European Council Meetings: Statements.

I attended the European Council in Brussels on 16 and 17 December 2004. I was accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Treacy.

The Presidency's conclusions of the European Council have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The future enlargement of the European Union was the principal matter on the agenda at the Council. The Council also met Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN.

At the December European Council, several important decisions were taken on the future enlargement of the Union. At the Council, Ireland adopted a very positive and open approach to the EU vocation of Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Turkey. The future success of the enlarged EU of 25 member states, and its capacity to enlarge further, is inextricably linked to the ratification and entry into force of the European constitution. It is simply not possible for the Union of 25, and a potential Union of 30 or more states, to function effectively on the basis of treaty provisions agreed for the original community of six. The European constitution is fundamental to the capacity of the enlarged European Union to continue to take decisions promoting the economic development, security and prosperity of its 470 million citizens.

The European Council in December welcomed the successful conclusion of the accession negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania. It agreed that the accession treaty with those two countries should be signed in April 2005, provided that the European Parliament has given its assent. The European Council looks forward to welcoming Bulgaria and Romania as full EU members in January 2007. Ireland has been providing technical assistance, training and support to Romania and Bulgaria, as we have to most of the new member states in their preparations for EU membership. In view of the importance of strong bilateral relations with all EU partners, the Government has decided to complete its network of resident EU embassies in the 25 member states and open embassies in those countries that will accede in 2007. We will, therefore, open embassies in Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Bulgaria and Romania. Those new embassies will play an important role in developing political, economic, social and cultural relations with our new EU partners.

The European Council also agreed to open accession negotiations with Croatia on 17 March 2005, provided that there is full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Croatia has made good progress in working with the tribunal, but there is one outstanding issue, the arrest of an indicted former army general. Ireland and other friends of Croatia have strongly encouraged the Croatian Government to resolve any remaining difficulties with the tribunal and ensure that they do not become a hindrance to Croatia's objective of EU membership. Much of the discussion at the December European Council was on the decision to open accession negotiations with Turkey. The Council was greatly facilitated by a detailed Commission recommendation on Turkey in a Commission document setting out the issues arising from Turkey's membership perspective. Our national approach to discussions over Turkey was guided by those important documents and by our own warm relations with Turkey. The report on Turkey of the Joint Committee on European Affairs agreed on 15 December also provided very useful input into our work.

Turkey's EU vocation has been expressed for many years. In 1999, the European Council took the key decision to recognise Turkey as a candidate country that was destined to join the Union on the basis of the same criteria that applied to other candidate states. Successive European Councils since have confirmed that if the 2004 December European Council decided that Turkey met the Copenhagen criteria for membership, accession negotiations should open without delay. Prime Minister Erdogan's Government has made considerable progress in adopting wide-ranging political and administrative reforms to a point where the European Commission was able to recommend that Turkey now sufficiently meets the political criteria for EU membership. The European Council asked that a framework for accession negotiations with Turkey be agreed with a view to opening negotiation on 3 October 2005.

The Commission also identified several important areas in which further progress is necessary. In its recommendation in October, it pointed to the zero tolerance policy regarding torture and ill treatment, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women's rights, ILO standards, including trade union rights, and minority rights. Reforms in those areas will need to be fully consolidated and developed. In some cases, further legislation will be required. Turkey is also committed to bringing into force in the coming months six specific reform Acts already adopted by the Turkish Parliament. The Commission will continue to monitor all those closely and provide regular reports to the Council.

I have been strongly supportive of Turkey's application to join the Union. At European level, the perspective of full EU membership for Turkey places the Union's relations with a country of immense strategic and political importance in a well-defined framework for many years to come. The Union has shown itself open to the membership aspirations of a country that is making a strong and determined effort to demonstrate its commitment to the shared values of the Union.

From a national perspective, Turkey is an increasingly important economic partner for Ireland. Trade has been expanding rapidly. The combined total trade flows exceeded €550 million in 2003. Turkish companies are active in the Irish market, notably in the construction sector, where they compete actively and successfully for contracts. We believe that there are important future business opportunities for Irish companies in Turkey, where the economy has been growing rapidly following a successful economic reform programme.

Given the scale of the issues to be addressed, accession negotiations with Turkey are likely to take a decade or more. The European Council conclusions make clear that the financial implications of Turkey's accession will not be addressed during current EU negotiations on the financial perspectives for 2007 to 2013. The conclusions also indicate that in areas such as agriculture, structural funding and the free movement of persons the Council can, if necessary, consider long transition periods, derogations and permanent safeguard clauses in the framework for the negotiations with Turkey.

The outcome of the negotiations with Turkey, as in any other negotiation, cannot be determined in advance. It is important, however, that both sides work together with determination and partnership towards the shared objective of Turkey's membership of the Union. Turkey's continued commitment to the implementation of reforms, particularly in areas such as the use of torture, religious freedom and women's rights, will be central to the outcome of the accession negotiations.

In 2004, during Ireland's EU Presidency, Turkey made an important and constructive contribution to the search for a comprehensive settlement to the Cyprus problem based on the proposals of the United Nations Secretary General. The search for a resolution of the Cyprus problem will remain a UN-led process.

In the meantime, however, progress is needed on the issue of the recognition of Cyprus by Turkey. Cyprus is a full member state of the Union that Turkey has applied to join, yet Turkey still does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus. Clearly, a meaningful gesture by Turkey on the start of a process of normalisation of its relations with Cyprus is necessary.

The conclusions of the European Council welcomed the statement by Prime Minister Erdogan that Turkey was ready to sign, before 3 October of this year, the protocol to the Ankara Agreement extending the EU-Turkey Customs Union to the ten new member states, including Cyprus.

