Thursday, 12 February 2004

Ceisteanna (1, 2)

Gay Mitchell

Ceist:

1 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the importance to both North America and the European Union of the transatlantic relationship; his views on the sentiments expressed by Ambassador Kenny of the United States of America (details supplied); his further views on whether Ireland is ideally placed, in terms of geography, culture and history to advance the American-EU partnership; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4425/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael D. Higgins

Ceist:

2 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if it is expected that there will be a visit by President George Bush of the United States of America during the Irish Presidency; and the details of such talks as have taken place between officials of his Department and others. [4388/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (17 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Foreign)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

An EU-US summit is expected to take place during the Irish Presidency. Discussions are ongoing with our US colleagues to finalise arrangements, including possible dates and locations. EU-US summits take place on an annual basis. They provide an opportunity at the highest level of Government on both sides to review important issues of shared interest and concern, to arrive at decisions for joint or complementary work and to address issues where there may be differences between us.

This year's summit provides a good opportunity to restore stability and vitality to the EU-US relationship. It is fully acknowledged that the relationship has been through a very rocky period over policy on Iraq. There has been a noticeable improvement in the relationship over recent months. Our aim as EU Presidency is to build on this improvement and deliver a summit that reconfirms the importance of EU-US partnership for our citizens and for the broader international community.

Our reasons for doing this are simple. A co-operative and productive partnership between the European Union and the United States is critical to the prospects for long-term growth, stability and prosperity for our own citizens and for the broader international community. The EU and the US are each other's main trading partners and have the world's most important bilateral investment relationship, with the total two-way trade and investment amounting to approximately €2 trillion.

The EU-US partnership is also key to addressing many of the issues on the international agenda. The best way to restore confidence in the relationship is to focus on pragmatic co-operation on specific issues. On the political side the EU and US are working closely on the Arab-Israeli peace process and on wider relations with the Middle East region and on Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea — to single out a few of the dossiers — as well as co-operation on issues such as non-proliferation and counter-terrorism. On economic and trade issues, too often the media focus tends to be on disputes rather than on areas of co-operation. For that reason, I believe it is important to put these differences into perspective and to concentrate on the positive economic agenda between the EU and the US, while effectively managing the small number of outstanding disputes, which account for less than 3% of overall trade.

Of course, it is not possible to be in full agreement on all issues but it is important that both sides try harder to manage such differences in a way that avoids damaging the overall relationship.

I very much welcome the positive views reflected in US Ambassador Kenny's article of 6 February 2004, referred to by Deputy Mitchell. The momentum to restore and revitalise the EU-US relationship is coming from both sides, which augurs well for a successful summit during the Irish Presidency. I agree with Deputy Mitchell that Ireland is particularly well placed to assist in promoting EU-US relations.

Transatlantic relations also encompass the EU's important relationship with Canada. An EU-Canada summit meeting is scheduled for 18 March and will take place in Ottawa. The Taoiseach and President Prodi will lead the EU side and will meet with the new Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. This summit provides an excellent opportunity to add momentum to this important relationship. The summit is expected to conclude a review of the EU-Canada relationship initiated under the Danish Presidency in 2002 and to launch a new trade and investment enhancement agreement.

A close transatlantic partnership is essential for prosperity and growth on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the broader international community. As Presidency, we will work to reaffirm the strength, depth and significance of these relationships in a sprit of partnership.

Deputy Higgins asked for a list of the meetings which have taken place. There have been a number of meetings at political director level. I met Secretary of State Powell on 25 January when he attended the inauguration of President Saakashvili in Georgia and I will meet the Secretary of State again, together with Xavier Solana and Commissioner Patten, at the EU-US foreign ministerial troika on 1 March in Washington. I will accompany the Taoiseach to the EU-US summit, which President Bush and Secretary of State Powell will attend. In addition, a wide range of consultations will take place between the EU and US at official level, based on mechanisms developed over a number of years to foster co-operation across the full range of political and economic issues. The meetings held within this consultative structure will help prepare for the US summit and some of these scheduled for the Irish Presidency have been held.

Will the Minister confirm that President Bush has been invited to lead the US side at the EU-US summit? I did not understand what he said in his reply. I refer to the article written by Ambassador Kenny and the document published by Fine Gael. The Fine Gael document, an advance copy of which I have given the Minister, makes the case for a transatlantic foundation promoting better co-operation between the European Union and North America, in particular the United States, to be located at Shannon. Does the Minister agree that we have a golden opportunity to promote and advance this idea during Ireland's Presidency? As the European Union expands to the east Ireland becomes much more peripheral, but in terms of EU-US relations we are ideally located. Shannon is an ideal location, being the first stop-off point coming from North America to Europe.

Will the Minister raise with the United States the case for locating such a foundation to promote EU and North American relations in Ireland and will he consider funding such a foundation in its initial stages so as to breach the gulf which Ambassador Kenny refers to in his article.

