This afternoon I returned from Luxembourg having attended a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers yesterday, and having met individually eleven Ministers of the accession countries this morning.

Our EU colleagues unanimously expressed concern and disappointment at the outcome of the referendum on the Treaty of Nice. I of course share their disappointment. I explained that the decision to hold a referendum was based on legal advice provided to the Government. I informed my colleagues on the General Affairs Council that the campaign against the Treaty was composed of a variety of disparate elements. Matters raised by them included issues which were not germane to the Treaty itself. There were also interpretations given to aspects of the Treaty for which there is no Treaty reference. There were therefore myriad reasons given as to why the voters may have decided to vote no.

I also adverted to the historically low turnout, and the unfortunate confusion among sections of the electorate of what the Treaty contained and, indeed, did not contain. Our EU partners accepted my assurances that the vote was in no way a vote against enlargement. They also pledged to give whatever assistance possible in helping Ireland to find a way forward, taking into account the concerns reflected by the No vote.

At the same time, the reality of the situation now, as reflected in the Council Conclusions adopted yesterday, is that none of our EU partners are willing to renegotiate the text of the Treaty itself. The Treaty took the best part of one year to complete, including four days at Head of Government-level at Nice last December. All Member States, and all candidate countries, remain committed to the Treaty as being the basis for enlargement. This is a very important reiteration of the legal and political position as far as the 14 Member States and candidate countries are concerned. There is no method by which the enlargement can be triggered other than ratification by all 15 Member States. In respecting our position as a result of the referendum last Thursday, it is clear that we also have to respect their firm position reiterated yesterday.

Those who have suggested that the Irish Government can somehow call a halt to this process are fundamentally out of tune with the situation as it stands. The fact is that each Member State is fully entitled to pursue national ratification in line with its own democratic procedures. To suggest otherwise would be contrary to their democratic rights as Member States. As a matter of legal fact, it is therefore impossible for a Member State to veto the ratification process in other Member States. Such a suggestion, made yesterday evening by the No lobby, is therefore ludicrous and based on an ignorance of the legal procedures.

However there is another reality. Many people in this country have real concerns about this Treaty, or, in some cases, about what they believe the Treaty contains. It is the job of Government to listen to these concerns, and answer them as best we can. The Government will, in the coming period, be attempting to find solutions to the identifiable reasons behind the No vote, and will be reflecting on the substantial number of voters who opposed the Treaty in good faith, and because of sincerely held convictions. There are people who voted No because they have a view that the European Union is perceived as not being adequately accountable to them and their interests. We have to try to address these concerns in a satisfactory way for those people. It is ironic that the Treaty of Nice actually sets out a mechanism for a thorough-going debate on the future of the Union: what we want from it, where we want it to go, and, importantly, what we think is best left to national governments. This debate is not being rushed. National debates will take place beginning this year, and will be concurrent with a debate at a European-wide level commencing next year, with decisions being attempted at the IGC in 2004. We should promote the broadest possible public involvement, and a greater understanding of the EU's working methods is one of the key goals of this process. I am pleased that the Taoiseach has informed the House that the Government intend shortly to convene a Forum on Europe to discuss these very issues. I am convinced that open public debate, and consequent understanding of what Europe does and how it operates, will dispel many of the fears which led people to vote No in last week's referendum.

In Luxembourg, I was able to reassure my EU colleagues and all the candidate states of Ireland's unwavering support for the enlargement process, and indeed, of our continuing commitment to the development of the Union. Unfortunately the reason why it was necessary to give such reassurances was as a result of a No vote in the referendum, encouraged by some in this House who protest they are in favour of enlargement.

Let us be quite clear. The General Affairs Council Conclusions in this matter, adopted yesterday, confirm that the Treaty of Nice was and is about enlargement. Enlargement remains the key historic task facing the Union, and one to which all the Member States and all the candidate states remain fundamentally committed. Any misrepresentation by opponents of the Treaty of that basic fact does not contribute to finding a solution which will enable the enlargement process to be successfully completed.

The enlargement process, as I have stated, remains the key objective of the Union in the period ahead. The reasons for this are straightforward. Europe was artificially divided for half a century - the people of Poland, of the Czech Republic, of Hungary and the other candidate states clearly deserve to be part of the European Union. Their accession will do justice to their sustained and determined effort to transform their societies and their economies, based on democratic principles and the rule of law.

We often take for granted that Europe has been at peace for over 50 years. This is in no small part due to the role of the European Union in overcoming historical rivalries, and creating a Union based on democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. Perhaps in Ireland we should reflect on the alternative to a rules-based European Union: it would be a Europe dominated by the large countries, where shifting alliances would lead to instability - in other words the sort of Europe that helped create the conditions historically for conflict and crisis in the past.

We should recall that during the present period instability and war is still a feature of parts of Europe outside the embrace of the Union. An enlargement incorporating the present candidates will include one of the former Yugoslav republics. In time perhaps more will join, each enlargement reinforcing the strength and stability of a Europe voluntarily united on democratic principles.

And the economic benefits of enlargement are also significant. Irish companies are already investing and trading heavily in candidate countries. This process will accelerate when they achieve full membership. Trade and investment are the lifeblood of a small open economy such as ours, and those who campaign against enlargement, or against the European Union, put this at risk. We currently export just 3% of what we produce to the twelve candidate countries with a present composite population of 130 million people. The potential in terms of two-way trade, as colleague Members of the European Union, would be very significant.

Of course enlargement poses challenges for the candidate countries, many of which have only in the last decade or so emerged from half a century of centralised state control and isolation from markets. Ireland is very sensitive to these special needs and indeed the other needs of all the candidate countries. Top

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