I attended the Intergovernmental Conference, IGC, and the informal European Council meeting on 18 and 19 October in Lisbon. I was accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Roche.
While the purpose of this statement is to inform the House of developments at the IGC, I will also comment briefly on the informal Council which took place in the same setting. The informal Council discussed the Union's response to globalisation, a discussion that will lead in due course to developed proposals at the December and Spring European Councils.
We received a presentation by the European Commission President, Mr. Barroso, on the European Commission's recent communication on globalisation which develops what is termed by some as the external dimension of the Lisbon strategy. How Europe reacts to and shapes the forces of globalisation will be an important element of the European Council's business in the coming years. Our discussions touched on the recent instability in the financial markets and the international response to climate change, an area of particular importance. We have a shared responsibility and an opportunity for Europe to give international leadership on climate change, and its inclusion at Ireland's behest in the new treaty is welcome.
The purpose of the IGC meeting was to agree the text of the new treaty. I am pleased to report that late on Thursday night the text of the treaty, which now seems set to be called the Lisbon treaty rather than the reform treaty, was agreed in accordance with the mandate given to the IGC in June. The outstanding issues going into last week's meeting were of a relatively minor nature. Italy had a particular concern relating to the number of European Parliament seats it would receive, as under the European Parliament proposal it would lose more seats than any other member state.
There were exchanges as regards the timing of the appointment of the new position of High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and we discussed how the detail of the so-called Ioannina compromise, which enables decisions to be delayed in certain circumstances and which formed part of the June agreement, would be reflected in the treaty. Given the overwhelming and widely shared desire to reach agreement on the treaty, these issues were resolved without undue difficulty.
When I addressed the Dáil following last June's Council, I paid tribute to the skill of Chancellor Merkel in forging a deal. On this occasion, I wish to acknowledge the good work of the Portuguese Presidency in bringing this process to fruition.
I wish to recall briefly Ireland's objectives in relation to the reform or Lisbon treaty. We had been extremely satisfied with the text of the EU constitutional treaty finalised under our Presidency in 2004. For reasons with which the House is familiar, that document was not destined to enter into force. Last June, we agreed a mandate for a reform treaty, to be based in large part on the constitutional treaty. Our key objective during the negotiation of both the IGC mandate last June and the IGC itself was to preserve the essential balance and substance of the constitutional treaty. To the degree that anything of significance has changed for Ireland, it was brought about by the decision of the UK to alter its position in terms of the Justice and Home Affairs, JHA, area and we have since taken our decisions in that regard. I will return to this shortly. Ireland secured its key goals in the negotiation process. We can be very satisfied with the new treaty agreed at the IGC last week.
Following the June European Council, Ireland had two outstanding issues. The first of these was in relation to the Charter on Fundamental Rights. The Irish Government had supported the charter since it was first included in the constitutional treaty and would have happily seen it retained in the body of the reform treaty. We see it as a statement of the Union's values and for that reason believe it is something the Union can be proud of. We were disappointed, but had to accept, that consensus on incorporation of the full text of the charter into the body of the revised treaty was not attainable. Furthermore, at the behest of the United Kingdom, a protocol to the charter was introduced at a very late stage in the negotiations in June, relating to its scope under UK law. I want to put it on the record of the House again that Ireland did not seek an opt-out from the charter. We simply indicated that we wished to study the implications of the UK position. We have considered the opt-out negotiated by the UK and have decided definitively not to seek the same provision for Ireland.
As regards the JHA provisions, the UK negotiated an opt-out in the judicial and police co-operation area. At the time, Ireland secured the right to exercise a similar opt-out, should we wish to do so. After indepth consideration of the various issues, the Government has decided to avail of this opt-out but to a limited extent only, and in a manner quite different to what the UK has done. We have declared our firm intention to join our European partners whenever possible in JHA areas. Ireland can participate in future developments in police and judicial co-operation but we have the right to opt out of a measure if we believe that to be absolutely necessary. In reality, we expect to participate to the maximum extent possible.
The decision to avail of the opt-out was taken on the basis that as a small common law country involved in EU negotiations, Ireland could have found itself at a disadvantage and isolated in voting terms. This could have left it unable to sufficiently shape proposals in an appropriate direction. The review, which we will conduct in three years time, may lead us to a different conclusion. It will be open to us to forego the opt-out should we determine that this course of action may be in our interests at some later stage.
The benefits accruing to Ireland from this reform treaty will come about through a better functioning Europe. This is not the creation of a new Europe, but rather a means of making the Europe we have built in past decades work better for all of us. A Europe of 27 member states cannot operate in the same way as a Europe of 12 or 15. This treaty gives the Union a new set of rules and a new clarity of purpose.