While this does not constitute formal recognition by Turkey of Cyprus, it is an important confidence-building gesture that must be delivered on. Turkey's inability to resolve this issue fully at the European Council was unfortunate. It resulted in a difficult dialogue with Turkey at the European Council and injected a note of acrimony into an occasion of optimism and shared hope for the future.

On the financial perspectives for the years 2007 to 2013, the Dutch EU Presidency made progress in clarifying the issues that had to be resolved on the basis of the Commission's proposals. The issue now passes to the new Luxembourg Presidency, which I know will work hard to achieve agreement by the deadline of June of this year. Our aim in these negotiations is to ensure on the one hand that the Union is adequately equipped to meet the challenges ahead and, on the other, that the citizen gets value for money.

The Common Agricultural Policy is a priority for Ireland. We have strongly emphasised that the agreement reached in October 2002 on future agricultural funding is fundamental and is not affected by the negotiations on the future financial perspectives.

We also wish to see adequate Cohesion Funding for the new member states. Where Cohesion Funding applies to richer member states, we have highlighted the continuing development needs of the Border, midlands and western region.

On the external relations side, the December Council had an important meeting with Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN. This was an opportunity for the European Union to show its support for the ambitious programme of reform of the United Nations that the Secretary General has driven forward. The Secretary General briefed the Council on key elements of the Report on the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. The European Union's contribution to the work of the panel was prepared and submitted during Ireland's EU Presidency.

The Council's conclusions saluted the work of the Secretary General and affirmed the Union's determination to play a major role with the UN as we prepare for next September's UN summit.

The December European Council took place shortly before the re-run of the second round of the presidential elections in Ukraine. The Council adopted a declaration on the Ukraine commending the leaders and people for having found a successful outcome to the political crisis. It stressed the strategic importance of Ukraine as a key neighbour and partner. The European Union will now aim for an enhanced and distinctive relationship with Ukraine, making full use of the possibilities offered by the European neighbourhood policy.

The Council endorsed an action plan with Ukraine. Following the successful completion of the free and fair presidential elections, the EU-Ukraine Co-operation Council is expected to launch the action plan this month. This will provide the basis for more intensive co-operation between the European Union and a neighbour of great political and economic importance.

Overall, this was a successful Council with a fitting conclusion to a hard-working and effective Dutch Presidency of the Union. The decision on Turkey is particularly important. For our part, we look forward to the further strengthening of Ireland's relations with Turkey and the opening of a new and decisive phase of the Union's relations with one of its most important partners. This year we will work with Turkey and Croatia to ensure that all the elements are in place for the successful opening of their accession negotiations and the opening of a new chapter in the history of the Union.

I wish to share time with Deputy Allen.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I very much agree with the principal decision taken by the Heads of Government at the December meeting of the European Council to begin accession negotiations with Turkey. Given the progress the Turkish Government has made in terms of meeting the political and economic conditions set at the Copenhagen summit, it would have been very unfair if the European Union had not decided to begin the negotiating process.

I would not underestimate, however, the scale of this challenge. While Turkey has undertaken a large degree of change in recent years, it remains to be seen how deep these changes run. For example, a raft of new legislation has been enacted but there are serious questions about the extent to which these new laws are being implemented. Similarly, on the human rights front, some progress has been made but there are still many steps which need to be taken if Turkey is to be accepted as a fully democratic country.

Notwithstanding these challenges and difficulties, I am very hopeful that the accession negotiations, which may last ten years or more, will help to bring about the necessary changes so that Turkey can be brought to the point where European Union membership is a real possibility.

The other European Union related issue that I want to deal with in this contribution is the ongoing chaos and confusion within Government regarding the implications of the Government's insistence on maintaining the triple-lock mechanism. Last month, we had the chaotic situation where the Minister for Defence seemed to have no clear idea as to whether Irish troops could be sent to assist in the relief effort following the tsunami disaster in south-east Asia. His original position was that a specific UN Security Council resolution was required. Within a couple of days, his view was reversed to say that he was satisfied no such resolution was required. He then declared that the Cabinet had decided that if his legal interpretation was wrong, the Dáil would be recalled to authorise the sending of Irish troops to amend the Defence Act if necessary. In the end, the best the Government could do was send a four-man team to assist the UN logistical operation in Sri Lanka.

The situation has reached comical proportions in recent days with the Minister for Defence claiming that there were constitutional impediments to our Defence Forces participating in the new EU battle groups, which are specifically designed to respond quickly to crises. Just a few days ago, the position of the Minister, Deputy O'Dea, was completely contradicted by the Minister for Foreign Affairs who offered the view that there are no constitutional difficulties but that there are legal obstacles. The Minister for Foreign Affairs indicated that he is of the opinion that the Defence Acts should be amended to facilitate Irish involvement.

If that is the case, I welcome this complete U-turn. Fine Gael has consistently argued that the current triple-lock mechanism is much too rigid and inflexible for today's world. Just a few weeks ago, my colleague, Deputy Timmins, and I, with the approval of the Minister for Defence, had the honour and pleasure of spending two and a half days visiting the Irish Defence Forces personnel who are working as part of the KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. There we had an opportunity to see at first hand the wonderful work being done by the 208 Irish men and women currently assigned to this mission. They are not only keeping the peace in their area of responsibility south of Pristina with total professionalism but are also utilising that unique Irish capacity to get along with people and win the confidence and respect of the local population.

