its vision for Europe and not wait until the election is over or even until the forum comes to some conclusion, whenever that may be.

Ireland's future in Europe is a major civic issue requiring leadership, vision and public debate. It is too important to park all these issues in Dublin Castle, as the Government has done. This was done because it was seriously divided about the future for Ireland in Europe. The Taoiseach must show leadership and seek to heal the divisions on Europe in Irish society.

Currently, Fine Gael members are giving us their feedback on our October consultation document containing the party's vision for Europe. The bulk of our proposals flow from the belief that the Irish people demand a democratisation of the relationship between the European Union and Ireland, and that the peoples of Europe demand the democratisation of the Union itself. Democratising the relationship between Ireland and the European Union means implementing three democratic principles. First, democracy requires that people should have enough information to assess the performance of those in authority. The people must be given enough information about European developments and measures in order that they can judge the Union's performance for themselves.

In this context, I draw the Taoiseach's attention, yet again, to the Government's continuing failure to publish the six monthly report on Irish-EU developments in a timely manner. I drew attention to this last June, but there has been no improvement. Unbelievably, the latest report covers the first half of 1999. Is there any point in drawing the attention of the Taoiseach to these matters if he takes no action? Is there something going on in Europe that he wishes to hide from us, or is it just a further example of the incompetence of the Administration which cannot do anything on time or deliver on any promise? It is unsatisfactory that in the first quarter of 2002 the report on Europe published recently deals with the first half of 1999. That is totally unacceptable. I have raised the matter before and hope I will not have to do so again.

Second, democracy requires that the people have the right to determine who has authority. The Irish people, together with all Europeans, must have the right to vote into and out of power those with the authority to bring forward European legislation.

Third, democracy requires that power over an issue should be held at the closest possible level to the people. The European Union's powers should be limited to dealing with issues that, in a practical sense, can only be effectively dealt with at European level. In the Nice campaign it became apparent to me that people felt totally uninformed about what was currently happening in the Union, let alone what would happen after the referendum. Many voters felt a profound unease about authorising future developments when they lacked so much information. The perception was confirmed by a subsequent opinion poll with which the Taoiseach is fully familiar which indicated that by far the most prevalent reason given for not voting, or voting "No", was a lack of information or uncertainty about what the proposals meant.

The "no" campaign slogan which seemed to strike a chord was, "If you don't know, vote no". Many people, through no fault of their own, did not know not only about the Treaty of Nice but about the why and wherefore of the Union. Much smaller numbers of "no" voters gave concerns about sovereignty and neutrality as reasons for rejection. They too must be listened to. That is why in our October consultation document we suggested seeking a declaration to the treaty confirming that it will not affect Irish neutrality.

While the Treaty of Nice's aims can be properly explained in a second campaign, many people will want to be confident that steps are being taken to permanently redress the information deficit which prevents them from begin ning to exercise any real democratic control over the Union. Prior to the second Nice referendum, Fine Gael in Government will take practical steps to address this problem by quickly implementing the first of its democratisation principles. Fine Gael will establish a permanent Oireachtas committee which will publicly examine proposed European legislation, hear the views of the people on it and make submissions to the European institutions. It will then present reports on European developments for debate in the Dáil. European officials will be asked to attend the Seanad on a regular basis to explain the legislative programme of the Union. A Minister for European affairs will be appointed, as was the practice until this Administration, to co-ordinate and present Irish policy on Europe. These simple measures will bring the debate on European legislation closer to the people.

In the European Union, unlike any form of national democratic Government, legislation is not proposed by a democratically elected Executive, but by civil servants of the European Commission. The existing democratic elements, particularly the European Parliament, fall far short of making up for the democratic deficit. The Commission is not in any practical way required, on pain of being voted out of office like other Executives, to account to the people for its legislative programme. If it was, I guarantee we would at least be kept as well informed about developments in Europe as we are about developments in Ireland.

Among our European partners, both before and after the next Nice referendum, Fine Gael will argue clearly and confidently for its vision of a democratised Union. One of the issues which must be addressed in negotiating the design of the new democratic Commission is ensuring that the people of smaller countries will have sufficient input into it. Fine Gael will not allow democracy to be damaged by allowing power over those issues, which should be decided at local or national level in Ireland, to ebb away to the Union. We, in Ireland, have already moved too much power to the national Government from local communities, thus depriving people of a role in their local communities. While I do not believe the same mistake has occurred to date at European level, we must ensure it does not happen in the future. We will argue for a clear bottom up allocation of powers between nations and the Union.

