I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, 11 and 12 December. I was accompanied at the meeting by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, the Minister of State with responsibility for European Union affairs, Deputy Dick Roche, and the Attorney General.
The Council had an unusually heavy agenda. While the bulk of discussion centred on the Lisbon treaty, energy and climate change negotiations and the economic and financial crisis, other issues were also dealt with. That such a heavy agenda could be completed with unanimously agreed conclusions is testament to the excellent French EU Presidency of the past six months. France deployed its own highly successful mix of pragmatism, determination and dynamism. In acknowledging France's success, I single out the particularly effective role played by President Nicolas Sarkozy. I met him on several occasions in recent months. We are indebted to him for the leadership and assistance he has provided for Europe. President Sarkozy has shown himself to be a friend of Ireland.
When I reported to the House following the October European Council, I said our task in the period ahead would be to work out how to address our concerns on the Lisbon treaty in a way which could be endorsed by all 27 member states. With the co-operation of our partners in the European Union, the outcome of last week's Council represents a significant step towards delivering the way forward. Before outlining the detail of last week's meeting, I will briefly recap on the context against which it took place, and the steps the Government has taken since the referendum.
The Government accepted the outcome of the referendum last June, and undertook to manage the impasse arising as a result of it. We sought to gain an understanding of the reasons underlying the rejection of the treaty. That included the commissioning of very comprehensive research, the findings of which have been published and with which the House is familiar. The Government co-operated with the other parties in the Oireachtas in the establishment of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union, which undertook intensive and broad work, hearing from some 110 witnesses from more than 40 organisations.
We then brought the key concerns, as identified in the Government's research and examined by the sub committee, to our partners in Europe and requested that these concerns would be addressed. We did this through direct and extensive contact at many levels. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of State with responsibility for European Union affairs and our diplomatic network were very active in engaging with all other member states.
I stayed in close contact with President Sarkozy, meeting on several occasions. As the Council meeting approached, I undertook a number of visits to European capitals to meet leaders and to discuss our approach with them and to hear their views. Early last week I spoke by telephone with as many of my European Council colleagues as proved possible to outline again our concerns and explain the nature of the response we felt was required. Last week, we took those concerns to the European Council. The following is a summary of what I said last week to my EU counterparts at the European Council.
I began by reminding my colleagues that Ireland had agreed in October to seek to identify the elements of a solution which could command the support of all at the December Council meeting. I stressed the Government's belief that the Lisbon treaty is important for the Union's future development. I also recalled that it could only enter into force if it is ratified by all 27 member states. I made clear that the concerns of the Irish people as expressed during the referendum must be reflected in any solution. I elaborated on my comments in October about those concerns. Many people felt that they lacked sufficient information or understanding to vote "Yes". Many were concerned at a perceived loss of influence to Ireland, especially when the Commission ceased to include a national of every member state. Others were concerned that decisions on important social and ethical issues, especially, but not only, abortion, would be taken out of Irish hands. Some were concerned that workers' rights would somehow be constrained. Some felt that the position on tax, notably corporation tax, was somehow undermined by the Lisbon treaty. Others were concerned that our traditional policy of military neutrality, to which very many Irish people, whether they voted "Yes" or "No", hold a very strong sense of attachment, would be compromised by the Lisbon treaty. Some were even misled to fear that it could lead to conscription to a European army. I said that while some of these fears and concerns were misplaced or based on misapprehension or misinformation, it did not take away from the fact that they were sincerely held and require a respectful response.
I briefed my colleagues on the European Council on the work of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union, noting that it had representation from across the political spectrum. Again, I record my appreciation for the work of that committee and the way in which it carried out its business. I informed the European Council that the Committee's report stated clearly that to help secure Ireland firmly at the heart of Europe, the concerns that arose during the referendum campaign must be addressed. I made clear that the response to the concerns of the Irish people had to be satisfactory. I then set out the nature of the response to the concerns that I believed was required.
I stated that retaining a Commissioner was a real concern for the Irish people. There was no doubt that this was a very significant part of the debate during the referendum campaign, and that a change was necessary to respond to the belief among the public that the loss of a Commissioner represented a considerable loss of influence.
Second, I stated the Government needed an undertaking that the other concerns of the Irish people, which I had set out and that are recorded in the annex to the conclusions, would be addressed satisfactorily and in a legally robust manner, where appropriate. Moreover, such an undertaking required the inclusion of a reaffirmation by the Union of the value it attaches to issues such as workers' rights and national competence in respect of key public services.
Negotiations on the conclusions lasted for many hours last Thursday evening and resumed on Friday morning. I am pleased to report to this House that the Council was able to reach unanimous agreement on the response to Ireland's concerns. This unanimous agreement represents an extremely encouraging response to the concerns of the Irish people. Our partners are prepared to adjust the institutional balance agreed within the Lisbon treaty to provide that member states keep a Commissioner each in response to Irish concerns. This is a very significant move. While several member states were strongly opposed, ultimately they accepted that this change is required.
Second, with regard to the other areas of concern I have outlined previously, the Union agreed that our concerns should be responded to satisfactorily, including through the use of legally binding guarantees. While the detail is yet to follow, our partners are clear about the nature of those guarantees. The Union also agreed on the need to confirm the importance of issues such as workers' rights. On the basis of the agreement on these elements and on condition of our being able to put in place appropriate guarantees, I stated that I would be prepared to return to the public to put a new package and to seek their approval of it. I believe this to be a significant outcome.