During my visit, I held meetings with political leaders from both communities in Kosovo, the Kosovo Albanians and the Serb minority. The divisions between these communities are very deep but the one view they held in common was recognition of the very positive role being played by the Irish troops and their appreciation that our forces are in Kosovo for the sole purpose of improving people's lives.

One other critical aspect of the work of the Irish Defence Forces in Kosovo is less well known. It is the tremendous humanitarian assistance they give to the local population. For this purpose, they receive just €25,000 per contingent and they are required to go through incredible levels of bureaucracy to draw down this modest allocation. The result of this low level of Government support is that the troops have to fund-raise to support the very valuable projects they are undertaking. For example, those who were lucky enough to get home for leave at Christmas volunteered to bring back toys for local children. They organised sports days and other cultural activities to bring children from the divided communities together.

I highlight this work because of its importance in demonstrating to the indigenous population of Kosovo that the KFOR mission generally, and the Irish involvement in particular, is a positive and constructive source of security and help for the people of Kosovo. I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to examine the bureaucratic requirements to draw down very modest funds to allow Irish Army personnel to deliver real benefit in a local sense on small issues which involve no administrative costs. They just do the work but they have to fund-raise themselves.

For example, during my time in Kosovo, we visited a 62 year old local woman who had been living in a makeshift tent with no electricity or heating in freezing winter temperatures until the Irish Army provided her with a properly equipped and heated Weatherhaven portable shelter. This is just one illustration of the excellent humanitarian work being provided by our troops which is very much a true reflection of the generosity of this nation. I hope this work will attract much greater financial and political support from the Government in the future. Those who write about these issues would do well to visit Kosovo to witness the work being done by the Irish Army, particularly in Serbian enclaves where there are serious tensions. These enclaves are literally tinderboxes.

One of the most striking elements supporting the Fine Gael position on the need to amend the triple lock mechanism exists next to Kosovo in Macedonia. There is an EU-led peacekeeping mission in Macedonia similar to the KFOR mission in Kosovo. Owing to the fact that China vetoed a proposed UN Security Council mandate for this mission because Macedonia had recognised Taiwan, Irish troops are debarred from participating. Thus we have the truly ridiculous situation where we are blocked by the Chinese regime from participating in an EU-led mission in an eastern European country while we have no difficulty in participating in the NATO-led mission in Kosovo which was not vetoed by China.

Members of the Irish Defence Forces are willing and able to play a part in helping keep the peace in Europe and elsewhere if they are set free from the shackles of the triple lock mechanism. Fine Gael wants to see these changes made so that in future we can decide as a mature sovereign state what role we should play in the world. I would like to see the requirement for Cabinet and Dáil approval remaining in place. In future, however, decisions should be examined on a case-by-case basis with a view to participating in some missions which might not have a specific UN mandate, provided these missions are consistent with the United Nations Charter. A change to the Defence Acts would allow this country to play a really positive role in Europe by signalling our willingness to participate in the new battle groups where it is appropriate and feasible.

The most recent European Council held in Brussels last December was important in terms of a range of issues. The Council reaffirmed the importance of the transatlantic relationship, referring to the partnership between the United States of America and the European Union as irreplaceable. The Council welcomed the participation of stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic in consultations on the further deepening of transatlantic relations. I welcome this approach and also efforts being made to repair the fractured relationship between the European Union and the US.

The EU and the United States of America are each other's largest trading partners and most significant sources of overseas direct investment. It is clear that the divisions that have emerged between both parties in recent years have the potential to be very damaging in the long term. For this reason, Fine Gael last year proposed the establishment of a foundation for transatlantic co-operation which could be of considerable assistance in promoting consultation and understanding on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the proposal received no support from the Government, I was interested to note that a workshop at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos concluded that good relations between both parties on each side of the Atlantic would be the anchor for future world security. The Government should seize the opportunity to put the foundation for transatlantic co-operation in place and take advantage of the considerable international support that exists for such a venture.

On external issues, the European Council also welcomed the agreement reached with Iran in mid-November, following discussions between Iran and the European Union. As a result of these discussions, Iran adopted a moratorium on uranium enrichment. It is essential that all enrichment and reprocessing activities cease permanently. There is much work to be done to ensure that this takes place. The development of nuclear capabilities by Iran could have a considerably destabilising effect on the region. All European Governments are anxious that this be avoided. The Acting Chairman and I visited the Middle East last week and saw that this threat hangs like a heavy cloud over the fledgling peace process between Palestine and Israel. This issue must be dealt with diplomatically but effectively.

In tandem with ongoing contact and negotiation on nuclear issues, the European Council confirmed the Union's readiness to develop further political and economic co-operation with Iran as a greater incentive to its dropping nuclear development. This, unfortunately, is in sharp contrast with recent statements by members of the United States Administration, particularly the Vice-President, Mr. Cheney, who confirmed that Iran is right at the top of the list of global trouble spots. Such assertions have serious implications. Current diplomatic efforts involving the United Kingdom, France and Germany negotiating on behalf of the European Union with the Iranian Administration must be given support and space to work in order that we can achieve in a peaceful way the result everyone seeks.

Perhaps the most important matter to be discussed by the European Council was Turkey's possible future membership of the Union. In recent years Turkey has embarked on a period of reform in a number of key areas. In November 2004 the European Commission report listed positive action in a number of ways. The Joint Committee on European Affairs issued a detailed report following its visit to Turkey. The important message emanating from that report is that the hope of accession to the European Union has been a catalyst for a litany of major changes in Turkish society. Those of us who met representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Kurdish people who had been imprisoned for ten years and the other non-governmental groups will be aware that they support the application for membership of the European Union. They see that application as the kind of catalyst to which I referred earlier.