I hope the Government can see the sense of and share Fine Gael's vision for the future of Ireland in Europe. The European Union has brought great confidence and prosperity to the people of Ireland. Now is the time for Ireland to provide leadership by bringing democracy to the Union. I wish to share the remainder of my time with Deputy Jim O'Keeffe.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Government did not have anything of consequence to report to the Laeken Council on the steps it proposes to take to deal with its failure to have the Treaty of Nice approved in the referendum last June. It is now sleep walking its way to another defeat because it has not addressed the issues which clearly influenced the voters to reject the treaty in that referendum.

The Laeken Declaration last month rightly proclaimed the European Union as a success story. Peace has been followed by prosperity and the Union is completing the final steps towards enlargement to incorporate many of the previously excluded former communist states of central and eastern Europe. According to the Commission report for the Laeken summit, it is likely that by the end of this year accession negotiations will have been completed with ten of the applicant countries. That means that upwards of 100 million fellow Europeans are ready, willing and able to join the Union. The Treaty of Nice provides the legal framework within which the Union can approach the institutional aspects of enlargement. The other 14 member states have ratified or will ratify the treaty within the coming months. Ireland stands in danger of being in a minority of one in Europe as the only country blocking enlargement of the Union. Ireland is staring into the abyss of European isolation and will bear sole responsibility for impeding or delaying the enlargement of the Union. If that occurs, we will face the most fundamental crisis in international relations to confront our country since we joined the EEC in 1973.

I am increasingly concerned that we are being led towards a political and economic backyard. I do not intend to use my speech as a vehicle to engage in Fianna Fáil bashing over its botched handling of the first Nice referendum or the Tory like in-fighting between the various schools of thought – if that is not too strong a description of what passes for policy – on the European Union. The enlargement of the European Union to admit the dozen European countries cruelly quarantined for decades by the Soviets from their western neighbours will proceed with or without Ireland. There is only one vehicle for enlargement – the Treaty of Nice. It does not represent or import anything other than a vehicle for enlargement and to make the club work effectively with 27 members. Talk about militarisation, loss of sovereignty or abortion is either half baked or downright mischievous.

We will be isolated. The Government has not done anything to ensure that we will not be alone and isolated in impeding enlargement. Other than announcing its intention to put the Treaty of Nice back to the people again, the Government has not bothered to grace us with a date for the next referendum. It has not given us the conclusions it drew from the conduct of the June 2001 campaign or the plan of action it intends to put in place to achieve a "yes" vote on the next occasion. Instead it has taken the momentous step of abdi cating the issue to the National Forum on Europe.

Despite the honourable and well intentioned submissions of various parties to the body in Dublin Castle, the forum has, not surprisingly, failed to grab the attention of the public. It cannot act as a substitute for proposals from the Government and a proper examination of those proposals in the Oireachtas. The forum, which is travelling around the country like Duffy's Circus to provide a platform for anti-European views, will not advance the issue. The noose of time is tightening.

The Deputy's party does not have any credibility.

A new referendum must be held. If we have a replay of the last referendum, a further defeat is on the cards. The issues leading to rejection must be addressed. However, the past six months, during which that could have been done, have been wasted. At a minimum we must talk about the consequences of rejecting enlargement and we must look at our options thereafter, although I do not have time to explore them in detail now. Our options are limited and horrendous as far as the country is concerned. There is a major possibility that if we reject enlargement again in another referendum, the legal ingenuity of the European Union will be used to create a new structure to accommodate the other 14 member states which support enlargement and the applicant countries. That would leave us on the outer margins of the European Union without any type of power or influence on further developments in the Union.

I am convinced that European Union enlargement can best be achieved through the adoption of the Treaty of Nice by all 15 members. However, it is critical that we learn the lessons from the rejection of the treaty by Ireland last June, particularly the concerns expressed about military neutrality and a perceived remoteness from the European Union. Fine Gael pointed out those issues some time ago and asked that they be addressed in good time to allow us to prepare for the next referendum. I am concerned because limited time is now available. The steps to be taken will take time and, in addition, large chunks of this year will be devoted to the general election and to the formation of a new Government. Time will also be required for the necessary legislation and referendum process.

