State of the European Union Address by Brian Cowen TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs Part 1

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to the Institute of European Affairs on the State of the European Union, and to offer some thoughts on where stands the Union in the aftermath of the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Conference at the Nice European Council. Before doing so, I would like to compliment the Institute for their invaluable contribution to the promotion of debate and discussion on the Intergovernmental Conference, over recent months. As always, the Institute has been a source of informed reflection, and sharply focussed analysis. The final report of its IGC 2000 project, published in the run-up to Nice, was a timely and well-balanced contribution, which presciently anticipated the tenor and content of the discussions which were to unfold at Nice itself.

In the immediate aftermath of Nice there was understandably a tendency for commentators to focus on the ebb and flow of events within the Acropolis Conference Centre, and on the trials and tribulations of the principal actors. However, with delegations back in their capitals, and energy levels after the long days and nights of negotiation beginning to return to normal, it is perhaps time to put the outcome at Nice into its proper perspective.

The purpose of the Intergovernmental Conference, of course, was to prepare the Union for an enlargement, which, on current projections, will involve a near doubling of the size of the Union in the years ahead. In taking on this task the leaders of today's Union are engaged in a project every bit as ambitious as that undertaken a half century ago by the Union's founding fathers. Their task then was to create a basis for cooperation between former enemies, which would ensure that never again would Europe's historic enmities lead to global conflict.

The challenge we face today is of no lesser significance. In moving forward with enlargement, and in responding to the aspirations of the candidate countries, we are engaged on a project of the highest importance. It is about restoring the unity of a divided continent; it is about reinforcing democracy and stability in Europe, to the benefit of all its citizens. It is also about providing a framework within which the people of Central and Eastern Europe, and the other candidate countries, can realize their ambitions for the development, economic and social, of their societies. Perhaps as a country whose transition to relative prosperity is more recent than some of our Partners, we in Ireland are uniquely well placed to appreciate the significance of what is at stake, and to recognize our obligation to reach out to prospective Members, just as we were helped when circumstances so required.

In seeking to come to an overall assessment of what was achieved at Nice, it is perhaps constructive to consider the reaction of the candidate countries. As often happens, those who have the benefit of some distance from events, are better able to distinguish the wood from the trees. And, in the reaction of political leaders and media in those countries, there was a clear recognition that, by completing its assigned mandate in good order and on time, the Nice European Council had performed a very valuable task in the service of European re-construction. From Talinn to Ljubljana, there was an acknowledgement that the Union had indeed lived up to its commitment, and that, for the countries concerned, the re-shaping of their relations with the rest of the continent was now largely in their hands.

The benefits of a stable and prosperous Europe, of course, accrue not only to the candidate countries. For us in Ireland the opportunity to deepen our relations, political and economic, with those countries, many of them of similar size to ourselves provides obvious benefits, both current and potential. That is why we are engaged in a systematic programme to strengthen relations with the candidate countries. The prospect of a single market of over 500 million people offers excellent opportunities for Irish exporters, as well as facilitating the further expansion of the already impressive level of Irish investment, often on a partnership basis, in what are now rapidly expanding economies.

While post-Nice, the spotlight falls on the candidate countries, and their capacity for change, it has always been clear that the requirement to adapt to meet the demands of an enlarged Union did not fall on the accession candidates alone. On the contrary, it was already clear at Amsterdam that major institutional reforms within the Union were required to enable the Union to cope with a significantly enlarged membership. At Amsterdam, Member States tried, and failed, to resolve many of the big issues. It would clearly have been a very serious set-back for the Union, and for Europe in the widest sense, if that failure had been repeated at Nice. It was therefore recognised by the Irish Government, as I believe by the other Member States, that in going to Nice we had an obligation, of course, to protect vital national interests, but also to contribute to reaching a solution which would respond to the importance of the issues at stake. Above all we had a responsibility to ensure that the opportunity to establish a new pan-continental architecture, from which all will benefit, was not lost through small-mindedness, or petty miscalculation of where lay our true interests, Irish or European.

I do not suggest for a moment that at Nice, other delegations, still less our delegation, lost sight of issues of major national importance. But there was also, a widespread recognition of where Europe's interests, with which our national interests are inextricably linked, truly lay. I believe this explains why there was sufficient give-and-take to allow agreement, eventually, to be reached. No delegation insisted on resolving every issue precisely to its prescription. If they had, there would have been no agreement. Instead, through hard work and endurance, it was possible to reach an agreement which, taken as a whole, met the basic requirements of each delegation, and which, above all, provided a basis on which our commitment to the enlargement of the Union could be honoured.

The outcome at Nice must, of course, be seen as a package, with movement in one area balanced by changes in others. However, an examination of the decisions taken in respect of each of the main subject areas - the Commission, Re-Weighting, Qualified Majority Voting and Closer Cooperation - also reveals a number of interesting developments, not all of which have received the attention they merit.


In the case of the Commission, you will be aware of the position taken by the larger Member States in support of a ceiling, in the range from 12 to 20 members. This was to be implemented on the basis of a rotation which, at least in the minds of some, would have given a privileged position to the larger States. Our preferred position, of course, would have been to leave the issue of the size of the Commission unaddressed. However, our bottom line position on the Commission was to ensure that all Member States were treated equally. On that we were not prepared to bend. At Nice, we also had to reckon with the fact that many of the smaller states not only were prepared to address the ceiling issue, but indeed were of the view that Nice represented an unrepeatable opportunity, as it were, to "lock in" the commitment to equal rotation. It was against this background that the terms of the eventual agreement on the Commission were worked out.