The December meeting of the European Council described the work undertaken by Turkey as a far-reaching reform process and expressed confidence that the country would continue with its reform agenda. However, we cannot fail to recognise that significant work remains to be done. The fundamental criteria for entry to the European Union must be met by Turkey and all other states — Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia — seeking membership of the Union. We must not lose sight of the fact that as well as being an economic alliance, the Union is above all a partnership between countries that share the same ideals regarding human rights, individual freedoms of association and belief and the independence of judiciaries. Setting a specific date, 3 October 2005, for the commencement of accession negotiations sends a clear signal to Turkey that its reform efforts are worthwhile and must continue.

In the matter of overseas development aid, the European Council emphasised the importance of poverty eradication in all developing countries and confirmed full support for the achievement of the millennium development goals. It also indicated that new targets for ODA for the period 2009 to 2010 would also be examined this year. Last year the Government unfortunately backed out of its commitment in respect of ODA, abandoning the position it adopted in 2000 in front of the international community. It is a shame and a scandal that Ireland cannot lead an international alliance in favour of increasing aid because the Government has tarnished our standing and reputation on this matter of critical importance.

The European Council sent a message of support to the people of Ukraine on their having found a peaceful solution to the political crisis which placed their country in such turmoil late last year. I welcome the support the Council has given to Ukraine in this regard and the further deepening of political, cultural and economic relations between that country and the European Union.

I thank the Taoiseach for his contribution and his report on the Council. It was not the sort of Council meeting to which we have become accustomed, being quite humdrum at one level. When one reads the conclusions, however, one becomes aware that many decisions were taken and much progress made. I wish to concentrate on some of the more prominent of those decisions.

The major issue to emerge is that of Turkey. There is a sense that, having made the decision to allow negotiations to commence on 3 October of this year, member states, including Ireland, have completed their task and that it is now the responsibility of Council officials and the Turks to complete the project and ensure that Turkey meets the standards set for it and other applicant countries. That would be a mistake and we cannot afford to be complacent.

The nub of the issue is whether Europe is a Christian or a pluralist project. At the back of this issue is the forthcoming constitutional referendum in countries such as the Netherlands and France, where notwithstanding the current level of public opinion poll support for the ratification of the constitutional treaty, there are undercurrents that attempt to suggest Turkey is not fully eligible for membership of the European Union by virtue of its being a modern Islamic state, albeit a secular one in terms of separation of church and state. However, even the form of separation of church and state in Turkey is unique. It is not the type of separation of church and state, for example, one would associate with the Republic of France.

I, therefore, urge the Government and the Council of Ministers to ensure that the debate on Turkey's eligibility is maintained at a positive level. Turkey is as much a European country as Russia, the difference being that Turkey, like Russia, had a contiguous empire that stretched all the way to Basra, in one direction, and as far as Morocco and Rabat, in the other, just as the Russian empire continues to stretch as far as Vladivostok, north of Japan. Other European empires tended not to be contiguous in their territorial composition and, therefore, the mother country, so to speak, could be separated from outlying imperial posts.

Turkey was described in the 19th century as the "sick man of Europe". It was recognised by the power centres of Europe at the time, whether London, Berlin or Paris, that Turkey was an integral part of the European culture and body politic. One cannot look at the civilisation and culture of Europe without seeing the role that Turkey has played. When one drinks a cup of coffee in Budapest, for example, one recognises that the Turks were there for about 150 years because it is not exactly coffee that one gets from Starbucks.

The suggestion that in some way the Turks are not European is erroneous. We can simply say that a decision has been taken to open the negotiations and that is the end of the matter. There are, however, a number of points I want to make as regards this matter. Other countries have come into the European Union with equally difficult civil rights backgrounds and deficiencies as regards their democratic deficits. I am not referring to central and eastern Europe. Greece, Spain and Portugal were dictatorships until the mid-1970s or early 1980s, and yet they qualified for membership and have progressed. There is nothing inherent in the Turkish composition that prevents them from achieving the same level of democratic accountability, including separation of powers and the independence of judiciary, that has been achieved in Spain, Portugal and Greece. We should bear that in mind. I urge the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign for Affairs to recognise that we cannot take this for granted. The debate and leadership of the debate must continue to be articulated. Otherwise the negativity associated with sectarianism, suspicion and fear of Islam because of what is happening elsewhere will confuse and confound it.

An outstanding item that is of particular relevance to Ireland in all this is the question of Cyprus and the extraordinary insult that the Prime Minister of Turkey gave, at the end of the proceedings, to that whole question. Ireland can relate in a particular manner to the Cyprus problem. The Cypriots must be strongly supported in their legitimate demand that the Ankara Government should at least recognise the existence and legality of the Cypriot state. While the analogy is less than perfect, it is possible for countries to have difficulties as regards territorial claims over adjoining areas while recognising them and co-operating at the same time.

The existence of Articles 2 and 3 in the early 1970s did not prevent Britain and Ireland from working closely together, even though it could be argued that territorial disputes were implicit in their legal status, which have happily been resolved, as the Taoiseach knows. As a smaller member state which has shared a similar history to that experienced by both Turkish and Greek Cypriot peoples, Ireland should be strong and steadfast in its support for the recognition of Cyprus, in a generous way, as a full member state, by the Ankara Government.

I want to turn to the Taoiseach's welcome announcement that he intends to proceed rapidly with the establishment of embassies in the five remaining candidate member states, including Bulgaria and Romania. I am not sure whether we have an embassy in Croatia, or whether that is next on the list.

