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.