Priority Questions. - EU Common Defence Policy.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

64 Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Defence his views on the common defence provisions of the draft EU constitutional treaty and its implications for the State's defence policy. [18894/03]

Provisions relating to the future possibility of a common EU defence policy have been contained in the existing treaties which were approved by the Irish people in the referenda held to ratify the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties.

From Ireland's perspective as a neutral State, the draft treaty preserves the necessary safeguards as regards our position by ensuring that any future move to a common defence can only be made on the basis of unanimity within the European Council and in accordance with the respective constitutional requirements of the member states. Deputies will be aware that Ireland cannot enter into common defence arrangements without the support of the people by way of a constitutional amendment.

The draft treaty outlines a basis for closer co-operation between member states on mutual defence. Along with the proposals for an EU common defence, the framing of such a proposal will be the subject of future negotiation during the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference. In this regard, the proposal has been the subject of reservations both from neutral and non-aligned countries such as Ireland, and also from countries which see security and defence requirements being provided by way of their membership of NATO.

As regards Ireland's defence policy, the White Paper on Defence provides that participation by the Defence Forces in peace support activities in the European domain will take place in the context of the Petersberg Tasks and when authorised by the UN. Our policy recognises the primacy of the UN in the area of international security. The proposals contained in the draft treaty should have no implications for Ireland's participation in UN authorised peace support operations.

While the Government remains committed to Ireland's neutrality, I believe it is important that we engage in a meaningful debate on all areas of our involvement in the EU. We have seen in the recent past how the creation of mechanisms in Ireland, such as the Forum on Europe, have encouraged this debate and improved the understanding of the general public in the area of EU affairs. Clearly it is also important that the debate continues in this House under the mechanisms introduced by the Government to improve Oireachtas scrutiny of EU affairs.

In this regard, I would like to take the opportunity to welcome the recent Fine Gael publication of its discussion document Beyond Neutrality which discusses some of the issues raised here. While much of the document already features as Government policy, the contribution of the Opposition parties to the debate in this important area is welcome.

I am sure the Minister will not agree with me but I will ask anyway. Does he agree that the draft provisions of the EU constitutional treaty will further militarise the EU, thus having significant implications for the direction of Europe, specifically for the direction of the defence policy of this State and our Defence Forces and, therefore, the House should debate fully the provisions prior to the beginning of Intergovernmental Conference negotiations? Will he give a commitment that the Government will do so and will consider reconvening the Dáil, if necessary, specifically for this purpose so that we can debate the issue prior to the Intergovernmental Conference?

I have no problem debating issues in the House once agreement is reached between the Whips. I disagree with the Deputy on the further militarisation of Europe which is constantly trotted out in this debate. The Deputy will be aware that the main concerns in Europe – this applies to the vast majority of our partners – is to be able to work together in a better way, particularly in the context of the Petersberg Tasks regarding our peacekeeping operations, crisis management and dealing with conflict. The Union has continued to move forward in this area by preparing better under the Partnership for Peace and having a greater understanding of co-operation. When one is faced with crisis management, dealing with conflicts and peace operations, it is necessary that all the instruments available to the Union embrace the challenges it faces in a much different and better way than was the case in the past. This calls for a much higher degree of co-operation and sophistication, not just in the military aspects but in the civilian aspects, which we have been driving forward in our contributions in the EU. We should never underestimate the demands that are out there regardless of whether one is talking about our involvement in Sarajevo, Kosovo or the Congo. We are continually faced with problems and the whole essence of what we are doing is to try to prepare better and be able to act more quickly.

I have said many times that I regret that UN intervention, notwithstanding its great character in many ways, takes place after the holocaust is over, after the genocide and after so much tragedy and trauma have taken place. We need to be able to work together to act more quickly and more effectively.

Despite all the waffle from the Minister, I said at the beginning that he would not agree with me. Obviously he is not aware of what is contained in the EU constitutional treaty. Will he assure us that the Irish Government's negotiators at the Intergovernmental Conference will protect Ireland's independent defence policy, specifically the traditional policies of military neutrality, by securing a specific article expressly recognising these rights and the duties of neutral states within the EU constitutional treaty when it is passed by the Intergovernmental Conference?

I suppose we all like to debate with Members in this House without casting aspersions on what they know and what they do not know. As far as I am concerned, we will ensure that the best interests of the Irish people are protected in everything we do. I supported the Amsterdam, Nice and Maastricht treaties. I supported the Irish people in their majority decisions in all of these cases.

As far as the provision of safeguards is concerned, the Deputy can be assured that our national interests will be fully protected.