DÁIL STATEMENT BY MINISTER COWEN ON THE OUTCOME OF THE NICE TREATY REFERENDUM Part 2


Ireland is looked upon as a model Member State by the candidate countries. This was repeated to me by Foreign Minister colleagues from these countries whom I met today. They see us as a country which has managed its membership of the EU well and taken full advantage of the opportunities while at the same time maintaining a positive image with its fellow member States. I cannot emphasise enough, as Ireland's Foreign Minister, that it is imperative that we maintain this positive image with the candidate countries. To do so now, we will need to redouble our efforts at our own bilateral meetings with these countries, to avoid misunderstandings or the development of attitudes that affect our present and future political, economic and cultural interests with the peoples and Governments of these States.

It would be most unfortunate for Ireland if the vote last week were misconstrued as an anti-enlargement vote. It would harm our relations with future partners, who will be vital to us as allies and colleagues around the EU table. It would also result in drawing into question Ireland's positive reputation internationally as a country which supports the development of countries which are less well-off than ourselves. We must continue to set the record straight in the weeks and months ahead by our words and deeds to ensure that Ireland's name does not become associated with being greedy or selfish in pursuing our interests. Ireland, which has gained so much from its membership of the EU, believes that today's candidates have as much right as we had 28 years ago to become full members of the EU and share in the stability and opportunities that brings. By overcoming this present political problem, we look forward to the candidate countries becoming full members in the near future. In the interim, Ireland will play its full part in ensuring that the accession process goes forward at the fastest possible pace. It is vitally important that we continue to take a very constructive role in the negotiations process.

Let me therefore deal with the false claim that enlargement could take place without the sort of Treaty changes contained in the Treaty of Nice, as some in this House continue to maintain. The Treaty of Nice agrees changes to the voting weights in the Council, a change that has to occur for enlargement to take place. The Treaty of Nice agrees changes to the allocation of seats in the European Parliament, a change that has to occur for enlargement to take place. The Treaty of Nice also agrees changes to the European Commission, a change which, it was agreed at Amsterdam, would be made along with changes to voting weights, prior to the first enlargement of the Union. It has been made clear that those issues are not up for negotiation.

The Treaty also, of course, makes further changes to ensure the Union can continue to operate effectively with a significant increase in membership. The Court of Justice will be improved. Likewise the Court of Auditors. The use of qualified majority voting has been extended, including in relation to the environment, where one recalcitrant State will not be able to block environmental measures important for Europe as whole.

Small changes have been made to the already existing rules governing enhanced cooperation which allows a group of countries to cooperate more closely in certain areas, provided they meet strict conditions. This will emphatically not lead to a ‘two-tier' Europe, as sometimes claimed, as the rules specifically state that no country can be excluded from an enhanced cooperation group, either at the beginning or at a later stage.

However although the case for the Nice Treaty was, to my mind, very strong, clearly the public were not convinced, or didn't exercise a franchise arising out of a failure to communicate the substance of the issues involved. Two million voters simply didn't vote at all because of this failure by us to connect with the public on this issue. The Referendum Commission, operating independently of Government, had the task of explaining to the public the issues involved in the Nice Referendum, and the two further referenda taken on the same day. It was undoubtedly a difficult job, and I pay tribute to their work and their diligence. Whether the operation of the Commission can be refined to improve voter understanding will be a subject for examination.

The Government too made strenuous efforts to inform the public of the issues at stake. We published a White Paper, explaining in detail the changes which the Nice Treaty would make. A summary of the White Paper was distributed to every household in the country. We had lengthy Dail and Seanad debates on the Treaty and the Referendum, during which 58 TDs from all sides of the House contributed. I participated in numerous television and national and local radio discussions, and joined party colleagues in campaigning on the doorsteps for a Yes vote. That we were unsuccessful clearly gives us pause for thought. It is important that an historic issue like the enlargement of the Union not become a scapegoat for a protest vote in respect of disappointments people may have about a whole range of issues, most of them domestic policy issues unrelated to EU matters.

As I mentioned, our colleagues in Europe are not prepared to re-open the substance of the Treaty of Nice. In the course of negotiating the Treaty, every Member State made compromises, an essential part of any negotiation, but each committed itself to the final outcome. To seek to unpick the substance of the agreement and to tell 14 other countries what to do is simply not an option that is open to Ireland, or indeed any other Member State. That has been re-confirmed by 14 Member State colleagues. We simply have to respect that. Respect is a two-way street. Deputy Gormley is simply wrong when he suggests that people, when they don't agree with him, are being contemptuous. Instead the rational thing to do is to consider how the specific concerns which emerged during the campaign can be addressed.

The Government have stated that nothing in the Treaty undermines our policy of military neutrality. Nothing commits us to a mutual defence pact. Perhaps this reality needs to be further articulated. The issue of democratic oversight of European activities was also a recurring feature in the referendum campaign. We can surely do more at a national level, and I am thinking in particular here of the role of the Oireachtas, in scrutinising EU legislation, and informing the public of what is being done at European level. I have already told the Foreign Affairs and European Affairs Committee that I would welcome such a development in the in the interest of democratic debate on EU issues.

Of course, most of what happens in Europe, even if the general public do not follow it closely, is often relatively mundane. For example, the Commission, the Council and the Parliament have debated issues such as aircraft noise control and Community patents. But they also consider issues of great importance for Ireland and our partners, issues such as the Euro, the Common Foreign and Security Policy, or the Common Agricultural Policy. In each of these areas, initiatives taken at a European level have benefited us far more than any action we could undertake at a domestic level. More could be done to explain these processes to the public, and, indeed, to explain the European structures themselves.

Surveys of public opinion continue to show that the great majority of Irish people recognise the benefits of EU membership. Moreover, they consider themselves ‘European' in the best sense, identifying with the achievements and traditions of our continent. Many of our young people continue to work abroad - at this point in our history thankfully voluntarily - and when they return, as they usually do, they bring their experience of other European countries to enrich ours. I agree with Deputy Michael D Higgins, for example, when he emphasises the need to recognise the cultural, as well as the economic and political, importance that enlargement represents. Our people are also pro-enlargement. The challenge for the Government is to ensure that this sentiment is reflected in a positive endorsement of the enlargement process, and in putting in place structures for guaranteeing that the people of a small state retain their sense of ownership of the European project. It is a challenge that we must all rise to in the interest of pursuing our mutual interests as full and committed members of the European Union. We fully subscribe to and derive great benefit from the Treaties of the EU which govern the operation of the Institutions to date. We must reflect, and then act on the issues which brought a No vote so that the Treaty of Nice can be seen in the same light in the future.

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