Under the present arrangements, it is expected that a summit will take place during this Presidency. Discussions are ongoing with our colleagues to finalise arrangements, including possible dates and locations. If a summit is to take place, it will obviously be led on the US side by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Regarding the Fine Gael proposal about a foundation for transatlantic co-operation, there are numerous institutes and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic that carry out very useful work on transatlantic relations. I understand that the Institute of European Affairs already has an EU-US group looking at the relationship. The ideas and research that emerge from such bodies certainly help inform the thinking of all of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, who are involved in this relationship. Before going further down the road towards agreeing to establish a foundation, one would have to take those facts into account. It would clearly require further examination, particularly in the area of funding.

While welcoming the new ambassador's wishes — and I hope he is successful in establishing cordial relations with Ireland — I put it to the Minister that if the visit referred to were to take place, the Minister would have to be explicit about the recent events of the war. He would have to face the fact that the war was illegal, that pre-emptive action was illegal under international law and that the best act of friendship might be to explicitly and unequivocally state Ireland's position. Does the Minister now regret not having spent greater effort in ensuring that the United Nations' inspectors were able to stay in Iraq and perhaps avoid some of the appalling loss of life, which unfortunately now continues?

It is too early to say what the full range of the agenda will be, but it would involve political, economic and trade issues.

I continue to refer to this incorrect characterisation of the Government position on the war, and to the motion passed by this House. Every effort was made by this Government, when Ireland was a Security Council member and thereafter, to continue with the participation of the UN weapons inspectors for so long as the Security Council wished. That is the position of the Irish Government, so it is not required that I make it clear to the Deputy. The position is clear in the motion of the House and is confirmed by the vote of the House.

Will the Minister confirm that the EU-US summit will take place in Ireland, as the venue has not been firmly decided on? Will he agree that it is a golden opportunity, particularly in an election year in the United States, which now claims 38 million people of Irish heritage, to get the President of the United States to buy into Shannon as a location for transatlantic co-operation between the European Union and North America? Does the Minister agree that if this summit were to take place in Ireland, it would be the right place to raise this issue? Will he put the issue on the agenda? It will be very rare for the Irish Presidency of the EU to coincide with a US Presidential election, and many Irish-American voters might be very pleased to see a US-supported transatlantic foundation in Ireland.

The Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and several Ministers have referred regularly to the necessity for the war, and the Taoiseach has made reference to weapons of mass destruction. Does the Minister now accept that this was largely a fiction used to create a particular effect? Will he agree that it is now time to review what took place, and the appalling circumstances in which it took place? I hope he is not asking us to believe that he ever condemned pre-emption. He never condemned a pre-emptive strike, nor did the Taoiseach or any Member of the Government.

I will correct that for the Deputy, because I did condemn pre-emptive strike. It is on the record of the House, which I will get.

The Minister told me the jury was out.

I have been asked this question by the Deputy on occasion. Let us be clear about it.

The Minister did say the jury was out.

If the Deputies want to hear the answer to the question, I will give it. In the same way as they do not like being misrepresented, neither do I. No one has a monopoly on truth in this House. I know what my truthful position was. It is set out in the motion which was adopted by this House. Of course I said that pre-emptive action was not a legal way forward in international law. I never suggested it was. The argument is that those who supported military action claimed they had a legal basis from Resolution 687, and subsequent resolutions. That is the argument they put. I did not say that I accepted it. I said there was no consensus or unanimity on the argument on both sides of the fence. What I said was that regardless of what the position of others was, our position was clear. We required a second resolution of the United Nations.

We did not get it.

We did not get it. That is why we stated in our motion that we endorsed the decision of the Government that Ireland would not participate in the coalition's proposed military action against Iraq. That is the legitimate position of this Government, which continues to be accused of misrepresentation by those whose motion was defeated in this House.

The Government allowed Shannon to be used.

Deputy Gormley, this is not your Priority Question.

Regarding Deputy Mitchell's points, I have already said that discussions are ongoing with colleagues to finalise arrangements, including possible dates and locations. I cannot be more specific at this time. As I have stated, if the summit were to take place it would clearly be headed on the US side by President Bush. Regarding the proposal on the foundation, I have answered in a previous supplementary that there are a number of such foundations already, that the question of funding would have to be considered, and that it is clear that the EU-US relationship would not be solved simply by setting up another foundation.

There is a substantive agenda to be addressed on a range of issues, about which in some cases there are differences. We have to explore and manage those differences through dialogue. There is also a series of co-operative talks taking place in the United States and the EU based on the strategic importance of this relationship for the European Union and for the quality of life and employment opportunities of our citizens. We have to deal with those too. The gamut of interests should be the subject of a summit based on finalising agenda to the mutual satisfaction of everyone.