Address by Minister Cowen, Conference of the Association of Irish Regions, Tullamore, 18 October 2002


May I begin by warmly welcoming you to Tullamore for what will, I hope, be a useful and interesting Conference.

May I also take the opportunity to commend the Association for your pro-active and engaged approach to the debate on the future of Europe now underway, including at the European Convention. The paper you recently submitted to the Convention together with the Irish Delegation to the Committee of the Regions was a substantial and thoughtful input, raising many interesting questions - some of which I will return to later. Today's Conference is a further valuable and welcome contribution.

Your timing could not be better. Tomorrow, the people of Ireland will take a crucially important decision that will say a great deal about how we see ourselves, our role in the EU and our position in the wider world.

Europe too stands on the threshold of an exciting new era. With ten applicant countries now ready to come in, and with two more working hard to meet the challenge, we could, in a very few years, find ourselves operating in a Union of 27 Member States.

Alongside this process of enlargement, the European Convention is working to find answers to the key questions on the future of Europe, raised at the European Council at Nice and explored further in the Declaration made at Laeken - how to bring citizens closer to the EU; how the EU can be better organised; how the EU can most effectively play a full and coherent role on the wider international stage.

It is an important time for Ireland, for Europe and for the future shape of the relationship between us.

The issues involved in tomorrow's referendum have been well explored and ventilated throughout the campaign. I hope that the public has been engaged and informed, and that people will come out in large numbers to vote tomorrow. Whatever your views on the matters at issue, the decision is too important to be left to a minority of voters. Every single voice should be heard, every vote counted. As the Referendum Commission has said, if you don't vote there is no point in giving out afterwards.

However, as we enter into the last lap of the campaign, I would like to make a final few observations on why I emphatically believe the Irish people should give their overwhelming endorsement to the Treaty of Nice.

Throughout the campaign, I have sought to make the positive case for a yes vote because I firmly believe that that case is incontestable.

Ireland and Europe together have been a powerful and successful team. Thirty years of membership, first of the Community, now of the Union, have transformed this country for the better. Where we have pooled sovereignty, it has been returned to us in abundance. Through our membership of the Union, Ireland has been able to become all that it is today.

We have been able to build our economy and create jobs for our people. We have put an end to involuntary emigration from our shores. Not only have we been able to sustain and protect all that is unique, different and worth celebrating about being Irish, through our engagement in Europe we have brought an added dimension and complexity to our culture and identity. We have never stopped being Irish - we never will - but being Irish and European at the same time is enriching.

The choice we make tomorrow is not about weighing our interests against somebody else's. Nice is about enlargement, and enlargement is about opportunities - for us and for the applicants. It is about continuing our journey with Europe towards progress and peace, and about sharing and spreading the benefits more widely, ending the unnatural division of the continent.

Enlargement will create new business opportunities for Irish exporters, new chances for the applicants to raise their economic performance and create jobs for their people at home. In an enlarged Union everyone wins.

The people of Ireland should vote yes first and foremost because Nice is right for us. In Nice, our position is fully protected. It is a good deal for Ireland and the smaller Member States. In the Treaty, no vital interest or concern of ours is at stake. A yes vote will keep us at the heart of Europe at a time when important questions about our shared future are being discussed. As a constructive and committed partner, Ireland will continue to wield considerable influence.

But we should also vote yes because it is right for others. It is right to prepare the Union to expand and it is right to welcome the new members - they have worked hard and they deserve to come in.

And we should vote yes, because it would be wrong to vote no. Wrong for us, and wrong for others.

Our interests would not be served. Ireland's vote will, without question, influence how others see us. However much those urging a No vote might seek to rationalise such an outcome, a No would be regarded as a perverse rejection by Ireland of a fair and reasonable deal - negotiated by all of the Member States, including Ireland - for no good reason. Our reputation and standing would suffer.

Our relations with the countries waiting to join would be seriously damaged. This week we have heard a great number of voices in the applicant countries appeal to the Irish people to vote yes. Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel - people who struggled for freedom and led their people out from under the yoke of communism - are calling on us not to stand in their way.

They are clear that a No vote would set back enlargement, possibly by years. President Havel is not alone in believing that such a delay - to countries that have made painful sacrifices to ensure that they are ready for membership - risks unleashing dark and sinister political forces.

We would also damage our relations with our existing partners who share with us an interest us in ensuring an effective Union with institutions adequately prepared to function properly after enlargement.

Those who are calling for a no vote tomorrow have sought to downplay the consequences of the choice we will make. They would have us believe that the carefully balanced agreement reached at Nice could be put aside and replaced, instantly and easily, with some alternative that will be more to their liking. I very strongly urge the Irish people not to listen to them.

While arguing that they want enlargement to proceed, they would have us thwart the only available means to bring it about. I don't for a moment deny that there is a strong political desire across Europe to see the enlargement process driven forward. It is an historical imperative. I also don't deny that, if Ireland were to vote no on Saturday, enormous efforts would be made to find a way to ensure that enlargement was not permanently and totally derailed.

But let us not fool ourselves. For countries to join the European Union there must be legal terms under which they can do so. The Treaty of Nice provides those terms. It is a compromise, the result of lengthy negotiations. To imagine that, having caused damage to ourselves and others, we would be positioned to demand a better deal, is not to live in the political real world. Irish negotiators did well at Nice. There is no better deal waiting out there.

Yes, the Irish people are sovereign. Only they can decide whether or not Ireland can ratify Nice. But it would be a profound mistake for them to take such an important decision without a full appreciation of the consequences for them and for others.

