I propose to share time with the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey. I am pleased to speak in favour of the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill which provides for a referendum to permit ratification of the EU reform treaty. This treaty has evolved over the years in a very structured way through a most democratic process. The European Convention prepared the way for the draft constitutional treaty which was the forerunner to the reform treaty. That convention was an important democratic innovation: it brought the process of EU treaty reform closer to the citizen. It involved representatives of EU governments, but also national parliaments, both government and opposition, the EU institutions and a civil society pillar.
Despite such a diverse and wide-ranging group, there was a remarkable degree of consensus. All participants were animated by the same concerns — how to bring Europe closer to its citizens, how to increase democratic accountability and how to make the workings of the Union more understandable and more transparent. Many of the proposals from that convention survive in the reform treaty. The treaty represents important progress in all of these areas. In addition to the emphasis which it places on the rights of the individual EU citizen, the treaty also reinforces the Union's democratic legitimacy through the greatly enhanced role that is envisaged for national parliaments under its provisions. The treaty proposes to give Dáil Éireann, and the other national parliaments of the Union, a direct input into European legislation, through the protocol on the role of national parliaments attached to the treaty. The protocol on the application of subsidiarity and proportionality further develops these important new elements in the role of national parliaments and, for the first time, brings national parliaments directly into the EU decision-making process. The reform treaty enables national parliaments to ensure that the Union does not exceed its authority. The treaty provides for a yellow card procedure for national parliaments with regard to draft legislation. This allows for a period during which national parliaments can respond to a Commission proposal and requires the Commission to take on board the views of national parliaments. The treaty also gives national parliaments a right to veto any proposal to change voting rules from unanimity to qualified majority voting in the European Council or Council of Ministers. Special provisions have also been made for the role of national parliaments and the European Parliament in the sensitive areas of freedom, justice and security. For example, they are to be involved in the evaluation of the activities of Eurojust and Europol. These new powers will enable national parliaments to contribute more fully to the democratic life of the Union. Given that most European citizens still feel most connected to their national parliament, these measures will serve to advance the cause of democratic accountability within the Union in a practical and meaningful manner. The treaty will also strengthen democracy at the European level by increasing the number of areas in which the European Parliament will share law-making with the Council of Ministers and also by strengthening the Parliament's budgetary role. The citizens' initiative will give citizens of the Union a more direct say on European matters. The initiative has the potential to breathe new life into the democratic functioning of the Union. Under the reform treaty, a petition with at least 1 million signatures obtained from a number of member states can for the first time request the European Commission to propose new EU legislation. Taken together, this package of democratic reforms can have a real impact. It will make the Union more democratic, transparent and, by extension, effective. We have an interest in promoting democratic principles in Europe and the wider world. Without doubt, the treaty serves this interest in new and imaginative ways.
The treaty makes important steps forward in a number of areas, but is not a radical new departure for the Union. It represents the continuation of a project that originated 50 years ago. Ireland's direct involvement in the European project goes back 35 years. In those years, our world has changed greatly. However, the European Union remains as vital as ever to Ireland. It gives us a platform to develop our economy and improve the living standards of our citizens. It gives us a place at the table to put forward our opinions on the important global issues of the day. It gives us the confidence that goes with membership of a group of countries possessing shared aspirations and values and operating on the basis of mutual respect and the search for compromise and consensus.
Some in 1972 opposed membership of the then EEC, just as they continue to oppose the reform treaty today. The fears expressed at that time turned out to be unfounded. The expectations of those who favoured membership have, on the other hand, been well and truly exceeded. Any fair assessment of our experience of membership in the past 35 years would conclude that it has been overwhelmingly positive.