While by now familiar, they have a number of important elements which bear repetition. Firstly, from 2005 each Member State will nominate one Commissioner. When the Union reaches 27, a decision will be taken on the reduced size of the Commission. It is worth emphasising that the decision will be taken by unanimity, with the involvement of all the newly admitted Member States, whose entitlement to nominate a Commissioner at the time of entry will have been respected. While the actual ceiling, to be less than 27, remains to be decided, it will already be established in the Treaty, in very explicit terms, that any rotation must be on the basis of the absolute equality of Member States.

Precisely because we recognise the need for a strong and dynamic Commission, we also agreed at Nice a number of measures designed to strengthen the role of the President of the Commission, and, while maintaining the body's essential collegiality, to give greater flexibility to the President in the management of the Commission. In a further potentially significant development, we also agreed that henceforth the President of the Commission will be appointed by the Council on the basis of QMV. Frankly stated, this means it will no longer be possible for large states to block an appointment on which others are agreed, as has happened in the past.

The Irish delegation, of course, considered very carefully whether it should agree to this, and to the other elements, in the final package. I have to say that, having ensured an outcome based on the absolute equality of Member States - that Ireland would be treated on exactly the same basis as France, Germany, or any other Member - the Taoiseach and I had no hesitation in supporting the decision. To do otherwise would not only have left us isolated from the other small or medium-sized states which were ready to accept the outcome, but would have resulted in Ireland preventing a successful conclusion to the conference; seriously damaged our relations with Partners; and thrown the enlargement timetable, from which Ireland stands to gain significantly, into disarray.

The Taoiseach and I believe now, as we believed then, that this was not the path the Irish people would have wanted their representatives to take.


As already anticipated at Amsterdam, it was agreed at Nice to increase the weighting of votes in the Council of the larger Member States. This was the corollary of the agreement by the five states concerned to give up their right to nominate a second Commissioner. While obviously this involved some reduction in the voting weight of smaller states, it is worth noting that Ireland's share, which, under current weighting, would have fallen from 3.45% to 2.2% in a Union of 27, will be fixed at 2.03%, a relatively modest adjustment in our voting strength. In any event, the reality of Council business is that our influence depends far more on our capacity to form alliances with like-minded states, large and small, than on minor variations in statistical voting weight.

It has been suggested that decision-making may be more difficult under the new arrangements, bearing in mind the additional requirement that decisions represent at least 62% of the Union's population. The practical effect of this, of course, is to maintain, in a limited form, the current provision whereby a decision can be blocked if opposed by three large Member States. While, frankly, the Taoiseach and I would have preferred a slightly lower threshold, we are conscious of the fact that until 1995, the effective rate was 63%, and indeed was on occasions over 70% at various stages of the Union's development. We are also conscious that, at Nice, it was agreed for the first time to include in the Treaty an explicit provision to the effect that any decision must have the support of at least half the Member States. This was resisted until very late in the negotiations, and its inclusion provides a valuable safeguard, particularly for smaller Member States.

Qualified Majority Voting

It is clearly in Ireland's interest that decision-making in an enlarged Union remain effective. For that reason, we strongly supported extending the scope of QMV, provided our concerns in relation to a very limited number of sensitive issues, notably taxation, were protected. A measure of our determination to take a forward position is that by Nice, of the 49 provisions under consideration for transfer to QMV, we were in a position to indicate agreement to all but those relating to taxation and social partnership. This compared more than favourably with the list of exceptions sought by many of our Partners. In the final analysis some 30 areas were agreed for transfer to QMV.

It is sometimes suggested that by conceding our right to veto in these areas we have put ourselves at a disadvantage. I suggest it is far more pertinent to note that moving to QMV prevents a single Member State, in a Union of 27, blocking proposals and programmes, which Ireland, and the vast majority of Member States, might wish to see implemented.

A particular example is the decision to extend QMV to international trade agreements in the field of services and intellectual property, subject to certain safeguards. As a trading nation, with a major and growing services sector, we in Ireland have a particular interest in ensuring that the Community is in a position to negotiate effectively in world trade fora. Moving to QMV makes this more likely, and therefore contributes directly to strengthening growth and employment prospects in a key sector of the economy.

As mentioned already, we were not, of course, in a position to agree to extending QMV in the Taxation area. Quite simply, this is an area which must stay primarily within the scope of national competence. Bearing in mind that public expenditure remains very largely in the hands of national governments, it is clearly essential, particularly in the context of economic and monetary union, that Member States retain control over this instrument of economic policy-making.

A sustained effort was made by a majority of Member States, with the support of the Commission, to secure a decision in this area, including a late proposal which envisaged moving to QMV for corporate and other taxes within 5 years. It was due to the strong position taken by the Taoiseach, working with the small group of like minded delegations, that the threat posed by this proposal was averted. It is perhaps important to emphasise that we have no objection to working with other Member States on many of the specific tax-related proposals cited during the negotiations. We are convinced however, that only decisions which enjoy the support of all the Member States are likely to prove effective in this complex and sensitive area.Top

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