A no vote would be deeply damaging - for us and for others. A yes vote is not only risk free - Ireland's interests will be fully protected - it will bring positive rewards, new opportunities and renewed goodwill. Ireland should join the other 14 Member States who have already ratified Nice and open the door to a new and exciting era in the Union's history.

I passionately believe in Ireland moving forward with Europe. I will be working hard until the very last minute of the campaign to secure a positive outcome. I believe that those of us who care deeply about Ireland and about Europe, and who want to see a yes vote, will succeed.

Whatever happens tomorrow, the vibrant and active debate we have had has been a good thing for our democracy. Europe is evolving and it is right and proper that the people of Ireland feel engaged and involved in the process.

The debate will continue in the National Forum on Europe which has already shown itself to be of enormous value. It, in turn, will continue actively to feed into the broader debate now underway across Europe, including at the Convention.

I am a committed European, an enthusiastic supporter of the Union, but like many others I recognise that there has sometimes been a disconnect between the EU and its citizens. In a period of change, it is all the more important that in shaping the future we give people ownership of a process which should be as inclusive and participative as possible. It makes no sense to speak of bringing Europe closer to its citizens if their views are not given full weight in discussions on what Europe should be and how it should move forward.

As I have said, I commend the Association of Irish Regions for playing an active role in this regard.

While I appreciate that you have a very full and busy Conference schedule ahead of you today, I thought it might be useful if I outlined, in broad terms, some of the Government's thinking on the Convention, and some thoughts on the direction things are taking.

Firstly, I think that the inclusive make-up of the Convention is to be welcomed. There has been a sense in the past that major Treaty change has been agreed by Governments behind closed doors in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms, without sufficient public understanding of what is involved. Of course, as is right and proper, decisions on Treaty change legally remain for the Member States concerned, meeting in an Intergovernmental Conference. But I welcome the fact that a more transparent and participative approach is being taken to preparing the next IGC.

As you know, the Convention contains not only Government representatives - of both existing Member States and applicant countries - it also contains representatives of national parliaments, the European Parliament and the Commission. The Committee of the Regions, as you know, also has observer status. I would pay tribute to the input Oireachtas representatives, especially John Bruton as a member of the Convention's steering committee, are making. It is also striking that, even before enlargement, representatives of all the applicants are taking part on an equal basis. Indeed we have found that on many issues we take a similar line or have similar concerns. This gives the lie to those who would argue that the applicants have no say in the future destiny of our shared project.

Secondly, I think the approach the Convention has been taking to date has been correct. In response to its mandate from the European Council “to consider the various issues” and to “draw up a final document which may comprise either different options, indicating the degree of support they received, or recommendations if consensus is achieved”, the Convention has been taking its work forward in a careful and steady way. Following an initial ‘listening' phase, it is now progressing to a more detailed phase.

The first wave of working groups established to address particular issues and questions, is beginning to report. I know that the Association will have shared the broad welcome for the report of the group on subsidiarity, which has made proposals as to how this vital principle can be given more meaningful effect, including through the involvement of national parliaments.

However, it is still to early to say what final product will go forward from the Convention to the IGC -whether options or recommendations, whether a new basic or Constitutional Treaty or a reframing of existing arrangements.

In shaping this, the Irish Government will be stressing our view that the Union has been a remarkable success as a community of nation states - which have decided to pool sovereignty in defined areas where it makes sense and where mutual benefit results. This is an approach that should continue into the future. I do not believe there is widespread appetite, either at the Convention or among the peoples of Europe, for what some would style a ‘federal superstate'. That is not what we are about. Most Europeans identify with their own countries in the first instance, and that will continue to be the case.

Furthermore, we believe that the institutional arrangements and balances have broadly worked well. There is always scope for improvement, particularly as we address the challenges presented by a Union of 27 Member States, but the approach needed is a reforming, not a radical, one. Nothing is served by risking the loss of both baby and bathwater. For the most part, there is little call for the Union either to take on new tasks or discard old ones - the issue is rather how best we ought to do what we are already doing.

One of the key task facing the Convention in taking forward the Laeken agenda is to bring Europe closer to its citizens. This, I know, is an issue close to the Association's heart. In part it is a question of intelligibility. The Union can sometimes appear dense and impenetrable to its people. Where possible and appropriate, we need to cut our way through the undergrowth, to achieve a Union easier to understand and simpler in its procedures. But it is also a question of accountability. As I have mentioned, there are already interesting proposals in the area of subsidiarity being brought forward. At home we have put in place new arrangements in the Oireachtas in relation to the scrutiny of EU legislative and policy proposals, but we will also continue to press for a more active role for national parliaments, a concept for which there is growing support at the Convention.

The other key issue for the Convention is how Europe can play a more effective and constructive role in the world. This is not about grandiose schemes for becoming a global political or military superpower. I am not aware of any significant support for such an outcome. Rather, it is about taking the values and principles of the Union and finding a way to project them more effectively beyond our borders. The EU stands for peaceful trade and cooperation. For human rights and social justice. For sustainable development and environmental protection. These are values fully in keeping with Irish traditions, including neutrality. It is very much in our interests that we play an active role in shaping how the EU can be a force for good in the world, and ensuring that it is properly equipped and prepared to do so.

In broad terms that is the approach being advanced by Ireland, through our representative at the Convention, Dick Roche.

Again, I very much welcome the active approach of the Association of Irish Regions, including in hosting today's Conference. You have an interesting list of speakers and topics ahead of you. I wish you every success in your endeavours and hope that we can stay in touch with each other as the vital debate on Europe's future moves forward.

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