At its core, the Union was founded to overcome the legacy of conflict among European countries and to establish in its place a union of peace and prosperity. More than half a century later, Robert Schuman's European project, which has evolved into the European Union, has succeeded beyond all expectations. The quality of life enjoyed by EU citizens and the rights and freedoms central to our lives are testament to the power of Schuman's idea. Much of the credit for the positive changes that have occurred in Europe must go to the European Union and to the sense of solidarity it has engendered among the peoples of Europe and their political leaders. Today's Europe has been built step by step. The reform treaty represents the next necessary step in this European process. It has been a successful process and we have a vested interest in its successful continuation.
The Union is founded on a strong sense of solidarity among its membership. Over the years, Ireland has benefited from the application of this principle. It was a spirit of solidarity that saw the Union invest in Ireland's future, including our peace process. At European level, it was this spirit that provided support for the people of central and eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain finally came down. It is this spirit that will be essential for all Europeans as we seek to meet the challenges of the coming decades, challenges that go beyond the capacity of any one country to handle. It is vital to deal with difficult economic global situations and to give leadership at EU level.
Our early modest ambitions have been replaced by larger goals. Our economy has developed to a level unthinkable to even the most optimistic of the earlier generations who worked so hard to lay the foundations for a better Ireland and our social policies much better reflect the needs and aspirations of a vibrant 21st century society. Had we listened to the doubters in the mid-1980s and rejected the Single European Act, which created the Internal Market, we could easily have missed out on much of the economic advancement we have experienced in the past two decades. Similarly, the story of our economic success of recent years cannot be told without reference to the Maastricht treaty of 1992, which provided for economic and monetary union and the guaranteed trading environment it ushered in. The 1997 Amsterdam treaty, which increased the EU's responsibility in the area of justice and home affairs, has been crucial in the fight against the growing threat of cross-border crime. Each of these treaties has brought about change that has been in Ireland's best interests.
The latest treaty, which will settle the debate about the internal workings of the Union for the foreseeable future, will also serve our national interests. As a major exporting nation, Ireland has benefited enormously from our access to the European market. Our exports to it have more than doubled since we joined in 1973 and the Lisbon treaty will ensure that the Single Market continues to develop, giving Irish companies more opportunities to grow and expand. Ireland is rightly often described as a gateway to Europe and is seen as such by many foreign investors. The fact that Ireland will continue to decide its own tax policies under this treaty will ensure that we continue to be an attractive location for foreign investment. The treaty is good for investment, business and jobs.
The treaty will give the Union the flexibility and capability to face the major challenges ahead and there can be no doubt that there is a need for reform to take account of the much larger Union and of the challenging internal and external policy issues facing us. The sheer scale of the challenges — climate change, migration, the eradication of poverty and globalisation — means that no single country can contemplate addressing them alone. The decades ahead will see us all increasingly dependent on multilateral and regional organisations. The EU is the most effective such organisation in the world by a long way. It has an important role in helping to shape a better future and has a responsibility to play that role effectively, which the reform treaty recognises. In creating a president of the European Council and a high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, the treaty aims to give the Union a clearer and more coherent voice in international affairs that will reflect the shared interests and values of European people and have democracy and human rights at its core. It will be a consensus voice that will speak on behalf of and follow the mandate of all EU member states.
We have a strong interest in preventing and resolving regional and global conflicts and in creating a fairer international order. We have an interest in bringing our influence and principles to bear, the best way for us to do which is through active engagement within the Union, which bases its external action on the principles of the United Nations charter. This is not to say that our national voice or interests will be submerged — unanimity will continue to rule with regard to the common foreign and security policy. This applies to areas with military or defence implications. There is absolutely no threat to our traditional policy of military neutrality.
The treaty will ensure that the European Union will continue to develop its vital work in the area of security and defence co-operation. Ireland is making a major contribution to peace and stability in places like Kosovo and Chad. The European Union has a particular relationship with Africa and this role will expand and develop over the next decades in promoting greater co-operation on development, trade and stability. Hopefully, high on our agenda will be helping to restore Zimbabwe to its former status as the bread basket of Africa and assisting it to grow and develop as it deserves after a decade of stagnation.