We have no embassy there.

I did not think so. We certainly have one in Slovenia. At an earlier stage, I was involved in ensuring that the exercise of An Córas Tráchtála, as it was then known, in having trade missions in Budapest and Prague, was reversed to a commitment between the then Department of Tourism and Trade and the Department of Foreign Affairs to open embassies in those two countries. That was in the late 1990s, 1996 and 1997. These are welcome developments.

I would, however, ask the Taoiseach to ensure that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, while not attributing a left hand to him. I ask that decisions to open embassies are followed by commitments in the Department of Foreign Affairs and within the personnel section of the Department of Finance to provide the extra additional staff, fund them and enable them to operate. From my experience and calculations one is talking of five ambassadors, a minimum of two support diplomatic staff for a basic mission as well as the domestic support personnel on the ground. In areas where Ireland has a particular interest in terms of promoting trade or whatever, there should possibly be a secondment of personnel from Enterprise Ireland to enhance the trade capabilities. That initiative will not happen unless somebody drives it. I hope the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs will ensure that drive is maintained. Given that the current occupant of Upper Merrion Street was previously in St. Stephen's Green, I hope there will at least be a degree of empathy in this regard.

On a wider point, which the Taoiseach and the Minister might like to return to at a later stage, excluding Luxembourg, Ireland had the smallest diplomatic staff of the former 15 EU member states. Given that the Irish diaspora is probably one of the largest in the world, we need to decide how this may be harnessed in a meaningful way, not just around receptions and green beer for St. Patrick's Day, but as trading agents, partners and contacts in a manner the Taoiseach has already explored in Hong Kong. While we have an interest in other parts of the world, we have a particular interest in this one.

The debate on the financial perspectives has not yet really started. I do not know whether it is appropriate for either the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Minister for Finance to initiate that debate in the House. Again, there is the béal bocht mentality that has informed so many administrations which argues that we really only joined the European Union for the money and now that it is disappearing, so to speak, this is a matter of concern. I welcome the fact that Ireland will soon be a net contributor to the European Union. I look forward to the day when it will be a donor rather than a taker. There will still be much financial support in areas where it is needed and among sections of our community. Programmes will receive additional substantial sums of money and Exchequer funding will be matched by European money for programmes that apply to aspects of Irish life. When the accounts are completed, however, in the next four to five years, if not sooner, Ireland will be a net contributor.

Again, leadership has to come from the Government. This must be presented as the day in which the young kid brought home his or her first full salary and not as the day when we had to pay out money. It is a day Ireland will have come of age and by virtue of being a net contributor to the European Union, will assert itself as a successful and wealthy country. The tone of that presentation, how it is argued and presented, despite the nay-sayers asserting that Ireland no longer needs to be in the European Union, is pivotal. I hope we will not forget our experience as regards the support given by the European Social Fund, for example. Both the Taoiseach and I know how that transformed AnCO, latterly FÁS, in terms of the work it was able to do, including on community employment programmes around the country. I hope a negative attitude is not developed towards the role of the Union in supporting programmes in other parts of the EU which desperately need our support. Anything that enables our neighbours and potential trading partners to become wealthy and secure is in our best interest. The contribution that Ireland should willingly make in the revised financial prospectus is something that we should welcome. I do not suggest that we should lose the run of ourselves, but I do not imagine that anyone from Merrion Street would ever lose the run of themselves in that regard. It is a question of presentation and that can best come from the lips of the Ministers in office. As this debate takes place over the next few months, we will see articles from the usual suspects in our newspapers saying that we should seriously question why we are giving this money. All the transported tabloid opposition to the European project will come with it. These are the concerns that I have, along with many others who are in favour of the European project. Leadership must come from the Government of the day. I invite the Taoiseach to continue the leadership that he has already displayed.

I thank the Taoiseach for his contribution. Every so often we make statements in this House on European Council meetings. Too often such statements are not given adequate coverage. What happens at European Council meeting is much more important than who a Minister appoints as a spin doctor, yet it receives far less coverage. Unfortunately, this lack of coverage is reflected in a disturbing level of ignorance about European affairs in this country. The Acting Chairman and I laboured long and hard at the European Convention. I often ask myself if anyone knows what we were at, if anyone cares, or if anyone is fully au fait with the European constitution. It would appear that a majority of people do not know much about it. There is much work to be done, particularly by the Government. If there are spin doctors in place, perhaps they could be used to better effect. They could be used to let people know a little bit about the European Convention and the new European constitution.

Is this European constitution available to members of the public? I have had difficulty obtaining the latest version of it. I recently went to the European Commission building and was told that I could have a copy. There was a certain reluctance and they did not want to give me the declarations and the protocols. If elected representatives cannot get the latest version, then how can the ordinary citizen be expected to know anything about this constitution? Communications on the European constitution and on the convention need to be improved. I suggested at the convention that we have a Europe wide referendum. There are constitutional difficulties with this in certain member states, but it could have been done in those states on a consultative basis. It would have generated a momentum and we could have had a real debate about the future direction of Europe. It looks like that will not take place and, in its absence, it appears that individual member states will have their referenda. However, there is a pecking order within Europe. If France rejects the referendum, it will be quite different from Ireland rejecting it. I do not think the French will be asked to vote again. If Ireland rejects it, I have no doubt we will be asked to vote again.

The Green Party fully supports Turkey's accession. I am disturbed by the reports I receive from France in my discussions with so-called moderate French politicians. The reports suggest that there is an underlying racism there. They do not want what they perceive to be an Islamic state joining up. The constitution will provide for a double majority voting system, which I support. The French are therefore concerned that Turkey will be the largest state under this system. I do not think those rules should be changed. We need to stick with the double majority. If a country has a large population, then so be it.

