Wednesday, 31 March 2004

Ceisteanna (6)

Gay Mitchell

Ceist:

5 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the position with regard to the possible achievement of an agreement on the new constitution for the EU during Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10193/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Foreign)

In fulfilment of our mandate from December, the Irish Presidency submitted a report to colleagues on prospects for progress in the IGC ahead of last week's meeting of the European Council. This provided a basis for the discussion among Heads of State and Government over dinner on Thursday evening.

We set out in the report our assessment following the intensive process of consultation that has been under way since the start of the year. We said there continues to be consensus on the importance and value of the proposed constitutional treaty and there is a strong shared sense of the desirability of concluding negotiations as soon as possible. There is a widespread view that delay would make agreement more difficult to achieve. We also said we expected an overall solution covering all remaining points of difficulty could be found if there was sufficient political will and flexibility.

The Taoiseach outlined further our general approach to a number of the key outstanding issues in presenting the report at the meeting on Thursday. On the Commission, he expressed our view that the mutually valid requirements for effectiveness and legitimacy can be met through maintaining, for an extended period, a Commission comprising one national of each member state, moving thereafter to a reduced size.

On voting in the Council of Ministers, the Taoiseach set out our assessment that only a system based on double majority can command consensus and that it should be possible to reach an outcome that meets the concerns of all through some adjustment of the population and member state thresholds and through arrangements for confirmation of the transition from the current system. On the European Parliament, he said it should be possible to reach consensus on a modest increase in the minimum threshold of seats per member state. He did not ask colleagues to discuss these matters in detail. However, he asked partners to commit themselves to a firm timescale for agreement.

The Presidency report was warmly welcomed by partners. Following a positive and constructive discussion, the European Council reaffirmed its commitment to reach agreement and, on the basis of the Presidency's report, requested the Presidency to continue its consultations and as soon as appropriate to arrange for the resumption of formal negotiations in the IGC. It decided that agreement should be reached no later than the June European Council.

This is welcome and positive progress but we are far from complacent. Considerable work remains to be done if agreement on the constitutional treaty is to be reached under the Irish Presidency. If we are to resolve all outstanding issues, everyone will need to approach the task with a shared spirit of compromise and flexibility. It is not yet possible to say with certainty that agreement will be achieved by June. However, I assure the House that the Government will continue to do everything it can to facilitate and encourage a successful outcome.

When will the IGC reconvene? Does the Minister of State have a date in mind? If the deadline of the European Parliament elections in early June is to be met, the IGC will have to reconvene soon.

With regard to the content of the draft treaty, when will we have sight of the protocol on defence? The current draft proposes a common defence entity for member states that wish to sign the declaration and join but a protocol is to be published setting out the obligations of membership. The protocol could accommodate both NATO members and the non-aligned member states of the Union but it is important that we have sight of the protocol. When is it likely we will see the protocol?

On the question of timing and reaching agreement before the June summit, the Government will move to secure agreement as quickly as possible. However, we need to be realistic. Political circumstances in several member states must be factored in and we also need to give ourselves sufficient time to work through all the issues involved. We will continue to do our best to bring the IGC to a successful conclusion at the earliest opportunity, as agreed last week. It will be no later than June. If we can manage to reach agreement before then, that will be done.

A text on defence was published in December. Nothing in the IGC is agreed until everything is agreed. In our extensive bilateral conversations, nobody has sought to open the substance of the package tabled prior to the December summit. Other Members had concerns in this regard, recognising Ireland's tradition in this area. However, nobody has expressed problems or raised issues regarding the text. On the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, it is expected the package will remain in place.

Can I take it we will not see the protocol until the IGC concludes? The protocol will be before the IGC and, therefore, its contents will be known and Ireland will know what it is signing up to and the question that will be put to the people. Has the Government made suggestions regarding what the protocol should contain? Have suggestions been made by other sources, such as the Commission or other member states? Will the Minister of State confirm that for the foreseeable future, it is likely each member state will continue to nominate a Commissioner?

The Taoiseach has played an important role in the Commissioner issue. He set out his belief at the European Council that the equally valid requirement for effectiveness and legitimacy in the Commission can be met through maintaining, for an extended period, a Commission comprising our national nominee and a nominee from each member state moving thereafter to a reduced size. If this is the outcome, there must be absolute and strict equality among member states in rotating the right to nominate a Commissioner. It was agreed under the Nice treaty that a reduced Commission would come into being after the Union reached 27 members and this was endorsed by the people in the treaty referendum. The Taoiseach has taken an interest in this issue.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Roche, are more involved in the protocol issue. My understanding is that when we are ready to proceed with the IGC, all the issues involved will be openly discussed. Like the Deputy, I have spent time as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs under a previous Government and it is important that should be the case. However, I will revert to the Deputy on this issue if necessary.

Question No. 6 answered with Question No. 3.