It is clear that although the Treaty of Nice did not have any impact on our neutrality, it affected people's thinking when voting. I was glad for some crumbs from the Taoiseach yesterday when he said in a newspaper interview that it might be an issue. That is not enough. Winks and nods are not enough. There should be a clear statement, an analysis of what happened like we produced last October, and a plan of action. A plan must include a declaration from the Council of Europe confirming as a minimum that the Treaty of Nice will not oblige Ireland to join a European war or to introduce conscription. We can follow the Danish precedent regarding a possible protocolumn That is not a problem. However, any such declaration should be underpinned by domestic legislation. Has anything been done about that?

I pointed out that the question of neutrality has to be addressed and clarified. The way to do that is to have a White Paper. The Taoiseach knows how long it takes to produce one and time is passing. The Fine Gael Party laid out its stall on all these issues last October. Our proposals were not meant to be prescriptive, but were in a consultation document. My main message to the Government is to stir itself out of its inertia and apathy and either to accept the Fine Gael proposals in whole or in part, or to propose an alternative. Time is not on our side and we need to put in place measures that will take time to arrange before we go back to the people. Let us use the time available.

The Governments of the other 26 countries participating in the European convention have turned their attention to post-Treaty of Nice issues. It is not to our advantage that our Government has not turned its attention to the treaty, let alone the future of the Union and Ireland's place at the heart of Europe.

I welcome the Laeken Declaration. Inevitably there are gaps in it as we do have not a system which produces perfect results at European, national or local level. One gap is the failure to address issues of general economic interest such as the question of how public services should be dealt with at European level and the conflict between the provision of public services, particularly universal ones, and competition law. It is increasingly clear that public services are at risk from an overly neo-liberal interpretation of European Union competition law, which is something that this House, perhaps through the Committee on European Affairs, should address. It is an issue that should be put on the agenda of the convention by the representatives of this House. From my own knowledge, it is an issue that exercises almost every party in the European Parliament and is the concern of citizens in every member state.

The convention, the task of which is to discuss and propose ways in which the European Union will do its business in the future, is groundbreaking. A big problem I have always had, as the records will confirm, is the way in which Intergovernmental Conferences were prepared and decisions made. I am not critical of the extraordinary work done by our public servants quietly in the background at national and European level or the work of different Ministers over the years. However, the chickens have come home to roost with the Treaty of Nice. It is obvious that the citizens of this and every other European state are dissatisfied with this way of doing business. That is why the convention is so important and must be given weight by the national parliaments and a considered position taken by the representatives of the national parliaments in their contributions to it.

It is important that the representatives whom the Government appointments – we do not know how they will be appointed – carry weight at European level. They must be people to whom other participants will listen. It is not enough to send individuals there because they have given long service to this Parliament or to our respective parties. They should have a track record and ability and something important to say. Ideas will be more important than services rendered.

As a matter of urgency, the Government must tell us how it will select the representatives. The Government representative does not have to be a Member of the Oireachtas but whoever it is must have some political weight. There are many women who would do an excellent job and, preferably, it should be a woman to ensure gender balance at the convention. Also, the Government should make it clear that it will not take up one or both of the other places. One Government representative is sufficient and the other two places should go to representatives of the two main Opposition parties, the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party.

I argue strongly in favour of the Labour Party having a role in the convention. We are a pro-European integration party, as are Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. I do not know the Green Party's position, or if it knows it itself.

I will gladly tell the Deputy, given the chance.

I know that Sinn Féin is opposed to integration and sharing our sovereignty in Europe. We are a pro-European party with a distinctive view on how the Union should evolve, which will not be represented by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or the Progressive Democrats. I urgently appeal to the Government to clarify how the representatives will be appointed.

Something that directly arises from the Treaty of Nice referendum debacle, as it must be described, is the concern over the accountability of Ministers to this House for work done at European level. I have criticisms of some Ministers but traditionally they have done an excellent job. However, this House rarely knows what they have done, what advice they received on the issues dealt with and rarely do they come here to tell us what decisions were made. They are not obliged to and I understand that, being busy people, they are reluctant to, but it is clear that the democratic deficit, about which we hear so much in relation to European matters, is as much a problem for this national Parliament as how institutions at EU level function.