I emphasise that considerable work lies ahead on the responses to such concerns. I also emphasise the nature of the agreement on the Commission because there was considerable confusion at the time of the referendum. The maintenance of one Commissioner per member state is not possible under the existing treaty arrangements, as the Nice treaty requires the size of the Commission to be reduced. Only if the Lisbon treaty enters into force will Ireland and every other member state now keep a Commissioner. The conclusions agreed last week are very clear on this point.
While my focus and that of my delegation was necessarily on the Lisbon treaty issue, other important issues also were discussed. On the economic front, there has been extensive coverage of the European economic recovery plan. This represents a framework for member states' efforts and is designed to ensure consistency and maximum impact. In Ireland's case, while we will continue to sustain our capital spending at a level far above the historical norm, the immediate focus of our efforts must remain on redressing the budgetary imbalance. The Council also agreed to take forward work on better global regulation of financial markets, better global governance and ensuring there is not growth in protectionism at a time of economic stress. As a small exporting nation dependent on favourable international trading conditions, avoiding growth in protectionism is important for us.
The agreement by the European Council on the climate change and energy package is of huge importance. It is a good outcome for the environment and for Ireland and a number of our key concerns were taken on board at a late stage of the negotiations. I pay particular tribute to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and his officials for their excellent work in negotiations on this agreement. It represents a significant step in the effort to forge a wider international agreement to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our age. Nearly two years ago, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel, Europe agreed to unilaterally reduce our emissions by 20% compared to 1990. Friday's agreement under President Sarkozy's watchful eye was, in effect, the setting down in detail of how that is to be done and Ireland played its full part in delivering on that.
The agreement represents the culmination of intensive and highly complex negotiations. Many people hoped for a more robust deal and Ireland supported the Presidency and the Commission in pushing for a package that was stronger than that which finally was agreed. However, one must recognise that compromise was necessary. The compromises, with which some are unhappy, were necessary to ensure that agreement was reached. Failure to reach agreement last week would have represented a serious set-back to the momentum we must bring to the climate change negotiations.
The Minister, Deputy Gormley, led the Irish delegation at the UN negotiations in Poznan while the European Council was under way and we remained in close contact. Ireland sought an acceleration of the international negotiations to agree a deal next year and the EU's leadership in this process was reinforced by last week's deal in Brussels. The reality for all countries is that if progress is to be made in tackling climate change, meaningful adjustments must be made and inevitably this will involve some change for all. The agreement is testament to Europe's ability to keep working, however challenging that may be, until agreement is reached. While this may be slow, and at times, tortuous, it is the best and the only way. On climate change, Europe now has shown the way forward by setting down its approach in detail on how it will reach reductions of 20%. If the rest of the world rises to the challenge, the Union is committed to stepping up its target to minus 30%.
The Council also adopted conclusions in several other areas, including agriculture, external relations and security and defence policy. The full text of the conclusions has been laid in the Oireachtas Library. As for the developments in Ireland in the pigmeat sector, at our request the Council agreed to invite the Commission to contribute to our efforts to support farmers and slaughterhouses. The Government is following up with the Commission on this welcome development. I record my appreciation to the Council and to Commission President Barroso in particular, for their support of, and solidarity towards, Ireland on this issue,
The extent of the challenge Ireland faces in respect of its future relationship with Europe can hardly be over-stated. There will be much written, accurately and regrettably otherwise, about the agreement reached last Friday and about what the Lisbon treaty itself does and does not do. We must be careful not to lose sight of the wood for the trees. My view, which I believe is shared by the vast majority of Members, is that our future must be within Europe. Within Europe, we must be close to the centre and not at the margins or with some semi-detached status. This has been the approach of Irish Governments of various hues for more than 35 years and it has served the country well.
This shared approach over a sustained period reflects the reality that Ireland's relationship with Europe and its European partners is a truly national issue that transcends party politics. I appreciate the approach adopted by Opposition leaders, with whom I have had discussions in recent days. Whatever about our differences, we share a view that our future in Europe is so important that it requires as strongly united a position as possible within this House. Those who suggest Ireland can remain at the heart of Europe while refusing to work with its fellow member states, which are convinced of the necessity for more efficient and effective institutions and a stronger EU voice internationally, are attempting to render a great disservice to the public. Moreover, lest anyone consider that another referendum would create a pressure point around which concessions might be leveraged from the Government in return for support, I wish it to be understood that no good can come of such an approach. Advancing sectoral or narrow interests in such a way could be highly damaging for this country, especially at this time.
These are difficult times on a variety of fronts. Just as many of the challenges Ireland faces are international, so must be the response to them. Ireland must face outwards, not inwards, in seeking to advance its interests and protect its people and the hard-won improvements in living standards over the last decades. Serving our national interest requires us to play our full role within Europe.
Friday's conclusions on the Lisbon treaty move us further along the path of identifying a way forward that could gain the support of the Irish people, while at the same time being acceptable to all our partners. The outcome of last week's meeting augurs well. I am confident the Irish people's concerns can be addressed and will be addressed satisfactorily. If a satisfactory outcome to the work I have described is achieved in the coming months, the Government will put the issue to another referendum. Whether our future relationship with Europe will be based on Ireland playing a full and constructive role in the European Union or otherwise, ultimately will be for the Irish people to decide.