It is worthwhile setting down a number of the treaty's advantages. In so doing, I am pleased to note that they are, in the main, the same as those set out in the 2004 text, of which the vast majority of Dáil Members were strongly supportive. The introduction of the double majority voting system provides for a fairer and more efficient decision making system. The new system requires that decisions are supported both in terms of population and in terms of the number of member states of the Union. The treaty clarifies what Europe does and does not do. It gives the Charter of Fundamental Rights the full force of law and underpins the rights of citizens in today's Europe. It also sets down a statement of the Union's values. The treaty reduces the size of the European Parliament and slims down the Commission. At the same time, it strengthens the powers of both the European Parliament and of the Oireachtas in European decision making.
The treaty provides support for the Union in tackling climate change by introducing a competence in that area for the first time. I am pleased to report to the House that this competence was introduced as an Irish initiative.
The treaty provides that the social consequences are to be taken on board when assessing the likely impact of legislative proposals. It introduces the position, President of the Council, to give greater shape and purpose to high level meetings and to bring more continuity and coherence to the conduct of the Union's business in general.
The treaty provides for a clearer EU voice in the international arena so that Europe's views, and the values we support, are more influential. This is particularly important in the humanitarian and development areas. We should not be under any illusions that this is some sort of big-bang or new beginning for Europe: this treaty is not transformational. Neither would we seek a transformation of a Union which, broadly speaking, works very well for Ireland. Rather, this is a further stage of development, a rational step to update the Union's rules and focus, and an essential step for the functioning of our enlarged Union in a vastly changed world. We have built a Union to suit our needs, to deliver for us as member states, and as citizens. This treaty is about equipping that Union to do the things we ask of it.
I turn now to the next steps. The text of the treaty will now be translated and prepared for signature. The Portuguese Prime Minister has invited his colleagues to sign the treaty in Lisbon on the first morning of the December European Council. The modalities of that are still being worked out.
Thereafter, it will fall to each member state to ratify the treaty in accordance with its own constitutional and legal requirements, in time for it to enter into force ahead of the European Parliament elections in 2009. While the Government has yet to receive formal legal advice which will lead to a decision on how Ireland is to ratify the reform treaty, I expect we will hold a referendum on the treaty in 2008. As things stand, Ireland is likely to be the only member state that will require a referendum to ratify the treaty. While the manner of ratification is a matter for each member state, this places a particular responsibility on Ireland. I am sure all eyes in Europe will turn, with increasing interest, to the debate and discussion that will take place in the lead up to the referendum. The Government is determined that there will be a comprehensive and inclusive debate. The Irish public must be given every opportunity to discuss and consider the changes that the reform treaty will bring.
The National Forum on Europe, which has been a model of impartial analysis and debate under the independent chairmanship of Dr. Maurice Hayes, will be central to facilitating a balanced and rounded debate on the reform treaty in the coming months. It is important that all parties continue to give their support to the work of the Forum. I welcome very much the statement in this House last week by the Leader of the Opposition that his party will give support to the reform treaty. I acknowledge the constructive engagement of the larger Opposition parties across the spectrum of EU issues over many years. The Government will be seeking to secure the widest possible support in both Houses for the passage of the referendum Bill in due course. With that in mind, we will consult with the Opposition parties at an early stage.
I look forward too to working with the Opposition to ensure the public understands the question they will be asked to determine. I am confident that they will identify Ireland's interests as supporting a treaty that has been negotiated in order to improve a Europe that has met Ireland's needs well in the past and that we want to continue to meet its needs into the future.
To conclude, what we agreed last week is a treaty which equips Europe with the tools to be more effective in the 21st century, having enlarged in a relatively short period from 15 to 27 members. When we speak of Europe, we are speaking of course of a Europe which was absolutely fundamental to Ireland's socio-economic development in the last 35 years and will be to our success or otherwise in this century.
It is the Europe that has, through the Common Market, allowed Ireland to leap forward economically with dramatic rises in the standard of living. It is the Europe that has provided us with leadership in areas such as labour law, environmental standards and gender equality. It has given us the euro, providing us with a common, stable currency and eliminating foreign exchange costs across Europe. It has provided us with the Common Agricultural Policy which has played such an important role in helping to manage transition in our farming sector, and it is the Europe that during the dark days of the 1980s contributed significant funding towards the development of our physical and social infrastructure which we have since deployed, and built upon, to great effect. It is the Europe that allows us to look beyond ourselves and our near neighbours and seek to influence a wider world with our fellow member states, with which we share our values. It is a Europe that gives us a framework to influence meaningfully the forces of globalisation that shape our world. It is a Europe founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. It is a Europe that has delivered and pursues peace and prosperity for all its people.
I am unequivocal that the treaty is in the interest of both Ireland and Europe. Following a full and engaged debate, the people of Ireland will approve it. They will do so not only because it serves our national interest but also because it serves the interest of the entire European Union.