The Government must, therefore, dust down the Bill the Labour Party proposed last June, which it accepted in principle. It now languishes in limbo while it awaits a committee, according to the Government's recently published legislative programme. It is not on the agenda for discussion here before the Easter recess and not listed at all in terms of proposals. The Government indicated that it was working on its own proposals. If it has better or even similar proposals – it does not matter if it is a Government or Labour Party Bill – then they should be brought before this House. The public perception ought to be that this House deals with European matters democratically and that its Members have a role in decisions at European level and in bringing Ministers to account for them. I do not seek that Ministers be mandated before going to Europe, as that would tie their hands unnecessarily, but it is important that the concerns of people we talked to last night in Ballymun, and other places recently, are addressed.

People should see the Taoiseach and Ministers coming before the Committee on European Affairs to tell us what is going on, what they are being asked to agree to and to what they have agreed. Let us have our say on those matters. We are walking blindly into a disastrous situation if we do not take steps to reassure the public. These fears also exist in other European countries. There is a wariness among the European electorate which is increasingly driven by the fact that people feel they are losing control over decisions being made about their lives. By and large, the decisions being made are good and in their interests, but people are concerned about their lack of control over them. We have to put aside party and electoral concerns and bring forward these issues. We must demonstrate our concern to ensure that the project of constructing a democratic and socially just European Union is guaranteed.

The second issue our Bill would have dealt with is the question of neutrality. I will not get into debating or defining neutrality because it would take more time than I have. However, a significant minority is concerned about neutrality as that minority defines it. If everyone here wrote down their own definition of neutrality I guarantee we would get 166 different definitions of Irish neutrality, but that is a debate for another day. What is essential, and this came through in both the Amsterdam and the Nice referenda and it comes through in every meeting of the forum, is that people want reassurance that this House has a say in what we do with our armed forces and our police service in terms of international Petersberg Tasks. People want to know that those tasks will be mandated by the United Nations. A simple amendment to the Defence Act would establish that. This House already has the right to approve actions being taken by our defence forces in international peacekeeping tasks. It would be a simple matter for the Defence Act to be amended to give the reassurance for which the people are looking. It is not the majority who wants this reassurance, but there is sufficient con cern for the Government to act to reassure those who are concerned.

Another point I want to make in relation to this issue is the general question of Dáil reform. I have seen the report circulated in relation to proposals for Dáil reform. There are aspects of it which I find weak and I have made suggestions to my own party, based on considerable experience of how this House works, about various ways in which it should be improved. Given my, at this stage, short-term dual mandate – I will no longer be a Member of this House come the announcement of a general election – I use this platform to urge the House to reform its relations with the European Parliament and particularly with the Irish Members of the European Parliament. It is inadequate and shows a clear misunderstanding of the role of the Members of the European Parliament to write into a reform document that Members of the European Parliament will be obliged to attend European debates in the Dáil and to sit in the Distinguished Visitors' Gallery. I doubt that the Dáil can legally oblige an MEP to attend this House. An MEP has the same legal protection against being impeded from doing his European parliamentary duties as a Member of this House. The question of obliging an MEP to come here is probably a non-starter.

That does not imply that Irish MEPs are not keen to be here. We want to be here and want to work in partnership with the House. We must end the notion that there is a competition between the European Parliament and national parliaments. National parliaments have the role of bringing to account the Ministers who serve the state in Europe and the European Parliament has the responsibility of bringing to account the Council of Ministers and the Commission. There should be a partnership between the European Parliament and the national parliaments to ensure that job is done effectively at every level. That can only be done on the basis of partnership, not competition.

I welcome the forum. I probably initiated the idea for it within the Labour Party. I acknowledge that before the Nice referendum the Government indicated that it was favourable towards the idea but it delayed too long in taking up the idea and lost time and the initiative on the question of looking seriously at the future of Europe through the forum. Inevitably, once the Treaty of Nice was defeated, the forum's focus shifted to seeing how the situation could be rectified. The forum is beginning to gather momentum. Despite the criticisms of the Fine Gael Party, the tour of the country and the meetings I have attended outside Dublin Castle have been excellent. We listen to many of the same arguments we heard during the Nice referendum and party activists and NGOs promote their views there, but what is wrong with that? We are politicians and we are supposed to listen to the electorate and accept their concerns. Among the activists there are people who declare that they have no political affiliations. There was a curious situa tion on Monday night in Tallaght where a Sinn Féin member, a local teacher, declared that he had intended voting "Yes" right up to the last day. He switched his vote at the last minute because he felt patronised in some way.