I do not believe that we are a member of a military alliance because of this constitution, nor do I believe that we are heading for a European army. However, we are heading inexorably towards a common defence. The triple-lock mechanism is under enormous pressure and this Government is under pressure to abandon it. I believe that this would be a mistake. In the Convention, I asked that European missions would be mandated by the UN. Rather than abandon the UN, we ought to reform it. It is in need of reform and is without doubt a flawed organisation. We require that reform, but it would be a major mistake to go down the unilateralist path like George W. Bush. We do not need to do the same.

I would like to begin on a positive note for a change. I welcome the European Council's decision to adopt an EU-wide drugs strategy for 2005 to 2012. This strategy has been described as a key instrument to confront drugs use and trafficking effectively with a view to ensuring a high level of health protection, well-being and social cohesion as well as a high level of security for the public. This balanced approach is laudable and is an area in which closer EU co-operation is valid and vital. I look forward to examining the three-year action plan which is to be presented for adoption at the European Council early this year. I urge the Government to schedule a Dáil debate on this critical area of public policy.

I congratulate Bulgaria and Romania for having concluded accession negotiations and I look forward to those countries becoming EU members in January 2007. I welcome their initiative and that of six of the new members states from eastern Europe which launched action plans as part of the decade of Roma inclusion. I urge the Government to join this initiative and commit to the eradication of anti-Roma and anti-Traveller racism and exclusion in Ireland.

The Council also agreed to open accession negotiations with Turkey and we support its accession in principle. We hope that Turkey will be in a position to join on time in 2015. However, its membership will ultimately be contingent on it ending the military occupation in Cyprus and the recognition of the Kurdish right to self-determination. Membership must also be subject to Turkey fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria, specifically durable and systematic change in its appalling human rights record. We agree that all EU accession negotiations should be subject to suspension in view of human rights violations and we accept this aspect of conditionality as recommended by the Commission. However, Turkey must be allowed to enter the EU on the same basis as all other states and there can be no second class citizenship within the EU. There should not be a referendum in other member states on Turkish membership. That includes Ireland. Once accepted, Turkish citizens must be allowed full freedom of movement on an equal basis with others.

We once again oppose the implementation of the Hague programme which advances the fortress Europe project. This is high on the Council's agenda. I have asked the Government in the past to debate this plan but so far, despite the State being committed to it, the Government has avoided holding a debate on the Hague programme.

I also note with concern the militarisation of the EU which continued at this Council meeting. It further endorsed development of the EU army as well as a work programme and a budget for the new European defence agency. As Deputy Gormley said, we support the strengthening of the UN peacekeeping and genocide prevention capacity but we do not support the outsourcing of such missions to EU battle groups. With due respect to the UN Secretary General, this development is the wrong direction for EU reform.

I speak as an Irishman, an internationalist, somebody who tries to follow the great Connolly tradition on this island. It might not be politically correct but it is important always to question and challenge the European Council, particularly the proposed EU constitution. It is also important to ensure that our citizens are informed in a meaningful way on all developments.

It scares me to read the following quotes. Jean-Luc Dehaene, the former Belgian Prime Minister and vice-president of the EU Convention said in 2004:

We know that nine out of 10 people will not have read the Constitution and will vote on the basis of what politicians and journalists say. More than that, if the answer is No, the vote will probably have to be done again, because it absolutely has to be Yes.

The second quote is from the president of the European Convention, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, in a speech accepting the Charlemagne prize for European integration in 2003. It states:

Our Constitution cannot be reduced to a mere treaty for cooperation between governments. Anyone who has not yet grasped this fact deserves to wear the dunce's cap.

The third quote is from the European Commission President, Romano Prodi, in 2003:

[The Constitution is] a big change from the basic concept of nation states. It's a change of centuries of history.

How many Irish citizens have heard these statements?

I also have other concerns. I am particularly fed up with the political snobbery among EU constitution supporters in this country. I wish they had the political cop-on to respect dissenting views on this issue. If they are so confident with their position, they should not run away from serious questions and debate.

Our citizens deserve answers to a number of questions. Does the EU constitution enshrine extreme neo-liberalism as the basis of the EU economy? Does it encourage the privatisation of public services? Take a look at Article III-166. Is there an enshrinement of permanent dominance of capital over labour? Does Article I-41 militarise the EU? Does a common defence policy lead to a common defence and end the formal neutrality of Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Malta? Do the EU's top politicians have the right to amend the constitution without the need for new treaties? Does the EU constitution transform the present EU, which is a descriptive title for various forms of co-operation between its member states, into an EU federal state and reduce Ireland and other member states to the constitutional status of provinces inside this new European federation?

I raise these fundamental questions to ensure the Irish people are informed and their rights as citizens are protected. I hope the major political parties, the political elite and the media will have the courage of their convictions and be honest with the people.

I note that accession talks for the expansion of the EU will begin this year for Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. The Taoiseach stated, in the case of Croatia's accession talks which are due to start on 17 March this year, that he had a friendly word of advice for his Croatian counterpart, Mr. Ivo Sanader. His friendly words in Mr. Sanader's ear were that Mr. Sanader should improve his co-operation with the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

Co-operation with the ICTY means the apprehension and hand-over of a Croatian general, Ante Gotovina, who is a fugitive from the ICTY chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte. This is an outrageous ultimatum to present to a country which has fulfilled all requirements for EU membership up to now. There is an implicit inference that Croatia is sheltering the fugitive general and the country's EU application is being impeded as a result.

