Taoiseach Answers Questions about the Treaty of Nice

Earlier this week I launched the Government's campaign in favour of the Treaty of Nice, and called on the Irish people to vote Yes to Europe once again, as they have on four previous occasions.

I made clear that the Treaty is aimed at providing for the enlargement of the European Union. Twelve countries are negotiating to join the existing fifteen. We in Ireland have an historic opportunity to welcome into the European mainstream countries which were for too long cut off by the Second World War and the Cold War, and to give them the same chances that we have received. Europe has helped to transform our economy and our society and, as prosperity and stability expand right across the continent, fresh opportunities will open up for Irish trade and investment.

I would like this evening to address two particular issues which have been raised by people who are opposed to or doubtful about the Treaty of Nice. The first is that the Treaty is not necessary for enlargement to take place, and the second is that other questions about the future of Europe should be settled before we vote on Nice.

On the first point, which has been made by the Green Party, Sinn Féin and others, it is simply not true to say that enlargement could take place on the basis of the existing EU Treaties, including the Amsterdam Treaty, and without the Treaty of Nice. In a protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty EU leaders explicitly and formally recognised that there were some issues which needed to be revisited and sorted out before any enlargement could take place - let alone enlargement on the scale now envisaged. These included the size and make-up of the Commission and the weighting of votes in the Council. It was also agreed that, before the number of member states exceeded twenty, there would be a need for a comprehensive review of the EU's institutions. As I said, we are now looking at a possible twenty-seven member EU. So the Amsterdam Protocol obliged us to revise the Treaties before enlargement.

Since Amsterdam, the necessary link between enlargement and the reform of the EU's institutions has been consistently underlined at the highest political level. This was the context in which the European Council decided at Cologne in June 1999 to convene the intergovernmental conference which resulted in the Treaty of Nice. The Helsinki European Council of December 1999 agreed that a new Treaty would have to be negotiated and ratified before any new member states could join. At Nice itself, what drove us through four days and nights of negotiations was the knowledge that a failure to agree then would have raised major questions about the EU's commitment to enlargement.

In other words, there would not be a Treaty of Nice were it not for the prospect of enlargement; and ratification of the Treaty of Nice is a necessary condition for enlargement. Whether they like to admit it or not, those who are opposed to Nice are prepared to derail the enlargement process without any heed to what the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe so passionately want, or to our standing in Europe and the wider world.

The other issue I mentioned is that of the so-called Future of Europe debate. Some people have said that they would like to know more about where Europe is going in the long term before they vote on Nice. They see that, across Europe, questions are being asked about the long-term development of the EU. As Europe and the world change, as our societies and economies evolve, it would be wrong not to ask these questions from time to time. But this must not and should not get in the way of moving on with our present business: and top of the current agenda are the ratification of the Treaty of Nice and enlargement.

At Nice it was agreed, however, that in 2004 there will be a further Intergovernmental Conference on the Future of Europe. Some issues have already been identified - including the vital question of which matters should be dealt with by the Union and which by the member states. But I want to stress that planning for this Conference is at a very early stage - rightly so, since it won't happen for three years. Only at the end of this year will we be agreeing even how preparatory discussion should be structured.

Inevitably there are many different national and political perspectives and expectations on these matters. Over the past year, starting with German Foreign Minister Fischer, quite a number of leading EU figures have made contributions. I made a number of comments myself in a speech last November. While making it clear that Ireland would welcome in due course a wide-ranging debate on institutional matters, I emphasised the overriding need for the EU to continue to deliver practical benefits for people on the ground, and to achieve results in its ongoing business. I said that we believed that, by and large, the present broad institutional balance had worked well. And I said that, in a situation where most people have a primary identification with their own countries, rapid movement towards a more federal Europe would be neither desirable nor feasible in the foreseeable future. Those remain my views.

I want to make it clear, however, that these are questions not for now but for the medium-to-long term. As in the past, any further changes to the Treaties will have to be agreed unanimously by all member states - and the applicant countries which have not by then entered the EU will also take part.

The Government would like to see a full and wide-ranging national debate on these issues, which would feed into our participation at EU level. We are considering at the moment how such a debate might be encouraged and organised.

I would reiterate, however, that the need now is to maintain a very clear focus on the current priority, which is the ratification of Nice. None of the current member states, and none of the applicants, believes it to be possible, or remotely desirable, to postpone enlargement for an additional four years while we await the uncertain outcome of future debate. Top

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