What is important is that real concerns are being expressed at the forum. I regret the absence of the Fine Gael Party from it. Its absence has unbalanced it in a way. The document it produced on the future of Europe is good. It would not be my cup of tea in every respect but it is a serious contribution to the debate and should be heard in the forum where the people come to hear the politicians and to make their contribution. It is crazy for the second largest party in the State to opt out of one of the most important political debates about the future of the country and of Europe. We have not had a debate like this in our 30 year membership of the European Union. I offer this criticism in a friendly way and hope the Fine Gael Party will take it on board. It has made its protest and should now come in and make its contribution in the forum.

There is an enormous degree of goodwill towards the European Union project but there are different views as to how it should evolve. I would not agree with how the Progressive Democrats see the European Union evolving nor do I agree with the Sinn Féin view, but we must be serious about the debate about what kind of Europe we want. There is a fundamental question to be answered on the degree of European integration people desire which, to a large extent, is a hidden issue. Should we have a federation or confederation of European states – states co-operating in a loose arrangement, which is largely free trade, or a closely integrated Europe with a constitution which guarantees the rights of European states and citizens and which outlines their rights and roles in the European Union? This is an important debate. Hopefully, when we overcome our current difficulty in relation to Nice, we can begin to open up that issue which will be fundamental to the discussion in the convention, just as the question of what kind of Europe we will have in social terms will also be a central issue.

Inevitably, due to the involvement of so many states – taking the applicant states into account there are 27 states – and with the wide range of political views which will be represented from those states and the European Parliament, there will be a great diversity of views. With apologies to my colleague from the Green Party, I am not so green a politician as to imagine that all of this change can occur overnight. We are involved in a process which will take generations to complete and we can only proceed step by step. We certainly cannot proceed without the agreement of the people and we cannot obtain their agreement unless they understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. They must know that their opinions are being taken into account. Even if people's individual views are not taken on board, they know that a very significant element of their society's views is represented. I do not resign from the European Parliament or from this House because some policy of mine is defeated. Neither should Ireland back off in its engagement with Europe because we feel a bit disconnected at the moment. We cannot work for a more just world unless we work for a more just Europe and we cannot work for a more just Europe if we isolate ourselves. We are already geographically peripheral; if we make ourselves economically and politically peripheral as well, there is no doubt but that we will lose out. The point was made that our concern should not be mere selfish concern and I would caution politicians about arguing purely on a selfish basis. People really do want to see a more just world and we will not have that unless we engage closely both politically and economically with Europe.

Acting Chairman

I remind Deputy Gormley that the Minister, Deputy Cowen, must commence no later than 6.38 p.m.

I thank my colleagues for giving me time to speak. It is important that we hear a diversity of views in this House. I attended a Green Party summit in Brussels on the eve of the Laeken Summit. It was a very interesting occasion and I can answer my colleague, Deputy De Rossa, when he asked about the Green Party position. There is quite a diversity of views in the Green Party. The chairman for the evening was Danny Cohen-Bendit who is a federalist; many Greens in Europe are federalist in persuasion although the Danish, Irish, British and Swedish Green parties are not. It was noteworthy that we were not given an opportunity to speak on that occasion. That was regrettable because all of the views on the issue were not aired. There seems to be an elitist group in operation which is pushing a particular agenda. I say to Deputy De Rossa that we, in the Irish Green Party, are opposed to a centralised, bureaucratic, militarised, federal super-state.

The Deputy could have fooled me at times. We are not a homogeneous grouping, rather we are an organic structure which does not believe in democratic centralism or Stalinist control. Only in that way can we get a proper debate in relation to Europe. It was interesting to note that protests took place in Brussels on the eve of the summit. Up to 70,000 people participated in a peaceful protest and a further 20,000 people took part in a protest march. These people were protesting for a different type of Europe. The vast majority of people want a different type of Europe. Young people are not interested in a Europe which is a vehicle for globalisation and is simply concerned with markets. They want something different and we, as politicians, have a duty to create that.

In many ways, the European Union has been good for this country in that it has broadened our cultural horizons. The direction in which we are heading now by way of the Nice treaty is quite wrong. The Taoiseach spoke in the House today about the need to inform people. We have an information deficit as well as information deficit. Last night's "Prime Time" broadcast a lengthy interview with the Taoiseach but the other side of the debate was not heard. Two participants were interviewed at the end of the programme and that was supposed to offer balance. I hope that in the run-up to the second referendum on the Treaty of Nice that we will achieve that balance.