There is a warrant in place in Croatia for General Gotovina's arrest since the socialist Government was in office. The current Christian democrat administration concurs and has maintained the warrant. Both sides are in agreement that Croatia is fully compliant with all ICTY demands and is vigorously pursuing the location, apprehension and hand-over of the general to the ICTY. However, Carla del Ponte has expressed doubts about Croatia's determination to arrest Gotovina and in recent days the EU enlargement commissioner stated that the 17 March accession talks with Croatia should not proceed.

I firmly believe that Turkey belongs to the European family and should be welcomed into the EU. I agree with Deputy Ó Snodaigh that Turkey should cease its 40 year occupation of northern Cyprus and permit Cyprus to work out its destiny. Members of a family should be equal and there should be no second-class EU citizens. Partnership is the future in the Balkans and there is a stabilisation and association process in the region which is the framework for relations within the region.

I look forward to the accession in 2007 of Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania and, in 2015, of Turkey.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs will take questions.

The Taoiseach did not refer to Israel and Palestine but there is ongoing interest in the new peace process there. Deputy Carey and I were there last week and one of the issues that continues to fester is the impact of settlers on Palestinians. The commitment of the Israelis to disengage and to withdraw all illegal settlements will I hope be achieved by the end of the year, provided the political situation remains stable.

I wish to bring a matter to the attention of the Minister. Members of the foreign affairs committee were in the region last week and visited south Hebron. We saw the impact of the official policy of the Israeli Government to place settlers in south Hebron and how it was affecting poor Palestinians, whose living standards are akin to those of 2,000 years ago. We visited a clinic and a school which were under construction but which were also under threat of demolition. We also spoke to cave people who, believe it or not, had been displaced from their caves and into tents.

Subsequently, we met the foreign affairs committee in the Knesset and brought some of these issues to its attention. We expressed our view that they should deal with those issues on a humanitarian basis. They promised they would and our chairman gave them details. We learned yesterday that shortly after we left, the Israeli authorities arrived on the scene, demolished some buildings there and arrested some of the people with whom we spoke. That is, in effect, a two finger salute to the committee and its role. It shows scant regard for human rights and will do little for the peace process.

The new Palestinian leaders need a sign of support from the Israelis. They need some prisoner releases and other issues to be addressed. This negative activity and oppression does not help the peace process. Will the Minister investigate what has happened? People were punished for speaking to us and their quality of life was even further reduced. Will the Minister take the matter up with the Israeli authorities and the ambassador? As the Israeli authorities had pleaded ignorance of circumstances in south Hebron, I could not believe my ears yesterday when I heard that instead of dealing with the issues, they oppressed people for even speaking to us.

I thank the Deputy for his statement. While I think I am answering a question on the matter later, I assure Deputy Allen that we will raise the specific issue to which he referred with the Israeli authorities. President Abbas is coming to the next Council meeting on 21 February and President Bush will come on 22 February. The EU will use the Council strongly to encourage positive developments in the sector from which Deputy Allen said good signs were emerging. We abhor any incidents of the type Deputy Allen described and are on record as condemning the separation barrier. I intend to visit the Middle East in the not too distant future and will engage with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

I return to the question of embassies for which the Minister has direct responsibility. Will the Minister outline the timetable for the establishment of the five embassies and will an Ireland House approach, with which he is no doubt familiar, prevail in the process? Such an approach would provide us with the capacity to accommodate not just consular, diplomatic and ambassadorial facilities but also cultural and trade missions which replicate Ireland House activities in more established areas. As Ireland is heavily engaged in the provision of English language training services, it should be possible to use embassy buildings to house such activities. Given the relative strength of our finances, will the Minister indicate if he will persuade the Office of Public Works where practical to purchase rather than rent property?

The money is available in the Estimates immediately to open the missions in question. Work is ongoing in that respect and the Deputy may have seen recent advertisements for new staff. The Department of Finance has agreed to the provision of staff for new embassies and we are more than happy with the number of personnel being made available. I will follow the example of successive Governments in the recent past and use embassies not only for diplomacy but to provide an economic promotion service for Ireland. The Deputy also referred to culture which can be addressed as time moves on. The initial stages will constitute a lead-in phase for the missions in question.

We will endeavour to do what we can on the purchase of property. Any Member who has visited embassies over the years, some of which have been leased and others of which have been purchased, will know that it is better to purchase. While we may not be in a position to purchase property in the initial stages of a mission, it is better to buy premises as quickly as possible in all cases. There is an ongoing process involving the OPW in this respect.

Deputy Allen asked about the EU position on Palestine. During the week, I met Palestinian representative Ali Halimeh, Dr. Jamal Zkhalka of the National Democratic Assembly and an Arab member of the Knesset. They asked me and other Members of the House on a cross-party basis to convey the message that while the vast majority of Palestinians, including smaller groups like Hamas, want a complete cessation of violence, they have significant concerns about the attitude of Mr. Sharon. Will the Minister convey that message to the EU and the UN?

People like me are genuinely concerned about whether the proposed constitution will create an EU with a strong military dimension which is closely aligned with a nuclear military bloc like NATO. Is the constitution committed to increasing military expenditure and support for the arms industry? It is a question many people ask us in our constituencies.

The answer to the second question is simply "No". The matter was made quite clear in the recent amendment to the constitution on common defence. As with its predecessors, the Government is not adopting a path to a strong military dimension with nuclear capability.