The Taoiseach was asked last night about the question of neutrality and he said that there would be a declaration in relation to neutrality. I agree with the point made by Deputy De Rossa that we have not actually defined what is meant by neutrality. I am not sure how one can have a declaration about neutrality when there is no definition of the term. American troops have used Shannon airport and I ask whether this is compatible with our neutrality. I do not think so although the Deputy opposite thinks this is acceptable. We need to define neutrality. If we get a declaration which seeks to respect Irish neutrality, that will mean nothing as far as we are concerned.

Acting Chairman

The Deputy has 30 seconds left.

The Deputy can use some of my time.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? The Minister has ten minutes in total.

The Deputy may use two minutes of that.

I thank the Minister. The declaration, which comprises rhetorical questions, is very interesting. It asks: "Should the Petersberg Tasks be updated? Do we want to adopt a more integrated approach to police and criminal law co-operation? How can economic policy co-ordination be stepped up?" Deputy De Rossa spoke about politicians being "green". I think it would be a very "green" and naive person who would not see through these questions which are effectively saying that the Petersberg Tasks will be updated; that we will have a more integrated approach to police and criminal law co-operation and that economic policy co-ordination will be stepped up. We know now that those who are in charge of this are very much integrationists. The euro is now a reality and those who say that you can have an economic union without a fiscal union are living in cloud cuckoo land because one must naturally follow the other.

My Green Party colleagues tell me the unvarnished truth of where we are heading. The Petersberg Tasks which include crisis manage ment will be updated and we will then have our fully-fledged European army, make no mistake about it. That is where we are heading. Look at the Nice treaty and the military and security committee. People are quite rightly concerned about that. A European army must be paid for. We will have tax harmonisation and taxes will be used to pay for that army. The Irish people do not want to invest money in European armies but in areas such as health, education and the environment.

We need integration in certain areas. My great disappointment is that the French and British managed to scupper an agreement on nuclear safety. We wanted to give the Commission powers to investigate and monitor nuclear plants but that was not agreed. If we are to have an integrated Europe, it should be at the level of the environment. This is clearly a trans-boundary phenomenon which requires further integration and, in the one area we wanted it, we did not get it.

I welcome the opportunity to report on some of the foreign policy issues dealt with at the European Council at Laeken. In replying, I am always mindful to pick up on some of the issues raised by speakers but the limitation of time constrains all of us. I would never question Deputy Gormley's sincerity about the European project but I fundamentally disagree with him. This evening he has spoken about the inevitability of the worst-case scenarios he predicts, yet he speaks about the ability of other states to bring down the issues he supports while suggesting we are incapable of preventing the vision about which he is concerned. There is a total inconsistency in his argument. He mentioned a scenario where two states could do something with which he disagrees in relation to nuclear safety measures. He had spent the previous eight minutes telling me all the things that will happen on the basis that we will not be able to stop them when, in fact, the Intergovernmental Conference process confirms that there must be agreement from 15 governments. Many compromises, which have emerged at Nice and elsewhere, can be regarded as being messy. However, they represent the political consensus of the 15 governments and that is what determines the pace of development and evolution of Europe, to which Deputy De Rossa referred.

Deputy Gormley's analysis that the worst-case scenarios he fears will definitely happen is fundamentally incoherent when at the same time he tells us all the things that are not happening because of the intervention of various states. The Deputy has a sincere interest in these matters, but he must examine his reasons for continually adopting this approach. He cannot tell the Irish people that all of this will happen when it will not. I cite one point in the Nice treaty referendum which he would not accept. Every decision on participation by Ireland in European security and defence policy is based on the sovereign decision of Government, subject to full parliamentary approval of this House and the requirement of a specific UN mandate. That is a pretty clear statement. The Deputy asked about neutrality and I can explain our position quite simply. We do not subscribe to any mutual defence pacts. That was always our position.

What about the referendum on the Partnership for Peace?

That has nothing to do with mutual defence pacts. Please allow me to reply to the argument which was outlined. If I merely read this script, I would be criticised by people across the floor for not addressing the issues that were raised in the past hour. There is no point in Deputy O'Keeffe giving a facile and rather sterile response to the basic point I am making.

If Deputy Gormley took neutrality to its ultimate logical conclusion, Ireland would not be a member of the United Nations. Issues can be explained and discussed and, while we may not reach consensus on certain issues, we should be fair to the citizenry and outline the factual position. The great paradox is that the Nice declaration for the first time began to look at the concerns of people like Deputy Gormley by saying we would have a structured discussion on issues such as competencies, the degree of federation or confederation or thesui generis nature of the European Union treaties. Pillar I is integrationist in terms of the need for the discipline of a single market and what that has meant for us. On objective economic analysis, the peripheral states have benefited to a far greater extent than those at the centre in every expansion that has occurred.

We have all put our own side of the case to the exclusion of the other which does not help the public and does not serve the national interest. My approach is to take the balance sheet of pluses and minuses, pros and cons, and add them up. As Deputy De Rossa said, there are areas with which we might have problems, but when we consider the broad perspective of where our national interests lie, it is in our active participation in the European Union. If we want to influence and shape events, we have to be in there. It took Britain 20 years of Thatcherism to realise it was not possible to shape the Europe it wanted from the outside with a diktat. Even though Deputy Gormley comes from a totally different ideological position, his approach seems similar in saying that we will not have it and will opt out. That is not the way to work.

We have had five years of Thatcherism under this Government.

If Deputy Gormley wants to be involved in democratic debate, he cannot disregard the consensus of 350 million people. His party has 3% or 4% of the vote, yet he regards me and my party, which now has 42% of the vote, as being part of an elite group. I represent people just as he does and they all have equal rights. If we are to have a debate, the tone, dialogue and discourse should respect the fact that we will have different views.

Deputy Gormley should not claim that I am part of an elite and that he represents the ordinary man. Deputies De Rossa and O'Keeffe also represent people. I have listened to the Green Party, others on the "no" side and some journalists talking about the political elite. It does not serve democratic debate in this country to suggest that the quality of nexus between Deputy Gormley and his electorate is different to that between me and my electorate. That is mere shadow boxing which does not deal with the substance which I want to debate. Ultimately we may not agree but I want people to hear both sides and come to an intelligent decision based on the overall national interest. This will help our democracy rather than hinder it. We have not had such a debate. There has been too much slogan shouting suggesting the Government is about to sell out the national interest.

In my 18 years in this House, I never suggested a Government went out to sabotage the national interest on any question. On the Opposition benches, I may have disagreed with the Government's position and may have been quite strident in putting across my point of view. This Government is continually accused by elements of the "no" campaign as if its members are involved in the erasure of Ireland Inc. and our transformation into some super state where we will all go around with Kalashnikovs fighting an unknown enemy.

Two papers came before the Council of Ministers on Monday on conflict prevention and I will forward them to Deputy Gormley who will find this is an area in which the EU is involved. We saw an intellectually dishonest campaign under the slogan "No to Nice, No to NATO" suggesting the EU is a proxy for NATO. That is fundamentally untrue and telling people it is true does not add to the debate. On demilitarisation in Europe, there was probably never a more demilitarised Europe than there is now in the aftermath of the Berlin Wall coming down. Deputy Gormley suggests that certain states will put all their money into a defence budget to build an EU army. The general secretary of NATO has complained to those member states and asked them why they are reducing their defence budgets. The juxtaposition of those two positions does not give an accurate picture. The European Union comprises member states, some of which are in NATO and some of which are not. We have no intention of joining NATO. I think that is everyone's view at the moment although it may change. To make that a central plank of a campaign when vital national interests are at stake does no service to this democracy.

Let us take up the opportunity for debate provided by the forum. Fine Gael has made its decision which I think is unfortunate. Fine Gael members do not even attend the forum meetings. I did not see a single member of Fine Gael when the forum travelled to Tullamore. Are individual members of the party banned from attending the meetings? Did Deputy De Rossa see any Fine Gael members attending the forum in Ballymun? Let us be serious about what we are trying to achieve. There are other issues on the Middle East and Afghanistan which I can take up in Question Time next week.

What about membership of the convention?

We are finalising arrangements for a Government representative which we hope to have sorted out by the end of this week. The question of a parliamentary representative must be decided upon before the end of next month.

We need more time to debate these issues in the House.

I am available to meet with any committee at any time to discuss these issues. I have never refused an invitation.

We will be looking for the Minister's plan of action.

The plan of action does not present a problem. Deputy O'Keeffe has drawn up a plan of inaction.

I am the only one who has produced a plan of action. Why has the Minister not done so?

Deputy O'Keeffe is a joke. His party's position on this issue is a joke.

The Minister is saying my job is a joke, where is his plan of action?