On the attitude of Mr. Sharon, we must accept that the matter is extremely difficult. It would have been solved years ago if it had been otherwise. It is fair to say that Mr. Sharon has at least shown he is willing to engage with the new Palestinian President. While the portents are quite good, no one is under any illusion about the potential of an incident involving extremists on either side to derail the process. Any efforts we make must be slow and somewhat tentative. The period preceding the Council meeting later this month is an opportunity to engage with the USA to ensure its influence is stronger. I will visit the USA next week where I will have meetings with Condoleezza Rice. As a representative of the European Union, this will be one of the issues I will raise directly with her.

I do not want to spoil Question Time by asking questions about Iran which are relevant to this discussion. I will defer them.

Does the Minister believe the effectiveness of the European Union in dealing with the Israeli-Palestine problem has been diluted as a result of enlargement and the attitudes of some of the accession countries? Poland has a very pro-USA attitude to this problem. How does the Minister consider EU policy in this area of conflict will evolve on foot of enlargement?

While I was not in office prior to the accession of countries like Poland, my honest impression since I began to attend General Affairs and External Relations Council meetings has been that there is unanimity on EU moves and the conclusions which flow from the Councils on the Middle East peace process. The basis for the above is the roadmap, a two-state solution and encouraging the USA to use its influence with the Israeli authorities to a greater extent. We want the USA to engage more with the process and to support the Palestinian Authority. That is the two state solution on the basis of the roadmap trying to get the US to use its influence more and more with the Israeli authorities and to become more engaged to support the Palestinian authority as well. Enlargement has not changed that. That is the impression of my officials who have been there for some time.

Deputy Gormley raised the question of access to documentation and the full text of the constitutional treaty, including the protocols, about which people have concerns. Does the Government intend to distribute the complete text to every library and public representative? What are the Minister's concerns in this area?

I am concerned that there could be difficulties regarding the communications of these documents but there is time. I assure the Deputy there will be a significant campaign. When the Referendum Commission is appointed, it will have the job of explaining the text in significant detail. The documentation issued by the Government in the latter months of last year in this regard was the first shot. It has been distributed widely throughout schools and libraries in the form of a large document and a small document. We intend to issue as much information as widely as possible.

When will the referendum be held, given that other countries have announced when theirs will be held? Will the Government make a clear and unequivocal commitment to accept the verdict of the people in the referendum, even if they say "No"?

I refer to the Hague programme. Will the Minister encourage the Government and the Chief Whip to agree to a full, meaningful debate on this aspect of policy within as short a time as possible so that we can discuss the full implications of the programme?

There is no problem discussing EU issues in the House. It is a matter of time and it is up to the Whips to decide.

The Government has not made a decision on a date for the referendum. Work is ongoing regarding the wording that may be put. Following Question Time, I will attend a meeting on that issue. We will then negotiate with political parties, particularly those which are pro-treaty, to ensure there is as much agreement as possible before the referendum is put to the people.

Will the referendum be held this year?

I cannot say. No discussion will take place at Cabinet until work is done in this regard.

Spain will hold its referendum this month while France, the Netherlands and Denmark will hold theirs before the summer and the UK will hold its referendum in 2006. Did the European Council discuss the co-ordination of ratification in all the member states? Did countries that will not hold referenda indicate when they will address the issue in their national legislatures?

Recently other EU Governments asked the Taoiseach to link progress on Chinese human rights to a relaxation of the sales of EU arms during his visit to China. Is there an area of questioning a Government representative will not pursue on behalf of the EU, if he or she feels it is repugnant to or not consistent with Government policy? As a neutral country, I wonder why a Government representative would even mention arms sales to a third country.

There was no discussion at the Council meeting about the co-ordination of the ratification of referenda. Each country is conscious of and takes account of what others are doing but each member state must decide when it will embark on the process, whether that is through parliamentary ratification or by referendum.

The Taoiseach, during questions earlier, said he brought up the issue of opening arms sales between the EU and China and linked it to human rights in China because he had been asked by EU representatives to do so. Is there an area of questioning that a Government representative will not bring up on behalf of the EU even if it is repugnant to our policies, goals and aims?

That is a hypothetical question.

Are arms hypothetical?

The issue of the Chinese arms embargo has been raised time and time again in the House, at the foreign affairs committee and by the public. It is on the table at EU level on the basis that a number of member states have a difficulty with the lifting of the embargo because of human rights issues in China. Irish representatives articulate the view of the Oireachtas regarding our position.

The Taoiseach stated the embargo would be relaxed if human rights improved. Why is Ireland saying that as a neutral country?

We do not believe an arms embargo in this day and age, given how good our relations are with China, is an instrument to do business with or to hold as a bargaining chip in regard to other matters about which we might have difficulties.

Why is the EU Commissioner for Enlargement seeking to cancel accession talks with Croatia scheduled for 17 March? Why is the EU making Croatia's accession contingent on the capture of fugitive general, Ante Gotovina? It is similar to having deferred Ireland's application for EU membership until people such as the Border Fox were caught. It is not fair, helpful or logical. There is no proof the general is in Croatia and rumours are circulating that he may be in Ireland.

The commissioner raised this issue at the meeting and there will be discussions between now and 17 March in this respect. However, our view is the discussions with Croatia should take place on 17 March and should continue thereafter. The handing over of Gotovina is a vexed issue and the Croatian Government is doing all it can to ensure he is brought to justice. It is a matter of concern to the Commission that Carla Del Ponte indicated again recently that she believes not enough is being done in this respect. Between now and 17 March, there will be further discussions at Commission and Union level. I anticipate the negotiations will commence as originally intended.